Indifference to Facts Is Good Policy?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

In a recent column, Walter Williams catalogs part of the long history -- pushing a century now -- of failed predictions and mendacity on the part of environmentalists, including the following:

Hoodwinking Americans is part of the environmentalist agenda. Environmental activist Stephen Schneider told Discover magazine in 1989: "We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. ... Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." In 1988, then-Sen. Timothy Wirth, D-Colo., said: "We've got to ... try to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong ... we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy." [bold added]
Really? It is worth considering for a moment how someone can feel so confident of doing the right thing regardless of their factual basis for their actions. If burning fossil fuels is, in fact, not about to destroy the planet we live on, what difference does continuing to use fossil fuels make, and what about curtailing it is "right?" More important, how do people continually get away with spewing such nonsense?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that practical considerations are not the only thing at play, at which point, many people might chime in that, yes, moral factors are also important. This strikes me as very odd, but that is because I reject the very commonly-held ideas that (1) the moral and the practical are opposites, and (2) there is no factual basis for morality. Williams closes his column by noting that, "Americans have paid a steep price for buying into environmental deception and lies." Those ideas about morality aren't just a source of drawing-room fun: They have consequences.

This is a warning shot across the bow. Our economy, on which our prosperity and our lives depend, is being damaged by the idea that the good has nothing to do with this earth, and that doing good has nothing to do with living or prospering.

It is high time to question the idea that morality is an enemy of a prosperous life, and, as Ayn Rand did, ask why we need morality at all. (Her answer: We do, desperately. Our lives depend on it.) Regarding the moral-practical dichotomy, Rand wrote, "The sole result of that murderous doctrine [is] to remove morality from life." I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what attempting to live without morality might mean for a species that needs morality to live.

-- CAV


Huh-Huh, He Said 'Engineer'

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Government officials in Oregon have been channeling Beavis and Butthead (NSFW), perseverating on a few isolated syllables in a communication. Too bad the resemblance ends there. Unlike the adolescents, the officials' infatuation with the word, "engineer" had real-world consequences for the man who had the temerity to use it: The state fined the man $500.00 -- while ignoring everything of substance he said about a traffic hazard he was trying to help a local traffic authority correct:

In September 2014, Mats Järlström, an electronics engineer living in Beaverton, Oregon, sent an email to the state's engineering board. The email claimed that yellow traffic lights don't last long enough, which "puts the public at risk."

"I would like to present these facts for your review and comments," he wrote.

This email resulted not with a meeting, but with a threat. The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying responded with this dystopian message:

"ORS 672.020(1) prohibits the practice of engineering in Oregon without registration ... at a minimum, your use of the title 'electronics engineer' and the statement 'I'm an engineer' ... create violations."
This is not the first time occupational licensing laws have infringed on freedom of speech, nor will it be the last, but I am glad to learn that the Institute for Justice has taken up the case:
"Mats has a clear First Amendment right to talk about anything from taxes to traffic rights," Sam Gedge, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, told me. "It's an instance of a licensing board trying to suppress speech."
Interested readers can read a brief press release about the lawsuit at the web site of the Institute for Justice.

-- CAV


March for Science: Wrong Direction and Speed

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I'm late to this party, but there remains something to be said, so I'll say it here. (The first I'd heard of this was a question from my wife about it on the day.) I am one of many scientists who did not "march for science" last weekend. An editorial from STAT (HT: Derek Lowe) features the beginning of a good case for why people who care about science would boycott or counter-protest the event, but it does not go far enough:

And there's no denying this march is political. It is a mistake to position the scientific method against the Trump administration or any other one, for that matter. That would serve only to undermine a central premise of the march: that scientific knowledge is apolitical. Organizers argue that the march is "nonpartisan." While this may be the official line, I'm skeptical of whether anything approaching it can actually be achieved, especially on the heels of a divisive election. For example, I recently spoke with a colleague who was organizing a poster-making session for the march. She proudly described her design as an "I'm With Her" arrow pointing toward planet Earth.
I wasn't "with" anyone in the last presidential election. Furthermore, I am of a very small minority of scientists who go so far as to oppose even the current model of scientific funding that writer Arthur Lambert correctly notes (1) isn't even remotely under threat, and (2) is inherently political:
Ultimately, the problem with the March for Science is its scope. To be sure, it can be reasonable and helpful to rally for scientific funding, which is appropriated by Congress and therefore inherently political. A bright spot is that there is fairly strong bipartisan backing for funding the National Institutes of Health and other organizations that support science. Like many of those who will march, I believe in the power of objective, evidence-based scientific knowledge -- knowledge that I would like to see inform public policy. But a march for the very idea of science is counterproductive, unnecessarily pushing scientific research directly into one of the most tense and polarized political climates in recent years. Rather than forcing politicians to accept science, it is entirely possible that the march will do nothing more than provide them with an escape hatch, a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased. [bold added]
Government funding of scientific research, because it is inherently political, has and is endangering the independence of science, which is at the root of its ability to search for and reach unbiased conclusions. For this reason, those of us who care about science must consider how we can sunset government funding of science, while counteracting government influence on science as much as possible in the meantime. Science needs to run away from the control of government purse-strings, and not march any further into that morass.

-- CAV


Gray "Lady" Bares Teeth at Tech

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Gray "Lady" has published an op-ed to the effect that the government should break up some of our largest tech firms or regulate (i.e., run) them like "natural" monopolies. The piece contains several glaring contradictions, not the least of which is its ridiculous assertion that the tech giants are somehow stifling innovation:

It is impossible to deny that Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale. To begin with, the platforms of Google and Facebook are the point of access to all media for the majority of Americans. While profits at Google, Facebook and Amazon have soared, revenues in media businesses like newspaper publishing or the music business have, since 2001, fallen by 70 percent.
Jonathan Taplin will "begin" a little late for many of his readers, namely, any reading the above on a smartphone, which is one of many recent innovations not to have emerged from Bell Labs. Call me crazy, but dirtying my hands on the old kind of "access point" to (day-old) news strikes me as a step backward. And excuse me for pointing out that it isn't the fault of Apple (Oops! There's another "access point!") et al. that newspapers either find new channels of distribution unacceptable or haven't yet found a better way to make money. Throughout history, genuine improvements to our standard of living have caught the unprepared off-guard or killed off entire industries premised on an old, outmoded way of doing things. Taplin's solution, by the way, would effectively reduce the two (major) "access points" to one, the government. No thanks.

That said, Taplin does raise a legitimate issue, although it has nothing to do with the size per se of any company: Some companies, like Google, have undermined protection of intellectual property, and not just copyright. The remedy for this problem is governmental, but it involves enforcement of intellectual property rights. Amazingly, Taplin, the same man who bemoans the loss of revenue to Old Media, conjures up as part of his solution to this problem, exactly the opposite type of measure:
In a 1956 consent decree in which the Justice Department allowed AT&T to maintain its phone monopoly, the government extracted a huge concession: All past patents were licensed (to any American company) royalty-free, and all future patents were to be licensed for a small fee. These licenses led to the creation of Texas Instruments, Motorola, Fairchild Semiconductor and many other start-ups.
If you're going to deny patent-holders the right to set their own terms, you have no business complaining about revenues lost when copyrights are violated. Furthermore, Taplin makes it seem as if the kind of licensing agreements that lead to start-ups would never occur without government strong-arming. This simply isn't the case as history amply demonstrated long ago in the case of the now taken-for-granted sewing machine, and has repeatedly, ever since.

I could go on and on about how self-contradictory, rights-violating, and antithetical to innovation and prosperity Taplin's proposal is, but I will leave it at that and the following question: If a single, large company (which must obey the law) controlling an industry is so dangerous, how is it an improvement for another large entity (which, because it must enforce the law, can be said to be above the law) to control that industry and all others? It is revealing that the same man who insults our intelligence with such a proposal speaks so enthusiastically of "force" regarding Facebook, Apple, or Google.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, April 21, 2017

Three Things

1. Part of the reason I was away from here last week was a great family vacation. Comparing notes with Mrs. Van Horn, I realized that we both came back feeling unusually energized. She thought we just really needed the break, and I agreed. But we'd traveled plenty of times before without feeling this refreshed. And I think I know why this time was different: The kids have passed a threshold. Yes, they are still toddlers, but Pumpkin was more mature and Little Man much more independent on this trip. Two things stood out: First, they were much better at entertaining themselves without getting hurt or breaking things; and second, playing with them was much more about having fun with them than being vigilant.

Caring for infants and young toddlers has its moments, but it is hard work, and parents are always on call. I am glad I got to be as involved as I have been, but I won't mince words: I feel as if I've had my first real vacation in nearly six years.

2. This guide, "How to Survive the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017," is geared for the curious, not the superstitious. That said, the anticipated "hurricane evacuation-like traffic" -- Scroll down to "Day 2" -- is worth factoring in, if it doesn't outright make you want to stay put.

3. Save a life, get razzed for your painted toenails:

Paramedics were getting the officers out of their ice-cold clothing to warm them up when they noticed something funny.

Officer Gadwell had gold toenails.

Gadwell said, "They're looking at me funny and I'm like, 'This is what happens when you have daughters at home."

"I get to the hospital and everyone is making fun of me. They're laughing at me and they go, 'Hey, just so you know, your partner's toes are done too."
My toenails remain unpainted ... so far.

Weekend Reading

"People will not change without first arriving at the deeply held conviction that change must take place." -- Michael Hurd, in "We Change Only if We Want To" at The Delaware Wave

"The [value judgment behind the] emotional state of students 'diagnosed' with now-being-debunked 'attention deficit disorder' is, 'Schooling is not important.'" -- Michael Hurd, in "How to Unlock Your Motivation" at The Delaware Coast Press

"If we are to truly learn the lessons of Communism's history, it is the moral premise of collectivism that [Ayn] Rand asks us to question and reject." -- Yaron Brook, in foreword to "Our Alleged Competitor (PDF)," by Ayn Rand (1962) at The Conservative

-- CAV


McArdle on the United Airlines Fiasco

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Finally, thanks to Megan McArdle, there is an even-handed take on the United Airlines incident I heard about every time I happened upon the news while I was away last week. Three things stand out to me. First, the flight wasn't oversold. (This piece explains how we benefit from overbooking, anyway.) Some blogs have mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Second, McArdle notes a misdirection of attention, which is quite curious in these days of media-fanned, anti-cop hysteria: "[I]t was the cops, not United, who made [the passenger] bleed." Third, McArdle outlines how United could have easily handled this situation better:

...United made two really dumb mistakes. First, it let passengers board before the bumping began. [See P.S. --ed.] That was stupid. It's easy to keep someone off a plane, and hard to remove them once they're there.

Then the airline compounded its error by trying to remove people by force. Now, United may have the legal right to do so. But that's irrelevant. It would have been cheaper for staff members to just keep offering more cash until four people agreed to get off. At some price, they'd have found takers. They should have found that price instead of slowing down the boarding process and turning themselves into a viral disaster.
This bad publicity, cynically magnified by our anti-capitalist media, is bad in the short-term, but I appreciate McArdle seeing and taking the opportunity it presents to help the public understand some of the more annoying aspects of air travel in light of (a) how they beat alternatives and (b) how airlines can easily improve some of them.

-- CAV

P.S. The Cranky Flier (linked above) notes that the other air crew showed up at the gate. If this is the case, then United couldn't have avoided having to get a passenger off its plane after boarding, but her solution of offering more money to volunteers remains an option.


Death by Leisure Deficit

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Living in a quintessential suburb so soon after being in the thick of things in Boston (and close to it in Houston and St. Louis), the very title of the following piece had me saying Amen. In "A Leisure Deficit Is Killing Off the Suburbs," Leonid Bershidsky considers a study with pretty good controls about why "the relationship between housing prices and distance from the center of major U.S. cities has reversed since 1980."

Indeed, since 1990, the number of skilled people working long hours -- 50 a week or more -- has been growing. There are often two such people to a relatively affluent household, and they know a long commute is not an option: It doesn't just leave little time for fun and family life, it's downright bad for one's health. A 2012 paper showed that increasing the daily commuting time from 62 minutes -- the average for Americans living in urban areas -- by another 60 minutes leads to a 6 percent decrease in health-related activities and so contributes to obesity. Short commutes that can be made by foot or bicycle actually increase a worker's life satisfaction because they're healthy and provide a cushion between home and work life.
Another thing Bershidsky considers as a possible solution is telecommuting, whose wider adoption he correctly notes faces cultural inertia. Although I'd caution that telecommuting is no panacea, I think that wise use of remote work could greatly alleviate the burden of commuting.

That said, I'd add that suburban living is worse for leisure time than the obvious culprit Bershidsky discusses. Thanks to government planning, the layout of most suburbs is horrendous. I have found that doing almost anything somewhere besides home almost always entails at least twenty minutes of driving time before and after. (Don't be fooled: even a so-called "five minute drive" includes getting into and out of a car, finding parking, and often, gratuitous traffic delays.) So, driving eats away at what little time a suburbanite isn't at work, commuting, or asleep. And walking or biking? My own experience has been that walking, once an integral and enjoyable part of my routine, is now something I have to go out of my way to do.

As far as I'm concerned, the suburbs can't die off fast enough.

-- CAV