Friday, July 31, 2009

Tax Progressivity

Recently released IRS data show that the federal income taxes paid by the top 1% of filers in 2007 exceeded that of the entire bottom 95%. By contrast, the top 1% paid less than half what the bottom 95% did as recently as 1987.

Some conservative groups, notably the Tax Foundation, tout this as evidence of dishonesty in discussions of tax progressivity (the left says - of course - that it is not progressive enough). But these very groups are not being entirely honest themselves. Looking at the underlying data from the IRS, it's clear that one reason the top 1% are paying a much greater share of taxes is that they are getting a much greater share of income. In 1987, the top 1% earned about 12.3% of total reported income; in 2007 their share was 22.8%. The share of income earned by the bottom 95% fell from 74.3% in 1987 to 64.3% in 2007.

So while the rich are taking on a much greater tax burden, it's not obvious that they are paying a disproportionately greater share of taxes. One way to check this is to look at the average tax rates of various tranches of tax filers, and the IRS data tabulates this for us. The overall average tax rate fell slightly from 1987 to 2007 (from 13.1% to 12.7%), and this drop was broad-based: for every filing category detailed in 1987, the average tax rate was lower in 2007. The group with the single largest decrease (in percentage terms) was actually the bottom 50%, whose average tax rate dropped from 5.1% to 3.0%. The next biggest drop was the 2nd quartile (26-50%), whose averate rate dropped from 9.5% to 7.0%. It's also true that the richest 1% saw their average rate fall from 26.4% to 22.5%. (The group that did worst, oddly enough, was the 2-5% slice, whose average rate dropped from 18.1% only to 17.5%. Apparently it does not pay to be stuck between the very richest and the middle class.)

It's pretty clear from going over these details that the Tax Foundation's conclusions are broadly correct: the rich are paying disproportionately more in 2007 than they did in 1987. But their analysis is laughably incomplete, and a close read of the data shows a much smaller effect than they would have us believe. Wouldn't a better attack on one-sided liberal tropes about tax progressivity be a systematic, thorough, fair-minded analysis of the data, rather than a rehash of one-sided conservative tropes?

Where's the Fiscally Responsible Party?

Since Bush was inaugurated in 2001, the country slowly learned as deficits blossomed that Republicans were Bad on fiscal issues. So in the 2008 Presidential race, a big majority of voters went with the Democrats in the hopes that they would be Good. But the past six months have proved that they are, in fact, simply Worse. As a result, Democrat poll numbers are slipping.

That may be good for Republicans, who might be viewed as a the less-bad party. It isn't particularly good for the country.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gatesgate continues to inflame

This is pretty terrible.

A Boston police officer who sent a mass e-mail referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a "banana-eating jungle monkey" has apologized, saying he's not a racist.

Gates acted like a race-baiting idiot, but this police officer steps well over a line here. Obviously, the officer was upset. But if this doesn't excuse Gates' behavior - and I think it doesn't, even though he was actually in the midst of a confrontation - then it certainly doesn't excuse Officer Barrett's, who presumably composed his little homily while sitting in front of his computer.

The standard non sequiturs have already been stated on both sides. Boston Police Commissioner Davis on the subject of whether Barrett might lose his job: "Police officers certainly have First Amendment rights..." Sure they do. So what? Firing an officer for speech doesn't violate his Constitutional rights. Barrett's attorney: "Officer Barrett did not call Professor Gates a jungle monkey or malign him racially. He said his behavior was like that of one. It was a characterization of the actions of that man." Right, dude. Keep spinnin'.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Uncommon Sense

Just heard on NPR (I'm slightly paraphrasing):

When people's financial interests and environmental interests align, they are likely to choose products that are more environmentally friendly; but when they are opposed, they are more likely to choose products that make more economic sense.

That seems like a very tortured and confusing way to say that people care more about their wallet than the environment. This came as part of a segment on a new Wal-Mart policy on environmental labeling.

Regulation and Speculative Bubbles

Thomas Levenson writes today on a piece about Isaac Newton's losses during the South Sea bubble of 1720. From the article:

Newton had been an active trader in the new stock market for years before the bubble year of 1720. He made his first investment in the South Sea issue early, in 1713, and held it for several years, marking a modest paper profit. He held on through early 1720, as the company pursued a new and increasingly risky banking deal -- and as insiders began to talk up the (as it turned out, fictitious) trading profits the company expected from another venture.

That got the desired result, a sudden leap in stock prices. Starting at £128 in January, the price for South Sea securities rose to £175 in February and then £330 in March. Newton kept his head -- at first. He sold in April, content with his (quite spectacular) gains to date. But then, between April and June, share prices tripled, reaching over £1,000 ... which is precisely when he could stand it no longer. Having "lost" two thirds of his potential gain, Newton bought again at the very top, and bought more after a slight decline in July.

The South Sea stock price held up through August 1720, and then in September, the gap between the possible income from all the purchased debt and the returns promised to investors became too obvious to ignore.

The bubble burst, and South Sea share prices collapsed to roughly their pre-bubble level. Newton's losses totaled as much as £20,000, between $4 million and $5 million in 21st century terms.

OK so far: it's a story of how Newton, one of the great geniuses of all time, made a poor bet on the stock market. But Levenson somehow translates this into an urgent need for financial regulation:

Here's why this story matters now. Of all people, Newton should have known better. He had, after all, invented the mathematics that could expose the impossibility of the South Sea Company's promise of returns to be paid to an everlasting stream of new investors. And yet, even he could not resist the prospect of infinite returns on his money.

Hence, the obligation to regulate. There is plenty of recent academic research that confirms that bubbles -- including the ones we've just endured -- are not unique disasters, but the predictable consequences of human behavior in the context of implausible rewards. What Newton's experience tells us is that this has been true since the beginning of modern markets -- and that mere intelligence, even genius, doesn't help.

This is misguided. The most obvious reason why is that regulators are also people. If a genius of Newton's caliber cannot recognize a speculative bubble, why does Levenson think
some regulator can? Historical evidence indicates that regulators aren't good at preventing speculative bubbles: they have existed for centuries, despite regulation. It's easy to see bubbles in hindsight, but not so easy at the time. The NASDAQ has risen over 50% since March 6, 2009. Is that a bubble? Or just a recovery?

We don't know, of course. So rational people diversify their investments: they don't put all their eggs in one basket. They don't invest everything in one stock, or in a NASDAQ index fund, or even just in U.S. equities or bonds. They might lose in one area, even lose big, but hopefully other investments will cushion the blow. But this is just common sense investing, not something that should be regulated. We don't regulate to prevent people from wasting their money on fast cars and hot women, either.

Back to Newton, who might have bought a fast car if they had existed but would have had no interest in hot women:

The catastrophe did not sink [Newton]; he had made other, more cautious investments, including a significant stake in the East India Company, and when he died in 1727, his estate was valued at £30,000.

So Newton was rationally diversified. That makes Levenson's argument even more confusing: his exemplar of the suckered genius was actually just betting some mad money on a long shot. It didn't work out, but he wasn't ruined. How can that possibly form the basis of an argument for regulation?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

So Is Pluto a Planet or Not?

John Derbyshire alerts us to the fact that the International Astronomical Union will be meeting in August 2009 for the first time since it demoted Pluto from the status of "planet", and that the issue of Pluto's planethood may come up yet again.

But he makes a couple of mistakes in his rush to condemn creeping New Ageism. First, he says: "The deciding factor was the opinion, held by a majority of delegates, that merely being massive enough to form a sphere under your own gravity is not enough. (If it were, we'd count the Moon as a planet.)" Not true, of course; the Moon has never been counted a planet. There is the important requirement that the body in question must orbit the Sun, which eliminates the Moon from consideration.

Second, he quotes Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona as saying:

We are in the midst of a conceptual revolution. We are shaking off the last vestiges of the mythological view of planets as special objects in the sky — and the idea that there has to be a small number of them because they're special.

OK. But Derb's comment to this is where he goes wrong: "Just beneath the surface of those words you can spot the egalitarian sensibilites of our age. Nothing is special! Everything is equal to everything else!" That's a serious reach, and it's surprising coming from a man who understands and appreciates science and the scientific method as much as he does.

It's important in science to classify things. But classification is complicated by two factors: first, many things fall naturally into multiple categories (e.g., my telephone is both "a piece of office equipment" and "a communication device", but there are instances of each class that do not belong in the other); second, the dividing line between categories can be vague (is a futon a "bed" or a "couch"?). That doesn't mean that everything is equal to everything else, though. It's plausible to call a futon a bed or a couch, or both, but no one would call a futon a type of car.

Biologists have been frustrated by this problem for ages. The definition of "species" has historically been "a class of living things which can interbreed to produce viable offspring". On the surface, this seems simple enough. Are animals X and Y in the same species? Breed them: if their offspring is viable, then the answer is "yes". Unfortunately, Nature has a few tricks up Her sleeve. There are cases where three classes of animals exists, X, Y and Z, where X can breed with Y and Y with Z, but not X with Z. By our definition, then, X and Y are the same species; so are Y and Z. But X and Z are not. The definition made an implicit assumption, transitivity, which does not hold. And this causes the scheme to break down.

But it does not, as Derb surely understands, mean that biologists say that any two living things are in the same species, or that the concept of "species" is meaningless. It's more complicated than we thought a century ago, but in a way similar to the way our knowledge of gravity is more complicated than we though a century ago. Newtonian gravitation still works in most cases, but you need to keep in mind the Einsteinian correction in certain cases. When we find that an old classification system does not work because of new facts, we have to find a new one. (I'll return to this point in a bit, though.)

In the case of Pluto, there are several problems with its planethood. On the case for the defense, clearly it does orbit the Sun and has sufficient gravity to be spherical. But the prosecution is forced to point out that the same is true of other known bodies in our Solar System, such as the asteroid Ceres. Not wanting to add additional planets, astronomers looking to keep Pluto in the list of planets sought other criteria that were true of Pluto but not other bodies. This proved difficult. Eccentricity doesn't work: Pluto's orbit is more eccentric than Ceres'. Nor does orbital inclication: Pluto's orbit is highly inclined to the ecliptic. Pluto has moons of its own, and that proved briefly interesting, but some asteroids were found to have moons, too.

In the end, the IAU was left with two choices: either demote Pluto, or promote lots of other bodies. The least distruptive option was the former, and that's what they did.

Much as it may bother Derb, what Mark Sykes had to say is simply true: the Solar System is pretty complicated, and coming up with a pure classification system for every body in it is hard. The size of bodies is a smooth curve up from millimetric grains to centimetric pebbles, to meter-scale boulders, to kilometer-scale mountains, and on up to really large asteroids that have enough gravity to become spherical (a dividing line, by the way, which is also imprecise), continuing up to large moons and the smaller planets. Up to Earth size, all the solid bodies in the Solar System fall nicely into a curve. It's the four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Nepture) which are the exceptions. (But are they? Maybe they have rocky planetlike cores and just have huge gas envelopes because of how they were formed.)

The fact is that if we classified Pluto as a planet, we'd be doing it for purely historical reasons. Now that doesn't make it wrong, of course. We can still talk about species A and species B and biologists won't immediately start bringing up the problem with species classification (unless it happens to matter in that particular case). But if we're doing real science, we have to accept that Pluto isn't particularly exceptional. If we want to call it a planet, let's just give it an asterisk and say: It's traditional to call it a planet, but from here on it to be a planet you have to satisfy all these criteria. Tradition does have value, of course. Just as we didn't drop Newtonian gravitation from high school curricula after Einstein came along, it's not absolutely necessary to demote Pluto in the same of purity.

But doing so isn't creeping postmodernism, either. It's an effort to promote the classification project that is at the heart of science.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gatesgate: A Modest Proposal

Out of deference to Professor Henry Louis Gates's sensibilities, the next time the Cambridge police receive a 911 call about two black men breaking in to his house, they should probably not respond. There's no need to heighten racial tensions, after all.

Diplomatic Shortcuts

In October, 1956, students in Budapest launched a demonstration against the Soviet-supported Hungarian puppet regime. They were fired upon by the State Security Police and the revolt quickly spread through the capital and, later, the entire country. The U.S., while generally supportive of anti-Soviet rebellion, also had to weigh the risks of nuclear confrontation. As a result, the Western response was mixed: Radio Free Europe initially gave the impression that NATO forces would intervene to help the resistance, but in the end no help was forthcoming. By early November, Soviet forces had entered the country, crushed the resistance, and re-established Hungary as a satellite state.

After the first Gulf War in 1990-91, U.S.-led United Nations troops liberated Iraq-occupied Kuwait and briefly occupied significant parts of Iraq's southern territory. In the aftermath, with the Sunni-majority Ba'ath regime apparently weak, a Shi'ite rebellion broke out in southern Iraq. As in 1956, the rebellion was encouraged by the West, including Voice of America broadcasts. And again, the U.S. did nothing to help when state security arrived to crush the rebellion. It was quickly quashed.

These were not the proudest moments in our nation's history. They represent a natural tension between our national impulse to help oppressed people in need and the facts on the ground. In Hungary, the Soviet Union almost certainly had stronger forces in place than NATO could have ousted without a nuclear confrontation. And in Iraq, the U.S. could only have intervened by breaking the cease fire that ended Operation Desert Storm, probably causing an irreparable splintering in the coalition that liberated Kuwait. U.S. inaction in both cases was arguably reasonable.

A tyranny is like a storm-wracked ship, its passengers constantly imperiled by the elements. Whatever danger they are in, though, it beats actually being in the sea. When the vast American ship of state steams by, stabilized against the storm, sporting a well-fed crew and bristling with weapons, it is only natural that the passengers look wistfully at it. And when a couple of life preservers are tossed over the side, maybe a few will jump at the chance to escape. It is then tragic when the ship continues on, unheeding, leaving those brave few to their fate.

As we are seeing from events in Iran, the Obama administration has internalized this lesson. No life preservers are being proffered this time. He has taken criticism on this from neo-conservatives, and indeed it might be the wrong move. Outspoken American support for dissidents in the Soviet Union proved enormously helpful to them, and did not invite rash dives into unknown waters. But what is going on in Iran appears more like Hungarian and Iraqi demonstrations and unrest than like the Soviet dissident movement.

Honduras, though, is entirely different, and here President Obama has seriously erred. Deposed President Zelaya tried to set himself up as dictator-for-life in the Venezuelan model, and in fact was and is backed by Hugo Chavez. Nearly all of Honduras' highest government officials opposed the move, and took what legal actions they could to prevent them. When Zelaya tried to strong-arm his way past their resistance, the Honduran military removed him on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court and installed the next-highest member of Zelaya's Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti, as President pro tempore until a new election could be held. Micheletti has promised to hold elections earlier than the scheduled date of November 29 to bring legitimacy to his government.

President Obama, along with most of the rest of the world, is publicly backing Zelaya. This is hard to understand. Zelaya is not pro-American, and wishes to bring Honduras into closer alignment with Chavez, an outspoken opponent of America. So supporting him does not advance American interests. Further, Zelaya now constitutes the leader of a minority resistance. He has little popular support, lacks the support of the Honduran military, and is not currently in control of the levers of power. Supporting him is therefore more likely, not less, to lead to armed conflict of the type Obama is assiduously trying not to encourage in Iran.

In our past mistakes, the U.S. allowed tyrannies to re-establish control over areas that we encouraged to strive for freedom. In Honduras, we have found a simpler way: we are encouraging tyranny to establish control and actively discouraging the strivers. The past often holds lessons for the future. Czechoslovakia tried to break free of the Soviet model in 1968, and the tanks subsequently rolled in. Alexander Dubček, remembering what happened in Hungary, called for his people not to resist. Let us hope that future resisters do not have cause to look on Honduras the same way.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Health Care and the Burden of Responsibility

How much is your life worth?

This is the question that underlies most health care economics. If you have a chronic illness, and treatment costs $20,000 per year, is it worth it? Most people would say yes, of course. What if treatment cost $200,000 per year? What if you were 90 years old and treatment would add only an average of six months to your life? What if one doctor offers treatment for half the cost of another, but the cheaper doctor may not be as skilled?

These are difficult questions to answer. When we have to answer them for ourselves, spending our own money, they are hard enough. When we have to answer them for our loved ones, where differential family finances come into play, they become harder still. But when the level of responsibility is diffused further, they suddenly become easier, because more abstract. How much is the life of the other guy worth? Not more than mine, surely, and probably at least a little less.

In the United Kingdom's National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE - and oh, how I wish C. S. Lewis were around to comment on that acronym), there exist tables that list how much your life is worth. These tables were designed by bureaucrats whose primary interest is cost control. They decide not only how much they are willing to spend to prolong your life, but how valuable certain injuries and degeneracies are. From the WSJ article:

In 2007, the board restricted access to two drugs for macular degeneration, a cause of blindness. The drug Macugen was blocked outright. The other, Lucentis, was limited to a particular category of individuals with the disease, restricting it to about one in five sufferers. Even then, the drug was only approved for use in one eye, meaning those lucky enough to get it would still go blind in the other.

The decision tree basically goes like this: Blindness reduces your quality of life by X (some percentage), and lasts the rest of your life. Let's say your life expectancy is 15 more years. Then blindness costs you 15X "quality adjusted life years." The value of a quality adjusted life year is Y. If the cost of treatment is more than 15XY, then you are out of luck. NICE is purely practical, not really "nice" at all.

What NICE does provide, though, is psychological cover. If you had to pay for your own health care, then you would have to work out the costs and benefits on your own. Suppose you simply didn't have and couldn't borrow the money for some treatment. You might then ask relatives to help out. But this produces a pretty problem for them: if the cost were relatively low, they would probably help, but as costs go up, at a certain point that help may actually start harming other relatives. Family members might have to pick and choose: do we help prolong Grandma's life by another year so she can see her first great-grandchild, or do we spend that money to help stop Dad's macular degeneration?

When the government runs everything, these problems are out of your hands. NICE might help neither, just one, or both, but in no case do you have to feel guilty about it. You have no choice in the matter. All you have left is some small say in the total health care budget, expressed via your vote.

The question of whether the burden of personal and family responsibility is worth the value of choice is related to more general ones: Does choice make us happy? Is choice a "good"? I will take up this question in more detail at another time. For the time being, let us take it as given that choice is good, by the following argument. Choice is related to liberty, so if we value liberty of itself (that is, we value liberty before considering the other things, positive and negative, that liberty brings), then we should also value choice of itself.

Still, is the burden worth it? I think that is a question that many people would answer in the negative. But if we actually get nationalized health care in the style of the U.K. (whether intentionally or not; an analysis by the Lewin Group suggests that the The American Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 currently under discussion in Congress would shift about 100 million people - 2/3 of all privately-covered individuals - to the "public plan"), then we will almost certainly pay less for less health care. And that question is what really should be front and center: is the burden of individual responsibility worth it to get - in the aggregate, at least - more and better health care? When put this way, I think most people's answers would shift to assent.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Americans and Foreign Languages

Is there anyone more pretentious than an American pronouncing foreign words? I'm as guilty as anyone of this, and I'm far from the first to point this out. A Saturday Night Live sketch from 1990 depicts white reporters over-pronouncing Spanish words like "Nicaragua", "enchilada", and even "San Diego." Meanwhile Jimmy Smits, playing the lone Latino reporter, uncomfortably reports using the normal American pronunciations.

In 2006, the Winter Olympics were held in Turin, Italy. Or, as NBC relentlessly put it: Torino. The Associated Press used "Turin." Americans have always said "Turin." But NBC decided to use "Torino". Why?

Could it be a national inferiority complex? We don't learn many foreign languages here in the U.S., while most foreigners we come into contact with speak at least some English. But while we may not learn a whole language, we can learn some basic pronunciation rules. This gives us the illusion of sophistication, but I suspect it comes off as pretention. Worse yet, not actually knowing the language often leads us into unexpected pronunciation pitfalls.

The British don't have this particular hangup. Listen to a Churchill speech sometime: his German is terrible; he just pronounces the words as if they were English. Was this just an affectation, though? A show of defiance at his mortal enemy?

Is it more polite to attempt to pronounce foreign words correctly? Certainly not in all cases. For all the Torino talk in 2006, no American says "Paree" for Paris, "Moskva" for Moscow, or "Ciudad de Mehico" for Mexico City. When foreign-speakers refer to these cities in English, they use the English names. The same is true of countries: we say Germany, not Deutschland; Sweden, not Sverige; China, not Chung-kuo. When Americans invert this, insisting on using the foreign name, it comes off sounding a bit desperate: Please, we are saying, accept this tiny crumb of your language; it's all I can manage!

Maybe we would do better to emulate Churchill. Wouldn't be the first time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Odd West Side Story/Highlander Connection

West Side Story is an American musical written in the mid-1950s by a team of Leonard Bernstein (music), Steven Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (story). Roughly, it is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of contemporary New York. The Highlander is an American film from 1986 directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown. It is a fantasy action story revolving around immortals who can only be killed by decapitation.

Doesn't seem like an obvious place to find a connection, does it? Here are the lyrics to the West Side Story song "Somewhere":

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to look, time to care,
Some day!

And the lyrics from the Highlander song "Who Wants to Live Forever":

There's no time for us
There's no place for us
What is this thing that builds our dreams
Yet slips away from us
Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever.....?
There's no chance for us
It's all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment
Set aside for us

Very similar, even beyond the parallel phrases "There's a place for us/There's a time for us" against "There's no time for us/There's no place for us". What's more, the songs are used at similar plot points. In West Side Story, "Somewhere" comes when Tony and Maria have fallen in love, but realize that if they stay in New York, gang culture will conspire to make their relationship impossible. In Highlander, "Who Wants to Live Forever" comes when Connor MacLeod, an immortal, is watching his mortal wife Heather grow old and die. He realizes finally that their love is tragically doomed, no matter where they go.

Beyond the similarity of lyrics, the music is also reminiscent. I googled for influences on Brian May (who wrote "Who Wants to Live Forever") and couldn't find anything leading me to think he was a West Side Story fan. But it's not exactly an obscure reference, either. Could it be that May was thinking of West Side Story when he wrote the song?

Friday, July 17, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Addendum to my post about the Sears Tower: Speaking of a "world government" that can take the place of "all humanity" in preserving a building (or site), one thing I neglected to mention was the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972.

This is an approximation of the sort of overall governing body that could represent "humanity", but it has a basic problem: The sites remain the responsibility of the state powers that own them. (I guess this assumes that any site worthy of the list must be state-owned, which is a particularly UN-oriented idea.) The UN itself has no responsibilities at all, nor does it have the power to actually preserve the sites, other than the threat of delisting them.

UNESCO's role is essentially that of organizer, not really preserver. Being toothless, it can't enforce preservation; lacking ownership, it also assume no risks. By contrast, a city historical society is typically more interventionist, since it actually has the power to block building modifications and sales, while assuming none of the risks of ownership.

Interestingly, the example I used in my previous post - Notre Dame de Paris - is not a World Heritage Site, but Notre Dame de Reims is.

More Lunar Exploration

On National Review Online today, Charles Krauthammer opines that:

For the first time in history, the moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke.

Poetic words. But poetry holds the only answer to the question: why? Why go to the Moon? More Krauthammer:

Why do it? It’s not for practicality. We didn’t go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it. Or, to put it less grandly, for its immense possibilities. We choose to do such things, said JFK, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And when you do such magnificently hard things — send sailing a Ferdinand Magellan or a Neil Armstrong — you open new human possibility in ways utterly unpredictable.

I'm as tempted as the next space nut to jump on this bandwagon. And if CK were calling for a massive private initiative to go, I'd already be with him. Unfortunately, of course, he isn't:

Yes, we have a financial crisis. No one’s asking for a crash Manhattan Project. All we need is sufficient funding from the hundreds of billions being showered from Washington....

Obviously, CK views space exploration as a separate, unique government project that should be funded in its own right. Fine. But hundreds of other government projects are viewed the same way by other people. If you can get your own pet project - an admittedly romantic, impractical one! - funded, then you undermine your rational, principled objections to those other projects.

One reason government seems to grow without bound is that different interest groups trade projects: I will help you get your project funded if you will help me with mine. This dynamic works in corollary with the fact that the few recipients of a project's funding work like mad to keep it funded - it is their livelihood - but the many taxpayers providing that funding individually have less incentive to cancel it. Each project may only cost the average taxpayer a few dollars; it is only collectively that the burden is felt.

The only way conservatives will actually shrink the size of government is to resist these romantic temptations. The fact that this is so difficult surely provides the pressure that inexorably inflates government.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, John Derbyshire is with me on this one.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lunar Exploration

What if a NASA's lunar budget hadn't been axed in 1967? That's the question an article in New Scientist asks and answers.

It's July 2009, and in Johnson City, America's permanent colony on the moon - named after Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who authorised it - they are celebrating the third generation of lunar Americans: the first child born to parents themselves born on the moon. With just 5000 inhabitants, "city" is perhaps too grandiose a term.

(I guess that would make it too small to qualify in CNN's Best Places to Live database. But I digress.)

The New Scientist article is a wonderful fantasy. It's what all us space nuts - and I certainly am one - wished for when we read Heinlein and Clarke as kids. But is it remotely realistic? What the article keeps in very soft focus is any talk of whether money is being made out there in space.

There's talk of a trade in mined helium-3 for use in fusion reactors on Earth - if fusion technology ever gets established on the mother planet.

Cool. But even in this rose-tinted alternate history we still don't have fusion technology, much less a technology specifically based on helium-3. So there's merely "talk".

Shipping costs of material from Earth are still astronomical, and local extraction of water and oxygen is a boom business.

Right now, the cost to lift a kilogram into Low Earth Orbit is about $10,000. That goes up if you used man-rated vehicles, which presumably they've used a lot of if there are 5,000 people on the Moon. And it goes up even more when you realize that it's much more costly to go to the Moon that to LEO. Getting to the Moon requires about 40% more delta-v just to reach a transfer orbit, plus another chunk of delta-v for landing on the Moon. The Apollo mission did this in three stages: the whole Command Module/Lunar Excursion Module stack performed a translunar orbit insertion burn, then the LEM undocked and performed a deorbit burn, and finally the LEM used braking rockets to reach the surface at a survivable speed. The lack of a Lunar atmosphere, while a boon to launching from there, is a problem for landing: you can't aerobrake or use parachutes. So while the Apollo Command Modules could get back to Earth essentially unpowered ("essentially" because they reserved a little maneuvering fuel to make sure they were in the right window for re-entry), a Lunar lander has to use big engines the whole way in.

Adding delta-v adds tremendously to cost, because the rocket equation is exponential. Staging helps, of course - that's how Apollo did it. But the cost of lifting one kilogram from Earth to the Lunar surface would still be factors more than $10,000.

But let's say for the sake of argument that in the New Scientist scenario, rocket technology has improved enough that cost to LEO is $1,000/kg and cost to the Moon is $10,000/kg. How much would Lunarville cost to resupply? The ISS has a current crew of 6, is resupplied about 2.5 times a year, and the average resupply mission brings in 2.5 metric tonnes of supplies (this all comes from Wikipedia, so take with the appropriate amount of salt, but I trust the numbers are close enough for our back-of-napkin calculation). That's about 1 metric tonne per person per year. Lunarville, then, would require about 5,000 metric tonnes per year. At $10,000/kg, that's about $50 billion per year. Even if we assume that the Loonies are highly efficient recyclers, mine much of their own water locally, etc., just the resupply cost is still going to be huge.

Granted, a mere $50 billion/year may seem like chump change compared to the kinds of numbers bandied about today, but it's worth noting that NASA's peak budget - in 1965 - was only $33.5 billion (2007 dollars). So this scenario proposes that the popularity of a Lunar base would be so high that merely resupplying it at an annual cost higher than NASA's entire budget, when NASA was as popular as it ever was, would be politically feasible for 40+ years. And this does not factor in the rest of the scenario about Mars missions and the like. I find this unlikely, to say the least.

I wish that we'd gone into space as much as the next guy. Maybe more. I can even give you sociological reasons to go (more on this another time). I just don't see how either the science or the politics works out, though. Maybe if we do develop He-3 fusion technology on Earth, we can make Lunar mining of it profitable. But even if that were to happen, I think it's more likely we'd end up with a mostly-automated mining outpost than a full-fledged city.

What would induce people to actually emigrate in large numbers to outer space? It would have to make more sense (in cost, in political will, in scientific value, etc.) to go in person than to send robots. Or the cost would have to drop so far that other factors come into play - for example, it doesn't make "sense" by any of the above factors for my family to travel to London for a week, but we might do it anyway just for the fun and the experience. There's some indication that some forms of space flight might be in this range for the super-rich in the near future. But these short hops are a far cry from emigration.

We space nuts have to keep hoping for some game-changing technology, I think. We won't see large-scale manned space flight otherwise.

No More Sears Tower

The Sears Tower was renamed yesterday for its new owner, insurance company Willis Group. The renaming has caused understandable heartache among Chicagoans, who feel that the Sears Tower is a landmark and therefore should be exempt from changes like this.

It reminds me of a similar controversy in Washington, D.C., over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, an exemplar of brutalist architecture in the nation's capital. In both cases, a relatively young building (the Third Church was built in 1971; the Sears Tower in 1973) is being defended as a historical landmark - and therefore a common good - against private owners who wish to modify their property. Granted, the "change" to the Third Church is a bit more permanent: its owners want to tear it down and build a new church.

At what point does a private building become common property? I would argue: never, unless a government purchases the building. It is easy for free riders, who pay none of the costs of maintenance and endure none of the design problems, to prefer to keep a historic building unchanged. But its owners, who do have to weight those costs, may have different priorities. If the free riders want to become paying owners, they should find the money and buy it, obtaining all the rights inherent to ownership.

This seems like a no-brainer in the case of buildings that are only as old as I am. After all, if you want another 40-year-old brutalist church in Washington, D.C., it only takes 40 years - just build one and wait. But I did say "never", so what about harder cases: Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, for example.

Obviously, Notre Dame is a irreplaceable historic building. If it were torn down, it would measurably diminish our cultural heritage. Notre Dame is state property under the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State, with exclusive use granted to the Roman Catholic Church. But suppose France wanted to tear it down and sell the land to McDonald's? Should they be allowed to?

I'm forced to say yes, as much as it hurts. If we wanted to save Notre Dame, we would have to pool our money and buy it. There is no ultimate authority on Earth that can decide what should be preserved and what should not be. Preservation has a cost as well as a benefit; it should not be up to those who do not share the costs to make the decisions (or else everything of value would always be preserved).

Taking this stance will result in some things being lost that I as a free rider would have rather seen preserved, but that is inevitable anyway. Every day things that I like are destroyed: a web site changes its format, a restaurant changes its menu, a television station stops broadcasting reruns of Scrubs. Worse yet, things that I think I would like but have not yet experienced are destroyed: say, a restaurant highlighted in a Thailand travel guide closes its doors. These things can never be recovered, even in our memories.

But that is life. We will never be able to experience all that we might have. The world is too full of possibilities to realize them all. Our best compromise is to have the maximum individual liberty to experience what we can - but that demands allowing everyone else liberty to do the same. If I demand that the French government must preserve Notre Dame for my benefit, then I am imposing a cost on French taxpayers. If they do not wish to pay it, that is their right.

This is the point where my late father would say: This is why we need a world government, so that it can own these items of massive cultural significance and - theoretically at least - the entire world would have a stake in their preservation. I disagree, but I will leave the response to that for another day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

CNN's Best Places to Live

I was just looking at CNN's list of the Top 100 Places to Live for 2009. As often when looking at American cities, I loved some of the names. This is one of the most fun parts of driving around the country: checking out the place names on the road map. Here's a few from the Top 100:

Papillion, NE - Great place for butterflies, maybe?

Peachtree City, GA - Can we coin the word "statetriotic" for this one?

Superior, CO - Good thing they made this list.

Highland Heights, OH - We get it. It's high.

Lenexa, KS - Shouldn't that be a pharmaceutical?

Twinsburg, OH - I was trying to imagine the backstory on this and it turned out to be far more interesting than I would have thought. Founded by twins, and now consists of twin cities as well!

And so on - there are many more.

But here's the weird thing. CNN apparently has a "best places to live" database, and here are their criteria for membership:
CNNMoney's Best Places database of 1,800-plus U.S. cities includes towns with populations 8,500 to 50,000 with satisfactory education and crime scores, where income is below 200% of the state median, and that are no more than 95% white – as well as cities with populations 90,000 and up.

Maybe I'm not getting this, but none of the criteria makes sense to me. Why leave out cities with populations between 50,000 and 90,000? Why would you want income to be below 200% of the state median (are there little Qatars out there with huge incomes but also huge income inequality)? And why no more than 95% white? If you want diversity to be a criterion, OK. But is a town exactly 95% white diverse? Is a town that is 100% black diverse? Seems odd.

UPDATE: Even odder, CNN tracks the racial diversity index of each city. The index is an unbiased score of diversity; I learned, for example, that the town where I live is 27.2% more diverse than the national average. Interestingly, the Best Places to Live database average diversity is over 40% below the national average. So is diversity a criterion to qualify as a "best place", or isn't it?

Monday, July 13, 2009


Just saw this: "Politicians are like diapers. They should be changed regularly and for the same reasons." Hilarious! (And probably not new. But it's new to me. I wonder who said this first?)

Shrinking Flint

Heard this story on NPR this morning on my way to work: the city planners of Flint, MI are considering "shrinking" the city in order to improve it.

Great idea. Of course, the city has already shrunk:

At its peak, Flint was home to General Motors, with a growing population of some 200,000 people and 80,000 auto industry jobs. Today, the population is about half what it once was, and only a few thousand auto jobs remain. More than one-third of the homes in Flint have been abandoned.

The people of Flint have voted with their feet. The story is really not about whether to "shrink" Flint but whether to accept what has already happened and tear down the abandoned buildings that have been left behind.

The whole thing is fraught with the sort of problems that come from rampant progressivism.
Given the pain of urban renewal policies of the 1960s, which decimated many inner-city neighborhoods, Mallach says it's understandable that residents would be suspicious of grand government plans like this.

Yes, well, of course. People are broadly conservative in the sense that they favor preserving the status quo. Most people are not in favor of radical change. By putting the government in charge of too many city functions, though, it's harder to adjust to changing times. Decisions that should be economic become political, with their various interest groups and factions. Eventually, the status quo becomes bad enough that radical change really is called for, and you end up with a situation like this. It's the national health care debate writ small.

For his part, County Treasurer Kildee says there is no official plan to shrink Flint yet — it's just an idea that makes sense. But he says that whatever happens, nobody would be forced to move.

"If they choose to live where the population is essentially gone, we need to give them something green and beautiful," Kildee says.

"But give them the choice to relocate into a denser, more high-functioning neighborhood. That's really the point of all this: The people who live in these neighborhoods deserve better. We have to think about what's in their interest."

It's worth taking a moment to translate the political doublespeak into plain English: You can keep living where you want, Kildee says, but we're going to stop providing you with certain government services (what else do you think he means by a "more high-functioning neighborhood"?). Of course, you'll still be paying the same sales and income taxes (yes, Flint has a city income tax of 1%, on top of Michigan's state income tax of 4.35% - I wonder if that might have anything to do with the state's deinvestment problem?). So don't move - suckers. Sure, Kildee says, "we need to to give [people who stay in sparsely-populated areas] something green and beautiful", but isn't it telling that he doesn't mention that they'll have city government services?

And that would be fine. What really needs to be shrunk is the Flint, MI city government. And in a sense, that's what they want to do: the amount of tax revenue per acre is now so low that providing the current level of government is not feasible at the current density. But the response is perverse: rather than reduce the level of government, they want to increase the density. But this won't address the reason Flint is shrinking: high taxes, an anti-business regulatory environment, and an addiction to an automotive industry that (it needs to be admitted) isn't coming back to Flint.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What This Blog is About

"It stands athwart history, yelling Stop." This comes from the mission statement of National Review. At first glance, it is rather reactionary, isn't it? Yet I don't view conservatism - American conservatism - as reactionary. William F. Buckley saw a rushing tide of statism and saw his magazine, and the nascent modern conservative movement, as the one thing that might stand in its way. He didn't mean recreating America as it was in the nineteenth century, warts and all.
"I happen to prefer champagne to ditchwater," said the benign old wrecker of the ordered society, Oliver Wendell Holmes, "but there is no reason to suppose that the cosmos does." We have come around to Mr. Holmes' view, so much so that we feel gentlemanly doubts when asserting the superiority of capitalism to socialism, of republicanism to centralism, of champagne to ditchwater — of anything to anything.
Buckley wrote this in 1955. After the events of September, 2008, we are again hearing about a crisis of capitalism, about how no crisis should be "wasted", about how Americans should stop debating and start acting. In short, we are again at a key moment in our history, where the very relation between the state and the individual may be changing. Like Buckley, I wish to yell Stop.

For the most part, what I'll be doing is commenting on books I'm reading, current events, and other interests of mine such as the arts, science and philosophy. What I won't be doing is original reporting. That sounds too much like real work. The point of this blog is to have some fun. So let's get to it!