Monday, December 16, 2013

Fill in the Blanks!

My parents really did raise me better than this, but sometimes you just need to express yourself in crude terms, and to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme song:

Now if I had a **** to give
and this I swear is true
I'd take that **** I had to give
and give that **** to you

But since I lack a **** to give
and can't give you your due
Why don't you just go **** yourself
and get a ****ing clue?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Macklemore in Iambic Pentameter, a Response in Kind


A friend sent me this, unsure if I was familiar with Macklemore but confident that I would appreciate the execution. I gave him the following reply:

This "Macklemore" is scarcely known to me,
and so it is for better or for worse;
that while I can not sing the song to thee,
I'll demonstrate my grasp of older verse.
For songs may come and go with passing days,
and people quote them often for a while
until the point where every music craze
is overdone and triggers rising bile.

So if a song is now a major hit
and every music station gives it play,
it won't be long until we're sick of it
from hearing it nonstop throughout the day.
But when you hear those songs after a while,
nostalgia says, http://tinyurl.com/lezn9fw

Monday, October 7, 2013

Every Time Someone Uses a CBO Forecast, a Dead Puppy Returns to Life

I can always tell at a glance when someone has made a projection based on Congressional Budget Office forecasts, since they always involve a picture of doom and gloom that suddenly explodes into prosperity a couple of years after the line between "historical" and "projected." Dead puppies are projected to come back to life and resume playing, based on historical trends for the amount of time those puppies spent playing before they died and subsequently became not much fun.

The CBO produces economic forecasts for Congress. There are two assumptions in CBO forecasts that make them useless for anyone else, one of which might make them useless for Congress itself.

The first of these assumptions is that the forecasts are made "under current law," which means that they do not account for any new laws and new spending that Congress might make in the meantime. That's not a problem for Congress since they use CBO forecasts to guess at how much money they might be able to spend, but for the rest of us, the CBO forecast provides us with a forecast for a world in which Congress meets to discuss new ways to spend money, but goes home after they can't think of any.

The second of these assumptions is that GDP will return to trend, in other words that we'll be back to potential GDP within a few years. Exactly what potential GDP is involves a whole lot of guessing and some extrapolating of historical GDP growth, but the basic idea is that if you have a crappy economy, it's not a permanent setback and it'll grow faster later to make up for it. The latest CBO forecast assumes that we'll be all caught up by 2017.

In 2008, they assumed better than average historical growth for the years after 2009. From 2010-2013 we averaged 1.95% GDP growth, well below the average historical growth of 3.4%. They also guessed in 2008 that GDP would grow by 2.8% in 2009, when it ended up shrinking by 2.6%.

In 2009, they assumed that we'd be back to trend by 2014. We're about a trillion dollars short and 2014 is three months away. Some of us might need to work a couple of extra weekends.

The point I'm making with all of this is that the CBO has an established record of being overly optimistic in its assumptions that GDP will return to trend. Potential GDP is a function of many things: physical and human capital, technology, institutions both private and public, regulation, and so on. Changes in regulation, such as mandating insurance for full time employees, can affect potential GDP in a permanent way. Low labor force participation means that human capital goes unused. Bad government can turn a crappy economy from a temporary setback into the new normal. While the CBO does try to account for losses in human capital due to people retiring or sitting idle for an extended period, it does not, to the best of my knowledge, account for costs of regulatory compliance or people getting priced out of the labor market to due minimum wage increases or insurance mandates.

Stop using CBO forecasts. The puppy is dead.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Time to Get Myself on a Watch List, I Guess

This is not a popular opinion, but I really don't care: I think we overreacted to 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks were terrible, but we've let them define us as a country too much for too long. People have a tendency to consider probabilities according to emotional impact rather than statistical likelihood, and we've been treating terrorism like a much bigger threat than it actually is for more than a decade. In 2001, more than five times as many Americans were murdered by other Americans than were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Americans were 186 times as likely to die from cancer in that year, and 235 times as likely to die from heart attacks. We are not allocating our time, money, and attention in anything close to a rational way when it comes to the threats that face us.

Worse, I think that the fear inspired by 9/11 has been exploited for political purposes, with opportunistic politicians expanding the power of the federal government using terrorism as an excuse. The surveillance state that we're seeing today would never have happened without it. The response of the American public to the 9/11 attacks, which was to throw away our liberty in a desperate bid for security, was absolutely shameful.

Individuals did some brave things during that crisis. I'm not downplaying the firefighters and police officers who lost their lives trying to save others, or the passengers who died trying to take back a plane before it could be used as a weapon for terrorists. Those people showed the best in us and reacted the way that I hope we all would. The rest of us largely reacted like panic-stricken children, desperate to give the government whatever it wanted as long as they said it was necessary to keep us safe. The TSA, Guantanamo Bay, domestic spying
all of this has been justified by appeals to 9/11.

I'm sick of it. If America is so strong and proud, we need to stop letting politicians use 9/11 as an excuse to trample the freedoms that define our country in the first place. We need to stop being a bunch of cowards in the face of terrorism and recognize that a society that is so locked down as to be invulnerable to terrorist attacks is a society that's not worth living in. They killed less than 1/100,000 of our population, and everybody just went nuts like it was the end of the world. That's just pathetic.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Buckets Were Serious Business in Medieval Italy

One of the constants of Medieval Europe was the tension between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, which was not holy, Roman, or an empire. Sometimes this tension manifested itself in the form of excommunications going both ways, and other times it manifested as Italian cities who supported one side or the other going to war over ridiculous things.

I will now summarize this historical event after the manner of the Internet.

Bologna: "I has a bucket."
Modena: "I'm in ur base, takin' ur buckets."
Bologna: "No! They be stealin' mah bucket!"
*Warfare ensues. Thousands die.*
Modena: "All your bucket are belong to us."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

FREE CANDY!

There is a specific point in the human psyche where greed and gullibility intersect. Somebody found it and set up a sign there that says "We have [thing you want] that we can't sell because [contrived reason] and so we're giving them away to people who Like this post on Facebook!"

There is no free stuff. There never was. How did all of these people make it through childhood without finding their way into a van with "FREE CANDY" painted on the side? This is the exact same trick.

Remember, when you click "Like" on something because you were baited into it through greed or crass emotional manipulation, you are depriving an Indian of a job.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In Which I Fix Everything

A while ago I started thinking about how I would go about designing a functional welfare state. As a libertarian bordering on anarcho-capitalist I'm not a big fan of the concept in the first place, but if it had to be done we could certainly improve upon the idea and fix a bunch of other problems while we're at it. I limited myself to preserving existing institutions in some form, since traditional libertarian shibboleths like abolishing the Federal Reserve in favor of a 100% reserve requirement gold standard or ending all welfare payments immediately don't really address the problems of institutions that we're basically stuck with whether we like it or not. So, if I had the power to reform political institutions but not replace them outright, I would approach the problem with the goal of eliminating the following problems:

I. Unnecessarily complex and divisive tax policy.
II. Obscure individual costs of government programs.
III. Welfare system is wasteful and creates disincentives to work.
IV. Ineffective, unfair monetary policy tools.

I'll discuss each of these in order.

Unnecessarily Complex and Divisive Tax Policy


So, first up is the tax system. Taxes cause deadweight loss that increases proportionate to the square of the tax rate. Economists across the political spectrum agree on this, but those who favor higher taxes generally view that the government is just so much better at spending money than the rest of us that it's still a good idea to have high taxes. Deadweight loss is also affected by the price elasticity of supply and price elasticity of demand with smaller deadweight losses suffered when elasticity of supply and demand are relatively low. To maximize revenue for a given deadweight loss, tax rates would be inversely proportionate to price elasticity.

However, actually figuring out price elasticity is very much like shooting in the dark at a moving target. Nobody really knows what the demand curve for anything actually looks like since consumer preferences are only made known through purchases at a given price point, and changing the price of a good to get another price point only gives us one more point with which to construct a curve that is by no means a straight line. Furthermore, the greater the time disparity between the collection of purchase data at different price points, the more likely it is that consumer preferences have changed in the meantime. Consumers also take note of frequent changes in price, and this affects their purchasing behavior. As a practical matter, actually constructing an accurate demand curve is a pipe dream.

Companies hire economists to try to figure this stuff out anyway, since taking an educated guess is a bit better than nothing, but if we were to try to base tax policy on it, we would introduce a lot of inefficiency-inducing political pressures at every point where a judgment call is necessary, and the accuracy of the results would be even worse. It would also run counter to the goal of avoiding unnecessary complexity in tax policy.

So, what I would do is replace all current taxes (income tax, payroll taxes, corporate income tax, etc) with a Value Added Tax. It's basically a sales tax that is collected at each stage of production instead of just at the end. To eliminate the possibility of carousel fraud and not distort relative prices of imports and domestically produced goods, the VAT would also apply to the value of imports. The IRS would perform a function similar to the UK's HM Revenue and Customs, although there would be no exceptions or variable VAT rates for different goods. This would minimize the potential for abuse and inefficiencies induced by political pressure, as well as prevent nonsense like the case of Jaffa Cakes being a cake or a biscuit for tax purposes.

Aside from reducing compliance costs with taxation, a VAT would give everyone a stake in government spending. There is a very strong tendency in a representative system of government to try to make other people pay for things that benefit you. As a general rule of thumb, politicians respond to people according to their political significance. Swing voters (and in presidential elections, swing states) get subsidies and lots of political attention, while voters whose vote is a foregone conclusion will be exploited for all they're worth by politicians on the other side. Non-voters are a source of revenue at best, but there is no political capital to be gained by doing anything for them.

The complexity of the tax system means that any individual's actual share of the tax burden is extremely difficult to figure out. A good example of this is the payroll tax, which is supposedly paid 50% by the employer and 50% by the employee, but in practice the actual burden of the tax shifts according to the relative elasticity of supply and demand for labor. Remember when I talked about how hard it is to plot out an accurate demand curve earlier? You'd need to be able to do this to determine what your actual share of the payroll tax burden is, as well as every other tax on any transaction you are involved with. Good luck!

Once you've assembled a team of specialists including (at minimum) a tax accountant, an economist, and a wizard (to verify the accuracy of the economist's assumptions), you could look at the share of the budget that each government program comprises, and from there you could calculate how much a particular program cost you personally that year.

However, under a VAT this would be simplified somewhat. While people would still try to vote themselves disproportionate benefits out of the public treasury, under a VAT they at least wouldn't be able to use political influence to excuse themselves from taxation and push the costs of government programs onto others, which brings me to the next problem to fix: obscure costs of government programs.

Obscure Individual Costs of Government Programs


With a VAT, the tax burden is quite a lot easier to figure out. You wouldn't even need to know what your income is; you'd just need to know what the VAT rate is, which is about as hard as knowing your local sales tax rate. As an example, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security together comprise about 40% of the federal budget. Under a VAT with a tax rate of 30%, you could say that the cost of those programs was 12 cents on the dollar, for everybody.

Having the cost of government programs framed in such a way makes them comprehensible to everyone. I've got a strong suspicion that on some level, voters think that a billion is about ten million, and a trillion is about ten billion. The human brain sucks at actually comprehending large numbers.

A good demonstration of this was the Occupy Wall Street protests. A poll showed that 94% believed that the government spent more on the military than it did on education or healthcare and pensions. In reality, the government spends more than twice as much on healthcare and pensions as it does on the military. While it's tempting to say that liberal protesters are just particularly awful with large numbers, I think that ignorance of the costs of government is probably a little more widespread than that.

Making it so that the cost of government programs is easily comprehensible to the average voter can only improve political outcomes. At the very least, the political discourse would be a little harder to overwhelm with misinformation, and a VAT would make it harder to divide voters on tax issues by pushing the costs onto some other group.

Welfare System is Wasteful and Creates Disincentives to Work


This is one of those issues that suffers disproportionately from the difficulty in calculating individual tax burden. How much does a given person pay in taxes for welfare? How much does a household below the poverty line actually collect in benefits? The amount of money going into the system compared to the amount of money going out in benefits would give us a good idea of how much money is being lost to administrative costs or government waste.

Last year, the Senate Budget Committee found that combined state and federal welfare spending combined amounted to about $60,000 per household below the poverty line. This isn't to say that every household below the poverty line collected this much in benefits; some of these benefits accrue to households above the poverty line. But still, that's 20% higher than the median household income in the United States, so what gives?

Well, that figure includes Social Security, which accounts for an awful lot. There are also administrative costs for each of the wide variety of programs aimed at poverty. There are subsidized housing programs, food stamps, medicare/medicaid, and so on. The total cost of welfare spending is another one of those things that most people remain oblivious to. To the Left it's not enough and to the Right it's too much, but despite how often people bicker about this it's pretty rare for anyone to actually bring up hard numbers and break down where they all come from. To make matters worse, poverty statistics in the United States are based on income, but do not include government programs in that figure. A family of four with a cash income of $20,000 per year (which is below the poverty line of $23,550 for that family in 2013) and government benefits totaling an additional $30,000 would be living on median income, but would still count as impoverished just because we don't count the government benefits that account for 60% of their income.

I did some thinking about how I would design a social safety net that minimizes administrative costs and does not produce disincentives to work for those at the low end of the income spectrum. The current system has benefits that phase out in stages as income increases, so additional income is partially offset by decreasing benefits. It's also split into countless different programs. Nobody pays taxes on welfare benefits, which makes for a fundamental divide between those who collect benefits and those who pay taxes. From the perspective of the zero-income welfare recipient, they don't care what tax rates are required for a particular government program because their share of it is zero. Their cost-benefit analysis doesn't include costs, and they will consistently advocate greater spending on anything that they like.

What I would do is replace the entire array of social welfare spending (including social security, medicare, food stamps, subsidized housing, etc) with a universal basic income. It's the simplest possible solution: give every adult citizen a regular payment. When combined with a VAT, this would mean that there is a social safety net, but also that everyone would have a stake in the cost of government. It would also resolve one of the major objections to replacing the income tax with a consumption tax like a sales tax or a VAT, specifically the non-progressive nature of those forms of taxation. Some people really like the idea that a person with more income pays a higher percentage of their income, and oppose consumption taxes on the basis that they are not progressive. They occasionally claim that sales taxes are regressive, but I think it's just beyond stupid for anyone to make such a claim. Everyone facing the same tax rate is by definition neither regressive nor progressive.

Milton Friedman supported a negative income tax; he supported subsidies for people making less than a set amount, and taxes paid on income above that amount. That system still features a skewed cost-benefit analysis for people making less than the tax free amount, since they don't face any of the costs of any program that they support. Otherwise, there are similarities.

Here are some sample incomes to show what this would look like for various income levels with a VAT of 50% (meaning that 33% of the total cost is in taxes) and a universal basic income of $15,000. The break even point using these values is $30,000, where a person making less than this effectively gets a subsidy and a person making more than this is paying more than they are getting.

Income of $0 plus $15k minus 33% = $10,000 ($10,000 subsidy)
Income of $15k plus $15k minus 33% = $20,000 ($5,000 subsidy)
Income of $30k plus $15k minus 33% = $30,000 (No subsidy)
Income of $45k plus $15k minus 33% = $40,000 ($5,000 tax burden)
Income of $60k plus $15k minus 33% = $50,000 ($10,000 tax burden)

As income increases, the real tax rate approaches 33%. Higher tax rates or lower payouts push the break-even point lower. A VAT combined with a universal basic income ends up producing a progressive tax system without actually charging anyone different rates or granting exemptions. It gives everyone a stake in government spending, clarifies the cost of government, simplifies the tax code, and removes one of the most divisive tendencies in representative systems of government. Not only that, but it provides a perfect framework to reform our banking system, in particular the role of the central bank.

Ineffective, Unfair Monetary Policy Tools


Here is an overview of monetary policy tools available to the Federal Reserve. The biggest one is open market operations, which is sort of like a steering wheel that is connected to a few different cars at once. They try to influence the Fed funds rate and the monetary base using the same tool. If they want to influence one but not the other, that's not possible. If they want to increase the availability of funds to the public as a macroeconomic policy move, they use open market operations to expand the monetary base, making those funds available to banks who then lend money to the public.

There are two problems evident with this. The first is that it's unfair. Increasing the money supply diminishes the real value of debt, so there is a transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors. The devaluation of dollar-denominated assets such as savings accounts is what most people talk about when they complain about how unfair inflation is. However, if the change in the money supply is anticipated, it will be reflected in interest rates to account for this. Half of the Federal Reserve's job is just bluffing banks into doing what the Fed wants them to do.

That's not the really unfair part, though. If the increase in the money supply is known well enough in advance that interest rates can account for it, then it's a wash. The really unfair part is related to the distorting effects of monetary injections. When the money supply expands, prices rise, but they don't all rise at the same time. The people who get the new money first get to spend it before prices rise, and as that money circulates through the economy other prices rise as the new money reaches them. The Federal Reserve expands the money supply through commercial banks, meaning they consistently get the money before anybody else. This gives banks an opportunity to buy assets secure in the knowledge that they are paying a lower price than they'd have to pay for those same assets after their money has had a chance to slosh around the economy for a bit.

The ineffective part is something we've been seeing recently. If you're trying to add money to the economy through commercial banks, that's rather contingent upon the banks actually lending that money out instead of sitting on it. Which is exactly what they've been doing. The less money that banks lend, the more desperate the Fed is to give them money in the hope that they will lend it out. I think banks have caught on to this, and now have nearly two trillion dollars in excess reserves while the Fed scrambles to do anything it can to throw more money at them.

Coincidentally, if banks are holding more than the Fed's reserve requirement, then changes in the reserve requirements become entirely useless as a means of enacting macroeconomic policy unless you raise the requirements high enough that banks have to cut back on lending even with the extra money they were already sitting on. Lowering the reserve requirement won't have any effect no matter if banks don't do any extra lending with the extra slack you've given them. It's like pushing a rope.

So, what would I do to fix this? I would use the universal basic income as the outlet for monetary creation. The Fed would still retain control over monetary policy to distance it from political pressures to increase the payout, but changes in the money supply would come in the form of changes in the universal basic income. It's a blending of monetary policy and fiscal policy, but as long as the decision is made by the central bank rather than politicians, it's more insulated from the political pressures that produced awful monetary policy back when monetary authority was vested in Congress.

Rather than having interest rates derived from the fed funds target rate which is aimed at through open market operations, interest rates would be derived from the supply and demand for loanable funds, which is inherently counter-cyclical. In any case, it'd be a lot more reliable than just throwing money at the economy while eyeballing the Consumer Price Index in the hope that it'll tell them when they're doing too much.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why Aren't I Married?

I find myself considering the reason why I am not married. Is it because of a shortage of common interests? Poor social skills? My complete lack of effort? Are my unreasonably high expectations to blame? Or is it Cotton-eye Joe? There is, perhaps, some merit to all of these reasons. Any one of them could be sufficient to explain why I didn't get married a long time ago.

But there is yet another reason to consider: I heard a legend on the Internet that if you stay a virgin until you're 30, you become a wizard! So I played hard to want. Now I'm 31, and you can imagine my surprise.

Don't tell the Muggles though; they're not supposed to know.

A Libertarian Against Bad Arguments Against Obama


I've seen this image floating around Facebook, and it bothers me. Not because it paints Obama in a bad light, but because it uses bad arguments to do it. When you make an argument, people assume that's the best you've got, so something like this is counterproductive if you want to make Obama look bad. The facts are more than enough to do that, so I'll be fact checking and correcting this. A lot of this data is, at best, a couple of years out of date. Some of it is the wrong data to use to make the point in the first place, and I also don't care for including early 2009 as part of "Obama's economic record" simply because we wouldn't have enough time for his policies to take effect in any case. In short, this graphic paints a picture of decline, when the reality is not decline, but rather stagnation and mediocrity.

Unemployed Americans

The first thing on the list is the number of unemployed Americans. We started with about 12.2 million, and today we're down to about 11.7 million. We passed 14 million in the first half of 2009, and dropped below 14 million around the beginning of 2011. We were down to about 11.7 million as of May 2013. Before the crash, we were at about 7 million. I'll provide data starting in 2007 for context's sake.

Number of Unemployed, January 2007 through May 2013

This looks like an improvement, but it's important to remember that people who give up on looking for work are no longer counted as unemployed. The other problem with this is that it uses absolute numbers, rather than a percentage of the total population. Our population is growing, so we could have more unemployed people even if the unemployment rate is going down, so the comparison is going to be inaccurate simply due to changes in the size of the population. The most charitable interpretation of this data is simply that they are using statistics from 2009-2011, which covers less than half of Obama's presidency. Time to update your data, guys.

Unemployment Rate

Next up we've got the unemployment rate. Starting at 7.8% and going to 9.1%, it's looking more like the original graphic is was made using data from early 2011. The unemployment rate was 7.6% as of May 2013.

Unemployment Rate, January 2007 through May 2013

This is a better statistic to use than simply the number of unemployed since it accounts for changes in population, but even within the limited time frame covered it does not account for people who gave up on looking for work. There are substantial numbers of these people, so the unemployment rate is going to understate the magnitude of the problem. What we should be looking at is the civilian employment to population ratio, which is just a ratio between the number of working age Americans and the number of Americans who have jobs.

Civilian Employment to Population Ratio, January 2007 through May 2013

As you can see, this started around 63% in 2007 and tanked to about 58.5% between 2008 and 2010, and it's been stuck there ever since. I think that this data gives us the most accurate picture of the employment situation. It's not getting better, but it's not getting worse; crappy is the new normal. Naturally, the Democrats ignore this one in favor of the unemployment rate (which goes down as people give up) and the Republicans play games by counting "underemployed" workers and adding those totals to the unemployed and discouraged workers to get made up but impressive sounding metrics like the "Real Unemployment Rate," which ironically is not a real metric tracked by economists in general.

Gas Prices

Since when is the price of gas the President's responsibility? It makes no sense to include the price of gas as part of Obama's economic record, because oil is a commodity. It is fungible. It is globally traded, and we buy most of ours from other countries. While Obama's environmental policies on oil development in the United States do have an impact, the price of oil is only influenced by this to the extent that US production affects the global supply. The impact of US oil development on gas prices when compared to the influence of global market conditions is basically irrelevant. Policies like mandatory ethanol additives also have an impact, but again it makes no sense to try to judge Obama by the price of a gallon of gas when most of that is completely beyond his responsibility or ability to control. If he did increase US production, OPEC could just cut back theirs to maintain the current price.

Federal Debt

To start with, the nominal amount of the debt doesn't matter; what matters is how large the debt is as a percentage of GDP. It's been on the rise in a huge way, but this started in earnest back in 2007 when the Democrats took control of Congress, not when Obama took office. That makes it harder to pin the blame on Obama, but the reality is that Bush was extremely fiscally irresponsible as well. Obama has basically just doubled down on Bush's bad fiscal policies.

However, going from $10.6 trillion to $14.7 trillion lets us look at the exact time frame used for this data. We hit $10.6 trillion in Q4 of 2008 and $14.7 around Q3 of 2011. This one looks to be intellectually dishonest instead of just outdated, since it's counting from several months before Obama took office. The fact that it includes data from the latter half of 2011 when the previous data about unemployment stops at the beginning of 2011 makes it look like data is being cherry picked to make it look more impressive. Do not do this. There is a circle in Economist Hell specifically for people who cherry pick data.

This is infuriating, because they are doing something intellectually dishonest and thereby discrediting their own position when the truth is more than sufficient to make the point. The St. Louis Fed only has data available through January of 2013, so the data series ends there.

Federal Debt, Total Public Debt, January 2007 through January 2013

The federal debt has increased significantly in the last six years, going from $8.8 trillion to $16.8 trillion. When Obama took office it was about $11.2 trillion. But, like I said before, we should be looking at the debt as a percentage of GDP, because that reflects our ability to pay it off. First we get some historical perspective and then look a little closer, comparing Bush and Obama.

Federal Debt, Total Public Debt as a Percentage of GDP, January 1966 through January 2013

Federal Debt, Total Public Debt as a Percentage of GDP, January 2001 through January 2013

If we look back a little further using data from the Congressional Budget Office, we can see that the federal debt as a percentage of GDP peaked at about 112% in 1945. WW2 was expensive and was financed largely through war bonds. This debt dropped off quickly, and was down to less than 50% of GDP by 1960, and reached about 25% by the mid 1970s.

When the Republicans held Congress for six years between 2001 and 2007, the debt increased by less than 8%. When the Democrats took the House and Senate in 2007, over the next two years the debt increased by 15%. Obama took office in 2009, and over the two years that followed the debt increased by another 16%. In the last two years from 2011 to 2013, the debt has increased by another 9%. We're currently looking at a debt to GDP ratio of about 105%, and we're rapidly approaching our previous WW2 high.

While it is true that deficits are larger during recessions (the latest of which officially ended in 2009, by the way), we can look at past recessions for comparison. The Great Depression was a lot worse than the more recent housing crash and financial crisis, and when combined with the New Deal it added to the debt by about 30% of GDP. That is how the Republicans should be explaining the debt situation, not making intellectually dishonest comparisons between late 2008 and mid 2011.

Debt Per Person

When you are looking at a single point in time, this can help people get their minds around the very large number that is the national debt. It doesn't work well for comparisons to a past point in time, because it doesn't count inflation, which makes the difference appear larger than it really is. Debt as a percentage of GDP covers this. The decision to use debt per person rather than debt as a percentage of GDP is a misleading gimmick.

Misery Index

How many people even know what the Misery Index is? It's the unemployment rate (which has problems, as I've discussed) plus the inflation rate, with both of them evenly weighted. There's not much point to citing this to people who don't know what it is, but it sounds bad, so that's why it gets a spot. The inflation rate is largely the Federal Reserve's responsibility anyway; the government controls fiscal policy, while the Fed handles monetary policy. If you're going to blame somebody for the inflation rate, blame Ben Bernanke. He was appointed as chairman of the Fed by Bush and then renominated by Obama. His performance in that capacity is exactly as everyone predicted: throw money at the economy until the unemployment rate goes down.

Food Stamp Recipients

Finally, something that doesn't look blatantly wrong. I had to actually look up the data myself to find out that yes, this is more intellectually dishonest BS. The Census showed 32,889,000 people on food stamps (SNAP) in January 2009, which the graphic reports as 32 million. Guys, you can't just truncate remainders like this. Either report the more accurate fraction of a million or at the very least round it to the nearest integer; don't just truncate 32.9 down to 32 to make it look worse than it is. The 45 million on food stamps is accurate for mid 2011. We're up to about 47.7 million by now, according to SNAP themselves. Again, the main point that they are trying to get across is solid, but they undermine their own position by intellectual dishonesty when there really isn't any point in doing so.

Health Insurance Premiums

Like with gas prices, this isn't the President's job. The President does not set the price of insurance policies. While requiring people to buy insurance will cause an increase in the cost of insurance, all other things being equal, that does not mean that the price of insurance in early 2009 should be directly compared to whenever it was that they found this other number.

Home Values

This is more stuff that isn't the President's job. Trying to get everybody into a house whether they could afford one or not is what got us into this mess in the first place. Lower prices are good for home buyers, and higher prices are good for home sellers. Saying that a shift in prices is universally good or bad is just stupid.

US Global Competitiveness

There are a lot of different measures for this sort of thing. Why choose this one? Why not the Index of Economic Freedom, or the Economic Freedom of the World report? The Economic Freedom of the World report shows the US dropping from 2nd place to 8th place between 2000 and 2005, and down to 18th place by 2010.

While this is not intellectually dishonest per se, it's still a weak argument because one could just as easily pick a different report to get rankings that favor their argument. There is no "gold standard" for this sort of thing; multiple rankings exist, and they are all calculated differently.

Americans in Poverty

Comparing poverty statistics is another thing that bothers me, because the definition of poverty changes over time, and there are often multiple definitions in use at once. Are these absolute poverty statistics, or measures of relative expenditure? Sometimes poverty is three times the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet, and other times it is simply an arbitrarily selected percentage of the median income. Some measures of poverty include government transfer payments (food stamps, welfare, etc) and others do not. If you're going to talk about poverty, you need to devote some space to explaining what exactly you are saying, rather than just throwing out numbers like this.

Conclusion

None of this stuff is sourced or dated, and all of the dates I found were done by just backtracking into various time series to figure out when the data would have been accurate, and that could be wrong if the numbers in the graphic were being stretched in the first place. The information that isn't outdated is either exaggerated by the way it is presented, or irrelevant. Obama's poor showing is better criticized by not resorting to intellectually dishonest tactics; the truth about the debt, the dramatically increasing numbers of people on government support, and the poor employment to population ratio is more than enough to condemn him.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Theology in the Style of Gilbert and Sullivan

There are two groups of people, diametrically opposed, who are remarkably similar to one another in a number of ways, including their capacity to annoy me. These groups are theists who claim moral superiority solely on the basis of their belief, and atheists who claim intellectual superiority solely on the basis of their non-belief.

Society has done a pretty good job of beating down the first group, to the point where their most visible representatives are 40 idiots in Kansas. There is no end to the publicity that these people receive, even though they are so few in number that two short buses could carry all of them at once.

On the other hand, we have the evangelical atheists. Since you're reading this online and the Internet is their natural habitat, I'm sure you've come across at least a few of these people. They're the ones who declare, full of faith in their own superiority, that religious people are stupid. They'll post updates on the latest antics of the aforementioned 40 idiots in Kansas, trying to smear all theists with the actions of just a few. They'll compare the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, even though the Spanish Inquisition killed maybe 5,000 people over the course of 260 years (meaning they executed fewer people on average than the Texas criminal justice system has over the past few decades) while the Nazis killed around ten million in six years if you count Soviet prisoners of war. They'll claim that all wars are caused by religion, conveniently omitting both world wars and the handful of Chinese dynastic civil wars that get basically no attention in the English speaking world but several of which had death tolls above ten million. None of those matter, because to them, all warfare stems from religious belief, and if you believe in God then you are both stupid and culpable for whatever evil they feel like attributing to religion today. It is not enough for them not to believe; you shouldn't believe either, and they proselytize aggressively.

Inspired by the faithful missionaries from the church of non-belief, I wrote some lyrics for the Major-General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance:


He is the very model of a modern cyber atheist
Who claims he's packing logic but is just another dogmatist
Claiming that something's missing from the infinite expanse of space
Requires understanding that we simply don't have of the place
He's making claims while lacking any scientific evidence
Just like the fundamentalist who claims all things are providence
Now if you're an agnostic I would say that's justifiable
Consistent with just making claims from evidence available

Now I would count myself among those logical agnostic guys
If I had not had some experience showing contrariwise
If I ignored that evidence I'd be a crappy scientist
Just like the very model of a modern cyber atheist

Monday, May 6, 2013

Poetry Dump

One of my favorite verse forms is the double dactyl, sometimes called a "higgledy piggledy." It's got a rather long list of rules and follows a rigid meter, but it's very satisfying to write one because it's so challenging. Incidentally, the strict rules regarding what content goes in each line combined with the meter makes a double dactyl very easy to memorize. Here are a few of them that I have written, which are being posted again as cultural icons for posterity to cherish. You're welcome, posterity, now get off my lawn.

This one was comparing different class setups in Torchlight 2, because video game forums are appropriate venues for difficult poetry:

Clickety clickety
Glaive throwing Outlander
Aiming is optional
Hits like a truck

Marksmen are burdened with
Unsatisfactory
Damage per second and
Usually suck

While "usually" technically has four syllables, the "al" in words ending with "-ally" is typically (example!) skipped when the word is spoken in my dialect, so it sounds right. If you speak a dialect where "usually" has four syllables, I maintain that you are Doing It Wrong, and you probably have a wide and shameful array of vices and character flaws.

The next poem was about Planetside 2, an online friendly fire and vehicular manslaughter simulator:

Infantry Infantry
Food for artillery
Speed bumps for teammates who
Hit them and run

Corpses accumulate
Apocalyptically
Playing as Medic my
Job's never done

Here's one I wrote about Gendo Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion:

Higgledy piggledy
Pater Familias
Misses his wife so he
Wants to be Tang

Eagerly instigates
Instrumentality
Sending humanity
Out with a bang

There is some lingo in there, but it's ok if you're not familiar with the show and don't understand it; just take my word for it that this is terribly clever and you should be impressed. Nobody really understands Evangelion anyway.

Here's one for history; it's about Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, famous Turk-stomper and generally not a very fun guy to be around:

Stabbity stabbity
Patronym "Dracula"
Vlad the Impaler was
Not a nice man

Widely renowned for his
Inhospitality
Rather than meet with him
Run if you can

This one is highly inappropriate, and I should be ashamed of myself:

Giggity giggity
Cloistered degenerate
Pens innuendos of
Dactylic kind

Playing with words somewhat
Autoerotically
Heedless of warnings they'll
Make him go blind

This one is probably my favorite:

Higgledy piggledy
Hero of history
Died temporarily
When it was time

Posthumous victory
Tripersonality
Jesus or Conan or
Optimus Prime

You have my apologies for unmarked spoilers for Conan the Barbarian (1982), Transformers: The Movie (1986), and the first four books of the New Testament (1st century AD).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Birthday Soliloquy


I wrote this for a friend's birthday a couple of years ago.

To eat or not to eat-- that is the question
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to forgo
The fat and sugar of unhealthy baking
Or to take forks against a cake of birthday
And by consuming end it. To eat, to sleep-
And snore-- and by a sleep to say we nap
With heartburn, and the risk of diabetes
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a birthday outcome
Devoutly to be wished. To eat, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that nap of cake what dreams may come
When we have shoveled down this birthday cake,
Must give us pause. That's the respect
That makes calamity of too much cake.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Man Hug Protocol

Overview

The Man Hug is a social convention by which men express affection. It should be reserved for use among male family members or other men whom you would trust to help you kill a guy and dispose of the body. Casual friends or acquaintances get a head nod upon meeting, while more formal associates get a handshake. Friends in a formal setting might get both a head nod and a handshake, and maybe a fist bump hidden from your boss if you're at work. To avoid accidentally straying from the bounds of heteronormative behavior, certain rules are followed at each stage of the Man Hug.

The Approach

Get the other man's attention. Usually this is done by calling their name and spreading your arms like a bear about to attack. This announces your intention to hug them and will either be met by a similar response on their part if they accept the proposed Man Hug, or an extended hand for a handshake if your proposed Man Hug is rejected. Grabbing an extended hand to turn a handshake into a Man Hug awkwardly forces things and will likely result in them avoiding you in the future. It's like when that guy you were talking to just to be nice tells you that you're his best friend. Don't be that guy.

Contact

The Man Hug involves very little actual contact, mostly at the right shoulder. Don't stand up straight; bend slightly forward at the waist and tilt to your left. Anything below the solar plexus should not be touching. Rainbows are straighter than two men hugging each other with full body contact. Arm position is important, as hugging another person with your arms above theirs is easiest when you are larger than they are, so there are implications of protectiveness. Women and children, having typically less height and a shorter arm span, find it easier to position their arms underneath when hugging a man. Because it is impossible for both men to hug with their arms in the typical masculine position, it is possible to unwittingly set off a power struggle for the position of alpha male as one of the men is forced to hug like a girl. To avoid inadvertently challenging another male for social dominance and to minimize physical contact, it is necessary to use a crossed position facilitated by the waist-tilting mentioned earlier. This allows both of you to have your right arm extending around the other man's back above his left arm, which should dangle unused after the attacking bear approach stance, or used to pound on the other man's back along with the right arm, like you are riding an imaginary motorcycle turning left. Grimace or otherwise wear a tough expression if you are hugging a man who is not a relative.

Break

If one man ends a Man Hug unexpectedly before the other man is ready, it can make for an awkward scene where one man appears to be clinging to another who is trying to get away. Hugging another man is awkward enough as it is, so a non-verbal signal to break the Man Hug has developed: the back pound. This is typically done two or three times, either as an open handed slap on the back or as a closed fist if you want to be extra manly. If done properly, both men will disengage the Man Hug simultaneously, take a step back to reestablish normal personal space and begin conversing in a lively manner about topics which affirm their mutual heterosexual status so that nobody who saw the Man Hug gets the wrong idea. If you ever see a situation where one man is clinging to a second man who is repeatedly pounding on the first man's back while rolling his eyes, it's because the first man is ignoring the signal to break. He'll be getting a handshake next time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Regulatory Capture and Deregulation

I decided to write this post after seeing a series of excellent Venn diagrams showing how common it is for politicians and their staff to overlap with the private sector they are regulating. For example, William Daley was Obama's White House Chief of Staff and Clinton's Secretary of Commerce, but he was also on the Boeing board of directors and the Executive Committee of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

This type of situation leads to something called regulatory capture, where regulatory agencies are used to advance the interests of the industries (or specific companies within an industry) that they are supposed to be regulating. Politicians can be hired after they held office (often for a considerable amount of money) or they can go from the company into a political position, or at worst they can hold both positions at the same time, but the corrupting influence is still there.

I suspect that most Democrats believe that this is a problem with Republicans and that Democrats will keep those regulatory agencies in line. Well, not really. If you look at those diagrams, you'll notice that the vast majority of people on them are given their positions by Democrats. Just look at all of those Goldman Sachs employees holding important positions under Obama. I don't know if there is some selection bias by the person who made the diagrams, so it's entirely possible that for every CEO, lobbyist, or "director of govt. relations" that a Democrat takes on board there are three more hired by Republicans. Ultimately, that just makes my point stronger: no matter who is in charge of regulations, regulatory agencies will be used to serve the interests of the industries they should be regulating. If you think that the Republicans will be even worse about this than the Democrats are, then that's all the more reason to dismantle the regulatory apparatus before the Republicans get their hands on it again.

Regulatory capture has more malign effects than just getting regulators to turn a blind eye. Regulations can allow the company with the most political influence to use those regulations to cripple its competitors. For example, tobacco companies know that with the ban on tobacco advertizing, they don't have to worry about new competition showing up to challenge them. Wal-Mart, as I mentioned in my post on the minimum wage, supports an increase in the minimum wage because they already pay more than that while many of their competitors do not. Regulations are a path to corporate hegemony, wherein powerful corporations offer their support to politicians in exchange for regulation that favors them over their competition, or which simply hits their competition harder.

In the absence of regulation, companies compete on the basis of their ability to make a good product, advertize it well, and sell it at a competitive price. The selective pressure of a market economy ensures that without being able to do those things, a company will fail and those resources will be allocated elsewhere, so companies that thrive will tend to be pretty good at what they do, and the rest of us benefit from this. With regulation, the company's political pull becomes relevant as well. As the power of regulatory agencies grows, political influence grows in importance. This means that in a highly regulated environment, political influence alone can determine whether a company succeeds or fails. The Holy Grail of this, for companies, is being deemed "too big to fail" whereupon bailouts and heavy regulations enshrine them as a permanent fixture in the economic and political landscape. The nature of the selective pressure in a highly regulated environment will ensure that companies are good at either getting regulation that favors them or getting around regulation that doesn't, but they won't necessarily be very good at making and selling good products at a competitive price because the relative importance of those things is diminished. Naturally, larger companies will find it easier to exercise political influence, so regulations will tend to favor them and the economic landscape will shift toward larger and larger companies.

The solution to this corrupt intermixing of companies and government is to limit the power of regulation. It's fine if you don't trust companies; I don't either. They are looking out for their own interests first and foremost, and nothing will change that. The important thing to realize is that regulation isn't going to make them more efficient or socially responsible or "green" or whatever it is that you care about; it's only going to replace economic criteria for success with political criteria. It gives them incentives to get heavily involved in the political process and make regulations that are worse than nothing. Regulation does not limit the power of companies because it is the most powerful companies that make the regulation in the first place, even under a president who loves to play up the notion of "Wall Street vs Main Street" and then take a populist position. Politicians who are heavily involved in this corrupt process will insist that regulation keeps companies in check, when in reality limiting the power of regulation limits the power of companies to use that regulation to their own benefit at the expense of everyone else.

This is not to say that companies should not be bound by the law. Rather, the law should arise directly from the legislative body itself rather than having that responsibility delegated to regulatory agencies or subcommittees. It's a lot harder to buy off enough Congressmen to enact favorable legislation (although certainly not impossible; Monsanto has given jobs to at least two former Congressmen, as have tobacco companies) than it is to swing a vote in a subcommittee someplace, many of which meet behind closed doors for even less transparency in their proceedings.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Most Pretentiously Named Product Ever

I have found it: the most pretentiously named product in all of human history. It's not even something on a Starbucks menu, to my surprise. It's called the "Alpha Omega Elite." While this sounds like a special forces team founded by God during the Old Testament and comprised solely of wrathful archangels brandishing mighty swords wreathed with unquenchable eternal flames, that's not actually what it is. It's this thing.

Yup, that's a car seat. It costs a little under two hundred bucks and the idea is that you strap your wailing infant into it so that when you drive your car into a ditch because you were texting behind the wheel, they are less likely to go through the windshield. It also has a cup holder, because your infant knows how to operate one of those, and what could possibly go wrong with leaving a beverage within reach of a child in the car, anyway?

With a name like "Alpha Omega Elite" I expect this thing to detect an impending collision and eject the baby through the sunroof an instant before impact and parachute them to safety. It should then activate a radio distress signal that will call a helicopter rescue team like I'm a fighter pilot who has been shot down deep inside enemy territory, and my baby/weapons-officer has vital reconnaissance photographs that will turn this war around.

It is available in the following not-colors: Caroline, Lamont, Triton, and Nitron. That's a girl's name, a boy's name, a Greek god's name, and a Canadian professional wrestler's name, who played Sabertooth in X-Men. Presumably you are supposed to choose the one that is most appropriate for your baby.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How I Watch Disney Movies


    I like to think that the prince is a master strategist. They had a ball and invited all the girls in the kingdom. This lets the prince see what all the girls look like when they're dressed up and how well they conduct themselves at social functions, but that's not actually all that important. What he needed, after determining whether a girl could pass muster as the public face of the monarchy, was an excuse to make a surprise visit to all of these girls to see what they look like when they're not doing their best to dress up for him, because he's a smart enough dude to know that makeup and fancy clothes are how women lie to you that they're attractive when they really aren't, and a monarch doesn't stay in power for long without double checking everybody's lies. The shoe is just an excuse to make these surprise visits. If that hadn't happened, he'd have found something else.
     
    At this point, he doesn't actually care that much about Cinderella. She's just some girl he met at a party, one of a few who managed to not make fools of themselves. The prince is keeping his options open and checking out all the girls in the kingdom when they aren't ready for him, to see what they really look like. That's just gravy for the Prince, but what he's really doing is testing for initiative and cleverness. The glass slipper is tiny and they aren't exactly being careful with it, so breaking it isn't hard. A sufficiently crafty girl could see that they wouldn't be able to fit into the slipper and "accidentally" kick it off of that poofy pillow they were carrying it on to guarantee its destruction, and then argue her case that she was the one. Merely making the attempt to do this would show initiative (and a willingness to lie, which is an essential trait for a ruler), but nobody else even thought to try it.
     
    So, Cinderella's evil step-people break the slipper, and Cinderella presents a replacement which fits. Note that there is no way for them to check that the slippers are actually the same size, and nobody cares about that because it's irrelevant whether a girl would actually fit into the slipper that was left behind. What matters is whether a girl would be smart enough to break the slipper that was left behind and then make the case that they were the mystery girl from the ball. The prince was probably under the assumption that Cinderella had her family break the slipper on purpose, which displays initiative, cleverness, leadership, and the willingness and ability to lie convincingly. At this point, the prince is actually smitten with her and can hardly wait to take her back to the castle and start ensuring the royal succession, but he plays it cool to see how she's going to wrap things up.
     
    Cinderella pulls the other slipper out of her dress. The Prince figures this is all just going according to plan, because who carries a single glass slipper around the house? Nobody, unless they knew they were going to need to present it as evidence, and Cinderella showed up a little late for the shoe-fitting event; the prince assumed after the fact that she was going to get the other slipper, to make the big reveal more dramatic. That's good enough for him. He marries her and is disappointed when he discovers that she's not actually a master of deception, but her ability to speak to mice and enlist the aid of birds makes her an unexpectedly useful asset in running the kingdom's spy network, so they have their happily ever after anyway.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I Wish I Had Bee Powers

I would eagerly trade five years of my life for the power to make bees appear and attack anyone, anywhere, any time I wanted.

I used to do corporate tech support over the phone. If there is a more fertile environment for encouraging fantasies about having the ability to inflict pain and suffering upon people remotely, I don't know of it. It was a common occurrence for someone to waste their time and mine by lying to me in order to progress through troubleshooting steps more quickly; I could see their system's uptime, I knew they didn't reboot it before they called me, I just asked so I could find out if I should expect them to lie to me about other stuff later. In order to deal with this, I imagined their lies being interrupted by the sudden appearance of a swarm of angry bees. My enjoyment of my work was substantially improved by this practice.

Naturally, this is the sort of thing that doesn't have to be done at work. I'd watch some C-SPAN and wish again for bee powers. It got me wondering how many years of my life I'd be willing to trade for them. Five years is no question. Would I go for ten? How long could I expect to live, anyway? Trading ten years if you've only got twelve left to start with is a bigger deal. Would I make God angry at me by using my totally sweet bee powers to attack people? Considering that three of the seven plagues of Egypt were lice, flies, and locusts, I figure God would probably be cool with it if I emulated Him by sending swarms of vengeful insects after politicians. One time is a random occurrence and twice is a coincidence, but three times is a spree and that's as good as an official divine endorsement.

I bet I could really influence policy this way, given a little time. I would never tell anybody that I was the one causing all of the bee attacks, and there's no way they could trace it back to me, sitting at home and watching C-SPAN. Instead, bees would just appear out of nowhere and attack any time someone introduced legislation that I did not approve of. Many theories would be offered to explain the attacks, and people would likely notice that the bees were appearing from thin air and that the pattern of attacks seemed to follow a political agenda. They'd take steps to protect themselves, but I could make the bees appear inside of a beekeeper's suit just as easily, so that wouldn't save them. Biologists, theoretical physicists, and political scientists would be called in to try to explain what was happening, and the best they could come up with would be to say, "A bee colony of indeterminate size has taken up residence within some higher dimension of hyperspace, and they seem to support a narrow interpretation of the general welfare clause of the United States Constitution."

Upon hearing this line, I could die five years sooner, content that I had accomplished something worthwhile with my life.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Rambling Explanation of Fanfiction

I spend a fair amount of my time reading fanfiction. The typical response upon hearing this is to ask what fanfiction is, so with that in mind, I figure I can talk about it on my new blog and thereby forever dispel the dark fog of ignorance surrounding fanfiction. You're welcome, myriad peoples of the world. Just remember: you all owe me for this.

The short version is that fanfiction is fiction written by fans of a work rather than the original creator. Almost all of it sucks because there is no quality control, but some of it doesn't and if you know how to find the good stuff it's awesome. The rest of this post is the long version. There are a couple of links to good stories buried toward the bottom, like prizes in a cereal box.

The definition of fanfiction gets a little murky when you look at long-running comics that are written by people other than the original author, but for a quick definition it works. It is usually published online, and nobody makes money on it if they don't want to risk getting sued for copyright infringement. The legal status of fanfiction isn't quite certain, since nobody wants to take an author they like to court if they get a Cease and Desist order from them. The general idea is that it's a transformative work and thus falls under Fair Use, but this hasn't really been established with an actual court case yet as far as I know. Nobody's really in a rush to find out, and as long as you don't try to make any money off of it most writers don't care either.

Modern fanfiction mostly got started with the Star Trek fan-magazine Spockanalia, but fanfiction (as fiction written by people other than the original authors) is a very old idea. The stories of King Arthur spanned about a thousand years, and a lot of the stuff that we consider to be cornerstones of the story (questing for the Holy Grail, the round table, etc) didn't show up until hundreds of years later. The earliest accounts are 5th-6th century stuff, and the version of the story that we're most familiar with was written by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485. This is basically what fanfiction does; it takes existing stories or characters and expounds upon them. Tall tales made up about folk heroes are something of a predecessor.

The thing to keep in mind about fanfiction is that it's self published, which means the quality ranges from "professional quality" to "absolutely the worst garbage ever written." Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap, and this seems rather a conservative estimate when it comes to fanfiction. If you go to a site like fanfiction.net and start randomly clicking on stories to read, it's a lot like going outside, picking things up off of the ground, and putting them in your mouth in the hope that not only will they be food of some sort, but actually taste good as well. A more informed approach is needed. This is because fanfiction writers typically do not write for a living (although some do), and many don't even seem to proofread their work. A professionally published book will have an editor, and a publisher who has to sign off on it before it gets published. Fanfiction has no such requirement.

Not all fanfiction is horrible, though. Some writers who actually have an interest in quality will form writing circles and help out with reviewing, editing, and offering comments and criticism of each other's work before it gets posted for a wider audience. I help out in this capacity, although I don't really write any fanfiction myself. The trick to finding good fanfiction is to go off of the recommendations of someone you trust, and once you find an author you enjoy, see what else they have written. I've actually read original fiction simply because I wanted to understand the background of a work of fanfiction that came highly recommended. It's not unusual for such a work to be far better than the original that inspired it in the first place.

Another thing to know about fanfiction is that there is a ton of it. Fanfiction.net hosts over six hundred thousand different Harry Potter stories. That's the biggest fandom out there, but it should give you an idea of how much writing people are doing. Stories vary in length from a just a paragraph or two for a single scene, to being longer than the entire original series of books. Some of the longest fanfiction is significantly longer than anything on Wikipedia's list of longest novels in the English language. Probably my favorite fanfic is Kyon: Big Damn Hero, set after book eight of the novel series that was kicked off by "Suzumiya Haruhi no YĆ«utsu." It's roughly equal in word count to the English version of War and Peace, and it's still not finished yet.

Stories also might not even be in the same genre as the original. Using the Harry Potter example (since that's a series pretty much everybody knows), an example of this would be Oh God Not Again, which is a comedy wherein a magical artifact (artefact, since it's in Britain?) sends Harry back in time to when he was eleven and he gets another shot at everything. I really enjoyed it. Other writers will simply turn every story they can think of into a poorly written trashy romance novel. This goes back to the importance of finding good recommendations instead of just reading stories at random.

I suppose that's enough writing for now. I have more fanfiction to read.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Noshir Gowadia vs Aaron Swartz

Compare the following two cases.

Noshir Gowadia was a design engineer for the B-2, an important component of American intercontinental nuclear capability and hands-down the most advanced strategic bomber ever built. He was convicted of 14 of 17 charges brought against him after selling classified information to China, Germany, Israel, and Switzerland. He helped the Chinese develop a cruise missile designed to beat our existing countermeasures, and used the money to pay for a mortgage on his house in Maui. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

Aaron Swartz was a critic of US copyright law and outspoken opponent of SOPA who bypassed a paywall to download and freely distribute academic research papers. These papers are typically funded by NSF grants (tax dollars) but the papers themselves are not normally available without a subscription to JSTOR, an academic library database. He was not selling nuclear secrets to the Chinese. He wasn't making money on this at all. He was being threatened with 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine when he committed suicide.

This is what injustice looks like.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On the Minimum Wage


To understand the above graph is to understand why the minimum wage is harmful. The line in blue is the supply curve for labor, indicating that when wages are higher, the supply of labor increases as more people are willing to enter the workforce or work more hours. The line in red is the demand curve for labor; as workers get more expensive, fewer people are willing to hire workers. The point where supply and demand intersect is the market clearing point, to which quantity of workers and wage levels will tend toward naturally. Wages at the market clearing point are w*, with quantity of q*.

The horizontal line labeled "minimum wage" shows what happens if you set a price floor on labor that is higher than the market clearing level. More people start looking for work (indicated by qS) and fewer people are looking to hire them (indicated by qD). The difference between the quantity of labor supplied and the quantity of labor demanded is an indicator of unemployment or underemployment. The higher that line is, the more unemployment is caused by it.

People who were making more than the new minimum wage will not be affected, so it's important to look at what the impact will be on people who were making less than the new legal minimum. Some of them will get raises (up to the new minimum), and some of them will lose their jobs. That's it for the economic effects of the minimum wage, but there are also social effects and political effects as well.

As mentioned before, the supply of workers increases when the minimum wage is raised above the market clearing level. If employers have any sort of preference for workers on the basis of age or race (and even though it's technically illegal, a white 30-something is probably going to have an easier time getting hired than a black teenager) then expanding the quantity of labor supplied while reducing the quantity of labor demanded means that a disproportionate number of the people who lose their jobs will be members of those less-preferred groups; mostly teenagers, and to a lesser extent ethnic minorities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that as of January 2013, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of various groups was as follows:

White males, 20 years and up: 6.6%
White females, 20 years and up: 6.4%
Whites (both sexes), 16-19 years: 20.8%
Black males, 20 years and up: 13.4%
Black females, 20 years and up: 12.3%
Blacks (both sexes), 16-19 years: 37.8%

Another report on characteristics of minimum wage workers for 2011 (the most recent year available) shows that the minimum wage affects teenagers disproportionately. While blacks (at 6%) are slightly more likely to work for minimum wage or less than whites (at 5%), workers aged 16-19 earned minimum wage or less 22.8% of the time. At ages 20-24, the rate of minimum wage workers drops to 3.8%, which is still nearly three times higher than the 1.3% of the over-25 workforce that makes minimum wage or less. All groups considered, the under-25 cohort comprises about half of all workers making minimum wage or less. While Obama talked about how hard it is for a couple with two children to get by on minimum wage, fewer than one percent of married couples earn the minimum wage. It is simply a political distraction away from the people who actually make minimum wage.

The reason that the minimum wage persists despite being awful economic policy is because it is a political no-lose situation for the party that has set itself up on the principles of class warfare. The worker who gets a pay raise as a result of an increase in the minimum wage is grateful to the government for raising the minimum, while the worker who loses their job when the minimum wage is increased is far more likely to blame corporate greed, as his political masters tell him to. He's probably never seen intersecting supply and demand curves before in his life and doesn't understand that it is the government's fault that he is now a legally non-profitable (and therefore unemployed) worker. Instead, he goes on the dole, and is grateful to the government for providing support in his unemployment. Businesses who pay the minimum wage will be upset, but the bourgeois are irrelevant in popular elections and most of them don't vote Democrat anyway, so what's there to lose by pissing them off? Minimum wage increases will likely be vocally supported by companies that pay higher than the minimum wage but are competing with companies that do not; Wal-Mart supports a higher minimum wage because they pay more than that already, but smaller grocery stores often don't. For politicians, the minimum wage is a tool to ingratiate themselves to undereducated voters. For big businesses, the minimum wage is a tool to put pressure on smaller competitors. Neither of these groups care as much about the economy as they do about their own success, so they support the minimum wage.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It's All Downhill From Here

Every house has a junk drawer. It's that special place where everything that you can't be bothered to organize properly ends up, to either be dug out later or forgotten about forever. It occurred to me that I needed such a place on the Internet, where I could post anything that I thought I might want to look at later, or not. That brings me to the point where I officially declare, with all the histrionics I can muster, this very spot shall be filled with the things that are of interest to me, and possibly also to some other people, if they know what's cool like I do.

Mostly that'll be geeky stuff like economics, PC games, anime, and fanfiction reviews. Also occasionally poetry about one of the above, or snippets of conversations I've had that I feel might be of interest to anyone who hasn't yet been driven off by the other things I write about here. In addition to liking things, I also like to hate things; expect a little vitriol when the mood strikes me.