Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Off to Montana!

Time for our annual spring pilgrimage west!  I expect to be back to blogging in about a week. 

Meanwhile, John Pepple of I Want a New Left has a report on our lunchtime meeting in Marshall, Michigan last week.  It was quite enjoyable and I'll likely write something on this later.  But for now, "Onwards!"

Photo: The staff of Unforeseen Contingencies discussing which is the best route through North Dakota.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cancelling the Iran Nuclear Deal

Further thoughts on Mr. Trump's cancellation of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. Iranian nuclear deal):

First, this is a very hopeful sign.  The Iranian "deal" protected Iran's ambitions for nuclear weapons, as I've previously pointed out, effectively guaranteeing a nuclear arms race in the middle east and eventual nuclear catastrophe. The Saudis, who are in the midst of an unprecedented pro-Western liberalization, are overjoyed.  They were prepared to develop their own nuclear weapons, should Iran proceed.That alone is sufficient reason for the cancellation.

Second, Iran had already announced that regardless of Trump's decision, they were considering abandoning the JCPOA.  Benjamin Netanyahu's recent presentation on the Mossad haul of Iranian nuclear documents proved that the Iranians had plans for a MIRVed nuclear missile.  That also was sufficient reason to cancel.  Never appease a rogue regime.  Doing so only encourages even worse behavior.

Third, some have warned that this will lead to war.  Good grief! Iran already has attacked the United States, and is engaged in wars in Morocco, Syria, Iran, and Yemen, and is a major sponsor and weapons provider for the terrorist Hezbollah and Hamas."Will lead to war?"  Iran is already fighting multi-front wars, none of which are defensive.  Iran is an international aggressor, working to expand its sphere of control.  The JCPOA improved Iran's economic position and is helping it finance its wars and efforts to destabilize neighbors.

Fourth, today NPR's All Things Considered had a knuckle-headed report attributing the Iranian missile attack on Israel and fearsome Israeli response to Trump's decision.  That's ridiculous.  February, March, and April saw multiple Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and attempted Iranian attacks on Israel.  (It turns our the Israelis are better at actually hitting their targets than the Iranians.)  After the 29 April strike that killed perhaps 18 Iranian soldiers, the Iranians claimed they'd respond heavily.  They tried, and hence the Israeli retaliation.  The Israel-Iran war was underway well before Trump's announcement.

In my previous post I advocated various military options.  I do not have classified intelligence reports, advice from military experts, and the like, so I'm not necessarily wedded to the specifics I suggested.  But the Islamic Republic of Iran is militant, expansionist, and totalitarian.  It needs to be eliminated and replaced with a free Persia.  This is long overdue.  The world can't wait.  Cancelling the JCPOA was a great move.

As John Pepple puts it, "Thank you, Mr. President!"

Addendum: I neglected to mention that the Iranian regime never signed onto JCPOA; rather, the Iranian parliament voted for its own version, containing things they'd added.  Hence the only "signatories" that matter, the United States and Iran, weren't really signatories.  The U.N Security Council and the E.U. both ratified it, so I guess it's binding on them.  It may as well be binding on the moons of Saturn, for all that matters.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Why people hate Trump: Iran edition

President Trump has kept yet another campaign promise, and cancelled the nuclear deal with Iran.  Good!  "We" at Unforeseen Contingencies fully approve.  The "deal" allowed Iran to preserve its nuclear program, advance its ballistic missile program, increase its oil and gas sales, and advance its expansionist agenda.  Obama avoided making this dreadful "deal" a treaty (because it was dreadful and unlikely to pass) and so Mr. Trump can unilaterally cancel it. 

The next step should be to shut Iran out of the SWIFT system.  Following that, give Iran an ultimatum: end all ballistic missile and nuclear development programs, and end their wars and proxy wars in Morocco, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.  Close the weapons plants in Syria.  Stop financing Hezbollah and Hamas.  And end any additional Iranian imperialism and support for terrorist groups.  Give them a reasonable amount of time, but make it the minimum.  In the case of any non-compliance, obliterate the oil and gas terminals at Kharg, and remind them that Tehran will be next.

Of course, it goes without saying that elitist "experts," kumbayah progressives, radical leftists, and post- modern libertarians ("libertarians" who virtue-signal by allying themselves with the left) are upset.  Donald Trump has done the unthinkable -- he's actually kept another campaign promise, and on top of that he's resisting a bad player as if we are the good guys!  So of course they hate him.

There's no reason at all to tolerate a regime such as the Iranian one.  It's totalitarian, expansionist, violent, and weak.  Now is the time to kick them while they are down.  Great work, Mr. President!

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The unfortunate Karl Marx: confused, dishonest, malignant

Apparently today is the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx.  And apparently the president of the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker, has celebrated by commemorating and defending Marx.  Comrade Juncker (there's an ironic and appropriate mouthful!) seems to think that just because Marxism has led to terror, butchery, and economic catastrophe everywhere it's been tried, that's no reason to blame Marx -- it's the fault of his followers.

Good grief.  Marxism is totalitarian, comrade Juncker.  It will always lead to terror, butchery, and economic catastrophe.  There's no alternative.

Marx himself seems to have been intelligent, well-read, and a damned fool.  He was a notorious plagiarist -- he stole a great deal from Joseph Proudhon, whom he simultaneously trashed.  His criticisms of others tended to be grossly unfair and he had no compunction about misrepresenting their views in order to attack them.  As Ludwig von Mises points out, Marx' primary "contribution" to socialist thought was his doctrine of polylogism, the bizarre idea that different "classes" (class itself is an undefined and amorphous term) have different consciousness and different logic -- hence the "proletarian" need not address the refutations of socialist dogma from the "bourgeois" economist, and can pretend it's all just class pleading.  That's an important "contribution" because socialist economic theory is a tissue of nonsense, and if a socialist grapples with a competent economist, the socialist will lose.

Marx is terrifically confused and intellectually dishonest on these points.  For a telling example, Marx was a proponent of the labor theory of value, yet just after laying out the theory in Das Kapital, he noted that exchange value necessarily fluctuates with demand, a contradiction that English economist Philip Wicksteed pointed out.  Marx was familiar with the subjective marginal utility theory of value -- probably from reading Menger or Jevons -- because he even notes it as the source of use value; but rather than draw the obvious connection between that and exchange value, he simply asserts that there's none.  He has to sidestep utility theory, because it destroys his preposterous theory of surplus value and his entire economic system.  Marx and his system predict that worker incomes shrink under capitalism; in fact, the greatest increases in individual income and wealth for the typical human being all have come from capitalism and the free market system.

Part of Marx's problem was his philosophical foundation in German idealist philosophy, and particularly the cockamamie ideas of the dialectic, from Schelling and Hegel.  As Mises puts it, these philosophers "expatiate on the Absolute as if it were their pocket watch," or in Ken Binmore's words, "they have no more access to the 'noumenal' world than does the boy who delivers your paper in the morning."  Somehow Marx -- a member of the bourgeoisie -- not only understood the world from a proletarian perspective (and understood better than the proletarians themselves, who didn't share his true proletarian consciousness), he is supposed to have had deep insight into process by which all human history unfolds.  Der Geist whispered into his ear, apparently.  Simply put, Marx's philosophy is all mystical fantasy, no more grounded in reality than Charles Fourier's dreams of lemonade oceans.  He just made it up.

The market system is a system of voluntary, cooperative behavior.  Because it is a system of voluntary exchange and protected rights, it generates mutually beneficial outcomes.  People are free to reject offers and arrangements that don't make them better off.  Socialists are people who cannot follow this and cannot get it into their heads that the world is not zero-sum.  They cannot imagine how it can be that the gain of one person doesn't come at the expense of another.  Socialism is, at root, a simple, primitive, shallow way of looking at the world, typically promoted with great prolixity.  Marxism is socialism's apotheosis.

The malignancy of Marx deserves some attention.  For all his claims of wanting to liberate the proletariat, his real driving force was a hatred of capitalism and an overwhelming self-conceit that he knew how the world should be run.  In his lifetime he could see rising living standards of workers; earlier economists, such as Adam Smith, had even documented this carefully, as had Marx's contemporaries such as Menger and Böhm-Bawerk, or for that matter Roscher.  But Marx ignored all this.  When one is concocting a utopia in one's head, facts are best ignored.  Reading Marx -- Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital -- one notices that his references to capitalists or members of the bourgeoisie are laced with venom; if you pay attention, you realize it really does seem that hatred and megalomania are what urge Marx on.  It is even more evident for his followers, because for them it's an enormous problem that workers actually become much better off under capitalism.  Hence the endless quest for other grounds for revolution, and the idiocies that emerge from the Frankfurt School and post-modernism.  If their motive was caring about workers, they'd abandon Marxism as a failed theory and promote capitalism.  (Some actually do this.)  But Marx's followers share the megalomania and the urge to construct utopias, even if it requires "breaking a few eggs" (i.e. killing recalcitrant human beings).

Marxism is a repugnant system of thought.  It is absurd philosophy and bad economics, and attempts to implement it involved snuffing 100 million human lives or more.  The man who invented it had read real economics and knew better.  I can understand lamenting the birthday of Karl Marx, but there's no reason to commemorate it.  The sooner the world forgets the ravings of this unfortunate, confused, vile scoundrel, the better off the world will be.

Photo: Statue of Marx is dismantled to make way for a new church.  Penza, Russian Federation, 2011.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Intellectual Property, part 1. Theory

Can ideas be property?  The (classical) liberal/libertarian position is ambiguous.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, denied that intellectual property is a natural right -- it's a grant of a legal right by society, or government -- and he seemed doubtful that it's an important institution.  Benjamin Franklin was a prodigious inventor, never patented anything, but noted that occasionally others took his ideas, patented them, and made monopoly profits.  On the other hand, Harriet Martineau, whose income -- her livelihood -- came solely from her writing, noted that copiers and plagiarists profited from her efforts while she, the creator, received nothing.

The great economist Ludwig von Mises observed that intellectual property (IP) differs from physical property, in that an idea can be shared without reducing the availability of the idea to the creator.  But if the creator of an idea can't share in the benefits generated from an idea, her/his incentive to create ideas is reduced.  Hence patent and copyright protection can be warranted, if they increase beneficial innovation.  In most places, such legal rights are not permanent, but last only a matter of years, giving a creator short term profits to recoup the investment.

Note that trademark, another form of IP, is different.  Trademark is a certification of the source or producer of a product, important if the producer has a reputation (another ephemeral IP of sorts) or guarantee of quality.  This can be a life-or-death matter.  I cannot find a news link, but some years back counterfeit Johnson & Johnson surgical membranes from China made it into hospitals and were implanted in patients.  Unlike authentic J&J materials, the membranes slowly decomposed into toxic chemicals, and by the time this was detected, it was too late to save the patients, who were condemned to slow, agonizing deaths.

My own position on IP is nuanced.  It seems to me that trademarks are perfectly legitimate.  They are simply contractual guarantees and really not an example of IP at all.  But they require that words and symbols.  Rolex, for example, is a trademark that says a great deal about the watch bearing it, and a cheap Chinese copy that says "Rolex" is not the same thing.  Of course, trademarks require that certain words (e.g. Kleenex, Xerox, Band-aid) and symbols be off-limits to competitors.  If one could trademark a word or phrase already in common usage, that would be problematic, hence trademarks must usually be newly concocted, for the purpose at hand.  (Someone tried to trademark one of Montana's mottos, "Big Sky Country," and charge royalties for use, an obvious abuse of the trademark idea.  They failed.)  Conclusion: trademarks are perfectly acceptable.

With respect to patents, I'm in line with Mises: what are the tradeoffs?  In areas where it is likely that innovation requires substantial investment, patent protection is likely to be more important for inducing innovation.  Pharmaceutical research is especially expensive, and it's certainly of high value when successful, so patent protection seems warranted.  The research costs are substantially increased by government regulation, but even without that, developing new chemical formulations that work is difficult.  It's hard to determine efficacy.  It's hard to determine unwanted side effects. It's hard to determine whether an efficacious treatment is effective.  Alternatively, new software is often not so expensive to develop, and many people are willing to undertake development, often just for the sake of doing it, e.g. R statistics environment and contributed statistical packages.  (Yes, the best statistical software in the world is free.  It's just ideas, and the developers willingly relinquish any property in them.)  Thus patents make sense, if the benefit-cost tradeoff is made sensibly.

Copyright is similarly ambiguous.  Large corporate music producers act as if downloading of music is among the most heinous crimes imaginable, while simultaneously paying performers as little as possible.  That sort of rent-seeking is beside the point, though.  What are the benefit-cost tradeoffs for copyright and development of new music?  It's unclear to me that pop commercial music is superior to homegrown, homemade stuff.  I cannot imagine what the loss in innovation would be if Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, the late plagiarist Michael Jackson, or George "My Sweet Lord" Harrison hadn't had copyrights to make them millions.  I know far too many people who can concoct a catchy tune, or do justice to musical instrument or voice.  Homegrown, live music is ubiquitous.  Music can be improvised, songs made up on the spot.  On the other hand, of course, there's higher, more complex, sophisticated symphonic music, which takes time and great effort to compose.  Giuseppe Verdi did not receive copyrights on most of his works.  But once he finally did, and consistent royalties began, his productivity plummeted.  Oops.  (Note: clicking the link will download a pdf from Harvard Kennedy School.  The author of the linked article points out that Verdi's financial success still may have induced creative innovation by other composers; still, the evidence is that the music blossomed most in places without copyright.)

Written words are different yet.  There's a great difference between an unauthorized performance of "Happy Birthday to You" and publishing a bootleg copy of a novel that perhaps someone took years to write.  This ambiguity explains why copyrights and patents are not natural rights, and why they might reasonably be temporary legal rights.

Next... Part 2. China, Intellectual Property, and U.S. Trade Policy

Quick update

There are many things screaming for comment these days -- the insane yammering for gun control, the left's war against Trump, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Syria, China, Gaza, and other matters.  I have insights, I just don't have time to do them justice. ("You really want a civil war?, fire Mueller, bomb, bomb, sanction, bomb, beats me, IDF should stay the course.")  (Not sure what to do about other matters.)

There's just no way to comment on all the current events that deserve comment, and instead I'll try to return focus to issues that are more in line with economics and philosophy, as in the upcoming (above) post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Armed citizens are safer than disarmed citizens...

...although technically, the disarmed populace should be called subjects or serfs, since their freedoms are subject to the permission of their armed government masters.

Anyway, a few years ago Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership published a short piece, "18 Little-Known Gun Facts That Prove That Guns Make Us Safer," and it is well worth rereading.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

More on the sad state of the libertarian movement: immigration

A libertarian friend of mine has objected to my complaints about the sad state of the libertarian movement.   He argues that what's happening is that libertarianism is expanding in acceptance, and that as more people adopt the ideas, there are necessarily a few more kooks, and I'm just picking up the kooks, the outliers.  I'm skeptical.  I don't know if libertarianism is expanding in acceptance, but I definitely don't think I'm simply highlighting outliers; my previous post seems to me to focus on important, high-profile libertarians.  Maybe they are outliers, but if so, they in are highly influential positions.

My friend particularly took issue with my characterization of Cato's "Immigration Expert" (Cato's words), Alex Nowrasteh, and sent me a video of Nowrasteh speaking at a small midwestern college.  Eventually I will watch the thing, but I've read a lot of Nowrasteh's stuff and found it quite shallow. In the stuff I've read, Nowrasteh makes empirical claims that are doubtful at best, and logical inferences that don't hold.  This is a good case study of why I think too many of today's libertarian spokesmen are bad representatives of libertarianism.  Here are two examples from Nowrasteh's writing.

1. During 2015 ("Syrian" refugee invasion of Europe) he argued for the U.S. taking in numbers of  "Syrian" refugees similar to Germany.  (That's one million or more; I use quotation marks because according to Eurostat, only a plurality of the immigrants were actually Syrian.  Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa were all important sources.) That is, libertarian Nowrasteh proposed that the United States take in and settle one million unvetted and unvettable "Syrians." 

There are so many ways in which that's a bad idea it's hard to count them. But let's look at a few.

 i. Daesh and Al Qaeda both infiltrated these groups.  Presumably it's bad for liberty to bring squads of Islamist terrorists into the country, right?

ii. The "Syrian" refugees were all Muslims from traditional societies.  Overwhelming majorities in these societies favor things such as sharia as the basis of all law, death or other severe penalties for apostasy and blasphemy, etc.  They don't accept equal rights for women, and they don't think much of gay rights either.  Bring in one person who believes this nonsense and he'll likely cave in and adopt local customs and ideas.  Bring in one million en masse, have them settled by lefty social workers who feed them the multiculturalist line that "assimilation is racism" and they'll demand everyone else accommodate them.  That's bad for liberty, right?

iii. The "Syrian" refugees who entered Germany had lower levels of education than the average German, and it turns out that a year of Syrian education isn't equivalent to a year of German education -- it's worse.   The refugees prove to be relatively unproductive and in need of substantial taxpayer support.  In the United States, refugees are supported by the HHS Office of Refugee Settlement, which provides taxpayer funds for housing, education, health care, auto purchases, spending money, etc.  That's bad for liberty, right?  Yes, bad for the productive people paying taxes, that is, for Americans.

There -- three good reasons for opposing bringing in one million unvetted Muslim refugees.  Terrorists would infiltrate, this would be one million people who oppose libertarianism and Western liberalism, and they'd require substantial subsidy from taxpayers.  

2. Nowrasteh is one of the people who have made and promoted the "bathtub argument" fallacy (one is 1000 times more likely to die falling in bathtub than from terrorism, so concerns about terrorism from unvetted refugees are overblown).  I might be mistaken, but I think he's even something of a pioneer in this line of foolishness. It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous argument, or more inept use of statistical reasoning.   Again, just a few reasons:

i. Bathtubs are not plotting to raise their death count.  Terrorists are.

ii. Death counts from terrorism would be much higher, except that we spend billions and take all sorts of interdiction measures.

iii. Each of us can effectively controls our exposure to bathtub risk.  If one is worried, non-slip mats, safety rails, and even avoiding bathtubs are within one's power.  But if the government listens to Nowrasteh and opens the borders to anyone, no questions asked, or if the government settles a large number of irritable foreigners next to us, what are we to do?

iv. The fallacy confuses physical phenomena, mere physical causality, with teleology.  Terrorism is purposeful.  Any human being understands the difference between accidentally bashing your head in, and having someone bashing your head in for you.  Nowrasteh apparently doesn't... that is, when other people are involved, of course.  He's doing analysis that might be suitable for a "society" of homo economici, or robots, but not for human beings.

v. Along these lines, death toll isn't even the right measure for effects of terror.  Terrorism is a political tool; it is designed to shape political behavior, and death toll is besides the point.  It's designed to scare survivors and change their behavior, and it works.  No MSM outlet will print the Danish cartoons. Charlie Hebdo stopped printing Mohammed cartoons.  Bathtub accidents don't change our institutions or threaten our freedom.  Terrorism does.

vi. There's a second reason death toll isn't the right measure.  Successful terrorism destroys Trade Centers, shuts down subway systems, closes tunnels, knocks out electrical grids, and even unsuccessful terrorism can shut down transport systems.  Bathtub accidents don't.

Bathtubs don't kill people, but terrorists do, Alex.

OK, but I agree, any single person such as Nowrasteh, is beside the point. It's the overall pattern I'm seeing that disturbs me. It disturbs me when I hear libertarians dismiss people who disagree with the open borders line as nativists or racists or statists or just ignorant folks who ought to worry more more about bathtubs... that bothers me. To me, it means libertarians have lost interest in dealing with real world problems, at least in any genuinely reasonable way.

Here's another example - Dr. Chandran Kukathas  (LSE political scientist, department head, libertarian, who occasionally works w Cato, IHS, etc.) wrote a piece reposted by FEE arguing that immigration control logically implies setting up internal controls to monitor and control everyone in a country, citizen and non-citizen alike, and compared it to South Africa during apartheid.  (I previously discussed this here.)

OK.  I just wanted to think about how we might stop Hezbollah assassins or Daesh bombing teams from entering the country.  Suddenly I'm told that therefore, logically I'm promoting 24/7 monitoring of every citizen, internal passports and checkpoints, etc.  And the only alternative is completely open borders? There's no middle ground? 

If I am skeptical of bringing in one million "Syrian" refugees, that's equivalent to sending a boatload of Jewish refugees back to death camps in Nazi Germany?  (So said David Bier, at the time with the Niskanen Center, but subsequently hired by Cato as an "expert," as their site puts it.)

One can respond that Kukathas or Nowrasteh & Bier are outliers (Nowrasteh & Bier are the two people Cato lists as their immigration experts). Fine.  I'm willing to accept that argument, although they seem pretty high profile for outliers, but let's grant that.  So then who are the reasonable middle ground libertarians on this?  It's not a rhetorical question.  I've asked my friend, and I'll see how he responds.

That's just one issue, but it's a good example of why recent libertarians have often bothered me, and why I doubt they really care about liberty.  

That makes sense, doesn't it?  Comments welcome.

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