Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Bit of Clarification

After writing my last post("The Problem of Established Perspectives"), I realized it could be seen as contradicting many things I wrote before. So, rather than allow that perception to stand, I thought I would try to clear up the apparent contradictions between my last post and my earlier writing.

I think the largest issue is with my prior arguments in favor of tradition and of slow, gradual change. After writing that, it may seem that, in arguing that we should be ready to completely break with current practice, I am arguing against my earlier positions. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The easiest way to clear up this confusion is to consider separately goals and means. Goals are, obviously, the end one eventually hopes to reach, while means are the series of steps one hopes to take to get there. Thus, in my mind, I am arguing that, while most people seem rather rigid in setting goals which are shaped by present conditions, we need to consider goals which are radically different from the present. On the other hand, unlike many who espouse radical goals, I believe the path to those goals, the means, should be a series of slow, gradual changes, allowing us to evaluate the results more sensibly, and see what side effects arise.

Of course, that is not the whole picture, things are never that simple. While I do advocate considering the possibility of radical breaks with the current approach, I also recognize that any change also has costs, and, in some cases, the cost of change is not worth the small gain. Thus, while I consider radical changes, I also must add some weight to maintaining the status quo, since in so doing we introduce the least uncertainty and incur the lowest costs. Of course, in some cases, the status quo is so detrimental, or the change sufficiently beneficial, that such weighting will be meaningless (and most of the cases I mentioned in my essay strike me as such cases), but we need to consider each individually.

However, even in cases where the current situation is damaging, or where there is considerable benefit to a change, I would continue to argue that we not abandon our present system wholesale, or charge into a drastic change, as, even with a bad current situation, there exists every possibility that making drastic and sudden changes we may actually make things worse, while, by making slow, small changes, there is every possibility of making small adjustments, removing any unforeseen complications that might arise.

I hope this has helped to make my ideas a bit more clear. I always worry when I fail to explain such things that I am giving the wrong impression.

The Problem of Established Perspectives

NOTE: I had planned to write more during my two weeks of vacation, but a number of other matters have kept me from writing as much as I had hoped. Still, I am trying to get at least some of my writing completed. This essay is a completely new thought, inspired in part by my responses to CW's comments, but after this, I do hope to wrap up the many partially finished essays I promised in "Upcoming Posts - May 18, 2015" and "Coming Attractions - 2015, June 13".

It has occurred to me -- recently, but also several times in the past -- that many of our political ideas are shaped far too strongly by what we see about us. That is, our ideas about what is possible, what is impossible, and most important, what is right, are based, not so much upon theories, or logical assessments, but simply upon what is being done at present, or, in a few cases, what was done in the recent past. In other  words, existing circumstances, or recent history, shape our political views much more than any other influence.

There are numerous examples, from all areas of government, as we shall see shortly, but let us start with some examples where the established perspective is held by a smaller subset of the population, that is, where enough people see the established system as troubling that there is a chance that the average reader will see how the claims made are based, not in fact, but in intellectual inertia which sees the current situation as the only possible solution.

Let us start, then, with welfare programs. Whenever these programs are attacked, the claim is made by those who support them -- and even by a fair number of those who don't have strong opinions in either direction -- that eliminating these programs will leave people starving in the streets, dying for lack of medical care and otherwise suffering horrible privation. A few of these may be motivated by some personal agenda, but, by and large, there is little reason to doubt that most truly believe what they are saying. Looking at the welfare system that exists today, seeing it as the natural and sensible way of solving various problems, they honestly cannot conceive of its elimination resulting in anything other than the horrors they describe.

Unfortunately for those holding such beliefs, the great society is recent enough that historical evidence exists to undermine such claims. Prior to the institution of medicare/medicaid, for example, there was no mass exclusion of the poor from medical care, charitable care was, in fact, more common than today. You can see this in the case being made for Medicare/Medicaid. It was not proposed to eliminate a lack of care, but instead to eliminate the stigma of asking for charity. In short, even then, no one claimed care was lacking, just that it was embarrassing to have to ask for free care. So, why would we think, were we to revert to the pre-Medicare/Medicaid system, suddenly the world would be different, and people would die in the streets?

Similarly, monetary aid is a relatively new invention, at least on a federal level. And even state aid is not exactly an age old institution. However, looking at history, it seems, when there was no government aid available, there was quite a lot of private aid available. Perhaps not as much as the state provides, but still, various ethnic and religious groups tended to band together to support their own, and other charities, funded by everyone from affluent businessmen to those taking contributions from among the poorest of immigrants, put together aid for the poor, with or without various conditions. Doubtless it was not as constant as government aid, it was not a reliable monthly check, but then again, that may in fact be a plus. If you can count on a regular check for doing nothing, it tends to make you continue in poverty, while aid that is less consistent and reliable may provide you with a little relief, but the uncertainty also motivates you to move along and find a way to support yourself. (And, of course, all of this also ignores the larger role families played in supporting their own, when they knew there was no state aid to take the burden off them.)

Now, some may argue that this is all obvious, but hardly shows that established conditions blind us as to possibilities, after all, this example also has a strong component of political ideology. So, let me look at a second example, public education. Or, to be precise, public education as a government function.

I have to make this distinction, as many arguments in favor of public education lump together two very different circumstances and treat them as the same. You see, an activity can be undertaken by the citizens of a town, for example, and yet not be a government action. For example, if everyone in a town organizes a Halloween party, is that a government activity? Of course not. And similarly, many historic schools were funded by voluntary collection and administered by an elected board, selected by those who contributed, but that does not make them government schools, even if the pool of contributors was identical to the pool of voters.

Some may ask why I bother to make this distinction. The answer being that, thanks to our current system, we have a tendency to think of all education in terms of government, but that perspective is actually what results in so much trouble. You see, there is a difference between taking a collection and coercive taxation, or between a school made available for all who wish to attend and a school with mandatory attendance enforced by law. And the difference between the two is significant, yet both types are often called "public schools" in history books, and the difference is lost, leading us to think only the tax funded, mandatory, state controlled schools are possible, that all public education, all efforts to provide any sort of free schooling, must be run by today's system and no other. And thus, whenever I argue against public schooling, everyone responds that I must want only the rich to learn to read, or some other nonsense, ignoring the historical fact that even in the middle ages many guilds, townships and others sponsored schools for --if not the whole public -- at least the children of guild members, or townspeople of a certain class. If that was possible during a quite impoverished era such as the middle ages, why would we not be able to voluntarily provide schooling for all who want it today? Especially if the overhead and waste of government management were removed? Yet, again, because we are blinded by our present system, everyone imagines the choice is between state run and funded schools or some system where only the rich can add and read.

Another example can be found in our attitude toward banks and money. Thanks to the victory of those who favored centralized, state run banking, the "State Banking System" that predominated after the Civil War eventually grew into the Federal Reserve System, eventually even divorcing the concept of money from that of precious metals, or anything else of inherent value. Yet, because we have become used tot his system, and have been told repeatedly that the old system did not work (largely without any historical proof), any proposal to return to a gold backed currency, much less elimination of the Federal Reserve or privatization of banks, is treated as a fringe belief, something inherently impossible.

Yet the evidence all points the other way. The Fed was created to ensure "continual growth" and "end the boom-bust cycle". Of course, the "boom-bust cycle" only existed because of the State Banking System and its predecessors in the two Banks of the United States, and thus was a result of intervention, not the free market, but that claim went unchallenged, even as the creation of the Fed was met with the worst depression in our history, followed, to this day, by an ever accelerating cycle of boom and recession or depression. Even without these crises, the fact remains that during our short periods of free banking, there was a supposedly impossible phenomenon, falling prices coupled with rising real wages, while, ever since the Fed has been in existence, there has been nothing but continual inflation, eroding our savings, undercutting faith in our currency and generally increasing uncertainty in our economy. And yet, whenever one questions this system, the immediate response is that any alternative is a certain disaster. This is, perhaps, the best example of a case where our current circumstances blind us to any alternative.

Let us move on to another example, our current liability laws. I will admit, the cases which led to the first changes in our laws were problematic. The original attacks on caveat emptor were based on real problems, cases where the new mass production economy, and new methods of mass sales led to a few bad situations. However, the problems were not impossible to solve, once the public was aware of this sort of problem, there would inevitably been a backlash in the market, with people insisting on contracts providing more protection, or else paying premiums and favoring sellers who offered such, and thus the system of caveat emptor would have reformed itself, with the principle remaining untouched, yet the market adjusting contracts and seller behavior. However, as it was an era of activist government, and the first gasps of the modern attitude demanding immediate government action when any problem arose, the market was not given time to correct itself, the government dove in with both feet and began making changes, changes which led, inevitably, to the broken system we have today, where liability is almost inevitable for any manufacturer or seller, where certain professions are almost driven out of business by expansive views of liability. And yet, whenever the suggestion is made to consider reforming the system, returning to a more stable system, perhaps even allowing for the primacy of contract (which is all caveat emptor truly is), these too are rejected as impossible and certain to bring disaster.

I could go on, and likely will at some later time, but I think I have made my case, at least laid the groundwork. I am leaving home again tomorrow for several days, so I doubt I will write more for a while, but when I return I will try to return to this topic, perhaps look at a few more examples, and offer up some thoughts on why this issue arises, and what can be done about it.

POSTSCRIPT

For those interested in my earlier writing on these topics, the following links may be of interest:

Government Health Care-"High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government"
Public Schools-"Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "A Few Thoughts on Charter Schools"
Gold Standard/Banking-"Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money? ", "What Is A Dollar?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Bad Economics Part 19","Fiscal Discipline", "Putting the Bull in Bull Market", "Why Gold?".
Caveat Emptor-"You've Come a Long Way, Baby!","Consumer Protection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Guns and Drugs","Contracts and Freedom", "In Praise of Contracts"
The Free Market-"Greed Versus Evil", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Triumph of Good", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Planning for Imperfection", "Misunderstanding the Market", "How to Blame the Free Market", "How to Blame the Free Market Part II", "Contracts and Freedom", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "In Praise of Contracts", "Third Best Economy"
Activist Government (General)-"Consumer Protection", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "For Your Own Good", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans" "On the Side of the Angels... Yet Completely Wrong", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "In a Nutshell", "Inconsistent Understanding",
The Historical Growth of Regulation-"The Political Spectrum", "A Timeline Part One", "A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial"
Government Minimalism-"Minimal Reforms", "The Case for Small Government", "Never Ascribe to Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "In Loco Parentis", "Harming Society", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Another Look at Exploitation", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "The Magic Bureaucrat", "Inconsistent Understanding", "Of Wheat and Doctors", "A Few Passing Thoughts", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est"

I am sure I only scratched the surface with the links provided, but hopefully they will provide at least a rough picture of my thoughts on each issue.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Common Sense, Guns and Regulations

I have a feeling this one is going to get me a few arguments, as the conclusions I draw will be in part acceptable, and in part unacceptable, to those reading it. And, more than that, my efforts to show how "common sense" is a worthless standard -- since were it truly "common" it would not need to be written into law -- tend to fall on deaf ears. Still, I shall try to make my case once more*.

When it comes to gun laws, it seems even many who generally oppose restrictions on gun ownership are taken in by compromise measures, often sold as "common sense restrictions." The most notable example being the NRA eventually giving in on background checks, and arguing only for instant checks rather than a waiting period**. I understand the motive there, the idea that some sort of check was inevitable and so they would accept the least onerous version, but it still meant that the group most vocal in opposition to restrictions had suddenly given its approval to a nationwide system of background checks, with all that implies.

Nor is that the only such compromise with gun control advocates on supposed common sense measures. For example, many supposed conservatives have accepted waiting periods, restrictions on monthly purchases,limits on the number of guns owned and so on. And taken in isolation, in the context of everyday ordinary life, any one of these arguments may sound sensible. After all, why would someone need to buy more than one gun a month? Or own more than a half dozen guns? Why would you not be able to wait a week?

The problem is that rules are absolute, one size fits all, and, while "common sense" may be perfectly adequate for 95% of life, in that other 5%, the fact that there is an absolute rule, allowing no exceptions, can make things very uncomfortable. For example, the argument who needs more than 5 guns suddenly rings hollow when there is a serial rapist in your town and you have five daughters and a wife. As does the argument that no one needs to buy more than one gun a month (unless you want to decide which child you like best). The same for waiting periods, as the rapist doesn't have to wait a week before attacking.

Now, some will say "but how often does that happen?" And they are right, these are unusual, rare cases. That is precisely why these common sense restrictions can often gain the force of law, because the exceptions are unusual. However, when it is you, and that unusual exception comes up, it can be very costly.

Of course, the other side of the argument is also never mentioned, that, no matter how rare the costs of the laws, they might be justified if the laws provide sufficient benefit. So, just how beneficial are these laws?

Well, on a practical, immediate level, it seems hard to claim much benefit. The cities with the most harsh gun laws (Washington DC, New York City, Baltimore, etc) also seem to lead the nation in crimes of violence, especially those using guns. It is tempting to argue that by disarming the populace, the laws give a tremendous advantage to those criminals who are armed, making gun crime more frequent rather than less, but, of course, finding evidence for that position is difficult. Still, the fact remains, strict gun laws seem to have little benefit in terms of crime numbers.

And logically one must ask how well the laws would protect against the most commonly mentioned ills. Criminals, for example, most often obtain guns through illicit means, which makes all of these laws irrelevant, not to mention that, being criminals, they are hardly scared of criminal penalties. And if they are willing to risk life in jail for murder, then what is another few years -- if that -- for gun possession?

Then there are the other limits, which, even if criminals bought guns legally, seem to be pointless. Most criminals, with a few exceptions, rarely use more than one gun, making limits on buying irrelevant. Similarly, criminals are not on a schedule, and so, though inconvenient, a waiting period would mean nothing to them.

Moving outside of traditional criminals, how well do the gun laws prevent the other supposed ills? For example, suicides, or crimes of passion?

Obviously, limits on numbers of guns and purchases will not make much difference for a suicide, as suicide never takes more than a single gun. Nor would it matter for the run of the mill crime of passion, where the victims are usually singular, or, at most a handful of household members. I suppose, in those very rare*** cases where we face a Columbine type event, the limits would have some effect, though, since these events are often planned for some time, the monthly purchase limit would matter little. And, with a little ingenuity, especially in the case of events with more than one actor, the total purchase limit too can be foiled easily enough.

The only case one could make would be that the waiting period might provide some benefit, as those who did not yet own guns would need to wait and may get over the sadness or anger that inspired them. But, even if we concede that point, there are two problems with that argument. First, that it assumes one does not already own a gun. Second, that the individual, once calmed down will not buy the gun, or, if they do will never be upset again. And that seems unlikely. Someone who is prone to suicidal thoughts, or fits of rage, is probably going to have those feelings more than once, so, if they attempt to buy a gun in a fit of passion or despair, and calm down before it is obtained, it is still quite probable that, having obtained the gun, they will sooner or later experience the same feelings, making the waiting period, at best, a means of delaying things.

All of which suggests to me that there is quite marginal immediate benefit to these laws, while there exists the probability of cases where very real harm comes about as the result of such laws. But, that is not the whole story.  For by implementing such laws, not only do we bring about the obvious harm, but we also create some precedents which are quite dangerous for society as a whole.

First, by creating the legal principle that objects, in themselves, can create crimes -- as is the basic premise of the idea that guns are so inherently dangerous that they must be regulated -- we also endorse two related premises. The first premise being that those who commit such crimes might not be to blame. Granted, our law has not yet gone so far with guns, but we have in the realm of drugs, using the same logic to argue that, in effect, "the devil made them do it", with drug addicts guilty of petty crime blaming it entirely on the drugs and often being "sentenced" to treatment rather than jail, completely ignoring that countless people have used drugs and never committed other crimes****. It also creates, as its second premise, an environment where we believe that, should we simply ban or regulate the right things, we can create utopia. Besides feeding into the "government as Swiss Army knife" philosophy, that laws can solve all problems, it also tends to distract us from truly effective solutions, such as meaningful periods of incarceration, societal pressure to avoid crime and so on, and instead tends to focus us on attacking "issues", banning things rather than trying to stop criminals.

The other problem is, by turning our attention to the inanimate object supposedly causing these problems, we tend to overlook the real causes, and neglect taking simple and obvious steps to resolve them. For instance, many cities with stringent gun control laws have more gun violence than comparable cities with less rigid restrictions. Some take this to mean that gun control in itself -- perhaps by disarming the public -- contributes to crime. I am not going to go that far, though there is likely some truth in it, but it certainly is not the entire picture. On the other hand, gun control advocates take this continued gun violence as evidence they have not gone far enough, or that the lax laws of neighboring states have allowed gun violence to bleed over into their city. What they never consider is that, as cities with rigid gun control also tend to adopt other rather liberal approaches to criminal justice, that perhaps the increase in gun violence, and crime in general, may have something to do with lax sentencing, comfortable prisons, lack of stigma attached to criminal charges and similar situations. By convincing themselves guns are the sole -- or at least most significant -- cause of violent crime, they completely ignore the possibility of other causes. (And, needless to say, certainly would never consider the previously mentioned arguments that gun control itself may have unexpected consequences.)

Given all of this, I would argue that the laws themselves, far from doing an adequate job preventing crime or accidental harm*****, instead at best leave things the same as they would be without such laws, and more likely create an environment where more harm is done rather than less. Given that they are without clear benefit, and that even the most "common sense" measures can create situations that may be harmful in some circumstances, there seems to be little justification for these laws, and certainly none for nominal opponents to concede the benefit of these supposed "moderate" common sense measures.

As I feel this principle applies to many more types of regulation than simple gun laws, I shall try to make my case in more general terms. A measure may seem a common sense restriction, may seem "harmless enough", may prevent activities that seem unimportant or irrelevant, but only because you either are not imagining all possible circumstances, or else because you are forgetting there are others who value things differently than you do (cf "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights" and "The Case for Small Government"). As I wrote before, there are many who place no value on religion, and so would see no harm in banning any given faith. It does not matter to them. However, that does not make such laws valid, or common sense, it simply points out there are different ways of valuing things.

And that is the failure of most regulation. It is, inevitably, a one size fits all answer, and the world does not work well with such rules. When you place blanket restrictions, or mandate uniform behavior, inevitably there are those who are inconvenienced, upset or outright mortified by your rules. In some cases, you may even put them at risk of harm or death through failing to consider certain possibilities. Of course, that does not, in itself, make such rules invalid. Our criminal laws likely go against the wishes of some people as well, but the protection of rights is essential to social existence, and thus outweighs my desire to throttle my neighbor or steal from my boss. (See "A Rational Approach to Punishment", "Fair or Functional?", "Killing and the State" and "The Wages of Sin" for an explanation of why I believe it actually is rational even for those who do have such desires.) As this should show, sometimes we must impose a one size fits all regulation as the benefit far outweighs the harm, as in the case of our criminal laws. But, for the most part, this is not the case of most of our regulation, which, at the cost of much lost productivity, much stifled satisfaction, often, at best, makes some people feel good about making others do the right thing.

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* For previous arguments about common sense, see "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions".

** Some may wonder why I oppose the NRA on this, and my opposition is twofold. First, that the NRA accepted not only background checks, but national background checks, and the implication that the federal government had an interest in firearm regulation, which seems to gut the second amendment pretty thoroughly, as well as invalidating any state constitutional protections. Second, because even something as seemingly unintrusive and modest as a background check implies the government has a right to regulate arms ownership, in direct contradiction to the second amendment. I know there are many who think background checks are common sense and so on, but as I shall show, a lot of common sense is such only until circumstances make it no longer so. Unfortunately, once enshrined in law, there is no longer the option of adjusting to circumstances.

*** It is funny gun control advocates often dismiss self defense scenarios as too rare to consider, yet they use the much, much more rare events of Columbine or so-called "family destroyers" who murder their entire families, making it sound as if they are common but using a gun against a threatening ex is a rarity. It is not exactly an honest argument.

**** It is absurd to assume drugs somehow cause crimes. They no more cause crimes than drinking, gambling, a fondness for women or expensive cars or fancy clothes. All of the above can involve uncontrolled spending and considerable debt, and people have used all of the above -- and more -- as excuses for their crimes. The truth is, many more people engage in one or more of these practices, including drug use, without feeling the need to commit crimes. Drugs, like drinking, gambling, or anything else, may provide those predisposed to criminality with a convenient excuse, but it is not one we should accept, lest we create a situation where drug use becomes an effective "get out of jail free" card. (See "The Drug Addiction Excuse".)

***** I am ignoring one additional issue. Once guns become objects of shame, something the law treats as inherently suspect and harmful, many people become uncomfortable having anything to do with guns. However, the problem this entails is that it makes people unfamiliar with gun handling and safety. In the past, when guns were more commonly owned and not treated as suspect, more people handled them regularly and understood safe practices. With guns becoming less familiar to most people, the probability of an accident due to lack of familiarity increases.

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NOTE: I began this essay quite some time ago, and picked it up only recently to complete. I did read what I had written earlier several times, and did my best to make it flow as if written in a single sitting, but I always worry when resuming writing after such a lengthy gap that either I have forgotten my original point, or perhaps simply overlooked some significant argument I intended to make but since forgot, or, at best, that the style simply fails to flow and it is obvious to all that there is a break somewhere in the middle of the work. So, if any of these apply, I do apologize.

On Vacation

I am afraid I may not be posting much for the next two weeks, as I am taking my annual vacation. Well, actually, two vacations. For a few days, starting Saturday, I will be in New England, returning sometime next weekend. Then I will be taking my son to the beach for the next week, coming back around July 4th. I am taking my laptop, so I may still post if the mood strikes me and time allows, but I don't anticipate a large amount of writing.

Still, please check back next weekend, at least, as I will probably write something during the few days I am home between trips.

Confirmation, Again

I was reading an article tonight about Dr. Trenberth in 2011 and his response to "Climategate". In the course of that talk, he claimed the flooding at that time in Australia was due to AGW. There is an interesting comment following the article:

As a Queenslander, I am appalled that this fellow conveniently ignores the fact that there was nothing extreme about the recent floods. As readers of this blog know, 1974 was a much bigger rain event in Brisbane. But even it was dwarfed by the 1893 floods. 
The problem with the floods this year has been the development of expensive housing and offices on the river flood plains. In 1974, the areas flooded were largely industrial. Sure, the city and residential areas were also flooded and it was a huge disaster. But it didn’t cost anywhere near as much in dollar terms as the recent floods. 
It is the economic cost that is extraordinary this time. It has nothing to do with the weather or climate. It has everything to do with local planning laws, expensive residential developments in flood prone areas and the management of the Wivenhoe Dam. 
Dr Trenberth has no credibility.

What makes this interesting is it points out something I mentioned in both "The World's Most Stupid Bureaucrat" and "Welfare For Malibu Residents", many of our AGW proponents talk about "the worst flood ever" and similar things, but do so IN TERMS OF COST. Well, if land is developed which previously was not, or new expensive construction goes up (especially in the US where flood insurance encourages such foolishness), then the economic scale of floods will increase, even though the flood itself may be the same scale, or even smaller than previous ones. Thus, we are basing these estimates of "ever worse flooding" on measurements which are largely meaningless. (Not to mention that many places, such as Australia, have only been settled in recent times, and much development is in areas previously not regularly observed, and thus we have no idea what the scale of previous floods were.)

NOTE: This phenomenon is similar to the increase in disability I discussed in "Peanut Butter and Disability", obesity in "Twice in a Row" or the rise in autism I mentioned in "Statistical Artifacts". By measuring things using a shifting proxy, or by defining your target in unusual ways, it is very easy to find anything you want. And, sadly, in many cases, it is not even real dishonesty, those finding these misleading results have deluded themselves, or been deluded by following the practices of those who are knowingly dishonest.

UPDATE (2016/06/18): Actually, it just struck me that the confusion between known reserves and absolute amounts that lies at the heart of most "peak oil" nonsense is another symptom of the same sort of mistake as well. See "A Brief Comment on Oil", "A Thought on Oil Reserves", "Why I Doubt Peak Oil Predicitons", "Why Peak Oil is Laughable", "Rejecting "Peak Oil"", "Greed and the Price of Oil" and "The Consumption Curve".

Snide Comment of the Night

Insomnia keeps awaking me, so i decided to post something that had been in my thoughts lately. In a number of advertisements for various sorts of homeopathic or herbal snake oil, one will hear the claim that modern medicine is all about "burning, cutting and poisoning", that all modern medicines are "artificial" and "toxic", and that whatever nonsensical panacea is being advertised is "all natural, so it can't hurt you." This has to be the most absurd claim made by medical primitivists, that if something is "natural" (and if something does not come from nature, where does it come from? Another universe? I could argue everything on Earth is "all natural"), then it cannot do harm.

Have these people never heard of Socrates? That hemlock cocktail he sipped as his last act (well penultimate act, according to Plato he rambled on something fierce after quaffing his toxic nightcap), that was "all natural". So is belladonna. So is trumpet vine. So is jimson weed. So are the venoms of cobras and black widows and brown recluse spiders and mambas. For that matter, arsenic comes out of the earth in pretty pure form, so it is as "natural" as those crystals they wear or the "natural" minerals they promote.

So, by what possible twist of logic can anyone argue that because something is "all natural" (whatever that may mean), that it is therefore harmless? I might as well claim "it's blue, so it can't hurt you", it makes just as much sense.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some Thoughts on Medicine

I have two thoughts that struck me today. (I will explain the background later, when I am in a more even tempered frame of mind. Suffice it to say that, due to circumstances, I was forced to change doctors once again, and all the ills of pain management I described in "Standing By My Principles", "Who Does it Harm?", "It Doesn't Matter to ME..." and "Morbus non Gratus" have come back to haunt me once again.)

First, it has struck me how, thanks to our strange system, where insurance is ubiquitous and prescription requirements make doctors the gatekeepers to required medicines, we have produced some odd and unforeseen side effects. I was speaking to my son about this, and it struck me just how much the current system forces us to treat doctors not as employees or contractors we hire to see to our health (as they truly are), but as masters we pay to get what we need. For example, twice now, I have had pain doctors basically accuse me of being a "drug seeker" (more on that later), treat me in a condescending way and generally act in a way I would not tolerate from anyone, but, because I need medicine to remain pain free and working, I have to accept it. Even if I told them what I think, when I went to the next doctor, he would request my records, and the last condescending doctor's opinion would be there, tainting things and making my next doctor see me in the same light. (I used to laugh at the Seinfeld episode where Elaine wanted to remove the description "difficult" from her medical record. Now I find it a bit disturbingly realistic.)

Or, there were the many times in the past when my pain prescription changed, and the pharmacy refused to fill the new one because my old one had not run out and insurance would not pay. I told them I would pay out of pocket, yet, because insurance said no, in every case, they continued to refuse to fill it.

Nor is it just prescription medicine, though that area is particularly troublesome because not only do doctors have inordinate power as gatekeepers, but they have mixed messages coming to them, as their medical opinion is second guessed by government drug regulators (in the case of pain medication) and insurers, so they often have to go against their own judgment as well.

But doctors also have incredible control over all aspects of medicine in many cases. For example, those who have insurance requiring pre-approval of any specialist or procedure cannot exercise their own judgment, and, say, figure out that a painful back may mean a trip to an orthopedic doctor, instead they have to get the approval of their doctor and then go, and, if their doctor disagrees, odds are good, since insurance has driven prices up to absurd levels, they will be unable to go unless their insurance pays. Thanks to the price inflation brought about by ubiquitous insurance and government regulation, most of us no longer have the option of deciding for ourselves, we must obey the gatekeeper doctor, which puts him in a position of being the boss, rather than an employee, as he logically is. (See "High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government")

My second complaint is a bit more personal and less broad, but it still seems important. I am sick of the term "drug seeker". Doctors use it in a pejorative sense, to indicate someone is looking for medicine for illicit reasons, but the term somewhat taints every interaction. If I go to a doctor and say I need painkillers, immediately I am a drug seeker, because I asked. And that is wrong.

If a diabetic came in and said he needed insulin, or a woman said she needed birth control, no one would call them drug seekers. But because I am in pain, I have to essentially lie, pretend I don't know what I need, probably even try a number of treatments that have already proved ineffective, all so I can get what I actually need.

I know, I am in a minority in thinking banning drugs is bad, and that it needs no medical justification, that if people want to use drugs recreationally that is no one's business ("Drug Legalization", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Guns and Drugs", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship"), but, even if you do not agree with me on that position, let me ask you this: Do you think it is a good thing to leave perfectly ordinary people in pain, maybe prevent them from working or caring for their families, which they could do with proper medication, in order to prevent some people from getting high? Is that a good trade off? And if you say yes, then answer one more question, is it working? I mean, I know we definitely are keeping drugs out of the hands of those who need them for pain relief, I have met several and was one for a long time (and looks like I will be one again), but is it really stopping drug abuse? Even reducing it? I know I could find heroin in under an hour given a few dollars, yet I am have an incredibly hard time getting adequate legitimate pain medicine. Does that not suggest our system is broken and we are not succeeding?

Well, I have had my rant. Nothing new, I said the same in "Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II" among others ("Consumer Protection", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "For Your Own Good", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans" "On the Side of the Angels... Yet Completely Wrong"). And I doubt I changed any minds. But at least it let me get a bit of my stress out of my system, so thanks for reading. Now back to my normal political rants, at least after I get a bit of sleep.

Stacking the Deck

NOTE: I stumbled across this when posting "Business Licensing and Regulation". I had forgotten about it, but it does seem an interesting example of my earlier writing, so I decided to copy it as well.

I was watching television this morning when it struck me how the entertainment media manages to tell half the story, at most, when it comes to their pet issues. In this case, I was watching a rerun of ER, Eriq La Salle's final episode to be precise. It is, unexpectedly, also used to present one of those boilerplate anti-gun messages. In this case, a mother shot her son on Christmas Eve, mistaking his poking around under the tree for a burglar. Obviously it is intended as a tear-jerker emotional appeal, with the deck completely stacked against responsible gun ownership, presenting not just a mother killing her own son, but on Christmas eve no less. 

Now, my first response was to wonder why we never see a television program where a gun owner successfully defends himself. I mean, in reality those incidents far outnumber accidental shooting. When you add in not just killing or wounding intruders, but the cases where they were chased off without the weapon being discharged, it is many, many times the number of accidental shootings*. You would think some show, be it a medical drama, or a cop show, or something would show one of these successful self-defenses, but no. Not a one I can recall. It is always an innocent who is on the receiving end when an ordinary citizen discharges a weapon, often not just a bystander, but a family member, and, more often than not, a child. Hollywood and New York certainly love to pile on the emotional weight when it comes to their anti-gun messages.

But then I thought a bit more, and it struck me that they are missing an even bigger piece of the puzzle.

You see, in the past, gun ownership was much less regulated. In fact, until fairly recent times, regulation was almost nonexistent. And yet, guns were much less in evidence. In rural areas, yes, there were guns, for hunting, for protection from predatory animals, and in really remote areas for crime prevention. And in what few suburbs that existed**, and there were very few, there were some gun owners too***. But in the cities, by and large, guns were not seen. Perhaps a few .22s for those plagued by rats, and maybe a gun under the counter of stores in particularly bad neighborhoods, but looking at it with modern eyes, it is likely that the number of guns in cities actually increased during the era of strict gun control, even measured on a per capita basis.

Why?

And that is where I think those making ardent anti-gun messages make their mistake, as they often are the advocates of the other policy which created the demand for guns. By which I mean the various "prison reform" and "social justice" movements in cities, the entire panoply of soft-on-crime policies which have resulted in rampant lawlessness in America's cities. And the primary reason that most city dwellers who own guns bought them.

Now cities have always had more crime than rural areas, just because having that many individuals in close proximity gives more opportunity, as well as the concentrations of wealth providing more targets. And then the anonymity of most urban settings makes carrying out a crime easier, as there are fewer to question signs of new found wealth. But in the past crime was still of a limited sort, restricted to certain areas, certain times, and otherwise predictable. It is only in the past half century that we have seen cities decay to the point where some saw daylight muggings in their most wealthy business districts. And this is largely the result of modern policies which have made it much less "costly", in terms of prison time, to commit crimes. 

The logic is simple. When a criminal plans on committing a crime he considers several things, whether he consciously recognizes it or not. He considers how much he is likely to take, how likely it is he will be caught, how much time he will serve if he is caught, and how likely it is the victims or police (or a bystander) might shoot him. We dealt with the final one already, and the first should be obvious. It is the middle items where public policy has made crime easier. By making prison time shorter, and prisons more comfortable, modern "reform" movements have made the potential "cost" of crime lower. A man who faces 20 years for a robbery is less likely to commit the crime than a man facing 2 years. The return has to be much higher to make the potential cost worthwhile.

Of course some will doubt criminals actually make such calculations, in their minds criminals are simple minded beings who take nothing into account but their desires to obtain things. And, to be fair, there may be a few such simple minded criminals, as crime does not tend to attract the best and brightest, despite the television trope of the "criminal genius". So allow me to make the second argument. Even for those who do not consider the possible punishments, longer prison sentences serve as a deterrent in a second way. If you are in jail, you aren't committing crimes. So even if you never consider the possible consequences, a longer prison sentence serves to reduce crime by keeping more criminals off the streets, leaving them unable to offend again. By releasing them earlier, we increase dramatically the number of crimes one criminal can commit in a lifetime.

And that change is, for the most part, the greatest reason that otherwise law abiding citizens feel the need to keep weapons in the city. Oh, some may have bought guns anyway, for sport shooting, or hunting, or out of an interest in guns. A few may have bought them for other reasons****. But for the most part, urban dwellers buy guns because the cities have become much less safe, and cities are much less safe because we coddle criminals.

And that is why I say that the entertainment media fails to tell the whole story. While they are busy creating the fraudulent image that gun owners are more likely to kill innocent children than a criminal, I wish they would just take a few minutes to point out that part of the reason there are so many gun owners is because in our kid glove treatment of criminals we have created a great crime wave which makes such self-defense necessary.

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* The other part of the picture is actually impossible to measure. In states where guns are less strictly regulated, it seems likely criminals are going to think twice about home invasions and even simple burglaries where there is a chance someone is home. However, we will never have a perfect measure of how many crimes are deterred by this awareness. Just as in states with easy concealed carry licenses we will never know exactly how many muggings and robberies never happened because of fear of armed citizens. Some will toss out statistical approximations, but I have to be wary of such numbers, as they are always a big part guess work. Still, it seems only logical that the awareness your prospective victim may be armed will discourage a certain percentage of criminals. Not all, as the gun battles between drug dealers attest, but there are many less bold criminals and it is clear some percentage of those will be dissuaded from breaking in to an occupied home by the worry that they may face a gun.

** Suburbs, as such, are a modern invention of the automotive age. A few cities had "suburbs" connected by rail, but they were effectively small towns in close proximity to cities, not really anything like modern suburbs. Still, as they were more like modern suburbs than rural areas, I shall consider them such for our purposes.

*** I am ignoring sport shooting here, as shooting as a sport is a modern invention, so seems anachronistic to even mention in an 18th and 19th century context. Int he 20th century sport shooting does predate the modern fascination with regulating guns, so I suppose it can be include din the list, but as it was responsible for such a small part of gun ownership, when compared to hunting or control of vermin and predators that I can ignore it.

**** Before an ardent second amendment activist tells me what I already know, I realize the primary purpose was to protect citizens against an oppressive state. However, I have a feeling very few citizens arm themselves for that reason, whether or not it was the founders' intent. So, without crime, I have a feeling almost all who would own guns would own them because they were either hunters or sport shooters, and not for any political motive. A few probably would, but not any considerable numbers. Of course, I may be wrong, I have no firm numbers to support my belief, but I have to say I have met very few gun owners who own them because of political convictions.

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POSTSCRIPT

In my discussion of the costs of crime I completely disregarded the social stigma once attached to crime. Though I think in some communities it might have provided an additional disincentive to criminality, I have a feeling most readers would have been skeptical of such claims, so I completely ignored it. In many ways, this relates to the topics I discussed in "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", so I suggest anyone interested in the thought of social controls should read those, as well as "Changing Incentives", which deals with social controls in a more general way.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/02.

Business Licensing and Regulation

NOTE: I am copying this from my old blog, as I cite it in my post "Some Thoughts on Medicine". However, I am amazed I never copied it before, as it is mentioned in a number of other posts on related topics. Still, better late than never.

I have, in the past, suggested that we do not need to regulate doctors and pharmacists ( "Medical Regulations", "Medical Regulation II"), that the financial industry should run without regulation ("Explaining Past Crashes", "The Inflation Engine", "Why Gold?", "The Free Market?"), and that education should be run without government oversight ( "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer","You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited"). I have not written about it, but I also believe stock brokers and issuers of stocks should be similarly deregulated, food manufacturers should be freed of inspections, and, well, let us just say I want to see the end of all regulation ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "The Inevitable Spread of Regulation"). I know many think this is mad, and that the government somehow protects us, but I want to argue that just the opposite happens, that regulation, especially in a rich nation which can afford clean and safe food and drink, as well as the best of everything else, government regulation makes us less safe ("The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Planning For Imperfection",  "Greed Versus Evil").

Before I explain why rich nations have more reason to trust private enterprise than government, and point out that the abuses which occurred in the past were largely the result of holdover pre-industrial conditions ("Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution"), as well as point out that even with regulations such abuses have hardly stopped, let me start with a very simple question. What purpose do licenses serve?

Now, I know many think licenses ensure that the holder is somehow regulated, or at least has been shown to be qualified, but I have to disagree. In general, licenses do  three things. First, yes, they show that at one time, the individual might have passed a test that to some varying degree related to their industry. Second, they ensure practitioners of that industry that there will be less competition and higher pay.("Professional Education","Anti-Business Businesses ") And finally they guarantee a steady flow of cash to the state. They very rarely, if ever, prove that an individual has been tested recently, nor do they ensure that there is any ongoing oversight of that profession.

Let me start with the most absurd of licenses to give an example. The peddler's license. The laws vary from state to state, but in most states to sell door to door or out of your car, you need a peddler's license. Why? Other than giving the state a nice little yearly check (and providing the police a pretext to pick up vendors who annoy people), what purpose does this serve? Does it protect people from fraud? Of course not! Does it ensure our peddlers are "properly regulated"? I don't even know what that would mean, but it certainly doesn't happen, as anyone who cuts a check can get a license in most states. The only thing a peddler's license ensures is that the individual had some money that they turned over to the state.

Nor do other licenses fare much better. For example, do you care if your barber knows the bones of the skull? Does it make you feel more secure that Sal once knew where the maxilla was? No? But it does ensure that Sal had to attend some classes, making money for established barbers who trained him, and limiting competition to those who can afford such classes. It put a few extra dollars in Sal's pocket by limiting competition. But does it make anyone safer? Make your haircuts better? Of course not!*

And most will admit this is the truth, but then they suddenly lose that objectivity when it comes to the FDA or the USDA or medial licensing. But I have to ask, if licensing at a lower level is sold as "for our safety" but is really just imposed to earn money for the state and limit competition, why would it work any differently on those levels? Do you think drug companies and doctors and ADM are any less clever than your average barber? Or that national politicians are more honest than local ones? Or that agribusiness less astute at lobbying that the cosmetology schools? I know we have been taught to think that medical licensing and food inspectors are good, but we are also told licensing barbers is a good thing, so why is one open to skepticism and the other not?

Now, before I go on, let me say that I am sure there are some idealists in both the ranks of the regulators and among politicians. There are people who certainly think regulation and inspection and licensing exists to keep us safe, and who try to do their job conscientiously.  I am hardly so cynical that I think everyone is corrupt or self-serving. However, that does nothing to change the point that, whatever the purpose in individual minds, most regulation does not serve the purpose intended. Licensing tends to improve quality very little, while increasing costs. Similarly, inspection and regulation tends to favor established businesses and reduce true improvements in quality, while improving our safety little if any. So, even if everyone were an angel and had only the best of motives, every problem I point out would still exist. The fact that some promote and manipulate these laws for self-serving purposes, and thus make them even worse, just exacerbates the problem.

Before we go any farther, let us look at the arguments offered for regulation and licensing and ask ourselves if they make sense.

The basic argument is this: Without the government ensuring that our food and drink is pure, our drugs safe and our workers qualified, we would just go out and buy anything, without thought, and end up hurting ourselves.

To which I have one response: Consumer Reports.

Think about the significance of that magazine for moment. As well as Amazon reviews, all the gaming review sites, Angie's list, all the review sites and others, and ask yourself "If people spend hours and hours trying to get the most for their dollar when buying a $40 video game or a DVD player, are theyr eally going to just hire any docotr or take any pharmaceutical someone gives them?"

The truth is, we are rich, rich by the standards of the present world, and obscenely rich by historical standards.We are rich enough that we can afford to waste fruit and vegetable that are still edible but unsightly. Does that sound like a society that would accept rotten or unwholesome food? And, more importantly, does that sound like  a society likely to accept food from fly by night firms, just because it is a few cents cheaper?

No, we are rich and our providers know it. They know we will make them rich if they just give us quality. And so the firms which provide us with food and drink, or drugs, or any other service, has no interest in trying to slip by some substandard goods just to earn a quick buck. The loss of future sales, as well as the lawsuits arising if it goes wrong, are not worth the small gain.

Which means that the only people likely to do it are those committing outright fraud, and those people are not going to be deterred by regulation. The people who will break the law will also violate regulations, so regulating makes no difference. While legitimate firms have an interest in promoting quality goods.

On the other hand, under our current regime, there is little incentive to sell based on quality. Oh, high end goods might, but run of the mill products have no incentive, as regulations ensure us that everything is "good enough", and so we get very little quality competition on the low end of things. In other words, by establishing a floor, on the low end at least, laws also establish a ceiling.

Worse, by creating barriers to entry, since one must met all the regulatory guidelines and all the expenses of meeting inspection requirements, whether they make sense or not**, firms can actually afford to let standards drop as low as the law allows, since competition is made more difficult and prices are artificially elevated.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. A free market would cause quality to be an issue, even at the low end, while government inspection regimes tend to lower low end quality to the bare minimum, or maybe all quality in some fields.

I know I have jumped around and hit many topics, including licensing, regulation, inspection, food and drink standards, medical regulation and so on, and in jumping around I have not done as much as I could. I had hoped to write more, but realized this article could go on to one hundred thousand words or more. So, let us consider this a brief introduction to  series of posts. In the coming days I will revisit this topic in terms of specific cases and show how each area is harmed by regulation or licensing, and how the free market would work in each field.

Sorry fit hat makes this article seem a bit of a tease, that was not my intent. However, having bitten off much mroe than I could handle at once, I think it is probably the best solution.

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* To cut short any angry Italians, I had a childhood barber named Salvatore, so I always use that name in barber examples. It may be stereotypical, but I can't help it, it is the truth. And before you get up in arms, my son is one half Italian, my wife 100% Italian, so I have no issue with Italy or the citizens thereof. Well, I am still stumped by the whole Cicolina running for office thing, but other than that, no problems.

** For example, in my state, bars are required to have three chamber sinks, as are all restaurants, even those using disposable cups and plates. So, you must buy a three chambered sink and keep disinfectant stocked even if you sell beer in paper cups. Think about how costly that is for a very small vendor working from a cart. Obviously regulation makes it difficult for newcomers in many fields by imposing such absurd costs, while existing firms, having already spent the money, are freed from competition.

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POSTSCRIPT
I addressed some of this in the past, specifically the regulations enforced by the FDA and USDA. To see more please read the following posts:
If They Were Serious
For Your Own Good
It Is Time
Transfats?
Nerf World
Be Careful When "Sticking It" to "Big Business"
A New Fairy Tale
Licensing
Why Regulation Makes So Little Sense
Another Thought on Regulation
The Endless Cycle of Intervention
Bad Science and Environmentalism
Practicality Versus Dogma
The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism
Most deal with the regulation of food and drink, as well as pharmaceuticals and tobacco. Clearly there are other posts also on point, but I tried to omit most of the articles linked in the post itself.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/01.