Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clarification of an Old Position

I have written several times of my skepticism about supposed biological origins of mental illness. I agree some conditions, such as dementia, have physical origins, as for the most part such have been identified, even if they are often difficult to diagnose except post mortem. Still, in such cases, one can find a physical process. While, in the case of, say, schizophrenia, we are often told that we have found "the gene" or "the cause", only to find it is some correlation that does not hold up, and certainly no clear cut causative mechanism. I am open to the possibility that, in some cases, what we currently cannot physically diagnose may be found later to have a biological cause, but, for the most part, I believe much of what we call mental illness is, for lack of a better description, behavioral, or learned, and not physical. (The fact that so many of the diagnostic criteria are so subjective, such as "inappropriate sadness" or "excessive reaction", makes me more skeptical, but I explained that in "Mental Illness" and "The Problem With Mental Health Laws", so I will not repeat myself.)

What I want to clarify is something that many misinterpret from my premise. To say that mental ills are learned, or are behaviors, is not identical to dismissing all sufferers as malingerers, as play actors and the like. Nor is it to say such ailments are wholly imaginary, or treatments ineffective. A learned behavior may be quite distressing and harmful, and can lead to consequences quite beyond the control of the one suffering.

Let us take an extreme example to demonstrate this. Imagine an individual who was never taught to speak. Raised in isolation, without speaking or hearing speech, it is unlikely he would ever learn to speak, or even to really understand the speech of others. This would be a terrible impediment, a devastating incapacity, and yet not something biological. However, even though it is a learned behavior, or rather a lack of learning, that would not mean the sufferer was faking anything, or could easily remedy the problem.

And that is how I think of much of mental illness. Essentially, and please don't get offended before I complete this thought, it is the extreme end of the spectrum of bad habits. Now, I know many may find that offensive, but allow me to explain. Bad habits are something very specific, bits of poor socialization, and, more significantly, poor socialization we find difficult to overcome. And, in many ways, that describes a lot of mental illness, inappropriate, or uncomfortable reactions to events that the sufferer finds difficult or impossible to suppress. Obviously, this is not a full description, but it covers a lot of the topic, and it demonstrates how we can understand non-biological mental ills. Rather than bad brain chemistry or something similar, is it not possible that some or all arise from inappropriate socialization? I know many see this as blaming parents, but that is not the case either. Learning on the part of children is not a process entirely controlled by parents, the child himself has some role, as do a host of environmental factors, many in ways complicated enough that they are almost impossible to understand. Thus, it is perfectly plausible that a parent, though doing nothing wrong, could have a child whose combined internal thoughts, environment and upbringing interact in such a way as to lead to this sort of improper response.

Similarly, it is not a surprise that chemical intervention is beneficial to some patients. After all, we have been "curing" normal mood problems with alcohol and drugs for a long time. Is it any surprise other chemicals may also be beneficial? Even those which do not produce euphoria, or stimulate or depress, can have a beneficial effect. After all, brain chemistry clearly can effect mood. (Then again, what are thoughts but brain chemistry?) So, one does not need to postulate a biological source for mental illness to accept that medication may help.

I know I am in a minority here, and I accept that. I am also open to counter arguments. But at present, I have not seen anything that strikes me as convincing proof of a biological origin, while there is much in my experience that inclines me to see mental illness as a combination of socialization, simple excesses of emotion, and -- in some cases -- fraud*. And that ignores completely the final category, which I find many find even more uncomfortable, those who behave in ways we find disconcerting or strange, and thus dub mentally ill, but who seem perfectly content with their own lives. Granted, at one time this included a much larger number of people -- promiscuous daughters during more reserved ages, shiftless sons during the same, interracial couples at one time, dissidents in a number of more authoritarian states, and so on -- but there are still many who are dubbed ill who have no bigger problem than behaving in peculiar ways. Which is yet another reason I find the whole topic of mental illness being a true disease so troubling, behaviors which would be acceptable in some other place and time are dubbed an ailment here and now, in other words, it is the only disease I know which is diagnosed entirely by context. That seems suspect to me.


* I am reluctant to write this, as some will see this one line and forget everything else i said, but face it, some people fake mental illness. As a onetime worker in social services -- especially as one determining eligibility for benefits -- whose ex-wife worked at a mental hospital which housed a number of criminals, it just seems self evident some percentage of those dubbed mentally ill are acting, either to avoid jail or continue welfare benefits. (And that does not even cover the large number of mentally retarded who were relabeled mentally ill because one diagnosis had more funding than the other.) Sorry, but it is true, whether or not we wish to admit it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Finally a Little Consistency

Let me start by saying I am neither a supporter of Ben Carson's candidacy (I am actually pretty unimpressed with most candidates this time around, sadly), nor am I a traditional pro-lifer*.  However, I have to say that I admire Carson for one thing, he is the first presidential candidate I have heard who is logically consistent, at least on one point.

As I have written before**, the most common pro-life position strikes me as a political, and not a moral, position. By that I mean, it is a position which will win supporters, and avoid tough, emotional questions, but by the logic of the position, it argues for exceptions supporters should find unethical.

For the most part, the pro-life position is a simple one. A fetus is a living individual, and thus deserves the legal protections provided for those who have already been born. Thus, by the logic of this position, abortion should be criminal, as it kills a living being with rights.

There is one obvious exception, which is also logically supportable, that being the case where abortion is required to save the life of the mother. One could obviously argue that, in cases where a death may result, or even more clearly where only one of the two would survive, then the situation is not analogous to murder. Say, for example, a rescuer has two people hanging on ropes, and can hold only the weight of one. If he cuts one loose to save the other, I doubt he would be blamed, especially if both would die otherwise. So, I can see this single exception, and agree it fits with the pro-life logic.

Where I have problems with the vast majority of pro-lifers is in their other exception. Allowing abortion for children conceived by rape or incest does not fit with their logic. If you doubt this, ask yourself a simple question: Can you murder someone with impunity if they were conceived in these ways? If not, then by the logic of the pro-life movement, abortion should still be illegal. After all, children born due to rape and incest do not lose their right to life because of their means of conception, so, logically, if a fetus is nothing but an unborn person, then the fetus should have the same rights, and abortion because of the method of conception is clearly illegal.

Of course, saying so would be political suicide, as I am afraid Dr. Carson will soon discover. For every supporter gained for consistency, emotional appeals and "gotcha" questions such as "what if your daughter were raped?"*** will lose him hundreds or thousands. We don't like to think about rape victims or incest victims "being forced" to carry children. But, is that not contrary to the pro-life position as well? Is not the whole pro-life argument that it is not about the mother, but the rights of the child? The child did not commit any crime, is not to blame for the way it was conceived, and thus, to remove its rights because of the mother's experience would be not just inconsistent, but terribly unfair. Unfortunately, while reasonable, the argument is also a political loser, as the mother we see, she is here, we can hear her problems, see her suffering. The child is invisible. As always in politics, no matter the potential outcome, the visible, the present, the immediate wins out. And, in this case, the logical pro-life position is a political loser.

However, I am a bit of a maverick in this regard, valuing consistency over political viability, and so, even if I am alone, or in a very small minority, I want to applaud Dr. Carson for taking a consistent stand, even if it one that will prove unpopular. I may not agree with him, but I do admire consistency. And so, at this moment, he has my applause, even if he does not have my vote.


* I have personal aversion to abortion, but do not have not been able to reach a conclusion about what should be the correct legal position. Well, that is not entirely true. I believe the law certainly should protect an infant once born, even if "accidentally" born in the course of an abortion. I also have legal problem with aborting a fetus which could live unassisted outside of the womb. I am less clear on those who would require assistance to survive, but even then I am wary of allowing abortion, though improving medicine pushes that dividing line back earlier and earlier. Beyond that, I am undecided as to the position the law should take. If we ban, say, RU486, do we also ban IUDs which essentially do something very similar (destroying a fertilized egg)? And at what point does it shift from cells to baby? I can argue, reasonably, for anything from a right of abortion up to a set point, all the way to banning abortion, IUDs and RU486. The question remains, how much should be state and how much persuasion? And here it gets fuzzy, as, though a fetus is a living entity, it is not precisely identical to a born human being, and that does cloud the picture. As I said, I know where I personally stand, but not where I believe things go from "behavior of which I disapprove" to "crime". I can anchor one end, infanticide is certainly criminal, but the other is not clear cut to me, and may never be.

** See "Legal Schizophrenia", "A Few Questions on Abortion", "Infanticide" and "Special Cases". For a more general discussion see also "An Unnecessary Legal Concept" and "A Much More Simple Abortion Question".

*** These "gotcha" questions always struck me as hugely tasteless (see "The 'Gotcha' Question"), and many are also rather nonsensical (See "There Are Other Solutions".) But they do seem popular with modern journalists. "You want to cut medicare? What if your mother could not afford medicine?" and so on. It seems we have given up on a principled political debate, founded on ideas. Not once will you hear a politician respond to one of these "gotchas" about some family misfortune with the answer "it would be a tragedy, but that does not make it a government matter", and that is a tragedy as well.



Lest someone accuse me of inconsistency, I still stand by my argument in "Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion", "Single Issue Voting", "Principled Voting or Suicide?", "Impractical Pragmatists" and elsewhere, pro-lifers are perfectly right to vote for those who hold less than fully pro-life positions if, in so doing, they advance their cause. That is, if the only way to put through a law they otherwise like is to include the rape and incest exclusion, then that makes political sense. My problem is not with compromise to achieve goals, but when one confuses practical compromises with compromising values. It is fine to include these exclusions in laws, but when they make them part of the platform, then they are embracing an illogical exception as part of their official ideology, and that troubles me. So, I am not being inconsistent, I believe compromise is needed in politics, and a perfectly acceptable practice, my objection is with those who then base their principles upon that compromise, accepting what is politically possible as, not just the best they can get today, but as the ideal.


Though I doubt it will benefit Dr. Carson much, I would point out that there are real world benefits to consistency. As I have pointed out repeatedly ("Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Cycle of Compassion", "Justify Yourself, Defeat Yourself", "Denying Reality", "The Free Market Solution" and "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", among others), inconsistency in one's position leaves the door open to opposing arguments. For example, in this case, the rape and incest exception is often used to justify other exceptions, such as exceptions for mentally disturbed women, which are then used to justify exceptions for women on all manner of emotional grounds, exceptions which inevitably open the door to unrestricted access. So, if pro-lifers take their position seriously, they should reconsider such exceptions, if for no other reason than they weaken their position needlessly.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Another Shakedown

I have always been disgusted by the "multistate tobacco settlement."* In my mind, it was nothing less than simple government extortion, akin to British kings using demands for "ship money" to fill their coffers, or medieval rulers threatening Jews with expulsion unless they paid them off. Actually, even worse, as our government makes such a show of equal protection, championing freedom and so on, yet given the chance to fill the treasury at the expense of an unpopular industry, they jumped at the chance, and, even worse, then turned around and tried to short change the lawyers who assisted them to make it even more lucrative. Nor was it in any way an effort to help stop smoking, or to pay for the "health costs" of smoking. Only a tiny amount of money went to any such causes, and then only because it was inevitable money dumped in the general fund would end up partly going to such purposes. No, the point of the whole exercise was to help fund government without raising taxes, and without upsetting public opinion, which shaking down an unpopular industry did quite effectively.

I mention this, not because I intend to write about this obscenity once again, but rather because I have been seeing trial balloons for a new version of this tactic, with a different target. Apparently Bernie Saunders, our sometimes Socialist, sometimes Independent, Democratic presidential candidate, has repeated the idea floated by two members of Congress, that there should be an investigation of the oil companies, even a RICO case, because -- "like the tobacco companies" -- they tried to hide the supposed harm of using fossil fuels, and gave political contributions to this end.

First, this is repulsive in ways even the tobacco case was not. In the tobacco case, I still think it disgusting that they were basically sued for arguing their side of the case (as was Martha Stewart in an equally disgusting decision**), but this is even worse. In this case, it seems they want to fine the oil companies basically because they do not agree with one side in the argument over AGW, an unsettled bit of science despite government claims to the contrary. As well as for supporting political candidates with whom they agree. In other words, if this succeeds, it will now be illegal for businesses to hold certain opinions and to participate int he political process based upon them. That strikes me as a pretty dangerous precedent to establish.

I know, some of you will disagree, thinking it is about "fraud" because they "knew" it was dangerous, or that businesses are not people and should not have the same rights, but I disagree. First of all, even if oil companies were told by some scientists that oil causes AGW, the fact remains the supposed proof for that claim is not settled, and even if the oil companies were given something congress finds convincing, the oil companies are still allowed to disagree with it, to believe otherwise. There is no law that says one must always hold the opinions approved by congress, or the NYT editorial board.

Second, just because one works for private industry, that does not mean you lose your right to have opinions. Nor is it illegal for a person with control over a company to use that company's resource to endorse those opinion. After all, congressmen and senators use their offices all the time to push their own personal biases, why should a CEO or business owner have less freedom? In fact, since the business owner is wagering his job and fortune on it, while a politician is just doing it at the public expense, I see less reason to hold a business to a different standard than a private citizen. And thus, I cannot see why a business would not have the right to promote any belief, or to engage in political action to endorse a specific viewpoint***.

But, then again, I have always believed we have an excessively wide understanding of "fraud"****, including many things that are not actual fraud. But, in this case, even if you have the most wide open definition of fraud imaginable, I still cannot see how one can endorse fining oil companies. They held a specific belief on a controversial issue, and acted to promote that view through the political process. To fine them for doing so seems to me obviously little more than a shakedown.


* See "The Truth", "Results Do Not Matter", "The Campaign to Save Me from Myself", "What is the Role of the Attorney General?" and "A Quick Thought".

** See "Why a Recession?" and "What is the Role of the Attorney General?".

*** Then again, modern understanding of freedom to engage in politics strikes me as pretty bizarre, from campaign finance rules, to the recent restrictions on who can provide political views and when, it seems to me the first amendment protection of free political participation is a thing of the past. In my mind, one should be allowed to make any endorsement, offer any speech, publish any advertisement, whenever one want, as well as donate whatever one wants to whomever one wants, without providing a record of any kind. But I know I am in a minority. Still, for the arguments I have made see "Regulated Speech", "Confusing Money and Votes", "Do As I Say Not As I Do" and "IRS Abuses Are Just the Beginning".

**** See "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" and "Inconsistent Understanding".



It seems the oil companies cannot get a break, when they aren't being accused of covering up AGW by environmentalists on the left, they are accused of fixing prices and creating shortages by absurd populists right and left. See my earlier essays "Absurdities on Oil", "Authoritarian Oil Talk", "Fighting the Wrong Fight", "Fighting the Wrong Fight, Part II", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Obscene Oil Profits?", "Oil Company "Profits"", ""True" Prices", "Those Darn Speculators" and "In Defense of Speculators". It always amazes me anyone would want to run an oil company given the many ways in which they are insulted, the constant threat of government intervention, the threat of environmental laws shutting down drilling, and all to earn less on a gallon of gasoline than the government takes in taxes. (Yet no one blames the government for high prices, despite earning several times what either the oil company or the station owner does, as well as having a much greater role in both high prices and short supplies.) And all this because they dare to bring us a consistent and cheap supply of a substance we all need and use very day. Then again, doctors are given the same treatment, denounced for daring to profit, while providing a service we find essential. (See "Nonsensical Beliefs", "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)", "Envy Kills II", "Envy And Analogy", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "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" .) Not to mention bankers, stock brokers, and a host of others who provide essential services, yet are treated as almost criminal by the public at large. The ingratitude of consumers, and especially politicians, always stuns me.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Zero Sum Games

As my son has decided he wants to become a scientist when he is older, he has started watching a number of nominally science-related videos on Youtube. Some, as you would expect, espouse pretty fringe ideas, but he is pretty good at spotting them by now, and when he doesn't I lend a hand.  However, even those which present relatively mainstream topics in neutral ways sometimes tread into somewhat controversial ground, usually not when discussing their main topic, but instead when making asides, or simply establishing points "everyone knows". For instance, today he was watching a video about the efforts to extend human life -- well, so it was a bit more fringe science than most -- but one point in particular struck me as troubling. In discussing the problems of immortality, the presenter mentioned the old canard about "1% of the world's population controls 50% of the wealth", and argued with immortality there would "be no redistribution", essentially asserting that wealth is a static quantity that must be redistributed, or, to be more blunt, that some people are poor because others are rich. And that, though a common, and popular belief, is, in truth, absolutely false.

Let me be clear here, there are zero-sum systems. Government favor, for example, is a zero sum system, as is government power. If I have control over decision X, no one else does. If you gain authority over something I control, you can only do it by diluting my authority. Or, in the realm of government favors and patronage, let us say, if X has caused the state to enact a quota system favorable to him, for anyone else to benefit form these quotas, it must be at the expense of X. For every benefit or favor paid to one, some other must lose. This is why I have argued repeatedly the omnipotent state, systems of patronage and favor, all of the things liberals believe create better conditions for people, actually lead to nothing but strife, instability, infighting, anger, hostility, even revolt, revolution and death1.  If I can only benefit at your expense, it is inevitable we will find ourselves in conflict. If every benefit you receive must come at the cost of someone else, you will find you can only win through deception or coercion. Force and fraud, infighting and power plays, those are the only reality of a system based on patronage, and that is because patronage is a zero sum game.

Oddly, while people imagine the free market and capitalist wealth is such a system, nothing could be farther from the truth2,3. Wealth may be unevenly "distributed", just as is political power, but in the case of wealth it is because it was never "distributed", where it is now held is the result of past wealth creation. Those who hold wealth, the supposed 1% who hold some large percentage of the nation's or world's wealth -- depending on which canard you believe -- hold it because they added that amount of wealth to the world, or their ancestors did, or because they created some other good or service for which those who created that wealth traded. In short, wealth exists where it does because someone made it. 

Let us make this simple. Wealth is created. All those things that were used to generate wealth always existed in the world, but it took someone clever to put them together in a way that was useful to people. In short, someone took worthless rocks and sticks and dirt and other "stuff", and turned it into a car or a plane or a television. Or took a bunch of idle people and turned them into a means of supplying hamburgers or auto parts or cable television. And in so doing, that person added to the net wealth of the world. And that is why some small percentage hold such a large part of the wealth, because it is a rare individual who can add a huge amount of value, and so, those who add a lot of wealth are a very small minority. But, the fact that they have that wealth, that they added that much value, does not make others poor. It does not prevent you or I from trying to do the same. (Government often does, but not wealth creators, at least not in a free market4.) They are rich because they brought more wealth into the world, wealth which also served to improve the lives of all those who bought those goods or services.

If you doubt that wealth creation is not the result of some privileged starting place, or some advantage, think of this, Russia, and later the USSR, and now Russia again, has tremendous material wealth, while Singapore is terribly ill-provided with resources, and yet, of the two, Singapore has a much higher percentage of millionaires. Why? Because under the Tsars and Communists, and even now under its intrusive, cliquish government, Russia/USSR did everything it could to discourage wealth creation. While many other nations, including the United Kingdom and most of its Commonwealth states, were much more friendly to wealth creation. As a result, these nations tend to have much more wealth.

Let me be clear, the US, UK and others do not have more wealth because they stole it from anyone. It is not making other nations poor. It is simply the result of government which allowed individuals to create wealth. As a result, wealth was created, and accumulated, was passed down, and now forms the basis of a much higher standard of living, and much greater personal wealth. But it is not a zero sum game. Anyone could start tomorrow in some other land, begin accumulating wealth, creating new goods and selling them, and become more wealthy than anyone in the US, UK or elsewhere. Wealth is not gained by expropriation of others -- except by thieves and bureaucrats -- in the free market it is created. And wealth creation does not make others poor, it makes us all a bit richer.

Now why is this so hard for so many to understand?


1. "The War of All Against All", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice", "The Other 99%", "The Case for Small Government", "Power and Disorder", "The Road to Violence", "In The Most Favorable Light", "With Good Intentions", "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "Chaotic Government", "Madmen, Tyrants and Big Government", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism", "Misunderstanding Democracy", "Elective Government Versus Monarchy".

2 This assumes the market is truly free. To the degree it is regulated, it becomes more and more a system of patronage, and thus more and more like the political world, where conflict is the ordinary state of affairs.

3. "Competition", "The Basics", "Greed Versus Evil", "The Free Market Solution", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of 'Unfair' Outcomes", "A New Look at Intervention", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Case for Small Government", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Capitalism and Its Consequences", "Another Look At Exploitation", "Third Best Economy", "The Gadarene Swine Fallacy", "Denying Reality", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "Misunderstanding the Market", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails", "Imperfect Competition, Abstraction and Anti-Trust", "Technology and 'Natural Monopolies'", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "The Importance of Error", "Adaptability and Government", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure".

4. "Anti-Business Businesses", "The Free Market Solution", "There Are Other Solutions", "The Gadarene Swine Fallacy", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Consumer Protection", "Really Silly Fears", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans", "Paradoxical Outcome", "Government by Emotion", "The Bureaucrat Who Cried Wolf", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Oven Mitts and Safety Regulation", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "The High Cost of Protection", "Warnings and More Warnings - Another Look at Consumer Protection", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of "Unfair" Outcomes", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "Fighting the Wrong Fight", "Fighting the Wrong Fight, Part II", "How Wages Work", "Some Thoughts on Medicine", "The Problem With Regulation".

Justice and the State

I have recently been visiting a number of web sites concerned with social justice, rights for minorities and women and similar topics, and it never ceases to amaze me that, to a one, they are supporters of not just big government, but almost always very activist, almost inevitably socialist or communist policies. I simply cannot comprehend this.

Let us look at the facts. How many times in history have a bunch of private citizens gotten together and committed genocide? How many private citizens have deprived a minority group of rights? Or driven one into exile? I grant, in some periods there were spontaneous riots and pogroms, though in many of those cases, the "spontaneity" was still just a guide for state action. However, for the most part, almost every great massacre, every act of oppression, every harm done to minorities of every stripe, as been at the ands of the state, many times even against the inclination of a majority of citizens*.

All of which makes me wonder why people so interested in equality would want to give the state more power.  Even if we assume a state run by "the best people", the fact remains you cannot control who will rule forever, or even how those who rule will change. Private mistakes, they effect a small group, and can be balanced out by everyone else. A mistake of the state as the force of law, and harms us all. Similarly, one private bigot is an annoyance, maybe costs some people jobs or business at worst. One bigot in the right government office is a potential genocide. And the more power the state has, the more harm one mistake can do.

All of which makes me think that those truly interested in social justice, in equality for all, in liberty, and the like, would be arguing strongly for as little government as possible. Granted, it will not end all racism, idiots will always be with us. But state power will never end all racism either, it will just make it possible for a wrongly placed racist, or someone else with a bad idea, to do incalculable harm.


* To be clear, most atrocities are committed against unpopular minorities. My point here is that, though the majority may be less than fond of a group, most acts of genocide are not demanded by the majority, but are acts of convenience for the state, and the populace needs to be convinced of their utility. (Or, in many cases, the full scope of the atrocity is hidden.)

Podiatrists, Dentists and Public Education

Why are dentists not part of the traditional medical profession? And why are podiatrists separate as well? Why do we have both psychologists and psychiatrists*? Logically, there is no reason for teeth or feet to be treated by someone outside of the medical profession. If anything, due to their utility, hands would seem to demand a different type of doctor. But there are many such oddities, such as why we have ophthalmologists and optometrists. And, when we look into the matter, the simple fact is, there is no real reason, they exist because of historical accident. Dentists were separate from doctors, being part of the barber-surgeon field, and thus were never absorbed into medicine proper. In fact, it is surprising surgeons were, given the Hippocratic hostility to bone setters and "those who cut". In fact, in English practice, there is still a trace of this historical accident, with surgeons being "Mister" rather than "Doctor". However, for the most part, the historical accident separating doctors from surgeons has been eliminated, while the oddity of dentists and doctors being separate has not**.

What is interesting is, while it is perfectly obvious on a bit of reflection that these divisions are justified by little more than historical accident***, very few of us ever consider it, and, if asked, the practitioners of these various professions would argue that the division is perfectly sensible, even justified. Then again, perhaps it is not that surprising. After all, much in our lives is the outcome of little more than historical accident, many of our traditions could have gone a completely different way without doing any harm, and yet we argue for them just as vehemently.

For example, suppose the movement for universal education had not arisen in New England, where the tradition of using the state to resolve personal issues was quite strong ("Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "New England Versus Virginia (And Venice, And England, And Rome...)" and "A New View of Liberalism"), suppose it arose in a more "self help" oriented section of the country, say among immigrants in the cities, or backwoodsmen in the Appalachians. Imagine for a moment if, throughout our history, local communities had established charitable funds to build schools, run them through boards of donors, and generally pursued universal education as a social function rather than a government one. Now, imagine if someone in that world had suggested that government should run schools. What would be the response? "You want the people who run the post office to educate our children? The people who mismanage even the most basic functions? Sorry, but that is nonsense. Who would imagine such a thing?"

However, since historical accident tied together education and government****, today, whenever it is proposed to remove government from education, we instead hear the opposite, that to do so would mean only the rich would be educated, that government has to be involved, it is the only option. In short, as with the professions listed above, we cling to our historical accident, arguing it is the only possible way to do things.

I admit, I am as fond of tradition as anyone. I have even argued we should give a slight advantage to tradition for having stood the test of time. ("The Gadarene Swine Fallacy", "The Virtue of Novelty and the Value of Tradition" ,"The Trap of Tradition", "How Fast Things Change", "Culture and Government", "In Defense of Standards" , "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"" , "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom" , "The Problem of Established Perspectives" , "A Bit of Clarification" , "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood" , "Inversion of Traditional Values", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism" and"In Praise of Slow Changes") But there is also a good argument that, if tradition is doing harm, or if there is a better solution, simply being tradition is not enough, we must move on and try another answer. And in this case, I think it is clear, the way we are doing things is not ideal.

Nor is this unique to public education, it is simply the easiest example I could find. Countless other topics could face the same argument. So much of what we do, especially what functions we assign to government, are the result of either historical accident or government self-aggrandizement, and yet we have come to believe they can only be performed by the state, that the way things are now is the only possible answer. Perhaps in the future, I will return to this topic, and look at some other examples. Until then, why not take a look around on your own? I am sure you can find a dozen examples without much effort.


* Actually, an even better question is why emotional issues are treated by medical doctors at all? After all, those with a known biological component, dementia and so on, are treated by neurologists, leaving psychiatrists, despite their medical background, still treating what amounts to emotional issues. (I know, I am in a minority for not seeing "mental illness" as analogous -- or even a form of -- to physical ailments -- and sadly Szasz lost a lot of credibility when he allowed Scientology front groups to use him -- but explain to me why, if they are physical ailments, mental "illnesses" can be cured by talking? Even talk someone out of cancer or diabetes or a broken leg? That alone makes me see them as very different things. Yes, drugs can help mental illness, but then again drinking has cured depression for centuries. It is striking that all those supposed drug cures tend to be drugs that produce stimulant or depressant effects, just like the supposedly bad drugs with which we aren't supposed to self medicate. But, this is a topic for another posts. See "Mental Illness" for some older, more general thoughts on the topic.)

** Another historical oddity is the requirement that those who count out pills have some sort of pharmacy degree. It is one of those strange laws which embody a reality from before the law was passed. Yes, pharmacists once did compound all their own drugs, and even today some small amount of pharmacy work involves putting together pharmaceuticals, but many who work in a pharmacy do little more than count out pre-made pills, or measure out liquids, maybe adding a flavor. There is no reason one needs a degree to do that. It is easy to imagine a perfectly safe pharmacy run by high school graduates supervised by a pharmacists who handles compounding, patient questions and so on. (And before anyone worries about mistakes causing harm, recall we get auto parts from the back of stores using people without even a high school diploma, and a mistake there can be every bit as fatal. Not to mention the total lack of educational requirements for those who handle our food, mistakes with which can be even more lethal than most pharmacy accidents.)

*** Yes, there are "reasons" for these divisions, and since the divisions exist, the world has grown around them, providing various distinctions between one and the other. But, viewed in terms of the system one would create, starting from scratch, and trying to form an efficient system, these splits make no sense. So, yes, given the world which arose following such divisions, they are now enshrined and apparently justified by present circumstance, but that is not the same as such a division making any sort of sense, or being a rational practice.

**** Actually, education and government were not as closely tied as we think. In many frontier towns, schools were funded by contribution rather than any tax. Granted, the same meetings that served as government in relatively unsettled areas also controlled the school, but as I argued before, if everyone in a town decides to host a Halloween party, that does not make it a government Halloween party. Similarly, though the local school was run by the same people who met to govern, it was not effectively a government school. Then again, it is unlikely most people at the time made the distinction. (Likewise, they did not point out barn raisings were not government activities, as it was self-evident, yet those too were performed by the same group that governed, and often scheduled in the same meetings.) Still, it is important to note something can be run collectively by a community and be non-government. It is a fact we often forget in modern times. ("Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Culture and Government" and "Collective Ventures Versus Government")


Before anyone take offense at my description of pharmacists, I recognize the need for knowledge in the case of compounding, or in providing advice on interactions and the like, as well as the need for pharmacological skill in research and so on. But to be honest, how much of modern pharmacy work involves those things? I once applied for a programming job where I was going to write code for machines which automatically counted and bottled pills. Now, if a machine can do it, how much knowledge does a human need to do the same? And, being honest, is not about 90% or more of most work in large pharmacies nothing more than bottling premade medications? Actually, if we are completely honest, even in research, cannot the job of research pharmacist be performed by doctors or chemists or biologists, biochemists, and the like just as well? As I argue above, it strikes me that the law as written seems better suited to a previous state where pharmacists compounded much more of their own medicine. (I suppose I could be cynical and say the law as it stands does make it easier to enforce restrictions on access to pharmaceuticals, as requiring education is usually a part of licensing, and being able to "pull" a license makes regulation much easier. See "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II".)


For those interested in my previous arguments about public education, see "There Are Other Solutions", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "Reforming Education", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer" and "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited".

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Confirming My Argument on Peak Oil

I have written extensively that "peak oil" is a myth. Not only can we not know how much oil there truly is in the Earth, but even if we did, there are many factors which effect what is an is not "recoverable" as well as change consumption. If oil prices rise, previously "unrecoverable" oil, that is oil not counted in reserves, is suddenly available and profitable. Similarly, as prices rise, consumption falls, and thus peak oil theory, which relies on a linear growth of consumption (or worse) is absurd. Finally, "peak oil" ignores completely the possibility of new technology which can often transform "dry" wells into productive ones once more, or make accessible previously unprofitable reserves. Or even find reserves previously unseen and unimagined.

Well, today I found an article that confirmed my arguments. Its subject is not peak oil, but rather why President Obama should not be taking credit for increases in domestic oil production, but nevertheless it does help prove my arguments. First, it points out that most drops in production on federal land -- often used to argue oil is running out -- are the result of red tape and uncertainty over federal policies. Second, it demonstrates my argument about reserves by mentioning the Bakken shale formation. Officially, and in "peak oil" estimates, it contains 151 million barrels, or did, until the official figure was revised upward to 4.3 billion barrels. Yet, many experts imagine it contains upwards of 20 billion barrels. It also mentions the newly discovered Wolfcamp Shale, and additional 50 billion barrels previously not included in any estimates of "total oil".

The article then mentions a much more important fact, that for a long time shale oil and other deposits were not considered recoverable, in other words, not included in available reserves, but now technology and changes in oil price have made them not oil accessible, but profitable. In short, suddenly the total available reserves have skyrocketed.

All of which reinforces the point I have made -- and Julian Simon made before me in a more general way -- there is no "day when X runs out", thanks to price increases, substitution, new production and surveying for new reserves, every natural resource will be around for a long time. And this is especially true for oil. The propaganda about "peak oil" is based on a number of absurd ideas. First, that our current known reserves (which almost always amount to 30 years at current consumption) are in any way related to the total amount in the globe. Second, that the US's reduced production since the 1970s is somehow the result of reduced availability and not of ill-considered price controls in the 1970s, along with subsequent environmental and other regulatory impediments. Third, that technology will not improve, that present methods of production are just about the peak of development. And finally, and most foolishly, that price plays no part in production, that shortages, resulting in rising prices, will neither reduce consumption nor spur technological innovation and searches for new sources or potential substitutes.

So, if you think I am wrong about those four issues, then please embrace peak oil theories, but if you believe known reserves tell us mostly how much reserve supply oil companies need to feel comfortable -- or are willing to invest in prospecting -- that the decline in domestic production was largely a political phenomenon, that technology is not stagnant and, most of all, that the price mechanism plays a dynamic role in all economic processes, including the oil industry, then please disregard peak oil scare mongering.


My earlier essays on peak oil can be found at "A Brief Thought on "Peak Oil"", "I Am Going to Say Something that Doesn't Make Sense", "The Consumption Curve", "Peak Oil Re-Run", "A Brief Comment on Oil", "Why I Doubt Peak Oil Predictions", "Rejecting "Peak Oil"", "Why Peak Oil is Laughable", "A Thought on Oil Reserves", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Bad Economics Part 1".

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Misunderstanding Money

I received an amusing panic email, trying to sell me some financial advice service, which made an unusual, and amusingly misguided, mistake. According to this pitch, the problem we are facing is not government spending, or inflation, or any of the normal financial issues, but a shortage of physical dollar bills! Well, to be fair he argued because dollars are being held overseas, or hoarded at home, the small number of dollars forces us to use credit, and when that collapses, the shortage of legal tender will be a crisis. Oddly, in a way, this is right, but not because of a shortage of paper money, but rather because the system faces a potential crisis should anyone ever stop to ask what precisely IS legal tender.

There are two problems with this scaremongering, or rather three.

First, there is a very pragmatic one, the fact that, being simply pieces of paper, there is no technical problem with the Fed printing more, should they be needed, converting demand deposits, treasury holdings or anything else into paper if we run low. Granted, it would be an inflationary pressure, but there is simply no way we will ever run out of paper dollars, it would be to much of a political disaster.

Second, he also mistakes precisely what represents credit and what represents a transfer of money. Paper dollars do not have to change hands for real money, not credit, to be exchanged. In fact, thanks to the use of bank cards for so many exchanges, transfers of money are becoming ever less common. Allow me to explain. If I have $100 in my bank, and pay you $100 on a bank card, it is not credit, I really exchanged $100. But my bank does not send $100 to yours. Instead, all the banks in a given region tend to get together, and balance out all their transfers, and then make exchanges of real money only to settle any differences, or maybe not even then, instead taking a credit against future debts. Thus, though the nonsensical Keynesian measurement of "velocity"* remains low, much money can exchange hands without involving credit at all.

And there is a second issue. He also forgets that the same money can be both involved in direct exchange and loaned out, that is one physical dollar can be counted twice, or even more times. How? I deposit, say, $1000 with a bank. The bank allows me to draw on that account and spend that money as I wish. At the same time, since it is unlikely I will draw it all out, and since bank exchanges usually take place with few or no cash transfers, they can loan out part or all of that money to someone else. Thus, my money can be counted twice. Or maybe more! Imagine the borrower doesn't need to spend it all right now, but borrows to have cash for future expenses. He may deposit that money in an account until he needs it, and, in turn, some or all of that deposit may be loaned out once more. In the end, though many imagine otherwise, it is very difficult to determine precisely how much money there really is, how much is being exchanged, and all those other measurements in which Keynes and is descendants place so much stock.

But by far the greatest problem, his biggest mistake, is imagining those paper bills as the only legal tender, that they are "real dollars". In truth, they are, and always have been, Federal Reserve Notes, entitling the bearer to one dollar from the Fed. Granted, they are now to be accepted as legal tender, but so were silver certificates, and Federal Reserve Notes when still backed with gold, that does not make such notes into actual dollars.

So, what is a dollar?

I asked this before, and the answer is a bit troubling. ("What Is Money?", "What Is A Dollar?", "The Free Market Solution") In the past, a dollar was easy to define, it was a certain amount of gold or silver, sometimes different amounts of both, though most often it was a given weight of gold. Bank notes, and token coins -- those not made of gold or silver -- could be redeemed, either from private banks or the Federal Reserve, depending upon the era, for a set amount of precious metal. And it was that quantity of metal which was a dollar.

In 1934, FDR banned the holding of monetary gold by ordinary citizens. Certain institutions, and foreign citizens, banks and governments could still redeem notes for gold dollars, and thus, though citizens could not, the dollar was still convertible. It was only in the period of 1971 to 1973, when Nixon gradually reduced the classes of entities which could redeem notes, eventually entirely closing the "gold window"that the dollar lost its ties to gold.

So, what is a dollar?

In short, it is nothing. It is an imaginary entity which is represented by paper bills, entries in ledgers and so on. But, in truth, it is absolutely nothing. Of course, other nations have equally imaginary currency, and all impose this fantasy upon their citizens, decreeing those who refuse to accept these imaginary dollars have surrendered any claim to a debt. Yet, despite all the force of government brought to support this imaginary currency, the truth remains, the dollar is nothing at all.

Which is the mistake made in this scare email. Those paper notes are not dollars, they are notes giving one the right to claim a dollar. Unfortunately, since a dollar is nothing at all, such claims will never be made, and people will continue to confuse the paper with the imaginary thing. Which, in a way, bothers me. After all, if more of us realized a dollar is literally nothing, those of us fighting for a renewed gold standard might not hear so many absurd objections. After all, is the gold standard really such an "anachronism"? Such a "barbarous relic"? Especially when compared to a monetary system that amounts to nothing more than a world-wide game of "let's pretend"? Which system seems more sensible when viewed in those terms?


* Velocity is meaningless for any number of reasons, mostly because money does not "circulate". People hold money, and at times exchange it for goods, but that is hardly "circulation". The same is true of food, of clothes, of every good. But would we consider them as "circulating"? Yet, because we imagine money is somehow different we can believe it just jumps from person to person at some absurd "velocity". Worse, we accept the really nonsensical conclusions Keynes drew about inflation from this. But, I have criticized Keynes elsewhere, so I will skip it here.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Problems of Group Identity

NOTE: This was another essay cites in "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons". Though not related to the two essays I reproduced earlier, I think it is interesting as well, and so I have reproduced it from my old blog archives as well. (Eventually I hope to return to my one time practice of a more systematic reproduction of the several thousand posts no longer available on However, at the moment, I reproduced only maybe  on quarter or less, and so I find myself reproducing odds and ends either ass they are cited in new essays, or as I discover links in old posts that remind me of old essays I want to revive. But sooner or later I will find the time to do this in a more orderly fashion, though, ironically, these erratic reproductions actually make that harder, at least if I want to avoid duplicating essays.)

I was reading some discussion in wikipedia (a guilty pleasure) when I ran across an interesting discussion. In its own way, this debate highlights all the problems of modern racial/ethic thought.

On  the talk page for the article on Gavrilo Princip, there is an individual arguing, rightly I believe, to describe Princip's circle of assassins as "irredentist", as they were seeking a union of all south Slavs in a greater Serbian state, though it was often described as "Yugoslavian". What makes it interesting is the insistence of many moderns that there is no "south Slav" identity, only Bosnians, Croats, Slavs, etc. While the original writer argues that Princip himself, and confederates proposed to follow the Italian model with Serbia as Piedmont, and mentioned several times the "empire of Dushan" and a greater Serbia, the critics cannot get around their difficulties seeing Bosnians fighting for union with Serbia.

And this is precisely the problem I have with efforts to draw identity from ethnicity. Once we enshrine ethnicity as a political category, we are stuck with not just absurd rules, but endless pressure group warfare, every group trying to jockey for advantage, individuals trying to fit themselves into the most advantageous group, and ever smaller groups claiming advantages for themselves that are not given to the group from which they split.

For example, why is Obama black? We say he is, he says he is, but why? He is half black, but why doesn't that make him white? Why is Tiger Woods black? Why is he not Asian? Why am I caucasian? I have some tiny fragment of Cherokee blood, why am I not a Cherokee? Why are Mexicans Hispanics and granted preference, but Spaniards are not? And why is an Irishman's son, born in Buenos Aires suddenly Hispanic? 

For that matter, why are there "blacks" or "African Americans" if you prefer? Why not Zulus, Xhosa, and Swahili? Why are we lumping them all together?

And why are whites white? Or "Anglo-Americans"? Why do we not get Italian, British, Czech? And for that matter where does it stop? Do you get Italian or Sicilian or Messinian? How small a fragment of a group constitutes a viable ethnicity?

Before you think that last is absurd, look at any part of the world where ethnicity reigns. The Balkans perhaps or Burundi and Rwanda. For a time the big groups fight, Tutsi kill Hutus, or Serbs kill Croats, but once that dies down, the big groups fragment and start killing their own. Once we enshrine ethnicity eventually we are reduced to the kingdom of you and me and I'm not so sure about you. It is very easy to split groups infinitely once you allow for ethnic pressure warfare.

I know I have said it many times, but under what possible theory is ethnic identity a good idea to mix with politics? I know that much harm was done when race was a legally recognized category, but why doe sit follow that the cure is to recognize race even more? To make race a determining factor in even more facets of life? That is akin to trying to resolve the ills of slavery by putting whites into slavery to blacks, but making sure it is even more abject and horrible.

Call me an absurd idealist, but isn't it sensible to simply take no cognizance of anyone's place of birth, the place of birth of their ancestors, their nation of origin, genetics, religion, language, what have you? To treat each and every individual as an individual and leave it at that?

Or do we truly envy the amity and political stability of the Balkans so much that we must adopt their system?


And interesting aspect of this problem is that the government, to avoid racism, ends up following in the footsteps of the Nazis drawing up rules to define races.  Worse yet, they run into the same problem the Nazis did, the fact that there is no objective way to define race, there is no genetically "Jewish" race (nor "Hispanic" for that matter). As the Nazis ended up defining the Jewish "race" as "those who practice Judiasm or whose ancestors did", we have absurdities such as our definition of Hispanic as anyone coming from specific countries, regardless of parentage, or some ethnicities defined as anyone "drawing their identity" from some group. In other words, a psychotic who thinks he is eskimo is technically an eskimo under US law. Or, while I am not Hispanic, if my children are born and raised in Mexico City, regardless of their mother's race, they are suddenly Hispanic. And even  more puzzling, once they are Hispanic, all their descendants, regardless of place of birth, are as well. Unless they get lucky enough to marry an even more oppressed minority, in which case their children get to choose which is the most advantageously oppressed and claim that group.

It is not an absolute rule, but one I tend to follow in politics. If you policy ends up either producing absurd results, or leading you to the same governmental actions undertaken by either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, then it is probably a bad policy. This one hits two of three, so I have to say it is time to try something else.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/05.

The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting

NOTE: I am reproducing these two essays, both on the impossibility of true impartiality in reporting, because I came across citations to them in my essay "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", and was quite surprised to find I had not reprinted them yet. As I consider them some of my better writing, it seemed odd they had not yet made their way to my new blog. Thus, I have decided to reprint them, even though I am not currently referring to them in any work in progress.

Yesterday I mentioned an old post "The Death of Impartial Media", in which I suggested that we should give up our pretense at having impartial journalism and instead return to the historically, and globally, more common model of having competing, ideological news sources. Having thought about it some more, I have come to the conclusion that not only should we do that, but we must, as there is simply no way to have truly unbiased journalism. So any attempt to maintain an unbiased media will result in nothing but a farce.

Let us look at the basics, things that not even proponents of unbiased journalism will deny. Any given day there are countless happenings, and each of those happenings has countless details. Even if we could somehow provide all those details about each and every thing that happened, it would not be useful news, as readers would be overwhelmed. Instead reporters must decide which events are important enough to require the readers' attention, and then, which details of each happening are significant.

Now, here is where I part with those who believe in the possibility of impartial journalism. I argue that making those decisions inevitably brings in bias, at the vary start of the process. What events you report, what is significant about each, those sort of decisions must rest on some basic criteria, an underlying philosophy. Now, if we all agreed upon some basic philosophical concepts, perhaps we could then have unbiased reporting, at least unbiased within the context of groups which agree upon the basics. 

The problem is, we don't have even that much agreement. Just ask anyone whether the universe is rational or irrational. Whether logic alone can unlock all the secrets of the world. Whether man is rational or irrational. If we cannot agree on even those broad, basic questions, then we have no shared philosophy. Which means that even the big questions of journalism, what is newsworthy, what facts should be mentioned, are themselves answered based on a philosophy which is not shared by all readers. In other words, we disagree enough that even what one chooses to report shows something of an ideological bias.

Let us ignore politics for a moment and look at the question of journalism more generally.

We admit there are special interests which should have their own news outlets. For instance, Jewish journals may find a meeting of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis interesting, while the more general interest news would ignore it. On the other hand, model railroading news would find the release of a new line of train interesting, while general news would ignore it. There we recognize that one's preconceptions colors what news is of interest.,

So why not the same for political bias? Why not news which interests liberals? Or news which is of interest to conservatives? 

Of course some will ask "what about those who have no affiliation? Who have no interest in ideology? Or just want the day's events?"

I suppose some centrists could try to create an ideological outlet catering tot heir interests, and that would probably work for politics. For the rest? Well, there really is no "just news". Think about it. When was the last time you saw a local newscast without SOME "big picture" attached? Even when it is something simple like a murder or robbery, there is almost always some little snippet about police funding, crowded jails, or economic hard times attached. It is very rare to find a news story without some ideology attached.

Of course they could also publish sort sort of "police blotter" type reports, generic listings of the bare facts, drawn from police reports, listing any and all felony arrests or something similar. Perhaps a C-SPAN like news feed of raw happenings in Congress, or a transcript like the Congressional Record. But as the general lack of interest in such unedited news feeds shows, people want their news a bit more pared down and with some interpretation.  And once you introduce that selection and interpretation, you are back int he territory of bias once more.

And that would leave those interested in "straight news" in the same position they are today. Today they watch ideologically slanted news and have to filter out bias. Why would the future be any different. The only change would be, instead of a quiet ideological bias, we would have an overt one.

And int he end, I think that is for the best. Just admit our journalists' ideologies up front, and let the viewers decide. Rather than pretending reporters are "impartial", admit where we stand and leave it up to the market to pick and choose the winners and losers. Isn't that better than constantly lying and keeping up the pretense that journalists are somehow "above the fray", while all the while everyone knows they are nothing of the kind?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/07/31.

The Death of Impartial Media

NOTE: I am reproducing these two essays, both on the impossibility of true impartiality in reporting, because I came across citations to them in my essay "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", and was quite surprised to find I had not reprinted them yet. As I consider them some of my better writing, it seemed odd they had not yet made their way to my new blog. Thus, I have decided to reprint them, even though I am not currently referring to them in any work in progress.

It was a lie from the start, perhaps a noble lie, but a lie. And it was an aberration, a historical anomaly. We forget that as it has been the story all our lives, but the theory of an impartial press does not have some ancient pedigree, and, in terms of both history, and of the rest of the world, it is an exception rather than the norm.

Until relatively recently, and still in many nations, it is accepted that the press is biased. Papers are sold as being the organs of parties, of unions, of political association, or are at least sold as "the right wing paper", or "the socialist paper". There are some nations which mirror to some degree the American fascination with an impartial press, but, for the most part, the media around the world recognize, as do the citizens, that the press will have a political bias. They then either select the papers which suit their ideology, or they select a range of papers, hoping a selection of biases will average out to the truth.

And that was the situation in the US for a long time as well. It was recognized that a "Hearst paper" would have a given bias, for example. Even today, many cities have papers which the public, if not the papers themselves, recognize as having differing ideologies. TheWashington Post and Washington Times for example, or the New York Times and (sadly departed) New York Sun. The difference is that the members of the press themselves are now unwilling to recognize any bias. Even when the public recognizes a clear bias, the press chooses to pretend there is none, or that it is confined to the editorial pages.

But now, I think, the time may have come to finally confess that this experiment has been a failure. If we assume that the myth started in the fifties, it was less than two decades before myth collapsed. By 1968, and Walter Cronkite's misleading presentation of the Tet offensive, it was clear that the press had an agenda and was not afraid to allow it to influence their presentation of stories. And certain, in today's environment, with the media doing everything but telling voters to vote for Obama, they have no choice but to admit there is a bias.

It may be for the best. The myth of impartiality was untenable even when the press managed to give the appearance of being disinterested. The philosophy of those reporting the news will inevitably color their presentation. For example, a Marxist and a devotee of Austrian economists will not be able to agree on what factors should be reported during an economic collapse. Their philosophies will make them focus on different matters, even if they keep explicit mention of their beliefs out of the story. Everything we do is colored by our philosophy, even to the point of determining what we consider important. It is simply impossible to keep our philosophy from coloring what we choose to cover, not to mention how we cover it.

So, perhaps it is a good thing, this outpouring of press bias in support of Obama. If it causes us to give up the ludicrous myth that we have an unbiased press, perhaps it will finally give birth to a set of competing media which will do a better job of presenting the whole story than has our secretly bias "impartial" media.

UPDATE 10/06/2008

I have seen similar sentiments on another blog. The interesting difference, though predictable, is that the blogger, as most of us do, seems to believe in an objective media. Of course, we have been told for so long that the media should be objective and impartial that I expect almost every article to be based on that assumption.

And so, for the immediate future, I expect to see more such articles, decrying the press bias, while trying to preserve the idea of an impartial press. However, I do think that, as it becomes more apparent the press is simply not well suited to present the news free of bias, people will begin to surrender this idea and return to the concept of competing biased news outlets. 

It won't come all at once, and it will take time, but I think the myth of the unbiased press will eventually disappear. At least for a time, until some other future theorist revises that impractical idea.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/10/05.