Starship Mises

I started reading Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" last night.  First of all, if you haven't seen the movie, read the book instead.  If you have seen the movie, try to forget it and read the book anyway as it is quite different and much, much better.  Granted, I'm only 1/3 of the way through the book, but I like it well enough to give it a ringing endorsement.

Scattered throughout are pearls of wisdom in elegantly plain language such as this one on value:

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero.

He continues on with a brilliantly simple explanation of subjective value theory, but you'll have to read the book for that.  

Related Post: Heinlein Foreshadowed Cash for Clunkers

Economy: Impossible

Chef Robert Irvine hosts a fantastically entertaining show on the food network, Restaurant: Impossible in which he attempts to turn around failing restaurants with a combination of customer-centric business savvy, a tremendous work-ethic, psychological counseling and a healthy dose of yelling.  To be sure much of the show is geared toward the theatrical, and the businesses are helped by an infusion of cash and at least a temporary bump from appearing on TV.  But the show illustrates a very important aspect of business - it's not all about the cash. Often the proprietors have poured copious quantities of their own money and time into the business only to fail due to their poor decisions, management techniques and food preparation.  Chef Robert provides something more valuable than capital or marketing; he provides entrepreneurism.  He roots out the structural problems in the business plan, or lack thereof, and attempts to fundamentally improve the way the restaurant treats the customer so that they may become profitable in the long term.

I would love to see the show's producers add another layer to the show by providing a subsection of the applicants with cash and free advertising by appearing on the show but with no advice from Chef Robert.  This "control arm" would provide a valuable insight into the application of "stimulus" without any intelligent market direction.  I have little doubt that the control group businesses would continue to struggle more often than not.

You may have guessed that I see this show as an allegory to our current economic struggles and the government's attempt to literally paper them over.  But let me stop you before you think that I am suggesting a layer of guidance bureaucracy atop the stimulus.  Besides the fact that any such bureaucrats are unlikely to have the skills or proper incentives to succeed in such an endeavor, there is already a much better structure in place to provide this market guidance - profit and loss.  When a business fails, the Chef Roberts of the world can take the capital that has been producing things people don't want to buy and apply their knowledge and skills to employ the capital in making things people do want to buy.  They will not always succeed, but they will certainly produce more wealth on the whole than we will by throwing money at bad ideas.

Most people can’t think, most of the remainder won’t think, the small fraction who do think mostly can’t do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion—in the long run these are the only people who count . . -- Robert Heinlein 

In Defense of Moonshiners

You might say that I come from a long line of men who enjoy the drink, so if anyone were to be helped by the paternalistic ban on booze, it would be me.  Unfortunately, it is incongruent with human nature to think that anyone can be protected from themselves.

It's been rumored that my grandfather made moonshine.  He was coal miner in southern West Virginia, so as far as I can tell, the story checks out.  Regardless, let's take a moment to think about who might be hurt from his alleged business.

First, let's consider the case in which he makes a good and safe product.  The most obvious victim is the consumer who cannot control his actions under the influence of alcohol let alone curtail his own consumption of it.  Everyone is familiar with the story of the drunk who, during the brief period during which he keeps his job, goes home and beats his family after a long day at the mill.  Doubtless he and his family would be better off without access to alcohol.  So fine, let's make a law banning the production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages.  Wait a minute, didn't we try that?  What happened?  People kept drinking spirits, which were purchased on a black market.  Black market purchases, as always, were accompanied by violence and products of inferior and practically unverifiable quality.  So the drunk either, in the best case, went blind from drinking methanol, got caught up in gang violence and was killed or, in the worst case, continued to beat his wife and kids.  An organized and ruthless system of crime developed around this black market, leading to a loss of safety and security for the masses, the dissolution of the seemingly well-intended law, and providing fodder for the greatest films of the 20th century.  So much for protecting the first class of victim of this otherwise safe and reputable product.  It turns out there were a great number of unforeseen victims ignored by the well-meaning legislators, as is usually the case.

Second, you may say, "There is no guarantee that his product is safe and reliable.  He could really hurt some people by selling wood alcohol or blowing up his home and still."  Fine, let's regulate the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages.  This should sound perfectly reasonable and familiar to everyone.  But to whom do we grant these licenses and for what cost?  How do we separate ourselves from the organized crime bosses, who after all merely sought to bring order to the unruly anarchy before them and who employ the same tactic that we propose - physical force?   You may say that we elect officials to conduct our raids and protect our made men at our chosen distilleries, but this is merely different in magnitude, not in kind.  Had Capone's business been more popular in the eye's of the public, would any among us have considered them just?  Those of us who wish to govern must understand that proclaiming the power to license inexorably weakens our armor to corruption as those who have purchased our favor will certainly pay to keep their neighbors out.  So, by assuming rights we do not have, we will have disrupted what integrity remains of our government all in the name of an alleged good which can never be measured at cost which can never be known.

Let the moonshiner's reputation govern the safety and quality of his product.  Let him engage in peaceful transaction with his benefactors in the sanitizing light of day.  Let freedom ring; and let's have another drink!

A whore should be judged by the same criteria as other professionals offering services for pay—such as dentists, lawyers, hairdressers, physicians, plumbers, etc. Is she professionally competent? Does she give good measure? Is she honest with her clients? It is possible that the percentage of honest and competent whores is higher than that of plumbers and much higher than that of lawyers. And enormously higher than that of professors.  -- Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Political Guy

There has long been a strain of progressivism underlying "Family Guy" with Brian, the family dog, being the liberal conscience of the family.  This is unfortunate because it happens to be one of my favorite shows.  The most recent episode was the most political yet.  Not surprisingly, it was the furthest off the mark.  The show began with Peter operating his own jack-of-all-trades business from his home.  Ostensibly out of fear that he may hurt someone by doing bad business and explicitly because he didn't have the appropriate license, the city shut him down.  Peter's reaction was to join the Tea Party and bring and end to the city government.  This is where the realism of the show deteriorated.  The remainder of the show was devoted to an inaccurate caricature of the movement as more centralized, coherent and anarchistic than it truly is.   The incoherent nature of the Tea Party is made obvious by simply observing the diverse opinions of those who pretend to lead it.  I will grant creative license here and criticize no further - a realistic portrayal of squabbling within the movement would not make for an entertaining show.  I will however take umbrage with the anarchistic strain in Peter's Tea Party.

Few would argue that the Tea Party is considerably anti-government in general, but fewer still would argue that the movement is anarchistic, anti-all-government, at its base.  Rather, the movement favors less government or limited government and generally appeals to traditional limitations to its size and scope,  such as the federal constitution.  If the movement was consistently anarchistic, very few if any of its adherents would get involved in the political process at all.  Lest you think I am over interpreting the distinction here or giving to too much importance, note the scene where a dissenter, a man who holds a sign reading, "A little bit of government", is physically assaulted by the mob and presumably killed.  Similarly, a lone dissenting voice among the mob is later silenced via gunfire immediately prior to the dissolution of the city government.  A predictable and tired depiction of the breakdown of society - due to the lack of city governance mind you - then followed including such statist fear mongering as the garbage piling up, chaos on the roads, planes falling out of the sky and riots in the streets.

Perhaps, you say, I should not derive deep political meaning from the raunchiest cartoon on television.   This line of thinking is betrayed by the fact that the conclusion of the show is devoted to making a strong, albeit simple, statement about the morality and practicality of democracy.  The program was not just poking fun at everyone for the hell of it as it usually does and which I usually enjoy.  There was clearly the intention of a distinctly political message - a moral of the story so to speak.

So let's recap the strategy:

  1. Create a farcical situation in which the main character, the show's biggest boob, gets involved with a political movement you disagree with.
  2. Misrepresent the positions of that movement to align it with one of history's greatest boogiemen - anarchists.  
  3. Misrepresent what might happen if the city government were to disappear overnight. 
  4. Make an over simplified speech extolling the values you hold directed at knocking down the straw men that you have set up - the fictitious anarchist tea partiers.  
  5. Preemptively make fun of anyone who might call you out on the internet.  

I am all for poking fun at just about anyone, even people who want less government, but people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  Remember the "Fellas At The Freakin' FCC"?

The proper role of government deserves serious consideration given by serious adults.  Politics and satire are similarly cheapened by moralizing, partisan cartoons.

Incandescent Bulbs - The Seen and the Unseen

During a large portion of the year, in a large portion of the world, I would argue that the incandescent bulb is 100% efficient.  Provocative enough?  Well it shouldn't be.  If you're thinking that incandescent bulbs are generally reported to be 10-20% efficient, you are correct.  But the energy that is wasted is simply heat put off by the bulb.  Here in Pittsburgh there are only 4-5 months out of the year that I am not running the heat, at least intermittently.  This means the heat put off by the bulb, even though it is quite small in magnitude, is helping me heat my house.  So from my perspective, the bulb is 100% efficient during such time.  I doubt this consideration has been included in the justification of the laws attempting to ban incandescent bulbs in favor of the "more efficient" compact florescents.  This thinking is in line with the overly constrained and simplified engineering perspective that our great leaders so often take when attempting to run out lives.  They will always fail to take into consideration all potential use cases - in this case they missed a pretty big one.  It is relatively easy to come up with models and estimates for how much product X is going to save the average consumer Y.  The difficulty comes in extrapolating those savings to the entire population.  It is quite easy to imagine scenarios in which a CFL does not save John Q. Citizen any money or is more trouble than it is worth.  But it doesn't matter.  Our choice will be forcibly constrained so that model citizen Y may save a few bucks using his light bulbs in a particular way.   
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