Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fairies, Unicorns, and Free-Market Republicans

Russ Roberts, responding to Minority Leader John Boehner's declaration that “the era of big government” has returned:

And what did we have the day and the week and the year and the decade before Obama's address? Ah yes, I remember. The Milton Friedman inspired laissez-faire world of free market capitalism and a limited Jeffersonian state.

I almost feel sorry for the Republicans. They know what their role is supposed to be. Having failed to inhabit the role for the last eight years (and a lot longer) they don't realize how silly they look slipping into the same old costume. It's like a fat man trying to do an ad for a weight loss regimen. It doesn't sell that well.

It would be an understatement to say that the Republicans have lost their free-market credibility. (If they ever really had it in the first place.) Yet politicos, and intelligent laymen, still inexplicably insist on linking the two; this only injures real pro-capitalists: it muddies the waters.

So, let it be said once and for all: Republicans do NOT represent laissez-faire capitalism. There. Now can we please move on?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Conundrum of the Kindle 2

Roy Blount Jr, president of the Authors Guild, laments the new "text to speech" functionality of the Kindle 2. From yesterday's Times:
[The] Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.

True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books — every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.

You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter” or of authors, ahem, reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable. There’s even a male version and a female version. (A book by, say, Norman Mailer on Kindle 2 might do a brisk business among people wondering how his prose would sound in measured feminine tones.)

And that sort of technology is improving all the time. I.B.M. has patented a computerized voice that is said to be almost indistinguishable from human ones. This voice is programmed to include “ums,” “ers” and sighs, to cough for attention, even to “shhh” when interrupted. According to Andy Aaron, of I.B.M.’s Thomas J. Watson research group speech team: “These sounds can be incredibly subtle, even unnoticeable, but have a profound psychological effect. It can be extremely reassuring to have a more attentive-sounding voice.”
I'm a bit split over this. My first thought is: Blount is the head of an organization that represents a dying medium, and is trying to protect it from creative destruction. Boo hoo, right? On the other hand, if the Kindle 2 does infringe on the copyrights of audiobooks (which is something for the courts to determine), then, for contractual purposes alone, they should be protected.

Even if Blount is successful in upholding audio rights, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Ultimately, the dam will break and this reading technology, if it indeed is able to mimic the best human readers, could transform the audiobook industry. Just look at what has happened with music and television (from recordable cassettes and VCRs, to iTunes and Hulu).

Creative destruction will always be opposed by those who are destroyed (candlemakers, buggy drivers, Woolworth's), but that is the nature of progress. Ultimately, everyone is made better off because of it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Politics in the Lab

Do some scientists have a political ax to grind? Here is an excerpt from another wonderful John Tierney "Findings" article in the Times. Mind the fact that Roger Pielke Jr, the scientist quoted in the article, is a self-described "Obamite."
Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.

But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.

A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.

But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Good God

This is what happens when state governments try to be cute:

[HT: DCist]

Monday, February 9, 2009

America has ED (Economic Dysfunction)

Via Reason.

Accuracy in Economic Reporting

In a recent post, Cafe Hayek's Russ Roberts corrects an AP article, and illustrates how bias can creep into supposedly "objective" reporting. Roberts strikes the hyperbolic language, and adds caveats (in bold) where needed:
Recession-battered employers eliminated 598,000 jobs in January, the most since the end of 1974, and catapulted increasing the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent. The grim figures were further proof that the nation's job climate is deteriorating at an alarming clip with no end in sight.

The Labor Department's report, released Friday, showed the terrible toll the drawn-out recession is having on workers and companies. It also puts even more pressure on Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to try to revive the economy through a stimulus package and a revamped financial bailout plan, both of which are may be nearing completion.

The latest net total of job losses was far worse than the 524,000 that economists expected. Job reductions in November and December also were deeper than previously reported.

With cost-cutting employers in no mood to hire, the unemployment rate bolted increased to 7.6 percent in January, the highest since September 1992. The increase in the jobless rate from 7.2 percent in December also was worse than the 7.5 percent rate economists expected though the tenth of a percentage point difference could be treated as negligible.

All told, the economy has lost a staggering 3.6 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. About half of this decline occurred in the past three months.

"Companies are in survival mode and are really cutting to the bone," said economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. "They are cutting and cutting hard now out of fear of an uncertain future."

Factories slashed cut 207,000 jobs in January, the largest one-month drop since October 1982, partly reflecting heavy losses at plants making autos and related parts. Construction companies got rid of 111,000 jobs. Professional and business services chopped 121,000 positions. Retailers eliminated 45,000 jobs. Leisure and hospitality axed 28,000 slots.

Those reductions swamped employment gains in education and health services, as well as in the government but I won't bother telling you the size of these increases.

To repeat what was said a few paragraphs earlier in a trivially different way:
Just in the 12 months ending January, an astonishing 3.5 million jobs have vanished, the most on record going back to 1939, although the total number of jobs has grown significantly since then which is just a confusing way of saying that as a percentage of the work force, it's nothing close to 1939.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Politics of Fear Return to Washington

So much for change:
'A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future,'' Obama said in his prepared remarks.
I'm not surprised, or disappointed. Though it is amusing that the left think their guys don't resort to their opponents' tactics.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The American Dream

Here's a follow-up to my random thought below.

Zogby International has published a new survey of our view of the "American Dream." While definitions of the American Dream vary, the gist is that the American system of capitalism allows anyone with the determination to improve their lot the ability to do so. The results of the poll show a fundamental difference in viewpoints.

For those, the 56%, who still believe in the American Dream, their top reasons were:
59%: "I'm intelligent and work hard, so I should succeed."

52%: "America is the land of opportunity."

25%: "I am an optimist."
For those opposed:
44%: "The powers that be don't care about people like me."

29%: "Americans shouldn't think of themselves as special and entitled to an ideal life."

27%: "Where I live, it costs too much, and the American Dream is just out of reach."
Notice that the latter are collectivistic ("the powers that be don't care about me"), anti-American, and pessimistic; the former are individualistic, pro-American, and optimistic. Who do you think is more likely to advocate statism? Freedom?

[HT: Russ Roberts.]

A Note and a Thought

I've been vacationing in sunny South Florida, hence the lack of posts this last week. I'm back to blogging now, for better or worse.

A random thought: Has anyone noticed that those who have been chanting the word "hope" the last two years are the ones proclaiming cataclysm, while those in the so-called "dismal science" are the ones who are optimistic about the state of the economy? Here are two articles published in today's New York Times, just one illustration of this schism.