Friday, September 26, 2003

There's an odd article on defending a liberty that few care to defend these days, the right not to associate.
Suppose a beautiful woman wants to date me, but I don't want to date her. It might be for a good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. Should I be free not to deal with her? Similarly, you might want to come to my party or enroll your children in my private school, but I don't want to deal with you. My refusal might be for any arbitrary reason, including your race, sex or religion, or because I don't like your looks. Should the government force us to associate with those we wish not to associate?

The article is all about the slippery slope, which is a fine thing to point out, although the presence of a slippery slope doesn't mean we shouldn't draw a line somewhere. I'm more annoyed by the articles' refusal to take a stand, instead it slides you down the slippery slope with questions then insinuates an answer based on consistency arguments.
Isn't there a general principle here? Namely, that if one cherishes freedom of association, is there a logically consistent argument for permitting it in some areas of our lives and not in others? ... The bottom line is that the true test of one's commitment to freedom of association doesn't come when he allows people to associate in ways he deems acceptable. The true test comes when he's willing to permit others to associate in ways he deems grossly offensive.

(Note that the author does entirely defend laws against discrimination in publicly-financed activities -- this point was lost on me in my first reading).

Anyway, this part reminded me of a plan of my Mom's from way, way back:

Today, most Americans would be offended by any law that banned blacks and whites from playing tennis together or marrying one another. Wouldn't it be just as offensive were there a law requiring blacks and whites to play tennis together or marry one another?
My Mom suggested when I was writing a high school paper on some history or social science topic, that the government should reduce racism by offering a miscegenation bonus, possibly linked to the number of mixed-race babies produced. Marriage and reproduction are already part of the government program in any country that taxes married couples less (or more) than the same two individuals because of their legal status, and in every country that has a baby bonus as part of its tax program. Historically, these programs have had a significant measurable effect on peoples' behavior. When Lower Canada decided to improve its economy and political weight by becoming more populous, it did so in part by offering a generous new baby bounty program but only if the children did not become priests or nuns (presumably this political weight therefore came partly at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church). This program coupled with catholic birth control practices (i.e. none) led to families routinely of sizes from eight to fourteen children. Likewise, a miscegenation bounty would hasten the day when we're all kind of coffee-coloured and one-sixteenth of everything you can think of.
The jobless recovery has been in the news a great deal lately. I've been thinking about how this relates to my industry, software/computers. Part of the blame for the job losses is attributed to this industry because the astounding productivity gains (annual rate of 6.8%) come in part from much improved communication and publishing software. It's hard to put a finger on exactly what is improving productivity, but clearly tools allowing virtual meetings on the Web cut down on travel, and the still-spreading use of the Web to allow people to do paperless and people-less paperwork (like my latest car license renewal online) must be making a difference.

Ironically, the software/computer industry is suffering from the jobless recovery too. Although I don't know many peers currently out of jobs, it's not as easy to find a job as it was during the boom, even though (anecdotally) quite a few peers seem to have left the industry to return to school or to jobs in other fields. You'd think that if companies were buying software products to fuel their productivity improvements, then the software business would recover quickly from the bust and be hiring again by now (this may soon happen in telecoms). On the other hand, perhaps the productivity improvements affect this field more than any other (techies are more likely to be able to use Web sites to complete paperwork, and more likely to be able to use videoconferencing to reduce travel). And the current attitude of economists seems to be that job recoveries will usually lag economic growth: "Companies lag in rehiring laid-off workers or in hiring new workers until they see concrete, undeniable evidence that their own businesses are growing." (ref).

Are there any other factors? I've been looking for evidence to either prove or disprove my hypothesis: that techie salaries rocketed too high during the boom. Companies hired at unsustainable salaries, compared to the benefits these programmers were generating. Now, due to a ratcheting effect, salaries have not yet dropped to a reasonable level. If salary expectations dropped some, perhaps we'd see a more vigorous job market for techies again. That would require that the demand for techies is elastic with respect to salary, so one of the things I'm looking at is whether anybody has looked at labour elasticity for the tech labour market. Pointers from readers are welcome, or stay tuned for more posts on this subject.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

I've been watching Charmed reruns in the past few months. It's not on as much as Law & Order, but it's on often enough that I've sampled all the seasons, those with Shannen Doherty (ugh) and then those with her replacement, Rose McGowan (yay!). Alyssa Milano has been there the whole run, and she's OK -- she generally plays a hassled but kick-ass young career woman. Her character, Phoebe, gets to be childish at times, outlandish at times, independent at times, and then finish off an episode with leaping karate kicks to incapacitate a demon so they can then vanquish him (well, almost always the evil guy is "him"). Cool. I like her even if her fashion taste seems a bit questionable at times.

Holly Marie Combs has also been there the whole life of the show: initially as the middle witch sister, then when Shannon's character was killed off, as the eldest living witch sister. Her character Piper is "earthy", the one who cooks food and nags her more footloose sisters to wear a sweater. She runs a club with cool music, which is supposed to make her character cool, but since she's often whining about problems at the club, it doesn't in fact make her seem cool and hip. She frets about her boyfriends or her husband, or her pregnancy, or her baby (depending on where you are in the long story arc) with the same whiny tone. In short, she's often a bitch, and she's rarely cute (like Alyssa/Phoebe) or funny (like Rose/Paige). Ekr frequently points out how nagging and demanding she is of her husband and how unsympathetic she is.

So I have two questions after thinking about this show, its writing, and its appeal to me. (1) Why, if Holly Marie Combs is the producer, and her character sometimes gets the "plum" parts in an episode (like being temporarily the nature goddess in last season's finale), is her character allowed to come across as a bitch? Is this an unremediable impression whenever HMC acts? (2) Why do I care about her character anyway? My hypothesis is that it's an endearing character flaw, to women, at least. She frets and worries and cares about the people around her even as she whines and complains and nags and demands. So maybe we understand that worry sometimes brings out the worst nag in all of us. I know it's not just me, although you find people obsessed with just about any major TV female character.

Friday, September 19, 2003

I've heard both sides of the arguments on minimum wage, many, many times. How about some actual numbers?
During the 1990-1991 wage increases - of those who earned between the old and the new minimum $3.35 and $4.25 only 22% lived in poor families. All told including no or small employment effects [reduced employment due to higher wages] only 19% of earnings increases went to poor families, mostly going to workers in non-poor families. Seems like a blunt instrument to fight poverty (ref)
Now, you might think it's OK that it's such a blunt instrument. The legislation does put some money in the pockets of the poor. The wasted money goes to the non-poor (probably teenage children or other dependents in non-poor families). The cost of the program is hard to say but it is highly likely to involve both loss of some jobs (both for the poor and for non-poor working near the minimum wage), and in higher product prices (which may affect poor or non-poor). However it becomes harder to justify the costs of the program since so many of the possible benefits of the program are wasted.

Another rationalization would be to say that the raise in wages to the non-poor working near minimum wage is still a real benefit. Still, it's worth considering whether that benefit is worth the cost. Personally, I prefer programs that help the poor but also have very low waste and market distortions. A tax credit only for the poor would probably fit that description.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

For knitters, I've got new pics up of koolaid-dyed wool and some new knitting projects. For WebDAV afficionados, I just uploaded pictures from this weeks' interop event at UCSC. For everybody else, let's see... here's something. The Verisign move to direct you to advertising pages for unregistered domain names is causing a bit of a furor. Some random guy (a Melbourne IT consultant) said in response:
It's certainly a very self-serving move, and a body such as VeriSign should have followed the accepted process for peer-review, perhaps in conjunction with an IETF working group.
Yeah, I don't think so. The IETF is a technical body and very poor at non-technical decision making. We have a hard enough problem doing IM protocols and getting AOL to participate -- even harder to do political/commercial work and get Verisign to participate. Any other suggestions, or does international society just not have a way to deal with this? I guess under US law it might be anti-competitive. However, there are completely non-legislative, non-discussion-based and yet still consensus-oriented ways to deal with this. A smarter sysadmin said
Developers were likely to respond by patching the software for DNS services ... so that false results pointing at VeriSign's servers were discarded.
This I agree with. (quotes from Sydney Morning Herald, link via Ditherati.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

I have to admire Scott McNealy for expressing such strong support for strong competition in this interview.
Market discipline is very aggressive, very strong and very precise in who it clobbers -- those who don't perform. There's only one blemish in capitalism and that is when market discipline is lost to a monopolist.
Still, he wants the law to help him against his major competitor, so it's a convenient position in his case. The interviewer rubs this in a little, saying "You talked about the beauty of the Darwinian marketplace and right now the market is beating you up. " It's a fairly interesting interview ranging from technology execution and vision through stock prices to the recall election. Although why it matters what Scott McNealy thinks of the recall election, I don't know. My favourite bit is his answer on employing programmers:
Q: I'm wondering who's going to employ all the American workers.

A: You sound like a piano player in the old days when there were 35,000 piano players playing in the front of every movie theater when they had silent movies. You're saying, "Who's going to employ all of us now that they have sound embedded in the films?"

Gang, we've got brains. There'll be lots to do.

Monday, September 15, 2003

I admit I have not been following free trade negotiations very closely lately, but I had thought that the negotiations would fail because US/EU would be unwilling to reduce their subsidies and tariffs on agriculture at the behest of the poorer countries. I didn't think it would be the other way around because the poorer countries suffer more from first-world tariffs and barriers than even from their own. However, I'm guessing that there are a couple really bad but powerful reasons why poor countries are keeping their tariffs and subsidies:
  • to show a tough negotiating position at the WTO, not to seem like the first world is pushing around the third world
  • to keep around their own popular tariffs and barriers, which benefit only special interest groups, but are politically popular

I'm basing this analysis on columns by Richard Tren in Tech Central Station and Ron Bailey in Reason, and Alan Wheatley (Reuters via Forbes) who calls it a "pyrrhic victory". (Coverage is divided though -- Globe and Mail writer Steven Chase puts the blame on rich countries, calling their concessions "timid cuts", and Lori Wallach blamed the rich countries for insisting on their own agenda). Some say the EU showed remarkable willingness to liberalize agricultural trade but never even got to the negotiating table.

This is sad, but the saddest thing is that we shouldn't even need to negotiate to liberalize trade. If the EU would liberalize its own agricultural trade practices, unilaterally, overall EU participants would benefit. If any poor country were to liberalize its own agricultural trade practices unilaterally it would benefit. Yet each group demands the other back down first. This is an example of "I'm going to continue hurting myself until you stop hurting yourself!" And the poor-country negotiators believe this to be a strong position, one that shows how they can win at the WTO. I don't see how good can come of this. High status as a tough negotiator is not worth several more years of increased poverty.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Wow, I'm prescient! Or at least a mind reader. From a TCS article:
The Europeans [delegates at WTO Cancun] have happened upon a simple solution. Rather than supporting prices for agricultural products and inducing overproduction, they propose to just give farmers the money at least for some of their spending.

Kevin Hasset explains the whole logic better than I did.
A pro-free-market group CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) pokes pointed fun at Greenpeace, EU and the Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network, in a mock award ceremony for promoting and ensuring lasting poverty.
  • Greenpeace's award was for opposing any technology and economic development that could improve the lives of the poor. This is not the first time Greenpeace has received an award for this.
  • EU's award was for laws, tariffs and subsidies that prevent poor countries from trading in the global market.
  • PAN's award was for opposing the pesticides and biotech that could provide more food for poor people in their own region.
I'm sorry they missed the US in their awards list, I don't know if it's an equal offender with the EU on everything, but I think it is on agriculture at least (see previous rants). Another free-market stunt:
" is planning to sell soft drinks to protesters on Saturday that will feature two prices for the same drink - a cheaper 'Free trade' price and a more expensive 'fair trade' price."

Thursday, September 11, 2003

More ranting inspired by WTO Cancun. From Reuters:
"If we are going to tell our farmers to cut their subsidies, we are going to need to bring something else back to the table," deputy U.S. Trade Representative Josette Shiner told journalists.

That's just not true. Farmers would be happy enough if the same dollar amount that currently goes into subsidies simply went straight into their pockets, instead. It would be less paperwork for them and they might still be able to grow some crop (perhaps the same one, perhaps different) that they can sell on the world market without the crutch of a subsidy and further enhance their revenue. Replace the subsidy with a handout of equal value and call it a "Post-agricultural welfare cheque". Continue writing the cheques yearly for life, to individuals, or for 10 years, to companies. Then they're gone and in the meantime the rest of the world has a chance to grow cotton or beans and make a living.
From a National Post article on WTO Cancun:
The U.S. government spends US$3.6-billion a year on its 25,000 cotton farmers, depressing the world price to the point the African countries cannot export their main crop at a profit."

I calculate that's $144,000 per cotton farmer per year. That's quite a bit more than I make. It's also 320 times the average per-person GDP of $450/year in sub-Saharan Africa (according to this Reason article also on WTO Cancun). So if the US removed its cotton subsidy and gave it directly to sub-saharan Africans instead, it could double the yearly product of 8 million Africans. Or if only the US removed its cotton subsidy and instead paid its cotton farmers the same amount regardless of what they did, then the price of cotton would not be distorted and African cotton farmers might have a chance on the world market and enrich themselves with no help from us. It's insane what we do to hurt poor people in other countries.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

I don't have much to say lately, and I don't really know why, either. I'm busy but that can't be all. I'm not completely single minded, however: I did dye some fabric on labour day.

More images and info here.

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