Monday, May 26, 2008

The dread menace of elderly altruists, thwarted at last!

From Rad Geek comes the bizarre story of an elderly man in Florida who was arrested and fined $2,000 for offering a woman who said she needed help getting home- who was actually an undercover agent of the Miami-Dade County’s Consumer Services Department- a ride home in his car. His offense? After the agent repeatedly demanded to know how much money he wanted for his aid, 78-year old Rosco O’Neil finally agreed to suggest a price, at which point he was set upon by a group of police who seized and impounded his van for providing an “illegal taxi service.”

This is incredibly perverse, but the fact that O’Neil is being punished by the government for trying to help someone in need isn’t the main aspect of this that interests me. The fact that the man in this incident was obviously not engaged in anything resembling any sane person’s idea of “taxi service” is not the most bothersome thing. The most bothersome thing is that there are undercover agents hunting unlicensed taxi drivers. My first thought was that the whole idea sounded like something out of Stalinist Russia, but that’s not quite right; it more like something out of a wacky, over-the-top parody of Stalinist Russia.

I’m sure it’s not easy working for the Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department. Every morning as you put on your bullet-proof vest to go to work, you wonder if this is the last time you’ll say goodbye to your wife and kids, if this is the day some unlicensed taxi driver hopped up on pine-scented air freshener sticks a knife between your ribs or beats you to death with his beaded back cushion. At night you lie awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, as the faces of licensed taxi drivers whose monopoly profits you couldn’t save stare accusingly back. And yet, when you look into your youngest daughter’s eyes every morning, you don’t regret the sacrifices you’ve made, because by God you are not going to let her grow up in a world where kindly old men offer transportation to people in need on every street corner. Not in your town, not while you have anything to say about it!

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A quick vocabulary lesson

Is a little respect for the English language too much to ask from one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers? The answer, of course, is yes. I found this in today’s online Wall Street Journal:

When Steven Barber turned in a short story this semester for his creative-writing class at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, his instructor was alarmed. The 23-year-old student had produced an imagined account of someone on the edge of a violent breakdown, touching on suicide and murder.

"It had to be acted on immediately," says Christopher Scalia, the instructor. He alerted administrators, who reacted swiftly, searching Mr. Barber's dorm room and car. Upon discovering three guns, they had him committed to a psychiatric institution for a weekend. Then they expelled him.

Yet the psychiatrists who evaluated Mr. Barber during his hospitalization determined he was no threat to himself or others…

When, at the doctor’s urging and for the sake of my own health and well-being, I chose to spend several days in the hospital last fall due to a severe infection that required IV antibiotics, that was “hospitalization.” When other people choose to have you confined for several days without your consent, that is what is known in English as “imprisonment.” The synonyms “incarceration,” “jailing,” and “going to the big house” are also acceptable.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Various immigration thoughts

At Hit and Run, Kerry Howley posted a quote from Paul Samuelson that got me thinking. Samuelson said:

Finally, let's discuss poverty. Everyone's against it, but hardly anyone admits that most of the increase in the past 15 years reflects immigration -- new immigrants or children of recent immigrants. Unless we stop poor people from coming across our Southern border, legally and illegally, we won't reduce poverty. Period… We need a pragmatic accommodation: assimilate most people now here; shift future immigration to the highly skilled.

As Howley points out, this is a bizarre reason to object to immigration. Samuelson isn’t even trying to claim that immigrants are making things worse for Americans, he’s just objecting to the fact that they’re bringing the average down. It’s like Bill Gates fleeing in terror when I enter the room, because our combined average of our incomes would be much lower than his alone. From the standpoint of human wellbeing- even a purely American nationalist one- this is bizarre, but it’s hardly the first time I’ve heard it. I wonder if part of the objection is simply that immigrants are upsetting to some people.

I’ve often suspected that the backlash against the Industrial Revolution among contemporary intellectuals and artists was caused not so much by the objective facts about worker conditions, but by the fact that unpleasant truths were now being shoved in the faces of upper-class city dwellers. Poor farmers lived wretched lives of disease and backbreaking toil, but the intelligentsia didn’t have to look at them. Then hordes of miserable, impoverished agricultural laborers in the country became hordes of miserable, impoverished industrial laborers in the city, and now the poor had the bad taste to suffer, sicken, and die where sensitive rich people could actually see it.

That’s an uncharitable explanation of why people make arguments like Samuelson’s, but the alternative hypothesis- that they are literally willing to worsen the lives of millions of innocent, desperate people for the purpose of making national poverty statistics look prettier- is even less flattering.

As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that, to the best of my knowledge, Samuelson is correct about the poverty statistics: most of the growth is poor people entering from elsewhere and having kids here, not middle-class Americans falling into poverty. This is important to keep in mind when you’re told about poverty rates, growing numbers of people without insurance, or the like. The problem is not, as the Democratic talking point goes, that hordes of middle-class Americans can longer make ends meet, but that millions of poor people are entering the country and being inhibited in rising out of poverty by economic controls that often fall harder on poor people, and especially on poor people trying to get work without the government’s blessing. In other words, the problem isn’t that the well-off are falling, but that the poor are being stopped from rising. Of course, the way to let the poor rise isn’t going to appeal to many liberals.

Meanwhile, at Rad Geek People’s Daily, Charles Johnson has several horrifying stories of people fleeing to America to escape persecution and brutality in their homelands, only to be deemed insufficiently victimized and forcibly returned to their tormentors by the United States government.

It’s an especially brutal reminder of how ridiculous all the pious rhetoric about how illegal immigrants are awful for not “waiting in line” for “their turn” really is. It’s silly enough when you’re living in horrendous poverty and you’re put on a waiting list that might get you in a decade later, if you’re lucky; it’s utterly ludicrous when you’re fleeing from the people who hacked off pieces of your genitals.

People often say that their own ancestors entered the country legally, and that modern would-be immigrants should do likewise. Of course, if your forerunners came to this country from Ireland or Germany or in the 19th century, it was a hell of a lot easier for your ancestors to get in legally. Even if one were to accept the premise that the state has the right to control peaceful people’s movements as restrictionists demand, pontificating about how people should patiently “wait in line,” as people did centuries ago, is utterly divorced from reality.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Science fiction, politics, and horrible, horrible wordplay

Over at my other site, which has been gobbling a lot of my time lately, I've got some thoughts on Utopianism and politics in science fiction that may be of interest.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Man's Quest for Knowledge, Part V

It's been too long since I last did this. You know, the best part of blogging isn't the opportunity for self-expression or the millions of dollars I make through AdSense every week. No, the best part is tracking the bizarre Google searches that bring people to this site. According to SiteMeter, the past few months have brought me seekers of truth questing for such things as:

Musclemen being tortured

You'd be amazed at how many hits I get for some variation on this theme. Is there some vast muscleman-hating internet subculture I'm unaware of?

asperger or just a man?

Just a man, I assure you, though my degree of Poul Anderson knowledge may seem godlike to some.

"demon spiders"
“well am peaple man with a skoll fighting kids play free”

Some people like to use Google while really, really high.

Ipecac man

One of Steve Ditko's lesser-known creations. Sadly, 60's comic audiences just weren't ready for a superhero who gained his powers from exposure to radioactive vomit.

Nobody gives a damn anymore

I'm not sure if this was intended as an actual search, or if some poor guy was just venting his frustration with life at Google. Finally, my personal favorite:

how a scorpion man gets success?

It's disappointing to think that, with the thousands of self-help books out there, this topic hasn't been covered. Imagine it: You're on the brink of losing your job, your dozens of kids don't respect you, your wife is on the brink of walking out for good because your aging stinger just can't inject venom like it used to, and who can you turn to for help and advice? Nobody, that's who. This an area of psychological research that has been shamefully neglected.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Henceforth, Leavenworth Penitentiary will be called "Funville USA"

Over at Mises Blog, Jeffrey Tucker links to this revolting New York Times op-ed by Richard Coniff (registration and a strong stomach required) in which Coniff recommends replacing the word “taxes” with the word “dues,” on the grounds that “tax” has a negative connotation, whereas “dues” suggests community and obligation and general warm fuzziness.

Now, statist attempts to twist language are hardly new- indeed, it’s an age-old tradition, and one that is especially important in an age where it’s no longer socially acceptable to just come out and say that the lower orders need to shut up and do what they’re told. Still, this is one of the more brazen attempts in recent memory.

Dues are voluntary. When I chose to quit the Cub Scouts, I stopped paying dues to that organization, and I didn’t have to move to some other youth group’s jurisdiction in order to do so. Unless I decide I want to change careers and become a professional comedian, I don’t have to pay my dues by spending years telling jokes for hostile drunks in filthy dive bars. (My real life is close enough to that already, thank you.) I don’t pay dues to the local Garden Club or the Elks or the Knights of Columbus or the League of Women Voters because I have not chosen to join those groups.

And that’s the point, of course; give a violent, coercive activity the name of a peaceful, voluntary activity to make it easier to pretend that one is actually the other. There are few things more revolting than the spectacle of someone cheerfully proposing a clever knew way to dupe victims of abuse and exploitation into submitting to- and worse, into feeling good about, into loving- their oppressors. Statists like Coniff don’t just want your money, and they don’t just want your obedience- they want your soul.

In a way, though, Coniff speaks more wisely than he knows. He points out that the term “tax” has gained a punitive, coercive connotation. In his conclusion, as he talks about the need to use language that makes people feel good and patriotic about being robbed blind (I’m paraphrasing a bit), Coniff remarks:

“Taxation” is a throwback to the time when kings picked our pockets.

Yes, exactly.

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There's no such thing as a free lunch, which is good if you're trying to lose weight

Now, speaking as someone who is gradually deblobbifying himself, I don’t dispute that it would be better, all other things being equal, if people in America were fitter. Nevertheless, an article at today’s about the financial benefits of eliminating obesity, which compiles figures from various fields and concludes that the U.S. would save $487 billion every year, had some glaring problems that jumped out at me.

The medical costs of obesity-related problems such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease run near $140 billion, or more than 6% of all health-care costs. That ballpark figure was calculated by Joel Cohen, an economic researcher for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, using data from a 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

There’s a fairly obvious problem here- everyone, without exception, has to die of something. You can extend your life by avoiding one form of death, and that’s great, but eventually you’ll die of something else instead. Unless that something else unexpectedly kills you on the spot – car wreck, murder, aneurysm, meteor strike, whatever- the cause of your death will have monetary medical costs, even if it’s just making you comfortable in the hospital for a few days. More likely, it will cost a great deal more than that- spending years dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s isn’t cheap.

Added to this is the fact that most medical costs are incurred by the elderly. Causality being the stubborn jerk that he is, additional years of life are added to the end of your life, not the beginning or middle, which means more years to develop any number of costly health problems. Frankly, in a lot of specific cases, a healthier weight would probably raise total costs of care. It’s horrible when someone suddenly drops dead of a heart attack at 45, but his lifetime health care expenses will probably be much lower than a slender person who dies at 85.

Lest I seem like a callous monster lusting for Grandma’s blood, let me stress that I do not want people to have reduced lifespans; quite the contrary. But it’s foolish and misleading to present the issue in the way does. I don’t know how much money would really be saved, but there’s no way it’s even close to the full $140 billion.

"Jenny Craig would be very unhappy" if everyone were slim, says Rand's Sturm. And so she would, along with the rest of the $55 billion weight-loss industry. Trimmed-down citizens would be swapping their diet pills for bikinis and their gastric-banding for nose jobs.

This also has a fairly obvious problem- a lot of the money in the diet industry is in diet food. If you’ve been magically turned into a thin person and no longer need diet food, you don’t replace it with nothing, or start subsisting on manna; you replace it with regular food in healthy amounts. I’m sure that would cost less than getting the same daily calories from specialized diet products, but it’s not free.

Even without those extras, the $487 billion reshuffle of the economy would put us on the spot. Exactly how would we spend all this freed-up cash? Optimists sing about improving education or medical research. Others figure we'd fritter away the money.

This is a subtle thing that most people wouldn’t consciously notice, but note how the article simply assumes that if the economy had an extra $487 billion a year- most of it from money saved in the private sector, no less- it should, ideally, go to the government. Letting people keep their own savings to use according to their own preferences would be frittering it away.

Or, let’s make the outrageously improbable assumption that the author wasn’t talking about government spending when she talked about spending it all on “improving education or medical research.” Why would alternate uses constitute frittering away the money? There is an innumerable array of ways that money could improve human life. It’s always irritating to see this sort of implicit contempt for the idea of people using their own money according to their own desires, especially in what is nominally a purely informational column.

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