Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 23, 2018

Four Things

1. Would you believe that there is now an anti-straw movement? Unsurprisingly, it is making legislative headway in California:

The majority leader of California's state Assembly has introduced legislation that would impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any waiter or waitress who offers a plastic drinking straw to a customer without being asked. The Washington Post notes that this is part of a growing anti-straw movement, which is driven by alarm over the 500 million straws that are used every single day -- which is almost certainly a fake number, seeing as how it is based on an unconfirmed phone survey by a 9-year-old boy. (Yes, really.) [links omitted]
I happen to dislike straws and live in a blue state. On the outside chance someone sees me in a restaurant and speaks to me as a fellow traveler, I will enjoy the chance to speak up for the freedom of others to use as many straws as they wish.

2. On news of the demise of Billy Graham, I thought it interesting to see what, if anything, Ayn Rand might have had to say about him. I was not ... erm ... disappointed:
"We live," says Mr. Graham, "in a society that is too often dominated by selfish interests and expediency. The time is overdue for Americans to engage in some deep soul-searching about the underpinnings of our society and our goals as a nation .... No, it is not too late, but time is rapidly running out if American democracy based on Judeo-Christian tradition is to survive. First, we need a national and pervasive awakening that includes repentance for our individual and corporate sins .... Let's face it -- we need supernatural help! American leaders were driven to God for help at crisis periods such as the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the Civil War!...[The media] could render constructive service to the nation at this critical moment of history if they joined hands with the churches and synagogues and used their vast powers to fan the dying embers of the moral and spiritual life of the nation .... Watergate can teach us that we need to take the law of Moses and the Sermon on the Mount seriously .... The moral laws expressed in these two great documents could form the moral guidelines for every American."

In view of an intellectual spokesman or defender of this kind, do you wonder why the political Right loses every battle -- and why the Left can batter rightists with impunity? Mr. Graham is not the worst of his kind. Other representatives of the Right may have a more sophisticated literary style, but, philosophically, they have nothing more to offer than the passage quoted above. (from The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, no. 14, pp. 189-190) [italics added]
Good riddance.

3. An article about industrial nitrogen fixation quotes the following interesting fact:
Due to its dramatic impact on the human ability to grow food, the Haber process served as the "detonator of the population explosion", enabling the global population to increase from 1.6 billion in 1900 to today's 7 billion. Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber-Bosch process.
Fritz's Haber's legacy is mixed: He is also known as "the father of chemical warfare." Carl Bosch, on the other hand, opposed many Nazi policies and was gradually removed from his high positions after the rise of Adolf Hitler.

A young woman enjoys a "planet killer combo." (Photo by Alexa Suter on Unsplash)
I started with some absurd news and I'll end with some more. But I'll re-frame this one: Which sandwich requires the most ingenuity -- with fossil fuel consumption as a proxy -- for humanity to enjoy? Believe it or not, some British researchers have spent valuable time and money answering this question and found that "premade, prepackaged, all-day-breakfast sandwiches" had the biggest "carbon [sic] footprint." There was no word on my favorite, the mighty mufuletta. (I'm sure they didn't need to hear that to say, "more study is needed" at some point.)

That said, I am sure I could at least make things respectable by ordering the olive salad online. That, and using a straw with my drink.

-- CAV

Williams on 'Lump of Labor'

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In a recent column, Walter Williams demolishes an economic fallacy that helps altruists rationalize both protectionism and universal welfare:

Just imagine how many people we could employ to transport hay if we got rid of those job-stealing tractors! (Original Photo by Gozha Net on Unsplash)
People always want more of something that will create a job for someone. To suggest that there are a finite number of jobs commits an error known as the "lump of labor fallacy." That fallacy suggests that when automation or technology eliminates a job, there's nothing that people want that would create employment for the person displaced by the automation. In other words, all human wants have been satisfied.

Let's look at a few examples. In 1790, farmers were 90 percent of the U.S. labor force. By 1900, only about 41 percent of our workers were employed in agriculture. Today less than 3 percent of Americans are employed in agriculture. And it's a good thing. If 90 percent or 41 percent of our labor force were still employed in agriculture, where in the world would we find the workforce to produce all those goods and services that weren't around in 1790 or 1900, such as cars, aircraft, TVs, computers, aircraft carriers, etc.? Indeed, if technology had not destroyed all of those agricultural jobs, we would be a much, much poorer nation.
And, yes, in case you were wondering, Wiliams does talk about how technology affects manufacturing jobs.

-- CAV

Robots Are Coming! Hurry Up and Steal!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Over at Investor's Business Daily is an editorial arguing against a British proposal to tax major technology companies in order to fund welfare for everyone, aka "Universal Basic Income." Insofar as their argument goes, they are on the right track, economically, but some mention of the right of someone to keep his own earnings would have been helpful. Why? Because this idea is even more contemptible than it is absurd. You may have to ponder that point, though, because the welfare state has normalized massive theft from the productive for decades.

In any event, the editorial provides the following warning just a wee bit too late:

Yet, this is how the far-left thinks. Money is magic. All you have to do is imagine a need, and you can take whatever you want from producers to satisfy that need. And don't worry: Like all bad ideas, this one will jump the pond and soon be discussed by the economically illiterate far-left in the U.S. as an "answer" to our welfare problems.
This idea has actually already "jumped the pond." Admittedly, he is a fringe candidate, but one Andrew Yang has already thrown his hat into the 2020 Democrat presidential ring on a platform of technophobic demagoguery cum goodies-for-all:
Robots will make life easier, but not to the point we can quit working altogether. (Photo by Franck Veschi on Unsplash)
That candidate is Andrew Yang, a well-connected New York businessman who is mounting a longer-than-long-shot bid for the White House. Mr. Yang, a former tech executive who started the nonprofit organization Venture for America, believes that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete -- yours, mine, those of our accountants and radiologists and grocery store cashiers. He says America needs to take radical steps to prevent Great Depression-level unemployment and a total societal meltdown, including handing out trillions of dollars in cash. [link omitted]
This may be, as IBD put it, "an absurd idea" (just like robots wiping out all our jobs), but it has indeed arrived. Yang himself may be a long-shot, but I am sure his stronger competitors will seriously consider whether his idea -- like your money -- is worth stealing.

-- CAV

Price and Context, Part II

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

After learning the latest on Barnes and Noble, one might imagine that the accountant I mentioned in last week's blog post had somehow taken over the struggling chain:

Fortunately for me, I'm more of an Amazon or Half Price Books guy... (Image via Pixabay.)
... Following the "how to slit your own business throat in one easy lesson" plan, it is laying off head cashiers, digital leads and others in their stores who are 1) full-time employees and 2) have the experience and knowledge that helps a store run smoothly. The company says it will save them tens of millions of dollars a year. Which it might, on a protected profit and loss sheet. What those projections don't show are the number of customers and individual transactions that will be lost because customers can't get help when needed, can't get their questions answered and can't find the books they want because they haven't been unloaded from their boxes yet.
Oh, and that's not all. Employee morale and training opportunities, a valuable part of any business, apparently didn't factor in to the decision making, either:
... The remaining employees have just seen a huge round of layoffs and wonder if they're going to be next. Moreover, they don't have the experience to do the jobs of those let go. Is it any wonder they are feeling worried and depressed about their work situation?
The only rational explanation I can come up with for this is that those in charge see a very short time horizon. I suppose I could be wrong since I am not a businessman. Nevertheless it looks to me like if they had a chance to return to viability before, they just blew it.

-- CAV

"Even" Corporations Value Education

Monday, February 19, 2018

In a recent column at Inc. is a proof by counterexample that several rationalizations for public education are wrong:

Photo by Nicola Tolin on Unsplash.
When I worked there, the chairman (Robert Wegman, who died in 2006) funded several private Catholic elementary schools in Rochester, New York, where the company is headquartered. I had the privilege of meeting with him, one on one, to report on the success of these schools. I asked why he did this, and he said that he saw failing public schools that weren't capable of producing the kind of people he needed to make his stores successful, so he decided to do something, and that was funding the private schools. There was no requirement that the scholarship students one day work for Wegmans, but I'm sure many of them did. [bold added]
Just off the top of my head, this blasts to flinders the following excuses for government schools: (1) businessmen are too "blinded" by the almighty dollar to spend money on improving their communities, (2) education is "too important" to leave to private parties, and (3) if the government didn't guarantee this vital resource (as if government schools provide a decent education), nobody would because they are "too selfish". Feel free to add any others you can think of in the comments.

Most people -- the secularized Christians of the left especially included -- are oblivious to the dangers of religion, so I'll give the late Robert Wegman a pass for supporting parochial schools rather than, say, secular Montessori schools. In addition, there could be other good reasons for his choice, including no other viable alternatives at the time. The point is, the short paragraph above should give pause to anyone who values education and imagines that we need or even want the government to be involved. We see the results of the latter all the time, and have a solid reason here to consider the free market alternative.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 16, 2018

Notable Commentary

"... I am ... deeply disturbed by any prospect of psychiatric diagnoses being used (or misused) for political purposes." -- Paul Hsieh, in "You Might Not Like the President, but That Doesn't Mean He's Crazy " at Forbes.

"If [Susan Stamper] Brown sincerely wants conditions in Haiti to improve she should speak against their government." -- Bob Stubblefield, in "Letter: Haiti, America Should Have More Respect for Rights" at The Aiken Standard.

"In the quest to protect misguided notions of freedom, ... it is freedom that will suffer." -- Tara Smith, in "The Free Speech Vernacular: Conceptual Confusions in the Way We Speak About Speech" at The Texas Review of Law and Politics, vol. 22, no.1, pp. 57-92. (2018, PDF, blogged here).

"The advocates of the restrictions frame every new way to speak about politics as a 'loophole' that must be sealed up." -- Talbot Manvel, in "We Don't Need More Campaign Finance Laws" at The Capitol Gazette.

"If one values romantic love, the idea of multiple sexual partners is repugnant, as it is and should be, for the civilized man -- the man who values himself as an individual." -- Charlotte Cushman, in "Monogamy is Moral, Promiscuity is Not" at The American Thinker.

From the Blogs

The latest post at You Can and Did Build It, about the beginning of the philosophical discussion of free will, closes with an interesting observation:

Image via Wikipedia,
Aristotle's view that man's character is shaped by the man himself, and therefore he is responsible for it (and its consequences), is the most important part of his discussion. If men learned nothing from Aristotle's view of free will but this conclusion, much of the current debate (certainly in ethics, politics and law) would end. No one who accepted Aristotle's view would argue that a criminal should be excused because he "felt," in the moment, that he wanted to slaughter a whole family, or because he was too drunk to know what he was doing when he tee-boned another car. Maybe all that is true -- maybe he didn't, in the moment, know what he was doing. But according to reason, and to Aristotle, that is beside the point. The criminal brought himself to this moment by his own choices, and could have done otherwise. That is why we do, and should continue to, "punish a man for his very ignorance, if he is ... responsible for the ignorance." [bold added]
Incidentally, you may be interested to learn of The Internet Classics Archive, which has brought "the wisdom of the classics to the Internet since 1994." I had either forgotten about or did not know of this resource until I followed a link from that post to the Nichomachean Ethics.

-- CAV

Price and Context

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What do travel expense audits and smart phone apps have in common? Both offer excellent examples of how meaningless price can be when that number is yanked from all context.

The first example comes to us from Allison Green's excellent Ask a Manager blog, where a reader has run afoul of an accountant with a myopic concern with airline ticket prices:

He may have lost two hours of sleep and can't get any real work done today, but he saved the company fifty bucks. (Photo by Harry Knight on Unsplash)
I replied that the added expense of ground transport to farther-flung airports would routinely add at least $100 to each round-trip, which always makes flying from my preferred airport a wash, and that my status on American means an additional $25-35 savings each way on checked baggage that I'd have to pay on other airlines.

The accounting rep then said that I should use the alternative airports and use public transit, which takes far longer to use (even though our employee manual specifically says the organization reimburses for cabs). The accounting rep said I could also save money by taking flights that leave at 5 a.m. and return after 10 p.m., even though my business needs often call for spending the morning in the office and taking an afternoon flight. As part of the "audit follow up," he instructed me to send accounting screenshots of all flights on Kayak available ANYTIME ON THE SAME DAY to ensure I am choosing the cheapest option regardless of time of day.
The above passage doesn't even mention further costs, such as lost productivity to the business that such a selection process would entail, although that does come up. Obviously, it's harder to cut costs than just looking at a bunch of numbers for just one of the costs.

In a similar vein, a software developer tackles a lament common among those involved in smart phone software, urging his compatriots to "Stop using the cup of coffee vs. $0.99 app analogy":
Fact: Your $1 App is a Total Gamble

Now, contrast this with your app, Mr. Developer. I don't know you from Adam. You're pitching digital Instant Refresher Juice 1.0 to me in the form of a new app. The return I'm going to get is questionable at best. I already have 30 games on my phone, some of them very good. Do I need another one? I don't play the 30 I have. The experience I'm going to get from adding one more game is not trustable. I'm assured of nothing. Last week I bought a game for 99 cents and it was terrible. I played it once, for 15 seconds. I could be shoving $1 straight down the toilet again for all I know. Your app, good sir, is a total gamble. Sure, it's only a $1 gamble ... but it's a gamble and that fact matters more than any price you might place on it. [format edits]
Offering a lower dollar price for something is pointless if doing so fails to solve other, greater costs that exist whether or not they, too, are priced in dollars.

Numbers may not lie, but they cannot contain the full truth, as both of these examples attest.

-- CAV