URLs du Jour

2022-03-25

[Opportunity Cost]

  • Veep Thoughts. That's stolen from Power Line, but here's the latest tweeted video and alleged transcript:

    I have no idea if that's a fair rendering of her comments. And at this point, I don't care much.


  • Sounds like a very bad Pixar sequel. But it's not, it's Jonah Goldberg's G-File: Rise of the Underminers. You'll have to click over to see where he's going with that title, because I'm going to excerpt something further down, Senator Marsha Blackburn asking Ketanji Brown Jackson…

    Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Brown if she could offer a definition of the word “woman.” Brown demurred, saying she couldn’t because, “I’m not a biologist.”

    Coverage of this has been scant in the mainstream media. When I searched Google News for “Ketanji Brown Jackson” and “biologist” I got one Daily Mail piece, some transcripts, and one or two “analysis” pieces that mention it in passing, as a data point in a larger “Republicans pounce” vein. The New York Times did have one 470-word blog post along these lines.

    Jonathan Weissman begins: 

    Republicans have spent hours this week trying to portray Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as an extremist on issues of race and an apologist for child sexual abusers. Late Tuesday, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, added another social issue to the list of cultural grievances the G.O.P. is foisting upon her in her confirmation hearings: gender — specifically, what makes a woman a woman.

    Okay, so partisan Republican strategy is newsworthy. You know what else is newsworthy? That a woman who was nominated to be on the Supreme Court explicitly because she is a woman cannot offer a ballpark definition of what a “woman” is on the grounds that she’s not a “biologist.”

    I’m no fancy pants lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that the concept—and biological reality—of what defines a female intersects with all sorts of legal questions. Someone can fact check me, but I do think it has some bearing on this thing called “abortion.” Title IX might also make a passing reference to this apparently ill-defined condition that applies to a majority of Americans.

    Yes, that was a pretty transparent dodge.

    But lest you think that Jonah has gone full right-wing troglodyte on us, he has a useful summary of Andrew McCarthy's takedown of the "she's soft on kiddy porn" charge that some GOP senators have tried to make stick. That's garbage.


  • Good question. Needs to be raised higher. Megan McArdle notes The key question raised by Lia Thomas’s swimming success: What is the purpose of women’s sports? She notes the many people claiming it's "unfair" that Thomas's male biology is allowed to compete against actual girls.

    The progressive answer that we’re just trapped by convention, mired in outmoded definitions of gender. As society catches up with the emerging consensus, people will shed their faulty intuitions and recognize that trans women obviously belong in the women’s division. This is essentially the logic of comparing Thomas to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.

    Yet there is something wrong with that analogy. We aren’t going to be educated out of our feeling that there are major differences between biological men and women. The male/female performance gap appears at puberty in most sports, and quickly becomes so large that most cisgender women would never be able to compete at more elite levels if we weren’t segregated into our own leagues. Women’s sports exist to benefit us, not to keep us from hogging men’s glory.

    Both arguments have obvious merit. Yet ponder them long enough and you eventually realize that only one of them supports the case its proponents are trying to make. Because taken to its logical conclusion, “biology is unfair, but that doesn’t give you the right to exclude better athletes from competition” isn’t a great argument for including Thomas in the women’s division. It sounds more like an argument for abolishing women’s sports in favor of one, open league.

    I'm going to say something pretty sexist: I recently watched the tag end of a NCAA womens' basketball game while waiting for the news to come on. I thought it was pretty slow and boring. Worse, even the announcers didn't seem to be that interested, as if their minds were on where they were going to dinner afterward.


  • Maybe she meant cow-tipping came from slavery. Hey, it's plausible! Phillip W. Magness goes after a less plausible claim: Did Tipping Come from Slavery? The 1619 Project Lies Again

    Is the common act of tipping your waiter at a restaurant really a successor to slavery’s harmful legacy? Does tipping your bartender or Uber driver mean you are perpetuating the structural racism of the 19th century? These are the implications of the latest claim by Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times’s 1619 Project.

    In a characteristic tweet-thread, Hannah-Jones declares that “[t]ipping is a legacy of slavery and if it’s not optional then it shouldn’t be a tip but simply included in the bill. Have you ever stopped to think why we tip, like why tipping is a practice in the US and almost nowhere else?”

    It’s not the first time that the 1619 Project has made bizarre claims that try to connect mundane aspects of everyday life to slavery. When investigating Hannah-Jones’s theory of tipping however, I soon discovered that claims linking the practice to slavery have recently become a trendy talking point of the economic far-left.

    Some of that "far-left" talking point is meant to argue for applying standard minimum wage to tipped workers. Ironically, there's a far better argument for the racist origins of minimum wage legislation. And even now, it disproportionately hurts Youth of Color. Shouldn't we just get rid of it?


  • I'm generally in favor of adding "warp speed" to any operation. Because I'm a trekkie. But Ronald Bailey has something more specific in mind: Time for an Operation Warp Speed to Develop Pan-Coronavirus Vaccines

    Cases of COVID-19 are again rising in much of Europe due to the spread of the BA.2 version of the omicron variant that appears to be 30 percent more infectious than its already highly contagious progenitor. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is, as usual, way behind the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, the agency has decided to take its sweet time again and only begin to consider next month the emergency use authorizations for further booster doses of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines. By that time, a new wave of infections caused by the spread of the BA.2 version of the omicron variant will likely be cresting in the United States.

    Let's take brief look at the history of FDA dawdling. Based on preliminary positive results, Israel approved COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for its older citizens in July 2020. Taking those data into account, the Biden administration urged the approval of COVID-19 booster shots in mid-August. This plan apparently sparked "anger" among FDA bureaucrats who, according to Politico, feared that "political pressures will once again override the agency's expertise." Even as the delta variant wave of infections began rising in August, the agency's experts finally got around to approving boosters for older Americans in late September. It took until late November for the FDA's experts to authorize boosters for all adult Americans just as the omicron variant tsunami was taking off.

    Let's see how many Americans the FDA can kill this time around.

Termination Shock

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Using geoengineering to mitigate climate change has a long pedigree. Here's something I wrote about it back in 2006, which references a Reason article that Gregory Benford on the topic back in 1997. Yes, a quarter-century ago.

My insight then—and now, for that matter: geoengineering is something we're only going to get better at doing as technology and climate modeling improve. But we've all had the arguments about setting our home thermostat. Imagine the issues of setting the global thermostat: multiply the arguers by a billion or two; recognize that they are devoid of familial love; give many of them armed forces and nuclear weapons.

I'm not saying that Neal Stephenson reads my blog, but… yes, this idea makes for a pretty good plot device.

It's set in the near future, when global warming is starting to bite. Down in Texas, "earth suits" with self-contained refrigeration are standard attire for venturing outdoors in the day. Catastrophic flooding and nasty hurricanes are common. Into this messy situation flies (literally flies) Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, Queen of the Netherlands. Saskia to her friends, "Your Majesty" otherwise. Her incoming jet is diverted to Waco, where its landing is disrupted by a stampede of feral hogs onto the runway. That stampede is (sort of) caused by Rufus, who is on a Captain Ahab-like quest for revenge against a particular feral hog, deemed "Snout" for his unusual facial characteristics. Revenge for…? Well, it's much worse than a missing leg, be assured.

But that's pretty much over by page 40 of this 706-page monster. Rufus and Saskia join up forces to get her to Houston to meet the colorful billionaire T. R. Schmidt, aka "T. R. McHooligan" or "T. R. Mick" to those frequenting his chains of restaurants and truck stops. He has an audacious scheme, which involves taking Saskia and her accumulated retinue to the Flying S Ranch in the remote Chihuahuan Desert above the Rio Grande, where… well, you get a pretty good idea looking at the book's endpapers.

Also in a separate (but evenutally intersecting) plot thread, there's a Canadian-Indian young Sikh named "Laks". He seeks Sikh fame and fortune by volunteering for combat along the disputed India/China border, moving the so-called "Line of Actual Control" based on the combat with (I am not making this up) sticks, rocks, and snowballs. This brings fame, but unfortunately also misfortune, which sets him up for an eventual confrontation with… see above.

I'd like to think of this as Stephenson's funhouse mirror take on Atlas Shrugged, with T. R. Schmidt as John Galt, Saskia as Dagny Taggart, Rufus as… I dunno, one of those other guys? It's been well over fifty years since I read Atlas Shrugged.

Expert Failure

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Yes, that's a November 7, 1940 picture of "Galloping Gertie" on the cover, the collapsing Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built by the "experts" of the day; fortunately the only fatality was Tubby, a cocker spaniel who was left in the last car to drive on the bridge, as the owner crawled to safety.

So I was expecting (hoping?) a rollicking account of egg-on-their-faces "experts" whose grand schemes are brought low by reality. Not what I got, though. This is a relatively dry thesis; the author, Roger Koppl, is a professor of finance in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, and his book is written in standard academese. It's clearly one salvo in an ongoing slow-motion debate on the role of experts in (mostly American) government and society. (Amusingly, his school's web page lists him as one of its "Faculty Experts".)

Koppl goes back to the ancient Greeks to find the roots of the notion that experts can and should be in charge of public policy. You remember Plato and his philospher-king idea. (Koppl floats the theory that Socrates might have bribed the Oracle of Delphi into proclaiming him the wisest man in Athens. Darn, another hero tarnished.)

What's wrong with that? Shouldn't smart people be telling the rest of us dullards what to do? Koppl draws on Hayek's theory of knowledge to argue that's the wrong path; it's literally impossible for even very smart experts to gather enough data in their brains to match the wisdom engrained and distributed throughout society. Koppl also references the public choice theory of Buchanan/Tullock, arguing that it's fallacious to imagine a coterie of disinterested experts; they're as human as the rest of us, subject to bias and self-interest. And they are largely shielded from the consequences of their decisions.

In sum, giving experts "monopoly power" to make decisions is a mistake, for the same reasons that monopoly businesses are problematic. Koppl argues for open competition between experts, allowing free entry into that noble priesthood. To simplify: we need expertise very badly, but we mustn't toss the car keys to the "experts" and let them drive.

Koppl's writing style verges on the muddy; although he's a Hayek fan, his prose often makes Hayek look like Lee Child in comparison. Some of that is due to the academic need to Cite Sources, which Koppl does in spades:

Information choice theory includes identity as a motive of experts. Aberlof and Kranton (2000, 2002) introduce identity to the utility function. Aberlof and Kranton (2005, 2008) put identity into the utility function of the agent in an otherwise standard principal-agent model. Cowan (2012) and Koppl and Cowan (2010) spply the principal-agent model of Aberlof and Kranton (2005, 2008) to forensic science.

I'm sure there are readers deeply immersed in the relevant field who might find that to contain useful information.

Koppl winds up with a chapter on the "deep state". He equates this, roughly, with what Ike called the "military-industrial complex" in his 1961 farewell address. That's reflective of the term's origin, referring to the unwarranted influence of defense contractors, the military bureaucracy, and their civilian enablers. That's important, sure. But it's not hard to see the term could well be applied more broadly to every coalition of self-interested bureaucrats, legislators, and their beneficiaries inside and outside the formal government. You don't have to be a Breitbart News conspiracy-theory believer to see that as a problem.