Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Saturday, August 13, 2016

History, the FDA, and Cognitive Biases

cackling villain

For reasons set forth in an earlier post, the author recently had reason to read Thomas Hager’s The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug (2006) (Demon). Demon is a highly recommended account of an episode in history, the discovery of the first effective antibiotics, which despite its world-shaking, near-miraculous consequences to the most of the planet’s inhabitants is curiously unknown even to the educated.

Chapters 17 and 18 in Demon (p. 207-233), however, concerning the events leading to the passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 which for the first time empowered the FDA to control what medications Americans can make, sell, or take, is curiously unsatisfactory. This is not because the facts recounted therein are incorrect, incomplete, or biased, but because these facts are in such stark contradiction to the chapter’s tone lauding the FDA. That this contrast should have escaped the author, his editors, and presumably most readers is a prime example of certain near-universal, powerful cognitive biases.

Errata to Fortuitous Coincidences

Demon Under the Microscope

Last month, a commenter at this blog’s blogfather, AdvoAdvo, if you read this, please drop me a line so that I can thank you directly., recommended Thomas Hager’s The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug (2006) (Demon). This book offers an interesting, well-written popular account of the discovery of the first widely effective class of antibiotics, the sulfa drugs, and its discoverer, Gerhard Domagk. That account covers some of the same events recounted in this blog last year. While these accounts largely agree where they overlap, there are some discrepancies which deserve pointing out and at least an attempt at resolution.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Favorite Joke

One of the author’s favorite jokes was usedProbably. to illustrate the issue of incentive incompatibility in one of the popular economics books by one of the author’s favorite liberalNow that those who purloined that word have sufficiently soiled it by their actions that they no longer wish to be associated with it, can we have it back please? We’ll restore its honor and bring usage in the modern English-speaking world back into conformance with history and the rest of the world. economics professor bloggers.Now, not that one. The other one. David Friedman’s popular books on law and economics, Hidden Order and Law’s Order, are on par with Landsburg’s fine work in the genre. They are wonderful introductions to the subject for the intelligent layman, but will contain details and connections which will enlighten even the well-versed. Friedman’s more recondite The Machinery of Freedom (now available in a new edition and for free!) had, along with his father’s Capitalism and Freedom, had a formative influence on the author when he was a boy. It did not quite convert him from minarchism to anarcho-capitalism, but convinced him that it was a serious possibility. At present, one desires merely to shrink the government to a size that it could be drowned in a bathtub, to be followed with a long and interesting discussion about whether one proceed along that line.

Monday, December 7, 2015

My Universal Theorem Prover

Gödel Machine

When the author was a boy, he wrote a universal theorem prover. Given enough time and memory, it would prove every theorem in large parts of mathematics. Strangely, this did not put all mathematicians out of business.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Article 2 Courts: Illustrations from the Securities Exchange Commission

A recent post described the common, but little known, Article II courts and how they offend the most basic principles of due process of law and judical independence which most familiar with the rule of law would have imagined enshrined in the Constitution. Now the Wall Street Journal has published an article Fairness of SEC Judges Is in Spotlight (Nov. 22, 2015)Subscription possibly required. Link to non-gated version much appreciated. offering some striking quotes and statistics illustrating this point.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Administrative Note

The author apologizes for the two-week silence on these pages; other matters took priority. One shall endeavor to avoid such long droughtsIf anybody can be said to have thirsted for further pearls of wisdom from this dubious source. by greater diligence and pre-scheduling of any of the few dozen semi-finished (and in some cases long-promised) posts during any unavoidable absence. In the meantime, the RSS feeds and e-mail subscriptions available in the right-hand sidebar can spare any reader the need to regularly visit these pages only to be disappointed at the lack of new content.

Risk Corridors and Credibility


The ObamaCare risk corridors provide subsidies to insurance companies that make losses on the marketplaces while collecting revenues from those that make above-normal profits. Until recently, everybody—from the CBO on down—knew that the risk corridors would generate multi-billion dollar surpluses for the federal government. Now everybody knows, and has always known, that they would generate multi-billion dollar losses for the federal government.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

George Washington’s Brain

George Washington's Axe

This is George Washington’s axe, the curator said with pride, gesturing toward a worn and rugged thing, locked inside of a glass case, held in the very hands of the first President of our great nation.

Of course, he said, we are much more careful about it now than we have in the past. The room we used to store it in wasn’t climate controlled, and the wood rotted, so we had to replace the handle. And one of our interns dropped it one day, and the blade cracked, so we had to replace that, too.

But, a young boy asked, if the handle has been replaced, and the blade has been replaced, it isn’t really George Washington’s axe anymore, is it?

This old joke, which entertained even the ancients, also shows an alternate route to the singularity, one on which Google this week made a small, but crucial, first step.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

PETA Fires Meat-Lovin’, Huntin’ Spokeman


BREAKING NEWS. ORIGINAL TO BLOG. MUST CREDIT. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have fired their long-term spokesman Krzysztof Charamsa based on his public endorsement of carnivorism. Mr. Charamsa stressed that his support for this noble cause was not merely rhetorical, but that he is actively involved in steak-eating, hunting, and animal experimentation. PETA’s brazen act of carnophobic intolerance and employment discrimination has drawn outrage across the world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Massive Resistance in Maine

Welcome to Maine

Yesterday the State of Maine passed an initiative that purports to reform the campaign finance system for state elections and enhance public financing for elections, to rapturous applause from the expected quarters. The only problem is that nobody—including its supporters—sincerely believes this initiative to be Constitutional.

Monday, October 26, 2015

National Pride Note II

table of elements by country of discovery

A Smithsonian Magazine article offers a periodic table of elements with each element marked by the country of first discovery. This occasions another moment of national pride.

Investment Advice Is Bad

investment tips

Note: Please see the opening note there. It applies here too.

A large number of papers, journals, websites, and even television channels are devoted to the subject of dispensing investment advice to the general public regarding which stocks or other securities to buy or to sell. If one finds such discussions entertaining, these may be good venues to visit. However, if one expects to earn money, all of these are completely useless. All that almost everybody needs to know about investing in capital markets follows here:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Economist vs. The Armchair Economist


Some random googling brought to one’s attention a controversy from 2011 involving same-sex marriage, one’s favorite blogger, the most inconsistent—for good or ill—magazine in the world, and the most infuriatingly inconsistent—for good and ill—writer for that magazine. Somehow one had missed the entire kerfuffle at the time. But it is never too late to weigh in on it, perhaps throw in a few personal observations on the value of personal observations, and score the melee!

St. Crispin’s Day and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Birthday

Henry V and Macaulay

Today coincides with both dates. As a tribute, let’s post both Shakespeare’s speech and something more reasoned by Macaulay.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Progressive Views of Speech


Two trends at modern American universities are the disinvitation or disruption of non- (or merely insufficiently) Progressive speakers and the campaign against micro-aggressions. Both of these are Progressive projects and both concern campus speech. But the Progressive’s idea about speech in the two context are rather different.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lacunæ of Knowledge

Sir Thomson

Sometimes people—even competent, intelligent people with responsible positions—just don’t know things one really would expect them to know. A recent incident reminded the author to be mercifully when judging those who exhibit such lacunae.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

How Many Innocents Has Mapp v. Ohio Convicted?

behind bars

The Supreme Court decision in Mapp v. Ohio (1961) extended the Exclusionary Rule which bars the admission of evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution to state courts, where most criminal defendants are tried. Its more honest defenders admit that this will sometimes lead demonstrably guilty defendants to be acquitted. What is less widely appreciated is that it also leads innocent defendants to be convicted.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sex with Strangers and Federal Rule of Evidence 412

car headlights

This blog stands accused of dwelling on tawdry subject matters in order to draw the clicks of the prurient masses. Perhaps so, even if, as of yet, this appears to have been a spectacularly unsuccessful strategy. But if this be prurience, let’s make the most of it. In this spirit, please consider the following hypothetical, not drawn from any particular case but an amalgamation of many.

Monday, October 19, 2015

How U.S. Natural Gas and Electric Markets Were Liberated

Natural Gas and Electricity

Since the 1930s U.S. wholesale markets for natural gas and electricty, today totaling over $400 billion annually, are subject to comprehensive regulations that set every price. These laws and regulations remain in effect. Yet, today, electic and gas prices are largely set by free markets, just like those of other commodities. How can this be?

A Personal Plea to Readers

While one is rather pleased with the quality of the readers of these pages, one feels—perhaps incorrectly—that the quantity is not quite as large as the number of those who might enjoy occasionally perusing them. So if any gentle reader is pleased, entertained, or amused by anything here and perhaps feels somewhat positively inclined toward the author, he would consider a personal favor if the reader pressed on the various Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus buttons at the bottom of every post. Or if the reader has a blog or similar forum of his or her own, a link—complimentary, critical, or non-committal—would also be much appreciated. Needless to say any such connection could not be deemed the reader’s blanket endorsement of everything written here for not even the author would go that far.

Moreover it is conceivable that given the wide range of subjects covered in these pages some readers might only be interested in some of them, while being bored or worse by others. To the attention of such readers the labels on the right-hand side of this page are commended. Using them it is easy to read only the posts on subjects of interest, while filtering out all others.

An Invitation to Frequent Visitors

invitation envelope

The server logs of this site show a number of frequent visitors from around the world. But while some comment, others just read. One looks in the direction of Miami, Rochester, Austin, Woodbridge, Abingdon, Jefferson City, Jo'burg, Richmond, Helsinki, Wall Street, a certain vehicle management company, and elsewhere. As one is tempted into some disreputable tactics to gain traffic, all of your reading is much appreciated, even if you choose to remain silent. But if you are so inclined, why not introduce yourself in comments to this post?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

In (Limited) Defense of Professional Cartels

J.P. Morgan likes a little competition

Past posts have decried professional cartels, like those of the legal and medical professions, and obliquely praised economists for not having much of one. Here, however, it is argued that—while they are still clearly bad and ought to be abolished—they are not quite as bad as one might naively imagine.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Article 2 Courts

Article 2 Judge

The Judicial Branch of the United States government is established in Article 3 of the Constitution. But most non-lawyers would be quite surprised to learn that most federal judges are not part of the Judiciary at all.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What Type of Irrational Are Ohioans?

marijuana leaf

In a few weeks, Ohio will vote on not one, but two, constitutional amendments on marijuana legalization. The first, sponsored by a group of private citizens, would legalize recreational and medical marijuana. The second, sponsored by the state legislature, would constitutionally bar the first. The reason these amendments are brought to the attention of the gentle reader is not to comment on the drug war—the views of the author on which are predictable and better stated by others—but rather a few curious features.

Hypocritical Antisemitism

Karl Lueger

Update October 18, 2015: Concluding paragraph added.

One of Hitler’s inspirations was Karl Lueger, the Christian Socialist mayor of Vienna. Lueger had risen to fame and power through virulently antisemitic campaign speeches. But Lueger differed from Hitler.

Did Thomas Jefferson Rape Sally Hemings?

Thomas Jefferson

Hemings was Jefferson’s slave and as such could not decline his advances. In countless cases, slave owners used this power to force themselves on unwilling, nubile slaves. But is that what happened in this case?

Beta Rabbit vs. Doctor Boolean: or; How to Be Recruited by Google

Peter Rabbit

A few days ago, something remarkable occurred when the author performed a Google search on a technical subject. Suddenly the search results folded away to reveal something like a UN*X command line console. What was this?

Sample Bias


A conundrum which once much puzzled the author is the following: Certain nationalities are, in the author’s experience, an absolutely marvelous lot, intelligent, inquisitive, open-minded, and disinclined to any major political pathologies. Yet, their large home countries are historically and often at-present in a state of repression and poverty which seems entirely incompatible with the nature of this sort of people. These countries ought to be Switzerland or Denmark, not the impoverished despotism they are. How can this possibly be?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

My Ex-Friend D

Note: This post expands on the concluding paragraphs of another recent post. Please see there for context.

When the author was young—in the Internet’s teenage years and the early years of the web—he was semi-prominent in a number of technological and other endeavors in which by some sociological fluke the author and those of similar views were either outright in the majority or at least the dominant political faction. We too had our dissenters and would frequently engage in ferocious political debate with them, the author not being among the least ferocious. But we always tried to argue facts and reason without ill-feeling against our opponents. If anybody had ever suggested that we should use our numerical strength to shun and shame the dissenters into silence or exit, this suggestion would have been universally deemed unworthy of philosophers or gentlemen (as almost all of us were).

We were confident our words would suffice. Some of the more psychologically astute among usIt is a relative term, given that so many of us were somewhere on the autism disorder spectrum. would even go out of their way to be solicitous and technically helpful to the dissenters in the hope that if arguments alone were not enough, the resultant good feeling might inspire some of them to emulate us. But all agreed that it would be shameful to permit politics to contaminate our technical collaboration with the dissenters. We had (or so we thought) on our side the truth, and in many cases telephone-number IQs and encyclopedic knowledge of not only technical facts, but also those of history, law, and politics. Surely, we ought to prevail even without descending to ad hominem and dirty, alienating tricks. Perhaps that is why, all our advantages notwithstanding, we always lost the political battles in the end.This is why among the very small group of people and entities to whom the author does not try extend his general benign indifference slightly tinged by benevolence and empathy is the Gawker empire. Most of its many outlets produce occasionally worthwhile content but invariably leaven it with occasional political rants, invariably delivered at the level of the over-excited freshman. For the frequent unpleasant shocks this has administered, the author bears Gawker and co. genuine, if passive, malevolence and he takes genuine psychic pleasure at their failures and the prospect of their collapse. That is unworthy, but the author is only human with all human failings. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. Publius Terentius Afer.

One of the more entertaining of these endeavors was the game Olympia.Previously mentioned here. The author was one of the first to sign up for it and immediately proceeded to recruit an alliance of skilled and like-minded players. Among them was D, a clever young man and—as a fellow at a think tank near the university where the author was then a graduate student—one of the few allies he ever met in person. D and the author would exchange countless e-mails and share more than a few meals, plotting strategies, exchanging snippets of code, and sometimes debating politics for D was of Progressive views, then a minority view among our peers, but now the received opinion in many circles.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Note on Pseudonymity

A number of interesting pseudonymous commenters have sufficiently piqued the author’s curiosity that he performed a few googles and in several cases was pleasantly surprised to find that they most likely belong to fine people he happens to know personally or professionally. Needless to say the author will not allow this pleasure to cause him to publicly penetrate their pseudonymity which they may have chosen for reasons as good or the same as he did. To anybody he gave any reason to fear that he’d be so rude, he apologizes. The author trusts that commenters will likewise refrain from posting the author’s legal name which also can easily be discovered with a few googles based on hints from these pages.If anybody does, the author will read their guesses in personal communication with amusement.

Gleichschaltung at Haskell


Recently a semi-prominent Haskeller, some of whose work the author has in the past enjoyed, has unfurled his personal flag. It consists out of \(\lambda\), the traditional ensign of theoretical computer science (of the practitioners of which Haskell has in recent years been a favorite plaything) and the flag of one of the twentieth century’s great genocidal totalitarianisms, similar to the title image here.No, of course not that one. The other one.

A lot of talk has grown in the programming scene about 'keeping politics out of code' so I decided instead to create a banner for those who feel rather more otherwise.

I believe in a programming community that is aware and conscious of its place within the greater society, and acts with conscience and considerations of the consequences of its actions, rather than one that hides in an imaginary apolitical space oblivious to the effects its creations wreak upon civilization.

I also believe in the ideals of equality of opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic class, and that the needs of all members of society should be met, rather than only those of a wealthy and privileged elite and those who can claw their way into its good graces.

This saddened the author on several levels. For one it means that the author and that Haskeller will likely never be able to collaborate on anything Haskell related. Even if the author could, as he hopes he can, banish his revulsion at the Haskeller’s political views long enough, this Haskeller must consider this author’s views equally contemptible and makes it clear that such suppression of politics is not only not desirable, but would constitute an unacceptable act of ideological treason.

More importantly it means that an effort at ideological Gleichschaltung is underway in yet another field of thought. Even if this Haskeller does not succeed, another one very well might. And when they do, people like the author (or any other views different from that of this Haskeller) will no longer be welcome there.

Not the abc Conjecture

Dunce Cap

And now for something completely different: A medical doctor discovers the procedure to calculate the area under a given curve. In 1994. Self-titles this revolutionary method and publishes in apparently respectable medical journal. Article has so far been cited 147 times.

One can only hope that this was a self-conscious effort to satirize the lax standards of certain medical journals, as was the case in the famed Sokal Hoax or these more recent efforts. Much, much more here.

Health Care Is Like Other Services

Star of Life

Note: Please see the opening note there. It applies here too.

One frequently hears the argument that there can be no markets in health care. Those who so argue strenuously deny that they are Communists (or some other form of collectivist) and disclaim any intent to generally abolish the capitalist mode of production. It is just that health care is so very different from all other goods and services that—for just this little special case covering 18% of the U.S. economy—we need to adopt a collectivist approach.

To draw this distinction two differences are invoked: one with a grain of truth but far from justifying collectivism; the other, entirely spurious.

Health Care Costs Money

Doktor Schnabel von Rom

Note: Please see the opening note there. It applies here too.

The provision of health care requires the services of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, medical researchers, and their various managers. These services are not free for all of these people have alternative uses for their time, labor, and effort—leisure or other work. Many of these people are well-off, and so are willing to pay a high opportunity cost for leisure. Many of them are also quite intelligent and well-educated, and so have the option of other professions with high salaries they must forgo if they work in medicine. Ever since the Phoenicians invented money, the preferred means to induce these people to work in medicine has been remuneration in excess of these high opportunity costs. So health care will not merely cost money, but a lot of money.

Insurance Is Bad


Note: This and one or more follow-up posts contain nothing that the smart and well-informed regular readerAfter all, these readers had the wisdom and good taste to visit here. will not already know. But a surprising number of people without florid mental deficiencies and with a number of certificates indicating that they at least spent a substantial number of years in educational institutions seem to unaware of these facts or at least have them readily slip their mind in certain settings. Rather than explaining these facts over and over again, these posts will do so once and for all; in the future, one can then just refer such to these pages. The regular reader is invited to just skip these posts or just read them for the snark and jokes, as per usual practice mostly in the footnotes. Mostly.Incidentally, mostly also appears to be the author’s six-year old daughter’s new favorite word. Last night she asked her father for help closing some buttons on her, or rather the author’s borrowed, shirt. You see I am not really an expert on buttoning. So you think I am an expert on buttoning? Yeah. Mostly.

Insurance is a bad deal; the expected dollar value of getting insurance is always negative. In other words, on average everybody will always be better off not getting insurance.

This is not because insurance companies are run by Evil White Men who probably are Any Rand fans and beat their wifes. It would be true if all insurance companies were non-profits staffed, from the claims adjuster to the CEO, exclusively by angels who refused any salary beyond the minimum wage and performed their often-demanding jobs with perfect skill. Nor is it because, speaking candidly, of some neoliberal sophistry. It is not even because of economics. It is because of simple accounting:

Insurance companies do not have magic money-printing presses in their basements.If they did, why go through all the hassle of running an insurance company, rather than just the presses? Hence, their inflow of cash—the premiums—must on average over the long run at least match the outflow of cash—payouts to policy holders and operating costs, like employee salaries. As the operating costs are larger than 0, it follows that, on average, the amount the insurance company receives in premiums from each policy holder must exceed the amount it pays out to this policy holder.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fortuitous Coincidences


Update August 13, 2016: Some details in the below account are in need of correction. Please see this post.

Update: Added the interesting and somewhat disturbing footnotes 4, 5 and 6.

The author’s grandfather FPreviously mentioned here. spent a semester in the early 1930s as a visiting professor at the University of Berlin. There he made two acquaintances that the author must consider fortuitous for he most likely owes his existence to their combination. One of them was I, a clever and pretty post-doc of Junker blood, who in due course became his grandmother. The other was a medical researcher named Gerhard Domagk.

F eventually returned to Sweden with I. In 1935, I gave birth to A, the author’s mother.Previously mentioned here. In 1937, when A was two years old, she fell deadly ill with a bacterial infection. When the best efforts of current medicine failed to cure her, F telegraphed his friend Domagk. For Domagk was said to be working on a wonder drug to combat bacterial infection, today known as Sulfa-class antibiotics. Domagk couriered a sample from Berlin to F in Stockholm and A promptly recovered.

In 1939, the Nobel Prize Committee in Physiology or Medicine awarded Domagk the Prize. While Domagk surely deserved the Prize, one cannot help but wonder if the fact that F was a member, vice-chairman, and eventually chairman of many years, of the Committee and that Domagk had saved F’s baby daughter’s life may have accelerated the process.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why Appliances Are Getting Steadily Worse

Energy Star

It is a commonly heard impression that most appliances just aren’t as good as they used to be. Even high-end washers don’t wash, showers don’t clean, driers don’t dry, refrigerators don’t cool, and toilets don’t flush as well as the average model did thirty years ago. That this is not just a case of the nostalgic fallacy can readily be confirmed by anyone with access to older, but still functional appliances.

Less well-known is the cause of this decline. The technology to make effective appliances has not be lost. No rare or no longer extant raw material is needed for their construction. Nor has the Great Appliance Maker Cartel finally gotten its act together and started to foist off ever shoddier products at ever higher prices.

The abc Conjecture

Shinichi Mochizuki

This seems very interesting. Perhaps the idea of the next year, if the author can ever grasp it. Also, another example that the human brain is not designed for mathematics.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Judicial Minimalism Maximises Judges’ Power

powerful judge

Prof. McGinnisMcGinnis is probably the best law professor blogger not permanently ensconced at the Volokh Conspiracy. He is always either right or interesting and usually both. over at the Law and Liberty blog makes a non-original, but far too often overlooked point. Resisting the temptation to quote the whole thing, here are a few paragraphs:

At the beginning of this term of the Supreme Court, Cass Sunstein has praised judicial minimalism. Professor Sunstein argues that the justices should decide cases as narrowly as possible: Minimalists … insist on small steps and narrow, unambitious rulings. They want to resolve the specific problem at hand, but without pronouncing broadly on liberty or equality, or on the system of checks and balances.

So described, minimalism is the antithesis of a principled jurisprudence. First, minimalism does not offer a method for discerning the Constitution’s meaning. One does not need to be an originalist who believes that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed at the time it was enacted to recognize that an interpretive theory has to give account of how it is following the meaning of the Constitution. It is that meaning which should govern the case, and the relevant principles may be either broad or narrow depending on the meaning. …

Second, minimalism is incompatible with the rule of law. Deciding cases based on their peculiar facts gives little guidance to citizens as to what their rights and obligations are. Indeed, the reductio ad absurdum of minimalism is to decide the case of A v. B for A or B without giving any reasons at all: that approach surely resolves the case by making as little law as possible! More generally, insofar as a case emphasizes particular facts for the sake of a narrow ruling, its holding provides little help for those trying to figure out what the Court will do in the next case.

One issue is of course whether Sunstein is as sincere in his advice as he is undoubtedly clever. Can we expect to see forthcoming articles from Sunstein criticizing, for example, Brown v. Board of Education for indulging in general discussions of equality, rather than merely ruling that for some fact-specific reason, Linda Brown ought to have been admitted to Sumner Elementary or perhaps condemning Obergefell v. Hodges for going beyond declaring that James Obergefell was allowed to marry John Arthur?

Even setting this aside, Sunstein’s judicial minimalism reflects his broader premise (shared by such as Justice BreyerOutside the legal profession this view is also shared by the likes of Dylan Matthews and Erich Ludendorff. The principal author of the Constitution took a rather different view and is hence condemned.) that high-level government officials (like Sunstein, at times, or Breyer), be they bureaucrats or judges, are people so good and so clever that they should be permitted to decide any issue as they deem fit at the time without being troubled overly much by such constraints as laws, general principles, or consistency. For those who share this premise, Sunstein’s and Breyer’s jurisprudence must be quite attractive.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mandatory Sex Changes?

business-man and -woman

A striking, and perhaps increasingly common, feature of Progressive political rhetoric is how Progressive ideas only ever exist in two stages:

  1. As long as the idea appears to be politically unpopular, any mention of it by a non-Progressive is easily dismissed by the Great and the Good. It is just a fringe phenomenon which cannot be associated with the decent, mainstream, common-sense progressive politician! Even talking about it is just cheap reactionary rhetoric to stir up the hatreds and fears their slavering hordes are so inclined to. Any effort to forestall such ideas from becoming fact, when that is so ludicrously unlikely, is just a distraction from the real issues. No honest journalist should fall for such an obvious con game by ever mentioning the idea.

  2. As soon as the idea appears to be politically viable, it instantly becomes so obviously a good and right thing that anybody who does not support it reveals himself to be a hateful bigot. Such bigots must not be heard and their hate must not be allowed to poison the lives and threaten the security of so many innocent victims.

Notably, there is never an intermediate stage at which it is conceded that the idea might be worthy of discussion between decent, reasonable individuals with differing views. The transition from red-herring to holy-truth status is instantaneous. Debate is never appropriate.

In Defense of Local Governments’ Corporate Subsidies

capitalist oppressor

It is commonly observed, and commonly criticized, practice of businesses when deciding where to locate a major new facility to demand subsidies from the localities. By playing the local governments of potential sites against each other, the businesses often manage to be granted substantial special tax breaks and other favors.

This is widely seen as disgraceful. Why should big corporations be able to bully local governments into granting them special favors that others in the area do not enjoy? Does this not require additional taxes on or reduced benefits for the unfavored? There are few practical proposals on how this practice could be eliminated—how could it be without eliminating the ability of localities to set their own tax policies?—but across the political spectrum there is agreement on the perniciousness of the practice and local governments are urged from all quarters not to give in to such demands.

This reaction is understandable and indeed many of the businessmen and politicians who engage in this practice do appear to be of more unsympathetic character than average for their respective species. But this reaction is also wrong. Under current legal conditions, this sort of rent extraction is often economically efficient and just.


Virginia License Plate RUN-COAL

The title of this post is the license plate the author is sorely tempted to acquire for the Tesla Model S he has been driving for the last few years.The author of course realizes that in so posting, he’ll cause the hordes of Tesla-driving readers to snap up this plate in all states, thereby frustrating his plan. For that is indeed what his car runs on: coal delivered via high-voltage wires. So the environmental benefits of Teslas are probably non-existent or at least greatly exaggerated.

Moreover, Tesla and its founder Elon Musk have with some justice been criticized for pocketing large subsidies offered by the federal and state governments for electric vehicles. That criticism, while valid, is more properly directed at the politicians for instituting these subsidies, than at Musk for pocketing them.In so far as Musk lobbies for maintenance or extension of these subsidies, he of course bears some contributory guilt. If the government offered large amounts of free cash to the author, he would take it too; as he did, when taking the $7,500 tax credit for Tesla buyers.Some concern has been raised regarding the high cost of fixing dents and scratches on the Model S. That is true because the Model S is mostly made of aluminum, which while stronger and lighter than steel, is also more expensive and harder to repair. But that is a downside that the Model S shares with virtually all cars in its price range.

These points notwithstanding, the Tesla Model S is a very, very good car:More objection can be made to the noun than the adjective. Arguably a Tesla Model S is not so much a car, as a giant iPad that can take you places. This, some discussion elsewhere notwithstanding, is high praise.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Another Sad Day

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

Today the two leading candidates for the presidency are a pair of friends. One is the nation’s top crony-capitalist, a wizard manipulator, and an ill-mannered buffoon.This fact, being subject to judicial notice, requires no citation. The other, a woman whose principal virtue touted by her most intelligent supportersAnother intelligent Progressive, Kevin Drum, defends this argument along these lines: Sure, the laws are great! We Progressives love the law! As long as the rest of you cooperate sufficiently, as historically you have, to allow us to get whatever we want, we’ll happily follow the law. But if you tea-bagging bigots don’t, screw the law and we’ll get whatever we want anyway. Progressives appear to believe that they will always be the beneficiaries of governmental lawlessness, as lately they have been. Perhaps they are right and their ascendancy is permanent. But if the wheel should ever turn again, it will be amusing to observe how quickly they become legalists and such arguments are memory-holed. is the demonstrated willingness not to let niceties like the laws get in the way of delivering the goods. Both are awful, even by the standards of politicians. It is enough to return one to the catatonia of melancholy. Better to think of more pleasing and rewarding abstractions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Recommended Past Topics

While the author is temporarily preoccupied with a suddenly urgent matterQuite fascinating and perhaps subject of a future post. he recommends to the attention of readers looking for new content three older groups of posts:

  • In the Racial Profiling Done Right posts, the author recommends a better way to perform racial profiling which strangely has not been taken up.
  • In the Kelo posts, the author disagrees with many of his ideological fellow-travelers and defends the outcome of the Kelo decision, despised by populists across the political spectrum.
  • In Drunk Driving Licenses, the author suggests a concept, perhaps unsound, but amusing to reason about.

Comments welcome.And be not surprised if suddenly a lot of older comments on these posts show up. The author has almost finished debugging the code to import the old, currently invisible, Blogger comments to the new Disqus forums without the aid of either Blogger or Disqus.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

My Friend H

H (yes, you can image search him to find his name, but that will reveal no more about the author than previous posts

H was a non-Communist German Jew born in Eastern Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. As such, he had the honor that two of history’s great totalitarianisms made strong efforts to murder him and his family. Happily, they were not successful and after the war H was able to escape and become a professor of mathematical physics in the United States.

It was in that capacity that the author, then a newly enrolled student at H’s institution, first met H. H had at least two understandable reasons to take a dislike to the author. One is that the author always has been the most obnoxious of students; uncontrollably blurting out objections and questions on any subject which captured his interest and disturbing carefully constructed lesson plans. The other is that the author—a tall, blond, blue-eyed gentile and with an accent easily mistaken for German—must have born a superficial resemblance to one of the groups of people who had tried to murder him.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Administrative Notes

  1. Comments on the blog were shifted from Blogger to the more capable Disqus some months ago. After an apparently brief and unintentional regression, they seem to have stuck with Disqus for the desktop site. However, some viewers of the mobile site apparently still got Blogger comments, which is a pity as those comments became essentially invisible to other readers. This appears to have been fixed now, but not before another batch of comments went invisible. As the Blogger to Disqus comment export mechanism is currently broken, transferring all the Blogger comments requires some doing and the author promises to accomplish it as soon as he finds time.

  2. Speaking of comments, they are very much welcomed and preferred even over e-mails (unless they concern a non-public matter of course). The author reads all comments diligently and, at least until such time as there are enough commenters to sustain a conversation without him will at least try to respond to most of them.

  3. Finally, the author is sometimes asked along these lines: Why does the author refer to himself in the third person? Who does he think he is? Bob Dole? The author—as was perhaps Mr. Dole—was at an impressionable age firmly instructed that the use of the first person pronoun is the hallmark of teenage girl (or perhaps the President giving the eulogy of a person barely known or remembered). Serious people do not use them, except perhaps sparingly in unrecorded, personal conversation with intimates. This discomfort with the first-person pronouns has become too deeply ingrained to be readily discarded. Sadly, there is too much of the teenage girl (or perhaps the Presidential) in the author. So as an expedient designed to maintain at least the façade of dignity, the author has adopted the transparent fig leaf of speaking merely of the author and never himself.

The Good News from Twentieth Century History


Being free; being rich; being secure from external enemies—these are all very good things. The great good news of twentieth century history is that these are not independent goods between which one might have to choose. Rather they flow from each other and mutually support each other in virtuous circles. So one could have reasoned from first premises: freedom leads to capitalism; capitalism leads to wealth; and wealth can be turned to military might, when the need arises. But each one of these steps is sufficiently contingent and uncertain that one might harbor reasonable doubts that conclusion always obtains but for the evidence of the great conflicts of the twentieth century which confirms that—at least at the current stage of technological and social development—it always holds.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Russian Soldiers Ate My Great-Grandfather’s Brains

russian WW2 soldiers

As a continuation of the recent series of posts on violence, family, brains, and eating,See Genius and Insanity, A Genuine Mystery, A Partial Explanation for a Genuine Mystery, and Human Sacrifice at the University. about a hundred years ago, the author’s great-grandfather—let’s call him S—was one the leading scientists in the fields of neurology and neuropathology.To judge from the accounts of family members and friends who knew him, S’s own brain was probably abnormal. At a scientific social event, he is reported to have turned to his wife and asked her why this colleague had suddenly walked away from them with such a ferocious mien on his face. His wife responded that this was probably because S had just called him an idiot to his face. To which S gravely nodded, yes, but it is true. This was apparently was typical of S and today he would probably be diagnosed with some high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder.

A Partial Explanation for a Genuine Mystery

We need brains

A recent post posited a genuine mystery: Why would evolution design a brain with capacities as useless as, for example, performing higher mathematics? This post attempts to offer a partial answer: The human brain, far from being an efficient and elegant design, is a bit of a bodge job.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Human Sacrifice at the University

uppsala slot

The author traces his ancestry mostly to the Swedish town of Uppsala, near Stockholm. Uppsala is famous mainly for two things: its university and human sacrifice. These two facts are not unrelated.

Never Reason from a Price Change

dollar up or down

The title is one of the favorite and oft-repeated sayings of Prof. Scott Sumner of The Money Illusion and EconLog. Yet, it bears repeating for many financial journalists and even economists too often ignore it with predictably confused results.

A Genuine Mystery


Update October 3, 2015: See A Partial Explanation for a Genuine Mystery.

Perhaps the greatest mystery in the world is based on the following set of observations:

  • The human brain is a device evolved to optimize the long-term reproductive success of the associated genes in the environment of the African Savannah.
  • Yet, in at least some instances it has developed the capacity to come up with ideas like Curry-Howard Correspondence.
  • However, this capacity could in no conceivable way have aided reproductive success in the African Savannah.
  • Moreover, at least to judge from historical anecdote, this capacity, if anything, impedes reproductive success.

The author has never run across a fully satisfactory explanation for this set of facts. It is almost enough to make one reconsider certain propositions one would otherwise (and previously had) happily and confidently Occam-razored away.

David Kessler, Serial Groper

David Kessler

In 1992, the FDA under David Kessler, to great fanfare and cheer from feminist activists, banned silicone breast implants in response to national hysteria fueled by daytime talk show allegations of leakage and rupture. Even then, the FDA did not justify this ban on the basis that these fears were well-founded or even plausible—they were not—but hid behind its determin[ation] that the manufacturers had not adequately addressed public concerns about certain complications.

The Once and Future Speaker Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

Over at National Review, something of intramural squabble To Replace Boehner, Why Not Newt for Speaker?, Speaker Gingrich? Not Really Constitutional, Speaker Gingrich … Unconstitutional?, Jonah, Newt, and Constitutional Presumptions, and Not McCarthy? Fine, but No Non-Members Need Apply. has broken out about the prospect of Newt Gingrich, once the speaker but now a private citizen, being chosen as the successor of John Boehner. The most remarkable part of that squabble is that it is not about the highly debatable likelihood or desirability of the prospect, but the seemingly simple question of its constitutionality.



One of the most remarkable episodes in the history of cryptography began in the 1970s when researchers at IBM developed what was eventually to become DES. This algorithm can be described at a high level as consisting out of a goodly number of boxes which are connected in some complex configuration. However, which particular configuration to choose among the billions of possibilities seemed largely arbitrary; the only important part was for everybody to agree on one particular choice.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking Like a Lawyer

law school reading room

One of the promises made to students as they enter law school is that one day during their sojourn there, they will have an epiphany and grasp what it means to think like a lawyer. It is on that day, and no earlier, that they will cease to be mere law students, but become novice lawyers.

An Unwelcome Privilege

unbalanced scales

The existence of an effective, binding, civil justice system has two implications for you. The first of these is that, should somebody legally wrong you, you can sue them. The second is that, should you legally wrong somebody, they can sue you. This is often thought of as a cost-benefit balance. The capacity to sue is great, but being sued can be unpleasant. You take the bitter with the sweet, because on balance the latter outweighs the former.

That is incorrect. For both of these implications are benefits to you and, for most people, most of the time, the capacity to be sued is a far greater benefit than the capacity to sue.

The Current U.S. Immigration System Is the Best That Can Be Hoped For

The titular proposition, not endorsed by any politician or commentator the author is aware of,The closest parallel are some remarks unsurprisingly by Milton Friedman: Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal. is a peculiar one to be advanced here for reasons both personal and principled.

How to Easily and Cheaply Stop and Reverse Illegal Immigration

illegal immigrants

Exchanges may be mutually beneficial and yet never occur because of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one party can costlessly renege on its promises after the other party has performed, the observed equilibrium will often be universal defection without any mutually beneficial cooperation. One of the greatest benefits of laws and courts is that there mere potential of suing for breach of contract is enough to move us to the cooperative equilibrium without even requiring very many such suits.