Daily Archives: 16 Nov 2014

Police Abuse Caused by Police Entitlement

Too Many Cops Too Little JusticeThis morning, Jon Swaine reported Ferguson: Video Shows Darren Wilson Arresting Man for Recording Him. Wilson, of course, is the Ferguson police office who shot and killed Michael Brown. You know: the man who is soon to be officially not indicted because police officers are never held accountable? Based upon conflicts between the video and what Wilson actually said in his report, many are questioning if Wilson can be trusted in what he says about the Michael Brown shooting. I have a slightly different take on it, but first, let’s go over what is going on with this video.

Just over a year ago, Officer Wilson came to the home of Mike Arman to deal with a citation regarding “derelict vehicles” on the property. Arman wanted to record the encounter. Wilson apparently thought that the video recording was verboten, because we live in a police state. He told Arman to stop photographing him, “If you wanna take a picture of me one more time, I’m gonna lock your ass up.” And then Wilson arrested him for “failing to comply” with Wilson’s orders. Subsequently, the charge was dropped.

I think that the incident shows what we already know about police in general and Darren Wilson in particular. They all think that everyone should bow down before them. They are jerks. The law doesn’t matter. If they don’t want you recording an incident, they will arrest you. The worst that will happen is that the charges will be dropped. And that means that the innocent civilian who was simply exercising his constitutional rights was punished for it. Meanwhile, nothing happens to the officer, except that he learns that he can do anything he wants — often including killing people — and there are no consequences.

What has been clear from the very beginning is that Darren Wilson has an attitude toward those who he polices. Conflicts are not going to be de-escalated; he is going to make situations worse. It seems that he was trained that way in his first job with the police department in Jennings, Missouri. According to the Washington Post, “What he found in Jennings, however, was a mainly white department mired in controversy and notorious for its fraught relationship with residents, especially the African American majority.” It doesn’t seem that anything has changed.

My experiences with the police — both personally and what I’ve observed — is that they always treat people with barely disguised hostility. A lot of it is that they’ve all convinced themselves that their jobs are really dangerous. They don’t, but that’s what they’ve convinced themselves. This is why they act like pussies, using clubs, tasers, and guns at the slightest provocation. But in addition to that, they are insular groups who spend far too much time together and far too little time in the great big world. So they understandably develop an “us versus them” mentality.

What is not understandable is why the departments don’t do more outreach and training. Instead, we have to wait for things like the Michael Brown shooting, even though it was clear last year that Wilson was a tinderbox waiting to explode. Consider the encounter with Mike Arman. Wilson was just there on a citation — the equivalent of a parking ticket. But he apparently didn’t feel that Arman was giving him enough respect. So he arrested him. That isn’t the behavior of a professional government official. That’s the behavior of a thug. We didn’t need the death of Michael Brown to know that.

E-Books Are a Step Backward

Richard StallmanIn an age where business dominates our governments and writes our laws, every technological advance offers business an opportunity to impose new restrictions on the public. Technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead.

With printed books:

  • You can buy one with cash, anonymously.
  • Then you own it.
  • You are not required to sign a license that restricts your use of it.
  • The format is known, and no proprietary technology is needed to read the book.
  • You can give, lend or sell the book to another.
  • You can, physically, scan and copy the book, and it’s sometimes lawful under copyright.
  • Nobody has the power to destroy your book.

Contrast that with Amazon e-books (fairly typical):

  • Amazon requires users to identify themselves to get an e-book.
  • In some countries, including the US, Amazon says the user cannot own the e-book.
  • Amazon requires the user to accept a restrictive license on use of the e-book.
  • The format is secret, and only proprietary user-restricting software can read it at all.
  • An ersatz “lending” is allowed for some books, for a limited time, but only by specifying by name another user of the same system. No giving or selling.
  • To copy the e-book is impossible due to Digital Restrictions Management in the player and prohibited by the license, which is more restrictive than copyright law.
  • Amazon can remotely delete the e-book using a back door. It used this back door in 2009 to delete thousands of copies of George Orwell’s 1984.

Even one of these infringements makes e-books a step backward from printed books. We must reject e-books until they respect our freedom.

—Richard Stallman
The Danger of E-Books

Idiosyncratic Art From Logicked

LogickedAs regular readers know, I have a great love of idiosyncratic art. (See, for example, Death Bed: the Bed that Eats.) I am just so tired of polished soullessness. It is much more interesting to watch something from someone who has a vision that is more than a minor variation on a tired theme. One would think that YouTube would be great for this kind of thing, and it is — to a small extent. But we don’t get as much as we ought to because most people think polished soullessness is the height of artistic achievement. This tends to reduce both supply (since most people only have soullessness to offer) and demand (with many people pushing their banal and often cruel opinions on the creators of idiosyncratic art).

I came upon a great collection of idiosyncratic videos by a guy that goes by the name of logicked. He is an atheist who makes videos that debunk videos by creationists. That in itself is not interesting. There are actually a good too many of such videos. I tend to bristle when I hear atheists talking about science, because they generally have a fairly superficial understanding of it. Just the same, they are close enough, and compared to their creationist opponents, they are downright omniscient. Logicked’s science is better than most, but what is great about him is that he is both funny and bizarre.

The videos I’ve watched counter the young earth creationist and supposed chemist (And “scientist”!) John Morris Pendleton. I’m sketchy on who Pendleton is, but according to a YouTube page, “Pendleton is a missionary near Mexico City. He has an excellent creation seminar and literature ministry in English and has also translated creation materials into Spanish. He is a scientist with a BS in chemistry. Pendleton has great appreciation for the importance of Creation Science and commitment to disseminate the truth of God’s Special Creation.” It is interesting, however, that despite his chemistry degree, he appears to work as an auto mechanic — not that there is anything wrong with that, but the Car Talk guys didn’t claim to be “scientists.”

Logicked has taken Pendleton’s videos and cut them up to create a kind of conversation — as if logicked were sitting in the lecture interrupting. It has the effect of Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing, except that logicked often goes into some depth rebutting a point. And, in fact, he has even created a video (which I haven’t watched) called, Mystery Logicked Theater 3000 — Rapture Brainwashing Video. But rather than logicked only doing voice overs or providing yet another pasty white guy talking head, he appears in black, with a black bandanna around his face, 3-D glasses, and one of those horrible top hats that trendy haberdashers now sell.

There is much to like. Primarily, there is the curious juxtaposition of Pendleton with his earnest arrogance wearing a prop lab coat and logicked with his razor sharp sarcasm wearing his Tim Burton meets Roger Corman outfit. There is the constant visual ribbing with flames and other “demonic” iconography. There are strange little skits in later episodes. And there is the hard-driving, noise-infused music that I’m too old to identify. It all combines to create something quite extraordinary where Pendleton is very much a collaborator in the whole thing. Check out this very funny second “episode”:

(Note: Episode Five is actually better in terms of its idiosyncrasies, including “The Oracle of Toronto” and the death of Yahweh.)

People like Pendleton offend me. I really have no problem with people believing whatever they want. But it is wrong to pretend to do science. I think of Pendleton the way I think of the cargo cultists. They did everything they could to make it appear that they were running an airport. But the airplanes did not come back. Pendleton and the other young earth creationists do everything to appear as though they are doing science. But there is a difference. The cargo cultists really believed. I think people like Pendleton know full well that they aren’t doing science; they are just pretending to trick other people. We saw this when Ken Ham admitted that there is literally no evidence that would make him stop believing in creationism.

Logicked expressed some of my frustration in one of his early videos:

And that’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it, John? After all that supposed evidence you presented, after all that garbage you dug up from Answers in Genesis and from other creationist website with no real factual evidence to back it up — only conjecture, pictures, random quotes from random books that I now have to buy just to be able to see what the context is — after all that, none of it matters! None of it really matters, John. It’s all the Bible and it’s always been the Bible and it always will be the Bible and all this evidence you say convinces you has nothing to do with why you’re convinced. So why don’t you just be honest? Why do you bother trying to present all this evidence? All it does is make you look like a liar and a fraud and a fake and a moron. Go back to your little brainwashed churchy world — and that goes for all you creationists out there. Quit pretending. Go to church. Go pray in your fucking closet like Jesus instructed you to. Quit lying!

But that’s not why you should check him out. Much of his material is genuinely — laugh out loud — funny. And the fact that he does it while looking like a 21st century psychedelic Jack the Ripper only makes it that much more fun.

Economic Scale and Income Inequality

Dietz VollrathFor years I’ve been grappling with a question. How is it that technology and infrastructure affect the amount of money a business owner makes. According to most people on the right, a person’s or company’s value is exactly (or very nearly so) based on the amount of money they make. But think about a man who makes hammers. If he lives in 1750, it doesn’t matter how cheaply and quickly he can make hammers, there will be distinct limits on the number that he can sell because of distributional limitations. But this same man living today would have almost no limitations and so could make vastly more money. What’s more, because he was selling so many more hammers, there are various scaling effects that would also bring his costs down and his profits up.

This example highlights the fact that the man is not necessarily making what he is worth. The modern hammer maker is paid more not because of anything he is doing but simply because of the existing technology and infrastructure that he was gifted. The greater profits are therefore not due to individual achievement, and therefore should not go to the individual — at very least, not entirely. This strikes me as a devastating argument and so I’ve wondered why I don’t hear economists making it. But I figured it had to be floating around.

I think the reason the argument isn’t more widely discussed is because it is easier to simply assume an economy without Sam Walton and then compare it to the economy with Sam Walton. The difference is what Sam Walton is worth. It is much more complicated to consider what actual value he adds. To me, it is as simple as considering one of the most basic economic ideas: the opportunity cost. The question is not how much Walmart adds to the economy, but how much Walmart adds to the economy compare to other options.

Consider the world of classical music. What if the best violinist in the world had never been born. He makes millions of dollars. Would all those CDs not be sold? Would all those concerts not occur? No. Instead, the second-best violinist would have a better career. And the world would be negligibly worse off, because the difference in ability between and the best and the second-best is razor thin. If you want it quantified, consider the 100 meter run: if Usain Bolt had never been born, the world record would be 9.69 instead of 9.58 and Yohan Blake would be doing those Puma commercials.

I have found someone who is talking about this kind of stuff. Recently, Dietz Vollrath wrote, Scale, Profits, and Inequality. His primary interest is in regard to taxation and its effects on innovation. As you know, I think most arguments about innovation are just cons. The idea that people innovate in order to make billions of dollars defies human psychology. Everyone wants to make money, but billions of dollars is out of the range of normal thinking. And regardless, no one considers how much their marginal tax rate will go up before creating something new. “I was going to invent a cold fusion reactor, but then they raised the top tax bracket to 39.6% and I said, ‘No, no, no!'” What rubbish.

Vollrath noted that the quantity of a product sold “depends on the aggregate size of the economy.” He continued:

The scale term… does not depend on genius. It depends on the size of the market you have to sell to. If we stuck Steve Jobs, Jon Ive, and some engineers on a remote island, they wouldn’t earn any profits no matter how many i-Devices they invented, because there would be no one to sell them to.

I would go further, of course. I think that the “genius factor” is greatly over-prized. It too is constrained by social factors. For example, Linus Torvalds’ genius was entirely dependent on the genius of Richard Stallman and the creative environment he established. I’ve always found Stallman to be a rare singularity in the history of innovation because he is so idiosyncratic. There is no question but that Torvalds is brilliant, but eventually some programmer was going to do what he did; I’m not as certain about that when it comes to Stallman. Regardless, people like Jobbs and Walton were not singularities.

This issue is more difficult to argue. What isn’t difficult to argue is that when Sam Walton was computerizing his distribution system he was not thinking, “This is worth doing because long after I’m dead my family will have more money than they could ever spend!” But even if he had been thinking this, all he was doing was harnessing a collective resource that our current system allows to be taken entirely as individual profit. Vollrath noted:

The value-added of “the Waltons” is particularly relevant here. Sam Walton innovated, but the profits of Walmart are almost entirely derived from the scale of the US (and world) economy. It’s the presence of thousands and thousands of those janitors in the US that generates a huge portion of Walmart’s profits, not the Walton family’s unique genius.

The reason we don’t see more of this kind of thinking is that macroeconomics is largely apologetics. (See Economic Apologetics and The Myth of the NAIRU and Its Purpose.) Ideas that push against the interests of the powerful are ignored or held to ridiculously high standards of proof. Ideas that flatter and enrich the powerful are true until proved otherwise. But I’m glad that there are economists out in the world that are talking about issues like scale effects. I will continue to look for more.

Burgess Meredith

Burgess MeredithOn this day in 1907, the great actor Burgess Meredith was born. Throughout my life, he seemed to be everywhere. When I was a kid, he was the Penguin on Batman. Later I knew him for his great roles on The Twilight Zone. And later still, he was the best thing in Rocky. But like I said, he was everywhere.

I don’t feel like going through his career, so let’s just touch on some of my favorite roles — at least the ones I can find video of.

Here he is in one of his early movie roles as George in Of Mice and Men:

And here he is handling an umbrella really well in Batman:

I can’t find a good scene from Rocky, so here he is in a different kind of role in Magic:

And let’s just finish off with perhaps his best known part in The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”:

Happy birthday Burgess Meredith!