Thursday, December 11, 2008


Web Rudeness

A post at Baylyblog inspired me to commment thusly:

'm glad Baylyblog is doing its bit to try to bring civility to the Web. Anonymity isn't the only reason the Web has so much rudeness. The other reason is that we tolerate rudeness. We don't have to. If someone sends me a web comment that would cause me to punch him, admonish him, or walk away from him if it were said to me in person, why should I tolerate it any more just because it is on a computer? The blogger at least has the ability to delete the comment. It is like painting over grafitti. And as with graffiti, it not only reduces the amount of ugliness in the world; it reduces the temptation for the sinner.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Can Pornographers Be Prosecuted for Paying for Sex?

Prof. Volokh has a good weblog entry on Can Pornographers Be Prosecuted for Paying for Sex?.

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Monday, December 8, 2008


Vice in the Netherlands

"Amsterdam to close many brothels, marijuana cafes"

Amsterdam unveiled plans Saturday to close brothels, sex shops and marijuana cafes in its ancient city center as part of a major effort to drive organized crime out of the tourist haven.

The city is targeting businesses that "generate criminality," including gambling parlors, and the so-called "coffee shops" where marijuana is sold openly. Also targeted are peep shows, massage parlors and souvenir shops used by drug dealers for money-laundering.

"I think that the new reality will be more in line with our image as a tolerant and crazy place, rather than a free zone for criminals" said Lodewijk Asscher, a city council member and one of the main proponents of the plan.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008


More's Utopia

I just skimmed through Thomas More's Utopia. It's better than I remembered, and has a lot of similarity to his friend Erasmus's In Praise of Folly. Here are some observations.

1. At the start and the end of Raphael's description of Utopia, the narrator says that what he is most dubious about is the abolition of private property. At the end, he says that the reason is that it deprives a state of magnificence.

2. The essence of Utopia is not really communism, but the restriction on what can be consumed. Since, for example, everybody wears simple clothing of one pattern and color, nobody is tempted to steal anybody else's clothing or to take too much for himself from the warehouse. It follows that what goods are permitted are in overabundance and nobody wants to steal. One assumption is that if luxuries were not produced, wealth would be great enough for an overabundance of necessities even if everyone worked only six hours a day.

3. Utopia is a reformed monastery, with monks who marry and devote themselves to happiness and self-cultivation rather than prayer and worship.

4. The Republic starts with the City of Pigs, which Socrates says is ideal, but Glaucon complains that they have no luxuries there. Utopia is the City of Pigs fleshed out (no pun intended). The Republic's second city, the Callipolis (Beautiful City) has luxuries, but is a feverish, diseased city.

5. Utopia, like the City of Pigs but unlike the Callipolis, has no Guardian class. The philosophers are not kings there. It is a democracy. In a sense, everybody is a philosopher, though.

6. Gallipoli was called Callipolis in ancient times.

7. In Book II More makes the argument that if the natives are underutilizing a country it is just to drive them out to make better use of the land.

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Friday, August 8, 2008


Stern's Ely Lecture on Climate Change and DIscounting

I just finished reading Prof. Stern's Ely Lecture ( Stern, Nicholas. 2008. "The Economics of Climate Change", American Economic Review 98(2), pp. 1-37.). He is in favor of drastic measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Concentrations are now 430 ppm and he wants to stabilize them at 550 ppm. He is fearful of a 5 degree Centigrade temperature increase otherwise. Here are my notes.

1. He says the most recent warm period was around 3 million years ago. Really? There have been lots of ice ages and warmings.

2. He dismisses geoengineering in one paragraph with weak arguments.

3. His Figure 4 from McKinsey has lots of *negative* abatement costs-- things such as insulation improvement, fuel-efficient commercial vehicles, water heating, etc. We can't believe any of that. If it saves money, why isn't it done already? Liquidity constraints?

4. (p. 13). He cites 1.5% as the indexed bonds rate of return on longterm government bonds, and 6-7 percent for private investments:

In the United Kingdom and United States, we find (relatively) “riskless,” indexed lending rates on government bonds centered around 1.5 percent over very long periods. For private very long-run rates of return on equities, we find rates centered around 6 or 7 percent (Rajnish Mehra and Edward C. Prescott 2003, 892; Kenneth J. Arrow et al. 2004, 156; Sree Kochugovindan and Roland Nilsson 2007a, 64; 2007b, 71).
He has a puzzling sentence about what discount rate to use:
Given that it is social discount rates that are at issue, and also that actions to reduce carbon are likely to be financed via the diversion of resources from consumption (via pricing) rather than from investment, it is the long-run riskless rates associated with consumer decisions that have more relevance than those for the investment-related equities.
This is a good question, but what is the implication? Consumers are willing to borrow at rates on the order of 10%, so is that the appropriate social discount rate?

He makes the point that environmental goods' prices will change (though he does not point out that those goods are a tiny part of the consumption basket):

Suppose, however, that we persisted with the argument that it is better to invest at 6-7 percent and then spend money on overcoming the problems of climate change later rather than spending money now on these problems. The multi-good nature of the problem, together with the irreversibilities from GHG accumulation and climate change, tell us that we would be making an additional mistake. The price of environmental goods will likely have gone up very sharply, so that our returns from the standard types of investment will buy us much less in reducing environmental damage than resources allocated now (see also Section I on the costs of delay).12 This reflects the result that if environmental services are declining as stocks of the environment are depleted, then the SDR with that good as numeraire will be negative. On this, see the interesting work by Michael Hoel and Thomas Sterner (2007), Sterner and U. Martin Persson (2007) and Roger Guesnerie (2004), and also the Stern Review (Stern 2007, 60). Environmental services are also likely to be income elastic, which will further reduce the implied SDR.
He has some useful sources on the appropriate rate of pure utility time preference:
Indeed, the ethical proposition that delta should be very small or zero has appealed to a long line of illustrious economists including Frank P. Ramsey (1928, 543), Arthur Cecil Pigou (1932, 24–5), Roy F. Harrod (1948, 37–40), Robert M. Solow (1974, 9), James A. Mirrlees (Mirrlees and Stern 1972), and Amartya Sen (Sudhir Anand and Sen 2000). I have heard only one ethical argument for positive delta (Wilfred Beckerman and Hepburn 2007; Simon Dietz, Hepburn, and Stern 2008) that has some traction—namely a temporal interpretation of the idea that one will have stronger fellow feelings for those closer to us (such as family or clan) relative to those more distant.
When it came to choosing a social discount rate, Stern is opposed to using market interest rates. Later, though, when it comes to choosing the appropriate amount of equality and income redistribution, he slyly switches to favoring observed amounts:
Value judgements are, of course, precisely that and there will be many different positions. They will inevitably be important in this context— they must be discussed explicitly and the implications of different values should be examined. Examples follow of what we find when we turn to empirical evidence and try to obtain implied values (the “inverse optimum” approach). Empirical evidence can inform, but not settle, discussions about value judgements... The upshot is that empirical estimates of implied welfare weights can give a wide range of eta, including h below one and even as little as zero.
Here he is trying to squirm out of the powerful growing-income argument against a low social discount rate. The argument goes like this. Suppose we are considering taking $1,000 away from someone earning $40,000/year so we can give $1,600 to someone else earning $107,000/year. Should we do it? Despite the increase in social wealth, it seems unfair and not calculated to increase total happiness. Yet that is what happens when we require $1,000 in abatement costs in in 2008 because it has a 1%/year return in benefits obtained in 50 years, if incomes grow at 2%/year in the meantime. This argument is particularly powerful against liberals, though it works for conservatives too, and lays out starkly the forced transfers that libertarians hate.

There is a lot of posturing going on:

Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Norway, declared targets of 100 percent reductions by 2050, i.e., “going carbon-neutral.” ... California has a target of 80 percent reductions by 2050. France has its “Facteur Quatre”: dividing by 4, or 75 percent reductions, by 2050 (Stern 2007, 516). The United Kingdom has a 60 percent target but the Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated in November 2007 that this could be raised to 80 percent (Brown 2007). Australia, under the new government elected at the end of November 2007, has now signed Kyoto and has a target of 60 percent...
Costa Rica doesn't matter of course, any more than the United Kingdom does, or anybody else but China and India:
Even with fairly conservative estimates, it is likely that, under BAU, China will reach current European per capita emissions levels within 20-25 years. With its very large population, over this time China under BAU will emit cumulatively more than the USA and Europe combined over the last 100 years.
"BAU" means "business as usual".

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Thursday, July 24, 2008


Environmental AIDS Transmission

I wonder what the truth is about the danger of getting AIDS from such things as sneezes or toilet seats. The danger can't be too great, or we would come across numerous cases where that method of transmission could be proved. On the other hand, I am skeptical of the claims that no such cases occur. Would someone making that claim really be willing to share a handkerchief with someone in the last stages of AIDS? In the scientific literature, look carefully for language such as "No cases have been found..." or "No cases have been proved...", as opposed to "It is impossible to have transmission by ...". I haven't heard of any experiments on the subject. What would be useful would be to see if an animal can be infected without direct contact with an infected animal. Animals cannot be infected with the same HIV virus as humans, but even moderate similarity in the viruses would tell us something.

It isn't widely known that the HIV virus has a remarkable ability to survive outside of a human body. It can even survive drying! This implies, doesn't it, that it must be common for measurable amounts of HIV virus to be transmitted enviromentally. Since we don't see cases of that, it must be that the virus can't get where it needs to go in the body (e.g., maybe it can't get through the nasal membrane) or those amounts are not big enough to survive initial attack by the immune system, or even to stimulate measurable immune reactions.

Here are some notes from a couple of articles.

"Cell-free and cell-associated human immunodeficiency virus cultures suspended in 10% serum remained infectious for several weeks at room temperature. The stability was further increased when cell-associated virus was suspended in neat serum. When dried onto a glass coverslip, virus remained infectious for several days, although cell-associated virus lost infectivity more rapidly than cell-free virus."

The article says this ability to survive is similar to that of other viruses that have lipid envelopes around them.

JOURNAL OF CLINICAL MICROBIOLOGY, Feb. 1994, P. 571-574, Survival of Human Immunodeficiency Virus in Suspension and Dried onto Surfaces J. vAN BUEREN,* R. A. SIMPSON,t P. JACOBS, AND B. D. COOKSON Vol. 32, No. 2.

I found a good comparison of different germs' survival times. The article itself is about accidental jabs from needles.

30-50% of Australian drug users have been exposed to hepatitis B (as shown by having antibodies against it), but only 1-2% are infected. The hepatitis B virus can survive for a week if dried. It can be frozen and thawed 8 times and the DNA is still intact. Even a minute amount of infected blood can transmit the disease, since it has high concentrations and is virulent. It is often transmistted "environmentally"-- that is, from surfaces contaminated by body fluids or through the air.

50-60% of Australian drug users are infected with Hepatitis C. It survives for 2 days dried.

1% of Australian drug users are infected with HIV. THat is remarkably low-- aren't rates for American homosexuals who frequent homosexual venues more like 20%?

Blood-borne viruses and their survival in the environment: is public concern about community needlestick exposures justified? Thompson, Boughton and Dore. 2003 VOL . 27 NO. 6 AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH.

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Monday, July 14, 2008


The Noahide Laws

The Talmudic Jews have a tradition that 7 laws are commanded to non-Jews. This is important as a sign of which laws are considered universally the most important. They are not the same as the 10 Commandments. They do not, for example, require worship of Jehovah, or observance of the Sabbath, which are laws specifically for the Jews. Sometimes people point to minor laws in the Torah to downplay the importantance of, for example,the prohibition of homosexuality. This is evidence that some laws are considered more important than others, and of universal importance. has the "The Seven Laws of the Descendents of Noah", well-documented and with page sources and Hebrew in the original and transliterated:

Idolatry: (Strange work - i.e. serving an idol) Avodah Zarah
2 Blasphemy - ‘Blessing’ the Divine Name: (Cursing G-d) Birchat (Kilelas) HaShem
3 Murder: (Spilling blood) Shefichat Damim
4 Sexual transgressions: (Exposure of nakedness) (i.e. incest, adultery, homosexual acts and bestiality etc) Gilui Arayot
5 Theft: (To rob, embezzle.) (Includes rape and abduction) Gezel
6 Courts system: (Judgement, justice, and law etc.) Dinim
7 Eating a limb torn from a live animal: (Limb of the living.) Ever Min HaChai
From Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 56a; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:1....

Transgressing any one of them is considered such a breach in the natural order that the offender incurs the death penalty. Apart from a few exceptions, the death sentence for a Ben Noach is Sayif, death by the sword / decapitation, the least painful of the four modes of execution of criminals (see the Rambam's Hilchos Melachim 9:14). (The four methods of capital punishment in Torah are: S’kilah - Stoning; S’rifah - Burning; Hereg - Decapitation; Henek - Strangulation.)...

The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 8:11, writes that all Benei Noach who accept upon themselves the Seven Mitzvos and are careful to keep them and are precise in their observance are termed 'Chasidei Umos ha'Olam' ?????????? ??????? ???????? ('the Pious Ones of the Nations') and they merit a share in the World to Come. However, they must keep these Mitzvos specifically because HaShem (G-d) commanded them in the Torah through Moshe Rabeinu (Moses).

Further information is at:


The 7 laws that Noah gave to his sons in the Book of Jubilees, chapter 7, verse 20.

And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity.

English translations (by Soncino) of the parts of the Talmud that discuss Noahide law:

Sanhedrin 56a & 56b
Sanhedrin 57a & 57b
Sanhedrin 58a & 58b
Sanhedrin 59a & 59b
Sanhedrin 60a & 60b
Sanhedrin 96b
Avodah Zarah 2 & 3
Avodah Zarah 64b, 65a & 65b
Baba Kamma 38a

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Monday, June 16, 2008


An Indiana Spanking Case

The Indiana Supreme Court, as described by Prof. E.Volokh, have just ruled that it is ok to discipline your child. The decision was 4 to 1. But lower courts had upheld a criminal conviction for battery! I hope the prosecutor and judge in that county get unseated.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Nicotine Prevents Senility?

From Wikipedia:
With regard to neurological diseases, a large body of evidence suggests that the risks of Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease might be twice as high for non-smokers than for smokers.[26] Many such papers regarding Alzheimer's disease[27] and Parkinson's Disease[28] have been published.

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Friday, June 6, 2008


Weitzman's Gamma Discounting

I was just thinking about the article "Gamma Discounting", Martin L. Weitzman The American Economic Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Mar., 2001), pp. 260-271. Weitzman has a model in which you are unsure of the proper discount rate, and concludes that your discount rate should become small in far future periods. He says the intuition has to do with compound interest. He uses the gamma function for your prior. I think a numerical example works better, though I'm not sure if this is what he's getting at-- he says that using continuous compounding you don't get his result.

Anyway, here's the simple idea. Suppose we don't know whether the interest rate will be 2% or 4%, and these have equal probability. We will get a benefit of $1 in 100 years. What is it worth in present value?

If the interest rate is 2%, the value is about $.13. If the interest rate is 4% the value is about $.02. The expected value is therefore about $.07. But if the interest rate were a known 3%, the expected value would be about $.05. Thus, our ignorance results in less discounting.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008


The Volstead Act and Prohibition

The Volstead Act (the National Prohibition Act, Oct. 28, 1919, ch. 85, 41 Stat. 305) was the federal statute implementing Prohibition (the constitutional amendment did not go into specifics; a law was needed for that). Surprisingly, it isn't available on the Web. Since Prohibition was repealed, the Volstead Act has been taken out of the US Code, so it can't be found there. There are various abridged versions on the Web, though. I quote from the best one below. Peter Hitchens said that Prohibition did not make possession of liquor illegal, and such seems to be the case, at least possession in one's home.

SEC. 33. After February 1, 1920, the possession of liquors by any person not legally permitted under this title to possess liquor shall be prima facie evidence that such liquor is kept for the purpose of being sold, bartered, exchanged, given away, furnished, or otherwise disposed of in violation of the Provisions of this title. . . . But it shall not be unlawful to possess liquors in one's private dwelling while the same is occupied and used by him as his dwelling only and such liquor need not be reported, provided such liquors are for use only for the personal consumption of the owner thereof and his family residing in such dwelling and of his bona fide guests when entertained by him therein; and the burden, of proof shall be upon the possessor in any action concerning the same to prove that such liquor was law fully acquired, possessed, and used.

This shows why it is important to have the full text of a law. Earlier in the Act it says that possession is illegal except in circumstances explained elsewhere in the Act.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Telling Children to Behave

From WSJ, Taranto, is story that tell us about Obama, social norms and breakdown in the US, Black-Hispanic relations, freedom of speech, and the difference between America and England in social responsibility.

A Barack Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention was "ticketed for calling her neighbor's African-American children 'monkeys,' " reports the Chicago Sun-Times. (We didn't realize this was against the law, but the Chicago Tribune explains that the charge was disorderly conduct.) Here is what happened, according to the Sun-Times:

[Linda] Ramirez-Sliwinski "came outside and told the children to quit playing in the tree like monkeys. The tree was not on Ramirez-Sliwinski's property," Carpentersville Police Commander Michael Kilbourne said.

Ramirez-Sliwinski admitted she used the word "monkeys," but said she did not intend racism. She said she was only trying to protect them from falling out of the tree.

"Linda Ramirez-Sliwinski said she saw the kids playing in the tree and didn't want them falling out of the tree and getting hurt. She said she calls her own grandchildren 'monkeys,' " Kilbourne said. The mother of one of the children did not see it that way, noting she and Ramirez-Sliwinski have clashed before.

"She felt it was racist because of the fact the children were African-American," Kilbourne said.

Told of the incident Monday by the Sun-Times, Obama's campaign called Ramirez-Sliwinski and persuaded her to step aside as a delegate because the campaign felt her remarks were "divisive and unacceptable."

Finally, someone Barack Obama can disown! Let this be a lesson for other Obama delegates: If someone is bothering you, shout at the top of your lungs, "God damn America!" You know Obama will stand by you then.

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Monday, November 26, 2007


Democracy: Elections and Referenda. At my workshop today at the business school, the issue came up of whether people's votes express their preferences or whether they are too easily misled. Can we decide the intensity of feeling over abortion by seeing which candidate wins an election? A referendum would not work as well, since it is a vote on a single issue, so there is no opportunity for tradeoff. Everyone who voted would vote their preference, intense or mild, and the only opportunities for intense preferences to count for more would be in turnout and in spending on advertising to convince those with mild preferences. Interestingly enough, in such a case the presence of many almost indifferent voters could be very helpful in making the vote display intensity too. Someone who is almost indifferent is up for grabs, and so the intensity of other voters can obtain a double vote where it could not if the voter had somewhat stronger views. The danger from a tyranny of the majority is greatest not when there is a large number of voters with weak views, but where there are few such people, but many whose views are just strong to induce them to vote on their own initiative and to be immune to persuasion by the efforts of those with intense feelings.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007


Personal Autonomy. I've been reading Feinberg on the idea that personal autonomy is a good thing. This is a central idea of modern liberalism. Self-fulfillment and self-definition become the central goods. A person should seek not achievement or happiness, but the fulfillment of his talents. I find this hard to understand. Suppose someone has very little talent of any kind. Is he to forfeit happiness in order to pursue what he is best at, or what he fancies he is best at but knows that "best" is not very good? Or suppose someone does have great talents. Must he give up happiness, or achievement, in order to pursue self-fulfillment?

Another component to autonomy is the rational choice of one's moral principles, in the name of "authenticity". This seems to me to have authenticity backwards. Which is more authentic, the person who picks and chooses to construct a hodge-podge of moral principles that fails to hang together but is individual and self-chosen, or the person who is true to the morality of his culture? Which is more authentic, the modern American mish-mash, or the Amazonian savage who sticks to the beliefs of 1000 years of his culture? And which is more stable? Someone who tries to create himself is less likely to stick with it precisely because he is always self-creating and because he never is bound to what he has chosen. Almost by definition, he changes more easily, and of course he will give in more easily to temptation, since his habits are less established.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007



What do you get if you castrate a man, feed him estrogen, and stuff him into a dress?

---A fat, castrated, man in a dress.

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Saturday, October 6, 2007


Evolution and Religion

David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral, a book about the usefulness of religion as an evolutionary adaption, harshly criticizes Richard Dawkins for sloppiness in thinking about religion and evolution. This is part of Dawkins's contempt for group selection, which is misguided. Click here to read more

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