31 July 2012

Verbal Camouflage


Dear business people – Stop abusing the English language in an attempt to get outside the paradigm and revolutionize the box. Nothing is being impacted. The word is affected. Stop telling people, “Don’t hesitate to contact Joe or myself.” The pronoun is me. Imagine saying, “Give myself a call” to get an idea of how ridiculous you sound. I love language too, but there is nothing awesome about unintentional misuse. Stop cascading ideas. Stop suggesting we let things marinate. Proactivate your brain and accept the fact that attempts to gussy up the banal only impresses idiots while broadcasting your own idiocy.
This basically sums up everything I hated about B-School.*  The constant use of highly technical (and often misappropriated) language to describe mundane processes was extremely frustrating because it was inefficient and because it felt highly disingenuous.  It was as if middle managers were expected to confuse the reality of their role in the organization by misusing language.

I realize now that this practice of using language to hide reality is neither new nor limited to business school and middle management.  Economists, for example, are just as guilty of padding their language as business people:
[We need to] identify the determinants of intergenerational mobility, with an eye towards finding policies that increase equality of opportunity. Should we be focusing on increasing access to higher education? Changing the structure of elementary schooling? Revamping the tax code?
This is Grade-A bullshit.  Seriously, what is intergenerational mobility?  Does it mean moving between generations?  Does it mean getting older?  Or is it just meaningless jargon that exists to fill up a press release or university bio?

Of course, verbal camouflage has existed forever.  Isaiah speaks of those who called “evil” “good” and “good” “evil.”  It takes some serious linguistic tricks to reach a point where referring to something as its opposite sounds reasonable.  And yet, we all do that every day.

We don’t support the murder of innocent babies; we’re merely “pro-choice.”  We don’t have anger issues; we’re just “passionate.”  We don’t yell; we merely raise our voices.  We’re not arrogant; we’re self-confident.  We’re not obnoxious; we’re opinionated.

Ultimately, though, we recognize the obfuscatory nature of language.  We even embrace it, because we realize that we only have two choices when confronted with unpleasant realities:  change it or change how we speak about it.  When we realize that we have, say, anger issues, we can either admit this or we can deny it.  If we admit it, we are essentially implying that we must change, unless we convince ourselves that our anger is acceptable.  If we deny it, then we have to change how we talk about the matter, elsewise we simply continue to be confronted by our failings.

Thus, we constantly hide behind our words because we cannot bear to deal with reality.  We invest in our pretty lies, and cannot bear to have them taken away from us, and so we change how we talk about reality, to hide the unpleasant truths from before our faces.

On a macro level, we cannot admit that the ideal of free trade is bad policy, nor can we admit that equality does not exist in any material form.  On a micro level, we cannot bring ourselves to admit to our flaws, misbehavior, and sins.  And so we call reality a lie and we call lies reality; we call good evil and evil good.  Ultimately, we hide the truth.  We hide the truth behind language.

* From which I’ve finally graduated, for the benefit of those readers that may care about these things.

The Gun Control Debate


It rears its ugly head again, in the wake of *James Holmes’ rampage in Aurora, Colorado:
In his broadest remarks on gun control yet in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, President Barack Obama called late Wednesday for tougher background checks designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

"A lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities," the president, who has called for reimposing the Assault Weapons Ban, said in a speech to the National Urban League.

"I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone's criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily," he said. "These steps shouldn't be controversial. They should be common sense."
Let’s play a game I like to call “Spot the Logical Fallacies.”

First fallacy:  Appeal to Authority.  It doesn’t matter if a lot of gun owners agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers.  Their consensus is not constitutional law, nor does it necessarily make for a functional policy.

Second fallacy:  False Dichotomy.  There are plenty of places other than a field of battle where guns might belong.  A hostage situation, for example, or a home robbery.  These aren’t fields of battle per se, but guns should surely be welcomed there for the purpose of self-defense.

Third fallacy:  Non Sequitur.  It does not follow logically that writing some words on the federal register that ban guns will make guns go away.  Murder, for example, is statutorily illegal, but that in and of itself does not preclude its occurrence.  In fact, that law is generally enforced, occasionally harshly, yet murders still occur.  Likewise, merely banning guns or assault rifles will not inherently prevent them from being used.

Fourth fallacy:  Appeal to Authority.  Again, it doesn’t matter if a majority of gun owners think it wise to preclude criminals from owning guns.  The viability of this proposal stands or falls on its own merits, not on the merits of its defenders.

Fifth fallacy:  Non Sequitur.  The assertion that mentally ill people shouldn’t be able to get their hands on assault weapons, even if granted, does not require the conclusion for stricter gun laws.  It could be the case that preventing the mentally ill from getting guns is as simple as reopening asylums for the insane.  There are likely other policies that can cause the desired outcome.

By now, it should be obvious that Obama is completely out of his league in this debate.  If this is the best the anti-gun crowd can muster (five logical fallacies is really the best they can do?), then I think it’s safe to say that it’s time to stick a fork in the anti-gun crowd.  Alternatively, the anti-gun crowd may want to consider getting a different apologist.

Nearly six months after Jeremy Atkinson was shot and killed by a Kroger store manager during an attempted robbery, his mother is seeking more than $75,000 in damages in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the supermarket chain.

The complaint filed July 13 in U.S. District Court argues that Kroger neglected to enforce its own policy that prohibits employees from carrying firearms while on duty. Experts are saying this could be a tough battle for the plaintiffs to win.

Not only do they have to establish that Kroger was negligent by failing to enforce its gun policy, Indianapolis attorney Drew Miroff said they also have to prove that that negligence — not Atkinson’s own actions — led to his death.
Basically, this woman’s complaint is that her son was shot while trying to rob Kroger’s.  Kroger’s, of course, should be held responsible for her son’s death, because how dare anyone try not to be robbed.  Basically, a criminal’s mother is complaining that someone resisted her criminal son’s attempted crime.  Make of this story what you will.

* Here’s a fun story on how there are a ton of women who find James Holmes attractive.  I wonder what can be inferred about women from this.

Limbaugh Jumps Another Shark


Yeah, he should be done right about now:
Have you heard this new movie, the Batman movie, what is it, The Dark Knight Lights Up or whatever the name is.  That's right, Dark Knight Rises. Lights Up, same thing.  Do you know the name of the villain in this movie?  Bane.  The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, B-a-n-e.  What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran and around which there's now this make-believe controversy?  Bain.  The movie has been in the works for a long time.  The release date's been known, summer 2012 for a long time.  Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire breathing four eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane?
Allow my inner comic book geek to shine through for a moment.

Here’s the thing:  Bane has existed as a Batman villain for nearly two decades.  In order for this conspiracy to actually occur, the Batman comic book writers would have to have known back in the early portion of Clinton’s administration that Mitt Romney would eventually leave Bain Capital and run for the presidency in 2012.  Not only that, the writers would have had to conspire with Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros, DC Comics, and the GOP in order for this to happen.  While I would not put it past the GOP to sabotage itself (how else to explain McCain in 2008, amirite?), it seems ludicrous to even suggest that that the GOP would spend nearly two decades trying to thwart its own efforts in the 2012 presidential race.

At any rate, this simply goes to show that Rush Limbaugh is, at this point in time, a complete joke.  He is clearly nothing more than a GOP shill who is willing to embarrass himself for the party.  Here’s hoping his listeners wake up to the fact that he is no longer a conservative (if he ever was), but is rather a GOP talking (empty) head.

Political Pedantry


Apparently Obama gave a speech, a while ago, wherein he made an apparently controversial claim that, “If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.”  This led conservatives to getting up in arms.  However, some of the conservatives who took to attacking Obama had apparently received quite a bit of money from the federal government, thus proving Obama’s implicit assertion.

While Obama’s specific claim is a little unclear in its direct intent (is he saying, e.g., that all businesses are started by someone other than the owner or is he suggesting that no one acts independently, contra the Randian ideal?), the broader point that no man is an island is one that is generally true, and has been made many times over the past several centuries.  This point is pedantic enough that it should go without saying, and even in the event that it does not, making the point that no man is an island shouldn’t cause an uproar.

Furthermore, the broader implicit claim that government has caused some level of business success is also true.  The mere existence of corporate status shields individuals from being directly responsible for their behavior in the marketplace.  Government-funded infrastructure has been the norm for many countries for many years.  Government paid for railroads, canals, highways, and roads in the US, and has also subsidized electricity and telecommunication networks.  These have undoubtedly contributed to business success, and I see no reason to deny this fact.

Really, this whole episode proves two things:  1) the media was really bored during the month of July and 2) conservatives are bad at arguing.  Regarding the latter, Obama’s claim that businesses don’t come to existence in a vacuum is simply an assertion that begs the question of what government can do to help business.  But this implicit question is actually a non sequitur because the fact that there was once a time in which the government enacted policies that helped people start businesses does not require the conclusion that the government must continue to enact the same policies, or change them or increase spending on said policies, in order to ensure that people continue to receive help when starting businesses.  To put it more succinctly, just because government may have been partially responsible for others’ business success in the past doesn’t mean that the government will continue to do so. It may be that government intervention is unnecessary.  It may be that government intervention is counterproductive.  It may even be helpful.  But, in a technical sense, past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

In closing, let me also note that a strong case can be made that the government is not always essential for commercial infrastructure.  James J. Hill provides a rather fascinating example of how one man can do a better job at building infrastructure than the federal government.  To be fair, his example is not completely free of government help and intervention (though most of the government intervention was negative).  However, an honest reading of his history should lead to the conclusion that he could’ve done a better job building infrastructure if the government didn’t exist.  Thus, the idea that the government needs to do anything to ensure that businesses succeed is suspect.  Therefore, the proper conclusion to draw from this brouhaha is that the government has indeed helped many businesses succeed, but there is no logical reason to think that is necessary for future or even current business success.  Historical fact does not necessitate political policy.

30 July 2012

The Pathology of Overprotectiveness


I had an opportunity to observe an overprotective parent in action the other day.  I was supposed to meet up with some friends, but when I arrived at their house, only their dad was home.  He was upset that they had not cleaned the house, and so he grumbled to me how his kids were terrible, and how he just wanted to kick them out.  Fifteen minutes later, his son arrived back home.  He had checked the mail, and was in the process of opening a letter when he walked through the door.  It was a college acceptance letter for a college in the next state.  He told his dad the good news, and his dad replied by saying that it wasn’t a good idea for him to move so far away because life would be difficult for him.  It appears that dad’s lament of fifteen minutes earlier had been forgotten in the prospect of his son leaving him voluntarily.

At any rate, it struck at that moment in time just how horrific the pathology of overprotectiveness truly is.  It starts when parents coddle their children.  They seek to protect from all the ills of life, whether that be injury, risk, or deprivation.  Quite simply, overprotective parents actively prevent their children from engaging in behaviors that could have negative outcomes, like exploring nature, or working hard, or occasionally even doing chores.  Their children know neither risk nor responsibility, and grow up soft and unfocused.  This, of course, makes their children ill-equipped for functioning as adults in society, because their children simply have no idea to be adults, thanks to overprotective parents.  Weirdly, though, the parents do not like their children because their children remain dependent on them even after their children are well into the chronological age of maturity.  Unfortunately for the parents, this is a hell of their own making.  Instead of raising their children to eventually become independent, they raise their children to rely on them as crutches.

In a broader sense, the nanny state is the same way.  Those who rule see people who are oppressed and downtrodden, and attempt to help them.  Unfortunately, this desire to help is quite addictive, and so the state can never reduce or cut back on the help it offers; it must, instead, perpetually grow.  In so doing, the state encourages people to rely on it for help.  These people become dependent, weak, and lazy.  The rulers, though, become disgusted with the very people they tried to protect.  They view them as lazy parasites, incapable of taking care of themselves, and wholly reliant on the state for help.  Oftentimes, they are correct.  But this dependence is disgusting because it is unnatural. The people who received state funds are viewed with contempt, and looked down upon, as if they are puppies to take care because they are so weak and helpless on their own.

Ultimately, this overprotectiveness is a corruption of love.  There is a natural desire to help others, to do what’s best for others, to act in the best interest of one’s children.  However, this natural desire is untrained and often imprecise, and may even lack foresight.  Thus, say, a parent may genuinely desire to do what’s right for his children, but is otherwise incapable of actually doing so because he relies on his untrained emotions and is otherwise incapable of seeing how his desire to make his kids happy in the short-term will lead to him hating them later. He feels, but he does not think.  His emotion is unmoderated by contemplation, and so his actions and words are like his feelings:  inconsistent, dynamic, and subject to change without notice.  And, that is why, on the one hand, a man can curse his children for being lazy and then, not even a quarter of an hour later, send his son on a guilt trip for the crime of considering the possibility of moving to a different state.

The overprotective agent, whether that is a parent or a state, is one who unwittingly creates a monster and then is disgusted when confronted by it.  The overprotective parent is too consumed with his own perspective and concerns to realize the damage that is done until it is too late.  Like a manic-depressive, then, the overprotective parent flits increasingly faster back-and-forth between the extremes of revulsion and pity, and acts accordingly depending on how he feels at the time.  As time goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the parent must let the child go free; however, as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder for the parent to actually do so.

First, they make you dependent and weak.  Then, they hate you for being dependent and weak.  Next, they protect you for being dependent and weak, which makes you even more dependent and weak, which they hate you for even more, and so on ad infinitum.  And thus is the pathology of overprotectiveness.

20 July 2012

Privatize Firefighting


Alex Tabarrok, at Marginal Revolution, has a post about firefighters and their work.  In it, he notes that the number of career firefighters has doubled over the last 25 years while the number of fires has halved.  To put it another way, it’s highly probable that the market has reached its saturation point for firefighters.

Thus, now may also be a good time for privatizing firefighting since the risk of fires is declining while the cost of fighting them is increasing.  To put it another way, the need for firefighters (and presumably the direct demand) is declining while the practical cost is increasing.  We have an inefficient market since the government serves as the middle man, and payments are indirect and cannot be opted out of.  Thus, privatizing firefighting should help to significantly reduce costs without significantly reducing the amount of actual firefighting service provided.

To address the practical objections, I imagine that the most probable way of handling privatization would be to handle it through insurance companies.  For example, home insurers would likely make subscribing to a firefighting service a requirement for a policy.  Alternatively, home insurers might offer discounts to people who subscribe to a firefighting service because that indicates conscientiousness, which in turns indicates a lower risk of having the fire in the first place (for if one takes some pains to address fires, will he not also take others?).  Or insurers could sell subscriptions as a form of insurance (if your house starts to burn, you’ll be guaranteed that some company will come put out the fire).  This line of reasoning also extends to landlords as well.  Furthermore, the continued presence of volunteer firefighters suggests that even those who are too poor to subscribe to a firefighting can still be reasonably assured of help, much in the same way that poor people used to be assured of charity health care.

In any event, privatizing firefighting is very feasible.  Not only that, the risk and transitory pains are, at this point in time, likely the lowest they will ever be.  Maybe it’s time for a change.