A Christian Nation?

signing declaration

There are some folk who insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  There are others who insist that it in no way was ever a Christian nation.

Both groups are right.  And they are both wrong.

Oh, and before I continue, let me note that I am not a Christian.

Much of the exploration and colonization of the New World was driven by religious motives.  While it is fashionable among a certain breed of “historian” to paint Christopher Columbus as a monster, driven solely by a lust for gold and seeing in the natives a ready source of forced labor (slaves) who could be easily conquered, the reality is far from that narrative.  Yes, Columbus was seeking what he believed was a shorter route to the East by sailing westward–this based on a wildly erroneous estimate of the diameter of the world (well known as a globe by educated men of his day)–to open trade routes that would be profitable for Europe.  However, his dealings with the natives–actual dealings not the spin created by certain popular “historians”–was based on his own Christian belief and a desire to bring the benighted locals to God.

Some that came after Columbus had much more venal motives.  And some that came after didn’t.  It was a mixed bag, as was often the case in history.

It is not my intent here to attempt to give an account of the colonization and conquest of the Americas, so I’ll leave that simply to set the stage for the founding of what would become the United States.

The first English Colony in North America was the Roanoke Colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh.  It was actually two colonies.  The first, founded on Roanoke island in 1585 promptly failed.  The second, founded in 1587 also failed and vanished into the mists of history when a resupply mission was delayed by the Anglo-Spanish war.

The Roanoke colony had been intended as a supply base for Raleigh’s real interest, which was the Caribbean and particularly raiding Spanish shipping.

It would not be until 1607 until the first successful English colony–Jamestown–would be settled in America.  Jamestown was another colony based on pure economic motives and it struggled for years, nearly failing in 1610, muddling along for several years trying to find something profitable to keep it going before developing tobacco as a cash crop in 1613.

Back in England, the suggestion was made that the failure of Roanoke and the difficulties of Jamestown was because they were purely military or economic ventures and lacked religious purpose.  This was soon to be tested with the expedition of the Pilgrims to what would begin the settlement of New England.

The Pilgrims, a branch sect of a branch sect–being an offshoot of the Puritans, who themselves were an offshoot of the Church of England.  They settled at what would become Plymouth in 1620.  They, like the other colonies before them, had initial problems but they soon flourished.  They were soon followed by other Puritan groups, also coming to New England to set up explicitly religious colonies.

While most of the New England colonies were religious separatists–“We grant those of other faiths the liberty to stay away from us”–a particular group who took the idea of individual conscience, and the idea of religious freedom that follows from that, and founded what would become Rhode Island.

So things would continue for some time.  The English colonies in what would become the United States were a mix of religious communites, such as those in New England, and those founded for economic purposes such as those in Virginia.

The first rumblings of discontent with British rule over the English colonies, however, was very much religious in nature.  It started with the English Civil War.  Charles I’s marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France and the treaty which allowed her to freely practice her religion in England were not popular with the Puritans in England and in the New World.  Then followed the English Civil War itself, which deposed Charles I.  The Restoration put Charles I’s son, Charles II, on the throne and all seemed well, but then Charles II died and James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne.

James II revoked the charter of the Massachusetts colony, created the Dominion of New England in its stead and appointed Edmond Andros, a foe of Puritanism as its governor.  Andros ruled practically as a dictator, outlawing town meetings and stripping clergy of the power to marry among other things.  Needless to say, the New Englanders used to running things to suit themselves were quite unhappy with this arrangement.

Thus, the first real stirrings of discontent with British rule were over religious matters.  Things settled after the Glorious Revolution which ousted James II and enthroned William and Mary as the rulers of England.

In the 1730s and 1740s the Great Awakening swept Britain and the colonies, the first of many religious revivals that would affect the New World.  It was into this environment that many of the key Founding Fathers of the US were born, including George Washington (1732), John Adams (1735), Thomas Jefferson (1743), Patrick Henry (1736), and so on.  Samuel Adams (1722) grew to adulthood in the Great Awakening, and Benjamin Franklin (1706) was already an adult when it started.

Thus, many of the Founding Fathers were steeped in religion when they were forming the nascent United States.  Individually, they spanned from Calvinist to Congregationalist to Deist to possibly outright atheist, but the culture and society which shaped them was decidedly Christian and largely Puritan at that.

However, when circumstances conspired to drive an irrevocable wedge between the colonies and the mother country of Great Britain, a rising tide of secularism was cresting.  Folks of religious fervor found it necessary to work alongside folk of lesser religious feeling.  Folks of different religious views needed to find common ground for the new government.  The result was that they had to focus on matters other than religion.  Even ardent “anti-Papists” like Samuel Adams were forced by circumstance to modify their views at least in government matters.

And so, as a result, the actual legal structures of the newly formed United States avoided either endorsing or denying particular religious views, from the most devout believers to the most determined atheist.  They explicitly rejected religious tests for public office.  One could not use a person’s religious belief or lack thereof as a condition of holding any office of public trust.  Later, with the Bill of Rights, they forbade Congress for creating a State-supported church (Congress shall pass no law…respecting an establishment of religion) and from interfering in the practice of religion by the people (nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof).

So, while the culture and society which lead to the creation of the United States was strongly religious and overwhelmingly Christian, the legal founding of the nation steered clear of either endorsing or rejecting any particular religious belief or non-belief.

So the folk who say the United States is a Christian Nation and those who say it is not are both right.  And they are both wrong.  It is a quantum entanglement of both.

Old Rule: A Law in Violation of the Constitution is No Law at All.

I’ll go further than that, actually, a law in violation of basic human rights, regardless of whether it’s explicitly called out in the Constitution or not, is no law at all.

So, on the Book of Faces, there was this:


People keep making up new rules, for their own convenience (although I kind of like the one given in the response to Mr. Rubin).  And they never seem to be bothered by the old rules.  You know, like the Constitution which is supposed to spell out certain specific enumerated powers of Congress, the President, and the Courts and none beyond those specified.  Further, in the Bill of Rights, certain things are intended to be made off limits to Congress.

It’s popular in certain circles to claim that the Constitution is a “living document” and thus to be reinterpreted to suit the political whim of the moment.  Try doing that with any other legal document (like, say, your mortgage contract) and see where that gets you.  It’s even more popular, in much the same circles to flat out lie about what it means.  No, the Second Amendment was not about letting the government, whether State or Federal, arm its own troops.  That’s not what the “militia clause” means.  I have discussed this elsewhere.  Notably here, here, and here.

Living Constitution folk claim that we can never really know what the Founding Fathers actually meant.  We can’t get inside their heads and read their minds.  Thus, any modern interpretation of the words they wrote is as good, as valid, as any “original intent.”  That’s a pure smokescreen.  We don’t need to “read their minds.” They used certain words and constructions which had well understood meanings at the time the Constitution was written, and again as each of the various amendments were added.  We can take their “intent” in the words they wrote–that what they said, in the words they used according to the way those words were normally understood at the time, is what they meant.  That is what “original intent” is.  It’s not rocket science.  It might take some study of how words and constructions were used at the time (phrases like “establishment of religion” and “well-regulated militia” had meanings quite at varience with what modern “interpreters” try to inflict upon them).

Moving away from the Constitution itself, and as an excuse for violating it, people will mumble about “will of the people” and the “right” of the “people” to pass whatever laws they want but, well, if you follow that logic, that anything government does is okay so long as it follows whatever process it has to passing laws, then the very idea of rights is lost.  Once again, I’ve discussed this here.

That’s the general case where “law” does not mean “right” but in the special case where the government exercises powers not granted to it by the Constitution (or amendments thereto), and particularly when it involves things specifically forbidden to the government, then it is not even “law” in truth because the government has no authority to pass such law.  It may have all the appearances of law in that Congress held a vote saying “the government can do this”, the President may have signed it, police may arrest people who violate it, and the courts may allow their conviction to stand.  But in all of that, it is the government that is breaking the law because that’s what the Constitution is, the Supreme Law of the Land.  Period.

That’s the ideal.  Unfortunately we live in the real world.  And while ideally, the Constitution should be all the “gun permit” I should ever need.  No, even more basic than that, the basic right to life, and thus the right to defend that life against threats, and thus again the right to effective tools to defend that life, should be all the “permit” I need.  But if I try to act on that, then Men With GunsTM will come and throw me in jail or outright kill me (depending on if they see me as an immediate threat). And while the government is wrong to deny me that right, all I would accomplish at this juncture is my own end.

And so the government breaks the law, the Supreme Law of the Land, on a regular basis.  And most people sit and watch, waiting.  Nobody wants to be the first to take direct action against the illegal actions of the Federal and State governments.  Act too soon and at best, you’re John Brown, hanged for treason.  You may become a name people rally around later but…hanged for treason.

And so people wait.  As Jefferson put it:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But that people continue to suffer evils, and raise at most vocal outcries as Federal and State governments continue to illegally assert powers not granted by the Constitution, does not make those actions in violation of the Constitution legal any more than any criminal, able to get away with his crimes for an extended time is not a criminal.

So, old rule:  If you’re passing laws in violation of the Constitution, you are the lawbreaker.  Not me.


Elara of the Elves: A Snippet

A snippet:


The steel hummed happily under Elara’s hand as she ran the polishing cloth over the bowl of the ladle.  She held the ladle up and examined her distorted reflection in the steel. That morning, her maids had exclaimed in dismay over the shadows under her eyes–she had not slept well the night before–but she had waved away their ministrations with paints and ointments.  Instead she had hastened to the forge, to the only solace she had found since the elves had slain her family and brought her here to be their queen.

Elara heard a complaint from the steel, a small one, and turned it.  Her reflection wavered as it crossed a small ripple in the bowl. She glanced at the forge then shook her head.

“Cold, I think.”

Elara set the ladle over the horn of the anvil and selected a hammer.  Carefully, she turned the ladle until its voice in her mind told her she had the right spot.  One, two, three taps of the hammer and the steel almost sighed in relief.

When Elara raised the ladle to examine her work the marks left by the hammer obscured her reflection but the steel was clearly happier.  She turned to a polishing wheel and began to pump the treadle.

“Highness?” The voice of one of Elara’s guards came from the doorway.

“What?” Elara said without looking up from her work.

“The human, Corden, is without.  He begs audience with your highness.”

“Very well.  Bid him enter.”

“As your highness wishes.”

Elara turned her head, catching the guard’s eye before he could withdraw. “Bid him enter alone.

The guard hesitated. “But…Regent Odarin…”

Elara frowned. “Must I explain every time?  This speaks to my choice of consort. No one may interfere.  And he is no more threat to me today than he was yesterday.”

The guard’s sigh was clearly visible from where Elara stood.  After a moment, he nodded. “As your highness wishes.”

Elara returned to polishing the ladle.  Shortly thereafter Corden entered.

“Good morrow, Your Highness.”

“And good morrow to you, Lord Corden.”

“I see your project is near complete.”

Elara held up the ladle and examined the result of her handiwork.  A few swipes of the polishing cloth removed the grit from the polishing wheel and the steel underneath shown mirror-bright with no rippling in her reflection as she turned the ladle.

Elara turned and held the ladle out toward Corden. “A gift for you.”

Hesitantly, Corden took the ladle.  He held it up to examine.

“It is beautiful.  It seems a shame to paint such work.”

“Why paint it?” Elara tilted her head.

“Such a ladle is meant to be used, not kept oiled on a shelf merely to look at.  I would hate to see it rust.”

Elara laughed. “The steel is happy.  Happy steel does not rust.”

Corden looked from the steel to Elara and then back again. “That is an orkish trick, making steel that doesn’t rust without magic or careful cleaning and oiling.”

“You have heard my tale, have you not.”

“There are rumors, of course.”

“They are true.  I was raised by orcs.  I learned to work steel from them.” Elara shrugged. “The elves do not understand, but I can hear the voice of steel, what will make steel happy.  Most steel has no particular calling but when it does–” she tapped the ladle. “–it will serve willingly in that form. It will not break unless abused and it will not rust.”

“Then I am honored, truly honored, by your gift.” Corden clutched the ladle to him and bowed.

Elara smiled. “What brought you to me this morning?”

“I have received word that my father is ill.  His secretary bids me return with all haste. I had hoped that you would grant assurance of respect for the neutrality of Thorgrim’s Reach so that I might depart on the morrow.”

Elara laughed sourly. “They call me queen but I am in many ways a prisoner.  I can promise only that I will speak with the regent and urge him to grant you such assurance.  What weight my voice carries, I will lend to you.”

“Then you have my thanks, Highness.  And for the gift as well.”

At Elara’s gesture of permission, Corden departed.  Alone once more, Elara turned to the stock of iron in the back of the smithy, looking for steel that called the form it desired.  But no weapons. She would not forge steel weapons for the elves to use against the orcs. She would not.

My Personal Electronics Odyssey.


I got my first cell phone some 20 years ago, a Motorola “Startac” flip phone. Some years later, I picked up one of John Ringo’s books form the library and it came with one of the Baen CD’s.

Now, I had just had a string of several overseas business trips where I had experienced the frustration of running out of reading matter in a language I could read. I’d packed several books but it wasn’t enough. The Baen CD, with a bunch of books in various ebook formats, was a godsend. I looked around and got myself a Sony Clie (my then wife, being Japanese, had urged me to buy Sony) Palm OS device, the Mobipocket reader, and I was good to go, particularly once I followed up with the Baen Free Library.

Not long after, I upgraded the Clie to a later model which had sound via a headphone jack. I added music to it but ended up dissatisfied because when used as a music player the battery life was atrocious. This led to my getting a dedicated MP3 player.

So, not long after I got my first cell phone, I was regularly carrying three electronic devices with me: The phone, the Palm device, and the MP3 player.

Time passed and I went through several of each of the items. Sony stopped selling the Clie for the international market so I went to the Palm Tungsten series. My various flip phones got smaller, more reliable, and less affected by “roaming” charges and less limited in minutes (remember “night and weekend minutes”?) as plans changed. I changed reader programs from the Mobipocket system to one called Stanza. Otherwise things remained much the same for several years.

Eventually the Palm series dead ended and I had to look for a replacement. I ended up with an iPod Touch. Battery life was good enough that I combined the MP3 player and ereader into one device. I started to appreciate browser and email features at places where I had wifi access. Still, I remained resistant to going “smart phone” because data plans were too expensive for my taste.

Eventually, the iPod started to die. It would lock up solid and I’d have to hard restart it, often several times, before I could get it back. At that time the price of data plans had come down and so when I was next ready for a phone upgrade by my provider I went with a smartphone. After much consideration I chose Android.

Sometime back in the 80’s I think it was Samsung had run an add campaign with a Korean guy dressed up as “Uncle Same” with the white goatee and all in the pose of the classic posters with the caption “Uncle Samsung wants you.” I had found that so offensive that I swore off any Samsung products. However, when I was looking at smartphones there really wasn’t anything else that provided the same level of price and features. Eventually I sighed and decided it was time to let it go and got my first smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S4. And now I had music, reading, and phone all in one device.

Since then, I’ve upgraded the phone a couple of times. I’ve gone from a 6GB/month data plan to 10GB (shared with my then wife and daughter on their phones) then to Unlimited (shared with my daughter).

All because I kept running out of reading matter while overseas.

Massively parallel processing.

By Carlos Jones/ORNL – https://www.flickr.com/photos/olcf/42957291821/in/photolist-NsW4ML-25mPCpZ-JkN2vk-28rZmfr-YYYjk1-282ZTzq-271XTpf-271XZao-26JSfsB-25mPBPa-287nqxR-FENxmy-22HVvNY-227b4AU-XgBEPE-W6iPRi-XZZrnP-28rxs9o-XqcFKR-28rZmpK-H4EmiH-27ZDEwH-26JSngB-279g4ti-25moRES-28vVuuM, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73905694

In 1964, Control Data Corporation built the world’s first supercomputer, the CDC6600.  It ran at 40 MHz and could perform up to three million floating point operations a second.

Last Year, Oak Ridge National Laboratories unveiled the “Summit” a supercomputer that could perform two hundred quadrillion floating point operations a second, making it more than 70 billion times as fast as the old CDC6600.  By comparison, the Summit is more of a leap from the CDC6600 than the CDC6600 is from an abacus.

However, it is interesting to look at just how Summit got to be so powerful.  Yes, the processors used are more powerful than that of the old CDC6600.  Time marches on and technology improves.  But there is more to it than that.  The Summit contains within it 37,000 separate processors.  28,000 of these are graphics processors produced by NVidia (the same company that makes the graphics processors and adapters in many home and office computers–including my own).  In addition there are 9,000 conventional processors made by IBM.  The Summit gets its power from massively parallel processing–dividing the task among many processors each only dealing with a small portion of the task and how that portion connects to neighboring parts of the problem which other processors handle.

It makes the Summit more powerful than any single processor system can ever hope to be.

This is much like how an economy works in a free market with prices allowed to function by supply and demand.  In a centrally planned command economy of whatever flavor–socialist, communist, fascist, Nazi, whatever–a single, or small number of decision makers, “processors” make all the myriad decisions involved in the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses.  Labor, raw materials, land, time.

In the free market, however, each individual need only worry about those specific resources (their own time and labor, raw materials under their control, their particular skills, and so on) that are under their own personal direct control.  They have a small part of the total problem and can work on maximizing their own part without knowing, or needing to know, the overall problem.  Information about other parts of the problem are carried through prices.  If desire for a certain product increases, people bid up the price.  This signals others to provide more of it.  If desire drops, people aren’t willing to pay as much and either the price falls or amount sold at the current price falls.  If something becomes more difficult to produce or obtain, the price rises and people either buy less, divert resources from elsewhere to produce or obtain more, or some combination of the two.

It’s a massively parallel processing operation only instead of a few thousand or even a few tens of thousands of processors, it’s millions, or even billions of individuals, each bringing to bear far more knowledge, far more understanding, far more “human computing power” than any small group of “central planners”, no matter how smart or how well educated, can ever hope to possess.

There are some small handful of things, as I have discussed elsewhere, where this massively parallel processing cannot handle well, things where the problem cannot effectively be divided (such as national defense) or things where the division is unclear (external costs and benefits), but for the vast majority it works and works well to provide the most value as determined by society as a whole.

It’s why the free market will always be more efficient than centrally planned economies.

Why are you so obsessed with… A Blast from the Past

Whenever folk like me object to erosion of long-held rights, people often ask why we’re “obsessed” with that right, why it’s so important.  Why we’re not more worried about whatever other thing they bring up as a distraction.  It’s actually not hard to understand.

There is a tale I heard told about the ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates.  According to the tale a young man came to Socrates and asked how he might become as knowledgeable as Socrates.  Socrates bid the man to follow him and led him to the shore and out into the water.  Puzzled, the man followed.  When they were out where the water was about chest deep Socrates, being a strong and vigorous man (ancient Greece tended to mix athleticism with its philosophy, that whole “strong mind in a strong body” thing) and no doubt being aided by surprise, grabbed the young man and ducked him under the water.  There he held the man against his struggles until the young man passed out.

Socrates then dragged the man to shore where he left him and went on his way.

In time, the young man awoke and sought out Socrates. “Why did you do that?” the young man asked. “I nearly lost my life.”

“What did you want most while you were under the water’s surface?” Socrates asked.

“Air!” the man replied.

“When you want knowledge exactly as much as you wanted air, nothing in the universe can prevent you from getting it.”

There is more than one lesson to be learned from that little tale.  There is, of course, the obvious one that the key to gaining knowledge is to want it badly enough to do what it takes to get it. (Long hours of study.  Tracking down sources.  Doing research–and I don’t mean Googling a few key terms but actual scientific research–to find answers that nobody else has found yet.)

But consider also what the man wanted.  He wanted air.  Why could Socrates not simply tell him at the start that when he wants knowledge as much as he wants air, then he’ll get it?  Of course the answer is before the escapade down at the sea shore he didn’t want air particularly.   He had it in plenty and didn’t even have to think about it.

It was only when he was deprived of air that he suddenly found it to be important to him.

So it is with long held rights like, for instance, the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (RKBA).  (I could talk about other rights under assault, but this one is much in the news recently, and frankly, the assault on it has been running a long time and is deeply entrenched.) In the early history of the United States it was the normal state.  People didn’t have to think much about RKBA.  It was just there.  Oh, there were certain inroads made on it.  Georgia passed one of, if not the first “gun control” laws in the US in 1837.  That law was ruled Unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.  Part of the reason that the Dred Scott decision decided that “the negro race” could not be recognized as having full rights was that they could then buy arms and carry them wherever they went.  And a little bit here and there.

Slow inroads on the existing RKBA made over time, but still, for the majority of people it was like air to the young man before Socrates drowned him.  Want to buy a Gatling Gun?  No problem.  A Maxim Gun?  Again, no problem.  Cannon?  If you’ve got the money.  Now, most people didn’t because there was no need.  A rifle or shotgun (or both) for hunting.  A revolver for personal protection if one felt the need (and more likely to be used against snakes than against desperadoes).  But most anyone could.

Air to the young man of Socrates’ acquaintance.

Then more strict and more widespread gun laws started being enacted.  Prohibition saw a rise in the use of automatic weapons by gangs to shoot up rival’s illegal drinking establishments, which led to other uses by criminals.  That lead to the National Firearms Act of 1934.  Still not too bad by most people’s lights.  It’s not like the various controlled weapons were banned.  You just had to pass a strict background check, pay a tax, and get your local head Law Enforcement Officer to sign off on it.  You could still get them if you want.  You just had to jump through a few hoops first.  It’s not like you are denied them.  Really.

But then other restrictions went into place.  And folk started finding out that “get your local head Law Enforcement Officer to sign off on it” meant “be politically connected, people without considerable political pull need not apply.”  The hoops became smaller, lit on fire, and raised way up in the air.

And the young man is sputtering, still not quite underwater, but getting a lot of water in his mouth with each breath.

Then further laws and restrictions.  The Gun Control Act of 1968.  No interstate commerce in guns except via dealers with Federal Firearms Licences (FFL).  No shipping of firearms except to and from FFL holders (and a few select exemptions such as shipping firearms back to the manufacturer for repair).

The Hughes Amendment to the Firearm Owners Protection Act, preventing any further automatic weapons being added to the registry for legal private ownership.  What was then currently registered was all there was and all there ever would be.

The rise of organizations dedicated to the banning of some or all privately owned firearms.  People organized for the express purpose of ending RKBA.

The young man’s barely getting any air at all, now.

Then the “Brady Bill” which implemented a national 7 day waiting period on handgun purchases “so the police would have time to perform a background check” and the federal “Assault Weapons Ban”

And now the young man is completely under water and really wanting his air.

So why is RKBA so important to us?  Because you’re trying to take it from us.  The only reason you want to dismiss its importance is to make it easier for you to take it.

Through most of our history, people never really thought much about RKBA.  But when it comes down to it, of the three “unalienable rights” Jefferson called out in the Declaration of Independence–two of which are echoed again in the Fifth Amendment–every single one is meaningless without the right to defend them and without the right to effective means to defend them.  To deny RKBA is to deny right to life and right to liberty.

I would love to go back to it not being “an obsession.” For it to just be “there” with no need to worry about it.  Like air to the young man before Socrates took him to the sea.

But you won’t let me.

Insulation from Feedback.


There are more ways to be wrong than to be right.  Indeed, since the ways to be right are generally limited but the ways to be wrong unlimited, there are infinitely more ways to be wrong than to be right.  Don’t think so?  Okay, think of a number between zero and ten.  Ready?

You’re wrong.

I can say, with pretty good confidence, that nobody guessed (sqrt(2)/cuberoot(97))^e.

There are infinite real numbers between zero and ten, between any two numbers really.  Without some kind of hint, say if I’d said “integer” or “whole numbers” the “correct” answer gets lost in an endless sea of wrong answers.

This isn’t so important in things like “guess the number” but becomes vital in trying to figure out the world around us.  In science, this is why a key element is testing our theories.  We look for what must happen, and what cannot happen, if our ideas are right and then we look.  And if something our theory says must happen does not, or something it says cannot happen does, why then we know our theory is wrong and we go back to try to figure out a better idea.

That feedback is essential in the effort of trying to get closer to “right” than not.  The mismatch between our ideas and what happens in reality is a guidepost to keep from going astray.

The problem comes when people insulate themselves from feedback.  You have an idea, you expect a certain result.  Then, when you try out the idea something else happens, often in direct opposition to what one set out to do with the idea.  Instead of re-examining the idea and considering that maybe it was wrong, you instead find, or invent, reasons why the idea was really correct and it’s the results that are “wrong” in some way.

We saw this happen in the sixties and onward in the criminal justice system.  Folk started talking more about “rehabilitation” rather than “punishment” and about addressing the “root causes” of crime.  And so penalties started being reduced, in practice if not in law.  More and more extensions of “rights” were “discovered” by the courts in the interest of “fairness” so that the least clever criminal could be as likely to evade punishment as more clever or connected criminals.  And, in the meantime, millions, then billions, then trillions of dollars were poured into programs intended to alleviate poverty, the key “root cause” of crime (It Says HereTM).

And yet crime persisted in going up not just for years but for decades.

Excuses?  There were all kinds of excuses. “Less crime is happening but more of it is being reported.” (Except murder, where you usually have a dead body, was going up right along with everything else.  There isn’t exactly a lot of room for their to be that much previous “unreported murder”.  Some, yes, but not enough to explain it.) “We didn’t do enough.” (As Robert Heinlein once said: “You can make water flow uphill if you pray hard enough.  How hard?  Hard enough to make water flow uphill.”) And a perennial favorite. “It would have been even worse without our changes.” (Notice that no evidence is required.  It’s just assumed.)

Nowhere in that is the question of whether maybe their original ideas were right examined.  Nowhere do they say “Maybe we were wrong and we need to try something else instead.”

They have insulated themselves from all feedback.  The excuses are so general, so sweeping, that anything that happens at all can be explained away.  There is no possible way, so long as those excuses are accepted, to differentiate between their being wrong and their being right.  It’s the falsifiability problem again.  They are completely insulated from any feedback that might challenge their beloved ideas.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a collection of stories called “just-so” stories.  These were tales that gave fanciful explanations for how various things came about:  How the camel got his hump, how the leopard got his spots, and so forth.

Well, that’s what we’ve got today:  politics by “just-so” story.

Edit: That Feynman pic represents this piece much better than the previous.

Mindlessly Extrapolating Trends = Bad Public Policy.

Frank and Earnest on Population Explosion

One of the frequent means used to drive public policy is the extrapolation of current trends, any current trend, far into the future, showing that it leads to dire consequences, and demanding immediate action to avoid the horrible fate that awaits us if we don’t “do something” right. this. instant.

However, it’s worth taking a look at such predictions and examining what happens to them in the real world.

Consider, for instance, the population growth predicted by Thomas Malthus.  One of the bits of “data” he used was Benjamin Franklin’s offhand assertion that the population of the US had doubled over the course of 20 years and would do so again over the next 20.  Population doubling every 20 years.  Exponential growth.  Catastrophe! Well, there were several problems with that.  First off, Franklin’s numbers (and others about British population that also went into Malthus’ work) were not exactly the most accurate measures.  Additionally, the population growth was highly dependent on the conditions at the time.  Great Britain was going through the Industrial Revolution and becoming a major trading economy, leading to a major increase in prosperity.  The United States was rapidly growing.  And if those trends had continued?  Well, the population of the US was just under 4 million according to the 1790 census.  Doubling every twenty years would have given the United States a population today of more than eight billion, more than the entire World’s population is now.  Similar extrapolation of the population growth rate of Great Britain will produce similar nonsense figures.

Clearly, the growth rates did not continue unabated.  The United States has not grown to a multi-billion population and avoided that without repeated widespread famines, without plagues rivaling the Black Death (five or six such plagues would have been required to knock back our population from that predicted from such a growth to what it actually is), or widespread slaughter in war.

Indeed, any such prediction based on extrapolating a trend from then to now would produce equally ludicrous results.

Yet people continue to blindly extrapolate trends into the future and call it “science.”  This mindless extrapolation, carried to ludicrous extremes, is used to predict dire consequences unless we “do something” right now.

As one example, the surface area of the Earth is 510 trillion square meters.  If we allow 1/2 square meter per person for “standing room only” at a population growth rate of 2% per year and using current population figures (more on that another time), we’d reach that in about 600 years.  Oh oh!  To Americans that seems a long time but it’s a hundred years less than the last eastern Crusade which still causes such heartburn in the middle East.

Of course, it’s not going to happen.  Those trends are not going to continue any more than Franklin’s described trend in US population and Malthus’ predicted trend in British population continued.  Demands to “do something” based on those predictions are not science.  They’re politics wearing the flayed skin of science while demanding the respect due the edifice it slew in the face of ideology.

External Costs


Economists, even strongly pro-liberty/free-market economists like the Thomas Sowell and the late Milton Friedman recognize that external costs, where a cost of a transaction is incurred by people not directly part of the transaction, are not something the free market handles well.  External costs, where part of the cost of a transaction in a good is paid by those not party to the transaction, tend to produce more of the good than if the full cost was paid for by those transacting it.  Less commonly considered, external benefits, where part of the benefit is received by those not party to the transaction tends to produce less than if the full benefit were received by the parties to the transaction.  I don’t think I’ll get into external benefits this time.  External costs are more than sufficient for a blog post.

In the case of external costs consider the classic example.  If you own land through which a stream runs.  Someone upstream of you, let’s call him Ivan, decides to make widgets and sell them to you.  These widgets are something valuable to you.  The problem is, the process for making the widgets produces waste.  Ivan just dumps that waste in the stream and the contaminated water flows through your property.  You, of course, are not happy with this.  The contamination is a cost to you, reducing the value of that water to you.  Depending on how bad it is, it might be tolerable, but it’s still a cost imposed on you.

So long as Ivan is only selling his widgets to you, you can simply include the cost of the reduced water quality in what you’re willing to pay for them.  You’re willing to pay less for the widgets because you’re already “paying” through the damage to your water supply.  But suppose Ivan sells the widgets to someone else, let’s call this one Francois who doesn’t live anywhere near that river.  Francois is not already “paying” through the contaminated water so he’s willing to pay more for the widgets than you are.  Now maybe he’s willing to bid less for those widgets than he would otherwise in support of your plight and maybe he’s not.  If not, maybe Ivan will still sell them more cheaply to you to help compensate for your loss and maybe not.  Once that third party is involved, in a strictly market driven situation (no laws or regulations to force things), you getting compensation for the loss you suffered with the start of Ivan’s production and dumping relies on other people voluntarily deciding to act against their own self interest to compensate you for your loss.  And as more and more people become customers for Ivan’s widgets, the likelihood that they’ll all voluntarily adjust their bids to make sure you retain your own compensation for the loss to your water supply becomes vanishingly small.

You could get together with other folk downstream of Ivan and ride up to his house to express your displeasure in a way that will “suggest” that it would be in his own self interest to clean up his act. (Am I being too obscure here?  I mean you can threaten violence, and show that you’re both willing and capable of carrying through.) And if the contamination is severe and clear cut enough the vast majority might consider it justified.

Now, however, suppose you go into business making fishing lures.  You use lead for weights.  As a result of your own operation some lead gets into the water, about 5 micrograms per liter that’s about 1/3 of the actionable limit permitted by the EPA for drinking water.  Suppose, now, someone downstream objects to your contamination of the water.  Are they, in their turn, justified in coming and threatening violence to get you to reduce your already low effluence still further?  Or maybe you can just pay them to compensate for the “damage” you cause, the reduction in value of the water to them caused by your contamination.

Now add more people on the stream, some producing and adding some small amount of waste to the water, others using and seeing the value of the water reduced to them.  Some doing both–seeing the value of the water coming from upstream reduced by the waste those upstream producers are adding and their own waste reducing value to those below them.

It soon becomes simply impossible to determine who owes what to whom for value reduced, and value added.  Attempts at market solutions break down through the inability to sort out what the individual transactions would be.  In a market transaction if you don’t like the price offered you can simply not make the transaction.  Somebody charges too much or offers too little and you don’t buy or sell.  But in cases like the water, if you don’t accept the compensation that’s on offer for the cost imposed by water contamination and your neighbors do, the contamination keeps happening.

The usual fixes of a market to someone charging too much or too little break down in the case of external costs.  This is where an external party can, with advantage, step in to try to manage things.

This does not mean that the current approach with organizations like the EPA and their endlessly more complicated and more pervasive regulations are the best, or even a good, way to deal with the situation.  As Thomas Sowell is wont to point out, just because in some circumstances, government can do better than the market does not mean that it will.  While a strong case can be made that something needed to be done back when the EPA and various other government regulations went into effect, once they were begun the Iron Law of Bureaucracy went into place and they soon became an end in themselves, going from beneficial to actual harm.

Milton Friedman, on the same issue of pollution suggested an “effluent fee”, basically a tax on the emission of various levels of effluent.  This would ‘internalize” the external costs and allow the market to then find the optimal amount of emission.  Personally, I think he was optimistic in thinking that such fees would bear any resemblance to the actual external costs and think they would instead simply become another bottomless pit for government taxation, but they would probably be superior to the current approach.

So there are some things where government can handle them better than the market.  Unfortunately, current mechanisms manage to find ways to be actively worse than just letting the market operate.

Don’t have a pithy end to this because I don’t really have a solution.  We really need to scrap the current system and start over but the political forces in place pretty much mean that’s not going to happen.

Helping Others with Ice Follies

I actually helped teach at ice skating this last time. We had several brand new people–as in never skated before–in the adult class, along with me, one person who was a little behind me in skills, and one person quite a bit ahead of me.  The adult class is generally small and there aren’t really enough instructors to go around so we generally all get lumped together.

A bit of background here, I just had the blades on my skates replaced (bad sharpening had screwed up the profile on the old ones) and the coach who did the sharpening went a bit deeper in the “hollow” between the two edges, judging that better for me. This made the edges a little “grabbier” than I was used to and so I had to get a new feel for them in practicing stops. As a result, I took a couple of spills in my before class practice and I wanted to take it a bit easy in class.

Skate blades

At the start of the class it was just the three of us more experienced and one of the brand new ones (the other two came in a little later). We were doing warmups where the instructor had us doing swizzles across the ice. That’s a technique where you point your toes out, push out while flexing the knees, then point them in while rising up and letting them come together as you progress across the ice. The new woman was just told to do forward marching, basically just walking across the ice on the skates but she tried to do the swizzles

I saw the difficulty she was having and the instructor was busy with the others so I came over and offered some advice to the new woman. She could get the outward portion–not great because this was her first time–but stalled out on trying to get her skates back together. So I took her hands and showed her the motion backwards while she did it forwards. This let me give her a little nudge, to keep her forward momentum as she brought the skates back together

By the time we got across the ice and back. The instructor was trying to figure out how to divide her time between the five of us and I suggested since I wanted to take it easy, I could help with the beginners. She was on that like white on rice. Handed me a card with the techniques for “Beginner one” and let me work with them while she worked with the more experienced skaters.

The result was I got a lot of practice with backward skating–slowly, because they were only creeping along–as I worked in front of the skaters, giving advice and encouragement. I ended up spending most of my time with the young woman who was clearly having the most difficulty but I kept an eye on the other two and gave advice/encouragement as needed.  All of them made considerable improvement between the start and end of the class so I call that a success.

Go me!