Thursday, April 30, 2009

Get Government Out of the Marriage Business

An arranged marriage between Louis XIV of Fran...Image via Wikipedia

A friend sent this email:

I honestly don't think I'll ever buy another one of his books. When I find someone this disgusting, I don't want my money to line their pockets.


(in which author Orson Scott Card takes the arch-conservative position that gays can't be married).

My response:

..But not surprising. Card is a Mormon; he's echoing his church's position - which is also the Catholic Church's position. There are lots of people who feel this way. Changing the law won't change their minds; they'll just organize until, this being an approximate democracy, they change it back. And so it will go, back and forth, back and forth, as various faction seize government power to enforce their view.

A Ketubah in Aramaic, a Jewish marriage-contra...Image via Wikipedia Jewish marriage contract specifying duties of each partner

The only intelligent thing Card says in his diatribe is this: "The laws concerning marriage did not create marriage, they merely attempted to solve problems in such areas as inheritance, property, paternity, divorce, adoption and so on." Actually, this is true, or it should be true. IMHO, the state should not "define" marriage, or otherwise involve itself in this fundamentally religious concept. It should only establish legal requirements, obligations, and rights among people who choose to engage in a union of this kind. Leave the arguments over "marriage" to the churches, for those who care so much about it.

WEST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 12:  Michael Mill...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This is just another area where the government should get itself out of religion; it cannot be resolved by law -- people's minds can't be changed by majority rule. Back in the before time, the religious busied themselves demanding the government take sides in deciding which was the True Religion, and which therefore deserved legal benefits denied other religions (or nonreligions) including tax support. This argument went on for centuries and was only resolved when the government got out of the business of religion. It's still a problem in other parts of the world where religious fanatics demand the government take sides. Preferably their side. We cannot win a war defined in this way; so we have to do what the Founders did: change the definition of the war.

:Image:Religious syms.png bitmap traced (and h...Image via Wikipedia

Civil unions for all; marriage for the churches; peace and quiet for the rest of us.


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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does Regulation Prevent Financial Fraud? (or make it more likely?)

By Carl Close on Apr 20, 2009 in Money and Banking, Regulation

From The Independent Institute

Predictably, the Bernie Madoff financial scandal has prompted calls for stricter regulation of the investment industry, just as the collapse of the Manhattan Capital hedge fund led to calls, by the Securities and Exchange Commission and others, for new anti-fraud regulations in 2004. If those regulations reduced fraud significantly, they would seem to be a reasonable solution to a real problem, but at least two assumptions underlying the SEC’s proposal in 2004 were dead wrong, according to financial journalist Chidem Kurdas, writing in the lead article of the Winter 2009 issue of The Independent Review.

First, government regulators already possessed the ability to detect fraud at Manhattan Capital. Hence, the extra benefit of the SEC’s proposal was unclear. (Was the SEC engaging in a bureaucratic cover-up or trying to justify a larger budget?) Second, securities regulations themselves can increase the likelihood that an investment will turn sour: by lulling investors into thinking their funds are more secure than they really are, regulations reduce the incentive to closely monitor one’s investment.

Wishful thinking can undermine the diligence of investors and regulators alike, but there’s often a big difference in the consequences of their respective mistakes, Kurdas argues. When investors fail, everyone tends to learn from their mistakes; but when regulators fail, new regulations are proposed, and investors are not given stronger incentives to learn.

“The conventional response of boosting government watchdogs magnifies the impact of their mistakes while reducing both the watchdogs’ and the public’s incentive to learn,” writes Kurdas. “It creates a vicious spiral of more regulation, regulatory failure, and even more regulation.”

[You can follow Kurdas’s insights on mutual funds and hedge funds, respectively, at and]

Friday, April 17, 2009

State Governments Have Themselves to Blame for Deficits

Reason Foundation's Adam Summers and Michael Flynn write:

"In the five years between 2002 and 2007, combined state general-fund revenue increased twice as fast as the rate of inflation, producing an excess $600 billion.

"If legislatures had chosen to be responsible, they could have maintained all current state services, increased spending to compensate for inflation and population growth, and still enacted a $500 billion tax cut.

"Instead, lawmakers spent the windfall.

"From 2002 to 2007, overall spending rose 50 percent faster than inflation. Education spending increased almost 70 percent faster than inflation, even though the relative school-age population was falling. Medicaid and salaries for state workers rose almost twice as fast as inflation."

Think of this the next time your state government demands more money. And p.s. the next time your school officials demand more more and cry over having to cut any spending at all. And your local governments too, don't think they aren't doing the same thing to you taxpayers!

Pet Peeve: Mixed Math Metaphors in News Stories

Pet peeve: News articles citing data in ways that make easy comparisons harder. They'll say, as a recent news article about birth rates among immigrants did, that 16% of one group was doing this, while "1 in 5" was doing that. So the reader has to mentally convert 1 in 5 to 20% to be able easily to compare it to the earlier 16% figure.

The reporter did this twice more in the same article -- used percentages at one end of a sentence, and some other form of proportions at the other end.

There is no useful news-information reason for doing this. It is done so commonly because writers learn not to be repetitive in the ways they express things. So saying "16% did this while more than 25% did that" seems dull to them. So they switch math metaphors midstream.

Another reason to work this way is that the reporter may have an exact-seeming figure -- 16% -- but his other piece of data isn't presented to him as "25%" but as an approximation -- "one in five" is a very general number, so comparing 16% to 25% implies a higher degree of precision in the latter number than is really there. That sounds reasonable -- but this is a bad workaround because it makes the reader work harder to do the comparison -- and too many readers are marginally innumerate as it is. A better solution would have been "16% of this, versus about 25% of that."

No, this happens far too often for any other explanation than writing style triumphant over clear, useful writing.

Another sin is using various kinds of numbers in various places in ways that, if you try to compare the numbers and do some basic math on them, they just don't make sense. I remember an article in Newsweek many years ago -- one of the then-common studies of the poor, underearning farmer in America -- where the data presented about the number of farmers and their revenues and government grants seemed to add up to a million dollars a year in earnings. If there was a reason this made them poor, the article didn't bother to justify its numbers. And when I complained in a letter to Newsweek -- this was back in the postal-letter days -- I got a snippy, unhelpful reply that made it clear the editor had no idea what I was talking about. My conclusion: Newsweek, like so many other journals, was using data simply for decorative purposes. This is why graphs showing rises and falls in something are truncated to emphasize the variance. They're not trying to show true degree of change, they're trying to dramatize it. Which is, I'm sorry, simply bad journalism.

A final related problem is data dumps that make it clear that journalists themselves include sufferers from innumeracy, or maybe math laziness. This week's Computerworld (Apr 13, 2009) has editor Frank Hayes look closer at a study released by an outfit called The Alliance to Save Energy saying if the nation's 108 million PCs (half of them corporate PCs) were shut off at nights and weekends instead of being left on (as is common in corporate environments), the country could save $2.8 billion a year in energ costs. Hayes did the math that the reporters who wrote up this study for general release obviously failed to do, or it wouldn't have gotten much press: It works out to $26 savings per PC per year -- or 50 cents a week. Or: Trivial; "less than the cost of the two minutes of a typical employee's time each week, not to mention the four or five minutes waiting for the PC to turn back on each morning.

That may still be a useful savings in your mind, when you think about it, but you don't get to think about it because the reporter of the original study didn't bother doing the math, and therefore didn't present the story in a way that would let you think about the implications. He just carried water for the Alliance to Save Energy At All Costs. Bad reporter--bad!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Instead of Stimulus Pork--Stop Withholding for a Year!

Here's a wild, radical, yet somehow enormously appealing alternative to the multi-trillion-dollar stimulus packages being spent by Washington D.C.: Suspend the personal income tax for a year -- stop tax withholding from paychecks.

Crazy? Not really. The amount raised by personal income taxes each year is right around what the stimulus package will cost us. Instead of going to favored (or unfavored-by-the-market) industries with political pull -- the money would go into the pockets of every taxpayer in the country. Or, rather -- *stay* in our pockets.

Talk about a stimulus! Imagine if the 20% of so now withheld from your paycheck every payday were put back into your paycheck. That would help you and every neighbor you have, and right now, not months from now.

Check this out;