The Tasks, They Keep A-Comin’

For my current project, I’ve kept a fairly detailed process log in Excel format so I can track what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what I have yet to do.  For the last two weeks, I’ve continuously had 2 pages of tasks remaining.  It’s not like I’m not doing any; rather, every time I finish two or three, I get two or three more.  That slow grind is probably the most annoying part of development, as you can see the goal right in front of you, and regardless of how much progress you make, it’s still the same distance away.

Of course, part of that is the mirage brought about by having a bias toward the parts remaining that you know versus the parts you don’t yet know.  My spreadsheet with tasks remaining doesn’t include all of the stuff that I didn’t think up the first time around, and obviously doesn’t include requirements changes that are bound to happen or those end-of-task clean-up duties that I haven’t quite gotten around to documenting yet.

On the plus side, I spent a fair portion of the day going over many of the pages on my web application and scripting them in Selenium IDE.  It’s a shame that this is a Firefox-only plug-in, as we mainly use IE at work, but there is a more full-featured version available that does integrate with most browsers and I try to make my sites cross-browser compatible anyhow.  At any rate, creating test scripts is literally point-and-click.  For the average script that I’ve created, I had to add maybe two or three commands that were not available on the right-click context menu, and these were for things like verifyNotEditable (which you can use to check if an input box or button is disabled).  From my thus-far-limited experience with this plug-in, it’s got a nice future ahead of it.  There are some UI things that could use some work (like making it easier to create and maintain a test suite, instead of having me hand-edit the HTML files that it creates), but this application definitely makes my life easier and has contributed to me finding a couple of harder-to-detect bugs and parts of the design that I kind of glossed over and didn’t think through fully.

Intellectuals, Power, And Statism

The other day, I found a list of interesting questions sparked by an IHS seminar, and I wanted to comment on it, but things got long enough that I decided to turn it into a post here.  Here are answers interspersed with the questions, reposted to make things easier:

1. do intellectuals have power?

Yes, within certain constraints.  Intellectuals come up with plenty of ideas, but they need to be “acceptable” in order to gain traction.  The acceptability of an idea will hinge upon a number of factors, such as culture, recent experiences, political rules, and charisma.  The last factor can be a kick in the ribs for your average intellectual, considering that we are (as a group) almost entirely without charisma.  There is a good argument that the ideas of John Maynard Keynes gained traction in England in large part because his main opposition—FA Hayek—was relatively humorless and without charisma.  There was also the fact that the Great Depression had dragged on longer than a Hayekian analysis predicted, and this did cause a London School of Economics crisis of faith, but Keynes was able to get himself into the public and political spheres more on charm than on the correctness of his ideas.

Speaking of Hayek (which I’ll do a lot of in this post, though not really on purpose), he can fit into this answer as well.  His Road To Serfdom, in the United States at least, sparked a major post-war debate on the nature of government, and I would argue that his book—as republished in Reader’s Digest—played a strong role in the dismantling of war socialism in the US.  It also had secondary effects in the UK and Eastern Europe, influencing members of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet as well as Vaclav Klaus personally.

As for most of our intellectuals, we generally put them into places where they can hold the least power and do the least harm:  academia.

2. why are intellectuals statist?

I would say that it is because intellectuals are fundamentally rationalists.  Our biggest asset is the ability to abstract away from particulars, form models, and determine chains of causal logic.  We instinctively hate chaos (or what we see as chaos) and love plans because we can think through plans and determine which are best.  I should note that I use the term “we” because I readily admit that I struggle against being a rationalist outside of appropriate spheres.

At any rate, it is a fairly simple step to go from rationalist to statist.  Once you have the obvious plan for improving society, you quickly get frustrated at your inability to effect change in your prescribed manner—or at its inability to work precisely as you planned (having forgotten some of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of your naturally brilliant scheme).  Once that occurs, you want to step in and force people to behave in ways which allow you to enact your plan, and because the average intellectual isn’t charismatic (as noted above), it’s easier to work through coercion than persuasion.  This, I would say, causes most intellectuals to become statists.

The intellectuals who are not statists generally have one or more of:  a healthy appreciation of the notion of spontaneous order, a curmudgeonly or individualist streak, an understanding of the Law of Unintended Consequences, and cynicism.

3. how do we change the world?

Very slowly, with great trepidation, and in ways which leave us with as many degrees of freedom as possible to give us (individually and politically) the opportunity to react when things don’t go as planned.  Work on small levels, allow for different plans whenever possible, and tinker at the margins.

Or, if you prefer to take the Estonian route, take everything the Russians do and codify the exact opposite in your constitution.

I personally prefer the first route, especially for the basically-functional portion of the world.  Occasionally, a political opportunity may occur for a major change, but I consider it a feature of Madisonian government that no political group can wrest total control and that even things which you may consider good come watered-down through tough negotiation.  I chalk this up to my belief in Prospect Theory as well as a strong belief that things can be much, much worse.

4. what can be considered an intellectual idea?

As opposed to what?  From question 5, I’d guess as opposed to “popular” ideas.  But there’s a lot of overlap between the two.  Take “Coin” Harvey, for example.  Harvey was an intellectual type, having practiced law and taught, and he wrote a fictional book entitled Coin’s Financial School, about a young fellow named Coin who (oddly enough) set up a financial school in Chicago.  This book was, after the Bible, the second book you would find on pretty much every farmer’s bookshelf, so are his ideas of free silver intellectual or popular?

5. if ideas change the world, is it the intellectual type or the popular type?

I’m not sure that there’s really a big difference between the two, but this might be because I oversimplify intellectual ideas into two camps:  outlandishly nutty, and stuff somebody’s grandmother knew as obvious (noting that this may not necessarily be _correct_, just that it’s _obvious_) and probably comes with a witty Yiddish aphorism.  I would personally consider the differences in ideas more as a matter of rigor and completeness than a fundamental difference.  So the way that I would interpret this question is more of, “When intellectuals and the general public disagree on ideas, who wins and what is the net effect?”  The answer here is that it depends on a lot of factors, including the ones I listed in the response to the first question.  Institutions will shape a lot of human interaction, and it is important to realize that when trying to look at historical examples.  To over-simplify things and hedge my bets, there are a few major setups to describe.  A Madisonian system will have groups of intellectuals and the general public’s power wax and wane, kind of like a tug of war.  A bureaucratic system (think the EU or a royal court) will see “court intellectuals” with more power than the general public and this will remain fairly stable.  Generally, as the government gains more responsibility, these “court intellectuals” gain more power, as they give politicians intellectual respectability.

6. does power trump ideas in reality?

In general, yes.  But the thing with ideas is that they form an interesting boundary on actions so long as these ideas approximate reality.  For example, most economists agree that subsidizing a good will cause a surplus of that good, whereas subsidizing the use of that good will cause a shortage (and the economists who disagree are either looking at very particular cases or don’t know what they’re talking about).  Both of these results are sub-optimal.  Despite this, subsidies remain popular for politicians, even those who know better.  Most farm state Congressmen know that we waste a lot of money subsidizing ethanol and I’d imagine that at least some of the more conservative farm state Congressmen would admit in private that they would rather there not be any subsidies across the board, but as long as [insert other region] gets [insert other subsidy type], they have to vote for ethanol subsidies or they’d be replaced.  This is a prisoner’s dilemma that James Buchanan focused a good number of talks and papers on (many of which can be found in Post-Socialist Political Economy).

That’s a lot of writing and a lot of hesitating without as many conclusive answers as I’d like, honestly, but this is what happens with good, open-ended questions.  I’m just glad that I’m not getting graded on them…

Because the inspirational post ended with a Bastiat note, I’m compelled to end with one as well…  I got my copy of The Law the other day.  I’m a much bigger fan of Economic Sophisms, but I decided that my bookshelves were distinctly lacking in Bastiat-related goodness.  I’m thinking about getting the big Bastiat collection one of these days as well.  I’ve read most of it (though not Economic Harmonies), but it’s rare to find such a great wit balanced with sheer intellectual power.

Now THAT’s a cause I can get behind

From a Nigerian board of trustees:

“We are giving out a yearly donation of US$650,000.00 each to
100 lucky recipients each year, undermining your religion. [emphasis mine]”

All he needs is my bank account number! Maybe I’ll use the Ratbert response: “My bank is a tube sock that fell behind the dryer.”

The Beauty Of Creation

I’m working on a way to handle session information on all of our web applications.  The way that we were doing things resulted in a situation in which if I log in and then log out and you log in without closing the browser, you would still be logged in as me.  Oops!  Good thing that we caught this well before outside users gained access to the applications…  In order to fix this, I decided to cause all of the sessions for all of the applications you currently have open to expire as soon as you log out from the portal application.  The name I chose for this function?

NukeSessionsFromSpace.

It’s the only way to be sure.

Were That It Could Be Slightly More Than So In The US

In the midst of otherwise-disappointing news, Richard North points out a bit of British judicial custom:  judges will not overturn the decisions of governments so long as they follow the appropriate process, almost entirely regardless of the outcome.  I would much prefer that than judges deciding what lawmakers ought to decide.  It would be a solid first step toward re-establishing the notion of judges as neutral arbiters of the law rather than activists who push for certain outcomes and who decide cases based on policy, as our esteemed Supreme Court did today.

Incidentally, as far as the death penalty for child rape goes, I wholeheartedly support the firing squad followed by leaving the cretin’s head on a pike as a lesson to others.  Barbarity should not be tolerated in civilized society.

What I Don’t Like About The US Health Care Setup

In the US, health care is generally paid for through companies, and these companies purchase plans which cover everything from minor to catastrophic.  This is due primarily to the fact that companies receive tax credits from the federal government for such insurance.  If I spend $10,000 on an employee’s health plan, that’s $10,000 in untaxed benefits (or at least benefits taxed at a lower rate), whereas if I just give my employee $10,000, 15% is coming out in payroll taxes and I may need to pay more for other taxes, meaning that I can only offer $8500 at the most.  So due to these bureaucrat-created incentives, companies offer health insurance and don’t give employees who decline the plan the equivalent in higher wages.

That is a setup I don’t like.  The way I figure it is exactly as Milton Friedman once said:  we don’t like company stores, so why should we like company health care?  And given the problem with third-party insurance (with some insurers not wanting to pay for certain claims or denying coverage after a certain point), locking people into such a scheme is an even worse idea.

Instead, I would prefer to see a major deregulation of bureaucratic influence on the health care sector.  The first thing I would like to see is to have tax rates be equal between individuals purchasing their own private health care versus companies providing health insurance.  After that, a deregulation of insurance would be a nice second step, allowing health insurance companies to operate outside of their home states.  That would increase competition and lower prices while improving service, as free markets tend to do.  My third step would be to decouple catastrophic insurance from run-of-the-mill stuff.  Insurance is supposed to smooth out the big risks, not pay for the little things.  If you paid full price for prescriptions* and routine doctor’s visits and kept catastrophic health insurance coverage for major diseases, the cost of insurance would be significantly lower and we would not see quite as many busy doctors, so that when you really do need to see a doctor, appointments become easier to get.  I would also like to see the FDA slowly phase in a “non-recommended drugs” plan, where companies creating new prescription drugs may opt to go through the FDA testing process and any drug which does not must bear a big, clear label stating so.  The FDA slows up the prescription drug market and drives up costs by a great deal by preventing the drug from reaching the market for years and sometimes making a mistake by taking a safe drug off of the market.  The FDA would still exist as a certifying body, but by relaxing the requirement for certification, people who are willing to bear a little more risk could save a good amount of money as prescription manufacturers wouldn’t have quite as high fixed costs and this would increase the number of manufacturers competing in the market.

The moral of the story is that the US health care system, although significantly better than a single-payer system, definitely has room for improvement.  But this improvement will come from less government interference, not more.