You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Dia-blog

Posted in Books, Environment by Stacy McMahon on June 25, 2007

I read and sometimes respond to books here, and while I know writers have much better ways to spend their time than giving me remedial instruction on what their book was getting at, it’s nice if one does happen to find his/her way here once in awhile. Randall Fitzgerald did that the other day, commenting on my perhaps-a-bit-harsh remarks about his book The Hundred Year Lie: How Food and Medicine are Destroying Your Health. (emphasis mine)

As for your claim about the scientific veracity of my arguments and
data, there has been quite a bit of medical and scientific support
for my thesis emerging. In that regard I point you to the book’s website
at http://www.hundredyearlie.com for some of those statements of support,
as well as to the Postscript in the newly released paperback version
of the book which details a long list of peer-reviewed science studies
supporting the contentions in my book
.

The second part is what I had been looking for when I originally read the book. Yes, I could have gone out and located that stuff myself, or looked at the companion website, but my time for such things is limited and it’s nice to be able to see footnotes or endnotes listing the sources for scientific claims, even those — like Fitzgerald’s claims concerning synthetic chemicals — that strike me as basically plausible on first reading. Anyway, thanks to Randall for taking an interest in responding to someone like me who read his book and had what I hope was constructive criticism, even if it was expressed in internet-standard sarcasm.

A ’93 In The News

Posted in Books, Virginia Tech Massacre by Stacy McMahon on April 28, 2007

I posted awhile back about What Really Happened to The Class of ’93. I’ve finished reading it now and will have a review up at some point. In a nutshell though, I liked it. Chris, if you happen to read this, look me up next time you’re in town. If nothing else I owe you a beer for kindly leaving my name out of that one quote… 😀

Another of our classmates — someone I knew this time — was in the news recently and for a sadder reason (I thank Christina for the link, though it’s not on her blog) He was a friend of one of the Virginia Tech Massacre victims. I hate that name by the way, but much like “nine eleven” or the “war on terror”, that’s what the world has decided to call it. Anyway, The Boston Herald’s interview with my classmate Luke Sponholz is strangely reminiscent of Chris Colin’s interviews with some of my other high school classmates. It is [finally] the kind of tasteful remembrance that the media can give us on its better days; and very welcome after the great, garish display of instant analysis that inevitably follows this and other tragedies, becoming more widespread every year in spite of being universally hated. Anyway, go read it.

UPDATE: As Christina notes in the comments, she has now blogged the BH interview.

Quoth The Raven

Posted in Books by Stacy McMahon on March 19, 2007

My parents were in town all weekend, which was fun since they live in New Hampshire and I don’t get to see them all that often. Mom keeps in touch with some friends down here who were parents of my high school classmates, and one of them apparantly mentioned the book What Really Happened to the Class of ’93: Start-ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade (the reader reviews are interesting and several are from my former classmates.)

Mom asked if I was in the book. I said I’d never read it and didn’t know, but that the author had interviewed me by phone shortly before turning in his manuscript. I don’t remember what we talked about, but remember thinking none of it was likely interesting enough to make it into the book. Then today, by pure chance, this old post of Christina’s turned up in a Google alert for my name.

This is actually a book about my high school class. I’m not in it, but my friend Stacy McMahon is quoted several times! The book is okay, it profiles 16 of my former classmates. I didn’t really know most of the people profiled, and didn’t know any of them really well. I guess the two I spent the most time with are Sean Bryant, who committed suicide, and Tim Yerrington, who sadly is now HIV positive. The most surprising was that Matt Farbman is a tranny now. He was in a group that often overlapped with mine. I just remember him being really weird. I wish them all well anyway.

I remember Matt Farbman. An odd duck, sure, but I remember him seeming plenty interested in girls. To each their own, though. Tim was a nice guy, and while I wasn’t friends with Sean Bryant, I had a couple classes with him and I remember him being quiet and popular. In fact, he was a member of what passed for the “in-crowd” in our remarkably (but far from entirely) clique-free high school.

Anyway, I’ve had What Really Happened… on my wishlist for a long time, and since it seems to be out of print I just went ahead and ordered one of the last new copies. Chris Colin himself is as much an artifact of the 90s as any of us, having been a writer and editor at Salon.com during its salad days. I already know at least one of the main themes though — it’s something many of us recognized even before graduation, and all of us did soon after. We were told we were the future of the nation, that most of us would grow up to be leaders and all of us would do great things somewhere, somehow. The propaganda was merciless, but mercifully hyperbolic enough that it was hard to take seriously even at the time. Every kid thinks that way though; nobody says “I’m going to grow up to be completely average” and it’s always a shock at some point when you realize there’s a ceiling, and that it’s a low one. I think it was worse for some of my classmates, and that’s at least one reason I look forward to reading this book.

Remembering Milton Friedman

Posted in Books, Economics, History, Politics by Stacy McMahon on February 22, 2007

Reason has a great piece on the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who passed away last November at the ripe old age of 94. I of course knew who Friedman was, but had no idea that, for example, as a member of the Gates Commission he was primarily responsible for ending the military draft and instituting an all-volunteer military.

Vietnam troop commander William Westmoreland gruffly announced during one commission hearing that he was not interested in leading an army of “mercenaries.” Friedman coolly replied, “Would you rather command an army of slaves?”

Classic!

Without getting into the subject of monetary policy, Friedman also had another characteristic that’s sadly (and shockingly) rare in the realm of policy analysis:

Friedman famously believed that the true test of economic theory was not whether it seemed to make sense but whether it led to testable predictions that were borne out by observable evidence. Thus he didn’t depend only on logical argument to make his point. He and his collaborator Anna Schwartz scrupulously accrued data that showed, in as close to controlled experiments as history allows, how monetary changes usually had far greater effect on nominal income, prices, and output than did fiscal changes.

I once read about an engineering chief at a Detroit automaker who hung a sign on his door: “Without data, you’re just another opinion.” The absolute necessity of honest “did it work or not?” assessment of public policies is breathtakingly ignored by both workaday bureaucrats and politicians driven by ideology or poll results, with often-disastrous results for ordinary people. Radical free marketeer Milton Friedman spent much of his career in government, advising the decisionmakers. Because he was able to make his case so well, we live in his world–as Reason puts it–to a greater extent than someone living in the 1960s could have hoped.

Although Friedman frequently was on the “wrong side” of his profession, in the sense that his beliefs went against then-standard opinions, the cogency of his reasoning, his rigorous reliance on empirical evidence, and such real-world phenomena as stagflation ensured that, as the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics put it, “No other economist since Keynes has reshaped the way we think about and use economics as much as Milton Friedman.”

Friedman believed so strongly in the relation of individual economic choice to basic freedom that he was willing to lend his advice to unfree societies if they would take it. That resulted in the worst and most ridiculous libel against him–the claim that he supported the bloody butcher of Santiago, Augusto Pinochet. That claim probably began life as part of a package of complaints about US involvement in the coup against Chile’s hard-left (but freely elected) president Salvador Allende, but it’s been separated over time and seems to come up a lot when the name of Milton Friedman is mentioned. As ever, reality is less dramatic:

The dictator asked the professor to write him a letter laying out what he thought Chile’s economic policies should be. Friedman did this, calling for quick and severe cuts in government spending and inflation as well as a more open trade policy.

[…]

Defending himself against accusations of complicity with or approval of Pinochet in a 1975 letter to the University of Chicago student newspaper, Friedman noted that when he spoke to communist leaders he “never heard complaints” that he was giving aid and comfort to their governments. “I approve of none of these authoritarian regimes—neither the Communist regimes of Russia and Yugoslavia nor the military juntas of Chile and Brazil,” he wrote. “But I believe I can learn from observing them and that, insofar as my personal analysis of their economic situation enables them to improve their economic performance, that is likely to promote not retard a movement toward greater liberalism and freedom.”

Milton Friedman is dead, long live Milton Friedman!

Update: Ilya Somin teases us with a couple of great quotes from a new biography of Milton Friedman

In 1971, President Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls on the country, a ruinous policy rightly decried by Friedman and most other economists. Nixon told Friedman not to “blame George [Shultz] for this monstrosity,” even though Friedman’s friend Shultz was the administration official in charge of administering the price controls. Friedman’s response: “I don’t blame George, I blame you” (pg. 186).

Why I Couldn’t Be A "Communicator"And Additions To My Reading List

Posted in Books, Politics by Stacy McMahon on January 18, 2007

Well I finished Dog Days. The pace got better towards the end, and it was almost fun to read. The problem just continued to be that I hate everyone in it, because they glorify spin and manipulation. I’ll save the details for a review post, but the Amazon customer reviews of another book (link via Instapundit) touch on a similar subject. One user quotes a very interesting insight by George Orwell that gets to the heart of my dislike of marketing spin:

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Actually I think that gets to the heart of the most serious political problem in the US today: the excessive, obsessive pursuit of niceness, to the point where mainstream public dialogue worries about the dietary concerns of terrorist prisoners and justifies violent intimidation of political views that are seen as mean-spirited. I think this bassackwardness has a lot to do with the “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” that filters almost every contribution to public discussion. The atomic bombings of Japan, for example, were undertaken on the cold rational basis that killing 100,000 people today would force the Japanese oligarchs to end the war, preventing millions more deaths on both sides tomorrow. But can you imagine a political candidate making an argument like that on TV? Me either, but the refusal to face reality is how we get disasters like Somalia, Darfur, even global warming.

Anyway, I’ve read 1984 and Animal Farm, but I think it’s time I added more of Orwell’s essays and articles to my repertoire.

Trans Fats and Synergies

Posted in Books, Environment by Stacy McMahon on December 10, 2006

Awhile back I posted about Randall Fitzgerald’s The Hundred Year Lie, wherein he suggests that modern Americans are contracting all kinds of maladies from combinations of synthetic chemicals that are in more or less everything we eat, drink, and otherwise use in our daily lives.

The trans fats mentioned in the previous post are essentially synthetic butter. You’ll find them listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils on the back of the container. Presumably the partially hydrogenated oils have some benefit over butter (like lower fat) but the trans fats themselves apparantly have bad effects, including lowering “good cholesterol” and raising “bad” cholesterol. Maybe I’d prefer plain old butter. It also occurs to me that this is a verifiable case of a synethic compound that has a harmful effect. Fitzgerald’s proposition is that many synthetic chemicals that are inert by themselves interact within the body to produce serious side effects.

That makes logical sense, but it’s hard to test because the nature of these synergies precisely defeats the scientific method. If you control for all but the test compound, then by definition you will not see the synergy. If you can’t verify something, then you can’t very well decide it’s worthy of a government reaction–like banning trans fats.

Note: I’m now using the new Google/Blogger beta, and it seems to allow for tagging posts. I’m tagging this one as “trans fats”, “junk science”, and “books”.

Silent Spring

Posted in Books, Environment by Stacy McMahon on October 27, 2006

So I’ve been reading The Hundred Year Lie: How Food and Medicine are Destroying Your Health, by Randall Fitzgerald. It’s a polemic; there are no footnotes or endnotes and while the prose is not really alarmist, it is fairly repetitive and dumbed down. The central theme is that synthetic chemicals found in food and especially in drugs are responsible, not by themselves but in concert with other natural and synthetic chemicals that we consume, for epidemics of once-rare diseases like autism, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.

The author, an investigative reporter, claims to be a libertarian who is concerned to bring us these observations because synthetic chemicals are so ubiquitous that there’s no such thing as choosing to avoid them. That’s a good beginning to a persuasive argument, but he unfortunately follows it up with unscientific anecdotes and assertions of statistical correlations between some chemical in a food or drug item and some disorder in humans consuming it. The only apparantly solid scientific conclusions presented in the book (still without direct references) are the scary “body burden” of 700-some synthetic chemicals in the average citizen of western countries, and eyebrow-raising increases in the rates of things like birth defects, autism, childhood allergies and diseases like asthma, and nervous disorders in the past few decades. If nothing else, I feel vindicated in my policy of avoiding all drugs unless absolutely necessary. Just don’t tell me this shit is in beer!

Robo Rally and the State Department

Posted in Books, History, Politics, Social Life by Stacy McMahon on April 9, 2006

Some friends introduced me to Robo Rally last night. It’s a fun little racing game where each player tried to get their robot to the flag first. It works like LOGO, where you plan your move five steps in advance. The tricky part is that you draw cards to determine what moves you can make, the board has obstacles on it that can change your course and speed if you hit them (or block your progress) and if you cross paths with another robot they can push you around too. It’s a lot of fun trying to anticipate everything you need to take into account in planning your path, though it can be a chore to make sure you’re moving the game pieces exactly the way that the cards, other pieces, and board obstacles say they should be moved. Clint and I both said you’d think this would be a videogame, not a boardgame, especially given its theme. Apparantly it was invented back in the 80s, though it occurs to me that turn-based roleplays were beginning to be played on PCs around that time. Anyway, I figure you could probably do it in DHTML now, or maybe flash. Though neither of those would allow the cool feature Clint suggested–first-person playback of the last turn.

On a totally different note, I’m re-reading (again) Six Days of War, and as it describes the days before the shooting started, it just jumped out at me that the US State Department seemed to be just as obsessed with appeasing bullies and thugs back then as they have been in the current situation. In that case, while the Syrians were sending terrorists into Israel and firing artillery at Israeli farms, the Egyptians were conducting a massive military buildup in the Sinai and forcing UN peacekeepers to get out of the way. Against that, Israel specifically avoided moving troops or doing anything else to provoke the situation, but when they asked the US to send some weapons and/or a warship to visit an Israeli port, State told them to stop acting belligerant.

Now, a diplomat’s job is to try and calm people down before they start fighting. They’re not in the business of making threats or pointing guns at the other side. But I think the major iniquity in the situation above points up an actual flaw in American society. In any organization, each individual will typically be committed to doing their own job the best they can. That would seem to be exactly what you want, except that in a political organization (like the pieces of the government that deal with foreign countries) the “job” is really to advance a viewpoint. You’re not making widgets and trying to shave 30 seconds off the assembly time to increase productivity. You’re representing the interests of your country in the world, and when someone threatens your friends you need to back them up. You need to do that even when it means some of your savage beast-calming music doesn’t get played. You need to do that, not because I or someone else thinks the other side are asshats that need a beatdown, but because if the government’s position is going to be that the other side has to back down or get shot, then every part of the government needs to consistently say that. If they don’t, someone is going to think we don’t care what they do, when the opposite is actually the case (think of Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie in 1991)

Sprawl, anti-sprawl, and anti-anti-sprawl

Posted in Books, Economics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on December 16, 2005

The Washington Times has a review of Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History (link via Planetizen). The book, which I haven’t read yet, is said to dispel “anti-sprawl shibboleths”, but the review engages in a few anti-planning shibboleths of its own.

[…] if we limited growth, wouldn’t we relieve traffic congestion and pollution? It’s a mystery how this argument ever got any traction. Trapping more people into a tighter space can only make pollution and traffic congestion worse.

Well, the argument has traction because of research showing that compact developments generate fewer and shorter car trips. That aside, in 1898, the approximate reference year for people who use the term “grimy city”, the above was a true statement. Today it is not. Wood and coal smoke from trains, private chimneys and factory smokestacks has long vanished from the horizon, and the lack of sanitation facilities that characterized 19th-century towns and cities is a thing of the past. Depending on your preferred proximity to other people, modern downtowns are no more unpleasant than any suburb. And the increasing popularity of downtown “lofts” and town center-style shopping suggests that the conventional wisdom of the ideal tree-lined suburb may be equally obsolete.

That idea, however, is the central shibboleth of the anti-anti-sprawl movement, and the Times review marches it out in full dress uniform:

Central planners and cultural elites don’t like to hear arguments about choice because they think that given a choice, ordinary citizens will usually make the wrong one.
[…]
Mr. Bruegmann repeatedly emphasizes the cardinal virtue of American suburbia. To wit, the suburbs have made it possible for ordinary Americans to enjoy the privacy, space, leisure time and choice that were once available only to the richest of the rich. The suburbs aren’t a deviation from the American Dream — they are the American Dream.

That for most of history a country cottage has been the preserve of the wealthy, and that ordinary citizens in the English-speaking countries have long aspired to similar conditions is historically undeniable–but as a commenter on Planetizen points out, the idea that Levittown-style suburbs are a natural result of free-market choice is laughable. Every built-up part of the United States has a zoning ordinance, and those ordinances regulate the use of property in excruciating detail with restrictions on building height, what part of a lot can be built (setbacks), ratios of parking spaces to building occupancy, ratios of building floorspace to lot size (a method of controlling building height), and in some cases complex formulas to determine the length of the shadow a house may legally cast on the neighbor’s property.

Besides the zoning ordinance, municipalities often use existing residents’ tax dollars to build water and sewer infrastructure (and any other public utilities they may provide) and improve local roads to support the traffic increase from new subdivisions. In a pro-market move, some are beginning to assess new construction for this externalized cost. Developers who often paint themselves as white knights of the free market can be seen fighting tooth and nail to preserve public subsidies for their profit-making business endeavors.

A truly free market might produce something that looks like sprawl, but nobody knows because it’s never been done. There certainly are the Jim Kunstlers and Andres Duanys out there, peddling New Urbanism in a manichean, save-the-world ideological frame. Movements need that kind of fire at their core. But there are also those of us quietly suggesting–with more and more market data to back us up–that perhaps the problem isn’t too much freedom of choice, but too little.