Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The reasonable libertarian and human genetic modification

Eugene Volokh takes the libertarian position that society will not be adversely affected by rich people having the first access to genetic modifications for their children. In his case, the libertarian argument is "less government". Many years ago, I took a nearly-opposite, libertarian position, that no one should be allowed to manipulate an individual's genetic identity, at least as far as personality and intelligence are concerned. Volokh appears to completely miss the possibility that genetic improvements may have a down side for freedom. This might be an interesting contrast in whether the libertarian position is "less government" or "more individual rights."

But what about the reasonable libertarian position? I now find it harder to say that gifts like tremendous intellectual ability and freedom from mental illness should be rejected because of abstract beliefs in the sanctity of randomness when our chromosone set is conceived. On the other hand, I think there's no defined line between eliminating genetic mental illness and creating dutiful, obedient children (and citizens?). And I can't believe that even purely intellectual improvements won't also have profound effects on personality.

What decides the issue for me is that I don't have to decide it. People ARE going to genetically modify their children, no matter what the law says. If genetically-modified genius children are outlawed, only outlaws will have genetically-modified genius children, and that situation won't last very long. So embrace the brave new world, because it's coming, and a lot of it's good. Our genius children will tell us if we've screwed up.

Some additional notes: someone else caught the personal autonomy issue in the Volokh comments. Also, Volokh mentions Gattaca, but I think Soldier is another relevant movie to reference. Finally, to make this somewhat more topical, I don't really have a problem with embryonic gender selection - it will ultimately make girls more desirable in the Third World and less discriminated against.

UPDATE: Reason magazine has an article on this subject. Note the virtually unstated assumption that improving part of one's intellect will have no consequences on other parts of intellect or personality.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Updating Bill Gray's Wikipedia page

Via David Appell, I see that global warming denialist Bill Gray is in the news a lot lately, and has a wikipedia page. I updated it to match Richard Lindzen's in that both of them have refused to bet over global warming.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Giving too much credit

As the lead-in for Washington Post's “Bush's Talk And Results On AIDS,” Sebastian Mallaby states that credit “is due – big time.” Maybe some credit is due, but Mallaby didn’t prove it.

Mallaby states the first concern was that Bush wouldn’t deliver the $15 billion over five years that he promised in 2003 for AIDS treatment overseas. Mallaby says Bush underdelivered in early years but is overdelivering now, so he should exceed his target. Several problems here - first, Mallaby left out any verifying link, so I'll just hope that he didn't mess up the numbers. Second, the 2007 figure is only Bush's proposal, we'll have to see if he goes to bat for it in Congress to see it pass. Third, Mallaby gives global AIDS assistance figures, but Bush expressly promised $15b "to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean." Until we know what subset of the actual money went to Africa and the Caribbean, we won't know if Bush delivered.

Mallaby's second defense is against the charge that taxpayer-funded assistance would be wasted on Big Pharma brand-name drugs, instead of cheap foreign generics. Mallaby says "in 2004, the administration fixed this problem. It directed the FDA to license generics for use in U.S. global AIDS programs....and in some countries around two-thirds of U.S. spending on AIDS drugs now goes to non-branded medicines." This time he gave a link(pdf), and it doesn't help him much. No money appears to have been spent on generics until 2005 (p.4 of the pdf) and that was only in four countries. The two-thirds figure applies only to those four countries (p.9, for $4.3m) out of apparently 15 in the program. For Mallaby to add, "Given how often foreign aid is tied to exports from donor countries, it's remarkable that the Bush team stiffed Big Pharma...." is a huge overstatement. I'd guess that most of the drug money will go to Big Pharma over the course of five years, and in any event, my understanding is that America is particularly bad in requiring its aid to be spent on its own exports.

The rest of the article is an attempt at measured criticism of Bush's initiative, saying the damage from some other stupid stuff is somewhat limited. Maybe.

I hesitated to blog about this because I'm far from an expert, but I'm just an unpaid web-ranter. If Mallaby is going to use prime media real estate on this, he needs to do a better job.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I'm a lawyer, and I can't believe this "state secret" stuff

I graduated from law school in 1999, and never heard about this "state secret privilege" that the Bush Administration is throwing at litigation they find embarassing. Apparently it's existed for decades as a legal concept, but was applied only rarely and mostly to exclude isolated pieces of evidence. Now the Bush administration had quadrupled its use and is asking judges to throw out entire cases, not just bits of evidence. The claim is not that the case is unjustified, but just that it's a potential secret.

Beyond the usual Bush Administration moral corruption, I have to wonder what's going on with the judges. It seems that sealing entire case from public access, maybe even the outcome of the case, is better than dismissing a valid claim. These judges aren't doing their jobs.

DeLong: Tierney inconvenienced by truth

Nice quick smackdown from Brad DeLong for John Tierney, who complains that Gore says nothing about carbon taxes to fight global warming in his new movie. Tierney forgets that Gore fought hard for a carbon tax (actually, a Btu tax, but close enough) 13 years ago, and was stopped by Tierney's conservative friends.

For the record: a carbon tax is a great idea, and would be politically feasible if Bush ever got behind it. Not a likely concept, though.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Wind power from the Darksyde

Via Pharyngula, there's a nice overview of windpower issues at Daily Kos that I've been meaning to point out. A few random comments of mine:

1. I'm not sure that the high jobs created/watt produced ratio is a good thing - it makes wind power seem expensive, unless the jobs produced are low wage, which isn't so great either.

2. The price competitiveness is the big deal with wind. I'd note though that the table makes all the prices suspiciously similar - I expect actual price varies greatly by location. I've little doubt that wind would be the cheapest by far if all externalities, like global warming, were taken into account.

3. Saying wind produces no CO2 is inaccurate, just like it's inaccurate to say the same thing about nukes. Construction and maintenance of wind plants will create emissions.

4. The bird kill table is a striking comparison, showing how few birds are killed by wind power compared to other problems. I expect it understates a loss that would look much bigger if the comparison were only to raptors killed, though, or comparing rare birds that were killed. Much of the global problem with wind kills traces to a single area - Altamont Pass, about 30 miles north of me. Contrary to statements by some of the commenters, the Altamont problem is being fixed, but at a very slow pace.

What would be really intriguing though is to compare harm to birds versus benefits to birds from reduced CO2 emissions. I don't think it would be impossible to take some attempt determining all bird deaths from climate change, pretend ALL emissions could be prevented by a hypothetical conversion to wind power, and assign a fraction of the prevented bird deaths to the proportional output of a single wind farm. I'd bet that even Altamont would save more birds than it kills.

5. I think the statement that "it can reasonably be said that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages" is spot on.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Volokhs minus one, and plus one

A mitigated Volokh Correction today:

A Volokh Conspirator thinks that the second-worst gas price to income ratio ever means "gasoline is more affordable than ever." No it doesn't, as his commenters point out.

On the plus side though, another Volokh helpfully summarizes the academic misconduct case against Ward Churchill, the useful idiot of the left who desperately needs to go away. Too bad it looks unlike that his university will fire him outright, but a long-term suspension is better than nothing.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The problems with comparing Kyoto and Iraq War costs

Both Volokh and Bainbridge are off-base.

Problem #1: a high-end, $300 billion estimate of the cost of Kyoto should be taken with a boulder of salt. And $300 billion for Iraq is just the cost so far - I see no sign of it ending soon (not to mention the cost of increased oil prices due to decreased Iraqi oil production).

Problem #2: Kyoto's costs are offsets with benefits, while the Iraq wars costs don't come with benefits, but just with making us worse off.

We chose to go ahead with one of these options and not the other. Something makes me think we screwed up.

34th Skeptics' Circle

The 34th Skeptics' Circle is up, and it includes John C.'s math analysis of the Twin Towers collapse.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A liberal blogger litmus test

Atrios created a list of issues that liberal bloggers would tend to agree with. Let's see where I stand:

# Undo the bankruptcy bill enacted by this administration

I guess

# Repeal the estate tax repeal


# Increase the minimum wage and index it to the CPI

I guess

# Universal health care (obviously the devil is in the details on this one)


# Increase CAFE standards. Some other environment-related regulation


# Pro-reproductive rights, getting rid of abstinence-only education, improving education about and access to contraception including the morning after pill, and supporting choice. On the last one there's probably some disagreement around the edges (parental notification, for example), but otherwise.

Definitely, but with some reservations on abortion

# Simplify and increase the progressivity of the tax code

Definitely on progressivity

# Kill faith-based funding. Certainly kill federal funding of anything that engages in religious discrimination.

Nope - mend it, don't end it

# Reduce corporate giveaways


# Have Medicare run the Medicare drug plan


# Force companies to stop underfunding their pensions. Change corporate bankruptcy law to put workers and retirees at the head of the line with respect to their pensions.

I guess - don't know enough

# Leave the states alone on issues like medical marijuana. Generally move towards "more decriminalization" of drugs, though the details complicated there too.


# Imprison Jeff Goldstein for crimes against humanity for his neverending stupidity


# Paper ballots


# Improve access to daycare and other pro-family policies. Obiously details matter.

I guess

# Raise the cap on wages covered by FICA taxes.


So I come out left leaning, but my enthusiasm varies greatly. Huh.

Okay, enough navel-gazing for now.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Yeah, well I climbed it too.

Short rock-climbing video clip. The tiny difference between this guy and me is that I had partners, ropes/safety gear, and took 2-3 hours to finish. Not that different, really.

And of legal interest, this video: a woman pretending to talk on her cell phone on the sidewalk, pretending not to realize that the rear of her skirt is tucked in to her panties, and pretending not to hear passers-by trying to tell her. A surprising (to me) number of people attempt to "untuck" her skirt for her.

Questions: if she hadn't been faking the whole thing, would the "untuckers" have been guilty of committing battery? Would they also be guilty even though it's a set up?

The absurdity of denying global warming's connection to Katrina

Roger Pielke Jr. has a post noting the scientific consensus that "it would be absurd to attribute the Katrina disaster to global warming."

As the comments note, it might be less absurd "to attribute a portion of Katrina's strength" to warming. The best way to handle this though, is to say that it's absurd for anyone to DENY global warming connection's to Katrina, or any specific storm event. In fact, it slightly more absurd to deny the connection than it is to affirm the connection, since the overall effect is more likely to make tropical storm events worse.

Possibly the "least spin" in a short statement is this:

"We don't know enough to make a definitive statement about climate change's effect on any single storm, but it is more likely than not that global warming made tropical storm ___ worse than it would otherwise be."

Or how about this:

"Global warming's effect on tropical storm ___ is like a weighting a pair of dice so that you're more likely to roll high numbers. If you roll high numbers with weighted dice, you don't know if the weighting is the reason, but the weighting made the high roll more likely than it would otherwise have been. Same thing with the severity of ___."

I'll defend either of these as more scientifically accurate than a statement denying that we have evidence connecting Katrina or other tropical storms to global warming.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

April 2006 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily military fatality rate (nearly all of them Americans): 2.73. March was 1.06, February was 2.07, and April 2005 was 1.73. Overall average to date is 2.3, unchanged from March. Total US dead as of today: 2406.

Iraqi monthly military/police fatalities: 201. March was 193, February was 158, and April 2005 was 199. Total dead: 4597.

Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 809. March was 901, February was 688, and April 2005 was 301. Total since March 2005: 8754. Note that the civilian numbers may be less accurate than others, but could still be useful in determining trends.

Comments: Last month I commented on the downward trend in US death rates, but maybe I spoke too soon.

And for a macabre figure, the American death toll is approaching the total American dead on 9/11 - 2,738. I'm not sure whether the American dead in the Bush Adventure in Iraq will exceed 9/11 by the November election, but it might.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Precautionary principle and The Power of Nightmares

I just finished watching a grainy videotape of a BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares. It's an excellent documentary tracking the parallel rise of the neoconservative movement and violent Islamic fundamentalism, but good luck seeing it here in the US, where distribution appears nearly impossible.

Towards the end, they discuss how the Brits and later the Americans adopted the precautionary principle used in the environmental movement and applied it to potential terrorism and the need to limit civil rights. Any potential terrorism one can imagine must be prevented, and civil rights be damned.

This misuses a useful concept, although to be fair, some environmentalists are guilty of the same. Saying something should be judged dangerously risky and prevented until proven harmless is wrong, whether it concerns environmental or "terror" issues. A much better use of the principle would be to say that once you have some actual evidence of a risk - something more than imagination but not necessarily conclusive - then you have to balance the risks against the benefits. And as for negating the concept that any risky technology must be allowed unless proven harmful, the precautionary principle is great.

And of course, when civil rights are involved, it's not just about maximizing utility in a situation of limited information.