Saturday, November 21, 2009

quick thought on prostitution

I linked to the Jezebel post on the outing of Belle de Jour simply because I liked the way the author handled the different viewpoints it brought forth. Her summary: "The truth is that prostitution as a whole is neither glamorous nor dangerous. Instead, it's as complex as the sexual urges prostitutes satisfy."

This reminded me of my favorite defense of prostitution that I've heard, which is that the broad diversity of the human condition makes it too inflexible to simply say "Prostitution is wrong." It's probably not the most powerful defense or the most passionate, but it's one of the more interesting thoughts I've heard on the topic. Here is Tyler Cowen, from an Intelligence Squared debate on the resolution "It is wrong to pay for sex" (which is perhaps a more interesting debate than something like "Prostitution must be banned.")

(This post is as much about me learning how to embed media as it is about prostitution)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Can a cap and trade scheme actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Caveats abound but the example of Europe appears non-negative. Some of those caveats would be addressed if more markets signed on to such a scheme ...

The state of immortality research. Death sounds pretty boring, so I'm a big damn fan of these efforts. I wonder if you could get people on board for raising the age of retirement/pension drawing if the life expectancy increases to 120 or so ...

The Economist suggests the war on drugs may be fizzling out, internationally at least.

Also from the Economist, this week's Charlemagne included this bit:
If you play word association, it turns out that for many in a Parisian classroom, the polar opposite of “competition” is “solidarity”: ie, the useful rigour imposed by competition is overshadowed by the pain caused as society divides into winners and losers. For Anglo-Saxon liberals, the instinctive opposite of “competition” is “monopoly”: ie, the pain of competition is justified by a quest for fairness, even before getting to arguments about efficiency and companies’ long-term fitness.

In Paris the idea that a free-market liberal may believe he is defending a moral position (rather than a necessary evil) often causes surprise.
Sensible thoughts on the outing of Belle de Jour.

Monday, November 16, 2009

slippery when wet

After I wrote this post about sin taxes and slippery slopes, a friend said something about not reading the whole post because he doesn't pay attention to slippery slope arguments. I thought that was a bit narrow. According to Wikipedia's entry on the topic, the slippery slope argument is an informal fallacy, plain and simple, unless, in arguing that A will lead eventually (via B,C ...) to Z, you justify every single step in the chain. A Google search for 'slippery slope' will likewise lead you first to several web pages discussing the slippery slope as a fallacy.

But I don't think I use the term slippery slope in the same way the Wikipedia entry uses it. I don't think in politics you can ever say something like 'A will inevitably lead to Z.' I think it's different to say enacting A will make it more probable for B to occur, and that B makes C conceivable, where it might not have been with just A (or pre-A). Perhaps through these mechanisms from Eugene Volokh, summarized in Wikipedia for the gun regulation-confiscation example:
  1. Cost-lowering: Once all gun-owners have registered their firearms, the government will know exactly from whom to confiscate them.
  2. Legal rule combination: Previously the government might need to search every house to confiscate guns, and such a search would violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Registration would eliminate that problem.
  3. Attitude altering: People may begin to think of gun ownership as a privilege rather than a right, and thus regard gun confiscation less seriously.
  4. Small change tolerance, colloquially referred to as the "boiling frog": People may ignore gun registration because it constitutes just a small change, but when combined with other small changes, it could lead to the equivalent of confiscation.
  5. Political power: The hassle of registration may reduce the number of gun owners, and thus the political power of the gun-ownership bloc.
  6. Political momentum: Once the government has passed this gun law it becomes easier to pass other gun laws, including laws like confiscation.

There is no inevitability, since there's push-back by interested parties at every step, including push-back because of perceived slippery slopes. The gun example is a great example of just how non-inevitable slippery slopes can be.

In the strong sense of A inevitably leading to Z via the rest of the alphabet, slippery slope arguments are fallacious, but in this weak sense of expanding the political adjacent possible, slippery slope arguments and descriptions are valid. I thought to write this post after reading this essay (hat tip: Offsetting Behaviour) on John Banzhaf's rhetorical history. Banzhaf founded Action on Smoking and Health in 1968 and has been campaigning against smoking ever since. For example, in the early years of his career he clearly states support for smoking sections in public places, suggesting they're a reasonable compromise; but after smoking sections became universal he switched rhetoric, claiming smoking sections are useless since smoke drifts. The point isn't whether or not any of that is true; rather, it's the shifting rhetoric toward Policy C (banning smoking in public places) upon successful implementation of Policy B (establishing precedent for regulating where people can smoke by requiring smoking sections in public places). No one could have seriously argued for C from the beginning; B made C more probable.

Maybe by fuzzying up the concept of slippery slopes like this I'm voiding the phrase of all utility? I'm just using sloppy language for political workings? That is, if the polity can debate each point in the alleged slippery slope, you gain nothing by describing it as a slippery slope. Well, it's possible. I could talk about thresholds and hysteresis in politics, but then I'd just be throwing analogies after one another.

Conjecture: Liberals are more dismissive of slippery slope arguments than conservatives or libertarians. I would guess conservatives, in their quest to stand astride history yelling Stop!, find rather more use for slippery slopes than liberals. Certainly the slippery slopes that come to my mind most readily are conservative: gun regulation leads to gun confiscation, interracial marriage will lead to gay marriage will lead to dogs marrying cats, and health care reform leading to full nationalization of the health care industry.

Friday, November 13, 2009

about the blog

The background art on this blog comes from Gustave Doré's illustrations for John Milton's Paradise Lost.

The title phrase came from somewhere in Mike Carey's magnificent comic Lucifer, which I encourage everyone to read. At least, I'm pretty sure that's where I got the phrase.

I'm open to suggestions/criticisms about the blog's appearance and design. I haphazardly threw this all together in the half hour before sleepy time last night. It's a work in progress.

Yglesias and nukes

I'm going to cheat and cross post my final substantive post from my old blog to get the ball rolling.

Matt Yglesias has written two annoying posts about nuclear power. His thrust is that conservatives are hypocritical for supporting nuclear power, nuclear power plants require subsidization due to large initial capital investment and long time horizons. And of course, conservatives are passionate about free markets, so how could they support nuclear power? Even more damning, the place where nuclear power has been expanded the most is socialist bogey-nation France.

This assault is wrongheaded and irresponsible. Yglesias points out that conservatives agitating for nuclear power are asking for subsidies. He sounds as if the energy market is perfectly competitive, unregulated, and subsidy-free. Well, it's not. Every form of energy has a lobby and a pet senator or dozen. Anyone who wants to say anything realistic about energy policy has to face that fact (unfortunately). Unless admirers of free markets are just not allowed to speak about heavily subsidized industries because it means they have to admit the State is involved. (Libertarians hear no end of this: Whaddya mean you use public transportation. I thought you were a libertarian!!)

Energy markets aren't exactly transparent either. This NYTimes article on a current program to convert nuclear weapons into nuclear fuel mentions that about 10% of electricity in the United States comes from old Russian bombs, a fact that must remain obscured:

Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.

How many Americans know where their power comes from, even without deliberate obfuscation? Can consumers pick and choose their power sources? I don't even know. I just moved to San Francisco and assumed PG&E was my only option.

Of course the reason why utilities don't advertise nuclear power is because nuclear power (still) has a public relations problem. Part of anyone's advocacy of nuclear power is an attempt to win hearts and minds for nuclear generally, not economically. And this NIMBYism has an economic effect. Aside from the intrinsic risk due to the size of the investment, a potential investor has to fear changes in local rules at any moment.

A carbon tax or cap and trade scheme would bring down the costs of nuclear compared to oil and coal. Yglesias patronizes David Frum for advocating nuclear power in a post where Frum explicitly offers it as a way to lower carbon emissions, in light of an eventual cap and trade scheme. Seeing how so many conservatives deny climate change altogether, it seems like it would be more responsible of Yglesias to welcome such good faith, sensible proposals by conservatives, especially since Yglesias isn't even anti-nuke anyway.

Most importantly, just because nuclear power plants can be prohibitively expensive without public subsidy right now doesn't mean that will always be the case. Stewart Brand in his book and lectures talks a lot about microreactors, which are produced and sold by competing private companies. Evolving public opinion, carbon dioxide emission capping policies, and advancing technology all make it seem perfectly reasonable and unhypocritical for conservatives to embrace nuclear power. Those who do should be applauded.

hello world

For my first post I should say that I've actually been blogging for a bit. I'm moving my blog here from a livejournal account because I started the livejournal in college as a personal blog, a way to keep in touch with friends. But over the last year or so I've stopped writing about personal things and starting writing about ... ideas, I guess. And all my friends stopped writing in their livejournals. So I've decided the change in content should be matched by a change to a more robust blogging utility, with more opportunities for expanding (creating) my audience.

Oh, and about me. This blog adds another cosmotarian, secular humanist voice to the Nets.