Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

28 January, 2011

Farewell to Charlie Louvin

By Aaron
28 January, 2011

As a young man, I once worked with my grandparents in their piano shop in rural Idaho. This was back in the dark, pre-iPod days and so I relied on the radio for company when Grandma and Gramps were out. One of the few stations with reliable reception was an AM outfit that played classic country music 24 hours a day. I quickly became a convert to the genre and eventually raided my grandfather's extensive collection of LPs in search of more.

From almost the time I was born, I'd been familiar with country singers like Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, and Mel Tillis, but it was during that time in the piano shop that I first heard the Louvin Brothers. I was not initially taken with their music, so different was it from anything modern, or from the harder sounds of, say, Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard. After hearing "Katie Dear" and "Cash on the Barrelhead" a few dozen times on the radio while I restrung pianos, however, I warmed to their sound and the Louvin Brothers' music now ranks as some of my favorite. In addition to the superb craftsmanship of their songs, the music always reminds me of working alongside my grandparents, a wonderful experience.

Sadly, Charlie Louvin passed away this past week at the age of 83. Although not as well known (to younger generations of music fans) as legends such Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Louvin was nevertheless one of the most influential American musicians of the late 20th century. As Bob Mehr notes in the video above (from 2007), Louvin and his brother, Ira, recorded music that would inspire the likes of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Nick Cave, Wilco, and more.

Following the break-up of the Louvin Brothers - and the 1965 death of Ira Louvin in a car accident - Charlie Louvin continued to record solo, releasing a number of excellent albums, over the years, including one of my favorites Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs. Indeed, Louvin continued to perform until very recently despite having been diagnosed with cancer. Here's video of him at a music festival just this past summer:

The Louvin Brothers' Tragic Songs of Life is one of the great American albums of any genre. As the album title suggests, the Louvin Brothers' music - despite the singers' cheerful, almost goofy on-stage appearance - always has a dark undercurrent running through it. As Emmylou Harris once said, "there was something scary and washed in the blood about the sound of the Louvin Brothers." For evidence, just listen to "Katie Dear:"

Other classic Louvin Brothers songs include "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby:"

...and "Cash on the Barrelhead:"

...which Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris covered on Parson's final solo album.

Finally, here's Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air" interviewing Charlie Louvin last year. Trust me, it's worth 15 minutes of your time.

Of State Spending and Flugelhorns Forgone

By Aaron

"Public works are not accomplished by the miraculous power of a magic wand. They are paid for by funds taken away from the citizens."
- Ludwig Von Mises


You're relaxing at home one afternoon when you hear a knock at the door. You open it to find the president of your country (say, Barack Obama or Lee Myung-bak) standing there. Obviously, you invite him in for coffee. After the usual pleasantries, the president gets to the point of his visit. He explains that he's going door-to-door, collecting $1,000 from every working citizen. With this money, he plans to build a brand new interstate highway.

"It'll be a real humdinger," he promises. "Just you wait and see."

As someone who believes that the nation's infrastructure desperately needs some attention, you think this sounds like a worthwhile project. Trouble is, money's tight in your household right now: your son needs braces and your daughter wants a new flugelhorn; you're saving for a new car; and the savings account - your nest egg - is in need of replenishment. You understand, however, that the president's request is not really a request, at least insofar as such matters are understood in polite society. He'll be leaving with that $1,000 today, or you'll find yourself carted off to prison. So, patriot that you are, you write the president a check.

A couple years later, the promised highway is complete and economists, politicians, and TV pundits rave about how economically beneficial the new road will be. Jobs created! Bottlenecks cleared! Travel eased! The president himself even goes on television to extol his visionary self and to declare this project a success.

"It is," says the president in his speech, "a real humdinger."

A question, though: how is it possible to say for certain whether this highway - or any government project - is a "success?"

Even if analysts are able to tally up the estimated economic benefits to society of a new highway (those jobs, decreased travel times, etc.), they can never go back upstream to each citizen from whom the funds were obtained and calculate the costs (economic and emotional) of what these citizens had to sacrifice in order to finance the highway. That new car you needed, the braces, the flugelhorn, your own investments - all of these were either delayed or surrendered entirely when you gave that $1,000 to the president, a scenario repeated in countless other households across the nation. There is simply no accounting method capable of capturing the true costs of these missed opportunities, but that does not mean that the opportunities were not lost.

Now, it may be that certain government projects do, in fact, add net economic value to society. Due to the problem mentioned above, however, it is impossible to know with certainty which projects these are, especially when the funding for such projects was obtained under the implicit threat of force. Only when financial contributions are voluntary - that is, when the individuals involved expect greater returns from their investment than the opportunities sacrificed to make it - can we ever know if an investment is truly successful.

So the next time a politician touts his pet project (infrastructure "investment," fiscal stimulus, subsidies, etc.) as a success, just ask, "how could you possibly know?"

"And, damn it, what about my daughter's flugelhorn?"

Note: This post may, in fact, be part three of this series.

24 January, 2011

Album Rec of the Week: "The Art of Segovia"

By Aaron
24 January, 2011

A friend and I were browsing each other's iPod music libraries the other day and, in the interest of broadening our horizons, came up with a plan. Starting with the letter 'A,' each of us will recommend one album per week from our collection that we think the other should own, and try to explain why. We'll do this for one year, and because there are 26 letters in the English alphabet and 52 weeks in a year, we'll put forth two albums per letter. In the interest of padding my post count here, and just for the hell of it, I've decided that I'll post my recommendations here for all to see.

Starting at the top of my iPod queue, then, I'm using this week's turn to endorse "The Art of Segovia," a collection of classical guitar pieces by the great Spaniard, Andres Segovia. On this 2-CD set (a bargain, by the way, at $13 on Amazon), Segovia takes pieces by the likes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Handel and makes them sound as though they were written to be played specifically by him on a guitar. He is one of the few guitarists who, even to a non-musician, is instantly identifiable from the first note of a song, even if one has never heard it before.

During his lifetime, Segovia was also a worldwide superstar, selling out concert halls around the globe. King Juan Carlos of Spain even turned him into nobility, dubbing him the Marquis of Salobreia in 1981. Not bad for a kid from Andalucia whose parents tried desperately to prevent him from becoming a musician.

Here are two numbers included on the disc. The first is "Capricho Arabe" (the audio for which takes about 20 seconds to begin), and the second is "Recuerdos de la Alhambra."

22 January, 2011

On the 2011 "Index of Economic Freedom"

By Aaron
22 January, 2011

The Heritage Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, recently released its annual "Index of Economic Freedom," which scores countries on a scale of 0-100 in ten areas, including business freedom, trade freedom, access to sound money, property rights, and freedom from corruption. The top five - i.e. most free - countries are Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland. The bottom five are Venezuela, Eritrea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. Nothing too shocking, in other words.

South Korea, meanwhile, comes in at #35, with an overall freedom score of 69.8, similar to Oman, Armenia, Slovakia, and Uruguay. The report notes that South Korea's "score remains essentially unchanged, with gains in fiscal freedom and monetary freedom largely offset by a decline in freedom from corruption. South Korea is ranked 8th out of 41 countries in the Asia–Pacific region."

For those of you who believe that economics and politics are unconnected, that individual freedom is a political problem and that material well-being is an economic problem, and that any kind of political system can be combined with any kind of economic system, I direct your attention to Freedom House's Map of Freedom. Freedom House's assessment includes such matters as political pluralism, civil liberties, and the rule of law, amongst others. Based on these criteria, countries are placed in one of three categories: Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. We shouldn't be surprised to see that the countries earning the highest scores in the Heritage index also tend to be the "green" (politically free) states on Freedom House's map. Economic freedom is, in essence, the ability of individuals to plan their own lives, free from the coercion of other individuals or the state. In other words, economic freedom is a substantial component of freedom as a larger idea. As Milton Friedman wrote in 1962:

On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom...The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and this way enables the one to offset the other.

In addition to the moral arguments for freedom, we should note that, by and large, the most economically free states on the Heritage index tend also to be the wealthiest states in the world - that is, the places where people live the longest, healthiest lives, largely free from the worries of infant mortality, famines, and plagues that torment the citizens of the states at the lowest rungs of the Heritage index. Writing in the Wall Street Journal upon the release of the Heritage report, Terry Miller sums it up nicely:

The 2011 Index tells the tale: After two years of doubts and side-steps, economic freedom is again on the rise around the world. That's especially good news for the poor. Countries gaining economic freedom have done a much better job over the last decade in eliminating poverty. They've been more efficient at protecting the environment, better at improving health, and better even, as a new Index study demonstrates, in enhancing life satisfaction and overall happiness. That's a slam dunk for economic freedom.


The Libertarian Politican: An Oxymoron?

By Aaron

I'm never quite sure how to react when I hear of a politician describing himself as a libertarian, as Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana does in this interview on The Browser. I agree with virtually everything Daniels has to say, but I have trouble wrapping my mind around a libertarian who would even want to get into the filthy pig-wrestling match that is politics.

Like PJ O'Rourke, I'm confident that my flavor of politician could never be elected, as his/her campaign pitch would essentially be this: "I can do nothing for you. In fact, anything I do is likely to hurt you more than help you." I'm also confident that if this person did somehow manage to get elected, he/she either A) wasn't the ideological purist originally presented, or B) would quickly be sullied and compromised in the gutter of politics.

Quite simply, a "libertarian politician" is an oxymoron. Politicians, after all, are characterized by the narcissistic belief that they are capable of running other people's lives. Indeed, in his latest book, O'Rourke points out that, by the standards of the American Psychiatric Association, most politicians deserve to be formally diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The symptoms:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Your average libertarian, meanwhile, never shuts up about how he has no idea how other folks should order their affairs. As a result, libertarians are instinctively repulsed by politics, which consists almost entirely of ordering other people around. Daniels may well be a philosophical libertarian, but if so, I imagine he has to shower several times a day just to keep the stink of his job off himself.

16 January, 2011

How to Build a Toaster from Scratch

By Aaron
16 January, 2011

"Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty."
-Russell Roberts

Back in 1958, Leonard Read wrote a short, brilliant essay entitled "I, Pencil" (free 50th anniversary e-copy here). Read wrote the piece in the first-person voice of, yes, a pencil, and in it he detailed the complex web of human interaction required just to bring this simple writing tool to your hand. In fact, as Read points out, no single person on the earth knows how to make a pencil from scratch, as this would require knowing how to perform an immense number of complex tasks: how to cut down and mill a tree to the right size; how to mine graphite; how to mine and process the metal for the ferrule; and how to produce the synthetic rubber for the eraser. And all of this says nothing about how you'd build the means to transport yourself to the far-flung places on the earth from which these items must obtained.

The point of Read's piece was to show how voluntary trade increases not only the material well-being of humanity, but also peaceful cooperation across borders (wood from Oregon, rubber from Malaysia, graphite from Sri Lanka, etc.). As Milton Friedman wrote in a 1976 afterword to Read's essay:

Leonard Read’s delightful story, “I, Pencil,” has become a classic, and deservedly so. I know of no other piece of literature that so succinctly, persuasively, and effectively illustrates the meaning of both Adam Smith’s invisible hand—the possibility of cooperation without coercion—and Friedrich Hayek’s emphasis on the importance of dispersed knowledge and the role of the price system in communicating information that “will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.”

Now imagine if, instead of a simple pencil, Read had chosen to detail the complex network of interactions required to bring you, say, a toaster. Well, Thomas Thwaites has done just that in the TED video above, which is well worth ten minutes of your time. Together with a reading of "I, Pencil," it will renew your appreciation for our standard of living and for the importance of trade and cooperation through markets in sustaining such wealth.

15 January, 2011

The Practical Challenge of State Spending: Making Sausage

By Aaron
15 January, 2011

Officially, this post is a part two of this previous post.

About a year ago, a good friend of mine (we'll call him Alex, because that's his name) became very sick and required surgery. As a result, he was laid up at home for about a month, unable to leave his house. Along with several other friends, I volunteered to help him out with some of the routine errands that he was unable to do, such as grocery shopping. On my first day shopping for Alex, he gave me a list with his desired food items: milk, eggs, dish soap, toothpaste, peanut butter, etc.

Simple enough, right? Sure, until I actually tried choosing a basket of goods for someone else. Milk, for instance, is not simply milk. Did Alex want low-fat, non-fat, whole, organic, store brand, lactose-free, or soy? And in what quantity? I quickly realized that this was going to be a problem for virtually every item on the list. I briefly considered calling Alex and getting specific details for each desired item, but realized that this would require too much time and, besides, I didn't have a pen.

What to do, then? The only thing I could do was to guess what Alex would prefer, yet while I know Alex quite well, I've never peeked inside his refrigerator or bothered to find out what sort of toothpaste he uses. Thus, my guesses about Alex's preferences inevitably reflected what I thought Alex would- or should - prefer, that is, I basically shopped as I would shop for myself. And inevitably, my guesses were mostly wrong. Turns out, Alex uses Crest, not Colgate; likes skim, not low-fat, milk; hates most store-brand goods (which I'd bought); and so on. He was appreciative that I'd done his grocery shopping, but as he reimbursed me for the purchases, he didn't seem to feel that he'd gotten any great bargain on the deal.

* * *

Trying to do someone else's grocery shopping is but one illustration of how hard it is to know when you're helping someone and when you're just inconveniencing them. Alex is a dear, close friend, but despite this personal proximity I knew very little about how to improve his situation.

Now, imagine if I was trying to shop for millions of people on the other side of the country, people I'd never met. And further imagine that I had only one shopping cart and had to fill it with items that would make everyone happy. As it happens, this is essentially the challenge that lawmakers face everyday. In crafting regulatory, social, trade, and industrial policy, public officials are, as it were, trying to grocery shop for millions of people they've never met. Trouble is, the information necessary to determine whether such policy is actually helping individuals or merely pestering them exists nowhere in concentrated form. As Friedrich Hayek explained, knowledge of individual wants and needs, about supply and demand, about scarcity, exists only in the mind of each individual citizen (often only tacitly) and cannot be aggregated into a statistical whole. The economy is simply too large and complicated for such information to be gathered together.

Given this knowledge problem, then, how do lawmakers and bureaucrats make decisions about policy? Which industries or groups will receive subsidies, or special state protections (from, say, foreign imports or other forms of competition)? Rather than merely assuming politicians to be uniquely benevolent and intelligent, we would do well to view politics without the romance. If we assume, correctly, that private individuals will make decisions and act according to their own self interest, why not assume the same for politicians, most of whom seek to be reelected?

Most of the time, as I've written before (also here), political decisions turn on the influence of those who have access to the decisionmakers in the capitol. Or, as Russell Roberts puts it:

We call politicians our representatives and they often claim to be fighting for us. But when we think about it, we understand that our interests are diverse and that no politician can really fight for all of us. Inevitably, our interests and desires clash and politicians are forced to choose between the general interest and the special interest. Which wins?

And so, in the United States, General Motors and Goldman Sachs are rescued from financial ruin, even as countless smaller businesses start and fail everyday. Politically well-connected groups, such as health insurers and labor unions, are exempted from a health care bill that supposedly benefits everyone. Despite raising prices for American consumers, and hurting farmers in developing nations, the United States continues its extensive system of farm subsidies, which transfer money from average taxpayers to well-heeled - and politically connected - farm businesses. And programs such as Social Security and Medicare, Ponzi schemes by any measure, cannot be phased out or restructured because older folks are simply too active a voting bloc.

Given that politicians cannot possibly know what is best for each and every citizen, they have two general ways of deciding how to spend taxpayer money. Theoretically, they can make their decisions in an absolute vacuum and simply spend the money on items and programs that they think citizens should want. Or, they can listen to the advice of the many interest groups which besiege their offices each day, interest groups which come bearing promises of political and financial support in exchange for a certain vote. If you're an elected politician who wants to be re-elected, which way do you lean?

In the end, even if the original intent of a proposed government program is to enhance the general interest, what are the odds that such noble intentions will survive the political sausage factory described above? Not too damned good, actually, and as a result, we'd do well to consider all state spending a bad idea until proven otherwise.

Update: There is a now a third part to this series. Read it here.

The Moral Challenge of State Spending: "George Ought to Help"

By Aaron

There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as 'caring' and 'sensitive' because he wants to expand the government's charitable programs is merely saying that he's willing to try to do good with other people's money. Well, who isn't? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he'll do good with his own money - if a gun is held to his head.

- PJ O'Rourke

When is it acceptable to use force (or the threat thereof) to impose your will, or your vision of the ideal society, upon other individuals?

Let’s say that your local lawmakers decide to implement a new state social program, which you support and which, as with (virtually) all government programs, must be funded through tax revenue. Your grandmother, a kindly old lady and a taxpayer herself, hears of this program and decides for whatever reason that she disapproves of it. Maybe she’s greedy, or perhaps she disagrees with it on religious grounds, or maybe she just thinks the program will do more harm than good. Her reasons hardly matter. Supposing you support this program, however, would you personally be willing to haul Grandma off to prison - and shoot her if she grabs her walker and tries to escape - in order to compel her to pay into this program? If not, by what moral code can you justify “hiring” someone else (e.g. the police, the prison system, the national tax office, etc.) to do the dirty work for you?

In a voluntary society – that is, in the bulk of our private lives – we must persuade others to join us in any activity in which we desire their participation. If I want you to join the local beach cleanup, I can appeal to your sense of pride or guilt, or to a sense of community, or failing that, I can offer to pay you in cash. If you still decline, however, I have no right to put you in shackles and haul you down to the beach to pick up trash at gunpoint, no matter how much I might desire a clean beach. The moment I resort to, or advocate, the use of force to impose my ideals upon society, I become no better than a kidnapper or a mafia goon.

By the same token, if you believe that society has an obligation to help poor people, you can seek to raise funds for this project by speaking to your friends, family and local community. Provided they’re convinced of the merits of your plan, many will likely contribute. But what about those people who question your ability to competently dispose of their money, or who disagree with the means or ends you advocate? Will you go home, get your rifle, and return to take their money by force? Or will you simply sit back and allow the national tax authorities to do this for you? Is there a moral difference?

Whenever any politician or state agency proposes a new policy, then, ask yourself: would I personally be willing to put a gun to the head of my grandmother, or my sister, or my best friend, in order to push ahead with this policy? If not, then perhaps the policy is neither as noble nor as necessary as you once thought.

(I admit, as someone who sees a minimal military, police force, and court system as regrettably necessary to protect individuals from each other, I have trouble resolving these problems in my own mind. After all, how do we fund such institutions? Exactly: through taxes.)

04 January, 2011

Get Your Fresh Kidneys Here!

By Aaron
04 January, 2011

In their latest podcast, the folks over at Freakonomics have taken up the issue of organ transplants, including the question of whether individuals should be able to sell their organs if they so choose. At present, receiving monetary compensation for one's organs is illegal in most countries (except, as podcast host Stephen Dubner notes, in that bastion of liberty, Iran) despite the fact that many people die for want of new organs each year, even as many others walk around with an extra kidney that they could live without.

The chief idea behind the ban on organ sales seems to be that poor people would be more likely to sell their organs than would rich people. Yet, while this may be true, it begs an important question: do poor people own their bodies or does the state own them? Bans on organ sales - just like bans on prostitution, drugs, etc. - rest on the notion that humans are born with zero inherent rights and only enjoy the liberties given to them by their government. This view, however, is wrong: we are born with complete freedom and only sacrifice very specific portions of it (such as the freedom to steal someone's kidney) in order to live in a polite society. A bureaucrat should no more control your kidneys than a slaveowner should have the right to hold slaves. They're your kidneys, and if you want to give them away, sell them to the highest bidder, or simply run a pint of Jim Beam through 'em every night, so be it.

On a more pragmatic level, if a person - rich, poor, whatever - looks around, calculates his costs and benefits, and decides that selling a kidney is better than not selling it, what business is it of mine or of some bureaucrat who has no knowledge whatsoever of the situation? How can we presume to know better than the would-be organ seller what is in his best interest? Of course, this assumes that the person is not subject to force (or the threat thereof), fraud or deception.

Is selling your kidney a risky way to make money? Sure, but as Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu has written, "people take risks for money." Poor people may be more likely to take a dangerous job, too. Should we therefore ban commercial crab fishing, just because people of modest means are more likely to be attracted to it? Furthermore, as Savulescu goes on to say, prohibiting a poor person from selling his organs amounts to a "double injustice," as such a ban effectively says to this person, "You can’t have what most other people have and we are not going to let you do what you want to have those things.”

But before you get any ideas: no, you can't have my kidney. Jim Beam and I have seen to that.