, a journal of politics and culture.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Matter of Priorities

Janice Shaw Crouse points out, "The crime of human trafficking is now the world's second most prevalent crime (behind drug trafficking)."

There is an obvious difference between the two sorts of crimes: involuntary servitude inherently violates people's rights, while drug distribution does not. How much more effectively could the world's decent governments fight slavery if they redirected their anti-drug resources (involving consenting adults) to cases of human trafficking?

The government should do everything in its power to eradicate involuntary servitude (including all sexual exploitation of children) within its boundaries. The U.S. could also ease immigration rules for those vulnerable to the modern slave trade. Beyond that, private citizens should be glad to contribute to effective programs to fight slavery globally. (Readers who know of such efforts may leave a note in the comments.) Of course the best way to fight slavery is to promote capitalism, under which the rule of law triumphs and improved living standards enable the masses to thrive.


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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Selfish Kidney Transfers

The headline atop Brian Maines's Denver Post story states, "Selflessness, to the third power: 3 kidney transplants to occur simultaneously across country." However, the transplants seem to involve entirely selfish behavior:

Martha Hansen, 48, of Albuquerque will give a kidney to Maggie Mrva, 56, of Denver at the Aurora hospital.

Mrva's husband, Slavo, is in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he will give a kidney to an Alabama woman who wished to remain anonymous.

A friend or relative of the Alabama woman (also anonymous) is in Wake Forest, N.C., where the person will give a kidney to Hansen's friend Robin (who wishes not to identify herself further).

All six parties benefit in this mutally-beneficial exchange. Three people get kidneys. A husband helps save his wife. And two people help save their friends. Sounds like a spectacular deal to me. If my wife or a dear friend needed a kidney, I'd be ecstatic to be able to participate in such a program, because my participation would be a supremely selfish act.

Unfortunately, the federal government forcibly prevents most potential mutually-beneficial kidney transplants, thereby causing the premature deaths of thousands of Americans, as I've pointed out. Thus, while we should be thrilled for the three people receiving kidneys, we ought not forget about the tens of thousands of people kept on waiting lists by the federal government.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DNC Carbon Credit Fiasco

Congratulations to Face the State for breaking the story about a Colorado wind turbine used by the DNC as a carbon offset. There's just one little problem: the turbine doesn't actually work.

Face the State reports that the "wind turbine installed this year by the Wray School District RD-2... has never produced marketable energy due to massive equipment malfunctions." Nevertheless, both the governor and media reports have praised the "alternative" energy turbine.

Apparently the left cares a lot more about the "alternative" part than it cares about the "energy" part. (Though I do have to wonder how much oil, coal, and natural gas it took to erect this broken wind machine.)

Colorado Springs's Gazette had some fun with the story:

Religious indulgences involved paying the leaders of various religious institutions that claimed authority or expertise in the spiritual realm. In return for payment, church officials granted absolution for sins. ...

Carbon offsets work the same way. Some wealthy environmentalists pollute far more seriously than ordinary average folks, but they feel bad about it. ...

[Some Democrats] buy indulgences from a branch of the green church called NativeEnergy, a Vermont-based business that brokers carbon credits, or "offsets."

Howard said NativeEnergy paid the school district between $200,000 and $300,000 to issue "green tags," which it will use to represent the indulgence credits. How does one value supernatural green currency blessed by public school officials?

"It's strictly a matter of negotiating price," [Wray superintendent Ron] Howard said.

NativeEnergy officials asked Howard not to disclose the exact amount they paid for the green tags. And why is that? It's because NativeEnergy makes money by marking up the cost of indulgences. The seller (NativeEnergy) doesn't want the buyer (Democratic Party) to know the wholesale price. A freedom of information request will solve the mystery.

But before you laugh too hard, remember that these are the folks setting energy policy for the rest of us.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Randy Pausch

I just learned that Randy Pausch died on Friday. This science professor and virtual-reality pioneer died at age 47 of pancreatic cancer. Yet he lived, and lived, and lived, until the very end.

I'd actually seen his book, The Last Lecture, on the shelves, but I paid it little mind. It wasn't until I saw a video linked through a blog I like that I paid attention to Pausch. I clicked on the video just to see what's going on -- then I watched the entire hour-and-fifteen-minute lecture with laughter and tears.

It is a phenomenal lecture. I highly recommend it. If most people could face their lives with the good will and joy that Pausch faced his final months, the world would be a dramatically more wondrous place.

The focus of Pausch's last lecture is the achievement of childhood dreams. Wow. He achieved his, and he did so with endless enthusiasm and courage.

As a rule, I hate inspirational speakers. I figure if they were really so inspirational, they'd be doing something more interesting than inspiring rooms full of people. But Pausch is not an inspirational speaker; he's and inspirational doer who just happened to give a talk about it.

By the way, Rausch talks about how, even though he didn't get to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, he did get to play football. The AP reports that, following his lecture, Rausch got to join the Pittsburgh Steelers for a practice.

Rausch's advice is basically solid. I won't repeat it here; the upshot is that you should work hard and work well and appreciate the people around you. Watch the video.


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Friday, July 25, 2008

Who Is John Galt? Letter Writers Prove Point

In a recent article, my dad and I criticize both McCain and Obama for their assault on individual rights. The article closes:

Ari feels free to mention that he's seriously considering writing in John Galt for president. With so many political "leaders" blaming liberty for the problems caused by political controls, and promising as the answer more severe controls, this election is starting to feel a lot like the world of Atlas Shrugged.

Two letter writers make my point for me.

Jim Ciha replies:

As a forward-thinking progressive not stuck in the capitalistic pro-gun mindset, it's always amusing to read Linn and Ari Armstrong's column. In their latest diatribe, Ari considers voting for Obama because McCain is the worst evil in the race but then he changes his mind (shocking!) and decides not to vote for Obama.

Now, it's pretty laughable to be told that Ari was ever considering voting for Obama when the two Armstrongs spend 13 paragraphs criticizing Obama and only two paragraphs criticizing McCain. The Armstrongs are such teasers. Just when you think they might turn into forward-thinking human beings working for the common good, they go ahead a fall back onto their hysterical Democrats-are-going-to-destroy-our-way-of-life routine. These Armstrongs are such kidders.

What's remarkable about this letter is that it does not contain a single argument. Instead, it accuses me of dishonesty, ignoring the fact that the article explicitly mentions another piece of mine from June 6 in which I lay out my case for voting against McCain by casting my vote with Obama.

Ciha claims that he is "forward-thinking," "progressive," not "stuck" in some mindset presumed (but not shown) to be wrong, and an advocate of "the common good," which of course Ciha doesn't bother to define.

Like I said, "this election is starting to feel a lot like the world of Atlas Shrugged."

In another letter, Robert I. Laitres writes:

The most recent Armstrong column ("How Obama lost another vote") provides us with another example of intellectual myopia and the resultant view of the world.

Some of us do agree that religious organizations have absolutely no business receiving tax dollars. What amazes me in the Armstrong position is that they obviously ignore an even larger group of "pigs at the trough."

We are speaking of industries, financial institutions and agricultural organizations who believe that they are "entitled" to subsidies and "incentives." It would seem that, it being a much larger problem, the Armstrong[s] might rail against those even louder. But they do not. ...

Where do the Armstrongs stand on those issues? Or is their belief in "corporatism" so deep that they cannot bring themselves to condemn the irresponsibility endemic in their philosophy and its consequences?

What of the reported food poisoning of thousands (the real figure is "reported cases" multiplied by 30 to 40) of citizens throughout the United States? Or are the Armstrong going to repeat their standard mantra of "The free market will take care of it?" It may, but after how many people have become sick and/or died?

Theory is fine, but even the Armstrongs will have to admit that people do not live in the theoretical world of John Galt? They live in, and have to deal with, the real one.

Laitress here simply accuses us of something of which are not guilty: accepting or in any way sanctioning "corporatism," understood here as granting select businesses political favors. We have indeed routinely and loudly condemned all forms of corporate welfare and political favoritism. (The fact that we did not do so in the cited column proves only that we can't solve the problems of the world in 800 words.) Yet Laitress tries to smear us with the corporatist position in order to discredit our free-market position, which is diametrically opposed to corporatism.

Laitres does bring up an interesting issue with poisonings; I assume he's referring to the cases of bacterial contamination. In response, I point out that the free market did in fact take care of it. As soon as it becomes known that a certain product is contaminated, stores immediately clear their shelves of the item, and the company responsible takes a huge financial hit. A free market operates under laws protecting individual rights, including torts that protect against harm. Nobody argues that under a free market everyone and every product is perfect. Yet Laitres implicitly condemns us for (non-existent) utopianism.

The part of Laitres's letter that reminds me of Atlas is his insistence that the "theoretical world" is not to be trusted. After completely misrepresenting what our theory actually is, Laitres suggests that theory per se is suspect. And according to what theory does Laitres make his arguments? He doesn't bother to inquire.

It's almost as though Ciha and Laitres were intentionally mimicking the minor villains of Atlas Shrugged.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Republicans Catch Up

In two related stories, the Rocky Mountain News reports that John McCain and Bob Schaffer have caught up with Barack Obama and Mark Udall.

The first story reveals that McCain has gone from a 49-44 deficit to a 46-44 edge, according to Quinnipiac University. The big news is that Obama has dropped by 5 percent, well beyond the margin of error. This suggests that, while people still don't like McCain much, they're increasingly turned off my Obama.

The article cites gas prices. Clearly it had more to do with the article by my dad and me beating up Obama (just kidding). But I do think the turn has to do with more than just gas.

The second article notes that, while Udall still leads in a Rasmussen poll by 4 percent, Quinnipiac shows them tied with 44 percent each.

Udall's spokesperson Tara Trujillo told the News, "Udall has spent 12 years working to make Colorado the nation's leader in renewable energy development, while his opponent, Bob Schaffer, has been working for the oil and gas industry that is making record-breaking profits while Coloradans pay more than four bucks for a gallon of gas." That's the comment that inspired me to make a bit of fun of Udall. I think that at some level many people understand that, when environmentalists forcibly prevent energy companies from producing energy, that tends to drive up prices.


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Udall Announces WindCar 3000

MEDIA RELEASE -- July 24, 2008


Boulder, CO -- Today U.S. Senate Candidate Mark Udall announced his solution to high gas prices: the WindCar 3000, an electric car powered by a giant windmill atop the roof that can also serve to catch favorable winds.

"The WindCar 3000 offers a practical alternative to Colorado's addiction to oil," Udall said."With gas prices around $4 per gallon, now is not the time drill or produce more oil in the U.S. Now is the time for forward-thinking individuals to adopt exciting new technologies and free us from oil."

The WindCar 3000 powers itself with free, renewable wind energy captured by a towering, state-of-the-art windmill attached to the roof of the car. When the car is in motion, the windmill blades can be set in place to anchor the WindNet, a large sail that can convert existing winds to mobile force.

"This revolutionary system, dubbed the Free Atop-Roof Coupling Energizer, makes use of free wind energy whether the car is sitting in the gusty driveway or sailing down the road. The system is especially effective when commutes are coordinated with prevailing winds. All aboard the New Energy Economy!" Udall said.

Udall announced a five-year plan to research, develop, and construct the WindCar 3000, which he expects to go into production no later than 2015. He said his first act as Senator will be to pass a special tax on oil and oil-powered cars to fund the project.

"Even though the price currently is estimated at $126,320 per car, we fully expect that price to come down as our hand-selected scientists find new ways to conserve energy. For example, with even lighter weight materials, the car would require less power, and on a low-wind day two people could even carry the car with specially-installed handles," Udall said.

The WindCar 3000 is expected to be able to travel at least 34 miles after only 20 hours of energizing in a high-wind area. With prevailing winds, the vehicle could travel much farther.

Udall sharply criticized his critics, saying, "Contrary to criticisms by oil-and-gas executives, high gas prices have nothing to do with my fellow environmentalists' efforts to shut down all energy production in the United States (including nuclear generators); the fault rests solely with those who produce the oil that powers our 20th Century-technology cars. And don't think for a second that it's my fault that corn gas actually harms the environment while simultaneously subjecting third-world populations to starvation and rewarding corporate special-interests. The WindCar 3000 is based on entirely new technology, and its development will be overseen by the top minds in the nation."

Udall concluded, "Obviously, this is a parody. In fact, I didn't actually make any of these statements, and this release is entirely made up. My real energy policy is very serious business indeed."

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

TaxTracks Blows Budget -- Surprise, Surprise

Kevin Flynn of the Rocky Mountain News reports:

RTD conceded Friday that it cannot deliver the FasTracks program as promised to voters four years ago.

The program, originally budgeted at $4.7 billion when voters approved a sales tax to support it, rose to $6.1 billion last year and is poised for a substantial increase next month during budget talks with the elected board. ...

The program has been clobbered from two sides, with huge increases in the cost of construction materials and fuel, and a slowdown in the economy that has cut into the revenue RTD expected from the sales tax that underpins the financing.

Let's go back to basics. There is absolutely no reason for rail to be tax-subsidized at all. If rail lines offer a real economic benefit, then people will gladly pay sufficient fares to keep them in business. Rail lines easily can exclude non-payers, so that objection is gone. If the concern is the small fraction of poor riders, then a market rail service is perfectly free to price discriminate, say by offering discounted passes to the poor. Especially for non-peak travel, such price discrimination would add to the rail's revenues, as most costs are fixed. Alternately, those who wish to voluntarily subsidize transportation for the poor are perfectly free to do so. By relying on a sales tax, rail forcibly transfers money away from some poor people to some rich people, and that's wrong even according to egalitarianism.

Atop those economic reasons rests the simple fact that it is morally wrong to force people who don't use rail to subsidize those who do. People have the moral right to control their own income, to decide for themselves whether to fund rail, whether to use it, whether to invest in it, and whether to subsidize other people's transportation.

Now TaxTracks has run into the problem that the sales tax, set as a percentage of sales in the region, is subject to economic downturns. Notably, a real loan is not. A real loan is what a marketized RTD should have obtained. A real loan is what RTD could have paid off with paying users, if its services actually are demanded. RTD is complaining also about increased costs, but at the same time, presumably, more people are riding rail to avoid the gas pump.

On a free market, perhaps RTD still would have had to cut back or restructure with changing economic conditions. But, on a free market, RTD would not have made promises to taxpayers that it cannot keep.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

How Obama Lost Another Vote

The following article originally was published by Grand Junction's Free Press on July 21, 2008.

How Obama lost another vote

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

We write as a father-son team. We almost always agree about fundamental issues, yet sometimes we look askew at each others' strategies.

For example, last month Ari wrote on his blog ( for June 6), "I deem that McCain is the worst evil in the race, and therefore I've decided to mark my ballot for Obama as the strongest possible vote against McCain." Such a position is sacrilege to much of the family.

What's so bad about McCain? Ari's post reviews three main flaws. McCain snubbed the First Amendment with his campaign censorship law, saying he wants to violate our "quote, First Amendment rights" for his version of "clean government." We wouldn't want politics mucked up with all that liberty.

He pushes for faith-based politics and declares his support for "ending abortion." And he humbly requests that you "sacrifice your life" to the state. (Where this involves military conflict, we're reminded of Patton's advice about which side we should get to sacrifice their lives.)

We agree about McCain's flaws. We may disagree about what to do about them, but we now agree that voting for Obama is not the answer. Why the change? In brief, Obama proposes new political controls over our lives and the economy at an astounding pace.

Obama wants socialized medicine, more wage controls, more corporate and personal welfare, higher taxes, and more energy restrictions, to mention just a few highlights. How does he compare with McCain on the issues of speech, faith-based politics, and sacrifice to the nation?

Obama didn't vote on the McCain-Feingold campaign censorship law, because the law passed in 2002, while Obama didn't take his Senate seat till 2005. We were hopeful about a headline from Broadcasting & Cable claiming that Obama "does not support" the Fairness Doctrine, which is a euphemism for censoring radio.

However, Obama did not take a principled stand for free speech; instead, his spokesperson said that the proposal was a "distraction" from imposing other controls such as "media-ownership caps." In other words, Obama believes the national government should be able to forcibly prohibit some people from owning certain media outlets.

Both McCain and Obama believe that the phrase "Congress shall make no law" actually means "Congress shall make a law" imposing speech controls.

Obama had nothing but praise for President Bush's national faith-based welfare, which forces you to hand over some of your money to religious groups.

Obama promised that "federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs." However, not only is it immoral to force people who disagree with a particular religion to fund practitioners of that religion, but it is impossible for explicitly religious groups to spend tax dollars in a strictly secular way. The national government has no business forcibly redistributing people's money to any religious outfit.

The First Amendment also states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." While faith-based welfare does not sanction a single creed, it forcibly transfers funds to particular religious groups in violation of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

If you're a Christian, you shouldn't be forced to fund a Muslim organization, and vice versa. If you're an atheist or "other," you shouldn't be forced to fund either. And churches shouldn't bow to Caesar to stick their noses into the government trough.

What about the issue of sacrificial service? When Obama came through Colorado earlier this month, he outlined his plan for forcing students to serve politician-approved goals. The Rocky Mountain News reports that Obama wants to make "federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs." In other words, Obama first wants to take your money by force, then blackmail your local school district with your money to force students to take time away from their studies, work, and other interests to "serve" whatever it is Obama deems appropriate.

And we always thought the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited involuntary servitude. True enough, people can pull their children out of government schools in protest, which means that they merely have to perform involuntary servitude to fund the school they're not using.

McCain and Obama are not merely bad candidates. Their policies are profoundly evil, and they violate the principles of liberty on which this nation was founded. They also violate at least the spirit, and we believe the letter, of the Constitution.

So whom are we voting for this year? We doubt that any of our regular readers need some newspaper columnists to tell them how to vote. We'll probably vote differently, anyway.

However, Ari feels free to mention that he's seriously considering writing in John Galt for president. With so many political "leaders" blaming liberty for the problems caused by political controls, and promising as the answer more severe controls, this election is starting to feel a lot like the world of Atlas Shrugged.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dark Knight Shines

I loved Dark Knight, the latest Batman film. The acting is superb -- I already loved Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, MIchael Cane, and Morgan Freeman, and they certainly live up to expectations here.

Ledger's performance is everything the hype suggests. However, I found him to be frightening not because he played it "over the top," as some critics have alleged, but because he is at times so chillingly calm. I confess to mentally leaving the movie for a moment in sadness as the Joker tells Batman, "We could do this forever." No, they can't.

I was not overwhelmed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I generally like, but who couldn't seem to spark much excitement here. I just couldn't buy a romantic link between her and either of the two men in her life (Bale's Bruce Wayne or Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent).

This is a movie of serious ideas as well as superbly crafted action, and I like that. Americans, it seems, hunger for intellectual material, so long as it's part of an interesting and heroic story. Sadly, some of the ideas the film presents are terrible.

Spoiler Alert: From this point on, I'll be discussing details of the film's plot that you probably won't want to read until after you see the film.

There are three main thematic elements to the film. The first may be summarized, "Don't negotiate with terrorists." The Joker is essentially an urban terrorist, motivated not by some religious cause but by raw nihilism. He hates societal order, hates good people planning their lives, hates the good-faith pursuit of values. His goal is to destroy values, destroy peace, and destroy the best people. So the film creates a very compelling villain.

Much of the film involves the Joker unleashing mayhem in order to blackmail Batman into turning himself in to the authorities and removing himself from the action. For a time, Wayne considers doing so. But Dent, the District Attorney, refuses to allow Batman to give in to the Joker, and turns himself in as Batman instead.

Another significant part of the non-capitulation theme rests with an employee of Wayne's who has discovered the secret identity of his boss. He threatens to out Wayne -- until the Joker also threatens violence unless somebody kills him. Then the employee learns quickly why it's a bad idea to play games with terrorists and give in to demands. This first thematic element is positive and a huge reason why the film succeeds.

The second element is closely related to the first. Will people remain decent when pressured by a violent madman? The key sequence involves two ferries, one filled with good people of the city, another with criminals. The Joker loads both boats with explosives and gives each boat a detonator to the other boat. If one boat doesn't blow up the other by a set time, the Joker will blow up both boats.

This is obviously a set up, but it plays well, and the dramatic suspense is palpable. This sequence involves a truly great moment aboard the criminal ferry. In many emergency contexts, I would choose to save the lives of decent people over criminals. However, in the context of the film, the people are aware that the Joker gets a special thrill out of manipulating people, and they also know that Batman as well as the authorities are on the case. So I think that the actions the people take -- not to blow each other up -- are defensible on grounds of not negotiating with terrorists. As others have noticed, this sequence has a lot to do with game theory in economics.

The third main thematic element is the fall of Dent from a respected District Attorney to villain, and the response of Batman to this. The fall of Dent from criminal-chasing hero to embittered villain is not set up well enough be be plausible. The only way such a fall would be possible is if Dent had dramatic personal problems that he'd been hiding. There is a hint of previous trouble: he was once known among police as "Two-Face Harvey." He goes from making his own luck to thinking the world is fundamentally unfair and that such a condition excuses his vindictive violence. I knew the turn was coming, so I wasn't too upset about it. Nevertheless, the mostly inexplicable turn of a hero into a villain is deeply unsatisfying and morally distressing.

Even worse, though, is Batman's reaction to Dent's fall. Batman wants to preserve the people's faith in a hero, so he decides to take the wrap for Dent's crimes. That's horrible, horrible, horrible. Deception can never be the basis of a healthy social reaction. Batman's action is profoundly unjust, not only to himself, but to Dent (who deserves condemnation for his fall), and, more importantly, to the people he claims to defend. Assuming that people must be deceived if they are to do the right thing is fundamentally disrespectful of those people.

I got the idea that the film was trying hard to make Batman a particularly "dark" knight. We can't have him seem too heroic! Given that despicable goal, dinging Batman for crimes he didn't commit is the least-bad way of mucking up his character.

As much as I hate Batman the Liar, the ending does not ruin the film for me. The dominant theme of standing up to villains saves it. That's good, because there's far too much talent here to waste.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Republicans Alienate Western Voters

As Ryan Sager has pointed out, the Interior West isn't as friendly toward faith-based politics. That goes a long way toward explaining Republican losses in Colorado. Are Republicans listening? Consider:

"It is impossible to protect our religious liberty as well as all of our individual rights unless we endorse the strict separation of church and state. ... I have been a Republican for my entire voting life, but cannot endorse the GOP currently because of it's explicit endorsement of religion in government."

"As a Republican since 1976, I am disillusioned, largely because of the party's abandonment of individual liberty in favor of religion in politics."

"My family has always voted Republican. The Party has changed in recent years. The important issue: the Republican Party must stand for strict separation of church and state. But the Party has now allied itself with the religious right, with such pet issues as anti-stem-cell research, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage."

"The Republican Party must promote the strict separation of church and state. I used to support the Republican Party because I believe in individual rights, free markets, a strong national defense, and the right to keep and bear arms. However, the Republican Party alliance with the religious right on 'social issues' like stem cell research, abortion and gay marriage has turned off many former supporters such as myself."

"15 years ago, the GOP attracted me for its commitment to free markets and fiscal responsibility, even if only half-hearted. Today, the GOP has lost my vote due to its dangerous entanglement with evangelical Christianity."

I used to display a Bush (the First) yard sign in the window of the truck I drove. Since then, I've voted for Kerry. I intend to vote for Democrat Mark Udall for U.S. Senate. I refuse to vote for McCain. Just as soon as Republican candidates explicitly endorse the separation of church and state -- and mean it -- I will again consider voting for them.


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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Peikoff 20 and 21

Here I catch up on my brief summaries of Leonard Peikoff's podcasts.

Peikoff 20

Should a man reveal intense romantic interest in a woman? Peikoff replies that it depends on context; it's "all a question of detail." Under the appropriate circumstances, yes, it's appropriate to communicate passion. He talks a bit about those circumstances.

What is the basis for laws against self-incrimination? Here Peikoff surprised me a bit. My first thoughts went to the abuses inherent in forcing people to testify against themselves. But Peikoff makes a more fundamental argument. He explains that we properly support a just government to protect our own lives and property. But when the government is trying to convict a person of a serious crime, whether rightly or wrongly, the egoistic justification for joining the government is to that extent broken. Egoism dictates that, while people may be punished for lying under oath, they cannot properly be forced to incriminate themselves.

Next, Peikoff discusses the cynicism often behind the phrase, "drinking the kool-aid."

What about the marriage of minors? Peikoff replies that marriage is a contract, and government can't sanction a contract with a minor. I basically agree, but I add that people do mature at different ages. I believe that a court should be able to grant adult status to a responsible 17-year-old, if petitioned. Should a pregnant 15-year-old be able to marry the father? Colorado Statute 14-2-109.5 sets an age limit for common-law marriage at 18. Colorado law provides for marriage under 18 with parental approval, and this strikes me as reasonable:

14-2-106. License to marry.

(1) (a) ...[T]he county clerk shall issue a license to marry and a marriage certificate form upon being furnished:

(I) Satisfactory proof that each party to the marriage will have attained the age of eighteen years at the time the marriage license becomes effective; or, if over the age of sixteen years but has not attained the age of eighteen years, has the consent of both parents or guardian or, if the parents are not living together, the parent who has legal custody or decision-making responsibility concerning such matters or with whom the child is living or judicial approval, as provided in section 14-2-108; or, if under the age of sixteen years, has both the consent to the marriage of both parents or guardian or, if the parents are not living together, the parent who has legal custody or decision-making responsibility concerning such matters or with whom the child is living and judicial approval, as provided in section 14-2-108...

Obviously, just because marriage under the age of 18 is allowed doesn't mean it's usually a good idea.

What are the limits to the right of self-defense? Peikoff sensibly answers that things like nuclear weapons, private armies, and biological agents properly are restricted, though he adds that a private force can be appropriate depending on one's property holdings and risks. (I imagine that a business operating in a dangerous part of the world would need a private force, for example.) However, Peikoff seems not to have finely considered the nature of guns. He suggested than an Uzi may be prohibited, but that's rather arbitrary. A reasonable standard is that, if a weapon is inherently used discriminately -- i.e., to stop a particular threatening person -- it should be allowed for self-defense. Weapons that cannot be used in a domestic defensive situation without inherently endangering third parties should be restricted. This standard easily differentiates guns from tanks and nuclear bombs (and it also comports with the historical understanding of "arms.")

Finally, Peikoff discusses some of the fiction he likes.

Peikoff 21

Should government intervene in the economy to protect the environment? Peikoff answers no, except when particular property rights are violated by a particular party. However, he notes, first-in-time rights apply; if somebody builds a home next to an established factory, the homeowner can't properly sue the factory for air pollution. One "cannot launch a claim against industrial civilization as such."

Is it possible to experience love without physical attraction? I won't try to summarize Peikoff's interesting remarks on the matter, as they're both subtle and far afield from the main purpose of this blog.

Can reading Ayn Rand become escapist? Peikoff says that reading great literature for inspiration is much different than a "refusal to face reality."

Finally, when is it immoral to help a stranger? We are "right to value human life," Peikoff notes, so obviously we should help strangers in an emergency when doing so risks no substantial values. However, if our choice is between saving a stranger and saving one's spouse, the proper choice is equally obvious. He discusses a few other scenarios.

Word has it that Peikoff is wrapping up work on his book on DIM, or "disintegration, integration, and misintegration," as an explanation for the basic flows of human history. I expect the book's publication to be a watershed event.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hillman Talks Energy

On Monday I criticized The Denver Post for its baseless assertion that "New Energy" is driving Colorado's economy. Mark Hillman also has pointed out the economic damage of energy controls:

As if paying $4-plus for gasoline isn't bad enough, some of Colorado's political leaders seem bound and determined to spread pain at the pump to the cost of heating our homes this winter -- and for decades to come... Democrats try to freeze traditional energy sources to make alternative energy economically competitive.

Hillman criticizes Senator Ken Salazar for standing in the way of oil-shale production. Unfortunately, Hillman does not specify how Salazar is doing this. Salazar praises a "research and development program that Congress created in 2005"; if that means subsidies, then such federal assistance is wrong. Salazar also fears "the Bureau of Land Management is trying to organize a fire sale of commercial oil shale leases on public land." Of course the central problem here is that the federal government has nationalized vast tracks of land. Short of the ideal policy of privatizing all of this land, the federal policy should be to lease land (though any lease set would be arbitrary for this socialized land) to whomever can independently finance operations. Salazar believes, "The governors of Wyoming and Colorado, communities and editorial boards across the West agree that the administration's headlong rush is a terrible idea." But what they think should make absolutely no difference. They are not the ones putting up the investment money or doing any of the work.

Hillman also blasts Congressman Mark Udall, who is currently trying to join the Senate, for scapegoating "price-gouging," conflating reasonable tax credits with subsidies, and mandating different ethanol.

Finally, Hillman notes, "Udall and Salazar team up with Gov. Bill Ritter to stonewall against responsible energy development on the Roan Plateau. Meanwhile, Ritter still expects the energy industry to provide more tax revenue."

The Democrats impose controls and taxes on economical energy and mandates and subsidies for uneconomical energy. Then The Denver Post pretends that such policies are the "biggest" reason for Colorado's relative economic success, rather than an impediment to economic growth.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Peikoff 19

Here I briefly summarize Leonard Peikoff's recent podcast. My goal here is to raise interest in the podcasts and create textual markers, not provide a substitute for Peikoff's remarks. Peikoff also has a 20th and 21st podcast available.

Is it appropriate to purchase stock in tobacco companies, for instance? Peikoff replies that the harm of smoking depends on the context. Many items can be abused but are not inherently evil, including guns and baked goods. It's morally fine (but not mandatory) to invest in anything that is "legitimately legal" and possible to use rationally. Offhand, I had trouble thinking of a product that is impossible to use rationally. Even drugs that are currently illegal have legitimate medical uses. Of course, it would be wrong to promote particular groups known to be immoral, such as racist groups, but there the issue is not a product but the actions of particular people.

Does divorce harm children? Peikoff points out that, while divorce is inherently difficult for children, the level of difficulty all depends on how the particular parents handle it. A bad marriage is worse than a divorce for children.

Peikoff addresses a question regarding the metaphysical versus epistemological sense of the primary of existence.

What is an "Objectivist" person? Peikoff replies that generally it's much more important to evaluate the character of a person than whether the person is an Objectivist.

Is immortality possible? If it's true that something cannot fundamentally come into or go out of existence, then how can the soul cease to exist? Peikoff agrees with the principle that something cannot come from nothing or fade into nothing. I'll throw in this example: it's possible to burn a log, in which case the log ceases to exist, but the matter of the log is transformed into heat, light, smoke, and ash. Peikoff points out that "an action can cease to exist." Soul refers to our consciousness, a faculty that performs certain actions (specifically, the action of perceiving reality). Is it possible for the faculty of sight to go out of existence? Obviously, Peikoff points out; a person can go blind. The faculty of sight can be destroyed. Likewise, the faculty of consciousness can be destroyed.

Finally, Peikoff mentions his preferred translations for the Iliad and Antigone.


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Monday, July 14, 2008

Denver Post's Crack Economic Team Strikes Again

Let us say that, out of fifty people, Ethan has a cold. In a health evaluation, Ethan ranks well in cardiovascular health, blood pressure, body weight, muscle tone, and general attractiveness. Overall, he is ranked the fifth-healthiest person of the group. What would you think of a newspaper that praised colds as the cause of Ethan's good health? Perhaps you'd think the newspaper is about as idiotic as The Denver Post.

Here's what the Post claimed in an editorial today:

CNBC has just ranked Colorado as the fifth-best state for doing business -- the first time our state has finished in the coveted top five.

The biggest reason for Colorado's leap up the charts, according to CNBC analysts, is that it "has been actively courting what it calls the New Energy Economy — wind and solar. The effort has paid off in jobs, and a big jump in our business friendliness category, finishing fifth this year, from number 12 in 2007."

First of all, who are these "CNBC analysts," and why should we believe any of their opinions about the economy?

Second, the Post misquotes CNBC, which notably does not claim that the "New Energy Economy" is the "biggest" reason for Colorado's leap. Instead, here's what CNBC actually claims:

Colorado, among the first states to be hit by the housing crisis, has been actively courting what it calls the New Energy Economy -- wind and solar. The effort has paid off in jobs, and a big jump in our Business Friendliness category, finishing fifth this year, from number 12 in 2007.

Note that CNBC does not make any claim whatsoever about the effect of the so-called "New Energy Economy" on Colorado's success, other than to say that it has "paid off." Really? How much has it paid off? Where's the evidence that it has paid off? CNBC does not offer any evidence.

These energy schemes have been "successful" only because they have forcibly redirected money from elsewhere in the economy. As Environment Colorado reminds us, Colorado law requires an eventual 20 percent of energy to be produced in "alternative" ways. Obviously, this is more costly. If it weren't, it wouldn't have to be forced by legislation. This drives up people's energy bills. This results in less money available for people to spend with other businesses.

Sure, there are more jobs in the "New Energy" sector. But this comes at the expense of jobs elsewhere. As I wrote last year:

If the environmentalists and their supporting politicians actually took their own claims seriously, they would not stop at forcing a mere 20 percent "renewable" energy. They would require a full 100 percent. After all, if generating "more jobs" to produce energy is good, if that makes Colorado "open for business," then let's really open up for business by requiring that all energy used in Colorado must be "renewable." And why wait till 2020? Think of all the additional jobs that could be generated if we moved up the schedule, say to 2010. Just think of all the people who could be producing windmill blades!

Why, then, is Colorado's economy relatively healthy? Despite Democratic rule, Colorado still benefits by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, though the Democrats are currently trying to gut that. Colorado's Democrats have been less rabidly left-wing than Democrats elsewhere, due to the demographics in which they rule. They haven't been successful in pushing through their worst socialist schemes, such as government-controlled health care. Colorado attracts a lot of out-of-state talent because of our relatively business-friendly climate, the existence of established tech firms, good colleges (which are mostly privately funded, by the way), and beautiful climate and landscape. And, notably, despite Democratic efforts to hobble the oil and gas industry, Colorado and Wyoming have experienced booms in those industries. If you want to look at Colorado's economic success, oil has a lot more to do with it than windmills.

I don't know to what extent Colorado's "alternative" energy companies get national subsidies. If these subsidies are large, then Colorado is benefiting at the expense of people elsewhere. But I don't think letting politically-correct corporations steal from people in other states is necessarily something to crow about. Of course, these same corporate-welfare takers, along with leftist politicians, tax-funded bureaucrats, and environmentalist zealots provide the original sources for claims that robbing Peter to pay Paul somehow helps the economy.

Just another day at the mighty Denver Post.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

America's Mental Recession

Here' what Phil Gramm told The Washington Times:

"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," he said, noting that growth has held up at about 1 percent despite all the publicity over losing jobs to India, China, illegal immigration, housing and credit problems and record oil prices. "We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet."

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is the primary reason that growth continues in the economy, he said.

"We've never been more dominant; we've never had more natural advantages than we have today," he said. "We have benefited greatly" from the globalization of the economy in the last 30 years.

Obama replied, "He didn't say this but I guess what he meant was that it's a figment of your imagination, these high gas prices."

That's neither what Gramm said nor what he meant.

At least one blogger has taken the smear further: "You see in the world Gramm and McCain move in there is no pain, no lost jobs, no wage depression, and no choices between gasoline and other items."

Gramm didn't say that either.

Todd J. Gillman claimed in The Dallas Morning News that Gramm said America's "economic complaints are mostly 'mental'." No, he didn't.

It turns out that the term recession has a technical meaning of "a decline in GDP for two or more consecutive quarters." We're not in a recession. Furthermore, all is not doom and gloom in the economy. That was what Gramm said, and that was what he meant. He did not dispute the fact that gas prices are high, that the housing market is mess, etc. He merely said that, as of yet, the sky has not fallen. At most, he could be criticized for overstating American dominance.

By the way, of the several accounts I've read of the debate, not a single person has even attempted to dispute Gramm's factual claims.

I'm not too concerned about the formal definition of a recession; the economy is having trouble, whether growth is barely positive or not. The "mental recession" I'm worried about is the one that allows Gramm's comments to be taken grossly out of context to generate countless bogus "news" stories. Wouldn't it be nice if the presidential race were actually, you know, about the real issues and stuff?


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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Denver Post Takes Yorktown Out of Context

Okay, so The Denver Post is running an unofficial campaign against Bob Schaffer for U.S. Senate. We got that. But I wish the paper would at least stick to real news. Unfortunately, its story today by Michael Riley ("GOP's Schaffer views Yorktown as 'classical'") is too lame even to rise to the level of sensationalism.

Riley writes about Yorktown University:

The online university boasts some respected scholars, but the description of its American culture concentration also describes popular music, modern art and psychology as "signs of serious cultural disturbance."

Currently accepting students for just one degree -- a master's in government -- Yorktown is seen by its founder as a place where students are steeped in the principles of supply-side economics, can freely talk about their views on abortion and other issues, and seek to restore the country to a path of what the course catalog describes as "cultural recovery."

One ethics lecture is titled "The Enlightenment as Failed Moral Revolution."

This is an odd sort of institution, and Schaffer's association with it is real news. But Riley takes the quotes from Yorktown out of context.

To take the last point first, Riley does not bother to mention (and I couldn't find online) what "The Enlightenment as Failed Moral Revolution" was about. Did the class suggest that the enlightenment itself was a failure, or that it failed to reach its full potential? I suspect that it was the latter, but the article just leaves the point hanging, as if the mere title were an indictment.

What does it mean that Yorktown "describes popular music, modern art and psychology as 'signs of serious cultural disturbance'"? Again Riley provides no context. This time, I was able to find useful information from Yorktown.

The first point to notice is that one of the Yorktown University Advisors is Wanda Franz, who, notably, earned "her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from West Virginia University (1974)" and who "has taught life-span developmental psychology at both the graduate and undergraduate level."

Obviously, Yorktown does not take psychology itself as a "cultural disturbance," an interpretation that Riley leaves wide open.

Here's the relevant quote in its entirety:

Mankind does not live by bread, nor economics, alone. We have become aware that our culture defines who we are. And, if that culture becomes distorted, our character, too, changes-for the worse. Under the influence of modern telecommunications, no society in the world is immune to the viruses common to modern life. Radical change has become a mode of life, and, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim has taught us, radical change (good or bad) is destabilizing. Periods of radical change affect everyone, as high divorce rates, high rates of abortions, acceptance of "recreational" drugs, attest. Popular music, works of art, popular literature, Pop Science, Psychology, and the many New Age nostrums to which modern man clings, are responses to radical change, and signs of serious cultural disturbance. A reasoned critique of modern culture, and a course for recovery, has been outlined by scholars of several generations, but no college or university-until now-offers an entire area concentration in a MA degree program in this subject.

There's a lot wrong with this statement from Yorktown. First, while people are influenced by culture, it hardly "defines who we are." People defy their cultures all the time. America is hardly in a period of "radical change;" pragmatic incrementalism rules the day. The material does refer to "Psychology" as a "New Age nostrum," and that's just silly. Likewise, most popular music, works of art, literature, and science are not "New Age" (unless "New Age" is merely a synonym for modernity, which would make the point rather obvious). However, despite the fact that the material from Yorktown is horribly written, obviously Yorktown is not denouncing psychology across the board, nor is it claiming that psychology is a "cultural disturbance." Instead, the claim is that, because of "radical change," some people turn to psychology. I don't think it's controversial to claim that people who seek out psychologists often do so because of upheavals in their lives.

Riley found a real news story. It's a pity he didn't treat it as such.

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Great Debaters

The Great Debaters tells the (fictionalized) story of a black college debate team in 1935. What I like about the movie is that it takes education and language seriously. This was a serious college that attracted top-notch faculty and dedicated students. Be sure to watch the documentary, which includes interviews with people associated with the school in that era. I find myself contemplating a local debate club; the film inspires students and adults alike to reaffirm their commitment to education.

By its subject matter, the film necessarily deals with the politics of Jim Crow, segregation, and related issues. What I found unfortunate is that the film conflates left-wing themes with its universal themes of liberty. But it was an era of socialist ideas, and some of the people on which the film is based held such ideas.

Also unfortunate is the film's gratuitous and implausible love triangle. Not every movie needs a sex scene, and this one seemed quite out of place.

Maybe it's just because I'm getting a little older, but it seems like practically every movie coming out these days is terrible. The three most popular genres seem to be ridiculous horror, mindless action, and stupid comedy. So this film about discussion and the intellect is quite welcome.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008


For something offbeat... I find Flight of the Conchords, a "folk parody" duo from New Zealand with their own HBO show and an album, to be hilarious.

For example, their rap song "The Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros" is a classic. (See also the TV version, which is considerably modified.) For more great rap, listen to "Mutha Uckers." ("I pay my mutha uckin rent fortnightly...")

Then there's "Frodo, Don't Wear The Ring." (The video is even funnier in the context of the show.)

Their great love song is "Business Time."

If sci-fi is your genre, check out "The Humans Are Dead" (and TV version). Binary solo!

There are other funny ones, but those are some of the ones that continue to crack me up.


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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

McCain on the Economy

So John McCain came to Denver yesterday to talk about the economy. While I am unable to find many specifics, the basic idea seems to be to slightly restrain increases in government spending, wait for the economy (i.e., the tax base) to recover, and keep his fingers crossed. He can say he's going to balance the budget by 2013, but somehow I don't think he'll get too excited if he gets elected and that turns out not to be easy.

The Denver Post quotes McCain as saying, "Government has grown by 60 percent in the last eight years. That is simply inexcusable." Well, what would have been excusable? Growth by 59.5 percent? Obviously, McCain did not attach a real figure because then he would have had to talk about what he would have cut.

The Post offers a few generalities:

He also said he'd veto every bill that includes wasteful spending. ... Keeping a balanced budget in the long term would mean reforming Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, among other things, according to the campaign's economic plan. ... McCain's economic proposals... include a summer gas-tax holiday, building 45 nuclear plants, lowering taxes, cutting the estate tax, increasing off-shore drilling, encouraging free trade and doubling the child income-tax deduction from $3,500 to $7,000.

I find it humorous that some media accounts I've read sound as though McCain himself will be building nuclear power plants. Somehow, I doubt that. Rather, what McCain is talking about is restraining political force currently preventing the building of such plants, as well as off-short drilling and free trade.

Nevertheless, McCain's plan to allow nuclear power plants is among his most practical and workable reforms.

What constitutes "wasteful spending" is a matter of opinion. I consider practically every bill to spend wastefully. Somehow I doubt that McCain's throw-away line means much.

"Encouraging free trade" is merely a euphemism for "reducing the political impediments to free trade." Unfortunately, free trade for McCain comes at the cost of expanded welfare. He said:

I understand free trade is not a positive for everyone. If a worker loses a job we must retrain them and prepare them for 21st Century jobs. That's why I have proposed a comprehensive reform of our unemployment insurance and worker retraining programs. We will use our community colleges to help train workers for specific opportunities in their communities. And for workers of a certain age who have lost a job that won't come back, we'll help make up the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one until they've completed retraining and found secure new employment at a decent wage.

"We must retrain them?" In other words, McCain wants to force some people to transfer more of their wealth to others, both for education and for salary subsidies. So the cost of free trade is an expansion of the welfare state. That's McCain's brand of freedom -- freedom by force. Exactly how he's going to expand welfare and balance the budget is unclear to me.

In the same speech about balancing the budget, two words are noticeably absent: Social Security.

Here's what his web page has to say about it:

He will fight to save the future of Social Security while meeting our obligations to the retirees of today and the future without raising taxes. John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts – but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept. He will reach across the aisle, but if the Democrats do not act, he will. John McCain will not leave office without fixing the problems that threatens our future prosperity.

As I have pointed out, "personal accounts" do absolutely nothing to resolve the pending Social Security crisis.

So what is the substance of McCain's plan to "reform" Social Security? Until he explains how he plans to cut somebody's benefits, his "reform" amounts to nothing. As I've suggested, the most sensible reform is to slowly raise the pay-out age over several decades until the program is phased out. This suggestion is also consistent with economic liberty.

But liberty is not something in which McCain is particularly interested. If he's said a serious word about how people deserve to keep the money they earn, I've not heard about it. Meanwhile, just today McCain has reminded us that he drove through his campaign censorship law. And his web page continues to state that McCain's ultimate goal is "ending abortion."

John McCain might allow a slightly freer economy in some areas relative to the far-left Obama, yet he powerfully stands for welfare, censorship, and faith-based politics.


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Monday, July 7, 2008

Supreme Court Issues Spirited Gun Ruling

The following article originally appeared in Grand Junction's July 7 Free Press.

Supreme Court issues spirited gun ruling

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

The Supreme Court's June 26 Heller decision affirmed the individual right to own a gun just in time for the celebration of our nation's Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, some of the negative commentary we've seen fails to do what the majority decision by Antonin Scalia does: take seriously and answer opposing arguments. Instead, some critics dredge up the same tired arguments to claim the Second Amendment means something different that what it clearly states.

Obviously, we cannot review the entire decision here, yet we'll highlight some of the more spirited debates. For the entire decision see See also (June 28),, and (We congratulate Kopel, who works out of Golden's Independence Institute, for his contribution to the victory.) For extensive documentation, see

Incidentally, we were pleasantly surprised to see listed with this last source, joining the National Rifle Association, a supportive brief from the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues "that the Second Amendment does protect an individual right to keep and bear arms..." Lest the matter be considered only a conservative issue, Pink Pistols and Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty also filed a supportive brief.

On to the debate! The Second Amendment states, "A well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Does the first part limit the second?

Scalia argues that "the former [clause] does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose." Referring to other historical cases, Scalia notes that "a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause." In answer to Stevens's claim that such a reading ignores the force of the first clause, Scalia replies that "operative provisions should be given effect as operative provisions, and prologues as prologues."

The "right of the people" obviously refers to an individual right, not only in the Second but in the First and Fourth Amendments. Scalia argues, "Stevens is of course correct... that the right to assemble cannot be exercised alone, but it is still an individual right, and not one conditioned upon membership in some defined 'assembly'... And Justice Stevens is dead wrong to think that the right to petition is 'primarily collective in nature'," according to historical sources.

Does "bear arms" mean only to carry weapons as a soldier? No. In pretending otherwise, notes Scalia, Stevens and others "manufacture a... definition, whereby 'bear arms' connotes the actual carrying of arms... but only in the service of an organized militia. No dictionary has ever adopted that definition, and we have been appraised of no source that indicates that it carried that meaning at the time of the founding."

Restricting the phrase "would cause the protected right to consist of the right to be a soldier or to wage war -- an absurdity that no commentator has ever endorsed," Scalia adds. Moreover, if "bear arms" means only to serve as a soldier, then what does "keep and bear arms" mean? Scalia writes, "It would be rather like saying 'He filled and kicked the bucket' to mean 'He filled the bucket and died.' Grotesque."

Stevens relies on a Linguists' Brief to support the notion that "bear arms" means only to serve as a soldier, Scalia notes. That brief dismisses other non-military uses, such as "bear arms... for the purpose of killing game," as "expressly qualified," Scalia quotes. In other words, "bear arms" supposedly only has non-military meaning if used in a sentence that clearly states some other purpose.

Scalia replies, "That analysis is faulty. A purposive qualifying phrase that contradicts the word or phrase it modifies is unknown this side of the looking glass (except, apparently, in some courses on Linguistics)." While "a modifier can limit the purpose" of bearing arms such as to killing game, that hardly suggests the unqualified right "to keep and bear arms" refers only to the military. The fact that bearing arms can be qualified -- for military use, for killing game, for self-defense -- shows that alone it carries no military implications.

We'll stop there. We bet you didn't know that Supreme Court decisions could be not only refreshingly sensible but funny. What's better than making fun of pedantic linguists? (We imagine they're still trying to figure out the bit about kicking the bucket.)

With his Heller decision, Scalia has done more than protect a Constitutionally enshrined right. He has assured the people that at least some in government won't distort the clear meaning of our founding documents to allow limitless state power. While we dispute some of the exceptions Scalia allows, we're gratified to learn that, here in America, individual rights still matter.

Thanks to Scalia's well-reasoned analysis of the meaning of the Second Amendment, the pretense that it protects only state militias has not merely stubbed its toe on the bucket but kicked it completely.

Linn is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son Ari edits from the Denver area.

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cheers to Freedom

Today, for the first time ever, my wife and I purchased alcohol on a Sunday in Colorado. This is the first Sunday in my lifetime, and I believe since Prohibition, that this particular "capitalist act between consenting adults" has been legal. As we drove home, I said, "Amazingly, the sky is still in its place."

And it took a Democratic legislature to repeal the blue laws on Sunday liquor sales. The Republicans, who sometimes pretend they favor free markets, fought the reform for years. The Republicans seem determined to do everything imaginable to irritate people and lose elections.

Appropriately, we shopped at All American Discount Liquors. My wife and I purchased vermouth, then went home and cheered to freedom over martinis.

I don't know whether Sunday hours will be popular; many stores might choose to close, anyway. But that's not the point. The point is that willing stores and willing customers have the right to conduct businesses, on their terms, not the terms dictated by politicians.

That's one small sip for liberty.


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Rational Endowment

Recently The Economist published an article about the endowment effect: "[O]nce someone owns something, he places a higher value on it than he did when he acquired it -- an observation first called 'the endowment effect' about 28 years ago by Richard Thaler, who these days works at the University of Chicago."

The magazine calls this "a squishy, irrational bit of human behaviour." One experiment "found that students were surprisingly reluctant to trade a coffee mug they had been given for a bar of chocolate, even though they did not prefer coffee mugs to chocolate when given a straight choice between the two."

I propose that the endowment effect is perfectly rational for three main reasons.

1. When we acquire an object, we perform mental work to figure out how we'll use it and what it's good for. True, we do much of this work before we purchase an item. Yet I routinely find that, after I acquire something, I think of more ways to integrate it into my life. To take a simple example, all of my usual mugs are currently in storage, so I just acquired two new ones. As soon as I did, I thought, "These would fit perfectly on that short shelf in the kitchen, where nothing else fits well." An object that we've spent mental energy figuring out how to better utilize is more valuable to us.

2. Automated habits are very valuable. As soon as we acquire something new, we start to work it into our regular routines. We develop habits for a reason; they're necessary time-savers. Granted, this point has force only after we've had an object for some (often short) period of time.

3. We reasonably avoid risk. Once we get the mug, we can look it over and make sure it isn't cracked or have any other unanticipated problem. (Before getting the two new mugs, I looked at a mug that I discovered has an irregular surface inside, making it difficult to clean; I ditched that mug.) Meanwhile, I've had the experience of opening a chocolate bar and finding that it has turned white and flakey -- yuck. Recently I also purchased some chocolate bars that didn't taste as good as I anticipated, relative to other chocolate I like. Though I might equally prefer a shelved mug and a shelved chocolate bar, a mug in the fist is better than a chocolate bar on the shelf.

The Economist closes:

Other "irrational" phenomena include confirmation bias (searching for or interpreting information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions), the bandwagon effect (doing things because others do them) and framing problems (when the conclusion reached depends on the way the data are presented). All in all, the rational conclusion is that humans are irrational animals.

But those other things are simply logical errors. (However, joining a bandwagon is not always irrational, absent additional information.) They are problems that can be avoided with careful methods and checks. The fact that we know about these problems, and can take steps to solve them, demonstrates that we are fundamentally rational, not irrational, at least in capacity.

The endowment effect is not a logical fallacy; it is a perfectly sensible preference of the integrated, the habituated, and the known to the unfamiliar, the awkward, and the untested.


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Friday, July 4, 2008

Pursuit of Happiness

We have much to be thankful for this July 4: our relative economic liberty has enabled people to produce computers, airplanes, automobiles, advanced medical scanners and treatments, and the many other goods that enhance our daily lives. Slavery has long been abolished, and nobody taken seriously publicly preaches racism. Women too have equal protection under the law. Though the country suffers some censorship and some infringements of the right to bear arms, the Bill of Rights very often is taken seriously and enforced. (See Dave Kopel's summary of some of the advances.) Yes, we have much to celebrate.

Yet there are some who, in the name of patriotism, threaten to violate the core principles of America's Founding: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Never before has a country been explicitly based on the principle that individuals have the right to pursue their own happiness, free of coercion. (Of course the usual trinity at the time was "life, liberty, and property," with the pursuit of happiness the unifying purpose.)

Contrast the principles of the Declaration with the physical force threatened by Barack Obama:

Obama: Students should serve
He calls on young people to help in their communities

David Monteroand Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News

Originally published 02:34 a.m., July 3, 2008
Updated 01:06 p.m., July 3, 2008

... The plan Obama outlined in Colorado Springs called for getting middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of community service a year and 100 hours a year for college students.

He said the goals would be achieved by making federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs. ...

"These are the voices that will tell you - not just what you can't do - but what you won't do," Obama said. "Young Americans won't serve their country - they're too selfish, too apathetic or too lazy..."

The pursuit of happiness, such as the selfish pursuit of one's education to advance one's life and prospects, is hardly apathetic or lazy. Students who desire to spend their time studying, interning, or working, as opposed to serving soup or working as menial construction laborers for no pay, are morally virtuous for their choices, to be commended, not condemned.

Of course, some volunteer projects and some work without pay can directly contribute to the pursuit of happiness of some students. But the choice should be up to them and their families. They ought not be blackmailed with their own money into performing bureaucratically-approved "service."

"Federal assistance" in this context means money taken by the national government -- on threat of fines, arrest, or imprisonment -- to be redistributed by national bureaucrats. This money properly belongs to the people who earn it, to be spent as their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness dictate.

The "service" that Obama advocates is not voluntary at all: it is involuntary servitude. Either you do the service that national politicians demand of you, or those national politicians will take (some of) your money by force without giving it back for your childrens' education. That's not service; that's a threat.

That Obama made this threat leading up to Independence Day, in the name of patriotism, shows just how far some have strayed from America's Founding principles. Let us have no more talk of forced, politician-approved "service." To restore our nation to its full greatness, we need to begin with "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Controlled Press

If liberty means anything, it means freedom of the press. "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

The freedom of the press means not only the right of newspapers to print what they want (though libel is subject to tort), but to hire the reporters they want, sell papers the way they want, and structure their business the way they want.

But Congress has made a law abridging the freedom of the press. It is enforced by the Department of Justice's antitrust division.

As David Milstead writes for the Rocky Mountain News, "It was just eight years ago that The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News hung up the gloves and went to the federal government for permission to combine business operations."

A free press does not need to beg the federal government for permission -- permission! -- to conduct its business the way it sees fit.

Even if the antitrust laws did not influence the outcome of journalism -- the stories that appear on the printed page -- the controls would still constitute an unjust imposition on the freedom to conduct business, control one's resources, and contract by mutual consent.

But it is obvious that the antitrust laws do influence what appears on the printed page. Milstead notes that the two papers are struggling financially, and one might have to shut down. He writes, "The biggest obstacle to this scenario is the Justice Department, which blessed the JOA in the first place. In the past, government antitrust attorneys have made it difficult to end one of these partnerships early... [P]erhaps they would block any substantive change, forcing Scripps and MediaNews to pile up more losses in the name of editorial independence." Not only can the unjust policies of the Justice Department force businesses to run at a loss, in the process they strongly influence which reporters a paper hires. Two papers forced to compete at a loss cannot afford to keep on all of their top-notch talent, nor hire away talent from outside or the other paper. The result is not direct censorship, in that the federal government is not restricting what the papers can write about, but it is indirect censorship, in that the federal government is partly determining what the papers are able to publish.

A free market is not controlled by lawyercrats of the federal government. In a free market, the two papers would be free to openly compete, merge partly or completely, offer to buy the other out, or do anything whatsoever that does not involve force or fraud. It is simply not properly any business of any bureaucrat or federal official.

As an aside, assuming the Department of Justice grants permission for one of the papers to close, I sincerely hope it's the Post, but I doubt that it will be. I hope that at least the Rocky's editorial staff stays in business. If they're let go, too, I hope somebody has the brains and resources to keep that talent in Colorado.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Obama Leads in Colorado

Quinnipiac University announced the results of a multi-party poll indicating that "Obama leads McCain 49 - 44 percent, including 51 - 39 percent among independent voters" in Colorado. That's got to be a little scary for state Republicans, particularly Schaffer's camp (for U.S. Senate).

I do not doubt that much of Obama's support comes from his paternalist economic rhetoric. With his simple, confident talk, Obama will be able to fool many of the people much of the time. But these results are also a repudiation of the religious right's sway over the Republican Party. Most independents get pretty nervous with McCain's talk of "ending abortion." Then there's the war -- McCain's talk of limitless sacrifice for endless occupations also frightens many. (The connection between the war and religion is more distant but still present.)

Does abortion really matter? This poll result captures broader opinions and sentiments, but the difference between women and men is telling: "Obama leads 53 - 39 percent among Colorado women likely voters, while men back McCain 50 - 45 percent."

This is disturbing: "Obama's race won't affect their vote, 91 percent say." What's disturbing is that 9 percent said race either will affect their vote or they're not sure. That's far too high a figure. While there are many reasons to vote against Obama, his race is not among them, and we 91 percent need to keep pounding home that message to the dissenters.

This is not surprising: "The economy is the most important issue in their vote, 47 percent say..." Obama is the only one in the race saying anything at all interesting about the economy. Everything he says is wrong, but at least it's interesting. McCain sounds like he can do little but "me too" both Bush and Obama. This, to me, is the greatest lost opportunity of the election. An eloquent, principled candidate could explain how national monetary and housing controls led to the real-estate mess, how entitlements threaten our future, and how free-market reforms would pave the path to a more secure and prosperous future. Such a candidate would also explain how decades of political controls have mucked up health care and how a return to liberty would lower costs and increase quality. Instead, McCain is too busy talking about new controls and corporate welfare in the name of the environment. Meanwhile, the xenophobic right has helped give Obama a 62 - 36 percent lead among Hispanics, to use figures from the same poll.

Whoever first crosses the finish line, the result will still be a train wreck.


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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

McCain's Court Picks

Just after the Supreme Court overturned D.C.'s gun ban in its Heller decision, a local Republican activists sent out the following e-mail: "It should frighten every American citizen (it frightens me that it doesn't!) that only ONE Supreme court justice stood between us and our unalienable right to defend ourselves. If anyone needs a reason to vote for John McCain, this is it."

A variety of conservatives have turned to the Supreme Court as the driving issue to vote for McCain, because he's so obviously terrible on free speech, environmentalism, and other issues that (some) conservatives care about.

After a long wind-up, Dennis Prager argues, "First of all, other than impeachment, there is no way to undo Supreme Court appointments, two or three of which a President Obama would likely make."

Prager names several issues: "On almost any social issue that matters -- the right to bear arms, late-term abortion, the definition of marriage, capital punishment, and many others -- a liberal Supreme Court will rule on these issues..."

Obviously I'm with him on guns. But on late-term abortions and the definition of marriage -- and, let's name the real issue: the legal status of abortion -- I fear McCain's appointees much more than I fear Obama's. I don't regard capital punishment as a central issue, but I have no problem at least restricting it to serious cases of murder with unassailable evidence of guilt.

On guns, the Supreme Court's defense of the individual right is unlikely to be overturned; nor are the many restrictions that the Supreme Court has now explicitly or suggestively allowed.

So far, I see little reason why McCain trumps Obama on the issue of judicial nominees. George Will points out that, on First Amendment grounds, McCain hardly stands out as a great choice:

But now another portion of his signature legislation [the Millionaires' Amendment] has been repudiated by the court as an affront to the First Amendment, and again Roberts and Alito have joined the repudiation. Yet McCain promises to nominate jurists like them. Is that believable?

Given McCain's explicit repudiation of our rights of free speech, I doubt that McCain would do much to defend any article of the Bill of Rights. Anyone who refers to our "quote 'First Amendment Rights'," as McCain has done, and who drives a campaign censorship law through Congress, has no respect for individual rights. The, quote, Bill of Rights is not properly subject to McCain's manipulations.


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