Wednesday, October 13, 2004

What I'm Reading 

Here's just a list of several interesting articles and blog posts I've read recently around the web.

Thank You, William H. Meckling
I found this article about the economist(s) who killed the draft on Marginal Revolution. It's a great read. Here's the heroic Milton Friedman shaming a general:

Of course, Meckling wasn't the only hero. Milton Friedman was very persuasive. One of Meckling's favorite stories, which his widow, Becky, recalled in a recent interview, was of an exchange between Mr. Friedman and General William Westmoreland, then commander of all U.S. troops in Vietnam. In his testimony before the commission, Mr. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Mr. Friedman interrupted, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Mr. Westmoreland replied, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." Mr. Friedman then retorted, "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."

Linux Kernel 2.6: It's Worth More!
In this paper, David Wheeler uses some of Barry Boehm's constructive cost models (COCOMO) to estimate the cost of privately redeveloping the Linux kernel from scratch. He arrives at an answer in the neighborhood of $612 million dollars, though he says (and I completely agree) that this is probably only a lower bound. It's almost certainly much higher than that. Previously, David Wheeler wrote a similar paper called More Than a Gigabuck, which attempts to estimate the same statistic for an entire RedHat distribution (as the title suggests, it comes out to more than $1 billion dollars, though I would again be surprised if it was actually that low). The much more interesting question is how much Linux is worth, but that's much harder to estimate (Slashdot, of course, can't tell the difference).

How to Watch Tonight's Debate
I largely agree with Timothy Noah's sentiment, but I think he's wrong in practice. When talking about the added expenses of Bush's social security privatization plan, he's being simplistic. It's true that privatizing social security will require a lot of borrowing (I believe those figures). But the longer you wait to do it, the more expensive it gets! Since John Kerry doesn't want to privatize it, he gets to count the transition costs as zero, but that masks what is really going to happen. In fact, the Concord Coalition document that Noah links to says about as much:

However, the key issue in evaluating the fiscal implications of a Social Security reform plan is not its immediate 10-year cost but whether it achieves long-term sustainability. Both the costs and benefits of reform should be assessed over a time frame that goes well beyond the next decade. Incurring a modest near-term budget cost as part of the transition to a genuinely funded and sustainable system may not be fiscally irresponsible.

The Concord Coalition then goes on to say that they don't think Bush's plan will achieve long-term sustainiability. However, I still take issue with the way people account for the costs of inaction. Arnold Kling explains much better here and here. Note that Kling assumes there is no cost to increased government borrowing, and that this simply shifts who pays when; this ignores the effects of crowding out, which can have contractionary effects. Still, it's better than doing nothing, but nothing is probably what we'll get:

The more dire the long term problem grows, the greater the cost, and the political resistance, of doing something to fix it now. So, for instance, debate over private account reforms for Social Security stalls on the size of "transition costs," which are much less than the cost of not reforming, but must be borne in the present. The question now is whether we've passed the point of no return: Whether the near-term pain required to fix things will continue to multiply with the long-term cost of inaction at a rate that keeps us locked on course. Perhaps, sometime soon, citizens will be struck with the spirit of civic and intergenerational responsibility, bite the bullet and clean up the mess their predecessors made. Or perhaps, if we're lucky, the scam will last long enough for us to pass the bill on to our kids.

Justice Dept. wants new antipiracy powers
Last friday, just after the debate, we watched Real Time with Bill Maher. Fox News's Tony Snow and the asshat Lieutenant Governor of The Worst State in the Union lost their shit when Bill Maher pointed to the recent corporate tax cut and said that nothing has changed since September 11th. I don't fully agree with Bill, but I think he definitely has a point. If our priorities have changed so much, then do we really need to increase funding for the FBI so they can hire more agents to crack down on illegal song downloading?

"The department is prepared to build the strongest, most aggressive legal assault against intellectual-property crime in our nation's history," Attorney General John Ashcroft, who created the task force in March, said at a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon.
In an example of the Justice Department's hunger for new copyright-related police powers, the report asks Congress to introduce legislation that would permit wiretaps to be used in investigating serious intellectual-property offenses and that would create a new crime of the "importation" of pirated products. It also suggests stationing FBI agents and prosecutors in Hong Kong and Budapest, Hungary, to aid local officials and "develop training programs on intellectual-property enforcement."

It basically speaks for itself. If September 11th had really changed our priorities, we might stop this nonsense (and plenty of other nonsense) because we have other things we urgently need to spend money on that will give us a higher return to our safety and happiness.

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