December 2011

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2011 was kind of a busy year for me, especially during the latter half of the year when — after 10 years in the part-time consulting racket — I returned to full-time employment. It really cut into my blogging time, and I want to thank all of my loyal readers for sticking around. In any case, here at Windypundit, 2011 was the year in which:

Happy New Year everyone!

This is a great explanation of how and why the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R.3261) is going to do a lot of damage to the Internet:

And this is what you can do about it. Make waves. Talk to people. Tell your congresscritters to vote against it.

If you want to know more, you can read more about SOPA at Wikipedia, you can see its progress at GovTrack, and you can find out more about your representatives at places like Project Vote Smart and OpenSecrets.

I’m reading Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. It’s an account of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market at the beginning of our current economic mess. The book tells the story at an odd level of detail: It doesn’t give a lot of details about the characters and institutions involved, but neither does it present a broad economically-informed description of what was going on.

For example, mortgage originators were making bad loans to unqualified borrowers and then selling bundles of these loans as mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and a host of investment banks. The book emphasizes over and over that these loan originators had a poor incentive to produce high-quality (or at least honestly-described) mortgages because they knew they wouldn’t be holding on to them. This is an obvious agency problem, and I couldn’t understand from the book why the investors weren’t on the lookout for it.

Yet about 2/3 of the way in, the authors mention that under the terms of the securitization agreement, the originators had to buy back all loans that were materially misrepresented and all loans where the borrower defaulted early in the loan’s term. In other words, the purchasers had sought to protect themselves from agency risks by requiring the originators to shoulder substantial default risks. In that case, why didn’t the originators pay more attention to the quality of the loans?

As it happens, according to the book, the loan portfolios were so toxic that the originators would have gone bankrupt if forced to buy them all back, which would have cut off the flow of new loans, so the investment banks didn’t force them to take a loss. But that just raises more questions: Could threatening bankruptcy really have been the originators’ plan for protecting themselves from the consequences of their poor loans? How did the investment banks not see that coming?

So far, when it comes right down to it, I’ve reached two conclusions:

(1) Unscrupulous sociopaths can make a lot of money in the financial markets, especial during the manic phase of an asset bubble.

(2) I’ve got to figure out how to get a piece of that.

Update: Not directly connected, but I’ve just noticed that Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is available as a Kindle download for only $0.99. It’s a classic work about asset price bubbles and other types of craziness. And it was published in 1841. If nothing else, spend the 99 cents (or just get it free here) to read the extraordinary story of the seventeenth century Dutch tulip bulb craze.

I’m not naming any names or spoiling any books, but here’s a plotting tip from a longtime reader: If you want us to be surprised that one of your characters is a bad guy, don’t have him quoting Friedrich Nietzsche the first time we see him.

It’s not subtle foreshadowing. It’s giving the game away.

I spend a day away from the internet and come back to find out that Vaclav Havel died.

Update: Oh, but there’s good news too. Kim Jong Il is also dead.

I generally find anti-gay bigotry disturbing, but sometimes it’s also kind of amusing. I know that’s wrong — that gay people face real threats of discrimination and violence — but some anti-gay nonsense just makes me want to point and yell, “I didn’t know they still made people like you!”

Which brings me to Rick Perry’s culture-war campaign ad:

Aside from the fact that he’s a bit mixed up about school prayer, this is just plain embarassing. It’s like that older relative who keeps calling black people “colored” because he doesn’t realize times have changed. I immediately flashed back to an infamous Sid Davis classroom film called Boys Beware about the dangers of homosexuality. The whole thing is about 10 minutes long, but here’s a taste:

At its most basic, Boys Beware is vile crap that conflates homosexuality with predatory pedophilia. Yet it’s so disconnected from our current day and age that I can’t really get angry about it. I mean, it features a homosexual man who prowls the streets trying to seduce young boys by — I’m not making this up — taking them fishing at the duck pond. I guess there weren’t a lot of gay dance clubs.

(Boys Beware‘s odd style is pretty typical of Sid Davis’s social guidance films: The subject is alarming, but it’s shot with what Ken Smith in Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 described as “a trancelike style, stripped of anything even remotely approaching drama or human emotion.” You never even hear the actors speaking; the narrator just describes what they’re saying. I suspect’s that’s because Davis couldn’t afford synchronized sound.)

And how can you not love the line “You never know when the homosexual is about”? If I were gay, I’d wear that on a T-shirt.

I don’t really have a point here, except that to me, Perry’s anti-gay attitude seems like something from another era. I hope it seems that way to most other people too.

Here’s something I never thought about before: It’s time to stop using pennies.

Aside from its actual subject — the uselessness of pennies — this video is also worth watching because it’s a terrific example of how to make an argument. It’s clear, it’s concise, and in four minutes and 31 seconds I went from not thinking about pennies to being completely convinced they should be eliminated. They fail as money.

And frankly, the nickel doesn’t look to good either. Let’s just drop the last digit from prices and be done with it.

(Hat tip: Alex Tabarrok)

Over at Reason, they’re boasting because Business Insider chose Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie for its list of the only pundits you need to pay attention to between now and the election.

I’m happy for Matt and Nick, but I want to draw your attention to something else that caught my eye. Go ahead and follow either of those links and look at the picture that Business Insider used of Matt and Nick.

Actually, let me just include it here:

BusinessInsisder-matt-welch-and-nick-gillespie.jpg

Now I happen to think that’s a pretty good picture of Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie. It’s in the classic Reason tradition of making them look slightly goofy, yet they’re still identifiable, and it shows them in the very act of punditry. Kudos to the Business Insider photo editor.

I do have one problem, though. Take another look at the photo. Notice anything…familiar about it? Think you might have seen it before?

I’ll give you a hint: In the background you can see the logo of the Heartland Institute, which held a book signing event for Matt and Nick at Jaks Tap here in Chicago a few months ago. You can even check out my post about it, which starts with a similar photo. A very similar photo.

A few days ago, at the conservative Illinois Review, an unnamed author who I assume is editor Fran Eaton got excited about some basic science in a post titled “Biology Textbook Author Asserts Life Begins at Conception”:

When does life begin?  At conception?  When the fertilized egg begins to multiply cells?  When the zygote embeds itself into its source of nutrition?

A growing number of scientists are beginning to assert that life can begin nowhere else but at conception, because at the moment when an egg is fertilized, it is either a human, a squirrel, an elephant or a dog. At that moment on, then, is when human life should be protected from planned destruction.

Actually, this is not some new trend that is getting support from “a growing number of scientists.” I’m pretty sure that biologists have never disputed the fact that fertilized eggs are alive — at least not since 1651, when William Harvey figured out that all animals, including humans, come from eggs — nor is there any doubt that a fertilized egg is of the same species as its parents. Fertilized human eggs have been human life since as long as scientists have known where babies come from.

In referring to an article at LifeNews.com by biologist Gerard Nadal, Eaton describes it as reporting Professor Scott Gilbert’s “findings.” But the quote is from the 9th edition of Gilbert’s Developmental Biology, which is one of the standard textbooks in the field. I doubt that Gilbert is reporting any novel findings.

Here is the quote:

Traditional ways of classifying catalog animals according to their adult structure. But, as J. T. Bonner (1965) pointed out, this is a very artificial method, because what we consider an individual is usually just a brief slice of its life cycle. When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult. But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore, the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from fertilization through death.

I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but that doesn’t sound like a scientific conclusion. Rather, it sounds like a scientific definition. It sounds like Gilbert is describing what his book is about, and why it is an important field of study. He’s making the point that a thorough scientific study of life isn’t only about what an organism is, it’s also about the changes that organism underwent to become what it is.

Eaton finishes with this conclusion:

Gilbert says a dog’s life begins at fertilization and ends at that dog’s death. How soon can we expect him and other scientists to define a human’s life cycle the same?

I think that’s backwards. Dr. Nadal was’t quoting Gilbert’s book as evidence that scientists have changed their minds, he was using the quoted passage to show that his own pro-life position is based on science that is so widely accepted it’s in a textbook. Here’s part of Nadal’s conclusion:

We are human for our entire life cycle. We are whole and complete in form and function at every stage of our development, for that given developmental stage. The prepubescent child is fully human, even though they lack the capacity to execute all human functions, such as abstract reasoning, or reproduction.

In the same way, the early embryo is alive and fully human, though it has not yet executed all human organismal functions.

Except for the overloaded use of the word “fully,” that’s certainly how I’d expect a biologist to see it, especially a developmental biologist who studies organisms’ entire life cycles. I really don’t think it’s a controversial idea. Eaton is missing the point if she thinks this is some new breakthrough. No one seriously doubts that fertilized eggs are human life.

Or so I thought. You see, just to be sure, I decided to do a little Googling, which lead to the National Abortion Rights Action League’s answer to the question:

DOESN’T LIFE BEGIN AT CONCEPTION?

That’s a question each person must decide for him- or herself. These issues involve matters of personal, moral, religious, and scientific beliefs. This is an area where politicians should have no role.

Here NARAL is using the word “life” to mean something more than just biological life. That’s not exactly unjustified — there’s plenty of etymological support — but it seems to me they’re evading the question.

The Pro-Choice Action Network also has an evasive answer to the same question:

There is no scientific consensus as to when human life begins. It is a matter of philosophic opinion or religious belief. Human life is a continuum—sperm and eggs are also alive, and represent potential human beings, but virtually all sperm and eggs are wasted.

This is technically true, and I think it’s the same point Nadal was making in his article. Human life doesn’t begin at birth. It doesn’t even begin at conception. The unfertilized human egg was alive, and it came from a woman who was alive, and she grew from a living egg, which came from a living woman…and so on, going back maybe 100,000 generations until you reach the predecessor species from which humans evolved. Human life extends back continuously over millions of years.

But that’s not what people mean when they ask, in the context of the abortion debate, “Does life begin at conception?” That’s because they’re not really asking the right question.

Professor Scott Gilbert has been out of the office, but he found the time to dash off a quick note when I asked him to comment:

Thanks for sending this on. One can’t help people taking quotations out of context. Creationists do it all the time. We also call a human a human when that person is dead, even if they are not a person anymore. We don’t eat humans, we bury them. But the dead can’t vote or inherit. So calling a dog a dog even as a zygote is kind of obvious. Even a dog sperm is a dog sperm and not a human sperm. But (unless your a Monty Python fan), that don’t make the sperm a person.

(Professor Gilbert also suggests reading an op-ed he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Nadal stumbles into this when he argues that we consider both prepubescent children and embryos to be human life, even if neither is capable of performing all human functions. He’s right on the biology of course, fertilized human eggs are human life, but he’s not properly addressing the moral issue, because when it comes to morality, function matters.

Here in the United States, the legal and clinical definitions of death are specified in terms of brain activity. A person’s body can be kept alive by machines, and that’s certainly human life — blood is still flowing, the metabolism is still processing nutrients — but if the brain has irreversibly ceased to function, we pronouce the person dead.

Or consider that having consensual sex with an adult is not generally considered an immoral act, but having consensual sex with child is a crime. The reason we make this moral distinction is because even though a child is fully human, we don’t believe they have the mental function to make decisions about their sexuality.

Similarly, a person’s rights depend on their behavior, which is another aspect of how they function. Obey the law, and you remain free. Rob a bank, and you go to jail. Try to kill someone, and you can be killed in self-defense, or executed after a trial.

The rights we grant people, and the respect we show to them, do not depend solely on the scientific fact that they are human life. We usually make the distinction by discussing not when a fertilized egg develops into human life, but when it becomes a person. That’s a harder question, and one that science can inform but not fully answer.