Things that are against the rules in a cab in Bangkok
October 16, 2010, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Asia, Culture

It’s a little hard to see in this blown-up detail of an iPhone shot, but these icons show you what’s off-limits in a Bangkok airport taxi.


Bangkok cab no-nos

Bangkok cab no-nos


For reference, that’s:

  • smoking
  • durian (world’s smelliest fruit)
  • drinking alcohol
  • pets
  • having sex
  • firearms
  • livestock

On the “cultural similarities” index, the “having sex” icon represents the missionary position. On the other hand, I think the differentiation between “pets” and “livestock” would probably be unnecessary in an American cab.

Friends like these
September 2, 2010, 10:04 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Liberalism

George Packer is a brilliant writer, an admirable human being, and a man who invested immense time and effort in truly understanding one of the most important events of our generation, the war in Iraq. To use a word out of a different era: the guy’s a humanitarian.

But his response to Obama’s speech on the withdrawal makes it seem like he doesn’t understand what a president is.

To be, or not to be
September 2, 2010, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism, Philosophy

Bryan Caplan wonders why economists don’t value non-existent people’s lives.

If someone gives another person $100, almost all economists agree that the recipient is better off…If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement. Being alive? Meh. It’s hard to see the logic. Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?

Interesting. And, to take it one step further: what if I give someone $100, but don’t give them the gift of life? Is that person better off than someone who didn’t get the gift of life, and also didn’t get the $100? Conversely, if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also steal $100 from them, are they worse off? What if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also slander them, seduce their girlfriend, and poke them in the eye with a sharp stick?

Here’s a thought experiment for Bryan Caplan: I didn’t give the gift of life to a fellow named Milton J. Fishbein who owns the house Bryan Caplan currently lives in. You can look it up: I didn’t give the gift of life to any such person. The thing is, Bryan Caplan didn’t give the gift of life to Milton J. Fishbein either. But on top of not giving Milton J. Fishbein the gift of life, Bryan Caplan has the gall to actually live in the poor guy’s house. Who among us is doing more harm, here? On the other hand, neither Bryan Caplan nor I gave the gift of life to any lady named Dahlia Rostropovich Chatterjee who owns the house I live in, but at least Bryan Caplan has the decency not to go and live in her house. So I guess we’re even on that count.

I think these thought experiments may illuminate certain flaws in the initial proposition.

Bury my heart at the Battle of Yarmouk
August 31, 2010, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

It’s unbelievable, the stuff you can read in the National Review. Dennis Prager:

Even if we do compare the Crusades with contemporary Islamic jihadism, there is little moral equivalence. The Crusades were waged in order to recapture lands that had been Christian for centuries until Muslim armies attacked them. (Some Crusaders also massacred whole Jewish communities in Germany on the way to the Holy Land, and that was a grotesque evil — which Church officials condemned at the time.) As the dean of Western Islamic scholars, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, has written, “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad — a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.”

The Byzantine provinces of Palaestina I and II fell to the armies of Islam in a series of battles and sieges between 636 and 642 C.E. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 C.E. It’s an interval of 453 years.

Some military campaigns Dennis Prager would apparently consider legitimate efforts to “recapture lands” that had been seized by the enemy:

1. All Native American military campaigns to retake territory from the United States government, anywhere in the United States.

2. A Mexican invasion of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

3. An Irish blitzkrieg to recapture Northern Ireland.

4. A Jordanian assault on Israel aimed at recapturing the West Bank and Jerusalem.

5. The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

A case could be made for a joint Spanish-Belgian expedition against the Netherlands to retake Rotterdam for the Catholic Church. And we could go on, but really, what’s the point?

Glenn Beck, greatest scholar of progressive humanity
August 29, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Via Kevin Drum, we learn that Dick Armey praises Glenn Beck’s “serious, scholarly work“.

One of the things that we see as we look at Glenn Beck’s work that’s been fascinating to me, is we see a more true and accurate history of the United States, and we see it documented at levels of rigor that, in fact, one would expect out of Ph.D. dissertations — it is serious, scholarly work….[Liberal critics] don’t have to argue with Glenn Beck. They have to argue with his documentation and they can’t match that level of rigor.

I see what Armey is trying to say here, but I don’t think he’s really getting the tone right. I think he should take a look over here for some tips on how to do this properly; it ought to read more like this:

Long live Glenn Beck! The great coryphaeus of science, resolving more profoundly than anyone else the complicated problems of our time; the greatest humanist of our time, understanding better and more clearly than anyone else the interests of the millions of ordinary people of the world; the original giant of conservative thought and action; the ingenious thinker and scholar, forging all-powerful and unconquerable spiritual armor for the American people! Let us praise the irresistible strength of his logic, crushing or capturing the opponent; but most of all, his unshakeable faith in the masses and reliance on their experience.

I think that should do it. I think there are also huge volumes of testimony to Mao Tse-Tung’s genius as an economist; Kim Il-Sung, the world’s greatest nuclear scientist; and so forth, but I had a harder time looking those up, so the achievements attributed to Uncle Joe will have to serve as the model for now.

Liberaltarianism unbound
August 25, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Back in 2003, when I’d just moved to Vietnam, one of the first stories I worked on was a piece for the Boston Globe on shrimp and catfish farming. US catfish farmers and shrimp fishermen were pushing to get anti-dumping tariffs enacted on imports of Vietnamese farmed shrimp and tra catfish, which had become a huge engine of prosperity for Vietnamese farmers over the previous few years. (Exports to the US went from about $50 million in 2000 to about $500 million in 2003, if I recall correctly.) The US Department of Commerce favored the anti-dumping tariffs because to calculate dumping, it employed a process called “zeroing”, which I won’t get into but is basically mathematical sleight-of-hand to make it look like imports are being sold below market price. And the independent expert who’d written the best explanation of why zeroing was screwy and unfair, and how it harmed the interests of poor third-world producers like the Vietnamese catfish and shrimp farmers I was writing about, was a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute named Brink Lindsey. I called Lindsey up and he talked me through how zeroing worked, and that strongly informed the article I wound up writing. (In the years since, the Commerce Department has been forced to partially abandon zeroing in investigating dumping claims, due to international criticism.)

Years later, I came across the writing of another Cato Institute chap, Will Wilkinson, on his blog. As I recall I got into some argument with him in a comment thread at some point about his writing on happiness research and whether it meant you shouldn’t have kids. But I found his work consistently very interesting, he was clearly writing from a standpoint of genuine political and intellectual curiosity and independence, and he has an unforcedly erudite writing style that was quite different from most of what was being written in the blogosphere at the time.

I have a tendency to get into arguments with libertarians. To be more specific: I’ll get into arguments with conservatives, but I’m capable of becoming obsessed by arguments with libertarians. I also think conversations with some libertarians have forced me to think harder than perhaps any other conversations I’ve had in the past decade or so.

Anyway, Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson are both leaving the Cato Institute. That’s too bad for the Cato Institute, and great for me, since now Will Wilkinson is blogging at The Economist. But honestly, for all the differences I have with libertarians, I think it’d be too bad if that particular shade of libertarianism lost its connection to major libertarian institutions. This is a bit hard to articulate, but I think that if all the free-thinking unorthodox libertarians drift away to other kinds of centrist or even liberal-leaning institutions, they’ll continue to be interesting and influential writers but libertarianism may cease to be an interesting or influential philosophical current. I’m not sure why I think that would be a bad thing, since I’m not a libertarian and I think the philosophy gets much about the world quite wrong. But for some reason I think it would be a bad thing.

My plan to solve the housing demand crisis
August 24, 2010, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Economics

Here’s an example of a post I can’t write for the Economist, because it’s crazy and stupid. So here goes: my plan to solve the housing demand crisis.

1. Use high demand for US Treasury bonds to build up collateral to issue free government insurance on US housing stock, including natural disasters, war, etc.

2. Use the United States Air Force to destroy the excess supply of existing homes. Select homes to be bombed at random. With supply at just over 12 months and sales of 4 million per month, bombing 25 million homes should be sufficient to bring supply down to a historical average of 5 or 6 months.

3. Pay out insurance to homeowners, and watch the housing industry (and home values) recover as they use the cash to buy homes.

For many reasons, this plan doesn’t actually make any sense, but at some level I still find it amazing that the key statistic showing that our economy is in serious trouble is that we just have too many great big suburban American houses. Most people in rural Vietnam would still have trouble figuring out how a surplus of great big suburban American houses is a problem.


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