Monday, August 31, 2009

A Conflict of Visions, Part 1

In my last blog I discussed the different kinds of rights, rights to be free from certain types government interference compared to rights to something someone else must work for. I'm going to follow up with a review of a book that explains many of the reasons some want to restrict our rights to protection while others believe we should have rights to what others produce. The book is, A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, 232pp plus notes and index, William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York, 1987

Though relatively old, this book is still fresh and provides insights into the roots of many differences in our world today. It explains reasons why people of different political persuasions often talk past each other, each considering the other either immoral or stupid, perhaps both. Because of unexamined visions, they see the world very differently and even give different meanings to the same words.

Sowell's expressed intent here is not to support either vision but to get people to think about and understand them. “We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them.” While that may not lead to agreement, it should at least lead to more productive discussion. I believe he does a good job of maintaining neutrality in this book. His later book, The Vision of the Anointed takes a different stance, much in favor of what he calls the constrained vision. I intend to review that book next.

A vision, as used in this book, is a mental map of our world, especially of the nature of people in that world. As with all maps, it cannot include every detail of that world but must be simplified to those parts the vision holder takes as most important and representative of the world. There are an unlimited number of available visions, possibly as many as there are people on earth. However we can simplify these by categorizing them as “constrained” or “unconstrained.” Of course this is not an either-or situation, there is really a continuum of visions between the extremes. There are also hybrid visions (such as Marxism) which consider part of the world (the past) to be constrained and part (the future) unconstrained.

These visions are generally unexamined and most people don't even realize that their thinking is based more or less on one of them. However much of their world-view is the direct result of which vision they accept. That especially applies to political beliefs.

The constrained vision regards man as imperfect, both morally and intellectually. Though this vision does recognize the opportunity and need for improvement, it holds that human imperfection must be considered in all public activities. Each person contributes best in his sphere of competence and the end result is that society evolves in such a way that it works. Nobody is competent in everything but the total knowledge spread throughout the populace is greater than any small group of experts could ever posses. This vision also holds that we cannot trust everybody to be moral, even the so-called elites. Therefore people with the constrained vision usually reject the idea that an elite should rule or make decisions for everybody. They also tend to pay attention to trade-offs since they do not expect perfection. If a trade-off brings improvement, that is what should be done.

The unconstrained vision regards man as potentially perfectible on this earth, again both morally and intellectually. Indeed the unconstrained view tends to equate the intellectual with the moral, believing that reason will lead to morality. Though this vision recognizes current imperfections, it tends to hold that they are correctable and often assumes that they will soon be corrected. In this view, the elite will teach the masses and bring everybody up to their level of articulated wisdom and ability. Thus those who accept the unconstrained vision often ignore human weaknesses in their efforts to build a new society.

Further, the unconstrained view holds that it is the current institutions that stand in the way of that perfection and that it is the duty of the intellectually advanced to break down those obstacles, over the objections of the masses if necessary, and indeed by force if that is what it takes. This leads naturally to a belief that society is responsible for most actions and a rejection of individual responsibility. It also promotes acceptance of an intellectual elite who should be the surrogate decision-makers for the world. That of course is consistent with an elitist big government controlling most or all of the affairs of our lives. The unconstrained vision tends to reject trade-offs, seeking perfection instead. It regards a trade-off as an obstacle to the real solution.

The constrained view, on the other hand, holds that no person or small group of people is wise and knowledgeable enough to make all decisions for everybody. Even if they were, there is no assurance of the morality of such a person or group, so we cannot trust them to act in the best interest of their fellowman. In this view, each person is capable in his/her own area and should make decisions based on that ability, not as directed by some remote authority. This view is more consistent with a limited government philosophy.

These two visions tend to dominate much of our public discussion. Which vision a person accepts correlates with his conception of knowledge, morality, power, rationality, freedom, and law. Most of the book is devoted to exploration of how these concepts are affected by constrained vs. unconstrained visions.

(To be continued, including some specific examples of how the two different visions affect what people believe.)

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Friday, August 28, 2009

You Have a Right to – Nothing

There is something conspicuously – and wisely – missing from the Bill of Rights in our constitution. It does guarantee many rights. We have a right to be free from government interference in our speech, our religion, our press. Government may not deny our right to keep and bear arms nor may it quarter soldiers in our homes except under extraordinary conditions. Government may not require excessive bail nor impose excessive punishment. However there is one kind of right nowhere to be found in the constitution. That is the right to have anything given to us.

The constitution contains no right to a “living wage” or even to any food. While government may not take our life, liberty or property without due process, we are not guaranteed life, liberty or property at taxpayer expense. If a person acts carelessly and dies, or even dies because of disease, the constitution provides no remedy. If someone binds himself to debt to the point that he loses much of his liberty, the taxpayers have no obligation to bail him out. If he carelessly loses his property or just fails to acquire any, the constitution does not require anybody to correct his lack.

In fact the Bill of Rights gives us a right to nothing – though that nothing is very important. There are areas where government should do nothing and is constitutionally mandated to do nothing. WE have no restriction on speech but also no guarantee anybody will listen to what we say. We have no restriction on the press but also no guarantee we will have the money to print what we think everybody should read. No restriction on the right to bear arms (except for felons) but also no guarantee that we will have the money to purchase those arms. Nobody has any constitutional right to anything beyond the fruits of his own labor.

Constitutional freedoms might be called negative freedoms. They are things that may not be done to us. There is nothing there to force any private citizen to do anything for any other citizen. Nor if there anything to force the government to do anything for any citizen.

There is a great difference between the constitutional rights of freedom from certain government actions and what some today are pushing as right to have something. For example many of our politicians are claiming that health care is a right. That would be a right to have something whether you've earned it or not. Those politicians fail to mention two important facts:

1. Any such right can only exist if somebody else is obligated to provide it. We cannot have a right to health care without imposing the obligation on someone to pay for it. Giving someone such a “right” hands over to that person the fruits of other people's labor.
2. We do not have unlimited resources. Those who multiply “rights” to health care, decent housing, adequate nutrition etc. seem to assume that there is some source of food, housing, medical care etc. which must only be directed to those in need. That is a nice theory but it cannot withstand the trial of empiricism and facts. In fact, giving people what they want regardless of their labor encourages them to avoid that labor, thus reducing the resources that would otherwise be available.

Nobody has any constitutional right to the fruits of another person's labor.

I am old enough to remember the 60's when the phrase “the world owes me a living” became popular among some young people. Prior to that time nearly everybody, at least in the U.S., understood that work was required to produce the necessities and niceties of life. Work is still necessary. Someone has to produce and transport the food and clothing we need, build our housing, undergo the arduous regime of medical school etc. The “world owes me a living” attitude cannot change that. At best it will take from the worker and give to those who do not work. More likely it will discourage work and reduce the resources available to everybody. When those resources are all allocated, someone will go without as happened in the USSR.

The world does not owe anybody a living. At most it owes us opportunity to scramble for that living ourselves. There is an immense difference between a right to speak without government interference and a right to the fruits of someone else's labor. That is why our founders were wise when they included in the constitution many rights of freedom from government control, but no “rights” to have anything someone else would have to produce.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The “Living Constitution”

Suppose you are the president of a building maintenance company. In about 1982 that company signed a contract agreeing to maintain all the windows in a certain office building. The option for yearly renewal has been exercised so the contract is still valid.

One day you get a call from the building manager informing you that you are in default and he will sue unless you correct the problem. What? You've had people there every week, cleaning the windows and making sure that they are weather tight, how can you be in default? The manager points out that the contract says all the windows in the building. However you have done nothing for the Windows operating systems on the computers in the building. Many of them are now virus-infected and not working properly. He demands that you fix them.

Of course you respond that the contract never meant computer windows which didn't even exist when it was written. “Not so,” he replies. “We have a living language and the contract is written in that living language so it is a living document. The term 'windows' now applies to computer Windows which means the contract does as well.”

Of course that sounds silly. Should you be sued I would hope that any judge would throw it out of court. The contract has the meaning it had when it was written. To claim otherwise would potentially change the meaning of all contracts. For any agreement to be useful it must have a fixed meaning. Otherwise we would not know what we will be expected to do to fulfill our part of the bargain.

Unfortunately there are many who want to change the meaning of the most important agreement we have in this country – our constitution. Those people claim that it is a “living document,” a high-sounding phrase, but essentially without meaning. Documents do not live except in the sense that they can be changed by the agreement of all parties involved. Contracts can be changed if all signers agree. Likewise the constitution includes provision for changes, two methods of making changes in fact. That has been exercised throughout our history so that it now has 27 amendments. That in fact is the only sense in which the constitution was ever intended to be a “living document.”

Those claiming that we have a “living constitution” simply want to change its meaning without getting the people’s approval in the manner provided. Effectively, they want to arrogate to themselves the dictatorial power to change our government, regardless of the will of the people.

“But wait,” some will say. “What about the fact that some parts might be understood differently? In fact some of the writers themselves disagreed over what they wanted it to say.”

Those objections are common today but are in general mere smoke screens, put up by people who do not like constitutional restrictions on government power. While there are a couple of points that might be difficult to understand, the great bulk of the document is quite explicit when we look at the common meaning of the wording at the time it was written. That is the only valid way to look at it, just as with any contract the only valid meaning is what the wording meant when it was written.

The fact that there is now a computer operating system called called “Windows” has no effect at all on contracts written before it existed. Likewise the fact that some words have changed their meaning since 1787 has no effect on the meaning of the constitution. We have to look at what those words commonly meant in legal documents of 1787, or in the case of amendments, at what they meant when the amendment was written. The meaning must remain fixed if it is to have any meaning at all.

As for the writers disagreeing among themselves as to what they wanted the constitution to say, that is also meaningless. When people get together to write a contract there is almost always disagreement on what that contract will say. Some may want an escape clause, some may oppose it. Some may want automatic renewal in the absence of specific cancellation while others may want renewal only if all parties specifically agree to it. That means nothing, what counts is what eventually gets written in the final, signed document.

Likewise what the constitution's writers wanted has no validity. Some wanted a quick end to slavery, some wanted slavery to be protected forever. Neither viewpoint became part of the constitution. Only the wording actually included and ratified has any force or validity. That is the only way that remarkable document can protect our liberties. If its meaning can be twisted to suit the whims of politicians, it becomes nothing more than a historical artifact. However if we follow the wording as it was understood in the time and context of its origin, we will protect our liberty from homegrown tyranny.

To allow twisting of the constitution's meaning removes our ability to know what to expect as citizens and in our businesses. That harms our personal life as well as our economy just as an ex post facto law would. (See my blog on that at

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Monday, August 24, 2009

And the Facts Mean? (Part 4)

The EEOC has set an 80% standard for hiring and promotion. If a company hires 50% of the white people who apply, it must hire at least 80% of that or 40% of the minorities who apply. Failure to do so is considered prima facie evidence of discrimination. That rule might be useful in determining which companies bear investigation, but it is a terrible method of determining who is actually discriminating.

I've already discussed the fact that different groups have different characteristics. Some minorities, especially in the inner cities, have a culture that discourages education. Why should a company be forced to hire any certain number of them if the job requires cognitive skills? However there are also statistical problems with that rule.

Suppose for example 10% of the people living in a town are black and 90% white. A company in that town has four people doing a certain job. Now 10% of those four employees would be 0.4 people and 80% of that is 0.32 people. It is rather difficult to hire a fraction of a person. If they have one Black among the four employees, then 25% of the people there would be black, far in excess of the 10% of the population that Blacks represent.

Even if the company has 40 people doing that job, statisticians would tell us that it is unreasonable to expect exactly four of them to be black and 36 white. In fact statistically it would not be at all surprising if there were anywhere from zero to eight Blacks among those 40 workers. If you have the time, you can demonstrate this to yourself if you can find a few marbles of different colors. Put 9 of one color and one of a different color in a box and shake it up. If you don't have marbles you can use something else, maybe coins with a coin from a particular year representing the minority. You could even put a dot of fingernail polish on the minority coin.

This experiment is to simulate hiring at random, with the marbles representing the applicants. The nine majority color marbles represent the 90% white population in the town and the odd marble (or coin of a particular date) represents the 10% black population. Now without looking, randomly draw one marble from the box and record what color it is. Replace the marble, shake the box and draw again. Repeat this 40 times to simulate hiring 40 random people. How many times did you draw the odd marble? Probably not exactly four times.

Now repeat the above experiment at least ten times, each time recording how many times you drew the odd marble. Most likely once or twice you will draw the odd marble only once or not at all. Once or twice you will draw it 6 to 8 times out of the 40. Most of the time you will draw it three, four or five times out of the 40 tries. However even only drawing it three times fails the EEOC test of 80%, that means you only “hired the minority” 75% of the times that the minority “applied” for your job opening. Would you like to be exposed to charges of discrimination for the times you drew zero, one, two or even three minority marbles?

If you took the time to do this experiment what you have seen is normal statistical fluctuations. You can see something similar by tossing a coin ten times as I described in a previous blog. The most likely result is five heads and five tails. However there are many other possible results. Each of those other results is less likely than the five heads and five tails, but there are more of those possibilities so together they outweigh the probability of equal heads and tails. In fact the probability of getting exactly five heads and five tails is less than 25%.*

“But wait,” you say. “Don’t large companies hire more than 40 people, even more than 400?” Yes they do, but each work area usually has a much smaller number of people. Furthermore, even for larger numbers we would expect some deviation from the most expected value. The larger the number in the group, the less deviation we would expect percentage-wise, but there will be some. On top of that, as we go up the corporate ladder to more lucrative jobs, the number of employees gets smaller. A company may have 10,000 employees but will probably only have fifty or so in top management and fewer than ten at the vice presidential level or higher.

To say that a company is guilty of discrimination on the basis of statistics alone is to ignore those statistical fluctuations, as well as the fact that we cannot expect people of different backgrounds to have identical qualifications. Such a declaration of guilt ignores science. While statistical differences may raise questions, we should insist on actual evidence of biased actions before claiming that anyone or any company is guilty.

Now on somewhat of a personal note: I’ve been publishing five blogs per week and have enjoyed it. However there are also other things I would like to do, including complete a novel I started some time ago. To free up time for those projects I plan to cut back, initially to only three blogs per week. They will probably to be published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’ll see how that goes and hopefully I won’t have to cut down to twice per week.

*For the mathematically inclined, the probability of getting exactly m heads out of n coin tosses is

P = (0.5)^n [n!/{(n-m)! m!}]

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Friday, August 21, 2009

And the Facts Mean? Part 3

Let's have some fun today.

If you look at NFL players it becomes obvious that Blacks are over-represented. That is apparent at nearly every position except one – quarterback. There have been some great black quarterbacks, including Doug Williams who led his team to a Super Bowl championship. However those are the exception, in general the dominance of Blacks in pro football has been confined to other positions. Why is that?

I cannot claim to know the answer but I do have a theory (though maybe it should be called speculation instead of theory). This theory being as yet untested, I do not claim that it is anything beyond a fun idea to talk about at this stage. In my theory there are two reasons for the relative scarcity of black quarterbacks in the NFL:

First, for a long time there was a myth that the black arm, while good for throwing things like baseballs, was not well suited to throwing a football. I even saw that published in a national sports magazine, albeit as speculation rather than fact. While few if any coaches believe that today, it probably did keep many Blacks from becoming quarterbacks in the past. Some of those quarterbacks who never developed in high school fifteen years ago might have been in the NFL today but for that false belief.

Second and most important now, I suspect that other abilities, especially speed, cause young Blacks to play other positions. To see how this might work, suppose you are a high school coach looking over the sophomores entering your program. You let them warm up and play around a bit and two of them catch your eye, Joe and Bill. Both have strong, accurate throwing arms and quick feet. Both are good at finding the open receiver. You have them do some specific quarterback drills and they are even more impressive. So impressive in fact that you start thinking about how you are going to tell your senior quarterback that he is now third string. The only question seems to be between Joe and Bill. Who will be the starter and who will be the back-up.

Next you do some other testing, including timing each sophomore in the 40 yard dash. Bill is about average for a quarterback. Fine, in your system quarterbacks don't usually carry the ball so speed is only a moderate advantage at that position anyway. Then Joe's turn comes. You must have made a mistake so you ask him to run again. You get a different stopwatch and ask him to do it a third time, then a forth time just to be certain. No, you did not make a mistake. Even as a sophomore Joe can probably outrun any defensive back in the state.

Now you know what you will do. Bill will be your quarterback and Joe will be a wide receiver, though he may play a little at running back and defensive back. Joe's speed can get him open on most plays and Bill's arm will get the ball to him.

Could Joe be as good a quarterback as Bill? Probably. Could Bill be as good a wide receiver as Joe? No way. The team will be better if Joe plays a position where he can catch and run with the ball. In fact, even a team with a less talented quarterback would benefit from Joe's speed at wide receiver, probably more than it would benefit from having him at quarterback throwing to less talented receivers. Because of Joe's speed he won't get the chance to play quarterback.

Now not all Blacks are speedsters but it is apparent that most of the great sprinters in the U.S. today are black. Those world-class sprinters, if they play football, will seldom be quarterbacks. That is discrimination based on talent, not on skin color. Some of them might in fact be able to become great quarterbacks, but they can become even greater wide receivers or running backs.

This is an example of how one talent can prevent development of another, which might in the end have been even more valuable. Another example would be the businessperson who might become a great CEO but whose language skills keep him assigned overseas in jobs nobody else in the company can do. In such cases one ability can keep a person from developing a different ability that might bring in more money. In compensation, the wide receiver or corporate linguist have a better chance of obtaining employment. Each NFL team has only three quarterbacks on the payroll but many more receivers, running backs and defensive backs. Each corporation has only one CEO but may need many linguists.

So there you have my theory. Have fun with it, I know of no empirical evidence to either support or negate it. Probably the only way to test it would be to look at a large number of young football players, measure their apparent talent, then follow them through college. It would be a long and difficult test.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

And the Facts Mean? (Part 2)

Confession time: I belong to a group that has government approval but not a single black member. Furthermore I recently attended an international conference of people from similar groups and saw not even one black person there. If someone looked only at the statistics they might claim that we are discriminating, but I can assure you we are not. In fact I cannot remember a black person ever applying for membership. That group is my rescue team and the immediate cause of that racial imbalance is that we recruit only among competent mountaineers. However for some reason there are few Blacks involved in mountaineering. In fact I've yet to meet any though I did talk with a woman who once saw two Blacks climbing Washington's Mount Adams.

Even lacking firm statistics, it is clear that Blacks are seriously underrepresented in the mountaineering community and in mountain rescue. The area where I live has plenty of black residents, so why are there hardly any black climbers? I don't have any answers though I am very curious. It cannot be lack of inborn talent; black athletes have long demonstrated great talent. Nor can it be discrimination; mountains and cliffs neither know nor care about the skin color of people climbing them. I suspect the reason is a combination of culture and finances but that is a guess on my part, not backed up with any research.

Though not a big issue, the racial imbalance among mountaineers does illustrate the fact that statistical differences between groups are not necessarily caused by discrimination. We don't need to know what the reason is in order to know that some suggested reasons are wrong. I needn't know why there are few black mountaineers to know that discrimination is not the cause.

Now I like statistics, I think they can be fun and useful. However acting on statistics alone usually means bypassing vital information. If our mountain rescue team were accused of discrimination, the statistics might support the charge. If we were forced to include a certain number of black people, we would probably out of business. I’m not sure we could find them and even if we did, they would likely lack the mountaineering experience necessary to safe and effective rescue work. They would become a danger to us, to our subjects, and to themselves. The effect would be bad for all concerned, including the occasional black hiker we are called to help.

Statistics tends to lump people together in large groups. That is both its strength and its weakness. It is a strength because that allows us to make sense of large amounts of data – if we are very careful how we use that data. However statistics cannot tell us much about individual cases. It may tell us that young inner city black men are more likely to be criminals than are men of middle age living in the suburbs, be they black or white. However we should not use that information to convict any particular young black man from the inner city, there are also upstanding citizens among that group.

Statistics alone cannot tell us why some groups have different characteristics than others. Blacks may be underrepresented in mountaineering, but we have to dig deeper than the numbers if we want to learn why. Likewise Blacks may be over-represented among NFL running backs and underrepresented among quarterbacks in that league. The numbers won’t tell us why. However it is highly unlikely that discrimination is the reason for the NFL statistics. Football fans want winners and any team owner who put skin color ahead of ability to win games would soon face a bankruptcy judge. Team owners seek the players who will help them win. Even if those owners happen to be biased, they cannot afford to discriminate on the basis of anything but ability.

I’ve not heard of anybody wanting to charge NFL or NBA teams with discrimination, even though player racial statistics clearly do not reflect the average racial make-up of the U.S. population. That is wise, those players are hired for their ability, which is as it should be. Unfortunately that is not the case in other businesses. If a manufacturer or retailer fails to hire the statistically expected number of women or Blacks, and hire them into the statistically expected positions, that employer will probably be accused of discrimination. Furthermore, in violation of standard judicial procedure in this country, the burden of proof will be on the employer, not the accuser.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has actually codified this over-reliance on statistics alone. Though the rules do show some understanding of variations from the statistical norm, that allowance is quite rigid, it fails to consider sample size or intergroup variations. Worse yet, they do not consider the fact that there are very real differences between groups. A factory located between an inner city and the suburbs is expected to hire people from the inner city into the same positions and in approximately the same proportions as employees from the suburbs. That ignores the fact that people from the inner city are almost certainly not as cognitively skilled as those from the suburbs.

Of course there is a way the factory owner can avoid that problem. He can move operations to a place where most people have the skills he needs, like somewhere a long way from the inner city. In fact if he wants to avoid bankruptcy he may be forced to do that. It is difficult to compete if you are forced to hire incompetent people. That means that the inner city people he might have hired into low paying jobs will now have no jobs at all. The rule intended to help those inner city people will in fact harm them.

The fact is that there are differences between groups. In many cities, the inner city black culture militates against doing well in school. It should be no surprise that the products of that culture lack the cognitive skills needed in many jobs. Research has also shown that women’s brains are different from men’s brains. That doesn’t mean one is smarter than the other, but it may well help explain differences in what they like to do and how they do it. It should be no surprise that women prefer different types of work than do men. That is no excuse foe discrimination against the inner city Black who does have the skills for a job, or a woman who happens to enjoy running a jackhammer. However it is a reason not to expect all groups to be equally represented in all occupations.

Unfortunately too many powerful people assume that any deviation from the most expected value automatically means discrimination. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However the fact that those people are sometimes in a position to force others to act on their false beliefs harms our economy.

Next I think I’ll have a little fun with the NFL running back and quarterback issue before I return to some statistical stuff.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

And the Facts Mean? (Part 1)

A while back my friend Randy loaned me a book. I returned it to him after reading only a couple of chapters. Can you guess why?

I suspect most will guess that I didn't like the book. Actually I did like it.

Your next guess is likely to be that he asked for it back, or I didn't have time to read it or something along those lines. All reasonable guesses that explain the facts – but again all wrong.

In fact I liked the book so much that I went out and bought my own copy.*

There are many other cases in our lives when the most obvious conclusion can be wrong, often flagrantly wrong. We seldom have perfect data, nor is our logic always flawless. That is just part of the human condition and we have to live with it. There are two basic ways of living with this imperfection: (1) We can recognize that we might be wrong and check our conclusions against new facts when we get them, or (2) we can assume that we are correct and refuse to consider evidence to the contrary.

Refusing to recognize the facts sets us up for major problems. What if the question is more important than why I returned the book to my friend? Maybe something like the wisdom of an investment you made? If information becomes available that the company you invested in now has unexpected problems, it would be wise to re-visit that decision. Most of us understand this and are willing to change our thinking if we get new information.

Unfortunately there are some whose intellectual arrogance causes them to stick with bad decisions, even when those decisions become costly. Worse, many of those people are third party decision-makers who do not pay the price for their mistakes. Instead their errors cause problems for others. Most of them are government employees who can impose the costs of their decisions on others. Since they do not themselves suffer the consequences of their bad decisions they have little incentive to correct their thinking.

For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged Sears, Roebuck and Company with sex discrimination. The case dragged on for years, from 1973 to 1986. In the end an appeals court dismissed the suit, citing the “EEOC's failure to present testimony of any witnesses who claimed that they had been victims of discrimination by Sears.” In spite of not being able to find a single woman who thought she had been discriminated against, those government employees pursued a case against the innocent.

The EEOC had one fact, namely that there was a statistical disparity among Sears' employees. From that they jumped to the conclusion that Sears was discriminating. EEOC decision-makers failed to consider if there might be other reasons for that disparity. Discrimination was one possible explanation of the fact, but not the only one.

And who paid for that government action? First of course was Sears, its customers and stockholders. Those customers and stockholders were the sole source of the money needed for legal defense. Second, taxpayers had to pony up the money to prosecute the suit. Taxpayers, stockholders, and customers were all losers in that action, even though Sears “won” the case.

Perhaps a more important question is who did not pay for that action? The answer is the decision-makers who pursued a case on only statistical evidence (except insofar as they were taxpayers). Those bureaucrats continued to draw their salaries and receive their benefits, all tax paid. They were third-party decision-makers, suffering no consequences for the costs they inflicted on others.

There are of course many such cases in this country. The EEOC and others regard statistics alone as proof. In fact Alice Kessler-Harris, who testified for the EEOC in the Sears case, baldly states that she “did not agree that women's lack of 'interest' could absolve a company of charges of discrimination.” That even though she also “did think that there was some as yet undefined difference between men and women.” I find that an amazing position. She agrees that men and women are different and might have different interests. Yet she expects the statistics to show identity of outcome unless there is discrimination!

The EEOC and others have a severe form of intellectual arrogance that allows them to ignore facts and alternative explanations and assign any statistical difference to discrimination. A company in private business with such a distorted vision would soon fall prey to its competitors and probably go out of business. Unfortunately bureaucrats are insulated from reality and can continue to force their version of reality on the rest of us. That will not change until the voters demand that their government require real evidence, not just statistical differences, before charging companies with discrimination.

Next time I plan to discuss some of the reasons statistics alone can be a problem.

*The book was Vindicating the Founders by Thomas G. West.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Rule of Law

“No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” I think we often miss the importance of that simple sentence in our constitution. Imagine what our legal system might be like without it. You could drive the speed limit and then be charged for breaking it because the limit was changed later. After all, if it is unsafe to drive 65 today, it must also have been unsafe last month when you did it. Or maybe you paid your taxes, but then the legislature retroactively raised tax rates. Too bad. Why should we care if you already spent the money you had left after paying the first time? You still owe the new taxes.

If laws could be retroactively changed in that manner we would not know how to act. Would anyone invest in a business and employ people if the government could tell him that he owes half his investment money in retroactive taxes? Would anyone build houses if the building code could be changed retroactively?

Those examples may seem a bit overblown, but we do have what amounts to ex post facto laws right now. The courts have developed a bad habit of changing the requirements and allowing law suits for actions considered perfectly acceptable when they were done. For example in the case of Ferebee v. Chevron Chemical Co., a farm worker died after misusing the herbicide Parquat. The chemical was labeled as mandated by the EPA. However the courts held that the labeling was inadequate even though Chevron had no choice in how it was worded. The court effectively said that what had been legal (and in fact government mandated) before Ferebee's death was now retroactively not allowed. Chevron was forced to pay a judgment for actions quite acceptable when they were done.

Another case involved a suspect who was given his Miranda warning and signed a “Consent to Speak” form. He confessed to robbing several stores but asked the officer not to write it down. After his conviction, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court, claiming that the suspect thought his unwritten confession would not count. They said that gave reason to doubt that he “intelligently and knowingly waived his constitutional right to remain silent.” That was a clear case of the court retroactively changing requirements; the officers involved had followed previous court direction to the letter. Though ultimately the conviction stood, Judge David Bazelon still dissented, claiming that the suspect should have been acquitted because he didn't have an “equal chance” with the smarter criminals.

How can police hope to follow the rules if those rules keep changing retroactively? How can a chemical company follow retroactively changed rules? This sort of thing causes serious confusion, adversely affecting both our economic and private lives. Criminals will be released to continue menacing the public and companies will fear to offer products we want at prices we are willing to pay. Jobs will be lost as those employers cut back on operations.

All such legal uncertainties are contrary to the rule of law, replacing it with the rule of judges, acting on their own ideas and whims. That is very close to a police state. It becomes a rule of the powerful, acting on what they prefer or believe instead of on settled rules.

In fact judge-made law is ex post facto by its very nature. Nobody can know ahead of time what the judge will decide. The decision comes not only after the action is performed, but months, sometimes years, after. Only after the case goes through the legal process will people know if their actions are going to be retroactively declared illegal.*

While legislation can be known before we break the law, we have no such advantage with judicial rulings. If your company released a new product last year and the judge decides today that it was illegal, you are held accountable just as though you had done it knowingly after the ruling.

It is said that ignorance of the law is no excuse. However in the case of those judicial rulings, the decision has not yet been made. There is no way to know if we are effectively breaking the law. That is an important reason that judges should restrict their actions to settled law, not seek to make new law. Even if the new ruling seems like a good idea, it is not up to judges to impose good ideas on the country. That is the prerogative of the legislative branch. Legislators, either state or national, can change the law in such a manner that people know what the law is and can thus obey it.

We need a rule of law, and that law has to be known to the people before it becomes effective. Judges as well as legislators should follow that rule.

*I am aware that in most cases those actions will not be considered criminal offenses so perhaps not technically “illegal.” However the effect is the same. There is punishment for previously acceptable actions, and uncertainty about how to live our lives and run our businesses.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

An Independent Judiciary?

We regularly hear about how important it is to have an independent judiciary. However that leaves out an important point: Independent of what? The idea behind judicial independence is that neither congress nor the president should control the judicial branch of our government. That is great, it is one of the checks and balances our founders built into the constitution. The judiciary should be free to judge according to the law and constitution. However judges should not be independent of that law and constitution.

Exhibit A for an independent judiciary is probably Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 attempt to stack the Supreme Court. That court had overturned some of his programs as unconstitutional, so he attempted to get congress to add more justices whom he would appoint. That failed, but Roosevelt was eventually able to appoint a majority of justices and get what he wanted anyway. He succeeded in removing the court's independence, at least temporarily. We are still living with the legacy of his court and the massive expansion of the federal government it allowed.

On the other hand, it sometimes appears that our judiciary is independent of the law and the constitution. That is not what was intended and it is dangerous to our freedom and to the rule of law. The constitution envisions not three separate governments but three branches of one government, each helping keep the others in check. When judges act with little regard for the constraints of law, they become a separate government – a government not accountable to the voters. That can allow them to take on aspects of a dictatorship.

A case from Clackamas County Oregon illustrates the point. In 2008 Russell Paul Hamblen was accused of rape, sodomy, and sexual abuse of minor girls. It looked like a good case for prosecutors, especially since his son and co-defendant had already pled guilty and been sentenced. Bail was set at $500,000. So far so good, that would likely keep a pedophile off the street – unless Judge Deanne Darling had her way. She ordered the state to post his bail! Her “reasoning” was that Hamblen should be free so he could help plan for the care of another son. There was nothing in the law or any precedent to support her order, she just made it up to suit her own belief.

Darling acted independently of other branches of government, but also independently of the law. Fortunately her order was overturned on appeal, but what if such an order were to come from the Supreme Court? There would be no appeal.

“But wait,” you say. “Surely no supreme court would ever act in that manner.” Are you sure about that? Consider the issue of homosexual marriage. In 2006 the New Jersey
Supreme Court ordered the legislature to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage or creating a similar institution for same-sex partners. So much for separation of powers, that court treated the legislature as a servant to be ordered around. Again the court was not only independent of the governor and legislator, but also of law and constitution. Other state supreme courts have likewise overruled constitutional law on this issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court? Surely that one is immune to such nonsense, is it not? No, it is not. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the explicit promise that quotas would not be required. Yet today we have de facto quotas in many areas, mandated by the courts and approved by the Supreme Court. Though the court has backed off somewhat in its support of such quotas, they still effectively exist in many areas. Many businesses and state and local governments set out hiring and promotion “goals” for fear of being sued.

An even more frightening possibility is the desire of some justices to apply foreign law to the U.S. Though it has not yet become a majority view on the court, there are some justices who clearly want such law to be a factor here. They want to act independently of the constitution which clearly states, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land...” Nothing there about following the laws of European countries from whom we freed ourselves over 200 years ago. Yet Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer seem to think they should look to foreign law for guidance. Justice Sotomayor, the newest justice, has in the past appeared to agree with that sentiment.

When judges look around for foreign law that supports their own prejudices, they are looking for a way to circumvent our own law and constitution. That places them in the position of dictators, ignoring the rule of law in this country. They thereby declare their independence from law and constitution. If Canada wants a law against criticizing homosexuals it may have such a law. If France wants a law against publishing anti-Islamic opinion, it may also have such a law. However those laws would pertain only to Canada and France, not to us.

This is an important reason why we must insist on judges who are committed to our constitutional form of government. They must have the integrity to put aside their own preferences and rule on the basis of our law and constitution. They must commit to independence from other branches of government but they must also commit to strict dependence on the law and the constitution. They are not independent rulers but are to be agents of the people according to the conditions set out in that law and constitution.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Risk Management?

A few days ago I discussed the problems of crises, how they get our blood flowing and at times divert our attention from more important issues. However there are crises that are both real and urgent. Families may face these with financial problems or sudden health issues. Governments face them when threatened militarily or otherwise. How do we deal with these problems? One field that has developed in recent years is “risk management.” The idea is to manage the risks and thus avoid the crises they may generate. That is a good idea but I dislike the term “risk management,” I think I would prefer to call it “risk preparation.” In most cases we do not manage the risk. What we manage is ourselves.

Most risks just are, we can do little or nothing about them. The drunk or careless driver who shares the road with us; the dangerous curve on that road; the susceptibility of our bodies to certain illnesses; the risk of a layoff at work – all are beyond our control and we cannot manage them. However we can manage ourselves. We can drive defensively; we can take care of our health; and we can be prepared to change jobs or live on savings if necessary. We face many other risks, most of which we cannot control, but we can control how we prepare for and respond to them. With preparation, what might have been a crisis becomes only a nuisance or sometimes even an opportunity.

I know, some of you are thinking that this is just semantics. I disagree. What we call something affects how we think about it. If we think in terms of managing risk, the focus is on external factors that we probably cannot control. However if we think in terms of our own action we will focus on what we can do. That is much more likely to result in effective action.

So how do we manage ourselves and prepare for risk? The first step is to understand, as well as we can, what risks we face. That understanding should go beyond a simple list to include probabilities and consequences. This is related to a blog I published earlier about probability, expectation and utility. The risks of most concern are those with a high probability of costing us dearly.

As an example, consider what happens when I go rock climbing – yes I'm silly enough to do that. If I'm three feet off the ground, the consequences of a fall are minimal. Unless I plan to go higher I probably won't bother with a rope, even if the probability of a fall is high. However if I'm 100 feet off the deck things get a bit more interesting. Even if a fall is unlikely I'll probably be tied into a rope.

Step one in risk preparation is to know the risks, how likely they are to materialize, and the possible consequences. That tells us which risks are worth our attention.

Second, we need to determine what we can control and what we can't. I cannot control the hand and foot holds on that rock face, nor can I control the possibility of falling rock. I can pick my route though, and that may avoid some problems. Likewise in life there are risks within our control and some that are not. Even if we cannot control the drunk who may share the road with us, we can control how, when and where we drive. We cannot control the genes we inherited from our parents but we can control the way we eat and the exercise we get. We cannot control an employer's financial situation but we can control our preparation in case of a layoff.

Third, we should decide how to prepare for those risks. In some cases we can reduce or eliminate the risk. When I was a young man on the dairy farm, being kicked by a cow was always a risk, but usually not a high risk. However there was one cow that would fight and kick through the entire milking process. It took several men to control her and she still sometimes managed to kick one of us. My father finally decided that he could manage that risk very well. In fact he eliminated it completely. That cow never kicked anyone again and there was a bit more hamburger on the market.

Of course it is not usually practical to eliminate risks so we just decide how we will prepare for them. I could forgo rock climbing and thus eliminate that risk to myself, but at the cost of the enjoyment that sport provides. Instead I can take other measures. I can learn how to climb better, thus reducing my risk of a fall. And of course a properly used rope doesn't reduce the chance of a fall but does greatly reduce the adverse consequences. I can also look at things like weather and maybe climb tomorrow instead of today if an electrical storm threatens.

Likewise in life we can look at things like driving defensively and even not driving at dangerous times, like New Year's Eve when more people are likely to be drunk. Such actions reduce the likelihood that we will encounter the risk, even though that risk is still there. We can take measures to reduce adverse consequences. My climbing rope is one of those “consequence-reducing measures,” but so are things like insurance, diversified investments, and home smoke detectors.

On the national scene as well, there are risks we can and cannot control. Our ability to control the fanatic wing of Islam is limited to say the least but we can try to keep its operatives out of our country. We can also try to eradicate them in their strongholds though that is difficult and the outcome is uncertain. However in my opinion we as a nation have yet to make the effort to really understand this risk. Too many people think of those fanatics as simply another enemy, failing to recognize just how implacable they are. The fact that they produce people willing to kill themselves in order to hurt us should tell us something about them. Sadly we may not want to recognize what it tells us, but recognize it we must. It should motivate a study of those fanatics, their motives, methods, and weaknesses. Sadly, I’ve yet to see much understanding at that level even in our national leaders.

Once we understand the fanatics we can think about how to try to eliminate them and how to reduce their ability to harm. However any strategy not based on a sound understanding of the problem is doomed to failure. We cannot manage the fanatics. They manage themselves so we must likewise manage ourselves. We must use our strengths and shore up our weaknesses to stop them. However a full treatise on that subject is beyond the scope of this blog so let’s return to the general subject of dealing with risk.

To summarize:

There are some risks we can change or eliminate. If the risk is serious enough, we should do that.

Most risks are beyond our control so we must find other means to deal with them.

We usually don’t manage risk, we manage ourselves. We decide which risks are in our control and how to control them. For other significant risks we decide how to protect ourselves or how to reduce the damage they can do. We do this keeping in mind our abilities and how much it is worth to ameliorate each risk.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Stress-free World

Wouldn't it be nice? What if we could eliminate all disease causing microbes from the planet, along with all war, accidents and other causes of illness, injury, and premature death? What if we could even provide good living conditions, food and clothing for everyone without the need for work? Would you like to live in such a world? Not for long I'm betting.

The fact is that our make-up requires a challenge. Without that we tend to wither away, physically, emotionally and intellectually. We may gripe and complain about the obstacles in our lives, but they are good for us. Just as our muscles atrophy without exercise, so do the other parts of our being. We need opposition. That is why some people not only climb mountains but seek difficult routes on those mountains. Once life gets too easy we tend to seek out our favorite form of excitement to spice it up.

Nor is this limited to humans. Years ago New Mexico did an experiment in which they put a herd of deer in a fully protected environment. All predators were carefully excluded and no hunting was allowed. They had plenty to eat. In short it was a deer paradise. The result? The deer slowly died off without reproducing. Without the danger to keep them alert and alive they just withered away.

Even those nasty germs that cause disease seem to be important to us. It now appears that children insufficiently exposed to pathogens tend to be more susceptible to allergies. An allergy is nothing more than the body's immune system overreacting. It starts cranking up its defenses against harmless things like pollen instead of just against pathogenic microbes. Without real enemies the immune system apparently goes looking for trouble, and finds it in innocuous stuff. The result can be respiratory congestion similar to that of a bad cold.

And what about risk? What would happen if we could eliminate risk from the world? Some experiments give hints and have given rise to the concept of “risk homeostasis.” That is the controversial theory that each person has some preferred risk level. If risk is reduced the person will increase his risky behavior and bring the total risk back to what he perceives as a comfortable level. For example some taxi drivers in Munich had their cabs equipped with anti-lock brakes. Their accident rate was the same as that for drivers with regular brakes. They seem to have increased the risks they took, bringing their total risk back to what it was before. It would appear that we need risk as much as we need microbes and exercise.

This is something to think about next time some politician promises to remove all the difficulties from our lives. In the first place, this world is so constructed that he can't do it. If he removes one problem another will crop up in its place, maybe more than one. In the second place, we need those difficulties. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, such trying is a way to exercise our abilities. However we should be wise in how we try to eliminate problems. Remember, those problems are ours, for our benefit. If we hand them off to someone else we will lose the advantages they can bring us.

“God...gave each of [his children] a very carefully selected package of problems. These, He promised, are yours alone. No one else may have the blessings these problems will bring you... These problems that I give you are a symbol of [my love for you].” (From “The Monument,” the introductory poem to the novel Charlie’s Monument by Blaine M. Yorgason. The complete poem can be found at

Most of us want someone else to take care of our problems, that is a natural human tendency. However that can be dangerous. Such benefactors tend to want to take control of our lives and are likely to create new problems for us. In addition, we will miss the growth and self-satisfaction of overcoming them ourselves.

Of course the biggest temptation is to hand off our problems to government. Too many today expect government (read taxpayers) to bail them out of any trouble, pay for their medical treatment and otherwise take over their problems. That is a temptation we must fight. When government assumes our risk or the cost of our decisions, it removes from our lives some of the very things that make it worth living. Not only that, it replaces those problems with a one-size-fits-all rule from on high, something incompatible with our happiness and growth.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Helping the Lost?

In my last blog I mentioned some spectacular search and rescue operations I've participated in. One reader asked, “why we don't have small transmitters available for everyone that uses the slopes or climbs mountains to wear that could locate these people in a very short time using GPS or something similar. They could be rented at ski lifts and made mandatory for a small charge.” Such devices are available, but I disagree with his suggestion that they be mandatory. The reasons I oppose requiring them go well beyond backcountry rescue into our everyday and political life.

Both the government-sponsored Personal Locater Beacons (PLB) and the privately run SPOT system can help locate lost people, usually quite well. However neither is cheap, a PLB will cost hundreds of dollars. Worse, in use the battery may not last more than a day or two, not long enough to outlast a major winter storm. The SPOT is less expensive but requires a yearly subscription fee, though its battery will last longer and is user replaceable. Neither works unless the user operates it correctly.

Thus the first obstacle to widespread use of these devices is cost. If we require their use in the backcountry, we will be prohibiting anybody not financially well off from enjoying that type of recreation. However there are more serious problems.

First, we cannot legislate good judgment. Attempts to do so inevitably crash on the rocks of reality. The primary cause of backcountry accidents is not lack of equipment, it is errors in judgment. Requiring such devices allows people to mentally transfer responsibility for their safety to the rescue team instead of themselves. People will call for help when they might be able to extricate themselves, and they will take chances they would not take otherwise because they depend on the technology to save them if they get in trouble.

In fact one of the first uses of the PLB demonstrates exactly this phenomenon. A man on a canoe trip got in trouble and activated his PLB. That was probably OK and he was rescued. However some of his equipment was left at the scene so he went back. Then he called for rescue again to get help retrieving his gear.

In outdoor recreation as elsewhere we should encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives. When government mandates the way people climb mountains, many will abdicate responsibility for their own safety. Likewise, when government mandates how we get medical care, people will abdicate responsibility for their own health.

Second, I do not believe in legislating everything. This is supposed to be a free country and people should be allowed freedom of choice. If they do not harm others, let them make the dumb decisions. The cost to taxpayers is trivial since volunteers do most of the work anyway. When we legislate everything we get people who think that if it's not illegal it must be OK. At the extreme we can have things like the two men who picked up a rotary lawn mower to trim a hedge, then sued because there was no specific warning against such stupid actions. Can't we expect people to think for themselves?

Third, the idea that mountaineers are the major problem is false, the result of a form of accessibility bias. Mountain rescues tend to be spectacular and often newsworthy. The high drama of rescuers facing storms, steep terrain etc. attracts viewers and readers to the news. However mountain rescues are a miniscule fraction of search and rescue events. Hikers and similar people cause far more search and rescue missions than do mountaineers. That should be no surprise since there are so many more of them.

In addition, the typical search for a lost hiker is longer and more expensive than a search for a mountaineer. The reason is that a mountain usually has less area than does the forest where a backpacker may get lost, plus many mountains have little vegetation to interfere with searchers. In good weather an air search can often find lost climbers on Mt Hood quickly. Not so if we're looking for someone lost down in the heavily forested terrain at lower altitudes. That often takes teams on foot, beating through the brush.

As in all of life, reducing the cost of search and rescue operations requires that we start with a good understanding of the problem. Blaming mountaineers sets us off on the wrong track. Likewise blaming people like bankers for the current financial problem is misleading. In both cases they are part of the problem but hardly the whole of it. If we base our solution on that misleading information we are unlikely to solve the problem.

Forth, my correspondent seems to think that they could simply rent these devices at ski resorts and such places. However there are many places that are not near such businesses. In addition, maintaining such a rental inventory would be expensive and time-consuming. As with any solution, we need to consider the feasibility and cost. It is easy to propose solutions to any problem. It is more difficult to ascertain that those solutions really solve the problem without creating worse problems elsewhere. That is in fact the problem with many government solutions. They have good intentions but ignore both the side effects and often don't really solve the problem.

While at first glance my correspondent appears to have a good idea, thinking deeper about the subject shows serious problems. This is an example of the problems with what is called stage 1 thinking, looking only at what is apparent initially. Such thinking infects other areas in our lives, especially many of our political decisions. For example, as I write this the president is bound and determined to get a health care reform bill passed. Initially it looks attractive but what happens then? When considering any such decisions we should repeatedly ask ourselves, “what then?” What happens after we take action? What other problems will we create? What will it cost?

Only when we fully consider all of that can we be confident that we have a worthwhile program. Otherwise we risk creating new problems while not solving the one we set out to solve.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Adrenaline Junkies

OK, I admit it. I get excited about such things as climbing mountains and even more excited about rescuing someone there. As I get older I'm doing more of the in-town stuff on rescues but my wife complains that in my excitement I talk rather loudly on the phone. It doesn't help her sleep when that happens at 2AM. I'm not sure I'm ready to admit to being an adrenaline junkie but some might accuse me of that.

In fact the desire for excitement is rampant in our society. If it weren't, most movies would flop at the box office and most TV shows, including the news, would fail. One of the worst things we can call a show or a party is “boring.” That attitude has its up side; we all need the stimulus that comes from adventure, suspense etc. However it can also distract us from some real issues. We worship the hero but ignore the person who prevents problems. We even heap honors on people who survived situations they got themselves into by their own mistakes, all the while paying no attention to myriads of others who wisely avoided such problems.

One Wednesday several years ago a young snowboarder on Mount Hood made the mistake of leaving the developed ski area and trying to ride his board out of bounds. He spent a very cold night out before being rescued. While he did act reasonably after he was lost, it was his own bad decision that caused the problem. The news made him out to be a hero, which he was not. As a result several businesses gave him some nice clothing and gear. The mountain rescue people cringed, we were afraid that the unmerited reward would encourage others to take similar chances.

Did the gifts that young man received have an effect on others? I cannot say for certain but what I do know is that on the next two Wednesdays other young men from the same home town got lost snowboarding in the same area. Fortunately those two were not rewarded for their bad decisions. I'm sure they got all the adventure they wanted, but at least they received no new clothes or equipment for their trouble. Nobody else was encouraged to create his own personal crisis.

A crisis, self-generated or not, gets us moving. That can be good for us but it can also cause problems. The health problems from too much stress are well known, but there are other issues as well. Crises and other exciting events focus our minds on the crisis. That can divert attention from other issues, or even from the problems generated by proposed solutions to the crisis. Usually this is accidental, a side effect of a natural reaction to danger. However some people can deliberately use this effect to get what they want.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was unusually candid when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste – and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn't think you could do before.” He then proceeded to rush several measures through congress in such a hurry that nobody even had time to read them, much less adequately consider and discuss them. That included an expensive stimulus package that the Congressional Budget Office said was not needed. With the economic “crisis” underway people were willing to grab at the supposed solution without the necessary critical thinking.

The crises needed to do a rush job need not even be real. There is no reason to believe that people have a harder time getting medical care now than they did a few years ago. Yet the Obama administration is pushing its national health care plan as a solution to the “health care crisis” – again as an urgent need which must be dealt with without time to read the 1000 plus pages in the bill. At this writing it is uncertain if that plan will pass or if cooler heads will prevail.

Nor is the current administration the first to create a crisis and use it to pass unneeded legislation. The “War on Poverty” of the Kennedy and Johnson era was hyped as the solution to the “crisis” of poverty, even though poverty had been declining for decades. The plan's proponents promised a reduction in welfare needs as their plan put the poor to work. Anybody who opposed it was painted as uncaring. What happened was the opposite of what was promised. The War on Poverty created more poor people by encouraging some to take advantage of government largess.

The fact is that a crisis, either real or contrived, causes people to try to act without critical thinking. It has the effect of an adrenaline rush, focusing minds on the obvious to the exclusion of less apparent but sometimes greater dangers.

The solution to this problem is to think carefully about how serious a crisis really is, and what other dangers it may be hiding. The natural tendency in a crisis is to react without thinking. That may work if the danger is an animal attack but it is counterproductive for most of the crises we face today. For those we must first think carefully and critically before we act.

Personal note: I’ll be busy with other things for a few days so won’t be posting here during that time. Back about mid next week.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Spectacular and the Important

You probably followed the story in the news. In December of 2006 three climbers went missing on Oregon's Mount Hood. Rescue teams converged, as did military aviation resources. The best guess was that they were near the summit but weather was so bad that searchers could not reach that area for nearly a week. Finally the weather changed allowing a search of the summit area, though it was a difficult operation. The body of one climber was found in a snow cave. The other two are still missing and presumed dead.

That sad event is only one of several high-publicity searches in which I've participated. At least four of them received worldwide news coverage. During the same years those publicized events occurred, our rescue team probably helped save many more people than we ever searched for, but those events will never make the evening news. The way we saved them was to simply provide information and advice that kept them out of trouble.

We have a public education program, which offers speakers to clubs, scout troops etc. We also put a team on Mount Hood during the peak climbing season to be ready in case of trouble and to talk to climbers. We have no way of knowing how many people made wiser decisions because of our outreach programs. We cannot know who would have been lost, injured, or killed had they not received that information. And of course the news seldom publicizes one of our people talking to a scout troop. Prevention is not as spectacular as is rescue.

The point of all this is that there is essentially no connection between how spectacular something is and its importance. Nor is there much connection between the obvious and the important. Millions of people go about their lives doing important things like raising children who grow up to be productive citizens. That is the most important job on the planet but it gets little attention. In fact in many circles people sneer at anyone “on the mommy track” as though that were a bad thing. Sadly, we tend to equate publicity or having lots of money with importance. Meanwhile we pay little attention to jobs that are important but not very lucrative.

This emphasis on the obvious is technically called “accessibility bias.” If something is very visible that skews our thinking, sometimes with disastrous results. It is the equivalent of the magician who distracts our attention with a lot of motion and color with one hand while the other hand does his tricks “hidden in plain sight” by our lack of attention to what is really happening.

The obvious, the most accessible, gets our attention. Such was the case when a young couple suffered a motorcycle crash. He appeared uninjured, his leather clothing having protected him from the abrasions he might have suffered. She, on the other hand, looked like something out of a nightmare (she had been wearing a bikini). There were scratches and abrasions all over her body. Everybody in the area wanted to help, especially her boyfriend. They called an ambulance which got her to the hospital where she recovered – in time to attend her boyfriend's funeral. He bled to death internally from a ruptured spleen. People had been distracted by her spectacular injuries so they overlooked his less obvious problems.

There are of course plenty of other examples of accessibility bias. The politician or activist who makes a lot of noise about some cause (which may already be improving). The salesperson or advertiser who calls our attention to the flashy aspects of a product, thus distracting us from the fact that we really don't need it. Even our own tendency to focus on a child's misbehavior and not notice that 95% of the time he is a loving, well-behaved young person.

What can we do about this? The only solution I know of is to pay more attention to all aspects of a situation. We can stop and think: What is that politician hiding: Is the child's behavior problem just an aberration. Is that news story really significant or just spectacular? That is not easy I know. We have to change habits. However it will be worth it.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Trust the Experts?

It was a plum assignment. Every weekday at 5PM the soldier was to fire a cannon to announce the end of the normal work day. The only problem was that he did not have a watch. However he noticed that a jewelry store, about a quarter of a mile away, had a clock in a tower, facing the fort. The fort was equipped with a good telescope so he simply used that to read the jeweler's clock.

One Saturday he got curious and asked the jeweler about his clock. The jeweler informed him that it was an excellent clock, one of the best of its kind. “In addition I check it every day against official government time. It is always right on the correct time.”

The soldier was intrigued. If he could get that official time he wouldn't have to use the telescope. “Sir, would you tell me please how you do this check with official time?”

“Oh, it's quite easy young man. Every day at 5 O'clock they fire a cannon over at the fort. I just check my clock against that.”*

That story has applications far beyond telling time. Just as the jeweler and soldier each trusted the other to be an expert, it is easy to trust “experts” who may not know what they're talking about. Now of course real experts are worth listening to, but even they can be wrong. It behooves each of us to use our own intelligence to determine where we get information and how that information does or does not apply to our own situations. Examples of problems caused by “experts” are myriad.

I was the victim of one such example a few years ago. One morning I tried to log on to the computer I needed for my job but couldn't get in. I finally got hold of the administrator and learned that a consultant (self-appointed expert) had told them to change my login name “to avoid confusion.” It seems the name consisted of my nickname and first letter of my last name. That ended up spelling out hall. The consultant said that could be confused with someone with the last name of Hall. However nobody but me ever used that name in that database so there was no way for it to cause confusion.

Why did the consultant demand the change? I didn't get to talk to him but I strongly suspect it was because he had to do something. If a consultant comes into a company and says everything is great, the company managers will think that he didn't do anything to justify his pay. For that reason many consultants will find something to change, even if the change is not an improvement.

Our society has a surfeit of experts. Some are worth listening to, others should have duct tape placed permanently over their mouths. Most can contribute if we apply critical thinking to their pronouncements. However swallowing their advice uncritically causes problems.

So how can we determine which experts are worth listening to? It isn't easy but there are some things that help. First, what are the expert's credentials? Does he have a good background in the specific area of claimed expertise? This should be considered a necessary but not sufficient condition for trusting him. If he lacks training and experience there is no reason to think he knows more about the subject than we do.

Second, what is his track record? A diploma on the wall represents time in a classroom, passing tests etc. It does not guarantee sound judgment, nor does it certify lack of bias. However if that expert can point us to several previous successes, our confidence can increase.

Third, do the expert's recommendations pass the “smell test?” Do they really make sense, or if not can he explain why our intuition is wrong? We need to think critically, not just turn over our decisions to someone else. We live with the results; the expert will probably go on to the next client and never think of our problem again.

This advice applies to all experts but there are some who should arouse special suspicion. First, the friends and neighbors with good intentions. It is a human tendency to want to help our friends. It is also a human tendency to want to appear knowledgeable. The combination of those two tendencies causes all of us to want to give advice, even when we are not real experts. That is an invitation to trouble.

For example during the Vietnam War, some soldiers swallowed the rumor that snorting heroin was not addictive. They believed their fellow soldiers instead of the medical experts, thinking that those medical people were just trying to spoil a good time. Those soldiers who acted on that belief came home addicted and found that the weaker drug on the streets of the U.S. required mainlining to get the same effect as snorting the Vietnamese version.

An even more dangerous “expert” is the politician. Somehow they often think that the ability to attract votes gives them superior wisdom. As a result we have lawyers deciding on health care and economic matters. Worse, their “expertise” takes on the force of law and they are often immune to feedback from the real world. The only thing that gets their attention is a threat of not getting re-elected.

One example of this is the “War on Poverty” proposed by Kennedy and enacted into law during the Johnson administration. This was supposed to solve the problem of poverty in the U.S. with massive government programs. The promise was that it would help people become productive citizens so they didn't need help. The results were quite the opposite. First the number below the poverty line decreased but only because of the tax money people were receiving. The number of people whose actual earnings were above the poverty level increased. Then as people found how easy it was to get on those programs the number in poverty increased, even counting the relief benefits they were receiving.

And how did the political “experts” react to that failure of their programs? Did they recognize the failure and correct the problem they had created? Of course not, that would have been an admission of error. Instead they first moved the target, pointing only to the number of people above the poverty line with benefits included, and ignoring their promise that the need for tax-funded relief would be reduced. Then, when it became apparent that they couldn't even hit that target, they claimed things would be worse without their pet programs. Of course they ignored the fact that the number of people in poverty had been decreasing for decades before the War on Poverty. That “war” was associated with an increase, not a decrease in poverty.**

There are many similar examples. Sex education was associated with an increase in teen pregnancy and venereal disease. “Curing” social problems increased rather than decreased crime. Those problems had been declining before the political “solutions” were instituted.***

Why do “experts” such as politicians get away with such nonsense? It is simply because we fail to think critically about their proposed programs. Then we compound that failure by not looking at the results after the programs are in place.

Experts can help us with many issues. However the onus is on us to use due care in picking and believing those experts, and in evaluating the results of their recommendations.

*This is based on a story I heard as a youth. I have not been able to identify a source so cannot give credit for the idea. Also, a note to literal scientific types such as myself: Yes there is a delay of just over a second between the firing of the cannon and when the jeweler hears it. However he can compensate by knowing how long that delay is.

**cf. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, pp9-15

Ibid, pp15-30. This book includes many other examples of how “experts” have worsened the problems they promised to solve.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

The Diversity Trap

What would you call a workforce that is 74% of one sex with 69% of employees in the higher pay ranges of that same sex? The Oregon Department of Human Services calls it diverse. To them diverse means women and minorities – even when women make up over two thirds of employees, that is diversity. In addition they have goals for hiring a certain number of handicapped people and those specific ethnic groups. That includes a goal to increase skilled craft employees “by 4 women, 1 person of color and 1 person with a disability.” This is affirmative action run amok, a clear sign that “diversity” is simply another name for preferential treatment of favored groups.

In fact, why would any employer, private or public, want a diverse workforce? This takes us back to the means vs. ends question. As I see it, there are two reasons:

a. Fairness

b. A productive workforce.

If fairness is the goal then emphasizing diversity is at best a confusion of means and ends. The fairest thing to do is for employers to just hire the best person for the job, regardless of skin color or number of X chromosomes. That provides a fair chance for all who have the ability and who have made the effort to prepare themselves. If you want is fairness, you should not look at ethnicity or sex at all in the hiring or promotion process. The push for “diversity” is just a way to prefer one group over another.

Having a productive workforce is similar. Employers should hire or promote the best person for the job.

There are some good reasons for seeking diversity – but diversity of the right kind. In most cases that should be a diversity of background and knowledge rather than of ethnicity. Consider an executive committee planning the design of a new product:

If engineers dominate, they will have lots of fun putting in all the latest features, using state of the art technology and maybe some of their own ideas. The product they design will be a wonder of human intelligence. If they are very lucky, it might be manufacturable and customers might actually like it and buy some of them.

If finance people make the decision, they will make sure that only very cost effective components and processes are used. However they know nothing of engineering or marketing so it may be impossible to design or sell. Whatever comes out won't cost much to make, but it may not be what customers want.

If manufacturing dominates the planning, they will make certain that the product is easy to make. That may require elimination of any technology that requires unfamiliar manufacturing methods. It may also require use of more expensive components that are easier to work with. The product will be manufacturable but it may be impossible to sell it at a profit.

If marketing dominates, the design will probably be just what the customer wants. However it may be difficult to manufacture and may also be a copy of 10 similar products already available. Making and selling it at a profit may be impossible.

This is where diversity comes in. That decision-making board needs a diversity of background and knowledge in those who contribute to the decision. Limiting decision-making influence to those of only one background leads to groupthink. Of course that leads to poor decisions.

Now consider what might happen if people with varied backgrounds are placed on that decision-making board. The marketing experts can keep the focus on what the customer wants. Manufacturing can make sure that they can actually make the thing. Finance can look at trade-offs between cost, manufacturing difficulty, and what the customer will be willing to pay. Then engineering can create innovative ways to design the product, possibly even giving the company an advantage in the marketplace.

The purpose of diversity should be to get a wide variety of viewpoints. That takes work on the part of management and frankly it can be a messy process. The leader can't just say, “Go design a replacement for product X.” Instead he has to arbitrate the differences between all the viewpoints. Some people will be upset when their pet ideas are rejected. Some will be reluctant to speak up and, unless the leader draws them out, valuable information may be lost.

To make this work, a manager or leader must be able to listen to all perspectives and put together the best from everybody. He must be able to help people understand that their contributions are valued, even if they didn't make it into the final product. Of course he cannot do that unless he has those diverse people on the team.

A diversity of this kind, properly used, will benefit any organization. Government, business, even home life can be improved by obtaining and openly discussing different viewpoints. However an emphasis on skin color or sex will only skew the process.

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