Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Paternalism: Weakening our minds?

There are proponents now of a wide array of paternalistic government programs – forced saving plans, restrictions on products and activities that can hurt the consumer, etc. It’s hard for me to entertain the notion that what a well-informed person chooses to do is not in that person’s interest: If you choose to skydive, even if I would not, it must be that you prefer the life in which you do it to the one in which you don’t. Right?

But let’s try supposing that paternalistic programs work: that is, that the people they coerce are made happier. If so, it is because those coerced would, if left alone, make the wrong decision. Paternalistic policies keep a tendency to make bad decisions from hurting the decision-maker.

Does that, to some extent, undermine the mechanism that motivates people to manage their impulses well? Could it lead to weaker-willed people, unable to make good decisions on their own?

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Opinions to stifle if you want to be on the Supreme Court

Judge Richard Posner, currently on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (I think), co-wrote a paper in 1978 that argued for a freer market in adoptable children. The basic idea is that some women have a comparative advantage in childbearing. Healthier children and wealthier families would result from a market in which childbearing specialists could trade with others less suited to the task.

As a result, he will never be nominated to the Supreme Court.
[My source: James Reese, a professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, produces Radio Economics, a podcast that consists entirely of interviews. In the show (available here) dated Sunday, July 24, 2005, John Palmer said so. Palmer writes the Eclectic Econoclast.]


Why do dogs bark more than once?

A single bark ought to suffice -- it would alert other dogs, or remind a small creature to be afraid of the dog. Successive barks expend calories needlessly, and distract the dog from other productive activities. I see cost with no benefit.

The only potential benefit I can imagine is sexual advertisement. Advertisement is from a public finance perspective inefficient, but from an individual actor's perspective it is necessary, and that's the level of decision-making relevant to nature. Hence peacock's tails, headbutting and other ostensible design flaws.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Extremes of cultural sensitivity

Mark Stein writes in the Chicago Sun-Times (online for free):

“One day the British foreign secretary will wake up and discover that, in practice, there's very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and Sharia.”

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Digestion and cognitive dissonance

Culture has a lot to do with what foods you’ll accept, but other standards are universal. Consider tuna and ice cream, or chicken soup with a broth of banana weight-gain smoothie. Could some culture have arisen that would enjoy these mixtures, or are they objectively bad?

The sense of taste serves a purpose: it guided our nutritional decisions before we were conscious, and to some extent it continues to guide us. I weight train, and it demands a certain experimental attitude regarding nutrition. I mix a lot of things that other people wouldn’t dream of. Usually it’s okay, but I have hit upon a few totally abhorrent combinations. All of them involve mixing some high-protein food source with something very different, such as the aforementioned weight gain smoothie with chicken soup.

Gustatory (taste) sensations are partly responsible for the cocktail of digestive enzymes that ends up in the stomach. I suspect that the abhorrent combinations I’ve hit on are so gross because they are indigestible – no appropriate chemical cocktail can be devised to handle them.


Is pity good?

Merriam Webster online defines pity as “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy”. It’s more than recognizing a sad state of affairs; it involves feeling unahppiness oneself as a result of seeing it in another.

Is pity, particularly pity that’s unexpressed, good for anything? Is it useless suffering, or does it enrich one’s life?

I heard some playwright on NPR declare that a good artist must understand that humanity is “ultimately tragic.” I think it’s strange to think of humanity as ultimately anything in particular. However, I can imagine that the ability to feel tragedy (as opposed to merely recognizing it) could improve one’s experience of life.

I’m interested because the sensation of pity is to a large extent within my conscious control.

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