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Africa – Colony of the Non-Profit

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This is probably the first of many entries about Africa because I think its history has some good lessons. Listening to Africa Today, I picked up on this story:

Biofuels companies from the U.K. to Brazil and China are buying up large swaths of Africa, causing deforestation and diverting land from food to fuel production, the environmental group Friends of the Earth said.

Across the continent almost 5 million hectares of land, an area bigger than the Netherlands, have been sold to cultivate crops for biofuels since 2006, Friends of the Earth’s Brussels- based European division said today in a 36-page study.

European companies including Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA, the U.K.’s D1 Oils Plc and Sun Biofuels Ltd. and Agroils Srl of Italy joined firms from Canada and Israel in buying acreage to plant jatropha to make biofuels, the study said. The 27- nation European Union has set a goal of getting 10 percent of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020.

“The EU’s mandatory target for increasing agrofuels is a clear driver to the land grabbing in Africa,” Friends of the Earth said. “There is a risk that agrofuels, and with them, Africa’s agricultural land and natural resources, will be exported abroad with minimal benefit for local communities and national economies.”

Governments including Ethiopia, Ghana and Mali have encouraged the purchases, which in some cases are made without the consent of local communities, or an environmental impact assessment, the group said. The report lists land sold in Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

Sounds bad at first, but we should deconstruct the wording. The problem is apparently that some African governments are letting first-world-based companies buy land, which sounds too much like colonialism for FotE’s tastes. The implication is that the governments need to step in and prevent the land sales so that Africa can retain its independence.

There are major flaws with this argument:

  • If the governments own the land, then they’re the ones selling the land already, so asking them to do otherwise is pointless.
  • If the land is privately owned, the government would have to arbitrarily void a private contract. Does FotE advocate this? Not outright, but the implication is there.
  • “African independence” = “FotE helps Africa figure out its priorities”. This sounds an awful lot like a stipulation ala Washington Consensus, which is basically market liberalization + democracy. Hence why it hasn’t worked.

All this makes it sound like NGOs are more concerned with taking Africa back to good ol’ days so it looks even less colonial than it does now. Here’s a general history of Africa circa 1950-1980:

After the independence of most African countries during the 1960s, newly formed African regimes assumed they could not easily claim a great victory over the Europeans if they continued to use the same system that those oppressors had designed, namely capitalism, since all imperial regimes had been mainly capitalist, even if their adherence to free markets was not absolute. Socialism was popular among African leaders because it represented a break from the imperial ruling tradition. Socialism seemed, to many, to be all that capitalism was not.

(I’m reminded of a man who knocked on my door during election season here in Emeryville last year, asking if I’d support a measure to block a private land transfer downtown. The land in question is where they’ll double the size of the only decent shopping center in the east bay north of Milpitas. I asked him why he thought I had the power to block a private contract, and he couldn’t answer me. I think he said something about “community”. If he’s worried about community, he should ask the kids who go to Bay Street, who based on my scientific measurements are roughly 158% of the Emeryville black population. I mention this because it’s another case where a white elite class thinks it has the answers for a struggling urban population, when it’s actually just going to make things worse.)

So people are concerned about Africa and its use of land. These people are mostly NGOs that receive donations for caring about stuff like that. I’ve transcribed the Africa Today podcast myself, so it might be slightly wrong. I recommend hearing the podcast yourself, which aired August 31, 2010:

Reporter: Is there a risk that biofuel crops may squeeze food crops off African farmlands? A new report by environmental group Friends of the Earth says it’s concerned by the amount of African farmland being used to grow biofuels. Plants like sugar cane, soybeans, — which can be processed to produce ethanol, a substitute for oil. Adrian Bebe is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

Adrian: Well what our research shows is that a huge area of land is being taken very quickly by mainly European companies to grow crops for biofuels, which are mainly used for export to Europe, and I think we raise many questions about whether this is in the interest of African communities, if it is going to help their development, if it is going to help them become more food-secure in the future.

Fortunately there’s a man in Ghana who shares my sentiment and casts doubt on the notion that the government should step in and void a private land transfer the way FotE would like:

Reporter: Is this another land grab in Africa?

Watang: I appreciate the work done by Adrian Bebe, I think it’s a very good thing they are doing. Trying to help Africa protect its land and itself. But I don’t think that is the case in Ghana. You know, land in Ghana is not owned by the government. So maybe an occasional land owner… a chief or elder who sells some land to a foreign company; that is not under the control of the government. But basically, nobody can get a vast tract of land in Ghana to produce bio-fuels for export. I don’t think the government itself will create that, but it may happen on a very small scale, but by and large, what we are seeing in Ghana is that we need bio-fuels for ourselves, and not to power foreign machines.

Reporter: You might be able to explain to us- We do know that there are tracts of land in the northern regions of Ghana that companies have gotten to [bio-fuels] for farming. What do you know? Can you tell us how they might need to access these lands?

Watang: I’m sure they might acquire the lands from local chiefs, and local family or clan elders, by setting off from the government. I don’t think the government will support large-scale production of bio-fuels for exports, no.

I gather from what Watang says that he and other intelligent farmers aren’t concerned about what Friends of the Earth think of Ghana. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Will that stop Friends of the Earth from being concerned? Probably not.  To FotE and do-good NGOs, Ghana and other African countries are now its clients, and these NGOs end up acting surprisingly like a previous service provider in Africa, one also opposed to private contracts.

Note that the Ghanaian government seems to be figuring it out without them. Here’s another African example of actual independence that world leaders and NGOs still can’t understand.

Written by xout

September 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Painters

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My parents are Progressives. They first assumed when I parted ways that I was a Conservative, but I’m not. They had never heard of my mental worm before:

I want my government run privately, like a company town. Profits are derived from real estate value, which means they would enforce laws to secure property rights and protect me from violence, creating maximum economic output. Do it like Iran, Singapore, Switzerland, or David Friedmanland, whatever. These company towns would probably not be democracies but rather LLCs, competing for customers like stores. If people don’t like it, they go to a different company town. Regimes that force you to stay don’t compete very well, nor do ones that murder you. Market mechanisms would ensure regimes would generally act in the interest of consumers. This would be a vast improvement over what we currently have in the world.

My desire to restrict violence and property theft, plus the willingness to allow police the use of retractable batons to enforce the lew, makes a reactionary out of me, or more modestly a formalist. “Reactionary” conjures the image of crazed men with guns and beards. I don’t know any of these guys, though we could probably get along over a couple cold ones.

It’s like feudalism, except the serfs have cars, the rulers have the LLC, and there’s internet now. So it’s actually nothing like feudalism.

If I were a Conservative my parents could come packing. Their debate lexicon is geared to that, the lowest common denominator being white people who share their genes who still think the earth is 82 years old. I can’t blame them. That’s as good as the debate gets on CNN and NPR. My parents have no idea what to do with me because CNN and NPR don’t know what to do with me.

Since they can’t peg me this makes debates with them less debate and more brain surgery, where I try to get to the bottom of what the hell they really do believe. It seems to be a lot of anti-things, like how Sarah Palin is stupid or how Reagan spent too much money. Bush jokes still go around at every meal. This is all fun, but as part of a philosophy these anti-things take up too much emotional energy for me. Ultimately I do get down to their basics and it’s damned frustrating: My parents want the same crap I want. Obviously we value the same stuff, like family, non-violence, order, and work ethic. But they believe in using the Progressive, centrally-planned method to seek these ends, and they’re always surprised that the outcome resembles Detroit.

We’re a family of painters, but they paint with a razor blade and have to convince themselves that a torn up canvas is a piece of art.

Written by xout

September 1, 2010 at 12:34 am

Posted in government, idea

The cost of being different, and others

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I was thinking about various costs this weekend, and I came up with a few. Everything I’m saying is purely speculation and deductive based on my personal, shallow experience. My opinions here are also wickedly harsh, and not very well articulated. You could say this is just a brain dump of what I thought about this weekend, and it’s not even 5% of that.

Speeding – Most people break the law on the freeway by going 5 miles over the posted limit. California law punishes 1 mile over the limit with the same penalty as 15 over. You might assume that people would either go the speed limit, or 15 over. Anywhere in between would be “inefficient” speeding. But police patrol imperfectly, and they seem unlikely to ticket someone for going 5 over. This is unwritten and purely customary in America.

– The efficient level of crime in this case is slightly above zero. People seem to weigh the value of time saved from that extra 5mph (in my case, it’s about 15 minutes saved time going from my home to my parents’ place, where I was going when I thought of this) plus the added danger of going 5 over, against the chance of being caught by police, coming up with a “market” speed of 75mph on I-5. There are market rates for all crimes, including murder, unfortunately.
– Younger people are either worse at assessing these costs or place a higher value on the thrill factor than older Americans, since they’re often the ones who travel 15 over.
– Rich people can more easily pay the speeding ticket than younger Americans and probably place more value on the time saved, so they also tend to go 15 over, which would save 45 minutes in my case. Not worth it to me, but if I have a Porsche, it probably is.

There must be some equation we use for assessing these costs whenever we see a posted speed limit. Maybe we can do this deductively. If the fine for driving 75 in a 70 is about $250 after traffic school and ticket fees, I want to drive 75 to save 15 minutes, and I believe my odds of being caught are 1% (almost zero), then perhaps I value speeding at $2.50. This sounds about right actually. If I go 85 mph, and the odds of being caught are 15% (from experience), then I value speeding at $37.50. What’s fascinating to me is I never thought about these costs; they seem to be either involuntary thoughts or learned through customs.

Being Overweight – I saw an overweight woman eating a salad, and I started wondering what costs someone has to incur in order to realize what they’re doing is not actually making them lose weight. Lettuce doesn’t make you fat, but the need for fuel usually means you eat some fuel source that you believe is healthy, and the recommended fuel by educational and media sources tends to be “complex” carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats. Conventional wisdom also tells us to exercise to lose weight. But since animals tend to stop exerting once they find something that sustains them reproductively (being fit), finding a method outside of exercise that helps one lose weight would result in a dropping one’s gym membership overnight. Not all people are this way, but I assume most are. So I’d then assume that people go to the gym because nothing else works for them, or they’re bodybuilders.

At some point the cost of going to the gym becomes higher than the value of being fit, even though the price of being unfit is extremely high. Aside from health reasons, the social pressure to be fit is enormous, especially if you’re single and unintelligent. The cost of lowered reproductive ability is sky high for most men and is the reason for many crimes. So what is the cost of exercising 3 times a week for a half hour? It’s very low. You don’t need a gym membership, you can just run around outside. So it’s almost free, as long as you live between the tropics. But there’s also the cost of disappointing, lackluster results, which I think is the ultimate cost and is what makes people stop exercising. Deduction would tell me that exercise doesn’t burn fat for most people, and other methods should be favored.

Why is it then that people don’t try changing what they eat? It would seem worthwhile, after the gym membership fails, to try an entirely new eating style. But this rarely happens. They also tend to eat according to official food guidelines, which we learn through school and the news. This past weekend I couldn’t find much in my parents’ freezer that had fat, cholesterol, or added sugar. It was all low-fat, low-cholesterol, complex carb, fruity, veggy, diet, natural, organic, free range, fair trade, etc. When my mom, who’s an informed person, goes shopping, she only buys things that her information sources tell her to buy, those things being low-fat, low-sugar, no-cholest, polyunsat, etc. My parents have eaten like this for 20 years now, supposedly the “healthy” way, and they gain weight every year. Is it because they don’t work out? No: that experiment has already been done and failed. Restarting that experiment wouldn’t be worthwhile. Could it be that food information is incorrect? Why would it be incorrect, and what costs do we incur by rejecting it?

It turns out that rejecting conventional wisdom carries extremely high costs, both in the supermarket and, to an even greater extent, socially. On my way out of town I bought various cuts of grass-fed bison from Wimer ranch for, on average, $10/pound. That’s half what I’d pay in the Bay. All for what? An experiment? And there are good reasons why information would be wrong, but that’s a different blog post.

Being different – The thoughts on diet and exercise make me wonder what the costs are for being different. For me, it’s low. Either I place a higher value on being different than most, or my “strangeness” overhead is already low, since I’ve already been a strange person my whole life. So experimenting with a new, unpopular idea carries a lower price tag for me. I’m already off to a good start; my reactionary political perspective is in line with roughly 0.000001% of Facebook users (maybe 0.00001% to compensate for the fact that reactionism and Facebook tend not to align), my views on gender turns heads in the Castro, and the combination of the first two makes me very weird in even those groups. Experimenting with strange ideas costs me next to nothing, and that might be why experimenting with diet had a low cost for me, but a high cost for my parents, who despite their fun quirks are very normal people.

Written by xout

August 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Posted in experience, health

Making an information source reliable – Revipedia

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Moldbug posted an idea in 2008 in response to the hype surrounding the Ron Paul campaign. Revipedia would basically be Wikipedia, except more reliable. Wikipedia isn’t reliable because its authors regularly cite University and NGO studies as “proofs”, when these studies are biased in favor of public policy and donors respectively. Here’s Moldbug:

You need to build a Web site that anyone with a screen and a mouse can click on, and get an accurate understanding of reality, including all the bits of history, government, economics, science and current events that Washcorp doesn’t want you to know. With a 5-minute overview for casual readers, and enough depth that a PhD with a standard Washcorp education will come away at least gritting his teeth.

You need to hire Steve Sailer and Michael Totten and Greg Cochran and Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Steve McIntyre and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Razib Khan and Michael Yon and Jörg Guido Hülsmann. Or at least people who are at least as smart, at least as knowledgeable, and at least as expressive as the above.

You need to produce a coherent corpus of authoritative information, a la Diderot, not just a random jumble of essays. You need to crowdsource, but not without editorial control, so that Conquest’s Second Law does not do its thing. You need a place that anyone who speaks English can go to find out what is actually going on in the world, and update that knowledge every day. And above all, you need to be right. The task of replacing Washcorp’s pile of nonsense with some other pile of nonsense is simply not solvable.

And then you need to wait ten or twenty years. Because this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. Your accurate description of reality has to become more fashionable than the official “mainstream” truth. Fortunately, the latter is extremely boring, chock-full of pretentious cant and intentional obfuscation, and often transparently self-contradictory. But you also have to be more fashionable than all your “alternative” competitors (see under: Alex Jones), which is definitely nontrivial. Too bad. It has to be done.

The way to defeat a massarchy is to create and propagate a credible alternate reality that outcompetes the official information network. Fifteen years ago, the propagation part was almost impossible. Today it is trivial. All that’s left is the creation, and I bet it could be done in half Cato’s budget. Bored billionaires of Plainland, you have nothing to lose but your Washcorp. Why not give it a shot?

I like this idea a LOT, but I think there’s one problem: Revipedia’s interests. Any reader will think, “Gee, Revipedia sounds like a good idea, but what proof is there that it’s really truth?” I thought of one idea while brushing my teeth.

Anyone who steps into Revipedia’s office to apply for a job, purchases stock, becomes an editor, or is affiliated with Revipedia in any way has a bias about Revipedia. So, Revipedia adopts a policy where as soon as a new relationship is established Revipedia is the first to create a Revi entry on the person and fill it with as much truth, dirt, and ugly reality that it can possibly dig up. The person is free to dispute the claims, but Revipedia will not take sides on the issue. It can do this before any other news outlet even catches wind of the new relationship. This not only makes Revipedia totally trustworthy, but it incentivizes bad people to stay away.

This idea may also discourage funding, but the only funding that Revipedia needs will come from people who want to further the mission, which fails as soon as one person is treated differently. This makes Revipedia totally secure and reliable, which creates a good precedent for Revipedia: funding only comes when Revipedia is truthful.

I always say you need to make fun of yourself before anyone else does. It renders your opponents’ weapons useless and makes them an open target. So even if the idea doesn’t apply to Revipedia, it’s decent advice anyway.

Written by xout

August 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Efficient Ideas Are Not Popular

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Mark Grabowski says texting while driving should carry the same penalties as drunk driving because they have equivalent accident risks. He cites some studies and polls about how texting is even worse than drunk driving. But he is mixing up private information and public information, which are treated differently by the law.

Private information is information known only to the criminal, and public information is known by people around him. Intoxication is private information, even though it can be expressed publicly in swerving and colliding with road signs. But the state of intoxication while driving is known only to the driver, especially if he’s good at it. Texting is public because it’s visible, unless one can manage to text without looking. The difference between public and private information laws should be obvious: police can’t detect private information without seeing the side-effects of it. An officer can see someone texting, pull him over before he runs into a pedestrian, and write him a $150 ticket. Since police run the risk of catching drunk drivers too late in the act, the penalty is significantly higher.

A columnist doesn’t understand this difference any more than the average voter, which is why professional, well-paid lawmakers make better laws than popular opinion. Publicly elected lawmakers make bad laws because, just like columnists, their careers depend on their support of popular ideas, not efficient ones. Efficient ideas aren’t popular.

For more information on the economics of lawmaking, check out David Friedman’s Law’s Order. He’s just released it on his website for free.

Written by xout

August 13, 2010 at 11:47 am

Posted in law

Tagged with , , ,

Deducing Bias

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PBS/Frontline’s College, Inc. believes it’s masterfully crafted an editorial that hacks away profit-based schooling with a snow shoe but accidentally opens its own achilles on the way to the washroom. PBS has a water-tight tactic where it makes very good arguments that nobody could disagree with. In this documentary, we get all these:

  • Private universities pick up the excess demand for schooling.
  • Private universities offer loans to students, and sometimes students can’t pay off these loans.
  • If private universities breach contract, they should be sued.
  • Private universities cannot operate without money.

If you replace “private” with “public” above, everything is still true. This is a good sign. PBS and I have some sort of theory on education that we can agree on. You’d think PBS has a winning formula here, but their documentaries start getting kind of snowy at the 20-minute mark. They introduce people who came upon hard times, corporate malfeasance, etc., all meant to stir up emotion but not enough to make much of an argument, which translates to junk food education. I’d expect these documentaries to pop up at 3am on Cable Access 27, but as we know, PBS is big.

So how could PBS make such a sad argument against private education and still retain its popularity? (If you watch the documentary and can’t decipher how PBS feels about private universities, please stop reading and don’t come back here. Things rarely get simpler than this.)

Induction into this is so convoluted and thick, with so much room for debate about where PBS gets its funding and who its donors are, that I don’t want to bother. Actually, I don’t need to. We’ll just deal a hard, twisting punch to the sternum: PBS opposes private universities because PBS depends on funding from donors who opposed private universities. You can deduce this by noting PBS’s CHSPE-level argument against private education and measuring how far this argument spreads. The further the spread, and the worse the argument, the more funding it requires from people who want to propagate that argument. Obviously these people have money, or else the documentary wouldn’t be featured on my XBOX.

The donors have one thing in common: they oppose private education’s lack of accreditation. Accreditation is what’s passed down from the civil servants so that universities will produce the correct type of students, primarily more civil servants. And we all know that once your civil service is really starting to grow, the best thing to do is keep growing it. Private schools that expand the private sector are no help in the mission, especially when they’re out-competing the public schools in every way. That’s when the civil service put the brakes on private universities to stay ahead, and PBS is one of many vehicles for that.

Written by xout

August 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Bureaucracy Emerges

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In my job I tinker with anarcho-capitalism, the idea that without government, private firms would enforce contracts through arbitration and provide defense like insurance. In theory, it should reward good choices and punish bad ones, which will produce better decision makers in the populace. The internet is almost government-free: enforcing gaming laws is a losing battle, adult content is always available to minors at no cost, and for years it was a good case for anarcho-capitalism. I was an anarcho-capitalist for some time, but a recent site hack is making me rethink that.

Recently Network Solutions, where my website is hosted, was hacked. They pulled the regular heist: hack server, change all ftp passwords, edit pages with malicious code that takes viewers to a page where they’ll download something unpleasant, sit back and watch the stats to see how many people are upset. Hacks never bothered me. We’re hit every year or so. You clean the code, patch the hole, restore your backup (your fault if you don’t have one), and get on with life without hassle. People like me with a decent understanding of coding and how to prevent most attacks enjoy this self-reliance, which is about the closest thing to anarcho-capitalism we’ll see outside of living in space. Knowing I can take care of myself in this hostile world makes me feel warm inside.

But this time, even after I cleaned my site, the ordeal wasn’t over. Google scans pages for malicious code, and if they find any, they don’t index your site. Goodbye 80% of searches. If Google doesn’t index your site, Firefox also blocks your site.  Goodbye 40% of remaining visitors. Our stats dropped off the face of the planet and would stay that way until Google approved our site. Even with the code removed, Google claimed that our site had a security loophole, which could only be fixed through Network Solutions. I had to go through NetSol, wait for them to fix their server, then apply for Google to check my website again so that it could be re-indexed on Google and accessible to Firefox users. This could be prevented if I had my own standalone server, but only the big guys with IT teams can handle that. Little guys go through a provider like NetSol or Go Daddy.

Private enforcement by Google in an attempt to protect its customers is an-cap in a nutshell. David Friedman makes similar arguments, as does Hans Hermann Hoppe for private defense and crime insurance. But when private firms own a market-share of customers that it protects by preventing their access to a place of business, you’re basically talking about governance.

Not that it’s bad governance. Once the code and security loopholes were actually fixed, my site was up in a day. Try getting that kind of turnaround with a builder’s permit. The wonders of profit-based governance! If NetSol had dragged its feet, it may have taken a month, but NetSol is profit-based too, so they had an interest in fixing the problem. DMV it is not, but it is governance, which comes with bureaucracy and red tape, and that’s not an-cap as I understand it. That this private form of bureaucracy emerged from internet anarchy, festering with malevolent Ukrainians and Nigerians, isn’t a case that an-cap is bad, but that it leads to a sort of patchwork of efficient, private governance owned by share-holders and run by well-paid CEOs. I’d be ecstatic if America were run this way.

Written by xout

August 2, 2010 at 10:09 am