Search This Blog

Friday, June 29, 2012

War on Drugs is Getting Old

We've had the "War on Drugs" for nearly half a century and everybody's losing.  "Fast and Furious", the latest scandal, is just another drug-related operation gone awry.

The first problem is that it's not really a war on drugs:
The war, after all, cannot really be a war on drugs, since drugs cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or punished.  The war is against persons who use drugs.  As such, the war is a civil war, fought against the 28 million Americans who use illegal drugs annually. -Douglas Husak, Rutgers University.
It would be a devastating civil war if the 28 million drug users shot bullets instead of drugs, but fortunately, the vast majority have refrained from violent resistance against their oppressors.

Yet it's still devastating in numerous ways.  The first, as pointed out by Doug Bandow at Forbes, is financial:
Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial.  Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments.  At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.  According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”
For the length of the War on Drugs, that works out to nearly $5 trillion in the United States alone.  That's about 1/3 the total debt that could have been eliminated. As a nation, we've got to cut spending and revenues from taxes on drugs would help as well.  We simply cannot afford this nonsense any longer.

An additional cost is the huge rate of incarceration of people for drug use (also from the Forbes article):
The Drug War has turned America into a prison state.  There were 13.7 million arrests in 2009, more than 10% of which, 1.7 million, were for drug offenses.  Nearly half of the latter were for marijuana.  In comparison, just 590,000 people were arrested for violent crimes.  Overall, 80% of drug arrests are for possession.  More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.  About 20% of state prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.
We need these people to be in the economy, producing, as opposed to being in jail, languishing.

Lastly, it's very clear to me that the "War on Drugs" is not coming anywhere close to its goals and may not be having any positive effect at all.
Various mixtures of these strategies and tactics have been implemented around the world over the last 50 years, but there is no evidence that any national government has been able to achieve anything like the objective of a controlled and diminished drug market, let alone a drug free world.
So the "War on Drugs" isn't helping, it's ruining people's lives by putting them in jail, and it's breaking the bank.  The last three presidents have all used drugs and tens of millions of Americans have tried illegal drugs.

It's time to take a radically different approach and declare peace: legalize and tax drugs.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Let's Play Guess the Year and Party

The following is an excerpt from the congressional record of a Senate floor debate.  Can you guess the year?  Or at least the decade?  Or at least the century?  How about the political party of the two Senators (hint: they're both from the same party)?
SENATOR 1. Another untoward situation that confronts the American producer is that machinery which we have perfected in this country, the best machinery in the world, is now available in every part of the world, and the people of other nations can use our machinery and produce as great a volume as we can at very much cheaper wages. 
SENATOR 2. Because they pay to their laborers engaged in the manufacture of [various items] about one-tenth of what is paid the American laborer. 
SENATOR 1. Exactly. . . 
SENATOR 2. . . . The great trouble that we are to meet, the great trouble that we shall be forced to face in this country sooner or later-and the time is almost here now-is how are we, under heaven, to be able to continue to maintain the high standards of living that we have maintained for the laboring men of this country?
It's amazing how the debate never changes!

King Putt

Obama has played 101 rounds of golf since becoming President.  While nowhere near the record for a president (both Wilson and Eisenhower played golf at more than double Obama's rate), it's still a fairway amount of time for the President to spend golfing.

When asked why he played so much golf, Obama replied, "I'm trying to appeal to the Tee Party."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chaos and Trade

I'm not a very strong advocate for unfettered free trade.

The main reason is that more is not always better.  While people trading with each other enables efficiencies of specialization, economies of scale, etc., and there's little doubt that 10 people trading with each other are  better off than if each did everything for himself, and 100 is better than 10, and 1,000 is better than 100, it seems that increasing the size of a free trade area beyond a certain point is going to have minimal additional benefits.

There are lots of examples of this: eating more is good up to a point, then you get fat; increasing pressure when pumping fluid in a pipe increases flow until the flow becomes turbulent - then additional pressure has little effect other than possibly rupturing the pipe; entities get too big to fail (see Wall Street, GM, etc.); etc.  In general, complex systems with chaotic interactions can't be scaled without limitation.

An economy is such a system.

Would going from a free trade area of 500,000,000 (roughly the size of NAFTA) to 7,000,000,000 really enable significantly more wealth creation?  I doubt it (though I admit that there is no empirical evidence that supports my doubt).

As a result, I support across the board tariffs on all goods and services coming into NAFTA.  I think that NAFTA is a pretty ideal free trade area with first and third world countries with more than adequate resources.  If having free trade worldwide is in fact better, it won't be all that much better. The tariffs serve as "baffles" to help reduce chaotic interactions that could increase the risk of catastrophic failure.  Lastly, revenues for the government have to come from somewhere and tariffs are no worse of a source than anything else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Intelligence: Of Ants and Men

According to the dictionary, "intelligence" means "capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity".  Since it's a "capacity" sort of thing, there is therefore a range of intelligence, with some having more capacity than others.

Sometimes that range is compared to a threshold, usually arbitrary, above which the person or thing is considered intelligent.  For example, we might say, "she's intelligent but he's dumb as a rock", which just means that she exceeds some arbitrary level of intelligence, but he doesn't.  This assumes that a rock has zero or very limited intelligence (which may be a bad assumption given that silicon can be considered a type of rock).

When we consider the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent life, we also compare it to a threshold.  We'd rather expect that the life, to be considered intelligent, can communicate, builds stuff, and probably lives in fairly large groups.  Of course, an ant colony qualifies as an intelligent life form by that description, and I've often wondered if aliens visited the planet, if at first blush, they could tell the difference between the intelligence of ants and the intelligence of humans.  We both scurry about, build stuff, communicate, have some understanding of the world, and act on that understanding to extract resources from the world to raise our young.

One can argue that ants don't actually "understand" anything.  They're just little machines and their behavior is completely emergent due to their simple "programming" interacting with the world.  That's true, but the same thing can be said of humans.  We're just bigger machines and our behavior is completely emergent due to our somewhat more complicated "programming" interacting with the world.  I believe that's also very likely to be true.

Let's look at it incrementally.  Humans certainly have "capacity for understanding".  How about other primates?  I'd say certainly.  Cats?  I'd still say certainly, but they're less intelligent than primates.  Mice?  Well, they certainly seems to understand that it's a bad idea to hang out around cats, but they're less intelligent still.  Ants?  I'd say an ant understands its world in a primitive way, but here we get to that arbitrary threshold thing where some will agree with me and some won't.  Roundworms?  I think most would say no.  Rocks? No.

By the above sequence, the level of intelligence according to an observer is clearly very closely related to number of neurons.  A roundworm has 302 neurons, an ant has about 250,000 neurons, a mouse has 75 million neurons, a cat has a cool billion neurons, a chimpanzee has two billion neurons, and a human has 85 billion neurons.

A neuron is a neuron is a neuron, regardless of species.  The more neurons, the more intelligent.  Intelligence is an emergent phenomenon from the activity of those neurons.  There really is no objective threshold that demarcates intelligence from non-intelligence or understanding from non-understanding (for example, you can't say any species with more than 97,423,014 neurons is intelligent, those with less aren't).

Intelligence for biological entities is all simply a matter of degree based on the number of neurons.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Unfair Advantage

I'm finding it humerous that someone with a nearly unspellable name (Snigdha Nandipati) won this year's national spelling bee.  After learning to spell her own name, I'm guessing that learning to spell words like "guetapens" (the winning word), "stochastically", "rhonchus", "luteovirescent",  "saccharolytic", and "arrondissement" was probably a piece of cake. (Also amusing is the fact that as I type these words, spell-check doesn't like a single one of them - perhaps I'm mistyping them so don't study from this list!).

Ms. Nadipati goes to my daughters' small and somewhat nerdy school, so she's quite a hero there.  She "studies 10-12 hours on weekends and six hours on weekdays."  Wow!  And I thought my younger daughter, who studies about half that, was way, way overboard on the whole studying thing!