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Friday, 18 March 2005
Subconscious altruism
Topic: Science & Technology
A New Scientist report entitled "Pay up, you are being watched" describes a study which provides a clue as to why people behave altruistically.

[Researchers Terry Burnham] and Brian Hare pitted 96 volunteers against each other anonymously in games where they donate money or withhold it. Donating into a communal pot would yield the most money, but only if others donated too.

The researchers split the group into two. Half made their choices undisturbed at a computer screen, while the others were faced with a photo of Kismet - ostensibly not part of the experiment. The players who gazed at the cute robot gave 30 per cent more to the pot than the others. Burnham and Hare believe that at some subconscious level they were aware of being watched. Being seen to be generous might mean an increased chance of receiving gifts in future or less chance of punishment, they will report in Human Nature.
If true, this suggests that people who act altruistically may actually be doing so for deep-seated subconscious reasons, and not necessarily because they are consciously seeking favours in return.

This seems a reasonable postulate. People do not always act on purely rational grounds. The subconscious plays an important part. After all, isn't that how conscience works?

Posted by lim_cs at 1:42 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 4 March 2005
Land rights and libertarianism
Topic: Politics
Dan Sullivan has written an essay entitled "Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?" which provides an interesting take on land and property rights from a libertarianism perspective.

Its basic premise is shown in the following excerpt.

We call ourselves the "party of principle," and we base property rights on the principle that everyone is entitled to the fruits of his labor. Land, however, is not the fruit of anyone's labor, and our system of land tenure is based not on labor, but on decrees of privilege issued from the state, called titles. In fact, the term "real estate" is Middle English (originally French) for "royal state." The "title" to land is the essence of the title of nobility, and the root of noble privilege.

When the state granted land titles to a fraction of the population, it gave that fraction devices with which to levy, and pocket, tolls on the fruits of the labor of others. Those without land privileges must either buy or rent those privileges from the people who received the grants or from their assignees. Thus the state titles enable large landowners to collect a transfer payment, or "free lunch" from the actual land users.
In other words, an individual's state-sanctioned right to land may amount to the denial of the right of others to use the land. This is not consistent with the principles of "real" libertarianism.

The essay focusses on property rights -- particularly on land -- but there are some larger issues involved here that is inherent with libertarianism.

One is the problem of distinguishing between natural rights from state-assigned rights. Libertarianism asserts that the individual should have the right to do what he wants free from state interference. However, when a right that an individual enjoys is actually assigned by the state -- as in the case of land title -- it becomes disingenuous to defend that right under the guise of libertarianism.

The problem is exacerbated when the individual's enjoyment of that right encroaches upon the right of others -- in the case of land, the right of others to use that land. This leads to a conundrum. The tendency for the interests of individuals to come into conflict when individuals insist upon their individual rights means that state intervention is often desirable to manage the exercise of those rights. In such situations, libertarianism -- insofar as it decries state intervention -- can become counter-productive.

Sullivan, nevertheless, tries to find an alternative through intervention by the community instead of the state.

Private communities can be built on explicit contracts (leases) with the citizens, can have internal democratic processes that are vastly superior to electoral democracy, can be far more flexible and free of state intervention, and can be downright profitable (even with trust investors pocketing a mere fraction of the rent). Most of all, dealing with investors is far more pleasant and self-affirming than dealing with politicians.
The problem with this view is that a state is to a large extent a community writ large. There comes a point in size where the distinction between community and state appears arbitrary.

Personally, I doubt that a strict adherence to the principles of libertarianism can provide a satisfactory answer.

Ultimately, I see the value of libertarianism in its emphasis on individual liberty. However, individual liberty is only one human need among many. Libertarianism cannot be an all-encompassing ideology. Libertarians who apply the ideology unswervingly ultimately do no favours to individuals in general.

Posted by lim_cs at 1:44 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 22 February 2005
Two-year-old gets engaged
Topic: Society
People in modern societies take individual rights for granted. This was not the case in the past, and even in some parts of the world today.

According to the news report, "Toddler engaged to 40-year-old in Pakistan", a two-year-old has been engaged to a 40-year-old man in Pakistan. This apparently happened as a result of a decision by local village leaders to settle a dispute between two families, with the engagement being part of the settlement. It seems that a complaint was subsequently registered against the village leaders and police were reportedly looking for them.

This is also reported to be the second such incident in that area of Pakistan. In an earlier incident, the leaders in another village had ordered the gang rape of a girl as a punishment for her brother.

It is really amazing that such medieval attitudes and practices can still be found in certain parts of the world. Insofar as such or similar practices were commonplace in most parts of the world centuries ago, it just goes to show how far modern societies and their legal systems have progressed.

Posted by lim_cs at 6:07 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Malaysia invokes Internal Security Act
Topic: Politics
According to the New Straits Times, nine people, including a member of the National Registration Department (NRD), have been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged involvement in the unlawful issuance of the government smart card or MyKad and identity card receipts.

The newspaper report said that seven of those arrested were Malaysians, one was an Indonesian and another a Hong Kong citizen. A detention order was issued against the Indonesian, who had permanent residence status, while the Hong Kong citizen had been deported.

Another story in the newspaper, which reported on the NRD and the MyKad system and how illegal immigrants were getting counterfeit cards, also mentioned that the ISA was being invoked in the detention of NRD staff because the case "involved people overseas and it was necessary to sever links as well as protect them from possible danger". The "people overseas" may be referring to the Indonesian and Hong Kong citizen arrested. But I think the real concern is with the Indonesian government, with whom the issue of illegal workers is politically sensitive for Malaysia.

However, as has been said many times by various commentators, this tendency to invoke the ISA risks becoming an expedient that allows the government to circumvent the due process of the law and its inherent safeguards on individual rights.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:17 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 11 February 2005
Michael Lewis on Social Security privatisation
Topic: Politics
In a commentary entitled "Bush Offers Social Security Savers a Call Option" in his Bloomberg column, Michael Lewis writes:

The hysterical reactions to President George W. Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts are a little hard to understand. There's still no plan on the table and it's impossible to know exactly how much financial freedom Bush intends for Americans to enjoy -- how much new risk he plans to introduce into geriatric life.
Actually, the reaction is not that hard to understand once you realise that it is not the actual plan itself that people are against but the rationale for needing such a plan: The claims that Social Security is facing an impending crisis, needs a drastic fix and that private investments provide that fix. Many Americans, especially in the Democratic Party, have already rejected these claims, alleging that they are based on erroneous assumptions. Prof Brad DeLong, for example, criticises the proposal to privatise Social Security regularly on his blog.

However, Lewis has good points to make about the consequences of Social Security privatisation.

The first social consequence will be to turn every American worker into a Wall Street customer... As a result of their own investment decisions, some old people will wind up with more to spend, and some with less. Anyone who winds up with more will of course be delighted, but what happens to the people who wind up with less?

What happens to the aged American on his way to the shuffleboard court who finds that he has, for 40 years, traded in and out of the U.S. stock market at precisely the wrong time, and has squandered a big chunk of his Social Security money?

In theory, he will suffer the consequences of his folly. In theory, he will be forced to sell his Florida condo, store his Viagra, and limp back to work. That's the whole point of the Bush plan: to force Americans to take responsibility for their retirement years. To reduce the average American's dependency on the federal government and increase his stake in the U.S. economy -- and thus, presumably, in capitalism. But in practice, do you believe that will happen?

I don't. Specifically, I don't believe that Americans will ever accept responsibility for their financial decisions.
And he may have a point. As Lewis points out, when things go wrong, Americans tend to sue, not accept responsibility for consequences.

The real effect of any plan that gives Americans the power to invest in the stock market is to grant Americans a free call option on the stock market. If the market rises, the enriched American retiree will congratulate himself on his own wise decisions. But if the stock market falls, or even if it merely stagnates, he'll do what he has to do to get his money back.
Which means that instead of ridding the US government of a liability, Social Security privatisation may potentially be transforming one form of liability into another one that the government is even less financially prepared for.

Posted by lim_cs at 6:08 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Saturday, 29 January 2005
Rewards and returns in a free market economy
Topic: Society
Elizabeth Anderson has an interesting post that suggests that the income or returns that people earn in a free market economy does not necessarily constitute a reward for some virtues possessed by these people. Rather, the returns offered in a free market economy serve only as signals to direct people to productive activities. The corollary is that people cannot always justifiably claim to deserve their income.


The claim "I deserve my income," as applied to an individual's pretax income in free market economies, has considerable intuitive force... But...they are unjustified...

... However virtuous they were, by whatever standard of virtue one can name, individuals cannot count on their virtue being rewarded in the free market. For the function of the market isn't to reward people for past good behavior. It's to direct them toward producing for current demand, regardless of what they did in the past.

This isn't to say that virtue makes no difference to what returns one may expect for one's productive contributions. The exercise of prudence and foresight in laying out one's production and investment plans, and diligence in carrying them out, generally improves one's odds. But sheer dumb luck is also, ineradicably, a prominent factor determining free market returns. And nobody deserves what comes to them by sheer luck.
The ultimate aim of her post is to make a case for tax-funded social insurance, although by her own admission, this post by itself cannot clinch the argument. Her post suggests that the individual may not have deserved his income, but not necessarily that any part of that income should be turned over to the government for redistribution.

Her post drew a fair bit of criticism in the comments section. This is not surprising, as her end objective -- tax-funded social insurance -- is transparent. Conservatives and libertarians are unlikely to agree to it. Some even criticised her for arguing for social insurance, despite her explicitly saying that the post, by itself, is not intended to do so.

However, regardless of whether her end objective proves justifiable or not, I think Anderson's point regarding the function of return in a free market is a good one: It is a signal of desirable economic activity, and not necessarily a reward for past virtues.

Posted by lim_cs at 6:37 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 11 January 2005
Liberals, conservatives and libertarians
Topic: Politics
Keith Burgess-Jackson, at his blog, suggests that conservatives are pessimistic about people while liberals are optimistic:

Conservatives are pessimists. They believe that human beings are essentially bad (evil, selfish, vain, power-hungry) and that the best we can hope for is that their worst impulses are constrained by religion, the family, community, and the state. Liberals are optimists. They believe that human beings are essentially good but are corrupted by society. If corruption is caused by society, then changing society will free humans to be good. Their innate goodness will shine forth like a diamond. This explains the liberal fervor to change (remake, engineer) society...
Donald Luskin, however, disagrees. He thinks that liberals and conservatives are both pessimists:

I think liberalism regards individuals as weak and flawed, and seeks to use the power of government not to empower them to be virtuous, but to force them to be virtuous... That reining in of individual vice is the same thing that Keith says conservatives seek...

Now libertarians, on the other hand, are the real optimists about individual men. We seek to rein in the coercive power of collectives -- be it church, state, or corporation -- so that the largest possible number of transactions in the society are voluntary and individually determined. That's because we really believe in people -- we want them to make their own voluntary choices, right or wrong, win or lose. The only coercive role of the state is to protect individuals from force and fraud. Beyond that, we're optimists: you're on your own, and you'll do just fine.
I guess there is some logic to Luskin's view that libertarians are optimists about individuals, although one could also argue that in attempting to minimise the role of government, libertarians are also pessimistic about the capacity of the people in government to do good, which means that they are not wholly optimistic about people.

Personally, I think that Burgess-Jackson's view is more consistent with reality: Liberals generally tend to see the good in people, at least as compared to conservatives. Which leads to what I think is a piece of irony.

In the United States, while the Democratic Party represents liberals and the Republican Party represents conservatives, the latter is also usually seen as representing libertarians, whose belief in individual liberty -- one would have thought -- should have aligned them more closely with liberals. It makes for some strange bedfellows -- to say nothing of contradictions -- in the American political scene.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:00 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Wednesday, 5 January 2005
Generosity among rich countries
Topic: Politics
In the wake of the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on 26 December, some people have criticised rich countries, including the United States, for being less than forthcoming with their aid. For example, United Nations humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland called rich countries "stingy" (see "President Bush in storm over Indian Ocean tsunami").

Carol Adelman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development, has come to the defence of US aid efforts. In a New York Times article, she wrote:

[The US] government gives the highest absolute amount in foreign aid -- more than US$16 billion in 2003. And this does not include the cost of our global military presence...or the billions spent on developing medicines that save millions of lives in poorer nations.

Most important, however, Americans generally help people abroad the same way they help people at home: Through private charities, religious organisations, foundations, corporations, universities and money sent to relatives.

In 2000, all this came to more than US$35 billion, more than three times what the government gave. And this does not include giving by local churches or by overseas affiliates of American corporations.

The fact is, foreign aid is being privatised...
Brad Setser, a research associate at the University College of Oxford, puts all this US aid in perspective.

Is the US a generous country?
...I am pretty sure that Carol Adelman did not prove her case in today's New York Times.

Her argument is that aid flows are being privatized, and if you count private giving, the US is more generous than it seems if you look at the $16 billion in official aid the US provided in 2003. $16 billion is between 0.1% and 0.2% of our $11 trillion 2003 GDP -- most governments of large European countries give away twice that in development aid, and some small coutries give away close to full percent of GDP.

By the way, a decent chunk of the $16 billion went to reward our friends and allies, not to the poorest of the poor.

... Assume that [US private aid] grew to $40 billion in 2003. Combined public and private giving -- $56 billion -- would be about 0.5% of US GDP. That's well below the government of Norway's 0.9% of GDP in aid, and not much bigger than the 0.4% that France's government gives away every year.

Don't forget that Europeans give privately too...

[T]he facts are clear: the US is not in Norway's league, or the Netherland's either. Even counting private giving, the US is not a development aid superpower.
Americans have a well-known propensity for self-righteousness. A cold look at the facts, however, sometimes exposes parts of their virtuous self-image as delusions.

Americans are, on the whole, rich. Apart from that, they have the same virtues and vices as the rest of humankind.

Posted by lim_cs at 12:26 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Thursday, 30 December 2004
President Bush in storm over Indian Ocean tsunami
Topic: Politics
The tsunami that hit the countries around the Indian Ocean following the earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Sunday, 26 December is now turning out to be one of the greatest natural disasters in recent history. Already, more than 80,000 people have been confirmed dead, with more dead bodies still turning up by the day. Many more people are expected to succumb to disease amid poor sanitary conditions and the presence of rotting corpses.

In the midst of this calamity, when leadership is so important in the coordination of aid to the affected countries, what have we seen from the United States, the greatest power on Earth? Unfortunately, precious little. Little wonder then that United Nations humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland said that rich countries like the US have been "stingy".

Possibly in response to that remark, President George W. Bush has now announced that the US will be forming a group of countries to lead world relief efforts. Some Americans, however, see the tardiness in taking the lead as unbecoming of the country, and criticise President Bush for his inaction and lack of leadership in the crisis.

For example, the weblog of Brad DeLong, long a vent for criticisms of President Bush, has now seen criticisms over his handling -- or lack of it -- of the crisis. In a post titled "Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Idiots? (Moral Leadership Department)", DeLong describes President Bush's behaviour as "bizarre". His readers add their own comments -- excerpts of two below.

[T]his is just one more clear demonstration of the steady and consistent leadership of Bush. No matter what is happening--whether warnings of impending terrorist attack or natural disaster on a scale unknown in our lifetimes--Bush will never, ever interrupt his vacation. His ability to stick to recreation while world-changing events overtake the country is what endears him to red-state voters.

One of the themes that grew out of the September 11 attacks was that the US enjoyed unprecedented sympathy and support from the rest of the world. Subsequently, our government squandered that good will through its actions. Now, a far greater catastrophy has hit the people who live around the Indian Ocean. If we don't give a once sympathetic and supportive world evidence that we reciprocate their good will, what will they think of us?
Let us put things in perspective. The Sunday tsunami has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives around the Indian Ocean. Any goodwill that President Bush has lost for the US pales in comparison.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:09 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 24 December 2004
Limits to the benefits of exercise
Topic: Health
It's Christmas Eve and if you are planning to go out and celebrate tonight and over the next week or so by feasting, do note that some new research suggests that if you gain any weight in the process, don't assume that exercise will be able to undo the damage.

Early this month, the BBC put out a report which said that exercise benefits vary widely among individuals. The report cited a Louisiana University study in which researchers put 742 people through a strenuous 20-week endurance training programme.

Over the course of the programme, measures such as oxygen consumption improved in some, but not in others. While the average maximum oxygen consumption improved by 17 percent, some participants improved by 40 percent while another group showed no improvement at all.

Similar patterns were seen when other fitness measures such as cardiac output, blood pressure, heart rate were checked, as well as for insulin resistance, a marker of risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Mark Hargreaves, of Deakin University, Melbourne, was quoted in the report as saying: "We need to recognise that, although on average exercise may have clear benefits, it may not work for everyone. Some people may do better to change their diet."

Which leads to another BBC report today. This report cited a study by a group of Harvard School of Public Health researchers on more than 116,000 women nurses which found that physical activity did not totally compensate for the higher death risk associated with being obese.

The researchers estimate that excess weight and physical inactivity together could account for about a third of all premature deaths, two-thirds of deaths from cardiovascular disease, and a fifth of deaths from cancer among non-smoking women.

They defined excess weight as a body-mass index (weight in kg divided by the square of the height in meters) of 25 or more. Women who did more than 3.5 hours per week of exercise were considered "active".

Lean women who exercised less than 3.5 hours per week increased their risk of early death by 55 percent. Obese women who worked out for at least 3.5 hours a week increased their risk by 91 percent and those who were obese and inactive increased their risk of a premature death by 142 percent.

The researchers said the key to a long life, for both men and women, is to keep weight down and take regular exercise.

And if you can't help bingeing over the next week of festivities, you can at least take that as a New Year resolution.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:35 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post

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