Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to Bureaucrashing

I have started working part-time at CEI, the place I interned last summer, and in connection with that have made my first blog post in a long time on the Bureaucrash main page. It's about Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Go take a look!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Sucession from Britain Day

Just wanted to wish everyone good tidings on the anniversary of our ancestors' secession from Great Britain. I've also posted some actually content today, as well. See below.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Belated Rothbard Graduate Seminar Wrap-Up

Well, it's been a while since I got back from Auburn. It was a great week. I liked it better than the Mises University I attended last year. It felt less crowded and less rushed. There was more time for discussion, more face time with faculty, and since it's aimed primarily at grad students, we got deeper into the subject matter.

I want to pick out three things that stick out among all the things I learned.

Rothbard has an excellent discussion of tax incidence which I found revelatory. It is commonly argued that who "really" pays for a tax on a good depends on the elasticity of demand for the good; this will determine whether the seller of the good can raise her prices or not by some amount.

The flaw in this argument is that if the seller could charge more than she does currently, what was to stop her from charging this price before the tax was imposed? Given a stock of goods to sell, the entrepreneur will try to maximize revenue. Placing a tax on a good does not change the revenue-maximizing price. The entrepreneur will have to lower her price by the amount of the tax, so that the consumers' out-of pocket expenses are the same. This means the entrepreneur's product will bring her less revenue than before, which in turn causes her to impute lower values to the factors of production she buys. The result is that production of the taxed good will be reduced until the cost-revenue spread is substantial enough to keep the remaining firms in business. I don't remember whether Rothbard says anything on the subject, but it appears to me that exactly how much of the tax will be paid by the producer of the good and how much will be "paid" by her suppliers will vary from case to case based on the specific conditions in each case. The specificity of the factors of production in question will likely be the most important consideration.

Now that I think about it, if the tax is large enough that it acts as an effective price floor, the analysis will be a bit different, but the only thing I can think of that resembles a real-life example would be cigarette taxes.

The other two things I wanted to touch on are more technical matters regarding ordinal preference ranks. Austrians hold it true that we rank our wants from most urgent to least urgent, and likewise rank consumer goods that satisfy these wants. They also argue that the neoclassical assumption of transitivity doesn't hold. But ordinal preference ranks have to be transitive in the trivial sense, so it isn't clear why Austrians should have a problem with neoclassical transitivity, at least prima facia.

The issue is that neoclassical usage of "transitivity" implies a persistence of value ranks in time. If you chose an apple over an orange, a banana over an apple, and an orange over a banana successively, a neoclassical economist would say that your choices violated transitivity and were therefore irrational. An Austrian economist would say that for some reason, you must have changed your mind along the way, and that this was no cause for alarm.

The other point was that while there are difficulties in figuring out what someone's "complete" preference ranks are, all we need to do catallactics (the praxeological study of indirect exchange) is a subset of the "complete" ranks containing units of a single good and units of money--diminishing marginal utility ensures that within the subset, certain difficulties that arise when thinking about three or more goods. For instance, lets say given a choice between A, B, and C, you choose A. We know that A was at the top of your ranking at the time of the choice, but we want to know about B and C so that we can construct a demand schedule. One way we might think about that is if we go back and time and tell you to choose two of A, B, and C, expecting that you will choose A and your second-ranked good. But we cannot know that you will choose A at all, a priori. Maybe A is a beer, B is gin, and C is tonic water, and you like beer but love gin and tonics together while disliking them separately. But if we restrict the goods we consider to bundles of some consumer goods and bundles of currency, it would be reasonable to assert that if you chose A when you could chose one, you would have chosen A if you could chose two.

Now, that leaves some questions about whether we can work with preference ranks when there is no medium of exchange in the economy (ex. a Robinson Crusoe economy), but that's a separate issue. We can certainly construct supply and demand schedules, and that's what we care about for almost all of economics.

All in all, RGS was awesome and I'm very glad I went. I'm about two thirds of the way through the copy of Bureaucracy by Mises that I bought during the week, and so far that's been enjoyable. If there's anything really awesome in the part I haven't read yet I'll be sure to blog about it, otherwise I think my next entry will be a commentary on Boetie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Been putting that off for ages now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Berlin Batman

My favorite item hanging on the Mises Institute walls is a framed display of The Batman Chronicles #11, showing the cover and a few excerpted panels.

It's a Batman comic book. So yeah, automatically awesome, but what else is there to say? I mean, it's the goddamn Batman!

Well, actually, that's from "All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder," and the Mises Institute's comic book is from a different Batman series, and on top of that is an "Elseworlds" story, which Wikipedia tells me was part of a series of comics putting superheroes out of their traditional settings.

This particular Batman story is about "Baruch Wane," a closeted upper-class Jew living in Nazi Germany. So what does Batman do in Nazi Germany? Well, he fights Nazis, obviously.

Well, the Mises Institute obviously doesn't like Nazis, what with the Nazis' general anti-freedom tilt, but that isn't why this particular issue is enshrined on the premises. You see, the comic book's dastardly Nazis are--among other misdeeds--planning to raid the library of a certain Economist and Austrian Jew. And now we see where this is going. If you'd like to see Batman try to save von Mises' library from falling into the hands of the Nazis, you can read an excerpt from The Batman Chronicles #11 here. has a brief review as well; it's a bit more in-depth than my treatment here.

The best part of this is that much of the story is true. The Nazis did seize von Mises' library, and it was subsequently taken by the Soviets before finally being recovered years later. Mises himself fled the country, making his way to America.

Incidentally, the Berlin Batman is Ron Paul's favorite superhero.

Lunch with David Gordon and Bob Murphy

I'm still down in Auburn at the Rothbard Graduate Seminar. I've been learning a lot about some of the finer points of the Austrian School, but I think those would be best held back for a capstone post at the end of the week. I played soccer with some of the other grad students last night, and oh man am I out of shape. It still felt great to get out on the field again though, and it's served as an inspiration for me to get back on the saddle in terms of fitness. I was pleased, however, to see that my touch on the ball isn't completely gone.

This morning we had a talk about the current direction of the Rothbardian research program and of Austro-libertarian academics in general. Dr. Gordon mentioned that there was opportunity to be had in giving John Rawls a good Austrian lambasting, which excited me because I had actually been thinking of just that as a possible direction I could go with my own academic endeavors. Rawls is one of the most influential of modern political philosophers and ethicists, and any attempt to establish an alternative system would likely be required to address the Rawlsian position first.

Dr. Gordon's primary work currently is in writing The Mises Review and says of his work, "I regard book reviewing as a blood sport." Needless to say, Dr. Gordon is a pretty funny guy.

At lunch today I sat at Dr. Gordon's table (as noted in the title, Bob Murphy was there too) with the intention of picking his brain on the prospects for an Austro-libertarian attack on Rawls. What happened instead was a discussion of professional wrestling.

Dr. Gordon was apparently a friend of the late Lou Thesz, and currently corresponds with Glenn Jacobs, noted blogger, member of the Free State Project, but known best as the WWE wrestler "Kane." Apparently Kane recently picked up some tips from a YouTube video of Thesz that Gordon had sent him. Thesz apparently used to half-jokingly give Gordon self defense advice (to avoid a fight, turn around and walk away--but if they follow you, surprise them with an elbow to the face). Either Gordon didn't mention how he met the wrestlers, or I've forgotten, but I imagine that would be another tale in itself. To round out the story, I should note that there is an autographed picture of Jacobs hung in the Institute, made out "to Lew and the Mises Institute, the heavyweight champions of liberty and freedom."

It is my second favorite item on the Institute's walls. For the first, you'll have to check my next blog post.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dinner with Tom Woods

This week I'm at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama for a program called the Rothbard Graduate Seminar. The program is a series of talks on Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State taught by the Institute's faculty.

Tonight was the welcome dinner, and Tom Woods recognized and sat next to me. Awesome. When I was here last summer (for the Mises University program), I tended to do more listening than talking during the meals, and tonight continued that trend mostly, but I did ask Dr. Woods about his new book, and I wanted to share that vignette because I thought it was pretty funny. I'm going to paraphrase as best as I can remember, although the payoff line is verbatim.

Grant: So I hear you've got a new book?
Dr. Woods: Yup.
Grant: On secession, right?
Dr. Woods: Nullification. What do you think I am, some kind of radical?

Dr. Woods' new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, comes out on June 28th. He is scheduled to speak to the Iowa Republican State Convention on the 26th. Hopefully that will be posted somewhere--Dr. Woods is an insightful and entertaining speaker and with the talk being so close to the release of his book, it should make for some interesting listening.

Friday, May 21, 2010

In Which Rand Paul Sticks His Foot In His Mouth

So, shortly after winning the Republican primary for the Senate seat in Kentucky, Rand Paul has commented that the parts of the Civil Rights Act that restrict the actions of private businesses were incorrect. Everyone and their mother has jumped on this as typical "racist Republican" buffoonery. Even sympathetic voices are wondering if perhaps Rand has taken his small-government views too far.

He hasn't. It is perfectly coherent to sincerely abhor racism, and not think the Civil Rights Act should have included restrictions of private agents. It is only incoherent if you believe the only way to affect social change is with government violence. Mainstream socio-political thought, however, sees government as the proverbial hammer and every challenge faced by humanity as a proverbial nail.

Implying that Rand Paul is a racist because he opposes the violent attack on the rights of people to say who can and cannot be on their property (even when they make poor decisions in this regard) follows the same logic as saying that he's a communist because he thinks communists should be allowed to say or publish whatever they want (even though communists say and publish reprehensible things). It should be obvious that Paul is no communist. It might be objected that there's a big difference between freedom of speech and property rights, but this is simply false, both from a philosophical and practical standpoint. Freedom is an indivisible whole and no part is of a different class than the others--there is no line between "economic" freedom and freedoms of expression and thought.

Outlawing the effects of racism is simply foolish. It would be like if you tried to outlaw rain, knowing you couldn't get rid of clouds. Racism is a cultural problem, not a civic one, and attacks against it should be made on those grounds.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Democrats and the Patriot Act: How Much Cynicism Is Too Much?

Obama signs one-year extension of Patriot Act

My personal favorite snippet from the article: "The Senate also approved the measure, with privacy protections cast aside when Senate Democrats lacked the necessary 60-vote supermajority to pass them. Thrown away were restrictions and greater scrutiny on the government's authority to spy on Americans and seize their records."

So a giant scheme to enrich health insurance companies at the expense of young people is important enough to warrant discussion of using reconciliation (a legislative tool with an Orwellian name if there ever was one), but defending fundamental civil liberties isn't. I guess Democratic Party impotence cuts both ways. Ah well, maybe I'm overreacting. It's not like we've replaced warrants with names scribbled on post-it notes or anything.

FBI Replaced Legal Process with Post-It Notes to Obtain Phone Records


That'll teach me to open my big mouth, I guess.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that without fundamental changes--not just "vote the bastards out," although that would be a good start--all we can expect from Washington is further looting of our pocketbooks and tightening of the handcuffs clamped on our wrists.

Take action while you still have circulation in your hands.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Which I Decline the USSA's Request to Lobby Senatory Casey About Student Aid

The United States Student Association is a lobbying group that somehow got my email address because I'm the head of a student organization. I know they are allocated money by Pitt's student government, but beyond that I don't know much about them.

Anyway, I had an interesting email exchange with a rep of USSA which, upon reflection, is essentially a blog post. So I'm posting it.

The original mass mailing:
Dear student leaders,

My name is Nila Devanath, and I am the president of the Pitt Chapter of the United States Student Association. I am contacting you today to ask for your support in fighting for student financial aid reform, an issue that affects all students in higher education.

This coming Thursday at 3pm, the USSA Pitt Chapter will be sending a delegation of students to meet with Senator Casey about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). SAFRA is a federal bill that supports a better system of financial aid for college students and it is currently on its way through the House and Senate.

Senator Casey is in a crucial position for casting a vote in favor of the bill, allowing it to pass. However, he is currently being lobbied by banks and lenders that have been traditionally unfavorable to affordable student aid to vote against the bill.

We will be holding a short press conference at the Regional Enterprise Tower at 425 Sixth Ave downtown around 3:45pm, and we invite and encourage you to attend to show Senator Casey that college students support SAFRA and encourage the passage of the bill.

If passed, SAFRA legislation will:

- Convert subsidized federal education loans to the Direct Loan Program with low interest rates
- Increase Pell Grants
- Increase Perkins Loans
- Simplify the FAFSA and more

For further information, please visit:

It is important to have a student presence because Senator Casey sits on the Education Committee but has a strong relationship with Sally Mae, an education lender that is against SAFRA. Our presence will encourage him to place students over banks.

Please let me know if you can attend! It would be greatly appreciated.

[Signature omitted out of courtesy]
Here is my initial reply, which I sent to everyone who got the initial note:

I have no idea why I got this email, and I imagine many of you are in the same boat. That said, if you were planning to lobby Sen. Casey to vote for this bill, I urge you to reconsider.

If the bill is actually as characterized in the email, the net effect of this bill would be to bid up the price of tuition even higher, and saddle students with more debt. I urge everyone to fight this measure.

Grant Babcock
The USSA rep hit "reply all" right back, writing:
Dear Grant,

Thank you for your prompt response. The e-mail was sent out to all presidents of student organizations at Pitt to encourage support for SAFRA from the USSA Pitt Chapter student group.

I believe you may be confused about what SAFRA legislation would entail. Please take a look at the link again or feel free to look for information in other sources. The link again is .

SAFRA will help students get rid of debt by going directly through the federal govt. instead of going through banks and lenders as a "middle man" for loans and grants. I encourage you to research more information about SAFRA on the web.

Once you've taken another look, please let me know how you think SAFRA would increase student debt.

Thank you.

[Signature again omitted]
Well, I was invited to explain myself, so I did:
[Name omitted],

I have just read your link and what I saw was not reassuring in the least, I'm afraid.

The bill increases the volume of student loans and student grants. This means there are more dollars available to spend on college tuition. This would not lead to an increase in tuition rates if all of the money would be spent by people who otherwise would not enroll, but this is highly improbable and history has shown it not to be the case.

The result is that those who are able to get grants see a nominal decrease in the cost of tuition for themselves, and everyone else sees a nominal increase. Those who cannot afford to pay this increase out-of-pocket are forced to drop out or incur debt.

Where these loans come from is immaterial. Either we're borrowing from the banks at a pure market rate, or we're paying with our tax money. Subsidized loans are not free. Replacing subsidized loans from banks with subsidized loans from the government doesn't change this.

We run into the same problem with grant money. It has to come from somewhere. In this case, we run into the rather ironic problem of taxing people who can't afford college to pay for other people to go to college. A certain number of people will be able to attend college on grants who couldn't otherwise, but at the same time the tuition increases would put college beyond the means of other prospective students and their families.

On top of all this, the bill includes payoffs to historically black colleges which I imagine are designed to ensure their support, and pork spending on community colleges and public schools. None of this spending seems to have any bearing on university education in general.

The link you sent also says that this will save taxpayer dollars because the direct loan program will be cheaper than the existing system. My skepticism about government cost estimates aside, what would save taxpayers even more money and reduce administrative costs even more would be for the government to get out of the student loan business entirely. Moreover, whenever you see the words "public-private partnership," you can be sure that some bureaucrat's drinking buddy is going to make a killing.

I hope this note sufficiently clarifies my position to the extent that I no longer appear confused. In any case, I'm sure most people would rather I didn't clutter their inboxes any further, and I've said my piece.

Please do not support this legislation.

Grant Babcock
Obviously I glossed over a few of the nuances an ignored most of the peripheral issues, but I think I got the point across pretty well. Two folks complained about me filling their inbox with junk mail, and two others sent me notes of thanks and encouragement.

I doubt much will come of this, but I thought it was a teachable moment. I'll update if anything else significant comes up.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Choo Choo!

I just put up a post over on about trains. Specifically high-speed commuter rail transport. I told my friend this, and we have been saying "choo choo!" to each other for the better part of this week as I have been putting on the finishing touches.

Check it out here:

Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Avoid DUI Convictions, or, What Use Is Your Philosophy Major, Anyway?

Imagine the following scenario.

You're on trial for drunk driving. The evidence the police have against you consists in a confession which you don't remember writing and the testimony of the arresting officer. Luckily for you, the arresting officer just got fired for corruption in an unrelated manner. You plead not guilty and instruct your attorney to make the following defense.

(1) My client asserts he was not drunk the night in question.
(2) The state maintains that he was.
(3) Both of them cannot be correct. Either the state is correct, and my client was drunk, or my client is correct, and he was not drunk.
(4) An account produced while intoxicated is not sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
(5) The only potentially credible evidence the state has is my client's written confession, produced the night in question.
(6) Let us assume that the state is right. In this case, my client's written confession was an account produced while intoxicated, and is therefore not sufficient to establish the guilt of my client beyond a reasonable doubt. We conclude that my client should be acquitted.
(7) Let us assume that my client is right. In this case, my client was not intoxicated on the night in question. We conclude that my client should be acquitted.
(8) Since in both cases my client should be acquitted, we conclude that my client should be acquitted regardless of whether the state is correct or whether my client is correct.
(9) It may be objected that in (6) I have conceded that my client was intoxicated, and that therefore we can conclude that he should therefore be found guilty in this case. All this proves is that the proposition that the state is correct contradicts itself, because it makes my client simultaneously guilty and unconvictable.

This isn't a cut-and-dry case of the liar paradox, since we're not concerned with truth and falsity but the empirical establishment of a fact beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't think a jury would ever acquit someone on this basis, but I do wonder about the following.

Suppose a judge should disallow any testimony by a person who is drunk either at the time of the incident in question or at the time of the testimony, because it is so unreliable as to be irrelevant. Suppose the same argument holds as to whether a judge should allow into evidence a confession produced while drunk.

Should such a confession be allowed in all cases, or all cases where the confessor is not accused (among other things) of being intoxicated?

One probable course one might try is that in this case, the confession is always admissible, but only the form, not the content, of the confession may be considered evidence of anything when operating under the assumption that it was written while intoxicated. So supposing the writing is sloppy and there are numerous spelling or grammar mistakes (compared to something the confessing party wrote while not intoxicated), the confession would be evidence that the writer was intoxicated and only that the confessor was intoxicated.

If the confession is written in clear script or printing and is free of error, (again, compared to a writing sample made while not intoxicated), what would that imply?

Assume the confession was written while intoxicated. In this case, the admissible evidence suggests that the writer was sober. We have a contradiction, and conclude that the confession was written while sober.

Assume the confession was written while sober. In this case, the admissible evidence suggests that the confession was written while intoxicated!

It seems that under this potential ruling by the judge, we get the liar paradox.

What hasn't been considered, I think, is the bearing of the defendant's sobriety at the time the confession was written on his or her sobriety at the time they were allegedly engaging in an activity it is illegal to do when intoxicated.

If we assume that the writer is drunk, then we can only make arguments about their sobriety at the time of writing. The question becomes, if they were drunk at the time of writing, is it provable beyond a reasonable doubt that they were also drunk earlier, and at that time driving? I think that in the absence of reliable outside testimony (which is absent here) the answer is clearly no.

So we can only prove anything from the confession about the person's sobriety earlier in the evening if we assume they were sober when they wrote it. However, we are not entitled to make that assumption, as we only know that they were either sober or they were not.

I'm going to conclude that the judge should rule the confession admissable, but that when operating under the assumption that it was written while drunk it may only be used to determine whether the person writing it was drunk at the time, not whether they were drunk at any other point in the evening. I'm then going to say that in light of this, the jury should find not guilty.

So, that concludes a blog post that is neither about what I had planned to write about today (MLK day, or rather, just after midnight on the day after), which was the philosophical basis of nonviolent nonparticipation, nor really about freedom. In any case, I thought it was interesting. And probably completely wrong. Oh well.