Octavo Dia

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Backpedaling, Journalist Style

In the December 2008 issue of National Geographic, they said, "Herod was almost certainly innocent of [the Slaughter of Innocents at Bethlehem]." In the April 2009 issue, they replied to various letters:

We received a great number of letters protesting the article's statement that Herod was 'almost certainly innocent' of the infanticide described in the Gospel of Matthew. In the sense that the accused is 'innocent until proven guilty' we stand by the phrase. Josephus, Herod's first-century biographer, makes no mention of such a crime...

If that is what they meant, they should have said that. "Almost certainly innocent" and "innocent until proven guilty" are phrases with very distinct, and very separate, meanings.

Secondly, Christ is the defining figure in history, yet in all of Josephus' works, Christ merits a single paragraph in Book 18, Chapter 3 in the Antiquities of the Jews. Even though, in the Discourse on Hades, it is evident that Josephus had converted to Christianity, that was all he granted him, because he was writing a political history, not a general history. If the most influential character of world history gets such a short piece, how are we expect that a minor detail from his life, which had even less political impact than Christ himself, how are we to expect that it would be given more weight, or any at all?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Death Row Investigators

This idea is not my own--it belongs to a buddy of mine--but he's not online, so even my tiny audience would not get to see it.

Every time a jury decides that the death penalty is appropriate, that case should be assigned to a special investigative team. That team has a time limit, for example, five years, to find disconfirming evidence. That team of investigators will spend five years doing nothing but working their cases trying to raise doubts about the guilt of the convicted men. If, at the end of the review period, they cannot raise reasonable doubt, the sentence is immediately carried out. There is no endless period on death row as appeal after appeal is put forth. If doubt is raised, at the end of five years they're taken off of death row and put into general population (or, depending what is found, even exonerated).

The team would have a mix of specialties, such as legal, law enforcement, forensics, and whatever else is appropriate.

The major benefit of this approach is that (a) we will execute fewer innocent people, (b) we will no longer delay justice on death row, and (c) the death penalty will be used when appropriate.

I don't think this position would be hard to fill either. People would go to school just to get the job as a death row investigator.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


"Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather."

After reading in the news about the result of a study of children's institutions in Ireland, and the abuse associated with them, I have come to a conclusion: any institution involving children will attract the vultures--the predators. Orphanages, schools, churches, camps--they all have their share. That is the vulnerability, and that is where they go.

I think, therefore, that any institution should be regarded with suspicion, and that utter transparency needs to be the rule of the day. If an institution cannot survive with everything open to scrutiny, perhaps they shouldn't.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Second Best Religion

I remember a story about a man who was looking for a contractor. After he interviewed each one, he asked them who they thought would be the second best one for the job. Then he hired the one who got the most votes as second best.

So what would happen if you asked everyone to pick the second best religion (assuming, of course, that they are already practicing the "best" religion). Here are my predictions: Jews and Muslims would both opt for Christianity. Christians would opt for Judaism. Hindus would move to either Christianity or Islam. Buddhists I really have no idea. Atheists would probably pick Buddhism (I don't know why, but almost all atheists I know have a strange affinity for Buddhism.)

Is my assessment correct? Is Christianity the second best religion?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Age and History

In the May 2009 issue of Forward in Christ, (offline, sorry), they have an article entitled "Life Without Guidance: Life with God's Guidance," which argues, in part,

"We should note that it is impossible to create anything without the appearance of a virtual history. For example, Adam and Eve ate fruit from trees that never grew, never flowered, were never fertilized, and never developed their fruit in real time."

They are confusing apparent age with apparent history. It's the difference between creating Adam as a fully grown man (he has the appearance of being old) and creating him with a full set of baby pictures (he has the appearance of a history). The fossil record has the appearance of history--of lives lived and died, so the "it was created that way" argument borders on divine deception.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The game of life

"Annuity contracts are the inverse of life insurance;"

So here's what the insurance companies should do: create a combination life insurance and annuity contract. If they live longer than expected, you lost money on the annuity but gain it on the life insurance. If they pop off early, you lose on the life insurance and gain on the annuity. Come on, insurance companies, hold both the stock and the CDO!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Islamic Banking

I read an article about Islamic banking today. The illustration they gave--buying a car--sounds like a distinction without a difference. What is the difference between buying a car and making payments that include interest, than buying a car from a bank, and making payments that include a resale mark up for the same amount as the interest? But hey, whatever works.

It could be that they're just gave a bad example, because the way they describe it elsewhere it comes across as industrial sharecropping. I can't see much of an upside for banks, which to me means they'll be much more conservative in their lending, which, if you stop to think about it, was all that was needed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reverse dollar cost averaging

Required minimum disbursements on tax-deferred retirement accounts leads to reverse dollar cost averaging. Because you're forced to sell a certain amount regardless of what the market does, you end up selling more assets when the prices are low, and less when they're high--which is exactly the reverse of what you should be doing. They added a temporary waver to the law this last year, because of the late unpleasantness, but I think a better solution would be to make a permanent feature to fix the problem.

You can see why Uncle Sam wants his deferred taxes, but you also don't want to make people sell at a loss. So here's my plan: make the required minimum distributions on a rolling, multi-year basis. So the minimum distribution would be for example, $15,000 spread over three years. The minimum distribution could be taken at any point during that cycle or spread throughout it. At any rate, it would allow people to avoid taking withdrawals during down periods that don't merit a special dispensation.

How to fix a labor shortage

An old canard in the immigration debate is that, "There are jobs Americans just won't do." Actually, you can fill in the word "Americans" with just about anyone. Indians say the same thing about Bangladeshies, Chinese about the Vietnamese, etc. The trouble is, there's nothing Americans won't do for the right price. The jobs that American's won't do for $5.65 an hour you could probably fill for $15.65 an hour, and you'd have to turn people away for $25.65.

So here's how to fix a labor shortage: make it impossible to fill. If there is a labor shortage so overwhelming that hiring enough people at the going rate is an impossibility, there are three possible (and probably concurrent) outcomes: (a) wages rise and draw in more people, (b) investment in technology or other means to raise productivity, and (c) consumption falls according to its price elasticity. Rising wages and productivity are inherently good, and falling consumption is a function of maximizing utility, so besides filling the labor shortage, you're also improving overall welfare.

An off the cuff response is that these jobs would just be sent overseas, but jobs of this sort are geographically linked (which is why they haven't been offshored already). So the risk of sending jobs overseas is minimal.

So how to create this labor shortage? My personal favorite idea is to increase immigration--for highly skilled workers. In theory (and this is, over course, subject to diminishing returns), every highly skilled worker visa granted creates jobs in a 1:5 ratio. Grant those visas until the number of new jobs created drops to a 1:1 ratio. You could even assign some of these highly skilled workers to figuring out how to create an even greater labor shortage.

All you need to do is create so many jobs that Americans won't do, that Americans will do them.

Monday, May 04, 2009

What conservatism means to me

Conservatism is not a political philosophy; it is an approach to a political philosophy. Conservatism is the application of risk management to the political realm. One therefore hedges ones bets, spreads risks, avoids uncertainty, keeps a reserve, and doesn't easily do that which is difficult to undo.

I believe one can be a conservative liberal, a conservative socialist, a conservative communist--about the only thing one can't be is a conservative revolutionary. Many of the philosophies of the political right are conservative--social engineering is very difficult to undo, and its effects are uncertain, so a conservative is understandably wary of, for example, gay marriage. However, there are ideas from the political left which are equally conservative--building an entire society around petroleum and the car is not a conservative move. Even Libertarians can be conservative. Rather than denouncing the whole state-run school system, a conservative Libertarian would argue for diverse approaches and authorities in the field of education.

Conservatism is not a natural American trait, for, and I've been using this quote of Churchill's a lot lately, American's "national psychology is such that the bigger the idea the more wholeheartedly and obstinately do they throw themselves into making it a success. It is an admirable characteristic, providing the idea is good."