Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fascinating Paper on Gun Control

This is a paper in the Harvard Law Review, which looks at gun possession rates against violent crime rates. It comes to a conclusion that certainly resounded with me. People often point to other countries outside the United States with tighter gun control and less crime.  However, it is likely that most of these differences arise from socioeconomic factors:

In sum, though many nations with widespread gun ownership
have much lower murder rates than nations that severely restrict gun ownership, it would be simplistic to assume that at all times and in all places widespread gun ownership depresses violence by deterring many criminals into nonconfrontation crime. There is evidence that it does so in the United States, where defensive gun ownership is a substantial socio‐cultural phenomenon. But the more plausible explanation for many nations having widespread gun ownership with low violence is that these nations never had high murder and violence rates and so never had occasion to enact severe anti‐gun laws. On the other hand, in nations that have experienced high and rising violent crime rates, the legislative reaction has generally been to enact increasingly severe antigun laws.This is futile, for reducing gun ownership by the law‐abiding citizenry—the only ones who obey gun laws—does not reduce violence or murder. The result is that high crime nations that ban guns to reduce crime end up having both high crime and stringent gun laws, while it appears that low crime nations that do not significantly restrict guns continue to have low violence rates.

It should be noted, that I do not know if this paper mentions background checks. If it does, I would guess that if criminals want guns, they would still get them, just as they would still get them if guns were banned outright. Nonetheless, background checks, unlike gun bans, do not make it harder for regular citizens to buy guns…unless the government makes nonviolent crimes illegal as well, like using marijuana or other drugs, or being an undocumented immigrant.

Why macroeconomics doesn’t work and other links.

I found an excellent blog post discussing the shortcomings of much of the economic field. Definitely worth a read.

Additionally, a nice post off Hacker News about Steve Jobs and Apple. While I do like many of Apple’s products, their culture always seemed a bit counter to the open and collaborative culture of the internet. This discussion of Steve Jobs helps explain why. Of course, it’s important to mention that Steve Jobs is extraordinarily accomplished and incredible, but his leadership came with a price.

Finally, my post from yesterday was published in the Chronicle! it’s my first publicized work in a newspaper.

Libertarian Response to “Gay marriage isn’t a right”

Jonthan Zhou posted his final column of the year for the Chronicle.  He claims that he is a conservative or libertarian, but I hold that he is far from it.  This is my response to his article, sent to the Chronicle.

Mr. Zhao seeks to refute gay marriage on the basis of natural and legal rights, an intangible “morality”, an economic externality argument and finally a discussion of the separation of constitutional powers.  As a libertarian and presumed believer in Federalism, it seems shocking that Mr. Zhao somehow overlooks that separation of powers might exist for the very purpose of preventing enforcement of unjust laws. Secondly, he utilizes a UT-Austin study that found lower quality of life indicators for children raised in gay households. Assuming it is true, he ignores that utility is also lost every day by gay and lesbian couples legally unable to enjoy the full benefits of marriage, both economic and personal. Why a libertarian or conservative should argue that an interventionist tax system is the proper way to confront the economics of personal relationships is again mystifying.  Mr. Zhao’s “morality” that government should enforce is somehow completely independent of the natural rights he refers to earlier.  The concept that a government has the ability to enforce a morality beyond the natural rights of individuals is the very antithesis of libertarian thought.  His argument that there is no legal right to gay marriage is predicated on the abandonment of a natural rights morality. If this were not bad enough, Mr. Zhao starts his column by denying that there is any support of marriage amongst natural rights. But if marriage as an institution is a societal concept, defined by the many, why does a libertarian defend a government sanction of it?  If instead, marriage is a personal contract, then all have a vital libertarian right to it. The right of individuals to create contracts is inviolate.  The fact that Mr. Zhao argues against so fundamental a right indicates he is not the defender of liberty and small government he claims to be. As a libertarian myself, I would emphatically disagree that Mr. Zhao holds the same beliefs I do.

Some great links

Haven’t written much this weekend, but I’ve got some nice links to check out. In the politics and econ areas, I highly recommend this article from Reason about the End of Power.  Also check out this Op-Ed from the NY Times from an actual Gitmo detainee.

In the cool techie things department, reddit has compiled a beautiful list of so-called internet tricks, that everyone should know.

If Bitcoin is your thing, after all the volatility last week, some people have gotten together to build an open source Bitcoin exchange to help alleviate some of the problems experienced by the community. Here is the reddit link, and here is the project on github.  I’m also writing a short paper on Bitcoin and virtual currencies for my CS seminar, so if you have cool articles, feel free to tweet @mjelgart.

Finally, in basketball news, the Heat have wrapped up home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Somehow, after winning a championship last year, they are even better then they’ve ever been before. Look at these numbers. The Heat are really good right now. As a Miami native, I cannot wait for the playoffs to start this weekend.

So what is a gun background check?

I’ve been hearing all about the ongoing debate in the Senate where Republicans are threatening to filibuster a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases. When polled, virtually everyone said they wanted universal background checks. But what are these background checks, and what happens right now?

Mostly doing some oldschool Wikipedia research, I found that background checks are colloquial speak for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (abbreviated NICS because neither anyone in Congress or the FBI can use spell check). Ever since the 1993 Brady Bill, all firearms sales from licensed sellers (all companies who sell across state lines must have a government issued FFL license) must utilize NICS prior to the sale. Private sellers who do not have a license (because they don’t sell across state lines, which is still completely legal) do not have to do background checks at the point of sale, unless there are stricter rules in that particular state.  The exact same rules apply to gun shows meaning licensed sellers must still perform a NICS check while private sellers do not, unless required by that state.

Reasons NICS would not approve someone include:

  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • Is a fugitive from justice
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution
  • Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner
  • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

So to summarize what I see: we already have a lot of background checks in place, although you can get around them. People who are buying guns illegally, especially if they are connected to organized crime are probably going to find a way anyway. Does this bill have a possibility to cause damage? Certainly; it adds more bureaucracy that can make life more difficult for law-abiding citizens, it’s impossible to regulate every gun sale, and it could easily end up putting private citizens making a simple property transaction through massive legal trouble. We could also point out that many laws that can put people in jail for over a year are terrible laws, that often target minorities (or are only enforced in ways that target minorities).  There is absolutely no reason to think laws in the future wouldn’t be used to target citizens in similarly unjust ways, and this bill would make it harder for those people to defend themselves. Of course, most of those problems I’ve laid out are already present in the current system, but they would certainly be made worse.

Is this is a big deal either way? No. Could Congress be focusing its effort on more important things like cutting the defense budget or reforming entitlements instead of arguing over something largely irrelevant? Definitely. If they weren’t doing this would they probably be doing something more sinister like making the CFAA worse? Yes.  So let them squabble.

Zodiac

Zodiac, the crime-thriller from 2007 starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), was not something I remember putting on my to-watch movie list so I honestly can’t say how I heard about it, but the film surprisingly impressed me. According to wikipedia, it tanked at the box office, which is too bad, because Zodiac was masterfully done.

Fair Use

Theatrical Poster. Can or could be obtained from IMP Awards. http://www.impawards.com/2007/zodiac.html

I’m not usually one to enjoy films with serial killers as the subject matter, but Zodiac focused more on the detective work and the mystery, while adding the suspense of one of San Francisco’s most notorious unsolved crimes.  This realism mixed elements of a documentary with the suspense of a crime thriller and made for a compelling storyline.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo were excellent and  I would definitely recommend watching it. However, since it follows the book of the same name pretty closely, and relies so much on the realism, it’s not really an eye-opening film, just a really entertaining one. Still, check it out if you have a chance.

Overall: 4/5. Definitely would watch again.

Homeland

This week I finished reading Homeland by Cory Doctorowauthor and co-editor of Boing Boing.  My immediate reason for reading it was an assignment from my CS seminar class about the internet and technology in society, but I had been meaning to read Little Brother for some time.  Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, and while I was not familiar with the storyline, the book is a pretty easy read so I jumped right in. Doctorow wrote both Little Brother and Homeland for young adults to be both accessible and educational about technology and civil liberties.  Doctorow is somewhat of an anti-copyright activist and thus the books, like all of his work can be obtained for free from his website, but if you enjoy them, I urge you to buy them as well and support his work.

Homeland undertakes a great deal in a small space and is fairly successful.  Doctorow pursues various themes in his book, while seeking to explain a complex and technical world to an unfamiliar audience, all of which occurs only for the backdrop of a riveting storyline that must keep the reader’s attention.  Having not read the previous story of which Homeland is a sequel to, many of the events and background was not familiar to me, yet it was consistently well-explained. Furthermore, the intense technical nature of many of the plot devices were adequately covered so that the audience not only knew what was occurring, but inevitably learned a great deal about privacy, cryptography, and information security in the process. This  translated into pushing many of the themes of the book, notably that technology can be a force for both good and evil, and if prying eyes want to know what you’re doing, you can’t always stop them.  But Homeland also gives some insight into the hacker culture and catalogs many of the tools that government dissidents can use to hide their activities like secure linux distros, Tor, and VPNs.  And it does all this while maintaining a fascinating plot and interesting characters.

However, it is isn’t perfect. Doctorow’s politics are not particularly subtle, and with the exception of a few anonymous hackers, the vast majority of the characters are pretty starkly divided into “good guy hacktivists” and “bad guy enforcers”.  In some sense, this is due to the limitations of the genre with Homeland aimed at the young adult audience where the appeal of the fighting-the-man scenarios is an excellent plot device.  But it also detracts from the overall message;Homeland paints an incredible story of why civil liberties must be so carefully guarded and how destructive life can become when they are gone–but the story itself might feel too forced to fit that message.

Of course, I would emphasize that while some of the technology itself might not be realistic (although in a couple years that won’t be true anymore), almost every important point in the book has already happened. With the passage of the 2012 NDAAauthorizing the president to detain indefinitely any US citizen suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, the use of water boarding by the US government, and the well-documented use of defense contractors, much of the more unbelievable actions the government took in Homeland have already occurred in real life. Thus, Doctorow’s book offers a sobering outlook on the technologically advanced world we live in, and a powerful message about where the abuses of unbridled authority can lead.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in cyber security, technology and politics, or anyone who simply wants to know more about the dark world of hackers, crypto, and anonymity.

Where does economic growth come from?

One of the simplest and yet most frustrating questions policymakers and economists must answer is how to fuel and sustain economic growth. Growth, the ability to produce more goods and services, does not simply make society wealthier, but it the economic term for the enrichment of the human condition that we witness with the progress of time.  More importantly, without growth, we see increased poverty and high unemployment.  But how is economic growth created? Where does it come from, and how does policy promote it?

While short term levels of production in the economy are influenced by many different factors, most economists agree that long-term growth arises from the accumulation of human and physical capital, as well as technological innovation. Physical capital (goods used in the production process, like machinery, factories, or offices) must be constructed just like any other good, using labor, time and other inputs.  Economists refer to this as economic investment.  However, labor or previously constructed capital is scarce, and time spent using these inputs to make more capital goods means less time making consumption goods, which include anything eventually purchased in stores, like TVs, food, clothing or even housing. In other words, economic investment allows for more goods to be constructed in the future, but   only at the cost of less consumption goods being made today. This can be understood as a decision by a business or supplier to spend money on investment, in order to produce more in the future, or to simply produce more.  While this is a general case and the specifics of different industries mean that varying ratios of investment and production have to weighed on hundreds of variables, what is true is that higher levels of investment lead to higher levels of growth in production capability. However, this is only one side of the equation; the ability and desire of the suppliers to expand production can only occur if consumers show a willingness to consume less at present and consume more in the future. Savings is a vital part of long-term growth, something that is often under-emphasized when policymakers focus on short run growth levels, where higher consumer spending demonstrate higher levels of GDP.  Nevertheless, without savings, there is no source of investment for businesses to push into new physical capital, and business expansion is hampered.

But of course, accumulated physical capital cannot guarantee economic growth, as there are diminishing returns to production, which is where technological growth comes in.  The advancement of technology allows for new capital to be produced which in turn allows for growth to overcome the problems of diminishing marginal returns to production.  How technological advancements occur is somewhat unpredictable.  There are certain things the government can do, but they mostly revolve around making sure patent policy maximizes innovation while allowing everyone access to new technology.  Government itself cannot be particularly good at creating innovation directly, as it simply does not have the same knowledge that market actors do, since government programs or agencies cannot respond as quickly to price information.

In fact, when discussing any part of economic growth, there is a strong argument that government doesn’t have a huge role to play. Even if government is involved in investment of new capital, it must pull from the same pool of savings that private investment does; the only difference being that government has no profit motive to direct its investments efficiently, while it does have a political motive which often decreases efficiency.  There are of course areas where positive externalities from investments in human capital and R & D mean the market often underfunds those areas. But even in these cases, economists desire government money with no strings attached and low overhead, something that almost never happens.  And in any place where government should spend on positive externalities, it can only be made possible with savings from consumers who give up immediate purchases for long term returns.

As a society, savings and risk-taking investments are vital to growing the production capacity of the economy.  While short term growth may swing wildly, long run growth simply requires a collective sacrifice of the present for the future.  And as long as incentives exist for progress, it likely that progress will continue.