Donald Rumsfeld is evil
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Donald Rumsfeld is evil

Larry Johnson flags an excerpt from a Department of Defense press conference with Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace. I’ll snip out an even smaller bit of the excerpt, you don’t even need to see the question being answered:

PACE: It is absolutely responsibility of every U.S. service member if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it. . . .

RUMSFELD: I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it, it’s to report it.

PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.

Want an explanation of why we torture and who’s responsible? There it is in a nutshell.

Careful with those biases
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Careful with those biases

It all started when I couldn’t get Movable Type to work properly on my pair.com account. I started thinking about finding another hosting provider, especially when I started doing some stuff with Ruby on Rails and thought I might need a place to host those applications. Sure, pair.com had decent anti-spam software and had served me reliably for 8 years, but the grass was looking greener on the other side.

TextDrive is a company that took advantage of all my biases. It’s a small company that’s run by a very dedicated staff. They contribute cash and code to open source projects. They seemed dedicated to supporting cutting edge stuff. The company was started by a guy who has a cool weblog. The idea of going with a “boutique” hosting provider rather than a bulk provider was appealing.

Unfortunately, things just have not worked out. Obviously there was the run-in over my Movable Type install using too many server resources. (Perhaps turning on caching fixed that problem, I haven’t heard any more about it.) More troublesome, though, has been the downtime. When I originally tried to log in to Movable Type to post about how I need to find a new hosting provider, my server was down and I had to wait. You can’t really say any more than that, can you?

One rule I try to live by is that if something seems to appeal to my biases, I should be doubly cautious before believing it. I didn’t use that approach in this case, and the outcome has been unpleasant.

Public choice theory
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Public choice theory

I’ve been thinking a lot about public choice theory lately. Public choice theory attempts to explain why government actions generally work to the benefit of special interests rather than to maximize public good. Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

One of the basic claims that underlie public choice theory is that good government policies in a democracy are an underprovided public good, because of the rational ignorance of the voters. Each voter is faced with an infinitesimally small probability that his vote will change the result of the elections, while gathering the relevant information necessary for a well-informed voting decision requires substantial time and effort. Therefore, the rational decision for each voter is to be generally ignorant of politics and perhaps even abstain from voting. Rational choice theorists claim that this explains the gross ignorance of most citizens in modern democracies as well as low voter turnout.

While the good government tends to be a pure public good for the mass of voters, there exists a plethora of various interest groups that have strong incentives for lobbying the government to implement specific inefficient policies that would benefit them at the expense of the general public. For example, lobbying by the sugar manufacturers might result in an inefficient subsidy for the production of sugar, either direct or by protectionist measures. The costs of such inefficient policy is dispersed over all citizens, and therefore unnoticeable to each individual. On the other hand, the benefits are shared by a very small special interest group, who has very strong incentives to perpetuate the policy by further lobbying. The vast majority of voters will be completely unaware of the whole affair due to the phenomenon of rational ignorance. Therefore, theorists expect that numerous special interests will be able to successfully lobby for various inefficient policies.

This is basically a fancy, academic explanation of a phenomenon that is easily observable in just about every public policy debate. Of course, there are incentives that temper self-interest, if there weren’t, then nothing good would ever come of democracy, and we know that democracy, while imperfect, is better than the alternatives. People who would recommend government action to address various problems are obliged to consider the public choice implications of that recommendation. (One need only look at the Medicare prescription drug benefit to see how this works out in practice.)

What I wonder, though, is how public choice economists account for the governance of publicly held corporations. It seems to me that in large part, the same sorts of problems that plague governments apply here as well. Most corporate shareholders do not hold a large enough stake in the corporation to care about its day to day governance, and executives of the company are certainly special interests. How many companies do we see with ineffective, massively overpaid management. Can’t this problem be seen as an expression of public choice theory? No shareholders have enough of a stake to care about management salaries, while the executives themselves have every reason to pay themselves outrageous amounts.

Obviously these effects are variable, just as they are among governments. I do wonder what public choice economists see as the optimum level of human organization, because it seems like organizations of all kinds can manifest these problems.

Real life PVP videos
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Real life PVP videos

Mercenaries in Iraq have posted a videos of themselves randomly shooting civilian vehicles in Iraq. The company in question has a contract with the US government worth over a million dollars. Here’s a description of the contents:

The video, which first appeared on a website that has been linked unofficially to Aegis Defence Services, contained four separate clips, in which security guards open fire with automatic rifles at civilian cars. All of the shooting incidents apparently took place on “route Irish”, a road that links the airport to Baghdad.

The road has acquired the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous in the world because of the number of suicide attacks and ambushes carried out by insurgents against coalition troops. In one four-month period earlier this year it was the scene of 150 attacks.

In one of the videoed attacks, a Mercedes is fired on at a distance of several hundred yards before it crashes in to a civilian taxi. In the last clip, a white civilian car is raked with machine gun fire as it approaches an unidentified security company vehicle. Bullets can be seen hitting the vehicle before it comes to a slow stop.

Sounds like a depraved, real life version of this.

How Sony could help itself
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How Sony could help itself

Ben Edelman reports that there is a mechanism in the music player installed by Sony’s rootkit CDs that fetches messages from Sony and displays them when you open it. The mechanism is obviously intended for the distribution of marketing messages, but Sony could use it to tell users that their CD has been recalled and that they need to download an uninstaller for the rootkit. Keep this in mind when Sony says that there’s no easy way for them to let users know what’s going on. (Via Emergent Chaos.)