Why I can’t be a NetNeut’er.

I tweeted yesterday that I can’t see how net neutrality supporters can support anything that alters the end user experience on the web, including apps and competing browsers (and their attendant extensions) that perform at different speeds.

I see the practical difference: supplying the bandwidth has temporal precedence, because the bandwidth supply determines the performance of said apps and browsers. However, in principle, are bandwidth, apps, and browsers not all inputs along the path to the end user? If we believe in an Internet in which EVERYONE has equal access, does the fragmentation of the Internet created by competing web products, especially mobile and web apps, not disrupt that vision on some level? An even better question: would apps and browsers be at some point open to regulation in a netneut world? The tweet was supposed to get us thinking about these things.

The netneut’ers selective support seems to me to stem from an assumption that— unlike the decision to use apps — any kind of differentiation in bandwidth would be a) out of consumer’s hands and b) in control of greedy monied interests and categorically adverse to consumer’s interests. There’s incredible (and unjustified) certitude here. Why else say with any confidence that a regulatory preemptive strike is warranted? That’s a big premise to swallow — and I don’t know how people who generally have ANY faith in the marketplace can take that pill.

Consumers choose web products that yield the best performance to them. In essence, they do their own selective rationing of the bandwidth they purchase. That bandwidth is delivered with no discrimination, and they are then free to do what they want with it. If I want to download an app that dedicated 50% of my connection to monitoring Twitter (because I love it that much) I can do that. I can essentially throttle my own connection.

Right now, it makes no sense for IPs to step in and throttle bandwidth delivery because there’s generally enough to go around. But it’s hubristic to assume that we know where the Internet is headed. It’s not inconceivable, given the growth of video streaming, that bandwidth is going to become an increasingly scarce resource in the coming years. Regardless, consumption patterns will change even if relative scarcity does not. IPs will need to be able to respond. When I see graphs like the one below, it’s not hard to imagine a not-too-distant day when video streaming services, like Netflix, won’t be able to make it in the marketplace if they can’t reserve bandwidth in bulk. And if they can’t — it’s end users who suffer.

It’s a false dichotomy to say that net neutrality is “free” in any meaningful way, and that it’s absence opens bandwidth up to corporate rationing. Effectively, netneut IS rationing. The government is effectively saying that the best allocation of this market’s resource — bandwidth — is an equal allocation among all agents, regardless of their individual resource demands. Who could this possibly make sense to, and what is “free” about it? In the current world, this arrangement is ok because equal rations leaves enough for all. But again, it’s not hard to imagine a coming world where this poses a huge problem. If I am interpreting this incorrectly, I would love clarification.

The big concern is that we end up in a world where throttling is actually needed and there won’t be enough competition among IPs to ensure that consumers are getting a fair deal. Profit motive isn’t enough to reach an equilibrium if there’s no real competition to drive IPs toward the bandwidth allocation that consumers are happiest with. Maybe there will be some kind of market failure there — but we aren’t at that point yet and it is hardly a foregone conclusion. Even then, we have to ask if the cost of government intervention — some suboptimal, technocratically imposed allocation — is worthwhile.

I have to hand it to netneut’ers. As a former one myself, I can say they have done an excellent job selling this effective distribution scheme as protecting innovating forces in the marketplace. But I have come around to seeing net neutrality as a potential death sentence for any service that requires above-average bandwidth. I would love to see any market’s resources the government has deemed should be rationed equally based on values, divorced from economic reality, that has led to market conditions that could even remotely be considered free, or conducive to innovation.

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Get real, Riehl.

Dan Riehl, conservative blogger extraordinaire, has a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell post-mortem. Mr. Riehl assures us that he is not much of a “culture warrior,” then demonstrates that clearly you don’t have to have a lot of experience to fight the culture wars well.

Not being much of a culture warrior, I haven’t paid much attention to this issue. But then, I don’t pay much attention to people’s sexual preference in the first place, unless it concerns me, somehow! ; )

Enough of that. There are two things about Mr. Riehl’s post that disturb me.

First, Mr. Riehl believes that the DADT repeal creates a slippery slope into a military obsessed with politically correct hyper-sensitivity with the aim of achieving a progressive “utopia.”

It may be a year, or two – but eventually we’ll start hearing, there aren’t enough gays in the military! Well, obviously, it must not begay-friendly enough. Time to do something about that. Recruiting and basic training will likely be seen as the place to start. We’ll just add those costs to the military budget already under attack from the Left. What’s the harm in that? We’ll just have to trade some number of missiles for missives, as long as they’re politically correct.

Of course, there will be incidents and reprimands, along with the required sensitivity training. Do military uniforms allow for cross-dressing, by the way? Eventually, someone, somewhere who’s all about LGBT, is likely to want to know about that, despite it having little to do with sexual activity, or even preference, in some cases.

The end result?

However one views it, what was once viewed as having one primary purpose, to kill people and break things, now has another overlay upon it – a political agenda, more than an actual goal – thanks to progressivism, no real friend to the military in the first place. How that all plays out remains to be seen. But play out it will as the progressive Left and Right continue their march toward utopia.

Hurrah! Some of them may eventually get to march in pink fatigues! That drab olive green really is a tad tacky, don’t you think? Oh well, just scratch another missile, or three – we can’t have GIs wearing the same old thing, year after year. I mean, really!!

And this last quote really gets at the second thing that bothers me. Mr. Riehl forgoes the opportunity to even end strong by saying something that I am sure he finds funny and clever but really is just slander. Not that any of his argument is particularly persuasive outside of its raw emotional appeal to individuals like Mr. Riehl himself.

I engaged Mr. Riehl on these two issues here. I think, in hindsight, including my value judgment with my empirical concerns was a poor choice, because it seems to have muddled the debate, as evidenced by Mr. Riehl’s invective-filled replies here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For the record, I absolutely maintain that Mr. Riehl’s posts are both disturbing (because they are indicative of a prominent world view) and bigoted (because they propagate irrational antipathy toward a group). If his post and our dialogue isn’t enough to convincingly make that case, see Mr. Riehl’s Twitter feed, or this gem.

Mr. Riehl’s visceral, reflexive rage does his partisans no good. Yet as passionately as he forwards this argument, it is as tired and trite as any other diatribe from the social conservatives. Everything “progressive” is just a slippery slope into some awful dystopic false-utopia. I can be made amenable to any argument, but I am certainly not amendable to it sans any kind of rational indication that it may be true.

And evidence is conspicuously lacking. The closest example to the repeal of DADT is the racial integration of the military, which occurred half a century ago. I don’t think much bad has resulted from that, or that Mr. Riehl would even say that was a bad idea. I am not aware of an affirmative action program for the military, or that any of the other things that Mr. Riehl alleges in his post are likely down the road actually materialized following integration. Mr. Riehl dismisses me merely by saying that it is wrong for me to think that “gay=black.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that. The gay experience is different in many ways, although the black experience is instructive (and regardless, the best proxy) of the effects of ending forms of discrimination in the military. But even if I did think gays and blacks were categorically the same, Mr. Riehl again offers no rationale for why I would be wrong.

And, of course, Mr. Riehl fails to address the tradeoff question. Even if gays successfully get pink fatigues and sensitivity training introduced into the military — as he seems to fear — is preventing that worth ossifying institutional discrimination in the one occupation that is supposed to be open to every American citizen? Or maybe Mr. Riehl doesn’t find that discrimination heinous.

The culture wars are alive and well. Mr. Reihl can have them. The gays will be fighting the ones that matter.

#help.

I am entirely open to explanations for this. For some background, I love Google Trends, and it occurred to me after reading this article in The Guardian about the hashtag’s resurrection that it would be interesting to see how it has faired on Google.

The output is kind of boring, really. Use has been increasing steadily over time, but WTF is up with that massive blip in the distribution? It’s in late 2007 (November 25), and Google can’t peg it to any news stories.

Here’s a box plot to put it in perspective.

Of course, I don’t use Google to search for Twitter hashtags, but I imagine it does happen, and anyway, the thesis is that hashtags are filtering back into the zeitgeist more generally. Regardless, now I am interested…

It just seems pretty unlikely for this to be random…

Is Paul Krugman still an economist?

This question came to me the other day. Really, it did, and I think we need to reconsider whether we consider Paul Krugman an economist. Hear me out.

First, I have to admit, this might be a straw man. I realize that the New York Times does not specifically refer to him as an economist, yet they mention that his current academic research focuses on currency crises. To that, I have to ask, “What research?”

GDP growth? Or Krugman's work?

Here’s a graph of the number of hits on JSTOR searching by author for “Paul Krugman” gets you. I didn’t make any effort whatsoever to parse out book reviews and glorified summaries from actual peer-reviewed research. This is everything JSTOR has for the man.

One point does not a trend make. But what about 15? Over the last 15 years, Krugman’s work in the JSTOR database has declined significantly, down to nearly nothing or a mere trickle over the past few years.

My argument is that “economist” is an occupation, much like “economics professor” or “columnist.” I believe that there is a compelling argument to be made that Paul Krugman is not, in fact, an economist. I think the substantive difference lies mainly in semantics, but I think it says a lot about Krugman that he has become quite comfortable writing a weekly column berating practicing economists from his bully pulpit on high rather than getting his own hands dirty. It is much easier to cast blame when you absolve yourself of plausible culpability.

Sounds like a moral hazard problem to me.

More prophecy from John C. Calhoun.

John Calhoun, the pol that everyone loves to hate:

It is not then wonderful, that a form of government, which periodically stakes all its honors and emoluments, as prizes to be contended for, should divide the community into two great hostile parties; or that party attachments, in the progress of the strife, should become so strong among the members of each  to absorb almost every feeling of our nature, both social and individual; or that their mutual antipathies should be carried to such an excess as to destroy almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion. Nor is it surprising, that under their joint influence, the community should cease to be the common centre of attachment, or that each party should find that centre only in itself. It is thus, that, in such governments, devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country — the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy, objects of far greater solicitude, than the safety and prosperity of the community.

Some context:

Calhoun is talking about a scenario that he believes arises under a government controlled by a numerical vs. “concurrent” majority. Calhoun felt that the term “majority” was thrown around too much and that whereas a numerical majority accounts for the sum of individual people, a concurrent majority accounted for the variety of interests that exist in society. Like the Founders, he was wary of the former and supportive of the latter. I don’t want to get into an argument over whether our country has become too democratic in the pure sense of the term. I do think the quote is worth pondering though.

It’s a more eloquent articulation of a lot of arguments surrounding some current affairs. It is pretty conspicuous that both parties are as ideologically polarized today as ever. Calhoun’s critique could be applied to, say, the GOP pledge to obstruct legislation until the tax cuts are voted on. Note that this includes blocking the DREAM Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, two critical pieces of legislation. With respect to the latter, Senate Republicans nearly stand alone in opposition, including among military leadership. Could there be a more instructive example of malfunction in a democratic institution?

Or how about the myopia surrounding the tax cut compromise, in which a trillion dollar Stimulus II was agreed to by Republicans (who expanded their majority a month ago on promises of parsimony), and reviled (even filibustered) by Democrats, all because the hammer came down in favor of Republicans on the issue of a 4.5% difference in the marginal tax rate of 2% of the population. Where’s the big picture?

Democrats are fighting for a politically disadvantaged class, Republicans are fighting for entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Yeah, we get it.

The reality, however, is that both parties set up totems and use either their preservation or destruction to mobilize the masses. This is a far cry from what our political institutions should be doing: distilling the greater good from various represented interests. DO NOT MISTAKE ME: I support partisan, adversarial politics. But the adversarial nature of our system is supposed to arise from the fair representation of the varied interests among us, not from the symbolic non-issue issues that the respective parties stage on television for our alternating enjoyment and anger so as to galvanize a gullible electorate into swinging the government in their favor.

An economics deficit.

The NYT has a pretty indicting editorial criticizing the President’s lack of leadership. For once we agree: the President is looking like a political amateur (when wasn’t he, though?) and Republicans are running all over him and his agenda.

Here’s an argument, however, that I don’t comprehend.

In the absence of presidential leadership, the Republicans have a much stronger hand. The dismal November jobs report, which showed that average wages grew by a Scrooge-like penny an hour and unemployment rose to 9.8 percent from 9.6 percent, made unemployment benefits a more valuable hostage. {emphasis mine}

An economics lesson:

Keynesians and Classicalists have pretty similar views on what wages are supposed to do. The end game is that the real wage — the nominal wage relative to the price level — should remain relatively stable. They disagree in how fast we get there. Classicalists believe wages adjust quickly and neatly, while Keynesians believe they are “sticky.” I am going to go out on a limb here and say the NYT editorial board is of the Keynesian persuasion. But regardless, wages SHOULD be stagnant right now. We have had almost no inflation, and likely had a couple of periods of falling prices. Economic theory suggests then that the equilibrium wage is roughly the same today as it was before the recession, and frankly, might ought to be less.

Even if you are a hardcore Keynesian and are used to reflexively saying that wages are trying to play catch-up, you have to ask yourself, “Catch up to what?”

Here’s a lede…

From the WSJ magazine:

Here’s how the second-richest man in America introduced himself to Sharon Osberg:

He invited her into his office, got her down on hands and knees…

Who wouldn’t want to read THAT story?

In other news, I still refuse to believe that Warren Buffett is the lovable old grandpa that he has successfully tricked everyone into believing. For more on that, see here.

 

A missed opportunity on TSA.

The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski sat down with John Pistole, head of the TSA, for this weekend’s “Weekend Interview.” Overall, it was a pretty favorable one. Kaminski basically threw out some soft balls and let Pistole hit them out of the park. But this isn’t to say Kaminski didn’t try to address all of the concerns people have had with the new TSA screening policy; that is, except for at least one.

“Yeah, it’s inconvenient,” he says, but “for those who say it’s groping, I wonder how many have actually been through it.” For the sake of journalism, I opted out of the full-body image screen this week at Washington’s Reagan Airport to test this premise. A friendly screener patted me down with “the back of my hand” in sensitive areas, and didn’t honor the TSA’s invocation to run up the thigh until he met resistance. My experience wasn’t bad, but Mr. Pistole admits that isn’t always the case.

Notice Kaminski didn’t receive the full pat-down. Kaminski sort of let’s point this flop. In the next paragraph, Pistole takes it in another direction, as if acknowledgement alone of Kaminski’s experience is sufficient. But I see something important.

I imagine that Kaminski’s experience of not receiving the full pat-down is actually fairly common among normal-looking passengers. TSA agents know it is awkward to essentially grope people — especially ones who do not outwardly look suspicious. In a way, I am happy about that. Yet at the same time, I think it can potentially undercut TSA policy.

It is a common understanding of regulation that resources are finite, and thus, the more draconian regulation becomes, the more spread thin resources are. This can typically be alleviated by devoting more resources. Some people call this increased security, others call it a slippery slope.  But there’s another problem regulators face as their regulation approaches being draconian: shirking. Humans regulate other humans, and the more difficult regulation is to carry out, the more irrational it seems to be, the more the individuals doing it will underperform their responsibilities. It seems like a paradox, but all things have diminishing returns. After a point, those returns become negative.

I would have liked to have seen some questioning on this point. I think Kaminski’s experience was in fact just as important to consider as some of the other arguments addressed in the intervew, and I would have like to hear Pistole’s response; although, I can imagine it would be dismissive.

Frankly, I would not be surprised if the next attack came from a terrorist flying business casual, who opted for the pat-down, and got a TSA officer who just didn’t feel comfortable groping him/her.