Posted by Marc Hodak on March 8, 2009 under Movie reviews, Patterns without intention | Read the First Comment

Dont mess with the naked blue guy

Don't mess with the naked blue guy

Notwithstanding the provenance of this film, there are no cartoon characters in Watchmen.  They were drawn much more richly and intricately than people you’d find in your average mass-market flick.  That alone would differentiate Watchmen from the ordinary pap emanating from Hollywood.  And being adapted from a graphic novel, its characters are drawn against a lush background, both literally and figuratively.

The counterfactual element of this background should be interesting for fans of political economy.  In the story, the first gen Watchmen appear around the 1940s, when the U.S. was looking for heroes.  The public welcomed the “Minutemen” (as they were then called) who fought crime at home and inspired victory abroad.

Alas, no one remains a media darling forever, especially if you’re fallible and powerful.  The backlash coalesced around the slogan “Who will watch the Watchmen?”  The answer of course was, “the government,” which led to something quite predictable in our world–licensing and regulation.  In order to be allowed to continue their heroics, they would have to register with the authorities.  The public choice mavens among you would no doubt ask, “Who will watch the people watching the Watchmen?”

So, Dr. Manhattan, the one Watchman with supernatural, almost god-like powers, becomes a civil servant tasked with preventing a nuclear holocaust.  He eventually becomes so detached and melancholy that he ends up hardly caring if the whole human race dies.  Don’t you get that feeling from the folks behind the counter at the Post Office?

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The ultimate conservationist policy

Posted by Marc Hodak on August 13, 2008 under Patterns without intention | Comments are off for this article

I don’t understand. How can all this be happening without the government telling us what to do?

Consumers are buying fewer sport-utility vehicles and more energy-saving washing machines. Some trucking companies have rejiggered their engines to max out at lower speeds. Gridlock is easing in California. Americans drove 9.66 billion fewer miles in May than they did a year earlier, a 3.7% decline, according to the Transportation Department.

With shipping costs surging, companies are rethinking overseas production, slimming down packaging and retooling distribution networks. Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm is only sending out fully loaded delivery trucks. Procter & Gamble Co. is filling smaller bottles with more-powerful laundry detergent. Locally made products, from beets to beer, are becoming a more attractive choice.

I must have missed the big rallies where these solutions were laid out by our dear leaders.

Congress: A well-oiled machine

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 9, 2008 under Patterns without intention | 3 Comments to Read

No, I’m not being facetious. Regular readers (thank you my fine few dozen!) would know that I am not a big fan of Congress’s work. In fact, it’s fair to say that if Congress passes legislation, I’m almost certain to think our country is worse off for it.

So why would I rationally and sincerely consider Congress a “well-oiled machine?” Because, as an institution, as unpopular and frighteningly wasteful as it seems to those of us on the outside, it is extremely functional at serving the values of those on the inside.

How can one reconcile this graph…

With this one?

One way is to view our Federal government as a broken business model that simply cannot go out of business.

Oh, God

Posted by Marc Hodak on May 18, 2008 under Patterns without intention | 3 Comments to Read

The debate between scientists and theologians continues. Actually, the link mostly recounts the surprisingly diverse opinions about God held by scientists. Here are the most common answers to the question: Does science make belief in God obsolete?

— Science has failed to find natural evidence of God. Natural evidence is all there is. No God. Case closed.

— Slightly softer is this line of reasoning: Science erases the “need” for God as an explanation of our experiences, and God either doesn’t exist or is at best a hypothesis (to the agnostic).

— And then there’s the view expressed in the title of University of Hawaii physicist and astronomer Victor Stenger’s new book, “God: The Failed Hypothesis — How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.”

Then, we get into the more tortuous explanations attempting to reconcile science and religious belief. These are variations on common fallacies about science:

1. Science hasn’t proved that God doesn’t exist, so He might.

Weak. One can’t prove a negative assertion. Resting one’s case on the lack of proof negates reason. In fact, most serious theologians have long since given up on reason as a basis for God; they stipulate that it’s purely a matter of faith.

2. We can redefine “God” as the ‘wonders of science’–viola, no contradiction.

Super weak. I can define my shoe as your watermelon. It doesn’t make my shoe any more appetizing.

3. Biggest reach of all: “It is this claim to a monopoly of meaning … that makes science and religion look like competitors today.” The implication is that they don’t have to be, i.e., it’s just semantics.

Weaker than the gravitational field around a King James Bible. Science is not about meaning. It’s about relating X to Y. That relationship doesn’t mean anything, until someone invents that meaning, which is separate from the theories, hypotheses, tests, and conclusions that comprise the scientific process.

Inventing meaning is practically all we humans do, besides maybe grow food and make toys. Religionists must consider that science can be meaning-free. The debate is ultimately between a belief in meaning and an acceptance of meaninglessness.

In a way, the fallacy of science as a different kind of meaning is the most difficult to dispel in a debate about God. People who believe in God cannot imagine that anyone truly can’t. People who don’t believe in God cannot fathom that anyone really can. That’s the unconquerable divide.

I will finish by paraphrasing a believer who is also a skeptic: I am not one of those people who believes that God is involved in the world. On the contrary. Observe the world around us. Observe the world through history. Does it look like God’s involved?

Back on the farm

Posted by Marc Hodak on January 11, 2008 under Patterns without intention | Comments are off for this article

Well, we’re out on my mother-in-law’s place…or what used to be. The farmhouse I visited just a couple of weeks ago is completely wrecked. It still has much of the ceiling and rooms, but the roof above the ceiling is mostly gone, the windows are blown in, and there is no real shelter from the elements at this point. All her other structures–barn, tool shed, etc.–are completely gone. About a dozen large trees are on their side. The six-foot craters below the root systems of the uprooted trunks is evidence of the violence that visited here. All the furniture, clothing, papers, and other contents were soaked in the rain of the storm.

By the time I arrived, a small army of people had already spent two days cleaning up the site. Family, friends, and neighbors sorted most of the stuff in the house into either a dumpster, a trailer, or bags and boxes, depending on a preliminary sense of what might be salvageable. Local Mennonites came unbidden with food and water, and cut down many of the damaged trees, promising to come back to finish the job.

The outpouring of help received by my mother-in-law gives meaning to the sense of community that exists in this rural area. When a pair of Salvation Army representatives dropped in, my wife cheerfully, if naively, pointed them to a pile of useful stuff that we felt were suitable for donation. The SA reps, looking a little embarrassed, said that they had come to give, not get. After asking mom a few questions about how they could help, they left a $75 check.

At the other end of the spectrum in helpfulness was the Red Cross. While their check was greater, so was the pain of the process in obtaining it. First of all, we had to go to them. (The Salvation Army representatives told us where we could find them). It then took over an hour of answering questions and completing forms. The experience reminds you that one of the biggest downsides to qualifying for institutional relief is the bureaucratic gauntlet required to obtain it.

The insurance adjuster has been busy in this tornado-stricken region, but he finally arrives today. We await his verdict on the damages.

Blown away

Posted by Marc Hodak on January 8, 2008 under Patterns without intention | Comments are off for this article

That’s what happened this evening to the farm we were at a couple weeks ago. The Marshfield home of my mother-in-law, Rose, was struck by a tornado. Thank goodness, she got away without a scratch, having spent the ordeal in her basement, emerging to a group of emergency workers checking out her badly damaged home. All of her other buildings and yard trees are gone.

Marshfield has endured tornadoes before, but it’s still a shock when it strikes your own home. Somehow, her brother’s farm across the road survived intact, so she has a convenient place to stay until she can survey the damage tomorrow morning. Her nephews and nieces, my wife’s grown cousins, will be there ready to help at daybreak. My wife will be out there soon enough.

Everyone who knows Rose is confident that she will be just fine, despite the destruction. This lady grew up in hard times. She has carefully maintained her health, finances, and relationships in precisely the way that would enable one to weather such a storm. For example, she had just completed an addition to the back of her house when we were there over Christmas. Now, if it were me, I would have gotten around to calling my insurance agent to update my homeowner’s policy by, oh…September. Rose had already gotten hers updated last week. That brand new addition is, as they say, gone with the wind, but what’s a poor claim adjuster to do? Check her phone records for any calls to Zeus?

Yea, she’s gonna be fine.

I could see it coming

Posted by Marc Hodak on August 3, 2007 under Patterns without intention | 4 Comments to Read

Every accident, such as the horrific collapse of the highway bridge in Minneapolis, brings on six, predictable steps:

1) Shock – People react to devastation in a visceral way. For a fair percentage of people, the instant response is “OMG,” “Wow,” or even “Cool.” It may take several beats, minutes, or hours before even those of us who exhibit a great deal of empathy in our personal and professional lives finally arrive at a genuine sense of dread about the matter. Just before that moment sets in is where local news is at its best, satisfying what is at this point an insatiable curiosity.

2) Grief – First from those directly affected, then from the rest of us witnessing them, in widening circles. Here, the news process rapidly goes downhill, chasing the “human story” in the form of cameras and mikes in the faces of the distraught, preferably as they are dragged from the river. It’s not the media display of individual grief that is so unwholesome as much as the competition to display it sooner, oftener, and more graphically as the media swarm descends on the situation.

3) Political outrage – They can’t help it. Politicians trade on outrage. Unlike the media coverage of grief, which only gets unseemly when it balloons into a competition of pain, political outrage is unseemly at the outset. Then, the competition begins. That escalating outrage is conveniently directed at the most politically vulnerable link in the chain of causation (or foreigners). Not to underestimate the depth of outrage a politician is capable of mustering, politicians can express it toward several politically vulnerable groups, opponents, and each other all at once. They’re that good.

4) Blame – Any situation where people get hurt on a large scale, no matter how accidental, sooner or later generates a widespread sense that “someone” is at fault. In the case of engineering failure, there is almost never a single reason. Given how few bridges collapse in this country, the most likely cause is a whole chain of improbable decisions and events that, absent any other intervention, would be unlikely to recur in several decades. But the politicians will lead the hunt, with the media close behind, instinctively homing in one of several links in that chain as “the” cause.

5) The Memo – In the witch hunt that follows, eventually proof will show up that someone, somewhere, wrote a memo predicting that this would happen. Sort of. It will rarely be a definitive prediction, such as “Structural defect A will lead this bridge to fail in the next six-to-twelve months if we don’t do anything.” It will be a more general prediction like, “Deficiency A across our system of bridges may, if untreated, eventually lead to severe problems, or even catastrophic results.” This memo will, of course, be indistinguishable from thousands of similar memos that predict disasters of indeterminate timing and consequence all over the nation all the time. But as far as the blame hunters are concerned, here is the smoking gun. Every can see the smoke with the perfect clarity of hindsight bias.

6) Prosecution – The person who ignored “the memo” becomes a useful scapegoat. And his boss. And their co-conspirators. The eventual trial is, of course, just another part of the show that this whole disaster becomes, the crescendo of blame and outrage, a chance for the people to march from the countryside with their torches through the public square…oh, wait, wrong century.


You’d like to think that a disaster, unfortunate as it is, can be used as a learning opportunity. If we never have an engineering failure, then things clearly have been over-engineered. After a failure, if the process is done right, everyone has the incentive to contribute information related to the chain of events so that resources can be focused on the weakest link.

Blame and outrage destroys that process. It forces everyone associated with the accident to hide the very information most closely related to the weakest link. At its worst, when bad judgment criminalized, the only people benefiting are those doing the punishing. The rest of society bears the cost of overreaction.

Anyway, that’s the prediction here about how this accident will evolve into tragedy.

How market complexity simplifies your life

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 10, 2007 under Patterns without intention | 4 Comments to Read

The McKinsey Quarterly features an interesting article on organizational complexity, offering the following advice:

Executives should distinguish between two types of complexity—institutional and individual. The former concerns the number and nature of interactions within a company, the latter the way individual employees and managers experience and deal with complexity.

This is similar to the powerful distinction of internalizing complexity. That’s when an organization takes on additional work processes in order to spare individuals from having to deal with them. For example, consider where electricity comes from. For the producer, it comes from a bewilderingly complex system of plants, wires, engineers, etc. And behind that, the complexity mushrooms into coal suppliers, an educated labor pool, ad infinitum. But for you and me, it comes from a wall outlet. Where does water come from? The faucet. Where does your friend’s voice come from? The cell phone. How does a car move? Push down on the accelerator.

One of the things that markets do extremely well is simplify our lives. Complexity has a cost, and producers compete on minimizing costs to their customers. So, if a producer has a choice between complicating their own life versus that of their customer, the producer will tend to absorb the complexity. Only then will they seek ways to minimize complexity within their organization so it can function more efficiently. Disney World is a notoriously difficult place to work precisely because it’s a seamless paradise for kids and families. All the complexity required to produce the “Disney Magic” is absorbed by the folks behind the scenes.

Contrast that with how well government “services” internalize complexity–or not.

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Even New York will become a tax haven

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 6, 2007 under Patterns without intention | Comments are off for this article

New York, the bluest city in the among the bluest states, whose people love taxes, is phasing out taxes on apparel and footwear by next year.

Interestingly, just a couple months ago the NY Times had an article about how popular destinations like New York were socking it to their tourists in the form of out-of-control hotel and rental car charges, telling visitors in essence to, “suck it up, you don’t vote here.” But even New York got embarrassed by their 20 percent tax rate on hotel rooms when the joke among travel agents became, “stay for four days, pay for five.” New York has since backed down to about a 14 percent rate, at the lower end of the range among major cities. Tax competition.

Now, politicians seem to be singing a very different tune:

The repeal of this tax will enhance the City’s attractiveness as a tourist destination, particularly to individuals from outside the United States who wish to take advantage of the current exchange rates. Eliminating the city’s portion of the sales tax will encourage consumer spending, which will help to stimulate economic activity and create and preserve jobs in New York.

Tax competition.

Where will it end? I predict, in the distant future, a uniform rate on consumption and earnings–all in–somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. That’s the rate that would justify a political entity’s ability to secure the rights of those transacting and owning property within its territory, and ancillary services most efficiently produced by a polity rather than a market. Everything else will be competed away–the graft, the logrolling, the favors to special interests that come at everyone else’s expense, the looting of those who can afford to pay. Tax competition. The very people who hate it will be disciplined by it, as surely as water runs downhill.

How can I become a shill for Big Pharma, too?

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 20, 2007 under Patterns without intention | Comments are off for this article

With the imminent release of Michael Moore’s film “Sicko,” both sides of the debate on socialized health care are ramping up their PR machines. The meta-debate is about how the medical community, especially Big Pharma, are funding the anti-Sicko think tanks and blogs.

Well, I think Michael Moore is full of sh*t, and I think socialized health care would be a disaster for us and the rest of the world that flocks here when they can’t get what they want at home. So I went about trying to figure out how I could get some of those Big Pharma dollars. Have to run just now, but will report on my success later…