Monday, April 22, 2013

Free speech versus moderated comments

Version 0.5

Free Speech Versus Moderated Comments

I want to clarify my position on free speech in light of my settings for moderation on all blogger comments. I think there are several elements of confusion, especially about the use of the word "free".

First, let me be clear that I strong approve of free speech in the sense of freedom to say whatever you want. That means I am STRONGLY inclined to approve EVERY comment or reaction submitted in response to any of my blogs. Except for unsolicited commercial spam, I am unable to recall any comment that I did not approve, and I have even approved a couple of replies that came dangerously close, but which seemed sincere enough and strongly relevant to the topic of the comment.

Second, I want to thank you for disagreeing with me so strongly that you actually change my mind. It doesn't happen very often (except for corrections of typos or silly mistakes), but it is possible and I really want to learn about my misconceptions, incorrect reasoning, and especially about any false evidence I am relying upon or unknown and important evidence that I should consider. Even if you disagree with me vigorously, I want to approve your post. However, if you are sincerely trying to change my mind, you should focus on new evidence or analytic flaws in my reasoning.

Third, if you just call me a bunch of vile names, I'm just going to approve your post so I can hold you up and wave you around as effectively discrediting and disproving yourself because you are unable to provide anything more substantive. I actually think emotional writing can show sincerity and there is even research showing it is more persuasive, but I insist that I am an essentially reasonable person and I'm quite happy to say something along the lines of "This fellow strongly disagrees with me, but he is contradicting himself and can therefore be dismissed as some sort of liar without even trying to figure out which side of his own words he actually believes." That's just one example, but I'm frequently surprised by how inconsistent people are... There might be some limit of angry ranting where I would just decide not to approve the comment, but I'm having trouble seeing where it would be, because the crazier someone gets in their disagreement, the more reasonable I feel and the happier I am to use their craziness as evidence of my reasonableness.

Fourth, I want to address the confusion about "free speech", which is NOT related to free beer. Being able to speak freely has almost nothing to do with the actual financial costs of speaking, especially in these days of exceedingly cheap Internet-based publishing. I am moderating these comments because of unpaid COMMERCIAL speech, specifically the scams that are being "advertised" by spammers. Okay, I admit that I don't have many readers, but I am NOT going to help the spammers in harassing them as the spammers desperately search for the tiny number of suckers who can be fooled into sending money. If you are a spammer, your comments will NEVER be approved by me and I will do everything I can think of to put you out of business. I am NOT saying we can convert spammers into decent human beings, but I do believe that without the money, they will crawl under less visible rocks.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Couch Potatoes of the World Unite

Version 0.3

Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite!
You have nothing to lose but your humanity!

Yes, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek, but there's a serious notion underneath. We need to rethink economics, and I'm even going to outline a different way of thinking about it. I hope my conclusion surprises you: The couch potatoes are more valuable and more human than you think and they actually contribute more to our economy than they are usually given credit for.

Let's start by analyzing economic activity and classifying it into three categories. There is an essential category that keeps us afloat, an investment category that makes things better, and everything else that makes us enlightened human beings. The rest of this post is basically explaining those three ideas and offering a few of the most basic observations, but my real questions are about the numbers. I've been looking for this kind of information for some years, and so far I've been coming up dry. Isn't ANYONE else thinking along these lines? Please point me at the right economists. The comments are open for such purposes!

The essential category includes such things and producing food and clothing and maintaining houses and essential infrastructure. This is what you have to do just to keep life at the current physical level. One way to think about it is as a metric of the productivity of the civilization. A more advanced society will do this more efficiently. Think of it as an average of the total working time. In an advanced society, perhaps the average working time to produce the essentials will be 2 hours per week, and the rest of the economic activity is for other purposes, whereas a relatively less advanced society may require 30, 50, or even 80 hours of weekly work from each individual just to stay afloat. In other words, at some point a society cannot sustain itself because there aren't enough hours in the week, and there are poor and effectively dysfunctional societies that really are dependent upon outside assistance just to attempt to survive.

The investment category includes all of the spending that improves productivity and thus reduces the economic expense of the essential category. That includes things like building better infrastructure or creating better machinery for more efficient factories, but it also includes less obvious things like technical education and even abstract research where the results are years away and quite unpredictable. You can actually evaluate the spending in this category based on the RoI (Return on Investment). The easy calls are cases where you can calculate that developing a certain device will cost a certain amount of money and it will take a known amount of time to make profits that equal that amount of money. Yes, the future is never certain, but some things are relatively easy to predict and the investments in those cases are easy to justify. I actually think this part of the economy should be evaluated in competitive terms. A nation that wants to advance relative to other societies should spend more in this category, for example by tweaking the tax incentives to encourage people to shift more money from the next category...

Now we're ready for the category of everything else, and that's where the couch potatoes enter the picture as representatives of the leisure class. Yes, it's a stereotype with negative connotations, but there really are a lot of economic activities in the leisure class that are represented by the people who watch television or who read books. This category has a lot of interesting attributes. For example, it is divided into a creative and consuming side, and advanced societies have already passed the threshold of maxing out. Let's take a simple example of books: We already publish more new books than any person can possibly read, even if that person was free to spend all of his time reading new books. Another aspect is that the demand on the consuming side is never satisfied. You can only eat so much food or wear so much clothing, but the only limit on your leisure time is the time itself. A related aspect is that many of these leisure goods are not consumed, since the same movie can be viewed by any number of people. What mostly counts in this part of the economy is how people vote with their time. In the example of an advertising-based economy, it really matters to the advertisers if the couch potatoes vote for football or baseball.

Okay, I guess that's enough food for thought. As noted earlier, I've been thinking about these ideas for some years, but so far I haven't found any leads and especially I haven't been able to find any numbers. If you know of such, comments with pointers would be greatly appreciated.

Oh yeah, I better explain the subtitle about humanity... I suspect than an inhuman civilization of machines would skip the third category. It's the humanity, stupid.