Thursday, April 30, 2009

Self-interest

I found an amusing story, which I am stealing shamelessly from Jay Nordlinger's column at National Review:
He’s on MacNeil-Lehrer (I believe) with some woman from the education establishment (what Bill Bennett used to call “the Blob”). Gramm says, “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.” The woman says, “No, you don’t.” Gramm says, “Okay: What are their names?”
This pretty much sums up my philosophy of government (and also of history): people are self-interested. If you are a cynic, you might say they are selfish. If you are a Christian (which I am), you might say that man is fallen and inherently sinful. However you express it, the point is the same: people are going to do what is best for them. If you establish any social institutions on the expectation that people are going to be altruistic, you are heading for disaster.

Moreover, as the Gramm interview implies, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. Not only are people inclined to do what is in their best interests; they also happen to be in the best position to judge their own interests. This is not only because they know what they want, but also because they know their own situation intimately, whereas other people and institutions can only understand them vaguely, usually by classifying them into a series of crude categories.

Obviously, I am not saying that everyone at all times will do what is best for them. People do self-destructive things all the time; but at least they can take responsibility for their actions, and make their decisions from an informed perspective. There is something noble in failing as long as one tries, and everyone is certainly trying for fulfillment. There is nothing noble in being bludgeoned into failure by government (or any other institution, or individual).

Also, I am not saying that no one is ever altruistic. Suicide bombers voluntarily give their own lives in a cause larger than themselves (although their families also profit greatly); the Japanese produced kamikaze pilots and soldiers who preferred death to surrender in WWII; and their are people who give themselves for far nobler causes. But these are rare cases. Willingness to die for one's country, one's faith, or one's family is deeply instilled in most cultures, but only when they are threatened. While alive, most of these same people would not hesitate to take more for themselves at the expense of others.

All attempts to wish away self-interest are therefore doomed to failure. They will never work for the bulk of society, and never in normal peacetime conditions. The "New Soviet Man" was just the old human oppressed by the Soviet state. "Make Love, Not War" works as long as there is nothing to fight about, but hippies proved willing to resort to violence to destroy institutions that they found oppressive. At least "Why can't we all just get along?" has the excuse of being an exasperated plea rather than a political program. We can't get along because there are limited resources (economic and social (e.g., prestige)) to go around, and people can't agree on how to divide them up.

Another hopeless slogan that falls into this category is the promise by our current president to be "post-partisan." How exactly is that to be achieved? By giving in to his opponents on every issue? Obviously not, based on his actions. By convincing his opponents of the justice of his positions? Again, no; nor could anyone really promise this. Frankly, I have no idea what Obama had in mind, but I feel certain that it is one of those empty political phrases intended to attract votes rather than change political realities.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Milk

I bought milk tonight, and I noticed that skim milk was the cheapest. Each of the other types -- 1%, 2%, and whole -- was progressively more expensive. It hasn't always been this way. I remember that for some time, 2% was the cheapest; and no doubt whole milk was cheaper when they first started producing reduced-fat milk.

I would expect whole milk to be cheapest, simply because they don't have to process it beyond the pasteurization and homogenization that all milk goes through. Reduced-fat milk produces a useful byproduct, but it has to be replaced by more milk. Or does it? Milk is sold by volume, and I guess the fat is dissolved in the milk, in which case skim milk is lighter but just as bulky as whole milk. If so, skim milk would be the better bargain -- presuming the fat was worth more than the cost to extract it. It still might be a better bargain even if the fat took up space that had to be replaced by additional milk, but only if the fat was more valuable than the processing cost plus the cost of skim milk. I don't know how much fat is worth, but milk is pretty expensive, so I expect that fat dissolves in milk.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Store names

When I first moved to Georgia, I was intrigued by a "bottle shop" located just off the interstate. From its size and position (right next to a gas station), I gathered it was not a market for antique bottles, but I had no idea what it really did sell. It was only after some time that I finally learned that it sold alcoholic beverages.

Another common euphemism for liquor store is "package store." At least the products sold in a bottle shop are uniquely bottles; you can walk out of just about any store with a package, so this one seems particularly obscure. In Virginia, hard liquor sales are regulated by the government, and spirits can only be purchased in an ABC store -- Alcoholic Beverage Control (and not, as it sounds, a place for educational materials for primary school students). I can understand that this name is mandated by the government, but, in the case of bottle shops and package stores, I wonder why they don't just say outright what they sell. Surely it could only help sales to announce your product explicitly? Is there a law forbidding the use of "alcohol" or "liquor" in store names?

Georgia provided me with another case of a curious store name, just down the street from the bottle shop: the "Café Erotica." Café? This conjures up images of yuppies sipping cappucino and typing on the laptops while naked ladies dance in front of them. I don't know what I would call such a place, but I'm pretty sure that "café" would be near the bottom of the list. Do they think that it somehow appeals to their clientele? That seems unlikely.

It is interesting that they don't describe their establishment as a bar, since one would think they would serve alcohol. Perhaps "café" is the understood term for a strip joint that doesn't serve alcohol. Why wouldn't they, since alcohol has high profit margins and seems to mix well with "exotic dancing"? It may be prohibited. I have no evidence of that, but I heard when I lived in Columbus (Ohio) that a state law prohibited alcohol at establishments where women danced completely naked -- it could be sold, however, if they only went topless. I would love to have heard the debates in the legislature as they discussed that law.

Maybe, then, there is a Georgia statute limiting the sale of alcohol in strip joints. If not, I can't see why they wouldn't; and, if they did sell alcohol, I have trouble seeing why "Café Erotica" wouldn't be "Erotica Bar."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Colour names

Have you ever wondered why we have a separate name for light red -- pink -- but no commonly used separate names for other light colours? Baby blue is as different from navy as pink is from red, but we can only identify it by adding a modifier to "blue"; it doesn't get its own word. "Pretty in Pink" makes a nice title, but "Pretty in Light Red" would never do. The same goes for light green, light purple, and other colours -- yellow, too, I suppose, although it's hard to think of yellow as being anything other than light. One could speculate that we use pink in a lot of common contexts -- flowers, lips, sometimes even skin colour, and it is the archetypal colour for girls -- but I don't know if that is adequate.

I've also wondered why green seems so different from the colours that form it. When I see purple, it looks red and blue to me; when I see orange, it looks red and yellow. But when I see green, it doesn't look at all blue or yellow; it looks effectively like another primary colour. I know this isn't just a cultural artefact, because I remember learning colour combinations and finding purple and orange perfectly logical, but green almost magical. Is it just me, or do other people see it this way? Just this evening I stumbled onto a reference indicating that many cultures do not even distinguish green and blue as colours,which is hard for me to understand. Interestingly, some of them do have a separate word for light blue, which makes perfect sense.

My son Jonathan and I recently ate lunch at Steak and Shake. He read a flyer that advertised "4 meals for under $4," and noticed that all of the meals were $3.99. It offended him, since they were only a penny less than $4; they shouldn't count as "under $4," in his opinion.