Month: August 2005

Iraq and consequentialism: what is the marginal product of war?

Many anti-war criticisms cite the badness of current events without asking how much of that badness was due to happen anyway.  To clarify, let us consider three arguments against the war:

1. U.S. behavior was wrong on deontological grounds, namely we should not kill innocents (and tax others to pay for this killing), even when the long-run consequences are good.  Of course if this is true, the arguments stops there.  Furthermore it would be irrelevant — at least for judging rightness — whether the war/reconstruction was going well or not.  So I doubt if this is all of the anti-war critique; let us move on to the rest.

2. It is not worth killing innocents to overthrow a tyranny.  This will also stop the argument, but most anti-war critics don’t hold this view.  It would be hard to defend the rise of the West, or Allied participation in World War II, for instance.

Now consider #3:

3. The war is going badly.

The correct marginal question, however, compares the current badness to the badness which would have resulted after the reign of Saddam (or his sons? grandsons?) ended, however that might have happened.  Today we see many signals that things are going badly.  But most of those signals also imply that things would have gone very badly under the alternative scenario for Saddam’s fall.  A civil war, for instance, may well have happened anyway, albeit later.

One might argue that U.S. participation makes an Iraqi civil war much worse than otherwise (perhaps the presence of U.S. forces motivates insurgents).  But I don’t find this convincing.  First, a civil war could be much worse without the U.S. presence (keep in mind the alternative scenario also involves many years of continued sanctions, or what Saddam would have done without sanctions, plus further suffering under Saddam).  Second, the correct cost of the war — at least to the Iraqis — would be this difference in outcomes, not the current absolute level of badness.

The pro-war right seems keen to argue that much of the insurgency is foreign fighters.  This in reality weakens their case, as it opens the possibility that the U.S. role drew in these forces.  Insofar as the insurgents are Sunnis, fighting for domestic control, it is more likely they would have been fighting anyway, with or without the U.S. involved.  That would strengthen a consequentialist case for the war.

It also might be argued there is intrinsic value in postponing a civil war, although this I would dispute.

Relying only on #1 is not so popular among anti-war forces, even if it is a good argument.  It feels anti-patriotic to many people.  Thus a huge burden gets put on #3.  But citing #3 has less oomph than is commonly supposed.  The worse things get, the more we can conclude they would have been very bad — sooner or later — in any case.  And I’ve yet to be convinced that an Iraqi civil war — without the U.S. involved — would turn out so much better for the Iraqis. 

There is of course the separate question of what is good for the U.S. and for other countries besides Iraq.  If you think Iraq will go badly no matter what, those considerations may well be decisive.  But it sounds selfish and defeatist to cite those arguments alone, so we are again left with anti-war cases which do not make complete sense.

Addendum: Jane Galt recently surveyed some recent blogosphere arguments about Iraq and consequentialism.

My favorite things Australian

1. Movies: Lots to choose from here, I’ll opt for Nicholas Roeg’s dreamy-erotic Walkabout (they actually let us gaze upon the naked Jenny Agutter in a 1977 NJ high school showing), or Jocelyn Moorhouse’s brilliant Proof.

2. Novel: Neither Peter Carey nor Patrick White clicks with me.  How about David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life?

3. Book about: I remain a fan of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore.

4. Music: Sorry mates, I’ve got to call this one a clunker.  My desperation pick is Paul Kelly, here is a broader list to choose from.  No need to write me about Crowded House or the other mostly mediocre indie bands from Down Under.  If I can opt for a whole genre, my pick is didgeridoo music.

5. Painter: Fred Williams, here is one image, here are many more, here is my favorite.  Aboriginal art is in the running as well.

6. Sculptor: Ron Mueck, yes he did the giant man sitting in the Hirshhorn Museum.

7. Disgusting culinary anecdote: I am told that in South Australia they take meat pies, turn them upside down, and add mushy peas and then ketchup.  They call it a floater.

The Complete Works of David Ricardo

They are now published by Liberty Fund, that is the Sraffa edition, order them here, all for a mere $106.  Or download here.  Here is a searchable on-line edition of his Principles.  I’ve loved Ricardo since I first read him; no economist more tightly mixed superb common sense and counterintuitive absurdities (theory of rent and implicit notion of opportunity cost), but there is more of the former.  He is an excellent writer as well, and a classical liberal thinker of importance.

The used book market can boost the demand for new books

Professors Ghose, Smith and Telang chose a random sample of books in print and studied how often used copies were available on Amazon. In their sample, they found, on average, more than 22 competitive offers to sell used books, with a striking 241 competitive offers for used best sellers. The prices of the secondhand books were substantially cheaper than the new, but of course the quality of the used books (in terms of wear and tear) varied considerably.

According to the researchers’ calculations, Amazon earns, on average, $5.29 for a new book and about $2.94 on a used book. If each used sale displaced one new sale, this would be a less profitable proposition for Amazon.

But Mr. Bezos is not foolish. Used books, the economists found, are not strong substitutes for new books. An increase of 10 percent in new book prices would raise used sales by less than 1 percent. In economics jargon, the cross-price elasticity of demand is small.

One plausible explanation of this finding is that there are two distinct types of buyers: some purchase only new books, while others are quite happy to buy used books. As a result, the used market does not have a big impact in terms of lost sales in the new market.

Moreover, the presence of lower-priced books on the Amazon Web site, Mr. Bezos has noted, may lead customers to "visit our site more frequently, which in turn leads to higher sales of new books." The data appear to support Mr. Bezos on this point.

Applying the authors’ estimate of the displaced sales effect to Amazon’s sales, it appears that only about 16 percent of the used book sales directly cannibalized new book sales, suggesting that Amazon’s used-book market added $63.2 million to its profits.

Furthermore, consumers greatly benefit from this market: the study’s authors estimate that consumers gain about $67.6 million. Adding in Amazon’s profits and subtracting out the $45.3 million of losses to authors and publishers leaves a net gain of $85.5 million.

Día de los Muertos

I bolted upright in my bed and screamed.  I’d had a nightmare. I suspect this had something to do with the fact that earlier in the day I´d seen 25,000 dead people. 

I was visiting Lima´s Church of San FranciscoImage2Underneath the church is a graveyard of catacombs.  As you can see, it looks like the killing fields of Cambodia.  Deep "wells" contains thousands of skulls and femurs (most of the other bones and flesh have dissolved in the lime that was added to prevent disease.)  I snuck away from the tour group and found another well in which the skulls had been hung on the wall in a spiral of death.  Apparently archaeologists in the 1950s arranged the bones, the bodies were originally tossed in more or less randomly. 

During parts of the tour you could reach out and touch the bones (I did not).  I am not religious but opening the graveyard in this way seems to me to be at the very least disrespectful and perhaps sacrilegious.  I can hear my friend Bryan Caplan laughing at me, "but they are dead!"  But even if I were to accept this argument I am shocked that the Franciscans allow this sort of thing.

By the way, ex-President Alberto Fujimori is rumored to have escaped through these catacombs which originally extended beneath all the main buildings surrounding the central plaza of Lima (not all have been uncovered and some have been blocked off for reasons of security).

Markets in everything: Only the lonely

Talking to yourself ? ­ Well, never again! And if once again someone pities you for the fact that you have been living on your own for many years, you can always say: "Why? I’ve got someone!"

The single-wallpaper shows attractive, original-sized individuals, in different situations at home.  It’s a photographic wallpaper, which is easily removable and ­ very practical! ­ It can always be reused when moving house.

You can look at the product hereHere is the home page.  Thanks to Courtney Knapp for the pointer.

The “Failed States” index

I am surprised to see Ivory Coast as the very worst, my pick, the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo only manages to take second place.  And Guatemala, for all its problems, should not be five places "more failed" than Lebanon.  Still this is an interesting data source, click the colored box links at the top of the main page to see maps and the like.