Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Luddite Mentality

While I was driving home tonight, I began thinking about one of my favorite shows, Star Trek. I was specifically thinking about how even in this show, which according to its creator is supposed to provide hope about the future through technology, there is a reoccurring Luddite theme.
For example, there was a Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode where a planet "sold its soul" to a devil creature 1,000 years ago in exchange for peace and prosperity. The Enterprise shows up at this planet at the end of this 1,000 years when someone shows up to make a claim on this agreement and claims to be this devil like creature. Ultimately, this individual is proven to be a scam artist. However, the Luddite mentality shows up when the leader of the planet describes how the planet averted a planet wide disaster 1,000 years ago. He describes the process where the planet moved away from a industrial society, to an agrarian society. As if this process of moving away from producing goods must be bad for the planet, and must be stopped. This is only one example.
In the third iteration of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, there is a group of revolutionaries called the Maquis. This group is fighting a gorilla war against a race called the Cardassians. In several episodes individuals in this group discuss the benefits of their agrarian way of life. They criticize the general view that replicated food is as good as regular food, even though they are supposed to be exactly the same. 
This view is not only shared by the Maquis . A disproportionally large amount of the secondary characters hold a similar view, where the use of replicators, and other forms of technology, is discouraged.
I am writing about this because I think the continued occurrence of the Luddite philosophy in Star Trek is systematic of the general distrust, and disdain, of technology that is prevalent in our society and culture. We see symptoms of this in the distrust of man made chemicals, and the belief that natural means "safe" and "healthy".   

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Subsidized Home Ownership

The people of the United States seem to be in love with the idea of home ownership. We call it the "American Dream". The government does a lot in order to help people reach this dream. It provides massive tax incentives, and it subsidizes home mortgages through institutions like Fanny Mae. There is no doubt that these incentives distort the proportion of individuals who own their own homes. This distortion is generally justified by making the assumption that home ownership generates positive externalities. 
The validity of this argument is questionable. I am somewhat concerned about the spurious relationship that is sure to exist between home ownership and negative factors, such as crime. This skepticism seems to be justified to some extent. However, even if these externalities exist, there is no doubt that the subsidies distort the market.
The Economist just published an article regarding home ownership and its effects on labor mobility. Home ownership makes it more costly for individuals to move from one area to another area. As would be expected, if something becomes more expensive, people do less of it. Because of this, some people will become less mobile than they would have been otherwise. This lack of mobility will make it harder from workers to move from less productive jobs to more productive ones. 
If the market was allowed to function normally, the reduction in mobility caused by home ownership would not be an issue. People making rational choices to give up mobility for owning their own homes is a reasonable choice. However, when we subsidize home ownership there will be a sub-optimal level of mobility in the labor market. The question that would need to be answered is, do these negative mobility factors outweigh the positive externalities, if they exist, that the subsidies provide? 

Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Story of Stuff"

Recently there was some commotion in Montana regarding a teacher showing a video in her classroom. The video she showed was "The Story of Stuff." You can locate this film on youtube, or you can Google it and go to their website.
After viewing the video, I can say that it definitely has a strong environmental leaning to it. While I don't particularly agree with the point of the video, I did find it entertaining. I enjoy this movie at the same level as any of Michael More's movies, where it is entertaining, but completely devoid of facts.
I can't say that I would have a problem with a child of mine watching this video in high school. However, I would definitely enjoy talking about many of the subjects presented in the video. While I don't really think it would be the best idea to go over all the topics here, there are some things I think would be good to address.
The first thing I found interesting was the complete lack of data sources. This becomes particularly interesting when she talks about the fact that we have "consumed" 30% of the worlds resources. The lack of a data source is not surprising, given there is absolutely no way of knowing how many resources on Earth. Also, what does it mean to consume a resource?
This is just one of the many problems with the movie, but I think that it could be beneficial for a child of mine to watch the movie, simply because it develops the critical thinking skills of people. It seems to me that is very important for high school students to learn.