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April 29, 2007

The Scope of Ethics in Politics

While I'm on a roll blogging about ethics, arguing that it's broader than "interpersonal" behavior and in fact covers all chosen behavior, I realize I ought to say a little something about the intersection of ethics and politics.

I've written a bit about this topic before. Way back in 2005 I wrote a seven-part series of articles about ethical obligations in emergency situations:

In that series I stated that politics should not be used as a tool to enforce morality. But it was beyond the scope of that series to explain why. That's what I'd like to do now.

I've argued forcefully that ethics is a broader topic than simply "interpersonal" behavior. Politics, however, is fundamentally social in scope. A person stranded on a desert island would have no use for politics. To people living in a society, however, politics is highly relevant.

It's unsurprising that there is a relationship between politics and the ethics of interpersonal situations. But they are not synonymous. The relevant distinction is that ethics tells people what they should do, whereas politics tells people what they must do. Political dictates are enforced. If you break the law the government will force you to go to jail, or pay a fine, or mete out some other form of punishment. By contrast, if you break an ethical obligation but not a law, you may lose the cooperation and goodwill of others but you won't lose anything of your own (neither your freedom nor assets).

The frontier between ethics and politics is drawn by the answer to the question of what behavior should be compelled.

Different societies have placed that frontier in different places. In my earlier article I used Afghanistan as an example of one extreme:

The clearest example of a strong relationship between ethics and politics is that of the former Taliban government of Afghanistan, explicitly ruling according to fundamentalist Islam. What Islam forbade the Taliban forbade, and what Islam required the Taliban required.

I believe the frontier belongs near the other extreme. There are many different arguments for this position, reflecting many different philosophical backgrounds. It's unfortunate that many of these arguments are negative, criticizing other positions and leading people to believe that freedom is merely the least bad among several horrible alternatives. I believe ardently in freedom; it is not "least bad", it's actually good — and I will make a positive argument for it.

Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined man as the "rational animal". Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the correctness of this definition has become obvious in almost every facet of daily life. The use of reason is the characteristic that best explains man's differences from the rest of the animal kingdom, and is most responsible for our success in this world. Given the scope of our accomplishments no short list of examples will ever seem satisfactory to establish the point. But I have to try.

The sciences have enabled a limitless stream of inventions that make mankind ever more capable, healthy, and successful. Consider the impact of the printing press, or the steam engine, or of automobiles, telephones, medicines, plastics, or computers. Our lives are completely transformed by technology: we live longer, healthier, safer, happier, richer, more fulfulling lives than our ancestors could even imagine. (And the rate of advancement is accelerating, not slowing.) We owe all of this to man's capacity to think.

But thought alone is impotent; its power to improve our lives depends on our ability to act on our thoughts. Alone on a desert island there are no artificial constraints on action — whatever is possible to do, you can do. In a social environment, however, the actions of one person can affect the ability of others to act.

A murder is the paradigm case. When the victim dies, their future thoughts and actions are irrevocably extinguished. When the killer goes to jail, their thoughts continue but their actions are highly restricted. (It is important to note here that the restrictions are caused by other people; they are not a fact of nature.) A thief restricts their victim's actions by denying them the use of the stolen property. An ordinary worker's actions are restricted (while at work) to doing their job, as opposed to whatever else they might desire to do.

It is revealing to consider the difference between employment and slavery. Both cases involve the employee or slave performing work, and the employer or master providing something in return — wages for the employee, sustenance for the slave. They are superficially similar, but fundamentally different: the slave was forced into slavery, but the employee's situation is voluntary.

In a fundamental sense these are the only two ways for people to deal with one another. In a voluntary agreement, each person independently thinks about the proposal, evaluates it as beneficial, and acts on that evaluation by cooperating with the others. By contrast, force is used to override a person's evaluation. They do not believe the proposal is good — that's why they didn't agree to it! Forcing them to act against their wishes is to render their thoughts impotent. They can no longer act upon their thoughts.

The capacity to think, and to act on those thoughts, is essential to human life. Everything from day-to-day decisions to the inventions that transform civilization depend on thinking. When force negates the efficacy of thought, it is blocking the essence of humanity. Force is anti-thought, and therefore fundamentally anti-human.

Early in this article I stated that the frontier between ethics and politics is drawn by the answer to the question of what behavior should be compelled. Based upon the fundamental importance of thought to human life, and the fact that force is anti-thought, my answer is that no behavior should be compelled — the goal of politics should be to remove force from human interactions.

This is not a blanket prohibition on force. Using force in self-defense — to protect human life rather than to destroy it — is acceptable. Jailing those who murder, or who attempt to murder, is a retaliatory use of force. Only the initiation of force is condemned on principle as illegitimate. That principle, of course, is the bedrock of libertarian politics.

April 25, 2007

Intel RSU Taxation

This is just a little public service announcement for my fellow Intel employees. The company started granting RSUs instead of stock options last year, and now that the first batch of RSUs have vested I'm sure a lot of people are curious how they affect your taxes.

Taxes are due upon vesting (not upon grant or sale) and the company will automatically withhold a portion of the shares to cover the taxes. The withholding appears to be at the standard federal rate for bonuses, 25%, rather than being adjusted by income and exemptions and that sort of thing.

Because the RSUs are considered ordinary income, they also withhold 7.65% for FICA. In Oregon bonuses are subject to 9% withholding (which is also the actual tax rate for nearly everyone). So the total withholding in Oregon is 25% + 7.65% + 9% = 41.65%. The company will withhold an integer number of shares, always rounding up.

Yes, nearly half the value of your RSUs is withheld to cover the taxes. Insert your own comment here about taxes being obscenely high.

You should probably sell the rest of your vested RSUs immediately because you have too much Intel exposure already, don't you?

April 24, 2007

Refund Redux

It's time for another tale of … well, of systems not working very well. I work in validation; I can't help but think these things are interesting. :)

Last month I explained how the Oregon Department of Revenue screwed up my taxes by recording my $90 payment to them as a $90 refund to me. I finally heard back from them about this, and was struck by how minimal their response was. The only portion of their letter that doesn't look like boilerplate is:

Your payment of $90.00 was received on 5-31-06 and refunded back to you on 7-5-06.

A request for a corrected 1099G has been sent to the area that can address that issue.

I received the 1099G on the same day as the new letter, although in a different envelope. It is correct, showing no refund, so now I'll be able to amend my 2006 taxes. The only remaining problem is that the Oregon Department of Revenue still thinks I owe them money! I wrote back:

I do not agree that my $90.00 was refunded back to me. In my letter dated 3/27/07 I enclosed a copy of my check as proof of my payment. You will similarly need to provide me with evidence that you refunded the $90. It was a simple matter for me to obtain my check copy and mail it to you; it should likewise be simple for you to obtain your check copy and mail it to me.

Furthermore, if in fact you did refund the $90, I deserve an explanation of why it was refunded. Why would you send it back, only to ask for it again several months later? I'll be blunt: I'm looking for an admission of error.

I actually don't know for certain that they didn't refund the $90. I would have gotten a check in the mail (not an electronic transfer) but I wouldn't have any record of it anymore. I wouldn't have kept the stub (if there was one) and I wouldn't be able to find it in my deposit records because I almost never deposit a single check by itself. I believe I would have remembered receiving it, because it would have been so odd, but in any case I'm certainly entitled to ask the State to prove its case rather than simply asserting it.

I do hope I can get the State to admit they made a mistake. If they refunded the $90, the error was in refunding it instead of keeping it. If they didn't refund it, the error was in claiming that they had. I know they screwed up, and I deserve an apology either way.

Think I'll get one?

April 23, 2007

241 Traitors

There are 241 traitors currently serving in the House:

The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 241-177 to expand its chamber and provide a representative for the District of Columbia… [source]

This is unconstitutional. Obviously, brazenly so. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution begins with "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States…" States! The District of Columbia is not a state. Neither are Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, or the various lesser dependent areas. They don't get a representative in the House either.

The 241 members of the House who voted in favor of this bill have violated their oath of office by supporting this unconstitutional bill and they deserve to be impeached.

If you believe it's a good idea for D.C. residents to have a voting representative in the House, amend the Constitution to allow it, or give the District back to Maryland, but do not ignore the Constitution.

April 20, 2007


I have a question for all of you out there. It's not a trick question, I promise — just an ordinary question that I genuinely do not know the answer to. (I don't even have a guess.)

I was browsing some online personals and realized that one of the most common themes was travel. I've been vaguely aware of this before but it really sunk in due to a recent conversation I've had. People like to talk about their travels, hear about others' travels, and fantasize about future travels. Love of travel seems to be both extremely common and extremely desired.


I must be very unusual in that I seldom think about travel. I don't know where I would go or what I would do. Certainly I have the means and the opportunity to travel — I'm eligible to take my eight-week sabbatical and I can afford to go anywhere I want and stay as long as care to — but the prospect of travel simply does not cross my mind.

Why is travel so important to people that they mention it so prominently in personals? Or is "travel" just a code word for something else? (And what would that be?)

Reasoned responses, wild guesses, bad puns … I want to hear it. What's the big deal with travel?

April 18, 2007

The Scope of Ethics - part 2

Last time I treated the notion that "the proper scope of ethics is to guide interpersonal behavior" to an informal reductio ad absurdum, showing that if the notion is taken seriously it leads to the denial of personal values.

I will now present a positive argument for ethics having a very broad scope, encompassing all our choices, even those that have no impact on others. (You may recognize the basic argument as Rand's, but the elaboration is my own.) I made this as short as I think I'm able to.

The foundations of ethics lie in observing the difference between living and nonliving things. The precise biological definition of life is unimportant here, only obvious cases are needed. Plants and animals are alive, rocks and rivers are not. A fundamental aspect of being alive is the possibility of death — living things can become nonliving.

The fact that living things face the alternative of life or death creates a criterion for evaluation. Some things sustain or enhance life; others harm it.

How do these observations lead to ethics? With the addition of the fact that living things must act in order to sustain their lives. If living things did not continuously maintain themselves — if animals did not obtain food and avoid predators, if plants did not draw nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun, if basic cellular metabolism stopped — their life would end. If a living things fails to act to sustain its life, it will die.

All living things, by the nature of being alive, pursue those things that sustain their lives and avoid the things that harm them. Failure in this means death. The determination of what things are beneficial or harmful to an organism depends on the kind of organism in question: Animals need oxygen to survive, but to plants oxygen is a waste product. Similarly, the actions required to sustain life are also grounded in an organism's nature: An animal is biologically incapable of putting down roots in the manner of a plant, and must survive through other means.

(Importantly, the proper unit to consider is the organism, not the cell. Multicellular organisms are composed of a system of specialized cells. An individual part of that system cannot survive without the other parts.)

We are now in a position to apply normative language: based on an organism's nature, certain things are objectively good for its life and it therefore should pursue them. Other things are objectively bad for its life and therefore it should not pursue them.

Up until this point we have taken the pursuit of life as automatic and inescapable. It is not. Some organisms, humans among them, have much more complex behaviors than mere automatic reflexes. Humans in particular are conscious of and have control over our actions. We choose our own behavior, continuously, throughout our entire lives.

Ethics is the science that guides those choices.

If we want to live, we must discover what to value and we must choose actions consistent with the achievement of those values.

The proper scope of ethics is all chosen behavior. This is much broader than simply "interpersonal" behavior. Stranded alone on a desert island, a person faces choices that directly affect their survival. It is the science of ethics that tells them to be rational (and not to panic), to face their situation honestly (and not to irresponsibly hope for rescue), to be productive in collecting food and water (and not to waste it), etc.

Personal virtues and values are a part of ethics even if there's nobody else around to notice them. Even by ourselves we require an ethical system to guide our choices and actions.

Our lives depend on it.

April 11, 2007

The Scope of Ethics - part 1

Back when I was a college student, I met someone who had what I thought at the time was an odd meta-ethical belief. In the years since then I've come to understand that it's somewhat common. But I think it's wrong — even dangerously wrong. The troublesome belief is that the proper scope of ethics is to guide interpersonal behavior.

Of course it's true that ethics does guide interpersonal behavior. My position is that ethics has a much broader scope than this. My college adversary explicitly denied this.

I understand why people are led to think that ethics is only about interpersonal behavior. Common rules like "don't steal" and "don't murder" make no sense outside the context of other people. If those kinds of rules dominate your ethical thinking, ethics does seem to have a narrow scope, and would appear irrelevant if you were stranded alone on an island.

Under this narrow idea of ethics, your decisions have moral import only to the extent that they can affect others. For example, learning to play a musical instrument has moral import only if you perform for others. Your private enjoyment of your own playing has no moral significance. (Or perhaps it should be considered immoral, because it consumes time that could otherwise be spent on moral activities.)

The implication of this position is the complete destruction of all personal values. A scientist's pursuit of knowledge is not good, only the communication of discoveries is. Overcoming personal hardship is not praiseworthy, only helping others to do so is. Even mundane things such as keeping a tidy house would have no moral value if you lived alone — it would become good only inasmuch as others benefit from it. Quitting your job and living in idleness until your savings ran out could not be scorned — unless you had dependents. Truth doesn't matter, perseverance doesn't matter, your lifestyle doesn't matter, your productive work doesn't matter… unless someone else notices? Then, and only then, they begin to matter??

Under this sort of ethics, your life is completely in the thrall of others. The meta-ethical principle that only interpersonal interactions are important leads inexorably to an ethics devoid of personal values. Even love is gutted: If the interaction between people is all that has moral import, it doesn't matter who you love. Your preferences for a certain type of partner are irrelevant, one random person is as good as another because you can behave in a loving manner to anyone. You say that you would be unhappy with certain types of people? Too bad — happiness has no moral significance. Emotions are personal, and the personal is irrelevant. As long as you can act happy even though you're unhappy, or act loving even though you don't love, that's good for others. Keep those emotions buried. Fake it! Your entire life will be a lie… but for the good cause of reducing social friction!

Improving interpersonal behavior is the purpose of ethics, right? Why do you seem so dissatisfied?

The rebellion stirring in your mind is the thought, "personal values do matter." Yes, they do. And next time I'll tell you why.

April 08, 2007

Sad Diplomacy

Now that the British sailors are safely back home and the diplomatic crisis is over, I unfortunately have to describe the saga as a clear victory for Iran. The BBC reviews the facts; here's my interpretation.

Iran established that it can invade Iraqi waters and get away with it simply by claiming that they hadn't. Everyone privately knew that the Iranians were lying, but diplomats and the media were afraid of appearing unreasonable by not taking Iran's claims seriously. By refusing to uphold the facts, they helped Iran to continue the charade.

Lesson: Failure to consistently condemn falsehoods lends them an undeserved legitimacy.

Iran took these hostages for the purpose of diverting attention from its nuclear program, which has continued despite repeated (but predictably weak) demands from the United Nations. Not only did it divert attention, it strengthened Iran's hand: Ahmadinejad got to play the benevolent and understanding leader by announcing the sailors' release, smiling to the cameras as he shook the hostages' hands. This move undercut any strong response the British may have been working on, and the world will remember "how good of Iran to let them go" instead of "Iran was entirely in the wrong for the whole ordeal". Worse, this situation will be used as an example of a "diplomatic success" (because no force was needed to gain the sailors' release) and encourage the false hope that Iran can be negotiated with.

Lesson: If you allow your opponent to control the framing and pacing of events, they will use it to their advantage.

The sailors were mistreated and used for propaganda. I've read convincing arguments (sorry; didn't keep the link) that the Geneva Conventions were violated. The international yawn on this point is telling; there should have been action after the coerced "confession" video. Unfortunately, the Conventions are today used mostly to bludgeon the good and shield the evil, much like the U.N. Human Rights Council. Frameworks and institutions created with noble intent have been gradually corrupted because people let hypocrisy and double standards go unchallenged.

Lesson: Vigilance is required to prevent the tools for good being distorted and used in the service of evil.

From Iran's perspective, the operation was a complete success. They got away with it. I regret that this incident will encourage more in the future.

April 03, 2007

Palm Oil Disaster

Here's a story I'm not surprised to see (emphasis added):

Only a few years ago, oil from palm trees was viewed as an ideal biofuel: a cheap, renewable alternative to petroleum that would fight global warming. Energy companies began converting generators and production soared.

Long a primary ingredient in food and cosmetics, palm oil derivatives caught on about five years ago as a source of renewable energy, spurred by subsidies in many European Union countries. Imports have risen 65 percent since 2002.

Environmentalism is popular. Politicians want to be popular. It's easy to buy votes by spending other people's money! Sure, lots of that taxpayer money immediately goes overseas (to the benefit of non-taxpayers) to pay for the imports, but everybody's too busy feeling good about themselves to care.


The report issued late last year by Wetlands International, Delft Hydraulics and the Alterra Research Center of Wageningen University in Holland studied the carbon released from peat swamps in Indonesia and Malaysia that had been drained and burned to plant palm oil trees. About 85 percent of the world's palm oil comes from the two countries, and about one-quarter of Indonesia's plantations are on drained peat bogs, the report said.

The four-year study found that 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air each year from the drained swamps. Another 1.4 billion tons go up in smoke from fires lit to clear rain forest for plantations — smoke that often shrouds Singapore and Malaysia in an impenetrable haze for weeks at a time.

Together, those 2 billion tons of CO2 account for 8 percent of the world's fossil fuel emissions, the report said.

Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, called the report "astonishing," and said it shows that harvesting palm oil for fuel is counterproductive. "It undermines the whole project," said a climate specialist for the group, Anne van Schaik.

I'm shocked, shocked, that a well-intentioned government program manages to, in five short years, achieve the exact opposite of its intended goals on an enormous scale.

This is a marvelous example of the evils of subsidies. That tax money was taken forcibly from millions of people — some of whom would have opposed the subsidies in the first place — and then spent to achieve a result that even supporters of the program would find abhorrent.

It's worse than mere waste; it's active harm. Yet subsidies remain as popular as ever, to both politicians and the public.

This leaves us with the obvious and important question, "Are the subsidies being ended?" The story doesn't say, but somehow I think I know the answer.

April 02, 2007

Quite A Stack

One of my co-workers is on a long business trip to Santa Clara. He took no actions to protect his cubicle during his absence.

Sensing this neglect, I erected a cup barrier to protect his desk from mischief.

Desk protected by a cup barrier

Aren't I thoughtful?

By posting this before he gets back (Wednesday) I do run the risk of ruining the surprise, but I don't think he reads my blog.

April 01, 2007

Of Endorsements and ACN

About two years ago I blogged about a pyramid scam by the name of ACN, a company in the business of reselling telecommunication services through multi-level marketing. It's the most-read and most-linked-to article on my blog.

It also generates a lot of e-mail. I've been breathlessly thanked by people who say it helped them or a loved one avoid the scam, and I've also received a lot of hate mail from ACN true believers (including my favorite hate mail ever).

Less often, I've received a third type of mail, asking me to counter ACN propaganda. These letters are all very similar in content — almost scripted (you'll see what I mean) — so I believe that the questions have a common origin and are actually asked during ACN recruitment meetings as a way to counter skeptics like me.

Sometimes these letters are sent by obvious ACN boosters just trying to get a "dig" in, and I typically ignore those. But other times I believe the letters are sent in genuine uncertainty, and for those people I will answer the propaganda.

This is the most recent such letter I've received:

I recently read your article about ACN being a pyramid scam, i have a few friends who have joined it and want me to join it, so i did some reasearch on how much of a scam it was and your page was the only one i found. I just want to know from you, since you seem to be the only one that did research on it and does not support it what your answers are to some of my questions, reading what you have said makes me even more unconfident about it but i just want to ask a few questions that seem to contradict my thoughts if you wouldn't mind?

1) If ACN was indeed a pyramid scam, why would Donald Trump, a world famous billionaire known for his business savvy and skills, put his reputation and name on the line so pubicly if he knew it was a scam? Wouldn't he have found that it was and not endorse it as much as he does?

2) How has ACN made front page on acclaimed business magazines such as Success Magazine, Success from Home Magazine, Smart Business Magazine, etc. if they are indeed a scam? Wouldn't someone from one of those articles have realized this?

I hope you can answer my questions quickly, so i can provide the information to my friends and let them decide. Thank you for your time.

Yes, Donald Trump has endorsed ACN. Celebrity endorsement is common in marketing — it works! But it's important to notice that this is a celebrity endorsement, not an expert endorsement. Trump's expertise is in real estate, not in reselling telecommunication services. If he were giving advice about real estate I would be inclined to pay attention, but ACN's business is totally unrelated to Trump's expertise. His opinion does not deserve greater weight than any random person's opinion.

The cited business magazines are not well-known. I haven't heard of any of them before. Who writes them, and for what audience? Do they contain objective information or are they propaganda? The multi-level marketing universe is only sustained by the inflow of new recruits… people who might be persuaded to join by reading a purportedly neutral magazine that's actually written for the express purpose of seducing people into the system.

If you have any of those magazines, here are some good questions to ask: Is it still being published? How long has it been publishing? Does it contain useful information, or is it primarily testimonials? Are there any negative testimonials? Does it fairly present the possibility and implications of business failure as well as success?

In closing, a few philosophical remarks. The ACN propaganda is treacherous because it preys on sloppy thinking. You should not trust a celebrity endorsement or the accolades of obscure magazines. You are capable of understanding the program's details on your own with just a little study. Think about it. Don't rely on the second-hand evaluations of others — not even mine. Keep your focus on analyzing the program itself, rather than the people talking about it. Do the math.

Other peoples' thoughts about something may properly be considered during the process of understanding it, but it is evil to use use others' thoughts as a substitute for your own. Be informed by others; recognize when they have insight, and watch for those who don't. But know that the responsibility for evaluation is your own. Whether you admit it or not.

Net Worth Report - End of 03/07

I took very little investment action this month, preferring not to get involved in the volatility around last month's market downturn. My only noteworthy change in investments was to sell a batch of ESPP shares that had reached their age of tax advantage (two years from the grant date).

At a St. Patrick's Day dinner I heard some interesting comments from another employee about Intel stock performance and why they sell their ESPP shares immediately. It is good advice, of course, to have a diversified portfolio and to avoid investing too much in your employer. The secondary argument is that Intel stock has performed poorly over the past seven years, so it's been a poor idea to hold on to ESPP shares. Sure, past performance does not predict future performance, but he has other reasons for being pessimistic.

I decided not to change my ESPP strategy. I don't think I'm too heavily invested in my employer — even including unvested stock options, my exposure is less than 6% of my net worth. And I'm not so downbeat on the company's future that I want to give up the tax advantage of holding the shares for the uncertain possibility of doing better elsewhere.

Net Worth Figures

With the ESPP sale and a large expected tax refund (included in the above, although I haven't received it yet) I'm getting a bit cash-heavy. I'm going to get another lump of cash when some RSUs vest in a couple weeks and I sell them. (There's no tax advantage in holding them.) At that point I'm going to make some new investments, and I plan to write about my decisions.

Goal-Tracking Figures
Adjusted Net Worth$495,728.28$503,040.55
Next Month's Target$498,545.29$505,603.75
Estimated Contribution-$200.24-$237.94

Little new here. I may drop this section in the future because I clearly don't need to take any special action to meet my medium-term financial goals. Alternatively, I might expand this section by breaking out investment performance separately from income, so I could better see if any investments are underperforming but "look okay" due to salary income hiding their sins.

Credit Card Arbitrage Figures
Balances @ 0% APR$35,406.84$19,654.13
Monthly Payment$708.14$393.08

I screwed up this month. A very dumb error; I made a credit card payment late this month — by two business days, I think — and that canceled my 0% introductory rate so I had to pay off the card in full. Fortunately, it was on a card that had only a few 0% months remaining anyway. Now I only have one credit card with a 0% rate, but it's good for another whole year. (I continue to see 0% offers but they've all had something wrong in the fine print; usually high balance transfer fees.)

You can keep track of other personal finance bloggers at NetWorthIQ. I've updated my entry there.

Tiny Island