Monday, September 26, 2011

Non sequitur

"Why is blowing shofar forbidden on Shabbos? Because the worry is that a Lubavitcher chossid will want to go on mivtzoim to blow shofar for other Yidden and will bring the shofar with him."
— A joke

I was just thinking that to me, the logic behind many takkanos and gezeiros of the Chazal seems very obscure. When I say this, I am not being cynical or self-denigrating or playing the Devil's Advocate. I am just stating what I think. And I imagine many Orthodox Jews probably feel the same, especially when studying some of the reasons (I stress the word some) for Halachos for the first time. We still obviously keep the Halacha, but the afterthought (if you're being honest) is still there.

It's not like this is such a bad question. Chassidus also questions the fullness of logic for some of the justifications for rabbinic enactments, with the most famous example being not blowing shofar on Shabbos. Blowing shofar is an amazing mitzva, which literally renews the spiritual energy that sustains this enormous universe and the spiritual universes "above" it. And Chazal forbid doing it on Shabbos because there is a slight worry that some ignoramus may carry a shofar?

I think there are several ways to answer this.

First, which I call the Litvish way, is that such is the law. Hashem said in Torah to listen to Chazal, and whether it makes sense to you or not doesn't matter.

The second, which I call Chassidic way, is to say that the historical and social justifications are merely a kli, a vessel, for the mitzva.

Examining the validity of Chazal's reasoning (even if one were permitted to do so) is as useful as literally judging a book by its cover. Imagine you pick up a book that someone recommended to you as truly wonderful. For instance, The Master of Go. You look at the cover and say: "I really disapprove of the publisher's choice for the cover." OK. So what? Who cares about the cover? Even if does make no sense, why do you bother examining it when you have a chance to look inside?

We were sent into this world to make it into a dwelling place for Hashem. The mitzvos are instructions for doing so. We create the world into a dwelling place for G-d by purifying it spiritually and carrying out His Will in it. The fact that His Will expressed itself through rabbis being concerned about a low-probability event does not truly matter, just like it doesn't truly matter what cover a publisher chose for a book or what color is the binding.

(Make no mistake: the kelim for the mitzvos — the legal content of the laws, the description of the actual physical activities that one must, may, or may not do, as well as the physical activities themselves — are the only way we can have access to the oir that is the essence of the mitzvos. Furthermore, according to Chassidus, even if we had a direct access to the oir, it would still be preferable to access it through the physical world, since Hashem wants the dwelling specifically in the physical matter of the Universe, it being the lowest level where He can be revealed and therefore the ultimate way of expressing His Kingship.

My point is just that when we start worrying too much about the physical reasons for the mitzvos, we must remember that the binding of the book is there merely to hold the pages, and the pages and the ink are there only to transmit the ideas.)

So, the above two explanations are quite classic.

But I was thinking this morning that we don't necessarily understand the "cover" either. I am talking especially about the people like myself that are only starting out with learning Halacha. I remembered a conversation that I had with my rabbi about "politics" within Jewish communities.

I forwarded to him a letter, in which a friend of mine wrote:
I know that [a local OU representative and a rabbi] used to eat at [a local restaurant]. I've heard that he doesn't anymore, even though the standards were tightened across the Vaad several years ago. (Since he used to eat there when the standards may have been more maykil, it would seem to me that it's a 'political' issue for some, rather than a Halachic issue). 
I do know that outside of Boston, the KVH is considered a widely accepted/respected Hashgachah (even internationally). It may be a local/polical issue.
My rabbi objected to the statement "it may be a political rather than Halachic issue". He said: there is an idea of community standards. Members of a certain community may not trust a mashgiach or an organization that is lax on a certain aspect of Halacha, because the members of the community themselves chose to be makpid on these aspects. They are not necessarily saying that the food is treif, but they would rather "when in doubt, go without". (Furthermore, even if a person is not necessarily lax on kashrus, the fact that he is lax in another area of Halacha — according to the standards of this community — creates a worry about his overall level of observance.)

The same goes for the members of one community not trusting hashgacha from the members of another community. When the second community says themselves that their goal is to make Torah as accessible to the masses as possible, and therefore, they find a heter upon heter to justify the behaviors that members of the first community would not justify, the members of the first community choose not to trust the second community's members' hashgacha. It may be about "politics", but it is still a Halachic issue. It's not the sort of politics when the president of the shull doesn't like that the rabbi got the best parking spot and therefore tries to undermine him all the time. It's the sort of politics when you hear a cook say that he doesn't believe in the existence of bacteria and therefore washing hands after the bathroom is silly — and decide not to eat his food. Or if you don't go to a neurologist whom you heard proclaim that we only use 10% of our brain.

My point with bringing this example is to say that oftentimes we look at an issue, but without a proper application of logic or knowledge of all the facts. "Does it make sense that it is ossur to move a fork on Shabbos because back in the day, people used to stomp on grapes in their keilim on Shabbos?" The ultimate answers are the first two: whether or not it makes sense to you, it's the Will of G-d, and, furthermore, the historic reasoning for the mitzva is its superficial aspect anyway; the reason we don't move muktza is ultimately spiritual.

But I also think it's unwise to think that we know all the social circumstances under which the Chazal enacted a given takkanah and all the levels of the logic according to which it still applies today.

That's why I also think it is quite arrogant and unwise to say things like: "Keeping cholov Yisroel nowadays is completely ridiculous. There is no reason for it at all." Sure, this statement is wrong from the point of view of appreciation of the process of psak din (i.e., it doesn't matter what you think; it matters what our Halachic authorities think — and it matters what the specific authorities that are your authorities think, as well as what the general consensus is). But it may also be wrong in its appreciation of reality.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Putin is running for the office of the president of Russia

And will probably become the next president.

A number of people online used this clip from Friends to illustrate how surprising this news is:

P.S. From arbat: Obama got scared that he'd lose Florida and a few regions of NY, so he did a pro-Israel speech. The problem is, however, that nobody believes in the honesty of a whore. Quite the opposite: if she tells you she loves you, you start suspecting betrayal. So, Israelis are wary about his speech, while the Arabs are furious.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Peter Jackson vs. Tolkien

First, Peter Jackson took Tolkien's middle-aged witty gentleman Frodo Baggins and turned him into a boy with the eyes of a raped rabbit. (I am not even going to mention the whole Frodo–Sam relationship on-screen.)

This is how Frodo was supposed to look:

Now Peter Jackson is going to abuse the Hobbit.

Tell me, when you read the book, did you think the dwarves looked like this (full image)?

Now, these are some good actors. James Nesbitt (Murphy's Law, Jekyll), fourth from the left, is actually properly cast. But Richard Armitage (probably known to the most from Robin Hood), in the center, cast as Thorin Oakenshield, makes the King Under the Mountain look like a playboy.

And Aidan Turner (from Being Human), first on the right, looks actually more elven than dwarven. In fact, perhaps he should've been Legolas. Or one of the forest elves from the Hobbit. (And what is he holding in his hands? Is that a sword or a bludgeon?)

According to my wife, the dwarves are supposed to look more like this:


This is my cast of Balin, my favorite of Thorin's dwarves (although Rabbi Kaplan is actually very tall, so casting him as a dwarf would be difficult):

And my cast of Thorin (not necessarily due to the looks, but due to the character):

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interesting statistics

First of all, here is a link to the written-down version of the "Inflation and the Fall of Roman Empire" talk from the previous post.

It has interesting information about Eretz Yisroel of the times of 3rd–4th centuries, when Roman government began to put a tighter grip on Roman economy, resulting in a loss of freedom for the masses. This is just about land ownership; see the talk for the other aspects of economy.
The peasantry, known as the coloni, were leaseholders on both imperial and private estates. They too were formerly a free class. Now under the same kinds of pressures that all smallholders were in in this situation, they began to drift away, trying to find better opportunities, better leases, or better occupations. So under Diocletian the coloni were now bound to the soil. [As a part of government regulation making sure that the peasant class doesn't erode into more profitable occupations. Diocletian did the same to other professions, essentially instituting a cast system.]

Anyone who had a lease on a particular piece of land could not give that lease up. More than that, they had to stay on the land and work it. In effect, this is the beginning of what in the Middle Ages is called serfdom, but it actually has its origins here in late Roman society.

We know for example from studies of Palestine, particularly in the Rabbinical writings, that in the course of the 3rd and early 4th century the structure of landholding in Palestine changed very dramatically. Palestine in the 2nd century was mostly composed of peasant landholders with very small acreage, perhaps an average of two and a half acres.

By the 4th century those smallholders had virtually disappeared and been replaced by vast estates controlled by a few large landowners. The peasants working the estates were the same people, but in the meantime they had lost their land to the larger landowners. In other words, landholding became a kind of massive agribusiness.

In the course of this, the population of Palestine, still principally Jewish, also changed in that the ownership of land passed from Jews to Gentiles. The reason for that undoubtedly was that the only people with large amounts of cash who could buy out these smallholders who were in distress were, of course, the government officials. And we hear of them being called potentates, powerful ones. In effect there is a shift in the distribution of wealth in Palestine; and obviously, from other evidence, similar things were happening in other places.
So, the class of people who came to own the land were actually government bureaucrats in charge of collecting taxes. They offered to buy the land from the peasants and then rent it back to them, promising in turn to "take care of the taxes". Of course, what ended up happening is that they raised the rent above what the peasants would pay in taxes.

All this lead to a development of a land-owning class who were not capitalists in modern conception. They were actually tax agents of the government who gradually became feudal lords. Because barbaric kingdoms and the Middle Age kingdoms that descended from them were not run as a bureaucracy but as an army hierarchy, with a strong chieftain hiring other chieftains to fight for him and then giving them out land in reward, the feudal lords of the Western kingdoms did not receive their land as a part of holding a bureaucratic office, but as a position in the king's army (generally speaking). But it amounted to the same.

Going back to Roman Empire, we see that this process started when the government started caring about benefiting the bureaucratic class instead of the free, private people. As a result, land and businesses passed from the hands of private individuals to the hands of government officials.

Now, let's look at the statistics provided by arbat: if you normalize the new workplaces that appeared in Texas and Massachusetts, you get that per 100 thousand people:

  • 140.4 workplaces appeared in TX, 2.4 of which are in the government
  • 75.8 workplaces appeared in MA, 92.5 of which are in the government
Not 92.5%, but 92.5 places (per 100,000 people). What does that mean? It means that not only did all the new workplaces in MA are in the government, but the government even "ate" some of the private workplaces.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Inflation and the fall of Roman Empire

“We came to disperse the darkness”

Nadav Bachar (guitar) and Oren Tzur (violin):

(sourcedownload the video)

I’ve never seen before a violin being used like balalaika. Can you do this with all stringed instruments (play them with fingers)? Can you use bow on guitar?

Also, at the beginning of the video (0:07–0:09), is that a monkey, a cat or a squirrel sitting in the yard?

More by Nadav Bachar (and on MySpace):


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Of Normans and hobbits

— Did you know that Tolkien really did not like the French, partially because of the Norman invasion of England? [The invasion erased much of the original Anglo-Saxon culture that was very dear to Tolkien.]
— I am sure the body odor did not help either.

How the tax system works

(Source: one of the comments here.)

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer, and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1.
The sixth would pay $3.
The seventh would pay $7.
The eighth would pay $12.
The ninth would pay $18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.” Drinks for the ten now cost just $80 total.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men — the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’ They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 ( 25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 ( 22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,”but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!”

“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works.

That's also the problem with taxing the rich. Next day, they won't come back to the bar. I.e., move their business elsewhere. This is what happened in Sweden and in Finland, and it might happen here too.

Activating trash

Continuing the previous conversation of why the government cannot "activate wealth" by investing into garbage.

First, it seems to be a very clear idea that if a company failed, it happened because the consumers chose not to buy its products, but went for the competitors (it's not like Americans decided they have no money for cars; it's also not like nobody in the world buys cars; Americans buy cars, and people throughout the world buy cars — just not the Fix Or Repair Daily brand). Investing more money into such a company is throwing bad money after the good. What needs to happen is for the company to sell off its assets to the companies that know what to do with them and let its workers be hired by the companies that can employ them to a better use.

Second, it seems that if the government has to invest in a business, it means that the private investors decided that this investment is not worth it. (The argument that some CEOs are overly reckless with their ivestments, because their personal gain from a return outweighs the possible risks of the failure which are shared equally by the investors, actually makes this point even stronger: even such overly reckless investors did not deem such garbage companies as GM worth investing in!) So, someone who supports stimulus basically thinks that Obama and his advisers are better at finding investment targets than entrepreneurs.

Now, let's read the news from National Palestinian Radio about Solyndra:
Administration officials defended the loan restructuring, saying that without an infusion of cash earlier this year, solar panel maker Solyndra Inc. would likely have faced immediate bankruptcy, putting more than 1,000 people out of work. 
Even with the federal help, Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and laid off its 1,100 employees.
No way! A company was on a bring of bankruptcy; it got a loan from the Federal Government, and it still filed for bankruptcy and fired all of its workers (plus extra 100 which it apparently hired after getting the loan). So, we are back to where we were, except $528 million poorer.

Now, there is no way someone could have foreseen that happening.

Oh, wait. I am predicting the liberal rebuttal: the problem is that we did not invest enough! Had we invested a couple more billion, the company would not go under and fire all those poor workers. This tragedy happened because of all those stingy Conservative bastards.

SEC doesn't know!

SEC on Ponzi schemes

And now, pretty funny clip:

And finally, what the Mind of the Nation had to say on Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

[via arbat]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why is it a bad idea for the government to invest?

As an addition to the discussion that I had in the comments section of this post, I'd like to post what this user wrote on one of forums:

* * *

The problem with a government investing money is severalfold, from practical considerations of incentive structures and consequences of the investment, to economic considerations of what investment really is and means, as well as where the money itself is coming from.

1. Incentive structures:

Probably the biggest reason why the government investing money is a poor investment strategy is that governments do not own the money they are spending, and will not receive back any money that is earned. This is to say, that the bureacrat spending the "public money" draws a wage solely, and the cash did not come from his pocket; and any money returned from the investment also does not go into his pocket. Thus, whether he makes a good investment or a bad investment, there are no consequences to him personally — he cannot be fired, nor gain any profit from the investment, and thus no incentive to weigh all the options, do due diligence, and make an informed choice.

Just look at the Obama administration's $500m investment in some energy company. The only gain the administration received from that was political gain, some talking points, some press coverage. They had no idea if that investment would actually help the economy, they just wanted to help a political ally (green energy).

2. Economic considerations:

All investment done by private citizens is surplus wealth reinvested. This means that a multitude of minds are involved in looking into investments, putting money where they each think it would best be invested.

How many people were taxed to garner $500m? Probably something like 100,000 people or more. The ability of those 100k people to hear about new investments, to network, to hear of problems with existing investments, or to stumble into a good investment dwarfs any government body of 10 or so appointed people, no matter how expert they are. And they are each investing their own money and directly receiving the pain of loss or joy of gain depending on how well they invested, which recalls incentive structures.

And if each thinks the investment they put it into isn't doing well, they can pull it and move it elsewhere. While the Obama administration was tossing around hundreds of millions at a time (into a single company!) 100,000 investors would've invested in stocks, bonds, entire portfolios of companies, resulting into hundreds and thousands of companies receiving funds to further their productive action. Which would've prevented the total loss of the investment as in the Obama's green-energy case.

And who in the Obama administration got fired for losing $500m? No one. It's play money to them, because they didn't earn it:

3. Where the money came from:

The reason the Obama administration could spend $500m of other people's money is because of statements like, "wouldn't it be a good thing if...?" It could be "wouldn't it be a good thing if retirees had free medicine," or "wouldn't it be a good thing if everyone had free education" — and the problem with such statements is that they obscure the consequences of implementation. Wouldn't it be a good thing... for who? and from who? Because every act of the government is done at the cost of human man-hours of productivity, turned into a wage, and then confiscated. Wouldn't it be a good thing if we had renewable energy? Sure, but who will pay for it?

To tax someone's wage to invest in a company is akin to saying that their income and effort must be sacrificed to the whim of politicians and their political goals. This money was taken from people who individually could've put it to much better use.

If a company is a good investment, let the free market invest in it, where the actions of many, based on their own judgment, and to their own gain or detriment, will make a choice free of political considerations, ensuring that it will not be the politically connected that get funding but rather those actually being productive.

[Bottom line:]

The main problem is centralization. When you take money from dozens or hundreds of thousands of people, you cannot invest it better than they could have. This creates natural inefficiencies. Smaller amounts of money invested in more companies with more eyes watching the outcome of the investment, tracking it, and with the incentive to make sure it does well will always outperform a fiat decision by government.

I suggest Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions for a closeup look at the inefficiencies between centralized decision-making and decentralized decision-making and why that means communism and it's variants can -never- be as economically efficient in any field as free capitalist economies are.

[Ad kan.]

That's a trippin' piano!

For those of you who don't know, TRP's career consists of playing pianos in parks when it's a nice weather outside, and, when it's cold, washing hands at the weddings:

Some more music, now Chopin:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Do tzaddikim make mistakes?

I read this in the weekly e-mail that I receive from the Avner Institute and was amazed at how the Rebbe was able to explain very succinctly and clearly the concepts of tzaddikim not erring but doing teshuva and in general, if "these and these are words of Living G-d", how can one path be more appropriate than another:
Many years ago, a group of students visited the Rebbe. When told that the spirit of G-d spoke from the Rebbe’s throat, one of them exclaimed, “Does that mean the Rebbe never makes a mistake?” 
When they entered the Rebbe’s room, one of them asked the Rebbe pointblank, “If the Rebbe never makes a mistake, why does he have an eraser on his pencil?” 
The Rebbe quietly answered, “A Rebbe does not err, but today he is greater than yesterday and today he adds to what was written yesterday. In other words, it’s not in order to erase a mistake, but to erase what was correct yesterday. Today he is of a different, higher stature.”

To us, this is not only a lesson in appreciation of who tzaddikim are and what their avoida is, but also in our own personal lives. We are not tzaddikim and will make mistakes. But that's not the only reason to have "erasers on our pencils". Even if something we created yesterday was good, today we can make it better.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An injection of your own blood

If Obama can re-use his first stimulus speech from a few years ago (although I think he just plagiarized Hoover's 1931 stimulus speech), I can re-use one of my old posts:

Government can't really stimulate economy.

Why not? Read here:
Any statement about the economy that contains a mechanical metaphor is more than likely wrong. We’re told government must “jump start” the economy. How can it? Think about what happens when a car is jump started. Cables connected to a charged battery convey juice to a dead battery. Energy is injected into the broken-down car from outside.

Politicians and court economists want us think this is analogous to government’s jump starting the economy. But it cannot be. Since the government has no money lying around waiting to be spent*, it will have to borrow close to a trillion dollars to carry out the program President-elect Obama and the congressional leadership are planning.

But borrowing money for their pet projects injects nothing into the economy. It merely moves money from where it currently is in the economy to where politicians want it to be. How is that a stimulus?

Moreover, the debt will be covered (monetized) by the Federal Reserve by creating money out of thin air. That money will then be spent and “invested,” but notice the problem. Creating money is not the same as creating wealth. Imagine you were stranded on a desert island. Overhead you see a plane. It drops a large box down to you. Excitedly you tear open the box expecting to find food and water. But instead you find a printing press and a large supply of green paper. An instruction sheet states: “Print all the money you need.”

Are you better off?

All resources are scarce. A quantity of steel, for instance, can be used to make a washing machine or a machine to produce more steel. It can’t make both at the same time. When the Fed creates money, it increases the demand for scarce resources — but no new resources. How can that be a path to prosperity? Rather, it’s a path to higher prices and lower real incomes.

But it’s more than that. Since the new money gets into some hands rather than others first, monetary expansion — that is, inflation — changes the pattern of prices and production that would have resulted from voluntary exchange under sound money. Among the prices distorted are interest rates. By doing so, inflation transfers resources from those who produce wealth to others.

Inflation, therefore, is one more government income-distribution program. The lucky early recipients of the fresh fiat money gain purchasing power — command over scarce resources — at the expense of everyone else. The market process is thereby corrupted. In the absence of inflation (and other government interference), it is a system in which entrepreneurs pursue profit by pleasing consumers.

What makes this work amazingly well is the price system, which communicates to producers and consumers the relative scarcities of products and factors of production, the relative demands for such things, and the degree to which people prefer goods in the present to goods in the future. This permits production to be guided by consumers’ preferences.

Inflation distorts those relative prices, garbling the signals and ill-serving consumers. In the end society is poorer than it would have been. When the inflation is finally stopped, the economy suffers depression and mass unemployment as it corrects for the malinvestment. Or, if the inflation accelerates to hyperinflation, as it did in Germany in the 1920s and in Zimbabwe today, society will be thrown into chaos.

This is where the Obama-congressional “stimulus” plans will lead. Nothing is more dangerous than a politician who thinks he must “do something now”.
The last statement points at the root of the problem. People think of government as some creative force — government creates things (products, services, initiatives) and directs civilization. This is a model of a slave society, where people belong to the society, which itself is a big beehive.

On the other hand, a model of a free society, where each person is an individual who belongs to himself but agreed with others to build a society together, involves only one function of the government — not creative, but restrictive. Such a government merely protects people’s rights allowing them to make decisions in building civilization, providing services, inventing new products, etc. — something people have been doing just fine by themselves (and better than when government got involved).

In a free model of a government, the latter has no mitzvos aseh (“thou shalt”)it only has mitzvos loi ta’aseh (“thou shalt not”).

* Now, it's not actually true that there is no way to inject money into an economy from "without", as one injects juice into a dead battery. There is. Hitler, y"sh, used it to "jump-start" German economy. What you do is invade another country, rob it of its resources, and the "inject" those resources in your economy.

The only question is: should we invade Mexico or Canada? The first is full of cheap labor, but we already have more of their cheap labor than we know what to do with. The second is full of liberals and hippy guitar players (yes, I am thinking of Tzvi Freeman), and we seem to have too many of those too. Perhaps we can invade an oil-rich country and... oh, wait...