Friday, September 23, 2016

CRISPR: Sci-Fi becoming reality

The above video created by Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell explains some recent advances in genetic engineering and some of the possible consequences.

The video focuses on the discovery of CRISPR which allows genetic engineering to be done much more easily and at a lower price.

If you're interested here's an article about CRISPR from a year ago in the New York Times

Questions to bring up:

If the price of genetic engineering goes down dramatically, in theory, the quantity demanded of genetic engineering should increase and as the quantity goes up it may become more acceptable in society which would increase demand making the quantity demanded go up further. Is this accurate? Are there other things to consider?

The narrator says that banning genetic engineering would have negative consequences since it would then be up to the black market to do with it what it will. Is regulation a good idea and how much if so?

What might be some of the externalities or secondary effects of more genetic engineering in our society?

If humans were to greatly increase their lifespan, would that be a negative externality on humans who are born in the future since population (and resource consumption) would increase even faster than it does currently?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Economic inequality and education inequality.

Listening to conversations about the state of our country would lead me to believe that everything that is going wrong in our country is the fault of the government, and/or the rich people. From the perspective of someone who knows a little about free markets and how trade works, I'd like to challenge that, and explain why society seems to misappropriate blame.

First of all, in a free market society, the way that growth in the economy occurs is by individuals striving to maximize their utility, or in other words, people do what makes them happy, and because people are happy with different things and different jobs, they end up with different quantities of wealth, thus naturally, some people would be wealthier than others. The way a situation where everyone is equally wealthy would come about would be to limit the opportunities of those who would become wealthier than others which would result in less total wealth for the society, and ultimately lower quality of life, because if people don't have something to strive for, why bother.

Secondly, the government being blamed for problems is like blaming a doctor for not curing cancer. We live in a country which has a representative republic, which means that policy decisions are largely in keeping with the wants of the greatest number of people, or at least the loudest. Which means that the problem originates with us as a society. This points to a problem in what the majority of people want, but somehow the majority of people don't see the problem.

Which brings me to why this occurs.
People place blame when they feel entitled to something that they don't have, and are misinformed about why they don't have the thing that they feel entitled to receive. Additionally, when people are misinformed they are more likely to misallocate the blame onto people or organizations that might help the situation, simply because the people really have no idea. This is what is occurring in our society today, as the population grows larger, and unfortunately quality of education declines, especially economic education, the majority of people don't know what a good decision looks like, and so when someone comes along and starts blaming the government or rich people for the problems of our country, people are willing to agree, because is sounds plausible if they don't know what is actually going on.

And so, I urge people, and society as a whole, before you start taking for granted what people say about the government or "the one percent" do some research, find out what is going on, and then make an educated decision, rather than just following the often uninformed crowd.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lack of education in our country

I remember quite a lot about what classes I was required to take in high school in order to graduate. In fact, I still have a recurring nightmare where I am missing one credit and won't be able to finish in time. High school was supposed to prepare us for the next step in our lives. Hopefully, college is the next one but it could also be a trade school, the military, or a job that would provide enough money to exist.  I think that a college education is imperative for a life well lived.  Not only does one learn about new subjects, but also how the real world works.  If one is late or misses a class, then the grade will suffer.  If a paper or test is not complete, then one might fail completely and have to try again and dole out even more money.  Not only would money be lost but the time put forth as well. Education whether formal or informal at the college level is necessary in my opinion.

My Economics education began this semester.  Unfortunately, I am one of those the articles spoke about. I was uneducated and ill informed in both high school and as an adult via the media. I am familiar with the economy and the dire state it is in but only as far as it applies to my family and those around me. I wish my economics education had begun before this year. My perspective has changed with just a few weeks of economic thinking. I am able to analyze what is necessary and at what cost it will incur in my life. I will pass on my knowledge to my children as I obtain it.  It amazes me that Economics is not a requirement everywhere and for every degree.  I agree with Mr. Reed that the government should not be in charge of teaching Economics. The high schools of tomorrow should be aware and worried about what books may be biased and could very well cause future adults to be ill advised and uninformed as much of the public is today.

My hope is that as adults learn more Economics and what constitutes good and bad policy or proper government involvement, the citizens may be able to alter the current trajectory.  More teachers need to stand up and say, "Economics is exciting, let me show you why." I am learning more and more everyday and will continue to educate myself and my children on Economics because maybe they will pass on the knowledge to others and make a real difference in the world.

Economics and Education.

To me, economics and education are nearly synonymous.  Both involve making reasonable decisions to garner a desired outcome.  Unfortunately, I think an understanding of both areas is in somewhat short supply currently, and I'd like to discuss some of the reasons why.

You often hear of the "dumbing down" of America, and while it's nice alliteration, I think it's somewhat of a misnomer.  American productivity has long trended upward and generally continues to do so, and each successive generation is smarter than the last.  I think the true cause of the perception that America is getting stupider probably has more to do with ignorance and profit than it does with true loss of intelligence.

When I think of complete individuals, I often think of the term "Renaissance man", more specifically famous polymaths like da Vinci, Archimedes, Newton, Franklin and Cousteau.  These individuals had a massive spread of personal knowledge which allowed them to innovate, create and accomplish in multiple fields.  The synthesis of knowledge in different disciplines allowed them to solve problems that specialists could not.  These people could have been expected to converse about any number of topics astutely.  Unfortunately, these individuals are products of the past.  I believe that in today's society, there is little pressure to create such well-rounded individuals while there are many incentives to find a niche and specialize from a relatively early point in life.  Evidence of this over-specialization can be seen in our schools.  Classes that create well-rounded people have been pushed aside.  High school classes like shop, home economics, gym and foreign language have been replaced with offerings like "The Art of the Graphic Novel".  While I enjoy graphic novels thoroughly, classes like this aren't creating young adults with a solid base of useful knowledge and critical thinking skills.  In higher education, formerly popular  university subjects like Civics and Economics have seen little interest lately, and some students can never take an algebra or geography class in high school or university and still graduate with an advanced university degree.  In some part, I think we've become over-particularized.  Such tight focus on a tiny part of a single field means that the forest is often overlooked for a single needle on a single pine.  This has created individuals who are highly studied in 13th century altar cloths, but who have little to no understanding of a basic concept like opportunity cost or where Alaska is in relation to California.

The second cause for the dumbing down of America is the college degree industry.  The college degree industry can be broken down into the university systems and loaners/debt-collectors that take advantage of the system.  On the university side, we see the rise of for-profit universities that promise jobs and opportunity for graduates, but have miserable graduation rates.  For that matter, we can also point to traditional non-profit universities who behave similarly.  Some schools even have created classes with absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the student; these classes existing purely to benefit the university.  On the other hand, we can observe the college student loan system.  Student loans can be received from private institutions, state and federal sources.  Private loans carry with the risk of little consumer protection, while the federal student loan program has created a monster where the Department of Education would be the fifth largest bank in the nation by assets held.  This has created an unhealthy education system.

I don't have solutions for these problems.  I do, however, have a few thoughts.  In my opinion, our high school systems should be a place where students get a very wide, useful base of knowledge in multiple subjects.  Every student should be exposed to a wide array of information.  This is both to give the students the ability to function comfortably in society (read: learn how to think critically with some background) and to help them discover their passion in life.  We shouldn't have to resort to offering classes about graphic novels when we can offer them legitimate courses about world geography, a foreign language, personal finance, or logic.  The university systems should continue the expansion of knowledge while allowing focus on a major of study.  To address the university and loan systems, I think the "free money" that is the federal student loan program should come to a screeching halt.  University should be for students who have proven themselves worthy of additional education, not for people seeking the "college experience" with the taxpayer footing the bill.  This will reduce the problems associated with price-hiking we see in university tuition costs and decrease much of the profit drive for businesses that support either the university or loan systems.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Economic Illiteracy and Vlogs

I am excited to begin a new SWEET academic year. Based on our first energized meeting, it was apparent that many of you were interested in getting involved in community outreach efforts to teach economic and financial literacy. You also expressed an interest in educational Vlogging. Please read the the articles I have posted for September 21, and watch the video with a critical eye. Please post your thoughts about the articles and the video prior to the meeting this Wednesday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What the Point?

Rural Alaskan communities are heavily subsidized and they don’t even manage to grow like other places in the country. I think they largely represent failed communities and it doesn’t make much sense to me to subsidize them. There’s pretty much no population growth in those rural Alaskan areas outside of natural population growth from the birth rates present there (rural communities nearly always have higher birth rates than urban areas). There appears to be like no reason to move to one of the rural places when they have such problems with utilities such as water or waste disposal. The conditions they live under are simply not even close to living standards that are average for Americans. I’m not sure if someone finds the sewage thrown outside to your yard to be normal, but that is not normal at all. It just seems so bizarre to hear this is going on in this state. I am from the small community of Delta Junction. To me even Delta is just behind like every city out there when it comes to things like internet, food, culture, and many other parameters that measure progress. However, in Delta there is no problem that I’ve ever heard of with sewage or water. I just never heard about anyone throwing their sewage into their back yard or anywhere. That’s why everyone has a septic tank. It just doesn’t make sense to support these communities that cannot support themselves, and I say this coming from a rural community. Delta has been losing population recently too and I think that is because living standards there simply suck. Everything is expensive and there’s like nothing to do. There is like no reason to live there unless you have family. It doesn’t make sense to support places where people would not naturally move to live. It doesn’t make sense to throw money at communities that have unbearable living conditions. What’s the point of trying to save failed communities? Is there some economic gain I do not know about? I might be missing some important point, but to me it doesn’t make sense to try keep people there when there are so many better places for living across America. People should be living good lives and enjoying themselves not freezing and living like in the middle ages or something. It seems bizarre to hear about how much money we throw at communities that do not bring much benefit to the Alaskan economy. It’s easy to throw oil money at the problem if you have tons of money lying around, but that’s just an irrational way to function. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Rural issues/Barbara's presentation.

Alaska has a lot of unique engineering challenges.  The presence of permafrost complicates both surface and subsurface building.  The extreme cold in the winters and the relatively high summer temperatures makes picking suitable building materials difficult due to thermal expansion and contraction, as well as the various changes to the properties of the building materials due to the temperature.  Our delicate environs are also easily harmed by various kinds of commercial and industrial waste, and many communities count on being able to reap the bounties of fish, animals and lumber that nature provides.  Finally, the remoteness of rural job sites makes getting the appropriate materials to the right place difficult and increases the damage that building materials receive due to transportation.  These problems are all issues that communities that wish to have running water, a basic utility many of us take for granted, will have to overcome.

The problem behind the investigation that Barbara did is that communities want the advantages to health, hygiene and convenience that a modern water utility and sewage system provides, but they are often unable to sustain the operation of a water utility.  The government provides funding for the construction of modern water utilities in these small communities.  These projects are extremely expensive due to Alaska.  These water utilities often fail because the small communities are unable to spread the operating costs over enough households and due to the relatively elastic demand for the services these utilities provide.  This is a wasteful use of funds, and a primary reason for this is a faulty method of evaluating which communities should receive government water utility construction assistance.  Barbara found that the government metric was generally set way too high, therefore many communities that would not be able to sustain a water utility were the sites of water utility projects.  Barbara proposed another way of evaluating the suitability of water utilities in communities to better choose recipients of government assistance.

At some level, I found myself struggling with issues concerning rural life.  As much as I respect indigenous practices, and I strongly believe that subsistence lifestyles are a part of Alaskan life, I am concerned with all of Alaska subsidizing communities that would otherwise not be viable.  We are facing an enormous state budget crisis right now, and I honestly wonder how much money is diverted into programs that subsidize people living in remote villages through heating oil subsidies, public works projects, etc.  I do not understand how certain modern amenities like water/sewage, electricity, fast internet, policing, firefighting, cell phone reception and the maintenance of equipment and infrastructure that sustain these amenities can be supported by small communities.  For instance, if a bag of Doritos chips in Tanana, a relatively large community on the banks of the Yukon, is nearly $10.00, and the same bag of chips can be had in Fairbanks for under 4 dollars, what do you think the cost of providing water to that community is comparatively?  Is it fair to taxpayers in Anchorage or Fairbanks to be sustaining programs that subsidize living in remote areas when that money could be used to improve services that benefit many, many more people in these larger communities?  As I stated earlier, I am having problems with dovetailing subsidizing villages with my personal views that subsistence is core value of Alaskan life.  I'd be interested in hearing other people comment on this.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

This Wednesday, April 20, we will be privileged to have our SWEET President, Barbara Johnson, present her research. You can blog your thoughts after her talk.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Gun Control

The restriction or ban of non-hunting guns has both pros and cons. It can be argued that since most violent crimes are committed with guns then restrictions or bans would reduce the number of those crimes, but at the same time it can be argued that criminals would still find ways to get guns and that only those people that follow laws would be hurt. We often hear in the news about mass shootings and banning many non-hunting guns such as assault rifles would mean there would be fewer victims when crazies decide to do mass shootings because their firepower would be limited. However, it is possible that normal people having guns means that those crazies would be less likely to commit mass shootings if people carried weapons with them for protection because those perpetrators would have the potential to be shot. With more guns out there in the general population there can be higher chances of guns getting into the hands of children, which means accidents can happen more frequency. However, the black market for guns would likely become enlarged with guns banned and it would be a loss of some liberty our citizens have. The police cannot protect everyone and people can protect themselves from the government. Gun ownership also has protection from the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, but it was aimed towards the militia rather than individuals. Furthermore, crimes that would have been less harmful can be a lot more dangerous if guns are allowed. Essentially, both sides can argue their point to approximately the same extent.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Responsible Gun Ownership

Gun ownership is protected by our Constitution.  I sincerely believe that the militia the Constitution speaks of is all adult citizens (more or less) of the United States, and the Supreme Court has already ruled on this matter in support of my views.  That said, I understand that even though the Constitution protects this right, the Founding Fathers could not have fathomed the weaponry that exists today.  In their time, a well-made musket could be expected to have an effective range of about 300 yards.  Today, an AK-47 has an effective range of 400 yards.  Further, while a 10-man unit of trained musketeers could fire about 25 shots in one minute, a single person with an AK-47 can fire well over 10 times that in the same amount of time, and although the musket and AK-47 have similar point-blank bullet energy, the AK-47 maintains that energy and lethality at ranges well beyond the musket.  It is because of these differences that the primary argument against modern gun ownership is the use of modern guns in mass shootings.

Yes, guns can kill people efficiently, certainly more efficiently than a sharpened stick or brick.  However, the bottom line is that our gun rights are protected.  As long as we have gun rights, we will also live with the problems that come with these rights.  Mass shooting stories are frequently on the news.  Many people blame the guns as the root cause of the shootings, and while they definitely facilitate mass murder, they are not the root cause.  A gun alone does not kill people.  There always is the person who pulled the trigger.  All society can do is try to reduce the number of triggermen getting a hold of guns.  We do a very mixed job of doing so.  We have laws which prevent violent criminals and the mentally ill for obtaining guns from most stores, yet we do not enforce many of these laws.  We also have not deigned to safeguard private sales through person-to-person, online or gun show transactions nearly as well as we have through shop-to-person transactions.  Much of the real problem should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the gun owners and their lobby groups.  More over, direct responsibility at some level can literally be placed upon gun owners.  The reason I say this is that in a large portion of mass shooting cases in the U.S., the guns that were used in the shootings were unsecured.  This means that guns and ammunition were accessed by shooters who were not the gun owners.  Jeffrey Weise, Adam Lanza, Charles Andrew Williams, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden are a small sample of individuals who did not legally own guns, but were able to obtain guns and ammunition and then go on shooting sprees.  In the case of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, they were able to break into a glass display case at a relative's house to get rifles and ammunition.  Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was able to access guns from his mother's collection.  Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, middle school students responsible for murdering five people, were able to bring a small arsenal to school procured from their homes.  No one holds the gun owners responsible for the deaths.  I find this absolutely bewildering considering the precedents our country has established concerning liability.  A person who has not secured their firearms is not being a responsible firearm owner.  This person SHOULD be punished for being so negligent as to not secure the weapon.

We do have a lot of laws governing firearms ownership.  It's time we take out the loopholes and lack of accountability, and start enforcing the rules we have.  I strongly believe that doing so will help reduce the number of mass shootings in our country.

Article V

The Constitution of the United States
Article. V.

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Gun control, to me, is a straight forward issue -- amend the Constitution. I am not always a fan of firearms, or how people choose to use firearms, nor do I own any firearms; but I know you cannot legislate away human faults. Telling people they cannot do something because it is against the law does not magically solve the problem. Even if gun legislation were to become amended in the Constitution, there would be an illegal market to facilitate the desire to own firearms. Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s made alcohol illegal, and yet the market provided. Alaskan villages who do not allow alcohol in their villages are still targeted by smugglers. Drugs are illegal and yet we still have a strong drug presence in this country. Wouldn't the legislation against firearms turn this into another "War On Drugs" scenario, with the inefficient financial costs of enforcing the law outweighing the intended benefit? If you want to legislate anything, focus on attachments and other after market modifications that are not Constitutionally protected, e.g., magazine sizes, foregrips, digital optics.

Regardless, gun control in this day and age is becoming irrelevant as technology continues to advance. Who needs a Class 3 license when all you need is a 3D Printer and the materials to create your own unregistered firearm?
Dear Scholars,

Since there was so much interest last Wednesday, we will be discussing gun control this week. Please feel free to do your own research and post a blog based on your findings. You will receive credit if you post it prior to the meeting.