Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Jolly Roger

The following passage in Pete Leeson's book on pirates reminded me of my earlier post about why rapists shouldn't be treated as harshly as rapists who are also murders (emphasis added):
The presence of these other belligerent marine vessels provides a clue why pirates went through the trouble of using the Jolly Roger when they attacked their prey: Pirates wanted to distinguish themselves from the other assaulting vessels merchant ships might encounter. Britain criticized the Spanish Guarda Costa for inhumanely treating some British prisoners it captured. Nevertheless, at least in principle, the viciousness coast guard vessels could show toward merchant crews they assaulted was limited because they were government-sanctioned cruisers. They weren't permitted to wantonly slaughter merchant crews that resisted them after these crews cried out for quarter, for instance. In contrast, pirates weren't even theoretically constrained in how they treated those they overcame. Pirates were outlaws and would be hanged if authorities captured them whether they massacred merchant crews they attacked or not. In this sense, for pirates, massacring resistors was essentially costless.
Thus, the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger served as a credible signal to merchant ships that they should surrender instead of face probable death.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Evolutionary Impulses

Imagine that, all of a sudden, humans no longer found food to be delicious or sex to be enjoyable.

Would we go on eating, procreating, and surviving with the big picture in mind, or would the human race die off after a few decades because we'd all be too short-sighted? In other words, how important are our evolutionary impulses today, now that we have an established society?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tom Sawyer: Economist

Economists since Adam Smith have demonstrated that the way to riches is trading. Through comparative advantage, we can trade for things that are cheaper for others to produce than they would be for us to produce ourselves--leaving both parties better off. Happily, this often takes the form of the buyer thinking "I can't believe this product is so cheap" while the seller is thinking "I can't believe people are paying me so much to produce this."

In light of this, I found the following passage from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" rather amusing:

"Nothing but a tick."

"Where'd you get him?"

"Out in the woods."

"What'll you take for him?"

"I don't know. I don't want to sell him."

"All right. It's a mighty small tick, anyway."

"Oh, anybody can run a tick down that don't belong to them. I'm satisfied with it. It's a good enough tick for me."

"Sho, there's ticks a plenty. I could have a thousand of 'em if I wanted to."

"Well, why don't you? Becuz you know mighty well you can't. This is a pretty early tick, I reckon. It's the first one I've seen this year."

"Say, Huck— I'll give you my tooth for him."

"Less see it."

Tom got out a bit of paper and carefully unrolled it. Huckleberry viewed it wistfully. The temptation was very strong. At last he said:

"Is it genuwyne?"

Tom lifted his lip and showed the vacancy.

"Well, all right," said Huckleberry, "it's a trade."

Tom enclosed the tick in the percussion-cap box that had lately been the pinchbug's prison, and the boys separated, each feeling wealthier than before.