Straw Man Arguments and Heartbeat Bills

A “straw man argument” is a well-known logical fallacy in which one person refuses to address the actual issues and instead sets up a different argument to attack. The recent “heartbeat bills” that prohibit abortion after a heartbeat can be detected have spawned some good examples of this fallacy. Here is a quote that is being copied and pasted all over the Internet this week:

If you are a woman who supports this, then you are essentially tying your own noose. These laws go so much further than criminalizing safe abortions. In Georgia, a woman who miscarries can now be interrogated and investigated, and ultimately charged with murder if they find ANY way that she could be liable for the death of the baby. Tripped and fell down the stairs – how can we prove it was an accident? Liable. Found out you were pregnant at 6 weeks and stopped smoking immediately, only to miscarry a week later? There’s nicotine in your system, liable. Ohio has a bill under way that would make birth control pills, IUDs, etc, illegal. Going deeper, this has an even larger fall out than women’s health. Violations of these laws are felonies. Felons cannot vote. Do you see where we are going?? These laws that are passing attack women, and they threaten every single one of us. They take away our rights that were already hard-won. I am terrified of where this leads. Feel free to copy and paste.

Copypasta 5/22/19

The “heartbeat bills” that have now been signed into law in Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and Kentucky all declare an embryo with a beating heart a “human being.” Most of these new laws specifically exempt the mother of that embryo from any criminal or civil penalties for seeking an abortion. Georgia does not specifically prohibit such penalties in the text of the law, but the bill’s sponsor insists that it was never the intention to prosecute women and many of Georgia’s district attorneys have already made it clear that they have no intention of prosecuting women who seek abortion. The intent of each of these “heartbeat bills” is to make it a crime to perform an abortion on a human embryo with a detectable heartbeat, not to seek an abortion.

The Internet meme argues that women who seek abortions will be deemed felons, who will then lose their right to vote, and will then be subjugated by majority rule. That would be a powerful argument–if it were true. With hundreds of thousands of abortions every year, the political balance of power could be changed if women were systematically disenfranchised. That would be an assault on our democracy that must be opposed!

But the “straw man” here is just not true. A woman’s right to vote is not in danger, even if she has an abortion. Instead, this is a time for women to decide how to cast that vote. Some women will choose to vote for Democratic politicians who want to make abortion legal up until a baby’s due date. (New York just passed such a law; Virginia tried to do so; every Democratic Senator running for President in 2020 voted against a bill that would require a child born alive after an abortion to have a doctor of his or her own.) Others will choose to vote for Republican politicians who want to recognize the unborn child as a human being. Still others will prefer leaders who support the kinds of laws that are typical in Europe, where abortion is generally legal in the first trimester, significantly restricted in the second trimester, and unthinkable after a fetus becomes viable in the third.

Women of America, your right to vote is not under attack. But your ability to vote for your own values is under attack! Your ability to vote for what you believe in is compromised each time you fall for a fallacy. Don’t let anybody else trick you into voting against your conscience!

Why Social Media Kills Competition

The social media giants (Facebook, Twitter, Google) have grown quickly. That’s great! This new tech has created a new economy in which “users” (that’s you and me) provide “data” (about us) that gets turned into a “product” (mostly targeted ads) that are sold to “customers” (the people who pay money).

The problem with this new economy is that there seems to be an unlimited “economy of scale.” That’s the term economists use to describe a situation where bigger is better. If I open a “Mom and Pop” convenience store, I can only shelve so many items. If you’re looking for something I don’t have, you’ll drive right past my store to the box store on the strip mall. The big box store can buy in bulk, offer discounts, and run ads. That means that even if Mom and Pop have the item on their shelves, many of their neighbors will drive right past them to get the same thing cheaper elsewhere. That’s not a bad thing for the consumer–it’s just how “economies of scale” work.

Targeted ads seem to have unlimited economies of scale. The more “users” I have in my system, the more ads I can sell. The more data I have on each user, the more effective those ads become. A “Mom and Pop” social media platform may be able to reach their little community, but the social media giants can reach the same users even better. Here at Storybook Farm, we raise heritage chickens and mini-Nubian dairy goats. We are active members of a number of online groups for goat and chicken people. If you wanted to sell me a better frost-free chicken waterer, you could place an ad at “” and you might reach catch my attention. It’s possible that I would see the ad and remember it a few months later when the weather gets cold. But it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to buy a Google ad for anybody searching for “frost chicken water.” That ad will pop up as soon as I go shopping. Mom and Pop can’t compete with the big boys.

That’s not bad for the user! If I want a frost-free chicken waterer, I want it when I need it. I’m happy to have a social media giant collect the data and make money on the process.

There is a problem with such economies of scale, however. They can stifle competition. Once Google owns the search engine market, it’s hard for a direct competitor like “” to break in. That’s why a lot of new entries to the social media market offer something different. That’s called “innovation,” and that’s great! But that hasn’t quite worked out as planned.

Social media success has enabled the social media giants to gobble up their competition. Facebook became successful and people couldn’t compete with it directly, so they invented WhatsApp, Instagram, and a host of other products which Facebook then acquired. Google became successful so people invented YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, and a host of others that Google gobbled up. Twitter became successful so people invented Periscope, Twitpic, etc. Twitter owns them now.

The social media giants consume their competition because they use their ever-expanding data set to sell their products. A tiny code-sharing app (if such a thing exists) might serve a tiny group of geeks; but link that up to Facebook’s data on who is learning to code in Python and you can multiply the value of that app. A company worth $1 million a year without Google’s gigantic database could be worth $5 million the minute Google acquires it. It’s hard to create competition to the big companies when the economics reward the big guys every time.

With great power comes great responsibility. Facebook got into hot water in the 2016 election. Twitter and Google have been subject to conservative criticism over claims that they are censoring conservative speech. These new companies benefit from a special provision in the Communications Decency Act which allows them to censor constitutionally protected speech without liability. Big media could hack the 2020 election if they want to.

The bottom line is this: the unlimited economies of scale in social media are good for people who want to buy frost-free chicken waterers but they may not be good for America. Section 230 currently allows Twitter, Facebook, and Google to censor political speech and silence political voices. It’s time to limit their economic power in order to protect our political process.

A Progressive Media Tax

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, said the government must hold the social networking giant accountable and break it up. European lawmakers argue that Google has become a monopoly that is stifling competition. Twitter has repeatedly purged a number of conservative accounts for allegedly violating “terms of service,” while liberal accounts which are doing the same (or worse) go unchecked. What, if anything, can be done about the social media giants?

Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2018, has proposed a tax on targeted digital ads. This tax would apply to revenues (not profits), and would be “progressive” (which means the tax rate would increase as revenues got larger). To use Twitter as an example and a simple tax of 1% more on each additional billion in ad revenues, Twitter’s $3B revenues would generate:

  • $0 for the first billion
  • $10M for the next billion
  • $20M for the third billion

This progressive media tax makes sense to me for a number of reasons. First, the very existence of the big social media companies is due to an extraordinary privilege granted by Congress in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 42 USC § 230(c)(2)(A) shields social media companies from liability for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” This gives social media an explicit right to censor private speech.

What Congress gives, however, Congress may take away. When the big social media companies silence political speech that they don’t like, they lose their claim to the special privileges and immunities conferred by statute. 47 USC § 230(a)(3) states that the Internet and other interactive computer services “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.”

A “Progressive Media Tax” would have the following components:

  • It would apply to all corporations that sell targeted digital ads which elect to operate under the protection of 42 USC § 230. Corporations could avoid the tax by electing not to claim that protection, or reduce it by shifting from “freemium” services (funded by ads) to “premium” ad free packages.
  • The tax would apply to all targeted ad revenue generated from shared data, whether that data is owned by the corporation or is shared with others. For example, Facebook owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and several dozen other services. Facebook could spin these services off yet continue to share data with them. Under the proposed law, the tax would be computed on the total revenue of all ads generated by the data set. regardless of the owner; individual corporations would then pay their share of the total tax.
  • The tax rate would be set to promote competition and reduce corporate threats to individual privacy, not to maximize revenue.

A Progressive Media Tax is easy to impose, possible to administer, and directly addresses the new challenges of our 21st Century media.

Congress will not enact a progressive media tax in the next two years, but the next eighteen months may be critical. Social media is so powerful that it has the potential to tilt American politics. If Facebook, Twitter, and Google realize that Americans want to limit their power, they may use their power to make sure that cannot happen by “hacking” the 2020 election.

Economist Paul Romer suggests that state legislatures lead the way. With some minor modifications, state may impose a progressive media tax. If you would like to promote such legislation in your state, leave a comment or contact the author on Twitter (@GreenNukeDeal).

Diatomic Sequestration

The Green Nuclear Deal addresses ways that nuclear power can lower CO2 emissions, but atomic power is not the only way to lower CO2 concentrations. We can pull carbon out of seawater and send it to the bottom of the ocean if we are willing to use the power of the diatom.

Diatoms are single-celled organisms that build their cell walls out of silicon instead of cellulose. These little plants literally “live in glass houses.” Given the right conditions and nutrients, they can double their numbers every 24 hours. Thus, if you start with just one diatom and fertilize it (and its offspring!) in a sunny place, you could have a thousand diatoms in ten days, one million diatoms in twenty days, one billion in thirty days, one trillion in forty days, and so forth. Keep shoveling in the right nutrients and you could cover the entire planet in diatoms by the end of one growing season.

Assorted diatoms as seen through a microscope. Public domain image.

Because their cell walls are made of “glass,” diatoms that float in water while they are alive tend to sink to the bottom when they die. (The average life span of a diatom is six days.) The ocean floor has layers of dead diatoms that are as much as a half mile thick.

Diatoms grow where there are sufficient nutrients. Like almost every other species of green algae, they need iron for photosynthesis. Unlike other species, they also need silicon. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust (after oxygen). The ratio of elements in a diatom is as follows:

  • 106 carbon atoms
  • 15 nitrogen atoms
  • 16 silicon atoms
  • 1 phosphorus atoms
  • trace amounts of iron, magnesium, etc.

Shrimp farmers routinely fertilize shallow waters to promote diatom growth. We need to consider fertilizing the empty waters of the deep ocean, which is a biological “desert” due to the lack of necessary nutrients. If humans “farm” deep water diatoms, we can send six carbon atoms to the bottom of the ocean for every silicon atom we transport.

Diatom farming could be one of the cheapest carbon-sequestration options available. It is a low-technology process–all you need is the right species of diatom, lots and lots of fertilizer, a freighter to transport it, and a mid-ocean platform to dispense the fertilizer over time.

The environmental impact of diatom farming can be minimized as long as the operator provides the right balance of nutrients. The limiting factor for green algae in the deep ocean is iron. The diatom farmer should provide iron and silicon to promote the growth of a species of diatom that reproduces rapidly, dies off quickly, and sinks to the bottom of the ocean with a minimum of carbon loss. But the farmer must take care to replenish certain other nutrients that diatoms consume; otherwise the ocean water will be unable to support other species later on.

There are at least five deep ocean areas that are optimal for diatom farming. The North Pacific Gyre is a vast area that is poor in nutrients but high in CO2. It has been called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” because human debris gets sucked into this giant whirlpool and never escapes. Adding nutrients to the middle of this vast rotating “desert” would have minimal effect on the surrounding areas.

The surface waters of this area are very low in nutrients, but the deeper waters (and the ocean bottom) have more of the minerals required for life. A solar concentrator on the surface could be used to heat a fluid and then pump that heat into deep water using a simple “closed loop.” This should cause an upwelling of more-fertile water to the surface. This would dramatically reduce the amount of fertilizer that must be shipped from the shore; humans would only need to provide those nutrients that are not already present in deep waters.

With a Green Nuclear Deal, the mid-ocean platform would house a Gen IV reactor to provide vast amounts of power at a minimal cost. Electricity from the reactor could power a heater on the ocean floor, which would create a mid-ocean “oasis” of life. The “farmers” on this platform would harvest this marine life; freighters (ideally, nuclear-powered freighters!) would transport fresh fish to shore and bring essential nutrients back.

CO2-Neutral US in 10 Years

I have accepted the challenge of spelling out how the US can reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2029. For brevity’s sake, this document does not address related issues (methane, sea level rise). I do not endorse all of the steps I propose below, but I submit them with the conviction that these steps are simpler, cheaper, faster, and more effective at reducing CO2 than the “Green New Deal” proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke’s “Climate Plan.”

roposed by Alexandrio Ocasio-Cortez and the Beto O’Rourke “Climate Plan.”

Green Nuclear Deal

Step 1 is to deploy nuclear power on a large scale. I have laid out one version of a Green Nuclear Deal here. Here are the time-sensitive components of that proposal:

  • Begin deploying small modular reactors on military bases ASAP, relying on President’s statutory authority to utilize nuclear reactors without a license from the NRC.
  • Deploy small modular reactors on cargo ships operating under the authority of the US Navy, to be deployed in “safe harbors” outside the US.

Telework Initiative

All publicly funded colleges and universities shall offer a program leading to a “Telework Certificate.” This program must be available online. The Fair Labor Standards Act shall be amended to require employers to pay overtime wages to any onsite employee with a Telework Certificate who is doing a job that is Telework Qualified.

Emissions Are Not Deductible

The tax code shall be amended to phase out tax deductions for expenses on goods or services that emit CO2. Businesses that fully offset their CO2 emissions may deduct such expenses (plus the cost of offset); businesses that do not must take those expenses out of their after-tax profits, not their pre-tax expenses.

Allowable mileage rates for business use of vehicles shall distinguish petroleum-based vehicles from electric, hydrogen, or other non-emitting transportation.

Federal Permits and Guarantees

The US Department of Energy shall issue permits and guarantees for qualified programs and facilities that directly reduce CO2 emissions. These include new non-emitting power plants (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and nuclear) and carbon capture and/or sequestration facilities.

Expedited Decision-Making

The Department of Energy shall establish an administrative procedure modeled on US bankruptcy law which gathers all claims affecting a proposed program and/or facility into a single administrative case, which shall weigh the competing interests and issue a judgment in accordance with federal law. Appeals from this proceeding shall be made directly to a new federal district court specifically created for and dedicated to energy cases. This court shall be sufficiently staffed and funded to create a “rocket docket” that can reach a final resolution within 90 days or less. The losing party to any suit in this court shall pay attorney’s fees for both sides. Appeals from this court shall be made on an expedited basis to the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.