Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A proposal to amend the political spectrum

It's needed fixing for a while, after all, hasn't it? We see left-wing, so-called "progressives" locked in a defense of the status quo (e.g., Wisconsin), and right-wing, so-called "conservatives" advancing schemes of far-reaching change. To cope with these anomalies, a common dodge has been to propose a two dimensional political space as opposed to a linear one (e.g.), but this has never had much impact on everyday political usage, and, in any case, such a space often reasserts the usual one-dimensional spectrum in the form of a diagonal line across the more populated quadrants.

So I propose to accept the unidimensional structure of a left-right political spectrum, but amend the definition of its wings or poles. The left-wing would, once again, be defined in terms of the long term, progressive project to advance the cause of individual emancipation, and the right-wing would, also again, be seen in terms of the defense of statist authoritarianism. The extreme right would be the location of totalitarian politics, whether socialist or fascist, while the extreme left would be the location of the anti-state politics of anarchism and anarcho-capitalism. Between those extremes, of course, would lie the vast majority of  current political positions, but now those positions could be more clearly understood and labelled in terms of their relative location vis-a-vis the respective projects of left and right. Thus, most of what's thought of now as the contemporary left, for example, is defined by its adherence to, and advance of, the proscriptions, regulations, and requirements of the so-called welfare state (aka "nanny state"), and hence is actually a form of state-based authoritarianism -- i.e., is really right-wing. Similarly, a sizable chunk of what's now considered the right is actually concerned with the progressive or evolving liberation of the individual from such constraints or chains, and hence is really left-wing.

Now, of course, there are many other aspects of beliefs, orientations, values, etc. that provide the basis for alliances and oppositions over many particular issues, but these are more cultural or even psychological rather than political as such, and their variety may well require many more than even two dimensions. The virtue of this proposed amendment is that it lays bare the purely political structure that lies in back of most if not all actual political disputes -- behind issues such as abortion, re-cycling, unions, education, e.g., there is the question of what kind of options or policies are even appropriate for dealing with them. How one answers that question is what determines one's position on the revised political spectrum.

In thus reversing much of our conventional notions of the political left and right, this amendment resolves the anomalies mentioned above, in which putative "leftists" defend entrenched special interests, and supposed "conservatives" propose new and even radical solutions. It both simplifies and clarifies the political landscape, in other words, and blows away a good deal of the rhetorical fog that has served merely to confuse.

And for me personally, there's the interesting irony in finding myself once again labelled a leftist.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gen X saves civilization?

Popping back into blogging to post about a Superbowl commercial -- this one:

Now, it's a jump -- okay, a stretch -- to go from the commercial to the title of this post, but bear with me. First I have to explain that I came across the commercial from a post at Ann Althouse's blog, which in turn simply quotes from a post on Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist blog, entitled "Volkswagon Super Bowl ad is an anthem to Gen X". Here's why, in Penelope Trunk's words:
So I love this commercial because it captures the shared experience of Generation X. We like being home to make our kids peanut butter and jelly. You could not sell Baby Boomers with this. They think it’s lame to sit in a kitchen waiting for your kid to be hungry. We like having a male breadwinner and we’re not afraid to say it.
And we are surrounded by little boys in love with Star Wars.
When we look back, we will see that Gen X redefined family and work.
Which explains the connection to Gen X at least. With one more step, we can connect Gen X to the salvation of civilization. And that involves a self-reference, to this post a little while back: "Is modern civilization viable?", which noted that the populations of all industrialized nations (i.e., the representatives of "modern civilization") were imploding, for reasons that seemed inherent in the very nature of such cultures -- namely, the rise of wealth and individual freedom. This has tended to undermine the traditional functions and role of the primary procreative institution of society, the family, particularly within the left-liberal, statist ideologies that have long had a dominant position within all such societies.  But here was my own bit of cheer, however vague, near the end of that post:
Or -- to speak of more hopeful predictions -- the ongoing evolution of the modern world includes a renewed or revived view of the family, seeing it once again in its multi-generational dimensions, but within a redefined view of the roles of men and women as both unique individuals and as fathers and mothers.
Which, in the context of the oft-expressed contempt for  "family-values" that you find within the self-styled "progressive" camp,  would certainly be a conservative development. But, in the context of the real world, in which children are necessary for any future at all, this would be simply a correction to an unfortunate generational dead end, and the real route forward. Maybe, then, as I say at the end of the post, "for the latest generation to come of family age, children are making a comeback".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Big banks and state capitalism

Very good post by Ross Douthat here: "Tyler Cowen's Counsel of Despair", commenting on a pair of great posts by Cowen. The gist of Cowen, as related by Douthat: the recurring financial crises in capitalism are a product of the state's perpetual willingness to "socialize" (i.e., bail out one way or another using taxpayer money) the failures of financial institutions, which in turn induces entirely rational willingness by those institutions  to take on greater risk -- a willingness that no amount of regulation by bureaucrats will ever be detailed or micro-managerial enough to overcome. And size isn't the problem -- many small banks can fail in waves too, as the Savings and Loan bust a while back demonstrated, and a few large institutions can behave in stable, relatively low-risk ways, as the example of the Canadian banks in the latest crisis indicates -- so Douthat's addition to Cowen seems not just beside the point but may well be counter-productive in the usual unintended consequence manner. The basis of the problem is rather what Cowen referred to as "state capitalism", and part of his solution deserves his own words:
Breaking up the large banks would be striking at symptoms rather than at root causes, namely the ongoing growth of political power and the reliance of that power upon an ongoing inflow of capital.
If you do wish to break or limit the power of the major banks, running a balanced budget is probably the most important step we could take. It would mean that our government no longer needs to worry so much about financing its activities.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Iraq, the media, and a dream Presidential candidate

The dream candidate is the one on the right (in both senses):

Thanks to SDA

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Politics and its limitations

I thought I should maybe give a little more explanation for my taking a breather from the blog. It began, as I said, as an experiment, but, a little more specifically, as an experiment in political blogging. Clearly, I have no shortage of political opinions, though I'll say that I have somewhat less interest in the various issues, gaffes, scandals, gossip, and general slagging matches that characterize so much of partisan politics, and a little more in the ideological issues that stand in back of these. But even on that level, it eventually begins to seem as though politics as such is a bit thin and a bit dry -- lacking juice, so to speak, whether in comparison with the denser level of actual human interactions, or with the richer alternatives of history, art, philosophy, science, etc. In any case, some such sense as that was increasingly nagging at me, and making the blogging itself more burdensome than enjoyable.

Politics, in other words, is just one kind of interest that people can take in the world. But it is one interest, and like the others, it's inexhaustible. So -- I may be poking my head back here from time to time, and at some point may find myself once again absorbed in it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bloggish reflections

I started this blog about six months ago, as an experiment. It's been fun and interesting, including the debates in the comments (which have sometimes gotten a little heated, as debates sometimes do). More than that, it's given me an opportunity to think through some issues and put those thoughts into words. And it's provided me at least with a way to store and tag links to some excellent content elsewhere on the Web. But six months is a good run for an experiment, and a good point to pause to examine the results. So, just to whom it may concern, this is a notice that posting will likely be interrupted, at least for now.

Oh, and thanks to all who've looked in thus far....

The myth of Palin

From the astute Jennifer Rubin, at her new venue with the Washington Post, comes this assessment of the Sarah Palin phenomenon, the full title being "The myth of Palin's frontrunner status". It's one of the very few such analyses I've come across on either the left or the right that would qualify as perceptive -- not just vis-a-vis Palin but other, more likely GOP frontrunners as well:
For months now the real story on the right has been the search for new presidential contenders. There is far more awareness than many in the media imagine among conservative activists, Tea Partyers included, of Palin's limited appeal to independent voters. ... Is she admired for her ability to rally the base? Yes. Is she especially talented at throwing the White House off stride? Obviously. Does she give voice to populists' suspicion about media bias and liberal elites? Better than most anyone on the political scene. But the notion that she is a frontrunner is an eye-roller for most elected GOP officials (Chris Christie tipped his hand a bit on late-night TV) and even for many fans who furiously defended her against what conservatives saw as excessive and unfair criticism during the 2008 race.
Indeed, more Republicans -- on the Hill and around the country -- are beginning to suspect that she might not run. Why risk her fame and her rock-star status by running and possibly losing?
Instead, and as examples of new possibilities, Rubin mentions Chris Christie, of course, as well  as Mike Pence and Paul Ryan. But she's quick to acknowledge that "Right now the frontrunner is 'none of the above.'"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Getting away from it all

When the world is too much with us, late and soon, we can contemplate leaving it. And I don't mean suicide, I mean leaving it physically -- you know, space, the Final Frontier, etc.?

I've brought this up before -- e.g., here and here -- but the context was pretty much limited to just getting off the planet, or going as far as colonizing Mars. Turns out, though, that there is no real "final frontier" -- each step we take only opens up a further and greater step, challenging and daunting both. We've already gotten off the planet, after all, and as far as the Moon in exploratory modes, but Mars is now an enormous leap for which we haven't yet mustered either the nerve or rationale. And beyond Mars lie still greater gulfs.

Ultimately, though, the Solar System itself is just a backyard, and it's interesting to find that a few people are already getting serious about looking further out -- so here, for example, is a "Status Report on the Tau Zero Foundation":
Ideally, we want to cover all the technologies and implications related to the ultimate goal of reaching other habitable worlds, and we want to do that in a manner where you can count on the accuracy of our information (which is why we include reference citations so that you can check any questionable assertions). This span includes understanding ‘what’s out there,’ examining all the options for ‘how to get there,’ and being sure to tie this all to its ‘relevance to humanity.’
One of the most hotly debated items is how best to get out there. To be explicit, Tau Zero covers the full span of options, from the seemingly simple solar sails to the seemingly impossible faster-than-light travel. For each option within that span, there are different levels of readiness and performance, and accordingly different types of work.
Within that span of options, here's one that seems at least plausible with known technology, and able to reach speeds of between 10% and 92% light:
Failing the discovery of something akin to 'sub-space' we will be forced to obey, in our exploration, the seemingly unbreakable laws of relativity – which gives us a universe limited by the speed of light. It is now, and probably forever shall be the case, that the universe, and we, must play within the bounds of the chessboard discovered by Albert Einstein.
Most of the equipment for the rocket itself can be assembled using today's technology. Providing the fuel, however, becomes problematic. We would require an array of solar powered linear accelerators ('atom smashers') girdling the moon's equator. Mega-engineering projects require, in their own turn, miniature self-replicating factories that draw building materials directly from the lunar soil. Current advances in robot technology teach us that we should be able to climb this technological hurdle by about 2040....
What makes it possible for the realities of scientific achievement (Valkyrie rockets) to catch up with the fiction (starships) is that Valkyrie is the ultralight of rockets, consisting mostly of naked magnetic coils and pods held together by tethers. Indeed, it can best be summed up as a kite (with magnetic field lines instead of paper sheets) that flies through space on a muon wind of its own creation.
All of which, of course, is certainly a far remove from, oh, say, the recent mid-term elections, or the latest spins and tantrums of the politically obsessed. But that's the point.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rage Boys of the left vs. the Kool Kidz of the culterati

This is an old piece but it's been recirculated lately because someone (Treacher?) finally noticed its conclusion:
Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.
Ah, the old argumentum ad sputum -- the sort of thing that usually merits a time out these days, now that we're too civilized to spank. You might think, well, at least he's anti-communist, but the screed in general is so incoherent that it's difficult to be sure of even that much. It's called "The rally to restore vanity: Generation X celebrates its Homeric struggle against lameness", by one Mark Ames, writing obviously in the wake of the Jon Stewart rally, and it's so ornately, baroquely, ragingly incoherent, in fact, that it exerts a kind of morbid fascination all its own -- here's more, e.g.:
The problem with the Left wasn’t that they were too fixated on proving they were right, or that they didn’t make enough noise before the war about the lies that led us into that war…the problem is that the Left doesn’t stand for anything Big because it’s not guided by a vision or an Ideal. What does the Left stand for? Let me suggest a few things in people’s own personal interests in these decaying times that the Left should stand for: first, people need money. Then if they have money, they need Life. Then they might be interested in “ideals” set out in the contract that this country is founded on. Ever read the preamble to the Constitution? There’s nothing about private property there and self-interest. Nothing at all about that.... That’s what it is to be American: to strive to form the most perfect union with each other, and to promote everyone’s general betterment. That’s it. The definition of an American patriot is anyone promoting the General Welfare of every single American, and anyone helping to form the most perfect Union—that’s “union”, repeat, “Union” you dumb fucks.
So maybe he's a bit of a communist after all, but at the same time an American patriot, someone who believes people need money first, even before Life with a capital L (as distinct from "life"?), but isn't too big on private property, but thinks the Constitution is a "contract", and is really big on perfect unions or Unions (this time case doesn't seem to matter, though who knows). Blah-de-blah-de-blah, you dumb fucks.

Alright. This is fun, but kind of fish in a barrel stuff. What gives poor Mr Ames' zany diatribe a little more interest is that the target he spends most of his time on is, of all people, Tom Hanks' daughter, E. A. Hanks. It seems that, a while ago, she wrote something called "Dear The Left: A Breakup Letter", the gist of which is, admittedly, a little hard to figure out but maybe comes down to the idea that "The Left" has become too preoccupied with protest posturing and has neglected substantive accomplishment. Or something.

Now, just by dint of her parentage, EA is automatically a member of the culterati, and these are the people who set the tone, so to speak, for the herds of what I've been referring to as the bien pensant, or the fashionably orthodox. So maybe, in light of that, we can start to feel a smidgen of sympathy for the Rage Boy after all. Yes, he's loopy and incoherent, and his proposals for lefty Big Ideals -- money, Life, perfect Union or whatever -- are so pathetically thin and meaningless as to be embarrassing, but you can kind of see how he might be driven to an edge of some sort just by the cutesy title alone of EA's "breakup letter". In many ways, I think Ames is a good representative of what's become of the once serious left -- having been hollowed out by the historic collapse of the socialist ideal, they're now mere husks, clinging to a kind of vague, oppositional stance but no longer with any real content or substance other than a few stray abstractions. Then, when anyone even hints that that's the case, all they've got left is rage and spittle.

Little wonder then that the Kool Kidz are looking to move on. Of course they're not serious about politics -- they're serious only about setting and/or following a style, of which political opinions are simple accessories. But that's all right. There's room on the right for fashionistas too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is modern civilization viable?

The question doesn't involve the usual "sustainability" suspects -- e.g., green house gases, running out of resources, or overpopulation. None of those are serious problems in the sense that they implicate the very foundations of what we used to call Western civilization, but is now generalized to the modern world as a whole -- i.e., the technological, industrial, capitalist civilization that has emerged in the last few centuries from traditional cultures everywhere. In fact, ironically, the last named so-called problem, overpopulation, is exactly the reverse of the real existential threat that resides in the nature of modern culture itself -- depopulation.

That at least is the implication of Philip Longman in an interesting little piece called "Survival of the Godliest". Longman is a questionable figure, to say the least, but he's on to an important idea here -- that modern secular society, despite its manifest economic and technological success, is steadily losing a long-term demographic struggle. As his title indicates, his focus is a comparison between secular and religious cultures, where the demographic contrast is especially marked:
In a world in which childbearing is rarely accidental and almost never rewarding economically, birthrates increasingly reflect values choices. And so, by Darwinian process, those who adhere to traditions that preserve and celebrate the ancient injunction to “go forth and multiply” wind up putting more of their genes and ideas into the future than those who don’t. As Kaufmann shows, fertility, over time, plays out like compound interest. That is, even if religiously fundamentalist families only have a few more children than secular or religiously moderate counterparts, and they can keep those children holding on to fundamentalist faith and values (especially related to child-bearing), the passage of generations will greatly magnify their numbers and influence. Similarly, secularists and others who choose to have only one or two children, and who pass those values on to their children, will, over time, see their population decline precipitously.
Ironically, the structure and sensibility of secular society is bringing about its own demise.
But it's not just fundamentalist competition that's the problem here -- the simple and almost too obvious fact is that a society that averages less than two children per family, as all so-called First World societies do, will eventually waste away to nothing. I say almost too obvious because when I've brought this up in conversation before I've found a surprising, perhaps willful blindness about it. Everybody recognizes the demographic facts:  just a few generations ago, when many still lived on farms, 5 or 6 child families were common; in the next generation, as those children moved to cities, 3 or 4 children were the norm; and then the families of those children, the ones we see around us now, consist of 1 or 2 children at most -- more is looked upon as odd, and somehow not quite right.

As I say, everyone sees this, but hardly anyone sees it as a demographic phenomenon that strikes at the long-term survivability of our society. No doubt there are a number of reasons for this -- we're so accustomed to think of overpopulation as the problem, for example, that we can't get our minds around the inverse; Third World immigration has tended to mask the problems associated with a society not replacing its young; and, of course, there's the simple tendency of people not to see problems associated with a lifestyle they're hardly conscious of having chosen. And that last is what makes this trend so deep and intractable -- it's something, as Longman says, built into the very "structure and sensibility" of the modern world as such. Children, no longer being necessary either as help in the field or as caregivers for aging parents, have simply become an option, which frees up women to realize their own individuality, and which in turn leaves most with little time or inclination to devote to looking after more than the 1 or 2 that can be accommodated within the other demands of life and career.

This is not to indulge in the usual moralizing of cultural critics -- it's not, for example, simply that we're all "selfish", and certainly not that women in particular are. It's that the very trends that have defined modern civilization and are at the basis of its greatest achievements -- freedom and plenty -- may also be at the basis of its decline and undoing. So, three possible long-term scenarios:

  • Modern civilization, in the sense of a secular, rational, individualist, democratic, market-oriented culture, really is not viable in the long term, and will eventually be replaced, as the Longman piece intimates, by a renewed religious fundamentalism the world over, through purely demographic, Darwinist processes.
  • Or our culture turns increasingly statist, and the whole process of human procreation, including reproduction, gestation, and birth, becomes increasingly woven into bureaucratic state policies, a la Brave New World, e.g., -- this too, I would say, would represent the ultimate failure of the liberation that the modern world once promised.
  • Or -- to speak of more hopeful predictions -- the ongoing evolution of the modern world includes a renewed or revived view of the family, seeing it once again in its multi-generational dimensions, but within a redefined view of the roles of men and women as both unique individuals and as fathers and mothers.
That last scenario is admittedly vague, and, given current demographic trends, perhaps doubtful. But, as I've stated in the "Theme", there's every indication that the leap in cultural evolution the modern world represents is far from finished, and the emergent individual at its center is still adding layers of complexity, still generating new forms of relationship and community. In fact, I think I saw somewhere that, perhaps with the waning of environmentalist alarmism (a version of fundamentalism in its own right), replacement numbers of 2 to 3 children per family are again becoming acceptable and increasingly common -- so maybe for the latest generation to come of family age, children are making a comeback.

Thanks again to Itzik

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On not idolizing science

I'll start with some self-description (which I've done before but worth doing again in this context): I'm an atheist; I  think reason and evidence constitute the only path to empirical truth; and I think that science and technology are central aspects of Western or, now, modern civilization.

Having said that, I want to say why I think this piece by Susan Jacoby is wrong: "The Myth of Separate Magisteria". The "magisteria" she's talking about are science and religion, or the teachings of science and religion, and while the term sounds pretentious it stems from a very good essay by Stephen Jay Gould, who took it from Catholic theology. Here, for example, is Gould on "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or NOMA:
Just as religion must bear the cross of its hard-liners. I have some scientific colleagues, including a few prominent enough to wield influence by their writings, who view this rapprochement of the separate magisteria with dismay. To colleagues like me—agnostic scientists who welcome and celebrate thc rapprochement, especially the pope's latest statement—they say: "C'mon, be honest; you know that religion is addle-pated, superstitious, old-fashioned b.s.; you're only making those welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic in order to assure public support and funding for science." I do not think that this attitude is common among scientists, but such a position fills me with dismay—and I therefore end this essay with a personal statement about religion, as a testimony to what I regard as a virtual consensus among thoughtful scientists (who support the NOMA principle as firmly as the pope does).
I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). ...
I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
And here, by contrast, is Jacoby:
By now, nearly everyone with a passing interest in science or religion is familiar with Stephen Jay Gould’s description of the two disciplines as “non-overlapping magisteria” with separate domains — science in the physical universe and religion in the moral realm. On this website, the philosopher Roger Scruton recently made the sweeping declaration that “genuine science and true religion cannot conflict.” A 2004 editorial in Naturemagazine insists that science and religion clash only when the two “stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble.” 
One might as well say that conflict arises between men and women only when they stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble. Science produces discoveries that challenge long-held beliefs (not only religious ones) based on revelation rather than evidence, and the religious must decide whether to battle or accommodate secular knowledge if it contradicts their teachings. 
I know both scientists and religious believers for whom the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) has become an unexamined fiction designed to skirt the culture wars. It is clear, however, that NOMA (a term Gould adapted from Catholic theology; the "Magisterium" is the Church's term for its teaching authority) is not only a fiction but a useless fiction — from the standpoint of both religion and science.
 She is at least no skirter of the culture wars. But, as her nonsensical analogy with men and women demonstrates, she's no deep thinker either, a failing she shares with her co-belligerents, the so-called "new atheists". The notion that the two "magisteria" are necessarily in conflict has its origins in a crude positivism which holds that only empirical or factual questions or issues are of concern, when it's quite evident that not only are there important issues of aesthetics and morality, but also, in a more general but more directly consequential sense, issues of meaning, value, and purpose. Any and all of those issues can be aided, of course, to a greater or lesser extent, by factual matters, as everybody has always known -- and as Jacoby herself allows near the end, to avoid looking completely silly -- but none simply are matters of fact or empirical truth; i.e., none are matters of science.

The attention given to these simplistic and crude new atheists by the liberal-left, however, reveals an irony in that side of the politicized culture wars -- just as Marxism, for example, once wanted to vanquish religion and in the process simply became a new opiate for a class of intellectual acolyte, so now science is rapidly becoming the focus of a new idolatry among those who so often flatter themselves as "reality-based" but who accept uncritically the pronouncements of white-coated authority figures that flatter their political faith.  So now I want to take the opportunity Jacoby's essay provides to make a few points about how a misplaced veneration of science can easily lead people astray -- I'm copying these, by the way, from a comment I left on a posting by Itzik at BasmanRoseLaw which pointed me to the Jacoby piece in the first place, and for which I thank him:
  • First, there's a difference between science and scientism -- and the "veneration" of science seems to stem from or lead to the latter (i.e., making an ideology of science, making lab-coated scientists into priests, etc.).
  • Second, once you make an ideology of science, you perpetually risk turning your wishes, political fixations, and the like into pseudo-science (e.g., psycho-babble, random statistics, etc.), thinking that this confers on them some sort of validity which of course is spurious.
  • Third, scientists, not being priests, superior beings, or aliens, are in fact just as human as anyone else, and therefore susceptible to intellectual fads, political fashions, and the religious yearning for purpose and meaning. This doesn't necessarily interfere with their purely scientific work as long as that work is sufficiently removed from their political, moral, or quasi-religious concerns. When it isn't, however -- as it isn't, e.g., in the current climate dabates, or in virtually the whole of social science -- then scientists too are motivated to "arrive" at politically correct results, and frequently do so in various inappropriate ways, all of which outside observers need to be aware of and be willing to discount.
Which is simply to say that we should avoid scientific idolatry, and bring the same critical intelligence to the pronouncements of scientists, particularly in political areas, that we do with any other profession.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Killer angels and liberal fascists

Well, this is in Newsweek after all, so I know we can't expect much, and the headline is obviously just link bait: "Tea Partiers Are Today’s Slave-Owners". Oh sure -- or, you know, today's Nazis, or the Hun, or psychopathic racist killers, or whatever other bogeyman you can think of. But how did he get to "slave-owners" particularly? Turns out it's because before the Civil War southern whites thought of slaves as property, and now Tea Partiers think of, well, property as property. Or something:
The rhetoric in 1860, as now, was essentially about throwing off the burden of federal authority, getting rid of the tariffs and taxes Washington imposed, and protecting private property from the depredations of central government. There was one essential difference back then, of course: the private property in question in 1860 was human. But the fire-eaters of the Old South never put the emphasis on “human,” they always put it on “property,” and they pointed to their (white man’s) rights enshrined in Article I, Article IV, and the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which declared no person can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Get it? The important connection here is property, and wanting not to be deprived of property is much like wanting not to be deprived of slaves -- isn't it obvious?

So what should Obama and the anti-slavery/property Democrats do about it? Why, take a lesson from Abraham Lincoln when faced with secession, of course -- call out the troops and crush the slaveproperty-owning Tea Party:
If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.
These basic facts about a moment of history that Obama obviously holds dear are worth going over again right now because, in fact, the secessionists of 1860 are the ideological forebears of the Tea Party movement today.
 Now, okay, this guy Christopher Dickey is no doubt just a goofy hack and no better than you can expect from a news magazine struggling to keep its head above water. But the problem is he's not alone -- try putting "eliminationist" into the search box at Instapundit (where I got the link to Dickey's little piece) and note the multiple links to left-lib death curses of one sort or another just on his blog alone. And the thuggish behavior isn't limited just to rhetoric, as a couple of recent incidents at Canadian universities illustrate. I'm not above a little link-baiting myself, but if we're going to get into historical comparisons, then comparing today's increasingly frustrated, resentful, and violence-spouting "progressive" left to the sort of liberal fascists Jonah Goldberg wrote a book about makes vastly greater sense than the laughable comparison of today's Tea Partiers to antebellum slave-owners.

Thanks to John at Verum Serum (via Instapundit).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why I'm not a conservative, again

Every so often I come across something that reminds me why, and here's the latest, a post on the ironically(?) titled Postmodern Conservative blog by Johnathan Jones, called "The Quest for Community". It's a review of a book with the same title by Robert Nisbet first published in 1953 -- a date that, in itself, tells you something about it -- and now re-issued. Back when I was myself a lefty, this was just the sort of thing I abhorred, confirming my fervent anti-conservative, left-wing beliefs:
Humans are, intractably, social creatures built for communion. So prevalent is the belief that an equal satisfaction of preferences is a high social good, and that the purpose of politics and morality is the working toward that supposed good, that Nisbet can be a bit of a shock. As this blog argues, liberalism is very insufficient to maintain social order. Freedom and equality as high principles can harm other realities necessary for social harmony.
And it still bothers me. What, prey tell, is "equal satisfaction of preferences" supposed to mean? If human creatures are "built for communion", then wouldn't communion/community also be a preference? Is "social harmony" really supposed to trump everything else -- freedom, equality (of status), and even justice?  In other words, this seems like vague, abstract, confused, and even somewhat menacing mush.

But, being wiser at least than I was, I can now pick out some threads that do make some sense, even if incomplete and poorly grounded. Here, for example, he brings up a theme I've called "hubristic Reason", originating in the Continental (as distinct from the British/Scottish) Enlightenment, and that is a serious flaw in contemporary collectivist/liberal statist schemes:
... the aspirations that inspired the founders of modern thought – the conquest of nature through science, perhaps even the conquest of human nature, and the emancipation of power from moral restraint – could be “achieved” at a great and unpredictable cost. [my emphasis]
And the emphasis on family and association generally is a good theme, however simple, and a welcome contrast to the sort of politicized "solidarity" that characterizes the left. This I think, as another example, makes a good point about the need to bring together things that contemporary liberal orthodoxies tend always to oppose:
Far too many lifestyle choices and social, political structures shatter what the authentically familial would hold together – consumption and production, sensuality and fertility, freedom and virtue.
So fine, but where does that leave us? If Jones' answer is that it leaves us stuck in a 50's style time warp, then he's no help, and this perverse mock rallying cry -- "Down with the statist-individualist symbiosis!" -- just underlines his confusion and haplessness. It also points to his crucial mistake -- to accept, uncritically, the left-wing denigration of the individual, leaving him with the only apparent alternatives of leftist collectivism or an antique conservatism. But the modern individual is a much more complex, and still evolving, phenomenon, that is at the heart of new and potentially richer sorts of community. Like any emergence, this process is not without its tribulations, but the true progressives are those who support the individual and the freedom that defines him -- and resist the reactionaries on both the left and the right that would try to re-submerge her in collectives either traditional or statist (or both).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Another try at explaining the quantitative easing

Sort of following along from the previous post, suggesting doing away with the Fed as a thought experiment, here's a video I found from a link at Greg Mankiw's blog. I should point out that, despite it, Mankiw himself is cautiously supportive of the Fed on the issue -- in his own words, "While I do not agree with its conclusion, I did find this video on QE2 amusing" (and so did I):

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The real economy and the problem of money

This arises from two recent developments -- the Fed's latest so-called "quantitative easing" moves ("QE2") and the appearance of a column by Richard Salsman in the Financial Post, called "The deflation myth".

The problem or question of money is one that's taken on added pertinence with the Fed's recent manipulations, but it's also one that underlies a deeper issue of state or state-like manipulation of a society's economy. Of four main areas of such manipulation -- direct state ownership or control, state regulation, fiscal policy, and monetary policy -- the last is in many ways the most obscure and mysterious, not only to onlookers but also, I think, to the architects in central banks, as evidenced by the unresolved debates that swirl around it, both contemporary and historic. Part of that problem is that money itself is inherently mysterious or confusing -- it's not just the naive, King Midas idea that money per se constitutes actual wealth, but even the idea of it as just a measure of wealth leads to difficulties, since the question then arises as to what measures the value of money itself? And when these kinds of questions get mixed into the contemporary world of multiple currencies, various measures of the quantity of money, "velocity" of money, money markets, etc., it can easily seem as though the real, underlying economy of goods and services, work and trade, gets lost beneath deep layers of this artificial token of wealth.

So a while back I started to wonder what an economy would look like if you could excavate through those layers of artifice, so to speak, and get back to the real economic activities of production, trade, and consumption themselves. Now, you can't do without money of some sort, but suppose you could at least treat money in a neutral fashion without it being the focus of state manipulation? Of course, the gold standard provided that to some degree, but commodity money possesses its own kinds of mystifications -- suppose, more simply, that we have fiat money, but a fixed or constant supply of it. Or, so that money is unaffected by changes in population, suppose a fixed amount of money per capita -- i.e., the money supply can grow or shrink only as the population does. And, by "money supply" we would mean only money actually held -- in bank vaults, tills, safes, pockets, or mattresses -- not money lent, so that credit would not be considered to affect the supply. No more "quantitative easings", then, and no more playing about with interest rates. Interest rates would move just in the same way prices move, and since the supply of money is more or less constant, they would rise or fall only as demand grows or shrinks -- an automatic countervail for economic booms and busts. We could take the Fed out of the picture altogether, in fact, since all monetary "policy" would now be handled automatically. Would that not tend to remove at least one big source of financial uncertainty, and make economic decisions a little more clear, or at least a little more reality-based?

Well, it's an intriguing thought-experiment. One interesting consequence, however, is that the value of money would still be variable. Since the supply of money is assumed to be constant per capita and since, under the usual conditions of increasing productivity, the supply of goods and services is increasing per capita, a unit of money would have to be a token for an increasing amount of real wealth -- i.e., money would be deflating, exactly to the extent that productivity is increasing (ignoring the issue of "velocity" for now). Now, deflation is usually treated as a horrible development that threatens utter financial ruin, but it's not clear to me exactly why. True, it means that borrowers would have to pay back money that's worth more than when they borrowed it, rather than less as they've been used to; and lenders, of course, would be in the reverse situation. But, as long as both sides knew this up front, which they would, then these changes in the value of money would get reflected in interest rates, just as they are now, though in the opposite direction -- that is, just as both borrowers and lenders typically take account of the inflation rate in order to arrive at a nominal interest rate, so they would in the case of a deflation rate.

I realize their would be complications. And I'm no expert, certainly, but this is where Salsman comes in:
Many economists presume, falsely, that deflation necessarily coincides with (or causes) a contraction in economic output. In fact, deflation by itself in no way curbs the motive to produce, because it doesn’t preclude the maintenance of business profit margins. During the Industrial Revolution, deflation was common. It was also a bullish phenomenon in the second half of the 19th century, the period of the fastest economic growth in human history.

So, back to the thought-experiment: imagine a world in which investors, businesses, and even ordinary home-owners could confine their attention to what's really happening in the real economy without also having to wring their hands worrying about what Bernanke or whoever is going to come up with next -- imagine, in other words, a world without the Fed altogether. As Lenin said, "It's easy if you try."

UPDATE: See Alex Tabarrok's questioning of the Fed's efficacy at Marginal Revolution: "Has the Fed Been a Failure?" And note as well the link to a post on the desirability of deflation that accompanies productivity gains.

UPDATE2: See also Don Boudreaux's post at Cafe Hayek, "Denationalize Money", which links to a George Will column criticizing the Fed's "dual mandate" of both stabilizing money and maximizing employment.

UPDATE3: And here, just to wrap things up, is Tyler Cowan's response to Tabarrok's post above, in which he defends the Fed. Most ominous line: "The world's preeminent military power simply will have a Fed, for the same reason that it has lots of nuclear weapons."

UPDATE4: Okay, I can see this isn't likely to be "wrapped up" any time soon, but here, with a hat-tip to Tyler Cowan above, is Bryan Caplan's "What I learned from the crisis", which, besides lacing into the Fed in general and Bernanke in particular, also has a lot of interesting links.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Palinism vs. corporatism

Sarah Palin, corporatist scourge? That's the thesis of James Pethokoukis in "Why Wall Street should fear Sarah Palin". "Corporatism", just to be clear, is distinct from "capitalism" -- the former is used to describe an alliance between the state and corporate business, while the latter is used simply to describe free market activity. And they're not just distinct, they're in opposition, since the the more the state is involved in economic activity, even if in support of certain corporations or economic sectors, the less markets and trade are free. One variety of corporatism, for example, is the notion of a national "industrial policy", of the sort that once was popular when Japan was more economically ascendant than it is now; another variety would be so-called "crony capitalism"; and still another is fascism, once quite the rage, but now of course fallen out of fashion. It's important to note, as an earlier post made clear, that versions of corporatism appear on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum.

The rise of the Tea Party phenomenon, however, has given added weight to the anti-corporatist right, and Sarah Palin is indeed front and center in that opposition. Here's a passage from her Facebook page, as quoted by Pethokoukis:
Of course, the big players who can afford lobbyists work the regulations in their favor, while their smaller competitors are left out in the cold. The result here are regulations that institutionalize the “too big to fail” mentality. … The president is trying to convince us that he’s taking on the Wall Street “fat cats,” but firms like Goldman Sachs are happy with federal regulation because, as one of their lobbyists recently stated, “We partner with regulators.” … You’ll find the name Goldman Sachs on many an Obama administration résumé, including Rahm Emanuel’s and Tim Geithner’s chiefs of staff. We need to be on our guard against such crony capitalism.
And here's Pethokoukis' own assessment:
Palinomics, embryonic as it is, seems to be rooted in “free-market populism,” a version of conservative thinking that is pro-market rather than pro-business. It says the role of government is to help markets function more fairly and efficiently for everyone, encouraging competition and “creative destruction” (which Palin specifically mentioned in her book). Pro-business policies, by contrast, can end up subsidizing favored companies, raising barriers to entry and otherwise entrenching the status quo.
All of which makes for an interesting potential conflict within the Republican Party itself, since, as that earlier post indicated, that consummate Party insider, Newt Gingrich,  may well be a leading figure of the "pro-business" as opposed to the "pro-market" politicians.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"You don't deserve us!"

Here's another nice little political parable for our times (courtesy Jessica Van Sack at The Boston Herald via Ed Morrissey): "Closed market’s valediction ironically explains its failure". Once upon a time, it seems, some people decided to start a business, as happens every day. They had a plan or business model, as usual, but the model didn't really work, and both the plan and the business failed, as also happens all the time. What's different about this time, and what makes it such a delightful parable, is the attitude of the failed owners (it was an upscale food market):
“Don Otto’s Market wants to say we had few customers that understood customer loyalty and its importance to our business,” a message on its Web site reads, later adding: “If you came in only for baguettes, the occasional piece of cheese, the occasional dinner . . . you can not tell yourself you were a supporter of our market.”
Heh. Apparently, the business plan amounted to: "have customers that understand customer loyalty and its importance to the business". Somehow I doubt that's going to revolutionize the business schools. But, you know, given what I'm sure was their target demographic -- the bien pensant liberal elite and their wannabe's -- perhaps the surprise that it didn't work is understandable; certainly that churlish bit of moral bullying on the way out is in keeping.

Now, the point of a parable is that it has a point. In the example of the unnecessary traffic lights a while back, the point was that a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom can open new, unexpected paths to freedom. Here, the point is that a foolish acceptance of fashionable beliefs is no sign of elitist superiority and no  ticket of entitlement. Sound familiar? Think of large portions of the Democratic Party in particular the last few years, and of the liberal-left in general. As Morrissey says, speaking of the writer of the bitter words above, they're really exhibiting a peculiar sort of contempt:
Her contempt for her customers is not dissimilar to the contempt shown by those in political office who pass laws barring restaurants from using saturated fats in their cooking, who ban Happy Meals, and who overhaul entire economic sectors because they believe people can’t make their own choices.
And then, when their policies lose them support on historic scales, the response is never to question policies or the plan itself -- instead, it's the customers' fault! You people are too angry, they say, too bitter, too clinging, too racist, too stupid, and you just don't listen! You don't deserve us!

And you know what? We don't. So maybe the lib-left should just close their doors, like any other business too good for their customers, and try to live off their sense of their own rectitude.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anarchism vs. classical liberalism

This stems from a review of an interesting new book by the always interesting James Scott: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast AsiaAs the reviewer, Daniel Little, states,
The book takes up the argument that Scott began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: that a central task of the state it to render its territory and population "legible". The state needs to be able to regiment and identify its subjects, if it is to collect taxes and raise armies; so sedentary, mobile, peripheral peoples are antithetical to the needs of the state. This argument begins in Seeing Like a State; and it gains substantial elaboration here.
What's significant about that argument is the way in which it provides us with quite a different view of the state as an institution than we're used to -- here the state starts to appear as a kind of predatory social entity, benefiting its own political class at the expense of the mass of people whom it must make "legible" in order to prey upon. Somewhere, I think, Scott refers to himself as a kind of Marxist-lite, and this view of the state is certainly in keeping with Marxist notions of the state as an instrument of class oppression. But, if you adjust the notion of "class" -- throwing out the outmoded Marxist categories based upon economic role, and substituting a simpler and clearer classification based upon proximity to state power -- then this view is also quite familiar to modern conservative and libertarian critiques of our current political systems. 

What's also interesting, then, is the portrayal of resistance to state predation, something that people seem to do when- and wherever they can, which is typically in mountainous as opposed to lowland regions*. Contrary to Hobbes' famous summary of the life of man in the state of nature -- his notion of what "not being governed" meant -- their lives may be harsh but seem quite sustainable, and they've adapted their cultures in a number of ways to make them illegible to the state; in contemporary terms, they've opted to live "off the grid".  Their very persistence is a testament to the fact that not being governed is not only possible but, in many ways, preferable.

Perhaps not in all ways, however. The cultures being examined here are not complex in comparison with the modern world and not what we would call "advanced" in terms of wealth and individual opportunity. And were it not for the surrounding modern world, from which they can borrow, their conditions of life would no doubt be worse than they are. There is, in other words, a limit to what can be achieved by anarchic societies. To get beyond those limits, we need to add more complex forms of property than simple anarchy can manage -- we need, in other words, as Hernando de Soto has argued, codified and legible property rights, and a justice system to enforce them. Which gets us back to the state, true, but a state restricted in its predatory inclinations by its limited mandate -- it gets us, in fact, to the state of classical liberalism.

*See also a comment to this effect referring to a passage in Braudel's The Mediterranean.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recognizing anti-Semitism when you see it

Ever since the Holocaust, dedicated anti-Semites have had a tough time -- once accepted into polite WASP society everywhere, after that they were rudely and quickly shoved into the same social cesspool as other  bigots and shunned. The creation, finally, of a Jewish homeland, however, gave them a new focus for their hate and new opportunity for its expression, and in the last few years, particularly, the political left everywhere -- to its lasting shame -- has given them shelter, aid, and comfort. Of course, it's still considered ill-mannered to openly voice a hatred of Jews as such, but no lefty gathering is complete without some expression of hatred of Israel and Isrealis. They think, pathetically, that this can provide a cover or mask for an age-old bigotry, but in singling out -- in the context of a world full of vicious tyrannies, and in the midst of a region supporting the worst kinds of misogyny, homophobia, and oppression, not to mention terrorism -- singling out the one Jewish homeland in the world for special and perpetual condemnation they only make themselves look ridiculous as well as despicable.

In light of this, and the often craven response of so much of the world before the overt anti-Semitism of an oil-rich region, it's rare to find anyone in a leadership position outside of Israel itself to make a strong and clear statement of support for that country and plain condemnation of bigotry as an evil -- like this:
“The horror of the Holocaust is unique, but it is just one chapter in the long and unbroken history of anti-Semitism. Yet, in contemporary debates that influence the fate of the Jewish homeland, unfortunately, there are those who reject the language of good and evil. They say that the situation is not black and white, that we mustn’t choose sides. 
“In response to this resurgence of moral ambivalence on these issues, we must speak clearly. Remembering the Holocaust is not merely an act of historical recognition.
“It must also be an understanding and an undertaking. An understanding that the same threats exist today. And an undertaking of a solemn responsibility to fight those threats.
“Jews today in many parts of the world and many different settings are increasingly subjected to vandalism, threats, slurs, and just plain, old-fashioned lies.
“Let me draw your attention to some particularly disturbing trends. Anti-Semitism has gained a place at our universities, where at times it is not the mob who are removed, but the Jewish students under attack. And, under the shadow of a hateful ideology with global ambitions, one which targets the Jewish homeland as a scapegoat, Jews are savagely attacked around the world, such as, most appallingly, in Mumbai in 2008.
“One ruthless champion of that ideology brazenly threatens to ‘wipe Israel off the map,’ and time and again flouts the obligations that his country has taken under international treaties.
Or this:
“We must be relentless in exposing this new anti-Semitism for what it is. Of course, like any country, Israel may be subjected to fair criticism. And like any free country, Israel subjects itself to such criticism — healthy, necessary, democratic debate. But when Israel, the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack — is consistently and conspicuously singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand. Demonization, double standards, delegitimization, the three D’s, it is the responsibility of us all to stand up to them.
The speaker here is the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, at the Ottawa Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, and the speech should really be read in its entirety -- it's not that long, and it's a remarkably powerful and refreshing expression of support not just, as he says, for Israel and the Jewish people, but for free people everywhere. I can't resist adding a bit more:
“And I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations, or any other international forum, the easy thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just being even-handed, and to excuse oneself with the label of ‘honest broker.’ There are, after all, a lot more votes, a lot more, in being anti-Israeli than in taking a stand. But, as long as I am Prime Minister, whether it is at the UN or the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost. And friends, I say this not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israeli mob tells us all too well if we listen to it, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are a threat to all of us.
“Earlier I noted the paradox of freedom. It is freedom that makes us human. Whether it leads to heroism or depravity depends on how we use it.
“As the spectre of anti-Semitism spreads, our responsibility becomes increasingly clear. We are citizens of free countries. We have the right, and therefore the obligation, to speak out and to act. We are free citizens, but also the elected representatives of free peoples. We have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, to protect and promote human rights, human dignity, at home and abroad.
“As I said on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, Israel appeared as a light, in a world emerging from deep darkness. Against all odds, that light has not been extinguished. It burns bright, upheld by the universal principles of all civilized nations — freedom, democracy and justice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Star formation

Continuing what's turned into a series of second looks at the US midterm elections, here's more on what I'd earlier called a "genuine political star", and a clear success for the Tea Party insurgency, Marco Rubio. First (with a nod to Instapundit), John McWhorter on Rubio's much noted victory speech -- "There is a good chance that he's next":

That's coming from a guy who backed Obama, but is now "truly unhappy, for the first time" with him. But here's the victory speech itself -- note particularly the notice given to the Republican Party early on: