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:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Midterms again - the wave election

I have to thank Rand Simberg for this fascinating find from Stuart Rothenberg, in April 2009: "April Madness: Can GOP Win Back the House in 2010?" Here's how Rothenberg answers his own question:
Yes, Republicans have plenty of opportunities in good districts following their loss of 53 House seats over the past two cycles. And yes, there are signs that the Republican hemorrhage has stopped and even possibly that the party’s fortunes have begun to reverse course.
But there are no signs of a dramatic rebound for the party, and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not “close to zero.” Not “slight” or “small.” Zero.
Why? Well, because --
Big changes in the House require a political wave. You can cherry-pick your way to a five- or eight-seat gain, but to win dozens of seats, a party needs a wave. 
Waves are built on dissatisfaction and frustration, and there is little in national survey data that suggest most voters are upset with President Barack Obama’s performance or the performance of his party.
Granted, this was a year and a half out, but over a year later he was still saying, "At this point, Republicans appear poised to gain two or three dozen seats but fall short of the majority." In the end, of course, they gained 64 seats, a bigger swing than anything seen since 1948. It's not just, in other words, that it was a "wave" election, and not just that it was a wave of historic proportions, but that it was a monster wave that developed so fast and so apparently mysteriously.

Not that losing politicians, pundits, and spinners don't have their usual assortment of hind-sight explanations --  bad economy, bad communications, "outside" money, fear and anger, bitter clinging, racism, blah, and more blah. Any of which would be fine for a more normal mid-term "correction", but none of which seem sufficient to account for what actually happened.

Now, I think, on a kind of meta-political level, the only thing that can really account for it is the idea of a longer-term shift in the political fulcrum, as I posted previously. But on the surface, what's the one explanation you don't hear from anyone on the liberal left? The answer: bad policies, or at least a rejection of Democratic policies by the electorate. But, as Mickey Kaus points out with reference to a distinctly odd, and even misleading column by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, that's an explanation that actually accounts for some statistical correlations: "the more [the House Democrats] opposed the Obama agenda on health care, the stimulus, and cap and trade, the better they did given the makeup of their district." Well, no doubt the lib-left is a little shell-shocked, and even grief-stricken -- but, if they're going to make opportunistic adjustments in time for the next electoral tide in 2012, they'll need to emerge from the denial stage soon.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to get out from under BigGov

An interesting article  by Janet Daley in The Telegraph: "The West is turning against big government - but what comes next?".
On this side of the Atlantic, there is now a broad understanding that the social democratic project itself is unsustainable: that it has grown wildly beyond the principles of its inception and that the consequences of this are not only unaffordable, but positively damaging to national life and character. The US, bizarrely, is running at least 10 years behind in this process, having elected a government which chose to embark on the social democratic experiment at precisely the moment when its Western European inventors were despairing of it, and desperately trying to find politically palatable ways of winding it down.
The American people – being made of rather different stuff and having historical roots which incline them to be distrustful of government in any form – immediately rejected the whole idea. But in Britain, too, among real people (as opposed to ideological androids) there is a general sense that governments – even when they are elected by a mass franchise – become out of touch and out of control, and that something essential to human dignity and potential is under threat from their overweening interference.
So a generation after the collapse of totalitarian socialism, its democratic form is finally crumbling as well.
A good diagnosis generally, though one should question whether the principles behind the social democratic project didn't doom it from the start. And her prescriptions -- lower taxes, lower immigration -- are predictable. (Immigration, particularly, is a troublesome issue, and while I'm sympathetic to concerns regarding cultural change -- especially re: cultures antipathetic to Western values -- I'm not sympathetic to employment protectionism.) At the end, though, she at least puts her finger on what's really needed, while leaving its actual content entirely vague:
Finally, government must make us an honest offer. The rhetoric needs to be turned into a systematic programme that takes the moral instincts of ordinary people as its starting point, but goes on from there to outline a feasible idea of what it will be like to live under this new dispensation – which makes clear that there is as much to be gained as will be lost. Get past the threats and the vague hopes: give us a clear picture of where this is all going, and what is expected of us.  
 Except, of course, that there is much more to be gained than lost, and that it's not government that must do this, but we ourselves.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

More Midterm reaction

And a nice contrast to the deranged screed a couple of posts ago -- here's what the BBC's Paul Adams describes as "one minute and nine seconds of pure advertising genius":

See, what I like -- nay, what I love -- about Sarah Palin is just the effect she has on the so-called "elite", on both left and right. She grates, she baffles, and she just generally messes with their heads -- look what she's done to poor, excitable Andy Sullivan, for example. Now, like David Gergen, I doubt that she'll actually run for President -- though the temptation to be the first female candidate for the office might be enough to do it -- but I think she's having a great time making a lot of people nervous just by threatening to run.

Why take such schadenfreudean delight in the discomfort of the putative elites, you might ask? Oh, just because they tend to treat political ideas and values as they treat fashion -- something merely to be donned and displayed as status symbols rather than thought about seriously. Which is true more on the liberal, bien pensant side, of course, as distinct from the conservative, snobby side. But on both sides the fun is mainly just in seeing an obstreperous opposition get in the face of complacent orthodoxies, and stay there.

So you go, girl.

UPDATE: While we're doing videos that spook the liberal elite, I might as well add this one, called "Fire from the Heartland":

Fire From The Heartland from Citizens United on Vimeo.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why capitalist societies are not like casinos

I have great respect for Virginia Postrel, and particularly for her book, The Future and Its Enemies. But in this essay, "In Praise of Irrational Exuberance", she makes an important mistake -- important, both because it's seriously misleading in itself, and also because it indirectly illuminates an important truth (or two). The mistake is to compare entrepreneurs in a capitalist society to gamblers in a casino:
Entrepreneurship is not, in this view, a rational risk calculation. It is, as critics of capitalism sometimes charge, a bit like gambling. The few big winners are usually people who shouldn’t have bet their time, money, and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they beat the odds — to everyone’s benefit. These “lucky fools” create new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, and new technologies that improve life. Society plays the role of the casino, enjoying the spillover benefits from foolish bets.
Now, Postrel is not, in fact, a critic of capitalism, and in making this comparison she still, as the passage above makes clear, wants to make the point that a free market economy is greatly beneficial to all -- to spell it out: just as a casino itself is enriched by the gambling of its customers, so capitalist society is enriched by the gambling of its entrepreneurs.

Capitalist societies are indeed rich, and entrepreneurs do indeed take risks, or gambles, but this comparison nevertheless goes astray for the following reasons:

First, casino gambling is rightly looked upon as of dubious value because it's a zero-sum game -- the only way for the casino to make money is for the customer to lose, and vice versa. In fact, from the point of view of the customer alone, the game is negative-sum, or a net loss on average. Capitalist economic activity, on the other hand, is positive-sum -- individuals may sometimes lose, but on average everyone gains, and gains considerably. This is because, unlike casino gambling, capitalism actually creates wealth.

The second important difference has to do with the nature of the entrepreneur's risk itself. Unlike gambling on the fall of dice or a roulette ball, where the odds are known in advance, the entrepreneur is constantly active or engaged to influence the outcome of the gamble, so that the actual odds of success depend heavily on those actions and the planning behind them -- in other words, on the abilities and character of the entrepreneur herself. It's certainly true, as Postrel points out, that most such enterprises ultimately fail, but that statistical fact obscures the real differences between those enterprises and the people behind them -- differences, for example, that venture capitalists try to discern, with varying success -- and it's precisely those differences that determine the real odds of success.

This is why Postrel's title, asserting the entrepreneur's "exuberance" to be irrational, is a kind of misuse of statistics -- no doubt the exuberance is irrational for some, but not for others, and neither she nor econometricians are able to say which is which. But the difference is crucial, since it's that rather than "irrational exuberance" that really drives the whole wealth-creating machine.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Our ankles survive."

For other reactions to the Midterm results....

This couldn't be funnier if it were in the Onion and were it not for its context, you'd probably take it as satire -- but, given where it is, I think we have to take it as symptom, with a soupçon of pathos added. See "An Open Letter to the White Right, On the Occasion of Your Recent, Successful Temper Tantrum" by tim wise (note the self-effacing lower-case) in Daily Dementia (or, more formally, Daily Kos: State of the Nation):
You’re like the bad guy in every horror movie ever made, who gets shot five times, or stabbed ten, or blown up twice, and who will eventually pass -- even if it takes four sequels to make it happen -- but who in the meantime keeps coming back around, grabbing at our ankles as we walk by, we having been mistakenly convinced that you were finally dead this time.
Fair enough, and have at it. But remember how this movie ends.
Our ankles survive.
You do not.
Michael Meyers, Freddie Kreuger, Jason, and that asshole husband in that movie with Julia Roberts who tracks her down after she runs away and changes her identity--they are all done. Even that crazy fucker in Saw is about to be finished off for good. Granted, he’s gonna be popping out in 3-D to scare the kiddies, so he isn’t going quietly. But he’s going, as all bad guys eventually do.
And in the pantheon of American history, conservative old white people have pretty much always been the bad guys, the keepers of the hegemonic and reactionary flame, the folks unwilling to share the category of American with others on equal terms.
Think there might be a little, you know, bitter clinging in all that (and it goes on)? Well, but that's not really adequate, is it? More like deranged death-grip, if it's the outpouring of anyone past early adolescence. Which is maybe a point in timmy's favor -- no idea of his (and it's pretty likely a "he", right?) own skin tone or age, of course, but if you had to guess wouldn't you say white, male, and maybe about 14? Could be younger, but then a bit precocious, because I will say that if the level were just dialed back to maybe 10 or a little less, screeds like this would be a perfect candidate for Stuff White People Like.

Thanks to Instapundit (seems like I'm always sending him traffic)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Congratulations, America

Maybe about as expected overall, but a very good night, with some disappointments in the Senate, but a possibly historic (see Nate Silver, the electoral guru) result in the House, and big gains in Governorships, and state legislatures. A genuine political star in Rubio, and an interesting trio of Rubio, Allen West, and Nikki Haley. And speaking of the new Governor of South Carolina, a pretty good night for Sarah Palin too -- kind of amazing to see how, just a couple of years after a big defeat as a running mate to John McCain, she's now a national political force in her own right, while McCain's just back to being a Senator. The Tea Party in general had mixed results -- and needs to draw some lessons from that -- but I actually think McConnell was right to say that it's changed the Republican Party for good. More interesting, perhaps, has been it's impact on the Democratic Party, scaring a good many into repudiating their own left wing, and defeating many others who tried to buck that tide.

So, after a couple of setbacks starting in 2006, another substantial swing to the neo-progressive right -- now on to 2012.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Taking the Rally to Restore Smart People seriously!

Funny at any time, but in the context of people who describe themselves as "smart", funnier:

Thanks to Doug Powers at  Michelle Malkin
and of course  Reason TV

Taking Jon Stewart seriously

See Taranto, Best of the Web, "Rally to Restore Authority":
The "sanity" for which Stewart claims to long is the authority of the old mainstream media--their ability to set the boundaries of newsworthiness and respectable debate, claiming to be above politics while actually skewing leftward--though not so far or so intensely leftward as, say, MSNBC ranter Keith Olbermann.
Stewart mimics this authority by insisting that he is nonpartisan and nonideological. In truth, he is no more above politics than were Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather. But he's clever enough to know that a Ratheresque assertion of authority would make him look ridiculous. So instead he makes an appeal to antiauthority, escaping scrutiny by insisting he's just a comedian. "If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to," he smirked at Tucker Carlson on "Crossfire," back in 2004.
The kind of "sanity" for which Stewart claims to be nostalgic is a thing of the past. Its last redoubt is National Public Radio, which by firing Juan Williams has made itself look more like the Radio Moscow of a half century ago than the CBS.
Not that anyone should take Stewart seriously, but others do. Also, he did a good number on Olbermann once.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anti-cultural relativism

From Nicholas N. Eberstadt, "The Global Poverty Paradox" -- read the whole thing, as they say, but here's an abridged narrative:

First, the world as a whole and the poorer parts of the world more specifically have generally done very well under capitalism and global trade, especially in the last half of the last century:
In the half century between 1955 and 2005, by Maddison’s reckoning, the planet’s per capita income levels nearly tripled, growing at an average tempo of more than 2 percent per year, despite the unprecedented pace of population increase in the Third World over those same years. The expansion of international trade—and thus by definition, of markets for export produce—was even more dramatic: on a worldwide basis, real per capita demand for international merchandise and commodities jumped almost tenfold during those same years....
There should be no doubt whatsoever that the health revolution facilitated by the postwar era’s knowledge explosion, and all that has accompanied it, has been fundamentally “poor-friendly.” ...
The worldwide surge in prosperity over the past two generations has been nothing like the winner-take-all race that some insinuate it to be. The plain fact is that countries at every income level have benefited tremendously from the global economic updrafts of our modern age. 
But, a significant fraction of the world's population, in the worst regions, have not only not shared in this improvement -- they've actually regressed:
By the World Bank’s calculations, nearly two dozen countries suffered negative per capita economic growth over the course of the quarter century from 1980 to 2005. ...
Thus, it is not just that an appreciable swath of humanity today lives in countries that have not yet managed to customize, and apply, the global formula for sustained growth that has been propelling the rest of the world out of poverty and into material security, or even affluence. No—hundreds of millions of people in the modern world live in places where the development process is manifestly stuck in reverse....
National examples of prolonged economic failure dot the modern global map: in the Caribbean (Cuba, Haiti); in Latin America (Paraguay, Venezuela); even in dynamic East Asia (North Korea). But the epicenter of prolonged economic failure is sub-Saharan Africa.

And foreign aid won't help:
The MDG [Millennium Development Goals] project avers that the primary impediment to more rapid progress against poverty in low-income countries nowadays is the lack of funding for practical, tested programs, and policy measures that would reliably and predictably raise living standards in the world where they are lowest today. ...
The trouble with this narrative is that foreign aid is not exactly an untested remedy for global poverty in our day and age. To go by figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, total flows of development assistance to recipient countries since 1960, after adjusting for inflation, by now add up to something like $3 trillion.
... since 1970, sub-Saharan African states have taken in the current equivalent of more than $600 billion of official development assistance—over three times as much aid on a per capita basis as Marshall Plan states received. As we know all too well, these subventions neither forestalled long-term economic decline for the region as a whole nor prevented the rise of poverty in many “beneficiary” states in the sub-Sahara.
So what will? Well, cultural change might:
The proposition that a local population’s viewpoints, values, and dispositions might have some bearing on local economic performance would hardly seem to be controversial. Decades ago, the great development economist Peter Bauer wrote that “economic achievement depends upon a people’s attributes, attitudes, mores and political arrangements.” The observation was offered as a simple and irrefutable statement of fact, and it would still be unobjectionable today to most readers who have not been tutored in contemporary “development theory.” But for development specialists, discussion of “culture”—much less its relationship to such things as work, thrift, savings, entrepreneurship, innovation, educational attainment, and other qualities that influence prospects for material advance—is increasingly off-limits.
But at this point, Eberstadt becomes pessimistic, and maybe unduly so. He sees that much of the problem stems from corrupt and often evil regimes that have imposed themselves on a populace, thinks that only outside intervention can get rid of such regimes, and doesn't think that the world is willing to undertake such intervention (no doubt rightly). But what he doesn't see, or rather sees but doesn't connect to the problem, at least emphatically enough, is just the politics of international aid that he identifies above. This willing blindness to dysfunctional cultural/political attitudes turns aid agencies and governments into a kind of enabler, as in dysfunctional drug dependencies -- the aid becoming simply a way of prolonging the misery of a terrible cultural, political, and economic cul-de-sac.

At one point, Eberstadt quotes from the MDG project's overview document: "'many well-governed countries [today] are too poor to help themselves.'", and then adds: "Social-science and policy-research literature, to be sure, has committed a fair share of howlers during the past century, but this may be the single most empirically challenged sentence of the new millennium."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Multiculturalism and the right

And now for some Canadian content. A little while back there were two surprising elections here, even though both were predicted by polls -- in Toronto, perhaps Canada's most liberal (small-l) city, a fat, white, presumably heterosexual, male conservative (small-c) soundly defeated a liberal Liberal (also white and male, but not so fat, and openly gay); and in Calgary, perhaps Canada's most conservative major city, a Muslim was elected as the first Islamic mayor in Canada. Now, in themselves, these results might be a bit unusual, but hardly that interesting -- it's what they suggest about that familiar theme of multiculturalism that's significant. For reasons both naive and opportunistic, liberals have made this theme a pet project, viewing it in the former sense as perhaps just "more pavilions at Folkfest" (thanks to Kate at SDA for the expression), and in the latter, more cynical, sense, as the source of an easy supply of immigrant votes in any given election. But the naivete is rapidly falling away, as the previous post indicated, and now even the electoral opportunism seems threatened -- Rob Ford, the Toronto conservative, apparently outpolled his liberal rival by about 52% to 30% of respondents born outside of the country.

Granted, these are just a couple of Canadian municipal elections, but sometimes small events can portend larger things. Here, for example, are some possible take aways:

  • Liberal attempts, both in Canada and the US, to pander to new immigrants, including bribing them with tax-intensive programs, may finally be reaching the point not just of diminishing returns but of negative returns -- more than most, immigrants as a group tend to be hard-working family people who dislike seeing their earnings taken from them to fund easy election-time promises as much as anyone.
  • Conservatives recognize cultural diversity, once no longer a fetish, as indeed a rich source of vitality and energy within any society, as are a continual influx of new immigrants -- but add two general provisos: first, that the rate of cultural change be contained within supportable limits; and second, that the most general principles of a free society be recognized by all, including the supreme value of the individual.
  • And immigrants, so many, as I say, from family-oriented, hard-working backgrounds, are increasingly finding contemporary conservatism a more natural political expression than contemporary liberalism -- indeed, the small government emphasis on freedom, tolerance, and opportunity is frequently a primary reason so many left their homes to seek this society out in the first place.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Multiculturalism and the left

A while back now, German Chancellor Merkel caused no small amount of consternation within the liberal-left everywhere with her announcement that the German experiment with "multikulti" was a failure (e.g., Yahoo News: "Merkel says German multi-cultural society has failed"). Now, partly this failure is just a result of some short-sighted labor policies that Europe in general, Germany in particular, has followed for years after WW2, of using immigrant labor to first rebuild, and now maintain, their societies (a policy that the US is having trouble with now as well). But little or no effort was made to assimilate these workers into the Western societies, and, whether out of necessity or a naive idealism, an ideology of "multiculturalism" was used to justify this, the idea being that "tolerance" will allow all the world's cultures to mingle freely while still preserving intact their distinct customs, beliefs, values, and practices. In Canada, this ideology underlay the use of a new metaphor for this mingling -- the idea of a cultural "mosaic" as opposed to the supposedly less tolerant American notion of the "melting pot". As a mosaic, however, it's a facade that's crumbling here as  everywhere.

One reason for this failure, which one would think would have been obvious, is that mixing cultures in this way changes them -- not a bad or insupportable thing in itself, but there is a rate of change beyond which people everywhere begin to feel that they are foreigners or aliens in their own land, and they resist this. But there's a larger and much more significant reason as well -- it can be seen in an essay by a self-described liberal, Susan Jacoby, entitled "Multiculturalism and Its Discontents": "I am an atheist," she writes, "with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect."  After quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the effect that "'All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. . . . The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.' (italics in the original)", Jacoby goes on to lament the fact that so many of her fellow liberals have failed to grasp this about what's supposed to be their own cultural heritage.Worse, it's as though they're unnerved by such a clear and frank statement and are driven to a perverse sort of relativism that forces them to disavow it as a result. And this leads Jacoby to make some observations that, perhaps unwittingly, also say much about the relative positions of the political left and right in the contemporary world:
Finally, it is a politically strategic error as well as a form of moral blindness for liberals to push people like Hirsi Ali into the eager arms of the political Right. ...
This muddled thinking allows the American religious and political Right to misrepresent itself as the chief defender of Enlightenment values. More important, reflexive liberal multiculturalism fails every child being denied, in the name of faith and family, full access to the promise of this nation.
 At some point, it may be possible for Jacoby and many others like her to come to a realization that perhaps the American right today is representing itself accurately as the chief defender of Enlightenment values. And at that point a choice will be necessary -- between continued allegiance to an old but now reactionary political label, or to the values they thought that label stood for.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On moral bullying

This came up in a comment exchange from an earlier post, and I thought it was important enough to post on its own:

We all would like to think of ourselves as good people, right? And to be thought of as such. But this is exactly what provides the leverage point for the moral bully -- the ones who, big with a sense of their own swollen rectitude, like to morally push around anyone they think might be vulnerable. This is an old story within religions,  with the self-righteous inflating their own egos and sense of power by denouncing the sins of others. But it's a modern story too, especially within the quasi-religious politics of the modern liberal-left, where the sins take the form of failing to re-cycle, for example, or exhibiting one of a number of "phobias" (homo-, Islamo-, etc.) or -- the most popular form of denunciation by far -- of racism. Some of which, of course, may well be genuine forms of bad behavior or consciousness, but that's not the point here. Because the characteristic of the bully is his/her focus -- it's not really on the sins as such at all, but rather on the putative sinner, and the point is not to correct or change anything, but rather simply to morally dominate. This is what makes such tactics so prominent and ugly a part of political debates, after all, and all the more so when one side or the other is losing the debate on substantive grounds.

Now, in order to be a target for such bullying, whether of the older religious sort or the more recent political sort, you have to have bought into the mind set from which it emanates, and this is what makes the pseudo-elite of the fashionably orthodox today, the bien pensant, so easy to herd -- that reflexive anxiety that they might have strayed  in their mind from the path of correctness, and so in danger of stepping on some lurking social landmine by expressing one of the many forbidden thoughts. As, for example, did Juan Williams quite publicly recently, and look what happened to him. So in order to build a defense against the moral bullies, the first thing you have to do is reconsider your engagement with the socially fashionable, particularly in politics -- and this is true on both political wings, by the way, depending on your social context. That is, the first step is a declaration of personal independence from the tyranny of political labels and fashions. The problem is that the next steps will require some thinking on your own, as opposed to the ease of simply putting on whatever everyone else is wearing.