Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lomborg and climate change: what is to be done?

The Guardian:
Bjørn Lomborg: $100bn a year needed to fight climate change

The first thing to point out is that this story, which is all over the Internets, is false, as you can see from the description in the first sentence in the Guardian story above: "The world's most high-profile climate change sceptic". Here's what the "sceptic" has been saying from the start, according to the Guardian's own collection elsewhere:
Bjørn Lomborg in his own words:
"This chapter accepts the reality of man-made global warming." The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001
"Global warming is real and man-made. It will have a serious impact on humans and the environment toward the end of this century." Cool It, 2007
In other words, he's explicitly and quite clearly a believer in man-made climate change. What he is skeptical about is what follows from that, namely the net costs of the warming itself and the cost-benefit analyses involved in particular mitigation strategies now -- especially attempts to suppress carbon emissions through various taxation schemes, enough to make a significant impact on climate. From what I can see, this skepticism too largely continues -- meaning that it's false in the first place to claim he was ever a climate change skeptic, and then doubly false, in the second place, to claim that he's now made a "u-turn".

What has changed is that he's now recommending a relatively modest carbon tax be levied, not as a means of suppressing carbon emissions (which was always either futile or dangerous, or both) but simply as a means of raising funds for research on alternate energy sources, geo-engineering, and adaptation. If you add carbon-capture and either sequestration or carbon re-cycling (see this) as research targets, then this makes sense. The only thing to add is that it's always made sense and doesn't require global circuses like Kyoto or Copenhagen to implement. In fact, it doesn't require carbon taxes either -- it can or should be funded just as any other research initiative is funded. So maybe Lomborg is just throwing the True Believers a bone.

Monday, August 30, 2010

We're no. 11, objectively

MIT Technology Review:
Mathematicians Create Objective Quality of Life Index

That's Canada that's no. 11 -- the US is no. 2, but only because Luxembourg is no. 1, and wealthy enclaves shouldn't count, so you could really say that, for all intents and purposes, the US is no. 1, objectively. For what that's worth.

What might be a little more interesting is that this "objective" index, for about the first 20 or so countries (the first 38 if you don't count Mideast oil states), just matches per capita GDP ranking -- meaning that per capita GDP, though often belittled by those who like to think of themselves as above material concerns, is a pretty good proxy for other good things, such as life expectancy, low infant mortality, low TB rates, and no doubt others.

The EU: its virtues and vices

Ilya Somin (The Volokh Conspiracy):
The Future of the European Union

This is one of the better summaries of the whole EU project, to my mind.  On the side of virtue, Somin points out the free movement of goods, services, and people throughout the ancient and varied national homelands of Europe -- a huge and amazing accomplishment all by itself. As Somin says, "the establishment of free trade and freedom of movement throughout Europe are two of the greatest advances of freedom in the recent history of the Western world".

On the side of vice, Somin is also correct to point to the "variety of regulatory and redistributive initiatives", giving rise to, and bound up in, immense layers of bureaucracy. No doubt some of that is a consequence of trying to protect various established elites or power centers from the trade winds that a free market engenders, but much is also the result of trying to overlay a market with command and control. That can be done, of course, since every country does so, but in Europe, to a greater extent than elsewhere, we see a real confusion of two distinct systems of decision-making, and two views of basic fairness. The result is contradiction, ineffeciency, injustice, and instability.

One other point should be raised -- it's not a vice, but it is at least a potential problem: the definition and security of the EU's borders. Borders matter, even for super-states, because they define the boundaries of the state's ability to establish and protect the freedoms of its citizens -- if they can be crossed with impunity, that ability is increasingly weakened, and a reappearance of old nationalisms becomes a predictable reaction, as we're seeing. There are lessons there for both sides of the Atlantic.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How do people respond to disasters?

You can sit and wait for the Government to send help, of course, which in any case can provide some opportunities for political demagoguery. Or you can do what you can to help yourself. And you don't need to be a survivalist to choose the latter course.

On this 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, check out the Gulf Coast Recovery Project at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, started in the immediate aftermath of the disaster:
In 2005, Mercatus launched a five-year project to follow the long-term redevelopment of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. By combining verbal interviews with people rebuilding the Gulf Coast and quantitative and qualitative data, the Gulf Coast Recovery Project seeks to better understand the array of complex issues facing communities recovering from disaster and the roles that the public, commercial, and non-profit sectors play in rebuilding communities affected by large scale catastrophes.
There is now a great wealth of information on the site -- working papers, talks, videos, forums, media files, etc. -- examining the question in the title of this post, and finding some interesting answers.

"Rural voters, the vast majority of whom are white...."

The quote comes near the end of an Ibbotson column in The Globe and Mail, the liberal version of "Canada's national newspaper". It doesn't matter what the subject of the column is, because this fragment is entirely irrelevant to it. It doesn't even matter that the fragment itself names "rural voters", because the clause could just as well be applied in any other context to almost any other way of grouping people that wasn't, explicitly or implicitly, by race. The vast majority of urban voters in Canada, for example, are also white. The real point is that the phrase pops up in a column that has nothing to do with race at all -- the point is that, on anything remotely resembling a rational basis, it has no point.

Why is it there, then? Ibbotson could just as meaningfully have said something like: "Rural voters, the vast majority of whom speak with a rural accent....", or "Rural voters, the vast majority of whom are native earthlings....", but then the absurdity would have been too obvious. Why not in this case? The answer, sadly, is a sick political phenomenon on the liberal-left called "racialism", which is increasingly defining itself by its demagogic use of "race" as a simple club in any kind of political issue. What Ibbotson is doing here, then, is signaling. He thinks that by waving this sort of phrase he can tell people, at least his people, the bien pensant lib-lefties, that a) he himself is not a bigot -- because notice how racially hyper-aware he is, bringing up race even when it has no particular application, but b) the people he's talking about could very well be bigots (the "vast majority" are white, after all), and so the side of the issue they favor, whatever the issue, is plausibly the bigoted side.

It's fast becoming the story of the boy(s) (and girls) who cried "Race!", of course, and with the same sad result. That they can't see such a result, and resort so easily to such crude and ridiculous racial signaling, is an indication of just how impoverished the liberal-left has become.

For an alternative view of race itself, see this brief clip from a Morgan Freeman interview.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Economics and the lure of technocracy

Ewe E. Reinhardt (NY Times):
When Value Judgments Masquerade as Science

Technocracy: "government by technicians; specifically : management of society by technical experts".

This is an excellent short column, that further illustrates one of the key points of the post on a cultural Uncertainty Principle. Here's Reinhardt, for example, on the difficulty of avoiding politics even when one tries -- and this pertains far beyond economics:
It must be acknowledged, however, that a researcher’s political ideology or vested interest in a particular theory can still enter even ostensibly descriptive analysis by the data set chosen for the research; the mathematical transformations of raw data and the exclusion of so-called outlier data; the specific form of the mathematical equations posited for estimation; the estimation method used; the number of retrials in estimation to get what strikes the researcher as “plausible” results, and the manner in which final research findings are presented.
And here he is on economists, in particular, who don't try to refrain from political interventions (can you think of any?):
In their application of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion to real-world problems, however, economists act like collectivists who seek to allocate society’s resources under a preferred moral doctrine. Economists take on the role of a benevolent dictator presumed to be empowered by someone to redistribute welfare among individual members of society for a larger social purpose — increases in what economists call efficiency and the maximization of what they call overall social welfare.
Thanks to Greg Mankiw 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cool and scary

It's an animation depicting the asteroids in the solar system as they were discovered -- green objects are at some distance, red ones cross earth's orbit (the dot circling 3rd from the yellow dot in the center). Kind of makes you think about the dinosaurs somehow....

From the blurb at YouTube:
View of the solar system showing the locations of all the asteroids starting in 1980, as asteroids are discovered they are added to the map and highlighted white so you can pick out the new ones. 
The final colour of an asteroids indicates how closely it comes to the inner solar system. 
Earth Crossers are Red
Earth Approachers (Perihelion less than 1.3AU) are Yellow
All Others are Green
Notice now the pattern of discovery follows the Earth around its orbit, most discoveries are made in the region directly opposite the Sun. You'll also notice some clusters of discoveries on the line between Earth and Jupiter, these are the result of surveys looking for Jovian moons. Similar clusters of discoveries can be tied to the other outer planets, but those are not visible in this video.
 Thanks to io9 and Scott Manley

Democrats getting ideas

Jennifer Rubin:
Democrats Discover Raising Taxes Is a Bad Idea

In particular, note, they're worried that raising taxes on the rich is a bad idea -- so maybe you can teach an old dog new spots, or something. There is, of course, still a deficit to worry about, and Rubin quotes another batch of Democrats doing just that, which is also welcome news, even if it's a bit late. What marks them as Democrats, though, is that they see the only policy alternatives as raising taxes or raising the deficit -- they seem constitutionally incapable of recognizing the possibility of a third alternative.

A cultural Uncertainty Principle

This is a kind of extension of that "attitude of epistemic humility" discussed in an earlier post. That stemmed from an article by Jim Manzi speaking of the difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of economic policies, because of the impossibility of assessing counterfactuals -- i.e., of knowing what would have happened without the policy, or if a different policy had been in place. That's a fairly narrow limitation, however, and I've already suggested ways in which such uncertainty could be reduced at least (e.g., examining different policy approaches to the same problem in different jurisdictions, etc.). But Manzi's piece itself refers back to his own earlier and more general article in City Journal on "What Social Science Does -- and Doesn't -- Know" (subtitled "Our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound.").

In that he brings up another kind of complication that arises in medicine and then in the social sciences, which he calls "causal density":
... as experiments began to move from fields like classical physics to fields like therapeutic biology, the number and complexity of potential causes of the outcome of interest—what I term 'causal density'—rose substantially. It became difficult even to identify, never mind actually hold constant, all these causes.
Which is a good point, though it's certainly been noted and complained about previously. And in thus merging social science with medicine, it obscures a much more problematic source of trouble. Which is this: behind every hypothesis that's tested in a scientific experiment there lies a theory of some sort, though not always an explicit or well-formulated one, nor even necessarily a conscious one. In the latter case, of course, we're talking about unconscious assumptions that can affect the whole design and outcome of the experiment or study. In the physical sciences, such assumptions are usually the result of insufficient care or analysis (leaving Kuhn aside for now), and there is a strong culture dedicating to exposing just such faults. But in the social sciences, these kinds of assumptions are very commonly interlaced with social and political values, and attempting to expose them can involve much more complex and deeply rooted political issues and conflicts, rather than simply scientific or rational ones.

So this is the first source of inherent uncertainty in this area: in touching upon our social position in the world, social science cannot avoid the political issues involved in its research -- it is inherently politicized. And unfortunately, as we all know, it's politicized largely in one direction -- toward the liberal-left (see, e.g., "The Social and Political Views of American Professors" [PDF], by Gross and Simmons, 2007, as just one among many indicators). All too often, this results in "studies" that show mainly what the studier wants them to show, though of course they usually go through the motions of a "balanced" enquiry. Such studies are what Richard Feynman referred to as "cargo cult science": "they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential", which he calls "scientific integrity", but which is often manifested in a serious commitment to finding holes, flaws, weak points, over-statements, falsifications, in both one's own and others' work. But that's precisely what's so difficult when dealing with issues that touch upon one's deepest convictions.

And there's another, even deeper, source of social science uncertainty. Knowledge or understanding is an important -- in many ways, central -- aspect of what we are, and it has a decisive effect on how we behave.  But, even allowing for the inherent ideological bias mentioned above, social science itself is knowledge, and hence that knowledge itself affects -- i.e., changes -- the behavior of its object of study. There is therefore an Uncertainty Principle at work in attempts to make a science of human behavior -- not as precise as Heisenberg's, certainly, but analogous in the way in which the observed is unavoidably affected by the observer. It's an effect that has shown up repeatedly in economics, where predicted behavior patterns are internalized and taken into account, with the resultant behavior only explicable in hindsight. It's the "unintended consequences" that perpetually operate to limit the designs of would-be social engineers.

Social science, therefore, faces multiple sources of uncertainty that physical sciences do not -- in order of increasing severity or intractability, they are
  • the difficulty in disproving counterfactuals;
  • what Manzi refers to as the "causal density" of social phenomena;
  • the inherent politicization of social questions;
  • and the Cultural Uncertainty Principle: the inescapable and unpredictable effect that social knowledge has on social behavior.
All of these need to be borne in mind whenever encountering the "studies show" line so often used to justify the technocratic manipulation of social outcomes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The slow decline of leftist economics

Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy:
Scott Sumner on Liberaltarian Progress

Ilya makes the necessary qualifications to the awkward "liberaltarian" label, and also points out how progress in the economic area is countered by continued regression in the growth of the leftist nanny state:
On average, today’s liberals are more likely to support a wide range of restrictions on “noneconomic” freedom than those of forty years ago. Consider such issues as government-imposed regulation of smoking and diet, expansion of antidiscrimination laws to cover various new groups, campaign finance restrictions, and anti-“hate speech” laws.
But, as he concludes, there remain grounds for some modest hope:
The gap between liberals and libertarians on economic issues has indeed declined over the last forty years (notwithstanding some backsliding during the current recession), and it may be possible to reduce it further in the future.
UPDATE: I should have pointed out that Ilya's post, as its title indicates, was a response to this one by Scott Sumner: "The extraordinary success of liberaltarianism". And that post has attracted other thoughtful commentary as well -- two examples are Veronique de Rugy's, "What use is a libertarian?", and Nick Gillespie's concisely titled "Are libertarians really as useless as a bucket of armpits? Or do they just smell that way?"

The New Yorker as supermarket tabloid: the Koch hit

Hit & Run : Reason Magazine:

The Official Koch Industries Reply to The New Yorker Hit Piece

The  New Yorker piece has been getting extra attention because of some departures at CATO recently, which Koch helps fund. As Gillespie, at the link above, points out, what stands out here is just the remarkably slimy tone, from what was supposed to be -- what once was, certainly -- a high-toned magazine.

Maybe the National Enquirer will do a matching piece on George Soros.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The mosque and the question of tolerance, redux

Ross Douthat:

Finally, some moral clarity amid the howls. After making a thoughtful distinction between devout, non-Enlightenment-embracing Muslims and terrorist-backing extremists, Douthat goes on:
But making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure: Figures like Ramadan and now Rauf should be held to a high standard by their non-Muslim interlocutors, and their forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package. (This is particularly true because Westerners have a long record of seeing what they want to see in self-proclaimed Islamic reformers, from the Ayatollah Khomeini down to Anwar Al Awlaki, and failing to recognize extremism when it’s staring them in the face.) And what’s troubling about some of the liberal reaction to the Cordoba Initiative controversy is that it seems to regard this kind of pressure as illegitimate and dangerous in and of itself — as though the First Amendment protects the right of Rauf and Co. to build their mosque and cultural center, but not the right of critics to scrutinize Rauf’s moderate bona fides, parse some of his more disturbing comments, and raise doubts about the benefits (to American Islam as well as to America) of having him set up shop as an arbiter of Muslim-Western dialogue in what used to be the shadow of the World Trade Center.

The mysteries of markets

The good folks at Crooked Timber once again provide fodder for thought, and once again it's John "Make the Rich Pay" Quiggan who's churning it out. Here he is opining about "interesting intellectual evolution":

There is, I think, room for a version of liberalism/social democracy that is appreciative of the virtues of markets (and market-based policy instruments like emissions trading schemes) as social contrivances, and sceptical of top-down planning and regulation, without accepting normative claims about the income distribution generated by markets.
Which, given the context, no doubt is evidence of an evolution, even is it's only venturing onto land. The comments provided more fun, with one thinking the above description "would describe all but the far end of the American left" and then JQ characterizing his own passage as a "Rorschach blot", which he thinks means "I'm on to something, but I don't know what". The last clause, at least, is clearly true.

What he's onto, though, may be a concise illustration of the basic incoherence of the strategy of the so-called "Third Way" ("strategy", as opposed to pragmatic tactics, note). I tried to suggest that in a comment myself:
Whether Third Way, Fourth Way, or Nth Way, though, you may find that you’ll have a bit of a problem in accepting markets, etc. as “social contrivances” while rejecting the resulting income distribution. Unless of course you simply intend to ignore “normative claims” altogether. A vexing problem, no? Markets work well, or seem to, but for reasons that we don’t understand, and their outcomes are always so not fair….
But that was maybe a bit too cryptic for that neighborhood. To explain: markets only work, even as "social contrivances", because of the income distributions they generate. If you reject such distributions then you're essentially rejecting markets and their accompanying virtues. If, on the other hand, you accept the virtues of markets, then that alone is a "normative claim" -- calling them "social contrivances" doesn't get you out of the dilemma, since any and all social structures/processes can be so described. What's happening is that there are two distinct "normative claims" being asserted -- a socialist one, in which goods and services are literally "distributed" by some one or group on the basis of some notion of fairness; and a market-based one, in which goods and services are simply traded and not "distributed" in any but a metaphoric sense. And therein lies the incoherence.

On a practical level it's quite true that we routinely mix and match these kinds of claims, meaning that we routinely adulterate whatever non-market claims there are in order to obtain some benefits from market virtues for some, and then we routinely adulterate those market virtues in order to obtain some other "normative claim" as defined by ... well, we're never exactly sure. Messy, as the real world always is. But we can respect the practicalities of the situation -- social inertia, dependencies of various sorts, etc. -- while still working toward a resolution of the incoherence. In other words, we can choose fundamentally between working toward a First Way, or toward a Second Way, but striving toward a Third Way is the pursuit of a mirage.

No charity for you, say German rich

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Negative Reaction to Charity Campaign: German Millionaires Criticize Gates' 'Giving Pledge'
SPIEGEL: But doesn't the money that is donated serve the common good?
Krämer: It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it's not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That's a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?
SPIEGEL: It is their money at the end of the day.
Krämer: In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.
He's worried about tax write-offs, which of course are there for the express purpose of encouraging charity, but never mind. Very tempting to say something about an unhealthy historical affinity between German capitalists and the state, for which a  tacked-on modifier like "democratically" doesn't help much. But that would be stereotyping, and this is probably just this particular specimen, Krämer with an umlaut. The sad fact is that there's an unhealthy affinity between some capitalists and the state everywhere.

Thanks to Freakonomics

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Avatar"-man backs down from showdown

See James Cameron backs out of debate with climate-change skeptics (HotAir)

I quite liked Avatar, by the way, which was simple-minded but in a nice way. Cameron's good at some things, such as telling a story, concocting pretty fantasy worlds. Not so good at reason and evidence, apparently. Or maybe, as Allahpundit says, he was just "busy".

UPDATE (Aug 26): Another report.

Piling on

From Best of the Web, Aug 23/10 (I can't resist either):

An Atrocious Sentence, but No Crime
This almost seems unsporting, but we can't resist. From a New York Times editorial on the Justice Department's decision to drop its investigation of Tom DeLay:
Mr. DeLay, the Texas Republican who had been the House majority leader, crowed that he had been "found innocent." But many of Mr. DeLay's actions remain legal only because lawmakers have chosen not to criminalize them.
By the same logic, the New York Times editorialists are not in the dock only because "criminal stupidity" is a figure of speech and not an actual law.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wealth: trickles vs. fountains

One of the more damaging and misleading bits of political rhetoric in the last few decades -- and there are a number of candidates -- has been the phrase "tickle-down", as applied in a narrow sense to cuts in marginal tax rates and in a broader sense to any policy that refrains from taking money from the relatively wealthy. I had thought the phrase was dreamed up by Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, but apparently he just recycled it -- Wikipedia, anyway, says it may have started with Will Rogers, which is a more appropriate origin. In any case, ever since Stockman it's been widely used by the liberal-left to condemn any move to, say, lower tax rates in an across the board manner, as well as to justify further confiscatory taxation since the state is better able to "spread the wealth around", in Obama's felicitous phrase, than just letting it trickle down from the rich.

But what if, rather than just a trickle, the reality is that a fountain of wealth flows from those with wealth -- i.e., capital -- already? Not because they're into sharing, though some are, as the recent news about the Gates/Buffet efforts to encourage world billionaires to increase their philanthropic efforts suggests. No, the reason is actually just the opposite -- the real wealth dispersed by rich capitalists is that which overflows from their efforts at making money rather than giving it away, efforts which are of course impeded by the various attempts to "spread the wealth around". In this post, "Bill Gates Gave at the Office", Mark J. Perry cites a 2004 paper by William D. Nordhaus, which summarizes itself as follows:
We conclude that only a minuscule fraction of the social returns from technological advances over the 1948-2001 period was captured by producers, indicating that most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers rather than captured by producers.
It's not just Gates, in other words, and it doesn't depend on what you might think of Microsoft per se -- the real source of wealth in capitalist societies is just capitalist activity itself, with all its instability, its "creative destruction", its messy booms and busts. And if you need any further evidence that, over the long term, this results in a fountain rather than a trickle, take a look at the shape of the following graph, which is essentially a flat line until about 1700, and exponential thereafter:

Of course, Keynes was right, that in the long run we're all dead. But for most of us, that's not all that counts -- some think of the children. So here's a bit of counter-intuitive advice you could give to a young idealist starting out in life, and looking for the best way to benefit humanity as a whole: forget the Peace Corps or NGOs, and aspire instead to become a "robber baron", a la Rockefeller or Carnegie or Gates. You probably won't get that far, but in the process you stand a good chance of actually creating some real wealth, most of which will splash throughout our globalized economy to the benefit of everyone in varying degrees, including, especially, the poorest of the poor; and a portion of which -- but only a "miniscule fraction" -- you get to keep yourself. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Johnny Rotten goes to Israel

Rock n Roll was always about stickin it to the Man, right? (See Jack Black, The School of Rock.) And punk rock stuck it with a fist or a broken bottle. And Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols stuck it about as hard as the hardest puck rocker. Still stickin it, in fact, though he's now middle aged, living in California, and goes by the name of John Lydon -- here he is talking about why he isn't joining other performers in a boycott of Israel:
I really resent the presumption that I'm going there to play to right-wing Nazi jews [sic]. If Elvis-f-ing-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he's suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how they're treated.
Now, I'm not going to defend the logic here -- it's punk logic! -- but I think the gist and the underlying instincts are dead right. And predictably, the left apparently has its knickers in a twist about it, as John might say: "The British blogosphere and commentaries in the Guardian are packed full of hysterical tirades against Rotten". So you see the main thing that's changed? It's the identity of the Man, who's morphed from your parents into those guardians of the cultural gates, those bien pensant chattering classes, the liberal-left culterati themselves, most of whom, comically, remain frozen in attitudes they formed during their extended adolescence, as self-righteous outsiders fighting an endless battle against now phantom parents.

Not John, though -- he's grown.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Upside down in Oz politics

Just a quick note about the recent, and still inconclusive general election Down Under -- I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on Aussie politics, but from this distance this appears like one of the strangest and most dramatic political episodes I've seen since maybe the 60's in America. To set the stage, there are two main parties, Labor and a Coalition of Liberals (larger bloc) and Nationals, plus the Greens (plus some independents, and maybe a smattering of odds and ends -- they have a preferential ballot). For a number of years early in the 2000's, the Liberal/National coalition had been in power, led by John Howard, who was as loathed by the Australian left as George Bush was by the American left. Finally, in 2007, the hated Howard was defeated, swept from office by Labor led by one Kevin Rudd -- triumphalist huzzahs on the left, and predictions of a long Labor dominance that would banish the sour memories of Howard's earlier 11 year stretch.

Two years go by, and the Labor Prime Minister, Rudd, proposes a version of cap-and-trade carbon Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This initially has broad support in polling, so much so that the then leader of the Liberals, Malcolm Turnbull, signed on with at least apparent enthusiasm, giving the proposal the much sought "bi-partisan support" at least and seeming to assure its passage. But then reality bit, fairly hard, and the real fun began. I'm not clear on the exact sequence of events, but voices began to raised against the ETS, the Climate-gate uproar got rolling and couldn't be suppressed by the media, and opposition to Turnbull within his own party over the issue mounted. That opposition quickly became so powerful that Turnbull was forced to resign as leader and Tony Abbot, an ETS critic, took over. Then Rudd seemed to vacillate himself over the ETS, perhaps sensing an electoral loser in the making. As a general election loomed, polls indicated a sharp drop in support for Labor, at least some of which was due to the now controversial ETS. Hardly had the Aussie left begun to get comfortable in their anticipated dominance, in other words, when it started to look like it was all coming undone. So, in what appears remarkably like panic, just weeks before the election, Labor dumped Rudd, installing Julia Gillard in his place. And then, just as it seemed that the switch to Gillard might save the day, the people spoke at last in yesterday's general election, and it looks as of now that the Liberals received a plurality of votes (with a preferential ballot I doubt that any party ever gets an outright majority), and may have a plurality of seats in at least the lower House, though that's still unclear. In the land of Oz, they're calling it a "hung parliament" -- though we Canadians can tell them that minority governments are quite able to get along for quite some time. In any case, that's as rapid and confused an end to a heralded political dynasty as I've seen in a while.

So, all in all, a remarkable sequence of political surprises, much of it turning on a fateful piece of ill-advised anti-climate change legislation! There's a lesson there somewhere.

Here's a quick comment by Michael Barone: "Australia votes: rightward trend in Anglosphere democracies". And here's the latest post from a man on the spot, Tim Blair: "Election 2010 IV".

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"an attitude of epistemic humility"

That's a quote from the end of a Jim Manzi article in TNR: "Confusion Reigns at TNR on the Stimulus ... For Good Reason". The confusion he's talking about has to do not just with differing opinions, Keynesian and otherwise, over the effectiveness of the "stimulus" itself, but also with a spreading recognition that there is no good way even to assess its effectiveness -- because however good or bad the results of a policy, you can always argue that they would have been better or worse if the policy hadn't been in place. As he says (quoting himslef in an earlier article), "we have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals".

Now, this may be a little too humble -- if a policy is implemented on the basis of some projection of its results, and that projection is then shown to be wrong, it's at least going to cast some doubt on the policy and the theory underlying its projection, which is what's happening now with the Stimulus and its Keynesian defenders (Krugman, e.g.). And often there are other ways of assessing than through counterfactual reruns of history -- such as by comparing different approaches to the same problem in different jurisdictions, as Josef Joffe, a colleague of Manzi's, does in "The International Stimulus Sweepstakes: Who Wins?". (See also this post by Megan McArdle, on "Hoovernomics".) But in general this lesson that we have a difficult time, even after a policy has been put in place and operating, much less before, in knowing whether and to what degree it was effective, should restrain the urge to make very large bets, using other people's money and lives, on theoretical/ideological premises.

Suppose, now, that we were to change focus, and apply a little of that "epistemic humility" to the climate debate. We'd see a greater recognition of the inherent uncertainties in long-range climate modeling in the first place, and much greater attention paid to the huge uncertainties inherent in efforts to model real economic costs and benefits inherent in any policy approach toward the issue, in the second place. It's the latter, of course, that should give pause to anyone not a zealot. When the situation is one in which any action, including no action, carries risks that are difficult or impossible to calculate, it's generally not a good time to make a large leap of faith/ideology. Instead, Manzi's proposed guidelines for policy in the face of this kind of uncertainty seem like a much more rational approach, to climate change as well as to economic crises:
... “boldness” in the face of ignorance should not be seen in heroic terms. It is a desperate move taken only when other options are exhausted, and with our eyes open to the fact that we are taking a wild risk.... We are walking into a casino and putting $800 billion dollars down on a single bet in a game where we don’t even know the rules. In general, in the face of this kind of uncertainty, we ought to seek policy interventions that are as narrowly targeted as is consistent with addressing the problem; tested prior to implementation to whatever extent possible; hedged on multiple dimensions; and designed to be as reversible as is practicable.
Carbon taxes as a means of forcing down global emissions to some early industrial level are an example of a policy too grandiose, too uncertain, and too premature to meet these criteria.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the mosque, tolerance, and war

This issue is one of the few where I'll admit I tend to vacillate. On the one hand, I certainly understand that most muslims are as non-violent and peaceful as most other people of whatever faith or non-faith. Moreover, I also understand that a relatively small number of very brave Muslims have taken strong public stands against the violence that's been perpetrated in their name, very many of whom are women. I would want to extend the same kind of tolerance toward the first group that I would to any other modes of belief, and I have great respect and admiration toward the second group. But on the other hand, I understand very clearly that what requires such bravery on the part of those who stand against Islamist violence is precisely the extraordinary willingness of a significant minority of Muslims to resort to the most brutal slaughter; I understand how that willingness creates a fear that permeates the culture of the modern world, as we've seen in numerous instances of self-censorship in anything to do with Islam, skewing the treatment of that one belief system alone; and I understand that the minority of Muslims willing to engage in actual violence is supplemented by much larger numbers around the world who sympathize with them in whole or in part. I understand, in other words -- as many simple-minded and self-deluding liberals do not -- that we really are at war with a global ideology, however unusual that war may be by historical standards.

So, given that, here are some tentative generalizations: first, wartime conditions justify -- and often enough require -- restrictions or actions that wouldn't be justifiable at all otherwise. And second, the ideological component of this struggle needs to be recognized and managed -- but we shouldn't be complacent that, in the fight with this particular enemy, our notion of civil rights and religious tolerance will be seen as a strength rather than a sign of decadent weakness. In the end, then, I come down on the side of those who say we should recognize the constitutional right of the mosque proponents to go ahead, but that we should make every effort to persuade/pressure them not to do so. This is a position shared by at least some moderate Muslims too, as this article indicates: "Ground Zero Mosque Splits Muslims", and they'll need the support of non-Muslims so they're not further isolated.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Freedom and coercion

Crooked Timber often affords a rich lode of material illustrating the state of the contemporary left, the latest example being a post and comment thread ostensibly about the non-existence or at least unattractiveness of libertarian utopias. It quickly spun off another thread, though, on the non-existence of the voluntary or of free choice and the ubiquity of coercion, and I've joined in repeatedly.

Now, it's easy enough to see why those with an interest themselves in coercing would like to deny the voluntary -- if everything is "coercive" then all that matters is that my coercion triumphs, and I no longer have to worry about justifying it. But it's interesting to witness how this operates like a kind of intellectual quicksand, pulling those who use it into increasingly extreme claims that eventually threaten to drown their own moral/political position. So, for example, it's not enough just to assert that people in conditions of great duress are so constrained in their options that they're effectively coerced (e.g., everybody except Jack Benny understands that "Your money or your life" isn't a real choice), because everybody also recognizes that such constrained conditions are rare. In order, then, to extend the operation of your counter-coercion, so to speak, you have to start arguing that the bad coercion is everywhere, from "norm-enforcement", to advertising and propaganda, to "rhetoric, speech, persuasion, marketing, influence, charisma, and so forth" (this last was overtly conceded not to be coercion per se, but supposedly enough like coercion to pose a problem for those who would like to uphold the voluntary as a social/political goal, e.g., libertarians). But this of course, by undercutting the whole notion of free choice or free will, threatens to undermine the moral foundations of political choice and action as well. One commenter (John Protevi), seeing this danger, attempted to dodge it by avoiding dealing with the individual level at all, instead looking only "below", to neurological processes, and "above", to the impersonal machinations of collective entities -- but this then leaves you with no good-faith way of speaking about an individual's moral/political responsibility at all. It should be a sign you've sunk too far when you find that your picture of the world consists only of neural robots, on the one hand, and "emergent" entities of vast size and power, on the other.

As I said toward the end of the thread, "I think that olde problem of free-will resurfaces again and again, no matter how quickly you try to change the subject." And my last comment was this:
1) Science won’t ever get us out of the free-will/determinism dilemma, because of what we are and how we’re situated in the world—the only way out is to hold onto both. This approach actually has a name—compatibilism—and it involves the recognition that we have, and need to have, two distinct stances in regard to our experience and behavior.
2) Trying to mix those stances, as when we try to use science to draw moral/political conclusions, leads us not just into confusion, but into error, both moral and empirical.
Which was maybe a bit too brief -- this post on another blog from some years ago expands it a little better.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Those not busy being born ...

... are busy dying, as B. Zimmerman said.

I wanted to expand on a quick remark in a previous post, where I said "... without growth, this is not a civilization that will simply stagnate (much less settle into some bucolic steady-state) -- it will tear itself apart in a zero-sum war of all against all." Why is that?

Primarily because people have aspirations, material aspirations -- for themselves, obviously, but perhaps even more strongly for their children. As long as the economic game in which they're engaged is positive sum -- i.e. as long as the economy, over the long haul, grows, the pie expands -- there is at least the potential for those aspirations to be realized for everyone, and this is widely understood. But once long-term growth comes to a halt, the only way any one player can realize his/her aspirations is to deprive another of theirs -- the zero-sum Hobbesian hell mentioned above.

It's true that historically some civilizations have existed in a more or less steady-state for relatively long periods (e.g., Egypt, China), but of course this culture is not like those. What makes this culture distinct is precisely the inverse of what allowed those and other pre-modern cultures to persist so long with so little structural change: the absence of a systemic, politically enforced hierarchy. Steady-state cultures, in other words, must rely on some notion of "place" and must make an ideology out of keeping to one's "place" in this world, putting off hope of satisfying one's aspirations to the next (see also The Theme). Little wonder that modern thoughts of a steady-state society are always so associated with the political left and its project of a state-enforced egalitarianism, since, in the absence of that obsolete ideology of "place", they have to hope that they can at least minimize evidence that anyone could ever do better.

Unfortunately -- not just for them but for all of us, if we can't find a way to sustain growth -- even such a leftist totalitarianism will not obliterate human aspiration.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The "professional left", Obama, and irony

There's undeniable comedy in seeing the umbrage lefties are taking at being called "professional" (there's that schadenfreude again) -- but it raises an interesting question of what exactly constitutes a "professional leftist"? Clearly left-wing politicians and their campaign staff might be so designated, but that's too obvious, and it can't be what Gibbs had in mind when using the term. "Activists", maybe? That sounds right, but still a little vague -- I mean, what do you have to do to be an "activist"? Is it just a sloppy newspaper term for any lefty with an opinion who doesn't have a job? Sort of like the way the media uses "racist" to label any righty with an opinion, regardless of whether they have a job? There's no doubt considerable truth in that, but there is one occupation that seems to fit the label "professional leftist" pretty well -- how 'bout community organizer?

Irony's a bitch.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Time to boldly go ...

... to, you know, where no one has gone before. Space, dummy. The Final Frontier.

So says Stephen Hawking, at least: "'We have made remarkable progress in the last 100 years but if we want to continue beyond the next 100 years our future is in space.'" I concur, as Bart would say. Quite apart from the sort of cosmic safety concerns that Hawking raises, there is the simple fact that we cannot grow indefinitely if we remain bound to Earth. And without growth, this is not a civilization that will simply stagnate (much less settle into some bucolic steady-state) -- it will tear itself apart in a zero-sum war of all against all.

So with that in mind, some links pertaining:
"Imagine a space program based on a vision of settlement, rather than exploration. A vision of billions of people living in hundreds of thousands of orbital colonies serenely orbiting Earth, the planets and our Sun. The current vision is about putting small numbers of people very far away entirely at government expense. Space settlement is about putting very large numbers of people in space primarily at their own expense, and making sure it’s nice enough that they stay and raise the kids. While the current exploration vision is expected to cost about $100 billion up to the first visit to the Moon, the settlement vision is many orders of magnitude more expensive, making government funding impossible. But government can play crucial role. Specifically, perhaps we could use something close to the current NASA budget to stimulate much larger private investments. In this vision, government funds are devoted to prizes, test facilities and technology development, along with NASA’s traditional science and aeronautic activities. Operations are left to the private sector."
  • Reaction Engines Ltd., a UK firm, with their sleek Skylon Single Stage to Orbit spaceplane as the working basis for a mission to Mars. Here's their "Troy Mars Mission" page, and here's an animated presentation.
  • Before this, of course, there was Zubrin's "Mars Direct" (modified to "Mars Semi-Direct"). But much more to the point is the Buzz Aldrin endorsed "Mars to Stay" proposal -- in his words:
"In recent years my philosophy on colonizing Mars has evolved. I now believe that human visitors to the Red Planet should commit to staying there permanently. One-way tickets to Mars will make the missions technically easier and less expensive and get us there sooner. More importantly, they will ensure that our Martian outpost steadily grows as more homesteaders arrive.

Instead of explorers, one-way Mars travelers will be 21st-century pilgrims, pioneering a new way of life. It will take a special kind of person. Instead of the traditional pilot/ scientist/engineer, Martian homesteaders will be selected more for their personalities—flexible, inventive and determined in the face of unpredictability. In short, survivors.

But for this dream to happen, NASA needs to dramatically change its ways. Its myopic Vision for Space Exploration will never get us to Mars. Progressive innovation and enlightened international cooperation will. President Obama and Congress need to set NASA right—and soon.

There, I've said it. No regrets this time."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Soak, loot -- or, why not just eat the rich?

I mean, first of all they're rich and who gives a damn about the rich, right? And second of all because there aren't very many of them. Right? Who's with me? Let's get 'em!

That's kind of the moral level that we get from James Surowiecki's "Soak the Very, Very Rich" item in The New Yorker recently, with the proviso that now we're only talking about the very greediest of the greed-heads, and so there really aren't very many of them. It's not often you get to see the Id of the leftoids exposed in all its creepy crawly splendor quite so plainly as this. Here's why he's given up trying to get us to go after just "the rich":

You might think this isn’t really much of a debate. An annual income of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars puts you in the top three per cent of American households, and is more than four times the national median. You’re rich, and a small tax increase isn’t going to rock your world.
Good luck convincing people of this, though.
Hence, the focus on the "very, very" rich -- not because taking their money is any more rational or ethical, but simply because we might have a chance of actually getting away with it, politically. He does make one stab at morality -- "This would make the system fairer, since it would reflect the real stratification among high-income earners" -- but doesn't bother to explain why or how it's "fair" to to seize ever higher amounts from those with more, and quickly reverts to type: "There would be political advantages, too: the reform could actually make tax hikes on top earners more popular." Why would that be? Well, because of that old Deadly Sin, envy: "... people who earn a few hundred thousand dollars a year have done much worse [!] than people at the very top of the ladder", and so the anger of what he calls the "lower upper class" toward the "upper upper" is there to be exploited -- though here, of course, we may be seeing some projection on Surowiecki's part. (Interestingly, he allows that this angry "lower upper" includes "even some journalists", which is pretty obvious. As Megan McArdle notes, "the definition of "very rich" seems increasingly to be set at "just above the level a top-notch journalist in a two-earner couple could be expected to pull down".)

So there are some problems. First, of course, there's that faint stab at moral cover noted above, nicely mocked in the very title of Tim Cavanaugh's post at Hit & Run: "It's Fair to have a Fair System for Fairness" -- i.e., just saying "it's not fair" that someone has more money than you doesn't actually make it not fair. Then there's the assumption that the money grab would actually, you know, grab some money -- the Laffer Curve has been often derided, effectively, as a generalization, but when it's applied to the top 1% of earners Laffer has some numbers to show that an increase in tax rates actually can lower tax revenue. And finally, there's his political calculations, rooted in simple greed and envy -- if we can't make the old class warfare thing work against the rich (which might, awkwardly, include himself), surely we could make it work at least against the very very rich. Couldn't we?

Well, maybe not. As I noted a while back regarding another proposal to make the rich pay, it does seem as though more and more people, even in that lower upper class, are starting to look upon taking other people's money simply because they have it as not far enough removed from the moral level of a common thief.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Roads: Krugman vs. Stossel

Paul Krugman has been leaning on the doomsday horn pretty heavily lately. There was his delightfully titled "Who Cooked the Planet?" column a few days ago, and now we've got "America Goes Dark", with the following opening chord: "The lights are going out all over America — literally." The "literally" has to do with a town that decided to turn off a third of its street lights in an attempt to save money, which admittedly sounds a little odd. And apparently other jurisdictions are starting to tear up infrastructure rather than maintain it: "... in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel."

Well, maybe if he weren't such a Chicken Little generally, these kinds of stories would have more effect. But maybe not. Because it's not as though there isn't reason for concern -- it's just that, the Nobel Prize Committee notwithstanding, his Big Gov, Tax 'n Spend, Loot the Rich panaceas seem increasingly wild-eyed (and have you seen his eyes?), obsessive, and unconvincing. As just one alternative view, see Stanford economist John Taylor's view of Congressman Ryan's "Roadmap", which Krugman scorns for cuts in tax 'n spending, vs. what he calls the real "Road to Ruin".

In any case, the mention of governments tearing up roads rather than maintain them raised an interesting point of comparison with another post, this one by John Stossel: "Private Enterprise Does it Better". Here are the two at their most general -- first, the gloomy, embittered Krugman:
The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed.
Okay, there wasn't as much. Anyway, here's the cheerful Stossel, in flat contradiction, and without a mention of welfare queens:
Free enterprise does everything better.
Why? Because if private companies don't do things efficiently, they lose money and die. Unlike government, they cannot compel payment through the power to tax.
Even when a private company operates a public facility under contract to government, it must perform. If it doesn't, it will be "fired"—its contract won't be renewed. Government is never fired.
Contracting out to private enterprise isn't the same thing as letting fully competitive free markets operate, but it still works better than government.
Roads are one example.
I know that Stossel is just a TV commentator who lacks a Nobel Prize. And his sentences are a little short. But in this comparison it was that last line, obviously, that caught my eye, and sure enough we soon get an example of a government option re: its roads that constrasts sharply with Krugman's example:
Indiana used to lose money on its toll road. Then Gov. Mitch Daniels leased it to private developers. Now it makes a profit. The new owners spent $40 million on electronic tolling. That's saved them 55 percent on toll collection. They saved $20 per mile by switching to a better de-icing fluid. They bought a new fleet of computerized snowplows that clear roads using less salt. Drivers win, and taxpayers win.
A nice alternative to tearing them up, don't you think? And if that sort of thing can work with roads, why not with infrastructure generally? And if with infrastructure, why not with state-run services generally?

UPDATE: Speaking of roads, here's a Marginal Revolution post by Alex Tabarrok, "Spontaneous order on the road", about experiments in doing without traffic lights or stop signs -- as he says, "Order ensued"!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Liberty, the knowledge problem, and social evolution

We've seen that Jim Manzi's distinction between liberty-as-goal and liberty-as-means libertarianisms runs into some immediate problems and false paradoxes. Better to contrast dogmatic libertarianism with a pragmatic version, that aims simply to increase liberty in an incremental, experimental manner. But there are deeper issues involved in the notion of liberty, both as goal and means, that Manzi also raises, though again in a somewhat tangled fashion.

The first of these is the famous "knowledge problem" (see, e.g., Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society"), which can take various forms, but can be expressed as the idea that the dispersion of decision-making power amongst the individuals affected by decisions takes maximum advantage of their knowledge of their own circumstances. In this sense, we might say that liberty -- that is, the dispersion of decision-making power -- is a means to the end of maximizing individual well-being, in whatever way individuals define it. But this, by its emphasis on the individual's definition of her own well-being, and by its very generality, comes quite close at least to being equivalent to simply making liberty a goal -- we might say that it helps explain why liberty is a goal.

Manzi may be alluding to something like this in his assertion that "We need liberty ... because we are so ignorant of what works in practical, material terms". But, in bypassing the individual emphasis, it misses a critical aspect of the issue, and leads him into the false paradox noted earlier, where liberty, and the ignorance it addresses, is apparently satisfied simply by dividing society into smaller units, each of which is "free" to be relatively repressive or anarchic.

But perhaps Manzi has in mind another kind of ignorance than the Hayekian notion of the dispersion of knowledge -- perhaps he's simply referring to the limits of human knowledge in general. Here, for example, are the sentences that preceded the quote above:
Liberty-as-means libertarianism sees the world in an evolutionary framework: societies evolve rules, norms, laws and so forth in order to adapt and survive in a complex and changing external environment. At a high level of abstraction, internal freedoms are necessary so that the society can learn (which requires trial-and-error learning because the external reality is believed to be too complex to be fully comprehended by any existing theory) and adapt (which is important because the external reality is changing).
 And here (finally) is a clear and important realization. Let's try to make its components even more explicit:

  • First, social/cultural evolution is not something brought about by design -- by social engineers, policy-makers, or bureaucrats -- but rather by the same sort of random, trial-and-error processes that we see in the natural world; it's Darwinian, in other words, as opposed to Lamarckian. This isn't because human knowledge is futile but simply because it has limits, outside of which nature always waits and exerts her influence -- it's just that influence that appears as evolution, as distinct from, say, "improvement", "reform", "institutional design", "revolution", etc.
  • But, second, such evolution isn't something distinct or apart from human agency, but rather consists of human decisions and actions, and of course of the consequences thereof. Manzi is right to point out, therefore, that the dispersal of decision-making power in the face of this sort of unavoidable ignorance confers a distinct evolutionary advantage on a society, in terms of the greater flexibility and adaptability it allows. There are, as he also points out, limits to this dispersal, or issues on which coercion is still an evolutionary advantage (e.g., obviously, laws against murder or theft, or, arguably, laws against prostitution), but everywhere the evolutionary logic is to disperse this power as far as possible, thereby extending the freedom of the individual agent. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ends, means, and liberty

In the previous post I mentioned a Megan McArdle item that gave rise to a few lines of further thought -- this next one results from following a link to a link and has little to do with the original topic: Jim Manzi's post from a while back, "The Paradox of Libertarianism". Manzi starts by distinguishing two varieties of libertarianism -- "liberty as goal" and "liberty as means". The first seems pretty clear, but the second is more complicated, and it seems to me that Manzi is confusing two different kinds or levels of "means" here, which leads him into a false "paradox" at the end.

He begins simply enough, by expanding the term "liberty as means" -- it's a libertarianism that "takes liberty to be a means to the end of discovery of methods of social organization that create other benefits". This, as he says, makes it appear as "practical, inductive and experiment-based" in contrast to "liberty as goal", which appears "idealistic, deductive and theory-based". He admits these are "cartoon terms", by which he means, presumably, that they're overly simple descriptions, but they'll do for now. Here, though, is where a real "paradox" of sorts appears almost immediately: if liberty itself isn't a goal but only a means, what is the goal? In other words, what are those "other benefits" that liberty is supposed to aid us in achieving? And in what sense are those goals or benefits themselves not based upon idealism, deduction, and theory? Only, I suppose, in the sense that such goals remain implicit rather than explicit, and unconsidered rather than thought through, but that hardly gives them any particular advantage or deeper basis than liberty as an end in itself.

More to the point, keeping your goals unstated or unexamined doesn't, in itself, make you any more practical, inductive, or experiment-based. That is, while the distinction between viewing liberty as a means to some other end and liberty as an end in itself remains a meaningful one, it's quite different from the distinction between the practical and the ideal, or between experiment and dogma. And Manzi compounds this confusion by seeming to contrast experiment with theory rather than with dogma, as though experiment and theory weren't mutually dependent. These multiple confusions, then, are what lead him in the end to his false "paradox", in which, in the name of "experiment", he asserts that "a liberty-as-means libertarian ought to argue, in some cases, for local autonomy to restrict some personal freedoms". But this, then -- given the undefined "other benefits" that constitute the real goals here -- just devolves into the sort of unprincipled pragmatism that characterizes contemporary liberalism generally.

What Manzi is missing is the real alternative that fuses principle and practice, theory and experiment. To take his example of the prostitution issue, this alternative would want to look beyond a simple legal prohibition (the conservative position), beyond a simple legalization (his notion of liberty-as-goal libertarianism, but is better characterized as dogmatic libertarianism), and beyond simply passing the buck to local jurisdictions to "experiment" with (his notion of liberty-as-means libertarianism). Instead, it would assert the principle of liberty while recognizing that current realities always constrain immediate choices, and that any such change always involves unintended consequences -- so it would look at incremental changes and experiments, guided by the general goal or principle, but ready to be practical and flexible in implementation.

Now, there's actually one more level of instructive confusion in this post that's quite important -- but it deserves a title of its own, so I'll get to it next time.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The objectives of policy analysis

From the always-interesting Megan McArdle comes another post, "The Limits of Policy Analysis", that has stimulated two different lines of reflection, or maybe two and a half. Here's the half, first:

The substance of the post itself just provides a couple of illustrations of the unintended consequences that follow upon policy changes that were supposed to have certain intended consequences. "Does this mean that we should never do anything?" she asks, rhetorically, but doesn't answer. I will though: it means that we should do things we have a right to do with our own lives, for our own ends, taking the bad or unintended consequences with the good, and learning from the experience as best we can. But it also means that we should, at the very least, be both humble and very cautious about doing things using the power of the state to control other people's lives in order to bring about particular outcomes we deem beneficial for them. "Doing things" on that level should be limited as far as possible to adjusting state structures away from bringing about or facilitating outcomes for individuals, and more toward facilitating individual and voluntary processes by which people can bring about their own outcomes. Doing such things on a state level will no doubt still have their own unintended consequences, but learning from, and improving upon, such mistakes will at least keep policy makers focused on their proper and possible goals, rather than upon designing and guiding the lives of others.

The recognition of unintended consequences, she writes, is "a good reminder to be humble about what we say about policy" -- but, more than being humble, it should be a good reminder to keep our focus on the right level: on structure rather than outcome.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The waning of the "T. Coddington" conservative stereotype

It's all over the right-wing blogs right now, or seems to be -- a split on the right between an older country club conservatism and a newer, more diverse, certainly more popular/populist soccer-mom small-government movement exemplified by the Tea Party. The two latest examples of the former, and the ones who've set off the recent kerfuffle, as Insta calls it, are Professor Stephen Bainbridge, who's "getting embarrassed to be a conservative", and David Klinghoffer, who thinks we've gone "From neocons to crazy-cons" (a witty put-down if ever I read one). The latter was dissected by James Taranto, in "David Klinghoffer saves civilization", who nicely points out that Klinghoffer's op-ed was published in the LA Times: "Obviously the Times, a liberal newspaper, is using Klinghoffer to score political points against conservatives. It's a familiar and transparently cynical exercise, though Klinghoffer's participation in it is possibly unwitting." To its credit, though, the LA Times also published a Klinghoffer take-down by Jonah Goldberg: "Nostagia for Buckley et al is misplaced", which starts to get at the difference between the age of Buckley and now:
... those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the "institution builders" was a low-water mark for conservatism's political success (that's why they built institutions!). Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren't the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined.
But there remain those who feel comfortable in their intellectually gated communities, however sidelined and irrelevant this leaves them, and uncomfortable in the melee of political/social/cultural conflict. It's important to remember, as Goldberg points out, just how isolated was a figure like Buckley in his time, and how much his snobbish eccentricities (see Ann Althouse's take) allowed him to be patronized as a kind of harmless conservative mascot. Now, though, somebody should tell the liberal media that -- with enormous thanks to Iowahawk -- they have something even better than the real thing: the collected divagations of T. Coddington Van Vorhees VII.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The problem with conservatism: the debate continued

This is the continuation of the last post, which was concerned with a debate surrounding William Voegeli's book,  Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State. In that post I wanted to make the point that contemporary liberalism, from early in the last century, and under pressure from its socialist left, had largely abandoned the vision of the emergent individual that had previously defined it, and has been captivated by a competing but reactionary vision of technocratic state control ever since. Here I want to look at a problem with the other side of the debate, as stated by Will and Voegeli.

This has to do with the admittedly problematic notions of "progress" and social/cultural "evolution" -- conservatism is right to be skeptical of these ideas, but wrong I think simply to oppose them. Will, for example, is on target here:
... the name ["progressivism"] is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces.... 
The cheerful assumption is that "evolving"must mean "improving." Progressivism's promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism's premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.
But misses here:
The name "progressivism" implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. 
"Progressivism" per se doesn't or shouldn't imply criticism of the Founding except in the sense that we can recognize that the Founding didn't leave us in some final state of perfection. It's not only possible, it's desirable, to view the Founding with respect as the foundation, so to speak, upon which we can build, indefinitely. Trying to stand athwart history, yelling Stop has a melodramatic appeal, I suppose, especially in the darker days of massive liberal dominance, but it's also a recipe for futility -- and it needs to be said that it's no less a reification to see history as a hostile thing than as a benevolent one. We don't need to make an "autonomous thing" out of history, in other words, to understand that, however well we've done, we can always do better.

But to do so, we also need to do better than the "unprincipled pragmatism" of the modern-day liberal -- indeed, we'll need to progressively undo the baneful effects of liberal recourse to state power as a means of, as Will says, providing "a program for every problem". Here Voegeli's response to Lind is again just about right:
C. S. Lewis wrote that since progress means getting closer to your goal, when you’ve taken a wrong turn and are getting farther and farther from your destination, the truly “progressive” response is to turn around and go back to the right road. Most conservatives believe that America took a wrong turn in 1932, one that has led us farther away from the goal of preserving and strengthening republican self-government....
The conservatives now reviving constitutionalism are rightly insistent on the need to retrace our steps, and to undo the mistakes that have supplanted limited with unlimited government. The point is not to go back to 1932 and stay there, compiling a list of things government cannot do and problems it cannot address. The point, rather, is to resume progress on the road not taken: toward a government that is both limited and vigorous, scrupulous about upholding the principles of republicanism but energetic and prudent about working within the framework created by those principles to respond to economic and social changes with policies that advance the people’s prosperity and security.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The origins of contemporary liberalism: a debate

What's called "liberalism" today is quite distinct from what it once was, as the political voice of the emergent individual. Why? How did it change, and when? These are the questions underlying an important debate that Scott Johnson noted on Powerline a few days ago. Even beginning to answer them will help us understand the long period of political/cultural reaction in which we've been immersed, and make a start toward finding our way out of it.

The debate actually has earlier origins, but this latest instance of it starts from a book by William Voegeli, entitled Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State. The subsequent stages:
Not having read the book, I can't comment on that itself, but I can make a couple of observations about the debate above:

First, note that Lind's primary point is that, even though the conservatives might be right about Wilson-era progressivism, from FDR on they're wrong, because liberals/progressives reformed themselves. And on this, I think Voegeli's response is exactly right -- that they may have abandoned some discredited ideas (e.g. eugenics), and adjusted some of their rhetoric (words being cheap, it costs little to nod to the founders, or to the "living" Constitution, if that's politically expedient), but that there remains a strong thread of continuity from Wilson to FDR to Obama. The notion of the "liberal" changed, not in the thirties, with Roosevelt, but sometime in the early years of the last century, under the impact of pressure from its political left -- i.e., from socialism. Then as now, many of those who couldn't quite bring themselves to embrace the socialist doctrine as a whole, and even many who were explicitly opposed to it, were nonetheless strongly influenced by its implicit vision of a technocratic elite able to wield the immense power of the state to step in and "fix" things. In this vision, the fascination with the state tends to reduce the individual to a mere unit in what the older progressives liked to refer to as "the masses", what Zinn and others reified as "the people" (in a usage quite distinct from Lincoln's, for example), and what today is either dismissed as "consumers" or clumped into the various victim/victimizer groups of identity politics. Liberal concern over state power tends to resurface only when that power is not in their hands, but otherwise theirs is a kind of unprincipled pragmatism in the use of power to whatever ends they deem justified -- an aged document designed for a "society of farmers", as Lind takes from Roosevelt, becomes merely an obstacle, to be "re-interpreted" out of the way.

There are problems with the other side of the debate as well, though, and I'll try to get to those in the next post.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Science" and the culture warriors

This is just a quick note to say check out this NY Times article on so-called "science" bloggers: "Unnatural science". The writer, Virginia Heffernan, makes a mistake I think in the assumption underlying this question: "So why have I been thinking it’s time to don the old Derridean cloak and re-enter the unwinnable science-culture battle?", because what she's talking about isn't a "science-culture" war at all (in which Derrida & Co. would be of little use anyway) but rather more of a pseudo-science as culture-war. The combatants here are just science bloggers at a conglomerated site called ScienceBlogs, and their targets are admittedly mostly petty, but a) that alone says something about the focus of their interests, and b) it also says something again about both the politicization and what might be called the culturalization of science in these days of increasing political/cultural polarization. Here Heffernan hits her stride:
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.
Particularly enjoyed the phrase "draws bad-faith moral authority from the word 'science'", which has far wider application.

fwiw, I had ScienceBlogs as a link on the right for a short time -- I was young and naive -- but took it down because I was more interested in, you know, science. (I should also say that I kinda like Fox News, but then I don't think it's misleading as to its focus.)

Thanks to Instapundit