Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Versions of the state

Brad DeLong has a "reaction essay" entitled ""Perhaps. And Sometimes.", to Scott's Seeing Like a State recap discussed in the previous post. What he's reacting to is Scott's contention that the state's interest in so-called "legibility" as a means of ensuring state control comes at a cost to local or vernacular knowledge, systems, and practices, and is therefore often oppressive. Using a classical example, DeLong makes a good point that the control such legibility enables may well be preferable to an alternative in which local lords and warlords become much more oppressive than the central government. But, just as Scott tried to overextend his argument re: standardization, so DeLong overextends his good point -- as he puts it in the terms Scott uses:
A state that makes civil society legible to itself cannot protect us from its own fits of ideological terror, or even clumsy thumb-fingeredness. A state to which civil society is illegible cannot help curb roving bandits or local notables. And neither type of state has proved terribly effective at constraining its own functionaries.
In some ways, the “night watchman” state — the state that enables civil society to develop and function without distortions imposed by roving bandits, local notables, and its own functionaries, but that also is content to simply sit back and watch civil society — is the most powerful and unlikely state of all.
Translating that into more common terminology, he's saying that there are only two likely versions of the state available to us -- either a non-intrusive but weak version (i.e., what's usually called a "failed" state today) or a strong but intrusive, and frequently oppressive, version. But this rather bleak set of binary alternatives is really just an illusion resulting from flattening all versions of the state into a 1-dimensional spectrum, from weak to strong. In reality there are many other dimensions -- states can range along an autocratic to democratic spectrum, for example, and there can be weak or strong versions at either end. They can also vary along a  constitutional to tyrannical dimension, and again display weak or strong, autocratic or democratic versions at either extreme. And once we see that there are more than two possible versions of the state, we can see our way out of the trade-off between freedom and safety that DeLong presents. We can see, for example, that a limited state is not the same as a weak state -- i.e., that there's no inherent reason a state needs to be oppressive itself in order to control and suppress local oppressors.

What DeLong seems really to be talking about is just the perennial tendency toward oppression by rulers everywhere, whatever the scope of their rule -- which is certainly both an old problem and a current one. But that's only to say that the work to achieve, defend, and extend human freedom is as perennial as the efforts to oppress it. In our day, that work takes the form of upholding a version of the state that does indeed, as DeLong indicates, enable civil society without at the same time disabling it through bureaucratic intrusions. It's called making progress.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Standardization: state vs. capitalist

James C. Scott, author of the well-received Seeing Like a State, has an interesting lead essay on Cato Unbound a while back, entitled "The Trouble with the View from Above", which largely recaps the argument of his book. Briefly, that argument is that states, in their efforts to improve what he calls "legibility", tend to introduce and enforce various forms of "standardization" to societies -- in names, measures, practices, and so on -- which, in ignoring or overriding local or "vernacular" knowledge and practices, can and often does result in considerable social damage. Legibility -- meaning being able to see what people are actually doing -- is important to states (or, more concretely, to state rulers) because without it they lack the means to control the society effectively -- especially, of course, to tax, but also to regulate, commandeer, and administer. So this is what he means by "seeing like a state".

Now, this argument in itself is an excellent one, and he develops it with an impressive and fascinating attention to detail and concrete example. The problem is that he tries to carry it too far -- into an argument dealing not just with state-enforced standardization but with standardization as such, and particularly with what he calls "large-scale capitalist" standardization. As he says at the end:
... large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state, with the difference that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. The profit motive compels a level of simplification and tunnel vision that, if anything, is more heroic that the early scientific forest of Germany. In this respect, the conclusions I draw from the failures of modern social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.
This, I think, is just mistaken -- in a number of ways, but in one important and interesting way in particular. To deal with some of the other ways first, it's a mistake to ignore the difference between the state and the capitalist firm in the purpose or use of standardization -- for the former, it's primarily for the purposes of control, with obvious potential for abuse; for the latter, primarily for efficiency, with just as obvious potential for benefit. It's also wrong in its focus on standardization as such as the problem rather than on state-enforcement, which latter really does override and often suppress vernacular practices rather than co-exist with them.Whereas standards that are used or even prevail not because they've been imposed but because their general efficiency or even "legibility" make them generally attractive, to individuals as well as to firms and states, and often in conjunction with other local systems and practices, are real improvements, and not just in the state's ability to collect taxes. And the routine academic disdain for the "profit motive" here seems merely simple-minded prejudice, especially since, as I'll get to, it may well be that motive that requires more rather than less attention be paid to local knowledge, preferences and the like.

Which leads me to the more interesting aspect of his error. He's right that large-scale capitalist enterprises generally foster standardization, and even impose it where they have property rights to do so, since this is really an aspect of their scale itself -- that is, the competitive advantage of their size lies precisely in the efficiencies that widespread standardization brings, allowing them to provide goods at a lower cost than smaller, more local rivals can. But cost is not the only economic variable, and in becoming dependent on standardization (among other problems of size or scale), this is also the source of their primary disadvantage. This is because, without being able to impose standardization in the way states can, such large-scale enterprises are vulnerable to other, typically smaller and more local or regional competitors that can make use of local knowledge, cater to more particular tastes, and/or accommodate vernacular practices -- that is, in other ways than raw cost, small is not just beautiful, it's typically more flexible, adaptable, and nimble. The economic landscape everywhere, in other words, is a fractal one, with a few large entities competing more or less stably at one end of the scale, innumerable small start-ups constantly appearing and disappearing at the other end, and all manner of enterprises of mixed sizes and durability in between, all existing in just those vernacular niches that the large-scale firms have had to neglect in order to achieve their standardization efficiencies.

And all of this is driven by the so-called "profit motive", which requires not just minimizing costs but also maximizing the quality of service and/or goods at the same time. Contrast that with the control motives of the state, and it becomes apparent why capitalist and statist standardization are radically different phenomena, with quite different consequences for society.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pilgrimages of the left

Ed Driscoll:
Springtime for Algore: A Romantic Pilgrimage to Germany’s ‘Eco–Anschluss’

A nice, brief encapsulation of the history of various neuroses associated with the contemporary liberal-left, from bogus, pathetic religiosity to a fascination with whatever version of Big State power and planning is the current fad -- Soviet-style communism, Mussolini-style fascism, Nazi-style architectural theatricality, or the latest Green-style invasion of everyday life.The latter is displayed in the breathless prose of a travel piece in a glossy airline mag, on Berlin of all places, the city involved in every loopy utopian swamp of the century past -- an article that gushes about the city's "anti-consumption ethic", for example, adding that piquant hint of a moral sensibility for its affluent readers, amid the ads for dream trips, hot hotels, and ultimate travel picks.

Thanks to Kate at SDA

The modern future: brain prostheses

See MIT's Technology ReviewBrain Coprocessors.

Now, this has some disturbing aspects, I won't deny -- particularly if you couple it with some of the latest schemes coming out of DARPA. But the fact is that we're already well along the path toward the integration of organic and mechanical, as we learn to attach devices to nerve endings, provide paraplegics with exoskeletons, and so forth -- and so far, no Borg-like "assimilation" seems imminent.

What's intriguing about the idea of a brain prosthesis is just the way it refocuses what's been happening for some time now anyway, with the Internet in general, Google in particular -- something foreseen perhaps in the title of Vannevar Bush's famous and prescient essay 60 some years ago: "As We May Think". Consider, for example, how we do think now when we're trying to remember something -- we know we know it, we just don't have it, and we typically perform a kind of algorithmic search of our memory's contents by riffling through as many associations with "it" as we can think of, hoping that this will flush out other associations, one of which will be the "it" we're looking for. And now consider how quickly we -- or at least I -- resort to Google to do much the same process for us, whenever we're at a keyboard -- typing in some random associations with a term or concept we're looking for, and letting Google flush out the thing itself, which it so often does with an ease and accuracy that we can't match. We don't need brain-reading helmets, in other words, to experience this extension of memory into the cloud of the global network. And when you think, too, of how we're not only internalizing that cloud, we're also externalizing more and more of our selves -- our memories, thoughts, wants, dreams, activities, etc. -- in the burgeoning social networks of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., then it becomes apparent we're already engaged in a cultural process that is tending to blur the boundaries between self and environment, mental and physical, internal and external worlds.

It took a while for people to become reconciled to the idea that human beings were just another species of animal. But ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, at least, and from Metropolis to the Terminator flics, we've been culturally haunted by a fear of the machine vs. the human. Ironic if we're now being gradually forced to the conclusion that that distinction too is dissolving. This post on "explanatory models" has more.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

States, guns, and legitimacy

See Kevin D. Williamson, Exchequer vs. Economist, on the distinguishing feature of states as social institutions:
Socialist or otherwise, all states finally rest on force: You decline to participate in whatever is the Netherlands’ version of serving the community through the instrument of the state long enough, they send a guy to your house with a gun to seize your stuff or haul you off to jail; resist and there will be violence. That’s what states do, and it is not necessarily illegitimate.
The resort to violence is what makes the question of what kind of things it is legitimate for states to do an important moral concern. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine. Those seem to me fairly reasonable distinctions. It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character.
By itself, of course, this last isn't that good a criterion for state legitimacy, since people will always try to argue that their pet project is indeed "inherently public in character". But Williamson sharpens the criterion a little later:
... I would like to make it clear that I am not indulging in a figure of speech: I think it’s a pretty useful heuristic: If you’re not willing to have somebody hauled off at gunpoint over the project, then it’s probably not a legitimate concern of the state.
Which is at least an interesting rule of thumb, particularly as a reminder of the violence that lies at the basis of the state as such.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Economists as witch doctors

An interesting answer to the question of why economists -- specifically "macroeconomists", or what used to be called "political economists" -- are used by policy makers at all, when their predictions, obtained at some considerable cost, are no better than those of a "trained parrot": see "Ask a Trained Parrot", at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, which refers to a study here (PDF). Since their theories and models are of little use in actually determining outcomes, in other words, why bother with them at all? Answer:
Much of what government does is about signaling and allocating status, not about doing any actual good. But to get the process started, we have to signal the professionalism and the integrity of the government — its objectivity; its science....
Second, we have to signal that certain groups are valued and loved by the government — farmers, auto companies, large foreign financial institutions, Pakistan — and here we hit a problem. How do we do it?...
Enter the macroeconomists. Anthropologically, they act as soothsayers, interpreting the random walk of experienced history (and experienced favoritism) as part of an eternal cycle, only dimly seen, of transcendent justice — understood, à la Rawls, as fairness, or à l’Hayek, as conforming with abstract, impersonal rules. The latter being harder, but only by a little.
And usually understood, I'll add myself, as a mixture of Rawls and Hayek, or as conforming with "fair rules".

(Note that, in substituting witch doctors for soothsayers in this post's title, I mean no disrespect to the former. Just thought that it made the point even clearer.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How will we know when we're in the future?

I have a friend who used to think it would be when cars all had gull-wing doors -- an early fan of the DeLorean, obviously. There are the other familiar signs and markers, of course -- glass-domed cities, rocket back-packs, "blasters", robots, and so on -- but for a while there it was really the car that seemed to be the key to the future, embodying it in its very shape, tail fins promising the personal flyer that was just around the corner....

I don't think anybody, not even Vannevar Bush, thought that the future would be when people walk around talking into the air and carrying on conversations with people hundreds of miles away, or thumb words into little hand-held keypads to communicate with dozens of people at a time, or routinely look up maps, menus, sales, books, or general information on small screens they carry about with them. All of which is good, definitely, and might have been even magical back when cars were only hinting at the future ... but still, it just doesn't feel like this is really the future yet, does it? Cars look fine now, in fact better in more functional ways than they did back then, but they don't seem to carry a promise anymore.

Okay, I'm just being nostalgic (and giving away my age in the process). There's still a future out there -- Moore's Law still has a way to go and we haven't even started on quantum computing yet, there's still space (again), domed cities might yet happen, nanotech, supersonic trains, and of course that crescendo of all futures, the Singularity (which should always come with Twilight Zone music attached), are all coming at us. There's still the thrilling possibility of apocalypse too, though climate change or Peak Oil doesn't have quite the cachet that Global Thermonuclear War did back in the tail fin days. And Marxists anti-capitalists can still dream of a future that isn't just Later-still Capitalism. But is it just me, or is there something lacking in the present-day future -- a vision, perhaps, a hope, even a kind of warmth?

Maybe it is just me. Who cares -- here's to the "Cars of Future Passed"!

Thanks especially to Brian Wang at NextBigFuture

Some non-hysterical takes on the Tea Party phenomenon

The elites, left and right, tend increasingly to flip-flop between alarm and condescension toward the Tea Party thing, with a big dollop of bafflement as well, all of which gets churned into a rising mass of anxiety. Well, they've got their status to worry about, after all. For everybody else, here are a few links that have come up recently that look at the phenomenon a little more calmly:
  • First up is Johnathan Rauch's now well-known article in the National Journal, "How Tea Party Organizes Without National Leaders", with the sub-title, "By embracing radical decentralization, Tea Party activists intend to re-write the rule book on political organizing". It's a look, in other words, at exactly the aspect of the Tea Party that so upsets the various political, media, and cultural gatekeepers -- that they're going around the gates, over the walls. And here's the key point:
  • As for the objection that headless groups are bad at negotiating and strategizing and leveraging influence, the Tea Party Patriots' answer underscores the unconventionality of their thinking: We don't care....
    ... tea partiers say, if you think moving votes and passing bills are what they are really all about, you have not taken the full measure of their ambition. No, the real point is to change the country's political culture, bending it back toward the self-reliant, liberty-guarding instincts of the Founders' era. 
    Rauch's last paragraph: "Centerless swarms are bad at transactional politics. But they may be pretty good at cultural reform. In any case, the experiment begins." Something to bear in mind when viewing Democrats' delight over O'Donnell, say.
  • Next is a piece by P.J. O'Rourke in World Affairs: "Innocence Abroad: the Tea Party's Search for Foreign Policy". The gist of which is that the movement doesn't really have much of a foreign policy, which is perhaps unsurprising given its decentralized nature described by Rauch and its focus on shrinking government. But O'Rourke's article is nonetheless an interesting portrait of this "centerless swarm" on a more concrete level, and his final words, echoed by Glenn Reynolds, from whom I found the link, are exactly right:
  • If the Tea Party movement, so-called, achieves “small, effective government with low taxes and free enterprise,” America will be a much richer nation. A much richer nation will have a much more powerful foreign policy, whether it means to or wants to or not.

  • And finally a video, with thanks to Dr. Helen, aka the Instawife (and featuring the InstaOne himself, giving a quick history):

In the face of this movement, the left is reduced to bigoted insults and an increasingly hysterical and meaningless "I see racists" refrain, and the establishment right to a confused, bewildered  mix of condescension, mockery, and attempts at co-optation. And, on top of that, there's the usual mix of special-interest, agenda-driven opportunists or genuine nutballs that are attracted like flies to anything with this sort of energy. But all of that seems like a mere buzzing distraction at this point, beneath which lies the simple but difficult aim that O'Rourke quotes from a participant: "small, effective government with low taxes and free enterprise".

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

News flash: people's circumstances a result of their own efforts!

I'm indebted once again to that rightside-up Aussie, Tim Blair, for another gem (two in a row!): "Mining tax row 'reflects changed values'". It's short but it's very sweet, and works on so many levels, as Homer would say. The reporter here has dug up a "professor of public ethics", no less, who's unhappy that the Aussie government is abandoning a proposed "super-profits tax", a proposal that was one of the reasons for a surge of support for the center-right just a short time before an election that nearly cost the young Labour government its life. Speaking to a -- get this -- Happiness and Wellbeing at Work conference, he says that "the controversy is indicative of a belief among Australians that people's circumstances are a result of their own efforts, and that rich people deserve to be rich". I mean, can you imagine!? How could Australians ever have sunk so low! And where could they have got such notions?? Do the octopus arms of Beck-Palin-Limbaugh (and now maybe O'Donnell, and not the Rosy one) reach all the way to the other side of the world?!

Well, I wouldn't doubt that last. But the good professor has a more limited, if less satisfying, explanation: "'we are much more tolerant of inequality than we used to be'", apparently. "But societies that were more equal were happier, he said". Sure is a head-scratcher. Maybe Australians are happier being unhappy, or something.

Or, of course, maybe they, like the Tea Party in America, and similar popular movements everywhere, are seeing the bovine stupidity and moral obtuseness that have long characterized the culturati for what they are, and are finally just blowing them off. Which would certainly give the elite, at least, a real reason to be unhappy.

George Monbiot is down in the dumps

And no wonder -- here's a professional alarmist, who writes alarmist books and numerous alarmist columns, delivers alarmist speeches, and generally makes a good living* by striving to alarm everyone, who is now waking up to the fact that his ride is over. As the title of his latest effort says, "Climate change enlightenment was fun while it lasted. But now it's dead" (with accompanying tear-drop from melting ice -- not quite as aww-inspiring as the lost polar bear, but similar):
Perhaps we [environmentalists] should have made people feel better about their lives. Or worse. Perhaps we should have done more to foster hope. Or despair. Perhaps we were too fixated on grand visions. Or techno-fixes. Perhaps we got too close to business. Or not close enough. The truth is that there is not and never was a strategy certain of success, as the powers ranged against us have always been stronger than we are.
Pretty depressing stuff, no? A last ditch effort to stir up the remaining True Believers, do you think? Are the concluding words maybe hinting at some more drastic action?:
All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we've sought to avoid. The conversation starts here.
Might George be turning revolutionary?

Oh, probably not. More likely, as the first comment on the column indicates, he's just casting about for a new bandwagon, another scare.  The comments themselves are interesting, by the way -- half seem made up of symbolic hair-shirt types who feel bad about their own wasteful ways and are frustrated that everybody else doesn't share their neuroses; the other half people fed up with Monbiot's Chicken-Little alarmism, and  basically telling him to get over himself.

Two additional points:
First, I got this link from Tim Blair, who does a better, more thorough job on Monbiot than I do. And second, for those sincerely and practically concerned about real climate change -- as opposed to those who are merely signalling their status as evolved, spiritual beings or whatever -- there are a large number of actions other than immediate emission curbs that can and will be brought to bear, without the hysteria, over time. One of the more interesting, for example, is the idea of carbon re-cycling, mentioned in this earlier post.

(* I don't actually know how good a living Monbiot makes, admittedly, but if it's any significant fraction of fellow eco-crusader AlGore, he's making out just fine.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The spooking of the elite

A specter has been haunting the elites for a while now, of course, largely in the form of Sarah Palin -- she who will not go quietly into obscurity as they expected. It wasn't just that -- it was the frightening fact that every nail they tried to put into her coffin only seemed to give her extra strength, as though she were some unearthly, vampiric Barbie. And now, with the advent of the Palin look-alike Christine O'Donnell, not only is she growing in power, she's multiplying! Elite reps in the media have had to take their eyes off of Palin for the moment and execute a swift pivot to O'Donnell, but still without any other weapon at their disposal than repeated exercises in pointing out just how terribly, ridiculously, unfashionably non-elite she is. We can get a sense of their rising panic from noting the strain of their reach in a couple of recent examples.

First up is William Saletan in Slate, on "Christine O'Donnell, masturbation socialist". Saletan notes that O'Donnell is against socialism and then notes that 14 years ago, when O'Donnell was 27, she also expressed an opinion contrary to masturbation. Which last might be a bit silly, but, as Saletan is at least honest enough to note, was also merely echoing the teaching of a major faith. What is truly silly, on the other hand, is Saletan's vein-popping stretch to link anti-masturbation with socialism -- how does he do that, you ask? Watch:
In other words [paraphrasing O'Donnell], masturbation is wrong because you do it alone, outside the "moral order" of social relations in which you're supposed to perform your proper function. It's something you do for yourself instead of "giving" yourself to the larger purpose of human procreation. You're just a cog in the wheel. You exist to serve the community.
Oooookayy. I get it. So because you oppose the state treating you like "a cog in the wheel",  you should logically be opposed to any moral claim of the community, right? Ross Douthat, who provided me with the link in "Why We Have a Culture War", takes this down at far greater length than the simple guffaw it deserves.

The other one is also from Slate, a quick little potshot that, while it can't match Saletan for silliness (which would make a nice slogan of some sort), outdoes him in catty pettiness. It's about that other O'Donnell find:
... the thing I can't get past about Christine O'Donnell's assertion that she tried witchcraft is the way in which she describes her experimentation with it. What she said--twice--was that she "dabbled into witchcraft." Can we just point out for the record that you don't dabble "into" witchcraft, you dabble in it?
It's funny enough that she takes this seriously, as though no one else garbles the language, even twice, in the midst of an interview, but what really shows the tension is her sudden thought that, ... what, ... what if she planned this?! "I guess O'Donnell could have deliberately inserted a casual malaprop to enhance her populist appeal and distinguish herself from the nitpicking media elite, but she said this long enough ago that it doesn't seem purposeful." It's a nerve-wracking thought though, right? As Ann Althouse says (for whose link I must give thanks), "Hey! What if these rubes are just pretending to be rubes?"

Ah well. This is what gives an atheist like me such delight in Sarah and Christine and their ilk -- not just for the nature of their enemies, but for the confounding fear they inspire in the fashionably orthodox.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Social justice" vs. "just society"

(Note: this is largely a re-post from another, earlier blog, which I'm putting up here as a reference point for another discussion in that site of useful, and occasionally illuminating, error and confusion, Crooked Timber -- in this case a post there on "Should we fight for 'Social Justice'?")

In a much earlier post I suggested that, after making allowance for some Hayekian skepticism regarding the phrase, the concept of "social justice" might be interpreted in a broader sense than the usual blanket rationale for left-liberal state confiscations and distributions. There, and borrowing from another post, I called this broader context a "just society". 

Now it's plausible, and interesting, to think of those two notions as strongly related, if not synonymous -- wouldn't "social justice" prevail, after all, in a "just society"? And it's also enjoyable to see how, as the original article relating to the Tea Party movement pointed out, the latter notion either forces an enlargement of the meaning of "social justice", or forces the partisan narrowness of the concept out into the open. But it's also possible, and maybe instructive, to consider the two notions as distinct in an important way. The notion of justice that's contained in the phrase "social justice" is the notion of a just end or condition of society, in which everyone receives exactly what's due him or her, and is maintained in this condition. The notion contained in the phrase "just society", on the other hand, is the notion of a just structure or framework for society, within which everyone is free to act as they see fit and obtain what they're able and willing to.

This is a familiar enough distinction, perhaps, but laying out the alternatives in this way I think helps make clear some of the oddities and difficulties inherent in the "social justice" view. First, how are we to determine just what is "due" to a particular individual, or even to some grouping of individuals? Second, even if we could determine this, how are we to ensure that individuals actually get what they're due, and no more than they're due? Third, even if we can make this sort of "just" distribution once, how are we going to ensure that everything stays just, as people go about their daily lives? It would certainly help if we had a divine perch from which to look down on and into the lives of individuals to determine what was each their due, and then a divine power to dispense or distribute goods, like Santa Claus at Christmas, as well as to reach into their lives on an ongoing basis so as to maintain this just distribution. Note that, for reasons not obvious, luck, whether good or bad, is typically regarded by "social justice" proponents as unjust or at least somehow lacking in justice -- usually they'd eliminate luck if they could. Lacking that godlike perch and power, though, "social justice" proponents tend to fall back on the simple notion of dividing the available goods equally, regardless of merit, character, motive, choice, etc., -- not to mention right -- and relying on the tax man and other state bureaucrats in lieu of God to enforce this rough state of "justice". In the real world, of course, few such proponents any longer think it's possible to impose such an absolute egalitarianism -- there aren't many real communists left. But that simply means, in practice, that they'll always be striving to impose their notion of "social justice" by determining who's "deserving" and who's not (who's been naughty and who's been nice)  and then taking from the latter to give to the former.

All of which, stepping back from it, should make it clear that the notion of "social justice" as some sort of just end state or condition of human society really is a mirage, the pursuit of which is folly. And, worse than that, it's also wrong, or unjust in itself. Because we're not God or gods, nor are our political representatives, nor the bureaucrats they appoint, and the pretence that anyone can determine what is justly due everyone is nonsensical and arrogant. 

"Justice", however, as a form or structure rather than as a substantive condition is quite another matter. In this sense, justice consists of a set of fair or just rules for behavior, within the limits of which the varying human situations are all equally just, regardless of condition. This doesn't mean that we should do nothing about such varying conditions -- justice isn't the only human virtue, after all, but is only one among such others as mercy, compassion, and love. But, unlike the way in which "social justice" often subverts virtue, the "just society" is one that provides a foundation and structure for the exercise of virtue.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Something is happening here, but --

-- do we know what it is?

Here's Chris "Tingle" Matthews giving his usual calm and sober assessment:

Now, actually David Corn, perhaps not surprisingly, makes the more substantial, even if obvious, point that it's quite a different matter for the Tea party insurgents to take on Democrats in a general election than establishment Republicans in primaries. So I'm not at all convinced that November will be quite the electoral upheaval that many are predicting. And if the economy turns around in the next year or so, which it may well do, then 2012 will likely see an Obama second term as well.

But regardless of short term outcomes for partisan politics, there is unquestionably something quite startling in this widespread phenomenon of non-elite outsiders suddenly breaking loose from the control of their established gatekeepers -- a phenomenon in which a comment on Facebook can have greater effect than a New York Times editorial. And this effect is working on a deeper level than party politics, a kind of tectonic level on which the parties themselves merely float. What its ultimate effect will be, of course, remains to be seen, but the Tea Party and those riding its coattails have already had an effect on the American body politic the like of which we haven't seen in some while.

Here's excitable Chris again, summing up:

T. Coddington Van Voorhees VII, though, was not taking it sitting down at his morning's grapefruit:
"Gentlemen, at long last it is time to draw a line in the sand," I announced. "For too long we have stood by idly while these insipid cretins - the Palins, the Limbaughs, the Becks - have run roughshod over our once proud party, making it a mockery and ruining our social standing, advancing the insane notion that years of Washington experience and good breeding are somehow trumped by idiotic pledges to dismantle the very government on which their very existence depends. Well, my friends, I say unto you, with this Delaware disaster they have gone a bridge too far. Today we begin the counterattack, and we will make it plain to the insurrectionists that they shan't see another dime of our inheritances."
The polite huzzahs and claps emanating from the speaker-phone indicated to me that my call to arms was striking a chord within the heart of traditional Republicanism.
Mr. Jones himself was unavailable for comment.

Thanks to Neo-neocon, NewsBusters, and Instapundit

UPDATE: See also this from A. P. Stoddard, on The Hill, "Tea Party's already won":
What debuted in nationwide protests on April 15, 2009, has taken less than 18 months to become the current driving force in American politics. The Tea Party insurgency will not only cost Democrats dozens of seats in Congress, and likely their majority — it will define the coming GOP presidential nominating process, determine the direction of the GOP for years to come and threaten any remaining plans Obama has for sweeping reforms of education, energy policy or our immigration system.

Thanks to Itzik 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the wake of the primaries: the real American debate

This is actually a debate that's been going on for a while now, but the Republican primaries have brought it into the open in a way it really hasn't been previously. For one thing, virtually the whole of the liberal-left, including the whole of the Democratic Party, has been, and remains, largely irrelevant to it. Perhaps out of shock at how quickly what looked like their epochal 2008 victory has dissipated, or exhaustion trying to defend widely disliked legislation on healthcare and the stimulus, they've been stuck in a purely reactive mode for a long time now, reduced to little more than making repetitive charges of racism.

But some of that has been mirrored on the conservative-right as well, as we see the old conservative and Republican establishments, concerned to retain their tolerated niches within the liberal elite, making condescending, even sneering remarks about, e.g., the Tea Party phenomenon or the Palin-Beck-Limbaugh triumvirate. The Tuesday primaries, though, may have been enough of a shock to that establishment that they're finally realizing they need to actually confront the upstarts on an intellectual plane. In any case, we can see David Brooks (one of the "two mighty Davids of conservative intellect") now trying to make an argument, as opposed to a snark, in favor of what he calls "limited but energetic government". He doesn't do much of a job explaining just what that is (he uses FDR's New Deal as an example), or how it might differ from the liberal-left's simpler "energetic government"  -- but, hey, at least he's putting some cards on the table.

What makes his attempt particularly interesting, though, is that you can see the other side quite plainly -- it's a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Arthur C. Brooks and Paul Ryan, the latter one of the lights of the Republican Party, accurately entitled "The Size of Government and the Choice This Fall". Unlike Brooks, in other words, they clearly sound the "choice not an echo" theme, and moreover, they focus this choice on exactly the right issue -- the size of government. Here's where you can see the contrast between David Brooks' efforts to obscure that issue, and theirs to clarify it -- first Brooks' almost comic litany of despair:
The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.
The last statement is tacked on as an article of faith, I suppose, and he gives no indication that at least some of his "challenges" might be due to the inadvertent infecting powers of the state (and some might not  necessarily even be seen as "challenges"). Ryan and the other Brooks, on the other hand, present alternatives in a fairly straightforward way:
Data support the proposition that Americans like generous government programs and don't want to lose them. So while 70% of Americans told pollsters at the Pew Research Center in 2009 they agreed that "people are better off in a free market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time," large majorities favor keeping our social insurance programs intact. This leads conventional thinkers to claim that a welfare state is what we truly want, regardless of whether or not we mouth platitudes about "freedom" and "entrepreneurship."
But these claims miss the point. What we must choose is our aspiration, not whether we want to zero out the state. Nobody wants to privatize the Army or take away Grandma's Social Security check. Even Friedrich Hayek in his famous book, "The Road to Serfdom," reminded us that the state has legitimate—and critical—functions, from rectifying market failures to securing some minimum standard of living.
However, finding the right level of government for Americans is simply impossible unless we decide which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state. Most Americans believe in assisting those temporarily down on their luck and those who cannot help themselves, as well as a public-private system of pensions for a secure retirement. But a clear majority believes that income redistribution and government care should be the exception and not the rule.
What's key to the above is the idea that what needs to be decided upon is an aspiration or aim, and this is what Reihan Salam, in a short article that compares the two essays above and tries to play peace-maker, focuses upon as well:
Politics is not always about highly technical debates concerning progressive price indexing. It is often about shaping our shared normative understandings, and, as Ryan and Brooks argue in their Wall Street Journal essay, our shared aspirations for the kind of society we’d like to live in. And on those grounds, at least, Ryan and Brooks are offering an attractive alternative to a society that looks first to the federal government to solve problems.
Salam, I think, tries to keep a foot in both worlds -- conservative establishment, and Tea Partyish insurgents -- but in this article we can maybe see his weight starting to shift. In any case, though, the engagement of all three pieces  in real and far-reaching political themes is at least an indication of the kind of thoughtful ferment taking place on the right now, in marked contrast to the left.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Donno what it's called, but this is very cool, intriguing, and fun.

Each circle on the screen is larger or smaller than the next by a factor of a thousand  or 3 orders of magnitude. The ends, I think, are somewhat (maybe very) speculative. And notice the huge distance between the small end and the nearest theoretical structure. I liked especially to see the range of cells, and then of suns.

Thanks to Phil Bowermaster at Speculist

Why Hayek is not a conservative, again

This is an exercise in comparison, suggested by a Kenneth Anderson post on Volokh, in which the following passage from Burke's Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs is first quoted:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.
 And then the question of whether or not it's "consistent" with Hayek is posed. My answer, which I've largely copied from a comment on the post but expanded, is as follows:

The Burke passage deliberately runs together a couple of things that should have been kept distinct. First, as many have pointed out, he conflates a child’s duty to his parents with a citizen’s duty to her state, as though the state really were a kind of parent figure and the citizens permanent juveniles. And second, he mixes moral with legal obligation, as though the state could legitimately coerce any sort of good behavior.

Hayek, I think, would understand and appreciate the idea that there are many aspects of tradition, custom, even common law, that have evolved for reasons we don’t necessarily fully grasp, and that we should therefore be cautious about abandoning or overturning. But he would also say that we can’t stop there, because there are also many aspects of our cultural inheritance that are remnants of earlier superstition, ignorance, and bigotry. And he wouldn’t have made the sort of rhetorical confusions above, that Burke indulges too readily.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Just how moderate is "moderate" Islam?

That's the question that Lawrence Wright raises, no doubt inadvertently, in yet another piece on the variously named Ground Zero Mosque/Park51/Cordoba House, titled, with bludgeoning simplicity, "Intolerance". After a dubious comparison with the Danish cartoon uproar -- how many people opposed to the project have called for beheading the Imam and his followers so far? -- Wright goes on to to argue not for tolerance as a virtue in itself, but rather for "tolerance" lest we alienate the great masses of "moderate" Muslims, who apparently are always just on the edge of regarding America as their enemy, and hence turning into those extremist Muslims (who aren't supposed to be real or true Muslims at all, but apparently that doesn't cut much ice with these unstable "moderates"):
The most worrisome development in the evolution of Al Qaeda’s influence since 9/11 is the growth of pockets of Islamist radicalism in Western populations. Until recently, America had been largely immune to the extremism that has placed some European nations in peril. America’s Muslim community is more ethnically diverse than that of any other major religion in the country. Its members hold more college and graduate degrees than the national average. They also have a higher employment rate and more jobs in the professional sector. (Compare that with England and France, where education and employment rates among Muslims fall below the national averages.) These factors have allowed American Muslims and non-Muslims to live together with a degree of harmony that any other Western nation would envy.
The best ally in the struggle against violent Islamism is moderate Islam. The unfounded attacks on the backers of Park51 and others, along with such sideshows as a pastor calling for the burning of Korans, give substance to the Al Qaeda argument that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, rather than against the terrorists’ misshapen effigy of that religion. Those stirring the pot in this debate are casting a spell that is far more dangerous than they may imagine.
Of course, if we're talking about the interpretation of signs, many ordinary people would point out that flying planes into buildings, blowing up trains, subways, nightclubs, sawing off the heads of Westerners on video, and mass demonstrations of screaming hordes calling for the death of Western writers, cartoonists, or film-makers -- these little things might actually give substance to the argument that Islam is waging a war against the U.S. and the Western world generally.

But I'm not one of them. Yet. No, I'm one who still believes that moderate Muslims really are moderate and are, at worst, intimidated by the violent extremists among them who are a real enough threat that outspoken critics need armed guards. Not Wright, though, who exudes a nervous apprehension that the mass of Muslims are merely quiescent for now, but are always looking for some passing excuse to launch into anti-West jihad. Unlike Wright, in other words, I think truly moderate Muslims have the same sort of awareness of possible sources and causes of conflict that everyone else does, and have no more wish to give unnecessary offense than most non-Muslims. Here, for example, is Irshad Manji, a Muslim reformist, making better use of the same comparison with the Danish cartoons that Wright did:
Let me be blunt about my own emotions: I am offended by its proximity to the site of 9/11. I am also disappointed that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf—who is not an Islamist—has nonetheless played crass politics unbecoming of a man of dialogue.
So far, the imam has rebuffed accusations of insensitivity. Yet he made those very accusations about the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In a February 2006 press release, Imam Rauf announced that he was "appalled" by the drawings. He called it "willful fomentation" and "gratuitous" to republish them throughout Europe. In the following weeks, almost no U.S. newspaper printed the caricatures.
So the question comes back to just how moderate so-called "moderate Islam" actually is. If we actually believe, contrary to Wright, that the extremists are alien to Islam, then how is it supporting the likes of Manji to cave in on this issue, as we caved on the cartoons or on other cultural issues? (As far as I know, by the way, Manji still requires bodyguards to move about.)  But even if you're as frightened concerned as Wright and fellow liberals about the violence lurking in the "moderate" Islamic masses, what would make you believe that appeasement is an effective response?

Thanks to Itzik at BasmanRoseLaw for the link to the Wright article

Monday, September 13, 2010

The crumbling facade of "human rights"

Kenneth Anderson has a very long but excellent post on The Volokh Conspiracy, "Samuel Moyn on the history of the human rights movement", that does a remarkable job of cutting through the haze of ambiguity and flighty rhetoric that so often obscures liberal foreign policy -- particularly in this case the foreign policy of the Obama Administration -- and outlining both its real background and its current underlying assumptions.

First Anderson provides a long quote from a Moyn article in The Nation, pointing out the somewhat questionable origins of international human rights in the 40's:
From a global perspective, the brief career of human rights in the 1940s is the story of how the Allied nations elevated language about human rights as they reneged on the earlier wartime promise—made in the 1941 Atlantic Charter—of the self-determination of peoples. Global self-determination would have spelled the end of empire, but by war’s end the Allies had come around to Winston Churchill’s clarification that this promise applied only to Hitler’s empire, not empire in general (and certainly not Churchill’s). ... Human rights turned out to be a substitute for what many around the world wanted: a collective entitlement to self-determination. To the extent they noticed the rhetoric of human rights at all, the subjects of empire were not wrong to view it as a consolation prize.
Anderson, with some extensive personal experience in the international human rights field finds that this "accurately captures in my own experience as an NGO person who first volunteered to do work for Human Rights Watch in 1983". But from this he goes on to talk about a convergence of views between Moyn's more liberal-left position and Anderson's more conservative-right:
My own speculative view is that the human rights movement is in decline as the “apex values” of the international system — at least insofar as it means core individual human rights in the sense that both I and Moyn, on the basis of the Nation article, would mean. For one thing, in my view those human rights, and the universal conception of them, shelters not in the UN system but under US hegemony. The Obama administration has both diagnosed and embraced decline of the form of loose American hegemony that permits those values to be treated as “universal” by organizations like HRW, or funders like George Soros; if and as American hegemony declines (or to put it in Moyn’s historical terms, as the Allies of WWII and their enabling rhetoric fades as a tool of legitimacy) then so too human rights in that substantive meaning.
That does not mean that the rhetoric of human rights fades; rather, its content is redefined to other ends, and as a tool, it is defanged so as to ensure that — contra the vision of Moynihan — it is no longer a tool to go after bad regimes, excepting, of course, the United States and Israel. The Obama administration largely embraces that — human rights as a way of confessing that we are all sinners, and so it is not necessary to single anyone out.
So then Anderson sees two strands of foreign policy emerging in the current US administration:
In my take on the Obama administration and human rights, it has two wings, the liberal internationalist wing and the New Liberal Realist wing. The latter are those of Hillary Clinton’s general outlook — time to put aside childish things and get on with managing American decline, and with handing out the rhetoric necessary to fend off the problems of the world so that the intellectual firepower of the administration can focus on re-making the US domestically as a European social-democracy. Plus there’s that China-creditor problem.
The former wing, the liberal internationalists, however, who might otherwise have been thought to incline to more stern idealism, are comfortable with that for three reasons, I’d suggest. One is that they have a further belief that a weaker America — given its tendency to elect non-liberal-internationalist presidents and Congresses, and the general atavism of the American people — is better for liberal internationalism....
Outside the US, and perhaps outside the West generally, the future for "human rights", even with the scare quotes, looks increasingly dim:
My guess is that the future transcendental value, the apex values language of the UN system particularly, will morph very gradually from human rights to some version of global welfare, development, human security, income transfer, and all sorts of terms that do not carry baggage for the developing world, or the rising new great powers, in terms of obligations.
But “human rights,” in the hands of the NGOs like HRW and at the UN, seems to me likely to gradually convert over to a version of global religious communalism claims; a language of individual human rights gradually shifted over into a language for the protection of religious communalism, and Muslim global sensibilities in particular. The leading human rights organizations, Amnesty and HRW, already seem to see themselves in something like that role (global New Class managers of group identity relations, to put it in Telos-ian shorthand), positioning themselves as guardians of communalist sensibility as against Western publics.
But these excerpts can't do justice to a detailed and complex analysis -- in this case especially, you really need to read the whole thing.

At any rate, at some point the present managers of American, and by extension Western, decline and their cynically idealist counterparts will be gone. We can only hope that those who take their place will once again bring with them some awareness of America's exceptional origins, and some self-confidence in the cultural value of the individual and the rights thereof that America once stood for, and may still.

Althouse: on art as social work

Why are there so many serious novels about 9/11 and so few about Katrina? — asks Chloe Schama who thinks it's just shameful.

A nice takedown of a very common notion among the Vulgar Liberals (aka the bien pensant) -- answering the question in her post's title, she says:
Oh, good lord, this is so stupid I hate to have to point it out. Katrina was a hurricane. We don't have to try to figure out its motivations and come to terms with its evil. Yes, there were human failings in the aftermath of the storm, but novelists have been chewing through the routine failings of humankind since the novel was invented.
Of course, this ignores the conspiracy theorists who think "Katrina was an inside job", just like 9/11, but then everyone ignores them, don't they?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Islam and fear

Robert Fulford: Lessons of 9/11

Note that the title of this post says "Islam and fear", not Islamism. Fulford, in the link above, finally makes an excellent point exposing how some so-called "moderate" Muslims make use of the murderous violence of their more extreme co-believers:
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is responsible for the building [the Ground Zero mosque], moved the issue to a more ominous level when he said on television on Wednesday night the results will be dire if the controversy causes the centre to be located elsewhere.
“The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack,” Rauf predicted.
He said it would threaten U.S. troops and otherwise undermine U.S. security.
“This crisis could become much bigger than the Danish cartoon crisis,” he warned.
About two-thirds of Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll, oppose building a mosque near Ground Zero. Rauf believes fear of violence should change the public’s attitude.
No one argues he is an Islamist, but he’s clearly playing Islamist violence as a political card.
It feels like a test case. If that threat silences opposition this time, the number of future uses of the same strategy is infinite. Rauf says his goal is to build a bridge among faiths but in this case his strategy sounds more like coercion:
“National security now hinges on how we negotiate this,” he said.
Burning books in Gainesville is ugly and mean-spirited but no more than that; Rauf is trying something more serious, eliminating free discussion by threatening violence.
Fulford is exactly right, and if before people had viewed the issue as a test of their tolerance and open-mindedness, they should now view it as a test of their courage and resolve not to be cowed by the rage-boys and worse of Islam. It's not just national security that "now hinges on how we negotiate this" -- national character does as well.

And to his great credit and courage, Fulford goes on to raise questions about the very nature of Islam in the modern world:
In the climate that was created by 9/11 the fear of Islamophobia has created another threat, more serious in the long run: It inhibits the serious discussion of Islam.
Of all the great religions, Islam is unique in believing it should not be analyzed or criticized. The key point is the divine nature of the Koran. Because Muslims believe it is unalterably holy, any discussion of it is an affront.
In this sense Islam remains medieval. In 15th-century Europe, before Martin Luther, criticism of the Gospels and the Christian church was forbidden. In the year 2010 Islam still maintains that principle.
The Koran has never been scrutinized in the way the Bible has been studied since the 17th century. Ibn Warraq, a brilliant, Muslim-raised scholar whose books bring standard scholarly principles to the Koran, finds it necessary to travel with security guards.
Why should both practitioners and scholars not argue about Islam with the same frankness we bring to other world religions? Islamist violence subverts free speech and threatens to eliminate it altogether.
For the same reason, the possibility of separating religion from politics rarely gets even cursory discussion in the Islamic world.
Much in our life has changed since 9/11, as a visit to any airport in the world will demonstrate. But in the timorous way we think about Islam, far too much remains just as it was when we saw planes fly into the Twin Towers.
 Note that this is not denying the reality, nor the great preponderance, of genuinely moderate Muslims -- as opposed to the opportunistically so, like Rauf. It does, however, point out that such moderates live with much greater fear of extremist violence than do even so-called infidels, so much so that the very brave few who dare to raise their voice in criticism must have armed guards to protect their lives. We owe it to these people not just to protect them and help them spread their critique, but also to summon our own nerve and resist our own impulse to stifle and censor ourselves. We owe Islam tolerance and respect, certainly, as we do any widespread belief system -- but we owe it to both ourselves and the brave critics within Islam not to let  "tolerance" and "respect" be simply a mask for our fear.

So we're nine years on --

-- and much has changed. A war in Afghanistan, begun to catch the perpetrators of the terror, quickly toppled the medieval barbarians who were in power, but couldn't find the perps themselves, and now still grinds on, interminably. A war in Iraq, on the other hand, begun to oust an evil regime (which may have had Weapons of Mass Destruction), and to send a message to all such terrorist-supporting regimes in the region, has more or less ended, its mission accomplished.

For a few years after 9/11, organized terror plots succeeded elsewhere in the West, but none have for some time now. It seems clear that terrorist organizations have been damaged at least, and are largely on the defensive, for the time. Native, isolated terrorist wannabes have occasionally managed to murder a number of people, but it's small scale and sporadic, and they're often caught before they can act. There is still the spectacle, both amusing and alarming, of mobs of Islamist rage-boys in various parts of the world screaming to behead those who do something or other they find offensive, but their numbers too seem to be dwindling, whether through discouragement or boredom -- or, of course, through success, as they intimidate the West into self-censorship.

Because, on the other hand, much remains that is of serious concern. Perhaps the greatest at the moment is Iran, which still has the potential to inflame the world. But of course there's still Pakistan, the most populated Muslim country by far -- ostensibly an ally of the West, but the only Islamic country known to have nuclear weapons, with intelligence services at least suspected of having Islamist sympathies and ties, and large tribal regions uncontrolled/uncontrollable by the central government where terrorist leaders are suspected of hiding. There's Saudi Arabia and its vast oil wealth -- another ostensible ally, but one of the most backward, feudal regimes on the planet, that uses its wealth to fund and spread a fundamentalist version of Islam that underlies much of the anti-West, anti-modern world terrorist sentiment. And there are a number of other tyrannies and failed states in the Islamic world that have the potential to hide and support the terrorist organizations currently on the run, allowing them to rebuild.

More than that, there's that self-censorship phenomenon within the West mentioned above. Terrorism cannot topple regimes in the way that open warfare can, but that's never its aim or purpose. Instead, it aims to sow a kind of lurking fear and anxiety that spreads through the interstices of a society and a culture, weakening its self-confidence, leveraging its openness, undermining its own institutions, and leaving it prey to a kind of internal decay. Now, we're a long way from that, despite the hopes and fantasies of the Islamists themselves. But the exaggerated respect given to their particular belief system as compared to that given to all others is an indication that terror has had an effect on us, and only the foolish would deny it. We need to think about that every time we find ourselves, explicitly or implicitly, worrying about the reaction of the Muslim world to whatever the latest tempest in a teapot may be.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Obama's sad timing

Jonah Goldberg: The Next Hoover

As Goldberg says, Obama was going to be the reincarnation of FDR, the guy who, after years of horrible tax cuts and running down the government by the nasty conservatives, and in the midst of another great, and maybe final crisis of capitalism, was going to come in and get taxes back up where they belong, introduce all kinds of peachy Initiatives, Programs, Departments, Authorities, Bureaus, and what have you, and just generally bring sexy back -- in the shape of a big, fat, greasy state.

But the problem with this fond scenario is its timing. It's not just that, as Goldberg points out, we've been there done that with "New Deals", and they don't seem quite as shiny any more. It's that, when FDR finally became President, in March 1933, almost three and a half years had passed since the stock market had crashed, and he was thus insulated from any responsibility for the Depression's endurance. His predecessor, on the other hand, had only been in office some eight months when the economy started going south, and he was the one, despite subsequent liberal mythology, who initiated a number of Programs, Committees, government Corporations, and what have you -- not quite on the scale of the New Deal interventions, but remarkably similar in form and spirit -- to try to fix things. None of it worked, of course, but that wasn't really the problem, since none of FDR's interventions worked either -- no, the problem for poor Hoover was simply that he was the guy who had to fail first, and therefore got all the blame.

So, while the crisis this time didn't exactly start in Obama's term in office, it started closely enough that Obama can't really get any insulation from the policies that fail to fix it. Marx remarks somewhere, citing Hegel,  that "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." What compounds the farce in this case is the fact that the real personage being imitated by Obama isn't the left-liberal hero-figure of FDR but rather that sad old fall-guy, Herbert Hoover.

UPDATE: John Steele Gordon, on the Commentary blog, also has some Hoover comparisons, in this case  more to do with actual policies than just timing.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

And then there was one...

Jeffrey Goldberg:
Fidel: 'Cuban Model Doesn't Even Work For Us Anymore'

Jeffrey Goldberg has gotten a lot of mileage out of his Atlantic article on Israel, Iran, and the Bomb. It not only received a lot of attention in its own right, but it apparently also got Goldberg an invitation to Cuba for an extended interview with Castro -- who may no longer be the maximal leader himself on the island, but who can still get aquariums open for dolphin shows on days when it's normally closed. The visit was supposed to be about the article, which had Castro worried, and was supposedly part of a larger plan to project Castro's image onto an international stage. But the short admission that has raised eyebrows all over was his response to Goldberg's question whether he thought the "Cuban model" was still something that could be exported: "'The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore,' he said.

Goldberg's Latin American expert, Julia Sweig, expanded and interpreted this a little to mean: "'He wasn't rejecting the ideas of the Revolution. I took it to be an acknowledgment that under 'the Cuban model' the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country.'" Which sounds a bit face-saving -- if the "ideas of the Revolution" involve socialism, then it's at least odd to hear a socialist say that "the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country", doesn't it? But maybe it's just a matter of labelling -- could we call it "capitalist socialism"? "Socialist free enterprise"? Maybe not "social democracy", yet. But however you slice it, this sounds like progress. Before long, hopefully, there'll be just one remaining instance of "actually existing socialism" in the world, and that's that exemplar of cultural psychopathy, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

By the way -- Goldberg asked Castro if his recent serious illness had caused him to rethink his atheism, and Castro apparently replied, "Sorry, I'm still a dialectical materialist." Says Goldberg, "This is funnier if you are, like me, an ex-self-defined socialist", and he's right.

UPDATE: And now he takes it back: "My idea, as the whole world knows, is that the capitalist system now doesn't work either for the United States or the world, driving it from crisis to crisis, which are each time more serious.'' Can you see how that could have been misinterpreted? Me neither. Too bad Castro never ran for office -- he's a natural. Ah well, he'll soon be out of there anyway.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The libertarians and the town councillors

The Confrontation

The link above is a very interesting transcript of a meeting that grew out of a series on Reason TV dealing with the problems of one particular city: Cleveland. What's good is that you can actually read about and watch libertarian rubber meeting the political road -- some skidding and sliding, but some traction too.

Here's a video of the session:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why government spending works -- in war, not in peace

Victor Davis Hanson:
If Only It Were World War II Again?

Hanson's point of departure is a typical Krugman eye-roller telling us, for the umpteenth time, how we have to spend our way to prosperity. First, the former Enron advisor (thanks, Taranto) states the well-known fact that the only thing that got the American, and possibly world, economy out of Depression in the 30's was global war in the 40's. And this was largely because the government went deeply into debt to fund that war. So Krugman, living proof that linear thinkers too can win Nobel Prizes, thinks we should do the same now.

Hanson's column gives some reasons why that's not really an option:
The war years were characterized by frenetic hyperactivity: Americans worked long hours, women were brought into the work force, new towns and manufacturing centers sprang up, and people gave up necessities — all on the assurance that this furious pace and consumer scarcity would be short-lived.
As WWII ended and the clean-up began, there was an enormous amount of pent-up global demand for goods....
At home, four years of consumer deprivation during the war and the weak demography of the 1930s had combined to create huge demand, all while society was increasingly leaving the farm for good and becoming suburbanized.
For Krugman, though, all this is negligible: "But always remember: this slump can be cured. All it will take is a little bit of intellectual clarity, and a lot of political will." He wouldn't be the first liberal-lefty, of course, to secretly hanker after the expression of will and discipline found only in war -- think of William James' "Moral Equivalent of War", referring approvingly to that old statist, H.G.Wells. But it's not just a certain strain of "liberal fascism" that is the problem here -- there's also a kind of magical thinking that comes from too big a swallow from the Keynesian bottle, giving rise to the idea that any amount of debt can always be addressed by simply spending more and faster, as though you really do get money for nothing. That this has something in common with the mentality of compulsive gamblers, just before they crack up, should not go unnoticed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Working ourselves up

Ross Douthat:
Paranoid About Paranoia

Makes some good points about the ratcheting up of political rhetoric -- that, apart from some rare but real crazies, the talk is overblown on both sides for effect. Bu$h is Hitler, Obama is an Islamist terrorist, etc. -- these aren't things that anyone really believes but are just ways of verbally puffing oneself up, signalling that "You really need to pay attention to me and what I'm saying, not because it's particularly reasonable but because I'm like, you know, really mad about it!"

In one sense, this is old hat, at least in America -- see the book Infamous Scribblers: the Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism by Eric Burns for some good, dirty fun involving attack politics in the early years of the Republic. What seems a bit different now, to me at least, is that the sides are more ideological, or more consciously so, than previously. That too may just be an illusion, due to the shifting nature of the ideological divisions, but, on the other hand, it may be that political venom comes to a head at times of greater political and ideological change. In which case, expect a lot more rhetorical overkill before things calm down.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Beck, Palin, the rally, the Tea Party -- oh, my!

I should say up front that the Glenn Beck shtick itself doesn't really work for me. But sometimes you have to pick a side, and right now Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and all are preferable in my mind to the smug political, academic, media, and cultural elites that have dominated the scene too long. Now those elites, with their venerable left-liberal orthodoxies and assorted cultural neuroses, are old, tired, and angry, with ideas that were worn out generations ago, an inchoate attachment to the state as a kind of parent-protector, and a baffled, reactionary rage that people -- the People, ironically, that entity they've long reified and fetishized as an abstraction but never really cared much for as actual individuals -- now seem to be finding ways of working around their various forms of social control.

You can see the fault lines underlying these sides in much of the reaction to Beck's rally a few days back. Two members of the old elite, from both the overtly liberal and the monority country-club conservative constituencies, voiced their distinct but similar condescension in the NY Times (natch) "conversation" that I posted about previously. Here's another take that I think illustrates the baffled rage quite well -- it's Ed Kilgore in The New Republic (thanks to commenter itzik basman for the link):
Beck’s Saturday speech was then a rehashing of the age-old Christian Right tactic of claiming every conventional virtue, from piety to patriotism, for conservatives, with the implication that their cultural and political enemies share none of them.
Of course, the fact that their cultural and political enemies routinely bash such "conventional", not to say "bourgeois", virtues may have a little to do with this implication, but that's just what Kilgore altogether misses. As Brooks said so poignantly of the people at the rally, unaware of how his words reflected on his own crowd:
They are only vaguely aware of this value system. It is so entwined into their very nature, they can not step back and define it. But they feel it weakening.
But, on the other hand, here's what I see as a little more nuanced (!) take that suggests the cultural fault lines may not yet be completely unbridgeable, at least with segments on either side -- this is Nick Gillespie, in Reason:
The organizers and the attendees are not part of the Leave Us Alone coalition. In some ways, they are proto-libertarian: they want the government to spend less money and they seemed wary of interventions into basic economic exchange (nobody seemed to dig ObamaCare or the auto bailouts or the bank bailouts). But they also want the government to be super-effective in securing the borders, worry about an undocumented fall in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can't deliver.
Writing in Reason, Gillespie obviously doesn't want to be seen as particularly pro-religion in any way, and that may at least partially explain his own condescension at the end. "Securing the borders", after all, is one of the minimal things a government is supposed to be able to deliver. And the curious bit about an "undocumented fall in morals" (did the crowd want government to worry about it? or were they just worried about it?) is almost comical, as though implying that it takes social scientists, of all people, to tell us if our morals have fallen. But still, like Brooks as well, and in contrast to Collins and Kilgore, say, Gillespie's reflections at least convey enough basic respect to retain some hope that the sides of the fault line can continue to talk.

But, one way or another, I think the times they are a-changin', in a way they haven't since the sixties.

P.S.: See this earlier post for more on the fault line and the choice of sides: "Labels: conservatives, libertarians, and liberals"

To New Yorker readers

A repost, from the usually laconic* Glenn Reynolds (I liked the whole thing, plus I'm trying to drive some traffic his way):
ILYA SOMIN: Errors In Jane Mayer’s New Yorker Article Attacking the Kochs.
The thing to understand is, this article isn’t about the Kochs at all. It’s about preparing a narrative for the New Yorker’s readers about why Obama has failed. It’s not because they were rubes who voted for an underprepared, under-skilled candidate who then proceeded to alienate the electorate. It’s because Obama was beaten by a right-wing billionaires’ conspiracy so vast as to defy understanding. That’s all. Relax, New Yorker readers. No need to feel bad about yourself for being overwhelmed with hope-and-change fever and voting stupidly. It’s not your fault. It never is!
Heh, as some people say. (Here's my earlier take on the same hit piece, this one referencing Reason's "Hit & Run".)

* in any one post.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Beck and the unease of the elites

Jennifer Rubin, Commentary:
Brooks Cheers Beck — Honest!

And he does, however tepidly. It's not cats and dogs living together, yet, but coming from one of the "two mighty Davids" in the T.Coddington van Vorhees VII ratpack, it's something. Unfortunately, if you click through to the NY Times article itself, you'll see that he's in a dialog with Gail Collins, who can manage to make even Maureen Dowd read like an intellectual. "Do you think this feel-good moment is a permanent change of course?" she asks Brooks, with a flutter. "Most days the Tea Party folk still seem pretty ferocious."

Brooks, as Rubin shows, managed to hold his nerve a little better, and find some nice, if condescending, things to say:
I’m no Beck fan obviously, but the spirit was really warm, generous and uplifting. The only bit of unpleasantness I found emanated from some liberal gatecrashers behaving offensively, carrying anti-Beck banners and hoping to get in some televised fights.
And that last sentence is appreciated. But Brooks' nervousness, though more complex than Collins', is apparent throughout -- first in his repeated need to signal his good standing in the elite by dissing Beck himself, as we see even as he's praising the gathering in the quote above; and second in his need to project his own genteel but largely ineffectual conservatism on the crowd:
... at the rally I don’t think the word “elite” was mentioned. There was a sense that the moral failings are in every home and town, and that what is needed is a moral awakening everywhere. After all, the stupid mortgages happened everywhere. The excessive consumption happened everywhere. This was an affirmation of bourgeois values, but against a rot from within, not an assault from on high. Again, at least at the rally.
So, perhaps, he hopes. He's right, though, that the phenomenon is really an affirmation of basic -- yes, "bourgeois" -- values, but one of the motivations underlying the movement that drew people to the rally is that such values are indeed being assaulted from "on high". At the end, Brooks reverts to his more obnoxious mode, still whistling as he walks past the manifestation of something he can't quite get his mind around:
People like those at last weekend’s rally want the Judeo-Christian ethic back, which sweetened and softened life on the frontier (physical or technological). And so they march. They are only vaguely aware of this value system. It is so entwined into their very nature, they can not step back and define it. But they feel it weakening.
Again, note the projection of fears that are clearly evident in the elite itself. Something is happening here, but you don't know what is ... do you ... Mr. Brooks.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The eco-terrorist and the silence of the greens

James Taranto, "Best of the Web":

From the always-excellent Taranto, an even more excellent than usual piece on the latest eco-loon cum terrorist, and the curious silence, so far, from the usual lefty suspects on any connection between their "shockingly irresponsible", extremist rhetoric and the sad spectacle at the Discovery Channel yesterday.  To be contrasted with the media's repeated attempts to create links between any violent incident and, say, the Tea Party. And contrasted too with the "nothing to see here" approach of Jesse Walker, for example, at Reason's "hit & run" -- who may well be making a partially commendable effort to restrain from making partisan hay from the tragedy, but sometimes you have to whack a biased media over the head to get their attention, and this just puts them back to sleep.