Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Palin Pick: The Power of "Spoiler" Votes

McCain's pick of the Governor of Alaska (Wikipedia photo) for his running mate is evidence that something I said recently was right -- more right in fact than I suspected at the time.

I argued that voting for "spoiler" third party candidates is not necessarily counterproductive because it shows the major parties that they cannot take your vote for granted. What I was thinking was that it will influence their conduct during the next election. If a major party wants your vote it will have to run candidates that are more to your liking -- you are happy to vote for someone else if they don't. The candidates in this election are already fixed. And though a current candidate may alter his or her rhetoric to woo potential third party voters, there is sadly very little correlation between such talk and what the candidate will do if and when they rise to the power of office. Only the next election matters, I thought.

I hadn't thought of the choice of running mates in the current election. Why do you suppose that McCain chose Palin? Notice that, until she was named as his running mate, Palin had more favorable things to say about Ron Paul than about him. That's Ron Paul, they guy who has been snubbed by the Republican convention, but is holding a 10,000 person rally in Minneapolis as I write. Notice also that Paul voters have found a place to go. According to Zogby, the Libertarian Party's Bob Barr is pulling down 8 to 11% in battle ground states.

Obviously, McCain is not worried that Bob Barr will be elected President. But he is worried that Barak Obama will be. And if McCain loses enough votes to Barr, that is just what will happen. So he has a reason to try to please these disaffected voters. And to some extent, I suppose, he has, and not by words but by actions that could have a very substantial real world effect.

Let this be a lesson to us. If you vote, you have reason to vote your conscience. They have little reason to take you seriously if you don't.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech

I finally listened to an entire Obama speech last night. This is something I had not done before, even though I am still considering (well, sort of) voting for him. (My McCainophobia has not responded to therapy.) I had heard lots of rapturous accounts of him as a speaker, but I've always considered oratory to be one of the lowest of the arts, so I have put off actually listening to his music myself. (I even considered watching Mythbuster's marvelous moon landing hoax episode instead of Obama's speech, but I had just seen it.)

Considered purely as a piece of political rhetoric, the speech was a pretty good one, at least by the standards we now apply to such things. Among the things that (from his point of view) he did right:

He spent a lot of time attacking his opponent. This was a good move. He was building on his own greatest virtue here, which is that he is not John McCain.

He attacked his opponent, to a considerable extent, by associating him with G. W. Bush. Here he is going for McCain's soft underbelly. Also a good move.

On taxes, he sounded like a Republican, which tends to be a good move in this country. He promised to give "tax breaks" to companies that provide jobs for Americans (which would include a lot of companies, wouldn't it?) and to new businesses, and to cut the taxes of "95% of all working families." He also promised, in effect, to cut or eliminate a huge number of government programs -- enough to pay for expensive new programs while cutting taxes. In addition, he said (twice, I think) that government cannot solve all our problems. Most amazingly, he said that government should do (only?) what we cannot do for ourselves. I'm pretty sure this is an almost exact quote from Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago, 1962). If strictly interpreted and consistently applied, this idea would eliminate a lot of government programs. (A lot of programs have no function but to transfer wealth from the one who produced it to someone who didn't. They do for us something that we could do for ourselves, but shouldn't.)

I also was impressed by the way the applause at the end faded into a country western song. This is the sort of music Americans listen to. If Obama wants to appear to be regular folks, he should play lots of this kind of music and pretend to like it.

Finally, he emitted plenty of those clouds of pink gas that his fans find so uplifting, but not too much of it: about one third of the speech, by my count.

Speaking of which, I noticed, like everyone else, that this strain of his rhetoric is meant to put people in mind of John F. Kennedy. It has some of the same moralizing content. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Obama: "I am my brother's keeper." But, as these examples suggest, there is a big difference between them in literary quality. The rhetoric of John Kennedy (and by "John Kennedy" I of course mean Ted Sorenson) consisted of pity aphorisms, most of which were rather well constructed and some of which were actually memorable. Obama's Kennedy imitation just seems, well, like pink clouds to me. Read Kennedy's acceptance speech and compare it with Obama's and I am sure you will get the impression that American politics is wallowing in a period of decadence. You get the same impression when you compare, say, Dwight ("I conquered Europe") Eisenhower with John ("I was captured by the North Vietnamese") McCain.

It's been a long downward path. I think I've listened to enough political speeches for a while.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We Are 200!

I just noticed that my most recent post was the 200th on this blog.

The only news item I can think of that's come up since my last 100-post-mark is that I've gone semi-mainstream. I often cross-post at Open Salon, where three of my posts have been spotlighted as "Editor's Picks" in couple of weeks I've been there. I also sometimes cross-post at Liberty and Power, but they are lower-tech and require posters to work in html. They might just as well require me to express myself in Greek. I don't show up there as often.

Other than that, I'd just like to thank everyone who comes to this site, lurkers and all -- but especially the folks who have commented, and so thoughtfully and civilly too! Keep coming back, I'll do the same!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Character is Relevant!

This country has gone through some deep changes about this issue: is a politician's sex life "private" in the sense that it is irrelevant to what we should think about the things he or she does or will do as a "public" official?

During the agony of the Clinton sex scandals I tried to interest a class I was teaching on moral character in writing a term paper on this issue, and they were struck dumb -- literally -- by the suggestion that there is a discussable issue here. When I prodded them with a few questions, I was told that the idea that a politician's sexual behavior is relevant to our moral or political judgments about them as politicians is a myth invented by cynical Republicans, who are pursuing their own political ends. In other words, as a philosophical issue, it is utterly beneath contempt. Well, then, I said, what do you think of the Mother of All Character Issues: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. If these allegations are true, do they give us some reason to chisel him off Mount Rushmore? Or not? What do you think? Anybody? Anybody?

No one wrote on that issue. I concluded that the students' view was probably the standard one among Democrats at the time, including those who constitute almost 90% of my esteemed colleagues at the university. I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and I can only gain insight into how such people think in the same way that an anthropologist finds out about the beliefs of distant tribes: by observing the behavior of others. Introspection is less than no help at all. Today, using the same methods, I conclude that things have changed. During the flap about Edwards, it became obvious that many of his supporters (or former supporters) it were genuinely disappointed by his behavior. Today, his political status seems to be somewhere in the category of damaged goods.

What do I think about this issue, other than that it really is an issue?I have actually written on theoretical issues that bear on this question but every time it pops up I find myself thinking about -- not some theory or argument but -- a comment someone made to me while we were watching a movie.

He was a Russian scientist, here to do research, and we were watching the original airing of a made-for-cable biopic about Stalin, in the early years of the Clinton agonies. During a scene in which Stalin (Robert Duval) was treating his wife, Nadezhda, in a particularly beastly way (she later committed suicide), my companion became very upset and said something like: "This is what drives be crazy. How can people say that the way Clinton treats women has nothing to do with what we should think of him as a politician? What Stalin was doing to his wife, he later did to the whole country! The same thing!"

A similar point is made about Hitler's relationship with Geli Raubal in a fairly good novel by Ron Hansen. I hope it is obvious that I am not comparing Clinton and Edwards to Hitler and Stalin -- the issue here is the (in some broad sense) logical one of whether the "private" realm of a person's life is a separate compartment from the "public" one, with no inferences (not even probablistic ones) allowed from one to the other.

To accept the compartmentalization idea is very close to denying that there is such a thing as moral character at all. The idea of character is the idea that there is a certain kind of connection between one's acts: that people act from traits, like courage and cowardice. If you do a brave thing, that is evidence that you have the trait of courage and are a courageous person. Not conclusive evidence, because acting out of character is possible. Compartmentalization is also possible. A person can be a hero in the face of physical dangers and a coward about moral ones. I don't deny for a minute that this sort of looseness and independence between the parts of one's life is possible. But the compartmentalization idea implies that such things are not merely possible but necessary.

In effect, the compartmentalization idea says that, necessarily, there two Stalins: the one who abused Nadezhda, and the one who abused Russia. It is simply a coincidence that they were both abusive. But why only two? Applied consistently, the idea would disintegrate the person into an infinitude of homunculi, with no connection between them. That, of course, is not how things are.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Zen of Staring at Scenery

Here are some images from our recent trip to Sylvania, in the Michigan Upper Peninsula.

I like it most when no one comes
Preferring fallen leaves and swirling flowers for company.
-- Ikkyu

Do not follow dusty paths in search of wisdom. If you cannot find the truth where you are, where do you expect to find it?
-- Dogen

Meditation and water are wedded for ever.
-- Melville

What is of all things most yielding
Can overcome that which is most hard.
-- Lao Tse

This is not a face.

A Crazy Cloud, out in the open,
Blown about madly, as wild as they come!
Who knows where this cloud will go, where the wind will still?
-- Ikkyu

I cannot come nearer to God and Heaven
Than I live to Walden even.
-- Thoreau

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sylvania Wilderness: Truly Uncommon

My wife Deborah and I are heading for a camping trip in the Sylvania Wilderness Area, the largest virgin forest in Michigan. This place has never been logged. It is truly the forest primeval that Longfellow wrote about, the one with those murmuring pines and hemlocks. This is exactly to sort of country where his fictionalized Hiawatha lived and loved. To the left you see a very small part of this world. (Part of a rotting log.) When I visit these northern woods, I think of them in terms of little details, because that's where the beauty is, it seems to me. To a westerner like me, the big picture is kind of underwhelming. For those who insist on a larger view, one is included below.

How did Sylvania escape being logged, in a part of the country that typically shaved, clearcut, logged to death by "corporate greed"? That's a very interesting story. Unlike the land that was raped and abused, Sylvania was private property. It was owned originally by a group of US Steel execs (this was iron mining country) who called themselves the Sylvania Club. Some of them had logging interests of some sort, but they didn't wreck this piece of land because it was theirs. They built a few lodges on it, entertained guests like Bing Crosby and Dwight Eisenhower, drank, gambled, fished, and minded their own business. During prohibition, they stored their booze on Whisky Island in Clark Lake. (It is just beyond the spit of land in the picture below.)

Then, in the sixties, the Sylvania tract became government land, and a classic tragedy of the commons began to take shape. People rushed in to harvest the huge, almost unexploited fish population. Old timers tell stories of a boat that tipped over and sank because it had too many fish in it. Finally the Forestry Service slapped on some reasonable regulations. Fishing here is catch and release now, and camping now is in designated sites only. You have to reserve a spot and pay a fee, just as if this vast tract of primitive land were a hotel. But at least you can get some degree of privacy and a simulacrum of what it once was: perfection.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tragedy of the Anticommons: Too Much Ownership?

Writing in the New Yorker, a certain James Surowiecki tells us he finds a very insightful idea in a new book, The Gridlock Economy, by law professor Michael Heller. Heller calls the idea the tragedy of the anticommons. It's supposed to be a sort of mirror reversal of the "tragedy of the commons. " This idea, if Surowiecki is reporting it rightly, sounds very wrongheaded to me. But it sounds like just the sort of idea that some people would take seriously, so maybe it is worthwhile to say something about it here.

My favorite example of the tragedy of the commons is from American history. In the 1870s, one decade, the North American bison were nearly hunted to extinction. Professional buffalo hunters would shoot buffalo just to pack their tongues in barrels of salt and ship them east, where they would be sliced to make sandwiches. Dairy cows, on the other hand, are not used in this wasteful way. Farmers do not shoot their cows to utilize some small part of their carcases, leaving the rest to rot on the ground. Why not?

The answer is of course not in the nature of cows and buffalo, which are closely related species, nor does it lie in the fact that humans suddenly become greedy when faced with one sort of beast and not when dealing with the other. The explanation lies in the position that the two sorts of animal occupied in the structure of property rights.

The cow is owned. A farmer who uses it wastefully is wasting his or her own cow. Nothing like this is true of the Buffalo. The buffalo, in those days, was in a common pool that all may exploit, with few or no penalties for wasteful overuse.

Here is how Surowiecki typifies the tragedy of the anticommons:
In the second decade of the twentieth century, it was almost impossible to build an airplane in the United States. That was the result of a chaotic legal battle among the dozens of companies—including one owned by Orville Wright—that held patents on the various components that made a plane go. No one could manufacture aircraft without fear of being hauled into court. The First World War got the industry started again, because Congress realized that something needed to be done to get planes in the air. It created a “patent pool,” putting all the aircraft patents under the control of a new association and letting manufacturers license them for a fee. Had Congress not stepped in, we might still be flying around in blimps.
In the tragedy of the commons, the problem is the common pool. In the tragedy of the anticommons, it is the solution. The former, Surowiecki says, is a case of too little ownership, and the latter is a case of too much ownership. The former leads to overuse and waste, while the latter leads to underutilization and missed opportunities. The latter sort of tragedy is possible because ownership includes a veto power: no one can take what is mine unless I say so. When there is too much ownership, this leads to gridlock and prevents cooperation.

Does this make sense?

I'd say the short answer to that question is "no."

To begin with the obvious: To say that we would be riding blimps today if Congress had not put aviation patents into a common pool is just plain silly. The idea that these companies, assuming each really did have ownership of some essential component of an airplane, would prefer using their veto power to cooperating -- that they would prefer poverty to riches -- really strains credulity.

To take a somewhat less obvious point: I have not researched this case, but I would be willing to bet that it was actually not clear who really held legal ownership of the various ideas involved. After all, "who owns what?" is the question these judges were being asked to decide. To the extent that this is what is going on, the problem was that people's property rights were unclear or indeterminate. Does that sound like a case of too much ownership, or too little?

The fundamental problem with the "anticommons" idea is that its main point, that the common pool is the solution to this problem, is generally not true. In the overwhelming majority of cases in which this "problem" occurs, it is the property rights that are the solution.

Consider for a second the situation in which this supposed problem pops up. There are several people such that: 1) each has rights, but 2) they all have different rights, and 3) to make optimal use of these rights each must make use of the rights of others, and yet 4) they all have a veto power against the others doing so.

This description may not be immediately recognizable when put this way, but what I have just described is daily life in a developed market society. As Adam Smith said, "When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply." I am standing at the checkout counter and the supermarket. The market owns a jar of peanut butter, and I own a dollar bill which I have earned by my labor. The market needs money, and I need peanut butter. And yet we each have a veto power over the other's just taking what they need. What happens next? Obviously, we trade, precisely because we do have this veto power. They can't have my dollar bill unless they give me the peanut butter, and I can't have the peanut butter unless I give them the dollar bill. Trade is the solution to our "problem" and, because trade presupposes property rights, this means that ownership is not the problem but the solution.

Hilton for President

See more funny videos at Funny or Die

I take back every bad thing I've said about Paris Hilton. Come to think of it, I've never said anything about Paris Hilton at all, but you get the point. Anyway, she's given us all a lesson as to what it would mean to make a classy response to an insult. She didn't sue, she didn't whine. She simply topped them. Plus, her energy policy doesn't seem half bad to me.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympics: To Boycott or Not? (A Re-Post)

I thought it would be timely to repost this, as it might be more interesting now than when it was written.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm not talking about whether our athletes should compete in the games. I guess by now it's obvious that Jimmy Carter did no one any good by barring the US athletes from going to the Moscow games in 1980. I'm also not going to talk about whether you should tune in to the games on your TV. Whether you do or not will make no difference to the ChiComs and their vicious, brutal dictatorship.

What I am interested in is the issue of going there to be a spectator. More generally, I'm interested in the ethics of tourism in a country with a seriously wicked government. More generally still, there is the issue of doing business in such countries. Tourism after all is business.

There are two arguments you hear most often, as in this article. On the one hand, trade supports peace, understanding, and change. Throughout history, when goods cross borders, so do ideas. If we stop communicating with the ChiComs, that will not make them more likely to take our ideas into consideration, but less so. On the other hand, when you enter such a country as a tourist, you will spend money there, and some of it will inevitably benefit the government. Believe me, these people are very good at converting potential sources of power into actual ones. We know this, because they are after all still securely in power after all these years.

It may be obvious from the way that I put them that I agree with both of these arguments. They are after all mutually consistent. Tourism in an oppressed country can have both positive and negative effects on oppression.

Our issue arises, really, because you never know for sure which effect is stronger. Did you go there? Maybe you made things worse! Did you stay out? Maybe going in would have helped make things better!

At a minimum, this means that if you do go, you have a moral obligation to take steps to enhance the chances that the anti-oppression effects of your activities outweigh the pro-oppression effects. What steps? Well, you have to deliberately bring about good effects and deliberately avoid bad ones.

If you do go to the Olympics, do not attend the opening ceremonies. To see why, rent the DVD of Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's masterful documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Watch the opening ceremonies. See Hitler reviewing the athletes as they march past, saluting him. You'll be stunned to see the French team going the extra mile in showing respect, giving the Fuehrer the straight-armed Nazi salute. It's a movie viewing experience that I for one will never forget. Part of the function of these ceremonies is to honor your hosts. Systems like this one thrive on such honor, and feel it bitterly when it is withheld. Doesn't their recent behavior make this more obvious than ever? So withhold it.

If there are dissident groups to which you can contribute, make a contribution.

Make sure that your contribution to the flow of ideas is positive. Many people have gone into countries like this and made the intellectual climate much worse. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Joseph E. Davies, and Walter Duranty went to Russia and came back reporting that Comrade Stalin was a great humanitarian who was building a workers' paradise. The likely effect of their visits was to confirm the RussComs in their nasty ways, deepening and prolonging their oppressions.

Of course, it makes a difference where you spend your money while you are there. Some of the implication of this are obvious. Try to avoid spending it in ways that enhance the amount that gets into the hand of the government. Spend it in the private sector, if you can.

Here is another implication, one that is not so obvious. One of the functions of a system like this is to create a docile, easily-exploited work force. If you go there and simply pay the "market" price for labor (what market? the price of labor is artificially low -- that's the point!) then you are actually profiting from the system. Stealing, in fact. As long as you are dealing directly with a private service provider, then, pay extra. Tip big.

I'm sure there are other things you can do that I am just not clever enough to think of at the moment. The main point, though, is that you cannot go into a place like that and think that this is automatically a good thing. It just isn't. You ought to try to make it good.*
* Unlike the Prime Minister of England the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of Poland, and the President of the Czech Republic, George W. ("China's Bitch") Bush will be attending the opening ceremonies. Until he is responsible for something like the burning of Washington, GWB will not have overtaken Jame Madison for the position of Worst President Ever, but it ain't over yet. He's inching closer and closer.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Endless Summer

Nat and I are on a car trip that is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. By now, it is starting to feel like one of those dreams where you are trying to get away from the monster and you can only run in slow motion. Except that there is no monster, only the broiling sun and the beautiful, brutal, gloriously empty West. (The fact that our air conditioner is broken and can't be fixed on the road enhances this powerful aesthetic effect.)

To the left, you see an area called "Little Park," an island of sagebrush in the vast lava flow of the Craters of the Moon Nature Preserve in Idaho. (Click to enlarge.) I figured I had to go there just because the name was so cute. Actually, as it turned out, the Little Park is only parklike in comparison with the desolate chaos of the lava beds that surround it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Ruby Mountains: No Longer Unknown

Last week, Nat and I, still on the road today, visited Nevada's Ruby Mountains on the way to our ultimate destination in California. I first found out about the Rubies when Backpacker Magazine published an article, "The Ten Last Unknown Places." It featured a tantalizing couple of pages about this isolated range and an eye-popping photo of Liberty Lake (love that name!) at dawn. No, the irony of this is not lost on me. When a magazine with a circulation of 340,000 describes you as "unknown," you are ipso facto not unknown.

Sure enough, the area around Angel Lake Campground is now a nice place to meet people and make friends, but utterly ruined as a place to find Nietzschean high mountain solitude. If you want to shriek from your crags without being molested by mental health personnel, you'll just have to go elsewhere.

Walking a couple of miles on the path into the Rubies from the end of Lemoille canyon on a weekday, we met over a dozen parties who were likewise walking the path. The Rubies are, however, stunningly beautiful. To the left is a picture that, I kid you not, I took as I sat at the picnic table at our site in the campground. I suppose that this means these mountains can't be unknown, even aside from Backpacker's lovely little writeup. You can't look for solitude in a place that is picture-postcard-beautiful (hat-tip here to Deborah Hunt). At least not in the lower 48 and Hawaii.

To the right you see the Sierra basin that was our ultimate destination in California. Near the left edge, on a pile of white granite, you can see a sliver of blue showing through a stand of pine trees (click to enlarge). This is "our" lake. I've been going there since 1969 and I have always had it to myself. It may not have the Rubies' fetching looks, but it really is unknown. And it has other virtues as well, enough of them to enable the well-meaning folks at Backpacker to ruin it if they find out about it. I may post about it later but, no, I won't be telling you what the place is called or where it is. Sorry. I've done some dumb things in my time, but I am not a complete idiot.

Well, back to the road!