Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Time-Travel via Google
Here is a picture my Dad proudly took, circa 1958, of the garage of our house at 1800 Funston Ave. in Stockton CA. He had recently converted the attic-like upstairs room onto an elaborate den/study for use as he tried to get a law degree in his spare time (and attempt that failed). [All pictures are click-to-enlarge.]
Below you can see the same space today. Why would someone pull down a garage and a grape arbor and rip out rose beds in order to replace them with -- nothing? To the rear of this space, where there used to be a beautiful barbecue pit made from native rock collected all over the California, lies a rotting derelict automobile. (In case you can't relate these two pictures, the low peaked roof at the far left in the above picture is in the very center, to the left of the derelict, below. Also, the lamp post on the right above can be seen below just this side of the big dumpster: still standing, but decapitated.)
Here is the front of 1800 a few years earlier.
And here is the same space today. There is a car parked on the front lawn. Also a sofa and an old armchair.
Ah, but not all the news is bad. When I came home from the hospital after being born, I was taken to 5331 Strohm Ave, North Hollywood, a few blocks from the corner of Magnolia and Cahuenga. It was a house my father had just built himself (he was a carpenter at the time). Here is my mother holding me in front of the house.
Notice the two houses across the street. There are no trees in sight. This whole neighborhood was brand new -- built with massive government giveaways to house servicemen returning from World War II. And here are the same two houses today...
... virtually unchanged! Except now we have trees. So the whole world has not gone straight plumb to heck. Count our blessings!
Saturday, December 27, 2008
The SEC: Another Bad Idea from the New Deal?
This is a beautiful example of the difference between strategies of anticipation and strategies of resilience, or solving problems when the occur versus searching out possible problems and preventing them from happening.
Part of the beauty of it is that Hoover is so obviously wrong: not all problems become disasters if you wait until they actually happen. Equally obviously, Coolidge has a point: switching from resilience to anticipation vastly increases the number of problems you must deal with: not only actual ones, but an indefinite array of possible ones. That is why your default strategy in life has to be resilience. Perpetual anticipation would be a form of insanity. (Maybe that's what OCD is?)
Some situations do call for anticipation, of course. The question is, When should we switch it on? The answer is no doubt complicated. When we consider institutionalizing anticipation -- basically, having someone watch over you -- the matter becomes even more complicated.
One layer of complexity came out in the wake of revelations about Bernie Madoff's vast Ponzi scheme. Madoff will be subjected to suits and criminal charges, just like he would have been in the bad old days before the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. Criminal law and tort law are strategies of resilience. The SEC is part of the great transformation in which the American state moved from sole reliance on resilience to greater and greater reliance on anticipation. What it supposedly adds to the securities industry is that it somehow "regulates" it so that these things like the Madoff horror do not happen in the first place. This, of course, they failed utterly to do, despite repeated warnings about Madoff, going back ten years.
Arguably, the consequences of this arrangement are much more dire than the fact that a promise of providing some good thing (security against problems showing up) was broken. Here is an interview in which the brilliant Jim Grant tells us that the SEC makes things worse from the point of view of security: that it is merely the figleaf that conceals from us the flaws in the securities markets, that it lulls us into a false sense of security that is unsupported by the facts.
Anecdotally, I do see evidence that this is what happens. The very same evening I saw the Grant interview, I saw another one, with a Madoff victim who said in tones of pure shock, "The SEC assured us that nothing would go wrong!" She apparently meant that it assured us by its very existence. This was her explanation for why she and her husband trusted Madoff with their entire retirement account.
In the bad old days we had scams and frauds, of course. But then we had the SEC. And then we had a fraud bigger than anything that happened in the bad old days. A coincidence? Maybe not.
One difference between using resilience yourself and institutionnalizing it: If it's just you, you know whether the search for possible problems is actually being carried out. You also have a lot of information on whether it is working. When you institutionalize the strategy, you transfer these responsibilities to someone else, and so lack this sort of information. And if the institution is one about which you have a quasi-religious awe and trust, an institution for instance like the state, then you are lulled into the frame of mind that Grant describes.
Ironically, the criticism that Hoover foolishly levels against resilience actually works against his own favorite strategy of trusting an anticipatory state: when a problem reaches you, as it will, you will be caught flat-footed, unprepared. The system assured, after all, that nothing would go wrong.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Actually I like it because, though you do hear environmental music all year long, this is the only time of the year that most of it is actually half-way good.
Partly, I suppose, this is because a lot of it has some religious meaning, so that people feel a responsibility to measure up to the exalted subject matter. Also, just because the Christmas repertoire consists mainly of a few dozen tunes, they had jolly well better be things you can hear year after year, for centuries (Praetorius' "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" dates from around 1600) without going mad.
Also, again because of the extreme age of some of them, they are often in minor keys that you don't hear too often nowadays. The copy of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" I just glanced at is in E minor. (Who says minor keys are sad?) Some, like older versions of "What Child is This?" are in modes yet older and more exotic. Such a refreshing break from the monotonous mediocrity of popular music nowadays!
But I suspect Christopher is not a musical person.
(Photo of the 2008 Madison Community Orchestra Holiday Concert courtesy of Nat Hunt.)
Monday, December 22, 2008
The Google Street View Function
Someone has created a staggeringly huge array of panoramic images of many of the streets of the US, enabling you to travel, pleasantly but pointlessly, while sitting at your desk. For the moment, the people who did this are to me like the mound builders of the midwest, or the pleistocene cave painters. I wonder how the heck they did this but even more I wonder -- what the heck for? What's it supposed to do?
As civilization teeters on the brink of destruction, as the industialized world contemplates suicide in the shape of monstrously stupid governmental policies, I pause for a moment in amazement at the wonderful things humans can still create -- in some cases for no apparent reason.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Of Social Security and Pyramid Scams
You said: "The SSA pays Grampa Jones with money extracted from Jones Jr., who will eventually be paid with money extracted from Jones III. There is that much resemblance to a Ponzi.* The difference of course is that everyone knows from the outset that this is what Social Security is like."I suppose that every statement about what "everyone knows" is bound to be false unless it is utterly trivial (eg., "everyone knows the Pope is Catholic"). What I should have said was "it is public knowledge, available to everyone," or something like that.
Sorry, but this "everyone knows" is flatly false. I have discussed this issue in class with my students for many years and many of them don't know this. They think that the money is being saved for them. The "Trust Fund" rhetoric tends to make them think this. Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence for most of the history of SSA (or SS, as I abbreviate it in my book Is the Welfare State Justified?) the government deliberately did its best to obfuscate the truth and sold SS as akin to a private investment scheme, whereby your taxes are saved for your benefit.
Perhaps the most thorough account of the deception involved in SS and how it succeeded in confusing and bamboozling much of the American public can be found in in John Attarian, Social Security and False Consciousness. Also, look at my website isthewelfarestatejustified.com , which has some juicy quotes in this regard.
Of course, widespread misconceptions about this become extremely problematic, both politically and ethically, if, as Dan suggests, the government has deliberately misled people about this. As to whether it has done so, I can only take his and Attarian's word for it. I agree that further that this deception on a point like this is extremely irresponsible at best, since it would tend to contaminate public discussion of these issues in a number of ways.
One aspect of this contamination, I must also admit, is that it makes SS more like a Ponzi scheme. The Ponzi artist's lies serve to conceal from his victims the fact that the scheme is doomed to collapse when he eventually fails to get enough new victims to pay his old ones and so bamboozle them out of trying to withdraw their non-existent assets, in which case many contributors will lose what they paid into the system.
Broadly similar things are true of Social Security. The system will have financial problems if it should ever have a deficient number of paying contributors. This could occur if there is a sudden surge in the number of retirees (eg., boomers like me) or a rise in the jobless level. (And -- guess what? -- both of these are about to happen soon.) If voters have been fooled into thinking that SS is not a pay-as-you-go system, they will be ill-prepared for such a crisis. One of the many possible scenarios -- though a remote one -- is that of the system collapsing and many contributors losing what they have contributed.
For this reason, the claim that SS is a Ponzi operation can be an illuminating metaphor. I don't deny that.
But I do say that the claim that this is literally what it is is untrue and has the effect of a cheap shot. It is also a distraction, since it will be too obvious that there are big differences as well as similarities. One is that Ponzi and Madoff are doomed to run out of fresh victims because they are using fraud and not coercion. As private-sector criminals, they can't force anyone to pay into the system. The SSA does not labor under such a constraint. Their system rests on a reassuring thought: Don't worry, we can always steal more.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Gov. Blagojevich, Meet Lord Acton
Much of the commentary on this incident has consisted of tortured attempts to deny the bloody obvious. Thus the repeated claims that Blago must be insane. Nothing else, it is said, could possibly explain his behavior. People have repeatedly asked, why would a governor who knows the Feds are investigating him, try to extort a million dollars out of the appointment of a senator on the phone. My answer: Part I: For the money, stupid! Part II: Because he had done things like this all his life and, never having suffered any bad consequences, felt bullet-proof.
Both these factors, access to staggering quantities of other people's money, and insulation from real consequences, are absolutely inseparable from political power. Blagojevich is not a madman but, quite simply, a government official.
Government is the only institution that is routinely judged by its stated purposes and not by what it actually does.
This deep habit of mind conceals the truth from us. What is that truth? It was Lord Acton who said it best, in a letter to Bishop Creighton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Given that we do seem determined to give others political power over us, we must face these questions: To how much money should they have access? How much should we insulate them from the consequences of what they do (that is, how many of these consequences are to be absorbed by their victims)? And finally, the root question underlying these: How much power over us should they have?
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Yes, Blago is a F***ing Jerk, but ...
In case you have been living at the bottom of the proverbial mineshaft, or possibly studying for finals, the Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has been arrested. His most interesting offense: soliciting bribes for -- in other words, attempting to sell outright -- Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
Obama wanted him to name one of his (Obama's) assistants, Valerie Jarrett to the seat. When Blago asked what he would get in return, he was told "appreciation." A modern,sophisticated politician would play along and wait for the "appreciation" to come his way. But no.
Blago's reaction, according to an ABC news story relayed at Reason Hit and Run, included the following:
"I've got this thing and it's f***ing golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for f***in' nothing..." [said Blagojevich].It seems another candidate for the appointment had offered him a million dollars.
Told by two other advisers he has to "suck it up" for two years, the FBI says it heard Blagojevich complain he has to give this "motherf***er [the president-elect] his senator. F*** him. For nothing? F*** him."
The governor is heard saying he will pick another candidate "before I just give f***ing [Senate Candidate l] a f***ing Senate seat and I don't get anything.
This is crude, blatant corruption, but it seems to me that in its smooth, sophisticated way, what Obama was doing was corrupt as well. By law, these interim Senators are appointed by the governor of the relevant state, not by the senator who is resigning, and not be the president or the president-elect.
In requesting Jarrett as his successor, Obama was asking for something to which he had no legal right. By the tacit assurance, which the modern, sophisticated politician understands well enough, that those who play along will be taken care of, he was in effect offering something in exchange for it.
The difference can be put in the language of economic anthropology. By refusing to hand over the goods unless specified, sufficiently attractive payment is made, the governor was engaged in a trade. By requesting the goods, with the understanding that some non-specific future benefit to be decided on by the donor will come the recipient's way in the future, Obama was engaging in gift-exchange.
Both are forms of exchange. There are powerful arguments against trading political power for stated amounts of goods and services, but the best ones are also good against the other sort of exchange as well. In other words, what Obama was doing is wrong in basically the same sort of way as what Blago was doing. That's why we have a lot of odd-sounding laws against lobbyists buying lunch for legislators and policemen accepting gifts from people they serve.
Of course there is one big difference: What Obama was doing is not illegal and in fact is constantly going on in our system. It was by similar methods that JFK got his brother Teddy into his Senate seat.
In the days of George Washington Plunkitt, the tendency of officials to be corrupt was understood. The solution then favored was to not give government too much to do, so that the inefficiency, venality, and hypocrisy of officials could not do too much mischief. The solution now favored is to pass laws against every possible transgression and then to kid ourselves about what is really happening.
Blago is a crude jerk, but he does have one virtue that crude jerks do have: a certain sort of honesty. He gives us a glimpse of what is really always going on.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
The Bond Series Hits a New Low
The above is not a choppily edited, mind-pummeling trailer for Quantum of Solace, designed to make you wonder what the heck is going on here, so that you will come see the movie and find out. It is an actual clip of the film. It gives a good idea of the editing style of all its action sequences is like.
These people don't seem to realize that suspense is all about causation. "Given that this is happening, that is probably going to happen next. Yikes! I don't want that to happen! How is the hero going to avoid that?" For this to work, the viewer needs to be very clear about what is happening. Confusion kills suspense, creating instead an annoying sort of vague anxiety. (Compare this sequence with the greatest of all action sequences, the chariot race from Ben Hur -- a model of narrative clarity.)
This movie is confusing throughout. The confusion begins with the too-busy opening titles, which go by too fast to read the credits (don't these guys want to be famous?). It doesn't end until the Bond's pointless, ill-explained last encounter with the baddies, in which, after all the villains we know about have been killed, he arrests one that we haven't seen before and, as far as I could tell, wasn't especially important. As Nat pointed out to me, it doesn't seem to answer any questions raised by the earlier portions of the narrative, unless it is "will he ever turn a bad guy over to M for questioning, instead of just bumping them off?"
In a number of ways, this movie marks a low point in the Bond series.
This must be the first Bond film that is openly and belligerently anti-American and anti-capitalist. The dialogue contains occasional comments like “You don’t want another Marxist in South America giving natural resources back to the people, do you?” The villain is an evil capitalist, backed by the CIA, who pretends to be an environmentalist (a pretense that of course would automatically make him a saint, if it were true) but who actually kills political leaders who do things like passing minimum wage laws and replaces them with evil business-friendly dictators. His ultimate goal is to accumulate all the water in Bolivia (a public utility in private hands? gasp!) so that he can charge ruinous prices for it, bleeding the poor workers and peasants dry.
The fact that the film attacks private enterprise and plugs people like Hugo Chavez ("... another Marxist ...") creates a coherence problem for the film. The filmmakers don't project Bond as if he were motivated by their anti-capitalist animus -- that would be obviously absurd, as Bond is a long-time servant of British imperialism -- so they have to give him a motivation that is quite separate from the point of view of the film itself. Throughout the film, his motive for the death and destruction he wreaks seems to be revenge for the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Given that, that is this movie about? It would be nice if I could say, "it's not about anything -- it's just an entertaining revenge tale." That is what most of the reviews of the film seem to be saying. But it is actually worse than that. It's also an evils-of-capitalism tale, and these two thematic elements interfere with each other annoyingly. The result is a movie that is not merely frantic and confusing but incoherent.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Panel Discussion on Grading Practices
Wednesday Dec. 3, 7:00-9:00 pm
Health Sciences Learning Center
750 Highland Ave.
Prof. Harry Brighouse, UW Philosophy
Prof. Lester Hunt, UW Philosophy
Prof. Richard Kamber, College of New Jersey Philosophy
Dean Robert Golden, UW School of Medicine
The panel was prompted by two recent events. One is a proposal at the UW medical school, recently approved, to grade first year medical students on a pass/fail basis only. The dean of the medical school will be speaking on this plan.
The other event is the recent publication of a book of essays I edited and contributed to on issues surrounding the phenomenon generally known as "grade inflation." The other speakers on the panel, aside from Dean Golden, are contributors to the book.
Obviously, one of the issues that will come up is whether some of the same objections that are raised against grade inflation also apply to switching to a pass/fail system such as this one.
I plan to say that grading practices today make little coherent sense, university wide, and that the problem (if that is what it is) may be impossible to remedy without radical institutional changes.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
They Killed Him and "Kept Shopping"
It was a 5:00 am sale on Black Friday at a Wall-Mart in Nassau County on Long Island. Thousands of eager shoppers were lined up outside. According to AP, when a store employee tried to open the doors and let them in, they broke through the doors, knocked him down, and trampled him to death. He was stepped on dozens of times.
The witnesses in this video seem to attribute this bizarre action to greed, but that can't be the whole explanation. People who kill for greed are criminals, and these people are not criminals.* Everyone who knows Gustave Le Bon's classic book, The Crowd will immediately think of another explanation. This is a classic case of crowd psychology. Le Bon says:
The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, ... the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. ... The psychological crowd is a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.Le Bon held that people in crowds do things that they would never be capable of when acting alone. And he did not mean that in a nice way. "In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated."
The difference between crowd behavior and individual behavior is of course that in crowds individuals interact, resulting in a whole that is not a mere sum or average of parts. This interaction, he held, is conditioned three principal factors: people in crowds feel powerful and hence unconstrained, they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility, and this results in emotional contagion. Basically, they make each other stupid and drive each other mad.
I would add another factor, at least as obvious as these: the dissolution of responsibility. Individuals in crowds do not feel responsible for what they do, a factor that makes crowds a powerful conscience-solvent, a sort of moral sulfuric acid. When the horrified Wall-Mart management announced that they were closing the store for several hours, many of these shoppers, according to the AP story, "kept shopping." Some angrily complained, shouting that they had been waiting in line since Thanksgiving Day. It's pretty obvious that though they had just participated in a collective act of homicide, they did not feel that they had done anything.
Though people can act as groups they only seem to be able to think of themselves as individuals, so a mob is a way of doing something and yet not doing it.
It is mainly as individuals that human beings deserve our admirationg and respect. In crowds, decent human beings can transform into cowards, bullies, or mad psychopaths.
* Some academics have said, at least in sound bites given to the press, that the explanation is not merely greed, but fear, fear of missing out on bargains. This of course has the same problem as the greed explanation. Only a monster would kill or even seriously hurt someone out of fear of missing a great deal on a flat-screen TV.
Added Later: Reason Hit & Run reports on a New York Times editorial blaming this incident on Wall-Mart. It seems their sale drove the consumer mad with greed. Thus to the excessive individualism of the greed explanation they add the excessive socialism of ... oh God, I can't go on. It's too horrible.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Gods on TV!
Here -- you can't make this stuff up -- is Frank Lloyd Wright appearing on "What's My Line?"
And, in the same vein, here -- I couldn't embed it -- is an audio of Friedrich Hayek on "Meet the Press."
Yea, verily, two of my gods, on network TV. To me, this is something like Nietzsche as a judge on Iron Chef America, or Adam Smith interviewed on CNBC.
One thing that struck me about the Wright performance, making it laugh-out-loud funny, was his almost complete inability to give a yes-or-no answer to anything -- which of course is a necessity if you are going to play this game at all. His brain just doesn't seem to work that way! The MC has to keep answering for him, as if he were a visitor from another planet whose utterances need to be translated.
Another thing I found striking is how famous he was during his own lifetime. It was the audience's audible reaction to him that enabled the panel to guess who he was.
The recent building he refers to at the end, btw, is obviously the Price Tower of Bartlesville OK, a very beautiful building. I think it was FLW's only skyscraper.
What struck me about Hayek was the absolute clear-cutness of his world view. Every question had a very definite answer, even if it is "I don't think there is anything I can do about that." Another thing that I noticed was something that is easily overlooked -- he was obviously as much an expert on political matters as on economic ones. Indeed, he was one of the people who pioneered investigating the interaction between these two realms.
Both men strike me as living in a world that is very much their own.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Peter Schiff: The Real Thing
Here is investor and free-market economist Peter Schiff predicting exactly what is going on in our world now, up to two years before it happened -- and being laughed at (literally) for doing so. And laughed at by "experts" who are telling people to buy Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Washington Mutual. (Hat tip to Terence Corcoran.)
This clip makes it pretty clear why he could be such an excellent prophet: he knows what will happen because he knows which effects go with which causes. In other words, he has the right theory. Can anyone think of a single, solitary Keynesian who saw all of this coming down the road?
One odd thought provoked by Schiff's now-famous exchange with Laffer: Schiff says that the soaring prices in speculative booms in the stock and housing markets are "not real wealth," and Laffer says "of course they are!" That of course is not per se an economic issue but a philosophical one. (The appearance of the word "real" is strong indicator of that!) Schiff, like the Austrians, thinks that what economics is about, at bottom, is real people making real goods and services. The others seem to have some sort of alternative view. What that view is, I'm not really sure, partly because the Austrian view seems so blindingly, intuitively obvious to me.
One of the effects of the other view, I suspect, is that it makes it possible to think that war is generally "good for the economy," even though it destroys real things and kills off the people who make them. If that is good for "the economy," then what the hell is an economy?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Thanksgiving: Celebration or Mourning? Why Not Both?
This results in a wide spectrum of behaviors ranging from angry articles attacking the holiday and the eloquent and bitter speech Wamsutta (Frank B.) James was to have given at the first annual celebration of the Plymouth Rock landing in 1970 ... all the way to demonstrations that disrupt parades and other celebratory events and even, on occasion, lead to violence.
In the same category I place the years of moralistic bullying that effectively ended the celebration of Columbus Day in this country.*
I think all of this is morally wrong, including, believe it or not, the writing and publishing of angry essays.
Well, think about it. Why would someone angrily attack someone else's holiday? I know, they'd say, "Well, what if someone were celebrating the Holocaust, you'd be pretty angry about that, wouldn't you?" Of course, but what is going on here is nothing like that at all. These people aren't celebrating genocidal warfare against Indians. Everyone knows that European-Indian relations had both negative aspects and positive aspects. They are celebrating the positive aspects. Others would rather commemorate the negative ones.
What the angry protesters are trying to do is to put an end to the celebratory thoughts and feelings of others. It is an attempt to violate the individuality of another person and to control their inner being, an impulse that is totalitarian at heart. They hate it that others are celebrating when they themselves prefer to mourn, and they want to put an end to it.
Native American radicals should tell their story to everyone who will listen. They should also develop their own commemorations and celebrations. The Wampanoag Indians who held a ceremony in which they buried Plymouth Rock might be an example, and the ceremony of mourning that is now held annually on Cole's Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, may be another, provided in both cases that these activities do not interfere celebrations going on nearby. Activists should develop their own counter-holidays and anti-holidays. But they should stop raining on my parade.
* But not the part-Seneca mother who more or less ended the traditional Thanksgiving celebration at her daughter's kindergarten by complaining about kids dressing as Indians. Here the issue is complicated by the fact that, as this is a public school, she is being forced by taxation to support something she finds morally offensive.
While we're on the subject of holiday killjoys, here is a greeting from William Burroughs (hat-tip to Jesse Walker at Reason Hit & Run):
Do as Ireland Does
Last night, the Travel Channel re-aired the No Reservations Ireland episode. Love that music!
Tony mentions that Ireland, "The Celtic Tiger," is enjoying an economic boom that "would have been unimaginable a generation ago." "Liberal" that he is, Tony doesn't say why that happened (that's okay Tony, I'm still a huge fan!) but you and I know what a good part of the reason is. In case you don't, here's a clue. Ireland is third on the Heritage Foundation's index of economic freedom. By their accounting, it has the freest of the 41 economies of Europe.
Go thou and do likewise!
Friday, November 21, 2008
The Biggest Political Question of All Right Now
Steve Chapman at Reason has a far more realistic take:
The best advice for the GOP is simple: Don't be at the helm when the economy hits the rocks. There is no better way for an incumbent party to assure its defeat than a recession. Richard Nixon proved that in 1960, Jimmy Carter confirmed it in 1980 and George H.W. Bush removed all doubt in 1992.What the Republicans should do, he thinks, is mainly to be patient and hope they'll get lucky. No real need to change anything. It worked for the Democrats, didn't it?
A corollary and equally obvious piece of wisdom is one the party learned in 2006 when Democrats swept the congressional elections: Don't preside over unsuccessful wars. The progress that followed the surge in Iraq largely solved that problem. But instead of becoming a Republican asset, Iraq became a political irrelevancy.
This raises what is surely the biggest political question of the moment, the one we are all waiting to see answered. Will the Demos avoid breaking rule number one?
Consider this sequence of events, which began in the twenties: 1) a housing boom (probably credit-driven) goes bust, 2) a stock market boom (probably same source) also collapses, 3) a Republican president is at the helm as the economy hits the rocks, 4) the democrats come into power and pretty much do whatever they want for decades.
So far, we have gone through 1 through 3 all over again. Will we now repeat 4? It's a matter of timing, if Chapman is right. We now know that the Great Depression bottomed out during the last year of Hoover's term. FDR had the good luck of presiding over the recovery. Is that going to happen again? Are things about to get better? I doubt it. All the signs are that things are going to get worse before they get better. In fact, if the new administration carries out its threat to continue to bail out the profligate, the foolish, and the larcenous at the expense of the wise, the thrifty, and the responsible, they could get much worse -- just as they did in 1930 when the government did the same thing. If things do get much worse, the Democrats have just bought themselves a mess of trouble.
(Come to think of it, since I am not an economist and have nothing to lose by being wrong, I'll just come out and predict that things are about to get much worse.)
By the way, FDR also presided over the1937 Depression Within the Depression. This one was nearly as deep as that of 1929-33, with unemployment topping 20 per cent again, and was obviously and completely the fault of the Democrats. Did the voters smack them around for it? Actually, they did. In the elections of 1938, the Republicans gained six Senate seats and 81 in the House. However, all was forgiven in the elections of 1940. The Demos made slight gains in Congress and the Robber in Chief got an unprecedented third term. Timing is all.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The UAW Deserves Its Share of Blame
Asks Prof. Perry:
Should U.S. taxpayers really be providing billions of dollars to bailout companies (GM, Ford and Chrysler) that compensate their workers 52.5% more than the market (assuming Toyota wages and benefits are market), 54% more than management and professional workers, 132% more than the average manufacturing wage, and 157% more than the average compensation of all American workers?Very, very good questions.
Beginning with legislation passed in the New Deal, some labor unions acquired massive economic power in this country. For a long time, as far as the American consumer was concerned, the American auto industry was the auto industry. They bought American cars, and didn't take foreign cars seriously as an alternative. Staggering amounts of wealth went to the American auto industry in exchange for their cars. The United Auto Workers used their industry-wide monopoly to suck in a large share of this loot, eventually becoming an unreasonably large portion of the cost of an American car. Now all of that is changed. Americans like Toyotas. They are no longer thrilled with Fords and they don't seem to want Chevys at all. Now big three auto workers have to compete with Toyota auto workers, and their product is not worth, to the consumers, what it costs them. The hayride is over.
... or mabe not. They want Americans, as taxpayers, to pay for something that they no longer wish, as consumers, to pay for: the huge wages of the American auto workers. And Obama, being a Democrat and deeply obliged to Big Labor, is determined to give them what they want.
By the way, because "there have to be strings attached," he will then tell them what kind of cars to make. I hope you'll like driving your imitation-Volvo hybrid.
Monday, November 17, 2008
The Myth of the Laissez-Faire Hoover
In the same vein Jonathan Alter recently said, in his hagiographic book on FDR, The Defining Moment, that when his idol took office Hoover had "for more than three years, since the aftermath of the stock market crash, ... been sullen and defensive as disease spread through the American economy."
This version of history is the very reverse of the truth. Hoover was one of the last of the progressive Republicans, a wonder-boy who was the darling of the people we now call the "liberals." During the short-lived Depression of 1921, it was Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, who pressed President Harding to intervene in the economy (the depression was over before Harding managed to act). The first movement to nominate Hoover for president was spearheaded by people like the Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt. When he finally was elected and the stock market crashed, he was able to pursue his interventionist dreams.
In Hoover's speech accepting the 1932 Republican nomination, he boasted of his measures to reverse the depression. Not only were his countercyclical policies remarkably similar to those of the New Deal and beyond, but his rhetoric was similar to that of every administration since then that has been caught in a serious downturn.
The depression, he tells us, was caused by "overproduction and speculative mania." The government evidently had nothing to do with causing this unprecedented catastrophe.
"We might have done nothing" he said. "That would have been utter ruin. Instead, we met the situation with proposals to private business and to the Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic." Here we see the military metaphors that dominate this sort of talk.
"Our measures have repelled these attacks of fear and panic." A major factor in causing the mess is irrational emotions, mainly on the part of those silly consumers. The possibility that these people are reacting rationally to a situation created by their own government need not be considered. Not being as eloquent as FDR, he didn't come up with something like "nothing to fear but fear itself." This is one of the real differences between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans don't pour a lot of sauce on their BS. They serve it up straight.
More important, consider some of the policies he was so proud of. By that time, he had:
1. Established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which propped ailien enterprises with loans from the Treasury Department. (Note how many of these measures sound familiar to us today.
2. Created a Public Works Administration to initiate vast make-work projects such as the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
3. Dramatically restricted immigration.
4. Restricted the development of natural resources in the name of conservation.
5. Reformed the bankruptcy laws, making it easier to escape from debt.
7. Created a Home Loan Bank systen, to create more credit for prospective home owners.
8. Signed the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff.
9. Signed the Glass-Steagall bank regulation act.
Details of the whole amazing story can be found in Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression.
The most amazing single detail is a quote from another of Hoover's speeches, quoted by Rothbard:
"For the first time in the history of depression, dividends, profits, and the cost of living, have been reduced before wages have suffered. . . . They were maintained until the cost of living had decreased and the profits had practically vanished. They are now the highest real wages in the world." It's not easy to imagine a more insane thing for a President to say in the depths of a depression. We compelled businesses to pay artificially high wages until their profits had practically vanished. Wow. You probably can guess what happened next. The businesses collapsed, unemployment soared to 25% nationally, and wages tumbled after all.
What is really disturbing though is that, except for number 5, these policies are very similar to ones that we are enacting, or are contemplating enacting, right now.
The Hoover-did-nothing myth shields us from looking at the possibility that these policies caused the worst horrors of the Great Depression in the first place. Eventually, perhaps the myth of GWBush-the-laissez-faire-deregulator may serve the same purpose.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
What Should the Republicans Do?
His main argument is that people who actually are economically conservative and socially liberal are “jackalopes of American politics": extremely difficult to find.
Actually, as Goldberg never once mentions, these people are called libertarians. And they do exist. According to an article that I cite frequently, studies variously show that ten to twenty percent of voters describe themselves this way.
Goldberg could have made his point better and more honestly if he had pointed out that, even if all these people vote Republican, which of course they don't, they would still be a minority of those who do. And he does have a powerful point when he says that the Republican party could not possibly survive without the voters who are socially conservative but also support (though often very weakly) something like a free market.
What Goldberg is probably thinking of when he says that people who are socially liberal and economically conservative are extremely rare is no doubt that elected politicians who come anywhere close to fitting this profile are extremely rare. Is that true? Let's see. There's Christine Todd Whitman, William Weld, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm running out of names here, and even they are far from perfect examples.*
In other words, a sizable portion of the population, ten to twenty per cent, and by no means the least educated or qualified or the least politically engaged, is almost completely unrepresented by the political system in this country. This seems to me to be an obvious injustice, and I don't think it is just because I happen to be one of the victims.
Ideally, I wish the Republican party would just break up into two parties: We could call them by their correct, traditional names: the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Party. It is the only way I could ever see a major party candidate for President with whom I more or less agree on most issues. (Just think, that's an experience my 90% Democratic colleagues at the university have every four years! Me, never!)
I don't think it is entirely inconceivable that this will happen. One of the many bad things that G. W. Bush has effected in this country is the new divisions within his party. These groups have never liked or respected each other very much, and they may be less inclined to cooperate today than ever before. Republicans who were never pro-war are really, seriously angry at those who were.
The breakup of the party might also might be desirable for the Republicans themselves. Once they were free to be themselves, without the need to appeal to people with whom they disagree on fundamental issues, these two groups of people could then attract blue dog Democrats and independents who do not currently feel represented by the system, and grow. At that point, things could get very interesting. Anyway, that is my utopian fantasy.
* Goldberg's intended argument might be something like this: There are no elected officials who fit this profile, therefore no one does, even though for some unexplained reason some people do describe themselves this way on surveys. But I say there is an obvious reason why there could be a virtual absence of sitting politicians who are like this though there are plenty of voters with corresponding views: the two-party system locks them out.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Demos Discuss Confiscating Your IRA and 401k
Democrats in the U.S. House have been conducting hearings on proposals to confiscate workers’ personal retirement accounts — including 401(k)s and IRAs — and convert them to accounts managed by the Social Security Administration.If they get away with it, the confiscated accounts will be transformed into "Guaranteed Retirement Accounts." The magically soothing word here is "guaranteed." You didn't really want to make any investment decisions, did you? It will all be done by the government now -- you can count on the government to take care of you. Right? Especially the Social Security Administration, which has always done such a good job.
One thing that is weird about this is that it apparently is the would-be perpetrators, themselves, who are calling this a "confiscation." Usually, they use nicer-sounding words for the things they do to us.
As soon as it looks like they are going to do this, I am going to incur whatever penalty fees I have to pay and empty all me retirement accounts. It will take some careful watching because these people will no doubt slap a rule on us prohibiting such defensive moves before they commit their giant act of theft. Also complicating matters is the fact that I will want to delay my move until after the end of the year so that I can delay the taxes I'll have to pay on it.
Damn! Life under a modern kleptocracy is complicated!
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Obama is confident that we can come together to find a workable solution. He believes that one strong option to improve Social Security's long-term solvency is asking people who earn more than $250,000 to pay a little more into the system.Well, as long as he is only "asking," they are perfectly free to say "no," right? It's like what Rahm Emanuel, Obama's newly appointed Chief of Staff says who declared in his book:
It's time for a real PATRIOT Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, All Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation, and community service.
As long as he's simply asking, my nineteen year old son will be free to simply say no. I don't get why Emanuel goes on to warn that "[s]ome Republicans will squeal about individual freedom," seeking to foil his plan to manufacture young patriots. What's this got to do with freedom?
As my liberal friends have told me many times, liberals don't coerce people. It's mean old Republicans who use coercion, like when someone wants to have an abortion. Liberals ask. Real nice.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Stimulus Checks as Mood Control
I suspect that one of the elements of the mind set involved here is a certain view of human emotions, a view that I believe is philosophically flawed and perhaps morally objectionable as well.
In a recent column, Paul Krugman gave voice to one of the underlying ideas:
The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone's income. In fact, consumers' income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires -- a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.Interpreted in a certain way, this is obviously true. But it is true of any part of the economy, not just consumer spending. If some extra-planetary force caused all of the factory machines to work more slowly, it would be bad for everybody. If, for no good reason, all the banks in the country were to loan less money, the same would be true. Ditto if the consumers cut spending, not for some good reason, but only because some Evil Genius made them spend less.
But suppose that they spent less for a reason. For instance, what if they had actual evidence that certain bad things will happen in the future, things that will require money reserves to deal with them. Then they ought to spend less. And the rational thing to expect at present is that in the long run this will not be bad for the economy at all, but good for it. They will spend the money in the future after all -- that is the point of their not-spending it now. (This not-spending is called saving.) And the evidence they have indicates the future spending will produce more value than present spending. And producing value is what economies are supposed to do.
Maybe what Krugman and many, many others are assuming is that this is not what is going on here. Consumers are spending less because they have "the jitters," they have "lost confidence" and (this is crucial) they are not responding to real-world evidence that is economically relevant in the way that the consumers in the above example are responding. These theorists and policy-makers are looking at these consumer emotions as exogenous factors, ones that come from outside the system of rational economic agents. You are having these feelings for no good reason, and what you need is a check for $1,000 to calm your jitters and boost your confidence.
The idea is that human emotions (at least the emotions of the average person) are fundamentally irrational. Indeed, the stimulus strategy itself would only work if the consumer is irrational. It would be profoundly irrational to change your feelings about the future of the economy because you got a one-shot income-boost of $1,000 from the government. A rational person would experience some pleasant emotions as they spend/save/invest the $1,000, but their feelings will return to whatever they were before, after the money is disposed of. Normal human emotions are like that: they evaporate quickly when the facts that prompted them change.
The stimulus strategy seems to assume that people do not function this way at all. They are basically insane, but insane in a way that can easily be manipulated by the masterminds who are devising the stimulus package. What I see here is arrogance, combined contempt for one's fellow human beings.
This view of the emotions is profoundly flawed. Unless there is something pathological going on (eg., a phobia, or dysthymia) emotions are basically rational and tend to result in behavior that is more or less efficient. Suppose I am taking a walk one night and a dog lunges at me, snarling, out of the dark. I am terrified. That is because I have reason to think it will hurt me. Prompted by my fear, I get away from the animal, fast. That is more or less what I should do. Similarly, if the consumer is worried about the economy because they have reason to think it is turning south and someone in their family may well lose their job, then out of fear they will consume less, and by God that is what they ought to be doing.
Further, if you do give them a check they will use it to save or pay down debt rather than consume -- which is what they did with the first "stimulus" check, at a rate of about 85-to15. People are not the manipulable fools that the Bushes and Obamas of the world take them to be. And thank God for that.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Man Arrested for Wearing McCain/Palin T-Shirt
Scroll forward to about 3:30. (Video from the conspiracist website RogueGovernment.com.)
At one point Philly's Phinest seem to be trying to tear the man's shirt off. I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that the cops are afraid that this brave/insane man's very presence in a screaming mob of Obamaniacs is a threat to his life or, at least his bodily integrity, and are arresting him to protect him.
Read this way, I suppose the celebrating mob in this case is scarier as a portent for the future than the cops are. I certainly don't begrudge them their celebration -- heck, if I were African American I would probably would have been in the street singing and dancing as well. (Though maybe I should mention that not all African Americans were. See also here.) But why should the underside of joy and love be anger and hatred for those who don't share it? Maybe this is true of one kind of love.
On a lighter note, there's this (hat-tip to 2Blowhards):
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Why Do Republicans Run Those Ant-Intellectual, Opponent-Demonizing Campaigns?
Admittedly, we have just endured a campaign in which one of John McCain's favorite arguments was to yell Bill Ayers! Bill Ayers! Bill Ayers! Another was to holler Reverend Wright! Reverent Wright! Reverend Wright! None of his arguments had anything to do with the current recession/depression, the financial system, counter-cyclical government policies, inflation and deflation, or the regulatory system. While the rest of the world was screaming about these things, he screamed about Ayers. Ayers was a legitimate issue back in May, when Hillary Clinton raised it, but surely not during a time of serious national crisis.
I think I know what McCain was thinking: Talking about the economy at all would, by an association of ideas in the minds of the stupid voters, link McCain with the unpopular incumbent and cost him votes. So the sensible thing to do is, not to discuss the causes and cures of the present crisis, but to distract attention from it by trying to demonize your opponent.
McCain may have done something that H. L. Mencken famously said you cannot do: go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
As everyone knows, the two Bushes ran similarly cynical, nasty campaigns, following advice from people like Karl Rove and Lee Atwater.
So why am I denying that this is something that Republicans consistently do? Well, think further back. Ronald Reagan was a Republican. So was Barry Goldwater. Did they campaign this way? Of course not. And it is pretty obvious what they had in common and what McCain and the Bushes have in common. Reagan and Goldwater were ideological candidates, while McCain and the Bushes are non-ideological moderates.
As I have pointed out before, in the political realm, "moderate" does not mean "non-extreme." It means that your positions do not derive from a coherent principle or theory, but are cobbled together from an inconsistent set of principles put forward by various different, clashing ideologies.
An ideological candidate has a definite message to get across and will be eager to talk about the message. Moderates don't have that. This creates problems for them. Of course, there are many possible solutions, but if they are running against an ideological candidate, one very tempting one will be to scream about how scary the opponent's ideology is.
So the people who strongly tend to run these reprehensibly stupid and nasty campaigns are not the Republicans per se but non-ideological, moderate Republicans. On the other hand, as anyone old enough to remember 1964 knows, ideological Republicans are sometimes the victims of such fear-mongering campaigns.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Obama Elected, Market Plunges
Meanwhile, we read this at Reason Hit and Run:
Andrew Young predicted that "There would be a boost of 1,000 points on the stock market the first week after he's elected." The Telegraph wondered if a "Barack Obama victory [will] boost shares."
Damn! So I guess he is not the Messiah after all. I'm stunned.
Seriously, it does concern me that people seem to have messianic expectations about this guy. It's part of a wider and more vicious phenomenon, I believe, in which the state serves as the new church, or the new God. More accurately, it's what Nietzsche called it: The New Idol.
"It bites with stolen teeth, and bites easily. Whatever it says is false and whatever it has is stolen." See Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Pt. I Ch. 5. He saw it coming.
People are going to political leaders for things that the should never, ever try to get from the state: a sense of meaning and a sense of personal hope for their lives. These things are your own responsibility. It's bad enough when people run to the state to get money and power over others, but in that case at least the power and the loot are real. The meaning and hope your Fuehrer infuses into your life are utterly false from beginning to end. If you think your Leader lights up your life, my friend, you are only more deeply in the dark. That God is a false God, an idol.
Hat tip to Kathryn Muratore for this video:
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The Wages of Sin
Nice work, fellas. Such is your reward for losing your principles, your bearings, and your soul.
The next big question is whether the Democrats will show any self-restraint at all in wielding this unearned gift of theirs. Early signs are bearish.
For one thing, it's not their way. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, by similar margins and with similar majorities in both houses, he began by trying to push through one of the most gluttonously pork-larded budgets that had ever been seen. It took, as I recall it, a filibuster by Republicans in Congress to stop it. (This is why I was looking so closely to see whether the Demos would get a filibuster-proof Senate. Thank God they didn't.) Then he tried to, in effect, nationalize the health care industry. Again, failure, but not for lack of trying.
Second, and much more ominously, the Demos and their spokespundits are making it very clear that think they won because the voters suddenly fell in love with their policies, that this is a "repudiation of the free market." Unfortunately, there is a grain of truth in this. Since 1929 (though not before that) American voters have had a habit of running to the government for help during hard times. That they are running, not to safety, but to greater danger, is a lesson that they have not learned. Yet.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Yma Sumac, RIP
Added later: I just found this note by the divine Camille Paglia, in her column on Salon:
On the culture front, I was startled to read of the death last week of Yma Sumac, the virtuoso five-octave Peruvian singer who seems like a legendary figure of the misty past. Sumac's 1950 debut album, "Voice of the Xtabay," made a tremendous impact on me as a child. My family attended her performance (with her company of 20 artists) at the Binghamton Theatre in what was probably 1951. I still have the yellowed clippings and program, which lists songs eerily mimicking the sound of the Andean winds and earthquakes. The cover image of "Voice of the Xtabay" with a glamorous Sumac in the pose of a prophesying priestess against a background of fierce sculptures and an erupting volcano, contains the entire pagan worldview and nature cult of what would become my first book, "Sexual Personae," published 40 years later. Thank you, Yma!Wow, what a tribute. I feel vindicated. Thanks Camille!
The polling place was in a church on a rise over cornfields and a weedy pond. Flocks of honking Canada geese were landing.
In a corner of the pond, a green frog (Rana clamitans) was floating, its forelegs stretched out in the water, enjoying what may be the last warm day of the season. Winter is coming. The winters here are long and dark, but if it is lucky that frog will still be alive when spring comes again. I hope so.
Stop the Pork Stampede!
Here in Madison Wisconsin, one of the projects is the repaving of University Avenue, a six lane street that as far as I can see is in perfectly adequate repair already. If the repaving makes any difference at all, it will only mean that people on University Avenue will be driving even faster than before. I think they are already driving too damn fast.
Look at these projects and remind yourself: you will be paying for them, and paying dearly. Given that they are determined not to raise taxes (yet) there are only two ways to enable this stampede of pork. On the one hand, the government may go even further in to debt, a debt that you and your children and grandchildren will pay, and with interest. The only alternative is to inflate the currency, thus taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the value of every dollar you earn. Given that Chinese investors are understandably growing tired of loaning us money, the latter alternative is looking more and more likely.
I urge you to email your senators today, and beg them to reject this disgraceful piece of legislation. The now-discredited TARP was bad enough. It consisted merely in the banking industry using the federal government to rob the rest of us. It made sense, in a criminal sort of way. This plan is a matter of every Tom, Dick, and Harry robbing every Harry, Dick, and Tom -- and themselves. This makes no kind of sense at all.
Oh, and by the way, it won't work.
On a somewhat lighter note, here is a prediction as to where America will be by Christmas, given the way things are going now. And here are some alternatives to the "stimulus" heist.
And here is Peter Schiff explaining it all:
Update: For the moment, the stimulus package is stalled in Congress. Let us see what it morphs into next. When I recall that, after TARP stalled momentarily, it turned into the ghastly pork-festooned Christmas Tree from Hell, I am not optimistic.
Monday, November 03, 2008
The Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil
Does it make sense to choose the lesser of two evils?* Ryan McMacken, writing on the LewRockwell blog, poses the question this way:
You have been captured by a band of criminals. In a room stands you, two criminals, and 11 children. Criminal A hands you a gun and tells you to shoot one of the children in the head or the other 10 will be murdered by criminal B who has a machine gun. [Suppose there is some reason you can't shoot the criminals -- which of course would obviously be the optimal choice.] What do you do?
Faced with such a choice of two evils, he says, the proper response is to say, "I chose neither. I will not cooperate in committing evil." Speaking from a Catholic perspective, he gives three reasons for this position, which I reproduce here with my comments and emendations:
The only point here that I would want to amend in some major way is (1), which rests on the idea that all persons have "infinite value." I admit that this notion does make my heart beat faster, but I could never in good conscience say that it is true, for the simple reason that I can't coherently explain what sort of "value" this is. Nor have I ever seen anyone else give a coherent explanation of it. Obviously, it doesn't refer to the person's contribution to the economy -- ie., the value involved is not market value. Nor does it consist in one's fitness for some job or position or role. Nor is it virtue or worthiness for admiration. What is it? I can't say, and so far as I know, neither can anyone else.
1. 10 children are not worth more than 1 child. Each human person is infinitely valuable, and for you to cooperate in the murder of one of them, no matter what your motivation, is to be a murderer, and no less a murderer than the one who murders 10. Humans cannot be reduced to math equations in Christian morality.
2. If criminal B proceeds to murder 10 children, you are not morally culpable. The murderers are the criminals, not you. You have a responsibility to not damn yourself and to not cooperate in evil.
3. You cannot predict the future [with certainty -- not, at any rate, future human behavior]. You don't know that if you shoot the one child that the criminals will keep their words and spare the children. It could be that you will all be murdered no matter what, and all that you have accomplished is to become a murderer yourself. You also don't know that if you spare the one, that the criminals won't spare all of you for some other reason.
But I do have an alternative idea, one that amounts to the same thing in practice. It is that persons have rights, and that these rights are moral constraints on your behavior. Constraints do have exceptions, but where no exceptions apply, you may not infringe them.
What you do not do is the count the number of violations and minimize them. Numbers don't count. Quantitative considerations do not apply here. That is part of the difference between a constraint and concepts like "value." What you do with value is you maximize it. With a constraint what you do is you don't violate it. In practice, this means acting as if ten children are not worth more than one.
* The following discussion, I should admit, is only relevant to voting if we assume that voting for doing A rather than B has the same moral status (guilt or innocence, etc.) as choosing to do A rather than B. This of course can be denied.