May 27, 2004

Spontaneous order revisited

Posted by shonk at 02:00 AM in Geek Talk , Science | permalink | 5 comments

Back in September, I wrote a post critiquing the responses of Tim Swanson and Brian Doss (of Catallarchy fame) to Stephen Strogatz’ book Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life. Those responses an be found in Brian’s initial post and the ensuing comments thread and suggest that those studying spontaneous order would be best served by following Alfred Marshall’s advice to “burn the mathematics”. My post (which apparently lost the first paragraph or two in the switch to a new domain back in December), is called “Spontaneous Order” and also spawned a response from Neil.

Okay, with the citations out of the way, the issue of the day is whether I still agree with what I said back in September, now that I’ve just finished reading the book; and the answer is largely “yes”. In fact, I don’t think I went nearly far enough in my criticism of the notion that those studying spontaneous order should avoid mathematical formalism. For example, the following was my conclusive summary of the post:

My point is not to demonstrate that the study of spontaneous order is a mathematical discipline, nor that it should be. Rather, I just want to make the point that it has certain similarities to mathematics and, of course, will necessarily need to use mathematical tools in many instances. In fact, though I admit to not knowing nearly enough to be able to have any insights, it seems like mathematics, especially areas of study like graph theory and networks, might be able to shed some light on some of the applications of spontaneous order mentioned by Strogatz

Not very bold, right? Well, I hadn’t actually read the book yet. Now that I have, it’s abundantly clear that anybody who has actually read Strogatz’ book already knows that it is, at heart, a math book; the fact that it’s not publicized as such has more to do with the irrational fear most people have of mathematics. Virtually every result Strogatz cites is a result in pure or applied mathematics, with all the usual deduction and separation from empirical strategies that that entails. Many of these are proofs about idealized models of coupled oscillators, results which probably help explain how, for example, Thai fireflies flash in sync, but building an experiment to actually test this is so difficult that it apparently hasn’t been done to any degree of satisfaction yet (or, if it has, Strogatz doesn’t mention it). The same holds for, say, three-dimensional synchronicity, which has applications to cardiac arrhythmia, but which is discussed in the book purely in terms of mathematics and chemical reactions in a very special kind of fluid.

The point is this: right now, the mathematics of spontaneous order is both several steps ahead of and well behind the real world. It’s several steps ahead in the sense that mathematical explanations of synchronous processes seems, in large measure, to be ahead of the capability of experimental science to confirm (or deny, of course). On the other hand, mathematics is obviously very far behind the real world, as we can’t yet accurately model the spontaneous order that occurs between nerve cells to make our hearts beat, let alone the presumably much more complicated processes occurring within our brains. Whatever the case, reading Strogatz’ book confirmed my suspicion that, in fact, mathematics is essential to the emerging field of spontaneous order (as a side note, both Doss and Swanson, in the original Catallarchy post linked above, seem to reject mathematics because it conflicts with the principles of Austrian economics and the Austrians’ rejection of empirical economics is well-known; so my question is this: if Austrians reject empiricism as well as mathematics (i.e. deduction), how, exactly, do they advocate gaining knowledge? (Of course, I know the answer, but the Austrian-sympathizers would do well, in my opinion, to keep this question in mind)).

This all having been said, Sync was a bit too devoid of mathematical content for my taste, in the sense that, although almost everything in the book boiled down to mathematics, Strogatz explained most of the actual mathematical machinery in terms of analogies to runners on a track or audiences clapping or whatever, whereas I would have liked to see greater mathematical rigor (not necessarily the equations themselves, which are almost certainly too complicated to mean very much to the uninitiated, but rather a more rigorous argument, with references to actual mathematical principles, theorems, etc.). For example, when Strogatz says “[u]sing a theorem from topology, Winfree proved that a twisted scroll ring was impossible, at least as a solitary entity”, it would have been nice if he had explained what theorem, exactly, even if only in the endnotes. Or, as Neil says,

In fact, as [Strogatz] chronicled the mathematical history of sync as an abstract study, I found myself wanting various symbols and equations

As an ego-boost, I’ll point out that in the above quotation from my September post, my suggestion that graph theory and networks “might be able to shed some light on some of the applications of spontaneous order mentioned by Strogatz” was right on, as Chapter Nine of Sync is titled and devoted to “Small-World Networks”.

Now, a couple of quotations to think about (I’ve omitted one interesting and very extended passage, because I want to dedicate and entire, separate post to it, hopefully some time this weekend):

In other words, a dumb rule (majority rule) running on a smart architecture (a small world) achieved performance that broke the world record.

— pg. 251 (Here, Strogatz is talking about the density classification problem for one-dimensional binary automata, where he and one of his students decided to re-wire the binary automata as a small-world network — where most of the connections between automata (think lightbulbs) are locally clustered, but a few are long-distance — and almost immediately, using the simplest algorithm imaginable, were able to solve the problem more consistently than the best algorithm using “dumb architecture”)

Barabási and his team pointed out that scale-free networks [like the Internet or protein interactions in yeast] also embody a compromise bearing the stamp of natural selection: They are inherently resistant to random failures, yet vulnerable to deliberate attack against their hubs. Given that mutations occur at random, natural selection favors designs that can tolerate haphazard insults. By their very geometry, scale-free networks are robust with respect to random failures, because the vast majority of nodes have few links and are therefore expendable. Unfortunately, this evolutionary design has a downside. When hubs are selectively targeted (something that random mutation could never do), the integrity of the network degrades rapidly—the size of the giant component collapses and the average path length swells, as nodes become isolated, cast adrift on their own little islands.

— pg. 257

Helbing and Huberman computed the long-term traffic patterns under a variety of different conditions. When there were only a few vehicles on the road, all the cars sailed past the slower-moving trucks without ever decelerating, while the trucks lumbered along at their maximum safe speed of 55 miles an hour. At higher but still moderate densities of traffic, some unlucky cars found themselves trapped behind trucks for a long time, with no room to pass or switch lanes.

At a critical density of traffic—about 35 vehicles in each lane per mile of road—all the cars and trucks spontaneously synchronized, traveling down the highway like a solid block. Remarkably, out of pure competition, with no coordinator or central authority, a large group of selfish individuals ended up in a cooperative state that was optimal for all of them. (Adam Smith would approve.) This state was optimal in the sense that the flux of traffic was as high as it could be: The number of cars and trucks passing through a given stretch of highway per hour was maximized. It was also the safest way for traffic to flow, because the drivers had no opportunities to change lanes or pass (the maneuvers associated with most accidents). Helbing and Huberman tested their model against data taken from a two-lane Dutch highway and found evidence of the predicted state. At the critical density, the car speeds were at their most stable, as measured by their velocity fluctuations, and lane changing and passing were minimized. Unfortunately—and as the model also predicted—the crystalline state proved to be delicate. At densities just above critical, it melted into a disorganized liquid state, which created opportunities for passing again, leading to unsteady, stop-and-go traffic.

— pgs. 269-70

“In individuals, insanity is rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”

— Nietzsche, cited on pg. 273

May 26, 2004

Vote early, vote often

Posted by shonk at 04:30 AM in Politics | permalink | 4 comments

Just a quick theory on why elections in Iraq are currently scheduled for January (but which might be moved up to as early as December) in spite of the fact that the official transfer of power in Iraq is supposed to take place in late June: holding those elections before the U.S. presidential election in November could well be disastrous for the Bush administration. Why? Because, as the cynics have been saying all along, Iraq is not suitable for a Western-style democracy at this point in time. A truly free and honest election would likely result in a pretty reactionary government, precisely the sort of thing continued U.S. involvement after the official end of the war was supposed to prevent. Simply put, fundamentalist candidates winning the election in Iraq would nullify practically the entire justification for the ongoing U.S. occupation and, as such, would pretty much destroy whatever credibility the administration still has among moderates. This, in turn, means there can be no election in Iraq before the pesky domestic one is taken care of.

Again, you might ask “Why?” After all, it’s not like the U.S. hasn’t staged fake elections in other countries before (hello Nicaragua!). However, in this case, given the almost overwhelming scrutiny that is sure to come to bear on the Iraqi elections, blatant electoral fraud (which, again, I suspect would be the only way to ensure that moderate candidates gain a plurality) seems unlikely to pass unnoticed. And can you imagine the righteous fury on the part of Democrats if elections were held in Iraq before November and systematic electoral fraud to help “moderate” (read: cozy with the Bush administration) candidates were uncovered?

The point is, pre-November elections are a damned-if-you-do,-damned-if-you-don’t proposition for the administration and I can’t but think that’s the real reason elections won’t be held until January, or December at the earliest.

Oh, and just so as to dispel any hint of partisanship here, let me just state for the record I’m already pre-warming the disgust node in my brain on the off chance that Kerry is elected, because he and his followers will inevitably fall all over themselves in appeasing whatever fundamentalist scumbag rises to the surface in Iraq come January. Whether or not that puts him on a higher moral plane than Bush is, of course, something you’ll have to decide for yourself.


Posted by shonk at 03:48 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

Good news in Nairobi’s slums:

Last year, a group of Nairobi slum dwellers banded together and asked the city council to give them the land that they had been squatting on illegally. In return, they promised to build proper houses, schools, and community centers without any government money.

“We went to the council and said: ‘We know this land belongs to you, but we have lived here for 30 years and if you help us, we will make it a clean environment with good security,” says Peter Chege, secretary of the housing association. “In the end, they agreed to draw up title deeds to the land in our name.”

Not surprisingly (at least for those who have read Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path), things are looking up for the slum-dwellers in Nairobi, where plots are being marked out and three-story cement houses are rising from the cardboard wasteland. As pointed out in the article, the primary impetus for these new developments in Nairobi is Slum Dwellers International, “an Indian pressure group that encourages people living in slums to find their own solutions to housing problems”, but their inspiration almost certainly comes, at least in part, from de Soto’s seminal work, which was the first to effectively demonstrate that the primary impediments to wealth-creation in the third world are state restrictions on the acquisition and protection of property.

The Other Path is basically a detailed study of poverty in Peru which argues that this poverty is largely a result of the fact that government policy effectively prevents the majority of urban Peruvians from owning land or running legitimate businesses. As in Nairobi, a huge number of Peruvians (at least at the time of the book’s publication — the new government that came into power at about the same time has done much to reverse these situations) squatted on state-owned land, where they had constructed and maintained dwellings of varying quality, but the fact that the state refused to recognize title to this “property” meant that capital improvements were extremely minimal (this refusal wasn’t completely outright, as groups which had sought title to the land they occupied were occasionally granted it, but the average amount of time this process took was on the order of 7 years). Similar restrictions on entry into the retail and transportation market (to take the other two primary examples from the book) made it such that the majority of both retail and public transport was being conducted by black-market businesses which, since they were technically illegal, were not able to expand beyond very small operations and thus were denied the possibility of taking advantage of economies of scale. Or, as de Soto puts it:

Secure property rights, on the other hand, encourage holders to invest in their property because of their certainty that the property will not be usurped. From a strictly economic standpoint, therefore, the true purpose of property rights is not to benefit the individuals or entities holding those rights, but to give them the incentive to increase the value of their assets by investing, innovating, or combining them advantageously with other resources, something which would have beneficial results for society. (The Other Path, pp. 159-60)

De Soto concludes that the best thing Peru (and, by extension, other similar countries) could do to reduce poverty would be to liberalize economic regulations, making it easier for the poor to own the land they live on and operate their businesses without fear of police raids. This as opposed to, say, building more state-funded low-income housing (which was inevitably of poorer quality than even the squatter’s settlements). Based on the article, it seems that there are a number of parallels between today’s Kenya and the Peru de Soto describes (circa 1986) and it seems that precisely the sort of liberalized land policy de Soto advocates is working for Nairobi as well.

On the subject of de Soto, I wrote a response to someone who wanted to know if de Soto’s work implies that government recognition of property rights is a prerequisite of free-market wealth-creation. Since it provides a sort of general summary of The Other Path as well as a suggestion that de Soto’s work actually indicates that government isn’t strictly necessary (even though de Soto himself probably wouldn’t agree), I reproduce that response here (actually, before we get to that, let me just briefly mention that the complete title of the book is actually The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism; it might be interesting to think about de Soto’s arguments within the context of the terrorism problems we’re currently experiencing, both generally and specifically as those arguments might apply to the development of Iraq):

I don’t think DeSoto is arguing that capitalism can only flourish in the presence of property taxes, nor that government is necessarily required to enforce property rights (well, he would say it is, but applying his logic consistently doesn’t, in my opinion, yield that conclusion). Rather, he argues that the people of Peru and other third world countries want to be entrepreneurs, but the State actively prohibits them from doing so. For example, when the book was written, it took something on the order of 8 months and several thousands of dollars (this in a country where the average per capita income is in the neighborhood of $2000) to get a small business legally recognized. Researchers at the ILD (Instituto Libertad y Democracia) actually tried to set up such a business, approaching it as a small businessman would, paying bribes only when necessary, fulfilling all the legal requirements, etc. Similarly, acquiring title to previously unowned land took something on the order of seven years. As a result of the extremely high cost of achieving legal recognition, most business owners and land “owners” simply choose to operate in what DeSoto calls the “informal” sector. Most end up being street vendors, bus drivers (for informal bus companies), etc. and living in informal settlements which are, nonetheless, better than the publicly funded low-income housing. Given the uncertain nature of their continued existence, businesses and homeowners have developed elaborate solutions to the problems of titles, property rights, dispute resolution, and the like. In fact, these are excellent examples of so-called “private law” in effect. DeSoto himself even praises the ingenuity of these solutions, but notes their shortcomings: since they are still technically illegal, there’s a high degree of uncertainty involved in entrusting your livelihood or your home to these schemes. As such, informals have far less incentive than regular businessmen/homeowners to invest in capital improvements, and the opportunity for taking advantage of economies of scale is virtually non-existant.

Nonetheless, modern, concrete-and-glass buildings have been constructed illegally at a rate of seven times those constructed legally in Peru’s capital, Lima. The overwhelming majority of low-income housing is constructed illegally; in some cases the state eventually recognizes title in a way reminiscent of how California ended up dealing with Gold Rush claims, but many informal settlements remain technically illegal even 20 or 30 years after their initial settlement. About 95% of Lima’s “public” transportation is provided by informal bus/taxi systems, and a majority of retail is also informal. These statistics, along with a detailed description of specifically how the informal retail, housing and transportation markets work are used by DeSoto to demonstrate that the people of Peru want to be entrepreneurs and property-owners, that they aren’t simply lazy and/or Marxist types that want to live off welfare. However, the enormous legal restrictions that exist to entering these markets are daunting enough to prevent most from “going legal”, entailing the problems detailed above.

So what’s the big deal about “going legal”? Why would the Peruvian economy be so much better off if all these businesses were recognized by the government? Well, quite simply, because the government is the only game in town. The “private law” solutions developed by the informals do well amongst themselves (for example, street vendors tend to have “rights” to their particular patch of sidewalk, which are respected and defended by their neighbors), but outside of the informal realm, they don’t work so well, since the state still, ultimately, holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If a “legitimate” businessman wants some competition shut down, he need only use his political connections to make it so (in fact, as a side note, DeSoto found that political connections, even for informals, are generally more important than almost any other factor in determining success). Similarly, informal landowners run the risk that government will grant title to the land beneath their feet to someone else with better political connections. Also, if an informal wants to shoot (actually, I’m not sure guns are legal in Peru, but that’s another issue) a burglar on his property, he can be prosecuted for murder, since the State doesn’t recognize his property rights and thus he can’t use defense of his property as a defense. The importance in getting recognized by the state is, ultimately, not to protect yourself from other private individuals (as mentioned above, the “private law” arrangements in place between informals tend to do well within that group), but rather to protect yourself from the state.

May 25, 2004

Why television is like politics -- bad adaptations of cultural theories

Posted by shonk at 06:19 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all of these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

(Excerpted from David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. fiction”, from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993)

Though I wouldn’t claim to know how original the above argument is, I would venture to say that it’s probably the most coherent and reasoned explanation I’ve read of why television has never, shall we say, lived up to its cultural and educational promise. The standard critique of television is simply that it’s vacuous, vulgar, etc. or, perhaps, downright evil, but little thought is usually given to exactly why this is the case. Or, if an explanation is given, it usually falls exactly along the lines that Wallace rejects, namely that the audience is vacuous, vulgar, etc. as well. But that does little to explain why many intelligent, cultured people are almost inexplicably drawn to even the most blatantly hackneyed crap available on the idiot box. Wallace’s explanation, on the other hand, explains much of this in a single deft maneuver.

And, more importantly, his explanation rings true. Which of even the most jaded aesthetes among us can help bobbing their heads and singing along to 50 Cent’s “In the Club” or Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”, even after the twentieth repetition in the last week? (Okay, that’s something of a dated example, but my spring-break memories from a year ago are still quite vivid; two years before that it was the supremely obnoxious “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) Who hasn’t been drawn in at least once by one of those godawful professional wrestling shows, which are simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably dreadful? Finally, how many people haven’t, at some time in their lives, stayed up much too late reading a formulaic thriller in the Grisham/Crichton/Clancy/Brown mold? Extrapolating from my own experience, I would speculate that most of us who know better are, at least occasionally, drawn to these forms of entertainment because they rather directly appeal to our “Low” tastes.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t a particularly large variety of “Low” themes out there. Sex, violence and melodrama pretty much cover that particular genre and there are only so many ways that sex, violence and melodrama can be combined without ascending to a realm where they require at least a moderate investment of intellectual effort.

Okay, so far I haven’t exactly added anything to DFW’s initial point, so let me perhaps apply the same theory to other sorts of socio-entertainment outlets. As alluded to above, the same explanation serves for the cases of, for example, pop music, summer blockbusters, thriller novels, etc., all of which are considerably more popular and revenue-producing than their higher-concept cousins (a fact which should have been the first clue that the vacuity/vulgarity of television isn’t exactly unique to the medium and, therefore, that explanations on the basis that television is just evil or whatever are overly reductionist). The same holds for most other varieties of art I can think of off the top of my head (suburban cookie-cutter architecture vs. Frank Lloyd Wright (or even the detestable Frank Gehry), Penthouse photography vs. Jan Saudek, etc.)

Another area where I think this sort of framework is applicable is in the sordid realm of politics (you just knew I had to tie it into politics somehow, didn’t you?). There’s a myth these days that politics is more superficial than it ever has been, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing but a myth, in the same psychic space as various other nostalgic myths. Until very recently, historically speaking, the majority of politics (at least in the choosing-a-leader sense which today draws the majority of our cynical scorn) was almost unimaginably superficial, being based solely on who fucked (and, thereby, presumably impregnated) who. The baroque machinations of the Founding Fathers in doing everything in their power to prevent the common man from actually having any influence on important elections demonstrates pretty clearly that they knew damn well that representative democracy would be no less superficial; the fact that “mudslinging” is a 19th century term bears out the hypothesis that the devolution isn’t entirely a late 20th century phenomenon.

In politics as in television, there are wildly divergent disagreements on the “important” issues, whereas there is much more homogeneity in the realm of superficial concerns like what the candidate looks like and how empathetic he seems. The big one, of course, is “consensus-building”, which seems more important than actually having any beliefs or goals to build a consensus around.

So but like (dear God, I’m picking up DFW mannerisms now) the point is this: as in the case of television, the blame for politics’ superficiality cannot rightly be laid either on the populace or on the candidates themselves per se, but rather must be viewed as a sort of necessary consequence of the very process itself. Just as television necessarily tries to engender as much watching and to gather as many viewers as possible, politics is all about gathering maximum votes. In both cases, the most efficient tactic is to appeal to the areas with the broadest appeal, which almost of necessity are in the most superficial areas. Again, this isn’t necessarily because the populace is itself superficial, but rather because “higher” interests and tastes are so much more varied than the “lower” or superficial ones. And GW doesn’t get extra points for votes based “important” issues.

Okay, some more quotes from the book for you to think about (or just laugh at):

Despite the unquestioned assumption on the part of pop-culture critics that television’s poor old Audience, deep down, “craves novelty,” all available evidence suggests, rather, that the Audience really craves sameness but thinks, deep down, that it ought to crave novelty.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

The fact is that TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence for the Big Face that TV shows us. This is turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

“This is potentially key,” I’m saying. “This may be just the sort of regional politico-sexual contrast the swanky East-Coast magazine is keen for. The core value informing a kind of willed politico-sexual stoicism on your part is your prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun —”

“Buy me some pork skins, you dipshit.”

“— whereas on the East Coast, politico-sexual indignation is the fun. In New York, a woman who’d been hung upside down and ogled would go get a whole lot of other women together and there’d be this frenzy of politico-sexual indignation. They’d confront the ogler. File an injunction. Management’d find itself litigating expensively — violation of a woman’s right to nonharassed fun. I’m telling you. Personal and political fun merge somewhere just east of Cleveland, for women.”

— “Getting away from already pretty much being away from it all”

[David] Lynch’s movies, for all their unsubtle archetypes and symbols and intertextual references and c., have about them the remarkable unself-consciousness that’s kind of the hallmark of Expressionist art — nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself. This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies fundamentally unironic, and I submit that Lynch’s lack of irony is the real reason some cinéastes — in this age when ironic self-consciousness is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication — see him as a naïf or a buffoon.

— “David Lynch keeps his head”

[Tennis Canada] is Canada’s version of the U.S.T.A., and its logo — which obtrudes into your visual field as often as is possible here at the du Maurier Omnium — consists of the good old Canadian maple leaf with a tennis racket for a stem. It’s stuff like Tennis Canada’s logo you want to point to when Canadians protest that they don’t understand why Americans make fun of them.

— “Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness”

May 23, 2004

The Daily Douche

Posted by shonk at 04:26 AM in War | permalink | comment

Gene Callahan, Austrian economics guru and obscure political satirist, goes to town with The Daily Douche.

(Hint: If you don’t get it, remember, bad puns can be good clues)

May 21, 2004

New look

Posted by shonk at 02:49 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

Although my own hair continues to get longer and shaggier, I decided today that selling waves needed a trim. As I’m sure you’ve already noticed, I pretty much went at it with a razor blade. Pretty much all of the features are still here, but I’ve tried my best to clean up the look a bit. Why? Well, aside from the fact that things had been far too cluttered for far too long, there’s been some weird bug that’s been overlaying the right sidebar on the main content in Internet Explorer (yes, I know this has actually been going on for quite a while now). Needless to say, not a good thing. And, of course, I figured out exactly what the problem was (and how to fix it without changing the entire layout) after changing the layout. Big surprise, I know.

Primary inspiration came from Petya and Daring Fireball; hopefully I haven’t ripped either one off too blatantly.

Anyway, if you have strong feelings about the new look, drop me an email or leave a comment. If you’re looking for something that used to be found in one of the sidebars, I’d suggest checking the links in the new navigation menu directly under the banner above. For example, the RSS feeds are in Resources and the information on what book I’m currently reading is in Books. If there’s anything that’s been cut that you can’t live without, let me know.

Hope this works better for everybody.

May 20, 2004


Posted by shonk at 04:12 AM in Blogging , Economics , Politics | permalink | comment

A few things of note:

  • The Jesus Landing Pad — Apparently, the Bush administration is consulting with apocalyptic, evangelical groups with a self-decribed “theocratical perspective” on issues relating to Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, etc. Ironically, the most radical Zionists are apparently no longer Jews, but rather evangelical Christians who are convinced that the rapture cannot occur without a unified Israel. Apparently, the most outspoken of these groups is a Pentecostal group called the Apostolic Congress which, aside from appropriating the Great Seal iconography, is apparently represented in Israel by a missionary who fears witchcraft emanations from Harry Potter books. Needless to say, somewhat disturbing.

  • Michael Moore Hates America — A new documentary being directed by Mike Wilson, who apparently intends to turn the tables on Moore a bit. Be sure to check out Wilson’s journal page, currently detailing a couple of offers made to Moore to live up to his own professed principles. For more, check out the Telegraph article, which also references one of the most tasteless jokes I’ve ever heard, wherein Moore apparently suggested in jest at a recent live show that if the doomed 9/11 flights had been populated by blacks instead of “pampered whites”, the passengers would have fought off the hijackers. (Links via Catallarchy)

  • Atkins News and the Technical Interpreter — Also from Catallarchy, Jonathan Wilde uses recent Atkins-related reporting as a jumping-off point for a more general critique of the presentation of science and scientific results in the media. Along the same lines, check out John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy, which I’ve mentioned before.

  • AIM viruses — Lucky for all of us, we can now get viruses over AIM. The worst offender so far seems to be BuddyLinks, which is using a viral dissemination approach for its games.

  • “Half the world has never made a phone call” — Ever heard this claim? Well, it may have been true back in 1994, but certainly not anymore, as Clay Shirky demonstrates pretty clearly in this article (which itself is from 2002 and is, therefore, almost certainly out-of-date in its own right). Of course, he’s also quite correct to point out that the sort of thinking that lies behind this phrase is exactly the wrong sort of thinking:

    Something incredibly good is happening in parts of the world with dynamic economies, and that is what people concerned with the digital divide should be thinking about. If the world’s poor are to be served by better telecommunications infrastructure, there are obvious things to be done. Make sure individuals have access to a market for telephone service. Privatize state telecom companies, introduce competition, and reduce corruption. And perhaps most importantly, help stamp out static thinking about telecommunications wherever it appears. Economic dynamism is a far better tool for improving telephone use than any amount of erroneous and incomplete assertions on behalf of half the world’s population, because while The Phrase has remained static for the last decade or so, the world hasn’t.

  • And, last but not least, Tim is back in the blogging game, even though he promised not so long ago never to blog again. Be sure to check out his post on the preposterousness of “owning” a word, a follow-up to the notorious EULA.

May 19, 2004

Being a vote-getter in the South does not make it right

Posted by Curt at 07:52 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 16 comments

As the unimaginable tide of idiocy surrounding this gay marriage debate swells to ever-higher levels, this article provides a pretty good example of this closeted thinking which blinders even many of the supporters of gay marriage. I should say first of all that I absolutely agree with the first point that the author makes, which is that the slippery-slope argument against gay marriage is a total sham. I particularly like this formulation:

“Since few opponents of homosexual unions are brave enough to admit that gay weddings just freak them out, they hide behind the claim that it’s an inexorable slide from legalizing gay marriage to having sex with penguins outside JC Penny’s.”

Completely true, as far as I can tell from my dealings with opponents of gay marriage. At the same time, the author, admittedly well-meaning, attempts to prove that it is not necessarily a slippery slope from gay marriage to bestiality. This point in and of itself is perfectly valid: there need not be any such thing as a slippery slope if each case is considered under its own merits. If people find gay marriage to be socially acceptable but not bestiality, there is no inexorable law which dictates that they most accept both. Then she tries to demonstrate that bestiality, incest with children, pedophilia, etc. are not valid extensions of the principle behind allowing gay marriage. Again, mostly valid. But then she also claims that there is no slippery slope leading from gay marriage to polygamy, incest, polyamory, etc., and in so doing violates my first axiom of political and social philosophy:

Fully morally independent beings should, provided that they do not violate the wishes of another or cause them harm, be allowed to do whatever the fuck they want to do.

In the case of bestiality, pedophilia, I think it’s pretty clear why the idea of marriage is inapplicable: children and animals are not fully morally independent beings, so a union involving them could not really be consensual. These would always, then, be implicitly coercive and hence illegitimate. That seems like a sufficient fundamental principle to rule out these practices, though I am not persuaded that there are compelling “health reasons” why bestiality, for example, should be forbidden.

But in the case of polygamy or incest, she attempts to claim, for example, that polygamy could not be accepted as a form of marriage, even though gay marriage could, because “The desire of a group of seven people to marry simply does not intuitively fit into that binary sphere of intimacy.” But does it occur to her that this argument from the properties of marriage is exactly the basis for the opposition to gay marriage? She thinks that the fundamental quality of marriage is that it is “binary”; opponents of gay marriage think that it is that it is only between a man and a woman. That argument is unwinnable. But it also totally misses the point. The point is the freedom of morally independent people to do what they want. Why the hell should polygamists not be allowed to get married, provided they are all consenting adults? If they, or gay people, or transvestites or whoever else want to get married and can find a church or some other such institution which is willing to approve it, why should we stop them? And as for those arguments that marriage is meant to encourage healthy and stable families rather than simply satisfying the desires of the participants? Please. I will believe that argument when married couples are required by law to have children and divorce is made illegal. As it is, pretty much any man and woman can get married under any circumstances, stable, healthy family or no. They can choose to be a childless, loveless couple if they so choose, which just proves how bankrupt the argument is.

Now I am aware that the government sanctioning marriage is more than just allowing people to do what they want: it is to some extent a symbol of the approval of the government. Fair enough. But again, given that the consent and volition of the participants is basically the only determining factor in approving heterosexual marriages, I cannot think of any compelling reason why this should not also be the standard when it comes to gays, transgendereds, kissing cousins and whoever else, other than the fact that it is icky to think about.

Of course, this is not really an argument for why gay marriage, polygamous marriage, etc. should be legal, simply for why gays and all the rest should be treated equally to straight people. Therefore, there are two alternatives, as I see it:

1. Recognize anyone as married who wants to be married (if they are adult, morally independent, etc.).

2. Don’t recognize any marriages.

As far as I am concerned, both of these alternatives are equally valid, at least logically, and the second even has the advantage that it implicitly makes clear that the strength of a union of love does not depend on the government’s stamp of approval. However, aware that this alternative would probably be even less popular than recognizing bestial marriages, as a practical matter the first alternative should be the position of conscientious, freedom-loving souls.

p.s. It would appear, based on my summary perusal of Reason magazine, that the libertarians are falling for the totally vacuous it-shouldn’t-be-allowed-because-it-goes-against-tradition argument, but I will not be able to confirm or deny that until I have read the article more thoroughly.

p.p.s. I know that some people think that gay marriage, in addition to being a violation of the concept of marriage and leading the way to even more perverse sexual practices, will also somehow undermine heterosexual marriage, I suppose either by making straight people give up their marriages in a huff over having to share their legal privileges with gay people, or by convincing them to abandon their families and start gay marriages. In the case of the first, (a) I can’t imagine anyone actually doing this and (b) I also can’t imagine why we should make special accomodations for a selfishness that pure and invidious. As the for the second, as far as I can tell, it can only arise from that archaic-yet-persistent belief that homosexuality is voluntary rather than genetic. Of course, even if you believe that homosexuality is chosen, I am not sure which aspect of the gay lifestyle you think proves more attractive to straight people: the social stigma or the constant threat of contracting AIDS. Of course, I think we all know deep within ourselves that the real threats to marriage and healthy families are alcoholism, divorce and over- or under-investing oneself in one’s children, among other things, so perhaps people should concern themselves with solving those problems rather than worrying about the marginal effect of the few married closet homosexuals who might decide that it is finally safe to come out into the open.

May 12, 2004

News you need

Posted by shonk at 11:01 PM in Blogging | permalink | 1 comment

Just a couple of news updates:

  • If you want to keep up with the various comments around here, I’ve added a couple of RSS feeds that should keep you up-to-date. The feeds contain summaries of the last six posts commented on as well as the last five comments on each of those posts. The links are over on the left side of the screen, available in both RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0. If there’s interest, I might consider adding comments at the bottom of each post in the full-text feeds, but for the moment I’m keeping the comments on a separate feed.

  • I’m in the process of looking into getting new hosting. The errors that have been popping up recently appear to be a hosting problem, not a Movable Type problem, so I’m planning on ditching my current hosting. If anybody has any suggestions, let me know. I’ve heard good things about Verve Hosting and I know a lot of weblogs use Hosting Matters, but I’m open to suggestions.

  • I’m leaving town early in the morning tomorrow (Thursday), to head to Ohio for a couple of days, and then will drive to Colorado from there. Which, I’m sure, doesn’t interest anybody, but it means that I’ll probably be offline until the middle of next week. Try to contain your excitement and pretend to be deeply aggrieved that I won’t be posting during that time.

President of Beers

Posted by shonk at 10:42 PM in Politics | permalink | 3 comments

I’ve had a fair amount of free time in the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been watching a lot of basketball and hockey recently. No, I’m not going to delve into sports (please, hold your applause); rather, I wanted to mention briefly a commercial I’ve been seeing a lot of recently as a result of all this sports-watching. Specifically, I’m talking about the Miller ads that have been running, the ones that are part of the “President of Beers” ad campaign.

Aside from the fact that they’re more entertaining than most of the commercials you’ll see on the idiot box, I like the Miller ads because they do a nice job of satirizing the whole democratic process as currently conceived. They capture both the mudslinging antics of politicians and the Everyman complaints about the lack of choices in the political system quite nicely. For example, in the debate ads, the Miller spokesman/candidate both attacks his opponent (a Clydesdale, obviously representing Budweiser) for being a horse and wearing blinders as well as getting frustrated that the debate moderators won’t let him expand on his position.

What I think I like best about the ads, though, is that they highlight (unintentionally, no doubt) the fact that the beer market embodies much more completely the very principles that the democratic process is supposed to uphold. For example, whereas voters who prefer the losing candidate are stuck with the winner, beer drinkers aren’t forced to consume any particular beer simply because a majority prefers it. Non-voters who dislike all the candidates are still going to be stuck with one of them, whereas teetotalers are under no obligation to drink beer simply because the majority of people do. Furthermore, if you like, say, Kerry’s stance on healthcare and Bush’s stance on the war (God help you), you won’t be able to have both, whereas someone who likes Budweiser for a relaxing beer after work but prefers Miller when bar-hopping on the weekends can have both (how such a person could distinguish between the two is beyond me, but we’re only speaking in hypotheticals here). Also, if the candidate you really like best is, say, Ralph Nader, you know in advance that you’re going to lose, whereas if you prefer Guinness or Fat Tire to Bud and Miller, well, you can buy those instead. And, finally, if you like some part of a candidate’s platform but not others, you can’t choose only to fund those parts that you like, whereas you’re free to purchase precisely as much beer as you drink, instead of having to purchase three cases a week when you only want one.

The point is, in the beer market everybody can make the choices that make them happiest, whereas in politics the supreme lack of choices and the winner-take-all reality means that virtually everybody comes away dissatisfied. This, I think, is what makes the Miller ads work: the notion of holding a beer election in the same way we hold presidential elections is so patently absurd that we can’t help but chuckle a bit at the ads.

And what does that mean for politics? Well, in that regard, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Taxis and unintended consequences

Posted by shonk at 02:42 AM in Economics | permalink | 4 comments

In keeping with the DC theme, I wanted to comment briefly on the taxi fare system in Washington. The first time you ever take a DC cab, it’s a bit of a disconcerting experience, because there’s no meter running. Instead, fares are calculated based on a system of zones, with a flat rate based on how many zones you cross along your journey.

So far as I can recall, Washington is the only city I’ve ever spent any time in which employs this particular methodology for calculating taxi fares. From which data you can probably guess how much sense it makes.

For example, it seems pretty silly that two trips from point A to point B would cost the same even if one were undertaken on, say, an early Sunday morning and the other took place in the depths of a weekday rush-hour (and the rush-hour traffic can be horrendous in Washington). After all, the rush-hour trip might take 4 times as long and occurs during a time in which demand for taxis is probably much higher. Similarly, it seems vaguely inappropriate that two trips of equal time and distance would cost a different amount, merely because one happens to be entirely contained within a single zone whereas the other crosses two or three zones.

As such, it should come as no surprise that this fare system arises from regulation rather than from market forces (admittedly, most cities set regulations regarding taxi fares, though, as I said, Washington is the only place I’ve seen where fares aren’t metered). Now, given all the disadvantages of the zone system mentioned above, along with many others that are easy to come up with, why would even politicians be silly enough to require this particular system? Because, of course, there are some advantages to be gained, and the zones in Washington favor those most likely to be influential in the regulatory process.

If you zoom in a bit on the above-linked fare calculator and know much about Washington’s geography, you’ll notice immediately that the zones are drawn on the map in such a way as to be distinctly advantageous to someone traveling from, say, DuPont Circle to the Capitol. Even though the trip is more than 3 miles right through the heart of downtown Washington, the entire trip will cost you the minimum possible taxi fare (currently $5.00, I think), since both locations lie in the same fare zone. Now, if you’re not very familiar with DC geography (like me), you’re probably wondering what the significance of this is. It’s quite simple: most of the major embassies as well as many of the best restaurants and membership clubs are in the DuPont Circle area, so politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats are constantly making the trip between DuPont and the Capitol and its surroundings. Which means that those politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats are making out like bandits from the zone fare scheme. Needless to say, I somehow doubt that this is a coincidence.

I’m sure someone with more knowledge of the DC area could point out several other ways in which the fare zones are constructed to the benefit of those with political clout, but, fortunately, I haven’t spent much time in Washington.

The next natural question, of course, is the following: what are some of the unintended consequences of this situation? I mean, it seems clear that the politically powerful are benefitting at the expense of taxi drivers, but most of us are neither politicians nor taxi drivers, so should we really care? Well, if you’re trying to get from somewhere in Northwest down to the area of the Capitol (including, for example, the residential area just east of the Capitol), especially late at night, you probably should. I’ve never had occasion to try it myself, but I’m told that getting a taxi-driver to agree to pick you up for such a trip is virtually impossible. Also, if you’re trying to take a taxi from somewhere in the city to, say, northern Virginia, you should probably care. Since DC taxis don’t have meters, the driver has to estimate what expense a meter would have added to the trip once you leave the city and, needless to say, those estimates probably tend towards the high end of plausibility.

Given these various distortions on the taxi market, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the taxi black market is apparently thriving. I’m always disposed to look favorably on the entrepreneurial spirit, so I was happy to take one such informal taxi from the bus station to the restaurant where I was meeting up with friends on this latest trip. It wasn’t much of an issue for me on that particular occasion, but the black market driver’s main attraction seems to be that he will take you places other taxis won’t, at least based on my conversation with the driver I wound up with. It might cost you a little more than the legal rate, but the unofficial taxis will take you to the places it’s simply not profitable for the legally licensed variety to bother with. Since they’re not officially licensed, black market taxis don’t follow the official rates, so you’ll have to negotiate your own price up front, but if you’re traveling from DuPont Circle to the Mall (or, for that matter, from the bus station to Pennsylvania Ave. when most taxis loitering around the station are hoping for long trips to the suburbs), it might be well worth it, even if only for the educational value as a lesson in the unintended consequences of regulation.

May 11, 2004

Bureaucratic symbolism

Posted by shonk at 12:02 AM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Washington, DC flag

If you’ve ever been in Washington, DC, as I was this past weekend, you’ve no doubt seen this symbol on all the license plates and street signs in town. It’s the official flag of Washington, DC, and, given that it’s a relatively simple yet distinctive design, I suppose it was only natural that the public works department down there decided to plaster it all over public spaces.

Nonetheless, this particular design has always struck me as being just a little bit odd. You see, if you know anything about the Mayan numeral system (scroll down a bit for the relevant synopsis), you’ll immediately notice that this symbol could easily be used in that system to represent the number 13. In fact, as someone with a more than passing familiarity with the vagaries of Mayan mathematics, it was pretty striking to see the number 13 plastered all over the city the first time I visited DC last summer, especially given the well-known superstitions concerning this particular number harbored by a surprisingly large percentage of the population. We omit 13th floors from tall buildings, but don’t bat an eye to see it on every street corner in the nation’s capital. In fact, if you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you might read into this a suggestion of the 13 Satanic Bloodlines or something equally sinister.

Of course, the actual explanation is somewhat more innocuous (or more subtly menacing, I suppose, if you’re of the conspiracy bent). The flag is the product of a 1938 contest intended “to procure a design for a distinctive flag for the District of Columbia.” The winning design was submitted by Charles A.R. Dunn, who was impressed by the Maryland flag but had little use for flags with seals (presumably he didn’t care much for the Virginia flag). Dunn drew his inspiration from the Washington family coat of arms, which apparently derives from George Washington’s Norman ancestors (though it seems unlikely that this same source was also the inspiration for the more famous Stars and Stripes, 19th century theorists notwithstanding). The “argent, two bar and in chief three mullets gules”, the official description of the Washington coat of arms, was apparently intended to signify the following:

Endurance to achieve Purification. Winning one’s spurs and becoming a knight, a member of the Peerage. As a member of the peerage the knight can sit in Judgement because he himself is considered to be Pure.

Actually, come to think of it, even if you’re not of the tinfoil-hat persuasion, maybe you should see the pervasive use of this symbol in the nation’s capital as being a bit sinister. Washington policymakers are already notorious for their superiority complexes without the necessity of constant subconscious reinforcement by way of ubiquitous peerage symbolism. The last thing we need is more bureaucrats thinking themselves pure and therefore worthy to sit in judgment of the rest of us.

May 07, 2004

Girls with guns

Posted by shonk at 02:38 AM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 7 comments

Girls with Guns Target Breast Cancer

No, that’s not the No Treason daily pic (though it would make a good one, if someone could find a larger version). Instead, some female police officers from Guelph, Ontario decided to dress up and pose with some of their favorite weaponry in a poster titled “Girls with Guns Target Breast Cancer” in order to raise the $2000 entry fee for the Princess Margaret Hospital’s Weekend to End Breast Cancer walk in Toronto this fall. Some tight-asses were not amused:

“There they are sporting guns as if it’s a fun thing to do,” said Dawn Reynolds, a family therapist in Guelph who is offended by the poster.

“Guns are what kill women. They are not a good thing. I regret hugely that this was done, especially for such a worthy cause as breast cancer.”

First of all, they’re not “sporting guns as if it’s a fun thing to do”. They’re sporting guns as if it’s something that will sell a lot of posters, the proceeds of which are intended to help fight breast cancer. Second, I hate to parrot the NRA, but guns don’t kill people (no, not even women). If you want to get super-pedantic about it, bullets kill people. If you want to look at the broader scope of things, both guns and bullets are tools used by people, occasionally to kill other people. We don’t put weaponry on trial for first-degree murder, we put people on trial. Why? Because it takes a person, a human being, to commit a murder (now, I admit, in the case of accidents, it can be true that a gun kills someone, but, then again, so do bandsaws and cars, yet nobody would have complained too vigorously if these women had posed with a Ferrari). And, remarkably enough, a lack of guns does not prevent people from killing people. Knives, baseball bats, poisons and various other implements can also be useful in this regard.

My point is this: yes, people use guns to kill people; yes, that’s a tragedy; yes, it would be nice if they didn’t. But the irrational fear of guns displayed by so many people is really disconcerting. If you go into shrieking hysterics at the mere depiction of a fancy piece of twisted metal in a poster, you’ve got problems.

Okay, back to the article. Sue Richards, Guelph entrepreneur and creator of the Breast of Canada calendar:

“It’s a very unusual image. It’s not obvious these are police officers for starters, and they are not showing breasts — they’re showing guns,” she said.

“I do see a sexual tone to it. To me it is provocative. Personally, I would have preferred to see them in police uniforms. Then the guns are in context.”

Personally, I would probably be more alarmed by a depiction of cops with guns drawn than I am by the poster as it actually is (which wouldn’t, I admit, take much, since I’m not at all alarmed by the poster). But then, I have been accused of having some unusual political opinions. Nonetheless, a cop with a gun drawn is usually a sign that bad things are happening (whether those bad things are being done by the cop or by someone else depends, of course, on the context).

As for the “[t]o me it is provocative” comment: no shit! Of course it’s provocative. Provocative sells. And that is, of course, the point. To sell the posters. And what “context”, exactly, does a police uniform give? That Big Brother and the JBTs will get your ass if you step out of line? Apparently, a strong, independent woman isn’t strong and independent enough to handle the responsibility of owning and handling a firearm unless she’s on the force, thereby demonstrating that she’s not too intelligent or strong-minded (in this context, let’s not forget the DEA agent who managed to shoot himself in the leg while giving a gun safety talk to a bunch of kids; also, see John Venlet’s post).

And, finally, I should point out that Richards’ calendar doesn’t seem to mind sexualizing weaponry, so I find it a little hypocritical of her to criticize these women for doing the same.

Returning to the article (I’m almost done, I swear), we have Sly Castaldi, acting executive director of Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, who, after making a predictably disparaging remark about the use of the word “girls”, adds the following:

“Twenty years ago we were the only agency speaking out about domestic violence and women’s rights. Now people are making those connections on their own.

“It’s good when the community can do critical thinking on issues like this.”

Say what?!? Where does domestic violence come into this picture?

First, let me just point out how irresponsible it is of the reporter to add this quote to the article. Castaldi is obviously pushing her own agenda, as a crisis center director, rather than addressing the issue purportedly being discussed in the article. I can see no good reason for giving her the soapbox other than to underhandedly insinuate that guns = domestic violence.

Now, as for the domestic violence quip itself. My only response is this: the only relevance that guns have to domestic violence (at least as characterized by men beating the crap out of women) is as a deterrent. If more women had guns and knew how to use them, we might see a goodly drop in the rate of domestic violence. After all, it’s one thing to slap the old lady around a bit or work her over with a baseball bat, but I think even the most reckless woman-beater might think twice about beating up a woman pointing a .45 at him. And hey, if he wants to give it a shot anyway, BANG, one less woman-beater in this world. Good riddance, I say.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that this is the solution to domestic violence and other related issues. That whole realm of (sub-)human behavior is way too complicated and fucked-up for me to deal with. All I’m saying is, instead of cowering in fear at the mere suggestion of some non-officially-recognized someone holding one of those fancy twisted pieces of metal, why not say “hey, maybe that’s a tool that might come in handy in certain situations”? Because that’s all a gun is. A tool. And, like any other tool, it can be used both for good and for ill.

May 03, 2004

The invisible hand defended from its enemies

Posted by Curt at 05:31 PM in Economics | permalink | 19 comments

I’m probably not going to make too many more forays into economics and politics, but this book review by Terry Eagleton seems to get so many little things right along the way to its general conclusion that fascism and capitalism can work exceedingly well together that it at least, I think, deserves a brief consideration of the charge once again. Consider this passage, from near the beginning:

“Exactly what fascism consists of, however, is far less clear. In some leftist circles, the word is lobbed loosely around to vilify anyone in the cramped space to the right of Conrad Black. Yet fascists are radicals, unlike right-wing conservatives. Conservatives believe in God, tradition, the monarchy, civilisation and the individual, whereas fascists are pagan, primitivist, collectivist state-worshippers who prefer jackboots to crowns. Fascists admire productive workers (including productive capitalists) and denounce effete aristocrats and the idle rich; conservatives tend to champion both groups, among whose ranks they themselves can frequently be found. Ezra Pound was a fascist, but T S Eliot was a conservative. Fascists strut, while conservatives lounge.”

There are obviously some problems with this as a general description; for one thing, it seems a lot more descriptive of conservatives in Britain, where they are no longer a very viable political force, than in America, where this brand of conservatism is being more and more taken over on that end of the political spectrum by religious fundamentalism, which can be extremely radical in its own right, given that it is not fundamentally tied to any of the existing pillars of social organization except scriptural literalism. But in any case, few I think could argue deeply with the fundamental distinction between conservatism and fascism made here, especially as a description of the early part of the century, when the identifiably fascist movements were most prominent in the West. I especially like this little closing touch:
“Fascism is an anti-political kind of politics, which elevates national unity over class distinctions, gut prejudice over ideological debate, and race over reason. Its leaders tend to be grubby lower-middle-class yobbos with unstable mentalities and criminal records.”

I even think the author’s definition, which he approvingly cites, is one of the better summaries one could think of to define fascism as a movement:

“he sees fascism as a mass-based form of militant nationalism, one working in uneasy alliance with the usual elites, which pursues policies of internal cleansing and external expansion so as to unify and regenerate what it regards as a victimised, humiliated nation. It springs from a major crisis of the liberal capitalist order, and elevates cultural particularism over democracy, individualism and universal rights.”

Probably most readers of this site at any time will find the development of this definition more troublesome, however:

“Paxton admits that “fascism is inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist left”. Bankers and manufacturers may have baulked at shaking hands with a ranting, off-the-wall runt like Adolf Hitler, but this book concedes that the two social forces co-operated fairly well once they had struck their Faustian pact.

If fascism claimed to be radical, it was a bogus revolution that never once put its anti-capitalist rhetoric into practice. Instead, it set about efficiently exterminating the political left. For all their crafty appeals to lower-middle-class grouses, fascist regimes left existing patterns of property and social class largely intact. The disgruntled petite bourgeoisie were taken for the longest ride in their unenviable history. With breathtaking insolence, the fascists used aspects of their ideology to prop up the very state that they found so oppressive.”

And even more so this:

“It remains to be seen whether the world will revert to fascism. But there are certainly signs that a planet well stocked with authoritarian capitalist regimes is on the cards. Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it. But we might now be moving deeper into a world where the two go together like a horse and cabbage.”

The ultimate message seems to be that capitalism is at the least not antithetical in practice to pregmatic fascism, and furthermore that the two may co-exist very well together, the point being to challenge the dogma that capitalism is somehow itself a guardian against creeping totalitarianism. I suppose the point is that Eagleton, who made a name for himself decades ago as a Marxist literary critic, wants to imply that capitalism is at the least insufficient as an ideology to reject authoritarianism. But given that in the article he seems to implicitly claim that Stalin was a fascist, and that the fascists themselves sold out their principles to gain power in Europe (as well as access to the financial resources of the bankers and the industrialists), one could perhaps say with justice that there is no ideology under purview here that is sufficient to rule out in practice the emergence of its opposite.

I am no lover of capitalism for its own sake, primarily because in my opinion the centreal ideological point of capitalism is that the maximum marginal benefit to be gained in trade is the primary goal of all agents in society, which I find to be as reductive in its own way as Marx’s philosophy. But I can at the least see the benefits of defending any idea from a slander on it. I can easily see that the first part of that ideological point, without the caveat “through trade,” could easily justify any sort of oppression and violence imaginable. But it seems to me that real trade presupposes two conditions, transparency of information and freedom on the part of the consumer and producer to make decisions without coercion. Such conditions in my opinion make capitalism fundamentally incompatible with violence and the use of coercive force as well as, of course, lying, slander, false advertising, etc. Now I would agree that, say, Nazi Germany was relatively prosperous during most of its existence relative to most other collectivist states in its time, especially the Soviet Union, and that many of the pre-existing financial and industry institutions in Germany were preserved at least ostensibly by the Nazis, but that should blind no one to the fact that the primary sources of revenues, especially during the war, were arms procurement, resource confiscation and forced labor, somewhat akin to the slave-economy of the Roman Empire. It was in no way primarily a trade-based economy, hence it was basically un-capitalistic.

I certainly do not claim that it is impossible or even unlikely that the current creeping authoritarianism in American government and society will not rise apace with the gross national product, but when one considers how much the military budget, or the Dept. of Homeland Security, or the re-provisioning of Iraq costs each and every resident of this country every day, one should see that these two forces are at the least heterogenous, if not oppositional. Similarly, when one sees that Boeing, for example, has largely switched its production to fulfilling military contracts, or that the leading American carmakers are now lobbying for statist healthcare to alleviate their overhead, or that (perhaps) leading public utilities companies are pushing for expanded anti-counterterrorism efforts, one should bear in mind that they may in fact be pursuing the maximazation of their marginal benefits, but nonetheless they are abandoning the principles of trade to do so.

May 02, 2004

The the signs that go before...

Posted by Curt at 06:48 PM in Politics | permalink | 11 comments

So by now everybody has had a chance to get worked into a lather about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American interrogators. No matter how one feels about the issue, I have to wonder about the timing of the story breaking, because apparently the evidence of this has existed for at least a month or more, and yet it breaks just this week, somewhat obscuring two other stories which in my opinion are a lot more relevant to people’s worries about the creeeping growth of police-state tactics: firstly the news that last year, for the first time, secret intelligence court-issued surveillance warrants outnumbered regular criminal court-issued surveillance warrants and that now, sure enough, with the blessing of the U.S. military, one of Saddam’s old generals is now in command of Fallujah.

The fact is, no military operation, especially one conducted under guerrilla warfare conditions, is ever going to proceed without some abuses of this sort by soldiers. And if it turns out that less than 20 prisoners were abused overall in the course of the war, it will probably be the cleanest operation in history. I don’t say that to excuse matters, simply to put their significance in perspective. On the other hand, the fact that the shadow judicial system is now starting to have a significant impact despite initial indications that it might not actually have much to do is certainly enough to give one pause, as is the seeming concession in the air at the moment that order is not going to be restored in some quarters of Iraq without having recourse to the services of Saddam’s old henchmen. The torture case is going to have a horrible effect on America’s image in the Arab world and is probably going to dispel some of the current good-will in this country towards the soldiers in the military, but it is not going to have any direct reprecussions for the civilian leadership—there will probably be summary justice for a few low-ranking scapegoats, and that will be that. But the other two stories I think show a certain emptiness at the heart of the principles of engagement in both the judicial and military wings of the current anti-terrorism push.

Rebels without antagonists

Posted by Curt at 03:20 PM in Literature | permalink | 1 comment

My grandfather was once sent to prison for ten days because of a poem he wrote. I haven’t been honored in that way yet. Maybe it’s my fault, or maybe the world has gone so far to the dogs that it doesn’t even feel insulted anymore if it’s criticized severely.
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt