January 30, 2005

So much for the End of History

Posted by Curt at 07:05 PM | permalink | 4 comments

Just some cheerful words to chew on while our politicians wear their enamels off congratulating themselves about the Iraqi election:

“The collapse of the rival giant [the Soviet Union] has exaggerated America’s apparent strength because it has so much more economic muscle than any single rival. But for many decades America’s share of the world’s economic output has been in decline. Think of a see-saw. America at one end is now easily outweighed by any substantial grouping at the other, and most of those powers are on friendly terms with each other. America’s modesty in 1945 understated its muscle, just as Bushite vanity overstates it today. He has over-reached. His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot. America is running into the sand.”

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in France, where declinism (both French and American) never goes out of fashion, for too long, but that assessment seems more convincing than this disappointing “We are so great—right now” rebuttal by Victor Hanson. And the CIA seems to concur (though admittedly in more neutral language):

“The likely emergence of China and India … as new major global players—similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century—will transform the geopolitical landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.”

November 08, 2004

Election Redux

Posted by shonk at 12:41 AM | permalink | 8 comments

Realized I haven’t commented on the election since it happens. Basically, I have nothing to say about the whole thing. Primarily, I was rooting for an electoral tie, just because it would have been delightfully ludicrous. Barring that I was hoping for Kerry to win the electoral vote but lose the popular vote, because (a) it would have been wonderfully ironic and (b) because legislative gridlock is always desirable and there wasn’t a chance in hell the Democrats were going to control either house of Congress. Okay, neither of those things actually happened and, to be honest, it all played out pretty much how I expected. I mean, I hate to say “I told you so”, but, well, I told you so:

Bush is going to win this election. For better or for worse, his arguments are essentially positive: I will do X because I believe it is the right thing to do. Whether or not he believes his own arguments, and whether or not what he does exemplifies whatever beliefs he may actually have (and I’m skeptical that he has any), he’s arguing from an essentially stronger position than Kerry, all of whose arguments boil down to the following: I am not George W. Bush.


None of the above should be construed as an endorsement of Bush. Rather, it seems to me unlikely that someone running on an essentially negative platform, like Kerry, is going to defeat someone who at least pretends to be running on a positive platform.

As it stands, the only thing I wish I’d emphasized more strongly is the fact that Kerry supporters, by and large, tried to portray possible Bush voters as idiots, fools and evil psychopaths. Needless to say, not the best strategy for attracting those voters who might be sympathetic to Republican ideas on the war or anything else while also being sympathetic to the Democrats (who, so far as I can tell, didn’t take much of a stand on anything other than that they didn’t like Bush one damn bit). And it looks like at least one voter’s mind was swayed by exactly this fact (props to cosmicv for the link):

Your attitudes, language, and behavior toward people like me: reasonable, thinking Christians who are quite moderate politically and who are just as well-informed as you are (yes, I’ve read all the PNAC essays, too, and yes, they scare me, too) is reminiscent of nothing so much as an abusive ex-lover, a crazy and drunken stalker. “I’ll make you love me, or you’ll regret it, you worthless bitch! Come here and let me beat you over the head and tell you how stupid and worthless you are! Then you’ll see it my way!”

I’m not saying I agree with her stance on the war, Social Security or anything else, nor am I suggesting that domestic violence metaphors couldn’t be applied in the opposite direction with equal justification, but I suspect there are many, many others who felt and feel the same way. Something to think about.

(See also David Brooks’ column, especially the second-to-last paragraph)

November 01, 2004

Don't Vote!

Posted by shonk at 09:13 PM | permalink | 24 comments

This summer, when I had more time on my hands than sense, I thought about making up some anti-campaign posters to put up around town. Needless to say, at this point I’m much too busy (and lazy) to actually follow through, but I still think it’s a good idea.

So what is an “anti-campaign poster”? Well, basically the idea would be to come up with something that would simultaneously ridicule the candidates and their militant supporters, the inane “get out the vote” campaigns, and the very process itself.

One of my favorite ideas was:

Which white, millionaire Yale alumnus and Skull & Bones member do you want deciding economic policy?

This point hasn’t, in my opinion, been emphasized enough. The feeling I get from most Kerry supporters I know is that they’re voting for Kerry, not because of who he is or what he stands for, but because he’s not Bush. Well, that’s all well and good, in theory at least, but how different are they, really? They both went to Yale, they’re both middle-aged, they’re both white, they’re both millionaires, they’re both members of the super-elite Skull & Bones, neither did much to actually earn his money, one went AWOL from the National Guard while the other organized protests with Hanoi Jane (Fonda) and they’re both all about increasing spending. Okay, admittedly, one looks like a chimp while the other looks like a horse, but that’s not really much to go on.

My other favorite idea was:

The only candidate to win a clear majority in this election will be ‘None of the Above’

Let’s not kid ourselves, nobody’s getting a “mandate” from the electorate, because the majority of the electorate either doesn’t care who wins or doesn’t like either one of the candidates (or thinks the entire process is morally bankrupt, but I’m guessing us radicals don’t comprise a significant percentage). And let’s be honest, there are good reasons for being part of that “silent majority”. For one thing, there’s Drew Carey’s take: “”Quit pretending that it matters, would you? Can you vote for all the nefarious cabals that really run the world? No. So fuck it.”

Also, as Steven Landsburg points out: “Even if you voted in the most hotly disputed state [Florida] in the mostly hotly disputed election [2000] in American history, your vote did not change the outcome.” The consensus seems to be that Bush won Florida by 530-odd votes; if any one person had acted differently, either by voting or not voting, Bush still would have won by 530-odd votes. Landsburg goes on to evaluate the likelihood that a single Florida voter could sway the election this time around:

If Kerry (or Bush) has just a slight edge, so that each of your fellow voters has a 51 percent likelihood of voting for him, then your chance of casting the tiebreaker is about one in 10 to the 1,046th power—approximately the same chance you have of winning the Powerball jackpot 128 times in a row.

Needless to say, as JTK has pointed out several times in the past (for example, commenting on Brian Doss’s post), you would do more to enhance your candidate’s chances of winning by buying a PowerBall ticket and mailing it to him than by voting for him. With that in mind, I rather like Virginia Warren’s idea regarding letting people pay for votes:

The benefits of a vote market would be quickly realized if the ban were lifted. For one thing, it would muzzle the tedious affirmations of mysticist, lever-wanking airheads who flounce about proclaiming “Every vote counts!” It wouldn’t take long for them to finally be shown the exact worth of an individual vote on the open market.

Given Landsburg’s numbers, let’s just say there aren’t currency denominations small enough to adequately express the market value of a single vote in a presidential election (and, needless to say, Michael Moore is overpaying).

Anyway, after tossing the numbers around, demonstrating that even if the preferences are split 50/50, your chance of casting the deciding vote is smaller than your chance of being murdered by your mother, Landsburg feels compelled to almost apologize for his advocacy of non-voting:

The traditional reply begins with the phrase “But if everyone thought like that … .” To which the correct rejoinder is: So what? Everyone doesn’t think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions.

True enough, but I think Joe Sobran’s take is more compelling:

Nonvoters are often described as lazy, apathetic, lacking in civic spirit. Voting is touted among us as a moral imperative. If you don’t vote, we are told, you have no right to complain. Voting, in fact, is the way we are encouraged to complain!

It’s hard to know where to start refuting such imbecility. The act of making an X in a box, or its high-tech equivalent, is close to worthless as a means of either self-expression or imparting information. When masses of votes can be won by wearing silly hats and repeating silly slogans, it’s pretty hard to maintain the belief that election results reflect an aggregate wisdom in the electorate. I marvel that faith in democracy has survived the advent of C-SPAN.

Sobran goes on to give a moral argument for not voting, which I think is compelling but won’t reproduce here. Rather, I think Robert Anton Wilson’s response to the question “Who are you going to vote for?” does quite nicely:

I’m voting for myself because I don’t believe anybody else can represent me as well as I can represent myself.

Think about that for a second, and ponder just what casting a vote for someone else says about you.

With all that in mind, why do people still vote? Surely if there’s anything we learned from the 2000 election, it’s not that “every vote counts”. Rather (and either JTK stole this from me, or I stole it from him; I can’t remember which) the lesson we learned from 2000 was: if the election’s close enough so that every vote counts, the only votes that are going to matter are the 9 on the Supreme Court.

Okay, but that’s just illustrating the point, not answering the question. So why do people vote? The answer, I think, can be found buried within Hunter S. Thompson’s otherwise incoherent pastiche of his own writing from 3 decades ago:

The genetically vicious nature of presidential campaigns in America is too obvious to argue with, but some people call it fun, and I am one of them. Election Day — especially a presidential election — is always a wild and terrifying time for politics junkies, and I am one of those, too. We look forward to major election days like sex addicts look forward to orgies. We are slaves to it.

That’s right: people vote because it’s fun, because it’s a thrill, because they get a rush from forcing others to submit to the will of their chosen despot. What that says about human psychology is probably best not considered too deeply, but I figure it’s as good an answer as any.

October 31, 2004

From politics to mathematics and back

Posted by shonk at 12:54 AM | permalink | 5 comments

Last night I found myself with an unusually large chunk of time on my hands and, after doing some maintenance work around here that I’d been putting off, decided to catch up on some blog-reading. I read Colby Cosh’s excellent analysis of the ALCS from a week or so ago, enjoyed Billy Beck’s musings on book addiction and rantings on the justice system, caught up on the No Treason/Karen DeCoster/Thomas DiLorenzo shitstorm, uncovered the latest links that appear below in the “External Links” section, and enjoyed Scribbling’s pomegranate pictures. Somewhere along the way, I came across Cosmic Vortex’s “First political diatribe,” which suggests the notion of “political shock levels” as a complement to the future shock levels which extropians go on about. The author lays out a sort of political spectrum, ranging from communist to fascist, and then suggests the following:

Now, its very easy for a socialist and a progressive to discuss issues and come to an understanding, but try to get a socialist and a right wing republican together, and nothing will get accomplished except frustration and anger. Where does this leave us? Not in a good situation really - as theirs no real way to drag anyone more then 1 level away. Even if they did want to try to understand your position, they just couldnt map the concepts over if you jump too far. The cognitive differences would be un-breachable and it would require starting at the begining of their conceptual “tree”, validate every concept along the way, and maybe then something could be worked out.

Interesting idea and stated in a somewhat unique way. What really caught my attention in reading, though, was the sentence I’ve taken the liberty of italicizing. I have to admit, the very first thought that popped into my head upon reading that sentence was: “Sounds like a chain complex!” For those too lazy to click the link, a chain complex is basically a sequence of maps between objects such that moving two steps along always takes you to zero. They arise a lot in topology and homological algebra (for example, I first ran across them while learning about simplicial homology in an algebraic topology class). The connection with shock levels being that if you try to map more than one level down the line you can’t go anywhere but zero, just as the conversation between socialist and republican goes nowhere.

“A nice little analogy,” I though to myself, not quite realizing, for the moment, how loony it would have sounded had I tried to explain it (at this point tenses completely break down, given that I just have tried to explain it). Consider, in addition, how one of my office-mates and I had laughed earlier in the day when she described having just caught herself before asking two of her students (who are identical twins) if they were “isomorphic”. I know I’ve talked about this before (that time when a friend referred to this Strong Bad song as a “canonical techno song”), but I still find the way in which the accumulation of a new vocabulary shapes my outlook either amusing or frightening, depending on the time of day.

Of course, in a sense, the vocabulary is the least important part of what I’ve (hopefully) learned in the last year or so of grad school, but applying the vocabulary outside of its mathematical context is perhaps the most obvious outward sign. Well, one of the most obvious, anyway. Perhaps the other obvious sign of what might be called my increasing mathematical sophistication (or confusion, depending on your perspective) manifests itself in how I answer the questions of my students.

I’m currently teaching four recitation sections of a class innocuously called “Ideas in Mathematics” in the course catalogue, but of which the unofficial course title bestowed by the professor is “Mathematics and Politics”.1 A friend rather uncharitably characterizes it as “math for morons”, in that it’s the only freshman-level non-calculus course that fulfills the college’s math requirement. Anyway, the point is that I spend most of my time answering questions about the homework or the lectures, and, in answering, I often find myself engaging in impromptu monologues about how intuitionists would object to proofs by contradiction or how mathematics only describes the world insofar as it simplifies away the hard bits. And, most importantly, I have a very difficult time answering conceptual questions definitively.

Needless to say, I imagine my students find it frustrating when, for example, they ask “Why is a conditional true when its antecedent is false?” and I have to say something along the lines of the following:

Well, the short answer is because it’s defined that way, and the long answer is still because it’s defined that way, but it’s defined that way because that’s really the most reasonable way to define it. You see, when we’re thinking about whether a logical statement is “true” or “false”, it’s probably best not so much to think actually in terms of “true” and “false”, but rather in terms of compatibility with the world. In other words, can you believe the statement while also believing in reality without contradicting yourself? We only say the statement is “false” if not; otherwise we call it “true” even though it may be counterfactual, absurd, or completely irrelevant to reality.

At this point, I’m usually lucky if the looks I’m getting are merely quizzical. So I try again:

Well, let’s think in terms of an example. Suppose, back in 2002, a friend told you “If the U.N. approves a war in Iraq, France will go to war.” Now, we know that, in reality, the U.N. didn’t approve the war and that France didn’t go to war. So this is a situation where the antecedent and consequent are both false, so, if we’re thinking in terms of logic, we would say the conditional is true. Why? Well, because you can believe what your friend said and also believe in reality. That is to say, you can believe the statement without contradiction. So the assignment of “true” or “false” is more or less like how you treat a friend: because he’s your friend and you trust him not to mislead you, you assume he was telling the truth unless you can definitely prove that he was lying. In this case, the only way you could know he was lying would be if the U.N. had approved the war and France had stayed home (i.e. the antecedent is true and the consequent is false), since that’s not what actually happened, we would say that the statement is “true”.

Having given this explanation more than a half dozen times, it’s been mildly surprising that nobody has actually called me (and, by extension, math) out on it all being a bunch of convoluted bullshit, but I have to imagine some were thinking it. Usually, at this point, seeing the pained expressions on some of the faces staring out at me, I say something along the lines of “Of course, you could just think of this as the definition,” which seems to be a great relief to some. Which is ironic, given that, without the explanation, the notion that things could be this way just because that’s how they’re defined seems entirely unsatisfactory (which, by the way, I completely agree with. Definitions suck without context).

Having spent ten minutes writing about the conditional, I’m not sure it really illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Perhaps more appropriate would be the times that I’ve had to catch myself before I start ranting about epistemology, theories of logic, reductionism and how mathematics education is, essentially, a system of useful lies. Just as a calculus teacher extolls the virtues of the definite integral, talking about how useful it is and how many amazing physical properties it explains without mentioning that, in any actual application integration is not only difficult but usually impossibly difficult, I find myself teaching material which is useful in certain cases but usually too simplistic to be applicable to the real world. I try to point this out as much as possible, but I think it’s still probably misleading.

That having been said, the underlying concepts are, in fact, incredibly deep. It’s difficult, though, to emphasize that what’s important are the concepts, the fundamental ideas which lead us to particular formulas or computations, especially when midterms are looming and homework is due on Friday. I remember one student asking, the night before the midterm, if she ought to memorize a particular counter-example listed on the review sheet. My honest answer was “No, I don’t think you should memorize it; I think you should understand it,” which I don’t think she liked very much.

That question, though, lies at the heart of the topic that I’m apparently (finally) coming around to, which is that there seems to be a fundamental dichotomy in most people’s minds between, say, the humanities and mathematics. I doubt if anybody would ask an English professor, the night before a midterm, if he ought to memorize Joyce’s “The Dead” for the test, but in a math class it seems like a perfectly legitimate question (incidentally, I’m not trying to say that memorizing is completely worthless; in learning a foreign language, for example, unless one is lucky enough to be living in the country where the language being learned is spoken there’s really no way to make progress without memorizing verb conjugations, vocabulary, etc.). The fact that, for whatever reason, mathematics seems to be equated with rote memorization and plugging values into a formula seems to me to be one of the primary reasons that so many people have such a strong aversion to math.

Which is completely understandable, in a way. Memorizing is boring and almost completely lacking in cognitive content, which most people instinctively recognize, and the fact that math is equated with this boring activity is, I think, one of the primary reasons why an aversion to mathematics is considered acceptable even among people who would strongly decry stunted development in other intellectual pursuits. As John Allen Paulos puts it in Innumeracy: “In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical illiteracy is often flaunted: ‘I can’t even balance my checkbook.’ ‘I’m a people person, not a numbers person.’ Or ‘I always hated math.’”

As I look back on the above, I hope I’m not giving the wrong impression about my students. They’ve been wonderful, certainly much more perceptive and good-natured than I had any reason to expect, and I hope they’re learning as much as I am. What it comes down to, I think, is that it’s virtually impossible to interact on a daily basis with people whose level of expertise in a given field is significantly less than one’s own without having to think quite a bit both about the nature of that expertise (imperfect though mine still is) and the misconceptions about the field that will inevitably come to light.

Anyway, I’ve now strayed quite far afield of what I originally intended to write, which was a self-deprecatory post about how I’ve become almost stereotypically geeky in grad school, but I guess the above sort of illustrates that point.

1 Actually, a very interesting class. Aside from learning some basic logic and doing some simple proofs, we’ve talked a lot about different voting systems, leading up to the proof of a simplified version of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, the full version of which says that there is no voting system (other than a dictatorship, which everybody pretty much agrees isn’t much of a voting system) which satisfies both the Pareto condition (which says that if everybody prefers candidate X to candidate Y, then Y will not win the election) and independence of irrelevant alternatives (i.e. there is no “spoiler effect”). Also, we’ve learned a bit about power indices, namely the Shapley-Shubik and the Banzhaf indices, and are now starting on some basic probability.

October 09, 2004

The Song Remains the Same

Posted by shonk at 12:27 AM | permalink | 57 comments

Stumbled, quite by accident, across the second half of the presidential debate on the idiot box tonight, and I just have a few questions. First, has Kerry even read the Constitution? At one point, regarding a question about naming Supreme Court justices, he claimed that his priorities were on interpretation of the Constitution rather than on ideology, and then listed off three or four Constitutional “rights” that he would want an appointee to protect, like equal pay for women, abortion rights, etc. Admittedly, he may have been thrown off a bit by Bush’s wacky Dred Scott reference, but he followed up a question or two later by again suggesting that “a woman’s right to choose” is a Constitutional right, so I’m inclined to think it wasn’t a mistake. Now, no matter how one feels about any of these issues, the simple fact of the matter is that they’re not mentioned anywhere in any version of the Constitution that I’ve ever read.

On the other hand, what was up with that Dred Scott reference? It’s admittedly one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history, so it may be the only one Bush has ever heard of, but it seemed like a particularly ham-handed way for him to try to dissociate himself from the Southern reactionary stereotype.

Speaking of stereotypes, what’s up with using “liberal” as if it were a dirty word? Now, admittedly, I’m violently opposed to the position identified with liberalism in the modern American political climate, but the day I accept “liberal”, a word the dictionary defines as meaning “Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry”, as a slur is the day you can officially pronounce my critical thinking capability dead.

If you’ll excuse the ranting dogmatism for a moment, both major parties in this country are conservative, not in the somewhat bogus sense that the word is currently used but rather in its original meaning: both are committed to propping up and sustaining the currently dominant power structures and institutions. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is, of course, an entirely separate question, but the simple fact of the matter is that neither wants to fundamentally change much of anything.

Hypothetical questions aside, the debate convinced me of something that John T. Kennedy has been telling me for months: Bush is going to win this election. For better or for worse, his arguments are essentially positive: I will do X because I believe it is the right thing to do. Whether or not he believes his own arguments, and whether or not what he does exemplifies whatever beliefs he may actually have (and I’m skeptical that he has any), he’s arguing from an essentially stronger position than Kerry, all of whose arguments boil down to the following: I am not George W. Bush.

Admirable as that quality may be, Kerry doesn’t seem to even be pretending to believe in much of anything. Based on what he said (and I think my interpretation is relatively unbiased, given that I dislike both candidates), he’s not opposed to top bracket tax cuts because he has a strong belief in social justice or egalitarianism: he’s opposed to top bracket tax cuts because the beneficiaries only comprise 2% of the electorate. For God’s sake, he practically admitted as much when he tossed off that canard about he, Bush and the moderator being the only people in the room who would be negatively impacted by rolling back tax rates for the top brackets to Clinton-era levels.1 More fundamentally, at practically every stage he was reacting to what Bush said, in many cases legitimately pointing out inconsistencies or flawed reasoning, but still allowing Bush to dictate the terms of the debate. This became especially clear during the series of health care questions, in which Kerry spent more time explaining what his plan is not and how it was being misrepresented by G.W. than what it is, to the point of prefacing his answer to an entirely different question with a statement to the effect that his plan isn’t what Bush had been claiming it was. Despite the fact that I neither know nor want to know very much about Kerry’s health care plan, I’m certain that it was being misrepresented by Bush; nonetheless, getting defensive and allowing your opponent’s misrepresentations to fluster you is not a good way to win a debate.2

None of the above should be construed as an endorsement of Bush. Rather, it seems to me unlikely that someone running on an essentially negative platform, like Kerry, is going to defeat someone who at least pretends to be running on a positive platform. It didn’t work for Dole in ‘96 or McGovern in ‘72 and, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about politics, it’s that things don’t change all that much. Admittedly, Kerry’s more charismatic (has that been made into a newspaper pun yet? Kerrysmatic?) than Dole and (much) less radical than McGovern, so the race will undoubtedly be closer, but the old Zeppelin song title is still relevant.

1 A specious claim, by the way. Make fun of trickle-down economics all you like, but the rich generally don’t hoard their money: they invest it. And let’s just say there’s a relationship between investments and jobs.

2 Speaking of bad debating strategies, argumentum ad verecundiam seems to be another Kerry favorite.

August 11, 2004

That which goes unspoken

Posted by Curt at 05:24 PM | permalink | comment

Just thinking about race today, how stupid and silly the concept itself is, and even more so the vast ocean of debate surrounding it. I was thinking about racism and the persistence of it, in my own mind and, I would venture to wager, to a greater or lesser degree near universally in our country, if not the world. I used to consider this a societal failure, that our worldview is so saturated with ideas about race that it remains virtually impossible for twisted views on the matter to not take root in the mind. However, it occurs to me now that perhaps the real error lies not in how we actually do view race (as opposed to what we say in public), but rather in what is regarded as the proper attitude towards race.

Remember that the civil rights movement in this country was originally NOT about racism per se, i.e. the holding of prejudiced racial views. It was about legal and social, and to a lesser extent economic, equality. The existence of racism is relevant to this insofar as it shapes the actions of those with racist views but, in a society like ours today, in which the strictures on discrimination are so draconian, social as well as legal, where the mere accusation of racism is enough, almost anywhere, to cause the loss of a career and social ostracism for life, it seems to me that we have entered an age in which the undeniable persistence of racism is largely devoid of significant outward symptoms. Do not misunderstand me: I have several non-white friends who constantly regale me with stories of unnumerable little injustices and humiliations they suffer, but for the most part they seem to me about equal in magnitude, if greater in frequency, to the slights that I occaisonally have suffered as a male, or as a teenager (until two months ago), or as an American abroad, etc. I have heard the stories of police beatings and racial profiling, so I certainly do not presume to extrapolate my own experience too far, but to be quite honest, knowing what I do about the general environment of the ghetto, just as young Arab men (usually wealthy) are pretty clearly by far the most prominent group in the current wave of international terrorism, I don’t think that the general police fixation in America with young black men is necessarily unwarranted. In any case, now we are back in the realm of action, not of thought. But racism is, ultimately, thought not action. The oft-cited call to “eradicate racism,” then, is implicitly a call to manipulate and reform thought. Viewed in this light, the failure of the civil rights crusaders, in which so many in our society have been complicit, may be perhaps not that they have been unable to surmount the boundless narrow-mindedness of Americans but rather that they have set themselves an absurd and, if I may say, a totalitarian goal, not that of reforming the outward conditions of life but rather of transforming people’s minds.

The stigmatization of racial views in America now seems to me an at least equal, if not far graver, injustice than the minor forms of outward discrimination that still exist, now that the mere holding of racist (or more generally “discriminatory”) views, much less espousing them, is more or less generally considered a crime. But this is itself a greater crime against the intellectual openness of our society, where most any view, no matter how perverse or frightening, usually is, and certainly should be, tolerated, on the grounds that all ideas are legitimate and freely held, that they do not incur moral force or liability until they translate into action. Of course, determining to what extent ideas shape action is no easy matter, but I believe that I can demonstrate that in this matter the ideas themselves are being targeted, not the the actions that might ensue from them. To wit: imagine to yourself a party or some other social function, in which a guest said something to this effect: “I believe that, given the problems associated with the over-proliferation of humanity, the sanctity of life is a load of shit and, furthermore, that a certain percentage of the infants born each year in the world ought to be slaughtered.” Now imagine that another guest were to say (presumably in a different context): “I believe that black people are generally lazy and stupid.” Now imagine, in virtually any social setting, which view would face more immediate opprobium and hostility. Now I grant that a certain perverse rationality lies in the first statement, and that it could perhaps be stated more psychopathically, but no matter how the core sentiments in each case were phrased, I don’t think it would even be a close contest. Talking about baby-killing would probably cause some embarassment in almost any setting, probably some real hostility if it happened to be a particularly religious gathering, but in the case of the second, I venture to say that almost anyone saying such a thing would be almost assured of losing a friend or two before the night was over; if his boss or co-workers happened to be there, he would likely lose a job and maybe a career. I could even see a lawsuit or two erupting.

This scenario may be somewhat exaggerated, but it surely indicates the fundamental disjunction that seems to exist in the realm of anything considered “discriminatory.” It is an evil that has resulted from the attempt to coerce peoples’ ideas. Not only the principal of intellectual freedom dictates that we should attempt no such thing; prudence dictates this course as well, for prejudice will always exist. In the the sense that prejudice represents an ignorant and generalized view towards something or someone(s), most ideas are inherently prejudicial. So really it is not even prejudice itself that is being quarantined, but merely a particular class of discrete ideas. And this is pure authoritarian nonsense. No society can ever be free when ideas are subject to persecution.

June 27, 2004

Tryin' to kill me, eh?

Posted by shonk at 12:11 AM | permalink | 14 comments

After intimating that intellectual property crimes are, in effect, thought crimes, I want to continue in a similar thematic and, perhaps, iconoclastic vein by suggesting that attempted murder is not a crime. A bit radical, perhaps, but I want to make a case that such a position is at least understandable, even if nobody ends up actually agreeing with me.

To that end, it would probably be useful to make the terms I’m discussing as explicit as possible, so I’ll argue on the basis of the definitions given by the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, since that’s my current state of residence.

18 Pa.C.S. § 901(a) defines criminal attempt as: “A person commits an attempt when, with intent to commit a specific crime, he does any act which constitutes a substantial step toward the commission of that crime.” Obviously, in the case of attempted murder, the “specific crime” in question is that of murder, defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502. As for punishment, 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(c) gives the sentencing guidelines for attempted murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years if the victim suffers “serious bodily injury” and 20 years otherwise, which correlates to the punishments for third degree murder (18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(d)) and for first degree felonies (18 Pa.C.S. § 1103), respectively.

What this all boils down to, then, is that, according to Pennsylvania law, if I stab someone with the intent to kill him, I’m subject to twice as long a prison sentence as if I stab without intending to kill. Similarly, if I do anything the court construes as a “substantial step” (a phrase I suspect left intentionally vague) towards killing someone, even if I never actually hurt her (and even if she never even knows about my attempt), I’m subject to just as long a sentence as if I rape her. Think about that for a minute.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that what we call attempted murder should never be punished. If I stab someone, that’s clearly a crime (namely, aggravated assault), whether or not I intended to murder him. If I spray bullets in someone’s direction, even if I miraculously fail to hit anybody, that’s also a crime (again, aggravated assault). And I certainly think aggravated assault is a crime worthy of punishment (although I will note that I disagree with the federal and state justice system’s emphasis on punishment of the criminal over rehabilitation of the victim).

What I have problems with is the notion that, in and of itself, intending to kill someone is criminal. Certainly harboring such intentions makes me not a very nice person, someone who deserves to be shunned by society and cast out of polite company, but, assuming my attempt breaks no other laws, I’m not sure on what grounds it can be justified as criminal (or on what grounds having an intent to kill while committing an assault is worse than simply committing the assault).

As I see it, the issue boils down to the simple question: are a person’s thoughts, intentions and desires, however degenerate or reprehensible, criminal? To me, the answer has to be “no”; for something to be criminal, it must be wrongfully damaging to another (this sort of statement must, of course, be founded upon an entire theory of justice, which in turn is based on morality, which I’d rather not get into right now; those holding contrary opinions are, as always, free to prove me wrong) and I simply don’t see how a person’s thoughts, beliefs or intentions can, in and of themselves, harm another. The qualifier “in and of themselves” is important in the preceding sentence, because actions predicated on certain thoughts or beliefs can, of course, be harmful.

The obvious parallel to a much more controversial topic is that of hate crimes. An example from the Pennsylvania statutes is “Ethnic intimidation” (18 Pa.C.S. § 2710), which states the following:

A person commits the offense of ethnic intimidation if, with malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, he commits an offense under any other provision of this article or under Chapter 33 (relating to arson, criminal mischief and other property destruction) exclusive of section 3307 (relating to institutional vandalism) or under section 3503 (relating to criminal trespass) or under section 5504 (relating to harassment by communication or address) with respect to such individual or his or her property or with respect to one or more members of such group or to their property.

Such offenses cause the crime to be classified one degree higher than otherwise specified. I’m not particularly familiar with “hate crime” laws in other states, but my impression is that they are similar.

Again, I’m not sure how the beliefs or intentions of a criminal are necessarily criminal. The implication of this particular law is that my beating up a black man on the streets would be worse if I were a racist than if I were simply a sadist. Now racism is certainly reprehensible (as are homophobia, misogyny and any other attitudes that might be targeted by “hate crime” laws), but, again, I don’t see how assaulting people for racist (or homophobic, misogynist, etc.) reasons is any more damaging to the victim than assaulting people for misanthropic or sadistic reasons. Put more bluntly, Matthew Shepard isn’t any more dead than Nicole Brown-Simpson (to take two high-profile cases from the last decade).

The case might be made that racists are more likely to be repeat offenders than other violent criminals and hence deserve harsher punishment, but, even setting aside the fact that sadists probably also have a higher propensity than average towards repeat offenses and yet there are no “sadist laws”, such considerations are already taken into account (at least in theory) by the legal system. Sentencing (again, at least in theory) takes into account both aggravating and mitigating circumstances and, although I’m no lawyer, I would have to imagine that a propensity towards repeat offense qualifies as an aggravating factor.

Anyway, the point is that a crime is not somehow worse because the criminal has a certain agenda and, going back to attempted murder, having certain intentions, no matter how despicable, is not a crime. Additionally, on a wholly more practical level, these “crimes of intent” are dangerous because they place evaluation of intent under the purview of the judicial system. And, let’s be honest, do any of us really trust the courts to be able to determine accurately what our thoughts may or may not have been in any given circumstance?

June 13, 2004

Smoking out the kids

Posted by shonk at 12:24 AM | permalink | 9 comments

Along the lines of my post on Creekstone farms and the mercantilist policies that are preventing them from testing their beef for mad cow, comes news that clove cigarettes are being outlawed, supposedly to prevent kids from starting to smoke, but more importantly because Philip Morris doesn’t make flavored cigarettes (other than menthol cigarettes, which are expressly omitted from the ban) and is flexing its lobbying muscles to prevent competitors like R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson from marketing such things as the Camel Exotic Blends and Midnight Berry Kools:

Since added flavors make cigarettes more appealing to “our children,” they cannot be permitted. It’s just a happy coincidence that Philip Morris, one of the bill’s main backers, does not manufacture cigarettes with any of the prohibited flavors—although it does make menthol cigarettes, which are specifically exempted from the ban.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, featuring the snappy acronym FSPTCA, is, of course, rationalized on the standard “for the children” grounds, since, of course, 15-year-olds are right now lining up to purchase smokes that cost twice as much as normal cigarettes. Now, admittedly, I wasn’t really plugged into the whole high school smoking scene, but I’m pretty sure most underaged smokers, especially those still in the experimental stage, are smoking whatever manifests that elusive combination of low cost and availability, with the primary emphasis on availability. In other words, probably not niche-market flavored brands. Still, though, the sentiment is nice.

And not, of course, without precedent, as anybody who remembers Australia’s ban of Moo Joose knows. Again, that ban was justified by the supposedly negative impact that a widely-distributed alcoholic milkshake would have on the maturity-challenged. Of course, left out of the rhetoric was the fact that so-called alcopops (like hard lemonade), which were first introduced in Australia in the early ’90s, are still a going concern. Google is remarkably unhelpful on this front, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that Australia’s hard lemonade manufacturers threw their lobbying support behind the Moo Joose ban.

Speaking of smoking, yesterday I came across news that Portuguese police are planning to let English soccer fans smoke dope before Sunday’s match with France at EURO 2004 on the notion that stoned soccer hooligans don’t hooliganize so much as drunk soccer hooligans. The “Here We Blow” policy was apparently inspired by the Dutch, who employed a similar strategy to great success in 2000.

Which, of course, draws to mind the old Bill Hicks bit:

“You’re at a ballgame, you’re at a concert and someone’s really violent, aggressive and obnoxious. Are they drunk or are they smoking pot?”


“Wow. We all know the truth. I have never seen people on pot get in a fight because…it’s fucking impossible: ‘Hey buddy!’ … ‘What?’ … end of argument.”

Portugal’s got the right idea if you ask me, but the head of the British police contingent in Portugal sounds a bit miffed:

“English people should be adhering to the standards of law that we follow at home.

“From our perspective it would be quite an unusual sight to see two or three thousand England fans draped in their flags ‘whiffing a bit of blow’, or whatever we are calling it these days.”

Needless to say, that particular phrase seems to be entirely the good constable’s own invention, demonstrating once again that George W. Bush and Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf aren’t the only malaprop-prone public officials out there.

(Speaking of which, the latest Bushism I’ve seen comes from the text of his “we’re going to Mars” speech, where he calls NASA-employed astronauts “spacial entrepreneurs”, which is depressing in that it uses the right terminology to commend the wrong strategy.)

June 04, 2004

Regrettably necessary

Posted by shonk at 04:38 AM | permalink | comment

First off, I want to apologize again for the lack of content around here recently. Being on vacation for the last few weeks has made regular updating difficult, but during the last eight days I’ve endured multiple migraines on all but two of the days. Which makes it sort of hard to think very clearly or write very effectively. Anyway, I got some new drugs from my doctor today, so hopefully the migraines will soon recede.

Okay, what was I going to talk about? Oh, yeah, politics. Somehow, despite the fact that I hate politics, especially party politics and especially this year’s version, I seem to be uncontrollably drawn to some sort of weird punditry every couple of weeks. This round’s inspiration are the dual pillars of madness and genius embodied by The Onion and Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of Journalism. Reversing the order of discussion and thereby causing no end of anguish to my tenth-grade English teacher (if she’s reading this, anyway), those who pay any attention to the Books page have no doubt noticed that I’m currently reading Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, which is, more or less, a collection of the biweekly articles he wrote on the ‘72 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone.

Needless to say, those looking for “objective” journalism should look somewhere elsewhere than Thompson. In fact, in his own words:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Anyway, the point of that little tangent is to say that Thompson, as should surprise nobody familiar with his work, has no qualms about projecting himself into his articles on the campaign, no problem with stating his opinions directly and pursuing his biases openly. Though I haven’t even reached the Democratic Convention yet, one of the main themes of the book is obviously the problem that, in 1972, a lot of people cared more about defeating Nixon than about any particular opposition candidate. Which was the primary reason the apparently Ibogaine-dependent Ed Muskie was crowned in 1971 as the Democratic front-runner solely on the basis of the opinion that he was “the only man who can defeat Nixon”. Needless to say, one sees some immediate parallels to the current election.

In fact, the parallels are quite overt. The situation in Iraq is small potatoes compared to what was going on in Vietnam in 1972, but the fact remains that in both cases America was involved in a military conflict in southern Asia. In both cases, the incumbent is a Republican who had succeeded a southern Democratic predecessor, but in neither case had the incumbent defeated his predecessor in an election. Cynics can, no doubt, fill in their own table of similarities between George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon.

Early in the book, when it appears obvious that Thompson’s favored candidate (McGovern) will be an also-ran in the Democratic primaries, he has this to say on the whole process:

How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?

Hmm…sound familiar? As it turned out, in ‘72, the choices actually ended up being fairly disparate, with the anti-war and semi-radical McGovern getting stomped by tricky Dick. In ‘04, on the other hand, it looks like we will face down exactly what Thompson was most horrified by, the necessity of choosing the lesser of two evils, of choosing which rich, white, middle-aged member of Skull & Bones will be the president for the next four years (or at least until the winner is impeached, which somehow strikes me as likely and fits in nicely with my 1972 parallels).

In fact, that’s precisely what caught my eye in The Onion this week. After I got done chuckling at the caption “Shotgun Blast To Abdomen Just Pisses Wilfred Brimley Off More”, I had to admit that the article “Many Americans Still Unsure Whom to Vote Against” (archived) pretty much hits the nail on the head:

According to the poll, 46 percent of the registered voters surveyed would vote against Bush if the election were held tomorrow, while 45 percent said they were ready to vote against Kerry. Factoring in the 2 percent margin of error, the two candidates are essentially deadlocked in the race to determine which candidate America doesn’t support.

Of course, I find it all deliciously ironic. People who claim to care about social justice, egalitarianism and pacifism will be voting for John Kerry, who in addition to being a part of the elite of the elite for his entire life is notoriously difficult to pin down on just what, exactly, he thinks ought to be done in Iraq (pretty much the same thing Bush thinks, as it turns out). On the other hand, people who came to care about free markets, freedom and smaller government will probably cast their votes for Bush, who is not only a mercantilist of the old school, but passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act (which Kerry, and the rest of the chumps in Congress, voted for but now hypocritically denounces, by the way) and has increased federal spending like it was going out of fashion (which is ironic, because it never seems to).

Anyway, the point is that nobody, but nobody, who votes in this year’s election is going to be voting for a candidate with which they agree with on more than half the issues. Actually, let me re-phrase that: Nobody with half a brain who votes, etc. In other words, the president, whoever it ends up being, does not accurately represent the citizenry.

And yes, I’m well aware that this isn’t exactly a startling insight. But it still needs to be said, as plainly and as often as possible. Oh yeah, and one more thing: voting is a sucker’s bet. You’re about as likely to get run over by a car on the way to the polling booth as to cast the deciding ballot in the upcoming election (pdf file) and, let’s be honest, the difference between life and death is orders of magnitude larger than the difference between Bush and Kerry in the White House.

To complete the cycle, a couple more relevant quotes from the book:

But this is stone bullshit. There are only two ways to make it in big-time politics today: One is to come on like a mean dinosaur, with a high-powered machine that scares the shit out of your entrenched opposition (like Daley or Nixon)…and the other is to tap the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told that you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

— pg. 73

The latest craze on the local [Washington, D.C.] high-life front is mixing up six or eight aspirins in a fresh Coca-Cola and doing it all at once. Far more government people are into this stuff than will ever admit to it. What seems like mass paranoia in Washington is really just a sprawling, hyper-tense boredom—and the people who actually live and thrive here in the great web of Government are the first ones to tell you, on the basis of long experience, that the name or even the Party Affiliation of the next President won’t make any difference at all, except on the surface.

The leaves change, they say, but the roots stay the same.

— pg. 90

May 26, 2004

Vote early, vote often

Posted by shonk at 04:30 AM | 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.

May 25, 2004

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

Posted by shonk at 06:19 AM | 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 20, 2004


Posted by shonk at 04:12 AM | 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 12, 2004

President of Beers

Posted by shonk at 10:42 PM | 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.

May 11, 2004

Bureaucratic symbolism

Posted by shonk at 12:02 AM | 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 02, 2004

The the signs that go before...

Posted by Curt at 06:48 PM | 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.

April 29, 2004

Joints for MPs

Posted by shonk at 11:15 AM | permalink | 5 comments

Over in Bulgaria marijuana was criminalized. Previously, small amounts of “personal use” dope were legal, but not only did that come to an end, the new law apparently makes no distinction between, say, marijuana and cocaine for punishment purposes. Possession of even a single dose of any variety of narcotic can result in a 3-15 year prison sentence.

Needless to say, a lot of people are pretty unhappy, and today the editors of Edno, a weekly magazine, decided to do something about it. Using their press passes to bypass security at the parliament building, they calmly went about putting a joint in each MP’s mailbox.

Of course, they were arrested pretty quickly (though not before putting about 40 envelopes containing joints into various mail boxes) and their actions denounced as “criminal propaganda” by legislator Borislav Tsekov, but I’m sure it’s going to be a pretty hot topic for the next few days.

I’m not surprised that the only articles by non-Bulgarian press on news.google are different packagings of the same AP release, but it did seem a bit odd that three of the four articles appeared on Canadian news outlets.

UPDATE: See Petya’s reaction for more.

April 27, 2004

Pundits? We don't need no stinking pundits!

Posted by shonk at 12:27 AM | permalink | 12 comments

Ah, politics. Some selections from around the web:

  • JohnKerryIsADouchebagButImVotingForHimAnyway.Com — The URL pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

  • Stand Up and Holla! — An essay contest for 18-24 year-olds being sponsored by the Republican National Convention. The essay topic is: “Why is the President’s call to community service important and how have you demonstrated it?” Okay, I have two questions. First of all, what the hell is that question even asking? The part before the “and” is straightforward, but how does one demonstrate “the President’s call to community service”? Does demonstrating against it count? Okay, that’s already more than two questions, but I’ve got a second major question. It’s a one-word question. “Holla”?

  • Bush Country Ketchup — What would a campaign be without partisan ketchup? A pretty obvious gimmick, really. Reminds me of the lame anti-Ben-and-Jerry’s Star Spangled Ice Cream, the “Ice Cream with a Conservative Flavor”. Personally, I think you’d have to be some kind of nut to actually want to purchase a flavor of ice cream called “Choc & Awe” (though presumably not a “Nutty Environmentalist”). Seriously, are there any funny Republicans? Even Dennis Miller’s gotten considerably less funny and more didactic since he became an outspoken neocon.

  • My Secret Life as a Prostitute — No, not about politicians. Instead, a rather well-written weblog by a more noble variety of whore. Makes for pretty interesting reading.

  • Hey Crackhead — Speaks for itself:

    I am an engineer. Do you ever see me shaking down bums in the Loin for a calculator and sliderule? No, you don’t. Because engineering is the main thing I do, I went and bought myself a calculator. The main thing you do is crack. How do you get by without a crackpipe? The other crackheads must clown on you non-stop. I mean, the fucking saw you used to saw off my sparkplugs is probably worth five or ten bucks. Why not sell or trade it for a crackpipe? You really haven’t put much thought into this, have you?

April 21, 2004

It's funny because it's true

Posted by Curt at 04:32 PM | permalink | 5 comments

Best “Onion” headline in quite some time: “Cheney Wows Sept. 11 Commission By Drinking Glass Of Water While Bush Speaks.” Though it definitely faces competition from this one from the same issue: “Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department.”

April 20, 2004

Free-market fundamentalism? Not hardly

Posted by shonk at 11:53 PM | permalink | 5 comments

If you really want to get your blood boiling, read “Entrepreneurship Gets Slaughtered”, an L.A. Times op-ed on the Department of Agriculture’s disgraceful decision to prevent Creekstone Farms from testing all its cows for mad cow disease (free registration required):

According to the Washington Post, Creekstone invested $500,000 to build the first mad cow testing lab in a U.S. slaughterhouse and hired chemists and biologists to staff the operation. The only thing it needed was testing kits. That’s where the company ran into trouble. By law, the Department of Agriculture controls the sale of the kits, and it refused to sell Creekstone enough to test all of its cows. The USDA said that allowing even a small meatpacking company like Creekstone to test every cow it slaughtered would undermine the agency’s official position that random testing was scientifically adequate to assure safety.

That is to say, the Department of Agriculture would rather expose Americans to the risk of a rather horrible death from mad cow disease than to admit that maybe, just maybe, they are not as capable of protecting consumers as the private sector is. And that’s their official statement, the one which presumably contains the most favorable rationalization of their actions.

What didn’t get mentioned in their official statement, but which is correctly pointed out in the article, is that the more likely reason for Agriculture’s decision is that most of the meat-packing industry is vehemently opposed to the notion of testing every cow:

“If testing is allowed at Creekstone … ,” the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. told the Post, “we think it would become the international standard and the domestic standard, too.”

There are three separate issues here that I’d like to address one at a time. First, let me re-emphasize the fact that Creekstone was voluntarily choosing to go above and beyond the required safety measures in an attempt to guarantee that their meat was clean. Apparently, this should come as no big surprise, as Creekstone is known for working hard to reduce the use of antibiotics, for using humane slaughtering techniques and for paying high wages. The point, though, is that the notion that, absent government regulation, companies would produce shoddy, dangerous products is utterly absurd. Sure, many companies would like to be free of government safety regulations, but consumers rather like not contracting diseases from their food, being injured by their appliances, etc. and many are more than willing to pay extra to prevent such things. In fact, the primary way for slipshod, cut-rate corporations to prevent their competitors from luring customers with safer products is through (surprise) government regulation.

Which brings me to my second point: agency capture. From the article:

The Department of Agriculture seems to have only one purpose in preventing Creekstone from testing — appeasing the big slaughterhouses. The USDA has a long history of doing the bidding of the meatpacking industry at the expense of the public. Indeed, in many academic studies, the department is presented as a textbook example of the problem of “agency capture,” wherein an agency becomes so identified with the companies it regulates that it becomes an extension of those companies.

Agency capture is a phenomenon closely related to the rent-seeking that engenders special-interest legislation, pork-barrel spending and all the other so-called “corruptions” of government that are, in fact, the necessary consequences of a government with the ability to control the economic fates of millions through legislative and even bureaucratic actions. In the case of agency capture, both the agency and the currently successful corporations in whatever area the agency is supposed to be regulating have an incentive to maintain something pretty close to the status quo (another example can be seen in the European Patent Office’s ridiculous attempt to destroy e-commerce). The currently successful corporations have that incentive because the status quo is obviously treating them pretty well, and why change anything when you’re getting rich? The agencies have that incentive because the status quo is something they know how to deal with, whereas changing conditions require smarts and adaptability, qualities inherently antithetical to the bureaucratic mindset.

Which brings me to my third point: the economy currently operating in the United States is a pretty far cry from a free market, despite the mindless babble about Bush and his administration being “free-market fundamentalists.” The fact that the Department of Agriculture thought it reasonable to justify their shutdown of Creekstone’s testing on the grounds that it would undermine their “scientific credibility” (as if they had any to begin with) is just further proof of this fact. What we have in this country is a state-sponsored corporatism beloved of Democrats and Republicans alike because it puts the reins in their hands while maintaining just enough freedom to avoid (at least for the moment) the Communist death-spiral. Marx invented the term “Capitalism” even though the system he was denouncing already had a perfectly good word to describe it: mercantilism. Somehow, he and his followers came to confuse the mercantilism against which his writings were opposed with the laissez faire notions being propounded by what were then called liberals and so this strawman of “Capitalism” came to be the symbol of the free market. As such, it should come as no surprise that those who derive their political and economic ideas from Marx confuse the neo-mercantilism of the status quo with a free market, but the real disgrace is that so many purported “defenders of liberty” make the same fundamental mistake, mouthing a dogma of free markets while identifying the corporate-welfare sector as “capitalist heroes”.

Maybe I’m dead wrong about everything. Maybe a free market would be as terrible a thing as the diehard socialists claim. But we’ll never know until the Creekstones of the world are given the freedom to try to produce a safer product without federal regulators, working in concert with the worst of the mega-corps, shutting down their operation.

April 19, 2004

Political correctness harangued again

Posted by Curt at 05:34 PM | permalink | 23 comments

This screed against political correctness makes a good point that I think the vast majority of commentators across the political spectrum consistently fail to perceive. Political correctness is NOT, as neanderthal religious conservatives seem to consider it, the antithesis of all moral standards or regard for our “Judeo-Christian” heritage. In fact, neanderthal religious conservatives ought to recognize the apostates of political correctness better, for they are their true spiritual kin. Political correctness is really only the latest manifestation of intolerant rule-bound moral puritanism; it is really simply the modern-day secular counterpart of dogmatic religious moralism. And I would say that attitudes in most universities today towards race and racism, for example, are probably just about equivalent to the attitude towards sex in fundamentalist seminaries, if not more unhinged.

So this is nothing new: in the absence of religion, people have developed a new set of dogmas just as pointless and oppressive as those that they have supplanted. It takes a bit of intellectual freedom to make the next step, though, and in this I think the author of the article fails. Consider this passage from the article: “In their pursuit of a better, more enlightened world, PC types let an abstract moralism triumph over realism, benevolence over prudence, earnest humorlessness over patience. As has often been noted, an absolute commitment to benevolence, like the road that is paved with good intentions, typically leads to an unprofitable destination.” And then, a little later on, he approvingly cites the philosopher David Stove, who claims:

“A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Kim Il-sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.”

I agree largely with this diagnosis of the characteristics and consequences of utopianism, but do either of these men really believe that utopianists, much less Stalin or Mao, are really motivated primarily by “benevolence”? If they do, this must mean that at some level, even if they oppose the abuses of Marxism or feminism or multicultarilism, etc., they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by them. Of course the equivalence drawn between political correctness and the gulag is stupid and offensive, but that is not really the point. That the author seems to believe that Stalin murdered 1/6 of the population of Russia in a spirit of “benevolence” not only shows an almost superhuman gullibility but abuses the very meaning of the word “benevolence” beyond all reason.

Advocates of political correctness do share one important element with die-hard Marxists: utopianism. I have no doubt as to the horrendous consequences of utopianism, and consequently despise idealism of any stripe. But to claim that there is some special element of “benevolence” in politically correct or Marxist dogmas, even if this is supposed to render them especially malignant, at the same time either legitimates them as dogmas at some level or goes much too far into nihilism. It seems to me that the latter is the case in this article. Consider this passage: “The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil.”

I don’t really think the question is as fundamental as that, because neither speech codes nor the gulag in my opinion are in the slightest manifestations of “philanthropy.” It seems pretty clear to me that these are just manifestations of greed for power. Those that institute speech codes or run the gulags may cover themselves in idealistic rhetoric, but it seems pretty obvious that it is all a cynical cover to win legitimacy for their oppression of others, just as prude moralists or religious fanatics in all epochs have ever done. There is nothing unique about the abuses of the last century except for the sheer numbers involved. Even when idealistic rhetoric is sincerely meant, it is still all about power: the idealist believes that the ideal he holds in his mind is better than anything which actually exists around him, and even if he sincerely believes it he still means to impose his personal ideal on the outside world. This in my opinion is pure egotism. No, the concepts of benevolence or altriuism themselves are not de-legitimized by these abuses, because benevolence and altruism are not at all the motivating factors. It is John Stuart Mill, strange to say, who has the wisest words on the subject:

“The man who works from himself outwards, whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others . . . than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race—that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind—is an unaccountable person . . . who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.”

This is the distinction that I am trying to get at: the idealist prostrates genuine human life before abstract ideas, and in the service of equality or something of the sort is just as liable to level downwards through pure destruction as bring about good for anyone in particular. Whether idealistic rhetoric is sincerely meant, as seems to me the case with many advocates of political correctness, or is simply cynically used as a cover, as seems to be undoubtedly the case with the dictators of the last century, the ultimate motive is ultimately the same: pure lust for power.

p.s. It might do to clarify what I imagine by the word “benevolence” in lieu of idealism. It seems to me that true benevolence, perhaps better described as love, involves a fundamental element of tolerance, for the benevolent or loving person puts themselves at the service of another person or thing which really exists, as opposed to an ideal, which exists only in the mind of the thinker. So true benevolence or love is in fact almost the opposite of idealism.

First they came for the bukkake fetishists

Posted by shonk at 11:28 AM | permalink | comment

As a follow up to “Get paid for watching porn,” my post from last week, check out The Misanthropic Bitch’s “Who’s Fucking Who?” While I disagree with her implicit premise that voting will do anything to drown out “the chorus of gibberish from America’s retarded senior citizens,” she aptly destroys the snide yammering about pornography’s “victims”:

Porn does not magically appear. Jenna Jameson DVDs do not swarm around you like a nest of hornets, slapping you around with gigantic jugs until you give into carnal pleasures. I’ve never come home to a television playing Amber the Lesbian Queffer on its own accord, nor have I answered a phone and heard a breathless woman tell me what she’d do to me for $2.95/minute.

One needs to be an active participant. And an active participant is not a victim. An active participant is a consumer.

One more thing to keep in mind: the people who are behind the new crackdown on porn, like the Concerned Women for America, won’t be satisfied with merely going after “deviant stuff”; they want mainstream targets, like hotel chains offering adult features on SpectraVision (what Bill Hicks called “hairy bobbin’ man-ass movies”). And, as TMB points out, it’s a slippery slope from there:

If innocent videos of pre-pubescent girls frolicking in swimsuits had a market, then — oh, I guess they do. Because anything can be made sexual, and if you start with the “deviant stuff,” it’s only a matter of time before they come for the Shannon Tweed flix on TMC.

Maybe it’s time to update Niemöller’s lament.

If you want to send a message...

Posted by shonk at 01:42 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Curt’s fisking of Voltaire and Chomsky reminded me of that old Samuel Goldwyn remark: “If I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union” (yeah, that’s right, Samuel Goldwyn, not David Lynch, who recently and badly paraphrased it). Which is good advice for any artist, especially in these “the personal is the political” times.

Incidentally, googling that phrase is an interesting experience, one I’d recommend. Of course, there’s the odd writer commentary, but I was surprised to see two different articles on the Drug War pop up. The first, by Vicki Rosenzweig, is really more of a rant than a proper article, but it makes a good point:

I’d like to remind the US government of that principle. Or, if Western Union seems too old-fashioned, call a press conference. Create a Web page. Buy full-page ads in the newspaper, or hire someone to do flashy television ads you can run during ballgames.

Don’t write your message on the dead bodies of the American people.

This in regards to the Clinton administration deciding, circa 1998, not to support needle exchange programs because it might “send the wrong message”. Now I’m against federal funding for needle exchange programs, but that’s because I’m opposed to federal funding of pretty much anything, not because of the message it sends. As Rosenzweig says,

The message from the administration is “If you use drugs, you will die, and we won’t try to save you, because then someone else might use drugs too.” Do they really think people try heroin because they see someone, thin and pale, and think “well, he’s not dead yet”?

On the other hand, drug warrior Lamar Alexander uses the “Western Union” quote in quite a different context:

The political scientist James Q. Wilson has pointed out that when it comes to making policy, a common attitude is “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Yet when it comes to illegal drugs, sending a message may be the most important thing we do. If we have learned anything about drug use over the last twenty years, it is that drug use is closely linked to the attitudes toward drug use that prevail at any time.

Which is true, but then Alexander immediately starts fleeing anything approaching reason:

What worries me most about the debate over drug legalization, and the successful efforts to decriminalize marijuana in California and Arizona is the message that is sent. How can we expect our children to harden their resistance to drugs when all around there are voices telling them that, under some circumstances, mood and mind-altering substances are permissible?

That’s not quite the decriminalization message there, buddy. Rather, the message, if any, is that maybe bureaucratic busybodies oughtn’t be able to decree what we can and can’t do with our own bodies. Something Alexander, as someone who thinks that the risk of more people hurting themselves is “too high a price to pay” for freedom. Mind you, that’s not more people getting hurt by others, either through aggression or some other means, that’s more people hurting themselves (okay, admittedly he tosses in some stuff about crack babies and drugged-up drivers, but if that were a major concern he’d be leading the push for the re-instatement of Prohibition, seeing as there are orders of magnitude more FAS babies and drunk drivers than crack babies and stoned drivers).

The healthier attitude, in my book, is Billy Beck’s (wow, two Beck references in an hour; this must be a sign of…something):

And when I see a person “consigning” hundreds of millions of people to all the legal and institutional predations of the war on drugs on behalf of insinuated concerns for dopers — which I don’t believe for a split-second — it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to completely dismiss him as a serious person, because his concern is so obviously misplaced that the very next question goes to his mental competence.

Preach on, brother man.

April 09, 2004

Get paid for watching porn

Posted by shonk at 12:59 AM | permalink | 7 comments

Think you might like to get paid for looking at porn? No, this isn’t one of those e-mails you delete from your inbox without even looking. Rather, if you’re wanting to get paid to look at porn, you might want to consider applying for a job in the Department of Justice, which is cracking down on pornography for the first time in 10 years.

Apparently, GW thinks the way to win votes in November is to indict a few high-profile porn distributors. Now, maybe that will consolidate the conservative fan-base, but it’s not like the fundies are going to vote for Kerry anyway. Really, it’s all about reminding the people who’s got the guns and the power. In other words, the bureaucratic equivalent of “flexing nuts”, as we used to say in middle school.

God knows it won’t have any impact on porn itself. Good luck shutting down the massive online presence and good luck trying to convince jurors who never miss an episode of “Sex and the City” that sex on TV is bad.

At least, that’s my hope. The Puritanical strains of American culture never cease to amaze me. The whole porn debate should be as simple as this: as long as people who don’t want to see it aren’t being forced to, then what’s the big fucking deal? And no, having porn available for subscription on your cable service does not qualify as being forced to view it. Neither does the availability of every sex act imaginable in high resolution online. If you don’t want to see breasts, penises, vaginas, anuses and various combinations thereof, stick to AOHell and Dilbert. If you’re too dumb to be able to avoid porn online, well, send me an e-mail and let’s talk about some real estate deals I’ve got to offer.

Apropos my last post, I think one of the good insights that Camille Paglia offers on feminism is how the attitudes of, say, the Catharine MacKinnons of the feminist movement echo so closely the stance of “the reactionary, antiporn far right”. Paglia’s everpresent libido and love of porn is a bit over-the-top at times, but I think she’s exactly right to call out MacKinnon et. al. for hijacking feminism into prudish moralizing and for saying things like “The pornographers rank with Nazis and Klansmen in promoting hatred and violence” (cf. especially the essay “The Return of Carry Nation: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin”, originally published in Playboy, October 1992; also on topic is Wendy McElroy’s “A Feminist Overview of Pornography” and, presumably, her book XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography).

I don’t mean to sound like Randy Pan the Goat Boy, but come on with this legislating porn crap (a point for you if you recognize the reference). Hell, if anything, we should be subsidizing porn. After all, we all hate the French and you can see naked women on TV and in the newspapers in France. Shouldn’t we be trying to do them one better? Instead of cracking down on porn, I say GW should make a speech to the effect of “Look here you French pansies, we’re going to show you how to do porn.” Then maybe he’d get my vote (okay, not really, but it would make for great TV, wouldn’t it?).

April 03, 2004

Artificial Law

Posted by shonk at 05:32 PM | permalink | comment

I got an e-mail from Lee Killough yesterday which I thought made an excellent point on the notion of “natural” vs. “artificial” consequences and ties in nicely with some of the ideas I’ve been trying to express. Plus, I’m always a sucker for math jokes. With his permission, I’m reproducing it here:

(Legality != Morality) <=> (P != NP)

Proof: Morality is NP-complete because every human action can be considered a moral action. Legality can be tested in polynomial time by nondeterministic finite “state” machines. Therefore Legality != Morality iff P != NP. QED.

Seriously, I liked the piece:


Especially the “artificial” vs. “natural” words.

I’d go further, and say that government laws create “artificial consequences”, as opposed to natural consequences.

When a child playing with matches burns their hand, that’s a natural consequence. When a child playing with matches gets their hand slapped by a parent, that’s an artificial consequence.

Similarly, when a person loses consciousness or suffers withdrawal after taking drugs, that’s a natural consequence. When a person loses liberty and is thrown in jail after taking drugs, that’s an artificial consequence.

Artificial consequences are, ostensibly, society’s attempts to prevent more serious natural consequences (like house fires or drug overdosing). But they always involve some loss of liberty.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve heard people abuse the terms “consequences” and “responsibility”, making them lose their value.

For example, people often use “responsibility” to mean duty or moral obligation according to their own value system, rather than simply being responsive to a situation.

What exactly does being “responsible” to military conscription mean, for example? In ordinary usage, I suppose it means obeying it. In the true sense of the word, being “responsible” to being drafted could mean anything — burning a draft card, for example.

I remember 15 years ago hearing a Hugh Downs “Perspective” commentary on the radio commenting against the drug war, where he went into this very issue of the word “responsibile”, and how being “responsible” means responding to a situation, such as stopping after a car accident, and not the more common meaning.

“Consequences” is even more loaded with baggage than “responsibility is”. You hear things like “you’ll pay the consequences”, or “it’s your choice but you know the consequences”, which really means: You’ll agree with me, or else.

Whenever I was punished as a child and told to remember the “consequences of my actions”, I would pretend to agree with the adults to get out of trouble, but in reality I knew that their version of “consequences” was artificial. The only consequences which I thought were worth paying attention to, were the natural ones — the real ones.

Whenever I hear “natural law” discussed, I don’t hear enough about the opposite, “artificial law”. And until your piece on “natural” and “artificial” words, I’ve never read anything which comes as close to my idea of “natural” and “artificial” consequences.

Keep selling waves,


March 23, 2004

Chomsky backs "Bush-lite"

Posted by shonk at 11:51 PM | permalink | 18 comments

I don’t know how I missed this one. “Chomsky backs ‘Bush-lite’ Kerry”:

Noam Chomsky, the political theorist and leftwing guru, yesterday gave his reluctant endorsement to the Democratic party’s presidential contender, John Kerry, calling him “Bush-lite”, but a “fraction” better than his rival.

Stuff like this always makes me laugh. Chomsky the purported “anarchist” is throwing his support behind the big State-loving, incredibly wealthy, Skull & Bones member John Kerry. Which is just sort of pathetic in and of itself, but the fact that Chomsky is aware of the contradiction and yet still does it is what makes it funny. To me, Chomsky is a virtually infinite source of humor because he’s one of the most intellectually dishonest people I’ve ever come across. My God, one would think a linguist of all people would have a little more faith in spontaneous order, but I admit it’s a subtle connection, so I don’t hold it against him. What I do resent are tidbits like this:

He reserved his especial venom for the Bush administration’s plans for the health sector: “The people around Bush are deeply committed to dismantling the achievements of popular struggle through the past century no matter what the cost to the general population.”

Now, I’m no cheerleader for any Bush administration policies, but I know enough about Chomsky to know that his proposed alternative is about 100 times worse than anything Bush’s people could dream up (after all, no matter what one thinks of the guy’s politics, he’s undoubtedly smarter than anybody in the Bush administration). After all, what Chomsky (again, remember, he calls himself an “anarchist”) wants is “universal”, state-provided healthcare on a level even Hillary Clinton wouldn’t dream of. Of course the irony of it all is that Chomsky is deliberately ignoring the number 1 lesson to be learned from the last century’s politics: big, invasive, controlling states are bad. This is a classic Chomsky moment of intellectual dishonesty.

Now, you may be saying to yourself “Wait a minute, state-provided healthcare may mean bigger government, but it doesn’t necessarily mean more invasive or more controlling government. Why, with the proper guidelines, privacy policies, …” NO! You’ve got it all wrong. When my health care is state-provided, my health becomes a direct interest to the state and the people who pay for it, the general public. And when my health is a direct interest to the state and the general public, my lifestyle decisions become public policy. My decision to eat a third slice of pizza, drink a beer after dinner, smoke a cigarette, eat the mushrooms or write a weblog post instead of going for a jog is no longer my decision. That decision lies in the realm of public debate, public interest and state involvement. Don’t believe it? Well consider this: if I make the “wrong” decision, what is the end result when health care is exclusively state-provided? The end result is that I have wasted taxpayer money, that the hard-working citizens, already overburdened by taxes, are forced to subsidize my unhealthy, self-destructive and possibly downright reckless or dangerous behavior. If you don’t think the bureaucrats and the taxpayers will have an interest in that, you haven’t been paying attention. And trust me, when my lifestyle choices become a matter of public policy, the state will have every justification for forcing me to make the “right” choices. And this is exactly what Chomsky, the “anarchist”, would like to see.

Come to think of it, this isn’t funny at all.

Privacy in the news

Posted by shonk at 11:03 PM | permalink | comment

From Wired, two recent articles related to privacy issues. One, “Privacy Maven Now Works for Feds”, talks about how Lisa Dean, Washington liaison for the estimable Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a new job with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Dean was the one who was calling for Congressional intervention in the TSA’s controversial CAPPS-II passenger profiling and cross-indexing program. Instead of doing anything particularly useful (like, oh, say, stopping the damn thing), it looks like Dean will be writing a “strong”, “broad” and “fair” privacy policy for CAPPS-II, there’s no doubt in my mind that, when push comes to shove, that privacy policy will be little more than window dressing (see also the Tenth Amendment). The real question is this: will Dean become a scapegoat in the privacy community, or will she be considered a hero for her compromising ways? Of course, I have the same questions about whoever takes the Department of Homeland Security’s newest job.

Speaking of Amendments and window-dressing (this time the Fourth and Fifth), the “Supremes Weigh In on ID Debate” - specifically, the case of a Nevada man, Larry “Dudley” Hiibel, who was convicted of resisting arrest for refusing to give his name or show ID in an encounter with police. The Nevada attorney general gives the expected argument that “identifying yourself is a neutral act”. The obvious next question:

But if that is allowed, several justices asked, what will be next? A fingerprint? Telephone number? E-mail address? What about a national identification card?

Of course, the issue isn’t really the name per se, it’s what databases like CAPPS-II will associate with that name, and everybody knows it. As Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says:

A name is now no longer a simple identifier; it is the key to a vast, cross-referenced system of public and private databases, which lay bare the most intimate features of an individual’s life.

An argument between a man and his daughter in a pickup on the side of a rural road isn’t probable cause for arrest, but an argument between a convicted felon and his daughter or an Iranian national and his daughter in the same pickup might well be. Hell, even peace-loving nuns get red-flagged by the computers.

Of course, the apologists see nothing wrong with requiring names, IDs, whatever. After all, as Justice Scalia said in the hearings, “I cannot imagine any responsible citizen would have objected to giving the name.” That’s right, you’re at best an irresponsible citizen and probably a terrorist sympathizer or liberal pantywaist wit something to hide if you have some concerns about letting your name be run through the federal database just because some rural cop got bored with radar-gunning traffic and drinking coffee. After all, it’s not like the computers ever make mistakes or anything.

March 18, 2004

Uncommon Sense

Posted by shonk at 10:13 PM | permalink | 1 comment

It’s been a banner day on the blogosphere. Two highlights:

  • Over at the Dynamist Blog, Virginia Postrel states concisely a point that Curt, and to a lesser extent myself, has been making for a while:

    True liberation makes the personal apolitical.

    (Link via Catallarchy)

  • No Treason’s newest writer, Joshua Holmes, states the obvious: “Outsourcing rules.” But he’s not talking about outsourcing to India; he’s talking about the biggest single form of outsourcing of the last 200 years: industrialization.

    Indeed, what is the difference between replacing jobs with machines and replacing them with Indians? In both cases Americans lose their jobs. In both cases it’s done to cut costs. In both cases the price lowers. Surely, those who blog and comment on the Internet wouldn’t want to give up their electric lights - replacing tallow and wax makers, cars - replacing horse breeders and buggy whip makers, running water - replacing drawing and purifying it yourself, or any other modern convenience, even though these conveniences replace jobs. Why are they so upset when foreigners replace Americans?

    I would only point out that many of the same people who get exercised about offshoring also get exercised about the mechanization of labor. Which isn’t to say that consistency equals correctness.

March 17, 2004

You think up a suitably insulting title for this one

Posted by Curt at 07:12 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Oh, Jesus. So now one of the anti-gay marriage Congressional reps. wants to give Congress veto power over Supreme Court decisions. As has already been pointed out, this act would of course not have any bearing on federal “activist judges” or on state supreme courts and in any case, not being a constitutional amendment would, ironically enough, be immediately struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, but this sort of idiocy dumbfounds me. Trying to push this sort of thing through on the principal of giving the opinion of the majority more weight against “judicial activism” just demonstrates fully why the courts are intended to be outside the purvew of majority opinion. As much as I deplore the political emasculation of people outside of poltical circles in this country, the only thing worse is having every personal liberty subject to the whims of the majority. One Tory during the American Revolution characterized the difference between monarchy and democracy as the difference between one tyrant 3,000 miles away or 3,000 tyrants 2 miles away. Anyway, if Congress wants to correct the imbalance of power between the branches of government, perhaps it should stop rubber-stamping proposals from the executive branch like war powers resolutions and fiscally catastrophic Medicare bills rather than trying to end judicial review.

March 02, 2004

Shameless Self-Promotion

Posted by shonk at 10:37 PM | permalink | 6 comments

Check out my article “Legality is not Morality”. I wrote it about a year and a half ago, but just got around to submitting it yesterday. Commentary is, of course, welcomed.

February 24, 2004

And Plato wept once again

Posted by Curt at 12:10 PM | permalink | comment

Point proven that, as the article points out, “when voters say they don’t like politicians, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” That’s why sex scandals, for example, are so devastating to many politicians: in the end, the majority of voters prefer the politicians who lie through their teeth, because it preserves the illusion of idealism.

I also remember the single line of political philosophy in Kierkegaard’s entire oeuvre: “I prefer monarchy to democracy, because democracy requires that you concern yourself with affairs of state and behave as a politician, while monarchy only requires that you behave as a human being.”

February 23, 2004

Open Letter to Kerry

Posted by shonk at 11:20 PM | permalink | comment

The “Open Letter to Senator John Kerry” penned by the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) is entirely on point:

For the past few months we have listened and observed with apprehension and dismay to your statements and views regarding the terrorist theocracy in Iran. Yet, we had remained silent!

We have read how you refer to the theocratic regime in Iran as a “democracy;” we have heard how, if elected, as the president of the United States you intend to “engage” this barbaric regime; this very terrorist regime that your own State Department lists as the most active “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

Why is it, Senator, in all your statements, you don’t, even once, mention the oppressed and suffering masses of Iran? Obviously, as long as there is such preoccupation with appeasing the regime the people of Iran don’t even enter your equation!

Note that what they’re asking for is not military intervention in Iran, but merely that Kerry refuse to support or condone in any way the current fundamentalist regime in Iran:

While the future of Iran will be decided, solely, by its people and the ultimate responsibility to free the nation is with the Iranians, all we ask is the moral support of the United States. All we expect is that the United States will remain true to its principles of liberty, justice, and its ideals of democracy.

In other words, “If you would just stop legitimizing the totalitarians, we’ll take responsibility for our own freedom, thank you very much.” The history of Otpor is on their side.

(Props to Samizdata for the initial link)

None of the Above

Posted by shonk at 10:53 PM | permalink | 7 comments

In his post “Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It”, Aaron Swartz examines various alternatives to the first-past-the-post election paradigm, ultimately casting his support with Approval Voting. Seeing as no voting method addresses the fundamental problem of democracy, the fact that majority approval does not grant rights that no individual has, I usually tune alternative voting supporters out, but a comment on the post made by Tom Ruen caught my eye:

I like the idea of a “nonbinding None-of-the-Above” vote. It can apply for plurality, runoffs, cCondorcet and Approval. In a IRV method, NOTA acts like a normal candidate that can be eliminated. If NOTA rises to second place, that’s a sign that the candidates are weak and next election more people should run. If NOTA rises to first place in the final IRV round, I’d still give victory to a real candidate. That’s what makes it nonbinding. A binding NOTA would force a new election. I don’t think that is necessary. A strong NOTA is just a measure of voter discontent, and it will encourage the winner to try to connect more to voters, and encourage more candidates to run next time.

In my opinion, Ruen doesn’t go far enough. If “None of the Above” garners the most support, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to make the second-place finisher the winner; in fact, doing so completely ignores the preferences of the voters. If a candidate can’t beat “None of the Above”, then there’s no way in hell he should be in office. If we’re going to have democracy, let’s not be weak-kneed about it. Give voters a “None of the Above” option, and if it garners the most support, then leave the office being voted for empty until the next election…and in the mean time, consider cutting it altogether.

You know what? I like this idea. Put “None of the Above” on the ballot, if for no other reason than to put an end to this “lesser of two evils” bullshit.

Democracy Doesn't Work: More Proof

Posted by shonk at 12:38 AM | permalink | 2 comments

On Nader’s entrance into the presidential race:

What’s so fixed about our political system that a minority independent candidate, who likely won’t be able to register in many states, is going to spoil it for.. who exactly is he going to spoil it for?

Right now John Kerry, wearing the mantle of media-designated victor, is attacking Bush and attempting to appear Presidential. And the press coverage is mostly about how, if Edwards doesn’t win in the next few states, Kerry will be inevitable. Got that, Democratic party members in the last half of the states? Your opinions, hopes, and choices are irrelevant.

And now that Nader’s announced he’s in, we’re already hearing about how he’s just going to hurt the Democratic candidate. I find it both amazing and unsurprising that the number one response to Nader’s entry is not about his ideas and whether they’re any good. It’s about how his entry impacts the (mostly imaginary) horse race.

And I think there’s something astonishingly undemocratic about websites like Ralph Don’t Run. The logic behind the ad is simple, and goes something like this:

1. If Ralph Nader runs, a significant number of people will vote for him.
2. The Nader voters would otherwise vote for the Democratic candidate.
3. The only way to prevent the Nader voters from voting for Ralph is to take away that choice completely.
4. Therefore, Ralph shouldn’t run.

Or, to rephrase it: Those damn voters! Why won’t they shut up and vote the way we want them to.

It’s that “two party” mentality that keeps us locked into this “two party” nonsense.

So what’s so great about democracy, exactly?

February 21, 2004

Gay Marriages

Posted by shonk at 12:02 AM | permalink | 6 comments

It appears the civil disobediance going on in San Francisco this week has spawned at least one copycat: the Republican county clerk of Sandoval County, New Mexico, today started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in the county seat of Bernalillo, saying “[i]t’s going to be across the country and so we wanted to be ahead of the curve.” Even though the state attorney general declared those licenses null and void, there is no doubt in my mind that other county and city clerks around the country will follow the example of San Francisco and Sandoval County.

The news in San Francisco has prompted numerous politicians to speak out in favor of legalized gay marriage, including the mayors in Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver and Plattsburgh, NY. Even the King of Cambodia got in on the act. Students around the country are comparing gay marriage to the hotly-contested interracial marriage debate of the 1940’s, while a report prepared for the Software Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon suggests that the lack of legal status for gay couples is hurting economic growth in the U.S.

The two best quotes of the day:

I’ve already made clear my stance on the issue, which is that marriage is simply none of the state’s business. Nonetheless, I find the whole debate morbidly interesting.

(Hat tip to John Venlet for the Bernalillo and Northwestern links)

February 19, 2004

Government is Cognitive Dissonance

Posted by shonk at 08:22 PM | permalink | 6 comments

Yesterday, John Venlet posted a link to “Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself”, by Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at Saint Olaf College, an interesting critique of ethics workshops and the “ethics industry”. For example, this is, in my view, dead-on:

Ethics missionaries are driven by the assumption that improving our moral lives is a matter of developing our conceptual understanding and analytical acumen. The fantasy seems to be that if up-and-coming accountants just knew a little more about ethics, then they would know better than to falsify their reports so as to drive up the value of company stock. But sheer ignorance is seldom the moral problem. More knowledge is not what is needed. Take it from Kierkegaard: The moral challenge is simply to abide by the knowledge that we already have.

What really interested me, though, was near the end of the article, where Marino suggests that a lack of discussion of the impediments to ethical living, most notably self-deception, is a fundamental flaw in the ethics workshop approach. On the topic of self-deception, Marino specifically mentions Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance:

Festinger taught that when we hold conflicting beliefs, we are motivated to change them in predictable directions. For example, suppose you would like to believe that you are a compassionate individual who is willing to help the poor. At the same time, you think that it would be nice to have lower taxes, and you are convinced that the welfare system increases the government’s draw on your wallet. If Festinger is right, you might be inclined to try to convince yourself that the welfare system has to be cut, not because you want lower taxes, but because having fewer welfare benefits will motivate people to find jobs. Cutting benefits would be for their own good.

I tend to agree that humans are capable of remarkable rationalizations of non-rational beliefs, but, as I usually do, I want to discuss the specific example I’ve quoted rather than the general theory, because I think it leads to an interesting line of thought.

Specifically, I want to argue that many people countenance wealth redistribution and other government programs precisely because of a sort of self-deception or cognitive dissonance. Most people, rightly or wrongly, think they have some obligation to help others, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged. Not everybody, of course, but certainly most people. On the other hand, most people don’t expend a lot of effort actually helping the poor: maybe they want to spend their money on themselves, maybe they don’t want to get dirty serving food at soup kitchens, maybe they simply don’t have enough time; there are any number of more or less valid reasons. This creates the classical Festinger cognitive dissonance situation: ethically we want one thing, but practically, we want something else. So what happens?

Well, from where I sit, the most popular solution seems to be “let the government take care of it”. Rather than take some accountability for the action demanded by their ethics, people would rather quash their ethical misgivings via a government program. The inaction is then justified and rationalized: “Well, I’m paying my taxes, aren’t I? Ain’t that helping people?” Whether it is helping people or not is, of course, a highly contentious issue, but I don’t think anybody, no matter what their political beliefs, would dispute this: if each and every person dedicated the same amount of resources he currently pays in welfare-directed taxes to “helping the poor”, the poor would be much, much better off than they currently are. (I put scare quotes around “helping the poor” because definitions vary widely, depending on your political and economic ideologies; that being said, I’m confident that under almost any such definition, other than the “compassionate” eugenics one, my statement still holds)

The point is this: though there are undoubtedly many reasons for welfare systems, one of the primary ones is that a state-run welfare system assuages the ethical guilt felt by a large segment of the population.

With this framework in mind, let us turn to a specific example: Gregg Easterbrook’s column/blog entry “Poverty: Blame the Middle”, specifically this paragraph:

No, I won’t blame the greedy rich and the hypocritical politicians for the continuation of poverty amidst plenty, because this shifts attention away from the group that is most to blame: typical Americans. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that endlessly demands new government benefits for itself, locking up public funds that could otherwise help the impoverished. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that does not pressure politicians for higher minimum wages or similar reforms, because the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority—much of which boasts of being Christian—doesn’t care what happens to the forgotten poor at the bottom, or even likes the poor kept that way, as this ensures a cohort of lawn workers and burger-flippers who will accept low wages.

Aside from the fact that, as Bill Russell points out, Easterbrook’s economics are suspect, what’s really apparent is that Easterbrook thinks that people, especially Christians, have an ethical obligation to help the poor through government programs. As Russell says:

It is disappointing for such a smart man and great writer to take the position that those who disagree with him are morally inferior. It is even more disappointing for him to argue that Christians have a moral obligation to help the poor via the coercion of government. That is a big leap from Christian philosophy, which I understand to encourage voluntary acts of charity and compassion. If anything is morally repugnant, it is Easterbrook’s interpretation of Christianity, under which Gregg Easterbrook determines what is compassionate, and then forces everyone, at gunpoint if necessary, to pay whatever he determines to be “fair” wages and taxes.

In my view, what Easterbrook has done is take the cognitive dissonance discussed above a step further: not content just to let government action substitute for his own ethical responsibilities, he’s actually made government action an ethical responsibility in its own right. Rather than noting that it’s a shame that poverty still exists in our society and making the entirely reasonable argument that people ought to heed their ethical responsibilities by dedicating more of their resources (time, money, labor, whatever) to helping the poor, he’s arguing that people have an ethical responsibility to make government help the poor. That is to say, Easterbrook believes that this self-deceptive rationalization is an ethical responsibility. I hardly need to mention that Easterbrook is far from alone in this opinion.

So what’s my point? Simply this: if you have an ethical obligation, government action does not relieve you of that obligation and is not a substitute for acting on that obligation. So let’s stop deluding ourselves.

February 16, 2004

Finding Humor in Unlikely Places

Posted by shonk at 01:51 AM | permalink | comment

Apparently the mid-winter doldrums have gotten to be too much for the College Republicans at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Connecticut, so they’ve decided to liven things up by protesting affirmative action with a whites-only scholarship :

The application for the $250 award requires an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness.”

“Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” says the application.

Now, some may take offense to this, but in my opinion, it’s pretty damn funny. I mean, come on, “[e]vidence of bleaching”? And I, personally, would love to read the essays they get. You know a few will be wacko white-supremacist screeds, which, admittedly would be a little scary, but I’d be willing to bet that most would be hilarious, because the essay writer would either be treating the whole thing as a joke or trying like hell to be serious and as a result writing the most stilted, artificial crap imaginable. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge, write a good satirical piece and win the whole thing.

Now, some of you may not find a lot of humor in this. You may be wondering what, exactly, I find so funny about these right-wing reactionaries and their racist programs. Well, here’s what’s funny: a few decades ago, people started noticing that black people were underrepresented among college graduates; instead of doing something productive, like raising the standards in high schools, or tying teacher salaries to performance instead of tenure, or, heaven forbid, saying “maybe this whole ‘public school’ paradigm needs to be re-thought”, those people decided to start accepting and giving extra money to under-qualified black students. Which isn’t funny, in and of itself; it’s actually quite tragic, because two of the primary consequences of this approach were to engender racial jealousy on the part of whites and to ensure that the qualifications of every black college graduate were viewed with suspicion by those paying attention to what was going on. No, what’s funny about this mess is that otherwise intelligent people take it so damn seriously, to the point where they get spitting mad when somebody says “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense”. Now, this scholarship thing isn’t, to me, as good as affirmative action bake sales, which take the thing to its logical conclusion, a sort of reductio ad absurdum, but it’s still good for a chuckle.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the College Republicans at Roger Williams or anywhere else have enough of a sense of humor to laugh about this whole thing. In my experience, College Republicans are a pretty dour lot, unable to take a joke and usually the first ones to run to the dean when someone plays a joke on them. At least, that was my experience in undergraduate, where the president of the College Republicans was a seriously uninteresting person with no trace of a sense of humor.

Oddly enough, this president of the College Republicans at my otherwise fine undergraduate institution was from Olathe, Kansas, which is the municipality represented by Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor, who made headlines in 2001 for her opposition to women’s suffrage. That’s right, she’s not only a voter herself, but a state senator, and she’s opposed to women’s suffrage. Her reasoning:

I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women (today) we wouldn’t have to vote. I’m sorry women have not been taken more care of. We have gotten the short end of the stick.

Sadly, this isn’t the sort of irony that’s funny; rather, it’s the sort that makes me want to punch a wall. Women have indeed gotten the short end of the stick throughout much of history, but I wouldn’t say that the 19th Amendment was one such instance.

Speaking of fools, the estate of James Joyce is certainly giving O’Connor a run for her money. They’ve threatened legal action for any public readings of Joyce’s work at the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Bloomsday. For those that don’t know what Bloomsday is, it’s the name given to June 16, 1904, the date on which the action in Joyce’s Ulysses (whose primary character is Leopold Bloom) takes place. As pointed out in the above-linked post:

Public readings do not displace commercialised use of Joyce’s work, so the estate does not lose income from their occurrence. Of course, the estate is technically within its ‘rights’ (though this does indicate reasons for reforming European copyright law) but such vigorous enforcement is unnecessary and distasteful.

I would go a step further than that, and assert that public readings of Ulysses would probably encourage additional purchases of the work, which is a famously difficult read but is quite lyrical and funny when read aloud. In fact, the Joyce estate may well be hurting sales by raising such a fuss about what is intended to be a celebration of the book generally considered the best of the 20th century. Since amazon.co.uk has only sold 2,374 copies of the beast in its history, one might have thought the estate would have taken this into account.

Of course, what’s really ridiculous about the whole thing is that Ulysses actually went into the public domain in 1941, 50 years after Joyce’s death, only to go back into copyright when the EU retroactively extended copyrights to death + 70 years in July of 1995, which surely made for some interesting times in the publishing industry. One might wonder how, exactly, a work can simply be removed from the public domain, but it does provide for an interesting possibility: “readings from certain editions of Ulysses, published or
prepared in the period between 1991 and 1995, could fall outside the
Joyce Estate’s control.”

In a further twist, if current copyright laws had been in effect for the entirety of the last millennium, Ulysses might never have been published in the first place, as it is rife with emulations of other writers’ styles, popular songs and advertising slogans and jingles; literally hundreds of lawsuits might have been filed, rather than the measly one that DJ Danger Mouse currently faces.

Now if only Ms. O’Connor would speak out about how books like Ulysses are eroding our moral sensibilities, I might be able to tie together all the loose strings in this post into some sort of coherent conclusion.

February 14, 2004

Actual Scholarship

Posted by shonk at 02:50 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Over the last couple days, I’ve been doing a lot of work and a lot of reading, but not very much writing. I hope you’ll excuse me for merely providing links to two very thought-provoking articles. If you have the time, I strongly recommend reading both. If you only read one, I would encourage you to read the second (especially you law school types). And yes, it’s a complete coincidence that both are written by professors at George Mason.

“Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist”, by Bryan Caplan.

“The Myth of the Rule of Law”, by John Hasnas.

An excerpt from the Hasnas article:

If four generations of jurisprudential scholars have shown that the rule of law is a myth, why does the concept still command such fervent commitment? The answer is implicit in the question itself, for the question recognizes that the rule of law is a myth and like all myths, it is designed to serve an emotive, rather than cognitive, function. The purpose of a myth is not to persuade one’s reason, but to enlist one’s emotions in support of an idea. And this is precisely the case for the myth of the rule of law; its purpose is to enlist the emotions of the public in support of society’s political power structure.

People are more willing to support the exercise of authority over themselves when they believe it to be an objective, neutral feature of the natural world. This was the idea behind the concept of the divine right of kings. By making the king appear to be an integral part of God’s plan for the world rather than an ordinary human being dominating his fellows by brute force, the public could be more easily persuaded to bow to his authority. However, when the doctrine of divine right became discredited, a replacement was needed to ensure that the public did not view political authority as merely the exercise of naked power. That replacement is the concept of the rule of law.

People who believe they live under “a government of laws and not people” tend to view their nation’s legal system as objective and impartial. They tend to see the rules under which they must live not as expressions of human will, but as embodiments of neutral principles of justice, i.e., as natural features of the social world. Once they believe that they are being commanded by an impersonal law rather than other human beings, they view their obedience to political authority as a public-spirited acceptance of the requirements of social life rather than mere acquiescence to superior power. In this way, the concept of the rule of law functions much like the use of the passive voice by the politician who describes a delict on his or her part with the assertion “mistakes were made.” It allows people to hide the agency of power behind a facade of words; to believe that it is the law which compels their compliance, not self-aggrandizing politicians, or highly capitalized special interests, or wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, or _______________ (fill in your favorite culprit).

But the myth of the rule of law does more than render the people submissive to state authority; it also turns them into the state’s accomplices in the exercise of its power. For people who would ordinarily consider it a great evil to deprive individuals of their rights or oppress politically powerless minority groups will respond with patriotic fervor when these same actions are described as upholding the rule of law.

Consider the situation in India toward the end of British colonial rule. At that time, the followers of Mohandas Gandhi engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by manufacturing salt for their own use in contravention of the British monopoly on such manufacture. The British administration and army responded with mass imprisonments and shocking brutality. It is difficult to understand this behavior on the part of the highly moralistic, ever-so-civilized British unless one keeps in mind that they were able to view their activities not as violently repressing the indigenous population, but as upholding the rule of law.

The same is true of the violence directed against the nonviolent civil rights protestors in the American South during the civil rights movement. Although much of the white population of the southern states held racist beliefs, one cannot account for the overwhelming support given to the violent repression of these protests on the assumption that the vast majority of the white Southerners were sadistic racists devoid of moral sensibilities. The true explanation is that most of these people were able to view themselves not as perpetuating racial oppression and injustice, but as upholding the rule of law against criminals and outside agitators. Similarly, since despite the . 60s rhetoric, all police officers are not “fascist pigs,” some other explanation is needed for their willingness to participate in the “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic convention, or the campaign of illegal arrests and civil rights violations against those demonstrating in Washington against President Nixon’s policies in Vietnam, or the effort to infiltrate and destroy the sanctuary movement that sheltered refugees from Salvadorian death squads during the Reagan era or, for that matter, the attack on and destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. It is only when these officers have fully bought into the myth that “we are a government of laws and not people,” when they truly believe that their actions are commanded by some impersonal body of just rules, that they can fail to see that they are the agency used by those in power to oppress others.

The reason why the myth of the rule of law has survived for 100 years despite the knowledge of its falsity is that it is too valuable a tool to relinquish. The myth of impersonal government is simply the most effective means of social control available to the state.

February 11, 2004

Unfortunately, you don't get what you pay for

Posted by shonk at 12:49 AM | permalink | 13 comments

After nearly a three-week layoff, JTK returns with a vengeance :

Q. Who Gets A Better President …

… - a conscientious, informed, principled and intelligent voter or a dim-witted and ignorant voter?

A. They both get the same president!

February 10, 2004

Politics on Drugs

Posted by shonk at 12:41 AM | permalink | 6 comments

In a very thoughtful article in Wired, “Stop Making Pills Political Prisoners”, Lawrence Lessig addresses the following issue: many people in poor countries are dying because the drugs that could save their lives are too expensive.

This behavior outrages many in the developed and developing worlds alike. How can drug companies be so callous? How can they deny medicine to millions just so they make more money?

The pattern also puzzles economists. Patents give drug companies monopolies over their products. The rational strategy for a monopolist is to price-discriminate, to charge more in places that can afford it and less in places that can’t. For example, with price discrimination, it would make economic sense to charge Africans practically nothing for drugs sold in Africa, as long as the same product could be sold in the US for lots more.

So what’s the problem? Why doesn’t this sort of benign price descrimination result in cheap drugs for the third world? As Lessig notes, arbitrage is a problem, but not an impossible one.

Another reason is more intractable: the grandstanding politician. If big pharma price-discriminates rationally, it guarantees the following query from some representative in some committee hearing: “How come a hospital in Lagos spends $1 for this pill, but the local Catholic hospital in my district must pay $5,000?” And, of course, in the Inquisition that is congressional testimony, there is no effective way to answer such a question. Graphs about monopolies and proofs about the benefits of price discrimination don’t get you far on Capitol Hill. The rational drug company thus expects that rational price discrimination would lead to irrational price control - and the end of the ability of big pharma to earn enough from high-paying countries to support the cost of developing drugs.

Yet again, we see the justification of the equation

rational ignorance + public choice = massive suffering

It is quite rational for the politician to be ignorant of the beneficial side effects of price discrimination; after all, his overriding priority is to get re-elected, and the people in Lagos aren’t casting ballots in Congressional District 3 (hence the public choice part of the equation). Now, one might well argue that a congressman has no duty towards the people dying in Lagos. Be that as it may, the simple fact of the matter is that the hypothetical drug company being discussed will charge a profit-maximizing price in as many places as it can, so the politician is really doing his constituents no good by grandstanding about the price-discrimination. The net effect is that everybody (except the politician) is the same or worse off than they would be otherwise.

Just to make things perfectly clear, I would just like to point out that, although the proximate cause of unneccessary suffering and death in Lagos is, as the anti-globalizationists point out, the greed of big corporations, the ultimate cause is, in fact, the self-serving state. By which I mean to say that, indeed, the reason cheap drugs aren’t widely available in the third world is exactly because it’s not profitable for the pharmaceutical corporations, which have profit as their number-one priority. However, the reason offering cheap drugs to the third world isn’t profitable (at least in this scenario) is not because of “market failure”, stunted morality or any of the standard reasons, but rather because of the perverse incentives created by state action. And not just malicious state action, either: as I’ve pointed out, the politicians who would potentially intervene and try to stop price discrimination are not acting irrationally, given their incentives, nor are they actively trying to screw over the third world. I’m not a fan of corporatism, but I do feel sorry for those in charge of big corporations who get the blame for the problems in the third world when the blame rightfully lies at the feet of the same people who have managed to hoodwink the public into believing that they offer a solution. That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, indeed.

At this point, it seems appropriate that I insert a caveat. I’m not trying to justify the patent system in this post, as anyone who is a frequent reader is probably aware. Rather, if patents are going to be enforced, it seems to me that they ought to be enforced consistently. That is to say, part of the justification for patents is precisely the sort of beneficial price discrimination being discussed, since the arbitrage hurdle is more difficult to clear absent a legal monopoly (by arbitrage, I mean someone buying pills in bulk for a buck in Lagos and then selling them for a fraction of the $5000 price tag in New York), so it simply makes no sense to justify the patent system on one hand with beneficial price discrimination while effectively never allowing that price discrimination to take place.

February 08, 2004

Aliens Cause Global Warming

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM | permalink | comment

Please, do yourself a favor and read Michael Crichton’s speech Aliens Cause Global Warming. If you still have a few minutes, be sure to check out his Remarks to the Commonwealth Club, which touch on similar issues.

February 05, 2004

Playing by the Rules

Posted by shonk at 11:31 AM | permalink | comment

Over at Old fishinghat, Bill Russell responds to John Edwards’ South Carolina victory speech :

The other problem I have with Edwards is that he likes to characterize the poor in America as typical Americans, who play by the rules, but get the shaft. One might ask the question to Edwards, what are the rules that one should play by avoid poverty in America?

I would argue that the rules for a fair society would be that anyone who completes high school, has children only while married, and works full time should not be poor. How do Americans who play by these rules do?

- Of workers who work at full time jobs, at least fifty weeks a year, only 3.3% live below the poverty line.
- Of all workers who have only completed high school, only 5.8% of them earn income below the poverty line.
- Of all children, 5.6% of those living with married parents are poor compared to 26.4% of those living with single mothers.
- For families where the parents are married, and both work, only 1.4% or 374,000 live below the poverty line.

In the comments, Joe J. adds “Furthermore, to characterize the very small percentages of below poverty line individuals in your examples, it should be noted that their is a high probability that their poverty is a transitory condition.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Not Quite

Posted by shonk at 10:51 AM | permalink | 2 comments

The good: Wales police chief pushes for drug legalization, saying current drug laws do “more harm than good”.

The bad: Former surgeon generals call for tax hike on cigarettes (link via Improved Clinch), apparently believing that, though smokers “lost their free choice when they became addicted as children”, a $2 tax increase will prompt 5 million to quit. Jacob Sullum comments in the linked post:

In other words, people who can’t break tobacco’s tenacious hold suddenly find that they can when the price of cigarettes goes up. Apparently, the free choice that is lost when you start smoking can be restored through taxation. Only the fleeced are truly free.

The beautiful: Buddhabrot

February 04, 2004

Diapers and Politicians

Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM | permalink | 4 comments

Today I saw a bumper sticker I really liked:

Both diapers and politicians ought to be changed

Often for the same reason.

Now, I know that sounds like a stereotypically vacuous-but-pretending-to-be-deep bumper sticker slogan, but bear with me for a moment; there’s actually something to this one.

First, and obviously, the comparison is fitting because, just like politicians, all diapers get soiled. Not just some. All. At this stage, the equation between politicians and dishonesty is as close a we’re ever likely to come to a cultural tautology.

Less superficially, I think the comparison between diapers and politicians is apt (unwittingly, no doubt) because one of the first steps a person makes towards maturity is when he leaves the Pampers behind. Uncomfortable, ungainly and unattractive though they may be, diapers are fundamentally degrading to any sort of developed consciousness, an indicator that the person wearing them is so helpless that the only way he can be prevented from spreading filth and disease is by literally wallowing in his own shit.

So yes, politicians, like diapers, ought to be changed, and usually for the same reason. But remember, only the most helpless and self-loathing of people wears diapers for his whole life.

A Parliament of Whores

Posted by shonk at 12:15 AM | permalink | comment

From Parliament of Whores by P.J. O‘Rourke:

I’m not sure I learned anything [about government] except that giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.

— pg. xxiv

Many reporters, when they go to work in the nation’s capital, begin thinking of themselves as participants in the political process instead of glorified stenographers.

— pg. 34

So what if I don’t agree with the Democrats? What’s to disagree with? They believe everything. And what they don’t believe, the Republicans do. Neither of them stands for anything they believe in, anyway.

— pg. 26

On that note, you can now send in your campaign contributions via Amazon. Good luck trying to figure out which to support.

January 31, 2004

More on Paleo-Marxism

Posted by shonk at 11:37 PM | permalink | 3 comments

I think Curt’s analysis of Slavoj Žižek’s “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” is spectacularly dead-on. This, to me, is especially prescient:

While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion.

As I see it, the “parablist’s psychology” of the piece stems from the fact that Žižek’s (and Lenin’s) distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedoms has a lot to do with their frustration that people simply cannot choose the impossible. For example:

Can you no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or “second modernity” ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of indulging in the “escape from freedom,” of the immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this situation is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, one automatically interprets all these changes as the results of their personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.

When Žižek says this, he clearly thinks that there is some third alternative other than “better life now or long-term security”. However, the reality is that no system can give people long-term security without degrading their present condition to some extent. This is no less true under socialism, though the fact that the citizenry is given no choice but to forego present wealth for future “security” makes it seem otherwise.

On a somewhat related note, when he discusses the death (if only) of State Socialism and Western Social Democracy, Žižek has this to say:

What these two defeated ideologies shared is the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development, to steer it in a desired direction.

It is in this context, I think, that it is more appropriate to ask Lenin’s fabled question: “yes, but for whom? To do _what_?” Because it is not just these two ideologies which share “the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development”; this is simply fact. For those that disagree, consider the social norms that prevent you from detailing to their face the character flaws of each person that annoys you, or the aggregate of human actions which makes the suburbs an attractive place to live. No, what distinguishes these two ideologies are two premises that underlie the final clause, “to steer it in a desired direction”.

To even talk about a “desired direction” is to imply that collective desires exist, that there is some collective consciousness existing semi-independently from individual consciousness which has its own desires, perhaps antithetical to the individual desires of its components. When I say a “collective consciousness”, I mean this in a very real sense, as something more than a mere statistical aggregate of individuals. A cynical observer (such as myself) might find a bit of irony in this mystical belief on the part of confirmed materialists, but the presence of the belief is quite real, most prosaically evident in the virtually uniform appellation of a definite article when ideologues of this stripe talk about “the people”.

The second implication underlying this notion of steering “in a desired direction” that distinguishes the ideologies of state socialism and social democracy is that the state reflects the desires of humanity, of the collective consciousness. Note that the emphasis of the above-quoted sentence undergoes a subtle shift: starting with “humanity as a collective subject”, it ends with a call to state action. One would think that a person like Žižek, so critical of current states acting against the needs and desires of people, would recognize that any state is necessarily exclusive and, as such, cannot capture the totality of human desire, that any “desired direction” embraced by a state can, at best, be a poor approximation of what “the people” (to use the usual nomenclature) really want. And that, even were this not the case, the only distinction, fundamentally, between state action and any other action lies in the legal use of force, which means that even if “the people” really do desire what the state supposes they do, they may very well not value that desire above the effects of the application of force necessary to achieve it.

Which brings us back to where we started: one cannot do what is impossible. Much as I am sure we all desire it, there is never a choice that does not have its associated costs, no matter how much thinkers like Žižek talk about undermining “the coordinates of the existing power relations”. That is not to say that many of these “coordinates” should not be undermined, but rather that altering the existing power structure will not make the impossible suddenly possible.

Paleo-Marxists revived!

Posted by Curt at 03:27 PM | permalink | 2 comments

I find much fodder for further intellectual rancor in what I suppose purports to be a “re-valuation” of freedom along Leninist lines, with a title that plays off the title of a pamphlet by Lenin. The author and I start off, at any rate, on similar ground. His implicit question, which will find much sympathy at least among the angst-ridden, is the question as to how it is the case that, in a society in which no appreciable political or social limitations constrain us from achieving material and social prosperity that happiness is not more wide-spread. Rather than cavilling as to whether limitations do in fact constrain those whose desires lie outside certain societal norms, kleptomaniacs or serial killers for example, suffice us to re-open the question as to whether free choice can really be equated with happiness.

Lenin, for one, formulated a theory which separated “formal” from “actual” freedom, i.e. tried to make people aware that the simple ability to choose between several alternatives did not necessarily constitute true freedom, because the finite number of options presented to them itself represents a limitation on their freedom. To cut through all the gibberish in the article, the author’s point, quite simply, is that while this distinction in Lenin’s particular case may have been entirely self-serving, a ploy by which one could strip a people of all of their personal liberties in the name of freedom, his wider point has valid application in our society as well as his. And indeed it is not a false distinction to contend that the ability to choose between certain alternatives may not constitute freedom in the wider sense. However, it does not follow that such incomplete freedom necessarily equates to unhappiness, nor that the converse, total lack of constraint, would produce happiness.

In fact, I think the author has a good deal of sympathy for Lenin’s ultimate goals, and recognized that to achieve them would require a good deal of destruction. But this idea should sound the alarm for the rest of us. If the “actual” freedom propounded by Lenin requires the death of millions, not only the means should be criticized but also the goal. If the obstacles to existential freedom are the lives of so many, what kind of an ideal is this? Of course this is the root of my detestation for idealists of any stripe: for them, like mystics and Platonists, this existence we inhabit means nothing, is only a shadow obscuring the ideal, and hence the separate, actual existences of all the many peoples of the world can ultimately not be of the slightest concern or relevance to them, for they are simply the disappointing precursors to the ideal.

Hence, the very notion of “actual” freedom has a whiff of madness lurking upon it, particularly for those who remember Herder’s observation that a man holding a gun near a tower packed with explosives on a dark and stormy night has strange thoughts. Most of us are not disappointed that we ultimately do not realize these wild fantasies and desires, but rather are in the end relieved that something held us back. Nothing is easier to enjoy than the fate to which a man has resigned himself. I do not mean to devalue the concept of freedom entirely, but ultimately it is simply an abstaction with no corollary in the real world, as anyone who has chosen not to die will surely have come to understand (while technically true, I do not accept for a second the rationale behind the sophism that one cannot really choose that which is not possible). While the article may end on a resigned note, speaking of the inevitable limitations on human freedom, that seems to me no more than an emotional intermezzo until the next sensational idelogy plucks up his dreams of immortality again. While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion. We should realize in the end the abstractness of freedom; it is what Hegel called a regulative rather than a nominative end, i.e. a standard to hold one’s own conduct to, but not a real possible mode of human existence.

January 30, 2004

Journalistic Objectivity

Posted by shonk at 12:30 AM | permalink | 3 comments

I know that when I post quotes from whatever book I’m currently reading, the results aren’t exactly topical in many cases. This one, however, addresses pretty exactly the point Curt made in his last post when he talks about “the great failing of the journalistic philosophy of superficial objectivity” :

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

This is precisely the reason why journalism simply cannot be objective. Even were the newspapers written by computers totally deprogrammed of dogmatic bias, the simple fact of the matter is that what is “newsworthy” is not very reflective of life. Bill Hicks, as usual, is much funnier than I:

I don’t understand anything so there you go…you know what my problem is? I watch too much news, man, that’s my problem, that’s why I’m so depressed all the time, I figured it out. I watch too much CNN, man. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat around and watched CNN more than, I don’t know, 20 hours in one day…I don’t recommend that.

Watch CNN Headline News for 1 hour, it’s the most depressing thing you’ll ever fucking do: WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION. WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS…

Then, you look out your window……..“Where’s all this shit happening? Ted Turner’s making this shit up! Jane Fonda won’t sleep with him, he runs to a typewriter. ‘By 1992, we will all die of AIDS; read that on the air. I don’t get laid, no one gets laid!’ I’m writin’ Jane Fonda: ‘Will you fuck this guy so we can get some good news, please?’ “

I want to see a well-laid Ted Turner newscast: “Hey, it’s all going to work out. Here’s sports.”

The point is, what we call “the news” is both real and not real. It’s real in that, most of the time, whatever is on the news really did happen, or at least something relatively similar happened. It’s not real in that what makes the news is by definition unusual, out-of-the-ordinary, likely not reflective of what is happening or will happen in my life. The evening news is the most highly-rated reality show in history, all the more ingenious because of its subtlety. Shows like “Survivor” are just poor approximations, polynomial interpolations of the subtle genius of the evening news. Of course, the genius and naïve are often virtually indistinguishable, and the same holds true in this case. The evening news is genius because it convinces the viewing public that it is important and relevant, but naïve in that those who produce the news often don’t even recognize that what they make is, in a way, no more real than “Survivor”.

The final point I’d like to make on this issue is the following: what I’ve discussed above is, I think, a big reason why everybody thinks the media is biased against their political views. And I do mean everybody. I don’t think very many people recognize this fact. I’m not particularly enamored of the liberal/conservative dichotomy (especially because I quite simply don’t fit into either category), but virtually every “liberal” I know believes fervently that the media is pushing a conservative agenda and virtually every “conservative” I know is convinced of exactly the opposite. One of the reasons, I think, is precisely because the news simply does not cohere to reality very well. I’m convinced that if we could invent a perfectly objective news-gathering and -publishing computer, the majority of politically aware people would still be convinced there was a media bias against their position.

So what’s the solution? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure there is one, but it might be a good start to acknowledge that “journalistic objectivity” is not merely an unattainable goal, but actually a very harmful and oxymoronic conceit.

UPDATE: John Venlet comments with In the News

January 28, 2004

Freedom of Something, Alright

Posted by shonk at 10:46 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Continuing the theme of abuses of language, today we present Al Franken. Apparently, the occasionally funny but usually annoying comedian tackled a protester at a Dean rally :

The trouble started when several supporters of fringe presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche began shouting accusations at Dean.

Franken emerged from the crowd and charged one male protester, grabbing him with a bear hug from behind and slamming him onto the floor.

“I was a wrestler so I used a wrestling move,” Franken said.

Franken’s explanation?

Franken said he’s not backing Dean but merely wanted to protect the right of people to speak freely. “I would have done it if he was a Dean supporter at a Kerry rally,” he said.

“I’m neutral in this race but I’m for freedom of speech, which means people should be able to assemble and speak without being shouted down.”

That sounds real good, but if you were really “for” freedom of speech, wouldn’t that mean you’d be “for” letting people gather and express their disapproval of presidential candidates without getting tackled by crazed humorists? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean aspiring power-whores ought be free of the annoyance of hearing the opinions of the hoi polloi.

(thanks to Catallarchy for the link)

January 21, 2004

Leave Us Alone

Posted by shonk at 10:24 AM | permalink | 6 comments

Jonathan Wilde over that Catallarchy obviously wasn’t playing the State of the Union drinking game, but I, for one, am glad he didn’t. His message to politicians is simply outstanding (but be sure to read the whole post):

I don’t want your ‘strengthening of the economy’. You have screwed it up enough already.
I don’t want your ‘sanctity of marriage’. It’s not your business.
Quit trying to define everything as right or left. The world is not binary.
You don’t end poverty. You create it.
I don’t want your retirement plans. I know my unique circumstances best.
Consensus support does not signify ‘bipartisanship’. It is simply honor among thieves.
I don’t want your entangling alliances. They endanger rather than protect me.
I don’t want your education guidelines. My education is personal and lifelong.
Tonight was not a great ‘political event’. It was the very reason for eternal vigilance.
Government does not ‘create jobs’. It only takes them away from honest individuals.
I don’t want your ‘leadership’. Sovereign individuals are their own leaders.

January 19, 2004

State of the Union Drinking Game

Posted by shonk at 12:33 AM | permalink | 3 comments

If you play the State of the Union drinking game on Tuesday, I think you can be assured of a nasty hangover on Wednesday morning. On the other hand, it might well be the only way to make the speech tolerable.

January 17, 2004

Al Gore or the Unabomber?

Posted by shonk at 09:21 PM | permalink | 1 comment

While taking a break from researching the perfect 404 (incidentally, custom 404 pages can get quite creative), I stumbled across this quiz. I can’t decide whether the fact I only got half the questions right is a good or a bad sign.

January 16, 2004

A Department of Anarchy

Posted by shonk at 05:15 PM | permalink | 5 comments

From TM Lutas’ proposal for a Department of Anarchy :

There is now no real institutional constituency in government for less government. There should be.

Nice sentiment, especially given the reality of regulation with which it is impossible to comply (link courtesy Samizdata), but it ain’t gonna happen.

(Alert readers will note that this ground has already been eloquently covered by JTK in “The Fundamental Fallacy of Government”)


Posted by shonk at 04:08 PM | permalink | comment

ibergus is confused (or at least claims to be; I have my doubts):

Congress crowed about cleaning up our in-boxes with the passage of an antispam law last year, but brace yourself: Some of this year’s unsolicited e-mail may feature the latest news from your congressional representatives.

Members of Congress are increasingly using e-mail to communicate with their constituents. They are aided by several companies that have developed ways to provide politicians with extensive e-mail addresses of those they hope to reach.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates have already plunged into e-mail marketing, relying on online promotions and e-mail solicitations in their campaigns.

Read the full article for more, but the main point is obvious and unsurprising: legislators care about the sanctity of your inbox only when it helps them get votes. The corollary, of course, is that when violating the sanctity of your inbox might yield more votes, well, you better hope your Bayesian filter is functioning properly.

The fact of the matter, though, is that high-profile Democrats aren’t the only spammers uninhibited by the CAN-SPAM legislation: “Less than 1 percent of spam e-mail sent to U.S. inboxes this month complies with a national antispam law that went into effect January 1, according to two spam filtering vendors.” In fact, spam is still on the rise. The usual suspects like CAUCE are bleating about a need for enforcement, that the law will only have an effect once people start getting arrested. Maybe so, but even at that, as CAUCE president John Mozena notes, the law will, at best, change only the content of spam, not the amount of it:

“The pornographers, the herbal Viagra merchants, the relatives of dead Nigerian dictators — it may get rid of them,” he said. “But the legitimate marketers now have a federally mandated stamp of approval. They can send each of us as much e-mail as they want until they’re asked to stop.”

Now, as I’m sure you all know, I’m practically the acme of discretion and good manners, but even I can’t help but point out that I predicted all this :

That, of course, is a debatable point, but what’s not debatable is that this new law [CAN-SPAM], once it’s signed into law by GW in December, will not end or even seriously curtail spam. I mean, the DMCA’s been around for a while and, last I checked, Kazaa wasn’t going anywhere (or, if it is, it’s because of competition from iTunes and Napster, not due to the DMCA). Instead, the solution to spam can only come from people changing the way they read e-mail in a way that makes spamming more costly than it is remunerative.

(incidentally, on the Kazaa point in the above quote, apparently the RIAA’s heavy-handed lawsuits were discouraging filesharing for a while, but the effect was, as one would expect, short-lived)

January 08, 2004

In memoriam Africa

Posted by Curt at 03:55 PM | permalink | 2 comments

In my more athletic years as an outfielder on a baseball team, my coaches used to talk about hundred-dollar catches and five-cent throws. In my mockery of Dalrymple below, it’s the five-cent throw that I am criticizing. Grasping a hold of a problem intellectually is a wondrous thing, not easy to do, but it does not preclude the thinker from fixing upon the most facile, ineffectual sort of solution imaginable to that problem. And since I am on that subject, I see an even clearer example in this article by a former professor of African studies named Gavin Kitching describing his reasons for abandoning the field, which has apparently aroused quite a furor, if such a concept seems credible in a field of this size, in the African studies community.

While the main conclusion of the article seems to be that Africa’s problems, in the mind of the author, are intractable insofar as he does not understand their origins, let alone how to solve them, the main point of controversy seems to be the suspicion he has arrived at, despite his neo-Marxist academic upbringing, that Africa’s problems are not simply universal economic problems, but are specific to Africa, and hence are basically cultural. Evidently his early belief that even after the end of colonialism Africa remained economically and politically depressed by ruling elites who were essentially acting as agents of former colonial powers was eventually shattered by the realization that “if the ruling elites of Africa are seen as managers or agents for western capitalism or imperialism, one can only say that the latter should get itself some new agents. For the ones it has seem remarkably inefficient…so many of the official spokespeople for that capitalism (the IMF, the World Bank, corporate executives with African investments) far from endorsing the activities of their supposed ‘agents’ were endemically critical of the failure of African elites to provide domestic environments in which any form of capital investment could be secure and profitable.” So therefore, in some measure Africans must in some measure be considered the authors of at least the continuation of their problems. Of course a number of scholars, understandably if not excusably reluctant to abandon the universalist economic frame of reference which has informed the field for essentially the entire course of its existence, resist this interpretation, and one can find the usual platitudes about “blaming the victim.”

Yet there is something missing from Kitching’s analysis, as well. He believes, in the end, that while the corruption and irresponsibility of African elites may not be totally infiltrated by Western manipulation, nonetheless Africa’s plight is more or less solely the fault of Africa’s elite. And so the question of Africa’s condition becomes the question of the behavior of its rulers, or as he says: “Why have African governing elites been particularly prone to behaving in ways which are both economically destructive of the welfare of the people for whom they are supposedly responsible and which have led - at the extreme - to forms of state fision, (civil war etc.) collapse or breakdown?”

But this explanation does not seem quite adequate to me. While a tiny elite in most African countries may be responsible for most of the specific policies that have caused so much hardship throughout Africa (think of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Charles Taylor in Liberia, to name but two), that does not mean that they are not authentic representatives of their cultures. Similarly, the all-encompassing oligarchies in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were not totally anomolous in their countries’ political histories. Stalin, for example, saw himself as a natural heir of Ivan the Terrible and allegedly professed disappointment upon only seizing Berlin and East Germany in 1945, saying: “Alexander II made it to Paris.” And of course Hitler named his empire the third in a line of three periods of German imperial expansion, coming after the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire) and the Second Reich (the 1870-1918 empire forged by Otto von Bismarck). So I think there is something endemic to German and Russian culture in those two totalitarian governments, and the sheer mind-numbing similarity of the autocrats in Africa over the last 40 years proves a parallel. This may seem a minor point, but in fact may have enormous consequences. Again, look at the case of Russia in the last ten years, and the misery which has attended a lack of comprehension of the depth of the cultural roots of a tyrannical regime. The abstract exchange of one set of ideals and political structures for another has hardly eradicated violence and authoritarianism as a way of life.

In the end, I cannot approve of this whole subject as a matter of academic debate. African studies seems to have fallen the way of most disciplines that take real social change, rather than simply intellectual comprehension, as their goal: from asking the question of how to improve the situation, it devolved to the question of why the scholars were not able to improve the situation, to the point where the main question seems to have become “who is to blame?”, which in my opinion is a debate as perverse as the debate in the ’80s among German and Russian historians over which country’s concentration camps were guity of more atrocities. Kitching points out the insidious nature of Western intellectuals engaging in these mental flagellations, claiming: “paternalistic guilt” is “a kind of mechanism of neocolonial control, a mechanism in which the colonial personality is very willingly complicit because, just so long as it continues, it cannot (at least in its own eyes) ever do wrong — ever be the actual, culpable agent of harm or damage in the world.” But he himself is active in this kind of pernicious delusion. For example, his immediate goal for the salvation of Africa is to sponser “a major, high profile Round Table on (say) ‘The Crisis of Africa’”. I think any more of these panel discussions, nay even the phrase “round table” might make me lose my breakfast. This endless mental masturbation! Exploiting world crises to take some paid academic junket to a desirable vacation-spot where delegates sit around and talk and talk and talk! Could there be anything worse for the situation than further talk?! These conferences have become the bane of political life, the reflexive substitutes for any possible action. And worse, as Kitching himself pointed out, on this subject they allow for an insidious and guilt-ridden patrimonialism, in which Western academics pretend to take charge of massive social problems while the affected peoples ignore them or make use of the opportunity to hold out the donation-hat. As usual, of course, it falls on an actual African to speak a word of sense in all of this academic nonsense. Mamadou Diouf, a professor at Michigan-Ann Arbor, says: “Kitching is saying, ‘I gave up because we were not able to fix it, or to provide a sound intellectual framework.’ But I don’t know why Kitching thinks people are waiting for him to fix it. Why does he think that as a specialist on Africa he has to be part of the fixing process?…Who is reading African studies scholarship in Africa? Nobody. Including the African intellectuals, because they don’t have the resources.” African studies scholars in the West “are writing for themselves. They are cut off from Africa.”

One final point. This may be a dogmatic debate, but not entirely an ideological one, at least insofar as it cuts along some strange lines. One might expect, for example, that the cultural conservatives would be pursuing a similar line of argument as Kitching, insofar as it gives them the always-welcome opportunity to denigrate other cultures as politically and economically inferior to the U.S. and to throw themselves martyr-like upon the bayonets of political correctness. But oddly, in the case of Zimbabwe, for example, most of the op-ed conservatives in the newspapers that I have read seem to be using Zimbabwe to flail that exhausted hobby-horse of theirs, statist Marxism. They are using it to trumpet yet again the failure of land collectivization, the state control of industry and agriculture, etc., just like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Now they may actually in this case be cowering away from the bayonets of political correctness on an issue of minor importance to them by avoiding the implication that they are condemning Zimbabwe on anything other than universalist economic grounds. But Africa should have taught us two things by now. One is that universalist economic explanations simply do not suffice, as Mugabe and all the other African kleptocrats that have capitalized on racial or ethnic nationalism to ruin their countries prove continually. The other is that, as the tribal violence all over Africa proves, particularly in Rwanda and the Congo, tyranny and genocide do not exist only in the presence of all-enveloping national governments.

December 29, 2003

Rules for Radicals

Posted by shonk at 03:32 AM | permalink | comment

From Saul Alinsky’s book:

Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those conscious deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then…conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Always remember the first rule of power tactics:

Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

The second rule is: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

The third rule is: Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

The sixth rule is: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.

The seventh rule is: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment…

The eighth rule: Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The ninth rule: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

The tenth rule: The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

The eleventh rule is: If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative…

The twelfth rule: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying “You’re right—we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”

The thirteenth rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

In conflict tactics there are certain rules that the organizer should always regard as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.” By this I mean that in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck….

It should be borne in mind that the target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target….

One of the criteria in picking your target is the target’s vulnerability—where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, the target can always say, “Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?” When you “freeze the target,” you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all others to blame.

Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.

A good example of the last rule is what activists did to John Poindexter last year.

December 26, 2003

Bad Presidents

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM | permalink | 2 comments

Do a Google search for “bad presidents”. Go on: I promise it won’t hurt.

Okay, fine, if you’re really that lazy, just check out the Commissar’s work.

December 15, 2003

No Recovery for the Internet?

Posted by shonk at 08:21 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Along the lines of my post on small victories in the fight to maintain the Internet’s freedom, David McClure says :

The Internet industry, which once led the economy and set new levels of productivity for the nation, is stagnant. The stagnation is due primarily to the incoherent, conflicting and threatening policies of the federal government. …

Efforts to cut away unnecessary regulation and spur investment are hopelessly stalled. …

When [broad-ranging new taxes on the Internet are passed], the magnificent economic machine that is the Internet will slowly grind to a stop, as companies and consumers cut back their use of the Internet, service providers go bankrupt under the crush of tax compliance from 7,200 taxing authorities and the dream of a connected America is quietly killed by state and local tax commissars.

Now, as I’ve said before, I disagree with McClure that the Internet needs anti-spam legislation, but his points on regulation and taxation are dead-on.

Also, as pointed out in the comments to my previous post, some people are making sure the Internet cannot be regulated.

December 14, 2003

Small Victories

Posted by shonk at 01:32 AM | permalink | 3 comments

I admit to being a bit surprised at not having seen much coverage of the rejected proposal to put the Internet under UN control in the blogosphere. Aside from a Samizdata post rightfully excoriating the grandstanding of the despicable Robert Mugabe, I haven’t seen anyone take much note this week’s World Summit on the Information Society.

Part of the preliminary talks leading up to the WSIS, the proposal to put ICANN under the auspices of the UN including giving the US permanent presidency of an ICANN oversight committee) was apparently spearheaded by the likes of China, Egypt, Syria and Vietnam. Ultimately, the US, the EU, Japan and Canada carried the day on this particular issue, preferring to leave to Internet to its relative freedom.

Two points on this: first, the obvious deduction is that China, Vietnam, et al want the Internet to be UN-controlled so that they can get rubber-stamp approval for their own oppressive censorship of the web; second, as noted by the US delegation chief David A. Gross,

For the first time, we see governments internationally recognizing that which we have talked about for many years — that the Internet is a responsibility not only of governments, but also primarily of the private sector, civil society and others both in the developed and the developing countries.

So we see now a consensus around the U.S. position, which is that multistakeholders all play an important role in the process.

Or, as Robert Twomey, president of ICANN, puts it, “[t]he partnership of the private sector and civil society has actually helped build the Internet”. Twomey goes on to point out that the hot-button issues for the politicians, pornography and spam, fall well outside of ICANN’s charter (not that a charter has ever served as much of an impediment when it comes to politicians making soundbites and grabbing power).

If you read the article linked in the previous paragraph, you’ll note the following: ironically underscoring the governmental hubris underlying the whole sordid affair is the fact that, during the proceedings, Twomey and other “outside observers” were ejected from the discussion. Apparently, someone decided that only government officials are qualified to discuss how the Internet is run. Twomey was far from the only representative of civil society or business so snubbed, as 2600 news reports :

The irony here is fairly obvious: civil society is barred from talks at which governments and corporations sing the praises of unfettered access to communications, openness, and equal rights for all. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the way that many of the governments involved treat their own citizens. Indeed, Tunisia, home to the 2005 summit, is itself no fan of a free press, according to the international journalists’ organization Reporters Sans Frontières.

The plan for a 2005 summit in Tunisia is about the only thing actually accomplished at the WSIS, proving once again that the only thing the UN is really good at is writing non-binding constitutions and planning new summits.

One would like to think that the stance taken by the US against UN control of ICANN was a principled one, but maybe it was pure pragmatism (hey, anything’s possible). After all, it’s clear that the public sector cannot secure its own computers and networks, so why would anyone think it could do a better job with everyone else’s. Especially notable is this:

The newest department in the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, got off to a bad start with an overall “F” for its computer security, despite the fact that securing the nation’s network is part of its mission.

Not that I’m the least bit surprised by this.

December 12, 2003

Why not vote?

Posted by shonk at 06:20 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Unsurprisingly, Fox News is critical of Rock The Vote and other get-out-and-vote organizations for supposedly promulgating and supporting “liberal” candidates. Also unsurprisingly, Fox completely missed the real problem with these organizations: they encourage people to give their tacit support to politicians. Who the voter votes for isn’t nearly as significant as the fact that he votes. After all, in an election, the government always wins.

In the 2004 election, I’m quite sure, many otherwise well-meaning people will trudge to the polls and dutifully vote for Dean or whoever wins the Democratic nomination not because they support him, but because they find the current president repugnant. But this tactic is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. A choice between a Democrat and a Republican is no choice at all, as the primary objective for both parties is consolidated power. When Hillary Clinton rips into Bush, claiming that “This administration is in danger of being the first in American history to leave our nation worse off than when they found it,” she’s not offering a fundamental critique; she’s merely expressing her frustration at not being in charge herself. To borrow a metaphor, it’s just a ball game: you root for one team and curse the other, but you still want the game to be played. Red Sox fans may hate the Yankees, but they don’t want next year’s games to be cancelled.

As Alvin Lowi so aptly notes,

Politics bears a strong resemblance to messianic theology. Regardless of all the obvious problems associated with its practices, adherents remain steadfast in their belief that the savior is just around the next election.

Lowi is a strong proponent of not voting as, if not a solution, at least a step on the path to recognizing that there is a problem. He recognizes that politics is a dehumanizing institution, one that destroys order in the name of government regulation and law-enforcement. The supposed aim of regulation is to prevent the selfish or destructive from harming themselves and others. A laudable goal, in and of itself, but ultimately based on the incredibly naïve proposition that elected or appointed politicians and bureaucrats will, miraculously, rise above the self-interest and narrow-mindedness that are the purported causes of the problem in the first place. In fact, regulation’s primary purpose is to convince the voters and taxpayers that those in power really deserve their money and support. The best way to do this, of course, is to create new problems (or at least exacerbate existing ones) and then promise to fix them in exchange for more money and power.

With this in mind, it should be clear why I tend not to favor political solutions. Even were it possible to accurately capture the “will of the people” (it’s not), one gains nothing by “giving” power (I use scare quotes because voting purports to give a power that doesn’t exist, namely the power to rule others) to those whose job is to do whatever it takes to stay in power. Returning to Lowi:

Once a person recognizes politics is a game and that it is a game in which only politicians can be winners and everyone else must lose, he will get out of the game for self preservation. This game like all games cannot be played without willing losers. While this game cannot be stopped merely by some who refuse to play it, the non-participants can at least know the game is absurd and turn off to it. While a person can be victimized by a gang of players, he cannot lose a game he does not play.

Not active enough for you? Well, keep this in mind:

Remember, politics is built for conflict. That’s its stock in trade. It has to have a war or a threat of one to subsist. Behind every “liberation” movement, crime or environmental “clean-up” campaign, cultural “purification” pogrom or public “enlightenment” program will be found a political racket.

November 24, 2003

Important Questions

Posted by shonk at 02:35 AM | permalink | comment

General Franks thinks another major terrorist attack would result in martial law. Are these the honest misgivings of a military realist or a trial-balloon floated with the intent of softening up the public for the next power-grab? And is it a coincidence that the timing coincides pretty precisely with the rise of a new, quasi-"private" TIA? (thanks to Flip Phillips for the assist)

November 11, 2003

Incorruptible or Just Naïve?

Posted by shonk at 03:31 AM | permalink | comment
I am ready to submit my resignation should cases of corruption in Sofia municipality be disclosed.
So says Stefan Sofianski, the newly re-relected mayor of Bulgaria's biggest city. Does this guy have balls, or what? I mean, I don't know much about Bulgarian politics, but that's a pretty hefty proclamation to toss into the ring. I don't imagine there's a city on Earth that's corruption-free, especially one that's the capital of a country known as a major smuggling crossroads.

So, anybody that knows more than I do about the situation, is Sofianski hopelessly naïve or a political genius?

Not that this is a campaign promise, since the guy has already been elected, but it makes me think of those campaign promises of yesteryear that were somehow never followed up on. Remember Bush's pledge to support free trade? Or Clinton's promised middle-class tax cut? Or "Read my lips: no new taxes"?

November 07, 2003

Friday Ranting

Posted by Curt at 02:47 PM | permalink | comment

Very interesting article today in a publication of which until today I did not know the existence, the Mises Review (connected, naturally enough, with the Ludwig von Mises Institute). I don't know how much the article shares in common with the political beliefs of von Mises himself, but it seems to be pretty consistent with the outlook of most of the people that read this blog and at least one of the authors. I think it might do to examine a couple of the assertions that the reviewer claims to attribute to Gordan Graham, the author of the book in question (I have not read the book, so I haven't an opinion about how well these views are actually represented). One that strikes me is the claim that because the police or the various security apparati of the state cannot actually physically impose compliance with the law on the majority of the citizens of a state, law-abiding citizens must obey the law out of a personal moral conviction about the rightness of the law. I don't by any means think that this follows. Citizens might obey the law out of any number of reasons: fear of the law and prosecution even if the police are not actually present, deference to parents, family, community church, etc., or simply a lack of imagination or initiative, which I think may be the most fundamental explanation.

In any case, author and/or reviewer seem to implicitly state through this contention that the material interests of the citizen lie so clearly in outside the law that only strong moral impulse could restrain them from breaking it at will. But this is also by no means certain. There has always been a strand in political philosophy at least from the time of Rousseau that has seen the state, if genuinely representative of its citizens' interests, as beneficial not through enforcement of morality but purely for the material advantages it confers on its citizens. Security and comfort is the usual justification, though I think that freedom from anxiety might be a more accurate description. This is an advantage not to be underestimated; the recent pioneering psychological work in economics has more or less confirmed that most people fear the loss of current possessions more than they desire the gain of new possessions.

But one not need accept the value of the state for material reasons to understand that people often self-regulate themselves in regards to the law out of extra-moral considerations. Self-censorship is one example; traffic laws are another. Traffic laws are a particular favorite of libertarians everywhere because they seem in general not to have a plausible moral justification for their existence. But nonetheless people generally hold themselves close enough to the speed limit, for example, so as to not to have much to fear if they pass by a highway patrol car, despite the statistical improbability of being stopped during any given drive. In general I don't imagine this to be because the average driver considers speeding to be immoral, because many people speed slightly. However, the negative reprecussions of getting a ticket seem to outweigh the marginal benefit of arriving a few seconds faster at one's destination and, even more directly, most people do not want to put up with the constant anxiety of looking out for the highway patrol. This example is somewhat complicated by the fact that there is a moral argument to be made for speeding laws: the danger one poses to others when driving too fast to remain in control of one's vehicle. Then again, most people do not imagine that they will get in an accident, and if they did that would probably regulate their behavior much more dramatically than considerations of the well-being of other drivers. From this I conclude that most people simply do not have the stomach for crime and that this is the real banal secret of obedience to the law. At the same time, this effect cannot well be separated from the law's continued existence.

Point two relates to a criticism of democracy in particular in both book and review which has been echoed in many places, here included: that voting is essentially meaningless. But in this case a legitimate criticism sweeps reviewer and author along to a fearful bit of nonsense. Because each individual vote in an election of any size (almost) never has a decisive effect on the outcome, this leads them to conclude that no one's vote has any effect. Now, I am perfectly willing to sanction the contention that elections serve as no more than window-dressing which conceal the activity of the career bureaucrats who actually control everything (which, actually, according to the Platonic criticism of democracy cited approvingly in the article, is not necessarily entirely a bad thing--after all, art for the artisan class, agriculture for the farming class and government for the governing class). Yet the idea that no one's vote has any significance in an election is manifestly an absurdity. Even if one particular vote does not have a decisive signficance, the totality of the votes most certainly determines the victor. Here modern egotism certainly introduces a distortion, for there is a distinction between significance and decisive significance. One individual vote certainly does have significance, but not decisive significance. Decisive significance in this context is defined as precisely the number of votes separating the winner and the second-highest vote-getter. But I do not personally understand why this by itself sends so many political thinkers into an exasperated silence. If the candidate for whome one voted wins, what does it matter whether one's vote by itself swung the election? If that candidate loses, one has even less reason to complain, as that vote actually had a greater impact on the chosen candidates' total than had one voted for the winner.

Is all of this simply an arrogant demand for decisive personal power in elections? But if one person always decided an election, the situation would be even less representative. Just ask the Supreme Court--they tend to split 4-4 on all the important issues and with Justice O'Conner go the spoils. Do you think that anyone but Justice O'Conner prefers that situation? Due to the singular significance of her vote, she has become virtually the caudillo of the court. This is the same kind of hubris that surrounds the cult of art today--the idea that any artistic production is entirely the product of the sui generis God-like act of creation of a single artist, which is also an idiocy--Shakespeare, who pinched all of his plots from other works, being only the most obvious counter-example.

In art, as in voting, we are simply deceiving ourselves in extolling or demanding the total sovereignty of a single individual over the artistic or political process, which by the way seems about as anti-democratic in spirit as possible. True populists ought rather to be lauding the relative insignificance of their own votes as proof that power has successfully evaded concentration in the hands of the few. In any case, if the lack of political influence one exerts as a private citizen proves so troubling, the natural solution, aside from joining the political class itself, which involves its own compromises and helplessnesses, would be simply to cease concerning oneself with politics. Oh, the agonies that politicians and citizens put themselves through to pass a single tax bill which will put $10 back in each of their pockets, a sum which they could have earned in an hour working at McDonald's! Does anyone think that they will improve their lot in life through the trickle-down effect of some piece of legislation which doles out some pathetically insignificant financial or social benefit to all of our 250 million citizens? Don't concern yourselves with this, for the decisions you make in the next 10 minutes regarding your personal life, your friends and your family will have more of an effect on your future than all those piles of legislative paper will until the end of history! The only thing that keeps this worthless discipline so smirkingly called political philosophy or, even more amusingly, political science as a topic of earnest discussion are the fevered egoes and intellectual pretentions of its practitioners. Philosophy ought to be either personal or intellectual; political philosophy, which claims to be both, is actually neither.

November 06, 2003

Libertarians Inside the Onion?

Posted by Curt at 08:46 PM | permalink | comment

This, I think, is indeed the psychology of the law. As a wise man once said, only in fiction do we find it impossible to lie...


Posted by shonk at 01:00 AM | permalink | comment

I was on my way to the bookstore yesterday when I walked by a group of college-aged campaigners for the Republican mayorial hopeful, Sam Katz. They were on a corner next to one of the downtown polling places, holding signs, wearing t-shirts and generally trying to make an impression on everybody that walked or drove by. Anyway, as I'm walking through this group, one of the girls asked the lady in front of me if she's voted yet; the lady says "yes" and keeps walking. Expecting some sort of similar treatment, I mentally prepare to tell the girl that I hope both candidates lose, which is why I won't be voting, but she takes one look at me and quickly turns away, scanning for someone else to harass.

I admit I was pleased not to be bothered, I was a bit curious what it was about me that made the girl decide I wasn't worth the effort. Did my rather long and unkempt hair make her assume I was a Democrat? Did my face impart a "Do Not Disturb" message as a result of the mere 3 hours of sleep I'd gotten the night before? Was I unconsciously glaring at her simpleminded partisanship? Was this girl, probably younger than I, falling into the trap of assuming that young people don't care about politics? Who knows? I wasn't disturbed when I walked back by the group 20 minutes later, though I did notice that a few supporters of the Democratic incumbent and eventual victor, John Street, had set up shop across the street.

I was surprised to learn that a Penn professor was punched in the face by a Steet supporter yesterday directly in front of the building where I work. Apparently, the prof had objected to this guy covering Katz posters with Street signs and the guy objected to his objection. Needless to say, since this happened before 7:30 AM, I was nowhere in the vicinity.

October 29, 2003

Postage, Language and Music: The New Synthesis

Posted by shonk at 02:46 AM | permalink | comment

Before I exit the arena for the night, I'd just like to recommend a few links. The first is to Wendy McElroy's excellent discussion of the postal monopoly, which does a good job summarizing the history of the USPS's monopoly on first-class mail, arguing that the purpose of the postal monopoly is "to control the flow of information by defining what is 'unmailable,' " a consideration that is relevant to the current situation, especially in the context of the affront to that control that encrypted electronic communications offers.

I'd also like to recommend From Genes to Words, a nice summary of current research into the role that genetics played in the development of language. It should be obvious that genetics must have played a role in that development; finally the first indications of what that role actually was are starting to be discovered.

And, finally, it is with sadness that I note that the new Napster, launching today, appears to have gone over to the dark side, as it appears their content will only be available in the intrusive and platform-dependent Windows Media Player format. I don't do the music-download thing, but if I did I would certainly choose the iTunes Music Store over the new Napster.

Lube, UL and Lawsuits

Posted by shonk at 02:31 AM | permalink | comment

In response to my Lubrication is not the Solution to Bad Law post, Curt has opined that a private issuer of security ID cards would have no economic incentive to make discriminating choices in who it issued cards to. I initially planned merely to respond to his comment, but I think it would be good to bring the discussion out into the light of the main page. Curt's case is well-reasoned, but ultimately, in my opinion, flawed. The root of his argument is this:

The ID card market would not exist in order to improve safety and security; rather that is what the security lines are for. The ID cards do not exist to improve security but rather to improve convenience, so in the market for ID cards the consumer is only purchasing increased convenience. So you have to see the two different functions, security and convenience, as two different markets.
I disagree with this claim that security and convenience are separate markets. A security card ceases to be convenient when it stops providing security. Andy makes the same point with reference to a concrete example:

Does that mean UL (Underwriter's Laboratories) doesn't have an incentive to reject the applications of unsafe products?

They do. Any ID Card company whose product becomes a joke loses future sales, as their cards have as much value as a novelty item printed at home.

To further explain this example, UL has a short-term incentive to give their blessing to all products, regardless of their safety. After all, there are surely many manufacturers that would be willing to slip them some cash in exchange for that little UL decal (this need not be under-the-table, incidentally; research grants serve can serve the same purpose as cash bribes). However, if they were to do that, though they might realize a short-term boom in revenue, people would quickly realize that the UL stamp of approval had no relevance to a product's actual safety and would turn to other means for appraising the product's safety. UL would quickly become irrelevant and, in the business world, irrelevant = bankrupt.

The same holds true for a private producer of security IDs. When people begin to realize that having Company X's card is no indication of security, people (e.g. airlines, office managers, etc.) will stop granting special privileges to carriers of those cards. With these special privileges gone, the cards become mere novelty items.

The other factor that would encourage X to actually screen people before issuing cards can be summed up in one word: lawsuits. The day after McDonalds lost the infamous hot-coffee-in-the-lap lawsuit, every McDonalds in the country was brewing coffee at 158 degrees (the day before, the official standard was 190). This was done without passage of a law and there were no health inspectors ensuring that coffee was dispensed at the lower temperature; McDonalds simply recognized a potential liability and took immediate action to reduce their risk. Now, one might argue that they should have sold cooler coffee all along, but I imagine McDonalds execs didn't dream that a customer could actually win a lawsuit (or even pursue a lawsuit) against them for spilling coffee on her own lap. Security ID card vendors are unlikely not to recognize their own potential liability in the same way, as the liability they face is much more obvious. Imagine, if you will, the sheer magnitude of the lawsuit that would be vigorously pursued if it came to light that X had issued a card to someone who ended up hijacking a plane. I imagine the contemplation of a hundred million dollar lawsuit would, shall we say, encourage X to exercise some diligence in their card-issuing procedure.

The threat of a lawsuit is a much stronger incentive for diligence than state regulation, in general, as lawsuits incur far greater financial losses than regulatory fines and tend to generate far more publicity. This publicity factor is not be be underestimated, especially in the case of a company whose sole selling point is their good name, such as an issuer of security IDs.

In discussing lawsuits here I am, of course, arguing from the current paradigm, but I will mention in passing that a lawsuit is really just a civil court action and that the entire civil law tradition in this country is descended from the English Common Law, which does not derive from legislation or a centralized state.

All of that is not to say that I endorse the particular private security scheme mentioned in my earlier post. My reasons for not doing so were, I hope, explained sufficiently clearly that I need not reiterate them.

Further discussion is, of course, welcomed.

October 26, 2003

Lubrication is not the Solution to Bad Law

Posted by shonk at 02:53 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Court TV founder Steven Brill is starting a company to make security ID cards, which he claims will allow users to bypass long lines at security checkpoints like those in airports with a thumbscan. Once I got over the irony of "Brill" being the nickname of Gene Hackman's hyper-paranoid character in Enemy of the State, I got down to actually reading the article. The basic idea is that the card would be issued to those that pass a background check against, among others, the state's database of known terrorists. Bearers, certified not to be on any watch list would then, presumably, be less suspicious than others, thereby meriting less stringent security checks.

Apparently, Brill has been frustrated with post-9/11 security bottlenecks in airports and offices and decided the answer is not "millions of hourly wage, private guards going through the motions." According to the article,

The venture is intended, in part, to solve the problem without the implementation of a government-issued national ID card program, which Brill calls "unworkable" and "the worst kind of threat to our civil liberties."

"First, the potential for abuse by the government in having all this information is a real disaster for the country and the values it cherishes," Brill said. "Second, they would screw it up. The history of government and data and technology is a comedy act."

I agree with those points, but I'm curious how a privately-developed but state-sponsored ID card would be much of a difference. In order to be used at airports, Brill's company would have to be certified by the TSA, the FBI or the Justice Department (or all three) with heavy federal oversight almost assured. Given that the card would rely in large measure on federal databases and any technical changes would almost assuredly have to receive federal approval, I don't see how this plan solves any of the problems with a national ID card that Brill so aptly points out. In fact, I'm inclined to view this venture more cynically as an attempt to cash in on an as yet untapped state subsidy, much as I did Larry Ellison's "helpful" offer shortly after 9/11.

This whole issue is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger problem of excessive laws effectively impeding social interaction. Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) commented on this a couple of days ago:

There are too many laws — many of them contradictory or obscure — for any person to actually avoid breaking the law completely. (My Criminal Law professor, when I was a law student, announced to us that we were all felons on the first day of class. There were too many felonies on the books for us not to be: Oral sex in Georgia? Oops!) And given that many laws are dumb, actually following all of them would probably bring society to a standstill, just as Air Traffic Controllers and pilots can make air travel grind to a halt by meticulously following every safety rule without exception.
As Robert Clayton Dean asks,
Stop and think about that for a minute. What does it say about a society, when strict adherence to its laws would be an unmitigated disaster?
I leave the answering of that question as an exercise for the reader.

Reynolds goes on to point out two significant problems with this situation:

One is that although we regulate criminal trials pretty closely, the fact is that if everyone’s a felon in some way, the real power is at the stage of deciding whether, and what, to charge someone with — and that process is governed by “prosecutorial discretion,” which is almost completely unregulated.


The other problem is that law is like anything else: when the supply outstrips the demand, its value falls. If law were restricted to things like rape, robbery, and murder, its prestige would be higher. When we make felonies out of trivial crimes, though, the law loses prestige. As the old bumper stickers about the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit used to say: “It’s not a good idea. It’s just the law.”

So what's the solution? Even Reynolds the law professor admits that in some cases, "the best way to get a law changed is for people to ignore it." Which is a bit more palatable to me than Steven Brill's apparent approach of making enforcement of bad laws more efficient.

October 24, 2003

Just a few things running through my head

Posted by Curt at 12:07 PM | permalink | comment

Two points. Although I agree in general with Clay's treatment of affirmative action, I think the relevant definition of discrimination in the dictionary entry he links to, at least in a legal and societal context, is the second one, "to make distinctions...without regard to individual merit." Thus in deciding not to go to an incompetent barber, you are discriminating in the wider sense of simply making a choice, but not in the legal sense, because you are clearly deciding on the basis of his individual merit or skill as a barber (or lack thereof). Thus I am not persuaded by the argument that "We all discriminate, so it's just inevitable." That may be true, but that does not mean that we ought to tolerate it, any more than we tolerate envy or any other invidious personality trait. The better argument, which he also makes, is that far from eradicating discrimination, affirmative action actually enshrines it, especially by its selective application, which is itself a form of discrimination perhaps. I think the relevant middle-ground position that, for example, the Supreme Court tried to grasp at but did not successfully articulate in the Michigan Law School and undergraduate school cases, is that while automatically according preferential status to applicants on the basis of race or culture, i.e. the point system, is discriminatory, incorporating these factors in a comprehensive evaluation of an applicant is not in fact discriminatory, because these factors may correspond, perhaps causally or perhaps not, to certain personal qualities that the school desires. For example, an applicant with a bi-cultural background may by consequence possess a more broad-minded understanding of culture generally than an applicant born into a single culture or a particular and valuable insight into the law by virtue of their background. That a school would seek these qualities out in applicants I would not consider discriminatory, because they are personal qualities, individual merits, not simply facts of life, so to speak. While it is true that not all applicants have access to the same type of cultural background and thus in a certain sense cannot compete equally in this regard, then again our personalities are shaped by a million environmental factors to which not even those of similar background are privy. As long the evaluation is ultimately of the recognizably personal qualities of the applicant, this in my opinion is not social discrimination, that is judgment without regard to merit. Now obviously this sort of individual evaluation is impossible under the race-preferential points-system used by Michigan's undergraduate program, which by taking race into account on an impersonal basis really does discriminate without regard to merit. This is the wholly defensible distinction which I think led to the double-issue, split decision in that recent Michigan case. To use a more personal example, at home by far the greatest part of my friends are foreigners. Now I would not consider myself ethnically prejudicial in my friendships, but I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that the effect of the background of my foreign friends on their personalities did not provide something not easily replicated without such a background. I think if only we looked at race and culture in this way, as a persistent but not unique in kind influence on personality, then I think we could end this hysterical Puritan dogmatism which wildly inflates the issue by either totally denying its legitimacy or worshipping it.

Other and totally unrelated response point: I too have noticed what Clay notes: the tendancy of science-fiction writers and other predictors of the future to overestimate the develpment of many technologies but fail to forsee the dominance of computers and a few other technologies. I would place this dichotomy in a wider formulation: we tend to overestimate the development of existing technology while failing to anticipate technologies that are wholly new or different in kind. This phenomenon not very difficult to explain, as the latter would require that the predicter actually conceptually pre-invent the still-uninvented technology, while the former simply requires an extrapolation from past trends. An example would be the obsession, especially during the '50s, with robots as the human surrogates of the future, while ignoring what now seem the more likely future human surrogates: genetically modified humans or clones. But of course the progression to human-like robots from cars, then planes, then nascent computers, would seem to represent a fairly logical chain of ever-growing sophistication in mechanical engineering. Of course robots have taken over many of the manual tasks of humans but, "The Matrix" notwithstanding, should we ever decide to construct a race of inferiors, an underclass to serve us in a specifcally human manner, genetically manipulated humans would seem more feasible today, simply because creating sentiency in machines looks to be considerably more difficult than simply copying it from the existing human template. But of course in the '50s to have extrapolated bio-engineering from the contemporaneous discovery of the structure of DNA in all but the vaguest conception would have required considerably greater prescience, so it is not surprising that most of the predicting punditry, being in the end fairly short-sighted like the rest of us, did not generally recognize its future importance in the ways that have actually become manifest. Of course, sometimes writers produce nonsense predictions that become validated in ways that the writer could surely never have supposed, such as the poem by Edgar Allan Poe which allegedly anticipates both the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. However, without a certain minimum level of specificity and clarity, I would generally ascribe these supposed prophecies to luck. Poe, crazed as he may have been, did not anticipate quantum any more than Dylan Thomas correctly predicted the attack on the WTC by writing something about towers blowing in a religious wind. Of course it is a disquieting thought that physics has become such an alien and counter-intuitive discipline that its findings resemble the rantings of Poe. Anyway, speaking of ranting, I've done enough for one day.

p.s. I know I've written a lot of entries that are more properly responses to entries by Clay and hence perhaps more properly relegated to the comment box, but in my defense I usually start out writing there until the entry spirals out of control and gets so long that the comment box would probably need extra memory, so instead I exercise my executive key to the main page. So there.

p.p.s. I promise not to use D.J. Shadow songs as headings for all my entries.

Affirm This!

Posted by shonk at 04:02 AM | permalink | comment

Maybe I've been living in a cave the last few years, but until today I'd never heard of Affirmative Action Bake Sales, which seem to me a good, thought-provoking way to point out the hypocrisies inherent in the notion of affirmative action. To be perfectly honest, I'm not 100% opposed to affirmative action under the right circumstances. If a school's admissions staff thinks they will improve their learning environment by admitting minority students with lower SAT scores over white students with higher SAT scores, that's certainly their prerogative. What galls me, though, is when such choices become law, as I don't think that's the proper role of law and government (which is rather a more involved topic than I'm prepared to delve into at this hour). What's also annoying is that many people refuse to acknowledge that affirmative action is simply another form of discrimination. Which isn't necessarily, in and of itself, a bad thing. Discrimination has become a bad word in modern times, but only because it's been used to categorize a specific type of discrimination. People discriminate all the time: employers discriminate against lazy or uneducated potential employees, employees, when applying for a job, often discriminate against overbearing bosses, I discriminate against bad barbers by not letting them cut my hair (okay, bad example; I've had plenty of bad haircuts) and none of these forms of discrimination is the least bit reprehensible. Every time we make a choice we necessarily discriminate. Once upon a time, it was actually considered a compliment to be said to have "discriminating taste".

Back to affirmative action, what really amuses and saddens me about the whole thing is the notion that it helps much of anybody. Since everybody knows it's going on, people assume that, say, a black doctor got into and stayed in med school because of an affirmative action program rather than his ability more than you might think. Which is wholly unfair to black doctors who earned their degrees on their own merits, but is entirely rational from the perspective of the consumer; he has no access to the doctor's transcript or MCAT scores. If there's even a slight possibility that a doctor isn't as qualified as he should be, a lot of people are justifiably going to risk their lives with someone else. In one fell swoop, a lot of people that were doing just fine (or would have done just fine) under the old system have their accomplishments viewed with suspicion.

I'm also amused by the fact that apparently only certain minorities need the "help" that affirmative action provides. Generally speaking, Asians are over-represented (relative to the general population) in higher-education in this country and generally aren't included in affirmative action programs. Which, if you think about it a minute, basically says that those compassionate folks that made the laws in the first place thought that black and hispanic people are dumber and more helpless than Asian people. So who are the racists, again?

(And don't give me the argument about how Asians aren't discriminated against like black or hispanic people are; aside from the rampant historical counter-examples, my own experience seeing Indians - that's people from the Asian subcontinent, not Native Americans - and Pakistanis get screamed at and called "ragheads" and "terrorists" by irrational xenophobes following 9/11 on my college campus convinced me that that is simply not the case)

As for under-appreciated minorities in the affirmative action sweepstakes, I'm just waiting for the "youth" affirmative action program, making sure that America's universities and corporations aren't discriminating against the young in their applications and hiring procedures. I mean, let's be honest, it's simply not right that I should be turned down for a tenure-track job simply because I haven't had enough time in my short life to complete a 5 year Ph.D. program. Fortunately, though, the young are too busy with totally baffling websites to be a big lobby.

On the topic of Indians and computers (and on an otherwise totally unrelated note), Srinidhi Varadarajan and his team at Virginia Tech (or VPI, for you Virginians) have built a new, cheap supercomputer that ranks in the top five in the world in a month. That's one month and five mil for an 8 teraflop machine that Varadarajan claims is only running at 50% capacity right now, which is pretty goddamn impressive. It was interesting to see that Varadarajan thinks Moore's Law is actually a bit dated and that 35% every six months would be more accurate. Not that anyone should be surprised, but, then again, it can't go on forever unless we wean ourselves from silicon sometime.

To be honest, whenever I get to thinking about supercomputers, Moore's Law, etc., I'm pretty astonished by how significantly and how quickly computers have made an impact on the world. Even aside from potentially profound areas like molecular biology and mathematics and important but more prosaic ones like air traffic control, there is so much you can do from a $400 computer attached to a phone line.

For example, are you concerned that the newcomer to your radical political group might be a fed or a Republican Party spy? Do you harbor secret suspicions that your neighbor like Pat Buchanan? Are you convinced that Ross Perot got Clinton elected in '92 or that Ralph Nader got GW elected in 2000 and want to harass all the people that supported them in your bowling league? In your stalking of the mayor's daughter have you come across suspicious-looking checks from people's whose names appear gravestones in your local cemetery? Then opensecrets.org's Individual and Soft Money Donor Lookup is the place to start. I have to admit, it's rather surprising to see how comprehensive and accurate this thing is (at least for the last few election cycles; results seem to be less accurate the further you go back).

Or, on the other hand, have you not had sex in several years, or never? Then you'll be sure to want to check out these startlingly realistic alternatives to your too-familiar right hand, vibrator or flesh light.

And, finally, if you're an overweight, white adolescent male with serious issues, well, now you've got an audience.

Really, the possibility of these sorts of things is just astonishing when you think about the world 100, 50 or even 30 years ago. Would your grandparents ever have dreamed that this sort of thing would even be possible? Do they realize it even now? The strongest indicator to me is that, if you read science fiction from a couple decades ago, you notice that, by and large, science fiction authors that were writing about times that have by now passed rather overstate the accomplishments of men in that future-past time in virtually every area except computer power. Flying cars, moon shuttles, ballistic ferries, hypersonic trains, matter replicators, you name it, a lot of the things people figured would exist by 2000 are still a long way off, but the computers (if mentioned at all) are consistently anemic compared to our own (aside from the voice-recognition and speech capabilities that proved exponentially more difficult than anyone expected). For example, I remember reading Heinlein's The Number of the Beast last summer and being unable to stifle a chuckle when Heinlein mentions that the Dora, a flying car capable of traveling in 3 dimensions aside from the ones we're familiar with, has what he presumably intended to be an impressively computer memory of 100 megabytes. And this was only written 20 years ago! Anyway, I think this is one of the overlooked benefits of older science fiction: not only does it instill a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, but a sense of wonder at what has been accomplished by man in the last few decades that vastly outstrips the imaginations of even the most wildly technophilic writers of previous decades.

I realize, now that I've more or less run out of things to say, that I've written about three posts worth of separate ideas all into the same post, staying up much later than I had expected to in the process. Ah, well. Such is life.

October 18, 2003

Is the presidency re-Dean-able?

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM | permalink | comment

Although we have left the issue of whether voting actually has any significance whatsoever unresolved, anyone taking even a passing interest in the current presidential campaign, even those on whom it has no direct impact at the moment (including myself, not being a member of either party and hence unable to vote in primaries), might want to take a look at this recent Dean article. The article essentially sets itself to refute some of the common fears about Dean's platform. It argues that far from being a Keynesian foreign policy naif who will bankrupt the government on costly social programs while fatally ignoring the rest of the world, he is actually a fiscal responsibility fanatic who will strive to cut the waste out of programs across the board, including Medicare and Social Security, to break the power of pressure groups like AARP and to eliminate the barriers to international free trade. Two things seem notable about the article: the first is that the statements indicating most of these positions, far from coming from campaign promises made by Dean himself, actually come from criticisms by other candidates exhuming Dean's political record and past statements. This is to say that while these positions seem very favorable in my eyes, they are clearly seen as exploitable negatives by other candidates in the primary and in fact as liabilities even by Dean himself, so that the fact that he is willing to admit to them and stand behind them indicates to me that they are probably much closer to the core of his beliefs than the average vacuous campaign promise, and more importantly that he appears to possess reasoned and undogmatic beliefs behind which he is willing to stand even when unpopular (although, to be fair, these are not necessarily wholly noble stands--as the article points out, the positions which count as liabilities in the primaries often count as advantages in the general election). The second point is that the author of the article, who so extolls Dean here, has in the past criticized Dean fairly harshly, in particular for his positions on national security and foreign policy, the aspects of national governance for which his previous executive experience has least prepared him. I have similar concerns about Dean, so the fact that one who shares those concerns now seemingly supports Dean so strongly means something to me. As I have said before, the only real value Bush seems to have at this point is acting as a block to Dean-type politicians from enacting irresponsible back-crushers like nationalized healthcare, but if that Dean-type candidate (like Dean himself, for example) turns out to be of reasonable and pregmatic turn of mind, and relatively principled to boot, there is hardly a decision to make. And while Dean's anti-war stance may indicate a "hostility or indifference to American military power," if that means that he kicks out all the ex-Trotskyites in the Pentagon trying to sow democratic revolution from above world-wide via the Comintern--er, U.S. military, we should hold a national holiday.

p.s. I feel the need to second Clay's assurance that this is not going to become a sports-and-politics blog, especially since that combination turned out so badly for Rush Limbaugh.

"I have ever distrusted idealists. They ought not be confused with the happy or the hopeful, for they are rather the unhappy and the misanthropes. Their preference for the vague abstractions in their minds to the vastnesses of immanent reality indicates a dissatisfaction, a loathing for the world, introversion surpassed only by hubris. The idealist seeks to reduce us all to the flickering shadows in his dreams."

--Tzhen Fun-Wei

October 17, 2003

Government Awareness

Posted by shonk at 03:21 AM | permalink | comment

In response to the recently defunct Terrorist Information Awareness program, the geeks at MIT envision a Government Information Awareness program, where citizens could exchange information about State activities. I applaud the idea, though I wonder how effective it will be in practice. In theory, it could be extraordinarily effective, but then, in theory, the Internet was supposed to spark a second Renaissance (although, to be honest, I think the jury is still out on that one; the rising swell of well-written and thoughtful blogs does seem to be stimulating a greater degree of conversation and debate. Revolutions often come, as Joyce put it, "on the due instalments plan"). As you'll note from the article, one thing that's sure to affect the GIA's impact is that the creators, fearing libel suits, have decided to make it a peer-to-peer thing, which has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, it's considerably more likely to evade legal shutdowns than, say, a server-based website or forum. On the other hand, popular as P2P networks are for movies and music, web-accessible interfaces are likely to reach greater numbers of people. I'm also unsure if people are ready for "serious" content via P2P; it seems like a more active filtration and interface system would be necessary than is currently available. But, then again, I'm pretty far behind the curve on P2P stuff and all the prerequisites may, in fact, already exist.

In any case, assuming this ever gets off the ground and makes some impact, it would provide yet another counter-example to the increasingly tired idea that so-called "public goods" cannot be provided absent state coercion. I've never really bought into that notion, to be honest. To me, a "public good" is one that hasn't been adequately provided yet (or maybe shouldn't be provided at all, in some cases), not one that can't be provided. My favorite counter-example, which has been oft-ignored but never very well refuted (in my opinion, obviously) is that of television programming. Leaving aside the issue of whether we might be better off without television, people obviously want to be able to watch television. Before the advent of cable TV (you know, back when people still used rabbit ears to pick up the signal), TV programming might well have appeared as one of those supposedly insoluble public goods. After all, a TV signal broadcast through the air isn't exactly excludable. One possible solution might have been to legally prohibit anyone but TV stations from selling television sets, or at least requiring TV manufacturers to pay a license fee to TV stations. In that way, the station could be compensated for providing this "public good" from which anyone with a TV set could benefit. According to the traditional conception of how to solve public goods problems, this would, in fact, be the only way to ensure that television programming existed. As we all know, though, that wasn't really what happened. Instead, the TV stations realized that, although they couldn't very well get TV watchers to pay them, they could get people to pay them to tell TV watchers about certain products. And thus were commercials born (and yes, I hate commercials as much as anyone, but I'd rather be able to watch Game 7 of the ALCS than live my life commercial-free). All of a sudden, there is no "public goods problem". (Of course, that's not really the chronology, since TV got the idea from radio, which got the idea from newspapers, etc., but the point is the same) Hence the reason I say that a "public goods problem" is one that we haven't figured out how to solve yet, not one that cannot be solved without state intervention.

The same, incidentally, goes for the related concept of a "prisoner's dilemma". The real world doesn't operate like a prototypical prisoner's dilemma, in which there is no history, no memory and no social status affecting things. The iterated prisoner's dilemma is a better approximation, but still isn't perfect.

The point is, whenever you hear people moaning and groaning about public goods and prisoners' dilemmas, it's probably a good idea to examine things a bit more carefully.

(If you haven't noticed yet, when I say "The point is...", I mean the point that I've come around to arguing, not the point I originally may have been trying to make. I've usually long forgotten what I was talking about in the beginning of a post by the time I actually get around to a point. Let's just chalk that up to a bit of artistic free association rather than the less inpiring "lack of organization" label, okay?)

October 15, 2003

And now for something not completely different

Posted by Curt at 01:46 AM | permalink | comment

Since I've started describing politics via symbolism in my comment to my October 10 post, I have another one, which I wrote a couple of weeks ago: American politics has a strong right wing and a feeble left wing, so when we try to fly we wind up going in circles.

October 10, 2003

Le naussee du processus democratique

Posted by Curt at 03:47 PM | permalink | comment

One final point about voting. The idea that Clay explores below, that the act of voting is simply an expression of preference, accords fairly well with the contention of the late Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter that elective democracy is essentially an economic market, in which candidates compete, like economic producers, for consumers, the voters. If this is so, the two-party system would seem to serve this model very badly, as it makes the political marketplace essentially monopolistic. The problem, in my opinion, is that electoral politics seem to be an area of natural monopoly, in which two or three parties will steadily come to dominate the political spectrum absent regulation, possibly because most voters are unable to truly decide among more than two or three candidates. This is upheld by the fact that in most functional democracies, certainly all the major European nations, even where the two-party system is less formally established than in the U.S., two or three parties more or less compete with each other, forming coalitions with smaller parties to outflank each other. Really only two basic differences I think separate European politics from American politics. One is that most major interest groups support their own parties, which are not formally absorbed by the major parties in the way that they are in the U.S. If American politics operated in this way the various interest groups that have been absorbed by the major parties in recent decades, the evangelists, say, or the civil-rights groups, would not actually vote for Republican or Democratic candidates but would vote for their own parochial parties and then gain power when the coalition with which they are associated gains a majority or at least a plurality. This would seem to be largely a procedural difference, as the end result is very often the same as in the U.S., i.e. paralyzing centrist coalitions. However, because the coalitions are more openly divided, with the smaller parties comprising them representing more fixed, unchanging constituencies and interests, the effect somewhat paradoxically seems to be somewhat greater flexibility. This is to say that under the European model the so-called paleoconservatives, for example, would not be irrevocably yoked to a lot of other interest groups with which they little in common, such as evangelists, ex-Trotskyite neoconservatives, etc. Of course they would have to make common cause with some of these groups in order to gain power, but if they ever had a parting of the minds they could disband the partnership and seek out another interest group with which they held more in common. The second main difference between the two systems, though it is only an empirical difference rather than a theoretical one, is that elections in Europe generally get a far higher voter turnout than in the U.S. I think this explains the robustness of the smaller parties, because the voter population is less dominated by the resolute partisans of the major parties. I suspect that the percentage of the American population in the Republican or Democratic parties in the U.S. is not that much higher than the percentage devoted to the Conservatives and Tories in Britain, say, or to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, but with a low voter turnout the partisans exercise a disproportionate influence over the results. I am certainly not extolling the merits of European politics, because, as I said, I think the result, due to the inherent nature of unregulated political parties, is largely the same as in the U.S., but I think that the greater viability of small parties there at least points toward a certain ideal. I am not exactly advocating sending in the trust-busters to break up the Republicans and Democrats, but if one really dislikes the vacuity and issue-lessness of big-party politics, I think at the least one ought to be aware that, just as is the case with public utilities, the so-called market solution will not end the monopoly. In fact, the failure of European states, which negates in actuality the substantive differences in their political systems from the U.S.'s, is that they actually do not go far enough towards ensuring viable third parties because, by not formally limiting the power of the major parties, they allow the rent-seeking of those parties to proceed apace, so that in the end they wind up with paralyzing centrist coalitions, albeit less stable ones, just as in the U.S.

One other thing that prohibits European democracy from realizing the kind of third-party political rejuvenation seemingly possible there is that there exists a heavy dose of statism in the European capitals that I think is unmatched even in Washington. The reason for this is suggested to me by the editorials in the international papers weighing in on the election of Schwarzenegger (side question-why the hell do Russians care who California's governor is?--then again California does have the fifth-largest economy in the world) which, with a few exceptions, universally sneered at the crudity and uncouthness of Californians electing a movie star over a "professional governor." Aside from the obvious questions (was JFK's appeal really so different?) it seems to me that one of the basic problems that our government will and has consistently run into in trying to export democracy overseas is that most people in the world do not seem to view politics and governance as a task for the common people (not that Schwarzenegger is one of the common people, but his supporters are--what experience is more populist, more communal, than the movies?). Of course, I have my doubts about our own commitment to self-governance, but the fact is that in Russia "professional politician" sounds more like the description of a social class than an insult, which is how it would be read in this country. This seems to me to be symptomatic of the tendency in many cultures to regard politics as a distinct profession and calling, something, like any other profession, best left to those most immersed in it and skilled in manipulating its workings. In America we glorify the outsider in politics; elsewhere entrusting politics to someone with no background in politics would probably be seen as similar to entrusting surgery to someone with no background in medicine. To grossly over-simplify the matter by polarizing the stereotypes, in much of the world politics is closer to being the birthright of the brahmins than the job for Mr. Smith to revitalize once he finally gets to Washington. I know that some will regard this as a vaguely racist claim not matter how one qualifies it, but the fact of the matter is that the system of government practiced in the U.S. is largely a cultural phenomenon, and no Iraqi constitution will erase in a second, on a piece of paper, thousands of years of divergent cultural development.

p.s. I hope somebody, either Clay or someone that reads this blog, will mount a defense of paralyzing centrist coalitions, as that seems to be often the situation easiest to live under but most difficult to defend intellectually, so I hope somebody will be able to explain to me my own disappointing and inexplicable comfort with living in such a situation.

Compassion and Coercion

Posted by shonk at 01:54 AM | permalink | comment

In my daily blog routine, I came across this post over at Catallarchy. It's an excellent analysis of what political compassion is. I especially liked this part:

Exactly who is being compassionate in the case of coerced charity? The giver certainly isn't; she doesn't have any choice in the matter. The taker isn't; he is simply doing his job. Is the politician acting compassionately when she votes for additional social welfare benefits? If the politician is acting as a representative of the voters, then her congressional vote is not compassionate; her act is no different than when the IRS agent does his job. Are the voters acting compassionately when they push for increased benefits?

Not if we understand this act according to the expressive voting model, which posits that voters are simply expressing support for one thing or another when they cast their ballots. Saying that you are for compassion is not the same as actually acting compassionately. Compassion requires a certain level of self-sacrifice for it to be truly meaningful, else it is nothing more than lip-service.

A society that socializes charity is not truly compassionate, because the choice of compassion has been taken away from the individual and turned into just another job for government bureaucrats, no different than delivering the mail or processing income tax returns. We no longer need to care for each other as friends, family and neighbors; instead, we can all treat each other as part of a larger statistic. I know I've done my part if I paid my income taxes; I no longer feel morally obligated to help my fellow man.

His last point is, in my view, especially strong. Curt and I have both touched on the issue of law serving as a surrogate for or replacement of reality, and I think this is another example of where that goes awry.

Thank goodness I managed to get in a halfway serious post tonight; this is likely to be my last post for a few days. I'm going to Toronto tomorrow and fully intend to make the most of my time there, which entails rather a different routine than my usual one. But fear not, I shall return sometime next week. Until then, Curt's in charge around here (let me tell you, those are words I never expected to come from my mouth...er...fingers, I guess).

P.S. Be sure to check out the "expressive voting" link above. It's really an excellent article and is highly relevant to some of the points I've been trying to make in the last few days.

October 09, 2003

Voting in Droves

Posted by shonk at 03:01 AM | permalink | comment

After reading Curt's argument, I had planned to comment at length on his concern regarding "voting becoming (or being) irrelevant". Somehow, I got sidetracked into an analysis of Federalist 10. As it's late, I have a mid-term tomorrow, and I can't figure out where I was intending to go with this, I'll just post that analysis. Maybe someone will find it interesting in its own right.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes a strong case against pure democracy and in favor of a widespread republic. As Madison says:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.

In other words, if a majority of persons in a pure democracy agree to persecute a minority, that minority will have no recourse. I find this analysis pretty damning, but also have objections to Madison's solution: he argues that what is needed to prevent the oppression of "factions" is a republic. The advantage, supposedly, stems from the following two differences between democracies and republics:

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

In a large republic, Madison argues, the representatives will be more likely to be public-spirited, wise and just than in the small republic. He also argues that, because they must appeal to a larger number of people, the representatives will of necessity be more moderate.

All well and good, but Madison neglects to note two key facts. First, in a large republic, the voter has less incentive to be an informed voter, as his vote is much less likely to make a difference in an election. Second, the larger the republic, the more power the elected representative can potentially wield. Though Madison lived before Lord Acton's time, one would hope he could have recognized the wisdom of Acton's most quoted statement: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Though the power of the representative in a large republic may not be absolute, it is certainly relatively greater than that of the small-republic representative or, more importantly, that of the voter. With these objections in hand, we see that Madison's position is a bit of a pipe-dream based on a Utopian misconstruction of human nature.

October 08, 2003

Talking with their feet

Posted by Curt at 05:40 PM | permalink | comment

There seems to be some sort of libertarian philosophy to be teased out at the bottom of all of these schemes like the DoD's and Assassination Politics, which is that people generally consider their interests and the situation at hand much more rationally when their money or something equally immediately valuable is involved, simply because they feel much more is personally at stake for them. Therefore, their predictions will be more accurate when their economic well-being depends on it (from an entirely differenct perspective Richard Posner essentially made the same point by advocating the tracking and publication of the accuracy of public intellectuals' predictions; their money would not be on the line but their reputations would be). However, I think this fairly agreeable philosophy runs into the mile-wide problem that fair play in gambling requires the total separation of the gamblers from the event they are betting on. Obviously, Assassination Politics was relying on the corruption of that principle; I certainly hope the DoD is not. However, while people may be stupid and wayward, especially when they do not think that anything is at stake, I am not convinced that public opinion is actually inferior to that of any particular cultural elite. After all, Def Leppard's popularity may have been a stain on music, but popular taste was right about jazz against the sterility of modern classicism and right about the novel against the archaic lyric. So it is more true to say that public taste is not wrong, just behind the times. The Rolling Stones might be virtual parodies of the bluesmen they have spent their careers covering, but their popularity indicates that people at least recognized retroactively in some measure the superiority of those bluesmen over whatever pop drivel was popular in their time. I think it is the same thing with Schwarzenegger. Of course it is not a meritocracy: if I had to choose someone in California to get elected for something, I would pick Victor Davis Hanson. However, the people are right here in at least one respect: they know that their state has no direction, and that their governor has taken not to representing their interests but to pandering to them. The only people I have heard defending Davis and condemning his recall took the insufferable patrician attitude of horror towards the notion that people would take it upon themselves to violate the sanctity of the office of governor and actually, gasp, elect who they wanted to the office! No one actually tries to defend Davis' record. Again, the people are a little behind--California has had huge problems for years, and this is just a piffle that probably will solve nothing. At the same time, it is equally true that voters have been losing power for decades to bureaucrats and interest groups seemingly without doing anything about it, and now that they have discovered a weapon to correct the imbalance at least to some measure, it is they who are pulling the irredeemable snobs and dandys kicking and screaming into the future (all of these points are treated more elegantly here). As Posner notes in another book, the U.S. government was was essentially established as an elected aristocracy, and it would be almost superfluous to note that in a world that moves so much faster today the retention of 18th century perogatives of power (particularly term length) has concentrated power increasingly in the state's hands, even in the elected branches. So while the recall may confirm the criticism of democracy as an instrument of the stupidity of the people, it is directly at variance with the other criticism of democracy in America as window-dressing, an irrelevancy. Since I am concerned about voting becoming (or being) irrelevant and believe the public's concerns and desires in California at least to be far from stupid, I am happy that things have turned out as they have. Slow but on the right track they are. Maybe Hegel's faith in the verdict of history was not such an empty premise after all.

p.s. I am also quite aware that truncating an elected politician's term may serve not to bring power back to the people but rather simply to shift the power from elected officials, who come and go, to unelected bureaucrats. However, the only way that too can be counterbalanced is again through the electoral process, by electing politicians who will create legislation which makes it easier to hire, fire and otherwise hold unelected officials accountable for their performance. In any case, all of this depends first on softening the elected pols. and making them more responsive to popular mandate, which a recall does marvelously.

October 05, 2003

Your daily political scuttlebutt

Posted by Curt at 01:22 PM | permalink | comment

Far be it from me to start up a colony of Iraq commentary here like bean plants in a cabbage patch, but have no fear, my sentiments are actually rather simply stated: what the fuck? I think it must have been about a month ago that I stopped trying to defend the Bush administration from lying about this entire business. I still think that that is an unfair accusation, because one cannot lie about what one does not know: the government cannot be proved liars for being of the opinion that Iraq had WMD's when they could not know that they did not exist, just as they could not be applauded for telling the truth had WMD's actually existed. So while they may be exonerated of the charge of actually lying, this is becoming an increasingly meaningless distinction as they increasingly prove themselves guilty of an equally dishonest moral hypocrisy. It is one thing to launch a war on a false premise, it is another to continue to repeat over and over and over that that premise has been validated or at least not invalidated long after everyone else on the face of the earth has realized its falisity. That they continue to repeat this mendacity about WMD's and al-Qaida agents in Iraq, etc. indicates that they have realized what one journalist called the diminishing consequences of repeating falsehoods, or as Hitler called it, telling a lie 100 times until it becomes the truth. And interestingly, while I was intellectually against the war from the beginning, insisting on the sanctity of nation-states, the unjustifiability of unprovoked invasion, etc., in my heart I always felt that, principle and consistency be damned, a great evil had been removed from the earth by our soldiers and a great service rendered to Iraq. Would the Bush administration simply stop the disingenuity about nukes, terrorists, and the rest and simply emphasize this side of the matter, I think a surprising number of people would find ourselves morally compelled to see the justice of that. Of course, Tony Blair has essentially been making that argument for months, and he is being politically buried in Britain, so perhaps not. Still, I do believe in his argument to an extent, despite my suspicion of idealists, while Bush's is clearly an absurdity. Now that Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated I don't see any clear reason why Bush ought to continue in office any longer; I think he was brought into office under bizarre circumstances, like Churchill in 1940, to manage those wars, and just as the people of Britain did not want Churchill to remain in office afterwards to block de-colonization, I don't think Bush will serve the world well in the much messier affairs of reconstruction and negotiations with other nuke-wielding states. Well, perhaps he would serve some good as a place-holder in office blocking Democrats from rescinding the tax-cuts and instituting a state health-care system, but after a year and a half of continuous lying and scandals, that is no longer sufficient compensation, and in any case if Congress remains under Republican control there is nothing a Democratic president can do to pass these measures.
Which brings me to one other point. While it may seem ridiculous to talk about a president's ability to block legislation as a principal legislative asset, that is in fact technically his only legislative asset. It seems to me that ever since Roosevelt each successive president has presented himself more and more as a legislative activist, so now even a seeming Reaganite like Bush can preside over the greatest expansion of the government under any president since Roosevelt, because the public seems to have the false impression that a president, like a king, can enact their own legislation. They can of course propose legislation, but so could my grandmother if a Congressman would sponser it. Granted, a popular president can apply considerable political pressure on Congress, and cause fools like John Kerry to make, well, fools of themselves for years afterwards by trying to justify voting on issues in ways that they later regret, but their only actual power lies in vetoing legislation. I don't understand why Congressmen/presidential candidates can get away with creating the impression that they will somehow be able to propose legislation in some mystically effective way that they could not have in Congress. If someone like Dick Gebhardt wanted a national health-care program, he could have sponsered a bill at any point in the last 14 years and summoned his cohorts to vote for it. Granted it would have been headed for an inevitable veto, and as president he probably would not veto his own legislation, so in that sense a president has the ability to not stand in the way of his ideas being passed, but I feel that the increasingly regal tone that the executive branch has assumed in recent years stems largely from the public's tacit investiture of increasing legislative authority in the White House.

p.s. One final point about Iraq. One of the many reasons why this talk about reconstruction, while noble (aside from the crony capitalist contracts being doled out), is so futile is that the accepted standard of reconstruction seems to be Germany and Japan, whose reconstructions constitute two of the greatest economic miracles of the capitalist epoch. Aside from peculiarities of culture and the fact that Japanese and Germans were not continuing a guerrilla-warfare campaign against the reconstructors, Iraq is not a fifth as socially or economically developed as either Germany or Japan. Even at its modest peak Iraq was still only a relatively prosperous third-world country, and that was two decades ago. Of course some infrastructure was damaged during the war, although the much greater damage seems to be that qualified personnel are either too underpaid or too associated with the old regime to get back to work, but essentially the United States would have to annul 20 years of deterioration to make the country a functional state again. Why the administration would stake its credibility on such an unlikely achievement escapes me.

August 21, 2003

Random Thought

Posted by shonk at 12:31 AM | permalink | comment

These days, it's not PC to be fat (obesity kills!), skinny (anorexia kills!) or normal (conformity kills!). So what's the ideal body type? Aside from my own, that is.

August 07, 2003

Make a Link, Go To Jail

Posted by shonk at 05:32 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Does it bother anyone that you can go to prison for making a link on a webpage? Now, granted, I'm sure this guy was a nutball, and the real reason for tossing him in jail was because he advocated violent overthrow of the government or some such idea, but since when is offering information (or, in this case, merely telling people where such information is available) illegal? Should we throw chemistry teachers and librarians in jail now, too? After all, one of the chemistry professors at my university would tell people how to make synthetic cocaine, LSD and TNT. Not that anybody did, but he was imparting information which could have been used to break the law. And any decent library has such information available in its stacks. Hell, the U.S. Patent Office has lots of information about "conventional guided weapons with suspected Uranium warhead components" available (PDF; html translation here) on their website. And you don't see the Commerce Secretary going to prison.

The point is, telling people how to make bombs doesn't hurt people: people actually blowing them up in crowded areas does (newsflash: miners use explosives every day). And punishing an anarchist for telling people where to learn how to make bombs on his website while letting the chemistry professor, the librarian and the Commerce Secretary go free is totally arbitrary. So punish the people that actually blow up people and don't punish anybody for dispensing information. After all, the principle of free speech doesn't just apply to nice, government-approved people - it applies to everyone, says me.

August 03, 2003

Boulder and Taxes

Posted by shonk at 03:33 PM | permalink | comment

The City Council here in Boulder is trying, yet again, to do what it does best: raise taxes. Specifically, they want approval for two sales tax increases, one for open space and one for social services. These tax increases, well-intentioned though they may be, cannot work as intended, since the two are incompatible. That is to say, the more open space Boulder buys up, the less money it seems to have to pay for social services. Which makes it pretty difficult to keep a straight face when City Council members get started with their rhetoric about how important social services are to them.

The astute reader is complaining, at this point, that I've indicated a relationship between open space and an ability to pay for social services, but have not described any causality. Let me briefly sketch out the issues. First off, the city buys up undeveloped land around the city with the intent of keeping it undeveloped. Hence, "open space". Now, this has the effect of preventing the city from expanding laterally. Naturally, this means property values in the city increase, since the demand for land hasn't changed, but the supply has been decreased. As land gets more valuable, rents go up, which, since population hasn't changed, means local businesses make less money. As a result, some move, preferring to relocate to nearby towns, where rents are lower but Boulder customers can still drive in a few minutes. Similarly, new businesses, which tend not to have the money to pay high rents initially start up in the surrounding towns, not in Boulder.

Of course, in the above paragraph I stipulated that "population hasn't changed", but that is not entirely true. As property values increase, many renters find themselves unable to afford increasing rents and move to nearby towns. Newcomers find themselves similarly incapable of paying for housing in Boulder and buy or rent outside the city instead. One unintended consequence of Boulder's open space policy, then, is to increase traffic congestion, since more people are commuting from further away than before. Also, the influx of people into the nearby towns has a tendency to draw established or potential businesses away from Boulder, thereby working in concert with the negative incentives of higher rents. The end result is that people and businesses are, more and more, avoiding Boulder. The direct effect this has on the city (aside from congestion and "loss of community") is to decrease sales-tax revenues. Fewer businesses means fewer things being sold means fewer taxes being collected. Since those same sales taxes pay for social services, the choice is either to cut services or raise taxes. Guess which is favored by the City Council?

Unsurprisingly, it is not just open space that is driving people and businesses away from Boulder: there's an entire self-sustaining incentive structure encouraging this exodus. One might think that, with lateral expansion out of the question due to open space, Boulder might instead expand vertically. But no. The city enforces a maximum building height of 35 feet throughout the city, except in parts of downtown, where the limit is increased to 55 feet. What this means is that even moderately sized apartment buildings are out of the question. As such, those that might be able to afford a moderate apartment, but not a house are unable to live in Boulder. Commercial rents are similarly affected. Furthermore, the city has a law stating that no more than 3 unrelated adults may occupy a "single-family" residence. This means that, even if 6 adults could comfortably live in a house, they are legally forbidden from doing so. Again, this artificially raises rents (while simultaneously reducing property values), providing further incentive for living elsewhere. This becomes urban sprawl.

Now, as one might expect, the people most adversely affected by all these policies are those with lower incomes. Rich people can afford higher property values and higher taxes, but the poor and, increasingly, the middle class cannot. They are virtually forced to move away from the city. This has not gone unnoticed. One result was the passag of a law stating that 20% of any new residential development must be "low-income", meaning sales values are capped. This was initially a great boon to the intended benificiaries, as many would buy houses at these artificially reduced prices and then immediately turn around and sell them at market value, garnering themselves a tidy profit. The City Council, not pleased to see poor folks making profits, changed the law such that all these "low-income" properties were deed-restricted to the effect that they could never be sold for more than a certain maximum value (adjusted for inflation). Needless to say, they never sell for less than that maximum. The unfortunate effect of these deed restrictions is that they massively discourage capital improvements or even standard maintenance, since the cap is considerably lower than market value. In other words, the "low-income" homeowners have no incentive to improve or maintain their houses (other than pride), since doing so will not make them any money. As a result, most of the "low-income" houses in the city are rapidly becoming dilapidated.

Most housing developers, of course, have learned to steer well clear of Boulder. Aside from the lack of land and the height restrictions, the "low-income housing" rule means they must take a loss on 20% of their development in addition to having to fulfill further costly legal loopholes. Most don't even bother. This means the only new houses being built in the city are huge mansions being built on "scrape-off" lots by people with lots of money (a "scrape-off" lot is one purchased solely for the land under the currently existing house, which is demolished, or scraped off, to make way for the new 14,000 square-foot, $3 million home). Which, I suppose, wouldn't be so bad if not for two things: first, destroying (often) historical homes and driving away low- and middle-income residents in favor of the rich is entirely antithetical to the ethos that created these policies; and second, the wealthy, new residents tend to shop in the fancy, new stores being built virtually everywhere except in Boulder, meaning more congestion and fewer sales-tax revenues.

Which is why the City Council is stumping for higher taxes to buy more open space and pay for social services that help assuage rich-man's guilt but are rapidly becoming irrelevant as low-income families leave the city. Not surprisingly, Boulder's vagrant population is skyrocketing.

The moral of the story is that good intentions alone are far from sufficient to effectuate good results.