Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Big, Bigger, Biggest

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on May 31, 2010 at 3:51 pm

The 4-all-beef-patty Megamac has long been a staple at Japanese MacDonalds.  Sometimes I’m tempted to order it just to prove I can eat it, but then I remember I’m a human and not a Tyrannosaurus Rex:


Not to be outdone, Burger King, the people behind “I will eat this meat until my innie turns into an outie“, last year released the “WINDOWS 7 Whopper”:


But even this 7-patty burger pales in comparison to Japanese fast food giant Lotteria’s new 10-patty offering.  Eat THIS meat, Burger King:


Japan continues to caricature Western society.




In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on May 31, 2010 at 5:01 am

Recently, the ten and eleven-year-old boys I teach are starting to get really interested in their own hair, skin, and eyebrows.  Were this America, I imagine there would be a media scare about the “homosexuals indoctrinating our children”, but this isn’t America, and boys beginning to pay attention to their physical appearance isn’t necessarily a sign of budding homosexuality, but a sign of budding sexuality (especially in countries where the survival of offspring is a relative certainty).  

I remember when I was ten or twelve and began gelling and spiking my hair along with the other boys in my class.  It was more memetic than conscious choice I think, and seemed to coincide with the strange, new phenomenon of liking girls, which was also more memetic than conscious choice I think.  Basically, we all had no idea what was going on.

Here’s how liking girls worked: there was one girl named Kate* that it became popular for nearly all the boys to like.  Kate’s best friend was Sarah.  Suddenly, one boy would decide to “ask Kate out”, which meant asking Sarah to ask Kate out for him and maybe even giving Sarah a snap bracelet to give to Kate.  This would make all the other boys who claimed to like Kate do the same thing.  And so Sarah would approach Kate and say something like, “Tim, Joe, Dan, Steven, Josh, Tony, Jeff, and Chris all like you and want to go out with you.  Which one do you want to go out with?”  Kate would choose Dan, and thereafter Kate and Dan would “go out” without ever having spoken to each other.  Eventually, everyone would forget about Kate and Dan, including Kate and Dan, and Molly would become the new girl that every boy liked.  Whenever we talked about “going out”, we would just repeat lines we had heard that week on Singled Out, which we watched because that’s what the older kids watched.       

This newfound “going out” in elementary school seemed to grip parents with a sort of primal terror.  After all, there were stories from only two towns away of pregnant 12-year-olds and middle school blowjob parties and whatnot, and who’s to say the same thing wasn’t going on in our town?  And, President Clinton was a role-model to kids everywhere, and you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing the name Gennifer Flowers.  Things weren’t like they were when we were kids.

From what I could gather from eavesdropping on my own parents’s conversations, there was a group of “idiot parents” who thought the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing was cute.  My parents definitely did not think it was cute at all, and preceded to repeatedly tell me that there would be no “dating” until age 16, which made me want to participate even more in the “going out” scientific research programme.

Eventually the whole town panic began to take on the structure of a South Park episode, the full mature expression of which was a health class “scared straight” style laserdisc curriculum one part viewing close-up photographs of venereal-disease infected genitalia, one-part memorizing facts and figures about AIDS (Did you know AIDS can be contracted from blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk?), and one-part watching after school specials about pregnant teenagers and crack-addicted babies.  By the time I got to age 16, I still couldn’t shake off the trauma, and had no interest in dating.  The program had achieved its goals.    


*I’ve changed all names here to avoid embarrassment.   

Cultural Attitudes towards Public Smoking

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on May 28, 2010 at 1:44 pm

In Japan, a typical pack of cigarettes can be purchased on nearly every street corner from a vending machine for 300 yen or so (about $3.30), and this includes brands imported from the United States.  Here is an advertisement for Winston which I saw today on my way to work: 

Some things about this advertisement: could you imagine it in the U.S.?  As I mentioned in my last post, I consider advertisement to be the ultimate window into a culture.  And the content of this ad especially speaks volumes of Japan, but not in the way you might think.  

The words of this advertisement I’ll do my best to translate as “What do you think of this flavor?  It’s finally come to Japan!”  A muscle-bound foreigner is smoking a cigarette while flexing, sending the message that not only is smoking cigarettes a cosmopolitan activity, but it’s also manly.  

That smoking is masculine is a notion already deeply embedded in Japanese culture.  It is common for salarymen to smoke heavily, and cigarettes play a social role.  There is a certain fraternal egalitarianism at work when men smoke together (or when they drink together for that matter) and smoking with your superior establishes an element of rapport.

To put it mildly, there are downsides to smoking.  I still to this day cannot believe that it took thirty years of scientific research and litigation for the tobacco industry to lose a class-action suit in the U.S and forty years for bans in public places to take effect.  Japan is nowhere near that yet, partly because the country is famous for having very low rates of lung cancer even with high rates of smoking as well as the world’s longest life expectancy, but partly because Japanese smokers don’t bother Japanese non-smokers as much as their counterparts in the U.S. 

(That being said, occasionally, salarymen take smoking breaks in empty local playgrounds so as not to disturb passersby.  My daughter found something interesting in the sandbox the other day, and held it up to me proudly.  It was a cigarette butt.  I guess a sandbox makes a perfect ashtray and a clandestine place to dispose of a smoke in a country with no public trash cans.  I’m glad my daughter had enough sense not to put the cigarette in her mouth, unlike some other babies.)

While advertisements like those pictured above and widespread smoking in some bars and restaurants seem to bother many foreign visitors to Japan, I think Japan has got it right when it comes to attitudes towards smoking in one respect at least: in the U.S., the war over tobacco has taken the form of personal choice vs. public health.  Those in the former camp are forced outside onto the streets for cigarette breaks when at bars, restaurants, concerts, or other establishments in which smoking is now explicitly prohibited.  Since there are no ashtrays or designated smoking areas, they usually just throw their butts on the street.  Passersby in the latter camp often sneer at and lecture smokers about their health, as though smokers don’t know cigarettes are bad for them, and it turns into an argument.  Typical dialogue:

Non-smoker: “Ugh! I have to breath that air!”

Smoker: “Then why are you still here?” 

This fight between assertive smokers and assertive non-smokers in media narrative has taken the form of the “culture war”, as all American social issues tend to, and everyone is compelled to choose between personal choice and public health.  In a confrontational America in which the streets belong to nobody, this leads to aggression, confrontation, and territorial disputes. 

In a non-confrontational Japan, the streets belong to everybody, and bans on smoking in public are prescriptive.  There are designated smoking areas, ashtrays, and signs all over the place reminding people that lit cigarettes are carried at the same height as baby carriages and children’s faces, but no nanny state.  It is very much frowned upon to smoke in public, but the rights of smokers to harm only themselves are tolerated despite a generous public healthcare system.  This means that smokers and non-smokers effectively self-segregate.  Smokers feel no need to assert themselves, and non-smokers can easily avoid second-hand smoke (Although the placement of certain smoking areas is something that could be improved.) without the sort of confrontation that seems to happen with everything in the U.S.

To summarize, second-hand smoke is a direct problem for everybody, and widespread smoking is an indirect problem for everybody vis-a-vis public healthcare.  In America, bans on smoking inside are explicit, and city streets are like the wild wild west.  This leads to many people smoking freely and chaotically outdoors without regard for others and assigns a self-expression component to smoking.  In Japan, smokers, both inside and outside, are separated from non-smokers, and city streets are considered to be like someone else’s home.  You wouldn’t walk into someone’s home, throw garbage on the floor and light up a cigarette, would you?  Well, neither do the Japanese.

We’re American, We Don’t Discriminate

In Specific Facts on May 26, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Mazoon Mosque by jhongdizon.comThe top story on Drudge today is the approval by a community board of a planned $100 million mosque in the neighborhood of Ground Zero.  Understand, despite Drudge’s usual hyperbole, that it isn’t a mosque on the site of the World Trade center, just in the vicinity.  While I appreciate the emotions provoked by 9/11, this isn’t controversial.  Of course a mosque should be allowed in that neighborhood.  While the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, there is no reason or right to censor, discriminate or restrict Muslim groups in lower Manhattan, or anywhere else for that matter.  We are American, we have inalienable rights and punitive reactions borne of fear or anger are beneath our principles. 

A father of a slain firefighter disagreed:

“I do have a problem with having a mosque on top of the site where [terrorists] can gloat about what they did,” said Santora, with his wife, Maureen, by his side.

Or another appeal to visceral outrage:

“That is a burial ground,” said retired FDNY Deputy Chief Al Santora, referring to the fact that victims’ remains were scattered for blocks

I can appreciate the survivors and their families feeling that the proposed mosque is in poor taste.  9/11 is a potent reminder of the very worst impulses of fundamentalist Islam, and the juxtaposition of a mosque against that background does not stir happy feelings for anyone.  However, more positive interactions with mainstream Muslim groups may help to heal the wounds of that day.  Either way, America does not prevent the free assembly of groups, period.  Drudge’s disgusting exploitation of a 29-1 in favor of the project by a neighborhood community board with no binding power is another low for a man who owes his success to a semen stain.

As a counterpoint to the outsized publicity for a non-event, Matthew Yglesias points out that a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida was suffered a terrorist attack to no response whatsoever.  The mosque was bombed during morning prayers in a possible hate crime that is every bit as disgusting and reprehensible as Islamic terrorism.  To paraphrase Bill Maher, our civilization is better than theirs.  So be better Americans!

It’s Perfect Because it Doesn’t Exist

In General Principles on May 25, 2010 at 7:04 pm

by Image EditorCarr asks “Why Should I have to defend Libertarianism?”  Well, because the leading libertarian politician in the country just brought up some ideas that most of the country find pretty abhorrent.  If libertarians want to be taken seriously, then they need to be willing to defend their controversial ideas, not just their good ones (end the drug war already!).  

It’s notable that Carr spends most of his post on lead in toys, and completely avoids talking about the issue at hand, the Civil Rights Act.  Lead in toys is a red herring that distracts from the harder to swallow parts of libertarianism.  I can find you lots of examples of areas where libertarianism works, probably even a few where conservatism worked and plenty more where liberalism did the trick, including the Civil Rights Act.  That’s how a big messy country works, no one has a monopoly on winning an argument or two.  The problem with Rand Paul, and every doctrinaire ideologue of any stripe, is the insistence that his philosophy is right all of the time.  Because libertarians never get to run the country (or really any country) and make lots of compromises, they have the least counterexamples.  Rest assured though, when Matty Welch Jr. becomes the first libertarian President then it’s gonna be disappointing unless you realize that libertarianism gets to hold themselves up as paragons of consequentialism precisely because no one has seen the consequences of libertarianism.

Rand Paul acknowledges as much in his ill-fated interview with Rachel Maddow:

But you know, the other thing about legislation — and this is why it’s a little hard to say exactly where you are sometimes, is that when you support nine out of 10 things in a good piece of legislation, do you vote for it or against it? And I think, sometimes, those are difficult situations.

The Civil Rights Act proved to be an enormous success that not only allowed black Americans to frequent private businesses, but actually changed attitudes in this country until we could have a black Presidential candidate win Virginia, the home of the Confederate capital.  In fact, it worked so well that Rand Paul might be right that we could afford to let racists privately discriminate again.  The market probably would do the trick now if someone hung a “whites only” sign in front of their gas station bathroom or diner.  It’s pretty hard for me to get too worked up about the rights of racists, however, so while I wish Rand Paul well on his quixotic quest to overturn parts of the Civil Rights Act, I won’t join him on that journey.

Meanwhile, libertarians can imagine a perfect world where government would just get out of the way of the market and everything would work itself out.  Carr does:

True capitalism (I heard they have it in Taiwan.) is awesome, whether you believe – as many conservatives do – that success follows from hard work and dedication or whether you believe – as many liberals do – that success is primarily the result of Rawlsian luck.  If you believe that success in life is the result of hard work and effort, then capitalism is the system that best rewards and thereby encourages said hard work and effort.  If you believe that success in life is the result of luck, then capitalism is the system that provides cheapest and easiest access to training and markets so you can try try again.

This is like people who believe communism is perfect, except that it never existed and all the avowedly Communist countries were in fact frauds misrepresenting themselves.  Every time something is deregulated to our detriment, in other words bad consequences for good intentions, libertarians point out that it wasn’t a perfectly free market so really the problem was that still more deregulation was necessary.  In other words:

Libertarianism bases it’s ideology on a fundamental human inability to accurately predict the consequences of policy, the empirical evidence for which progressive liberals continually ignore.

Well, when deregulation ends up causing a huge financial crisis, I’m gonna bet that going in the opposite direction is an improvement on doubling down.  See, that’s because I’m a liberal, and I think the government can do better by carefully deciding on better polices instead of just constantly heading in one direction regardless of the results.  I like libertarianism enough to think Rand Paul would be an improvement on any other Republican elected from Kentucky, even though the last week gives me pause.  I like consequentialism just fine too, but I think libertarians have to purchase it on the free market like everyone else.

Why Should I Have to Defend Libertarianism?

In General Principles on May 24, 2010 at 4:01 am

This symbol of libertarianism represents an entirely consequentialist morality.Blogging is the rock ‘n’ roll of the information generation, and Ezra Klein is its Bob Dylan.  In a May 21st post, Three types of arguments over policy, Klein soberly reins in and classifies the noise of a drunken and whirling Washington:

Washington is home to two — actually, three — different types of policy debates. The first one, the one that we’re used to, asks whether a policy will work. That’s the one where I say health-care reform is likely to achieve its goals and cut costs and David Brooks says it won’t do either thing and we both try to marshal empirical evidence in service of our points. In theory, whoever’s evidence is stronger wins.

Then there’s the second one, which is the one that (Rand) Paul is giving voice to, which asks whether a policy is philosophically acceptable. Paul isn’t arguing that the Civil Rights Act was ineffective at desegregating Woolworth lunch counters. He’s arguing that government shouldn’t tell private businesses what to do, and when they do, that’s not legitimate even if it achieves its stated policy goals. Or, more prosaically, a Republican argues that we shouldn’t have more government involvement in health care because government involvement is bad, and that’s true whether or not it’s proved efficient in other countries. In theory, whoever’s philosophy is more appealing wins.

The post also includes this hilarious, Juvenalian passage:

Then there’s the third one, which is the debate that we’re usually having even though people don’t admit it, which asks whether a policy will help someone’s chosen party in the next election. That’s the one where Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch oppose a bill that looks like a bill they sponsored in 1993 and Mitt Romney attacks a bill that’s based off legislation he signed in Massachusetts because the bill in question is a Democratic bill, and if its passes and is accepted as major achievement, it will ruin the Republican Party’s chances in 2010. 

The point of Klein’s post is that Rand Paul’s contentions about the 1964 Civil Rights Act are grounded in the second, philosophical debate, where government involvement in anything is bad in a tautological way.  To his credit, Klein remains generally focused on Paul, but the die has been cast by other bloggers, and the poorly-understood ideology of libertarianism is now under attack all over the internets.  Here’s Reason’s trashing of Bruce Bartlett.  Here Jamelle Bouie calls “checkmate” on a pawn.  Here Matt Zeitlin tortures and crucifies reason itself.   

Judging from the comments to these entries, which tend to exclude those who aren’t members of the progressive, liberal choir, the consensus seems to be – and Klein seems guilty himself of propagating this – that libertarianism is a lazy, immature, elitist, deontological ideology; that is, libertarianism’s central tenet is that government intervention in the economy is a priori bad, and must be avoided.  

On the contrary, libertarianism is rooted in a consequentialist worldview.  (Hayek called his book the Road to Serfdom, after all.)  Libertarianism bases it’s ideology on a fundamental human inability to accurately predict the consequences of policy, the empirical evidence for which progressive liberals continually ignore.  The question liberals never ask themselves when dismissing libertarianism is why government involvement is bad.  A case study from the consequentialist libertarians at Reason:   

(1) Mattel’s Fisher-Price puts lead in toys in 2007.  Awesome.

(2) Congress responds to calls to “do something” and loudly establishes a new law banning lead in toys which is almost exactly the same as an already existing 1978 law banning lead in toys.

(3) The new law requires expensive third-party testing.

(4) Small toy-makers – which did not put lead in toys – cannot afford to comply with regulations.

(5) Giant Mattel is fined 2.3 million dollars, or 0.0002 times its 2007 market value of 11,295.8 million dollars. 

(6) The American toy market is consolidated into an oligopoly of companies which are too big to fail.

This pattern holds for pretty much every American industry, and especially for the most important ones, like healthcare, cars, and banks.  Reason here exemplifies the hard work, attention to detail, math ability, passion for boring facts and figures, humdrum clerical work, ability to comprehend the difference between “million” and “billion”, and mental database-building that it takes to be a libertarian.  

Indeed, American industry is contaminated and cancerous, and it’s not capitalism’s fault, because there is no capitalism.  For proof, go to your local beach and try to sell smoothies this summer.  How much will it cost you to get a “permit”?  Will that “permit” cost more than you could hope to gain in profits?  If you’re super poor, does selling crack present a more lucrative opportunity?         

True capitalism (I heard they have it in Taiwan.) is awesome, whether you believe – as many conservatives do – that success follows from hard work and dedication or whether you believe – as many liberals do – that success is primarily the result of Rawlsian luck.  If you believe that success in life is the result of hard work and effort, then capitalism is the system that best rewards and thereby encourages said hard work and effort.  If you believe that success in life is the result of luck, then capitalism is the  system that provides cheapest and easiest access to training and markets so you can try try again.  

The typical liberal response to this sort of flawless (yet arrogant) reasoning is to ask a lot of rhetorical questions that it would be like totally insane to not answer in the affirmative.  Ezra Klein:

(1) Can the federal government set the private sector’s minimum wage? (2) Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? (3) Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? (4) Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? (5) Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors?

Answers: (1) sure, but it means unemployment and all sorts of other problems, (2) There shouldn’t be illegal immigrants, because we should encourage legal immigration.  There wouldn’t be any security concerns if we weren’t perpetually at war (see accompanying picture.) (3) What the government should do is represent its citizens in charging corporations for creating externalities instead of doing the exact opposite (see Mattel above.), (4) You wanna trust the toy companies to self-regulate? (It worked so well for tobacco.) (5) See (3).

Which brings me to my fully consequentialist conclusion: economics is an extension of biology, and humans are social animals.  The market mechanism allows supply and demand to coordinate and submit themselves for mathematical analysis.  The idea that humans are not rational actors is anathema to reality and indicative of a failure to properly empathize with the considerations of one’s fellow human beings.  Human beings, acting on subjective knowledge, will make the decisions which they perceive as best for themselves.  Government interference in the market and society is almost always heavy-handed and clumsy and should be minimized.  Not only do poorly executed government solutions to problems destroy the supply side of free-markets in the aforementioned manner, but they also distort the market in its capacity as provider of true information to consumers.  This in turn forces otherwise rational actors to misrepresent themselves and to make poor choices.  This leads to social cancers, or, as Hayek called it, serfdom.  Larry Summers is famous for saying, “Idiots exist.  Look around.” but how many of these idiots were born that way, and how many were created?

Industrial Agriculture and Solutions to World Hunger

In Specific Facts on May 22, 2010 at 3:19 am

In this essay, the author discusses the right approach to combating the problem of hunger – an attribute shared by closed to 900 million people worldwide.  He takes issue with the arugula-eating liberal elites, like Food First, a California-based organization that opposes the technological advancements of the Green Revolution.   Modern improvements in agricultural technology and sciences create higher crop yields.  When land ownership is limited to a few hectares, it is critical to maximize the output on these small plots,  which is what industrial improvements in agriculture enable.   It is true that there are downsides to the Green Revolution, including further marginalization of subsistence farmers and, in some regions, a widening of the income gap in the agricultural community.  But what cannot be said about this approach is that the food it produces is either inferior to organically-grown crops or that the process is any less sustainable.  Industrial technologies, chemical fertilizers, and improved seeds generate more food, feeding more mouths, reducing malnutrition and generating income.

Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of “food insecure” people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

The Green Revolution and its improvements in yield are not the only ways to improve agriculture and fight hunger.  Investments in training, equipment, and infrastructure, enabling access to markets, and providing real-time updates of crop prices can all make farmers more competitive and more productive.  The issue of hunger is a big one.  Around 30% of children in the developing world are underweight, with the majority in Africa and South Asia.  The other day, the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines published the results of a program that encouraged farmers to use hybrid seeds for growing palay (pre-milled rice):

Despite the El Niño phenomenon, farmers in the El Niño-hit provinces of Isabela and Cagayan were able to double their income and increase their yields by an average of 200 percent by planting hybrid palay seeds, the Department of Agriculture (DA) said.

Malabanan said the DA has encouraged the farmer-beneficiaries from Isabela and Cagayan to use the various hybrid rice seeds available to them so they could see for themselves the benefits of cultivating superior genetic materials.

“This translates into an increase in profit of at least P30,000 per hectare from only P15,000. Hybrid rice achieves greater yields and thus farmers earn more without increasing their cultivation area,” Malabanan said.

Using genetically-modified seeds led to a doubling of farmers’ incomes.  This is a good thing.  One particularly innovative organization is the One Acre Fund, dedicated to “using markets to eradicate hunger permanently.”  It is a start-up that offers a suite of four services – capital, technical training, market linkage, and crop insurance – to empower subsistence farmers in East Africa.  Truly a modern approach to an old problem.  Embrace the wonders of modern science and the power of the invisible hand and use it to the advantage of those most in need of the benefits.

Also, check out the photo gallery, “An Ode to Farming.”

A Victory for Heterodoxy in Kentucky

In Specific Facts on May 19, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Image courtesy of dailypaul.comRand Paul, son of Texas Congressman, Ron Paul, is the very probable winner of the Kentucky Republican Primary Senate election, and liberals should be thrilled.  Of course, the Media has latched onto this thing and milked it for all the ratings its worth.  The imposed narrative structure is that Paul has been elevated by the “Tea Partiers” (or “Tea Baggers”, depending on which party the reader hacks for.), and of course Paul has run with it:

I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: we’ve come to take our government back.  We’ve come to take the government back from the special interests who think that our government is their own personal ATM…Washington is horribly broken, I think we stand on a precipice.  We are encountering a day of reckoning, and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Washington that we’re unhappy, and that we want things done differently.  The Tea Party movement is huge.  The mandate of our victory tonight is huge.  What we’ve done, and what we are doing, can transform America.  I think America’s greatness hinges on us doing something to save the country.  The Tea Party movement is about saving the country from the mountain of debt that is devouring our country and I think could lead to chaos.

Paul continues to focus on the national debt and the accumulating interest on the debt, the failures of socialism in Europe vis-a-vis Greece, the elegance of the constitution, excesses of government, a movement towards a more pure capitalism, and the universality of the Tea Party movement:

The Tea Party message is not a radical message, it’s not an extreme message.  What’s extreme is a 2 trillion dollar deficit.  The Tea Party message calls for things that are widely popular.  I mean, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, term limits…forcing Congress to balance the budget by law – everybody’s for it but it never happens.  We can do it, and it can be popular.  Reading the bills, who is opposed to them reading the bills?  (laughter).  Is that an extreme idea, to have them read the bills?  

Rand Paul is one of many Republican politicians who claim to speak for and define the Tea Party in their own terms, and Paul’s Tea Party, primarily concerned with the excesses of government and a capitalism and democracy free from special interests, seems preferable to the Tea Parties of Glenn Beck, a madman; Sarah Palin, delusional and incompetent; Rush Limbaugh, an ideological combatant; and Newt Gingrich, an ideological combatant who wants to simply fire federal judges who disagree with him.

Like his father before him (although they are not the same politically), Paul has been labeled a “crackpot” for rather unconventional policy positions: for one, he wants to abolish the Departments of Education and Agriculture.  While these positions are certainly radical when compared to the spectrum of established political authority, they are grounded in logic and measured assessment of those elements of government.  I don’t necessarily agree with Paul’s position, but in my experience, standardized education is a losing venture.  If control of education were left to the states, we would have more opportunities for experimentation, and thereby much more data to evaluate in determining best practices.  Curricula would conform to whatever methods local school boards felt were best for their particular constituency, and since they would be held fully accountable by only entitled parties, curricula would develop effectively and organically.  To deny this approach to education is to deny the virtues of Federalism.

As for abolishing the Department of Agriculture, the DoA has an abysmal record.  An issue which Ron Paul, Rand’s father, has made central to his platform, is ending corn subsidies.  Corn is in almost everything we as Americans eat, and there is plenty of medical evidence suggesting that high-fructose corn syrup and other corn-derived products in processed food can explain some of the obesity epidemic now plaguing America, an obesity epidemic that both Pauls as a medical doctors must be familiar with. (FYI: Nice try on the “but Paul’s an ophthalmologist” tack. Medical doctors in the United States go through two undergraduate years of laboratory science, four years of general medical training, one year of residency, and two or more years of internship before receiving a specialty. So, Paul would have considerable experience evaluating, diagnosing, and treating obese patients without eye problems.)  There is also the inherent immorality of paying farmers to produce more food than we can consume, and then burning the surplus to control prices while people around the world and in our own country continue to starve.           

Rand Paul is to the left of Obama on National Defense  From Sullivan:  

I want Paul to win this seat, so we can get a fiscal conservative Republican in the Senate who can put defense spending on the table. Rand’s position on this is mostly his father’s:

Rand Paul has indicated that the possibility of an Iranian nuke doesn’t bother him; that he supports the shuttering of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; and that he’s shaky on support for the surge in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

Ron Paul has not only taken heat from conservatives for his lax defense policies, but from liberals as well.  On suggesting that the Civil War could have, and should have been avoided during the 2007 campaign, Paul met with disagreement from Bill Maher.  Paul explained his position via measured, historical comparison with various European countries, whose governments simply bought slaves from their masters in an eminent domain fashion, thereby avoiding bloodshed, animosity for years to come, and economic and infrastructural devastation.  Paul’s position that the Civil War was “not fought over slavery.  The Civil War was fought over unifying and making a strong, centralized state.” is, despite our national myth, the prevailing position in many history departments.   

The fact that these conservatives are taking unconventional positions and then backing those positions with reasoned argument shows that the Pauls are about anything but politics as usual.  For Obama supporters honestly hoping for a post-partisan politics, a focused and de-radicalized tea party, working together with conservatives to solve problems, and political disagreement based in difference of values instead of Orwellian arguments about facts, Rand Paul is exactly what this country needs.  For those who value heterodoxy, whether Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, Rand Paul should be a welcome addition to the U.S. Senate.


UPDATE 5/22 – So Rachel Maddow’s partisan interview with Paul is now all over the internet, being quoted out of context; Twitter has become like “telephone”, and everyone has checked their sanity at the door.  Libertarianism itself seems to be on trial, or should I say some dumbed-down, straw-man libertarianism is on trial.  I think in this particular case, Andrew Sullivan puts it better than I do, but, a few things:

Everyone’s missing the point of libertarianism, which goes beyond trying to force everyone to do what I or you think is right: people think politics is about getting their ideas to win, when it’s actually about giving people the maximum control over their lives.  The state is an abstraction that interferes with human existence.  

For example, after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, people stopped holding doors for people in wheelchairs, people stopped giving up their seats for the elderly in trains, because everyone can just foist responsibility onto the law.  This is a phenomenon well known to psychologists called the diffusion of responsibility.  This is what libertarianism is about: changing culturally, not legally. 

It’s the same as believing in the afterlife.  If I believe that being a good person gets me a reward, am I really a good person?  Or am I just a child who does his chores for candy money?  The fundamental reason why libertarians occasionally make “outlandish” comments, and why they have no success politically, is because people don’t understand libertarians, and libertarians don’t understand people. 

Libertarians repeatedly make the same mistake of assuming that everybody else is as generous, kind, upright, stoic, thoughtful, honest, and intelligent as they are, and to not give people the responsibility to be moral actors is insulting and itself immoral.  The standard liberal position here seems to be that people are stupid and cruel and need to be herded and threatened with external force in order to do the right thing.  Although, since we live in a society where moral responsibility is increasingly the province of the law, perhaps we’ve reached a stage where liberals are right.

Throughout the interview with Maddow, Paul never actually said anything definitive at all, repeatedly stating that he was unfamiliar with the details of the Civil Rights Act, and since it was passed in 1964 and irrelevant to today’s politics, he would prefer not to talk about it.  Maddow kept trying to get him to fail her litmus test simply so she could embarrass and ridicule a Republican.  

Her conclusions that because Paul does not support one clause of the Civil Rights Act related to the right of private companies to discriminate, he must support Jim Crow, is like saying that anyone who supports federalism supports slavery.  Paul wanted to discuss the philosophical issues underpinning that particular clause of the Civil Rights Act (which, by the way, the Supreme Court has upheld multiple times under the justification that individual consumer rights to access goods and services regardless of race trump the rights of private businesses to discriminate), yet Maddow made the mistake of assuming that Paul’s objections must be to the immediate and direct effect of that whole piece of legislation.  

Unlike members of the typical conservative-liberal spectrum of political thought prevailing in this country and nowhere else on earth, libertarians pursue holistically consistent ideology.  The responsibility to protect vulnerable members of our society like those who are racially discriminated against and the handicapped is not the province of government; it is the responsibility of each and every American citizen.  

Gum Advertisement in 7-11 Number Four

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on May 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I pass seven 7-11s during my twenty-five minute bike ride to Fukushima Station.  There used to be eight, but one closed because of the economy.  I’ve thought about organizing a Slurpee crawl for July 11th., but the Japanese prefer real food.  Despite ubiquitous vending machines, Japanese 7-11s primarily traffic in beer and beer-like products, juice, and canned iced coffee, which is surprisingly good, although it tends to sting the bowels on occasion.  

Being exhausted from two consecutive days off, I decided to stop at 7-11 number four to purchase said coffee and make it through my late class without falling asleep.  In the process I came across this advertisement, which is interesting for a variety of reasons:

First of all, it’s huge, spanning one aisle’s width.  (I guess my task for tomorrow is to see if every 7-11 carries this ad.)  Second, it’s striking.  I noticed it immediately, and even though I was already attracting a lot of attention to myself, I was compelled even to stick my neck out and take a picture.  What is its message?

The product being advertised is gum (I think.  I’m not really a gum chewer, and I was too busy looking at the art to pay attention to the product, which is another interesting aspect I guess.)  The advertisement relies on a typical Darwinian “Rise of Man” motif with six panels; the first two characters are noticeably ape-like, the middle two are meant to evoke cavemen; the fifth panel is a samurai, and the last, one of the many cookie-cutter, eyebrow-shaving, metrosexual men taking Japan by storm.  

Consider the cultural statement such a hierarchical arrangement explicitly makes: the samurai were an intermediate phase between cavemen and the sensitive men of today who care about their looks.  Perhaps my reading is ethnocentric (Eastern cultures don’t necessarily correlate the passage of time with progress.), but it seems like there is a definitive notion of progress at work here, and why wouldn’t there be?  Stoic men don’t buy beauty products.  

Not only is this particular company marketing its own product, but it is marketing an entire industry, an entire culture, an entire way of life to Japanese men, a way of life which necessarily entails spending lots of money on consumer goods and cosmetics.

I bought my coffee, hopped on my bike, and headed out of the parking lot, part of me regretting not buying the gum, but part of me thinking about how advertising provides such a truthful, organic window from which to view a society, whether from the inside or from the outside.  Successful companies are selected by consumers based on brand images, much like the Darwinian process depicted in this particular advertisement.  What does the selection of this brand say about Japanese consumers?

Ken Mogi’s TEDxTokyo Lecture

In Empires of the Mind on May 15, 2010 at 5:10 pm


I feel like the TED brand has reached its “Decade of Decadence” phase.  The series has become a bully pulpit for Baby Boomers to preach certain maxims using contrived Guy Smiley stage voices and trite adverbial conjunctions like “Now,…” before long, pretentious pauses, then underwhelming rhetoric designed as an exercise in the capacity of willpower to restrain Pavlovian violence.

So I had low expectations for today’s live stream of TEDxTokyo. (The “x” means it’s independently organized and only using TED for its McMeal ticket – kind of like “Quentin Tarantino Presents”…some obscure cult film starring Sonny Chiba.)  But I was surprised by an interesting lecture from Dr. Kenichiro Mogi, a neuroscientist interested in solving the mind-brain problem now working and researching at the Sony Computer Science Laboratory.  The highlights:

Mogi describes his childhood spent chasing butterflies: “Not only me, but why all these little creatures, these wonderful things, why are they here?  Why is there so much variation?”

In contrast to the last neuroscientist to speak at TED, Sam Harris, whose lecture was the subject of my most recent Inductive article, Mogi sees science and his own participation in the scientific research program of, umm…science, as a Campbellian quest: “Science explains many things, but then uncovers yet more mysteries along the way: it is an open-ended process…We really don’t know anything significant about the universe.  The great ocean of truth lays undiscovered before me.” which he uses to follow-up an Issac Newton quote: 

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

I think the only way someone as quiet and humble as Dr. Mogi would ever get to speak at TED is if it’s TEDx.  While Dr. Mogi’s lecture lacked the aforementioned rhetorical flourish, both his work and his blog, The Qualia Journal, are riveting.