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Muddling Through

In Specific Facts on August 31, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Unlike cocktails, the best economies aren’t made by muddling. Image by TheogeoWe have grown accustomed to rival constituencies focusing on economic issues with special relevance to them: conservatives want lower taxes, libertarians want smaller government and liberals want better services.  The relative merits of each position wax and wane in the public eye and everyone wins or loses at the margin.  However, our current departure from “normal economic conditions” should remind everyone that these partisan concerns are of secondary importance: allowing greater human flourishing and the prevention of extreme human deprivation are the ultimate ends of all policy preferences.  Conservatives and libertarians favor lower taxes because they believe that low taxes spur growth and allow more people to better their lives.  That low taxes might be a good thing in and of themselves has eventually become ideological dogma, but only because we lacked a sufficiently compelling reason to raise taxes.  While it generally isn’t expressed in such utilitarian terms, we all believe we have the best policies to create the most happiness.

The craziest part is that right now, still suffering from historically high unemployment, mass idle productive capacity and fresh concern that growth may falter, we aren’t trying anyone’s idea on how to grow an economy!  Instead we have resorted to a muddle of what is possible when liberals are scared and Republicans are obstructionist.

A Mojito Made with Tequilla, Basil, Root Beer and and Orange Isn’t a Mojito

I know that conservatives would object that I’m letting liberalism off the hook since Democrats control Congress and the White House, but liberals from Yglesias to Krugman to Obama himself are begging for more stimulus while expecting the opposite.  Most liberals are terrified that the bad economy is going to strangle the Obama Presidency in its cradle, even though it didn’t start on his watch.  When people raging on and on about “failed Obama economic policy,” it must be pointed out he has something else in mind.  The stimulus package back in 2009 was far less than liberals wanted and largely undermined by state and local governments cutting spending to balance budgets during the recession.  Now, any fresh stimulus apparently has to be deficit neutral, which is to say non-Keynesian and non-stimulative.  I’m not saying you ignore the fact that Democrats haven’t done a good job of getting us out of this recession, but liberalism has better ideas than this for growing an economy. We could take Medicaid away from the states freeing up state money for jobs and infrastructure, give a payroll tax credits for any employer who hires new employees or, preferably, just give people jobs where they do things that need to get done and pay for it with record low interest rates on government debt!  To those of you who worry about the deficit- which I hope is everyone- remember that the second half of Keynesian economics is that when the economy is growing again the government runs surpluses to keep things from overheating; see the end of the Clinton Presidency for a perfect example of responsible fiscal stewardship.

Economic conservatives, traditionally opposed to Keynesian economics, have long embraced monetary policy to manage recessions.  By expanding and contracting the monetary supply the economy is kept from freezing or overheating- like a central AC that kicks in when temperatures go too far in either direction.  Unlike fiscal policy, which requires that the government spends lots of money, monetary policy is managed entirely by the Federal Reserve.  Ideally, the feds- as opposed to the Fed- just run a balanced budget all of the time and let the prime interest rate smooth out the bumps in the business cycle.  In reality the federal government almost never runs a balanced budget and some bumps just don’t want to be smoothed.  At this point, with record deficits, the federal funds interest rate sitting on the zero bound and 9.5% unemployment, I think the limits of monetary policy are pretty apparent.  What exactly do you do when monetary policy isn’t enough? Even worse though, is that the Federal Reserve seems perfectly content with 9.5% unemployment and near zero inflation.  The Fed has a dual mandate of aiming for full employment and price stability, but you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel they secretly prioritize one mutually exclusive objective over the other.  A big reason why conservatives prefer monetary stimulus, is that when it is working properly there is no need for fiscal stimulus (it should be pointed out that Keynes developed fiscal stimulus theories as an antidote to price controls and other government invasions into the free market, including the biggest one of all,  Communism).  So Tea-partiers and University of Chicago Conservatives who hate fiscal stimulus, advocate for a recession policy where the Federal Reserve targets a higher rate than 2% (something the IMF advocated), and worry about going under that target as much as going over.  We aren’t trying to get the price level back up to its historical trend, but we should. 

Now, monetary policy is for a pretty sophisticated (and older) type of Conservativism.  Most of the heat in Conservative recession policy these days is focused on psychological stimulus.  That sounds pejorative, but the idea now known as “entrepreneurship” was first called “animal spirits” (by John Maynard Keynes, naturally) to denote just how mysterious they were.  So Conservatives believe that all this government spending is actually counterproductive for entrepreneurs (and their animal spirits) because instead of planning for how to grow their business they see a government that is spending so much that it will have raise taxes later.  This idea, fully explained as Ricardian equivalence, explains that fiscal stimulus doesn’t work because people save rather than spend to offset expected future tax increases.  I’m not a Conservative and the idea doesn’t make any sense to me (Don’t savings fund investments or are we talking about money in mattresses type of savings?  Wouldn’t low taxes now create an incentive to invest or spend now before later tax increases make it less profitable?), but with record deficits spent mostly on automatic stabilizers and tax breaks suffice to say we aren’t heading the advice of Professor Ricardo either.  Taxes are historically low now, the deficit is sky high and every indication is that taxes will have to go up in the near future.  Because the tax system in this country is so complicated, I don’t know why businesses would expect all of the increases to come out of their bottom lines but government revenues will have to increase. 

Finally, Libertarians believe that the economy is self regulating and these boom and bust cycles are fueled by the very interventions that try to cure them.  When the Fed tries to micro-manage the economy through the prime rate they actually make the eventual correction in the regular business cycle more pronounced and violent.  When the government intervenes in the market to fix rules and regulations it thinks are under-performing and performing “incorrectly” it is impossible to foresee all of the consequences of its actions.  Thus, our current recession was caused by massive inflation in the housing market due to Fed artificially keeping interests low and federal guarantees on housing through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  This call for humility in the face of uncertainty should also include the well-intentioned federal deregulation that led to over-leveraged banks, huge derivitive risk and eventually financial crisis.  Austrian economics fans probably aren’t happy that the federal government continues to, unsuccessfully, prop up the housing market through tax incentives for home buying.  I would happily embrace the federal government picking less winners and losers in the market, if it was accompanied by real oversight of private market manipulation and risk.  Perhaps the financial reform bill did the latter, but hardly to the adulation of libertarians.

Garnish and Serve

The current recession points and taking the scenic route to maximizing utility is not always possible.  Every ideology believes that they actually advocate for the policies that make life best, and I concede that no one has a monopoly on good ideas, but I am horrified to see that special circumstances have not prompted a reevaluation of priorities.  Strong families, low taxes, balanced budgets, good services, strong defense and limited government are all means to an end; to confuse the means with the end dehumanizes policy turning it into a giant board game for egoist nerds.  When faced with a choice between making sure that everyone has enough to eat and negligible deficit reduction, there is no choice!  In the long run, the deficit must be reduced because otherwise it will eventually constrain government spending on important services, like making sure that everyone gets enough to eat.  There are so many far targets for balancing the budget- but they have powerful interests to protect them- so why do we have to fund free lunch expansion at the cost of food stamps instead of say farm subsidies?  We dither about funding to shore up state budget cuts, meanwhile police get laid off, streetlights turned off and civilization slowly retreats.

This is the symptom of policy made without strategy, just lurching and shuddering towards nothing but public distain.  I might like Hyman Minsky’s approach to getting out of a depression while you prefer Fredrick Hayek’s or Milton Friedman’s, but either way we can agree that the people guiding the country out of the ditch should actually have an overarching plan.  Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of making everything seem impossible to diminish expectations and deflect blame.  Here’s how you make a drink and a recovery: follow the recipe, even when it’s hard to do, and then if you don’t like how it tastes afterwards at least you know where fault lies.

A Response to Jane Mayer

In Specific Facts on August 31, 2010 at 4:43 am

typical libertariansI read all of Jane Mayer’s New Yorker epic takedown of the American libertarian movement.  “Covert Operations: the Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama” is about the Brothers Koch a.k.a. “The Kochtopus”, two – or four, depending on which brothers one considers part of the Koch inner-circle – shady oil billionaires behind the curtain of the libertarian movement from the Cato Institute to the Tea Party.  It’s creepy to think there’s one devious, eight-armed creature pulling all those levers of influence, like “The Company” from Prison Break.  But Mayer’s propagandistic assessment is underhanded, full of political bias, and based on fallacious logic.  And before you suspect me also of being on the Koch’s payroll (I live below the poverty line.), I go on the record as saying that I think we should use as little fossil fuels as possible, that big business is obstructionist and has unduly influenced policy-making in Washington, and that oil is the devil.

I guess my first point in response to Mayer is that billionaires who are interested in politics will fund, support, and create institutions they like.  So what?  Does that somehow undermine the libertarian project of minimal government interference in the economy and robust civil liberties?  Mayer does contend that George Soros, the billionaire behind the Democratic Party, goes out of his way to broadcast his political opinions and lavish donations, while the Brothers Koch apparently try to hide theirs.  But if, as Mayer says, the Brothers Koch have a reputation for lavish donations to “right wing” causes, and if, as Mayer says, the Koch’s empire has been nicknamed “The Kochtopus” due to its reputation for pervasiveness, and if all those prominent, mainstream conservative commentators like Ed Crane and Bruce Bartlett who Mayer quotes promiscuously throughout her piece are well aware of the Kochs’s political activities, are they then so secret at all?  How can a person have a reputation for lavish giving and be concealing that lavish giving at the same time?  How can, as Mayer suggests, the Kochs go about funding as many prominent institutions as possible, which are then named after them, and somehow simultaneously be trying to fly under the radar?  Perhaps Mayer would be more satisfied were  the brothers to keep a blog or make regular appearances on The Daily Show.       

My second huge problem with the article is that Mayer describes the Brothers Koch’s activities as a conflict of interest, (and there may be one.  The issue is worth further investigation, and I always support transparency.  Yea for the Internets.).  But Mayer implies that because the Kochs fund political organizations whose policy conclusions would likely benefit them financially, they must be using lies and deceit to force those policy conclusions.  But would it not also be a conflict of interest for me as an aspiring medical student to suggest a policy making it less expensive for Americans to become doctors?  Such a policy would certainly benefit me financially, but that doesn’t mean I can’t honestly believe it’s in the best interest of everybody.  According to Mayer’s logic, anybody who advocates lower taxes must have a conflict of interest because they would directly benefit financially from that policy.  This is clearly a faulty premise.

My third major problem with the article is that Mayer presents herself as neutral yet is unabashedly partisan: she refers to conservative lobbyists like Grover Norquist and Frank Luntz (whom I hate, by the way, in the same way as I hate James Carville and Paul Begala) as “operatives” throughout her article, but I guess this is superior to the older pejorative term favored by liberal hacks: “Gang of Five”.  Mayer’s article is one part conspiracy theorist fear-mongering and one part guilt-by-association (She drags the Koch name through puddles of Beck, Limbaugh, and even Abramoff.).  In this way, “Covert Operations” reminded me of Farenheit 9-11 in that it danced around an accusation without ever directly making one: in Michael Moore’s case, the intended message is that Bush was somehow involved in the planning of 9-11, and in the case of Mayer, the message is that the Koch Brothers run a well-oiled and centrally-controlled secret propaganda empire which seeks to destroy the Democratic Party through lies and deceit.  And it’s a testiment to the skill of Jane Mayer as a writer that she accomplished this all without ever making a direct accusation and without citing a single primary source.  “Covert Operations” is nothing more than the latest battle in the Culture War. 

Here is an example of Jane Mayer playing the Michael Moore card: 

During the 2000 election campaign, Koch Industries spent some nine hundred thousand dollars to support the candidacies of George W. Bush and other Republicans. During the Bush years, Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel companies enjoyed remarkable prosperity.

But didn’t Goldman Sachs donate even more money to the Obama Campaign?  And hasn’t Goldman Sachs enjoyed tremendous prosperity under the Obama Administration?  Why aren’t all the New Yorker investigative journalists suggesting malfeasance here?  I find it inconsistent that the loose six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon connections President Obama has to former domestic terrorists, radical religious leaders, and corporate interests are played down as irrelevent, while similar connections conservatives have are used as matter-of-fact evidence here that the “Kochtopus” is engaged in…what?  “Malfeasance”?  “Fiddling”?  “Venality”?  “Indecency”?  Is there anything more here than “I think the enemy is up to something…”?

People like Mayer criticize the movie Zeitgeist for being batshit insane conspiracy theorist mumbo jumbo, constantly get on Ron and Rand Paul for their loose associations with 9-11 conspiracy theorists or hundred-dollar donations from known racists, and think The Fellowship is running the country, but the same people shit-a-brick anytime someone suggests that academia or the media has a liberal bias. 

I think here again as usual, both sides are to blame, none of the connections Mayer mentions are a big deal, Obama’s associations aren’t a big deal either, and it’s not a big deal if there are more liberal reporters or professors than conservative ones.  We don’t have to have ideological quotas and litmus tests for areas of our society that have nothing to do with politics (Oh, I’m sorry Professor Einstein, we have too many liberals and need to hire a conservative to fill our spot in the Physics Department.).

But we should stop having news stories that seek to discredit opposing philosophical views by associating them with things and people we may find unpleasant.  Not that the Kochs are as bad as Mayer says they are, but if I find out tomorrow that Hitler is secretly alive and financing the gay rights movement, I’m not going to stop supporting gay rights.   Matthew 7:16 says, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (which reminds me that Jesus hung around with some shady characters too).

Hello world!

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

“The Million Moron March”

In Specific Facts on August 29, 2010 at 8:03 am

Image courtesy of Mario PiperniRiffing off John Batchelor’s column (“The Festival of Fools“) and John Avlon’s column (“I Have a Nightmare“), both for the Daily Beast, I too came up with a pithy title for this post on the most recent Tea Party event (because that’s really what Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” march on the Washington Mall is.  The demographic is exactly the same.)  I generally agree with Batchelor that this particular march is a non-issue:

The celebrity Glenn Beck has organized a festive and apparently harmless public event for the Washington Mall that he calls “Restoring Honor.” This theme is so deeply bland that it invites us partisans to look for inner meaning, such as the fact that August 28 is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s revolutionary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or such as Beck’s Fox News Channel seeking a low-budget reality show to sell for the dog days of summer programming.

The trick here may be that Beck’s event, which will feature the celebrity Sarah Palin, is not about anything at all. It is a farce of an event in the way the bookish Karl Marx meant it, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

However, I disagree with Batchelor’s contention that we should take Beck’s idiocy at face value: and I have a few general qualifications for the “Tea Baggers are morons” crowd.

(1) Beck and Palin should be watched and taken very seriously.  Andrew Sullivan is right.  After all, the Byzantine Empire was undone by sport rivarly hoologanism, Ming China was taken over by makeup-wearing men with no testicles, the West was preoccupied with silly wars over arguments about imaginary beings for centuries, etc.  All sorts of seemingly frivilous things have shaped history before.  Is it too much to think it possible that Glenn Beck, a “clown”, could destroy the United States?  Just because it isn’t at all reasonable to think that Glenn Beck could ever command any real political power doesn’t exclude it from the realm of possibility that he could directly influence things for the far worse.  Stranger things have happened.   

(2) We need to recognize that the Tea Party movement at it’s core is logical, predictable, and fair-minded, and try to address the grievances of the movement like Solomon instead of dismissing them as springing from idiots unworthy of an audience because the average Tea Partier doesn’t possess as much technical political or economic knowledge as we might think we ourselves do.  (We should do the same in the Middle East, by the way, not to suggest the Tea Partiers are terrorists.)  Forgive the run-on, but one thing about democracy which is absolutely inescapable is that everyone’s opinion is equal.  When it all comes down to it, Ezra Klein and the average Tea Partier are the same.  The battle for hearts and minds will not be won with snobby liberal elitism and poking fun at all the rednecks for their spelling mistakes.  Presidents will continue to be chosen on the basis of their “character” and not their policies.   

(3) Let’s not allow charlatans like Beck and Palin to harness the righteous anger of the Tea Partiers. Every political movement has it’s foot-soldiers, and for every sophisticated, urbane libertarian at Reason or the Cato Institute (minus Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey now), there are a million quiet, average Joe libertarians who just want to be left alone.  These libertarians are sick of being forced to fill out forms and pay fees and register for things and send their children off to wars they don’t support and see their taxdollars go to huge multinational corporations while they and everyone they know remains unemployed.  After all, the only difference between these two groups of libertarians – one elite and sophisticated and one uncultured and not so gifted with words – is that when the former cites Locke, Rousseau, or Jeremy Bentham, the latter thinks they’re talking about Lost.

Ultimately, as the Tea Party experience seems to show, our liberal media values being pithy over being right.  And if our liberal media is willing to dehumanize the poorest, least educated, and most marginalized of our citizens, then it should question its own commitment to democracy, because each person has exactly one vote (except when it comes to the Senate, where red-staters get far more say).  Instead, we should focus on calling out the Glenn Becks of the world for being Fagins, instead of ridiculing their Oliver Twists.

On the General Shittyness of Textbooks

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on August 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

A language textbook is at best an approximation; at worst a distraction. 

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes two types of knowledge (admitedly an overgeneralization): nerd knowledge, and non-nerd knowledge.   The former is the kind of knowledge that comes from mastering the rules comprising artificial, human-created systems.  Some examples of nerd knowledge would be Keynesian economics, computer programming, chess, and most of what we learn in high school.  Non-nerd knowledge on the other hand is the kind of knowledge that comes from intuitively grasping parts of reality.  My corresponding examples are Austrian economics, biology, business, and most of what we learn in college.  The key difference is that it’s possible to master nerd fields, while non-nerd fields remain elusive and amorphous.  For this reason, the non-nerd is often unsure of himself, depressed, without rewards, and in need of a nerd hobby, like car-maintenance or Halo 3. 

(Admitedly, I’ve taken some liberties here with Taleb’s idea.   I’ve used it to justify a few of my personal biases, albeit semi-whimsically.  I’ve also glossed over the fact that some fields which we may someday discover are actually under the umbrella of nerd knowledge – such as biology as information-science – are for the meantime effectively non-nerd fields, in the sense that their complexity eludes the elucidation of many predictable patterns, and so I have accordingly classified them as non-nerd fields.) 

Taleb specifically applies his concepts of nerd knowledge and non-nerd knowledge to language learning, my field of interest for the last four years; as Taleb discusses in The Black Swan, a nerd would study a foreign language by mastering a particular textbook, memorizing grammar rules, and thoroughly practicing through drills.  The nerd’s approach would have the advantage that its goal is tangible and reachable, and the nerd’s path is clear.  A non-nerd, on the other hand, would go to the particular foreign country in question, visit bars, and talk to women. (Taleb’s examples; not mine.)  The non-nerd’s knowledge would be unpredictable, intangible, and personal/existential – that is, partly incapable of being shared with others via linguistic mechanisms, but his knowledge would at least have the advantage that it fit his own interpretation of reality. 

Which approach is superior?

As a teacher of English as a foreign language and a learner of Japanese as a foreign language, I would say that, while the nerd approach produces more-immediate returns, without a doubt the non-nerd approach is superior in practice and in the long-run.  Both the non-nerd approach to learning and reality are unpredictable, undefineable; with the non-nerd approach students must refine memory and logical skills to succeed, as in reality – for which the students are presumably learning the foreign language in question in the first place (This is not necessarily the case with non-real foreign languages like Elvish, Klingon, Esperanto, and Latin, which surely fit under the big umbrella of nerd-knowledge.  And I say this having studied Latin for ten years.  Litotes and chiasmus and whatnot.)  With the nerd approach, there is only the incentive of completion.  “To excel” is meaningless. 

Yet, if non-nerd knowledge is superior by such a standard, why is a nerd textbook the norm when learning from an instructor who is a native speaker of the language in question?  Why do students complain that the foreign teacher is not using a testbook?  Why do the students not pay half the price for a reasonably competent Japanese teacher to go through the textbook for them?  Or why don’t they pay no price at all to go through the textbook by themselves?  Why don’t they use the opportunity of having a foreign teacher in the first place to learn by copious trial-and-error in a non-nerd fashion?   

Perhaps because the life of the non-nerd is lonely and without the necessary Pavlovian rewards that come from completing a textbook or being “leveled-up” (as all the big, successful, corporate schools do).  I, on the other hand, when given an initial student, try to milk conversation for all it’s worth before succumbing to a particular textbook (usually a best approximation for that particular student), and I think my non-textbook students are superior to those of teachers who use textbooks, because life – and foreign language learning – is not a videogame.

So to clarify my initial point that a language textbook is at best an approximation and at worst a distraction, there comes a point where mastering a particular textbook resembles knowing everything there is to know about Pokemon: you might know exactly when Charizard is superior, how long each battle will take, how many hit-points will be exchanged, and whether or not Blastoise should be used instead. 

Great, but you’d be better off studying real animals.

But of course, there are some things that cannot really be taught through simple conversation, which require readings and drills – things like taking the train somewhere, ordering food at a restaurant, etc., which require the use of a textbook on the part of a teacher.  Or do they?  (And I’m not talking about role-playing here, by the way.)  The students generally hate these lessons, and I generally hate teaching them.  Personally, I’d rather just take turns asking each other questions and answering them until the student is ready to move on.  But there seems to be a preference here, in the cut-throat, free-market English school system, for qualification collecting, for instant gratification, for “language-learning for dummies” i.e. level 3 EIKEN, 700 Toeic score, whatever floats your boat, which props up an already artificially-created demand for English education.

That is to say, there are too many people learning English privately in Japan, who – if it weren’t for the kind of Bernaysian marketing that defies the rational actors assumption – would otherwise not be.  Who cares what the textbook says about how to order food at a restaurant?  Students don’t need to learn that bullshit.  They don’t need to memorize lines like, “What’s Tom Yum Kun?” “Oh, it’s a spicy Thai noodle dish.  It’s delicious!” – first because no one uses the word “delicious”; second because no one knows what Tom Yum Kun is, third because students should be focusing on the many usages of those words instead of this one particular usage, and fourth because everyday tasks are learned quickly when the day of reckoning comes: any foreigner can ride the train anywhere or communicate what sort of food he wants in a restaurant after a shockingly small amount of initial exposure.  There is no language barrier here.  Everyday consumer activity like furniture shopping transcends grammar, culture, and formal memorization.  Speaking from experience, you learn quickly these elementary nerd tasks once exposed to the non-nerd ether.   

We Are Not Seth Godin

In Empires of the Mind on August 26, 2010 at 6:48 am

Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise.Thanks to Andrew at 30 Words for the link to Twist Image’s take on business writer Seth Godin’s move to abandon his ties with traditional publishers.  The way the move was reported by the Wall Street Journal, one would think the singularity was now and cyborgs waited in the on-deck circle to tear us carbon-based lifeforms all to pieces.  (No, not really, but it’s a pleasant fiction.)  Twist Image brings it all down to Earth with the headline, “You Are Not Seth Godin”:

We tend to see this one act: “Seth leaves major book publishing behind.” What we forget is the track record (twelve best-selling business books, as many speaking events per year as he would like to do, his own seminars, thousands of Blogs posts, free eBooks and more goodwill thank you can shake a stick at). This amounts to decades of doing tons of things (let’s not forget about Squidoo) that all had him in direct connection with the people who will buy his books from him, talk about it to their peers and evangelize his always-brilliant thinking.

Indeed Seth Godin owes his fame to traditional publishing (and perhaps an even more primitive grassroots cult-following).  He can only make the move he’s making because he’s already famous.  And, as is the case with most of the folks who’ve fully embraced our certainly digital future, he’s merely exchanging one form of branding for another, which Godin has concluded is in his personal, structural best-interest (It would probably not be the best idea for someone like Rush Limbaugh to switch entirely to digital media seeing as his primary demographic are “old farts”.):

The thing is–now I know who my readers are. Adding layers or faux scarcity doesn’t help me or you. As the medium changes, publishers are on the defensive…. I honestly can’t think of a single traditional book publisher who has led the development of a successful marketplace/marketing innovation in the last decade. The question asked by the corporate suits always seems to be, “how is this change in the marketplace going to hurt our core business?” To be succinct: I’m not sure that I serve my audience (you) by worrying about how a new approach is going to help or hurt Barnes & Noble.

My audience does things like buy five or ten copies at a time and distribute them to friends and co-workers. They (you) forward blog posts and PDFs. They join online discussion forums. None of these things are supported by the core of the current corporate publishing model.

Seth Godin is hereby joining the publishing avant garde, which includes notables such as Andrew Sullivan (who ended his New Republic editorship to spend more time on The Daily Dish, then unaffiliated with the Atlantic brand), Cory Doctorow, Tyler Cowen, and Neil Gaiman, who, for various reasons have found (some of) the options offered by traditional publishing (within their respective professions) lacking, and have taken advantage of the unique formal freedoms which only the Internet offers.  There are also countless non-notables, such as us, who wouldn’t even be doing this if there were no Internets.  And I think that is just swell. 

The bottom line is the transition from print media to digital media will probably be slower than everyone seems to think.  Entrenched interests will dig in their heels, use lobbyists and the courts in what ways they can, and throw money down to make sure they don’t become obsolete.  Books are pretty damn cheap anyways, so people will still buy them.  Frankly spending a long time at the computer or reading something on my iPhone infuriates me.  I prefer the feel and visage of a good, pulpy book, and I suspect many others do as well.  Most people simply like things.  Computer-literate young nerds like us who follow Godin’s advice to “be artists” will remain obscure starving artists, and huge corporations will steal our ideas and then sell them in traditional, touchable form to our much wealthier, but still hopelessly computer-illiterate parents.

And so I think the real revolution will be along the lines of what everybody was saying was going to happen with Second Life and is happening with Facebook: that is, huge, vested corporate interests will use the Internet as a cheap and accurate laboratory of sorts to conduct a qualitatively different kind of focus group.  Information technologies will allow advertising and branding to become cheaper and more efficient, which means savings should be passed on eventually to consumers.

A Pincer Movement in Higher Education

In Specific Facts on August 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

If wishes were horses… – image by Fibonnacci BlueRecently, in short succession I came accross two exposes on higher education in the United States: “The Long-Haul Degree, Patricia Cohen’s April article for the New York Times about the hopeless economics of humanities PhDs, and then “College Dropout Factories,” by Ben Miller and Phuong Ly for the Washington Monthly on the colleges with the worst graduation rates in the country.  In both cases students suffer from an information disparity before they embark on their education.  For very different reasons, many PhD candidates and low-income, high risk undergraduates are worth more to their institutions than the educations they are receiving.  These PhDs, earned in subjects that only allow for jobs in academia, take an average of over 9 year to obtain, yet afterwards finding any gainful employment proves elusive.  Meanwhile, the worst colleges in the country graduate less than fifteen percent of the students who enroll and treat incoming students as disposable assets that are easily replaced by fresh meat.  It is quite a system that fails to serve both the best and the most common equally- not quite the sort of equality we should aspire to.

I generally like to focus on policy’s with concrete consequences and it’s sort of abstract exactly what it means for a society to have less people pursuing incredibly arcane educations.  Does society suffer when it no longer supports obtaining comprehensive knowledge of something with no obvious application?  I hope we don’t have to find out.  Universities that squeeze PhD students from both directions by prolonging their degree by forcing them to teach to support themselves and then cutting tenure track teaching positions because so many classes are taught by PhD students should spend some time trying to find another method of paying for doctoral programs.  Perhaps a necessary adjustment is under way and soon the widely understood fact that a PhD almost gaurantees of a life of penury will cure the glut of doctoral candidates.  I don’t think that marginally increasing the job prospects of humanities PhDs rates among the highest of all societal priorities, but it is proof of the health of the whole.  Subsistence farming doesn’t support a lot of people doing abstract, pure research- but we have built wealth enough to encourage these pursuits without stressing their viability.  That’s a wonderful thing, and the world certainly would be poorer without that hard won knowledge.  So I hope they find a way to make a life of the mind viable again, because it is a sad testement to our dysfunction that working hard enough that you actually expand the pool of human knowledge isn’t enough to gaurantee a livelyhood.

The problem of schools that are dropout factories has a larger effected population and a simpler solution: hold secondary schools that take federal money- which is to say all of them- to account when they are grossly failing their students.  Most schools in this country are only responsible to U.S. News and Weekly World Reports inane “ranking,” which is arbitrary in its accounting even for the elite schools.  For the non-competitive schools that service the most disadvantaged students the ranking provides no insight whatsoever.  Our country has recently suffered a financial crisis in part due to incredibly flawed private ratings agencies and a similar bubble seems to be developing in our university system.  Many schools now use their financial aid as a recruitment tool by applying complex algorithyms and formulas to obtain the class that will rate the best in USN&WWR’s ranking- even if it comes at the expense of need based aid.  Until we start with first principles about what exactly we are trying to achieve with all of the money we invest in higher education, we will fund a system that often fails to serve the best interests of the students. 

It has been pointed out that the percentage of the population with college degrees has been relatively constant since the 70s, which suggest that this is a natural level for college attainment.  However, today more that three in four students attempt college and yet we fail to graduate much more than we ever have.  I do not pretend to know exactly how many students really should get college degrees, but when most people try then I would expect most to succeed.  Getting a bachelors degree is an important life accomplishment, but not an exotic one.  For PhD aspirants or those who just want to access to a middle class that seems to require a college degree, we have failed too many, but it does feel like at least we have begun to acknowledge that we have a problem.  For alcholics and those drunk on the hubris of the “best university system in the world”, that’s the first step.

More on the Burlington Coat Factory Non-Mosque

In Specific Facts on August 25, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I was pretty short on material for today, so I decided to see what the good folks over at National Review were up to, and saw that Charles Krauthammer himself had weighed in on the Burlington Coat Factory Islamic Culture Center controversy with a piece called “Moral Myopia at Ground Zero“.  I was not particularly impressed by this one, and I have been impressed by Krauthammer before.  Basically, he lumps the standard liberal argument into an effigy of straw to be sacrificed to the god of conservative caricature. 

After this initial section he denounces the perpetrators of 9/11 (how brave).  The end is not quite enough to be a saving grace but as reasonable as is possible a defense of conservatives being squarely on the wrong side on this one: basically Krauthammer insists that the conservative position is not about denying the center’s proprietors their rights in the free market, but merely about questioning the decency of building an Islamic center that close to Ground Zero.  It’s a nice try to explain away conservatives being obviously wrong on this one, but why continue then to insist that it is at Ground Zero at all?  Shouldn’t Krauthammer take the high road and refudiate his own side?

Krauthammer is a bright guy, and so why then does he gloss over the obvious factual errors of the conservative stance on this issue if it isn’t consciously strategic?  There is no mosque: it’s not at Ground Zero; it’s none of anyone’s business anyways.  Besides, who says Ground Zero is sacred?  We’ve treated that “hallowed ground” like shit for the past ten years.  The fact that we still haven’t rebuilt the Twin Towers or built the Freedom Tower or built a 666-story tower shaped like a middle finger and pointing towards Mecca or anything at all is because of the enterprising, unentitled parties constantly throwing in their two cents for personal gain, the same people vilified in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, the same people who stormed Duke after the lacrosse incident my senior year, and the same people who wont shut their fucking mouths now, Sarah Palin.         

And as for Krauthammer’s apocalyptically stirring language at the end about the War on Terror justifying the conservative response (which has about as much to do with the Burlington Coat Factory Non-Mosque as Iraq had to do with 9/11), Islamic terrorism – and terrorism of any kind for that matter – is not a big deal.  The number of Americans killed by terrorists each year is dwarfed by the number killed for not wearing their seat belts or not properly washing their hands or eating too many cheeseburgers.  The War on Terror is not the principle struggle of our times by any standard (unless we’re talking about how much it has cost us or how many other problems it’s created).  In fifty years we’ll have nothing to show for it except a bunch of Pakistanis and Yemeni’s still pissed off that our shitty drones killed their parents and baby brothers and hellbent on vengeance, ready to go for Round 492 of our civilization’s ridiculous battle with Islam.

A Modest Proposal for Marriage

In Specific Facts on August 23, 2010 at 7:00 am

This is based on a comment of mine at a comment of mine at LoOG:

I’m one of two 26-year olds I know who has any children. I have two beautiful little girls with the same woman, and we’re unmarried. The reason we’re unmarried is not because we’re uncommited to each other. It is simply because we find the very concept of marriage to be absurd as it relates to our unique situation as members of two diferent cultures.

If one’s definition of marriage is a mechanism to preserve wealth from one generation to the next or a mechanism to control against the inevitable spread of disease through polygamy and adultery, these definitions are anachronistic and insulting.

If one sees marriage as a primarily religious creation, my “wife” and I are not religious. She is from a Japanese Buddhist family, and I am from an American Catholic family. Were we to have a wedding, where would it be? How would we do it? Would I insist that my family come to Japan for the ceremony? Would my “wife” insist that her family travel to America? Would the Catholic Church refuse to marry us? Would my “wife”‘s grandmother flip out because the Catholic priest didn’t offer rice to the gods before the ceremony?

What are our options then? Should we head to Vegas for an Elvis wedding? Should we go to the City Hall and solicit the permission of some public servant to marry and have children? (Oops, too late.) After the ceremony will he say, oh, by the way, have you paid your taxes yet for this year? I’m sorry, we’re going to need three forms of official identification. Your driver’s license is out of date. Please fill out this form and bring it to the sixth floor for processing. We’ll need a revenue stamp and letters-of-consent from each of you. Did you get tested for syphillis yet? Not exactly romantic. And not exactly natural and free either. And kind of insulting.

Our only remaining option then is to have some kind of tacky secular ceremony. Everyone boogieing down to the Chicken Dance, Dancing Queen, and C&C Music Factory in some overpriced KofC somewhere is not exactly a moment to be treasured. And in Japan, where white foreigners are employed on a part-time basis as “priests”, it’s even more distasteful.

My “wife” and I simply don’t care about meeting the unjustified expectations of our societies’s outgoing generations. However, in order to bring my family to the U.S. this December, under current post-9/11 law, I must obtain at least a fiancee visa which stipulates that I must marry my “wife” within 90 days of entering the U.S. If I choose not to take that option, I must marry my “wife” in Japan and then wait three months before going to the U.S.

Not that this constitutes an extraordinary and burdensome violation of my civil liberties or anything (although the government’s effectively forcing two people to to enter into a contract does seem to violate the underlying principles of a free society.), but I find it absurdly ironic that two people who couldn’t care less about getting married and just want to be left alone are forced to marry each other so they can be more easily tracked by the post-9/11 state; this while millions of gay couples who want to marry each other are not allowed to in the name of protecting some archaic and amorphous ancien regime which serves little or no civil purpose in modern times.

So, since marriage doesn’t really make sense for us two members of different civilizations, and does for some gay people in the U.S., but structures remain in place preventing us potential suppliers from supplying and those same unjustified structures prevent myriad demands from being satisfied, I would like to suggest a solution that may even be palatable to certain gay-hating conservatives: “marriage choice” a.k.a. vouchers!

Can we deregulate marriage and create some sort of market system here, where I could sell my right to marry bequethed me as a heterosexual by the state to some wealthy gay couple?

Minipost: North’s Comment on LoOG

In General Principles on August 23, 2010 at 6:05 am

Commenter “North” on League of Ordinary Gentlemen thread about gay marriage succinctly summarizes the only sane position on the issue:

To quickly fill in a hole that Jason skipped Bob, the accepted “librul” position as I understand it on both interspecies marriage, furniture marriage and child marriage is that one of the two entities married in such unions is inherently unable to give informed consent. Thus any of those aforementioned unions would be inherently acts of either despicable violence or meaninglessness (in the case of inert objects) perpetuated on the non-consenting entity.