Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Textbook Time Capsule

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 30, 2010 at 9:39 am

Noam Chomsky reads the Wall Street Journal because it is a trade newspaper and is therefore more likely to be accurate than other mainstream newspapers (at least until it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch) which exist to entertain.  People generally read the New York Times to be amused.  They read the Wall Street Journal for information which they then use to make money.  Hence the accuracy of that information: the profit motive. 

The same logic tentatively applies to English textbooks.  They are designed to convey information for travelors to use (at least most of them).  I generally don’t like textbooks, but one I do use occasioally is called “New American Streamline” from Oxford University Press.  One of my students described it as “furukusai” which I’ll translate as “reeks of old” but note, this phrase connotes fecal matter.  Sure enough, New American Streamline dates from 1995, and it is the most quintessential picture of the nineties I’ve come across anywhere – more than Zach Morris himself:

…racially segregated, yet equally represented couples, that is to say, very consciously and carefully selected representatives of as many races as is possible; dialing “0” for operator; women called Paula; “touch tone” phones; New England Telephone; African-American men wearing pastel sweaters over collared shirts; black leather vests; Apple IICs with neon text on a black screen; payphones; Brand X Laundry Detergent; slicked-back, oily haired gameshow hosts; 75 cent sodas; brown suits; Olympic athletes in tight short shorts; people not arriving when they said they would and the panic that ensues; house husbands as a controversial topic; brown suits for women with shoulder pads; Madonna, Janet Jackson, Stephen Speilberg; women called Tania; full beards; moustaches meant to be taken seriously; shirts tucked into jeans; cashing checks; big, portable televisions so “I can watch the game” at some other commitment; handwritten resumes; writing people letters; reasonable airport security; women called Yolanda; Concordes; phonecall surveys; margarine being healthy; windbreakers as fashion; new cars for $10,000; language learning cassettes; American cars; smoking inside convenience stores; widespread UFO abductions with dubious eye-witness accounts; CD or cassette?; jean jackets; jean suits; jean shirts (worn with ties); flat tops; heavy metal hair bands; designated stops for school buses; endangered condors; broadway musicals not based on Disney movies; the Irish actually discovered America; classifieds; getting mugged; hijackings being fair game for jestful mirth-making; expensive special effects movies that cost 80 million dollars to make; slackers who like playing frisbee… 

(What hasn’t changed in fifteen years: oil spills, arguments for and against offshore drilling.)

This ridiculously outdated textbook serves as a sobering reminder of where we came from.  Some things, like smoking inside convenience stores and jean shirts worn with ties, we’re better off without; but some things, like women called Yolanda and reasonable airport security, we sorely miss.


9-11 Nine Years Later: Getting Past “Is”

In General Principles on September 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I was seventeen years old when the Twin Towers fell, in the last year of my secondary education.  I was sitting in front of an iMac managing a stock portfolio of 100,000 imaginary dollars.  It was 8:45 in the morning, and my economics class had reserved the computer lab at Corcoran Library of Boston College High School.  I was looking at Yahoo Finance for stock tips, and my partner for the Stock Market Game was reading, trying to translate news stories into investments.  

Minutes after the first plane flew into the North Tower, it was on his screen.  It must have been a computer malfunction, we thought, a tragic accident.  The Y2K hysteria was still fresh on our minds, and it was probably this that led everybody (at least every seventeen-year-old in the computer lab) instantly to such a conclusion.  When the second plane crashed into the South Tower about fifteen minutes later, we thought no differently.  The machines were clearly out of control.  There was never a grounding in reality.  There was never a grand realization.  We were all living in a fantasy world created by the mass media; a world which we didn’t know would become even more fantastic.  We were the quintessential children of the nineties: breakfast, school, football practice, dinner, homework, AIM, Napster, bed, breakfast, school, football practice, dinner, homework, AIM, Napster, bed… 

I’m twenty-six now, and for the past nine years my generation has largely continued to stand on the sidelines and watch a public conversation which seems incoherent.  From our sheltered, privileged, structured childhoods we were suddenly and viscerally exposed to a destabilizing truth.  We suspect that there may be something fundamentally odd and wrong about what happened on September 11th, 2001; and we suspect that there may be something fundamentally odd and wrong about what has happened since; but the world of the War on Terror and the USAPATRIOT Act is all we really know as adults, so we wonder if it isn’t perhaps the way things have always been, or whether it is simply beyond our control.  Hence the existential dread.

During our university years, we were called out by old left culture warriors for being apathetic and indifferent, privileged and selfish; but I prefer to think the information generation is simply collecting information to use when it’s our turn to build a better world.  Here is some of that information vis-a-vis September 11th, 2001.

From the best mainstream voices:  

Overreaction is the Terrorist’s Friend: Even in major cases like this, the terrorist’s real weapon is fear and hysteria. Overreacting will play into their hands – Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), September 11, 2001.


The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response. And over the past nine years, the United States has blundered into the 9/11 snare with one overreaction after another. Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams…

We have raced to Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently to Yemen and Somalia; we have created a swollen national security apparatus; and we are so absorbed in our own fury and so oblivious to our enemy’s intentions that we inflate the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national debate and watch, helpless, while a minister in Florida outrages even our friends in the Islamic world by threatening to burn copies of the Koran. – Ted Koppel, Nine years after 9/11, let’s stop playing into bin Laden’s hands


Crazy, murderous violence hasn’t spread across the land. But unreason, cheered on by cable news, has won the day. We have undeniably gone sour on interfaith tolerance. We have turned inward in sullen exhaustion. The staggering chain of consequences and characters that followed 9/11—Kabul, Tora Bora, Daniel Pearl, John Yoo, Bagram, Guantánamo, Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Madrid, Falluja, Abu Ghraib, Nick Berg, London, Zarqawi, military commissions, Samarra, eavesdropping, Sean Hannity, the Taliban’s return, Benazir Bhutto, Mumbai, Hakimullah Mehsud—seems like a fever dream of can-you-top-this atrocities from which we can’t wake up. The bill is finally coming due at home. It turned out that the Bush rhetoric of religious understanding and freedom was a lot less potent and durable than the Bush policies. – George Packer, Should the Dream Ever Sour


We already know the numbers. Pew finds that 18% of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. A new Newsweek poll, taken after the controversy over the New York mosque, places that figure at 24%. Even if he’s not a Muslim, Newsweek finds, 31 percent think it’s “definitely or probably” true that Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”

When the focus is narrowed to Republicans, a Harris poll finds 57 percent of party members believe he is a Muslim, 22% believe he “wants the terrorists to win,” and 24% believe he is the Antichrist. – Roger Ebert, Put Up or Shut Up

Andrew Sullivan on the torture regime:

Torture gives false information. And the worst scenarios that tortured detainees coughed up – many of them completely innocent, remember – may well have come to fuel US national security policy. And of course they also fueled more torture. Because once you hear of the existential plots confessed by one tortured prisoner, you need to torture more prisoners to get at the real truth. We do not know what actual intelligence they were getting, and Cheney has ensured that we will never know. But it is perfectly conceivable that the torture regime – combined with panic and paranoia – created an imaginationland of untruth and half-truth that has guided US policy for this entire war. It may well have led to the president being informed of any number of plots that never existed, and any number of threats that are pure imagination. And once torture has entered the system, you can never find out the real truth. You are lost in a vortex of lies and fears. In this vortex, the actual threats that we face may well be overlooked or ignored, as we chase false leads and pursue non-existent WMDs.

We may have entered a world, in other words, where the empirical reality of our national security is less important than the imaginationland that every torture regime will create. We may therefore be sacrificing our liberties for a phantasm created by brutality spawned by terror. We don’t know for sure, of course. But that’s what torture does: it creates a miasma of unknowing, about as dangerous a situation in wartime as one can imagine. This hideous fate was made possible by an inexperienced president with a fundamentalist psyche and a paranoid and power-hungry vice-president who decided to embrace “the dark side” almost as soon as the second tower fell, and who is still trying to avenge Nixon. Until they are both gone from office, we are in grave danger – the kind of danger that only torturers and fantasists and a security strategy based on coerced evidence can conjure up. And since they have utter contempt for the role of the Congress in declaring war, we and the world are helpless to stop them. Every day we get through with them in power, I say a silent prayer of thanks that the worst hasn’t happened. Yet. Because we sure know they’re looking in all the wrong places. – Andrew Sullivan, Imaginationland

On the failures of our military strategy:

The American obsession with this region in the wake of 9/11 is understandable. Nine years later, with no clear end in sight, the question is whether this continued focus is strategically rational for the United States. Given the uncertainties of the first few years, obsession and uncertainty are understandable, but as a long-term U.S. strategy — the long war that the U.S. Department of Defense is preparing for — it leaves the rest of the world uncovered…

But let me state a more radical thesis: The threat of terrorism cannot become the singular focus of the United States. Let me push it further: The United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States. Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attack. That is a tragedy, but in a nation of over 300 million, 3,000 deaths cannot be permitted to define the totality of national strategy. Certainly, resources must be devoted to combating the threat and, to the extent possible, disrupting it. But it must also be recognized that terrorism cannot always be blocked, that terrorist attacks will occur and that the world’s only global power cannot be captive to this single threat. – George Friedman, 9/11 and the 9-Year War


For almost a decade, America’s political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America’s place in the world than the economic transformation of the world’s most populous nation. Future historians will find that hard to explain. – Hugh White, Power Shift

And for a more acerbic take:

9/11 was a stark and horrible day in the life of this comfortable country. Since that awful event on a crisp September day, a day just like today in fact, the people of this besotted nation have descended into a state of confused mental undress that begs the fine services of a Swift or Rabelais. The only thing we get however is a Glen Beck or Rachel Maddow. In other words, we get bupkus. We get spare change. We get a relentless bait and switch. We are treated to a constant barrage of nervous prodding with high production values.

Even Satan has lost his faith. I hear on good authority from the cemeteries of New Orleans that the Horned One is adrift like a bowery drunk amongst the crypts of that voodoo town. Like a growing percentage of the population, he’s lost his job and has been downsized. There is no challenge in grasping for souls who show such a profound inclination toward decline already. There is no fun in the harvesting of sinners in America any longer because even its’ pastors are amateurishly evil while our jackanapes leaders are a feckless lot bestride an increasingly destructive Leviathan. There is no guile in the harvesting of these sorts of fallen mortals, no skill. Never has commending so many to Hell become so boring. Hell hath no mystery to such a rabble. In fact, to some, it may come as a relief. At least Hell is professional. – D.W. Sabin, A Brief History of Time Wasted (definitely worth reading in its entirety.)

In addition to these excerpts, James Fallows has written extensively on the topic here, here, and here.

It seems America remains clearly, dedicatedly, and stupidly on course to self-destruction, and the main reason is that the Rudy Giuliani notion that people are blaming the U.S. for 9/11 by stating the 100% uncontested facts in conjunction with our own C.I.A., and the aforementioned extremely knowledgeable pundits from both sides and everywhere in between that the attacks of September 11th were a direct and predictable response to our own foreign policy still has traction.  The same culture that is now mobilizing for the Clash of Civilizations has as a litmus test that one must feign willful ignorance of the facts surrounding 9/11 or else one is un-American.  To wit, our public discussion is a complete farce.  

The weeds of security state totalitarianism continue to creep into the garden of meaningful human experience, while we focus increasingly on which minority groups to persecute, Sarah Palin’s wardrobe, the philosophical roots of marriage, American Idol, what individuals can be allowed to do with their own bodies, and which countries to invade next.  We ignore empirical fact and concentrate instead on a wild goose chase of ideas and essences to our own detriment. 

Osama bin Laden is John Dillinger with better technology.  And here’s the thing: John Dillinger’s death did not end the War on Crime.  That war continues to this day.  But at least it’s a war on a thing, and not a war on an abstract idea.  Why would we ever assume that capturing bin Laden or even a dead bin Laden would suddenly cause everything to go back to normal, with civil liberties and all, and without everyone a suspect?  The War on Terror will continue until some martyr politician commits career suicide or the nation goes bankrupt, or the people wake up and actively start fighting for their own civil liberties and the presumption of innocence instead of taking out loans from China to devote our hard-won civilization to something that kills only a few hundred people every year.

On Neurotherapy

In Empires of the Mind on September 24, 2010 at 9:50 am

Charles Bell: Anatomy of the Brain c. 1805It’s fashionable to affix “neuro-” to pretty much anything these days to make it sound sexy and imbue it with authority: neuromarketing and neuroesthetics specifically come to mind (no pun intended); though often times this authority is due, as we now have the technology to begin investigating the mind in a manner based on the scientific assumption of metaphysical naturalism.  More than anything else, neuroscientific discoveries seem primed to revolutionize everything else in the near future.

The always wry Rufus F. wrote a post at LoOG about Meredith Maram, who recently admitted that she falsely accused her own father of molesting her while caught up in the repressed memory syndrome fanaticism of the 1980s.  The comments got me thinking about scientific rationales for RMS, and I wrote this:

Carl Sagan talks about Repressed Memory Syndrome in (1995′s) The Demon Haunted World. He basically groups it with U.F.O. abductions, religious visions, devil worship etc., as part of a general 80s hysteria.

But there is some scientific basis for the idea, like there is some scientific basis for phrenology. Everything we experience is implanted in our brains from the time we have brains and begin using our senses to learn about the world. What ultimately forms our declarative memory are the (old) sense-data recordings that we link to other (new) sense-data recordings. So when I remember the time I almost drowned when I was three years old, it’s because recalling this was often useful for me whenever I felt like engaging in horseplay at the public pool later on in my childhood.

The idea of repressed memories, that experiences have been so unpleasant that we consciously lock them away, seems to make little sense from a neuroanatomical perspective. Wouldn’t we remember these experiences particularly vividly since they would obviously carry important information for us thereafter? What we actually repress are memories that are mundane for us at the time, because we don’t gain any inductive knowledge from them.

It is possible that someday we may have the technology to uncover these true “repressed memory” artifacts.  They will probably be fairly boring and worthless from a practical standpoint, but may have emotional, nostalgiac value. So I don’t think history will repeat itself (with psychological hysteria) so much as there will be progress. Therapy will become a real science once we have a few more discoveries and better technology – provided something catestrophic doesn’t happen – in the same way as alchemy became chemistry and metaphysics became physics.

Rufus responded:

One thing I find mildly frightening is that the research right now is towards finding drugs that can obliterate traumatic memories, and it bothers me for exactly the reasons you describe – I need to be able to learn from those experiences in order to protect myself.

You’ve gotten at a question I’ve asked my wife but thought would sound too glib here: If I go through the most painful and traumatic experience of my life, wouldn’t that be the last thing I’d ever forget?

It seems to me that they’re working from Freud’s “return of the repressed”(link mine) idea, but I don’t think he was talking necessarily about painful memories being lost and forgotten, just not dealt with. It’s fascinating to think of Freud having an influence on feminist therapeutic thought though, and a bit unexpected. But, you know, if you repress anything long enough…

Two points stick out here.  One is that an incredibly large body of Freud’s generally off-the-cuff theories have turned out to be eerily correct, and as counterintuitive as repressed memories seem, people far more knowledgeable than I buy into it.  But the existence of repressed memories would neccesarily mean that our hard-won and parsimonious models of how memory works are fundamentally wrong.  I tend to side with science over Freud. 

The second point is that drugs to obliterate traumatic memories are nothing short of frightening, like the kind of stuff Philip K. Dick wrote about.  This 60 Minutes story puts it all in perspective. 

Season of Mist and Mellow Fruitfulness

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Fukushima peachesFood-wise, Fall is the best season in farm country Japan.  The last several weeks saw an epic grape harvest.  Typhoon 11 spooked many Fukushima and Yamagata vinyards into sending all their grapes to market early, allowing the laws of economics to do their thing.  Small red grapes with no seeds, big red grapes with seeds, medium-sized green grapes with seeds, big green grapes with no seeds, medium-sized purple grapes with seeds, big purple grapes with seeds, and even big purple grapes with no seeds – the best kind – were available en masse at a fraction of the price of last year, all locally grown and locally sold.  

My Mother-in-law recently purchased ten big bags of the best kind of big purple grapes with no seeds for about eighty-five U.S. dollars, and we’ve had the best kind of big purple grapes with no seeds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last week or so.  I can say without a doubt that they have been by far the best grapes I have ever eaten.  For the last three days, I’ve been making smoothies from four different types of grapes: small red grapes with no seeds, medium-sized green grapes with seeds, big red grapes with seeds, and big purple grapes with no seeds – the best kind.  First, I put grapes into the blender, then ice, then blend, and even the seeds are reduced to pulp.  And I don’t even have to add relatively inexpensive, locally-produced honey, because grapes, like bananas, are sweet enough.  Before blending, the mise-en-scene is so beautiful that I almost feel guilty blending it.

On top of this year’s spectacular grape harvest is the superabundance of Japanese “pears”, or “nashi” as they are more appropriately called, (since they taste nothing like and look nothing like the fruit which we in the West refer to as “pear”).  This summer was hot, so the conventional yeoman wisdom states that good nashi are hard to come by, but keep in mind that this is the fruit that cost five dollars a pop in the U.S. in the 1980s, and I live within walking distance of more than one orchard.  The produce of these orchards is often brought over spontaneously in what is the latest iteration in the Japanese gift-giving cultural meme.   

It has been an incredibly hot and sunny summer, resulting in what many locals are calling the best peach-harvest ever.  Fukushima City is always either number one or number two in Japan every year for peaches, so for this year to have been the best year ever means that this summer I possibly tasted the most delicious peach ever produced by human hands; this could have been the time I went peach picking a couple of months ago, just before my second daughter was born, when I picked and consumed nine sun-warmed peaches in just under a half-hour, or it could have been today, when I went to Azuma Onsen and enjoyed one of the season’s last giant peaches after a relaxing hot spring bath.

Onsens are Japanese hot spring resorts and not at all like the hot spring resorts found in other countries.  Instead of just a muddy hole in the ground, complicated plumbing directs natural hot spring water into artistically crafted giant bathtubs of wide variety surrounded by a traditional Japanese ryokan or even a confluence of vending machines.  Onsens are usually located in the mountains.  Azuma Onsen, which I visited today, is public, which makes little difference except in the price (about three dollars for entry).  I sat in a stone bath with my daughter and Father-in-law today above the clouds, and my copious sweat allowed a physical and psychological break from the first cold day of the season.

After our bath, my daughter and I shared a big, juicy peach, which we purchased from the vendor next door.  Grown high-up in the mountains, today’s peach was probably the last Fukushima peach I’ll eat this year; and since I’m planning on returning to the U.S. soon to pursue medical education, today’s peach was possibly my last Fukushima peach ever, if not for a very long time.  I could look on the bright side though: nashi season is just starting, and we’re still several weeks away from apples and persimmons.

My daughter fell asleep in the car on the way back to the house at about six o’clock.  Recently, she’s been taking naps in the evening and staying awake until midnight or later, which makes it difficult for Mommy and Daddy to eat dinner.  I decided to view staying up late as an opportunity to produce my first nabe of the season.  Nabe are giant pots of stew, traditionally cooked in fall and winter, which usually keep for a week or so, during which, like a raga, there is a variation on the theme in a smaller pot.  

We went vegetable shopping around ten o’clock at Saty, the late-night supermarket around here, and bought a variety of vegetables which we do not grow to combine with those we do grow in the making of a delicious soup.  I decided on a pumpkin base over tomato, and boiled pieces of pumpkin until they were soft, before mashing them up in a traditional Japanese mortar and pestle and mixing the resulting goo with hot water using a (traditional Japanese) whisk.  I added potatoes, satoimo, which is a Japanese potato variety less starchy than American potatoes, naganegi, which best translates to green onion (though much bigger and stiffer), and rinkon, which is a kind of root vegetable that I have no translation for but is my favorite vegetable as of this moment.  I boiled the resulting combination for five minutes before adding red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, a type of Japanese mushroom called shimeji, and cauliflower.  I’m excited for the variations that this week (and maybe next) will inevitably produce: bouillon nabe, cream nabe, udon nabe, rice nabe, ramen nabe, Thai curry nabe…    

Religion as Moral Government

In General Principles on September 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Not that kind of Moral Government – Image by RobLisaMeehanToday, I walked by a sign advertising a lecture on an age old question: “Does Religion Make People More Peaceful?”  Well, it sure doesn’t seem like it!  Radical Islam has demonstrated conclusively that fervent religious belief doesn’t always entail pro-social behavior.  That’s the most recent example in a multi-denominational trend that stretches through the Crusades, Inquisition, Hindu chauvinism, Mormon persecution and Mormon murderers.  One caveat to that sad litany: for the vast majority of people religion does make it easier to live a peaceful life.  However, there exists among some of the most feverishly religious people a propensity to engage in barbarism.  Why is it that even though all religions feature prominent scriptural prohibitions on violence, the observant seem particularly capable of unspeakable acts of brutality?  Religion has proven a flawed system of moral government: usually effective, but infrequently disastrous.

Imagine religion as a moral system set up to govern the behavior of individuals.  What sort of government is it?  Assigning the relevant players the labels usually reserved for political government proves illustrative.  In all moral systems, the individual possesses total legislative power.  Moral actions have no merit without free will, so all moral systems start from the disadvantage of ceding ultimate power to our whims.  If religious violence arose from legislative corruption, then human frailty would deserve censure for its effect on religion not vice versa.  This explanation does not seem to explain the observed phenomenon; religious violence does not stem from an override of the moral constraints of religion, but rather the psychotic behavior is a function of the religion itself.  Crazy fanatics don’t decide not to follow their religion and thus commit violence; instead, the violence is the exercise of their sincere beliefs.  The religious texts that explicitly forbid violence have become the source of violence.  These texts are the constitutional laws of moral government, supposedly the highest law in the moral universe, so how come they fail to constrain murderous fanaticism?

The religious moral government has supreme constitution interpreted not by an impartial judiciary, but the executive branch.  Rather than curb the abuse of power, the constitution would enable the executive to tap the highest powers to their own ends.  The holy scriptures are vague, dense, plentiful and open to interpretation.  The good news is that the executive is God.  Not a bad choice for an office that easily abused.  The faithful must continually struggle to ascertain textual wisdom, relying on God’s revelation of the proper path through life. The bad news is that God speaks in a still, small voice.  That means that all too often God’s will is filtered through a louder, more human, vessel.  We call these other members of the executive branch priests, rabbis, preachers and imams.   For religious people they serve as God’s representative, assisting in the navigation of centuries of traditions and a multitude abstract, and often contradictory, textual proclamations.  Most humans do a pretty serviceable job at exercising God’s moral office here on Earth.  I might not like the whole package put together at my local temple, church, tabernacle or mosque, but it could be a lot worse- Jim Jones, David Koresh or Charles Manson worse.  The religious executive remains infallible, but he sometimes has some lousy agency heads that really muck things up.

The ultimate grace in this system is that the legislative branch is still supreme.  We can override the executive and the constitution.  Moreover, we can abolish the executive and the constitution.  I underwent that process when decided that I wasn’t a Christian and settled on a sort of wishy-washy secular humanism as my new moral government.  Unfortunately, in practice it seems to require a supermajority of legislative will to go against beliefs as strongly ingrained as religion.  Religion entails the exercise of faith over uncertainty.  In religious teaching they emphasize the faith, but in moral government the important part is the uncertainty.  Uncertainty makes it hard to do things, because maybe you’re wrong.  I have a moral government with only vague guidelines and lots of uncertainty.  In everyday life that might mean that I’m marginally more likely to engage in regrettable veniality than a devout person.  I don’t have any executive but my memories, guilt and desire not to hurt other people.  On the other hand, my doubt makes it really difficult to engage in barbarism.  Doubt serves as the ultimate check on excess, like a “democratic peace theory” in moral government.  Religion compels most people to live civil, positive lives, but it also assuages that fundamental doubt enabling others to commit atrocities.  

The 20th century was full of secular campaigns of sadism- notably Communism and Nazism- but these were secular religions, substituting the certainty of ideology for the certainty of deity.  Secular life does not offer any intrinsic benefits over religion- and in that it lacks a binding moral code it has a high cost- unless it includes doubt.  A religion that remembers the importance of epistemological doubt- and faith becomes only more precious and hard-won in the presence of doubt- might be best moral government of all.

The Taxed and Unrepresented

In General Principles on September 22, 2010 at 9:55 am

A Mad Tea Party

“(With Democracy) No man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must be neither seen quite separately nor confused, give the citizen of democracy extremely contradictory instincts. He is full of confidence and pride in his independence from his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support for his individual weakness.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

Joe’s post from Monday got me thinking about the Tea Party and our two-party system: 

It’s tempting in a democracy to represent the policies of our elected officials as the center, but this is not an accurate picture of the American republic.  Extremists of every political and ideological stripe exist (I don’t necessarily mean that in the pejorative sense).  The Tea Party’s existence shows both that our politicians are out of touch with what the people want and that the people themselves are out of touch with what they want.  The Tea Party’s anger may be justified, but it is incoherent.  Why should it be coherent?  Different people want different things.

I’d like to conduct a thought experiment to see if we can get any closer to the origins of the Tea Party movement: who is really unrepresented here in America?  Let’s look at the three traditional policy axes under the presumption that the stated goals of policy are the actual goals of policy.


DOMESTIC POLICY – Healthcare as illustration of general principles by example

Dems – The Democrats recently attempted to extend healthcare to a large number of uncovered Americans.  With public-private competition, the idea is basically that a public option will force private insurance companies to play fair, increasing access to medical care for average Americans, decreasing profits for private insurance companies, and driving down prices for medical care.  Healthcare is just one example of how the Democratic Party seeks to expand and improve the safety net of welfare capitalism and represent first and foremost the most marginalized members of our society.   

Reps – The most recent substantial contribution to domestic policy from Republicans has been the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, which was an extremely complex bill, but essentially amounted to a privatization of Medicare under the assumption that private businesspeople would be vastly superior to government administrators in terms of efficiency.  The vast majority of Republican domestic policy since has been in trying to derail the Democratic agenda aimed at expanding the welfare state. 

The Democrat plan essentially increased coverage for poor people, but everyone must pay for it.  Although in the long-run, there is a good chance everyone’s insurance coverage will expand while prices will drop as a result of the Obama plan (And that’s not so much by virtue of the plan itself as much as it’s due to the present rock-bottom state of health insurance).  The Republicans believe the efficiencies generated by private competition will improve coverage for all. 

What lawmakers from both parties seem to overlook is that health insurance is a highly inefficient, oligopolistic market; privatized institutions do not possess the same virtues as inherently private institutions; and consumers most of the time do not choose their own insurance coverage.  In other words, private health insurance in America is a market failure hootenanny, so either the Republicans are genuinely ignorant of the principles of economics or else they are actively pandering to big business at the expense of average Americans. 

What is never discussed of course is the idea of a decentralized and imperfectly competitive market for health insurance.  This ideal market would be free to experiment with ways to best suit individual communities, whether these communities are geographical or built on some other commonality.

I will mention social policy, though I personally find it to be just about the most cut-and-dry area of politics around: I don’t want to comment on the culture war here, since so much has been said, but basically people should mind their own business.  Christians should stop harassing gays, and Dawkins-worshipers should leave the religious alone.  Ideas are not dangerous.  People who commit crimes and project power are dangerous, so we should concentrate on keeping robust the rule of law, and forget about “values” or “culture” or “character”; none of these is the province of policy. 

Basically, to summarize, the problem is not that the two major parties are not representing the people when it comes to domestic policy; the problem is that each party tries to represent all the people.  (Click on that link to really understand what I’m talking about here.)        


FOREIGN POLICY – How each party manifests American military power

Dems – Judging by the Clinton and Obama Administrations, it appears the Democrats have inherited the widespread, small-scale interventionist model from the Cold War: topple a dictator here, finance a rebellion there, and nations are created and destroyed to desired effect.  Granted, this is genuinely in the spirit of preserving the status quo at the smallest cost possible, but essentially it amounts to micromanaging the affairs of foreign sovereign states.  Recently, Democrats have been calling on us to focus war efforts on Afghanistan, as this country threatens most to destabilize the American global power regime.  It’s still too early in the Obama Administration to characterize its foreign policy, but small-scale, quiet, targeted interventions in Yemen and Pakistan would not fall too far from the tree.

Reps – The Republicans seem to fall into two camps on war policy.  In the former are the supporters of Bush the Elder’s foreign policy.  In 1991, the Cold War had just ended, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was out of control.  A true international coalition (not just the U.S., U.K., Spain, and Poland) was formed and a small operation was undertaken to push Saddam Hussein’s forces back to Baghdad and subject his government to repeated international oversight.  The Gulf War seemed to establish a new, post-Soviet blueprint for waging war, although its failings were apparent during the Clinton years, as Saddam’s violations of international law continued to go unpunished.  In response, Bush the Younger attempted to capture Iraq in what was – and still is – a throwback to 19th century geostrategic, “Risk”-style warfare between nation states.

With foreign policy as with domestic policy, the problem is not a lack of representation, but overrepresentation.  The Democrats represent the small-scale interventionist micromanagerial approach to international relations: see a potential conflict, nip it in the bud with a swift and targeted bombing campaign or regime change.  The Republicans (oddly) represent both the internationalist crowd and the unilateral crowd to both the left and right of the Democrats.  

Yet both parties see the use of force to compel desired international outcomes as both justified and appropriate.  It seems we never debate the question of whether we should be so active in global affairs, and we never debate what are and aren’t legitimate uses of American military power.  What we truly gain both as a society and as a world from such expensive and fruitless belligerency is never examined.  Those who would like America to focus more on its own problems, engage other nations through trade and mutual wealth-creation, or defer international problems to the established institutions of the international community are derided as “isolationist cranks“, a category which includes both Andrew Bacevich and Ron Paul, incidentally both former members of our military.    


ECONOMIC POLICY – Where to draw the line between welfare and capitalism

I’ve written extensively on economic policy, so I’m going to keep this short.

Dems – Focus more on the welfare element of welfare capitalism; that is, Democrats tend to focus more on making it easier for economic losers to cope with failure, whether or not that failure is due to luck or incompetence. 

Reps – Focus on the capitalism element of welfare capitalism; that is, Republicans tend to focus more on making it easier for the winners to do what winners do, which is to create great things, employ us to build them, pay us a salary so we can afford to buy those great things, and make us all better off as a result.

Obviously, some sort of balance between these two concerns is best: it doesn’t have to be Ayn Rand vs. Vladimir Lenin.  If we can maximize one element without simultaneously minimizing the other that is also good, and I think both parties tend to disagree amicably about economic policy (at least when the economy is good and it’s not an election year).  Economic policy in America and in the world’s other capitalist countries is really just a question of where to draw the line between welfare and capitalism while maintaining the strength of both. 

However, Democrats tend to create policy to help the most visibly poor-off members of our society (such as the unemployed, former auto workers, indebted mortgage holders etc.), while Republicans (and increasingly Democrats as well) craft policy to help the most visibly well-off members of our society, i.e. large corporations.  This form of overrepresentation leaves out the unobtrusive, i.e. the self-employed, the working poor, small-business owners, and entrepreneurs.  It is this unobtrusive pool from which long-term growth and innovation has historically come.  Our current policy of propping up a few large corporations at the expense of their smaller competitors is not only killing growth, but it is the singular source of the systemic risk implemented by leading economists as the cause of our recent financial troubles.  (Whether or not our welfare state is overextended really is a secondary debate.)     



Granted, I’ve oversimplified and stereotyped here, but sometimes simple models are helpful to advance our understanding.

Is it shocking to anyone that those who believe in those quintessential American values of federalism, local control of local issues, limits placed on entitlement, self-reliance, and decentralization would be ostracized from federal representation?  I hope that correcting for favoritism is really what the Tea Party stands for. 

The death of individual and local autonomy across the spectrum of policy is why I believe more than anything that it is paramount to control and check the power of the United States federal government, not because it is evil, but because a central government simply cannot represent everyone, due to a vast heterodoxy of tastes and preferences.  Both Democrat and Republican policies are designed to benefit everyone everywhere at the same time, as though we were all the same; but we’d be much better off embracing our diversity and crafting a system inverse to the current one in order to avoid the abstraction of politics intruding on meaningful human experience.

The basis of any civil society is the sanctity of the individual.  In order of decreasing primacy: individual actors are free to do as they please until they begin interacting with other individuals; two individuals are free to make any voluntary contractual arrangement provided this contract – explicit or implicit – does not infringe upon the rights of any other individuals; groups of three or more individuals can determine the codes and conduct of group members in voluntary fashion provided this group does not infringe on any individual’s rights; the interactions between groups are to be facilitated by municipal governments, which in turn are accountable to the county and the state; and eventually the federal government will make sure everything is running smoothly and that there are no violations of individual rights in any of the strata below.  If only there were some sort of document that spelled all this out in more detail… 

Redesigning policy to conform to such a scheme perhaps depends on a proper understanding of entitlement, both in the sense that unentitled parties constantly reach their hands into the pockets (and the bedrooms) of others in this country, and in the sense that we are all entitled, i.e. spoiled.  In a true federalist system, the Tea Partiers would address their grievances by providing the beams and struts of our broken state and local governments, instead of “turning their eyes toward that huge entity which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement”.

A Tea Party is Better than Two Party

In General Principles on September 20, 2010 at 3:23 pm

From Ms. Murkowski’s flckrWhen Lisa Murkowski launched her write-in campaign for the Alaskan Senate seat she currently holds it might have formally come without the blessing of Republican establishment, but their secret sympathies must lie with their former caucus member.  As the Tea Party’s Republican body count grew, the marriage of convenience’s true cost must have dawned on all but the most pure hearted of conservatives.  Sure, all this ginned up anger points left, but from a vantage so far right that even stalwart conservatives have become targets for venial ideological transgressions.  At some point politician self-interest had to kick in and Ms. Murkowski drew the line in the sand.  If the Tea Parties want to weaponize low-turnout primaries to punish even minor dissent then ousted Republicans can make their case to the general public.  Murkowski, and Charlie Crist, offer a path for moderate Republicans who fret about their seats.

Nate Silver thinks she has a substantial, but difficult shot at winning.  That would be a refreshing turn of events.  Not only because it would be a popular repudiation of Tea Party excess, but because it might provide a workable arrangement for a third party.  I say that even though I can’t imagine a third party less interesting than the Tea Parties.  I love their avowed claim of “fiscal restraint,” but in practice they seem to prefer identity politicians like Sarah Palin over actual fiscal conservatives like Bruce Bartlett and Mitch Daniels.  Yet, even assuming the newly independent Tea Party was given over entirely to its worst impulses it still would offer a great benefit to this country.  We need more parties, especially ones that represent a different axis than the current American left-right.

A two party system features the disadvantage of forcing all possible political disagreement into two large packages to choose from.  In practice most people have a pretty obvious preference; it doesn’t seem like a big deal to have constrained choice because you want one of the options.  Our constraints often are more dire than our strong preferences indicate because the vector is negative: you might not really love the Democrats, but compared to those Republicans…  Negative preference fuels the culture war; we pointlessly struggle because the two party system must focus on negligible differences until they accrue into substantive malice. Lacking the ability to support candidates we truly believe in, we despise the candidates on the other side.  The Tea Party would offer the most conservative voters a means of expression outside of the Republican party.  

I have no reason to believe this could happen, but with competition to their right and the loss of the most hardline of their base the Republican party would have to move towards the center.  The opposite could also happen- and so far has happened- and Republicans could try to outcompete the Tea Party on the fringes of the right.  In the long term, however, that is not successful legisltative strategy.  I do believe the Tea Parties have staying power, just not the popular strength to dictate National Policy by scaring Republicans into compliance lest they face a primary challenge.  Republicans have already begun to tire of that arrangement.

Over time both parties have come to view their policy solutions as ends in and of themselves.  The expansion of equity, liberty and security are the ultimate goals of policy.  Meanwhile, tax cuts, a social safety net, national defense and good government are only the means of providing greater human flourishing.  My apparent bias duly noted, this problem of mistaking the means for the ends has become particularly acute in the Republican party.  It has devolved into a institution that insists it knows the answers before it hears the question.  Seemingly everyone trumphets David Cameron Toryism, but with good reason.  Good center-right governance, the Eisenhower, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations for example, has historically been a boon to this country.  I hope that the Tea Party has the seeds of that type of conservative growth in this country.



Posture not Policy

In Specific Facts on September 15, 2010 at 4:45 am

I consider myself a deficit hawk.  It’s really unconscionable to me that we allow our government to run a permanent budget deficit.  It’s a sign of the feverish illness in our politics that we rarely agree on something as basic as only spending the money you have.  Now, my proposed solution to the budget deficit- dramatically increased government revenues- isn’t broadly popular.  Nonetheless, I feel that I and my conservative fellow policy travelers at least share a common concern for the importance of balancing the budget.  What I hope everyone can understand is that balancing the budget is a long term goal.  For now it’s a truly fantastic proposal akin to curing cancer by fiat.  So when I hear that Rand Paul is threatening to filibuster any budget that isn’t balanced I am disgusted.  That’s the talking point of a liar or a mad man, not the “intellectually honest” politician Dr. Paul is made out to be.

Chris commented that “at least considers [Dr. Paul] not stealing from future generations important.”  I’m not impressed.  The budget deficit and national debt is a huge problem that has accumulated over many years, for many reasons.  It’s going to take a long time and a lot of painful tradeoffs to even get within spitting distance of a balanced budget- let alone Clinton era surpluses.  Since Dr. Paul obviously doesn’t have tax increases in mind, what he is proposing would be nothing less than immediately firing thousands of federal employee, including a huge part of the military, drastically and immediately cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits and probably shutting down government for awhile.  That’s the only way to balance the budget immediately without tax increases.  Now, I bet Dr. Paul probably wouldn’t that much of a problem with any of that.  I do have a problem with him pretending that balancing the budget can be done by stubborn theatrical tricks without mentioning that you want to perform budget surgery with a chainsaw. 

Dr. Paul offers a ridiculous way to govern, but a fine way to play to the cheap seats.  The complete unravelling of whatever broad appeal he might have had continues apace.

Taxes 101

In General Principles on September 14, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I sat through a relatively slow lecture on deadweight loss today and I realized something: most people don’t really understand what taxes do to the economy!  Pretty much everyone knows/assumes that taxes slow the growth of the economy, but most people don’t know why.  Learning this is the key to understanding why our current tax system is so terrible- but also why it is possible to design a tax system that actually doesn’t have a particularly adverse effect on economic growth or societal well-being.

Unfortunately, to understand taxes you have to know a little bit about basic economics.  The graph to the left explains in broad and intuitive strokes how the economy works: as price rises consumers will demand less of a good and producers will produce more a good.  A market is described as efficient at the point where the supply curve equals the demand curve.  At that point the market is distributing all of the goods it can without a shortage or surplus existing.  The best thing about this situation, is many people receive a benefit above their baseline for participation in the market.  Everyone who would have bought at a higher price or sold a lower price keeps the surplus of the market equilibrium.

So, what happens when the government imposes a tax on the good in question?  The supply curve moves up causing the price to rise and quantity to fall.  Less consumers are able to buy at a price below their maximum and less producers can sell for more than they must receive to produce.  In short the total societal benefit decreases.  However, most of that benefit becomes something else: tax revenue for the government.  Not all of it though, some benefit just dissipates into the ether and economists call that “deadweight loss.”  So taxes cause a loss of societal benefit through deadweight loss, which is to say forgone economic activity due to inefficiencies created by taxes.   So in general taxes are a bad thing.

We are assuming some things about the goods in question here, however.  The big thing we are assuming is that the consumption or production of good in question doesn’t have any effect on anyone else.  The classic counterexample are cigarettes.  The cost to produce a pack of cigarettes in terms of tobacco and paper ignores the true societal cost of cigarettes: second hand smoke, lung cancer and rising health care costs.  So when the government imposes taxes on cigarettes it might actually just be bumping the price up to where it should be if all of these “externalities” were accounted for.  Plus, since the government needs revenue- we can debate exactly how much, but everyone should agree that some amount of government is necessary- raising taxes on things the government wants to discourage is a pretty good way to get it.

The problem with taxes in this country- and really just about every country- is that generally we have aimed taxes not at things we want to discourage, but rather things with a big revenue base.  So instead of targeting something of nebulous benefit, like consumption, we tax income which is unequivocally beneficial but larger than consumption.  Local governments do a better job of this to some extent because sales and property taxes at least target relatively inefficient uses of capital.  I don’t particularly like the mechanism of sales taxes, because it is annoying that things don’t cost what they seem, but in practice they are indistinguishable from a consumption tax.

In an ideal world, the federal government would get all of its money from two sources.  A personal consumption tax that created an incentive to save and invest and a business excise tax on goods with negative externalities.  Most of the business tax would be collected on carbon output which is an omnipresent externality.  Income, estate, payroll and capital gains taxes would be abolished- though in practice income, capital gains and estate taxes would simply be collected as consumption if a person chose to spend rather than save.  Now, there are some perverse incentives at work here.  When the government starts to tax something that it wants to discourage, it raises revenues when precisely the opposite happens.  If the federal government was getting 25% of its revenue from a carbon tax, the development of a carbon free energy source might not be its highest priority.  This happened with cigarettes, where after a legal settlement that provides every state in the country with a revenue stream from big cigarette companies states began engaging anti-competitive behavior to protect their revenue stream.

Nonetheless, it certainly seems better to aim for a tax system with good incentives in the private sector and just keep an eye on government.  Unfortunately, that ideal world doesn’t seem likely in the near term.  But at least now you know how taxes work.

9-11 Nine Years Later: Introduction

In General Principles on September 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm


Lloyd: I’m only human, Harry! Come on! Stop being a baby. So we backtracked a tad!
Harry: A tad? A tad, Lloyd? You drove almost a sixth of the way across the country in the wrong direction! Now we don’t have enough money to get to Aspen, we don’t have enough money to get home, we don’t have enough money to eat, we don’t have enough money to sleep!
Lloyd: Well, it’s not gonna do us any good sitting here whining about it. We’re in a hole. We’re just going to have to dig ourselves out.

Saturday marked the 9th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  

Today, nine years later, we’re mired in two intractable and goalless wars, with several more potential goalless wars looming; the size, scope, and power of the government and particularly that government which does not serve the American people in any tangible way has grown out of proportion; individual freedom has objectively declined as more and more Americans acquiesce to a security state central reality; the culture war has had a second, or third, or fourth, or nth renaissance; we now have national debates about whether or not minority groups can be trusted to participate in social and economic life; our economy is in the worst shape it’s been since the 1930s and projected to get even worse before it gets better; our military is extended, exposed, and weak, presenting a long-awaited opportunity for regional despot wannabes the world over as well as major players like Russia and China to make whatever power grabs they can; American soft power and cultural prestige has declined across the globe; we have betrayed our historic missions of nonalignment, plurality, heterodoxy, freedom, opportunity, equality, and peace; the average American has been exposed as – or has become – an uninformed, manipulated, fear-driven animal willing to sacrifice the most valuable things in the world in favor of emotional insulation from a cold and distant, imaginary and insignificant threat; our media is complicit as huge news conglomerations try to out-shock each other; even our best politicians prioritize rape-like soundbites over being reelected over getting pork for their constituency over representing the country that they have sworn to serve; and we have put our full civilizational capacity up in a total war against a nebulous, undefinable, undefeatable abstract noun.

This wildly undirected civilizational octopus reaches its tentacles out to grasp even the elements of being a human which have no bearing, no connection, no relation at all to establishing peaceful international relations.  Liberals, conservatives, moderates, radicals, the religious of all stripes, the non-political, non-believers, bankers, teachers, janitors, the unemployed, the old, the young, dead heroes and villains, and the unborn should be outraged, outraged because all of this was preventable, and all of this was the direct, objective result of checking our collective capacity for reason, analysis, dispassionate problem-solving, and justice at the door and entering the deepest nether regions of fear-driven collective tantrums and the darkest id.  

And we still haven’t rebuilt the towers or captured bin Laden.