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Synthesis of Austrian and Distributist Economics via Information Science

In Empires of the Mind on October 31, 2010 at 3:59 pm

From Timothy B. Lee’s September Cato Unbound essay on Hayek:

Hayek’s point is not that the price system is superior to other decentralized social institutions. Rather, he’s pointing out that all successful large-scale cooperative efforts involve standardization, which necessarily means discarding some potentially relevant knowledge in the process of codifying other knowledge deemed more important. The important question is not whether to standardize in this way, it’s deciding how, and how much to standardize. Too little standardization means missing out on opportunities for economies of scale and the division of labor. Too much standardization means discarding information that consumers actually care about, leading to the infamous rubber tomatoes of standardized agriculture. And the wrong kind of standardization—discarding important information while preserving trivial information—is doomed regardless of the degree of standardization.

What makes decentralized economic institutions powerful isn’t standardization but the possibility for competition among alternative standardization schemes. Rubber tomatoes create an entrepreneurial opportunity for firms to establish a more exacting tomato standard and deliver tastier tomatoes to their customers. In real markets, you see competition not only among individual firms but among groups of firms using alternative standards. Markets gradually converge on the standards that are best at transmitting relevant information and discarding irrelevant information. In contrast, when standards are set by the state, or by private firms who have been granted de facto standard-setting authority by government regulations, there is no opportunity for this kind of decentralized experimentation. Then the market is likely to be permanently stunted by the use of a standard that does a poor job of transmitting the information consumers care about most. (emphasis mine)

Economics is not the study of money as is commonly presumed, nor is it the study of markets as even many advanced students of economics believe; economics is really the study of information and decision making.  It’s worth reading Lee’s essay in full to see how the same Hayekian process shaped the Internet protocols we currently use.  (Lee is currently a candidate for Ph.D. in computer science at Princeton.)  Read Dispatches from the Wild Wild East to see how Hayek’s theories have shaped my views on education.

I find Lee’s views on Hayek as ultimately supporting the view of economics as an information science to be compelling.  And since theorists of all stripes seem to agree at least that we’re in a “mature” capitalism with too much standardization, I wonder if this Austrian informational positive cannot be tempered with a distributist normative.  I have yet to read John C. Medaille’s book “Toward a Truly Free Market”, which I hear is more or less the definitive guide to distributist economics.  This is from a review by Gerald Rusello for The American Conservative:

Writers like Timothy Carney have shown in detail how, contrary to accepted nostrums, big government and big business go together, and indeed that business prefers bigger government to keep out competition and increase their access to subsidies and other benefits.  Neither supports real economic growth or the protection of liberty.

Similarly, Médaille argues that capitalism and big government must go together. Without government intervention, capitalism is unstable.  Since 1953, Medaille argues, the economy has been in recession approximately 15% of the time, as opposed to almost 40% in the preceding century. The dividing line, he argues, is the imposition of consistent Keynesian policies to balance aggregate supply and demands. Greater amounts of government intervention were needed to stabilize the economy over the last five decades. As current events may be bearing out, this situation is untenable. Some other solution is needed.

I understand Lee’s criticisms of overstandardization to be the same untenable situation as described by Medaille.  For the purposes of this untenable situation, it may be useful for the Austrians and the distributists to engage in a meeting of the minds; that is, to counterintuitively make a push for “standardization”.  There is a tendency amongst libertarians and anarchists especially to wait until an idea is perfected before pushing it on the masses, when really they should be asking themselves if it’s superior to the status quo.  

A bit more self-confidence on the part of libertarians/anachists (and I think we’re seeing the seeds of this in the blogosphere) coupled with bottom-up development solutions designed to empower and amplify the ability of local knowledge to solve local problems, like microfinance and Fab Labs (the latter especially vis-a-vis Medaille’s criticism that mainstream economic models discount the value of production for use), could mean a bright future for economics and a bright future for humanity, so long as individual information collectors stay out of the way and let the system’s imperfect components create a spontaneously ordered world at least superior to the status quo.

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Close Bosom-Friend of the Maturing Sun

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm

We slept late.  Rosalind was angry, and Kanako was sick.  For brunch we ate ramen.  I took a shower.  The weather was hot, sunny, and windy – that rare combination.  Kanako decided to go.  We sangalong in the car: Old MacDonald, I’ve Been Workin’ on a Railroad, The More We Get Together, etc. – Raffi songs; it was not such a memorable ride there.  It was pleasant, like a Norman Rockwell painting.

There were matsutake stands on the side of the road – traffic in the middle of the mountains for mushroom stands.  No one was west of Azuma.  We eventually got to Inawashiro uneventfully with no directions or planning.  We entered “herb garden”; there was a documentary of a Canadian chainsaw sculptor playing on a 1990s cathode ray tube television set in the corner of one of the indoor rooms before the gardens.  

Penelope and I obsessed over and pet cute, fluffy bunnies while Rosalind drank some milk; there was also a giant tortoise!  Where were the duckies?  We found them, and we followed them into their home, where Penelope obsessed over them.  The top of Bandaisan was concealed.  We walked past soba and all sorts of other cool plants; we thought we could cut and keep kosumosu, but we found out later it was too late.  We walked past the Canadian chainsaw sculptor’s twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, clovers covered the ground.  Penny was scared of them, but played with them after I showed her they were okay.

We ran back and forth along the path, and suddenly three pigs on leashes came up to us and played with Penny and me like puppies.  We continued along the path bu bu bu bu bu bu bu bu bu bu bu bu caaa! caaa! (in response to a crow) and made our way to a playground with wooden horses and shit for kids to climb which I jump over like they were “the bush”; we entered the bunny house – dark, like somewhere a serial murderer would hide bodies.  We wore gloves and chased around bunnies.  White Vampire Bunny and Friendly Bunny were there, we gave them names.  Penny didn’t want to leave, even when the pigs came back.  

Mom and Youta went to get ice cream, we went to meet them and everything was closing they said, so we went straight to kosumosu fields, but they were way past peak, and I was sad, but then we saw the sun set while Penny played in the dirt.  She was already filthy after the bunny tent.

We went to the giftshop and bought homemade grape gelatin and ate it while watching the sun still set over a field of flowers just as the clouds were falling off Bandaisan’s peak and we could see its exploded tip clearly.  We drove off towards Bandai and got on 115 back to Fukushima and stopped at 7-11 to buy juice for Penny and coffee for us drug-dependent adults.

It was already dark when we left the store three minutes later, and we decided to go to Jododaira to look at stars and see the Milky Way over the erupting Azuma volcano in the dark; but we drove up and up and up and straight into a big cloud after passing a creepy onsen resort and going down (up?) a dark, lightless, one-lane road into a cloud for fifteen minutes.  We decided to head back to the tunnel and to Fukushima.

We went to Mandaishouten and Youta sold his cards for 2,360 yen, and we bought umeboshi and some other snacks that I wanted to try for the first time and didn’t like (but i love umeboshi), and then we decided to go to Saizeriya for dinner instead of okonomiyaki since we have two babies and cooking our own food on a teppanyaki grill was totally out of the question.  But Saizeriya was smoky 1980s restaurant style, even though it was delicious.  We went home and to sleep.

Putting the Dollar on Steroids: Chinese Currency Intervention

In Specific Facts on October 28, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Composite of Images by RightIndex from flckr CC

When China passed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy this summer,[i] the United States seemed resigned to its fate as a global also-ran.  While China has only one-tenth of the U.S. GDP per capita, the U.S. unemployment rate (9.6%) hovers just below China’s GDP growth rate (10.3%), making the future of U.S. global leadership seem bleak.  Not surprisingly, a plurality of U.S. respondents to a 2009 Pew Research poll named China the top economic power in the world.[ii]  In reality, China’s rise is far from accomplished; the U.S. has more to gain, than fear, from a wealthy China.  While Americans hold many misconceptions about Chinese policy – from debt to trade – the economic reality is more complex than it appears.

That China holds a massive amount of U.S. government debt has become a source of popular outrage for American politicians of every stripe.  What is less well understood, is exactly why  China keeps buying so much U.S. Debt.  In fact, China must purchase U.S. Treasury bonds, even though it often takes a loss in the process.  A complicated cycle has developed due to tight Chinese controls on currency outflows.  Chinese exporters must convert the dollars they earn into Chinese renminbi, leaving the central government with dollars and the Chinese economy with freshly printed currency.  To prevent inflation as the economy absorbs hundreds of billions of dollars worth of the new currency, the Chinese government sells domestic bonds to remove money from circulation, a process known as “sterilization”[iii].  Meanwhile, the dollars confiscated at the border are spent on the only good capable of absorbing that much money: U.S. Treasury bonds.  The gap between the low rate of return on Treasury bonds, and the bond rate, in a fast growing and poor country like China often entails negative arbitrage, the difference between the rate of return on two investments, for the People’s Bank of China.  To minimize their losses, China makes low rates on domestic bonds palatable by instituting price controls on necessities and banning certain types of speculative lending.  This process has led China to accumulate foreign reserves amounting to almost 50% of GDP[iv] which is a staggering 4% of global GDP.   This Rube Goldberg-style economic policy is not sustainable, but breaking it will involve a period of difficult transition to increased economic openness and increased Chinese domestic consumption as a component of GDP[v]

The current American obsession with China’s currency manipulation is tied to their tight control of the domestic currency.  The simplest way for China to deal with massive imports of foreign capital from trade is to allow the renminbi to float with market prices.  With all else equal, the value of currency should increase in net exporting countries and decrease in net importers[vi].  Eventually, trade deficits will lead to currency depreciation, which will shrink the trade deficit because it makes exports relatively cheaper and imports relatively more expensive.  The peg that prevents currency appreciation in China keeps Chinese exports competitive, but it has also incited increasingly inflammatory accusations of currency manipulation from Chinese trading partners[vii].

A “strong dollar” has a pleasant ring to it, but Chinese currency intervention renders many U.S. exports too expensive to be completive globally.  An artificially strong dollar costs the U.S. jobs; one estimate is that the $226 billion dollar U.S. trade deficit with China has cost the U.S. almost three million jobs[viii].  The narrative that blames the Chinese for U.S. unemployment is more pleasant than the underlying truth of dollar depreciation: the only way to reemploy much of the country is by lowering real wages for American workers.  Even though wages have stagnated in recent decades, a strong dollar, and the massive expansion of consumer debt, enabled American consumers to purchase cheap Chinese goods that raised the American standard of living.  If China agreed to weaken its peg against the dollar, or if inflation reduced the value of the dollar, U.S. households would reap benefits from depreciation in real debt alongside real wages, and the devalued currency will increase exports and therefore growth resulting in increased employment of American workers.[ix]  Meanwhile, Chinese consumers have been partially left in the cold by currency intervention during this period of robust growth by a threadbare safety net and artificially depressed buying power.

In the long run it will benefit everyone for Chinese currency to reach market value, but the transition to a consumption fueled economy is tricky.  The Japanese allowed the yen to appreciate in 1985 and shortly thereafter were rewarded with the “lost decade,” where Japanese currency appreciated so fast that it created a massive asset bubble that burst into a national financial crisis.  China seems determined to avoid that fate; but the U.S. is similarly determined, and their respective goals may be mutually exclusive.  The prolonged Japanese recession was marked by persistent deflation until the Bank of Japan publically committed to “maintaining low rates until inflation was reliably forecast to remain positive” [x].  The Federal Reserve has cautiously begun to explore a similar commitment during the current financial crisis[xi].  If the Fed prints more money it will simultaneously push down the value of the dollar and returns on Treasury bonds.  China will suffer arbitrage losses on Treasury versus domestic bonds, while renminbi appreciation will cause export driven growth to slow.  The Chinese may have the world’s second largest economy, but it is a distant second, only slightly more than one-third the size of the U.S. economy.  If the Chinese informal currency peg remains in place, the contrived currency cycle and Chinese economy will be dragged down with the dollar.

China’s centralized government has proven capable of jealousy-inducing economic responsiveness, but going forward China will face daunting challenges in the transition to increased openness and domestic consumption- not to mention the difficulties posed by aging demographics and demands for increased individual autonomy. How China navigates these obstacles will determine the prosperity of not just China, but also the United States.  The two have become increasingly intertwined such that their informal economic alliance has become perhaps the world’s most important.  Fortunately, economics is not zero-sum: Chinese economic growth does not have to hurt the American economy.  Even in the past decade, punctuated by trade deficits and currency manipulation, most Americans benefited from cheap Chinese production.  A more balanced relationship between saving and consumption in China will lessen the trade gap between the U.S. and China and will spread those gains more evenly.  Vigorous Chinese economic growth will be the engine of the world’s economy for years to come.  In these dismal economic times that is reason for optimism, not fear.

 Article cross-posted at the Georgetown Public Policy Review


[i]                  Barboza, David. “China Passes Japan as the Second Largest Economy” The New York Times. August 15, 2010.

[ii]                  “America’s Place in the World 2009” Conducted by Pew Research Center for People and the Press conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations.. http://people-press.org/report/569/americas-place-in-the-world

[iii]                  Devine, Ethan. “The Japan Syndrome” Foreign Policy September 30, 2010.

[iv]                  Chinese State Adminstration on Foreign Exchange. “Monthly Foreign Exchange Reserves”, June 2010

[v]                  Devine.

[vi]                  Bartlett, Bruce.  “America’s Foreign Owned Debt” Forbes Magazine. March, 10, 2010

[vii]                  Chan, Sewell.  “I.M.F. Chief Steps into Dispute About China’s Currency Policy” The New York Times. October 7, 2010.

[viii]                  Brown, Sharrod. “For Our China Trade Emergency, Dial Section 301” The New York Times. October 17, 2010.

[ix]                  Yglesias, Matt.  “Pearlstein on Wage Cuts.” Think Progress. October 13, 2010.

[x]                  Posen, Adam.  “The Realities and Relevance of Japan’s Great Recession: Neither Ran nor Roshomon.” STICERD Public Lecture, London School of Economics.  May 24, 2010.

[xi]                  Nohara, Yoshiaki and Harui, Ron. “Dollar Trades Near 15-Year Low Against Yen on Speculation Fed to Ease More” Bloomberg Online. October 18, 2010.

 

O Fortuna!

In Specific Facts on October 28, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I just finished watching the Simpsons Season 11 (1999) episode Beyond Blunderdome, starring Mel Gibson as himself.  If you weren’t an obsessive Simpsons watcher during the 1990s like I was, here is a brief summary:

Mel Gibson screens his remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a Springfield audience.  Everybody likes it except Homer, who Gibson takes as representative of average Americans and hires to consult for a remake.  Homer’s remake is predictably terrible (but, of course, awesome).

The part of the episode I find interesting is where Gibson complains that people will like him no matter what he does, and how he wishes people would be more honest when assessing his work.  Well, Mr. Gibson, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.  

Adding to the catharsis is a scene where Gibson’s character pokes fun at Robert Downey Jr., who is then seen having a shootout with the police on Hollywood boulevard.   

 

Here There Be Monsters

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 28, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Aaarrrgh!! It be the moighty kraken!

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.  And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? – David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)

I’ve kept myself going with this blog with the idea that what I was doing was really combatting willful ignorance about Japan, namely that the Japanese school system is perfect, samurai and geisha abound or are even important parts of Japanese culture, the Japanese have a bunch of strange customs that we just don’t (and can’t ever) get, and all sorts of other ridiculous stereotypes.  

The tendency to “otherize” is not only apparent in popular Western cultural tropes like Hollywood movies but even in the formalized discussion of Japan and Japanese culture we call “Japanology“, which basically entails a foreign “high priest” explaining recherche elements of (always historical and never modern, and always centered on Kansai) Japan to the world.  

Making the othering puzzle even more difficult to solve is the fact that the Japanese generally seem to like being stereotyped, because it reinforces their national myth of unique uniqueness.  Americans eat meat, Japanese eat vegetables; Americans have “ladies first”, Japanese women walk behind their samurai masters.  

None of these examples is true of course.  Vegetarians find it difficult to live in Japan.  Japanese fast food is a thriving industry.  The idea of “ladies first” seems antiquated and sexist to many younger Americans.  And Japanese women have not walked behind their “masters” for many generations.  Yet examples such as these abound and are taught as fact by definitive “experts” on both sides of the cultural divide.   

While the truth is more muddled and amorphous, it is interesting.  One of my friends here is fond of saying, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”, but David Hume’s body of philosophical work shows that the most stoic, empirical, patient take on reality can also be the most interesting, and certainly so in the long run.  

What is that truth?  Essentially, long-term foreign visitors to Japan always come around to realizing that the Japanese are just like us, and especially if they can get beyond the language barrier.  There are some differences, of course, like the Japanese cut their food into small pieces before it is prepared, so they use chopsticks to eat it, while Westerners prepare their food first and then use knives and forks to cut and eat it.  But basically, as with “generations” in the U.S., there is more commonality among those who live the same lifestyle than there is within any particular civilization; that is to say, rock musicians in Japan have more in common with American rockers than they do with Japanese scientists.

In our flattened world especially, where a blockbuster release of Avatar occurs in 200 countries simultaneously, Pete Rock visits my city and interacts with the locals, and I have discussions with my Japanese students about whether or not Johnny Depp’s career is on the decline, this Humean skepticism is the base on which all scholarship on Japan must rest.

That is not to say there is nothing new to learn or that travel writing is dead in the age of personal digital video recorders.  There is the example of the Carstensz Pyramid for how skepticism can fail us: on a clear day in 1623, Dutch Explorer Jan Carstensz saw glaciers on the peak of what is now Puncak Jaya in New Guinea.  Since everybody at the time knew that there was no way there could be snow at the equator, Carstensz was ridiculed for over two centuries.  It wasn’t until 1909 that a party of seven people reached the snow fields, and it wasn’t until 1962 that the peak was conquered by Temple, Kippax, Huirenga, and Heinrich Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet fame.

What Carstensz Pyramids are still laughed at?  What quiet miracles are there cut off from the main current of our busy world?  What monsters lurk in the murky waters at the bottom of the darkest ocean?

9-11 Nine Years Later: The Definition of Insanity

In General Principles on October 25, 2010 at 5:17 pm


Creating new enemies?This is Part III of a five-part series on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and their effects are the biggest issues of our time, they should not be discussed only briefly on or around that date, but the attacks and their implications should be explored and examined repeatedly until the problems we have created for ourselves are resolved.

It remains unclear whether Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein first said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If this quote is to be taken as truth, then our policy since September 11th, 2001 is insane.  Two principle direct, observable causes of the September 11th attacks were (1) bureaucratic incompetence – a lack of communication between the FBI and the CIA resulted in the terrorists who perpetrated the September 11th attacks falling off the grid and not re-emerging until mid-flight; and (2) aggressive policy in the Middle East – the Middle East is a fairly complicated place.  By playing politics with the Middle East, basically breaking it up into meaningless nation states – meaningless because the Middle East is largely organized along tribal or ethnic lines – we created power vacuums, which usually we tried to micromanage by supporting dictators loyal to us over the Soviets.  This stirred up grassroots hatred and caused otherwise disparate peoples to organize and unite around mutual anti-Americanism (for example, Iran’s fervent support for Palestine, al Qaeda in Afghanistan).  It might have turned out differently if, while maintaining a firm grip on political control of the region, we had also encouraged economic and infrastructure development in conjunction with intra-regional competition (our East Asia strategy under MacArthur).     

America’s solutions to the problems of complex and ineffective bureaucracy at home and grassroots hatred abroad manifest in the attacks of September 11th, 2001 was to create the largest new bureaucracy since World War II while simultaneously increasing belligerence in the Middle East.  Or, our solutions were to create more of the same problems for ourselves.  From Fareed Zakaria:

Here are some of the highlights. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

Some 30,000 people are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications in the United States. And yet no one in Army intelligence noticed that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had been making a series of strange threats at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he trained. The father of the Nigerian “Christmas bomber” reported his son’s radicalism to the U.S. Embassy. But that message never made its way to the right people in this vast security apparatus. The plot was foiled only by the bomber’s own incompetence and some alert passengers

How can anyone justify doubling down on what was already so clearly a bad bet? A 2004 Ron Suskind New York Times Magazine article sums up the kind of thinking that may be behind it all:

The (Bush White House) aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  

Well, fair enough.  We’re an empire, we control our own destiny, we make the world in our image – quite full of hubris, and perhaps still technically true even in the wake of the Iraq War debacle: but it seems we’re not so much the empire of Marcus Aurelius or Julian as we are the empire of Nero or Caligula.  Would that the Iraqi people had but one neck!  

What we call “neoconservative” is actually the violent eschatology of Marxism tempered with the oversimplified objectivist morality of fundamentalist Christianity.  What percentage of Americans would describe themselves as or vote for a “Marxist Christian Fundamentalist”?  Not too many.  But essentially, that is our Republican leadership.  

And just as those Romans who strove against Nero and Caligula did so out of a strong patriotism and a love for the first principles that made their great society, so must patriotic Americans strive against the insane state of affairs that continues to provide our lives with meaning; the status quo is unsustainable; the War on Terror has taken over our lives like a cancer; we must return to a true focus on life, liberty, and property.

The goal of any terrorist attack is provoke insanity.  Scott Horton writes in Harpers that we can do a lot to mitigate the effects of 9-11 by simply not overreacting any more:

The German philosophy, which is close to that of the United Kingdom and the New York City Police Department (explained by my friend Mike Shaheen here), runs something like this: the aim of terrorists is to instill fear and to disrupt lives. Therefore it is only doing the terrorists’ bidding when a government makes statements that generally spread anxiety without providing any specific guidance. The approach of these governments is thus to share the basic information but to downplay its significance (usually by stressing that the information is general, that it shows planning but that there is no specific information about an attack). They urge people to go about their lives and to report suspicious activity to the police. Quietly, law enforcement and intelligence agencies will follow up leads, interrogating individuals and making arrests. Generally speaking, however, the aim is to get a good look inside the terrorist cell and follow its threads from within, not moving too quickly. The theory is that, once alerted, the terrorists are less likely to reveal the full scope of their plans or their support network.

We could make similar progress by simply understanding our enemy, as opposed to dehumanizing him.  From Glenn Greenwald:

Isn’t Muslim culture just so bizarre, primitive, and inscrutable?  As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade and occupy their countries, and Western powers interfere in their internal affairs by overthrowing and covertly manipulating their governmentsimposing sanctions that kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children, and arming their enemies.  Therefore (of course), the solution to Terrorism is to interfere more in their countries by continuing to occupy, bomb, invade, assassinate, lawlessly imprison and control them, because that’s the only way we can Stay Safe.  There are people over there who are angry at us for what we’re doing in their world, so we need to do much more of it to eradicate the anger.  That’s the core logic of the War on Terror.  How is that workingout?

As Timothy B. Lee, Conor Friedersdorf, and Jason Kuznicki have gone to great lengths to show, the Obama Administration has been even more authoritarian that Bush in its assertion of a wide variety of Presidential powers.  From Friedersdorf:

The United States is not on the brink of turning into Oceania, or even Singapore. But anyone with their eyes open ought to notice that the United States is already too close for comfort to “knocks in the night” and “jackbooted thugs.” Even worse, most Americans are either ignorant of that fact, or else unconcerned by truly egregious state behavior. This blindness is particularly striking among conservatives, who are constantly worrying about lost liberty, and looking for its leading indicators in all the wrong places. But it is a bi-partisan and cross-ideological myopia. 

As much as I would like to see the War on Terror – like the Wars on Crime and Drugs – either completely eliminated or scaled back to prudently manageable levels, change will likely never happen for political reasons: no politician wants to be in a position to take the blame when the next terrorist attack occurs, and another attack will occur so long as we are active in the Middle East; so our dedication to absurd War on Terror laws inappropriate for the real, relatively insignificant threats we face, will remain out way past the margin of reasonable returns.  

From a political perspective, Cheney was absolutely correct to base policy on a worst-case scenario.  Imagine instead of terror alerts and making everybody go through strange security dances whenever they traveled anywhere, the Bush Administration had instead adopted the aforementioned German strategy.  There is a terrorist attack; the Democrats pounce on the Republicans for being “soft on terror” and that party is finished. 

If instead whoever is in charge makes it clear to everybody that the country faces another possible attack any day now by constantly reminding them of this danger throughout the course of their day-to-day lives, then when there is an attack of any kind, whoever is in charge can considerably play up the strength of our enemies by saying something along the lines of, “See!  We told you the terrorists hate freedom!  They got to us even though we all had to take our shoes off and we couldn’t bring liquids on airplanes!”

Essentially, the reason why the War on Terror will never end is the same reason why the War on Drugs will never end and the same reason America will continue to have far and away the world’s largest prison population: there is little for politicians to gain personally from supporting reasonable policies, and there is always the chance of being labeled, “soft on terror”.  Basically, we are being held hostage by our own politics.  In a democracy, this should strike the reader as fundamentally immoral.

Political problems have political solutions.  From Zakaria: 

…Mistakes might be excusable. But the rise of this national-security state has entailed a vast expansion in the government’s powers that now touches every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism. The most chilling aspect of Dave Eggers’s heartbreaking book, Zeitoun, is that the federal government’s fastest and most efficient response to Hurricane Katrina was the creation of a Guantánamo-like prison facility (in days!) in which 1,200 American citizens were summarily detained and denied any of their constitutional rights for months, a suspension of habeas corpus that reads like something out of a Kafka novel.

In the past, the U.S. government has built up for wars, assumed emergency authority, and sometimes abused that power, yet always demobilized after the war. But this is a war without end. When do we declare victory? When do the emergency powers cease?

Conservatives are worried about the growing power of the state. Surely this usurpation is more worrisome than a few federal stimulus programs.

Do we place our hope with the Tea Party?  God help us if we have to do that.  For now, neither party seems to be comfortable with scaling back the War on Terror.  To do so is a complete political loser.  Obama campaigned and won on promises of vast sweeping changes to all the Bush Administration policies the American people disliked so much.  The Administration is still in its second year, but so far there has definitely been no change when it comes to the War on Terror.  And with Republicans set to take Congress, why would the Obama Administration ever choose to die on that battlefield?

On Reciprocal Altruism

In General Principles on October 24, 2010 at 4:24 pm

For a long time Darwinism struggled to adequately explain altruism, or, what appeared to be the giving of gifts or services with no expected return.  When the concept of reciprocal altruism was first proposed, many who believed in the goodness of humankind revolted; for how can our goodness be based in selfishness?  It was simply too glib to say that generosity evolved because of reciprocity.  But the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.  One can be truly altruistic and still get a competitive advantage because of that altruism.  For the religious, this could even be couched in the language of theology and construed as God’s reward for good behavior.  

So, some questions for religious people: why oppose Darwinian explanations for human behavior?  Does studying physics or geology diminish the beauty of nature?  Does understanding how a zygote works make me love my daughter any less?  Does accepting that generosity builds community invalidate goodness itself?    

The Pendulum Swings

In Specific Facts on October 23, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Yet Another Rally on the National Mall – by Ep_JhuIn 1969, in the wake of a massive anti-Vietnam rally on the National Mall, President Richard Nixon called for the support of “the great Silent Majority.”  At the time the forces of doctrinaire liberalism called for radical change in government and a “revolution” in cultural, sexual, racial and political terms seemed imminent.  That revolution proved unable to affect the course of the country militarily- the end of the draft made it possible for the U.S. to fight with muted domestic outrage- but it continues to reverberate in other ways.  Now things have reversed and a massive Conservative outrage has crystallized into marches on the National Mall.  Just like Nixon, I believe that most of the country does not support the stridency of the those calling for revolution, but the movement is so visible that it has to be acknowledged.

What if instead of asking the majority to stay silent, Nixon asked them to speak up?  That seems to be the central point of John Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity.  It will be an extremely visible rebuttal to Glen Beck; you got a bunch of people to the mall, but so can we.  Stewart says that isn’t what he’s doing.  It doesn’t really matter what his intentions are, that’s what this rally is.  Timothy Noah at Slate says that’s why it shouldn’t happen (Slate taking an absurd and contrarian position, shocking).  Why not let people who think the U.S. is ok demonstrate? It will be a powerful refutation of the histrionic calls for revolution.  I’d like a better government, but I am willing to work towards it rather than impose it through incoherent outrage.  That’s why I’ll be at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Why People Hate Government

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 22, 2010 at 3:48 pm

A few months ago, I came home on my bike from my afternoon lessons to see that somebody had built a shed with a proudly-displayed fucking union flag of some sort on the corner of our property over by the rice fields.  I asked my wife’s family about it, and nobody seemed to know anything.  The next morning a construction crew suddenly showed up at my house where I usually work during the day and announced that they would be tearing up the sidewalk in front for the next six months.  They would be using the shed for rest and relaxation between shifts.

The crew began work immediately after informing me (probably the lowest-ranking member of the household) and leading me around to inspect some stuff I had never even seen before – like the outside of the wall around Chiyabappa’s garden – to make sure everything was as it should be.  After my “inspection” and inferred “approval” of the “plan”, one of the workers asked if he could cuddle my baby to prove that I could trust them or we had bonded or something.  I ignored him.  No, I will not give you my baby, stranger.

Since then, the constant flow of concrete and heavy-metals vapors pouring into my kids’s lungs and the ceaseless noise of jackhammers being operated ten yards or so from where I used to enjoy my morning coffee has almost been enough to reverse any newfound faith in government I’ve developed since starting working with Obama campaign volunteer Joe.  I’ve now reverted to my pre-Inductive one or two degrees from Zack de la Rocha. 

Usually, I ride my bike to my classes in the afternoon, after I’ve finished reading the Elmo book eight times in a row or contemplating the mysteries of the belly button or working on the computer for the day; but occasionally, if I am very busy and have to go to multiple places to teach, I decide at the last minute to drive.  Sometimes, I find a cement mixer or caterpillar blocking my car, and must ask the Third Amendment violators to kindly move their equipment so I can get out of my own driveway and be only a few minutes late for work.  For the most part they’ve been okay about removing the equipment in question quickly, but I think my Neville Chamberlain approach has given the crew tacit license to expand more and more its lebensraum.

About six weeks into the current vaporize the sidewalk with perpetual jackhammering project, the crew decided to close our driveway and make us drive over our own lawn and past their clubhouse to exit (fair enough, since the sidewalk in front of the driveway was what they were vaporizing that day).  But shortly afterwards, they closed this clubhouse exit off too and made us park our cars in the parking lot next door which we lease to a bento shop and then walk past their scattered equipment and their clubhouse to get in and out of our home.

I wasn’t so pissed off about having to drive over the lawn as I was about having to walk past their shack constantly blasting JPop, its walls lined with soft-core pornography and even more offensive union (management?) posters looking somewhat like Soviet propaganda.  The worst part about this situation wasn’t that the workers stared at me for being a foreigner, it wasn’t that they looked disdainfully on me for being a suit, nor was it the awkward silence that occurred everytime my presence interrupted their locker room chitchat.  The worst part was that I had to walk through and then escape from their fucking chain-smoke tornado while cuddling babies.  I mean, I don’t really mind, but my two-month-old daughter’s heart is the size of a strawberry.

An even worse (if that’s possible) direct result of construction in front of the house was that my older daughter couldn’t fall asleep during the day and began taking her “daily” nap at five o’clock in the evening.  This meant she woke up at seven and was up exhausted and crying most nights until one or two o’clock in the morning. 

When the crew moved down the street a bit after two months or so into the project, we thought the worst was over.  When I found out they were moving, I actually performed an impromptu celebration dance one part Dirty Bird, one part WWF wrestler Lex Luger‘s pre-match ritual, one part waltz lessons from middle school.  The new center of fuck was in front of the parking lot next door which my wife’s family leases to the bento shop on the other side, (but we’re pretty sure the bento shop is secretly collecting eminent domain money from the incompetent dupes at JGov.) which means that our driveway is now relatively free, but that there are often traffic jams in front of our house due to Iizaka kaidou being shut down to one lane. 

Nevertheless, the overstepping of the bounds of decent human conduct continues.  Last week, one of the fuckers that vaporizes the sidewalk was late or something and didn’t want to wait thirty seconds for traffic going the other way to pass, so he just turned right into our driveway and drove across our fucking lawn to the parking lot next door.  Not only is this unacceptable, but he drove ridiculously fast not more than ten feet from where my older daughter was playing.  We now must be careful in our own yard.

Yesterday morning, we woke up to a cement mixer parked in front of our door.  My wife was unable to even leave the house to go to the store.  She called the prefectural government to complain, finally, after months of abuse.  Nothing came of it.  Today, one of the workers asked my Father-in-law if he could use our hose to “wash his hands”, and when my Father-in-law said yes, the crew proceeded to use our garden hose for construction purposes like mixing cement and cleaning tools for the rest of the day.

Coincidentally, there is another ongoing construction project (It’s amazing how quickly we realize thems-a-roads needs a fixin’ when the economy’s bad.) near one place where I work, the parking lot for which has (of course) been commandeered by the workers.  So, as I’ve been doing a lot lately, I parked down the street – in the exact same place I’ve parked many times recently – walked to my school, and taught my lesson.   

Wasn’t I surprised when I went back to my Father-in-law’s car and saw a parking ticket stuck to the window.  A more paranoid person would have immediately started listening to Alex Jones’s radio program.  

Not that sidewalks don’t need to be vaporized with jackhammers occasionally, but the attitude of superiority, the give an inch, take a mile bullshit, and the disrespect for private property is really too much for a lot of people.  These public works fuckers represent the government, and they represent the attitude the government has towards the people.  Although anecdotal, experiencing this kind of thing over and over (especially in dealings with the police) makes people want to keep power as far away from the government as possible.

 

h/t John Cole

Read It or Leave It

In General Principles on October 21, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Do you want a roundhouse kick to the face from a guy wearing these bad boys? I didn’t think so.There is an unjustified consensus among expats that living in East Asia ruins your English ability.  It’s true I find myself forgetting how to spell simple words and making high school mistakes when it comes to word choice or style, but in general my English has improved since I came here. 

To follow up on my last post, this is because English teachers have to think about literally every word that comes out of our mouths; we gradually habituate to using terminology and grammar that our students can understand. 

When I came upon the works of Kay Hetherly a few weeks ago, it became clear to me that not only could expats write well, but that they could write well because they were expats.  Hetherly’s Hemmingway-like paucity of words and exactness is something to which I aspire. 

I just finished teaching Hetherly’s essay “Love it or leave it” to an intermediate student.  In less than 700 words, she connects the expression “take it or leave it” to hand-me-down clothes, dating, the 60s, the American flag, and then she takes it back to clothes, all while encouraging the reader to allow his mind to wander freely.  Hetherly is one of the best pure writers I’ve come across in years.  Her essays, each of roughly the same length, are like tightly coiled springs ready to release deep, philosophical introspection:

One of the most interesting variations (of the expression “take it or leave it”) came about in the 1960s.  During the Vietnam War, people who supported the war used this slogan against the protesters: “America, love it or leave it.”  You could see these angry words on bumper stickers and signs all over the country.  The message was a very strong one: the protesters were unpatriotic, un-American, and even unwelcome in America.

An image of the American flag was often part of this slogan.  It was used, like national flags everywhere, as a symbol of pride in the country and support for the government and its war effort.

The American flag has a lot of power as a symbol.  In the past, it wasn’t ever used as a popular design on T-shirts or bags.  At a very young age, I was taught, like most American children, that you must never let the American flag touch the ground.  In other words, it should be treated with great respect.  Knowing this, the protesters used the flag, as a symbol of the government, to make their protest clear to everyone.  Some burned it and others patched holes in their jeans, especially the seat, with material from a flag.  In response to “America, love it or leave it,” they were basically saying, “America is ours too, and we’re not leaving.”

I wasn’t old enough in the 60s to be active in the anti-war movement.  But the slogans and images of that period made a strong impression on me.  Even now, I feel a little uncomfortable when I see the American flag on clothes or bags.  For most Japanese kids and a lot of young Americans, it’s simply a popular image of America.  But for me, and many others of my generation and older, it can never be quite so simple.

This speaks to a discussion going on at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen in response to the first post of new blogger Ned Resnikoff about the Baby Boomer perception of the Information Generation as self-absorbed and shallow.  I think the example of the American flag illustrates how, if we are indeed self-absorbed and shallow, it’s because we were made this way by the previous generation.  (I don’t think we’re particularly self-absorbed and shallow; but I do think we’re rather independent and we value heterodoxy as a virtue in itself.) 

Here, in essence, is what happened to the American flag:

1.  The American flag is an abstract symbol of the country meant to be respected and not used in vain.  The flag is not meant to touch the ground as a legacy of the times when armies relied on standard-bearers for effective collective action. 

2.  During the Vietnam War, the American flag is exploited as part of bumper stickers and signs as a symbol to support the war. 

3.  Hippies counterexploit the flag by tearing it up and incorporating it into their clothes.

4.  Industry realizes that there is money-making potential in exploiting the flag as fashion.

5.  Worn out, the American flag becomes severely meaningless for young people (or it is mere material for absurd comedy, as pictured above).

It is of course unfortunate that this happened (but not super unfortunate.  It’s a good thing Americans value the Constitution more than the flag, even at the peak of the flag’s rightest revival in 2006.), but the story of the American flag is an example of a pattern that has recurred across our culture for the last forty or fifty years or so: the right exploits something, the left counterexploits that something (or vice-versa), business exploits that something, that something is left valueless. 

I like to characterize American politics and the culture war especially as “the two most extreme positions shouting at each other and laying waste to everything between”.  If there is a turn inward to be observed in my generation, it is the withdrawal that is all that remains in the smoldering ashes of the battlefield of what was once our traditional culture, morality, and ideals.