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Your Final Chance to Understand These Men (and me)

In General Principles on February 24, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I was late tuning into the debate tonight because (a) I was busy reading Clifford and the Grouchy Neighbors to my kid for his pretend-to-go-to-bedtime story, and (b) I forgot all about it. I’ve got a lot on my plate these days, and unless one of these presidential hopefuls stands up and says he’s ready to sign seal and deliver my wife’s green card before the weekend they have nothing I care to hear.

The digital clock on my laptop from Japan read 10:20, which meant it was 8:20 here when CNN’s live feed finally came stuttering onto my screen. Romney was talking – no surprise – and in the first 45 seconds covered balancing the budget, cutting taxes, English immersion schools, life begins at conception, an embryo farming veto, balancing the Salt Lake City Olympic budget and, as a successful businessman, understanding the crucial importance of fiscal conservatism. Nothing, nada, zilch about speeding up the green card process for pregnant wives of US citizens. Strike One Mitt. You are out of touch with my needs.

Moderator John King, who I mistook at first for Anderson Cooper after an extended Valentine’s Day chocolate binge, asked Newt Gingrich a question with more modified phrases than Arizona’s border has snipers. Newt looked as bored as I feel when Sam Harris is trying to make another one of his non-points, but he took advantage of the probability that no one else in America knew what the question was either and proceeded with what would become the theme for the night: support what the last guy said, but then add a caveat of booger-flicking. ‘I agree with Mitt,’ an oddly fresh-looking Newt said, not detailing which of the fifteen points Mitt just raised he agreed with. ‘But a $200,000 capital gains tax cut-off is lower than Obama’s limit by $50K and I don’t like class warfare.’

Yes, Newt, we know what you like. Which brings me to something I’ve been thinking: If you take a good look into Callista Gingrich’s eyes, does the word ‘predatory’ come to mind?

All of a sudden Newt is on the subject of a border fence. I guess that could have been part of John King’s question. I don’t know if Newt realizes it, but he basically just outlined how far one would have to walk into the desert to get around the wall he said he helped build along the California border. The only thing Newt didn’t do is say it in Spanish.

Next up, a slap-fight between Mitt and Rick about earmarks. Mitt: I’m going to call for a ban on all earmarks. Rick: But you asked Congress for X million dollars to help fund the Salt Lake Olympics. Mitt: Well you supported it. Rick: Because you asked for it, and I only supported half of what you wanted. Mitt: You supported the Bridge to Nowhere. Rick: Yes because you can’t veto an earmark, you can only veto the bill it’s tacked onto. So let me say that as President I’ll vote for a line-item veto. And anyway (he says after Mitt gets him with a wet willy), Ron over there is the biggest earmarker…

Newt jumps in with two slick remarks: ‘With Obama you need a Republican House imposing certain things on the President’ followed by ‘I wanted money for Salt Lake (schmoozing Romney again) but then to run an ad against someone doing the same thing?’ (Newt has interesting boogers.)

Ron Paul finally gets a scrap of time, which he uses to throw up his hands in histrionic disgust. ‘The problem is Congress doesn’t know what they’re doing.’ I can’t decide if such vague, over-reaching statements are more or less convincing coming from Ron Paul. He then makes the point about money being taken from the highway fund going to fund our wars, then when it’s time to fix our roads we have to scrape up money from somewhere. Okay, excellent point. So why isn’t Mr. Paul leading in all the polls with statements like this? Because deep down, Americans, I believe, would rather see news of troops in the desert than tar spreaders in the Midwest.

A question from the gallery about bailouts. Santorum is in principal opposed to government intervening and manipulating the market, and (note the set-up here) opposed the Wall Street bailout. Rick asserts that the government redirecting how an industry works is destructive, and oh by the way Mitt voted bailout for Wall Street but not for the auto industry. Mitt: ‘After 3 auto industry CEOs flew their private jets to Washington to ask for $50B I wrote an op-ed calling for a managed bankruptcy, then if they need help out of bankruptcy I said okay then maybe we could help them.’

Okay, sounds fair I suppose, but how many in that Arizona audience of hundreds of people – and my cyber-audience of four – has any idea what Multi-Million Mitt might mean by ‘okay let’s help them’?

Regarding the Wall Street bailout, Mitt explains, ‘I don’t want to save any Wall Street bank, but I didn’t want all the banks to fail.’ Why not? Now that would be a news segment the entire country could enjoy. Minus the banks of course but who cares about them? … Oh yeah. The guys in charge of the country – including the news.

Newt, refreshingly short and sweet tonight, notes that BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota are all doing fine running their American factories, so why should we enable our own car companies when they refuse to change? Seriously, the guy makes sense more often than I care to admit.

Ron Paul throws his hands up again. ‘Free market in defense of liberty, that’s what we need!’ Then he flashes a grin like Grandma just cut the apple pie into too few slices for everyone at the table.

I think Obama’s got Detroit pretty much wrapped up.

A commercial break, during which my laptop screen displays tweets by three people CNN thinks are worth paying attention to, plus Piers Morgan to draw in the American Idol crowd.

A question from the audience about birth control. Why is this a federal issue? Washington has much more pressing concerns – like getting my pregnant wife her green card.

Newt: Obama voted to allow doctors to kill babies who survive abortions. (This is simply not funny.)

Mitt: Obama said the government should be able to tell the church who their leaders should be and was shot down by the Supreme Court 9-0. (This, Obama claims, was payback for his 9-0 win over the Supreme Court in a recent free throw contest.)

Rick: My opinion regarding the dangers of contraception are based on a problem in our culture; teens getting pregnant, children raising children, children born out of wedlock…

While I can agree these are problems in our culture, I’m a bit lost as to why, at least in the short term, contraception is a danger and not, call this wild speculation, a possible remedy. Then he adds something about drug use, leaving us to figure out why.

Ron Paul, left again to bring up the rear, seems exasperated that the government hasn’t extracted itself from these issues already. ‘Like gun control,’ he says. ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ Which is to say pills don’t make people have sex, people make people have sex? Alcohol, on the other hand, might be a significant culprit but we already tried putting the lid on that one.

After some proselytizing by Mitt and Newt, Ron Paul (I don’t know why, I have a hard time calling him just Ron) says Planned Parenthood should get no funding whatsoever.  Now this…this is a guy who truly stands by his beliefs. Because regardless of your personal position, with stances like this it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine Ron Paul and Susan Komen in the near future commiserating on a park bench somewhere drinking bottom shelf booze out of brown paper bags.

Next Rick and Mitt start kicking each other under the table as they squabble about RomneyCare and ObamaCare and Arlen Specter. Meanwhile Newt is staring at the floor to his left, avoiding Callista’s stare in all likelihood.

A man from Kingman, Arizona stands up and asks: ‘What will you do to secure our border?’

Ron Paul gets a rare first shot at an issue. He says we need to forget about the Afghan-Pakistan border and take care of ours. Helping illegals is only hurting our schools, our hospitals…  You know, after ten years in Japan my credit report here in the US is blank and now I can’t even get a Target card, how do these people get to go to school?

Mr. Paul winds up his minute by asserting that by subsidizing something you only get more of it. (Living here at Mom’s I would tend to agree.) Thus his call for ending benefits and welfare for illegals. Fortunately the others are itching to speak and Ron Paul doesn’t have to suggest what to do with all those illegals on the streets. Maybe he’d round them up with the money saved from ending all foreign wars and put them on the work crews rebuilding the highways. Alternatively, we could send them to the Middle East to fight for us.

Now Newt is telling anyone who cares that they can sneak into California easily enough using two 35-foot ladders. Again he stops short of saying this in Spanish but CNN runs a translation on the ticker at the bottom of the screen.

On the question of whether to seek out and arrest illegals, Mitt endorses the practice of using E-Verify, which, he points out, has helped Arizona reduce the number of working illegals by 14% – whereas the national average is 7%. Hey, can anyone out there verify these numbers?

By the way, did you read the first line on the E-Verify page? ‘U.S. law requires companies to employ only individuals who may legally work in the U.S.’ So Mitt is endorsing following the law. He adds companies should have to pay fines if they hire illegals. I said this years ago, in an email to my family. I’m sure they all deleted it by now, likely without having read it. And without my family’s support how can I ever hope to get into one of these debates?

Rick Santorum gets into the issue of homeowners who have illegals working for them, but suddenly my wife comes down and sits at the table and immediately I can’t concentrate. A pregnant woman has this sort of power. She doesn’t even have to say anything. In fact, it’s worse when she doesn’t and just sits there. Staring. As I try to pretend I’m doing something important.

Imagine Callista pregnant. Newt would probably forget he was President.

No commentary on my chat with the wife.

Back to Mesa, Arizona, and Mitt is commenting on education in America. (I think I heard something about the No Child Left Behind Act a moment ago.) Mitt argues that in America, kids don’t learn, they simply learn how to learn, so they have self-esteem, even if they can’t read ‘self-esteem’.

I agree with the part I understand.

Our moderator is winding up this last debate before Super Tuesday by asking each of our four contestants what they think is America’s biggest misconception about them.

Ron Paul says the biggest misconception Americans have about him is the idea – perpetuated by the media – that he can’t win. In Iowa, he notes, he did the best out of everyone when pitted against Obama in a voting poll. He’s also currently in second place in terms of delegates won. Maybe he should let this myth continue until Mitt and Rick slap and kick each other to death.

Newt says the American people are seeking someone who can solve problems, and wishes the American people knew how much work it took to accomplish what “we” did. So what is the misconception, Newt? That you got a lot done over the course of your career?

Mitt says we need to restore the American dream and we thus need big change in DC. John King interrupts and asks Mitt to stick to the misconception idea. Mitt fires back by saying ‘You can ask what you want, I can give any answer I want.’ Wow. In other words, ‘Stick your question where the sun don’t shine so I can beat my dying horse.’

Santorum: ‘Obama has the media behind him and lots of money he doesn’t have to spend campaigning. But we have vision, we have principles, the people are looking for someone running a campaign on a shoestring and doing a lot with a little.’ These guys don’t have a lot of money. I don’t think this is a widely-permeating misconception.

And with this ends the GOP Debate season. I hope my fellow Americans have been paying attention.

Particularly to me. This election, and the future of our country, are hanging in the imbalance.

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Going For Brokered

In General Principles on February 18, 2012 at 5:56 am

JournalistBack on January 15th I groaned in vague disappointment at the news that Jon Huntsman was leaving the race for the GOP presidential nomination. I say disappointment because after extensive research consisting of skimming a BBC News summary of the then-remaining hopefuls and my own analysis of the New Hampshire debate a week earlier, I had come to the conclusion that the former US Ambassador to China was by far our best hope for a sane and at least moderately-reliable President.

I say vague because something told me he would be back.

Well now, today, that very possibility seems to be materializing.

Mr. Huntsman is not actually mentioned in this article by Steve Holland, Journalist, but the mere specter of a brokered convention this August gives me hope that the door is still open for him to step up and lead our great country. (I understand that history does not paint a rosy picture for me here but I’m not one to base my political insights on things like reason and considered thought.)

The piece began with the helpful (for me) note that a brokered convention ‘could result in Republicans ditching their current crop of candidates and turning to someone else who they feel would have a better chance of defeating Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.’ Immediately I thought of this Bugs Bunny cartoon.

A month ago Romney seemed to be cruising above the rest of the field, his fellow combatants either dropping out (too little support, too much ass-grabbing) or simply rising and falling too easily with the demographic tides. Now, almost inexplicably, the staunchly staunch conservative who couldn’t even get re-elected in the Amish State has suddenly become the fly in Romney’s snake ointment, leading the Equitymeister in his own home state of Michigan. But, as the article states, ‘many senior Republicans do not think Santorum has a chance to beat Obama if he wins the party’s presidential nomination.

This is where Steve Holland, Journalist should start peppering the conversation with names like Jon, Huntsman, and Jon Huntsman. Instead (sigh) he brings up ‘two popular governors, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey’ – as if Steve Holland, Journalist knows something just because he ‘has worked for Reuters in Washington for 20 years, and spent 16 of those years at the White House covering Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush. He covered the 2008 presidential campaign.’ (Source: Reuters) Furthering his anti-credentials, he then goes on to mention Jeb Bush. Seriously? Are things really that bad around the GOP campfire? Honestly, I don’t know a thing about Jeb except for the fact that his last name is Bush – which is enough for me to hope they keep looking. Congressman Paul Ryan’s name comes up next; I hear he spends as much time in the gym as Obama spends on the links, which may be a good campaigning point for both sides.

From here Steve Holland, Word Counter slips in two quick paragraphs headed by three words sure to start the Dems trembling in their PETA-approved wingtips: Palin Offers Help. On Fox Pravda, Steve Holland, Regurgitator reports, Palin said that if it comes down to a brokered convention she will do whatever she can to help fix it.

Finally we are offered an explanation as to how, since candidates win delegates based on the number of votes they receive in each state, the delegate count could be split among the candidates to the point where no one reaches the ‘magic number of 1,144’ needed to clinch the party nomination. What is not explained is why they don’t just count up the votes.

Steve Holland, Political Genius, then posits the advantages of an outsider winning a brokered convention nomination. This guy’s rundown of the brokered convention of 1880, however, might be a tad more useful for a guy like Chris Christie.

Summing up the situation, Steve Holland, Seer, says this: ‘A staggered Romney could trigger a move to find a fresh face to run in a way that would avoid a brokered convention. There is still time for a candidate to get his or her name on the ballot for nominating contests in big states like California, New York and New Jersey.

Mr. Huntsman?

“If you see Romney lose Michigan, I think there is just going to be a cry for another candidate who is not Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

Mr. Huntsman!!

Convenience, Coffee & How We Use Our Time

In General Principles on February 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm

My New Year’s Resolution – the one about time-management – is slowly taking hold. (Thank you, I know, it’s a tough one.) After washing today’s lunch dishes in record time (only one thing broken) I jumped onto the pc, leaving the wife to play zookeeper with the boys since that is her job. Then I started plowing through a dozen critical, mindless tasks: checking my e-mail for that inevitable offer of employment (if they want me bad enough then yes, they will contact me on a Saturday); promoting the Staten Island Film Festival on facebook (if Broccoli can get 16,000 fans, this shouldn’t be that hard); and shamelessly throwing my work at the latest ‘Look at what a great writer I am!’ website, among other things.

My powers of concentration, or maybe denial, are strong enough to get all this done even as the boys are shoving plastic train tracks in each others’ ear canals. When the bigger one sticks his thumbs in his little brother’s eye sockets, however, it’s time for me to take a break from my assault on the world and give my wife a break from the world’s assault on her.

She came back an hour later, the blood vessels in her forehead having receded. I told her to relax for a while longer, setting the stage for my permissioned escape to Dunkin Donuts.

Honestly, I was going to go to the library. I did go; rolled right up to the front door. But by now it was 3:30, and the laminated sheet on the door with their hours told me I’d have barely enough time to get settled at one of the desks, warm up my laptop and arrange my pile of notebooks (yes the paper kind) before I’d have to pack it all up again. Waste of time, that would be, so without hesitation or a trace of compunction I headed up the street to the only other place nearby where I knew I could sit down and plug in and work on my next novel.

Dunkin Donuts, bless their accommodating souls, is the subtle epitome of excess and waste. To wit: a few weeks ago I went out for doughnuts donuts with a bunch of family, and, one by one, everyone ordered – and everyone got his or her own donut in his or her own private brown paper bag. (This, perhaps, the result of an old woman who sued Dunkin Donuts for $15 million for allowing some of her husband’s Boston crème to get on her toasted coconut?) So we pushed two tables together and sat down and ate and ended up tossing eleven virtually unused brown paper bags in the trash. Or we would have if my wife hadn’t rescued most of them from the landfills of Rutherford so she could use them for snacks or hand puppets later on.

I hate waste. Whenever I go to the supermarket I try to remember to bring used plastic bags with me. Of course then they end up at the bottom of the cart under $113.45 worth of groceries, and by the time I’ve dug them out the cashier has rung up and bagged the first $80. But I try. At Dunkin Donuts their manic efficiency trumps my intentions, and barely before I’m done giving the 6’4” teenage man-boy my order a 5’4” teenage girl has appeared out of nowhere and is already slipping my custard-filled friend into a brown paper bag. Then I get my 20 oz. coffee – which I am going to drink right there in the same room – in a sturdy paper cup with a plastic lid that I swear was designed by NASA. Seriously, if an astronaut dropped this coffee it would likely make it through re-entry. Think I’m exaggerating? Maybe, but this plastic lid has a patent pending. It even says so – it’s molded right into the underside, beneath the cap’s removable accessory, which I will get to in a moment.

Ingenuity and invention made this country great; I am not knocking the power of creativity. And the features of this hyperbaric coffee cup top are undeniably handy. The flexible plastic arm is molded just right to snap into and out of the tiny oval through which your caffeine jolt flows. Not ready for a sip? Not to worry, not a drop of coffee nor a molecule of steam shall escape until your seatbelt is fastened and you are backing out of your parking space with one hand and one eye, your other eye and hand making sure your coffee is safe in its holder. For the less than plastic lid savvy, the word LIFT is molded into the tab at the end of this little plastic arm, form-fitting and snug to the contours of the lid so no one cuts a lip on any stray corners or edges and sues for $15 million.

Flip this arm up to drink your coffee and it totally gets in the way; you have to push it away with your nose (one hand is on the wheel, remember?) while trying to purse your lips over that tiny oval so you don’t spill on yourself, and if you hit a bump that arm can shoot right up a nostril ($10 million, easy). NASA’s coffee lid division has this covered though – you simply bend the arm back and snap the end onto the perfectly-shaped and sized convex knob at the far edge of the lid. You can find it in between the two molded arrows flanked by the molded, easy-to-follow instructions: ‘LOCK’.

I can hear the physics nerds grumbling. If that lid is on so tight, how do you account for the problem of air pressure-liquid displacement (or whatever the terms) when you drink? Good question, geeks, but your geeky compadres at NASA have it covered (that was a pun you geeks). Check the picture up there, you’ll notice that flexible arm has an extension, a larger interlocking modification to the original, simple round and flat coffee cup lid of yore. I couldn’t understand why that flexible arm had to be attached to the mother ship by this huge subliminally Batman-shaped clamp that takes up most of the lid space between the twin LOCK warnings and the all-American requisite ‘Caution Hot’ disclaimer (and a mysterious ‘16RCL’ – an alien-landing reference code maybe). Then I saw them: two microscopic chevron-shaped cuts in the plastic, one to let air into the core of the bat chamber, the other – located clear across on the opposite wing – to allow for air flow into the cup itself. If you ignore the ‘Caution Hot’ and suck your coffee down too fast the speed of the air entering and exiting the bat cave will create a whistling sound, eerily similar to the sound of a faraway police siren, which very effectively encourages you to find a place for your coffee other than in front of your eyes. And if you’re spooked enough to chuck your coffee onto the floor, no worries. That lid will hold long after you’ve gotten your license and registration back. (This assuming NASA has received the appropriate funding to develop a nano-gyroscope that will alert that robotic arm to snap itself shut.)

What a wonderful resume of technological achievement and lawsuit prevention we have.

To top it all off (another play on words you humorless geeks) Dunkin Donuts coffee cups sport a list of all the things that the efficient, tree-slaughtering folks behind the counter can put in that cup for you – sweeteners, among other things. Next to each possibility is an oval, to be filled in with a number two pencil so Joe’s coffee with Splenda doesn’t get mixed up with the coffee with Equal John asked for, or the coffee with Sweet ‘n Low Jane ordered. Fortunately none of them will end up with Jean’s coffee with sugar, those extra calories are killer.

It is 11pm, February 11. I am renewing my resolve to manage my time better. Tomorrow I am going to intervene in the basement before my wife starts screaming for an exorcist. Next trip to the Food King I’m going to throw my plastic bags at the cashier before she puts that first box of cereal through that beeping scanner thing. And on Monday, or whenever I can escape and get back to my novel, I’m going to intercept that stealthy little girl behind the counter before she wastes another brown paper bag or smartlid on me.

Or maybe I should really go nuts with the discipline and get to the library earlier.

Nah.

Hobbes: Authority

In General Principles on January 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm
legitimate rule
<Cross-posted to the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.>
Since Rufus and Jason have covered Hobbes in such excellent detail thus far, my contribution to this discussion will be more about tying up loose ends.

As a student, I read Hobbes four different times in four different contexts for four different unrelated courses, and that’s how I feel Hobbes is best approached: through a plurality of heterodox methodologies and interpretive structures. We’ll attempt to do that below.

Claim 1: “Hobbesian” is a relative term.

A question at the center of any discussion on Hobbes is often: what does the eponym “Hobbesian” mean, essentially? Jason made reference to Wittgenstein in his most recent post on the topic. Rufus asked the question non-rhetorically. I’ll expand on the discussion of semantics and claim that the best definitions of “Hobbesian” stand in contrast to other prevailing ideas of the period.

Hobbes is usually studied in relation to the positions of Locke and Rousseau. Regarding Hobbes and Locke, Hobbes felt that universal surrender to an absolute sovereign is the only way to secure civil society, while Locke’s political thought went on to serve as a primary influence for the American democracy. In contrast to Rousseau’s optimism about human nature – that men are inherently good – Hobbes argued that men are inherently weak; in contrast to Rousseau’s belief in the noble savage and the morally-cancerous influence of civil society, Hobbes believed that the state of nature was a state of perpetual suffering and that only the stability of civil society could foster human flourishing.

These two ideas: (1) the Hobbesian positive (commonly called pessimism about human nature); and (2) the Hobbesian normative (the necessity of a strong, central authority) comprise an internally-consistent school of thought that stands with Lockeanism and Rousseauvianism as one of the three pillars of social contract theory. The debates hashed out centuries ago between these three thinkers still rage strong today.

Claim 2: More than Locke and Rousseau, Hobbes is overstated.

When we discuss Hobbes, the focus is on what is excluded. When we discuss Locke, we are eminently inclusive. Perhaps because our national mythos is so deeply rooted in Locke, every value judgment we’ve made on Hobbes’s normative has assumed a certain totalitarianism, that without some Seventeenth-Century despot sentencing traitors to death and razing villages for failing to meet turnip quotas the whole Hobbesian system falls apart and we all eat each other.

On the contrary, a cold and distant monarch is often a maximizing condition for liberty. It has been paraphrased that a libertarian (i.e. – one who places liberty above other societal values) is someone who wants the government to run only the military, the courts, and the police force. What are the military, courts, and police force but Hobbesian bulwarks to keep us from slaughtering each other? We tend to forget or neglect the Hobbesian base on which the Lockean superstructure is built – both in terms of American society and in terms of intellectual history. We conflate power with authority, assuming this authoritarian base must be a person – a totalitarian dictator – when it can just as easily be an institution or a shared belief.

In Case You Decided to Watch Football Instead

In General Principles on January 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Two minutes ago I was staring at the all-important Lions-Saints matchup down on the Bayou, an evening of passive adrenalin infusion ahead of me when I remembered the other game being televised tonight. Thanks to someone in my neighborhood providing unsecured Wi-Fi I am now at the dining room table, ready to hunker down with the last six of our highly-funded and eminently-talented GOP nomination pool. It is 8:58pm; I’ve got an oversized cup o’ joe in my belly and my blood is suddenly supercharged thanks to the sparks flying at me from the socket where I was hastily plugging in the old Hewlett-Packard. Add to this my uncanny political judgment, unclouded by any trace of actual knowledge, and I am ready for two uninterrupted hours of Yahoo-powered policy and bickering.

All right so I just missed the opening question because I had to go let out my coffee. Mitt Romney is talking about…ah yes, it’s nice that our economy has been creating lots of new jobs but of course Obama is not to be credited. He hasn’t yada yada, his policies yada yada… Great start Mitt, you’re debating someone who is not even in the room.

Santorum up next. No surprise that Romney took Iowa, but I was taken aback at Santorum’s showing. Iowa has one chance every four years to prove to the rest of the US they aren’t a bunch of pig punters and a quarter of them vote for a guy whose name is too close to sanitarium to be taken seriously. I’m not expecting big things, from Rick or my upcoming book-signing in Estherville, a quick three and a half hour drive north from Des Moines. 

The former Pennsylvania senator says Iran is our biggest problem. No, Iran is Israel’s biggest problem.

Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos running the show tonight. And a third guy yet to be identified correctly. I don’t know what his last name is, but it is not McElveen like he wants us to believe.

Newt Gingrich, answering a question someone asked while I was telling my kid to get back in bed so the world doesn’t miss a moment of my insight, says ‘we can’t go in and turn companies upside down and leave the workers behind.’ Well-spoken, former Freddie Mac consultant.

Romney gets another green light and makes a hard right back into Obama. I get the idea the guy is looking ahead just a wee bit.

Jon Huntsman suggests that in making decisions about who is best qualified to be a leader, voters should look at what each of them did as governor. As far as I know beer is still disproportionately expensive in Utah so right there Jon-boy has some work to do at home before he takes over the country.

Ron Paul is visibly aging as he watches the tennis match going on around him. Wait, okay he’s on and ramming into Santorum. Oops, no he’s not. Defective microphone, he’s being interrupted, check out Perry on the far right over there, twiddling his thumbs and whistling at the ceiling. Cheater.

Paul serves a hard one at Rick’s proclivity to keep voting to raise the spending limit. Rick answers with a lob over Ron’s head but Ron sees the spin and smashes it right back. My mind is so keen I don’t even have to know what these guys are actually saying, I simply know what is and isn’t bullshit. So far it’s mostly bullshit.

‘I am a cause guy,’ Santorum proudly states in defense of his record, which, he points out, includes a fight to defeat Cap and Trade, a nod to the coal industry his father worked for. Honestly it is hard for me, never having been in a coal mine, to imagine a tougher job than coal-mining. (Ironing dress shirts runs a close second.) I respect those who sweat it out every day to put food on the table. I’d rather have a beer with a ditch digger than a hedge fund manager. But can we please move on to more intelligent energy sources?

Romney is standing back a step from his podium, hands in his pockets, an easy grin on his face like the cat watching the mice fight over who is going to try to put the bell on him.

Rick Perry is spouting off about Entitlement Reform, citing the areas of health care, welfare and every other program using money we should be throwing at the military.

It just occurred to me, Ron Paul is the only one up there that doesn’t have a decent head of hair. Okay Rick is borderline. And the delineation between black and gray on the side of Huntsman’s head screams toupee.

Jon Huntsman is relating his four experiences living overseas, including once as the US ambassador to China, to his being the best leader on the stage. Mitt’s answer to that is ‘well, better than Obama for sure’ then leans on the accelerator as he unloads on the present administration’s shortcomings. Seriously, if you replace the other five with Obama – or even five Obamas – or three Obamas and two Charles Darwins – Romney would likely not change a single word from his script.

Rick Perry just said something about the military’s ‘thee-AY-ters of operation.’ If it meant I could hear him say ‘thee-AY-ters’ constantly for four years I would vote for him. He just followed that up with the assertion that putting DOD money in other places (like programs for people who think they are entitled to such absurd luxuries as food and Geritol) will put the US at risk. Okay, forget that ‘thee-AY-ter’ vote.

Newt just called himself an army brat. I don’t know, to me the guy just seems to think he only has to speak and the entire country will be enlightened. He doesn’t talk like he can’t believe people can be so stupid; he talks like it has never occurred to him that people can be anything but.

Ron Paul is too easily agitated to become the nominee. That goofball smile at the end of every mini eruption does nothing to assuage my uneasiness about the guy. I do like his enthusiastic angst when it comes to our foreign policy. ‘I was against the war but I went when I was called, I didn’t defer five times,’ he says. Newt (I didn’t know who that jab was for at first, silly me) says he was married with a kid and a father in the Mekong at the time. Ron Paul, suddenly standing so straight he’s now taller than Romney, tells Newt ‘I was married with two kids and I went.’ Cheers from the crowd. ‘I didn’t defer, I was ineligible,’ answers Chameleon.

Whoa, Ron Paul is trying to steal the black vote from Obama now with this rant about how blacks are disproportionately drafted, as well as disproportionately arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. When is the last time you heard that in a Republican debate?

Mitt is still debating Obama. Meanwhile Perry over there is debating the very theoretical possibility of human rationality. The rest are just having a verbal hair-pulling fight.

First break: commentator Neera Tanden doesn’t know why no one is going after Mitt. Matt Lewis doesn’t understand why Ron Paul can’t present as logical. Terry Moran is freaked out because he’s floating in mid-air, eighty feet above Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House in apparent full view of the snipers on the roof. What’s up with that backdrop? Neera and Matt, meanwhile, are backed by a ground-level shot of the Lincoln Memorial. This makes no absolutely sense. I don’t want to listen to these people anyway, I want to see who’s got Evian in their podium and who has Jack Daniel’s. Ron Paul will have some Pepto sitting by if he knows what’s good for him.

Two more commentators, in a gymnasium. Looks like someone dropped the ball on reserving a conference room. ‘Ron Paul is really speaking from the heart,’ one of them says. Well then I’d say he’s on his way to a heart attack.

Back to our debate. Behind George and Diane and that guy using the alias there are several men with suits on.

They have suits in New Hampshire?

Next up: A state’s right to ban contraception use. Really? This is an issue? Wait I get it, with the NFL wild card game on NBC, they need to sex up the debate to garner a few extra Nielson points. I’m pulling for the Bengals by the way, just because of that guy who did a flip into the end zone.

Romney is avoiding answering George’s question on the subject, and I think he has a point. Who cares? Seriously. Who…cares?… Mitt shifts over to the tangential matters of marriage and abortion. George keeps harping on the contraceptive thing, asking if there should be a constitutional amendment. Romney basically tells George and his hairdo that hasn’t changed since high school to take his question and stuff it.

Diane Sawyer just spent forty seconds on a blithering lead-in to her question about…Christ I don’t even know.

Newt is onto something regarding the ‘sacrament of marriage’. See, this is the whole thing I don’t get: If there’s separation of church and state, why is the word marriage even mentioned? Marriage is a religious institution is it not? The issue, properly stated, is about civil unions. Get it straight you guys. (I can say guys without reprobation now that Michelle Bachmann is gone.)

Jon Huntsman gives a nice peaceful answer; he is married with seven kids (inserts a joke about the non-issue of contraception, hardee-har) and is not ‘threatened’ by the idea of same-sex civil unions (yes Jon, one point for correct terminology usage). I guess that means he is not concerned that his wife is going to run off with Lady Gaga (yes that is a prediction)(about Lady gaga).

Sorry Ron Paul, I like some of your ideas and your fervor is admirable but I think you are going to lose your shit when you come face to face with your first veto.

Wait, the Catholic Church is being ordered to stop its ministerial service to the community (specifically in the area of adoption I think?) altogether because they are not supportive of gay marriage? This is like telling McDonald’s to stop selling hamburgers because some people are vegetarian. Or you know, something equally stupid, make up your own analogy if mine isn’t good enough. Point is, if separation of church and state means my kid can’t pray in school, then it also means the state can’t pontificate in my church.

Gingrich says we are not going to solve any huge regional problem militarily. Thank you. Newt for Secretary of State. (Did I just say that?)

All right, Santorum reminds me of someone I was friends with in college and I can’t figure it out. I don’t think I want to, since most of my friends were knuckleheads and my judgment of him is clouded enough.

Perry says we should send troops back into Iraq. Rick, if you had a snowball’s chance in hell ten seconds ago, you don’t now. What’s that? Without US troops Iran is going to go back into Iraq at the speed of light? How fast does light travel in your world Mr. Perry?

Newt states we need a new energy policy, because we need to get away from our dependence on the Middle East, then we can more effectively deal with the Middle East. All right, whoever kidnapped the real Newt Gingrich…you can keep him.

Another break: Half of the Manchester, NH skyline is taken up by what looks like a massive Motel 6.

Back to those two commentators in the gym. The guy says Perry is done with that comment about sending troops back to Iraq. I already said that. Get these clowns out of there, let’s see a basketball game. Basketball practice even. A game of horse.

Ron Paul is probably slipping into a cardigan sweater and slippers right about now.

Rick Perry sticks his chest out any further and he’s going to fall over backwards.

Third debate moderator Josh McElveen’s real last name is either Llewelyn or Sajak. Just look at the guy.

I want to know what those little things are on Mitt Romney’s tie. They look like Kewpie Dolls.

Newt looks better from the front than from the side. All things being relative.

Jon Huntsman wants to close $1.1 trillion in tax loopholes and deductions and put this money toward housing, health care and education. Rick Perry is now thinking of sending US troops to the US before such madness destroys the security of the country.

Mitt wants to bring corporate taxes down to the 25% level. This of course does not apply to oil companies, whose tax rates will remain at 0% – so they can use that money on new energy projects for the country, except not for the Tar Sands Pipeline project which, I believe I read, and someone PLEASE tell me I am mistaken, will be funded by the taxpayers as a concession the GOPers demanded in return for backing off on the payroll tax issue and letting the little people actually put a few more dollars in their pockets – temporarily.

Close-up of three people in the audience. They are either spellbound or utterly lost. With any luck they will read this in the morning and understand everything.

Perry is the only one up there who parts his hair on the right – except for Ron Paul, who doesn’t have a part. He has a combover.

Did Perry just say we need to get all the resources we can from federal land? Okay people, go visit your National Parks real soon – unless you work for Halliburton in which case you will have exclusive and unlimited access if Mr. Thee-AY-ter has his way.

Jon Huntsman: ‘No one on this stage is calling for an end to all loopholes and deductions.’ Another oddity for a Republican debate. You’d expect ‘any’, not ‘all’.

Romney just basically told Stephanopoulos to start asking better questions.

I wish Mitt’s tie was that shade of blue that doesn’t show up on TV.

The girl from Ratatouille is in the crowd, I just saw her.

Santorum: There is no middle class in America. …What? Ah, he prefers the term ‘middle income’ because we shouldn’t be focusing on class. Exactly my attitude in college. Which explains why I knew so many knuckleheads.

Romney is using his business experience to bolster his assertion that he knows which regulations kill and which create jobs. This after Huntsman has pointed out that Massachusetts ranks 47th in job creation.

Huntsman is the only one taking jabs at Mitt, who is suddenly standing there looking like his best man just got loaded before giving the wedding toast.

Romney: We simply have to tell China to stop undervaluing their currency. Huntsman: Shao shan jing jian fow shu wan wan. I think Huntsman wins.

Break time: Neera says Santorum finally took the populist argument to Wall Street. He did? When? I really need to figure out who he looks like so I can move on. The two geniuses in the gym agree that Newt needs to make sure he doesn’t blow his top and ruin his good performance. Give me a break, if the guy were any more mellow he’d be asleep. He sounds like Ron Paul slipped a prescription sedative into his Fanta.

Last question for our six hopefuls: If you weren’t here, what would you be doing on this Saturday night? Perry – I’d be at the firing range. Shooting at targets spray-painted with the word Medicaid. Newt – I’d be home watching basketball…no wait, football. Ron Paul snickering. Santorum – Watching football. True populist. Romney – Home with the family, or if they were all asleep I’d be reading an economics book. Liar. Huntsman – I’d be on the phone with my two boys, who are in the service. Cue National Anthem. Hmm, either I missed something or they skipped Ron Paul because he was still busy snickering at Newt.

And that’s a wrap, time for the master-debaters to shake hands. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum shake and look at each other with the same ‘You are stupid’ expression.

Back in the gym I hear the sound of doors opening and closing. Maybe we’ll salvage the evening with a little intramural scrimmage. Terry Moran says Huntsman speaking Chinese (it was Mandarin you twit) was a big mistake. This after saying, in the previous break, that he thought it was the best moment of the debate. The guy parts his hair on the same side as Perry, I guess we can expect a similar level of cranial acrobatics.

To a new team of analysts: Head #1 – has absolutely nothing to say and his tie is tied like he is in middle school. Head #2 – is quoting Romney’s staff and detailing his travel itinerary; no ideas of his own, and it appears from the bags under his eyes he is fresh off a bender. Head #3 – bald and not exactly attractive so he must be there for actual intellectual capabilities; starts in with a boxing reference to illustrate everyone’s seeming reluctance to throw punches at Romney. My guess is this guy was never picked first for kickball. Head #4 – Hands down the worst necktie of the night. Head #5 – her mouth is barely moving as she speaks, like she isn’t quite thawed out all the way after thirty years in the cryogenic lab. Head #6 – a democratic strategist who maintains Romney is the weakest GOP candidate which is why no one is attacking him.

To the side of the screen Yahoo has been putting up these questions. I just voted ‘yes’ for ‘Did you like when Huntsman spoke Mandarin?’ so I could see the results and make some kind of sarcastic, cynical, wildly speculative so as to be ludicrous assumption about the people who vote on questions on Yahoo. The vote was pretty dead even between yes and no.

Head #3 says Perry is wacko for his troops back to Iraq and Iran moving at the speed of light comments. Who said this thirty minutes ago? I told you I was ready. I should be in that chair, not that pasty pastry. I have much nicer neckties too. Somewhere. Also says Huntsman passed on punching Romney. Really? The guy can’t lower beer prices maybe but thanks to him I now know that Romney’s Massachusetts sucks at job creation.

Bald Head – Romney stayed out of the fray for the most part but did take a jab or two at Huntsman. This, he says, was Romney saying ‘I’m not passive. Here’s how I show strength.’ What, by tossing a last-minute bit of criticism at a candidate on the voting fringe? Forget my whole ‘he’s bald so he must be there for legitimate purposes’ theory. He has as much to say as the rest of them.

In the gym Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor, is going on about how Huntsman is the only one of the six who understands that national security depends on understanding the rest of the world. Great, now does anyone understand why this conversation is taking place on a basketball court?

The question keeps being raised: Why isn’t anyone attacking Romney?

Answer: Because no one wants to screw up their chances of being picked for his running mate.

Someone needs to hire me to commentate on the next debate.

Neera Tanden, I just realized, has bed head.

On second thought, if this is a subtle indication of what it takes to score a gig as a commentator for these silly discussions I think I’ll pass and watch the NFL instead.

How Do You Translate ‘Wa’?

In General Principles on December 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I remember talking with Billy, a guy from Vancouver who married a Japanese girl and was living in Fukushima. His son was a few years older than mine, and had so far survived what concerned me now about my two-year-old speaking much more Japanese, at a higher level, than English. Yes, he was only two, but this was the kind of thing I’d rather tackle sooner than later.

‘Kids pick up on these things,’ he assured me. ‘The pronunciation, the details.’ But what he said next gave me pause. ‘They say a kid will keep developing that language base until he’s ten or twelve years old.’ Which made me wonder: first, what if all of a sudden I turn around and my son is a teenager and doesn’t have that solid English foundation? And second, are we still going to be living in Japan ten years down the road?

This was in October. In December I brought my family to the States for Christmas, and after four weeks my son returned to Japan speaking better English than Japanese. It didn’t take long for his Japanese to catch up again, and I redoubled my efforts to not only keep him speaking English but to constantly add new words and expressions to his repertoire. (After years of teaching English as a foreign language it is too easy to fall into the habit of slowing down, and dumbing down, one’s own speech.)

This Spring we spent three months in the US, and in September we moved here for good (for now). Naturally, ironically, my concerns have shifted from my son’s English capacity to his ability not just to hang on to his Japanese but to continue advancing it.

The most common response by far to my sons’ bilingual upbringing is how advantageous it will be professionally. Sure, fluency in more than one language can open doors and broaden horizons. Yet I’ve always placed its value closer to home: I want my kids, now and next year and when they are ten and fifteen and twenty-five, to be able to express themselves like any other kid or teenager or young adult, in either language. If my son wants to his mom to help him with his homework, or explain to him why some kids push other kids around on the playground, I want him to be able to do it without having to think about the specific words he and his mom are using. If my son wants to learn how to fix his bike or throw a curveball, or needs to talk about girls and the pressures of his peers, I want us to be able to understand each other beyond just the words we share.

More than just the familial advantage, I’d like my sons to grow up able to identify with both of their blood aspects. I can go to Japan and talk to people and get around and enjoy the country and culture; yet there will always be things, no matter how good my Japanese gets (and right now it’s getting worse), that my Western mindset will have trouble absorbing. Why would the guy who tends impeccably to the garden across the street be so flustered by our compliments that he’d feel uncomfortable telling us – my Japanese wife even, let alone the gaijin – his name? (True anecdote.) It is my hope that my sons will spend enough time in Japan to feel they have, to a great enough extent, grown up with the cultural mindset and, in turn, never feel at odds with their Japanese heritage. In this, language, I believe, is critical.

 Language and culture are deeply intertwined; there are no adequate translations into English of so many expressions the Japanese use daily to show gratitude, respect, humility – in other words, to preserve the wa. Any foreigner can learn how to say and when to use these, though. The more complex constructs and nuances of communication, both spoken and implicit, are what keep a gaijin like me butting mental heads with the co-worker who goes out of her way to tell me how my rice, fresh out of the microwave and utterly devoid of vegetables or soy sauce or a single grain of salt, ‘looks so delicious’. Miyuki, it’s plain rice. Was she surprised I could heat up a plate of rice? Did she want some? Did she feel compelled to say something nice because I was in the room when she walked in and any less would threaten the wa that had yet to be established? Outwardly I could just say ‘Thank you, I love rice’ or something similarly symbiotic and we could both carry on with our harmonious lunch break. But inside I had to wonder. I still do. Maybe someday my son can explain it to me. If not, at least he’ll understand himself what those around him are really saying and, more importantly, what they mean. And in things far more consequential than lunchtime summations.

The Great Translation, the Perfect Extrapolation, the Transcendent Communication is the final step that I hope my sons will discover as they grow up with two languages. The concept came to me just last week, as I was watching a high school basketball game with my older boy. I know I’ve been away ten years and that I may be experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock, but when did these kids turn into Kevin Garnett? They walked by me and my son before the game, in a slow, attitude-laden line, sporting warm-ups quite possibly sponsored by Nike and each plugged into his own iPod. They loosened up while scanning the crowd, trying and missing fancy lay-ups while Eminem boomed and shook the rafters. Once the game was on they celebrated the other team’s turnovers by jumping and bumping shoulders with each other. They pounded their chests and roared in self-approval at every perceived opportunity. They raised a hand in self-admiration watching the ball they just threw up fly toward the basket instead of (come on coach, what are you teaching these guys?) following their shots. This last example may sound picky but really, to me it stood as the epitome of the prevailing mentality.

These kids were damn athletic, admirably (and appropriately) aggressive, and to be honest a whole lot cooler and more confident with themselves than I ever was as a teenager. They were unbridled in their enthusiasm; they were electric on the court. Watching them, I saw what I hoped my son both would and would never be.

And though the qualifications differed, I felt the same way watching a high school basketball game in Japan. No one seemed concerned about who the high scorer was. But neither did they seem like they’d care much if no one scored at all.

The practical dichotomy between East and West is long gone; the ways of the West have crept into, some say exploded into, Japanese society. Sadly, it isn’t just baseball and Baskin-Robbins. High school boys are wearing their pants halfway down their asses – and look every bit as stupid as the Americans they are imitating. On rare occasion I would hear someone – on the street or in the school hallway or on the train – spit out a phonetically skewed fakkyuu, the overriding impression being that their rebellious pride is not at all vitiated by the fact that they have no clue about the ideas they are actually conveying. On a grand scale, the Japanese have succeeded in taking something utterly foreign and, by adopting it, not only stripped it of all meaning but shown themselves extraordinarily capable of being culturally stupid.

One day my wife took me out for a free lunch at a place called St. Verge.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in Japan though they stick to the soft sell, and so we sat through what St. Verge was selling: a mock-up of a Christian Church wedding. All across Japan there are places like St. Verge where people have complete church wedding ceremonies in fake churches with fake priests and every detail tended to, from the big crucifix and the stained glass to the hymnals and the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which nobody, not even the fake priest pontificating about the Holy Mystery, has the first clue or care about. Fortunately for all involved they skipped the Eucharistic celebration.

They weren’t deliberately denigrating anyone’s religion. Still I had to ask my wife. Do people really think this is cool? My question didn’t fully translate. Neither did her answer.

You don’t need language to imitate someone. It helps, however, to understand why you might or might not want to.

As my family and I look forward to the next chapter of our lives I think a lot about the home I want to create. The ideal would be a mix of the things I value from both the Japanese and the American ways of life: one room with a massive couch for watching Discovery Channel and another with a low table (and a hole underneath for my legs) where we’d sit on the floor and eat dinner together; festive Christmases with lots of friends and reflective New Year’s Eves with family; honesty in word and community in deed; cheeseburgers and tossed salad on Saturday, sushi and miso soup on Sunday.

Individuality. Wa. The best of both worlds.

When my kids go off to create their own lives, under the surface I want them to feel completely at home, wherever home turns out to be. I want them to be fluent in two diametrically opposing mindsets. I want them to know and understand where they come from, on both sides, and choose whatever from each makes sense to them. I want the roads they travel to be lined with choices, the wellspring of human empowerment.

So they might have all this, I want them first to have language. Both mine and my wife’s.

Both theirs.

Featured Find: Jason Kuznicki’s The Machinery of… whatever

In General Principles on September 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm

From start to finish, this is probably the best piece I’ve read on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.

My Latest at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

In General Principles on August 12, 2011 at 6:56 pm

I’ve decided to stop cross-posting altogether. Cross-posting cheapens posts and reeks of empty self-promotion. Go read and comment at LoOG. Here is a link and an excerpt:

In order to pretend to have a meritocracy, there must be some semblance of fairness. Since there are only limited resources available to devote to finding the person most deserving of a particular station, some element of abstraction is necessary. Hence, the cover letter-resume one-two punch. (Japan maintains its meritocracy – more successfully I’d argue – via an elaborate public examination system.) The errors wrought of abstraction are enough of a problem to begin with that when (1) gatekeepers and applicants alike forget the reason why cover letters and resumes exist in the first place and start seeing them as ends in themselves; and (2) the number of people tasked to evaluate resumes and cover letters decreases significantly while at the same time the number of resumes and cover letters thrown at a particular job increases significantly, the entire meritocratic job procurement system begins to hemorrhage à la BNET. LinkedIn, a guerrilla wielding a double-machete, jumps out of the jungle to cut through the staggering and blood-gushing meritocracy. Investors applaud. LinkedIn is pro-NMJP, in contrast to BNET’s cargo-cult pro-meritocratic posture. LinkedIn is also favored by companies and well-organized. Before joining LinkedIn, it took me several days to find one job I was interested in, write a cover letter, tweak my resume, and not get any kind of human response; in the same amount of time using LinkedIn, I can fire off ten or fifteen applications and get immediate and cordial rejections to them all. This represents a major increase in productivity; plus, constructive negative feedback is priceless.

More Farms, Smaller Farms

In General Principles on August 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Now made with real fruit!I’d like to respond to Josh’s last post by modeling what I see as the obverse. Economies of scale in agriculture are desireable when the alternative is crippling poverty. Nevertheless, in developed economies where starvation remains of secondary concern to self-inflicted overeating, more food of less homogeneous nutritional composition and higher quality even at higher costs is sorely necessary for the public welfare. Looming over all of this, the Mathusian insight that gave birth to both modern agriculture and modern economics remains true – the human population will always increase at a greater rate than food production efficiency. (My theory is that the Mathusian condition is an emergent consequence of the tendency for humans to be unrealistically optimistic about the future.) 

For this reason, in developing economies, it remains prudent to hedge against economies of scale in agriculture and some of the evils born of placing ourselves too far from the source of our sustenance via extreme and unnatural occupational specialization. (Indeed, it’s possible that all of culture comes from food. And “you are what you eat” is wise on several levels.) The Summer 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly does a good job of balancing and weighing all the complex considerations at the intersection of development, agriculture, poverty, and nutrition.

The short version of my counterpoint to Josh is that what we need in America is different than what we need for countries that can’t feed themselves. It might even be that there’s a natural developmental arch that all civilizations must follow, and the stage that a particular civilization is in determines what course of action that country should take to maximize welfare: first (1) there’s a community wrought of nature based on equality and living harmoniously, where everyone is a subsistence farmer or hunter/gatherer and everyone lives and dies at the whims of the seasons; then (2) primitive accumulation goes down and a primitive capitalist society develops – whether this is a result of contact with other capitalist societies or natural forces, it’s safe to say this is where Africa is; next (3) capitalism matures until it can mature no more – intra-industry national power emerges concentrated in few hands, and these hands – instead of toiling honestly to coordinate supply and demand for the well-being of all – begin to build walls and moats around their citadels (see regulatory capture, patent over-filing, health insurance tethered to corporate employment, credentialing and licensing, etc.); (4) diminishing returns compel a premium to be placed on solving social problems or coerced egalitarianism – this is the stage where the United States and other mature social democracies find themselves; Marx went on to speculate that societies after this stage advance to (5) perfect, blissful communism as the profit motive is grdually removed from aspects of socety where it is (deemed) detrimental to the general welfare. Many others (generally social democrats) think (4) is as far as we can and should go. I think these intellectual frameworks are dangerously naïve and/or cowardly; we can combine lessons learned from (3) and (4) in a self-similar federalist/libertarian/anarchist structure that allows for unfettered individual expression and positive-sum cooperation while minimizing the effects of individual recklessness and coercive association.

Anyways, the last twenty or thirty years have given us the opportunity to see that food suffers from some of the same problems as health care and many other sectors: we’ve regulated it so much that we’ve created a system where having institutional knowledge carries an advantage over having real knowledge (This is the story of modern America if you ask me): economies of scale have progressed beyond the point of diminishing marginal utility to increasingly negative utility in the form of companies spending a plurality of revenue on branding or marketing or building bureaucratic walls around themselves and not devoting efforts towards selling food, but towards selling nutritional components rehashed and assembled from other components bought from the lowest bidder and fortified with just enough sugar and salt to siren consumers into the neutron-star-gravitational-pull of the “bliss point“.

It is precisely because of the success of the capitalist structure that food has become what it is today; that we have to apply the special label “organic” to anything not created in a lab instead of vice-versa speaks volumes to just how unnatural our diet – and by extension our sense of what’s normal – has become. That the label “organic” has itself become a brand adds new twists and turns to our labyrinth of cynical existence. The otherworldly body shapes that spring up from the ether around us manifest the system’s back-end (pun intended).

That all may be rather confusing, so I’ll use more basic parlance: economies of scale is the idea that as a particular company gets larger there is less investment in capital equipment and fewer inefficiencies necessary to produce more of a product, hence the product gets cheaper to produce as more is produced. To produce five ears of corn may cost three dollars an ear, but to produce five-hundred ears of corn costs thirty cents an ear. Economies of scale is the basic premise behind Josh’s argument, that concentration of means of production results in more-cheaply-produced food, and that this is the key to feeding Africa. This is fine up until food companies come up with ever-more-clever ways to reduce costs. Instead of paying thirty cents an ear to produce “corn”, which then can be sold as “corn” and net a revenue of $10,000, companies can pay thirty cents an ear to produce “corn” which is then sold to chemical processing refineries which extract the individual components, remix them, and resell them in profitable ways to generate a revenue of $25,000. Add some shady chemicals pushed through FDA-approval processes to prevent spoilage and net revenue approaches $40,000. The result is that the “iced tea” in my fridge is not composed of ice or tea at all, but it is composed of water, high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, lemon juice concentrate, sodium hexametaphosphate, natural tea flavor, phosphoric acid, potassium sorbate, acesulfame potassium, gum arabic, glycerol ester of rosin, calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, marketing, graphic design, a well-paid team of competent lawyers and brilliant scientists, and an amoral c-suite and board of trustees.

This is our civilization. It is precisely because we are so successful at food production that our children, who cannot make up their own minds about what is fit to put in their own bodies, are being diagnosed at an alarming rate with metabolic diseases normal for individuals age fifty or sixty. In the succinct words of David Quammen (admittedly writing about something else entirely): “ecological disturbance causes diseases to emerge.”

Rejoinders to a New Political Dialectic

In General Principles on June 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

I posted some rejoinders to my original piece “A New Political Dialecticin the comments at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  I have reproduced them below:

1.  A possible litmus test for what constitutes “positivist New Atheism” is that they tend to make the argument that religion is unfalsifiable as if that is an indictment of religion.  Really, religion does not hold itself to the same standards as science (why should it?).  The two work best when kept separate.  Just like I can be a scientist who enjoys art or a scientist who enjoys nature, I can also be a scientist who enjoys religion.

Again, this doesn’t speak to the question of whether or not God exists, (which I made explicit above) and I was hoping not to get into that since it’s been hashed out billions of times and no one has made any progress.  But, since people seem to want to talk about that, from my own personal journey, I know that “Does God exist?” is a difficult question to define precisely.  I’ve settled into a sort of noncognitivist/Spinozan outlook on the divine that places me closer to both a Sufi mystic and a Nietzschean atheist than one who believes I’ve been “saved” by a personal Jesus or the group of people that make vast amounts of money antagonizing believers in personal Jesuses (Jesi?) because their beliefs are not based on the scientific method.

2.  To be honest, I’m really disappointed that comments tended towards an old-fashioned Internet atheist debate, but I fault myself for putting so much about Harris and his positivist atheism at the beginning of the piece.  Burt Likko’s comment is one here that actually engages my argument, which is that political debate should be driven by a dialectical relationship between libertarianism and socialism; I was hoping that more comments would address this contention.

3. Specifically to Elias Isquith: my definition of “authoritarianism” is more all-encompassing than simply being authoritarian regimes.  One of the major problems in American society today that I think we should all be able to agree is a problem is the encroachment of politics into every single facet of life.  It seems like this could be (and has been) rationally explained as the effect of the death of “real” conservatism and its replacement with an aggressive conservative authoritarianism to compete with an aggressive progressive authoritarianism for rule of everything America.  We commonly call this mutated conservatism “movement conservatism”.  How this relates to Lears’s piece: Lears (and everyone else) uses the term “New Atheism” to refer to what should instead really be called “movement atheism”, just another participant in the mad rush to remake the world in one’s own chauvinistic assumptions.  In criticizing “New Atheism” Lears criticizes a positivism which has gone beyond applying itself to science; i.e. the belief that the scientific method should guide not only science but everything else as well.

4. In calling for a dialectic between socialism and libertarianism, I am specifically calling for a socialism that stops allying itself with progressive technocracy and a libertarianism that stops allying itself with social conservatism.  In other words, it’s time that every political issue in this country be discussed in terms of collective solutions designed to realize a greater good vs. individual decision-making.  While Burt Likko suggests above that that is effectively what we have, I would argue to the contrary (It may be how Mr. Likko thinks about political issues, but most people root for their “team” to win so that it can pass bills favoring its own breed of authoritarianism.)  Socialism and libertarianism currently fill roles supporting a system from which they gain nothing.

What this has to do with Lears’s piece: Lears’s piece illustrates some of the themes common to socialism and libertarianism, important themes around which the two approaches to politics can find commonalities.  But this opportunity for commonality is wasted in misunderstanding: Goldwater is classified as a positivist modernist; libertarians are castigated as corporate toadies and exponents of scientism.  Socialists are all equated with Stalin.  I think this antipathy is unfortunate considering that socialism and libertarianism share “a certain epistemic humility; a realist policy outlook; an appreciation for life’s complexities and humankind’s poor ability to understand and tame them; politics as a utilitarian resource and no more; a focus on the agency of the individual; an engagement with the idea of justice as fairness; and a desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to subjectively-defined meaningful existences.

This [original] post is a culmination of a long period of political soul-searching on my part, or trying to reconcile two ostensibly conflicting self-identifications, and it makes me sad that it was so poorly received. Back to the drawing board I guess.

Later I added:

I’ll agree that liberalism was the outright winner of the 20th. Century’s ideological wars, and overall freedom and free markets and whatnot represent the best basis for government, but I also think that it seems probable that liberalism’s monopoly on mainstream political thought in this country is the cause of many of our social problems.

Liberalism (and any ideology really) is most effective when it is restrained in certain regards. It has been an unrestrained and antagonistic liberalism that has given us massive environmental destruction, a selfish and materialistic consumer culture which brought us to the brink of economic collapse three years ago (and will again unless the underlying basic problem is identified and purged), and the growth-at-all-costs model which prioritizes the accumulation of capital regardless of its intrinsic worth over maximizing the welfare of humans. I’m not saying I agree with any socialist positions on these issues in particular (as it is, I think liberal solutions are usually superior), but I certainly value the socialist critique for highlighting these problems and attempting to redefine how we think about some goods: for example, in an age without a frontier, is land not a public good? In a truly globalized age, do the resources of the earth and sea not belong to all? When we have the capacity to provide medical care for all, do we not have a responsibility to do that?

The socialist critique of the corporation is particularly trenchant. Corporations are great at what they do: maximize profit for shareholders; but to try and put any sort of social responsibility on corporations as more interventionist schools of liberalism espouse will only result in a system which rewards the corporations that most effectively create the appearance of compliance. To treat corporations as people and not machines used by people has become a defining feature of modern liberal capitalism. The more socialistic component of the modern liberal system advocates policies which only create incentives and opportunities for those corporations to take the lead to write regulations that crowd out competitors and create barriers to entry. This kind of behavior is bad for all but that company’s shareholders yet we tolerate it as a priori consistent with liberalism.

As you say, a lot of socialist attempts to create competing orders have failed, but some sort of presence of those ideas is valuable as a restraint on a society that throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I still believe socialism and libertarianism can and should be somehow reconciled, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about a bit more.