Quotulatiousness

April 27, 2015

Automated epistemic closure

Filed under: Media,Politics,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown talks about the time she got blocked by a bot:

The first time I noticed it I merely found it odd: a person whom I had never interacted with in any way on Twitter had blocked me. But then it started happening more frequently; I would click on someone’s handle after seeing an interesting retweet or mention and find myself blocked by yet another stranger.

If you’re not familiar with how Twitter works, blocking someone prevents them from following you, messaging you, and showing up in your mentions. The feature was designed to compensate for Twitter’s notorious inability to really banish abusive users. Unlike other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter makes it easy to create multiple and anonymous accounts, so someone who violates Twitter’s terms of service can be back on the platform in about five minutes. Blocking gives any user an instant way to tune someone out entirely.

But as I mentioned: my blockers were people I had never tried to follow and never so much as tweeted “hi” at, let alone anything disagreeable, abusive, harassing, or unkind. And I had few to no friends in common with these individuals, making the chance of me being frequently retweeted into their timelines very unlikely. How did these people even know of me, let alone find me odious enough to block me?

And then I learned about the Block Bot. Created by Twitter user @oolon, the Block Bot “automate(s) the blocking for anyone that signs up, so you don’t need to … worry about what trolls are trolling the twittersphere -> they will be removed from your timeline seamlessly,” as its FAQ page states. Subscribe to the Block Bot, and anyone added to the list will automatically be blocked by your account.

Well, isn’t that special? You no longer need to worry about uncomfortable notions getting through your personal social media bubble … you don’t even need to think about it: you just farm out control of your Twitter feed to the crowdsourced notions of what other people think you don’t need to see. I’m sure there’s no possible way this could go wrong…

QotD: Where to use trigger warnings

Filed under: Media,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things. Colleges run by people on the left can slap big yellow stickers on books that promote conservative ideas, saying “THIS BOOK IS RACIST AND CLASSIST”, and then act outraged if anyone requests a trigger warning that sounds conservative – like a veteran who wants one on books that vilify or mock soldiers, or a religious person who wants one on blasphemy. Then everyone has to have a big fight, the fight makes everyone worse off than either possible resolution, and it ends with somebody feeling persecuted and upset. In other words, it’s an intellectual gang sign saying “Look! We can demonstrate our mastery of this area by only allowing our symbols; your kind are second-class citizens!”

On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix. Put trigger warnings on books, but put them on the bullshytte page. You know, the one near the front where they have the ISBN number and the city where the publishers’ head office is and something about the Library of Congress you’ve never read through even though it’s been in literally every book you’ve ever seen. Put it there, on a small non-colorful sticker. Call it a “content note” or something, so no one gets the satisfaction of hearing their pet word “trigger warning”. Put a generally agreed list of things – no sense letting every single college have its own acrimonious debate about it. The few people who actually get easily triggered will with some exertion avoid the universal human urge to flip past the bullshytte page and spend a few seconds checking if their trigger is in there. No one else will even notice.

Or if it’s about a syllabus, put it on the last page of the syllabus, in size 8 font, after the list of recommended reading for the class. As a former student and former teacher, I know no one reads the syllabus. You have to be really devoted to avoiding your trigger. Which is exactly the sort of person who should be able to have a trigger warning while everyone else goes ahead with their lives in a non-political way.

Scott Alexander, “The Wonderful Thing About Triggers”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-30.

April 26, 2015

Giovanni Guareschi

Filed under: Europe,Humour,Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I first read the short stories of Giovanni Guareschi when I was about ten years old. Much of the political content flew right over my head, but I enjoyed the interplay of the two main characters, Don Camillo and Peppone, in their never-ending battles in the un-named tiny Italian village somewhere in the Po valley. From the beginning of this post, you can tell that Sarah Hoyt is also a fan:

Years ago on this blog I talked about “Technique of The Coup D’Etat” by Giovanni Guareschi and I typed the beginning in here. I shall copy that. (Assume typos are mine.)

At ten o’clock on Tuesday evening, the village square was swept with wind and rain, but a crowd had been gathered there for three or four hours to listen to the election news coming out of a radio loudspeaker. Suddenly the lights went out and everything was plunged into darkness. Someone went to the control box but came back saying there was nothing to be done. The trouble must be up the line or at the power plant, miles away. People hung around for half an hour or so, and then, as the rain began to come down even harder than before, they scattered to their homes, leaving the village silent and deserted. Peppone shut himself up in the People’s Palace, along with Lungo, Brusco, Straziami, and Gigio, the same leader of the “Red Wing” squad from Molinetto. They sat around uneasily by the light of a candle stump and cursed the power and light monopoly as an enemy of the people, until Smilzo burst in. He had gone to Rocca Verde on his motorcycle to see if anyone had news and now his eyes were popping out of his head and he was waving a sheet of paper.

“The Front has won!” he panted. “Fifty-two seats out of a hundred in the senate and fifty-one in the chamber. The other side is done for. We must get hold of our people and have a celebration. If there’s no light, we can set fire to a couple of haystacks nearby.

“Hurrah!” shouted Peppone. But Gigio grabbed hold of Smilzo’s jacket.

“Keep quiet and stay where you are!” he said grimly. It’s too early for anyone to be told. Let’s take care of our little list.”

“List? What list?” asked Peppone in astonishment.

“The list of reactionaries who are to be executed first thing. Let’s see now…”

Peppone stammered that he had made no such list, but the other only laughed.

“That doesn’t matter. I’ve a very complete one here all ready. Let’s look at it together, and once we’ve decided we can get to work.”

Gigio pulled a sheet of paper with some twenty names on it out of his pocket and laid it on the table.

“Looks to me as if al the reactionary pigs were here,” he said. “I put down the worst of them, and we can attend to the rest later.”

Peppone scanned the names and scratched his head.

“Well, what do you say?” Gigio asked him.

“Generally speaking, we agree,” said Peppone. “But what’s the hurry? We have plenty of time to do things in the proper style.”

Gigio brought his fist down on the table.

“We haven’t a minute to lose, that’s what I say,” he shouted harshly. “This is the time to put our hands on them, before they suspect us. If we wait until tomorrow, they may get wind of something and disappear.”

At this point Brusco came into the discussion.

“You must be crazy,” he said. “You can’t start out to kill people before you think it over.”

“I’m not crazy and you’re a very poor Communist, that’s what you are! These are all reactionary pigs; no one can dispute that, and if you don’t take advantage of this golden opportunity then you’re a traitor to the party!”

Brusco shook his head.

“Don’t you believe it! It’s jackasses that are traitors to the Party! And you’ll be a jackass if you make mistakes and slaughter innocent people.”

Gigio raised a threatening finger.

“It’s better to eliminate ten innocents than to spare one individual who may be dangerous to the cause. Dead men can do the party no harm. You’re a very poor Communist, as I’ve said before. In fact, you never were a good one. You’re as weak as a snowball in hell, I say. You’re just a bourgeois in disguise!”

Brusco grew pale, and Peppone intervened.

“That’s enough,” he said. “Comrade Gigio has the right idea and nobody can deny it. It’s part of the groundwork of Communist philosophy. Communism gives us the goal at which to aim and democratic discussion must be confined to the quickest and surest ways to attain it.”

Giggio nodded his head in satisfaction, while Peppone continued: “Once it’s been decided that these people are or may be dangerous to the cause and therefore we must eliminate them, the next thing is to work out the best method of elimination. Because if by our carelessness, we were to allow a a single reactionary to escape, then we should indeed be traitors to the Party. Is that clear?”

“Absolutely,” the others said in chorus. “You’re dead right.

“There are six of us,” Peppone went on, “And twenty names on that list, among them the Filotti, who has a whole regiment in his house and a cache of arms in the cellar. If we were to attack these people one by one, at the first shot the rest would run away. We must call our forces together and divide them up into twenty squads, each one equipped to deal with a particular objective.”

“Very good,” said Gigio.

“Good, my foot!” shouted Peppone. “That’s not the half of it! We need a twenty first squad, equipped even better than the rest to hold off the police. And mobile squads to cover the roads and the river. If a fellow rushes into action in the way you proposed, without proper precautions, running the risk of botching it completely, then he’s not a good communist, he’s just a damn fool.”

It was Gigio’s turn to pale now, and he bit his lip in anger, while Peppone proceeded to give orders. Smilzo was to transmit word to the cell leaders in the outlying settlements and these were to call their men together. A green rocket would give the signal to meet in appointed places, where Falchetto, Brusco and Straziami would form the squads and assign the targets. A red rocket would bid them go into action. Smilzo went off on his motorcycle while Lungo, Brusco, Straziami and Gigio discussed the composition of the squads.

“You must do a faultless job,” Peppone told them. “I shall hold you personally responsible for its success. Meanwhile, I’ll see if the police are suspicious and find some way to put them off.

Don Camillo, later waiting in vain for the lights to go on and the radio to resume its mumble, decided to get ready for bed. Suddenly he heard a knock at the door and when he drew it open cautiously, he found Peppone before him.

“Get out of here in a hurry!” Peppone panted. “Pack a bag and go! Put on an ordinary suit of clothes, take your boat and row down the river.”

Don Camillo stared at him with curiosity.

“Comrade Mayor, have you been drinking?”

“Hurry,” said Peppone. “The people’s Front has won and the squads are getting ready. There’s a list of people to be executed and your name is the first one!”

Spoiler alert, though this is not one of the stories that you read for the denouement: by the end of the story, the entire cell except Gigio is crammed in Don Camillo’s closet, as each successive comrade shows up to try to save him and is shoved into the closet as the next one comes along.

Then it is revealed that they didn’t in fact win the election, but more importantly, the entire cell, which had lived in fear of the Stalinist *sshole who pulled book and fervor on them every time and made everyone of them live in terror of being denounced as insufficiently fervent, now knows who the enemy really is. That is, each individual now knows he is not an isolated individual surrounded by good party members who will turn on him, but one in a collection of decent individuals kinda sorta following an ideology but not so far it blunts their humanity and ONE isolated *sshole turning them against each other for the power.

At the end of the story, Peppone finds Gigio proudly waiting to send up the red rocket and kicks him all the way to main street.

Gigio’s power is gone, because he’s revealed to be ONE individual working for himself and only that, and a hateful, little one at that.

If you’d like to know more about Guareschi and his work, you could do worse than to read the entries at The Little Blog of Don Camillo, which unfortunately hasn’t been updated for a few years, but has lots of details both about the Little World and its author.

April 25, 2015

QotD: Political speech and political thinking

Filed under: Media,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.

April 23, 2015

Rand Paul against the machine

Filed under: Liberty,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Timothy Carney says that the “war on Washington” that keynotes Rand Paul’s nomination campaign is “the fight America needs”:

Rand Paul launched his presidential campaign Tuesday, skewering the “special interests that use Washington D.C. as their own private piggy bank.” His campaign home page blared the headline “Defeat the Washington Machine.”

This sort of campaign against Washington is a cliché these days, but for Paul, it’s a real thing. He’s been fighting this fight since he entered politics. And that’s why the Republican Party needs him today.

Recall how Paul won his first political race: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had handpicked Secretary of State Trey Grayson for Kentucky’s open Senate seat in 2010. Eighteen Republican senators funded Grayson in the primary. Only one funded Paul. Grayson raised half a million dollars from PACs in the primary — 20 times what Paul raised from them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Grayson in the primary. Paul attacked Grayson for the “AIG Lobbyists” who threw fundraisers for him, which were swarming with lobbyists.

This was the K Street/GOP Machine. Rand Paul demolished it, beating Grayson by 23 points. That victory, on May 18, 2010, was the day the dam broke in the Tea Party flood.

Since he’s come to Washington, it’s been the same story: Rand Paul against the machine.

QotD: Corrupting the youth

Filed under: Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Since Plato’s Republic, politicians, intellectuals, and priests have been fascinated with the idea of “capturing” children for social-engineering purposes. This is why Robespierre advocated that children be raised by the state. Hitler — who understood as well as any the importance of winning the hearts and minds of youth — once remarked, “When an opponent says ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already … You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community.'” Woodrow Wilson candidly observed that the primary mission of the educator was to make children as unlike their parents as possible. Charlotte Perkins Gilman stated it more starkly. “There is no more brilliant hope on earth to-day,” the feminist icon proclaimed, “than this new thought about the child … the recognition of ‘the child,’ children as a class, children as citizens with rights to be guaranteed only by the state; instead of our previous attitude toward them of absolute personal [that is, parental] ownership — the unchecked tyranny … of the private home.”

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change, 2008.

April 19, 2015

We must reject Rand Paul for his lack of libertarian consistency

Filed under: Liberty,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

No matter what, we must ensure that Rand Paul does not get support from small-L libertarians because he has not sufficiently supported large-L libertarian issues! Purity above all electoral considerations!

Rand Paul is the Republican son of a longtime Republican House member, but let it never be said that he is not open-minded. In 2013, he confided to Sean Hannity, “I’ve been kind of disappointed, because honestly there were certain aspects of President Obama that I wanted to like.”

I know how he feels. That’s how I feel about Rand Paul.

My old friend David Boaz, author of the excellent new book The Libertarian Mind, told NPR that Paul is “the most libertarian major presidential candidate that I can remember seeing.” I’m a more moderate libertarian than Boaz — or a squishier one — but my general framework is the same. I have a strong preference for free markets, civil liberties, personal autonomy, limited government and a foreign policy of restraint.

I’ve voted for several Libertarian presidential candidates. The biggest single influence on my policy views is Milton Friedman. I absorbed Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand in college. My columns appear regularly on the website of Reason, the nation’s premier libertarian publication.

So I should not be a tough sell for Paul. He sounds pretty libertarian when he says, in reference to the National Security Agency, “the phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business.” He shows a refreshing open-mindedness on criminal justice by envisioning an America where “any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.”

Libertarians are their own worst enemies when it comes to actual political campaigns. Rand Paul probably wouldn’t win the US Libertarian Party’s nomination as he’s not “pure” enough (and his chances of winning the Republican Party nomination are thin enough as it is). Yet he’s the most prominent enunciator and exemplar of the small-L libertarian vision in the current electoral cycle. And libertarians are already denouncing him for his deviationism. Remind me again why we bother with election campaigns if appealing to a wider voting base with more freedom-oriented issues is somehow “anti-libertarian”? Rand Paul probably won’t win the Republican nomination — this isn’t exactly news. Even if he did win, the establishment GOP would probably do to Rand Paul what they did to Barry Goldwater. The raison d’etre of the party hierarchy is to ensure that the “fringe elements” don’t raise too much of a ruckus or (far worse) get their own candidates on the ballot.

I’m not an American, but given the choice of voting for Barack Obama or John McCain, I’d have voted for Obama without hesitation … McCain was almost the perfect anti-libertarian candidate for that electoral cycle. In the next presidential election, could the GOP have come up with a more inappropriate candidate than Romney? I don’t think so, unless they’d somehow nominated a Grand Dragon of the KKK (and I think Senator Byrd was dead by that point). And who does the establishment want as their presidential candidate this coming election? Jeb Bush? Ugh!

When comics met “pedantic didacticism”

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I haven’t read comics since I was a young teen, so I really have no idea what the current state of the comic industry might be. I didn’t expect the rise of pedantic didacticism, however:

I would like to expand upon the point that seems to have annoyed her the most: Bitch Planet is really, really dreadful, you guys.

I’ll confess: I only read the first issue. I can’t imagine purchasing another issue, except maybe to see how dumb the series gets. (That might actually be kind of a fun monthly feature, now that I think about it.) Of the recommendations I received at Fantom Comics, this was by far the most disappointing. Unintentionally hilarious, sure. But disappointing nevertheless.

As I noted in the Post, it’s a comic about women who are sent to an intergalactic prison because they’re uppity. One of the women is then murdered while in this prison so her husband can marry a younger, hotter woman. Because patriarchy!

What I didn’t really get into was the essay at the end of the book by Danielle Henderson,* which drives home all of the lessons from the previous 20-or-so pages.

    No matter how many examples of misogyny I provided, no matter how many times we talked about gender being a social construct, or how many times I asked them to question what, precisely, was natural about male leadership other than the fact that they said it was natural, one person always held out, one person refused to believe that women were culturally oppressed. … The striking thing about Bitch Planet is that we’re already on it. We don’t have to get thrown on a shuttle to be judged non-compliant—be a little overweight, talk too loud, have an opinion on the Internet.

This is a bit like following up John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged with a chapter-long discourse from a Cato fellow about the evils of government handouts. Or like letting Benny Hinn preach over the credits at the end of Heaven Is for Real. Or like including an essay from Chuck Norris on American exceptionalism in the liner notes of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” God we get it.

Frankly, I was being nice by sticking to “pedantic didacticism.” As my friend Jonathan V. Last, a relatively avid collector of comics, said when I emailed him,

    Bitch Planet is so obvious and on the nose I was actually angry at myself for spending money on it. The least artful piece of fiction I’ve read in years.

And that’s the rub: there’s just no art to being a pedantic bore. I’m certainly not arguing that art should be devoid of politics. Just that it should be done interestingly.

April 18, 2015

Moral panics and “Shaken Baby Syndrome”

Filed under: Health,Law,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In L.A. Weekly, Amy Nicholson looks at a new documentary:

It’s never simple when science suffers a shakeup. The road to the truth is littered with fallen experts who were disgraced when they tried to disprove — or prove — the common wisdom, be it that the earth revolves around the sun or that witches float. Today’s researchers are fighting to restore logic in the debate over vaccinations, global warming, and the increasingly hazy medical condition called Shaken Baby Syndrome, whose adherents accuse, pursue and prosecute an estimated 250 parents, babysitters and other caretakers each year.

Veteran investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith has spent years examining the medical and legal industry that has arisen to promote its belief that vicious baby-shaking by enraged adults has killed thousands of infants, the subject of the new documentary, The Syndrome, researched by Goldsmith and directed by her cousin Meryl Goldsmith.

“I made a career writing about child abuse,” she says. Her child abuse investigations as a reporter for The Oregonian led to two new laws designed to better protect kids in foster care. Yet, she also sees extreme, unfounded reactions by well-meaning people when children are involved. Says Goldsmith, “When people hear ‘child abuse,’ all thinking just goes into shutdown mode.”

A diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome was supposed to explain mysterious deaths in babies without bone fractures, bumps, bruises or neck injuries. How did they die? A theory arose that babies were under attack by loved ones. For decades, doctors in the U.S., and dozens of other countries were trained to look for three internal symptoms that experts claimed were proof of a powerful shaking assault on a tiny child: brain swelling, blood on the surface of the brain, and blood behind the eyes. Well-meaning doctors were instructed that these symptoms could only occur due to intense shaking — if a parent or babysitter said the child had fallen or suddenly fell ill, that was a lie.

Proponents of the theory grew so powerful in political circles, where elected officials were keen to show they supported helpless children, that laws were passed across the U.S. requiring a doctor who spotted any of the three symptom to alert authorities. Failure to report symptoms, even if a doctor found the parents’ explanation made sense, could result in fines, civil lawsuits, or even jail time.

We’ve been here before. The Syndrome rewinds back to the 1980s when the big public panic on behalf of children was Satanic Ritual Abuse, a Salem-like national frenzy in which prosecutors and juries in big cities and small towns sent daycare employees to jail for years for crimes as implausible as cutting off a gorilla’s finger while at the zoo, then flying the children over Mexico to molest them.

H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.

How the Hugo Awards became the latest front in the Culture Wars(TM)

Filed under: Gaming,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski talks about the expansion of the ongoing culture wars into the SF and Fantasy communities:

This is the era in which we are all being drafted in the Culture War. It doesn’t matter if you’re secular or religious, political or apolitical, frat boys or geeks, hipsters or bros. Nobody gets to be neutral or sit on the sidelines, because we’ll all be expected to make our obeisance to the latest politically correct opinion handed down to us by a Twitter mob.

By now, we know the basic ingredients of a typical skirmish in Culture War 4.0. It goes something like this: a) a leftist claque starts loudly pushing the “correct” Culture War position onto b) a field previously considered fun, innocuous, apolitical, purely personal, or recreational, and c) accusing anyone who opposes them of being a racist, sexist, bigot who relies on oppressive “privilege” to push everyone else down, while these claims are d) backed up by a biased press that swallows the line of attack uncritically and repeats it.

Any of that sound familiar? It’s just daily life for anyone on the Right, and it’s slowly becoming daily life for everybody else. Ask Comet Guy.

The innocuous field in which the personal is suddenly discovered to be very political might be fashion, music, toys, sports, or sex, not to mention weddings, flowers, cake-baking, and pizza.

Or video games. Or science fiction.

Which explains the latest, wide new front of the Great Social Justice War: Gamergate*, and the battle over the Hugo Awards, a prestigious annual fiction award for science fiction and fantasy writers.

Hugo nominations are not made by a cloistered group of experts. They are voted on by anyone who becomes a “supporting or attending member” of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. This has usually meant that the voting is limited to a small pool of a few thousand die-hard science fiction fans. But in practice it means that anyone willing to shell out $40 can cast a ballot.

Science fiction has always been a fertile arena for exploration of big ideas — much more so, these days, than highbrow “literary” fiction. The use of fantastical science fiction premises allows authors to project a future in which everything is done differently, or in which human nature itself has been altered, and this leads them to ask questions about what is really natural, necessary, or essential to human life and what is merely conventional, artificial, and unnecessary. It has been remarked that “big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.”

Clearly, all of this freewheeling exploration of ideas has got to stop.

April 13, 2015

Will it be principle or will it be power?

Filed under: Liberty,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At National Review, Kevin D. Williamson looks at the Rand Paul campaign:

The question before Senator Rand Paul is whether Republican primary voters — and voters in the general electorate, if it should come to that — are in the market for libertarianism by the bushel or measured out with coffee spoons.

For those seeking a general validation of libertarian principle as the guiding light of the Republican party and the conservative movement, there’s no improving on a man called “Rand” who launched his campaign at a hotel called “Galt.” But the fact that there is no improving on him is no guarantee that Senator Paul can count on the enthusiastic support of doctrinaire libertarians, who are a cranky bunch, extraordinarily particular and already grumbling that the gentleman from Kentucky is not ready to go the full Rothbard — or even as far as his cult-figure father did.

There are several reasons for Senator Paul’s moderation — or deviation, as the hardliners would have it, from the pure faith of his father. One is that he is not a crank; another is that he does not want to finish in third place, well behind Rick Santorum; a third is that he can tell a windmill from a marauding giant; a fourth is that he understands that in the context of a democratic republic a leader leads and is led in turn.

When my friend Ramesh Ponnuru writes that the senator seems to be “of two minds” about judicial power — and when similar, more worrisome criticisms are made of Senator Paul’s foreign-policy views — that seems to me correct, but as a purely political matter not necessarily a bad thing. The American public is of two minds about a great many things, too, and has rarely punished a candidate for lack of absolute intellectual consistency. Pandering and flip-flopping? That’s one way to put it. But only the most hopeless sort of ideologue refuses to accommodate the fact that there is a limited real range for effective political action, and that range is defined by what the electorate is willing to accept. There is much to be done, and one can hardly blame Senator Paul for fishing where they’re biting.

April 9, 2015

Politicians love to build infrastructure – they’re not as eager to maintain it

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Media,Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Politicians love big infrastructure projects, from gala announcement — featuring plenty of face time in the media for the politicos themselves — to ground-breaking, also featuring lots of media along with hard hats and “first shovel” action through to grand opening, usually featuring lots of media along with ribbon cutting and some sort of first action involving the newly built bridge/dam/tunnel/streetcar/etc. For some inscrutable reason, politicians are much less eager to get involved in making sure that the glitzy new infrastructure of a few years back gets appropriate and timely maintenance (and the permanent bureaucracy in charge of the now-built infrastructure have rather different long-term goals):

I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives

  1. Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance. If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
  2. If you want to understand a government agency’s behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency. I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency’s position or priorities, try applying this test: What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll. You will find this explains a lot

To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits — and perhaps most important of all — the prestige of an agency’s leaders is set by its headcount and budgets. Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff. Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency’s budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts. Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept. By the way, this is not unique to public agencies — the same occurs in corporations. But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.

This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets. When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff. They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.

The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers. This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.

April 8, 2015

Venezuela’s economic plight

Filed under: Americas,Economics,Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

J.R. Ireland sums up the Venezuelan situation:

The current fate of Venezuela is one of the most wretched and tragic foregone conclusions in modern history — an economic system that was doomed, from the first optimistic days of its implementation, to fail miserably and to beggar the poor, beleaguered Venezuelan people as it did so. There was no other way it could conceivably end. This sort of command economy has been tried continuously throughout the 20th century and humanity’s failure to learn from socialism’s shortcomings is the primary reason the next century is unlikely to greatly improve upon the last, at least from a human rights perspective.

So anyone who had paid attention to the decay, stagnation, and eventual collapse of every command economy of the 20th century knew immediately that Chavista socialism would be no more successful than Castro’s socialism, Mao’s socialism, Lenin’s socialism, or Pol Pot’s socialism and would end, eventually, in the same great grey void of hopelessness, impotence, shortages, inequity and despair. Therefore, those of us who actually know anything about the failings of such command economies cannot be particularly surprised by the fact that condoms currently cost $755 for a 36 pack of trojans, that authorities have begun making it illegal to shop more than twice a week in a desperate attempt to alleviate shortages, or that women must now wait in long lines to get something so simple as tampons. This was guaranteed to occur all along and the foreordained Day of Judgment was only ever so slightly delayed by a period of high oil prices which allowed the Venezuelan government to paper over systemic failings with a vast influx of petrodollars.

What I now have to ask is this: When can we expect an apology from the various ‘enlightened’ and ‘caring’ progressives who applauded Chavez during his rise to power, who claimed that every one of Chavez’ failings was the fault of bigoted American imperialists undercutting the Savior of South American, and who declared Chavez to be some sort of righteous admixture between Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and George Washington?

QotD: Top 10 reasons not to be a leftist

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00
  1. Gun control. Liberals are completely wrong about this. A fair number of them know better, too, but they sponsor lies about it as a form of class warfare against conservative-leaning gun owners.
  2. Nuclear power. They’re wrong about this, too, and the cost in both dollars and human deaths by pollution and other fossil-fuel side-effects has been enormous.
  3. Affirmative action. These programs couldn’t be a more diabolical or effective plan for plan for entrenching racial prejudice if the Aryan Nations had designed them.
  4. Abortion: The liberals’ looney-toon feminist need to believe that a fetus one second before birth is a parasitic lump of tissue with no rights, but a fetus one second afterwards is a full human, has done half the job of making a reasoned debate on abortion nigh-impossible.
  5. Communism. I haven’t forgiven the Left for sucking up to the monstrous evil that was the Soviet Union. And I never will.
  6. Socialism. Liberals have never met a tax, a government intervention, or a forcible redistribution of wealth they didn’t like. Their economic program is Communism without the guts to admit it.
  7. Junk science. No medical study is too bogus and no environmental scare too fraudalent for liberals. If it rationalizes bashing capitalism or slathering on another layer of regulatory bureaucracy, they’ll take it.
  8. Defining deviancy down. Liberals are in such a desperate rush to embrace the `victimized by society’ and speak the language of compassion that they’ve forgotten how to condemn harmful, self-destructive and other-destructive behavior.
  9. William Jefferson Clinton. Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator. There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles should have been. Liberals worship him.
  10. Liberals, by and large, are fools.

Eric S. Raymond, “Top Ten Reasons I’m Neither a Liberal Nor a Conservative”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-19.

April 7, 2015

Senator Moynihan

Filed under: Government,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In City Journal, Fred Siegel looks at some recent books about the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Monihan:

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the four-term senator from New York who died in 2003, was that rare soul who was both a political and intellectual giant. Stephen Hess, who worked in the early Nixon White House as an aide to Moynihan, was the rare individual friendly with both Moynihan and Richard Nixon. The Professor and the President is a short but revealing memoir-cum-narrative of Moynihan’s service in the executive branch.

What brought Nixon and Moynihan together was a tectonic shift of the political plates. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the backlash against the riots that had ripped through America’s cities. What made Moynihan a Democrat of extraordinary insight, willing to serve a Republican president, were his reactions to those riots — and to the excesses and wrong turns of American liberalism.

Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”

His capacity for irony notwithstanding, Moynihan came close to a nervous breakdown and “emerged changed” from the experience. He came to feel “that American liberalism had created its own version of a politique du pire (i.e., the worse the better) … in which evidence had been displaced by ideology.” His fear that the empirically oriented liberalism of his youth was under assault from racial and cultural nihilists intensified after the 1967 riots that burned through Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 died. “The summer of 1967,” Moynihan wrote at the time, “came in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal legislation, liberal electoral victories and the liberal dominance of the media … that we have ever experienced. The period was, moreover, accompanied by the greatest economic expansion in human history. And to top it all, some of the worst violence occurred in Detroit, a city with one of the most liberal and successful administrations in the nation; a city in which the social and economic position of the Negro was generally agreed to be far and away the best in the nation.”

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