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Saturday, February 26, 2011

He must be wicked to deserve such pain: The benevolent universe of Objectivism

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been listening to the rhetoric from the right about issues such as unemployment, and I keep hearing things that remind me of the Social Darwinism of the Gilded Age.

Last summer, Sen. Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.) said that "continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

Orin Hatch upped the ante by saying "You know, we should not be giving cash to people who basically are just going to blow it on drugs." So certain is he of the moral failings of the unemployed, he wants to institute drug tests for people receiving unemployment benefits.

At a time when there were five unemployed for every job opening, Republicans refused to extend federal unemployment benefits during the lame-duck session last December unless Democrats agreed to extend tax cuts for the wealthy. Democrats didn't want to extend the tax cuts, Republican did not want to extend the benefits. These reflect two very different moral universes.

One possible interpretation is that the Republican reaction is due to the "just world" fallacy. If we assume that the world is just, when bad things happen to people it must be their fault. The alternative would be to believe that the world is not just.

While liberals have no trouble with the idea that markets are imperfect and sometimes produce unjust outcomes, conservative Republicans are deeply committed to the perfection of market outcomes. Therefore, if you are rich, this must mean that you deserve to be rich, and if you are out of work, this must mean that you deserve to be unemployed.

In the Gilded Age, such feelings were justified by Social Darwinism, the notion that "survival of the fittest" means competition between individuals that produces the result of revealing who was fittest.  An actual biologist might have pointed out the old saw that "the rich get richer and the poor get children.," meaning that the poor were actually the ones passing their genes on to the next generation, thereby showing themselves "fittest."

What killed Social Darwinism was not the fact that it misunderstood the nature of natural selection, but during a long period of recession and slow growth, lasting from 1873 through the Long Depression to the beginning of World War I, it defined entirely too many people as morally defective. Recessions tend to demonstrate that people who work hard and play by the rules can be ruined by circumstances beyond their control.

Social Darwinism was further discredited by the use of a version that focused on race as well as the individual by Fascists in Germany and Italy.

But the notion that success or failure demonstrates the worth of a person is older than Social Darwinism, and did not die with it. As Max Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Calvinists and other protestant sects believed that rather than the devout withdrawing from worldly things to show how devout they were, they should dedicate themselves to the common good by working hard at their profession. This was not a path to salvation, but evidence of it. Salvation was available to Calvinists only through the mercy of God.

While establishing virtue through competitive success and showing evidence of grace through success in worldly matter might seem very different, the actions required are exactly the same. And both establish in the mind of the believer that the established social order gives us just outcomes.

The latest version of demonstrating virtue through worldly success is Ayn Rand's objectivism. From the Ayn Rand Institute website:

"Reason is man's only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua mani.e., that which is required by man's nature for his survival as a rational being (not his momentary physical survival as a mindless brute). Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Manevery manis an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruismthe claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
From another part of the site:

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

 I've written previously about how subjective I find objectivism. Here, I'd like to talk about the individualism and competition in Rand's philosophy.

Consider the first of these two paragraphs. I'm still not sure why man must exist for himself, or why he should not consider the continuation of his line or his society more important than his own limited life span, but we are told that he must. Individualism, then, is essential to Rand's moral universe. Laissez-faire capitalism has its historic roots in liberalism, as the system that interferes least with individual freedom of action.

But it's worth noting that this form of capitalism is not the only form compatible with liberalism.  America's founding fathers had not heard of the word "capitalism" in its modern sense when they made their revolution; those with an interest in economics were mercantilists, and therefore saw a major role for the state in developing the New World. This was compatible with their notions of the social contract and their notion of a commonwealth.

I suspect Rand's rejection of any form of collectivism would extend to the commonwealth and the constitution's provision for "providing for the general welfare." Even those who have read only her shortest book, Anthem, will be aware of her attitude to the notion in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Her philosophy is essentially social Darwinism without the dubious biological justification.

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and keep, “virtue” is the action by which one gains and keeps it.
Virtue, then, is acting to gain what you value. And what should you value? "The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua man..."  So, not entirely without biological justification, but since she insists on survival "as a rational being," survival is not merely biological.

But it is the central concept for organizing values. And those who have acquired and survived have demonstrated virtue.

Her insistence on the importance of the individual would seem to indicate that once the individual had died, the virtue represented by their acquisitions would die with them. One would expect her philosophy to be neutral on the issue of inherited wealth, though there is nothing in it that would suggest it was a bad thing. Yet the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights advocates abolishing the inheritance tax. Why should this be?

From Atlas Shrugged, a speech by Hank Rearden:

Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth—the man who would make his own fortune no matter where he started. If an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroys him. But you look on and you cry that money corrupted him. Did it? Or did he corrupt his money? Do not envy a worthless heir; his wealth is not yours and you would have done no better with it. Do not think that it should have been distributed among you; loading the world with fifty parasites instead of one, would not bring back the dead virtue which was the fortune.
The point, then, is to avoid creating "parasites." Note that the assumption is that the goal of an inheritance tax is redistributive. The money might profitably be used to support the state's activities that Rand approved of, defending individual rights and fending off foreign invaders. But the possibility that the money would be redistributed is the worst sort of hazard, because, as she states on page 91 of The Virtue of Selfishness, "Whoever claims the 'right' to 'redistribute' the wealth produced by others is claiming the 'right' to treat human beings as chattel."

 So we see virtue is established through acquisition, that redistribution is evil, and that wealth redistributed through inheritance is not evil.

The moral imperative seems to be making sure that no wealth is redistributed (except by inheritance,) because doing so would corrupt the people who received it. Herbert Spencer argued that too much benevolence to the undeserving poor would break the link between conduct and consequence that was essential to natural selection. The correlation is not exact, but both believed that to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor was to take from virtue and give to those lacking virtue.

As Richard Hofstadter noted in his 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, "There was nothing in Darwinism that inevitably made it an apology for competition or force. (Petr) Kropotkin's interpretation of Darwinism was as logical as (William Graham) Sunmers." Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution, which proposed that animals helping each other was an important factor in survival, and therefore evolution.  Sumner used one of Spencer's books in teaching sociology at Yale, and wrote extensively on the subject of social Darwinism himself.

So why did social Darwinism take the form it did in America? "...America saw itself in the tooth-and-claw version of natural selection...As long as the dream of personal conquest and individual assertion motivated the middle class, such a philosophy seemed tenable..." Hofstadter tells us.

But it stopped seeming tenable during that long period of economic instability that started about 1873 referred to earlier.  And in the long period of prosperity from World War II to the present, with a few hiccups along the way, it has come to seem tenable again. The version we now hear is more along the lines of Rand's work, but the basic outline of virtue demonstrated through competition and opposition to welfare remains the same.  This is based on the assumption of a "benevolent universe," explained by Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, as follows:

The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.
 The "reality" of the benevolent universe is recognizably that of the "just world" fallacy, poetically explored by Robert Browning in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, when he speaks of seeing a blind, gaunt horse:

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

To see the suffering of the unemployed, to see homes lost, lives blighted, and still believe in the benevolent universe, perhaps it helps to believe that they "must be wicked to deserve such pain."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prof. Gene Sharp and nonviolent action: The most influential book you've never heard of.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Prof. Gene Sharp is one of those academics who think ideas can change the world. He's been writing books, he's started a foundation, and he's a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Hardly the sort of guy to foment a revolution.

And yet, he's been called the Machiavelli of nonviolence, the Clausewitz of warfare without weapons. In 1983 he founded the Einstein Institute, which is devoted to the study and promotion of nonviolent action.

He even did time, jailed for nine months for protesting against the conscription of soldiers during the Korean war. Damn hippie, well before there were hippies.

Yet as dictators fall across the Muslim world, his name keeps coming up. Sharpe refined the ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi and spread them widely. His book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been the foundation for "people power" revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, the Ukraine and Belarus. It's been the basis for those organizing against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and the protests against vote fraud in Iran. The Einstein Institute makes his works available for free download in 60 languages.

Sharp has taken a basic idea first voiced by liberal theorists in the 17th century -- that power, regardless of how the state is organized, ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. John Locke argued that the citizens have a right to overturn a government that does not serve them (an idea so dangerous at the time that he did not allow Two Treatises of Government to be published under his name during his lifetime.) This is a natural conclusion from the basic idea of the social contract.

But Sharp has taken this further, pointing out that if citizens cease to obey a leader, that leader no longer has power. He's worked hard on finding out how to apply this principle, and the Einstein Institute even trained some of the Serbs involved in getting rid of Slobodan Milosevic.

Some have been eager to attribute the nonviolent revolutions in the Muslim world to the availability of Twitter and Facebook for organizing, and I'm sure they played a role, but it matters what ideas people communicate for organizing. After all, Osama Bin Laden had access to the same tools, and he has overthrown not one dictator. The Muslim Brotherhood has access to the same tools, and like Bin Laden, they have overthrown no one. The Serbs didn't have Twitter, they had graffiti, and they had Sharp's book.

The basic idea behind liberal democracies -- that the legitimacy of the state stems from the consent of the governed -- has remade the world.  In America, it first caused the Revolutionary War, which was an incomplete revolution.  As the American Constitution was originally written, slaves counted as 3/5 of a person as far as the allocation of congressional seats, although they were not allowed to vote. In states like South Carolina, where black slaves outnumbered whites, this gave the state enough power in the national legislature to resist efforts to eliminate slavery. Until slavery was eliminated, the American revolution was not complete. The American Civil War began its completion. Violence did not complete the revolution. Nonviolent action, in the Civil Rights Movement, completed it, finally gaining for blacks the rights the defeat of the Confederacy promised them. Martin Luther King, Jr. acted on the basis of Gandhi's ideas, and in so doing, completed the American Revolution.

So if you don't see a liberal democracy growing up immediately in the wake of events in Tunis or Egypt, keep in mind, it took us a couple hundred years to complete our revolution. But the idea behind it is there, and it's a hardy seed, with surprising power to crack the most solid-looking tyranny.

Slavery still exists in parts of the world, but it and absolute tyrants are becoming more rare. Both are threatened by the ideas of liberalism. Even in Egypt under Mubarak, even in Iran, tyrants feel a need to imitate the forms of democracy, to make claims to the sort of legitimacy liberalism demands. It is the compliment tyranny pays to democracy, and a sign that tyranny lacks any legitimacy of its own.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What is liberalism?

by John MacBeath Watkins

In response to this post, a person whose opinion I value referred to me as a "typical liberal."  I am, of course, proud to assume the mantle of Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, but it occurred to me that this raises a larger issue: What is liberalism? I maintain that both those now called liberals and those called conservatives are part of the American tradition of liberalism, which is heavily influenced by British thinkers.

The term was invented about 1840, but the way of thinking about politics goes back a couple hundred years farther.  Hobbes laid out the system of value, in particular that the legitimacy of governments comes from serving the needs of the governed.  He also was the first to talk about man in the state of nature, to reason from there to what government is natural to man, and to the social contract.

Locke pursued the social contract further and asserted the right to depose a leader who does not serve them as they wish to be served.  This was sufficiently dangerous talk that he chose not to publish his Two Treatises of Government under his own name in his lifetime.

The central value of classical liberalism is liberty.  It's right there in the name.  And for about 300 years, what liberalism was did not seem controversial.  Hobbes system of value was central to it, most compactly described in Chapter 10 of The Leviathan: " The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another."  Value dependent on the need and judgment of another is radically subjective, and has enormous consequences for the organization of society.  Democratic government is a way of discovering the value we attach to leaders, and giving consent to be governed.  Free speech allows us to discuss matters of interest, and arrive at the judgments we express through voting.  This system of value means markets should be organized to reflect the values of those who participate, rather than, say, the power of those who participate.

Elected governments, freedom of speech, assembly, and religion,  the rule of law rather than the will of the ruler, and secure property were therefore the natural characteristics of a liberal society.

To me, that's still what liberalism means.

Frederick Hayek thought liberalism had degenerated, and was threatened by changes taking place in the economic organization of liberal democracies.  He made a series of predictions based on this idea that turned out not to be accurate, but he continues to be influential in that brand of liberalism embraced by conservatives.  He believed that liberal democracies were threatened by other ideologies, such as socialism and communism.

Socialism stems from valuing equally the power of all participants in a society, which means that things that unequally distribute power, such as ownership of the means of production, should be controlled by society rather than by individuals.  Hayek wrote in a 1973 encyclopedia article on liberalism that the term had come to be applied to people with "socialist aspirations," which was at best an exaggeration, because at least in America liberals never advocated socializing the means of production.

Although Locke is sometimes called the father of liberalism, he didn't use the term.  In 1839, Lord John Russel started referring to his coalition of Whigs and Radicals as the Liberal Party, though the party was not formally founded until 1859. The Whigs had broadened the voting franchise and the liberals advocated free trade, notable in the repeal of England's Corn Laws.

In December of 1872, the London Times reported the following speech by a liberal politician, Sir William Harcourt, that summed up his view of liberalism:

If there be any party which is more pledged than another to resist a policy of restrictive legislation, having for its object social coercion, that party is the Liberal party. (Cheers.) But liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right, (Hear, hear.) The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes; a Liberal Government tries, as far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do as he wishes. It has been the tradition of the Liberal party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the place where people can do more what they please than in any other country in the world...It is this practice of allowing one set of people to dictate to another set of people what they shall do, what they shall think, what they shall drink, when they shall go to bed, what they shall buy, and where they shall buy it, what wages they shall get and how they shall spend them, against which the Liberal party have always protested.

The essence of liberalism, and the conflict within liberalism, is contained in one phrase in that paragraph:  "a Liberal Government tries, as far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do as he wishes." Conservatives criticize the permissiveness of liberals, which stems from exactly this sentiment.  Yet while they condemn permissiveness in the sense of the social behavior of individuals, they advocate greater permissiveness in economic behavior (except when this involves permissiveness in social behavior, as in legalizing marijuana.)

Most of the conflicts between different heirs to the liberal tradition boil down to a question of what "the safety of society will permit." Will it permit you to dump raw sewage into public waters? We've come to agree that it won't. Will it permit you to put water, sand and chemicals down a well at pressure to fracture rock so that natural gas can be extracted, even if this mixture (or the gas itself) might reach water supplies? Current law says this will be permitted. The latter is an issue which pits the liberal tradition of laissez-faire capitalism against the tradition that, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

Concern for the state of the nose is a higher priority to modern liberals than to modern conservatives, who are more likely to worry about the freedom of the fist, and would call themselves classical liberals or market libertarians.

The problem is one basic to liberalism.  As Hobbes pointed out, liberty does you little good if others are free to kill you. Man in the state of nature is free, but to enjoy freedom, we must make a social contract and give sovereignty to the state so that our freedoms may be protected. This tension between individual liberty and the social contract is the tension between conservative and liberal interpretations of the American tradition.

One of the more influential writers on the conservative side of the liberal tradition was Frederick Hayek, an Austrian-born economist who taught at the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago. Hayek was a Nobel-prize winning economist who is now best remembered for The Road to Serfdom, a book that claimed that Western democracies had progressively abandoned "that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past."

We should keep in mind that he wrote this during World War II. While a free-market economy is an excellent way to decide how resources should be allocated in time of peace, in time of war resources need to be allocated to the survival of a society under attack. As a result, rationing, price controls and other extraordinary measures were in place while he was writing the book. Hayek believed that central planning was inherently undemocratic, and that socialism was inherently hypocritical because its humanitarian goals could be achieved only by means of brutal coercion of which most socialists would disapprove. I guess that depends on whether the socialists you know are British Fabian socialists or the Kmer Rouge, a distinction Hayek might wisely have paid more attention to.

In his 1973 essay, Hayek claimed that "the name 'liberal' is coming to be used, even in Europe, as has for some time been true of the USA, as a name for essentially socialist aspirations"

Hayek made a series of predictions that didn't turn out.  For example, in that 1973 essay, he wrote that "a functioning market economy cannot be maintained under accelerating inflation, if for no other reason than because governments will soon feel constrained to combat the effects of inflation by the control of prices and wages. Inflation has always and everywhere led to a directed economy, and it is only too likely that the commitment to an inflationary policy will mean the destruction of the market economy and the transition to a centrally directed totalitarian economic and political system."

Yet the last president to use price controls was Richard Nixon, who was what passed for a conservative back then.  A liberal Republicans love to hate, President Jimmy Carter, appointed his fellow Democrat, Paul Volker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, and they defeated inflation with monetary policy.  Nixon had tried price controls, President Gerald Ford had tried WIN buttons (Whip Inflation Now,) but it was Carter who put Volker in place, and Carter who drove down the cost of air travel and trucking by deregulating those industries.

Had Hayek been right about the slippery slope from price controls to serfdom, Britain would long ago have been pocked with gulags, rather than having thrown away those parts of Labour's post-war actions that didn't work and kept the National Health, and once the the Swedes nationalized the banks in 1992, the end of democracy and liberty must have been a sure thing.  This would, however, be news to the Swedes.

Now, I've always felt there was something wrong with Marx's ideas. If he was right, Marxist states should have appeared in industrial states like the United Kingdom, but the only indigenous Marxist movements to come to power did so in mainly agricultural societies.  That should have been a clue, even before the commissars had a go at structuring a society.

I have similar feelings about Hayek. If he was right, then the warnings about Social Security and Medicare leading to Americans being crushed under the boot of socialist tyranny that conservatives made when these policies were put in place would have turned out to be true. But the intrusiveness of such social programs is so small that many who benefit from them are unaware that they are served by government programs, a fact which I find remarkable.

And if Hayek was wrong, his predictions about the slippery slope of social programs must have been the equivalent of warning that if you allow people to use electricity for lighting their homes, the inevitable result will be that killer robots who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger will be traveling through time to kill their enemies' mothers before they are conceived. (Of course, that could still happen, and I'm sure some will argue that Hayek's predictions could still come true.)

I propose that the essence of liberalism is not a particular set of economic arrangements, but liberty itself. Mind, I'm a capitalist myself, nearly 20 years a merchant, and you can have my cash register when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers (or pay a price for it that we agree upon, that works too.) Markets have been part of human culture for, most likely, longer than most of our institutions, and I have no wish to see them abolished. But the form our markets take is a made thing, not a gift of nature, but a human set of social arrangements that we may shape as we wish.  Same with governments. We fit these institutions to our needs, we need not only fit ourselves to their needs.

It matters less whether the Swedish banks manage to survive or fail on their own than it does whether the Swedish people agree that their representatives have found a practical solution to the crisis that they can live with.

Liberalism is not a Procrustean bed which we must be made to fit. The whole point of examining the state of nature and reasoning from it to the society appropriate to man's nature was that such a society should fit us more comfortably than any other.

As I mentioned in this post, far too much debate has centered on the notion that if we perfect our relationship to property, we will achieve some Nirvana of liberty and justice for all.  Property is just one of our social arrangements, after all.

The Wealth of Nations was written in that propitious year, 1776, and it took time for its ideas to spread: The Founding Fathers, to the extent that they had an economic philosophy, were mercantilists, the dominant economic philosophy of the time. Mercantilism involved substantial state participation in the development of a nation's economy, yet that participation, and tariffs and projects linked to the American System, did not prevent liberty from flourishing in America.  That's because the notion of liberty -- the freedom to make our own judgments about who should rule us and how we should live -- is more robust than many of its champions imagine.

P.S., there's a delightful cartoon version of The Road to Serfdom here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

If economists formed motorcycle gangs...

by John MacBeath Watkins

If economists formed motorcycle gangs, the Real Business Cyclists would be roving gangs who look for Keynesians to beat up.

Keynesians would be notorious for dealing in stimulants.

The Free Riders would be renegade public-policy economists.

Hard-money hawks would call themselves the Bank's Angels, and would ride only German motorcycles. They would all have "1%" tattoos, symbolizing their inflation target. The mythological symbol on their patch would be a harpy.

The colors for monetarists would be an economy crucified on a cross of gold, symbolizing what happens when you don't have discretionary monetary policy.

Gold standard enthusiasts would be called the Golden Hoard, and just as happened to the Mongols, the ATF would be trying to infiltrate them.

Economists who became hedge-fund managers would be required to join the Banditos.

for comparison to real motorcycle gangs, see here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Volcanoes, and the unexpected benefits of their eruptions....

By Jamie Lutton.

On May 18, 1980, I was was living in top floor of a tall apartment unit in student housing on the Western Washington campus.  I heard a sound that was like dynamite going off in a movie, precisely, the same kind of contained explosive deep roar. I peered out the window, then rushed out into the hallway, along with others, in a frantic state. I  then called the campus operator, who had heard other reports, who thought it was some explosion on campus, but she did not know where. We had no answer given us, were quite puzzled till much later in the day, when we heard that St. Helen's had blown, and we put two and two together.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear the explosion. That volcano was over 150 miles south of us, and the concussion and sound passed over the hills, so that we, at the top of this apartment, heard the explosion, while people on the ground, frequently did not. That was the day that I became interested in volcanoes.

I have probably read ten or twenty books about them, including specialty books about the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.  The best book I have read yet I just discovered a few months ago.  It is Volcanoes by Robert Decker and Barbara Decker, the 1999 third edition. This is a very cheap online, say $5 to $8 dollars,. if you get the third edition, and not the fourth. The fourth is over $50 on line, but can't have any particular virtues that the $5 edition does not have for the casual reader. The science of volcanoes cannot have advanced so much as to justify the extra expense.

These two writers are passionate about volcanoes, and both teach and entertain in this volume. If you have even an inkling of knowledge of geology,  this book can be tackled without much prior knowledge. They are the Steven Jay Gould's of volcano writing.  I read this book cover to cover twice; could not put it down.  I can say that this book, and no other, should be read for a deep understanding of world volcanoes, and the present state of knowledge about them, and their various types around the world. The difference in price mainly reflects the economics of the textbook business.

One little fact that  I  picked up from Volcanoes was that we have not had any super volcano eruptions in the last 50 years; and that this was one reason why the world temperature had climbed a few degrees. This book was published well before the real scare over global warming had started.


I ended up reading Volcanoes just before I read Superfreakeconomics, by Levitt and Dubner, a much more popular and flip (though good)  piece of casual science and economic writing.

There was an article where the authors report that some scientists and tinkerers locally here in the Bellevue area are trying to develop a method to slow global warming. The scientists were trying to imitate what large volcano eruptions do to the Earth's atmosphere.

They suggest that a small amount of sulfur dioxide should be put in the upper atmosphere to bring the temperature of the Earth down, and thus slow down global warming.. The method  to get the gas into the upper atmosphere seemed cheap, safe. And it would be  easier to accomplish politically than any other suggestion out there that I have heard of yet, to tackle global warming that world governments would agree to, now.

And completely 'natural' to Earth's ecosystem.

The premise seems outrageous; unless you had read the Volcanoes book, and had a reasonable understanding of what  big volcanoes really do to the world atmosphere when they erupt .

I tried to get a few people to read the study in Superfreakeconomics, to see what they thought of it, but the very idea of imitating a volcano was too much for people. No one would read the article.

But I 'got it', because I read the other book.  The author also covered a study where the same scientists had come up with a way to prevent hurricanes from forming in the open sea.    Both ideas seemed workable and practical to me, with as much knowledge of science as I have.  I invite anyone who reads this blog to pick up Superfreakeconomics, and check it out.

The methods these scientists came up with to solve both problems are so outrageous, yet simple and reasonable, that I would butcher them here by trying to explain them myself (and possibly go on far too long).  I will be coy here, and insist you read the book yourself.   

The world has an emergency as far as global warming goes; all solutions that are cheap, easy and politically neutral should be considered, right now.

As the yuppies used to say, think outside of the box.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Merry Maiden sinks, will rise again

by John MacBeath Watkins

Update, Aug. 30, 2015: I ran into Seton yesterday at the post office, and he tells me people still ask him about this. He wished me to convey that Merry Maiden is fine, he's finished rebuilding the aft cabin, and he showed me pictures of the boat looking quite good. So, be of good cheer, the Merry Maiden did rise again, and although she is not yet sailing, the restoration goes on apace.

The Merry Maiden sank Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011.  She now rests on the bottom of Lake Union, an unknown number of planks stove in by the pipes and logs she settled on.  She'll rise from the deep (well, not that deep, the mast is still visible, rising at an angle from the water) hopefully no later than Thursday.

The 52-foot Rhodes-designed ketch was built in 1946 by Palmer Scott Boat Co.

Seton Gras has been restoring her for some years in a quiet berth at the Center for Wooden Boats.  CWB was doing some work, and he had to move the boat to an outside berth with the stern facing the full length of the lake.  Usually, that's not a problem. The bad weather almost always comes from the south.  This time, a sudden squall (something also seldom seen in these parts) whipped up whitecaps and set them pounding against the dry planks of the stern overhang and sides.  Those planks had been out of the water for years.  Once the water aboard started getting ahead of the pumps, more dry planks went under.  Had this happened more slowly, perhaps the planks could have swelled and closed the seams while the pumps stayed ahead, but the water came in so fast, she went down in about two hours.

Seton's whole life was on that boat.  When he was a kid, in 1969, his family started a voyage together around the world, a trip that lasted five years and eight months. In 1976, a year after that voyage ended, Seton, then 22, borrowed the family boat and set out from Salem, Mass., for a cruise to Seattle via Australia.  He financed the voyage by carrying paying guests as crew and even managed to send money home.

Seton's life went on after that adventure, but a few years ago he started restoring the boat.  It's a big job, and it's been proceeding as finances and time permit, but he's made impressive progress with it.

Now the boat is under water.  When I spoke to him Sunday, Seton was of course devastated. He'll raise it, get it to a boatyard, and start again.  He told me he'll feel better once he gets to work on it again.  At that point, it will be a project instead of a tragedy.

For more on the Merry Maiden, visit Seton's web page:

 Oops, re-edited the link so it goes to the site instead of the image.

 Update here:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why do conservatives lack confidence in democracy?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before about the power of the idea of liberal democracy.  Now I'd like to address something that's puzzled me for some time: Why do conservatives so often underestimate the power and resiliency of that idea?

In the wake of Egypt's eruption into direct democracy aimed at gaining representative democracy, you would think that those who most loudly proclaim the superiority of our system of government would be ecstatic.  Some conservatives are instead skeptical, while liberals are pretty uniformly agreed that events in Egypt are encouraging.

Mind, I'm not at all certain how things will play out in Egypt, but I am certain of how those who risked their lives (and in about 300 cases, lost them) to depose a tyrant and impose democratic government and the rule of law want it to play out.  Clearly, democracy is something that appeals to people of many cultures.

But when Glen Beck, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and other leading lights of the conservative movement claimed the revolution in Egypt is a threat to America, I had to wonder at their lack of confidence in the idea of democracy.

Of course, not all conservatives feel this way, and it's frankly a relief to see conservatives debate something between themselves instead of quickly settling on talking points and sticking to them regardless of new information.  But a lack of confidence in liberalism is nothing new for conservatives.

Frederick Hayek, in his 1973 essay on liberalism written for an Italian encyclopedia, noted that the period of prosperity following World War II "seemed to promise a return to liberal economic principles," yet cautioned:

"But the endeavours to prolong the prosperity and to secure full employment by means of the expansion of money and credit, in the end created a world‑wide inflationary development to which employment so adjusted itself that inflation could not be discontinued without producing extensive unemployment. Yet a functioning market economy cannot be maintained under accelerating inflation, if for no other reason than because governments will soon feel constrained to combat the effects of inflation by the control of prices and wages. Inflation has always and everywhere led to a directed economy, and it is only too likely that the commitment to an inflationary policy will mean the destruction of the market economy and the transition to a centrally directed totalitarian economic and political system."

Oh, ye of little faith.  Nixon was the last president to try price controls.  The Fed chairman under Jimmy Carter, Paul Volker, had much greater success wringing out inflation with monetary policy.  Carter's policies helped in other ways, as his deregulation of the airline and trucking industries brought down prices in those sectors.

Carter was the liberal conservatives loved to hate, but he showed that liberalism was not, as Hayek claimed, "a name for essentially socialist aspirations."  But Hayek's lack of confidence in the power of the ideas of classical liberalism is shared by many conservatives.  It causes them to mistake  liberals for socialists and to see the Muslim Brotherhood under the Egyptian protesters' blue jeans.

Sometimes it appears that they don't even trust their own ideas for market-based solutions.  The Affordable Care Act was based on ideas championed by  Republicans and the Heritage Foundation, and put into practice in Massachusetts by then-Gov. Mitt Romney.  The first cap-and-trade program was introduced by George H.W. Bush as a market-based way to deal with acid rain, and it was a roaring success, reducing the sulfur dioxide emissions responsible for acid rain at far less then the estimated cost.

One would think that these policy successes would please conservatives, as they demonstrate that markets can be structured to  solve problems that have more often been approached through regulation.  But the current thinking on the right seems to be that if they persuade their opponents that their policy is right, the policy must be wrong.

Of course, the other issue is that conservatism has changed a great deal since the 1990s.  Anything that shows government can be used to solve problems now seems to be anathema to them. The very notion that markets are human institutions that can be structured well or badly seems to offend many conservatives nowadays. They prefer to think of markets as naturally occurring phenomena that are discovered, rather than made.

Yet consider the experience of the Russian economy, where the lack of the rule of law undermined efforts to build a capitalist economy after the fall of the Soviet Union should have forcefully reminded us that while markets are useful, they are artifacts of human culture. As a businessman, I'm a committed capitalist, and I think I'd be a worse businessman if I did not understand the nature of markets, and a worse citizen as well.

As a believer in liberal democracy, I can understand Hayek's fear that excessive government interference in markets could undermine freedom, but because I've studied the theory and history of liberal democracy, I understand that our relationship to property is not our only relationship.

Of course, the other problem is that there are people on the left and the right who have little faith in what Marxists used to call "the masses."  Lenin believed that the intellectual vanguard should guide the masses, even if to do so required deceiving them. It was one point where he agreed with Hitler. I'd say we need to keep an eye on those who don't trust the people but want to guide the people. And we should be careful, as well, of those who deceive the people to guide them.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak is no longer living in de Nile

by John MacBeath Watkins

Hosni Mubarak has at last resigned as president of Egypt.  And the crowd goes wild!

Soon, the hard work of building new institutions will begin.  For a country that has been a dictatorship with sham elections for so long, this will be difficult.  Mubarak was at pains to destroy any people or institutions that could challenge his power, so who do you trust to write the new constitution?  The military dismissed the cabinet and suspended parliament in what amounts to that rarest of things, a popular military coup.  It will remain popular only so long as it is perceived as temporary.

I'm frankly fascinated by the fact that the Hosni Mubaraks and Robert Mugabes of the world find it necessary to rig elections rather than simply ruling as despots.  When Alexander conquered Egypt, the legitimacy of the new government was not a problem.  You had only to convince the political and religious elites to accept your right by conquest to rule their country, and the people went along.  The religious part was easy for polytheists, they could take the attitude that they never met a God they didn't like, incorporate the new God with the ones they had already friended, and all was well.

But now, a government must rely for its legitimacy on the will of the people, and the more they try to suppress that will, the more violet will be its expression.

Of course, the kind of unity required for the sort of direct democracy represented by the protest can only be achieved in relation to a common enemy.  The future for Egypt lies, hopefully, in representative democracy, and we won't know they've achieved it until their first elected government loses an election and leaves office.  Such a peaceful change of governments is perhaps the finest achievement of democracy; war is the final argument of kings, and democracy settles at least those arguments related to succession without war.  All the factions that made up the movement to oust Mubarak will splinter and start fighting each other, but that's the point of democracy, you fight it out with campaign speeches and yard signs instead of Molotov cocktails and more deadly weapons.

I suspect the military realizes this, and will do its best to build new democratic institutions that the public respects.  If not, we can expect to see Egyptians back at the barricades, and facing an army that is no longer neutral.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

And now for something completely different

by Jamie Lutton:

God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens came out in 2007. I read it last year. I had a friend who it infuriated, not because it was atheistic, but that he did not like the kind of atheism Hitchens propounded.  I saw his point: I thought that the book could be better written; it seemed to be written in a slapdash fashion, not addressing historical questions in atheism, or naming earlier atheists or the source of atheism in Western thought.  For one thing, he went around knocking down some pretty obvious straw men.

I tried to get people to read, or at least look up other famous atheists who had written long and fluently on the the subject, that linked their atheism or agnosticism with their politics. For example, the American Robert Ingersoll,. He was a speechwriter and ardent Republican from the Civil War era, an orator with great charisma and wit. He considered himself to be an agnostic, a philosophical position that differs from strict atheism in that by doubting, and preaching the wisdom of doubting, he was a great recruiter into free-thought of all types.   I will come back and write more about him another time.

There are more comical atheists whose fame should not stay in the shade. One of the wittier, more angry, funny little books that has ever crossed my desk was The Bible Unmasked by Joesph Lewis, first published in 1926 by The Freethought Press, and then on to many, many reprintings.

This book goes through the Old Testament,  book by book, examining each story in turn, for sexual immorality.  The charming ink illustrations in the book, which show scantily dressed women, (sometimes nude women!), in vaguely Middle Eastern clothing,  with (dressed) men in shocking vignettes from the story of Lot, Joesph and Potiphar's wife, Judah and Tamar, etc, etc.

The book has been carefully researched, and does not overly exaggerate. It  prods the reader to examine the stories according to modern  morality of 1926, and whether these stories, are 'fit for children'. The New Testament gets the same treatment, including the words of Jesus. The author  clucks over the awful, terrible goings on of the people in each book of the Bible, and their selfish, perverse and immoral behavior.

There is some fun scholarship in this little book, but also some pretty obvious heavy breathing. This book is meant for prurient use; so I can recommend it, if only for that reason.   I is a find for the literate cynic who only wants to finds the dirty or immoral stories in the Bible, and is ignorant of the text of the Bible in general,  or someone who wants a really howling good curiosity..

If it takes a 75 year old handbook from this dirty-minded atheist to get you to read the Bible, pick up this book from online (it will run you about $12) and have a go. Not to be missed by any atheist, agnostic,or free-thinking Christian with a sense of humor.

This book is a product of its day, the days before World War Two. It used to be O.K. in this country to be an atheist, and to announce so loudly, just  as it used to be O.K. to be a Leftist or a Socialist,  or some other strain of humanism. There were a lot more 'open' atheists in this country  before we went to war against Hitler. His anti-religious stance and notorious behavior gave Godlessness a bad name. And  Stalin's was even worse; he was proclaiming the Church in Russia to be the enemy of the state

After, say, 1948 being an American atheist was pretty difficult to defend politically.  Athiesm began was associated with Stalin and Communism, and was therefor Un-American, and not a good thing. That sort of belief could get you fired from your job or even blacklisted, so people flocked to churches, and kept their doubts to themselves.  That was more or less the story, until the 1960's, when young people, discovering the East and Eastern religions, rediscovered atheism as if they had invented it themselves.  Also, the rediscovery of Nietzsche led people down the Great Man path of atheism, but that is another story.

 There had been a long era in this country, starting with the early Republicans in the 19th century, where being an agnostic was the thing to be, or an atheist, to be considered an advanced thinker, a humanist. Nowadays, atheism has come back, but not the humanism.  We have forgotten the struggles of the mid-19th century, which liberated us from a great deal of hyprocracy associated with cant worship; where you could be God-fearing, church going, but say, hold slaves and defend slavery. This is what reading the bible literally was associated with; the Confederacy and the chains of slavery and entrenched thinking. Mark Twain points that out in Huckleberry Finn, when the hero notices that the church-going, God fearing guardians would mistreat slaves so Huckleberry sees clearly the hypocritical behavior of the "good" townsfolk.

It would be see again questioning spirit that flourished in 19th century humanism that existed along with that agnosticism,  that looked for the good in man, cherished education and learning, and sought the light. 

400th anniversary of the most influencial book in English language

by Jamie Lutton

The American newspapers, as far as I can tell, ignored this date - February 5th - the anniversary of the publication of the most influential book in the English language. The King James translation of the bible, Old and New Testament.
The most magnificent prose in our language is in this book, I need only bring up the book of Job.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?

I keep reading this book in the Bible, as it addresses the mystery of human suffering.  It is a fable about as a bet between God and the Devil, as if they were equals, to gamble over the soul of one man, Job. Originally, it was told in verse.  I think it is just meant to explore the mystery of human existence, suffering and human fate, dealing with an unknowable God. .

A very odd quirk of our secular Seattle is that people read all sorts of things, but if you pick up a Bible, it is seen to be odd, even though there is fantastic, sweeping prose in this in this translation.  It is as if  the idea of God being so old-fashioned, or perhaps even poisonous, that this book is not to be opened. Not even when stuck in a hotel, and there is a Gideon Bible right there.

It is this translation and no other that should be read.  this translation gave to the English language three times as many words and phrases as Shakespeare.  When you take a quick look in the sections that I suggest, words and whole phrases will jump out at you, like the voices of good teachers you had half forgotten. You will find where that -that! phrase came from. And that leaves out the stories that the book tells, kingdoms rise, kingdoms fall, and many, many wars.  You don't want to read, say, The New English Bible, which says

Can you pull the whale out with a gaff?

in the book of Job.  It might be "clearer" prose, but it is not what our language grew from. And I want you to swoon from intoxication of the images.  This is reading for the poetry, not the  shopping list of literal translation, which plods along, in an alien tongue; not our language.

I recommend, quickly Genesis, Exodus, Samuel 1+2, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes.  the Song of Solomon. Then, in the New Testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.  Skip the writings of Saul otherwise known as Paul, for the first pass through, if you have never picked up the Bible.  

I want to bring up William Tyndale, a priest who died because he thought that having the Bible in English was more important than his safety, his security or his life.  He worked on this translation for only a few years, and it seems, by himself. But 70% of the King James Bible is his. He was on the run for years; and he kept translating as he hid from authorities. (For more on the influence of his translation, see here.)

His death was an ugly one. He was strangled in  1536 by the Catholic Church in England for daring to translate the Bible at all. He was burnt, and his ashes were scattered, so he would not attend the Resurrection. There are copies of his version of the Bible in print, so that they can be compared, if you so wish; he got the last laugh, his work lives on.(for more on his translation, the trouble it caused, and his death look here.)

The Catholic Church of that time really did not want the peasants to learn how to read the Word; they killed and killed again to try to stop this. So, for the right to read The Word, we should stop and spend some time and enjoy that right, to remember Tyndale and others like him. They are forerunners of our Founding Fathers, and all others who have died to make us free to worship (or not worship) as we please. To be able to live a secular life, one must first have the choice.

Here are some of the phrases that Tyndale coined in his translation, that made it into the King James Bible. 
  • lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
  • knock and it shall be opened unto you
  • twinkling of an eye
  • a moment in time
  • fashion not yourselves to the world
  • seek and you shall find
  • ask and it shall be given you
  • judge not that you not be judged
  • the word of God which liveth and lasteth forever
  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • my brother's keeper
  • the salt of the earth
  • a law unto themselves
  • filthy lucre
  • it came to pass
  • gave up the ghost
  • the signs of the times
  • the spirit is willing
  • live and move and have our being
  • fight the good fight

I could write 1,000,000 words about this translation, and just tread water in a bottomless ocean (keeping a wary eye out for that leviathan).   The greatest book of all, even to the staunchest atheist, doubter, or bored reader,  just for sheer reach of the thing. And the question is not about  *belief* in a desert God, but the book  that God inspired. To read it,  reread it, puzzle over it, and come away refreshed.

And think of all the great quotes you can acquire to entertain your friends*..

To not read the King James Bible because you are not religious is like not reading Shakespeare because you are not particularly  a theater goer..... 

   *though the best one of all "The devil  can cite scripture for his own purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek"  is from Shakespeare


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to really cut the deficit

by John MacBeath Watkins

As we've discussed before, most talk about cutting the deficit is just talk, deficit reduction theater with few actual, specific cuts proposed.  It's refreshing, then, to find some work that identifies actual cuts and provides logical justification for the policy proposed.

My hat's off to the Cato Institute.  I urge you to read this proposal from last September, which I found through Mark Thompson's post on Swampland:

Just a few charts from the Cato paper (Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint by Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble) to whet your appetite (click on the charts to make them larger):

Defense spending is at a post-WW II high.  Is our need for defense at a post-WW II high, or did we panic a little after 9/11?  We live in a democracy, so the answer is up to us.

The U.S. economy is large -- about 25% of the world's industrial output.  Shouldn't our military expenditures be in some way related to that?  Do we really need to spend 48% of the world's defense dollars?

Defense spending per capita, in constant 2008 dollars, went from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to about $2,700 per capita in 2008.  I'm shocked by those numbers.  I realize that this was hidden in plain sight -- Bush kept the cost of two wars off the regular budget with "emergency" spending provisions.  But it just isn't that hard to look at the off-budget items and do the math.  We're having a huge controversy over government spending, and I would think an 80% increase in per capita spending in one easily-identified sector would have garnered more attention.  Instead, we're talking about cutting Social Security, spending on which has increased at nothing like this pace.

The Cato paper proposes $1.2 trillion in cuts by 2020.  With that kind of savings, we could all feast on sacred cow.

Of course, first you've got to wind down two wars without making Americans feel as if they've lost.  That's the tricky part.

Back when Hitler was popular

By Jamie Lutton

At my business partner's urging, I started to read The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, which he was written by Robert B. Brady in 1937. (John's post about this book is here.) I realized what a find this book was, after a few pages. This book was an eye-witness to 'Herr Hitler" at the height of his popularity, by a professional economist. It is a careful examination of the economic structure of Nazi Germany, and what the social structure was.

99% of what I've read about Hitler and Nazi Germany has been in the form of an autopsy; as this was then a 'failed' state. Other writing  was self-congratulatory military talk about this battle or that battle, in the war itself, that was conducted from 1941-1945 by the Americans, when they entered the war.

It is a much different thing to pick up a book from 1937, from before the Final Solution, from before the war, that tries to get a handle on Hitler and his Germany.  My first reaction was; where are the other books like this? Why has no-one done a collection of articles about "Herr Hitler" and his Germany that date from 1924, the date of the Beer Hall Pusch, to 1933 when he came to power, to the late 1930's, when he made his move on Poland?

This period, when Hitler was not obviously a monster (unless you were a prescient Jew) would be fascinating to reprint the articles and books about him and his Germany, to see what his contemporaries thought of him.

From what I can tell, the people were mostly giving him a free pass; considering him a unifying  figure, and shrugging off his racism and his xenophobia and his talk of a greater Germany.  But these books, these articles are scattered and buried.  And no one would own up to these opinions, later, when he became the enemy.

For the record, it would be good to pull this material from under the rug of history where they have been swept, and show students of history how a madman got away with so much, when he could have been stopped.

It was not just crossing the Rhineland where he should have been stopped, he should have been stopped from what was coming out of his mouth in the 1920's by the Germans themselves. That he was not, is as interesting as story as the rest.

When  I watch the History Channel, and they do a special on Hitler and the Nazis, they show the pageantry, and the passion, but the do not touch the racist politics that the German people signed off on at that time.

Party polarization: Ideology trumps regionalism

by John MacBeath Watkins

From the blog voteview, we have this chart of how conservative or liberal the parties are in the U.S. House of Representatives, on the dimension of the role of government in the economy (yes, I know the charts are small, they are teasers to get you to go to the site that originated the data, voteview, because that seems fair to me.):

Northern Democrats are about where they were in 1967.  Southern Democrats are more liberal and less of the total for Democrats.  House Republicans are about three times as conservative as they were prior to 1980, if I'm reading the chart right.

The situation in the Senate isn't quite as dire, probably because you can't really gerrymander states.

But the result is that polarization between the parties is even higher in the House than it was during Reconstruction, and nearly as high in the Senate as is was in that unlamented era.

Go to voteview and read the full post, it's worth it.  One thing I found interesting was that they found regional differences make less difference than it did in the 1930s.  In short, our politics have become more ideological and less regional.

Monday, February 7, 2011

News about us!

Here are some of the news stories that have been published about us.  First, from a bookseller's blog:

As you would expect, a quite professional story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Turns out my friend John McCartney knows the reporter on this piece, Amy Rolph, from when they worked together at the Everett Herald.  I was a little worried, because after I spoke to her I realized I'd gotten carried away and talked about price transparency, disintermediation (those two are easy) and my somewhat Ricardian interpretation of the theory of rents in relationship to selling books by catalog.  Most reporters would have been confused, but Amy did just fine.  As a former business editor, kudos to her:

A television story in which the reporter is a bit confused about the name of the store, and places a store that is northeast of University Village in the University District, but she's mentioned that the cats need a home, which is already producing results.

The UW Daily focused, I think rightly, on Frank and Chuck, our cats:

The Stranger sort of phoned it in, with a dose of their usual snark, but they were the first up with a story, so they get credit for paying attention:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

New version of The Role-Playing Game

The power of the idea of liberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have pointed to the little-remarked fact that liberalism, that artifact of 17th century Enlightenment thought, is more attractive to the man on the street in a wide variety of cultures than any other ideology.

Even those Egyptians who express disdain for America aspire to the sort of liberal democracy embodied in our constitution.  They aspire to a government that will serve the people, rather than the ruling elite.  They demand elections, equality before the law and protection from the injustices precipitated by the secret police, and more equality of opportunity.

There is no conflict between their wariness of America and their desire for democracy.  America must deal with the governments of countries as they exist, rather than attempt to determine what government other countries can have.  As a result, Egyptians see us as supporting the government they wish to topple.  And we've certainly given Egypt plenty of military assistance over the years, so it's good for us that the military has thus far been unwilling to fire on the protesters.

One of the things that seems most striking to me is that while liberty, the central ideal of liberalism, is the same for any society, conservatism might wish to conserve any sort of existing system against it.  George Soros famously set up offices of his Open Society Foundation in Eastern Europe and provided them with photocopiers that helped local dissidents produce samizdat in quantity.  American conservatives consider this man, who clearly has anti-Communist credentials, as a liberal, and their enemy.  The funny thing is, the Communists felt exactly the same about him.

In Eastern Europe then, and in China today, the conservatives are those who wish to stop the world from changing in a way that abandons the system they are used to and a part of, a system of Communist Party rule, collectivized agriculture, and state-owned industries, which would be anathema to American conservatives.  In the American South during the 1860s, it was the slaveholders who wanted to conserve a system they were accustomed to and which benefited the region's ruling race.

Conservatives in Saudi Arabia wish to conserve the value of a monarch who's legitimacy is vouchsafed by clerics who are rewarded with a state monopoly on religion, a situation anyone familiar with European history will recognize.  Such a system would be anathema to Chinese conservatives, who have tried their best to keep religious groups in check.

F.A. Hayek, in his 1948 essay on liberalism, pointed out that:

As a modern historian (R. W. Southern) describes it, the hatred of that which was governed, not by rule, but by will, went very deep in the Middle Ages, and at no time was this hatred as powerful and practical a force as in the latter half of the period.... Law was not the enemy of freedom: on the contrary, the outline of liberty was traced by the bewildering variety of law which was evolved during the period.... High and low alike sought liberty by insisting on enlarging the number of rules under which they lived.

Thus, the conflict was between the rule of will and the rule of law.  The Fascists attacked this directly, maintaining that some are born to lead, most are born to follow, and the "leader principle" or F├╝hrerprinzip, dictated that "the F├╝hrer's word is above all written law."

But to have complete moral freedom, as Rousseau told us, we must be subject to a law of our own making.  This can only be achieved with some form of democratic government.  Fascism is the only ideology to have taken over a modern industrial society that has had a taste of democracy, so it may have some power yet, but the liberal ideal of "liberty and justice for all" seems to seep into people's minds without any real attempt at propaganda.  Even China, with its continuing rule by the Communist Party, has within it an ongoing controversy about whether there are "universal values."

Last July 19, a Chinese banker named Qin Xiao spoke at a graduation ceremony for a Chinese business school, saying “Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanisation is for the sake of people’s happiness.”

The notion that government should serve the people is a powerful one.  Should China take this notion to heart and become a democratic society, it will no doubt take its own form and serve the wishes of its own people.  Just as the people of Gaza elected a party that George W. Bush did not approve of after Bush urged they have real elections, the Chinese people will elect who they want, not who anyone else wants.

And that's the real power of the liberal ideal.  Self-rule does not commit you to a way of life others think you should live, which Communism does.  You can even elect Communists, and sometimes the citizens of, for example, Italian cities, do so.

Hayek, of course, claimed that the term "liberal" had been taken over in America by people with socialist aspirations, but the aspects of liberal democracies he feared were in fact the ones citizens of liberal democracies have voted for.  His essay on liberalism contains this remarkable statement:

But the endeavours to prolong the prosperity and to secure full employment by means of the expansion of money and credit, in the end created a world‑wide inflationary development to which employment so adjusted itself that inflation could not be discontinued without producing extensive unemployment. Yet a functioning market economy cannot be maintained under accelerating inflation, if for no other reason than because governments will soon feel constrained to combat the effects of inflation by the control of prices and wages. Inflation has always and everywhere led to a directed economy, and it is only too likely that the commitment to an inflationary policy [131] will mean the destruction of the market economy and the transition to a centrally directed totalitarian economic and political system.

Now, the last American president to use price controls was Nixon.  During the Carter Administration, we defeated inflation with monetary policy.  Carter also increased economic freedom by deregulating the airline and trucking industries.  Hayek  underestimated the resilience of liberal democracies, which is strange, because most of those who do so are opposed to liberal democracies.  The heirs to Hayek's pessimism use his writings to criticize economic policies Milton Friedman would have found congenial, such as using monetary policy to fight off the possibility of a depression.

The result is that in societies that actually represent the values of classical liberalism, there is confusion about how to realize liberty, and what really threatens it.  In Egypt, there is no such doubt.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Publishing in the twilight of the printed word part III

by John MacBeath Watkins

If we all have e-books, what does that do to ownership, and to free speech?

You don't really own an e-book, any more than you own your software.  You can't sell it on when you're done with it, and as Amazon demonstrated quite recently, the book can be pulled back from your e-book reader.

I'm referring, of course, to the incident in July 2009, when Amazon discovered that it had sold a number of copies of the Kindle version of Orwell's 1984 that the publisher who owned the copyright hadn't given anyone the right to sell.  They responded by pulling all the pirated copies of 1984 off of peoples' Kindles, so that when their customers woke up and turned on their Kindle, they found that the book they had purchased was missing, and the money was back in their credit card account.

It would have to be 1984 that demonstrated the Orwellian potential of the e-book.  It reminds me a bit of the Bibles Henry VIII decreed would be chained to the pulpits of Anglican churches.  He'd been sentencing people to death for reading English-language Bibles a few years before, as mentioned in this post.

Unlike earlier chained libraries, which had books that were quite valuable because it took an educated man a year to copy out a book by hand, Hank8's chains were all about control.  These bibles were printed with moveable type, so they were not terribly expensive.  He just didn't want people reading the Bible on their own, because religion was important to the legitimacy of his reign, and he therefore wanted his priests interpreting religion.

What happens when the chain reaches your e-reader wherever you are?

Come to that, if we store our collections and our writing in the cloud (as I currently do with my emails and blog posts,) what privacy do we have from agents of repression?  After all, it appears the Chinese government attempted to hack the email accounts of dissidents.

Perhaps we will someday see the return of the samizdat, the papers that Russian dissidents passed around with their rebellious ideas.  Some credit George Soros with helping undermine communist regimes in Eastern Europe by setting up offices of his Open Society foundation which had copy machines, making it easier to produce many copies of a samizdat.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Interesting Crow article

by Jamie Lutton:

In the New York Times this last Tuesday, February 1st, 2011,in the Science section, there was a good article about the sub-species of crow found in a part of Australia, the New Caledonia crow, that is even brighter than the average crow. The authors of the article also pointed out that this is where crows first evolved, then radiated out from to settle the whole world. Crows are now found on very continent, except for Antarctica; and flourish wherever they are found.

The article outlined the habits of these crows, in particular how they raised their chicks to maturity. These crows are known for their exceptional tool making ability; this ability, from careful field research, is clearly taught, not innate. These crows spend years teaching their chicks how to shape and use tools with their beaks,  how to gather food in the wild, and they feed their young long after they reach a mature size.  These crows used their beaks like hands, and that they were very versatile in shaping tools, even more so than ordinary crows. They have intricate tool making ability that surpassed that observed of chimpanzees and dolphins .

Perhaps, like our ancestors who came from Africa 100,000 years ago, these crows will displace the 'ordinary' bright crows we see around us. We displaced the Neanderthals, and Homo Erectus that had occupied Europe and Asia before us.  It would only take a jump in the technology of the crows, so that they could out-compete regular crows.

I did learn from this article that crows do not 'need' hands; I had speculated in an earlier post that that was all they needed to take over. Genetic tweaking by us, perhaps  in some far off time, to give them an opposable thumb..  The author of this article had observed that  the beaks of the New Caledonia  were quite good enough, to shape and make the complicated tools that they used to extract grubs from trees.

It would be very interesting to see what this sub-species does, in the next two or three million years, if mankind but gives them room on Earth to grow and change. I had written before that the crow language, poetry and songs would be worth knowing; just by watching the Seattle crows in my neighborhood.. Perhaps this species would also someday look at the stars, and wonder, as we have, about creation. It would be good to give them their chance..

This morning, I was on my way to my business partner's shop, when I had my head dive-bombed by a anxious crow.  I had not put any treats down yet.  He perched in a nearby tree, and stared down at me. The crows like to stare down at me, and make remarks. I try to copy those remarks, in the same tone, to see what they will do.  To tease them, I put the treats on top of a slippery, tilted recycling bin, so that when my head bopper landed on it to take a treat, he slid off.  The crows are so smart that, when you give them treats regularly, they get in the habit of complaining about the quantity, the quality, and the frequency of the goodies.

These crows are not even remotely domesticated.  They view their treats as their due. I suppose if I had experience with monkeys or other primates, I would not have been surprised at this behavior. I understand monkeys at temples in India often act like this; that the offerings to them are their due.

This afternoon, I got a digital camera I got as a gift to work, so tomorrow I will start to take pictures of these crows, and their gyrations to get my attention, and to get me to throw them a treat, instead one of their friends.  This camera has a movie function, if I am lucky, I will be able to capture the crazy dives and swooping they do, when they are showing off for each other. I have never seen such purposeful, bonkers flying; one of my favorite maneuvers to watch is when one of them decides at the last minute to abort a landing near a treat, and and they back up and glide in a totally different direction; a given crow might do this over and over, judging that I am standing too near the tasty treat I have put out for them.   The flight pattern a crow will perform has to be seen to be believed.

I did prank the crows today. I wanted to see how far they trusted glass.  My shop has a picture window, and one of my obese shop cats sits in the window, and watches the world go by.  I put dog biscuits, the treat I usually give the crows, right outside the window.  An average bird would notice the glass, shrug, and take the treat.  Not these crows. They were sure it was some sort of trap.  Seven or eight crows gathered on the telephone wire that ran over my shop and just in front of it, cawing, and looking at the treats. If I put the treats on the railing, a few inches further out. they would come down and speedily carry them off. But not from the window sill, as there was a big fat cat on the other side. They just could not do it, these brave crows. And they cawed at me for putting the treats there, where they just - couldn't  - go.  And, of course, my obese, elderly black and white cat was enjoying all of this, curled up in the window and looking out at the birds, who would land on the railing, look at the treats, then fly away.. I am sure he was giving the birds The Look, and they just could not bring themselves to believe in glass, somehow. 

After a while, I had pity on the birds, and scooped up the treats, and threw them out for them in the street.

The boys will need a home

Frank and Chuck, our shop cats, will need a home when we close the University District location at the end of March and move to Vashon. We hope to find a place where they can stay together, because unlike some siblings, they really like each other, cuddle togerther and groom each other.
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Thursday, February 3, 2011

A hopeless task

by Jamie Lutton

When I think about writing a book on books, I keep coming back to a memory of line in a Science Fiction book I read 35 years ago, called Children of the Atom.  The characters in these books were all child geniuses, and were all academic specialists in one field or another.  One of them remarked that the last person who had read everything - and in the West only - lived in the 11th century. This is a real person (I will dig up a copy of the book, and give you his name later). And this, I found out later, was before the Crusades brought back to the West  more of the classical texts that had been previously lost, like Plato's Republic.  The character in the book had been made aware that she could not read all the books in the world, or know all things.

I knew at an early  age that I never could do that when I realized that most science was a closed book to me. My dad had hopes that I would be a chemist when I was a child. He could tell I was bright. He gave me a chemistry set when I was eight or so. But it did not take. I was not excited by doing experiments limited by the kit, though later my brother Tom and I,  who did get his doctorate in inorganic chemistry, would blow up things merrily every fourth of July. Perhaps I should have been given more magnesium to play with. 

 I did like paleontology, and read all I could find on extinct animals of all sorts, but the nuts and bolts of chemistry, physics, and at first, math, did nothing for me. (my love for math came later)  This was also because I am  female, so I did not have the stick in my back that the male child of a scientist might have, to try harder. The cultural expectation as well as my parent's expectation would have been greater. It also was a problem that I was crazy, and so expectations for me were limited.  So, I read and read and read, but avoided most of the sciences, except geology and paleontology, until I was an adult.

 It is hopeless, then to try to write a book that is an introduction to everything. And, besides that, someone else has done a pretty good job if you wanted to know a little bit about everything. I want to recommend the book The Know-It-All, by A. J. Jacobs. He read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, every volume.  Even if you think this would be dull, read the first few pages of this book about his experience. He covers, very well, what happens to the typical mind after college, and the withering away of book-knowledge into fragments and disassociated facts. It also has a witty introduction, that has shows the author's humility about his own abilities. He is ironic about being a 'genius' of any kind.

 I have been sweating out reading The Medea for my book, and am getting closer to being able to convey the essence of this 2,500 year old play.  Then, at my shop. this book came across my desk yesterday.  I liked it so much, that I am stopping, and recommending it to everyone who reads my part of this blog, so they might enjoy it as much as I did. In the book I will put this book in my section of good books-on-books.  There are a lot of  books-on-books, each with their own eccentricities, and flaws; I will try to list all the ones I have read, so that you can decide if you want to read them. That list is coming in its own time.  But as I just discovered this one, I wanted you to enjoy it now.

Instead of listing books you 'should' read, it discusses his absorbing of the miles and miles of entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I like to recommend the Encyclopedia, anyway. It is far better than Wikipedia, which is replacing it for common use, and is better written.  It is a shame that Wikipedia computer encyclopedia is replacing a much better source of deep information. If I had the room in my tiny apartment, I would not be without a set of the Britannica; it is irreplaceable.

 But that is the issue, isn't it. The space the thing takes up. That is why so many good books are going by the wayside; too much room, and too heavy to move. So, pick up Know-It-All, and perhaps you might have an urge to buy a set for yourself.  On the used book market, with a little bit of luck, you can get an Encyclopedia Britannia for about $200 that is reasonably current.

I just remembered this: in Children of the Atom, one of the child geniuses, when he is very little, reads the Britannica cover to cover.  So, that is why, I suppose, I linked these two books in my mind. I never had that ambition myself, until I read that Jacobs had done so. But I don't think I can fit it into my schedule, until I write more on my books on books. Maybe when I am 60.  I do not think the same good results would come from reading Wikipedia from end to end. And, besides, you can't hold the volumes of Wikipedia in your lap, and skip about, and hold the volumes, and carry them from place to place. Not the same thing.