22 September 2005

Good isn't stupid

I couldn’t resist a challenge from Peter Burnett to comment on the latest thing in Dutch public broadcasting, a radio show where the cast engages in real sex and drugs and then discusses it. Burnett is “eagerly awaiting the comments of our resident libertarians”, which I think includes me.

The basic point would be that libertarianism doesn’t claim that this kind of thing is good, but that legal means will be ineffective or counter-productive. Societies capable of passing and enforcing such laws don’t need them, and obviously societies that can’t pass such laws won’t be helped by non-existent laws. Moreover, as generally happens with government intervention, enforcement will simply get more hidebound and disconnected from reality as time goes on. One need merely look at the flip side as exemplified by this very story of government intervention in broadcasting. In a variant of Gresham’s Law bad rules will gradually force out good judgement.

So what can be done? I think it’s a situation that’s very parallel to economic issues. Government attempts at direct intervention merely serve to muck up societal mechanisms. A government can’t directly create a vibrant economy or a healthy society, it can only ruin them. What government can do is provide a consistent set of basic rules in which capitalism and civil society can flourish. I firmly beieive that if the government simply doesn’t actively destroy the ability of society to control itself, things will tend to return to good state because ultimately that good state is materially good for society as well. It’s not stupid to be good.

Don't the the door hit you on the way out

Via Brothers Judd comes an article I just have to rip on because it’s so archetypical.

It has long been an article of faith among America’s senior policymakers - Democrats and Republicans alike — that military force is an effective tool for ensuring control over foreign sources of oil.

I suppose that makes oil different from every other physical resource. I mean, who else besides post-WWII America has ever fought a war over control of a resource? Like, who would ever fight over something like water? Those crazy Americans!

American presidents have never hesitated to use this power when deemed necessary to protect US oil interests in the Gulf.

Unlike other American interests, where Presidents have always forgone the use of military power.

[…] This presumption was clearly a critical factor in the younger Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.

Now, more than two years after that invasion, the growing Iraqi quagmire has demonstrated that the application of military force can have the very opposite effect: It can diminish - rather than enhance - America’s access to foreign oil.

There are so many things wrong here but I will touch on just a few. The presumption made by Presidents is no longer “military force is an effective tool” but “military force is an infallible tool”? Bribery is an effective tool as well to get people to do what you want but that doesn’t prevent it from sometimes having the opposite effect.

There’s the “quagmire” bit, which is quite disputable and one is again struck by how things are only ever a quagmire for the USA. It’s not that difficult, in fact, to make an argument that Iraq is a quagmire for the Caliphascists, who cannot win but dare not leave.

But the big thing is the short time frame here. Those who do support the use of military power for protecting access to oil view this as a long term project, most likely generational. The spread of liberal democracy is a slow process but one that will, long term, provide far more secure access to oil. However, that’s likely to be of benefit much more to our children than to us. And here, I think, we hit a larger theme.

I was struck by the relationship between this kind of short term thinking and the view points expressed in this article (via Brothers Judd). I could see how, if one had the solipsistic point of view enunciated there, such things as the Iraqi adventure would have quite a different cost / benefit ratio. If one isn’t interested in children or the long term future, then appeasement of people like the Ba’ath in Iraq is a rational and likely successful strategy. If one can delay the final payment past one’s personal time horizon, that’s functionally indistinguishable from solving it. In the end, I felt more sadness than anger at people who live with such a cramped worldview. I suspect it’s for the best to just let them quietly pass from history as they wish.

19 September 2005

Cargo cult politics

Via the Brothers Judd I see that Lousianna Governor Kathleen Blanco has taken responsibility for the failures after hurricane Katrina. This strikes me as a perfect example of one of the side effects of Logo-Realism, that of cargo-cult politics.

I think it a reasonable presumption that Blanco is simply copying the tactic of President Bush because it seems like it’s working for him. However, this is typical of mistaking form for facts. There are two key differences that seem to have escaped Blanco’s awareness:

  • The federal response to hurricane Katrina was adequate. Not great, but hardly a disaster. The state response, however, was obviously FUBAR. When the dust settles and the second draft is written, there won’t be much tar in it to stick to Bush in contrast to the buckets likely to end up on Blanco.
  • Even if Bush’s tactic was a political liablity for him, it would still be worth it in order to play for bigger game. What bigger game could Blanco possibly be aiming for? Awaterfall of skimmings from the disaster relief? I think she’ll be lucky to avoid impeachment.

I suppose it’s possible that Blanco is just playing for time, counting on the short attention span of modern liberal democracies. Many of the worst served by her have left the state and once the money starts pouring in from the federal spigot, her culpability will get lost behind the clouds of cash. But based on past performance I don’t find that particularly plausible.

The ultimate purpose

I was pondering the clash of Anglospheric civilization with Islamic civilization and realized a rather depressing point. For Judeo-Christian belief, the ultimate purpose is the upholding of God’s Law. Judaisim, Christianity, these are mere mechanisms that have the purpose of promoting God’s Law. Very important mechanisms, to be sure, but ultimately secondary to following God. What this means is that Judeo-Christian societies hold certain virtues to be a higher calling than loyality to temporal organizations, even the Church. This provides a bridge to other cultures, particularly ones that hold to some of the same virtues. It creates the possibility of peaceful co-existence.

In contrast, as I have learned more about Islam over the years, the more it seems that the highest goal of Islam is Islam. All other virtues must bend before the goal of spreading the faith. This makes cross-cultural cooperation far more difficult. It may well be why Islam, of the major faiths, has had the most difficult time integrating in to modern global liberal democracy. One need only look at countries that have a similar form of nationalism (anything is permitted in support of the State) to see what isolationist basket cases they are. I think that the cause of the “bloody borders of Islam” stems from the combination of this basic property and the rise of globalization, the two things being fundamentally incompatible. Can Islam transcend its functionalist past and come to terms with the End of History? That is likely to be the key question of the 21st Century.

15 September 2005

FireFox: still a few rough edges

I’ve been using the “FireFox”: web browser more heavily lately, especially since I found these two extensions:

  • miniT, which lets me move the tabs around (I can’t believe that wasn’t built in — it’s in every other tabbed application, even ones from the Dark Empire).
  • Session Saver which stores the window and tab state of FireFox and restores it the next time FireFox is started. That was a key feature of Opera that kept me using that browser.

However, one thing that Opera and Internet Explorer does better than FireFox is searching inside text boxes. This is a big deal if one is trying to fix templates on a Movable Type weblog. Opera, unsurprisingly, does the best job. Normally it doesn’t search text boxes but if you click inside one then it will search that box. IE seems to always search everything, which is still better than not being able to search at all.

14 September 2005

Don't they ever get tired of that trick?

It continues to be stunning to me how President Bush can repeatedly let his political opponents walk themselves out on to a limb just before the axe of reality chops it off. I’ve been monitoring the hurricane Katrina situation in background and what I’m seeing now is that the original, overwrought estimates of destruction and chaos are being downgraded. Of course, since Old Media spent a lot of effort building up the hysteria this is being done quietly and without direct acknowledgement, but there it is nonetheless. There also is the MAL out on the limb of those estimates, watching in frustration as the Saw of Facts starts to work on the branch.

The bottom line is that all Bush really has to do to look good by comparison is not freak out and say stupid things (like Tom DeLay did). Compared to the flaming freakiness of everyone else, that will look like leadership. Just think how much, down the road, Mayor Nagin’s claim of 10,000 dead in New Orleans will make the actual result and thereby also Bush look better. The lefties I read attribute Bush’s popularity to some sort of magic that he or Rove does, or just the monumental ignorance of the sheeple, but never seem to consider if it’s the repeated “the world is ending!” hysteria that never pans out that’s the real secret.

13 September 2005

Grabbing the handle of the big broom

President Bush is accepting responsibility for the response to hurricane Katrina.

President Bush said Tuesday that “I take responsibility” for failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and said the disaster raised broader questions about the government’s ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.

“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” Bush said at joint White House news conference

I’m sure that many anti-Bush agitators are grinning at this admission, but I think Bush is playing a different game here. There are two threads to it.

The first is that, in comparison with other relief efforts, the post-hurricane Katrina response doesn’t look bad. In most ways it was better than other, similar efforts in the recent past. Moreover, I believe that it will become apparent soon enough that the effort lagged only in a single state and disastrously only in a single city with obvious culpability on the part of the locals. Taking responsibility for something that’s going to look good six months from now is a smart move. As they say in the stock market, you don’t make money from buying good stocks and hoping they become great, you buy lousy stocks that look like they’re going to become mediocre. That’s what Bush is doing and he is likely to reap a lot of profit from it.

The other thread is reminiscent of the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. One of the little things that wasn’t much noticed at the time is the associated changes in government work rules. That’s a battle that’s going on mostly unremarked but it is likely to have greater long term effects than anything else the DHS might do.

Now, this putative failure of the federal government to respond to hurricane Katrina — what could give Bush a bigger broom than taking personal responsibility and vowing to “fix” the problems? It sets Bush up to frame the problems and the solutions. It’s exactly the kind of moralistic posturing that enabled the MAL to get so much of their agenda through during their ascendancy. Of course, it will hurt Bush politically now but memories are short and the potential payoff for the rest of his term is quite large. For someone who’s shown a history of being willing to take risks for big prizes it’s almost a no-brainer.

P.S. Now, the one thing that worries me is the possibility that Bush will use this to further federalize an already over-federalized civil defense system. I am a strong propopent of civil defense devolution and regaining the idea of community self-reliance. If Bush’s “reform” is to sweep aside state and local civil defense for an enlarged DHS I reserve the right to throw a screaming hissy fit.

12 September 2005

Fallowed ground

I will go on record as saying that I don’t think any federal tax money should be used to rebuild New Orleans. I accept that we, as a nation, need to take care of the refugees. I have no objections in that regard. But to pour money in to a below sea level pit to be washed away with the next major hurricane doesn’t strike me as something to which the nation’s taxpayers should be contributing.

I was reading an editorial about this in the local paper and the author, someone who grew up here but lived in New Orleans, complained that it was mean of people to call for New Orleans to be bulldozed. All I could think was “dude, it’s already been bulldozed”. Not to mention that I’m fine with people spending their own money to rebuild. But if it’s my money I’d prefer to have it spent on something slightly less risky.

Some say that since New Orleans is a major port for the Gulf of Mexico and that, geographically, there’s not much lee way on where it must be (on the Mississippi but not so far north that navigation is difficult for sea going vessels), we need to rebuild. Well, we may need to rebuild a port but that’s a tad bit different than rebuilding the city. Moveover, if the port is really that critical than we should pay via what are effectively “use fees” by have the city tax the movement of cargo. The costs of that tax can then be passed on to the consumers or shippers of that cargo. If shippers would rather use some other route than pay the tax, that just means that the port wasn’t all that critical in the first place. If local based taxes can’t support the city, then almost by definition the city doesn’t make economic sense which removes the only argument I consider a plausible defense of reconstruction.

That leads me on to thinking about the larger problem of flood insurance, disaster recovery, moral hazard and the build up on land that is at risk for frequent natural disasters. I have a plan that should appeal to both conservatives and environmentalists. That is simply change the disaster insurance / recovery laws so that if a piece of land (via its owners) makes a second claim less than N years after a previous claim, the claim is paid but the land becomes the property of the state or federal government to become a nature preserve. If you don’t want your land taken, then just don’t make claims on public money (use private insurance or pay for it yourself). This would also tend to convert the most at risk areas back to a natural state which is not only a lot cheaper but would help protect other areas from threats, particularly hurricanes. It might also encourage a view of the federal government as a helping hand and not a cash fountain, to be used only in emergencies at even then at some price.

Saint or Satan Syndrome

I think my biggest pet peeve with US political discussion today is a variant of Bush Derangement Syndrome in which one’s opinion of President Bush must follow the law of the excluded middle. In this view, if one doesn’t consider Bush to be (at best) “the WORST POTUS EVER” then it must be that one thinks Bush is a genius, perfect, or some other superlative. While I’ve defended Bush and FEMA with regard to the response to hurricane Katrina, I certainly wouldn’t label it as “superb” or Bush as the outstanding national leader of our time based on it. I’d rate it average to poor, but hardly a disaster or a stellar performance. Yet if you try to make that point at any of the Democratic / Leftist weblogs it seems that one is immediately tarred as a fanatical Bush supporter. I was tarred as a delusional liar for quoting the Red Cross on the subject of who blocked supplies for the refugees in the Superdome. I think it is this symptom, more than any other, that gives off the aura of hysteria on the Modern American Left.

07 September 2005

Martha and Mary go Grey and Pink

Even Natalie Solent has linked to the Tribes essay by Bill Whittle. It was OK, but mostly what I thought of while reading was “Kipling said it better”.

Slow flowing river

Is Amazon slipping? I remember them being reasonbly fast on orders. I hadn’t ordered from them for a while but back on the 2nd I ordered a couple of books and a CD. All of them were listed as either “in stock” or “usually ships within 24 hours”. I checked today and the estimated arrival date is 21 Sep, or just under three weeks from the original order. That’s not quite the promptness I remember, or do I just have rose colored memories?

“I don't care about his response, I just want him to suffer”

I find the whining about President Bush’s non-suffering once again a bizarre attempt at sympathetic magic. Somehow (it’s never explained) Bush failing to suffer like the victims of the latest disaster makes that suffering worse. Personally, if I were such a victim, I’d prefer to have my leaders in the best condition to make the best decisions rather than putting on some sort of fake humility show about how they’re “just like me”. But those doing the complaining tend to be logo-realists for whom the symbology of an act is the primary determinant of its effectiveness.

This hair-shirt approach does have the benefit of putting Bush in a no-win situation, where (as noted above) if he doesn’t demonstrate his compassion through symbolic visits to the disaster site, he’s callous. But if he does visit then he’s callous for disrupting some rescue efforts for a photo-op.

Of course, as is usual for the MAL, the effect of this kind of carping is exactly opposed to the putative goals of the MAL. It strongly encourages those who support Bush in to holding back criticism while numbing those in the middle to substantive criticisms. But I suspect that it suits the real goal of the complainers, to achieve their own personal catharthis through venting bile.