Br’er Capitalist

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Don Boudreaux explains why Br’er Capitalist shouts, Don’t throw me into that briar patch!:

While at the Davos World Economic Forum, David Ignatius was apparently surprised that “When Sarkozy had finished his anti-capitalist rant, he got a standing ovation from an audience made up mostly of wealthy capitalists” (“Populism popular at the World Economic Forum in Davos,” Jan. 31).

Nothing is surprising about this fact. To the extent that trade — both national and international — is restricted, incumbent capitalists are shielded from what Joseph Schumpeter called the “gale of creative destruction.” Subsidies and tariffs always protect established capitalists from having to compete with new rivals, new products, and new ways of doing business. Such “anti-capitalist” protection harms not only upstart entrepreneurs; most importantly, it hurts the countless unseen and unrepresented consumers who are denied the gains they would have enjoyed from the innovation and competition that are squelched by the “anti-capitalist” restrictive policies that seem so in vogue today at Davos.

Show me an “anti-capitalist” policy and I’ll show you wealthy capitalists who applaud it loudly.

An alliance leader must play the role of barbarian chieftain

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

An age-old model explains how states and other groups are likely to approach war in the future, Robert Kaplan says, citing an unpublished essay by Michael Lind:

Lind says that in primitive societies, lawless frontier towns and the world of organized crime, injustice has always been redressed by the injured themselves, or by their powerful protectors; thus, the safety of the weak rests upon the willingness of their protectors to wield power. Indeed, feudal relationships between stronger and weaker states have marked world politics since time immemorial. Even today, civilian economic powers like Germany and Japan and niche states like oil-rich Kuwait and trading tiger Singapore have specific functions in a quasi-feudal Western world order, in which the United States provides military security.

In places where the rule of law does prevail, one is expected to suffer insults without resort to violence. But in a lawless society, a willingness to suffer insults indicates weakness that, in turn, may invite attack. A world without a Leviathan is somewhat similar: An alliance leader must play the role of barbarian chieftain. In theory, international law governs world politics; in practice, relations between great powers are regulated by a sort of Code Duello. Lind notes that “Khrushchev’s conception of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and Third World competition, and the establishment of a Hot Line, were designed to ritualize the struggle for power, not to end it.” Such conventions, he continues, “might be compared to the elaborate rules surrounding the aristocratic duel.” Such a code may not be Judeo-Christian, yet it is moral just the same. For even in a lawless realm, too extreme a response — killing large numbers of civilians in Beirut for the sake of protecting its northern border, as Israel did in 1982 — may be perceived as wanton violence, and thus lack legitimacy.

In any age, a reputation for power must be balanced by one for mercy. A barbarian chieftain may occasionally have to defend immoral clients (like U.S. support for some dictators during the Cold War), but if he does so too often to the exclusion of all else, his chieftaincy may lose respect and consequently be toppled. A future in which rival chiefs risk assassination as never before — with surprise attacks on computer command posts — is one perfectly suited for a Code Duello.


Saturday, January 30th, 2010

The latest xkcd strip, on the Mars rover Spirit, is bittersweet. I find it far too easy to identify with a little, well-intentioned robot.

Marijuana Legalization on the California Ballot

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Supporters of legalized marijuana have gathered 700,000 signatures in California — far more than the 433,971 valid signatures needed to get an initiative on the November ballot:

The measure’s main proponent, Richard Lee, a highly successful Oakland marijuana entrepreneur, bankrolled a professional signature-gathering effort that was bolstered by volunteers from the state’s hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries.

“This is a historic first step toward ending cannabis prohibition,” Lee said. “I’ve always believed that cannabis should be taxed and regulated and that our current laws aren’t working.”

The initiative, known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, would make it legal for anyone 21 and older to possess an ounce of marijuana and grow plants in an area no larger than 25 square feet for personal use. It would also allow cities and counties to permit marijuana to be grown and sold, and to impose taxes on marijuana production and sales.

Four marijuana legalization initiatives have been proposed, but Lee’s is the only one that appears to have the financial support to make the ballot.
Lee’s firm, one of the state’s most successful marijuana businesses, has spent more than $1 million on the measure and hired professional consultants to run the campaign. Lee owns half a dozen mostly pot-related businesses in Oakland, including Coffeeshop Blue Sky, a medical marijuana dispensary, and Oaksterdam University, which offers classes on marijuana.

Polls have shown growing support nationwide for legalization. In California, a majority favors it. A Field Poll taken last April found that 56% of voters in the state and 60% in Los Angeles County want to make pot legal and tax it. That margin, though, is not enough to assure victory.

The particulars make it sound more like a decriminalization measure than a legalization measure meant to generate tax revenue.

A Distinctly Inquisitional Air

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Left to themselves, Robert Kaplan says, most leaders in the post-Cold War West would avoid all non-strategic interventions with the risks that they carry — if not for the media and intellectual communities:

Because the elite media is dominated by cosmopolitans who inhabit the wider world beyond the nation-state, it has a tendency to emphasize universal moral principles over national self-interest. “Most newsmen”, says Walter Cronkite, “feel very little allegiance to the established order. I think they are inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions.” In the hands of the media, the language of human rights — the highest level of altruism — can become a powerful weapon that can lead us into wars that perhaps we should not fight.

When the media finds a cause it can rally around, it can both shape and replace public opinion, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo, when the media was overwhelmingly interventionist while the public, as the polls showed, remained unenthusiastic. The media and intellectual communities are professional castes no less distinguishable than those of military officers, doctors, insurance agents and so on — and no more representative of the American population. As with other professional groups, they are often more influenced by each other than by those outside their social network. Faced with an indifferent public, this quasi-aristocracy may shape the views of Western leaders much as the ancient nobles did of their emperors. And the media’s arguments will be difficult to resist. Human rights arguments advanced by the media at their most extreme have a distinctly inquisitional air about them.

Television correspondents at the scene of catastrophes, like the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982 and starvation in Somalia a decade later, manifest an impassioned tunnel vision in which sheer emotion replaces analysis: Nothing matters to them except the horrendous spectacle before their eyes — about which something must be done! The media embodies classical liberal values, which concern themselves with individuals and their well-being, whereas foreign policy is often concerned with the relationships between states and other large groups. Thus, the media is more likely to be militaristic when individual rights and suffering are concerned, rather than when a state’s vital interests are threatened.

Another problem will be the unwitting collusion between the global media and our enemies, Kaplan says:

Many defense analysts envision massive, “vertically integrated” media conglomerates with their own surveillance satellites. One firm, Aerobureau (of McLean, Virginia) can already deploy a flying newsroom: an aircraft equipped with multiple satellite video, audio and data links, gyro-stabilized cameras, and the ability to operate camera-equipped vehicles on earth by remote control. Colonel Dunlap asks, “What need will there be for our future enemies to spend money building extensive intelligence capabilities? The media will become the ‘poor man’s intelligence service.’”

The media is no longer simply the fourth estate, without which the other three branches of government could not operate honestly and effectively. Because of technology and the consolidation of news organizations-similar to the consolidation of airline and automobile alliances — the media is becoming a world power in its own right. The power of the media is wilful and dangerous because it dramatically affects Western policy while bearing no responsibility for the outcome. Indeed, the media’s moral perfectionism is possible only because it is politically unaccountable.

When America became an independent nation, the press was meant to keep government honest. Alerting the public to humanitarian problems overseas is germane to that role; directing policy is not, particularly if officials are forced to operate at a lower level of altruism than the media. A statesman’s primary responsibility is to his country, while the media thinks in universal terms. Emotional coverage of Somalia by a world media foreshadowed an American intervention that, because it was ill defined, led to the worst disaster for U.S. troops since Vietnam — a disaster that then helped influence policymakers against intervention in Rwanda. In a world of constant crises, policymakers must be selective about where and when they believe it worthwhile to get engulfed in the Clausewitzian “uncertainty” of conflict — something that the power of the media makes ever more difficult.

Gates makes $10 billion vaccines pledge

Friday, January 29th, 2010

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $10 billion to research new vaccines and to bring them to the world’s poorest countries — vastly increasing the number of mouths to feed without increasing food production.

Just for reference, the population of Ethiopia, in 1985 — during the infamous famine — was roughly 40 million. By 2008, it had grown past 80 million.

Para Fuera

Friday, January 29th, 2010

If you’re feeling complacent, may I suggest watching Nicholas Jasenovec’s portrait of Dr. Richard J. Bing on his hundredth birthday, Para Fuera:

Ancient war was more civilized than modern war

Friday, January 29th, 2010

In one respect, ancient war was more civilized than modern war:

The aim of ancient war was generally to kill or capture the opposing chief and display him in a cage. Because of the primitive state of technology, the only way to get to the opposing leader and his inner circle was to cut through the mass of his people and army, necessitating bloody battles and great cruelty. Since the Enlightenment, however, Western leaders have exempted themselves from retribution and have sought to punish each other indirectly: by destroying each other’s armies and — since Grant and Sherman — by making the civilian populations suffer as well.

But is it really more honorable to kill thousands by high-altitude bombing than by the sword and axe? In Kosovo, NATO air attacks were far more effective against civilian targets than military ones. Yet, impending precision-guidance technologies — in which bullets can be directed to specific targets like warheads — will make strikes on the offending chief quite practical. In the future, satellites may track the movements of specific individuals through their neurobiological signatures the way that cat scans do now from a few inches away. We will reinvent ancient war; it will soon be possible to kill or capture the individual perpetrators of great cruelties rather than harm their subject populations, which in many cases are also their victims.

Would it have been more humane to assassinate Milosevic and his inner circle rather than bomb Serbia for ten weeks? In the future, such assassinations will be possible. Because many of our future enemies may not inhabit a country as technologically developed as Serbia, there may be no suitable targets like electrical and water-treatment plants to bomb. The only target may be the offending chief or warrior himself.

In Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden hides out, attacking his “infrastructure” means destroying only a few burlap tents, cell phones and computers, all of which are immediately replaceable. Because future war will feature precision attacks on command posts, hitting those computer nerve centers will often mean killing the political leadership. Either the law against assassinations that sprang from our Vietnam experience will be scrapped, or it will be sidestepped.

Whether or not future wars are bloodless, there will be an undeniable ancientness to the way in which we conduct them. Kosovo, from our point of view, was a bloodless war, but thousands of civilians (mostly Kosovar Albanians) died so that there would be no NATO casualties. But had a dozen NATO planes been shot down, President Clinton might have been forced to call off the war.

Our appetite for war is similar to that of the Romans, whose professional and salaried legions had no desire to fight warriors eager for glorious death. Thus, whenever they could, the Romans avoided open field engagements in favor of expensive and systematic sieges in which their own casualties were minimized. The Romans were also protected beneath cumbersome helmets, breastplates, shoulder guards, and foot greaves, even though this reduced their agility. We are not the first great empire to despise casualties.

Complexity transforms the simple into the impossible

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Complexity transforms the simple into the impossible, Scott Adams (Dilbert) explains:

I keep getting unexplained bankcard services fees on my business checking account, somehow related to selling some of my original art a few years ago. I contacted my bank to clear it up. My bank could find no record that I ever had a merchant account with them. Nor could they find any record that I have a current checking account with them. They did acknowledge billing me for the services they say I don’t have.

Allow me to say that again: My bank can’t find any record that I have a checking account with them, searching either by my name or my account number. As I write this, it still isn’t cleared up.

In the end, it will turn out to be something simple. I probably called the Bankcard Merchant Services department instead of the Merchant Services Bankcard department, and they can only see certain types of accounts, or some such thing. I don’t think my money actually disappeared. The real problem is that the world has become so complex that simple tasks are nearly impossible.

I recently got a video switching device, professionally installed, that lets multiple televisions in the house display what is playing on, for example, a DVD player in another room. We just built our home, so we had the luxury of wiring it for that sort of function. It’s a great idea, except that when I turn on the TV in one room it sometimes randomly turns on a TV in another. A team of very smart and experienced technicians have been trying to solve that bug for a week. In the end, I’ll just live with it, or stop watching television, whichever is easier. Complexity transforms the simple into the impossible.

I went to upgrade a family member’s cell phone the other day. I knew exactly what I wanted. The store even had it in stock. Still, the transaction took 90 minutes. It had something to do with using the upgrade of one family member for the phone of another, which ended up killing the wrong phone, hosing e-mail on my BlackBerry, and a host of other issue before we got it all working. Complexity made the simple nearly impossible.

Lately I’ve been trying to get all of my insurance issues sorted out. I need about seven different types of policies for various car risks, house risks, business risks, and personal risks. So I ask my insurance guy a question, and he passes the question to the carrier, and by the time I get the answer, I forgot what I asked. Worse yet, I have three more questions. Insurance documents keep piling up on my desk. Some want payment, some want inventories, some want data, some need review, and maybe signatures. I don’t even know where to start. The complexity has overwhelmed me. So I just stare at the pile and hope a meteor doesn’t strike the house.

Natural and Supernatural

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Jerome K. Jerome, a friend of Welsh horror writer Arthur Machen, once observed that the difference between what we call the natural and the supernatural is merely the difference between frequency and rarity of occurrence.

Future war will be more like ancient war

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Future war will be more like ancient war, Robert Kaplan predicted, right before 9/11:

The terrorist nature of future outrages, the collapse of the distinction between military and civilian decision-making, the truncation of democratic deliberation over the use of force, and the vitiation of the laws of war, taken together, promises to make future war more like ancient war than anything Americans and Europeans have witnessed for many centuries. More specifically, the ancientness of future wars has three dimensions: the character of the enemy, the methods used to contain and destroy him, and the identity of those beating the war drums.

National security analyst Colonel Ralph Peters has written that American soldiers “are brilliantly prepared to defeat other soldiers. Unfortunately”, he goes on, “the enemies we are likely to face… will not be ‘soldiers’”, with the discipline and professionalism which that word implies in the West, but “‘warriors’ — erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, with no stake in civil order.”

There have always been warriors who, as Homer wrote in The Iliad, “call up the wild joy of war”, but the collapse of Cold War empires and the disorder it has engendered — along with the advance of technology and poor-quality urbanization — has provoked the breakdown of families and the renewal of cults and blood ties. The latter includes both a more militant Islam and Hinduism. The result is the rise of new warrior classes as cruel as ever, and better-armed. This phenomenon embraces armies of murderous teenagers in West Africa; Russian and Albanian mafiosi; Latin American drug kingpins; West Bank suicide bombers; and associates of Osama bin Laden who communicate by e-mail. Like Achilles and the ancient Greeks harassing Troy, the thrill of violence substitutes for the joys of domesticity and feasting. Achilles exclaims,

You talk of food?
I have no taste for food — what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans
of men!

Today’s warriors come often enough from the hundreds of millions of unemployed young males in the developing world, angered by the income disparities that accompany globalization. Globalization is Darwinian. It means the economic survival of the fittest — those groups and individuals who are disciplined, dynamic and ingenious will float to the top, while cultures that do not compete well technologically will produce an inordinate number of warriors. I have seen firsthand the creation of warriors at Islamic schools in Pakistani slums: The children of those shantytowns had no moral or patriotic identity except that which their religious instructors gave them. An age of chemical and biological weapons is perfectly suited for religious martyrdom.

Warriors also include ex-convicts, ethnic and national “patriots”, shadowy arms and drug entrepreneurs awash in cynicism, and failed military men — cashiered officers of formerly communist and Third World armies. The wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 1990s featured all of these types reborn as war criminals. Whether in Russia, Iraq or Serbia, nationalism in our age is, Peters notes, simply a secular form of fundamentalism. Both religious and secular fundamentalisms arise from a sense of collective grievance and historical failure, real or imaginary, and preach a lost golden age. Both dehumanize their adversaries and equate mercy with weakness. Thus, while there are enormous differences between, say, a Radovan Karadzic and an Osama bin Laden, neither plays by our rules; both are warriors.

Hitler exemplified the warrior leader, a prototypical skinhead with a moustache who wrested control of an advanced industrial state. Anyone who assumes that rational economic incentives determine world politics should read Mein Kampf. None of the warriors we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall has presented a comparable strategic threat in part because none has had control over a state like Germany. But that could change: the further development and profusion of smaller, low-tech nuclear devices and of chemical and biological weapons will transform obscure “freedom fighters” into strategic menaces. While the average engagement during the Civil War featured 26,000 men per square mile of battle front, the figure is now 240; it will dwindle further as war becomes increasingly unconventional and less dependent on manpower. Moreover, an economy of scale is no longer necessary to produce weapons of mass destruction, nor can the United States sustain its monopoly over new military technologies, many of which are not expensive and can be acquired by present and future adversaries through free trade.

We may, of course, face military conflicts not only with warrior groups, but with great powers such as China. But rather than deploy its soldiers against ours, so as to play by our rules, an adversary may prefer to use computer viruses against us, or unleash its warrior-allies from the Middle East, supplied with its military technology, even while it denies any connection with such stateless terrorists. Russia, too, could make strategic use of terrorists and international criminals in order to fight an undeclared war. Precisely because the United States is militarily superior to any group or nation, we should expect to be attacked at our weakest points, beyond the boundaries of international law.

Effective responses to the outrages of these warriors are inconceivable without the element of surprise, making democratic consultation an afterthought. After all, war is subject to democratic control only when it is a condition distinctly separate from peace. In Cold War confrontations such as Korea and Vietnam popular opinion played a major role, but a protracted state of quasi-conflict marked by commando raids and electronic strikes on enemy computer systems — in which the swiftness of our reaction is the key variable — will not be guided by public opinion to the same extent. Such conflict will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue.

The Libertarian Paradox and Bad Policy

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Jacob Lyles describes the Libertarian Paradox and how it leads to bad policy recommendations:

I don’t want to live in an area that indiscriminately lets in millions of poor immigrants from the third world. I believe such a place would be unpleasant to live in. At least I want my government to keep out the crazies with bombs.

Libertarian moral philosophy clearly allows me to pursue this goal privately. I am allowed to band together with other people, buy up some land, and prevent immigrants we don’t want from moving to our gated community.
But because we do not live in a libertarian world and much of the property in the United States is owned by the government, many libertarians (example) hold that we have no moral choice but to pursue an open borders policy and let in any immigrant who wishes to come.

This is an example of what I am christening the “libertarian paradox”. Because of the governing systems currently in place, libertarian moral philosophy compels us to advocate for bad policies that nobody really wants. Because the roads and borders are not private property, it would be immoral for us to use government force to prevent some immigrants from using them to move here.

And then libertarians wonder why their message is so unpopular, all the while they are advocating policies that nobody, not even most libertarians, would voluntarily choose to live under if they had the personal free choice.

Machiavelli on Gun Control

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Machiavelli on gun control, from The Prince, chapter 20, David Wootton’s translation:

No new ruler, let me point out, has ever disarmed his subjects; on the contrary, when he has found them disarmed, he has always armed them. For, when you arm them, their arms become yours, those who have been hostile to you become loyal, while those who have been loyal remain so, and progress from being your obedient subjects to being your active supporters… But if you take their arms away from those who have been armed, you begin to alienate them. You make it clear you do not trust them, either because you think they are poor soldiers or disloyal. Whichever view they attribute to you, they will begin to hate you.

Saved from the Fire

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Beowulf, in his old age, faces the dragon and suffers through its fire before the great serpent buries its fangs in his neck. The great warrior, sword broken, lives just long enough to slay the dragon with his knife. Fortunately, the manuscript was never bit in the neck:

When the heirs of Sir Robert Cotton selected a spot to stash the rare-book collector’s priceless library, they probably should have known better than to pick a place called Ashburnham House. In 1731, a fire swept through that ill-named residence in London and forever impoverished our literary heritage.

One manuscript that escaped the blaze — just barely — contained an untitled poem of more than 3,000 lines. The flames actually singed its pages and destroyed bits of its unique content. In the centuries to follow, gradual deterioration consumed even more. It’s a small miracle that “Beowulf,” as the poem came to be called, survived at all.

Don’t Feed the Strays

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina has committed a bit of a gaffe in sharing what he was taught about charity:

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.

Eric Falkenstein adds some not-so-folksy wisdom:

One could nuance that, by saying ‘The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more good or harm (Walter Bagehot). Or that ‘The poor don’t need money or pity, they need temperance, diligence, thrift and other bourgeois virtues’. Or that ‘The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools’ (Herbert Spenser). Same idea.