Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

On Writing

Alan argues:
We could all write as Strunk demands, but we would have to say adieu to literature and all forms of enjoyable prose. Writing is communication. Writing is also art. Imagine if every picture painted was a realistic representation of a bowl of fruit on a table. No, thank you, I will appreciate variation--pretentious and otherwise.


I think he misunderstands artistic writing. Yet, I understand how he misunderstands because I used to misunderstand as well.

Let's consider poetry. Poetry is the highest form of artistic writing. Yet, a good poet will know precisely why he chose each word. Therefore, a good poem lacks unnecessary words. This doesn't constrain the artistry.

Likewise for prose, there should still be no unnecessary words. Each word should be written for a purpose. My issue with "in order to" and "the fact that" is that they are signals to me that the writer isn't considering his words carefully. Writing is communication. Writing is art. Writing is also a craft. Sloppy writing is poor craftsmanship.

If we consider your example of a painting as a realistic depiction of fruit on a table, then we need to consider the craft and skill involved. It's far more difficult to create a realistic representation of a bowl of fruit than an abstract one. For example, one of my favorite paintings at the Met depicts a violin hanging on a door. The skill level required to create that piece is much higher than something like this. Craftsmanship and skill are tremendously important. There's a lot of modern art that's crap. Straight up shit. There's no demonstration of craftsmanship.

I remember complaining to an English teacher that if e e cummings didn't have to follow the rules of grammar and style, then why should I? The teacher said, "Because he knows when he is breaking the rules and why. You are breaking the rules out of ignorance. There's a huge difference."

Most people are aware of the basic rules of grammar, if we're lucky. Very few possess a sense of style. Therefore, I typically assume that superfluous words aren't consciously chosen for some purpose explicitly known to the writer, but rather simply sloppy writing. In the case of something qua something, it's not only pretentious but also distracting from communicating meaning.

To put my objections to your artistic rebuttal to Strunk's writing advice in terms of painting: Most people haven't put in sufficient effort to acquire the skills to paint a realistic bowl of fruit. They are painting lopsided triangles, circles, and squares in solid colors. It ain't art simply because Picasso did something similar. Picasso knew what he was doing. There are infinite possibilities with language just as there are with a brush and paint. Admonishing people to be better craftsmen isn't constraining.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Something Qua Something

The construction something qua something is overused. "What, FLG?" I hear you saying. "People rarely say that." Ah, but academic types love the shit out of it.

GEC responded thusly to an email rant I had about this today:
It only makes sense when trying to discuss a few very specific concepts, and only as a substitute for long caveat-laden phrases.


Then, as I'm reading the comments over at Phoebe's, I run into it again:
I guess I cannot see, prima facie, any real reason for thinking that all identifiable groups of women past adolescence would not be susceptible to the very human and very real flaw of gratifying lust qua lust to the exclusion of all other concerns (if I interpret your claim correctly).


I understand where the commenter was going, but "lust qua lust" provides negligible difference in meaning. Read the sentence without it:
I guess I cannot see, prima facie, any real reason for thinking that all identifiable groups of women past adolescence would not be susceptible to the very human and very real flaw of gratifying lust to the exclusion of all other concerns (if I interpret your claim correctly).


Same thing, only less complex. Actually, to the extent that the something qua something construction isn't generally understood (and let's be honest only people with graduate education use this construction) it distracts from the meaning of the sentence.

Also, I'd change "past adolescence" to "beyond adolescence." I'm a big believer that the word past is confusing, as it can be an adjective, noun, proposition preposition, and adverb. Best just to avoid it entirely unless referring to the past, but that's just me being pedantic.

FLG is currently listening to



L'Ivrogne, the song's title, means drunkard. A small French lesson for the day.

Most Interesting Man In The World

Anybody else think this ad campaign is awesome?





FLG Has A Few Education Axioms

...but none come up as often as Liberal Arts, Not Science and Engineering.

Well, via Capital Gains and Games, that MIT is trying to teach people skills to its introverted, arrogant nerds students.

Business leaders complain that many of today’s engineering graduates, trained as abstract thinkers, have too little grounding in the actual practice of working with others to deliver innovative products amid time and budget constraints.


As I've written over and over, and as somebody who followed a core engineering curriculum at one point, engineering education habituates the mind into deterministic, sequential thinking. Human beings do not generally work in deterministic, sequential ways, and this breeds resentment in the minds of engineers. And I haven't even mentioned the self-selection bias of people who pursue engineering.

“Most engineers are very introverted,’’ he said, including himself. “Most creative, technical people are a little bit off the edge.’’


I just don't know that sitting "under structures built from newspapers and tape as part of a leadership training session" is the way to resolve this dilemma. In fact, why is it that all people skills training, whether it be some moral building exercise organized by a corporation or some sort of program as part of an academic program, always ends up being some Kindergarten bullshit? It's all self-esteem balloons. Trust buckets. Big, plastic phones as a metaphor for better communication.

I realize that the supposed "people skills," like respect for others, turn-taking, being nice, listening, etc, that so many people lack are basic things they should've learned when they were children, but when the exercises people develop to teach them to adults are literally something developed for pre-schoolers it's fucking offensive. It's the intellectual equivalent of having clowns come into the conference room, make balloon swords, and then proceed to sodomize everybody with them sans lube.

Correspondence

Dear FLG,

Virgil was Roman, not Greek.


No fucking shit Sherlock, but to return the favor of being Capt. Obvious. Roman mythology was largely a rip off of Greek Mythology. Plus, Acheron is in Greece. Pedantic fuckwad.

Did you see this house on 37th street?


No, I didn't. But that's badass.

Mad Max 4?

Who knew? Where's Mel?

FLG is currently listening to

this.

And he blames Mrs. FLG for it.

Quote of the day

Sonny Bunch:
“Social justice” is a phrase I don’t understand. As in, I literally don’t understand what people are saying when they call for social justice. I think this is because it doesn’t mean anything, but I could be wrong.

...

Do they just use the word “social justice” to mean “progressive policies” because it sounds better?


I've always taken social justice to be a more rigorous sounding form of the word "fair." A word which long-time readers will know I loathe.

In fact, I believe I can simply replace "fair" with "social justice" in what I wrote and it still makes perfect sense:
It is a completely relativistic term. There is no absolute social justice, only what makes people feel negatively is social injustice and what makes people feel good is social justice. I loathe the term social justice.


But then again, I've already pointed this out before:
The desire for fairness is a therapeutic response for the individual invoking it.

A discussion of justice is a much better because, at its best, such a discussion deals with a universal. However, many proponents of justice are using the word when they really are talking about fairness.


Never hurts to refresh my memory of what I wrote though.

Evil Weed



Not unlike Reefer Madness:

Have You No Shame?

WSJ:
Democrats in Congress introduced legislation aimed at squeezing more information from foreign banks and U.S. citizens with overseas accounts, as part of an effort to combat offshore tax evasion.

The bill from Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.), and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) includes some of President Obama's proposals to fight offshore-tax cheating. If implemented, the measure could raise $8.5 billion for the U.S. government over 10 years, according to a summary of the bill.


When you yourself are the subject of tax evasion questions perhaps it might be appropriate to, I dunno, not hypocritically sponsor a bill on tax evasion. Just sayin'. It's a tinsy bit rich.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

FLG Doesn't Know What To Make

...of this website.

A Conversation

An Especially Astute Coworker: FLG, you're pretentiously insouciant.

FLG: I don't understand. How can insouciance be pretentious?

Coworker: No, no, no. Your insouciance isn't pretentious. You are pretentious about your insouciance.

FLG: Fair enough.

El Tigre

To those of you who doubt the benefits of marijuana, I give you El Tigre:


His dad looks like a Mexican wrestler. His grandfather is named Puma Loco. The cartoon is pure genius.

Bloggers

Today, FLG was in a room with Yuval Levin, Patrick Deneen, and James Poulos, which made FLG the least influential blogger in the room. FLG doesn't desire influence. So, this isn't a lamentation or complaint. It's simply a statement of fact.

Now that he thinks about it, FLG is the least influential blogger in any room.

FLG is currently listening to

Quote of the day

Gordon Marino:
All progress paves over some bit of knowledge or washes away some valuable practice. Within a few years, e-mail and Twitter moved the art of letter writing to the trash bin. And in an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters, the art of introspection has been become passé. Galileos of the inner world, such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), have been packed off to the museum of antiquated ideas. Yet I think that the great and highly quirky Dane could help us to retrieve a distinction that has been effaced.

C.S. Perry

One of the first friends of this blog was C.S. Perry of Rooked fame. He's been having some personal issues recently, and FLG wishes him the best. However, FLG misses the distinctive voice of Mr. Perry of late, and even though he doesn't write as well and isn't a fucking magic 8-ball juicer, FLG has decided to write some fan fiction in honor of Mr. Perry and Halloween.

The temperature is dropping and the Full Moon has arisen. The sweet air of summer has given over to the mucky scent of decay that comes with the Fall. I was on the porch after a long day of raking leaves enjoying a bourbon and a cigar when I heard a rustle in the woods. I feared that it was Virgil come to guide me over the river Acheron.

Most people don't contemplate the fate of their souls with respect to Ancient Greek mythology after a day of yard work, but I do. Anthropomorphic deities render me anxious and sometimes incontinent. That's just too much power of beings without proper control over their emotions. Why couldn't they have been stoics?

But I didn't have time to concern myself with the natives of Mt. Olympus. The rustling began again. I squinted and looked hard, hoping not to see anything. Then I remembered that I saw an odd paw print when I was raking. It was huge and deformed. Just thinking of it made me shudder. Was that what was rustling?

A light came on next door. Could that Korean have summoned one of his heathen demons to stalk and kill me? Wouldn't put it passed him. Did he conjure up Guan-Di? Bastard. I'm out of bean curd.

I took another sip of bourbon and savored the warmth traveling down my gut. It returned the trip as the slightest bit of additional courage in the face of whatever danger might be out there. The lingering taste of the liquor was a liquid memory that brought me back to the Derby.

In college, two friends and I took a road trip to the Kentucky Derby. The night before the big event we were at a bar where one of my friends met a Southern Belle. A real blue blood. She took a shine to my friend and they were attached like a buckle to a belt all night. He broke away for a moment to inform the other friend and I that she was a hemophiliac. (I told you she was a real blue blood.) It took five minutes to dissuade him of the notion that this meant she has both sex organs. The disappointment was evident on his face. He began to cause a scene and only agreed to leave if we agreed to help him find a hermaphroditic hooker. We tried to explain that this would be difficult in a town like Louisville, but he was determined. At damn near dawn he relented and paid for the services of a run-of-the-mill crack whore. We were so tired we missed the Derby, and hit a dog track on the way home instead.

The rustling in the woods was joined by a terrible growl, and then a bone-curdling howl. Fucking werewolves, I thought to myself, as I refilled my glass and puffed the cigar. No need to worry about werewolves. No need for silver bullets . I'll just tell it that it doesn't exist, and get back to worrying about important things, like Virgil coming for me.

Mystery and Authenticity

A while back I wrote how this piece in the New York Times complaining about the lost authenticity of Indian life was a bit mush-headed. It contains some sort of romantic notions about Indian culture and life.

FLG always finds it odd when people disdain Western culture, but have some sort of reverence for other cultures (Native American, Asian, etc). At first, he thought this was some sort of weird liberal guilt, combined with twisted logic. To wit: White men bad. White man's culture is therefore bad. Therefore, other cultures, ones untainted by white men, are good. But it's not quite that simple, and this view, while partially true, is largely based upon FLG's own biases.

But a search on Liberal and Cultural Authenticity returns this:
Liberalism and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity
James Johnson

University of Rochester

In this paper, I consider one possible defense of the presumption, common among liberal legal and political theorists, that we should respect culture. Specifically, I examine the view, forcefully articulated by Joseph Carens, that we can identify those attachments or practices that are candidates for one or another form of legal protection by determining whether they are `authentic' in the sense that members of some relevant group accept or embrace them as an integral component of their culture. I first sketch in detail Carens's view and show that despite appearances his position is central to liberal arguments that we should respect culture. Next, I recapitulate the empirical case (the complicated cultural politics on the islands of Fiji) that Carens uses as a vehicle for his argument. I then challenge the implications that Carens draws from the Fijian case. In particular, I argue that claims to `authenticity' are themselves artifacts of strategic political processes, that they and the institutions they purport to justify are in fact morally arbitrary, and, therefore, that `authenticity' cannot afford a basis for justifying policies aimed at protecting culture in Fiji or elsewhere. I suggest in conclusion that by invoking authenticity in this regard Carens courts a brand of relativism that is especially pernicious in that it erodes the terrain of democratic representation and deliberation. This is ironic to the extent that Carens seeks to defend democracy as well as difference. On this basis I recommend that, for purposes of justifying social, political or economic arrangements, we abandon the language of authenticity altogether.


Emphasis mine.

This gets to the heart of what FLG finds so odd about people on the Left appealing to authenticity. Authenticity is Burkean Tradition's cousin. It's a pact between generations and therefore stands in the way of Liberal progress. Johnson calls this pernicious because authenticity, and by extension tradition, block some things off from public debate or at least frame the debate in ways that somebody who is most concerned with the current, material, and empirical state of things wishes they didn't. Put simply -- they are a barrier to expeditious, short-term progress.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Yuval Levin argues that conservative bioethics is somewhat of a paradox. The arguments that conservatives produce to defend against the onslaught of progress undermine taboos. His argument is that it is more powerful to simply rely upon the visceral revulsion that most people feel toward things like incest than to produce a reasoned argument. Reasoned arguments can be defeated with trick of language and sophistry. Visceral revulsion is harder to overcome. So, this desire to examine, reason, and rationalize seems to pervade our modern, democratic sensibilities. Levin writes:
The greatest teacher of conservatism, Edmund Burke, complained about this tendency of democrats. “It has been the misfortune, not as these gentlemen think it, the glory, of this age, that everything is to be discussed,” he wrote. The greatest student of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, understood why this should be so, and that often it is for the good. In democratic times, he explains, individuals no longer accept ideas on authority or faith or age-old sentiment. Equality convinces every citizen of the power of his reason, and he wishes to subject every idea to his own rational inspection. Tocqueville describes the public life of a democracy as a constant transformation of the implicit into the explicit, as the authority of tradition and the power of sentiment give way to clearly defined operations of interest and will. Old, deep, unspoken social ties—between owner and tenant, employer and employee, governor and governed, and many others—are transformed into clearly delineated contractual relations, and everywhere old sentimental notions are replaced by explicit arguments. “Do you not perceive on all sides beliefs that give way to reasoning, and sentiments that give way to calculations?” Tocqueville asks.


It's almost the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to politics. Examining the reasons for some human institution's existence, even in its defense, undermines its authority and authenticity. And that's where we return to FLG's biased account of hating White Man's culture.

It's not just that many people, taking a lead from atheist, communist college professors, have taken a critical eye toward Western culture to dig up every aspect of racism, classism, patriarchy, and generally discriminating against the Other. It's that the mere examination of the culture's institutions undermines them. And that's why one of FLG's big pet peeves, the assumption that authentic, real culture exists in native or foreign cultures, has begun to make sense to him.

FLG believes that all people want to feel connection to something or someone. This seems apparent both in everyday life and the multiple discussions of alienation in modern and postmodern political philosophy. The Enlightenment exposed existing institutions to the light of reason, empiricism, and social science. Thus, they tore out the authenticity, and by extension traditional authority.

Since Western tradition has been pretty thoroughly discredited as racist, homophobic, classist, and patriarchal. It's only natural that they would search for authenticity outside of it. And thus we have all the Hollywood types who revere the Dalai Llama and search for meaning in Ancient mystical religions. But FLG has always asked himself why these appeal to lefty Hollywood types, and his explanation about the White Man's culture explained it. But that's not the whole story as he tried to explain above.

To put it simply -- familiarity breeds contempt. Growing up in Western culture, one that has been critically examined to the point of near exhaustion, likewise breeds contempt in some. FLG gets especially upset when the Founding Father, who created this greatest of countries, are dismissed simply as slave owning white men who didn't want to pay their taxes, completely dismissing how they did set us on the path to greater and greater equality and perhaps it's not fair to project our present moral and cultural values back onto them, but I'm getting off-point...

Anyway, the foreign traditions are considered more authentic by these people simply because they haven't been examined as thoroughly as Western traditions. They accept the traditions without looking into what atrocities or discrimination or whatever they may have justified or let to in the past. FLG is sure there are some there. Every culture has its atrocities. Although, he doesn't know of any evil acts anybody has committed in the name of Buddhism.

But then FLG asked himself, why don't they look into these things. First answer was that they are lazy. Second was that they don't want to know. They understand intuitively that examining these things too closely will undermine its authenticity and since they've gone looking for authenticity it's best to leave all that alone. Last, and this is an important point FLG thinks, the authenticity of foreign cultures has no impact on current, domestic politics. They pose no threat or obstacles to the progressive project here in the States. Likewise for the cultures of "marginalized peoples." By definition, marginalized people have little to no power. Hence, the marginalization. Therefore, their traditions can safely be revered by somebody concerned with progress.

And so, after all that thinking, I came back to the White Man culture. White men had the power, so need to undermine the authenticity and by extension authority of white male power. Actually, it's about undermining Western traditional authority, which happens to have been controlled throughout history by white men. But there's a serious conflation of the two in some circles that rely on bastardized Marxist class antagonisms, such as Feminism, which took the capitalist-proletariat and largely changed it to white males-everybody else.

Oh, I have one more point, but it doesn't fit into what I've written so far quite neatly. The most pernicious, to borrow a word from James Johnson, movement in modern democratic debate is the one toward hyper-rationalization and empiricism, best exemplified by Richard Dawkins' attack on Harry Potter Apparently, it's not enough that religious belief has been undermined. We shouldn't tell stories that very clearly are fiction unless they conform to our empirical understanding of the material world, which is just fucking nuts.

I pity Prof. Dawkins. Not because he lacks faith, but because he lacks imagination and a sense of whimsy. And not only does he lack them, but he outright disdains them. It's must be a sad, sad life.

Human beings need some mystery. Pulling back the curtains isn't always a good idea. And we certainly shouldn't pull back the curtains when somebody put them there for our amusement like J.K. Rowling did.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quote of the day II

why.i.hate.dc:
Of course the networking blowhard isn't endemic to D.C. They likely exist in many cities. However, the nature of D.C. seems to encourage their development. We have a constant rat race, with everyone trying to gauge how they stack up. You have a whole bunch of people who were told they would change the world and they don't know how to play nice in the sandbox once they realize they aren't actually that special. You think you've got a good job that makes a difference? Well, there's always somebody doing more. No matter who you are. Need confirmation of that? Just remember that arguably the most powerful person on the entire planet lives just down the street from you.

Latin

FLG is going to try to teach himself Latin. Arethusa was kind enough to offer some recommendations, but FLG can't stop thinking about this:

Quote of the day

Kathleen Parker:
Smack dab on center court is the elephant no one wants to acknowledge: that men and women are different; that sometimes even heterosexuals prefer same-sex company; and that, as a rule, women and men are unequal in matters physical. With rare exceptions, the gender-neutrality trope that drives much of the Democratic Party agenda is, was and ever shall be -- false.

Forget China

Tom Barnett, like FLG, doubts that China will rule the world. Barnett has roughly the same logic -- China will get old before it gets rich.

FLG was thinking, however, that this debate about the rise of China distracts from a more important point -- the seemingly innate human assumption to view everything as zero-sum. This assumption often distracts from the real issues.

From an economic policy perspective, we should have free trade and largely ignore what the rest of the world is doing. The most important factor in our long-term economic growth are our domestic policy decisions. Yes, in the short-run things like currency fluctuations can spur or inhibit imports or exports. Likewise, foreign policies can affect us. But overall the key issues, the ones that really, really matter are our domestic choices.

The United States, for all this rather questionable talk of decline, has a number of huge advantages over the rest of the world. First, despite the lamentations about cost, liberal bias, grade inflation, and all the rest, our higher education system is still the best in the world. Second, we have one of the most flexible labor markets in the world. The only major issue that adversely affects our labor flexibility is health care tied to employment. This is one point that the health care reformers do have right. FLG just wonders if their cure won't be worse than the disease, but continuing on. Third, and again despite lamentations, we have a damn good infrastructure base upon which to continue or economic growth. Fourth, we have a political system that is flexible and adaptive. Sure, it moves too slowly for progressives, and, as conservatives like to point out, it can screw some stuff up. But it's not a rigid single-party system. The messy, inefficient, trial and error nature of our system is actually the best for adapting to economic and social change. Fifth, the United States has a culture of risk-taking. Many cultures emphasize hard work, particularly the Asian ones, but the American culture emphasizes risk-taking and hard-work. This is due in no small part to the self-selection as a nation of immigrants. Immigrants are hard working, risk-takers. Lastly, and probably most important, the American culture has proven itself effective at assimilating new immigrants. This is in stark contrast to China with its Han Chinese dominance and ethnic self-perceive superiority. This also means the United States will never grow old as long as it continues its traditions.

FLG has actually gotten into some disagreements over the last two points. The question posed to FLG, is Does a large amount of immigrants lead to increased risk-taking? Does the US actually assimilate people well? Aren't these national myths?

He thinks this misses the point. Let's say the answer to the first two questions is No. The answer to the third question is certainly Yes. And to the extent that the myths represent what we want our country to be, it also leads us to act in ways that pursues that myth. The myth, in this case but not all cases, works to manifest itself.

Anyway, we shouldn't forget the very real and tangible advantages our country has. Yes, we have problems that we must fix. The important part is that we need to exclude these zero-sum, international competition arguments that seem to appeal to something in our DNA (or maybe something in American culture), but distract from what's important. For example, we need to fix K-12 education in this country, not to compete in a globalized economy for the 21st century, but because it is in the best interests of our country politically, culturally, socially, and economically. When we decide to invest in our national infrastructure, we should debate about the benefits and costs it will bring our nation. Not relative to what other people are doing.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't learn lessons from what other countries are doing. America doesn't have the monopoly on good ideas. What FLG is saying is that we need not make economic decisions based on fear of losing out to the rest of the world. We need to make economic decisions on what is best for our country and what will likely lead to economic benefits irrespective of what other countries are doing. They're policies aren't as important as our own domestic ones.

The Greatness Of Capitalism

The greatness of capitalism is its inherent and incessant drive to increase the productive powers of mankind. This is not-so-well-exemplified by FLG's recent purchase of this beauty at Target.

Some will say, as many have, that, sure, capitalism increases the productive capacities of humanity, but without regard to our social needs. It's great at creating chotskies tchotchkes and other disposable crap while doing little to ameliorate or social conditions. FLG disagrees. Capitalism has proven to be the most effective means yet devised to ameliorate the material circumstances of mankind. Sure, it doesn't work as equally, quickly, or cleanly as we would like, but it does work. Millions, neigh billions, of people have been pulled out of poverty by capitalism and international trade.

But let's say that capitalism does produce chotskies tchotchkes. FLG is cool with that because that pirate nutcracker is pretty fucking badass.

French Op-Eds

You don't often see Op-Eds like this here in the States:

La réponse que proposent la pensée antique, puis la pensée médiévale et moderne, est que l'attention, loin d'être spontanée, exige un long entraînement, que les anciens appellent "prière", car il s'agit de regarder la réalité comme un dieu pourrait le faire. De Platon à Husserl, on retrouve la même idée : nous avons besoin des sens pour connaître, mais la connaissance sensible ne nous fait pas découvrir le réel. Les sciences cognitives reprennent le même programme : elles tentent d'élucider les opérations cérébrales qui président à la constitution de l'objectivité.


Sorry. I'm too lazy to translate the whole thing, but this is the important part:
From Plato to Husserl, one finds the same idea: we need senses to know, but sensory knowledge does not make us discover what is real. Cognitive sciences undertake the same program: they attempt to illuminate the brain functions that preside over the constitution of objectivity.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quote of the day III

Withywindle:
If only Cicero had been a pirate.


Indeed. Nothing contributes to the entertainment of the reader more, than the change of times and the vicissitudes of fortune. Arrrrr.

Quote of the day II

Otto:
the US might need some other strategy. However, I see nothing remotely as promising as having a big, blue, naked, radioactive guy march upon the enemy and blow them to pieces.

Blogroll Update

FLG has added two new blogs to the blogroll:
william writes about the world around him
Three White Leopards

Comic Relief



Slavery and Race in America from Tocqueville

Somebody recently said that Tocqueville is more often quoted than read. FLG thinks that somebody was over at LOG, but can't find it.

Interesting digression on the topic of quoting but not reading Tocqueville, well not so interesting but certainly a digression, there's a scene in the 1993 version of Born Yesterday (which you don't need to see if you haven't, and if you have -- I'm sorry) where Melanie Griffith, having become smart and empowered by reading Democracy in America, ask an NPR talk show host, played by Nora Dunn, a question about the book. Nora Dunn responds something like, "I haven't read it. Nobody has, but everybody in Washington has it on their shelves as if they have." FLG is pretty sure that quote is an accurate portrayal of Washington.

Anyway, FLG has read it, and this passage popped in his head today while thinking about the plight of Detroit:
It is important to make an accurate distinction between slavery itself and its consequences. The immediate evils produced by slavery were very nearly the same in antiquity as they are among the moderns, but the consequences of these evils were different. The slave among the ancients belonged to the same race as his master, and was often the superior of the two in education and intelligence. Freedom was the only distinction between them; and when freedom was conferred, they were easily confounded together. The ancients, then, had a very simple means of ridding themselves of slavery and its consequences: that of enfranchisement; and they succeeded as soon as they adopted this measure generally. Not but that in ancient states the vestiges of servitude subsisted for some time after servitude itself was abolished. There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal; and the real inequality that is produced by fortune or by law is always succeeded by an imaginary inequality that is implanted in the manners of the people. But among the ancients this secondary consequence of slavery had a natural limit; for the freedman bore so entire a resemblance to those born free that it soon became impossible to distinguish him from them.


It's a tremendously obvious point, but also incredibly important.

Other Classes FLG Is Considering

Not that many or any of you care, but here they are anyway:
  • International Trade Relations
  • The Constitution and U.S. Foreign Intelligence
  • Catholic Natural Law
  • Classical Political Philosophy
  • Security in Africa
  • American Political Theory
  • Cicero: A New Man in the Courts of Rome
  • French Crime Fiction
  • EU History:Money/Banking/Financial Crisis
  • Soviet Dissident Movements
  • Multipolarity & Arms Control
  • The World of the Vikings

FLG is currently listening to

Quote of the day

Northern Territory News (with unediting from FLG):
I was not sucking his cock -- and it's pretty obvious that wasn't the case ... you only have to look at the mark on my chest.

Clearly I had my seat belt on, so it's impossible I'd be leaning over sucking his penis unless he is hung like a donkey or I've got a fucking rubber neck.

If it was true I'd just cop it sweet and think 'how embarrassing, I got caught sucking someone's dick'. But it is not true and that's what is pissing me off. It didn't happen like that at all -- he was just going too fast.


Courtesy of dave.s., who FLG is sure never sucks cock while driving.

Islamic Political Philosophy

FLG is tempted to take this class even though he already took the The Theology of Islamic Politics, which he assumes covered largely the same ground and writers. A class, by the by, that led FLG to the conclusion that the political ideas of more than a few Islamic thinkers are a bit fucking nuts.

That's not quite fair. FLG does admire the Gulen movement a great deal. And he's generally amenable to the political ideas of Sufism, which basically is to remain distant from politics. Although, that oversimplifies the diversity of Sufist political thought.

Travel Ideas

FLG is really thinking about going here this winter. He hasn't been in years, and misses the days when he had a season pass.

Mrs. FLG, we should all go. FLG knows you don't ski, but look how cute it is:

Roundabout Issue With Wikipedia

When FLG was at the dentist a couple of weeks ago, he read this article in Time about the decline of Detroit. It places blame in a lot of places; some which I've always found odd, such as:
"The working men and women of Michigan and their families have always been Congressman Dingell's top priority," his website declares, and I suppose he thinks he has served them well — by resisting, in succession, tougher safety regulations, more-stringent mileage standards, relaxed trade restrictions and virtually any other measure that might have forced the American automobile industry to make cars that could stand up to foreign competition.


I find much of this logic completely odd in the same way that I find the idea that forcing Detroit to "go green" will make them competitive. First, regulations and government policy can never move fast enough to keep up with the realities of the consumer market. If your company needs to be dragged around by the government, then you're, to put it simply, already fucked. Second, do we really think that government politicians and bureaucrats, even if they are well-informed and well-intentioned, can possibly have a enough information to decide what the market needs? If you do, then go read Hayek. Third, and this speaks more to the "Go Green" stuff, liberal politicians seem to confuse how they want the world to be with what the market actually demands. I really don't see a clamoring for green cars. Yes, when fuel prices go up, people buy more fuel efficient cars. But the idea that government mandates from Washington or now the idea that Washington will somehow save the companies it owns by forcing Detroit to build cars that Whole Foods Bobos want to buy is completely asinine. It wreaks of The Big Assumption. I want to buy a green car. Therefore, everybody must.

If global warming and fuel efficiency are so important, then just put a fucking tax on carbon and be done with it. That will raise gas prices, which in turn will increase demand for Green Cars. Right now, all this tinkering by the liberals is starting to scare me because Pelosi, Reid, and Obama have no clue how to run a business; yet, they are trying to micromanage entire industries.

Anyway, getting back to the article. A big player in the decline of Detroit was the mayor from 1974-1993, Coleman Young. I made a mental note to look him up later because I knew almost nothing about him before the article. And that brought me to his wikipedia page, which is just priceless (all emphasis mine):
Young's work in civil rights, progressive and radical organizations including the Communist Party USA, the Progressive Party, the AFL-CIO, and the National Negro Labor Council made him powerful enemies in the capitalist ruling class, including the FBI and HUAC.


Upon learning of Young's death former President Jimmy Carter called Young "one of the greatest mayors our country has known."


most economic metrics (unemployment, median income rates, and city gross domestic product) initially dropped precipitously during Young's years in office, reaching their "low points" in the late 80's and/or early 90's, with the unemployment rate in particular peaking at approximately 20% in 1982. However, it should be noted that in the US private enterprise system, control of the economy of a city does not rest with the Mayor , but with the corporate executives and Wall Street. The private sector have built a virtual economic blockade on Detroit since it became majority Black approximately at the beginning of Young's tenure as Mayor. As Young said, "Racism do exist", economic racism.


Priceless.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Crazy Diogenes

Dio Chrysostom:
For he did not have to go anywhere for his sexual gratification but, as he humorously put it, he found Aphrodite everywhere, without expense; and the poets libelled the goddess, he maintained, on account of their own want of self-control, when they called her "the all-golden." And since many doubted this boast, he gave a public demonstration before the eyes of all, saying that if men were like himself, Troy would never have been taken, nor Priam, king of the Phrygians and a descendant of Zeus, been slain at the altar of Zeus.


He might not have seen Plato's cupness, but apparently everybody saw Diogenes' junk.

Dear Alan:

I went to the local specialty beer and wine store the other day, you know the one, because that's the only place where I know I can find my favorite beer -- Sawtooth Ale. Anyway, while I was there I saw Monty Python Holy Ale. It's tempered over burning witches. I bought two. You'll need to stop by at some point and we'll see if you weigh as much as a duck or very small rocks.



Sincerely,
FLG

Prometheus and Diodorus

FLG is reading "The Myth of Prometheus: Its Survival and Metamorphoses up to the Eighteenth Century"; Olga Raggio; Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Jun., 1958), pp. 44-62. In it, Raggio mentions that Diodorus Siculus claimed Prometheus was a governor in Egypt at the time of Osiris, whom FLG must assume, from the context of Raggio's writing, Didorous believed to be real people.

FLG has read Diodorus because, surprise, surprise, Diodorus is one of the surviving contemporary ancient sources on Alexander, but FLG hasn't read anything beyond the Alexander parts.

Intellectual

The FLGs ran into some friends, a couple, at the store the other day. The husband, whom FLG didn't know had read his blog, said that it is intellectual. FLG was surprised by this.

He doesn't consider himself intellectual. He failed out of college once, graduated in the bottom half of his class when he did finish, and has been shunned by grad schools. FLG guesses educational success and being an intellectual aren't mutually exclusive. Christopher Hitchens left Oxford with a third. Nevertheless, it does undermine any possibility of intellectual pretension in FLG.

Then there's the blog itself. FLG posts about pirates, robots, zombies, and object sex. Plus, he swears like a fucking sailor. Not quite intellectual fare, all considered.

FLG guesses this is the flip-side of the "your blog is full of profanity" lamentations. On one hand, he feels comfortable swearing. On the other, he also feels comfortable blogging about Plato.

It really comes down to this -- FLG tries to offer lucid, logical posts, but ultimately he's just an asshole author of a blog that he often writes in his underwear while drinking beer.

But it doesn't look like this:

Quote of the day

Courtesy of George Pal:
In an ill-conceived attempt to increase the size of his member, a man placed his penis through the "hole of a steel, ring-shaped dumbbell weight fastener," according to the Daily Pilot.

Sleeve Length

In Dressing the Man, Flusser is pretty damn adamant that 1/2 an inch of shirt should peek out the bottom of suit jacket sleeves. FLG's never been a big fan on shirts sticking out of the sleeves. This goes back to when he was a wee lad and he thought suits were uncomfortable. But he was wrong.

If you take a look at Cary Grant's suit in N x NW, you'll see that the white of the shirt at the sleeves changes the whole look of the damn thing. FLG has half-a-mind to try on all his suits, check the sleeve length, and run to the tailor.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Repeal The 17th

FLG thinks he might have said this before, but he would like to repeal the 17th Amendment.

My Ears, My Ears

Put this one in the bad cover column:

Quote of the day

Telegraph:
The Dartz Prombron Monaco Red Diamond Edition armoured car sells for one million euros. It has gold plated bulletproof windows, pure tungsten exhausts, speed gauges encrusted with diamonds - and seats made from whale penis leather


I'm gonna count sitting on whale cock as object sex.

The Dollar And China

Telegraph:
The dollar will still be the world’s dominant reserve currency in 2030, sharing a degree of leadership in uneasy condominium with the Chinese yuan. It will then regain much of its hegemonic status as the 21st century unfolds. It may indeed end the century even stronger than it was at the start.

The aging crisis in Asia — and indeed the outright demographic implosion in Japan and China, not to mention China’s water crisis — will soon be obvious to everybody. Talk of Oriental supremacy will start to sound overblown at first, and then preposterous.


I don't know if this will hold true, but at least it's not somebody repeating tropes about Chinese growth based on linear projections. China is going to get old before it gets rich.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

NIE Rethink

WaPo:
A landmark U.S. intelligence assessment in 2007 concluded that any secret uranium-processing activities "probably were halted" in 2003 and had not been restarted. Other key judgments of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, including the view that Iran has suspended research on nuclear-warhead design, are also being reevaluated in light of new evidence, the two former officials said.

"Qom changed a lot of people's thinking, especially about the possibility of secret military enrichment" of uranium, said one of the former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessments remain classified.


It'd be kinda sad if the conclusion that Iran had halted nuclear warhead design, seen by some as a more reasonable and rational conclusion, based on the lack of demonstrable facts, and thus assumed superior to the intelligence estimates of WMDs in Iraq, was also horribly wrong.

Friday, October 23, 2009

FLG is currently listening to

A Conversation

Coworker: FLG, you know French, right?

FLG: Yes. Why?

Coworker: How's your accent?

FLG: Not great. Nobody's going to mistake me for a Parisian anytime soon.

Coworker: Excellent. You need to start learning German as soon as possible.

FLG: You lost me. I need to start learning German to improve my French accent?

Coworker: No. You need to learn German even better than French so that you can speak French with a German accent. If there's one thing that history has taught us it's that German accents make French men shit and French women wet.

FLG: I'm not sure that's what history has taught us.

Coworker: Whatever. When you get that German accent down, you'll be able to boss around any man and fuck any woman over there.

Coworker walks away before FLG can respond.

FLG Wants To Go To Grad School

Why, you ask? Well, so that he can get a PhD and then get grant money to study the eye bleedingly obvious.

Proposed topics of inquiry:
Do kids like candy?
Is the sky still blue?
Is water still wet?
Do men like hot chicks?

That should require only about five years of effort and $4 million.

In Case You Didn't Know: Shadow Cabinet Edition

FLG would really like to see the Republicans establish an Official Loyal Opposition Shadow Cabinet like they have in the UK. It's one of the only things from the parliamentary system that he thinks we should bring over. FLG likes Prime Minister's Questions, but it just doesn't fit with our presidential system and the separation of powers.

Quote of the day

Aristotle:
Clearness is secured by using the words (nouns and verbs alike) that are current and ordinary.


This occurred to FLG as he was lamenting how too few students nowadays are ever introduced to Aristotle's Rhetoric.

Thoughts From The Commute

FLG, out of the blue, thought about how he's never been able to reconcile Jim Nabor's singing with Gomer Pyle in his own mind.



Giving Georgetown A Bad Name

What a fuckwad.

Don't Tell Revolutionaries That You Need A Revolution

NYTimes:
Calling scores of education school programs “mediocre,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday implored universities to significantly change the way they prepare teachers to run classrooms, saying a “revolutionary change” was needed to train as many as one million new teachers in five years.

In most disciplines, this would be a major call to arms. Education schools, however, draw so many people interested in social engineering that I fear calling for revolutionary change will motivate them to go from an incrementalist approach to a drastic one -- in the wrong direction.

Lots of the research done by professors at the Teacher's College demonstrates huge normative assumptions in favor of multiculturalism, diversity, and gender neutrality:
  • Challenging the sacredness and nature of content: Centering race/ethnicity in a social studies content course.
  • Preparing engaged citizens in urban K-6 classrooms: Perspectives from urban pre-service teachers.
  • Creating citizens: Lessons in relationships, personal growth, and community in one social studies classroom.
  • Multidimensional Facets of Cultural Competence
  • The sex-stereotyping of music instruments
  • Equity in the education of Emergent Bilinguals: The case of English language learners.
  • Literacy, Speech, and Shame: The Cultural Politics of Literacy and Language in Brazil.
  • Creating Spaces and Finding Voices: Teachers Collaborating for Empowerment
These are just a sample from the random professors' listed publications. Actually, I don't particularly have any issues with the normative goals in favor of multiculturalism, gender neutrality, or diversity. They are, in fact, all worthy and noble goals in my opinion. My issue is primarily the relative emphasis placed on them and secondarily one of selection bias among education professors.

If you search on the Teacher's College web page for expertise in Mathematics Education, it returns three names. Do the same for Reading and Writing, and you get six. Early Childhood Education? Six Science education? Three. Children's literature? One.

But if you look at Diversity, then you get 15. Women/Feminism? 9. Urban Population? 14. Multilingual education? 15.

There are two mitigating factors that I will acknowledge. First, Columbia is in New York City. Therefore, research in multicultural education certainly makes sense simply due to the location. Second, many of these normative issues, by their nature, appear across the entire discipline of education.

Furthermore, I understand that various socioeconomic and cultural factors can affect educational outcomes. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly reject the idea that studying microaggressions in interracial dyads is more important than studying the best way to teach the material. Making teachers more effective and engaging in teaching their subject will have far more impact on educational outcomes. Again, I'll grant that various cultural, social, and economic differences can affect how a student learns, but it makes far less difference than a shit teacher and a good one.

Now, I understand why education professors are more interested in social questions. Education has always been viewed as a means for social change. Moreover, far more people are going to be interested in the idea of social change than the best way to teach fractions. The issue, however, is that self-selection of people who view it as a means for social change instead of the transmission of facts, knowledge, and skills have distorted the focus of education schools away from how best to teach toward how best to manifest social progress.

What we need are education schools that focus on the effectiveness teaching pedagogy. And I think that's where Sec. Duncan was going:
“By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom,” he said.


But Sec. Duncan is obviously not a very pensive person. He's using that cliche about competing in the 21st century, which is bullshit.

If I had the resource to found a new education school, then I'd hire researchers to dig through the history of ideas about pedagogy and look at what was effective, starting with Ratio Studiorum. I'm convinced that the Jesuits have written about every important topic on education already, so best just to have people go reread it all and see if it still would be effective. I have to assume most of it would be. But I would insist that they scour the globe looking for ideas about pedagogy and looking at each idea's historical effectiveness.

The psuedo-scientific experimental approach of observing small groups of children in the classroom or in laboratory environments seems far less effective in comparison. We need the results from large groups of students over long periods of time. Best way to find that is to search out the most effective schools and teaching methods throughout history, and see what they have to offer. But don't worry, professors of education, FLG doesn't have the resources to found his dream school of education.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fucking Genius Romans

Danger Room:
by the 1950s, it was obvious that much modern cement is not as durable as the ancient variety


One can only hope that this means all the awful brutalist architecture that the 60s and 70s subjected us to won't last as long as the Colosseum.

Deeply Troubling

Will writes:
Look, I think cap-and-trade is bad policy on the merits. But global warming is a) a real problem and b) deserves a serious response. I am also baffled by the idea that a survey of non-experts (namely, the American public) should determine whether we take climate change seriously.



This is deeply troubling. Leaving policy questions to experts because only they comprehend the issue is an extremely undemocratic force in modern politics. An appeal to authority, or more precisely expertise, is heard often on scientific issues.

But what if we replace science with economics? Should public opinion have no bearing on our economic policy? Or should we simply leave it to economists because the public is ignorant? Or pick whatever field with its experts that you'd like.

I'm with Will that climate change is a serious issue. But the foremost tactic anybody should be engaged in is informing the public so that they drive change. Yes, it's frustrating and painfully slow. It's more expeditious to simply defer to so-called experts, but it also undermines our democracy in fundamental ways.

I trust the fate of our nation to the intelligence, wisdom, and decency of its people. They don't always get everything right in the quickest manner, but they've made do for two centuries. As I've said about everything from gay marriage to now climate change, even if I disagree with the opinion of the public, it's far, far better to work on convincing them of the correctness and urgency of your position than to pursue undemocratic methods, such as court rulings or deferring decisions to experts. In fact, I don't see any other way than to trust the people and when you think they are wrong to try to convince them. If they get it wrong, then the whole thing goes up in flames, but better that than the alternative, which seems to be subjugating them to the prerogative of various bodies of experts.

Conception of Time

I've been increasingly interested in how our perception of time impacts our politics. A while back, I talked about how conservatives and liberals value time differently, but it's even more complex than that. I have a bunch of threads going through my head on this, and I'm just going to throw them out there in the hopes that writing them down will provide some semblance of order.

First, there's the difference between circular and linear time. Circular being where day turns into night into day. Seasons come, go, and return. Ideas of reincarnation. Etc. Linear represented most importantly by the Judeo-Christian, but particularly Christian, idea of a Creation, Messiah, and Apocalypse. But even the Ancients understood linearity of time, as exemplified by The Fates measuring the thread of life. What are the political consequences of this distinction? Well, for one, it's kinda difficult to conceive of progress when you perceive time as circular. Therefore, circular time has an inherent conservatism to it. We're going to be repeating stuff over and over. So, might as well pay attention to what tradition has told us about it.

Second, if we do shift to linear time perceptions, it matters how much we value the present over the future and past. As I argued previously (link above), and won't re-hash.

Third, as various scientific understandings change our perception of time (Newtonian physics emphasizing the permanent, unchanging nature of physical laws. Relativistic conceptions of time changing those. Etc.), does it have consequences for our political understanding as well?

Fourth, what are the political consequences of our commodification of time via obsessing with multitasking and scheduling? I'm sure it's more than driving while texting and increased stress. There's the increased expectation of instant gratification, which is valuing the present absolutely over the future.

Fifth, to what extent will a switch from fossil fuels to renewable, sustainable energy shift our perceptions back to circular time? Solar power, tidal power, and even biofuel follow the rhythms of Nature. Will this influence our perceptions of time?

Lastly, this involves health care as well. What is ultimate aim of health care? To extend and improve our time on this planet. Does lengthening our lives lead us to value time less? It doesn't seem so. It seems that as if the longer our lives are, the more we want to overcome death.

Anyway, that's it. No big thoughts. Just need to do some more reading and thinking on the topic.

Quote of the day II

Agent Bedhead:
So: a few years after Katie Holmes was gazing into the eyes of her Tom Cruise wall poster and thinking, “future father of my children,” Christian Bale was looking at the same man and thinking, “guy with a nail gun.” I’d say Christian Bale wins the psychological insight competition hands down.

Quote of the day

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry responds to Freddie:
The reason we have a problem with a man raping an animal (and conversely no problem with him eating it) is not because it’s demeaning to the animal, it’s because it’s demeaning to the man. Thanks for undermining your own premise, dude.


I decided to stop bothering to read Freddie's posts anymore. In addition to him being a sarcastic prick, he's also not terribly pensive. Or maybe he is pensive, but tries to make up for lack of quality thinking with an overwhelming quantity of sheer bullshit.

In any case, this will be FLG's final post on the topic of Freddie. It brings out the worst in him.

Strange Bedfellows

FLG has been thinking about Imagining the Future for the last few days. One thing that it very clearly pointed out is that environmentalism is somewhat oddly placed on the political left. It flies in the face of the history of progressive ideas. Ideas that say the basis for our knowledge should be rational and scientific.

At first, that doesn't seem to conflict with environmentalism. Environmentalism is science, no? Ah, but FLG's been reading a lot lately, and the purpose of science is to understand and control nature. I'm sure that's a controversial statement to some readers, but trust me the evidence is overwhelming going all the way back to Bacon. And when you think about it, it's pretty clear we expect to use the knowledge we gain about the material world for some purpose at some point. It's not just knowledge for knowledge's sake.

But then FLG was thinking about the oddity of environmentalism on the Left. From what he can tell, it seems that the debate, internal to the Left, seems to be more heated about the merits of genetically modified crops than extracting stem cells from human embryos. Perhaps FLG's wrong, but he doesn't think so. And he thinks it demonstrates the strangeness of the Left being the environmentalists.

There are conflicting stances about the power of science to dominate and control nature for "the relief of man's estate." The other reveres nature to such an extent that, for some, man's mere existence mars it. FLG is not trying to create a false dichotomy, but using the two extremes to point out the underlying tension.

Odd, no?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

GZA May Be The Genius, But RZA Is Badass

Is there anybody out there who would deny the genius of this book? FLG hasn't actually read it yet , but he's convinced it's genius.

The Tao of Wu

RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray were in one of the weirdest, but still funny, film scenes FLG has ever seen.



Here RZA explains the background on making his version of My Guitar Gently Weeps. Finally, Tragedy for no reason whatsoever except that FLG started listening to it while writing this post:

Danger Room Isn't So Stoked About The Iran Deal

Danger Room:
So Iran has tentatively struck a deal that will involve shipping most of its known supply of low-enriched uranium overseas. But forget the hype about a grand bargain with Tehran. This is a modest step forward, at best. “We are buying something like seven to 10 months,” a nameless insider told the Christian Science Monitor. And even that short timeline might be an overstatement.

Mervyn King On Bank Reform



I'm not so sure I believe his Glass-Steagall-esque reform recommendation is the answer though.

FLG is currently listening to

Thomas Friedman May Be Onto Something

...but I still don't think he's getting it. As I've written before, the key to innovation is liberal arts, not engineering and science education.

Today, Friedman quotes a Harvard professor:
As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: “If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”


To the extent that engineering and computer science education promote deterministic, sequential thinking it fails to provide the skills required for true innovation. It's too bad Friedman doesn't get it yet. Well, one can't blame him. He's too busy coming up with lame catchphrases to think deeply about anything he's writing about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wall Street Bonuses

I'm appalled by the level of bonuses on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs is talking about a $23 billion bonus pool. I'm as free market capitalist as anybody. Indeed, if bankers make lots of money I'm usually fine with with it. But this is just heinous.

Yes, Goldman paid back its loan from the government. But it's not as simple as that. Goldman would have been completely screwed if it weren't for loans to other institutions, such as AIG, that haven't been paid back. In fact, the very idea that they needed a crutch for a short-time should humble them.

And protestations that Goldman and other banks were strong-armed into taking the loans even though they were sound themselves, doesn't hold too much water from me. They are still indebted to the government for mitigating huge counter-party losses.

All told, when the government just bailed out your industry and the rest of the country is having trouble it might be prudent, or just simple good manners, not to give out record bonuses. Some bonuses, most of us could live with, but record bonuses present such a political tone deafness and lack of introspection that the Democrats will be right to smack you around.

Oh, and I don't want to hear that if we didn't pay the bonuses, then our people, our most valuable asset, would go elsewhere as if there were some sort of irresolvable collective action problem. When, in point of fact, there isn't really any place for them to go.

It takes a lot to offend me, but Wall Street finally did it. The bonuses written into contracts from before the government bailout, okay I can deal with those being paid, and I could even deal with, as I said above, some bonuses. But record bonuses are too much to stomach. Something really is rotten up there.

I think it may be the meritocracy. They believe they deserve this money. Indeed, I think a good portion of the problem is that many of these meritocrats have never failed at anything. They went to Princeton. Then Wall Street. Then a Harvard or Wharton MBA. Then back to Wall Street. They've never known real failure and to some extent can't even comprehend it. Failing is something other people do.

Tell It Like It Is

Anne Applebaum:
NATO, though fighting its first war since its foundation, inspires nobody. The members of NATO feel no allegiance to the alliance, or to one another. On its home continent, NATO does precious little military contingency planning, preferring to hold summits.


I honor those of other nations who have died in NATO's Afghanistan campaign. It's a noble effort, but the alliance itself is a sick joke that needs to end. The existence of this delusion distorts foreign affairs for the worse.

Schmatta

I watched Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags last night on HBO. It's a well-made, if one-sided and polemical, look at the history of the Garment District in New York City.

The basic narrative is the garment industry was one of the primary economic engines of industrialization in New York City. At the beginning of the 20th century, it provided lots of work, but it awful conditions and for low wages. The Triangle Factory Fire of 1911, in which over a hundred immigrant workers died, largely because the doors were barricaded to keep them from leaving, sparked support for labor's efforts to organize toward better pay and conditions.

Then the film traces the halcyon days of the 1940s and 50s. A time when there was more work to be had than workers to provide it. When unions were in ascendancy and guaranteed a decent wage and safe conditions. From there a gradual eroding begins.

In the 1960s, Latino workers come onto the what was until then predominantly Italian and Jewish scene. The film largely glosses over this as if there were little friction caused by this, but FLG isn't so sure. Then again, he doesn't know either. But more important than the influx of Latino workers was the partial lifting of quotas and protection for the American garment industry by Kennedy. This began the slow, but inevitable decline of the Garment District.

Then came the 1980s and Reagan, who by busting up ending the air traffic controller strike, somehow weakened the garment unions. The greed of the 1980s and the opening up of free trade during the Clinton 1990s spelled doom for the district. Then, of course, comes that evil Walmart for insisting on low prices, which results in a commodification of what was once considered a craft of making garments. And on the other end, the high-end, you have expensive, sophisticated marketing campaigns to decommodify garments so that they can charge $750 for a pair of jeans.

These $750 pair of jeans then leads us to Hong Kong, India, Hong Kong again and finally back to the United States. We see young girls working in awful conditions in China. Finally, we see a fire in Bangladesh where dozens of young girls perished in a startling similar fashion to the Triangle fire. Along the way, the filmmakers investigate the Kathy Lee Gifford controversy about sweatshops.

The protagonists of the film are the New York City garment worker and the garment unions, as their collective manifestation. Almost everybody in the film is either out of work or worried about work or mourning the fall of a once great industry. This then morphs into lamentations that America doesn't make anything anymore and that there's a raw deal being dealt to the American worker by the globalized economy, politicians, and the lack of unionization. Yet, while this storyline evokes Pathos, the film itself is logically inconsistent. Or, at the very least, myopic in its analysis.

There is much pride among the workers that the industry paid a decent wage that allowed the children to attend college and become doctors, lawyers, and what have you. The children of that generation did better than their parents because they went to college. College graduates aren't usually interested in become fabric cutters.

Another point is that the American culture's focus on prices is ultimately self-defeating because buying a cheaper garment from China means that there are less jobs in America. This then is followed by the dilettantish but seemingly profound argument that people always use in situations like this -- more American workers means more Americans spending more money, which means more jobs in America and on and on as the money filters through the economy.

What this sort of analysis misses is that if I pay $10 for a shirt instead of $20, then I have $10 more to spend on what I want. Perhaps I buy something else, which keeps an American employed and at the same time I keep a Chinese worker employed. Moreover, what if I only have $10 to spend in the first place? A $20 American shirt doesn't help me, but a $10 Chinese one does. I think this is primarily where the narrative goes wrong. Yes, the removal of protection in the garment industry hurt garment workers, but the fall in prices helped American consumers, particularly poor people.

Perhaps it's because I've actually taken statistics, but I'm sure one point in the film that was intended to be "ah ha!" actually angered me. They showed the percentage of clothes sold in the United States that was made in the United States. As you would expect, in the 1960s it was in the 90-ish%. Then, as time went on, it fell until 5% in 2008. But the point that immediately crept into my mind is that to be upset about this relies on zero sum thinking. If my business grows from $1 million to $1 billion, then I don't really care if my percentage of the business falls from 50% to 10%. A dropping percentage of clothes made in the United States is a problem only if the drop in the percentage isn't made up with a growth in the industry as a whole. In this case, it probably wasn't, but it still belies zero sum thinking. American jobs versus foreign jobs as if trade isn't mutually beneficial.

Another point raised, as a I mentioned before, are the terrible conditions overseas. Young girls in sweatshops huddled over sewing machines. Many of the buyers mentioned how they were morally torn by walking into the factories. At one point, the guy who brought the Kathy Lee case to light said it was as if we had returned to 1911.

And he's partially correct; however, it's no so much as if we have returned to 1911 as the developing world is passing through the economic stage that we passed through in 1911. They are in early stages of industrialization. It's a painful and ugly process. It seems so awful.

In this light, it seems like the offshoring of jobs from well-paid Americans to low-paid and exploited foreigners is immoral. We ought to work to keep these jobs here and to bring back the ones we have lost.

But what if I said that the only alternatives for these girls was prostitution or starvation? Which isn't an unreasonable assumption. Sure, it's a fucking shitty choice for a young girl to choose between working for hours in a shithole and becoming a whore or not eating, but it's probably one many of these girls have to face. If true, then they chose to work in front of a sewing machine. So, I say that bringing the jobs back may very likely force young girls in developing nations into prostitution, which I think is immoral.

At the end of the film, there is the cliched indictment of capitalism run amock. That we need more unionization to protect us from the perils of a global economic order of multinational corporations conspiring with politicians to screw over the American working man and woman. That the industry was 90% unionized in its heyday is considered proof, as if correlation is causation.

My thoughts on unions, specifically that they introduce unnecessary rigidities into the labor market, have been expressed at length on this blog. So, I'll not go on about them right now. But I will say that one could take another look at the issue and say that the 90% unionization at the high water mark may have just as likely been the cause of the industry's problems as well.

Obviously, these are complicated issues. I understand workers in the industry fearing for the future. I understand the moral outrage over young girls in shit conditions. I understand, although I disagree with it, why people perceive unions as beneficial. But trying to fight forces like globalization is like trying to fight gravity. We could put in protection, and it may even save a few jobs for a little while. In the end, though, they'll be gone anyway. It's the nature of economic change. Likewise, those horrible conditions in the developing world will give way to better ones as those economies develop. Perhaps they'll unionize to facilitate those changes, but it will happen once per capita GDP nears industrial levels.

While the history of the industry was interesting, it lost me when it became clear that it was simply showing the pain caused to the workers and the point-of-view of the unions. There's real pain, frustration, and fear there. But like the kids who went to college and became doctors and lawyers, so is our economy itself. It's transitioning from labor-intensive, low capital industries, like garment manufacturing, to capital-intensive, particularly human capital-intensive, industries.

Most importantly, although the American garment industry is in decline, our overall economy will create jobs in different sectors. It's hard to see now with the current employment rate, but the American economy has transitioned from industry to industry since its beginning. It will continue to do so unless we become convinced that we need to protect jobs instead of focusing on allowing new ones to develop.

Economic theories and evidence are cold comfort when you don't have a job and the industry you've always been in is disappearing. Likewise, in the midst of economic turmoil that economists didn't predict, it's difficult to trust that they know anything. Yet, almost every single economist will tell you that protecting jobs in an industry that is invariably moving overseas costs more than the good it brings.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quote of the day

Paul Krugman:
The point is that right now the United States has nothing to fear from Chinese threats to diversify out of the dollar. On the contrary, if the Chinese do decide to start selling dollars, Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke should send them a nice thank-you note.


He's correct, but only as long as we want to continue with our ultra-loose monetary policy.

UnKISSed Cap-N-Trade

Once upon a time, FLG was an engineering student. One of the most important things he learned was the KISS principle, which as most of you know is "Keep it simple, stupid."

This is largely FLG's issue with a cap-n-trade solution to carbon emissions. Theoretically, with an initial auction of the permits and efficient trading, the results from cap-n-trade would be the same as a carbon tax, but cap-n-trade is more complicated. Therefore, it is more prone to political maneuvering, as we are seeing. Ryan Avent says not so fast:
One of the things about politics is that solutions always seem easier to implement and more promising before they stand a real chance of being implemented. People who have for one reason or another fallen in love with the idea of a carbon tax watch the difficulty Congress is having negotiating a passable climate bill and ask why we don’t just pass a carbon tax. It would be so easy! It’s just a tax! Pass it, price carbon, and bada bing, you’re done.

But of course, a carbon tax looks like a clean, simple option at the moment because no one is invested in securing protections or advantages for themselves because a carbon tax isn’t on the table. The moment it looked as though Congress might actually consider and pass a carbon tax, every single interest that has pushed for free carbon credits or other assistance would take on the carbon tax, demanding exemptions or offsetting subsidies of some kind, and generally producing the exact same kind of mess for a carbon tax bill that we have now with a cap-and-trade bill.


Ryan obviously has a point. Any bill would come under pressure from lobbying groups, so the political difference between cap-n-trade and carbon tax is one of degree and not kind. But where he goes wrong is dismissing the matter of degree.

The public doesn't fully understand that giving away carbon permits is a subsidy to industry. Nor that cap-n-trade will result in the same level of price increases as a carbon tax. Despite all the talk of carbon permit trading market creation, as if the creation of this market is some sort of net benefit, there is no economic or environmental benefit of choosing cap-n-trade over carbon tax. There is only a political benefit. A political benefit derived from obscuring the economic consequences and impact from the public.
 
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