Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Tyranny of Bandwidth II

Your Representative in Congress cannot hear you. Most people are willing to live with that. After all, they have the vote. Some people, however, are sufficiently motivated that they will organize into public interest groups in order to petition the government and push a particular agenda. Other people are sufficiently wealthy and involved in business that the smallest acts of Congress and the Executive can significantly affect their interests. These people, of course, monitor and lobby continuously.

Both kinds of lobbyists will find some ways to access and influence all branches of government, government agencies, and the Public directly. When threatened, these organizations will mount massive public “education” campaigns. I’m just guessing here, but what do you think? Do these organizations put all their cards on the table? I don’t think so. Sometimes they have a hidden agenda. Sometimes they adjust their approach to avoid telling the Public everything they know. Sometimes they simplify things that should be complex and sometimes they choke the channels with bafflegab. Why do they do this?

Is it because our rightful Representative to Congress is failing to represent our interests properly? Perhaps they have, out of kindness or a sense of duty, stepped in to correct an injustice. I think that, more likely, they are trying to direct the flow of events in such a way as to benefit the political or financial needs of the groups in question.

Now, let us assume that our Rep recognizes these efforts for what they are and engages in countervailing tactics. What will the public see? Our Rep is arguing with Harry and Louise. That can’t be good. Moreover, how much air time can be allocated or attracted for an educational counter-attack? How much money is available? How long before frustration leads to an image-damaging faux pas? And how much success will be permitted before somebody starts digging up mud?

Why, given the Hobbesian nature of politics, has our country remained such a decent place? Is it just the bounty of capitalism? We keep feeding meat to the crocodile, but what happens when we run out of meat? No, I think it is more than that. We certainly owe a lot to the public spirited few who defend our rights and interests. But we also do well because all these special interests are battling each other, indirectly allowing us a little more influence. We are sort of like prey that escapes while the carnivores fight.

Our surprising level of success does not seem strongly related to the actions of Congress, because, once again, they can’t hear us. But more importantly, we can’t hear them. The deliberate noise and distortion on the channel make it almost impossible to really understand what is going on in Washington, and there is no shortage of people willing to supplement and expound on our suspicious imaginings.

5/31/2005 3:54 PM

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Monday, May 30, 2005

The Tyranny of BandWidth

The Tyranny of BandWidth

In previous posts I’ve talked about various Tyrannies that Constitutions are designed to minimize. One of these, which for want of a better term, I’ve been calling the Tyranny of Bandwidth, or rather lack of it. This is the problem that McCain-Feingold was designed to address. It is the problem that causes citizens to bemoan the state of Congress and expect corruption in every dark corner of the government. The fact is that we don’t know what’s going on and we can’t know what’s going on.

A Representative in the US Congress is expected to carry the message to Washington from approximately 650 thousand people, as of the 2000 Census. If the business textbooks are right, your Rep will be able to manage about 7 staffers, paying reasonably close attention to what they tell him and what they are working on. So there is approximately one top-level advisor for each 100,000 people in the district.

Since the people cannot really meet their Rep and get the benefit of personal interaction, they must rely on the image projected, an image carefully honed over the years. This image is the Rep’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. People relate to it and vote for it, providing the necessary power to promote their interests. Conversely, anything that might tarnish or damage the image is very much to be feared, and that fear makes our Reps vulnerable to manipulation.

It is very difficult to get elected. The challenge cannot be overstated. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to win the trust and affection of such a large constituency. There are many temptations and pressures on the average elected official. Nevertheless, there are a lot of well-intentioned, good and competent people in government. Yes, they tend to have different ideas from one another, but that does not make them bad. That makes them promoters of a particular aspect of the people’s will. Unfortunately, Reps are surrounded by people promoting selfish interests, baying for attention to their particular issue. Among the howling masses are people who can help them or hurt them – powerful people with non-negotiable desires. Corporate representatives, for instance, are duty bound to further the financial interests of their company by whatever legal means they have in their power. They have certainly been known to use less than legal means as well.

Politicians keep these people in line by means of ambiguity. They never agree or disagree with anything but thevaguest outline of a possible plan that they will be glad to talk about, "not saying we can make any commitments you understand," at some unspecified time in the future. The longer you can keep them dangling, the better. The interest groups, in their turn, influence the Reps by means of various inducements, implied threats and the exhortations concerning the inherit virtues of their plans, with respect of course to the interests of the public and the future of the nation. They surround the Rep with the best sales team that money can buy, flooding all the channels of access with information, disinformation and lies promoting their ideas. Sometimes they pretend to be other than they are in order to gain tactical information about the true positions held by the Rep. If the Rep is hungry they will offer food, if angry they will cower. After a long session they just happen to have season tickets on the 50-yard line where they might continue the conversation at the game the next day. Better use them, otherwise they’ll just go to waste.

There’s not much room for the people’s interest to squeeze in between the cracks. Your Rep will try to open channels, remain in contact, find the pulse of the people, but time is limited and the picture will be skewed by the meme assault from the lobbyists. And as for you, the individual, there is precious little chance to be heard.

5/30/2005 11:57 PM

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Evolution I and a Question about Iraq

The concepts of evolution – reproduction with variation, and natural selection over time – were pulled together to explain the biological world that we live in. Anyone who has thought about it, however, realizes that these concepts apply far beyond that world. Let’s take the corporate world. Companies are springing up all the time, usually by means of spontaneous generation. In the bio-sciences, the concept of spontaneous generation is today considered anathema and taken to be outside the scope of evolutionary orthodoxy, but take into account that new companies emulate companies that already exist, each one with a new spin, a small mutation. To that degree at least, companies have memetic forbears.

I guess the ideas of the entrepreneurs and the talents of their employees are analogous to the genetic inheritance. Sometimes the employees are literally stolen from a “contributing” parent company. Usually, the new companies also steal some of the customer base and financing sources, though not the actual physical assets. Resisting the analogy, the parent companies do not often contribute willingly. They try to protect sales contacts, employee knowledge, trade secrets, patents, copyrights, and other intellectual capital by numerous means.

You may be aware that the impact of natural economic selection on these new entities is severe. Few survive. Those that do usually persist for some years, at least until the owner dies, or they might get absorbed by or merged with another company. Sometimes a company does fantastically well, in which case new companies will spring up with variations of its ideas. Existing companies will also try to emulate its business model and raid its personnel. That’s kind of like the genetic sharing that bacteria seem to be fond of doing.

Certainly, this description does a better job of describing software startups than utilities or oil giants. Fields where companies simply merge or grow bigger are evolutionary deadends, AT&Ts that will dissolve when they are finally exposed once more to competition. Countries that encourage these kinds of giants are making a mistake. Look for mammals, not bacteria. Variation is key. Places and fields where the barriers to entry are low tend to evolve the fastest.

There is every reason to believe that each generation of companies absorbs many of the virtues of its forbears by this blind stochastic process, not just by the dynamic planning and thinking of its members. The collapse and disappearance of the many less fit companies produces an anti-probabilistic force for adaptation in those companies that remain, beyond what we know and possibly beyond what we can know. It would be impossible to recreate the corporate structure of the modern world from components. There is a retained organic wisdom to the way that it evolved.

Likewise, in military organizations we have greater or lesser degrees of evolutionary intensity. Sometimes an entire nation will be discontinued and something else start up in its place. In the US we have survived many threats. The accidents of history have left us standing as the preeminent force. Various sized units, as large as entire services have started, and mutated, and been discontinued. Emulation of other groups takes place all the time. Non-functional aspects have been extinguished by response to enemy action and by response to that ever-present natural selection force, a skeptical Congress. It is true that, even in wartime, too many obsolete luxuries and private empires are tolerated. It's hard to tell how much better we could have been doing over the years since we operate in a Lamarckian regime.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that there is a lot going for us that remains implicit, undocumented, unobserved and even unobservable. There is the residue of two centuries of enlightened turmoil, inspired and generous cultivation and brutal confrontation with the tooth and claw of unforgiving reality. The same could be said for our republic and for the traditions of our government.

The question that naturally flows from this line of argument is, how are we going to give this as a gift to the emerging democracies of the world, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. We have underestimated the difficulty of the task. Can we counter the centuries old process that created our adversaries as the wickedest creatures of a diabolical Ares? Can we benignly impose a new order, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus?

Personally, I think we can because of who we are, but I would like the True Believers to understand what we are up against.

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Belmont Club disaster

Belmont Club disaster

The building has fallen into the webstream and Wretchard is swimming for the life of his blog. A good general always prepares for retreats. His blog is now in a fallback position. Please go over and give him a hand.

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PBS Watch and How I see It

PBS Watch has a link to himself under my post on Koran desecration. He discusses the Daniel Pipes article and provides an alternate link to the Front Page Magazine version. He also has a copy of a letter he sent to Amazon, complaining about their cowardly response to what PBS Watch aptly calls "cultural extortion". I think he shares my respect for Daniel Pipes.

The PBS Watch position on PBS in general and Bill Moyers in particular, however, is about 180 degrees at odds with my own feelings. Oh I don’t know, maybe 165 degrees. He refers happily to Ann Coulter’s column slamming Moyers. It was, I admit a fun read, but, shall we say, not really part of the world of ideas. She basically mowed down an army of straw men and stood triumphant over their lifeless forms, blowing the smoke from her second amendment approved pearl-handled pistols. (Have I read that line somewhere?) Nevertheless, I was able to extract one very interesting point (from PBS Watch, not Ann Coulter). He suggests that the government could serve the interests of consumers of PBS better by allowing the free market to function without a subsidy. Perhaps the product would be even better if people were free to choose.

As you may be aware, I am a believer in the power of the free market to accomplish great things, but it does have its areas of blindness. The free market provides us with food and clothing of uniformly high quality, exceptional customer appeal and amazingly low prices. That’s because we pay for it directly. Programming provided by broadcast television is not like that. The product is, aside from bursts of brilliance, generally beneath contempt. The mechanism it uses for indirectly extracting money from the consumer, i.e. advertising, imposes itself on us to the exact extent that we can bear. The broadcasters provide us with the cheapest, flashiest product that can catch our attention long enough to inflict the advertising load. This is a market of mutual parasitism.

Cable has a lot of good stuff today. Mostly because people are paying directly for a product. Think of A&E, Discovery Channel, etc. as similar to cupholders in your new car. The cable companies want you to be happy. But these cupholders would never have been included if cable weren’t competing with public television.

The PBS concept is, admittedly, socialist in nature. The government pays for it, or did at first anyway. In my opinion it has worked extremely well over the years, producing such series as Sesame Street, Cosmos, Nova, Frontline, Ken Burns Civil War documentary. There is so much good stuff coming out of public television that I can’t begin to remember it all. It also airs a lot of junk that I can’t stand. But, I recognize it as high quality junk (ballroom dancing anyone) with little advertising. Please note that Fahrenheit 911 was not produced by PBS.

Note also that the government pays for education (for the most part). Why is that? It is because we as a society demand quality in education, and the average consumer of education will not be able to evaluate that quality until long after it is imposed. Even college students who pay directly (some do) have very limited choices in the course content. If they got what they really wanted in the education market, it would involve beer and sex.

PBS is an educator. It is very opinionated about what is good for us. Sometimes we pay its salary against our wills. Sometimes it gets on our nerves, but let us not strike down Socrates just because he annoys us.

5/28/2005 12:38 AM

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Rumors of Atlantis

Let’s say that you are going to a strange city to visit distant relatives. You have heard much about them all your life. You are excited, looking forward to the reunion, brushing up on your language skills. Your old uncle gives you explicit and careful, but complicated directions. You copy them down, read them back to corroborate. You ask, have these people moved, are they still alive. The old fellow says yes, yes, yes. They will be there. He got a letter from them not too long ago. How long ago was that Uncle? Just then, the old fellow, starts coughing violently, not feeling well, he is getting old. His wife urges him to bed. The next day, you are off, you go to wish him goodbye. He waves from his chair, but cannot talk.

You take the train to the airport, wondering if he will be here when you get back. He would have so loved to go with you. You take the plane, and then another train. There is a mountain to your left at the station, shaped something like a resting lion. It triggers memories of the old stories. I’ve heard of that mountain you say to yourself. You take a taxi to the ferry. Two hours on the ferry gives you time to reflect on those old stories. The little town at the quay seems familiar. You speak to the bus driver, telling him the name of the town. Yes, yes, he says. I’ll tell you when we’re there. You practice reading the signs you see along the way, savoring the old, hauntingly familiar words and place names.

Dismounting the bus, you look at the directions. Five streets go from the station. You want the one closest to the north. You look at your watch and then the bright sun. Still not sure, you dig a compass out of your backpack. Yes, there is one due north. Another runs close, but this is definitely the one. At any rate, you should know by the next turning. Three intersections and then a red house with a horse trough out front. Exactly as he said. You look at the street you have turned on. It should be stone or block but it is macadam. Oh, there on the side, under a pothole, you can see the old stone. Everything is fine. Next a public building with a dome. The walk is a little longer than expected, the dome is grey, but could have been white once upon a time. Up the hill, look for three houses connected and a winged statue on a pedestal.

Well the pedestal is still there, but the statue is gone. Looted in the war perhaps. Knock at the middle door. An old woman answers. You smile and guess at her name. She shakes her head. You tell her your mission. Talk of other people she might know, but nothing triggers recognition. You must have the wrong place, she says. Maybe she misunderstands your accent. You try again more slowly. She shakes her head and closes the door.

You ask at the neighbors on the left. Same response. Inspired, you ask about the old statue on the pedestal. When they were young, it was a statue of a woman, but the town leaders did not approve and had it removed. Did it have wings, you ask. No. No. I don’t think so. Have you heard of other such pedestals nearby? Yes perhaps a few. You could get a map at the library down the street.

OK, you say, looking at the map. Three statues marked on the map. This one you know of isn’t marked, but it is in a little circle at an intersection. Seven little circles can be found in the town, and a possible circle on the edge of the page here. Could I get to any of these by following Uncle’s directions? Well, if I take the second northerly route, there might be a red house, with a horse trough. There might be another house further along the first route.

At the first place, you knock and ask about the horse trough. How long has it been there? Oh, it’s been here as long as we can remember, but it’s not really for horses. Oh, what does a horse trough usually look like? Don’t know, never seen one. What is the name of this town? Your interlocuteur looks at you strangely, but answers, speaking slowly. Has it always had that name? Oh yes. He shuts the door. You wanted to ask if there were other towns with the same name.

After finding a place to stay, you call your uncle. Can’t come to the phone. After scouring the regional maps, you find several places with similar names. Some of them have familiar sounding street names. You mark them down to try later. In your memory, you go over everything your uncle spoke of. You look at your notes. They have been damaged in a few places where they were folded, but you can still read them, since you knew what they said when you wrote them down.

The next day you decide that you won’t let anything bother you. You had hoped to meet your relatives, but you can at least enjoy the feel of the country. You keep looking, hoping that something will make sense, but you spend most of your time touring the area, sitting in cafes, speaking with the locals about sports and weather and winged statuary. At the end of your two weeks, you realize that you’ve had a great time and learned a lot. You go home content, if not completely so.

When your uncle feels better, you tell him what you saw and ask where you went wrong. He listens rapt with pleasure, asking lots of questions of his own. He says that it was not like that at all when he was young, but you should have tried such and such. Everything he tells you, you write it down and put it with your notes. Your uncle dies and leaves you a couple books and trinkets from the old country.

Thirty years later, you give all these things away to one of your children, and tell all the stories you remember. The stories are written down, because that’s what we do nowadays. Oral tradition and all. Perhaps someone will be able to find it this time, but I guess no one will be there to answer the door.

5/27/2005 12:56 PM

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Native Wit

Thibaud, commenting on Roger Simon's site, suggests that we give a certain Colorado professor the benefit of another look.

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Pandemics in Contrast and Daniel Pipes

I was so gratified recently to see how vigorously and scientifically the Chinese have been addressing the potential bird flu pandemic. It gives me a little hope for this world. Their effort makes for a startling contrast, however, with the way that polio has been dealt with in the Muslim world. Daniel Pipes has an excellent post on this topic. Pipes is always very informative and obviously extremely knowledgeable about the Middle East. I have read and heard attacks against him, but I find all the accusations to be emotional and partisan.

Pipes certainly holds strong positions, close to obdurate I would say, but he always uses facts to prove his points and never tries to hide his biases. He is not charming or likeable in the least, but I have come to like him and recognize the charm of a kind but intensely serious person. He is one of the adults.

5/26/2005 11:44 AM

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Eboni Wilson Charges Dropped

I Told You So. No one can ever be certain whether he violated the trust placed in him, and that’s a sad fact of life. This is not strictly a vindication and in no way eliminates the damage done by all the negative PR, but we should all be gratified that the case didn’t lead anywhere. I notice from the article that a considerable effort was made to nail him.

Now, let me ask you a question. Do you imagine that sexual liaisons between students and officials occur with some frequency in American school systems? What do you think? How often? And how often do you think that legal action is taken? I’m just curious what people think about that.

5/25/2005 8:56 PM

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Splash Down!

Here is a puzzle for you. Maybe I should call it a koan. Doug, commenting on Belmont Club, pointed it out. I don't think he quite understands it, but he's close. It may not look like a puzzle at first, so keep thinking about it.

I believe that a student of Zen might see the answer immediately, but choose not to do anything about it. Western thinkers would want to fix the problem, but seem congenitally unable to see the answer, or else find a hundred reasons why it won't work.

When you figure out the answer, you'll see that it applies to all manner of security issues. I believe our military uses the principle. Of course, they'd want to keep the technique to themselves since it works better that way. It's my impression that this kind of thinking is applicable to other issues as well, but I haven't gotten that far.

I'm in a bit of a quandary about this. It's a fragile piece of information. Maybe that should be your next puzzle, to unravel what my quandary is.

5/25/2005 12:36 PM

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Polio on the Rebound

Religious stupidity has allowed a resurgence of the polio virus in Nigeria. Once near extinction, the virus has already spread, by means of the Hajj, to the entire Muslim world. Yemen is apparently willing to admit that they have a problem. They even point out in the article that the problem might have had something to do with the clerics in Nigeria.

The Yemen Observer mentions only sensible-sounding safety concerns. The real problem was that the clerics accused the US and Israel of poisoning the vaccine to cause infertility in Muslim males. No chance of that with George Bush around. It would be seen as a form of contraception and consequently impermissible.

5/25/2005 9:28 AM

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bill Moyers' Nemesis

I like PBS -- Tucker Carlson and Bill Moyers -- I've said that before. Except for the Sunday morning shows, I watch it more than any other station. I'm too cheap to buy cable, and I don't really want my children exposed to it anyway. Unfortunately, I also have a low boredom tolerance. I can't stand most of the stuff I see on regular TV.

I'm more than a little worried about Ken Tomlinson's impact on what I get to watch in the future. He doesn't like Bill Moyers. I suspect he doesn't like Bill Moyers because Bill Moyers says things that Ken doesn't agree with. I don't know. Maybe that's what I like about Bill Moyers. A good liberal should be able to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken alike, without foaming at the mouth too much. I don't know what a good conservative should do, but I wish he wouldn't do it to my station.

5/24/2005 3:57 PM

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Filibuster Compromised

I am, as you may know, in favor of the Filibuster for the role it plays in forcing the political argument toward the middle. The Tyranny of the Majority must be resisted. I am also inclined to approve of compromise, where people honestly agree to take a little and give a little.

So, we’ve compromised. Out of a slate of judges, the Democratic centrists have agreed to reject only two for now. In exchange, the Republican centrists agree not to eliminate the filibuster as an option. These fourteen centrist politicians can dictate terms to the rest of the Senate because they are the only ones not nailed to the floor.

A lot of the Democrats cannot, because of strong feelings, accept any of the judges. If, however, they try to filibuster without authorization, the swing Democrats will join the cloture vote. Most of these dogmatic Democrats will, in the end, go along with the majority in order to preserve the appearance of party unity. Similarly, a lot of the Republicans cannot allow the evil Dems to have any influence whatsoever. If, however, they try to impose their will without authorization, the swing Republicans will vote against the rules change, allowing a filibuster to continue. If that's all there were to it, I might feel more comfortable than I do.

The Tyranny of Swing

Swing voters who successfully resist party discipline have a lot of power. Since they don't care about the issues too much, they get to decide which way the body will vote. They make the decisions, but they also profit in other ways if they so choose. These guys, especially the Republicans, are now in an unassailable position. They can pick or choose which candidates to accept. And they can be open to persuasion, or open for business if you will. The price of persuasion might be exorbitant.

Now, I am a great admirer of John McCain, and I am pleased that there is the possibility he could run for President again. This time he has a little ammo, though. He might be tempted to use it. He could, for instance, accept conservative entreaties promoting a particular judicial candidate in exchange for consideration. Sure, he might say, not a problem, just bring me the head of Bill Frist (he may already have it), or maybe a fat highway bill with all the trimmings. Do I really think he would do this? No, not consciously, he wouldn't, but he and his "cabal" are frighteningly well positioned.

As for the Democrats, the swingers may have benefited, but I think the party as a whole really lost a lot here. They still have the Filibuster, but only theoretically. As soon as they try to use it, the "cabal" can let them have it with both barrels. They would have been better off using the denial-of-service attack that they had planned as revenge. They would have lost on some of the issues, but at least they would establish their willingness to fight, much more important in the long run.

Overall, I guess I'm happier to have the Republican centrists in charge rather than letting either extreme prevail. Nevertheless, I suggest we keep our eyes on these guys.

5/24/2005 3:28 PM

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Galloway's Missing Testimony

Wretchard has noticed the curious fact of a dog that didn't bark in the night. I have been saying that George Galloway did not necessarily score a major victory over the Senate last Tuesday. Sens. Coleman and Levin seemed to be trying to corral him into some particular corner, and may have succeeded. Apparently Wretchard feels the same way.

... The truly remarkable thing about Galloway's many meetings with Tariq Aziz was how much time the Iraqi was willing to devote to an obscure British backbencher with no official power. The unspoken question is why Saddam should take the trouble to bribe Galloway, if it were Galloway who was being bribed. The Senators were building a causal bridge to something, but to what? I am in no position to say, but will guess that Galloway's testimony and its disappearance from the Senate website can only be understood in the context of what Coleman and Levin were trying to achieve. My own sense is that the investigations are cautiously nearing far bigger game than George Galloway ...

5/23/2005 3:00 PM

My other posts on Galloway:

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Rain on St. Rick

Left Coast guy, Anthony, has linked to legislation proposed by Rick Santorum, right wing Senator from Pennsylvania. Apparently the righteous Senator is proceeding with this little project in spite of all the bad press.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Stop Giving Money to the Killers

The Scotsman seems to think that Afghanistan is backsliding, that it is on the verge of renewed civil war. I think that the Islamic radicals would certainly hope so. Waheed of Afghan Warrior is talking about the riots stemming from the Koran desecration reports, but seems relatively unaware of any grand disaster in the offing.

Democratic governments are weak. They have a hard time controlling their people, and change comes slow. Nevertheless, they usually work better than tyrannies in the long run. The Afghan people are better off than they were in 2001. We know that from the fact that so many people have decided to go back. Nevertheless, there are admittedly some serious problems ahead for them.

The enemies that I see in Afghanistan are poverty, ignorance, corruption and fanaticism in that order. The source of future problems will be, no doubt in my mind, the corruption and easy money that come with the flourishing narcotics business. If Afghanistan can't beat that problem, and it probably can't, it will become like Colombia, a continuing low grade war with perpetual threats to democracy.

Our fault is not that we fail to provide sufficient assistance, military and economic, to the legitimate Afghan government. It is that we provide, all too easily, the financial assistance that the warlords and fanatics need to continue their activities. We do this indirectly by our insatiable demand for the drugs that Afghanistan, and Colombia, provide.

The solution is blindingly simple. Stop importing drugs from the bad guys. How do you do that? Start importing drugs from the good guys. Guess what! We could actually make money doing that and probably reduce the overall drug use in the US at the same time. We could certainly reduce the overall drug casualties by removing the violence from the process and removing money from the hands of violent people.

5/22/2005 11:54 PM

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Koran Desecration – A Personal Angle

Ask whether, but also ask why.

Daniel Pipes has commented on the alleged mailorder Koran desecration incident. He has a great deal to say on it. I have to admit I didn’t take this issue at all seriously when I first heard it. It reminds me of the Tawana Brawley incident to a certain degree, and, as Pipes points out, the coincidence of timing, just after the Newsweek retraction, seems more than a little suspicious. It impressed me that the Newsweek article was based on a report where the only people who desecrated the Koran turned out to be Muslims. I am more than a little distressed at the weak-kneed response by Amazon, to something that seems so patently questionable, but I also have some personal experience that makes me angry at this event as well as dubious.

At the beginning of this year, my daughter started 7th grade at a new school. Now, she is very social, but the school was a big shock, very different from her previous situation, and most of the kids had been there a while. For the most part they already had their own network of friends. My daughter was feeling a little left out and always carried a book to read. One day she left the book in class and it disappeared. Since she was upset about it, we walked back the cat with her to figure out where she had left it. Recollection hit and the next day she went to the exact spot, but was unable to find her book.

She kept her eyes open and several days later she noticed it near the expected location. When she collected the book and opened it with high hopes that it was her lost treasure, she was shocked and upset to discover that it had been altered. It had been defaced with some very distressing graffiti and some of the pages were torn and soiled. The malevolent messages were seemingly personal, strange and disturbing. We spent a long time that evening calming her down and discussing what it might mean and what she might do about it.

Now this incident has faded from her life. She has adjusted and made lots of friends at the new school. I’m not going to tell you how we handled the situation, but I’m going to ask you to think about what you would have done. This kind of thing happens. I’m sure you’ve been told that kids are not nice to one another, but let me clue you in. People in general are nonchalantly cruel, not just kids. What does it mean? Probably nothing at all. The same people who do you gratuitous harm may well turn around and be unexpectedly decent. Political Correctness is not one of our species’ attributes.

One thing we did not do was turn this event into an international incident. Our concern was strictly for the emotional welfare of our daughter. I’m thinking that some people may have other agendas.

5/21/2005 6:32 PM

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Rage Displays

Jeff Jakoby has an article in the Jewish World Review suggesting that Islam gets insufficient respect for good reason. He wonders why it is that "Christians, Jews, and Buddhists don't lash out in homicidal rage when their religion is insulted."

I discussed this problem myself in a previous post. It also reminds me of the recent Japan Bashing in the PRC because most of the violence occurs against internal targets. Not to mention the rage displays, tearing up sticks and leaves while jumping and hooting, observed in Jane Goodall's chimpanzees.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

A George Galloway Reader

Here is a selection of googled stuff that was interesting to me. I haven't organized it too well and not everything has links, but you'll get the idea. Toward the bottom there are surpisingly negative entries from Indymedia.UK and the AWL, another left wing group.

  • The Guardian
  • Simon Hattenstone
  • Monday September 16, 2002

(Guardian interview selection)

If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.

… Che Guevara, whom he calls his ultimate hero. Why? "Because he sacrificed everything for the revolutionary cause, to liberate the world. And because he was a person with poetry in his soul."

(end of Guardian interview selection)

(Wikipedia 5/20/2005)

1994 "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability." Supposedly of the Iraqi people.

1996? (–or as early as 1988)

An investigation by BBC Newsnight found that Galloway had secured payments of £60,000 and £135,000 from the Pakistani governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Galloway insisted this was for advertising space and bulk copies, … [Benazier Bhutto … was re-elected in 1993 but was dismissed three years later amid various corruption scandals. (Wikipedia)]


… denied he was inciting the Iraqis to attack British soldiers, but said that "it would be best for them [British soldiers] to refuse to obey illegal orders."

(end of Wikipedia 5/20/2005)

(wikiquote selection)

1994 speech

Your Excellency, Mr President: I greet you, in the name of the many thousands of people in Britain who stood against the tide and opposed the war and aggression against Iraq …

I greet you, too, in the name of the Palestinian people, … to convey their heartfelt, fraternal greetings and support. … I thought the president would appreciate knowing that even today, three years after the war, I still met families who were calling their newborn sons Saddam; …

Sir: I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you hatta al-nasr, hatta al-nasr, hatta al-Quds [preceding words in Arabic which mean until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem].

Galloway has said that the speech was for the benefit of the Iraqi people collectively and has repeatedly expressed his regret over his flattering remarks directed at the Iraqi dictator. The comment represents a shift in attitude towards Saddam Hussein, where he had previously publically declared his contempt for he Iraqi regime, its suppression of the Iraqi Communist Party and its relationship to the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

(end of wikiquote selection)

(Scotsman 5/18/2005)

Asked whether Mr Galloway violated his oath to tell the truth before the committee, Mr Coleman said: "I don’t know. We’ll have to look over the record. I just don’t think he was a credible witness."

And it was a Democrat senator, Carl Levin, rather than the Republican committee chairman, Norm Coleman, who gave him the hardest time as Mr Galloway sought to turn the tables on his inquisitors, leaving him no closer to clearing his name than when he took his seat in front of the sub-committee of the Senate’s homeland security and government affairs committee in Washington.

Time and again, Mr Levin questioned him, requesting wearily that he deliver a straight answer to a straight question. But Mr Galloway could, or would not.

The Respect MP clearly thought he came out on top, and said so bluntly afterwards, describing the chairman as "not much of a lyncher".

Asked whether Mr Galloway violated his oath to tell the truth before the committee, Mr Coleman said: "I don’t know. We’ll have to look over the record. I just don’t think he was a credible witness."

Under repeated questioning, Mr Galloway conceded that Mr Zureikat did have extensive business dealings with the Saddam regime but, challenged over whether his friend’s generous contributions to the Mariam Appeal - £900,000 by his own previous assessments - could have come from the sale of oil, he stonewalled.

Urged to say if he would repay the cash if it could be proved to have come from such a source, he again ducked the question. Mr Galloway first met Mr Zureikat, a Jordanian businessman, through his now-estranged wife Amineh Abu-Zayyad, who had attended the same university in Jordan. The men became friends and set up the Mariam Appeal in 1998.

(end of Scotsman article 5/18/2005)

(from indymedia, Trevor Stanley 4/26/2005)

A weblogger in Iraqi Kurdistan has written an open letter to George Galloway, the Respect Party election candidate whose numerous meetings with Iraqi military dictator Saddam Hussein bolstered the military regime and dismayed many Iraqis.

Kurdo's words contain in microcosm the response of many Iraqi bloggers to Galloway's recent encounter with Iraqi blogger Salam Pax:

Dear Mr. Galloway,

I know that you are campaigning hard to win the hearts and minds of the British public, and I wish you good luck in failing. I and many other people from Iraq, just like the father of the Iraqi blogs, Salam Pax, will never forget the scenes in which you were sitting and joking with Saddam Hussein on the screens of the Iraqi television.

We were wondering what you were laughing about. Were the jokes of the dictator who filled the lands and the rivers with mass graves, who terminated birds and rivers, who did not differentiate between a killing baby and a soldier, were his jokes too funny? Or were you laughing at the Iraqi people for having a leader like Saddam Hussein?!

Galloway was recently publicly confronted at the launch of his party's manifesto by Salam Pax, whose pseudonym means 'peace peace'. Salam Pax asked Galloway why he supported immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq when polls show only one fifth of Iraqi citizens support such a move. Galloway was dismissive of the blogger, contending that the opinions of the Iraqis were irrelevant to British policy in Iraq.

Kurdo also said in his open letter;

The people of Iraq regardless of our ethnic and sectarian differences are happy about the removal of Saddam Hussein and are working hard to bring back peace and stability to our new baby democracy.

I know that many people in the world can not understand this and your harsh comment to Salam Pax that your country's troops have nothing to do with Saddam Hussein's removal and should not have intervened, are only adding more salt to our deep wounds.

I know you now will regard me as a Kurdish collaborator and accuse me, just like you accuse any freedom-loving and Saddam-hating person of Iraq of "selling your country".

We are not related to anyone in power in Iraq. We are just ordinary people loving freedom and democracy and want to live free just like anyone else in the world. We do not appreciate you stealing our cause and using it to steal the hearts and minds of the British public for your own benefits.

(end indymedia selection)

(Link to Al Jazeera transcript of Galloway speech 10/23/2005)

… But let me be clear about this, I condemn terrorism as an instrument of policy.

But with this caveat that, for me, terrorism is the use of force, violence and subversion against civilians and political activists by whoever is wielding the weaponry. State terrorism, including illegal war, puts the terrorism of such organised ideological criminals as al-Qaida into context, as two sides of the same evil coin.

I will not condemn the just war of populations of occupied territories when they resist, in any way that they can …

(end Al Jazeera selection)

(editorial against Galloway from Alliance for Worker’s Liberty – socialist organization -- 3/29/2002)

… what exactly it is that attracts George Galloway to Iraq. Many of us oppose sanctions against Iraq. George Galloway appears to have a special, positive devotion to Iraq. Even if right now the first responsibility is to oppose war, Galloway's attitude has been no different for many years. Why?

Light on what motivates Galloway might do something to dispel the impression that Galloway confuses the Iraqi regime with the Iraqi people, and that he favours the Iraqi Arab Sunnis and the Sunni-based regime, which oppresses a majority of the state's people …

[… words to the effect that] decent socialists would not want to be seen dead with him.

(end of AWL editorial)

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Jane is OK by Me

I've felt for a long time that born-again Jane Fonda got a bad rap. I'm glad to see that Nick Gillespie, Bill O'Reilly and Snopes.com have some mitigating evidence on her behalf. Jane was no genius, but in a time of lies and counter-lies, it was not surprising that someone could get a little lost. Honorable people of good-will can still be found at the extremes in any argument about Vietnam. Doesn't that tell you something?

One thing I find distressing about the Gillespie post is that O'Reilly apparently had no idea who Mr. Snopes was. People in prominent positions have a responsibility to rid themselves of bunk and hokum to the greatest possible extent. O'Reilly has a great deal of influence over a lot of people and really should be a little smarter than that. I was pleased, however, to see that he was actually willing to reverse himself.

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Dawn of the Drug War

A question I posed in an earlier post generated some comments from interested readers. How, I wondered, was the Federal government able to outlaw such drugs as marijuana by an Act of Congress, as opposed to a Constitutional Amendment? Presumably the 18th Amendment was the only way the government could outlaw alcohol.

Apparently, it was FDR's fault. His court packing efforts and ensuing public debate had intimidated the judges just enough to make them question their strict constructions. They allowed the National Firearms Act of 1934 to stand when it came up for review in 1937. This law was based on the constitutional prerogative of Congress to regulate interstate trade. Drug laws were modeled on its provisions. An extensive article from the Scientific American (July 1991) describes the real beginning of the Federal War on Drugs:

... As the Great Depression of the 1930s settled over America, the immigrants [from Mexico] became an unwelcome minority linked with violence and with growing and smoking marijuana. Western states pressured the federal government to control marijuana use. The first official response was to urge adoption of a uniform state antinarcotics law. Then a new approach became feasible in 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the National Firearms Act. This act prohibited the transfer of machine guns between private citizens without purchase of a transfer tax stamp-and the government would not issue the necessary stamp. Prohibition was implemented through the taxing power of the federal government.

Within a month of the Supreme Court's decision, the Treasury Department testified before Congress for a bill to establish a marijuana transfer tax. The bill became law, and until the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Act of 1970, marijuana was legally controlled through a transfer tax for which no stamps or licenses were available to private citizens. ...

Among other things, the article proposes that there is a social taboo cycle associated with the use of recreational drugs that fluctuates over the generations -- from curiosity and tolerance to fear and over-reaction. My opinion of this matter is that we have been and still are caught in a huge counterproductive social trap. Drug use and corruption are only encouraged by the current authoritarian approach.

We should do everything we can to control and discourage use of harmful drugs without actually outlawing them. First of all we should be honest about the effects. Americans have the right to make their own choices based on a balanced assessment of the facts.

However, sale and distribution should be reserved to the Federal Government, no bans permitted, but with a strict pricing program deployed with an explicit purpose -- to eliminate the black market. Once the black market is expunged, prices should be adjusted to help pay for the social costs associated with each drug. A high "sin tax" would have more effect at controlling the use, and provide more benefit to society, than any amount of enforcement and incarceration. Providing drugs to minors could still be penalized, in proportion to the actual danger associated with the specific drug, just as it is today with alcohol.

The article cited is one of many carefully researched articles about drugs on the same site. Also, check out M.Simon's anti-prohibition pieces at Power and Control.

See also my previous posts on the subject:

5/19/2005 4:24 PM

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Galloway's Numbers

George Galloway doesn't hesitate to accuse the US of being responsible for 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and 1,000,000 during the terrible oil-for-food period. If you've been reading this site, you know what I think about the 100,000 figure. I have my doubts about the million figure as well, but I haven't looked into it. At any rate, he also talked today about how Rumsfeld was arming the Iraqis. The following links should go a long way toward dispelling that myth:

Pre-1990 http://www.command-post.org/archives/002978.html

1993-2002 http://projects.sipri.se/armstrade/Trend_Ind_IRAN_93-02.pdf

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Galloway's Day

FrankWarner posts, with lots of comments, on the Galloway interview in the Senate. Galloway mocked the Senators by paraphrasing the old HUAC loyalty oath, implying that they were nothing more than red-baiters. The British do not approach this sort of thing the way we do. They are very combative, out front and mildly impolite as a rule. US Senators, on the other hand, tend to be guarded and extremely polite, handing out rope and encouraging their victim to take as much as needed.

George Galloway enjoyed his opportunity to harangue us, but the Senate just wanted to get him on record. I remember a few years ago when they were patiently and politely interviewing a few individuals ... what were their names, ah yes, Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson, McGruder? Is that right?

BBC has a video of GGG's day in the sun. The British reporter seems to believe that Galloway scored at least a modest victory. I think it remains to be seen.

Who knows, we could all be wrong. Maybe it's a fabrication by the VRWC to discredit him. That's been done before, but why Galloway? He didn't have that kind of clout. I think he's just arrogant enough to mock the constable while sitting on the loot.

UPDATE: The complete session is here.

My earlier posts on George Galloway:

FrankWarner previous post:

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Senate Brinksmanship through the Years

Lee Harris, author of Civilization and its Enemies, has a post reviewing the history of the filibuster as well as other legislative threats and practices, the "nuclear" options of their day. He feels that these stratagems have generally served to protect minority groups over the years, with regard to their most deeply held concerns, and to preserve the integrity of the Union. John C. Calhoun comes off as a hero somehow.

When an issue is associated with strong feelings by partisans at each extreme (the U-shaped intensity chart), then we must actively seek consensus in order to avoid the Tyranny of the Majority. I have talked at length about these issues in previous posts:

Three Tyrannies and the Filibuster
Purple Thoughts
The Problem with Hardball

5/17/2005 10:28 PM

UPDATE: Here's one I forgot

Weakest Members

5/19/2005 04:35 PM


Old site:

Three Tyrannies and the Filibuster

Purple Thoughts

The Problem with Hardball

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The Good Side of the Sopranos

Could TV and video games be making us smarter? Steven Johnson discusses another source of the general IQ increase? For more of my related posts see: Moore's Law and the Power of G, Mr. Roy G. Biv, What Teachers Can Do .






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The Eagle with Two Wings

I love Bill Moyers. I love PBS. I didn't enjoy his show on PBS very much. I don't agree with him on the war. I think he's sort of a Kum Ba Ya soldier, with a soft spot for new age blarney and old time religion. But I think he is a real reporter, an honest and tolerant man. He seems like a Liberal because he gives the floor to people who don't get it much. And he is a Liberal because he believes in those values of Honesty, Diversity and Tolerance, and certainly in Freedom of the Press.

Let me tell you that the Vast Right Wing conspiracy really does exist, and he has been a victim of it -- we have been victims of it. I can't understand why anyone would try to shut him up, though. He'll just end up giving a speech like he did the other day. It was long, characteristic of him and moving. Read the whole thing twice. This is why I worry that the Internet will be slowly chopped down, as surely as Conservative money flows to stifle the opinions of those it doesn't like.

Here's a short selection:

Hear me: an unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.


I grew up in the South, where the truth about slavery, race and segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms and driven from the news rooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and then it took another hundred years for the truth to make us free. Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that might makes right, we circled the wagons, listened only to each other and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.

5/17/2005 12:32 PM

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New Estimates of Iraqi War Deaths

I have some posts linked together from seveval weeks ago talking about the problems with the Lancet/Johns Hopkins study below. I have written thousands of words and listed about 24 specific statistical issues with this study. Jim Lindgren is talking about it and wonders how to reconcile the Lancet estimate of 98,000 with the new estimate of 24,000 from the new Iraq Living Conditions Survey. I haven't read the new study yet, but I can answer that question. The 98,000 estimate is vapor. It sticks in people's minds, but you have to remember, at best, at very best, this number represents a broad range, a confidence interval, from 8,000 to 194,000. The shape of the probability distribution within that range is in dispute, but a dart thrown at it could easily land on 24,000. There is no reason, without having read the second study, to suppose that the 24,000 estimate conflicts in any way with the first estimate. Statistically, it is the same number.

There is more discussion by Tim Lambert and Tim Worstall. Frank Warner mentioned the issue in one of his threads. According to Tim Worstall, the confidence interval quoted in the new study is 18,000 to 29,000, a much more satisfactory range. 12% were less than age 18. I recollect that it was much higher in the Lancet study, which points to its lack of precision. This study seems to have had a lot more resources, but I suspect is suffers from a lot of the same statistical problems. There is still a confusion of civilian vs. combatant deaths, which I think we have to be careful of.

Once again, note that I don't necessarily disagree with the numbers. I would like to point out, however, that both are historically very low for what you would expect from this kind of invasion.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Norman Borlaug Against the Fall of Night

A correspondent, Lichanos, told me of a bet made twenty-five years ago between Dr. Julian L. Simon and Dr. Paul Ehrlich.

During his illustrious career, Dr. Simon’s research was highlighted by a bet he made with Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Wanting to prove his theory that natural resources are not finite in a true sense, Julian challenged Ehrlich in 1980 to choose five commodities that he believed would become more scarce, and therefore more expensive, over a decade. Ten years later, the price of each metal had fallen. In commemoration of the bet, the Julian L. Simon Award includes a sculpture of oak leaves, with the veins representing the five metals chosen by Ehrlich: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten.

Ehrlich has been characterized as a pessimist, a doomster, someone who finds the cloud for every silver lining. Simon as a man who treasured the innovative spirit, reveled in endless horizons of human triumph. But this bet is merely the continuation of an argument that started with the thoughts of Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus. Smith said that wealth comes from Capital. Malthus says that poverty comes from population growth. The argument is not going to disappear any time soon, because both of them are right.

Currently the Simon-Smith side of the argument seems ascendant because, as with the millennial prophets who forecast the immanent end of the world, the predictions are repeatedly punctured by the facts. The current forecast of Peak Oil, that I’ve talked about previously, is the latest in a seemingly unending series of Ehrlichian forebodings. The brave followers of Malthus and Ehrlich predict that world oil production will begin slowly collapsing in 5 years or 10 years or maybe 40 years. Bears accept it. Bulls ignore it.

The fact is thathuman ingenuity and Capitalism actto increase our wealth in a parallel race with population growth, which steals from that wealth. You see, Malthus was not wrong. He can’t be wrong because his argument was mathematical. Population growth must follow and does follow an exponential growth rate. This implies that there is a fixed period of time in which the population will double. If you’ve ever looked at an interest rate chart, you know that every dollar you invest works at duplicating itself according to the Rule of 72. At a 3 percent growth rate, my dollar will double, due to the magic of compound growth, in 72/3, or 24 years. At 6 percent, it will double in 72/6, or 12 years. If you invested 1,000 dollars in the stock market at age 21, expecting a conservative yield of 10% annually, you will die a millionaire at 93.

Most people know this and accept this, but can’t bring themselves to apply it to humanity. Now let’s assume, for argument sake, that the human race began as two people about 7,000 years ago. Guessing conservatively that there has been an average yield of 0.7 percent, which is pretty low, (I’m not sure if the rule of 72 still works for values that low), then the doubling time would be about 100 years. The doubling time is less than that today, as I’m sure you are aware. Given these assumptions and 70 centuries, then the population today would be 2 raised to the 70th power, approximately 10 to the 21st power, or one followed by 21 zeros. The population today is actually about 6 billion (is that right?), but at any rate less than 10 to the 10th power. For every person alive today, there should have been an entire planet of people. What happened to them all?

The answer is that the population stopped doubling at some point, just as Malthus predicted. The death rate caught up to the growth rate for many reasons, but primarily because the population had reached the carrying capacity of the available habitat. The population was stifled at particular levels for long periods of time. As people discovered new technologies the habitat was effectively changed into one that would support more people, but this happened in fits and starts, lifting the population lid at certain points in time.

Lately, the technological wonders have been lifting that limit faster than we can meet it. Does that mean that Malthus was wrong or that he’s obsolete? No. It only means that Adam Smith was right. The Hidden Hand of Capitalism has pushed us into feats of productivity undreamed of in his day.

But what do I mean when I say Capitalism has pushed us? I mean that all of us have contributed, minutely changing their efforts from day to day until the end result is unrecognizable compared to the beginning. I mean also that some of us have changed things quite a great deal. One of the most productive people on the planet is a man named Norman Borlaug. Through the efforts of this great man, we have fended off Malthus for half a century. Have you heard of him? He saved more lives than Genghis Khan ever ended. You’ve probably heard of him.

One thing I wanted to tell you about Norman Borlaug. He’s not happy with us. He spent his considerable life’s effort giving us a little breathing room, hoping we would find some civilized way to stabilize our population at a level below the carrying capacity of the planet. We haven’t done so, and because of people like Julian L. Simon, we don’t, for the most part, even recognize the need to do so.

Once again, Borlaug and Simon are both right, sort of. We can keep up this race for quite some time if we keep getting smarter, more innovative, more imaginative. There is no way to predict where we will take that final wrong step that leads to population collapse, but I can tell you this, it is possible to take a bad step. We know that because we have seen what happened to the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin recently asserted something to the effect that the end of the Soviet Empire was the single greatest social catastrophe of the twentieth century. We laughed in astonishment, but he has a different point of view. The dropping population of Russia is just an interesting statistic to us, but to the Russians it is 30 million agonizing tales of woe. Their embrace of Capitalism will eventually pull them out of this slide, even with all the corruption, but it has not been a walk in the park for them. And it will not be a walk in the park for the rest of us if we don’t keep our heads up.

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Whisper in a Certain Ear

Well, we should have suspected before, but the whole Koran desecration story was made up. The only such event involved a frustrated detainee, presumably Muslim himself, who flushed a few pages. Frank Warner has the scoop. He compares this rumor-driven event to the bombings in Istanbul. It reminds me that the current polio epidemic in North Africa has been triggered by a rumor that the vaccines were designed to make Muslim men infertile.

Some folks seem more susceptible to the provocation of ignorant lies than others. More likely to believe them, more likely to act on them, more likely to resort to violence, and more likely to get hurt by that violence.

5/16/2005 12:28 AM

UPDATE: Lee Smith has an amusing entry concerning Koranic etiquette in Slate.

5/17/2005 04:00 PM

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Globalization Rant I

I have some things to say about Globalization. My thoughts need organizing so I’ll try to break this into parts. The match for this particular fuse was struck this morning as I listened to the distressing tale of the United Airlines pension default. Now, I am a True Believer in the power of Capitalism, and I believe Globalization is a good thing, but I don’t believe it will be an easy road. The domino collapse of the American pension system, in particular, is one of the downsides. It is a story of past crimes, future hopes and an economic tsunami just about to break on our shores. The rant begins here:

Past Crimes

The Social Security system and the corporate pension system were in large part political enticements to prevent revolution and keep people working. We all know now with regard to Social Security what the accountants have been trying to tell us for years. The system is underfunded. It’s basically a big government bond issue. In fact, there is no way to reserve the money necessary without running a huge budget surplus. And politicians are congenitally incapable of keeping their hands off surplus money. The Present always seems like an emergency that requires us to call out all our resources. (In that regard I have been pleased with President Bush for keeping his hands off the Strategic Oil Reserve.)

The Keynesian idea of running a surplus in good years has never been tried. It is always sandbagged by the fact that we can never recognize a good year when we’re in it. The Social Security system, as a consequence, will be funded in the future only at the expense of general economic slowdown, so it will probably be gradually jettisoned. I must believe that there were high officials who understood this, who knew what we were doing at the time, but avoided the necessary choices for selfish reasons. They thought they could get away with it because they were, perhaps, incapable of envisioning the remarkable extent of our success. For that’s what this is, at base, a side-effect of the success of the American economy. Too many people living too well too long.

The unraveling of the pension system has been, however, more predictable and more reprehensible. There is real wickedness here. The underfunding has been ignored, condoned and wished away by government officials, corporate officers and union officials alike for decades, at least. Everybody wants to look good today and let tomorrow take care of itself. Empty promises help hold salaries down and cost the promisers nothing. Small companies have been stiffing their employees for years this way.

My mother-in-law worked for a small company that was acquired by another company just as she was about to retire. She had been working there for many years and had accumulated a pension, probably a nice amount for her limited needs. The new company required her to change her commute, and I’m sure gave her a tough time in general, hoping she would quit. When she didn’t, they laid her off a couple weeks before she was due to retire and never paid a penny. There was no severance package. She wasn’t the type to sue and never complained, but I’m sure they had another clever little plan to defraud her if she did take action. In all likelihood, the money had never been set aside either. I suppose it’s also possible that this company specialized in fraudulent acquisitions, fully intending to drain the pension funds, just as Allegheny Health Care did with the old institutional grants and endowment money.

(If you keep listening you may hear me say more than once that the worst crimes are financial crimes. The mismanagment and misappropriation of funds causes, when you look at all the outcomes, more suffering and even death than the most hard-working retail criminal can accomplish.)

Actually, those hard-noses executives who have been denying younger people access to pension plans in recent decades, have been doing them a favor. The kids know the score at least. They know that they will have to fund their own retirements. Younger workers have been using the 401K and real estate investments, knowing that they couldn’t count on Social Security (tut,tut say the old liberals) and relying on the long-term history of the market as a better bet.

I’m going to make a prediction here. The money that the younger folks are counting on will not be there either. When ripe fruit is hanging on the tree, you can’t build a fence high enough to keep out the thieves. Why is that? I feel the weight of all that 401K money and wonder. Anyone can tell you that squirrels are smarter than farmers. Most of the smart guys seem to be on the wrong side in this game. (Where is SuperMan when you need him? In this case his true name is Diversification.)

I’ve noticed one effect already. The value of the dollar has been consciously deflated [The dollar has been consciously devalued ...--Ed.]

by the President’s policies. This would basically drain a big chunk out of the pockets of anybody with assets in America (including Americans). It would make more jobs available, make the President look good for the short term, and reduce the national debt. I say "would" because Asian nations, in particular the PRC, have hitched their currency to ours and we don’t seem to be able to shake them loose no matter how much the exchange rate drops. These are, of course, the people we owe the money to.

Another impact that will start occurring soon will be the burst of the real estate bubble.

OK. What do I know about Economics? No more than I read in the funny papers. Maybe somebody can tell me why I’m wrong and make me feel better.

5/15/2005 11:12 PM

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Galloway to Wag Finger at Senate

Gorgeous George will be here Tuesday to tell off the Senate. (Frank Warner talked about this last week.) Galloway will get a lot a press and be able to crow over his victory, which was no mean feat it's true. Maybe the results will play well in the UK, making him look more powerful, giving Respect some respect. He is an able politician and a large personality, but I think a malign one. One can never tell for sure about these things, but I suspect his hidden deeds will be catching up to him.

I don't think he will play well in the US. In fact I think, like Howard Dean, he will have a significant impact in pushing people to the right. The main difference being that, although they disagree with him, people generally like Dean.

5/15/2005 12:56PM EDT

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Drug War Questions

I made a reference the other day to Prohibition and the Drug War as being similarly inadvisable. One difference that has puzzled me, though. If the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was required to proscribe alcohol, why were drugs outlawed by a simple act of Congress? Was the Constitution harder to circumvent in the 20's than in the 30's?

Has anyone done a study to the effect that the drug trade is a net gain/loss to the economy? Could the Drug War actually be a jobs program?

My biggest question, the only one that gives me a scintilla of doubt concerning my desire to end the Drug War, is this: People who now earn their easy money by selling drugs would possibly be attracted to other criminal activities when the money dried up. Would they, like the rumrunners, go legit and make an honest profit, or would they go back to the coal mines like moonshiners presumably did. Or would they take up something profitable but socially monstrous, such as kidnapping and slave trading.

I hesitated to bring up this suggestion at all, because it is difficult to believe that the amount of corruption and violence generated world-wide by the drug business could get any worse. I mention it only because it is a puzzle to me. What would these people do if all the easy money disappeared? Have they been irredeemably addicted to crime by years of involvement in it? Are these the kind of people who would have turned to crime without the inducements?

What would the economic impact be? It's hard to use Prohibition as a test case since it was ended at the height of the Depression. Maybe it will be like an industry specific depression. Will all the new cheap labor be absorbed by other businesses? These are people with a certain set of skills that might not be incorporable into other fields. Suspicious resumes might make them unemployable. Maybe they could go into a new business of generating fake employment histories.

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Friday, May 13, 2005

War Assessment

Omar at Iraq-the-Model has posted a story about Tikrit's version of the HOV rule. Strict enforcement of such an apparently silly idea has some of the commenters disturbed. I liked the idea, myself. Against an implacable enemy, every advantage counts. Even though the extra rider will step out at the last moment on a suicide mission, it might give the police just enough extra time to prevent the attack. I would go even further, as one of the commenters suggested, and require that a woman, driver or passenger, be present in every car. Here is my response to one of the more vociferous anti-war commenters:

If it is our intention to win this war, then we are going to find ways to impose our will on Iraq. This is unavoidable. People won't like it and civilians will be dying. The only alternative is to change our intention and decide to let the Iraqis sort it out by themselves. If you believe that this would lead to a reduction in violence, then I suppose you need to support that position. It seems more likely to me that there would be a bloodbath of either civil war or renewed Baathist terror, but violence is not the only issue here.

We are limiting their freedom now for the sake of more freedom later because 1) we believe that free peoples are less dangerous and 2) it is our moral duty. The force may seem excessive to you, but the forces arrayed against us are formidable, not to mention clever, cruel and determined. If we want to win, we have no choice. We have to be just as clever and determined, if not as cruel. If we want to lose we will be imposing a terrible cost on the majority in Iraq. In the Civil War the South was not happy about the invasion from the North. Was it the right thing to do?

The cost to us is real, but the future cost of letting the situation fester could be much more severe. Maybe we are making mistakes, causing extra trouble for ourselves, but this is our window of opportunity. We won't always be the preeminent military force on the planet. However, I hope that a free Iraq will become one of our future allies in time of need.


5/13/2005 10:29 AM

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Asymmetric MADness

Daniel Pipes is claiming that the Saudis prevent us from using force on them by wiring their oil infrastructure with explosives. He gets his information from a book by investigative reporter Gerald Posner. Pipes is concerned that Wahabi fanatics might take over Saudi Arabia and push the plunger just for the fun of it, basically destroying the world economy. I think it's more than likely this will happen, and I think we have been very irresponsible about the whole thing.

Presumably this started with Kissinger pushing the Saudis just a little too hard. So we should have known about this and planned for it since 1975. Who is red-teaming our national defense? We do have a strategic oil reserve, but it is basically a military supply only. We need to reduce our dependence of foreign oil and reduce our dependence on oil period. The only way to do it is to manipulate the price. We should have been taxing it heavily for many years, but we lack the will and we are slow to recognize that we are in a war for the future of civilization.

If you include global warming, we have two ropes around our collective neck. We need to start building nuclear power plants as quickly as possible. We need to mandate stricter CAFE standards, and we need a carbon tax, or at least an oil tax. Don't let the lights go out on Broadway.


Related to this tactic of the Saudis, I have often wondered whether Taiwan has the same sort of semi-MAD policy. When the Chinese invade, I expect to see every valuable economic resource, computer plants, chip factories, etc., go up in smoke, and critical personnel will leave the country. The PRC will lose a lot of business. Will knowledge of that be enough to stop them?

5/12/2005 11:26 PM

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The Problem with Hardball

Captains Quarters has a post concerning Ken Starr and his treatment at the hands of CBS. I guess it looks bad for CBS again, which is not something I take pleasure in, but the subject drifted in the comments thread to Republican tactics for pushing judges. I particularly enjoyed a long rant by Carol Herman, who, among other things, is opposed to eliminating the filibuster (I think). I take it she self-identifies as a libertarian, but I seem to be agreeing with everything she says except the third rail thing. I'll take the liberty of using her text to link to some of my own posts on related topics.

You can't elect a Pope on 51 votes, out of a college of Cardinals that has 100 members. It wouldn't fly. It would be so wrong, and so illigitimate, it would be like comparing a blessed event, with something that smells bad.

So IF Bush thinks he wins by shoving all republicans, or even letting five peel away, as a winning tactic, he's just WRONG. It will be the most costly mistake a president can make, short of touching the 3rd rail. In getting electrocuted only one guy dies. But if the GOP wants to throw out a majority of Americans from its tent (as it has already discarded the Libertarians); than Bush doesn't even understand a losing hand.

To gain legitimacy, what the GOP needs is 60 votes. AND, a mixture of votes from both sides of the room. When the senate votes.

Why's that?

Because it takes cooperation to get elected to a permanent, lifetime job. And, getting angry about this only hurts your own team.

While the democrats benefit. How's that? Well, right now, in the senate, Harry Reid understood he's up from the mat. As bad as things were for the democrats, since 2002. And, of course, 2004. The winds have changed.

Blowing against the GOP's growth.

Even if everyone still keeps yammering about Algore. And, Kerry. They're OUT OF THE GAME! You might as well root for Babe Ruth to hit a homer, t'marra. Past events aren't going to reappear. However.

And, in this breech the democrats have gained ground. While the pubbies are losing it.

Even if the 7 or 9 judicial appointees sail through the senate; it's on par with spit in the ocean. There are THOUSANDS of Federal judgeships. Maneuvering a few into place gains very little. Except headlines down the line. Which don't favor the minority. If the majority just scratches its head at all the lunacy.

To say nothing of how Bush doesn't have much left when he goes to replace Rehnquist. (It's probably gonna be with Scalia.) Not that being "chief" means much. Each of the 9 sit with equal powers. While the "newcomer" makes the coffee. In that room, where ALL of the nine must gather in Conference ... can't send in staff ... when they meet in secrecy, deciding what cases can be heard. And, what don't make it UP by Cert.) You didn't know that?

Then, there's a newcomer. They say that Bush will pick Alberto Gonzales. Keeping with the idea that Affirmative Action picks need to address the lack of a Latino on the High Court. We're a long way from what had been the great days of Supreme Court respect. (And, Bush doesn't have all that much room to maneuver, either.) Tight spot. He got himself into it. By not convincing a majority of Americans he was a president for ALL.

Can Bush win in the Mideast? Yup. I think he has! But it's up there with Reagan's win of tearing down the Berlin Wall. Good words. After he already left office. And, that's not the same thing as being there, in the present, weilding real powers! (FDR wielded real powers! In real time.) Big difference.

Posted by: Carol_Herman May 12, 2005 03:01 PM

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