31 May 2008

I'll see you in hell

WSJ cooperative study

I saw this humorously described as the 'I'll see you in hell' syndrome.
Basically it goes like this: villain is foiled by hero in last scene, pushes button to kill hero and himself by blowing up secret evil base. It is a funny way to look at things. Generally my impression of say, Americans, has been that we do like being lazy, but we also don't like people being lazier than we are. In other words, we cherish that sweat or toil we do produce because we don't like doing it, so when it gets taken and given to people who didn't do anything we get angry and discourage such activities. Apparently this is a common tactic in developed economies (although China isn't quite as a whole, one would expect university students in China to be part of basically the global developed economy).

More "humorous" is the tactics of people in dictatorial or clannish states, where revenge is the name of the game. And it profits no one. More to do with this is a premise investigated in Jared Diamond's book on the differences of cultural development based on adaptation to geography. In a clannish state, his oft used example is Papua New Guinea while the Godfather saga uses Sicily, people (well the men anyway) live in constant cycle of vendettas. The various players are arranged about to exact penalties on each other's families for the actions of a single individual and thousands of lives are risked or ended over what we (Europeans) might resolve through a trial or contractual/legal dispute (sue!!!!). Diamond argues that this almost-Darwinian process equates to an overall smarter population. But as the WSJ study shows, such societies really end up checking each other out and not advancing, indicating intelligence isn't used abstractly enough. Hence we have a frame point to see why, for example, African governments routinely expel, or seize the property of, productive members of their society, and why subsequently there has been little economic growth on the continent. There's a totally different dynamic to a clannish or dictatorial culture that we haven't yet evolved a way to expound a net positive gain to the overall society from and we instead expect such people to 'act like Americans'. It may be silly therefore to expect Iraqis to behave. Self-contained groups like Kurds maybe, but not Iraq as a whole.

The only strange thing I saw was Seoul on the list of vengeful cities. ROK has a nicely growing economy, but apparently has some very angry kids living in it. I guess. That didn't add up until it was made clear they have really cool riots. Ie, outside of maybe the Seattle WTO riot a couple years ago and race riots, Americans have really civil protests and riot police are there to keep things at a civil tone. We generally have to call in the National Guard when things get out of hand. In ROK, riot police are there to do battle with the rioters and are dressed like something out of a medieval war movie. Since we have our inept media, this sort of thing doesn't make news even though it would certainly grab ratings watch cops beat up hostile civilians ('cops' is still on right?)

edit: further contemplation hasn't changed my outlook here. But something occurred to me reading the article again. They seem to imply that a lack of trust creates the problem. Where would this lack of trust come from? Probably from a sociological conclusion that government or other portions of society are not trustworthy (because of corruption, various-isms, etc). Ie: Stop Balkanizing countries because it amplifies these gaps and breaks down the overall social framework. Or conversely, allow countries to break apart into these smaller networks so that some forms of collective bargaining take place at higher levels instead of vicious activities on the lower end of the spectrum. China, despite it's experiments with Maoism, has a long cultural history of bureaucratic excellence to go against the relative lack of accountability with its current form of government. So the people will generally have some trust in the common good being their own good as well as opposed to 'get what i can or see you in hell'.

27 May 2008

nba thoughts

Boston needs to STOP PLAYING Cassell. They looked good in the one stretch of game 4 where Rondo was pushing things. They looked bad when Cassell came on the court. Old guy used to have it, now he just pushes the kid off the court and makes him nervous. Unfortunately he managed to make two jumpers in game 3, so now the C's are screwed. And I am not happy.



"He also blamed increased exposure of troops to combat."

I'm confused, how else would troops suffer from shell shock or battle fatigue, or operational exhaustion? Or simply suffer from something as 'common' as PTSD. Combat has been extensively studied in psychology because of the overwhelming range of emotions; boredom, excitement, fear, exhaustion, and in many cases a pervasive openness to sensations and feelings. As though they were not really fully alive until that moment. I can imagine that taken in with the range of negative things that happen, this sandblasting of 'normal' life is not a healthy thing or easy to live with.
Most of the studies conducted after WW2, the last large mobilization of force, showed that after ~90 days of sustained combat men began to break. It was possible for units to continue to fight long past that point when they were organized as a unit, but to expect it was not a wise move.

This was with high intensity warfare, which is very real in some aspects of our more modern wars, but not quite. Guerrilla or counter-insurgency campaigns probably combine both the stressful feeling of combat with routine activity and remove the healthy reward of getting back from the front, even for a week or two, when there is no rear lines to head towards. My concern here is (as usual lately) twofold. One, why didn't they figure out they would have a guerrilla campaign to wage sooner (and adjust forces accordingly to ease the burden on troop deployments, families, etc). For that, it's too late to change what has already built up in the minds of our soldiers. I worry greatly about the trade-offs of civilian command authorities versus a more independent military command. The civilians plainly do not know how to conduct wars and the military plainly does not know how to explain it to them. And 2), since they can do little to ease the burden on present troops, why not either remove some of them to create a reserve (and a place of rest and relative safety), or increase the pay to attract new recruits. If we're willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to mercenaries to fight, why not do so with our own people instead and actually follow the rules of war and rules of engagement in the process.

Personally I see many dangers in a story like this. First, that it portrays us and our soldiers as either weak or unable to handle this war (I don't believe we could have handled it under previous stratagem, this has been a slight improvement). This isn't significantly dangerous unless one considers war from a political perspective of the will to resist or fight and removing that resolve or demonstrating it ourselves. Two, it shows we do not really have any functional reserves in a meaningful sense. My understanding of military doctrine is that successful occupations depend on a stable, independent (but cooperative) government. We have cooperative governments, but not generally helpful, independent or stable ones in place. Strictly speaking if an occupation is necessary, it seems to me more likely that either the occupier is preparing a staging ground for further actions or that somebody screwed up in the war planning and failed to note useful diplomatic alternatives (such as the installment of a strong and independent exiled leader, which tends to backfire anyway, so forget I mentioned it). Without any functional reserve to campaign with, I shudder to think who could be contemplating further hostile actions. (True we do still have many air and naval assets uncommitted, but these cannot hold territory, only deny it). And as far as diplomacy went, it's true it was rather pointless with Saddam along. But occupying a country that has had a generation to build up hatred for Americans is probably not the best way to become friends either.

So in other words. .this whole idea was pretty stupid and now we're finally seeing a cost mount up in human terms. Since I'm not in a position to be listened to, my griping doesn't matter before or after the fact. And personally my "military "recommendation would be to continue some level of counter-insurgent campaigns (which amounts to a PR war, something Americans have done poorly at following WW2). Not to withdraw. We created the mess. In hindsight, well the fault is our own (not bush/cheney/rumsfeld/media, ours, we the people), we should clean it up.

26 May 2008

cato thoughts of late

Kill NCLB, school reforms

Subsidies for OPEC. (or a fool and his money are soon parted)

I have little to add. The second one with the underwriting of anti-terrorism/war/etc costs for various OPEC nations is probably a vital concern. Historically speaking, countries tend to align with others for trade or security reasons. That's fine. The problem arises when either 1) the security danger is unilaterally increased by the policies of the weaker party knowing the costs will be paid by others (Israel is a possible example here) or 2) the security danger is increased by the policies of the weaker party doing things which directly endanger others (ie state-sponsored terrorism). In those cases, it's best to find new allies or new trade partners. And it would be better if we didn't appear to be begging for oil every time we meet with the Saudis. Perhaps the smart play would be to ask them to increase their defense investments or counter-terrorism efforts. That won't happen unless America can secure some other country or source for domestic energy needs or allies who are willing to offset our costs for keeping the region relatively secure (sort of).

For the first, I'm long in advocating doing public policies that have shown themselves to work either here or elsewhere.. in that case school funding and choice driven by parents (and not local teachers unions or local school boards). Silly neo-cons keep screwing up these good ideas by trying to inject religious schools as a choice, funded by public monies.. no thank you. So instead we're trying to create a standardized uniform society through education... which last I checked resulted in things like Mao's cultural revolution (and millions of dead and imprisoned Chinese) or WW2. In a diverse culture with a global free market, I would think the smart play is on spreading out our choices and assets and accounting for reasonable differences in the quality and style of education people desire and need, not creating useless and evasive standards.

24 May 2008

so about that point


I found this a useful diversion. But I really found something interesting on this page, after several pages of discussion as to the enlightened purpose of educating socially aware persons for the practice and engagement of democracy and the expansion of opportunity.

"In athletics, at least, the coaches are expected to develop only promising material. No one complains if his undersized son with awkward legs does not become a football hero. Some fathers, however, seem to demand the intellectual equivalent of such a miracle. We expect our college health departments to direct each student into that form of sport which is suited to his physique and power. We need a parallel form of educational guidance in both schools and colleges to assist the development of the skills of brain and hands."

It's funny how people can so easily use the Michael Jordan account to make a point about the relative tools people have for the acquisition and use of education.
"I see signs everywhere of enormous strides forward in such matters. Our educational pattern is becoming daily more diversified; a recognition of the need for a radically different type of education is growing."

That was the key point though. Note the that the practice of education was becoming more diversified, not standardized. We have taken a badly wrong turn over the decades in between this article and today. I think, as the article suggests with Jefferson or Franklin relating to his own time, the author would find today's world has somehow ended up in an intellectual utopia (by which I mean no place, not the idyllic paradise). Educational aims are to be diverse, schooling in the traditional sense has no utility for all people. But to presume that it does makes certain accommodations as to the actual development of some critical skills virtually impossible. Severe emphasis on flagging mathematics and science scores has undermined the original premise of social functionality (namely the ability to discourse with fellow men on the topics of the day with originally arrived at conclusions, not sound bytes and buzzwords). We will soon find that our standardizing approaches will defeat the relative subjectivity of writing, History or other social sciences at the cost of educating a class of people who have little capacity beyond computational skills and the regurgitation of scientific theory (and not the research abilities to expound upon it, nor the ingenuity to take it in new directions or make practicalable inventions of it). I shudder to think what this current generation of 'educated' children will be incapable of, and what new costs this will impose on the rest of us.

23 May 2008

things which occur to me

off the beaten path

I've always taken things in academia rather slowly. In my case, I suspect it was largely because I found it too easy. It bores me to study things that I absorb quickly or things I'm merely required to use for regurgitation. Hence I have a passing acquaintance with organic chemistry or astrophysics, but not much use for calculus or biology (outside of evolutionary biology which has some interesting theoretical applications), and an enormous appetite for the utterly useless fields of military history or African topography/geography as they apply to Colonial Europeans. Unless of course I'm eventually getting around to building a personal empire in Africa.. but given how profitable that was for Europeans, I don't think that's a very wise plan.

Generally my experience has been that most people do not find either the pursuit of knowledge, the acquisition of it, or the processing and interpreting of it, very easy, and by extension, very fun. I do all three with alacrity when that mood strikes, and I consume random things in my mind (Wiki is great for these learning binges and for depriving me of much needed sleep). I've noticed that, in general, very smart people tend to want things to learn about it. They feed themselves on knowledge and thoughts of all corners of interest that may strike them. Give them a direction and the next week the taskmaster will need to find a new task, or risk losing a prodigious student to boredom. Such people are rare however.

We could say that, logically, it follows half the population is of below average intelligence. But intelligence isn't quite the sole factor of college success, or even life success and basic human decency. I think it follows mostly that the vast majority of people attending colleges aren't really cut out for colleges. Maybe the timing is wrong. Even I went to work first, rather bummed out and rather burned out on schools. Only when it became apparent that I still have considerable gifts that I needed to start tapping did I return. Most people have to have some combination of intellect, motivation, and hopefully a clearly defined goal (at some point) to succeed at college, as well as having some basic tools for employing these things in a self-directed fashion already developed. I hardly think these are skill sets that we would find broadly available across the population, certainly not the way we educate now both in schools and colleges.

Some people on the other hand merely return because it's a path to some meager promotion or entrance into a field previously denied by their inadequate certifications and educations. I'd have to argue then that most such people really don't belong in college. That essay makes the solid point that it's nice to have people with a passing familiarity with literature, or history, or chemistry, whichever seems most useless in their later profession. For example, strange as it seems learning how to write isn't really about writing. It's about constructing a schema for how we look at something and trying to explain it to someone else. That's far more important than getting grammar and citations right, and it's really the part that seems to frustrate people to no end. Making cogent arguments is not as simple as it sounds, at least to most people. In fact, it actually sounds quite boring and tedious to most people, as though the mere fact we are able to entertain an argument without making fart noises or drooling makes it clearly valid. We require everyone to take it and do silly little writing conventions in order to demonstrate mastery of the subject at hand, even though the overwhelming majority of people will never need any of these silly little writing conventions ever again. Most people won't need to or won't even try to get something published as a writer. Why is it taught this way? Because somewhere in there people are supposed to be making a thesis argument and have learned how to assemble data points to support their flimsy assumptions.

So yes, I'd agree that having a population of people that understands the difference between making sense to yourself and making sense to everyone else is a useful thing. It's not why these people have returned to school. They want jobs. In which case there are obviously some skills a college will provide them, for a nice fee. The bulk of their abilities will be developed in the form of on-the-job training, not in textbooks. Practical skills in other words. And many of these people probably don't understand that these necessary practical skills will be severely undermined if they lack the ability to easily acquire more practical skills in the future. In other words, we'll probably see them back again and again without a clear idea what to make of their successful attempts to fail. It's somehow assumed that mastery in the classroom is a vice versa relationship with the real world, and along the same lines, that all people learn equally well from a class setting as they would from the real world. This is a colossally idiotic assumption on both fronts.

This was mostly spurred in my mind because it appears to be roughly around graduation time for high schools around here. My advice to most high schoolers around here is that you're not college material. And that's not being mean. I suspect it's a far greater waste of their time and resources to attend classes for which they lack basic intellectual skills for, for which they lack interest, and for which they (or their families at least) can be parted of large sums of money. I recently made such a reference.. and was at least mockingly vilified for my blatant honesty. But nobody bothered to argue with me either.

The essential dream of America referenced at the end of this article was expressed in the Wizard of Oz story. We're probably right to be an optimistic or idealistic nation in some respects. Idealism doesn't reverse reality without realistic interpretations once in a while. Reality checks basically tell us that both the methods we use to try to pass children along to get into college are wrong, and that the ability to succeed once in college is generally lacking. Statistically the percentage of people who actually get a bachelor's degree is around 15-16% (this was around 2002, it's higher since then supposedly). Roughly half of those people proceed on to higher degrees, either because of professional choices or simply because they want Dr. in front of their name someday. A few of those people are probably in my boat and do this sort of thing because it interests them (and maybe profits them something in the long run). I won't get heavily into the gaps between the quality of degrees at one institution or another. Logically speaking, if the quality of high schools can vary so greatly even within the same metropolitan area, one can expect the quality of higher education to vary greatly as well. Even the education received at highly regarded institutions is suspect (people can graduate Harvard without ever taking a basic history course for example). I fail to see how mastering some minute volume of history, say South Pacific Islanders, is going to supply someone with the essential thought processes of history, let alone an understanding of history itself. Not to say I wouldn't take a course on that, but certainly not right off the bat.

Taking things like this into account, even that 16% figure is rather spurious. So what should I conclude to tell people? That they will be one of every 6? Those aren't bad odds.. but I'm also not inclined to gamble with them either without a very polished poker face and someone I'm confident I'll bully/bluff out of a hand. Life can be related to a poker game, but it isn't a poker table. One can't bluff everyone all the time.

For whatever reason we have a cultural aversion to more practical training. Professions with minimal in school training can in fact pay rather well (thanks be to unions for once, maybe). There is generally a need for people who can fix machines, build machines, run simple (but sometimes unpleasant) businesses, etc. The more people are inclined to avoid such things, the greater the need will be. It's not glamour to tell people their kids are going to be a mechanic (even for a just a little while) instead of a doctor. But it's not as 'mean' as letting people waste billions of dollars a year on secondary schools, following dreams that a small percentage of them are qualified for, before they figure this out. Some kids can get lucky. I don't care much for luck, I prefer raw material to base things on. Your kids, Americans, are not that smart. Learn to live with this fact, and hope to improve upon it.

22 May 2008

how tax and gdp work

WSJ tax lessons

I found this little law of economics amusing. It also explains neatly why tax revenues go up when tax rates go down (within reason). GDP is the primary engine of tax revenue, not the actual rate of taxation. But the rate of taxation directly effects the levels of investment, the expansion/flight of businesses, and so forth. Obviously taxes are considered either a cost, in which case they're passed on and slow down transactions (or drive them underground), or a punishment.. in which case they're avoided by moving, not doing business, or not doing taxes. The government tends to frown on the last option, and from the accounts of political pandering, it doesn't much like the first option either. I have often found it difficult to explain to people that raising tax rates (even on a pitiful few) generally means less economic activity for the rest of us.

If for no other reason, this might be an explanation for the reason I see for some limitations on the function of government in order to limit the cost (and thus limit the rate of the tax so as not to generally impede business cycles).

21 May 2008

stupidity suffers, for once



The other good news, not addressed here, is that Honda's hybrids would still qualify for the tax break Congress put in a couple years ago for the purchase of a fuel efficient vehicle. Toyota, owing to the near total conversion to hybrids and good marketing opposed by good lobbying, does not get such incentives. But continues to move to dominate the car markets anyway. I think they passed GM this year as the world's top seller. If not they're very, very close. Honda isn't yet as universally hated by the American car lobbyists, and isn't quite as loved by the consumers (though it's certainly not doing as poorly as the idiots of GM/Ford/Chrysler), despite the fact that both companies manufacture many of their cars here in American factories while American car companies have moved out (or at least moved out of Detroit). And the real key here is that the market is providing a clear incentive to find ways to make fuel efficient cars. Because that's what people want. Americans car companies were slow to pick up on this, though each has a few small cars of reasonable fuel economy. Chrysler in fact went to a desperate strain of selling a special gas card for some of their cars that would charge the owner no more than (I think) $3 per gallon for the next 3 years. I suspect that will boost sales.. but it'll also kill their bottom line. Gimmicking is usually an image of desperation, not intelligent responses to the market.

Perhaps it would have helped to make some cars that account for fuel economy once in a while. Then people would grumble, but not have as much to lose while gas prices climb.

pay up

big oil again.. wasting our time

Several ironic or amusing points emerged during the Senate's round of political pandering to idiotic voters. Just in case you are confused about the idiocy of these voters, witness the attached poll results which depict big oil as the usual suspect rather than supply and demand, or even OPEC which controls much of the crude oil that these oil companies depend on to bring to markets here for use and refinement.

If that wasn't enough, the hecklers of the public showed their intellect by demanding that the oil companies bring down the prices. Perhaps if they themselves, the public, had less use for gasoline the price would go down.
Oil companies may be greedy profiteers selling a product people need, but if people don't need it, either they won't buy it or won't buy as much of it. They will charge whatever people will pay. Don't want to pay that much, find a way not to need it so much. If you can't do that or don't want to make the difficult choices with how you budget, shut the fuck up. Your idiotic bitchings made outside your hummer at the gas station will help no one.

The more amusing points were along these lines. Oil companies were requesting the ability to drill for oil off the Florida coast, in ANWR, and points in between. Congress was criticizing the oil companies for not investing enough money in oil exploration however. To my mind, precisely why wouldn't they want to drill for oil anywhere they could if the barrel is selling at $125+? Oil companies would of course want to get as much out of the ground right now as they could relative to years where the price of crude was a pittance. But when the supplies are restricted by 1) cartel control over much of the known oil reserves..or 2) Congressional restrictions over known and suspected domestic reserves, then oil companies of course are not going to spend much on oil exploration. They might, and as far as I can tell, have instead money to spend on oil alternatives, and they're being soaked in it with the subsidies for ethanol going out anyway.

Next point of amusement. With a domestic subsidy on relatively inefficient production of corn ethanol or even switch grass fuels and biodiesel, we have a tariff on foreign imports of ethanol, such as the sugar based fuels that Brazil used to achieve domestic energy independence. Oil companies called for the removal of the foolish protectionism as what that does is discourage the corn ethanol production from seeking greater levels of efficiency anyway, meaning it drives up the price of ethanol fuels. Much as people are willing to mock big corporations, the people in charge of them tend to have some idea what they're doing. Average Americans generally don't when it comes to money.

Now that I think of it, it might be better if that poll had included another choice: the federal government. Not content to drive up oil prices by restricting supplies and imposing anti-trade initiatives on alternative fuels, they also have the nerve to place taxes in the amount of 40-60 cents per gallon and then call in oil executives as though they're the ones driving up the price.

Meanwhile none of this troubles me a wit. I could care less if gas approaches $5 a gallon and have no interest in telling Congress or big oil to do something about it. Europeans and Japan have been paying well above that for years because of self-imposed energy taxes. While oil is now increasing well beyond the inflation rate, part of the reason is that the American dollar has been weakening internationally. My greater concern, and something the government could actually do since it can't impact gas prices directly without making some embarrassing admissions, is work on the general inflation rate and hammer that back into something reasonable. It varies depending on who does the study but it's anywhere from 4% (tolerable) to 10% (definitely not). The price of energy is a factor in these calculations, but it's not the only thing going up.

It's conceivable that one of two things are going on. 1) the dollar is weakening in order to strengthen the domestic economy. Strange as that seems, when the dollar is down our exports are cheaper and imports are more expensive. People keep more of their dollars at home on local or national items. This plan however falls flat because China's yuan is still pegged to the dollar. Imports won't get more expensive from there and exports won't get cheaper. So if that's the plan, it's only effective for Europe and the parts of Latin America we haven't pissed off. or 2), the dollar is weakening so the Fed can use inflated dollars to pay off Social Security and the federal debt. People on Social Security won't be very happy about it, but since I don't expect to see the stuff myself.. not my problem really. I don't much care for that plan either however as it rests on driving up inflation to scary levels.

20 May 2008

things left unsaid


Perhaps one day people of ordinary potential who try to understand large social differences will understand that there are ordinary differences between the social groups being compared. I'm fairly confident there are residuals that impose some levels of gaps (be this from race, gender, whatever), but that these residuals are less important than self-imposed choices made by the groups themselves. This grand study for example shows that women (as a whole) are more likely to go into medicine or biochemistry than physics or engineering. Long may this be blamed on various stereotypical assumption of male chauvinism, it seems more in accordance with the general behavior or disposition of women to begin with. Namely, that women in a social psychology sense end up in fields that are more interpersonal or more help/community orientated than those that aren't because they choose to.

The meat of this article came around here: "Joshua Rosenbloom, an economist at the University of Kansas, became intrigued by a new campaign by the National Science Foundation to root out what it saw as pervasive gender discrimination in science and engineering. The agency was spending $19 million a year to encourage mentoring programs, gender-bias workshops, and cooperative work environments. ... as he saw it, the federal government was spending all that money without any idea what would work, because there was no solid data on what caused the disparity between men and women in scientific fields." Something constantly left out by the political intentions, often as good as intentions may be, is that there are real causes to the situations that politicians are injecting themselves into that must be understood in order to actually cause real results. Education is a perfect example: our society has lived on a fiction that simply throwing more money at the problem will cause results rather than more smartly investing the money already at hand in more effective teaching methods and community involvement, for example. Here again, politicians can swoop up votes for the latest supposed income disparities (be they caused, supposedly, by race or gender) without having an actual solution to the problem, but by calling people out with their supposedly pure intentions.

I personally see no reason why women who are eminently qualified wouldn't succeed at chemistry. But I'm also not a women choosing between chemistry and medicine. If I were a politician, I might have wanted to ask women first whether they wanted to be engineers instead of doctors before I started complaining that women are 'under-represented' in engineering. It looks like there are some external barriers put in by the mostly male dominated fields, but if there are internal barriers as well, no reasonable amount of public funding and discourse is going to override these gaps, certainly not in a short amount of time.

Another interesting point emerges here: "Women who are mathematically gifted are more likely than men to have strong verbal abilities as well; men who excel in math, by contrast, don't do nearly as well in verbal skills. As a result, the career choices for math-precocious women are wider than for their male counterparts." While this doesn't really apply to me personally, I'm very familiar with the relative drop off in some of my compatriots in the male classification who did not demonstrate verbal abilities in equal measure. It does tend to limit where one can go or in a way forges a career path rather than creating options. As a result, women will have much greater flexibility and not choose to work in a field they don't want to work in.

It is interesting to note that this supposed gap increases with the relative economic freedom of a developed country, which implies that it is actually an active choice to avoid these fields as the freedom to choose to do so emerges.

Probably the most essential question this posits is this: Why do people like the things they do?

Why would women prefer organic, humanizing professions over working with tools and numbers, if it comes down mostly to what they themselves prefer? And then we can speak on the measures of 'glass ceilings', as a function of whatever is left unexplained by the actual variations between men and women and their collective skills and interests.



I discovered this site a few months ago, with some amusement. But principally it comes up because there are social causes that are greatly involved in the larger political events of our day, with some seriousness or weight involved.
Darfur for example.

I ran through an interesting breakdown of our foreign policy driving factors. Generally our activity, our generally global view of American interests, comes from several internal sources.
1) Military industrial complex -- Supply creating it's own demand. We have the stuff, we buy the stuff, let's go use it somewhere.
2) People representing foreign interests (lobbyists usually, some intellectuals)
3) Ethnic groups with an axe to grind (Cubans, Jews, Armenians, to a lesser extent Arabs) Obviously these people tend to get us involved because they still directly integrate with the problems of their home country rather than the problems of America itself. (I myself don't always disagree that those other places have roughly correlated problems, but it does tie down our options).
(now the interesting two groups).
4) War Enthusiasts. The basic explanation of this group is as follows. Most competitive and influential people (men stereotypically) will find a cause to exercise their influence. The usual course for most is to become boosters for their alma maters and try to 'recruit' star athletes to boost the prestige and bragging rights in their circle of influence. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the relative importance of college athletics at the really influential schools (Ivy League for example) is considerably poorer, and as a result, the alumnus of these schools become boosters in the game of nations instead of college athletics. For all the complaining people do about college sports or sports in general, they do serve to draw away energies that would otherwise be invested in things like: violent actions, international competitions.. in other words, wars.
5) stuffwhitepeoplelike set. The general premise here being: something terrible is going on halfway around the world that I have no influence on, no understanding of, and no idea what to do about, but I DEMAND WE DO SOMETHING so I can feel better about myself and my country. The current crop of interests here are Myanmar, Tibet, and Darfur. Basically the reasoning is that since America has no invested national interest in these places, we would be demonstrating our good will to go in and fix the problems of these places. But the actuality is that since we generally have no idea what caused the problems in the first place or rather we attach rather different levels of cultural or social importance to different things than the conflicting sides do, we presume that we could dictate a solution without really presenting one, but in doing so we'd be resolving the crisis of the day.. until it eventually reverses itself and the cycle continues (ala Nigeria and the inevitable cycles of tribal conflicts between its northern tribes and southern)

So in a weird way, the internal cultural need to associate with some cause that presents itself as a cause in and of itself creates a demand for foreign interventionism. It might be better if we simply made Harvard's football team better and the rest of us (that is concerned white people) started complaining more about health care, soccer, or Harvard. At least until we get some people who have some capacity for inter-cultural thought on the scene who can communicate what the problems are and perhaps tell us how to resolve them rather than simply the desire to do something about the problem in the hopes that it will go away once we imposed the good old American way.

(and yes, if the crisis involves feeding people, providing medicines, we can and should help, that's easy to do and feel good about.. the real problem is resolving the source of famine and inadequate medical care, which is less easily bitten off)

14 May 2008

concerning concern

"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own." --- Adam Smith

This was posted on a forum relating to the process of charitable giving following disasters. Americans have traditionally given millions of dollars of foreign aid of their own money, not through government agencies. This does lead to some confusion in media, but the amounts have considerable variation based on the source of the disaster and the coverage it warrants.


Something not delved into in the referenced studies (but astutely pointed out in the forum) is the relative decrease in disposable income Americans have had from wealth depreciations since Katrina/Banda Aceh. But given the relatively paltry sum donated to Pakistan following the 05 earthquake there (and I do remember seeing the ridiculous tolls of damage/death, though not with great fanfare), this decrease probably doesn't amount to much as far as how it will be handled. Probably linked in is the 'q factor' as to how coverage of a disaster is handled. New Orleans and the various resorts destroyed by the tsunami are much more appealing than places in Central Asia or inland China. Media will follow stories that people want to hear about.. and people don't want to hear about devastation in countries ruled by: Muslims, Communists, or Juntas.

Or at least, they don't really care all that much, like Smith says.

12 May 2008

just like old times


What amuses me most about this story is not the suspensions. It's the comments by readers who imply that a person who doesn't say a pledge is unpatriotic, and that they should be suspended for this, even expelled from the country. It is true that someone can and should respect the sacrifices of veterans.. though I'd argue that there are many others who have done much to preserve freedoms without picking up a rifle or sailing around the globe. I don't believe this means that we should require any citizen to pledge their allegiance. I think it is actually a denigration of freedom to make such impositions.

In any case, I never said the damn thing either. I don't recall us having some sort of punishment for not doing so, and quite frankly I fail to see how it warrants a suspension from school. A pledge made under duress is worthless. A real pledge is made to examine and learn about the nature of our freedoms and then to fight politically, militarily, or culturally, to maintain them. Much as with people's religion, 'conversion' under the sword is worthless. Here compelling people to stand up, disregarding their freedom to protest peacefully should they choose to do so, is a compulsion of considerable weight. In a school with impressionable minds, we're telling children that their rights come after the government's. Sorry, I cannot agree. The zinger of the story, as usual buried at the bottom, was the fact that court law holds that students who decline to participate in the pledge cannot be punished for that.

I also do not see any explanation of why these students did not pledge. I have known some people with religious reasons (god before country), and people with anti-religious reasons (under god). And more simply, people who are annoyed with the logic that they should do what their country asks of them rather than as they please and can avail themselves of. Aside from this last rationale, I disregarded the validity of the pledge because the premise was changed (during the height of McCarthyism) to 'under God'. Not only was this somewhat annoying as an atheist, but it really seems rather presumptuous. I find it very tiring to have people of all walks of life telling me what 'god' wants or favors. I find it decidedly unlikely that God favors any nation, regardless of the faith they hold in high esteem.

Irrespective of this, I found that it was generally some social compulsion from other students that suffices to shame people into standing for a pledge. As a social misfit, I was plenty happy to ignore this shameful practice, even reveling in my newfound status as an outcast. More to the point, other students or faculty do not typically inquire to the individual students' reasons for protesting or at worst, declining to participate. This I think is probably the most damning problem with requirements to do so. I find it rare that a student doesn't do so because they are being 'unpatriotic'.

so maybe they won't debate

McCain questions

Obama questions

For McCain the big one I'd actually want an answer to is the premise and purpose of judges and judicial review. McCain-Feingold smacks of unconstitutionality, and even McCain is having to evade his own funding restrictions during his campaign now. Sort of ironic. Foreign policy I think is pretty obvious what he'll do (things I won't generally agree with in principle, but possibly in execution.. McCain was a strong advocate of counter-insurgency warfare, which was really the only hope of the idiotic Iraq campaign).

As for his global warming campaign, I think it's known where I stand. Spending trillions of dollars to accomplish not very much doesn't give our grandchildren a better world. I have no argument with being anti-pollution, energy independence, and so forth. I'm not sold that we have the capacity to control nature and climate though, or even that we should try to.

The rest: politicians love to talk out of one voice and use another. Punishing "greed"?, sounds like political pandering. Common people don't understand the utility of "greed". To be fair there are some needs to examine the practices of trading firms or banks, but some of those same practices that supposedly were made by these evil firms were mandated by government in the first place (sub-prime loans for example).

As for Obama: The most interesting one is the anti-Affirmative action laws in CA, WA, and MI, which Obama campaigned against. The premise of these laws is to end both discrimination, which is generally both bad and unproductive, and reverse discrimination, which is generally both bad and unproductive. There are valid concerns in as far as social contexts. But those same social contexts that make success difficult still exist regardless of whether we use preferential treatment or not. Perhaps it would be best to focus on removing the social problems that have so poisoned the possibility of successes in some minorities (even Obama's rhetoric has acknowledged this point).

Again, it's unclear what his judicial relationship is. "Empathy" is a rather vague premise, and as Will points out, goes in directions that we clearly do not anticipate. At least legal precedents and constitutionally strict interpretations are predictable on most counts, whereas human emotions are hardly a model of consistency.

And of course, his rhetoric is that of a Marxist (not that McCain is often different in his pandering). Anti-trade, anti-profit, anti-corporate. Thanks, but no thanks. Give up your profits, tax your profits, or don't go into business and thus make profits.. so.. how exactly do people get jobs in Obama's world?

06 May 2008

train wrecks

So I have decided that I need to reclassify a complaint of mine, and firmly held at that.
I have long railed against the coverage of train wrecks, airplane crashes and so forth. And likewise I have long complained of the coverage of the likes of Spears, Lohan, Hilton, et al.

I realize now they're actually train wrecks, only much slower, complete with various emergencies, and infinitely more boring to behold. At least with a wreck there is wreckage, tragedies of lost lives and shattered items. These wrecks of human beings seem to presume upon us the viewer that there was something to be lost or squandered. There is little enough of that, not even the promising innocence of youth can be leveled at these common news cretins. I'm not totally sure what all the ado has been about, but at least I know what to call it.

In other news: 20000+ people died in a cyclone in Myanmar (Burma to those few who can remember maps of elder days). I should think this a measure far more important, even though it happened around a week ago.A country already in some bitter turmoil over military control of it's government now has the twin specter of violent natural phenomenon to go with it this prior grievance. One can presume much more turmoil in the weeks ahead and of much greater importance, even as that land lays across the globe. As train wrecks go, I can think of few that I would rather know of, and few that I have heard less of in favor of these other: CNN's listing of headlines does not even list news of this tragedy until 9th (after the outcome of a celebrity stalker trial).

I'm beginning to think that news organizations should simply distinguish between actual news and the pale ale that substitutes for it in the form of celebrity culture worship.Such discrimination would allow the more learned of our nation to learn meaningful and important events of the day undisturbed by the news of a polygamist cult and the various comings and goings of celebrity train wrecks (and vice versa for those less intended folk who seem to make up in numbers what they lack in taste). I should think there is plenty of advertising money available from the coverage of meaningless events that money could be presented for real news journalism again. Perhaps I dream too mightily.

In turn for this favor, I should request the idea (not mine, but still sensible precaution) that at time of voting an offer be extended to each voter. They may have their vote or a collection of 10 lottery tickets. The peoples who have faithfully attended their time to the gossip and squalor of our time will undoubtedly choose poorly in exercise of their rights and we would not be long inclined to suffer them.

05 May 2008

econ for politicians, err, dummies


I've been following for some weeks the political posturing given to presidential election cycles with considerable dismay. The latest in a set of mediocre, if not outright terrible, ideas deals with our ever growing energy crisis and its according dependence on foreign oil.
So the three remaining candidates have in the attempts to pander to the ever ignorant voter composed slightly distinct ideas on how to best handle the inflating price of gasoline/oil.

McCain proposed first a suspension of the federal gas tax, which amounts to roughly 18 cents (I believe that's per gallon). There isn't a great deal of merit to this idea. It does little to alleviate consumers. It does nothing to break or encourage breaking dependency on oil. And it removes a source of revenue to state and local governments (who actually have to balance budgets) for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure.

Naturally however, none of these assessments were brought up by Hillary when she borrowed the idea. Her claim was that the cost should be borne by 'the greedy oil companies and their windfall profits' and not 'hard-working Americans'. I'm rather bored with the notion that rich or wealthy people are idle and do little to support the fortunes they amass (this along with the premise that we somehow have a permanent upper class in American society makes no sense). Be that as it may, passing the tax from consumers to capitalists simply means that the capitalists will find some manner or method to pass it along to consumers. Despite the massive amount of profits by Exxon et al, oil and energy is still a volatile industry with minimal profit margins, and some of these carefully monitored by American regulators. There are then two means for these companies to pass this along: prices will remain the same even with a suspension, accomplishing nothing, or worse, shareholders will receive lessened dividends. This doesn't sound terrible until it is understood that many millions of Americans own, through pensions, 401ks and the like, energy stocks of some form and in some great quantities. Tack that together with the inflationary period we're in and this sounds rather dire. Yet it is proposed eagerly and at every campaign stop as though it is entirely sensible. It sounds rather suicidal.

So then there's Obama, who calls out this plan as folly.. but then proposes instead a pure tax on the oil barons themselves. While demonstrating at least a pretext of a command of economics to denounce Clinton as pandering, he then abandons this instantly to support his own idea. A tax on corporations will not bear anything of consequence on corporations (save that they will continue their flight from American shores and thus the employment of Americans). Taxes are a cost, generally fixed and predictable and are thus accounted for by either reducing other costs (which cannot be easily done quickly --without firing people) or passing these costs along.

So while all these ideas sound terrible. What would be better? Economic incentives for other large corporations, even energy corporations in a sense, for adopting energy conservative measures or using advanced construction methods (which tend to be expensive, but would retain greater value in an eco-friendly society, unlike the rapid explosion of investing in condos that crashed the real estate market). Similar incentives should be made available to individuals. We have a silly subsidy on corn-ethanol production. That doesn't seem to have been wise as it has diverted resources from food-- something people tend to need even more than energy. Get rid of it. Let that market clear, instead continuing to fund research/developments into wind or solar power.

We should seek to reward behavior that is beneficial rather than punish behavior which is either neutral (profits are evil?) at best or at worst, not quite helpful in cracking our troubles to dust, but not harmful in breaking us either. Much of the rest of the world has borne higher energy costs than Americans have grown accustomed to. There are differences in American urban development or European lands, but there's no reason we can't grow accustomed to using energy sensibly.

i like cheap meat

"I like cheap meat." Most Americans do: in 1970, we spent an average of 4.2 percent of our incomes to buy 194 pounds of meat. In 2005, we spent 2.1 percent to buy 221 pounds.

-- So one wonders, what exactly is the percentage spent on whatever the hell the bell of tacos and the arch de cow surrender put in the approximation of food they serve?