09 August 2011

Incoherent jumble of thoughts

"Our zeal does wonders when it is seconding our leaning towards hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion. Against the grain, toward goodness, benignity, moderation, unless as by a miracle some rare nature bears it, it will neither walk nor fly". - Montaigne in reference to the religious-political civil wars of his contemporary France and the religious fervor that accompanied them. Bias and prejudice are well served by religion as they will always be confirmed, regardless of passages leading us away, such passions will always stir the mind back to its roots and leave it rendered incapable of accomplishing impartial judgments about the purported wickedness in its midst.

"observed that those who made predictions from such phenomenon usually kept them vague, so that later they could claim success whatever happened." - On Montaigne's skepticism toward reading signs and portents out of mysterious events.

"As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. It was all accepted with hardly a murmur....pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain - and that besides it was 'putting a very high price on one's conjectures' to have someone roasted alive on their account" - Montaigne's opposition to torture in his day. The methods are somewhat crueler than those we have devised and implemented, but the point is no less apt today. Terrorists are conceived and described as a special class of being, so zealous that no lesser means than inflicting violence and harm upon them will suffice to divine information, and nothing more than conjecture is sufficient to provide the need to divine such information. We may as well call them witches or warlocks as they did at Salem or in 16th century France. The device of unreason involved is the same, and the need for our violent rage worked upon others is likewise.

I've been following slightly the British riots (and other global protest movements, such as the ones in Israel now). I'm of a mind that they're basically the same as US/Canadian riots relating to things like the WTO. That is: that there are a few "true believers", people who genuinely want to protest (in the UK over austerity measures or over perceptions of police misconduct). And then a lot of people who are generally mad, but lack a coherent ideological complaint of any kind and just want to see things burn (or to loot) to satisfy this inner rage. Seeing opportunity in a angry but nominally peaceful crowd, such people strike. The mob is fickle and grows. As in Pittsburgh, media interviews with the mob report insensate demands to destroy or steal what is not their own, a general sense that somehow "property damage isn't particularly immoral", both (lamely) attempting to excuse their crimes and to suggest the motivations behind them (namely that they are of the non-propertied class and resentful). Naturally such short term reasoning lacks any fine grained perspectives. Property is fungible and can be acquired (legally). At which point those who have it are rightly concerned with its protection against destruction or mayhem. Likewise, it misinterprets motivations and defies basic economics for such people to go ahead and destroy or steal property, of businesses in particular, in an area and then expect there to be opportunities and jobs available in that same area in future. Raising the cost of doing business by increasing insurance and security demands means that sensible vendors will relocate elsewhere instead of rebuild. People who thus have nothing will get nothing for their efforts. Likewise, protesting and agitating against police misconduct or abuses (a police shooting in the UK) is a fine use of free speech and assembly. Lashing out violently against police merely insures more of the same to be returned.

4% of people can name a living scientist. This might explain why scientists are pretty well ignored in our society. Further, those that can, you'll probably get physicists like Hawking and not biology. Sapolsky as an example in neuroscience, or more obvious examples like Dawkins or Watson, or even Venter (and of course it's way too much to expect people to be able to name off some Indian or other non-western scientists). Given that biology has more immediate impact (through fields like genetic research and medicine), this is surprising. The amount of reverence we still have for Einstein and other early 20th century physics seems astounding, and is at least worth something as far as respect for scientific methods and understanding. But it seems to be crowding out ideas that are still being developed today in favor of cosmological wonderment. I guess human beings are always interested in the "big questions", and they approach them as though people who understand them are demi-gods in their own right, but their methods are no less sophisticated to attempt to answer lesser questions which have more empirical experience and testability than some mathematical constructs that are confusing by virtue of using complex equations and large numbers that are surpassing human being's limited perspectives.

As a related but equally silly problem, Lew Rockwell continues his quest to have Milton Friedman seen as some obscure crank as opposed to Murray Rothbard. Seriously, the notion that nobody outside of economics departments has heard of Milton, and that everybody is instead reading Murray, ridiculous. Most people outside of libertarian circles, and maybe a few philosophy departments, have never heard of Mr Rothbard. And libertarian circles are pretty small. So that leaves a large field of people who have probably heard of Mr Friedman (and this is born out in consumption of their books and essays online or in physical formats). I will grant that I side much more with Friedman and Hayek in my libertarian sentiments than with Rothbard (or Rand) and his far more anarcho-capitalistic sentiments. Murray serves some utility in opening up discourse to more extreme ideas and thus making pragmatic libertarianism more palatable an alternative. But the level of hostility between these two factions of proto-libertarian thought is amazing. I'm pretty sure these radical separations exist in other circles, but given that libertarianism is itself a radical separation from the status quo ideologies, we'd do better not to be our own worst enemies as much as we are.

Tea Party sentiments include a strain that pretends that defence spending has a quality of stimulative properties. But somehow no other form of government spending is either a) as somehow magically protected from being wasteful and inefficient or b) as somehow containing stimulative properties. I would of course argue somewhat against military spending being excluded from crowding effects and being at all significantly stimulative. It's possible it creates employment, but this is different than saying it is "stimulative". To me this is simply further evidence that the large bulk of tea party sentiments are little more than re-branded conservatives (polling data on social issues bears this out far more than the split of isolationist versus neo-conservative sentiments in the far right). It still amuses me when people pretend libertarianism in this context however (from either themselves or as being described from the outside).

The sort of illogic required to buy such bullshit is the same illogic that contended that we shouldn't raise the debt ceiling. I have no argument or quarrel that increases in debt ceiling couldn't have been tied to long-term spending reductions or deficit reduction more generally (except that's not what we got). What concerned me is that it clearly misinterpreted what an increase in the debt ceiling represented. It wasn't a license to spend more money going forward, it was an acknowledgment that we had ALREADY spent the money in our (recent) past. This was sort of like a credit card limit being exceeded. If the card company didn't increase the limit, additional fees and costs would emerge for exceeding it (in the form of higher borrowing costs as well as inability to continue to properly manage finances currently required). Now to be sure, one should as a consequence of exceeding one's financial limitations, question the behaviors that lead them to do this and perhaps look to curtail any wasteful or inefficient practises (multiple lines of regulation, useless departments or agencies, poorly designed programmes, etc). But one should also want to avoid being socked with fees and penalties for doing so if they can in order to make the painful culling process more orderly. Since we are our own creditors in this, it's not that hard to admit we have a problem and look seriously at ways to resolve it, and then go ahead and up the ante along the way. We got half-credit for admitting there's a long-term problem. We didn't do anything about it.
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