"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for July, 2011

No blogging for a while

In a few minutes I will be leaving my house and heading out for the wild blue yonder.  The wild blue yonder in this case is central Florida, where I’m going for a conference over the weekend.  That means I’ll be away from my computer, and hence I will not blog.  Fear not, however, for I shall return by Monday, or perhaps Tuesday, in any case certainly by one of those days of the week.  In the meantime, enjoy a famous Chesterton quote about traveling.

I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labour and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger—the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travellers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious ideas of international instruction. It was said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray, but rather to excommunicate. Hence in international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences. To hint at some such better way is the only excuse of this book.

– G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America

The Cut-the-Crap-and-Balance Bill

I dislike politics in general.  I dislike both major political parties.  I even dislike most of the minor political parties, which requires more cynicism than you garden variety political cynic can provide.  However, even for one like me who reacts to politics at all times with a constant level of simmering dislike, there are times that call for more dislike than normal.  This is such a time.

Let me back up for a minute a recount my political history.  I was raised in a left-wing household.  I was taught to believe that all things which the Republicans did were evil.  In 2000 I even campaigned for Ralph Nader.  (Yes, yes.)  During my college and graduate school years I grew up somewhat.  I realized that politics were more nuanced and complicated than the simplistic picture I was raised with would suggest.  I acknowledged that the Republicans were right about some things, including the basic fact that most government programs are unresponsive to change and inefficient.  At the same time, I still believed that the Democrats were right about other things, most notably foreign policy and the environment.  Most of all, I became aware that corruption was rampant throughout the political system, always had been, and always would be.  Politics naturally attracted inferior human beings.  Nonetheless it was a necessary evil, as a governed country was preferable to anarchy and a democratic republic was preferable to a dictatorship or oligarchy.  The intelligent approach is to do the best you can with the corrupt and selfish politicians that you have.

Within this framework, however, there’s still a possibility for politicians of varying quality.  In American history we have often had crises, and when they occurred we have often been lucky enough to have politicians who rose to the occasion, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.  On the other hand, we’ve had our share of lousy politicians and there have been occasions when their lousiness got so bad that it seriously threatened the welfare of our country.  We are currently dealing with such an occasion.  Moreover, the fault lies entirely with one party: the Republicans.

For the past 235 years, the United States government has always made good on its debts.  Now the Republicans are threatening to prevent the government from doing exactly that, starting on August 2.  I wrote a post a couple weeks ago explaining why, in my view, the Republicans are doing that.  It’s part of a political strategy to get the biggest spending cuts they can get, and viewed in that light it makes sense.  However, they have now taken the tactic too far.  Genuine fear about a U.S. government default is “roiling the markets”, as numerous newspaper articles have put it.  That’s bad.  The more the Republicans delay, the worse it will get.

Our reputation for paying our bills as a nation is one of our most valuable resources.  We have earned that reputation over more than two centuries.  To sacrifice it, or even pretend that you’re going to sacrifice it, would be utter idiocy.  What the Republicans are currently doing is wrong.  Therefore I use the mighty influence that I have accrued at this blog to urge the Republicans to stop it.  President Obama and the Democrats have already offered what should be, from their perspective, a very good deal.  They should take that deal right now, rather than letting the markets get roiled for another day.

Norway and the New York Times

Concerning the tragedy in Norway, I am praying for the souls of the dead, for the injured, and for the families and friends of both.  I hope that you are too.

Other than that, I thought I would have nothing to say, as I’m sure that others are saying the necessary things elsewhere.  Then I saw this curious headline in the New York Times: As Horrors Emerge, Norway Charges Christian Extremist.  This caused me to wonder what the basis was labeling Anders Breivik a “Christian Extremist”.  I look at the guy’s manifesto.  Now I have no intention of reading the whole 1518-page shebang, but scanning the first few pages gives absolutely no reason to suggest  that the label “Christian extremist” was appropriate.  This blog post at the normally more-or-less reliable Reason Magazine suggests that the Times headline was outright wrong.  So like this blogger here, I am puzzled by why they chose those words.

One explanation, of course, would be that old stand-by: political correctness.  Over the past ten years, thousands of headlines and articles mentioning “Islamic Extremists” have flown by.  What better way to prove your tolerant, welcoming bona fides than by using the words “Christian extremist” to describe a terrorist, even when the facts aren’t quite there?

Of course, there is another possible explanation that would have to occur to any reasonable person.  That is that the New York Times doesn’t like Christians all that much and wants to tilt the playing field against us.  That would certainly accord with a lot of things the Times has done over the years.

Chesterton on my previous post

It’s not at all unusual for me to come up with a point that I find quite witty and profound only to recall a bit later that Chesterton made the same point a century ago.  Such is what happened with yesterday’s post concerning how the technology that seems to be just around the corner often turns out to belong to the past.

We, who have lived long enough to understand the real value of life, know perfectly well that nothing of that sort has ever come to stay.  It may do all sorts of other things; but there is one thing that it cannot do; and that is to stay.  We shall show no irritation, please God, on being repeatedly introduced to the Hat of the Future and the Umbrella of the New Age and the Goloshes of the Good Time Coming.  But the only thing we really have learnt from life is that the good time will be going as well as coming, and that, in the book of fashions, the Hat of the Future will be recorded as the Hat of the Past.  It is now the custom to condemn youth as too frivolous.  But youth is always serious; and just now it is too serious about frivolity.

– G. K. Chesterton, Come to Think of It

The past’s future

I just read an article in the New Yorker about Jaron Lanier, whose book You are Not a Gadget is making some mid-sized waves in the world of ideas.  In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but I have read similar things such as The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.  The point of both books is to examine how the internet is reshaping our society and our individual lives.  As you might guess from the titles, neither author is much impressed by it.  They point to a number of problems: shorter attention spans, less memory, the anti-intellectual tendencies of Wikipedia.

But while Carr is mostly intent on ticking off problems, Lanier has a multi-faceted approach.  He’s at pains to not appear anti-technology overall, and he has the credentials to back it up.  He was actually a pioneer in engineering many high-tech gadgets and gizmos.  One of these is virtual reality.

And what, I hear the under-20 set asking, is virtual reality?  Well, there’s the thing.  Back in the recent past, virtual reality was a new fad that was supposed to sweep the world in the near future.  The basic idea is that you put on a special helmet and gloves, so that from the outside you look like this:

Inside the helmet are two screens right in front of your eyes.  The helmet and the gloves both have sensors, and the purpose of it all is to let you inhabit an immersive three-dimensional world, including the possibility of you moving around in it.

When I was about eight or nine, all the kids’ science magazines were full of articles about the soon-to-arrive greatness of virtual reality.  It never arrived in a commercial viable way, and the New Yorker article explains why.  The helmet was too clunky, the sensors and the software didn’t work fast enough, and the lag time made the whole experience unconvincing.  The whole thing is just a reminder of the fact that while we love to make predictions about technology, most of them simply don’t come true.  Which of the current trends won’t play out as they’re expected?  I don’t know, but I’m betting that it’s going to be most of them.

Another Robert Service poem

Well, it’s been three days since I posted anything.  Normally I’d at least have an excuse, but I can’t say that I’ve been busy.  I had oodles of spare time this weekend.  I just couldn’t come up with any great thoughts that were worth posting.  In lieu of those, I offer another Robert Service poem.


The Spell of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it,
  I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy — I fought it;
  I hurled my youth into a grave.

I wanted the gold, and I got it —
  Came out with a fortune last fall, —
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
  And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
  It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
  To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

Some say God was tired when He made it;
  Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
  For no land on earth — and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
  You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
  And then you are worse than the worst.

It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
  It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
  It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
  That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
  In crimson and gold, and grow dim,

Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
  And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
  With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
  The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
  The bighorn asleep on the hill.

The strong life that never knows harness;
  The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness —
  O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
  The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
  The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

The snows that are older than history,
  The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
  I’ve bade ’em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
  And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
  And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
  There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
  And I want to go back — and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
  I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
  I’ll pike to the Yukon again.

I’ll fight — and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
  It’s hell! — but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite —
  So me for the Yukon once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
  It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
  So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
  It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
  It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

– Robert Service


Chesterton on the Debt Ceiling Debate

The real evil of our Party System is commonly stated wrong. It was stated wrong by Lord Rosebery, when he said that it prevented the best men from devoting themselves to politics, and that it encouraged a fanatical conflict. I doubt whether the best men ever would devote themselves to politics. The best men devote themselves to pigs and babies and things like that. And as for the fanatical conflict in party politics, I wish there was more of it. The real danger of the two parties with their two policies is that they unduly limit the outlook of the ordinary citizen. They make him barren instead of creative, because he is never allowed to do anything except prefer one existing policy to another. We have not got real Democracy when the decision depends upon the people. We shall have real Democracy when the problem depends upon the people. The ordinary man will decide not only how he will vote, but what he is going to vote about.

It is this which involves some weakness in many current aspirations towards the extension of the suffrage; I mean that, apart from all questions of abstract justice, it is not the smallness or largeness of the suffrage that is at present the difficulty of Democracy. It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose. To follow the process in practice we may put it thus. The Suffragettes—if one may judge by their frequent ringing of his bell—want to do something to Mr. Asquith. I have no notion what it is. Let us say (for the sake of argument) that they want to paint him green. We will suppose that it is entirely for that simple purpose that they are always seeking to have private interviews with him; it seems as profitable as any other end that I can imagine to such an interview. Now, it is possible that the Government of the day might go in for a positive policy of painting Mr. Asquith green; might give that reform a prominent place in their programme. Then the party in opposition would adopt another policy, not a policy of leaving Mr. Asquith alone (which would be considered dangerously revolutionary), but some alternative course of action, as, for instance, painting him red. Then both sides would fling themselves on the people, they would both cry that the appeal was now to the Caesar of Democracy. A dark and dramatic air of conflict and real crisis would arise on both sides; arrows of satire would fly and swords of eloquence flame. The Greens would say that Socialists and free lovers might well want to paint Mr. Asquith red; they wanted to paint the whole town red. Socialists would indignantly reply that Socialism was the reverse of disorder, and that they only wanted to paint Mr. Asquith red so that he might resemble the red pillar-boxes which typified State control. The Greens would passionately deny the charge so often brought against them by the Reds; they would deny that they wished Mr. Asquith green in order that he might be invisible on the green benches of the Commons, as certain terrified animals take the colour of their environment.

There would be fights in the street perhaps, and abundance of ribbons, flags, and badges, of the two colours. One crowd would sing, “Keep the Red Flag Flying,” and the other, “The Wearing of the Green.” But when the last effort had been made and the last moment come, when two crowds were waiting in the dark outside the public building to hear the declaration of the poll, then both sides alike would say that it was now for democracy to do exactly what it chose. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, must speak and pronounce judgment. Yet this might not be exactly true. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, might really wish Mr. Asquith to be pale blue. The democracy of England in the abstract, if it had been allowed to make up a policy for itself, might have desired him to be black with pink spots. It might even have liked him as he is now. But a huge apparatus of wealth, power, and printed matter has made it practically impossible for them to bring home these other proposals, even if they would really prefer them. No candidates will stand in the spotted interest; for candidates commonly have to produce money either from their own pockets or the party’s; and in such circles spots are not worn. No man in the social position of a Cabinet Minister, perhaps, will commit himself to the pale-blue theory of Mr. Asquith; therefore it cannot be a Government measure, therefore it cannot pass.

Nearly all the great newspapers, both pompous and frivolous, will declare dogmatically day after day, until every one half believes it, that red and green are the only two colours in the paint-box. THE OBSERVER will say: “No one who knows the solid framework of politics or the emphatic first principles of an Imperial people can suppose for a moment that there is any possible compromise to be made in such a matter; we must either fulfil our manifest racial destiny and crown the edifice of ages with the august figure of a Green Premier, or we must abandon our heritage, break our promise to the Empire, fling ourselves into final anarchy, and allow the flaming and demoniac image of a Red Premier to hover over our dissolution and our doom.” The DAILY MAIL would say: “There is no halfway house in this matter; it must be green or red. We wish to see every honest Englishman one colour or the other.” And then some funny man in the popular Press would star the sentence with a pun, and say that the DAILY MAIL liked its readers to be green and its paper to be read. But no one would even dare to whisper that there is such a thing as yellow.

– G. K. Chesterton, in A Miscellany of Men

Find the relationship between this passage and the debt ceiling business is left as an exercise for the reader.

Politician carves up desk

In the current political environment, there are some stories that would be funny if they weren’t so frightening.  The way that Congressional Republicans are toying around with causing the federal government to default on its debts because they’re so terrified of their own party’s fringe element is one such story.  Then there are stories that actually are funny.  This is one of them.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A freshman Tennessee lawmaker who admits carving her initials into her desk in the state House chamber is going to have to pay to fix it.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday that Rep. Julia Hurley‘s initials will be removed at the fellow Republican lawmaker’s expense.

“In the excitement of being a freshman at the end of session, Representative Hurley etched her initials into her desk,” said Harwell, a Nashville Republican.

“As with any state property, we will take action to have the desk restored and I’m sure Representative Hurley will be more than happy to compensate the state to make the repairs.”

My tag cloud

One of the ubiquitous tech tools that’s now attached to the blogging experience is the “tag cloud”.  I assign “tags”, which can be any word or phrase I choose, to each post.  The software that produces my blog automatically lists all the tags I’ve used, ranked by how frequently they show up, and puts a big list at the bottom of the screen.  Today I happened to be glancing at the bottom of my tag cloud and saw these eight tags in order:

Yeah, I’d say that sums up my blog pretty well.

I Really Hate Economics

My first post on the hatred of economics was here.  My feelings towards economics have not mellowed in the two months since I wrote that.  I believe that the word “hate” is badly overused these days.  There are many things that I dislike but do not hate.  I do not hate my Congressman, Eric Cantor.  I do not hate dogs that bark in the middle of the night.  But I hate economics.  I despise it.

Right now our politicians are having a debate on the federal budget.  The United States is spending some trillions more than it is taking in.  Everyone agrees this is true, everyone knows that it’s projected to remain true, everyone agrees there are dire financial consequences if the government does not change course.  The Democrats want to change course with some minor tax hikes on the rich and some cuts in spending.  The Republicans want only cuts in spending.  If they can’t reach an agreement, horrible consequences will erupt on August 2, give or take a few days.  All the political action for the past year or so has been building up to this moment.  This is the big thing.

What most folks aren’t thinking about is the fact that this moment didn’t have to happen.  It was not very long ago–eleven years back, to be precise–that the federal budget looked great.  We had a balanced budget.  That meant no annual deficit at all. The government was taking in more money than it was spending.  Projections from the Congressional Budget Office–that’s the committee in Congress whose job is to project this sort of stuff–assured us that we were looking at smooth financial sailing for years to come.  Two trillion in surpluses was forecast.  It was sunshine and rainbows and roses.  What more could you ask?

Fast forward eleven years and here we are on the verge of financial catastrophe.  What went wrong during those eleven years?  This article tries to break down the disaster.  One way to break it down is by presidential administrations.  The government racked up 7 trillion in new debt under Bush and almost 2 trillion under Obama thus far.

Alternately, we could break it down by where the money went.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost 1.3 trillion and counting.  (And that’s not including the amount we’ll spend taking care of wounded veterans for the next eighty years.)  The Bush Administration’s tax cuts reduced federal revenue by 1.7 trillion dollars.  The Medicare Prescription Drug Bill cost us 272 billion dollars, while the stimulus package in March of 2009 wrapped up another 719 billion.

Various other little things cost various other amounts.  The bottom line, however, is that when you add it all up, it doesn’t bring you anywhere close to a explanation for all the missing money.  So where did the rest of it go?

The answer is that much of the money never existed in the first place.  That is to say, much of what the CBO projected eleven years ago never actually came true.  For one thing, there projections were based on the assumption that the economy would continue doing well.  It didn’t.  We hit a medium-sized recession in 2001 and a major recession in 2008.  Because of these, tax revenues were vastly lower than expected, and much of the projected wealth simply vanished.

Of course we can now say that the CBO should have known better.  They should have planned for recessions.  They should have been aware of the risks.  We all know the saying: “Hindsight is always 20/20.”  But while we quote that constantly, we should be aware that foresight is not always 20/20.  Foresight is highly variable, depending on the people who are foreseeing.

In the Book of Genesis, Joseph advises Pharoah to store up grain during seven fat years so as to be prepared for the seven lean years to follow.  One may question the wisdom of setting national agricultural policy based on dream interpretation–I don’t think anyone would want to do so today.  But one cannot question the wisdom of preparing in case of disaster.  As we see in Genesis, the Jewish people were aware of this almost four thousand years ago.

Yet here we are today and we’ve totally forgotten about that.  Our wise masters in Congress, on Wall Street, and in economics departments around the country can’t be bothered with the wisdom that’s endured for thousands of years.  They think they know better.  They think that their models, statistics, economic projections, and so forth can cope with any possibility, so there’s no need to be prepared.  The preparations are supposedly all included in the modeling and the projections, thus eliminating any need to think about them separately.

Yet, in reality, things fail to work out as the projections say they should.  And that’s another one of the many reasons why I really hate economics.

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