Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why I am not a conservative (or a liberal) III; Eight political propositions

I’ve written a previous post about why I am not a conservative and one on why I am not a liberal. Now I move on to what I am. This may be more difficult. I know (and have explained already) that I do not accept the conservative attachment to the past as an ideology nor the modern conservative’s dogma that leads to fear of Shariah law in America, fear that abolishing antiquated restrictions on gays they would not tolerate on an ethnic group, or their bizarre (in my mind, at least) fear of atheists, as if we are a fifth column sworn to destroy their religion. In the same vein, I cannot accept the liberal leanings toward collectivism and income redistribution, among other notions. Although they are only somewhat developed in America, they have at best, gone far enough.

It is not that I disagree with either group completely either. I tend to have more in common with conservatives on some economic issues and more in common with liberals on some social ones, but even that is a mixed bag. But, I find I sometimes agree with one or the other more to the extent that they are consistent with what we now call libertarianism and once as 19th century or classic liberalism (which, of course, confuses everyone) or it is a constitutional issue or simply a matter of policy of which I approve.

Additionally, it is the prevalent partisanship associated with each group, the lengths and tactics they similarly employ to defeat the other side, which repels me, and which I thought was put well by John Adams in letters to Jefferson:

“The real terrors of both Parties have all ways been, and now are, the fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them.”

. . .

“While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now then 3 or 4 thousand Years ago. What is the Reason? I say Parties and Factions will not suffer, or permit Improvements to be made. As soon as one Man hints at an Improvement his rival opposes it. No sooner has one Party discovered or invented an Amerlioration of the Condition of Man or the order of Society, than the opposite Party, belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it.”

It is not the different ideology that bothers me. Ideology is too often mistaken for partisanship. When I say partisanship I mean the attribution to another of negative personal characteristics, bad motives and either stupidity or mental incapacity based upon the fact that they differ politically. I mean the same thing as Mark Twain when he wrote:

“[W]e know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours....All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”

Of course, I am also only willing to take this so far. For example, knowing what I do of Hitler, I freely attribute to him a slew of negative qualities, bad motives, mental derangement and lack of veracity, without beating myself up about it. But some people have trouble telling Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Boehner, McConnell, Bush, Cheney and McCain from Hitler. Anyway, this is a side point. But, it leads me to the first proposition of my political theory:

Proposition 1 – Most statements about politics are general statements and should be subject to qualification, exception and nuance.

This might not seem very revolutionary, but, a vast number of political writings are quite dogmatic and act as if this is not so. It is quite common not to acknowledge any option but to follow them or whoever they most admire, or be wrong and fail. Few write, “I think” or “in my opinion” very much. You might think of problems or exceptions with whatever statement you are reading, but somehow they don’t occur to the expert or pundit. This is even so with my favorite political writers. It’s probably considered bad writing or unpersuasive to sound uncertain based on the belief that most people are so credulous they’ll believe what you say if you sound authoritative enough. In some instances, that is, of course, true. The following is from one of the funniest books ever written, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers:

“And so [Abraham] took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”

And Abraham said, “But thou said—“

“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?”

And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er—not really. . . no.”

“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”

And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”

And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”

“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”

And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

Which brings me to my second proposition:

Proposition 2: Authority is necessary to a peaceful civilization, but, your obedience should end at the point it would require you to violate a deeply held belief or personal commitment, regardless of the ramifications.

I could have made the same point by quoting Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or Justice Robert Jackson’s "The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact," or probably even a Dilbert comic strip. The important thing to remember is that in a free society we make the rules, for better or worse, but we need to have some order. I have a list of things I simply will not do, regardless of authority, only very few of which have been tested. I know I have values, but I hope I have the courage if the time ever comes (let’s hope it doesn't) to stand by the most serious of them. In the meantime, reading “libertarian” literature does help give me the feeling that I am not alone out there. And, even for those with libertarian bents, that is pleasant.

But, despite what I have written above, I do not consider myself that much of a “libertarian” either, as I find when I watch the Libertarian Party conventions, I shake my head a lot and sometimes cringe that they share some values with me. Too many of them almost seem to crave some anarchist version of the name, anarchy being what you get when you take libertarianism to its extreme and forget the common sense approach which recognizes that order is necessary for freedom, if it is not to simply dissolve into power.

At some point in the ‘80s, when I began paying attention to politics at all, I considered myself a liberal, but even then refused to join a political party. Eventually, I started describing myself as an “independent” and then added “moderate,” and then dropped liberal later in the 80s (I don’t really remember when) and was just an “independent moderate.” In the last few years I somewhat uncomfortably started adding “who leans libertarian” to the mix. The “uncomfortable” part is internal as I have also always had both a disinterest and dislike of being a member of any group. That is a little out of the mainstream, but it is more typical of those drawn to libertarian values than others.

When I say I am "independent," I mean that though I may agree with one party or another on various issues, I do not like to associate myself to any party or group of people whose opinion will naturally be taken to be mine based on my association with them, particularly by the members themselves or their opposition. I’d rather think for myself and take the bad with the good. Don't get me wrong - freedom of association is a critical value and an important constitutional law. I just don't have to act on it if I don't want to.

It may sound harmless to merely register for a party or to consider your self a member of one. After all, in both parties there are people who generally agree with most other members of it but have different beliefs as to even critical matters. So, Rudy Giuliani can be pro-choice and still a conservative (although it made him unacceptable to some conservatives), and Joe Lieberman can be pro-Iraqi war and still be a liberal (although, he had to run as an independent, as at least the politically active liberals in his own state turned against him). Many of politicians with mixed views are, in fact, politically assassinated by their own side. The right even has a term for it - RINOs (Republican In Name Only).

I don’t think belonging to a party is harmless, although it can bring some benefits. My dislike of faction is much the same beliefs as were held by many at the time of our founding. But, that went out of style while Washington was still president. Most people like to belong to groups, political and otherwise, and they want other people to like and respect them without having to prove themselves. This is much easier for people if they go along with what people they associate with believe. It is as true in politics as it is in religion.

Certainly this happened to me when a boy as I was surrounded by people who were liberals and, if I knew any conservatives, none of them influenced me. To the contrary, I was always independent when it came to religion. But, I believe the difference was that I thought about religion – you were tagged with one and expected to accept it. I rejected it and have not significantly changed my feelings since second grade, although I am always reading and thinking about it (ironically, some people insist I am religious but don't know it. I'm not, but that is a different post). But, when a kid, I never really thought about politics, as like many young people, it bored me terribly, and I just assumed that what everyone I knew seemed to believe was true. My “liberalism” was more assimilated through comments here and there that I remembered, but didn’t care enough to think deeply about. Just as an example, to my parents, JFK was among the greatest of men, and his death a great tragedy for the nation (I make no comment on him here). When Nixon was elected for the second time in 1972 I was told by an older sibling who I’m sure believed it, that Nixon had made it a law that everyone had to vote for him. That puzzled me, was of course completely wrong, but clearly put him in the “bad guy” category for me (of course, there was Watergate too). Also, and this is harder to explain, I somehow came to at least in a vague sense associate the police and the military and “law and order” Republicans with the Nazis, who were the biggest bad guys in the mind of a kid raised not so long after World War II in a Jewish family. Not that Communists weren’t undoubtedly bad guys too, but you had the feeling that they just wanted to rule you without killing you if they could, whereas the Nazis wanted to bake you and make you into a lampshade. It is probably hard for some to understand these associations, but those raised in that time and place and under those circumstances might understand better.

Proposition 3: Being independent comes from a recognition that our political associations, particularly if formed when young, come from factors other than critical analysis or reason; it is deeply affected by how we were raised.

Many people, perhaps most, never get past this and make an examination of their beliefs. Some do and determine they are correct anyway.  If you do, and really make an effort, it is complicated and takes a long time (I do not concern myself with political or religious conversions upon getting a new paramour or staring college).  However, there is little doubt that as we age, people become more “conservative” about the values they have always felt strongly about, and shake their head at younger generations. At some point, what each older generation considers time-worn and immutable values may look quite different from what the last generation thought. For this reason, I do enjoy teasing modern conservatives that they are quite liberal, as their grandparents would never have accepted the unchaperoned young dating, dressing casually for dinner and other events, bikinis, pre-marital sex, divorce, multiple marriages, interracial marriage and dating and adoption without consideration of the baby's parents' religion, as examples, and their parents only grudgingly.

Proposition 4: Being independent requires an understanding that values are not immutable and often change over time for a society and for individuals as well; it is anathema to those who believe that ethics or morality are given to us by a deity, or must be a product of some authoritarian or historical factors.

My discovery that the conservatives were not the “bad guys” my family and others I knew believed them to be was to some degree an act of will and intentional discovery on my part. To some degree it was a reaction to Ronald Reagan, who I saw as a typically insincere and dangerous Republican or conservative when he was elected - to my anguish. It was later a little frustrating for me when I agreed with him on some things - his “hawkish” nature, his firing the air traffic controllers, as examples. Moreover, I could not understand why so many more people seemed to agree with him than me – could most of the country be fooled by him? In any event, no one other than those authors I read helped me get to independence, and if those authors had actually known me and had a shot at persuading me, they would have tried to pull me completely over to their view. My investigation was not something that at the time I ever remember discussing with anyone, but that was typical of me too. It was not at that time a very time consuming or frantic, but was mostly comprised of reading a book here or there. At the end of Reagan's terms, I was essentially an independent, and realized I possibly always had been to some extent without knowing it, even if I self-identified as a liberal. For example, in 1980 I really wanted to vote for the 3rd party, John Anderson, but voted for Carter out of fear of Reagan. Even in the early 90s I still had at least an “emotional” connection with the left and voted for Dukakis, who I was singularly unimpressed with, because I was still mad at G. H. W. Bush, because he was Reagan's vice president, despite the fact that I had always liked him. But, frankly, the more I learned about politics, the more both parties started seeming alike to me. And, I did not like what I saw. Still, I did not know enough, and it would be a very slow process.

Being an independent is not as easy as it may sound. Instead of partisans on both sides appreciating your “independence,” many of them can’t tolerate it, because in a sense, your existence is making a mockery of their predilection that you are either with them or against them. So, they will frequently claim that you don’t matter (though to some degree independents elect the president), that you don’t really exist (and are secretly in conspiracy with the other side) or label you as a fence sitter (which I happily acknowledge), or as having no values. You might loosely analogize it to rooting for two rival baseball teams or dating two women at a time who know about each other. It is never appreciated by others the way you would like.

Proposition 5: Moderation is a temperament that is necessary to learn or playing nicely with others, on a personal, political or societal level; however even moderation needs to be moderated, for in too strong a dose, it can be astronomically dangerous in the face of a lethal enemy (think Nazis, Bolsheviks and al Qaeda). Moderation also takes into consideration that conflicting principles or values can sometimes both be true.

When I say “moderate,” I do not mean that I see every issue in an equally balanced way or that every issue has two or more equally valuable views. It is a temperament. I mean that I am more than willing to try to understand the perspective of those I disagree with without disparaging them, questioning their character or even thinking them ugly. I believe, in fact, that all of the presidents in my lifetime, for all of their faults and all of their mistakes, meant the best for America, viewed from their own perspective. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t as biased as the rest of us, and willing to prevaricate and take steps to fulfill their own predilections.

It is this lack of moderation, I believe, which is both the cause and the effect of the biggest obstacles to the critical reasoning or analysis that would allow more rational thought to avoid many of the solvable problems that face us. It is the biggest obstacle to peace between members of a society and societies. The opposite of a moderate is a militant and what was known before the Civil War as a Fire-eater. Moderation is necessary for the attitude we call “tolerance,” accepting others we consider different from us or with whom we significantly disagree. It is also a gateway temperament to learning, particularly things that might change or modify our opinion. As an old Chinese proverb held it - The value of a cup is in its emptiness (although my boyhood hero, Bruce Lee, disagreed).

But, leaving this aside a moment, I do have to admit to my own bias. I do also believe that there is so often a “middle way,” or a “golden mean,” that at least listening to other viewpoints is helpful, that compromise can often lend itself to at least surviving to fight another day, that common ground is not only possible but often desirable, and other sentiments. I do not have to say much about this. Most of us were taught this when little, stories about the jug with two handles and the saying that there is your story, my story and the truth, and so on. But, how can I believe that and not also believe that sometimes moderation may be wrong - that some basic principles must be immutable if, to borrow from Faulkner, at the last ding dong of doom man is to prevail?

You should not take any of the above to mean that I feel I have special powers of moderation or tolerance, even if I have a predilection in that regard. I believe Americans, in general, are amazingly tolerant and moderate people, even ones who sometimes seem otherwise. That is a conclusion I come to not by reason but a reading of history. I do believe our form of government, particularly the first amendment and a system of peaceful and frequent transfer of power, has played a significant role in this. Those who are intolerant or immoderate or uncivil are often noisier than others and get more attention. Even among those Americans, I still believe there is more tolerance and moderation than in most other countries. But, while I praise moderation, there should be a warning label on it.

Proposition 6: Just like honesty is the best policy, and yet not the only policy, the goal of individual freedom or liberty is but a primarily important political policy or value, and not the only one. 

When I say I "lean libertarian," I mean that I hold the value of individual freedom of single importance among our rights and believe that to the degree it is so accepted and acted upon by a society as a group, the better the chances are for that society to be successful in the long run, if not destroyed by a more powerful group, nature or from too much moderation.

Biographically, even as a young child I was often obstinately individualistic, and it remains to some degree the most distinguishing characteristic of mine for others, as it is still frequently mentioned to me (not always in a good way - nooooo, not by a long shot). Despite that, I maintain I am conventional in all but perhaps 1% of cultural norms, and that this little bit is enough to make a big difference to people. This lack of convention was to some degree inconsistent with my “liberal” upbringing, but would have probably been just as inconsistent to a “conservative” upbringing, for both ideologies emphasize conventionality to different models.

More, there is no doubt for me that sometimes the way to get to the lady is to go through the tiger’s door. If that seems mysterious for you, I merely mean that often our goals our arrived by doing the opposite of what seems the most direct path. Here’s how Alan Watts, an American writer on eastern philosophy put it long ago in an old book I picked up recently on being immediately caught up with the message in the title - The Wisdom of Insecurity:

"I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the “backwards law.” When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float. When you hold your breath you lose it—which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.” (Alan Watts).

His last quote you can find in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He does not mean, of course, that it is good to be insecure. He means by trying so hard to find security, or to seek perfection, we often find the opposite and that by allowing yourself to accept pain or suffering or insecurity, you actually free yourself from the fight. This eastern philosophy (but, brought to us through Schopenhauer too) is difficult to understand and sometimes, from a western viewpoint, seems preposterous. As I was laughing my way through some of it, I also realized that it was how I dealt with many issues throughout my life.

Of the authors I read back when I was trying to free my self from emotional ties to ideology that was contrary to my individualistic notions, Friedrich Hayek, was among the most challenging for me. I learned of him from a Ronald Reagan answer to a question and thought it would help me understand conservatives better if I read him. I dismissed him on my first reading as a typical conservative - still “the enemy,” not really understanding at all what a libertarian was (and it was not a word he used to describe himself), nor how sympathetic my own “personal” philosophy of life was to his studied one. But, something inside me recognized a connection which I couldn’t shake it and by the time I started this blog in 2006, I had read his most successful book, The Road to Serfdom at least twice more over the next 15-20 years. I have read it twice more in the last 5 years, closer and closer. Since then I have also perused his more detailed and specific The Constitution of Liberty once and am now on my second and closer reading, among some other shorter writings. If I could get every politician to read a few books, either of these two would be among them (though I hear Law, Legislation and Liberty is excellent too – I haven’t read it). He has become one among two writers I feel most politically in tune with (the other, Karl Popper, is more famous as an epistemologist and a philosopher of the modern scientific method), and I read and quote Hayek more and more frequently (you may have noticed). But, the first time I read him, I was not ready in my political education to fully comprehend it. Although I am also a skeptic by nature and read every non-fiction book with an eye to disagreement, particularly if I feel a natural bond with them or their idea, I think it was lack of education rather than skeptism that led me to reject him early on.

Like Watts, but not as directly, you learn by reading Hayek how freedom is often arrived at by taking a road that which would seem to head you elsewhere. As just a smattering – The only way to prevent coercion is by the threat of coercion; ignorance is the beginning of wisdom (from Socrates – an early lesson for me from my mother); the more men know collectively the smaller the amount any one man can know; the advance and preservation of civilization based on maximizing the opportunity for accidents; a free society requires winners and losers, to be truly free you have to be prepared for bad things to happen; the road to financial success for a nation or even the world relies to some degree on some having more than others. Yada, yada, yada.

I don’t mean this to be a wiki article on Hayek, which this could easily dissolve into as I am still reading him intensely, but if someone wanted to know my basic political sentiments they could read any of his major works along with Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. If I was designing a “how to think like David" course (which, strangely, no one has ever asked me to do) I would add, Lao Tze’s Tao te Ching (more foundational for me than political), de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Thoreau’s speech nowadays called Civil Disobedience (although I have almost always been too lazy to protest anything myself) and his almost ignored Life without Principle. Again, it is not that I agree with anyone perfectly and no prolific writer is even perfectly consistent with themselves – who among us is? It’s just that I believe they have put their fingers on the most important values, at least, for me, and said it better and at greater length than I ever will. There are many other authors, of course, many of whom I haven’t or won’t get to read, but I’m in the game trying.

By the way, if you think I am just substituting one dogma – call it libertarianism to make it easy - for another, you might not think so if you read these works, because the one thing these writers were not was dogmatic (and they are all dead, by the way). In fact, if you are dogmatic and think you are in concert with them, you must have misunderstood.

I am so easily distracted by books. Back to subject under discussion --

As I said above, I do not call myself a full libertarian and one of the reasons is that like many political ideologies (more dogmatic ideologues don’t like to even admit that they have an ideology), there is little agreement on what it is. An anarchist or geolibertarian (look it up), which are forms of libertarianism, neither of which suits me, is very different from an economic or social libertarian, both of which suit me to a much greater, if imperfect, extent. I’m not going into all the differences there. Wikipedia does. What I will say is summed up in my penultimate proposition:

Proposition 7: Of all the values which contribute to the happiness of man individually and collectively, the value of individual liberty, as a direction and a goal, is the most efficient, the most effective, and the most desirable way to get there.

All of the above is rather vague, isn’t it? It might be hard to tell how I feel about any modern issue I haven’t discussed with someone personally or who have not read what I’ve written. But, that’s possibly the best working definition of an independent moderate who leans libertarian. You can’t tell what they think about a particular political issue without discussing it with them. I leave you with my last proposition for today:

Propostion 8: The good news is that our society has always been directed to a large degree on a libertarian pathway and it is our heritage of what is called the enlightenment or enlightenment values that have forged the way.

It is the gospel of enlightenment values that I routinely preach to other people about (most of whom I know only from the internet and some who despise the very sight of my screen name) and which values are as familiar to you in many ways as to me, even if you spend little or no time thinking about them. But, that too, is for another post.

Monday, August 22, 2011

White Swans exist too, you know.

Pet peeve day. I just feel like bitching about something that makes me crazy. In the last few years I have been on the frustrating end of discussions with people who insist on instructing me on some basic epistemology I’ll go into below. When they instruct me, they sometimes strike a professorial tone as if everyone who went through high school wasn’t already aware of their point, even if, like myself, they paid little attention there. The nub of it is that you can’t prove anything based on prior experience (nowadays called inductive reasoning), but they express it in different ways – pointing out that correlations don’t prove causation or that you can’t predict anything with certainty because random facts always creep in, that I stated "my truth, not their truth," or that you can believe whatever is best for you because nobody can ever really prove you are wrong.

What they really mean when they raise one of these points is  – your point doesn’t count because you can’t prove it absolutely. Let me introduce you to a friend, who I will call Eddie, to help make my point.

I was reading a book a number of years ago, A History of God by Karen Armstrong, which was passionately praised by Eddie as having a big influence on his thinking. He had come around in the last decade or so to the point of defending any argument by the fact that it confirmed his beliefs or otherwise pleased him. Nothing was real, or if it was could be sufficiently understood with certainty as far as he was concerned, unless he believed it -- so it didn’t matter. I picked up the book, one because it was about a subject that interested me -- religion -- but also because I was trying to understand his frustrating development. It was a “car book” for me, one I read while at red lights, or in parking lots, and, yes – sue me – occasionally while driving. I had just started it one day when I had to leave the car to get my daughter. I threw the book on the seat. When my kid entered the car, unbeknownst to me, and I like to think her, she sat on it soaking wet. The book became saturated. It was readable, but ruined.

So, I did the almost unthinkable for me. I started writing in it myself, underlining and making notes. I’m pretty sure I’ve only done that with one other book in my life, a study of Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy, for much the same reason, although I, not my daughter, was at fault. I still take notes on books I read (“Hi, my name is David and I am a nerd”), and I may, in fact, be a teence obsessive about it. But, I do it on a computer now, which is more trouble than just underlining and making margin notes, but allows for greater detail, is much more useful, and more permanent if you have reasonable back up.

Anyway, I was reading A history of God the next day or so in the car and jotting some notes (but not while driving - I’m not crazy - I never take notes while driving). I’m sitting there underlining and notating away when suddenly I came upon a line that struck me because it summed up what Eddie had loved so much about it.

She wrote in the introduction, “We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound.”

I furiously scribbled next to it something like – “This is precisely what Eddie finds so satisfying and drives me crazy.”

Not care if it is logical or scientifically sound? What else in life is so important as what is logical or true, I thought? Truth is what lets us discern what choices to make, what to accept and reject, who to befriend and be wary of, how the universe works, the meaning of . . . everything.

Of course, she was right, but it still drives me crazy. Religion can’t be proved and most believers I know don’t care about doing so, but are fine with believing based on faith. What “works” for them has many meanings, from pleasing their parents to making them feel better about dying. That has never “worked” for me, but those like me are a rather small percentage of the population.

Nevertheless, I do know the “the truth” is not that simple. There are many people, of course, who believe there is a cosmological truth written on a stone – that there is an absolute right and a wrong, a code of ethics, winners and losers, and so on, with no or few qualifications. Plato, probably the most influential philosopher in western civilization, believed in ideal absolutes, and that any change was degeneration from the original pure forms. I reject that. To be an absolute truth, it must be perfect and there is no such thing as perfect, as it is a man made concept not found in nature. When I was very young, probably a teen or pre-teen, I was so put off by the kids in my neighborhood not wanting to admit any flaws, that I wrote in some permanent substance on the sidewalk “David is Perfect” just to show them how ridiculous they sounded. Of course, back then I did not blog and explain myself to the world. I also had a ridiculous personal rule of not telling people what I really meant when I was trying to make an ironic point. Not surprisingly, my statement was interpreted in a less than charitable way about me than I had hoped. In fact, it was taken quite literally and my point missed completely, as you can well imagine. Not that it stopped me from similar experiments in the future.

This is one of the problems of having a philosophic cast of mind when young. You are still a kid, and if we are honest, that often means a moron. And, perhaps this is also why my sister still believes I am the most conceited man on the planet.

The issue of whether there is a cosmic truth or not has been well debated, and I’m not going there. I just want to talk about the overuse of what some people call the problem of induction or inductive reasoning/logic/whatever (I'm really just lumping all of this type of argument together whether technically the same or not) in my usual wordy way. I have to stop here for a second and explain something first. Most people who write on this topic suggest the opposite of what I do – they believe people don’t understand the problem of induction. Nicholas Taleb actually wrote a bestseller entitled The Black Swan (you can't say there are no black swans just because you've never seen one, as one might turn up tomorrow), which does nothing more than explain the problem set out by many others before him in a whimsical way. He believes that people don’t know enough about it. I say anyone who is interested enough to pick up his book already knows that you can not come to certainty by any logical route. In fact, as I believe, many of them overdo it.

The problem of induction is that you cannot prove anything based on previous experience (such as A always follows B, because no matter how many times you show that sequence, you can never prove with certainty that one day A will not be followed by C). I get that argument. I agree with it. That’s why scientists now try to refute propositions, or falsify them, rather than prove anything is true. Partially thanks to one of my philosopher-heroes, Karl Popper, this is quite well accepted now. I leave the technical argument to philosophers like Popper, David Hume and others. You can google the “problem of induction” or the like, if you want a primer, but it is fairly self-evident, if you ask me, and one form or another of it has been around since at least the ancient Greeks.

Despite the fact that I deem this true, I find myself faced time and time again with people who misuse it. I find it is especially common of very educated people. My quarrel with them goes something like this - just because you can’t prove something by inductive logic doesn’t mean you can’t make a strong argument anyway, or, that experience has no value. Many things in this world, things turn out precisely as you expect, based on experience.

I am thinking of my friend Eddie again, who often defends what I find to be just preposterous beliefs or attacks things no one would believe untrue with some variation or another of the induction problem.

Here’s an example from a few days ago. Obviously, I have to paraphrase a little, as, though I would like to tape all my conversations surreptitiously, it would probably be a good way to lose all my friends. But this is very close. Probably a lot closer than Plato when he created his dialogues. To set it up, I had just asked Eddie why he didn't do something that seemed pretty obvious in order to solve a problem he had been telling me about.

EDDIE: Won’t work. I’ve come to more and more believe that everything is random.

DHE: What do you mean by random? That there aren’t probabilities something might happen? No cause and effect? I’m talking in the real world, not the quantum world, so don’t even start with that.

ED: Yes, you can’t ever know anything and you can’t really plan anything because it is all random.

DHE: But you often say you are an “incrementalist.” You move one step at a time until you reach your goal. You can’t know a plan is going to work for sure, but you do it anyway because you think it is the best way to get where you want.

ED: I don’t really believe that any more. Now I think it is all random.

DHE: Really? Then let me ask you a question. If you had more kids, would you want them to go to college? (Note: Eddie has multiple degrees and so do his kids – their not going to college was never an option).

ED: Umm, I don’t know. Maybe. I wouldn’t fight them if they didn’t want to go.

DHE: Oh, please. Fine, but you agree that their chances of getting a better paying and more fulfilling job goes up if they do go, right?

ED: Maybe not more fulfilling. They might get a better job, but we can’t know that for sure.

DHE: I didn’t say for sure. But, okay, let me make it easier for both of us. When you go out later, and you cross a busy street, are you are going to look both ways?

ED: Yes.

DHE: That’s because the probability of getting hit goes way down if you look, doesn’t it?

ED: It’s still random. I’m not going to get hit just because I don’t look.

DHE: Yes, but you are much more likely not to get hit if you do.

It went on like that and I know when to punt, particularly with Eddie. If he gets trapped, he just laughs, but never admits the point. I guess it beats yelling at me. There are limits to the effectiveness of the Socratic method unless you also have a gun pointed at the person’s head and I rarely get anywhere with it except occasionally with people who have little or no ego about their debating skills.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point. There are many random events we can’t predict. I actually had a weird example of this just yesterday. I was taking my kayak out on Lake Moomaw, a pastel green colored body of water surrounded by a jumble of hills and cliffs tumbling down to the surface. While I was standing on the landing getting ready to leave a family pulled up in their car and unloaded their speed boat in the water. It looked new and fast. Someone in the family joked to me, “Want to race?” I joked back, “You wouldn’t stand a chance in that little boat.” We all laughed. When I returned two and a half hours later, they were standing around the landing. The father said to me, “Well, you had a better day than we did.” I asked him what was the matter and he explained that soon after they took off their motor just conked out and they had to get towed back in. I couldn’t help saying, “So, I guess I would have won the race.”

Who would have thought? It was a random unpredictable event. But, my point – Eddie, and others too numerous to count – is not that it couldn’t happen, but that you’d be crazy to bet on me next time.

Eddie and I had a very similar talk about a related subject not long ago, just to show you this was not a fluke, after I made some scientific point that was about as generally accepted by pretty much everyone as you can get (I know it would be more interesting if I could actually remember what it was, but I was so flummoxed by his argument, I remember that and not what we were talking about).

He couldn’t seriously contest my premise, so he relied on the old favorite:

ED: You can’t prove that’s true.

DHE: Why do I have to prove it? We are having a discussion. Who seriously disagrees with it? Everyone knows it is true because everything would stop working if it wasn’t.

ED: Well I don’t accept it. What you have pointed out is a mere correlation, not causation.

DHE: No kidding. I hate that argument. It’s not like correlations have no value at all. Almost everything we know scientifically is based on correlations. You don’t have to prove every premise in a discussion, particularly when it is painfully obvious.

ED: Yes you do. Just because the sun comes up every day, doesn’t mean it has to and doesn’t mean it will come up tomorrow.

DHE: Okay, I’ll take that bet. A dollar a day for the rest of our lives. In fact, I will give you 10,000 to 1 odds. How about it?

ED: (Chuckles, which is an excellent defense when you have no point)

DHE: When you get up in the morning, you step on the floor, right?

ED: Yeah.

DHE: And you do it without worrying that when you go to step on the floor it’s not going to be there, right?

ED: Yeah.

DHE: That’s because you know it’s going to be there and it's not going to collapse under you. People say it’s just a correlation or you can’t prove causation when they have no evidence themselves. But other than in science and a few things here and there, we use inductive logic for everything.

ED: But, you still can’t prove it that way.

Of course, he’s right I can't prove it, but who cares? Ironically, you can’t even prove that you can’t prove anything with inductive logic, which I guess is one of those paradoxes. And there are times it makes sense to raise the issue, particularly if you are a scientist or discussing a controversial scientific theory or if you are playing the stock market. But, in day to day activities we all rely on experience and almost nothing else. If I see a dog, I decide whether to pet it based on what its tail is doing. It’s just a correlation, but it keeps you from getting bitten.

It is also ironic but I find that many people who use this defense in non-scientific discussions are often willing to believe almost anything, no matter how crazy it seems, based on their belief that since we can’t know anything for sure, one thing is as good as another. There is nothing we can do about this, of course. People believe what they want.

Eddie (who is actually very smart, just sold on a lot of nonsense) justifies his wackier ideas with something like, “That’s your truth, not my truth,” to the point when I pole-axed him one day with “Can I ask you a question? Doesn’t there have to be just the tiniest bit of the truth in your truth?”

Again, he just laughed, and that always works.

But, let me try to defend Eddie for a little. Maybe his crazy ideas are valid from his viewpoint. There was a point in my life (the 1970s), when I loved the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson so much, I was thinking of naming my first boy (yet to be produced to this day) Christopher Emerson Eisenberg. It’s so hard to get anything to go with Eisenberg, and the three names had a ring to it to. Yes, it is true, Emerson is also the name of Keith Emerson, the extraordinary keyboardist for my favorite 70s group, but, it was really for Ralph Waldo my prospective son would have been named. Emerson was a strikingly lyrical writer. Sometimes, I’d read him and go “Wow.” His essays briefly set the world on fire, at least in America, but Europe too. I was re-reading my one volume of Emerson the other day and came across something interesting. One of his most famous essays is Self-Reliance, in which he wrote:

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

Don’t I wish I could write like that. But, that style is not the fashion anymore and I do not have that kind of lyricism in my own “soul.” More to the point, maybe it means that Eddie is right – he can have his own truth and it is genius because it is his own.

So much for my defense of him. It was still the 1970s when I started to realize that a lot of what Emerson wrote sounded much better at first than when you really thought about it. Then again, that is probably true of every other philosopher I have read since too. I decided that he often saw only the positive side of everything, even once, I recall, the beauty of a corpse in the light. Don’t get me wrong, I’m about as individualistic as they come in many things and what he is writing about here could be a fair summary, at least in part, of why I write this blog. But, sometimes things are just wrong and it doesn’t matter that we thought of them ourselves.

You know who is on my side? David Hume, the guy who, at least in relatively modern times (18th century) most famously presented and discussed the problem (I suppose most people would say I was on his side, rather than visa versa, but like Hume, I will become quite revered once I am gone). But many seem to forget that Hume believed that despite the problem of induction, which, by the way, was not the word he used, we can't ignore the conclusions we come to through our experiences, because almost everything we do in life is based upon it. No, I don’t know for sure that the sun is coming up tomorrow or that when I pull open a door I won’t step into an abyss, but the first is going to happen and the second isn't. We can count on most things we need to happen happening every day, because if it didn’t all the time we wouldn’t be here, would we? I’m willing to take that gamble every day and so is Eddie whether he admits it or not. And, almost always, we win the bet. The way Hume said it in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, after posing the problem in the first place, was this:

“Shou’d it here be ask’d me, whether I sincerely assent to this argument, which I seem to take such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those skeptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falsehood; I shou’d reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determn’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from thinking as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. Whoever has taken the pains to refute the cavils of this total sceptism, has really disputed without an antagonist, and endeavour’d by arguments to establish a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and render’d unavoidable."

In other words, however so much reason leads us to be sure that there is no certainty to be gained from experience, nature has seen to it that we don’t really believe this – it would be impossible. That goes for Hume, me and for Eddie as well. If you didn't, you wouldn't survive a day.

Writers like Nick Taleb, mentioned above, seem convinced we all don’t understand the problem whereas I'm sure we do and should not apply it to real life. Actually, Taleb did understand you can't apply it to everything and so, in The Black Swan, he writes that there are two countries, Mediocristan and Extremistan. In Mediocristan, you can make predictions based on experience and they have a really good chance of being true. In Extremistan, things are more complicated and you shouldn’t, like if you are picking stocks or are a scientist. My problem with Taleb’s book (one of many), is that I don’t think he makes it clear that most things in the world are in Mediocristan. Indeed, a couple of people I have discussed the book with seem to completely misunderstand it. Just because you might find a black swan someday, doesn't mean that most of them aren't white.

Okay, I got this pet peeve off my chest. Based on my experience, some of you will complain you fell asleep before I even got to the point.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pawlenty drops out

Tim Pawlenty bowed to reality today, reality which the rest of us understood for a long time. He had no shot from the beginning. Actually, there is no rational reason he is not at the head of the polls or at least near it. But, presidential campaigns are not any more rational than the stock market.

The last time we elected a president who looked really prepared in terms of experience (forget policy, because half of the people are going to disagree) was George Herbert Walker Bush. And before him Nixon. Governors don't have federal experience and Senators don't have executive experience. Depending on his experience, a VP might have less experience than either. But, I've always said, experience means something when you are in office - although there is more than one kind of experience, and it can be a factor in presidential elections, but it doesn't mean so much. What I really care about is - does this candidate agree with me and do I like him? (Yes, or her. So tedious)

Pawlenty has some executive experience - enough to pass the test for most people. But, he is not particularly likeable. I don't mean he is a bad guy, and he might be a great neighbor or friend. But, he does not have any charisma. He shouldn't feel bad, because Huntsman has less than he has and Paul (who I favor of those with even a 100 to1 shot) and Gingrich might come off as eggheads or sourpusses to some. Not surprisingly, I'd rather listen to a speech by either of them than anyone else on the stage the other night or most other politicians.

Pawlenty had to hit a home run this past Thursday, and he tried. He tried to be funny, which, for almost everyone is a bad idea in a debate. He tried to show he was tough. He went after Romney's wealth. It was a joke, but I thought it was a poor one and made me sympathize with Romney. He went after Bachmann's record and ended up looking like a complainer and a bully. He tried to show he was passionate and he should never do that. He's awful at it.

I know it is very hard to do what they do. I would not want to do it in a million years and would blow it on the first question (because, of course, I'd be honest). That's why so few people are good at it. I've seen Herman Cain interviewed on C-Span (and have heard him on the radio) and he is actually quite personable, but you'd barely know it from the debate. I've seen Rick Santorum on C-Span and I not only really liked him, but felt he was a very compassionate guy. In the debate none of that came out. Newt can be really interesting, but he came across as tempermental and wonkish.

And, I know T-Paw really wanted it. I felt that with him more than the others, but Romney may just hide it marginally better. That part of it makes me feel bad for him, because I am a sentimental old sop.

Let's see what I've written about him before this month:

June, 2010: "Who is out there with the personality and the support to drub Obama? Right now, guys like Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty just don’t seem to have it – personality I mean."

December, 2010: "Pawlenty is still thinking about it, but he just doesn’t have the juice."

February, 2011: "Tim Pawlenty is busy trying to get anyone to notice him, but he hasn’t announced."

March, 2011: "Tim Pawlenty, who may have the best nickname, this time around, T-Paw, is still testing the water, but he won’t even get into his bathing suit yet. . .Gov. Pawlenty is practicing his anti-gay rhetoric to help him win them over. It rather disgusts me, but he seems to believe it will help. In the meantime, I have some advice for him – never, ever give another stem-winding speech. He’s just not good at it and it doesn’t come out as sincere."

May, 2011: "Pawlenty – A strong possibility but he would not last past Iowa, if he gets that far. Why do I feel a little sorry for this guy? Maybe it’s because he seems to want it so much."

May (later), 2011: "Tim Pawlenty I feel sorry for, as he is desperately trying to whip up some support from the conservative base, but he has done it by jumping on the easy red meat issues. Supporting (or, I guess, not to be opposed) to the Ground Zero Mosque was unpatriotic, he said. Ironically, he had previously set up a Shariah compliant mortgage program (which just really means something to do with interest – Orthodox Jews have also found a legal end round to interest on loans) in Minnesota, and then realizing it was political death in the Republican primaries, cancelled it. I’m not even sure if I’m for the program because I don’t know enough about it, but, cancelling it for political purposes was a craven act if there ever was one. He came out heavily against the repeal of don’t ask/don’t tell as if had been a repeal of the declaration of war against Germany and Japan (okay, okay, that's hyperbole) and said he would repeal it. He also vetoed a gay marriage bill. He recently said “The Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith.” He should read his James Madison. It was both. June, 2011: "Pawlenty I thought a strong possibility and he went in too. He wants to be president even more than Romney, I think, but has little chance. He is a Republican Mike Dukakis."

July, 2011: "T-Paw is fighting like crazy, with the only Iowa tv ad out, an Ames Poll website, door to door canvassing and so on.

If Pawlenty wants to stay in, of course, he has to do something, but how much does his precious Ames Poll even mean? How much does Iowa even mean?"

I was kind of rough on him, now that I look back. Who wants to be called the Mike Dukakis of the Republicans? But, it was accurate. Not that I'm overly proud of it. It was a pretty easy prediction for anyone who isn't in the media or a pundit. At risk of denting the reputation (of which only I appear to be aware) I did see that way back in June, 2010, the first time I focused on that, I praised Pawlenty along with Christie and Daniels as the grown ups in the group, but all too boring. I really have to take that back about Christie. Now I'll never be a pundit.

You know what is even sadder for Tim? No one will even care about getting his endorsement.

Just for fun, with no hope of success - who's out next? This is much harder than guessing who is getting into the race. Huntsman, Santorum, Gingrich and maybe Cain. No telling when reality sets in for them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ames debate

I'll copy my own comment to a NY Times article here:

In terms of performance and audience reaction, not my politics: 1) Ron Paul 2) Michelle Bachmann 3) Newt Gingrich 4/5) Mitt Romney/Herman Cain 6) Rick Santorum 7)Tim Pawlenty 8) Jon Huntsman

Of course, no one really cares about this debate except Fox, the debators and their tiny audience. Gingrich, Santorum, Pawlenty and Huntsman should do themselves a favor and just go home and hope to be picked VP. Cain can hang out a little while but unless everyone folds except Romney he has no chance. Michelle Bachmann should wait and see what happens. Although she handles herself well, better than she used to, Pawlenty did point out that she hasn't accomplished much herself. But, that shouldn't be the "decider" as she is definately an outsider. Ron Paul doesn't have a lot of accomplishments either, if you just count legislation with his name on it, but I think he has moved the political world. Since Gary Johnson can't even get on the stage, he is my personal choice for president too. However, the applause he received, more than anyone else, as in '08, doesn't translate into votes. What affect will Rick Perry have on all this. I really don't know. Is he another Fred Thompson? I watched Perry's debates last time and frankly, Kinky Friedman was a lot more fun.

Unfortunately, I am not a super-Paulist either. While I find him more honest than most other politicians, more real, more in line with my republican, democratic and libertarian notions (small "R," small "D," small "L"), I am not sure his return to the gold standard, his desire to end the fed (even slowly, as he said last night) and to forego all foreign intervention are right either in this complex world. But, I do like him better politically than anyone else on the stage and I loved it when he was asked if he could get his proposals through congress and he stuttered. What happened was that he realized that his answer - that it would be really hard to do so - goes against the make believe super-confidence that Americans seem to want to hear from their politicians.  But, in the end, Paul gave the honest answer. He also was a little less than straight on Santorum's question to him about whether polygamy would be okay in a state. His libertarian and constitutional philosophy says - there's nothing anyone can do about it. But, he hedged and didn't really answer the question. But, as Horace noted, even Homer nodded off sometimes.

Why won't people back Paul for president? Because his beliefs are not what we were taught in high school. He wants us to face reality and we are not ready. I'm afraid we need our teeth kicked in first.

A few more comments about the candidates. Bachmann is really short. I wonder if the problem short people have running for president in the television age will affect her or if there will be a pass for women on it. My advice to her. Stop pretending you have accomplishments. Acknowledge it. But, you can credibly say it is because you are on the outside looking in and you are fighting for something. Ron Paul acknowledges it like that. Also, stop trying to pretend you know anything about history. Go study for a while. But, you are photogenic and personally likeable to those who don't hate you for political reasons (of course, I find most politicians likeable, with some exceptions). You have a good story, but it can't be all you have. Nor can bashing Obama. What do you think you are going to show Obama at the Ames Poll? It has nothing to do with him. Stop saying it. You handled the questions well at the debate, particularly that ridiculous one about submitting to your husband. A good sense of humor is the best defense against insanity.

Huntsman - Maybe Utah is a little different than the rest of America. But, while I'm sure you are a good person (I think, anyway), you come off as pompous, above it all and not particularly gregarious. I'm glad to see you have some independent positions, but, I think you should go back to the business world.

Romney - I still think you have the best chance to win, but that is based on the polls, not your politics or personality. I can't say what affect Perry will have on you either, but I tend to think he will cut into Bachmann's voters more than yours. People who like you want a Republican who won't frighten independents as opposed to the Limbaughites who would rather go down in flames than surrender a point. I still don't trust you. While I thought that the whole flip flop thing about John Kerry was just a good political campaign (although I personally and politically do not like him), I think it is more true of you. I saw a list the other day of flip flops by you and they were fair criticisms. Many of them you deny or try to explain away. Own up to most of them. Yes, I believed that then, but not any more. And I did not buy your reasoning why marriage should be federal. If you are concerned because it is a status that has affect in other states if you move, then just enforce the constitution, which requires states to honor the decrees of other states.

I understand you have to run to the right now, but, you can't tie yourself in such knots that at the end of the day, independents like myself will not vote for you. Leave gays, atheists and American Muslims alone. You've already stated some opinions, and they are not as bad as some others have made, but, I would keep out of it. I don't really believe you are antagonistic against them in your heart.

Cain - I thought you did well for your audience last night. And your exuberance and folksiness would play off well against Romney if it were just the two of you. But, it's not and you are lost out there. The whole stupid Shariah thing you've gotten yourself into also plays well into the conservative base, but it makes independents cringe. Let me explain it one more time - there is no threat of Shariah in America. You sound like someone warning of the yellow peril. Stop already. Feel free to point out that there is a terrorist threat. I agree. And we - including American Muslims, have to be conscious and vigilant about it. But stop with the Shariah nonsense. Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich will think it's great, but you are making a fool of yourself.

Gingrich - As you usually do, you impressed me last night. You are smart, you didn't go with soundbites as asked (Bachmann and Romney did, right off the bat) and you showed that only Paul was in your league in discussing the issues. However, even though the audience loved you bucking the media like that - it doesn't play well to independents. To me, it appeared like you were picking a fight rather with Chris Wallace rather than face your own failures. I've said it before - you should not have run. Don't be angry when the media picks up on your negatives. At least he didn't mention your wife. Besides, Wallace is well liked at Fox. If you have them mad at you - who will be on your side? By the way - is that a trick of the lense or do you really need to go on a diet?

Santorum - really, even conservatives aren't buying your I'm more anti-abortion than you bit. I appreciate it. I've always said, it is illogical to be against abortion on moral grounds but believe it is okay if the fetus is a product of rape or incest. Your comparison of the rapist who can't be executed under the law, but his baby can, was actually quite good. But, hate to tell you this - no one much cares. From what I can tell of the difficult to read polls, Americans are against abortion on demand, but believe early term is okay, and even when they are against it, they want it for cases of rape or incest (and the mother's health). But, these are generally rare, so it doesn't have a big impact on people. Seriously, you and Huntsman in particular have no possible chance. Forget it. Go home.

T-Paw - This was your big shot and you did not win. You can't. You probably would be a good president and I like most things about you except your religious issues, but, you seemed petulant and childish arguing with Bachmann, and I thought she came off much better than you did. Sorry, but you need to go home too. I would say the same thing even if you win the straw poll.

That should do it. I wish the Dems had a contest too. I love this stuff.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Political update for August, 2011



I don't know if I've ever been so sick of a political story in my life as I am of this. Maybe I just forget, but, I'm really sick of this and I think everyone else is too. And that's recognizing (as it seems the whole world does other than those who put it together) that nothing has really been fixed, and the can has simply been kicked down the road.

I was all for a compromise of sorts to get it done, but, not a compromise like this. I hate to go all Clara Peller on you, but, Where's the beef?

I don't want to go all Gary Coleman on you, but, Whatchyu talkin' 'bout, Willis?

I don't want to go all Maggie Wheeler on you, but, Oh . . . My . . . God.

Let's just go over this a little bit and I'll move on. The first thing that irks me is the way it is now set up. They increased the debt ceiling by billions right away. I do not have a problem with that. But, then they reverse the process of the House (which has to be re-elected every two years) starting all funding bills, and give that power to the president to raise the ceiling another 500 billion. Can they stop him? Sure, but only by a 2/3 vote. That means, if all the Republicans vote against it - possible, you still need 48 Democrats to agree with them. In the Senate, it's a Democratic majority. Seriously, how likely is that to happen? Near impossible? The way it is supposed to work is that congress decides with a majority, and then after the senate agrees, the president gets to decide if he wants to veto or not. Why would we reverse that?

The cuts. $900 billion over ten years. Okay, that sounds like a start. But, wait a minute. The debt is going to increase 900 billion this year and we are going to reduce 900 billion over ten? What happened to the crisis where we have to reduce or we are going to default? What happened to reducing trillions? What happened?

Now, to be fair, there are going to be some cuts in the next two years. 63 billion. So, we are 14 trillion in the red, which, is, by the way fourteen thousand billions (pretending the real number isn't over four times that size) and we are going to reduce by 63 billion in the next two years. 14000 bill in debt. 63 billion in cuts. Oh. So, that's about .0045%.


But, wait. we get a committee of 12 people - have Republicans and half Democrats, to make up their mind as to further cuts.  Let's give this one some thought. Why do we have committees with odd numbers? Oh, so someone can win, right?  But, should the special committee deadlock or should Congress reject the committee's recommendations, then automatic across the board spending cuts of at least $1.2 trillion would go into effect. I like that part. It's not enough, but it is a step in the right direction. Ironically, I am one of the few people I know who urges across the board cuts. There is very little support for it in congress (Connie Mack's one percent reduction plan balances the budget in about 8 years and is one of the best plans out there - maybe - this is hard for me to say - even better than my own, which would have been more draconian). But, what I want and thought couldn't happen might happen just might if the committee of 12 acts true to form and can't agree on anything. I guess there could be one or two on each side who might think about voting for the enemy - but imagine the political results. This is why we need independents flooding congress. Good luck to me on that.

Last big item in the plan. The House and Senate vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment. I doubt even I would vote for that, but you need two thirds of both houses to propose it and then three quarters of the states ratify. Good luck to them on that. Of course, there could be a first ever new constitutional convention called by two thirds of the states. But, what does it matter? We all know that congress will merely come up with ways to take things off budget (like - let the fed do it) or declare that the its an emergency, or put us in a constant state of war.

Of course, if there is no strong balanced budget amendment with teeth, they'll just slowly (or quickly) ramp um the spending once they reduce it.

Am I totally convinced that this is all going to go bad? No. I really don't believe in the end of our little experiment. But I also don't believe we will "fix" it until we have to and when it is almost too late. Sort of like the way we all do term reports. It's just American.

That rap video you have to see

I saw it. It's pretty good. You can find it at and then the sequel at I haven't seen the second one, but it's probably good too.

I'm talking about the rap videos which pit John Maynard Keynes against Friedrich August von Hayek. Most relatively educated people know who Keynes was and remarkably, Hayek is making a comeback. They were economic adversaries, but not personal enemies. In fact, they were sort of friends, although Keynes died over thirty years before Hayek. And when I say friends, I mean the kind of friends who could think be completely critical of their friend's most cherished ideas. Of course, in the most important ways, Keynes cleaned Hayek's clock. All government's today that I know of are Keynesian to one degree or another. By that I mean they believe in the government increasing spending in tough times in the hopes of stimulating the economy. On the other hands, many people have come to appreciate Hayek's ideas in the past forty years, but more so since the 80s (thanks to some degree to Ronald Reagan).

With our economy in the dumps, the argument between Keynes and Hayek has been revived to enough of a degree that they have two highly watched rap videos.

I am much more interested in Hayek (who was also a social philosopher) than Keyenes, although I try to avoid the tendency to look at political science or philosophy in a mutually exclusively way. So, I always leave a little room for absolutely. But, in the long run, I believe Hayek was much more right than Keynes, even though when I read him, I often find myself disagreeing or thinking of exceptions to his very lightly exampled ideas. I've talked about Hayek other times and I'd rather let someone else do the work. I'm going to extract a little from a 1992 Reason Magazine article ( based on a 1977 interview of Hayek, mostly some stuff that resonates with the arguments of the day:

Reason: Of your bestselling The Road to Serfdom, John Maynard Keynes wrote: "In my opinion it is a grand book.... Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement." Why would Keynes say this about a volume that was deeply critical of the Keynesian viewpoint?

Hayek: Because he believed that he was fundamentally still a classical English liberal [DHE - by this, he essentially mean a libertarian] and wasn't quite aware of how far he had moved away from it. His basic ideas were still those of individual freedom. He did not think systematically enough to see the conflicts. He was, in a sense, corrupted by political necessity. His famous phrase about, "in the long run we're all dead," is a verv good illustration of being constrained by what is now politicallv possible. He stopped thinking about what, in the long run, is desirable. For that reason, I think it will turn out that he will not be a maker of long-run opinion, and his ideas were of a fashion which, fortunately, is now passing away.

Reason: Did Keynes turn around in his later years, as has frequently been rumored?

Hayek: Nothing as drastic as that. He was fluctuating all the time. He was in a sort of middle line and he was always concerned with expediency for the moment. In the last conversation I had with him (about three weeks before his death in 1945), I asked him if he wasn't getting alarmed about what some of his pupils were doing with his ideas. And he said," Oh, they're just fools. These ideas were frightfully important in the 1930s, but if these ideas ever become dangerous, you can trust me—I'm going to turn public opinion around like this." And he would have done it! I'm sure that in the post-war period Keynes would have become one of the great fighters against inflation.

* * *

Reason: The United States has cut inflation from 12 percent to 4.8 percent, Britain from 30 percent to 13 percent—both without Depression-type setbacks. Doesn't this offer hope that economic adjustments can be made without massive unemployment?

Hayek: I don't know why you suggest this. It has been accomplished, very much, through extensive unemployment. I think it is certainly true that ending an inflation need not lead to that long-lasting period of unemployment like the 1930s, because then the monetary policy was not only wrong during the boom but equally wrong during the Depression. First, they prolonged the boom and caused a worse depression, and then they allowed a deflation to go on and prolonged the Depression. After a period of inflation like the past 25 years, we can't get out of it without substantial unemployment.

Reason: How does inflation cause unemployment?

Hayek: By drawing people into jobs which exist only because the relative demand for the particular things is temporarily increased, and these employments must disappear as soon as the increase in the quantity of money ceases.

Reason: Yet, if the United States, for example, went through a period of temporarily high unemployment—say we have double the current rate of unemployment for one to two years—wouldn't all the automatic income-maintenance programs, such as unemployment insurance, welfare, etc., run up such an enormous bill as to bankrupt the federal government, which already runs a deficit of $50 billion or $60 billion in a so-called recovery period?

Hayek: Yes, they probably would. There would be an enormous political struggle on the question of whether social security benefits ought to be adapted to inflation or cut down. I don't think that you can effect a permanent cure without a substantial alteration of the social security system.

* * *

Reason: Well, then, why isn't there any such thing as social justice?

Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust; it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about.

Now, we do complain that God has been unjust when one family has suffered many deaths and another family has all of its children grow up safely. But we know we can't take that seriously. We don't mean that anybody has been unjust.

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a "just" manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.

* * *

Reason: Are you optimistic about the future of freedom?

Hayek: Yes. A qualified optimism. I think there is an intellectual reversion on the way, and there is a good chance it may come in time before the movement in the opposite direction becomes irreversible. I am more optimistic than I was 20 years ago, when nearly all the leaders of opinion wanted to move in the socialist direction. This has particularly changed in the younger generation. So, if the change comes in time, there still is hope.

He has hope. Me too. I have my reasons, but it will have to wait a little.

Great little stories
Every once in a while some story takes off that just makes you shake you head about our nanny state (some elements of which I admit I enjoy). One of the best of the year came out a few weeks ago about he poor fellow who owned his own helicopter. He had his own company and was the own employee.

Of course, he had to follow FAA regs, and one of them required him to test himself for drug use. But, not just test himself. They had to be surprise tests. And, he has to take a course for this. And, he also has to take another one to learn about the ways his employer might surprise him with a test. And . . . they are going to audit his procedures. Come on, this is a joke, right? It has to be. Or, are you getting visions of Bugs Bunny giving himself a surprise drug test?

Perry in or Perry out

That's the big story these days in the Republican world. People are so bored with those actually running, that they are hoping this pistol carrying, prayer rally giving Texas governor will jump in and make things happen. Of course, I remember when he ran for governor a few years ago and, you know what, he really wasn't all that exciting. But, for a little while, it beats stories about whether Sarah Palin is getting in or not.

I've stayed out of guessing whether he's in or out so far. I've been pretty good so far on my picks, but I just don't know with him. But, since I have a gun to my head, the answer is yes. The reason its yes is because he's looked at the polls and sees that Mitt Romney, the Dick Clark of Republican politicians, is running everyone off the field, and, he's thinking he can out charm him any day of the week.

He's not in the debate this week which will be watched by the entire FoxNews team and about 7 other people who just can't stay away. But, if they only let me ask the questions:

"Representative Bachmann. Why do always say you were a United States tax attorney and not an IRS lawyer?"

"Mr. Cain, you have been clear in your warnings that Muslims are trying to force Shariah law into American. Which do you believe will be the first Shariah law to be held constitutional by the Supreme Court - stoning adulters or the cutting off the hands of thieves?

"Governor Pawlenty, why do you think you remind me so much of Mike Dukakis?"

"Governor Huntsman - seriously?"

"Speaker Gingrich, according to RealClearPolitics poll averages, the president gets a higher percentage of votes against you than people like Jon Huntsman, Hermain Cain and actually everyone except Sarah Palin. When does it just get too embarrassing? Or, should we ask your wife?"

"Governor Romney, Rush Limbaugh has already said you are done - it can't be you. Please tell us what you you think of that, without proving to us you are afraid to criticize him?"

Yeah, that's going to happen.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Crisis averted?

It looks like what was inevitable is going to happen. The Times reported today that the house passed an agreed upon plan. I haven't analyzed it yet, but, I'm almost positive I will be unhappy as it looks like the cuts are over 10 years and the increases in the debt look huge (in the trillions). Still, not over until its over.

I notice that Paul Krugman is miserable about it, for which I am grateful (he is the most outspoken of commentators, also an economist, who seems to believe the depression was cured by government spending, despite all the evidence to the contrary). I have no doubt tea partiers will be livid for the opposite reason.

Me, I'll probably mostly side with the tea partiers, but I will give it a look see - not that any mortal can tell what these bills even mean - I read the Boehner plan last week and laughed at the impossibility of chopping through its hyper-technical legislativese.  What I'm really upset about is that I'm so busy this week that I forgot to post here. Fortunately, since I had published one of my rare op-eds in The Roanoke Times this past Sunday, I'll give myself a break and re-post it here. Since they only allow 750 words, you will be delighted with my unusual brevity. They entitled it - A crisis rooted in our founding:

In many ways, the current debt crisis reminds me of the first one in United States history. It also involved two opposing ideologies, as deeply divided as we are now over federal power.

Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, our first secretary of state, would eventually snipe at each other so much in the press through pseudonym and proxy that at one point, President George Washington wrote both of them to request they stop. Both wrote him back pointing fingers at the other and politely indicating that nothing was likely to change. And, they were right.

One of the new government's first major struggles was over funding debt. Hamilton's 1790 report to Congress on public credit had stirred up a hornet's nest in which the public was deeply divided before Jefferson was even sworn in. Some of Hamilton's ideas were not very controversial. He was adamant that America needed to establish good credit: "And as on the one hand, the necessity for borrowing in particular emergencies cannot be doubted, so on the other, it is equally evident, that to be able to borrow upon good terms, it is essential that the credit of a nation should be well established."

But he also made it clear in his report that public debt could lead to extravagant wastefulness and was "liable to dangerous abuse." It should be a "fundamental maxim," he wrote, "that the creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment." This is all common sense and hardly originated with Hamilton.

Nowadays, of course, our government does not run a debt just in times of emergencies, but as a matter of course with no plan for extinguishment. Although politicians will argue about the size of government, you will find very few who, for example, argue against the existence of Social Security and Medicare, the FBI or a standing army.

The first Congress had no problem with funding the existing federal debt. But many were extremely concerned with Hamilton's plan for the federal government to assume the individual states' debts, making them federal ones, and with the taxation and power that would go along with assumption. The stakes and passions were sufficient to sunder Hamilton's political relationship with James Madison (which led to the constitutional convention and The Federalist Papers), then a leader in Congress whose cooperation Hamilton needed in order to pass his plan.

Although suspicious of banks, Jefferson also well understood the importance of good credit. He wrote James Monroe on June 20, 1790, that if some "plan of compromise" was not had, "our credit ... will burst and vanish, and the states separate to take care every one of itself. This prospect appears probable to some well informed and well-disposed minds. Endeavours are therefore using to bring about a disposition to some mutual sacrifices."

Though of the opinion "that Congress should always prefer letting the States raise money in their own way where it can be done ... in the present instance I see the necessity of yielding for this time to the cries of the creditors in certain parts of the union, for the sake of union, and to save us from the greatest of all calamities, the total extinction of our credit in Europe."

He also mentioned to Monroe another issue that was very important to him -- the future location of the nation's capital. A Southerner, he preferred it be on the Potomac to being in Philadelphia. The capital was actually still in New York, and one day Jefferson bumped into a dejected Hamilton there in front of Washington's office.

Jefferson capitalized on the moment by inviting Hamilton to dine at his home with Madison. They there agreed, perhaps on the very same day Jefferson wrote Monroe, that Madison would find the votes to pass Hamilton's credit plan and in turn Hamilton would make sure they got their way on the location of the capital. It worked, our credit-worthiness was secured and the location of the capital fixed.

Today, we face a similar crisis but over a huge federal debt. Our present problem also concerns whether we should continue to indebt future generations, which Jefferson, at least, believed we had no right to do. Like us, the founders could not solve all their problems at once, but they solved their debt crisis, and so can we.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .