Archive for August, 2012

Romney Speech

I wonder if Romney and his campaign advisors looked at the very small group of undecided voters and wrote the speech to appeal to them.  Otherwise, I don’t get this speech.  If what I said is true, it suggests that the campaign assumes that the undecideds at this point are pretty clueless folks who don’t vote on policy preferences, ideology, or anything appearing to be a good reason to choose one man over another to lead the country.  Instead, they vote on sensibility or gut instinct and the Romney team didn’t want to offend them.  Therefore, Romney aimed to make them feel slightly warmer about his candidacy rather than potentially offended by something specific or with depth – or a passionate defense of a particular worldview.

Like I said – otherwise, this speech made little sense.  It was a little NBC Olympic bio, lines cobbled together from Reagan, some stump speech stuff about his opponent, and then some Peggy Noonan-style rhetoric that just doesn’t seem appropriate for our difficult times.

I guess one could also assume that the campaign people understand the electorate better than I do and the undecideds want something different than a policy wonk with strong preferences like myself would.  This may mean, a la Bryan Caplan, that the marginal voters who are going to decide this 50/50 elections are not exactly the people we’d like to be selecting the President – but select they will.   For those who want to see Obama retired, they better hope so.

As I noted last night, Ryan-Paul 2016?  And btw, am I right to think that the Republicans down in Double and Triple-A are much stronger than the Democrats in the minors?  Indeed, that they seem so much stronger than this current generation of Republican politicians (McCain, Romney, etc)?

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Unlike Chris Christie last night, Congressman Ryan knocked it out of the park – both for the base and the middle.  Here is the text of his speech (though I recommend you watch it instead since Ryan is pretty much the opposite of Nixon in the 1960 Presidential debate).

Ryan is a damn good speaker and projects both strong leadership and intelligence.  A Republican Kennedy (and no, I don’t mean that as a criticism!)?  Mind you, I shudder when the Republican Party defends Medicare like it is a sacred cow.  But Ryan’s speech hit a lot of strong notes – even for us classical liberals suspicious of the Republican Party and even Ryan himself.  Of course, I want to see more than a lot of stirring rhetoric and witty zingers.  But hard to imagine a better realistic alternative on the ticket to Ryan in the Republican Party as it exists right now.  And you really gotta love the natural rights talk – not to mention a derogatory use of the term “central planners” (unfortunately, yes, that would include the guy on the top of the ticket)!

Best zinger of the campaign season so far has got to be this one:

“College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”

Here is the “central planners” line:

“When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life.  I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself.  That’s what we do in this country.  That’s the American Dream.  That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.”

And here is the natural rights and natural law language that one could imagine most Republicans shortening to a focus on God alone as the source:

“Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government – to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society.  They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding.  They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.

The founding generation secured those rights for us, and in every generation since, the best among us have defended our freedoms.”

Is it too late to dump Mitt?  Silver lining of a loss: Ryan-Paul 2016?  More likely: Ryan-Rice 2016?  I have a hard time thinking a tired, aging Clinton is going to beat Mr. Charisma teamed up with Prof. Rice.

But for lots of reasons (many highlighted by the fine writers at Reason; example here), we gotta hope that Mr. Ryan’s future governing is a lot more like this speech (minus the Medicare loving) than his behavior in Congress.

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Tenure Man

Stopped regularly reading Mankiw’s blog a long time ago.  However, I recently clicked over and saw this very funny cartoon posted there:

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APSA Update

The annual conference of the American Political Science Association has been cancelled.  I wonder if this will turn out to be the right decision.   As of now, it is fouling up a lot of things but hard to say if going forward would have been completely irresponsible without more data from NOLA and the airlines.

I hate that this probably means that NOLA will never, ever again be the conference site (assuming that the dates don’t change – which is a conversation we should certainly open) – even leaving aside the fact that this conference site had already caused a lot of controversy.

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Small-government types have often debated whether the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing direct election of senators, is in part responsible for the decline of federalism in the U.S. I have long been skeptical of the 17th Amendment repeal movement, because Germany has a system in which states (Länder) elect senators (members of the Bundesrat), and Germany has within a few decades moved from a stronger system of federalism than the U.S. enjoys to a much weaker federalism than the U.S. enjoys. I’ve recently been reading Fiscal Decentralization and the Challenge of Hard Budget Constraints, edited by Jonathan Rodden, Gunnar Eskeland, and Jennie Litvack, and it turns out this arrangement or something like it is more common than I realized — and with even worse consequences.
First, here is Rodden on Germany (p. 174): (more…)

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With Isaac about to hit New Orleans, political scientists around the world are wondering why God hates political scientists more than Republicans(Henry Farrell), whether they can count their conference papers on their CV’s, and all kinds of other things.  For tweets on all this and more, see the APSA 2012 Twitter site here.

What may surprise you is how funny some of these folks are.  A few examples:

Christopher Zorn@prisonrodeo

I will attend #APSA2012. Then I may give #APSA the death penalty for a few years, for “lack of institutional control.”

Kieran Healy@kjhealy

#APSA2012 Realists insist only the credible threat of force will deflect Isaac. Constructivists question the very idea of bad weather.

David Bosco@multilateralist

With #APSA2012 at risk, FEMA stockpiles old issues of APSR and IO, calls on volunteers to aid neighbors with political analysis.

Burt Monroe@burtmonroe

I can’t see why anyone would go to #APSA2012 who doesn’t have to be there. I can’t think of anyone who has to be there.

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And Obama is the winner! Romney will try to “reintroduce” himself to the country while the country is watching Obama touring the wreckage from the hurricane.  How does the whole convention not become effectively diminished – if not scrapped altogether or delayed until the weekend (is this even logistically possible?) – if there is a hard landing on Wednesday in NOLA?  Meanwhile, students with Thursday and Friday political science classes will have to go to class instead of enjoying a long Labor Day weekend (I’d say that is a win for the students, but then again I’m a prof).

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For our readers in political science, an update from APSA on the status of its upcoming conference in New Orleans:

Weather Alert: Hurricane Isaac
Updated: August 26, 2012 (5:20pm)

*All Wednesday events CANCELLED (including Short Courses)*

In light of the projected conditions in New Orleans by hurricane Isaac, APSA is cancelling all pre-conference meeting activities on Wednesday, August 29th, including planned short courses. The official meeting will begin on Thursday, August 30, with the understanding that participants unable to attend the meeting due to flight cancellations to New Orleans will be eligible for refunds of their conference registration fees. As we continue to monitor the storm and local conditions, APSA will announce any adjustments to the meeting schedule following the scheduled news conference by Mayor Landrieu midday on Monday.

Most attendees arrive Wednesday and Thursday – so I’m guessing Isaac is going to foul up lots of plans even if it only severely impacts flights.  For the sake of one of my favorite cities in America, let’s hope we aren’t going to see a repeat of Katrina.

UPDATE: So, let’s imagine that APSA gets cancelled.  Will universities pay for non-refundable airline tickets you don’t use and non-refundable hotel rooms you don’t sleep in?  And of course, going to New Orleans won’t help because universities would consider it fraudulent to travel to a conference that doesn’t happen.  I’d like to think common sense will win out here – but we are talking about administrators (“So, you want us to reimburse you for flights you didn’t actually take for a conference that didn’t actually happen?  The [insert name of university policies here] doesn’t allow us to do so.”). 

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Like just about everyone else on this little blue planet, I am sad to hear of the passing of Neil Armstrong.  R.I.P.

Going to the moon was a pretty tremendous human accomplishment and Armstrong’s courage shouldn’t be overlooked even while accepting that it took a village to get into space and onto the moon.

However, the space program and the moon landing effort itself came at great opportunity cost.  It was damn expensive and that money could have been better spent (by individuals) here on Earth!  And despite all of the pretty pictures and incredible moments, why shouldn’t we look upon much of government space funding the same way we (or at least I) do things like the Pyramids: beautiful, amazing accomplishments that came at such great cost (and through ethically dubious means) that they can’t be honestly justified?

One possible counter – that I reject – is that the US needed a space program for the morale of the country and propaganda information operations abroad in the Cold War struggle with the Soviets.  An even better argument would be that the logic of the security dilemma dictated that the US couldn’t afford not to run the space race with the Soviets.  Of course, that wouldn’t justify a large fraction of the space program, including putting a man on the moon.  A third, which can’t really be said with a straight face, is that the technological, scientific, and commercial spin-off benefits of the space program justify the costs on their own.

My own two cents is that the only justifications for government spending today on space concerns are military and environmental.  Therefore, I would slash the heck out of the NASA budget and refocus it towards military concerns (or even turn it over to the DoD while selling off the rest to the private sector).  Here is a nice quotation on the best course ahead for human space exploration:

The best thing that could happen for the future of space exploration, discovery, and information would be for NASA to retire all of its shuttles, send those billions back to the American people, and open the sky up to the free market. Private entrepreneurs tend to produce and invest in a way that attempts to minimize costs in order to gain profit, while government programs work in the exact opposite manner.

And here is another wonderful set of thoughts on space and the Moon from Armstrong’s shipmate Buzz Aldrin, courtesy of the VC:

A base on the Moon does not have to be a permanent government-controlled and owned facility. After it has been fully established, control could be handed over to a private non-profit consortium that would lease space to companies and governments which will then pursue their individual goals, such as energy, research, tourism, or developing the technology and supplies needed for further space exploration.

Handing off control of the base to a private group means that we will have to establish rules explaining what exactly is and is not private property on the Moon. According to the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon is “a common heritage of mankind.” No one has ever been able to agree on exactly what this means, but few space law experts outside the United States seem willing to accept the idea that there is room for private entities to claim any sort of recognizable property rights on the Moon. The best they are willing to concede are long term leases with the rent being paid to the United Nations.

Still possession is nine tenths of the law. An American moon base would insure that traditional American ideas such as private property and homesteading would influence the future legal regime. Otherwise the Europeans and others might try and push their model of tight government control and high taxes onto the off-Earth economy of the late 21st century . . .

Greg Allison, Chairman of the National Space Society’s Policy Committee states that it “believes that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty can be interpreted as permitting public and private entities to appropriate resources that they can directly utilize and to establish a ‘reasonable’ zone of operations around sites of activity.” An American base, even one with substantial international participation, would create a precedent that would not only apply to the Moon but to all the other accessible bodies in our solar system. (note: quotation marks had to be reentered from the VC due to formating problems).

Here are my previous thoughts on space exploration here.  And here is Eisner on “Space Keynesianism.”

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Fact of the day, courtesy of Luigi Zingales’ A Capitalism for the People:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, when modern capitalism was taking shape, US government spending was only 3 percent of gross domestic product.” (emphasis added)

And if the US government at all levels didn’t take so much of GDP today (over 40% of nominal GDP!), perhaps we’d have more money to spend on things like this pool in China (article on it here):

Is this a bird? Is this a plane? No, it's a daredevil swimmer.

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I was recently in a hotel owned by the U.S. Federal Government that had this picture on the wall in my room:

Isn’t it a bit strange to see the military leader of a rebellion being honored by the government he rebelled against?  I know this isn’t exactly strange in the sense of being unfamiliar  given that the US and the states have often chosen to deal with the history of the Confederacy and its leaders rather gingerly (to say the least).  But it is a bit jarring to see Lee here in my government room.  And imagine how one would feel as an African-American government employee assigned to this room knowing that the Confederacy for which Lee fought was at root all about preserving the institution of slavery.

As a Yankee and advocate for the individual rights of all men and women, I don’t particularly care for the Confederacy or its leaders.  Fortunately, libertarians like David Beito and Ron Bailey have provided a lot of good arguments for why all libertarians should share my antipathy to the C.S.A.  Here is a nice quotation from a piece by David Beito and Charles Nuckolls:

The primary documents of the period make crystal clear that the Confederacy and slavery went together like hand and glove. The declarations of “immediate causes” of secession of South Carolina and Mississippi say nary a word about the tariff or, for that matter, states rights; but they say quite a bit about the urgent need to protect slavery. Of course, any stress on states rights would have been out of character. During the 1850s, many of the authors of these documents had defended federal supremacy against Northern states that had enacted liberal laws to protect runaways.

Instead, these declarations for secession stress a compact theory that indicted the federal government for failing to live up to its end of the Constitutional bargain by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and by blocking the expansion of slavery into the territories. During the war itself, the Confederacy often trampled on both state and individual rights through the nationalization of industry, inflation, and conscription.

One other thing about Lee.  Even aside from the terrible cause for which he was fighting, it is arguable that the US military shouldn’t even celebrate Lee as a great American general.  Fortunately for the North, Lee didn’t remember George Washington’s more judicious generalship against a superior force or realize the simple lessons of insurgency later popularized by people like Lawrence of Arabia and Mao.

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. . . though the day is not even half over:

Nietzsche on Thucydides vs. Plato (found by chance on Wikipedia of all places when searching for something on the Google):

“My recreation, my predilection, my cure, after all Platonism, has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and perhaps Machiavelli’s principe are most closely related to me owing to the absolute determination which they show of refusing to deceive themselves and of seeing reason in reality– not in “rationality,” and still less in “morality.” There is no more radical cure than Thucydides for the lamentably rose-coloured idealisation of the Greeks… His writings must be carefully studied line by line, and his unuttered thoughts must be read as distinctly as what he actually says. There are few thinkers so rich in unuttered thoughts… Thucydides is the great summing up, the final manifestation of that strong, severe positivism which lay in the instincts of the ancient Hellene. After all, it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes such natures as Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward in the face of reality– consequently he takes refuge in the ideal: Thucydides is a master of himself– consequently he is able to master life.” (A Nietzsche Compendium, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici)

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Title of a new book by West Coast (or uber-East Coaster if his West Coastiness is merely for the rest of us) Straussian Harry V. Jaffa:

Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West

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Jason Brennan touts the case against voting on the Princeton University Press blog:

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

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Since I’ve frequently heard libertarians claim that one must be pro-choice if one is a libertarian, perhaps I should forgive this headline from Slate: “Paul Ryan: Liberatarian [sic] on the Market, the Opposite on Abortion.”

Leaving aside yet another instance of editorial sloppiness (what is a “liberatarian” anyway?), this headline clearly displays a lack of understanding of libertarian thought.  Fortunately, this sin is probably not the writer’s fault but is likely on the editor’s head.  The writer of the article underneath that problematic and misspelled headline, Emily Bazelon, seems close to getting it that one could be pro-choice in the market and pro-life on abortion.

But it is still sad to see another example of the “libertarians must be pro-choice” trope.  My guess at why we see this so frequently includes the fact that so many libertarian elites (especially in DC) are pro-choice and because these same people tend to promote a version of libertarianism as a philosophy opposed to nearly all social constraints (perhaps another thing we can blame on Mill?).

Here is my earlier argument for why libertarianism qua political theory is properly ecumenical on abortion.  And a little piece of that argument:

This [libertarians must be pro-chioce argument] represents either a serious misunderstanding of libertarianism or an overly broad conception of it that goes beyond politics.  Libertarianism – in the “statist” way I define it - is not opposed to any law restricting what an individual can do.  Properly understood, it is a thin political theory that sanctions only those laws that relate to the fundamental protection of an individual’s property rights, broadly understood (either because individuals have natural rights or because of a rule-utilitarian position that generates such rights).

Therefore, in the area of abortion, all hangs on the definition of when life begins, whether an unborn child/fetus has rights or when it gains them, and therefore when a life warrants protection by the state.  As a limited theory of politics, libertarianism cannot answer these questions and thus really has little to say on its own about whether abortion should be legal or illegal.  We as individual libertarians can only answer these questions by importing exogenous ethical or scientific theories.

Therefore, libertarianism is properly ecumenical on abortion.

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I did not see this one coming.  Like many, I’ve been a fan of Ryan for a long time and would (like many) rather see Ryan in the White House than Romney.  But I have serious doubts this choice will help Romney dislodge the current occupant.

I’m still trying to get my head around this choice.  Romney is a calculating guy, and it is hard to see how Ryan improves the electoral math.  What was Romney’s motivation?  All the Democratic loyalists seem to be doing cartwheels, and I find it hard to believe their joyful reaction is just a mask covering their fear.  Because Ryan is a person of substance, he gives the left a truckload of material they can use to distort and scare moderate voters.  It is a risky strategy to pick a running mate who will energize the base of one’s opponent.

I’m worried that this pick is mostly about Romney’s insecurities.  He’s the flip-flopping rich guy with the weird religion that his own party’s faithful barely tolerate and who gets frequently caricatured as a wimp who no one likes.  I think he has a deep desire to be liked and accepted, and this pick certainly gets him some love from conservatives.  I think, though, that Romney will find this strategy won’t work.  Conservatives are pleased with the pick and it will motivate additional enthusiasm about the campaign.  But the ultimate effect is likely that people will think even more strongly that Romney is a do-anything opportunist who is just trying to please others.

A more optimistic view is that Romney wants to paint a clear contrast with Obama.  Ryan brings ideas and substance to campaign.  He is one of the few politicians who is able to articulate how severe the long-term fiscal picture of the nation is, and he has had the courage to put forward plans to address real problems.  Democrats hate his budget plan not only because it shrinks government but because it puts in stark contrast that the left has no workable plan whatsoever for entitlement reform.

Perhaps Romney has more faith in ideas than many give him credit for (though it is hard to infer this from the campaign thus far).  Romney had to have known that this choice would move the campaign in a fundamentally different direction.  Perhaps his choice reflects a faith that the American people can actually be persuaded by an ideological debate, rather than by the normal fluff and pettiness of retail politics.

If this is the case, then Romney would have to be the most idealistic presidential candidate since, at least, Reagan–but one who brings a lot more brain cells to the debate than Reagan could have ever fired up.  Perhaps he is moving he campaign in this substantive direction because he believes it is the debate we should be having, win or lose.

I am still too cynical to buy into that theory fully and even more skeptical that it will buy him more than just a moral victory in November.  But at least we can say that, at long last, the campaign just got interesting.

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From a Reuters article on the VP pick:

Romney knew Ryan was his man before Ryan knew.

Could it have been any other way, absent Ryan being a superhero who could see the future (and not merely a hero to many conservatives)?

WWDL think?

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Congressman Paul Ryan on Ayn Rand from today’s LA Times story on the novelist’s influence on the new Veep candidate:

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” [snip]

“What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now.  I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”

I think the story is just short of being a smear using guilt by association.  Sure, it is interesting and newsworthy to know the intellectual influences of politicians.  But the LA Times is clearly taking a very small thing among the millions of things Ryan has said and trying to brand him an extremist: “Rand was a nutter, Ryan thought Rand was pretty ok, Ryan must be a nutter too and thus unfit to lead the country (or actually, to be a heartbeat away as the cliché goes).”  If this were true, millions and millions would be unacceptable on this basis alone.

Too bad Ryan has actually governed far more moderately than Ayn and other limited government folks would have liked.  Indeed, one might argue that Ryan is more Reagan than Rand since the Gipper too liked to tap into the classical liberal pantheon and use its language while governing pretty moderately.  So he’s clearly operating within the 40 yard lines of American politics.

See this Reason piece on all the very unRandian things Ryan has supported; here is a juicy quotation from it (though Rand wouldn’t have disapproved of his hawkishness):

Libertarians, meanwhile, should find it easy to reject Ryan. He’s a hawk with a rotten record on civil liberties: bad on the Patriot Act, bad on indefinite detentions, bad on surveillance, bad on the border fence, bad on the drug war. On the economic front, he has backed the bank and auto bailouts, Medicare Part D, even Davis-Bacon. His reputation as a free-market stalwart rests on his exaggerated reputation as a budget hawk and his habit of praising Ayn Rand. The second of those clearly hasn’t meant much when it’s time to vote on legislation . . .

More on the pick later.

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Justice Swayne in Trist v. Child (1874):

The foundation of a republic is the virtue of its citizens. They are at once sovereigns and subjects. As the foundation is undermined, the structure is weakened. When it is destroyed, the fabric must fall. Such is the voice of universal history. The theory of our government is, that all public stations are trusts, and that those clothed with them are to be animated in the discharge of their duties solely by considerations of right, justice, and the public good. They are never to descend to a lower plane. But there is a correlative duty resting upon the citizen. In his intercourse with those in authority, whether executive or legislative, touching the performance of their functions, he is bound to exhibit truth, frankness, and integrity. Any departure from the line of rectitude in such cases, is not only bad in morals, but involves a public wrong. No people can have any higher public interest, except the preservation of their liberties, than integrity in the administration of their government in all its departments.

The agreement in the present case was for the sale of the influence and exertions of the lobby agent to bring about the passage of a law for the payment of a private claim, without reference to its merits, by means which, if not corrupt, were illegitimate, and considered in connection with the pecuniary interest of the agent at stake, contrary to the plainest principles of public policy. No one has a right, in such circumstances, to put himself in a position of temptation to do what is regarded as so pernicious in its character. The law forbids the inchoate step, and puts the seal of its reprobation upon the undertaking.

If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers who make market of themselves in this way, to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and employed as steeped in corruption, and the employment as infamous [emphasis added].

For more on this theme, see de Tocqueville here.

HT: Luigi Zingales.

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Summer Reading 2012

Foreign Policy magazine’s “Shadow Government” blog recently posted the summer reading recommendations of a number of its contributors.  Several listed Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson.  Why Nations Fail was on my summer reading list too since I’ve assigned it in one of my classes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really get a summer vacation this year so my non-research reading was light.  But here are some recommendations if you are still looking for something for the beach or, thanks to the economy, your “staycation”:

Luigi Zingales – A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity

I’ve thumbed through a few pages so far and it looks interesting.  Nice to see someone distinguish between a free-market system and corrupt crony-capitalism that often gets confused with true capitalism.  I’m particularly eager to read Zingales’ chapter on “The Responsibilities of the Intellectuals.”

Joel Mokyr – The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 and Dierdre McCloskey – Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World

If Acemoglu and Robinson’s institutionalist argument turns you into a latter-day Madisonian, these books might bring you back to de Tocqueville who noted, according to McCloskey, that institutions exert “only a secondary influence on the destiny of men. . . . Political societies are not what the laws make them, but what sentiments, beliefs, ideas, habits of the heart [in his famous phrase from Democracy in America], and the spirit of the men who form them prepare them in advance to be. . . . The sentiments, the ideas, the mores [moeurs] . . . alone can lead to public prosperity and liberty” (quoted on page 351).

Milton Friedman  – Capitalism and Freedom

For the younger readers of our blog, this classic is a great place to get acquainted with Friedman’s ideas and mode of argument (both of which we can learn from).  The examples are dated but the solutions still noteworthy.  Plus we celebrated his 100th birthday this year, so why not check him out for the first time or again if it has been a while since you read the master.

P.W. Singer – Wired for War

It has a lot of fluff and pop culture references, but don’t let this fool you into thinking it isn’t a very serious work.  Signer will help the lay reader get acquainted with the world of drones and their place in the future of warfare.  There are newer works out there on drones but this is still a great introduction.  An easy, fun read perfect for the beach.

Jason Sorens – Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read his book yet – but I think he can forgive me since I’ve heard many of the arguments from the source himself!  Still, I would be remiss in not giving it a plug for the summer list since it is the newest book written by one of our bloggers.  Given that secession is an important and timely topic of inquiry, Sorens is sure to provide a strong foundation to understand the subject and the world around us.

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Anything but human

Today in the NY Times philosophy column, “The Stone,” Richard Polt takes on those who try to “reduce” ethics and humanity to biology or technology.

Here are some tidbits.  I recommend the whole essay.  It isn’t long.

…In fact, the very idea of an “ought” is foreign to evolutionary theory. It makes no sense for a biologist to say that some particular animal should be more cooperative, much less to claim that an entire species ought to aim for some degree of altruism. If we decide that we should neither “dissolve society” through extreme selfishness, as Wilson puts it, nor become “angelic robots” like ants, we are making an ethical judgment, not a biological one. Likewise, from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that I should be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried. In short, a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.

…Today’s “artificial intelligence” is cleverly designed, but it’s no closer to real intelligence than the letter-writing automatons of the 18th century. None of these devices can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no program, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a machine. So computers are anything but human — in fact, they’re well below the level of an ant. Show me the computer that can feel the slightest twinge of pain or burst of pleasure; only then will I believe that our machines have started down the long road to thought.

…The temptation to reduce the human to the subhuman has been around for a long time. In Plato’s “Phaedo,” Socrates says that some philosophers would explain his presence in prison by describing the state of his bones and sinews, but would say nothing about his own decisions and his views of what was best — the real reasons he ended up on death row. “They can’t tell the difference between the cause and that without which the cause couldn’t be a cause,” he says. Without a brain or DNA, I couldn’t write an essay, drive my daughter to school or go to the movies with my wife. But that doesn’t mean that my genes and brain structure can explain why I choose to do these things — why I affirm them as meaningful and valuable.

Good stuff throughout, including an interesting analysis of why people are prone to explain the human with the sub-human.

I would quibble on one point, though.  Polt argues that “…in order to reject reductionism, we don’t necessarily have to embrace religion or the supernatural.”  Naturalistic ethics (which are really non-ethics, in my view) can be combated, I suppose, without appealing to the supernatural.  But if core ethical questions are not grounded in nature, where else can they be grounded but in the supernatural?

We can philosophize about what makes us human or what makes humans survive and flourish, but what answer does naturalism have to the larger question of why does humanity matter in the first place?  In an arbitrary, random, and meaningless universe, there is no reason to think that humans or anything we do matters or means anything at all.

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The Olympic controversy of the day is from badminton—a sport I follow religiously.  Four women’s doubles teams, including the top-ranked Chinese team, were disqualified for trying to lose their matches so that they would get more favorable match-ups in the next round.

Shocking! Though not really.  When the rules of the tournament create incentives to lose a match, is it a surprise that highly competitive athletes will do what the rules allow them to do if it helps their prospects of winning?  Indeed, one might criticize them for not doing so.   How is trying to do their best to win the tournament either unethical or unsportsmanlike?  It’s not like they threw the match to get a payoff from some bookie or hired some thug to take a crowbar to their opponent’s kneecap.   People say they ripped off fans who paid a lot of money to see world-class play.  But is failing to please fans the definition of sportsmanship?

Trying to lose always sounds sort of unsportsmanlike.  But there are lots of legitimate ways that athletes under-perform for strategic advantage.  A basketball player will intentionally miss a free throw.  A quarterback will take a knee.  A defensive back will swat down a ball he could have intercepted.  A pitcher will walk a batter to create force-outs or to bypass the biggest bat of the opponents.  Top players will sit out unimportant games to preserve their health for games that matter.  And all of these things have the potential to cause fans to boo and hiss, but everyone knows the under-performance is for legitimate strategic reasons.  (Intentionally throwing games to get a higher position in next years draft is a little ethically more suspect, I think, but maybe not.)  The badminton players were under-performing for strategic advantage within the context of the rules of the tournament they were trying to win.  Should we expect anything different?

The real villains here, of course, are the sports officials who write lofty and vague codes of conduct requiring athletes to behave one way, but then incentivize them to behave another, creating unnecessary conflicts for the athletes.  Shame on them.

In the women’s gymnastics qualifying round,  reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber finished fourth in the All-Around qualifying events, but is disqualified from competing because only two athletes from each country can qualify, and two American girls were ahead of her.  So, 21 other young women with inferior performance get a chance to compete, and Jordyn has to bite the bitter pill.  A Russian, Brit, and Chinese faced the same fate so that the 28th placing Australian can have a chance to compete.

This type of multinational affirmative action is disgusting for many reasons.  But it can also create powerful incentives that could be very damaging.  Imagine a young woman who is part of a team that has a highly authoritarian leadership—a given in places like China.  Assume the top performer stumbles a bit, and the third-ranked member of the team is told by her coach that she has to throw the competition to preserve a spot for the top-ranked player who was facing elimination.  Not to hard to imagine.

It would be nice if the athletes, who are the ones paying with blood, sweat and tears, could be assured the opportunity to compete without political influence by officials whose incentives are very different from the competitors.

Of course the same also holds true outside the world of sport.

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“You know about Agenda 21, right?” It’s always said in a tone approaching a hushed whisper. If I can manage to nod and smile, at least, rather than rolling my eyes, I will be admitted into the club: a club of knowing, Alex Jones-listening “true conservatives” or “patriots.” Because I — we — know what They are Really Doing.

Agenda 21 is the latest bugbear for conspiracy-minded right-wingers. The Economist recently reported on how jogging and biking trails were opposed by elected Republican officials on the grounds that they would advance the United Nations’ sinister Agenda 21, as part of a grand plan to abrogate American sovereignty.

In case you’re wondering what Agenda 21 actually is, here’s the Wikipedia page. This is just another feel-good, do-nothing UN statement of Things That We Like that has no legal force anywhere — from 20 years ago. (It’s interesting how the bêtes noirs du jour that conspiracy theorists seize on are so… arbitrary.)

My ire was raised on this topic this morning when reading on the New Hampshire Union-Leader‘s website that the former chair of the NH GOP (before he was forced out by sensible folk), Jack Kimball, has endorsed a maverick sheriff candidate on the grounds that he’s anti-Agenda 21:

Kimball said that Szabo is “not only aware of Agenda 21, but was prepared to stop it, if elected Sheriff. Frank is truly a breath of fresh air and it is good to know that we have a true Constitutional Candidate for Sheriff.”

I suspect conservatives like to resort to conspiracy theories because it is all too easy to ascribe evil intent to one’s political adversaries, and because it provides a “short cut” of sorts to development of one’s issue positions. Instead of actually learning about transportation issues, let’s just take our stance from the fact that the other side wants to usher in the Antichrist.

Conservative activists, you might want to try actually learning how to communicate how conservative policies benefit the average American (if they do), rather than wallowing in paranoia. The swing voter is not impressed.

And no, I’m not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission.

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