November 2003

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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Disappointment 

Richard Dawkins is a great scientist and communicator. His The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker were both very important to my intellectual development. I've seen him speak a few times on television and have always been impressed. I have also appreciated his unreserved criticisms of religious thinking.

But, it appears that he is a moral and political idiot.

Take a look his letter to President Bush (fourth one down). I'd consider fisking it, but The World has already done an excellent job of that.

It's very sad when an intellectual hero disappoints so dramatically.


Saturday, November 22, 2003

Risk 

I think the concept of risk, and how we manage it, has received far less attention (outside of economics) than it deserves.

Steven DenBeste has a good (though long) post about this here. I encourage you to read it. While I think he over-generalizes the U.S. vs. EU differences, there is an element of this difference reflected in recent policies.

Extreme risk aversion is an irrational over-valuing the expected costs and under-valuing the expected benefits of proposed actions (or inactions) of our own, and of events beyond our control. In the long run, extreme risk aversion will definitely lead to less success.

Most of us are risk averse to some extent in some areas. That's why good financial planners assess an investor's tolerance for risk before devising an appropriate plan for him. Psychological comfort is important, and it often makes sense for us, individually, to pursue a plan that might be sub-optimal, theoretically, but will make us happier given our hard-to-change psychological tendencies.

That's also one of the reasons that I think it's wrong to dictate to (and impose on) others what level of risk they should accept for themselves in their personal lives.

However, in the area of government policymaking I think it's wrong, often disastrously so, to allow extreme risk aversion to guide policy. We should be understanding of those citizens with the worst risk aversion problems, but we should not let them dictate policy and impose massive costs on the rest of us.

One problem I noticed immediately with Rawls' A Theory Of Justice (and later learned that many others observed this too) is that his person in the Original Position was extremely risk averse; fanatically focusing on the worst-case scenario (via his difference principle).

I think Virginia Postrel is right to suggest that the distinction, politically, between liberals and conservatives is less important than the difference between those who try to impose an irrational resistance to the risks of change on us (stasists), and those who embrace changes and suggest managing the risks rationally (dynamists). These groups do not correspond to liberals vs. conservatives (e.g. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan united against international trade).

Whether DenBeste recognizes it or not, we've got many stasists in America; and much of the government is involved in enacting their agenda.

There's a lot more to say about these things. But, if I try do it all at once, I might never post anything.


Friday, November 21, 2003

SteynOnline 

I added a link to Mark Steyn on the sidebar. I should read more of his articles, because I think I've liked everything of his that I've read so far.

Like this, for example.


Which Would You Prefer? 

From Lileks today:

It’s going to take another attack to convince the fence-sitters: I hear this all the time. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the next attack on American soil will jolt those who’ve moved on, who’ve forgotten the aching, clammy dread we all felt after 9/11. But others will believe that we brought it on ourselves. You already read it around the web – the bombings in Turkey were a response to Britain’s assistance for toppling Saddam; what did we expect? In other words: if we fight back, we get what we deserve. If we do not fight back, and we are attacked again, you can blame it on the crimes for which we have not yet sufficiently atoned. The only proper posture for the West is supine. Curl up and let them kick until they’re spent. Give them Israel and New York and perhaps they’ll go away.
This is either going to end on their terms, or ours. Which would you prefer?

There's more good stuff there worth reading; including a response to Salam Pax's sneering message to Bush.


Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Cold As Hell 

I just heard somebody say "It's as cold as Hell outside."

That always amuses me.


Thursday, November 13, 2003

An Open Letter To President Bush 

Dear President Bush,

The recent WTO ruling against the current steel tariffs has given you a great opportunity. I hope that you will take advantage of it and comply with the ruling by removing the tariffs.

I understand that the tariffs were an attempt to win political support from members of the steel industry in states important to your re-election. But, you must know that they are a drag on the economy, costing more jobs than they protect, raising prices of consumer products, and risking retaliatory trade restrictions. This is a wealth transfer whose continuation is not in the best interest of the nation.

The recent ruling is a chance for you to correct this policy with political cover. It is a chance to show the world that you are, indeed, interested in multilateral cooperation, and in respecting the decisions of a collective body that we have agreed would settle issues like this.

You can tell the steel industry that they have had a period of protection, and you hope that they used it to become more competitive. Say that you would have liked to have had more control over when the tariffs would end, but events have made that impossible.

Any voters who might turn against you for this stand are not supporters you could have relied upon anyway. Others will respect this decision and understand that you’re putting a priority on international cooperation and the economic philosophy you believe in, rather than unprincipled political calculations.

I hope you will recognize this opportunity and do the right thing.

Sincerely,

Gil Milbauer


Wednesday, November 12, 2003

School Policies can be Relied Upon to be Reasonable and Helpful 

Just kidding!


Tuesday, November 11, 2003

George Soros is a Fool 

George Soros is clearly not a stupid man. He has understood financial markets well enough to have made billions in them. But, he seems to be way out of his depth when it comes to thinking generally about politics and economics.

I realized this years ago when I read this article. It's particularly disappointing that he drags Karl Popper's name and ideas into his confused musings, and he even named his organization the Open Society Institute, referencing Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.

And, now Soros is spending millions on defeating George W. Bush in 2004 and making it "The central focus of my life."

It's kind of sad. If Soros wants to get really serious about putting his money where his mouth is, I think he could squander his fortune much more efficiently by giving billions to the United Nations.

Just ask Ted Turner.

Update: I almost forgot this recent appearance before the Jewish Funders Network conference at which Soros basically blamed the recent rise of anti-Semitism on the policies of the Bush and Sharon administrations, and on the Jews themselves.

Another Update: David Carr at Samizdata cracked me up today:

Of course, Mr Soros is free to do what he pleases with his own money but is this plutocratic takeover of the American left really all about George Bush? Or are there more lavish plans afoot? Mr. Soros has mind-boggling amounts of money, an army of political footsoldiers at his disposal and a 'doctrine'. All he needs to complete the picture is a monocle and a persian cat.

Illiberalism 

According to David Bernstein, John Kerry has stated that "if I saw someone burning the flag, I'd punch them in the mouth because I love the flag". And "Meanwhile, Wesley Clark joins Dick Gephardt in supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning. "

Does anybody remember when liberalism involved the principled support of the freedom of expression; particularly unpopular expression?


Monday, November 10, 2003

Mugged by the State 

A common problem that I find with the arguments of people who advocate having the state responsible for decisions about our lives and resources (for our own good, of course) is that they always seem to imagine irresponsible individuals and angelic bureaucrats; even though real-life and common sense indicate that people will tend to make better decisions for themselves (because they have more knowledge of their own circumstances) and government agents will often abuse power. Even if the theoretical cases for libertarianism (ethical and practical) don't convince you, this danger of abuse should give you pause.

That's pretty much where I am with the death penalty, for example. I accept the theoretical case for capital punishment. But, in practice, I just don't trust the state's employees to be careful enough with this kind of life-and-death power when it isn't absolutely necessary to give it to them. Police, prosecutors, judges, and also juries make mistakes. Why make error correction impossible?

Radley Balko has a piece on Tech Central Station today about the book: Mugged by the State by Randall Fitzgerald. It's a series of real-life stories of people who had their property rights (and, thus, their lives) violated by the government. You can also read excerpts from the book here, here, here and here.

Click on the links if you don't mind getting angry.


Saturday, November 08, 2003

A Riddle 

Q. What do you get when you mix the War on Drugs with compulsory schooling?

A. Children forced to endure this.


Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The Pledge of Allegiance 

Gene Healy at Cato has written an article called What's Conservative About the Pledge of Allegiance? In it, he criticizes conservatives who posture about preserving this glorious tradition, and reminds them of the nationalistic socialism of the Pledge's creator, Francis Bellamy. But, I doubt this will affect those who love the Pledge, because they don't really care about its origins. What they care about is the symbolism of the flag and the appropriateness of indoctrinating youth by coercing them to profess allegiance repeatedly until they actually believe they have some obligation to the state. Fortunately, this doesn't really work.

The recent Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow case, which the Supreme Court has agreed to hear, is not about the entire Pledge, but the question of whether the "Under God" phrase constitutes a First Amendment Establishment Clause violation. It seems to me that pressuring children to say "Under God" or be isolated and disfavored by the teacher and peers does violate the Establishment Clause at least as much as other things that have been found in violation. It's worth noting that "Under God" wasn't in the original pledge, and was added in 1954 as an attempt to distinguish the U.S. from atheistic communism.

But, I'm not just annoyed by "Under God." The entire pledge should go.

I always found it stupid to pledge allegiance to a flag; especially since the pledge is to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. I understood that it's symbolic, but I always thought it was odd that millions of children were pledging something every day without knowing what it meant. What exactly is one promising when one pledges allegiance to the flag? What constitutes a violation of that pledge?

I love the founding principles of the U.S. These include individual liberty and the idea that the government doesn't rule subjects who owe it allegiance; but rather the government exists to serve the people; and when they think it errs, the people should correct it, not stupidly cheer it on. I always found it ironic that people who really love these principles would hate the idea of a government pressuring its citizens to pledge allegiance to it, rather than encouraging them to support it when they approve of it and denouce it when they disapprove. It's interesting that the original pledge was performed with a gesture similar to a Nazi salute, and only changed to the hand-on-heart form after the rise of actual Nazism.

I think genuine american patriots should not only disapprove of the Pledge, but of the entire notion of government schools. But, that's a post for another day.


Monday, November 03, 2003

Anti-Semitism 

I was born Jewish. My parents were Jewish. But, from a young age I resisted a Jewish identity. I rejected the mysticism of religious belief; the seemingly mindless rituals; the unearned guilt; the collectivism. I was outraged by being (briefly) forced to attend hebrew school, and offended friends of my family with criticisms of Judaism and Israeli policies.

I've often said that I don't really consider myself to be Jewish...unless there is an anti-semite in the room. I might not agree with all of Judaism, but I know which side of the Jew/Anti-Semite battle I belong on.

I've always found anti-semitism difficult to understand. Why would people hate me, and the wonderful Jewish people that I know? It just made no sense. I understood that unsuccessful leaders wanted scapegoats, and that many people resented that Jews kept separate (resisting inter-marriage, conversion, local customs, etc.). But that didn't explain the persistent hatred of Jews for thousands of years. I had a sense that it was because Jews were often successful where others were not; that Jews pursued the "Western" values of knowledge, justice, human rights, before these gained popularity in the West. I've heard many theories, but none have been entirely satisfactory. I still don't understand anti-semitism, but I think it's about more than reasons to hate Jews. It's about real problems with many people's values.

And now, anti-semitism really seems to be on the rise again.

All of this is just an introduction to my encouragement for you to read Natan Sharansky's powerful examination of this question.

(Thanks to The World for the pointer.)