Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….

 

On Google and doublethink

The new Google slogan has been unveiled today (hat tip: Marina F.):

wip-google

For those who have been living under a rock: Google fired an employee for having the temerity to write a memo [draft archived here][full text here via Mark Perry at AEI] questioning the “diversity” (what I call “fauxversity”) and “affirmative action” (i.e., reverse discrimination) policies of the company. Said employee had earlier filed a labor grievance and is taking legal action. Now quite interestingly, here is an article in which four actual experts discuss the science underlying the memo, and basically find it unexceptional even though they do not all agree with the author on its implications. One of them, an evolutionary psychology professor at U. of New Mexico, has the money quote:

Here, I just want to take a step back from the memo controversy, to highlight a paradox at the heart of the ‘equality and diversity’ dogma that dominates American corporate life. The memo didn’t address this paradox directly, but I think it’s implicit in the author’s critique of Google’s diversity programs. This dogma relies on two core assumptions:
  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.
The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.
Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.
Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.
So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.
On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.
So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.
Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

[“Jeb Kinnison” draws my attention to another article.] I just saw in an essay by Christina Hoff Sommers [see also video] on the AEI website that the National Science Foundation [!], as recently as 2007, sent around a questionnaire asking researchers to identify any research equipment in their lab building that was not accessible to women. In 2007. Seriously, I don’t know whether whoever came up with this “go find the crocodile milk” policy was gunning for a Nobel prize in Derpitude

 

derp seal

or trying to create sinecures for otherwise unemployable paper-pushers, or trying to divert bureaucratic energy into a Mobius loop that would minimize interference with serious decisions.

But on a more serious note: even before I saw the “paradox” remarks, I could not help being reminded of this passage in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The protagonist, Winston Smith, retorts to his mentor turned inquisitor:

‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
 ‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’ 

Precisely: doublethink. Thus it is possible, for example, that certain biological differences between men and women, or between ethnic groups, can be at the same time out of bounds for polite discussion,  yet entirely taken for granted in a medical setting. I remember when Jackie Mason in the early 1990s joked about wanting an [Ashkenazi] Jewish affirmative action quota for runners and basketball players: nowadays, that joke would probably get him fired at Google, while a sports doctor treating top athletes would just chuckle.

The root of evil here is twofold:

(1) the concept that even correct factual information might be harmful as it might encourage heresy [hmm, where have we heard that one before?];

(2) considering people as interchangeable members of collectives, rather than individuals. If one considers the abilities of a specific individual, then for the case at hand it does not matter whether the average aptitudes for X differ significantly between groups A and B, or not. (There is, in any case, much greater variability between individuals within a group than between groups.)

I would add:
(2b) overconfidence in numerical benchmarks by people without a real grasp of what they mean.

Outside the strict PC/AA context, it is the fallacy in (2b) which gives rise to such pathologies as politicians pushing for ever-higher HS graduation or college enrollment rates — because they only see “the percentage has gone up from X to Y” without seeing the underlying reality. They are much like the economic planners in the (thank G-d!) former USSR, who accepted inflated production statistics of foodstuffs and consumer goods at face value, while all those not privileged enough to shop inside the Nomenklatura bubble knew well enough that they were a sham. Likewise, those of us educated in a bygone era realize that the “much greater” HS and college graduation rates of today were achieved by the educational equivalent of puppy milling:

  • the HS curriculum has for most pupils been watered down to meaninglessness;
  • supposedly “native-born and educated” college students often are deficient in basic arithmetic and reading comprehension;
  • a general education at the level we used to get at an Atheneum or Gymnasium [i.e., academic-track high schools in Europe] nowadays requires either a college degree or an expensive private prep school.

But simplistic numerical benchmarks are beloved of bureaucrats everywhere, as they are excellent excuses for bureaucratic meddling. As Instapundit is fond of remarking: the trouble with true gender- and ethnicity-blind fairness — and with true diversity, which must include the diversity of opinion —  is that “there isn’t enough opportunity for graft in it”.

PS: apropos the calling the original author of the essay names that essentially place him outside civil society, a must-read editorial in the Boston Globe by historian Niall Ferguson. His wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, knows a thing or two about what real hardcore misogyny looks like, and how useless the Western liberal left is facing it. Moneygraf of the op-ed:

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: The real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

PPS: the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress weighs in on the controversy and applies some verbal ju-jitsu.

P^3S: heh (via an Instapundit comment thread): 3r06ultwiy725dfbgce3gelzczdktgliwnw8-aldmx0

P^4S: Welcome Instapundit readers!

P^5S: Megan McArdle weighs in (via Instapundit) and reminisces about her own early years in tech.

Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a [then bleeding-edge tech, Ed.] fiber-channel network in her basement.

I’m not saying such women don’t exist; I know they do. I’m just saying that if they exist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were obviously pretty comfortable with computers. We can’t blame it on residual sexism that prevented women from ever getting into the field; the number of women working with computers has actually gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on current sexism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber-channel network in his basement; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a million years have chosen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you get up the ladder, the more important those preferences become. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through basic problems. Most smart people can be taught to build a basic workstation and hook it up to a server. But the more complicated the problems get, the more knowledge and skill they require, and the people who acquire that sort of expertise are the ones who are most passionately interested in those sorts of problems. A company like Google, which turns down many more applicants than it hires, is going to select heavily for that sort of passion. If more men have it than women, the workforce will be mostly men.

She explains how she then moved into a field — policy journalism — that is also heavily male, but that she found she could get as passionate about as her former colleagues about [then] bleeding-edge technology.  Passionate enough, in fact, that she did it for free for five years (under the blog name “Jane Galt”) until she was hired by a major national magazine on the strength of her portfolio. Passion combined with talent can move mountains—or, if you pardon the metaphor, shatter glass ceilings.

P^6S: in the libertarian magazine Reason, David Harsanyi: By firing the Google memo author, the company confirms his thesis and “The vast majority of the histrionic reactions on social media and elsewhere have misrepresented not only what the memo says but also its purpose.” In the same magazine,  Nick Gillespie adds that “The Google memo exposes a libertarian blindspot when it comes to power: it is not just the state that wields power and squelches good-faith debate”.

P^7S: now this is Muggeridge’s Law in action. (Hat tip: Marina F.) I was certain this was satire when I first saw it…

 

On socialism, incentives, and kibbutzim

Mark Perry discusses the failure of socialism. Among the cardinal features he singles out is the fact that, if you allow me to translate him into engineering lingo, the system is “not robust”: all it takes for the system to fail is a few people behaving like, well, jerks. In contrast, imperfect as capitalism may be, it’s the equivalent of a piece of machinery that only works “well enough”, but keeps going and going even if severely abused — a “robust” design.

Aside from that, Perry particularly stresses the role of incentives. Now if I’m ever asked to summarize economics while standing on one foot (the Talmudic version of “give an elevator pitch”), I’d say: “Humans respond to incentives. All the rest is commentary.” I am sure Steven Levitt would like this as a summary of his bestselling “Freakonomics” series.

Periodically, people bring up the Israeli kibbutzim in this debate — socialists as an example of “socialism that works”, detractors of Israel (when speaking to conservative or libertarian audiences) as a reason to dislike Israel. Few of them actually have any familiarity with life on a kibbutz.* Unlike them, I have plenty of current and former kibbutzniks around me, and I’ve lived in a kibbutz-like community in the past.

In fact, they are remarkably similar to medieval monasteries from a socio-economic point of view, except of course for the enforced celibacy and religious orientation. Allow me to elaborate on this point a bit. For those interested in more detail, Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky has published a number of very interesting papers on the subject just as this one and that one.

Some of the points old-school kibbutzim and monasteries (both quasi-socialist micro societies, at least historically) have in common:

  • membership is voluntary (for the first generation of kibbutzniks)
  • prospective members are strongly screened for ideological and personal compatibility
  • even when admitted, they have to go through a probation period (novitiate in monasteries, provisional member status in kibbutzim)
  • they are generally small enough that each individual member knows (almost) all the others personally, which enables:
  • a level of social control that would be unbearable to most Americans. One could go as far as to say that the economic incentive to individuals in such communities has been replaced by a social one: the approval (or censure) of fellow members.

For all the talk about them, it might be hard to believe that kibbutzim only account for a few percent of Israel’s population. Aside from speaking to the imagination, they played a larger-than-life role in Israel’s founding, and still are heavily represented in IDF combat units and in the political scene.

Considering the value that left-wingers attach to “diversity”, Dr. Abramitzky rightly points out that kibbutzim are just about the least “diverse” society one can imagine. Separate kibbutz movements existed for hardline socialists (HaKibbutz HaArtzi), moderate socialists (TAKA”M, Hebrew acronym for United Kibbutz Movement) and religious kibbutzim (HaKibbutz HaDati). Ideological rifts within a kibbutz can end, and have ended, in kibbutz splits — Ein Harod being a prominent example.

The membership of most kibbutzim were nearly wall-to-wall Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern European background — moreover, the founding gar’in (“core” [membership group]) of a kibbutz often all hailed from the same town! A few carefully vetted members of different origins might gain admission, or a like-minded group of such people might found a kibbutz of their own. A few individual kibbutzim were formed by somewhat ‘out there’ communities: Hararit, for instance, was originally founded by a group of  Transcendental Meditation devotees. (She-yihyu bri’im/”bless their hearts”.)

There are a few really large kibbutzim, such as Giv`at Brenner (secular, about 1,700) or Kvutzat Yavne (religious, about 1,100). But more typically, membership is in the range of a couple hundred — which Dr. Abramitzky points out is near the limit of the human mind’s ability to process personal relationships. Kibbutzim that grow larger than that may eventually see rifts or be weakened by attrition — or a gar`in would form and a new kibbutz would be established elsewhere.

The model of “from each voluntary and vetted member according to their abilities, to everyone according to their needs and our resources” worked, after a fashion, until the 1980s. Worldwide economic changes that made agriculture and light industry less profitable were one factor. The second (sometimes third) generation of kibbutzniks being born into a model they had not taken upon themselves voluntarily was another. Many kibbutzim started experiencing an exodus of young people, particularly the talented and ambitious ones.

The 1980s financial “Kibbutz Crisis” forced most kibbutzim to reform in order to stave off bankruptcy. Some were privatized outright and turned into community villages that just retain “Kibbutz” as part of their name. The remainder exist in one of three models:

  • kibbutz mitchadesh, or “renewing kibbutz”, where every member’s only sources of income are their own, from work or trade inside or outside the kibbutz. This is presently the dominant model;
  • kibbutz shitufi (pronounced “sheetoofee”), or “sharing kibbutz”: the old-school model rebooted (a small minority);
  • kibbutz meshulav, or “combined kibbutz”: a hybrid model with wage differentiation

A few “urban kibbutzim” have been founded in recent years, where members voluntarily associate into such a form of living in an urban setting. Some of these groups are a little weird (centering around ecological or “alternative” obsessions), others more mainstream. The key word is, however, voluntary. Such “socialism” is not scalable to a large and diverse country of inhabitants mostly by birth rather than choice.

To the extent the kibbutz/monastery form of “socialism” ever worked, it did so because it was voluntary, vetted, tightly knit, and in tune with local economic circumstances. When one or more of these factors no longer pertained, it had no choice but to transform or disappear.

(*) Footnote: a kibbutz should not be confused with a moshav, which is an agricultural community organized as a smallholders’ cooperative.

 

Can one be both socially conservative and libertarian? Answer: yes

Roger Simon discusses something I had been meaning to write about. His post touches on the tension between social conservatism and the libertarian impulse.

I myself identify as both a social conservative and a small-l libertarian. The contradiction, in fact, is only an apparent one. Allow me to explain.

First of all, there is a fundamental difference between libertarianism and libertinism. Libertinism seeks not liberty but license — the license to ‘do as thou wilst’ while being fully insulated from the consequences of irresponsible behavior. Libertarianism, on the other hand, seeks to get the state out of one’s wallet and bedroom to the extent practically possible, but by definition rejects the concept of the state insulating one from consequences of one’s own irresponsible behavior.

Yes, I believe deeply in a number of values that are generally considered socially conservative, and believe society would benefit greatly if more people would strive to live by these time-proven values. But I believe in furthering them by persuasion and personal example, not by state coercion with its reverse Midas touch.

The answer of every GOP candidate when asked about social issues (other than work ethic and self-reliance, which were still considered social issues when I was young) should be this: “My beliefs are well known, but I do not believe it is the government’s task to enforce them. Now, about the federal deficit and the economy…”

Of course, here’s the flipside: if you don’t want public resources to be used to enforce your beliefs, neither should they be used to enforce those of the other side (no subsidized abortions or s3x changes, no creating a ‘protected/privileged class’ out of a s3xual preference,…). And if you want to engage in risk behaviors (be they nutritional, sexual, smoking,…) do not seek to simultaneously deny us the right to criticize these behaviors yet tax us to foot the bill for them.

And the flip side of rejecting state coercion in “family values” matters is, what ‘cousin Dave’ calls, “get[ting] government out of the business of rearranging society with its offerings of perverse incentives. ”

“Bring the state back to basics.” Even if you do believe that the state should do some stuff beyond what I call “night-watchman duties” (national defense, public law and order, border protection, international relations), as long as it cannot handle the essentials properly it should not concern itself with peripherals. One does not argue about interior decoration while the house is on fire.

Replacing the aristocracy of money by the aristocracy of pull

Ayn Rand is an extremely verbose author, but she could be very concise and to the point when she put her mind to it. Witness this scene from ‘Atlas Shrugged’: the crony-capitalist James Taggart starts on a familiar rant and suddenly gets cut off:

We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-chasers. We will build a society dedicated to higher ideals, and we will replace the aristocracy of money by–

“the aristocracy of pull,” interjects d’Anconia.

Bingo. Had she been writing today, she might have said “the aristocracy of clout” or “the aristocracy of connections” or in Israel or Russia “the aristocracy of protektziya“.

Make no mistake: there is no such thing as a purely equal society. As George Orwell had his fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein put it: every society in human history has had a High, a Middle, and a Low. In a capitalist society, the High tend to be those with the most money. In a society of the type envisioned by the ‘social justice’ crowd (a term like “People’s Democratic Republic” in which every word actually means the opposite of its plain meaning) all that will happen is that who is part of the ‘High’ gets determined no longer by one’s net worth, but by the number and quality of one’s connections.

I have seen this first-hand in socialized medicine systems, where indeed money could not buy you access to gold-plated treatment — but being connected to the right people could. As an Israeli friend told me: “I’d go to the hospital and say my name is Yossi Cohen and get one type of treatment; I’d go back and say my name is Prof. Joseph Cohen from [name of famous research university] and get the red carpet. It ought not to be like this but this is reality.” (Or it was, until private medicine started making significant inroads.)

Now guess what kind of people figure they would be the High in such a system? Yes indeed, the New Class. This is what ‘social justice’ is really about: a disaffected group from the (upper) Middle trying to set itself up as the new High, using the Low as mascots or (electoral) cannon fodder.

Now what? The long game and the short game

Like many of us, I was heartsick over the election. Not because “our team” lost, but because what is without doubt the worst president in living memory, after a term in office that reads like a litany of disasters and miserable failures, managed to secure reelection despite at least two major scandals that would have brought down any Republican president — who, of course, would not benefit from a gleichgeschaltete press.

I’ve read plenty of “we are doomed” articles over the last few days, and certainly understand the despair speaking through them. John Hinderaker struck a backhanded positive note: namely, that the person dealing with the damage wrought by the first 0bama term will be none other than Barack Hussein 0bama. (Clementine Churchill “Winston, this may be a blessing in disguise.” Winston Churchill: “At this moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”)

I am not sure we’re lost or doomed, but I think we have to play two games at once: a short game (on economics) and a long game (on social/moral issues). Forgive me the “stream of consciousness draft” nature of what follows.

A number of pundits have struck a “two tribes” or “one nation divided” theme: America nearly equally split into two nations. Actually, I’d go even further: two nations that don’t even speak each other’s language. I don’t agree with, say, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum on many issues but I share enough of a reference framework with them that I understand what makes them tick. Your average MTV-head (or, for that matter, the indie rock-fan bashing “eMpTyV”) won’t even get where Romney or Santorum come from — and they tend to be so low-information on anything not immediately relevant to their daily lives that they are easy targets for media manipulation.
It’s like — as happened to me the other day — somebody walks in on you listening in obvious bliss to music on headphones, and just hearing cymbal noise and what sounds like vocal shouting because nothing else leaks from the headphones. The person coming in thinks you like crap noise, while you are actually hearing Deep Purple’s “In Rock” album in all its sonic glory.
To some kid that’s been brainwashed by entertainment TV on “hookups”, consequence-free s3x, and glorification of non-heterosexual s3x, somebody like Romney is never going to be able to explain his position (ahem) on marriage, let alone on abortion. (I’m not even thinking of Santorum’s, and don’t get me started on Todd Akin, an embarrassment that managed to blow a shoo-in Senate seat). Even when the kid might be open to the idea that a foetus is not just some clump of tissues that can be flushed at will until right before birth (and even when born alive after a botched abortion, according to some extremists such as a certain former Illinois state senator), they are vulnerable to all the “back-alley abortions” “steal your lady parts” etc. propaganda of the other side. And here’s the clincher — women from the more so-con side, even when personally atheist or agnostic (like Dr. Helen Smith, a.k.a. “Instawife”) won’t even get why the women from the other side aren’t turned off by this obviously simplistic, manipulative, and patronizing propaganda.
It used to be that positions, liberal or conservative, might have been taught in school in a relatively dispassionate fashion, leaving people (comparatively) free to make up their own minds. What happens now is that kids get little or no actual information in school (and whatever they do get is thin on information and heavy on propaganda), and nothing but propaganda (glorifying one perspective and demonizing another) through the popular culture. As Sarah Hoyt pointed out, outliers can exist in the latter, but only after they have already become established and feared in some niche — Brad Thor, for example, can be an outspoken conservative, or some Justin Bieber-type singer can be an evangelical, or Bob Dylan can be a quasi-Orthodox Jew [though even he has to at least be seen as genuflecting to the hipster orthodoxy once in a while].
Therefore, on social and cultural issues, only the long game can be played. I am not even talking about persuading people, simply of convincing them that there is another perspective at least as valid as the therapeutic left-liberal one they take for granted. It is high time to make the culture celebrate “diversity” beyond the skin-deep kind of race and ethnicity, but this is a slow game that (Bill Whittle makes this point masterfully) requires essentially the patient building-up of a competing popular media infrastructure.
So much for the long game. On economic issues, however, the short game can and should be played, if only because we are so close to the economic abyss that the daily consequences will hit very soon and very hard, way beyond the extent that they are already hitting many people. At some point very soon “other people’s money” will run out, and the “blue model” discussed at great length by Walter Russell Mead will crash. If 0bama weren’t such an economic innumerate, he’d (quietly, so as not to upset environmental extremists) push for maximum development of US oil resources to have an export commodity available for “the day after” Arab oil runs out — because nanny statism of the type he envisages can only be financed (while it lasts) if you’re literally sitting on a gold mine with the whole world lining up to buy.
In other words: the only message that the GOP can, in the short term, preach outside the choir is the economic one of “we have no more money and better do something about it before it all comes crashing down”. This message should be stated clearly, forcefully, and insistently. This will not fall on kind ears — as the hysterical reactions to the ‘Ryan plan’ illustrate — and entrenched interests will do all they can to demonize the GOP here too. But here the GOP has been able to score at least tactical victories at the local or regional level (note Scott Walker in WI), and in the short-to-medium term, their best ally are “the cold equations”: either the GOP will be ignored in the short term and then gain new respect as “the gods of the copybook headings with [financial] terror and slaughter return”, or they will be hearkened to and in the process become stronger, or adult leadership will come back to the D party and it will adopt modified forms of GOP solutions and then claim their ownership, justifying itself to its base by explaining how much worse the medicine would taste if the GOP did it. (The latter outcome may take the wind out of the GOP’s sails in the short run but may actually benefit it in the long run — as it will be seen as a responsible partner by supporting effectively GOP-lite policies from the opposition benches.)
In both long and short game — as the late lamented Andrew Breitbart understood better than anybody else — the legacy media is Enemy Number One and this should be kept in mind at all times. Covering for D presidents may not be something new (think of FDR and JFK), but the blatancy, near-universality, and shamelessness of today is something unprecedented. Insty has referred to them over and over as “DNC operatives with bylines” — if they aren’t actual operatives, they have become functionally equivalents thereof. As veterans of the Chicago Machine, the 0bama consiglieres will know how to reward their friends: I am willing to bet nearly my bottom dollar on an overt or covert bailout or subsidy of the legacy media “in the public interest”. Treating them as ‘the enemy’ does not always mean being confrontational or aggressive: Breitbart was at his most devastating to them when playing mental jujitsu games with them.
Us obsessive newsbloggers/newsblog readers are making the mistake of targeting high-information voters. A president (and his followers) behaving like middle schoolers just won re-election — because that is the level of information and maturity of half the electorate! Therefore, we must target our message simultaneously to all levels of information and attention span, and in such a way that the consumer can choose their level without feeling patronized.
You may call me a dreamer, but I can’t believe I’m the only one.
On a final note: there is one subject notably absent from the above, immigration. With the economy in the current doldrums, the wave of illegal immigration from South of the border appears to be petering out as even menial work “that Americans won’t do” is no longer abundantly available. As much as the stories described by Victor Davis Hanson make my blood boil, nothing will put a more effective end to these than (for lack of any fiscal alternative) severely curtailing transfer payments to the ‘documented’ and ‘undocumented’ alike. For good reason, Milton Friedman was an advocate of both minimum-government and  open borders: one can easily (and only) afford the latter if one has the former.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle (one of the very few redeeming features of the execrable Daily Beast) had predicted an 0bama win, but in the short-to-medium term foresees a fracturing of the ‘permanent’ D coalition  as the money runs out and it will be impossible to continue paying off all interest groups at the same time, forcing difficult choices between them. She uses the term ‘Hobbesian war of all against all’: I might have chosen the term Ragnarok.

Innumeracy and wordsmith “intellectuals”

Insty today hit a raw nerve:

TAXING THE RICH: The math just doesn’t work. But as we’ve seen, Obama and the dems seem deep in the grip of innumeracy — or, alternatively, they hope the voters are.

It goes further than just the 0bama administration. In the circles of “wordsmith” intellectuals, who live or die by their pen, articulateness is all too often confused with intelligence. When one engages some of these people (say, J’ism school grads) in discussion on nonverbal subjects — including totally apolitical ones — one often encounters astonishingly limited minds in the numerical (and, to a lesser extent visuospatial) realm. The word “innumeracy” is only a mild poetic exaggeration in many cases, and dead-on accurate in some others. A school and college system that increasingly allows pupils/students to avoid grappling with math and science only makes things worse.

 

On fiscal crisis denialism

It is quite amazing, really. People like myself are being called “global warming deniers” and told we are the moral equivalent of Shoah deniers for having some skepticism over the catastrophic AGW scenario and being opposed to making sweeping changes in the economy and society to avert a far-off, uncertain threat predicted by opaque computer models.

Yet these same people have their heads completely buried in the sand about a clear, present, and imminent  fiscal crisis which can be understood by anybody who has ever had to balance a budget. And anybody trying to make even baby steps to do something about that problem is immediately accused of wanting to starve seniors, making the poor eat dog and cat food,… and other blatant ploys of emotional blackmail.

Of course, in the latter case, the New Class/government class would lose out on both jobs and patronage if solutions were implemented, while in the former case, implementation of the “solution” would entail a vast increase of government/regulatory jobs for themselves, patronage for their mascots/electoral cannon fodder, and power & control over all of us. Coincidence? I didn’t think so either.

 

Are unions evil? No, just obsolete

The absolutely despicable behavior displayed by the pro-union thugs in Wisconsin (check out the Althouse-Meade team’s citizen journalism straight from Madison) has turned out to be everything the make-believe media claimedf the Tea Party was. It may be seductive to some on the right to think that unions are evil, and one could be forgiven for thinking the WI public sector unions were following the book by Draco Carnegie (Dale Carnegie’s evil twin): “How to lose friends and alienate people”.

Unlike some conservatives, I do not harbor starry-eyed illusions that bosses never exploit workers, and that workers never need represesntation or protection. This is not because of any residual liberal convictions but because — like any good conservative — I realize entrepreneurs are humans too and no human flaws will be alien to them.

Once upon a time, unions did a lot of good in remedying intolerable working conditions. However, when the “sweatshops” and slave-labor mines of old fell before the twin onslaught of worker activism and technological progress (many “progressives” are incapable of admitting that technological progress has done more to empower non-privileged individuals than all social engineering schemes ever devised together), the unions saw themselves faced with the need to either reinvent themselves or fade away.

Sometimes, as discussed in this golden oldie by Steven den Beste, an organization that outlives the problem it is meant to address will successfully reinvent itself. Far more commonly, the organization will artificially seek to perpetuate a problem in order to justify its continued existence and expansion, or try to inflate residual isolated problems into grand societal challenges . The UNRWA is a tragic example; an organization like SPLC a merely farcical one.

Robert Samuelson has a must-read article in the Washington Post today. Get thee over there, but let me share with you some data from the article that really floored me.

How much of the workforce do unions represent? Turns out, just 11.9% nationwide. In the private sector, thiis drops to just 6.9% (!), while in the public sector, 36.2% of workers is unionized. (These numbers, actually, imply that 17.1% of the American workforce works in the public sector.)

In other words, as Samuelson argues, unions are becoming largely irrelevant in the private sector, and are essentially becoming a public-sector phenomenon. Which is why attempts to curtail their influence in their last remaining bulwark are (correctly) perceived by union leadership as an existential threat.

Moreover, Simon at Power and Control (crosspost at Classical Values) points to data suggesting that the unions are in dire financial shape.  They “went for broke” in supporting 0bama, in the hope that he would oversee either a massive expansion of the governmental workforce, or introduce union-friendly “card check” legislation restoring their power base in the private sector, or both.

Ironically, Federal government employees (as distinct from state and local ones) have greatly curtailed collective bargaining rights:

While labor unions that represent federal workers do have some collective bargaining rights, provisions in the Civil Service Reform Act passed under President Carter in 1978 restrict federal employees from using it for pay or pensions and federal workers cannot be forced into a union or required to pay dues.

Pournelle’s Iron Law states that any bureaucratic organization will eventually become dominated by people that work not for its stated ends, but for the organization for its own sake and for the sake of their own private bureaucratic empires. Precisely this is what happened to unions in the USA.

Using the Oscars to rewrite the history of the subprime crisis

Zombie writes at length on this year’s Oscar winner for best documentary:

Whenever I visit Berkeley — in particular certain upscale areas populated by academics and wealthy intellectuals — practically everyone I see has this creepy look on his or her face. […] In an instant, the Berkeley expression communicates to everyone in the vicinity, “Isn’t it great that you and I and all of us here are morally superior to the rest of the world?” […]

Charles Ferguson’s[…]  winning documentary was called Inside Job, which traces the history of the financial meltdown of 2008, and places the blame entirely on greedy Wall Street insiders who scammed the world out of trillions of dollars. Every year, the Academy voters feel compelled to make some kind of political statement with an Oscar, and this year they chose Inside Job as their statement. Predictable.

I had pretty much already forgotten about the Oscars when I opened my morning paper yesterday to discover an explanation for Charles Ferguson’s instantly identifiable facial expression — he really is from Berkeley!

At first I simply found it amusing that one can pinpoint someone’s hometown simply by their smug expression — just as Sherlock Holmes could identify the village you came from by the color of the mud splatters on your trouser cuffs — but as I continued to read the article, my mood took a decidedly political turn when I encountered this passage:

Robert Gnaizda, former president of Berkeley’s Greenlining Institute, says some of the responsibility lies with the current White House.

“There’s an unwillingness by the Obama administration to effectively criticize ‘too big to fail’ institutions,” said Gnaizda, who is featured in the documentary vainly warning successive Federal Reserve Board chairmen about the kind of doomed-to-fail loans Countrywide Financial and others were making.

Whoa whoa whoa — stop right there. Am I reading this correctly? The head of the Greenlining Institute is in the film warning against subprime loans???

As it happens, Zombie had written an essay in September 2008 on the role that the Greenlining Institute (which really ought to be called the “redlining institute”) had in creating the subprime crisis:

This short post not only posits the exact opposite theory than does Inside Job, but it actually points the finger of blame at Robert Gnaizda’s Greenlining Institute as the ultimate cause of the problem, rather than as the heroes who tried to prevent the crisis.I know I’m tilting at windmills here: the budget of my original post was exactly $0, and I’m up against an Academy-Award-winning film with a production budget of $2 million and which took over two years to complete. Furthermore, the narrative pushed by the film is the narrative favored and relentlessly affirmed by almost the entire media and all of academia, and it is therefore the narrative that the general public has come to accept.

But upon re-reading my own post (which even I had half-forgotten about), I was amazed at how still current it remains, and how the points I made two and half years ago seem to have had been written to specifically rebut the thesis of Inside Job, a film which hadn’t even been made yet.

Rather than paraphrase my earlier essay, I’ll just quote part of it here and let you judge for yourself:

…The Greenlining Institute existed solely to bully banks and financial institutions into giving loans to otherwise unqualified minority borrowers.

There’s been a lot of finger-pointing on all sides about this financial crisis, but much of it misses the point. The off-topic details about CEO salaries and bond markets and mergers and bailouts and who voted for what all chase the horse after it’s already left the barn. The key question is this:

Once upon a time, banks only loaned money to individuals who could qualify for a home mortgage; and then sometime recently, they changed their practices and started loaning money to a lot of people who didn’t qualify and could not afford to pay back the loans. And when they started defaulting, and when real estate values starting dropping, the entire industry collapsed, because there was no equity to pay back the loans. The banks lost money, the customers lost money, and it all went down the toilet. Which, of course, many people had predicted. So the question is: Why? Why did banks start making countless risky untenable loans to unqualified customers?

And the answer is: Because they were afraid of being called racists by the legal bullies at the Greenlining Institute and other similar “community organizers.”

It all started with The Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law originally passed during the Carter administration and then ramped up during the Clinton years, that was originally designed to prevent racist lending practices by banks who wouldn’t loan money to minorities, even if they were qualified. Which was a fine idea. But over time the law was twisted to force banks to make loans to minorities even if they weren’t qualified — which all may sound very peachy keen in Fantasy Utopia Land but which inevitably spells long-term financial suicide for a bank.

The Greenlining Institute’s self-appointed role is to identify those banks which by Greenlining’s reckoning haven’t doled out enough money to underqualified minority borrowers, and then threaten them with lawsuits, protests, and accusations of institutional racism if the banks don’t start opening their wallets ASAP. And the banks caved. Greenlining brags that they have unparalleled access to banking boardrooms, and they successfully squeezed $2.4 trillion (yes, trillion) in “CRA commitments” (i.e. loans to unqualified borrowers) out of terrified banks. Nearly every bank and financial institution you’ve ever heard of seems to kowtow to Greenlining.

[…G]roups like the Greenlining Institute saw the banks as potential agents of economic restructuring: If banks could be forced to grant homeownership to poor people, then that would be the first step for the lower classes to climb out of poverty, since everyone knows that owning one’s own home instills a sense of pride, self-worth, and self-reliance.And so, using the bullying tactics described above (and in the original article which first inspired my post), the Greenlining Institute (and similar groups) twisted the banks’ arms to make risky loans, for the purpose of “social justice,” to use the activists’ own terminology.

A then-young community organizer named Barack Hussein 0bama also features in the narrative.

Forced into this situation, the banks then went to great lengths to disguise the risk they had foolishly assumed; to fob the bad loans off on unsuspecting other investors, they devised convoluted financial instruments that obscured the danger of the investments; and so on.

At this point, the sorry mess developed a momentum of its own, as subprime mortgages became available to everybody (not just the targeted group) and house-flipping became a national hobby. Read the whole thing. And weep.  In related news,

The unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid already exceed $106 trillion. That’s well over $300,000 for every man, woman and child in America (and exceeds the combined value of every U.S. bank account, stock certificate, building and piece of personal or public property).

A funeral dirge for eyes gone blind“.

Incidentally, one of the contenders “Inside Job” beat out was “Waiting for Superman” about the dysfunctional public education system. It was made by the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” but, unlike the crockumentary of that name, actually tells exactly that.  The moviemaker set out to document everything every liberal likes to believe about public schools, found the reality rather… different, and, surprisingly, had the guts to kick against some left-wing houses of the holy. (Education, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is one cause in which some New Class liberals believe sufficiently strongly that they sometimes find themselves on the same side as conservatives.) Of course, the bien-pensant Anointed “cannot have that”…

Jonah Goldberg on public sector unions

Jonah Goldberg:

A crucial distinction has been lost in the debate over Walker’s proposals: Government unions are not the same thing as private-sector unions.Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal–era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Government unions have no such narrative on their side. […] Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil-service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

The argument for public unionization wasn’t moral, economic, or intellectual. It was rankly political.

Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.

The plan worked perfectly — too perfectly. Public-union membership skyrocketed, and government-union support for the party of government skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees — gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Why would local government unions give so much in federal elections? Because government workers have an inherent interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments get. Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government. Which is why, as the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga has been chronicling for years, public unions are the country’s foremost advocates for increased taxes at all levels of government.

And this gets to the real insidiousness of government unions. Wisconsin labor officials fairly note that they’ve acceded to many of their governor’s specific demands — that workers contribute to their pensions and health-care costs, for example. But they don’t want to lose the right to collective bargaining.

But that is exactly what they need to lose.

Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests, and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government. California’s pension costs soared 2,000 percent in a decade thanks to the unions.

The labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when the unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

This is why FDR believed that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” and why even George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, held that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

As it turns out, it’s not impossible; it’s just terribly unwise. It creates a dysfunctional system where for some, growing government becomes its own reward. You can find evidence of this dysfunction everywhere. The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner notes that federal education spending has risen by 188 percent in real terms since 1970, but we’ve seen no significant improvement in test scores.The unions and the protesters in Wisconsin see Walker’s reforms as a potential death knell for government unions. My response? If only.

Read the whole thing. Pournelle’s Iron Law in action again.

UPDATE: the indispensible Michael Barone: Public Unions Force Taxpayers To Fund Democrats.

Everyone has priorities. During the past week Barack Obama has found no time to condemn the attacks that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has launched on the Libyan people.

But he did find time to be interviewed by a Wisconsin television station and weigh in on the dispute between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s public employee unions. Walker was staging “an assault on unions,” he said, and added that “public employee unions make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”

Enormous contributions, yes — to the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign. Unions, most of whose members are public employees, gave Democrats some $400 million in the 2008 election cycle. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the biggest public employee union, gave Democrats $90 million in the 2010 cycle.

Follow the money, Washington reporters like to say. The money in this case comes from taxpayers, present and future, who are the source of every penny of dues paid to public employee unions, who in turn spend much of that money on politics, almost all of it for Democrats. In effect, public employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.

Hawaii, tipping, and cultural misunderstandings

Fox News had a segment on about how restaurants in Hawaii are now proposing to add a 15% surcharge to the bill for Japanese tourist.
You say: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” The rationale is: since Japanese tourists don’t tip (tipping is not customary in Japanese restaurants), the customary 15% tip should be added to the bill so the waiters are not cheated out of their money.
While Japanese are of course the most numerous/visible such group, let’s remove the racial component by pointing out the numerous times I’ve had to remind Belgian and Dutch visitors to the USA about tipping. Now the alleged “excessive parsimony” of the Dutch is a common theme of Belgian jokes about them (the Dutch have similar jokes about the Scottish — neither Belgium nor the Netherlands are big on “political correctness”), but neither the Belgians nor the Japanese have a reputation for stinginess. It’s simply a cultural misunderstanding: waiters in Belgium, the Netherlands (and presumably Japan) are salaried employees and restaurant bills in Belgium, for example, typically state “VAT and service included”. If you were to add a 15% “service charge” to a restaurant bill the Belgian would pay it without a second thought. When I explained to Belgian visitors to the USA or Israel that their tips are the income of the waiters, they understood immediately.
It remains to be seen how mainland American tourists would react if Hawaiian restaurants were to add on a blanket 15% “service charge” to all bills. Yet this would, to a naive outside observer, seem to be the obvious solution…

Spengler on Egypt: “It’s the price of wheat, stupid”

… so what do developments in Egypt have to do with the price of tea in Asia wheat on the worldwide market?

“Spengler” is the pen name for an erstwhile investment banker at Bank of America who is also a senior editor at First Things. Actually, his article, “Food and failed Arab states“, is a lot more nuanced than my title, and a must-read despite its length.

Even Islamists have to eat. It is unclear whether President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt will survive, or whether his nationalist regime will be replaced by an Islamist, democratic, or authoritarian state. What is certain is that it will be a failed state. Amid the speculation about the shape of Arab politics to come, a handful of observers, for example economist Nourel Roubini, have pointed to the obvious: Wheat prices have almost doubled in the past year.

Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, beholden to foreign providers for nearly half its total food consumption. Half of  Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Food comprises almost half the country’s consumer price index, and much more than half of spending for the poorer half of the country. This will get worse, not better.

Not the destitute, to be sure, but the aspiring and frustrated young, confronted the riot police and army on the streets of Egyptian cities last week. The uprising in Egypt and Tunisia were not food riots; only in Jordan have demonstrators made food the main issue. Rather, the jump in food prices was the wheat-stalk that broke the camel’s back. The regime’s weakness, in turn, reflects the dysfunctional character of the country. 35% of all Egyptians, and 45% of Egyptian women can’t read.

The main cause, as he explains, is actually the growing prosperity of the big Asian countries: as their denizens become better off, they add more meat to their diet, and it takes about 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef.

In this case, Asian demand has priced food staples out of the Arab budget. […] Asians are rich enough, moreover, to pay a much higher price for food whenever prices spike due to temporary supply disruptions, as at the moment.

Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians and Yemenis are not. Episodes of privation and even hunger will become more common. The miserable economic performance of all the Arab states, chronicled in the United Nations’ Arab Development Reports, has left a large number of Arabs so far behind that they cannot buffer their budget against food price fluctuations.

Earlier this year, after drought prompted Russia to ban wheat exports, Egypt’s agriculture minister pledged to raise food production over the next ten years to 75% of consumption, against only 56% in 2009. Local yields are only 18 bushels per acre, compared to 30 to 60 for non-irrigated wheat in the United States, and up 100 bushels for irrigated land.

The trouble isn’t long-term food price inflation: wheat has long been one of the world’s bargains. The International Monetary Fund’s global consumer price index quadrupled in between 1980 and 2010, while the price of wheat, even after the price spike of 2010, only doubled in price. What hurts the poorest countries, though, isn’t the long-term price trend, though, but the volatility.

People have drowned in rivers with an average depth of two feet. It turns out that China, not the United States or Israel, presents an existential threat to the Arab world, and through no fault of its own: rising incomes have gentrified the Asian diet, and – more importantly – insulated Asian budgets from food price fluctuations. Economists call this “price elasticity.” Americans, for example, will buy the same amount of milk even if the price doubles, although they will stop buying fast food if hamburger prices double. Asians now are wealthy enough to buy all the grain they want.

If wheat output falls, for example, due to drought in Russia and Argentina, prices rise until demand falls. The difference today is that Asian demand for grain will not fall, because Asians are richer than they used to be. Someone has to consume less, and it will be the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, in this case the poorer Arabs.

[…] Wheat supply dropped by only 2.4% between 2009 and 2010 – and the wheat price doubled. That’s because affluent Asians don’t care what they pay for grain. Prices depend on what the last (or “marginal”) purchaser is willing to pay for an item (what was the price of the last ticket on the last train out of Paris when the Germans marched on June 14, 1940?). Don’t blame global warming, unstable weather patterns: wheat supply has been fairly reliable. The problem lies in demand.

Obviously, if food constitutes 50% or more of your family budget (as appears to be the case for many poor Egyptians), doubling of food prices means privation if not outright hunger. “Spengler” is rather pessimistic, but does have one concrete policy recommendation that sounds like the most sensible thing I have read so far:

Under the title The Failed Muslim States to Come (Asia Times Online December 16, 2008), I argued that the global financial crisis then at its peak would destabilize the most populous Muslim countries[…] I was wrong. It wasn’t the financial crisis that undermined dysfunctional Arab states, but Asian prosperity. The Arab poor have been priced out of world markets. There is no solution to Egypt’s problems within the horizon of popular expectations. Whether the regime survives or a new one replaces it, the outcome will be a disaster of, well, biblical proportions.

The best thing the United States could do at the moment would be to offer massive emergency food aid to Egypt out of its own stocks, with the understanding that President Mubarak would offer effusive public thanks for American generosity. This is a stopgap, to be sure, but it would pre-empt the likely alternative. Otherwise, the Muslim Brotherhood will preach Islamist socialism to a hungry audience. That also explains why Mubarak just might survive. Even Islamists have to eat. The Iranian Islamists who took power in 1979 had oil wells; Egypt just has hungry mouths.

Read the whole thing

Egypt, Chris Matthews, and the changing face of prostitution as well as politics

Insty does not shy away from “risque” topics such as prostitution, and via him I found this article by Sudhir Venkatesh on the changing face of the world’s oldest profession. When I saw the name I just had to read it — Sudhir Venkatesh, now an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia, was the graduate student of Steven D. Levitt whose “embedded research” on the economics of Chicago crack gangs made for one of the best parts of the “Freakonomics” book.

Basically, what is happening is that technological change increasingly enables the “ladies of the night” to cut out the middleman and recruit clients directly. This is rendering an increasing number of pimps unemployed, and, with few marketable skills, they have a lot of trouble finding a more respectable career.

May I suggest “MSM political journo” as an alternative? On the occasion of the Ronald Reagan centennial, I cannot help quoting the Gipper: “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” (Remarks at a business conference in Los Angeles, March 2, 1977)

And prostitutes are to pimps like political hustlers are to… their enablers in the MSM. Such as Chris Matthews, one of the chief pimps of B-HO, who is now finally losing his tingle over the 0bama admin’s handling of Egypt, and declared himself “ashamed to be an American” [You don’t have to be ashamed that you are an American, Chrissy — it’s enough that I am 😉 I am almost equally ashamed to say I largely agree with Chrissy on the topic at hand, if only owing to the Law of Broken Clocks.]

Of course, sadly for him and the likes of him, blogs and social media there too allow the “clientele” to connect directly and cut out the middleman…

2010 Census winners and losers

Paul Caron, a.k.a. the Taxprof, has the following useful table of the House seat winners and loser states from the 2010 Census (see also here: and here):

 

The table speaks for itself. Note one state absent in both columns: California. As Michael Barone points out, his is the first census in which California did not gain any congressional seats since it was admitted to the Union!

 

Do high marginal taxes actually bring in more revenue?

Veronique de Rugy (via Insty) has a graph that says more than a thousand words. Below are plotted two variables as a function of time: the highest marginal tax rate in the USA, and the percentage of aggregate taxpayer income that is raised as actual tax revenue. Surprise, surprise… even when the top marginal tax bracket exceeded 90%, the Federal gov’t did not manage to capture more than about 20% of aggregate taxpayer income as revenue.

US marginal tax, and tax revenue as a percentage of aggregate income, over the years

So ideas about solving the deficit by “soaking the rich” may make wealth distributionists feel good, but will not materially solve anything. They aremere exercises in intellectual self-gratification — which some would argue is the true essence of left-liberalism.

The interesting part for me isn’t that “soaking the rich” just won’t work (this doesn’t surprise me) but how the aggregate tax revenue exhibits, all things considered, such low sensitivity to wild variations in the highest marginal bracket.

Zombie: Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama

A few days before Halloween, from our favorite Undead American: Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama. [Wikipedia links added.]

The presidency of Barack Obama is a cargo cult. And Obama himself is the new John Frum.

But unlike traditional cargo cults, which persist despite decades of fruitless prophecies, the Barry O cult is disintegrating before our very eyes, as Hope and Change Airport — built entirely out of hollow bamboo and even hollower promises — has failed to attract the predicted heaven-sent magical prosperity.

Read the whole thing. Relatedly, see Richard Feynman’s definition of cargo cult science.

Private property in California… isn’t so private

http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2010/Q3/view638.html#Monday

Now a California legislator has said that, yes, California Consumer Affairs agents have the power to seize private property for testing, and do not pay compensation. The furniture or other item seized is destroyed in the tests. No compensation is paid and in the case under discussion no receipt was given; the agent suggested that the shop owner try her insurance company. The $1400  couch was confiscated to be tested for fire resistance to cigarette butts. Whether the state ought to be paying agents to go about seizing private property for destructive testing is a question worth debate, but apparently has not been debated.

But we were born free.

Whatever happened to this pesky little thing:

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Add this to the list of reasons (approaching the length of the Nile) why I will never live in the People’s Republic of California again…

5771: l’shana tova

To my fellow Jews: a happy New Year 5771!

Walter Russell Mead wrote an article that reflects on the trying times America is going through, and how it made it through: Buck Up, America!

As a turbulent year that was (generally but also personally) passes before me in review, I give you Dream Theater’s  intrumental “Stream of consciousness”.

UPDATE: after posting this, I just found out that, unbelievably, Dream Theater founder Mike Portnoy called it quits. “A change of seasons” indeed…

Walter Russell Mead: climate alarmism as the new Prohibitionism

Walter Russell Mead gives a smackdown to the CAGW (catastrophic anthropogenic global warming) crowd that deserves to be read in full.

Note that he is not an AGW “denier”  (in the Godwinesque loaded language of the CAGW crowd): he thinks we may well have a problem on our hands. Rather he draws an analogy with the Prohibitionists: they were drawing attention to a very real problem (alcoholism and its social ravages), but their policy prescription (Prohibition) turned out to be so disastrous that it led to the only example in US history where a constitutional amendment (the 18th, establishing Prohibition) had to be annulled by another (the 21st).

Another analogy he draws is with the interbellum anti-war movement, which likewise addressed a very real issue (the carnage of wars in general, and most recently WW I in particular) but whose policy prescriptions, implemented, set the stage for an even bloodier WW II.

This doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done.  Nudging the US economy toward less energy intensive activity while cutting the costs of hiring people is a sensible way to promote the kind of high tech, complex service economy that will serve us best down the road with or without global warming[…]

I note that the Indian government, as allergic as ever to the Copenhagen approach, is attempting to end that country’s wasteful and destructive policy of subsidizing energy use by keeping fuel costs artificially low.  This is happening for economic, not environmental reasons: the Indian government simply cannot afford the cost of these subsidies, and it is prepared to face strikes and protests to see the reforms through.  This single reform if carried through and sustained, is likely to do more for the environment than the complex, expensive, time consuming and largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.  Ending fuel subsidies was not a green idea; it was a growth idea.  It was not a global policy; it was an Indian policy.  The ideas that get us out of this mess will be ideas that work for specific countries and that make the economy work better, produce more wealth and use energy and raw materials more efficiently.

Alcohol abuse was a real problem in 1918, but the Prohibitionist belief that there was One Big Legislative Answer only made things worse.  Over the years, we’ve made progress on reducing the effect of alcohol abuse on our society in various ways.  Organizations like AA have helped millions stop drinking while leaving those who can drink responsibly to do so in peace.  Strict enforcement of drunk driving laws has dramatically reduced highway deaths due to drink.  Many of the most important advances had nothing to do with direct assaults on the alcohol problem.  Increased economic competition ended the days of the three martini lunch.  Attacks on discrimination against women have given women and children more economic choices when Daddy spends all his money at the corner saloon; enforcement of laws against domestic violence has helped curb the vicious spouse and child abuse that was once part of John Barleycorn’s toll on our society.  We are not all the way there yet, and as long as human nature is what it is we may never get there, but once we had the good sense to ignore Carry Nation and the crazy Prohibitionist cranks, we were able to make significant and sustained progress dealing with the problem.

Something like this is going to have to happen on the climate front.  Relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with climate, will have to see us through.  Until more greens understand that, and until the green movement as a whole disabuses itself of the dangerous fantasy that the way to solve our environmental problems is to embrace Malthusian fantasies, utopian treaties and grandiose laws, the green movement will continue to be a drag on human progress — even as the computer models get better and the temperature goes up.

At best, the green movement might be compared to an alarm clock: jangling shrilly to wake up the world.  That is fair enough; they have turned our attention to a problem that needs to be carefully examined and dealt with.  But the first thing you do when you wake up is to turn the alarm clock off; otherwise that shrill beeping noise will distract you from the problems of the day.

The alarm clock will never understand this; making shrill and irrational noise is what alarm clocks do and is all they understand.  But sensible and thoughtful people who want humanity to live fuller, richer lives in a cleaner and more sustainable world need to get past the naive and crude policy ideas that currently dominate green thinking and start giving these questions the serious attention and careful thought they deserve.

Indeed.