30 June 2008

Wesley Clark Goes off the Rails

Retired general, and former presidential candidate, Wesley Clark needs to publicly apologize to John McCain, and then stuff his fist in his mouth so he doesn't put his foot in it again.

Clark, a Democrat, said John McCain is "untested and untried."

"But he hasn't held executive responsibility," said Clark, a former NATO commander...He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, 'I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not,' "

Admittedly, that's accurate. But it's also a wild red herring. Name one presidential candidate who wasn't a general or a former president who has that experience. Surely Clark isn't arguing that only generals are fit to be president?

And the whole thing smacks of criticizing a person's service record, as a smokescreen for criticizing their patriotism. Perhaps that's not what Clark meant, but following the Republicans' attack on the service record and patriotism of Purple Heart winner John Kerry, and of Representative Max Cleland, a man who lost both legs and part of one arm in in Vietnam (reportedly by a grenade dropped by another soldier), his comments have an unmistakeable odor of political bullshit. I've despised Republicans for most of my adult life for playing that dirty, "they ain't real ammuricans" game, and it sickens me to see a Democrat, and a man I once supported for president, treading on the boundaries of the same vile game.

Clark is a supporter of Obama, a man with far less experience than McCain. If military experience matters, Obama has no experience with the hell that war can be, while McCain knows all too well. If political experience is what matters, then McCain has far more experience in the Senate than Obama. If executive experience is what matters--having listened to the diplomats and ordered the bombs to be dropped--then maybe we should cancel the election and just draft General Clark back into the service of his country.

The Media Sucks, part 97

A report on the startup of the large hadron collider at CERN (in France/Switzerland) provides a great example of how to spew nonsense with numbers. In response to critics who believe the supercollider may create a black hole that swallows the earth, one physicist puts the odds at 1 in 50 million. The reporter's analysis?
long odds, to be sure, but about the same as winning some lotteries.
Hey! We all know how those odds work out in lotteries--there's always a payout eventually! Shit, better start writing your will, except...there'll be nobody left to leave your money to.

Of course millions, sometimes tens of millions, of people play the lottery, so of course those long odds are still going to pay off eventually. But choose any one person who plays the lottery every week, and track them for the rest of their life, and I'd place a large wager that they will never win the big pot.

If we had a million supercolliders in the world, perhaps I'd be nervous. But with less than a handful in the world, the odds of them ever "winning" the blackhole lottery are, well, about 1 in 50 million. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

Journalism schools should have required classes in probability--it seems to be one of the most common logical errors made by journalists.

27 June 2008

Are you Sure It's a Gay Bar?

From The Onion, America's finest news source.
Name Of Gay Bar Should Have Been Clearer
CHICAGO—After accidentally walking into a gay bar Monday, Jeff Pierce, 23, said the name of the establishment failed to clearly telegraph its orientation. "I can see how Rods sounds gay," Pierce said, "but it's just not as crystal-clear as it could be." Pierce urged the bar's owner to consider changing the name, suggesting The Manhole or Big Throbbing Homo Cocks.
And why did this make me laugh my ass off? Because when I lived in San Francisco there was a gay bar called "The White Swallow." Izzat clear enough?

Congress's Best and Brightest, Rep. Steve King

Iowa Republican Steve King is incensed that Democrat Bill Delahunt sent a personal letter to Osama bin Laden asking him to kill David Addington. Oh, wait, that's not quite right. Here's how it all went down.

In Addington's appearance before the House, Delahunt asked Addington whethe waterboarding was discussed in White House meetings he attended. Addington's asinine reply, he couldn't discuss that because "al Qaeda may watch C-SPAN." Right, and somehow, al Qaeda having confirmation that waterboarding was discussed in the White House, rather than just being certain that it was, like the rest of us, will cause them to....? Or will reveal some kind of national security secret making us more vulnerable to....? Oh, who the fuck knows. Addison wasn't even trying to cleverly dodge questions, he was giving replies that were as transparently ridiculous as he could make them so that Congress wouldn't have any doubt about how much he disdained them.

Delahunt's reply? "Right. Well, I'm sure they are watching, and I'm glad they finally have the chance to see you, Mr. Addington." Can't you just hear the sarcasm, even in plain text? Perhaps it was a stupid, childish reply. But who would have thought that someone would take it seriously?

Enter "The Pride of Iowa, Representative Steve King!" (R-Correctionville*), a man named one of the "best and brightest in Congress" by the American Conservative Union. The man from Ireton* is outraged! According to him, Delahunt's comment was
"an invitation to Al-Qaeda to target" Addington, and With Rep. Bill Delahunt's remarks inciting al Qaeda to violence, David Addington and his family will need protection until the war on terror is over.... I wonder if Bill Delahunt is ready to guard Mr. Addington's home and family.
Yeah, al Qaeda's going to target Addington because Delahunt said he was glad they were watching the hearing on C-SPAN. That computes exactly....how?

Well, who am I to question him? He's one of Congress's best and brightest. And if that thought doesn't send you to the whiskey bottle for a bout of heavy drinking, god knows what will.

Rep. King, in case my disagreement with the ACU doesn't come through loud and clear, I think you're one of the worst and the dimmest in Congress. This is one of the most stupid comments I've ever heard. You're either a complete fucking moron who was lobotomized at birth, or you're exactly whom Samuel Johnson was thinking of when he wrote, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

David Addington, Go to Hell

Commenting on another post, my brother directed me to David Addington's testimony before Congress.

Addington's testimony is amazing. From what is reported he was snide, contemptuous, and dissembling. He should be cited for contempt of Congress. Most disturbing is his claim that "There is no reason [Congress's] opinion on [torture] would be relevant."

It's clear that he is wholly disdainful of the Founders' belief that the Congress is the centerpiece of representative government. Anyone that enamored of executive power and that disdainful of the people's representatives is an authoritarian through and through.

Since he doesn't mind torture, I suggest we take things a bit further and reinstate some medieval punishments. Impaling, that is, driving a sharpened pole deep up Addington's rectum, seems just about right.

26 June 2008

Another Supreme Court Opinion--No Death Penalty for Child Rapists

In another controversial decision, the Court ruled 5-4 that Louisiana's law treating child rape as a capital crime is unconstitutional. Opinion author and swing voter Anthony Kennedy wrote that:
"the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,"
I won't comment on the decision itself until I read the opinions, but I will confess that my gut reaction is that child rape is perhaps the most jusifiable case for the death penalty. If you've ever met someone who was raped as a child, you'll know that it's a life sentence for the victim. Every person I've known who was raped as a kid (and I've known enough to scare the shit out of me as the father of three girls) was completely screwed up--functional, but only just barely, and apt to lose it completely at any time. I wonder if the majority recognized the severity of the crime.

And while this isn't a good legal argument for the death penalty, I don't believe child molesters can change. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense for an adult male of any age to be attracted to a sexually mature female of any post-pubescent age. That doesn't justify rape, but the point is that a man who rapes a 13 year old is a criminal, but not necessarily much further off the deep end psychologically than a man who rapes a 21 year old. Sexual attraction to a pre-pubescent, however, provides no selective advantage, so evolutionary theory doesn't explain it--these people are just wired wrong, in a way that we can't fix. And, giving the Court's majority the benefit of the doubt that execution is too severe, there's been a tendency in the U.S. to give these people minimal sentences--a three month sentence for child molestation is not unknown, and sentences of 1-3 years are not rare.

Since I generally oppose the death penalty--not on moral, but purely pragmatic grounds, as we do make mistakes, and they're non-correctable--perhaps we can all just compromise on locking up these perpetrators for life without possiblity of parole? And can somebody explain why so many state legislatures haven't done that yet? Whose re-election hopes rest on keeping child molesters out of prison?

Historic 2nd Amendment Decision

The Supreme Court today handed down a hotly anticipated ruling on the District of Columbia's restrictive gun laws, and it is of great historical significance because of the way they interpreted the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The curious wording of this amendment, wholly unlike any other in that it begins by stating the purpose of the amendment (much in the manner of a resolution: whereas....therefore...), has long caused debate about the relevance of the purposive language. Was the textual right to keep and bear arms restricted by the attendant language about a militia? Or, generally speaking, was this more of an absolute personal right or a limited collective right?

Conservatives, being more favorable toward gun ownership, favored the individual right interpretation, while liberals favored the more restrictive interpretation whose actual meaning was unclear, except that it meant states could limit gun ownership.

Although I was, at one time, in favor of gun control laws, as I studied constitutional law in grad school, I became more and more convinced of the individual rights interpretation. The language about militias is clearly explanatory, rather than regulatory. Regulatory language, as I am very loosely using the term, is such as is found in conjunction with the right of habeus corpus:
The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
Clearly the writ is an individual right, yet it can be restricted, in the specified circumstances. But the language about militias in the 2nd Amendment bears no resemblance to the language here. (Why the 2nd Amendment, alone of all the amendments, has a sort of preamble, is a bit of a mystery. Presumably it's nearly purely a historical accident. The original phrasing, as propopsed by Madison was nearly the same, although the clauses were transposed (and the final clause was excised).
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
Of the other amendments he proposed, in just one other he also had this kind of language:
The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.
So apparently Madison felt the need, on just two occasions, to make such emphasis about the purposes of the rights, and Congress, for whatever reason, chose to eliminate it in just one case. There may be an argument for it found in the Congressional Record of the debates, but while I did, at one time, peruse the record of those debates, I did not see any such arguments.

In recent years, even liberal scholars of the 2nd Amendment have begun to conclude that a proper historical analysis and interpretation leads to the conclusion that the words are not restrictive, and that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right. And the argument that the Amendment refers to a state's right to keep a militia (as, for example, found in the 6th Circuit's Stevens v. U.S., United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, 1971) cannot be taken seriously, as the Amendment makes no reference at all to the states. The 10th Amendment does mention the states, so by normal standards of constitutional interpretation, the exclusion of such mention elsewhere would mean the authors intended to exclude their mention in the 2nd Amendment.

So, whether one likes it or not, it seems clear that the 2nd Amendment right was intended as an individual right. And I am of the opinion that if you dislike an constitutional amendment the only legitimate response is to try to amend it, rather than to try to legislate or interpret it away, because the implications of the latter approaches for constitutionalism are simply unacceptable. If we can simply interpret away irritating aspects of the Consitution, or wholly ignore them as we write our legislation, then there are no longer any real constitutional constraints on government, only those that don't yet have a majority opposed to them.

But the Supreme Court hasn't ruled directly on the 2nd Amendment since U.S. v. Miller (1939). In that case, the Court did adopt the position that the militia language is restrictive of the right:
The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.
Unfortunately, Justices Stevens and Breyer stick to the old, "it's a militia right, not an individual right" claim. However I have never been impressed with the scholarship of either of them. Stevens tends to be confused and unclear in his arguments, while Breyer simply has the horribly misguided idea that the Constitution was designed to create a "democratic debate." I have read his book, Active Liberty, and saw in it an interpretive method--the focus on the democratic debate--that could (a) be used to reach any conclusion he liked in any particular case, and (b) which discounted the idea of constraints on government as long as the majority approved of the government action. Anyone who thinks a simple majority should trump a constitutional constraint has no business on the Court, and the liberals who support him should shudder at the thought that a conservative might use the same approach.

Here are some excerpts from Scalia's opinion for the majority:
But apart from [its] clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause (cites follow)...
The first salient feature of the operative clause is that it codifies a "right of the people." The unamended Constitution and the Bill of Rights use the phrase "right of the people" two other times, in the First Amendment's Assembly-and-Petition Clause and in the Fourth Amendment's Search-and-Seizure Clause. The Ninth Amendment uses very similar terminology...All three of these instances unambiguously refer to individual rights, not "collective" rights, or rights that may be exercised only through participation in some corporate body...
Putting all these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment. We look to this because it has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it "shall not be infringed." As we said in United States v. Cruikshank..."[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence...
The phrase "security of a free state," meant "security of a free policy," not security of each of the several states as the dissent [argues]...
There is, of course, much more, and although I haven't yet read it closely, I'd say Scalia has made a strong case for the individual rights interpretation.

Ultimately, I find that Stevens and Breyer make the mistake that Scalia himself too often makes--looking for plausible arguments to support government action and restrict the scope of the Bill of Rights. My own overriding belief is that while no right is absolutely unlimited, we ought to begin with the assumption that the Bill of Rights seeks to maximize the rights of individuals against the government, and, as it is a government of the people, that means maximizing the individual's right against a hostile majority. While Breyer rests his faith in majoritarian politics, I side with Madison, who clearly understood--even before the terror of the French Revolution--how tyrannical a majority could be.

But Breyer makes an additional mistake, using a policy analysis to support his legal argument:
The argument about method, however, is by far the less important argument surrounding today’s decision. Far more important are the unfortunate consequences that today’s decision is likely to spawn. Not least of these, as I have said, is the fact that the decision threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States. I can find no sound legal basis for launching the courts on so formidable and potentially dangerous a mission. In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas.
First, it is true that the decision will throw into doubt the constitutionality of existing gun laws. So what Breyer implies is, if there are a whole lot of laws that are unconstitutional, let's stay out of it because it will be troublesome to agree with. Imagine this line of reasoning as applied in Brown v. Board of Education: "This decision threatens to throw into doubt the constiutionality of Jim Crow laws throughout the United States." Yeah, so the Court should just stay out of it?

Second, to the extent he would allow an individual right to gun ownership, he would limit it only to certain places, but not cities. Imagine this line of reasoning in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie: "In my view there is simply no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment to shout Nazi slogans in heavily Jewish urban areas." Breyer's reasoning just doesn't extend to a general approach to constitutional interpretation--he only can rely on it because doesn't want there to be such a right. To pretend that "the right of the people" has a substantively distinct meaning in this, and only this, spot in the Constitution is a fundamental dishonesty.

What Breyer's argument boils down to, once again, is that he would let a majority vote decide our constitutional rights. Where are the most restrictive gun laws in general? In cities. Where does he believe the right shouldn't apply? In cities. The clear implication is that the only places we should have a right to keep and bear arms is where the majority supports the right, and where the majority doesn't support the right, we shouldn't have it.

As anyone who knows me well knows, I'm not a big fan of Scalia. I think he often uses is alleged originalism in a very dishonest manner. But in this case, although he makes a long historical argument, his essential argument is a textual one--analyzing the text itself in comparison to its complentary texts elsewhere in the Constituiton--and using well-established standards of interpretation.

The decision is correct, and gun opponents--who I agree have good reasons to dislike guns--need to think hard about what kind of precedent it would set to simply wish away a right listd in the Bill of Rights. Even if it is not their favorite right, do we want to start down that road?

China Lectures Syria on Economic Development

I found this on Marginal Revolution, one of the best economics blogs.
"What can we do," the Syrian Finance minister asked, "to increase Chinese investment?" "Well," the Chinese minister replied, "before we invest in Syria you most open your markets, cut your subsidies, and reduce regulation..."
I like Syria, and I hope they follow the advice. From what I saw, I think it's possible they will, although slowly.

Why Government Can't Plan the Economy

The Socialist Planning debate was resolved long ago in favor of decentralized planning in a free market system. The strongest theoretical argument against planning, in my opinion, is the lack of price mechanisms in non-market transactions. But on a personal level, I'm persistently fascinated by the market niches that develop only because market planning is so decentralized that vast numbers of different minds are looking for individual (microeconomic) opportunities, rather than a vastly more limited number of minds looking at the overall (macroeconomic) economy.

Case in point: A while back I did some Habitat for Humanity work (mostly involving drilling screws into drywall and missing the studs), and started talking with one of the other volunteers, whose company occupies a market niche that I'd never heard of before, and I'm willing to bet none of my three readers has either.

His company's niche is a mobile laser eye surgery lab. They tow the equipment around a multi-state area, setting it up in particular optometrists' offices, so that they (the optomestrists) can provide laser surgery for their patients. The guy I talked with transports the equipment, sets it up, calibrates it, and trains the optometrists.

Clearly there are many small optometry shops for whom it would make no sense to buy the equipment, but it seems just as unlikely that the costs of renting the equipment would be cost-effective. And apparently it's not, at least not directly. What I was told is that the optomestrists tend to lose money on the operation, but it allows them to retain patients, who would otherwise go elsewhere for the surgery, and perhaps not return as patients. But by providing all the services possible for their patients, the optometrists can keep them returning, which more than offsets the loss on the laser surgery itself.

And that somebody saw this obscure opportunity and filled the niche demonstrates what the planning advocates (are you listening, Barack?) never quite grasp--that the creativity of millions of minds is a better source of solutions than the creativity of a handful of experts, simply because millions of actors can see more details of the market than any few people can.

Which puts me in mind of Asimov's robotic brain in I, Robot, which solves all economic problems, but I'll save that for a post on bad economics in literature.

25 June 2008

I'm Angry

I've been disgusted and angry at the Bush administration for years now, but just recently my anger has boiled over to where I just want to blindly lash out. I hate what they have done to my country in the name of national security, and the passivity of the media and the public in response. All anyone has to do is say the word, "terrorism," and the media pansies grow afraid to critique, while any citizen who does is called unpatriotic and unAmerican.

But criticizing the government, even in a time of war, is not unpatriotic. The old claim that "politics stops at the water's edge" is just another authoritarian tactic to try to diminish the public's control over its government, along with the equally dismal "my country, right or wrong." Whenever I hear that I point out that the proper ending to that phrase is, "when right to be kept right, when wrong to be set right." There is no higher patriotism than to try to set one's country right when it is wrong.

In recent days the Supreme Court has handed the administration yet another defeat in it's effort to use the war on terror as a justification for shredding the Constitution, when it ruled that the Guantanamo Bay detainees had the right to habeus corpus. The despicable John Yoo parrots the administration's lies in calling every Gitmo detainee a "captured al Qaeda terrorist." And since we've never given any of them a day in court, how do we actually know they're terrorists? Perhaps Yoo, a law professor, missed the day due process was taught at law school.

And in response to the ruling, the administration says it needs to "rewrite the evidence" they have against the detainees. In other words, the lack of any evidentiary requirements for holding detainees means they didn't bother writing up the evidence in a legally satisfactory way. What more evidence is needed to demonstrate that any time government can lock someone up without due process they're going to abuse that power and lock people up without regard for evidence? Only authoritarian governments make a practice of locking people up without due process, and going to great lengths to keep them away from the reach of the law. This administration refused to treat these alleged terrorists as either criminals or prisoners of war, because in each case legal rights attach--they created a new category, "illegal enemy combatant," a term mentioned nowhere in U.S. law or the Geneva Convention, as a way of creating a black hole the law couldn't touch. Fortunately the Supreme Court, all that is holding back a police state, has mustered a bare minority willing to stand up for the rule of law.

As if that's not bad enough, it's now come out that they hid Gitmo detainees from inspectors of the International Red Cross. If Iran, China, or Cuba did this, we would denounce them. But Bush and Cheney seem to believe that because they are good people, in a good cause, their actions are legitimate. They don't see that your inherent goodness does not imbue your actions with justness, but that your actions define whether you are good or evil--and I'm now past the point of saying Cheney and Bush are just misguided. I believe they are evil men, doing evil things, and turning my country into one of the evil monsters of the world.

They also claimed they did not need warrants to engage in wiretapping, and that as commander-in-chief, Bush had unlimited constitutional authority to prosecute an undeclared war with no oversight by the Congress, the representatives of the people.

And no indictment could be complete without mentioning their support of torture. A tactic that has been condemned by nearly every knowledgeable person as both immoral and useless. John McCain, no friend to constitutional rights but a man who personally experienced torture, denounced it, as has, just recently, an experienced marine. I remember my shock at Donald Rumsfeld's response to the reports of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, when he said he hadn't read the report. The Secretary of Defense not bothering to read a report alleging that his troops had committed war crimes!

Of course such complaining could be tossed off as just more pansy-ass left-wing bitching, except I'm not a pansy-ass left-winger. I'm more libertarian than leftist, and I think there is an appropriate time for military action, as well as opposing quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But why take my word for it? Numerous retired military officers have criticized this administration, a list that now includes Major General Antonio M. Taguba (USA-Ret.), who says,
[T]here is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.
Slobodan Milosevic committed war crimes, and the U.S. helped put him on trial. It's time we do the same to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld. I do not want my country to be led by war criminals. I do want these men put on trial--and we ought to do it in the U.S., to demonstrate that we will clean up our own messes. If we do not, I hope they will be indicted by an international war crimes tribunal. Not that the U.S. would ever give them up, but it might remind our leaders that they are not above the law.

Of course every fascist-leaning right-winger, the Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, etc., would scream bloody murder. But they spout about American ideals while having no recognition of the way they and this administration are actually treating those ideals with the greatest contempt. If anyone is truly anti-American, it's anyone who would shrink constitutional protections to their minimum, instead of stretching them to their maximum. They don't truly believe in human freedom and the rule of law--they don't understand anything but pure temporal power and the desire to force everyone to follow their moral code, a moral code that condemns premarital sex, homosexuality, and smoking pot, but venerates torture.

The hell with them all, and the hell with George Bush. The moment the next President takes the oath of office, the U.S. Attorney General should indict him, and then we can give the son-of-a-bitch the benefit of very due process of law that he so despises.

23 June 2008

For Whom Should I Vote?

Recently, the Economist had a cover claiming that the primary process had, for the first time in years, given the U.S. two good candidates for the presidency. I agree. I like both McCain and Obama. I think they're both basically decent people whom I'd probably enjoy knowing (in contrast to Bush, Clinton, Kerry, and Gore, none of whom I'm pining to have dinner with).

But, as usual, I'm still uncertain how to vote because each candidate seems to me to have a fatal flaw.

Barack Obama has never really worked in the private sector. His experience is wholly in social service organizations and government, and I fear that he believes those institutions are the true source of most of what makes us better off. He seems to have no conception that the free market is the source of most of our well-being, including the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the computers on which we blog, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat. I worry that in an Obama presidency, the government will continue to assume more and more responsibility for our individual well-being. In addition, he has no experience in foreign affairs, which means Obama will almost certainly focus predominantly on domestic matters until foreign affairs force his attention--this has been the pattern for presidents who couple a dominant interest in domestic matters with a lack of foreign policy experience, from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. Why is it so hard for candidates and the public (and the media, but I never expect anything useful from that source) to recognize that the Constitution makes the President almost solely responsible for foreign affairs, and Congress primarily responsible for domestic affairs? If Obama were to face a Republican Congress I would be less concerned, because the partisan opposition would keep him in check domestically. But givent the pent-up frustration of Democrats (from their failure to accomplish social goals under Clinton to the 8 years of regulatory rollback under Bush) and their likely gains in Congress this year, I worry about a return of Johnson's "Great Society" programs, nearly all of which were costly and dismal failures, and a rollback of the Carter/Reagan economic deregulation which helped lead to the strong economic growth of the past three decades.

John McCain has the foreign policy experience I like, and for the most part I don't care too much where he stands on domestic policy matters. For example, I'm pro-choice and he's not. But even though I know I have unrealistically high standards for presidential candidates, I'm willing to trade off those issues for a candidate with good foreign policy credentials, especially since McCain isn't a fanatic about those issues. (The fact that the religious right despises him is good enough for me.) But what I can't accept is wholesale disdain for the Bill of Rights, and McCain doesn't seem to share my (fanatical) support for the ideals embodied therein. I only on occasion find myself in agreement with Justice Scalia, but I fully agreed with his dissent in McConnell v. FEC, in which the Supreme Court upheld McCain's First Amendment gutting campaign finance law:

Who could have imagined that the same Court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon such inconsequential forms of expression as virtual child pornography,...tobacco advertising, [etc], would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government.

And this week he has attacked the Supreme Court for ruling that the Guantanomo Bay detainees have the right to habeus corpus. The ruling does not mean they get to go free, it simply means that they have the right to demand their day in court--and even then it will be up to the courts to determine if their demand will be fulfilled. The Bush administration has employed the authoritarian tactic of putting people outside the reach of the law, a vicious attack on our Constitution and the ideals embodied in it, and has been repeatedly, and correctly, rebuffed by the Suprme Court. But McCain finds the rule of law distasteful--an odd position for someone who was a prisoner of war--and I have a hard time voting for someone who doesn't stand up for the rule of law as our supreme political ideal.

I would have no problem voting for Obama because he's black. I think breaking the color barrier is a good enough reason to vote, assuming the person is otherwise qualified, and based on the qualifications standard set by some of our recent presidents, it would be wholly disingenous to argue that he's not qualified enough. But our experience with presidents inexperienced in foreign policy makes me shudder at the thought of yet another one. And yet McCain, so qualified in so many other ways, has such a cavalier attitude toward the Bill of Rights--much like our last two presidents--that I'm not sure the country can afford him. Our devotion to the Constitution is hanging by a thread these days, and I'm not sure how many precedents of presidential abuse we can suffer before it simply becomes the accepted norm.

Farewell, George Carlin

Shoot. That is, shit. After all, "shoot is just shit with two "o"s" as George Carlin told us. And he was my favorite comedian of all time. I have used his 7 dirty words sketch in college classes on art and politics, and it's still a crackup, even to today's college students. Few comedians have challenged our social mores so vigorously and humorously.

12 June 2008

Pet Peeves

The worst thing about flying isn't the recycled air in the planes, or the cramped conditions; it's the other passengers.

I just can't figure out what's so hard about getting on a plane and getting your ass in the seat so other people can get to their seats. But boarding the Emirates plane in Dubai, the two guys in front of me took about 3 minutes to figure out how to get their bags into the overhead bins, even though the bins had no other luggage in them yet, and decide just which seats were theres, then actually get themselves seated and out of the way. And they looked suspiciously like businessmen, which had me wishing I could know which company they were with so I could make sure I didn't have any of their stock.

Then there are those who recline their seats all the way back as soon as the plane takes off. There's nothing like having a seat back 12 inches in front of your face to make a trip unpleasant.

And finally, not so much a pet peeve since it doesn't negatively affect me, I've never figured out why everyone jumps out of their seats and stands up the moment the plane reaches the gate. It's always 5 minutes or more before the door gets opened, and meanwhile everyone's crowded in the aisle, or hunched over underneath the luggage bins. I used to choose aisle seats so I could more effectively stretch my legs to keep my knees from hurting, but then I had the nitwits in the middle and window seats hovering over me and giving me the visual death threats if I didn't get my ass up and stand there doing nothing as well. So I moved to window seats, and now I can just comfortably sit there reading until all the morons have cleared out, then get my bag and exit the plane without trouble.

A Subject of Interest

I landed at JFK yesterday morning, and was given a warm welcome home by my government. I was "green foldered," along with a few other people from my flight from Dubai, including an exceptionally innocent-looking young Asian girl. The green folder sends you to a special desk where you are waterboarded, have your fingernails pulled out, and are forced to listen to Celine Dion records.

OK, not really. Just the most amusingly inept interrogation imaginable.
Customs Agent: "What were you doing in Syria?"

Me: Just visiting. Being a tourist.
CA: Where did you go?
Me: Damascus, Latakia, Bosra.
CA: (With blank look, obviously clueless as to where these places where) But what were you doing in Syria?
Me: Being a tourist.
More questions, more answers, then...
CA: And what were you doing in Syria?
Me: Being a tourist.
CA: Did you talk to any government officials?
Me: No.
More questions, more answers, then...
CA: What were you doing in Syria?
Me: (Sigh...) OK, fine, I was running arms across the border into Iraq to supply al Qaeda fighters, supplying nuclear secrets to the Syrian government, and smuggling in Krispy Kreme donuts for Bashar Assad--he's a huge fan, but can't get them in Damascus.

OK, not that last line, either. I can be impatient and obnoxious, but really the whole dialogue was more amusing than annoying--especially as I was being interrogated by someone who, based on his exceptionally thick accent, is not, as I am, a natural born citizen.

But what really caught my attention is that it wasn't the Syrian visa in my passport that got me green-foldered, but a notation in the computer system. So clearly the government had noted my trip and wanted to question me well in advance of my return home. So now there's a government file on me, and if, as I have faint hopes of, I actually can talk to government officials on my next trip, things ought to get really interesting.

10 June 2008

Bosra--Yet More Roman Ruins--and Dutch Soccer

I've just returned to Dimashq from Bosra, the site of a beautiful, and mostly intact, Roman amphiteater seating up to 15,000 people. The old city, which still has about 1500 people living in it, has numerous Roman columns still standing, the remains of an ancient church cum mosque, and a ruined cathedral that still has part of a picture of angels and whatnot painted on plaster. There is a reservoir on the top of the hill, and down in the old city there were baths, which you can still see, that had hot and cold running water.

If you make it to Bosra, ask for Ahmed Maqdad to guide you around. He's a 25 year old guy who's been guiding there since he was 8, and has worked with some of the Italian archeaological teams. He knows his stuff, and is a very nice and generous guy (he bought me dinner!). He says houses in the old city are selling for 20,000,000 Syrian pounds (around USD 400,000), which is a considerable increase just in the last few years. Based on our further discussion, the price increase is being driven by the government, which is willing to purchase the old houses so it can tear them down, then use the basalt stone blocks from which they are built to rebuild portions of the old city. (I would guess that some of the blocks came from there originally anyway, as people pulled from the rubble of old building to build new houses.) Ahmed will also sell you what he claims are genuine antiquities that he's found throughout the ruins; coins, figurines from the Roman era, Byzantine crosses, etc. He claims it's legal, but I'm somewhat dubious, although as he says, similar items are for sale openly in the souk in Damascus. But even if it's legal to take them out of Syria, I'm not entirely certain about the legality of bringing them into the U.S.

Back in Dimashq (Damascus), I had lunch with Maher, who said that he's noticed that fewer women are covered up than before. He's hopeful that the religious fervor that stimulated the building of so many mosques is waning. I have to hope he's right.

Last night I turned on the TV in my hotel room, and stumbled across the beginning of the Dutch-Italian European Cup game. Having married into a Dutch family, I have become a fan of the Orange. Their 3-nil victory was a huge win for Holland--maybe their biggest win in decades. (And the fact that they were clearly offsides on their first goal doesn't matter--they solidly outplayed the Italians, and would have won 2-nil if that goal had been nullified.) I'm sure my wife and father-in-law are quite happy today.

This is my last post from Damascus, as I am about to grab a taxi and head to the Airport, where I will spend the next 29 hours traveling (about 8 of that just sitting in airports waiting to transfer). It will be good to be home. As much fun as I've had, it will be nice to get back to a place where there are few car horns, where I can see grass and lay down on it, where I can have peanut butter, and, perhaps my strangest craving, where I can get some good Thai food.

07 June 2008

More Roman Ruins

On my third attempt, I finally got to the National Museum in Damascus when it was open. More Roman antiquities, and Byzantine, and Bronze Age...it's overwhelming.

The museum is chock-full of sculptures, friezes, mosaics, manuscripts, textiles, tombs, etc. My favorite piece was a curved bas relief, apparently once part of a massive column, that depicted the Roman Emperor Trajan speaking to his troops. There were over 30 separate human figures in the piece, and each wholly distinct, with its own facial expression. Unusually, several figures in the foreground were depicted from behind, bringing the viewer into the image as yet another listener standing behind them. One figure had his eyes away from the emporer, trying to calm his horse. The quality of the work, the sculptor's skill, is incredible.

The tapestries room has some silk pieces that were imported to Syria from China in the 3rd century--and we talk about globablization as though it's something new in human history.

A security guard took me to a couple of locked rooms, one a synagogue discovered in the 1920s and transported to Damascus, and the other a tomb, with the most incredible sculptures, that had also been brought from somewhere else. When you go, be sure they open up the synagogue and tomb for you, they seem happy to do it, and you won't regret asking.

Outside, in a sort of plaza with a winding path, are hundreds of stone tombs, statues, large vessels, mosaics, and capitals of Corinthian columns--hundreds! I'm sure I was walking around with my mouth wide open, and several times I just burst out with, "My god!" because it was all so unbelievable. Dumbfounded. Just absolutely dumbfounded.

And to think I began the day upset because my plan to go to Bosra didn't work out.

06 June 2008

Leaving Latakia

Or Lattakia, or Latakkia, or whatever. I've seen each spelling, and each is a reasonable latinazation of the Greek. But what I didn't realize is that it is also Laodicea. I remember reading about that in the Bible! How about that; if I ever read the Bible again, I can say, "Hey, I was there!"

I liked Latakia. Like Damascus, it was unredeemably dirty; people chuck their trash everywhere. But it was very pleasant along the Mediterranean at night. As I walked along the beach road, there enticing smells. However I had just eaten a whole fish--that is, one that had been put before me whole, which never fails to confuse me a bit. I figured it out, though, and it was delicious.

Returning to Latakia, I was somewhat depressed at the number of women in chador and/or veils. There were far fewer in Latakia, which seems to be much more liberal. Not only were the majority of women wearing short sleeve or even sleeveless shirts, I saw several men in shorts, which I haven't seen at all in Damascus.

I was walking down the street yesterday, and a barber stepped out of his shop onto the sidewalk and called to me. Thinking it was just a comeon to get my business, I said, no, no, but then he held up what was unmistakably a can of beer wrapped in a plastic bag. So I joined him for a couple beers. Yes, I like Latakia. I ended up exchanging my fake Rolex with him--it's a gift-giving culture here, and being friendly seemed more important than keeping a fake watch. Besides, it's even better to say I have a watch that was given to me by a Syrian.

I did get a shave, though. It seems as though it's safe for an American to let a Syrian put a sharp blade to his throat.

I found out that the region around Latakia has a large proportion of Alwai (or Alewites), a somewhat obscure Muslim sect. Their doctrine is rather secretive--apparently only their religious readers get to know what's in their distinct set of writings in addition to the Quran--but from what litle is known about them, it seems to be a syncretic religion, in which the people kept many aspects of their traditional religion when they adopted Islam. Notably, they reject the idea that a mere mortal can actually live by the 5 pillars of Islam, so they believe you should just try to live a good life, as the prophet did. That may be the key to the liberalism of Latakia. It's damned hard to be fundamentalist when you don't know what the fundamentals of your faith are, and no great spiritual achievements are demanded of you.

There are a number of Christians, there, too. The hotel I stayed at had an icon of Mary with a very small but quite adult looking Jesus in her arms, and the 3-story, 24-hour internet cafe had a sign saying, "In God We Trust." Or maybe they are just announcing their fondness for American money.

Interestingly, although the Alawi are a distinct minority, President Assad is Alawi, as are most of his inner circle. That, coupled with the secularism of the Baath Party, doesn't sit well with all "real" Muslims here, which led to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1970s and '80s that was brutally suppressed by the artillery bombardment of the city of Hama.

If there really is a religious revival of sorts going on in Syria, and the leadership is from a minority sect whose Muslimness is suspect, and secular to boot, it could be bad news.

I always think of Learned Hand's comment on the spirit of liberty being that spirit which is not too sure it is right. The problem with fundamentalists is that they are too sure they're right. While democracy might be nice, continued secularism might be even more important for the future of Syria.

Herbert Simon's Travel Theorem

Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year’s duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library.

I have always had my doubts about Simon's Travel Theorem, based solely on my travels in the U.S., and now I doubt it even more. There are two categories of knowledge that distinguish what you learn on a visit to a place and what you learn in a book about it.

  1. Those things that cannot be described in a book. This includes sounds and smells. Theoretically, you could capture the sounds in an audio recording, but the second category explains why that might be insufficient. Smells we simply have no way to categorize. The Mediterranean, for example, smells different than the Pacific. How could one possibly understand how it smells differently without actually smelling both? I would also include sights, as pictures are inevitably only a small portion of the whole to be seen, even in one glance.
  2. The Context of Detail. Possibly the detail could be described in a book, but in prose form it would be so overwhelming that noone could really learn it. The myraid of details are what form the context for real understanding, as opposed to rote learning (The Ummayad Mosque is over a thousand years old, blah blah).

There are two caveats that possibly could support Simon's claim. First, he is focusing on the efficiency of learning, a benefit/cost calculation at the margin. Perhaps these extensions of what can be learned in a library simply aren't worth the cost of the travel. But as the Austrian economists would tell us, there is no objective benefit here, only a subjective value. So Simon cannot categorically claim it is inefficient to pay the costs of travel to learn these things. (Of course I am covering only a minority of my cost, thanks to a research grant, so as a Public Choice theorist, I cannot categorically claim that the cost/benefit calculus of this trip is positive--it is for me, given how small a share of the cost I am bearing, but we all know how distorting these subsidies are. Presumably my college "thinks" it is a net positive to pay for my travel learning.)

Second, Simon is explicitly referring to the "normal" American adult. As a college professor, I am possibly excluded from that category. But clearly not in all ways--I am normal when it comes to grocery shopping, car buying, etc. So the burden would be on Simon to demonstrate that I am not normal in travel. Also, I think it might be unfairly denigrating to normal American adults to assume that the sounds, smells, and context would not be a part of their learning.

I am a fan of Simon's work, but when I read his biography it seemed to me that he was insufferably smug about his travel theorem. I took that itself as an indication that it had weaknesses, and couldn't wholly be supported by rational argument.

Finally, I should add a third category, which is somewhat outside his theorem, but nonetheless important, and that is what you find out about yourself in travel, especially to places where you are distinctly out of place. I have noticed that the most interesting and self-confident people I know have all traveled abroad--and that is a value that can't be gained from books.

If Simon's travel theorem has some validity, and I think it has some, it is very limited in scope, to the basic facts that can easily be presented in text or photographic form.

05 June 2008

Syrians Love Americans

So far, every Syrian who has asked me where I am from has said, "Welcome," with a big smile. Almost nobody assumes I'm an American, they guess British or Russian most often, sometimes Italian. But when I say, "America," the response is always favorable.

Today a soldier guarding the port, complete with rifle slung over his shoulder, smiled, asked where I was from ("Britannia, Russiya?), then gave me the big welcome smile, shook my hand enthusiastically, and put his hand to his heart (a characteristic Syrian gesture). A Syrian soldier with a gun, shaking hands with an American!

I need to write a letter to Barack Obama, advising him on U.S. Syrian relations. These people really want to be friends with us.

Roman Ruins in Latakkia

If you're into Roman ruins, be sure to visit the National Museum in Latakkia when you come here. I took some pictures of some ancient statues outside (no photography allowed inside). I did manage to get a picture of the nude male before my film was used up, but didn't get the nude female. Just my luck.

The main building is from the Roman era, and has the classic Roman vaulted rooms, which I'd seen pictures of, but had never seen in person before. An aesthetically beautiful design--I'm almost sad that it's not practical or structurally necessary anymore.

I noticed that the junction of the vaulted ceilings didn't have any spandrels. Gould was wrong, and Dennett was right! Actually, Gould should have been deeply ashamed of his spandrels argument. Not only was he dead wrong in his example (and in a way that is ridiculously easy to demonstrate), he perpetually--I think purposefully--conflated adaptations with features that weren't adaptations. I remember reading his article, and his claim that the cleft in the chin wasn't an adaptation, just a point where the two jawbones met, and thinking, "That's his argument? That something no one has ever claimed is a selected-for adaptation is, in fact, not an adaptation?" I never saw a case where he disputed another biologist's claim about a feature being an adaptation.

All that, just from looking at an old Roman building in Latakkia. I may be over-educated.

P.S. and I still can't view my own blog. I'm told "It is forbidden." Keep that in mind, you infidels--who knows what harm could befall you from reading this blog. Who knows, you may all turn from God and rebel against your government. Don't say I didn't warn you.

04 June 2008

Gay Porn, OK. Blogger, Not So Good.

Bizarrely, I can publish to my blogger site, but I can't view the blog itself because it's being filtered out. I guess blogger.com is more dangerous than gay porn.

Syria, Friend or Foe?

One of the young men who guided me to this internet cafe asked me why my government hated Syria. I couldn't give him a good answer.

The U.S. lists Syria as a state sponsor of terror, because it supports Palestinian insurgency groups, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. That is, it has followed the U.S.'s Central American model. Of course Syria just might be pissed off that Israel has never returned the territory it captured in war. As an objective observer I say that's what they get for invading Israel, but as a pragmatist, those types of issues have to be dealt with. If we could broker an Israel-Syrian land deal, whereby Israel returns territory in exchange for Syrian recognition of Israel's right to exist, Syria might be less inclined to devote resources to Palestinian military groups.

It has also allowed weapons to flow into Iraq, to the detriment of U.S. forces. Of course given the U.S.'s belligerency to Syria, it may simply want to ensure that the U.S. doesn't get the idea that invasion for purposes of regime change in the Middle East is easy.

Finally, Syria is allegedly attempting to build nuclear weapons. Israel bombed an alleged nuclear facility last fall, with surprisingly little public criticism from Syria. Israel and the U.S.claim Syria is working on nuclear weapons, while Syria claims it is just trying to develop nuclear power. Syria is not one of the richer oil countries in the Middle East (it is not a member of OPEC), and nuclear power might be a good policy for them.

Still, let's take their claim skeptically. Why would Syria want nuclear weapons? Perhaps because Israel has them? Perhaps because, like the rest of the world, they've noticed that the U.S. doesn't fuck around as much with countries that have nukes? I think the liklihood of Syria nuking Israel is remote--they surely know how the U.S. would retaliate. But they want to be taken seriously as a sovereign country that doesn't need to kowtow to the U.S., and becoming nuclear capable seems to accomplish that.

The best solution? Better relations with them. We should lean on Israel to get them to make some concessions (while still continuing to support them, as a democratic country). It won't be all sweetness and light, and we're not all going to hold hands and sing Kumbayah, but it's the only way we can actually move forward toward more stability in the region.

The U.S. needs to stop shaking swords at Syria, and reach out for a handshake.


It's 99 degrees centigrade in Latakia, or at least that's what the coffee vending machine says. It could be referring to the temperature of the coffee, but as it's alternating with the date and time, it seems unlikely. Then again, so does 99 centigrade.

Latakia is distinctly different from Damascus. There are many fewer women wearing the chador, and comparatively few even wearing the headscarf. Many, perhaps most, are wearing short sleeve or sleeveless blouses.

It's worth noting that many women in Syria don't wear the chador, but wear a long, knee-length or below, coat. But whether coat or chador, it's only an outer wrapping, and a glance down at the ankles (a good way to avoid making inappropriate eye contact) often reveals blue jeans or dress slacks, and stylish shoes.

My friend tells me there is something of a religious revival in Syria these days. A great number of mosques have been built in recent years, and more are going up. Another person I met today said all the shops I see along the streets are new (although to the western eye prepared with the framing of teeming third world streets, they look as if they've always been there), and that until about 10 years ago you could only buy clothing in government shops, with, apparently, the standard socialist sense of style. And, of course, Syria is technically a secular country. So I wonder if I am seeing a return to chador, rather than the uninterrupted continuation of a tradition. My friend is concerned about the growing religiosity, and I share that. Hopefully Syria does not become Saudi Arabia.

Secularism is clearly here at work in Latakia, however. In addition to the prevalence of western-clad women, I am sitting in a three story internet cafe, where so far I have heard no Arabic music, but have heard such western classics as Hotel California, the James Bond theme, the theme from Dr. Zhivago, and the theme from For a Few Dollars More, and the theme from, I believe, Pale Rider.

To top it off, a previous user of this computer was viewing some hard-core gay porn sites. The government of Syria isn't that secular, and homosexuality is frowned upon. But either the sites aren't required to be blocked, or nobody is enforcing the ban vigorously, because this is the second time I have noticed that on a computer I've accessed. In keeping with Syria's short period of control by France, vive le queers.

gay porn

Bus Trip to Latakia

Travelled by bus today to Latakia, on the Mediterranean, and Syria's largest port. The clerk at the hotel told me to take a taxi to Bilal Square, and catch the bus that runs every half hour, at a cost of about 40 Syrian Pounts (about 87 cents). As usual, the taxi driver didn't understand my attempts to pronounce my destination, but when he understood I wanted to go to Latakia, he took me to a bus station that I think is nowhere near the one I was initially directed to. I was completely lost when he dropped me off, but was pointed toward a building where I had to go through security. I placed my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the scanner, setting it off. But the police were lounging around, and I wasn't the only one setting off the scanner, so apparently they're not really worried about terrorists on their intercity buses.

Through security, I found myself on a lane with food shops and, for lack of a better word, travel agencies, each calling out for business. Again, someone directed me to a place selling tickets to Latakia. After I had bought my ticket, I heard the hawkers of other agencies yelling, "Latakia." My general impression is that I was initially directed toward the government bus line, but instead was taken to a place with competing bus companies--presumably one of the developments of the last decade's economic liberalization. It cost 250, rather than 40, pounds, but the bus was a very new motorcoach, and on the ride they give you coffee, water, a taffy-like candy, and a newspaper, all served by an attendant who keeps checking to see if you want refills. So for 5 1/2 bucks American, I call it a good deal. This was no third world bus ride, with people clinging to the top and holding chickens in their lap while the bus constantly threatens to go off the edge of the mountain. In fact the driver was the most cautious I've seen yet in Syria--I think he was actually maintaining the speed limit, and I can only attribute that to the market at work.

My seat companion, who exhibited the usual Syrian hospitality by directing me to the loading zone, which I never would have found by myself, is a teacher in Latakia. He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him in two days. He had actually invited me to his house instead of a hotel, before remembering he had to go out of town tomorrow.

This is a great place, and looks to me as though it is in the beginning stages of tremendous economic development. Now if I can just put in effort to learn the language, I'll be in great shape here.

03 June 2008

Syrian Hospitality

A couple days ago I went up the mountain to the town of Zanadabi. Looking down the hillside, I could see some neighborhoods with lots of trees (most of the mountain is bare), and it looked so inviting I decided to try to get there. I ended up walking 2 miles down the main road that goes back to Damascus, without seeing a side street that went where I wanted to go. Just as I was deciding it was time to turn around, I came up to a type of garage half-filled with sacks of cement, and a man sitting on a green plastic lawn chair.

He looked up at me, smiled, and immediately got up and offered me his chair. I accepted, and he got another chair and sat down beside me, and we tried to converse, but without much success. He offered me tea, and had to run across the street for water, which he got started boiling on a hotplate, then ran up the street to a little store to buy the tea. All that for a stranger who was just passing by. I sat there for about 1/2 and hour, and we exchanged names and contact information.

Although I am subject to a few wary looks, most of the people I have talked to are very friendly and helpful. One evening I asked a man for directions back to my hotel, and he seemed not just pleased, but honored to be able to point me in the right direction. There is a characteristic gesture, putting the hand over the heart, that they make in these cases. I don't understand it's exact meaning, and when it is proper to use it, but the general message of good will is very evident.

02 June 2008

Wireless Access, Too

The small restaurant I had lunch at today has wireless internet access. Mind you, this was not in a Sheraton hotel, but in the crowded, narrow alley filled with tailors, shoemakers, and other little types of businesses--that is, a typical developing world alley.

I don't normally travel with my laptop, since I like to go light, so it's no benefit to me. But it clearly was to the two patrons checking their email and scanning the news.

Once upon a time I thought that capitalism was bad...but then I hadn't yet studied economics or travelled to Damascus. I am more and more amazed all the time at the power of markets and the entrpreneurial spirit, and at the ways the market works to the benefit of average people.

Livin' it Up on the Internet

I'm amazed, but only partially, by the number of internt cafes available. My friend, Maher, said before I came that he had heard that one opened up in Damascus. What an undercount. There're 4 million people in Damascus, it's a big city, so I wouldnt't try to guess how many there are, but I haven't had trouble finding them, just as I didn't in Dubai.

Consider the economics of it. Buy a half-dozen to a dozen used computers,a few chairs and desks, and that's your capital investment. It's really, really cheap. Heck, I could get this many computers for free from my college, and Goodwill won't take them, so the market for used PCs of that sort has to be a buyer's market.

Then you rent a small shop space. Fortunately, to serve the clientele you're most likely to get, you can do that in a place where the rent won't be high... a place where backpacking travelers (the luxury hotels provide internet access to guests) and either immigrant workers or families of workers who have emigrated cluster. And young people, but not rich young people or they'll have it at home.

And for that small capital investment, a person can open their own business, becoming an entrepreneur and improving their life. Maybe after a few years they sell it and move up to a more lucrative business, or maybe they save and open another internet cafe.

And this is how the developing world will develop, if their governments and well-intentioned but misguided development agencies will leave them alone.