29 July 2010

Iranian Regulatory Fail

From Cameron Abadi at Foreign Policy Passport.

One of the dubious accomplishments of the Islamic Republic of Iran is how much it's succeeded at making criminality utterly banal. The government has made so many prosaic things illegal - from certain hairstyles, to satellite transmissions -- that consistent enforcement is impossible, and hypocrisy is endemic. Rule-breaking is so ubiquitous that Iranians often don't even feel compelled to hide their flouting of the law... So you go into the supermarket, and next to the cashier you'll see a stand holding Hollywood new releases that wouldn't make it past the censors.

Or...you'll drive on the highway past people selling contraband puppies off of truck beds... Dogs are technically illegal in Iran, but in a tacit acknowledgement of the popularity of the puppy black market, the government hasn't barred the sale of dog food.

Running a comprehensive regulatory state is rather harder than most people--both advocates and opponents--realize.

28 July 2010

Obama's Next Big Mistake

Back in 1994, my undergrad mentor commented to me that Bill Clinton was making a serious error in "nationalizing" the midterm elections. By "nationalizing," he meant making them a referendum on himself. That was just one of many instances where I wasn't convinced at first, but later came to realize my mentor had a considerable amount of political wisdom.

I see Barack Obama making the same mistake. The Republicans are, as a matter of course, trying to make the elections a referendum on Obama because as the sitting president, the perpetual #1 issue for voters--the economy--can politically be laid at his feet. Obama would be wise to try to try to downplay the referendum aspect, but instead he seems to be accepting it.

In electoral politics, it's always crucial to remember

29 June 2010

The Black Swan Is not a Black Swan

I like to buy a book at the airport before a flight. The random element of what I might find in the airport bookstore amuses me. My most recent airport purchase was Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Usually I provide a link when I mention a book, but this book does not merit a link. Indeed, to aid someone in purchasing the book, even inadvertently, would require that I do penance to expiate my guilt. This book made such a splash a few years ago, that though I doubted it could live up to the hype, I thought it must surely have some merit. But it took only a few chapters to persuade me that the only merit in this book was in its engorgement of Talib's bank account.

According to Talib, a black swan is a highly improbable event, one that cannot be predicted. Those events are not just important, but are apparently the sum total of meaning in the world. They explain nearly everything, and nothing is explained in any other way. The thesis seems to grand, too sweeping, to be seriously entertained, yet Talib can hardly suppress his enthusiasm for it. I penciled in my first question mark on only the second page of the prologue, by the claim that

A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world...

Sisyphus Objects

The promulgation of economic fallacies never ends. From Kai Ryssdal, host of public radio's Marketplace:

Productivity is at an all time high. That means workers are working harder.

In other words, Sisyphus is the most productive worker of all time.

And that farmer in his air-conditioned combine? Obviously less productive than his great-grandfather handling the plow behind a team of horses was, no?

Has anyone ever cataloged and categorized the standard economic fallacies? #1, I think, would be the "lump of labor" fallacy. But I'm not sure what number to give to the "productivity = working harder" fallacy.

20 June 2010

Not Quite Missing My Dad on Father's Day

I'm never more than mildly enthusiastic, at best, on father's day. I'm fortunate that my kids are fond enough of me that they give me hugs and kisses nearly every day, even the one who's soon to be a teen. They can't really do that much more on father's day without going to the kind of extravagances I don't generally enjoy (with the exception of Independence Day--I love being extravagant with fireworks).

But not all dads are so lucky, including my own, who died 13 years ago this year. Most of his kids, including me, didn't appreciate him that much. Of course it's hard to know what to do to make the day of a man who's annual Christmas request was, "Oh, I don't know, a pair black socks, maybe." But as a guy who's verging on black-socks-for-Christmas territory myself, I recognize now that that's a sign of material contentment more than it is a sign of lack of imagination. When my wife asked what I wanted for father's day, all I could think of was, "brats on the grill," which might be imaginative if we hadn't already had that meal twice in the past couple of weeks. No, material contentment was the one fortunate element for my father. Nearly everything else was a mess, including his relationships with his children.

The Return of Positive Liberty, after a fashion

The principals of Positive Liberty have at last restarted with a new blog, "The One Best Way (No, Really)" at http://theonebestway.wordpress.com/. Despite our eagerness to get our blog restarted, there were the typical coordination problems of busy people, and there are few posts as of yet (although Jon Rowe is moving fast, at least).

A lot of enthusiasm, energy, and momentum was lost during the recurring technical problems at PL, but we are committed to continuing to blog together, and I'm sure in good time we'll be going great guns again.

14 June 2010

Me in the Marines?

No, but I am going to the Marine Corps Officer Educator's Workshop next week. They're flying me to Virginia, and I'll watch potential officers go through their training. Specifically, they're young folks whose summer job is going through Marine Corps training, but without having to make a commitment to the Corps. They can do this for two or three (I think) years, and then they are given the option of committing to the Corps after graduating college. If they do, they go to an abbreviated OCS and become officers. If they don't, they part ways amicably and owe the Marines nothing.

The recruiting officer who nominated me for the program said the great majority who go through the program do commit to the Marines, but the Corps isn't interested in making the commit prior to that, because they only want those who really want to make a real commitment.

I'm looking forward to observing their training program and learning more about the history of the Marines. I'm not sure, but I think I'm going to be at Quantico. That's where the National Museum of the Marine Corps is, which has the flag that was raised on Iwo Jima both of them, actually).

Sometimes I'm amazed at the opportunities that come my way.

09 June 2010

The Continuing Saga of Philip J. Berg (Esquire!)

Over at obamacrimes.com, lawyer Philip J. Berg (Esquire!*) continues to beg for the public's attention, this time by announcing that "by and through" he himself, "WE THE PEOPLE"** are sponsoring "OBAMA BIRTH CERTIFICATE / ELIGIBILITY/ OBAMACARE March on Washington." Not just "a" march, but the march. Unfortunately, "We the People," don't seem that interested in actually participating in this thing we're supposedly sponsoring "by and through" Mr. Berg.

Due to scheduling conflicts and the importance of this March, the date of the OBAMA BIRTH CERTIFICATE / ELIGIBILITY/ OBAMACARE March on Washington was postponed from Memorial Day Weekend to sometime in August / September 2010.

Hey, I know this here march against Barry Soetero Obama Hitler Chavez thing is important, but you didn't expect me to give up my Memorial Day cookout and the Co-Cola 600, now, did you?

When "We the People" do get off their couch-potato asses to march on Warshington, Berg has a special request.

All individuals participating are requested to bring a copy of their Birth Certificate.

That would be your original long-form vault copy birth certificate, by god. If this "march" (shuffle, perhaps, is more like it) ever gets off the ground, I'd be tempted to go just so I could go around to individuals demanding to see their birth certificates, then insisting upon seeing their original sealed vault copy.

* This "Esquire" business of lawyers bugs me to no end. My Environmental Law teacher at Cal State Bakersfield was a recent law school graduate who had not passed the bar, so he couldn't cal himself esquire. But he could, and did, get a license plate for his car that read, "esqr2be." Pathetic plumping for praise, it seemed to me. I have a Ph.D., which took twice as long to get as a JD, yet I don't insist upon people calling me "Doctor Hanley," nor do I ever--ever--refer to myself as "James Hanley, Ph.D."

** I'm one of "We the People" by the way, and nobody ever asked for my sponsorship. Perhaps I should sue Mr. Berg for dishonestly listing me as a sponsor of his miniscule-men march?

28 May 2010

The Death of Positive Liberty Redux

Positive Liberty has died again, and this time I believe it's for good.  We've been having some technical difficulties that repeatedly make our site inaccessible, and no one can figure out what the problem is.  However we're sticking together and planning to regroup under a completely new name.  I'll keep you posted.

24 May 2010

The Prince, Chapter 11: Ecclesiastical Principalities

The Prince chapter 11: "Concerning Ecclesiastical Principalities"*

This chapter concludes Machiavelli's discussion of different types of states, and from the modern perspective it is a curiously mixed affair, in equal parts thoroughly medieval and wholly modern, while simultaneously being as clear a statement of Machiavelli's adoration of strong leadership.

Substantively the chapter is about the recent rise of the Church to real political power, through the talents of the Borgian Pope, Alexander VI, (discussed in chapter 7), and how enthralling and admirable Machiavelli finds him.  There's nothing new there, so substantively this chapter contributes almost nothing to the book.

Medievalism in Machiavelli
But the medievalism of Machiavelli's thought comes in his opening remarks on ecclesiastical states, which--astonishingly--are the only ones which "can be maintained without either" good fortune or leadership ability,

17 May 2010

The Prince, chapter 10: How the Strength of States Should Be Measured

The Prince chapter 10: "How the Strength of all States Should Be Measured"

In this very short chapter, Machiavelli makes a single claim, that the strength of a state should be measured solely by its ability to defend itself.  There is no doubt that were tBill and Ted to go back in time and bring Machiavelli to the present day, that he would be a staunch realist in foreign policy.  And I’m enough of one that I largely agree with his claim.

There are, of course, other ways to measure power.  One of the best definitions of power is the ability to get others to want to do what you want them to do.*  And in recent years the issue of “soft power.”  But ultimately, the most crucial ability, which relates directly to what may be the only definitively legitimate justification for the state, is the ability to defend your state and society from invasion.  Everything else is nice, but not crucial, and primarily matters only to the extent it helps defend your own state. 

Next Week: Chapter 11: "Ecclesiastical Principalities."

* Unfortunately I can’t remember the source, but it might have been Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power.

05 April 2010

The Prince, part 9 (chapter 9)

The Prince chapter 9:  “Of the Civic Principality"

Fortune, Ability, and the Civic Prince
If anyone has thought that it was the aristocratic class of men that Machiavelli admired, rather than the strong individual, this chapter sufficiently dispels that error.    Here his disdain for the aristocracy is displayed plainly; that is, without excess, adornment, excuse or vitriol, but in the most straightforward and off-hand manner.

At the beginning he makes a curious distinction between civic principalities and the more “traditional” principalities he has previously been discussing, when he argues that the civic principality cannot be achieved “either wholly through ability or wholly through fortune, but rather through shrewdness assisted by luck.”*  I take this to mean that because the civic prince depends upon the political support of others, ability alone cannot enable one to  rise to that station, as it’s not simply a matter of will and good decision-making.  But luck—or fortune—alone is also insufficient, because this is not a case of having one good connection (such as a father/pope) who can put you into power; the support of too many is needed to rely on luck alone.  So ability is necessary but

22 March 2010

The Prince, Part 8 (Chapter 8)

The Prince chapter 8: “Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villiany"

Ol’ Nick, to refer to our author by his demonic nickname, finds villainy* somewhat problematic, but not terribly so. His appraisal seems to lie more in how one applies villainy, rather than whether one is a villain or not. As he’s shown before, his concern seems to be with outcome rather than method. The praiseworthy outcome is maintaining control over one’s territory, and method is judged by how well it promotes that end. Because villainy, properly used, contributes to maintaining the principality, Machiavelli cannot simply condemn it, but because done badly it makes it impossible to maintain one’s position, he cannot simply condone it either.

An example makes clear what Machiavelli means by villainy:

21 March 2010

The Prince, Part 7 (Chapter 7)

The Prince chapter 7: Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune."

This chapter, in any normally partitioned work, would not be separate from the prior one. Chapter 6 discussed dominions won both by one’s own ability and via the powers of others, with examples of the former. This chapter discusses the same thing, but with examples of the latter. The structure is somewhat unusual, but it works well, at least for me.*

However this particular chapter doesn’t work.

The Prince, Part 6 (Chapter 6)

The Prince, Chapter 6, "Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired By One's Own Arms and Ability."*

Today we come to a change in focus, essentially a new section, in The Prince. The first 5 chapters focused on the different types of principalities and how they can be established and held. The answer to the last question seems to be, "ruthlessly wipe out every possible claimant to princehood. In this new section Machiavelli focuses not so much, as the title of this chapter would lead one to believe, on the new dominion/territory itself, but on the person who has acquired it, and the means of acquiring it. In this chapter the focus is on acquiring territory through one's own skill, chapter 7 is about acquiring territory through luck or through the assistance of the real conquerors, chapter 8 is about acquiring territory through "villiany," chapter 9 discusses those coming to power though "the favour of his fellow citizens" in a civic principality, 10 is a sidestep to compare the strength of different types of principalities, 11 discusses ecclesiastical principalities, and that completes the second section (as I would divide it, anyway), because after that he changes focus to discuss different types of armies.

02 March 2010

On the Defense of 2nd Class Citizenship

Still reading Fred Clark's "world's longest book review" of the Left Behind series (now on book 2, Tribulation Force), I appreciated this footnote.

John Howard Yoder noted that that idea of the priesthood of all believers is often misunderstood as -- or is accused of being -- an attempt to abolish the clergy. Actually, he said, the opposite is true. The priesthood of all believers requires the abolition of the category of laity.

That's interesting. It illustrates a pattern, I think. Try to abolish serfdom, declaring that everyone is a lady or gentleman, and you'll likely be accused of trying to abolish the aristocracy and to destroy all the finer things in life. Try to extend any privilege into a universal right and you'll likely be accused of attempting to destroy that which you're trying to expand while those who seek to keep it restricted, limited and tightly controlled will pose as its defenders. I wish I could think of some other example ...

01 March 2010

The Prince, part 5 (chapter 5)

The Prince chapter 5: "The Way to Govern Cities or Dominions that, Previous to Being Occupied, Lived Under Their Own Laws."

Back in chapter 1, Machiavelli divided states into two types, republics and monarchies, then subdivided monarchies into two types, ancient and new, further subdivided those new monarchies into their own two sub-subtypes, entirely new ones or ones grafted onto existing possessions, and then, finally, made one more subdivision of those grafted-on territories into a final two sub-sub-subtypes, those previously ruled by another prince and those that were self-governing republics. This is, I think, truly a case of a picture being worth a thousand words, so a diagram is helpful.

Fundamentalists' Fragile, Fearful, Faith

Over the past several months I've been reading Fred Clark's critique of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, on Slacktivist (and don't we all wish we'd thought of that pun?). It's slow going because he has literally hundreds of posts devoted to it (and here's a handy index to all of them). I've enjoyed them for many reasons. Clark's an excellent writer (unlike LaHaye and Jenkins), often laugh-out-loud funny, and has great insights into just why these books are more of a crap-fest than any randomly chosen set of Harlequin romances. Like this:
While trying to find some way home from the airport, Rayford Steele checks his mail and finds an in-joke between the book's co-authors:
Besides a pile of the usual junk, he found a padded envelope from his home address. Irene had taken to mailing him little surprises lately, the result of a marriage book she had been urging him to read. ...

That's probably a reference to one of these books by Tim LaHaye. He's written several books on the subject, which is interesting coming from a man whose own key to marital bliss was to convince his wife to get a job 3,000 miles away.

Or this, when a doctor hanging around the airport's first-class lounge after the rapture which has caused numerous planes to crash at the airport, injuring hundreds, decides to help out--by patching up another first-class passenger who's got an owie on his head.
Nothing to do in the airport except to sit around in the "exclusive Pan-Con Club" and stare out the window watching the rescue workers and EMTs below scurry from plane crash to plane crash. It's kind of amusing for a while, seeing them set up a desperate triage there among the smoke and the broken bodies, separating the gravely wounded from those in need only of First Aid and those merely suffering from shock after the loss of their loved ones. But it gets old eventually, just sitting there, so what the heck -- why not patch up that rich guy's bleeding scalp over there?

But I've enjoyed them also because he's a Christian (although not an Real True Christian (RTC)--read his posts to get the joke), and so provides a Christian critique of the "strange 19th-century heresies that L&J peddle as biblical truth" (aka, premillennial dispensationalism). Any non-Christian (or, like me, lapsed one) could mock their version of the faith, but there's a special insightfulness that comes from someone who still believes, that the others just can't match. Another day I will probably comment on some of Clark's critique of LaHaye and Jenkins' theology, but today his critique of fundamentalism's essential fragility is what caught my eye. It's spot on.
Working with other churches is perilously ecumenical. Ecumenism -- cooperation among disparate Christian churches in recognition of our underlying unity -- is not considered a Good Thing by people like Billings, or Lahaye and Jenkins. Even the most harmless-seeming forms of cooperation, such as taking turns providing shelter through a local interfaith hospitality network or some such, are too dangerous. It's a slippery slope from there to syncretism, the collapse of absolute standards, moral relativism, one world religion,...

The fundies' white-knuckled anxiety -- their barely repressed doubts and their fear that their faith may be a house of cards that would crumble if exposed to the wider world -- seems to be spreading to other branches of the evangelical movement. That's the predictable result of adding weird mythologies to one's faith. The fundies convinced themselves that if the world is any older than 10,000 years then Jesus doesn't love them. Thus they have to avoid all exposure to science. Evangelicals are trying to convince themselves that homosexuality is a choice and that the invasion of Iraq was God's Will. Like the fundies, they have welded these ideas to the bearing walls of their faith, so that if they are not true, then nothing is true. They thus find themselves, like the fundies, having to avoid exposure to an awful lot of the real world around them.

The irony, of course, is that fundamentalists believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and eternal God, yet they don't believe in a God big enough to have created a 6.5 billion year old world or to have allowed evolution by natural selection to occur over the course of billions of years. It's not just that they don't believe the science--they believe that the science and God are mutually exclusive, which makes their faith exceptionally brittle. Even worse, while they will talk about the mysteries of God, about his knowledge that surpasses human understanding, they flatly reject the mystery of God both knowing the end and allowing it to unfold naturally, rather than supernaturally, precisely because it surpasses their understanding. Their talk of mystery is just empty words because their vision of God is not truly big enough to encompass mystery.

And for that they are to be pitied, for mystery, with its attendant wonder, is one of the sublime experiences of life. As Edmund Burke wrote, sublimity inspires fear, and "[i]nfinity fills the find with that sort of delightful horror which is the truest test of the sublime." But that sort of delightful horror is a terror to the fundamentalist, who, in a fearful desperation, seeks the certainty that comes with clarity. Burke, again, provides an insight:
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary, for a great deal of apprehension vanishes when we are able to see the full extent of any danger. Night adds to our dread of ghosts; ... Clearness, on the other hand, is not the same as beauty; it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination.

And there is the great failing of fundamentalism. By emphasizing absolute clarity, so that they do not have to experience the horror of sublimity which they so fear, they have created an ideology--not a faith, which does not require clarity, whereas ideologies do--that cannot truly affect the imagination. Which is to say that it cannot truly touch the heart, or the soul, which are always and ever stirred by the imagination.

Alex Tabarrok Critiques Obamonomics

Okay, I probably shouldn't join in with the crowd that attaches President Obama's name to any and every noun/adjective, but his name just lends itself to it so well. Anyway...

Obama has plans to pressure companies with government contracts to increase wages. According to the New York Times article about 25% of Americans work for such companies, and Obama sees this as a means of lifting American incomes.

My first thought was that this was very much like Hoover encouraging companies to keep wages and prices up during the Depression, and Tabarrok's first criticism is right along that point.
At a time of 10% unemployment when real wages need to fall this is bad business cycle policy.*

But he has another, more serious, concern as well.
I am more worried, however, about the long term consequences of creating a dual labor market in which insiders with government or government-connected jobs are highly paid and secure while outsiders face high unemployment rates, low wages and part-time work without a career path...

Moreover, once an economy is in the insider-outsider equilibrium it's very difficult to get out because insiders fear that they will lose their privileges with a deregulated labor market and outsiders focus their political energy not on deregulating the labor market but on becoming insiders... Many European economies found themselves stuck in the insider-outsider equilibrium and as a result unemployment levels in places like France and Italy hovered at 9% or more for decades.
Officially, President Obama has a Council of Economic Advisers, which at this point sounds about as influential as a Council of Ethical Advisers would have been for Uncle Joe Stalin.

*Brad DeLong disagrees with this point, arguing that instead demand needs to rise. Of course cost and demand are pretty closely related, eh?

26 February 2010

Unclear on the Concept

I have to share this, from my brother's blog.
On State Street today [in Ann Arbor], I encountered a couple folks holding up one of those Obama-with-the-Hitler-moustache posters. Our 7-second conversation went something like this:

Me: "Aren't you afraid of being arrested?"
Him: [utterly confused look] "Arrested? No, I'm not afraid of being arrested."
Me: "Guess he's not much of a Hitler, then, is he?"
Him: [utterly confused look persists - he still hasn't taken my point]

Coincidentally, I encountered this Mark Twain-attributed quotation not five minutes later:

“You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

I don't believe all conservatives are stupid, or that all stupid people are conservatives, but I do believe there's a strong correlation between stupidity and a certain type of conservative.

25 February 2010

The Death of Positive Liberty

My other blog, Positive Liberty, is dead. Jason Kuznicki, the blog's real owner and administrator, has had continuing problems with domain host IPower, which included a major crash that destroyed years worth of posts (most of which has been recovered through the tech savvy of Jason's brother-in-law). The latest, and most severe problem, was IPower failing to automatically charge Jason's credit card for re-registering the domain site and failing to notify him that it hadn't, allowing professional domain hijackers to steal the site.

Jason, understandably, is tired of fighting these battles, and has accepted an invitation to join the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Although I only blogged at Positive Liberty for about a year and a half, I will greatly miss my colleagues there and a great many of our regular commentors. I have offered to take on the role of blog administrator, if my colleagues want to continue together, and will announce it here if they agree. However we have lost the positiveliberty.com domain, and have probably lost the irreplaceable Jason Kuznicki as well.

Please keep in touch.

22 February 2010

The Prince, part 4 (chapter 4)

The Prince chapter 4: "Why the Kingdom of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death

The best thing about approaching The Prince this way is that it forces me to slow down and think about what it means. If I were reading straight through, I might do just that--read straight through. But by focusing on each chapter individually, I slow down and take more time to think about it before I move on. And writing about each one helps tremendously, too, because as E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I write?" Any good scholar can agree with this sentiment, I am sure (and may eternal damnation be the lot of those who don't, for they are a scourge upon society). Which is to say, that taking time to write about these chapters requires that I think about them, in order to put my thoughts together at least semi-coherently, and if only I had time to do so with everything I read, I would be a much more well-educated person.

Anyway....on to ol' Nick.

15 February 2010

The Prince, part 3 (chapter 3)

Chapter 3: Of Mixed Monarchies

By “mixed” monarchies, Machiavelli means those that are composed of possessions accumulated at different times, so that they do not have a long tradition of unity. They are very problematic, he says, because “men change masters willingly, hoping to better themselves.” This may, at first blush, seem to contradict his thoughts on how unwilling people are to upset the settled tradition of a hereditary family, but the difference is in the lack of tradition in these new possessions. If there is no tradition to cling to, and the new Prince is unsatisfactory, there is every incentive to revolt, in the hope of achieving a better condition. They “deceive themselves,” however, and usually go “from bad to worse.” These sentiments are strikingly reminiscent of Burke, who would surely sympathize.

Holding Conquered Provinces
But even though those who rebel may be deceiving themselves about their chances of bettering their lot, Machiavelli is not writing to them—they are not the subject of their advice. It is the Prince whom he is warning here.

13 February 2010

The Prince, part 2 (Chapters 1 and 2)

The Prince, chapters 1 and 2.

I'll begin my discussion of The Prince by covering two chapters, because they are so very short. Most weeks I'll likely cover only one, so that these posts don't become egregiously long and rambling.

Chapter 1: How Many Kinds Of Principalities There Are, And By What Means They Are Acquired
The first chapter of The Prince threw me for a loop the first time I read it. It's only four sentences long, and says nothing substantive--it just notes that a) all states are either republics or principalities, b) principalities are either hereditary or new, c) new principalities are either brand new, or they are new possession annexed to an existing hereditary principality, and d) these acquired possessions are either used to living under a prince or they are used to being a republic.

I found this confusing because it just seemed like a ever-expanding list of types of states. But the second time I read it I realized that it is actually a nested list, and with each step he goes deeper, making finer distinctions, so that the reader understands that all principalities are not alike, nor even are all new principalities alike, and implicitly noting that the differences between them are important. This is, after all, a work of practical theory. No airy, wishful, handwaving here, he is telling us that to properly manage a principality, you need to understand the details of what type of state it is. And note also that republics are discarded after the first distinction. This work is not meant for the governor of a republic, which should be a warning to all those who casually believe that Machiavelli is writing about leadership in general. There are lessons to be learned here, but they may not apply to our contemporary democracies.

Chapter 2: Concerning Hereditary Principalities
Machiavelli works himself up to a whole five sentences in this chapter, the sum total of his argument being that it is easier for a Prince to hold onto a hereditary state than a newly acquired one, because the people are already accustomed to his family's rule. Barring an "extraordinary and excessive force" from outside--i.e., Germany marching into Poland--all a hereditary Prince has to do is not mess with the country's traditions and avoid "extraordinary vices [that] cause him to be hated." The later is probably easier said than done, as those born to wealth and power often seem naturally inclined to extraordinary vices. Never actually having been constrained, they lack the common person's intuitive understanding of social propriety (I'm looking at you, Charlie Sheen).

"Extraordinary" is a key qualifier here, I think. He doesn't expect Princes to lack vice, and the chapter can be read to say that tradition and custom are strong enough that the Prince's subjects will allow some, perhaps considerable, degree of self-indulgence, rather than engage in the effort and risks of a revolt. The attachment to tradition does seem to be a major factor in human behavior, both social and political. From the family that gets together every Christmas despite not really liking each other all that much, to the continuing support for now-politically powerless royal families, as in, for example, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

I, too, believe in the value of tradition. A tradition shouldn't be overthrown lightly because it's quite plausible that its longevity is closely related to its utility. Of course tradition should not be fetishized, either. It's not beyond the bounds of reason that a particular tradition could have disutility, and is only clung to through superstition. And it's more than a little probable that some traditions' utility accrues only to a subset of the population, while creating disutility for the rest. Nevertheless, some people will fetishize tradition, a fact that an adept political analyst will not ignore.

There is also a veiled warning to those who try to take new possessions. The hereditary Prince, he notes, has "less necessity to offend," the subjects, meaning that an invading Prince must of necessity, cause offense. And how could it not be so? And yet time after time invaders seem to be surprised that their actions--waging war, blowing things up, disrupting the economy, changing the political institutions--cause offense (we're all looking at you, Dick Cheney).

Next Week:Chapter 3

01 February 2010

The Prince, Part 1

For a number of reasons I have been stimulated to re-read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I have read twice, but only when I was much younger, with less education and less experience than I now have, and, in both cases, read hurriedly. And it is my experience that a worthwhile book requires several readings, separated in time with other relevant reading in between to provide greater context and connectivity, to be even reasonably well understood.

It is a relatively short work, so it seemed appropriate to blog my way through it, to share my thoughts with others and to get their thoughts in return. I will not make an attempt at exhaustive explication, detailed analysis, or thorough and original interpretation, but will, a chapter or two at a time, comment on what happens to strike me as I am reading. It would be lovely to make this a weekly event—and who couldn’t get amped for Prince Mondays?!—but being both busy and bipolar, please don’t hold your breath in anticipation. However, if you’re at all interested, read on for the first installment, in which I give a backgrounder on our author, Nicollo Machiavelli.

27 January 2010

Constitutional Law in a Nutshell

From Justice Scalia's opinion in the 2009 case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. The facts of the case are irrelevant. This priceless gem of legal reasoning stands on its own. I can only wonder if Scalia has any sense of irony.

It is the dissent that seeks to overturn precedent by resurrecting Roberts a mere five years after it was rejected in Crawford.

25 January 2010

Craziest Thing I Read Today

Both Russian sources and US military have confirmed a huge military tunnel beneath the BERING STRAIT, linking SIBERIA with ALASK

This comes from the heretofore unknown Roy Taylor Ministries. (And, no, I didn't cut off the last letter of Alaska--Roy's apparently not in the business of ministering to copy editors.)

Anyway, this here tunnel "was not DUG out, but BORED OUT using nuclear power that melted it's way through solid rock, six miles a day." Wicked cool, eh? Since there'd only be one direction for the debris to go, I can only hop the miners (bombers?) got all the way back out the other end of the tunnel before the bombs went off. At 6 miles a day, though, the tunnel would only take about 10 days to dig nuke blow construct.

Happy Bubble Wrap Day

Today is Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day and a notable milestone event, as the ever-popular children's toy/packaging material celebrates its 50th year.

As is so often the case, the invention of bubble wrap resulted from a combination of inventiveness and pure serendipity.
...two engineers, Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding...were trying to make a plastic wallpaper with a paper backing. Surprisingly, this product didn't take off. They quickly realized, however, that their invention could be used as a cushioning material for packaging. At that time, only abrasive paper products were used for packaging, which did not suffice for cushioning heavy or delicate items.

The company they founded now has annual revenues in excess of $4 billion--not bad for a couple of guys who failed to create the product they envisioned. But as Joseph Schumpeter argued, the entrepreneurial spirit is not motivated primarily by money, but by creativity. Or as my colleague Oded Gur-Ari, director of Adrian College's Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies says, "Entrepreneurs are people who see a problem and find a solution to it." Even if inadvertently, yes?

And, to throw in the requisite ideological soapboxing, this is why we should favor free societies over tightly regulated societies--because of the differential in promoting and rewarding entrepreneurialism. Ethical arguments aside (and I suppose, if pushed, I would admit that ethical arguments might have some power as well), mere utilitarianism recommends freedom.

Happy Roe v. Wade Day

Today is the day when pro-lifers nash their teeth in anguish over the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and when pro-choicers gnash their teeth in anguish over the fact that pro-lifers haven’t yet acquiesced to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

But I find the abortion debate particularly unenlightening. It consist of little more than two sides iteratively reciting a very limited set of very familiar arguments. There are no arguments pro or con which are less than 25 years old, yet each side continues to ritualistically invoke them as though mere repetition alone can change minds. My perspective is that neither side can convince the other because both side’s arguments have real power. Each has announced their own set of legitimate interests, but neither side has ever successfully rebutted the other side’s claim of legitimate interests, nor successfully demonstrated that their interests should always trump the other’s interests.

I want to examine the issue from a different perspective; a biological history perspective. I make no claim that this perspective will resolve the debate, but I believe both sides would benefit–intellectually, and perhaps morally, but not necessarily politically–from looking at abortion in this way. This is a bit long, as the biological argument requires quite a bit of setup, but if you’re game, please click the “continue reading” button.

The biological history perspective requires that we recognize abortion as a form of infanticide. Pro-lifers, of course, agree, but only because they see the term as having political power. Pro-choicers object, but only for the same reason. But as I repeat to my methods class daily, we are engaging in analysis here, not advocacy.

The historical fact is that infanticide has been practiced, with varying degrees of frequency and approval, in all cultures throughout history. For various reasons, mothers–and sometimes fathers–find the destruction of an infant to be in their own best interest. From a biological perspective, this is an interesting question because it means the destruction of their own genetic heritage, so it seems that evolution would tend to eliminate people with a tendency to do that, and favor those who are so attached to the concept of having children that they would never, under any circumstances, eliminate one of their own. The latter, after all, would leave more children, so their child-loving genes should, over time, come to dominate the population, while the child-killing parent’s genes should gradually diminish and disappear.

But that seemingly logical argument is superficial. It’s not simply quantity that matters evolutionarily, but quality. There are two approaches to reproductive success, the r and k strategies. The r strategy is to have very large numbers of offspring, but to put minimal parental investment into them. Sea turtles, for example, lay between 50 and 200 eggs (depending on the species) every few years, but after burying them in a sandy nest, leave them behind. Most of the babies are eaten shortly after hatching, but some survive to reproductive age. The k strategy is to have few offspring, but invest heavily in them. Orang-utans, for example, normally have one child at a time, which stays with the mother until sexual maturity at 6-7 years of age, during which time the mother will have no other offspring.

Human behavior is, compared to many species, very plastic, but it is nonetheless biologically based. We lack the reproductive capacity to be sea turtles, so we are clearly more toward the k end of the reproductive continuum, but even so there is great variability in human reproduction. In pre-technological agricultural societies, it was not uncommon for a woman to bear up to a dozen children (although rare for all of them to reach adulthood). In hunter-gatherer societies the average was considerably lower, and in contemporary western industrial societies the number is–from a historical perspective–shockingly low. In the EU, the average woman reportedly has only 1.5 children.

The lesson from this is that natural selection can favor having fewer children. The key to whether it is evolutionarily successful lies in understanding the life history of the parent. Orangutans live in different environments and have different social structures than sea turtles, so a different reproductive strategy is evolutionarily appropriate. Shifting our focus from a comparison between species, we can also compare individuals within a species. The specific life history of a particular human female may dictate having fewer, rather than more, children as the best reproductive strategy. If having fewer children gives them a better chance of surviving to reproductive age than does having more children, then the greatest expected value comes from having fewer children.

For example, if a mother has ten children, each of whom has a .01 chance of surviving to adulthood, her expected value is 10*.02 = 0.2. If she has only one child, which has a .3 chance of living to adulthood, her expected value is .3. Basic cost-benefit analysis tells us to take the highest expected value, so in this case having one child gives a better chance of passing one’s genes into future generations than having 10.

If a mother wants to limit her number of children, then she must sometimes make choices about whether to keep a particular child. Historically, and cross-culturally, women tend to commit infanticide under conditions that match up with the preceding logic, such as a) when a child is defective, b) when a child is born too soon after a previous child, c) when the father is unlikely to invest in the child (suspicion of adultery, for example, or actual absence), or d) when the mother is young and unprepared to raise a child. Supporting this argument is consistent evidence that the overwhelming majority of child killings occur in the first year of life. It’s as though children pass through an evaluation period during which parents decide whether they are a good vehicle for parental investment or not. (Although the empirical data tends not to differentiate within the first year, anecdotal data suggests that most of those first-year killings take place within the first few weeks or even days. It is likely that this evaluation period is quite brief, and the great majority of infants closing in on their first birthday are likely to enjoy many more.)

Obviously it would be even better for those mothers if they didn’t have to carry those to-be-discarded infants to full term. In the pre-technological era, however, means of abortion were rare and dangerous, limiting the rational use of this option. Today, however, abortion–while not without risk–is safer than pregnancy and childbirth, at least when performed before the third trimester. So women who, at least in a different time and place in history, would have committed infanticide now rationally choose to move the act forward to an early moment, limiting the overall cost of the undesired pregnancy.

Operating on the assumption that infanticide will occur–that social rules and norms can only reduce its frequency to some degree, but not eliminate it–we can see abortion (again, at least early term abortion) as a more human method of infanticide. In that respect, at least, abortion should be quietly celebrated.

General Sources:
Trivers, Robert. “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection,” in Trivers, Social Evolution (1985).

Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. “Killing Kinfolks,” in Daly and Wilson, Homicide (1988).

Scrimshaw, Susan C. M. “Infanticide in Human Populations: Societal and Individual Concerns,” in Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Hrdy, Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives (1984).

Everybody Just Slow Down and Take a Deep Breath

A Republican has won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat! And a breathless media is desperate to enlighten us as to what it means.

A commentator on NPR said this means the American public is telling Washington D.C. that they're not focusing on the right issues. Funny, I didn't realize the American public as a whole got to vote in Massachusetts elections.

Others are claiming it represents a big shift in Massachusetts politics. Of course four of the last five governors of Massachusetts have been Republicans,* so another Republican winning a state-wide race is in itself no more newsworthy than a dog-bites-man story.

The media and the political junkies who hang on their every word love to discern national meaning in single local elections. But as another famous Massachusetts pol, Tip O'Neill, once said, "All politics is local."

19 January 2010

The Democrats' Mythical Supermajority

Massachusetts holds an election today to fill the late Ted Kennedy's position. The media are breathlessly reminding us how important this election is, as a Republican victory will kill the Democrats' "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate. The media, as usual, are missing the real story.

At this point it may be difficult to remember the Democrats’ glee at gaining supermajorities in both the House and Senate. The House is a majority dominated institution, so having 59% of the seats there meant the Democrats could confidently allow a few defections and still steamroll a unified opposition. And with 60 being the magic number for imposing cloture and ending a filibuster in the Senate, all eyes were on the disputed Minnesota Senate race, which would determine whether the Democrats reached that paradisiacal plateau. And, oh, the joy when Al “Saturday Night Live” Franken was declared the victor. But now it is all coming to little, despite Republican’s alligator tears about the alleged onslaught of enslaving legislation being passed by Congress.

Some Democrats I know were looking back to the great civil rights and “Great Society” victories of the Lyndon Johnson administration as proof of what great things a Democratic president united with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress can accomplish. In the 88th Congress, when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, the Democrats controlled 59% of the seats (they had 259 then, to 257 now). In the next Congress, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, they had 295 seats—67%! * The Democrats’ Senate advantage was even greater: in the 88th Congress they controlled 66 seats, which increased to 68 seats after the ’64 election.** Clearly they were an unstoppable machine, and their strength seems to lend support to my one friend’s claim that the Dems need to rebuild their old New Deal coalition if they want to dominate once again.

But such a simplistic analysis overlook too much. Primarily it overlooks the fact that the South back then was still almost solidly Democratic, but very right wing. Strom Thurmond, one of the first major Southern politician to switch parties, only jumped to the Republicans in ’64. This dominance of the South by conservative Democrats—the infamous boll weevils—explains why the Voting Rights act received a larger share of the Republican vote in Congress than it did of the Democratic vote. 63% of Democrats voted for it, while 80% of Republicans did. Among Southern Democrats the vote was only for and 87 against—93% opposition. (The handful of Southern Republicans were even worse—10-0 against.) In contrast, 94% of Northern Democrats and 85% of Northern Republicans voted for it.***

The only way the Democrats could rebuild the New Deal coalition is to bring southern conservatives back into the party—something they have neither any chance nor any desire of doing.

But that helps us recognize the main problem in their push for a congressional supermajority, which is that they can only achieve it with the help of conservatives. The public has not made a major swing to the left, so the gains made by the Democrats were seats picked up either by more conservative party members or lucky liberals in conservative districts who can only hope to hold onto their seats by not straying too far from their constituency’s base beliefs. In other words, they party is hamstrung by the very members who swell their numbers to “unstoppable” status.

The only way the Democrats in the House can use their supermajority is to compromise to the point where their members representing conservative districts can safely come on board. And in the Senate it is even worse, as a single member can drop his drawers and make the whole party leadership kiss his naked ass to get his vote. Dare I say the Democrats might be better off without Al Franken’s seat? Because then they would not have the false hope of control, and would—paradoxically perhaps—have greater liberty to ignore Joe Lieberman.

Little evidence is needed beyond what looks to be the final shape of the health care bill. There’s not a liberal Democrat alive who—1 year ago—said, “I think it would be a great victory if we passed a bill requiring every American to buy health insurance,” but that’s what they’re reduced to now.

And by focusing on getting their whole party in line, the Democrats have opened themselves up to the charge that they’re just pushing through legislation on their own—high-handedly ignoring any interest in compromising with the other side. This is, of course, a stupid charge. No majority party has any duty to consult the minority, and of course the Republicans would do no different were they in the Democrats’ position.*** But even a stupid criticism can be effective, particularly when a crucial number of the votes that propelled the Democrats to their supermajority status came from solidly middle-of-the-road voters and even some who are more likely—as a general tendency—to vote Republican. Remember that all politics is local, so in normally Republican districts in which Democrats won (like mine), the swing voters that tipped the balance were voting for and against particular people or particular policies; they were not voting for wholesale Democratic dominance.

In his excellent short book Learning to Govern: An Institutional View of the 104th Congress, political scientist Richard Fenno writes about the difficulty of “electoral interpretation,” determining what your party’s electoral victory actually meant, which determines what kind of leash the public is holding you on.

The period following an election is a critical time for every victorious political party. It is the time during which the winners decide for themselves what their victory meant and how it will shape their future activity. It is for them to interpret the election results; and it is their electoral interpretation that becomes the essential link between the business of campaigning and the business of governing. Everything that follows in the new Congress will be affected by the postelection interpretation of the winners. (p.5)

Fenno’s argument is that the Republicans in the House blew it after the 1994 election, interpreting a referendum on Clinton as a mandate for policy revolution. It’s tempting to say that Democrats have repeated this same mistake—turning a referendum on Bush into a mandate for major policy change. But I think the reality is different. I think the Democrats made little effort at electoral interpretation. Focusing solely on numbers, they determined that this was, at long last, their chance to achieve the health care reform that has eluded them for half a century. Given the nature of American politics, if they could just once get it in place, it would probably be stuck in place for good, despite Republican claims of creeping (or galloping) socialism, just like Social Security. But in ignoring electoral interpretation they may have misjudged the public’s stomach for a government takeover of a major economic sector—what might have seemed normal in the 1950s seems quite abnormal now. And in counting the numbers they may have forgotten to look at the voters behind those numbers. In short, they have something of a mythical majority, or at least a mythical supermajority.

It’s a lesson all political observers ought to learn. But undoubtedly, neither the pundits nor the politicians will.

* All House numbers are from http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/partyDiv.html.

** http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/history/one_item_and_teasers/partydiv.htm.

***This is what makes claims, such as this one, claiming the Republicans should be credited with passing the Civil Rights Act, basically false. The only identifiable group in opposition were Southern conservatives, who today form the base of the Republican Party.

***I cannot pretend that the Democrats never engage in hypocrisy themselves, but it seems to me that the Republicans have an unequaled propensity for whining when their opponents do precisely what they themselves would do.

15 January 2010

Is This Wrong?

I received the following email from a student (who will, of course, remain anonymous) recently.

hey professor,
i wont be in class today because i have a doctors appointment. i kno you said that if we're not in class then you dont care where we are but i just wanted to make sure that you didnt think that i dropped the class or something like that. see you tuesday.
thank you

And here is my response:

The next time you write an email to me, please make an effort to use proper punctuation and grammar. Consider the impression that you are sending to people when you write this way. It is acceptable between friends for casual communication, but it is not acceptable in business communications.

Is it wrong to reprimand an unsuspecting student this way? This is a frosh who's taking me for the first time, not an upper division student who knows me well, so this surely comes as a bolt out of the blue for him/her.

But in the past several years--and I literally mean just the last 3 or 4--this kind of email has become very common. I would not be surprised if the student sent it from his/her phone, which encourages all lower-case typing, but that's not necessarily the case. The IM style has infected regular email correspondence as well.

Let me note several things:
  1. I don't think such a style is always inappropriate. As I noted in my response, it's fine for casual communication between friends.
  2. I don't intend this as a "students these days" kind of criticism. Only a fool could doubt that students in my day would have done the same had we had this technology. (I'm not immune to the tendency to think that students are getting worse every year, but that's just a function of age. I don't think the data that I have, casual as they are, support such a claim at all.)
  3. Despite left-wing criticisms of contemporary education as being just about creating good corporate citizens, the reality is that the vast majority of students I teach will end up in the business world in some capacity or other. Unless the norms of the business world change, communication-style will continue to matter, and styles that suggest (even if inaccurately) illiteracy will be detrimental to their success.
Given #3 as an assumption (I can't say for sure that it is true, as I am quite insulated from the business world), is it better that an 18 year receives a rude shock now, when the cost is purely psychic, or that a 22 year old receive that shock, when there is a financial cost in addition to the psychic one?

Or have I just become a cantankerous old bastard?