Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On muslims, extremism and politics

I was engaged in a bit of a debate this evening about American foreign policy, triggered by my Ron Paul '12 t-shirt.  I say, a bit of a debate, because the discussion was frequently interrupted by questions, comments, other conversation, jokes and my involvement in a poker game.  I felt a lot like Ron Paul must feel in the presidential debates--how in the hell do you state and defend a complex opinion in 30 seconds?  That isn't why I'm writing this blog, though.  I'm addressing some of the other issues related to foreign policy, particularly in America.

First, I want to say that I don't really know what a muslim is.  I'm no expert on the religion, I haven't read the Koran and it's been several years since the height of the Iraq war when I last made any effort to really understand differences between different sects of the religion for the purposes of understanding the problems in Iraq better.  But the point I really want to make is that I don't want to lump all muslims together, and I don't think anybody ought to.  The typical distinction is "muslims" vs "muslim extremists" and that will have to do for now.

Second, I want to state that my reading up on the issues of terrorism and muslim extremism are fairly limited.  I don't claim to be an expert, but I would claim to be more informed than the average person.  Again, around the height of the Iraq war I took the effort to read about bin Laden and al qaeda, to try to understand their goals and motives.  That seems like a reasonable issue to try to get a handle on shortly after 9/11 and during the height of two wars in the middle east.  If we're going to prevent future attacks, we must address their motives.  My understanding of these people is quite different from the George W. Bush narrative, "they hate us for our freedoms".

I believe they have historically been interested in preserving theocratic dominion over their holy lands in the middle east and in pursuing this by any means necessary, i.e. terrorism.  They began by killing muslims in muslim lands, which for obvious reasons did not endear them to said muslims.  This is when the focus of the attacks turned against western interests, particularly American.  I have also come to understand that these people's motivations to join these radical groups and carry out these extreme measures is explained generally by the theory of blowback.  Blowback is the notion that foreign influence and militarism in their holy lands inspires hatred and resentment against the West.  In other words, if the US military drops bombs on a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, destroying a vital medical facility and many innocent lives, people over there might get a little pissed off at America.  If sanctions against Iraq during the 90s caused hundreds of thousands of children to starve and die for lack of medical treatment, people over there might foster hatred against the West.  Maybe foreign governments that prop up oppressive tyrannical regimes would be a target of resentment for those living under that oppression.

I have heard another theory and looked into it some in the past, as it was suggested to me this evening: muslims are engaged in a holy war that they are prepared to carry on for centuries.  They will deceive us, lull us into complacency and strike when we are least prepared.  I certainly accept that it is true at least in some instances, just as there are people who read too much into the lyrics of Helter Skelter or take an unusually warped view from The Catcher in the Rye.  I also admit that I think it is possible this theory explains extremism on the whole.  I have agreed in principle to study the issue further, and intend to follow through on that.

Here are my issues with that theory and questions I hope will be addressed.   I'm sure I am overlooking a few others, but four come easily to mind.

First of all, we need to distinguish as before a difference between regular people who are muslim vs muslim extremists.  I hope that the sources I am directed to will do this for me and provide some sort of scope of this issue.  What percentage of muslims are we talking about?  How do we distinguish the extremists from the sincerely good people if the extremists are not being open?  Afterall, there are always going to be groups of crazies plotting to do crazy stuff in their basements, we need to put it into a proper perspective with some sort of reliable estimate.

Second, we have to address the issue of blowback.  Is blowback a factor at all?  I mean, let's say that muslim kids in Iraq are brought up learning about holy war doctrines and hating infidels and all that.  At what point do they take an active belief?   I'm thinking of Jules in "Pulp Fiction" here.  We don't really know from his character background, but I imagine Jules always kind of believed in a god and had a spiritual side, then one day a round of ammo fires off around his head and he's gone from passive indoctrination to active belief, having experienced a miracle[*].   In other words, if a drone strike results in collateral damage, how many people are joining the cause of the holy war who were previously on the sidelines?

Third is the issue of what it means for how to change the world.  In most cases, people advocating this view of muslim extremism seem to advocate for militarism.  Is the way to solve the problem with more meddling in middle eastern affairs?  Is killing people the moral, or even the most effective strategy?  Is it possible to pursue a more passive policy of spreading our goodness by our example instead of at the point of a gun?  One interesting thing that I conjured up in recent days relating to Ron Paul and Iran came to me from one of Jim Rogers' books on traveling around the world. (He wrote two books, Adventure Capitalism and Investment Biker--both are excellent--and I cannot remember which one I am referring to here.)

He talked about Iran having one of the world's youngest populations and how out of touch with those youth the leaders of the country are.  Of course, Reason did a piece recently talking about how young Soviets' desire for American lifestyles was integral in the breakdown of the Soviet empire as the Kremlin lost the war of ideas.  I found a subtle juxtaposition that it is Ron Paul, iconoclastic and "outside the mainstream" of  American politics, whom the young voters flock to and in Iran, a young population is ripe for change and reform.  Interfering in Iran and beating the war drums with sanctions and intimidating rhetoric gives cover to the Iranian government to unite the people to a common cause of self-preservation.  Nobody wants to be attacked.  Iranians will rally behind their leaders if drones start dropping bombs or if the sanctions become too burdensome.  I'm not arguing a point of value, that they would be wise or correct to rally behind their government, I am just making a statement of historical fact.  But absent that threat, might the youthful population be capable of achieving some reforms and earning more freedom?  Does the Arab Spring have any lessons about the struggle for freedom in places where they are not accustomed to any?

So again I ask, is there a passive approach?  Does acceptance of this "holy war" theory of muslim extremism necessitate militarism?

Finally, I'm always troubled by cynicism and deceit, particularly in politics.  I mentioned before the George W. Bush narrative of extremism:  "they hate us for our freedoms".  Fine, but this ties into the issue of blowback that I brought up in my second concern about the "holy war" theory.  Recently, footage of US Marines urinating on three Afghani corpses emerged and hit the newswire.  This immediately caused me to think back to the Abu Graib photo scandal from years ago.

A leading peace negotiator for the Afghan government stated in the last week about "Urinegate", "Looking at such action, the Taliban can easily recruit young people and tell them that their country has been attacked by Christians and Jews and they must defend it," he said.

At the time of the Abu Graib scandal, I recall members of the Bush administration and the network of right-wing media arguing that the media should not release any photos of the disgusting scenes.  Their argument, which made perfect sense to me, was that it would similarly create an effective marketing pitch for the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to recruit new members.  It would endanger the troops!

I am a bit skeptical of the Bush administration on this one.  While their argument made complete sense to me, one can't help but wonder if maybe they didn't want those photos to be leaked because they were desperate to cover their own asses.  Nevertheless, the argument was made and it begs the question I asked before about what role blowback plays in inspiring hatred and active extremism.  It troubles me when Rudy Giuliani, in a presidential debate in 2007, can respond to Ron Paul's explanation of blowback saying, "I don't think I've ever heard that before".  What?  Then maybe you aren't qualified to be president!  (Republican primary voters ultimately agreed.)  It troubles me when these ideas are embraced for political gain and then abandoned when an opportunity to demagogue arises. 

I hope the sources I am guided to will answer these questions.  I don't think I'm being unfair or biased toward my current opinion; I am creating a reasonable standard which this holy war theory of extremism must meet and, better yet, exceed.

* Was it really a miracle?  Perhaps Vincent was correct to argue, "Chill Jules, this shit happens."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get a fucking clue, GOP

Not surprisingly, I've been thoroughly annoyed by the GOP primary race for the past several months.  I fundamentally disagree with all of them, except Ron Paul, when it comes to foreign policy.  The Iran issue that has been front and center in this election cycle has pushed the limits on how inane this debate can possibly be.

Although the neoconservative foreign policy does annoy and frustrate me, I can at least respect that there intelligent neoconservative arguments to be made and a lot of them that I can sympathize with.  On the whole, these arguments fall well short of persuading me.  But with Iran, the entire issue is so out of touch with reality, my skeptical nature demands that I question whether these politicians really believe a single word they are saying.

Ron Paul has been under attack for his views for months now, but as he continues to steadily rise in the polls and especially threatened to win in Iowa, he's out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox News today and made this statement about Paul:  "[He believes] Iranians can get a nuclear weapon and it doesn't matter, and if Israel disappears, well, bad things happen."  He further implied not only that he believes Paul is wrong on the issue, but that he "doesn't care about the safety of the United States."  This is demagoguery at its finest.

First, only if you cherry-pick reports and seek out single sentences from pages of information can you suggest that the Iranians are on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon.  So already, the GOP establishment hacks are behind the 8-ball in this debate.  Michele Bachmann, in the last debate, basically resorted to making things up about an IAEA report.  Unfortunately for her, Ron Paul had actually read the report and threw her arguments back in her face.  Nevertheless, she pushed on--afterall, what are the chances any of the voters would bother to look into an IAEA report?

Secondly the idea that Iran would be a threat, even if they do get to that point is pretty low.  For one, the United States is the military power of the middle east, no question about it.  Because people like Newt Gingrich are incapable of abstract thinking, they can't imagine any scenario where this would not be true.  They are apprehensive about Paul's plan to bring troops home from Germany!  (Neocon defense:  insert Neville Chamberlain metaphor here).  When considering Paul's position of bringing the troops home and not acting preemptively against Iran, you have to first understand who would step into the role of dominant military power in that region:  Israel.

In 1981, Israel acted against Saddam Hussein when they had evidence he was pursuing nuclear weapons at that time.  The Washington establishment condemned these actions because the United States does not respect Israel's sovereignty and believes that all military action, everywhere, by anyone, must first be cleared by the US State Department.  So, for the Republicans to pretend today they are standing up for Israel is absurd.  They are instead standing up for United States global hegemony.  Of course, Ron Paul stood  alone in 1981 against condemning Israel and against interfering in Middle Eastern affairs, out of a principled respect that a) the US must not police the world, and b) Israel is entitled to act unilaterally in its own affairs and defense.

Again, I want to repeat that under Paul's plan of bringing troops home, Israel becomes the military power in the region.  Israel, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and have adopted a tense adherence to the mutually assured destruction principle.  If Israel is threatened by an Iranian nuclear program, they have shown in the past a willingness to act unilaterally, even in the face of condemnation, and they posses a nuclear arsenal and world-class intelligence to make quick work of it.  Any argument from the GOP candidates that implies an Iranian nuclear program would mean the end of Israel is indicative of stupidity or political gamesmanship of the worst kind.

Finally, this view is less controversial in Israel than in the US.  As far as the GOP is concerned, anyone who dares to question the US hegemony is a vile anti-Semite.  Yet when Benjamin Netanyahu states that Israel would be better off if the US would allow them some independence, or when Israeli newspapers publish editorials touting Ron Paul's message, it is a normal foreign affairs debate to them.  Of course, the GOP talking heads aren't interested in empathizing with their Israeli counterparts and they aren't interested in Israel's ability to defend itself.  They represent American exceptionalism, a patriarchal view of the world where the President of the United States lives up to the billing, the most powerful man in the world.

It's time the American people demanded better from these candidates.  Or at least the American media!  I don't expect much from CNN or Fox News, but this level of journalistic ineptitude is incredible.  How they continue to allow this inane damsel-in-distress portrayal of Israel to persist is just beyond the pale.  Israel, if allowed its due independence, is strong, competent and determined, and it's time Americans respect that.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Can't we all just not get along?

I was watching a recent episode of "Stossel" where he and CATO's David Boaz joined a meeting of college libertarians to speak about liberty and politics. For most of the show, Stossel proposed a topic, and then students asked questions of him and Boaz.

It is said that getting libertarians to agree is like herding cats. At a recent US Libertarian Party convention, former LP presidential candidate Michael Badnarik gave a speech urging his fellow libertarians to stop arguing with one another over the few things they disagree about, and to work together towards defeating the candidates with whom libertarians have much to disagree about.

I like Michael Badnarik, but I just couldn't disagree with him more. I think that the one advantage we libertarians have over people of other political persuasions is that we are grounded in philosophy. We're consistent from issue to issue, where other groups and parties waver, compromise, contradict. In the old days, "liberals" were people who believed in private property, individual liberty and limited government. Nowadays, that description could only be applied to liberals if it were printed in MAD Magazine or The Onion. I don't want that to happen to the term 'libertarian'. I want us to continue to force the issues on which we disagree and to pursue a more perfect philosophy that can convince us all to finally agree with one another. The same way libertarians believe that competition in industry produces the best outcomes for production, we ought to believe that the same is true in the realm of intellectualism.

So, if I had been at the microphone to ask a question of the two noted libertarians on stage I would have asked, "Am I crazy, or should we not continue the bickering and in-fighting in order to preserve our intellectual integrity and philosophical superiority over opposing political groups?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

10 Misconceptions of Inflation

I occasionally read articles by Jim Jubak of MSN Money when one of his articles is featured on homepage with a particularly intriguing title. Today, the catchy header on MSN was "Reasons to love inflation" [actual article titled, "10 reasons to love rising prices"].

No need to really follow the link, because I'll post his 10 reasons, along with rebuttals. In fairness to Jubak, about half of his ridiculous assertions are just silly--I guess his editor thought "10 reasons..." would entice more readers than, "A few reasons...." This article specifically addresses why Americans should love inflation, so he isn't pimping inflation for everyone.

1. Inflation keeps deflation from the door. Deflation can kill an economy (just ask the Japanese). With prices going lower every day, consumers have constant pressure to put off purchases because "it will be cheaper tomorrow." This is no way to run a modern consumer economy. Even the Chinese know it's a bad idea to discourage consumer spending. That's why savings accounts in China pay a negative real interest rate. Every yuan you save today is worth less tomorrow.

Sorry, Jim, I asked the Japanese and am waiting to hear back from the Chinese, but I'm still not convinced. You can't just make an integral assertion like this and then throw out a couple non sequitur non-points out to back it up. The reality is that deflation does not kill an economy, rather a decline in prices in necessary to correct prices that were driven up during boom conditions on speculation. The reality of the market is that people lose money when they make mistakes, deflation is one method by which this important liquidation occurs.

I will grant you that deflation is worse for people with low (or negative) savings, and since most Americans qualify in the category, deflation would hurt them. However, savings are the lifeblood of a healthy economy. That Americans are not prepared for economic reality, does not negate its necessity nor its inevitability.

2. Inflation gives us the illusion that we're making progress in our work lives. And that illusion provides critical grease for the economic wheels. Wouldn't a 5% raise feel good in 2011? Wouldn't it make you feel appreciated at work? You'd start to think that tomorrow you might be able to afford (fill in the blank). Even if that 5% raise was, once you subtracted inflation, equal to 0%, it sure would feel better than the honest-to-goodness 0% raises that many workers have received in the recent past. And workers who feel better -- even if as a result of an illusion -- are more productive (and less likely to throw a wrench at the servers).

Remember how I mentioned he was adding in fluff in order to come up with 10 reasons???

3. Inflation makes consumers feel richer, so they buy more. Policymakers are still trying to get the U.S. economy revving so that it produces more jobs. Waking up each morning knowing that your biggest asset, your house, is worth less doesn't make you want to strap on that American Express card and drive to the mall. (Don't give me this stuff about nominal versus real prices. We all live in a nominal world.)

The American economy suffered economic imbalances in conjunction with excess spending and debt which persist today. So naturally, the cure-all remedy for the mess is to drive people to spend more. This is absurd logic.

So what if policymakers are trying to rev up the US economy?--and by that, they are trying to induce spending and jobs, not fundamental economic growth. Just because policymakers are doing it doesn't mean it is correct policy. I thought this was an exposition to defend the policy of inflation, not to inform us of it and ask us to go along.

I also really love the deception involved here. 'Inflation will trick you cattle into thinking you have more wealth.' That, in and of itself is bad enough, but what's worse is that inflation doesn't just change the nominal wealth it redistributes the wealth in real terms. When all that new money comes into the economy, it doesn't magically appear pro-rata in everyone's bank out so that we all stay equally wealthy as before. The government and the lending institutions push that money out into the economy, primarily through politically targeted projects and big business. Wait, who am I kidding? I was being redundant; a politically targeted project usually is big business, in bed with government. In any case, that money isn't going to the middle class that policymakers are trying to trick.

4. Inflation makes consumers feel that saving is worthwhile. I've been trying to teach my kids to save. Do you know how impossible that is when banks pay 1% or less on the traditional passbook account? If it weren't for the free lollipop, there would be no way to get them to put a buck in at all. And we need inflation's help, not just in building a future generation of savers, but also in making the buy-on-credit-now versus save-to-buy-later decision tougher. Think there's any real incentive to save instead of just charging it when interest rates are so low? We need the whiff of inflation to push them higher.

This is hard to make sense of. I don't think Jubak is living in the real world or a free market fantasy land. You cannot save during periods of inflation. I cannot make that point clearly enough: YOU CANNOT SAVE DURING PERIODS OF INFLATION! Modest inflation like 2-3%, fine. But were talking inflation, not the standard year-to-year inflation we used to know. What drives inflation is low interest rates. In order to save your money, you put it away and earn interest. If the interest rates are low, though, and inflation persists, then you are saving your money in nominal terms, but you are losing wealth. (Remember how I mentioned inflation redistributes wealth?)

Then he argues that inflation will lead to higher interest rates. But this is just silly. We don't need inflation in order for this to happen. We need to remember that there is a true market for credit, just like everything else. We tend to forget this is the case because central planners have undermined this market through central banking. But interest is a charge for deferring consumption, and for incurring risk of loss/default. Savings are the supply. America has no savings so how can they have credit? You can't buy a product when there is no supply. Think about something really rare and ask yourself: does it cost a lot or is it cheap as dirt? A short supply of something, in this case savings, results in high cost of the product, in this case credit.

All the market fundamentals exist to justify massive increases in interest rates. But imagine someone with savings trying to get, say, 20% for his money. The bank is not going to pay it, they are getting money basically for free from the Fed because the Fed is printing money and lending it for nothing. Consumers won't pay the cost because the banks have all that cheap money that they can loan out for incredible profits at a low rate.

If you want high interest rates, why don't don't you try advocating for some sort of reforms in monetary control that will actually let the market determine fair and equitable interest rates in line with the economic conditions?

5. By eroding the value of money, inflation reinforces the value of concrete assets. That's important in a world that needs to do a lot of investing in finding and developing new supplies of commodities such as oil and copper. Anything that works to lower the relative cost of capital for these projects is a plus in industries with current supply/demand imbalances.

I can't make much sense of this statement at all. He may be suggesting that low interest rates, linked with the inflation, make financing capital investment cheaper so that oil can be sought out, drilled and refined. But, what about that whole thing he said a minute ago about inflation bringing about higher interest rates, which would have the opposite effect on capital investment? I can only hope this is not the point he wishes to make--except that this is frightfully the most coherent of the possibilities.

Furthermore, when credit isn't based on a pool of savings, but on the whims of the gurus in the ivory towers, low interest rates result in viable economic projects competing for funds while non-viable projects. Thus, essential capital that should be allocated to vital oil exploration and ore mining will be siphoned off by retail and service ventures that seem profitable due to the incorrect market signals being sent to entrepreneurs by the interest rate. At least when all that inflation leads to high interest rates, it will make only the most essential ventures profitable--unfortunately, those profits will come on the backs of high prices.

6. Inflation is essential to ending the slump in the housing markets. Cheap mortgage money isn't enough to get buyers into the market when they're afraid that the price of the asset is about to slump. We need inflation's help to get us back to the good old days when homeowners could count on their houses being worth more (in nominal dollars, I know) every year. Inflation can make home ownership a no-lose investment again.

The slump in the housing markets is essential to correcting the mistakes that were made in the last bubble. Propping up bad investments is not a sustainable economic policy. People made mistakes, and they will lose money. The faster these mistakes are behind us, the sooner we can move on.

And once again, Jubak refers to tricking people into thinking or feeling that they are richer, or their assets have appreciated by simply putting a bigger number on their assets without actually having market conditions change to bring true value to the investment. Apparently inflation is good for Americans like sugar pills are great for serious medical conditions. Real medicine not required, a simple placebo will do.

7. And while we're at it, we need inflation to make debt loads more affordable long term. How? By shrinking the real value of that debt every year. Owing $450,000 on a mortgage is much easier if inflation is eroding the value of that debt every year by 3% or so. (Yes, inflation pushes up the price of credit, but as long as your own debt carries a fixed interest rate, you don't really care about the higher rates future debtors will pay.)

I'm reminded of a joke: two economists are walking down the street when one of them sees a $50 bill on the ground and says, "Look, $50!" The other man replies, "There can't be $50 there, someone else would have picked it up already."

In other words, you can't just rip off your creditors by riding a wave of inflation, they already jumped on that wave too. Prices reflect forecasts into the future, including the price of credit, interest.

8. Without inflation we have no hope of containing the U.S. national debt. The U.S. government needs inflation to reduce the real value of its debt even more than strapped homeowners do. As of January 20, according to the very frightening U.S. debt clock, the U.S. national debt was $14.1 trillion. That's roughly $45,000 in debt for every U.S. citizen (which is almost as big a burden as the $52,000 in personal debt per citizen). That doesn't count the unfunded liabilities for programs such as Medicare. Think there's much chance that burden will be sustainable in the long term without some help from our friend inflation?

Inflation is not an increase in wealth, it is an increase in figures. You can't afford more stuff just by inflating the currency. Any manipulation of the currency is really going to be a default. I don't think we should even call it a national debt anymore. It is not going to be paid. Either the Debt will be restructured, which although it is a default is at least honest. More likely, the money will just be printed and worthless dollars will repay creditors for the valuable savings they sacrificed. Jubak is arguing a case for fulfilling the accounting figures of the financial obligations, but I hardly see that as an issue. What good is balancing the accounts when the value has been squandered. If and when it comes time to crank the printing presses in order to liquidate the debt and many of the entitlements, accounting is going to be the least of our problems.

9. Inflation is also crucial to restoring personal and national financial discipline. At current interest rates, money is simply too cheap for the U.S. federal government and Congress to pay much attention. At current interest rates, the payment on the U.S. national debt comes to just $3.5 trillion a year (or $11,310 a year per U.S. citizen). That's a ton of cash, but it's not enough to crowd out spending on crucial government programs. Inflation pushes up interest rates so that Americans can't afford to build that lame weapons system in some congressperson's district. Then, whammo, we have a crisis on our hands. And we all know we're not going to fix this problem without a crisis.

This is the same fallacy Jubak has been falling for throughout his article. The interest rates create the inflation! Asking for inflation to cure low interest rates is asking for low interest rates. It's silly. It's like a dieter saying, "I hope I get full soon, because I want to stop eating." Just put down the knife and fork and have some restraint!

10. Best of all, inflation makes it easier to tell stories that begin "When I was your age . . . " Try this one for fun: "When I was your age, I used to pick beans in the hot sun for a whole day to earn just $1." That sounds pretty good, at least until your kids are old enough to figure out that a $1 in 1958 would be worth about $7.60 today. (Here's an inflation calculator they could use. Don't let them near it.)

I was worried we weren't going to get any more fluff, but he managed to squeeze one more in there. Jus tfor fun, I'll disagree with Jubak on this as well. What do old people say? "I used to walk 10 miles in the snow, uphill, against the wind, both ways, to get to and from school." Old farts don't want to tell their grandkids about the candy bars that were "only a nickel". That sounds like grandpa was living in a utopia of free-flowing chocolate and jolly rancher raindrops. No, grandpas should be rooting for free market currencies and the consequent deflation. When our grandchildren are at the store buying 50-cent Mars bars, we can tell them about how Mars bars were $1.25 in our day, and we can throw in , just for good measure, "you youngins don't know how good you got it!"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The wisdom of central banking

"Cheap money is not a long-term growth strategy."

That is the sage warning from Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, and he's absolutely correct. Which begs the question, why is this an economic strategy that is deemed legitimate in the first place?

Carney's wise words restated, cheap money is a short-term growth strategy. Although that is not necessarily true by inductive reason, it must be so. Surely, cheap money would not be a viable tactic if it was not conducive to growth in either the short- or long-term.

By the BoC governor's own logic then, economic growth fueled by cheap money is unsustainable. That the national economic policy, as set by the Bank of Canada, is unsustainable should frighten and confuse us all! What is a bubble, afterall, but unsustainable, short-term economic growth?

Some people, hellbent on rationalizing the insanity of the ruling elites, would claim that a rollercoaster of ups and downs can still produce long-term overall growth trends. I fully concur with this assessment, however I find that it is indicative of the shortcomings of Keynesian thinking. This type of analysis subjects the components of the economy into aggregates that need not be considered to any substantive degree, and instead observes the statistical outcomes of the composition. But inside these aggregates of long-term winners are many, many losers, all the people who were guided by central planners into unsustainable, doomed-to-fail investments by the conditions that spurred short-term growth. To these people, economic conditions that guide investors into prudent, sustainable activities are paramount to their welfare. These conditions, unfortunately, are brushed aside in favour of politically expedient government action. When will we learn?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Liberals have no business making attack ads

Below is the most recent ad from the Liberal Party, attacking Stephen Harper for the "Fake Lake" for the G20 Summit. I've been hearing the voiceover on the radio many times per day recently as I listen at work. After hearing it a few times, I actually began to think about it--so in a sense, the advertisement worked.


First off, I'm completely and utterly annoyed with practically everything Harper does as PM, and I cannot think of one single thing to do with the G20/G8 meetings that I support him on. Furthermore, from listening to talk radio at work the last week or so, I can't think of a single person I heard call into any of the shows to support "Fake Lake" or much of anything to do with the meetings either, and even the seemingly conservative-leaning hosts haven't had anything good to say about the Summit expenditures themselves.

With that in mind, the Liberals are not advertising Harper's boondoggle in order to raise awareness, or to get a point across about the validity of the expense(s). It is purely an effort to attack the opposition on one of its mistakes. And therein lies the problem.

For one, I think that if you polled Canadians, asking us if we think the Liberals would have spent similarly outrageous amounts of money to host these ridiculous meetings, most of us would say yes. The fact that the public probably does not believe that the Liberal Party would have done things fundamentally different indicates that there is a sense of hypocrisy in the ad. Perhaps they genuinely believe over at Liberal headquarters that they would have tightened the purse-strings--such naivety should no more be rewarded than the inherent hypocrisy of the ad.

Secondly, I don't accept the discourse of modern politics which avoids philosophy and focuses on singular events, which avoids root causes and focuses on symptoms. There is a root problem with the Harper government that is in the philosophy of its members. That money was squandered on a stupid pond is symptomatic of this philosophical underlying problem. Had money been thrown away one time because of a mistake in judgment that was consistent with a sound philosophy of governance, I believe it could and should be overlooked, to a reasonable extent. And this draws us back to the first point: the Liberals also suffer from a lack of sound philosophy which manifests itself in unique symptomatic errors. Maybe instead of a pond, they would have wasted millions on some other boondoggle. But because the two parties share the same affliction, we can be sure they will both exhibit similar symptoms, even if we can't forecast what those symptoms might have been had the other party been in charge.

Thirdly, even if the attack was not hypocritical, it's horrible discourse. If the Liberals were worth voting for, I wouldn't be writing about philosophy today because they would put out an ad that carried that message to the people themselves. They would differentiate themselves from the Conservatives at a philosophical level instead of at the symptomatic level--practically, the superficial level. They would point out the difference in their views on government and explain how such manifestations as a phony lake would be inconceivable if they were running the show.

Clearly, this is not the case. The Liberals and Conservatives share a common ideology underneath their rhetoric. I guess the moral fo the story here is that when political allies are trying to draw attention to how different they are from one another, the people should always remember to take notice of the opposite, how very similar they really are.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ann Coulter vs. Human Rights

I don't know anything about Ann Coulter. I have seen her on TV for maybe 5 minutes, and I've heard of the titles of a couple of her books. Other than that, I just know of the occasional controversial quote the media pundits pick at for a few days. She seems to be a religious and political nut, but I'm in no position to make that judgment.

She should be able to say any nutty thing that she wants to: hateful, disrespectful, idiotic, etc.

Believing that you're right, and being unwilling to open the issue up to discussion is just saying "fuck off" to anyone who happens to disagree with you. How does that encourage people to open their minds, let alone change them? The way we deal with these people today is to institute oppressive laws, to vilify the individuals and to treat their ideas as taboo and "just plain wrong". When we vilify them automatically for their ideas, we're pushing them into a defensive position that causes them to strengthen their resolve on the ideas even more than if we just ignored them and let them be. When we decide an exchange of ideas is no longer necessary, we can expect good speech to be limited as well, and that only helps the spread of bad ideas.

We should be doing the opposite. We should focus on the ideas and not the individuals. The bad speech should be drowned out by good speech. The debate should be open and accessible for all, so that any listeners should never have to rely on the bad speech they hear as the only speech they hear. The answer to bad speech is more speech.

Beyond that, we should enthusiastically engage the individuals who hold these unacceptable views, and offer them the chance to share their ideas with us and to listen to ours. When we invite them into an intellectual discourse, we're inviting them to share our viewpoint and to change--or at least to be less hateful to those of us who see things differently.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant; we should be bringing bad ideas to the forefront, exposing them as flawed and offering our peers an opportunity to change their minds. Isn't that better than "fuck off"?

A little off-topic but shares my broad concept of the free market of ideas: watch Penn Says: Love of Truth and a Little Bullshit. I believe it's not only bad--intellectually bad--for people to believe in bullshit and not engage in the free market of ideas, it's also intellectually wrong to believe in something so obviously right and close the door on exchange of ideas. Al Gore likes to say, "the debate is over"; the debate should never be over.

"When you announce that you believe in something that you feel but you can't prove, you're just saying "fuck off" to everyone who doesn't happen to feel that....Questioning things that others have faith in is just another way of saying, "I'd like to share this feeling with you, give me something we can test in this world we agree to share." -Penn Jillette