October 2009


According to Slavoj Zizek, the guy with the Stalin poster on his wall, Obama is like Lenin:

I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. I think the battle he is fighting now over healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is that freedom of choice is certainly something beautiful, but that it only works against a background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.

Not great for Obama’s public relations.

He impugns capitalism for its envy problem. But in Zizek’s world he’d be a prominent public philosopher, and that makes me positively green (on the outside…) with envy.

Elizabeth Wright at Taki’s criticizes the Southern Poverty Law Center for putting Carol Swain, well-known black academic and author, soft lefty and contributor to the Huffington Post, on its “hit list.” Why? Because she gave a favorable review to documentary filmmaker Craig Bodeker’s A Conversation About Race.

Intrigued, I looked for said review. Here it is, in its entirety:

This outstanding film provides an opening salvo for the long-awaited national debate on race.  Meticulously done, it offers an opportunity for people of all races to engage in cross-racial dialogue. I highly recommend this film for social science courses dealing with race, class and ethnicity.

That’s it? A more substantive review from a woman of her stature (and race) would have done more for cross-racial dialogue than the film itself, I suspect.

Yet she still came under fire from the SPLC. In the words of the SPLC’s Mark Potok, she is, intentionally or not, an “apologist for white supremacists.” This even though she’s written two books on the subject of white nationalism and its threat to integration. I wouldn’t be surprised if the SPLC were more paranoid than half its hit list.

Though I haven’t seen Bodeker’s film, the impression I get from the excerpts and a review by Wright herself, is that it undermines the idea of a racist society. Though racism is believed to be insidious and omnipresent, almost nobody interviewed in the film can give a clear of example of it in their own life. 

Consider me unconvinced. According to Harvey Silverglate, I’m affected by the proliferation of law to the point that I commit “three felonies a day,” or thereabouts. And though I may be poised to believe it, because I’m already a convinced libertarian, I can scarcely give any examples of it because I’m ignorant of the way this whole legal apparatus works. I suspect that a left-wing academic could describe how racism operates, even if, apparently, few of its victims can.

I’ve been making some comments on various sites in reaction to the recent debate on Reason between the likes of Kerry Howley and Todd Seavey on whether libertarians should care about things other than government. I insist that you should not care about anything other than government, abandoning your family and basic nutrition to wither away in front of the local DMV, shaking your fist to the last. The sites I have rambled at are Wilkinson’s, IOZ and Modeled Behavior.

I’ll note that I do promote norms, but those have nothing to do with libertarianism.

Since the fall of the Berlin wall, few have defended actually existing communism and those few have been ripe for satire. Some claim that “true” communism has never existed and what happened instead was a form of state capitalism, some say Stalin ruined the good thing Trotsky had going, and some leftists admit that Marx as all wrong and the right path for socialism is anarchism. I should admit that many of my fellow libertarians (particularly the anti-vulgar ones) take the no-true approach, while I prefer to admit the imperfections but emphasize actually existing capitalism contrasted with actually existing socialism. I’m satisfied with the “foot vote”, but the unrepentant commies have some arguments that objective evidence of well-being supports their system.

I bring this up thanks to (Chip) Smith’s recent response to (Michael) Smith’s review of (Bradley) Smith’s autobiography as a Holocaust denier. My impression is that Holocaust deniers tend to come in varieties that would be considered right-wing, either racial/ethnic nationalists or anti-interventionist libertarians. Even the somewhat hippy-dippy anti-anti-communist Denierbud repeatedly cites Kevin MacDonald, a white nationalist who excoriates the Soviet Union and its communist apologists as Jewish plotters against white gentiles. Michael Smith is different. He strikes me as generally goofy (my guess is his site is mostly dedicated to 9/11 conspiracy theories) and thinks both Hitler and the communist dictators have been libeled (I should note that Denierbud also thinks we were sold a bill of goods on Saddam and Idi Amin). He doesn’t just think they weren’t as bad as advertised, he thinks their system was better for human flourishing than capitalism. He cites the respected (oddly) Amartya Sen on changes in mortality in China, and compares it to India. Neoliberals agree: the Gapminder folks touting the changes in China note that they concentrated on health under Mao, but shifted to wealth under Deng.

How can we explain that? Possibly the data are just bad, but then I wouldn’t have anything more to write about in this post. I noted that Robert Lindsay defended communism on health grounds previously, he believes the difference is that capitalism gives people what they want and what they want is not what they should have. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (of the notorious hotbed of pinkos known as the Hoover Institute) explained the high literacy/education rates and good health in communist regimes by saying that they acted in a self-interested and rational manner, like Mencius Moldbug’s utopia under Fnargl. Just like a farmer wants his chattel to be healthy, a slaveowner or communist dictator wants his subjects to be healthy enough to produce lots of labor. I’d been reading some of Greg Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms” recently and had another idea. Maybe the mass deaths were the reason for good health. Clark notes that life expectancy (and income) shot up in England after the Black Death. A lower population in an agricultural economy where the fixed supply of land is the main constraint on production means a higher marginal product for labor. China under Mao notoriously had a “one-child” policy which kept population down. Lindsay is right then that the “foot vote” indicates people desire things other than what communist health nuts give them, and the Chinese in particular might have wanted more fertility. So one’s opinion on communism may depend on how they view the repugnant conclusion.

Among the more readable books I’ve read in a while. Interesting ideas told engagingly, with a bit of a sense of humor that doesn’t distract from the science. When you finish one chapter you’ll want to go on to the next, then you’ll want another one, and before you know it you’ll have gobbled it up. This isn’t just a popularization of stuff smart people should already be expected to understand. I myself habitually fall back into thinking about a great Evolutionary Adaptive Period which must swamp any puny changes since then, Cochran & Harpending show that’s mistaken and the consequences are important. Everyone should read it, recommend it to your friends and family.

On a completely unrelated note, the blogger at Calculated Exuberance wants to build a larger readership and requested a link. I’m happy to oblige and state that I think that’s a clever blog title.

A number of foreboding signs have appeared heralding the final day of judgment. One that nobody has yet expressed shock over is Paul Krugman linking to Mish Shedlock with approval. Not even Mish’s fellow outside-the-academy Austrian Bob Murphy. In a less shocking development, I prodded Chip Smith into expanding from mere Holocaust revisionism to expressing skepticism about the Armenian genocide and the utility of the idea of genocide more generally.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I’d like to say that “Therapy By Other Means” is an excellent post title, as well as a cutting indictment of our foreign policy.

I mentioned to Robin Hanson that his near/far dichotomy is reflected in Randall Collins’ “Violence: A Microsociological Theory”, which he had recently discussed. Here are relevant bits from chapter 2. (more…)

Half Sigma speculated that computer programmers vote Republican. I was skeptical and so were other commenters. Fortunately, the GSS has occupation codes for them. According to this page, after 1980 (variable OCC80) they had code 229. In appendix F from this page we see in the 70s they have one of the earliest codes, 003 for OCC. (more…)

…it might still be a resource for those that were more selfish all along. (“Selfish” defined momentarily.)

Over at the Austrian Economists, Roger Koppl cites a study by Bruno Frey and Stephan Meier that suggests that an economics education does not make one more selfish, contrary to the claims of folks such as, say, David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture (who I years ago heard interviewed by my then intellectual “mentor” Michael Medved – hey, I was a pizza delivery guy at the time). This in the context of a blog post by Steven Horwitz posing the question of whether economics professors were relatively more aware of the negative externality of leaving their chalkboards unerased for the incoming instructor.

Though Koppl is correct, strictly speaking, the actual results of the study cited conclude that both business and economics students were less pro-social (and thus more selfish) than students of other disciplines to begin with.  True, the effect of the education itself was not seen. (Pro-social behaviors here include “voluntary work, helping needy people, donating money and protecting the environment.”) But this is probably even worse for the essence of Koppl’s argument, in that the behavior stems from the very personality types that make up the economics students (cum professors) in question. 

The sample size was ~37,000, and drawn from the student body at the University of Zurich. I can only imagine the awfulness of the consequences of such self-serving behavior in the city with the second highest standard of living in the world.

Via Newmark’s Door, we see that an increasing portion of deaths are due to people just making bad decisions. Around the same time, Robin Hanson notes that we are living in a period of unusually widespread & harmful delusions. I recall that in “Guns, Germs and Steel” Jared Diamond speculated (not bothering to check to see if any body had gathered evidence on the topic) that hunter-gatherers are smarter than first world denizens because avoiding homicide and starvation were the major selection pressures for them, whereas resisting disease has been the biggie for agricultural populations. Greg Clark turned that idea on its head in “A Farewell to Alms” when he argued that the heavier death toll due to disease in England helped it break out of its Malthusian trap. We in the first world are already out of that trap, so should the increasing importance of decision-making ability on mortality cause us to become much more intelligent over time? Before anyone says it, I realize that mortality is different from fitness.