April 2011

A couple weeks ago at Larison’s, commenter Heptaster wrote “The world would be better off without German unification. Better yet, Germany ought to have been the nation that was broken up in the 1990s. The Germany of many small principalities, after all, contributed something of genuine value to human culture”. Not something you’ll hear a lot of people say, but it actually makes sense to me. A couple days ago I was looking up Paul Berman, and went from there to the Anti-Germans article (I always laugh at the idea of country X having a political movement movement explicitly calling itself anti-X). I disagree with lots of their positions, but their opposition to German unification puts us in unusual agreement. East Germany seems poorly integrated (on the plus side, will probably serve as a lesson to South Korea), and unified Germany is a driving force (along with France) behind the damnable European Union. Germany managed a customs union without political unity (which Goethe preferred), and while we think unified Germany natural today Stirner found the idea ridiculous as a union of beehives. Counterfactual history is hard, especially about the past, but it seems that if Germany had never unified the 20th century would have avoided a lot of trouble (not that I’m blaming them for WW1, I just think it wouldn’t have amounted to much without unification). In Italy there is more public sentiment of regret over Garibaldi “dividing Africa”, German’s don’t have the gumption nowadays to push for secession rather than muddling through with unity.

Mind Hacks links to an ABC radio program the motivations of and attitudes toward murder. I haven’t listened to it myself, but given agnostic‘s focus on historical trends in violence, I recommend it to him.

UPDATE: Some of what the prison psychiatrist said made me want to shout “correlation is not causation!”. On the other hand, no matter how eye-rolling the experiment described, if it actually works then that’s that.

The English Marxist and cultural critic has a piece up at The Chronicle Review dubbed “In Praise of Marx.”

He begins by disavowing the connection between Marx and RES (“Real Existing Socialism,” not Eagleton’s term) by claiming that Marx is “no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.” Perhaps, but I wonder if the immense difference in the passage of time between the theorist and the execution of their ideas strains this analogy. But putting that aside, he absolves Marx because he never intended for Communism to be put in to practice in backward countries like Russia, et al., nor would he defend the obviously anti-democratic nature of RES. This is all well and good, but he then goes on to spend more time criticizing Capitalism and defending western communists than he does interrogating RES for what it in fact was, if not the ideas of Marx in practice (mediated by professional revolutionaries).

Interestingly, Eagleton does not in fact say that the Soviet Union and the CCCP were not Socialism, something I’ve heard from many a leftist. It’s implied in his refusal to link Marx to those regimes, but his focus on the failings/crimes of Capitalism leads me to think he’s willing to admit they were, but that, well, their “opposite” is worse. Indeed, like a card carrying member of the Communist Party of mid-century, he appears to consider Fascism Communism’s opposite. Genocide and “extermination” are thrown in for good measure to bulk up the general category anti-Marxism (read “Capitalism”) and render it on the whole worse than Communism. (As if extermination and ethnic cleansing weren’t features of Communism too?) I find this quote telling:

Some critics of Marx point with proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China. They do not usually recall with equal indignation the genocidal crimes of capitalism: the late-19th-century famines in Asia and Africa in which untold millions perished; the carnage of the First World War, in which imperialist nations massacred one another’s working men in the struggle for global resources; and the horrors of fascism, a regime to which capitalism tends to resort when its back is to the wall.

Is this a fair juxtaposition? Which “genocidal crimes of capitalism” is he thinking of here? Were late 19th century famines carried out in the name of Adam Smith, Carl Menger or Frederic Bastiat, with statues of their likeness adorning public spaces under the jurisdiction of colonial regimes? In the case of Fascism, that regime (or “those regimes” if you want to get loose with it) specifically denounced capitalism (and its rhetorical sibling, “plutocracy”), a fact worth mentioning. Unlike RES, they didn’t even pay their supposed economic system lip service. In this effort at forced symmetry, Eagleton overlooks the obviously highly ideological nature of the Communist regimes in question, while attributing an explicitly “Capitalist” character to a diverse collection of phenomena little inspired by the theoretical nature of the battle between liberal economics and Marxism. Nationalism, mercantilism, colonialism – none of these were the anti-Marx per se, much less self-conscious embodiments of free enterprise. The false dichotomies continue:

Almost all followers of Marx today reject the villainies of Stalin and Mao, while many non-Marxists would still vigorously defend the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima.

He contrasts two dictators responsible for millions of deaths across many decades to two acts of destruction carried out during wartime – in a war against Fascism no less!

Modern capitalist nations are for the most part the fruit of a history of genocide, violence, and extermination every bit as abhorrent as the crimes of Communism.

This is unfair. This is like saying that everything in Russia that came before the Bolsheviks is the fault of the Bolsheviks. What we’re comparing are the crimes of Communism vs. the crimes of Capitalism, as expressed by those who declare themselves to be one or the other. Or maybe we’re not? I’m not sure. The author makes it difficult to know.

Eagleton unfortunately takes what could be a discussion about the relative responsibility for creative synthesizers such as Marx for political action taken in their name and puts it in the service of contemporary partisanship, including an obligatory swipe at Fox News for neglecting the “other” 9/11, namely that of Chilean president Allende’s 1971 overthrow with US help. As if Fox or CNN or any other domestic news source would ever find it sensible to give equal time to both events.

And of course there’s this blockbuster quote:

How does this moral goal differ from liberal individualism? The difference is that to achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings for Marx must find it in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the ground of one’s own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one’s own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism.


None of this is to say that Marx was responsible for Communism, just that relatively speaking his ideas would appear to have more to do with RES than the idea generators of what we call  “free enterprise,” “capitalism” (and I suppose “neo-liberal economics”) have to do with, well, all those things Eagleton really dislikes.

*I should add that if it’s in fact true that Marx himself coined the term “capitalism,” then Eagleton’s argument probably holds, but at the expense of critical analysis itself. If Marx gets to define what Capitalism is no matter how much the “bourgeois economists” might protest, then no sincere debate can take place.

An anonymous commenter at Sailer’s wrote “[H]ow many straight men with Ivy League educations enjoy the opera? […] In my estimation, the type of man who enjoys the opera is typically gay and is therefore definitely not the type who would want to marry a woman with an Ivy League education.”
Again, this seems amenable to the gss.
Column: SEXSEX
Control: SEX

Severn at Sailer’s wrote “Educated women tend not to have high IQ’s. The subjects they take in college do not require it. I’d say the typical “communications major” is not any more intelligent than a plumber, and is probably a good deal less so.” That sounded like something that could be investigated in the GSS.

Column: EDUC(r: “LT HS” 1-11; “HS” 12; “SC” 13-15; “C” 16; “GT C” 17-22)
Control: SEX

That’s the counter-intuitive idea behind Rudolph Winestock’s The Lisp Curse (hat tip to Ilkka Kokkarinen). For non-CS types, this is about the great-in-theory-but-impractical programming language, not the speech impediment. The idea that easily being able to branch off for your own purposes and create something new is bad contrasts greatly with the perspective of the dynamic geography/competitive government folks. For unabashed Lisp fanboyism (complete with cartoons) see here (hat tip to mtraven, can’t find his post though).

For my own part, I have hardly any experience with functional languages like that. I find them unfamiliar for someone raised on the C-family, and therefore unpleasant.

The last paragraph from the penultimate chapter of James Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed”:
Hill people have, in a sense, seized whatever ideological materials were available to them to make their claims and take their distance from the lowland states. At first, the raw materials were confined to their own legends and deities, on the one hand, and, on the other, the emancipatory messages they could make out in the lowland religions, especially Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. When Christianity became available as a framework for dreaming, it was infused with the same prophetic messages. At different times, both socialism and nationalism have offered the same apparent promise. Today, “indigenism,” backed by international declarations, treaties, and well-heeled NGOs, offers some of the same prospects for framing identities and claims. Much of the destination remains the same, but the means of transportation has changed. All of these imagined communities have been charged with utopian expectations. Most have failed, and some have ended at least as badly as millenarian uprisings. Mimicry, fetishism, and utopianism are not a highland monopoly.

In a post about a code of ethics for economists*, Arnold Kling dropped a link to a video of a Gary Taubes talk. I read a number of folks who push theories along those lines, but had never really got into it. I have to say that Taubes did a very good job of making his case and showing how the research didn’t support the conventional wisdom, vindicating Eliezer Yudkowsky’s analogy to Robyn Dawes. A while back I had read 2Blowhards interview with documentary film-maker Tom Naughton, and shortly after Taubes (or maybe before, I forget which) I found that his movie “Fat Head” was freely available on Hulu. Quite a contrast. The movie was originally conceived as a rebuttal documentary to “Super Size Me”, and the poor framing reminded me of the inaptness of John Lott’s “Freedomnomics” billing itself as an attack on “Freakonomics”. Both contained interesting content demeaned by the whiff of jealousy. Naughton is a former comedian so his movie contains lots of cheap shots. From what I recall of the interview, the movie evolved over time when Naughton became aware of Taubes’ and other theories, which makes the movie less internally cohesive. Naughton goes on a fast food diet, but it’s calorie restricted and so he loses weight. Then later on he attacks the idea that calories-in-calories-out is what matters and instead that it’s all about carbs, which would have worked a lot better in the beginning if he had NOT restricted calories but just avoided carbs (which was admittedly part of his calorie-restriction strategy). Naughton also likes to play the populist to his audience by suggesting that it’s all just common sense (everyone knows McDonalds is unhealthy!) and those eggheads think we’re dumb, but part of Taubes’ point is that common sense is wrong. One odd bit from the later part of the movie is when an expert he’s interviewing says “Your grandmother would have told you these foods [white bread, as I recall] make you fat.” Maybe my grandmothers died too early, but I heard no such thing. The food pyramid was the conventional wisdom, with bread (or potatoes) being standard for meals, and sugary/fatty junk food on the top being the rare treat.
*By the date of that post, you can tell I let this post languish for a long time before finishing it up.

Donald Sutherland illustrates what Christopher Hitchens described as the “sheer thrill of domination” inherent to Fascism in this scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 film 1900:



I submit that Sutherland’s naturally severe facial characteristics enhanced the visceral repulsion of this scene.

A reader emailed me a link to his blog. He appears to be an opinionated programmer, a rare thing on the internet. A lot of his writings on the front page are, as my reader noted, the sort of thing you might expect to find from here. Others like Why I’m A Collectivist are more atypical. I’m going to ask readers not to go over there and comment on that one since it’s a few months old and you’ll probably just irritate him.

A commenter at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative writes:
“Barter economies do not exist. Never have, never will. Barter does exist, but has always been a rather insignificant side show. Coordination problems in non-monetary economies are solved, but not by trade. They are solved by division of labor and production based upon age, gender, caste, whatever (just like we still do, to a large extent, in a monetary economy). And upon ‘parties’. In many economies, weddings, funerals, ‘the Potlatch’ and the like are a non insignificant way to distribute goods (and prestige, and connections, well, the whole gift exchange thing). In present day South Africa, your funeral may very well be the largest expenditure of your entire life.”

Traditional cultures may “solve” these problems, but many modern institutions have trouble with such market-deprived markets. Enough so that you need to call Al Roth to solve them. “Economic imperialism” has been applied to non-market settings since Gary Becker, since the fundamental fact of scarcity is ever present, but the market mechanism of responding to scarcity is usually compared to first-come-first-serve queueing or equal allotment. I suppose the days of status-to-contract are far enough behind us that the former is hardly thought about.

It may be nearly a year now that I finished Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”. I’ll finish up my review one of these days.

I won’t explain what it is, for that read here. I thought of that reading Economics of Contempt on community banks and credit unions’ opposition to the Durbin amendment (I have no idea what’s in said amendment). EoC quotes Barney Frank (in a different context) saying “The lobbying power doesn’t come from the big banks. The community banks beat the big banks.” I recall earlier hearing from Charles Calomiris that deposit insurance was pushed through over F.D.R’s objections (memories of such insurance at the state level was still fresh in his mind) by the small-bank lobby in the southeast, although it was initially limited to much smaller amounts. Scott Sumner said here that the “too-big-to-fail” investment banks have been blamed when small ones are causing more losses to the taxpayers. I’ve been persuaded by the free-bankers referencing Canada that large diversified banks unhampered by American-style branch restrictions are more stable in a crash, but it is in tension with my implicit model for most businesses. Larger numbers of firms generally results in more competition and benefit to the consumer (though perhaps the condition of free entry is more important than actual numbers), and under Mancur Olson’s theory of collective action a small number of actors can more easily lobby (or even just maintain a “gentleman’s agreement”) to rent-seek. Perhaps my folk model doesn’t take into account public opinion, which may go stupid for “small business”. Those of Randian bent might think in terms of a conspiracy of the mediocre. Even folks not of such bent like Albert O. Hirschmann can make such noises at times.

Robin Hanson said that big businesses are preferable because they are easier to regulate here. Your mileage may vary on that one. Like Brian Doherty, I’d be particularly interested in hearing the left-libertarian class-warfare angle.