December 2011

I’ve been reading Herbert Gans’ “Deciding What’s News“, but for the most part haven’t felt motivated to blog any of it. However, the following sentences set off alarm bells in my head: “To the affluent, the slums will appear orderly as long as there are no disturbances and crime does not spill over into wealthy districts; but for slum dwellers, order cannot exist until exploitation, as well as crime, is eliminated. For the parent generation, adolescent order exists when adolescents abide by parental rules; for the young people, order is also freedom of interference from adults.” That just doesn’t make any sense unless one equates “order” with “the good” or “justice” or somesuch. Orderly oppression, exploitation, and so on are perfectly coherent. North Korea and prisons can be both orderly and very unpleasant for their inhabitants. As a passing note, “exploitation” does not seem the pressing problem of the slums when unemployment is so high, I should check out the unemployment statistics in the 60s/70s when Gans wrote this book. A related post here.

Quote I felt like highlighting: “Science is objective in that it aims for reproducible findings that exist independent of the observer, and it’s subjective in that the process of science involves many individual choices”.

I never took a statistics course, so much of the rest is over my head.

Not to beat up on the Independent Institute too much, but I couldn’t help but notice their attempt to make a scandal of the recent BBC series Frozen Planet‘s use of polar bear footage. A key scene from the film shows a mama bear with her cubs, which viewers are led to believe takes place in the wilds of the Arctic. But in fact the scene was shot in a zoo. Though technically deceptive I suppose, this kind of thing is apparently common for the wildlife documentary “industry,” as getting that close to a bear (especially a mama bear) in a natural environment is either too dangerous or too cumbersome.

But I.I.’s David Theroux isn’t having it:

…this is yet another example of the fabrication of evidence by climate alarmists, ranging from scientists to journalists to activists. The scientific evidence shows that despite increases in CO2, there has been no warming since at least 1998. The conclusion to draw is that other factors such as solar, cloud, and/or other factors must be present that not only overrule overall CO2 influences but make the trivial man-made influences of no importance whatsoever. In addition, polar bear populations are increasing, not decreasing, a point that Attenborough conveniently leaves unmentioned along with the fact that the scene of polar bears was staged in a zoo.

When I pointed out that the use of bear footage not taken in the wild was orthogonal to the issue of whether man made global warming was occurring, he responded:

Dain, The simply question here to ask yourself is: why has Attenborough tried to make a point that polar bears are at risk of being decimated by global warming and then have a scene of maternal love for bear cubs? The answer of course is that he believes that such a scene engenders the needed pathos from viewers for the plight of a cozy and cuddly polar bear family and its defenseless young, whose lives are claimed to be at substantial risk unless stringent restrictions on the “pollution” of man-made CO2 emissions are adopted and soon.

Ok, so it’s about as scandalous as politicians, whom libertarians don’t like anyway, kissing babies on the campaign trail to “engender the needed pathos.” Accordingly environmentalism, which libertarians are skeptical of if not outright hostile to, is sanctioned for exploiting the fact that humans think other mammals are cute n’ cuddly. Especially the baby ones.

Theroux’s beef lies with “climate alarmism” per se, but anything used to help it along is bad, bad, bad.


I sometimes try to alternate the subject matter of books I read to avoid getting stuck in a particular rut (not that it can’t be enjoyable, I was happy as a child just reading Greek mythology). “Spent” is not only a change in topic, but a radically different voice and one that rubbed me the wrong way. I suppose I’m not the target audience since I’m neither a halfway knowledgeable participant in consumerism nor a detractor of it, but I’m judging him the standards of other scientific popularizers rather than Christian Lander. I’m sure Miller thinks he’s funny, entertaining, witty, engaging and so on and he intends to signal the hell out of that. I find him annoying. The book contains no end-notes or foot-notes, and while he claims to have supporting material on the book’s website there’s no way to know whether a particular claim he’s making will have any support or how one might find a citation. As far as I’ve gotten there are occasional references to studies that have been done, but these are very infrequent. For a psychology professor, he hardly seems more rigorous than Malcolm Gladwell. If confronted with my complaints he would probably pull a Jon-Stewart-two-step and say he’s just having fun, but I’m not having fun and think he’s wasting a lot of my time he could have spent informing me. The following vent is for the purposes of getting gripes off my chest and the reader is likely to find less satisfaction in reading the disjointed nitpicks than I do in writing them. Hence, they are below the fold. (more…)

I heard Lessig was giving a talk about the problem of money systematically corrupting congress, and since I’ve enjoyed some previous presentations of his online I decided to attend. As a bonus, I also got to see Richard Posner in the flesh, albeit at a distance and he didn’t speak to the audience. It wasn’t all that different from a particular presentation I’ve seen before, probably linked from Distributed Republic or A Thousand Nations. Lessig’s presentations are much better made than the typical powerpoint, and I saw lots of transitions on the screen while his hands were gesticulating in the air, so I imagine he must have his talk timed or something. In a way, the savviness of his presentations skills made me more suspicious of his actual argument, because I expect presentational talent and truth of a message to have little correlation but enough persuasive power to be on guard against. A lot of his argument is intentionally crafted to appeal to libertarians/Tea Partiers as well as liberals/OWS, and like anyone else I found many of his points completely and uncontroversially correct: a “no brainer” as he quotes Milton Friedman. The alarm bells were most clearly ringing in my head when he acknowledged the political science literature* showing no influence of campaign donations on legislative behavior, to which he replied something to the effect of “But YOU, the audience KNOW I’m correct!”. He did later on try to reconcile his argument with that of the political scientists by saying the effect could be on agenda setting rather than behavior once a question is on the agenda, but when you limit things that way it’s hard to say you’d get the big effects he’s talking about.

He took questions at the end, but there wasn’t enough time for everyone. I’ll just add the points I wanted to make here. First I’d like to steal from Gene Healy, author of “The Cult of the Presidency”. Part of the package of reforms Lessig advocates is a focus on candidates getting lots of small donations, rather than large ones from a small number of people. But another one of his complaints is the amount of time legislators spend raising money. We’ve already had numerous laws limiting the size of donations, and Healy argues that’s precisely why a candidate would have to spend a very large amount of time raising money. I’ve made the point before (again relying on Healy) that because of a small group of big donors “outside” candidates like Gene McCarthy and George McGovern were able to make a big splash, although both failed to win the presidency. Self-funded billionaires also frequently crash and burn. That’s because money is not the be-all end-all, but often a proxy for support (Ron Paul has a fairly small but intense group of supporters willing to undertake “money bombs”, which is why some of his success in straw polls is discounted). Ben Franklin is supposed to have recommended getting someone else to do you a favor rather than the other way around in order to get them to like you, and psychologists have done experiments lending support to that idea which they describe as resolving cognitive dissidence. Ziad Munson argues something similar when it comes to political movements. Fund-raising is not merely a way of acquiring cash right now, but networking and the building of a support structure that you expect to be there for you in the future. Lots of folks on the right (and sometimes left) complain about the political influence of unions, and that influence isn’t because they have Ponce de Leon’s fountain of cash (although sometimes they are among the largest donors). It’s because unions also have bodies and organization and motivation, along with a degree of sympathy among many voters. Political machines from Tammany to the Daleys have operated on a similar basis. Industries likewise have not merely a treasury but employees with an interest in policy outcomes. Lobbyists don’t just provide campaign funds but assistance to legislators who know less about the law than the well-funded and interested lobbying organizations, who are often writing model legislation themselves.

Lessig noted that on the issues where the richest quartile of Americans disagree with the majority, they tend to get their way. He also noted that much less than even that number donate money to campaigns. Here again I think he is focusing too much on money as a causal mechanism, when (considering the status of most congresscritters) a more leftish social/class explanation has some plausibility. I don’t mean to completely exclude the influence of money (maybe the political scientists are finding no effects because it can be hard to find things), but I think the focus which on it which seems obvious to populists leads them to overlook the larger nature of the problem which Mancur Olson perhaps better pointed out with his Logic of Collective Action combined with the ever increasing complexity and number of things our government has power over. And that’s leaving out Caplan & Hanson’s points about why politics is screwed up.

I previously discussed the Citizens United decision here, with a link at the end on which groups do the most campaign spending at the unconstrained state level in California.

*That paper probably isn’t representative, but I found it while googling something else and I’m lazy enough to just use it here.

Over at the blog of the Independent Institute Anthony Gregory complains of anti-Chinese bipartisanship, even dropping the “Yellow Peril” bomb to describe the sentiment he believes is animating the ire of mainstream liberals and conservatives. This is unfair, but something I’ve seen around the net, from Sp!ked to Justin Raimondo.  I haven’t seen any evidence that folks are criticizing China out of racism, so it’s probably best to not “go there.” (By the way, has anyone else noticed that the editors at Sp!ked seem determined to make every progressive grievance into an epic showdown between humanism and anti-humanism?)

It’s common to see many a libertarian and conservative turning the proverbial table on the left by making accusations, overt or implied, that left critics are themselves racist. Maybe it’s a way of overcompensating for the more popular notion that the right is the racist portion of the political spectrum.

So anyway, it’s one thing to shoot down disproportionate or misguided criticism of China, but to go further and celebrate the country seems to me wrongheaded.  Here’s Gregory (original in bold):

China is not really a Communist country, and in fact its story is one of the most inspiring for freedom lovers everywhere.

One of the most inspiring? For Gregory, yes, because the country went from the horrors of Mao to the obviously less hellish current situation. But is that rightly described as inspiring? It’s more like a regression to the mean. He further writes, “Compared to those days, China is a beacon of liberty.” Well sure, compared to those days. And in an effort to transpose the values of a gold ribbon and a “most improved” award he states:

While the United States has been descending toward despotism, China has been moving from one of the least free societies in all of human history toward a state of civilization. We should look up to China. We should cheer China. We should see inspiration in this story.

Notice the cadence going on toward the end there?

Anyway, I care as little for China bashing as Gregory does, and agree with him when he writes  that, “China’s not a threat to America—the U.S. government is,” but this is over the top. For a look at just how (un)free China really is, see this.

I understand the libertarian impulse to focus on the problems of the U.S. government and downplay anything that might serve to direct attention away from it, but to cheerlead (one commenter on the piece said it read like a jingoist editorial from the Xinhua Daily) for foreign governments hardly seems like a necessary supplement to this action. Though to be fair, saying that China is not really communist probably wouldn’t sit well with the country’s ruling party.

Off topic, but I wrote a piece for the U.K.’s The New Wolf on partisanship. It’s drawn from a big paper I wrote earlier this year that got no play, so I’ve decided to break it into pieces and see what I can salvage.

This will be my last post on Philip Jenkins’ “The Lost History of Christianity”, since I already returned it.
Near the end of the book Jenkins imagines a possible reconciling of Christianity and Islam as they once again have to spend a long time co-existing in large numbers in the same space. “If Islam is not understood as the scourge that God applies to faithless Christians – and nor is it, as Muslims believe, the only true faith – then how exactly should it be seen? Might Christians someday accept that Islam fulfils a positive role, and that its growth in history represents another form of divine revelation, one that complements but does not replace the Christian message?” He then attempts use an analogy that I found perplexing. “However difficult such a reappraisal might be, we recall how fundamentally Christian views of Judaism have changed over the past few decades. Not long ago, the common Christian approach was one of supersession, the idea that the Christian covenant replaced and invalidated the older Jewish covenant. More recently, many contemporary Christian theologies accept the eternal value of God’s covenant with Israel, with the implication that Christian evangelism of Jews is unnecessary and unacceptable.”

That bit doesn’t make a goddamn lick of sense to me. What the hell was the point of Jesus, a Jew preaching to other Jews that they needed to have their sins forgiven by God if they wanted to attain salvation and the Kingdom of God, if the pre-existing covenant was enough? How can anyone call themselves a Christian if they reject that basic tenet? Don’t they have an obligation to spread the good news, and even feel bad for those who don’t have the chance to accept Christ as their lord and savior? I admit that I never engaged in evangelism, but that’s because (like David Putty) I wasn’t a very good Christian, at least the parts that required me to be pro-active.