Friday, December 30, 2011

Under-reported this year, and last year, and....

‘Tis the season for retrospectives on the past year.  Where the media is involved these usually include most under-reported story of the year.  My candidate this year as it has been for roughly the last decade is the profound change that has occurred in how we make war. 

Think about it.  From Napoleon on the trajectory has been consistently in the direction of more all encompassing, more total war, with larger forces and the line between combatant and civilian becoming less and less distinct.  And then America changed everything with its technology, money, and decency.

Consider Michael Kelly’s description of the Iraq war:

The first morning of the war I was standing across the Tigris River from the Ministry of Defense, looking at the black smoke pouring out of it from a cruise-missile hit five minutes earlier, when the second missile smacked home, shuddering the ground with the explosion and sending up great new billows of smoke.  Five minutes after that, the third missile boomed.  In ten minutes the heart and symbol of Iraq’s armed forces was a burning rubble.  The hospital next to it, though, was untouched, and so were the homes crowded around it.  The attack had been so swift that the antiaircraft guns had not even fired.”

And later in the same piece:

The sight of tomahawk cruise missiles moving purposefully two or three stories above the city streets became a recurring nightmare vision in Baghdad.  Cruise missiles move at subsonic speeds and can easily be followed with the eye as their lethally single-minded little gyroscopes and computer circuits guide them along to their target.  A stunned Reuters correspondent actually saw a missile arrive at a street corner, appear to pause for a moment, and then turn left.”

Not exactly Dresden is it, even allowing for the important differences between a war like Iraq and the WWII. 

And yet to my knowledge that are has been little attention paid to this change.  Why?  Well two suggestions come to mind.  One, to give proper credit to this transformation would be to give due credit to America and we can’t have that.  And two, I don’t think those who would write the stories are comfortable with the implications of more precise, less horrific way of making war. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Virginia ballot requirements

The news that five of the seven Republican candidates failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot has elicited a fair amount of comment.   One angle is that the large failure rate told you the problem was the rules not the candidates.  This is a useful way to consider such things.  I once worked at a place that a 5 mile an hour speed limit and everyone drove 20 miles or so.  That was a good instance where behavior told you the rule was absurd (try driving 5 mph for any distance).

But in this case, the it’s a bad rule argument isn’t entirely convincing for the simple reason that this is the presidency we’re talking about.  The challenges ahead make following ballot requirements look like a walk in the park.

When I was attending Cornell’s business school one of the more memorable lectures was given by a guest economist.  The theme was that the school could teach anything so long as it was difficult.  The point being that from the potential employer’s perspective the value of an MBA wasn’t the actual business skills acquired but that it served as a filter, it was proof or at least an indicator that you could handle challenging work.  The same principle applies to the campaign, and five candidates just got an F.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

George Will on Newt's judicial views

Good George Will column on Gingrich and his view of the courts.

Gingrich’s unsurprising descent into sinister radicalism — intimidation of courts — is redundant evidence that he is not merely the least conservative candidate, he is thoroughly anti-conservative. He disdains the central conservative virtue, prudence, and exemplifies progressivism’s defining attribute — impatience with impediments to the political branches’ wielding of untrammeled power.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More on Ron Paul and fringe views

It seems that John Podhoretz agrees with at least one of the points I made on Ron Paul.  Writing in the NY Post today he brings his column to a close with this:

If Gingrich fades away and Paul sticks around, the GOP will come to the convention with a flake as the No. 2 vote-getter. And don’t think the Obama-friendly media, which has treated Paul with kid gloves until now, won’t leap on his extremism when it suits them, and turn him into a poster child for the caricature of the GOP they’ve been drawing for years.”

That’s exactly right and the point should be extended beyond the media and this election.  Liberalism is still very much the orthodox view.  Most people who follow politics at all are immersed in the liberal view.  If they look at conservatism at all is after they have a foundation in liberal assumptions, and the easiest way to end the exploration of an alternative viewpoint is to effectively get across the idea that it is extreme.  Figures like Ron Paul make that task easy.

Ron Paul

Jonah Goldberg’s column today is on Ron Paul.  Goldberg’s angle is that what gets overlooked because of his extreme foreign policy views is that Paul’s domestic agenda is entirely unrealistic.  Paul and his supporters ignore the fact that a President can’t do whatever he wants, he actually has to convince congress to go along with his policy views.  And in all his time in Congress Paul hasn’t been able to convince anyone of anything.

I almost always see eye to eye with Jonah, but we disagree slightly on Paul.  Goldberg views him as being a positive for Republicans because he brings a libertarian voice to the party.  I think he’s a negative viewing him as being almost entirely a crank and believing that extreme views on the right are far more damaging than the equivalent views on the left. 

And with Paul, it isn’t just foreign policy or the racism published in his newsletters but also his views on the Federal Reserve that I find beyond the pale.  I’ve actually heard the get rid of the Fed spiel before.  In 2006 a friend was asked to interview Aaron Russo about his documentary film America: Freedom to Fascism.  Russo was another libertarian and the film, while purportedly about the income tax being unconstitutional, was equally about the Federal Reserve and call for it to be abolished.  Just like Ron Paul, Russo’s argument was naïve, a historical, and conspiratorial (the financial system was controlled by the Rothschilds); in short the full paranoid school of politics.

In truth Paul is only slightly better on domestic policy than he is on foreign policy.  He tends to bring everything back to the Federal Reserve and the need to get rid of it--“audit it and then end it” in Paul’s words.  This is nuts and even if it weren’t it’s an absurd political point to be making because it isn’t going to happen.  Paul has the advantage of consistency, but as Rousseau pointed out that can be the attribute of a little mind.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A random football thought

In the few minutes of the football game that I watched last night, there was a sequence that would be interesting to probe further.  The Pittsburgh quarterback threw a pass to an open receiver for what would’ve been a first down but he dropped it; the next play was a pass interception. 

What I’d like to know is just how damaging is a dropped pass, or to extend the thought a bit the penalty that negates a first down.  If you think about it, a sport like football is trying to attain a balance between offense and defense so that one would suppose that getting a first down in four plays (really three in most situations) is reasonably probable but not easy.  Or to put it another way, that in a set of downs, the offense will only have so many opportunities to move the ball the required distance.  So what is the “cost” of wasting one of those opportunities?

When you watch baseball the announcers frequently mention that you can’t give a team extra outs.  In a sort of obverse way, it’s always seemed to me that teams rarely succeed twice in football.  I have no way of knowing what the true statistic is, but I’d bet that a dropped pass, or off target pass that would’ve been a first down or resulted in significant yardage is not a small error.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Newt on judges

If you want to know why some conservatives don’t see Newt as quite of the breed, his statement in the last debate that he would shut down district courts that stray from the constitution and his citation of Thomas Jefferson in 1802 as precedent is a good place to begin.   In combining dubious constitutional reasoning (how’s that for irony), a as the crow flies solution to a problem, and without considering the likely consequences of such an action (liberals wouldn’t reciprocate when they had control?), Newt demonstrates some of the worst aspects of modern liberalism.

Get it here first II

On Sept. 7th I wrote this on Keynes and stimulus spending:

For those of you following at home, you may have noticed that while I think Keynes' basic prescription for getting out of a recession makes sense in certain circumstances, I question whether it applies to current circumstances.”

In his recent column Bye-Bye Keynes?, Robert Samuelson writes:

When Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in the mid-1930s, governments in most wealthy nations were relatively small and their debts modest. Deficit spending and pump priming were plausible responses to economic slumps. Now, huge governments are often saddled with massive debts.”

And he concludes the column with:

Were Keynes alive now, he would almost certainly acknowledge the limits of Keynesian policies. High debt complicates the analysis and subverts the solutions. What might have worked in the 1930s offers no panacea today.”

Vaclav Havel RIP

The communist dissident and later first post-communist President of Czechoslavakia Vaclav Havel died on the 18th.  The following passage is from his letter to the then communist leader of his country Gustav Husak:

"Just as the constant increase of entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy.

Life rebels against all uniformity and leveling; its aim is not sameness but variety, the restlessness of transcendence, the adventure of novelty and rebellion against the status quo.  An essential condition for its enhancement is the secret constantly made mainifest.

On the other hand, the essence of authority (whose aim is reduced to protecting its own permanence by forcibly imposing the uniformity of perpetual consent) consists basically in a distrust of all variety, uniqueness, and transcendence; in an aversion to everything unknown, impalpable, and currently obscure; in a proclivity for the uniform, the identical, and the inert; in deep affection for the status quo.  In it, the mechanical spirit prevails over the vital.  The order it strives for is no frank quest for higher forms of self-organization, equivalent to its evolving complexity of structure, but, on the contrary, a decline toward that ‘state of maximum probability’ representing the climax of entropy.  Following the direction of entropy, it goes against the direction of life."

Vaclav Havel, Open Letters, Dear Dr. Husak, 1975

Friday, December 16, 2011

More on the notion of simplicity

After my earlier post, I read an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens that included this:

"The proper task of the ‘public intellectual’ might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. "

But of course what is obvious isn't always (or often?) obvious.

KISS and the campaign

In the last couple of days National Review’s editors have come out with their endorsement of sorts, winnowing the acceptable candidates down to Romney, Huntsman, and Santorum which would seem to boil down to an endorsement of Romney.  Naturally this has engendered disagreement, not excluding major writers at NR, and also less naturally but just as predictably accusations of bad faith.  The most absurd of these statements coming from Brent Bozell who declared that Bill Buckley would be appalled by the editors’ stance.

There are multiple possibilities for different assessments of candidates but I think one of the more acute is to be found in the acronym keep it simple stupid.  In an essay on SALT Daniel Moynihan wrote:

Political ideas must be simple.  Which is not to say they must be facile.  To the contrary, the most profound propositions are often the simplest as well.  Whitehead’s rule to ‘seek simplicity and distrust it’ is appropriately cautionary, but he did first of all say: seek simplicity.”

I take the above as being correct but also pointing to a critical divide in assessments of candidates for what someone might take as being simple and true is for another simplistic.  And if you are looking to find the leader of the most important country in the free world simplistic is not good.  Ron Paul’s foreign policy views are consistent, they are to my mind incredibly and dangerously simplistic.  Governor Perry’s statement last night that congress should serve for 150 days every other year just like the state of Texas can be construed as a simple statement that we are over-governed or as a failure to understand the difference between governing Texas and governing the United States.

I readily admit that my tendency is to over think things, to respond that it isn’t that simple.  But we shouldn’t kid ourselves in thinking that the answers to our problems are simple or that in the event our destination is clear that the political route to it is “as the crow flies.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The European Union ignores Federalist Paper #15

For a long time I’ve thought that support for the United Nations in America was based on an inductive error or a false analogy that saw the UN as just a larger version of the states coming together to form America.  Further, apart from it lacking that understanding that constitutes a people, the fatal flaw of the UN was that it lacked an enforcement mechanism. 

More recently I read Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919 on the negotiations to end WWI.  There are sections in the book which are in a dry way funny as Woodrow Wilson proclaims that the League of Nations will handle one issue after another, while at the same time the behavior of the nations in question is making it very clear why the League won’t work with one country after another going after territory and the troops supposedly in place to preserve the peace being quite unwilling to stand in their way since it isn’t their land that is in question.

Which brings me to today’s essay on NRO that points to at least one of the fundamental errors in the project that is the European Union.  Michael Greve argues that while the Union has been looking to Alexander Hamilton as support, it has ignored his most pertinent warning against just such a construction.  The point Greve makes is that Hamilton argued not for just any confederation of states but a particular one and its key principle was that the government had to be a government of the people, that is have direct authority over the people, rather than a league of states where the federal government would make laws for the respective states.  The former would allow for the laws to be backed by the authority of the courts and the justice system, while the latter would only be enforceable by the sword.

The whole thing isn’t very long and is well worth a read and if you have The Federalist Papers handy it’s also worthwhile to read it in the original which is Hamilton’s paper #15. 

On a side note, this is why I sometimes refer to The Godfather as the greatest foreign policy movie of all time.  The families are akin to nations and since they operate outside of the law, the only enforcement for their agreements is the sword or in their case guns.  Thus you have the agreement in the bank conference room and a scene or two later Tessio complaining to Michael that the Barzini family is chiseling his territory.  The only way to redress this ‘wrong’ is to go to war.

Romney's biggest problem

There has been a fair amount written about how and why Mitt Romney can’t seem to climb above 25% and how the campaign has since the beginning boiled down to Mitt and the search for a not-Mitt.  Most of this analysis has focused on Romneycare and doubts as to his authenticity as a conservative.  These are valid points.

But I’ve realized in the last week or so, that this is only part of it.  Romney hasn’t been able to close the deal because Romney is just deadly dull.  The more I see him the more he reminds of the person who can’t help sucking all the fun out of any conversation.  You get the sense that even outside of politics he would come across as entirely scripted, the kind of person who if he were invited to a picnic would go out and buy picnic clothes.

This may seem like a trivial failing and in many ways it is, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.  Like it or not—almost entirely not—a President is thrust into our midst for four years.  This is the one disadvantage that an incumbent has, that by the end of the first year we’re sick of them.  Romney’s problem is that everyone can pretty much sense that he’ll be an unwanted guest before the first year of his presidency is over.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

An invented people?

An interview with Newt Gingrich in which he described the Palestinians as “an invented people” has attracted some attention and is deemed controversial.  Mark Steyn has posts on the matter at NRO (the link includes another link to the interview).

This strikes me as a very odd controversy, especially given its source.  I’m not sure where Newt was going with his comment, but I thought that occurs to me is what people aren’t an invention?  This should be especially clear to Americans who are probably more so than the Palestinians an invented people.  We were once upon time colonists and British citizens, and then came to understanding of ourselves as being American.  Had the Civil War ending differently there would’ve been an invention, that is an understanding of ourselves.

Upon further reflection one notes that a German and Italian state is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even in ‘nationalities’ with much longer histories than ours it is still accurate to speak of an invented people.  The Anglo Saxons of England were after all displaced by the Normans, and for a long time French was the language at court.  A people may be more or less formed by history, but it strikes me as always coming down to an understanding, an act of intelligence, in another words an invention.

Further the complaint of the Palestinian leadership that Gingrich’s remarks are racist would be quite strange if they didn’t have a habit saying the wrong thing.  For the only possible way to construe a people as being other than an invention would I think be to define them racially.  Gingrich saying Palestinians are an invented people isn’t racist but rather its opposite.

Finally, I think the heat here stems from the acceptance of Wilson’s right to self-determination, a typical piece of Progressive nonsense.  If the Palestinians are indeed “a people” then it is supposed to follow that they have an innate right to their own state.  But again the question is where does this status of a people emanate from if it isn’t an invention, and beyond that what is the origin of this “right”?  What is being attempted is a bit of sleight of hand whereby a distinctly political question is passed off as something that resides prior to or above politics.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Another negative Newt column

Anyone else noticing a consensus forming or formed on Newt?  Amusing that Newt's reputation is largely built on his being intelligent and he now is getting slammed by conservative intellectuals.  I don't think it's jealousy.

Here's Ann Coulter's take

Newt vs Mitt

In considering Newt’s intelligence, I made the point that it was 1) over-rated and 2) not particularly suited for the office of president.  And the last few days the same or similar points have been made by people a little better known than me.

While I don’t in any way consider him an authority, I understand that Glenn Beck made the statement that “Bill Buckley was a small government intellectual, Newt Gingrich is large government pseudo-intellectual.”  Yep.

On NRO last night Yuval Levin summed things up well by stating that Gingrich and Romney are essentially the same ideologically in being, moderate, Rockefeller Republicans, with critically different temperaments.

He says of Gingrich:
Gingrich has what you might call a revolutionary disposition: He has great intensity and energy. His mind is drawn to stark and diametrical distinctions; he expects change to occur through cataclysmic clashes and so seems always to be seeking after ways to accelerate the contradictions. This allows him to much more easily thunder over his own inconsistencies and past changes of mind. But he has no discipline whatsoever, can be almost unbelievably erratic and unfocused, and is unironically conceited.”

Levin points out that “mental and organizational discipline is important in a president and campaign” and gives the clear nod here to Romney:
The presidency is an executive position—for all the political elements of the job, which are obviously very important, the presidency is fundamentally a matter of making decisions and seeing to it that they are carried out: A president has to be a decisive, focused, prudent, disciplined person, who knows what he wants and how to use the power he has to achieve it. Romney’s record on that front is very impressive.”

That’s pretty much how I see it.  I’ve been pretty firmly in the any body but Romney camp, but Gingrich is actually a worse choice.  Even if you concede his talents—which I don’t—what Newt brings to the table isn’t well suited for the office.  And in an election where Republicans believe they have to win, I think they’re underestimating how much Newt is disliked outside the party.  How it’s come to this—seemingly a contest between two weak, moderate/progressive candidates for the Republican nomination—is a whole other question.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More on Newt

Quite a few good columns and posts on why Newt would be a mistake today.

Get it here first

In today’s Morning Post from Jim Geraghty (National Review) he has this:

“At National Journal, Josh Kraushaar looks at the poll and surveys the top advisers for Mr. Second Place, Romney: ‘The goal of Team Romney in the coming weeks: Spend big bucks to raise Gingrich's negatives, and hope he'll fade like the other candidates who enjoyed their time in the spotlight. It's becoming clear that Romney isn't able to win the Republican nomination, but can prevail if all his rivals self-destruct and he's left as the last candidate standing.’” 

On November 17th I made the point that Romney made clear the logic of negative campaigns.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas music

I’m not a big fan of Christmas music, but there are a few things I like to hear.  The fat man (Pavarotti) really could sing:

By the way, you can transfer youtube music on to your computer and itunes by copying the link into this program and following the steps.

And while it isn’t really a Christmas album, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Blues on Bach strikes me as especially fitting right now

Friday, December 2, 2011

Asquith, by Roy Jenkins

Living in a democracy--and it is a living experience that must be our theme—becomes a different thing in each generation…. Experiencing twenty first century democracy is radically different from what our ancestors cherished in 1901.”  -- Kenneth Minogue

I first came across Herbert Asquith in Roy Jenkins biography of Winston Churchill.  Winston, you will recall, started out in the Liberal Party which was led at that time by Asquith.  In that book, Asquith’s bemused comments and deft handling of the main subject are worthy of a best supporting character nomination.

Herbert Asquith served a little over eight years as Prime Minister (1908 to 1916) which was until Margaret Thatcher the longest consecutive term in British history.  Before and after that period he was the leader of the Liberal Party.  He was the Prime Minister when the country went into WWI, oversaw some of the first legislation in the direction of what we now consider entitlements, pushed through Irish Home Rule legislation resulting in a sticky constitutional confrontation with the House of Lords, and was at the center of a split which for all intents and purposes ended the Liberal Party, and yet I think the appeal of this book lies elsewhere.  What makes this biography enjoyable is that it takes you to a political climate which is almost completely gone.

Jenkins maintains that Asquith was the very last of his type which can perhaps be best boiled down to the aristocratic politician.  And it is that character which is such a pleasure to observe.  For example, on first being offered a government office Asquith the Liberal turns to Balfour the Conservative for advice on whether to accept it.  When the prior government resigns and Asquith has to meet with the King, who happens to be in Paris at the time, he travels by train without anyone else joining him.

Throughout Asquith we get a look at politics on a reduced scale.  Participants have plenty of time for other pursuits (Asquith was fond of bridge, golf, reading, and conversing with the ladies), campaigning for office is short, the amount of legislation put forward seems minimal, and even when events lead to large constitutional issues there remains a level of grace in the proceedings.

As in his other biographies, Roy Jenkins is great.  In particular, he gets to the point.  In under ten pages Asquith is at Oxford—his rise to prominence started from a distinguished academic career rather than an aristocratic family—and in twenty he’s a barrister.  As a former labor political figure himself Jenkins has a reliable eye for political moves, and as an Englishman he is good with words.  After sharing Margot Asquith’s entry on their travels, Jenkins has in the footnotes “St. Enoch was an unusual station from which to go to Euston; its trains when Margot was not in charge went to St. Pancras.”  The only criticism I would make is that he doesn’t explore in any real depth the validity of Lloyd George’s complaint on his handling of WWI, the event that casts him out of power.

As the book nears a conclusion, Asquith loses his last election and is finally out of the commons for good.  After the returns are revealed he returns home by train—he ran in Scotland but didn’t live there-- with a daughter who had become a very effective supporter:

I looked across at father in an agony of solicitude--for I knew the good-byes had moved him—then meeting his calm gaze I realized suddenly that he had already made his peace with events. Groping wildly for a life-line that might draw me into smooth waters by his side, I asked in as steady a voice as possible: ‘I suppose you haven’t by any chance got an old P.G. Wodehouse in your bag that you could lend me?’  A smile of instant response, mingled I thought with relief, lit up his face as he replied triumphantly: ‘Being a provident man I have got in my bag, not one, but four brand new ones!’  My wounds were healed—for I knew that he was invulnerable.”

George Will on Newt - Great minds think alike??

A few days ago, I posted on the mind of Newt Gingrich (scroll down).  From his column today I take it that George Will has drawn a similar conclusion:

“Gingrich…embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.

His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to ‘Lean Six Sigma’ today.

Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies and Genesis deplores: ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.’”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Golf - a long time ago

From biography of Herbert Asquith (British Prime Minister to be); when Asquith had just left college in 1875 and spent time as a reading member at St. Andrews:

“Even nearer to hand were the links of the Royal and
Ancient St.
Andrews Golfing Society, and Asquith there made his first acquaintance with the only sedentary game which was ever to arouse his interest.  It was a useful acquaintanceship, for although golf was then so little developed that he and his modest-living student companions were able to hire the services of the British Open champion to carry their clubs, the game was to become an almost essential accompaniment to Edwardian politics.  In the heyday of Asquith’s career, there was hardly a politician of note who did not seek his relaxation (and in some cases try to transact a part of his business) upon a golf links.”

Asquith, Roy Jenkins

There's a great picture of him from 1912 just after he's hit a drive in full golfing attire (hat, suit and tie, dress shirt with cuff links no less).  Looks like he favored a baseball grip rather than the vardon.

The character of Newt's intelligence

I don’t think there is any question that Newt Gingrich’s appeal in the Republican race comes down his perceived intelligence and that he’s not Mitt Romney.  On the former, I think it is highly over-rated (not least by Newt himself).  But even if his intelligence is conceded, it strikes me as a) not conservative and b) not well suited to the office of president.  The central characteristic of Newt’s mind is that it is prolific, but there is little evidence of it having any real depth or of any wisdom.  Newt is a philosophe.

In another context the philosophe was critically appraised as follows:

“First, an age of philosophisme implies a peculiar confidence in knowledge, indiscriminate knowledge…and he can only exist when there is a certain rude copiousness about the supply of knowledge which permits no suggestion of limit.  His is an inventive, ingenious, mildly perplexed and easily satisfied mind; there is vitality but no discrimination.  All knowledge appears equally significant…there is neither time nor inclination to learn anything profoundly…and when every suggestion is followed it is impossible to follow one suggestion far.

Second, besides his belief in encyclopedic knowledge, the philosophe is remarkable for his general credulity.  He does not know what it is to be perplexed; he only knows what it is to be ignorant.  And he is protected from the dilemmas of doubt by a tough hide of self- confidence.  Appearing to doubt everything and to be engaged upon the construction of a new world from the bottom up, he is really the most credulous of men.  For the philosophe the world is divided between those who agree with him and ‘fools’

Thirdly, besides his thirst for knowledge and naïve cast of mind, the philosophe is a rationalist.”

And it is this character of being a philosophe—“their minds replete with half-conceived ideas—which accounts for their completing so little of what they begin.”

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Michael Oakeshott, The New Bentham, page (132 – 150)

There are of course places for minds like this, but it strikes me that it is very far from what is required of a president.  A president is awash in ideas, what he needs is all those things that a philosophe and Newt lack, discrimination, judgment, patient consideration of circumstances, and wisdom.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The perils of having an effective agent

"He has been fixing me up solid.
Egbert blinked.
Doing what?
Fixing me up solid.  With the magazines.  He has arranged for me to write three serials and I don’t know how many short stories..
Getting you contracts you mean.
Evangeline nodded tearfully.
Yes, he seems to have fixed me up solid with almost everybody.  And they’ve been sending me checks in advance, hundreds of them.  What am I to do?  What am I to do?
Cash them, said Egbert
But afterwards?
Spend the money.
But after that?
Egbert reflected.
Well it’s a nuisance of course, he said, but after that I suppose you’ll have to write the stuff.

It is not the being paid money in advance that jars the sensitive artist: it is the having to work."

P.G. Wodehouse, Best Seller, Mulliner Nights

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Yeah, we've got that"

The incessant water running from the bathtub/shower faucet couldn’t be ignored so I called the building mechanics.  Taken apart I’m told I need a new cartridge and that no, I won’t be able to get it from any of the nearby hardware stores.  So an hour ‘L’ ride and short walk finds me in front of a nondescript, narrow brick building on N Elston. 

The Faucet Shoppe is not much bigger than my bedroom.  On the customer side of the counter are a multitude of toilets in various states of completeness.  Behind the counter stand two guys in what I presume are their mid-thirties taking care of customers in rapid succession.  Behind them are shelves and drawers from floor to ceiling.

I was told to tell them that my part is from a Kohler but this proves to be unnecessary becaude by the time I place it on the counter it’s identified and I’m told the part is “one of their best sellers” (good job Kohler!).  In the span of five minutes I have the replacement part, told the price—“yeah for that amount you’d think it’d be all brass, but Kohler isn’t what it used to be”—wished a happy thanksgiving and my charge rung up.

Well it is almost worth it to come across this business which is far more interesting to me than the type that gets covered in Business Week or Fortune.  There is only a hint of any kind of organization here, but these guys know where everything is and know the parts and repairs they’re dealing with cold.  And obviously business is good.  There were five customers before me when I enter and about two or three waiting when I’m done and this on a Tuesday afternoon.

I'd love to ask them what revenue and profits are, how the business got started (their dad or so I'm told) and how they keep a handle on inventory.  I'd also love to have a business just like it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The problem with Movies

I happen to have a friend whose side career is acting, so we’ve had a number of conversations about the movies.  My line of argument has been that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and that part of the problem might be that people making movies are immersed in movies and otherwise don’t have much of a cultural repository to draw from.

Rushfield Babylon points to another problem; lead actors who can’t convincingly pass for adults.  The specific subject of the post is a new Gatsby film that will star Leo DiCaprio prompting this conclusion:

“Our young actors today, even the finest of them, are just too much of lightweights to carry off historical roles.   We are not capable anymore of portraying a time when people didn’t act like pouty teens well into their 50’s.
That is not a slam on their acting abilities.  Today’s actors are far more versatile and technically capable than actors of the golden age.  But it’s just who this generation is, who we are.  We can’t just put on maturity anymore than we could put tusks and be convincing wooly mammoths.   
Maybe it’s just that we favor actors with baby faces, but I don’t think so”
The poster goes on to draw a contrast between DiCaprio who is 37 and Cary Grant and James Stewart when they were 37. 
Well, I think he’s right and if anything understating the case.  With the possible/probable exceptions of George Clooney and Christian Bales, the standard male star of today (Depp, Damon, Maguire, Downey, Cruise) can still play young but can’t play old or come across as characters with any sort of gravitas.  A little digging around on IMDB reveals for instance that Matt Damon was the same age—32-- at the start of the Bourne movies as Sean Connery in the Bond films.  Connery comes across like, well James Bond, while Damon looks and acts like someone a few years removed from grad school or as essentially the same person as he played in Good Will Hunting  And this isn’t a minor problem as anyone who’s seen Tom Cruise play the German aristocrat Claus Von Staufenberg in Valkyrie can attest—there are after all limits to how far you can suspend your disbelief.
If you think about the next level of star the contrast is even greater.  Who is there today to play characters of experienced, suave sophistication that makes movie watching so enjoyable?  Again perhaps Clooney but he hardly compares to past actors that come to mind: David Niven, Ray Milland, Anthony Quayle, George Sanders, James Mason.
It is revealing that the movies have a hard time doing maturity.  A few months ago I picked up the Pat Moynihan book of letters and leafed through it to the center section of pictures.  What jumped out was how often the people pictured were smoking pipes and or wearing three piece suits.  It was almost as if there was a time not that long ago when adults were in positions of responsibility….and on the silver screen.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Negative campaigns and the Republicans

One of things that people consistently tell the media and the media tell us is that they hate negative campaign ads and negative campaigns.  But the logic of negative politics couldn’t be more obvious than it is in the current race for the Republican nomination. 

It would take a very sensitive instrument to detect any conservative enthusiasm for Mitt Romney.  But as has been evident for awhile and becomes clearer by the day is that Mitt’s challengers are simply not plausible as President. 

The current, not-Romney is Newt Gingrich who at least has held a high position in government before and is at least, compared to other politicians, a pretty good debater.  But Newt’s reputation as an intellectual has never been deserved.  Yes, he has ideas (rare for a politician) but having 15 ideas a day is actually not much more evidence of having a fine mind than having none.  After all it isn’t coming up with ideas that is tough, it is coming up with good ideas that is challenging, and Newt either ignores the quality aspect or can’t tell the difference. 

And then there is the whole electability question.  Apart from his messy personal life, reputation for being a loose cannon, and limited ethical scruples (current example his consulting income from Freddie Mac) there is the small matter that when he was last in the political limelight he was despised.  Indeed I would argue that Gingrich would be the most disliked party nominee since Nixon.  But you say Nixon won.  Yes he did by a narrow margin and recall the other party had a televised riot during their convention.  Probably not wise to bank on a similar spectacle in ’12.

Looking at the field it’s clear that the case for Romney boils down to a simple question.  Have you looked at the others?  Case closed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thomas Sowell, wide wide of the mark

Will the GOP Blow It might be the weakest thing I’ve read or heard from Thomas Sowell.  He points out that 1) despite a weak economy Obama can still be re-elected (correct); 2) that conventional wisdom is always saying that Republicans need to choose a moderate that will appeal to independents in order to win but the record doesn't bear that out (correct); 3) it is that conventional wisdom that is behind the selection of Mitt Romney (yes and no); and 4) Republicans need to get behind a true conservative candidate—Bachman, Perry, or Cain.

In Sowell’s words:

The question now is whether the conservative Republican candidates who have enjoyed their successive and short-lived boomlets — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain — are prepared to stay in the primary race to the bitter end, or whether their conservative principles will move them to withdraw and throw their support to another conservative candidate.

There has probably never been a time in the history of this country when we more urgently needed to get a president out of the White House, before he ruined the country. But will the conservative Republican candidates let that guide them?

Ah, no.  That is not the question at all.  The question is whether any of the conservative candidates running for the nomination is competent enough to be President and the answer to that is, alas, no.  As is said in card games, read ‘em and weep.

Do I Get an Assist?

Fox’s Special Report has been including a center seat segment where the Republican candidates go on the program and are asked questions by the regular panel.  I was watching on Nov. 7th when they announced that Mitt Romney—alone I believe—had declined their invitation to appear.  Well so much for my sense that Romney belongs on the all surface no substance all star team.

So with that in my head I went on Twitter on the 8th and posted on Romney’s decision: “’Why does baloney reject the grinder’ reprised” which is a reference to a Bill Buckley comment that was made when he was asked why Robert Kennedy refused multiple invitations to appear on Firing Line.  A little later my comment was retweeted by Jonah Goldberg who happens to follow me on Twitter.

So you’re asking is there a point to this?  Well nothing as substantial as a point but I just finished reading Jonah Goldberg’s column on Newt Gingrich (worth a read by the way) which includes the following:

“In each debate, he keeps mentioning how he wants to challenge the president to as many Lincoln-Douglas-style debates as possible. And if the presidential baloney won’t march into the Gingrichian grinder? Well then, the grinder will come to the baloney”.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Trying to understand Penn State

Like I suspect many of you, an understanding of Penn State is eluding me even though I’m a life long pessimist.  The ongoing scandal has resulted in the firing of coach Joe Paterno, the athletic director, the President of the college and leave of absences for others.  The football program will almost certainly take a major perhaps crippling hit, and law suits against the university are certain to follow.

First by way of context, let me say that while I consider myself a sports fan I am in no way a rabid fan.  Second, the general cult status of successful coaches has for a very long time struck me as ridiculous.  The adoration for Joe Paterno is, to put mildly, over the top [only Bud Grant deserves that kind of reverence]

That said, what I find missing in the attempts to understand why no one did anything [here for instance] is any reflection on what would’ve happened if people had acted correctly.  I certainly don’t intend for this to in any way excuse the actions of those involved, but I think we are missing something crucial if we think the ramifications on Penn State and its officials is the result merely of their not acting appropriately here.

First, somewhat aside from my point here, I’m at a complete loss as to the conduct of the graduate assistant.  On hearing a rough outline of events I thought of giving him a sliver of pass for being young, but have since found out he was 28 at the time.  At that age I was seeking out arguments with the higher ups and ruining my career.  Moreover, he was a football player himself, so physically handling Sandusky without assistance should’ve been no problem for him.  One extenuating circumstance is that as a football player he probably hadn’t developed an adequate network of people he could contact and run things by who would provide him with sound advice. 

But to my main point here, I would contend that if Paterno and the AD had gone to the authorities as they should have the results would most likely have been:

a)      A major scandal, particularly as the earlier incident with Sandusky came out with program being severely damaged.
b)      Paterno wouldn’t have been fired, but he would’ve been asked to retire at the end of the year.  He was after all in his mid-70s.  The incident in the shower involving a former assistant coach would’ve shown that he was no longer up to his duties.
c)      Penn State would’ve been subject to one or more lawsuits
d)      The football program would’ve been severely damaged, it’s reputation for propriety shattered.

Again, I don’t think there is any excuse here for not turning Sandusky in immediately.  But I think we are missing something crucial here if we don’t realistically consider what the results would’ve been from doing the right thing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tea Party and the Reformation

Federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000 and the nation’s greatest concentration of lawyers helped Washington edge out San Jose as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area, government data show.  Bloomberg News

History doesn’t repeat and because certain things are constant it is probably a mistake to draw historical parallels.  Still in reading Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present it is tempting to note the similarities between the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the reformation. 

In our day the government is the dominant institution, in the 1500’s it was the Catholic Church.  Luther posting his 95 theses was prompted in part by the practice of selling indulgences.  As Barzun explains the belief was that buying an indulgence enabled the holder to finesse penance and shorten his or her time in Purgatory.  Today we have, to cite just a couple of examples, a Secretary of the Treasury who was allowed to correct “mistakes” in his tax filings, and numerous firms who have been granted the privilege of opting out of Obamacare.  What is crony capitalism but a variation on the practice of selling indulgences.

The Reformation’s response to the perceived corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church was a call to return to the basics; “for the early church the gospels had been enough and so it should be still.”  Another simplifying idea “was that every man was a ‘priest’, he does not need the Roman hierarchy as middleman, that top heavy apparatus, a burden throughout the West, is useless.”  Here again the echoes are evident.  The Tea Party is a call to return to the basics of limited government, it is focused on the constitution and the founding documents, and it is individualist—every man a “sovereign”.

Then as now changing technology played a key role in disseminating the idea.  Luther’s critique was able to spread where others hadn’t because of the advent of movable type.  Today the internet, social media, and the proliferation of cable news channels allows the Tea Party movement to gain traction that would’ve been impossible in the earlier mass media controlled era.

Finally, consider the following descriptions of the Reformation and its causes from Barzun and see if you don’t see the parallels to our times and the Tea Party movement:

Of the church hierarchy: “it had done nothing to reform the Church, which many agreed must be rid of abuses, but everyone stood firm—yes, but not my privileges.”

Of the impetus towards revolt “when people feel that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, when all arguments for reform have been heard and failed, the most thoughtful and active decide they want to be ‘cured of civilization’.”

On the source of the complaint: “moral turpitude concealed a deeper trouble: the meaning of the roles had been lost.  The priest instead of being a teacher was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety was an idle profiteer; the bishop instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and businessman.”

And more concretely of the changes brought and source of complaint: “It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens.  The ‘works’ denounced by the Evangelicals took a daily expenditure of cash, time, and trouble.  The service of the Mass had been free, but celebrating the other milestones of life—a child’s christening and first communion, a couples marriage, and the final rites at bedside and gravesite—cost money.  The good Christian must give alms regularly and pay for votive candles or special masses for the sick and the dead.  Then would come the ‘Gatherer of Peter’s Pence’ to help the pope rebuild St. Peters in Rome; and next, the begging friar knocking at the door….It was galling too, to see one’s tithes (the 10 percent church tax on land) going not to the poor parish priest but to the prosperous monks nearby, who did little or nothing toward saving the souls of the taxpayers.”

The new era that Barzun chronicles begins with Luther and the Reformation and takes readers to present times which he argues is in a similar state of exhaustion and decadence.  There is no one comparable to Luther in the Tea Party which to date seems leaderless, but the complaints or motivating force behind it strikes me as very similar.  In particular the feeling quoted above “that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, which in this case is government.  We are living I’m afraid at the change over from one era to another.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sizing up the Republican field

During tonight's debate Dave Weigel tweeted "there are people who catch leprechauns who are less lucky than Mitt Romney this year." 

Yep.  McCain in '08, Romney in '12.  It's great to be a Republican.

Behavioral economics - Daniel Kahneman

In my two years at Cornell the Professors that stood out were Harold Bierman who taught finance and Richard Thaler who taught economics.  From the latter the course of note was on behavioral economics of which he was a leading light.  The field drew heavily on the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. 

Behavioral economics essentially contends with the assumption of economics that people are rational actors, and through experiments finds how people consistently contradict what they would do if they were truly rational. 

Examples that I readily recall is that the people’s cost/benefit functions aren’t linear but rather curve so it is steeper to start and then tails off.  In time for the Christmas holidays this suggests an optimal strategy of wrap your gifts separately and pay in one bill (or in the lingo segregate your gains, consolidate your losses).

The other was the market anomaly—at least at the time—that markets tended to go down first thing on Monday, and go up towards the conclusion of trading on Friday.  This was a blow to efficient markets theories that always amused me (when are you in a better mood, at the start of the work week or its conclusion?).

What prompts the above is an article in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis on Daniel Kahneman
As I’ve remarked on occasion MBAs are far from knowing everything, but that shouldn’t lead you to believe that they don’t know anything.  Behavioral economics was one of things I took away from Cornell’s Business School and have carried with me since the late 80’s.

Steyn nails it

Mark Steyn neatly summarizes our current political situation today.  First he quotes Gerald Ford as saying “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”  Well maybe.  But Steyn’s rewrite of the quote is spot on: “a government big enough to give you everything you want isn’t big enough to get you to give any of it back.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Herman Cain in light of the harassment allegations

On Herman Cain, a few observations

  1. Herman Cain reminds me of a business colleague of mine who went through an executive evaluation.  He passed along to me—because he knew how much I’d enjoy it—that on intelligence he came out on the high end but compared to high level executives he was off the charts.   Cain strikes me as a CEO to the nth degree, affable, charming but not someone who is going to wow you with his smarts.
  2. In last Friday’s G-File Jonah Goldberg noted Cain’s tendency to say in a pinch that he’d consult the experts.  That you can turn over government policy to the “experts” is a progressive not conservative idea.
  3. The truly damning allegation isn’t Cain’s apparent attempt to corner the Bill Clinton vote, but rather that he thought of running in 2001.  Think about that for a second.  That Cain isn’t very conversant with the issues, particularly foreign policy, is scary enough but that he evidently did nothing over a ten year period to fill in the gaps should be a deal breaker.
  4. The conservative attraction to Cain illustrates the movement’s current predicament.  It distrusts the elites, but in looking for alternatives outside the credentialed conservatives run the risk of adopting those who aren’t qualified. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

P.G Wodehouse and current affairs

"A feeling is gradually stealing over me," he writes, "that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present … I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war, he would have nervous prostration."   [1939]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Republican nomination, where we're at

On Twitter, Rich Lowry asks “has a presidential nominating contest ever been so farcical?”  Meanwhile Jonah Goldberg observes that “many conservatives are reconciled to a Romney victory the way they are to the inevitability of catching the seasonal flu.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cutting defense spending

Defense spending is one of those issues that is almost immune to argument.  Ultimately it comes down to how you view the world.  Still, a good column on the subject today from Robert Samuelson.

Among the points that Samuelson makes:

Ø      Defense spending was 4.4% of total federal spending last decade compared to the 40 to 50% that went to the defense in the fifties and sixties when the country was poorer.
Ø      Comparing national expenditures on defense are misleading because they have significantly different salary and procurement costs.  A Chinese soldier costs far less than an American one.
Ø      Defense is job number one for government. 

To Samuelson’s points I would add that this is one area where you don’t want it to be close.  Evenly matched militaries result in horrifically bloody stalemates.  America has shown little tolerance for casualties and long campaigns; that doesn’t go well with small military advantages.