Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Year of Reading

2015 was at least a good year for reading. Herewith, the books I’d recommend the most:

Nabokov in America, Robert Roper: Forget trying to gain a fuller understanding of Vladimir’s novels and just take in the tale. From their close call path to America—the Nabokovs lived in Berlin in the ‘30s, wife Vera was Jewish—to the son’s extraordinary, non-literary pursuits this book could easily be turned into an extended cable series.

Notebooks; 1922 – ’86, edited by Luke O’Sullivan: On his death one British paper tabbed Michael Oakeshott as the greatest conservative political philosopher since Edmund Burke. But Oakeshott was more philosopher than political philosopher. Beginning with notes as he read other philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza—and moving on to whatever caught his eye, these aphoristically inclined entries are both interesting and delightful. “It is impossible to get happiness by following a plan. Everything about us, and we are ourselves change continually. To attempt to capture happiness and keep it is foolish.”
Poetry Notebook, Clive James: This slim volume put me on a bit of a poetry jag and in search of authors who I’d never heard of, which is all that needs to be said.

Romanticism; A German Affair, Rudiger Safranski: Somewhere I recall seeing the line that “Lord Byron was too much of a romantic not to float some balloons, and too much of a realist not to puncture them.” There may be a lot of mischief in romantic ideas but after reading this book it’s hard not to conclude that there is also something essential in it and that a ‘correction’ to the Enlightenment was necessary, or at the very least, likely.

Leisure; The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper: The aforementioned Michael Oakeshott observed the horror of the mono-modal man. In our time this is most commonly manifested in the person who runs everything through the criteria of usefulness. Like Johan Huizinga’s man the player, this is an argument for recognizing the importance of all that fails the test of practicality. In a time and place of great wealth and smart phones, Pieper’s “the proletarian is the man who is fettered to the process of work” is a caution worth ruminating on.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Addendum to a Review of William F. Buckley's The Unmaking of a Mayor

Thanks to Mark Hemingway, my review of the William F. Buckley book, The Unmaking of a Mayor, appeared on The Federalist http://thefederalist.com/2015/11/28/what-william-f-buckley-can-teach-us-about-donald-trump/

As my review noted, 50 years later, Buckley’s chronicle of his run for mayor of New York City in 1965 hasn’t just held up, it’s gotten better. But with such a rich book there were things which I reluctantly left out or were cut by the editor. To wit:

1) The solution [I should’ve written an approach]”

Such an innocuous, throwaway line, and so much conservative goodness. The progressive offers up solutions, but the conservative knows that this is an illusion. We have only approaches with all the fallibility that that implies. When a bill begins with “comprehensive” we should be especially skeptical.

2) “The complex answer is, surely, that there is a sense of psychic composure when a man who is formally aligned on the other side of the politic fence endorses all of your major platforms: it has the effect of relieving you of all of the disquietude that the existence of alternative approaches to government necessarily pose.”

You begin to understand—almost sympathize—with the progressive loathing for conservatives. It isn’t just that we stand in the way of making the world a better place, we are constantly disturbing the peace. Or at least their peace.

3) [summary of candidates’ fiscal positions] “No responsible person could tell you what kind of taxes we’d need because of the uncertainty of the extent of federal and state aid – Abe Beame”

Another easy to miss item that is very telling; a) it’s refreshingly honest, b) it tells you how much New Yorkers have lost control over their own affairs in the national mania to centralize government.

4) “in the end we are all treated as categories”

Here, my commentary was cut, with malice aforethought, by the editor. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott having defined government directed to an end as enterprise association, noted that it transforms governing into a managerial activity. To direct and reward a large and disparate population requires simplifying assumptions. Hence, the attention to voting blocs and categorization of individuals that Buckley so rightly objects to.

And this, as well as arguments made for federalism and the rule of subsidiarity (also in the book) points to a problem in the conservative movement. It seems to me there is tendency to make arguments a step removed from the source. Our politics are increasingly centralized because they are increasingly Rationalist. Form follows function. A plea for return to federalism is directed at a symptom and leaves the disease untouched.

5) Two final, somewhat related, quotes:

“One always hopes that a serious reporter will seriously listen; and one is ofter disappointed.”

“Politics simply isn’t the place for making distinctions.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Spending/Debt Chart I'd Like to See

The above chart was posted on twitter during the most recent debate, and while I like it, I also sort of don't.

Suppose in the last year of my presidency I get through a bill that requires the government to redistribute 5% of GDP to those who make less than the median income, beginning with the next fiscal year. My vice president wins the following election and serves eight years by which time my program is firmly established. If you tally up spending/debt under my administration, my biggest impact on spending/debt gets attributed to future presidencies. That’s what I don’t like about the above chart and others like it.

The spending and associated debt for each administration is a combination of their period expenditures (discretionary spending, defense) and spending due to past legislation. The chart I would like to see would be of the area type with a band running from past to the current president. In such a graph, Eisenhower would presumably be insignificant (except highway spending?), but FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare & Medicaid) would loom large. The future cost of Obamacare would hit Obama not presidents that follow him.

I don’t know what, if any, effect such a view into spending would have, but it would give a more accurate picture of what our government is doing. Surely, there is some benefit in that.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls Would Kill the Golden State Warriors, Right?

Asked this week, Charles Barkley answered that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls “would kill” the current Golden State Warriors. That Bulls team [Jordan, Pippen] set the record for wins in a season, the current Warriors are the defending champions and are 25 and 1. The sports columnist Michael Wilbon wouldn't go so far as to say that it’d be a rout, but he was also sure that the Bulls would win.
Well maybe. But perhaps some perspective is in order. First, it seems reasonable to assume that the larger the pool of talent a sport is drawing on, the better that sport will be. In 1996, international players were pretty rare, today it’s rather unremarked upon that a player originated outside the U.S.
Second, it may be useful to look at a basic sport (virtually no technology involved) which provides an objective measure (a clock). Somewhat at random, I chose the 100 meter freestyle and 400 meter freestyle in men’s swimming. In the ’96 Olympics the 100 freestyle was won with a time of 48.74, and the 400 meter winning time was 3:47.97. In the 2012 Olympics those winning times would’ve finished 12th.

When Wilbon asks "who is going to stop Jordan?" He is, I think, asking the wrong question. The reason no one hits .400 in baseball anymore isn't because hitters have gotten worse since Ted Williams, it's because baseball players have gotten so much better. Implicit in the assertion that the Bulls would kill the Warriors is that in 20 years, with increased interest in the sport--thanks in part to Jordan--the game hasn't improved. A complicating factor is that the more it has improved, the less likely we will see today's best as better than yesterday's.




Wanted: A Discussion of Government Administration

Quick, a refresher course. Congress passes laws and the Executive Branch, headed by the president, carries them out (stop laughing). It’s not a sexy topic, and polls don’t show it as a major voter concern, but it is past time that we ask our presidential candidates about what their plan is for government administration. And no, abolishing the IRS and shrinking the government will not do.

For I think it is incontrovertible that the actual administration of our government is a shambles. Wait times at VA hospitals are past the point of tragic. We apparently have a policy of NOT checking social media in the vetting process of VISA applications. Daily, thousands of us endure the theatre of the TSA at our airports. I would like to think that even progressives could eventually be persuaded that a neutral IRS would be a good thing before the return of a Nixon administration. Even the Secret Service, the one group that people thought were competent, have been exposed in one embarrassing story after another.

And it isn’t as if the administrative aspect of government is of minor importance. If people were confident of our ability to vet applicants our discussion of letting in Middle East refugees would change dramatically. Surely our constant security breaches aren’t helping our foreign policy. We have a huge debt problem. Does anyone believe that government services are being delivered efficiently?

To my mind a government job should, with special exceptions, always be a person’s last job, no one under the age of 55 need apply. A pre-requisite should be significant time in the private sector on the rationale that a manager should know what’s like to be a player.

Finally, we need to tilt the balance back in the direction of the public. A government job shouldn’t be a safe sinecure. We need to be able to fire those who are ineffective without making it so easy that a new administration means the wholesale change of one team for another.
Even I don’t trust my political judgment but I can’t helping thinking that government administration is a huge issue just waiting for someone to pick it up. Republicans who are always looking for a way to associate themselves with Ronald Reagan should remember that one of the high points of his domestic presidency was the firing of the air traffic controllers. There are many reasons why the public and the elite(s) are at odds. One of the more important is that when it comes to government, the elites have proven they can’t run anything. That needs to change.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Building a Cathedral and American Politics

Ever wonder why the left is always falling head over heels for their nominee. Or how Tom Friedman can have a, no masterpiece was written by committee, attitude towards American democracy. In 2008 Barack Obama, a man whose resume could fit on a credit card, was FDR and JFK wrapped into one glittering package. His election would halt the rise in the oceans and redeem the American experience. The too easy answer is that this is just power worship. The allure of getting to tell other people what to do. But a less cynical explanation is hiding in plain sight. Hiding in fourteenth century Florence to be exact.

At that time the elites competed with each other by building cathedrals rather than big governments and the grandees of Florence were a bit over-extended. The crossing space of the cathedral--a little over 144 feet--exceeded the technological know-how for building free standing domes. A hundred years after construction had begun, when the dome could no longer be put off, a competition is held to find a solution. Brunelleschi wins and his solution for a free standing dome is still an engineering marvel.

Here in the Western democracies we are now in the position of holding semi-regular competitions called elections to find the person who can put 'a roof' over the vast government that we've created as monuments to our humanity, our capacity to care. And it isn't at all surprising that progressives, far more invested in the government project, are far more invested in finding an 'architect or engineer' to complete the project. Thus, the extravagant celebration and hopes attached to the election of Barack Obama and before him Bill Clinton.

Nor is it surprising that our political Brunelleschies are looked for in the ranks of the relative unknowns. If the known, experienced politician had the solution wouldn't we have seen it by now? The one thing we can deduce from our familiarity with establishment politicians with all of their government experience is that they don't have the answer.

The analogy also suggests why the conservative argument that ambitious government programs have failed and can't work seem to persuade only other conservatives. Even if the progressive can be persuaded of failure he will tack on a 'not yet' qualifier. Here it has to be admitted, the conservative is working against American optimism. Hayek's knowledge problem is just a big data application from being resolved. Like the Florence Cathedral the pursuit of the outsized goal doesn't require a ready solution as one is sure to turn up if we just keep the faith.

It was Patrick Moynihan who observed that "somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from a lifetime of experience what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth: namely, a healthy skepticism of the powers of government to do good." The remark is truer today than when he made it as is the gap between our commitments and the revenue to pay for them. And so the outsized hopes pinned on political candidates continue and the more acute our problems become, the wilder and more frantic our search for a miracle worker.



Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Long Game of Candidate Cruz and the Untameable Senator

@UWedge: "If you know you're going to lose then fighting is just theatre."

Have you noticed? A huge gap has opened up in the Republican nomination race. No, not Trump and the rest of the field in national polls. The gap between candidate and Senator Ted Cruz.

In the Republican field Cruz has been last and least in offering up any criticism of Donald Trump. As has been widely noted he’s playing a long game which recognizes that he is the second choice for Trump supporters. So the strategy is obvious, be patient, let the others take on Trump and bring him down, and then be there for his supporters on the rebound.

What I haven’t seen is anyone pointing to the dilemma implicit in this strategy. Cruz the presidential candidate opens up a different, and highly unflattering, perspective on Cruz the Senator. Put simply, Cruz the candidate can’t be squared with Cruz the Senator and the reason for candidate Cruz is Senator Cruz.

Cruz is popular with conservatives because he gave them in the Senate what they longed for. Not victories—he really doesn’t have any—but risk taking. As Senator he embodies what the base wants. The cause! The cause! and damn the consequences! That is his motto. He is the nothing ventured, nothing gained rebuke to Mitch McConnell who has a habit of infuriating conservatives with his McClellan like, maybe after the next election when we’re stronger, approach to politics.

The ever prudent, bide your time Cruz is now asking us to question just what Senator Cruz was up to. It doesn’t look like the exuberance of the conviction politician so much as advertisements for Ted Cruz. It raises the question who was less sincere, Marlon Brando playing Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, or Ted Cruz playing Ted Cruz. I had doubts about Cruz as president before, I have bigger doubts now.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Why The Politics of the Impossible? OK, I'll Bite

“People routinely say with apparent certainty serious things that are if not patently false at least highly uncertain. And there is no debate, no confrontation of facts or analysis. The things people say are not meant to be measured on the scale of truth. They are only the signs by which one indicates which team one belongs to, like the ‘identification friend-or-foe’ signals that warplanes emit.”

-Herbert Stein, 1989

At The Federalist today [link at the bottom], Mark Hemingway notes that progressives are now calling for the confiscation of guns in America and have established the goal of eliminating gun violence and he asks why, given that neither the tactic nor goal has any real chance of being realized? Now as The Heminator isn’t your typical Oregonian to be found naked in a field, I take it his question is one of them rhetoricals, but why let that stop me from chiming in with an answer?

I would start by pointing to Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. Minogue’s thesis is that traditional morality is gradually being replaced by the “political-moral.” Instead of moral concerns and markers like honesty, trustworthiness, humility, duty to be moral is now associated with voting for the right politicians and supporting—publicly of course—the right causes. Participate in an ad for ending gun violence and you can cheat on your spouse, steal water for you lawn, and treat the help shabbily.

Next, I would point to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos which suggests by way of example that the things we typically designate as tragedies have a positive aspect. Yes, the storm that rips through your town destroying everything that’s in its path is bad and a tragedy, but it also makes life exciting and provides a break from the every-day tedium of our lives. The Percy Formula—copyright @LMandrakeJr, LTD—stipulates the more impossible the cause the greater its value. Pick a finite goal like stopping the XYX Development or building a park in the East River Area and soon you’ll be back in the existential emptiness of not having a cause. That the cause is eternal is a feature, not a bug.

Finally, I would argue that what Hemingway has noted is symptomatic of what Michael Oakeshott (the philosopher, not the welder) defined as rationalism in politics. Oakeshott maintained that our current politics were thoroughly rationalist and went on to describe some of its characteristics:

“He [the Rationalist] is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary, or habitual…He is optimistic because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion, or the propriety of an action.

He does not recognize change unless it is self-consciously induced change.

The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment.

And the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no in his scheme for a ‘best in the circumstances’, only a place for ‘the best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances.”

Later, in a different essay in the same collection Oakeshott memorably sketches his alternative view of politics:

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behavior in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It is the politics of intimations rather than certainty, of tacking rather than proceeding “as the crow flies”, of incremental rather than ‘comprehensive’ reform. Yes, please!

Stop Trying to ‘End Gun Violence’. It’s Not Going to Happen, Mark Hemingway  http://thefederalist.com/2015/12/11/stop-trying-to-end-gun-violence-its-not-going-to-happen/


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Conservative Suspicions

[The conservative] “will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers, who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances are tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or ‘social justice’, and of saviors of society who buckle on armor and seek dragons to slay.”
              - Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics

The Gun Control Talk Leads to Gun Sales Argument

For a while there was a cultural/political ritual that went like this: a public museum would decide to have an exhibition on something like the history of porn or blasphemy in the arts, a group would object, and the response would be a) censorship! and b) don’t you realize you idiot that you’re only drawing more attention to the art you object to? In short, the gist of the counter-argument was that whatever outrage we can conjure up should be accepted in silence.

The same argument is now being trotted out in support of the second amendment in reaction to calls for stricter gun control. The Progressive argument for gun control is leading to increased NRA membership and gun sales. As in the earlier battle of the arts, I don’t find this line of argument particularly convincing.

In the first place, the criteria of practicality is misplaced. On a simple cost-benefit analysis this blog, like most things I do, is a huge waste of time. We all, well most of us, know that in arguing with friends we aren’t going to change anyone’s mind and we may very well make them angry. We do it anyway, because in truth most of us have opinions and we so no reason why we shouldn’t express them.

But if we accept practicality as THE criteria the argument still mostly falls apart on the dimension of time. We start running and get all sore and miserable so that we’ll get in shape and feel better on some future day. In business, first are the cash outflows, later—we hope—the cash inflows. We object to Piss Christ in order to gather followers with an eye to the next exhibition. Jonah Goldberg put the matter rather well in response to the same argument at the start of the Iraq War, part 2:

“If my backyard is festooned with hornet nests, I will likely be safer from a sting on any given day if I do nothing than I will be on the day or days I begin destroying them. Since when is any large, important, task required to show positive results at every stage?”

That, I say, is a good point.
Mind you, none of the above should be taken as taking the side of gun control or still less for gun confiscation. To my mind the second amendment defenders have the better of the argument. But I have an impractical need to object to an argument I find mostly irrelevant.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Chicago; Yes, But Then What?

As a kid I remember my uncle, who worked at O’Hare telling me that if your precinct didn’t go for the Mayor your streets would be the last to get plowed when it snowed. When my brother moved to Chicago after finishing school he relayed his election strategy: "I vote against all the incumbents; the new guys will be corrupt too but they won’t be as good at it." Shortly before the runoff election for mayor, I answered a phone poll:
Q: On a scale of 1 – 10, ten being the highest, how likely are you to vote for Rahm?
Me: 10
Q: On a scale of 1 – 10 how would you rate Rahm’s job performance?
Me: 1

The question in Chicago isn't what should become of Rahm Emanuel but at this point, what difference does it make. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out today, Chicago is a one party city. How one party? In the 2012 Presidential election, Barack Obama got 74% of the vote in Cook County. Ah, you say Obama is from Chicago, of course he did well. In 2004 John Kerry did only slightly worse picking up 70% of the vote. And if anything these results understate things. Of the city's 50 alderman, 49 are Democrats. Forty-nine flippin' Dems out of a total of fifty!

I'm more than fine with investigating the police department, I'd be happy to see Rahm go (voting for him was, shall we say, painful), but what then? The normal recourse here is to democracy, but I think it is fair to say that democracy has failed in Chicago. The city is for all intents and purposes broke, it's citizens are leaving, Rahm's opponent in the last election ran to his left. Chicago in the worst way needs a vibrant conservative oriented opposition party, but getting one....? To that, well..."we all want to see the plan."

On Refugee-Immigrant Issue, It's the Screening

In the discussion of Muslim immigration and accepting refugees there has been a great deal of focus on secondary issues and little attention on the main one. If citizens were confident that the government could distinguish between Muslims that were coming here to embrace America and Muslims who remain committed to sharia law and are either already radicalized or pre-disposed to radicalism we wouldn’t be having this debate.

At National Review today Andrew McCarthy argues that the “they’ll lie” critique of the (rather silly in my view) Trump proposal is “meritless”. He points out that the burden of proof is on the immigrant and that it is a felony punishable by five years’ imprisonment to lie on government forms or to government agents conducting a legitimate investigation.” But of course it is the state that has the burden of proof in criminal cases to prove guilt, and yet somehow, someway we regularly read stories about people being released from prison because it later turns out they were innocent. The reticence of some/many to accept Syrian refugees in large numbers has been described as bigotry and un-American and is loudly supported by the President. In which direction do you think government officials will be inclined to tilt the scales in evaluating applications?

Today on Twitter Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard posted that the “terrorist sent 109 encrypted messages to overseas jihadist morning of Garland attack.” The FBI failed to pick up on this. Still think doubts about immigrant vetting are groundless?

In the movie Casino, the mobsters from Kansas City are in court and during a break they get into a discussion of what to do about potential witnesses:

Vinny Forlano: He won't talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That's the way I see it.

Vincent Borelli: I agree. He's solid. A fuckin' Marine.

Capelli: He's okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?

Remo Gaggi: Look... why take a chance? At least, that's the way I feel about it.

Sadly, the government has given us plenty of reason to feel like Remo Gaggi. Given the stakes we’re not inclined to be Flounder and be told at a not too distant date by some government Otter that “you fucked up….you trusted us.” The issue is the screening, stupid.