Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

War-time Propaganda

  • Value of the property that [US President Richard] Nixon claimed in 1972 was stolen each year by heroin addicts: $2 billion.
    • …claimed by Minnesota senator George McGovern: $4.4 billion
    • …claimed by Nixon administration drug treatment expert Robert DuPont: $6.3 billion
    • …claimed by Illinois senator Charles Percy: $10 billion-$15 billion
    • …claimed by a White House briefing book on drug abuse distributed to the press: $18 billion
  • Total value of all reported stolen property in the United States in 1972: $1.2 billion
  • Number of burglraies committed by heroin addicts each year, per Nixon administration claims: 365 million
  • Total number of burglaries committed in the United States in 1971: 1.8 million

Quote taken from Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mencken!

In honor of the birthday of this blog’s Patron Saint, who would have been 133 today, I offer the following:

“All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, and will present give place to something nobler and more “scientific”. There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better…

We owe to [capitalism] almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.” H. L. Mencken, “Capitalism”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

On the Arts Under Socialism

While I was waiting to see Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands at Bumbershoot, the MC for the stage brought on local (self-described) Socialist city council candidate Kshama Sawant and asked her a question about what she’d do to foster the arts if elected to city council. (I get the impression Sawant wasn’t the only local politico they’d had onstage during the weekend, but she was the only one I saw.) I felt that she mostly dodged the question, which is a pity. Because I think that if we’re going to have Socialist candidates for public office, then we should pay close attention to what actually happens under Socialism.

So, if anyone is actually interested in what happens to the arts under Socialism, I highly recommend Josef Skvorecky’s Talking Moscow Blues.

One excerpt, of many suitable ones:

“The name of the organization was innocuous: the Jazz Section of the Czech Musician’s Union. Its membership was restricted [by the Socialist government – AMB] to 3,000– a mere club of aficionados of a type of music which long ago had ceased to excite the masses and was therefore taken off the Party list of dangerous social phenomena. When, after thirteen years of existence, the Jazz Section was for all practical purpoces finally forced out of existence, the event went unnoticed in the U.S. Time did publish a story but ran it only in its European edition. In America this act of “minor” repression was apparently not considered newsworthy. And indeed, the bloodless demise of a small group of jazz lovers pales in the reddish light of a world where even genocide is quickly reashing the status of newsunworthiness. …

Apparently jazz, that generous gift of America to the world, has never been good for Communists in power. …[O]nce the Communist cause metaporphosed from liberating people to closely watching them the jungle sounds of freedom became suspect: sometimes they were deemed supremely dangerous, at other times only alien to the new socialist man. The criterion was simple: if a music fills a football stadium with raving youngsters, it signals danger; if it fills only a smoky jazz club with nostalgic middle-aged men, it is just a nuisance. A well-entrenched Marxist state can tolerate such nuisances. Therefore, in Czechoslovakia, jazz was under fire only until Elvis Presley and the hippy shake reached first the proletarian, then the new upper-class dance halls. After that, the ideological gunmen switched their attention from the saxophone to the electrified guitar.” – Josef Škvorecký, “Hipness at Noon”, as reprinted in Talking Moscow Blues

It should be pointed out that the above passage was written by Škvorecký whilst he was in exile for daring to attempt to publish un-Socialist novels. Three years after it was written, the leaders of the Jazz Section were imprisoned for daring to support and perform unapproved and insufficiently Socialist music and for publishing for its small membership unapproved or suppressed works of music and literature.

So it’s a pity that Ms. Sawant dodged the question. I think the attendees of Bumbershoot would have liked to hear an answer to the question of what Socialism actually means for art.

Art under Socialism is art stifled by the need for government permission and formed by the threat of censure, censorship, imprisonment, and violence.

The Tragedy of Holiday Weekend Festivals

Scheduling festivals for holiday weekends makes a lot of sense in the individual case. If you’re the organizer for a multiday festival like Bumbershoot, scheduling for a long weekend allows you to pack in more acts (and sell up to 50% more tickets) without worrying that you’ll lose a lot of your attendees to work on the final day of the festival. Considered in isolation, scheduling for a holiday weekend, is a no-brainer.

The problem is that this leads to a prisoner’s dilemma. If all festival organizers follow this same logic, then they end up competing for attendees, many of which might want to go to several of the festivals.

Case in point: Labor Day 2013. There are three festivals (that I know of) that I would love to attend: Penny Arcade Expo, Bumbershoot, and Libertopia. I actually ended up with tickets to both PAX and Bumbershoot and might try to split my time between them, since they’re both right here in Seattle. But the vast majority of people will only pick one, thus potentially reducing the turnout at the other two. If all three were scheduled for separate weekends, they might actually all profit, even though two of them (at least) gave up the coveted Labor Day Weekend.

Note that this effect is irrespective of festival topic. The three I mentioned cover video game/nerd culture, music, and libertarianism respectively. But there are many people who have at least two of those interests for whom attending any of the festivals contains the implicit opportunity cost of not being able to attend the others.

One possible solution to this is a hypothetical agreement of festival organizers to just all schedule for different weekends, potentially with the caveat that no one gets the coveted three-day holiday weekends. But, as with all such agreements, this only works until one party defects, schedules for a three-day weekend, and enjoys the benefits both of having the long weekend and of having no competition for festival-goers’ time and dollars. I strongly suspect that there isn’t a Nash Equilibrium for the problem of festival scheduling, and so organizers are stuck taking the possibly sub-optimal route of always scheduling for the long weekend, even when that might reduce their take through competition with one another.

All of this is a long, boring way of saying: I’m going to Bumbershoot this year, but I really wish I could go to PAX and Libertopia as well.

“Authenticity” as Conservatism

I was talking to my friend Bryan today about “authenticity” as expressed by hipsterism and punk rock culture. And it occurred to me that, in a way, such authenticity is deeply conservative. Per Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations, conservatives are greatly concerned by both tradition and purity. This seems to me to be well expressed by hipsterism’s obsession with lost arts and crafts and punk rocks desperate revulsion for “selling out” and adulterating music with fame and fortune.

Every hipster who takes up blacksmithing or craft gin distilling is trying to preserve a tradition that they feel is at risk of being lost. That desire for preservation (if honest, which is a seperate question) is not so different from the protective adoration felt by Catholics or other old faiths for their traditions and rituals. One of the few conservative parts of my character is the love I have for the Catholic rituals of my youth.

Similarly, the punk rock ethos (as well-articulated by John Roderick in an infamous essay) is premised on the flawed idea that “selling out” irredeemably sullies one’s artistic life work. Of course, here, “selling out” means taking any positive step towards popular or commercial success. Punk rock culture is inherently nihilistic (in the life-denying sense of the term) in that it axiomatically assumes that anyone who makes it has polluted themselves and all their work. Cf. the tortuously negative morality of Born Again Christianity and this obsession for musical purity seems to me to be the epitome of ideological conservatism.

These are just some random thoughts, and I greatly welcome feedback. I’m interested how this conservative view of authenticity might contrast with the general garden-variety progressivism common to both hipsters and punks (though, admittedly, punk culture seems more politically anarchic and admitting of variation than does hipsterism). Any comments or points to further reading would be most welcome.

Bastiat on Legal Plunder

“There are people who think that plunder loses all its immorality as soon as it becomes legal. Personally, I cannot imagine a more alarming situation. However that may be, one thing is certain, and that is that the economic results are the same…

Moral: To use force is not to produce, but to destroy.” – Frédéric Bastiat

Found via Coyote Blog

Daniel Hannan on the Precautionary Principle

This is how you pass the ideological Turing test1

As someone who is neither a Reactionary nor a Progressive, I found this article an engaging, well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy. I strongly recommend that you read and, whilst reading it, keep in mind that the author is not a Reactionary. This author gives an exceptionally even-handed and well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy while not, himself, subscribing to it.

I think that the core of all philosophy and, indeed, of all human knowledge, is intellectual humility. I think that a corollary to this is that you should always be able to both fairly describe the best arguments against your own position and give an intellectually honest accounting of positions with which you disagree. The article linked about is the finest example of the latter endeavor that I have read in years. I strongly recommend you read it.

1 For terminology, vis. The idea, as pointed out by Caplan, is much older.

Of Barrel Shrouds, Unlocked Phones, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia

First, a video:

The article mentioned in the video above made the rounds of most of the popular gun blogs a month or so ago when it was written, so any firearms enthusiasts in the audience will probably have already read it. If you haven’t, though, I highly recommend you do.

I tend to stay out of online firearms debates for the intellectually selfish reason that they got boring for me a some time ago. This is because everyone arguing on the Internet is, as a rule, already as informed as they are going to permit themselves to be. At this point, arguing about guns on the Internet can only ever aspire to a frustrated argument about priors, and that’s the extremely unusual best case.

But I think that, wherever you fall on the gun debate, you can watch the video above and marvel at the stunning ignorance of the people attempting to ban “assault-style weapons”. And while I’m absolutely okay with people on the Internet not knowing what a barrel shroud is, to see our government servants trying to outlaw them out of pure ignorance is maddening.

But what’s particularly crazy-making is that this kind of ignorance isn’t the exception, but rather the rule in modern American governance. I would be willing to bet that of all the people involved with writing the currently proposed assault weapon ban, not a single one of them could accurately describe all of the features that it proscribes. No matter how you feel about the substance of the current law, that regulations are drafted under such ignorant conditions should make you sore afraid.

Because let’s face it, the second amendment may not be an issue you care about one way or the other, but even the most apolitical among us has something we care deeply about that the government is trying to regulate. And the ignorance at work in crafting this horrid ban on “assault weapons” isn’t limited to firearms issues. The same levels of ignorance are at play screwing up the regulatory regime around whatever issue it is you do care about, whether it’s educational policy, abortion rights, immigration reform, etc. etc. etc.

So why is this ignorance able to persist? Because most people only see it when exposed to it in the context of their own area of expertise or passion. If you know about firearms, you can look at the AWB and see it for the ignorant pandering that it is. But when the same people suggest an immigration reform bill that flatters your priors, suddenly you just assume that they know what they’re talking about.

Or, to use a more current example: I have a lot of friends in the tech industry who, being fairly typical, garden-variety American liberals, are completely in favor of an Assault Weapons Ban. It seems sensible and common-sensical to them, and they have a hard time understanding how anyone can disagree with them. As such, the proposed legislation seems on-point, well-crafted, and long overdue.

But present them with the fact that it is now illegal to decouple your cellphone from your provider in the United States without express carrier permission, and they will instantly rail against the stupidity and ignorance that went in to crafting the legislation that permitted that to happen. The same legislative bodies that they assumed were well-reasoning and well-informed about gun rights, are suddenly seen for the ignorant charlatans they are.

Of course the punch line is that all topical regulation is equally bad, it’s just bad in domain-specific ways that only the informed will see or care about.

This phenomenon isn’t novel or limited to government. The name for this effect is “Gell-Mann Amnesia”, named for the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and first articulated (as near as I can tell) by author Michael Crichton in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. (Note: I can’t seem to find a copy of the original essay online any longer. If anyone does track down a copy, please drop me a link to it either by comment or by email.) Crichton pointed out that he and Gell-Mann often marveled at the stupidity of newspaper articles about the areas of their expertise. Such articles were often so wrong and confused as to completely reverse causal relationships (“wet streets cause rain” in Crichton’s words) or to be so muddled as to be completely non-sensical to someone in the know. Both men would then turn to an article outside their domain knowledge and read on in happy credulity.

In the context of newspapers, Gell-Mann Amnesia might lead to a bad broadsheet surviving a few months longer than it otherwise would. In the context of modern panarchic democracy, Gell-Mann Amnesia leads bad laws, curtailed freedoms, and a regulatory regime in which good people become felons because they own politically incorrect sheet metal or twiddle the wrong bits on their phone.

Fire and Brimstone

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.