Saturday, January 26, 2008

Distribution of wealth vs. wealth

I was having another boring argument with authoro-libertarians over on Unqualifed Reservations, this time about liberty vs. equality. They think equality is just wrong, and prefer liberty, as long as it doesn't apply to Jews, blacks, or lower castes. Or something like that, I don't really care, except I'm still fascinated by this phenomenon of people who spout libertarian rhetoric while simultaneously promoting authoritarian values. Then there's Ron Paul, where libertarianism is a cover for racism and paranoid nationalism. I find this predictable and regrettable, since it means there is no hope for a coalition between the libertarian left and right -- the underlying core values are just too different.

Anyway, tired of arguing over stale concepts, I went and looked for some actual data and found an interesting graph that shows a correlation between equality and higher GDP. It actually shows that except for the United States, that perpetual outlier, countries with a high GDP live in a fairly narrow band of wealth equity. Below that level you find countries with wider disparities of wealth, such as the kleptocracies of Africa and South America.

What does this prove? Not much, since correlation is not causality. It doesn't prove that making people more equal will make them all richer. Maybe well-run economies promote wealth compression by elevating the condition of the lower classes.

The one thing it does clearly show is that the US is different from all other industrialized economies in having a drastically skewed distribution of wealth. But it's not skewed enough for the authoritarians, who see any attempt to raise the conditions of the lower tiers of society as a threat to their (apparently extremely fragile) sense of superiority.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ron "Frodo" Paul

This is too perfect, American politics as the war for Middle Earth filtered through the imagination of

Saruman the White: Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan was once a white wizard of libertarianism. He preached the gospel of individual liberty and free market economics all over the world. For years, he collaborated with Ayn Rand, and he even wrote an eloquent paean on the virtues of the gold standard.

But as the years passed, he ensconced himself high atop the Fed Tower in Washington and hungrily stared into Sauron’s crystal ball. Seduced by the dark side, he sent forth swarms of counterfeit dollars, more destructive than any horde of uruk-hai, to obliterate our economy and wreck the livelihood of our people.

Of course Tolkien might not approve:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.
And then there's this. Best quote from the comments:

Ron Paul will go nowhere for the same reason that pot legalization goes nowhere. Because his natural constituency never gets up off the couch.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Poodle Samizdat

This blog desperately needs to branch out into new areas of interest; sniping at libertarians is possibly the most pointless activity known to man. So here's a video about poodles and Republicans:

From this excellent site, which has tons of obscure comics, back issues of The Realist, and I don't know what else.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Libertarian flameout

Ron Paul is outed as a racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, conspiracy-mongering piece of shit. No surprise really, but a lot of nerds are hurt and confused. Add on his support for medical quackery, denial of evolution, and ties to Christian Reconstructionism*, all I can say is, what took so long? It has been suggested that he didn't really believe all the crap that went out under his name over the years, in which case he's either too irresponsible or too willing to pander to be considered a serious candidate for anything.

I can't say I'm very sorry, but I guess I am a wee bit. US politicians are so bland and non-ideological, it was refreshing to see one with an actual belief system. And he was the only semi-serious presidential contender to take a strong antiwar stance (the other being my man Dennis Kucinich). There's something to be said for some libertarian principles entering the mainstream. Unfortunately, whatever good might have been in those principles has been irreparably tarnished by their associations with the dark, fetid swamps of the extreme right. Hopefully those looking for a place to park their idealism will look at Kucinich who is against the Iraq War, the Drug War, and has even less chance of winning than Paul.

[* that last one is a pretty weak link -- Gary North, a prominent Reconstructionist, was once a staffer for Paul -- but the article pointed to has some fascinating information on ties between libertarianism and the theocratic movement in general.]

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dare to be Stupid

Conservatives, perhaps sensing that they don't have much else to fall back on, are rolling out an impassioned defense of stupidity (h/t Alicublog). This is a rather too easily mocked position, but I feel like mounting a feeble defense of it, if only to be contrarian.

I have, from time to time, uttered a few tentative comments in favor of Burkean conservatism, which is based on essentially the same idea. Without for a minute identifying myself with a conservativism, I can see some validity in the general argument. Consider that most people are pretty stupid, smart people aren't as smart as they think they are, most ideas will fail, and the best heuristic for success and survival is to keep doing whatever worked last week. That's the traditionalist conservative worldview in a nutshell. In William Buckley's phrase, they are "standing athwart history, yelling Stop". Burkean conservatism is explicitly distrustful of reasoning and abstraction, perferring to rely on established tradition -- which has the undeniable advantage of being known and knowable, whereas something based on a new idea is, by definition, untried.

The history of the 20th century gives some support for this way of thinking. There were altogether too many efforts to remake society and mankind along some imagined lines that did not take into account the actual fixed parameters of human nature. The Soviets were the most egregious but some of this thinking survives today (Steven Pinker's tells some of this story). Recently I was reading about the construction of Brasilia, based on Le Corbusier's high-modernist theories of how people should live -- this strikes me as an iconic example of how not to do things.

If designing social policy is exploring a design space, the modernists are those who think they can leap around in that space by means of reason, while the Burkeans are those who are so terrified of the unknown that they are going to cling to their little known patch of the landscape, no matter what. Of course, there are intermediate positions, such as supporting incremental rather than revolutionary change.

It is rather odd that the political factions seem to have precipitated out on the axis of generally "against change" and "for reason". It's maybe less odd that being against change is almost synonymous with being authoritarian. Conservatives crave stability, and the surest guarantee of stability is to strengthen the existing structures of authority. As people age they get more conservative, because they have greater stakes in the established order of things. The real axes of politics are the powerful vs. the powerless. Of course, in our demockracy things can't be that simple -- both major parties are, by definition, part of the powerful. Each party consists of a core of the powerful together with some mechanism for deriving necessary support from the powerless, some of whom bother to vote. The Democrats do this in fairly obvious ways, the Republicans by exploiting fundamentalism and the racial hate/fears of the white underclass. The job of the Democrats is to promise change (and not deliver), the job of the Republicans is to promise a return to an imagined Golden Age (and not deliver). Stupidity is rampant on both sides, but is more useful to the Republican strategy. The stupider you are, and the stupider you believe the world to be, the more you will gravitate towards fear rather than hope.

The problem with standing athwart history urging it to stop is that it won't. Even if we could stop politics in its tracks, science and technology and economics have been changing the material basis of society in ways that our hominid evolution could not have anticipated, and in ways that the traditional social structures the Burkeans favor (monarchy, apparently) never was designed to handle. These changes will only get more radical and more rapid with time. Nothing is going to stop this short of the utter and general collapse of civilization. So, stupidity and conservatism is not going to be much help feeling our way into the future.

[Addendum: OK, I can't resist highlighting this quote:
The intellectual conservative of our day excels in good arguments. His policy positions are reasoned and based on well-documented evidence.
Ahem. Any movement that can include Jonah Goldberg within the definition of "intellectual" has really got the stupidity thing locked up tight. ]

[Addendum 2: I glanced over this long article by the pro-stupidity guy, Lee Harris. Wow, is it...stupid. Ideas and rhetoric that were stale when Spiro Agnew floated them for Richard Nixon.
In the culture war of today, the representatives of one side have systematically set out to destroy the shining examples of middle America.

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Then there's this pathetic revelation (after a very long attempt to show that the very idea of gay marriage somehow has destroyed the cozy, simple, sturdy, values of middle America):
Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles.

It would take somebody with more perspective on teh gay than me to untangle the self-hating mess that is the author's thoughts. IOZ? ]

[Addendum 3: OK, I thought this Lee Harris was just some random conservative wanker, but his book is reviewed as the lead item in today's New York Times Book Review special section on Islam. Yow. Oh well, it fits in with their respectful treatment of Jonah Goldberg, hiring William Kristol, etc ad nauseum. As far as I can tell, the book argues that the Western devotion to Reason leaves us vulnerable to the more fanatical, unreasonable forces of Islam -- so we should become more like Islam. Only Christian fundamentalism can save us from Islamic fundamentalism. The counter-Enlightenment is in full swing folks. Thought will eat itself. ]