Saturday, September 15, 2012

Celebrity Gossip and the Good Life

You have to feel sorry for Kate Middleton. Now an Italian magazine is planning to publish many more photos of her sunbathing topless.

Two things have gone very wrong here. The first is the whole polluted commercial cult of celebrity gossip, including the massive TMZ-led gossip industrial complex in the US.

There is something so deeply prurient and controlling about it, at the same time as it is louche and superficial. Who is fat, who is cheating, who was well-dressed and who had a fashion disaster at the Oscars, and so on.

It is partly an obsession with wealth and fame, of course. But it is also an obsession with flaws and failure and evaluation and judgment. It's not just the flash bulbs and arc lights of glamor, but the night of personal agony too.

Is it so bad to humiliate or take the rich and powerful down a bit? Isn't it part of the deal of being famous? No. Not when you had Princess Diana hounded to death by paparazzi, of course. Or the meltdown of Britney Spears a few years ago. It is suspect when the aim of the people on the other side of the lens is to make a lot of money out of humiliating people.

It feels more like a blood sport, with a baying mob following its prey with a strange mixture of admiration and envy and hate. There is a clear hypocrisy about it. Few of the paparazzi could withstand such arc-light scrutiny of their private lives.

It's not clear what you can do to stop it, either, when the Internet can evade most picture restrictions and privacy laws.

But it should make us ask about the kind of things we admire as a society. It should make us question whether the whole tinselly celebrity aesthetic itself shows there is a void in what we find admirable.

I always wonder about the fact you have a solid primetime hour of celebrity and entertainment news on networks like NBC every night, for example, the endless Extra and Access Hollywood.

I've talked before , such as here, about how we've mostly lost genuine discussion of the Good Life as a society. This is what we get instead, by default. Materialistic, superficial, plastic, judgmental and destructive. You are today's sensation and tomorrow's embarrassing road kill. Market or celebrity norms drive out other norms of behavior.

The other thing major problem which this incident highlights is, of course, privacy. This was an appalling violation of the intimacy and privacy of the couple, in a private house 800 meters from the road and the camera.

G says to me, Kate surely has done nothing wrong herself here. Of course not, I say. She is topless on a romantic break with her own husband.

But it also shows we have increasing confusion over privacy in general. Plenty of people have had unfortunate photos put up on Facebook, or got tagged in embarrassing situations. Plenty of people reveal far too much about themselves on Facebook anyway (I hardly ever log on).

The whole notion of privacy is utterly confused. The celebrity papparazzi ethos is destroying lives in Podunk and Portland as well as Malibu.

People need a sphere of their own in order to live, a space where they are not minutely scrutinized and obliged to play a role , or maintain a face for a universal panopticon.

A lot of our social behavior and appropriate balance instincts were evolved for the small hunting group or the village. But now we can gossip or provoke or offend instantaneously, worldwide, far outside the initial social group. Things can leak out of their context, out of their zone of appropriateness, when all walls and barriers come down.

That is partly what is wrong with the Mohammed film riots too. What goes in LA doesn't go in a slum in Cairo. But each wants to impose its mores on the other, which is impossible.

(edited 9/16 for flow)


Friday, September 14, 2012

Clashes and riots

Walter Russell Mead, in a civilized and wise essay:

The person who comes out of all this looking smartest is Samuel Huntington. His book on the “clash of civilizations” was widely and unfairly trashed as predicting an inevitable conflict between Islam and the west, and he was also accused of ‘demonizing’ Islam. That’s not what I get from his book. As I understand it, Huntington’s core thesis was that while good relations between countries and people with roots in different civilizations are possible and ought to be promoted, civilizational fault lines often lead to misunderstandings and tensions that can (not must, but can) lead to violence and when conflicts do occur, civilizational differences can make those conflicts worse.

The biggest potential danger is potentially a massive breakdown in relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Islamic radicals are deliberately hoping to promote a clash of civilizations in the belief that a climate of polarization will strengthen their political power in the world of Islam. Attacking the embassy in Cairo is an effort to push Egyptian opinion in a more radical direction, but the radicals hope that this is part of a larger push that will bring them to power across the Islamic world. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which hopes to provoke a religious war with the Christians partly in order to achieve power in the Muslim North, radicals use the prospect of a clash of civilizations to further their own cause throughout the troubled Islamic world.


Burning up the page

A remarkable series of 36 photos of the Islamic protests on the Atlantic website.


Islamic attacks spread

Islamic protests have now spread to twelve countries, says the NYT. The British and German embassies have been attacked in Sudan, and there is trouble in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Gaza, Iraq and Bangladesh, among others: even lockdowns at colleges in North Dakota on bomb scares.

Is it in part just extremists being willingly provoked by other extremists, a game which seldom plays out well? Perhaps in part. Some Arabs evidently suspect it is a way for Salafists and others to throw countries into a religious frenzy at the expense of secular forces.
But it is still a horrific picture of crazed excess. The Economist chooses this inopportune moment to call for more engagement for the US in the Arab world, not less: the opposite of what i was calling for.

On the campaign trail Mitt Romney has been clobbering Barack Obama for being too keen on the Arab awakening. Many conservative Americans associate it with hostile Islamists, like the Muslim Brothers and their friends who now run Egypt and Tunisia, and see it as a threat to America’s ally, Israel. Americans of all sorts are nervous about being dragged into Syria and worried about Iran getting the bomb. They are fed up with being described as anti-Islam when their country is in fact far more welcoming to Shia Muslims than, say, Sunni Saudi Arabia is. With their troops now mercifully out of Iraq, their efforts to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going nowhere and shale gas reducing their dependence on Arab oil, surely it is time for them to leave the world’s least grateful people to make a mess of their lives by themselves?

This is a seductive narrative—and no doubt it will play even better on the campaign trail after Mr Stevens’s death (see Lexington). But it is deeply wrong in both its analysis and its conclusions. Many parts of the Arab world are in fact heading in the right direction. And in the parts that are not, notably Syria, the United States is more needed than ever.
America has spent a trillion dollars and thousands of lives trying to nation-build in the Muslim world in the last decade. The optimistic Bush view that all Arabs needed was to be freed from tyrants looks ever less realistic.

It is insane to imagine America getting involved in Syria, at least on any terms of engagement "international opinion" would accept which would entail US troops being allowed to adequately defend themselves.

America needs to disengage or destroy, not nation-build for those who do not want it. And the US is rarely if ever cruel enough to destroy, like Tokyo or Berlin in the Second World War. So that logically leaves disengagement.


The World Economy in very long view

I've been reading Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History. Maddison is one of the major figures in quantitative economic history. As you might expect, the book is a little dry. But it is fascinating to have measures of wealth, income per head and distribution that stretch all the way back to the provinces of the Roman Empire.

In fact, the average gdp per capita was just $473 in France in 14 AD measured in 1990 dollars, $400 in Britain, and a higher $809 in Italy because of cumulative inflows of booty. For Western Europe as a whole in 1 AD, income per head was $576, compared to $19,912 in Western Europe today measured in the same terms.

We have come a long way. But not evenly. On the same measure, average per capital income in Asia was still just $717 in 1950. It had risen to $4434 in 1990 dollars by 2003.

Inflation has also been around for a long time:

Between the first century and 270AD, the silver content of coins fell from 97 per cent to 4 per cent.

Moving on from Rome, he traces the history of the Middle East, Africa and Asia in economic terms from earliest times, and brings it right up to date for the world as a whole.

One thing I didn't know: he (politically incorrectly) says most of the slave trade was organized by Muslim traders preying on non-Muslim populations:

Slavery was endemic in Africa before western contact. There was a flow of more than four million from black Africa across the Sahara in the eight centuries before 1500, an average of somewhat more than 5,000 a year (see Table 4.5a). The traffic was organized by Muslim traders from the north. The flow from north to south was negligible.

Slave traders were generally the most Islamized. Slaves tended to be taken from the acephalous, stateless, and least Islamized groups. There were two reasons for this. The Muslim states tended to have the most powerful armed forces, and they generally avoided enslaving Muslims.

I did know Western slave traders almost never actually caught slaves, who were captured and transported by Africans from the interior, but I didn't know that there was a cultural or religious aspect. I wonder if it is a much older explanation of the tensions between Muslim North and Christian/Animist south that runs right across Africa, including Cote D'Ivoire, Nigeria and former Sudan. That said, I doubt it explains slaving much further south, like Angola.

Turning back to the world as a whole, the most obvious feature is just how much wealth and incomes have risen.

Real per capita income in the west increased 2.8-fold between the year 1000 and 1820, and 20-fold from 1820 to 2003. In the rest of the world income rose much more slowly-slightly more than a quarter from 1000 to 1820 and seven-fold since then.

Capital goods per head soared.

The most dynamic feature was the explosive growth in the stock of machinery and equipment per head. It rose by a multiple of 155 in the UK and 372 in the US between 1820 and 2003, 332 in Japan after 1890. The stock of non-residential structures rose much less, 21-fold in the UK, 33-fold in the US and 89-fold in Japan.

Leisure has increased significantly in longer perspective (even if Keynes' expectations of shorter working hours today have missed the mark.)

A significant part of the augmented production potential was taken in the form of leisure. Labour input per head of population dropped by 47 per cent in Japan, 40 per cent in the UK and 23 per cent in the US between 1820 and 2003.

Explanations for Growth

He offers an explanation of these growth trends, although it seems a bit sketchy. The main ones were as follows:

1. A fundamental change was the recognition of human capacity to transform the forces of nature through rational investigation and experiment.

Europe had an advantage over technologically proficient China, however, because there was less central control.

The major difference between Europe and China was the competitive character of European publishing, and the international trade in books. This frustrated the attempts of the Papacy to achieve thought control through the Inquisition and censorship. China was a centralized state, with vestigial foreign contacts. The education of its bureaucracy was devoted to ancient classics, and they were able to exercise thought control by more subtle and effective methods than the papacy in Europe.

As for other factors,

2. The emergence of important urban trading centres in Bruges, Venice, and other cities in Flanders and northern Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was accompanied by changes which fostered entrepreneurship and abrogated feudal constraints on the purchase and sale of property.

3. The adoption of Christianity as a state religion in 380AD led to basic changes in the nature of European marriage, inheritance, and kinship.

The Church's prohibition of cousin marriage made it much more likely that narrow tribal kindship groups would be broken up and loyalties would shift to broader entities like nation states. The variety of nation states also helped:

4. A fourth distinctive feature was the emergence of a system of nation-states in close propinquity, which had significant trading relations and relatively easy intellectual interchange in spite of their linguistic differences.


Macro measurement & Defense

Maddison also looks at the history of macroeconomic measurement. It essentially began with Englishman William Petty in the 17th century.

Macro-measurement started in the seventeenth century, but did not emerge as a basic analytical tool for policy analysts and economic historians until the 1940s. In the past 60 years there has been an explosion in the sophistication of policy analysis and the interpretation of history.

One of the most important steps in macro measurement in the twentieth century was Keynes' How to Pay for the War, published in 1940. The title is a clue. In fact, one of the most important drivers throughout the history of macro measurement, from Petty onwards, was war potential. Governments wanted to measure both their own and adversaries' potential military resources.

This was also a major driver of measurement in the twentieth century.

The main reason for the massive increase in coverage and quality of official national accounts from 1950 onwards was the realization of their usefulness as a tool of macro-economic policy. Denison, Gilbert, Kaldor, Kuznets, Ruggles, Stone, and others in the UK and US, knew from personal experience that such accounts were also an extremely important tool for resource mobilization in wartime.

In other words, much of the usefulness was war-related - and if one thinks about it, this measure of resources in many ways underlies how we still see the economy. It helped lead to a focus on economic growth, although it helped measure more than just tanks and planes.

New measures of GDP and other quantities were not universally welcomed in the economics profession, which I find very interesting as well.

This new macro-economic perspective was very different from that of Hayek and Schumpeter. The latter considered `total output a figment which, unlike the price level, would not as such exist at all, were there no statisticians to create it. We seem indeed to be faced by a meaningless heap-for most purposes, a highly inconvenient composite' (Schumpeter 1939: 484, 561).
I didn't realize there was so much opposiiton. National accounts data just seem so much like a fixed fact of life today. But the measures really only date back to the 1940s and 1950s and to particular narrow purposes.

Hedonic measures

Perhaps the most interesting single thing in the book is his deep distaste for hedonic measures of economic activity, which take into account the quality as well as the quantity of output. Maddison thinks they are "hallucinogenic" and "chaotic."

Hedonic indices are perfectly respectable in small doses, but one can be skeptical about the widespread assumption that quality changes have been so large and monotonically positive. ..

More than 40 years ago, Milton Gilbert warned that such adjustments could open Pandora's box: `In the end, they would make it impossible to construct measures of output and price changes that are useful to the study of economic growth' (Gilbert 1961: 287).

That undermining of simpler quantitative approaches may of course be why Maddison is so opposed to them. But it does not necessarily help if we have accurate measures of a misleading measure.

One of the most famous examples of the hedonic approach is William Nordhaus's measures of improvements in lighting. Maddison says of Nordhaus:

He illustrates the implications of his approach in measuring real wages. The conventional measure showed a 13-fold increase between 1800 and 1992. The `true' rise, he suggests, was between 40- and 190-fold. He derived this result by converting conventional price indices into hedonics for three economic sectors.

Maddison thinks this implies past income would have been much too low.

I estimate that US per capita GDP rose 21-fold from $1,087 in 1800 to $23,169 in 1992. An increase of 190-fold would mean an 1800 level of $122 which would be well below subsistence.

But that doesn't really follow. It just means the incomes were not commensurate in price terms. It is a matter of apples and oranges, as if we tried to measure everything today in terms of grain equivalent. People today would be consuming, who knows, ten tonnes of grain a day in Roman terms, which doesn't make sense either.

I'm very sympathetic to hedonic measurement, because it allows for shifting needs and consumption patterns. But clearly it undermines the usefulness of the standard national accounts, which Maddison is not enthusiastic about.

Overall, it's very interesting to see good quantitative measures over so long a period and have a sense of the deeper history of national accounts. But I'm reminded one has to be careful of quantitiative economic measures as well


Liberal media meltdown

The reaction in the media to Romney's criticism of the administration on Egypt and Libya is almost enough to make Romney look good. I haven't been impressed by Romney. But the prejudiced reaction by much of the press - to turn something which genuinely does call into question the whole Obama approach to the Middle East into a "Romney gaffe" - is just astonishing.

Here's an example in a muddled and confused NYT column. It rightfully praises the assasinated US ambassador to Libya. But it attacks the "visceral hatred" of Islam in parts of the United States.

The Obama administration never expressed sympathy for the assailants. It never apologized for American values. What the Cairo embassy did, as violence brewed in the Egyptian capital and well before the Benghazi attack, was to condemn “actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others” — specifically Muslims.

Since when was extreme bigotry that portrays the followers of one of the world’s great religions as child molesters an American value? Religious tolerance is as fundamental an American value as free speech. For Romney to offer implicit defense of a scurrilous movie in the name of free speech, while misrepresenting the Obama administration’s actions and offering not a word about hatred toward the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims, suggests he is deluded or desperate or both.

The same liberal media has only been too happy to portray the Catholic church as mostly made up of molesting priests. You could have read much of the Democratic National Convention as "hurting the religious feelings" of anti-abortionists or people who wanted God mentioned in the party platform. Last week G and I were offended by Madonna's latest concert tour, which received a positive review in the NYT, which did not consider whether it would "hurt the religious feelings of others."

There is a deep hypocrisy here. Apparently only the hurt religious beliefs of those who riot and kill matter. And that's the problem, and why Obama got it wrong.

Americans have been remarkably tolerant of thirty years of attacks from Muslims claiming to act in the name of Islam. No Muslim ambassadors were attacked after three thousand Americans died on 9/11. It would have been unthinkable.

The issue is one of thresholds. It clearly sounds as if the offending video in question has no redeeming merits. But the kind of multicultural tolerance Roger Cohen has in mind here only runs one way. America does not erupt in riots when the American flag is burnt in Egypt. It would be ridiculous.

This September surprise has given the world cause to appreciate the cool head in the White House and worry about the hothead who aspires to replace him. Romney, in Jacques Chirac’s immortal phrase, “lost a good opportunity to keep quiet.”

If Romney' first instinct is to think of American interests instead of the dignity of Islam, that's a good thing - hard-headed as opposed to soft-in-the-head. Appeasement is not cool-headed. It invites further violence.

Think about it. Romney is a "hothead" for raising legitimate questions about US foreign policy, but storming embassies and threatening Christian minorities should be overlooked? The issue is the people whose religious feelings are "hurt" are clearly the hotheads. Refusing to recognize that does not help.

I think what this shows is irrational panic in the media about the other "narrative" in this situation - the long shadow of Jimmy Carter.

Or perhaps it shows there is hard-wired incomprehension of the situation. The instinctive liberal response is to fail to see anything except issues of fairness towards Muslims. They simply cannot see anything beyond that. Liberals simply don't understand they are part of a very small subculture, which is why the left has done so badly in the midst of the worst economic crisis in seventy years. Far from understanding other peoples' point of view, they are unaware alternative viewpoints even exist, outside of the various slurs they hurl. Articles like this one come across as pompous, self-righteous and utterly out of touch.

As I said below, the right response here is not more praise for Islam from the United States, but containment and disengagement. If you meet a crazy drunk in the subway, the right response is to move away, not walk up and give speeches about your great respect and tolerance for his preferred brand of liquor.

What Obama should have said is: the same openness and tolerance which protected Muslims in the United States from riots and attacks and internment after 9/11 is the same openness which allows people in the US to disrespect Islam, too. And we make no apology for that.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bertrand Russell and leisure

I followed a few references in this NYT article I wrote about yesterday. It turns out there is a famous essay by Bertrand Russell with a somewhat scandalous title: "In Praise of Idleness".

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.

Huge resources were devoted to military effort in the First World War, he says. Ordinary production was carried on with far fewer resources.

The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

It is the morality of the slave state, he says.

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. ..

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment -- assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure

Interestingly, we saw exactly this attitude from Judge Posner recently, and I think this is an important factor in attitudes. Militaries generally like to keep recruits training and drilling for similar reasons.

Russell continues:

When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently.

Not all would use leisure for higher purposes, of course. But some would, and they could produce more genuine value and originality than idle aristocratic classes or isolated ivory-tower academia.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.

That might be hoping for too much.

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.
Russell was often criticized for his more popular writings, of course, brilliant and fluent as they are. An economist would be imclined to see this as an example of the "lump of labor fallacy." And perhaps Russell was very premature, given how much productivity has increased since.

But what I take from this is our ideas about work and virtue are tangled up in all sorts of subterranean, hidden ways. Work is now ultimately a question of who deserves what, not survival.

And it is also a matter of how and why people get bored, and the kind and degree of stimulation we want. Some people apparently want it in drugs, or endless tv. Work is often a substitute for purpose.


The "right" to respect and honor culture

G and I were just talking about what respect means, and the extent to which people can expect or compel respect for their culture or religion. It is a live subject in view of the horrific attacks in Libya and Egypt.

There's no right to respect, says G, but mockery goes too far. I think you do have a right to a fair hearing, she says, a right to be listened to, even if you don't have a right to positive approval. I also don't think there ought to be automatic negative views of a culture or religion any more than there should be automatic positive views.

I agree with that, I say. People tend to live within their own separate realities, though, and will fight to preserve them, and that is a problem. We have an abstract tradition of formal human equality in the West, which probably stems from the ancient Christian idea of the soul and the equality of souls. But that doesn't necessarily entail equality of substantive respect or recognition. We get confused about this. People don't have a right to compel others to think their cultural preferences and traditions are praiseworthy or valid.

However, perhaps the deeper problem here is not respect, or Islam per se, but a much older unreconstructed honor/shame culture in the Middle East. It's the same disposition that drove early modern aristocrats to fight formalized duals for perceived insults or sleights upon their honor. It's impossible to imagine two US politicians fighting a deadly duel like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

David Pryce-Jones writes in his book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs that

What otherwise seems capricious and self-destructive in Arab society is explained by the anxiety to be honored and respected at all costs, and by whatever means. ..Honor is what makes life worthwhile: shame is a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged. Honor involves recognition, the openly acknowledged esteem of others which renders a person secure and important in his or her own eyes and in front of everyone else. (p35)

We find it almost impossible to understand parents killing their children in honor killings, but it happens even in the US and Canada.

James Bowman points out in his book Honor: A History that although we find this way of thinking extremely hard to understand in the contemporary West, it is pervasive in most other times and places.

When we hear such people speak of Islamic "honor" as being at stake in the jihad against the "crusaders" of America and the West, we naturally regard it as an exotic growth, or perhaps a bizarre survival of an age long past in the West. Yet we are, in global terms, the odd ones out. Our disdain or disregard for honorable imperatives cited by others as a reason for action is at least as bizarre to most of the world as honor seems to us. p23

Bowman traces how appearance matters more than truth or reality to the honor culture. Of course, it was embedded deep in our own culture for centuries, but always sat more uneasily with "turn the other cheek" Christianity, and sank with the aristocracy and the revulsion at the First World War.

The problem is how you deal in practice with people obsessed wih honor. It isn't an argument about abstract free speech rights or "live and let live". Appealing to truth or common interest will not work because it is not what is at stake. But truth will continually wound a sense of honor that is sharply divergent from it.

And eventually people in the West may feel humiliated and angered by incidents crazed intolerant fanaticism in Islamic countries. "Turn the other cheek" has always had its limits as a political philosophy as well. Walter Russell Mead has written about the Jacksonian approach to foreign policy, which is sensitive to US national honor in his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. It still has broad appeal in the US, especially in the South, which is why Obama has to be very careful not to appear like Jimmy Carter.

Part of the answer has to be to avoid as much as possible the obsessives and honor-crazed. Seal them off. Contain them hermetically. Reason will not work.


Repugnant anti-American violence on 9/11

I am furious about the attacks on our embassies in Libya and Cairo. Islamic mobs marked the anniversary of 9/11 with bigoted violence and killings of diplomats.

The appeasement reflex of our embassy in Cairo, condemning those who "hurt the religious feelings of others" more than the perpetrators, is also shameful.

Victor David Hanson writes on the National Review blog:

Obama’s effort to appease Islam is an utter failure, as we see in various polls that show no change in anti-American attitudes in the Middle East — despite the president’s initial al Arabiya interview (“We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect.”); the rantings of National Intelligence Director James Clapper (e.g., “The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ . . . is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.”); and the absurdities of our NASA director (“When I became the NASA administrator . . . perhaps foremost, he [President Obama] wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science.”) — to cite only a few examples from many.

At some point, someone in the administration is going to fathom that the more one seeks to appease radical Islam, the more the latter despises the appeaser.

Wishful thinking is not a substitute for policy. The "vast majority" of the Arab street is deeply hostile, and pretending otherwise is stupid.

A first step would be to make sure anyone who thinks killing people is a justified response to an "insult to the prophet" by some obscure nobody somewhere in the US never gets a US visa and never sets foot in the United States, nor anyone who makes excuses for them. We expect people to resist provocations without killing innocent parties. It should be a required test on every US visa application: "Have you ever participated in or verbally supported killing people or rioting in response to alleged insults to religious figures." Automatic denial.

This kind of zealotry and fanaticism is not acceptable. There needs to be more of a containment model in our dealings with the Islamic world, on the model of the Kennan approach to the Soviet Union. We did not endlessly praise the wonders and peacefulness of communism during the cold war, after all. We did not think the path to peace was endless recitation of the enlightenment of Marxism-Leninism. Quite the opposite. We refused to give it ideological legitimacy.

We need more separation, rather than more engagement or attempts at suasion. And we need to argue for our own values rather than ignore problems in the hope they will go away.


Seeking the Big Advances

We looked before at how venture capital has failed to deliver a return in recent years, mostly because there has been little long-term thinking. Investors just flock to the latest short-term fads like social networking.

Nathan Myhrvold says he and some other software plutocrats like Bill Gates are doing just the kind of long-term investment demanded by our big problems. They are funding an alternative kind of nuclear energy that uses depleted uranium, for example. He writes in the MIT Technology Review:

So why would any rational group of people create a nuclear power company? Part of the reason is that Bill and I have been primed to think long-term. We have the experience and resources to look for game-changing ideas—and the confidence to act when we think we've found one. Other technologists who fund ambitious projects have similar motivations. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are literally reaching for the stars because they believe NASA and its traditional suppliers can't innovate at the same rate they can.

Myhrvold is scarily able, and amazingly multi-talented. He likes cooking, too. So he and a large team worked for several years to produce the massive, revolutionary and definitive guide to new food techniques, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. He turned a hobby which millions of people enjoy into a ground-breaking advance in knowledge.

So it's possible this kind of venture can deliver game-changing breakthroughs, and that's a good thing.

But we shouldn't necessarily have to rely on billionaire hobbyists to drive innovation. Myhrvold is admirable in many ways, but he is also one of the main people involved in Intellectual Ventures, which is one of the world's most obstructive and damaging patent trolling companies. There are deeper issues of intellectual property here.

So we should also ask why NASA can't innovate as fast. DARPA seems capable of funding breakthrough technologies.

Perhaps it is because government can't be seen to take risks and fail in the same way. You get a Solyndra situation and accusations of wasting public money. There is always suspicion that money is doled out for political favors instead of merit. But endless patent litigation is not the way forward either.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Work and Leisure

Gary Gutting, a professor of Philosophy, writes in the NYT:

What, then, is work for? Aristotle has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)? Doesn’t idleness lead to boredom, the life-destroying ennui portrayed in so many novels, at least since “Madame Bovary”?

Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing? Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death). No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.


He argues that education is needed to direct matkets towards what we want.

Capitalism works for the good only when our independent choices determine what the market must produce to make a profit. These choices — of liberally educated free agents — will set the standards of capitalist production and lead to a world in which, as Aristotle said, work is for the sake of leisure. We are, unfortunately, far from this ideal, but it is one worth working toward.


The US healthcare system's bill for waste

$750 billion a year, says a new report. Astonishing, but not surprising.