Friday, January 29, 2010

Libertarianism meets policing needs

John C Wright, a science fiction author, penned a beautiful description of how a "libertarian" society with competing police forces might work. His legal training shows up at the end.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I once read a story by Ray Bradbury about an American couple driving through Central America trying to get back to what remained of the USA after the big one went down. One of the men they meet told them of his life. When young and living in the city he read the newspaper every day, and was always worried and angry. When he lived in the countryside, the newspapers he got were a week, two weeks old; and now he read them much more calmly. He urged the couple to let news age to rid it of useless urgency.

I've been trying to remember the last State of the Union address I listened to--and I can't. All I can recall is how often it was interrupted for applause. I'm content to read it in the paper the next day--if I even bother to read the whole thing. I already have a pretty fair notion of what's going on in the country: things that make the news and trends that don't get reported. The president's proposals are going to be elaborated elsewhere, and since the devil is in the details those are the descriptions that matter. And when experience shows that the speech is likely to invoke fraudulent statistics like the "number of jobs saved" I feel even less need to pay attention.

Let it age--a cabinet needs mending and the laundry needs sorting.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Strong Horse

Michael Totten interviews Lee Smith "Al Qaeda, Islamist terrorism, is a function of states." Smith has lived in the Middle East for almost a decade now, and seems to understand things better than most state-side commentators and politicians.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Indie films

Back in the 60's someone gave chimps paint, brushes, and some kind of canvas and found that they sometimes liked making "paintings," and more recently Congo the chimp's daubs outsold Warhol (no grave injustice there).

The next step had to be simian producers and directors. The chimps weren't entirely clear on the concept, and used the chimp-proof cameras/playbacks more to amuse themselves looking through the viewfinder than to actually make a movie or tell a coherent story. That won't disqualify them from winning Emmy Awards, of course.

I'd love to watch Kanye West try to grab a trophy from a chimp.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Interesting sidelight on bank failures

Denninger was referred to me as someone who knows what he is talking about. Unfortunately this is a field where I have virtually no expertise beyond the fairly elementary. Of course, some things are fairly elementary, and if he is correct then the fairly elementary rule that you don't count unhatched chickens was violated, in order to sell worthless financial instruments.

There seems to be an unspoken agreement not to talk about certain things like how much overpriced holdings banks are relying on. I understand some of the reasons why--a panic would make things even more worthless than before. But it certainly looks like the powers-that-be want to just keep doing whatever they did before.

This isn't to say that I'd trust Obama to come up with any sensible economic proposals, except by accident; and I fear what the Congress and Senate would do: "Gospel in, Garbage out."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Theory must satisfy experiment

No doubt it is rude and old-fashioned, but I require political theories to come within shouting distance of human reality. This rules out a number of popular philosophies that don't match simple experimental data points.

We observe a few simple facts about human behavior, and can easily see implications for government.

Observation 1

Anarchy is the worst known political system.

Sorry, circle-A devotees, but if you bother to look you'll notice that people spontaneously organize to avoid anarchy, and in practice will put up with a lot of injustice to avoid the chaos attending anarchy.

That organization doesn't have to take the form of laws—an unspoken agreement that Joe handles defense and you do what he says is an appointment of a ruler. When there aren't a lot of people or a lot of threats the organization can start out simple, but any old society is complex. You just imagine that the Bushman society is simple, but the social rules are there.

Observation 2

An irreducible percentage of your neighbors are criminals.

It may be only a few percent (something like 2% in the USA), but you will always find someone who steals, or likes to abuse, or kills—who is content to treat you as a useless thing. Within your clan, and even within your family you'll find bad actors.

It can get a lot worse. If your neighbors are another tribe, the fraction who'll steal from or hurt you if they can get away with it can rise to a majority.

Millennia of experience tells us you can't reform/redeem all of these—some few yes, most no. Stories of penitent criminals make for good theater but they represent only a small minority. The only thing that helps is to try to punish the criminals. That doesn't solve the problem—that percentage is irreducible—but in practice it keeps it from growing too big.

Observation 3

Nearby tribes are even more likely than your neighbors to be ready to steal or kill if they can get away with it.

You can come up with all sorts of arguments why—“dehumanizing the other” and so on—but the fact is that most neighboring countries have been at war with each other within the past couple of centuries. The USA is at peace with Canada and has been for a long time—but there have been times invasion was a live issue. Our relations with Mexico have been rather more fraught. Switzerland hasn't been at war with anyone for a long time—mostly because they've combined vigorous neutrality with militant preparations for war. Nobody wanted to monkey with them.

A theory of government is going to have to be able to explain how to deal with wars.

Observation 4

”Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Lord Acton's Law is observation, not theory.

You can find a few exceptions. They are rare. I gather that it is possible to try to teach children virtue and cultivate a slightly larger fraction who can resist the temptations attending the exercise of power, but that isn't a very popular program these days.

Power attracts people who love power, and these are the least likely to emphasize the “service” part of “public service.” They quickly believe themselves better than you, and entitled to control you. Just watch.

If your theory of government centers a radical degree of power in the government, it had better have some radical methods for dealing with the attendant corruption. What's that? You just assume that since they're your kind of folks they'll be righteous? See Point 2 above.

Observation 5

Laws and regulations multiply

It is very easy to pass a new law and worry about the side effects later. That may be an adequate explanation for the phenomena, but the observation stands: it takes huge effort to cut down the number of rules, and it is rarely done; but little effort to add to them.

There are side effects of this multiplication of regulations. Two of the most obvious are that

  1. Businesses cannot be sure if new regulations will inadvertently wreck their plans. They can respond by either doing the same old things or by investing in legislators and regulators (see Point 4 above).
  2. The web of regulations means that an individual can never be sure that he is not running afoul of some prohibition (Am I allowed to trim my own trees? Can I watch my neighbor's kids for her while they wait for the school bus? Not in England), and gives him a strong incentive to keep his head down and not make waves for fear of attracting the attention of inspectors.

Observation 6

You can always make things worse.

Maybe a new law will help. Maybe not—especially if it is careless or based on “let's pretend” instead of observation. Even when things get so bad that you need a revolution, the new masters can wind up as bad as the old, and on top of a war-torn country to boot.

Observation 7

”You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time”. Lincoln went on to say that you couldn't fool all the people all the time, but sometimes you come close enough. Hitler did.

Observation 8

Everything needs maintenance or it won't last

While not strictly a political concept, the analogy seems to describe what happens with governments—they grow layers of cruft and corrode their important workings. The military becomes more focused on ticket punching and internal politics than guarding the nation, agencies more interested in empire-building and turf wars than actually keeping the land clean or well-regulated. These are invitations to trouble, which rarely needs much invitation. Sometimes the resulting war or disaster can shake things up, but more often a nation seems to acquire dictators.

Observation 9

People forget benefits and remember injuries

If you give a man a free newspaper every day he'll come to expect it, feel entitled to it, and feel it an injury if you stop. That may not seem rational, but that's human nature. If a government gives out goodies the recipients will learn to expect them, and get angry if they stop.

If a political program doesn't take these into account, I think I'm safe in claiming that it won't work, or not for very long.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Harlequin Trees

Along the back roads the evergreens are green in the lee of the wind, but on the upwind half of the tree feathery frost surrounds and hangs down from every twig.

Massachusetts Vote

Apparently the anointing went a little askew in Massachusetts. From the flurry of posts on various sites I gather that a lot of Republicans are excited about the chances of Brown's winning Kennedy's old seat. I'd not get too excited if I were in their shoes. The only poll that matters is tomorrow's, and a Democratic party spokesman (albeit an unofficial one) has already given a hint about their winning strategy. They'll find the votes.


I was wrong. The margin was too large for finagling—and too many people were watching.

I don't know if this is a repudiation of Coakley alone or a complaint about the government's direction. It wasn't overwhelming, though: there must be a lot of yellow-dog Democrats in Massachusetts for such a miserable candidate to have made such a good showing.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Recipe Reverse Engineering

My Better Half liked the gravy at the church dinner tonight. A little dripped on her shirt, which I said gave her an opportunity to try "shirt chromatography" to see what the gravy was made of. She didn't think much of my suggestion.

Is he trying to restart the civil war?

The BBC reports that Senegalese president Wade is offering fertile land to "sons and daughters of Africa" in Haiti. The most fertile region is the Casamance, which has been fighting an on-again off-again civil war for independence. I suspect they'll take an offer of land in "their territory" as an imposition, and fear this might spark new fighting.

The offer might be moot, of course: I'm not sure how welcome Haitians ("90% Catholic and 100% Voodoo") would be in a predominantly Muslim country. But just the offer might be enough to restart the war.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti future

The politics and economy of Haiti remind me of the Sicilian 4-way deadlock, in which everyone moves into the intersection at the same time and everybody winds up blocked by the side of someone else’s car. An aid group planted mango trees so farmers could have a steady income from selling mangos, but they returned to find that he needed money this year and chopped them down for charcoal.

In one sense Haiti is a land begging for colonialism/protectorate—some outsiders who can cut the Gordian knots and make the necessary but unpopular reforms.

Yet Haiti is a poster-child for what a mess colonialism can leave behind. For some reason figuring out what’s best for somebody else doesn’t work too terribly well. Even if you’re right.

German Language

My Better Half is practicing German in preparation for a trip we intend to take this summer. She just complained that "German genders make no sense."

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The juxtaposition of internal ad for "Lady Gaga's stylist" and the headlines about the disaster at the NYTimes home page is disturbing: Real pain on one side of the page and nihilist nonsense on the other.

I feel helpless here, because I am. The airport is closed for lack of fuel and places to park planes--and airplanes, for all their speed, can't bring as much as ships can. And the ships take time to get there.

They need bulldozers and trucks and water tankers and somebody to put down the armed gangs looting, and they need medics and somebody to organize helpers. There are plenty of Haitians to dig and care for the wounded, they just need supplies and organization and someplace to do the jobs. And nobody in our family speaks the language (just some French--nobody knows Creole). If I were there I'd just be in the way.

It didn't occur to me until I was talking this over with a fellow down the hall that because Haiti has no trees left, the shanty-towns are made of cement blocks. I'm surprised, because cement blocks cost money. Could it be that using concrete block was part of a plan to improve the housing? The bigger buildings were hard hit: schools, hospitals, churches, government, aid groups--Doctors Without Borders lost all three hospitals.

Haiti gets a big quake about every hundred years--I wonder where else in the Caribbean is at risk. Quakes and volcanoes seem to be related in the region, coming in clusters even when the sites are hundreds of miles apart. I suppose somewhere one could find the data to assemble a map of historical earthquakes in the region and try to guess where's the highest risk areas--and then see how quake-resistant the buildings are (probably about the same as Haiti's).

(I wish Deuteronomy 18:20 didn't have to be relevant to the topic today. I don't think God is pleased with self-appointed prophets.) This earthquake was forseeable, as are others: Puerto Rico is overdue for a big one, probably with a tsunami to go with it. Are they ready? Maybe that's a way to help...

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Rabbit Habit

A few minutes ago my better half went down to put hay cubes in each of the rabbit cages. Rather than rush to the hay, each of the rabbits ran to its treat ball, even though she had not taken them out to refill them. Rabbit wisdom means: big person opened cage to put something in--must be a refilled treat ball. They eventually figured it out, though.

Random thoughts of an old song evoked by my Youngest Daughter's choice of headgear tonight

Did nobody else ever wonder what a minuscule elf it would have to be to wear a raspberry beret?

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Douglas Farrow wrote an interesting essay on the savior state and the state-centered presuppositions behind the "culture of individualism." Does the latter clause seem contradictory? It isn't--who adjudicates, who sets the ground rules? What the state defines it controls. Go read it.

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie: or is it bold?

Creeping along East Washington at about 5mph this morning I noticed something moving in the slush rut in front of my right wheels. Racing along in the tire path between ridges of snow, going a little faster than the cars, was a mouse. When the cars picked up a little speed it darted off to the side. No policeman was on hand to cite it for failure to signal a turn.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Mashed Potatoes a le 'Me'

Lunch today included beef and mashed potatoes, and a bowl of pickled jalopenos. I don't eat those straight, so I looked around for something to eat one with. I recalled the garlic potatoes we ate at some forgotten steakhouse.

About 1 tsp of minced pickled jalopenos mixed with about a half a cup of mashed potatoes gives them a sweet and mild zing.