Friday, December 21, 2012

Songs for the Apocalypse (or to hold you over until 2013)

The real blogging's over until 2013, but here's what I tweeted and Facebooked as the end didn't near: 

Song 1 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: the Fixx's "Red Skies" 

Song 2 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Epoxies' "We're So Small" 

Song 3 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Nick Cave's "Till the End of the World" 

Song 4 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: INXS's "Red Red Sun" 

Song 5 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Nena's "99 Red Balloons" 

Song 6 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Tina Turner's "One of the Living" 

Song 7 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Skeeter Davis's "End of the World" 

Song 8 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It" 

Song 9 of 10 for the phony apocalypse: Decemberists' "Calamity Song" 

Song 10 of 10 for the phony #apocalypse: David Bowie's "Five Years" 

For more apocalypse songs, find me listening to Rew's band 10pm at Tobacco Road. Staying 'til midnight. Then: BACK IN '13, but different.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bork to the Future

(Just a short prelude to 2013 and farewell to what came before.)

I confess that the first column I ever wrote, twenty-five years ago, was called "Bork to the Future."

It was not so much a defense of the specific policy views of the now-deceased Judge Robert Bork (he was basically a majoritarian and I'm an individualist, long story short) but a reaction to the hysteria over his nomination to the Supreme Court.

He wanted judges to defer to the original intent of the Constitution -- no longer nearly as controversial an idea -- and that humble notion probably looms much larger in the minds of the public generally and libertarians specifically than it did back in 1987 (and so a page is turned in the long-count calendar of political philosophy).

In fact, that notion will be a big influence on my blog and (if all goes as planned) at the DIONYSIUM in January, when I blog of Bastiat's The Law, Judge Napolitano's Theodore and Woodrow, and David Friedman's work in progress Legal Systems Very Different from Ours -- and as we debate judicial activism's pros and cons at Muchmore's on January 14.

This, surely, will be an occasion to do the mature thing and learn rather than having a simple yes/no fight. (But we'll see how it goes.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hitchens, Sex, and Death

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’ death.  I will have to toast him.  I saw him speak with the naked eye six times, if memory serves:

•vs. Dinesh D’Souza on affirmative action politics (Daniel Radosh was also in the audience)

•with Andrew Sullivan on Bush-era politics (Sander Hicks was in that crowd)

•solo speaking to commemorate Tom Paine (having just moved neocon-ward, he smacked down a left-wing fan who asked if democracy can be imposed militarily with the observation that no one today would even remember Jefferson without the French army having assisted him)

•vs. D’Souza again on God (and D’Souza just this month sparred with atheists Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss onstage at Intelligence Squared U.S. and on last night’s Stossel)

•vs. hapless intelligent design-defending rabbi (and now failed congressional candidate) Shmuley Boteach (Radosh and I were both back for that one)

•discussing his memoir Hitch-22 at New York Public Library (this time I spoke to him for a minute or so – and was for the second time accompanied by a memorable religious girlfriend to a Hitchens event – but within days he would cut short his book tour and soon thereafter reveal his illness to the world).

But perhaps the most controversial thing he’s ever said is that women, generally speaking, are not funny – a claim he frames with a possible evolutionary psychology rationale in this 2008 video, responding to his (female) critics.

My apologies to angry, funny women I have known of all stripes – religious, left-wing, liberal-tarian, and what have you – and my advance New Year’s resolution will be to aim to be more diplomatic than Hitchens, even though he appears to be having so much fun in that video that for once, it looks like he’s struggling to keep a straight face while making an earth-shaking pronouncement.  Now that’s funny. 


Lest I appear oblivious to the accomplishments of women, though, let me balance the Hitchens video by saying:

•A sincere Happy Hanukkah to dikey Jewish comediennes everywhere, to use Hitchens’ terminology (he discovered late in life that he was Jewish and early in life that he’s bi, so he’s almost allowed to say things like that).

•Kudos to Kathryn Bigelow for doing the eagerly-anticipated and purportedly awesome Zero Dark Thirty – and sticking to military tactics instead of politics and conspiracy theories, they say (despite some significant liberties about the facts, from what little we know). 

Speaking of conspiracy theories, you could strike a blow

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Messy Government Reality


•A friend and I made a seemingly simple bet four years ago about whether Bush or Obama would expand government faster, and we ultimately decided to abandon the bet after realizing it’s gotten more complicated – and dependent on highly contingent factors – than we’d foreseen, even with his sophisticated suggestion of breaking the bet into three parts, two dependent on the size of government relative to GDP (I think I won those two parts, albeit largely because the economy has done so badly) and one dependent only on percent change in absolute spending (I think I lost that part, due mainly to Bush ratcheting up spending so much for bailout purposes in his final months in office).

Ironically, if I had constructed the bet alone, I probably would’ve included only the third portion, since it arguably has the clearest ideological implications, and would thus have lost the whole bet, even though Obama still spends like a socialist (and does so without even an official budget in place, disturbingly). 

But as it is, there were not only the ambiguities above but the whole question of whether we were to remain bound by the “2000-2004” vs. “2008-2012” formulation we first agreed to or whether (as we’d probably both now agree) it’d make more sense (for purposes of gauging presidential influence as opposed to inheriting a budget from one’s predecessor) to use Fiscal Years 2002-2006 vs. Fiscal Years 2010-2014...which would then lead (if we settle up now) to having to estimate 2014 spending, and...

Well, we just decided to call the whole thing off.  Real-world politics, much like history, is a disappointing, contingent mess compared to political philosophy.  This much is clear: We are doomed. 


•The same friend will join my small band of Hobbit-goers (tomorrow night, 68th and Broadway, pre-assigned seats in the back middle, IMAX 3D, in intriguingly controversial feels-too-real 48 frames per second).  One member of our group asked me if hobbits are libertarian, to which I reply that they (and Tolkien) are more nearly paleoconservative, opposed to both governmental and industrial aspects of modernity (as the Shire coda at the end of the Lord of the Rings books – left out of the movies – suggests). 

Tolkien was sort of a holdover from nineteenth-century Tory agrarian thinking, though the right and capitalism have now become thoroughly entwined. 

•Garth Franklin makes a good point in an essay

Monday, December 10, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “Free Market Fairness” by John Tomasi (and a Dionysium debate tonight)

What better way to spend Human Rights Day than reading about John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness, which aims to show that modern liberals and libertarians share more moral common ground than they realize, and then attending tonight’s libertarians-vs.-leftists Dionysium debate (moderated by me) at Muchmore’s (featuring Matt Welch, John Carney, Lynn Parramore, and Dan Gerstein)?

Rather than arguing against government per se, Tomasi aims merely to show that individual economic freedom (the ability to make your own decisions, buy and sell as you wish, start your own business) deserves to be added to the short list of other freedoms, such as the conventional short list of civil liberties (speech, worship) that modern liberals already respect.  (You can see from nearby photos that the owners of my apartment building take a dim view of theft – and that Satanic activities such as horn-wearing, viewing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and attaching Allison Oldak’s fish hat to the ceiling as art may be occurring at Muchmore’s).

If Tomasi is correct, basic liberal moral concerns may do the work of undergirding a libertarian code of law, as surprising a turn of events to some as this small (pack-oriented) dog carrying a (disobedient, independent-minded) cat around.  (That video is far less disturbing, by the way, than this footage noted by Phil Saxton of a catfish attacking and eating a bird).

Tomasi strives to avoid basing his main arguments on specific empirical claims (growth rates, bureaucratic inefficiency, etc.) but does start with one profound historical observation about why modern (or “high”) liberalism may have seemed like a necessary shift in the twentieth century but also seem dated (perhaps in its “twilight,” he writes) now, and that is the unexpected proliferation of economic choices available to average citizens beginning in recent times.

A few very large, nearly universal questions – such as whether the farms would be able to bring crops to harvest and whether factory workers would have enough to eat – loomed large in the nineteenth century and led circa the early twentieth to polished theories of fairness and equality and central planning being promulgated, with so much success that laissez-faire has a bad reputation in intellectual and political circles to this day (whereas, as Tomasi notes, Adam Smith was criticized in his own day for being almost obsessed with securing the well-being of the poor, which motivated his free-market advocacy).

But if individuals vary, and because of that we recognize the importance of letting varied voices be heard, and varied religions be practiced, might an era of a thousand different cell phones, TV channels, clothing styles, literature subgenres, car designs, and business plans not warrant protection for the freedom to behave like a capitalist?  Aren’t these economic choices as much a part of our “self-authorship” and identity as the ideas we get from reading our preferred political manifestos and religious (or irreligious) tracts?  Don’t we have the right to strive, fail, succeed, and experiment in this realm as well?  And might not an intrusive state – at some point, even if not necessarily by its mere existence – interfere with that right?

I wholeheartedly agree, of course, and even share Tomasi’s intuition that it’s fair to ask the Rawlsian question “How are the worst-off faring under this system?” even while laying down simple, property-rights-based groundrules for a Hayekian social order.  He takes care to draw a distinction between this cautious (and possibly minimal-state-justifying) classical liberal (more or less nineteenth-century) view and the more hardcore libertarian view of people (like me) who think they logically lead to treating property rights as more or less inviolate.


My main criticism of Free Market Fairness, and in the grand scheme of things (all my past griping about the liberal-tarians notwithstanding) it is

Friday, December 7, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

I’ll try to keep things civil at our impending Monday debate at Muchmore’s about this whole “fiscal cliff” situation, but if the panel and the crowd split into hateful factions, each convinced the other wants to hurt the world, it will be perfectly in keeping with basic elements of human psychology described in the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

(My thanks to Paul Taylor, an interesting psychological case in his own right, for recommending it – and my thanks to Tom Palmer for pointing out the poignant hate-and-factionalism-related picture nearby of a baby being raised by Klan members and protected by black cops, while being too young to notice the irony.)  

As psychologist turned NYU business professor Jonathan Haidt writes in this excellent volume, humans plainly evolved to be provokable and self-righteous, and there are certain predictable modules to their ethical thinking – some more active in leftists, some in conservatives, some in libertarians.  Your personality type really does tend to be predictive of the sort of political faction you’ll end up in, and once you’re there, you start thinking that faction’s claims are so patently true that anyone who disagrees must secretly know they’re wrong and be out to vandalize the world. 

Sure, there are a few philosophers and people who scrupulously try to follow the truth wherever it leads, but psychological experiments suggest they are even more likely than ordinary folk to engage in elaborate post hoc rationalizations leading to dogmatism.  Intellectuals are more defensive, so to speak, than your average slob.  And humans really are pretty sloppy in their ethical thinking: One experiment Haidt recounts suggests you can even affect survey respondents’ ethical judgments simply by wafting artificial “fart spray” near them when they give their answers, activating the “disgust response” in their brains. 

Haidt mentions Leon Kass, and I now feel on much more solid intellectual footing about the blog entry two years ago in which I wrote, “I am tempted to ask whether...Leon Kass, the bioethicist who believes we should see disgust reactions as a moral guide (leading many people away from gays and biotech, for example), could be duped by an extremely rank act of flatulence into thinking he was in the presence of pure evil.”  Science suggests some people can be, anyway. 

Disgust isn’t the only thing that matters, though.  Haidt identifies six rough areas of moral cognition that tend to enter in most people’s moral judgments (with different areas stressed to greater or lesser degrees depending on temperament, culture, and political faction), listed here with the opposite of each in parentheses: fairness (cheating), care (harm), liberty (oppression), loyalty (betrayal), authority (subversion), and sanctity (degradation). 


Interestingly, Haidt suggests that conservatives have a built-in rhetorical advantage, since they have a near-monopoly on evoking those last three: loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  Since (I confess) I had forgotten Haidt’s earlier accomplishments while reading the book, I was a bit taken aback when, in the middle, he recounts trying to convince failed presidential candidate John Kerry to make appeals to all of the moral modules instead of just the first three. 

Haidt is not just saying there’s something wrong with either liberal or conservative brains, though.  I believe him when he describes himself as a moderate looking for ways to get people to stop talking past each other – and vilifying each other.  As he learned from time in India, where sanctity (and the closely-related idea of purity) is taken more seriously than in more Western and secular cultures, there tends to be an internal coherence to a moral system that people fail to appreciate looking in from the outside.  (It may not be coincidence that an ex of mine from a Hindu family was the most fanatical person I’ve known about keeping track of dirt and contamination and things-tracked-indoors, even though, having grown up in the U.S. and studied philosophy, she framed it all in terms of mostly-legit health concerns.)

I dare say I’ve long been more aware of this need to think about the internal coherence of seemingly-foreign systems than most people are, with one manifestation

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

BOOK NOTE: Critical Review on “Political Dogmatism”

While we take a look at the immediate “fiscal cliff” crisis in the onstage debate I’ll moderate on Monday (which you should attend), one journal that has been taking the long view of things for a quarter-century now is Critical Review, and if there has been a general direction in its mostly-libertarian evolution, it has been toward ever-greater agnosticism. 

Social reality, whatever else you may say about it, is complex – leading to a great temptation to shoehorn it into simple theories – and editor Jeffrey Friedman’s “Motivated Skepticism or Inevitable Conviction?  Dogmatism and the Study of Politics” in Vol. 24, No. 2 sums up an additional problem: We are psychologically inclined to think our opponent’s theories have glaring holes while our own are pretty solid. 

Furthermore, contrary to the self-image of many intellectuals (especially on the left), the well-educated are more likely to engage in the dogmatic defense of their beliefs than are the relatively-flexible, easygoing, less-convicted (albeit less-informed) masses – it’s the blinkered leading the blind, as Friedman likes to say.  And with each round of new data, the intellectuals (fitting the info into their pet theories) become more rigid, not less, in their beliefs.  Skepticism tends to be something you deploy against the other guy and can’t quite find a way to use to devastating effect against your own side.

More alarmingly for anyone still prone to believe in the power of dialogue, the more people discuss things like politics – whether with fellow believers or opponents – the more convinced they tend to become of their own positions.  Indeed, ideologues tend to become more committed to their positions when confronted with counter-arguments than if they are not confronted with counter-arguments (whereas most people appear to benefit from considering “the other side,” according to other articles in this issue). 


I have long thought that these problems may mean that that great formula for bourgeois moderation, apathy, may therefore be our best hope of avoiding insanity, but Critical Review has not quite taken the step of recommending that just yet.  And tragically, I fear our troubled times may call for something more nuanced than mere apathy.  (Tomorrow, as my “Month of Dogmatism” continues, a look at Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book A Righteous Mind, about how unlikely people are to be impartial, given the mental architecture homo sapiens has inherited.) 

Friedman, in an effort to be charitable, tends to express a view (similar to Haidt’s) that how you filter political data is largely just a matter of what you read first when forming the hypotheses by which you do later sorting, like a child taught, say, to divide the world into dangerous and non-threatening animals, as opposed to a child taught to see all animals according the degree of fascination they hold for zoologists.  But even on the meta-theories, ironically, people can disagree, and I’m inclined to think some of these insights actually lend credence to my view that the ad hominem attack (roughly speaking) is now vindicated as never before – because

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dionysium 12/10: "Should We Jump Off the Fiscal Cliff?"

"Should We Jump Off the Fiscal Cliff?" 

A star-studded Dionysium debate moderated by Todd Seavey

If no budget deal is reached, will Dec. 2012 prove to be the end of the world?  Or are we likely better off with the mix of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts slated for January -- that is, just jumping off the so-called "fiscal cliff"?

Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason magazine

John Carney, editor of finance blog NetNet at CNBC


Don't jump: 

Lynn Parramore, econ editor at AlterNet and founder of RecessionWire

Dan Gerstein, political consultant and Gotham Ghostwriters president

Monday, Dec. 10 (8pm)

at the performance space Muchmore's (with craft beers for sale) at 2 Havemeyer St. (corner of N. 9th St.), just three blocks east of the Bedford Ave. subway stop, which is the very first stop into Brooklyn from Manhattan on the L (so quick -- so easy).

To find out what the Dionysium is up to next, get updates via e-mail or at: 

P.S. And since it’s the “Month of Dogmatism” on this blog, I’ll use the three remaining business days before the debate to look at texts about overcoming political impasses and hateful partisanship: a piece from Critical Review, the book Righteous Mind, and the book Free Market Fairness.  See you online and at Muchmore’s.