Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/30

August 2nd could prove to be a very bad day for all of us. Borrowing 44% of the governments spending is just not sustainable. We can increase the debt limit, but that does not deal with the actual problem; it merely postpones it. And before anyone goes and blames the "tax cuts for the rich," keep in mind that Bush's tax cuts equaled about $70 billion per year. That would cover about half of the shortfall for this upcoming August. Pretty clearly, raising those taxes back up would not put us on the path to fiscal stability. The problem lies in the $306 billion the Federal government will spend during those 21 business days.

Really, the only way to create a balanced budget is to slice all Federal spending in half, save for payments on the debt. That would leave us with about a $5 billion monthly surplus. God help us. Link

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/29

This is a rather amusing theory. Somehow, the 14th Amendment makes a debt ceiling illegal! Just one problem: we do not need to assume more debt in order to pay our current obligations. The amount the United States pull in per month is many times the debt that comes due each month. What it does mean, however, is that the government would have to reduce its spending as it has finally run out of money.

Democrats are trying a sleight of hand here. Not paying the debt would be unconstitutional, but it does not follow that a debt ceiling is ergo unconstitutional. We have the money to pay for our debt via taxation; what we don't have is money to pay for all of this other spending the government ought not be bothering with. The Constitution does not require this latter spending, only the prior.

Senator Murray is wrong. The question is about current and future spending. If you reduce that, there is more than enough to pay our constitutionally obligated debt payments without increasing the debt ceiling.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Against the Regents Exam in History

Who was Mansa Musa? I can already imagine the puzzled look on the reader's face, followed by the mental voice asking, "who cares?" And who cares, indeed? The answer to that is some obscure academics and 10th grade students in New York State during brief three hour periods in January, June, and August, when Regents Exams are held.

Past Regents exams can be viewed here. I did not pick Mansa Musa because he is obscure; I picked him because he is obscure and always appears on the Global Regents test. The June 2011 test is not up yet, but he made an appearance there as well. All students in New York State must pass this test in order to graduate; this test is the single greatest barrier to graduating in terms of Regents tests. The state passing rate in 2009-2010 was a mere 69%.

I believe history Regents exams need to be abandoned. As I don't teach other subjects, I will not pretend to be qualified to judge whether they are valuable or not; in more objective fields like Math and Science, perhaps they are of value. In History, however, these tests fail to be useful, largely because they lack a purpose outside of quantifying results for the bureaucracy of New York. Unfortunately, the centralization of education into the hands of the state (and increasingly Federal) government requires a simple measurement to gauge assessment. Large bureaucracies are too unwieldy to allow for proper assessment of a school's performance, much less that of an individual student. Rather than increasing the bureaucratization, quantification, and alienation of education, our state would benefit by increasing local autonomy and standards.

Under our current educational regime, "The Test" dominates the classroom. Teachers are not yet reduced to automatons, but the difficulty of this exam, combined with the severe consequences of not passing it (namely, going throughout life without graduating high school), forces the teacher to make educational decisions based largely on the Regents. Mansa Musa is a good example. As he invariable appears on the test, teachers must spend time on him. It is, in effect, a gimme, a question students should get right. But do you remember your puzzlement at the name Mansa Musa when you read the first line of this post? Obviously, Mansa Musa isn't remembered, mostly because he serves no real use to us now. A teacher with autonomy could make the decision not to cover this otherwise obscure 14th Century West African monarch, but under the Regents the situation is different. Material is presented in the name of the Test, not in the name of Usefulness. Students are not stupid and pick up on this.

So why does New York put Mansa Musa, the Gupta Empire, the Neolithic Revolution, and Toussaint L'Ouverture on the multiple choice section? Mostly because they appeared on past exams and it provides teachers with some sort of expectations as to what will appear on upcoming tests. 10,000 years of civilization is a very long period of time to cover, even in two years of instruction. To then create 50 multiple choice questions from all of the events in human history and expect 15 and 16 year olds to know the answers is beyond absurd. To create some sort of quantifiable test, the State creates some regularity in which individuals and time periods are questioned. The determining factor is not education or enlightenment, but quantification.

History, and indeed all social science, is a difficult field to teach. Science and math are intuitive; once the skill is learned, students can apply the skill to problems never presented in class. For a really easy example, consider addition. Once one figures out what addition is, one can add 476 and 38, even if they never encountered the exact problem 476+38=? during school. History is different. A vast multitude of people, places, nations, philosophies, religions, conflicts, resources, and other variables weave an immensely complex story. Those variables are not interchangeable. One may ask a math student to solve a brand new equation once that student has mastered the principle. There is no such principle in history. Julius Caesar ruled in Rome in the late first century B.C. and no other period. Once that is understood, I cannot then expect a student to know Augustus, though he too ruled in Rome during the late first century B.C. No two people who have ever lived have faced identical situations; each important person, time, and event must be learned on its own. Once this is done, comparisons can be made between people, places, and times.

History is not the mere memorization of facts anymore than friendship is knowing the birthday and address of another human being. To truly understand an event in history, one must know who the people were, what they wanted, how they went about obtaining those desires, who they had to contend with, when these events occurred, how the past impacted the present moment being discussed and how that in turn lead to events following it. When one has a narrative, the details fit together like a puzzle, which is infinitely more memorable than a collection of facts that is analogous to a heap of puzzle pieces.

Many teachers are capable of presenting history in this narrative and the Regents does not preclude it. However, the question we need to answer is whether or not students can create this narrative on their own. I have not seen anyone actually conduct this study, but I would wager good money that many high school graduates could no longer pass this exam. Material is presented, retained until the test, and for the most part forgotten, save by those who have a natural interest in history and who likely knew 90% of the material prior to entering the Global class. The month long preparation to memorize facts for the test may increase passing rates, but it does nothing to increase long term recall. I informally polled Seniors about information presented in Global Studies two years prior; I believe many would not pass if required to take the exam again.

Rather than learning how to create Thematic and Document Based Question essays, students would be better served by learning how to do research and analysis. Granted, this could not be done under a statewide, quantitative system, as the research of tens of thousands of students would be far too varied for the state to keep track of and quantify reliably (i.e. identically). The problem there lies with the state, however, and not the usefulness of research. As things stand, most students graduating from high school are not prepared to perform college level academics. I have made the case elsewhere that society should not put such a high emphasis on college to begin with, but even those who could make use of such an education are not as prepared as they could be.

While the state may not be able to assess tens of thousands of research projects, teachers are able to assess and improve those skills for the hundred or so students they may have. There are significant benefits to having a decentralized, qualitative system, namely that those at the local level actually know the students beyond a number score sent in once at the end of the year. Take a quick look at the chart below:

This is known as Bloom's Taxonomy. As I mentioned before, history is far more than the memorization of facts. The largest aspect of the Regents Exam is, however, a 50 question multiple choice section that is nearly all mere recall. Another 13-14 questions are DBQ responses, in which a student reads a small passage and answers a question about it, usually by copying something directly from the text itself. That is comprehension, the second step up. As for the essays, so long as the student understands the directions and addresses each aspect of the task, even in very little detail that is a mere recitation of facts, the student can score a 2. Two essays at 2 each, plus the DBQs in which the student literally reads the answer and writes it back down, combined with a 60% correct on the rote memorization multiple choice questions, and the student passes.

A student need not show any sign of higher learning abilities than comprehension in order to pass this test. In order to create informed and responsible citizens, students need to be able to evaluate different economic and political philosophies. Students would be better served by learning about fewer issues throughout history but learning them more in depth, in which they will have the requisite knowledge and application and an opportunity to apply those lessons to, say, current events. As more current events are brought in, the more opportunities students will have to exercise the three highest levels of thinking. The details as to how to implement such a plan are best left to the teachers on the ground, rather than imposing blanket standards from above.

At this point, I am beginning to digress into how social studies should be instructed, a topic that deserves its own lengthy post in the near future. For now, I think it is safe to say that the Regents Exams in history (and particular Global) are actually counterproductive if our goal is to create citizens capable of independent thought. A better education can be provided by granting local teachers more autonomy and weakening the unrealistic belief that quantification somehow equates with an improvement in student understanding. New York may have a reputation for excellence in education due to our difficult testing requirements, but that does not mean we are actually producing more enlightened students. And that, after all, is the actual purpose of education.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Arizona Free Press Enterprise v. Bennett

The Supreme Court released its ruling today on Arizona Free Press Enterprise v. Bennett, a 1st Amendment case dealing with campaign financing. Under Arizona's law, once a candidate privately funding his own campaign hit a specific level of fundraising, all publicly funded candidates would receive a matching donation, dollar for dollar, paid by the taxpayers, to keep those publicly funded candidates matched with privately funded candidates. Arizona's law was struck down in a 5-4 decision, with the usual suspects on each side of the case and Kennedy joining the majority. The general idea is that candidates must not be required to fund opposing viewpoints. As each publicly funded candidate receives a dollar for every dollar raised above the limit set by the law on private funding, each dollar raised can lead to multiple dollars of spending against the candidate, paid for by the taxpayer.

For example: imagine there are four candidates, one privately raising money and three relying on public funding. The privately funded candidate hits the limit and now finds himself in a bind. If he raises another $1,000 to get his message out, his opponents receive a total of $2840 ($3000-6% to supposedly match the cost of private fundraising). Clearly, this freezes the privately funded candidates free speech, as any additional speech by him leads to a threefold increase for his competition paid for by the state.

There are two things I wish to point out about this case. The first is about campaign finance laws in general. Campaign ads may be annoying, but they are not evil. Democracy requires free speech, in particular during elections. Campaign fundraising is directed solely at propagating information for public consumption, i.e. free political speech. To limit how much people may say during an election is to limit their speech; there is no way around that.

Secondly, I wish to examine the dissent of Justice Kagan. The introduction to her dissent shows a lot about her understanding of the role of government and the role of judiciary within the government. She begins with an analogy between two states, both of which are supposedly corrupt because of campaign expenditures. I don't disagree with Justice Kagan that there is a strong tendency in democracies for candidates to buy support with government largess. I would recommend fighting this tendency by reducing the power of the government and hence the spoils they may kick back to favored voters. Justice Kagan takes a different view: remove (or at least seriously weaken) the ability of private citizens to speak and give that power to the government.

The problems here should be fairly obvious. Politicians do not just reward donors with paybacks; they tend to favor the lower class with free government programs and zero percent tax rates. Politicians are not elected by "special interests" but by the majority of all voters. I am appalled that anyone would believe silencing the voice of interests in America is the proper role of government! Massive amounts of money spent on campaigns is not a bad sign. I would have to imagine "elections" in Saddam's Iraq were fairly cheap affairs. There is no officeholder in this nation who holds that office due to "wealthy contributors." Every officeholder is elected by the majority of voters.

If you wish to reduce corruption, reduce the power of government to spend. The government has no proper role in either reducing the ability of some candidates to speak or of increasing the ability of others. I am not compelled to vote for the person with the most money, and if a candidate cannot raise funds, it is a good indicator that the candidate is not particularly favored by the electorate. The government has no compelling interest in holding some candidates down or raising others up; that is a power bound to be abused.

"By supplanting private cash in elections, public financing eliminates the source of political corruption."

Absolutely not. Increased government spending for favored groups can be promoted with public funding as well as private and will be more of an incentive for large numbers of lower and middle class supporters to vote for a candidate. This is still corruption. Public funding only eliminates the voice of private citizens from speaking their minds.

Kagan's focus on reducing political corruption and such via public funding shows a misplaced view for a member of the judiciary. The question at hand is not whether public funding increases or decreases corruption; the only question at hand is whether Arizona may pass such a law or not. Under the theory of incorporation, state governments are bound by the First Amendment, the sole role of which is to reduce the power of the government. It has been long established that government actions that do not outright ban speech but having a chilling effect upon it are illegal. Clearly, a law that threatens to pour cash into opponents coffers if a candidate raises money for political speech will cause a candidate not to raise money and hence not participate in speech. Kagan's emphasis is that of a legislator, not a judge. The law needs to be her sole guiding principle, not her idea of what our political society should look like.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quick Reactions to the Legalization of Gay Marriage

I applaud New York State for allowing homosexual couples to marry. I further applaud their decision not to force religious groups opposed to such weddings to carry them out. The use of force should not be used upon consenting adults. If it makes people happy and harms no one else, then there is no justification for using force. Many religious individuals will be unhappy with this vote, but they need to understand that the state apparatus is not a vehicle for imposing their morality on other people. God calls on us to remove the logs from our own eyes prior to removing specks from that of other people; in short, until you are perfect, don't worry about what other people are doing, much less so use force on them to change their ways.

That said, many of my friends on the Left need to learn the same lesson. They applaud this decision, but then turn around and require higher taxes on tobacco, disgusting images on tobacco products, higher taxes on sugary foods, requiring people to purchase health care, etc. The whole point and purpose of opposing gay marriage bans is that the government has no point in telling people how to live their lives; what makes these other issues different? Live and let live, even when you don't like how other people choose to live.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy on both the Right and the Left. Neither side is truly committed to the ideal of not legislating morality; they merely have different moralities they wish to impose with the use of force. That is why I am a libertarian. I vote Republican because the Libertarian Party is a joke and the Republican is the lesser of the two evils, but hopefully the Tea Party movement will continue to swing the Republicans into the libertarian camp. The question we must ask every time a law is created is this: cui malo, or who is harmed? Laws regulate the interactions of man and man, not man and nature. Harm only exists when one person physically destroys, injures, or threatens to injure the property or person of another human being. If no one is harmed, then the government has no right to intervene. Gay marriage is a great example. Gay people are clearly not harmed by being allowed to marry each other. Other people may not like it, but that does not materially harm them. Furthermore, people may not like particular heterosexual marriages, but we recognize their right to choose regardless of society's collective opinion.

Politically, I am glad this went through the legislature rather than the courts. Other states have attempted to create this change through the judiciary, but it has often been countered with a state constitutional amendment that passes. Under such a situation, not only can the judges not change the laws, but even the legislature finds its hands tied. Having it passed through the legislature is more democratic, which is a better indicator that a constitutional amendment challenge will fail.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/24

This Libya mission continues to be a muddled mess. The House of Representatives shoots down an authorization bill but also votes to not defund the mission. If nothing else, this shows the importance of gaining Congressional approval prior to launching attacks overseas. I have no idea what our goal is in Libya or whether we are following our own laws in being there (though I highly suspect not in that second case).

Not the way "Hope and Change" was supposed to be. Link

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/22

Ban Ki-Moon was reelected to his post as Secretary General of the United Nations.
This is such an important event that I found out about it via Wikipedia, as no other news source found it worth making a big deal about. This may have something to do with the fact that the United Nations is effectively an ineffective joke at this point. Ban's first target is climate change; not terrorism, not collapsing economies, not rising food prices, not energy, not drug wars, but an unproven theory with "remedies" usually requiring massive economic hits on developed nations.

I can't imagine why the United Nations isn't a more powerful moral force in this world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/21

Osama bin Laden is apparently more popular in Egypt than Barack Obama. I don't fault our President for this; it was likely true under Bush as well. The short of it is, just because Egypt tossed out their autocratic ruler doesn't mean any democracy that arises will either love us, the Israelis, or peace. And it is far from certain that this will actually end in democracy rather than some sort of military junta.

I think the mess that is the Muslim world is going to bite us again before too long. Frankly, it bothers me that roughly 1/6th of world belongs to this backwards culture. Islam may have been the bees knees in the Ninth Century, but it hasn't advanced much since then.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/20

Today marks the 91st day since the United States began bombing Libya. This is important, since as of this day President Obama is required by law to have Congressional authorization in order to continue the attack.

He doesn't have that authorization. The attacks are continuing.

To begin with, this law was broken when the attack was initiated. The President may only introduce the use of military force when
  1. there is an declaration of war
  2. specific Congressional authorization
  3. a national emergency in which the United States is being directly attacked.
Clearly, none of those situations existed when this conflict began. Critics of the Iraq War (and often Obama supporters) may not like that conflict, but at least it was signed off by the legislative branch.

To make matters worse, even if the attack began legitimately, the War Powers Resolution does require Congressional authorization within 90 days. We have passed that mark and the President continues his attack with Congressional authorization. Pretty clearly, this law is being broken by the executive branch.

The written excuse put out by the President is beyond contemptible. Basically, the argument is that this is a small conflict, so it doesn't count. Go back to the War Powers Resolution and you'll note that there is no exception made for small conflicts, or those involving low probability of casualties, or not having boots on the ground. If the President wishes to use military force against another nation, he must have Congressional approval. No exceptions are made in the law.

The War Powers Resolution fills a necessary hole in our division of power, as military action may be necessary before the slow gears of legislation can catch up to a national emergency in our modern age. Pretty clearly, Libya was no threat to our nation; if we wished to change their regime or stabilize the region, those are reasonable objects, but they require a national discussion followed by approval from the branch closest to the People. The President's action is nothing more than a naked power grab, which unfortunately will pay off for him. There is no real judicial recourse to end the campaign; no court writ will undo Libyan lives ended by American missiles.

I've pointed out elsewhere that the political and moral reasons for this Libyan intervention are pretty ridiculous as they could just as easily apply to Syria, which the Administration has shied away from. It looked like an easy opportunity to have a rally 'round the flag effect and show the United States supporting purported democracy lovers in the Middle East. Clearly, that has not been the case. That the President is so willing to break the rule of law is most distressing. Some modification to the War Powers Resolution is required in order to give it judicial teeth; if a law cannot be enforced, it is not a law.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/18

Recently I posted a thing from Gallup about how little Americans know about current events. Just to let you know that our understanding of the past isn't much better, either, and isn't going to get better in the near future.

There will be an upcoming post on teaching history shortly enough, but for now I think it is safe to say democracy may not be the best of ideas when you put control of the most powerful government in the world into the hands of idiots.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/17

Greece's two year bonds are now issued at 30% interest.

30 freaking percent on debt. My credit card is significantly lower than that. There is no situation that does not involve a Greek default save for the rest of Europe to take on nearly a half trillion dollars of debt into their own not so pretty balance sheets. And if they did that, they would have to do the same for Portugal (another half trillion dollars), Ireland, and likely Spain. That's not possible. Greece will go under, it will take the Euro with it, it will devastate the credit markets again, and it will happen soon, as in within the next two years but more likely the next six months.

It will be fun to see how this is spun to attack capitalism like the housing market was. Link

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/15

You know an economy is in bad shape when the best thing the President can do to ease financial hardships is sign autographs in his own handwriting.

Other signs include "reshuffling" your government to somehow help an economic crisis. Apparently the Greeks don't realize this isn't an game of actual cards. That's too bad, since their strategy up until this point seems to have been bluff everyone into believing Greece won't go bankrupt in the very short future.

The Daily Snark 6/16

Every here and there, I make a point of going to The Nation's website to remind myself that statists actually mean what they say. Sometimes it is surprising to see on how much a libertarian and a statist might agree. Yesterday, they published "The End of Capitalism and the Wellspring of Radical Hope." The author points out a few things that many people do not get: capitalism is the exact opposite of "conservative." It is a dynamic force that creates a great deal of change, both in goods and in how those goods are made.

But of course, there are huge differences between his opinion and mine, almost all of which deal with ethics. The author sees capitalists as fighting "opponents." That's hardly true; capitalists are trying to sell goods to buyers. That there are other buyers means there is competition; the goal is to perform better than anyone else rather than prevent the other group from performing.

This skewed morality comes from a simple misunderstanding. He says "However lissome its face or benign its manner, capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous and petty." That's not true at all. Mankind seeks to gain what it likes no matter what the economic system is. Capitalism does not make us greedy; capitalism exists because we are greedy. Capitalism is the effect, not the cause.

Then the whole mess of an article falls apart with a screed about economic warfare and how we are all soldiers blindly ignoring casualties. Capitalism does not use violence; that is the central aspect of a true capitalist system. Ironically, it is socialism that introduces the use of force into economic decision making.

I think this best describes the folly of fighting capitalism:

No amount of goods can compensate for the damage wrought on human nature by the deliberate nurturance of our vilest qualities. The desecration of the values we claim to hold most dear is the primary reason we should want to abolish, not reinvent, capitalism.

For starters, the author makes no bones about the productivity of capitalism. Few today claim socialism would actually be more productive than capitalism. The argument now rests on the destructive force of capitalism desecrating values. What values?

No, seriously, what values is the author talking about? Capitalism requires that people be useful to others in order to gain value in trade; what, exactly, is so immoral about people striving to be more skilled in areas where skill is needed? Hard work is immoral? I'm puzzled.

I wish I could write more, but there is almost nothing to really respond to. The argument boils down to, capitalism is evil because it destroys undefined values. And this published in the flagship of the Left! If the author is so concerned about the destructive nature of capitalism and its products, let him leave them, starting with his computer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/10

As an educator and a person with multiple degrees, I have to think the question should be, "when did college become about anything other than employment?" The fundamental error made by the author is in assuming education can only be gained through some sort of formal educational institution. I've learned far more on my own than in classrooms and paid far less for that knowledge.

Also, $100k of debt is an awful lot to pay for education, especially when there is no means of paying off that debt in the future. Being a Renaissance Man is all fine and dandy, but it needs to rank under fiscal sanity in importance to our lives.

This article is particularly amusing as we spent the last thirty years producing the sorts of people the author wants, and lo and behold, they cannot find work. Education should be focused on useful skills; the liberal arts aspect can be done on our spare time without paying thousands of dollars for it. Link

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/9

Does anything else need to be said? Pretty clearly, those "wonderkids" in the Obama Administration had no actual idea as to what they were doing when they spent nearly $800 billion on the Stimulus. In fact, by their own numbers, we would have been better off not spending a dime of that and keeping the debt lower. A 6.5% unemployment rate right now is a laughable notion, but there's the prediction. The multiplier effect government spending was magically supposed to have surprisingly didn't happen. Of course, no reason was ever put forward for why it would occur, but who can blame the top economic officials in the nation for not having a plausible reason for their wildly optimistic projections?

Now apply this same level of accuracy to the Left's forecast of ObamaCare and entitlement spending and you will see why I am concerned.

(chart from

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/8

Someone in this nation seriously believes instantly jacking up gas prices by a $1/gallon overnight is a good idea? Yeah, that won't increase the prices of everything on people who can already not afford things. What wonders that will do for the economy! People like me can't afford to go and buy a new GM eco saver tomorrow, so this screws anyone not thinking about buying a car in the next six months, which is just about everyone.

You know who would make money? The guy proposing the tax, who just happens to be the CEO of GM. This is called corporatism, and it is a bad idea. As any libertarian worth his salt can tell you, government interference in the free market is a bad thing outside of protecting rights. Equal tax rates is as important as low tax rates.

Raising taxes to benefit a company that just happens to be partially owned by the federal government couldn't possibly be corrupt, right? This is the same organization that currently has $62 trillion in unfunded liabilities. That article is a must read. If any private company had such unreported liabilities, their CEO would be in jail for a very long time. For some reason, Uncle Sam gets to play by a different rule. Maybe, just maybe, that's because Uncle Sam is the rule maker rather than because of any legitimate reason.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/7

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Syria's President Assad as a "reformer" in order to justify President Obama's remarks about Qadaffi without applying them to Syria.

This is the result.

There should be a Congressional investigation and Secretary of State Clinton should either resign or be removed from her post. She is clearly unfit for it. Admittedly, she was protecting her boss, who said "[A]s president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action." Pretty clearly, he waited for images of slaughter of civilians. Still no action. Our President launched attacks on Libya because it was convenient, which is hardly a good use, morally or practically, of American military power.

So much for Hope and Change. I said for years that those on the Left did not have, and would not have, a better foreign policy than neo-conservatives. I consider this vindication of that opinion.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/6

After every negative economic report over the last two years (and there have been many of those), we keep hearing that the latest news may be "threatening the recovery." To which I must ask, what recovery?

Also, I was rather surprised to see a New York Global Regents Exam have a long excerpt from von Mises' Human Action. That book was a difficult read for me and I go out of my way to find challenging works. The quote wasn't too bad, but was dry enough to lose a few of my kids before they could figure out what he was saying. I hate that test, for anyone who cares.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Oh Dear Lord

I scored an 11 out of 11 on this quiz put out by the Pew Research Center, along with apparently 2% of Americans. Only about 20% could answer at least 9 right. 57% could not even score a 7 on this. It's not like the questions are all that hard. No questions about theory or the Constitution, nothing requiring reasoning skills, just objective facts about recent news.

Take the quiz and let me know how you do. I won't spoil anything first, but the results on Question 5 and 8 are distressing for pretty obvious reasons.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/4

To be perfectly honest, I don't understand either computers, economics, or alpaca footwear well enough to really comprehend this article, but it is interesting nonetheless. Bitcoins. Honestly, given the way the Euro and Dollar are going, this might not be a bad idea.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Good Book Can Be Dangerous

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one of those rare books that can captivate any reader with a gripping story that compels one to the author's philosophy, which is always whispered just audibly into the mind's ear so subtly that we believe the thoughts to be our own. There is no need to scream, like Ayn Rand, about the hardships and injustices faced by the Joads and the millions of real farmers they represent; the reader's conscience is already aflame long before the book ends or a single mention is made of economic systems, businesses, or the government. Steinbeck's ability to move his reader's passion is created by his undeniable talent as a novelist, the truly difficult position technological advancement can put people into, and mankind's innate desire to side with the underdog, in particular when that underdog has no serious moral failings. What he does not do, however, is tell the whole story. Justice does not always reside with the popular champion, and hard as it may be to challenge the unthinking sensibilities of the masses, we must defend those who are our just benefactors. The Joads may be unjustly treated by Chance or God, but they have not been mistreated by men in the form of corporations and employers.

While set in the same time period as the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is not actually a book about that phenomena. Rather, this book and the story it tells is brought about by the sheer economic fact that those who cannot keep up with the times are left behind. Mechanization, not tumbling stock prices, is the prime mover behind the Joad's discomfiture. The 1920's and 30's witnessed the introduction of petroleum based machines overtaking hand and horse drawn equipment. As with every new technology, supply always begins off low for these revolutionary machines, and with their ability to create higher profits, demand is high, creating high prices the average person cannot afford. This situation is hardly the result of some conspiracy. It is impossible to create high supply of a new technology overnight; this is just a basic fact. Demand must be high in order to give the producer an incentive to create more. These high prices at first may seem unfair to the layman, but in fact is the catalyst that improves all of our lives.

This, of course, does not alleviate the situation of the Joads. Change, no matter how beneficial it is to many people, is still hard on the old guard that benefited from the old order. Those who produced sails were ruined by the advent of the steam engine; producers of the steam engine were likewise taken over by the internal combustion engine. it is easy to hate the companies that buy up the land the Joads can no longer profitably operate, until we ask what it is the company did that is so evil. Producing cheap and abundant food can only be seen as an evil to one who has never had to deal with an acute shortage of food. Rather than hate the man on the tractor, we should applaud his productivity, of which we benefit. The Joads may have put their blood and sweat into that patch of land for generations, but that does not absolve them from the laws of economic reality. No amount of sentimentality ever can.

Von Mises' book, Human Action, is far less entertaining but far more accurate in describing reality and justice. There is no "right" to never go backwards or to maintain one's place in the world; it must always be earned anew. Steinbeck makes this family particularly sympathetic by showing they have no serious moral flaws and are nice folks. What is not mentioned is that they do not offer much to society, to their fellow men and women, in terms of usefulness. Their farming techniques could not feed as many children as the company's tractors could. Picking fruit is not a rare skill that is in high demand. While it may seem unjust to the Joads and to the reader that these folks should endure such hard times, the simple truth is that the Joads failed to keep up with society's needs and effectively made themselves useless in a most literal sense.

Ironically, John Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" unintentionally drives this point home. The protagonist in the song laments the loss of his land that "once fed this nation." Problem is, 300,000,000 Americans cannot be fed on nostalgia. Who fed us is not important; who feeds us today and in the future is. Mellencamp errs in being blunt with his message and accidentally reveals a truth so craftily hidden by Steinbeck.

Steinbeck's book is a must read for multiple reasons. His account is entertaining and masterful, and therein lies the danger we must all guard against. The heart wrenching story is not always the best carrier of the truth and justice. We must beware lest we forget to think for ourselves and abandon our moral judgment to the best poet to woo our hearts.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Daily Snark 6/1

NATO is extending its Libya campaign by another 90 days. I'm sure that will do the trick.

Whatever it is the trick may be. Link