Some Advice To My Conservative Friends

So about half the blogs I read are conservative; I tend more to the milblogs and libertarian-conservatives than to the red-meat folks (I thought Robert Stacy McCain’s reprise of Jeff Goldstein’s full-throated whine about how unfair liberals are was as lame as the original), who I find as unattractive in their own way as the netroots crowd I have so little respect for.

And it’s interesting to watch the tone of the conservative blogs shifting as Obama proves himself to be vulnerable – less competent than he showed in his campaign, struggling to match postpartisan rhetoric with partisan hardball politics. They’re getting their backs up, and I think that’s kinda nice – I believe in dialectic, and in the power of strong debate to shape good policy.

But – what I’m seeing in this rising tide of conservative confidence is relatively stupid chestbeating.

Look, I consider myself to be pretty darn close to the political center. I like liberty, but also like clean air. My political allegiances are unsettled at best right now, and I’d bet a pretty decent dinner at a trendy LA restaurant that a lot of American’s are today as well.

Events could drive us one way or the other – Obama could have a massive failure in the Middle East, or we could see a string of successful terrorist attacks in Europe that peeled our allies away from us, or there could be real peace between Israel and it’s neighbors. Obama’s fumbling with the financial system could trigger a massive collapse, or could work beautifully and we could suddenly return to stability. But I’ll bet that things are not so completely clarified for us, and that we’ll continue our uncertain ways for the next few years.

So what do the conservatives do? I’ve talked to Andrew Breitbart, who thinks (with some legitimacy) that middle-aged white guys wearing power ties occupy far too much of the mindshare of the conservative movement. Sure, I’ll buy that.

But conservatism needs two things in a big way right now. The first is to have some plans; what – with some meaningful exactitude – would conservatives do about the straights we are in right now? About the financial crisis, about the global recession, about the challenges of globalization which – as Neil Stephenson famously said “…has taken historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would call prosperity.” Yes, the free markets improve overall prosperity, but what do you – as conservatives – propose to do about the ‘decent jobs’ that are gone and not coming back? And I get it that the answer is ‘nothing’ – but then what’s the case for conservatism for the family in Fresno or in Tacoma that isn’t participating in the global information/financial elites that globalization has truly created?? About the crisis between the West and Islam? About the rise of China and the demographic decline of Europe?

The second is to remind people why liberty matters. It seems on a gross level that the modern conflict between liberalism and conservatism ought to be between freedom and fairness, and that ideal society is the one that manages balance both. (think Weber) But right now, everything that’s being discussed is class envy and real insecurity.

Someone needs to stand up for liberty, and do it in the context of real societies, not Heinlein’s loonies. It’d be nice to see conservatives take up that mantle.

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Sunday New-Cat Blogging

So we’ve been debating getting a kitten to liven up our middle-aged cat, and decided to stop by the shelter and see when they thought they’d start getting kittens in so we could start checking them out…MISTAKE!!…HORRIBLE MISTAKE!!

Our new non-kitten cat – working name “Basement Cat” – is pictured here:

Basement Cat.JPG

…hiding under the bathroom vanity, where she has spent the last 18 hours (she did come out to eat). Our other cat is settled in under the Eames chair in the bedroom and shows no signs of coming out either.

Richard Holbrooke has been requested; we’ll let you know how it comes out.

Intelligence May Not Be A Survival Characteristic

Andrew Sullivan today features a comment from one of his readers that I think nails down virtually everything wrong with the modern proto-intelligensia. Go read the whole whiny thing, but note the nut graf here:

With reduced money and shrinking opportunity, many of us would elect to take jobs more suitable to our levels of education and intellect, only the job market is awful and getting worse.
(emphasis added)

One casualty of my three months off from work is my Amazon account, when Tenacious G has informed me now requires two signatures…so I’ve taken to going to the library a bit. I secretly enjoy it, because among my fondest childhood memories is going to the Main Library and scrounging for that week’s books with my father.

Then one of my worst memories was watching the library burn from my office overlooking it in 1986…

I always look at the books other people are reading; the overweight lesbian Latinas with gang tats in line in front of me, reading “Black Beauty,” the slow-moving older man reading Dickens or the hyperkinetic 11- or 12-year old, holding a stack of books on geology.

And I notice the people Randy Newman talks about in “It’s Money That Matters”:

Of all of the people that I used to know
Most never adjusted to the great big world
I see them lurking in book stores
Working for the Public Radio
Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back
Moving careful and slow

(Chorus)
It’s money that matters
Hear what I say
It’s money that matters
In the USA

All of these people are much brighter than I
In any fair system they would flourish and thrive
But they barely survive
They eke out a living and they barely survive

When I see them, they are walking slowly through the library, holding interesting books and careworn, slightly resentful, expressions. The world has not been kind to them – hasn’t rewarded them in keeping with their dizzying intellect or their degrees – and here they are, eking out a living and thinking great thoughts while wearing threadbare sweats in the public library.

I’ve always explained to my sons that while you’re in school, people get paid to point out your successes and to cultivate your intelligence; but that stops the moment you take off the cap and gown.

Careless Whispers

So last week, we had a bit of a circus in which Patterico and Jeff Goldstein (whose tone risks making me kind of sad to have defended him so strongly at other times) went at it over the reaction to Rush Limbaugh’s “Obama Fail” comment.

As noted, it was pretty clear that Limbaugh’s statement was partisan but innocuous, and also clear that it became a nifty sound bite to the Democratic media strategists who promptly plated it with lead and tried to hang it around Limbaugh’s neck.

The issue under debate was whether Limbaugh took any blame for speaking in a way that left him open to that kind of attack.

More recently, we’ve seen a (much more serious) example of the same thing, in which Tim Geithner was asked about the Chinese proposal to move away from dollar-denominated world trade to a “basket” (which had been variously interpreted as a new pseudocurrency and a simple extension of the existing IMF SDRs.

Geithner gave a kind of mealy-mouthed response when asked about this – emphasizing his regard for his Chinese counterpart, and saying that many things should be considered.
Here’re his quotes with commentary by James Joyner:

Q Well, thank you. Wonder if you could comment on two related things. One, the Chinese government proposal about a global currency; and about the IMF regulations that were — the new IMF idea about, you know, very general agreements to borrow and having a faster ability to disburse to the (margin ?) markets…

SEC. GEITHNER: On the first question, I haven’t read the governor’s proposal. He’s a remarkably — a very thoughtful, very careful, distinguished central banker. Generally find him sensible on every issue. But as I understand his proposal, it’s a proposal designed to increase the use of the IMF’s special drawing rights. And we’re actually quite open to that suggestion. But you should think of it as rather evolutionary, building on the current architectures, than — rather than — rather than moving us to global monetary union.

Moderator Roger Altman, James reports, “immediately recognized that Geithner had slipped off the deck and was a man overboard, at least when it came to U.S. dollar policy. Altman tried to throw Geithner a lifeline.”

MR. ALTMAN: Let me just follow that up for one second. A number — I haven’t read the governor’s essay, either, but a slew of news reports interpreted his comments to suggest that the world needs a super reserve currency, and that the dollar, on some gradual basis, ought to be replaced in favor of that. And I wasn’t entirely clear what your response was.

SEC. GEITHNER: Well, as I said, I haven’t read his proposal, but I thought the initial reaction was sort of ahead of the details of the proposal I saw. The only thing concrete I saw was a reference to expanding the use of the SDR, but I look forward to reading his figures. As I said, I have tremendous respect for him. He’s a really thoughtful, pragmatic guy, and he has a great record of credibility in China as a whole, so anything he’s — he’s thinking about deserves some consideration.

It is very important just to underscore that the future evolution of the dollar’s role in the system depends really primarily on how effective we are in the United States in getting not just recovery back on track, our financial system repaired, but we get our fiscal position back to the point where people will judge it as sustainable over time.

After much back-and-forth, Geithner eventually allowed as to how “I think the dollar remains the world’s dominant reserve currency. I think that’s likely to continue for a long period of time.”

So let’s go back to the original argument. Is what matters Geither’s intentions when he spoke? Because the markets certainly didn’t see it that way.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing for The Telegraph, reports that, “The dollar plunged instantly against the euro, yen, and sterling as the comments flashed across trading screens.”

David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC, said the apparent policy shift amounts to an earthquake in geo-finance. “The mere fact that the US Treasury Secretary is even entertaining thoughts that the dollar may cease being the anchor of the global monetary system has caused consternation,” he said.

Mr Geithner later qualified his remarks, insisting that the dollar would remain the “world’s dominant reserve currency … for a long period of time” but the seeds of doubt have been sown.

The markets appear baffled by the confused statements emanating from Washington. President Barack Obama told a new conference hours earlier that there was no threat to the reserve status of the dollar. “I don’t believe that there is a need for a global currency. The reason the dollar is strong right now is because investors consider the United States the strongest economy in the world with the most stable political system in the world,” he said.

Words matter, and the plain meaning people reading or listening attach to them – regardless of what the author had in mind when writing or speaking – change their views and behavior. That’s why people who speak in the public sphere are held to a higher standard (which in the case of Joe Biden, is somehow often overlooked…).

Geithner stepped in it, and the financial markets are making him and the people he speaks for (us) pay. Limbaugh stepped in it as well, and the political markets reacted similarly…or at least it sure seems like you could use today’s events to make that argument a little more strongly.
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…You Now Own 400% Of “Prisoners Of Love…”

OK, this isn’t funny to those involved, but if you’re a Mel Brooks fan – like me – you’re laughing:

TORONTO — Two former Broadway producers have been convicted of participating in large-scale accounting fraud.

Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb co-founded one of the major Broadway theater companies in the 1990s. Livent produced hit shows such as “Ragtime” and “Showboat.”

Ontario Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto made the ruling today, calling the fraud widespread.

Zero Mostel is no longer with us, but no comments from Gene Wilder yet…

That’s Funny, Sen. Feinstein Doesn’t Look Like Sen Kennedy

…but she certainly sounds like him today.

Where Kennedy wanted to block a wind energy project that had a (trivial) view impact on his Cape Cod mansion, I’m not aware of any personal interest Sen Feinstein has in moving to block solar and wind energy from being developed in the California desert…

Reporting from Washington — While President Obama has made development of cleaner energy sources a priority, an effort is underway to close off a large swath of the Southern California desert to solar and wind energy projects.

In a move that could pit usual allies — environmentalists and the solar and wind industries — against each other, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing legislation that would permanently put hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land off limits to energy projects. The territory would be designated California’s newest national monument.

The move has triggered cries of NIMBY-ism on Capitol Hill.

Look, I certainly don’t believe in build anywhere you want to, but at some point this is just BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).
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Bongs, Truth, and Conservative Mirroring

I’ll preface this by saying that I not only read Patterico, but that I personally know him and like him. That doesn’t stop me from tweaking him on occasion (or being tweaked by him) – a Venn diagram of our political and social beliefs would overlap by about half. But I respect him deeply as someone who has a genuine regard for truth wherever that may take him. So I hope one day to convert him from a right-pragmatist to a left-pragmatist (like me).

He’s been involved in a kind of baroque conflict with Jeff Goldstein, from Protein Wisdom. Jeff’s blog isn’t a regular read, but I drop in from time to time, and I’m usually amused by his weird combination of doting middle-class normality, strange right-wing deskpounding, and the fact that – like me – he occasionally take politics out into orbit by looking at the philosophical underpinnings.

In this case, we’re talking about a debate that somehow became bitter about rhetoric and the nature of truth. And I’ll push my conclusion forward by suggesting that I think that it’s funny as hell to see the right having the mirror image debate that has fractured much of the left over the last few years; between the torch-waving purists and people who look out into the broader audience and go “But…” when the purists start their march to the cliff.
The substance of the argument is simple – when Rush Limbaugh (who I have only heard playing from my late – Hispanic, immigrant – neighbor’s garage) said he wanted “Obama to fail” – was he wrong in choosing his words?

I’m not going to cite or dog too deeply into what has been a lengthy blogwar, but you can read the latest posts on Protein Wisdom, and Patterico, and I’m going to suggest three things:

Goldstein’s position on this and style in this argument would make him perfectly at home in the Netroots; the chestbeating, bullying, take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, f**k-the-moderates could be any number of lefty bloggers who I’ve slagged in the past and will happily go on slagging in the future – because they deserve it. It hasn’t worked out so well for them so far – Obama wasn’t elected because he was the leftiest candidate, he was elected because he promised to break the logjam between morons of the left and fools on the right and Democrats picked up Congress by electing Blue Dogs to formerly Republican seats. And since I think that’s idiocy on the part of the Democrats, I’m partly happy to see some try and send the GOP head down the same self-destructive path, or I would be if I didn’t worry that the collective pack of self-righteous jackals might simply destroy the country I love while dragging themselves down.

I am philosophically opposed to political purists; in this I stand with Hume who lived in a nation torn by political certainty. I think a healthy respect for the possibility of our own error, and a respect for the modesty that the world eventually imposes on us all is a good place to build one’s philosophical and political foundations.

Rhetorically, that leads me to side with Patterico, who suggested that Limbaugh made a rhetorical mistake which handed his opponents the bricks they later threw at him. To Goldstein, this is a surrender to a moral and practical relativism, in which words mean whatever the audience says they mean – and so the construction of meaning is stripped from the author. To him, this is the step onto the greased slide of Bad Philosophy and needs to be fought over at every opportunity, lest Derrida and Baudrillard somehow become enshrined as state philosophers.

But that’s looney, because it implies a kind of Red Queen world in which authors can say whatever the heck they want and the words mean whatever the heck they say they do. To me that kind of authorial absolutism is just the mirror image of the postmodern claim that meaning is solely constructed by the reader from the text. I think it’s possible to have kind of a constructivist view of language and still believe that intersubjective truth is approachable; to believe that language is like dancing, a process that takes place between an author of words and an understander of them, and to believe that there are good dancers – and bad ones.

It’s not stupid to suggest that meaning can be and often is misconstrued – I was amazed that neither Patterico nor Goldstein told the “Sit, b**ch!” jokes as a part of their examples. And my responsibility as a speaker is to say what I mean is such a way that the audience I intend to reach gets what I say. That’s different if I’m presenting a paper on quark interactions with gluons to a postdoctoral seminar in physics or if I’m a national commentator on politics speaking to a general audience.

If Goldstein believes – as he suggests in his writing – that Obama’s efforts should fail, in order to drive a stake into the heart of liberalism – than he’s an ass. Never, in the history of our Republic have we acted purely. Every action has been undertaken with a mixture of pure belief, base self-interest, fear, hope, lack of knowledge, stupidity, and flat error. And yet – on the scaffolding constructed by the Founders, we’ve constructed something great.

Goldstein needs to decide if he’s a political purist or a patriot. I don’t think you can be both.

And the “bongs” reference in the title was because reading the whole discourse over meaning and language somehow reminded me of those terribly serious conversations we used to have as sophomores in college; it’s just that back then it involved bong hits and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

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‘Just stay out of our pants, will you?’

OK, this is just a great line

TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey is smoothing out differences over a plan to ban bare-it-all bikini waxing.

The state on Friday decided to reverse course on the proposal after angry salon owners complained about losing business ahead of swimsuit season.

“It was an unnecessary issue,” said spa owner Linda Orsuto. “In New Jersey especially, where the government has been picking our pockets for so long, it was like, ‘Just stay out of our pants, will you?”‘

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Taxes, Warlordism, and The Federalist Papers

PD Shaw posted this as a comment to my AIG post, and David Blue (and others, including me) think it’s worth posting for more discussion. here’s James Madison from Federalist Papers #44:

Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation. …

Very properly therefore have the Convention added this constitutional bulwark in favor of personal security and private rights; … The sober people of America are weary of the fluctuating policy which has directed the public councils. They have seen with regret and with indignation, that sudden changes and legislative interferences in cases affecting personal rights, become jobs in the hands of enterprizing and influential speculators; and snares to the more industrious and less informed part of the community. They have seen, too, that legislative interference, is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions; every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding. They very rightly infer, therefore, that some thorough reform is wanting which will banish speculations on public measures, inspire a general prudence and industry, and give a regular course to the business of society.

This is a hill to die on; not only is it horrible policy (for the reasons I stated, which have been repeated by Michael Lewis, Tyler Cowan, and others), but it really does smell to high heaven of bannana-republic warlordism.

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JournoList, Digg, Credibility And The Shuttle Columbia

My reactions to the small contremps about the private email list Ezra Klein runs as been vague amusement (gosh, aren’t I even lefty enough to join?) mixed with concern. Driving around today, I managed to think through the concern and wanted to try and put it into words to see how robust it really might be.

I think the first concern is the notion that checks and balances are being violated; the auditors are hanging out and sharing notes with the accounting department. And while that always happens some, when it happens in secret people get rightly concerned.

Policy folks are supposed to have their homework checked by journalists, who are in turn supposed to have their homework checked by bloggers. Each entity (the insiders, the critics, and the public) needs the other, and each should be acting to validate and check the work of the policymakers, who are the ones who pass laws enforced by people with guns.

When they are doing their homework together in secret, it raises a bunch of concerns. The first is groupthink.
Here’s a useful Google search result on groupthink:

[From] Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment.

Eight Main Symptoms of Group Think

  1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
  2. Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to group thinking.
  3. Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
  4. Excessive Stereotyping:The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
  5. Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
  6. Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
  7. Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
  8. Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

Hmmm…

Groupthink is dangerous; it’s dangerous to the group itself as it’s credibility becomes questioned (will you read a liberal blogger or a journalist again soon without wondering if they are a member? Will you scan across multiple authors looking for commonalities, like Tom McGuire just did, and flag the points where there is remarkable consensus?

Digg, the community news aggregator and ranker has been struggling lately as news has come out about people paid to game it’s system, and it’s domination by cliques of high-mojo voters. Recently they made changes to make gaming harder – but they are still dominated by cliques:

Recent changes and restrictions made by Digg.com to encourage diversity in the range of users whose submissions reach the front page have had 2 profound results. Newer and less active users have seen their stories reach the front page, but the sources that are able to hit the front page have tightened.

Despite tens of thousands of submissions every week, the last seven days have shown that 46.6% of the Digg front page comes from 50 websites, according to data accumulated on di66.net.

Why is that a problem?? Because it puts Digg’s brand at risk:

Digg grew as a source for cutting edge, hard to find pieces of content, but over the years has shifted to the safety of “going with what works”. New sites are finding stronger exposure from social media websites like Reddit, StumbleUpon, and even Twitter where the strength of the content is a more important factor than the strength of the domain name.

How much damage will JournoList do to the brands of the writers involved? How much less seriously will we take what DeLong says because it is said – at lest in part – in defense of his position in the closed society of JournaList??

And finally how much damage will they do to American politics?

The quinntessial modern story of the damage of groupthink was the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The protective heat shield on the shuttle was damaged on liftoff, and while the astronauts went about their science mission in orbit, there was a brief flurry of debate on among engineers the ground about whether there was a problem or not. The flurry was brief, because it was immediately shut down.

Nonetheless, over the years foam strikes had come to be seen within NASA as an “in-family” problem, so familiar that even the most serious episodes seemed unthreatening and mundane. Douglas Osheroff, a normally good-humored Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate who joined the caib late, went around for months in a state of incredulity and dismay at what he was learning about NASA’s operational logic. He told me that the shuttle managers acted as if they thought the frequency of the foam strikes had somehow reduced the danger that the impacts posed. His point was not that the managers really believed this but that after more than a hundred successful flights they had come blithely to accept the risk. He said, “The excitement that only exists when there is danger was kind of gone – even though the danger was not gone.” And frankly, organizational and bureaucratic concerns weighed more heavily on the managers’ minds. The most pressing of those concerns were the new performance goals imposed by Sean O’Keefe, and a tight sequence of flights leading up to a drop-dead date of February 19, 2004, for the completion of the International Space Station’s “core.” O’Keefe had made it clear that meeting this deadline was a test, and that the very future of NASA’s human space-flight program was on the line.


It was at the end of a report given by a mid-ranking engineer named Don McCormack, who summarized the progress of an ad hoc engineering group, called the Debris Assessment Team, that had been formed at a still lower level to analyze the foam strike. The analysis was being done primarily by Boeing engineers, who had dusted off the soon to be notorious Crater model, primarily to predict damage to the underwing tile. McCormack reported that little was yet resolved, that the quality of the Crater as a predictor was being judged against the known damage on earlier flights, and that some work was being done to explore the options should the analysis conclude that the Columbia had been badly wounded. After a brief exchange Ham cut him short, saying, “And I’m really … I don’t think there is much we can do, so it’s not really a factor during the flight, since there is not much we can do about it.” She was making assumptions, of course, and they were later proved to be completely wrong, but primarily she was just being efficient, and moving the meeting along. After the accident, when the transcript and audiotapes emerged, those words were taken out of context, and used to portray Ham as a villainous and almost inhumanly callous person, which she certainly was not. In fact, she was married to an astronaut, and was as concerned as anyone about the safety of the shuttle crews. This was a dangerous business, and she knew it all too well. But like her boss, Ron Dittemore, with whom she discussed the Columbia foam strike several times, she was so immersed in the closed world of shuttle management that she simply did not elevate the event – this “in-family” thing – to the level of concerns requiring action. She was intellectually arrogant, perhaps, and as a manager she failed abysmally. But neither she nor the others of her rank had the slightest suspicion that the Columbia might actually go down.

The frustration is that some people on lower levels were actively worried about that possibility, and they understood clearly that not enough was known about the effects of the foam strike on the wing, but they expressed their concerns mostly to one another, and for good reason, because on the few occasions when they tried to alert the decision-makers, NASA’s management system overwhelmed them and allowed none of them to be heard. The question now, of course, is why.

To be somewhat melodramatic here, our Republic depends on the open argument and checks and balances among branches of government and the media as much as the lives of the Columbia astronauts depended on open discussion and frank consideration among the NASA team responsible for decisions.

The editors of the papers and new programs where the journalists involved in this work should be all over it. While the policy folks get a free ride from it, and the paid and amateur bloggers get a seat closer to the grown-up’s table, the journalist involved continue to bleed away the credibility the paid media need so very badly.

The members of the list continue to reassure us that their judgment woun’t be clouded, that the list is a place for free and open debate, that their ideas remain their own. Well, politicians who take bribes assert that they voted as they saw it, regardless of who gave them money. We should “trust their integrity”.

No we shouldn’t, and no we don’t.

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