Fortuna, Be A Lady Tonight…

I’m not sure if I’m proud or ashamed… I’m one of the winners of Oxblog’s ‘Political Theory Pickup Lines’ contest.

In light of the recent scandals, however, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I cribbed part of it. I was once at a small restaurant in Santa Cruz with a date, also a political theory student, when we heard the smarmy chap at the next table croon to his date:

I just want to go home with you, sit in front of the fire. sip some chardonnay, and discuss Wittgenstein’s warm humanism.“…As my date had just finished a paper on Wittgenstein, and Annie Hall was fresh in our memory (and I was a proto-Tucker Max at the time), we stood as one and said “What? Warm humanism? Do you have any idea what you’re talking about? Have you ever read one of his books? Can you name one? We don’t think so.” and sat down at our table.

The gentleman followed us and we had a ‘full and frank exchange of views’, and then all decided to leave the restaurant before the police showed up.

On Property

Here’s a great quote, which will probably make steam come out the ears of the Samizdata types:

The crucial point to understand is that property is not a physical thing that can be photographed or mapped. Property is not a primary quality of assets but the legal expression of an economically meaningful consensus about assets. Law is the instrument that fixes and realized capital. In the West, the law is less concerned with representing the physical realities of buildings or real estate than with providing a process or rules that will allow society to extract potential surplus value from those assets. Property is not the assets themselves, but the consensus between people as to how these assets should be held, used, or exchanged. The challenge today in most non-Western countries is not to put all the nation’s land and buildings on the same map (which has probably already been done) but to integrate the formal legal conventions inside the bell jar with the extralegal ones outside it.

Just finished reading De Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. For the four people who read blogs and haven’t heard of this book, Hernando De Soto is a Peruvian economist who is very concerned with issues of development in the Third World, and who points out that there is substantial wealth in the underground economies, and that if there was a way to bring those econonomies into the mainstream, very good things would happen.

Read this book!

The Most Surprising Places…

Roadracing World (motorcycle racing magazine) has an e-mail from a soldier in Iraq on their website.

I did have a very rewarding experience, though. Each unit has $25K captured currency from the regime that we must use to do projects that will improve the community. The theory is a series of small victories will help us win over the people. So we provided supplies, AC’s, and other necessities to a school and two orphanages.

Sure sounds like someone is paying attention to ‘hearts and minds’.

Motorcycle road racing and world political news…how much better can it get?

Friedman Today

Remember how I said that Thomas Freidman vacillates between genius and incoherence? Go over to the NYTimes right now, and read some of the former:

…Because there were actually four reasons for this war: the real reason, the right reason, the moral reason and the stated reason.

(fixed the link; thanks, Dan!)

The “real reason” for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn’t enough because a terrorism bubble had built up over there – a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured. This terrorism bubble said that plowing airplanes into the World Trade Center was O.K., having Muslim preachers say it was O.K. was O.K., having state-run newspapers call people who did such things “martyrs” was O.K. and allowing Muslim charities to raise money for such “martyrs” was O.K. Not only was all this seen as O.K., there was a feeling among radical Muslims that suicide bombing would level the balance of power between the Arab world and the West, because we had gone soft and their activists were ready to die.

The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die, to prevent our open society from being undermined by this terrorism bubble. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world. And don’t believe the nonsense that this had no effect. Every neighboring government – and 98 percent of terrorism is about what governments let happen – got the message. If you talk to U.S. soldiers in Iraq they will tell you this is what the war was about.

I can’t believe this isn’t all over…go read the whole thing, and tell your friends.


A great comment by Francis W. Porretto (of the Palace of Reason blog):

Military analysts use the word “threat” to describe a possible adversary’s capabilities, without reference to his intentions. If our intentions were as bad as many of the world’s horror regimes, we’d use our fantastic power to make ourselves slaveowners over the whole world. Hell, if our intentions were even as bad as those of the Chirac Administration, the world would be in for a very rough ride.

Since there’s absolutely no chance that America will ever deliberately diminish herself militarily just to make other regimes comfortable, all we can do is promote our intentions. This will be a matter of both words and deeds, and the congruence between them.

Continued…I told the story of my Subaru-driving pacifist, and highlighted Barbara Streisand’s hypocrisy exactly because that congruence between what we say we believe and how we act is absolutely critical.

It is critical for us – as liberals and Americans in general – to figure out how to bring our values and lives at least somewhat into line, and it is absolutely critical for us as a nation to use our power in ways that are consistent with what we tell the world we believe and intend to do.

Francis, thanks for bringing some clarity on this.


I typically commute around the traffic-choked Los Angeles basin by motorcycle; today, I was following a Subaru with “No Blood for Oil” and “War is not the Answer” bumper stickers. I had just finished the uncharitable thought that putting “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers on cars seems kind of like an oxymoron, when we came to a red light and I pulled next to the car.

The driver, a woman my age (middle), rolled down her window and gestured at me.

Continued…“Your lights are flashing”

I ride with a headlamp modulator by Kisan Products, that flashes my motorcycle’s headlights between dipped and high beams about once every other second. I find that it aids greatly in being seen by cars, a useful trait in safe motorcycling. About once a week, people point it out to me, thinking it means something is wrong with my motorcycle. I lifted my helmet visor and went into my typical response.

“Thanks! I know, it’s supposed to do that. It worked! You saw me!” All in a cheerful tone.

“It’s horrible! It’s giving me a headache!”

Periodically, it annoys people. I have a response to that, too.

“I’m sorry! It doesn’t bother most people.”

“Well, it’s giving me a headache. And you ought to be careful because it might make someone so angry they’ll run you over one day!”


“Wow, that’s not very peaceful, is it?” I replied, maintaining eye contact.

She rolled up her window and drove off.

Ironically, we were on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, not too far from Barbara Streisand’s estate, featured in this, from the L.A. Times (registration required, use ‘laexaminer”laexaminer’):

Barbra Streisand has filed a lawsuit against an amateur photographer, claiming he is violating her privacy by displaying a picture of her bluff-top Malibu estate on a Web site designed to document erosion and excessive development along California’s 1,150-mile coastline.

The lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Santa Monica, besides seeking $10 million in damages, asks retired software engineer Kenneth Adelman to remove the image of Streisand’s mansion from the 12,000 photos he has posted on . Adelman and his wife, Gabrielle, have been snapping pictures for months from their helicopter to show the splendors of the coastline and what they consider environmental threats.

Look at this:

Democrats need to speak on TV, on radio, on the Internet and in the newspapers about the election and keep hammering home the legislative favors Bush is granting his corporate supporters in exchange for their campaign contributions. Journalists need to spend the same amount of energy and resources investigating Bush and Cheney as they spent over the past decade investigating the Democrats. Democrats need to organize, to motivate, to inspire the disillusioned citizens and the disenfranchised voters of this country who think their votes don’t matter. Democrats must reach out to voters who want sane gun control, voters who want to protect choice, voters dedicated to saving the environment.

Or this:

What Did You Expect?
Posted on Nov. 25, 2002

It has started. Protections of people and of our environment are already being gutted by the Bush administration in favor of corporations and profit.
The first environmental protection to go? Clean Air. On Friday, the Bush administration announced it would loosen industrial air pollution rules – resulting in dirtier skies, sicker people and richer corporations.

The quotes, of course, are from Barbara Streisand.

The bugbear of small minds…

(fixed typo – ‘basis’ for ‘basin’)

Tom Friedman Wants You to Tell Him…

Thomas Friedman, who frustratingly cycles between brilliance and incoherence (hey, who am I to talk…I manage the incoherence part pretty well) has an interesting ‘theory of everything’ column up (hat tip to Atrios):

During the 1990’s, America became exponentially more powerful … economically, militarily and technologically … than any other country in the world, if not in history. Broadly speaking, this was because the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the alternative to free-market capitalism, coincided with the Internet-technology revolution in America. The net effect was that U.S. power, culture and economic ideas about how society should be organized became so dominant (a dominance magnified through globalization) that America began to touch people’s lives around the planet … “more than their own governments,” as a Pakistani diplomat once said to me. Yes, we began to touch people’s lives … directly or indirectly … more than their own governments.


Why didn’t nations organize militarily against the U.S.? Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Ideas That Conquered the World,” answers: “One prominent international relations school … the realists … argues that when a hegemonic power, such as America, emerges in the global system other countries will naturally gang up against it. But because the world basically understands that America is a benign hegemon, the ganging up does not take the shape of warfare. Instead, it is an effort to Gulliverize America, an attempt to tie it down, using the rules of the World Trade Organization or U.N. … and in so doing demanding a vote on how American power is used.”

Hence, 9/11. This is where the story really gets interesting. Because suddenly, Puff the Magic Dragon … a benign U.S. hegemon touching everyone economically and culturally … turns into Godzilla, a wounded, angry, raging beast touching people militarily. Now, people become really frightened of us, a mood reinforced by the Bush team’s unilateralism. With one swipe of our paw we smash the Taliban. Then we turn to Iraq. Then the rest of the world says, “Holy cow! Now we really want a vote over how your power is used.”

“Where we are now,” says Nayan Chanda, publications director at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (whose Web site is full of valuable nuggets), “is that you have this sullen anger out in the world at America. Because people realize they are not going to get a vote over American power, they cannot do anything about it, but they will be affected by it.”

Finding a stable way to manage this situation will be critical to managing America’s relations with the rest of the globe. Any ideas? Let’s hear ’em:

I’m working on my response, but I’ll open by suggesting that there’s more than a thread of truth in this.

The imbalance of power he mentions is a key part of the dynamic that’s driving foreign relations. Our inability to get people to understand that Puff The Magic Dragon had teeth is one of the other. One thing you learn in martial arts is that you can cause fights by being both too belligerent and too meek; the art is finding a middle path.

Pinning Down the Differences

In the comments section on Good/Bad Liberals, commenter Jonathan brought up a point which I characterized as ‘dumb leftism’, but something I do want to go into a bit more, because I think it helps define the faultline between the Left and Right pretty neatly.

Basically it comes down to this. Adam Smith and Marx both talk about the hypothetical ‘pin factory’, in which workers make pins. Hypothesize for a minute a pin entrepreneur, who invests a machine – or a process – whereby the productivity of the five workers goes from 100 pins/hour to 200 pins/hour.

Who gets the additional 100 pins?

In college, I asked a doctrinaire Marxist economics professor (a fairly notable writer in the area…)exactly this question. His reply?

Well, imagine that I’m a really good machine thief, and I can steal the machine that the factory uses to make 200 pins/hour, and reduce the productivity to 100 pins/hour. What portion of those 100 pins do I get to keep?

I still remember my initial response: “You’re kidding, right?”

He wasn’t.

I believed then, and believe now, that it’s actually a somewhat complicated question…but that there’s no question that there’s no comparison between a pin machine inventor and a pin machine thief.

Good Liberals/Bad Liberals?

I’ve been following the “good liberal/bad liberal” thread with some interest (and not a little amusement) for a while, not only on this blog, but in the broader world of political commentary.

First, let me suggest that it had definitely been a tactic of the Right to suggest that “love it or leave it” is the best policy, and that “love it” means “my country, right or wrong”, so sit back, shut up, and hang on. I’m sure that Joe, and even Trent, in more reflective moments will acknowledge that this is true.

And to suggest that any criticism of U.S. policy is “objectively pro-(Soviet, Saddamite, or whatever)” isn’t the strongest basis for a healthy dialog. The fact that the Soviet Union was smart enough to support Martin Luther King through CPUSA operatives doesn’t in any way invalidate the Civil Rights movement.

But…there is a definite lack of perspective on the part of much of the Left that I read and ly know. I think that that’s a bad thing, both because I think it leads to bad conclusions, and because it self-isolates the Left from the mainstream of American thought. When my friends – who freaking live in Manhattan – explained to me after 9/11 that “we had it coming”, or when my friends suggest that the sole reason for the disaster that is most Latin American politics is American foreign policy – or when they suggest that the sole cause of the crisis in the inner city is the continuing legacy of oppression and debt of slavery – with no acknowledgement of other historic inputs into the problems, or of the responsibility of the people affected themselves to do more – they aren’t making a lot of sense.
I talked about this a while ago, and see no reason to change what I said then:

I know two really bad parents. One is a couple that simply refuses to control their children; they love them totally, and so, they explain, they love everything they do. Unsurprisingly, they are raising two little monsters. The other is a single mother who explains that everything bad in her life is the fault of her child, and that everything he does is wrong. Unsurprisingly, her child is depressed, withdrawn and equally badly damaged.

I’ll define patriotism as “love of country.” Both the parents above (all three of them, actually) claim to ‘love’ their children. But to blindly smile and clean up when your child smashes plates on the floor is not an act of love. And blindly smiling and waving flags when your country does something wrong is not an act of patriotism.

But … there is a point where criticism, even offered in the guise of love, moves past the point of correction and to the point of destruction. It’s a subtle line, but it exists. And my friend (who is less of a friend because I can’t begin to deal with her fundamentally abusive parenting) is destroying her child. And there are liberals who have adopted an uncritically critical view of America. Who believe it to have been founded in genocide and theft, made wealthy on slave labor and mercantilist expropriation, to be a destroyer of minorities, women, the environment and ultimately they argue, itself.

I’m sorry but their profession of love for America is as hollow to me as that mother’s profession of love for her son. Are those things true? As facts, they are an incomplete account of this country’s history. As a worldview, they are destructive and self-consuming.

I really can’t add much to that.

(edited for punctuation)

Why Redistribution? Some Responses

When I wrote, below, that some measure of enforced equality is necessary to the functioning of a democratic republic like ours, some commenters and other bloggers responded that the problem was that the elites captured the levers of power of the state, and used their control of the state to maintain their power. For example, over at Thought Mesh:

If we look at history and ask how elites have maintained their dominance what we see is that they used the power of the state to do so. It is through law and regulation that persistent aristocracies are created and maintained, not economics and business.

and in the comments:

The best way to ensure a turnover of power is to argue for free markets to remain in place, with little bureaucracy to ensure its stability. Walmart may be powerful now, but in a free market the only thing we can count on is continual productive change.


However, it is a mistake to assume that an unequal distribution of private wealth is, per se, evidence of a social problem.

Actually, yes it is a probem, and what these folks are demonstrating is first, a lack of historical awareness – remember why Teddy Roosevelt was famed for being the first major ‘trust buster‘?? This was the first large regulatory intervention, and why do you think it was necessary and popular? Or do you think it was unnecessary?
But lest we think we’re past those eras, and as the 1980’s stock analysts suggested, ‘the old rules no longer apply,’ I saw something in Business Week this week:

Commentary: Why the Market Can’t Police Itself

Now that 10 Wall Street firms have agreed to settle charges of biased research, Congress and the Securities & Exchange Commission are facing a new question: Does self-regulation by Wall Street work?

The answer is a resounding no. It’s not just that the New York Stock Exchange failed to act on phony research. More proof came when Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill, chairman and CEO of Citigroup (C ) (whose Salomon Smith Barney (C ) unit was implicated in the research scandal), was invited to represent the public on the NYSE board. Weill withdrew after a storm of protest.

Reports that NYSE Chairman and CEO Richard A. Grasso’s compensation totaled $10 million last year were another troubling sign. Grasso’s pay is set by a board-compensation committee, but he regulates most of its members. Among them: the chairmen of Bear Stearns (BSC ), Goldman Sachs (GS ) and Merrill Lynch (MER ). And on May 20, Grasso was reelected to the Home Depot (HD ) Inc. board, putting him in the position of both serving on it and policing its conduct. Grasso declined to comment. Says New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer: “Fixing self-regulation is perhaps the most important policy issue facing the SEC.”

And since Bill Gates keeps being brought up as an example of the worthy rich, an article on why Microsoft keeps getting such close government scrutiny:

The Microsoft Monopoly and its Effects April 2001 Edward J. Black President & CEO Computer & Communications Industry Association

As the evidence from the trial showed, heavy-handed abuse of market power may take different forms in different industries, but it doesn’t lose its basic character or effectiveness. Antitrust law may be even more important in intellectual property based industries in which network effects and tipping are common phenomena and technological tie ins and dependencies create “locked in´ customer bases. The Sherman Antitrust Act, the cornerstone of American antitrust law, prohibits monopolization, attempts to monopolize, or conspiracy with others to monopolize a market for goods or services. Microsoft is most serious violations involve efforts to protect its existing monopolies and expand them into adjacent markets through anticompetitive tactics.

Microsoft has frequently taken actions that harm original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the largest source of revenue for their Windows operating systems, and in turn consumers at large. By not allowing OEMs to alter various aspects of Windows, including the bundling of Internet Explorer, the startup sequence, and the arrangement of icons on the initial user interface, Microsoft has prevented OEMs from providing consumers with meaningful choices and potential innovations in computing. Microsoft claims any modification would alter the user is ªWindows experience,´ but in essence is dictating that rather than going “where you want to go today,´ you will go “where Microsoft wants you to go today, tomorrow, and indefinitely.´ Hewlett-Packardobjected to these dictates, and expressed its frustration to Microsoft in a memo introduced as evidence during the district court hearing: “From a consumer perspective, we are hurting our industry … If we had a choice of another supplier, based on your actions, I assure you that you would not be our supplier of choice.” This behavior is what lies at the heart of the case and is classic anticompetitive maintenance of a monopoly, a clear violation of section two of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The practices of a dominant monopolist would be counterproductive and unthinkable for a normal business operating in a competitive environment. Most companies cannot, and will not, behave in the manner that Microsoft has … competitive market forces simply will not permit these actions. If a typical company spent millions on a product only to give it away for free, they would be bankrupted. If a normal company alienated, threatened, and punished its business “partners,” it would surely face retribution. However, such considerations are not of concern to Microsoft. Because of its entrenched monopoly, Microsoft need not heed countervailing forces in the marketplace. Microsoft can even give away Internet Explorer, reducing Netscape is ability to charge and profit from their own revolutionary web browsing software. Microsoft is able to show contempt for its OEM consumers because Hewlett Packard and other OEMs know that Microsoft is the only game in town. This lack of economic accountability is why a monopoly is held to different legal standards the law rightfully recognizes that the marketplace

As financial and legal technology advanced to permit the large corporation, the ability of these giant enterprises to distort the market in their favor can only be counteracted by the central government.

Now, I’ll certainly agree that this presents its own set of meaningful problems. I’m trying to work toward a new kind of liberalism, because I see those problems, and I understand that interests – teacher’s and prison guards’ unions, as well as more traditional ‘investors’ in the political process who work buy regulation that serves their interests (think of the Fanjul sugar interests) – play the current government and regulatory scheme for all it’s worth to them. Which is a lot.

But to imagine that somehow eliminating the government leg of this tripod will create a dynamic economy in which the Microsofts and Citibanks will somehow find themselves in fair competition with small companies is to have read too many Heinlein books. The large enterprises have – whenever not checked by greater powers – been very happy to consistently abuse the markets in their favor.

And, having distorted and abused the markets, they will continue to concentrate power until we are all living in Pottersville.