Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Lord Of The World

Apparently the Pope has read and frequently refers to Robert Hughes Benson's novel Lord Of The World. Or so says George Weigel in two articles about President Obama's visit to the Vatican, here and here. Mr. Weigel claims (perhaps facetiously) that it is not great literature. I am no judge of literature--I only know if I enjoy reading the book. I did enjoy reading this one.

The book, written in 1907, is a novel about the distant future a century hence, i.e., about 2007. On one level it can be read as science fiction--a prediction about what the modern world will be like. Father Benson (for he was a priest) was not especially interested in technology and that certainly is not his focus. Still, it figures into the plot.

A primary mode of transport is the volor, which modern readers will recognize as an airplane. A volor ascended to 500 feet and could occasionally top 150 miles per hour. Inside, however, they were outfitted like railway carriages, with compartments and a dining car, staffed by a conductor and piloted by a "steersman." They were unheated--passengers packed coats and blankets for the relatively arduous journey over the Alps. There are no automobiles, computers or telephones, though radio telegraphs exist at the margin. It's the world of Sherlock Holmes with airplanes.

Fr. Benson anticipates George Orwell's 1984. His world is divided among three empires: Asia (everything east of the Urals), Europe (west of the Urals, and including Africa), and the Americas. The threat is war between Asia and Europe, which if it happened would be unimaginably destructive. Both sides possess the new "Benninschein explosives," which "...if tales were true, entire towns could be destroyed with a single shell." War had not happened in Europe in living memory, and needs to be avoided at all costs.

Salvation comes in the form of the Antichrist (Mr. Weigel's term, not used in the novel), who by dint of charisma and intelligence unites Europe and Asia under his presidency. This is met with near universal acclaim, and even Catholics acknowledge that the new leader had accomplished good things. Like Hitler, he made the trains run on time.

The struggle is between the supernatural and the natural, humanist world. In the latter humanity is raised to divine status. Religious holidays are replaced by four secular ones: Maternity, Life, Sustenance, and Paternity. The fearless leader has the status of a Nietzschean hero, and is worshiped accordingly.

In opposition is the small remnant of the Catholic Church, the last group of rebellious Christians who have managed to resist both material temptation and violent persecution. Protestant denominations have long since yielded. Catholics believe in the supernatural, and that God will intervene in history and redeem his people. The value of that faith is the matter of this novel.

I don't know about the supernatural, but I agree with Fr. Benson, George Weigel, and (apparently) the Pope that humanism makes for a very poor religion. Where it has been tried--from the French Revolution to Stalin to Hitler to Kim Jong-un--it has failed miserably. For humanism denies the one great empirical fact underlying all religion: all normal people perceive themselves as sinners, unworthy of the moral demands placed upon them. The boundary between Good and Evil runs through the middle of every human heart.

Who knows why people feel that way. I'm sure evolutionary psychologists will have something to say about it. But apart from psychopaths and small children it appears to be a human universal. Humans are simply not divine. Humanism as a religion elides or denies this great fact, and assumes that people can raise themselves up by their own bootstraps to escape from sin. They can't. It simply is not part of our nature.

So religions are both more demanding and more tolerant. Religions believe God's law is absolute, and violation is a sin. At the same time they understand that no real person can obey God's law, and that's where forgiveness comes in. In the religious world view, you can be a sinner and still be a child of God. Sometimes the "sinners," (e.g., gays) find religious forgiveness (e.g., Phil Robertson) to be intolerably arrogant and patronizing. But all religions have as a goal to separate the sin from the sinner--to condemn the sin while forgiving the sinner.

Humanism can't do that. Humanism aspires to create a socialist Man, or a master Race, or (in the case of Fr. Benson's book) a humane Society. Sin must be ruthlessly punished and the sinners killed. Stalin murdered Kulaks and counter-revolutionaries. Hitler murdered Jews and Gypsies. Kim Jong-un murders just about anybody. At least at the beginning all of this murder is for a worthy cause: to expunge sin from the world. But sin is unexpungeable, and soon enough murder just becomes murder, no matter what the intention was.

Humanism is incapable of tolerance.

So I don't know precisely what sin is. In particular, I'm less convinced than Phil Robertson that homosexuality is a sin. It's more likely to be a handicap, if not just an alternative lifestyle. I don't know if using contraception is a sin, though it does seem to me to be horribly counterproductive. Why would you want to purposely impair your own fertility? People who use contraception will not determine the future. Abortion is undoubtedly a sin, but it still has to be legal, as are many other sins.

But this much is certain: no truly religious person will advocate the murder of any of those sinners, if sinners they be. Humanists can make no such distinction--why even today some environmentalists are advocating criminal charges against those who disagree with them on global warming.

So I enjoyed Fr. Benson's book. It's a rousing good tale. I skimmed through some of the longer religious passages about the adoration of the Sacred Host, etc. I understand Catholic thought better than I did before, but I am no closer to believing in the supernatural. I admire and envy their faith, but unfortunately I can't really share it. But of this I am convinced--the Catholic Church represents on balance a positive good in the world. I wish Godspeed and all the best to Pope Francis and his army of believers.

Further Reading:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Your Future Job: Building A Career In The New Normal

A friend of mine and I are collaborating on a new book entitled Your Future Job: Building A Career In The New Normal. It's intended for college freshmen and their parents, though we hope it will help any intelligent young person. Maybe it's a bit too heavy on the economics for that audience, but we hope not.

We expect it to be around 100 pages long, and hope to have it completed by the end of Summer.

Here is a draft excerpt from Chapter 3 entitled What's New About Normal?

Of course computers can’t do things the same way that humans can. For example, it is now possible for a computer to drive a truck across the country without human assistance (as long as it stays on or near the Interstate; automated trucks can’t quite navigate city traffic yet). Humans do that because they have good vision--we can read signs that say “Kalamazoo--Next Right.” Computers can’t do that--computer vision is still very primitive compared to what humans can see. And for the longest time people thought that computers could never drive trucks.

But two things changed. First came GPS. That means the computer knows exactly where it is. And second came comprehensively detailed maps, such as supplied by Google. That means the computer knows what exit to take without having to read any signs. Indeed, every bend in the road is carefully mapped. The computer can navigate without seeing anything.

The truck-driving computer only needs to see the lane markers, and it needs to slow down or stop if something in front of it does the same. And here the automated truck has an advantage. It can use cameras on all sides of the truck--there are no blind spots. Further, it can use Lidar technology to determine how fast the car in front is moving--this is already in widespread use in the form of adaptive cruise control. The computer never falls asleep, is always fully attentive, and measures reaction time in milliseconds. It can drive 24 hours per day. The result is that automated trucks are safer, cheaper and faster than the human-driven sort.

It is only a matter of time before automated trucks dominate the nation’s highways. The consumer surplus will be huge--costs for things like fresh produce from California will decline dramatically. But millions of jobs will be lost. Over-the-road truck drivers will go the way of Pony Express riders.

And not just truck drivers. Computers, which are primitive today compared to what they’ll be ten or twenty years from now, will displace millions of workers in lots of professions. Brynjolfsson and McAfee cite the following table as a guide:

Table 1: Automation by job type

Already automated
Not easily automated
Being automated now
Not easily automated

Manual routine jobs include a factory assembly-line worker. These jobs are already mostly gone, and the few that remain are disappearing. Similar jobs in fast-food places--flipping burgers--are also on the verge of automation. All of that can be done by machine.

Cognitive routine jobs are being automated right now. Dan’s father was a travel agent--a job that mostly doesn’t exist anymore. Accountants are increasingly displaced by software, such as Turbotax. Routine legal work is being automated--we’ll have more to say about that in a minute. Indeed, there is a long list of jobs that are in whole or in part on their way out: secretary, receptionist, purchasing agent, retail clerk, telemarketer, etc. Whole swaths of the pink collar and white collar workforce are on the bubble. Tom Joad knows exactly how they feel.

The non-routine manual jobs are a different story. Because computers continue to have relatively poor eyesight and hearing, and also are not particularly good at walking around, there are many things they can’t do. (Though there is much progress--see here and here.) Home health care aide jobs look to be pretty safe. Even if a computer had good vision, they still couldn't easily talk to patients.

Then there are the non-routine cognitive jobs, a category that traditionally includes professor and doctor. Tyler Cowen refers to them as jobs for the “cognitive elite,” by which he means people who can work with computers rather than against them. Certainly these are the jobs that many readers of this book aspire to. Table 1 suggests that these jobs will not be automated.

We don’t entirely agree with that conclusion, and that’s why we've put that table entry in italics. The category is more complicated than the simple description non-routine cognitive implies.

So before we tackle that last box in Table 1, let’s think about what computers will and will not be able to do. Inevitably, this implies peering into the future. We are very much aware of the fact that ten years ago people thought that computers could never drive a car. But in some ways that’s true--computers are nowhere near being able to drive a car the way people do. They simply can’t see well enough.

And here’s our prediction: computers will never possess vision, hearing, feel, smell, or taste that in any way rivals that of a human--at least not in your lifetime.

Take vision for example. Human color perception depends as much on psychology as on physics. Human vision does not just depend on the eye, but also on hormones. It’s a horrendously complicated process that evolved over a billion years (or, if you prefer, was created by God). A computer’s digital simulation of human vision will never duplicate the incredibly messy analog reality. Computers are valuable tools that can substantially augment human vision, but they are not even close to replacing us.

We’ll change our mind when a robot can play major league baseball, or compete in a PGA golf tournament.

Computers can flip burgers, but they will never be able to taste food and judge whether or not customers will enjoy it. The skilled chef will always have a job. A computer can diagnose cancer, but only a skilled human being can gather the necessary data from a patient, either by observation or conversation. A lot of specialist physicians will be unemployed while the primary care doctor is still working.

Computers can replace the cashier and ring up purchases, but they will never rival the good salesman. If you already know what kind of car you want, you can order it online. But if you’re not sure, then the personable car salesman is going to play an important part in your decision. Likewise with the real estate agent, or even those travel agents that still exist.

In the last few years a new word has entered the language: big data. This refers to the analysis of a large amount of data, from which conclusions can be drawn. The Jeopardy-playing computer, Watson, and millions and millions of trivia data stored in its memory, along with an algorithm to retrieve them on command. Its command of big data allowed it to beat a human Jeopardy player. Computers just memorize all the answers. That’s the way they drive a truck--they don’t need to see the road because they’ve memorized it. Computers have a better memory than you do.

Computers can also do math better than you can. Math really means any kind of logical manipulation--not just with numbers. They can manipulate words just as easily, and they can do it very quickly. While chess-playing computers have memorized all possible moves for the first 15 or 20 moves into the game, after that they use logic to calculate further moves. As computers get bigger they’ll simply memorize whole games and dispense with the math. Then it will be impossible to take them by surprise.

Here’s where the “cognitive elite” are going to run into trouble. Any job that requires a large amount of memorization will be computerized. As mentioned, that includes many doctors. They spend years in medical school memorizing diseases, symptoms and treatments. This is not time well-spent. Computers will take over that part of the physician’s job. Similarly, professors pride themselves as fonts of knowledge. Sorry Prof, but the Internet knows more than you do.

So here is what it means for you:

  • Your future career depends on skills much more than knowledge. Computers know things, but they can’t do things.
  • The more specialized you are, the more your job is at risk for automation. The general practitioner will be employed long after the oncology specialist is laid off.
  • Jobs that employ the five senses in a sophisticated way are more secure than those that don’t. The chef and the artist have secure jobs. The laboratory technician maybe not so much.
  • People skills are really important.

Further Reading:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: Nigel Farage

I'd love to like Nigel Farage.

But after reading Matthew Lynn's short biography, Independently Minded, I find it increasingly hard to do so.

For those of you living under a rock, Mr. Farage is the long-time leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the closest thing the Brits have to a Tea Party. And who among us Tea Party types aren't thrilled by Mr. Farage's eloquent revelation of truth to power from his perch as a member of the European Parliament. For those of us who believe in small, limited government and individual freedom, this is music to our ears.

Born in 1964, Mr. Farage hails from Downe, Kent (one of the home counties surrounding London), also famous as Charles Darwin's birthplace. He's a hail-fellow-well-met guy who loves his pub and brew, and was a semi-professional golfer in his younger years. Not much of one for school, he chose a career as a commodity trader in the City--a job where his natural gregariousness and people-skills would be put to good use. He possessed "a formidable ability to hold his drink."

Not formidable enough, apparently. In 1985, his walk back to the train station after an evening of drinking led to an accident that destroyed his golf ambitions. That pushed him into a career in politics, inspired in part by the well-known Conservative politician, Enoch Powell. He joined the incipient UKIP and soon became its leading member.

Mr. Farage loved campaigning, especially in the home counties where he could move from pub to pub and commune with the locals. But running a successful political organization was another story, and that Mr. Farage would rather have left to somebody else. The problem was that somebody else usually had ideas of his own not to Mr. Farage's liking. So while he was never interested in climbing the greasy pole, that's part of what he did, and not unsuccessfully. UKIP, while it still does not have a seat at Westminster, holds a disproportionate number of seats in the European Parliament and is a player in British politics.

In 2010 he was involved in another accident, as a passenger in a small campaign plane forced into a crash landing. It took him a year to recover, though he remains in poor health. While his previous accident inspired a career in politics, the latest one is pushing him away. We may, sadly, be seeing the end of Mr. Farage's public career.

Mr. Farage is a politician with many positive qualities. Unlike so many politicos, he really is a nice guy. He's been able to dispense with the handlers and consultants, and just be himself. There is a refreshing honesty about both his persona and his program.

His argument against the EU is compelling. It really is run by a bunch of unelected bureaucrats who have no right to be deciding how people should lead their lives. His funny criticisms of Herman van Rompuy and Jose Barroso, satirical to be sure, are right on point. The EU is a utopian vision that is doomed to fail, causing misery and suffering across the continent.

That said, the Euro has survived longer than many would have thought. Kicking the can down the road, as the EU government has done, apparently works, at least in the short term. Not that the vast army of unemployed in Greece, Italy, or Spain are better off because of it.

So what's not to like about Mr. Farage?

First, he and (especially) some of his colleagues are prone to accuse Germans of fascism simply because they are German. This is a cheap shot, and not a true one. There is a problem of fascism in Europe, but almost none of it comes from Germany. Instead, I'd finger groups like France's National Front or the overtly racist Golden Dawn in Greece. The comparable organizations in Germany are much smaller. Accusing Angela Merkel of being the second coming of Hitler (as some Greek protesters are wont to do) is as unfair as it is unhelpful. Mr. Farage should distance himself from this sentiment.

Second is that UKIP has acquired some unpleasant bedfellows. UKIP has long prided itself on being a "non-racist" party, and distinguished itself from thug groups such as the British National Party. Unfortunately, according to his biographer, Mr. Farage is now proud that his anti-EU alliance includes organizations such as the National Front and the True Finn party. In particular, Mr. Farage is increasingly campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, which verges on racism.

Immigration is a very difficult issue. At one extreme is the dreamer, Bryan Caplan, who argues that if only people could move freely to where they could earn the most money, the world economy would instantly grow by another 2-3%. This, of course, is how it works within the United States--overtaxed New Yorkers can move to Texas without asking anybody for permission first.

Unfortunately, this very sensible economic argument runs up against cultural resistance, and so free immigration across international frontiers is simply not practicable. But it's one thing to argue for well-regulated immigration (as Mitt Romney did), and yet another to blame immigrants for all or most of a nation's problems. In extremis, the latter conforms to the fascist meme: we're poor because the foreigners stole all the money.

No prominent politician on the American scene is anywhere close to the fascist meme. The closest was Tom Tancredo who ran on an anti-immigration platform, and lost badly. But the same is not true in Europe. In particular, the National Front is against immigration per se, not just for its better regulation.

Now I understand that Europe is not the US. Relatively open borders in a big, diverse country like the US means something very different than it does in Finland. It may be the Finns have good reasons to be much more cautious about immigration. That said, I'm pretty nervous about the True Finn party, and I get pretty nervous about Nigel Farage when he comes out in their support.

Apparently Mr. Farage is proud that he has built an anti-EU alliance that includes these fascist or fascist-leaning groups. I think he's lost sight of the goal. The goal is not to abolish the EU. The goal is to expand individual liberty, toward which the EU is undoubtedly an obstacle. But replacing unelected bureaucrats with politicians who don't believe in free markets, democracy, liberty to begin with is not progress.

I'd like Mr. Farage much better if he would disavow some of his so-called allies.

Mr. Lynn's biography is a short, entertaining read. At 61 pages it is just the right length for a (so far) minor political figure. For a clear introduction to Mr. Farage and the movement he represents, this is a very good place to start.

Further Reading:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

David Berlinski & Evolution

I'm a great fan of Peter Robinson's interview videos under the title Uncommon Knowledge. It is a conservative version of Charlie Rose--at least as good, and better in the sense that Mr. Robinson actually lets his guests talk. While I don't always agree with his guests, I always learn something.

Yesterday I watched an interview with David Berlinski. I went into this fully aware that Mr. Berlinski is a crusader against Darwinism, so that was no surprise. I hoped to learn something new. Even I concede that there might be reasons to oppose Darwinism. It's just that I haven't heard them very clearly formulated yet.

No doubt Mr. Berlinski is a charming interviewee. Unfortunately, much of his argument is just pure nonsense. This is sad because I would love to agree with him on some important issues. I hate to recycle this tired old stuff again, but here goes.

First, like many Darwin skeptics, he's got this thing about the Cambrian explosion. This event, which happened about 550 million years ago, is when multicellular life first appeared (evolved) on earth. Mr. Berlinski argues that all these life forms couldn't have formed in such a short period of time, and further, there is no fossil record showing the continuity between the Precambrian time and post-explosion.

The counter argument is pretty obvious: single-celled organisms don't yield much of a fossil record, so we don't know much about them. And the appearance of multicellular organisms opens up a whole new ecological space. Since evolution can work in parallel, a million species can evolve as fast as one. Since a new species can evolve in a million years or less, it is surely understandable that no fossil record exists. Mr. Berlinski's argument is just silly.

His second argument is even worse. He accuses Darwinism of a tautology: survival of the fittest. We know that the fittest have survived because they're around today, and therefore they must have been the fittest. And true enough: if "survival of the fittest" were the sole content of Darwinism then he'd have a point. But unlike his contention, "fittest" has a very definite meaning. Any critter that can out-reproduce its neighbors is more fit. Fertility rates can be measured, which gives "survival of the fittest" empirical content.

And then he's off on the species kick: you can't evolve new species. This statement is just factually false--Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene provides numerous examples. Also, most biomass on the planet is single-celled organisms that reproduce asexually and don't form species. Yet surely Mr. Berlinski acknowledges these organisms evolve. By what principle is evolution turned off when sex appears?

It is actually very easy to disprove the theory of evolution. All Mr. Berlinski needs to do is to produce one reproducible example of an organism that has a significantly different genetic code from everything else. That would blow evolution out of the water. No need to mess around with the inevitably ambiguous evidence from the Precambrian muck. That we all have the same genetic code is powerful evidence that we are all descended from the same organism. But Mr. Berlinski evinces no knowledge of modern genetics.

And that's what bothers me most. I accuse most religious objectors to evolution of being know-nothing critics. They simply haven't read anything. My Trotskyist friends fall into the same category. I am shocked that somebody who claims to be an intellectual and writes books on evolution should be so phenomenally ignorant.

And then he's full of ad hominem attacks. In Mr. Berlinski's world, we scientists are evil bastards who are just in it for the grant money. In his view, if the federal research budget could be cut to zero (and I agree with him that should happen), then both global warming and evolution would disappear. Of course he's wrong. I work with global warming fanatics every day, and I can tell you they are definitely not in it for the money. Theirs is a missionary, "save-the-planet" zeal.

Unlike global warming, evolution is not a political opinion. Evolution makes no predictions, nor does it impose any public policy. Indeed, evolution is the theoretical framework underlying all of modern biology. It is to biology what the periodic table is to chemistry. It is an incredibly useful organizing principle.

There is an odd symmetry here. The climate change crew accuse their critics of being science deniers. That is, not only do we "deny" global warming catastrophism, but also evolution, and then even the fact that cigarettes cause cancer! We're such knuckle-dragging idiots. Mr. Berlinski holds precisely the same opinion in reverse, and likely for the same reason. He maintains that anybody who agrees with evolution also agrees with global warming catastrophism. But neither the climate crew nor Mr. Berlinski are arguing science anymore. They are simply asserting their own world views irrespective of any evidence.

The truth is that "global warming" is vastly exaggerated, and the theory of evolution is mostly true. Those are just facts. No need to hypothesize some grand conspiracy theory.

So that brings us to where I agree with Mr. Berlinski. Evolution is not a philosophy. It is only science.

Evolution won't tell you what the purpose or meaning of life is. Nor will it tell you what is moral or immoral. Evolution is mute on the question of the existence of God. For that matter, evolution is totally compatible with Mr. Berlinski's intelligent design theory (crackpot science, but perfectly acceptable as a philosophical point of view).

I, for one, center my religion on Thomas Jefferson's words We hold these truths... There is absolutely nothing in evolution that either requires or prohibits those truths. I simply assert them as self-evident, i.e., as a moral imperative. That is my religious faith.

Further Reading:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ukraine & The Other Ukraine

The Militant's John Studer reports on the circumstances in Ukraine in both the March 17th and March 24th issues. Regarding the demonstrations in Maidan Square leading up to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, he writes
Thousands remain mobilized in Independence Square in central Kiev. They are determined to place their stamp on political developments following the overthrow of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Feb. 22. 
Though you wouldn’t know it from the bourgeois press, tens of thousands have marched across Ukraine — from Kiev in the west to Odessa in the south and Dnipropetrovsk in the east — demanding that Russia withdraw from their country. The propertied rulers not only in Moscow, but also its rivals from Washington and Berlin, all fear the popular struggle for political space and independence.
These days Vladimir Putin represents the Russian capitalist class, a far cry from the early days of the post-Soviet Russian state, when the former Soviets had supposedly defeated the US in the cold war. Today The Militant calls for an anti-Russian, Workers' and Farmers' government in Kiev, and it characterizes the demonstrators as closet Communists. Their slogan is Russia Out Of Crimea.

Jeff Mackler reports on Ukraine for Socialist Action (SA), and he must have been standing on the other side of Square or something. For he sees something completely different.
At the recent Kiev “mass mobilizations” of 250,000 that drove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country to seek refuge in Russia, the best organized forces were those of the fascist, anti-Semitic, hyper-nationalist groupings—most prominently, the Svoboda (“Freedom”) Party, formerly the Social-National Party, which traces its ideological roots to the pro-Nazi Ukrainian movements of World War II. 
These armed, club-wielding, and often Molotov-cocktail bomb-throwing beasts had been let loose by the rump Fatherland Party “opposition” Ukrainian parliamentary oligarchs. And this was accomplished with the complicity, if not overt support, of U.S. officials, who likely seized on the charge (now highly suspect) that Yanukovych had employed snipers to attack and murder 89 demonstrators and wound 100 others on Feb. 20 as the perfect moment to shift the debate over a European Union vs. Russian “trade agreement” toward a violent mobilization for Yanukovych’s removal.
Gotta love the scare quotes around "mass mobilizations," as if 250,000 demonstrators were chopped liver. Far from being advocates of a Workers' & Farmers' government, and not even lobbying for more political space (in The Militant's precious phrase), Mackler sees closet fascists instead of communists. Same demonstration--completely different class character.

So what gives? SA might argue that the evil cultist, Jack Barnes, is betraying the working class yet again by misleading his members about the true nature of the rebellion. And bizarrely, such an argument makes a little sense. For despite pro forma protestations against the US government, The Militant seems surprisingly sympathetic to US foreign policy. Mr. Studer writes without further comment,
The Defense Department announced March 5 that Washington is stepping up air patrols over Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. 
Putin’s bet is that Obama — who has proposed deep cuts in the U.S. war budget and adopted a passive stance toward the Syrian government to the advantage of Moscow and its ally President Bashar al-Assad — will resist countering Russia’s moves.
He sounds like a neo-conservative, but I think it's merely a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

So Misters Studer and Mackler look at the same people on the same square on the same day and come to completely opposite conclusions. Both gentlemen are roughly my age, and come from the same political background, associated with Trotskyism their entire adult lives.

I think there is no mystery. The politics in Ukraine is completely dysfunctional. They have two parties, to be sure, but if there ever were a Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they live in Ukraine. One party (the one Mr. Studer saw) are a bunch of fascist Commies. The other party (observed by Mr. Mackler) are instead commie Fascists. Hitler and Stalin, or is it Stalin and Hitler? These are the heritage of Ukrainian politics, and Misters Studer and Mackler can be forgiven for getting them mixed up. I couldn't tell the difference myself.

Personally, I support the free-market liberal demonstrators--all half dozen of them.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee agree on at least three things, among all the other things that they also agree on.

  1. The massive and extraordinarily blatant corruption of the Yanukovych regime was unacceptable.
  2. Any new regime has to support Tweedledum instead of Tweedledee, or vice versa.
  3. The Jews are very, very bad people (probably because the half-dozen still left in the country are free-market liberals).

Unfortunately for -dum and -dee, Ukraine is in a very strategic location. That gets the Great Powers involved, each backing one of the Tweedles. The US is supporting the fascist Commies because they oppose Russia and instead want a free lunch from the European Union. And Russia backs the commie Fascists because they want their free lunch from Russia. I hate to break the news to Studer & Mackler, but it's no more complicated than that.

So it is now Saturday night, just before the "referendum" on the future of Crimea. I offer a few predictions, the truth of which should become evident within the next few weeks.

  1. Losing Crimea is an existential threat to Russia. Absent a puppet government in Kiev, Russia needs to reassert its direct control over the peninsula. The Militant can whine and moan about the aggrieved Tatars all it wants, and Mr. Obama can threaten sanctions or more, but Russian control of Crimea is irreversible short of nuclear war. Crimea is to Russia what the Panama Canal is to the United States.
  2. Russia regards Ukraine as a province of Russia. Indeed, the original Russian empire was founded in Kiev. So Russia will insist on at least a friendly regime in Ukraine, but it will not pay any price. So threats of sanctions and military maneuvers will dissuade Moscow from invading. Ukraine is to Russia what Taiwan is to China. Like China, Russia can be patient, and I predict there will be no significant Russian invasion of the Ukrainian mainland.
  3. The flash point is the Baltic states, especially Estonia. That country is a member of NATO, but nearly 50% of its population is Russian. If Russian irredentism is kindled, this is where war happens first. But I don't predict that happening.
  4. I predict that the passengers of MH370 will be found alive. (Yeah, that's off topic, but who cares.)

And what's the longer term future for Russia and Ukraine? I have no clue, but I doubt it will be anything good.

Further Reading:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Christie vs. Paul

I listened to the speeches given at CPAC by Rand Paul and Chris Christie.

Senator Paul's speech was about the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Mr. Paul maintains that our (misnamed) war on terror violates the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the government has no right to imprison American citizens without due process, even in war time. Nor does the government have any right to personal information without a warrant.

So I'm not a lawyer, but none of the amendments in the Bill of Rights are absolute. To pick the most egregious example, 200,000 Americans were killed without due process during the Civil War. Many more were imprisoned without trial as prisoners of war. Yet nobody says that Lincoln violated the Constitution by pursuing the war. The Founders prohibited "unreasonable searches and seizures," but what is unreasonable in peaceful, civil society may be perfectly permissible in time of war.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have prosecuted the war on terror as if it were a war. I think they are correct to do so. Any person who puts themselves on the battlefield--regardless of citizenship--forfeits rights of due process. Mr. Paul seems unable to make that distinction.

Similarly, he's all riled up about the NSA spying. Now I agree there are problems, but I also strongly assert that government has an obligation to protect citizens from harm. Technology makes it possible for relatively small groups of individuals to do immense damage, and I support the right of the government to try to find those individuals. So, if you take the NSA's words at face value, they are data mining a vast amount of information scavenged from everywhere looking for leads. I don't know how effective this is, but I have no principled objection to this procedure. Indeed, (assuming it is effective) I'm happy they're doing it.

Two more things about the NSA. First, I'd support a law which says that data uncovered by the NSA cannot be used in a court of law, i.e., the NSA is for military purposes only. This would, I think, eliminate most privacy concerns. And second, the real government threat to civil liberties does not come from the NSA, but rather from the IRS. I find it odd that Mr. Paul and others who are so in a tizzy about legitimate security efforts are willing to overlook the IRS.

Chris Christie opened his talk on a completely different theme, with the story about how he addressed the state firefighters convention. He told them the truth--that unless there was an overhaul of public employee pensions, nobody would be getting any pensions. Despite Mr. Christie's efforts, New Jersey is still very deep in the pension hole.

Mr. Christie's major themes were smaller government, a positive message emphasizing free-market capitalism, and his pro-life position. He stressed that Republicans should be for something rather than merely opposing the Democrats.

Mr. Christie has been dinged by Republicans for three missteps. 1) He cozied up with President Obama just before the November election, which some blame for Romney's loss. 2) He accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare for one year, but vetoed a bill to make the expansion permanent. 3) He's a wuss on gun control, and is generally pro-immigration.

Recently there has been the whole Bridgegate scandal, which certainly betrays a lack of judgement.

I like Mr. Christie. I do wish he hadn't hugged Obama, but I can forgive him that. His "sin" on the Medicaid expansion seems minor--he simply accepted it for one year. There is no permanent buy-in on Obamacare. I disagree with him on gun control, but frankly, I think that issue is decided and his opinion will have no effect on anything. I am pro-immigration.

Both these gentlemen are excellent orators. Mr. Paul is more ideological, almost religious, preaching the cause of Liberty. I agree with the sentiment, but nothing he says is practical. I've learned not to trust utopian dreamers from my Trotskyist days, and that's how I view Rand Paul. I think he's something of a demagogue. There are people whose opinions I respect who've signed up for him--Glenn Reynolds for one. But I can't see it.

Mr. Christie, on the other hand, is a very pragmatic fellow with feet of clay. Instead of soaring speechifying, you get a can-do, practical program, albeit with an underlying moral core. For him, "Liberty" becomes "freedom made possible by small, efficient government." He supports national security, and I think his pugnacious temperament contrasts favorably with Obama's wimpy personality. He has gone out of his way to diss Rand Paul, and supports our national security efforts.

Ron Paul (Rand's father) was a popular candidate in 2012. I could never have voted for him--not even against a Democrat. Fortunately he was too far from the mainstream to be a serious contender. Rand is beginning to sound like his father. That he devotes his CPAC speech to wrong-headed notions about privacy and national security is not reassuring. I certainly will not vote for him in any primary, and he's marching close to the boundary where I can't vote for him at all.

Further Reading:

Friday, February 28, 2014

Three From The Trotskyist Press

Chattanooga Shoo-Shoo is the wonderful headline on top of an excellent article by Bill Onasch in the recent Socialist Action. It concerns the surprising loss in the UAW's efforts to unionize the VW plant. Mr. Onasch recites the events clearly, concisely, and (as far as I can tell) completely accurately. If you want a short intro to the saga, this is the best place to start.

So everybody expected the union to win. Indeed, almost everybody wanted the union to win. Obviously the UAW needs the dues-payers, local Democrats want the organizational capital, and even VW was rooting for the union.

VW? They wanted a "works council," similar to what they have in Germany. I can certainly see why--workers on the floor know a lot more about many details of production than anybody in management. They know more about safety, working conditions, ergonomics, and myriad small inefficiencies. A works council captures that information in a way that empowers workers to fix things and gives them an incentive to participate. It's much better than a suggestion box.

As US labor law prohibits a firm from setting up a "company union," VW invited the UAW to do this for them. The union heartily agreed, and not just because of the dues money. This could represent a value-added service they can provide. In effect, VW was asking the union to come in and help manage the plant.

So what could go wrong? Two things--first, workers rightly questioned why they should be paying union dues to improve management at the plant. The service may be important, but VW should be paying for it themselves--not the employees. I think that's why the union lost--the vote was 626-712.

And second, those evil Republicans weighed in. Tennessee is a major auto producer precisely because it is non-union. And however innocuous, a union beachhead in Chattanooga will scare away future investment in the state. As Shikha Dalmia writes,
This incensed the state’s Republican legislature, which threatened to withdraw an “incentive package” meant to keep this $1 billion facility in Tennessee if workers voted for unionization. What’s more, on the eve of the election, GOP Senator Bob Corker declared that company executives had assured him that failure to unionize would not affect their plans for SUV production, a statement they subsequently denied.
The union is suing for a new election, claiming the Republicans illegitimately influenced the vote. This, of course, assumes that the workers are a bunch of stupid dolts who vote against their own interest just because of a few Republican billboards. Actually, I think the workers voted for their best interest, and if there is a new election, the union will lose by a larger margin.

In January (somehow I missed it) The Militant published an article by Brian Williams on the administrative state. Mr. Williams makes a strong case for the Tea Party program, arguing forcefully that government (especially the federal government) has gotten to big. He cites the five-fold growth in the number of federal employees since 1939, despite only a 2.5-fold increase in population. Further evidence is the increase in the size of the federal register, and the rise in the number of executive orders. If only he'd used the words unconstitutional governance, I'd have mistaken him for a Tea Party spokesman.

Well, maybe not quite--there are a few red flags (pun intended). First, he implies that the meritocracy is a fraud. "Hand in hand with the growth of the administrative state bureaucracy and particularly its various appendages has been a social layer of self-styled 'meritocrats' to run them." Quoting Jack Barnes, he continues “Its members truly believe that their ‘brightness,’ their ‘quickness,’ their ‘contributions to public life,’ … give them the right to make decisions, to administer society on behalf of the bourgeoisie — what they claim to be on behalf of the interests of ‘the people.’"

This is standard, Trotskyist boilerplate. People are completely interchangeable. Only luck differentiates Harvard professor Larry Summers from Joe Schmoe at the corner tavern. But nobody else can believe this--Larry Summers really is a very smart guy. So are most of the other people holding top positions in government or elite institutions. I also don't believe the elites are generally dishonest or slavishly working for the bourgeoisie. But the larger point is correct--and the Tea Party will completely agree. No matter how smart they are, the elites have no right to make decisions for a people endowed by their Creator with the right to Liberty.

And finally comes Mr. Williams' astonishing claim:
Contrary to popular misconception, the revolutionary communist movement is not for “big government,” whether it’s a government representing the state power of the capitalist exploiters or a revolutionary government of workers and farmers. 
The false view has developed as a result of the massive, repressive state that was put in place in the Soviet Union following the counterrevolutionary usurpation of power by a privileged bureaucratic layer led by Josef Stalin in the 1920s.
Mr. Williams seems to suggest that big government can be made to vanish simply by getting rid of the military and law enforcement. Though how a centralized economy is supposed to work without a huge bureaucracy is beyond me.

Still, this is a very novel thesis for a Trotskyist. We've been promised a Party convention in March--somehow I don't think that's going to happen. But if this is the political direction, then Trotskyism is going off in some strange and wondrous directions.

Finally, Solidarity publishes a plea to save the job of Dr. Anthony Monteiro. Never heard of him? Me neither, but he comes well recommended from the Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Dr. Monteiro is an associate professor of African-American Studies at Temple University. Contrary to what his title implies, apparently he does not have tenure. The university has chosen not to renew his contract after 10 years of service.

The article is obviously only one side of the story, and I find it completely unconvincing. It claims that the dean of liberal arts, Theresa Soufas, fired him because she's a racist. This is completely unbelievable--she has been dean at Temple since 2007, and before that served for more than 20 years on the faculty at Tulane University. This is a distinguished career in politically-correct academe, and not one achieved by a racist. As evidence, the article reports "Dean Soufas has said publicly to the Department, 'I do not see a Black Community.'" This sounds like a quote taken totally out of context. It is revealing that the department chair has not come out in support of his colleague. Is he a racist, too?

Two things bother. First, they ding the dean for offering no reason for her action. Absent tenure, the university has a right to terminate contracts for any reason. Further, she is prohibited from discussing it in public. So she's just doing her job.

Second, the article says that not having his contract renewed is a violation of academic freedom. Nonsense--there is nothing in academic freedom that guarantees one a job at Temple University.

And finally, I'm always astonished by the hypocrisy of these groups. Untenured faculty get dismissed all the time. But none of these people ever come to the defense of chemistry or nursing or business faculty. They only speak up for the politically-correct departments, and then only for the trouble-makers.

I'm with the dean on this one.

Further Reading: