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: