Monday, July 30, 2007

This Just In: George W. Bush Is No Libertarian

Mathew Yglesias pushes this TimesDelete column by Paul Krugman which is apparently -- surprise! -- bashing Bush. I say "apparently" because I don't subscribe to TimesDelete, and I'm not sure why Yglesias bothers to link to columns behind the wall.

In any case, their thesis seems to be that Bush's supposedly anti-government agenda is furthered by his incompetent administration of government programs:

Unfortunately, the public opinion data does tend to suggest that Bush's staggering achievements in the field of maladministration have, in fact, boosted public skepticism of government capacity to do anything at all to some extent.

One way of thinking about what the country's experienced since the fall of 2001 is just large-scale consequences of perverse incentives. We have a president whose ideological goals on the domestic front are, on some level, advanced every time he screws up, with his own failures, his own corruption, providing evidence for the correctness of his ideology.

Yglesias (and, I assume, Krugman) seem to assume that Bush's ideology is skeptical toward government -- that it has some libertarian core. It's true that the Republican coaltion had a libertarian element to it from, say 1964 until the mid 90s, but I have yet to see any evidence of libertarian ideology in Bush-Rove Republicanism. After all, we are talking about a guy whose two major domestic initiatives were the creation of a new entitlement program and a dramatic expansion of the federal government's role in education.

I'm not sure that President George W. Bush has a discernable ideology -- in order to have an ideology you have to be capable of systematic thought, and I have yet to see any evidence of that. But if he does have an ideology, then surely limited governemnt isn't an element of it.

This is not a new meme on the left -- statists have been tooting this particular horn for a while. Here is David Bernstein's response to Tim F's claim over at Balloon Juice that "people who don’t believe in government do a crappy job when they try to run it:"

Here are two major problems with this thesis: (1) The Bush Administration is not exactly full of libertarians; exactly who in the Bush Administration "don't believe in government"? Given that government spending during this administration has increased at rates not seen since Lyndon Johnson, the better lesson would appear to be that "throwing government money at problems doesn't make them go away." (2) We have plenty of examples of people who surely did believe in government that didn't do a very good job running it. Anyone for the late and unlamented Mayor John Lindsay of New York? The kibbutzim of Israel, which survived for decades on government subsidies, before finally abandoning their model when the Likud reduced these subsidies? On a completely different level, the commisars of the former USSR?

Bernstein is, of course, correct. Bush's failure as a President doesn't undermine the case for putting people who believe in smaller government in elected office. Now it is possible to argue that government programs have been incomptently administered under George W. Bush, and that some (presumably Democratic) successor would do a better job. But the case for limited government isn't based on individual examples of incompetence or corruption. The case for limited government has to do with knowledge problems and moral hazard, and, yes, perverse incentives.

Big government doesn't fail because George W. Bush or his appointees sabotage it. Big government fails even when smart people with Ivy League educations who earnestly and sincirely believe in the wonders of government -- people like Mathew Yglesias, in other words -- are put in charge. And when George W. Bush is long gone, the case for smaller government will be as strong as ever.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Let the Koran Desecration Begin!

P.Z. Myers links to this story about a 23-year-old guy arrested on "hate-crime" charges for throwing a Quran (aka "Koran") down the toilet at Pace University. He's been charged with "criminal mischief" and "aggravated harassment," both of which (according to the article) count as hate crimes.

Of course, Muslim students are in a tizzy, and Pace has caved to them:

Muslim activists had called on Pace University to crack down on hate crimes after the incidents. As a result, the university said it would offer sensitivity training to its students.

The school was accused by Muslim students of not taking the incident seriously enough at first. Pace classified the first desecration of the holy book as an act of vandalism, but university officials later reversed themselves and referred the incident to the New York Police Department's hate crimes unit.

Pace got it right the first time: tossing a book in the toilet is simple vandalism, because it can clog the toilet and cause a flood. If nothing else, some poor janitor has to remove the book from the tiolet. Vandals don't think about the person who has to clean up after them, and so deserve our animus.

However, the nature of the book being tossed in the toilet is immaterial. So long as it is his copy of the Q'ran, and not, say, one he stole from the library, the owner has the right to wipe his ass with the pages and flush them down the toilet, if he so chooses. Charging somebody with a "hate crime" because he desecrated the Quran is an example of punishing him for evil thoughts, pure and simple. This is America: we're allowed to hate Islam, or Christianity, or Muslims or Christian people in general, and we are allowed to express that hatred.

Pace University missed out on a real "teachable moment" here. Oh, not the doofus who flushed the books down the toilet -- he is surely not worthy of our attention. No, Pace missed out on an opportunity to teach its Muslim students. Rather than force its students to undergo "sensitity training," where they will undoubtedly be exposed to all sorts of multiculturalist blather and lies about the benevolence of the Religion of Peace, Pace should have offered a course in "First Amendment Sensitivity Training" to its Muslim students.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hortonizing Obama?

Sully links to this Marc Ambinder post on the South Carolina Democratic "YouTube" debate. It seems that somebody put up fliers outside the site of the debate. These fliers referenced the Michael Dukakis prisoner-furlough program and its most famous beneficiary, Willie Horton. The linked Obama to that by referencing a 1999 vote he cast in the Illinois Senate.

There were some reports that Obama's staff was blaming Hillary Clinton, but Ambinder says that these reports untrue: his staff doesn't know who did it, and therefore doesn't have anybody to blame. His commenters immediately zero in on Evil Sith Lord Boy Genius Karl Rove as the force behind these leaflets. Others seem to think that the Hillary theory bears looking into.

Well, I don't have the faintest idea who did it, so I am going to propose (with no evidence) the obvious suspect: Barack Obama, or his sympathizers. Why, you ask, would they do a thing like this? Obviously: to make their preferred candidate a victim of racist attacks. Once he has achieved Victim Status, valid criticisms can be ignored.

Andrew Sullivan, whose attraction to Obama rivals that of the Obama Girl, had this to say: "The longer Obama's campaign lasts, the more the racist and code-racist attacks will come." Precisely. No serious or important figure is going to launch an actually-racist attack on Obama. So, he and his supporters will want to characterize any criticism of him or his far-left positions as "coded racism."

I think that Obama and his supporters plan to play the race card -- early and often, with as much force as they can. What better way to lay the groundwork for that than to plant arguably-racist leaflets at the site of the debate?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Three Cheers For Norman Borlaug

Insty links to this Huffpo article by Gregg Easterbrook about Norman Bourlaug, who just received the Congressional Gold Medal. Bourlag is an agricultural scientist whose work led to the "green revolution." The number of people whom he saved is certainly in the hundreds of millions; it might even be as many as a billion. As Easterbrook says:

Born 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone else who has ever lived. A plant breeder, in the 1940s he moved to Mexico to study how to adopt high-yield crops to feed impoverished nations. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Borlaug developed high-yield wheat strains, then patiently taught the new science of Green Revolution agriculture to poor farmers of Mexico and nations to its south. When famine struck India and Pakistan in the mid-1960s, Borlaug and a team of Mexican assistants raced to the Subcontinent and, often working within sight of artillery flashes from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, sowed the first high-yield cereal crop in that region; in a decade, India's food production increased sevenfold, saving the Subcontinent from predicted Malthusian catastrophes. Borlaug moved on to working in South America. Every nation his green thumb touched has known dramatic food production increases plus falling fertility rates (as the transition from subsistence to high-tech farm production makes knowledge more important than brawn), higher girls' education rates (as girls and young women become seen as carriers of knowledge rather than water) and rising living standards for average people. Last fall, Borlaug crowned his magnificent career by persuading the Ford, Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations to begin a major push for high-yield farming in Africa, the one place the Green Revolution has not reached.

Now, it's not quite true, as Easterbrook would have it, that Professor Borlaug is unknown -- he's received the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal after all, as well as plenty of other accolades. I knew who he was, and it would seem that the folks at the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates Foundations do too. But Easterbrook is right that an award to the greatest living American -- or quite possibly the greatest human ever to live -- is more newsworthy than, say, the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

Some of Easterbrook's Huffpo commenters seem happy to hear about Professor Borlaug. Others, well, they take the opportunity to rant about Evil Biotech and how America is to blame for all the ills of the world.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hitchens on Saddam

Sully links to this article which characterized Saddam Husein as “perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser.”

Well, he had a vision, all right.

Yes, Debate is Weird . . .

Steve Sailer highlights this documentary about high school debate. Many people assume that high school and college debate feature students dressed in suits speaking eloquently about the issues of the day. But, in fact, debate has become its own little insular world, where both the speaking style and type of argument are incomprehensible to the average person. For the uninitiated, what happened is that people started talking really fast and using debate-specific jargon while judges took detailed notes, called a "flow."

As Sailer somewhat tendentiously puts it:

When I was in high school debate in the early-mid 1970s, it was obvious that debate had gotten off track and needed a rules change. To make the competition more objective, younger judges had started flowcharting the entire debate in enormous detail on three foot wide drawing pads. Debaters responded by increasing the number of arguments they put forward by speaking faster. If they could spit out 32 arguments in 8 minutes, and their slower-speaking opponents could only refute 24, then there were 8 arguments that had gone unrefuted and therefore, logically, they must win!

It is not true that sheer numbers and fast-talking necessarily win. If a team makes 32 arguments, odds are that a bunch of them are really the same argument in different terms, and a skilled debater can group similar arguments. Sailer also ignores word economy -- responding in fewer words. (The Variety review indicates that the movie does a good job of explaining how the fast-talking style came to predominate.)

Sailer doesn't like this fast-talking jargon-filled style modern debate:

Obviously, this emphasis on speed isn't good training for much of anything in the real world, where trying to talk faster than the other guy is more likely to get you a punch on the nose than the acclaim of your fellow men. When FDR, for example, was in debate at Groton in the 1890s, they taught him to try to persuade his audience, not overwhelm them.

It's quite true that debate involves a style of public speaking that one will probably never use outside of the debate context. But of course that's true of most games and contests -- chess players are rarely attacked by people dressed as bishops coming at them diagonally. Is tennis realistic? Backgammon?

Sure, the speaking style is bizarre, even ridiculous, and the arguments are often absurd. Nobody actually thinks that a minor change in education policy will lead to nuclear war. But, just as tennis develops physical fitness and coordination, debate develops other skills. For example, most high school debaters know how to use a university research library better than your average graduate student. In debate, people have to organize and keep track of a huge amount of information -- certainly a useful skill. They learn to think on their feet, under conditions of pressure and stress. And, they learn a lot about the specific topic subject area -- whether it's education policy or space exploration, always a good thing.

So yeah, it's true -- debate can be an absurd stylized ritual. But, like chess or Scrabble, it builds other useful skills. And, given Steve's obsession with IQ, you would think that he would find it admirable that it puts such emphasis on sheer cognitive ability.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Last "Good" War?

Gloria Steinem graces the digital pages of Huffpo with this little rant about "chick flicks" of all things. Not about the flicks themselves, but rather about the label, which she predictably finds objectionable. How does Steinem define the "chick flick"? Well:

So what exactly is a "chick flick?" I think you and I could probably agree that it has more dialogue than special effects, more relationships than violence, and relies for its suspense on how people live instead of how they die.

Well, if nothing else, Steinem is still good at loading the dice. Your average Meg Ryan vehicle has about as much to do with the way people actually live as Terminator III. "Chick flicks" aren't just about relationships and dialogue; they are stylized dramas designed to create a certain type of emotional catharsis in the audience. We call them "chick flicks" because the type of catharsis which they they create is enjoyed mostly by women.

Steinem wants a new category of movie:

If the "chick flick" label helps you to avoid the movies you don't like, why is there no label to guide you to the ones you do like?

Just as there are "novelists" and then "women novelists," there are "movies" and then "chick flicks." Whoever is in power takes over the noun -- and the norm -- while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about "African American doctors" but not "European American doctors," "Hispanic leaders" but not "Anglo leaders," "gay soldiers" but not "heterosexual soldiers," and so on.

That's also why you're left with only half a guide. As usual, bias punishes everyone. Therefore I propose, as the opposite of "chick flick" and an adjective of your very own, "prick flick."

Very funny. Steinem, is factually wrong when she says there are "movies' and then there are "chick flicks." In fact, we have a label for the sort of film which she derides: we call them "action movies." Granted, it's a stupid label -- nearly all movies contain action, presumably including Andy Warhol's Sleep (which for the record I have not seen). But it does convey, even if partially, in that in an action movie the main conflict is physical not emotional.

Whereas in your average Meg Ryan vehicle, it's about falling in love and overcoming (usually artificial) obstacles to being with one's beloved. Given the fact that a group of typical little boys will spend hours building buildings out of blocks and then destroying them, while a group of typical little girls will spend hours figuring out who is whose best friend, it is hardly surprising that men prefer movies about doing stuff, while women prefer, well, chick flicks. This seems to be yet another byproduct of human sexual dimorphism. Of course Steinem can't say that, because she has spent the last umpteen years denying the fact of human sexual dimorphism while at the same time bashing men. And her new label is great for that purpose, as it allows her to call a guy a prick if he likes movies that don't appeal to her.

So much for her bit of cultural exegesis. If that were it, Steinem's post would be barely worth noticing. What really stuck in my craw was almost an aside. In discussing World War II movies, she says almost offhand: "After all, World War II was the last war in which this country was clearly right."


You can argue the merits of certain wars -- the current Iraq War, Vietnam, the Grenada invasion. But she isn't doing that. She said that World War II was the last war in which the United States was clearly right. Contrary to her casual assertion, the United States was clearly correct in at least three of the wars it's fought since World War II: Korea, the first Gulf War, and Afghanistan.

The Korean War was a war of aggression launched by North Korean communists in an attempt to establish a communist dictatorship in the entire country. While, as the Wikipedia article on the North Korean human rights record indicates, it's hard to get a full picture of what goes on in North Korea, it's clear that it ain't good. They have no civil rights -- no right to criticize the government, or practice religion, or do any of the basic things all of us -- including Ms. Steinem -- take for granted. Their management of their economy is worse than the usual communist average, which is very bad indeed. People starve to death in North Korea. It is one of the most bizarre, brutal, despotic dictatorships in the entire history of the human race -- and that's saying something. But Steinem thinks we weren't "clearly right" in preventing the whole country from being like that.

While Saddam Hussein wasn't as brutal as Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, he was still a piece of work. His invasion of Kuwait was an unprovoked war of aggression -- pure brigandage. He apparently thought we were just going to let him get away with it. The fact that Saddam's WMD program turned out to be, well, less than advertised this time around, but as Ross Douthat recently observed, we were shocked in 1991 to discover how far advanced it had been. Given the current mess in Iraq, many are tempted to act as if Saddam Hussein was always nothing but a bad joke. The fact is that a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein who controlled Iraq's and Kuwait's oil would have been a menace. Again, the United States and its allies were clearly right to kick him out and end his nuclear program.

Finally, Afghanistan. If the United States isn't clearly right in responding to an actual physical attack on our nation, then we can never be right. I mean, by implication she is saying that the war in Afghanistan was not justified. While you can take issue with how it was waged, it was clearly a response to a direct physical attack. I'm speechless.

The "Blame America First" left: still at it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Take That, Sicko

Betsy Newmark links to this page which contains photographs of the real Cuban medical system -- you know, the one that Michael Moore didn't see. Take a look -- if you have a strong stomach.

Brad DeLong -- no right-winger, but an economist with a commitment to a mixed economy with genuine market elements -- takes lefties to task with this post on Cuba (later reposted here). As DeLong points out, when Castro took over, Cuba was a developed country -- comparable to many countries in Western Europe. Today it's a middling awful Third World country. With what is likely the best possible implementation of communism and a planned economy, Castro has managed to knock his country down an entire tier.

And if you read DeLong's post, be sure to check out the comments. A few sensible ones, but mostly lame-ass excuses of the blame-America-first sort and a few pathetic attempts to say "they're not that bad, really -- look at their health care and education system!" Want to take bets on how accurate those widely-touted numbers turn out to be when the communist government falls? And, ten years later, the leftists will be saying "we weren't really supporters of Cuba. Not us!"

A Senator Sins

Via Ann Althouse, this Washington Post story about the latest victim of the D.C. Madam scandal. It would seem that Senator David Vitter, R-Louisiana, took advantage of the services of her ladies. Well, at least that's what his statement would appear to indicate, in a passage which Professor Althouse also highlighted:

"This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible," Vitter, 46, said in a statement, which his spokesman, Joel DiGrado, confirmed to the Associated Press.

"Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling," Vitter continued. "Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there -- with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way."

As Professor Althouse says in response:

Oh, well, if God has forgiven him...

Palfrey can't say God has forgiven her and walk free. In fact, Vitter's statement hurts Palfrey because it strongly implies that Palfrey was doing what she's accused of. Vitter's confession -- intended to move us to mercy -- links him to criminal activity, but only she is facing criminal punishment.

Shouldn't the expiation of Vitter's sins wait until he has introduced a bill that would create a federal right to engage in the business of prostitution? It's not a matter to be resolved within the realm of church and family as long as Palfrey is being prosecuted.

Sing it, sister! Vitter is using that God-talk in order to avoid further embarassing revelations. "This is a private matter," he's saying, almost implying that if you don't take him at his word about God's forgiveness, well, you're some sort of heretic. All right, I will credit him with one thing -- although he used a circumlocution, he admitted that he "sinned." Unlike that pathetic weasel Randall Tobias, forced to resign from the State Department, who claimed he used the services for massages. I mean, come on! It's pretty easy to find a reputable massage therapist these days. If you get caught whoring, get caught whoring, get caught whoring. (I suppose it's barely possible that Tobias is telling the truth, but, if so, he is an idiot, paying what has to be a high rate for a substandard massage.)

I don't think that Vitter ought to be able to sweep this aside with the God-and-family bit. Presumably he supports federal laws making it a serious crime to run a prostitution business in the District of Columbia. If this is a matter of public concern -- so much so that capitalist acts between consenting adults should be legally proscribed with all the force and power the state -- then surely it is a matter of public concern that he chose to partake in such services.

If Vitter wants to be left alone, well, then the prosecution of Deborah Jeane Palfray should be ended post haste, and the laws against prostitution ought to be abolished in the District of Columbia. Heck, Palfray is probably the most honost whore in Washington.

And I cannot resist the urge to point out that this rather neatly vindicates my previously-articulated Secret Fear Theory of politics. Vitter is one of these church-and-family Republicans, so it is hardly surprising that he has patronized prostitutes.

UPDATE: Sullivan digs out this 2000 quotation from Mrs. Senator Vitter: "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me." Perhaps Senator Vitter has more than just the voters to fear.

Impeachment Talk

Mathew Yglesias recently posted about impeachment -- he doesn't seem barking mad about the idea, but he seems to think it should be seriously considered. (More here.) But then he makes the point that getting rid of President Bush doesn't change much, as Vice President Cheney becomes President, and our policies stay the same. (Or, from his point of view, probably get a little worse.) This leaves the possibility of impeaching Cheney too, or maybe impeaching him first. He suggests maybe impeaching both at once and then having Pelosi and Reid agree not to serve, letting it fall to Condi. (To prove that it's not all partisan. Of course there is the unspoken but real fact that a President Pelosi would make a great foil for the eventual Republican nominee to run against.)

He seems mostly concerned about the politics of the whole thing, rather than considering whether Bush has committed the constitutionally-requisite high crimes or misdemeanors. One would think that would be the first question, but with Yglesias, you know that the politics of the matter (and how it impacts the Democratic Party) will be his first and, usually, only question.

In any case, his commenters go to town discussing a bewildering array of scenarios. Some people seem to assume that Bush could make one of the existing candidates the Republican front-runner by nominating him to replace Cheney. Of that I'm not sure. Under normal circumstnaces that would certainly be true -- if Bill Clinton had resigned over the Lewinsky matter, I think it's pretty clear that Gore would have won a solid victory in 2000, for example. But I'm not sure that being associated with the Second Bush administration is that much of a political asset, given how politically-poisonous Bush has become.

That said, some folks have suggested a deal could be struck where Bush nominates an elder statestman like Bob Dole to replace an impeached Cheney. This individual could then be a caretaker President if President Bush himself were impeached and removed from office.

Well, of course this is all fantasyland -- Bush isn't going to be impeached and removed from office. If nothing else. the Democrats want him to run against. I promise you, they are going to be running against George W. Bush for the next forty years. I don't think they see it as politically-advantageous, given the current situation. So it won't happen.

But since we are in fantasyland, let me suggest my own candidate whom Bush could nominate to replace Cheney were Cheney impeached and removed from office or choose to resign: George Herbert Walker Bush.

I never thought I would say this, but I rather miss the careful temperment of the elder Bush. He wasn't My Favorite President Ever, but he was better than his son. His stature has probably risen since he left office, and his decision to not "finish the job" in Iraq is looking better every day. Everybody knows he is up to the job, but at the same time he is almost certainly not up for another campaign. The perfect choice!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Literary Leftists

Via Normblog, this article by Terry Eagleton lamenting the decline of the British socialist writer. Eagleton makes a bit of an exception for the execrable Harold Pinter, but even he isn't totally safe from Eagleton's scorn: he characterizes Pinter as a "champagne socialist" and he admits that Pinter's political work is "artistically dreary." So he's a hypocrite and a boring writer, but his heart is in the right place. All is forgiven!

But at least according to Eagleton, British socialist writers are an endangered species, at least compared with prior epochs:

The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state, it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the corruptions of the ruling class. The great Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough was known as Comrade Clough for his unabashed support of the revolutionaries of 1848. One of the most revered voices of Victorian England, Thomas Carlyle, denounced a social order in which the cash nexus was all that held individuals together.

Carlyle was also an enthusiastic supporter of slavery, but I suppose Eagleton doesn't much care about something like that. In the 20th Century, the Eagleton pantheon includes literary leftists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. And he gives a nod to Brecht and Sartre, despite the fact that, like many leftist intellectuals of their era, they looked the other way at Stalin's atrocities. (Some leftist literary figures will still apologize for Stalin, if they get riled up enough.) So supporters of slavery and mass murder are fine by Eagleton, so long as they are sufficiently anti-capitalist.

But now, well, while most literary types still lean left, they just don't stack up to the old guys.
Eagleton is particularly peeved at Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, because both of have been outspoken enemies of political Islam. (In Rushdie's case, I suppose it might have something to do with the fatwah. Serious death threats tend to concentrate the mind.) Rushdie's knighthood really sticks in Eagleton's craw.

Fat Man on Keyboard makes an incisive comparison, from the perspective of the democratic left:

So what have these writers done to upset the eminent critic? Exactly what Orwell did; take a morally consistent line against totalitarianism. This is from Orwell’s essay, Why I Write; ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as 1 understand it’. Note that these terms are not mutually exclusive but complementary. For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.

Fair enough, from Fat Man's perspective. I suspect that, despite their current renegade status, both Hitchens and Rushdie would consider themselves to be men of the left, despite their current apostasy. (Unlike, say, David Horowtiz, who has made his break with the left explicit.)

And yet, while I admire Orwell immensely, he was wrong about the whole democratic socialism thing. During the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the literary figures like Blake and Byron and even Carlyle can be excused for their error. Clearly, the political economists like John Stuart Mill who fought for things like free trade and private property, and, oh, incidentally for the abolution of slavery were the good guys in that debate. But the Industrial Revolution was indeed a new thing and the gains from it were not initially distributed as widely as one might have preferred. So yeah, you can see how people could be skeptical of the whole capitalism thing.

Likewise, in the immediate post-depression postwar era, a guy like George Orwell can be excused for thinking that some form of socialism was both inevitable and desirable. Don't get me wrong -- he was wrong and people like Hayek and Ayn Rand were right. But one can criticize Orwell's commitment to socialism while recognizing his other virtues. And, unlike people like Brecht and Sartre, he was never an apologist for Stalin.

But today it is simply not possible for a humane, intelligent, informed, compassionate individual to be an advocate of mass full-bore socialism. One can legitimately argue as to whether a mixed economy with significant market elements would be preferable to Laissez-faire free market capitalism. But the central lesson of the 20th century is that markets work. Both the empirical and theoretical evidence is now in, and the radical critics of capitalism were just plain wrong about nearly everything. To the extent that Orwell shared the widely-accepted critique of capitalism, he was wrong.

Perhaps Eagleton is right: perhaps the radical literary critic of the free market is indeed a dying breed. Let us hope so.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Root Causes of Terrorism

Ramesh Ponnuru over at The Corner points to this article by David Wessel on economist Alan Krueger's research which shows that poverty really and truly isn't a "root cause" of terrorism. Hey, these guys were doctors, and even under British socialized medicine, doctors ain't poor.

It turns out that the "poverty causes terrorism" meme is quite widespread, and also quite wrong:

"Each time we have one of these attacks and the backgrounds of the attackers are revealed, this should put to rest the myth that terrorists are attacking us because they are desperately poor," he says. "But this misconception doesn't die."

Less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush said, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." A couple of months later, his wife, Laura, said, "Educated children are much more likely to embrace the values that defeat terror." Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has argued, "The war on terrorism will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty, and thus the sources of discontent."

Sounds good, but turns out to be wrong. Krueger's research shows that terrorists are better-educated and wealthier than non-terrorists. Krueger's research shows that Palestinian suicide bombers are less likely to be from poor familes and more likely to have finished high school. And it also shows that terrorism rates aren't linked to worsening economic conditions.

So Krueger has exploded one theory. Does he have an alternative? He does, but I'm not sure it fits the facts, either:

Suppression of civil liberties and political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed," he says, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."

It strikes me that Krueger is just replacing on pious hope with another. His theory makes sense when we're talking about guys from Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- you know, like the people who attacked the US on September 11. But how does it explain British Muslim terrorists? Britain is a political democracy, with free speech, open elections, and a full panoply of civil rights. British Muslims are no more rights-impoverished than they are economically impoverished. His new theory doesn't explain why British Muslims in particular seem willing to go out and kill random civilians. Or at least some of them do. (This point is made in some of the comments here.)

Let me propose one possible explanation. I don't have any actual evidence for these explanations, but hey, I'm a blogger in my PJs, so I don't need no stinkin' evidence.

I would call it the envy theory. These guys have a religion which tells them "you ought to be top dog." And what happens when they went to medical school? They studied advances made by people with names like Pasteur, Lister, Fleming and Salk. A quick glance at the list of Nobel Laureates in Medicine does not reveal even a single winner named Muhammad. Every single day these guys went to work, they were applying a set of techniques and principles developed by another culture. Every single day at work was a reminder of their own civilizational incompetence. Being technically-trained and well-educated just rubs in the message of how far behind West the Muslim World is.

Google v. Microsoft

James Fallows links to this New York Times story about a brewing battle between Microsoft and Google regarding desktop search capabilities. Apparently Windows Vista comes with a feature that allows one to search one's hard drive. (I don't know -- I have a laptop with XP on it, and a Mac, which has its own desktop search capability with which I am more than satisfied.) Google has a competing product, available as a free download.

Microsoft doesn't keep Google's competing feature from working, but, at least according to the report, it slows down the OS, particularly if you run both. I'm not sure why people are complaining about that -- after all, slowing down the computer seems to be the purpose of many Microsoft "features." I don't claim any particular expertise in this are, although I must say that the idea tht the federal and state governments ought to monitor how a company designs its products and demand changes at the behest of competitors strikes me as odious. If Microsoft adds a feature that people don't like, they should buy a Mac, or switch to Linux.

But that's not what struck me the most. What struck me is that Google seems to have set a land speed record in going from "young upstart" to "entrenched competitor going to the government for favors." In the short term, Google may well benefit from this, but in the long term it's not a sign of corporate health, and it's not a great habit to get into.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

US Airways Customer Service -- SUCKS!

Instapundit links to this post by Dean Barnett complaining of his bad experience with Delta. (Insty's bad Delta experience can be found here.)

I have my own recent Bad Airline Customer Service tale of woe to report, and while I've had bad experiences with Delta in the past, the most recent involves a close competitor for Worst Airline Ever -- US Airways. That's right Google, US Airways may well be the Worst Airline Ever. I never got a chance to fly Aeroflot during the bad old days of the Soviet Union, though, so maybe they were worse. US Airways consistently ranks last in customer service. Even Doug Parker, their CEO, knows they have a problem -- he said at the May shareholders meeting "If we don't start running a good airline, we will drive customers away." Wow, he's smart. No wonder he's a CEO!

In any case, or story begins last April -- the Main Squeeze and I are in Vegas for a short trip. Alas, the most convenient routes are former America West routes, now US Airways. On the way back from Vegas, our flight is massively overbooked, and we are in lousy seats -- two middle seats, back of a full plane. So we generously volunteer to take another flight, in exchange for two travel vouchers for $200 each or two round-trip tickets anywhere in the continental United States. Great Deal, right?

Well, not so fast. Last month, in June, we had another trip to Vegas. We figured what the heck -- let's use those vouchers. So we go online to look for a flight. And we find a flight -- but as it turns out, there is no way to use one of their vouchers when booking online. So we call the airline. I don't know where the woman on the other end of the phone was from -- it didn't sound like India, but she certainly didn't speak any form of English that I'm familiar with. I'm sure that after my recent posts on immigration, some folks have marked me down as an intolerant boob, and I know this ain't PC, but I'm sorry -- somebody whose job is to talk to Americans on the phone ought to be able to speak understandable English.

It is a good thing that we had looked for the flight online, because, in addition to being barely able to speak English, she was barely able to do her job. We had to spell out exactly what flight and route we wanted to take, because she couldn't get us there without help. We were able to reserve the seats, at least.

But as for redeeming the vouchers -- no such luck. At least according to her, we had to go to the airport ticket counter and redeem the vouchers in person. So to the airport we go! Well, we get there and make our way to the US Airways ticket counter. As it happens, it's fairly late at night, and it's not particularly crowded. There are two people working behind the counter, both "serving" customers, and two people in line ahead of us. That is right -- a grand total of four people. How long will this take?

Well, we get in line and we wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, one of the people at the ticket counter finishes his customer. Great! But instead of summoning another customer, that agent dissapears behind a door, and is never heard from again. So that leaves one agent for three customers. Finally she finishes the person in front of her, and she summons the next customer. Another interminable wait. And another for the next person.

Finally we make it to the desk. I swear, for a while I thought the ticket agent was mute, because she didn't say a word to us. No "hello, how may I help you?" Certainly not a 'sorry about the long wait in a short line." She simply stood there. We explained what we wanted to do, and she just stared at us. It wasn't clear that she understood what we wanted, or even that she wasn't a zombie. She made no acknowledgment of us at all.

She tries to call somebody on her phone. No answer. Then, still not saying a word, she wanders into the back for a minute. She returns and tries the phone again. When there's no answer, again, she fiddles with her computer for a while. Then it's the back again. It goes like this for about fifteen minutes -- and she makes no effort to tell us what, if anything, is going on. Soon it is fairly obvious that she doesn't have the faintest idea how to redeem the voucher. In fact, she clerly has no idea what to do, and neither the desire nor the ability to tell us what the problem is or make anythng more than a desultory effort to fix it. Finally, we just give up and pay for the tickets. We were in the airport for over an hour, and of course had to pay for parking. An hour! To wait on five customers, and not very well at that. (One of the people ahead of us was another voucher-carrier, and that person left frustrated, voucher still in hand.)

US Airways offers these travel vouchers whenever their planes are overbooked. Which, these days, is "nearly every flight." I mean, I've seen the gate people give these away like candy on Halloween. Then US Airways make it virtually impossible to cash them in. Can't do it online, can't do it over the phone. And apparently they don't instruct the agents at the ticket counter in how to do it.

That goes beyond really bad customer service at US Airways. To me, that's tantamount to fraud. They're giving away "vouchers" that are worthless because US Airways makes it well-nigh impossible to actually cash them in. What a rip-off!

Oh, I should linke to Christopher Penn, who has a similar tale of woe at US Airways. You know, a story about how US Airways customer service sucks.

UPDATE: More US Airways horror stories here! I feel lucky in comparison!

I'm Back!

I apologize to all my regular readers (both of you!) for my long period of non-blogging. Combination of travel and computer issues. But I hope to be more regular from now on.

Megan's Sony Agonies

Megan McCardle recounts recent difficulties in getting Sony to deliver good customer service. She ends with the pledge to never leave Dell again. Her assessment: "They're surly, but when something breaks, they send someone out with a new part the next day." Well, maybe. A quick Google for "Dell Hell" will turn up horror stories galore. Although, at least if Jeff Jarvis is to be believed, they are trying to get better. One problem with evaluating customer service is that it can be really variable -- one customer will get great service, while another gets the run-around. Looks like Megan is in "Sony hell" right now.

For what it's worth, I've had pretty good luck with Apple's customer service -- although of course Apple products cost more. In any case, I wish Megan luck in getting her computer fixed.