Saturday, January 31, 2009

What if they are wrong?

The current number for the stimulus package is $900 billion. That is pretty close to a trillion, which it might be very soon. So lets call it a trillion. What's a billion between friends?
This trillion is supposed to save us from a disastrous recession by stimulating economic activity. The proponents have estimated that it will save many jobs (though the percentages are small they are persistent enough to add up). But what if they are wrong?
What if, as I and many others believe will happen, the stimulus package fails. Then this means that the trillion dollars will be a total waste. The recession will cause a lot of pain and impose losses. In the absence of the stimulus package, however, one wonders if these losses would add up to a trillion dollars. (This number dwarfs spending on the Iraq war). So if it does not work we must add the trillion dollars to the losses.
If it does work, will it save a trillion dollars worth of jobs?
Just wondering?
Wondering also why its proponents don't consider the probability that it will fail and the cost of that. And why aren't journalists asking these questions?

Refusing to see evil

What do the rise of Islamofascism and the return of Keynesian-big-government-welfare-statism have in common?

This has been bothering me. I think I have finally figured it out. Both stem for the stubborn refusal to see evil in the world.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Indulge me.

Evil? Well evil is a human quality. Animals are not evil – they act according to instinct. We do not hold them morally accountable. And nature is Nature. Natural laws are neither good nor evil, though they can sometimes be harsh. They are what they are.

No, evil is exclusively reserved for human behavior. It is a moral category that we reserve for humans.

If you are part of this conversation then I am going to assume we share some basic moral values, those values broadly consistent with what we understand by "liberal democracy." Included in this are:Respect for the person and property of every human being regardless of race, gender, national origin, etc. – non discrimination and equality before the law

  • Respect for promise keeping, valuing the fulfillment of one's word in business and in life in general. The value of trust.
  • Respect for freedom of action and especially freedom of speech. Freedom of action includes anything that is not coercive. Coercive behavior is behavior that is violent, threatens to be violent, or creates dangerous conditions. The burden of proof is on those seeking to restrict human behavior to show that it is coercive.
  • Etc.
OK, so I hope we can broadly agree. I understand that we may differ in the details – we may differ a lot in the details. But at this level of abstraction general assent among the people I usually talk to, and who would bother to read this blog, should be fairly easy.

Moving on. I see two broad set of problems in the world right now and they are causing me much anguish and frustration. And they appear completely unrelated. Appearances can be misleading.

The first is the return of Statism. Advocates of big government social engineering are back– lets call this X.

The second is the rapid rise and spread of Islamofascism – actually to be more accurate, what bothers me is not only this rise in radical Islam (which is bad enough) but also the fact that it is being tolerated, indeed facilitated, by the policies of the governments of the economically developed world. Let's call this Y.

Both are very serious problems that threaten to destroy civilizations based on the principles of liberal democracy. And both are supported and facilitated by the same group of people. They call themselves "liberals" – but what they actually are is naïve. They are naïve and mistaken in their understanding of the diversity of human motivations and predispositions in the world. I see no other way to analyze this thing than to resort to some social psychologizing. Forgive me.

Lets take X. The motivation for statism is the conviction that "good things" can be done by giving the state more power, lots of power. This means giving the state lots of money. This money has to come from somewhere and lots of it is coerced from some, deemed less deserving of it, and given to others, deemed more deserving of it. At least that is the theory. In practice of course the people charged with carrying out these beneficent policies are fallible human beings who seldom have the expertise, knowledge or moral fortitude to accomplish the tasks. The incentives that rule in the public bureaucracies are notoriously perverse tending to ever-larger budgets and inefficient implementations. The liberals base their hopes for grand state social policies on an implicit belief that the people charged with implementing these policies share their goals and share their commitment to the values of liberal democracy – that they can be trusted to keep their word, that they respect and honor the sanctity of the property of others, that they will not discriminate in order to benefit themselves and further their own, as opposed to the public's, welfare. This belief is discredited every day in every way. Bureaucracies attract a particular kind of person, one usually with a comparative advantage in survival, that is, one with political survival skills. Playing the game and looking out for number one, that's the ticket. Master the rhetoric, pretend to have the knowledge and tell them what they want to hear. Then they will keep the money coming. Above all never tell them you have reached your goal – that is the kiss of death. And, of course, never leave a single dollar unspent. Its not what you know, its who you know. Wise up.

Statism, apart from being based on coercion, and encouraging the implementation of an "ends justifies the means" mentality, causes liberal democracy to fail because it is parasitical of prosperity. It destroys private initiative and innovation. It punishes the pursuit of profit, necessary for economic growth. It diverts resources from their most valuable uses.

Statism has been slowly gaining ground in America for more than 50 years, with a temporary interruption for the Reagan years. This current financial crisis however has provided it with fiscal steroids. The politicians, mostly, though not exclusively, Democrats, are in hog-heaven. This "crisis" is a party for them. By their own admission, endorsed by President Obama, this is an opportunity to fund all manner of social programs that have heretofore never made it off the collective liberal wish list. Yes we can! We are all Americans, we all believe in the same thing. Lets throw enough money at it and the good in all of us will rise to the occasion. Hallelujah!

What about Y – the tolerating and facilitation of the rise of a brand of Islam that is predicated on religious racism and sexism? (Only Moslems possess religious truth, only Moslems are entitled to full social rights,… an explicit denial of the basic tenets of liberal democracy – it unequivocally rejects both liberalism and democracy). I leave aside some important questions like, is radical Islam broadly representative of the essence of Islam? Is Islam capable of being reconciled with liberal democracy? Where are the moderate Moslems? And so on. Leave those aside.

Now clearly everyone in this conversation with me will have to admit that according to our adopted moral standard, this world-view is evil. It is fascism based on religious teaching, fascism claiming divinely revealed truth. It is a denial of any and all of those truths that we hold so dear and self evident, enumerated above. Who can doubt that it is evil pure and simple? Any doubt must surely be banished by the unspeakable acts of cruelty perpetrated by its adherents in the name of its creed. Yes we all agree.

The liberals, however, while condemning the creed and the acts, mostly in muted terms, urge tolerance for the protagonists, seeing them as unfortunate victims of Western domination and exploitation. Liberal guilt over the achievements of the west, and the relative deprivation it suggests for the rest, translates into forbearance for the outrageous. They are desperate, they don't know any better, how could they? Our liberals, to be sure, are consummate elitists, patronizing benefactors who see it as their duty to reform the excesses of the world with kindness and understanding. The terrorists are not evil, they just commit evil acts. They can be brought to embrace liberal democracy. We need to talk to them firmly but with understanding and compassion.

At root here is the same basic presumption that everyone shares the same goals, the same values – liberal democratic values. Any appearance to the contrary is just an illusion. People are basically good.

Well what if they are wrong? What if some people are irredeemably evil? I don't care why. Maybe Hitler had a bad childhood. What difference does it make? No amount of conciliation, education, negotiation, or whathaveyou could have brought Hitler to embrace the right values. Why do we think that Ahmadinejad, Nasralah, Meshal, … are any different?

News flash! They do not share our values, they do not share our goals, they never will. They want us dead or subjugated. They do not want to live among us, they regard our lifestyles as immoral. This is a clash of values a clash of civilizations.

So why are we bending over backwards to accommodate them and their noxious values? Why are British religious authorities bowing to Islamic religious law? Why are tens of thousands of militants allowed to collect welfare in Britain and in Europe? Why did Denmark compromise free speech by dignifying Moslem intolerance of cartoons they find offensive? Tolerance does not require us to tolerate intolerance. The liberals seem to be more afraid of precipitating self-guilt than of sacrificing principle. Europe is in serious danger of imploding in a surrender of liberal values. We are not far behind.

This is all shrouded in illusion - lack of clarity. Groupthink has run amuck. We have lost an understanding of and a commitment to western civic virtues. This loss will be debilitating in our attempt to limit the size of the state and preserve prosperity and in our ability to defend against the insidious destruction of our culture not only from outside but also from within. Just because you are paranoid does not mean they aren't out to get you.

The momentum is formidable. I have no illusions that I or even those more eloquent and visible than I can make any real difference. But you are entitled to ask what I propose. With regard to X, the solution is simple – a return to a commitment to a much smaller government. Reduce the role of government. It can't happen overnight. But if the current infatuation runs its course and culminates in a collective disillusionment with government solutions maybe we will get another round of Reaganomics. Who knows?

What about Y? Well we ought to be able to recognize evil when we see it and not tolerate it. Freedom of speech means we ought to be able to call it. Lets stop pretending that Islam has nothing to explain. I am not suggesting government actions. I am suggesting a public awakening, which will have to be reflected in a wising up of the media. The mainstream media is either shrill right-wing shriek or nauseating left-wing soft peddling. Clarity of vision is what we want. If something threatens to compromise liberty, lets say so loud and clear. There are people who wish us harm not because of what we have done, are doing or will do. Reforming our ways will not redeem us in their eyes. Nor will it change them. They wish us harm simply because of who we are. We better understand that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fighting against cynicism

All this fuss! What's it all about?

If it is the prerogative of the mature in years to be cynical, it is probably also their duty, for the sake of the young, to fight against that cynicism. For surely we cynics also love our children.

So here we are with the first black president of the U.S.A. ever – well actually he is most decidedly mixed-race, having a very white mother. But, since he is widely perceived as black and was elected anyway, there is ample cause for celebration. I do believe that is true. Such a thing would not have been possible forty years ago. Great strides have been made. Race, though maybe a barrier in some situations, and actually an advantage in others, is less of a factor in most of American life. I am indeed very happy about that. One million Americans, of all colors, shapes and sizes, could congregate in Washington and celebrate for America – and be proud of being American, proud of the freedom it stands for. Cause for celebration indeed.

I am also gratified by the fact that President Obama is surely a very talented and (seemingly) intelligent man. It will be refreshing to have an intelligent president, one that can make a good speech and understand what he is saying. I am told he even writes much of his speeches himself. He has the insight and understanding to make important decisions. Dare we hope he will make the right ones?

The unknown factor is the character of Mr. Obama – what makes him tick? What does he really believe? His campaign rhetoric contained something for everyone: but is he a populist, a radical, or a moderate? Really? (see my earlier blog "the hope and the terror") My friend Stan Liebowitz thinks he is a conciliator, a believer in compromise and "making nice" for everyone concerned. All sides give a little and we agree to differ but live happily ever after. As a master of rhetoric he can make miracles happen. Everyone thinks they have gained something.

Maybe he is right. But there definitely seems to be another side to him. He seems to have a definite agenda. So in his remarks to the press today he spoke of some environmental regulations that he will impose. He will allow each state to establish its own auto emissions standards, thus ensuring that auto-manufacturers will have to adhere to the most stringent – the costs of producing different cars for different states being uneconomical. He also announced that by "encouraging" the production of energy efficient cars and other measures, he would move America away from dependence on foreign energy and, in the process, "create millions of jobs." And he boldly proclaimed that his administration will be one that "pays attention to facts," referring to the "facts" of global warming; in reaction to which he plans to introduce significant industrial emissions standards.

"Create millions of jobs"? Is he really that stupid? How is producing unprofitable cars going to create jobs? To exist these jobs will require fat subsidies. Whence the money for these subsidies? From taxes paid by income or profit earners who would otherwise spend this money to do what? To create jobs, silly. So we take money from profitable ventures and spend it on unprofitable ventures and claim to be "creating jobs." What a neat trick? Does he really believe this? Then he is stupid. Does he not? Then he is deceitful. Not a great choice. Am I being cynical?

And what about the "facts" of global warming. Again, is he stupid or deceitful, or maybe uninformed? The facts? What are the facts? Well, depending on which period you choose to look at, it can be shown that the average temperature of planet earth has gone up a bit. In the broad sweep of the multi-billion year history of the earth, this is a very small swing. Huge climate changes have been occurring throughout its existence and will continue to do so. So there may be a global warming trend. Let us stipulate this as a fact. What else? Is it a fact that this warming is being caused by emission of Co2 to produce a greenhouse effect? The answer is – Maybe. Maybe is not a fact. It is a theory. We are told there is a "scientific consensus" on this. Is that a fact? Actually it is an exaggeration. There are a large number of reputable scientists who disagree.

What else? Let us assume that this warming is the result of Co2 emissions, is it a fact that we are causing it? Simple answer: No. There is ample assertion to this effect, and many computer simulations, but no "facts." Lets say we are responsible for some of it, are we responsible for a lot of it? The answer: We don't know. Lets say we bear some responsibility, does it follow that if we impose massive restrictions on emissions, necessary for normal production in the developed countries and absolutely crucial for economic development elsewhere, that we will arrest the global warming trend. The answer: Absolutely not! It cannot be shown that we could make a real difference even at great cost, even at prohibitive cost. That is a fact. From which it follows that the assertion by a "scientist" quoted today by the BBC that President Obama's measures will certainly have a significant beneficial effect on climate change is, quite simply, a lie.

For many years now (more than ten) I have been telling my students that the environmentalists are very dangerous. Next to radical Islam, theirs is the most dangerous religion we face. The big difference is that most of us at least vaguely realize that radical Islam can be dangerous to our lives, our economy and our freedom. News flash! The environmentalists are poised to destroy our lives, our economy and our freedom as well. They use the mantel of science, with a capital S. But they are not really concerned about the facts. They have a strong, implicit faith in what they see as the imperative of "preservation." They, and the vast numbers who listen to them, fail to understand that there is nothing mystical about the use of resources. As long as we want to live productive, creative lives, we shall have to use resources (transform matter from one form into another). The real and important question is not "how shall we use our resources?" No, that is not the important question. The important question is: "Who shall decide this – who shall decide how resources are used?" The environmentalists are sure that they, and they alone, should be the ones to decide – not through the market, but by government fiat, by coercion. That is why they are incredibly dangerous. They lust after power, the power to be the ones to decide what may be produced and how. They need little excuse to impose their heavy will upon us – a mere suspicion that we may be "causing" a warming trend is sufficient for them to cripple industries and destroy jobs. And now they have a champion in the White House!

When the President says "create jobs" and "pay attention to the facts" and this really means "destroy jobs" and "ignore the facts we don't like", how can one not be cynical?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hullo! Hamas

IsraelHullo! Is this Hammas?
HamasWho is calling?
IsraelThis is Israel.
HamasWe recognize no-one by that name.
IsraelYou know the people you are fighting against
HamasOh! You mean the Zionist entity - we don't talk to you.
IsraelWhy not?
HamasBecause you are occupiers of our land and perscutors of the Muslim people.
IsraelSo why don't you hang up the phone?
HamasWe would if this were a real conversation. But since it is a figment of the Jew Lewin's imagination we know it will be understood as his construction of what we might say if we did not hang up the phone.
IsraelFair enough. Listen the UN wants us to establish a cease fire. We are happy to do this if you stop firing rockets and agree not to do so again. Then we can talk about normalizing relations between us.
HamasWe can't do that. We cannot stop firing rockets until you withdraw your troops and stop killing our innocent people.
IsraelInnocent people are dying only because you persist in firing your rockets and then put innocent people in military target places.
HamasOur people understand it is an honor to die defending our cause.
IsraelWell then how can we avoid killing innocent people?
HamasEasy, just stop attacking us.
IsraelBut how are we supposed to defend ourselves?
HamasYou cannot defend this illegitimate project of occupation. Sooner or later you will realize you must capitulate.
IsraelYou mean we must just surrender to you to kill us all.
HamasNot necessarily. You may live under the legitimate rule of Allah. You can even choose to embrace the one true creed of Islam.
IsraelYou do not talk for all of the Palestinians.
HamasSome of our brothers are misguided. They have set up unholy collaborative organizations.
IsraelWhat if these organizations agree to a cease fire, or to negotiations and the establishment of a two-state solution?
HamasWe may agree to go along for the time being. There is precendent for this in the words and actions of the Prophet. But in the end there is no place for a non-Muslim authority in this land.
IsraelIf we withdraw now will you stop the rockets?
HamasCertainly not. We will show the world how we have survived your agression. We will double the number of rockets.
IsraelWhat if we destroy all your rockets?
HamasWe will get more from Iran.
IsraelOK, thanks, nice talking to you.
HamasCall again any time.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Some amateur ruminations on the Israel-Palestinian conflict

In most of what is being written in regard to the current conflict in Gaza, it is insufficiently pointed out that what is now the "Palestinian refugee problem" is a creation of Arab politics. It is a reflection of the undeniable fact that the Arab world has overwhelmingly failed to come to terms with the existence of Israel as a permanent Jewish nation state.

Certainly, in the wake of the creation of the state in 1948, mistakes were made on both sides, the Arab and the Jewish. Certainly, in regard to the treatment of its own arab minority, there are things Israel could do, and could have done, better. But, surely, if the resolve had been there, the roughly 750,000 Arab refugees created by the upheavals of the 1945-1949 period, could have been fairly and compassionately accommodated - as were millions of post-war refugees, in what was a most tragic and unusual time for these "displaced" people. In particular, the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, the Gulf states ... , could have "absorbed" these people, as the roughly same number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries were absorbed into Israel - perhaps a lot more easily at that.

That this did not happen is as understandable as it is tragic. The creation of a Jewish state in the midst of the Middle East was regarded as unacceptable and reversible - surely without any significant exception in the Arab world. The UAL set its face firmly against it and not much has changed in this regard, despite the few peace treaties that exist. This is not to minimize the importance of those treaties. Rather their importance is to be gauged by their existence despite the seemingly implacable and widespread hostility to Israel that endures. 

If by some miracle a number of Arab states came to a warm and embracing acceptance of Israel's right to exist, the Palestinian issue could, and I believe would, be resolved rather easily. The Saudis with all their wealth and influence could bring pressure and largesse to bear to work out broadly acceptable compensation and accommodation. Money now given for arms could be given for peace and economic development. Trade with Israel in peaceful conditions could be encouraged. 

Pie in the sky? Of course. But not because it is impossible. It is because it is politically unthinkable. The Palestinians were and still are political pawns. To resolve the issue would be to give up the major respectable grievance against Israel as an entity. 

If this is true there are important implications.
  1. There is nothing Israel can do to "solve" the Palestinian problem, short of disappearing as a nation state.
  2. As a matter of broad political focus, the powers that be should concentrate on mobilizing broad and significant Arab support for legitimizing Israel and directing aid to the Palestinians that is constructive and not for purposes of terror and disruption.
  3. In the absence of this, Israel was, is and will be in a "holding pattern" - struggling against the diverse and varied forces that are thrown against her in the hope of weakening and ultimately destroying her.
In a nutshell, any "real" settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict must come to terms with the existence of a Jewish Israel in the heart of the Muslim Middle East. Any progress toward such a settlement would have to begin by first acknowledging this and would have to confront the powerful forces of radical Islam in its different manifestations. The prominent existence of repressive dictatorial regimes, which may themselves have been fashioned to deal with such religious zealotry, probably reduces the probability, any time soon, of a move towards modern secular and liberal states that would be necessary for Israel's existence to become generally acceptable in Arab eyes. But short of this cultural transformation the prospects seem rather bleak.

Still, I am not without hope. I have seen massive unexpected changes in my lifetime, like the economic liberation of much of Eastern Europe. One never knows what miracle is waiting around the corner.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Accademics call for boycott against Isreali universities

Academics in Canada (where faculty unions exist) and in England (and probably elsewhere) have called for a boycott of Israeli universities and their personnel. They have proposed that no Israeli accademic be allowed to speak on their campuses. See here and here.

This puzzles me. One may say that anti-Semitism is to blame, and I am sure there are enough anti-Semites (polite and not so polite) in academics to go around. But I just don't think that's the main reason. I come reluctantly to the conclusion that there is widespread misperception among intellectuals concerning "non-western" societies. Intellectual "liberals" proceed under the illusion that everyone shares or can be made to share there western liberal values - tolerance, open mindedness, a preference for non-violence, belief in the intrinsic equality of all human beings - in short, a belief in the power of enlightened reason. And so they bristle at every use of violence and recoil at the notion of a just war - thinking that every conflict situation can be solved by forbearance and tolerance, by "understanding." So, they wonder, why are Israeli academics not speaking out loud and clear against their government? Maybe a boycott against them will wake them up.

Large sections of humanity do not believe in and do not respect these western values. They have their own very different agendas, for example fundamentalist religious agendas. And they have nothing but contempt for the weak beliefs of the infidels. They use these beliefs against them. No one knows this better than the scholars in the universities and research institutes of Israel. They need to be heard not boycotted. 

In truth, of course, Israeli academics are probably the most critically minded analysts of their own government, in a society that respects freedom of speech. So, ironically, the call to boycott them, to refuse to allow them to be heard on the campuses of the boycotters,  violates the spirit of tolerance, understanding and freedom of speech that these critics claim to uphold.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A South African hero died today - Jan. 1, 2009

Helen Suzman, the tireless, articulate and courageous opponent of apartheid and of all types of discrimination, died today at 91. A whole generation of South Africans has grown up, in the post-Apartheid era, without knowing who she was or what she stood for. But those of us who grew up in apartheid South Africa will remember her vividly.
For me she was a role model - a shining example of principled consistency in the face of brutal oppression. She epitomized the qualities of a classical liberal, dedicated to the proposition that all people are endowed with an intrinsic equality and are entitled to equal treatment under the rule of law in a free society. She stood by this all through the years of state enforced racial oppression and she stood by this in the post apartheid South Africa of Thabo Mbeki whom she criticized for his anti-white policies. Her moral compass was rock solid. She was a rare human being with compassion and humor to match her incredible intellect. May her example inspire us.