Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Double Standard

I found an amusing article on the Huff'n'Puff Post. It is essentially yet another attempt to make McCain appear to be mistaken on foreign policy in an effort to hide the fact that Obama's foreign policy credentials are slightly weaker than the fellow who pumped your gas this morning.

The author's approach is to ask why McCain objects to Obama's need to talk to Ahmadinejad, since McCain had earlier said the president in Iran held no real power. He argues that talking to a  man with no power is not a threat to the US.

What they tellingly omit is the question of why Obama WANTS to talk to a man with no power. If they mock McCain for worrying about a chat with a powerless figurehead, shouldn't they mock Obama more for wanting to negotiate with a powerless figurehead? In fact, isn't Obama's gaffe even worse? He not only wants to negotiate with someone who can achieve nothing, but in so doing he grants legitimacy to a regime dedicated to destroying one of our allies, a terrorist supporter, and a regime which, in 1979, committed an act of war against the US. In fact, a nation which has been sending troops to attack us in Iraq, as well as training our enemies.A nation which has previously expressed a desire to see our nation destroyed. And a nation which, despite a single NIE, seems to be pursuing nuclear devices to use against our allies.

So, if McCain committed a "gaffe" with his statement, isn't Obama showing outright stupidity with his desires? By their lights, Obama wants to lend legitimacy to a nation which, in another era, we would have recognized as being at war with us, all so he can talk to a powerless figurehead.

Isn't that a far worse problem than McCain's slightly inconsistent statements?

Apparently, not if you are a liberal.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/22.

The Pundits Versus Common Sense

I asked earlier if I were mad for thinking Obama looks weak or if the pundits were right and McCain is destined to lose.

I mentioned in my earlier article the several historical incidents where pundits were proved wrong. On the other hand, I forgot the many times they were wrong this race. Such as when they wrote off McCain early in the primary. Or when they predicted a Clinton coronation. Or when they predicted the Wright tapes would do no harm. Or when they predicted a massive outpouring of superdelegate support for Obama. Or when they predicted Clinton's demise. Or the other time they predicted Clinton's demise. Or that other time...

Well, you get the idea.

Given their track record, I am sticking with common sense and ignoring the pundits. If Obama can't even win over blue collar Democrats, even before McCain has started attacking in earnest, he is not going to win independents. Combined with the defecting Hillary supporters, even if we assume a number of Republicans sitting out in protest,  this spells certain defeat.

The fact is we have yet to see a serious effort to expose the real Obama to voters. Clinton learned from the Ferraro incident that a strong attack could be painted as racism, so she has pulled her punches. And the media might as well wear "I HEART OBAMA" t-shirts. So Obama has received the kid glove treatment, yet is still unable to crush Clinton. Once the real campaign starts, with Ayers, Rezko and Wright being mentioned over and over, along with Obama's promises to invade Pakistan and talk with Iran, or his flip flops on whether Iran is a threat, or the bitter voter quote, I just don't see a massive groundswell of Obama support.

But we will see in November.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/22.

NOTE: My predictions were obviously in error. Obama may not have crushed Clinton, but the media's kid gloves managed to allow him to do little, while the press painted McCain as the next George Bush, or sometimes -- amusingly -- even as an "archconservative". And McCain assisted by bouncing back and forth between conservative and "maverick". So, in the long run, by doing very little, Obama won by default, mostly thanks to the media's friendliness.

The VAT Versus the FairTax

Let me start by saying I oppose the VAT. It is a horrible drain on the economy and it hits hardest those goods requiring the most processing. In a high tech or manufacturing oriented business, that means taxes will hit hardest those items most likely to move the economy forward. I know that the FairTax strives to separate itself from the VAT, and to that end it created the retail/wholesale distinction and the new/used distinction. However, in so doing it created a serious weakness.

Whatever I can say against the VAT, the one thing I cannot say is that it is complicated. It may apply taxes in a silly way. For example if a subsidiary is independent, transferring unfinished goods to that subsidiary adds taxes, while doing the same with an internal division does not, but at least it is simple. And that is where it is better than the FairTax.

Obviously, I cannot go into every possible confusion caused by the two distinctions in the FairTax, so let me just give a  few examples.

First, let us start with an example I used before, in a slightly different form. Say I buy a sofa retail, then after a few years I reupholster and sell it. I can sell it as used and charge no tax. However, what if I run a furniture refinishing business. Let us say I am clever and decide to buy the damaged furniture "retail". It drives up my costs, but I can then sell the refinished furniture as "used" and undercut my competition by 23%/30%, more than making up for the increased cost of supplies. And if I am not allowed to do that, then why can a homeowner refinish furniture he bought retail and then sell as used? How are the two distinguished? And who would decide, as the FairTax advocates say they will eliminate any central tax authority like the IRS?

But it gets worse. If that furniture restorer can do that, then why not a cabinet maker? Buy all the hardware "retail", make cabinets and then sell them as combinations of "used" goods. Again, a normal citizen could do it, buying the hardware retail to make his own furniture, then, years later selling the furniture used, so why not a company? And if they can, then what is to stop a developer from buying land and materials retail, building the house and selling it is a combination of already taxed used goods?

Second, having touched on property, let me ask a few more questions. I have already asked about the discouraging effect the new/used distinction will have on housing starts, and the way retail/wholesale will encourage investment buyers over home ownership, so I will skip those. My question is this, suppose I buy a house to rent it out, and so pay not taxes. Suppose after a year, I have never found a renter and so I move in myself. Do I have to pay 23%/30% to the state? And if I do, who would even know that I owed that tax, as there is not auditing agency? And, if I don't owe the tax, then why would every homeowner not claim he was buying a rental property to save 23%/30% on a house?

Finally, there are huge questions in my mind about services. For example, if I develop software for a corporation, is that retail or wholesale? As the business is presumably using my software to make money, it could be argued it is wholesale, but as the software itself won't be made into anything, it could be retail as well. Also, if I design add-ons for existing software, is that used software, as the existing software was already taxed? What if I use components designed by someone else is that sued software? It appears the services model does not work well with the new/used and retail/wholesale distinction. Again, it appears we would need an agency to arbitrate this. If we rely on the states we are likely to have 50 sets of rules for a single national law.

As these examples show, whatever else I can say about the VAT, and I have plenty of complaints, it would still  be a dream compared to the FairTax in terms of ease of administration. The artificial distinctions the FairTax tries to implement sound simple, but in practice they are anything but simple.

NOTE

Yes, the summary is still coming. I simply was struck by a few additional problems with the new/used and retail/wholesale distinctions and had to list them. The promised post is still coming.

ADDENDUM


My first example only works by combining the new/used and retail/wholesale distinctions, which is why this is not a problem for state sales taxes. They would tax new or used goods, so there is no benefit to buying supplies retail. But under the FairTax, if I buy retail it starts the clock and makes my final goods "used" and thus untaxable, where the ability to underprice competitors more than makes up for the 23%/30% increase in price of supplies.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/21.

Imports and the FairTax (One Issue)

Countryman was kind enough to point out the section of the FairTax bill which deals with imports in response to my worries about offshore purchases. Now, I still think other nations may challenge this as a disguised tariff and try to have us punished under WTO rules, but I will handle that in another post. Instead I want to deal with how difficult this will be for customs to enforce, either making mistakes much more frequent or else placing exceptional new burdens on customs, and thus increasing costs in a way not foreseen in the FairTax proposals.

I have made no secret of my distaste for the way the FairTax distinguishes between retail and wholesale and new and used. The retail/wholesale distinction is obviously handled in most state sales taxes, but that is partly because it is applied only to in state sales. (In theory it applies to all sales, but when was the last time anyone voluntarily remitted state sales tax on an out of state purchase?) Since that excludes almost all mail order, the state sales tax is almost always applied to point of sale purchases, mostly face to face, making it easier to enforce. When it is nationwide, it becomes much more of a headache. The state tax also does not apply to many categories, such as houses, where the FairTax would cause strange situations such as favoring investment homes over homes purchased as residences.

However, I think it is the lesser evil when compared to the new/used distinction. That distinction leads to huge economic distortions, such as stifling new home starts. But ignoring that, it also is at the base of many plans to avoid taxes. And, to be honest, the distinction is somewhat meaningless. Is a rebuilt engine new or used? How about an artifact freshly dug out of an archaeological site? It is the first sale, but hardly new. I think I could live with the retail/wholesale if the new/used distinction were dropped.

But that is not my point here, I am writing to talk about the effect of these rules on imports.

Most imports do not cross the border with their purchaser. They are shipped in by third parties and then delivered to their new owner. This is true of both retail and wholesale. Presently, duties are largely assessed on the category of good, not on distinctions such as retail/wholesale or new/used. So the job of customs is easy, they find out what is in the box, what it is worth, and calculate the duties due. If they see record they were paid, it goes through, if not, they collect the duties before releasing it. Very simple.

The FairTax makes that much harder. In addition to the traditional duties, now the customs agents have to decide if the purchase is retail or wholesale and if the goods are new or used. And these are not as easy to determine as everyone imagines.For example, two shrink wrapped DVDs being sent to an individual look like a new retail purchase. But they could have been rewrapped by a vendor, and thus used. Or the individual could take delivery, but for use in his video rental business, making it wholesale. It is not immediately evident from either the good themselves or the packaging or the recipient what sort of purchase this is.

Now, we could force all shippers to supply yet another document, but the lack of this document would cause ties ups, and it is also possible that fraudulent documents could be used, leading to a need for additional investigation. Obviously all of this could be overcome, but it would cost, and more than the FairTax advocates allow.

And that is really my point. The problems of the FairTax's distinctions are not impossible to solve, all of them can be solved, but it takes manpower and money, which the advocates claim they will not need. They claim collections can all be handled by state tax agencies, border collection can be handled by customs, and social security can handle the prebates. All with no additional cost. And that is a pipe dream. Not only will those agencies need massive increases in size, but there are other situations which none of the above can handle, as well as the task of coordinating all these agencies.

So, yes, the FairTax may eliminate the IRS, but they will still need a bureaucracy. It may be small, if they hide the staff increases in other departments and agencies, or it may be large. But the net change in bureaucracy will not be the massive decrease the advocates claim. And as "compliance costs" are where they intend to save money, the fact that the bureaucracy will be larger than they claim means savings will be much smaller, if they exist at all.

Now, I am sure the immediate response will be to claim that all of these functions will require no additional staff, which, to anyone who worked for a state or federal agency seems absolutely laughable. But, I think the best solution would be this. Let the FairTax advocates submit their full plan to an impartial agency, say the GAO, to estimate the costs of compliance. As the FairTax bill has been proposed, it should be possible to get the GAO to perform an analysis of the costs of the new proposal.

Admittedly the GAO may be a bit unfriendly to the proposal, but that may be a good thing. I know several experts have vetted the plan, but they all seem to be believers, so I am a bit leery. I would much rather have some skeptics bang on the numbers a bit to balance it out. If we had some competing figures, at least we could read both and see which seemed more believable.

As it is, we have only the testimony of believers, and the fact that they say it is a great idea does not carry as much weight as some think. It is kind of like the dedicated believer in some self-help scheme who tells you it must be true because his life is so much better. I don't doubt he believes it, but I want to hear from someone with less of a vested interest, and a bit more distant perspective, to tell me whether his life really improved or not before I jump on the bandwagon.

NOTE

As some of my complaints have been answered, a few have been shown to be invalid, and some new ones have been raised, I plan to put together a summary of the remaining valid questions, along with my new questions, as soon as I feel up to typing out a long essay.  As typing this took about three times what it usually would, that will probably not happen until tomorrow at the earliest.

ADDENDUM


Just to clarify the new/used problem a bit let me give two examples.

First, the sellers on Amazon who sell a mix of overstock and returns. They tend to sell them both at the same price. In the future, I suppose they would need to distinguish new and used. However, are overstocks new or used? And if overstocks are new, are overstocked items new if they were also sued as floor models?

Second, I worked in a record/tape warehouse (back when there were records). We would repackage returns and resell them as new. However, under the FairTax, would we have had to distinguish between the two?

Third, could companies claim wholesale goods as retail to save on taxes? For example, rather than buying materials wholesale and then building cabinets and selling them taxed as a new retail item, could I buy materials retail, then build the cabinets and sell them tax free as a combination of used goods? As the logic is only to tax things once, could this method be used to lessen tax burdens?

Actually, that does raise an interesting problem. The overstock resellers will probably lose quite a bit of business to the used good resellers in books, music and software, as the quality is almost equal, yet used has a 23%/30% price advantage. But that is just another of those distortions I mentioned earlier. The new/used distinction will cause the economy to reshape itself in ways we do not now anticipate. Which makes estimates of the impact of the FairTax somewhat suspect.

But, as I said, all of that will be summarized next post.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/21.

Willful Blindness

I was watching news this evening and saw a report on Baltimore police adopting Segway scooters. Now, not only are Segway cops the only people less intimidating than bicycle cops, but the other claimed benefit is just absurd.

According to the report, Segways are better than cars because they run on electricity and are better for the environment. Are environmentalists really that dense? This is not the first time I have heard such absurd claims, but it still floors me. Where do they think electricity comes from? Here on the east coast, we do have a few aging nuclear plants, but, for the most part, electricity comes form coal. So that "clean" electricity is generated by burning "dirty" coal.

If this is the state of "environmental science" I have to look even more closely at their claims.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/21.

The Latest Public Health Push

I have recently seen several news items arguing for the inoculation of boys with Gardasil. Coming on the heels of the arguments over some locales providing free Gardasil or even trying to mandate inoculation of girls, this appears to be part of a push for a general use of the vaccine on all children.

It is apparent that Gardasil for boys is the hot topic of the moment. From a local news story about older men suffering oral cancer thanks to HPV infections,  to an article in one of my wife's nursing magazines about inoculating boys with Gardasil, it is evident that there is a push coming to inoculate boys as well as girls. And whenever a vaccine receives this much public attention it is almost inevitable some politician will decide that if something is good, then it should be provided at state expense, perhaps even made mandatory, just so no one misses out on it. Which means, though no one may be thinking about it at the moment, all the attention being paid to Gardasil will almost guarantee a push to make it a mandatory vaccination.

I don't have any argument with vaccines in general. I think the hysteria over vaccines in general is overblown and being driven by a poor understanding of the relative risks. Similarly, looking at the numbers, it appears thimerosal is largely an invention of the trial lawyers, though it gained a new lease on life thanks to one court case involving an incredibly rare sensitivity, completely irrelevant in over 99% of cases. If you disagree, that's fine, no need to reply and argue this point, as this is not an article about vaccination in general. For the moment, even if you completely disagree with my take on vaccinations, let's just let the point go, as I have something else to discuss.

What I wonder is how various political localities are going to try to push for universal, compulsory Gardasil vaccination. The normal course of vaccines, mumps, measles, etc., are usually mandated by requiring them before a student can enroll in school. The logic being that a student can easily spread these contagious diseases to classmates, so vaccination can be made a requirement for attendance.

I would not put it past schools to simply add Gardasil to the list, but that raises a few questions. If students are being exposed to HPV during the course of a normal school day, aren't our schools in even more trouble than we have been led to believe? And if exposure to HPV is part of a normal school day, don't we have much bigger worries than infectious diseases?

Actually, that is my concern about either mandatory inoculation with Gardasil, or even the government provision of free Gardasil. The logic for state programs to vaccinate, whether school related or not, is that infectious diseases are a threat to everyone, so, to be effective, everyone must be vaccinated. The state involves itself as the infectious disease is a threat to the general welfare.

HPV is not akin to tuberculosis or influenza. It cannot be transmitted through casual contact. Which means that we do not need a general vaccination for protection. Provided only those who are vaccinated have sexual contact, the partial vaccination will work in a way a partial vaccination against influenza will not. Unless the government is saying that people routinely have sex with everyone they meet, I just do not see the logic of involving the state in vaccination with Gardasil.

And if it is not a public health threat of the sort that requires general vaccination, then I just do not see why the government should be involved. Yet, from all the media coverage, I am certain it is coming, whether it makes sense for the government to become involved or not.

NOTE: Fortunately, my hands are a bit less cramped for the moment, meaning that my readers have not been allowed even a single day's respite from my constant yammering. Sorry.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/21.

A Short Pause

To all my regular readers,

Sorry for the brief silence. However, the pain in my hands is making writing difficult. That is why my new blog index has yet to get past 4/15/2008. It also means that I likely will not write today.

Please check back tomorrow, as I should be writing again once my hands recover. Also check out what I posted yesterday and over the weekend, there is quite a bit there.

Hope to pick up again tomorrow. See all of you then.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/21.

Uh... What He Said

After making the statement that Iran is a tiny nation that the US could easily take, Obama now adds that Iran is a serious threat.

When I first heard Mr. Obama speak, I accused him of running a content free campaign in order to draw in the widest possible group of voters. But now, after his plans to invade Pakistan, his certainty that Iran is and isn't a threat, and his attempt to appeal to Pennsylvania voters by calling them bitter rubes, I am beginning to think he was running content free because it was the only way to avoid saying anything stupid.

So, please tell me again, pundits, why you think this man is going to win in November?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/20.

NOTE: Again, my prediction proved wrong, mostly due to voters either never hearing about Obama's many scandals, or believing the media efforts to play them down. However, I am still at a loss to explain how Obama's inconsistent, and sometimes simply rude, comments never alienated more voters than they did. Partly, I suppose McCain helped him by being such an unappealing candidate. McCain never developed a consistent position on anything, for example. Then again, Obama lacked a platform entirely on most issues, so not sure how he was the victor. Still, he did win, so I must concede my arguments here must have been in error.

Index

I have created an index for my blog broken down by subject. It does not contain every post, as I excluded some which did not fit any category, as well as administrative notes and other miscellany. However, for those interested in seeing what I have written on a specific topic, it is a convenient way to find a chronological list of everything I have written on that subject.

To keep it from cluttering up the blog, I posted it as if it were written on Jan 2, 2000. However, it can be found by following this link.

At the moment it only contains essays written on 04/12/2008 or earlier, but I hope to have the rest listed tonight or tomorrow. It is slow and tedious, so it may have to wait until tomorrow. On the other hand, it is useful for me as I can more easily find specific articles through this list than through the Townhall interface.

I plan to update it weekly, or perhaps more often, as I publish new essays.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/20.

NOTE: I did continue to maintain the index for a short time, eventually getting it to cover items through 2008/05/05, though I gave up at that point, as it was proving too much effort to maintain, given the huge number of posts I was making at the time. This new blog has the advantage of tags (and, to be fair, so did Townhall, though I never used the,). Still, the old index may be interesting to view, and can provide some interesting links to old posts, so it is being included in my move to this new blog.
 

Yawn

I know the media is desperate to find a McCain scandal, they can make stick, and after their last effort fell flat they had to try again, but is it really news that he is firing people from his campaign after finding out they were former lobbyists? For that matter, what person involved in national politics has not been a lobbyist at one time? Unless they never left government service, I think every Washington insider has been a lobbyist at some point. And please, don't try to tell me that there are no Washington insiders on either Clinton or Obama's campaign. Every campaign has insiders, and every campaign has former lobbyists. I just can't get worked up about it.

Let me just compare this to something else the media did not feel compelled to cover. Obama claims Wright was not his "quote-unquote spiritual adviser", yet the media forgets to mention that Wright served on the Obama campaign's spiritual advisory commission.

Apparently a voluntary cleanup of McCain's campaign is more of a scandal than an outright lie by Obama. Yet someone will doubtless post a reply to tell me that the press is not biased.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/20.

Swimming Against the Current

I continue to see predictions that the Republicans are facing loss not just in the congressional elections, but in the presidential election as well. And not just from the MSM, but from conservative commentators as well. Now, I will not comment on congressional elections, but are these people seeing the same race I am? I just don't see the signs they do.

Now, let us start with the obvious, no one has really torn into Obama yet. McCain is starting to, but so far he has held back. Still, the fact is that Reverend Wright has disappeared from our radar and Obama is starting to recover from that gaffe. But what happens when the RNC puts "G-d D*mn America" on television screens twenty four hours a day? Or when Americans are reminded that they turn to G-d out of bitterness? Or when they are reminded of how troubled Obama is by the high price of arugula? Or when they are told about his plan to invade Pakistan? Or negotiate with Iran?

The fact is that the polls favor Obama because the press favors Obama. Not to mention that the Republican primaries are over, meaning the Democrats almost monopolize the news cycle. As soon as the Republicans start buying air time, and using the news coverage of the race to get out their message, America will be reminded again and again of the Obama that even Democrats started to flee.

Yes, Obama has die hard fans, and yes there are Republicans who will never vote for McCain. But notice that no matter how hard they try, the media has had little luck in creating even a small scandal around McCain, while despite their best efforts, even Democrats were shocked by some of Obama's statements and behaviors.

This race will be decided by the independents, and, to a smaller degree, the cross over Democrats upset at the outcome of the nomination. This has led me to predict a McCain victory, over and over again. And I still see no sign that has changed my mind. When independents and blue collar Democrats are confronted with Wright and Ayers and "bitterness" and negotiations with Iran, and confronted so regularly they cannot forget, they will turn from Obama as quickly as they did when these stories first broke.

It is a bit uncomfortable standing in opposition to so many professional pundits, but I just cannot understand their thoughts on this one*. Obama's current numbers are a media artifact. Once the public is reminded of the real Obama his paper lead will evaporate. McCain may not have much hope of winning on his merits, but he cannot help but win on Obama's weaknesses.

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* Then again polls showed Mondale far ahead of Reagan right up to the election, and we know how that turned out. And who can forget the "Dewey Wins" headline? So perhaps standing against the pundits on this one isn't quite as uncomfortable as I first thought.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/20.

NOTE: As mentioned in comments following many of these posts, I was obviously wrong in my presidential predictions, though not far off in my congressional ones. Obama did not have much in the way of coattails to drag congressmen into office with him. So, while I admit I was wrong in overestimating public concern, or even awareness, of the many scandals surrounding Obama, I was right when it came to congress.

 

Term in Search of a Definition

Recently it seems that vague and misleading definitions are the order of the day. I wrote already about the strange transformation of Ronald Reagan's memory, as well as the odd ways that many terms are being used in the current election cycle. However, none of those begin to compare to the ultimate flexible definition,. the single most malleable word in modern politics, a word with barely a single fixed characteristic. The word "neo-con".

As it was originally used, the term "neo-con" referred to conservatives who were refugees from the leftward shift of the Democrat party. They were, on the whole, strong on defense, but also more tolerant of big government solutions. Today they would probably be called "defense conservatives". The term did not originally have the negative connotation it does today, being simply a designation of a large group, being invented primarily to describe a new faction within the Republican party. (Nor were all former Democrats neo-cons. Recall Reagan was once a Democrat too.)

That original definition has long ago disappeared, to be replaced with a confusing welter of contradictory definitions, all of which share only one common trait, that neo-cons are evil.  Other than that, most cannot agree on precisely what a neo-con is.

For those of a less outspoken antisemitic bent, who have realized what a threadbare disguise "anti-Zionism" has become, "neo-con" has become a convenient synonym for "Republican Jew". For extreme isolationists the term has become a useful shorthand for anyone who supports foreign wars. For protectionists it has transformed into a more disparaging name for economic libertarians. For those who fear a North American Union it is used to describe anyone who doesn't fear the same. And the list goes on and on. The one common thread being that a "neo-con" is someone unappealing.

In general, ignoring the antisemitic usages, neo-cons fall into two categories. Generally neo-con is used to criticize those in favor of military action or those in favor of economic freedom, including reduced trade barriers. Often one or more of these will be combined in the same definition, but we shall deal with them individually.

The military definition is the only one which truly belongs to the original definition of "neo-con". A strong position on defense was the main reason the original "neo-cons" abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans. Then again, the term "neo-con" has moved beyond that simple meaning of being for a strong defense to imply a number of more sinister positions. From the conspiracy theories surrounding the PNAC,  to the "blood for oil" accusations of some isolationists, it has become commonplace to suggest that neo-cons are somehow involve din a massive conspiracy aimed at world domination. A bit of this is perhaps a holdover from the more explicitly antisemitic usages of "neo-con", but the rest is just run of the mill conspiracy theorizing.

"Neo-con" is also used to criticize the economic libertarians, both domestically and internationally. This is a peculiar use, as protectionism and interventionism are largely the province of the left, mostly trade unions*. At one time these positions were embraced by certain failing industries as well, but one now encounters it almost exclusively among trade unions and the politicians who seek their support. Since "neo-con" originally described those who fled the Democrat party over questions of defense, they were far more likely to tolerate government intervention in economic affairs than more traditional conservatives. Which makes it ironic that the small cadre protectionists within the Republican party would choose to call economic libertarians "neo-cons".

Actually, there is a third usage of neo-con, or perhaps a trait which is often added to those listed above. One will often see the term "neo-con" used interchangeably with the phrase "Israel Lobby". In some ways this is accurate, as most of the original neo-cons supported strong ties with Israel. However, this usage does completely ignore the context of such support. Original "neo-cons" were not supporting Israel out of a love for the nation or even because they were Jewish, but because Israel was our one consistent ally in a volatile part of the world, making support of Israel essential to maintaining a US presence in the Middle East. Then again, those who complain of the "Israel Lobby" often overlook this fact when spinning tales of Israel's malevolent influence over our nation. For some reason the concept of supporting our steadfast ally seems a bit hard for them to grasp**.

Regardless, this confusing abundance of definitions has pretty much robbed the term of any meaning. Originally its meaning was quite clear,  but that lasted for only a moment, and almost immediately the term began to change. From a quick shorthand for "former Democrats who are strong on defense", it changed to mean any specific group to which the speaker was opposed. It had no more meaning than your average obscenity. Other than conveying the fact that the speaker was describing a group he disliked, "neo-con" ceased to mean anything.

I would love to return neo-con to its original meaning, as that meaning actually was somewhat useful. However, the term has now become so broad that I doubt we could force it back within the confines of a single definition. Even if we did, the opprobrium which has now attached would add a connotation completely inappropriate for the original meaning.

Since we can't return it to its original meaning, and as it does not have any real meaning now, perhaps it is just time to retire the term "neo-con". Maybe we would all be better off if people had to spell out exactly what positions they are opposing, rather than simply casting aspersions on the ill-defined "neo-cons".

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* There are some protectionist Republicans, and somehow they have convinced many people to call them "paleocons", as if protectionism were an essential part of the Republican party. I suppose that is true if one wants to go back to the pre-Harding party, but in modern times, a strong protectionist policy has been more characteristic of the big labor wing of the Democrats than of the Republicans. Yes, protectionists have always been with us, and in the 19th century they were the majority, but in terms of the modern party protectionists are no more "paleocon" than Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is.

** For those new to my blog, please read this before mentioning the USS Liberty. If you still feel the need to mention it after reading that, please don't. I am open to almost all discussion, but I have very little patience for conspiracy theories. And the Liberty is one of the most senseless. Unless one assumes Jews simply can't resist killing gentiles, there is no reason Israel would possibly want to attack a ship belonging to her one consistent ally. And if you do believe Jews want to kill gentiles, this may be the wrong forum to voice that opinion. At the very least I am not your target audience.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/20.

Lebanon and Saint Reagan

Like most reading this, I was alive in the 1980's, even old enough to have an interest in politics, yet I don't quite recall the almost divine creature that I keep encountering in conservative, and even some liberal, writing. I recall a man by the name of Ronald Reagan, who was an admirable president, but I don't recall the near divinity of the same name I keep encountering in modern commentary. But apparently there was another being of the same name whose every act is the model upon which all of our current politicians should be judged. In fact, so admirable was he that both liberals and conservatives of today apparently supported him in the 1980's. As I recall members of both groups opposing the man named Reagan, obviously this divinity must be someone else.

Of course the divinity, Saint Reagan, is simply the man colored through hindsight. No longer forced to actually deal with the real person, conservatives, and even some liberals, have turned him into a paragon of virtue. Gone are all the human foibles. Gone are all the mistakes. Gone is any inconsistency. All that is left is the speaker's vision of their ideal politician.

Which leads to some odd conversations. For example, rather than arguing the merits of invading Iraq, we will see supporters of Iraq arguing that Reagan was strong on defense, while isolationists argue that Reagan would not have invaded a sovereign nation. One will pull out Granada, the other Lebanon. But what these neo-scholastics forget while they debate how many Reagans could dance on the head of a pin is that it does not matter what Reagan would have done, what matters is what is right. Reagan, admirable as he was, was a human, made mistakes, even admitted as much. He nominated O'Connor and Kennedy, the man could clearly make mistakes. So to argue what he would do is to argue what a fallible human would do. The point of such debate escapes me.

Having said all that, I still wish Reagan had never withdrawn the marines from Lebanon. For several reasons. First, it gives smug isolationists the ability to argue "well Reagan was opposed to intervention". Second, it allows smug Democrats who support surrender in Iraq to argue "well Reagan withdrew from Lebanon".  Of course neither of those arguments really matter, as our foreign policy should not be based upon what Reagan did but what is in our national interest now. However, it does mean that the opposition can raise yet another worthless argument and we need to waste time explaining why we do not care.

However, both of those annoyances are nothing compared to the actual harm done by the withdrawal. I know it will upset some of the members of the Order of Saint Reagan, but by withdrawing from Lebanon, Reagan set the stage for the terrorists of today.

Think about the world before Carter. The US had faced little terrorism, because we responded with force. The Philippine insurgency at the beginning of the century, incursions during the Mexican civil wars, the Mayaguez incident, all had been dealt with decisively by the US. Even if we did not always succeed we had not dithered, we had responded with force. Which tended to send the message that terrorism was useless against he US, and that kept terrorism against us to a minimum.

Carter broke with that trend and established the modern trend of hesitation followed by impotent military action. With his handling of the hostage crisis in Iran, Carter sent the message to the world that the US would allow terrorism to incapacitate it, and that any military response would be half-hearted and useless.

Reagan had a chance to turn that around, to say that was only an aberration of the Carter administration, and that the US was a strong as ever. He gave every sign of strength, and it appeared that the Carter legacy would be nothing but a memory. That is until the bombing of the marine barracks. His first reaction, the moving of the marines offshore to a safe location, was valid, an acceptable solution, and would have done nothing to harm the image of the US. However, the next step, the complete withdrawal of the marines, was not so innocuous. Whether it was militarily justified, whether it was strategically valid, none of that matters. What matter sis that it sent the message that when facing terror bombings the US would back down.

Following Reagan's show of weakness, terrorism began to escalate against the US. Yes, this did eventually lead to Reagan's attack on Libya in response to yet another terrorist bombing, but by then it was too late, the damage was done. Reagan had shown that terrorism could work, perhaps not consistently, but it could achieve its goals. And his successors, especially Clinton with his "police" approach to terrorism, drove that message home. The terrorists learned that the US would not only bow to terrorism, but could be completely crippled by a well timed attack.

Of course, all of this is lost in the modern veneration of Reagan. As I said, the use of Reagan as shorthand for whatever the speaker thinks the political ideal should be has made intelligent debate of Reagan's shortcomings almost impossible. And that is a shame. The man deserves much better than to be turned into an icon, with his record distorted to suit whatever cause is adopting him at the moment. He was likely the best president of the twentieth century, but he was also a human, and fallible as all men are.

Perhaps one day this veneration will pass and we will once again be able to look realistically at the close of the twentieth century. I think when we finally do, and accept Reagan as a human being, we will be able to see what a remarkable man he was.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/20.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Black is White, Up is Down

I know it is fashionable to bow to conventional wisdom, but in the case of our current political atmosphere, I have to say that I am puzzled by the names people are giving to things. For example, displaying clips from a videotape sold as the "best of Reverend Wright" is somehow to defame the man by "cherry picking quotes". Well, yes there was cherry picking, but it was done by Wright himself, so is the press saying he set out to defame himself?

But that is hardly the strangest inversion in this race. Let us just look at two examples.

First, our current president. Both parties are treating him as if he were radioactive waste soaked in PCBs and wrapped in asbestos. Somehow the man who has irritated Republicans by governing from the center, who sponsored bills with Ted Kennedy, is a "right wing extremist" to the Democrats. The man who carried two wars to successful conclusions is a failure. The man who weathered a terrorist attack on US soil, which took 3000 lives, and prevented any additional attacks is a failure. And 5% unemployment, which was a triumph for Clinton, is a failure for Bush.

So, a man who suffered a devastating attack planned during his predecessor's term, conducted two wars, prevented any additional terrorist attacks, and brought the nation through a downturn in the economy without letting unemployment move much above 5%, is considered such a liability that even his own party is avoiding him.

On the other hand, we have the two front runners for their parties' nomination. One has worked with the other party, sponsoring bills in conjunction with them, and is so bipartisan in his outlook that many in his own party refuse to support him. The other has a perfect voting record according to liberal groups, has never broken ranks with his party, and yet gets the label of "uniter". The same man attends a church which proudly proclaims itself a black separatist church, identifies himself as black despite being half black and half white, and yet gets called "post racial". And finally, the "post racial" "uniter" runs a campaign based on empty promises and hollow rhetoric, and yet is hailed as being "different from other politicians".

I could probably go on, but my head is starting to spin. Centrists are extremists, liberal ideologues are uniters, black militants are post racial, success is failure, and empty promises and catchy slogans are not politics as usual. If it weren't being taken so seriously by so many, it would be funny.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Response to Best of the Web

The most recent Best of the Web had this amusing item:

This Is Just Inappropriate
Ted Kennedy is in the hospital after suffering from a seizure, and the Associated Press reports his Senate colleague Barack Obama made an unfortunate remark:
"People are still concerned with figuring out exactly what happened. I'm just thrilled that he is back on the mend and I suspect will be on the floor of the Senate immediately," Obama told reporters.
Kennedy isn't our favorite person either, but to talk about someone ending up "on the floor" when he has just had a seizure is just mean.
However, I will offer an alternate take. Maybe Obama isn't wishing another seizure on the senator, but is hoping he will be back to his hard drinking ways. After all, there is more than one way to the floor.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Repeating Myself

I wrote about this once before, but since the Christian Science Monitor has brought it up again, I feel the need to repeat myself.

Yes, it is true that Obama is the son of a moslem and so is considered by some moslems to be an apostate. However, I would argue that that is not a reason to oppose him in his bid for the presidency. Even if it meant that some moslem nations would not conduct diplomacy with us, it is still invalid.

Why do I say this?

Let me give another example. Let us suppose that in the course of the general election, Russia states they will never, under any circumstances, negotiate with John McCain. Does that mean we should not elect McCain for fear of alienating Russia? Clearly not. to do so would be to surrender the election of officials to foreign powers. And, for the same reason, we cannot allow the moslem view of Obama to color our choice either.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to oppose Obama. Just scroll through this blog and you will see dozens. I just argue that we cannot surrender the selection of our government to the choices or prejudices of foreign powers.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

The Stumbling Block for Conspiracy Theories

I was replying to a poster who insisted on ranting about the Israel Lobby (I am sure most readers know which one), when it struck me that there is an insurmountable stumbling block for almost every conspiracy theorist. The fact that they can tell us about their theories.

This simple truth was brought to my attention by a web site commenting on the video "Loose Change". Next to a picture of the video's creator, they explained that the best argument against any conspiracy is that he is still alive.

And that, truly, is the best argument against almost every conspiracy theory. If someone were willing to kill JFK, then wouldn't they also have been willing to kill a few stray witnesses? And the people who publicized those witnesses?

If the government could plan to take down the twin towers, couldn't it silence a few stray websites?

If Jews control foreign policy, then why do they let people continue to point out this fact? They can control then entire government but not a handful of semi-literate bloggers?

Of course, conspiracy theories have always suffered from this problem. They postulate a set of brilliant schemers who are also idiots. For example, those who believe there is a plot to form a North American Union think that some evil behind the scenes scheme is underway, yet these secret plotters also blatantly tip their hands in drafting revealing laws.

And that is actually the bigger issue, not only that the conspirators somehow cannot silence average Joes, but that they are brilliant enough to hide from 99% of people, but then leave clues that an average Joe with a search engine can dig up. It is simply impossible to reconcile their incredible brilliance with their incredible stupidity.

Well, impossible unless one recognizes that they don't exist. That helps to explain everything.

ADDENDUM

As I received a comment arguing that real conspiracies existed, I suppose I should have included my blanket disclaimer as I did on other writings about conspiracy theories.

My argument is that conspiracies have existed, but any that have achieved anything worthwhile have inevitably broken down and the secret has been revealed. The only one I can even recall which did not fall apart very shortly afterward  was Hamilton's service as a spy for Britain, which was only unknown as so few were involved and the effect was so negligible.

Real life conspiracies  just don't stay secret for long. From the Sicilian Vespers to 9/11, once a conspiracy has an effect, the truth comes out. If not immediately, soon afterward. The more impact, the shorter the time it remains secret. The same for the number of people involved. It is just impossible to keep a large group together with no personal conflicts or changes of heart.

And since most conspiracy theories involve earth changing events, controlled by massive groups, it is simply impossible to buy into their theory that these groups exist.

However, that was not my argument. My argument was that conspiracy theorists postulate huge, all powerful factions which somehow can't silence a single blogger. THAT is absurd.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.


NOTE: Recent events (in May, 2012) have shown how accurate my beliefs are. I used to rely upon the early 70's investigations into the CIA as a perfect example of an active conspiracy, involving a relatively small group still being unable to remain concealed, but now we have "Fast and Furious", a conspiracy involving a small number, with every incentive to remain concealed, and yet unable to avoid being made public even as the conspiracy is still active. If this cannot remain concealed, how could something as massive as most Truther theories? Much less the absurdly massive conspiracies postulated in "Holy Blood, Holy Grail". (Better known from their plagiarism by Dan Brown in "The DaVinci Code".)

Cuba Anyone?

I can't believe I forgot about this, but when Obama mentioned the small size of Iran and their limited spending on the military, I forgot the best "tiny" country example.

Has everyone already forgotten Cuba, the proxy for the USSR in our hemisphere? This "tiny" nation provided "advisers" for every major revolution in the Americas and Africa, and a few in Asia as well. Admittedly they were funded by the USSR in this endeavor, but they still spent much less than  the US did on their military. They did not cause trouble by troops, for the most part, but by providing skilled agitators and trainers. The troops they provided most often provided training, they were not intended to provide military firepower so much as military know-how.

And that is how "tiny" Iran can harm the US, despite small military spending. Even if we ignore nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the Iranians can continue to fund and train Islamic militants. And I think 9/11 showed how much harm a few trained militants can cause. Nor is that all. Iran can also fund fundamentalist uprisings in other moslem nations, such as Pakistan, to strip us of allies and to create other terrorist harboring nations. They can also influence nations such as the Palestinian Authority, turning them toward more militant policies. None of this requires a large military, yet is clearly a threat to the US.

So, again, the fact that Obama is comforted by Ian's size makes me doubt his competence to even hold a senate seat, much less serve as president.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Ch-Ch-Changes

After trying to post on something other than the FairTax, I find myself again replying to a post by yt_knight. Though this time, I am posting more because he provides an example of something else. So, though this is a reply to yt_knight, for once it may not be mostly about the FairTax.

The reason I am actually interested again in replying to yt_knight is precisely because his most recent post is symptomatic of something larger. While ostensibly he is replying to my post made earlier today, in reality he is demonstrating a mindset I have been trying to understand for some time, the mind of people who accept Obama at face value.

No, I am not saying yt_knight is an Obama supporter, I don't know who he supports for president, nor even what party he supports, if any. What I am saying is that he made some statements that, are characteristic of Obama supporters, and that, under the right circumstances, someone who believes as he does could become Obama supporter. This is not meant to in any way insult yt_knight. His mindset is far from unusual, he is simply more honest than most in describing his thoughts, providing me with a better than normal example.

But enough disclaimers, if I have offended someone , more words won't help. So on with my argument.

The main point of yt_knight's argument is that my approach is setting us up for failure. He argues that the tax system is broken, the FairTax generates excitement, the rest of the world is changing, and so we should change. My approach of finding the problems with a proposal and then refraining from change until a solution arises which is better, will lead us to stagnate*.

Now, for the moment, I will ignore the validity of his arguments. I can't resist pointing out that the world maybe changing, but no other nation is moving toward anything resembling a FairTax, that in fact VATs (the cousin of the FairTax) seem to be losing favor, but that is all I will say. I will concede his points for the moment, that the FairTax is superior to what we have, that it is the only proposal which could find supports, and so on. I don't buy it, but I will concede them for now.

But that still doesn't help his point.

Essentially, yt_knight's position still comes down to this "things are bad, here is a change, let's do it!" By saying that we should not evaluate a change unless we have an alternative proposal, he is telling us to shut off our critical facilities and assume that, when in a bad circumstance, any change is for the better, and that is simply wrong.

When I responded to his post I provide done example, pointing out that the Weimar Republic was a hopelessly defective government, weak, inefficient, torn apart by nationalist and communist conspiracies, unable to govern effectively. Yet, the "change" than fired up the imagination of the Germans was the NSDAP. In that case, insisting on change just because things were bad gave the world Hitler**.

However, after I wrote this, as my first few paragraphs suggest, I came up with an even better example, the Obama campaign. With his mantra of "change", repeated early in the campaign every 10 seconds or so, Obama managed to fire up huge groups while providing no details. For the longest time, I was confused by this, unable to figure out why anyone would buy into a plan for "change" which provided no details.

Now, I know why. It is the mindset that yt_knight demonstrates in his reply. He focuses solely on the negatives of the current situation, maybe with a slight nod to the claims of those promising change, and that is it. He is so unhappy with what is, and so enamored of what has been promised, that he forgot the important question of how that change will really take shape. And I think that is the mindset of the Obama supporters as well. They are so unhappy with present circumstance that they are willing to accept any change, without asking what that change will be.

But I need to warn anyone who adopts this "any change is good when things are bad" belief. If you are sick and someone promises to change your circumstance, he could cure you, but he could kill you as well. Both are changes. And this side of the grave, there is never a situation which could not get worse.

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* To be fair to myself, I did not shoot down the FairTax while proposing no alternatives. However, even had I done so,. I still think it is valid to examine a proposal and ask whether or not it delivers on its promises, as well as asking if the benefits are great enough to make it worthwhile to go through all the problems that any change would cause. It simply seems common sense to me.

** Yes, yes, mention of Nazis is the cheapest rhetorical trick in the world. However in this case it is apropos. The Nazi party essentially ran on empty promises of change. How else could nationalists, industrialists and labor socialists all endorse the same party? In a move reminiscent of the modern Obama campaign, a lot of early Nazi rhetoric was intentionally vague to draw in large, discontented groups. Hitler later forced a slightly more narrow focus, but that was more to drive out Strasser and the Berlin faction than due to any firm political beliefs. Even when trying to drive out the Strasser/labor faction, he still tended to promise everything to everybody.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Does No One Learn History?

My last article on Obama's comment about "tiny" Iran reminded me of something else I have pondered lately, does not one learn history any more?

I mentioned there how "tiny" Serbia launched a war bringing in all the major powers of the time, but that is hardly the only example of how little relative size matters. Does anyone recall the Persian War, and how "tiny" Sparta and "tiny" Athens defeated repeatedly the "huge" Persian Empire? I know most Christians are not familiar with the entire story of Hanukkah, but at least the story of the brief Jewish independence from foreign rule should be known. Yet again, a tiny power threw off the yoke of a massive power, the Seleucid Empire, and managed to establish an independent state. (Well, until defeated by a different massive power, Rome.)

And, lest anyone think I am sticking to ancient examples because this is no longer relevant in modern times, I would point to the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Though the Finns did eventually negotiate and surrender some land, they held out much, much longer than anyone anticipated. Or perhaps the trouble that "tiny" Afghanistan caused for the "huge" Soviet Union is an even better example.

Of course, Obama also completely overlooks the harm that Iran could create by supporting terrorists with just funding, much less with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. But even ignoring that, history says that tiny nations have a pretty good track record causing problems for overconfident large nations.

Perhaps we should ask that our politicians have at least the equivalent of a high school history class before holding office?


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

If A Republican Said It...

It is interesting how the press' reaction depends on the speaker. Take, for example, this statement:

Iran, they spend 1/100th of what we spend on the military. If Iran ever tried to pose a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance
Were  Republican to say that, it would be taken as a warmongering statement dangerous to the peace of the world.  However, as it comes from Obama, defending his statement that Iran is a "tiny country" we can ignore, it has drawn no ire at all.

There really is little need to respond to this particular Obama insanity, as the response is obvious. Not only the response McCain gave, that a nuclear Iran could pass weapons to terrorists, but also the fact that we are not necessarily worried about Iran destroying the US.

What threat there is, and what Obama in all his smug glory manages to ignore, is that a nuclear Iran could attack a nuclear Israel and start a larger war in a region that supplies a large percentage of the world's oil. Even if China and Russia stay out of it, the loss of oil production could be a serious threat to the US. So, it is not that anyone thinks Iran is necessarily planning to attack the US, it is that the acts Iran might undertake could create situations which threaten the US.

So, it doesn't matter if Iran is 1/100th the size of the US, or 1/10,000th, it can still create a threat. Gavrilo Princip was just one man, a tiny fraction the size of the Hapsburg Empire, yet his actions brought that empire down. So don't rely on relative size to defend us.

ADDENDUM


By the way, I am not really waiting for the Democrats or the press to criticize Obama's aggressive quote. They didn't say anything critical about his statement that he would unilaterally go into Pakistan to get Osama, so I don't expect his new statement to get criticism either. Of course either one would have been a scandal had it come from a Republican, but pointing out such double standards seems pointless. Everyone but Democrats knows all about them, and Democrats deny they exist, so it seems a bit futile to keep pointing them out.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Tactical Blunder?

Apparently Democrats are still up in arms over Bush's supposed "attack" on Obama. As I mentioned earlier, it is rather telling that they think this is an attack on Obama at all, as Obama was never mentioned by name.  The fact that everyone assumes he meant Obama rather than, for example, Carter, says a lot about popular perceptions of Obama. However, ignoring that for the moment, I am beginning to wonder if all this outrage may not be a tactical blunder on the part of Democrats.

Whether or not Bush intended to criticize Obama, Carter, or Democrats in general, I think this continued taking of offense is really a bad move. I know it may not have struck many Democrats yet, but Bush isn't running in 2008. More than that, no one from the Bush administration is running in 2008, nor any close friends. I know they hope to make this a referendum against the Republican party, but the majority of Americans do not think of John McCain as a close confidante of Bush, so this constant stream of Bush bashing just makes the Democrats look bitter, and does not really damage to McCain.

But, for the Democrats, it is worse than that. It is a problem akin to their constant complaints in past elections that Republicans were "questioning their patriotism". That charge did not make the Republicans seem mean, it just reminded voters that the Democrats held positions that made questioning their patriotism a plausible charge. In short, by constantly mentioning the supposed Republican attacks, the Democrats kept those thoughts in voters' minds and hurt themselves.

And this is much the same. By asking how Bush could dare to question Obama's commitment to the war on terror, they hurt themselves. First, they concede that the war on terror is valid and negotiating with terrorists is not, which immediately upsets their fringe anti-war supporters. Second, they remind voters that no one would even think of questioning John McCain's commitment to fighting terrorism, or even think of accusing him of negotiating with terrorists. Finally, they remind people that such charges can be plausibly made against Democrats for a reason, from Carter's activities to Obama's commitment to talking to Iran, the Democrats have given the impression that Bush's charge is not that far fetched.

Of course, they also have hurt one of their central tenets. If the war on terror is valid, if negotiating with terrorists is outside the pale, and if defending Israel is a valid US interest, then by what logic can we abandon Iraq to be taken over by either al Qaida or Iran? If they are not going to negotiate with terrorists, are going to keep close ties with Israel and maintain a commitment to assisting in the defense of Israel, and are going to pursue the war on terror, then how do they justify the cut and run plank of their platform?

Of course, this question has not yet been explicitly raised, but it is only a matter of time. The longer the Democrats object to Bush's "attack" the more likely it is that someone will notice that their newfound stand doesn't fit well with their plans to abandon Iraq. So, perhaps they would do better to just let this one go and return to chanting "change" over and over again.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

NOTE: This one disappeared form the radar pretty quickly, so the Democrats seem to have learned their lesson in this case. Oddly, or perhaps I should have expected it, but I didn't, Obama did not live up to his rhetoric once in office. I have often compared him to Carter, but in one way he differs greatly. In office, Carter really did try to live up to his pacifist ideals (except, perhaps his failed rescue attempt in Iran), while Obama has allowed practical considerations to keep him engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan despite his rhetoric.

Why Argue

In an earlier essay, I wrote that argument cannot really prove the truth of something, especially when it is coupled with rhetorical tricks and other means for short circuiting honest debate. After I wrote that, I was struck by the question it raised. Why am I bothering to write at all, then? If argument and debate really can't establish the truth of a theory then why am I wasting so much time here trying to do just that?

My first thought was that perhaps I had been wrong, and argument really is more effective than I allowed. But, to be honest, I really can't fault my statement. It would make me feel better to buy into the lawyerly argument that competing falsehoods reveal the truth, but I just can't buy it. Too many mistakes have carried the day far too often for me to believe that argument alone establishes the truth of anything.

Then the answer came to me, oddly enough, from a question yt_knight had asked. He had asked, several times, why I bothered to pick apart the FairTax and what I would like to see in its place. And that was the answer. The realization that those two questions do not have to go together as yt_knight thought. I don't have to have a better alternative to find value in showing the flaws in the FairTax. Likewise, argument doesn't have to prove the truth, the value is in revealing falsehood.

That is truly where argument is effective, not in finding the truth, but in testing proposed truths and weeding out the false. It may not prove truth, but knocking down bad theories gets us one step closer. To return to my example, it is why I "attacked" the FairTax, I did so not to promote another theory, but to show the errors of this one so we need not be bothered by this particular bad theory again. It does not provide us with the truth, but it shows us which approaches are blind alleys, saves us time form repeating old errors when we set out to look for the truth again.

And by showing falsehood, argument serves another purpose. It helps us to persuade others.

Now, I will admit there are some people who will knowingly cling to a false theory, and there are some who will not be convinced immediately, even by overwhelming proof, but most people are not in either category. Almost all people want to be right and want to do good. Oh, they may end up doing evil, thanks to wrong beliefs, or rationalizations, but they do not want to think of themselves as someone who believes a falsehood or does evil deeds. So, by helping to show others that some of their beliefs are wrong, argument is a valuable tool in bringing others around to agree with our conclusions. It may take several tries, it may take a lot of argument, but it is the best tool available. As there are few who knowingly do wrong or knowingly embrace falsehood, the ability to show them the error of their ways is a potent tool.

So, while I agree with my original statement that argument cannot on its own establish the truth, I can say that it is not as useless as that conclusion first led me to think.

POSTSCRIPT

In some ways, my position on the FairTax reminds me of the protagonist of Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice. For those who have not read it, he is a mathematician more famous for tearing down the theories of others than for any contribution of his own. While he sees it as a flaw, I think of it as an important service. I may not be proposing the alternative to the FairTax or anything else, but by showing their flaws, I hope to at least keep us from blindly jumping into something without full knowledge. Even if we choose to adopt the FairTax, we should do so with full knowledge, not based solely on the excessively rosy statements found in "the book". (Or is that now "the books"?)

POSTSCRIPT II

I didn't want to drift too far off topic, and my main point was to emphasize the importance of argument as a means of eliminating error, but I think truth may be an unattainable goal. Outside of formal logic and closed mathematical systems, or similar artificial constructs, truth may be impossible to prove.

Well, truth may be possible to prove for very simple matters, or for areas so abstracted that they come to resemble logic or mathematics, but for fields based on empirical data, the best we may ever get is a theory which can withstand all of the challenges mounted against it to date.

I know, in essence, I have just rediscovered the scientific method, but you would be amazed how many people fail to see the implications of this method. They understand how the scientific method works, but do not grasp the point that the method never reaches what we would call truth, resulting at best in an approximation thereof. We are left not with something true, but something that our best efforts cannot prove false.

There is quite a difference between the two.

POSTSCRIPT III  

After several readings I realized my second postscript could be read wrong. It sounds, in some ways, like those who argue against an uncomfortable scientific theory by saying it is "just a theory".

I am well aware that a theory which fits empirical data, which can be reproduced experimentally, and which has withstood every challenge to date, is a lot different from the popular usage of "theory" to mean nothing more than a guess. My point is not to reduce the validity of such properly proved theories, but to point out that scientific theories are still not in the same category as mathematical certainties.

The laws of thermodynamics, for example, are not as certain as the transitive property. They match all known observations, but still lack the certainty of mathematics. A single instance of a closed system spontaneously moving to a more ordered system would cause them to be declared invalid. That cannot happen to formal constructs, such as the laws of mathematics.

But they are much more certain than what most mean when they say "it is just a theory". So, though they are "theories", they are still quite valuable, as they are theories which have stood up to repeated examination and testing.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Please Write

I complained before about people who do nothing but repost news articles. Well, not only hasn't it gone away, it has gotten worse.

Today, I found myself reading an "article" by one of our Townhall bloggers. It seemed a nice enough piece, until I got to the end and saw that the post said the site was mentioned in the Sun. I was a bit shocked to read that a smallish Townhall blog had been mentioned in a major daily. "Well," I thought, "perhaps he means Townhall as a whole." So I read the article, and saw nothing about Townhall, but I did see mention of Michelle Malkin's site. As she is a favorite for reposting, I went back to the original article. Sure enough, at the top of the page, in a different font, blending into the title was a small statement saying "from Michele Malkin's site".

At least that is relatively obvious. There is yet another site which posts links to his "magazine", said "magazine" being yet another blog site, which contains nothing but links to other people's work, along with a few sentences swiped from those articles. He makes it appear that he is commenting on the article by lifting the first few lines, but in reality, there is absolutely nothing original on either blog. The closest he comes to originality is when he groups together two or more articles into one post. Otherwise not one word is his own.

Then again, at least those people did attribute properly, even if it was a bit belatedly. There are a few times when I have stumbled across remarkably familiar text in a blog without seeing anything resembling proper attribution. Meaning either Thomas Sowell is stealing his ideas from bloggers, or a blogger is stealing from him.

Now, I am not talking about lifting ideas from another source, or even lifting quotes or statistics. We have all been inspired to write by something we have read, that is natural. And we have all borrowed quotes that another writer has taken the time to dig up, though I would hope we checked to make sure they really said what the author claimed. Those are not the sort of posts I am describing.

What bothers me are blogs that consist of almost nothing but appropriated quotes. It isn't as if this is a commercial venture. We are all doing this for enjoyment, or out of conviction. What purpose is served by reproducing articles, many of which are available already on Townhall? Even if they aren't, most readers already know about all of the sites form which the quotes are taken, so what exactly is the purpose? No one is going to think Michelle Malkin's words are really thew posters. And no one is impressed by someone's ability to dig up widely available articles. So even vanity doesn't explain this practice.

Then again, I don't see it ending anytime soon. Anytime someone has complained about this to a poster they have replied that it was relevant to their blog, which was never the question. The question is whether we want to dig through several dozen blogs posts that simply reproduce other people's writing to find one original thought.

POSTSCRIPT

I also admit to a bit of selfish interest in this one. If Townhall becomes known as a wasteland of plagiarism and reproduced articles, will anyone even bother to check through the list of recent blog posts? Even if it doesn't become that bad, how easy is it for anyone to find posts by those of us who actually write when the list has just been flooded with twenty or thirty stolen news articles or essays by well known pundits? I do hope to have people read what I write, so I would like to avoid either situation.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/19.

Gardasil and Logical Errors

I don't expect intellectual stimulation from television advertisement, but sometimes the unexpected still happens. While watching an advertisement for Gardasil, I was struck by the way the advertising copy clung heroically to a variation of my favorite logical error.

Actually, my favorite error is the excluded middle, or the false dichotomy, which I shall discuss in a moment. Gardasil's advertising copy did not commit that specific error, but did indulge in a variant of it. In the ad one of the consumers of Gardasil explains her choice to be vaccinated. "I chose Gardasil", she incorrectly explains, "because I want to do everything to avoid HPV."

Yes, incorrectly. Had she truly meant what she said, she would not need Gardasil, as abstinence is clearly within the scope of "everything" and is clearly a quite effective way to avoid HPV, or any sexually transmitted disease. Now, I am not saying anything about the ethics of Gardasil, the need for abstinence, anything in that realm, so please no comments on those. All I am saying is that were she honestly doing "everything" to avoid HPV, Gardasil would be sort of "belt and suspenders" type solution, as abstinence would be more than enough, so Gardasil would be redundant.

I think it far more likely the advertisers were unconsciously committing a logical fallacy akin to the false dichotomy, by silently excluding options. In this case, I think the thought was "abstinence is out of the question, so doing everything is using condoms and Gardasil". Which, as I mentioned earlier, is just a slight variation on the false dichotomy.

The false dichotomy or excluded middle, for those who never took logic, or were lucky enough to do so but have since forgotten, is a logical error wherein two choices are presented as if they covered the entire range of options, while in reality other options exist which are silently ignored. "Is he white or black" would be a good example, as there are obviously racial groups outside of those two categories. Or "are you Democrat or Republican", for the same reason. And, while these examples are pretty obvious in their false either-or choices, when properly presented, and used subtly enough, the false dichotomy can be a powerful means of smuggling assumptions into an argument. A number of bad arguments are founded on the false dichotomy.

Let me provide one example. It is hardly the worst of them, but it is one I ran into recently, so it is fresh in my mind.

When arguing with proponents of the FairTax, I often hear the argument "So, you don't want the FairTax, then you must really like the current system." Perhaps not in those words exactly, but anyone who has even heard a debate over the FairTax has surely heard the same. The problem is that this assumes there are simply two options, full acceptance of the FairTax or approval of the current system.

Another variation is a little more subtle, but based on the same error. When an objection is raised about a particular feature of the FairTax, the response is not to disprove the objection, but to show how the current system performs even worse in that regard. As with the previous argument, this only works if one assumes the only choices are the FairTax and the current system. If there are other alternatives, then it does not matter if the FairTax is better than what we have, it could still be problematic.

Now, not all who argue this way are trying to deceive. Many who suggest this false dichotomy really see the FairTax as the only possible tax reform. But there are others who are not so honest. The only reason they embrace these false dichotomies (the FairTax or the current system, retreat in Iraq or decades of occupation,  etc.)  is to steer argument away from uncomfortable positions.  It is not their intent to honestly argue the topic, but to force their view upon others. By pretending the two options they present are the only possible alternatives, they manage to avoid having to defend their choice against the alternatives they excluded.

It can be a very persuasive tool in the right hands, but that makes it no less deceptive. Just because an option has been excluded form argument does not make it disappear from reality. And winning arguments does not mean that one actually knows the truth, especially when such rhetorical tricks are the sole reason for victory.

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote this rather late last night, but the first draft was just a mess, as it included a long conversation about the Iraq War false dichotomy as well, and it just got bogged down in details. I rewrote it even later in the evening, but didn't publish it as I was too tired to decide if I made any sense. I can now see it isn't bad, though I am glad I waited as it was rife with typos thanks to the hour.

I did omit the Iraq part in this version, as that really needs an essay of its own. But that omission makes this seem like another FairTax diatribe. That was not my intent, but it appears to be the end result of my editing.

UPDATE

I just noticed exactly how tired I was, as the title for the revised version had a typo in it. I generally try to avoid misspellings in the title at the very least. However, the original title had been "Gardasil, the FairTax and the Conflict in Iraq". When I changed the content that no longer made sense, so the title became "Gardasil and Logical Errors" or, as I spelled it around 2 AM, "Gardasil and Loigcal Errors".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/18.

So They Understand the Principle...

I don't think anyone would object were I to say those creating children's broadcasting generally fall on the left of the political spectrum. Even less if I said the same of those making children's programming under Canada's state subsidy of domestically produced programming. Given that, it seems equally safe to say that the content of those children's shows represent the thinking of at least a segment of the political left.

Well, that leads to an interesting question, but one which I will have to put off for a moment, while I give a little background.

I was watching television with my son this morning. One of the shows, a children's program made in Canada, showed how an older brother's over protectiveness of his little sister kept her form experiencing things and learning, until his mother explained this to him. It reminded me of another cartoon we had watched where a child had to be told to stop trying to do everything for his friend. In fact, it seems a fairly common theme in children's programming, that we need to let people do things for themselves.

So, if the left understands that when it comes to children's programming, why can't they get it right in politics?

It seems the agenda of the left centers around making sure no one ever does anything to harm themselves, or anything which might bring them any problems. However, by their own argument, that prevents us form doing things that are important to us. So, if they get this with children, why not adults?

Of course, in some ways I blame voters on both sides. We claim to value freedom, yet we run tot he state to protect us when anything goes wrong. Rather than admit we made a mistake and try to recover, we look for a politician to bail us out. But, even were we to stop asking, I have a feeling the left would not voluntarily stop protecting.

So, I return again to their own thoughts on the matter., If it is important to let people do things for themselves, and to handle the ups and downs themselves, why is it good for the state to step in and prevent them from doing so?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/17.

For Those Who Would Sit It Out

I keep hearing the argument that we should not support McCain so that the Democrats get the blame when things go wrong. I have addressed this before, but I feel the need to explain one more time why this is a bad idea.

Now, for the sake of this argument, let us say that McCain is every bit as left on domestic issues as Obama or Clinton. I don't agree, but it is not worth arguing that. Let us say that he is. However, that does not change the "R" after his name. No matter how far he leans to the left, the Democrats will still oppose him, even if he espouses outright communism. Just look at how the Democrats opposed Bush's massive prescription drug proposal. No matter how left McCain is, Democrats will oppose him as they worry the Republicans will get "credit" for socialist ideas.

Without the Democrats to support him, McCain will have to rely on Republican support. As the Republicans in congress worry about reelection, this will be a factor even if McCain's interest in reelection doesn't drive him to the right. The simple need for Republican support in congress will move him rightward, making him, of necessity, better than Obama or Clinton.

However, let us just ignore that. Let us suppose, for some reason, the Democrats decide to let him pass all the left-leaning bills he wants. Let us suppose the opposition is right and he will be every bit as bad as Obama or Clinton. There is still one other issue, defense.

Now, I don't know anyone, even those who despise the man, who think McCain will negotiate with terrorists, let Iran build a bomb, allow China to seize Taiwan,  stand by while Chavez exports "the revolution" to the rest of South America and the Caribbean, or anything else that either of the Democrats might do. Just look at Obama's immediate assumption that any talk of negotiating with terrorists means him. Doesn't that tell you something?

So, yes, maybe people will be unhappy with McCain and blame him. Maybe it would be better if they blamed the Democrats. But all of that means nothing if Iran gets the bomb and hands it off to Hamas. When you are reduced to component atoms, who gets blamed is really a moot point.

POSTSCRIPT

And to those who accuse me of "playing to fears", I am not. I really do fear Iran getting the bomb, the US allowing Islamic fundamentalism to rule the Middle East, a solid Chavez block in South America or the Caribbean, Chinese expansionism, renewed Russian expansionism, and a number of other things. I am not "playing to fears", though I do present the worst case scenario. However, I really do think four years of Obama or Clinton will leave us in a much worse world, the way four years of Carter and eight of Clinton both left us in a much worse international environment.

CORRECTION
: Originally I said "deal with terrorists" rather than "negotiate with terrorists". As "deal with" can be read two ways, I think the current wording is much better. But since it was posted for a while before the change, I thought I should post this little notice for those who read and misunderstood the original post.

ADDITIONAL NOTE

I have changed my spelling of Hammas to Hamas, as that appears to be the present preferred transliteration. I seem to recall it having two m's at one time, but that may be a mistake on my part. On the other hand, transliterations from Arabic always seem to shift. Everyone who lived through the 80's has to recall the Lybian dictator's million different names: Gaddhafi, Qadhafi, Ghaddaffy, Qadafi, and on and on.

In some ways it seems silly, to worry about transliterations. I mentioned before my annoyance at the scholars who changed Hector into Hektor and Achilles into Akhilleus. Neither is more correct. Anything other than Greek characters is an approximation, so why bicker over which approximation is best?

Still, since it seems one M is the rule of the day, Hamas it is.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/17.

NOTE: It seems this was imported twice, once on April 16, 2012 and once on November 1, 2014.

Interesting Reaction

What would you think if you were to say "I think all pedophiles should be jailed" and I replied "I have no interest in young boys! How dare you say that!"?

We have the equivalent in the political realm. President Bush, before the Knesset said:

 Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it.
To which Obama replied:
It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack
But, as far as I can tell, Bush never once said "Obama" anywhere in that speech. Instead we have the equivalent of my pedophile example, Obama assuming that a criticism is aimed at himself.

My question is this, if Obama has no plans to abandon Israel to curry favor with militant Islam, then why would he possibly assume that comment was about him? And why does he go even farther and assume that Bush accused him of wanting to negotiate with terrorists, when, again, Bush mentioned no one by name, did not even imply it applied to anyone in particular.

It is a telling response. I hope people are listening.

NOTE

I had planned this much earlier in the day, but was distracted by the FairTax argument. Sadly, that prevents me from doing my usual "Best of the Web Imitates Me" gag post. Since I can't pretend they are stealing from me, I decided to return the favor and mine their article for useful quotes. So, thanks WSJ!

UPDATE

I was talking to my wife and she said something so brilliant neither I nor the WSJ had thought of it. Is it not possible that Bush's talk of cutting loose Israel and negotiating with terrorists could refer to the one man who actually intends to explicitly do so, former president Carter?

(Sadly, as she reads my blog, I cannot claim such insight as my own, much as I want to do so. I have to confess to being merely a reporter of this clever observation.)

UPDATE 05/17/2008

When responding to a comment, I thought of one other possibility. Maybe it is not that Obama wants to negotiate with terrorists that caused him to assume the comment was about him. Perhaps Obama is simply so vain that he thinks every comment is about him.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/16.