Monday, February 29, 2016

He's Bad So He Must Be Wrong

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I find that as a people, Americans are susceptible to a few particularly bad arguments, and that these arguments have not only been exploited by those who wish to push an agenda, but also have managed to mislead those who would otherwise govern based on principle. In other words, certain arguments don't only exploit our emotional predispositions, but our exposure to those arguments have then led us into making certain incorrect assumptions.

For example, a combination of a sense of fair play and a must less noble envy of those who have more than we do often makes us susceptible to populist rabble rousers who argue against those who got rich "unfairly". Perhaps the best recent example being the many arguments against CEOs receiving "unconscionable" salaries while their companies lose money, or, even more popularly, the argument that CEOs of companies receiving federal funds should not be paid "outrageous" salaries and benefits.

At first glance, this is nothing more than the usual populist rhetoric, the outcry against the rich who get richer while the "little guy" suffers. But, it goes beyond that. Having heard the argument over and over, not only has it been popularized on the left, but many on the right have bought into it, arguing that there should be limits on companies which receive federal funds, and a few even going so far as to call for some sort of federal regulation of salaries.

But, the whole argument is nonsense.I have written about it many times ("A Really Foolish Idea", "Greed", "Greed Part 2", "A Little More On CEO Salaries", "Pointless or Destructive", "Another Bad Idea", "Crippling Business", "AIG Absurdities", "AIG Nonsense", "Living Large During the Good Times"), usually using baseball as an analogy. And it is perhaps the easiest analogy to understand. For example, if your team has a man batting 0.400, yet continues to lose, should he have his salary docked, and risk him going to another team, simply because the team is losing? Or, if a team is losing, should they be prevented from hiring a 0.400 batter because his salary is too high?

The point being, these companies are in trouble. They need the best managers to salvage them, and so they have to be able to pay top dollar to get them. Especially in the case of firms getting federal money, thanks to all the headaches of possible federal intervention, pay will need to be even higher to compensate for those annoyances. Nor do we know that CEOs of failing firms did not earn their money. Maybe a CEO earned $100 million when his firm lost $500 million, but perhaps without him the firm would have lost $2 billion, or gone under entirely, and thus he made much more money than he cost. We simply do not know enough to know whether the firm should pay as much s they do or not.

Nor should we care. The real point is, who cares what a firm pays its CEO? Only the shareholders should care, as it is their money. Yes, when the federal government bails out a firm that confuses things, but that is an argument against bailing out firms, rather than for regulating private decisions inside business. 

But, of course, the CEO argument is not really about the worth of the CEO or whether his compensation is fair. The argument, backed by a combination of unspoken envy and lurid tales of corporate "excess", is that CEOs are NEVER worth what they are paid, that bosses effectively are parasites who do nothing, and so they are always overpaid. No one will say as much, but it is implicit in the argument, and, sadly has been accepted by the left and many on the right.

Nor is this the only argument. Time and again, we hear arguments for various measures based on "greedy speculators", "Wall Street greed", " "heartless multinational corporations" and so on. (Eg. "Authoritarian Oil Talk", "Preexisting Conditions") Over and over the argument basically amounts to "this guy is so bad, how can you defend him?" It is the same argument that tries to invalidate free speech by attacking racists ("The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas""), or violates individual rights by attacking drug dealers and prostitutes. For that matter, it is the argument that tries to invalidate states' rights by tying them to the KKK. Once someone can find a villain to attach to a cause, he can assume the public outrage will make his case for him.

And sadly, many on the right go for it. Having been told we are heartless, unfeeling, and just don't care, we have turned into the opposite, so concerned about seeming compassionate that we will go beyond the left in showing we care. Now we cannot find enough popular causes to latch onto. Rather than principles, we have become the party of compassion, the Democrats Lite. 

Which is a horrible position to take. For many reasons. First, as I have argued over and over, the "compassionate" position actually does more harm than good, both through destroying predictability and through enshrining elitism and arbitrary rule ( "Deadly Cynicism",  "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Utopianism and Disaster"). Second, despite the claims that the free market is "unfeeling", it is that lack of feeling which makes it so beneficial. Without the need to win over some arbitrary ruler, the free market allows each man to make his own fortune. In short, it is the most compassionate and fair system. ("Greed Versus Evil", "Planning For Imperfection", "The Triumph of Good", "Fairness and the Free Market")

But, somehow, we have forgotten all that, or can no longer give it voice. And so, we listen to the arguments of the left and take them to heart. Instead of defending principles, and risking being associated with "bad guys", we turn on the villain du jour along with the left, and concede their arguments.("Why We Lose",  "The Difficulty of Principle", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "What We Deserve", "Who Is To Blame?", "What is Wrong with Us", "The Single Greatest Weakness")

And then we wonder why they always seem to be so far ahead of us.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2010/03/17.

AIG Absurdities

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I wrote about this before, but let me point this out again.

Let us suppose your local baseball team is losing. Losing badly. Let us say they had an Orioles-level season and started 24 and 0. Next season they spend $50 million to get a 4 year contract on a star pitcher. And he pitches a number of shutouts, but the team still ends below .500. 

Would you then say they should sack the pitcher? 

Or say the next year they hire a .315 hitter, and he has a banner year and has a record .400 season. But the fielding is not up tot eh task and team just barely end sup at .500. Would you then say they should sack both the hitter and pitcher because they are paying a fortune to lose?

So, why do people object to CEOs and executives getting bonuses when a company is losing money? We understand the baseball players get money for their own performance, even if the team loses, and perhaps the same is true of executives. Maybe AIG did lose money, but maybe without the fellow getting the big bonus they would have lost far more. If a single executive can change a $100 million loss into a $10 million loss, isn't he worth $10 million? Yet politicians would be decrying paying him to "lose money" and insist we should accept $90 million in additional losses to save $10 million in salaries.

Of course, most of the AIG fervor is for show, politicians trying to show they are "hard nosed" and "good custodians of the people's money". But in reality it is all for show. They don't care about losing money, if they did they would not be paying money to failing companies. That is a sure recipe for wasting money. AIG was failing for a reason, so to complain they lost money after the bailout is absurd.

And that, in the end, is my main objection. If you are going to subsidize failing companies, then let them do what they have to do to get back on their feet, including making payments to executives they need, even if they offend politicians and taxpayers. If not, then let them fail. But do not subsidize losing businesses and then complain their management style is bad. Of course it is, that is why they are failing. If you want to subsidize companies with good management, then subsidize companies that don't need the money.

POSTSCRIPT

Actually, Elijah Cummings, who I am embarrassed to say represents part of my home state, made the most absurd statement:

Without taxpayer intervention, AIG would have ceased to exist and, to be blunt, all of its employees would have lost their jobs. Against this background -- and given the massive layoffs occurring at other major financial entities, such as Citibank -- the American taxpayers have a right to know why senior executives at AIG, who are frankly lucky to still have jobs, need to receive additional bonus payments of any kind to retain them at AIG
Apparently no one told Elijah serfdom is over and employees are not tied to their jobs any longer.

Had AIG folded,t hey WOUD HAVE GONE TO OTHER JOBS. And the reason AIG had to pay retention bonuses is... well... to RETAIN EMPLOYEES. It needs to pay to keep the employees it wants to stay there and not go to other jobs. Yes, some still left, but without the bonuses, presumably, more would ahve gone. Thus AIG pays bonuses to make sure they keep employees who either make them money or reduce their costs.

To listen to Rep. Cummings, you woudl think we had some sort fo serfdom or guild system where AIG employees were chained to AIG from birth to death. The reason AIG pays is to keep employees from jumping ship, and all the government bailouts in the world will not make an employee stay if another company pays better.

Then again,as I have said before, most politicians have never held a productive job in their lives, many ahve never worked outside of government, so why should I expect them to understand how the free market works?

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/03/18.

AIG Nonsense

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

The government approach to AIG makes no sense. First, we are told it is "too big to fail". We need to save the jobs of those who work there, and the investments people made in it, as well as keep it going so that no one who has policies through AIG is left without insurance.

However, when AIG takes steps to do that, paying employees, including retention bonuses to keep those whose labor they value, we act as if AIG is a den of thieves who do not deserve their pay and are simply stealing from the taxpayer. The government starts to talk as if AIG is responsible for their own failure and the employees are to blame for all the misfortunes.

So, which is it?

Is AIG a den of thieves with immoral employees ripping off the tax payer? If so, then why are we paying to save their jobs and keep their firm afloat? Would we not be better off spending that money to indemnify investors and subsidize the insured while they find new coverage? If the firm is nothing but villains shouldn't we keep our money, let them fail and move on?

Or are they really simply the victims of bad luck or maybe honest mistakes who need to be bailed out? If so, then why are we trying to prevent the payment of employees who are necessary to save the firm? If we want the firm to succeed shouldn't we allow them to pay as much as they need to get the top notch employees important to any firm, but even more important for a firm in financial trouble?

I think the problem is that Democrats, especially, but most politicians, see them as both. They want to protect "workers" but hate "bosses", and have trouble deciding which white collar workers are. It is easy when they are protecting an assembly line worker, but with investment firms they have trouble figuring out how someone with an office and a six figure paycheck is a "worker", so their natural class envy kicks in and they start denouncing the same people they are praising. 

Actually, it is a  problem most of our politicians seem to have. While they want "the economy" to be strong, and want to help "business" in the abstract, they don't want to be seen as "pro-business" or taking the side of "the bosses". Politicians of both parties have so bought into class envy that they don't want to let anyone think they are supporting the "fat cats" and siding with "Wall Street greed" against "the little guy".  It is easy to side with "Joe the plumber" even if he might be a boss, as he has jeans and works with his hands, but it is hard to say a broker deserves his million dollar bonus, even if the logic is the same.

And that, really is our problem. We have left behind the idea of rights, to contract, to property, all those pesky individual rights, and think it is the role of government to make things "fair", to pick winners and losers, to decide who gets what and to take sides. No one thinks any longer that being impartial is a virtue, as sometimes the "wrong" side might win.

Oh, for the days when Madison or Cleveland could veto a "relief" bill simply because it was beyond the scope of government and not be pilloried for their "heartlessness". Will we ever see the day when we value "impartial" over "fair"?

POSTSCRIPT
For those who care, my personal feeling is that AIG did engage in some bad practices, but by and large AIG was simply the early first victim of the deflationary crisis which hit the entir economy in 2008. As with any inflationary period, the "boom" of the Clinton and Bush year, spurred on by massive inflation, which caused the dot-com and housing bubbles, and accelerated in that alte 90's to dig us out of the dot-com bust, and again in 2001 to get us out of the post-9/11 slump, led to improper investments, which, inevitably, caused companies to become unprofitable. As with many companies in an inflationary period, AIG could not properly account for profits and losses, ended up paying out capital thinking it to be profits, and basically "ate its seed corn". While other companies, with more conservative management, weatehred the inflationary storm better, AIG, as most of the financial sector, was in an industry especially sensitive to this specific inflationary period's bad investments. (In Germany in the early 1920's it was the heavy industry sector, in our own ifnlation of the 1990's it was the stock market and tech firms. In this inflation it was real estate and financial firms.) So, yes AIG is partly to blame, but by and large the biggest villain is the government which created the inflationary environment and also encourage even greater expansions of the money supply through the reckless extension of credit to unqualified homebuyers with overvalued properties.

Guess that wasn't as brief or clear as I had hoped. Then again, the collapses following reckless inflation rarely create very clear situations.

POSTSCRIPT II

Sadly, the mindset I describe is even shared by many conservative pundits. You can see it in the pro forma denunciations of "greed' or "excesses" they append to every commentary on this topic. Or their statement that we "need sensible regulation". Or even in their constant claims that economic actions are often "irrational". In short, thanks to their fear of coming out on the wrong side of the class envy equation,t hey are conceding the points of the left, just arguing for slightly less leftist policy. That is a losing formula, and not conservatism. Whether or not people are angry with stock brokers or AIG, conservatives still believe in individual rights. Rights don't vanish with popularity polls. If an individual has an unlimited, inalienable right to contract, a right to property, a right to work, and a right to the proceeds of his labor, he has them whether he works in a mine or at Solomon Smith Barney. If regulation is wrong it is wrong whether or not it is popular right now.

To make the point in a most graphic way, were lynchings right in 1880? They certainly fit the public mood. If not, then why is regulation right today but was wrong in 1985? Either we are conservative all the time, whether it is popular or not, or we might as well just come out and declare ourselves liberals of the Bill Clinton model, chasing the polls and triangulating our way through the "moderate middle".

I will stick with principles, whether it makes me popular or not. And trust me, as someone who supports ending all medical regulationlegalizing drugsgetting the government out of marriageallowing unfettered foreign tradeallowing unlimited (almost) immigration once the welfare state is dead, ending all government involvement in businessall regulation of any kind, and restoring the gold standard, I know I have some unpopular views. However if I think they are right, then it doesn't matter. Truth is often unpopular, it makes it no less true.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/03/23.

Crippling Business

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

We have heard that the financial industry, or some members on on their last legs. They have too little liquidity, they have bad investments and are about to fail. And the government has told us we have to save them.

If this were, say, a baseball team, the solution would be to scrape together every last dime, get a top notch manager, a few top players, advertise heavily to get the fans back in the seats, and then hope television and merchandise revenues rise to cover expenses and pay off old debts.

And a real business would run that way.  (While Washington whinges about CEOs who earn millions while losing money, paying millions for  a CEO who cuts losses from hundreds of millions to just millions is worth a few million dollars.) A real business in trouble would hire the best CEO it could find, strive to keep its best employees, maybe cut some deadwood, try to build up sales, perhaps through advertising, and see what it could accomplish.

Except that Washington is trying their hardest to prevent this sensible plan. First, they have capped CEO salaries meaning that companies most in need of top management can't pay them anywhere near market value. In addition, thanks to anger over "wasting money on junkets" (made by politicians who waste more money on junkets than anyone), not only can CEOs not be provided with perks in lieu of the salary laws prohibit, they also will probably need to justify every trip or any effort to entertain clients in order to avoid the wrath of Washington. On top of that, with Kerry upset about corporate sponsorship and entertainment expenses for employees, not only are many forms of advertising likely to be prohibited, but many of those perks which make jobs more desirable to top employees are forbidden.

In short, Washington is doing everything it can to keep these companies from recovering.

The one thing they have yet to do is prohibit these companies from firing employees to save costs. But how long will it be before TARP is amended to require retention of employees? Or lucrative severance packages? Or at the very least, administrative approval before firing? Does anyone think that is unlikely?

In all honesty, I always thought TARP and all bailouts are a waste. However, if we must have a bailout, can't we have one which is not designed with class envy and vote garnering in mind, and create one which actually gives troubled industries a chance to recover? Right now, signing on to TARP is akin to committing suicide for most firms.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/02/25.

NOTE: This was accidentally posted twice, once on January 17, 2015 and once on February 29, 2016.

Pointless or Destructive

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I wrote earlier about how destructive the CEO compensation caps will be. However, I have not yet reviewed the law so they may just be pointless. It all depends on how the law reads.

You see, if the law caps all types of payments, benefits, and everything else at $500K, that means these floundering companies, who most desperately need the best CEOs available to restructure them, get their business back on an even keel and point them int he right direction, will be competing for CEOs with companies which have no imposed caps, and so will get the bottom of the executive barrel.

On the other hand, if the law only caps explicit compensation,t hen we will simply see an increase in stock option, bonuses, and other non-monetary payments to CEOs in those companies. Just a spay caps in the Second World War eld to the birth of health and other benefits as substitutes for pay the companies could not offer, we will see companies participating in the bailout using non-monetary compensation as a way to get around the caps and compete for the CEOs they need.

There is a third option. They could simply work around the law. Even if it prevents the payment of competitive wages, they could simply hire a CEO at $500K per year, and then retain his wife, son or dog as a "consultant" at $200 million per year, and thus offer a competitive wage through the back door. Or else they could "buy" a pencil or lighter from the CEO for $100 million in addition to hiring him for $500K per year. Any number of such scheme exist which would comply with the letter of the law, if not the foolish spirit.

And it is a foolish law. I already explained this, but it is important enough I need to say it again. CEOs do provide a valuable service. They do not simply sit in a big office and collect pay as many in government think. (Are congressmen and senators projecting a bit when they imagine CEOs do nothing?) A good CEO can save a fortune, or bring in a fortune in increased sales. And if the company is large, a CEO can easily be worth many times his salary, even if he gets $100 million a year or more.

As I wrote before, it is akin to athletes and teachers. On a per student basis a teacher may be worth more, but an athlete can provide a service to millions, so even if he is worth only a dollar to each viewer, he makes tens of millions while the teacher, who can only provide service to twenty or thirty students, even if that service is worth thousands, only gets fifty or sixty thousand dollars at best. The same with a CEO. The boss of GE, because he is managing a company worth billions, can save or earn millions or billions, while even the best boss of  a corner grocery, because of his scope, can earn only tens of thousands. Thus, for big companies, it makes sense for the largest corporations to offer tens or hundreds of millions to attract only the best CEOs as they will be worth much more than that. If they offer only tens of thousands, it would make sense for those same best CEOs to manage grocery stores, and have far less stress for the same pay.

Why do so few in politics, or even among the general public, seem to understand this? They can understand that there are few top athletes so they make big money, so why can't they apply the same to business? Or they truly think corporate executive don't do anything? If so, why don't they apply for the job and see how easy it is?

POSTSCRIPT


This provides an interesting parallel to Obama's prohibition on "lobbying" jobs for those in his administration. As I said, it either is pointless as they will stay in his administration for four years, and thus will only leave after he is out of office, when the prohibition no longer holds, or else they will leave early and take a job, as did Tom Daschel, that is in effect a lobbying post, but is called something else. In either case, it will be a meaningless restriction.

Similarly, unless carefully crafted, this law will be largely ineffective. However, if it is carefully crafted, and much more airtight than Obama's prohibition, then it will destroy most of the companies the bailout intends to save. Either way it seems a particularly bad idea.

POSTSCRIPT II
It is amazing how many such subterfuges exist in matters pertaining to government. For example, I worked for an American company wholly owned by a foreign firm. However, laws prohibited foreign firms from taking certain defense contracts. So, the foreign firm created an American subsidiary, and transferred ownership of my company to that subsidiary. Of course, the foreign company still owned us, but, thanks to that intermediary company, we now qualified for all those contracts. (Yes, there was some fuss about "independent management", but if this foreign firm really had espionage in mind, would they have not been able to find a dozen Americans willing to lie and form a shell company? Which makes the assurances of separate management pretty dubious security.)

And there are dozens of such lies required by the government. I worked for two different companies which had become "minority contractors" through the donation of stock to, in one case, a woman and in the other an Asian businessman. Neither one was truly minority owned, but on paper they then qualified for "set aside" contracts.(And it was a nice source of effort free income for the woman and Asian man in question.)

My question is this. The government must know such lies are happening all the time. So why do they keep passing such laws? If they know these laws will simply be circumvented by deceptive practices, what is the point? Other than making voters think they are doing things they aren't, I can't think of a single reason. Which does not cast politicians in a very favorable light.


Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/02/04.

The Power of Nonsense

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I started this same post several times, as I never quite got it right, but I think I finally see the point behind it all. Which is actually rather impressive, given that it was inspired by a truly mediocre horror film and the lyrics to "A Whiter Shade of Pale". But from such humble beginnings, sometime profound thoughts grow. So, without more preface or embarrassing revelations about what inspires my writing (well, except for the opening paragraph), allow me to dive right in.

Friday, as my son was not home to be disturbed by the content, and my wife was not home to mock my bad taste in films, I decided to watch They on cable. Now, I have seen it before, so I knew in advance it was a stupid movie, in fact a very stupid movie. It made little sense, even less than those "dead schoolgirl" movies the Japanese seem to love, and it is chock full of nonsensical plot device. (For example, why do these things steal kids, then send them back to steal them again? Is there some demonic Fish and Wildlife Service that makes them throw back souls that are too small? Is it some sort of infernal "catch and release" program?) But, despite the high level of stupidity on display, the film still manages to disturb me. For a few seconds after watching it, I remember what it felt like to be a little boy and find the dark terrifying. For a few moments I am truly disturbed.

And that made me think about all those films that manage to make me uneasy, that bring that sensation of the uncanny to mind. And, the funny thing is, they are usually the worst horror films. Well crafted, sensible horror tales, or skillfully made horror films, the ones that make sense, that flow in an intelligible manner, usually don't trouble me. But the really stupid ones, or the related Italian films which aren't stupid per se, just completely unconcerned with plot, those nonsensical films really manage to get to me. In fact, usually the parts that are most effective are the "set pieces". the "isn't that cool" scenes  which seem to have little to do with the rest of the film, that are obviously just dropped in to be a shock. But, because they are so disconnected and nonsensical, I think they probably are all the more effective.

It is a topic I have dealt with before, most notably in "Humor and Nightmare", though I dealt with it earlier (in terms of humor rather than horror) in "Wit and Wisdom?" and "The Problem". My basic premise in those posts being that humans tend to greet the uncertain and unpredictable with horror, though, should the unpredictable outcome turn out to be benign, it may then turn into humor instead. And that actually helps to explain why bad films are often more effective, my the plotless, senseless, absurd horror film may often unsettle more than the well crafted one. The schlock film, due to sheer incompetence, may be all the more uncertain, and thus more effective, simply by lacking any coherence.

Partly this horror arises from something in human nature. In the nature of all living beings, actually, though most developed in humans. The brain, in all animals, acts as a filter. Whatever else it may do, it definitely serves to filter events to find patterns. We can argue to what degree it abstracts those patterns, how complex the patterns lower life forms can conceive, and so on. But I doubt anyone would deny that all creatures, to some degree, learn. And to learn, creatures must be able to find patterns.And to find patterns, we must look for regularities.

Which is likely why horror fills us with such dread. Actually, why two forms of horror work as they do. First, there is the overwhelming type of horror, the horror where nothing makes sense. For example, films like Eraserhead, where there is no anchor to reality, where we can form no patterns as nothing seems connected to anything else. Confronted with such films, we begin trying to form patterns, fail, try again, and so on, eventually feeling such frustration that we give up. However, unable to even begin to form patterns, cut adrift from out most basic tool, leaves us filled with dread. Second, there is the "twist", a world that seems predictable but then changes. These are effective because we form patterns as usual, make assumptions, only to have them overturned, leaving us to doubt our ability to find patterns, causing the same sort of dread.

Actually, you can see how basic pattern finding is to humans. Look at how they react to nonsense. When confronted with something absurd, but which others treat as significant, be it a film, a song, a poem, or something else, humans, convinced there are patterns everywhere, will try to find meaning in, look for patterns. Just look at all the profundity teens seem to find in the nonsensical lyrics of various bands and you will understand how desperately the mind seeks patterns. From the numeric fixations of psychotics to the quest after equidistant letter sequences in scripture, even our madness seeks after patterns. It is an inherent attribute of the human mind, of all minds, human and animal. Patterns are the stuff on which the brain subsists.

So, what is my point? I have written about this before, but always with a political twist. So, where is that twist tonight?

Tonight there is none. I have no political spin, or at least not one that is purely political. Instead, I just wanted to show how badly our minds handle uncertainty, how much it can drive us to despair. And I want to ask, besides all the obvious ills of arbitrary government, besides destroying our ability to plan, keeping us from all the wealth that long range plans give, making it more difficult to be sure we are acting in accordance with the law, and so on, what are the psychological effects of arbitrary government?

It is not as absurd as it sounds. One need only read tales of everyday life in Nazi Germany or the former USSR to notice that something akin to despair seemed to taint the lives of everyone living under those regimes. Not just because of poverty, not just because of wars, or even secret police, but because of something more fundamental.

And I think that fundamental pain was suffering form the lack of certainty, of recognizable patterns. Unable to know whether doing the same thing would bring the same results, people were uncertain what to do. Not knowing whether tomorrow would be like today, or something wildly different, not even knowing if tomorrow they might suddenly be at risk of arrest or execution for no reason at all, all those things introduced an existential despair that is characteristic of modern absolutism.

Among all the other harms of absolutism, the destruction of joy for everyone, from the elite to the lowliest of the common men, that is unique to the modern dictatorship. And something we should consider before allowing government more power to "fix" our problems. 

POSTSCRIPT


I know it is customary to speak of modern absolutism as something different from earlier kings and tyrants, but in this case there is good reason. Prior to the modern age, the modern sort of absolutism was impossible. Without communications, record keeping, and the excess wealth necessary to establish the infrastructure of tyranny, medieval rulers could only exert their influence on their immediate underlings. Peasants, though their lot in life was miserable, were mostly beneath the attention of anyone but their immediate lord, and thus enjoyed a life largely unobserved by the rulers. In addition, prior to the skepticism of the modern age, religion and tradition served as some small check on absolute tyranny. Yes, many rulers broke religious laws and cultural traditions, but, even when they did, enough of their underlings still obeyed that most peasants, farmers, merchants and burghers could expect traditions to protect them to some degree. It is only now that we have managed to establish absolute control that reached down to the absolute lowest levels of society with no external checks.

POSTSCRIPT II


For those who want a fictional expression of my theory, I recommend Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. The protagonist, trapped in a crazy world where he is told "everything is code", eventually goes mad looking for patterns in everything, if only to try to understand anything that has happened. As none of it makes sense, he begins to see other patterns, find far fetched explanations, as he can't live without order and patterns. It is almost a perfect embodiment of the thesis I presented above. Plus, after Fiasco, and -- maybe --His Master's Voice or Chain of Chance, it is my favorite Lem novel. (I like Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum even better, but those are collections, not individual novels. However, they remind me of the best of Borges, and so are likely my favorite Lem works overall.)

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2010/03/15.

Wit and Wisdom?

NOTE: I am copying sixteen essays from my old blog ("Random Notes") to this blog. Some are cited in other essays, but most are simply essays that struck me as interesting while I was going through my search for essays to fix broken links.

I have to correct one of my oldest misapprehensions. You see, one thing I always had to admit was, though the political right is clearly much closer to the truth in all things political and economic (well, most of the time), we are a rather humorless lot. Be it the outright robot-like humorlessness of most Objectivists (who sometimes make Star Trek's Vulcans look like Dr. Phil) to the rather pathetic attempts at "Christian humor", to the host of awful blue collar/redneck comedians, the right just can't seem to make people laugh. There are exceptions, Dennis Miller, when not being exceedingly pompous and smarmy, can make jokes with a conservative/libertarian edge, P.J. O'Rourke is a riot (though sometimes I wonder if that is because he is a reformed leftie), and both Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh can hit the right notes at least part of the time. But by and large the right is better at politics than comedy.

Of course, much of the comedy on the left is pretty bad too. There is a lot of humor that falls just as flat as humor on the right. But, for the most part, the best comics have been those whose political views have been far left of my own. Granted, as I argued in "The Problem", once they become too strident in their politics, as happened to George Carlin, Michael Moore, Lenny Bruce and others, their comedy suffers (in the case of Moore, disappears entirely), but for the most part, the left just seems better at getting a smile out of people than the right.

Then again, it makes sense, to a degree. The left's basic message, as I argued again and again ("The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government" ,"In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Utopianism and Disaster", "The Importance of Error"), is that people are incompetent and need to be told what to do. Incompetence is, in itself, funny. Describing a world of morons too incompetent to run their lives without big brother's help is clearly a better situation for comedy than one in which people know what they are doing.In short, the left's world view may be part of the reason they are better at humor. Or, maybe, the world view most consistent with humor is the same one which drives most comedians to the left.

But that seems to be changing. Not that the right is getting any funnier. No, the Rand Army is just as grim as ever, and now joined by Paulites and FairTax "read the book" chanters, all showing not an iota of humor in their determined march into some future Galt's Gulch only they can see. Oh, some others try, but Buchananites can't seem to interest anyone in their "funny Nazi stories", and Brent Bozell's family friendly limericks just don't get many takers. And so the right is still a great wasteland when it comes to all things comedic.

What has changed is that the left has started to become just as bad.

It started a while ago, in November 2000 to be precise. The same date marks the death of comedy and the birth of the Angry Left. And that is no coincidence. 

As I said before,t he essence of humor is being unpredictable. Whether it is a knock-knock joke, a shaggy dog story, a sight gag, slap stick or even a pun, the one thing that makes humor funny is the incongruity of the outcome. And to be incongruous it must be unpredictable. That is why jokes become less funny as they are told over and over, the more you remember the less surprising it is. And it is also why, as I argued in "The Problem", those with a point to make, those who have something they are trying to sell, be they political partisans or religious missionaries, make such bad comedians. Because they have such a clear belief, and because that belief makes their statements so predictable,t hey just can't  be truly unpredictable, and so, they can't be truly funny*.

And the Angry Left is nothing if not predictable. And so is their humor. "Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it is smarter than George Bushitler Chimpy McFlyboy the President Select and Great Decider Karl Rove's boyfriend who is just a sock puppet for Cheney and the oil industry... nobloodforoiloutofIraqnowtherewerenoWMDsBushliedpeopledied... andhestolethelectionfromAlGorein2000andFloridalethimand heblewuptheTwinTowersandtheleveesinNewOrleanstoo nottomentionauthorizingtortureatGuantanamoandkillingallthoseciviliansinIraq andallthedomesticspyingandnotcaringaboutbblackpeopleandgivingustheworsteconomysinceDiocletianand....YEARGGHHH!" I'll grant that they have a lot of energy, and they definitely have a world view more distant from reality than the most outre Monty Python or Kids in the Hall skit. (Chicken Lady has nothing on the Bush funded skin divers blowing the levees in New Orleans.)  But the problem is, everyone knows their whole routine in advance, every joke, every punchline, it is all informed by that tirade I typed out above. The minute an Angry Leftist starts, you know the outcome. Bush-Cheney-Rove did it. They are so predictable, their thought processes so utterly mechanistic, they make the rants of LaRouchers look enigmatic**.

But even with the birth of the Angry Left, the left still had some more sane comedians left. Some, such as the Daily Show and others, managed to even gain some respectability by distancing themselves from the insanity that was the Angry Left. They might join the Angry Left in laughing at Bush's verbal blunders, even suggest he was a cretin, but by and large, these comedians kept themselves a bit more flexible in their views and so could continue to surprise people, and thus remained funny.

Until 2008 and the Great Obama Love-In.

And as it was forbidden to make even gentle fun of the Windy City Messiah, the potential for all political humor dried up on the left. Since mocking the right tended to sound just a bit too strident and predictable, and with the president off limits, there was not much left for the left to laugh about.

And you can see the outcome in these juvenile sites I found (herehere and here), the sort of pointless "humor" which passes for wit among many on the left. Oh, yes, there are still a handful of funny people left on the left, but they are exceptions, just as the handful of truly funny voices on the right always were. The bulk of the left has been rendered, through the combination of the Angry Left and Obama love, as unfunny as the right. 

Well, maybe some great comedic genius will arise among the communists. There certainly aren't too many funny people left any closer to the political center.

-----------------------------------------------------------

* In my original post I argued this point with Crawfish, as he said he knew several ministers who were simultaneously very funny. And I agreed that sometimes religious figures could also be funny, but, at least as far as I have seen, only when they act as comedians first and preachers second. The more they preach, the less funny they are. The only way around this, at least in my experience, is to tell a joke, completely free of preaching, and THEN tie it into a message, hiding the predictability until the end. There is one other exception. When a preacher is explicitly trying to make a point about rigid patterns of thought or absurdity of assumptions, be it in Zen koans or tales of Nasruddin, then he can likely both preach and make jokes, as the unpredictability is itself part of the message. But those are unusual circumstances and don't really invalidate my general rule.

** I realize that the followers of LaRouche are not quite as common as they once were, and with technology making physical trips to the post office less common, perhaps my younger readers are unaware of his beliefs. I won't go through the whole mad world of LaRouche here, the "Queen of England is a drug dealer" madness and so on. Largely, think of LaRouche as a hybrid paleo-con and old-school Democrat with a bit of a Tesla fanatic thrown in. He had lots of perpetual motion machine type lunacy combined with insane protectionist economic policies, mixed with some covert antisemitism disguised as criticism of the ADL and Israel. (He pioneered that "Being anti-Israel isn't antisemitic, you damn Jew! I don't hold it against you that you murdered Jesus, control the world banks and seek to enslave gentiles, so get off my back!" argument.) He also, in his paranoia about the Bilderbergers and other internationalist groups anticipated many of the worries about the NAU, New World Order and other hobby horses of certain paleo-cons and other haters of "neocons".  I am sure there are still sites up that document his whole pitch for those interested. My point here is simply that they were incredibly, almost inhumanly predictable in their ability to tie any event, no matter what, to some Jewish/internationalist conspiracy.

------------------------------------------------------

POSTSCRIPT

Yes, this is truly a frivolous post, I know that. But having watched political humor grow both more one-sided and ever less amusing, I couldn't help myself. Maybe if I complain enough someone on the right will go out and learn how to be funny just to shut me up. At least, that is my dream.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/09/03.

This essay was accidentally posted twice, once on September 30, 2014 and once on  February 29, 2016.