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Archive for September, 2008

“I don’t care what somebody on some college campus says.”

— President George W. Bush, on hearing last week that more than 200 eminent economists had signed a letter expressing concern about the White House’s proposed bailout plan.

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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“May you find what you are looking for;
May you come to the attention of those in authority;
May you live in interesting times.”

Ancient Chinese curses.

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I wrote earlier about Obama’s attempts to silence ads critical of him by legal intimidation.

His “truth-squad” at Missouri is, however, no less disturbing. [However, see update below]

Perhaps we are getting overworked about the whole thing and this “truth squad” is simply there to issue rebuttals and not actually engage in prosecutions.

Perhaps Obama really does not believe in free speech and like Stalin, Che Guevera or Hugo Chavez has no qualms about crushing dissenting voices using all the force and cunning at his disposal.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. I think Obama does generally believe in free speech and civil liberties but he also believes it is of paramount importance that he get elected. And he probably thinks that if some false propaganda against him can be silenced only by intimidatory tactics, it is not such a terrible thing.

That brings one to an interesting moral question. To what extent should one be willing to compromise one’s principles for some ‘greater good’?

I know where I stand, at least with regard to this particular issue. But Obama, and surely over 70% of the country, would probably view me as a free speech radical.

[Update] Eugene Volokh has another post on the issue. Perhaps, as he suggests, the “truth squads” are nothing worse than an apparatus to systematically rebut falsehoods. If so, I have no problems with the principle. The devil however lies in the details: to many ordinary citizens, the sight of officials such as sheriffs and prosecuters forcefully countering claims might seem rather close to intimidation.

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Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

Now, yes, Steve Jurvetson is not just a randomly selected big-name venture capitalist.  He is a big-name VC who often shows up at transhumanist conferences.  But I am not drawing a line through just one data point.

I was invited once to a gathering of the mid-level power elite, where around half the attendees were “CEO of something” – mostly technology companies, but occasionally “something” was a public company or a sizable hedge fund.  I was expecting to be the youngest person there, but it turned out that my age wasn’t unusual – there were several accomplished individuals who were younger.  This was the point at which I realized that my child prodigy license had officially completely expired.

Now, admittedly, this was a closed conference run by people clueful enough to think “Let’s invite Eliezer Yudkowsky” even though I’m not a CEO.  So this was an incredibly cherry-picked sample.  Even so…

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others’ suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can’t talk about it in public.  This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.  Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui.  Failing that, your readers want to hear how the upper echelons got there by cheating, or at least smarming their way to the top.  If you said anything as hideous as, “They seem more alive,” you’d get lynched.

Worth quoting, I think, especially in an era where much redistributionist logic stems from an assumption that money and ability have little relation.

We all have different goals in life, and some, like I, choose to do something out of love or reverence and perhaps a shot at greatness. In doing so, we often renounce the opportunity of doing something else that might have led to more money. However, it is important that we do not confuse this voluntary decision with some sort of moral superiority. There is nothing wrong with the fact that people with more money have better healthcare, better food, better recreation and better opportunities in life. Money may not be a perfect denomination, but it is the best that exists. And there is nothing more important, in these troubled days, to reaffirm the morality of a world that deals in it and rewards some more than others.

Let me end this post with an excerpt from a glorious passage by Ayn Rand, who expresses this idea more eloquently than I ever can.

To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a COUNTRY OF MONEY—and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being—the self-made man—the American industrialist.

If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to MAKE money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted, or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.

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And thuggishness by, well, see below…

A month ago, I wrote critically about Obama’s attempt to silence advertisements that opposed him: using a combination of his passionate supporter-strength and legal threats.

Sadly, it was not a one-off incident.

The latest targets of the Obama campaign is an advertisement by the National Rifle association (NRA). Obama claims that the ad misrepresents his position, which may well be true. But his response goes beyond that.

The Obama campaign has written radio stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, pressing them to refuse to air an ad from the National Rifle Association.

“This advertisement knowingly misleads your viewing audience about Senator Obama’s position on the Second Amendment,” says the letter from Obama general counsel Bob Bauer. “For the sake of both FCC licensing requirements and the public interest, your station should refuse to continue to air this advertisement.”

As the letter makes clear, it’s not just a request but a transparent legal threat.

Yes, Obama, and indeed every individual has the right to make legal threats. But this issues isn’t whether Obama did anything illegal in sending that letter (he didn’t) but whether you want a president who lacks the basic respect for the First Amendment and free speech that was displayed here. Can you imagine what it would be like if in an Obama administration, the people sending these letters are not lawyers but Federal investigators?

Yes, the First Amendment is too precious to take a chance with. So, despite the fact that I am an Obama supporter, I’ll respond to him in the only way I can think of — by linking to the NRA ad that he hates.

Update: I now see that David Bernstein at Volokh had the same idea. Good for him and I hope more people do this. The small difference is that Prof. Bernstein titles his post “Doing my patriotic duty”. I am not American, and in any case, this is not about a country. So let’s just say I am being true to my beliefs.

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A month an a half from now, when John McCain’s team tries to pinpoint the reason they lost the election, they will eventually stumble upon a date: September 24.

It was a day that saw McCain making his disastrous debate postponement offer (stellarly countered by Obama) that saw him mocked by Dave Letterman and much of the National Review crowd. It was also the day when Sarah Palin’s unbelievably bad interview with Couric started airing on TV.

Make no mistake, unless something spectacular happens for him in the debates, or a devastating event, like a terrorist attack on US soil takes place, John McCain threw away his shot at the presidency yesterday.

For more evidence, check out the amazing videos below:

First, Palin’s interview. It is, by turns, depressing, hilarious, embarassing and ends on a surreal note.

Next, watch Dave Letterman eviscerate McCain. It’s funny and truthful. The ultimate salt on the wound is at the very end, when he uses CBS’ in-house cameras to expose McCain as a liar, who cancelled his show with Letterman citing the need to rush to Washington, but ended up rushing to Ann Couric to give an interview.

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Sarah Palin met with world leaders for two days, presumably to educate herself on foreign policy. So what’s the only news we have about the affair? Click here for the answer.

Well, sex sells, I guess. Now only if Dubya was hot, the world might have been such a peaceful place…

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After Canada, it is Australia.

Australian gun lobbyist Ron Owen has been told he is entitled to express his homophobic views, but that he went too far with the bumper sticker: “Gay Rights? Under God’s law the only rights gays have is the right to die.”

Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found Owen guilty of inciting hatred against homosexuals with the bumper sticker when he parked his car outside the Cooloola Shire Council offices in Gympie, north of Brisbane.

[…]The former president of the National Firearm Owners of Australia was taken to the tribunal by several local lesbians, who claimed they had been offended despite only one having seen the bumper sticker.

Two of the women were awarded $4,195, with a third awarded $2,000 in damages.

The problem with a hypothetical “right to not get offended”, indeed with any hate speech law is that it not only contradicts the more important right to freedom of speech but also that offence is an incredibly subjective phenomenon. For example, it is a fact that I am extremely offended at the tribunal’s decision. It insults my deepest beliefs about human rights. It makes me cynical about the state of the world and the future of liberty. Indeed the commision’s decision makes me and other libertarians feel insecure and hated.

Now, can I have my money too?

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Conservative columnist George Will is bang on the money:

Channeling his inner Queen of Hearts, John McCain furiously, and apparently without even looking around at facts, said Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, should be decapitated. This childish reflex provoked the Wall Street Journal to editorialize that “McCain untethered” — disconnected from knowledge and principle — had made a “false and deeply unfair” attack on Cox that was “unpresidential” and demonstrated that McCain “doesn’t understand what’s happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does.” . . .

In any case, McCain’s smear — that Cox “betrayed the public’s trust” — is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are “corrupt” or “betray the public’s trust,” two categories that seem to be exhaustive — there are no other people. McCain’s Manichaean worldview drove him to his signature legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaigning. Today, his campaign is creatively finding interstices in laws intended to restrict campaign giving and spending. . . .

Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

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Neither of the major candidates of the upcoming US presidential election offers much hope to those who believe in individual liberty and limited government. In this post, I will outline the five things to fear most from each of them becoming President.

Five things to fear from an Obama presidency:

1. Card check. This ought to be one of the definitive issues of the election and it is worrisome that it is not. Obama supports the farcically named “Employee Free Choice Act“, which is basically a measure to drastically alter the process of forming labor unions. As of now, the decision to unionize is undertaken by the workers via the process of secret ballot. Under the proposed Act, this would be replaced by ‘card check’, that is, the signing of authorization cards. In theory this may appear fine, but in practice this will lead to illegal coercion. Basically, unionizors can keep browbeating a worker until he or she signs the card; and the moment there is a majority of signatures, unionization can take place. Not only is card check a terribly collectivist idea that will effectively allow workers to be harassed and ostracized by union leaders, it will also pave the way for the degeneration of the American labor force into militant socialism. As someone from the Indian state of West Bengal, where shut factories, labor troubles, strikes and violent unions are the norm, I can tell you that the future under this Act is bleak.

2. Fairness Doctrine. According to the fairness doctrine, broadcasters have to present issues in a balanced manner, such as by presenting equal amounts of liberal and conservative viewpoints on an issue. It is a terrible idea that rides roughshod over the basic principles of free speech and property rights. Also, as the internet era has aptly demonstrated, the free market of ideas is the best system (*). Forcibly attempting to remove perceived bias in the media does much harm and no good. Obama’s stand on the fairness doctrine has been ambivalent, and judging by his stand on other issues and the position of his Democratic friends like John Kerry (who thinks that the fairness doctrine ought to be there), there is reason to worry that this terrible law might be reinstated during his presidency.

3. Over-regulation. Obama has been long sympathetic to the idea that companies ought to be regulated more and laws such as antitrust ought to be enforced more strongly. It is a viewpoint that shows a lack of understanding of both property rights and the modern world. Much of the troubles with the global economy arise not from too little control but from too much. To give a simple example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failed giants, were among the most regulated guys in the business. By contrast, relatively unregulated companies like Goldman Sachs are doing fine. As for antitrust laws, they have always done more harm than good. If history has taught us anything – if there is any lesson to be drawn from the emergence of Firefox, the toppling of the Detroit three by Toyota in US sales, the fairy-tale of Google and the ascendancy of Apple from nowhere to the pre-eminent position it is in today – it is that you cannot keep a good product down. In this age of instant dissemination of information, companies do not need the help of antitrust laws to rise to the top. And the consumer doesn’t either.

4. Broadening of hate crimes and anti-discrimination statutes. Regular readers of this blog are aware of my extreme distaste for hate speech laws and anti-discrimination statutes (when applied to private entities). They increase disharmony between communities, not bridge them. More pertinently, they violate all the fundamental freedoms of man — freedom of speech, freedom of association and property rights. As these works ([1], [2]) show, they also have other negative repurcussions. Obama wishes to expand the scope of such laws.

5. Mandatory national service. Obama’s idea of putting people to work attempts to reshape American society in a way they do not really understand, as Jim Lindgren notes here. On the surface there is nothing wrong with the proposal. Voluntary community service can be an enriching experience both for the child and the community. The trouble starts when the government steps in. The inevitable effect is the substitution of individual volunteerism by a huge bureaucratic machine that subsists on tax money. Like many bad proposals, the detrimental effects show up slowly, but when they do, they are hard to remove. Eventually, these kind of proposals convert non-governmental organizations that flourish on private philanthropy into inefficient arms of the government. Furthermore, as this article points out, those who lead these social-services groups tend to become advocates for government-funded solutions to social problems. The result is more social problems, not less. Volunteerism is a wonderful thing but to be truly voluntary and useful, it needs to be more than an arms length away from government control.

Five things to fear from a McCain presidency:

1. Country First. Don’t get me wrong, patriotism is a wonderful thing, but only when it is not forced down your throat. McCain’s entire philosophy of governance centers around the idea of a cause greater than yourself, which really means blind trust and servititude to the government of the day. McCain not only disrespects rugged individualism, he simply does not even consider it. His philosophy is a soldier’s, and God save the country which has to abide by it. As Reason pointed out once, [McCain] has lauded Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against the “unrestricted individualism” of the businessman who “injures the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit.” He has long agitated for mandatory national service. His attitude toward individuals who choose paths he deems inappropriate is somewhere between inflexible and hostile. “In the Roosevelt code, the authentic meaning of freedom gave equal respect to serf-interest and common purpose, to rights and duties,” McCain writes. “And it absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country’s sake….”

2. Endless war. McCain is a warmonger if there ever was one. Much has been made of his “hundred years in Iraq” comment. More pertinently, he thinks it is entirely appropriate that the US spend millions of dollars in military bases abroad while the country suffers from financial crises at home and extreme ill-will abroad. He loves hard power but does not even understand the concept of soft power. And if he ever becomes president, a war with Iran appears certain.

3. Christianization of the US. If McCain wins, the evangelists will be the one who carry him over the top, and most certainly they will be rewarded. The Bush era has seen the reinvigoration of the obscenity law, and a ban on stem cell research. McCain will carry all these things forward. He is also likely to appoint judges who overturn Roe vs Wade (**). He will carry the war on victimless crimes forward and his VP will encourage the teaching of creationism and abstinence only sex education.

4.  Further weakening of civil liberties and the First Amendment. McCain does not respect the concept of free speech. To him, it comes with caveats and clauses, and is subservient to collectivist and national interests.  Here’s a real McCain quote: “I know that money corrupts…I would rather have a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected.” And here’s a statement from his campaign: “Neither the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001.”

5. It’s the economy, stupid. Generally, Republicans are better at controlling spending and balancing the budget. But not the present-day ones. The national debt has grown tremendously during the Bush era, fuelled by wasteful spending and the war in Iraq. McCain does not even understand economics, as he has himself admitted. He is likely to continue spending on useless things like war in foreign countries and is going to continue the Bush tax cuts, which, while a good thing in principle, are incompatible with the spending he has in mind. His reaction to economic issues has been a bizarre mixture of soundbites against earmarks and populist drivel. In the last week, he has both supported and opposed government intervention, made irrelevant threats about sacking the SEC head, and called for salary-limits for CEOs. He is quite simply not the right guy to be in charge of the present crisis.

Notes:

(*) This quote by a Reason commenter may be pertinent:

Dear Senator Obama

Let me tell you about something called the Internet.

It is a medium where every sort of opinion – from far left to far right and way beyond either – gets aired. And thrashed.

It is a wide open, no holds barred, forum where anyone can speak his piece and find those who agree with him. Those who don’t agree are equally free to rebut, make counter-assertions, abuse or insult the first one. They, in turn, are subject to the same give-and-take. (Try googling “flame war”.)

The internet is almost unregulated (aside from a few asinine attempts by your fellow senators and their counterparts in other countries), yet still manages to achieve this remarkable fairness.

I humbly suggest that this example should persuade you that fairness will be best achieved if the regulation of media is decreased, not increased.

Yours truly,

Your neighbor, Aresen.

(**) Many libertarians, including many pro-choice ones, oppose Roe vs Wade and believe that the abortion issue should be decided by the state. I disagree. Some things are just too fundamental to be left to the states. The right to life is one of them. So is the right to sovereignty over one’s body. Such a right cannot be overturned by a state just as a state should not have the power to kill without cause or to make slavery legal.  A foetus is not a person — but even if it were, it does not deserve full human rights for the simple reason that it is a part of someone else’s body and thus any attempt to assign rights to it obviously contradict the more important rights of the host on which it is completely dependent.

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One of the disturbing aspects of the whole bailout thing is the staggering amount of power it gives to Paulson, the Treasury secretary (basically, complete discretion, with virtually no oversight, about how to spend $700 billion). You’d think that the Congress would try to solve this problem, not make it worse. The whole thing beggars belief.

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Ron Paul displays another example of the kind of bad judgement/position  that has ensured that I have never been his supporter. (Previous examples — his stands on abortion, immigration and international treaties, his practice of voting ‘no’, the newsletter scandal)

Yes, I am disappointed.

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says Quirky Indian.

I agree.

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I have never been a hardcore Ron Paul fan. Nonetheless, I found the video below touching, not just because it reminded me that I have much more in common with him than not, but also because it poignantly reflects the truth — more stark today than it has ever been — that truth-tellers can never be successful politicians.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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This survey reveals everything that is wrong with the the state of freedom in the US. Some highlights:

42% believe that people should NOT be allowed to say things in public that are offensive to certain religious groups.

54% believe that people should NOT be allowed to say things in public that are offensive to certain racial groups.

38% believe that broadcasters should be required to report a certain amount of ‘positive news’ in return for using public airwaves.

66% believe that television broadcasters should be required to allot equal amount of time to liberal and conservative commentators.

62% believe that newspapers should be required to allot equal amount of time to liberal and conservative commentators.

PS: On the other hand, I am almost certain that the first two percentages would be even higher in other Western democracies.

(Hat Tip: The Volokh Conspiracy)

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