Saturday, March 28, 2009

Leave Your Lights On, If You Need To

My 10-year-old son informed us at dinner last night that at 8:30 tonight we might think about turning out our lights for an hour, because it will be Earth Hour. When I asked him why, he said because it is a chance to pollute less and therefore help to save the earth. (I am writing this post using dictation software, and when I originally said "the earth," the program suggested "the Earth." But I corrected the software, because capitalization is reserved for the divine, and the earth is ultimately merely inanimate rock, albeit rock whose importance derives from its usefulness for human ends.)

I suspect I was not the only parent put in that situation. And so I explained to him that the electric light bulb is the culmination of thousands of years of effort by human civilization. Until it was invented, we were prisoners first of the natural ebb and flow of daylight and then of whatever we could conjure up with primitive fuel-based lamps. Because civilization, in its American variant, had progressed to the point at which individuals were free to explore new scientific and engineering ideas, and to try them out and see whether they had any value to other people, a fellow named Edison was able to liberate us in this way. Night baseball, emergency surgery in the middle of the night, the broadcast of the national concert on the Mall the evening of every July 4 that we enjoy together, all of it is made possible by civilization, and this little invention itself allows civilization to proceed faster in newer and more interesting directions.

And so it is with all the sacrifices we are asked to make in the name of combating global warming, or if you prefer, in order to appease global-warming hysteria. Throughout civilization's long road, man has turned the earth to his purposes. Even the mighty Amazon "rain forest," now the object of quasi-religious veneration as some sacred preserve of pre-industrial virginal purity, is now thought by many cutting-edge archaeologists to be a creation of prior centuries of agricultural innovation by the local humans, who were simply doing what humans are prone to do.

That is the proper way to think about the relation between humans and the earth. I agree that we have some duty to leave parts of it -- Yellowstone, clean rivers, and so on -- to future generations. But we also have a duty to those future generations, and to ourselves, to push human limits, even if we have to use natural resources to do so. We have left always left the earth differently than we found it, but have emerged better as a species for it.

I told my son that it was a long and hard road to get to this point, where we could have the luxury of a civilized conversation in the midst of plenty and liberty about the necessity of doing without electric light for an hour. It is the function of civilization to free us from the constraints of nature. Nature is not a thing to be worshiped, it is a thing to be tamed. This is an argument that is currently swimming against the tides of the culture, but I hope it sticks with him.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Whom Should We Be Angry At?

Baron Bodissey at at Gates of Vienna has an unconventional interpretation of the manufactured outrage over AIG-exec bonuses. Leave aside that, cosmically speaking, this is a matter of no consequence, the state of the financial system, how it got this way, and what we should do about it being the questions a legislative assembly worthy of our respect would be spending the most time on.

The Baron's point is that the AIG executives more than earned those bonuses, because they were able to bring in over $173 billion in revenue to the firm. How? Why by shaking the Washington money tree, of course.

To paraphrase the great sage Obi-Wan Kenobi, who's more foolish? The fool who stole the money, or the fool who gladly gave it to him?


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is Happiness a Political Question?

Mary O’Hara ,in the Guardian plugs a study by the World Health Organization and the Mental Health Foundation of Britain summarizing some research that suggests that income inequality makes people unhappy:

So-called happiness league tables frequently show that people who live in countries without gaping income inequalities between rich and poor - Sweden tends to be at the top of such surveys, with the UK hovering towards the bottom - are generally more content, but [study author Lynne] Friedli is keen to point out that the WHO research goes "much deeper" than many of the surveys that make the news.

(H/T Mark Steyn.)

It is worth noting initially that the assertion that inequality is a strong predictor of gross national unhappiness is incorrect, despite the frequency with which it is claimed by a lazy press. In Gross National Happiness Arthur Brooks find first that the inequality findings are not robust to different wording on survey questions. And the non-pecuniary things – marriage, community engagement, family – turn out to be better predictors of happiness than lucre. Perhaps most importantly, he summarizes the research and finds that, at least in the U.S., belief in equality of opportunity, not of outcome, is the key factor. People do not begrudge Bill Gates his billions, as long as they believe they have a chance to go as far as their talents will take them.

One unappreciated implication of this is that if everyone believes he is special, say because his schools, parents and society have remorselessly cultivated his self-esteem throughout his childhood, then everyone who doesn’t make it to the top attributes it to some kind of cosmic unfairness - to a lack of "social justice." The society that prizes self-esteem yet allows people the freedom to reward, or not, their trading partners according to their perceived value, cannot long stand. Inequality of result will lead to envy, envy will lead to redistribution, and redistribution to destruction of opportunity.

But a deeper question is, “So what?” Even if it were true that a massive exercise in redistributive taxation could make people happier, it does not follow that this creates any mandate for such a scheme. To see why, imagine that tomorrow a scientist concocted a compound that, when injected into newborns, would insure that they would be happy from the moment they awake until the moment they sleep, every day of their life – a vaccine against unhappiness. Should the government require that parents give such an injection to their children? Almost everyone would say no.

Why? Because there is more to life than happiness. The well-lived life does not just reside in the economist’s useful but limited concept of “utility” – a certain consumption pattern leading to a certain amount of happiness. Happiness comes not just in where you end up, but in what you had to do to get there. The society where people are handed things they have not earned is one where we cease to be human, because it is in the attempt, including the failed attempt, that we find out what we can and can’t do, so that when we can’t do it we are in a position to emerge better by learning how to do it better next time. It is in the trying as much as the doing.

By the same token, humans who were happy all the time would cease to be human. Our hypothetical immunologically lobotomized citizens would be a shell of their forebears, with no adversity to spur them to find that unknown reservoir within themselves, to do something greater. They would possess no desire to learn, to improve, to create. (This is why high-school students historically found "Brave New World" so disturbing.)

The hypothetical happiness shot is repugnant to our sensibilities for the same reason high taxes in the name of happiness are – they view happiness as an outcome to be managed by planners, not a thing to be achieved, or not, by imperfect individuals making their way in an imperfect world. Government-dispensed happiness would be a thing given to us on our knees by our betters, a thing in which we could feel no sense of pride.

There is a reason the U.S. is a land where the pursuit of happiness, rather than its achievement, is the founding credo. The new happiness research, all the more so in the hands of a press that cynically manipulates it, is a threat to something more profound than human happiness, and that is human dignity.


Friday, March 06, 2009

What Politics Has Done to Us

Thomas Ricks, a Washington Post military correspondent and author of two books (Fiasco and the brand-new The Gamble) on the invasion of Iraq, recently told of a lecture he gave near Mills Valley, CA, which generally votes quite progressive.

At one point, he argued that despite the disastrous nature of the decision to invade, American troops should stay because it is the least bad outcome. In particular, it might (no guarantees) prevent genocide. At this point people in the crowd began shouting things like “So what?” and “Genocide happens all the time.”

Now, I do not suppose that the people near Mill Valley support, or are even indifferent to, genocide. They do not hate Iraqis or Arabs generally; indeed, they undoubtedly style themselves the opposite sorts of people. It would not surprise me at all if some of the people in the audience had been active in the campaign to save the innocent in Darfur, or (if they are old enough) East Timor. Clearly, there is something going on several psychological layers under the surface, and that something is, I suspect, a feverish wish to avoid George Bush’s war succeeding.

So what can account for this? Politics is always about ambitious people seeking to set the population against one another, and we seem to be reaching a point (perhaps it has been building for a long time) where the defeat of our domestic political enemies is more important than our common success. In my own moments of weakness, I occasionally briefly find myself wanting the Dow to sink faster so as to turn the American people against the breakneck collectivization of their society. I also perhaps worry subconsciously that they will turn out to have been right, a natural but unattractive human quality in a democratic society.

The disagreement doesn’t even seem to be over issues, the way it was during the struggle to abolish slavery. It seems to be a form of cultural tribalism, the more traditional form now harder to sell in America (itself a vindication of the country). Not just the large issues such as war and peace and statism vs. freedom, but even historically small-bore issues such as gay marriage or school vouchers become apocalyptic struggles.

In a way, this is a luxury that a wealthy, stable country can afford. But for how long? Those who can afford to more and more live in neighborhoods with others with similar political views. The late movie critic Pauline Kael once famously noted that she couldn’t understand how Richard Nixon won the 1972 election because almost no one she knew voted for him. That kind of self-segregation is hardly unique to Manhattan, and is probably getting worse. As students of ethnic conflict have long known, those you don’t know well are easy to demonize, to relegate to the subhuman. Because we travel in different circles, we not only hate their policies, we hate them.

I make a point of not choosing my friends on the basis of politics. (Given that I work in academia and live in a lefty college town, otherwise I might have no friends at all.) But I wonder how common that belief is. I do suspect that the funneling of ever more disagreements into an ever-more expansive state will make this process worse, will erode the sense of common destiny that once undergirded our political differences, and will thus make the American experiment in self-government ever-more fragile. The inculcation in Americans that politics is the answer to solving their problems (go here for an example that is, because it takes advantage of young people, particularly reprehensible) is, paradoxically, making it ever-less capable of doing so.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ignorant About All The Wrong Things

President Obama said something revealing the other day:

On the other hand, what you're now seeing is profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it. I think that consumer confidence -- as they see the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act taking root, businesses are starting to see opportunities for investment and potential hiring, we are going to start creating jobs again.

"Profit and earning ratios" is not a term that comes up much among financially literate people. (Google it, and you find that President Obama's statement is the only thing that comes up.) Profits are earnings, and so that ratio would always be one. Or perhaps he meant profit ratios and earnings ratios, but in that case the two would always be identical, so he is being redundant.

He was probably trying but failing to repeat something he once heard someone say on CNBC or something, which is "price to earnings ratio," the price of a stock divided by its profits. This is a financially meaningful term, and people in the know often say that the historical range for it is between 17 and 20; anything above 20 is a priori overpriced, anything below 17 is presumably a good buy.

Who cares? When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000, a reporter tripped him up by asking him the name of the president of Pakistan, which he did not know. Now, this was clearly an egocentric exercise by the reporter, but it was fair game. Mr. Bush was bidding to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and that he be aware of the names, let alone the philosophies and personalities, of the leaders of the rest of them was not an unfair thing for the American people to expect.

So people could in fairness increase their personal probability that Mr. Bush was a man who didn't know much about the world. We are now in a position to increase the probability that the 47-year old community organizer we elected as president, a man who has never run anything other than presidential campaign and legislative staff organizations, who has never created a single private-sector job, is clueless about how the economy operates. He is, one might suppose, the sort of person who thinks that big declines in the stock market on his watch have no useful information to impart to him, and that wealth is a thing that magically falls from the sky for politicians to cut up and distribute to the grateful masses.

President Obama is a highly intelligent man; you don't get into and excel at Harvard Law if you're the village idiot. But being smart is no guarantee of anything. (See Theodore Dalrymple's recent piece, among many others, for the reasons why.) Being smart is not the same thing as being wise, and our new president appears to have no wisdom at all about finance, economics, and incentives. Right now, that is an underwhelming endorsement at best.

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