Month: May 2014

Secession lagniappe

Nationalia depicts a wrinkle in the EU elections this week:

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Open Europe worries about whether the critical reformers are being edged out by the “malcontents bloc.”

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Paolo Bernardini, interviewed about Venetian secession.

Biden affirms Moldovan independence.

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In praise of Abe, from across the Sea of Japan.

Sailer writes earlier this week that the Indian election shows that as “strange as it may seem to consumers of the American press, conservative nationalism is the leading political trend of the 2010s.”

The Dalai Lama congratulates Modi.

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Getting rid of commencement speakers

Why do we still have commencement speakers?

It is a question that is certainly worth asking as we approach the end of college graduation season, in the wake of the recent “scandals” involving several important figures who, for some reason, needed to speak to college graduates as part of the ritual known as commencement. A few figures were denied a chance to speak to speak at one college or another, others withdrew voluntarily. Most were being given useless honorary doctorates.

The reasons vary for each speaker’s removal, all of which skirt the real problem: The idea of a commencement speaker itself. There has never been a more useless source of bloat in any sort of event in recent times than that of some possibly self-important figure, speaking to college graduates who are already sick of the ceremony about… something. Whatever the traditional intent of the commencement speech, that intent is long gone, replaced with a scattershot approach of “talking about what it’s like to be an adult.”  Of course, should not these graduates already have at least a vague sense that already, even in the coddled walls of the campus?  Or has helicopter parenting gotten that bad?

As it stands, almost all commencement speakers tend to not to be memorable. If I were to ask you if you remember your commencement speaker, and/or that person’s speech, could you say with a straight face that yes, you do remember them? I doubt it. There are good reasons for that. For one, the speeches tend to be long affairs, probably the longest aspect of a commencement ceremony outside of the actual handing of the diplomas to graduates.  One would be better off giving a lesson on Russian history, for it would have the same effect.

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Is there one direction in history?

I recently listened to a Free Thought podcast titled “Is There a Purpose to History?” The question at hand was historicism. I found their discussion lacking in two ways. First, they made an incorrect implication of methodological individualism. Second, they fail to consider what I think is a very strong argument for there being a direction to history.

They imply that methodological individualism means theories of group conflict are incorrect because they are not based on individual action. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses this precise problem in the section on methodological individualism.

When discussing social phenomena, we often talk about various “social collectivities, such as states, associations, business corporations, foundations, as if they were individual persons”(Weber 1968, 13). Thus we talk about them having plans, performing actions, suffering losses, and so forth. The doctrine of methodological individualism does not take issue with these ordinary ways of speaking, it merely stipulates that “in sociological work these collectivities must be treated as solely the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively understandable action” (Weber 1968, 13).

They use the rejection of group conflict to reject Marx. While there are many reasons to reject Marx, his theory of group conflict is not one of them. First, Marx’s class theory strongly resembles libertarian class theory, only exploitation is defined by Marx as labor and by libertarians as theft.

Modern political economy has embraced, correctly in my view, class theories and class struggles as central. In their recent book, Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the ruling elite often seek to exploit the general population through exclusive institutions. Only by creating inclusive institutions and getting rid of privileged classes of people can there be widespread economic prosperity.

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The rise of science-based faith

Science is often compared with, unfavorably or favorably depending on who you ask, religion. While religion is closed, science is open. Religion is unempirical while science seeks to understand the natural world. Religion requires faith while science requires evidence. Science is, of course, immensely important to modern life. Unfortunately, the popularization of science is undermining some of the very values which make science so useful.

Science has become a buzzword. You can buy t-shirts with the phrase “because science.” By itself, this is not objectionable. It reflects wonder at our understanding of the laws of nature which govern our existence. However, it also reflects more disturbing trends. The idea that science reveals Truths, with a capital T. Science is no longer about the process of discovery, but rather the forced acceptance of certain facts. Rejection of those facts implies anti-thesis to science.

I don’t mean to science should never be used to inform the ignorant. Vaccines are a perfect example of established science being ignored with deadly consequences. GMOs are another example. However, too often the certainty of the hard sciences is applied where no such certainty exists.

Bill Nye embodies some of the less admirable qualities of the trend. As a popularizer of science, he displays a confidence in some of his beliefs far above the degree warranted. For example, he claims it is a myth that “we give money to Africa and nothing changes.” Then he summarizes data showing that infant mortality has improved. While not technically false, he shows a basic misunderstanding of the complexity of economics. The fact that infant mortality improved as aid was being given hardly proves that aid itself improves infant mortality. Further, economists have reached a consensus that foreign aid, while able to improve lives, cannot spark economic growth.

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Sacred Harp 47b: ‘Idumea’

From the 1982 Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention, filmed by Lomax and crew, much of which can be found here. The words are by Charles Wesley:

And am I born to die? / To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly / Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade, / Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead, / Where all things are forgot!

Soon as from earth I go, / What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe / Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound, / I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned, / And see the flaming skies!

There are a lot of versions of this online, including from the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, which somebody set to clips from Battlestar Galactica to pretty awesome effectThe one from the 2012 Irish convention is the loudest, but I already posted a video from it. Sufjan Stevens did a version on one of his Christmas albums.

The real stakes of the Asia-Pacific pivot

The most important geo-political change of the last few years is not the resurgence of Russian aggression, nor the Arab spring; it is the American pivot to East Asia. The U.S. is shifting its focus from the Middle East to contain China, strengthening regional alliances to curb Chinese attempts to expand their sphere of influence.

While much ink has been spilled over the strategy, few seem to actually understand the basic tradeoff. America can limit Chinese sphere of influence by (slightly) raising the possibility of war. We can imagine a circle around China; the larger the circle, the lower the probability of war. However, the countries inside the circle are less likely to have democracy and open markets.

Policy preferences are going to depend on the relative weights placed on the alternatives. If you believe the probability of war is slight, or you discount the cost of war, you will prefer a more aggressive containment strategy. On the other hand, if you think China will allow relatively open markets, or think the cost of war is high, you will allow China to peacefully expand.

People on both sides of the debate will deny these terms. Neocons will argue the probability of war is so close to zero it can be ignored. Noninterventionists will ignore the unfree markets that China imposes on its neighbors. However, as it is probable this tension will continue for at least a decade, it is worth understanding the tradeoffs being faced.