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Archive for May, 2012

Mary Nicholas relates the history of socialists trying to obscure the nature of their own doctrine—passing communism off as socialism, socialism as progressivism, progressivism as simple humanitarianism. She illustrates the point with the Fabian Society, whose emblem is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It’s discouraging how successful this campaign has been. Try to pin down the ideology of almost anyone on the Left—President Obama is a fine example—and you get nothing but obfuscation. Calling anyone in the United States a socialist or a communist gets you branded a right-wing kook.

What I find even more disturbing is that the terms themselves have lost most of their meaning. It’s as if they mean nothing more than ‘boogeyman.’ Consulting historians, political scientists, and philosophers for precise definitions doesn’t turn up much. So, let me try to give a few definitions. These are provisional, for once the meanings of terms becomes confused, it is hard to find any consensus about what they mean.

Communism: This would seem to be the easiest case, for Marx and Lenin appear to give a definition: a system of social and economic organization that abolishes private property. But they never define private property. Presumably they do not mean that no one can own anything at all; their chief concern is the means of production. That too remains undefined. We might try to make it precise by defining communism as a system of social and economic organization that places manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land under government ownership and control. Whether this allows any business or organization to remain in private hands is unclear. But that unclarity seems faithful to the changing degrees of control found in communist societies throughout the past century.

Fascism: Fascism is often characterized as a movement of the right. But that is absurd. Fascists were to the right of the Bolsheviks, but to the left of about everyone else. They differ from communists on two important points, only one of which I take to be essential. Communists have been dedicated to international structures, seeking to transcend the nation-state, while fascists have seen the nation as the focal point of social unity. There is an important theoretical point underlying this: Communists seek to eliminate class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat by eliminating the bourgeoisie—sometimes literally, and sometimes by eliminating the institution of private property that defines them as the owners of the means of production. Fascists seek to unify bourgeoisie and proletariat in the greater whole that includes them, the nation. Why not something larger? Fascists deny that enough shared interests cross national boundaries for international unification to be possible. Fascists do not seek the elimination of private property, but they do seek government control of the means of production, for only the government can promote the required unity. So, we might define fascism as a system of social and economic organization that places manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land under government control through indirect means—regulation, selection of directors, etc.—rather than direct ownership.

Socialism: Hayek defines socialism as the conscious direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends. It need not concern itself with all of what the communists consider the means of production, though it tends to, by declining to recognize any sphere of liberty that is in principle outside governmental purview. It need not insist on government ownership or even control. But it does insist on government direction. We might define socialism, then, as a system of social and economic organization that subjects manufacturing, banking, transportation, agriculture, and land to government direction toward government-selected ends. All communists and fascists are socialists, by this definition, though of course not all socialists are communists or fascists.

Here’s an analogy.

Socialists think the balls won’t be able to make it through the maze of life without the socialists’ direction. They tilt the maze this way and that to try to get the outcome they want. (Who cares what the balls themselves want?) Fascists place their hands on the balls and move them through the maze as they please. Communists just take the balls.

It is easy to see why it is difficult to tell whether someone is a socialist, let alone a fascist or a communist. It depends on attitudes about end points and limits. In the game of politics, those matter, but they generally don’t enter into early stages of the game. Past a certain point, communists, fascists, and other socialists play the game rather differently, seeking different goals and recognizing or refusing to recognize certain limits. But their opening moves are largely the same. That makes disguising oneself easy. We won’t know what Obama is until a second term frees him to some extent from the need for a disguise, and probably not even then, since the cause requires the disguise regardless of any individual politician’s fortunes.

Many socialists have trouble conceiving of any alternative to socialism. ‘Conscious direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends’? Why not? Isn’t that what we strive to do in our personal lives? It’s worth, therefore, pointing out what the alternative is.

Free enterprise: A system of social and economic organization that permits people to seek their own ends by means they find most effective in achieving them. The government plays an important role, in protecting people from harm at the hands of others and also creating a framework within which people can exercise their liberty in pursuit of their ends. It is not up to the government to choose people’s goals, nor is it up to the government to choose the means by which they seek to attain them, except insofar as it prevents them from harming others. Conscious direction of social forces yields to individuals’ direction of their own affairs; consciously government-chosen ends yield to ends selected by people, individually or in groups of their own formation. Because people find they can act more effectively in groups in many situations, free enterprise encourages the formation of groups of people with similar goals. Those groups help to define the community, creating social capital and knitting the society together. Effective social and economic structures thus emerge in the absence of conscious social direction—not despite that absence but actually because of it.

People aren’t balls in a maze. They are capable of directing themselves and, in families and other groups, one another. Treat them as capable of directing themselves, and they will be. Treat them as incapable of self-direction, and they will gradually lose that capacity.

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Domestic Terrorism

If you haven’t heard about the team of Leftists who are harassing and threatening bloggers, trying to silence them, you need to learn something about what they are doing—with the financial support of the Tides Foundation, the Heinz Foundation, the Barbara Streisand Foundation, and others. Freedom of speech is under serious attack. This is bone-chilling. Maybe leftists have been calling people who happen to disagree with them “Fascists!” for so long because they have in mind the real thing. In any case, we not in the realm of the metaphorical anymore. This is real. It can happen here. It is happening here. Some links:

Liberty Chick, “Progressives Embrace Convicted Terrorist

Aaron Walker, “Summary/Preview of my Post “How Brett Kimberlin Tried to Frame Me for a Crime (And How You Can Help!)”

Stacy McCain, “Brett Kimberlin Saga Takes a Bizarre Turn, Forcing Me to Leave Maryland“; “Lying Terrorist Can’t Stop Lying

Patterico, “Convicted Bomber Brett Kimberlin, Neal Rauhauser, Ron Brynaert, and Their Campaign of Political Terrorism

Michelle Malkin, “Free speech blogburst: Show solidarity for targeted conservative bloggers; Update: It’s Everybody Blog About Brett Kimberlin Day; Donation fund for targets

Michelle Malkin, “Letter from an Indiana reader about Brett Kimberlin

Mark Tapscott, “How to kill the First Amendment

Ed Barnes, “Leftist Blogger’s Criminal Past Raises Questions About His Real Intent

Tiffany Gabbay, “Meet Soros-funded Domestic Terrorist Brett Kimberlin Whose Job Is Terrorizing Bloggers Into Silence

Two additional thoughts: (1) Aren’t the left-wing foundations backing these people thereby opening themselves up to some substantial legal liability? I would think a RICO lawsuit against the bunch might reveal some interesting links. And it would be valuable to know who has been taken in by con men and who actually supports what they’re doing. (2) These people have found a real and important weakness in our legal system. Innocent people can be accused of wrongdoing, slapped with nuisance suits, have SWAT teams called on them, be driven from their homes with threats, find their employers and families under attack, and on and on, and have virtually no recourse. Companies know this; they’re familiar with the extortionist character of the legal system. But applying that to individuals is a new and deeply troubling tactic. Yes, the people doing this are evil. But there is a systemic flaw that enables them to do what they are doing. It needs to be repaired.

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Glenn Reynolds talks to Naomi Schafer Riley about the state of higher education. It’s a fascinating discussion, free of the overgeneralizations that plague discussions of this issue. Ron Lipsman, for example, claims that college education is now little more than indoctrination, except in certain areas of the hard sciences. That’s not so. Certain fields and courses are mostly indoctrination—almost anything with “Studies” in the title, for example—but undergraduate education overall is less politicized than many people on the right think. Fields such as philosophy, linguistics, and psychology still offer a solid education. Even in English and history, where research trends heavily to the left, much undergraduate teaching is fairly traditional. Students figure out which courses are politicized and steer away from them.

But Reynolds and Riley do a great job of pointing out that the quality of education in the humanities and social sciences has declined more rapidly than education in the natural sciences and engineering. Education even in those fields is not in good shape, however, and students graduating with degrees in the natural sciences are faring little better on the job market than their peers in other fields. Fewer than half of recent college graduates have found full-time employment—that compares to 97% under George W. Bush!—and job prospects in mathematics, physics, and even computer science are much worse than most people imagine.

What has gone wrong? (I mean with education. With the job market, the answer is easy: Obama!) As Reynolds and Riley observe, the chief culprit is specialization. Look through a university course schedule, if you can find one accessible to outsiders. You can still find excellent courses on core topics, even in the humanities. But they are swamped by highly specific courses, some of which may consist of indoctrination, but some of which are fine as far as they go. It’s just that they don’t add up to a coherent education.

Look at the fall upper-division (i.e., junior and senior) English offerings at my university. There are lots of great courses: Shakespeare; The English Novel in the 18th Century; the English Novel in the 19th Century; The Romantic Period; The 20th Century Short Story; Ernest Hemingway; and Chaucer. But, there’s also Introduction to Criticism; Language and Communication in Science Fiction; The Life and Literature of Southwest Mexican-Americans; Modernism and Literature; Citizen Kane and Company; The Animated Film as Text; Australian Literature and Film; Gypsy Language and Culture; Animal Humanities (?); The Paperback; Contemporary Pakistani Literature; Literature of Islamophobia (!!!); The Literature of AIDS in Africa; Language and Gender; Gender/Torture/State in Crisis (!!!); Gender, Sexuality, and Migration (!); Asian-American Memoirs and Stories; Illustrating African-American Literature; The Black Middle Class (this is an English course?); and Writing Slavery. A student who chooses mostly from the first list will get a good education in English Literature. A student who chooses mostly from the second list will get random glimpses into literature, with a huge helping of politics and armchair sociology.

Or, consider History. Again, many upper-division courses seem excellent: History of Rome—The Republic; The History of Modern Science; The Scientific Revolution; The History of Britain, from the Restoration to 1783; The American Revolution and the Founding of the U.S., 1763-1800; Germany in the Twentieth Century; Origins of Modern Japan; The Coming of the Civil War, 1829-1861; History of the American Presidency; History of Greece to the End of the Peloponnesian War; The French Revolution and Napoleon; The First World War; Jews of Eastern Europe; U.S. Economic History Since 1880; and Tudor England, 1485-1603. Some courses might be politicized, but the topics themselves are fine: The History of Southern Africa; History of the Caribbean; History of the Civil Rights Movement; Muslim India Before 1750; Modern Latin America; The Domestic Slave Trade; Health and Illness in American History; The Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920; and The History of Prague. And some courses seem suspect: History of Globalization; The Spanish Inquisition; Metropolis in Modern Europe; History of Imperialism; Consuming America; History of American Feminism; History of Black Travel; U.S. Media, Culture, and Commerce; Environmental History of North America; Women in Postwar America; American Popular Culture, 1682-present; Marx and Western Marxism; Modern European Food History; The Church and the Jews; Cultural Citizenship in the U.S. and Latin America; and Women and Social Movements in the U.S. Again, a student who chooses mostly from the first list gets an excellent education. But a student who doesn’t gets a frequently politicized, incoherent bundle of narrow topics.

Contrast these fields with Mathematics. Upper-division courses include Discrete Mathematics; Advanced Calculus for Applications I and II; Number Theory; Structure of Modern Geometry; Probability Modeling with Actuarial Applications; Matrices and Matrix Calculations; Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory; Scientific Computation in Numerical Analysis; The Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable; Real Analysis; Probability; Applied Statistics; Stochastic Processes; Topology; Algebraic Structures; and Partial Differential Equations and Applications. There’s not much way to go wrong.

The overall point: You can still get a great education in the humanities and social sciences. But you’re not likely to get one unless you know what to look for. In the natural sciences, it’s hard not to get a great education. Epictetus said, “Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” In the natural sciences, the faculty teach, not so that people can be educated, but so that they can’t fail to be educated, and in particular can’t be miseducated. (They don’t always succeed in this, but that’s another issue.) In the humanities and social sciences, with a few exceptions, the faculty teach so that people can be educated, but too many students fail to be educated, or are actually miseducated.

Is the solution to abolish tenure? To give administrators more power and the faculty less? To place greater emphasis on teaching rather than research? To reform hiring, promotion, and reward practices? I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s not to throw more money into the system.

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Inequality Blues

I’ve been arguing for a while (in the “Poverty Ain’t What It Used to Be” series, for example) that the left and the media have a distorted picture of the United States, based on the fact that they reside in large cities that really do have a huge and powerful upper class, a large lower class, and a disappearing middle class. The New York Times offers confirmation in the case of New York:

The wealthiest 1 percent of New York City residents took in nearly one-third of the personal income in the city in 2009 — almost double the comparable proportion nationwide, a new study shows.

The most striking difference between New York and the rest of the United States, the report showed, was the concentration of earning power at the high end.

In 2009, nearly 15,000 filers reported adjusted gross income of $1 million or more. They accounted for less than half of 1 percent of the total number of filers, but they took in 26.7 percent of the income in the city. Nationally, people who earned at least $1 million in 2009 collected less than 10 percent of all the income….

The comptroller’s report also revealed that New York had a smaller bulge in its middle than the rest of the country. Nationally, about 31 percent of filers earned $50,000 to $200,000, and they took in 52 percent of all the personal income in the country. In New York, just 28 percent of filers fell into that income bracket, and they collected only 36 percent of all the personal income in the city.

That’s not only a source of distortion; it’s the effect of the Blue-state policies, supposedly intended to combat inequality, that instead end up producing it. “As you know, libertarians aren’t in charge of New York.

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Bayesian Birtherism?

Jason Kissner uses Bayes’s theorem to analyze the impact the 1991-2007 literary agency’s statement that Obama was born in Kenya should have on rational probability assignments. Even if one starts by assigning a very high probability to the assertion that Obama was born in the United States, reasonable assignments to the likelihood that an agent would claim him to have been born in Kenya if he was born in Kenya and that an agent would claim him to have been born to Kenya if he were not born in Kenya lead to the conclusion that he is more likely to have been born in Kenya than not. To those who are not familiar with Bayes’s theorem, this can all seem like elaborate wordplay. To those who are, however, it quantifies the rational implications of new information in sometimes startling ways. This is such a case.

The key implication, I think, is not the probability assignment itself but the indication of where to look for new information:

Be those things as they may, if you believe that the Obama campaign is not telling the truth on this issue, you might reason as follows.  Perhaps Mr. Obama, as many have suggested, was simply trying to appear exotic?  Or, perhaps Mr. Obama was simply trying to enhance the marketability of his book?  Once again, that’s not what the campaign says, but it’s possible, so let’s look at matters under the assumption of intentional misrepresentation just in case there has been a misunderstanding.

The “intentional misrepresentation” view might be a reasonable view (particularly if one has good reasons to explain the inconsistency with the campaign’s current statement), but how many people have considered that if Ms. Gonderich is not telling the truth (meaning that Mr. Obama did contribute to misrepresentation of his place of birth and that Mr. Obama’s campaign is currently not telling the truth), one of the following two things must be true:

  1. Mr. Obama had special reasons to restrict his misrepresentations to her agency OR
  2. There is a reasonable likelihood that there are other documents containing misrepresentations of Mr. Obama’s place of birth.

It follows under the supposition of intentional misrepresentation that if one wishes to make a rational case for the belief that the promotional booklet’s declaration that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya has nothing much to do with the likelihood that he really was, one should either provide good reasons for thinking that Mr. Obama had good reasons to misrepresent his place of birth, but only to his literary agency, or make a reasonable attempt to locate another document — itself obviously not dispositive of the issue and also independent of literary agency processes — paradoxically indicating that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya.

Bayes’s theorem not only shows how powerful an impact this revelation should have on probability assignments but raises new questions. He surely had to list a birthplace on many documents between 1991 and 2007. After all, he got married in 1992, joined a law firm and began teaching part-time at the University of Chicago in 1993, started working on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1995, was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, ran for the House of Representatives in 2000, and ran for the Senate in 2004. There must be quite a few documents filed during that period that list a birthplace. What do those documents say?

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Sealed with a Kiss

Roger Kimball reminds us how little we know about Barack Obama:

Now in talking to some left-leaning graduate students a few nights ago, I said that the fact that the records are sealed indicates that there are unattractive things that they would reveal. They found that reasoning ridiculous. But why? Barack Obama does not go around hiding things that would make him look good. If his SAT scores, college grades, and the like would provide evidence to back claims of his brilliance, don’t you think we’d know about them? The inference I draw is that they wouldn’t back those claims. As for the rest—your guess is as good as mine. I wish this administration were as committed to citizens’ privacy as Obama is apparently committed to his own.

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Doug Ross gives a terrific rundown of Barack Obama’s historic firsts:

Yes, he’s historic, alright.

• First President to Preside Over a Cut to the Credit Rating of the United States Government

• First President to Violate the War Powers Act

• First President to Orchestrate the Sale of Murder Weapons to Mexican Drug Cartels

• First President to issue an unlawful “recess-appointment” while the U.S. Senate remained in session (against the advice of his own Justice Department).

• First President to be Held in Contempt of Court for Illegally Obstructing Oil Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

• First president to intentionally disable credit card security measures in order to allow over-the-limit donations, foreign contributions and other illegal fundraising measures.

• First President to Defy a Federal Judge’s Court Order to Cease Implementing the ‘Health Care Reform’ Law

• First President to halt deportations of illegal aliens and grant them work permits, a form of stealth amnesty roughly equivalent to “The DREAM Act”, which could not pass Congress

• First President to Sign a Law Requiring All Americans to Purchase a Product From a Third Party

• First President to Spend a Trillion Dollars on ‘Shovel-Ready’ Jobs — and Later Admit There Was No Such Thing as Shovel-Ready Jobs

• First President to sue states for requiring valid IDs to vote, even though the same administration requires valid IDs to travel by air

• First President to Abrogate Bankruptcy Law to Turn Over Control of Companies to His Union Supporters

• First President to sign into law a bill that permits the government to “hold anyone suspected of being associated with terrorism indefinitely, without any form of due process. No indictment. No judge or jury. No evidence. No trial. Just an indefinite jail sentence.

It goes on and on.

I’d like to add that Obama is the first post-modern President. It’s obvious from his discourse, which, at its best, takes this form:

Some say that p. It’s important to understand that they have good justification for thinking that p, and I agree with them. Others say that not-p. They too have good reason. I agree with them. But I think we must rise above this dispute, and move beyond those who say we have to choose between p and not-p. I reject that false choice.

Maybe he’s the first paraconsistent President.

He’s post-modern in another way as well. His identity appears to be a conscious construction. He evidently, from 1991 to at least 2004, and perhaps 2007, passed himself off as having been born in Kenya. If he was born in Hawaii, why? Roger Simon speculates that he somehow profited by doing so—receiving an international student scholarship, maybe? There’s something very odd about all this. As neo-neocon, reflecting on this story by Byron York, observes,

For quite a while, Obama has reminded me at least a little bit of the F. Scott Fitzgerald character Jay Gatsby—that is, not in the details, but in the fact of being a self-constructed man.

UPDATE: The literary agency changed the information two months after Obama announced for the Presidency, in 2007.

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