Bury my heart at the Battle of Yarmouk by mattsteinglass
August 31, 2010, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

It’s unbelievable, the stuff you can read in the National Review. Dennis Prager:

Even if we do compare the Crusades with contemporary Islamic jihadism, there is little moral equivalence. The Crusades were waged in order to recapture lands that had been Christian for centuries until Muslim armies attacked them. (Some Crusaders also massacred whole Jewish communities in Germany on the way to the Holy Land, and that was a grotesque evil — which Church officials condemned at the time.) As the dean of Western Islamic scholars, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, has written, “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad — a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.”

The Byzantine provinces of Palaestina I and II fell to the armies of Islam in a series of battles and sieges between 636 and 642 C.E. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 C.E. It’s an interval of 453 years.

Some military campaigns Dennis Prager would apparently consider legitimate efforts to “recapture lands” that had been seized by the enemy:

1. All Native American military campaigns to retake territory from the United States government, anywhere in the United States.

2. A Mexican invasion of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

3. An Irish blitzkrieg to recapture Northern Ireland.

4. A Jordanian assault on Israel aimed at recapturing the West Bank and Jerusalem.

5. The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

A case could be made for a joint Spanish-Belgian expedition against the Netherlands to retake Rotterdam for the Catholic Church. And we could go on, but really, what’s the point?

Glenn Beck, greatest scholar of progressive humanity by mattsteinglass
August 29, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Via Kevin Drum, we learn that Dick Armey praises Glenn Beck’s “serious, scholarly work“.

One of the things that we see as we look at Glenn Beck’s work that’s been fascinating to me, is we see a more true and accurate history of the United States, and we see it documented at levels of rigor that, in fact, one would expect out of Ph.D. dissertations — it is serious, scholarly work….[Liberal critics] don’t have to argue with Glenn Beck. They have to argue with his documentation and they can’t match that level of rigor.

I see what Armey is trying to say here, but I don’t think he’s really getting the tone right. I think he should take a look over here for some tips on how to do this properly; it ought to read more like this:

Long live Glenn Beck! The great coryphaeus of science, resolving more profoundly than anyone else the complicated problems of our time; the greatest humanist of our time, understanding better and more clearly than anyone else the interests of the millions of ordinary people of the world; the original giant of conservative thought and action; the ingenious thinker and scholar, forging all-powerful and unconquerable spiritual armor for the American people! Let us praise the irresistible strength of his logic, crushing or capturing the opponent; but most of all, his unshakeable faith in the masses and reliance on their experience.

I think that should do it. I think there are also huge volumes of testimony to Mao Tse-Tung’s genius as an economist; Kim Il-Sung, the world’s greatest nuclear scientist; and so forth, but I had a harder time looking those up, so the achievements attributed to Uncle Joe will have to serve as the model for now.

Liberaltarianism unbound by mattsteinglass
August 25, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Back in 2003, when I’d just moved to Vietnam, one of the first stories I worked on was a piece for the Boston Globe on shrimp and catfish farming. US catfish farmers and shrimp fishermen were pushing to get anti-dumping tariffs enacted on imports of Vietnamese farmed shrimp and tra catfish, which had become a huge engine of prosperity for Vietnamese farmers over the previous few years. (Exports to the US went from about $50 million in 2000 to about $500 million in 2003, if I recall correctly.) The US Department of Commerce favored the anti-dumping tariffs because to calculate dumping, it employed a process called “zeroing”, which I won’t get into but is basically mathematical sleight-of-hand to make it look like imports are being sold below market price. And the independent expert who’d written the best explanation of why zeroing was screwy and unfair, and how it harmed the interests of poor third-world producers like the Vietnamese catfish and shrimp farmers I was writing about, was a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute named Brink Lindsey. I called Lindsey up and he talked me through how zeroing worked, and that strongly informed the article I wound up writing. (In the years since, the Commerce Department has been forced to partially abandon zeroing in investigating dumping claims, due to international criticism.)

Years later, I came across the writing of another Cato Institute chap, Will Wilkinson, on his blog. As I recall I got into some argument with him in a comment thread at some point about his writing on happiness research and whether it meant you shouldn’t have kids. But I found his work consistently very interesting, he was clearly writing from a standpoint of genuine political and intellectual curiosity and independence, and he has an unforcedly erudite writing style that was quite different from most of what was being written in the blogosphere at the time.

I have a tendency to get into arguments with libertarians. To be more specific: I’ll get into arguments with conservatives, but I’m capable of becoming obsessed by arguments with libertarians. I also think conversations with some libertarians have forced me to think harder than perhaps any other conversations I’ve had in the past decade or so.

Anyway, Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson are both leaving the Cato Institute. That’s too bad for the Cato Institute, and great for me, since now Will Wilkinson is blogging at The Economist. But honestly, for all the differences I have with libertarians, I think it’d be too bad if that particular shade of libertarianism lost its connection to major libertarian institutions. This is a bit hard to articulate, but I think that if all the free-thinking unorthodox libertarians drift away to other kinds of centrist or even liberal-leaning institutions, they’ll continue to be interesting and influential writers but libertarianism may cease to be an interesting or influential philosophical current. I’m not sure why I think that would be a bad thing, since I’m not a libertarian and I think the philosophy gets much about the world quite wrong. But for some reason I think it would be a bad thing.

My plan to solve the housing demand crisis by mattsteinglass
August 24, 2010, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Economics

Here’s an example of a post I can’t write for the Economist, because it’s crazy and stupid. So here goes: my plan to solve the housing demand crisis.

1. Use high demand for US Treasury bonds to build up collateral to issue free government insurance on US housing stock, including natural disasters, war, etc.

2. Use the United States Air Force to destroy the excess supply of existing homes. Select homes to be bombed at random. With supply at just over 12 months and sales of 4 million per month, bombing 25 million homes should be sufficient to bring supply down to a historical average of 5 or 6 months.

3. Pay out insurance to homeowners, and watch the housing industry (and home values) recover as they use the cash to buy homes.

For many reasons, this plan doesn’t actually make any sense, but at some level I still find it amazing that the key statistic showing that our economy is in serious trouble is that we just have too many great big suburban American houses. Most people in rural Vietnam would still have trouble figuring out how a surplus of great big suburban American houses is a problem.

Why I am less often an asshole than previously by mattsteinglass
August 24, 2010, 10:51 pm
Filed under: Internet

Doo dee doo, nothin’ to do on a Tuesday night, wife’s away visiting heroin junkies in ethnic-minority villages on the Chinese border. She has all the fun. Guess I’ll just google myself then. Well now lookee here! DougJ at Balloon Juice said something about me on August 6.

Krugman is the only major pundit I enjoy reading—because he enjoys being a rude asshole when rude assholery is called for, as it so often is. This brings me to another question I have for Erik: why are the vast majority of writers for official publications (such as True/Slant) so excessively polite to one another? Why is everything “I have great respect for Jeff Golberg” and “Megan makes a great point here” and “Matt Steinglass makes a good point about Noah Millman’s rejoinder to Jim Manzi”? Why isn’t there more of “so-and-so said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of this writer”?

Hm. Actually I’m pretty sure people often say “Matt Steinglass said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of Matt Steinglass.” I encounter this pretty often when googling myself, anyway.

But speaking for myself: I blog in two places, and in theory True/Slant was actually supposed to be the blog where I was free to call people assholes. (Now that’s this blog here, since True/Slant no longer exists, and DougJ won’t have to worry about people being polite to each other there.) What I’ve found, though, is that when I meet people with whom I radically disagree, I tend to get along reasonably well with them. This isn’t surprising; I live in a country full of Communists who don’t believe in multi-party democracy, and yet I manage to get through most days without telling them they’re all evil morons.

I’ve also found that, when you write a whole lot, you’re going to make some mistakes. This is extremely embarrassing, because the mistakes you make are then engraved in pixels eternally for all the universe to see. If you expect any forbearance from other people who write a whole lot and with whom you disagree, it behooves you to have disagreed politely with them, rather than to have told them how to do themselves six ways till Sunday on multiple occasions.

Then there’s the question of money, as some of the commenters on DougJ’s post suggest. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t an influential factor. In my case, it’s not so much a question of possibly needing a job someday from someone you’ve insulted as it is the possibility that some of the editors at a publication you work for may take an uncongenial view of the kinds of spats you’re getting yourself into on your other blog. That’s actually never happened to me. I’m not kidding, it never has. But I’ve worried about the possibility. I mean, I could see being turned off myself by some of the more intemperate things I’ve said, in a reflective moment. So I wouldn’t be surprised if another editor felt that way.

But what this gets into is a complicated issue: the problem of coherence in your self-presentation on the internet. This has all been discussed to death by brighter minds than me, but basically, in private conversation, there’s space available to slag off one of your acquaintances in private to your other friends. In blogging, this can’t be done. All of your blogs are simultaneously in view of each other, and they’re all in view of the blogs you’re slagging off. Add that to the fact that in all likelihood, if you met that guy you’re slagging off in person, you’d probably get along with them, and you start to think twice about how you’re slagging people off. It’s as much a matter of your sense of self, your responsibility to cohere with yourself, as it is a matter of social fear. Though to be sure, the two are related, just as they are with in-person public self-presentation.

Anyway, I’ve wound up being more polite than I used to be. I think a lot of people are moving towards a less dismissive and confrontational stance in blogging, and that may actually end up opening up space for more substantive dialogue than once took place in the blogosphere. There are, however, variants of this politesse that tick me off. In particular, consistently writing “that’s an…interesting observation” when what you mean is “that’s completely wrong” doesn’t work. It comes across as evasive, supercilious and squirrelly, and I find it actually makes me much angrier than stating a position head-on would.

That said, I’m glad there are still blogs like Balloon Juice around, as that’s a blog aesthetic that needs to be out there too.

Misheard-dialogue jokes in movies by mattsteinglass
August 22, 2010, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Film

To celebrate my son’s birthday, we took him and a bunch of his friends to see “Despicable Me”, which I found uproariously funny despite the fact that it contains a bunch of misheard-dialogue jokes, which aren’t usually my cup of tea. (“What are these?” “Boogie robots!” “Nefario, I said cookie robots!“…”Nefario, I said I wanted a dart gun.” “Ah. Yes. Because I was wondering under what circumstances this might be…er…I’ll get right on it.” Etc.) The thing is, the movie is rendered with such fantasmagorically creative art direction that the fart-gun joke is actually hilarious. We used to occasionally toss these kind of jokes in as a last resort when I was writing kids’ cartoons, but they’re so obvious that they don’t really work unless you have ace animation to pull them off. We had good design artists, but the cartoons were rendered pretty cheaply, so they’d usually fall flat.

Anyway, after the movie, we get home, and I find a bag full of Kit-Kats in the kitchen. I ask my wife, “Why is there a bag of Kit-Kats in the kitchen?” She says “I don’t know,” with an embarrassed look. I say, “Is it because I suggested that you buy some Tic-Tacs to hand out as prizes when the kids win one of the party games?” “Yes.”

Ha ha! See, it’s not funny without really good animation.

“Chariots of Fire” and Thatcherism by mattsteinglass
August 20, 2010, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Film, Politics

The great Doug Pascover posted a hilarious takeoff of Blake’s “And did those feet, in ancient times…” after a post I did over at the Economist, which got me humming the tune of the hymn in the shower, which got me thinking about the opening sequence of “Chariots of Fire” in which that hymn is being sung over an aerial shot of green English fields (as I recall) that zooms in on an Oxford college, which got me reflecting on what an amazing movie “Chariots of Fire” was. The conflict is between the effortless upper-class British guy who trains with an amateur coach, as one does, and the striving Jewish guy who almost gets himself disqualified because (scandalously, for the 1920s or whenever) he hires a pro coach. Apparently he got confused and thought the point was to win. Anyway, the theme is traditional aristocratic amateurism versus upwardly-mobile immigrant commercial professionalism.

What I’d never thought about before was how well-suited that theme was to early-1980s Thatcherite Britain. Labour cast itself as the party of the working class, but if I understand it right, a lot of the energy of Thatcher’s Tories came from upwardly mobile uncouth plebes, many from immigrant backgrounds, who saw the rules and social-services structures that had been put in place by Labourite socialism as a straitjacket rather than a support net. Similarly, the upper-class runner in “Chariots of Fire” thinks of his amateur course as the less moneyed one, but of course in the real world only wealthy upper-class people have the time and connections to compete at the upper levels of sport as amateurs. When the aristocrats complain about the tawdry commercialism of this Jew who’s paying his trainer, they’re obviously also complaining about the threat this poses of upsetting and opening up their social structure. This seems to me to be suffused with themes that were circulating in Thatcher-era politics: which is really more egalitarian, a society of rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor that maintains clear class divisions, or a free-for-all society in which money can buy anything, peerages included, and everyone is constantly sinking or swimming?

The film also teases at a weird duality in Blake’s poem, which is the mixture of Hellenic and Hebraic themes. The “bow of burning gold” and “chariot of fire” Blake wants somebody to bring him seem pretty Hellenic and Apollonian. But the pretext of the poem is an apocryphal/hypothetical visit of the “holy lamb of God” to England and, ultimately, an intent to build Jerusalem there. There’s something very nice about the way this duality recurs in the conflict between the English aristocracy with its Hellenic sporting ideals (resurrecting the Olympics etc.) and the entrance of this Jewish aspirant who upsets the value structure. Historically, the interaction between the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds was pretty adversarial (Maccabees, Herod, etc.), but in the long run the fusion of their value systems in a thing called Christianity turned out to be of some significance.

Our robot-powered retirement future is already here by mattsteinglass
August 12, 2010, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Economics

Megan McArdle argues that in mankind’s brilliant future, we’re all going to have to work until we’re…much older. Maybe 75. It’s not clear.

It was nice that a combination of rising life expectancy and broader pension coverage allowed a large segment of American workers to take what amounted to a multi-decade vacation.  (Though this was never quite as widespread as people now “remember”).  But this was never going to be sustainable.  Retirement experts typically say that retirees should shoot for 75-90% of their working income in retirement (the theory being that some expenses fall, but other expenses rise, and you don’t need to save for retirement when you’re already retired).

That’s fine when the ratio of workers to retirees is 1:12, as it was within the Social Security system in the early years.  But by the time you get to 5:1, it starts to pinch–assuming everyone has the same income, each worker has to toss at least 15% of their own income into the pot to support the retirees.  Once you get to 2:1–which is where we’re rapidly headed–33% of your income is going to support someone in retirement.  Woe betide you if you also have kids.

It’s important to note that this is true no matter how retirement is funded.  Whether you collect a dividend check, get a corporate pension, or live off your social security, your retirement is funded by real claims on the output of people in the workforce.

This is certainly true, unless of course we start manufacturing millions of robots to augment the humans in the workforce. A ratio of two humans plus, say, ten tireless mechanical workers per retiree might make that old Social Security formula viable again.

But wait a minute. We are in fact manufacturing millions of robots to augment the humans in the workforce. That’s why a steel plant that had 4,000 employees in 1948 takes just a hundred or so people to run now. And that’s why the average technology-augmented American manufacturing worker creates $300,000 in output per year, while the average Chinese manufacturing worker creates just $8000. In fact, most areas of the economy have been revolutionized by various productivity advances over the past few decades. And, unless we expect GDP to stop growing, we’re planning on more such productivity growth in the future.

Clearly it’s true, as Megan says, that estimates of stock market growth were wildly optimistic in the 1990s, and therefore pensions are going to have to be more generously funded to pay out a given level of benefits. But whether or not we can afford to let people retire at 65 isn’t simply a question of how many workers you have per retiree. It’s a question of whether the ratio of retirees per worker (and the cost per retiree, as medical expenses rise faster than the CPI) is growing faster than per capita GDP is. And with that relationship in mind, it becomes a question of how we want to allocate the gains from productivity. Do we want to take them as current income, so we can live better during our working years? Or do we want to continue to ensure that old people can retire in reasonable comfort?

One final thing that you really can’t avoid considering: to say that old people will have to keep working longer presumes that somebody out there wants to employ old people. In fact, in an economy obsessed with youth and creative destruction where old people are at a disadvantage because of their inflexibility and lesser aptitude for learning new skills, there’s not necessarily much demand for seniors’ labor. If seniors are unable to earn much, this leaves us with the options of devoting a greater share of young workers’ output to their upkeep, or letting them eat the proverbial cat food. If the seniors end up eating the cat food, that’s not some kind of natural disaster that has befallen us because of demographic trends or the failure of technological innovation to keep up with historical norms. It’s a choice we make as a society about how to allocate our resources.

Politeness to morons by mattsteinglass
August 12, 2010, 8:43 am
Filed under: Islam

Conor Friedersdorf has a post at his new digs at on the people who warn that Islamic radicalism poses a threat of imposing sharia law in the US. As is his generally admirable credo, he remains relentlessly polite throughout; the strongest language he uses is a sarcastic “Please.”

I’m of two minds on this. Friedersdorf is part of a phalanx of young conservativish writers (including Jim Manzi, Reihan Salam and others) who insist on courtesy in their opinion writing. In some cases such respectfulness gives your argument added weight. I’m concerned, however, that in some cases it fails to make it clear to the reader that the people you’re talking about are fracking idiots or shameless hucksters. This is certainly the case wrt to anyone invoking the threat of sharia law in the United States, and I don’t think I could stomach writing a post that pretended for even a moment to address such a prospect seriously. This particular piece by Friedersdorf, while on the money in terms of its content, comes off a bit simple; it goes too far towards acceptance of the terms in which its adversaries speak. I’m not really sure that in the long run our political discourse is well-served by treating jingoism and bigotry with respect.

A supposedly horrible thing we may yet do again by mattsteinglass
August 6, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: US, War

Responding to an argument I made over at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Kevin Drum says he’s not so optimistic that the Iraq-war disaster has made America unlikely to engage in foreign military adventures for the next few decades.

We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we’d never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of “like that” might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?
Right now it looks like we’ve learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one’s banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let’s not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I’ll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

I think Kevin is basically right about this, but would clarify a couple of things. First, what I meant wasn’t that the US has been dissuaded from engaging in any kind of foreign military shenanigans for the foreseeable future. I was really thinking of the particular brand of nuttiness encapsulated in the invasion of Iraq: an unprovoked “pre-emptive” attack predicated on the idea that our troops will be welcomed with flowers, democracy will break out all over, and we’ll be able to bring the troops home fairly quickly at a modest cost, leaving behind a pro-American, pro-Israeli government. I think that kind of madness is off the table for quite some time. Somewhat more broadly, I doubt we’ll see any unprovoked American attacks on other countries, regardless of how “threatening” they seem, unless perhaps Cuba tries to buy a nuke from North Korea or something.

But I don’t think it impossible that we might see other kinds of limited military interventions, and I think some of the examples Kevin provides are illustrative of the kinds that may still occur. As he says, the US got out of Vietnam in 1973, and got into Afghanistan by 1980. But we intervened in Afghanistan by supporting local tribal-religious rebels in the hopes of handing the Soviets their own Vietnam. We weren’t trying to establish anything in particular in Afghanistan; we didn’t really care what happened to the country so long as it made things hard for Moscow. And, by its own lights, that strategy worked. In hindsight, Afghanistan would probably be better off today if the Russians had won, but the Afghan quagmire was among the reasons why the Gorbachev faction decided to forego military intervention as a means of quelling anti-communist political turmoil in the near abroad, so a Soviet victory in Afghanistan might have meant no velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. Anyway, the point is, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the US might use limited force or special forces to back local allies against a foreign adversary in some third country in the near future.

This would be similar to the model of US intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which Kevin also cites. And again, one thing to note about the US military efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador is that, by their own lights, they worked. Certainly, they were bloody and unconscionable messes that involved American support for terrorism and war crimes, but the aim was to crush left-wing Soviet-backed authoritarian agrarian-socialist movements in favor of right-wing US-backed authoritarian plutocratic pseudo-democratic regimes, and that aim was achieved.

You could get deeper into the reasons why US interventions in Central America, and later in the Balkans, more or less achieved their own aims at an acceptable cost, while the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq (and, probably, Afghanistan) failed, at unacceptable cost. I would concentrate pretty heavily on proximity and zones of influence: Central America is the US’s restive backyard, the Balkans are Europe’s, and these things make a very big difference. But the main point is that I think the US won’t be cooking up excuses to launch pre-emptive attacks on supposed rogue states in the next couple of decades. Whether the US will send in Green Berets to back, oh, Christian rebels in southern Sudan, or whatever, is another question.


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