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February 21, 2015

Our Dangerous Historical Moment?

Historian Victor Davis Hansen, writing in NRO on February 19, notes the geopolitical similarities between the world of the 1930s and the world of today:
Putin, the Islamic State, and Iran at first glance have as little in common as did Germany, Italy, and Japan. But like the old Axis, they are all authoritarians that share a desire to attack their neighbors. And they all hate the West.  
The grandchildren of those who appeased the dictators of the 1930s once again prefer in the short term to turn a blind eye to the current fascists. And the grandchildren of the survivors of the Holocaust once again get blamed.
The 1930s should have taught us that aggressive autocrats do not have to like each other to share hatred of the West.
The 1930s should have demonstrated to us that old-time American isolationism and the same old European appeasement will not prevent but only guarantee a war.

Meanwhile, some of the left's apologists, such as Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack at Slate, paint a rosy picture worthy of Pravda's descriptions of unrelenting Soviet triumph.  As long as the "progressive" tribe is in power, the trend lines are incapable of being anything but positive:
The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.

We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization.

Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been”—even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?

February 5, 2015

The fatal shortcoming of Obama's proposal for free community college for all

A February 4 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal notes that Obama's "free community college" proposal ignores a fundamental, immutable economic principle:
The spirit behind President Obama’s recent proposal to make community college free is understandable, but he has fallen victim to the fallacy of composition. He has made the mistake of believing that if one person benefits from an action, then everyone else who takes the same action will also benefit. Economics teaches us otherwise.

Although getting an associate degree or some college education at a community college may benefit any one person, in the aggregate a policy that increases the supply of people with associate degrees can backfire unless it has been designed to fill an existing excess demand. Otherwise such a policy will merely exacerbate an existing excess supply of labor with that level of educational attainment.
Unless our economy magically creates positions for this excess supply of labor, what we'll end up with is overtrained restaurant workers.

January 21, 2015

Political Definitions: "Narrow-minded" and "Bipartisan"

Narrow-minded (adj) - a term used to describe somebody who refuses to adopt the left's point of view on a contentious issue.

Bipartisan (adj) - description of the process in which Democrats and Republicans work together to advance the Democrats' agenda.

January 19, 2015

DNA, GMOs, and the Left's dilemma

io9 reports January 18 on a fascinating study by Oklahoma State University:
A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of respondents supported a government policy mandating labels on foods containing DNA. Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food, GMO or otherwise.

The results smack of satire, but they're real. The Food Demand Survey (FooDs) is an online poll of a representative sample of the U.S. population, conducted every month by Oklahoma State agricultural economist Jayson Lusk and research specialist Susan Murray. The most recent month's survey included a question regarding the institution of government policies concerning food. The results, which you can read in full here, indicate that "a large majority (82%) support mandatory labels on GMOs." What's curious, note Lusk and Murray, is that roughly "the same amount (80%) also support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA."
Even though the survey's sampling method does not appear to be ideal, the result does seem to reflect the human social tendency to jump onto issue bandwagons with little or no factual knowledge of the issues.  If someone we know and admire (be it a friend or some celebrity) is passionately for or against something, it's easy and natural to tag along.

There is a common superstition that all "chemicals" in food are bad.  "DNA" sounds like a chemical (which, of course, it is), so you bet I want to be informed when chemicals with ominous-sounding three-letter acronyms are present in my food!  Indeed, many who embrace the concept of "organic" foods seem to think that it is too much work to ponder the scientific pros and cons of various additives that have been part of our food supply for generations.

The GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) controversy is another good example of hysteria driven by scientific illiteracy.  Foods with one or more GMO ingredients have been dubbed "Frankenfoods" -- a reference to Frankenstein's monster -- by many activists.  I doubt they wish us to carry the analogy too far, given that the townspeople's reaction to the creature was irrational and emotion-driven.  The analogy the activists WANT us to take from the story is the notion that we must never tamper with nature, ever, for any reason.  A large majority of Americans are emotionally drawn to this argument, which almost certainly accounts for the fact that 82% support the proposed GMO labeling requirement, despite the fact that there is little or no scientific evidence that any of the GMOs approved for consumption are harmful to humans in any way.

To me, the curious twist to the anti-GMO crusade is that its activist core appears to reside in to the part of the political left boasting an average education level higher than that of the general population.  They have every reason to be familiar with the scientific truth behind GMOs, but they're the ones that appear to be driving the emotional opposition.

How can this be?  Some on the right are fond of observing that when Soviet communism collapsed, unreconstructed Marxists in the west appear to have adopted the environmental movement as the platform for continuing the advancement of their socioeconomic agenda.  There is strong circumstantial evidence to support this notion.  First, the environmental movement started to blossom dramatically even as the dust was still settling from the collapse of the communist bloc. Second -- and this is more significant to me -- virtually every policy prescription advanced to solve the environmental crisis du jour happens to align perfectly with the socioeconomic goals of the Marxist left: crippling regulation, punishing taxation, global wealth redistribution, etc.

This also appears to be the underbelly of the activist left's opposition to GMOs: it's driven by ideology, not by science illiteracy.  You see, GMOs can be patented...by corporations!  If we allow GMOs into our food supply, that benefits greedy capitalists.  So, even if someone comes up with something like "golden rice", which has a scientifically demonstrable benefit to human health, it must be opposed at all costs

The dilemma for the educated activists on the left is that their numbers aren't anywhere near what is needed to successfully advance their anticapitalist agenda, so they have no choice but to harness the ignorance of those whose convictions about food are driven more by superstition than by facts.  Thus, even though these activists often scorn the scientific illiteracy of average Americans, expediency keeps their mouths shut as GMO myths continue to run rampant in the mass media, in blogs, and on Facebook.

January 17, 2015

Did a crack just form in the Civil Asset Forfeiture wall? (In which I interrupt my hiatus to bestow cautious praise upon the Obama administration) [UPDATED]

Most long-time C-Pol readers (and you'd have to be long-time readers, given my recent posting frequency) know I'm no fan of the Obama administration, but if this story is true in its details*, I'll give credit where credit is due.  From the WaPo, January 16:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
"Civil Asset Forfeiture" (police seizing alleged drug money or assets purchased with alleged drug money) has been the most-abused weapon in the "War on Drugs" arsenal in the past three decades. The problem is that the assets are far too often seized WITHOUT DUE PROCESS, and often WITHOUT PROBABLE CAUSE that a crime has been committed. It's hard to imagine a more egregious violation of 4th Amendment protections.

Over the years, this has led to countless cases where people traveling with significant amounts of cash -- with no criminal taint whatsoever -- have had that cash confiscated by the authorities under the official presumption that it's drug cash. Often, the police will simply seize the cash and send the people on their way without filing any charges (remember, filing charges means proving probable cause and following due process, which will almost certainly fail). Victims who have the means to file a legal challenge to get their money back are often faced with the unconstitutional burden of proving their cash was NOT related to drug activities.

This is evil, and I'm at a loss to understand how this practice has endured for three decades, except to observe that this has been a tremendous cash cow for every level of government -- the authorities seizing the goods share the proceeds with other authorities, essentially buying their silence, so the folks who COULD stop the practice have no incentive to do so. This action by AG Holder has already provoked complaints that this would harm the budgets of police departments. Sorry, but this money is as much illegally obtained (by the police) as drug money is (by the pushers). If the assets were forfeited through proper due process, I might have some sympathy for this complaint.

So, props to AG Holder if he is truly ending federal participation in the splitting of the spoils (if I'm misinterpreting the effect of his action, please let me know in the comments). The problem won't end at the state and local levels until voters get angry enough to hold their elected officials accountable. Alas, there are so many issues out there that motivate people's votes, and this one, as terrible as it is, is likely to get lost in the noise.  Sigh.


* January 21 UPDATE: I'm glad I used the disclaimer "if this story is true in its details" because, as Reason's Jacob Sullum notes January 19, Holder's action is much less significant than press reports made it out to be:
Holder's order applies only to "adoption," which happens when a state or local agency seizes property on its own and then asks the Justice Department to pursue forfeiture under federal law. "Over the last six years," the DOJ says in the press release announcing Holder's new policy, "adoptions accounted for roughly three percent of the value of forfeitures in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program." By comparison, the program's reports to Congress indicate that "equitable sharing" payments to state and local agencies accounted for about 22 percent of total deposits during those six years. That means adoptions, which the DOJ says represented about 3 percent of deposits, accounted for less than 14 percent of equitable sharing. In other words, something like 86 percent of the loot that state and local law enforcement agencies receive through federal forfeitures will be unaffected by Holder's new policy.
Phooey. It's better than nothing, I guess, but it's hardly worth one cheer, much less three.

April 13, 2014

Your tax dollars, misdirected (as usual)

The Internal Revenue Service, despite having the same six-year heads-up the rest of us had regarding the demise of Windows XP support, was caught unprepared when the deadline arrived.  Engadget, April 13:
[S]upport for XP officially stopped on April 8th, meaning that Microsoft will no longer provide support or security updates for the venerable OS. However, governmental computers can't be left vulnerable, so the IRS will be paying Microsoft millions of dollars for custom support to keep their machines secure and functional. Right now, over half the agency's PCs still run XP, despite Microsoft telling the whole world that it would stop support for the OS in 2014 six years ago.
Too busy targeting Tea Party organizations and implementing Obamacare enforcement, I suppose.  As far as priorities go, it's business as usual.

April 6, 2014

Booker T. Washington: In the end, merit will be rewarded, regardless of race

Booker T. Washington, born on this day in 1856, wrote the following in his book, Up From Slavery:
I have always been made sad when I have heard members of any race claiming rights or privileges, or certain badges of distinction, on the ground simply that they were members of this or that race, regardless of their own individual worth or attainments.

I have been made to feel sad for such persons because I am conscious of the fact that mere connection with what is known as a superior race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior race will not finally hold an individual back if he possess intrinsic, individual merit.

Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and rewarded. This I have said here, not to call attention to myself as an individual, but to the race to which I am proud to belong.

January 18, 2014

Ah, such delicious irony!

A publisher of peer-reviewed scientific journals, named in honor of a man famous for challenging the consensus of the day, pulls the plug on one of its journals after an issue that challenges the consensus of the day.  JoNova, January 18:
In extraordinary news, the scientific journal Pattern Recognition in Physics has been unexpectedly terminated, a “drastic decision” taken just ten months after it started.

The publisher appears to be shocked that in a recent special issue the scientists expressed doubt about the accelerated warming predicted by the IPCC. For the crime of not bowing before the sacred tabernacle, apparently the publishers suddenly felt the need to distance themselves, and in the most over-the-top way. The reasons they gave had nothing to do with the data, the logic, and they cite no errors. There can be no mistake, this is about enforcing a permitted line of thought.

I must say, it’s a brilliant (if a tad expensive) way to draw attention to a scientific paper. It’s the Barbara-Streisland [sic] moment in science. Forget “withdrawn”, forget “retracted”, the new line in the sand is to write a paper so hot they have to terminate the whole journal! Skeptics could hardly come up with a more electric publicity campaign.

November 7, 2013

Biometrics: convenient in more ways than one

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Image via "Bits and Pieces"

Conservationism, not environmentalism

This is the footer on a business email I received this morning, and it neatly encapsulates my thoughts on how humans should interact with their environment:
  • Use what you need without feeling guilty about it; 
  • Clean up any mess you make in the process; 
  • Avoid wasteful overuse; 
  • Whenever possible, support efforts to replace what was used.

November 6, 2013

Be careful what you wish for (Or: This won't end well)

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This excellent point is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but the curators of all things Jefferson at Monticello insist that there is no evidence he is the source.  They also note that other claimed sources, such as Barry Goldwater and Gerald Ford, are also spurious, although they are known to have employed the quote in their speeches.

As far as documentary evidence goes, the earliest written examples of the quote date back to the early 1950s; the original sage seems to have vanished into the mists of history.

Regardless of the quote's parentage, the point remains valid and deeply profound.  In my opinion, we are likely to see its validation in many unpleasant ways in the coming years and decades.

November 5, 2013

Obama the omnipotent?

I've been seeing spam messages like these in my inbox ever since Obama first took office.  Apparently, the Obama cult is still going strongly enough that merely invoking his name is enough to bring in new customers, even if Obama himself isn't paying you to go solar, and he didn't personally reduce your mortgage.  Last I heard, the president doesn't have dictatorial powers yet.  Yet.

Obama the omnipotent?
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