Thank You

With nearly 4,000 hits, you helped make August 2012 this blog's most successful month ever. I also surpassed 40,000 lifetime hits this month.

I only have you, the reader, to thank for this. Thank you.

Open And Honest Communication

With a hat tip to David Henderson, I recently became aware of this Rachael Larimore op-ed piece at Salon.com.

It's a great piece, but I feel the scope is too limited. Larimore is discussing an isolated political issue, but in doing so, she rests her entire point on something much stronger and more profound. While she may have a great point about this politician or that, the following paragraph stands out as something I wish everyone would figure out:
Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years in a fiction-writing program at a local university. I never finished the novel I aspired to write, but I did learn some valuable lessons. The most important: “It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.” In the context of class, that meant when we were sharing our work and listening to feedback, we couldn’t butt in and say that we’d meant something else. We needed to take ourselves out of our own head and try to understand what our readers had heard.
How many times have you spent time pulling your hair out with someone because they read you all wrong and got upset over something you didn't even intend to say? I sure have. We want to take that other person by the shoulders, give them a good hard shake, and say, "But you don't get it! I didn't mean it that way! I meant it another way! Why won't you listen to what I really meant, rather than what you thought I meant!?"

The thing is, though, Larimore - or I guess technically, Larimore's fiction-writing professor - was right. Your intended message is irrelevant. What matters is the message received. When you're delivering a message, you owe it to the recipients to deliver it accurately. Can they be faulted for getting the wrong message? No, not really.

Having said that, I recently passed by a marquee sign near my workplace on which someone had posted the following message:
It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.
Uh-oh. That seems right, too.

This puts us in a bit of a quandary, because on the one hand, it's not the listener's fault if you aren't properly misunderstood; but on the other hand, it is basically impossible for a person to deliver a perfect message every time. Where do we go from here?

As a speaker, you have to be patient, and you have to be prepared to say something more than once, in more than one way. The first time you say something, you might get it wrong. When someone misunderstands you, it is incumbent upon you to set the record straight. More importantly, you must set the record straight without becoming upset or indignant.

As a listener, you have to be receptive. You must give speakers the benefit of the doubt and consider what they really mean. You must be prepared to ask questions about things that aren't clear, and you must follow-up on your doubts with clarifying questions whenever you feel the speaker is saying something potentially objectionable.

It's a two-way street, and both sides come with some responsibility. This is what it means to communicate openly and honestly. We cannot simply and indignantly dismiss what other people have to say, no matter what our prior biases and suspicions are. We must give each other adequate latitude to convey their messages accurately, and we must be prepared to state things more explicitly when required.

To be honest, I feel a little sad today in having to write this blog post. What I've just said is perfectly obvious to everyone. Why, then, is it so difficult for people to practice patience, dignity, openness, and honesty in communication?

One theory is that they simply will not; another theory is that they simply cannot. My belief is that the former explanation applies in matters of politics, and the latter explanation applies in matters of total interpersonal communication breakdown.

Perhaps one day I will write a blog post on total interpersonal communication breakdown. It is a post that desperately needs to be written.


The Wall Street Journal Takes On Optimism

Today I noticed a great article in The Wall Street Journal, offering some great tips on how "turn that frown upside-down."

"The most resilient people experience a wide range of emotions, both negative and positive," says Dr. Fox, author of "Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain." To enjoy life and feel good, people need roughly four positive emotions to counteract the effect of one negative emotion, she says. People who experience life as drudgery had two or even one positive emotion for every negative one, Dr. Fox has found.

It's possible to change your cognitive bias by training the brain to focus more on the positive than on the negative. In the lab, Dr. Fox showed subjects pairs of images, one negative (the aftermath of a bomb blast, say) and one either positive (a cute child) or neutral (an office). Participants were asked to point out, as quickly as possible, a small target that appeared immediately after each positive or neutral image—subliminally requiring them to pay less attention to the negative images, which had no target. 

Want to try this at home? Write down, in a journal, the positive and negative things that happen to you each day, whether running into an old friend or missing your bus. Try for four positives for each negative. You'll be training your brain to look for the good even as you acknowledge the bad, Dr. Fox says.

And even better:

If you don't feel happy, fake it. You wouldn't constantly burden a friend with your bad mood, so don't burden yourself. Try holding a pencil horizontally in your mouth. "This activates the same muscles that create a smile, and our brain interprets this as happiness," Dr. Fox says.

The Unfixable Economy

Here's another great quote with a vague origin:
An infant industry, if coddled, tends to remain an infant industry and never grows up or expands.
Many people have said that that "infant industries never grow up," but this may be the first instance of the phrase I've seen that is attributable to a specific person. In this case, the late John James Cowperthwaite, a British civil servant who worked in Hong Kong.

What I like about this quote is that it uses an economic metaphor many of us can easily understand: parenting.

It's Sub-Optimal; What's Not To Fix?
The majority of prescriptive economic policy consists of noble intentions held by smart people who like the way things work, but want to tweak economic conditions to perfection. Things are great, they say, but there's just one thing... Either some people aren't making as much money as they could, or the environment isn't quite as clean as it could be, or some companies could be managed a little more fairly, or other countries aren't quite playing by the best rules. Something isn't quite optimal. Something is sub-optimal.

Imperfection begs for improvement. Smart people are good at improving things. Smart people also tend to like to think about economics, even if they aren't economists (present company included). It's natural to want to fix things, if you think you have an idea how they might be fixed. We all do it, all the time.

But the problem with an economy is that it is far more complex than even the smartest people out there give it credit for being. Like a child who dismantles a radio to see how it works, smart people start tinkering with the economy and end up with a table heaping with parts that require a new set of expertise to put back together again. There's that parenting metaphor again

Disequilibrium, not Equilibrium
One of the ways I think the field of economics has failed ordinary people is in its perpetuation of the mistaken idea that the economy ever reaches an equilibrium. It does not. Let me explain...

When you buy something, the fact that you value what you're buying more than the money you give up to recieve it is implicit. If you did not value what you're buying more than the money, you wouldn't have bought it. The same is true for the seller: He/she values the money more than what he/she is selling you; if not, the sale wouldn't occur.

Because each party values what they're receiving more than (as opposed to equal to) the thing they're giving up to get it, in a certain sense everyone engaged in a transaction "is getting a deal." Both parties are made better off in any given trade. The trade is inherently "unequal" to each party because they're getting more than what they had before.

Right away, we see that the "equilibrium price" arrived at in the sale almost feels like a disequilibrium. The valuations of both parties are unequal. At any rate, the sale occurs at an agreed-upon price, which perhaps in some sense is a single equilibrium price for that lone transaction.

But no two people value the same product in exactly the same way. While you and I may pay the same price for a gallon of gasoline, we each value it a little differently. When the price of gas goes up, Peter will continue to buy the same amount of gasoline, but Paul will buy a little less, or else drive a little less. Therefore, Peter values gasoline more than Paul does, even though they both pay the same price for gasoline.

From this example, it is obvious that the macroeconomic clearing price of gasoline is not a point of macroeconomic satisfaction. In a certain sense, the economy has reached a point of efficiency, but people are still dissatisfied. When conditions change again (say, when Paul finds he needs to drive to the next town for some reason), the valuation of goods and services change, too. Paul's additional gas purchases diminish Peter's available supply (minutely), and the seller is better off having sold a little more gas.

All of these extremely small adjustments in the economy impact the decisions of real individuals in very small ways. But none of them can be predicted. More importantly, at no point in the future will conditions ever return to any notion of a "previous equilibrium." The equilibrium never really existed. It was merely an approximate range of valuations during a snapshot of conditions.

Instead, Paul was always a little dissatisfied with the price he had to pay, Peter would like to pay less, but continues to grudgingly buy gas at all recent prices, and the seller would like to sell more gas at any price, but especially a higher price.

Everyone is cheering for a new set of conditions that will make them better off. Dissatisfaction is the norm. Macroeconomic conditions are always in disequilibrium, not equilibrium.

You Can't Fix What Isn't Broken, But You Sure Can Break It
It should be obvious where I'm going with this. If reality is a world in which disequlibrium is always the case, then all policy attempts to establish an equilibrium in any sense of the word are vain.

If we're dissatisfied with the price of some good or service - or indeed, if we are dissatisfied with the total macroeconomic price level - it is only because we all wish to be wealthier and better off. Obviously, this is a fact of the human experience: we always want a little more, we always want our conditions to improve a little bit. If we didn't, we wouldn't be human. Even zen Buddhism can't eliminate our human desire for more. It is well-ingrained in our psychology.

The source of our dissatisfaction is internal. Its external incarnation is the ever-changing nature of the macroeconomy and the general disequilibrium we face out there every day.

The point is that there really isn't anything to do to the economy to make it better. We can flood the economy with additional dollars, but all that will do is create a new set of sub-optimal conditions, a new disequilibrium. We will still want. We can raise taxes and tariffs and trade quotas and force our countrymen to stop buying products from foreign producers, but all that will do is create a new set of sub-optimal conditions, a new disequilibrium.

A key innovation of the Austrian school of economics (beyond the insight that economies are always in disequilibrium, not equilibrium) is the fact that when conditions are artificially modified by planners, those changes distort the expectations of individuals. The government can save a domestic factory job by refusing to allow foreign imports into the country, or by taxing them; but the result of this is a higher consumer price: One job saved at the expense of someone who can no longer afford the product in question (to say nothing of the foreign job that may have to be eliminated). Total production decreases, and prices increase. We are made worse off, not better.

And to top it all off, disequilibrium persists, begging the very smart people I mentioned before to tinker further with the economy.

Infant industries never grow up, and neither do children who believe that tinkering with the economy will result in an improvement. The economy is a naturally dissatisfying place, precisely because human wants are unlimited.

Therefore, the economy cannot be "fixed." It isn't broken, it simply is.


Album Review: The Darkness' "Hotcakes"

Like many other people, my first exposure to The Darkness was seeing the music video for "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" on MTV. Also like most people, my first thought was, "This has to be a joke."

It was a bad time for music in general. The year was 2003. To give the reader a better appreciation for just how bad music was back then, I direct you to this link, showing the Billboard Top 100 for 2003. There are some real doozies there, including the number one ranking song "In Da Club" by 50 Cent. (Remember, it's pronounced Fiddy.) Undoubtedly, the pop charts were dominated by one- and two-chord, unmelodic hip hop ejaculations like "In Da Club," but also including the likes of Sean Paul (remember him? he's the johnny-one-note who used to chant in a Jamaican accent), Uncle Kracker (whose biggest claim to fame was being a former member of Kid Rock's band), and Chingy (who could forget the immortal Chingy?).

There was no rock scene to speak of. About the biggest rock band at the time was an adult contemporary group called Train. (Don't get me wrong, I like Train. But they're adult contemporary.) There was a real dearth of anything resembling the rock that people my age had grown up with. It was a really odd feeling, too, because we had all grown up with the impression that rock music was music for the ages, that it was somehow forever. But in seven short years (for me, the disintegration of rock started with Soundgarden's 1996 press release announcing their formal disbandment), rock had gone from epic to obscure. It was sad.

And then The Darkness arrived, wearing catsuits, playing Les Pauls through Marshall stacks, doing two-hand tapping, and singing in falcetto. One simply couldn't help but feel that it was being done ironically. It was as if the music business had grown so disgusted by the mere idea of rock music that they had systematically destroyed it and were now simply making fun of its remaining fans.

That really was what I thought the first time I saw that "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" video. But no sooner had the video ended than I became overcome by a strange desire to see it again. Why couldn't I get it out of my head? Was it morbid curiosity?

At last, in the wake of all the fanfare over "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," I broke down and bought the album. When I put it in the CD player and heard the incredible "Black Shuck," with its almost prog-rock chord changes, I knew immediately that this band was the real deal.

From there, I followed them faithfully through One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back, and later on to Justin Hawkins' post-breakup band, Hot Leg. Through it all, the duality of The Darkness' and Hawkins' musical identity made itself obvious. The band makes music that is both funny and incredible, and this hard-to-swallow combination of hilarity and musicality has dogged many other great Darkness predecessors, such as Frank Zappa and Bumblefoot.

Now 2012 brings a new Darkness album from a reformed Darkness. Gone is the in-fighting and bad behavior. What remains is pure music.

Hotcakes somehow manages to blend the hard-hitting, guitar players' delight of the old Permission to Land Darkness with the more approachable songwriting stylings that made Hot Leg such a great band. For people like me, who thought Hot Leg was utterly fantastic, but who all the same missed the more visceral/less intellectual fun of The Darkness' glory days, this is an absolute dream come true.

It's not that Hot Leg was all brains, and the The Darkness was all crotch. At their best, The Darkness has always had a witty flair that managed to fuse their sense of humor with their genuine love for a type of rock music that seems anachronistic in today's world. The best songs they wrote always managed to include interesting and intricate dual-guitar interplay and legitimately brilliant guitar solos, along with clever lyrics that require intelligence to compose as well as to fully appreciate. But in their more youthful days, The Darkness may have too often drifted into self-absorbed silliness, and this was especially true of the throwaway songs on One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back. Nor did the songs on Red Light Fever lack intestinal fortitude, for indeed the songs on that album feature some of the most admirable guitar work of Hawkins' career.

No, it's not as though Hotcakes puts right past wrongs. Instead, the new album fuses all of the very best elements of the musicians' past career milestones into what can only be described as their best album, ever.

The guitar pyrotechnics are there, drenched in heavily playful melodies that demonstrate a tastefulness in lead guitar work that has always been there; it is done especially well here. The soaring falcetto vocals are there, but to my delight, Justin Hawkins shows off his chest-voice chops, too, and they are nothing to balk at. The formidable guitar riffs are there, as we all hoped they would be; the band even seems to have eschewed the keyboards that pop up occasionally in their work.

A final cherry on top is that, unlike previous efforts, Hotcakes seems to show off a bit more bass and drum work than the previous albums. Or if not, at least I can hear the drum work and bass work better on this album.

So the inevitable question is, Does The Darkness succeed in once again saving rock and roll? Have they produced a masterpiece? Every reviewer is bound to have a different opinion there, but for my money, this album is the pinnacle of their career thus far.


Beyond "Individualism Versus Collectivism"

When I search Google for the phrase "individualism vs collectivism," I come up with approximately 280,000 hits. From what I can see, every link on the first page of those results is from an ostensibly libertarian website, except one, which appears to be a link to an academic study. The reason I bring this up is because it is becoming progressively more apparent to me that the whole discussion of "individualism versus collectivism" is a bit of a straw-man argument engaged in primarily by libertarians.

The Wrong Idea
The roots of individualism run deep, at least as deep as the 19th Century. The United States of America is, to many libertarians, a bit of a "golden age," a time and place in history where society is thought to have reached its greatest degree of libertarian freedom. American Existentialism as an artistic movement was in its heyday. So we have, for example, quotes from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, proclaiming: "The less government we have, the better, — the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal Government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual." We have the likes of Oscar Wilde instructing us: "Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine."

Of course, Marx's "Scientific Communism" was also born in the 19th Century, winning many converts. For this reason, perhaps, the two movements came to a head as ideological poles. On the one hand, there was American Existentialism, thought to be an evolution of Enlightenment philosophy, born in the freest nation the world had ever known, and urging individuality, singularity, and freedom. On the other hand, there was German Socialism, urging class-cohesiveness, community, collective action, and syndicalism.

This yin-yang of political philosophy makes for a compelling story about ideology, and it did indeed make a tremendous impact on the world. It has colored the view of all of us since it was first posed as a dichotomy. But taking this view of the world seriously is a dangerous mistake, because it is wrong.

The Social Animal
In the "collectivist" view, human beings are social animals who have simply always existed in tribes, and those tribes take on characteristics that influence individual behavior. In the "individualist" view, the individual is the fundamental unit of social existence and, whatever can be said of groups, such facts can only be articulated by first describing individual behavior.

The discussion is a bit of a dog chasing its own tail. The truth is, if humans weren't social animals, then civilizations wouldn't exist; and if humans weren't intensely individualistic, human rights wouldn't exist.

While some collectivists like to point to certain indigenous populations as examples of what primitive man must have been like, I think the best example of what early humans must have been like are the Australian aboriginals. There, families basically exist as individual units, there are no "tribes," per se. People roam the Outback all day in search of food. Coming across a "neighbor" is a happy change of pace; they share food and stories, spend some time together, and then go their separate ways again. Life is social, but it is also individual.

The theory of trade specialization and comparative advantage articulates how people have since moved from a lonely, nomadic, individualistic life, into thriving communities. When people specialize economically, they can consume outside their individual production possibilities frontiers. This is why marriages work: the two spouses specialize in what they do best, and the family can therefore enjoy more resources. It is also why communities exist. 

In an effort to improve one's quality of life, one specializes in one's greatest strength, trades with his/her community, and enjoys better conditions than if each of us had to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves using our own individually produced resources.

One result of accepting this telling of the story is that the supposed "dichotomy" between individualism and collectivism starts to disintegrate. Mankind is neither an altruistic collective fighting for a communal sense of survival, nor a swarm of autocratic beings who only relent to social interaction when they absolutely must compromise their individual rights. Instead, mankind is a group of people engaging in communication aimed at enriching life in general. All sorts of motives come into play, as many motives as there are individuals.

In short, there is no "collectivism," nor is there any real "individualism." There are only people whose thoughts and motives are as diverse and complex as mankind itself.

Why Do I Bring This Up?
I wanted to introduce this concept because it is becoming progressively more apparent to me that the "libertarian community" (a term that scores full points for irony, by the way) suffers from massive groupthink, in-grouping, and isolation. This is a danger for any group of people, but among a group of professed individualists outlining an individualistic philosophy, it is deadly.

Ayn Rand has been accused of leading a cult that resisted any and all outside points of view. Ironically, the person who promoted this point of view perhaps most vehemently, was Murray Rothbard, who had falling-outs with not only the Objectivists, but also with many other people within the various libertarian movements. Many new and developing libertarian ideas are subjected to an informal "vetting process," in which a theory or concept must be published through approved channels or endorsed by the elder statesmen before it is considered a useful part of the movement.

Any way you look at it, these are the kinds of things that many libertarians consider pernicious aspects of collectivism.

In the future, I hope to spend a bit more time blogging about the apparently competing concepts of individualism and collectivism. Namely, I hope to spend more time discussing the importance of individuality and the need to preserve it in the face of what can sometimes be crushing pressures from the group. But I wanted to first introduce this topic by making short work of the myth that there is some sort of cosmic ideological choice between the kibbutz and hermitude. 


It Is The Correct Response

This guy is amazing. He even goes out with a bang.

Thanks for the years of inspiration, Lance, and for standing up for yourself.

UPDATE: Fox News notes:
If Armstrong is stripped of his victories in France, the titles generally go to the second place finsher. However all the second place and third place finishers in Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins have either admitted, been caught or been implicated in doping scandals.

My Oddball Austrianism

There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.
-- Apocryphal quote commonly attributed to Duke Ellington

I first encountered this quote at about the age of twenty while trying to talk a couple of local musicians into joining my band. They didn't, but the quote always stuck with me. As John J. Kafalas notes, even though the quote may not really have come from Ellington, it doesn't matter who originally said it. It's simply something true about music.

It is also something true of other things, and by "other things," I mean economic theories.

There are really only two kinds of economic theories: good ones and bad ones. As much as the economics blogosphere features passionate ideological debates between competing schools of thought, a lot of this really just comes down to squabbling among in-groups. What I mean is, if we're talking about science and truth, it doesn't matter who "wins" the squabble. All that matters is reality, the truth.

While I like to call myself an adherent of Austrian School economic theory, as the years go by I become progressively more aware of the differences between my feelings on Austrianism and the feelings apparently held by the majority of self-described Austrian School economists. Holding a heterodox view of an already heterodox discipline elevates the absurdity of all of this to unbelievable levels, but the fact remains: I am not your garden-variety Austrian adherent.

In truth, though, my economic views are closer to orthodox than they are to heterodox. I believe in any theory that is theoretically sound and has strong predictive value. What this means is that I reject things like the Keynesian income identity, because it is circular reasoning; and I embrace things like the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, because there are no logical reasons to believe it isn't true.

I am not one of those Austrian School economists who discount everything every Keynesian or Monetarist or whatever may happen to say, simply because it isn't Austrian. If Greg Mankiw or Paul Krugman says something that makes sense, it makes sense. If Amartya Sen demonstrates something that is undeniably true, then that's what it is. It doesn't matter which in-group these folks happen to belong to. Truth is truth.

But that also means that I don't discount things like heterodox Austrian School economics simply by virtue of the fact that it's heterodox.

One thing is for certain, I am not at all interested in choosing sides among competing in-groups. If something is true, I am more than happy to accept its truth - by virtue of the fact that it is true, not because it happens to be a prevailing opinion.

Therefore, unlike many other fans of Austrian School economics, I accept some theories and concepts from outside the Austrian school. And unlike many fans of more mainstream economic schools of thought, I accept those aspects of the Austrian school approach that are undeniably true. But I am out-growing the idea that, e.g. Ludwig von Mises was a radically different economist than his peers. Instead, I simply view him as a brilliant economist. His ideas are correct as far as I have been able to determine.

But that is a fact about Mises, not a fact about "Austrian economics." There are only two kinds of economic theories: correct ones and incorrect ones.


Album Review: Rush's "Clockwork Angels"

Rush stands alone in today's music world. They are, perhaps the one and only "dinosaur rock band" that not only still releases new material consistently, but continues to release new material that their fans actually look forward to.

Consider what that means for a moment. While other artists as old as Rush have either long since disbanded, refuse to write new material in favor of touring on their laurels (Rolling Stones),  or release material that pretty much no one looks forward to (Aerosmith), Rush continues to put out extremely strong material that their fans happily devour as if it were still Rush's "heyday." In that case, what is a heyday, anyway? It may very well still be Rush's heyday by fan standards.

The buzz around Clockwork Angels has been that it is the band's best-ever release. With press like that, it is hard to enter the critical listening process without any expectations. But Rush has a way of jarring the listener every time he/she presses "play" on a new Rush album for the first time. Clockwork Angels is no different in this regard. From the first notes of the lead-in track, "Caravan," the album hits hard and informs the listener that this will be another characteristically different Rush album. How a band this old can continue to grow and develop as musical artists is beyond me.

A few things stand out to me as being important developments for the band.

First, many of the songs are down-tuned. Whether this is for the sake of Geddy's aging voice or a deliberate decision to give things a more modern heaviness, the impact is major. This deepening of tone is further amplified by what to me are some of Geddy's best-ever bass tones. Over the course of Rush's career, they have not always been the heaviest of bands. The kind of hard-hitting heaviness familiar to fans of the Caress of Steel or 2112 era have not heard true heaviness from Rush in decades. Those old Rush fans may not find the heaviness they're looking for on this album, but there is no denying that this is the heaviest Rush effort in a long time.

Second, the many interacting sonic textures on this album are above and beyond even the best of what Rush has recorded before. The booming heaviness is there, but interspersed with all that grind, there are delicate guitar and keyboard tracks, acoustic guitars, clean-toned guitars... All of these textures interweave themselves through each of the album's twelve songs. The term to employ here is ear candy. For my money, this album contains the most pure ear candy of any Rush album to date.

Third, the band is flexing their songwriting chops on this album above and beyond many of their previous efforts. Each song contains multiple song sections, often very different from each other, that manage to fuse tightly together into some extremely strong songwriting. It takes years of experience to be able to put together songs like this. Rush has the skill and experience to pull it off. It is almost as if they can succeed in any songwriting direction they want to go, at any point in any song.

Well, enough of the love-fest. The album does contain weak points. One major weak point is Geddy's aging voice. At times, it simply isn't strong enough to pull off the vocal lines he attempts. It never reaches the point where he sounds bad, but there is a fatigue in the voice that makes the listener a little wistful for the kind of performance that make their mid-70s albums so awesome.

Another weakness - and admittedly, this one is personal preference - is that the album's story/concept at times interferes with the appeal of the lyrics. At times it is difficult to understand whether the lyrics are advancing the album's plot or delivering an important metaphor (or both). Rush has always been a band that placed a strong emphasis on lyrical content. In this case, I feel that the songs are serving double-duty as stand-alone rock songs and concept album story-pieces. While I can't say that the lyrics ever really turn south, I can say that many lines simply leave me confused as a listener.

For me, the high point of the album is the song "Carnies," which amply demonstrates all of the band's greatest strengths, from brilliant songwriting and composition to instrumental virtuosity. A close second is "Halo Effect," which sits in the tradition of prior Rush songs like "Half the World," but still manages to raise the bar in terms of writing.

Overall, this is another great album from one of rock's most enduring bands.


Album Review: Steve Vai - The Story of Light

I started playing the guitar at about age thirteen. Like many guitarists, I started with easy songs, and so my taste in music reflected my ability. I listened to Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, The Offspring, and so forth. It was the early 90s, and "grunge" and "alternative" music was what was popular. As my familiarity with the instrument increased, my tastes evolved toward the grungier side of things, and I developed a keen appreciation for the music of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple pilots. I loved the way they used alternate tunings. I loved the simple-yet-innovative musical passages upon which they built whole songs.

But by the time I was sixteen, I realized that I was becoming obsessed with the guitar solos in the music I listened to. This lead me first to Dweezil Zappa's band at the time, Z, and then eventually I dove deep into the world of instrumental guitar music.

Anyone who takes that path is bound to wind up voraciously devouring and analyzing the music of Steve Vai. One reason for this is that Vai has been responsible for an uncanny amount of music that is considered "classic" among guitar aficionados. He started his career playing some of the zanier passages in Frank Zappa's early-80s music, then moved on to write and perform important 80s music for David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, and White Snake. His career as a backup musician could stand on its own laurels, but somehow Vai managed to use this experience as a springboard to his extremely successful solo career as an instrumental guitarist.

Vai was "wanking" when playing guitar solos was called "wanking." When the gods of the popular music industry were cloaking themselves in muddy plaid shirts and baggy cutoff shorts, Vai was drenching himself in silver-blue paint and leather pants. It's not that he is an anachronism, it's that he is Steve Vai. He just does his weird thing, and maintains his fanbase accordingly. He is clearly an eccentric, evidenced by his bee-keeping  hobby, his obsession with vaguely Eastern, vaguely pagan mysticism, his filming a whole concert DVD with eye liner and body glitter on his face, and so on.

As a listener, one must occasionally pause and wonder whether Steve Vai is some sort of guitar-based mad scientist or pompous megalomaniac, although I suspect the real answer is that his penchant for all this lunacy is nothing more than his brand.

He's getting old, and young guitarists have moved on to other types of music. In fact, most young people don't really even play lead guitar anymore. And CDs are clunky, expensive things to waste money on when you can get the album for free on Spotify. So 2012 is an odd time to release the second installment of a three-album sonic triptych, the first of which came out seven years ago. But one thing we should all know by now is that Vai just does his thing, and his fans appreciate that.

What his fans are sure to appreciate most about The Story of Light is the fact that Steve Vai has finally managed to produce an entire album of excellent guitar tones. What's remarkable about this fact is that this is coming from a guitarist whose tone Frank Zappa once described as sounding like "an electric ham sandwich."

Vai's tones have gone through a big evolution over the years, but to me they always sounded thin and twerpy. Even when I thought he was the greatest guitar player ever to live, his tone always baffled me a little bit. It sounded like grape juice being squeezed out of a banjo. It was at once fizzy, flubby, shrill, quacky, and thin. To me, it was as if he got everything wrong.

In terms of tone, Steve Vai gets everything right on The Story of Light. From the first note of the crushing title track to the complex and woody acoustic notes in "Gravity Storm," Vai manages to drench every second of his playing on the album in glowing, warm, fat tone.

But what about the music? For me, The Story of Light contains both the best aspects of Steve Vai, and the worst.

In "The Story of Light," "Weeping China Doll," and "Racing the World," he has managed to record some of the finest music of his entire career. The characteristic compositional complexity is there, along with the hard-earned confidence and maturity of a man in his 50s with a recording career spanning three decades. His tones are brilliant, his leads are sharp and athletic, his band is tight, and above all the songwriting is the most perfectly channeled of his entire career. Everything about these songs is as jaw-dropping as can be expected from a rock music legend.

It is interesting to note that Vai has returned once again to the world of 7-string guitar. As dedicated fans know, he made a name for himself as a 7-string player, but never really played a lot of 7-string guitar music. That all changes on The Story of Light, where perhaps Vai has elected to dust off the lower notes to stay relevant in a world where even 8- and 9-string guitars are starting to dominate.

Vai's having been influenced by modern music certainly doesn't stop there, either. I was rather impressed by the way he managed to put his own spin on djent-like compositional style, slowing things down to a deeper groove, while offering a few winks to the melodic style of the new dominant guitar music genre. Nonetheless, he doesn't really float off into djent, although it has clearly made an impression on him. And the influence breathes a great deal of life into his melodic approach.

At the same time, "John the Revalator" is, in my opinion, terrible. It drags on and on as a rather white-sounding gospel choir repeats the same melody over and over as Vai descends into guitar solos that can only be described as inattentive. The song goes nowhere. In "Velorum," "The Moon and I," and "Sunshine Electric Raindrops," Vai treads a well-worn path he has walked many times, to the point that the songs themselves are nearly forgetable. One way of spinning this is that he sticks to his strengths; in reality, these songs feel like forgotten B-sides from Vai's early 90s work.

"Gravity Storm" is an interesting piece in that it is stripped-down and simple in both delivery and composition. Had he released this song as a twenty-something guitar jockey in the 80s, it would be a classic. Today, it feels lazy coming from a man who has simply done much more in his career.

And finally, Vai shows of his utmost worst attributes in "Creamsicle Sunset." For all his self-indulgence, Vai is only truly offensive when he is stealing from Frank Zappa. This song is something of an amalgamation of "Watermelon in Easter Hay" and "Zoot Allures." From the tone to the chord changes, it is Vai once again aspiring to be his brilliant mentor and falling far short of the mark. This, too, would be forgiveable for any artist but Vai, who has over the course of his career stolen FZ melodic passages note-for-note, FZ quotes word-for-word, and who has invested a lot of his time claiming ownership to the Zappa musical legacy.

Setting aside its shortcomings, though, there is no doubt that this is a solid record full of soaring tones and meaty guitar music. Any guitarist with two functional ears and taste for instrumental rock would be well-served to immerse themselves in this album for a while. When I get over my biases (Vaiases?), even I have to admit that this is a strong album of good, solid music from one of rock's most enduring players.

The Tech Mini-Bubble

Perhaps some of you remember that, late in 2010, everyone was talking about the booming technology sector. For example, there was this article published at SmartMoney.com, which stated:
Tech stocks have gotten an added boost, though, from accelerating growth in overseas markets, which has led to increasing demand for computers and gadgets. As well, the new money that will be injected into the financial system, courtesy of a $600 billion bond-buying program planned by the Fed, has increased investors' appetite for risk, which has driven them to tech stocks.
Emphasis mine. Of course, SmartMoney.com was not the only website propagating that theory, but I leave it to the reader to dig up more instances of the above observation.

Critics of the Austrian description of business cycles and capital flows have repeatedly asked the Austrian economists: If credit expansion causes the business cycle, where is all the inflation? And of course, those who don't anticipate much general price inflation have various ways of making their point.

One important fact that everyone in the where's-the-inflation? crowd all seem to commonly miss, however, is the Austrian school's emphasis on the heterogeneity of capital. See, the Austrian story is not that (1) The Fed prints some money, (2) the whole economy booms, (3) the whole economy crashes. That is the cartoon version of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT), the one that use used to over-simplify and strawman the ABCT story out of existence. It's the one used by the Krugman Krowd to make non-Keynesians look ridiculous.

On the contrary, the real story goes like this: (1) The Fed diverts money into the hands of heavy-hitting investors; (2) Faced with a fresh batch of investment liquidity, these heavy-hitters divert the new money into investments that they otherwise never would have purchased; (3) Economic sectors grow that never would have grown in non-expansionary circumstances; (4) Eventually, projects within these sectors dry up because there is no real market demand for the projects; (5) The market that erroneously expanded collapses.

From the above, it is obvious that in many cases a "bubble" is not something that makes a huge impact on the economy at large. Sometimes a bubble occurs in a comparatively small sector of the economy.

The recent major recession happened to involve a bubble that was tightly integrated with all sectors by virtue of the fact that real estate assets provide the collateral for a great many different kinds of investments. If collateral is over-priced, then that means a lot of the value flowing into other investment projects is illusory; when asset prices correct, the collateral disappears, and the loans lose their value. That's big, and economy-wide.

But in the case of the current tech mini-bubble, we are probably not going to see a huge adverse impact on the rest of the economy. Already we have seen Facebook's shares plummet. We also saw investors run away from Groupon this week. We found out today that Dell's forecasts missed the mark. This Business Week article succinctly summarizes a long stream of tech-sector disappointments over the last couple of months.

To put things very diplomatically, a lot of the market expectations for the high-technology sector have turned out to be overly optimistic. Investment money had been poured into the tech sector, but now it is all coming out on news of disappointing industry-wide earnings.

To be clear, this is an Austrian cycle bust. Credit expanded, money flowed into the tech sector, tech projects expanded, now sales are drying up. What is left to be observed is the "unfinished projects" characteristic of any Austrian-style boom. Watch for it. It will happen.

In the meantime, a lot of money leaving the tech sector is now flowing back into more traditional investments. Today my Google News feed shows gains in oil, government bonds, and the US dollar. I also note that most precious metals are up today.

The bottom line here is twofold: First, ABCT is applicable to sectors as well as to the entire macroeconomy, therefore we should not expect that any lack of macroeconomy-wide inflation is a death blow to the theory itself. Second, what we are seeing in the tech sector is precisely what we should have anticipated in light of serious consideration of ABC Theory.


Workouts Of The Rich And Famous

Another interesting article in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention today: "Bakery CEO Does Not Live on Bread Alone." This is part of a WSJ feature I did not know existed until today, called "What's Your Workout." What a great idea.

The article provides some personal insight into the workout habits of the Chief Executive Officer of Panera Bread Company.

This article is interesting, first of all, because it discusses the CEO very little, and his company even less. It is not written like a PR stunt, and the reader is not invited to warm up to anything in particular about either Panera or Ron Shaich, the company's CEO.

Instead, the article focuses on exercise, which is the "second of all" as to why this article is interesting.

I am always interested in knowing how other people work out, what makes them do it, what makes them tick, and what kinds of exercises they find interesting. In this case, Shaich is a man who snacks a lot, avoids exercise whenever possible, and doesn't particularly enjoy the process of keeping in shape. But he does it because, like many of us, he wants to live a life of quality.

So let's take a look at how rich people who can afford home-visits from personal trainers stay in shape. For $12,000 per year in training session costs, plus another $25,000 in a one-time home gym investment (and whatever it costs to maintain two swimming pools), Shaich gets in-home physical training from a former Ukrainian olympic track and field coach. Not bad.

The workouts consist of "intense cardiovascular exercise," followed by "hurdles of varying heights," "abdominal exercises," and "strength training or weights."

Shaich's coach has made the unconventional choice of starting with cardio and finishing with weights. This leads me to believe that the "intense cardiovascular exercise" probably functions as more of a warm-up than a cardio workout. Shaich probably doesn't realize that the cardio sessions are not that intense.

"Hurdles of varying heights" probably implies some plyometric exercise, which I have incorporated into my own workouts for the past two years now, and which are absolutely exploding in fitness popularity. Plyo is in, maaaan... I suspect the plyometric workout pieces probably serve as the bulk of Shaich's cardio during his personal training sessions.

The workout ends with abdominal exercises and strength training. While I am not really sure why Shaich's trainer has elected to end the workout this way, we can see that the total hour-long workout incorporates three important aspects of training: strength, endurance, and "power." On the off days, Shaich jogs if he feels like it.

I'd like to point out that Shaich's cost for this is between $750 and $1000 per month, which is nearly four times more expensive than what you can get at your average gym chain for membership-plus-personal-training-services. Sometimes the very wealthy spend their money wisely; sometimes, they do not.

I would like to have read more details about Shaich's specific hurdle and weight exercises, but alas.


I have long held a theory about smart people that goes something like this: When someone comes up with a good idea, he/she eventually comes to a point where he/she attempts to use that idea to explain everything. There are a lot of good examples of this: Max Weber and his power-oriented theories of social interaction, Steven Landsburg's belief that the universe is made of numbers, Scott Sumner's obsession with NGDP, and so on.

There is at least one glaring problem with my theory: It's not inclusive enough. Clearly, if something like this is true of very smart people, it is probably also true of everyone else.

Two Theories On Thought-Bubbles
Arnold Kling sees the point, too. This morning, he begins by quoting an advocate of leftism, who believes that the crumbling of the political right in America is inevitable. To this, he contrasts the view of a rightist who feels exactly the same way about the political left. Finally, he says, "At least one of these folks is living in a bubble." Then he plays one of my favorite games: Assume that a theory is true, and imagine what that must mean...
What if we have reached a point where the scale and scope of government have become absurdly large? What you would observe is a growing gap between the theories used to justify government expansion and its practical impact. You would observe the cost of education and health care rising, without commensurate benefits. You would observe stimulus programs that increase employment according to computer models but not in reality. You would observe crony capitalism. You would observe budgets distorted by public-sector unions. You would observe fraudulent accounting that shifts costs for pensions onto future generations.
Kling also quotes a recent article by Lawrence Summers, which also argues for the inevitability of a big-government leftist utopia and serves as a contrast to Kling's own thoughts on the issue. Lubos Motl does an even better job of taking Summers down, including this among the many reasons why Summers is just plain wrong:
Summers' decision to include the demagogic reference to the interest rates is an example of what the Jews call "chutzpah". He is using the expected rise of the interest rates as a justification of a growing government. Interestingly enough, just a year ago or so, he would use the low interest rates as a justification of policies to increase the government, too. He would be saying that the interest rates were really low so no one needed to care about them and the government shouldn't be afraid to buy ever higher amount of money because things are OK.

Now, when it seems as though the era of cheap money is coming to its end anyway, he is using exactly the opposite observation to justify... the same policies to grow the fat spoiled brat known as the government, too. Why is he including all the irrelevant detailed numbers in his articles, pretending that they are arguments in favor of something, when it must be damn obvious to him that the true reason why he will advocate an ever bigger government is that he simply wants it, so he wants everyone else to believe that everything else must adapt to the "boundary conditions" that include the "fact" that the government has to be increasingly big? It's what I call demagogy.
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
Of the two perspectives, I think Kling is a little closer to being correct. I don't think Lawrence Summers is knowingly engaging in demagoguery. I think Summers genuinely believes the economic evidence lines up in his favor. But that is the whole problem: When a data set happens to substantiate your theory no matter which direction it moves, then you know you have a bad theory.

It's the same with climate science: Warmer temperatures mean climate change; colder temperatures mean climate change; more extreme weather means climate change; less extreme weather means climate change. In short, everything means climate change.

It's also the same thing with Scott Sumner's NGDP targeting theories: No matter what happens in the economic data, he refuses to consider any data point other than NGDP, and no matter what happens to NGDP, he takes it as evidence buttressing his own theory.

And with leftism in general: Any major problem is evidence of insufficient regulations, including the failure of existing regulations!

And with rightism in general: Any random act of violence is terrorism, which requires the elimination of freedom; any absence of random violence is proof that eliminating freedom works to reduce violence!

These guys are all stuck in their own heads, unable to escape. It's not demagoguery, it's just a vast bubble from which they will never emerge.

Does Your Theory Specifically Serve Your In-Group?
I think a good indicator of when you're caught in a bubble is when your favorite theories all end up favoring your own in-group in particular.

That's why finance experts tend to favor monetary expansion, interest rate reduction, and "limited" government bank bail-outs (my bank, not the other guy's bank, because my bank just got caught up in the problem, whereas the other guys' banks were reckless!) and believe that the world would grind to a stand-still in the absence of investment mega-banks.

That's also why government pundits, lobbyists, and policy wonks all want to save federal government agencies and believe that the world could not possibly function without them.

That's also why teachers' unions all believe that if we don't keep pouring money into education, our children will become drooling morons. That's also why farmers believe that if you don't subsidize agriculture, the world will be unable to eat anything at all.

See, people often come up with theories that explain why their own interests are the most vitally important interests in the world. I think maybe there had been a time in human history during which people understood that these "theories" were really just political arguments. They started making these political arguments to carve out their own slice of government cheese and live their self-absorbed lives.

But somewhere along the lines, people within these in-groups started genuinely believing their own hype. It wasn't a political argument for more government cheese anymore, it was an "evidence-based" conclusion from incontrovertible evidence.

The problem is that it's not incontrovertible. These theories are still just political arguments being made for political gain. People get caught up in their own little individual universes and forget that the financial sector is not the most important thing in the world to a non-banker, that the bureaucracy is not the most important thing to those of us who live outside of the bureaucracy.

In the end, people would be really, unpleasantly surprised if they understood how little impact they are making on the world. The truth of the matter is that unless you are a Bill Gates or a Norman Borlaug, your life does not have much impact on the world.

We are mortal. Our time here is fleeting. We should resist the urge to explain the whole universe in self-serving terms, even when that explanation seems to involve data.


RIP Phyllis Diller

One of the greatest comedians of all time.

In her honor, here is a collection of Diller quotes:


Have a laugh - she'd prefer it that way.

The Greatest Endurance Athlete In Human History?

In light of the anti-doping case against Lance Armstrong, I have been thinking a lot about what all this means for sports, Armstrong's legacy, and so on. (By the way, for the latest news about the case, try this WSJ article.)

I have previously discussed the idea that the case against Armstrong is a bit of a grey zone. Today, I'd like to briefly consider both possibilities: What does it mean if Armstrong doped, what does it mean if Armstrong did not dope?

What I have come to realize is that the question of whether or not he doped is actually entirely irrelevant. He is still the greatest endurance athlete in the history of the world, for the following reasons:
  • Assuming he doped, he is the only blood-doper in professional cycling history to ever have won seven consecutive Tours de France.
  • Assuming he did not dope, he is the only athlete in professional cycling history to ever have won seven consecutive Tours de France.
  • He is the only cancer survivor to ever have won seven consecutive Tours de France.
  • He is the only Tour de France winner to ever have undergone a severe chemotherapy regimen prior to his seven consecutive victories.
  • He is the only Tour de France winner to have devised what is perhaps the most successful non-profit fund-raising initiative of all time...
Get the picture? It would be a real shame if Armstrong's record were to be tarnished by a past history of blood doping. But even assuming the alleged doping occurred, no other athlete in history - including all blood-dopers - has ever accomplished what Lance Armstrong has accomplished.

I'm not simply trying to be a fanboy here. Considering the facts we all know for certain, it strikes me as undeniable that Lance Armstrong is the best endurance athlete of all time. Seven Tours de France are seven Tours de France. No other athlete has been able to do this, and perhaps none ever will - doping, or no doping.

So, yes, I do believe the case against Armstrong is a personal vendetta being waged by the head of the USADA. But no matter the outcome of the vendetta, facts are facts.

UPDATE: Looks like the courts ruled in the USADA's favor. Armstrong is probably headed to arbitration. Sad. 

This Week In Exercise

Yesterday was another amazing session with my trainer at the gym. I have become a bit of a guinea pig. While filling out my workout log, my trainer said to me, "I don't really know what to write here. I don't know what to call some of these things because some of these things I make up on the spot."

It sounds hackneyed, but it's not. He's coming up with some really exciting combined movements that have revived my exercise regimen, blasted me out of my rut, and jettisoned me into a new level of physical fitness.

And the progress is real. Last week's balance-oriented exercises were so technically difficult for me that I didn't think I'd be able to do them. By the third strength training day of the week, though, I was powering through the workout with progressively less difficulty. Just when it was starting to get easy, Sunday rolled around and it was time for a new set of workouts.

Here they are, my (and possibly also your) strength training exercises for the week (go through the following superset three times):
  • Full Leg Extensions From Pull-Up Bar: Start in the "down" position on a pull-up bar. With your feet together and your legs fully extended, do a leg lift, but keep lifting until the soles of your feet are facing the ceiling. Do 10 of these.
  • Cable Pull-Up: Set a cable machine to maximum weight and attach the rope apparatus to the carabiner. Hold both ends of the rope and, with your feet together, lean back until your arms are fully extended and your body is at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Now, do 10 pull-ups from this position.
  • Cable Crunch: Reduce the weight on the cable machine. Face away from the machine, holding the rope over your shoulders, with your arms drawn in to your sides. Kneel down on the ground. Holding fast to the rope, "bow" down, then return to a kneeling position. Do 20 of these.
  • Side Plank With Cable Fly: Do a side plank with your palm on the ground and your feet together. With your free hand on a cable pulley, do 10 reverse flys; then, switch sides and repeat.
  • Push-Up With Cable Leg-Lift: Get in push-up position with one foot attached to a cable machine, slightly elevated off the ground. Do a push-up, then pull your knee up under you. Do 10 of these, then switch sides and repeat.
  • Cable Leg Crunch: Standing, with one foot attached to a cable machine, lift your leg up to a 90-degree angle in front of you. Focus on using your abs to perform the motion, as opposed to your legs. Do this 10 times per leg.
To give you some idea as to the level of experimentation involved in my workouts with my personal trainer, I am also going to include a list of exercises we attempted, but which I could not perform well enough to incorporate them into this week's training session. Feel free to give any of these a try. I am going to tack these on at the end of my strength workout over the course of the week to see if I can make some additional progress here.
  • Leg Lift Pull-Up: Do 10 pull-ups with your legs held out straight in front of you.
  • Side-To-Side Pull-Up: Do a standard pull-up, but pull your body up toward your right hand, then repeat that motion on the other side by pulling up to your left hand. Do 10 total.
  • Plyometric Pull-Up: Do a pull up at the apex of which you burst your body up into the air and your hands off the pull-up bar. (Analogous to a clapping push-up.)


Tom Morello Embarrasses Himself

In an op-ed piece published by Rolling Stone Magazine, guitarist Tom Morello - famous for scraping an allen wrench against the strings of his guitar and calling it music - rages against the Paul Ryan machine. Apparently, Paul Ryan has said that he likes Rage Against the Machine's music. Gasp.

Morello writes:
But Rage's music affects people in different ways. Some tune out what the band stands for and concentrate on the moshing and throwing elbows in the pit. For others, Rage has changed their minds and their lives. Many activists around the world, including organizers of the global occupy movement, were radicalized by Rage Against the Machine and work tirelessly for a more humane and just planet. Perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening.
Apparently, the guitarist for a socialist rap/rock band is only glad he has a sub-set of fans. Morello could do without any of his fans who happen to disagree with his politics. But this is where Morello's opinion really takes off. Professing, I suppose, to speak for the so-called 99%, he continues:
You see, the super rich must rationalize having more than they could ever spend while millions of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night. So, when they look themselves in the mirror, they convince themselves that "Those people are undeserving. They're . . . lesser."
Well, Mr. Morello, the irony is not lost on me. This message of class warfare is particularly, well, rich coming from a wealthy millionaire rock star writing an op-ed piece because he has convinced himself that "the super rich" are . . . lesser.

However, as a man who spent the better part of the 1990s ridiculing other guitarists for playing fast guitar solos, then subsequently making millions in the 2000s by playing fast guitar solos, Tom Morello is no stranger to hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and obliviousness-of-self.

It's one thing to have strong political leanings, or even to make them the focal point of an artist's work. It's quite another to drive away fans who don't share one's beliefs. Unfortunately, all we have learned from this escapade is that Paul Ryan has crumby taste in music, in addition to crumby taste in political ideas; and that Tom Morello is as preposterous as ever.

UPDATE 8/18/2012: Judging by the number of blog hits I'm getting for search strings like "Tom Morello hypocrite," I'm not the only one to have been rubbed the wrong way by this.

Paladin Knights

Honesty is always the best policy.

When you step outside the realm of pure honesty, your life starts to get incredibly complicated. One of the reasons for this complication is the fact that any bluff you make or game you choose to play with others rests on the behavior of other people. You're no longer in charge of your destiny; you're hanging everything on what someone else will do or say. That's bad.

An Example
Making a good case against interventionist war and an even better case for legalizing immigration, Bryan Caplan writes:
If these are my views, why on earth would I have opposed the Vietnam War?  The same reasons as usual: even the less-evil side engaged in mass murder of civilians and other human rights violations without any strong reason to believe these moral transgressions would lead to sharply better consequences.  The American government did great evil in the name of a greater good that never materialized.  In the end, Indochina got the worst of two worlds: all the horrors of war plus all the horrors of Communism. 

What's especially tragic is that the U.S. could have peacefully saved many millions of the intended victims of Indochinese Communism.  How?  By allowing their immigration.  During a brief period of open borders between North and South Vietnam, a million intended victims of Communism escaped to the modestly freer, richer South.  Imagine how many Indochinese would have gladly emigrated to the far freer, far richer United States if we'd only given them the option.
Caplan is inarguably correct that "Indochina got the worst of two worlds." The US military, and its foes the communists, did some very bad things during its involvement with the Vietnam conflict.
Caplan is likewise correct when he says that "we," i.e. the US government could have humanely and peacefully improved the lives of millions of Vietnamese (and millions of Americans) simply by allowing them into our country to live and thrive.

This would have been the end of the story, had someone nicknamed "roystgnr" not made this insightful comment:
In a world of pacifists, what would the point be to emigration? California isn't geographically much harder to invade than South Vietnam, and it's certainly no less tempting a target, but it happens to house a much larger army of non-pacifists with much better logistics. I agree that the best way for pacifists to defend themselves is "go hide behind some non-pacifists", but free-riding doesn't scale.

It is fairly disingenuous for Americans to proclaim their pacifism, considering that they are all being protected by the largest, most powerful military the world has ever known. Another great example of this is when some Canadians brag about spending far less on their military than "we" do here in America. Yet it is rather obvious that if anyone were to invade Canada, the United States military would come to Canada's defense. Canadians need not spend much on their military because they're "hiding behind" the most powerful non-pacifists in the world.

Pacifism is a wonderful idea in theory, but in practice it is something that people can only profess to believe when they know a non-pacifist will protect them.

In short, nearly all pacifists rest their ideas on the shoulders of a paladin knight.

Lying Is A Conspiracy
Naturally, no genuine pacifist would admit this to himself/herself. Pacifists believe - as they must force themselves to believe - that their principle is hangs on nothing other than their personal sense of ethics. Yet, when placed in a life-or-death struggle, pacifism isn't just illogical, but genuinely unethical in some circumstances.

If, for example, one's pacifism would prevent one from defending one's spouse or children, I assert that such a pacifist has failed at life. There is something to be said for valor and love, too. There is no honor in standing by as one's family is threatened or killed.

So the intellectually honest pacifist is one who espouses the non-aggression principle, rather than pure pacifism. The intellectually dishonest pacifist instead stands on the shoulders of his paladin and pretends that the paladin isn't there.

One of the frustrating things about dealing with our fellow human beings is the extent to which people bluff, hedge bets, and otherwise play mind games with each other. If everyone were open and honest, life would be easy. (But, it would also be incredibly dull, because in that case there would be no such thing as strategy, no such thing as Game Theory.)

The reality, though, is that people just aren't honest with themselves or others. What we all seem to want is the ability to believe in our own particular fantasy. When dealing with others, often what we want is for them to enable us in our fantasies. We want to believe what we believe and we don't want to be messed with.

The problem with this point of view is the existence of the paladin knight on whose shoulders we're all standing. Whenever we engage in any kind of dishonesty someone, somewhere is allowing it to proceed. Every lie requires a co-conspirator, or a big gun, or a big sword to back it up. That's the paladin knight, and he/she is always a real person. Without that collateral, none of us would ever lie.

Put another way, we only delude ourselves and others because we can get away with it. Often it is the person being lied to who allows it to happen, in which case both parties pretend that the lie is true in order to smooth things over.

It is remarkably odd.


Movie Review: Cocktail (2012)

UPDATE: Apparently, my plot synopsis contains spoilers. Do not read this if you haven't seen the movie.

The 2012 Hindi-language movie Cocktail is a new spin on several standard Bollywood themes: The buddy flick, the love triangle, coming of age, the moral threats to Indians who immigrate West, self-sacrifice, and personal redemption.

Meera (Diana Penty) is a young woman whose parents were defrauded into marrying her to an Indian man who only wanted her dowry. When she travels to the UK to meet him for the first time, he tells her to go away, promising to divorce her once her immigration paperwork is finalized. Out of money and with nowhere to go, Meera stumbles onto hard-partying, self-proclaimed "rich bitch" Veronica (Deepika Padukone), who nonchalantly offers Meera the spare room in her apartment. Deeply grateful and indebted, Meera sets about earning her keep by cooking and cleaning while she looks for a steady job in order to contribute to the rent.

Predictably, the comparatively more responsible Meera soon becomes a protective big-sister figure in the life of Veronica, whose self-destructive partying and loose morals grate against Meera's subcontinental ethics. Nonetheless, the two become fast and inseparable friends who soon spend every available minute together.

When the two friends play a prank on womanizing Gautam (Saif Ali Khan) in revenge for an embarrassing romantic pass on Meera, Gautam and Veronica strike up a causal sexual relationship that neither of them take seriously. While this initially upsets Meera, Gautam and Veronica's relationship gradually grows tighter and soon all three have become good - if unlikely - friends.

That sets the stage for the rest of the film. Gautam and Veronica are drawn together by their loose morals, while each are individually drawn to Meera out of personal friendship. When Gautam's mother surprises him with a visit, Gautam lies and tells her that the mother-approved Meera is his girlfriend, not Veronica. Over the course of his mother's visit, Gautam finds he no longer has to pretend, as he genuinely falls in love with Meera.

Meera also falls in love with Gautam, but feels the love is a betrayal of her friendship with Veronica. When Gautam and Meera confess their love for each other to Veronica, Veronica is initially happy for them, but soon slides into depression and obsession, driving all three friends apart.

Will the friendship be reconciled? Which lucky lady will get to call Gautam her own? Will Gautam's mother approve of the choice?

While Cocktail's plot is superficial when synopsized, it is a solid movie with some excellent dialogue and a truly excellent performance by Mr. Khan. Padukone gets to flex her acting chops also, but her character is much more thinly developed than her character in, say Love Aaj Kaal. Penty produces a memorable performance, if a little too steeped in the stern and moralizing gaze of the Indian middle class.

All told, the movie is very entertaining and well worth watching. Just don't expect to be blown away by metaphor. Cocktail is a standard Bollywood melodrama aimed at the hip Western-dwelling subcontinental urbanite crowd. It hits the mark easily, though scores no extra credit points. I give it a solid A-.

Markets And Rules

When I was growing up, my family used to play a lot of games together: card games, board games, sports, party games, video games... all games. When a game wasn't readily available, my father would simply make one up. Before we knew it, wherever we were and whatever our business there, we were well ensconced in a game of some sort.

While my father was excellent at inventing games at thin air, this skill sometimes became a double-edged sword in that he also liked making changes to the rules of existing games. It often happened that we would get a new board game for Christmas, play a few rounds, and then suddenly my father would halt game play and say, with a thoughtful (and perhaps mischievous?) look on his face, "Okay... let's make a rule..."

The problem with his rule changes were that they typically resulted in his winning the game every time. It wasn't that he was changing the rules more to his favor, but rather more to his liking. He had in his mind an idea of how such a game "should" be played. And because he is an incredibly intelligent man, he also had in his mind a foolproof strategy for winning under those hypothetical conditions.

See, part of his problem with the original rules was that his strategy could only be executed imperfectly. It was a brilliant strategy, but the rules of the game injected just enough chaos to make his strategy unpredictable.

Of course, that level of unpredictability is precisely what makes games fun. There is no point at all to playing a game in which the outcome is known in advance. It's no longer a game, it's simply an exercise, a demonstration. Rather than being a fun mystery, it becomes a simple application of theory.

In Theory

One of my favorite sources of "pop economics" is a line from an old episode of The Simpsons called "Bart Gets An Elephant." In it, Bart wins a radio contest offering his choice of $10,000 or an elephant. Predictably, Bart chooses the elephant. After some brief hijinks, the elephant is delivered. Marge says, "I really think this is a bad idea," to which Homer replies in his inimitable way:
Marge, I agree with you in theory. In theory, communism works. In theory.
Any of us who has a standard, American public education is well-schooled in the meme that "communism only works in theory." (Some of us push our education a little further and indeed confirm that communism doesn't even work in theory; but let's set that aside for now.)

The problem is not unique to communism. Indeed, most theories work in theory. It is only after theories encounter the unpredictable nature of the real world in practice - along with reality's infinitely many considerations that could not be foreseen by the theory's proponent - that they ever fall apart.

My father's game-playing strategies (at least, the ones that didn't work without a rule change) are the perfect example. His strategies were brilliant in theory, brilliant! Nonetheless, according to the game's existing rules, they fell short. There was just too much chaos to be accounted for, too much chance. He needed a rule-change to reconcile his winning strategy with real-world gameplay.

In the world of theory, nice guys finish first. In the marketplace, that would mean that the cleverest, kindest entrepreneur would always win out over the competition. The little guy, fighting to feed his family with the proceeds of his modest enterprise, would survive and thrive because in some sense he "deserves" success more than the faceless corporate conglomerate against which he must compete. He is your friend. he gives you a good discount. His prices are a little bit higher, but he gives you more personal service. And besides, he's an interesting person who you enjoy cheering for.

In this perfect world of theory, guys like your friend who owns that vinyl record shop downtown would never have to worry about finances, because frankly they're cool. Cool people are way better than lame business school grads in blue shirts.

We see this kind of cheerleading everywhere in the marketplace. People want the small, mom-and-pop shops to win out over the big corporations. They make movies about it. Everyone thinks about it. Everyone sides with the little guy. The big corporations are just too cutthroat! It's not fair!

People also cheerlead the "cool" businesses, the ones that are in. You know, brands like Trader Joe's, Apple Computers, Whole Foods, REI, and so forth... We want these corporations to succeed because they're so darn cool. They have so much mojo that we feel we are part of the team when we buy and use their products and services.

But in the real world of market capitalism, the people we like don't always succeed. Often, the ones who succeed are the really annoying business school types we all hated when we were growing up. Even more often, those who succeed care about little else than money and glory. They might even have acrimonious personalities. In some "higher" sense, it seems unfair that bad people can be good in business. It offends our sensibilities that Dr. Phil sells more books than Kurt Vonegut.

Change The Rules
So, some of us feel the rules ought to be changed. It might be fair, under the rules of pure capitalism, that Wal-Mart is more successful at selling sportswear than your friend Selma's vintage clothing store. But to some of us, those kinds of rules foster a culture that values mass-produced ugly t-shirts from [insert developing nation here] over the really cool stuff that Selma sells.

Some of us don't like those kinds of values and don't want to live in that kind of world. They've tried doing all their clothes shopping at Selma's place, and it doesn't work. "Lame people," and there are a lot of them, still continue shopping at Wal-Mart, buying lame clothes, produced at low wages in far-away countries. Some of us simply with that were not the case.

So some of us decide they'd like to change the rules so that the world more closely aligns with their own personal theory.


Talk Is Cheep

Now you can follow me on Twitter, of all places. Search for Stationary_Wave.

For birds like me, talk is cheep.

Get it? Cheep?


You Hypocrite

So, presumptive Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan used to draw ideas and inspiration from the works of Ayn Rand. Predictably, this fact is causing a bit of a media stir. It is a rather odd sort of smear campaign, maligning someone by pinning their politics to a particular philosopher's ideas.

Breaking News From 1905: Ayn Rand Was Only Human
Keeping the context in this situation is relatively important. Ayn Rand serves as a bit of a weather vein for liberal-media types. Our college professors have done a good job training the verbal-reasoning crowd to reject Ayn Rand, disparaging her as a "pop philosopher," a drug addict, and the leader of a cult. Few mere peddlers of ideas have inspired such vitriol from their ideological opposites. Rand stands alone in that regard.

The core problem with Rand's work is that it is insufficiently academic and several orders of magnitude too polemic to contribute meaningfully to a level-headed discussion of philosophy. That's just the objective truth of the matter. But that doesn't mean she's "all wrong." Nor does it really discredit the merits of her ideas. This 2009 Maverick Philosopher post does a good job of discussing the shortcomings of Rand's work. While I do not necessarily agree with it all, I think the author is fair to Rand and her ideas, which is far more than can be said for most other critics of Rand.

But it is not the critics' fault that Rand's work was insufficiently academic and far too polemic. That is Rand's fault, and she lived with the consequences of those facts.

If she was a poor advocate of her ideas, it is her fault that she has been misunderstood. It strikes me as being incredibly unlikely, however that she really was a poor advocate of her ideas. Her book continues to sell well, her ideas continue to change lives, and many millions of people throughout the world continue to subscribe to their understanding of Rand's Objectivism. These are not the features of a terrible philosopher.

I readily state that Objectivism has flaws and that Rand was not a perfect human being. However, there is a serious problem with the standard to which Rand is held in public opinion. No one ever argues, for example, that Immanuel Kant is an excellent philosopher by virtue of the fact that his ideas are irrefutable and he lived them to the letter. Right? Right?

Not so with Rand. The fact that some of her ideas are poorly argued in writing, combined with the fact that she lead a less-than-perfect life are enough to win her adversaries well into posthumanity.

To put it lightly, this is unfair.

Hypocrisy Is To Ideology As Imperfection Is To Humanity
I am not a Republican, nor do I hold any particular level of respect of Paul Ryan. Truthfully, I know little about him and have no faith in - and little respect for - rightist politics.

That being said, lambasting anyone - anyone - for failing to live up to the perfection of their chosen creed is a despicable and morally weak attack on anyone.  It takes courage to discover a sense of conviction. It is a lifelong journey to develop a code of ethics that works for you. Along the way, you are bound to contradict yourself.

This is the nature of morality. This is what it means to be human. We will never live up to all of our own expectations for ourselves. Our expectations will even change over time. The fact that someone once read and enjoyed Atlas Shrugged or The Communist Manifesto or any other controversial set of moral ideas should never, ever be used as a Scarlet Letter against anyone.

The fact that someone is interested in developing a sense of ethics, regardless of what general ideological pattern those ethics follow, is the mark of an inquisitive person who wishes to be good. If Paul Ryan - or anyone else for that matter - is a bad person or an unelectable politician, let us say so by analyzing his record, his platform, and his actions.

That, as opposed to demonizing him for having once subscribed to a moral code held by millions worldwide. If you wish to attack Objectivism, do so. If you wish to attack Ryan's politics, do so. Do not make one guilty of evil by mere association with the other. After all, your own beliefs may be called into question one day, and it will be just as easy to demonstrate that your lack of perfection is hypocrisy. You big hypocrite, you.

Polemics Good And Bad (Boudreax Good, Rothbard Bad)

I wrote yesterday that a challenge in the information age is learning to differentiate between good information and bad. Another challenge I think we face is learning to differentiate between a passionate argumentative defense and a mere demonization of the other side.

We are often tempted to say that anyone who takes a side on the issues, rather than simply presenting both sides "dispassionately," is being "biased" in a bad way. I disagree, and would like to flesh that idea out a little bit here.

Rothbard's Unreasonable Polemics
I concede that I have, so far, only made it through the first two hundred pages of Man, Economy, and State, which covers only the preliminary chapters. Nonetheless, I have already identified some major shortcomings of Rothbardian economic analysis.

In the revised version of Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard wastes no time in attacking the rest of economics community for neglecting the old-fashioned economic treatise. Indeed, it is the very first issue he raises, right at the beginning of his Preface to the Revised Edition:
One of the unhappy casualties of World War I, it seems, was the old-fashioned treatise on economic “principles.” Before World War I, the standard method, both of presenting and advancing economic thought, was to write a disquisition setting forth one’s vision of the corpus of economic science. A work of this kind had many virtues wholly missing from the modern world. On the one hand, the intelligent layman, with little or no previous acquaintance with economics, could read it. On the other hand, the author did not limit himself, textbook-fashion, to choppy and oversimplified compilations of currently fashionable doctrine. For better or worse, he carved out of economic theory an architectonic—an edifice. Sometimes the edifice was an original and noble one, sometimes it was faulty; but at least there was an edifice, for beginners to see, for colleagues to adopt or criticize. Hyperrefinements of detail were generally omitted as impediments to viewing economic science as a whole, and they were consigned to the journals. The university student, too, learned his economics from the treatise on its “principles;” it was not assumed that special works were needed with chapter lengths fitting course requirements and devoid of original doctrine. These works, then, were read by students, intelligent laymen, and leading economists, all of whom profited from them.
It seems remarkable, then, that Rothbard makes liberal use of supply and demand schedules and Cartesian diagrams (including stepwise supply and demand functions) throughout the first two chapters of his treatise.

Rothbard is correct that laymen-friendly economic treatises were often published in the pre-war days. Having made my way through a small number of these (The Communist Manifesto, Human Action, Epistemological Problems of Economics, and so on), I am compelled to remark that while Rothbard's use of language is quite a bit more approachable, his treatment of the material is far less laymen-friendly than even Mises' or Hayek's works.

True, a lot of this is personal preference. I am admittedly a more linguistic and aural learner, as opposed to being a visual learner. So I will tend give Mises' use of language higher marks for intelligibility than Rothbard's step-functions.

Still, if Rothbard chooses to polemicize his opponents, he would be more convincing if he himself avoided the same pitfalls he chooses to criticize.

Is There Any Space At All For Polemics In Economics?
If polemics of this kind weaken Rothbard's work, what does that imply about polemics in general? Are they ever called for?

Tyler Cowen certainly doesn't think so. Over at Marginal Revolution, he writes:
A while ago a few people drew a contrast between a more dispassionate style of (blog) analysis and a more explicitly moralizing approach.  I would frame it differently.  Pluralism reigns and there are many different moral values of import.  The moralizing approach tends to leave a writer stuck in emphasizing a single value or a single comparison of values.  The so-called dispassionate approach is more likely to lead the writer to see a broader range of values and moral trade-offs.  The moralizing approach is most of all impoverished when it comes to…morality.
Yet, there is no denying that Ludwig von Mises often engaged in polemics. Marx did, too, as did the entire "German Historical School" of economic thought. Paul Krugman is famous for his polemics, as is his cheerleader Brad DeLong.

If polemics are out of bounds, you wouldn't know it by observing the behavior of the many great economists of today and yesterday. To some extent, it is expected.

I myself would even go so far as to say it is useful. Plato, after all, wrote his philosophical treatises as though he were observing an argument. True, this gives the overall impression that Plato was a mere dispassionate observer, but this is only a superficial point. Socrates is the clear hero of The Republic. The other characters quickly fall into reverent adoration of his expositions throughout the tale. The tale itself unfolds as the story of a pair of passionate arguments.

Human beings are accustomed to processing information this way. Our political and judicial systems are based on the hearing of all sides of an argument - passionate, biased arguments - before an ultimate determination of "the facts." If you know your neighbor is an avowed Republican, you will take what he has to say accordingly. If he suggests that such-and-such talk show host is part of the liberal media conspiracy, you will be able to understand that, as a passionate Republican, he may be seeing evidence for conspiracies that don't exist.

But that doesn't mean your neighbor doesn't have a point. It might just mean that such-and-such really is biased, or at least might be, notwithstanding any broader conspiracy.

So, to a large extent bias is ubiquitous and unavoidable; but it is also not much of an obstacle toward learning. In the case of your neighbor's argument, it is a bias that must be accounted for, just as statisticians account for biases by revising their models accordingly. In the case of Plato, Mises, Marx, and so forth, the bias is a rhetorical tool that can be used to make a point. So polemics in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. They turn a lot of people off at an emotional level, but they need not impede an argument or prevent a robust discussion.

Polemics: Good And Bad
They need not; that does not mean they do not. In many cases, as in the Rothbard case above, polemics are used not to passionately defend one's case, but to omit the other side's argument from consideration.

To wit, Rothbard's preface proclaims that the economic works of his contemporaries are too technical for the average person. The impression left on the susceptible reader is that Rothbard's treatise is aimed specifically at the layman, as if to say, "Don't bother with those other, more technical expositions. Everything you need to know is right here in this easy-to-understand book." So when Rothbard himself engages in technical complexity over the course of a nearly 1,200-page magnum opus, his criticism of other economists is disingenuous. He simply aims to captivate his audience and discourage them from looking at other outside sources.

And judging by the breadth of knowledge held by the average Rothbard fan, the polemics worked. Many self-educated Austrian School economists trained in the Rothbardian tradition know only talking points, canned responses to non-Austrian theories. They do not really know the non-Austrian theories themselves. This is unreasonable.

Polemics become bad when the writer or the reader avoid the arguments made by the other side entirely.

Compare that behavior to, for example, Donald Boudreax's many excellent letters to editors. Boudreax uses his sharp wit to ably turn the tables on many fallacious arguments. Polemic? Of course. Poor reasoning or bad analysis? Absolutely not.

It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Sometimes what polemics enable us to do is attempt to defend our positions with a worthy opponent, and thereby sharpen our own understandings of our own positions. We start to see the holes in our own reasoning, and we endeavor to fill those holes.

One can always go too far, as Rothbard does. One can engage in ad hominem attacks and lazily hand-wave away any legitimate criticism by simply demonizing opponents. But that is an altogether different thing than passionately defending one's own position in an unapologetic way.