Looking in the Right Places:

An editor of the Atlantic looks at the Thirty Years' War, and learns something important.

In sober fact, civilian prisoners were led off in halters to die of exposure by the wayside, children kidnapped and held to ransom, priests tied under the wagons to crawl on all fours like dogs until they dropped, burghers and peasants imprisoned, starved and tortured for their concealed wealth to the uttermost of human endurance with uttermost of human ingenuity....

At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing on the raw flesh of a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. In Alsace the bodies of criminals were torn from the gallows and devoured; in the whole Rhineland they watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food; at Zweibrucken a woman confessed to having eater her child.
He and I fundamentally agree about the conclusion he reaches from studying these facts, although perhaps little else; but what is more important to me is that he got there the right way.

Now comes the metaphysical question: what does it mean that the world is this way? Likewise the moral question: given that it is, and we are here, what is our duty?
And in other news....

From the Secretary of Defense:
Secretary Panetta’s Statement on Certification of Readiness to Implement Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

This Isn't Even a Right-Wing Push Poll

This Isn't Even a Right-Wing Push Poll

I'm easily discouraged by national polls. So I was shocked to my toes and pleased as punch to read at HotAir that a CNN poll shows decisive support from every single demographic and political persuasion in the United States for the "Cut, Cap & Balance" bill that our Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, calls the worst legislation in human history:

[A] consensus exists across all political lines that the CCB/BBA [Cut, Cap & Balance/Balanced Budget Amendment] approach would be a good idea. When one scrolls down to the crosstab sections of the raw data, the consensus becomes very, very clear. The CCB/BBA approach wins majorities in every single demographic — including self-described liberals. Sixty-three percent of Democrats back the House bill. The least supportive age demographic is 50-64YOs at 62/37; the least supportive regional demographic is the Midwest at 61/39. Even those who express opposition to the Tea Party supports it 53/47.

In other words, it’s a clean sweep. Simply put, there is no political demographic at all where the CCB/BBA doesn’t get majority support. The BBA on its own does even better. It gets 3-1 support (74/24), and except for those Tea Party opponents (56%) and self-professed liberals (61/37), doesn’t get below 70% support in any demographic.

Guess what doesn’t get much support? The McConnell plan. Respondents rejected the idea of letting Obama raise the debt ceiling on his own, 34/65. Not one single demographic supports the idea, not even Democrats (40/60) or liberals (34/65).

I'm stunned by these results. The Senate should be voting on the Cut, Cap & Balance bill any minute now. Are some of their advisors even now whispering in their ears what the public says it wants? Will they care? Will they care in 2012?
Death at the Margins:

The economic collapse, as hard as it is here, is harder in Africa.

It’s like the developing world version of the US mortgage foreclosure crisis but much more severe, and at the end you don’t lose your house – your kids die of starvation.
Mercy Corps is asking that we Americans treat the developing famine in Africa as we would if it were a tsunami or a flood.



Social media is something I haven't paid as much attention to as perhaps I should. I was reading this story, and happened to scroll down to the comments.

The comments are remarkably angry at the whole government project -- even the military, but especially Congress, elected officials, spending programs of all kinds, and any sort of welfare. The "thumbs up/down" feature gives you a sense of how many people approve of various comments, and the attitude among Yahoo users seems to be poisonous.

That's a good sign, from where I sit.

Now That's a Croc

Now That's a Croc

Around here, a gator is big if he's 10 or 12 feet long. Get a load of this 18-foot Australian crocodile. As the host at Never Yet Melted said, I'd like to see what took off his right front leg.

What Is Economics, Anyway?

What Is Economics, Anyway?

There are some theories I've never understood. They always leave me wondering whether the problem is that I'm not smart enough, I'm too ignorant, or the theory is a lot of hooey. For the last couple of years I've been trying to read up on economics, so as to discharge my duty as a voting citizen. I'm still pretty lost.

My husband read me aloud a comment the other day posing this question: If astrology developed into astronomy, and alchemy developed into chemistry, what will economics develop into? I often feel that the economic theory I'm reading about is like phrenology: full of elegant abstract constructs and arcane jargon, but nothing at all to do with the real world.

I've mentioned here before how baffling I find "MMT" or "Modern Monetary Theory," which I run into in the blogosphere with some regularity. One of its clearest and yet most bizarre claims is that, by definition, the amount of possible national private savings must be exactly equal to the national deficit; one cannot exist without the other. Today Zero Hedge is running an article addressing some aspects of MMT and arguing that aggregate constructs like "GDP" and even "the economy" are meaningless. I'm a willing audience, since I've never been able to make much sense of them, either.

The only text on economics that's ever made sense to me is Thomas Sowell's "Basic Economics," which makes the simple claim that the economy is hundreds of millions of people setting prices with each other as a means of allocating scarce resources that have alternative uses. By definition, this is not a system amenable to central control. It works as well as it does only because the decisions are delegated as much as possible to the entire population. The theory is that individuals, being closer to the transactions, make better decisions on average than any central planner could do. The system is inefficient and wasteful and full of shocking results, but still better than a centrally planned economy.

Whether or not such a thing could be established theoretically, I'm persuaded that it's true empirically. A central planner may occasionally make a "better" choice about how to use resources than the vast unwashed public does, but by and large the huge, unruly mass of free citizens wins the contest, as demonstrated by the fact that countries with centrally planned economies are poorer than free ones. The free ones are often also more unequal in the distribution of their wealth, of course, but since the poorest citizens in a free economy tend to be rather well of in comparison with the moderately prosperous ones in an economic tyranny, the trade-off suits this voter. That this viewpoint also suits my libertarian views is, I'm sure, merely a coincidence.

All this is apropos of the deficit negotiations in Congress. I'm strongly in favor of reducing the deficit by means of spending cuts, but I'm trying to understand whether adding tax increases is merely an unwelcome necessity, or instead a horrible mistake. Politically, I'm sure tax increases will be necessary. The question is whether they'll do more harm than good: good, because they'll theoretically speed up the process of reducing the deficit (something I scarcely believe, since it's more likely they'll simply be spent again), and harm, because they'll divert resources from the private sphere into the public one, always a net economic loser in my book.

Writing Books

A Few Articles Against Writing of Books:

Via Arts & Letters Daily, some articles demanding an end to all this book-writing that goes on. Indeed, probably many who write books shouldn't do so:

Brian Stelter, The New York Times prodigy and master of social media, announced to his 64,373 followers that he is going to write a book. The obvious question: What’s up with that?

Not that I doubt he can do it. The man The New York Observer calls our “Svelte Twitter Svengali” has a history of setting the bar high and vaulting over it. He files prodigiously for The Times; stars in the new “Page One” documentary; and has promulgated, as of my last check, 21,376 Tweets — not counting the separate Twitter stream where he records every morsel of food he consumes.
Here is a man who probably has nothing to say that he isn't already saying. He has a medium other than books that captures all that he might say -- apparently all he has time to say. So why write a book?

Especially since writing books is very bad for you:
It has become increasingly clear to me over these last 10 years, in which I have written more regularly than before, that the more I write the worse I become. More self-absorbed, less sensitive to the needs of others, less flexible, more determined to say what I have to say, when I want and how I want, if I could only be left alone to figure it out.
And there are so many other things you could be doing instead...
As soon it's inevitable that a writer must begin their first word, it becomes (almost) equally and conflictingly inevitable that the writer must do something else really quickly before scribbling breaks out. Hence the kettle. Tell you what, I'll just go and make a fresh beverage, then I'll get down to things properly. Absolutely. Of course I will.

Writers can generate industrial quantities of procrastination before their first sonnet is rejected, or their first novel-outline-plus-sample-chapter is exorcised, burned and its ashes buried at sea. Are my pens facing north? Or magnetic north? What's that funny noise? Oh look, it's raining outside. My fingernails need cutting. I think my computer is going to break, better get it checked. Do I have toothache? Will I have toothache?
We have a few published writers around here. What say you?

Core Commitments

Core Commitments

The White House released a statement this afternoon threatening to veto the "Cut, Cap & Balance" bill if it is approved by Congress. The release explains:

Neither setting arbitrary spending levels nor amending the Constitution is necessary to restore fiscal responsibility. . . . H. R. 2560 sets out a false and unacceptable choice between the Federal Government defaulting on its obligations now or, alternatively, passing a Balanced Budget Amendment that, in the years ahead, will likely leave the Nation unable to meet its core commitment of ensuring dignity in retirement.
Wow. As Ed Morissey at HotAir pointed out, it's a little discouraging to find that the White House believes the only way for this country to assure dignity in retirement is to rely on permanent deficit spending.

Myself, I'm even more startled by the idea that assuring dignity in retirement is the core commitment of our federal government. I think it should be a high priority in the life of every American family, of course, and I'm in favor of doing what we must to alleviate the suffering of desperately poor disabled people, including people suffering from age-related infirmity. But until I reached the end of that sentence, I honestly thought the White House was going to argue that a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution would be too dangerous in times of national military emergency. I guess I don't have my national core commitments straight.



Living in any city, let alone one as tall and crowded and overlit as Manhattan, it's easy to lose sight of the grand march of celestial cycles. Even the sprawling suburbs of my former home, Houston, could obscure them, and even now I can be blinded by my tendency to stay under an air-conditioned roof. We used often to camp on a barrier island near the mouth of the San Bernard River west of Houston, where the terrain was pool-table flat in all directions clear to the horizon: the Gulf of Mexico for half the circle and cord-grass marsh for the other half. The rising and setting of the moon and sun engrossed our attention. Within a few hours I usually found myself wanting to fix a vertical stick in the sand and mark the path of the sun with shells at the ends of the shadows: a miniature sun-worshipping temple.

Manhattan is laid out on a grid that is about 29 degrees off of the east-west axis. As island-dwellers, Manhattanites benefit from relatively unobstructed views of the horizon at the termini of many of their streets. Twice a year, the sun rises at the right angle to shine straight down the streets, like a scene out of Jules Verne or Indiana Jones. The effect on these urban cave-dwellers is galvanic: dozens of them brave traffic to glory in the phenomenon and shoot pictures.

We owe much of our science and philosophy to our ancestors who lay awake under night skies, pondering their order.

H/t Maggie's Farm.



A Stoic philosopher, once a slave, he held:

The third area of study has to do with assent, and what is plausible and attractive. For, just as Socrates used to say that we are not to lead an unexamined life [see Plato, Apology 38a], so neither are we to accept an unexamined impression, but to say, ‘Stop, let me see what you are, and where you come from’, just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.’ (Discourses 3.12.14–15, trans. Hard)

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.
There sits wisdom.

How to apply it, though? We live in an hour in which we are told that democracy is the answer to political problems; and therefore, we should be interested in the great questions of the day. Yet the systems are such that, short of breaking the systems, we can have no hope of affecting the questions at issue. The law means nothing -- as we have seen in the case of the war in Libya, where the War Powers Act has proven toothless. I am in favor of that war, and indeed of a more emphatic approach to it, but the law is broken here. The administration shows no deference to the law.

The financial issues are as bad, or worse; even the pretense of a Social Security 'lockbox' is being set aside, in order to use Social Security payments as a hostage mechanism to force compliance on raising the debt ceiling. If we cannot? The idea has already been floated of simply asserting that the 14th Amendment permits any increase of the public debt, without question.

It isn't right to say that we can do nothing; but I wonder if we can do anything meaningful that is also lawful. If democracy is the answer, the Stoic philosophy is of less use; we are bound to be involved, and engaged. Should we say that these matters are nothing to us? The laws are carefully crafted to keep our efforts from having an effect; and where they are not, they are ignored outright. What then?

Congrats Japan

Congratulations, Japan:

I just watched the end of the USA/Japan Female World Cup match. The Japanese came from behind to win in the penalty kicks, and with aplomb. Soccer isn't America's game, of course; although women's soccer to some degree is becoming our national female sport, because of Title IX. If this is America's female football, then, we might be expected to do well; and historically, I gather we have. We lost this one fair and square, to a team that gave every appearance of wanting it more, and working harder to capture the prize.

Congratulations to the victor. It was a well-played game.

Faces Matter


This article on advertisements and visual tracking technology has some interesting facts. Men look first to the technical data on a car, and don't evaluate its looks until they have a sense of what it can do? (Well, of course.)

The fact that faces draw the most attention is the least surprising piece of information, for those who sometimes watch the BBC.

The rest of it is sometimes intuitive, sometimes counterintuitive: of course women look more at the prices of bikinis, since men are unlikely to buy one; but it is surprising that women look first at the breasts of models, while men spend 40% more time on average on the face.