THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 541 October 20 - 26, 2008
Highlights this week:
For boiler plate, search engine, and notes on what in the world this place is, see below.
For Previous Weeks of the View, SEE VIEW HOME PAGE
If you intend to send MAIL to me, see the INSTRUCTIONS.
This is a Day Book. Pages are in chronological, not blogological order.
October 20, 2008
Liberalism has its roots in Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism, which took as its principal goal "the greatest good for the greatest number." Bentham believed that the entire doctrine of natural rights was "nonsense on stilts". He was in other words a child of the enlightenment, which took it for granted that justice and happiness were good things worth striving for, and that the unrestrained personal satisfactions of a Genghis Khan or Ted Bundy were evil and wrong, although there was little philosophical stuffing under that assumption. Socrates (recorded by Plato) wrestled with this in The Republic and other works, and although Socrates was executed for what amounts to teaching atheism, he was never able entirely to dispense with some source of morality, some fountain of justice. Much of the book is an attempt to refute the argument that the best life is to appear to be just, while actually doing what one wills. How well he did that has been debated literally for millennia.
In any event, Bentham and Mills began as champions of individual liberty, but their form of liberalism morphed into welfarism, which led to Lyndon Johnson's attempt to implement it all in The Great Society. While the measures taken were well intended, the economic consequences were severe. Socialism, a sort of synthesis of Marxism and Benthamism, has the problem that before wealth can be distributed, there has to be wealth created to distribute. As the Scandinavian welfare states have discovered, things work well so long as the population has the old Protestant Ethic that says work is good, idle hands are the devil's workshop, and one ought not take advantage of charity if one does not need it. Over generations this fades, particularly if there is a concerted effort to undermine the religious base of these beliefs, with the result that more and more of the citizenry choose to be recipients of benefits rather than creators of wealth. That process continues and the outcome isn't entirely predictable.
The conflict between individual rights and social welfare policies is relatively profound.
We are likely to learn a lot more about that after the election.
There are a couple of letters in mail that may be appropriate to this discussion.
Jeremy Bentham in 1979
I took the above picture at University College in London in 1979. Bentham, one of the founders, had himself stuffed, and on occasions was wheeled into meetings of the board of trustees where he was recorded as present but not voting.
I'm still in work mode. Alas I don't seem to be catching up as fast as I would like.
There is a good bit of mail, and I'll see how much I can get to.
I strongly recommend you read and pay attention:
Preparing for an economic downturn takes a good bit of thought and work; some will do it, some will not. I repeat what I said over in Chaos Manor Reviews: now is a good time to take inventory of one's assets and abilities.
Japan has strong social traditions to enforce quality control and delivery on time, at least within Japan. Mao saw to it that China has few strong social traditions of any kind.
Can anyone tell me how to find the View controls for Firefox on the Mac? That is, there is a Tools dropdown on the toolbar at the top on the Mac, but unlike the Tools tab in the Windows Firefox there is no Colorful Tabs Options menu item; and without that I can't set the way the tool bar displays items, and Firefox isn't useful if it works differently on the two operating systems. Is this a Mac defect or my idiocy? How in the world do I set the display options?
Firefox Preferences: still doesn't let me change the display. The tabs are in one long horizontal line that scrolls from side to side. I hate it. On Windows I can use Tab Mix Plus to set that to three lines of tabs that scroll vertically. I can also set a close tab command on the open window, and a close open window tab over on the right. None of that is available on the Mac or if so I can't find it. Why is this?
I have Colorful Tabs and Tab Mix Plus installed on both PC and Mac, but on Mac I cannot find any way to use the Tab Mix Plus display controls. There must be some way, but I sure can't locate it.
And indeed they are there -- now. Apparently the Mac has to digest this stuff and get it into the Mac top tool bar, and it doesn't happen immediately. Ah well. It works now, and thanks.
For platinum subscription:
Platinum subscribers enable me to work on what I think is important without worrying about economics. My thanks to all of you.
Did you subscribe and never hear from me? Click here!.
October 21, 2008
We have to take Sable to the groomers -- she's just too big for me to bathe her myself -- and then go out to get our flu shots. Mail when we get back.
Adobe Flash Update
The options for Firefox Tab Mix Plus eventually appeared in the Mac version. I am not sure why they were not there until half an hour after I installed Tab Mix Plus, but it works now.
This is one heck of an offer. Many of those books have been out of print for some time. Blood Feuds and Blood Vengeance are War Worlds novels. The Imperial Stars trilogy consists of stories interspersed with my essays and comments.
October 22, 2008
Obama and the Democrats propose a redistribution of incomes through the "earned income tax credit". This is often confused with the distributist views of Belloc and Chesterton, The differences are profound.
Belloc and Chesterton were both conservative capitalists, and very much opposed to Socialism (which is the best single-word description of Obama and the left wing Democrats). They did not believe the State would or could be fair in implementing its policies. They did believe that using the State to distribute incomes would inevitably lead to corruption.
They also saw truth in Marx's observation that unrestrained capitalism led to capitalists devouring each other, with more and more of the wealth and means of production concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Marx saw that as leading to revolution, with the elimination of social classes entirely. Government would shrink to nothing, and a man might be a worker in the morning and an artist in the afternoon. Management would not be for maximum profit, but merely for maintenance. The resulting stability -- some would call it stasis -- would be the end of history.
Fascism accepted Marx's principal observation that history was the history of class warfare, but solved the problem of class warfare by erecting a State superior to all the social classes and institutions that would force everyone to work together, not for the benefit of any particular class or institution, but for the good of all. Mussolini began as a Socialist and said he remained a Socialist to the day he died; his Socialism was intended to be progressive. He built airports and not only made the trains run on time but built many of the railroads.
Socialism is sometimes described as Marxism with a human face. Hilaire Belloc presciently said that the result would be "The Servile State" in which subjects begged state bureaucrats for favors, and nothing was allowed without a permit. A man might not erect a chicken coop in his back yard without permission -- indeed, it wasn't his back yard. It belonged to the state which graciously allowed him to live there. One may judge the success of this approach by the fate of Pruit-Igoe in St. Louis, or any Chicago or New York public housing project. Proponents of public collective projects have various fixes which they say will take care of the problems if applied. The fixes do not usually include giving actual ownership to anyone but the state.
The distributist approach would be to give actual title to the property to the occupants. Chesterton argued for peasant ownership of the land even as he understood that English yeomen would not care to be called peasants. At the time he was writing, about 90% of the land in England belonged to a few hundred families who rented out farmland to those who worked it. At that time agriculture was a significant part of the British economy, and factory management, though more complex than Marx believed, was still considerably simpler that it is today. From the distributist view, if peasant ownership of farms was a proper solution in agriculture, worker-owned factories would likely be the proper solution to industry.
Both Chesterton and Belloc were concerned by the trend of increasing consolidation of industry into large conglomerates and trusts, in theory responsible to stockholders but in practice responsible to no one but the managers. James Burnham, formerly an anti-Stalinist Communist and at one time a leader in Trotsky's Socialist Workers Party, took up this argument in The Managerial Revolution (1941) and Suicide of the West. He later broke with the left and became one of the founding editors of National Review; he was a major influence on the late Samuel Francis, the populist paleo-conservative.
Most of these socio-economic views have one major concern: the increasing concentration of control over society into the hands of fewer and fewer people. This is not quite the same as increased concentration of wealth: wealth itself is no great threat to the social order although it can be used for that purpose. Socialism would tax wealth in order to set up bureaucracies that would fairly redistribute the wealth. At one time Socialism demanded the nationalization of the means of production, but experience showed this didn't work very well, either in the Soviet Union, or in the Scandinavian welfare states, or in England. Bureaucratic management "for the public good" is neither efficient in production nor particularly effective at pleasing its public clients (who are usually very much treated as clients; see the Roman origin of the word).
Distributists claim to be a third alternative to ruthless capitalism and bureaucratic socialism. The distributist view can be summarized fairly in Chesterton's statement "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." They believed in transparency and subsidiarity -- local control of most resources coupled with maximum freedom. (Note that the late Jane Jacobs thought those principles the only way to avoid a coming Dark Age.) One means of distributism would be through death taxes : the money would not go to the state, but be instantly and irrevocably divided.
Distribution of ownership of the means of production might lead to Jeffersonian Democracy in a largely agricultural country, but it's much more difficult in industrial states. Worker owned companies are sometimes both efficient and successful, but they often succumb to ruthless competition from manager-controlled companies and cartels.
There are plenty of Socialists who seek to redistribute the wealth through government action (which always means creating a bureaucracy). The neo-conservatives generally favor unregulated capitalism, which generally leads to concentration of wealth. There are few distributists in the modern political picture. Yet many of us can agree that "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."
I suppose that the free lance programmer who owns his own computers is the best modern example of what Chesterton and Belloc sought. I would also suppose that more vigorous enforcement of the anti-trust laws, even if that led to some inefficiencies, would meet their approval. To the charge that this would destroy local industries through ruthless international competition, they would probably answer by raising tariffs.
Incidentally, the Regulatory State seems determined to restrict America to two kinds of companies: those with fewer than 50 employees, and giant corporations with thousands of employees. No one in his right mind would expand a company -- particularly in California but Federal Law is making this universal -- from 49 to 51 employees. The instant one gets to 50 (or 51 depending on the state) a huge panoply of regulations kick in, so many that even if one can afford to comply with them all, one will also need a compliance staff of several employees to make sure one is in compliance. This means that up to 10% of one's work force does nothing productive except keep the owners out of jail. This makes the company singularly uncompetitive when faced with companies that don't have to devote so many resources to complying with regulations. This is probably not what distributists had in mind.
I very much recommend my Imperial Stars trilogy, which is part of The Pournelle Continuum. There are some good stories in there, and some of my best essays.
Tomorrow I won't be posting before about dinner time. Next week is the Microsoft Professi9onal Developers Conference at the LA Convention Center, and I'll be there, so most activity on this page will be in the evenings. Unless I get bored...
October 23, 2008
0530: Sleepless in Studio City
I'll try to get back to sleep. We have things to do all day tomorrow.
1715: We're at the beach house for a couple of days. The pollens got to Roberta. The cormorants, who fly north for the summer, are back; at least one of them is here in San Diego. Joe is taking care of Sable. She gets two walks a day when he's house sitting so she's happy.
Security expert Rick Hellewell:
October 24, 2008
On the beach: I intend to put in the day working on Mamelukes.
For those wondering why the short commentary on distributism, I happened to be reading Chesterton on what's wrong with the world and it came to mind. I'm not a convert to distributism, but I Infinitely prefer dispossessing the wealthy to grow the size of the middle class to dispossessing the wealthy to growing the size of the government and bureaucratic redistribution of the wealth. Breaking up the Earl's estates to hand out land to the tenants may or may not be a great idea, but it is infinitely better than making Earl and Tenant alike the tenants of the government in the form of collective farms.
The Socialist approach is that government knows best. That has been disproven in many experiments, some of them quite bloody, others less bloody but in all cases with unsatisfactory results. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy prevails in nearly every case. (I may as well say in ever case, since no one has been able to give me a counter example.) The Soviet complex of states is generally held up as a good example of the failure of bureaucratic rule, and indeed it was. In addition, a particularly disastrous instance was the attempt by good Socialists to spread the wealth after the fall of Communism in the USSR. Most of those involved had good intentions. The results were pretty ghastly.
Pure capitalism leads to business cycles, in which the low point is generally better (in terms of standard of living) than Socialism (and certainly preferable to Communism, if only because the low points in a business cycle are considerably shorter than the reign of the bureaucrats in either Socialist or Communist states, even if the Communism has a human face, which it seldom does: see the movie The Lives of Others for illustration). As Mr. Chesterton said, the problem with pure capitalism is not that it leads to too many capitalists, but to too few capitalists.
I learned freshman economics the hard way: I was suddenly required to take over a very large class in Freshman Economics when the professor was disabled, so I had no choice but to read the textbook, read other relevant books, and stay ahead of the class. Fortunately for me the textbook was that of David McCord Wright rather than some of the more popular economics texts, and I was struck by Wright's logic and became one of his fans. This may be why I am inclined to favor vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws. I confess I was a bit distracted from this view by arguments from National Review when Buckley ran that magazine; but I have recovered. The argument against enforcement of anti-trust laws and preventing any single or small group of companies to dominate an industry is the argument of efficiency: a few small companies in competition will produce more widgets with a smaller number of employees because there won't be so much administrative redundancy. Note that this has always been a major argument for Socialism including the old Socialist fervor for nationalization of industries: what is the need for 27 companies making soap powder or breakfast cereal, each having personnel departments, marketing departments, legal staffs, and other such employees not concerned with making widgets or boxing cereal? I confess that as an undergraduate I was impressed with that argument and vigorously employed it myself.
The Socialist argument failed in practice, succumbing to the Iron Law, as well as to the economic technical problems concerning flow of information: markets are better at concentrating and distributing information on demand than any bureaucracy could ever hope to be. Besides, competition keeps everyone on their collective toes: produce efficiently or lose business to the competitor. Certainly we have enough information now to conclude that for efficient production of widgets, or bread, or cars, or nearly anything else tangible, capitalism is the superior system. You get a bigger pie, and if one has a larger pie then distribution of the pie is a lot easier.
For most of the time this is unquestionably true: but there remains the problem of the business cycle: a time when everything seems to come apart. Fortunes are lost, employment drops, and panic -- usually but not always unjustified by the actual conditions -- sets in. The panic sends the western world deeper into depression (both psychological and economic). For a while economists were certain that John Maynard Keynes had solved this problem and the only requirement was to apply good Keynesian principles to even things out; there would be business cycles, but they'd never get to the panic stage because we now understood them and could halt the slides as they began.
This does not appear to be self evidently true in Fall of 2008.
One does wonder whether the efficiency of having a few very large financial institutions outweighs the cost of the disasters that ensue when a Black Swan appears; whether it might not be better to have, instead of one institution so large that it justifies paying its top executives $100 million a year, one hundred such institutions paying executives $1 million a year? Certainly this would be less efficient. The highs would not be as high. But would the lows be as low? Why must there be institutions so large that they cannot be permitted to fail, and must be rescued by the common purse?
I recently got this email:
I am not sure I have a proper answer to that: how does the government divest itself of ownership in key financial institutions? And can it do so in a way that benefits all? We have lessons in how NOT to redistribute the wealth from the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Giving everyone a share of stock and allowing them to sell to the highest bidder in an unregulated auction doesn't seem a bright idea, but then having bureaucrats negotiate deals for the people doesn't seem so bright either. Should shares be distributed equally to all? Should those who pay the most taxes get more shares? That latter seems more fair, but also concentrates wealth; but then an open and unregulated auction would probably end with concentration of wealth also.
I haven't thought about this enough to have a strong recommendation; but I do think it an important problem and I've seen little discussion of it elsewhere.
It is time to consider this question: is there a way to divest the government of its ownership and equity in the key financial institutions without causing total disruption; and can we do that in a way that minimizes the concentration of wealth into a few institutions who, however efficient they may be, can never be allowed to fail? Would it be better to use the government's power through these purchases to break these things up into a number of smaller institutions, any one -- or any dozen -- of which can be allowed to fail without ruining the lot of us?
In case you missed the announcement of Baen's Pournelle Continuum deal, it's worth your attention.
There is a comment on Microsoft Certification in Mail. And now I am off to work on fiction.
October 25, 2008
A slow day at the beach house. We'll be home soon enough and then it's PDP.
October 26, 2008
Home from San Diego. Microsoft Professional Developer Conference tomorrow. I'll report with my interpretations.
If you haven't subscribed or renewed your subscription this year, this would be a good time. I'll have a lot here and in Chaos Manor Reviews next week.
For platinum subscription:
For Patron subscription:
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
If you have no idea what you are doing here, see the What is this place?, which tries to make order of chaos.
If you subscribed:
If you didn't and haven't, why not?
Strategy of Technology in pdf format:
For platinum subscription:
For a PDF copy of A Step Farther Out:
For the BYTE story, click here.
Search: type in string and press return.
The freefind search remains:
Entire Site Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Jerry E. Pournelle. All rights reserved.