Friday, November 10, 2006

Election Postmortem

My attitude before the election was best summed up as, "Vox populi, vox dei." In contrast to prior years, I never got the sense that either party was worthy enough that I could really have a rooting interest behind it. The general contour of the election had been set for the better part of the year: the Iraq was was increasingly unpopular, but there was no real positive enthusiasm for the Democrats. I was really wondering how the American people would sort the whole thing out, and expected that they would do a good job.

After the fact, I'm less than impressed. Not so much that the GOP lost, because they deserved that much, but the merciless repudiation of everybody associated with the party. I can see, when Conrad Burns or Mike DeWine loses, it's just culling the herd. But the GOP also had some outstanding candidates, without any hint of scandal or responsibility for the Iraqi failure: Steele, Santorum, Kyl, Pawlenty, etc, and the voters took it out on them too. As my dad says, "When the paddy wagon comes, they take the good girls along with the bad." (Of course, he's talking about the stock market, but the point is the same.)

In the 2004 aftermath, there were odes and paeans written about the wisdom and good judgment of the American voter. I didn't believe it, because the fact that a circus act like John Kerry won 48% of anything ought to be an embarrassment. I thought this year would be different. It wasn't.

Even allowing for all that, the real responsibility for the election has to be split between the institutional GOP establishment and the conservative base. The establishment got itself drunk on power, and the base let it happen. This is in addition to the voter dissatisfaction with Iraq. Because the base couldn't or wouldn't discipline their guys the Washington, the voters had to, with the only means that they had. I have a feeling that in other circumstances the American people might have had more patience with the stalemate in Iraq. But it's hard to give the benefit of the doubt to someone you have no respect for, and with things like the Mark Foley/Congressional page scandal and the bridge to nowhere, the contempt was well-earned.

One thing I've read over the past couple of days is that the GOP lost but conservatism didn't. I don't buy that at all. As I mentioned before, that the voters had no interest at all in trying to make a distinction between limited government true-believers and perk-hoarding timeservers. The Hugh Hewitts of the world should bear this in mind. There's also the practical reality that the Democrats didn't just win contoro of the House, they also have a little cushion as well. Enough to make it more difficult than it ought to be get it back once we have regular order restored to the GOP.

Global Hot Air, Pt 2

My friend JR recently emailed me on this subject again, specifically regarding the Stern report. The Stern report is a document prepared by a senior British civil servant. It's been a while since I've written about it, and there were a couple of extra points I wanted to mention. So I decided to share them with you, my multitude legions of loyal readers.

1. Regarding important or controversial issues, when people have a legitimate case to make, they usually make it. If they don't, they tend to bring up side-issue distractions. For that reason, we should be very suspicious regarding disparagement of oil companies. In the big scheme of things, it's just not relevant. And the fact that it's as central to environmentalist activism as it is, should make us wonder that there's really no there there.

2. A scientific consensus on something, is often not particularly relevant and doesn't necessarily mean the underlying assertions are true. This is a little bit different than when I wrote there was no scientific consensus behind certain aspects of global warming, and probably more important. Like a lot of things, global warming in toto is a complex issue, but is also very simple in many ways. In particular, there are many parts of it which are not too complicated for a reasonably intelligent person to think through themselves.

And so it is with the Stern report. (Truth be told, we really shouldn't take the Stern report as a statement of scientific consensus. But JR cited it that way, so I'll just let that go for now.) As the editors of The Business Online point out*,
the Stern report makes no allowance for interest in evaluating cost. This is ridiculous, to the point where anybody should be able to see it. Millions of Americans own their residences, and the size of the check they write to the mortgage company every month is largely a function of the interest rate on the loan.

Or consider that the main case for global warming is the fact that scientists haven't been able to make any reasonably accurate atmospheric model without it. That's substantial evidence, but it's not necessarily conclusive. It depends on the quality of atmospheric models in circulation. We certainly don't need a scientific consensus to tell us the difference between software that works and software that doesn't. And atmospheric models are notoriously unreliable, the Windows95 of that corner of the world.

3. Like many other things, the case for global warming depends on looking at our current state and trends and extrapolating them far into the future. And in that context, derived quantities are in general less reliable than directly observed ones. Inaccuracies in the fundamental data are compounded the more analysis done on it, especially in this case where the inaccuracies are large in comparison to the phenomena they are supposed to measure. More concretely, there are substantial concerns about the quality of atmospheric data behind the global warming case. Ie, questions about how many tenths of a degree the earth has warmed over the last decade, how many fractions of a millimeter sea level has risen, how many parts per million CO2 is in the atmosphere. There are boiling debates about the heat-island effect and methodological controversies about data gathering, etc, that I don't have the time or patience too wade into to deeply. We should just allow that for the moment they are significant in their own right, but more importantly they illustrate that speculations about cause, effect, adaptability etc. are more haphazard than the existence of the underlying phenomenon.



He's not dead, of course, just gone. There has to be some measure of accountability for the Republicans' poor performance on Election Day, and at least for now, the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld is it. He leaves now at a low point of his reputation, where he is widely criticized by many who would like to support what he represents. Plus there are others (and not just dyed-in-the-wool peaceniks either) who have criticized him mercilessly. In the latter case I'm thinking of Greg Djerejian at Belgravia Dispatch in particular. I sympathize with him, though he is increasingly adopting the polemic tone of the Unmedicated Left.

Ultimately though, I don't agree with him. The responsibility for the failure of the Iraq war is at a higher pay grade than Rumsfeld. It's Bush's fault (maybe Cheney's too, though he is not public enough to know exactly what he is responsible for). The short of it is for two or three years now, Rumsfeld has been trying to implement Bush's ends with Rumsfeld's means. The Rumsfeld modus operandi was always to do more with less. And though his reputation for brusqueness was well-earned, he did it as well as anyone could.

Well, the American people have pulled the plug on that particular strategy, which those of us who like living in a democracy should appreciate is their prerogative. But as far as I'm concerned, we should understand that even though it's Rumsfeld who has to go, it's Bush's failure.


What he said.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Polish Labor Economics 102

Ok, last time I wrote that Poland lacks the capital base to use the labor force it already has. Great, what does that mean? Its the economic version of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Often, young people get some kind of education or another, but then get no meaningful employment. So, they reason with some fair justification, they need skills or experience. So this impacts the educational choices that young people have to make, ie they study computer programming, economics, hospitality and tourism, get an intership at an accounting firm, whatever.

This obscures what it is that young people (others too, but especially the young) really have to offer the economy at large; talent, ambition, and energy. By comparison "skills" are worth much less (with some exceptions). Experience is in general worth more than skills but still a lot less than talent. A skill that is in demand at one time is often out of date by the time a person could learn it from scratch anyway. More importantly, our ambition and energy comes closer to expressing who we really are or aspire to be, whereas often a skill is just impersonal technique.
Frankly I suspect that this delusion occurs all over the Continent, but is especially severe in Poland. In any case, that's where I am now and where I can see enough of it to comment on.

The thing about a weak capital base is that the jobs that it generates don't demand much in the way of talent or ambition. They are mostly just a function of drudgery, of one sort or another.

One area of intersection of the Catholic Social Tradition and Leftist ecnomics is the "priority of labor over capital". There is something to be said for this, in that people have real human needs and there is something ugly about the prospect of failing to fulfill them while at the same time adding money to some plutocrat's bank account. But if the revulsion is real, the underlying scenario isn't. Capital doesn't just compete with with human needs, it is also the means of fulfilling them. And not just the baser needs, but some of the higher ones as well. Our creativity, ambition, personality all require capital to be exercised properly.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


This post is a perfect example why I am a political amateur instead of a professional. The CT primary broke in Lamont's favor just at about exactly the same day that I wrote it. Now the Left netroots of the Democratic party can take solace in going one-for-life in competitive elections as opposed to their prior oh-for-life. That may sound a bit sarcastic, but it's not. There is a substantial psychological hurdle to clear when you are attempting to do something that has never been done, or at least never been done by you.

At this point, the race itself is actually more in flux now than ever. If Lieberman somehow could have scraped 50.5% of the primary vote, the general election would be a waltz. But he didn't, so at this point you gotta figure that all three candidates have a legit shot. The one thing going for Lieberman is that he finished close enough to make his third party candidacy credible.

But who cares about one Senate seat? The psycological state of the netroots is far more interesting and IMO far important as well. There was a thin little volume written a couple of years ago called The Uncivil War, by David Lebedoff (a liberal as it happens). His point is that the politica agenda of the new rootless intelligentsia (which equates pretty clearly to the Left netroots) is a class interest, and a fairly narrow one at that. Think of them as 21st century rail barons.

What Lebedoff forgot to mention is that all Left politics derives its legitimacy from the support of the people, and the netroots plainly do not have it. This is something the GOP or the Right in general should have picked up on a long time ago. They haven't had to confront this yet because largely they speak to their own echo chamber. But someday they will.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Mickey Kaus is an eccentric liberal, one of the few who will pursue an honest argument with the left. Recently he has been hitting the immigration issue pretty hard, but in the linked post he really exposes the Democrats Achilles' heel. I find him persuasive. A couple of quick points:

1. As I wrote a little bit ago, the GOP is lost its favor among the body politic. As far as I'm concerned, it already had by 2004. The only reason why the President won reelection is because the Democrats in general and John Kerry in particular were not trusted on security issues. As soon as the Democrats can hold their current coalition but at the same time get rid of their owned-by-interest-group mentality and their nasty partisanship, they'll win.

2. The Republicans have not had an ideological revolution since the 1970s. We are all Reagan's children, as it were. But if the GOP base cannot assert control of their Congressional majorities, or the President, we are due for one soon.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Polish Labor Economics 101

Looking back to the Solidarity era in Poland, as I sometimes do, one of the most striking things of it is that the underlying social movement really could not be justified in terms of standard of living (or geopolitics for that matter). Because the initial consequence of the strikes, social discord, and resistance to communism was to worsen economic conditions from their previously low base. In fact, at many times it probably looked as though that would be the only consequence.

Nonetheless, Polish politics today are dominated by standard-of-living issues, at least that's the way it looks to me.

How did that happen? Ok, let's pretend we're back in the US for a moment and look at the American labor market, especially the entry level. Roughly speaking we can divide into thirds. First is the big firms; Deloitte & Touche, JP Morgan, Caterpillar, 3M, Intel, etc. Every year they stand ready to hire thousands of eductated young people, both college graduates and MBAs.

Second, there are semi-entrepreneurial jobs as well. Say a guy is a fairly sharp businessman and over the course of a couple of decades he accumlates 2 rental houses, 4 apartments, a little Italian restaurant, and a bowling alley. Managing all of it becomes a pain after a while so he hires his best friend's nephew to help him out. Or alternatively, a young person turns a high school hobby into a decent consulting business, like a recording engineer or computer repair person.

Finally, there's the basic service jobs, like working at the Gap, or as as a bartender or hostess.

Well, in Poland, the first is out. There is no Polish McKinsey or GE or Citibank. The second possibility exists, but that sector of the economy is much smaller than an American would recognize. That leaves the basic service jobs, which by default everybody has to get. This means that intelligent, college-educated young people, the ones who would be qualified to work for Booz-Allen, have to fight for a job at a hotel instead. In wage terms, a $10-12 / hr job is a fairly big deal in Poland.

So essentially half the available entry-level labor force up and left (or is in the process of leaving), mostly to the UK. Parts of the Polish political establishment think this is a bad thing, but I'm not sure. First, as I talk to people in that situation, most of them think of themselves as Polish and intend to return to Poland when they have some money or opportunity here. Certainly the majority of those who do have some opportunity here never leave in the first place. And even if it were different, you couldn't blame them anyway. You only get one life.

The point being, this will change when and if the Polish capital base is sufficient to profitiably utilize the talents of the labor force that it already has.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Whither the GOP

Most of the buzz among the great and the good among the Beltway is about whether or not the Republicans will lose control of Congress in the midterm elections. I have no idea, and frankly I don't think anybody else has a definitive handle on it either. In this case there are only guess, some more educated than others.

But whether or not the GOP does in fact lose Congress, it is clear to me that they deserve to. The range of issues where the base can feel faithfully represented in Congress gets narrower and narrower. In particular, the cause of spending restraint prior to the election appears to be completely lost, contrary to some of my helpful suggestions from another post. Congress would like to move on the immigration issue, but the President is unalterably opposed. And then there's national security.

The President's heart is in the right place on national security issues, but his strategic sense seems to be kind of wooden. Even with the successes that US Armed forces have had so far, it's getting harder and harder to suppose the Iraq war will end in such a way that most Americans will think consider it a positive outcome. I actually feel quite a bit of sympathy for the President. He had a difficult hand and played it as best as he could. Unfortunately, after some time, "stay the course" ceases to be a strategy and is merely a platitude. And gradually the American people feel less that the Iraqi war represents their interest and more that it is merely a project of W, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The GOP still has credbility on judges, and that's just about it.

The point being is, that is a losing hand. Will the GOP establishment in Washington get the memo before or after the American body politic gets fed up enough to get rid of them?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ahhh, the joys of politics

To be honest, there aren't very many. This is from someone who has followed the cut and thrust of debate, contemporary culture, campaigns, elections, and so on for the better part of thirty years. Very often your guys lose, and even if they win they tend to disappoint while in office.

But, occasionally one does get a bit of Schadenfreude when the other team pulls out all the stops and loses anyway. I've got a feeling this is about to happen to Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic Senatorial primary. For those who are blissfully unaware, Ned Lamont is running against Sen. Joe Lieberman. Unlike some on the Right, I'm not particularly enamored with Sen. Joe. In the 2000 campaign Joe repudiated most of the principled positions he ever took in order to get on the bottom end of the Presidential ticket. Ever since then I thought he was truly much more Machiavellian than his persona would lead you to believe.

I even agree with at least part of the complaint against him. If he loses the Democratic primary he get out of the race and support the winner. If he wants to run as an independent he should run as an independent now and let the D's nominate somebody else.

But reading the tea leaves it looks to me like he will win anyway, which means that the Internet-savvy hard left netroots will still be oh-for-life in real elections. This one especially will hurt, for all the hatred they have poured onto Joe's head combined with the realization that he will still be there.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The (non) shot heard around the world

In October 1978 John Paul II was elected pope, and in June of the next year he returned to Poland. He was there for nine days and saw millions of people. It is generally credited that this journey was the turning point that led to the strike in Gdansk and the formation of Solidarity a couple of years later.

It's very plausible to suppose that the return of John Paul to Poland was the most important event in world history after the end of World War II and before 9/11. But consider the other possible candidates; Suez, the Reagan-Gorbachev Rejkjavik summit in 1986, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination, Gulf of Tonkin, etc. What is interesting to me is that the pope's trip is the only one of these that had no "objective" impact at all. Essentially the pope's trip consisted of several Masses and religious ceremonies, and speeches that he gave. Nothing changed except in the hearts of Poles who were there and those who heard of it secondhand. But that was quite a bit nonetheless.

Monday, July 31, 2006

In the sandtrap

It is the conventional wisdom that the Middle East is turning into a giant mess, especially in reference to the current war between Israel and Hezbollah. As it happens, I agree with this theory but have a little different spin on it. But first we have to back up a little bit to explain where we are now.

First of all, Hezbollah is a terror group. It has no legitimate existence. It's primary intent is to kill and torture it's enemies, mostly but not exclusively Israel. It also does social service work, but not in the same way a Western charity would. It uses its social work to increase and maintain it's political base for terror, with a secondary aim of indoctrination as well.

Sometimes people don't realize that terror groups are, in general, pretty weak, militarily speaking. They make a living on attacking soft targets with brutality, intending to shock the political associates of the victims into capitulation. Hezbollah has, in the present conflict, significantly stepped up in weight class. They are launching ongoing missle strikes from Lebanon into Israel, and have been made significant company-size coordinated maneuvers, and have maintained military-style command and control.

This is very very bad news. The good that could possibly come of it is that the nature of the threat is so severe as to motivate Israel to eliminate the group in toto. But that ship has sailed, or is just about ready to. Apparently, maybe Israel intends to 'weaken' or 'degrade' Hezbollah's capability, at least to the point where they are no longer the target of Hezbollah missile strikes, though they haven't done this yet. But even if Israel accomplishes this, it will still be very much the worse off. The diplomatic fallout for the tremendous damage to civilian infrastructure will be very bad, in Lebanon and elsewhere. All the while Hezbollah, even if weakened, will still be the strongest player in Lebanese society.

Frankly, at this point it's anybody's guess what Israel's strategy is. I personally don't know, and others whose opinion I respect are at a loss as well.

Poland, again

Okay, so I'm back in Poland again, so let's do a little update. First, one thing that I didn't realize before I came here that seems obvious in hindsight is that when you learn a new language and are exposed to a new culture, you tend to be immersed the popular bourgeois aspects of it.

So what is Poland like, at least Krakow in the year two thousand and six?

Well, the underlying concern is the standard of living, and it underlies just about all the issues in the public arena today; money, jobs, European Union, emigration. Obviously these are important concerns the whole world over, but it has a special flavor here. Whereas an American might think to himself "What is my best career direction and how can I best leverage my talents?" a Pole would say "How can I support myself and my family right now?" Unemployment is at roughly 20%, and millions of young people (and others) have left for greener pastures. The point isn't necessarily that life in Poland is completely dire, but rather that Polish society and individual Poles have a very interesting road ahead that will define their standard of living, and the contingencies of it dominate the thoughts of Polish society.

By contrast, the nature of Polish culture and how it is expressed in today's world as opposed to Communist times (what I am interested in) is much less important.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whither AI?

Strictly speaking, on a practical level Artificial Intelligence has been a failure since it was invented fifty years ago. That is, even though computers and machines are more useful and do more things better than ever before in history, they are no closer to demonstrating true consciousness or intelligence. You might even say they are further away. Tom Bethell has a interesting retrospective in the current issue of the American Spectator and worth a read (link is subscription only).

But there's one thing I want to dwell on, because in considering the things that computers can or can't do, there is an interesting insight into the human consciousness which is end of all this effort. Bethell mentions Cyc, a multi-decade AI project intended to rigorously describe all the rules that a young child knows about the time he enters

"The New Scientist reported earlier this year that Cyc now contains around 300,000 concepts, 'such as 'sky' and 'blue,' and around 3 million different assertions, such as 'the sky is blue,' in a format that can be used by computers to make deductions.'
There's still a long way to go, though. 'Despite more than 20 years' work, the Cyc project contains only about 2 percent of the information its designers think it needs to operate with something like human intelligence.'"

Why is something so simple so difficult? Because the child knows very early that reality exists, something that he is part but not all of. The child psychologist Jean Piaget famously claimed that babies acquire the idea of object persistence around the age of 1. Eg, if a ball rolls behind a sofa and out the other side, the ball on one side of the sofa is the same object as the ball on the other side, and furthermore, it still existed even when it was out of vision. Because things like 'ball', 'sofa', 'sky', or 'blue' are in the child's consciousness as part of reality, every observation is an opportunity to make inferences or generalizations about reality or specific objects in it.

For all the things it does well, the computer is at a monumental disadvantage here. It has no comprehension of reality to generalize from, so every conceivable aspect of a 'sofa' has to be directly input as a rule or data point. And even for the very simplest things, there are too many such aspects for the computer to get a good handle on.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Global Hot Air

My friend JR sends me this link, which is as useful a summary of the conventional wisdom regarding global warming as anything. The point being is that there is a strong consensus among scientists (though not a unanimous one*) that global warming is real.

Where a lot of people go wrong is to assume that this is conclusive: we have figured out everything we need, we need to start acting now (JR may believe this himself, if he stops by he can speak for himself). The environmentalist agenda on global warming is much bigger than this. It is fairly summarized in four points:

1. The phenomenon is real and significant.

2. It is caused by human economic activity, mostly excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

3. If it continues, the consequences will dramatic and adverse.

4. The only solution is immediate radical economic change, primarily by mandating severe worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The "consensus", insofar as it exists, only extends as far as #1 above. (It is also very important to note that just be because there is a scientific consensus behind something doesn't mean that it is true.) The point being, is that all four of these propositions are very highly debatable (and #4 in particular very dubious).

Now by itself, that might not mean anything. Most important decisions are made upon incomplete information. By the time all the relevant information is available, the window for useful action has most likely past. But this is an exception. The sort of thing that would make the environmentalists happy in this case is so radical that we cannot do it haphazardly. It is essentially a worldwide group suicide pact for life as we know it. When you look at a big enough picture, it doesn't matter very much what the nature of our problems are, the nature of the solutions are the same. We as people can only work, create, innovate, perservere, adapt until the problems are gone or at least managed. But that is exactly what the environmentalists want to take away from us. The more religiously motivated among them are doing this on purpose, even.


Sunday, April 09, 2006


George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

This is especially important in Communist and in post-Communist countries. Because, controlling the flow of information was the principal means of social control of the population by the state, its dissemination is a crucial cultural battleground. As it happens, one of the important demands of the Gdansk strikers in 1980 was the right to build a memorial to their colleagues who died in a similar uprising in 1970.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? For those of us who live in the bourgeois world, memory has a different meaning. To a large extent, it is a burden to be escaped. We all have our failures, embarrassments, moments of cowardice and hatred. We earnestly desire that they don't define us. And greatly to our benefit, they don't. With the passage of time, memories are hazy, and we get the chance to define ourselves anew.

But if memories are completely lost, it is not altogether a good thing. Without it, we are at the mercy of others who may not have our best interest at heart, like those living under Communism. Instead, our memories must be purified, that is we must have them because the things they represent are true, and we must align ourselves with the truth. But, we must keep them in a way where they strengthen us or make us better people instead of demoralizing us.

When I was in the United States, I was sure the memories of the end of communism would not fade in Poland for many decades. Now that I am here, I am a little less confident.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Big news for today

I just got in from the Rynek Glowny, the main market square in Krakow. There was a considerable racket by the tower, and I took a look to see what was going on. It turns out, it was a bunch of high school girls (from where, I don't know) loudly singing in French,

"Au soileil, sous la pluie,
Il y a tous que vous voulez
Au Champs Elysees"

Sort of ironic, as I'm sure those of you who know me understand.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lack of Church Buildings in Krakow

In Witness to Hope, the definitive biography of John Paul II, George Weigel recounts Wotyla's tenure as Archbishop of Krakow. One recurring theme of this period was the struggle for Abp. Wotyla and the local church to get municipal permission to build new churches.

I mention this because after having been here for two weeks, I am actually having some sympathy for the apparatchiks on that score.
Imagine being some construction bureaucrat in Krakow, and have the bishop come visit you and there is a need for new parish buildings. It must be the funniest thing you ever heard. There are churches everywhere, to the point where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting three of them.

Physically, many of them seem smaller than American parishes, with very high ceilings but few pews. They are also without many of the accoutrements we might expect of an American parish: no high school nearby, no parish hall or meeting space in the basement under the sanctuary. In America, they might be called chapels instead.

"Mainstream conservatives", pt 3

Ok, then if we allow that the conservative grassroots are supposed to be mobilized for something, what exactly is it they should be mobilized for? Immigration is an obvious choice, but I suggest a revolt over the size and scope of government might be appropriate as well. In NFL draft terms, this is a "need" area. The GOP has lost almost all credibility not just with its own base but also with the public at large.

The recent furor over the "bridge to nowhere" illustrates that that the Congressional cultural proclivity towards wasteful spending is strong enough to withstand a fair bit of light. There ought to be a threefold challenge to it, consisting of: 1. A take no prisoners elimination of elimination of earmarks, bridges-to-nowhere, skateboard museums, etc. 2. Substantial cuts in one of the real money hogs, like NIH, Medicaid, student loans, etc. 3. Appropriations process reform, repealing parts of the Budget Act of 1974, leaving a much more conservative budget process.

The point being is that each front needs to be attacked simultaneously. #1 is exhilarating, (though surprisingly difficult to pull off) but doesn't save that much money. #2 does, but taken by itself only mobilizes the special interest whose ox is being gored. #3 is probably the most important going forward, but by itself is boring and tends to give the impression that the whole thing is just a bunch of paper-shuffling.

This would represent a phenomenal change in the culture of the Washington establishment if it were actually put into effect. But most importantly, we can see exactly how much the GOP establishment is willing to accept discipline by the base. If the answer is not very much, then the GOP majorities are probably not worth saving.

Friday, March 31, 2006

John Paul, Everyman

It has been almost one year now since John Paul has died. Right here in Krakow there is a more or less continuous vigil at his former home, the archbishop's residence. It was a poingnant thing. I have some pictures that I will add to the blog, if I can figure out how to upload them.

It's difficult to describe all the angles of his cultural impact. He was sort of a real-life Forrest Gump of the 20th century: whereever life was lived in our violent, turbulent time, he was there, as if to grace us with his presence. He dodged the Nazis as a young seminarian, and the Soviets as a bishop. He had a special connection with the vocation of the old, the young, women, married people, intellectuals, priests, and laymen. He is widely loved in his native Poland, of course, but also in Latin America and Africa. Who is it that one man could be so many things to so many people. Well, one gift of leadership is the ability to speak to many people, and have each person in the audience perceive that he is being spoken to directly, in the tenderness of our hearts. John Paul had that gift.

Very early in his pontificate, John Paul visited Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. The local television news sent a crew to my elementary school to interview us tykes. Most of the students were completely ignorant of who the pope was, and truth be told I didn't know very much either, except that I was willing to talk to the TV camera for a couple minutes or so. As it happened everything I said was true. Except that the correspondent woman asked me if I were Catholic. I said that I was, but I wasn't, until a couple of decades later.

Whatever else might be said of JPII, we always recall his gift to touch people whereever they were. He was sort of man who would visit Des Moines, Iowa (just the name of it sounds like the very definition of nowhere in particular) just because.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The trip to Tesco

It is a bit odd that the words I would use (cultural center, juxtaposition of modern and old, etc) to describe my expectations of Krakow versus my actual experience of it so far are more or less the same, but still they are nonetheless are very different things. Compared to major metropolitan areas, the city and it suburbs are small in area. I have a theory that one can use a bicycle to get around most of it, so I went shopping for a bicycle a couple of days ago. I spoke to a woman on the street, and she told me to go to Tesco (a British grocery/department store chain) which had supposedly opened a few stores in Krakow.

Did they ever.

The size of the place, and the variety of things they sold there are easily the equal of any Wal-Mart or Super Target in the United States. I knew very well that modernization, capitalism and so forth had come to Poland, but I had no idea that they had come to that scale. Of course, if one goes shopping in a ex-Communist or Third World country or anywhere off the beaten path, you would expect that you can find things cheap, especially necessities for which the locals cannot afford extravagant prices. What I didn't expect to find was these same goods as high-quality, readily available items. I found the bicycle I wanted, close to the top of the line at the store, for 600 zl (that's a little less than $200 for you fans scoring at home).

Frankly, I'm suprised that I hadn't heard about it until I went there. It seems that there ought to be some sort of political mobilization against it, for a lot of the same reasons Wal-Mart in controversial in the US, especially since there are a greater number of small merchants who stand to be put out of business in its wake. Maybe there is, and I am just not aware of it.

Then, right there in Tesco I encountered the old Poland again. I had purchased my bike and walked to the service desk to cut off the tags and get ready to ride it home. Directly in front of the service desk, a wizened little babcia was making some sort of
disagreeable comments in my direction. Frankly, I don't the she was comprehensible for someone fluent in Polish, which is not me. As near as I could figure out, she disapproved of my new purchase, wondering what sort of wild extravagance would ever have somebody pay 600 zlotys for a bicycle. It's just as well that she didn't see me buy a new watch for about the same amount immediately upon leaving the service desk.

Of course, from a big enough picture the old woman has a point (cranky as she was). I could have had a perfectly fine life without that bicycle. It would be a crying shame for Poland to successfully navigate the trauma of Communism and its aftermath, only to fall victim to the same runaway consumerism afflicting the developed world. But even for that, there is something to be said for Tesco. People who don't have easy, reasonably cheap access to food, clothes, and other basics of life are not going to be thinking of much else.

With the advent of Poland into the EU, many young people are leaving, especially for the UK. In a lot of ways, they represent the first generation in 100 years who have the opportunity to set their own course in life, individually and collectively. I am very interested in what it will be.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Life in Krakow

Like anybody, when I was in college I had friends from many different ethnic groups. Some were born in foreign countries, others maybe one generation away. And during the time that I knew them, it seems that several of them became interested in the culture of their home countries. A Japanese friend studied Japanese, a Ukrainian friend traveled there, a Korean friend became active in an Asian Christian ministry, etc. And for me, whatever becomes of this Polish adventure I have decided to take, I hope that that is not it. Ie, that there is more to it than some ethnic exploration phase.

Among other things, it would be very ironic for me to try that because I am not really Polish. I only have a Polish name, and even that was poorly Anglicized a few generations ago. I have even spent the better part of my professional career in Chicago, but know very few Polish people there. So if that's not it, then what? I have a feeling that there is something about Polish culture which is relevant to all nations, developed or otherwise. And it is not just about the Church, the history of the Slavic people, or being a buffer state subject to the whims of stronger neighbors, though all of those things are important.

It's also about a nation that is doing its level best to make a go of things. For whatever Poland has suffered in its past, it is not geared toward grievance-mongering. Even though a Polish culture is geared toward the preservation of memory (there are memorials everywhere), it all seems to be forward-looking, with just a minimum of score-settling. It is not necessarily the same for other nations. To some extent, this may seem like a trite observation, but it is not. Directly to the east of here in Belarus, a quasi-communist strongman is arresting peaceful demonstrators as I write. Most of the Muslim world is defensively crouched against consumerist Western culture, American troops in Saudi Arabia, or Israel or whoever today's bogeyman is. Of course, in the West such attitudes are criticized, and deservedly so.

But we should also note that they are not entirely unreasonable. The world is a perilous place, and our societies are fragile, so there is a strong reactionary impulse to protect whatever we have by walling ourselves off from the that which we don't understand. And paradoxically, the less we have to protect, the more reactionary we have to be in protecting it. It takes a fair amount of moral courage to be willing to expose oneself to the world and make the best of what happens.

Poland (and other nations) have this courage. The world would be a better place if more did.

"Mainstream Conservatives" pt 2

Well, it should be obvious by now that the GOP has not helped the cause of limited government. In fact, it has taken a difficult situation and made it worse. Why has this happened? The GOP establishment likes to tell the mainstream conservatives that they are perceived as right-wing crazies and that they should defer to the Establishment's superior politcal savvy. On some days they probably even believe it.

Simply put, this is a crock. First of all, where there is a substantial difference between the conservatives and the Establishment, the conservatives' position is often much more popular, for example on immigration. But there is more to it than that as well. Today's politically-connected conservatives have their own media outlets, their own think tanks, its own interest groups. In other words, they have been around the block a few times. They understand very well the virtue of taking a half a loaf and living to fight another day. They also know that they care about things like abortion or Terri Schiavo much more than the typical American. Further, even fairminded Americans who disagree with conservatives on an issue like this will tend to cut them a little bit of slack because they can accept a differing opinion as an expression of principle.

No, the problem between mainstream conservatives and the GOP establishment is that the two parties happen to see a couple of very important things differently, most especially the virtue of limited government. Today, there is a GOP President, and GOP leadership of both houses of Congress, of which the Republican leadership in Congress is in substantial peril this November. Frankly, at this point GOP leadership in Congress doesn't do a whole lot for conservatives. If the D's regain power in this election, life will go on. The GOP will desperately need money, votes and enthusiasm from the base to keep its leadership. The mainstream conservatives should choosely wisely whethere they want to give it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Mainstream conservatives"

With all the hype over the crunchy cons floating around the blogosphere recently, it's important to emphasize that their main foil, the "mainstream conservatives", really do exist. To be more precise, their is a substantial coherence to conservative thought in political and cultural matters among American conservatives all over the country. The Crunchy Cons themselves are more defined by lifestyle, of course, and so that makes direct contrast to the mainstreamers a little more difficult.

In general, American conservatives are defined by a half dozen or so important issues: taxes (against them), abortion (against it), strong defense (for it), liberal immigration policy (against it), judicial restraint (for it), limited government (for it), War on Terror (for it). And here, uniquely in the United States, mainstream conservatives are intellectually and demographically strong enough to be a real force in the body politic. This doesn't mean that they control everything, in the fevered imagination of a few, but rather they cannot just be bulldozed away.

The real foil for the mainstream conservatives are not Crunchy Conservatives but rather the Republican political establishment. The GOP establishment agrees with us about some things, disagrees about others, but it should be clear by now to those who follow politics closely that they are emphatically not the same thing. In particular, George W. Bush is not a mainstream conservative, and emphasized that point in several ways in the primaries long before he became President. Of course, to the essentially apolitical American, they are the same, which is why us conservatives need to be able to clearly define ourselves against the GOP establishment when the need requires.

And for this, there is essentially one arrow in the quiver: total mobilization. National Review and other organs can publish countless editorials about this or that. None of them has the remotest impact in comparison to sustained political action, especially if it is directed against the GOP. It is important to emphasize that this doesn't happen very often. The opposition to Harriet Miers was the last time, any by my reckoning the last one before that was the "bourgeois riot" against Al Gore's legal inanities in the Florida recount. In this way, the prescription drug benefit was a substantial missed opportunity, in my opinion. A strong mobilization against it might have actually done some good.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Crunchy Con smackdown

Jonah Goldberg takes the Crunchy Con thesis and its proponents to the woodshed to today:

Frankly, they (in particular Rod Dreher) deserve it. Even though I am sympathetic to the underlying sentiments (as is Jonah). In fact, just reading his lengthy critique (without the usual complement of sophomoric jokes even) lets us know Rod has hit a real nerve. I could write something similar from my own perspective, and if the spirit moves me I might. But for now I think I can get at the essence of my gripe with the Crunchy Con thesis in many fewer words.

Rod is fundamentally correct that red-state America, the American Right (and the American consumer in general) need to cultivate and exercise more spiritual discipline and take greater care in avoiding the trap of comfortable suburbanish consumerism. But everything I have read from Rod so far regarding how Americans ought to reorient their lives toward that end is seriously misguided.

I recall a cartoon from Doonesbury many years ago where some academic pooh-bah and his lackey are sitting in the Dean's office working over some budget numbers. The lackey suggests saving some money by cutting university administration, whereupon the Dean replies, "I said we cut some fat, not bone marrow." Like our college administrator friend, Rod makes no real effort to sort out the difference between what is essential and what is superfluous. If someone did make such an effort, it would be a very valuable thing. But what is between the covers of Crunchy Cons is not it, even if its essential premises are correct.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Karol Wotyla, once more with feeling

I will leave the topic of the philosophpy of JPII soon enough, but there is at least one more thing which needs to be said before I go. Walker Percy once said (I only remember this well enough to paraphrase) something like, "Before I die, I want to give a definitive refutation to the mind-body dualism which has infected all of Western culture for 400 years, and write a decent novel. Frankly, I suspect the latter one will be more difficult."

I thought of this, in the context of Peter Simpson's talk at the conference last weekend, in some ways the most profound of of the presentations. His immediate subject was the phenomenology of Wotyla in regard to the foundation of democratic polity. For Wotyla the most important phenomenon is 'I act'. A person's act shapes the person as well as external world. Because there must be some sphere where a person is free to act, in this way he attains his right to self-determination in the philosophical sense. Therefore, a pluralistic polity is in principle legitimate because, in granting a sphere for self-determination, it is true to the anthropological nature of the person.

But, the underlying phenomenology of Wotyla has much wider application than that, arguably even more important ones. The phenomenon 'I act' has priority over 'I think' which is where Rene DesCartes left us. DesCartes said "I think, therefore I am," the cornerstone of mind-body dualism. Ie, the mind and the body are separate things which have some relationship, maybe even a tenuous one, to each other. The problem with this is that in this scenario, it is only the mind which is really alive. To the extent that the body is animated at all, it is animated by the mind and is quicky dead when that source of animation is gone. If this is so, life is a more or less antiseptic flow of ideas and mind-games, which many fear is where we stand today in the West.

But if we follow Wotyla, we see that we are constituted in our acts at least as much as our thoughts. Our bodies define us at least as much as our minds, inasmuch as the two can be distinguished. We truly have the freedom to be whole persons.

As an aside, Prof Simpson claimed at the beginning of his talk that Wotyla was one of the very leading lights of 20th century philosophy. John Haldane spoke later, and denied this. That is, that the contributions of Wotyla were important, and worth discussing, but in the context of 20th century philosophy he was not on the A-list. Neither man elaborated on this in any detail, but my guess is that this is a function of a difference over the nature of philosophy as opposed to a difference over JPII. That is, at one level philosophy is the opposite of utilitarianism. It cares not one whit for the practical application of anything, but rather is an inquiry into the world motivated by the love of truth, and the repudiation of falsehood. But nonetheless this does have utilitarian consequences, because a person armed with the truth can do more things, be a better person even, than one without.

And the application of this different understanding of philosophy relates to this particular subject above. As 20th century philosophers go, Wotyla did not build the complex intellectual edifice of others. Certainly he less influential in the contemporary academy than at least a few (eg, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Heidegger, Rorty, Rawls). But for what his work means for the good of the human person Wotyla is at least the equal of anybody.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Challenge to Faith

Philosopher John Haldane of Scotland presented at the JPII conference last weekend. Part of his talk was about the challenges to faith in the modern world. He identified three of them: cosmological immanentism, evolutionary naturalism, and philosophical materialism. He made a special point to emphasize the last two, in particular that Catholic philosophy, or religion in general, could never expect to destroy the philosophical foundations of science. The results that science has produced are too useful and too convincing for that.

Please understand that Prof. Haldane is a distinguished academic, and I am your typical idiot with a keyboard, but nonetheless I am actually quite confident that Prof. Haldane is wrong, at least as it regards the challenge of faith. My reasons are different from some of the other conference participants, I think, and in fact are bolstered by the increasing progress in scientific results.

Philosophical materialism holds that reality in general and the causes of events in particular and physically determined, and our spiritual nature and the possibility of spiritually-caused actions are illusions. But that's not so. As humans, we have a real spiritual nature that is described in anthropological terms as the Law of the Gift. That is, our spirits are most clearly manifested in the action of pouring itself out as a gift to somebody else or some end outside itself.

As my monk friend Peter points out, the music of Beethoven is a spiritual expression of Beethoven the person, in his case, in response to the crucible of suffering. More importantly for this note, his music defies all theories of materialism, and is just as real as the law of electrodynamics.

Even though we all experience this (or something similar) in our own way, the whole thing just seems so squishy compared to the rigors of natural science. But that is where the progress of science comes in. As science progresses, the materialist detritus will be progressively stripped away and bring into clear relief the nature of the spirit, even if spiritual bodies are not subject to direct experiment. In fact, this has started to occur already with the all research into neurology and psychiatry has only served to emphasize that human consciousness is an essential mystery.

And it will also become clear, that the progress of science is not dependent on the materialist arguments of radicals, either philosophers or scientists. More concretely, just because accept the reality of our own ability to love, to believe, or to hold in solidarity with somebody else, doesn't at all mean that the transmission in our car is going to break.

As a side note, Prof Haldane made a couple of comments directly related to Intelligent Design. He said the apologetic from design actually can be made rigorous, but that it was very, very difficult, and the ID folks have certainly not done it (or even gotten very close for that matter). I wholeheartedly agree, and that probably summarizes the situation as succinctly as it is possible to do. This can be taken as criticism of ID, and probably was intended to be. But I actually take it as a net plus for ID, and why I am a qualified enthusiast of it. If the IDers are allowed the academic freedom to pursue their work without political interference, we should hope to see real progress in this area.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Does Natural Selection produce Reason?

There has been a substantial discussion of this on The Corner, starting from a book review by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times. Noah Millman has a lengthy comment about it on his blog:

"And Derb's right that the faculty of reason and
the religious "instinct" could be - almost certainly are - incommensurate, and
that there is no teeth in the argument that if both are products of natural
selection then both are equally undermined by that genealogy."

I'm not as convinced by this. I think it's more correct to say that neither reason nor religion are falsified by genealogy. But, if we were to take as a hypothesis that religion is merely the product of evolutionary pressure and conclude that therefore it cannot be objectively true, what would that say about reason, if in fact reason were also the product of the same evolutionary pressures?

The gap between them is precisely the reification of reason, that is the reality in truth of its inferences. Derb tries to deny the reification (more particularly, he wants to avoid the whole subject). But if he thought about it I think he would appreciate the his argument actually requires the reification of reason. Ie, we independently accept the validity of reason no matter how it comes to exist in the human mind. Ie reason is "special." Noah Millman, to his credit, appreciates the specialness:

"We don't have to learn, for example, about the
existence of gravity, or friction, or inertia; we are born with hard-wiring
about these things, and we what we learn is how to get along with these forces
as we actually make our way through the world, running and jumping and throwing
baseballs and the like. But we are not born knowing the actual laws of physics,
and the actual laws of physics turn out to differ in far-reaching ways from the
common-sense or "folk" physics we know by instinct. And it is our faculty of
reason that we use to discern the differences, because it is our faculty of
reason that allows us to . . . reason. Or to access Reason, if you prefer.
Reason has a certain pride of place amongst our faculties when we ask questions
about how things are."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Crunchy Cons

The hot new thing on the Right is Crunchy Cons, by Rod Dreher. National Review has started a blog dedicated to that subject, which has been very lively for the few days it has been in existence. The crux of Dreher’s thesis is that the Right and the Left, are equally ensnared in the vapidity of consumerism. And this has created a substantial but obscure demograhpic of cultural dissenters, people who are politically and religiously conservative, but "look" and "act" like neo-hippies.

I haven’t read the book, though of course that’s not going to stop me from having an opinion on it. Rod’s Crunchy Con thesis is in equal parts frustrating and disappointing. Rod has, almost exclusively, brought to the fore a very important subject, which is why his work has generated the interest that it has. Unfortunately his analysis of the subject is flawed almost to the point of being useless.

Rod is absolutely correct to reject the cult of modern consumerism, which is a very strong siren to resist. Unfortunately, he seems locate this resistance in another, "alternative," set of consumer choices. These choices are often defensible, in some cases even praiseworthy, on their own terms. But, they are not the resistance to consumerism. In fact, it is much more likely that they are another version of the same problem.

The real resistance to consumerism is spiritual, and cultural, and is very difficult to put ino practice, or even to describe directly. It consists in things like the ability to delight in another person for their sake, the priority of culture and family over careerism. If, after diligent application, you have the ability enjoy the presence of another person, it won’t make that much difference if you share that good cheer over McDonald’s hamburgers.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion

I have recently been attending a conference sponsored by Boston College on the philosophical work of John Paul II, which has just concluded. As is typical, the events of the conference consisted mostly in distinguished academics presenting papers and fielding questions. It was the audience which was atypical. There were many non-Catholics, people without any real connection to the academic world such as myself, very young students down to high school in a couple of cases, and quite a few retirees. Why were such an odd variety of people crashing a meeting which would otherwise be a cozy discourse of professional philosophers?

That is probably a little too difficult to answer directly, so let me tell a story of Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion instead. R&M was a movie comedy made a number of years ago about two California women who will shortly attend their 10th high school reunion. The protagonists are not satisfied with their station in life so they have to crash-build false personas that will give them the proper social status. Of course, this plan untimately fails. But this is important, because only when it fails can Romy and Michelle (and by extension us as well) see and appreciate the real depth of the people they used to see every day, friends or otherwise. They are so caught up in their own machinations that it comes as a quite a shock when they meet their high school colleagues ten years later and the real people they see are not at all the same as the projection of their memories.

The point being, that the dork you knew in high school who is now the CEO of IBM or whatever is the same person. And if you couldn't see that possibility for him back in high school, it wasn't because of your lack of perception. In fact, even though it seems counterintuitive, the more accurate your perception was, the worse your appreciation for this person is likely to be. This late-blooming high school colleague just didn't show the parts of himself which constituted the personality or aptitude for success, so you couldn't have seen it. But they were there the whole time.

Too often, the people in our lives seem to be like the toys under the tree on Christmas morning. They are intruiging for a short time, but then we figure them out well enough, and they become boring. This is obviously a poor foundation for social relations, but it's also just false in reality as well. To summarize the work of Karol Wotyla (ie, JPII) and others, the human persion is a metaphysical diamond, he always has a new angle to show you that you haven't seen before. And this is true no matter what you already know about that person or how long you have known him.

If you could walk down the street and every person you see could engage you in new and wonderful ways that you were not aware of or didn't appreciate, life would likely be different and much better. Among other things, JPII could meaningfully address this yearning for engagement that we all share. It is one reason why he was such a compelling figure in life, as well as in death.