Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why capitalism rules...

There is an ill wind blowing Master Wu.

We are seeing articles like this piece in the Independent announcing the end of capitalism, neo-liberalism, or whatever it's called these days. The new socialists like to believe that capitalism has failed.
These arguments lack credibility because there is no evidence that capitalism has failed in any way. Quite the contrary, it is government intervention that has led to today's crisis.
Let's start by looking at Clinton's lobbying for more mortgages to low income families in 1999 described in this NY Times article.

In July, the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed that by the year 2001, 50 percent of Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's portfolio be made up of loans to low and moderate-income borrowers. Last year, 44 percent of the loans Fannie Mae purchased were from these groups.
The change in policy also comes at the same time that HUD is investigating allegations of racial discrimination in the automated underwriting systems used by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to determine the credit-worthiness of credit applicants.

The justification was that Hispanics and Blacks couldn't get on the property ladder. Unfortunately, this led to the very same group defaulting on their mortgages 10 years later. Who could have seen that one coming?
Next comes the fatuous claims by leading socialist leaders like Chavez that capitalist countries are on their way down. Tell that to the hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese who have emerged from poverty as a result of their countries adopting free market policies. Contrast these to countries such as Venezuela and Iran that have adopted aggressively anti-capitalist measures while relying on high oil prices. As this excellent article by Aiyar points out, socialism has eroded their oil producing capability and has seriously eroded their capabilities to diversify. It is precisely these socialist havens that are seeing their fortunes impacted the most.
The US will recover, unless Obama tries the social democratic model that has failed in Europe. American capitalism is about hard work, innovation, and rewarding those who can do both. Thatcher famously said that the conceit of collectivism is "the illusion that government can be a universal provider, and yet society still stay free and prosperous.... The illusion that every loss can be covered by a subsidy. The illusion that we can break the link between reward and effort, and still get the effort." We should remember that before we try to attack the most successful model in history.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dim bulbs

It's Earth Hour tonight. Turn off your lights for a whole hour and you will be illuminated from within by the glow of your own sanctimony. And just think: if a billion people take part, the energy saved will be equivalent to six seconds' of China's consumption! --No, it's not going to make a bit of difference, but perhaps it's not intended to: instead it's about raising "awareness", which as the ever- incisive Christian Lander tells us, "is the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it."

I once saw a reproduction of an old cartoon published at around the time London introduced gas lighting for its streets, in 1807. It had a caricature of a dour Scotsman gravely eyeing one of the lamps and saying, "Aye. But what is this, compared to the light within?" Poor Jock, he never lived to see Earth Hour.

If the van's a-rockin'...

...because a Chinese prisoner is being executed and having his organs removed for resale, then don't come a-knockin'. Really. Just don't.

Still, this does make an improvement over shooting a criminal in the back of a head in front of a crowd of thousands at a soccer stadium, then scooping out the bullet and sending it to the victim's family along with a bill. When it comes to China, we always have to be grateful for the slightest example of progress.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Retro-cinema: "A Bucket of Blood" (1959)

Despite the needlessly lurid title, Roger Corman's 1959 production is thankfully short on the red stuff and long on insightful social commentary. More of a late film noir than a true horror film, A Bucket of Blood explores the beatnik subculture of the late 1950s and satirizes both its pretensions and its assumptions. The story revolves around the downtrodden busboy Walter, who waits tables in a café patronized by snobbish hipster would- be artists and their hangers- on. Despised by the regulars, Walter longs to be recognized as artistic in his own right, but he lacks both the talent and the audacity to persuade anyone else that he is worth noticing. By accident, though, Walter does eventually hit upon a way to create unique works of art through the most macabre means imaginable; and even as he is subsequently feted by the cognoscenti he is able to justify his crimes to himself by appeal to the beatniks' own sub- Nietzschean credo that the artist is the ultimate lord of creation, one who is above all moral accountability.

Interestingly, this is all very reminiscent of the subject of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 drama Rope, in which the professor -- played by Jimmy Stewart -- preaches the expendability of ordinary people in the interests of a higher "will to power", and so unwittingly inspires two of his students to engage in a pointless thrill- killing. Again, it is Nietzsche who is ultimately being targeted here, but more broadly the movie aims to say something about the darker side of a modern way of thinking that fuses elitism with nihilism in order to to come up with something that is truly horrible.

A Bucket of Blood is only 66 minutes long, so the plot moves very quickly through its development and resolution, and there is enough satirical humour in it to keep any real film enthusiast engaged -- at least until the film is over and he can pop the next DVD into the slot.

H.L. Mencken on death

This is undoubtedly morbid, but I think it's funny enough to be worth repeating:

"Men upon whom we lavish our veneration reduce it to an absurdity at the end by dying of cystitis, or by choking on marshmallows or dill pickles. Women whom we place upon pedestals worthy of the holy saints come down at last with mastoid abscesses or die obscenely of female weakness. And we ourselves? Let us not have too much hope. The chances are that, if we go to war, eager to leap superbly at the cannon's mouth, we'll be finished on the way by being run over by an army truck driven by a former bus- boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made in Oneida, N.Y."

(from "Exeunt Omnes", 1920)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brazil nut

The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was apparently embarrassed when, while on a recent trip to Brazil to discuss economic matters, he was treated to the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva's impromptu attempt to interpret the global financial crisis in explicitly racial terms. According to Lula, "this was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by irrational behaviour of people that are white, blue-eyed..."

Even among white people (and even bankers!) blue eyes are comparatively rare; but leaving that aside, it can just as easily be argued that the crisis was largely precipitated within the U.S. by those disproportionately minority and poor homebuyers who, in taking advantage of civil- rights stipulations that they receive the same credit as anyone else, found themselves vastly overextended in mortgage debt at the time of the collapse of the housing bubble. If it is offensive to note that many of these people were non- white and had non- blue eyes, why is it any different to focus on the physical characteristics of the bankers as a clue to their behaviour? But Lula's remarks serve as another reminder of how strongly racial theories -- ones that are usually hostile to people of European descent-- continue to taint the political discourse of South American countries. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, I'm looking at you...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dyslocation

There have only been a few occasions in my life where I've felt the advance of technological change so keenly that I can honestly say I've been overwhelmed by it, and on each of those occasions computers have been involved in some way. I remember back in 1994 my first exposure to the Internet, and my discovery that I could read newspapers from the UK on the day they were published, and for free! That seems ridiculous now, of course, but during the 1980s my family used to make a twenty- mile trek downtown every week to buy outdated British newspapers at an inflated cost; we were otherwise mostly at a loss for news from the old country. When I first loaded up the website for the Times of London, I knew that all of that was at an end, and there was a curious feeling that went along with it: a kind of dizziness at the thought that the world was shrinking and being brought more easily within our grasp.

I experienced that same feeling again this week, thanks to Google's Street View UK. One of the 22 British cities to be faithfully photographed in every detail was Belfast, where I once lived as a boy and where I still have numerous relatives. My grandparents had a house on an estate in East Belfast until their death in 2007, and thanks to Google -- whose camera car stopped about four feet from the back gate -- I could see that the new owners of the house were renovating it from top to bottom. I was also easily able to track other changes to the neighbourhood: I noticed that the kind of grants given by various official bodies to the community tended to result in the creation of ostentatious signs and memorials, for example, even while the main street continued to wither away and die for lack of entrepreneurial activity. I remember the Newtownards Road of only twenty years ago as being a hub of thriving small businesses such as groceries, chemists, and newsagents, but unsurprisingly the extinction of the major local industry of shipbuilding resulted in a terrible blight that is evident from the numerous boarded- up and burnt- out storefronts.

There was one small sign of hope, which was that an actual office building was being constructed in the area at the time Google took its pictures. The neighbourhood is located only about a half- mile or so away from downtown Belfast, so from an economic perspective it isn't surprising that firms are beginning to consider moving there, but to someone like me who knows the local people and their ways it almost seemed as if an advanced alien civilization was constructing a distant and beleaguered outpost on a primitive planet. While the development is promising, it's not likely that many local people would yet have the professional or even social skills necessary to work in such a place.

The oddest thing about the Street View journey was the sensation of being able to move at will through my old neighbourhood while remaining stationary, and at a distance of thousands of miles. It was one of the first times that the endlessly over- hyped phrase "virtual reality" began to have any meaning for me at all. This is a truly revolutionary thing, to be able to travel and to explore a place from far away -- and after any session with Street View, I came away feeling as if I had actually been somewhere else for that time; all the while I felt the sensation, familiar to travellers, of having to adjust to new surroundings! Thanks to Google, the world has just become that much smaller again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

State of nature

Environmentalism being the dominant secular ideology of our age, its prejudices and preconceptions are always worth challenging wherever they are found. One of the ideas frequently put forth by Green thinkers -- and recently repeated by an in- house philosopher on Canada's CBC Radio -- is that Western societies are somehow unique in being responsible for environmental degradation because of Christianity's views about nature. We can assume from its mainstream exposure that this isn't a very controversial idea; but what does it really mean?

It's true that, according to the Biblical account, God commanded that man have "dominion" over all the earth in the book of Genesis, and that subsequent Christian thinkers saw nature as having fallen at the same time as Adam and Eve, who were supposed to have inhabited a perfect Creation. Environmentalists conclude from this that Christians have never had any reason either to respect nature or to have refrained from exploiting it mercilessly.

There are numerous problems with this. Most glaring is the historical fact that the two states in which pollution and the destruction of the environment have been most marked have not been Christian at all. The Soviet Union was officially atheist, and it gave us (among many other things) the disgraceful legacy of Chernobyl and the disappearing Aral Sea; while today China -- which is either Communist or Confucian in its values, depending on who you believe -- is happily blighting its landscape to an almost unimaginable degree. Neither of these societies have taken their inspiration from the Book of Genesis. But both have manifested to an extreme the desire to act on an impulse that is not Christian but simply human, which is the desire to make the best of living in what is essentially a cruel world.

It's naturally true that Nature is not "fallen" in some theological sense; Christians were always wrong to say this, not only because it was unclear how or why the Fall of Man would have altered the rest of God's creation beyond recognition, but also because that Creation itself was always so plainly hostile to man in the way it was designed. Even if the lion were destined to one day lie down with the lamb, there was no reason for the lion to be so swift on his haunches and powerful in his jaw unless he had been created to eat smaller, slower animals. Where the Christians were right, however, was in believing that nature was irredeemably hostile to mankind now, and that this would always be the case until the end of the world. It is difficult for affluent modern Westerners -- who unsurprisingly make up the vast majority of environmentalists -- to appreciate this simple fact, since they are insulated by advances in medicine and technology, or even by simple geography, against the crueller ravages of what the natural world has to offer: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, infectious diseases, large predatory animals, and so on. Our ancestors knew all of these dangers well, and so do many of the world's poor today.

The rejection of the Christian idea of dominion of nature is supposed to lead us to the opposite conclusion, which is that man is just one animal out of many and that we have no more right to exist than any other. But this is inconsistent with scientific perspective. Environmentalists may oppose the building of a subdivision on the grounds that it will disturb the habitat of (say) a particular rodent or bird. But to deny the human being his habitat in favour of that of the animal is to give the priority to the animal, which is not the same as treating the human and the animal equally. And besides, it is a uniquely human trait to assign an objective value to another species and to worry about its continued existence. God knows that the antelope isn't concerned about the continued existence of the cheetah, and anyway if the antelope could express an opinion on the matter at all we can easily guess what it would say.

In practice all of us, whether allegedly eco- conscious or not, behave much less sentimentally when it comes to the matter of our own personal survival: we have almost entirely eradicated the smallpox virus, for example, in the selfish interests of guaranteeing our own longevity, and many of us also have no qualms about eradicating unborn human beings if they pose the slightest threat to our peace of mind. Even in our daily interaction with others, the vast majority of us have no problem with the idea of ruthless competition with other people. One can only conclude that in the vast majority of cases our alleged humanitarianism is a sham, and that our sentimentality about nature is only a flimsy cover for our contempt for human beings. --Even Hitler, they say, was very fond of his dog.

No Love

The saddest thing about this story is that so few people are going to be surprised or concerned by it. A citizen of a modern Western democracy is facing his fourth arrest simply for speaking his mind, and the fact that he is a probable white supremacist with a fondness for ugly shirts doesn't make it any less alarming. Canadians are apparently only permitted to express their opinions at the sufferance of the government: say something unkind or unpopular enough and you will be punished for it by the State. Well, this is no more than we deserve. Censorship is an inevitable outgrowth of self- righteousness, and self- righteousness is the defining Canadian sin. Most of us are quite happy to point our fingers at other people and characterize them as intolerant, which is how we justify our refusal to tolerate them. The idea that anyone could say the same thing about us has never even crossed our minds. But the prosecution of so- called hate speech is now increasingly moving beyond fringe targets like Brad Love, and setting its sights on more mainstream figures. Once you normalize punishing people for "hate", you only have to expand the definition of "hate" in order to silence all inconvenient dissent.

Incidentally, it would have been nice for Canada's paper of record to have told us just what it was in Brad Love's speech that warranted his being dragged away in handcuffs by eight (!) officers. The article said vaguely that Love spoke of "black crime", but what exactly does this mean? If he were only making the observation that young black men commit a disproportionate share of urban crimes, he'd only be referring to an unfortunate statistical fact -- a fact which is incidentally often repeated by leaders in the black community who want to see that situation improve. Or did Love perhaps baselessly speculate that black people are genetically disposed to commit crime? It'd be at least some small consolation to know that Love was arrested for a falsehood rather than for a fact, but the Globe and Mail didn't seem to think that distinction worth mentioning at all. (And note that they disabled comments for the story as well! O delicious irony...)

Unnatural selection

The endless petty controversies in Canadian politics remind me of the old joke about student politics being so bitter because absolutely nothing real is at stake. Ours is still a small country whose importance on the world stage is minimal, but you'd never know it from the degree of partisan rancour found in the House of Commons every day, and in other fever swamps such as the Comments section of the Globe and Mail.

The latest storm in a teapot concerns whether or not the Conservative Minister of Science, Gary Goodyear, believes in evolution or not. Now, making fun of Christians is like shooting fish in a barrel for the mainstream Canadian media, whose sympathies almost always lie with the opposition Liberals anyway. This particular inquiry would be justified if Goodyear's beliefs were at all relevant to his ability to do his job, but there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. Goodyear is more likely being targetted for political reasons because of his preference for funding for applied rather than "pure" research.

I can't help but sympathize with creationists, for two reasons. One is that most of them are victims of poor science education in our schools. In most cases, they haven't been presented with enough information to reach an informed conclusion, so they've reverted by default to whatever they were taught at home. The other reason is that they are unfairly and selectively criticized for doing something which the vast majority of Canadians indulge in, which is holding irrational beliefs. If you were to add together all the believing Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, New Age- enthusiasts, Native spirituality adherents, Gaia devotees, and Toronto Maple Leaf fans, you'd have very few people in this country left over who could consider themselves to be perfect rationalists -- especially if those people had ever done something so foolish and ultimately unexplicable in their life as to fall in love or attach special significance to a material object such as a wedding ring or family heirloom. It is simply impossible for human beings to be logical and reasonable all the time. This doesn't mean that we ought to excuse superstition and sloppy thinking - quite the opposite; we should go after them with all of our energies, especially when they have dangerous consequences for others, but at the same time we should recognize that most beliefs don't have dangerous consequences, and we should also have the humility to remember that we ourselves are not perfect.