Friday, May 28, 2004

The Future?

I wonder how more men of this sort the future will bring?
The Death Knell of Democracy?

One of the arguments made at the time of the Federalist Papers was that democracy was an appropriate system of government because, even if the majority held the wrong opinion at a given time, eventually the minority who were in the right would be able to persuade enough of the majority to change their minds so as to change the policy of the country.

There are now several warning signs that such a sanguine view of democracy is breaking down. For many classes of voters, modern society is providing neither the experiences nor the incentives which would allow them to decide issues in such a way as to benefit society as a whole. Considered from the Federalist viewpoint, these voters are unpersuadable.

Recently, for example, Arnold Kling posted a compelling argument to the effect that some of the dysfunction we observe among our academic elites can be traced to the cultural segregation which exists between academicians and those actually engaged in trying to affect the world in business or government. He argues that greater exposure on the part of academics to "real world" problems of business, perhaps by working in business for a while, would lead to immensely greater understanding among theoreticians.

This reminded me of a recent post by Wretchard at the Belmont Club. He makes the point that a far tinier fraction of the population is now engaged in war compared to previous wars. This means that only a very tiny minority of the population has any idea whatsoever, from personal experience, just what a war means or how it needs to be fought. This makes the population as a whole very incompetent to make a judgement on whether a given war is going well or poorly. Historical knowledge can help somewhat to fill this lacuna but we all know how little of that there is among the citizenry these days. In a country which has civilian control of the military this leads to problems. The people who make the ultimate decisions on our wars have no rational basis on which to make them.

Both of these pundits are making the point that our policy-making abilities are being distorted because of the backgrounds of the people who are making the decisions. These people simply do not have appropriate experience. But the problem is worse.

It has been pointed out recently that Italian pensioners form an ever-larger block of voters within the Italian electorate. They are more active in politics than the general population and more likely to vote. Their agenda is to increase their own pensions at a time when the government needs for fiscal reasons to take the exact opposite tack. The trajectory for the Italian government then is to continue to bow to the pressure from these pensioners, adding to their pensions repeatedly, until the entire system goes over the cliff.

Again, we have a situation where a large block of voters is simply incapable of forming the appropriate opinion to guide the democracy in the proper direction. The failure in this case is not one of the lack of appropriate experience, but rather that the self-interest of this block of very active voters is diametrically opposed to the self-interest of the common polity.

As a final example, consider the "new class" we're developing right here in wealthy suburban American. We now have a growing class of "trust funders"--people whose sole source of income is their generous trust fund--who have never been obligated to demean themselves with any sort of work, whether it be in business, the military, government, or academia. The entire life experience of this growing class of voters is based on some assumptions which differ radically from the traditional Horatio Alger pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps American paradigm. These people know absolutely nothing about the difficulties of drawing together a disparate set of people to accomplish a task, which every businessman knows well, let alone the difficulties of trying to fight against deadly assailants hiding behind mosques and innocent women and children for their very lives, which a soldier in Falluja knows well. The life experience of the new class of trust funders consists of collecting a check each month from a source of money conveniently distant from any decision they will ever make, having lots of time on their hands, and feeling a certain amount of guilt over their position, living as they do in what is still for the most part a Protestant-work-ethic society. While one might naively believe that this new class would be extremely concerned with the welfare of those anonymous large corporations upon whose well being their very existence depends, in fact the particular combination of circumstances of their lives has led them in many cases to become extremely vocal critics of our current capitalist system. Lacking much to do on a day to day basis, most of them have learned to meet their religious needs by active involvement in Environmentalist, animal rights, and other similar movements. The uncomfortable fact that the success of many of their causes might bankrupt the very corporations on which they depend for those monthly checks does not seem to bother them, if it even occurs to them: many of them might even welcome such a development as it would force them to get a job and help them to feel better about their lives.

Can modern democracy withstand the onslaught of these multiplying blocks of voters who have no idea how to provide any of the things on which they depend? The jury is still out, but the problem does seem to be worsening.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Exit Strategy

"Looking for the exit" says Arnaud de Borchegrave.

What was the "exit" from Germany? How about the "exit" from Japan? Where's the "exit" from Kosovo?

We're all herd animals; we're all influenced by the people around us. In my town there is tremendous social pressure to ride one's bike to work and I find myself giving it serious consideration despite it's impracticality.

There seems to be a massive herd-movement among the East Coast intellectuals to abandon the Iraq war in midstream and pull back. This movement seems to be independent of ostensible political orientation. Not living on the East Coast, I am completely immune to this unseen social pressure and find it odd if not unseemly.

What could be going on here?

To some extent this reflects the "long march through the institutions" of the Vietnam generation. Many of the members of that generation are simply reliving their adolescence. As I've said before, the Central Lesson of the Vietnam War was, for many, that whenever the going gets tough all we have to do is withdraw our troops back to our own shores and everything will be fine. Is that true now?

The issue comes down to this: was this war optional? If it was, then we should never have entered it. Lives should never be thrown away on whims. If it wasn't, then there's only one "exit" possible: victory.

It has been argued, on the one hand, that Iraq is a battleground in the larger war and, on the other, that Iraq is a distraction from the war on terror. I believe that nearly everyone will agree that in al Qaeda we face an enemy unlike any other--a transnational military organization tied to no single state and yet possessing the resources and organization of a state. It is no wonder that we are confused. We have rules and procedures for dealing with "wars" with states and we have laws for dealing with criminals, but al Qaeda is neither of these.

My view is that the new Islamic terrorist movement has root causes. If we fail to deal with the root causes we can never win. Among the root causes are the endemic poverty and hopelessness of most of the Muslim tyrannies of the Middle East. Our safety demands that we deal with these cesspools, one way or the other, sooner or later. Sooner is better. One of these cesspools was in Iraq; it is now being dealt with rather efficiently.

My feeling is that most of the people now calling for "exit" from Iraq are really, subconsciously, calling for an exit from the war on terror. Subconsciously, what they really want is for the terrorists to go away. Well, who doesn't? They have convinced themselves that isolationism--let's call it by its true name--will be the sure path to safety. They have convinced themselves that an act of withdrawal from Iraq is really an act of withdrawal from the terrorist threat.

I can understand this.

The threat of random death from people whom one has never met who hate one's guts for no reason one can comprehend is a new experience for most Americans. An experience which didn't exist prior to the election of George W. Bush. We don't know how to live with this experience yet. It will take time to accomodate this new fact--the fact of instant, incomprehensible, irrational death--into our daily routines. This accomodation will be painful. It is a natural response to resist this accomodation, to believe we can avoid this pain, this horrible situation. It is natural to hope that relieving ourselves of George W. Bush will relieve us of the pain, that relieving ourselves of Iraq will relieve us of the pain.

Natural, but very very foolish.

Monday, May 24, 2004

My Distant Cousin

So it turns out that Ahmad Chalabi, the double agent savior/traitor of Iraq, is an algebraist with a degree from the University of Chicago. He's a direct mathematical descendent of Carl Friedrich Gauss, just like me. Who woulda thunk it?
Bush's Speech

The speech can be found here. To my naive eye it looked strong and sensible. It made the most of the hand that Bush holds at the moment.

Friday, May 07, 2004

I found this very moving. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

The Big R

Ok, I have to face the topic that I dread, the topic that I think about almost every day. Religion. Religion in my view underlies everything. Religion is the most important factor in studying human history and human motivation. Not religion in the formal sense. That religion seems to occupy an ever-shrinking share of Americans' activities, the worst fears of the Coastal Elites to the contrary. No, what I'm talking about is real religion, the kind of belief that really makes us tick. The thing that motivates us to roll out of bed in the morning and face that corporate world.

We humans have an enormous need, a life-consuming need, to believe that our lives are important. This is a fundamental and inalienable component of our basic makeup. We crave a sense of importance. Once our basic needs for food and sleep have been satisfied, our craving for a sense of importance may be the most important psychological drive we have.

Unfortunately, we're not important. Even the President of the United States. Or so it would seem from our current knowledge of cosmology. We're sitting on an insignificant little speck in an unimaginably enormous universe. Even from the vantage point of Jupiter the Earth is an invisible microscopic dot. From the viewpoint of our own galaxy we'd be impossible to find. Multiply that by hundreds of millions of galaxies.... And that's if you're the President. When it comes down to somebody like me....

This then is the fundamental religious dilemma: how can we gain a sense of importance when we live unimportant little lives in an indifferent world?

It doesn't matter that we are unimportant because it is the very nature of our beings that we need to feel important. Not just feel it; believe it deeply, subconsciously. Each person must find a sense of importance, a sense of destiny. This sense of importance, this sense of deciding that certain activities or thoughts or customs are the ones that really matter--that is religion. And each person has a different religion, by this definition, because each person has a sense of global importance that is tailor-made for him or her.

I hasten to point out that I wish to distinguish here between religion and mere belief-system. The difference was captured by a famous rabbi who once said that to the believer there is never a question while to the skeptic there is never an answer. I would characterize religious belief as that fundamental belief in the meaningfulness of things which is below the level of conscious thought. It consists of the unspoken and perhaps unutterable axioms upon which conscious rational thought is able to build its edifices. (It is this insight into the nature of religious belief, I imagine, which rendered it blasphemous to utter the name of God in the days of the ancient Israelites, but who knows.)

A few examples are in order. I live in a town which is filled with fanatic bikers, people who will ride their expensive exquisitely crafted bicycles in every kind of foul weather come hell or high water. When a particularly nasty day happens by, is it really necessary to ride that day? Couldn't one day be taken off the schedule? Would it really impair their exercise program? Arguably, some of the exposure they are subjecting themselves to is diminishing their health. No, the point here is that they have become convinced that riding their bike is the work of God. They have become convinced of this on a deep subliminal level. For these people, the angels sing when they ride their bikes. For them, there is never a question of not riding their bike.

Similarly, I have a friend who is extremely worried about "the Environment". He reads books on the subject continually. Two events bother him in particular. Many of his neighbors have bought single storey houses and added on an extra storey. And yards that have had all their native grasses and plants ripped out and replaced with uniform lawns of Kentucky Bluegrass are a special source of despair for him. So what if some people have Kentucky Bluegrass in their lawns you ask? But for my friend this is not a trivial matter. The angels sing when he works his crusade for species diversity in our back yards. There is never a question as to its importance.

There are those who argue that they are not religious, that religion is irrelevant to the modern world. By my belief, it is simply not humanly possible to not be religious. We all are because we all seek a sense of importance and because the human self-conscious mind is simply unable to function on a purely rational level. "Purely rational" doesn't actually make any sense, rationally, because all reasoning must proceed from assumptions. This is no other way to function. Some assumptions are explicit. It is the unvoiced, implicit ones, the religious ones, upon which all else rests.

The enormously interesting thing to an amateur anthropologist is that religious beliefs are social. My unspoken beliefs are very likely to match the unspoken beliefs of the people around me, of my tribe or group. This has the important implication that a coherent set of religious beliefs can take on a life of its own. It can "live", in essence, independently of any particular person or even small group of people. Thus we see the mainstream religion of Christianity for example passing from person to person and from place ot place, even though particular people may die or lose their faith, or entire institutions like the Catholic Church may come apart at the seems. The religion itself survives all that with ease.

This has the important implication that a religion can and does function as though it itself is an organic being. A religion can be born, can give birth to other religions, and can die. The Zend religion of Ancient Persia seems to be dead. So is the Roman religion. Judaism gave birth to Christianity, which seems to have given birth of sorts to Islam. This leads the interested observer to pursue the life-history of religion. But that must remain the subject of a separate note.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

False symmetry.

The human mind seeks symmetry. Symmetry is viewed as a form of beauty, perhaps the essential form. Studies have shown that it is the symmetry between the left and right sides of the face which causes people to be perceived as "beautiful". Symmetry seems to satisfy a deep need in the human psyche for orderliness in a disorderly world.

But is it real?

The world is complicated and cannot be grokked by anyone in its totality. The human mind seeks simplicity. We make simplifying assumptions. Symmetry, whether assumed or real, is a form of simplicity. Basic Newtonian physics starts off by assuming frictionless objects and objects that continue in their motion without ever stopping. Have you ever seen such an object? Of course not. But by slicing the Gordian knot of reality into comprehensible chunks, modern physics has been able to make unprecedented progress in human understanding.

The existence of symmetry is one of our favorite simplifications, indeed it is the study of symmetry and its breaking which underlies most modern physics.

The problem is that in our simplification through symmetrification of the world, we run the risk of falling into a grievous trap which lurks just outside our consciousness. We run the risk of mistaking our simplified version of reality for reality itself.

Take France for example. France is a "country" and the United States is a "country". There is some symmetry between them. France has a government and the United States has a government. Both governments are subject to democratic control in lesser or greater form and both governments seek to control the behavior of their citizens through the creation and enforcement of laws. Both countries have geographical territories which they possess. But here already the analogy between the two has begun to break down. The United States has numerous military bases in Germany and Japan. Are these geographical territories which the United States possesses? Are these part of the United States? Of course they are not in the traditional sense but one senses that the situation has become somewhat fuzzy. Who is subject to American law and who is not? Are the members of the United Nations? Are companies doing business in the United States?

Again, France is a member of the EU, so maybe it is the EU which is the "country" and not France?
There is more fuzziness here. Some laws which apply to the citizens of France are not made by the French government at all.

The closer the examination the more the "symmetry" between France and the United States seems to collapse. France is small, the United States is large. France is mostly full of people who have lived there for endless generations, the United States is a country of immigrants and their immediate descendants. People in France listen to traditional French music while people in the United States listen to music from all over the world. France has French restaurants, America has a cornucopia of world restaurants, even in small towns in Kansas. Most people in the United States move around repeatedly, most people in France live in their towns of birth.

The deeper one investigates the more one is compelled to admit the extreme breakdown of the alleged symmetry between the two "countries". France is a traditional country. It has an ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population. The United States, by contrast, could be better described as a stage for fulfilling ones dreams than as a country. It is a stage upon which people from every corner of the world are drawn in order to make something of themselves. One quickly realizes that the contrast between France and the United States is really an apples-and-oranges comparison. Only the most superficial traits are held in common.

This observation has nothing to do with France in particular. Exactly the same comparison could be made between the United States and Poland or the United States and Zaire, or the United States and practically any "traditional" country. Fundamentally, the nature of the United States is radically different from the nature of these other entities.

But that's not how most of us, bound as we are by language, tend to approach the situation. We want symmetry. So our thinking proceeds something like: "France and the United States are countries. France has a film industry, the United States has a film industry. Therefore the film industry of France should be roughly the equivalent of the film industry of the United States. Again, France has restaurants, the United States has restaurants, therefore the global reach of the French restaurant business should be roughly the equivalent of the global reach of the American restaurant business." And so forth. Because we see some rough similarity between the two entities we leap to the conclusion that there should be perfect symmetry between them.

And we are offended when this is not the case.

The French for example have great difficulty understanding why their efforts are not the equal of our efforts. More, they are offended by the results and their apparent inferiority by almost all measurements of economic, military, scientific, or engineering success. They are offended at the lack of symmetry. Having assumed a certain symmetry they are offended that reality does not bear out the hypothesis.

We are well-advised to avoid the disappointments of false symmetry. The world is symmetric when it is symmetric, and only then.