Saturday, April 28, 2012

Meaingless metric

Here's a pretty amusing piece from the permanently bullish Keynesians over at CNBC:

Friday's gross domestic product report confirmed what a drag government can be: While consumer spending grew at a 2.9 percent clip, state and local governments cut back spending by 1.2 percent on an annualized basis and the federal government pulled back by 5.6 percent.

As a result, the GDP number showed just a 2.2 percent improvement. The report disappointed economists, some of whom had the number as high as 3 percent and beyond, and cast an uncertain future on a stock market dependent on Federal Reserve stimulus for growth.

Thus is revealed the inherent meaninglessness of GDP.  Our economy would have grown more had the government only spent more on, well, anything.  Bombs, bridges to nowhere, pyramids: all increase GDP and therefore help the economy, at least according to the metric.

The problem with GDP is twofold: it gauges production without regard to usefulness.  In the private sector, utility is factored in to some degree, because a company that manufactures goods which it cannot sell will quickly go out of business.  Sometimes, as with the housing bubble, this takes a long time to play out, and the consequences are troubling, but a GDP that reflects bubble activity will, sooner or later, come down to earth. 

Roughly the same is true of government spending, but over a much larger time frame.  The Department of Energy, to take but one example, was started by President Jimmy Carter to insure Americans would no longer be dependent on foreign energy.  Clearly, the department has failed in its mission, yet money spent on bureaucratic parasites still appears, in GDP, as growth.  That it is not so should be obvious; the only reason the department exists is because there is still a private sector that produces useful goods and services.  Hence, to describe the government as a parasite is not a cheap slight, but an accurate description.

The second problem with GDP, or rather, with the attempt by Keynesians to ensure the government spends more money so as to boost the meaningless metric, is that money spent by government displaces spending--or saving--that would have taken place in the private sector.  Now, Keynesians argue that during a recession, there is a gap in aggregate demand that, as it is not being met by the private sector, must be filled by the Government.  Yet this conclusion only holds if we believe that the people cannot be trusted to do what they will with their money, and that only an interventionist State prevents the people from falling into penury.  The central paradox here is that while the State does not trust its citizenry from making the right purchases, it believes that it does not ultimately matter on what the money is spent, so long as it contributes to GDP.

It's becoming apparent that the American economy is at risk of falling back into recession.  Since this is an election year, Obama, with the help of Bernnake, will do everything he can to goose the metrics so as to prove to people that the recovery is going along swimmingly.  Yet the more the government spends, the less remains for the private sector to do the necessary job of clearing goods and services to restore health to this economy.  This truth remains, however much the GDP is sent upward through dubious stimulus programs.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The national leveling

Ilana Mercer offers her take on the dismissal of John Derbyshire with her customary aplomb:

The volume of bad writers safely ensconced in high places, and their voluminous, vapid output strengthened this conviction:

More so than enforcing conformity – ousting John was about safeguarding the future of mediocrity.

There was more to it than that, but this angle has been insufficiently explored. Derb is a good writer in an age that conspicuously lacks his equal. We prefer our pundits, not to prod us into reexamining something in a different light, but to reinforce our own biases. So smug hipsters tune into to the Daily Show to be reminded that the Republicans are stupid. And conservatives watch hours of Fox News to be assured that the Democrats are still evil. Derb is a creature of the right, but he was more than a GOP booster, which is more than can be said for many of his former colleagues at NR.

As Mercer also observes:

I want to see a lot of well-written, wickedly witty, controversial writing in print – in pixels or paper and always at the pleasure of the print’s owner. Why must the consensus-craving mob conflate this last wish with absolute endorsement?

We'll pause for a bit to let the pundits in the audience parse this prose.

The reason Derb's ouster is so discouraging is that he's going to be so difficult to replace. Mindless cheerleaders are a dime a dozen; subtle thinkers and good writers are rare. We cannot simply find another, less racist version, of John Derbyshire. We're more likely to be forced to endure another Meghan McCain.

Punditry's slide from well-read British gentleman to barely attractive bimbos, is a fitting metaphor for the republic, in this, its waning days.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The lynch mob gets Derb

I can't recall when I first read John Derbyshire. It was almost certainly a link to one of his pieces over at National Review's the Corner--no link, for reasons that should become clear--probably courtesy of Vox Day's blog. I was immediately impressed by such a delightful and original writer. Punditry itself isn't hard, but good punditry is very difficult. Derb's columns were always insightful and frequently funny. He's certainly one of the best in the business.

He's also, admittedly, a racist. This is a very bad thing, not quite as bad as raping children--but close. If one were compelled to be rational, one might conclude that our deep concern over racism as the singular crime, a sort of secular sin against the Holy Spirit, is out of all proportion to the problem itself. This is not to say that racism has been banished from American society, but that surely we can admit that this isn't the long hot summer of 1967. If the fact that we've elected a black president doesn't count for anything, then we should simply admit that racism is an intractable problem.

But that would leave us agreeing with Derb, and we can't have that. In his latest piece, concerning the "talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids," he advised:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

Derb has written similar things before, but for some reason, perhaps the Trayvon Martin affair, this article gained traction. The perpetually offended caused a stir, and, after stewing things over for awhile, National Review, a neo-con outfit that pays barely literate imbeciles like Kathryn Jean Lopez to lead cheers for Republican warmongers, duly severed ties with its best writer.

Without getting into the specifics of what he wrote--that way madness lies--I think the lynching of Derb is instructive in demonstrating the way the authoritarian left deals with heretics. Race relations are complicated, and anyone who seeks to speak honestly about them runs the risk of saying something that offends the high priests of egalitarianism. It is best not to mention race at all: treat it as a total fiction. However, if one must speak of it, one should simply affirm that everyone is equal in every way, and although some whites are still racist, very soon now we will become a race blind society. Derb's sin was to suggest that this narrative bears no relation to reality, that good will alone will not be enough to erect utopia, and that the sensible and peaceful solution runs closer to segregation than to integration. We cannot even consider that he may have a point. His vision is to horrid to contemplate.

There is much more to be said on this topic, but I have probably ventured too far already by refusing to disavow John Derbyshire. I'm sure he will find alternative employment, although as he is undergoing chemo treatment for cancer, this is coming at a very bad time. I wish him the very best. Punditry will be so much the worse without him.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Apologetics and scorn

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." - Martin Luther

This quote, which appears at the very beginning of C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, came to mind recently, in the context of an argument I had involved myself in on other corners of the Internet. What started as my amused observation of cowardice by the New York Times quickly turned into an erring of grievances towards the Catholic Church, with your humble narrator playing the role of the apologist for that venerable institution.

The subject of apologetics interests me greatly, partially for very personal reasons. I had drifted away from the Faith during college, before being brought back after reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. It is shameful that in all my years of Catholic education, from kindergarten through high school, I had never encountered a solid intellectual defense of Christian truth before the age of 20. But once I had been exposed to this aspect of the Church, I threw myself into the topic headlong. I still have much to learn, but in our benighted times, possessing even a modest amount of information on a topic is enough to separate oneself from the dreck masses.

Hence I find that this comparatively insignificant education I have given myself proves sufficient when dealing with most critics of the Church. Heaven knows what they are reading. Probably just Dawkins. I have found that the most elementary criticisms are leveled as if they are substantial: that faith is somehow against science, or that all the wars were religious in nature, and so on. Being able to answer these is essential in reminding our smug objectors that having read a few books does not grant them intellectual superiority. On the other hand, heaven knows how our fellow defenders are handling themselves if this sort of nonsense has not been successfully rebutted before.

Now, just because I believe I have handled myself well doesn't mean I have, in fact, done so. It is difficult to say what influence these excursions may have on others; perhaps they believe they have emerged victorious. One hopes that at the very least, some of the more pedestrian objections should be shelved, replaced by more meaningful ones.

Still, I think we err in thinking that the opposition to the Church is merely rational. This is not to say there are not honest critics of the Church, but the argument usually reveals something deeper, what Chesterton called, "the halo of hatred around the Church of God".

These charges, then, come from deep within the human breast. It isn't merely that the Church is unhelpful, but that she prevents progress by clinging to her antiquarian ways. It is not enough that Catholics apostatize, the Church must die a well deserved death. These critics really do feel harmed by the Church, and while some, notably those who have been abused by priests, deserve all the mercy we can muster, most have, thankfully, not been so harmed.

This finally brings us back to Luther, ironically enough given his own views of the Church. The heretic, too, may know wisdom, and on this point he was onto something. Apologists should seek to be charitable towards those who wish to better understand the Church, but towards those who are scornful, scorn must be returned. We must treat petty criticism with all the respect it merits: none.

This is important because the alternative is to perpetuate the fiction that humanity would be just fine without the Church, that one may take it or leave it. This is preposterous. It is a historical fact that the Church was instrumental in defending civilization from the barbarians, in carrying the torch during the dark ages until the flame would spread to light up Christendom. It is likewise a historical fact that we have two centuries during which Christendom has dropped the Faith in favor of secular dreams that have ended in nightmares. The age of apostasy is the age of the guillotine, the gas chamber and the gulag. That the world would be better off without the Church was misguided when proffered by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Now, it is worse: it is willfully ignorant.

I do not profess to know how this strategy will work in the arena, but I think it worthwhile to pursue irrespective of success. It is up to the critic to explain why his vision is any less false than those which came before him, and which his so closely resembles. Blind optimism is not enough when the stakes are so high. It is up to us to remind him of these past failures.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The spectacle of the absurd

Obama's signature healthcare law is in the news again, this time because the Supreme Court is trying to decide if certain aspects of are constitutional. Reflexively, I'd like the court to strike it down, partly because I suspect that the law is a bad one, but also because it would be hilarious. The left would become incensed at the conservative court thwarting the will of the people, while the right, suddenly triumphant, would soon realize that they no longer have much to campaign against.

But I want to look at Obamacare for another reason. An informed citizen of a republic, such as ours, ought to have opinions about the goings-on of his government. Since this is the signature piece of Obama's administration, I ought to know what I think of the bill. But I can't really know what to think of the bill because it's so preposterously long. If I had to choose a side, naturally, I'm against it, but this has more to do with base impulses--opposition to anything which increases the power of the state, assurance that such a bureaucrat's wet dream as the bill appears to be can only make things worse--than with any understanding of the law as such.

The bill in question is long--2400 pages long--and it is complicated, unnecessarily so. I am unaware of any other comparable bill of such gigantic proportions--not that I searched with any degree of thoroughness--but other bills meet the standard of needing the TL;DR tag that kids like to use. The USA Patriot Act, for instance, is comprised of 342 pages. Couldn't they have just written: All your liberties are belong to us?

I bring this up, not to mock the government through utilization of Internet memes, but because it's apparent to me that an American citizen cannot be informed of what his government is doing. To stick with our example, Obamacare may be a very good thing, and it might be a very bad thing, but I can't see how a citizen could be expected to find out. There is an argument to be made that our representatives shouldn't be in the habit of signing into laws which they have not read, but this bespeaks a naivete about the way our laws are written. No one reads these bills, unless we count the little one page protests that are never passed. Passing incomprehensible bills is how things get done: it's the American way.

It is safe to conclude that democracy, of the informed sort, is fundamentally absurd when no one knows what the State is doing, or what it is proposing to be given the power to do. The spectacle in Washington is like something out of Kafka, where Samsa wakes to find himself a Congressman. He votes like a good party man, only to find that in so doing he has imprisoned his family. Look, I'm not Kafka, but you get the point.

The second thing to realize is that since American politics have ventured so far into the realm of absurdity, one should try to minimize the effort one puts into trying to influence it. I heartily recommend that one study it, as spectacle, but to participate is a bridge too far. What on earth could be the point?

Sometime in June, the seven black robed ones will tell us whether a bill they haven't read meets the standard set by our Constitution. The rabble will be roused, channelling their energy into two men who profess different views over that same bill, neither of whom has read more than mere selections from it. One can only imagine what other curious adventures await us on the other side.