Why Are We Doing This, Again?

As the worst drought in over a half century took its toll, investors went on a buying spree, boosting corn prices by more than 50 percent from late May to fresh record highs above $8 per bushel. The U.S. government on Friday released fresh crop data that revealed shocking cuts for this year's grain and oilseed output as the drought spread through America's breadbasket.
So, the obvious response is to stop putting the stuff into gasoline, right? I mean, E10 -- that is, the gas blend that contains ten-percent-ethanol -- is incredibly destructive to small engines, and it's driving food prices up at a time when grain prices are already ruinously high. There's just no excuse for continuing our current policy.

Naturally, then, we'll be making a change in that policy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require all consumers to buy at least four gallons of gasoline from certain gas pumps after the new E15 ethanol-gasoline blend is introduced into the market.
Of course. I should have known that would be the solution.

The Limits of Theory

Much of the liberal arts has, for some time now, been dominated by what is sometimes called "theory" -- that is, one of several modes of interpretation that starts with several assumptions and then applies them to reality.    Several famous modes are Marxist theory, Freudian theory, and Feminist theory.  The intent is to generate insight into the mechanisms behind observed reality, but since you are assuming the mechanisms, the quality of the insight you generate is limited by the degree to which your assumptions are correct.

A glaring example Paul Strom's article "Mellyagant's Primal Scene," (available in The Norton Critical Edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, p. 894).  The whole article is an extended attempt to apply one of Freud's theories about the effect on a child of witnessing his parents engaged together to a scene in Malory's work that involves neither children nor an actual witnessing of any such engagement.  The result is pathetic. There is no reason to believe that Freud's theory is correct applied to other cultures; nor to different centuries; nor that a theory pertaining to a child can inform the reaction of an adult; nor that a theory built around the child/parent relationship should apply to cases of unrelated adults; nor that a theory about witnessing sex in progress captures the reaction of discovering some evidence of sex having happened at another time. In point of fact, there really is no evidence that Freud's theory holds even for all children living in his own time and culture. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Dr. Strom's article in the Norton Critical Edition shows how much academia is captured by this approach.  It's a masterful example of the genre, even if it generates misapprehension and misunderstanding rather than insight.

There's another good example linked by Arts & Letters Daily today in a book review by one Sara Wheeler, apparently a feminist theorist.  She is reviewing a book on penal codes related to sexuality, and relates a few examples and then her general complaint:
The supposed Enlightenment transition from religion to reason was patchy: in 1806 England hanged more sodomites than murderers, while fear of masturbation reached such a climax in Germany that men caught at it had their foreskins tied shut over their members and held fast with iron rings.
The very next paragraph begins:
What all this amounts to, in most of the human cultures that have ever existed, is the male fear of and wish to subjugate women. I would have liked Berkowitz to spell this out.
Apparently the irony of the remark was lost on her and her editors, if any.

What is also lost is the sense that the theory isn't adequate to the reality being encountered. This is not to say that codes regulating sexuality never have to do with a wish to subjugate women; but the assumption that they always or mostly do is an assumption being brought by the theory. These should stand as counterexamples to the sufficiency of the theory as a mode of understanding human sexuality. It may be that a more complex set of assumptions is needed: it may even be that the assumptions need to be revised.

Bailout Nation

President Obama wants to repeat the auto bailout: "I want to do the same thing with manufacturing jobs, not just in the auto industry, but in every industry."

That's a great idea, Mr. President. Have I told you about my horses*** manufacturing business?

That idea will fit right in around here.

Socrates and De Charny on Friends and Enemies

The Arms of Geoffoi de Charny

Geoffroi de Charny was one of the greatest knights of France, a bold adventurer who features prominently in the chronicles of Froissart. He was a member of the Order of the Star, and was chosen to bear the sacred banner of France at Poitiers. He died with it in his hands.

He also composed a serious work of ethics, from the perspective of a knight trying to explain to other knights and men-at-arms the best way to live. He makes an argument about friendship, and relations with enemies, that ought to interest us.
There is a supreme rule of conduct required in these good men-at-arms as the above-mentioned men of worth inform us: they should be humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful toward those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies, pleasant and amiable with all others.... Love and serve your friends, hate and harm your enemies, relax with your friends, exert yourself with all your strength against your foes. You should plan your enterprises cautiously and you should carry them out boldly.
He goes on to warn against quarrels, so we may take 'enemies' here to be enemies of the deadly serious sort. There were enough of them for any man in the Hundred Years War.

Recently we considered an argument that questioned whether it was possible to accept an account of patriotism as a virtue, given that it was not universal as many philosophers believe justice ought to be. The good doctor referred us to The Republic, which is supposed to challenge the idea of in-group loyalty. The men who lived in Athens at and after the time of the Peloponnesian War, though, also had real enemies and real friends: this audience understands the proposition. Socrates' arguments are problematic, and I'm not sure that he should be read as undermining the idea he is taken by moderns to criticize.

Socrates' first argues not that it is wrong to be more interested in helping your friends than your enemies, but it doesn't make any sense to say that justice is the art of 'helping friends and harming foes.' But Socrates has set us up, by portraying justice as a kind of skill -- techne, in the Greek. If justice were 'the skill of helping friends and harming enemies,' then Socrates' argument would be right: justice would be of little use, since the actual power to cause help or harm is always found in other skills. Justice isn't a skill, though: it's a disposition. The just man is disposed to use your skills for the help of your friends and the harm of your foes.

Socrates goes on to prove that justice is theft. Again we see the skill/disposition problem, though. It is true that the same skill is involved in knowing how to keep money from being stolen, and knowing how to steal it. Justice doesn't lie in the skill, though, but in the disposition of the man who employs the skill. The difference between the just man and the thief is how he is disposed to use the skills that he has.

Both of these objections are answered by Aristotle's system of ethics, whereby virtues are not skills but a kind of habitual response to a kind of problem. This is to say that Socrates is treating a man as having skills, of which justice is one; but Aristotle adds the layer of a man having character. There is a reason you can trust the good guard, but not the thief, even if their skills are just the same. The virtue of justice is part of the character of the one man, while the other one is vicious.

Socrates, though, has another set of arguments that are more troubling. First he asks who our friends and enemies are:
S: By friends and enemies do we mean those who are so really, or only in seeming?

P: Surely, he said, a man may be expected to love those whom he thinks good, and to hate those whom he thinks evil.

S: Yes, but do not persons often err about good and evil: many who are not good seem to be so, and conversely?

P: That is true....

S: Then I suppose that we ought to do good to the just and harm to the unjust?
Here there is another problem, which is that the definition of justice has become circular. Justice is helping the just and harming the unjust; 'the just' are defined as those who help the just and harm the unjust; 'the unjust' are defined as those who fail to help the just and harm the unjust. So how do I know whom to help? It can't be that I pick the man who helps everyone, unless no one is unjust: for failing to harm the unjust makes him unjust, and so I have a duty to harm him.

Socrates goes on to argue that harming anyone makes him less just, and thus that the just would only help. In practical fact, of course, that isn't true; punishments sometimes do reform, or at least dissuade. But it's also a logical problem even on his own terms. Say someone goes about harming everyone. That makes those people less just. I have a duty to harm the unjust; thus, everyone who was a victim of the first person is a more legitimate target of harm from me simply by virtue of being a victim.

There is a sort-of hope that we might be able to lift people up by doing better by them than they deserve. If we always help (and if the assumption were true that helping people makes them more just), we could ratchet our way up to justice meaning helping everyone because everyone is just. Of course, in practical fact, it's not true: but again, logically, if I help someone who is unjust I am not being just according to the standard, and my choosing to be unjust damages me. I become less just (and thus more worthy of harm, by everyone) because of my act of charity.

Ultimately, then, Socrates' arguments do what Socrates loved to do -- they raise problems for you to struggle with. Socrates isn't proposing an answer, he's making you question the assumptions in the hope that you will come to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Notice, though, two things:

1) In his earlier arguments, Socrates doesn't abandon the idea of an in-group morality: we are to help our friends and harm our enemies. The question is merely whether justice helps us do this.

2) Likewise, in the later passages, there is an in-group morality: the distinction between 'the just' and 'the unjust' is still there. Unfortunately, the circularity of the definition, and the misapprehension of justice as a skill, gives rise to logical problems that confuse the discussion.

We learn more of practical worth by reading de Charny, but we learn more about how to think -- and how to avoid the traps of thought -- by reading Plato. Both things are worthy. As de Charny says:
Refrain from remonstrating with fools, for you will be wasting your time, and they will hate you for it; but remonstrate with the wise, who will like you the better for it.
Socrates was like that: he loved no man better than the one who would argue with him.

LawDog on Satwant Singh Kaleka

The LawDog Files explains a bit more about the character of this good man, and also a little about just why he was at such a disadvantage when it came time to do his duty. (H/t: D29)
One of the tenets of the Sikh religion is that adherents must carry on their person a knife, called a Kirpan. The Kirpan is a reminder that the carrier should have the courage to defend all those who are persecuted or oppressed.

In our enlightened, politically-correct times, however, this has caused some problems. The blade -- traditionally between six inches and three feet in length -- seems to be "intimidating" in the Age of the Common Man, and thus has been variously legally required to be "less than four inches", or blunted, or even sealed inside of its scabbard with glue.

I mention this because initial reports state that when Evil presented itself in his place of peace and began to slaughter those of his flock, 65-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka did his level best to punch the ticket of the decades-younger murderer with what the Media has described as a "butter knife" -- a blunted blade, less than four inches in length.
I have long advocated -- and in Georgia, successfully -- for the extension of weapons carry laws to knives. In spite of that, it's rarely the case that a state with 'shall-issue' permits for handguns has the same approach to its knife laws.

The Sikhs have an additional problem, which is that their universal duty means that they run afoul of 'special places' laws. For example, in Georgia, it is illegal to carry a weapon, even with a permit, into "a place of worship." That law is ill-advised on its face, but it's especially terrible in the case of a Sikh temple. It criminalizes the performance of their duty in the very place most consecrated to the way of life that solemnizes the duty. Presumably the police could drop by every weekend and round up the whole congregation unless they comply with this pretense, and carry "symbolic" knives instead of real ones.

The state legislature won't be in session again until next year, but let's undertake to repair this injustice. Asking them to make do with symbols instead of the real thing is disrespectful of a highly honorable faith, and it may have cost a very good man his chance to stop an act of murder. He gave his life trying, but with the proper tool he might have succeeded.

Bounty of Summer

I spent most of today on food. In spring and early summer you lay away firewood for the next winter; in late summer you lay away food. We usually hang strings of peppers to dry, and we freeze many things, but this year I decided to try canning as well.

I made up a bit more than a gallon and a half of salsa and chipotle sauce, and canned a few stewed tomatoes and peppers as well. If the seals are good tomorrow, I'll make a bunch more.

We're also getting pears off the trees we planted for the first time this year. The trees still look like sticks after two years in the ground, but they've begun to produce.

My apple trees are still not producing, but someday! We'll have cold-pressed cider, and apple pies, and apple jelly and butter.

This is what I made the wife for dinner. It's just a garden-fresh stuffed pepper with a bunch of red chili and pico de gallo, but she thought it presented nicely and wanted you to see it.

The Fortress of Saladin

Time has a series of photos from famous castles located in Syria, near where the fighting is ongoing, including one belonging to Saladin and visited by T. E. Lawrence.

Earlier this spring, rebels based in Krak des Chevaliers descended to destroy a loyalist fortification. The kind of building where the loyalists were holed up will be familiar to any of you who went to Iraq.

Hey, Here's a Song Ya'll Know

Everybody knows George Thorogood.

But just for the record...

That's a familiar character, is it not? In fact, by now, you even know which Hank Williams that one was.

Let's Hear Some Mormon Jokes

Allahpundit writes on the new Obama campaign ad:
They won’t attack [Romney] for being Mormon (I hope), so calling him a murderer will have to do.... You know what’s really interesting about this spot? It’s not even a health-care ad. It’d be sleazy under any circumstances, but there’d at least be a concrete policy angle if Burton was selling it as an argument for, say, single-payer, to decouple insurance from employment. He’s not. There appears to be no actual policy argument here at all, unless The One now opposes layoffs on principle, for fear that someone somewhere might be left without insurance.
The policy argument doesn't need to be explicit, I think: decoupling employment from insurance is clearly going to happen under Obamacare. As Dad29 was pointing out the other day, it's clear from the way the incentives and penalties are structured that the real desire is that employers should drop coverage, putting people on the public (i.e., government run) exchanges. Otherwise, how do you make sense of the fact that dropping coverage for all employees nets you a $2,000 annual penalty, but it's a $35,600 fine per employee per year if you fail to provide free birth-control, including sterilization and abortifacients?

The complexity of the regulations and the scale of the penalties will make compliance expensive even for those without moral objections -- especially as HHS appears to believe it has been given a free hand to revise the mandated requirements at any time. You can hire lawyers and accountants to keep you in compliance, risking massive fines if you should miss something; or you can pay $2,000 total and opt out for the year.

Just a cost of doing business, that.

As for attacking Mormonism, coincidentally Adam Gopnik just finished a piece for the New Yorker on the history of Mormonism. The upshot of the piece is that Mormonism is clearly a fraud perpetrated by an unstable madman, has weird doctrines, and was imposed in Utah through extreme brutality including the massacre of a large number of innocents who had accepted safe passage from Brigham Young's riders. We learn that it was so dangerous that the US Army was called out to quell it, avoiding war only because the Mormons surrendered key doctrines of their faith.

However, the piece concludes, all is well now because the Mormons sold out. Having left off pursuit of the stranger aspects of their faith for pursuit of vast, vast wealth, they are no longer the danger to society that once they were.

'But hey!' the piece concludes: religions selling out for money is a good thing. The Mormons are role models for the rest of you, who ought to sell out your values like they did. That brings us back around to the business about the huge fines and the contraception mandate, after all.

I'd assume that the timing was coincidental, except Mr. Gopnik explains that it isn't:
It’s only later in the cycle of integration that the group comes banging on the door—as Jews and Catholics did, in the nineteen-fifties—for more general admission, not as cardboard stage-ethnic types good at one or two things but as people available to do everything, just like the ruling Wasps. That’s when everyone starts asking what it is these people really believe.
As he goes on to point out, his piece is not alone: in addition to "four scholarly books" on the history, there are a ton of "Mormon jokes" and "a Mormon-themed Broadway show" engaging the attention of New York City right now.

Now, I haven't heard any Mormon jokes. Religious jokes can be funny, if they're in the right spirit. Are they?

Money in Politics

The AJC describes the state of the race for the Georgia 9th Congressional District in an article entitled "Money frames a mountain vs. tea party race in the 9th."

The thing is, neither the mountains nor the Tea Party have much money. The recent T-SPLOST victory in Atlanta was fought by the Tea Party with a budget of around fifteen grand. Their opponents spent millions lobbying for it. When the spirit of the times is on your side, though, sometimes you don't need a lot.

The figures here are on the same scale. I don't think the money will matter, really: I'm not sure how much money really does matter in politics. Remembering the Wisconsin runoffs, it was never possible to determine just how much each side had really spent, and how much of an advantage either side had -- but the final vote totals were almost precisely the same as the vote totals from the previous election (i.e., the recall didn't change any minds; people voted the same way the second time). Likewise, we've seen unprecedented expenditures from the Obama campaign designed to demonize their opponent, but the needle on Romney hasn't moved very much. The people who were going to vote for him are still going to vote for him, and I am not sure all that many people exist who are both genuinely undecided, and interested enough to turn up on Election Day.

It may be that we have vastly overestimated the capacity of political advertising to change peoples' minds. I tend to think they vote their interests and personal values; and that's why I'll be voting for Dan Collins in the runoff. He's mountain-born, carries the endorsement of the last politician in America I truly respect, he's a former military chaplain and he spent time in Iraq. I think he'll serve with honor.

I think Zoller's a good candidate too, though; she's a firebrand and a Tea Party activist. We need all of those we can get. Even so, my sense of what I want is pretty set. I don't think they can move the needle on me with a slick ad, not even when the needle would only have to be moved a little bit. This causes me to believe that, more than we admit, people usually do what they want to do no matter how persuasive you are.

Civil War Buff Disarms Knife-Wielding Robber

So says the headline... but note that they mean the English Civil War.
Mr Thompson, a member of the Sealed Knot, grabbed the robber’s hand and dragged him over the shop counter. The grandfather wrenched the knife from the man’s hand and then pinned him to the counter while the shopkeeper dialled 999.

During the brawl, the masked robber drew a second knife – but Mr Thompson disarmed him again before pinning him to the floor and waiting for police.
Well done, Cavalier.

Against Hedonism, or, Why Happiness Does Not Equal Pleasure

Here is a good popular reading of why hedonistic ethics and politics must fail -- including modern utilitarian ethics and political thought.  You can maximize pleasure, maybe; maybe you can even structure a plan that maximizes pleasure for a group of people, given a level of resources.

What you can't do is plan to maximize happiness, because it's not that kind of a thing.  As Aristotle says, and rightly, happiness is an activity -- it is the particular activity of fully engaging your virtues in the pursuit of excellence.  As such the question 'are you happy?' does not especially relate to the question 'how many resources do you have?', beyond a lower boundary that gives you adequate nutrition, etc., to ensure that you have the physical capacity to pursue excellence.

All virtues require developing good habits and good training, but there is also a certain amount of capacity that either is or is not inborn.  By the way, the Greek word he mentions -- eudaimonia -- doesn't quite mean 'having a good guiding angel.'  A daimon is not exactly an angel:  it is a kind of spirit, one that the Greeks metaphorically said rode on  your shoulder:  that is, you couldn't see it, looking forward.  Other people could see your daimon, and could tell whether it was a good one or a bad one, but not you.

There is some wisdom in this.  We fail to be able to discern whether distant people are happy -- rich and famous people should be, shouldn't they? -- but we are often able to help people we know well to see that they are happier than they realized.  In fact, it is in relating to others that we do discover how happy we are:  what really matters is not our internal sensation of pleasure or cheerfulness, but the relationships we build with others whom we love, respect, or honor.  That is the field in which we best express our virtues, and thus the field in which we are most likely to discover how happy we can really be.

Customer Service

Two weeks ago I ordered some motorcycle parts. They were shipped on the first of August, with a note that they would arrive in one to three days. In fact they arrived today, in the following package:

I can't imagine why the Postal Service is having so much trouble with its competition.

UPDATE: ...and unsurprisingly, one of the parts -- a headlight replacement bulb -- was broken.  Beautiful.

A Workman Is Worthy of his Hire

Apparently doctors consider themselves workmen, too. Having paid for their own educations and insurance, they resent being dragooned into working below their rate.
Decker finds a positive correlation between Medicaid reimbursement rates and how many providers accept Medicare. In Wyoming and Alaska – largely rural states that pay Medicaid providers about 50 percent more than Medicare reimburses – the vast majority of providers accept Medicaid. In New Jersey – where reimbursement is the lowest – only about 30 percent say they’ll take new patients.
Why is this important? Part of the new health care law is expanding Medicaid. In states with lower reimbursement rates, however, more private doctors simply refuse to play along.

Which states would those be?
As Avik Roy pointed out a few weeks ago, states with Democratic governors actually tend to have lower reimbursement rates.
What? Why?
Faced with crunched budgets, some have chosen to cut provider payment rather than reduce services.
So, faced with crunched budgets, the states have chosen to cut the doctors' pay per Medicaid client. They are shocked to find that doctors are unwilling to accept such clients when they could work for people who pay the full rate.

This is what the death spiral looks like. Expand social welfare, and costs rise. Costs rising leads to budget cuts. Budget cuts lead to fewer doctors being willing to participate in the social welfare system. This results in political pressure on the politicians to force the doctors to participate...

...and that's surely the next step here. Expect it when you see it.

By the way, what does it mean for the health care law if the Republican states refuse to fund the exchanges, and the Democratic states can't afford to pay doctors for the Medicaid expansion?

Bearing True Faith

Temple President Satwant Singh Kaleka, killed trying to tackle and restrain yesterday's gunman. Here was one who understood the kirpan.


A great name for a space probe, Curiosity landed on Mars either yesterday or this morning depending on where you live.

NASA seems pleased. It looks like they got the old Babylon 5 folks to do their graphics.

The Fiscal Cliff

"The Fiscal Cliff" is what the New York Times calls what we usually call the union of Taxmageddon and Sequestration. However, it happens that the NYT is in favor of both higher taxes and massive cuts to defense programs (although it largely wants to see that spending redirected into "investments," i.e., other kinds of government spending). So where are we on this, in their reading?
Until recently, the loudest warnings about the economy have come from policy makers and economists, along with military industry executives who rely heavily on the Pentagon’s largess and who would be hurt by the government reductions.

But more diversified companies like Hubbell Inc. in Shelton, Conn., have begun to hunker down as well.

Hubbell, a maker of electrical products, has canceled several million dollars’ worth of equipment orders and delayed long-planned factory upgrades in the last few months, said Timothy H. Powers, the company’s chief executive. It has also held off hiring workers for about 100 positions that would otherwise have been filled, he said.

“The fiscal cliff is the primary driver of uncertainty, and a person in my position is going to make a decision to postpone hiring and investments,” Mr. Powers said. “We can see it in our order patterns, and customers are delaying. We don’t have to get to the edge of the cliff before the damage is done.”
So if we don't solve the problem, we get a renewed recession; if we do 'solve the problem,' it means increased deficits because we can only 'solve' it by agreeing to smaller tax cuts and redirected spending.

Seems like I've heard this story before.

On the Occasion of a Sikh Massacre

There are few religions in the world that I admire more than the Sikh faith. These are my brothers, at least in one of their most sacred concepts.
[A]ll baptised Sikhs (Khalsa) must wear a kirpan [sword or dagger] at all times....

The kirpan is both a defensive weapon and a symbol. Physically it is an instrument of "ahimsa" or non-violence. The principle of ahimsa is to actively prevent violence, not to simply stand by idly whilst violence is being done. To that end, the kirpan is a tool to be used to prevent violence from being done to a defenseless person when all other means to do so have failed.
It is a shame that none of them were able to bring the kirpan to its proper use today. Perhaps we shall learn that some of the fallen were trying. In any case, they are a fine and noble people, and I am terribly sorry for their loss.

News That Was Obvious Twenty Years Ago

Social Security? Not such a great deal after all, and it's only going to get worse.

Of Course It Would Have to be John

All US Presidents but one are cousins of King John of England. You remember King John?

The song isn't very good history, really: John not only was the first King John of England, he was the last one. The "mom" he allegedly calls for was Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is the consolation prize: if all our Presidents are related to John, they're also related to her, and to his brother, Richard the Lionheart.

Still, good history or not, the song does bear a certain similarity to current events...

Stand up

Grim's post about the Incas reminded me that I hadn't been over to "The Bleat" in a long time.  I find his little daughter has grown up considerably.  Today they're discussing a recent film expert poll that places "Vertigo" over "Citizen Kane," but the consensus of many of his readers is that "Casablanca" is better.

It's not an art film, nor subtle.  Just a perfect thing of its kind.  It's the prodigal son: "for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found." This is the first scene in which the surviving spark of humanity in Rick begins to flare up again. At the same time, you see in Ilsa's face why the story can't finish up with her leaving her husband. How many passionate love stories end with the lovers deciding to part rather than do wrong, and yet without painting them as tragic figures beaten down by their restrictive culture?

Notice how the tune of "Die Wacht am Rhein" meshes harmonically with "The Marseillaise," so that the conflict doesn't just sound like Charles Ives noise. Music, courage, and love. The Nazis banging away on the piano like robots are Jewish actors who had recently escaped Europe.