Socrates vs. King of Sweden; Who ya gonna call?

Rick Lowry, of the National Review, has made a short but good homage to courage and the first responders of 9-11. In it he uses a quote that made me think of all you. This merry band loves its philosophy but also knows when the time is right for picking up a sword.
The esteem with which we naturally hold physical courage is deep-seated. Musing on this, the great English literary figure Samuel Johnson said, “Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.”

I had to laugh.

Striking faculty members at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus were informed by e-mail that their health-care coverage through the university has been canceled but that they could continue coverage at their own expense under the terms of the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or Cobra.

Brian Harmon, the campus's public-relations director, said that the university stopped faculty members' health-care coverage when the strike began, on Wednesday, the first day of fall classes, because it is permissible to do so under the institution's policies on benefits. The coverage, he added, can be reestablished once the professors go back to their classrooms.

I want to see how long the strike lasts now.

Summer Fare

The Late Summer Fare:

There are an amazing number of things you can do with bay leaves. It is used in many kinds of cooking, as an astringent in bathwater, and to keep insects out of your dry goods.

Pico de gallo ("rooster's beak") is a good use of late-summer tomatoes and pepper, cilantro and spice.

Post Office

We're from the Post Office, and We're Here to Help

The Post Office's impending bankruptcy is much in the news. My husband ridicules them for their belief that the right response to a drop in their customer base is to raise prices. That would indeed be a crazy strategy if they were losing customers to direct competitors with similar price structures. The Post Office, however, is a statutorily protected monopoly. Monopolies routinely raise prices until they can cover costs, knowing that the government will keep their customers safe inside the walled compound.

The Post Office's problem, of course, is that its monopoly is not complete. It has growing competition, not only from companies like Federal Express or UPS but also from the Internet. So I wondered why it wouldn't be a good idea to let the Post Office jack up stamp prices until either they could meet their costs or they went out of business in favor of their alternatives. My husband reminded me that private couriers are required by law to charge more than the Post Office, so the Post Office's competitors never would enjoy the benefits of having their own prices begin to compare favorably with those of Uncle Sam.

Although I've often heard that the mail monopoly is a Constitutional imperative, mail delivery has not always been a government monopoly:

In the early 1800s private railroads and steamboats gave rise to private companies offering mail delivery services. The Private Express Statutes of 1845 put an end to that service between cities. Private companies still delivered within cities until the Postal Code of 1872 barred them from doing so.

Today [the article pertains to the 105th Congress and therefore presumably refers to the late 1990s] the USPS is a $55 billion per year operation employing approximately 800,000 workers. Nearly half of the mail handled by the Postal Service is advertisements. A little over 30 percent is business-to-business correspondence. Some 15 percent is household-to-business mail, that is, payment of bills. Only around 8 percent of the mail is household-to-household, such as letters and greeting cards sent between families and friends.

At present, "it is a federal crime for private suppliers to transport and deliver messages on pieces of paper or other material media and charge prices as low as those of the U.S. Postal Service."

The "Private Express Statutes" leave it to the Post Office to decide what kind of competition it will allow. In 1979 it began to allow private delivery of letters marked "extremely urgent." The private couriers must charge the greater of $3 or twice the USPS rate, so this part would have to change in order to permit true competition. There are exceptions for cargo. All exceptions to the mail monopoly are subject to stringent standards and to Post Office inspection. I was surprised to find that there are picky rules even to prohibit companies from using special message services, unless they pay postage to the USPS anyway, or unless they don't charge the recipient, though the rules permit the USPS to jack with them if "barter" or "goodwill" is detected in the process.

Have you ever wondered why the powers that be in the USPS system didn't move fast to prevent the loss of their business model to innovative data transmission systems like the telephone and the Internet? It turns out they did try, though fortunately, being bureaucrats, they were way too slow on the uptake:

The Postal Service, for example, has gone into the business of marketing prepaid phone calling cards for long-distance calls, competing with private firms. That competition of a government monopoly with the private sector is manifestly unfair. Postal facilities and assets were acquired through monopoly power. The USPS now uses those facilities and assets to compete with the private sector.

The USPS has begun renting out space in the parking lots of its post offices for the erection of commercial antennas for cellular phone transmissions and other uses. In addition to running afoul of local regulations, that constitutes more unfair competition with the private sector. The Postal Service pays no property taxes on its real estate, whereas a private provider of space for broadcast operations would be subject to taxes.

In the early 1980s the Postal Service expressed initial interest in extending its monopoly over the emerging e-mail market. Fortunately, it failed at that attempt. Now, however, it is developing services to put electronic postmarks on e-mail and to guarantee e-mail security since mail fraud and tampering are federal crimes. Yet there already are private encryption software and services. And, no doubt, as the USPS uses its federal protection to keep e-mail secure, federal regulation of e-mail will follow.

The monopoly exceptions for cargo and urgent letters have worked so well that I don't see how expanding the exceptions to include letters would do much harm. The justification for the monopoly too often turns to the question of how terrific an employer the Post Office is. It's starting to sound like just another public program that's valued for the paychecks and retirement benefits it generates rather than the function it performs.



I'm not particularly offended by the Bachmann-Zombie portrayal, but I am a bit bemused by the idea that Uzis might be the road out of this. There aren't that many Uzis, all things considered; and even if there were, the target population doesn't know how to use them.

PSYOP are meant to be a little more directly effective, gentlemen. You're supposed to be able to measure the effect of the particular message. If the best you can do is that your followers are trying to find relatively rare Israeli submachineguns that they don't know how to use anyway, you're screwing up.

South & Solz

An Angel in Tellico Plains:

I passed by a public library today, and spent some time there with the works of Lewis Grizzard. I suppose some of you don't know him, but he was a man from Georgia who used to write for the newspaper. Though he was important to me, and to many others of the South, he was a simple man who was of no consequence to most; but once he broke a lance on someone who was.

TELLICO PLAINS, TENN. -- I had been days without a newspaper, locked away in a careless world of mountains, rivers, dirt roads, and a supply of Vienna sausage and sardines and a gift for which we can never offer enough gratitude: the saltine cracker.

God bless the saltine cracker, for it is constantly loyal in its service to enhance the flavor of even the barest edible. You could eat dirt with a packet of saltine crackers on the side.

I can’t go many days without a newspaper because I can’t go many days without certain information necessary to my peace of mind.

I need to make sure the world hasn’t been blown away, and I need to keep up with the Dodgers. In this rustic village, which is located a the foot of some mountains near the Tennessee North Carolina border, I purchased a newspaper and found the world still in one piece, which is more than I could say for the Dodgers.

Interest in the Dodgers is a carryover from my youth, but must a man have to explain every quirk of his character? The Dodgers, I read, have sunk to a lowly third. And the Giants, whom I hate, are still holding to first place. So help me Junior Gilliam, my favorite all-time Dodger, that can’t last.

My companion and I needed a hot breakfast, if for no other reason than to take a brief leave from the joys of saltines. We walked into a place in Tellico Plains that was a combination beer joint and restaurant, mostly beer joint. The regulars were already at their stations. A card game of some variety was in progress, and an old man in a hat played the game with a boy-child on his knee.

"You have grits?" I asked the lady.

"No grits," she said. She was missing some teeth. "I could fix you potatoes."

Where does it say an angel must have teeth?

Over eggs and country ham and fried potatoes—the kind that are round and thin—I read the rest of the newspaper. Carter this. Carter that. All hail Proposition 13. And a bearded man had made a speech in the Harvard Yard and had said some nasty things about our country. He made the speech in his native tongue, Russian.

The man, who has never been to Tellico Plains, Tenn., said we ought to eat dirt awhile because we have become fat and too interested in material goods, like nice places to live and motorboats. He said we are suffering from a "moral poverty."

He said if he could change his country, which would put him in jail if he went back to it, he wouldn’t use our country as a model.

I finished my breakfast and the newspaper, left a nice tip for the lady and walked out on the streets of Tellico Plains.

It was a gorgeous late spring day. Just beyond the fruited plain that surrounds the village was a mountain majesty more green than purple, but stunning nevertheless.

Passing by me were simple folk, dedicated to the day’s work and the simple pleasures. Most of them, I am sure, had never heard of the Harvard Yard, much less of the bearded, exiled Russian author who spoke there.

A pickup truck passed through town, its rear bumper bearing a message I don’t entirely agree with, but one I needed at the moment. The Dodgers were going badly and what the Russian said upset me.

"America," read the sticker, "love it or leave it."

But where would you go, Mr. Solzhenitsyn? Where would you go?

Terror & Slaughter

"...With Terror And Slaughter Return."

The Western Experience notes remarks by the CEO of Deutsche Bank, along with an assessment of the cost of the breakup of the Eurozone.

It is also worth observing that almost no modern fiat currency monetary unions have broken up without some form of authoritarian or military government, or civil war.
That's an inclusive "or," I believe.

New Business

New Business:

Apparently one can become a philosophical counselor now. This sounds like a great racket, which is why there is already a certification board that offers "level 2" "full certification," just like Socrates had.

I wonder how much you make as a philosophical counselor? I'd like to know how to set my rates.


Now, If We Could Only Manufacture the World's Tiniest Violin . . . .

Nanotechnologists are learning to make machines out of single molecules. This molecule of butyl methyl sulfide anchors to a copper plate at the sulfide "axle" while a four-carbon (butyl) arm and a one-carbon (methyl) arm spin around the axle they share. Unlike previous molecular motors, which were powered by light or chemical reactions, this one is powered by electricity delivered at the point of a tiny scanning tunneling microscope. Scientists hope to line up similar molecules like cogwheels and let the whole mass of them rotate in sync. What will it be good for? We don't know yet, but someone's bound to think of something clever.

Climate and Its Uses

Climate and Its Uses

From Steven Hayward, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, at PowerLine:

The German newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung observed shortly before the Cancun summit last year: “The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.” What prompted this conclusion was a candid admission from a UN official closely involved with the climate negotiations, German economist Ottmar Edenhoffer: “But one must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy. Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore.”
Mr. Hayward was quoting from his lengthier testimony to Congress here.

The Road Not Guessed

The Road Not Guessed

How often do we guess wrong what's over the horizon?

A lonely, impoverished Samuel Morse took up his interest in a code-transmitting electromagnetic telegraph rather late in life, in the middle of a desperate depressive crisis over the failure of his career as an historical painter and his inability to remarry after losing his wife a decade earlier in childbirth. At the age of 44 he was crushed by the low price commanded by his magnum opus, a large painting of the interior of the Louvre. A couple of years later he was crushed again by the failure to secure an important commission for paintings to be placed in the new United States Capitol Building, as well as by a humiliating defeat in a local election -- both setbacks perhaps attributable to his maniacal and highly publicized pursuit of anti-Catholic policies. Nearly bedridden by illness or depression, he turned to a gadget he had been tinkering with in his spare time:

The apparatus he had devised was an almost ludicrous-looking assembly of wooden clock wheels, wooden drums, levers, cranks, paper rolled on cylinders, a triangular wooden pendulum, an electromagnet, a battery, a variety of copper wires and a wooden frame of the kind used to stretch canvas for paintings (and for which he had no more use). The contraption was “so rude,” Morse wrote, so like some child’s wild invention, that he was reluctant to have it seen.
Morse quickly worked out a suitable code and solved enough technical difficulties to establish the device's suitability for long-distance communication. He then set about trying to get a patent and investors for development, with disappointing results for several more years.

Traveling to France to seek European government support for his invention, Morse slowly converted individuals to his vision without obtaining the substantial support he needed. A friend (who happened to be the American patent commissioner, visiting Paris) wrote:
I do not doubt that, within the next ten years, you will see electric power adopted, between all commercial points of magnitude on both sides of the Atlantic, for purposes of correspondence, and men enabled to send their orders or news of events from one point to another with the speed of lightning itself . . . . The extremities of nations will be literally wired together . . . .
A Parisian English-language newspaper enthused: “This is indeed the annihilation of space.”

The good publicity nevertheless did not produce investors. In the end, Morse guessed correctly that he would do better to seek financing back in his home country. Just before he left, however, he met Louis Daguerre, another failed painter, who was exciting everyone with his new device for transferring images via a camera obscura to a canvas. Morse was enchanted with this improvement on the painterly tradition and predicted that “throughout the United States your name alone will be associated with the brilliant discovery which justly bears your name.”

Morse returned to the United States to experience rapid success. In 1844, at the age of 55, he tapped out his famous message "What hath God wrought?" over a 34-mile line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Four years later he remarried; he and his new wife produced four children, who accompanied their parents many years later on a triumphal visit to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. By that time, Western Union had laid 50,000 miles of telegraph line.

In 1982, Morse's painting of the interior of the Louvre sold for $3.25 million.

Really Hate Tea

Race and the TEA Party:

The headline reads "Academics dub tea partyers devout, racist." That's pretty aggressive; what's the evidence?

“Tea Party activists have denied accusations that their movement is racist, and there is nothing intrinsically racist about opposing ‘big government’ or clean-energy legislation or health care reform. But it is clear that the movement is more appealing to people who are unsympathetic to blacks and who prefer a harder line on illegal immigration than it is to other Americans,” Gary C. Jacobson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, wrote in his paper, “The President, the Tea Party, and Voting Behavior in 2010.”...

Like Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Abramowitz also said they were more likely to harbor racial resentment, which he judged based on their answers to questions such as whether blacks could succeed as well as whites if they “would only try harder,” and whether they agreed with the statement that Irish, Italians and Jews overcame prejudice and “blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
Racism is, apparently, believing that blacks are just like everybody else?

There was a graduate student present, with a "working paper," who got closer.
Other academics saw other mechanisms at work. Emily McClintock Ekins, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, said tea partyers have more faith in the fairness of capitalism, which she said could explain their attitudes on race.

“This makes it less surprising that nearly all Tea Partiers believe that hard work, rather than luck, drives success. This might also explain their lower levels of racial empathy, as they are less aware for how opportunity may be different for particular groups of people,” she wrote in a working draft paper.
Perhaps the problem is that you aren't asking the right questions.

A fair number of supporters of the TEA Party are veterans, whose experience in the Army or the Navy supports the idea that hard work and dedication to duty are most of the answer. Not all of the answer, to be sure: the military has strong controls against overt displays of racism. While no system can rule over what may be hidden in the heart, these controls establish a ground in which black servicemembers do very well.

Most of corporate America has a similar system in place, if only to protect themselves from lawsuits. Without asserting either that racism is not a problem, or that controls of this type aren't necessary to level the playing field, it is nevertheless the case that success has been possible in this environment.

I say "has been" rather than "is" possible because the structural changes around this recession are only the leading edge of a decades-long reduction in American wealth that will accompany the aging of our society. I don't know that upward mobility remains possible for large swathes of society, though exceptional individuals will do well.

The general decline in prosperity will also cut into both tax-funded professions, like the military, which will limit the degree of opportunity available in organizations with those kinds of strict anti-racist controls discussed above. That may have a negative effect on blacks particularly. It will also tend to be disruptive of small businesses, which is the means for independent wealth generation that doesn't depend on other people 'giving you a chance.' That's going to be hard on all of us.

The one group that is likely to remain profitable are the large corporations, who will use their power to cut special deals for themselves. These environments are likely to have the strong anti-racist controls, but they are also likely to be exploitative on other terms. Those familiar with the history of the South will recognize a number of the business practices of the Monsanto corporation, especially in India; much the same loan practices were used by Northern banks after the Civil War to turn free farmers who had owned their own land into sharecroppers or tenet farmers.

Does that constitute an abiding faith in the fairness of capitalism? Not really; it constitutes an abiding faith in small business and the military, I suppose, combined with a populist attitude about what Ms. Palin was calling "crony capitalism" just the other day.

If Ms. Palin is speaking about it, it's on the minds of a lot of the TEA Party. That should be expected: the movement was spurred in large part by outrage over the bank bailouts, wherein ordinary Americans who made bad investments lost their homes, while banks who had profited wildly on those same investments were paid off at taxpayer expense. The TEA Party movement is as populist as it is capitalist. The failure of political scientists to understand the distinction suggests to me that they don't even know what questions to ask; they are too distant from the movement to know how to begin understanding it.

En Passant

En Passant:

Sometimes, like the chess move where a pawn moves in an unusual and oblique way, it is the smallest things that move the game. Amongst Ms. Dowd's many complaints about the administration, notice what she says about his ray of hope.

Obama’s re-election chances depend on painting the Republicans as disrespectful.
That is a fascinating claim. She doesn't argue for it, which suggests that she thinks it will be self-evident.

What does it mean to say that your re-election will depend on portraying your opponents as disrespectful? It suggests that he won't be running on his record, for one thing; but that's small by comparison to the substance of what she is claiming here. What she is claiming is that he might win re-election, if he can demonstrate that Republicans haven't been adequately respectful of him.

If that were true, it isn't because his campaign will look like this:

Actually, that would be a pretty entertaining campaign.

Still, it is likely that what she means is something other than that. What she means is that the President's hopes depend on a fervent demand that he be treated with kid gloves. The deference isn't earned -- she clearly doesn't respect him -- but it will be commanded, on the strength of... what?

Of course, the New York Times has failed to understand the President's mind more or less consistently; just because this seems like a viable plan to them doesn't mean that he's so foolish himself. Respect must be earned, with Presidents as with any one else. Just getting elected to the office gets you some -- you can use the Rose Garden and Air Force One, and you can demand that Congress show up for your campaign commercials, as Ms. Dowd herself points out.
If the languid Obama had not done his usual irritating fourth-quarter play, if he had presented a jobs plan a year ago and fought for it, he wouldn’t have needed to elevate the setting. How will he up the ante next time? A speech from the space station?

Republicans who are worried about being political props have a point. The president is using the power of the incumbency and a sacred occasion for a political speech.
The only thing she's wrong about is the idea that a joint session of Congress is a sacred occasion. It's a special occasion, but quite purely secular.