Serfdom, Nobility, Whatever

I think this is an interesting and challenging article, but it has a key flaw in its frame. The author, Patrick J. Deneen, is talking about a conservative rhetorical tradition going back to The Road to Serfdom. The problem with the rhetoric is that, if you ask the liberal side why they are choosing serfdom over liberty, they will not see things your way.
But here’s the problem: I think Julia regards her condition as one of liberty. She is free—free to become the person that she wanted to become, liberated from any ties that might have held her back, whether debts to family, obligations to take care of aging parents, the challenge and rewards of living with a husband and father of her child, or relying on someone to help her with a business or with her care as she grew old. Would she call her condition “Serfdom”? I rather doubt it.
What is serfdom, then? The author defines it thus:
Serfdom, to be accurate, is an arrangement whereby you owe specific duties to a specific person, a lord—and in turn, that lord owes you specific duties as well.
This, though, is the same relationship that the Duke bears to the King. This is merely a feudal relationship. The difference between a feudal relationship and the relationship you have to the modern state is just this: whereas a feudal relationship defines your rights with regard to the duties you perform, the modern relationship assumes that rights and duties are disconnected and unrelated.

The feudal relationship is healthier in a sense, because it makes clear that we are able to maintain our rights only because (or if) we all pull together in mutual loyalty and friendship. As moderns we have been having a serious debate over the last few years over whether felons should be allowed to vote; in fact, we have some questioning whether the right should be limited to citizens. What's the difference, especially in a country in which many aliens have come to reside (however they have done so), and have an interest in how the government is run? Aren't they people too? Why shouldn't people in Malaysia or Pakistan vote on US foreign policy? Aren't they touched by it? Why shouldn't they have the same right as you to vote?

Having said that, the rest of the article is very much worth reading. The core problem is a key one.

Friday Night AMV

I came across this in an article about horrid Japanese fast food, which describes the tune as "the most cock rock anime theme song this side of the Japanese X-Men."

Not sure exactly what that means, but having watched the thing, I think I have a kind of idea. Good luck with it.


Cassandra points out to us that Elise's blog is up and running again.  Moseying over there, I found links to two articles from a year ago, addressing the Kermit Gosnell case.  I won't attempt to re-open that wound specifically, though I found myself freshly shocked by details I hadn't yet managed to hear.  What I will do is urge you to listen to the videotaped exchange (contained in the second article) between lawmakers and a Planned Parenthood representative.  They are trying to ask her what objection Planned Parenthood has to a law requiring an abortion doctor to transport a breathing post-abortion baby to a hospital.  After a fruitless exchange that lasts several minutes, she finally responds that there might be logistical issues if the clinic were a rural one that was as much as 45 minutes from the nearest hospital.

I have the strongest impression that she can raise this issue only because she's entertaining some essential confusion.  Suppose a doctor were facing the excruciating choice whether to transport a patient to a distant hospital, knowing that attempting to treat the patient onsite might be too dangerous in light of his limited facilities, but also knowing that the difficulty and delay of transport might itself prove fatal.  A good argument can be made that we should hesitate to pass a law mandating him to entrust his patient to an ambulance in every case.  But the doctor this witness is testifying about isn't facing any such choice.  He will not be "treating" the patient if it remains on his table.  Asked whether the live baby has become the doctor's "patient," the witness is confused, mumbling that she's never really thought it through.

I see an allegiance to a system that's preventing a lot of people from confronting a concrete reality.  What's more, this witness's answer is peculiarly troubling in view of the firestorm raised by Texas's recent legislation requiring abortion clinics to maintain ties to a full-service hospital no more than 30 minutes away.  I frankly attributed that legislation to a desire to regulate a number of abortion clinics out of existence, but this testimony makes me wonder if I didn't judge the pro-life forces too harshly on that limited point.

"For the end of the world was long ago..."

...And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day."

For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.

When Caesar's sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.

Today in 1975 was the first day of Communist rule in Saigon, the day after the famous photograph of the last helicopters evacuating CIA personnel. That was thirty-nine years ago, and it is surprising how much the moment continues to echo here.

May Day

It's strange to hear children singing the song given its subject matter, though it's as true for them as for others. It's easier to make out just what this song is about in this version:

Welcome to the Cathedral of May.

The skim

Nice work if you can get it:  just think how much trouble it would be to go into 50,000 homes where family members were receiving Medicare/Medicaid subsidies for taking care of disabled loved ones, and force them at gunpoint to cough up 30 bucks a month.  How much more convenient to have your governor help you set up a sham election that results in all of these people being deemed employees of the state who have joined SEIU Healthcare Michigan.  Now their union dues can be painlessly deducted from their Medicare/Medicaid checks.

The only fly in the ointment?  After the governor leaves office, someone passes a right-to-work law, and 80% of your ungrateful, disloyal "members" leave the "union."  You might ask, but aren't they giving up fabulous collective-bargaining benefits purchased with all those dollars?  It turns out that SEIU Healthcare Michigan spent most of the money on lobbying, especially on lobbying to keep the skim going and even to enshrine it in the state constitution.  Not outright, of course; these things have to be handled discreetly:
Federal data shows that a majority of those funds in 2012 went to spending on union political activities and lobbying, not collective bargaining.  The union was fined more than $200,000 in March by the state for violating campaign finance laws 2012, the second-largest in state history.  The spending was primarily to back a state ballot initiative which would have codified the union's arrangement with MQ3 in the state constitution.  The union used a front group called Home Care First to conceal its spending.
Nearly half of the states now have right-to-work laws.  Just twenty-six states to go.


Yesterday's bombshell was a September 2012 email from Obama aide Ben Rhodes outlining a prep session that would enable Susan Rice to go on the Sunday talk shows and claim that the murder of four Americans in Benghazi could be attributed to an inflammatory video.  Under "Goals," Rhodes listed:
  • To convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad;
  • To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy;
  • To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice, and standing steadfast through these protests;
  • To reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.
A later section entitled "Benghazi" instructs Ms. Rice to state that the Benghazi demonstrations were "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo."

Heartless conservatives jumped on this email, pointing out that they'd said all along that the White House deliberately misled us about Benghazi, in part, by trumping up the ridiculous video story. Voters didn't buy the conservative criticism; they thought Mitt Romney was mean for bringing it up in the debates, and they re-elected Obama.  The White House has denied to this day that it was lying, in between bouts of demanding that we all move on already, and complaining that Republicans are cherry-picking or "doctoring" the documents to create the false impression that the Benghazi response was politicized.

So what was the White House's response when this smoking-gun email came to light? If you can believe it, Jay Carney stood up at the podium at a press conference today and asserted with a straight face:  "The email and the talking points were not about Benghzai. They were about the general situation in the Muslim world."  I guess the White House was planning to bring people to justice somewhere besides Benghazi.  Come to think of that, events have borne that supposition out:   we've done diddly to bring anyone to justice for Ambassador Stevens' murder.

Remember Hillary Clinton's passionate denouncement of the video when the bodies of the Benghazi victims returned to the U.S.?  What are the odds any of this will have an impact on her 2016 campaign?


This month's Gutenberg project has been a multi-volume work on Homer by W. E. Gladstone.  It took me a while to realize that the author was the same Gladstone who was Disraeli's famous Victorian rival.  Of course many of you have heard their famous exchange of insults:
Gladstone to Disraeli:  "Sir, I predict you will die by the hangman's noose or from some vile disease." 
Disraeli to Gladstone:  "Sir, that depends whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
Gutenberg requires us to transliterate the Greek for the text versions of the ebook, which has led me to learn more about Greek than I've picked up in my whole life.  No Greek or Latin in my high school!  In fact, I don't recall its being offered at my university.

Because I always like to pick up Greek mottoes, I was pleased to run across the original of the Spartan mother's admonition to her warrior son, usually rendered in English as "Come back with your shield or on it." The original is more like "Either this or on it."  I've struck up an email correspondence with a experienced Gutenberg worker who really seems to know his Greek:
ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς--"either it or on it".  First time I've encountered the phrase in Greek!  τάν and τᾶς are the accusative and genitive respectively of the definite article. 
On googling it, the source is given as Plutarch, Moralia 241. But when I look that up in Plutarch, it reads ἢ ταύταν ἢ ἐπὶ ταύτας--"either this or on this".  Curious. 
Hmmm.  It looks like the ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς version, copied all over the web by people who don't know what they're talking about, comes from Dübner's edition of 1841.  That's long been superseded by Bernardakis' edition of 1889, which has ἢ ταύταν ἢ ἐπὶ ταύτας:  that's the version followed by all the complete online texts of Plutarch's  Lacaenarum Apophthegmata.
According to Gutenberg rules, ἢ ταύταν ἢ ἐπὶ ταύτας is transliterated as "hê tautan hê epi tautas."

More Googling tells me that Gladstone served 60 years in politics, while still finding time to write this very interesting work on Homer.  He apparently was the first to analyze Homer's puzzling use of color terms and to hypothesize that Ancient Greeks didn't see color the same way we do.  They seemed to classify colors by lightness and darkness, and perhaps shininess and dullness, rather than frequency.  Homer used the same term to describe the bright green of a young shoot and the bright red of fresh blood.

Gladstone took a double first at Oxford in Classics and Mathematics and, despite Disraeli's amusing taunt, by all accounts was a thoroughly upright gentleman of the old school.  He loved the Greek culture of the Iliad and the Odyssey and paid special attention to what those poems tell us of Ancient Greek political institutions, especially in contrast with the more Orientalized and despotic Trojan customs.  His own politics were a curious blend of liberal and conservative in the best Victorian tradition of each.  Queen Victoria herself, however, preferred Disraeli's clever, captivating manners; she complained that Gladstone always addressed her "as if she were a public meeting."

Good News in Bad News

In a generally critical report on flagship state colleges and universities, this:
A few institutions have held the line in one or more areas, and some even excel. The University of Georgia, for instance, is the only school in the report to receive an "A" rating for its core curriculum; UGA requires composition, literature, foreign language, mathematics, natural science, and U.S. history or government.


Death to Widows

Justice is done, according to our system's lights.
A widow was given ample notice before her $280,000 house was sold at a tax auction three years ago over $6.30 in unpaid interest, a Pennsylvania judge has ruled....

Battisti said her husband handled the paperwork for the property's taxes before he passed away in 2004.

"It's bad — she had some hard times, I guess her husband kind of took care of a lot of that stuff," [county solicitor] Askar said. "It seemed that she was having a hard time coping with the loss of her husband — that just made it set in a little more."
Mercy is for the weak. It has no place in the law.

Graft is a Human Right

Spent part of the trip in DC having breakfast with an old Iraq comrade. He's retired from the military now, and is doing pretty well for himself. Living in the DC area, though, a bit part of the accounts he deals with are government accounts. He was pretty good and mad about the system he's found there.

The graft is literally mandated by the government, my friend explains.

The way it works is that government contracts for services come with certain 'set asides' for women and minority-owned businesses. (Not, my friend points out, veteran-owned businesses.) Now let's say you're talking about businesses with significant capital costs. It turns out that there are only a handful (or fewer) of businesses that are really in the running, because only they have the capacity to perform the work. Nevertheless, they need to find 'partners' who fit these set-aside profiles.

So they do, and the way it works is that there is a front company owned by someone with the right profile. The real company forwards the appropriate front company, which slaps its letterhead on that paperwork and forwards it on. The government approves the work, the real company does the work, and the front company collects ten percent.

Everybody's happy. The company gets a fat contract, the front company collects money for nothing, and the practice is so common -- required by law! -- that the media take no notice of it. If news is man-bites-dog, this is the least newsworthy story of all.

Tennessee Riders

Due to the illness of an earlier family member -- one who did, Tex, end up having brain surgery -- I have made a ride up north this weekend. While I was there I came across these photos that my aunt had dug up for her eldest son, my cousin. Here he is, circa 1977:

And here he is, with my grandfather:

She didn't have pictures, my aunt, but apparently my uncle and my cousin's sister were big riders in those days, too. My father owned a motorcycle then, but he wasn't as big into it as he was into muscle cars.

It's those Tennessee mountain roads. They seduce.

Virtue & Wealth

The Pope has garnered an interesting comment from the UK Guardian.
What makes Pope Francis's attack so significant is that his position, too, is charged in moral terms.

What he really believes is that riches in themselves are bad for people. That is part of the reason he does not live in the papal apartments. This is not a view shared throughout the Catholic hierarchy. Nor is it really, whole-heartedly, shared by the politicians who will praise his views. I don't see any party anywhere in the world, except perhaps the Greens, running for election on the basis that they will make the voters poorer but more virtuous.
I'm not sure that position is as unusual as the gentleman portrays it to be. Generally all government action makes you poorer, and therefore has to be pitched in terms of some new capacity that you will achieve in return: and excellence of capacity is, of course, what the ancients meant by the term "virtue." Progressives promising to force you onto health care exchanges are promising to strip you of considerable wealth in return for a capacity, so far unachieved, to provide some measure of healh insurance to those the markets deem too risky to insure in an ordinary risk pool. Conservatives asking you to support the local bond referendum so they can build a new jail, and therefore lock up more criminals, are also suggesting that they will make you a little bit poorer -- in return for a society that is a little bit more virtuous, in the sense of being stronger against the presumably wicked.

So there's always a trade of wealth for virtue, if government is meant to be the means to the end. The radical thing about Reagan's claim was that you could, by shrinking government's powers and sphere of influence, pursue wealth and virtue at once.

That "riches in themselves are bad for people" is not a position Aristotle held, nor Plato -- both held that a proper substance was necessary to pursue virtue, because it provided the leisure for contemplation. What both condemn is not wealth, but a life that focuses on wealth instead of virtue.

That riches are perilous does seem to be Jesus' position, though, and the Pope is not supposed to be neutral between these ancient thinkers.

Keep your doctor, fire your senator, Pt. 374

Bookworm Room lives in Marin County, California, and pays special attention to how blue politics work out there.  Her post today alerts us to new fun that awaits not only those unlucky enough to have been dumped into the Obamacare exchanges, but also anyone who bought insurance directly from a company that also sells on the exchanges, which by law must mirror what they offer on the exchanges.  Customers of California's Blue Cross Anthem already knew they were in for a tough time finding doctors who were part of their new network, or even determining with any certainty which doctors really were part of the network, given the consistently misleading information they have received to date.  Now customers find that, if they get surgery done at some hospitals, their insurance may cover the bills from their surgeons and from the hospital, but not the bill from their anesthesiologist, pathologist, or radiologist.  (That is, they will find this out if they are alert enough to call first and demand specific information about every conceivable bill that may be coming their way as they schedule surgery.)  And yet at Marin General, for instance, the patient has no choice about which of these professionals to use; the hospital farms out the ancillary work as it pleases.

Yes, this law is really going to bend that cost curve down.

We're still trying to decide what to do later this year if our insurance policy really will not be renewed.  (It's impossible to guess ahead of time how far HHS and the White House will go to avoid panic just before the midterm elections.)  If we really must replace our coverage, I am inclined to go with a company (such as Health Assurance) that has elected to stay out of the exchanges altogether.  So far, the indications are that Health Assurance is maintaining a provider network that can be attempted to be believed.

Recently an old friend looked me up on Facebook, then began to argue with me about how inexcusable it was to support the repeal of Obamacare.  Didn't I care about the uninsured, she demanded?  You can imagine my response.

"Different from you and me"?

Kevin Williamson looks at the fuzzy boundaries of the category we call "the rich":
Far from having the 21st-century equivalent of an Edwardian class system, the United States is characterized by a great deal of variation in income:  More than half of all adult Americans will be at or near the poverty line at some point over the course of their lives; 73 percent will also find themselves in the top 20 percent, and 39 percent will make it into the top 5 percent for at least one year.  Perhaps most remarkable, 12 percent of Americans will be in the top 1 percent for at least one year of their working lives.
Darn 73-percenters.


I was reading what seemed like an ordinary article about coming attractions in the biotech revolution when I came across the casual statement:
Cats that glow like jellyfish, now in labs, are just the beginning.
Wait.  What?

Yes.  It hardly seems a sporting thing to do to an animal that likes to hunt at night.

I know I said I like innovation in resource use, but I don't believe cats are merely a resource for us to use as we please.

Overdrawn at the planetary bank

Are we?  Matt Ridley says "Nonsense."  Did Stone Age civilization collapse because people ran out of stone?  Contrasting "ecology" with "economy," Ridley finds that one little letter makes all the difference.  Despite our benevolent host's apparent conviction that the study of economics amounts to inquiries into the ways in which people can be induced to accept monetary bribes to tarnish their honor, the field really consists of examining the ways a society decides how to wield scarce resources for which there are multiple possible uses.  A market economy typically makes this decision by letting prices rise and fall according to the scarcity of the resource, together with the demand for it, as expressed by a large number of individuals exercising freedom of choice.  But supply and demand aren't static, even at a particular price point.  As a resource in high demand becomes scarce and costly, the pressure is on to find a substitute.  And human beings under pressure are remarkably gifted at innovating substitutes.

Our natural short-term perspective regards a price spike as a catastrophe--what if someone in need can't pay the price?--but a longer view suggests that a price spike often is just the impetus needed to discover a cheaper alternative.  As Ridley points out,
The best-selling book "Limits to Growth," published in 1972 by the Club of Rome (an influential global think tank), argued that we would have bumped our heads against all sorts of ceilings by now, running short of various metals, fuels, minerals and space.  Why did it not happen?  In a word, technology:  better mining techniques, more frugal use of materials, and if scarcity causes price increases, substitution by cheaper material.  We use 100 times thinner gold plating on computer connectors than we did 40 years ago.  The steel content of cars and buildings keeps on falling....
In many respects, greater affluence and new technology have led to less human impact on the planet, not more.  Richer people with new technologies tend not to collect firewood and bushmeat from natural forests; instead, they use electricity and farmed chicken—both of which need much less land.  In 2006, [Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University] calculated that no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest (in density as well as in acreage).
Would any of those things have happened if the Global Department of Resource Justice had had the authority and the funding to prevent anyone from feeling the consequences of scarcity?  Human beings who care about the suffering of others experience a strong temptation to respond to price spikes by imposing price freezes.  (How dare those hoarders of valuable resources withhold them from the needy?)  While there may be good arguments in favor of the brief application of charitable relief to ameliorate an unusually abrupt transition from one resource to its substitute, we're not doing anyone any favors by subsidizing an economic choice about any resource that has begun to get scarce enough to be unaffordable. If that approach made sense, we'd be subsidizing the use of whale oil so that poor people could light as many lamps as the rich.  Or subsidizing stone tools so that no one had to figure out how to make them out of metal.