Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Impact of Political Rhetoric

Demagogues have long been condemned by the great and wise of society for their appeal to the passions and prejudices of the citizenry, when what is needed is reason and deliberation. This is true enough, but demagoguery is an inevitable result of placing ultimate political power in the hands of the masses. As a result, the role of argumentation, debate and discussion has taken a secondary place to rhetoric and appeals to interest groups. The selection process for politicians thus suffers from a strong bias towards the vapid rhetoritician and demagogue, and a comparatively minor impetus for strong thinkers and debaters- and so, when involved in roles such as Parliamentary debate which are more suitable for debate, these politicians nevertheless tend to rely on their highest talents. This is, of course, exacerbated by the televised nature of Legislative proceedings and the soundbite quality of our news cycle.

As political rhetoric has decended from argumentation to demagoguery, the type of person attracted to running for office has changed as well, reinforcing the bias towards the demogogic character, and further eroding the quality of policy debate both in the public forum as a whole and in the Legislature in particular.

How might this problem be lessened? Smaller ridings would allow for political campaigns to rely more on argument and less on media strategies as candidates get closer to the average voter. In the legislatures themselves, cameras ought to be removed to eliminate the temptation to pontificate to the voters rather than engage in debate and discussion.

Of course, the principal problem is that the nature of public knowledge and engagement in politics ineluctably leads to success for those who engage in appeals to self-interest and group identity- but this problem is impossible to remediate structurally without substantially narrowing the franchise. The place of an unelected upper house may be difficult to justify in terms of representation, but it certainly provides a means for a generous degree of disputation that democratically responsible chambers lack.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Almost Amazing

One of the worst things to happen in sports is when a brilliant play gets nullified by a blown call. The one that jumps out in my memory was the Blue Jays being robbed of a triple play in the World Series when Kelly Gruber clipped the heel of Otis Nixon for the third out, but the umpire missed the call.

Yesterday's game against the Red Sox saw Troy Glaus have a magnificent game- he finished a triple short of the cycle. His first hit of the game was a shot off the Green Monster in left-centre field, and Glaus turned the corner for second base. Coco Crisp took the ball quickly off the carom and made a perfect throw to second, beating Glaus. The tag was laid down for Glaus to slide into, but instead, Glaus, sliding wide of the bag, lifted his arm up and over the tag, then back down onto the bag. It was a brilliant and unexpected play that I'd never seen before- but the umpire missed it entirely and called him out. Completely exasperating that such a great, great play would be nullified by an errant call.

Friday, July 13, 2007


And my opinion of the US justice system plummets to a new low. I've only been to the US once in the last nine years- and it looks as if that's wise right now.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Feast of St. Benedict

St. Benedict is the father of Western Monasticism, which helped preserve Western civilization during the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire. Not a few have noted that our civilization needs a rediscovery and a reimplementation of St. Benedict's intentional Christian communities to combat the growing cultural darkness about us.

Sancte Benedicte, Ora pro nobis!
Good Signs
Record numbers attend Benedict’s weekly audiences, and seven million people a year now visit St Peter’s, a rise of 20 per cent. Similar increases are recorded for pilgrimages to Catholic shrines at Assisi, Lourdes, Fatima in Portugal and Madonna di Guadalupe in Mexico. “This is a Ratzinger phenomenon,” reported La Repubblica.
Courtesy of the Times.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sunk Costs & The War in Iraq

Sunk Costs denote the resources that have already been invested in a given project or effort. Usually, sunk costs act to induce further investment, as psychologically we don't wish to consider our already committed resources as wasted or lost. However, psychology can work both ways.

In the case of the War in Iraq, it is evident to the meanest intellect that the invasion was a mistake, based on poor intelligence. Moreover, it is now clear that the White House engaged in foolishly utopian thinking about the possibilities of a peaceful democratic transition while utterly neglecting to prepare for the hard work of securing the country and rebuilding a functional polity. As a result, over 3,500 American troops are dead, along with scores of Iraqi allies and untold numbers of civilians. Iraq remains a mess.

The reaction is to cut the losses- to recognize the error and remove oneself from it. Yet, I think this is not necessarily right. The loss of life is irrevocable. The resources are already lost. It is necessary to look at the situation always anew, though alive to the witness of history. At the moment, the effectiveness of the troop surge in Baghdad appears much in question- but it is not necessarily a failure. The once-hopeless Anbar Province, seat of the insurgency is now quiet and (relatively) peaceful. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been pushed out of both Anbar Province and now Baqubah. In short, it may be the case that the military situation is finally taking a turn for the better. Moreover, even the political situation seems to have a whisper of hope about it now. Perhaps the Americans need to stay in a little longer, if only to leave Iraq less chaotic than it is now.
Anglican Wisdom from the Estimable Burke
It is a great truth, and which in one of the debates I stated as strongly as I could to the House of Commons in the last session, that, if the Catholic religion is destroyed by the infidels, it is a most contemptible and absurd idea that this, or any other Protestant Church, can survive that event.
- Edmund Burke, in his Letter to William Smith, 29th January, 1795
Gazing into the Crystal Ball with the Motu Proprio

Well, how's that for a schizophrenic title? Well, the Holy Father issued his Motu Proprio liberalizing the use of the pre-conciliar missal last week, and all rejoiced. I have very little to add that has not already been said about the immediate impact and the meaning of the Motu Proprio.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd speculate about what this might auger for the life of the Church. Pope Benedict emphasizes two intertwining purposes for the Motu Proprio: to increase unity within the Church, and to deepen and improve liturgical praxis and understanding. With the first, the hope is for reconciliation with the Society of Saint Pius X, a large traditionalist group in irregular communion with the Petrine See. I do expect that we shall see some manner of reconciliation in a year or so- I expect the SSPX will endeavour to have the Vatican issue some sort of statement detailing the orthodoxy of some traditionalist views before regularizing their position. This may pave the way for other ecclesial bodies, including, perhaps, the Traditional Anglican Communion.

I also expect that this will eventually lead to a reform of the reform- a reordering of the Novus Ordo to bring it into a more organic relation with the Tridentine form of the rite.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Useful vs. Accurate

A brief thought: The difficulty of accurately engaging in political thought leads to the promotion of attitudes and opinions that are not accurate, and are known not to be accurate, simply because they promote the results desired.
RSS Feeds

So, I noticed that my feed apparently disappeared. It should be back now, but I imagine you will have to re-add it to your aggregator.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Russia & The Limits of Economics

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly free Russian state embarked on what Western experts agreed was the the appropriate course: so-called "shock therapy" wherein price controls and trade were liberalized while industry became privatized and lost its subsidies. Ideally, this would subject the economic system of Russia to market forces, lurching it out of its lethargy and beginning an age of capitalist growth.

Of course, the result was devastating. Russian living standards plummetted, far more than other Eastern-Block countries that had liberalized at a more sedate rate. The question is why? After all, theoretically, the western liberal economists, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, were right. Privatization and liberalization do allow for price signals to get to decisionmakers, which in turn allows for a more efficient function of the market and allocation of capital.

What Sachs and co. failed to heed was the speed limit that the Russian economy could adapt to change. Massive change of whatever stripe, even that which would otherwise be positive in the long term, if it occurs too quickly, and on too broad a scale creates enormous upheaval, dislocation and uncertainty in the economy. Things change too quickly for firms and businesses to effectively respond to the new price signals. Mere uncertainty creates an inability for firms to make rational mid to long-term plans, with devastating results on investment, among other things. Moreover, the rate of change makes firms unwilling to respond to the new price signals, wary that they will no longer apply once the necessary capital is invested to meet them. Due to the swift economic shifts, new demands for products and inputs go unmet, and often disappear as firms collapse due to disjointed supply chains, resulting in long-term deadweight losses for the economy.

Privatization emphasizes in its first stages consolidation of the new enterprise, rather than engaging in new business opportunities or expansion into new areas. This is particularly true of the sort of privatization Russia embarked on, where the buyers, having obtained businesses at a fraction of their true value through corruption or favouritism, have an even greater interest in consolidating their windfall and paying little attention to new opportunities.

Conservatives have always been skeptical of the impetus for change- the story of Russia's economic reforms illustrates the perils of engaging in change in a sudden and dramatic manner. Even positive change, unless a moral imperative, needs to be taken in a gradual and deliberate manner.
Opium & Afghanistan

Jon Lee Anderson has a harrowing and brilliant report from Southern Afghanistan in the New Yorker, focussing on the attempts to discourage opium production. Having read his story with great interest, the question that jumps out at me is why is the West trying to do this? The farmers of Afghanistan are incredibly poor, and opium is the single reliable cash crop. By destroying poppy fields, Western forces are alienating those whom we desire to be allies, punishing farmers from pro-government areas (because Taliban-dominated areas are too dangerous to operate in) and aiding the Taliban insurgency. The process of destroying poppy fields helps exacerbate corruption, as farmers bribe local police to ensure that their fields are not destroyed.

Incidentally, the description of the Dutch approach to pacifying Uruzgan is almost unbelievable. While they are appropriately skeptical of the poppy eradication efforts, their commanding officer is quoted as saying "We're not here to fight the Taliban. We're here to make the Taliban irrelevant." The Dutch appear to be both passive and witless. Even their preferred reconstruction strategy appears to have done virtually nothing.

Judging from this article, defeat appears to be a very real possibility for the West in Afghanistan.

Update: Anderson has a great set of photos of his experience as well.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Damning with Faint Praise

Steven Skurka, whose Crime Sheet has been an absolutely essential read during the Conrad Black trial, reflects on the American Justice System. I should note, however, that even faint praise is better than none- and Skurka helpfully reminds us of what "justice" can amount to.