Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dewey on Democracy

Excerpted from a recent book discussion on Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup, a modernist novel that addresses immigration, globalization, and cross-border migration.

One thing I forgot to mention was my favorite sentiment from the philosopher John Dewey. Political economists and others often worry about democracy, Bryan Caplan just published a book on the subject. When the majority of Americans have a hard time identifying the Vice President, couldn't locate Sudan on a map, and have trouble adding two fractions, it is a parlous state of affairs to be depending on a democratic vote to make decisions on complex issues like immigration reform, science policy, or globalization. But Dewey countered that it is the responsibility of the experts--the economists, the political scientists, the physicists--to package their ideas in ways easy to understand, ways that will properly inform the electorate to make the hard decisions. He argued that poets and painters and musicians have been able to package very complicated ideas in a way that reaches a wide audience. So I thought Nadine Gordimer's book is an attempt at it. Apparently, she didn't succeed too well, but it is a noble goal. The fate of democracy may depend on it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bourne Ultimatum is Way Existential

I guess it is officially ok to use existential, not in terms of the 19th century philosophy of Camus and Sartres, but as an important sounding way to say, "pertaining to existence." While Alicia Silverstone's character in Clueless was mocked for casually dropping the term, the NPR review of Bourne Ultimatum calls the movie existential, just because it deals with Bourne's existence. I guess the ultimate arbiter of such things is William Safire who recently discussed this new casual use, especially in the context of Dick Cheney's declamation that the War on Terror is existential.

I have often been tempted, but tend to resist, not wanting to bring in connotations of alienation and absurdity, and that consciousness creates meaning and all that.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Green Living Sucks

So I moved into my new apartment in Ithaca, NY: Gateway Commons, and I love it. Brand new building, never lived in before, hard wood floors, high-end stainless steel furniture, high ceilings, recessed lighting, granite counters, kitchen island, flat stove top, spacious, easy access to campus and to downtown, the walk to work is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on (if I take the long way anyway).

The one thing on the beautiful well designed website that raised major red flags was the 3rd part of their motto: "Live Luxury...Live Smart...Live Green" LIVE GREEN.

I have nothing against green, but it just raises flags. Typically, it just makes things more expensive, for little benefit, which is why I tend to avoid organic foods and the like in the grocery store (presuming I can get non-organic of comparable quality, like at Whole Foods). But I liked the place enough to take the apartment anyway.

Living there one day confirmed how great the apartment is, and how annoying the live green part is. The bamboo floors are beautiful but apparently very easily dented. The sinks are all water efficient and thus have very low pressure, annoying when washing dishes and even washing hands. The shower is meek and highly unsatisfying. The toilet so far has been of decent design that despite the low-flushness has been ok, but every time, it just barely does its job, so I suspect that multi-flushing will become necessary. The AC cycles on and off with a loud click very rapidly (turning on and off for a couple minutes at a time). Presumably an energy saving feature, but still.

And the thing is, I am pro-environment, but believe that some things are worth it and some aren't. What environmentalists don't get is that economists know how to calculate the damage excess water or energy use has on the environment and that sometimes the benefits of water usage outweigh the cost. For me (and probably most people) we would much rather have satisfying showers and easy flush toilets, and pay a few extra bucks to compensate the environment through other means. (Like pay farmers to stop growing rice in the desert. The recent stupid campaign against bottled water is similarly dumb. If you want to know whether bottled water really is a bad idea, you might ask, would people still buy it if the externalities are correctly priced. Most reasonable estimates would likely be the extra cost to be under 5 cents per bottle. That is unlikely to majorly crimp the industry, end ellipsis). Argh.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Hypocrite in Chief: Al Gore Assaults Reason

I had an epiphany standing on the White House lawn as an intern for the Clinton Administration in the summer of 1999. Politicians lie. He was giving a speech about how tax cuts stimulate the economy (A Keynesian idea that has made it into the public consciousness) but then uses some sophistry to draw the diametrically opposite conclusion to what is taught in any intro macroeconomics class. I concluded that all politicians play with the truth all the time. That in some sense this is inevitable, given the limited attention span of the public who don't have time to listen to fully articulated argumentation, and the fact that at the end of the day, truth and reason are likely subjective (I am sympathetic with Foucault and post-modernism on this point).

So I should be sympathetic to Al Gore's new book, the Assault on Reason, which seems to make much the same point, except for one major difference, Al Gore holds himself above it all, he claims he is the exception, and while he professes the problem is universal, focuses his attack on the Bush administration.

The frustrating irony is in order to make his point that politicians today use half-truths, false facts and innuendo, Gore himself uses half-truths, false facts and innuendo.

So I haven't read the book yet, but I have read an extended excerpt in Time magazine, as well as long fawning interviews in the NY Times, Time, Charlie Rose, etc., none of whom question his facts, even when they are wrong.

In his excerpt, one of the only facts Gore uses is a statistic about how much television Americans watch, and blames television for the decline in national discourse, but ignores the fact that TV watching is in fact declining in America. And he goes with a wildly incorrect calculation that Americans devote 3/4 of their free time watching television.

He also cites as an example of Bush's perfidy, that 50% of Americans still think Sadaam Hussein helped perpetrate 9/11. He does not cite the survey that finds nearly as many Democrats who believe that George Bush perpetrated 9/11 (one of many such surveys is here). Yes, people are egregiously uninformed, but it is not just Bush who is responsible.

Gore cites the Bush administration's lies about climate change, and yet as someone who had to approve nearly everything the administration said about climate change in the past year, I would disagree. And the inconvenient truth is that even the New York Times reports that Gore's much lauded film includes many factual errors and false innuendo, but that story has been largely ignored.

Gore somehow thinks democratic discourse was better 200 years ago, when non-whites, women, non-property owners, those under 21, who were too poor to pay the poll tax, or pass certain exams, or were deemed unworthy by voting officials, (that is the vast majority of the population) were all denied the right to vote.

He paints some golden ideal of American democracy in years past, but doesn't seem to offer much evidence for this in interviews anyway, and is never challenged on this point, though many historians have pointed out that civil liberties are commonly withdrawn during war time (think Lincoln and habeas corpus, FDR and Japanese interment) and that sex scandals have driven politics since Alexander Hamilton was slandered, and wars have been started over false pretense (Remember the Maine! or the Lusitania) since the beginning. Heck, even the Revolutionary War was started in part because of the Stamp Act, even though they actually were taxed less than most British citizens, and the tea that was dumped during the Boston Tea Party would have been cheaper (even with the tax) than what they were already paying.

Anyway, on the whole, Gore probably isn't any worse in this regard than most other politicians, it just irks me when he clothes himself in self-righteousness, writes a book to that effect, and manages to slip it by completely unchallenged.