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Galileo Blogs

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  1. Gary,

    Your arguments have an air of sophistry. Repeatedly, as Kendall observed, you present a false alternative, and then you deny that you are doing so.

    Kendall nailed it when he said (post #14):

    The fact is you continue to present false alternatives that either require such a subject to passively submit to his dictator or actively repel the liberator. For every such dilemma there is a middle ground, and that is to passively survive, doing as little to interfere with your liberator, and at the earliest possible moment to surrender and aid your liberator. That is what you won't allow for. That is the only rational course.

    The argument for passively submitting to the dictator is constantly couched in terms of dire extremes that do not permit the middle course Kendall describes. Here are some examples from Brenner's posts:

    Post #16:

    I simply want to point out that it is not automatic that captives of dictators benefit from conquest by an invader and the attendant destruction. Some may be liberated. Some may be quite dead. If, for example, I were a resident of Moscow in 1960, I would certainly not welcome a nuclear first strike by the United States.

    Nuclear first strike by the United States? On those particular cities? Is that the argument why a Soviet citizen would not have welcomed liberation from his oppressors? This is a falsely drastic scenario given that no citizen of the Soviet Union could know whether liberation would involve a military attack by the United States, and if it did, whether he would die in that attack. If the Soviet citizen was worried about risks in the particular city he lived in, he had years, even his entire life to try to move to a different city if not escape the Soviet Union itself. This example is an unrealistically drastic choice to force a choice among the false alternative. Kendall's realistic "middle way" is excluded.

    Another example from the same post:

    But there may be victims of dictators whose lives, while far from perfect, are nonetheless preferable to death.

    Again, the false alternative of certain death or passive acceptance of the dictatorship.

    Post #17:

    But how much freedom did the residents of Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden have to move in Nazi Germany?

    The answer is: plenty! Anytime from 1933 onward when Hitler assumed power, these residents could have moved within Germany or, like many thousands of Germans before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, flee Germany. But Gary presents the situation as if a resident of Dresden was trapped there and had certain foreknowledge that his city would be firebombed. That is an absurd scenario, again designed to force the false alternative of acquiescence to the dictatorship versus certain death.

    Post #9:

    But the unhappy subject of Country B may not wish to pay for the liberation with his own life. If he is unable to overthrow his dictator, it would certainly be in his self-interest to prevent or deflect a lethal assault aimed in his direction.

    Again, the unrealistic scenario that the unhappy subject must pay for liberation with his own life.

    Realistically, as has been said by several posters, including myself, a citizen of a dictatorship (in nearly all conceivable circumstances) faces only the possibility of death if the dictatorship he lives in is overthrown by war or revolution. Realistically, the greater odds in nearly every conceivable situation is that he will survive such a liberation, as the vast majority of French did when the Allies liberated them from the Nazis and, in fact, the vast majority of Germans did (whether they wanted to be liberated or not) when their country was defeated by the Allies. Most Germans and Japanese survived World War II, one of the most horrific wars in history, even when their cities were repeatedly firebombed and even nuked.

    Wanting liberation doesn't mean walking in front of an Allied tank to be run over, or trying to stand in front of an oncoming missile. Far from it. It means trying to survive, laying low if possible, until the liberators arrive and then surrendering immediately, just as Kendall described it.

    The broader question becomes, why would someone want to face risks in order to live in freedom? Is such freedom valuable? Is it worth fighting for or taking risks that could result in death?

    The answer of the millions of Americans who volunteered to fight in World War II (yes, many were also drafted) is that such freedom was worth taking risks. The answer of the thousands who fled East Germany at the cost of the lives of many of them was that freedom was worth taking risks. The answer of the Cuban boat people and the North Koreans who escape to hostile China, are all that such freedom is worth taking risks. None of these people faced certain death. However, all were willing to face a significant risk of death.

    The answer is the same (although less courageous) for all those residents of dictatorships who simply bided their time and tried not to get in trouble, and awaited the end of their dictatorship.

    I can't help but wondering at the real object of Brenner's argument. Is it to say that freedom is not worth taking risks for? Or, is it an argument to justify those who lacked the courage to defy their dictatorships? On the last point, such people have my sympathy, but not my admiration. If that is the point Brenner is trying to make, I will agree with him. It is understandable why many people don't stand up, either by taking active measures of resistance or simply by trying to flee as so many millions have done over the years. The reasons why a particular person doesn't stand up might be complex. It could be that his particular situation is so risky (say, he is a scientist in a weapons lab and his family is held hostage) or it could also be that he simply doesn't value his life enough to risk it to live as a free man.

    One's life as a free man is incredibly valuable. That is why people risk it everyday to defy their dictatorships. Fortunately, such defiance does not typically mean certain death, as Brenner suggests with his examples.

  2. The topic of this discussion shifted, and I unwittingly allowed myself to get shifted with it. It started with, "Why are the citizens of a dictatorship responsible for the dictator?"

    Then Gary Brenner shifted it to his hypothetical discussion of whether citizens of a dictatorship would want war with a "nuclear-tipped" enemy where a "hundred million" people would die:

    Brenner Post #5

    Fine. Now let’s hypothesize a future in which the United States is an aggressive dictatorship bent on conquering peaceful, laissez-faire Canada. The only thing that stands between Canada and enslavement by its expansionist southern neighbor is its nuclear-tipped missiles, which can take out every U.S. city from Boston to San Diego.

    Furthermore, Exaltron, you and I are unwilling subjects of this tyrannical America. If we could send a message to the Prime Minister of Canada, what would we say?

    “Please, in the name of freedom, go ahead and bomb us!”

    Or, “For godsakes, try to settle this thing without disintegrating us and hundred million other people!”

    I believe my response (post #10) effectively responds to Gary's question and challenges his use of such a hypothetical example that postulates near-certain annihilation for the residents of the dictatorship.

    But now Gary changes the topic yet again (post #13):

    As for opposing negotiation with dictators, do you think the United States would have been better served not to have had talks with the Soviets from 1945 to 1993?

    What I surmise from the direction of these topic shifts is that the real point Gary Brenner is trying to make is that it is wrong to take a strong moral stand that dictatorships are evil and that a free country has the moral right to take military action against such countries. His last post also appears to confuse a "right to action" with actually taking the action. The U.S. always had the right to militarily confront the Soviets. Whether we did or not is a question of tactics, not moral right.

    A free country has the right to take whatever steps are necessary for self-defense, including all steps necessary to stop a threatening country. Getting back to the original question of this thread, it is in that context that the citizens of a dictatorship are responsible for the dictator. If a free country engages in war with a dictatorship and some residents of that dictatorship die, the moral guilt for their deaths lies with the dictatorship, not with the free country.

    A particular citizen of a dictatorship may not bear direct responsibility for the dictatorship (if he was Hermann Goering, yes; a "non-political" German, no), but all such citizens bear indirect responsibility to the extent they do nothing to stop the dictatorship or save themselves. In any case and regardless of the moral status of Germans, in a war of self-defense against a dictatorship, to the extent civilians unavoidably die, the responsibility for their deaths lies with the dictator and, to an extent, with themselves to the extent they did not take such actions. A free country bears no responsibility nor any guilt at all for such deaths, given that such country is acting in self-defense. (Exaltron's post #4 presents a useful analogy, comparing residents of a dictatorship to hostages.)

    I might add that American prisoners died in the nuclear blasts in Japan and certainly died in the aerial bombing in World War II, just as American soldiers have died in friendly fire incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq. In those cases, there is no question at all of the moral worth of the Americans, yet even in these instances, the moral responsibility for their deaths is not with President Truman who ordered the nuclear attacks or the pilots of the Enola Gay or the soldiers who unknowingly killed their fellows. The moral guilt lies squarely with the enemies who threatened us, with Adolf Hitler, the Iranian mullahs, et al.

  3. My objective is to explore the ethical options of freedom-loving, self-interested people within the aggressor nation. While it is true that as rational individuals they might recognize the right of the defender nation to use weapons that would result in killing massive numbers of the aggressor nation’s subjects, to save themselves they could reasonably urge a solution, diplomacy perhaps, that would prevent such destruction. To go even further, to save themselves they might take such steps as jamming an incoming missile’s telemetry to prevent it from hitting them or manning anti-missile stations.

    The best thing a resident of a dictatorship could do is try to emigrate or cause a revolution or assassinate the dictator. All of those steps have and are being tried by residents of dictatorships around the globe, past and present. The examples are multitudinous, such as Cuban boat-people fleeing that country or the generals who plotted to assassinate Hitler during World War II.

    It is not in the self-interest of an oppressed resident of a dictatorship to aid the preservation of that dictatorship in any way. Of course, some of those residents do so, but under the threat of compulsion, as in the case of millions of terrified workers in Stalinist Russia, or because they incorrectly believe some or all of the statist propaganda with which they are fed, which does apply to millions of dictatorship subjects, both past and present.

    Only a terrified or brainwashed person would fight for his dictatorship. That certainly was the case during World War II on both the German and Soviet sides. Interestingly, when World War II ended, hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers tried to flee West once the German threat ended and they had the seemingly realistic hope of becoming free. (Incidentally, in deference to our Russian ally, American and other Allied soldiers sent the Russians back to the Soviet Union, where they suffered imprisonment and death.)

    On a separate note, my observation is that Gary Brenner's examples are of the hypothetical-fantastic variety. As such, they do not make good material for a discussion. Consider the example he hypothesizes, of a laissez-faire Canada and a totalitarian United States. Quite a contrast, and quite unrealistic that such a situation could just pop up. Consider also his alternative, nuke the United States or do nothing. That is also absurd. In any historical conflict with dictatorships, no such dramatic solution as a complete nuking of the country was ever necessary. In fact, in no historical war that I can think of has a conqueror had to completely wipe out an enemy to defeat him. Countries are always defeated with far less than that. This is important because it is completely unrealistic that a resident of a dictatorship has to fear certain annihilation from the laissez-faire country. In fact, unless there are the most drastic circumstances, odds are that he will survive any war.

    Finally, consider Brenner's hypothetical "freedom-loving, self-interested person" in the dictatorship. The fact is, many if not most people who qualify for such a description try to escape in the years leading up to a war, if they really value their freedom. That was true following the Russian Revolution, it was true in the 1930s in Germany in the years leading up to World War II, and it has been true for nearly 50 years in Cuba.

    Using a realistic example, not a fantastic hypothetical example, makes it much clearer that for the rather few truly freedom-loving residents of a dictatorship, their interests always lie with their liberator.

  4. There is some finite non-zero amount that is always permissible. It is relative to the risk we already assume for free.

    Here's the logic. If you choose to assume a known risk such as driving your car, for as little as the cost of the insurance you buy in case of an accident, how on earth can you hold a chemical company responsible to the tune of millions of dollars for increasing your risk of dying of cancer by some factor that is 1/1000 of the one you'll already take?

    Kendall, this is quite insightful, and the key, in my opinion, to understanding the debate over pollution. Your first sentence, in fact, summarizes what should be the guiding principle for torts involving all forms of pollution.

    Incidentally, this principle already is used widely in other contexts in everyday life. Consider when you can legally claim that someone has harmed you, i.e., where you could ask a policeman to arrest that person or sue him for damages.

    Can you say that a person has legally harmed you if he stabs you? Of course.

    Can you say that a person has legally harmed you if he verbally assaults you in an egregious and threatening manner? Yes.

    Finally, can you say that person has legally harmed you if he unintentionally bumps into you, speaks to you with noticeably bad breath, or is simply rude? No.

    In those last instances, you have been harmed, but the level of harm does not rise to a level that merits legal action. Certainly, identifying permissible levels of pollution must involve a similar principle, which Kendall has identified.

    Just by going out and living my life, I voluntarily assume the risks of people bumping into me, being rude, or having bad breath, yet none of those things are cause for legal action. In the same manner, in the act of living I voluntarily assume various risks. When I drive a car, get on a bus, eat foods and simply live, I assume various risks. If a polluter causes pollution of similar magnitude as these de minimus risks I voluntarily assume every day, then there can be no proper legal basis for taking action against the polluter.

    Incidentally, an entertaining book called The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear by the engineer Petr Beckmann stated that the legal limit for emission of nuclear radiation that applies to nuclear power plants is so stringent that if you stood naked on the property line of a nuclear power plant for 20 years, you would receive less radiation from that plant than you receive in one year from radioactive isotopes in your own blood!! Assuming Beckmann's example is accurate, it is a terrible indictment of safety regulation that is guided by an irrational standard.

  5. This is the essential point. If your rights are not protected, a voluntary agreement is impossible. Literally. This is why there can be no relation between government funding and the availability of rights protection. And contract enforcement is rights protection - not some "extra" that can be sold sepparately.

    Funding the government has to be a free choice, not something you weigh against the threat of force - be it a threat from the government itself (as happens today) or the threat of being victimized by others when the government refuses to protect you because you didn't pay "enough".

    Government's role in protecting rights is a service that the government performs. It is different than private services in that it is a legal monopoly, and that the service involves the use of force. But it is a service, nevertheless. As such, users of that service ought to pay for it. In the case of contracts, one may choose not to have government enforce it and not pay a fee. I can envision that many, if not most, agreements, would work that way, leaving the larger and more complicated contracts for enforcement by government, after payment of a fee.

    In terms of the free rider problem, if I engage in a complex transaction with a business associate, one that will require expensive services of the courts and the police to enforce, why shouldn't I pay for that? In fact, to say that I should get that service at no explicit cost because government should be solely funded through donations is to make me into a sort of free rider.

    I see nothing wrong with paying for enforcement of contracts.

    Police protection is different for practical reasons. This involves responding to emergencies and there is no way for government to distinguish between who paid and who did not. So, it is provided to everyone. As I pointed out in an earlier post, everyone will pay for this, either directly or indirectly, because they cannot help but purchase services that are provided by businesses that paid for contract enforcement. (Also, I can see the police raising money by charging for extra services, as they do today when they provide policemen at concerts, etc. Obviously, if this were to happen, it would have to be monitored carefully to avoid the "protection racket" risk. Nevertheless, I see no reason why it could not be viable in principle.)

    However, even if that were not the case, and you could think of some people as getting a "free ride" in police protection (which really isn't the case for the reason I already mentioned), so what? If I were a rich businessman, and government were, say, less than 2% of GDP, why would I care? The benefit to me of laissez-faire and a police force that protects everyone is well worth what I pay in nominal fees to the government.

    This alleged free rider problem appears to use an unreal standard. It says, what if someone could be receiving services they didn't explicitly pay for? If that occurs, the whole system of voluntary financing of government is invalid. That is not true if no one's rights are violated. A system of fees + donations does not violate anyone's rights.

    In a different context, consider the alleged "free rider" problem that every poor person already gets from the achievements of entrepreneurs and inventors. Ayn Rand has made that point clearly, that the likes of Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Thomas Edison only received a small fraction of the value they created, with the bulk of that value inuring to the benefit of everyone in society. Does that "free rider" problem make capitalism unjust? No, because all of those transactions are voluntary. Bill Gates, et al., are voluntarily trading with the public. The same argument applies to those who fund government in a laissez-faire society. They are doing it voluntarily. There is no free rider problem.

  6. I'm not sure that everyone pays. For example, do children or the severely disabled pay? More importantly, even with government financing via contract fees, some people would obviously pay more than others. People buying expensive houses would pay more than those buying cheap houses (or boats, TVs, golf clubs).

    And there would be others who, perhaps foolishly, would choose to contract for goods and services without paying any fees. Presumably no law would force Jones to get contract insurance and pay a fee when he buys a car from Smith (otherwise, the method of revenue collection would be involuntary).

    Yet under your republican form of government, all of these people, the payers of big contract fees and the payers of small or no fees, would benefit equally from government and have an equal vote, an equal voice in government.

    We would then have the same problem as our present majority rule: those voters who are net fee consumers would, through their representatives, allot themselves larger and larger government benefits at the expense of net fee producers.

    Let’s say in the Republic of Quack, Donald pays on average $1,000 in contract fees per annum. And Daffy pays only $500. On the other hand, Scrooge pays a yearly average of $10,000. Yet they all receive about $3,800 in police, court and military services.

    Since Donald and Daffy can outvote Scrooge, wouldn’t they have an incentive to raise the rate of the fees? Admittedly, their own rates would go up, too, but they would be reaping increased government benefits at the expense of those who pay much more. If the fees are doubled, Daffy pays $500 more in fees but now gets about $3,800 more in benefits. Not a bad trade-off. Scrooge, by contrast, also gets $3,800 more benefits but has to pay $10,000 more in fees.

    As you said, “Police protection should be provided to everyone,” and thus net fee consumers would have every incentive to increase government spending since the cost/benefit ratio to them would be favorable. By comparison, Scrooge, a net fee producer, would pay proportionately much more than the average, but would still receive only an average-sized benefit.

    What we have just seen is another form of wealth redistribution.

    If government is small, I am not going to worry too much about this problem.

    Moreover, your hypothetical points up the importance of philosophy. Such a government does not emerge in a vacuum. In our present redistributionist world, people may eagerly seek to gain at others' expense when it comes to government. A constitutionally delimited, capitalist government solely devoted to protecting rights could only emerge after rational philosophy has taken hold. If people have accepted the reasons for such a government, and government is exceedingly small, the whole scenario you describe is a minor problem, if it would exist at all.

  7. I don't think they'll like selling their institutional traditions to the highest bidder.

    Why not? In point of fact, they wouldn't be selling their traditions. Rather, the military would be raising money to pay for their equipment and acknowledging those who do provide that money.

    In a similar manner, schools have donors name their buildings all the time. At the same time, schools also name some buildings or classrooms after revered deans and professors. I see no reason why the military could not establish similar policies that acknowledge both benefactors and revered figures faithfully.

    In any case, the whole topic is a very minor point, although it does serve to make the larger point that there are many ways for a small laissez-faire government to get the revenues it needs. In my opinion, the entire argument against voluntary financing of such a government does not hold up.

  8. I'll also say this again, in the same iterest of clarity.

    In other words, your rights (to property in this case, which is the basis for contracts) are conditional to paying the government. In other words, an innocent man who is the victim of a crime will not be protected unless he pays some arbitrary fee.

    Whether you charge this fee before the fact or after it is immaterial. The fact remains that this fee can be set to any arbitrary value, and if it is not paid the innocent man has no rights. This is, in fact, a tax. The only distinction is that the government doesn't send its goons to rob you. It lets common criminals rob you instead. More of a protection racket than robbery, I suppose.

    It could simply sell insurance, not arbitrate the dispute. Instead of buying the "insurance" from the government, you buy it from the private company. If you need arbitration, the private company pays the governments fees. No one would buy the governments "insurance", since it would be more expensive (since it has to produce extra funds to pay for the rest of the government).

    At this point the government would have to increase the actual arbitration fees above the actual arbitration costs, and then instead of having people paying for the costs of the government services they consume we are back to people being extorted out of their money, with the threat of not having their rights protected.

    The only way to fund a proper government is through donations. What system is used for these donations is debatable. Peer pressure should be the means to combat free riding. No one is forced to pay a cent to the government - and their rights absolutely should be protected even if they don't. No one is forced to sell them bread or hire them, though.

    A simple method of funding government would be fees for the enforcement of contracts. To have the benefit of the legal enforcement powers of government, which includes access to the courts, a fee would have to be paid. A similar mechanism already exists today where a variety of filing fees are paid to the government when legal proceedings are initiated.

    Government ought to and does have a monopoly on the use of force, so government sets the fees. However, this is where the principle of "government by consent of the governed" comes in. In a republican government, the people elect its representatives who set the fees and carry out in detail the broad principles established under the Constitution. As long as government's role is constitutionally delimited to the protection of rights, and government itself cannot violate rights, this is not a protection racket.

    Police protection should be provided to everyone. There is minimal free rider problem because everyone pays, directly or indirectly, for the enforcement powers of government, which includes police protection. For example, most people buying a house would pay for legal enforcement of the purchase contract. In fact, I suspect that every bank providing a mortgage would mandate that such a fee be paid, just as they require home buyers to purchase insurance. Apartment dwellers pay indirectly through their landlord, who pays similar fees not just when he purchases or builds an apartment house, but also when he contracts for significant services.

    In addition to such fees, donations would be important. Is there a risk of corruption? Of course. But the overriding point to bear in mind is that such risk is minimized because government's power to hand out favors is essentially non-existent, pursuant to the Constitution. Corruption in a free society would be de minimus. A free press also serves a vital role, as it does today, to root out those few cases of corruption that emerge.

    Incidentally, government in a laissez-faire society, while small, would be far less bureaucratic and more entrepreneurial than today's governments. It would reflect the rich entrepreneurial spirit of the society it existed in. I can envision many creative ways to supplement financing, beyond the fees I describe. For example, people can name all sorts of government buildings and military equipment. As just one example, in today's context, imagine how many Americans would pay to name a missile or an aircraft carrier that might be used to destroy the Islamic threat?

    Whether people should be allowed to donate to build police stations or jails or courthouses (which are the only other services government provides), is a policy decision that can be made by voters and their elected representatives.

    The fact is, governments are "of the people." The fact that problems *can* emerge is not an argument against the type of government that would exist in a laissez-faire society, any more than the fact that criminals exist is an argument that no criminal justice system is valid. A government structured along the lines I describe, under capitalist political principles, is a good government that protects people's rights.

  9. The Top 10 List is a nice summary of the mystical non-thinking of religionists. The best response is to challenge at the outset their use of any evidence or logical argument, since their epistemological method -- faith -- denies both. They can't have it both ways: use bits of reason and evidence to support their unreal conclusions, all the while reserving unto themselves the ability to deny reason and invoke faith when it suits them.

    Because of the end-justifies-the-means nature of their epistemological method (i.e., "reason is the handmaiden of faith"), at the root their entire argument is dishonest. Moreover, given that they subordinate reason to faith, I would also not trust any factual assertion they make. For example, it is a big mistake to accept at face value their ludicrous assertion that the odds of life emerging are 1 to 10 to the 40,000th power. There is no way they can know this. It is entirely arbitrary and should be dismissed as such.

  10. One of my other all-time favorite science fiction movies, Alien, has a similar theme as The Thing. One of my two favorite characters in that movie was the executive officer Kane, played by John Hurt.

    He is the one who gets the alien attached to his face.

    When he was part of the away team sent to survey the alien spaceship, the female member of his team expresses fear and wants to turn back. He says, "We've got to go on. We've got to go on." The particular way he said that conveyed so much to me. Both his words and his inflection conveyed the particular courage that comes from having a scientific mind. These were the banner words of a scientist's and explorer's quest to discover new knowledge. They had to go on, because something great was ready to be discovered, and no scientist/explorer could turn away from that.

    Like The Thing, the theme of Alien was also that "one must always focus on reality no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. In an emergency, facing the reality of a situation squarely and without evasion is the best hope of survival."

    Both movies achieved their thematic purpose in an imaginative, tense and interesting manner.

    However, Alien explored this theme in more detail. The subtle differences between Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) and Parker (played by Yaphet Kotto) were telling

    in who survived the encounter with the alien. All three were courageous, but Dallas focused too much on action, and was unwilling to study the facts fully before acting. As a result, he acted too recklessly in going after the alien and got killed. Like Dallas, Parker certainly did not suffer from a lack of courage. He understood just how serious the battle with the alien was. He failed because he displayed reckless chivalry in trying to prevent the alien from killing Lambert (played by Veronica Cartwright) when there was no hope he could be successful. Of course, Lambert's problem was that she allowed her fear to dictate her actions. Her fearfulness killed her and resulted in the death of Parker.

    Ripley also has a flaw, but she overcomes it. She could be too cautious at times, as in when she states that the ship is not ready to leave the planet. Dallas over-ruled her, revealing his executive self-confidence, and also highlighting that much of Ripley's caution stems from her subordinate role. She is the third most senior officer on the ship, and does not habitually make important executive decisions. However, her character develops as she quickly learns to make those decisions. In the end, Ripley survives because, like McReady in The Thing, she faced the facts most squarely. For example, of all the crew members she was most active in seeking out all of the facts about the alien, as in when she repeatedly peppered Ash (played by Ian Holm) for more data. Of course, Ash could not provide the data he was endlessly "collating" because he was secretly plotting to preserve the alien.

    Both movies are dark. Evil is potent, but

    the human mind is shown to win in the end.

  11. Adrian,

    Thanks so much for the history behind "The Thing" and the comparison between it and the story it was based on. That significantly increases my enjoyment of it, especially because I nearly share "fletch"'s level of enthusiasm for this movie.

    Fletch,

    That blood-testing scene sure was funny, wasn't it?

    I can't quote the exact line, but I especially laughed when the commander of the camp asked to be released from his chair after watching The Thing emerge next to him and get torched.

    :)

    In addition to the humor of scenes like that, what I liked the best was the character of McReady. As you say, he is indeed "ready" at all times to face reality and take action. His focus on action, but always as the result of facing the facts in front of him in a rational manner, is very appealing.

    The other characters die because they panic, are reckless (or even just have bad luck).

    The fact that McReady and the other character (I forgot his name) survive to the end makes sense. The other character was the most reality-focused person besides McReady.

    The moral message I got from "The Thing" is that one must always focus on reality no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. In an emergency, facing the reality of a situation squarely and without evasion is the best hope of survival.

  12. I am ill equipt to deal with debates I have encountered where individuals assume from the beginning that the problems they experience with private companies, particularly certain insurance companies, are problems true of any private organization.

    I see several problems with the debate argument you are encountering. In no particular order, here are some problems I see which I offer as questions for you (or your debate opponent) to think about.

    Your debate opponent is making a faulty generalization. He sees, according to him, a problem with an insurance company, and then extrapolates to a broad generalization that all private organizations are flawed. How does such a broad conclusion follow from a single or several examples?

    Then he makes the improper conclusion that government provision of this service would be better. On what basis can he say that?

    The whole discussion also presupposes sloppy definitions. What is a private organization? Is it any business, regardless of the circumstances it operates in? For example, insurance companies are arguably one of the three most regulated industries in the United States (the other two are electric utilities and medical care). As such, government already is dictating most of the terms of service of insurance companies, such as rates, who can enter the industry, and even policy language. If that is the case, is an insurance company really the best example to use of a faulty private organization?

    To what degree is the insurance company's poor performance due to government regulation? Using the performance of such a heavily regulated industry to condemn capitalism is hardly convincing. Using it to condemn government regulation might be more appropriate!

    Another question worthy of asking is: What is the proper standard of judging whether an organization is performing well? Is it how well the product is given away for free to anyone who wants it (e.g., public education and socialized medicine)? Or, is it how well a business honors its contracts? Is it how much innovation occurs? Your debate opponent presupposes that an appropriate standard for judging performance exists, but he does not spell out that standard. If his standard is along the lines of the first one, it is entirely inappropriate.

    Finally, speaking more broadly, what is the nature of capitalism that results in good products and services produced at low prices? What is it about government provision of services (or regulation of "private" entities providing services) that hinders the creation of good products and services at low prices? The theory of capitalism shows that competition in a system of private private property where rights are protected by government does result in better goods and services at lower prices. In other words, it results in a progressively rising standard of living.

    The history of capitalism in England, America and, more recently, Asia, also validates this theory. Just how is the example of a single allegedly poorly performing insurance company supposed to refute the theory and history of capitalism?

  13. If you look at the history of antitrust, you will find that most of the lawsuits are instituted by businesses against their competitors. Such history belies the alleged purpose of antitrust, which is to protect an imaginary "consumer welfare" that only exists on blackboards in economics classrooms. The consumer welfare concept is an outcome of the theory of perfect competition, which posits an imaginary hypothetical world where information is costless and barriers to entry non-existent. Using the unreal as the standard, the trust-busters decry that the real world does not conform to their imaginary world, and demand to use force to make it do so.

    In practice, all this means is that successful companies are punished. Such punishment is arbitrary, essentially coming out of the blue based on a complaint by a competitor or activism by a politically ambitious bureaucrat or public official (e.g.: Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt's persecution of the "great malefactors of wealth" such as Standard Oil Company). In fear of such arbitrary terror, America's most successful companies must hamstring themselves, avoiding potential acquisitions or aggressive but creative business moves, in order to avoid this persecution.

    It is sad, indeed, that Microsoft and Google, two titans of the computer and Internet worlds, fail to understand the nature of antitrust and to understand that they are only targeting themselves every time they pick up the antitrust weapon.

  14. The grenade example is not self-sacrifice. A soldier learns that his greatest odds of individual survival are if each member of his combat unit is willing to risk his life for the survival of the unit. This is not a collectivist idea. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that each individual soldier is better off if each person is willing to take risks for survival of the unit. In the grenade example, the soldier knows that several soldiers will be wounded or killed if he tries to grapple with the grenade and toss it out. So, the best course of action given the short time in which he must act is for him to cover the grenade with his own body.

    Another example is a row of soldiers on a defensive perimeter. Each soldier may want to cut and run, but each soldier knows that if they all do that, they will be captured or killed. Therefore, each soldier stays in his foxhole and faces the hail of bullets, knowing that that is the best course of action to achieve survival and victory.

    Victory is the other element. Each soldier has volunteered (leaving aside the situation of a draft) to fight to defend his values. Military victory can only be achieved through the actions of cohesive military units. That is the nature of military action. Therefore, each soldier agrees to fight for his unit. It is entirely (rationally) selfish.

    ***

    As for Wesley Autrey, he is not a hero in my book. If he valued his daughters the way a father would, he would not have taken such an incredible risk. He is lucky he survived.

    Having said that, he is the only one who can make that decision. It could be that he was not being self-sacrificial. In that exact instant, he may have weighed the risks and felt that they were sufficiently low that it was worthwhile to attempt to save the stranger, even at the risk of making his daughters fatherless (not to mention losing his own life).

    I wasn't there, so I won't condemn him, but from my vantage he took an excessive risk. His action appears self-sacrificial, even though there is the possibility it was not.

  15. Can I interject my favorite sci-fi series?

    It is Star Trek, the original one starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Captain Kirk (played by Shatner) is my personal hero. He is the efficacious man of reason, the integrated man who both understands his emotions and allows himself to experience them, and yet is guided by reason. His two companions, Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) and the doctor, "Bones," are perfect foils to Kirk, even if their characters are somewhat obvious as a theatrical device. Spock is a Vulcan, the pure being of reason, whereas Bones, although obviously devoted to reason and science since he is a doctor, is overly guided by his emotions. Both Spock and Bones are shown to periodically make mistaken decisions because of Spock's suppression of his emotions and Bones' occasional emotional over-indulgence. Kirk, the efficacious man, makes the right decisions because he is complete and integrated. There is no mind-body dichotomy with Kirk.

    The theme of mind-body integration plays frequently in Star Trek, as in one episode where Kirk is split into two people, but all of the strong emotions go with one Kirk and not the other. The Kirk who lacks strong passion is weak and vacillating, whereas the Kirk who has the strong passions but without the discipline of reason, makes rash, ultimately self-destructive decisions. There are at least several other episodes like this.

    There are many other good characters in the series, including Scotty, the Scottish engineer who loves his ship more than any woman.

    I also like the fact that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, eschews racial or sexual stereotypes, which was a somewhat bold position to take in the 1960s when Star Trek was made. As an example, apparently he originally wanted Kirk's No. 2 to be a woman, but television executives vetoed the idea. Of course, that may have been for the best because I cannot imagine the series without Spock, who happens to be male.

    Apart from the virtue of Kirk's character, the other great thing about Star Trek is what I like best about science fiction: its depiction of a world where man and his technology has progressed. Not just progressed, but progressed magnificently. In that sense, Star Trek, just like all hopeful science fiction (as opposed to dystopian science fiction), affirms the reality of the efficacy and success of man's mind. The world of Star Trek is a world where reason has been victorious not just for years, but for centuries. As a result, humanity has achieved technologies that seem like magic to us today. However, some of that technology is not magic, but reality. As an example of that, Star Trek has served as inspiration for scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs who grew up watching the series. Inspired by Star Trek, they made cell phones (the modern flip phone may have been inspired by the flip-top communicators in the series) and floppy disks (the 3.5" computer disk, although no longer used any more today, is the same size as the computer disks depicted in the series).

    The world of Star Trek is the world I want to live in. But then I look around me, at the Internet, at cell phones, at magnificent life-saving drugs, and everything else the mind of man creates, and I realize that we do live in that world. Even though the forces of un-reason have not yet been conquered, glorious reason still triumphs. The world man creates is a world worth living.

  16. In other words, they can get away with 7% price-rises instead of the 17% price-rise one might expect from looking at Yuan money-supply, because productivity knocked off the other 10%? (Just throwing in some figures for illustration here.)

    Conceptually, that makes sense, but I do not have special expertise or data on China to validate your hypothesis. It does remind me of the U.S. in the 1920s, though. Prices were flat, but that hid a good deal of monetary inflation that was offset by tremendous productivity growth. Absent the inflation, prices would have declined as they had during most of the 1800s when money was gold-based and inflationary episodes were rare. (Inflation occurred when the gold standard was temporarily suspended during wars, such as the Civil War.)

  17. Quite true, GB. One of the big current puzzles related to global investing and economics is whether the Chinese investment boom of recent years is driven by distortions in the US and Chinese financial systems that provide incentives for malinvestment. The big challenge is that malinvestment rarely looks like malinvestment to most people at the time it's initiated. I can find anecdotal and causal evidence to support the hypothesis that at least some of China's massive fixed asset investment is negative IRR over the long run. The hard part to determine is how much of it. Unfortunately, one really only knows until the tide of credit expansion goes out and economies begin to slow.

    China has had bank loans growing at 30% or so for years, with fixed asset investment representing around 40% of economic activity. Since the start of the decade, it's annual steel consumption has more than tripled, with most of this going into construction uses, much of it directed by bureacrats who have much to gain and little to lose if a project (office or residential real estate) is completed, and with government controlled banks providing the lending, banks with a very poor track record in differentiating good from bad loans. That smells like malinvestment. It may well be that monetary policy in the US is tied to investment trends in China in this case, and perhaps vice-versa.

    Interesting. China's investment does seem to float on air. Maybe it is floating on a sea of dollars. I guess that is what softwareNerd is saying:

    It does appear that the Chinese central bank has been propping up dollars, building up a huge foreign currency balance in the bargain. I've read some commentary about how the Chinese accumulating a holding of about $1.5 T has soaked up enough dollars (pumping Yuan into China instead) to keep $-inflation lower than it could be. Given that the Chinese balance is so huge -- almost equivalent to total U.S. M1 -- the explanation sounds convincing.

    Keeping the dollar propped up is probably one important spur to Chinese export-driven local investment. If the theory is true, then part of this is malinvestment that will unwind when the Chinese central bank starts to unwind -- or slow the accumulation of -- US$ balances.

    Any thoughts on this line of argument, GB and A.West?

    Among the two of us, A.West is the China and international trade expert, so I will defer to him. Any thoughts, A.West?

    The basic question of whether China's boom is at least partially a malinvestment boom is important. Of equal interest if it is malinvestment, how have the Chinese gotten away with it for so long?

  18. Jim,

    That is a thoughtful list. I have seen many of the movies you mentioned, and had forgotten! I share your enthusiasm for the ones I've seen: Metropolis, Things to Come, The Andromeda Strain, Fahrenheit 451, Planet of the Apes (also one of my favorites), Star Wars and Alien. Some of the others I had seen too long ago to voice an opinion, or have not seen them at all. Now I have a great viewing list to watch for. Thank you!

    GB

  19. I read most of the paper Adrock cites. I find his argument largely convincing. Another point to bear in mind is that the standard of consumer welfare that modern economics uses is based on the theory of perfect competition. The theory says that if certain unworldly conditions are met, then individuals will price and consume goods in a certain way. One of those impossible conditions are: universal omniscience. Every economic participant has equal knowledge of all production methods, everyone's "utility functions," etc. Using such an unreal standard, the authors of this theory trace an argument that concludes that "consumer welfare" is only "maximized" when all businesses are passive "price-takers."

    Then these consumerists look at the real world and discover that businesses or people, such as Muhammed Ali, control their output to maximize their personal benefit. They conclude that this is immoral because the production level and prices are different than what would exist in their unreal world.

    "Monopolistic prices" appears to be another manifestation of the unreal fantasy world created by these economists. It exists in their fictional world, but it does not exist in reality.

    A key to cutting through this morass is to focus on individual rights. If people deal with each other as traders -- no force or fraud is used -- then all prices are just. That such a society also results in the greatest possible advance in our standard of living is also true and not coincidental.

    Interestingly, because perfect competition theory is unreal, and therefore false, it should be no surprise that the policy implication of that theory, antitrust, actually reduces our standard of living by punishing the most successful companies in order to aid the less successful.

    The real world consequence of attempting to put an unreal theory into practice is destruction. The real world consequence of applying a reality-based understanding of economics is wealth creation and capitalism.

  20. You mean the 1982 Carpenter film, not The Thing from Another World (1951) that it was sorta based on (or that shared the same source, anyway), right? I like the original story most myself, John Campbell's "Who Goes There?"

    Yes, the 1982 "The Thing." I have neither seen nor read the other works you mention. Thanks for mentioning them. I will have to check out the Campbell story. Was the 1951 movie good?

    As for "The Thing," I really enjoyed the lead character played by Kurt Russell. He is a common sense man who faces the reality of The Thing most squarely, and therefore has the best odds of survival. I like Kurt Russell movies generally. Physically, I like his looks and I generally like his movie roles. The other part of the "The Thing" I liked was the sheer outrageousness of The Thing. It is an audacious monster, if there can be such a thing as an audacious monster. One last note on "The Thing," the scene where Kurt Russell has everyone tied up and is testing their blood to see which one is The Thing is just damn funny. I don't think every reader of this forum will find it funny, but it appealed to my love of imaginative, even if bizarre, situations.

  21. There is one possibly beneficial effect of inflation: it puts pressure on people to either spend or invest cash. Under inflationary conditions, money does indeed burn a hole in one's pocket, out of which falls the steady trickle of change stolen by the deficit spending of the government. It would seem that anything that spurs spending and investing is a positive force on the economy.

    I bolded the last sentence.

    I disagree with that. The problem with inflation is that it spurs inappropriate spending and investing. Let's look at how that works. Extra money is magically added to the economy by the Fed. The first recipients of that money are the banks. With more money to lend, banks give money to less creditworthy borrowers. For their part, those less creditworthy borrowers are eager to borrow those funds because interest rates have declined reflecting the extra money given to the banks.

    Those less creditworthy borrowers build hotels and apartments buildings, they expand factories, they invest overseas. They do lots of things that would be valuable, if you strip away the context of those investments. Those investments are made based on artificially available money and artificially low interest rates. Such money and interest rates are artificial because they are not sustainable at that level. They do not reflect real world conditions.

    As a result, the owners of the new hotels, apartment buildings and factories discover that they do not have sufficient business to justify the investment made to create them. They become unprofitable. Their owners go banrkupt. The economy has a recession.

    All inflation has done here is to distort the flow of investment and thereby impoverish the economy to that extent. The inflationary process is not complete until those investments are liquidated in bankruptcy and lie fallow for some time until economic activity expands enough to make productive use of them. That is why the hotel is only 50% occupied, the apartments are unsold, and the factory is under-utilized.

    The diversion of capital caused by inflation results in the destruction of potential wealth that would have been created if market forces had been allowed to operate uninfluenced by inflation's distortions.

    So. in response to your last sentence, it is not true that anything that spurs investment is good. Only investment based on reality is good. Pseudo-investment prompted by the deception of inflation is not good. It impoverishes us.

  22. Alien - One of the two best monster horror films ever made.

    The Thing - One of the two best monster horror films ever made.

    The Omega Man - Charlton Heston was my first hero way before I learned of Ayn Rand (no, I am not equating them). In The Omega Man, Heston portrayed a scientist, a man of reason, in fact the last man of reason left alive, battling deformed, infected humans who blame civilization for their state, and seek to destroy all evidence of that civilization, including Heston. Ironically, Heston is the only one who can develop a cure for their condition. The Omega Man is the best of the 1970s-era end-of-the-world type movies. (It was a rough time in real life, too, with near hyper-inflation, the oil crisis, America's defeat in Vietnam, and Watergate. Uh, and I guess I would add 1970s bell-bottom pants!)

    Blade Runner - What is a human? Of what value is life? These are questions asked and answered in part by this movie. I also love the future world presented. It is darker than I would imagine the real future to be, but it is gritty and reflects the push and pull of humans acting their lives in a dense urban setting. When I imagine the future, I imagine urban density as in this movie, albeit in a more positive way than this movie portrays. Harrison Ford in the lead role was superb, and Sean Young as Ford's love-interest was absolutely hot.

    There are other sci-fi movies I love, but these four are my personal favorites.

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