The Real Meaning of Christmas

…Jesus Christ matters a great deal for this atheist. For Christians, Easter, the Resurrection, is the big date. For us it’s Christmas. When someone wishes me “Good Holidays” in my simplistically minded libprog town, I respond with a cheery, “Merry Christmas.” I don’t do it just to be churlish (though I wouldn’t put this beyond me). No, I mean it.

What happened in Bethlehem is that God became a human, completely, with a conventional birth and all, and a regular upbringing.* This is not another small unimportant religious tale. In time, it’s a world-changing myth.

When God is man, we are only one step removed from Man becoming God. In the long run, it’s the beginning of the end of our collective submission to an often savage Bronze Age divinity. It took about 1500 years but it did happen and only in the parts of the world that had been Christian (plus, maybe, in Japan. Why in Japan? Beats me!).


* By the way, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not what many people think it is. I keep hearing the mistake on the radio. (It takes an atheist to help with Christian theology, N.S.!)

Scholars and Public Intellectuals: The Bad Old Days Before Blogging

I am flattered to be in the company Brandon places me in. When I was still growing up, I wanted to be Tyler Cowen then, I figured he moved way too fast for me. I have the utmost respect for Robert Higgs but I wouldn’t dream of mimicking his nearly super-human determination. I suspect Brandon put me on purpose in that flattering company and that he will soon ask me to stay after the meeting to sweep the room in return. Brandon also implicitly gave me permission to do what old dudes love to do (and often do well): reminisce.

I had a mostly but not exclusively academic career. It began so long ago that the hardest part of my doctoral dissertation was getting it typed from its long-hand last draft (yes, “typed,” with a typewriter; do you even know what this is?) Few graduates students knew how to type. Those who did were all females who had taken the trouble to learn in high school,. Below are two things that have changed for the better since those days, changed specifically in connection with blogging.

When I was a young scholar, I quickly discovered that having good co-authors was extraordinarily important. Myself, with one exception I won’t name, I always had co-authors, that is, co-investigators, I did not deserve. The difference in quality, in reach, in scope, between what I could produce by myself and what I did with others was so great that I seldom even tried to go it alone once I had discovered the force multiplier of well chosen others.* But finding potential research partners was costly, haphazard and often disappointing.

Apart from the necessarily limited local offering at your own university, you had to wait for your first high-powered publication, hoping it would draw admirers who would then take the trouble to contact you. Of course, you could do the same with others. To some extent, it involved the same sort of hesitancy one experiences trying to pick up a good-looking person in a public place. And, in some disciplines, publishing an admirable article in a well esteemed periodical may take years, of course. The poor traditional remedy was attending academic conferences, listening to others at formal presentations sessions and then, making advances. This worked to some extent but it was an inefficient system with a piteous yield.

The contemporary blog with a theme, such as Notes on Liberty, offers the young scholar the immense advantage of being able to present in a stress-free fashion samples of his work to many strangers of a similar cast of mind who are also hanging out around the blog in a relaxed frame of mind. Some of these will turn out to be potential coauthors. The blog will give them a social context for reaching out that is less intimidating than most.

Needless to say, the same features of the blog may facilitate being noticed by useful senior scholars. (I said “may” because I have no certainty about the extent to which such august persons go slumming on blogs. I have my suspicions though.)

Next: many people who become academics begin a with a general interest in ideas. Soon, they discover that the organizations that are willing to put bread on their table while they indulge their tastes are mostly universities. This is certainly true in the English speaking world. It seems to me that this is also largely the case in the French speaking world, and in the Spanish speaking world as well.

Once involved in a university career, the same people soon figure out that to progress in that career, or simply to remain in the career, they must publish in scholarly journals at a good clip. Unfortunately, in most disciplines, journals require a much narrower enterprise than the typical aspiring public intellectuals dreams of. This is intentional: Specialization encourages attention to detail in reasoning and it punishes sloppy logic. It also promotes respect for facts. (I mean outside of the post-modern English discipline, of course). Scholarly formats often leave authors unsatisfied in one particular respect, the formal limits they imposes on their discourse. I have often myself been in a situation, – and likewise observed others to be – with an eighteen page empirical paper that seemed to me honestly to authorize fifty pages of innovative narrative. The journal format usually allowed only one to three pages, four, if you played your cards right, or if the editor dated your sister.

Some will comment that a person can pursue a two-track career with scholarly publications on one side, and more general narratives in other media, on the other. That’s true enough but if you consider the large number of America academics in general compared to the two handfuls nationwide who have a public voice, you will guess that the dual career path must present formidable obstacles.

The one I encountered personally – which I think is quite common – is that the gates of outlets for general well-informed but non-technical narratives were as narrow of those of the most respected academic journals, and also vastly more capriciously opened. And in case, you are wondering no, I am not thinking only of the New York Review of Books. It will take me a long time to recover from the contemptuous rejection I received from the newspaper of my local community college. (That was twenty years ago. I was a well respected scholar by then.)

A good blog with an open editorial policy such as Notes on Liberty will give many a chance to circulate opinion pieces and other narratives not fitting a normal scholarly format. Those may spring, by the way, from the same source as their scholarly production narrowly defined. When I was churning out statistical empirical papers in the sociology of economic development, I felt I had lots of things to say to the general intelligent public, springing from the endeavor of producing those papers, things that never got said.

I am not sure how many of those who read these words are academics, or aspiring academics, or frustrated academics who long to be also public intellectuals. I hope I reached a few of you, all the same. What I can tell you is that my life would have been more satisfying (even more satisfying) if blogs such Notes on Liberty had been available when I was just sharpening my pencils.


* Nonetheless, I wrote alone and off the top of my head a little paper that keeps cropping up in the class syllabi of several military schools forty years later: The distributive state in the world system.” Studies in Comparative International Economic Development, 15-3: 3-21. 1980. (A little harmless bragging!)

Madness Entitlement

Most American undergraduates in four-year colleges want to study abroad for a while. (I think this is probably true. I would bet 75/25 for.) In 2019 (or 2018, not clear) 20% of American students were diagnosed with or treated for depression. I can’t vouch for this number. That’s from an article by Andrea Petersen in the frou-frou pages of the Wall Street Journal of 11/12/19. (Yes, the WSJ has had frou-frou pages for years.) Petersen cites a study of 68,000 students by the American College Health Association in support.

The sunny, gay article (in the original meaning of the word “gay”) examines some of the ways in which American colleges and universities assist mentally and emotionally afflicted students with realizing every student’s dream of studying abroad. The measures taken range from allowing students going to Europe to bring their emotional support dog with them (would I make this up?) to training host families in how to alleviate their American guests mental suffering.

I don’t make light of depression but hey, here is a sound idea: Take a depressed young person probably still struggling to establish his/her identity and, for half or more, also struggling with grade issues, separate him/her from his/her recently acquired college support system, drop him/her suddenly in a country whose language they don’t understand (including most of the UK and some of Ireland), insert the student someplace where he/she is a nobody, with zero recognizable accomplishments. Wish him/her well. Wish for the best.

The mindlessness gets worse. Ms. Petersen comments on the big problems that arise when students gone abroad suddenly cease to take their medication. She cites by name a psychiatry professor who recommends avoiding any interruption in treatment by taking along enough medicine to last for the whole duration of the stay abroad. Excuse me, but isn’t it true that much anti-depression medicine is feel-good drugs easily subject to abuse? Isn’t it also true that a quantity large enough to last a year, even six months, is a quantity large enough to qualify you as a dealer in some, in many countries? Do you really want your inexperienced twenty-year old to spend even a little time in a slammer among people whose language he/she has not mastered? Isn’t this picture pretty much a definition of batshit crazy? (1)

Yes, they say, but it’s worth taking this kind of risk, or some risks, for the great enrichment studying abroad provides. What enrichment, I ask? If you polled twenty experienced college professors in a variety of disciplines, I am sure you would find only lukewarm endorsement for the practice. Study abroad disrupts learning in the same way vacations disrupt learning, or a little worse. In return, what good does it do? The easiest thing first: No, almost no students will “learn” a foreign language while studying abroad for a quarter, for a semester, even for a school year. That takes several years; immersion is both problematic and much oversold as an initial language learning method. (Actually, I think it does not work at all. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many immigrants stuck in low pay jobs after twenty years.) Immersion lasting a few months will benefit the handful of students who have already spend several years studying the language of the country where they stay. It will make the pieces fall into place faster, so to speak. For the rest of them, they well come back completely unable to line up a sentence beyond, “Lets’ go.” They will often, however, be equipped with rare words such as “antifreeze,” and “suntan lotion-30 strength.”

But living abroad may open young minds in some esoteric, seldom described ways. I tend to agree with this, more or less on trust. But so does an equivalent amount of time spent in a lumber camp. So does a stay in an area occupied by a moderately different social class. So does serving the homeless. So does – come to think of it – working at Burger King if you haven’t already had the experience. Everything different from one’s own experience opens the mind. Why one has to do it at great expense and specifically in a foreign country is not obvious to me. There are always the vestiges of history strewn all over Europe, of course, but I don’t believe many undergraduates begin to do the homework necessary to understand what they are looking at. In fact, I believe only a handful do in a thousand.

Finally, someone a little more honest will say: But they have so much fun! I agree there, although guardedly (I have observed American students abroad being actively miserable). Yes, studying abroad can be a lot of fun for a twenty-year old. But so can a vacation. And, it’s a lot cheaper. And, it’s more honest; it involves no pretense of learning, of significant culture acquisition.

So, one may ask, why do so many American universities maintain the pretense of the essential educational nature of study abroad? Two reasons: First, “Study Abroad” is often a profit center. They are able to charge more for tuition there than is eaten by such programs in faculty and bureaucratic salaries and benefits. Often, low-paid local instructors teach most of what courses are taught anyway. Besides, being abroad at someone else’s expense is often in itself a fringe benefit for American faculty sent abroad (presumably to teach the same courses they would teach at home, but not really). I took advantages of such an opportunity myself once. I spent three radiant months in Italy with my young family, most expenses paid. I did very little real teaching. I counseled students only because I felt like it. There were no boring faculty meetings to attend. It was pretty much a vacation.

The second reason American universities contribute to the fiction of study abroad is that it’s well aligned with their general mission. I explain: Do you wonder why so many undergraduates plunge into deep debt to earn a degree of little practical value (French, history, political science, biology, and best of all, psychology)? Aside from the traditional answer of personal cultivation (to which I happily subscribe for a large minority of the students I have known), there is the highly important symbolic matter of chartering. A college degree is and has been for many years a certificate of belonging to the middle class. No college degree? You may be rich, you may be respected, you may be talented; you are not middle class except if you are all of the above to a very high degree. Having studied abroad, being able to illustrate the fact with superficial comments about a foreign country, or more than one, is part of the chartering deal: “When I was in Italy….” There are costs but little by way of risks involved in the venture. It’s unlikely anyone in this country will be rude enough to address you in Italian; no one will ask you to demonstrate more than a spotty familiarity with Italy’s architecture; it’s unlikely anyone will try to make small talk with you about Italian history. You did it? Good enough! It’s just another youth entitlement. What’s wrong with this?

So, what if your kid is a little cuckoo? What if she can barely get up in the morning because she is so overwhelmed? What if he cries all the time? Well, it’s worth the risk just to make sure he or she enters adult life as a clearly middle class person. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Is this mad or not?


(1) I am grateful to Brandon Christensen, the capable founder and Editor of Notes on Liberty, for introducing this irreplaceable expression into my vocabulary.

PS: I am a retired university professor. My long-form vita can be found here.

The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.

On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.

Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.

Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.

Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that

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La Destitution présidentielle aux EU: quelques faits et deux opinions.

Les medias francophones, du moins les quelques uns qui m’arrivent en Californie, sont surexcités à l’idée de la destitution prochaine du President Trump. J’ai l’impression que c’est parce qu’ils ne comprennent pas ce qui se passe. Un coup de main.

D’abord, il faut passer au-delà des faux-amis contre lesquels nos profs d’anglais ne cessaient jadis de nous prévenir.

Impeachment” signifie à peu près “accusation,” ou “inculpation,” je crois, pas “destitution.”

La Chambre des représentants est en mesure de décider sur simple vote majoritaire d’accuser le président en exercise de tel ou tel délit, ou d’une liste de délits. Il n’est pas obligatoire que les délits soient des infraction en droit, vis-à-vis de la loi.

En entamant cette simple procédure, la Chambre obtient de vastes pouvoirs d’enquête, y compris sur la correspondance officielle de la branche exécutive.

La Chambre ayant ainsi voté d’inculper, le liste officielle des délits supposés passe au Sénat qui agit alors en tant que jury. Le président est condamné pour tel ou tel délit par une majorité des deux tiers du Sénat.

Au moment ou j’écris (10/14/19) on ne sait pas si la phase inculpation (impeachment) de la procédure de destitution a même commencé. Les Démocrates affirment que oui, sur simple déclaration de la cheffe de la majorité à la Chambre, Nancy Pelosi.

Les Républicains et la Maison Blanche maintiennent que non, en l’absence d’un vote initiatif de la Chambre. La tradition donne raison aux derniers. La Constitution, par son mutisme, donne raison aux premiers.

En fin de compte, un tribunal decidera sûrement de qui a raison, peut- être assez vite.

En attendant, l’administration Trump oppose un mur à toutes les demandes de documents et de comparution de témoins issues de la Chambre.

Maintenant, mes opinions. D’abord, il est presque impossible d’imaginer qu’un nombre suffisant de Républicains au Sénat s’aligne sur les Démocrates pour condamner Mr Trump. La majorité des deux tiers n‘est même pas à l’horizon.

Alors, pourquoi les Démocrates s’obstinent-ils?

C’est un cirque dont l’objectif est de masquer leur incurie et leur panique bien réaliste devant la campagne pour les élections de 2020. Ils n’ont rien de sérieux à proposer, alors ils jettent de la poudre aux yeux. Je crois qu’il y aura des émeutes en Novembre 2020 car les Démocrates auront vraiment trop souffert.

Global Warming: Take Off My Sweater?

There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)

When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.

1 Source credibility

Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.

2 Main text: description of process

I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.

3 Narrative around description

Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?

I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.

4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change

Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)

The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.

The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:

In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.

To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).

As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?

My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”

Endnotes

1   “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.

2     I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.

3      The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.

Asking for 9/11

Pres. Trump discontinued the on-going talks with the Taliban without indication there will be a resumption.

What took him so long?

A couple of days before the announcement, the Taliban claimed an attack in Kabul that killed a dozen people including an American. (This is important.) Two weeks prior, the Taliban had massacred the guests at a wedding, also in Kabul . They routinely set off bombs in Shia mosques at prayer time. They are so keen to do it that they often rely on suicide bombers to perform this glorious and pious act.

Many forget, many younger people don’t know, that we did not go into Afghanistan to be mean or to engage in state building, or to reform Afghan society. This, although we may have become mired in such an enterprise after a while. It happened only because Americans don’t like to leave a mess behind. They feel a compulsion to clean up after themselves. Many people also don’t know that more than fifty countries participated alongside us.

After 9/11, reasons emerged to believe that Al-Qaeda was the culprit for those several coordinated terrorist attacks on US soil. The leader of that organization, Osama Bin Laden, obligingly confirmed this by video shortly afterwards.

The US officially asked the ruling Afghan government to turn over Bin Laden for trial. The Taliban government declined to do so. Yes, that simple.

A few weeks later the US and several allies invaded Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden and as many Al-Qaeda members as possible. The most important allies were Afghan opponents of the Taliban government gathered under the name “Northern League.” The Taliban had arranged to assassinate the Northern League’s leader on 9/10. Largely thanks to the Northern League, the coalition, mostly in the person of a few hundred CIA agents, achieved victory and routed the Taliban in a couple of short weeks.

The main purpose of this victorious expedition was dual. First, was the objective to stop the Taliban from doing it again, from again giving shelter to those who would murder American civilians. The second objective was to convince terrorists of all breeds, and beyond those, others with nefarious intentions against us, including China, that if you kill Americans, bad things will happen to you, that you will never sleep untroubled sleep.

A few more words about the Taliban: They are an overtly fanatic Muslim group. During their time in power, they banned music altogether. (Can you believe this?) They stopped girls from going to school at the same time as they made it illegal for male doctors to examine female patients. Please, put two and two together: No educated females, no male doctors treating females. If that is not a formula for feminicide, what is it? Another Taliban achievement was the exemplary shooting in the head of adulteresses. (Their definition of adultery was such that at least half the women in my town of Santa Cruz could be convicted, I remarked at the time.) They did it at halftime during a soccer game. I saw the video on television with my own eyes. It’s a blessing when your objective enemies make it easy for you to hate them.

One stupendous thing about the now broken negotiations is that they did not include the elected government of Afghanistan. The people who took the trouble to organize relatively clean elections, the people who managed to achieve a high rate of school attendance for girls, the people whose country it is in the end, were not invited. It looks to me like, one more time America was abandoning its allies. Besides being shabby and immoral, it’s not good for Americans in the short and long run alike. Others are taking notes: Help Americans; die!

Extricating the US from Afghanistan was part of the Trump platform. It looked like an easy call. Leftists hate America and want it to be defeated whenever possible. Many conservatives and all libertarians wanted a US troop withdrawal from that country because they believe (correctly, I think) that every military action extends the reach and the significance of government, especially of the federal government, over American society. Then Mr Trump started listening to the generals, then he learned what the US was doing in that God-forsaken country. Then, little by little the consequences of an American troop withdrawal dawned on him. Then, the Taliban murdered an American soldier as the talks were concluding. Bad form!

Then, for reasons not well understood at the this time, he fired John Bolton, the clear-headed adviser with a powerful moral compass. To my mind, that is easily the worst decision of Mr Trump’s administration. If I end up not voting for him, this will be playing a main part.

Critics say, “We have been there for eighteen years.” So? We have been in South Korea since 1953; it worked. The fat Rocket Boy has not tried much of anything there, neither did his father, or his grandfather. The American military was in Western Europe from about 1948 to 1995, not with 30,000 troops but with hundreds of thousands. That did the job: No attack to speak of; the Soviet side collapsed. The world was finally rid of the pretense of Communism although that was never the goal. Our firmness, our consistency did it. The American military in Europe for all those years was one of my best investments ever.

Practically, it’s difficult to argue that the US should keep a strong military presence in Afghanistan because doing so subjects you to a discreet kind of blackmail. About the endless expenditure there, they say? How about the dead Americans? I have thought about these moral issues at length. Below are my answers.

Have you bothered to calculate your rough share of the expenditure connected to the American military presence in Afghanistan? Is it $1,000 per year, $100? $10? If you don’t know the answer, you really have no right to complain. If you think that any expenditure there is too much, you are either in bad faith or a pacifist fool.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to state openly that we should accept that more American military personnel will die in Afghanistan. Yet, we do it tacitly for cops and firemen at home all the time. American fatal combat casualties in that country are a tiny fraction of those needlessly and uselessly dying on American roads at the hands of drunk drivers. And none of those dead were volunteers. All military personnel is. (I know I am repeating myself. No one has refuted me much on this point.) On the average, about 250 US military personnel and contractors have died of all causes in Afghanistan each year. This is a large and lamentable number, of course, but it makes for an American military death rate in Afghanistan that is frankly low as compared to the death rate of young black men in Chicago. How can one honestly deplore the former and ignore the latter?

The truth is that Afghanistan is going to remain a vipers’ nest for the foreseeable future. It will remain a good place for terrorists to train and regroup. We need a significant military presence there to limit the damage to ourselves and to strike back when necessary. We need to demonstrate to the world, including to the huge mafia state of China that killing Americans, even trying to do so, is costly and dangerous.

To act in any other way is to ask for another 9/11 or worse, possibly much much worse.

SI VIS PACEM, PARA BELLUM