Nightcap

  1. The strange relationship between virtue and violence Barbara King, Times Literary Supplement
  2. Nixon’s path to peace included bombing Cambodia Rick Brownell, Medium
  3. The suboptimality of the nation-state Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The threshold of land invasion Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nixon to Moscow, slavery’s toll on the economy

My latest is up over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were so sound that he could spend political capital making inroads with Communist enemies. His actions were viewed as safe by the American electorate because, for better or worse, the public saw Nixon as somebody who would not betray American values at the negotiating table with the Soviets. Nixon’s hawkishness provided moral cover for America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and its peaceful overtures to the two most powerful and aggressively anti-capitalist regimes in the world (China and the USSR).

Please, read the whole thing.

Vincent has a great review up on Robert Wright’s new book about slavery, too. It’s at EH.net, a website dedicated to economic history, and here is an excerpt:

All of these amount to the same core point, those who reap the private benefits of slavery are content with their gains even though they come at a larger social cost and they will work to find ways to drive a wider wedge between the two by shifting costs onto other parties. Hence, slavery as pollution.

More here.

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook and partnered with Samsung, and HTC Vive, manufactured by HTC with Valve technology, have lead the 2010 wave in developing virtual reality headsets. These technologies, innovative by today’s standards but primitive by science fiction’s, mark the beginning of a differently structured society. They also mark a starting point for a new debate about privacy, the social affects of videogames, and especially censorship in media.

Virtual reality (in its not-too-distant actuality) offers an opportunity to behave outside of social norms in an environment that is phenomenologically the real world. The only comparable experience for humankind thus far is lucid dreaming, for which the rewards are less intense and the journey less traversible than the quick promises of virtual reality machines. One inevitable development for these machines is violent, sexually explicit experiences, available for cheap and accessible 24/7. To see how VR might be received, the closest industries to analyze are the videogame and pornography industries.

Interestingly, pornography has a very liberal history, in comparison to other “societal ills,” like drugs. Erotica dates back to ancient cultures — notably, the Kama Sutra, hardcore by today’s standards, is still a staple of contemporary sexual experimentation — and today’s perversions were common themes: bestiality, pedophilia, etc., although pornography with an emphasis on violence might be a more modern trend. This isn’t to ignore, however, the roles typically played by women in ancient Western folklore and mythology, which are degrading by today’s feminist standards.

The case could be made that today’s censorial views on pornography come from a far more malevolent or oppressive stance toward women than two millennia ago. The free expression that pornographic media once enjoyed was severely deflated over the 20th century. Only two years ago, a plethora of activities were banned from pornography in the United Kingdom. Reacting to the legislation, commentators were quick to criticize what was seen as policy that was specifically anti-female pleasure. Female ejaculation, fisting, face-sitting, and many forms of spanking or role-play were among the restrictions. There are puritanical, “moral outrage” elements to the restriction, but many noticed the absurdity of banning face-sitting: said one producer, “Why ban face-sitting? What’s so dangerous about it? … Its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.” (There has been well-intended censorship as well. Los Angeles county passed Measure B in 2012 to require condom use during any pornographic scene with anal or vaginal contact, to combat the spread of venereal disease.)

Nowadays, there are plenty of porn directors that have learned to focus on both male and female pleasure, and reintroduced artistic merit to their directions. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when not focused exclusively on abusive sex scenes. In addition, the negative effects of pornography’s presence in society are still being debated. Just the other day, a study which led to headlines like “Porn doubles the risk of divorce” and “porn signifies a death knell for marriage” was criticized by Reason magazine for failing to address important underlying factors that more plausibly contribute to both pornography consumption and an unhappy marriage leading to divorce. There seems to be an obsession on behalf of the great majority of the public in assigning pornography to some sort of social harm.

Research on photographic pornography’s effect on society began early and aggressively. The Meese Report (1986), commissioned by Reagan and still frequently cited by anti-pornography advocates, determined pornography to be detrimental to society and family relations, and especially for women and children. Arguments built on similar reports attempt to connect sexually explicit material with rapes and domestic violence, alleging that the desensitization to rough sex carries over from the depictional world into the real one. Henry E. Hudson, the Chairman of the Meese Commission, alleged that pornography “appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.” The Meese Report, however, has been challenged extensively for bias, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer Pat Califia, concluding a traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, states that the report “holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of Leave It to Beaver.

The United States’ Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, preceding the Meese Report and commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, was unable to find evidence of any direct harm caused by pornography. (Although Nixon, despite the evidence under his administration, believed porn corrupted civilization.) It is curious that a new federal study was requested only sixteen years after the first extensive one, but maybe not too unusual given the growth of porn with technology (from adult stores and newsstands to unlimited free online access; the internet just celebrated its quarter-centennial birthday); also not too unusual given the absurd and expensive studies already undertaken by the federal government. It is also worth pointing out that pornography, though often connected to feminism, is a divisive issue within 20th century and contemporary feminism: some thinkers, like Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as intrinsically anti-women; others feminists like Ellen Willis argued for pornography as liberating and its suppression as moral authoritarianism. The debate along lines of sexuality, online or otherwise, culminated in the feminist “sex wars,” with groups like Feminists Against Censorship and Women Against Pornography popping up. Thus, the debate is open across every ideological camp, and support of pornography is neither necessarily liberal nor necessarily feminist.

[In the next post, I discuss violent pornography’s cross-media transformation into videogames, more sociological research and the general point, and insecurity, of prohibitory measures.]

Fifty Years of Voting

I cast my first vote in 1964, shortly after turning 21, the legal voting age in those days. I voted for Barry Goldwater who, although he described himself as a conservative, didn’t fit that category by today’s standards. He was for free markets but he was not particularly religious and he held a laissez-faire attitude toward alternate lifestyles. He was, unfortunately, a war hawk, so he wouldn’t fit very well into today’s libertarian category, either.

Four years later I voted for Richard Nixon, sad to say. I somehow thought he was for free markets, being a Republican. I was cured of that delusion by a wakeup call at 8:15 AM on Monday, August 16, 1971. That was the moment I saw the headline in the L.A. Times announcing Nixon’s dastardly Sunday evening perfidy: price controls, closing the gold window, and an import tariff surcharge. All of these statist actions very quickly played out disastrously. Their personal import was to cure me of any notion that Republicans were necessarily friends of liberty. I became a libertarian that Monday morning and never looked back.

Of course that decision meant never again voting for a winner.  I voted for John Hospers in 1972, and he actually got one electoral vote from a renegade Republican elector, Roger MacBride, who was the LP candidate in 1976. Ed Clark’s 1980 campaign on the Libertarian ticket, generously funded by the Koch brothers, gave me brief hope for the new party, which we all know has come to naught. I’ve “wasted” my vote on Libertarian candidates ever since. Thanks to Proposition 14 in California, I can only vote for Libertarians in the primary elections; minor parties are shut out of the general election. In many races the general election is a contest between two Democrats. I resist any urge to vote for the lesser evil of the two so now I just leave most of my ballot blank and vote against all tax measures.

If we must have voting, I offer a couple of common-sense reforms:

  • Raise the voting age to 30. People under that age are clueless.
  • Require voters to pass a stiff qualification exam, something far more rigorous than the simple literacy tests of yore.
  • Institute a stiff poll tax, at least enough to cover election costs. Why force non-voters to pay?

I’m tempted to throw in land ownership as another criterion, but the foregoing should suffice. Of course this reform would leave many people feeling disenfranchised, but so what? Most people are far too ignorant to judge issues and candidates rationally and should be kept away from voting booths at all costs. Anyway, the system would leave a path open for people to earn enfranchisement by working hard to satisfy the above criteria.

Would I apply for enfranchisement under my proposed system?  No way; I have better things to do.  Will I vote this year?  I suppose so. I have no idea what will be on the ballot, but there will doubtless be some lame-brain propositions to vote against.

Hating Energy Dependence, Not Loving Energy Independence

I have been working on this piece since November 30th. I wrote the bulk of it on the first day, and most editing since has been cosmetic. It is related to a project I am helping a friend with, although that is not the reason I wrote it. I don’t often blog about things that recently happened, and when I do bring up current events it is usually in a very general way. The same is true about this post as well. Still, gas prices have been falling, where I’m located at least, ever since before Thanksgiving. A gallon of regular has been stuck at $2.94 for a week or more now and I begin to wonder if they’re not ready to go back up again. Mentioning that is the best I can do to tie to any recent goings-on to the material below, which I hope you, the reader, enjoy, as it is my very first official Notes on Liberty contribution. Thanks again, Brandon, et al.

What’s so bad about Energy Dependence?

Contrary to what one might be led to think, energy independence need not be the opposite of energy (inter)dependence. Likewise, contrary to what many advocates of free markets and free trade will say, energy dependence (perhaps not their choice of words), is not a good thing. Energy interdependence certainly can be a good thing, but in today’s world I can’t agree that every instance of it always is.

The argument in support of energy interdependence runs, energy is cost-effective so long as it is abundant, therefore, the more suppliers of energy we have, the better. But the statement can also lead to another conclusion: therefore, the larger the size of the supply, the better. What this should mean is a very large domestic supply is as good or better than simply a large foreign supply. This does not mean they aren’t both good. And of course, the more suppliers there are the greater the potential for competition to lower prices, but I suspect that it is much easier to get competition amongst a few suppliers in a free (well, sort of) country than it is to get competition amongst several suppliers in an unfree world. Continue reading

August 15, 1971

People who were alive in 1941 can tell you right where they were on Pearl Harbor day.  I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  We all remember 9/11.   Another day that I sticks in my memory just as clearly is one that is now remembered by few: Sunday, August 15, 1971.

There was no internet in those days and no cable news channels, so I was mercifully spared the news until the following morning at 8:15 when I opened my motel room door in Huntington Beach and saw the L.A. Times on the doorstep with a headline that said something like “Nixon Imposes Price Controls.”

I was shocked and disgusted for two reasons: though I was employed as an aerospace engineer, I was beginning to learn about free markets, having attended a FEE seminar the year before at which Mises and Hazlitt  – now saints of Austrian economics – lectured.  And I had voted for Nixon in 1968, naively believing the Republicans were the party of free markets.  The following year I signed up with the new Libertarian Party and never looked back on the Republicans until 2008 when Ron Paul ran.

Here is a video recording of Nixon announcing a 90-day “freeze” on prices and wages. Note the Orwellian references to the evils of price controls even as he imposes them.Image

So what was the big emergency that prompted such a drastic response?  Unemployment was running about 6%; price inflation at about 5%.  Nixon’s problem was that an election was coming up in the following year.  He remembered bitterly his narrow loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election which he attributed to a mild recession of that year. Now he was determined to goose the economy and get himself re-elected. Like FDR, Nixon loved dramatic strokes and never mind the consequences. Earlier that year the man who had made his reputation as an implacable anti-communist had made a sudden and dramatic overture to communist China.  So on that sleepy Sunday Nixon delivered another bold stroke, in an end run around the Democratic opposition.  Perhaps it worked: he won 49 states in the 1972 election with considerable help from his bumbling opponent, George McGovern.

His action was quite popular.  The stock market surged that Monday morning and polls showed a 75% approval rate.  But Milton Friedman was right when he predicted “utter failure and the emergence into the open of suppressed inflation.”  Another freeze was imposed in 1973 but this time the damage to the economy became evident.  As explained in the excellent video series “The Commanding Heights,” “ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets.”  Inflation reached a peak of about 14% before the decade was out and before the powers that be accepted the fact that excessive money creation is the main cause of price inflation. George Schulz, Nixon’s economic advisor and a vigorous opponent of price controls consoled himself with the thought that Nixon had demonstrated dramatically how not to fight inflation.

Nixon wasn’t finished.  During that same Sunday broadcast he slapped a 10% tariff on imported goods, accompanied by some blather about fairness.  More significantly, he ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system.  That arrangement, conceived in 1944, had the U.S. dollar convertible into gold at $35 per ounce, but only for foreign central banks.  Not only could private banks and private citizens not convert their dollars, it was even illegal to own gold (with exceptions for dentists, jewelers, etc.).  I made a point of violating that particular law on principle before the prohibition was lifted in 1974.

In all fairness, the Bretton Woods system was doomed long before that August.  The gold exchange standard had persisted only because of a gentlemen’s agreement that European central bankers would refrain from exercising their redemption rights to any significant degree.  So many new dollars had been created to finance Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and his “Great Society” at home, and so many of those dollars were parked overseas as a result of trade imbalances, that the U.S. government could not come close to honoring its Bretton Woods obligation in full.  The French under de Gaulle and his gold-bug advisor Jacques Rueff had become increasingly strident about the situation, but in early August the British ambassador showed up with $3 billion to be redeemed, and that may have been the straw that broke the camels back.

So on that same Sunday Nixon slammed the gold window shut (video here)  pushing us out of the frying pan of Bretton Woods, under which numerous wrenching devaluations had wracked international trade, into the fire of floating exchange rates, the system we have now.  The devaluations are gone but the wild swings in currency values, something that was not foreseen by Milton Friedman who was an early advocate of currency markets, are almost as bad.  Now, wonder of wonders, there is resurgent talk of some sort of gold standard.

Reagan tempted me with with some pretty inspiring rhetoric in his 1980 campaign about getting the government off our backs.  Not enough to vote for him, but I was glad he got elected and with the help of Fed chairman Paul Volcker he did break the back of inflation, but he never got spending under control and he didn’t deserve as much credit as he got for the fall of communism, which had been rotten at its core for decades.  But Bush I was terrible and in hindsight Clinton wasn’t all bad, yet I confess I was relieved when Bush II beat Gore in 2000.  I needn’t remind anyone what a disaster GWB was with his wars, his unfunded medicare expansion and his bailouts (OK, thanks for the tax cut).

I’m voting for Gary Johnson who won’t win, and I really don’t care who wins.  Gridlock is the least bad outcome, even if that means the despicable Obama stays in office facing a Republican congress.