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Semiformalishmaybe

2008 Economic Woes

Later tonight, I'm going to see Jerry White of the Socialist Equality Party talk about the recent economic woes (UPitt, Cathedral of Learning Room339, 19:00). I expect it to be mostly rubbish, but possibly interesting rubbish. The economic problems are not something that most people understand, although a number of people who like talking about politics think they understand it - I've heard a number of unintelligent conversations that were basically of the form "the problem with the system is that government isn't of whatever form I've been pushing all along, and if the system were just more economically free/socialist/whatever angle they're coming at, we would not be in this mess. That's an easy adaptation to one's tired political discourse - one gets to rehash the same old arguments one's been using with just a light nod and wave to the current situation, without understanding that situation or thinking at all. This is what I expect of Jerry White (him being socialist and my being communist doesn't earn him any free points for intellectual integrity in my scorebook). Perhaps I shall be pleasantly surprised.

Could there be substance? Perhaps - careful examination of the economic problems revolves around a number of key issues:

  • harmful competition in large economic institutions
  • difficulties with efforts at steering the economy to broaden home ownership
  • speculation on legislative action and essentiality of those institutions (the meta layer), tied to general business ethics
  • A strong versus weak SEC
  • Existing recent difficulties in other financial markets (e.g. European banks)
  • market confidence, job security, and other perception-type effects
We could imagine principled, intelligent stances from various perspectives on the current situation:
  • Someone devoted to lassiez-faire markets might focus on the problems in how the political push for lower-rate house loans worked out, avoiding the issues of harmful competition, the SEC, and speculation
  • a mixed-market capitalist would probably give the traditional response that a combination of underregulation and mismanagement of the political intervention (not bad in theory but botched in practice) led to the crisis - this is something I've heard most often by people informed about the issues
  • A socialist or communist would suggest that these kinds of problems will crop up every so often as the combination of an expectation of endless growth and an environment that celebrates unethical behaviour, and eventually the frequency of crises like these will cause the system to fall apart
The problem with the latter perspective is that simple presentations of it are dishonest - not all forms of capitalism are the same, and there are plenty of mixed market models available too - it's only a criticism of some forms, and is usually overstated.

Avoiding overstrong (or overly self-serving) arguments is a mark of maturity I believe we should strive for, and we should be willing to judge others by their tendencies on these matters - strong positions should be born of a number of lighter reasons, values, and passions.

Colin Powell has been big in the news recently - a long-term moderate Republican, he made waves by (as a kind of mirror of Joe Lieberman) endorsing Barack Obama (because he felt the other team was bad for America in a non-value-difference way) and for statements on race and religion in society. If we imagine that we could simplify politics down to a Venn Diagram (we can't simplify that much, but it makes for a good analogy), there are areas of the national interest that are held in common by the set of clouds of perspectives represented by the Republican party and those represented by the Democratic party. We could construct lists that the centres and many of the factions of each party holds in common (understanding too that the parties are by no means the same and that nonpartisianship cannot be panacea to most issues). Lieberman holds that Barack Obama is too inexperienced to lead the nation, which is why, despite continuing to self-identify as a centrist Democrat, he stumped for McCain at the RNC. Colin Powell is a centrist Republican (not quite in the same wing as Schwartzenegger) who feels likewise about Sarah Palin (McCain's age/health is getting as much attention as Bob Dole's) and so is stumping for Obama. Suggestions have been floating around that each would get some kind of role in their chosen's administration. Powell's support is interesting - although he's not a liberal (the views of his son in managing the FCC were very unfortunate), his positions are generally palettable by mainstream Democrats - I would wonder if it will be an issue "how black the ticket is" in people's perception if his support is overused (perhaps in combination with others) - people will probably feel more comfortable seeing a very heavily racially mixed administration than one that feels "mostly black" (although that's increasingly true for white candidates - representativeness versus competency is a touchy issue).

The other thing Powell's been in the news for is offering a strong criticism over a common fear of islam pertaining to misconceptions over Obama's identity. That's a complex topic for me - I agree that there are westernised Muslims who are fine people (who have some notion of virtue that I roughly accept and value), and I am aware that normative Islam in the middle east considers groups such as Al Qaida as heretical (rightly so, given my understanding of the theology involved), nontraditional, and dangerous - worth opposition. That said, I don't believe that Islam (or Christianity, for that matter) is automatically harmless, and would both be comfortable with an absolute lithmus test barring any candidate that supports Sharia law in a country (either as a "voluntary alternative" or as a dominant system) from politics, and I would be comfortable (but would not push as hard for) restricting politics to people with either a strong "will-run-the-nation-and-setup-the-laws secularly" identity or actual atheist/agnostic identity - I don't think theocrats of any flavour should have a place in politics, and Islam being a younger, more vital and honest religion than Christianity has a greater risk of bringing about religious rule. Nations like Turkey have done a good job at managing this kind of stance over the years (secular state with a largely Muslim population, theocrats weeded out from politics).

Also interesting, but a bit more general - Wikipedia (hooray for "no original research") has enumerated aspects of a "Powell Doctrine" of foreign intervention, comparing them with other recent and historical notions of when/how the US should intervene.

What would a good summary of intuitions designed to fit the same kind of place in a policy doctrine look like?

Adequate causes of war (nonexclusive):

  • Threat to territorial integrity of one's nation or its very close allies
  • Crimes against humanity (must be considered in light of the occasional necessity for force in politics - stopping civil wars in general would be harmful, but stopping genocide would not generally be - shows of force and ugly measures against militant separatists fall into a grey area)
  • Preventing spread of implementation of religious rule to new areas
  • Preventing implementation of anarchocapitalism in new areas
  • Large-scale theft or destruction of natural resources, especially those that cross relevant national borders or affect all of humanity
Inadequate causes of war (reasonably absolute):
  • Wealth, economic issues (includes oil), combatting other nations' nationalisation of foreign investment, opposing communism
Adequate concerns for war:
  • Can we win?
  • On the broadest possible scale, is it fair to intervene?
  • Can we get broad support?
  • What kinds of commitment are entailed after victory?
I don't see those coming down into a simple doctrine. There are times when any of the concerns could be overridden, and making an exhaustive list of adequate or inadequate causes for war (and how they fit with the concerns) is not very doable.

One more little sigh - I have failed to rediscover the magic set of things to pass to the Linux kernel to tell it that my i8042 (keyboard/busmouse controller in my laptop) is lousy and to both ignore the trackpad and treat the keyboard delicately. The trackpad is indeed disabled, but the keyboard randomly repeats keys (maybe I had to tell it not to poll the battery very often?). At work, it is a joy to use a USB keyboard instead. I would be thrilled if in the future even the builtin pointers and keyboards on laptops are connected to the system "via" USB. I've seen the i8042 misbehave on a wide variety of laptops (even on windows sometimes), and am convinced that that chip needs to be laid to rest. I really don't want my next laptop to have these same issues.

I'm not exactly looking forward to the Palo Alto trip this coming week, and am still trying to decide if I want to drive to ColumbusOhio for Halloween as soon as I get back or whether I will be tired from a week's travel. My personal life still is painfully empty, and my reactions to it don't interact well with any hope for improving it. Blah. At least California will be warm, I think, and it'll be at least a bit amusing to see HP's headquarters.

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