Biodiesel, Yea or Nay?

I had been under the impression for some time that the US government's subsidies for biodiesel production were misguided, as producing biodiesel supposedly cost more fossil fuels than it replaced. As to why the US government would continue to subsidize biodiesel… well, soybean growers are generally found in swing states, right?

But that logic does not explain why environmental activists would pursue biodiesel with such fervor. Admittedly, many environmentalists ignore economic costs in favor of environmental impact, but one might expect them to be able to account for the direct fuel costs of producing biodiesel in the first place.

Today I stumbled on this 1998 report by the Depts. of Agriculture and Energy on the "life-cycle" costs of biodiesel, which explains much of the difference (section 9.2.2):
A survey of commercial technology for biodiesel reveals that there is high degree of variation on reported steam and electricity requirements for the transesterification process. High and low estimates for both steam and electricity used in the model are indicated in Table 138….

Steam requirements vary 3.5-fold from the lowest to the highest value. Electricity varies 4.4-fold. This high degree of variability warrants testing the range of these assumptions in our model to assess the uncertainty of our overall results related to this assumption. Furthermore, energy inputs for soybean oil conversion are a substantial part of the life cycle, making this variability even more important.
In other words, biodiesel detractors use the high values for energy consumption, while biodiesel advocates use the low values. Energy and resource consumption is even lower if the projections assume that biodiesel production occurs in particular ideal regions of the country, such as Chicago (section 9.2.1).

The report concludes that on average:
Biodiesel yields 3.2 units of fuel product energy for every
unit of fossil energy consumed in its life cycle. The production of B20 [20% biodiesel, 80% diesel] yields 0.98 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed. By contrast, petroleum diesel’s life cycle yields only 0.83 units of fuel product energy per unit of fossil energy consumed.
Apparently, biodiesel is indeed more energy-efficient than petroleum-based fuel. This is especially true since in a comptetitive marketplace, producers will be driven to employ more efficient processing methods, as opposed to the less efficient ones. Now, the only catch is to build up the necessary infrastructure. Few gas stations sell biodiesel (ironically, Willie Nelson's B20 mix "BioWillie" is mostly sold in Texas), and unless consumers can easily switch over, they will have little incentive to do so.

The United States can grow truly awe-inspiring amounts of food, so much that we have to pay farmers to grow less. If biodiesel is truly a viable alternative to petroleum, I see no reason why we should not implement it as quickly as we can. (Especially with the Iranians acting up…)


Doctrinal Inadequacy

A recent report in the Washington Post by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British officer who served in Iraq, argues that US military efforts there are hampered in two critical areas. First, the military is too wedded to the notion of "killing people and breaking stuff," and has yet to systematically internalize the lessons and methods of a proper counterinsurgency, or of using military means to achieve political ends. Second, the military chain of command remains rigidly hierarchical and prone to micromanagement from the top; while the need for decentralized control or "mission command" is recognized in theory, little has been done to implement it in practice. Additionally, the military was profoundly weakened in the 1990s, losing a great deal of institutional memory and skill.

Key paragraphs:
Nonetheless, the characteristic U.S. military intent has remained one of uncompromising destruction of the enemy’s forces, rather than a more finely tuned harnessing of military effect to serve political intent—a distinction in the institutional understanding of military purpose that becomes highly significant when an army attuned to conventional warfare suddenly needs to adapt to the more subtle political framework of a COIN [counterinsurgency] campaign.


Commanders and staff at all levels were strikingly conscious of their duty, but rarely if ever questioned authority, and were reluctant to deviate from precise instructions. Staunch loyalty upward and conformity to one’s superior were noticeable traits. Each commander had his own style, but if there was a common trend it was for micro-management, with many hours devoted to daily briefings and updates. Planning tended to be staff driven and focused on process rather than end effect. The net effect was highly centralised decision-making, which worked when serving a commander with a gift for retaining detail and concurrently managing a plethora of issues, but all too readily developed undue inertia. Moreover, it tended to discourage lower level initiative and adaptability, even when commanders consciously encouraged both.


A significant symptom, and in time a catalyst for the de-professionalisation of the Army, was the so-called exodus of the captains, now a well documented phenomenon. Captains are a particularly significant rank in the U.S. Army, as they provide the company commanders, and it is arguably company and squad commanders who are the lynchpin in the de-centralised operations that tend to characterise COIN and S&R campaigns. According to Mark R. Lewis, in the mid-90s, junior officers, particularly captains, began leaving the Army in increasing numbers. The captain attrition rate exceeded the in-flow necessary to maintain a steady state, such that by 2000 the Army could fill only 56% of those positions intended for experienced captains with officers of the right quality and experience.


Tempting though it may be to attribute all the problems in OIF to U.S. institutional ineptitude and a collective closed view of the world, this is simplistic, quite apart from being unjust. Enlightened Americans in theatre, military and civilian, were surprisingly willing, for such a powerful nation, to bare their professional souls and heed advice from other nationals. A visit to various U.S. Army establishments in May 2005 to research this paper revealed a similar open-mindedness, frankness, and hunger to learn and adapt, in order to improve military effectiveness. It was also clear that Army senior leadership was actively engaged.


However, to conclude, as some do, that the Army is simply incompetent or inflexible, is simplistic and quite erroneous. If anything the Army has been a victim of its own successful development as the ultimate warfighting machine. Always seeing itself as an instrument of national survival, over time the Army has developed a marked and uncompromising focus on conventional warfighting, leaving it ill-prepared for the unconventional operations that characterise OIF Phase 4. Moreover, its strong conventional warfighting organisational culture and centralised way of command have tended to discourage the necessary swift adaptation to the demands of Phase 4. Its cultural singularity and insularity have compounded the problem, as has the recent so-called ‘de-professionalisation’.
Read the whole thing.


The Palestinians Have Chosen

Voting results have come out in the most recent Palestinian elections, giving Hamas a commanding majority in the Palestinian parliament. In other words, a terrorist organization that has not even had the decency to pretend for the audience that it had mellowed (as did Fatah) is now in effective control of a semi-autonomous region containing over 2.5 million people.

It is true that a not-insignificant component of their victory was out of popular disgust with Fatah, which was notoriously corrupt and unable to provide basic services and security for the PA. But Palestinians could have voted for the independent party of a former PA finance minister who also happened to be a World Bank official (can't find the name at the moment). That they voted for Hamas instead cannot be ignored.

Some are looking for a silver lining, saying that a Hamas in power must inevitably moderate itself as it focuses more on good governance. Perhaps; if so, I certainly will not mind much. But there is absolutely no reason to assume that will happen; Hamas's much-touted schools and hospitals are nothing more than recruiting centers for the Jihad, and everything they do is geared towards that goal. Will they do otherwise with the resources of the PA? Doubtful.

Should the Palestinians continue their war, Israel cannot hesitiate. The Palestinian populace has publicly thrown its support behind a program of anihilation, and they should face the consequences should that program be carried out.


Quote of the Day

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other.
—George Orwell, "Pacifism and the War" (1942).


The Quick and the Dead: War in Open Societies

In 1989, warfighting theory was thrown into upheaval by the publication of "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA),  Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). They pointed out the trend in war toward a greater blurring of the distinctions between soldier and civilian, frontline and rear, state and nonstate actor; they then predicted that this trend would culminate in what they called "fourth-generation warfare," or 4GW:
In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred. Again, all these elements are present in third generation warfare; fourth generation will merely accentuate them….

A major target will be the enemy population's support of its government and the war. Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions….

Terrorists use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it. They use our democratic rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves.
Building on this work, many academics began thinking about how the nature of war itself was changing. Two researchers whose work I have followed for several years now are John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt at the RAND Corporation, who have written extensively on swarming in battle, and what they call "Netwar" (for example, see here). Starting at least a decade ago, every major work that they have published has included the following policy implications: "Hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks…. It takes networks to fight networks…. Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages."

While the US military and government appreciate the need for networking and more flexible communications, at least in theory (which is already a sizeable improvement over earlier attitudes), the fundamental approach has been to graft network structures onto fundamentally hierarchical organizations, without restructuring those organizations at all. We are better now at networking than ever before, but we are still constrained by the inherent limitations of the underlying hierarchies.

Not so our enemies. It is unclear to what extent terror groups were already moving towards 4GW and decentralized networks on their own, and how much they learned from the theoretical work of Western warfighting scholars. But it is clear that they have learned from us. When al-Qaida took responsibility for 9/11, their statement made repeated, explicit reference to 4GW theory:
The time has come for the Islamic movements facing a general crusader offensive to internalize the rules of fourth-generation warfare. They must consolidate appropriate strategic thought, and make appropriate military preparations. They must increase interest in Da'wa [proselytizing], and recruit the peoples' public and political support. In addition to the religious obligation, this has become an integral part of the means to triumph in fourth-generation warfare. Old strategists, such as [von] Clausewitz and Mao Zedong, have already indicated this. Perhaps the best example is the phenomenon of the intifada, that wiped out the Zionist military's mighty superiority over the Muslim Palestinian people.
Here we have one of the fundamental dangers of an open society: its enemies can learn from its expertise just as quickly as the society itself can—especially when military doctrines are developed in public discussion, allowing adversaries to react accordingly or use such doctrines themselves. That is not to say necessarily that open societies are doomed in war (though it is worth noting that historically, most doctrinal discussions were censored from the public view during wartime), but it does highlight the costs of inflexibility.

If an open society is to disseminate the best work of its military theorists, it had better be implementing those theorists' recommendations as quickly as they determine that those recommendations are sound. Otherwise, the society risks falling victim to strategies of its own devising, purely due to its institutional lethargy. Yet in the United States, often our best theorists were made into pariahs because their work threatened to upset the wrong applecarts. For example, Col. John Boyd, despite his brilliance and the self-evident truth of his OODA Loop, and despite his crucial work on the F-16 fighter, was quickly blackballed from polite company among Pentagon brass. Only the Marine Corps appreciated him fully, and took the erstwhile fighter pilot under its wing during the latter portion of Col. Boyd's life.

This seems to be a problem in all levels of public life, where changes that desperately need to happen are axed for fear of disrupting the status quo. We cannot afford the luxury of such complacence for long, especially as new threats are looming ever closer. Life is change; if our institutions will not change to better fit the need, we will all pay the price.


Liberalism Face to Face with Death

Little Green Footballs points to news of the al-Masri trial, in which British feel-good liberalism is having to confront the core contradiction in its nature:
COPIES of the Koran were handed to the jurors in the Abu Hamza trial yesterday as his defence argued that some of the cleric’s “offensive” statements were drawn directly from Islam’s holy book.

Edward Fitzgerald, QC, for the defence, said that Abu Hamza’s interpretation of the Koran was that it imposed an obligation on Muslims to do jihad and fight in the defence of their religion. He said that the Crown case against the former imam of Finsbury Park Mosque was “simplistic in the extreme”.

He added: “It is said he was preaching murder, but he was actually preaching from the Koran itself.”
In other words, so long as incitement to murder is justified on religious grounds, it should be protected just as any other religion. This forces liberalism to face squarely what it has steadfastly avoided looking at for decades: some religions are evil.

Once the British understood this, such as when they destroyed the Thuggee cult in India. Now, they must learn again that multiculturalism is incompatible with true peace.

(I wonder whether the defense barristers did this intentionally to bring the topic to greater attention. If so, kudos to them.)

An Educational Ideal for a Changing World, Part 2

Yesterday, I outlined in broad strokes the problems I see in our predominent educational model. Today, I would like to suggest a new model for education designed to produce citizens who are moral, prudent, creative, skilled, flexible, and knowledgeable.

It is worth noting that many of the suggestions to follow are such radical breaks from established procedure that it will take a lot of tinkering to translate them into the real world. For purposes of this piece, let us assume that we live in the best of all possible worlds, where wonderful teachers have a capable administration backing them up and access to huge amounts of money, and a supportive community of parents. (And noses exist to hold up our spectacles, et cetera. But regardless…)

1. Instead of grouping students by age, this new model would borrow from the structure used in Scouting. Within a Scout troop, scouts are assigned to patrols in which the age spread is usually two to three years. Senior scouts in each patrol assume leadership, and train their younger comrades for eventual leadership themselves. More importantly, even the younger patrols are constantly around the senior patrols made up of older teenagers, and older scouts are constantly teaching skills and techniques to the younger scouts as well as modeling proper behavior (both of which help in developing the older scouts' skills as well, and force them to live up to a higher standard).

The precise way in which this could be emulated in a school would have to be worked out. But the guiding principles would be youth mentoring, of collaboration with older students, and of youth leadership within the class. It is well known that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and to have senior students teaching more junior ones (with proper supervision) would powerfully reinforce their own skills. Additionally, the influence of older students may restrain the emergence of the "Lord of the Flies" mentality and cliqueishness that we often see in typical classes, and more quickly socialize younger students to proper modes of behavior.

2. Classrooms would be specially designed from the start to inspire the proper mental atmosphere. The architecture and furnishings would be calculated to convey a sense of wonder, of expansiveness, of endless possibility. Students could either sit in chairs and at desks that are properly designed to promote good posture and avoid back probelms, or they could stand behind lecterns (such as this one) that allow students to rock back and forth or otherwise fidget as necessary. Chairs or lecterns could be placed anywhere in the room, within reason.

Periodically, classes would be held outside, among trees or other vegetation. Nature is both a source of some of life's greatest wonders and lessons, and a wonderful tool for calming students who feel stifled by the cloistered environment of a classroom.

Learning materials would be designed to be as light as possible. Large textbooks would be broken into smaller segments, computerized materials would be used if possible, and care would be taken to avoid the back problems that plague our schools today. Additionally, classes would incorporate movement and exercise whenever possible, as well as teaching basic forms of meditation so that students can learn to quiet their emotions and focus, without coercion or excessive medication. Students (indeed, some adults) must learn that they are not hostage to the vagaries of their neurotransmitters, but can exert conscious control over what they think, feel, and perceive.

3. The fine arts would be a primary focus, following Aristotle's dictum that music and art are the best ways to teach love for the Good. All students would be taught at least one instrument, or at least one physical medium, or dancing, or writing, or (optionally) any of these in combination. Moreover, suplies and computer equipment such as graphics programs or CAD systems would be made available so that students can create their own music, or paintings, or stories, or poetry, or inventions, and package them for wide distribution. Students would be encouraged to immerse themselves in artistic and mechanical creativity.

There would be frequent exhibitions on campus by musicians or other artists, open to students, parents, and the general community. Students would thus learn what good art looks and sounds like, and be inspired to create their own. This would also be meant to innoculate students from degenerate culture, as much as possible.

4. All subjects would be interdisciplinary, as much as possible. Additionally, students would learn the different modes of thought: formal and informal logic, reductionism, holism, and different ways of understanding the outside world. The goal would be to make them more agile and rigorous thinkers, who can transcend particular paradigms, adapt to changing circumstances, and be effective thinkers at all times. Students would also learn how to balance the head against the heart, and not to emphasize one at the expense of the other; emotion and logic should work hand in hand, not at cross-purposes.

5. Students would be taught from day one how to manage their finances. All students would learn about credit cards, home loans, budgeting, how to spend money wisely, and the basics of investing. Optional classes would teach entreprenuerialism, more advanced finance, and organization and logistics. (The truth is, such things are not hard to learn at all if you start early.) Students would draw up budgets and track their spending habits, receiving guidance from teachers. They would also be given the resources and knowledge to form their own businesses, and encouragement and mentoring from successful businessmen in the community.

Moreover, students would be taught to treat money as an organic part of their moral behavior. Money, strictly speaking, simply allows the possessor to do more things; developing the proper attitude towards money will lead to healthier behavior and avoid crass materialism or sacrificing morality for the sake of material gain.

6. Most of all, students would be taught civics and morality. This does not mean heavyhanded indoctrination; rather, they would learn all of the classic thinkers on the need for civics, and the foundation of morality. Religious schools would have a stronger basis to draw on here, and should take full advantage of it; yet even secular schools have the great thinkers of the Western tradition. This is the key point: it does no good to train brilliant pupils if they go on to harm people and society with their brilliance. Power brings responsibility, and that responsibility must be taught.

A few additional points. The school day would be lengthened to better match the typical work schedule; parents should not have to choose between their work and their children. The additional time would be entirely unstructured, giving students a chance to play, think, take advantage of school facilities, do research, and unwind. School should not be entirely regimented; children are not factory workers, but fresh minds and bodies. This time could also be used for in-school assignments. "Homework" as such, with the exception of long-term assignments, would not exist. Schools have no right to infringe on the private time of families on a regular basis.

The youngest students would be placed in intensive foreign-language immersion courses. The benefits of learning additional languages are profound, aside from the practical ability to understand people from other countries. In theory, young children can learn any number of languages if they are taught, and this should be exploited to the fullest. The ideal student should learn Arabic, French, and Chinese at the very least.

And of course, educational games would be promoted at every opportunity. This includes the stalawarts like Chess and Go, but also games like Cashflow and computer games that focus on concepts like logic, strategy, logistics, and spatial reasoning. At any rate, if it's good for the kids, it's in.

The end result of this program should be to produce citizens who are well-equipped for the fluid world that we will see in the future. Certainly, they should outperform the unfortunate inmates of the conventional educational system.


An Educational Ideal for a Changing World, Part 1: The Problem

Elementary education today generally follows a model first developed in the late 1800s, in which students divided up by age are placed in rigidly structured classes where each academic subject is taught in isolation from all others, and all students follow a common curriculum. This model has achieved much in its time, allowing relatively few teachers to instruct relatively many students to a tolerable standard within systematically defined fields. Compared to the widespread illiteracy and ignorance that plagued society in previous years [UPDATE: maybe not, see comments], the educational system produced results that were, on average, quite beneficial. That individuals are almost never educated up to their potential, and that the system was plagued with certain endemic flaws (discussed below), was an acceptable tradeoff.

These days, however, societies cannot be satisfied with a populace educated to be minimally competent and able to follow a centrally-mandated schedule. In the Information Economy, the key commodity is not brute labor but technical expertise, along with fertile creativity and entreprenuerial skill. Here the educational system falls short; most students have the creativity beaten out of them by the time they leave high school, their general educations are becoming less and less effective, and worst of all they are no longer taught to be good people and good citizens. Let us examine the particulars:

1. Grouping children by age allows teachers to approximate grouping by ability, permitting assemby-line educating with large classes. But this is a rough approximation at best; children develop in different areas at different speeds, and to lump them all together necessitates teaching to the lowest common denominator. Children who are advanced in a particular subject are bored to tears, and children who develop more slowly are taught too quickly for them to absorb what they learn.

Aside from this, the whole idea of grouping children by age is wrongheaded. Children mirror the behavior they see; they learn from those around them. Does it make more sense for an immature, inexperienced child to learn from older, wiser children and adults, or to have his unformed sense of etiquette and morality amplified twentyfold and reflected back at him by similarly immature classmates?

In school, children learn from each other social norms that damage them for life. All the physical and mental cruelties that children inflict on each other, the focus on gaining status through crass materialism, or through hurting others, or through deliberate crudeness and violation of common courtesy in order to be "cool," the "lobster-pot effect" in which those who perform best are seen as targets for scorn and ridicule—all these arise because schoolyard society is "Lord of the Flies" writ large, in which no senior voices of wisdom exist to guide the development of a child's behavior (aside from teachers, who usually cannot stop the anarchy and seldom try).

2. Most schools and classrooms are seemingly designed to evoke dread and dullness from their inhabitants, and to make learning itself hateful. People are strongly influenced by their physical surroundings, and particular styles of architecture create different moods. The Capitol Building in Washington DC is a perfect example. When you walk by, you cannot help but be struck by a sense of tremendous pride and awe. Here is a building that speaks of the unlimited potential of man, the strength of this country, its virtues and its goals, and yet makes each onlooker feel as though he personally is a part of it all. Soviet architecture, on the other hand, was meant to impress upon the viewer his insignificance and frailty compared to the awesome power of the state; it is no wonder that the style has been adopted by tyrants the world over.

Most schools, unfortunately, borrow much from the Soviets. In an institution that should represent unlimited possibilities and the power of the human imagination, one often finds constricted corridors and stifling, boxlike rooms. Color schemes are badly thought out, windows are rare for fear of outside distractions, buildings are often made of crumbling brick and mortar.

In a classroom, children are often arranged in rows and columns, surrounded by walls covered with the most saccharine sort of stylized propaganda. Chairs and desks are often poorly designed, causing bad posture and resulting in health problems and constant discomfort. Books are far too heavy, causing spinal damage when the poor kids must carry massive loads back and forth. Children must sit still for hours at a time, leaving them in poor shape and slothful. Most children are naturally active; confinement behind desks is unnatural, causes them to disrupt class out of boredom, and teaches that a high energy level is something to be avoided and suppressed. (Is it any surprise that we have increasing levels of obesity?)

3. Most schools do not adequately teach the fine arts. This is a tragedy both because of the incredible creative talent that is constantly wasted, in graphic arts, music, writing, or sculpture, but also because art is one of the most sublime pathways to greater creativity in general. Creativity depends in large part on synthesizing old concepts in new ways; doing this requires skill at free association, a mode of thought directly opposed to the structured, logical mode of research papers and the like. Schools do not easily tolerate free association; creativity cannot be easily quantized and graded, so children are instead admonished to "stay on task."

Additionally, because schools do not consciously teach students what good art is, they are free to prefer degenerate forms of music and art instead. Their minds suffer as a result. (I encourage readers to listen to a typical rap station, to analyze the experience of having the thudding precussion pounding at your brain, and to see what it does to your thinking for the next hour or two.)

4. Similarly, by teaching the subjects in isolation schools discourage interdisciplinary thinking. The truth is, Western culture in general is far too enamored with reductionism, the idea that components of a system must be rigidly categorized and studied independently. The reductionist method is valuable, to be sure, and has yielded great amounts of scientific and cultural knowledge; but it is also incomplete, and leads to flawed approaches to problems.

The new science of complex systems recognizes what has been known for a long time outside of science, that systems can manifest behavior and abilities that are unexplained by those of each component in isolation. In essence, this is the idea of holism, of examining a system as a unity. Holism too can be abused, and too often served in the past to excuse ignorance of underlying machinery or causes; but generally it is a heathier attitude. The reductionist sees a malfunctioning system and looks for the single source of the problem, that can be corrected by manipulating one part only. The holist seeks balance between the parts, working together in harmony towards a greater goal. The student must learn both of these methods, and when to use each for best effect. (For more reading, see Douglas Hofstadter. It can be dense going, but is incredibly rewarding.)

5. Schools do an incredibly poor job of preparing students for the real world. Most astonishing is how little attention is paid to proper fiscal habits and money management. 99.99% of people never benefit from knowing that lava cools into igneous rock, while most people struggle with imprudent credit-card debt; yet almost all schools teach earth science, while few teach about budgeting, investing, the proper use of credit, or (worst of all) entreprenuerialism. Consider that almost all successful entreprenuers today are either educated by their parents, born naturals, or self-taught, and you can appreciate the vast missed opportunities that our nation has wasted by teaching children how to be employees, not entreprenuers.

6. Most importantly, many schools have largely abdicated their responsibility to teach students morality. This is perhaps to be expected in the public schools, where religion is outlawed; in the absence of the Divine, moral systems cannot be built on anything more than rational self-interest. Yet even rational self-interest is often neglected; instead, students get bromides about universal love and tolerance that are laughed off by the cynical and the feral, and turn the credulous into weak, timorous creatures who shrink from necessary conflict, fit prey for the feral.

Similarly, civics is usually replaced by social science, which (instead of teaching students their duties to country and to countrymen) purports to study the phenomenon of statehood and mass behavior with a clinical eye. That social science is (often) propaganda for why the state is evil is, of course, irrelevant. (Don't believe me? Pick up your child's social studies textbook sometime and flip through it. But first, remove all breakable objects from your vicinity…)

What can be done? Come back tomorrow for Part 2.

UPDATE: A post by Instapundit, in which he references an article in the New Republic about the failing school performance of boys, is worth looking at. (Hat tip: Soccer Dad.)


War of Ideas, to the Death

Wretchard takes note of a report from the US Army War College titled "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran." The conclusion of the article is that nothing can prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weaponry short of total regime change. In turn, all the Arab states will soon follow their example; surrounding countries must follow suit. The idea of nuclear nonproliferations would be buried forever.

In the comment section, Wretchard makes a point in passing that merits further discussion:
Perhaps I should say that the greatest weakness has been the unwonted assumption of superiority that first prevented the West from seeing the rising danger or taking it seriously, then misled it into thinking that a few trinkets administered through traditional diplomatic channels would win the day. What did one European diplomat say about Iran? 'What else do they want?' And now it's 'stop or we'll report you to the United Nations.'

So it seems to me that part of the solution should be for the West to acquire a real respect for their adversary. Military forces acquire this quickly. But I think that many Western intellectuals still think that in Islam they are dealing with gomers in picturesque clothes, not serious rivals to their own ideas.
This cuts to the heart of the issue. Listening to the attitudes of some with regard to Islamic terror and tyranny, one can often pick out the following subtext: "Here we have some idealistic people motivated by an essentially flawed ideology, i.e. religion and religious justifications for murder. If we play nice and try not to distance them from us, eventually our enlightened philosophy will shine into their hearts and they will find the true faith of benign nihilism."

That the so-called enlightenment of Western post-modernism has run into a serious competitor never even crosses their mind. That most people want to believe in a higher purpose to life does not occur to the highbrow elite, who are accustomed to proving their sophistication through feigned acceptance of humanity's essential meaninglessness. That religion (and especially a religion like Islam) can gain strength and numbers by preaching submission to a higher cause is inconceivable to people who sneer at patriotism for a tangible homeland, to say nothing of fealty to God.

The West is not doomed, I think; but the only way in which it can survive as an idea for the next two centuries or more is for this misplaced contempt for religion, and for tradition generally, to be discarded. Until we stop replacing our vital ideas with empty shells such as materialism, nonjudgementalism, and the rote defense of country in the name of nothing more lofty than the status quo, we will continue to lose ground to those whose ideas are worth dying for.



Buried in this rather salacious article in Bloomberg (hat tip to Allah) is the news that in 2005, Japan's population decreased for the first time since they started keeping records. Birth rates being what they are, the trend shows every sign of accelerating in future years. On the one hand, this raises abstract concerns about what exactly the optimal population of the world should be anyway, and whether there is a moral or ethical good associated with a given population size. (I've wondered about this for a while, and I haven't a clue.) But more importantly, a declining population has some dramatic economic effects for the country, and every other country that has business with it:
While demographics rarely fit easily into investment decisions, comments last week by Jim Rogers should be a wake-up call for Japan. Rogers, who co-founded the Quantum Hedge Fund with George Soros in 1970, said he wouldn't increase his Japanese stock holdings because the falling birthrate will make it harder to pay the national debt.

"If the current birth rate, which is the lowest in the major developed countries, continues, there will be no Japanese,'' Rogers said. "Who will pay the enormous debt?''

It's a valid question, and one investors rushing back into Japan should be asking. A declining workforce will reduce tax revenue, making it harder to pay back the nation's 800 trillion yen ($7 trillion) debt. The government has said that the birth- to-death rate needs to rise to 2.1 to maintain Japan's current population of about 127 million. The birthrate now is 1.26 children per woman…. A declining labor force will exponentially reduce the gross domestic product of a huge economy on which many smaller ones rely. It will make Japan's massive unfounded pension liabilities harder to finance and the world's largest national debt harder to service. The result may be sharply higher Japanese debt yields.
An economy built on interest-bearing debts requires constant monetary growth, or else it breaks down; there has to be enough money out there to pay the compounding debts of the entire world. Without growth in the money supply you get deflation; money is constantly removed from the system until nobody can dare borrow money at all. Recall that in the Dark Ages, most commerce was done through barter; coins were used almost exclusively by the nobility and rich merchants, and trade was incredibly difficult.

If the money supply does grow, you run the risk of inflation. To avoid it, you need a corresponding growth in the supply of goods and services. In other words, either people need to multiply, or the same people need to develop endlessly-growing appetites for luxury. But what do you get for the shrinking country that has everything?

In economies with little debt, contracting populations are not quite as dire; deflation will set in as the relative supply of goods increases, but without the imperative to cover debt charges, the effects of this are mitigated. But for people—or countries—with high debt loads, deflation is fatal. Unless some new source of income is found, or debt is paid off while the costs are still manageable, bankruptcy is inevitable.

This problem is not unique to Japan. Russia is losing a million people every year. The situation in Europe is nearly as bad:
Population growth in the EU25 until 2025 will be mainly due to net migration, since total deaths in the EU25 will outnumber total births from 2010. The effect of net migration will no longer outweigh the natural decrease after 2025, when the population will start to decline gradually.
We in the United States may be tempted to breathe sighs of relief, considering our marginally better demographic picture, but even we will not escape the global slowdown ahead of us. When our overseas customers begin disappearing, how will we avoid recession and deflation ourselves?

We can see the troubles ahead. It would be criminal not to prepare for them while we can. The national debt, and all of our personal debts, can no longer be deferred to another day. This is that day, and now we must act.


Iran Updates

The esteemed blogger and commenter Allah, who shut down his blog "Allahpundit" some time ago, has started a new blog, "Link Mecca," now featured on my sidebar. He intends to only post links to other sites, several times a day, with a few words of explanation and no original analysis. (Yeah, right. We'll see how long that lasts…)

He has just posted a roundup of Iran news prominently featuring a report from the Times of London noting that Israeli forces are preparing for an attack on Iran, using submarine-launched cruise missiles, an elite F-15I squadron, and helicoper-borne commandos.

War is coming. Pray, and take courage.


Wartime Footing

With the Iranian situation heating up, it seems likely that there will be serious military conflict of some kind within the next several months. America needs to realize the implications of this; no longer can we keep spending like drunken sailors on bridges to nowhere, Congressional libraries, agriculture subsidies and the like.

That we have been able to invade, occupy and largely pacify two large countries on the other side of the world, at the same time as we increase nonmilitary discretionary spending at unprecedented rates and run up huge deficits in the process, without seriously stretching our economic capabilities, is a testament to our incredible wealth and power. But there are limits. As I noted earlier, China is beginning to diversify its dollar holdings; this by itself will change conditions on the ground in the financial markets, and if we keep employing our military international investors will begin to wonder how safe their money really is. Our current fiscal policy is unsustainable, and could give way entirely if Iran does not back down.

Now is the time for sacrifice.

To shore up our balance sheet, either payouts need to go down or taxes need to go up, and very likely both. Either way, people now have money (earned on their own or received from government) that will need to be taken away from them, for the nation's sake.

Agricultural subsidies and tariffs are a costly luxury, and in any event hurt the poorest Americans most by driving up food prices. They must go.

Tax writeoffs for mortgage interest cost the government over $70 billion every year, and effectively force renters to subsidize homeowners, as well as driving up home prices by encouraging wasteful use of credit. They must go.

Tying Social Security payouts to wage growth instead of inflation causes the cost of Social Security to grow faster than the economy. This must be corrected.

Congressional earmarks, while costing relatively little in the grand scheme of things (whats a few billion here or there, after all?), encourage a culture of corruption among our lawmakers, who learn to act not for the public good but for their own. In a time such as this, where so much change can be wrought for good or ill by those strong enough to act, such a culture is intolerable. Earmarking must be curtailed, at the very least by adopting the reforms advanced by Senator Coburn.

Tax credits, while valuable tools for encouraging preferred behavior among citizens, allow individuals or corporations to sometimes receive a net payment on their taxes. Tax credits should not become a stealth welfare tool. If someone's tax credits exceed their tax liability, the overflow should be deferred until the following year instead of being paid out. This has the benefit of reducing marginal taxes for the following year, encouraging economic activity.

Most of all, people need a way to buy in, to feel invested in their country and their government. Otherwise, Americans will not stand firm behind their military for the time necessary.


Overanalysis of Simplistic Yet Telling One-Liner

"If a war is worth killing over, it should be worth lying over."


Patents: A Bad Idea?

Alex Singleton at Samizdata points to research suggesting that the presence of pharmaceutical patent laws actually suppress pharmaceutical research instead of fostering it. Patent laws also allow a few large companies to dominate an industry, to the detriment of smaller ones.

The idea of a patent is dependent on the principle that governments can restrict the legitimate economic activity of private citizens by fiat. The sole justification for doing so would be if, by guaranteeing that inventors may profit first from their work, patents promoted overall innovation.

Just as often, patents artificially restrain engineers from incorporating new advances into established technologies for arbitrary lengths of time, and put up barriers to cooperation. Therefore, if the premise by which patents are justified turns out to be flawed, then there is a compelling need for patent law to be radically reworked, if not repealed entirely.

As they say, information wants to be free.


Public Goods

I just had a troubling experience in one of the local businesses that cater to my college. I happened to see the proprietor paying one of the "locals" what looked a lot like protection money. I could be wrong, but when the proprietor opens up the cash register without ringing up a sale and hands a significant amount of money to a tattooed man wearing an expensive Chicago Bulls jersey under a hooded sweatshirt, and similarly "thuggish" pants and shoes, who then stands around and waits until the proprietor adds a little more money on top, said proprietor looking uncharacteristically grim the whole time—you begin to wonder.

We describe Washington Heights (our part of town) as the drug capital of the East Coast, with good reason. As described in this 1998 article, "Fed by six bridges and three major highways, Washington Heights was accessible from New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut, as well as from the rest of the city. It had one of New York's largest and most thinly stretched police precincts, the 34th." In short, the perfect place for a centralized market for illegal goods, i.e. drugs.

The artcle details how bad things used to be here, and how much better they were in 1998. But "better" is still not "good." And drug crime does not stand on its own, but feeds a larger culture of criminality and corruption. We know from Prohibition that whenever a highly desired commodity is forbidden, not only will it continue to be sold but its sales will strengthen criminals and undermine societal institutions. That being the case, we need to ask whether the public goods created by drug prohibition outweigh the public ills, or if the cost is simply too high.

In recent years, the drug trade has returned (scroll to the bottom article); the drug most commonly sold here is said to be marijuana. This makes the situation more problematic, for marijuana is arguably less destructive to society than is alcohol, and (among my generation at least) has lost much of its stigma. Government statistics show college-age monthly marijuana use at around 20%, which seems accurate from where I see things. What such statistics do not show is the high proportion of students who do not use themselves, but who see nothing wrong with their friends using under controlled circumstances. The biggest danger associated with marijuana is car crashes, not anything intrinsic to the drug itself (aside from some long-term effects on memory formation and cancer rates). Nobody has ever died from a THC overdose; many die from alcohol poisoning. Moreover, the so-called "gateway" theory of marijuana use leading to hard drug use has been thrown into doubt by the RAND Corporation.

At this point, everyone who wants to smoke marijuana already does, law or no law. Prohibition only serves to keep the price high and the profits flowing to criminal gangs.

I do not believe, as some do, that government has no right to outlaw specific behaviors it deems harmful. (Full-time marijuana activists in particular seem a few grams short of a joint on this topic.) I also do not necessarily believe that all drugs should be legal. But when the prohibition of relatively benign substances like marijuana allows a general culture of crime to flourish, it is time to weigh the costs of legalization versus continuing the status quo.

Would protection rackets suddenly vanish overnight from Washington Heights if marijuana and only marijuana suddenly became legal? Probably not. But it couldn't hurt.


Regressing to the Mean

China is planning on diversifying its massive hoard of dollar-denominated assets, estimated at over $280 billion in Treasuries and well over $500 billion in corporate bonds. That's a mighty big tree to fall in the forest.

At present, bonds are really, really expensive relative to the Federal funds rate. As of today, the one-month bond yield is 4.06%, while the 20-year yield is only 4.63%. That's a premium of only 0.57% for lending your money out for two decades. Bear in mind that the overnight Federal Funds rate is 4.25%. In other words, the one-month bond is actually selling at a large premium: it actually costs more to borrow money overnight than it does to borrow money for a month!

It is largely because of this bizarre market that our housing market, credit-card market, etc. have been able to shrug off the Fed's rate increases. But how long will these prices last when big players like China start to dump their reserves?

This makes it all the more urgent that we get serious on paying down the debt. Our economy is vulnerable to normal market forces of our own creation. If he's still alive, Osama should give up terrorism and start trading bond futures; he could probably do more damage there.


Our Jephtah

In his sermon earlier today, the rabbi of Washington Heights' "bridge shul" mentioned a quote from the Talmud that gave support for those who mourn Ariel Sharon, whatever his flaws: "Yiftach [Jephtah] in his generation was like Samuel in his generation." Samuel, of course, was the great leader and prophet who anointed King Saul, and when Saul fell short of his duties anointed King David in his place. Yiftach's story is told in Judges 11; he was a brigand and highway robber who was thrust into the leadership of Israel as they warred against the invading army of Ammon. He recklessly vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing to come out of his household, should God grant him victory; in consequence, he had to give up his daughter (whether she was actually killed, or took on a life of seclusion in the wilderness, is disputed).

Yet whatever his flaws, he saved the Jewish people in his time, as Samuel did after him. In that sense, Yiftach was as great as Samuel.

In many ways, Ariel Sharon can be compared to Yiftach. Sharon was a fierce warrior, known both for his military prowess and his ruthlessness; he commanded Paratroop 101 when they destroyed the Jordanian village of Qibya, killing many civilians, and also had some measure of involvement with the bloodshed in Sabra and Shatila. But he also fought in the forefront during every war Israel ever waged, and saved the country with his bold strategy during 1973. And when Ehud Barak was unable to deal with the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada, Sharon came to power and outlasted the enemy.

Whether his decision to withdraw from Gaza was correct, and whether it was handled well for Israel both civilly and diplomatically, events of the last week in Gaza have placed us at a net military gain, I think. That Palestinian factions are now attacking Egyptian soldiers, and each other, cannot be overstressed as a victory for us.

I still think that Sharon's dictatorial manner was bad for the country. But we must acknowledge the great debt that Israel owes him regardless. As Yiftach in his generation, so too Sharon in ours.


On another note, Chester has a sinking feeling about Iran. Make sure to read the comments, where several smart people are trying to hash out the situation.


Quote of the Day

Pity the man who challenges the heavens, but does not verify that the ground is firmly beneath him.
—Cal Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's brother)

[Attributed by The Warden, who found it in a book called The Other Greats, Famous Quotations from the Siblings of Those Who Made History and posted it on a flamewar thread at Ace, fourth comment down. I can't find it otherwise, but it sounds good, so what the heck.]


All Hell Breaks Loose

Bad news from all quarters in Israel today. First, Palestinian terror groups have attacked the Egyptian border guards and torn down the border at Rafah. In the chaos, at least several hundred people crossed into Gaza; some of them were probably civilians, but we have no way of knowing who else was let in. The Palestinians are playing this down as internal politicking, but I can't imagine that attacking the soldiers of your most immediate patron would be done lightly. My first read is that people needed to get in, who could not have done so legitimately. Expect to see major escalations in the terror attacks in Gaza, both against Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Second, Ariel Sharon has suffered another stroke, this one much more serious. You all know that I don't care for the man much (though I certainly wouldn't wish him ill), but this has thrown the Israeli government into disorder at the worst time imaginable. Israel must now deal with anarchy to the south, an increasingly paranoid Syria to the north, and Iran's ever-nearer nuclear capability. We all need to pray for the Israeli government now, especially for acting prime minister Ehud Olmert—in particular, that they receive the wisdom and courage that they have so sorely lacked in recent years.

Now, I think, it is more important than ever that we each take stock of our own actions, and fashion ourselves into better people. Only part of this struggle is fought with weapons; remember that during Amalek's attack on the Children of Israel in the desert, the warriors succeeded only when they had the prayers and deeds of the people to strengthen them. So too in our time. Take courage, and hope to God.


Thoughts on "Chronicles of Narnia"

Well, I just saw it tonight. Fantastic. The casting was brilliant all the way around; I still can't get over how good Mr. Tumnus was. A lot of the artistic choices made in the cinematography, soundtrack, etc. were powerfully done. When the two armies are charging for each other, and the score fades out into dead silence in the moments before impact, it sent a chill down my spine.

The book itself was quite short, so to make a full-length movie required expanding the story (not how it usually works). The screenwriters had to emphasize themes in the movie which either did not appear in the novel, or were given short shrift. In particular, the Pevensies were much more conscious of the choices before them, which gave their eventual decision to lead the Narnians much greater impact. In the books, the children were essentially swept along by the action. At no point did Peter say, "I choose to risk my life in battle and become king for the sake of people who need me, but who I have only just met." In that sense, the movie told a much stronger story.

Interestingly, Susan was developed as the voice of skepticism, "logic," and reluctance to get involved. This strongly foreshadows her eventual rejection of Narnia, which is probably where they got the idea. In general, the frictions between the siblings were expanded from the mild tiffs shown by C.S. Lewis into full-blown tense conflict. This also made the story much stronger, and was no doubt needed to keep the dramatic arc moving throughout the movie.

A very quick shot which viewers might miss is the White Witch's reaction to Edmond after he [SPOILER] during the battle. That reaction, when compared to the manner that the Witch carried herself in the rest of the movie, has me convinced that the director is a sheer genius.He took a fairly flat character and made her wonderfully complex, in all sorts of subtle ways.

Me like. Go see now.


Relative Valuations

Over at the Belmont Club, Wretchard had an excellent post the other day responding to a news column about the complexities of interrogating Iraqi insurgent prisoners under the current guidelines. It sharply contrasted the views of two U.S. officers; one believed that since the rules were costing him valuable intelligence, leading to deaths that could have been prevented, the rules needed to be changed or at least worked around. The second believed that the rules were of paramount importance, since they provide "clear lines that the American Army must not cross. The rules ensure that the Americans stay within bounds."

Wretchard comments:
Readers of "Cracking an Insurgent Cell" will find support for whichever of two contradictory theses they prefer. It can be offered as an example that insurgent cells can be cracked without "torture" -- at least not the nail-pulling kind, though lawyers may have something to say about threatening detainees with transfer out of American custody -- or an example of how killers were captured despite the rules. It doesn't end the debate, just unambiguously highlights that lives are stake on both sides of the argument. The broken insurgent cell had been engaged in killing Iraqis and planting IEDs. Letting them escape meant that someone was actually going to die. On the other side is Triscari's argument: the imperative of keeping the physically unstoppable US military, an organization so powerful that it is constrained only by its own command and control systems [emphasis added—ed.], within bounds.
A similar dynamic is at work in the debate (if one can call it that) over NSA phone intercepts. Whether or not the program was illegal under current law—and it is extremely unlikely that it was—it is clearly the sort of thing carried out by all American governments in wartime, albiet made more capable by new technology. The military value of this program is unquestioned.

But those who oppose the program are starting from the axiomatic assumption that America can withstand any terror attack, and that it is therefore much more important to keep American power under control. One or two terror attacks are acceptable in the long run; but a government that is allowed to slip into totalitarianism is not, and would do far more harm in the end. Therefore, to illegally expose a classified operation that was indisputably saving American lives is ultimately justified.

(I am neglecting those who oppose the NSA program out of knee-jerk hatred of President Bush and all of his works. Such people do not bother to consider their actions in the wider context, because they do not care about the wider context. A principled exposure of government operations, while illegal, might be given a degree of respect; but to expose such operations out of political envy is pure treason in every sense. Yes, treason.)

But such logic, however valid in its context, only works by devaluing the lives of the people you doom through your intervention. As Belmont Club commenter Aristides notes:
There is an implicit concession here, I think. Since this policy [of not torturing prisoners, and releasing most suspects after three days for lack of corroborating evidence] was imposed consciously, the assumption is that the cost of such a policy—released detainees and more violence—is outweighed by its benefits.

Interestingly, its benefits are purely abstract.

It is now policy to value information over real, live human beings. Instead of a moral worry over torture, instead of a Kantian imperative to treat men as ends and not means, our dilemma stems from the information that torturing another human being generates. Proponents focus on the first order data that comes from the detainee's mouth. Opponents focus on the second order data, the product of the first order data mixing with our preconceptions and biases—in other words, our reactions. These reactions, these ideas, are themselves causally active. Our reactions change the world.

And this is where I think it gets interesting. The US has conceded that second order reactions have more value than the facts on the ground. We have conceded that, in this age of information, propaganda is more valuable than life.

In war, things have value only in the context of victory.

The most important battle, it seems, is being waged in our minds. It is worth remembering actively, lest we forget it altogether.
Good men and women, both American soldiers and Iraqis (and perhaps, in the future, American civilians as well), are being allowed to die to placate the demands of those who give more value to theoretical dangers than concrete dangers. Has that decision been made too quickly?



Mark Steyn has a piece about the West's failing demographics, and the dire consequences thereof for Western civilization. It's long, but only because he has so much important to say.

Go. Read. Every. Word.