"Tear down this wall!" and freedom in the middle east

I heard a clip of this speech the other day on the radio and I realized that I had never heard the entire thing. I made the effort and I’m glad I did. It’s quite the history lesson. It’s also good to hear the man himself instead of relying on fuzzy memories and modern critics. Listen to it here:

The first 30 seconds or so is a blurb about who is hosting the file, the speech begins after that. This wasn’t that long ago, a little over 20 years, but my how things have changed! Some of the more interesting bits IMO:

1) “The Soviet Union is pointing nuclear weapons at all of the capitals of Europe…” Wow, doesn’t that take you back? We were worried about nuclear war, and for good reason. Reagan has the reputation of being a war monger, but listen and you’ll hear a man that felt that he was doing what had to be done. he certainly didn’t seem to relish the arms race…

2) SDI. Yes, I can hear all of you groan from here. The “Star Wars” project was an infamous government waste of money. It was a waste insofar as it didn’t actually produce any sort of defense anything and cost an amazing amount of money. Believe it or not, there are more than a few historians that credit the SDI with the beginning of the end of the arms race. How? As early as 1968, Reagan had written that the best way to make the Soviet Union collapse was to make them spend a lot of money. His reading of Hayek made him realize that the Soviet system was inherently inefficient (despite all sorts of people, including a fair number of economists thinking otherwise). The American system could absorb many more losses and still function fairly well. History has born out both Hayek’s and Regan’s visions. SDI didn’t have to work, in fact I’m sure that Regan knew it wouldn’t work. All he had to do was convince the Soviets that there was a way to make it work given enough money. The Soviets couldn’t start that kind of research and keep up the ongoing arms race. It was the first crack in their armor, SDI is what made it clear that the US could afford much more than the Soviets, and they started to change…

3) Freedom. I know that use of “freedom” in a political speech is out of favor these days due to dub-ya’s mistakes in the name of it. But really, what Reagan said and what W has promised isn’t all that different, so why is Reagn’s speech moving and W sounds like a buffoon? I think that it was primarily what was causing the lack of freedom. Socialism was an organized, powerful, directed movement against liberty. The USSR was an easy target, and they were genuinely repressing people that wanted things to be different. Today is much different. Except for a few sad holdouts (N. Korea, Cuba), socialism is dead. There are still governments that repress their citizens of course, but none of them are large enough to pose a world-wide threat. They are also not large enough, or powerful enough to consistently fire up Americans… The freedom that W talked about was freedom at the point of a gun. Yes, Saddam was a monster, but that entire area seems to be disposed to autocratic rulers. My time in Yemen made it clear to me that they were not convinced a democracy like the US’s was in their best interests. Most of them would rather have a king…

In other words, the lack of freedom in the middle east was not so much dependent on governments (although there are more than a few repressive ones over there) as it was ingrained in their culture. If you ask them, they will of course claim to desire freedom, but that word has very different connotations to them than to people in the US usually. So the thing that limits freedom is not a monolithic, militarily powerful entity in that part of the world. It is instead diffuse, ingrained, and largely beneath the surface. How do you fight that? Trick question, you can’t “fight” that, you have to cultivate freedom.

So in short, I think that a lot of what caused W problems was the fact that there wasn’t a single thing that he could fight and “win” against. Today’s problems with freedom are quite a bit more complex than in years past. This last administration has been an absolute disaster in that regard. I really hope that Obama can get a feel for the real obstacles to freedom and act accordingly.

Scalping silliness

I’ve noticed a few places where people are complaining that the “free” tickets to the upcoming inauguration are selling for up to $2500. The basic argument seems to be that since the people got the ticket for free, they shouldn’t sell it. Well guess what? Those people don’t think the same way you do, time to move on…

Seriously, regardless of the cost of the item, that person now has something that other people value. If he values the money more than the event, why shouldn’t he take the money? Why shouldn’t he profit from it?

We can (and should) flip that around too. Why should someone be denied the opportunity to go to an event just because they weren’t willing to stand in line/didn’t know someone in order to get tickets? If they are huge fans of Obama and worry that they might miss a historic event, why not allow them to pay whatever they think is a fair price? Think about it, what would you have paid to be there when King said, “I have a dream…” or Kennedy said, “Ask not..” or Reagan when he said, “…Mr. Gorbechev, tear down that wall!” or Kennedy when he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”? I’m not saying something of that magnitude is going to happen, but there is definitely a non-zero chance of it happening. Why not let people pay for that opportunity?

So many laws are passed with only the idea that “I don’t think people should do that,” When it’s really none of their business. If someone owns something and someone else values it more than the owner, than the trade will most likely take place regardless of what you think. Just let it happen and spare everyone your outrage….

Professional wrestling

I watched a pair of documentaries the other day. One was on the history of professional wrestling and the other was on heavy metal music. I think I’ll post something about what I saw as the link between them on my music blog… I’ve been thinking about what I saw with the wrestling one, and I think it may be a bit deeper than you may think.

Well, let me rephrase that, there is nothing about wrestling that is deep. I mean c’mon, what a bunch of tawdry, tacky, rowdy yahoos… No, there is nothing deep about wrestling, but maybe the link between it and what is considered “serious” TV might be.

When I was growing up, the big rap against professional wrestling (at least to a kid) was that it was “fake.” It had the veneer of a sports competition, but it was ridiculous. The punches, throws, locks, etc. were obviously fake, even for an 8 year old. The current organizers (the WWF and WCW) make no pretense of the event being a sporting competition. In their minds, it is pure entertainment, a show. The excitement is all in the struggle of good versus evil, or at least of favorites going up against hated opponents. In the eyes of fans and of promoters, it is nothing short of high drama.

Of course that drama takes the form of an incredibly violent struggle. They punch, throw, elbow, crush, and land on each other. Then there are the props. They hit each other with folding chairs, they throw each other out of the ring (often times crashing through a table for good effect), they throw each other into, onto, and out of chain link cages. Blood is not uncommon.

“Yeah, but what they do is difficult! Those moves are incredible!” It’s true, those guys are BIG. Hulk Hogan was something like 6’6″ and built. All those guys are enormous, but they fly through the air and execute complex choreography. They really are a combination of stuntman and acrobat. But they’re still using all of that physical prowess to make it look like two guys smacking each other around. It’s all about violence.

Don’t look down on pro wrestling just yet. After all, how different is that “fake” display of violence any different than any of the run of the mill “dramas” based around law enforcement/hit men/drug culture/terrorist fighting FBI agent? Seriously, why do the programs that blow stuff up, shoot people, find corpses, etc. get a free pass, hell, be acclaimed, while the guys pretending to punch each other get sneered at? “But the acting is more subtle, the characters are more developed, the plot is more realistic!” Please see my critique of wrestling above… All of that is done just to lead up to the shoot out or yelling/screaming bit. In other words, violence is usually the the prime reason for all of that acting and dialogue. Everything leads up to violence, everything is solved by violence, everything is caused by violence, it’s all the same to me.

When I was living with Rick, I would often come home and find him watching TV. It was usually “Law and Order” or some other crime drama. Seems like 3/4 of all of the dramas revolve around crime… I would take a look and then exclaim, “Oh, you’re watching ‘Good Guys/Bad Guys’ again…” No matter which show he was watching, it was just “Good Guys/Bad Guys” to me. The more I think about it, the more I see most dramas as just glorified wrestling matches. No wonder I dislike watching TV so much… Can you imagine everything reminding you of professional wrestling?:-)

Freddie and Fannie healthcare and moral hazard

Obama had some proposals for improving the healthcare situation. Some of them sounded pretty good, like trying to get rid of “anti-competitive activity” in the insurance arena. The way it has been worded, it sounded like they wanted to target anti-competitive practices by the companies, that’ll help but they need to take on the big anti-competitive problems that are imposed by governments. Here’s a radical idea, allow companies to compete across state lines. Wild, I know. To me, this would be a good use of the commerce clause in the constitution. Right now, every state has it’s own insurance board and it’s own insurance laws. Get rid of that with a single, nation-wide set of rules and we should see much greater competition. In addition, with all of those people being able to be pooled, the risk sharing arrangements should also help to lower premiums.

So I like that bit of potential reform. What I worry about is the vague exhortations to “protect” businesses from catastrophic health care costs and the push to require the business to offer insurance. He has also talked about a public health care insurance plan that is similar to what the congress has access to. Making businesses take on additional costs is not going to be good for their bottom line. Ultimately, that will make them less able to hire people. SImple enough…

The other two things worry me quite a bit. I have zero confidence in the government’s ability to manage an insurance system that works. I also have a feeling I know how he intends to “protect” businesses from high medical costs. There is going to be some sort of government guarantee that will pick up the tab over x amount of dollars. That sound suspiciously like how Fannie May and Freddie Mac were set up. Lenders were encouraged to lend to people with less than stellar credit by telling them that Fannie and Freddie would take care of any mortgages that go into default. We have all seen the results of that policy. Economists have a two word phrase to describe the problem with insurance like that. It’s moral hazard. If lenders aren’t worried about the loan going into default, they will lend to many more people. The same thing is possible with any sort of government backing of medical costs. If insurers are backed by the government, they will indeed take on anyone and the costs will get out of control quickly. If the government backs businesses to “protect” them, costs will again go through the roof. Clearly, someone has to be the no man, it will either be an insurance company or a government bureaucrat.

My main point is that we should learn out lessons with Fannie May and Freddie Mac. It’s a lovely idea that everyone should own their own home, but we can’t have a total meltdown in order to insure that. In the same way, it is nice to think that everyone should have access to any medical procedure, but we can’t get into the same situation we did with housing. Whatever is proposed for healthcare reform, be on the lookout for moral hazard problems.

Neuromancer

I just finished reading “Neuromancer” by William Gibson. It’s one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Along with several others, it was the book that launched the whole “cyberpunk” genre in science fiction. What’s that? It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but there’s a lot of being on the net in a virtual way, total technology domination of the world, amoral and vicious characters, and a general world weariness… The original “Max Headroom” gave you a taste of it. You can also look to the “Ghost in the Shell” movies and series to get a more modern take on on the genre.

Neuromancer war written in 1984, and it shows. To me, it reeks of the 80’s. I remember what the future was supposed to hold, a never-ending cold war with the soviets, japanese corporations running the world, and a general disintegration of all moral orders. As a story, it’s OK. Truth be told, sci-fi books have always left me flat, but at least I was entertained.

The most interesting thing for me was how his vision of the future looked and how closely it resembled today’s reality. Gibson’s view of cyberspace is still in the future. In his world, cyberspace is an all-encompassing virtual world. When you “jack in” you leave this world and enter a totally different one. You float in space, appearances are dynamic and can shift at an instance. We’re still a ways from that although I wouldn’t argue about how far away. Technology moves so fast that it’s difficult to have any good idea about what’s going to happen even in the near future.

That’s where Gibson had some trouble. The birth of the internet as we know it today happened 5 or 6 years after he wrote this book. He understood the extent of information that would be involved, but not the amount. At one point, we were supposed to try and even conceive of thousands of megabytes being transmitted across cyberspace. Can you imagine? Thousands of megabytes! LOL, I have 100,000 (or so) megabytes of storage on my computer, I can’t really imagine what something like google of you-tube goes through, and neither could Gibson at the time.

What we might consider the more pedestrian things that he missed are actually much more influential that his big ideas. Things like cell phones are totally absent from his world. Along with that is the ubiquitousness of the internet. In his world, only certain people with the right equipment had access. In our world, anyone with a decent cell phone has access.

I’m not picking on Gibson, nobody could see how things were going to unfold. It’s a good lesson to be taught from time to time, even the most visionary of artists can’t imagine how little things like cell phones will totally transform the world. We need to keep that in mind whenever we engage in long term plans. Things in the future will not be the same as they are now. That seems obvious enough, but we tend to only think of the big things that will change, not the incredible number of little things that totally transform day to day life. It’s also important to remember than things can indeed get better. Technology doesn’t have to be dehumanizing the way it is in so may sci-fi books. The internet has made the world a smaller one, and I think that’s real progress.

Being proud…

I was reading some of the comments about the election on my facebook page from my contacts, and I saw a few things that I had to say something about.

There were a few people expressing pride in the US. I share that feeling. Not only have we loudly proclaimed that the government of the past 8 years was wrong, a black man was elected. What can be more American than that?

I also read some comments that amounted to being proud of the US for the first time. That’s a whole different thing… For the first time? Really? This election is what made you proud? I hate to say this, but one day someone else that you don’t like will be elected president, what then? Will you be ashamed?

I have been, from an early age, very proud of this country. It wasn’t due to any particular thing my parents taught me. I wonder how much of my father’s outward expressions of patriotism were dampened by his being drafted? I can think of two things that made me quite proud of this country in my youth.

The first thing has to be my family’s history. It’s no different than most of the other families here. My ancestors came here on boats. They had left behind everything and started with nothing here. They really did achieve the American dream and were made much better off than they had been through their hard work and the opportunities they took advantage of here. There wasn’t any other place in the world where that could have happened, nowhere… To this day, I still get choked up seeing pictures of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty, and as a kid I was deeply impressed by my ancestors and this country.

The second thing that I remember being proud of the US was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US was instrumental in that collapse. The Soviet Union was the epitome of evil, of power run amok. They killed their own people for having the temerity to want to leave the worker’s paradise. The fall of the wall and the later collapse of the Soviet Union made me feel that my country had indeed triumphed over evil.

More recently, my pride has been reinforced. Many people I knew talked about moving to a different country when Bush was reelected. I actually did move, I have an entire blog dedicated to that experience. I went to a place that had every reason to hate the US. I think that I can safely say that every single person I met in Yemen held the US government in utter contempt. And I have every reason to believe that they felt it more deeply than democrats in the US did. Wherever I went, people asked me about Abu Gharib, the invasion of Iraq, Gitmo, bombings, the support of Israel, etc. Nobody over there liked those things. Despite that, almost every person told me that they wanted to live in the US. Think about that.

Many people here were talking about moving to Canada, Europe, Australia, etc. Over there, I heard the occasional desire to move to Europe, but the vast majority wanted to go to the US. Many people called it “The Land of Dreams.” Nothing will make you more proud of your country than people that hate our president with every fiber of their beings wanting to move here. What could be more American?

Prop 8

It looks as though prop 8 has passed and will (barring last minute legal wrangling) outlaw same sex marriages in California. This is a law that is clearly about a certain part of the population just not liking another part. In my mind, any law that can be translated to, “Even though it has no effect on anyone else, I do not think that those people should be able to do that,” is on very shaky ground. No one has been able to show me any effect on heterosexual couples from a married homosexual one.

Of course all of this is missing the big point. Why is government involved in marriages at all? In point of fact, the government can’t stop anyone from being married, they can only deny privileges to the ones that it doesn’t approve of. This is a classic case of the government causing problems in something that should really be a private matter. All of the issues involving taxation, visiting rights, insurance, parental rights, etc. do not have to resort to the government giving a blessing on a partnership. This is the real problem. Laws are written that assume that the government must be involved, and no one seems to see the alternative. Instead of forcing your beliefs on others (and that could go either way I suppose), live and let live. Do your own thing and mind your own business. There would be far fewer problems if we allowed people to do their own things that do not involve other people and kept the government out of it, or at least kept the government neutral on it…

BTW, I can’t figure out Obama on this. He is clearly not in favor of gay marriages. His opposition to prop. 8 seems an awful lot like partisan posturing. The irony of people voting against prop.8 and voting for Obama was not lost on me. The people in California need to discover the Libertarian party…

More on Obama

It seems to me that most of my friends and family are totally swept away by the symbolism of Obama being elected. Who can blame them really? A black man as president? A switch from neocon philosophy? Big suff indeed. I, along with many other people are a little worried about what happens once the power of that symbolism wears of. What kind of Democrat have we elected? Are going to get another Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter? Are we going to get the guy that helped ink trade agreements (however flawed) and reformed welfare or are we going to get price controls and ill conceived foreign policy?

A commentator on NBC remarked that there seems to be a pendulum swing going on right now in politics. He also brought up the legacy of LBJ as the model of “government as solution” politics. That cuts both ways. LBJ really did help with civil rights issues, but he also helped to create an enormous amount of welfare dependancy and let’s not forget Vietnam. Those latter things are part and parcel of a philosophy that government is the solution to all things. Government spending also ballooned, it has been the high water mark for government spending until the current president. That’s not accidental, W also believed that government was the solution, but to different problems. The result? All of our money gets flushed away…

The thing to remember is that government is a very blunt instrument. When you use it to correct something, you will also affect a lot of other things and it’s impossible to see what the exact effects will be. This effect of government action is one of my primary reasons for wanting government to do as little as possible. The bluntness of government action is also one of the reasons that there seems to be a pendulum swing in political thoughts. One group will do something with all of the resultant effects. There is then a backlash and people like the opposite thing. Of course, that entails that groups blunt force trauma as well.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not unaffected by the symbolism of this election, but I have some serious worries about this upcoming presidency since his party has control of both house and senate. We all feel good about W’s philosophy and his party being rebuked, but don’t forget that using government power for a lot of complicated things (like the economy, health care, etc.) always has collateral damage. We’ll see if Obama will be any better at limiting the damage…

Republicans

It’s easy to see why republicans are disliked so much. During McCain’s (very nice) speech, Obama was booed. Real classy guys. No one likes a sore loser… There was general applause when Obama mentioned McCain during the acceptance speech. What is it that makes Republicans so good at being nasty?

Whew!

I have been pretty clear in my not liking Obama overall. I will say this though, for the first time in 8 years, the prospect of not having Bush and Cheney in the White House feels real. Right now, that is far more overwhelming than Obama’s win to me. He does give a good speech, that’s also a kind of relief, a president that uses English properly!

I am cautiously optimistic about Obama’s foreign policy. If he puts “getting along” as a higher priority than being tough, I will love him. It can go a long way… Some of his comments about Pakistan make me worry a bit, but I think that the change from the neocons will do this country (and almost all others) a world of good. With any luck, he will remember how much trading with other people engenders good feelings.

It is also just now starting to dawn on me how uplifting this could be to people that have traditionally given up on life. He is a great story, there’s no getting around it.

I am still worried about the economics that we will be subjected to in the next 4 years. A lot of what he is saying sounds like trouble. Here’s my request for Obama; please please please keep the rules simple. People and businesses can deal with just about any (reasonable) rules in the game, as long as they don’t vary. I know that legislation will be passed to “fix” the economy. I am inherently distrustful of things like that, but if he knows when to leave well enough alone, I think the downside can be mostly avoided. Do whatever you think you need to do and then stop. Constant fiddling is much more dangerous than anything else, look at FDR for a good history lesson.

There are a couple of obvious downsides to this night. The first I’ll only mention in passing but it needs to be said. Obama is the most likely president to be assassinated that we have ever had. I think that the odds are slim, but they are higher than anyone in recent memory. Not only is his skin color an issue to some, but the absolute frenzy his supporters have been whipped into may have the opposite effect on someone that is disposed to hate him…

The other thing to watch out for is high expectations. Right now, he is promising the world and everything in it. Everyone should be ready for the things that he can’t do, or does and does badly. I do think he’ll have a long honeymoon unless he totally screws something up.

Bush has been so bad for so long. His “legacy” was written all over this election Not only were republicans in general in a bad way, but the voter turnout can be correlated with him as well. It was great to see people so pissed off. Only 2 more months of W, I wonder if I’ll be able to take it…