Memorial Day 2023

Our yearly reminder: with whatever fun we're having today, let's all not forget to remember.

[Memorial Day]

Story about the picture here.

The Long Tomorrow

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I couldn't help but notice that this book is one of the elements in the clickbait listicle at Gizmodo: 10 Books You Pretend to Have Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them). I've now read six out of the ten.

But seeing that list was coincidence. I've owned this book since the mid 1970s (retail price $1.25 back then, nowadays the paperback will set you back $15.00 at Amazon). Reading Chandler's The Big Sleep back in February reminded me that the author, Leigh Brackett, was one of the screenwriters for the Bogie movie. And that also reminded me that she got a screenwriting credit for "The Empire Strikes Back". Now that's a career. But how about this book?

Originally published in 1955, it's a dystopian novel of sorts. It's set decades after a big old nuclear war that didn't quite put us back to the Stone Age, but squarely back in the 19th century. Cities are gone, and the USA has passed the Thirtieth Amendment, which forbids towns greater than 1000 people, or more than 200 buildings per square mile. The most advanced technology: some clunky steam engines. There's—literally—old time religion, a lot of various flavors of Mennonite.

What puts the "dys" in this dystopia: anything that might threaten to bring back the bad old days of near-armageddon is ruthlessly quashed, usually by lawless mob violence driven by fear.

Against this backdrop, young Len Coulter is feeling the stirrings of curiousity and rebellion. His cousin Esau is also chafing under societal constraints, but does something Len would never consider: stealing a gadget from the horsecart of the mysterious trader Ed Hostetter. And then swiping some pre-war textbooks. Pretty soon Len and Esau find themselves in hot holy water, and their yearnings cause them to bug out of their community in search of the fabled city of Bartorstown!

Which they eventually come to. But it's not what they expected.

A few pages in, I was wondering if this was published as a juvenile. (Heinlein was writing his juveniles in the 1950s, after all.) Then a few more pages in, I realized there was quite a bit of explicit violence; maybe a no-no for school library shelves. Then a surprising amount of, well, sex. Discreetly described, but still. Given what I've heard about school libraries, it might fit right in today.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:40 PM EDT

Still on Hiatus, But…

An important reminder of what all the best people were saying back then:

The Overstory

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This book was on the New York Times Best Books Of The Last 125 Years list, as voted on by their readers. I turned that list (the ones I hadn't already read) into a reading project. And so… I was underwhelmed by this one. But now I only have five books to go!

But I can see why NYT readers might like it! It also won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. But so did Walter Duranty.

I went in knowing next to nothing about it, not even reading the dust cover flaps. This was a good move. The first section of the book, “Roots”, is wonderful: essentially eight short stories, presenting nine characters. The stories are variously horrible, hilarious, heartfelt, honest, heartbreaking, and that’s just the Hs. If only the rest of the book were like this. Instead, things take a turn toward the tedious, tendentious, tortuous,... Ah well.

I think this is the ecological version of War and Peace. And I say that never having read War and Peace.

Executive summary: It's about trees. Trees are good. Trees are our friends. And we're so mean to them.

So: a grownup version of The Giving Tree and The Lorax. (There are shout-outs to both these works along the way.) We follow those nine characters over the next few decades, and a host of others, as they get into eco-activism, branching into eco-protests, then to eco-vandalism, and … eventually worse. Not all the earnest folks in the book make it to the final pages.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 8:53 AM EDT

"You Are Not Expected to Understand This"

How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

A fun book, a collection of essays about coding. One of my main duties in my old job at the University Near Here. The topics are super diverse. The book’s title is taken from an amusing comment in the context-switching code in Version 6 UNIX back in the mid-70s. People thought it was meant to imply the associated code was tricky, obscure, and somewhat incomprehensible. (We’ve all seen code like that.) But the actual purpose was different, it seems.

What was, arguably, the very first line of code? “The answer may surprise you.”

There are essays about the origins of email, computer gaming (Spacewar!), Internet Relay Chat, JPEG, web bugs, popup ads, search engines, the “Like” button. Bitcoin. Roomba. The encryption algorithm Your Federal Government tried to classify as a “munition” and (unsuccessfully) suppress. Famous bugs: Heartbleed, the Morris Worm, the doomed Mars Climate Orbiter. The VW code that caused their diesel cars to cheat on emissions testing. The demise of databases that demanded a strict gender binary.

Unfortunately there are a couple clunkers. The essay on the development of BASIC starts: “During the first half of 1964, two college-age White men, …” If you see that as a warning flag that what follows will be remarkably tedious, you're correct: the author constructs a clumsy framework of racial grievance over boring old history. Almost as bad is “The Police Beat Algorithm”, a tendentious description of an effort to direct law enforcement most heavily toward locales and people with unusually high levels of crime. Surprise, this had a “disparate impact” on communities of color. The author takes this as prima facie evidence of nefarious racism instead of an effort to minimize victimization. The author doesn’t point out that the victims in high-crime areas are also disproportionately “Black and brown”.

Overall, though, an interesting read.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 8:54 AM EDT

Burning Down the House

How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Every so often, I try to read outside my ideological comfort zone. This book, by Andrew Koppelman, counts.

Koppelman bills himself as a "pro-capitalist leftist". I'll put my cards on the table too: I'm a Schrödinger-catlike mixture of National Review-style conservatism and Reason-style libertarianism, about 65-35 weight on the libertarian side. (I subscribe to both magazines, and my disagreements with their articles and editorials are nearly always mild.)

My disagreements with Koppelman are somewhat less mild. But lets get to the good news first: he has studied the "big" libertarian thinkers and popularizers: Hayek, Nozick, Rand, Mises, Rothbard. Others are mentioned less thoroughly: Epstein, Friedman (Milton and David), Barnett, … And some not at all: Sowell, Machan, Murray,…) He also deals with pols and influencers: Reagan, Paul (Ron and Rand), Koch (Charles and David). While he's critical, sometimes very critical, thumbs up for (at least mostly) reading and understanding these folks' arguments and positions. He's most complimentary to Hayek (that's the man himself on the cover, looking out of that burning house on the cover). But his take is a bit weird.

In contrast, Koppelman's own position draws heavily on John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice arguments and their subsequent refinements are described less critically.

Let's be fair: Koppleman's is not a totally crazy position. He's a fan of the European social democracies, with their relatively free economies, strong civil liberties, but also big social "safety nets", financed by high rates of taxation.

He claims that libertarianism has pretty much taken over both political parties. The Democrats hold "Hayekian" (i.e., sensible, respectable) positions, the GOP "Rothbardian" (i.e., crazy, greedy, and stupid) ones. It comes as a huge shock to libertarians that they've actually been in control all this time.

I said above that I was mostly a Reason-style libertarian. You would think that a book purporting to examine the current state of libertarianism might pay more attention to the arguments and proposals carried in that magazine. But no, Reason is pretty much AWOL here; Koppelman prefers to take his shots at people who mostly have been dead for more than a couple decades.

Overall, the book was a constant irritant, even given the author’s occasional pro-capitalism nods. There are a lot of exceptions to that pro-capitalism stance that pile up over the chapters. Koppelman never met a crisis that failed to justify government intervention. Nary a social problem that doesn’t call for some combination of regulations, fines, mandates, bailouts, prohibitions, and subsidies. Covid? Koppelman's disappointed that things weren't more stringent; if only it weren't for those damn libertarians griping about everything. Climate change, of course, calls for serious clampdowns on emissions.

Despite his admiration for Hayek, he pooh-poohs the notion that we’re on the Road to Serfdom; we heeded Hayek’s warnings and now all is well! It’s as if he’s never read Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs (another ignored author).

The book’s title refers to a Tennessee incident back in 2010, where a house burned to the ground despite the presence of the fire department from a nearby town. People in the area had the option of paying a yearly subscription fee for the department’s services, but the house’s owner “forgot” to do that. This is Koppelman’s lead-off example of a “corrupted variety” of libertarianism. (The fire department in question was government-owned, and was operating under the control of its democratically-elected town government, but never mind.)

On taxation, Koppelman, like most leftists, points to the fabled 1950s when the top marginal income tax rate was 90% and everything was great! QED! Not mentioned: Federal government receipts averaged 16.5% of GDP in the 1950s; in (for example) FY2022 they were 19.2% and rising. He likes Hayek, but I'm not sure he likes Chapter 20 of The Constitution of Liberty, "Taxation and Redistribution". He doesn't talk about it much.

It's disappointing that Koppelman doesn't deal with substantive criticisms of Rawls' Theory of Justice. See, for example, Michael Munger's lecture exercise where he puts his students behind an actual "veil of ignorance" and asks them to decide on redistribution strategy; his results are non-Rawlsian. Maybe not a total knock-down argument, but close.

I'd also recommend the symposium on Koppelman's book hosted at Jack Balkin's blog. Which includes responses from Koppelman to his critics there.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

The Night Shift

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I noticed author Alex Finlay last July when investigating Joyce Carol Oates' claim that "first novels by young white male writers" were being rejected unread by publishers. Due to whiteness and maleness. Controversial claim! My test was to look at a couple articles ("15 Best Debut Authors of 2021" from GoBookMart and "10 best debut novelists of 2021" from the Guardian) to discover they were pretty low on young white guys. Specifically, 20%.

Finlay appeared on GoBookMart's list on the strength of his novel Every Last Fear, deemed "a perfect spine chiller". Finlay's website has more raves. So I put that on my "Get At Library" list.

But in the meantime, his second novel, this one, appeared at Amazon, the Kindle version going (at the time) for a mere $2.99. I hit that "Buy Now" button so fast…

Sorry for the long-winded explanation. I don't know why I think other people would be interested in my haphazard methods of book-picking. On to the book:

On New Year's Eve 1999, the Blockbuster Video store in Linden NJ, is about to close up. Unfortunately, before that can happen, most of the staff are stabbed to death, leaving a sole survivor, Ella. A suspect is named (bad boy "Vince"), arrested, released for lack of evidence, and then vanishes, assumed to be on the lam.

Then, years later, another knife-based slaughter occurs in the Dairy Creamery, a late-night Linden ice cream store. Again, there's only one survivor, Jesse. Ella has become a therapist. And she's called in to help Jesse deal with her trauma.

Complications abound. Ella's a therapist, but she's overly fond of booze, pills, and sex with strangers. Jesse's an aspiring journalist, but she likes to live on the edge herself. And remember vanished Vince? Is he back, and up to his old mass-murdering tricks? Maybe, but since 1999, his brother Chris has escaped their abusive dad, gotten adopted, has become a public defense attorney, and gets assigned to defend the accused in the Dairy Creamery murders.

And then there's FBI agent Sarah Keller, who's eight months pregnant with twins, gets roped in on the investigation. She and her partner Atticus Singh have a marginal role: see if Vince could be the perpetrator of this new horror. They do not remain marginal.

And many more. It's a twisty plot, involving many characters, many murders, Dickensian coincidences in addition to the ones mentioned above. Finlay does a pretty good job of pulling all this off; it's a definite page-turner. (Or, on my new Kindle, a screen-poker.)

Last Modified 2023-05-30 5:50 AM EDT

Hiatus II

For personal reasons, I'm taking an indefinite suspension of normal ("Default") Pun Salad blogging. It will probably be on the order of months.

I will still post as warranted in the other views: Books, Movies, and perhaps even Geekery.

Thanks for reading. Best wishes to all.

Sure, Why Not?

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer] Jim I. Geraghty asks the burning question: Could Joe Manchin Become the H. Ross Perot of 2024? And Susan Collins become the Admiral Stockdale?

After noting that Trump is a big fan of (fellow loser) Kari Lake…

Needless to say, plenty of Americans would cringe at the choice of Biden-Harris or Trump-Lake. Meanwhile, the organization No Labels aims to get on the ballot in all 50 states and is expected to have at least $70 million to fund a major independent bid for the presidency.

And West Virginia senator Joe Manchin keeps refusing to rule out a presidential bid. He faces challenging odds in his Senate reelection. Earlier this year, Manchin and GOP senator Susan Collins of Maine headlined a No Labels event. (Obvious joke: How should you describe a No Labels event?)

Our Amazon Product du Jour is a mere $1.99 on Kindle. It was published back in 2014, and its introductory essay was by… Senator Joe Manchin! Followed by a couple ditties from … Jon Huntsman! Remember him?

"No Labels" is heavy on anodyne feel-good messaging. For example, the word "commonsense"—they like spelling it that way—appears four times on their front page.

Also of note:

  • A WIRED tongue bath. Virginia Heffernan provides one for the Secretary of Transportation: Pete Buttigieg Loves God, Beer, and His Electric Mustang. The needle on the sycophancy meter is in the red from the start:

    The curious mind of Pete Buttigieg holds much of its functionality in reserve. Even as he discusses railroads and airlines, down to the pointillist data that is his current stock-in-trade, the US secretary of transportation comes off like a Mensa black card holder who might have a secret Go habit or a three-second Rubik’s Cube solution or a knack for supplying, off the top of his head, the day of the week for a random date in 1404, along with a non-condescending history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

    As Secretary Buttigieg and I talked in his underfurnished corner office one afternoon in early spring, I slowly became aware that his cabinet job requires only a modest portion of his cognitive powers. Other mental facilities, no kidding, are apportioned to the Iliad, Puritan historiography, and Knausgaard’s Spring—though not in the original Norwegian (slacker). Fortunately, he was willing to devote yet another apse in his cathedral mind to making his ideas about three mighty themes—neoliberalism, masculinity, and Christianity—intelligible to me.

    Oh my. Oh dear. This reads like a parody. So bad, it inspired commentary by David Harsanyi: Let’s Probe The Beautiful, Voluminous, And Transcendent Mind Of The World’s Most Remarkable Human Being, Pete Buttigieg

    When Heffernan asks our hero whether “Republicans really want to be dragged into a bigger far-right project, including the renunciation of democracy, modernity, civil rights, human rights,” the greatest mind of our generation — perhaps any — treats readers to his fresh, incisive perspective. The “two greatest pillars of the mainstream right” destroying “democracy, modernity, civil rights, human rights,” says Mayor Pete, are GOP’s efforts to limit abortion and “lower taxes for the wealthy.”

    I bet you dummies are pretty mad you never thought of that, right? But, to top it off, Mayor Pete drops these words on us:

    “They’re now the dog that caught the car. And, to switch metaphors, they rode a tiger to get there. They made a lot of distasteful bargains in order to get there.”

    Who can argue? The man who once told us that the “shape of our democracy is the issue that affects every other issue,” also illuminates our understanding Christianity. “When you’re making public policy,” the political left’s go-to man on faith notes, “you’re often asking yourself, ‘How does this choice help people who would have the least going for them?’” Help the poor? Finally, a new concept for Christians to ponder!

    And (no surprise) it also inspired wicked, albeit easy, parody, for example, from Charles C. W. Cooke: A Profile: I Love Pete Buttigieg.

    We chit-chat for a while about minutiae — Fermat, musical counterpoint, the known origins of the umlaut — and then, unbidden, he opens up about his personal life. “I like water,” he tells me, effervescently. “I drink it often — sometimes cold.” “Tell me more,” I ask girlishly, sensing that he has more to give. “I like pizza, too,” he adds. “I have a pizza oven at home. We use it on Saturdays.”

    I don’t mind admitting it, but I’m transfixed. The man’s mind is a cathedral, and I, a mere congregant, have been invited into its inner sanctum. “I also have a car,” he offers. “It has batteries in it instead of gasoline. Electric!”

    It is.

    “Do you have any questions?” he asks me. “Yes,” I say. “Which of these do you find the most enchanting: Helicopters, barges, or monorails?”

    The answer to parody-Heffernan's query may surprise you!

  • Authoritarians want you to forget a great many things. (Stephanie) Slade lists one at the top of the list: Post-Liberal Authoritarians Want You To Forget That Private Companies Have Rights

    On Wednesday night, Sen. J.D. Vance (R–Ohio) took the stage at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and declared—to the astonishment of many who subsequently read the quote online—that "there is no meaningful distinction between the public and the private sector in the American regime."

    The remark came during a panel discussion about Regime Change, a new book by the "post-liberal" Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, in which Deneen argues that classical liberals and left-progressives are all pushing the same agenda and need to be "replaced" by a new conservative elite.Reason.)

    I really liked Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy. I didn't like some of the things he said during his election campaign, but I hoped he'd get better in office. Guess not.

  • Just in case you were in doubt. Eli Lake has his take on the Durham Report: The FBI Didn’t Persecute Hillary. It Protected Her

    If the Durham report shows anything, it is that the FBI leadership bent over backward to protect Clinton’s campaign while launching a full investigation into Trump’s campaign on the thinnest of pretexts. In other words, the FBI was not really the Clinton campaign’s persecutor, as so many insisted over the past few years, as much as its protector.

    “The speed and manner in which the FBI opened and investigated Crossfire Hurricane during the presidential election season based on raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence,” the Durham report observes, referring to the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, “reflected a noticeable departure from how it approached prior matters involving possible attempted foreign election interference plans aimed at the Clinton campaign.”

    Consider the bureau’s approach to Clinton.

    The Durham report notes that, in early 2016, a confidential FBI source arranged for a sizable donation to Clinton’s campaign from a foreign country. Instead of taking steps to learn what might be in the works, the bureau eventually instructed the source to stay away from the Clinton campaign. Then, it offered Clinton’s lawyers what is known as a defensive briefing, so Clinton was aware of the foreign country’s efforts to help her.

    … which was something they never "offered" to Trump. More at the link, but the bottom line:

    All of this is a black eye for the FBI. The bureau is supposed to be above politics. Its leaders are supposed to show fidelity to the law and act without partisan favor. Comey, McCabe, and their deputies were guilty of a confirmation bias so severe it led them to embrace partisan falsehoods to get their man, and the republic is still paying the price for their failures. To this day, millions of loyal MSNBC viewers and most Democrats in Congress still act like it’s 2017, and Donald Trump is a Kremlin agent.

    It was a hoax six years ago. It’s a farce today.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT

The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00

[zero point zero] That was the headline on the lead editorial in the New York Times on January 14, 1987. Alas, the Twin Cities didn't heed that advice, thanks to (as Philip Greenspun points out) PhD-level thinking in economics. Quoting a MinnPost article:

The push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in both Minneapolis and St. Paul has successfully boosted the average worker’s hourly pay in both cities, but it has also led to sharp drops in the numbers of available jobs and hours worked, new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has found.

(Links to the FRB's studies added.)

I'm bemused by the seemingly tautological claim that the minimum wage increase "boosted the average worker’s hourly pay". Well, yeah: if you chop off the lower tail of the hourly wage distribution, the average of what's left of the distribution will necessarily be higher.

But it seems clear that the primary effects of legislatively destroying the bottom rungs of the economic ladder were negative.

PhilG also notes the cavalier attitude of that "PhD-level" thinker quoted by the MinnPost:

“Somebody who loses their job because of a minimum wage increase is going to find another job,” said UC Berkeley economist Michael Reich. “Probably not right away, they’re going to work fewer weeks per year — but they’re not going to be permanently unemployed.”

Let them eat welfare in the meantime. I added a "fun fact" comment to PhilG's post: the quoted “UC Berkeley economist Michael Reich” is one of the founders of the Union for Radical Political Economics, self-described as “an alternative professional organization for left political economists and an intellectual home for academics, policy-makers, and activists who are interested in participating in a left intellectual debate on theoretical and policy issues.”

I guess that’s where you have to go to find an economist willing to defend, however lamely, minimum wage laws.

Coincidentally, Cafe Hayek's Quotation of the Day is from Thomas Sowell:

Minimum wage laws play Russian roulette with people who need jobs and the work experience that will enable them to rise to higher pay levels.

Also of note:

  • Since we're talking about employement… Robert F. Graboyes provides 20 Job Tips for 2020s 20-Somethings. A small sample:

    1. Jobs that can be done in Cheyenne, Des Moines and Sarasota have potent advantages over those that can be done only in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

    2. For now, college degrees are important, but high tuition and opportunity costs, combined with often less-than-stellar returns, are reviving the notion that the workplace is often a better educational venue than a university.

    3. Maybe Ivy League graduates making photocopies for congressmen shouldn’t look down on plumbers who own beach homes.

    That last tip has a footnote that you will not want to miss.

  • Water is still wet, and… David Harsanyi notes that AR-15 Bans Are (Still) Unconstitutional.

    Gun control advocates have become so dependent on emotional arguments they often seem incapable of offering rational ones. So, I was eager to read a new Bloomberg column (via The Washington Post) headlined, “The Second Amendment Allows a Ban on the AR-15.”

    The piece doesn’t get off to a promising start, as author Noah Feldman props up a familiar straw man:

    If we each have the right to bear arms, is there a constitutional right to a military-style semiautomatic rifle like an AR-15? What about a rocket-propelled grenade launcher? A small tank?

    Notice how he jumps from the oxymoronic “military-style semiautomatic rifle” — not a real thing — to a small tank. Anyway, the proposition is that we should not have access to military-grade armaments. (Feldman is unaware that owning a small tank is legal.) But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

    Harsanyi proceeds to a robust discussion of SCOTUS jurisprudence, concentrating (as Feldman does) the United States v. Miller decision, rebutting Feldman's claims about its holding. Then proceeding on to good old Heller.

  • In case you haven't read Hayek recently… Bruce Yandle will brush you up, using a convenient foil: Biden's Experience Doesn't Mean He Can Plan an Economy.

    In a recent interview with MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle, President Biden responded to a question regarding his age (80 years old) and how that might affect his performance should he have a second term in office. "I have acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom and know more than the vast majority of people," Biden said, "And I'm more experienced than anybody that's ever run for the office."

    This was a positive response to a tough question, but one that deserves more examination. No presidency, especially one so active with industrial policy and economic planning, can get by on this answer.

    We all recognize that a person who's lived 80 years will have had more life experiences than one who has trod the planet for 70, 60 or 50 years. And it's easy to see that Mr. Biden, who has devoted his entire adult life to politics, is armed with countless stories and lessons learned about the nation's political economy. But granting this does not support the idea that Biden knows more than the vast majority of us, all topics considered. Nor does any of this matter much if his administration consistently fails to account for the vast majority of the people's knowledge taken together.

    Yandle notes that he's about to turn 90 himself. And, you know, I'd much prefer him as president. He's smart enough to know what he doesn't, and can't, know.

  • But Biden's not the only fool on the hill. Veronique de Rugy has a couple questions. What is 'Common Good Capitalism,' and Why Are Some Conservatives So Enamored?.

    "Common-good capitalism" is all the rage these days with national conservatives. But what exactly is it, you may ask? That's a good question. As far as I can tell, it's a lovely sounding name for imposing one's preferred economic and social policies on Americans while pretending to be "improving" capitalism. If common-good capitalism's criticisms of the free-market and prescriptions for its improvement were ice cream, it would be identical in all but its serving container to what much of the Left has been dishing up for decades.

    The wider adoption of the term Common-Good Capitalism (CGC) can be traced back to a speech given by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Catholic University in 2019. While there are different strains of common-good capitalism, they all have in common the goal of producing a more balanced and stable economy that better serves the nation and its people.

    The common good is, of course, a vague and subjective concept, the details of which are hard to pin down. Its advocates claim it's an alternative form of conservative governance meant to promote things like tradition, workers' dignity, religion, order and families, rather than the singular free-market focus of personal liberties and economic freedom. How exactly government policies will be used to mold capitalism into achieving these goals — many of which go further than economics — is unclear. This haziness explains why those defending common-good capitalism usually do so only by listing what they see as wrong with the free market, rather than by giving their audiences specific details.

    As we've said before: the "common good" modifier in "common good capitalism" should be understood to mean "not really".

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT