Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dershowitz on Gaza conflict
Tom Smith

I often disagree with Prof. Dershowitz but he seems entirely right to me about this.  Now I am watching the Lehrer News Hour, which is showing the British ITV version of events.

December 31, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Go home and hug your dog
Tom Smith

My lovely wife Jeanne, I and our four boys went to see Marley and Me yesterday.  I liked it a lot even though it made me bawl like a child.  Jeanne sniffed some but none of our teenagers did.  I think that may be because they don't really believe dogs die.  Several elderly ladies left the theater before the end, not because they didn't like the movie, I'm sure, but because they did not want to see the end that was clearly coming.

The reaction to this movie is interesting.  It is doing quite well at the box office this weekend, and Yahoo users give it a B+, which is high.  Yet critics only rate it in the C range.  There's a self-selection phenomenon going on here probably.  Users know it's a dog movie and decide to see it or not accordingly.  (And if you are not a dog lover, there's not much reason to see it.)  Movie critics have to watch it whether they want to or not, and many of them are probably more cat people or just don't want the responsibilities of pet ownership, which might interfere with their careers.

The Marley movie does raise the question of why some of us love our dogs so much.  I have a theory about this.  We humans are primates, the smartest of the animals.  The leading theory of how we got so smart is the social or Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis which holds, not to put too fine a point on it, that our ancestors competed against each other in seeing who could best manipulate their way into the best places in the social hierarchy. The ensuing arms race put a premium on intelligence that led to the almost grotesque hypertrophy of our noggins.  (See also here.)  Social manipulation involves a lot of deception, emotional dissimulation, cheating, lying, trading sex for favors, and generally everything you get to see close up working at a big law firm, university, government office or other place humans gather.  Part of us at least looks at all this and says, ick.  At least we primates have that much going for us. Canids, on the other hand, are not like this, nearly as much.  You could say they are not as smart as we are, but this also means they are a lot less sneaky.  By our standards, dogs' attempts at deception seem comical.  But they can love with the best of us.  Their world, emotionally, is I think a lot more straightforward than ours.  When they are devoted to you, it is for food, yes, but having decided you are the man and the food source, a good dog will stick with you until you well nigh starve it to death. Dogs won't dump you for a cuter girl or a richer guy.  We say loyal as a dog for good reason.  In the real world, loyalty and love are synonyms.  The bonds that hold doggy social structures together include love, just as ours do, as well as fear of course, but when we insert ourselves into their social structure, we become the beneficiaries of more direct and in many ways less morally compromised bonds of affection than those we normally live with.  So perhaps sad to say, I think many dogs, while not as smart as people (generally speaking -- my lab Biscuit could probably pass the bar in some states, though my other lab Denali is stupid though magnanimous) have better hearts than most of us. And not to be too sentimental about it, we have bred these admirable characteristics into dogs over thousands of years.  But the essentials had to be there to begin with.

Cats are cool, but I think they were left here by the aliens who built the Pyramids.

December 31, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Henry V Done Right
Mike Rappaport

There are two famous movie versions of Henry V's St. Crispin Day Speech.  One by the legendary Laurence Olivier and the other by Kenneth Branagh.  To me there is no comparison.  And through the wonder of You Tube, you too can make the comparison.  It is not just the acting that is better with Branagh, it is also the directing.  Watching the two, I almost don't know why the Oliver version is even famous.

With these remarks, it might not surprise you that I think Olivier is overrated.  Yes, he has some roles that are powerful, but overall I don't like watching him too much, especially when he was a young man.

While I am recommending parts of Henry V, take a look at this speech by Branagh the night before the battle.  It follows my favorite part of the play when Harry in disguise talks with his men.  It is a great speech, a look inside Harry and his guilt for his father's seizure of the kingship, and a perceptive discourse on the benefits and costs of power.

And to tell you the truth, I find this one irresistible as well, although it depends a bit more on the development of the Fluellen in the movie through an incredible performance by Ian Holm.   

December 31, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More Absurdity
Mike Rappaport

The predictable responses to Israel's actions are now occurring.  The European Countries and the US are calling for a cease fire.  The diplomats insist something must be done to stop the damage.  The international media run the story non-stop and the New York Times has regularly updated headlines on its website with the number of people killed.   

When Israel attacks, the countries of the world call for a cease fire.  When Hamas sends missiles every day into Israel, the world is silent.  Admittedly, Israel is more powerful militarily than Hamas, but the principle of self defense applies equally.  And more importantly, Hamas attacks are directed at civilians, whereas Israel's are directed at military targets. 

The key point here is that Israel does not merely have to fight against Hamas and the other Palestinian militants.  If that were the entire fight, Israel would win decisively.  Rather, Israel must also fight the diplomats and media of the world.  And that is what constrains it.  Hamas cannot stop Israel's attacks, but the diplomats and the media can. 

I have said it many times before.  Israel must plan its defense and its attacks taking into account all of its opponents.  Let me give you an example.  Israel had two options here.  It could have used the air attacks, and immediately followed up with a ground invasion to destroy the underground infrastructure that Hamas has built in Gaza.  If Isreal were to do that, the invasion should have already started. Israel might have two weeks to get the job done before the international pressure forced them to stop.

Alternatively, Israel could engage in the bombing, and expect to allow a cease fire if Hamas promises to stop the missiles. Then, when Hamas starts the missiles again, they could invade, and would have a bit more leeway (not a lot, but some). 

I hope Israel thinks this way.  But I am not very optimistic, based on their past performances.

December 30, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Let the Absurdity Begin
Mike Rappaport

Alas, Israel has sought to defend itself and we must once again witness some of the most absurd arguments criticizing Israel.

One complaint against Israel is that its attacks are disproportionate because, despite Israel's best efforts, some damage unintentionally occurs to citizens.  This is a peculiar argument.  To begin with, Hamas is engaged in illegal actions.  Its missiles are purposively directed at civilian targets.  Yet, there is no criticism of Hamas, and no sympathy for Israel’s response.  Moreover, Israel’s attacks against Hamas harm some civilians because Hamas purposefully places military targets in civilian areas, using the civilians as a form of human shield.  This again is illegal, but not only is Hamas not criticized for it, Israel is blamed for the harm.

Most seriously, the critics do not offer any alternatives.  What is Israel supposed to do to stop this behavior?  One move is to turn off electricity to Gaza, but that is harshly attacked by the critics.  As is this military response.  But, then, what is Israel to do?  Presumably, the only option is for Israel to offer the carrot – open up the borders of Gaza so that an organization that behaves in incredibly immoral ways and has vowed the destruction of Israel can have more opportunity to achieve that goal? 

December 30, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jenkins is a smart man
Tom Smith

Thank God for the Wall Street Journal.  Jenkins explains why if you start with bad policy and then screw it up, the results are likely to be disappointing.

Meanwhile, Krugman explains why we must spend more money. Does he think it's possible for a government to ever get to the point where it should stop spending?  I think when we have 100 million dollar bills, we should call them "Krugmans".

Peggy Noonan has discovered books.  You go, girl.  I like books too.  They're fun to read and you learn stuff.  Does she remind anybody else of the WASP aunt from hell?  When I read her, I feel like I am being bombarded by gigantic Macy Thanksgiving parade scale thought balloons, extremely large and colorful, but empty.  It's unsettling.  Or as Peggy would say, jarring.  Even worse, rather jarring.  O God, I feel so jarred.  It's like, she's on her way to some party with her expensive friends, and she has a sense of something.  Of absence.  Of presence.  Of both absence and presence.  She sees a Christmas tree.  It reminds her -- it's Christmas.  Where are the men we once had?  In the future, we may have less money.  This is a truth.  And then her friend says, "Peggy, you know, money isn't everything."  Now that's a thought worth hanging onto.  Some banality inflated to monstrous size.  If you had me at Gitmo, and read her stuff over and over to me, I would tell you everything I knew.  

Google changes the party line.  Are they being evil, or did something that was evil before somehow change?

Those darn Hollywood commies.  They are difficult to make fun of because they are just so appalling. 

VD Hanson as usual is on to something, or at least two things:  Media atmospherics will change greatly once Obama is in office.  Happy days will be here again.  And also about Rick Warren.  Both Warren and Obama are big salesmen of vague New Agey meets Jesus bromides, all-American flim-flammers. Hope and Change and the Purpose Driven Life are both at bottom marketing strategies, the products of which are, respectively, Obama and Warren.  They belong together.  Maybe they'll fall in love and get married.  Warren probably watched the Denver Obamaclypse and thought "I wish I could fill a stadium like that.  Jesus, will you help me fill a stadium like that?"

And here's one of the few things I've read about the recession I agree with.

December 29, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

The Teaching Company and a Blind Recommendation
Mike Rappaport

I love the Teaching Company, the company that sells academic type courses on a variety of subjects.  The courses are not short, ranging from 6 hours (12 30-minute lectures) to 24 hours (48 30-minute lectures), with some even longer. 

I have to believe that I am one of the most frequent users of their products.  On my account page with the company, it says I have purchased 60 courses, and I have also listened to many over the years that I have taken out from the library.  Overall, the courses have represented something of a second education for me, teaching me about subjects that my ordinary education slighted, such as Ancient Rome and Greece, the Middle Ages, and Physics, just to name a few.  I can't recommend their courses enough.  Of course, there are some duds, and even some so biased that they are hard to bear -- this one, for example -- but overall they are just great.

In the last year or two, the Teaching Company has had some competition for my commuting time, and my consumption has decreased.  I listen to podcasts from Econtalk, from Philosophy Bites, and from some other places, but I still enjoy the Teaching Company courses.

Well, today, I plan to recommend a course I have never listened to.  Strange, but I feel it is justified.  It is Jerry Z. Muller's, Thinking About Capitalism, based in part on his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (which I am reading now and which is quite excellent).  I have also heard him lecture on C Span.  Not only is Muller excellent, but the subject is an extremely important one.  I am planning on ordering the course right away, and will let you know what I think. 

December 29, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Printing money
Tom Smith

Here.  Sounds risky to me.

December 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The Shoe Guy
Maimon Schwarzschild

Mark Bowden, an Atlantic Monthly writer, says Bush ought to ask the Iraqi government to pardon the shoe-thrower.

Magnanimity is a strong prerogative, too seldom used. It is a chance for the man to be as large as the office. No one was better at this than Abraham Lincoln, whose frequent public acts of forgiveness, from promoting his political rivals to commuting the death sentences of Union soldiers, earned him an enduring legacy of kindness and humility. Less remarked upon is Lincoln's shrewdness. He was no softy. He signed many a death warrant for deliberate acts of cruelty or criminality in the ranks, but he understood that sparing a "simple soldier boy" for panicking or for falling asleep would do far more for the army's morale than another execution would do for its discipline.

I think Bowden - no supporter of Bush - is probably right in this case.

December 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Tax Laws and Housing Prices
Mike Rappaport

As I have been stressing lately, the financial crisis is an incredibly complicated matter, and part of the problem is that so many different government policies were involved.  Here is another aspect.

What caused the housing boom?  Russ Roberts writes:

There are four factors that helped drive up the price of real estate in the United States and create the housing bubble: The GSEs (Fannie and Freddie), the Community Reinvestment Act, expansionary monetary policy starting in 2001, and the 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act that for the first time let people avoid capital gains on home price appreciation without having to rollover the gains into a bigger house.

We have heard a great deal about the first three, but Russ makes a strong case that the tax change was far more important than people have realized.

But many economists say that the law had a noticeable impact, allowing home sales to become tax-free windfalls. A recent study of the provision by an economist at the Federal Reserve suggests that the number of homes sold was almost 17 percent higher over the last decade than it would have been without the law.

Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and economics professor at George Mason University, has said the tax law change was responsible for “fueling the mother of all housing bubbles.”

By favoring real estate, the tax code pushed many Americans to begin thinking of their houses more as an investment than as a place to live. It helped change the national conversation about housing. Not only did real estate look like a can’t-miss investment for much of the last decade, it was also a tax-free one.

The timing seems right on this.  Russ has a chart:

Just look at that picture. If it's accurate, something dramatic happened in 1997 that fueled an explosion in housing prices. I don't think it was irrational exuberance. I think it was a change in a tax policy that suddenly made houses dramatically more attractive as an investment vehicle.

December 27, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)