Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is Al Gore the Re-Incarnation of the Xhosa Prophetess Nongqawuse?
Gail Heriot

I don't know much about global warming.  But I do know a little something about the dangers of precipitous action, especially when its advocates appear to be caught up in something akin to religious fervor.  My instincts run towards stop, take a deep breath, and be absolutely sure that you're not about to put the world's economy in a stranglehold just to please the people who despise modernity.

That's why I was both heartened and disheartened to read Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch column in the Washington Post on Thursday.  Entitled "With All Due Respect, We're Doomed," it gives an account of Al Gore's recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where apparently he was treated like a prophet.  Quoth the tongue-in-cheek Milbank:

The lawmakers gazed in awe at the figure before them.  The Goracle had seen the future, and he had come to tell them about it. 

What the Goracle saw in the future was not good:  temperature changes that would "bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth--and that is within this century, if we don't change."

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D. Mass.) appealed to hear more of the Goracle's premonitions.  "Share with us, if you would, sort of the immediate vision that you see in this transformative process as we move into this new economy," he beseeched. 

The article is well worth reading in full, but you get the idea.  The bad news is that even Republicans on the Committee, like Sen. Bob Corker, treated Gore with a reverence ordinarily reserved for the likes of Isaiah and Ezekiel.  But there's good news here too: Milbank himself, a card-carrying member of the MSM, gets it.  He knows we need to take that deep breath before we plunge ahead at the behest of "the Goracle." I suspect that more and more liberals are going to go skeptical on this issue.

Alarmingly, the prophet that Gore most resembles may turn out to be Nongqawuse, who led her people to ruin in the mid-19th century.  Nongqawuse was a teenager and a member of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa.  One day in April or May of 1856, she went down to the river to fetch water.  When she returned, she said that she had encountered the spirits of three of her ancestors who told her that her people must destroy their crops and kill their cattle.  In return, the sun would rise red on February 18, 1857, and the Xhosa ancestors would sweep the British settlers from the land and bring them fresh, healthier cattle.  (Some of the Xhosa cattle had been suffering from a lung ailment, which may or may not have been brought by the British settlers' cattle.)

Astonishingly, the Xhosa chieftain, Sarhili, agreed to do exactly as this young girl urged.  Over the next year, a frenzy occurred in which it is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed and crops destroyed.  Historians sometimes call it the "Great Cattle Killing."

But on February 18, 1857, the sun rose as usual.  It was not red.  And the Xhosa ancestors did not show.  But the Xhosa people had destroyed their livelihood.  In the resulting famine, the population of the area dropped from 105,000 to less than 27,000.  Cannibalism was reported.  Following Nongqawuse's advice was a calamity of staggering proportions for the Xhosa people.

Like Nongqawuse, Gore tells us that the sun will soon rise red over the land.  Well, maybe.  But already the models that he relies on have been proven wrong.  The intense period of warming that these models predicted over the past ten years never came to pass.  Yet we are repeatedly told that it's still coming and that it's just a little late.  Apparently, we should pay no attention to the fact that the polar ice is expanding again.  Instead, we must put the brakes on our use of energy--the very thing that makes the modern world possible--to avoid antagonizing the spirits of our ancestors ,,, I mean to avoid climate disaster. 

Again, I am persuadable.  But it will take more evidence than I have seen so far (and yes, I've spent more time than the average lawyer trying to piece the evidence together).  And there are two more parallels to the Great Cattle Killing that are worth pointing out.  First,  Nongqawuse's urgings did not come out of nowhere.  Some of the cattle were indeed sick. The problem is that her proposed course of action was utterly disproportionate to the problem, just as Gore's proposals are disproportionate given the state of our knowledge.  Second, some historians believe that the Great Cattle Killing was in part motivated by class animosity.  The Xhosa people had been losing ground to white settlers for years, and some members of the tribe blamed their more prosperous members.  Cattle were a status symbols, and initially at least, the burden of their destruction seemed to be something that would fall disproportionately upon these tribal leaders. The cattle were, in effect, the SUVs of their time.  

Here's hoping that Sen. Corker and his colleagues adopt a little healthy skepticism before they adopt the solutions proposed by Gore.  We don't need a Senate of Sarhilis.  For the record, I should point out that he perished in the famine.

January 31, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 30, 2009

In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man gets credit
Tom Smith

I hadn't thought of that.  The world wide credit crunch give the US the chance to drain the punch bowl (to shift metaphors) before everybody else even gets to the party.  We'll be poorer, but everybody else will be much poorer, so we still win.

January 30, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

My theory is that it's because teetotalers are a pain in the butt
Tom Smith


January 30, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Kids for cash
Tom Smith

This is a really dreadful story of abuse in the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania.  This sort of thing is, one hopes anyway, rare these days, but it didn't use to be.

As I've no doubt mentioned on this blog before, my father, the late Walter E. Smith, Jr. spent a good part of his career campaigning for the reform of the juvenile justice system in Idaho which believe me, going into the 1960's was a nightmare out some bad movie.  His campaign was largely successful. Idaho moved to a modern system stressing rehabilition and professionalism rather than Dickensian horror.  Not that there wasn't and probably still is room for improvement.  In the eighties or nineties, I forget when, Ada County finally built a new modern juvenile facility which some people wanted to name after my father.  He very characteristically quashed the effort, saying "I don't want my name on any goddamned jail."  Very touchingly to us in the family, a lot of the people from his reforming days showed up at his funeral.  The church was packed, and there was much more talk about those days than of his 20 years on the state trial bench.  This is on my mind because last night out of nowhere my 17 year old Luke said "I not sure how to put this, but granpa had an awesome funeral."  I think that's a good way to put it.  It was an awesome funeral.  I also want an awesome funeral, but my plan is to have it here at the university, and pay for the booze.

January 30, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

David versus Senator Goliath
Mike Rappaport

Glenn Reynolds is doing yeoman's work reminding the world about Chris Dodd's wrongdoing.  Glenn quotes a NRO piece:

Participating in the “Friends of Angelo” program saved Dodd about $75,000 on his mortgage, and raised more than a few eyebrows about whether Dodd should be accepting such hefty gifts from entities he’s tasked with overseeing and regulating.

The Army of Davids is in action.  The problem is that the Republican Senators don't seem to be cooperating.  I don't get it.  Don't they want to punish wrongdoing and regain a majority?  They need to publicize this stuff and demand action.  After all, Dodd may just be the tip the iceberg.   

January 29, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thank you Marty
Tom Smith

Martin Feldstein weighs in on the "stimulus" package.  About time, too.  If I heard one more pundit claim MF's support for the stimulus, I would have thrown my drink at the TV.  And I can't really afford to replace it at the moment.

January 29, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Goatee watch
Tom Smith

Funny, he doesn't look like somebody who would contribute to the delinquency of a minor.

January 28, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Un. F&%$ing. Believable
Tom Smith

The House stimulus bill.  This would be really bad in normal times.  In these times, it's very dangerous.  I mean a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending would not be a good idea, but it would at least be, well, sincere.  This monstrosity heaving itself out of the House is a recipie for an American lost decade and quite possibly worse.  At a time like this to take a trillion dollars of borrowed money and just absolutely piss it away on rank pork?  What kind of irresponsible low life votes for that?  What could you be thinking? Our political system is really broken.  We really are Japan, or worse, but instead of construction companies and bent banks we have public sector employees unions, insolvent banks and some weird sort of collective illusion that not only can we spend our way out of this mess, but that it doesn't even matter what we spend it on.  And Obama signs anything like this swamp monster, I hereby take back all the nice things I have said about him.

Any comments along the lines of financial self-defense BTW are welcome.  Gold?  TIPs?  Canned goods? Prayer?  OTOH maybe it will all work, and then I could convert to lefty-liberalism and not be so lonely in my chosen profession.  I could write a book, How I learned to stop worrying and love the government! You see, there is a silver lining in every cloud.

January 28, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)

Left Right Salt Fresh: a scorecard
Tom Smith

Some background on the macro-econ wars.  Very interesting, I think.  In brief, I think it is fair to say the Salty Left such as Krugman and DeLong believe that macro-economics is about empirical research, not fancy mathematical models, and that this research shows that government can accomplish things experience suggests it can't or at least certainly won't.  The Fresh Water Right Wingers from places such as Chicago on the other hand disdain empirical research and instead opt for ridiculously elaborate mathematical models which suggest that that government efforts to, for example, fiscally stimulate the economy are doomed to fail. So while the Salty Left uses the correct methodology to reach the wrong conclusion, the Fresh Right uses the wrong methodology to reach the right conclusion.

As I never tire of telling people, I worked on the micro side of the CEA back in the paleolithic late 'eighties and got to observe macro economists in the wild.  My overall conclusion was that you had to be crazy smart to be a macroeconomist, but that their predictions of the future should not inspire a lot of confidence.  Their predicitons of the past seemed much more sensible usually.

Much to my distaste I find myself agreeing with Krugman that it's just a mistake to think accounting identities tell you anything about human behavior and that how people behave should be the subject of empirical research not just a mathematical model, let alone an accounting identity.  And yet, you can see how Ricardian equivalence, the idea that when government spends more, it is going to have to tax or borrow more, and that this will crowd out private investment, makes perfect sense and is indeed what you would expect to see in the messy world of businesses trying to find capital.  Empirically, it turns out it is really hard to show that exercise if good for you too.  Yet few doctors would tell you you can eat and relax your way to better health.  Similarly for rational expectations.  If economics shows us anything, it is that people are not as stupid as they look.  Or sound.  That young person with the navel ring and who thinks the stuff in the mall is like so totally cute is probably cutting back on her cell phone calls (Whatcha doing?  I'm just here at Starbucks?  Should I get a mocha?) and other discretionary spending out of an unconscious feeling of economic insecurity absorbed in the interticies of MTV and youtube.  And as for stimulus and multipliers, I just have a hard time believing anybody who has seen government close up, as I and millions of others have, can seriously believe that increasing government spending can produce much of anything except debt.  What the stimulus bill now is is helicopter money, but instead of greenbacks, coupons are to be dropped that you can only use to pay teachers and only then if they do not teach you how to read and permanently impair your ability to do arithmetic. It's going to take more than some empirical studies to convince me that's going to work.

January 28, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Be your own Jackson Pollock
Tom Smith

It's his birthday apparently.

January 28, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)