Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whew! Thank Goodness the US is Not Hedonistic

     Somewhat in reply to T. Paine’s comment on the last post, it occurred to us that we Americans are not hedonists, and here is the proof. Thank goodness...

...we are so thrifty that practically everyone could manage three months of unemployment;

...hardly anyone is overextended on credit cards;

...we didn’t recently bid up housing prices with easy credit, resulting in a foreclosure frenzy;

...the bankruptcy rate is falling like water, not rising like smoke from a bonfire;

...we never demand more from our government than the government can afford;


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shot Heard Round the World

Battle of Lexington, by Nicholas Ponce.
Picture credit:  Library of Congress.
     Today is the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord.  It was the inception of what would become a free republic, modeled and improved on those of antiquity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Creating Wealth

Wealth of Nations.  Photo by the author.
     Knowing anything at all about human nature should be enough to make clear that if people do not have to pay for something they desperately want, they will use it up quickly. This point is not much of an insight, but it seems to elude everyone who is arguing against structural changes to Medicaid and Medicare. Like the British National Health Service, these programs promise far more than any nation can ultimately deliver. Access to health care must be limited, whether freely by price or deliberately by rationing and waiting lists. Once more the conservative position is the responsible one. However, not all of the conservative rhetoric has been accurate. This is normal for both political tribes, but in the context of the budget debate one claim is particularly common and particularly wild: “Government cannot create wealth; it can only redistribute wealth.” Just a moment’s reflection shows the confusion behind this claim.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All Sail and No Anchor

     All the current budget talk has brought to mind a bit of history. Our fellow Skeptical Conservative, Sub Specie Æternitatis, has an interest in the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Years ago, we ran across a couple of letters by Lord Macaulay on American institutions. The letters had been published in Harper’s magazine in the 19th century, and they pointed to the signal danger of any pure democracy. In every society there are always comparatively few people with great wealth, but in a pure democracy those people are the natural prey of the comparatively less well-off majority. Macaulay referred to the danger of “spoliation.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Measuring Victory

     Now that the deal is done, some are lamenting that the Speaker of the House may have got less than he should. They argue that by stating his early opposition to a government shutdown he gave away his final bargaining chip. For perspective, imagine that you go into a car dealership and announce that you aren’t leaving without buying a new car. All the salesman has to do then is stick to his price until closing time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

One-Half of One-Half

     All around the media these days we are hearing—especially from apologists for compromising with the fiscal irresponsibility crowd—the formula, “after all, we only control one-half of one-third of the government.” Of course, of the three branches of government, only two are involved in legislation. True, activist judges routinely make law as they supposedly interpret it, but the courts have no part of the process of passing a bill. It might be better to say, “after all, we only control one-half of one-half of the government.” Fair enough, only a fifth grade fractions teacher would appreciate the difference between one-sixth and one-quarter, but it’s nonetheless irritating to see a strictly inaccurate comment gain so much momentum.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nonessential Nonsense

     This morning on CNN there was a federal employee being interviewed who said that if the government shuts down she won’t have money to buy food for her daughter. At first, one thought shame on CNN for exploiting a human tragedy to advance a liberal agenda. But then the lightning struck. People working in the private sector live with the possibility of layoffs every day of their lives. They know they have to keep three months’ income in the bank to cover emergencies. By contrast, this public sector employee had apparently not planned for any disruption in pay, any furlough or layoff or even just reduction in hours. Why not?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Best April Fool’s Joke

Ancient Mariner and Mercury.  Photo credit:  NASA.
     When NASA released the picture above last Friday, not a few astronomy bloggers and web sites were briefly taken in. The original story was that Messenger, NASA’s new probe to the planet Mercury, had captured this image of the old Mariner 10 probe zooming past Mercury, 36 years after NASA’s last communication with the spacecraft. The claim was that Mariner 10, which surveyed Mercury in 1974 and 1975, had fallen into a “resonant” orbit around the sun that put it near Mercury once every Earth year…on April 1st. Apart from the dimly visible difference in the dark backgrounds, showing where two images were playfully stitched together, there were other clues from NASA that should have alerted the blogosphere. (Your author was saved from falling for the prank by spending a weekend without web access.) In any case, those punsters at NASA called Mariner 10 the “Ancient Mariner.” Their press release was also replete with quotations from the Coleridge poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” With all the rough developments in the news lately, at least someone is keeping a bit of literary-science levity.