Sep 162009
 

In fan-fiction parlance, the Gary Stu is the male equivalent of a Mary Sue, a fictional character who acts as a place-holder for the wish fulfilment fantasies of the author.

This morning, in a shameful moment of weakness and curiosity (brought on, no doubt, by not having had my coffee yet), I picked up Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, sequel to the magnificently awful The Da Vinci Code. With my evening free because the Devil is reaping souls in Wales, I began to read, and on page 8, came across this piece of hilarity:

‘I hate to embarrass you, Professor,’ the woman said, sounding sheepish, ‘but you are the Robert Langdon who writes books about symbols and religion, aren’t you?’

Langdon hesitated and then nodded.

‘I thought so!’ she said, beaming. ‘My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!’

Langdon smiled. ‘Scandal wasn’t really my intention.’

If that weren’t enough proof, further down the same page:

Langdon glanced down at his attire. He was wearing his usual charcoal turtleneck, Harris Tweed jacket, khakis, and collegiate cordovan loafers…his standard attire for the classroom, lecture circuit, author photos, and social events.

And so I turn to the author photo of Dan Brown on the back flap of the jacket, and lo and behold – he is wearing a tweed jacket, khakis, and the irritatingly smug grin of a very poor writer who has become very rich indeed. He probably has on loafers, but the picture doesn’t show his feet. Although I suppose it’s entirely possible he’s still got on his gravity boots.

Still – for a book with a retail price of £18.99, WH Smith was very kind to charge me only £5. (And yes, I put down the book, having only reached page 8, to write this blog post. For the curious among you, it has not yet turned out to be a page-turner.)

Sep 142009
 

I’ve read one or two things today indicating that there may have been a march on Washington DC to protest Obama’s healthcare reform. But how many protesters were there?

The BBC says tens of thousands.

The Daily Mail says both one million and two million.

Glancing around other news organs, ‘tens of thousands’ appears to be the consensus, with 75,000 the estimate given by the Wall Street Journal via the DC emergency services.

So where is this Daily Mail number coming from? Were there a million? There’s a world of difference between 75,000 and 1,000,000. Does anybody really know?

And may I also add that even in the American newspapers I checked, in none of them does this protest appear to be on the front page (of their online editions, at least). Why isn’t this bigger news? Everybody knows middle America, bovine herd that they are, never normally protest…

UPDATE: Apparently I’m not the only one wondering what the attendance numbers were…

UPDATE 2: Still nobody seems to know what the numbers were. Google ‘how many people at washington protest’ and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a nasty debate going on, with supporters claiming that national media outlets deliberately underestimated, and opponents claiming not. From what I can tell, there were enough people at the protest to suggest that this should have been a bigger story than it was.

This source offers a nasty little quote (although I can’t speak for its accuracy:

On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod said of the protests, “I don’t think it’s indicative of the nation’s mood. You know, I don’t think we ought to be distracted by that. My message to them is, they’re wrong.”

I say again: given middle America’s general antipathy toward protesting, David Axelrod et al. could probably stand ‘to be distracted by that.’

Sep 082009
 

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

Sep 082009
 

The Appalling Strangeness highlights Peter Hain’s refusal to appear on Question Time with the BNP and comments:

No doubt Hain sees his boycott as a chance for him to champion himself as a progressive politician refusing to give the cowardly and ignorant BNP a real platform in this country. Unfortunately, he comes across as the coward. He comes across as a man who won’t debate the BNP because he is afraid of making his case. Regardless of his intentions, ducking a debate with the BNP isn’t the noble thing to do. The BNP are a political reality in this country. Failing to engage them on their idiotic policies will only work to help them. The more they are unchallenged, the more influential they will become.

This is no doubt partly true. But given what the ASI lists as some of the BNP’s policies, I suspect Hain doesn’t think them idiotic at all:

  • The protection of British companies from unfair foreign imports
  • The renationalisation of monopoly utilities and services
  • Bring hospital cleaning back in-house and make high cleanliness a top priority
  • More emphasis must be placed on healthy living with greater understanding of sickness prevention through physical exercise, a healthier environment and improved diets
  • Develop renewable energy sources such as off-shore wind farms, wave, tidal and solar energy
  • The introduction of a system of workfare for those in unemployment benefit for more than six months with compulsory work and training in return for decent payment
  • Take all privatised social housing stock back under local democratically controlled council ownership

Perhaps Hain sees, as do the rest of us who are not blinded by polemic, that the only thing that separates the BNP from its more traditional rivals is its racism. And if the BNP refuse to be engaged on their racism, and want to talk about their platform of social justice instead, Hain and everybody else are going to find themselves in the unenviable position of agreeing with the BNP but not wishing to admit it. And so the BNP will come across as being quite firm in their ideas, whilst the three main parties flail about trying to show that their sort of social justice is somehow demonstrably different from the BNP’s.

It isn’t.

Sep 072009
 

Some time ago, I was taken to task for suggesting that Christianity and libertarianism were, if not entirely compatible, at least not in opposition:

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

It appears I’m not the only person who thinks this. Taxation is in direct contravention of the 7th Commandment. An excellent piece; nowhere does it assume the reader is a Christian or proselytise. I may actually have to write the exegesis on libertarian theology I so tongue-in-cheekly promised Don.

Sep 042009
 

I was standing at the counter in the chemists’ over the road this afternoon when my eye was drawn to a shiny leaflet displayed there. For a moment, I daydreamed, admiring the design and the pretty colours, the words ‘Brixton Pound’ turning my thoughts to a possible new club or home for rescue dogs.

Then, with an actual, physical start of surprise, I noticed what it was really advertising. The Brixton Pound.

Once I’d paid for my goods, I snatched up a copy of the leaflet and went out to the pavement to read it. Here is what it says:

WHAT?

The B£ is a local currency launching in autumn 2009. It’s a practical way for Brixton residents to support local traders and boost Brixton’s economy.

The B£ will work alongside pounds sterling – but can only be spent with independent local businesses within Brixton. Brixton will be the first urban centre in the UK to have its own currency.

WHY?

Your money goes further:

  • Rewards and special offers for using the B£
  • The B£ keeps circulating within Brixton – local people benefit each time you spend one

Good for the local economy, community and environment:

  • Supports independent shops and local jobs under threat from the recession and larger chain stores
  • Maintains the diversity and character of Brixton
  • Localising trade helps cut carbon from transport

The B£ is secure:

  • Printed on watermarked secure paper
  • Backed by sterling held by Lambeth Savings and Credit Union

WHO?

The B£ is being launched by a group of local volunteers in partnership with:

  • Transition Town Brixton (Community-led vision and action on Climate Change)
  • Lambeth Savings & Credit Union (Lambeth’s financial cooperative)
  • nef (economics as if people and the planet mattered – Lambeth-based economic think-and-do tank)

Please show your support by joining the B£ 1000 club. Membership is free and you will be one of the first 1000 people to use the B£ when they are launched. Visit www.brixtonpound.org to sign up.

Several questions leap to mind.

First, what is the exchange rate between B£ and £ to be?

Second, how exactly is that going to be determined?

Third, most traders in Brixton purchase their goods from outside of Brixton (I would guess). If the B£ is worth less than or as much as the £, how is it going to help them?

Fourth, most residents in Brixton earn their money in £. If the B£ is worth more than the £, how is it going to help them?

Fifth, if the B£ can only be spent within Brixton, the ‘diversity and character’ of what Brixton residents buy is going to shrink. You can’t buy a drink at a pub in Streatham with your B£. You can’t take a bus to Stockwell with your B£. What, in fact, will your B£ buy you? Locally-sourced goods from local traders. Which, in Brixton, is basically drugs. Hello, black market!

I’m not suggesting that alternative currencies are a bad idea in and of themselves; in many circumstances, I would argue, they’re necessary, especially when hyperinflation for example has devalued the official currency. They probably do this in Zimbabwe. But an alternative currency in a location like Brixton, that produces few truly ‘local’ goods and where most of the residents are earning their money outside of Brixton in pounds sterling, is at best pointless, and at worst, damaging to local traders.

I haven’t actually worked through it all in my head yet, however, so I’m willing to be told differently. I just thought it might be interesting for other libertarians to hear about this. Especially Tim Worstall.

Sep 022009
 

In this post, I asked myself (and anyone else who wanted to answer) whether the absence of tax was the presence of subsidy. This was in relation to private schools, who, as part of their designation as charities, are not taxed in the manner of profit-making institutions.

My half-hearted answer was that, in a polity where nearly every activity or transaction is taxed, the absence of taxation is de facto a subsidy (even if not de jure).

I realise now that this answer did not go deep enough. For in viewing the absence of taxation as subsidy, whether as intention or simply unintended effect, one is making a deeper underlying assumption, and that is that the state owns all wealth.

If the state owns all wealth, then in choosing not to appropriate some of it from a particular body, the state is in essence making a gift of it – which would in fact be a subsidy.

This assumption is gigantically invidious, as it underpins every argument redistributionists and opponents of ‘privilege’ make about the state’s choice to reduce or remove taxation on particular bodies or transactions. And I speculate that most people do not, as I did not, even notice the presence of that assumption. We are letting them get away with it. And before long, it will no longer be an assumption that nobody notices; it will be a general principle that is taken for granted. Perhaps it already is.

Why, oh why, do we libertarians continue to allow our opponents to dictate the terms of debate in this way?