Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Books - Small is Beautiful

E.F. Schumacher was a German expatriate living and working in England. He was a trained Economist and worked as a bureaucrat for the British coal board. His “Small is Beautiful” is a collection of 19 essays; some published in the 1960’s, and many written for this work.

Originally published in 1973, many of its thoughts are dated, but align strongly with what I’ve learned lately (for example from the Copenhagen climate summit and treaty of December 2009). The book was printed 5 years after the Club of Rome and a year after its “Limit of Growth”. I first read Schumacher 25 or so years ago, but rereading it today has been very worthwhile. I noticed many things quickly passed before. For example, buried in his summary to one article, Schumacher adds “possibly by changing the political system.”

I’ve also learned to apply totally new standards to many of his ideas such as ‘sustainable’ development, ‘green’ work and natural or ‘organic’ gardening. His views of the “human scale” of enterprise and the ‘Global Villages’ are also very enlightening. The book, as a whole, raises very mixed response. Schumacher is against ‘big industry, and very supportive of craft like work; he prefers the day when a cobbler or tailor served a small village and opposes large shoe or apparel plants. He is not unaware of the increased productivity or lower cost today, but berates it as ‘dehumanizing’. However many of his observations, such as need created by advertising, have a ring of truth.

I very strongly disagree with Schumacher’s conclusions, and find them reminiscent of the economic limits seen by Malthus. So my recommendation to read the book should not be treated as endorsing its contents. But, it is clearly written and presented emotionally and movingly. If you support Schumacher’s positions you will love it. If you don’t support them it is still important for the view and insight it provides to your opposition.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Outside the Box – Time to Change?

This set of observations doesn’t seem to match anybody else’s thinking. While change happens every day, we seem to undergo a major shift at very broad intervals. The interval, in terms of our Federal government seems to be every 72 years. This is just long enough that almost all direct memory of the previous shift has gone to the grave. What I propose here is to briefly outline these shifts as noted by presidential elections, then describe the resulting governments.

Seventy-two years is also 14 presidential elections. For us this means 1788 (Washington), 1860 (Lincoln), 1932 (Franklin Roosevelt), then 2008 (Obama). The last one seems four years late, which I attribute to the unsettling effect of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Nature of the Shifts

Before looking at each shift, I want to point out that each shift also resulted in a change in terminology. We went from a Federation to a Republic, to a Democracy, then to the Progressives. Strangely enough each referred to itself as an example of the earlier stage and governed under principals of the next,

1788 -1860 was the Federal Era. People spoke of a federation, and referred to ‘these states are’. But during much of the period we were evolving from a federation to a national republic.

1860-1932 might be spoken of as the Republican Era. But once again we sent most of the era evolving from a national republic into a democracy. By the time of FDR the transition was completed.

1932-2008 is usually spoken of as the Democratic Era, but we spent much of it evolving from a Democracy into the ‘Nanny State’ of the progressives.

2008-? So far is called the progressive era, at least by many congress critters. We don’t know yet how it will turn out, but most features so far seem to be communistic. What this really means is subject matter for many more discussions….

Monday, May 31, 2010

Penrose's Universe

I have missed posting for several days due to a visit from my daughter and grandson. As always on Memorial Day, I have taken a long moment to remember and salute those who sacrificed themselves for our benefit. I do not intend to speak on the subject for there is nothing I can say that is worthy of the honor they have earned.

Meanwhile I thought to do something different, so this is a book review. Actually it does not have all the detail of a formal review, but rather a report of the impression the book made on me. The book is by Roger Penrose and is titled “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe”.

In one sense, this review feels like cheating since I haven’t finished reading the book. In another sense, it is time to speak out since I think I have gotten the feel of it. Penrose has completed his tour de force, and it may be the best of its kind, once we agree on what its kind is. He covers the history, mathematics, and philosophy of physics; and does so brilliantly with sharp comments and outstanding graphics.

My reason for speaking now is that it may take several passes to finish, and parts I will never understand. Most of the negatives given for the book are for the failure to meet expectations. It is not popular science since it contains too much mathematics and detail. It is not the mathematics of physics, for even with the mathematics it doesn’t contain enough proofs. It is not a physics textbook for there is way too much material for any one course (or even a degree).

What it is though; is a powerful view into the universe of physics and mathematics for an intelligent and patient visitor. While I don’t expect in my lifetime to have the time to understand it all, Penrose once again causes me to expand my horizon, grasp some things that were beyond me before, and improve my enjoyment of that universe. For a similarly inclined reader, I cannot recommend it too highly.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Truck Mileage Standards

The president issued a memo of instruction on Friday and called for doubling the mileage of trucks in ten years. First, I must comment on the misdirection in the press releases. The comment was directed at the fact that big rigs use 'much more' than their share of gasoline, compared to cars. While the figures are true, they are very misleading. The 15 minute hop to and from work is different than a trucker who is hauling produce from Florida to Ohio, and the trucker does it every day. Now onto the heart of the matter.

This seems to be a case of wishful thinking. The wish is, if I just order these manufacturers to be inventive, they can solve it. If any inventor now knew how to double gas mileage and keep current performance standards, the manufacturers would be lined up at his door. There is a way to do it, but it invokes the law of unintended consequences. The regulations won't include the part about current performance standards. so one way to meet the standards is with smaller and slower trucks. This can only work with more trucks and slower delivery. So the cost to society is raised for lots of items. Can't we ever get the politicians and regulators to think of the overall impact of their decisions?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Experts Are Ignorant

Experts and Intellectuals appear and present opinions on a large number of subjects on which they are ignorant. It is particularly tragic when their opinion serves to limit future debate on a subject, as for instance the current global warming (oops, that’s now climate change) debate.

I need to warn you that a this blog entry is partially a rant, but I feel qualified to do this since for a large part of my career I was an expert. Staying at the top of my game as a mainframe computer expert (Consultant Systems Engineer) took a good bit of study in the field. Besides my direct work, for many years I read a technical work and 8 or so magazines each week. Then I’d read technical manuals, proposals, project definitions, etc. I would constantly learn new computers, languages, software, and data-base methods. This is what leads to the ignorance for subjects of one's immediate area. After doing this 6 days a week, I was exhausted. In my newspaper I’d go the comics and sports page first; maybe to skip the others. What little spare time was available would go to my house and kids, then a James Bond novel or to Archie Bunker on television.

This same rut and the 70 hour work-weeks apply to most ‘Experts’. What this means is that they can’t keep up on current events or politics. Then we add to the mix those experts who are also classed as ‘Intellectuals’. Most of this idea comes from Thomas Sowell’s excellent thought in his book “Intellectuals and Society”. He defines an intellectual as someone who works with an idea or opinion as his final product. University professors, critics, and expert consultants never need produce anything but the idea; and having produced it they move on never waiting to see an outcome. It may take as much intellect, study, and practice to be a neurosurgeon, but he is not an intellectual and typically lacks the time to present ideas.

Eric Hoffer’s Opinion

Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman and philosopher. His books were insightful and remain in print. During the height of his popularity (the 60s and 70s) he was interviewed in several hour long TV shows, twice by Eric Sevareid and twice by Bill Moyers. I can’t find current details on these shows, and don’t even remember which of these shows it was; but his response on this subject made such a strong impression on me that I can still paraphrase his comments after 40 years.

The interviewer commented on Hoffer’s ‘seeming dislike’ of intellectuals. Hoffer first paused to clarify the current use of the term in government and academia. He defined that ‘Intellectual’ as someone who by virtue of his background (education, college, etc.), ancestry (parents or teachers), or position (expert or bureaucrat) feels he is more qualified to run my life than I am. Then Hoffer exploded: I don’t DISLIKE them; dislike does not begin to describe my feeling. I HATE THEM, I LOATH THEM, I DESPISE THEM.

Role of Experts

I don’t hold ENTIRELY with Hoffer’s attitude. I don’t mind that they think they could run my life better than I. I am slightly irritated when people like a boss’s wife take that position. I am inconvenienced when a someone like an administrative assistant at a church takes that position.

But major problems begin when that expert writes government laws or regulations… now it becomes "do it their way of face fines or jail". There are more problems with regulations, but those are subjects for another blog.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is There an American Exceptionalism?

 “American Exceptionalism” is a phrase that is thrown about and discussed today, but frequently in a negative context. There are books, speeches, broadcasts and blogs that address the subject. But we generally can’t even agree on what that exceptionalism is or might be. The confusion or disagreement seems to come down to three main questions: 1) Is there (or ever was there) something that makes America a unique nation in the world’s history? 2) What elements or components make up that exceptionalism? And 3) if we have less liberty now than in the past, is this caused by changes to these elements?

Is There Any Such Thing?

Many times a book or a series of blog entries ends with a ‘Conclusion’ – and that is considered god form to retain the reader’s interest. But this blog isn’t intended to deceive or coax anyone into agreement, only to arrive at a common sense understanding of the questions involved. This isn’t a mystery novel, so to let you know where I am going this preview should be clear and not a mystery. My conclusion is that exceptionalism exists; that America and AMERICANS have been, and to a certain extent still ARE UNIQUE AMONG THE PEOPLES, SOCIETIES AND GOVERNMENTS ON EARTH. The phrase “American Exceptionalism” itself seems to date from the 1830s when the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville reported on his visit to America.

De Tocqueville found, more than anything else, that it was the attitudes of the Americans that were exceptional. Before we delve into these attitudes in later entries, you should be aware that their very existence is challenged by many, even though these challengers disagree about the content or nature of the exceptionalism they challenge. Let’s take a brief look at a couple of the recent challenges and at a few besides Tocqueville who support the idea. On both sides, I'm only presenting two or three of many available sources.

Many scholarly books and papers have addressed the subject, and denied its existence. Just as an example, in 2002 and American-Israeli professor named Arnon Gutfield published his views on the subject. Gutfield was raised in the west and studied at the University of Montana and at UCLA, but since the 1970’s he has been professor of American History at the University of Tel Aviv. His book was “American Exceptionalism: The Effects of Plenty on the American Experience”; (There is a short book review at on Library Things website). He concluded that there may have been such an attitude, but no substantial difference, and that the exception was caused by the tremendous resources available. Even if exceptionalism existed, it disappeared with the frontier in the early twentieth century. This type of study is very much pitched to academics, and many such studies have been published as History, Sociology, or Politics.

In 2005 an American academic named Howard Zinn pushed that same message. He gave a talk at MIT that also decried “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, and basically said that it didn’t exist except as an error in the minds of people. The talk was given on March 14, 2005 as a part of a presentation and discussion sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. It can be seen online at this link.

Last year my attention was grabbed and memory refreshed; when President Obama told a press conference that he believed in American Exceptionalism. Unfortunately his answer equated it with British and Greek exceptionalism, and effectively meant that while he could take pride in his country, he didn’t really mean that there are any superior or unique American values. The press conference held in Europe at NATO on April 4, 2009; and was broadcast on MSNBC, Fox, C-Span, and others. The specific question was asked by reporter Ed Luce of London’s Financial Times.

The Other Side of the Question

One recent and eloquent proponent of the existence of unique values has been radio and TV host Denis Prager. He takes all U.S. coins as a source for his summary of values, and extracts from them three fundamental values: “In God We Trust”, “E Pluribus Unum”, and “Liberty”. Prager’s brief statement is available as the first entry in ‘The Prager University’. I strongly recommend all his comments in the University, which can be seen on Youtube.

The political discussion and view of exceptionalism of course goes back many years. This preview uses only two examples from those views to demonstrate. The first was Rose Wilder Lane (of the “Little House on the Prairie” family) who raised herself by the bootstraps from a Marxist to a sort of Libertarian. She did quite a bit of thinking outside the box, and published her thoughts in 1943 as “The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority”. (The John Day Company published the 1943 book, but reprints are available today in paperback.) Though Lane was a widely popular author, this book was largely ignored since it was about history and political science and she had no academic credentials. Although Jay Nock had praised her work, historians panned it and pointed out some minor errors in the history that it contained. She herself was so disappointed in this result that she refused to reprint it, but she did give another writer permission to use it.

Wilder’s intellectual heir and my second example (that other writer) was a Detroit businessman named Henry Grady Weaver, a business executive after he rose from the ranks at General Motors. ‘Buck’ Weaver took her book as a primary source for his 1947 book “The Mainspring of Human Progress and How Not to Prevent It”. (The 1947 book has been reprinted by the Foundation for Economic Education.) Weaver tightened and somewhat reworded Lane’s work, then added his own views. He attributes a great deal of the invention and progress in transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and commerce to the free individuals and free markets in America.

In Weaver’s view of things, we can judge whether exceptionalism exists by its results. America's inventors and developers are not smarter, luckier, or better educated than those in the rest of the world, but in the course of a century and a half they gave us mass production, the broad use of petro-chemicals, electric and nuclear power, telegraph, telephones, radios and televisions, photographs and movies, airplanes, modern pharmaceuticals, etc., etc. We have had no famine in that time. The 140 years of the progress of America came after more than 5,000 (or 50,000) years of little or very slow progress, therefore something must be unique. One way to describe the uniqueness is “American Exceptionalism”.

So exceptionalism does exist, but what is it? That is for future blog entries…

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Words Defiined

In order for any two people to actually agree on something (or even discuss it) the words and phrases that they use must mean the same (or at least very similar) things to each of them. This can get to be very slippery for two reasons: 1) definitions change over time, or 2) the definition is the same but the context changed. For example, “all men are created equal” once allowed some men to still hold others as slaves. Likewise, the understanding of the meaning of ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ has changed from the times of our founders.

Another concern occurs when we use terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, particularly in a political context. The concern is that so many related concepts and ideas are lumped in with the idea that a short definition is not actually clear. A frequent notion when complicated or involved agreements are needed is to use an attorney. But I’ve rejected that idea ever since seeing Bill Clinton twist on “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”; a master performance by a trained lawyer.

Since these blogs are about agreement and ideas, we’ve got to be clear on terms. I do not ask that everyone agree with these definitions (although it sure would be nice), but do ask that you consider them, and remember that they apply across these blogs.

Liberty Defined

Lincoln once remarked that “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” In the 145 years since then, we haven’t got one yet. But since this purports to be a collection of my thoughts about liberty, I decided early on that I needed a clear idea of what liberty was. I always try to keep the following definition in mind:
Liberty is a condition enjoyed by the members of a society in which
every person has the absolute right to think, speak, and act with no limits other than those needed to secure the same right to every other
Having evolved and struggled with that definition, I was very pleased when late in my work I found support from Jefferson:
“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent,
it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is
unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
Liberal and Conservative, Left and Right

If at all possible I intend to avoid using these terms. Generally in politics and other fields a ‘Conservative’ is someone who supports the status-quo or a return to the recent past, while a ‘Liberal’ is one who wants to change things to match some vision they believe is better. The problem is that this always defines a shifting target. A Conservative in 1780 wanted to return to the kingdom, while a Liberal wanted the Articles of Confederation. To further confuse things, various writers add adjectives and phrases, such as ‘Classical Liberal’, ‘Neo-con’, or ‘Compassionate Conservative’.

The terms 'Left' and 'Right' are also used to describe political positions. I personally have three problems with them. First, I refuse to be classed based on the seating arrangement in the assembly of the 1848 French revolutionary government. Second, they are frequently used as an image of the two wings of an airplane. But if you don’t like the plane’s direction, which side you sit on is irrelevant. Lastly, they also give rise to other terms, like ‘Middle of the Road’. A Texas humorist defined the problem here best by his book title: “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”.

Rebublic and Democracy

These terms describe forms of government. Many activists today seek to restore us to a ‘Republic’, but that doesn’t clarify the meaning. The meaning and definition is so involved that it will serve as the subject of several later blog entries. However, at considerable risk of disagreement, the short definitions I use regularly are:

  • A republic is a government where each person as an individual is sovereign.
  • A democracy is a government where the people as a whole or a majority are sovereign.


What follows would be footnotes if this were a book, so if you’d skip them there, go ahead and skip them here. (If anybody knows a better way to do this, I’d love to hear from you).

Bill Clinton’s comment is in his video testimony of August 17, 1988 and was delivered to the grand jury in the Lewinsky affair.

Lincoln’s quote was part of a speech delivered in Baltimore in April of 1864; I took it from page 121 of volume 7 of “The Writings of Abraham Lincoln” published in 1906.

Jefferson’s quote showed up late because it wasn’t in any of the standard collections, such as Ford’s Centennial Collection of Jefferson’s Works in 12 volumes. It came from a letter to an Isaac Hall Tiffany, Esq. written on April 4, 1819. You can get a look at it of the Library of Congress website under The Jefferson Papers, Series 1, and general correspondence.

The funny book title can be found in a number of places. It was by Jim Hightower, published by Harper Collins in 1979, entitled “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”, (ISBN 0060187663). P.S. If your mind is a strange as mine you might find the book worthwhile for a plane ride.