Octavo Dia

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book Review: Fool's Errands

Dempsey, Gary. Fools Errands: America's Recent Encounters with Nation Building. Washington D.C.; The Cato Institute, 2001.

This book was a series of case studies to demonstrate the by no means exhaustive list of what causes a nation-building exercise to fail.

Nation building will fail if:

(a) the nation in question is not a vital security interest to the nation builder.
(b) the local population still supports the elite.
(c) the security dilemma has not been resolved.
(d) the belligerent's war objectives have not been achieved.

His last criterion seems awfully vague to me. If he had written that nation building can't happen when the situation was still in the peacekeeping stage, that would seem reasonable to me. He didn't write that. The way it is written, he is seemingly advocating letting them fight into a stalemate before nation building can occur--because Kosovo would have been so much better off if the ethnic cleansing had been allowed to proceed violently, rather than through emigration.

All in all, this book was subpar. Points (a) and (b) are common sense (outside of D.C. anyway). Point (c), however, needs to be made, and could have filled a book on its own. Despite the team-building-exercise style of nation building, people like to deal with each other on their own terms. It is better for them to have their own countries, and reach out than to be placed in a single country and withdraw.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals


Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco; Encounter Books, 2005.

This book is a collection of essays, so I'll review them one at a time:

Black Rednecks and White Liberals

In this essay, Sowell argues that what we consider "black" culture today is actually derived from the Scotch-Irish culture of colonial times. It sounds somewhat plausible, but I have absolutely no outside references with which to evaluate it, and I just don't care enough to do so.

His argument takes the form: (a) this is what we describe as black culture, (b) this is where it came from, (c) this is why it is harmful then and now. I think his argument would have been much stronger had he left out section b, which was, however, the theme of the essay. However, can you imagine the response to this chapter had section b not been included? If you said, effectively, that the black subculture is counter-productive, the familiar refrain of "blaming the victim" would be raised to the heavens. However, by saying that it was a white culture which was transmitted to blacks, the onus can still be shifted.

One of the particularly good bits from this is that you can determine whether a culture or subculture is individualist or collective based on the kind of achievements. Individualist cultures produce individual achievements, such as sports or entertainment, where the ability of one individual is the measure of success. Collective cultures produce collective achievements, such as mathematics, which requires the resources of a group to allow an individual to specialize in a field which requires long-term, upfront costs.

Are Jews Generic?

Sowell argues that anti-Semitism is not unique, but is rather the most readily apparent for of discrimination against what he terms middle-man minorities. A middle-man minority tends to enter a society at the bottom of the ladder, and enters those activities with few barriers to entry, such as shopkeeping. As there are few barriers to entry, competition is fierce and wages are low, making those activities the kind of work that the natives "just won't do." The way to succeed in such a field is to work longer and harder and better than anyone else.

The animosity, according to Sowell, comes in the later stages when the middleman minorities have achieved success. It is a hard thing to say, "They prospered because they worked harder, longer, and better than I did." It reflects poorly on your own character. Much easier, from a self esteem point of view, is to ascribe such performance to negative characteristics on the other's part: they're greedy, cheaters, and collude with each other.

Sowell doesn't make this point, but the same characteristics that lead to success also create an insular community. Cross-cultural communication is hard and time consuming. When you're devoting every waking minute to making a living, it's easier to communicate internally. Thus the bridges are never built.

The particularly good bit is the idea that middle man minorities also value education for the same reason they make good business owners--it's a long term investment that requires lots of work and large costs upfront. If you have an immediate timeframe, you're not going to spend 22 years in school.


The Real History of Slavery

What was interesting about this one was that even though I knew the history of slavery, I hadn't drawn it together in this manner before. Colonialism destroyed slavery. Slavery was a universal arrangement in human societies. It was the western world that had a crisis of conscience and banned slavery, and then the colonial powers destroyed the slave trade throughout the world. According to Sowell, Britain almost went to war with the Ottoman empire to make them end the slave trade in their territory. The western powers may have been the largest scale slavers--since slavery is caused by vulnerability, and everyone was vulnerable to Europe--but they were also the largest slave freers.

The particularly good bit for this one was his blaming the Declaration of Independence for creating racism in America. In no other country was there the ideological disconnect between slavery and "all men created equal." Since they obviously weren't equal, racism was needed to make slaves less than men.


Germans and History

I don't have enough of a background to evaluate all his claims, but Sowell argues (and it seems plausible) that the Germans were known for their friendly relations with the Jewish people prior to Nazism--so much so that Jewish-American newspapers were investigated in WWI for being too pro-German. It sounds plausible, and it explains why German had such a comparatively large Jewish population pre-war.

I guess the particularly good bit from this one would be from Scripture "Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."


Black Education Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies

This one was preaching to the choir for me. In S.A.T. style, a teachers union is to teachers as America is to Americans. People around the world love Americans individually--it's just in collective sense that Americans are disliked. His argument is nothing new--it's not like children have not been educated successfully around the world for centuries. It is a particular failure of America's public schools and that lower-class Americans do not have the resources to opt out of failing schools.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How to make a commuter vehicle

This is my idea of an ideal commuter vehicle. To improve the fuel efficiency of a vehicle, you make it smaller, and you decrease its wind profile. Ideally then, a motorcycle would be the perfect vehicle, but it's neither safe nor comfortable in less than perfect weather.

You can't shield a motorcycle from the weather or make it safe, for the simple reason that it is unbalanced. Sooner or later, your foot has to be on the pavement. However, if you added some sort of gyroscope to the motor cycle, and added two retractable wheels to the side, you could enclose such a vehicle. When the speed slowed enough to make it unsteady, or when you made a sharp turn, the retractable wheels would automatically lower enough to stabilize the vehicle. No foot on the ground; no problem with enclosure.

If you did make such a vehicle you could also add these features: with this arrangement you could have a normal seat, and stretch it back to have a second seat behind for second passengers or hauling stuff. Essentially, it would be like a car with the passenger side loped off.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Vouchers for news?

Ian Ayres argues that we should have state-sponsored journalism, albeit in voucher form. It is an elegant solution, but as the saying goes, "I can trap anything if I can convince it too take a handout." I fear that such a voucher system would lead to direct government control--via funding--of the media. If one must do anything, allow journalist organization to operate as charitable non-profits to which people could donate money and deduct it on their tax return.

It actually wouldn't be much of change. Most newspapers are non-profit already anyway. :-)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

God is Imaginary: #18 "Imagine Heaven"

Imagine Heaven.

The most imaginary thing in this reason is the sample conversation they've concocted.

However, their argument contains a great deal of truth: "Heaven is a fairy tale invented by human imagination. And each person's fairy tale is different."

The truth is summed up in 1 Corinthians 2:9: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him." Everyone will have a different conception, and everyone's conception will be wrong, for the simple fact that heaven is inconceivable and indescribable. (on that note, if you want my conception of it, see the last paragraph of this post).

In the main conversation, however, they are challenging the doctrine of the rapture, which Lutherans have rejected as an erroneous interpretation. I've discussed this previously in the second paragraph of this post.

Now, with regards to the meat of the sample conversation, the question of what exactly happens to our physical bodies at the last day is a matter of some conjecture. Romans 8:21 seems to indicate that the earth would be restored--a divine recycling as it were. Given that the physical creation is elsewhere described as entirely corrupt, liberating it from its decay would imply a new creation, a view which is supported by Revelation 21:1-4, 2 Peter 3:10-13 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. However, the exact sequence of events, and exactly what will happen, is neither relevant nor beyond God's power.

My conclusion, therefore, is that they have not proven that heaven is imaginary, merely that people imagine about heaven, because they do not yet have the reality of heaven.

Back to the Fifty Reasons.

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