Octavo Dia

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Reviews: Moonotheism, Chapter 6

This is the last chapter of volume one, and it is once again very good, though there's a strange digression concerning traditional Muslim sexual practices which really didn't fit with the rest of the chapter, but was very interesting, nonetheless, as it explained the origins of female genital mutilation. From the way I understand the theory, the hadith teaches that the gender of a child is determined by which parent has an orgasm first. Therefore, if you want male children, reducing the sexual pleasure of the female is an efficient way of doing so.

The portion I found most interesting was that Mohammad's syncretism was aided by the recycling of religious artwork by the early Christians, particularly the statues of Isis and Horus, which became Mary and Jesus, and led to Mohammad's understanding that the Trinity consisted of the Father, Son, and Virgin Mary. (Oh, to have had some early iconoclasts!)

The rest of the chapter is devoted to the kinds of Christians Mohammad was exposed to in Arabia, including the remnants of the Gnostics (which included many fertility rites, which Mohammad incorporated), as well as numerous ascetic monks, whose lifestyle was a factor in causing Mohammad to reject Christianity.

The last page, 608, contains footnote 2941. I really wonder what on earth he's going to cite in the next volume.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: Congress and the Bureaucracy

Oh my goodness, I've been reviewing books (on my own, not on my blog) since at least May 17th, 2003 (which is when I wrote this review for my own future reference). Also, you can tell I had just graduated at the time, as my review was MUCH longer and MUCH more of an academic exercise (heck, I even put footnotes in). Anyway, I'm posting this because Noumenon said he has had it on his reading list and never gotten around to it. Perhaps now he won't need to. You can also tell that I was reading this before I started my Masters in Poli Sci.

Arnold, R. Douglas. Congress and the Bureaucracy: a Theory of Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Douglas Arnold’s intention in this book was to develop a theory concerning bureaucratic influence on geographic allocation of resources among congressmen. To reach this goal, he sets up his theory, based on the interplay of several assumptions about rational decision-making and bureaucratic behavior. The author concluded that his assumptions were born out by the evidence, and therefore bureaucrats do behave as he postulated.

Congress and the Bureaucracy is arranged as a long argument. The first four chapters detail the assumptions with which Arnold will be working in the construction of his theory. The fifth chapter outlines his methodological method. Chapters six through eight apply the theory to three major expenditure programs linked to geographic allocation. Chapter nine measures the results of these studies and their support, or lack thereof, of his theory.

R. Douglas Arnold summed up his theory as follows:

Bureaucrats appear to allocate benefits strategically in an effort both to maintain and to expand their supporting coalitions. When it furthers their purposes, they broaden their program’s geographic scope and increase the number of shares of benefits so that more congressmen can be brought into their supporting coalitions. When necessary, they allocate extra shares of benefits to leaders and to those who are crucial coalition members. ... Each [strategy] is specially tailored to fit a program’s particular situation in Congress... Committees play a prominent role in the politics of geographic allocation.

That is the doctrine. The rest is commentary.

Mr. Arnold’s analysis, as a motivational study, is primarily an application of Darwinian logic to the organization of government. The bureaucrat is assumed to be motivated by a desire to survive and propagate, in that order. A missing portion of Mr. Arnold’s argument is the lack of development of this theme.

Bureaucracies, which are from an economic standpoint wealth consumers rather than wealth producers, exist in the form of a parasite. The least successful parasites are those that either kill or harm their hosts: the most successful, those that aid and abet. A bureaucracy will, therefore, seek to maximize the net benefit the host, in this case, the nation, derives from its existence while simultaneously restraining its growth, i.e., budgetary levels, to avoid attracting attention to itself. Bureaucracies will thus attempt to add useful duties to their roster and avoid those that are not.

This analysis fails, however, if bureaucracies are not seen as monolithic entities, or, as in the case of government, there is a large number of quite independent departments. By multiplying the groups relying on the host for survival, the host faces the tragedy of the commons. A bureaucracy has no incentive for restraining its activities in this situation. Any funding, any responsibilities, any resources of any kind that are not absorbed will not remain available, but will be consumed by a competing department.

Arnold’s argument concerns the impact of geography on the allocation of resources. Since a theory is only as good as its testable predictions, I believe Congress and the Bureaucracy could easily be expanded by further manipulating variables, and should attempt to predict the outcome of an approaching bill.

Congress and the Bureaucracy used geographic receipt of federal funds as the dependent variable. The independent variable was the position, influence, and importance of particular congresspeople in relation to spending programs. The constants included the previously discussed goals of bureaucratic behavior. The independent variable could be further manipulated by tracing changes in geographic allocation to particular districts after a particularly dramatic fall (such as a devastating scandal) or rise (McCarthy’s leap from obscurity) on the part of a Congressperson.

Congress and the Bureaucracy is an excellent text that provides an insight into the oft-inexplicable spending decisions in Congress—such as why political parties, when out of power, will campaign for balanced budgets; yet when they have been returned to power will continue the spending policies of their predecessors. Most major failings were sins of omission, since R. Douglas Arnold seems to have barely scratched the surface in his study even though he dug deeper than any scholar.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Review: Moon-o-theism, Chapter 5

Another great chapter. This one chronicles Mohammad's first exposure to the Abrahamaic faiths, though in a rather unusual form. Apparently Abraham was venerated by the people of Haran, which was a pagan city. His early exposure therefore came through a pagan lens. Think that might skew things a little?

A couple of things that stood out to me in this chapter:

First, it's important to remember that the people who wrote the ancient texts did so for a reason. They're not necessarily offering the unvarnished truth.

Second, many of the documents are fragmentary and have been filled in by scholars, so if they show a remarkable resemblance to the Bible, it is often the scholars interpretation of the gaps that makes it be so.

Again, another chapter well worth reading.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Locked and Motherloded

Afghanistan has a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth.

Afghanistan will never know peace.

Now there will always be something worth fighting over. That level of mineral wealth would destroy most developed countries. Afghanistan doesn't stand a chance, particularly since they have a large neighbor who can provide them with everything they need to extract it, and won't ask any uncomfortable questions whilst signing the checks.

Therefore, the United States should get out of Afghanistan now.

Our presence there will not lead to peace.

Every soldier who dies there now is one more soldier dying for nothing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Moon-o-theism, Chapter 4

Chapter four was excellent. In it, Yoel Natan traces how the chapters of the Koran (by the way, I continue to spell it Koran per T.E. Lawrence, who said that there are two systems of transliterating Arabic: oversimplified and overcomplicated. Occam's razor tells me which one to pick), reflect his exposure to other religious. The early chapters reflect his pagan origins, with all the detritus thereof, and the later chapters reflect his interactions with Arab Jews and Christian sects.

This chapter is devoted to the pagan influences. If it does anything, it shows the need for original languages, and why one cannot rely on translations. The "disjointed letters" about which he spends so much time would probably be omitted (or have their meaning assigned) in an English translation.

Anyway, another chapter worth the read.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rock Around the Clock

Most departments teach their cadets that a rock isn't deadly beyond 50 feet. Unless they are performing a particularly important mission, like aiding a wounded colleague, officers facing a hail of stones should retreat to that perimeter.


I wonder how this works out in the power relationships described in Lt. Col. Grossman's On Killing. (I know, I should really read Violence: a Micro-Sociological Theory too--it's on my list!)

My armchair psychologizing would lead me to believe that it leads to more violence and more deaths (though probably not among the police force). If you're a young tough throwing rocks and the police, and you see them back down (even if it is just far enough to get out of range), that's going to have a profound effect on you. It's going to pump you full of pride and recklessness. In the heat of battle, you're not going to recognize a strategic for what it is and the training in represents. Instead, it's going to send you surging forward, and the cycle will repeat, with each strategic retreat a new victory, until, for some reason, the police have to stop retreating. At this point, a violent clash is almost unavoidable--a group that believes themselves indomitable met by a group that can no longer retreat.

In Grossman's (whatever comes after triad, quadad?) the stone throwers are posturing (if they weren't, they would've brought guns), and the police are fleeing. Rather than fleeing (and much rather than fighting) the police should start posturing. If someone starts throwing rocks, they should stand their ground where advantageous, or advance (not retreat) to a more defensible position, and call in reinforcements. If the stone-throwers don't retreat when the reinforcements arrive, they should advance. The stone-throwers are much less likely to hit a point of no retreat than the police are (they can, after all, disperse to their homes). If there is an arrest, they should be charged with assault with a deadly weapon and locked up for a long time.

In the long run, stone-throwing, and the violence that it leads to, would be much less common.

The left hand knows not what the right hand doeth.

The proposed soda tax, and all the other "obesity" taxes, really annoy me. They really annoy me because the reason soda, and so many other fattening foods, are cheap is because the government subsidizes the fattening ingredients! Here's a much simpler idea. Stop subsidizing sugar. Stop subsidizing corn, which is then turned into corn syrup and put in everything. Remove all of America's agricultural subsidies.

A crop which is subsidized is, almost by definition, one that can be stored long-term. And a crop that can be stored long-term is, almost by definition, one that has had most of the nutrients stripped out of it. (That one is easy to see, if you think about it bit. You can only store something that other things won't or can't eat. If it doesn't provide a balanced diet even for bacteria, you can store it for a very long time.)

If you want to solve the obesity crisis, don't ask what the government can do for you, ask what the government can stop doing for you, because the government is what caused it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Workin' for the man

It's hard to align the interests of students with the interests of teachers.

You know what's a heck of a lot easier?


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review: Hide or Seek

Dobson, James. Hide or Seek: How to Build Self-Esteem in Your Child. Revised ed. Old Tappan, NJ; Fleming H. Revell Co., 1979.

I'd read a good deal of criticism of this book, arguing that Dr. Dobson had failed to make the distinction between self-esteem and self-respect.

That may be true. However, his solution is beyond complaint. Dobson suggests that, in order to compensate for a paucity of self-esteem, you develop self-respect. You develop self-respect through achievement. You may not be beautiful, rich, athletic, or intelligent, but you can take what you have and make it better.

It's a good book, probably worth the read, (Dobson does go quickly). If that's too much for you, I can sum up the book in one sentence: "You compensate for a lack of self-esteem by focusing on achievement, not inheritance."