Waco 20 Years On

Waco FireAccording to The Atlantic, there has been an explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas. This seems pretty strange, because it is almost 20 years to the day of the end of the siege of the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas that there would be an explosion in that area. That siege started on 28 February 1993. And it ended on 19 April 1993. On the other hand, if I were a reporter, I’d be hyper sensitive to anything happening around this time. You may remember that the Oklahoma City bombing took place on the second anniversary of the end of that siege.

But it is a fertilizer plant. And if we learned anything from the Oklahoma City bombing, it is that fertilizer is combustible. And this is a big explosion. According to the report, it was felt 100 miles away in Dallas. What’s more, there are reports of severely injured people—and maybe more.

So is it yet another confused person who thinks that human life is not as important as political ideology? I can’t say. Check back here for updates, because I do want to know. If it turns out to be nothing more than a coincidence, it will mean that God is cruel. Otherwise, it will mean that man is cruel.

I tend to think that both are.

Yglesias Cast Out of Appleworld

Matt YglesiasThis is just sad. I’ve been reading Matt Yglesias for a long time and one thing I know (And like!) about him is that he’s an iconoclast. Just this morning he was making what I thought a very weak but iconoclastic argument against fiscal stimulus. But when it comes to computers, I guess he just has to be one of the gang.

Yesterday, he wrote an article complaining about the fact that Apple is keeping its products unreasonably expensive because of unreasonably high profit margins. I’m not sure he’s right. The main problem I have with Apple products is their snob appeal. There are markets where higher prices increase demand. It is certainly possible that if Apple started selling their products at more reasonable prices, they would lose customers who wanted Apple products because only the “cool” people have them. Regardless, Yglesias made a totally reasonable argument.

But the Apple devotees (the worst aspect of Apple snob appeal) came after him. And rather than just ignore it as he usually does when people make cogent, much less ridiculous, points against him, he wrote:

This gets to be touchy emotional terrain for some people, so I want to be clear. I bought an iPhone the first week it was released. I own an iPhone 5 and an iPad 3 and a MacBook Air and a Thunderbolt Display and an Apple Wireless Keyboard and an Apple Wireless Trackpad. I’m not an Apple-basher and I don’t want the company to “be like Dell” or “be like Samsung.” But one of the oddities of the increasingly partisan tech commentary world is that somehow Apple’s customers have become cheerleaders for high prices and giant profits. That’s odd. As a fan of Apple products, I’d like them to be cheaper so I can buy more!

Really everybody: I’m one of you! Don’t cast me out! I love love love Apple! Honest I do!

It’s just sad.

Afterword

There is a serious point that Yglesias is getting at: Apple could make huge inroads into the computer market if they, say, cut their prices by 20%. There is another way to look at the situation, though. Apple could use all of its profits to actually, you know, do some R&D. The company spends a shockingly small amount of money on technological innovation. Apple seems to think it can get by forever on its branding and packaging. I think not, and so do a lot of other people. Apple stock is down, even though they continue to make a lot of money.

Forgiving Torture

America TorturesI am often reminded that I’m not a very nice person. Most recently, this came to mind because Jonathan Bernstein wrote at Post Partisan, How Do We Keep from Torturing Again? This is coming off the Constitution Project report stating unequivocally that after 9/11, the United States, as a matter of government policy, tortured people in our custody. As I reported in an update to that story, Andrew Sullivan has called for a truth commission or something similar to address this unacceptable behavior.

Bernstein said much the same thing, but with a political scientist’s eye: the only way we can prevent future episodes of government torture is to admit what we did. We can’t be a nation where one party is against torture and the other is for it. In fact, that is exactly what we now have for reasons that should be clear to readers of this site. But this gets to the point about my not being a nice person. Berstein wrote:

I’ve argued—against many torture opponents—that a Truth Commission, combined with blanket pardons and generous expressions of understanding for those who were responsible, as odious as what they did was, is actually the best way to proceed.

I think he is right, and yet I have trouble offering those generous expressions of understanding. But it isn’t because I’m not forgiving—I am very forgiving. It is just that I remain resentful as long as the wrongdoer does not admit his error. I think most people are like this.

So as long as Bush Jr continues to act like everything he did in office was just great or at least done with the best intentions, I cannot offer understanding. As long as Cheney goes around the country talking about how right he was to lead our country into the “dark side,” I cannot offer understanding. As long as torturers and their apologists continue to be represented at the highest levels of government and media, I cannot offer understanding.

That’s my failing. But maybe better men than I can get a truth commission going and convince Bush to admit to his torture policies and accept that they were wrong. If he does, my opinion of him will improve and I will offer him generous expressions of understanding—I know I will, because I know how I am. But until then, I will think of him as just another unpunished criminal who should be spending the rest of his life in a cage, not attending his own art shows.

Forfeit Today So You Can Forfeit Tomorrow

Jeff FlakeAny time now, the Senate will vote down the Toomey-Manchin gun purchase background check compromise. I can’t say I’m sad about this. Even under the best of circumstances, the law would have been so watered down as to be almost meaningless. And that was very little gain in return for the possibility that the law would have been far worse than nothing. What I find interesting about the whole exercise is that it shows how little power senators have.

Yesterday, David Firestone over at Taking Note tried to explain, Why the Background Check Bill Is in Trouble. He gave as an example the freshman Republican from Arizona, Jeff Flake. Flake said he was against the bill because it could cause sales between friends and relatives to require a background check. Now, this is not true; Flake was just making this up to give himself an excuse for voting against the bill.

That’s the thing: in a reasonable world, Flake would have no trouble with this bill. After all, it is only fixing a long extant law that is not at all controversial. But I think I’m fair in divining that he is only voting against the bill because he is afraid of the specious charge that he voted for “gun control.” And so Senator Flake does not actually have the power to vote as he wishes.

But let’s be clear. There certainly are senators who will vote against the bill because it is really what they believe. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, I think, are against the whole background check system. But most senators are not like them. I’m sure at least 30 of the senators who vote against the very mild Toomey-Manchin bill will do so not because of their power but because of their lack of power.

And this is the way power works. Flake could use his power to vote as he sees right. But he won’t. He’s (rightly) afraid that if he uses his power, he will later lose it. But truly, this makes no sense. It is just a recipe for holding onto a pointless job. And the truth is that using political power will not necessarily lead to its destruction. But in my experience, those who seek power are morally weak—and that includes the true believers like Paul and Cruz. So it isn’t surprising that they will forfeit today to assure they will be around to forfeit tomorrow.

S’awright? S’awriiight!

Senor WencesThe English playwright John Ford was born on this day in 1586. The inventor of baseball (more or less), Alexander Cartwright was born in 1820. J. P. Morgan was born in 1837, and we’ve been paying for it ever since. The great playwright Thornton Wilder was born 1897. William Holden was born in 1918. Director Lindsay Anderson was born in 1923. The great Japanese film critic Donald Richie was born in 1924 (and just died back in February). And concert promoter Don Kirshner was born in 1934.

Author Nick Hornby is 56 today. And actor Sean Bean is 54.

But the day belongs to the great ventriloquist Señor Wences who was born in 1896 and lived to be 103 years old. He was an amazing performer. In the clip below, you will see, however, that he is hardly a ventriloquist at all. But note that he is 70 years old in it. Ventriloquists lose their technique as they get older. I recommend just sitting back and enjoying the comedy. The truth is that it is almost impossible to not look at his various puppets as they talk anyway.

Happy birthday Señor Wences!

Gold Has Little Intrinsic Value

GoldPaul Krugman’s last two columns have been about the obsession of conservatives (especially libertarians) with gold backed currency. On Friday, he wrote, Lust for Gold. In it, he discussed the recent fall in the price of gold and how it will not affect the way that goldbugs think about the commodity. And then on Monday, he wrote, The Antisocial Network. In it, he wrote about Bitcoin and how its proponents are basically obsessed with the same thing that motivates the goldbugs: “The government is devaluing my money!”

Then yesterday, Wall Street analyst Barry Ritholtz wrote an amusing article about the culture of the gold devotees, 12 Rules of Goldbuggery. Basically, he says that goldbuggery is a cult. People who are members of it are (like so many things that are political in nature) not responsive to evidence. The 12 rules come down to this: the price of gold can never go down and if it does go down, it isn’t economics, it is government manipulation.

As regular readers know, I used to be a libertarian. But even at my most fanatical, I never understood the gold standard obsession of the movement. (Actually, there were a lot of other things I never understood.) It was all based upon a kind of paranoia that the government was just itching to devalue the currency to impoverish the money of rich people. That’s a shocking claim when you consider the the government is run by a bunch of rich people. And that’s even more true of the Federal Reserve. In theory, it is supposed to maximize employment and minimize inflation. In practice, it minimizes inflation.

There is another side to the gold standard obsession—one that is a lot harder to understand. These people think that the value of gold is fixed. I think this is standard conservative thinking that the way things have long been is the way things ought to be. You see this all the time with the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. Many conservatives I’ve talked to will simply not accept that it is a fairly recent addition or that if it wasn’t always there, it should have been. In other words: whatever the world was like when I was a kid is what is right. So with gold, conservatives have this idea things must have been perfect in the long ago past because currencies have “always” been based upon it.

The truth is that gold is not that useful a metal. And its supply can certainly be manipulated. I remember reading about a king of what is now more or less Chad. This is many hundreds of years ago. He took a trip to the Middle East. In the process, he spread so much gold around the it created a years-long inflation shock. But we don’t have to go back that far to show the instability of gold. Since August, the price of gold has gone down 25% (most of that in the last week). In that same time, the dollar has been quite stable and inflation has been moving at about 2% annually.

The fundamental problem is that a gold-based currency is valuable only in as much as people think that gold is valuable. And this is the same thing as for so called fiat money. Think about it this way: what would you rather have: part ownership of Samsung that is actively exchanging products for other valuables or gold that very few people want? The truth is that gold is not much more valuable than tulip bulbs. In the end, you can’t build houses with gold and you can’t burn gold for energy and you can’t eat gold. So the belief that gold has intrinsic value is just wrong.

If you were preparing for life after some horrible tragedy, would you hoard gold? Of course not! You’d hoard food and batteries. I just don’t get why the goldbugs don’t see that this fact destroys their arguments that gold has some intrinsic and stable value.