Daily Archives: 05 Jan 2015

The Vicissitudes of Web Traffic

Comment TrollI was a little concerned after I wrote, More Libertarian Economic Hokum. Writing about libertarians tends to bring them out and I have to admit: they exhaust me. I’ve written about various aspects of libertarianism over the years, and they tend to attract very long winded comments that treat any particular article as though I’m claiming that it and it alone is the ultimate refutation of the ideology. I generally refer them to my tens of thousands of words written elsewhere and that tends to shut them up. That, I assume, is because despite the intellectual conceit of libertarians, as a group, they are extremely lazy intellectually.

This isn’t true of all libertarians. Certainly, Robert Nozick was brilliant. The problem is that it is extremely rare to run into a libertarian who has read him. Instead, they form a very facile kind of libertarianism based upon Ayn Rand and other quasi-philosophers. If it is based upon any idea at all, it is based upon the useless non-aggression principle. But usually, they are just conservatives who don’t feel comfortable with the naked hatred of conservative social positions. And above all, they are relatively wealthy and educated people who are convinced that their successes are due to their own brilliance and hard work.

So the comments are generally not insightful. And given that the article I had just written was dashed off without the kind of thorough linking that I prefer when discussing economics, I could imagine getting a lot of push back. Not that I couldn’t defend myself. The article I was discussing was typical pseudo-economic libertarian analysis. It is a lot like global warming denial articles: cherry picked references with very spotty coverage. As I noted in my article, in general, the guy didn’t even try to make a cogent argument about his supposed myths. It was just taken as a given that the claim was wrong and he threw in a couple of references to make it seem like he had countered it. It was a surprisingly sloppy bit of writing from a publication that does feature some decent content.

Thus, I was a little freaked out when I noticed shortly after posting the article that Google Analytics was going crazing. People were streaming in to read that article. I figured that some libertarian posted it on Twitter or Reddit or Facebook and I would be inundated with comments like, “You’re just saying we should all be slaves!” Or maybe they would take the high road, “You’re just a doodoo pants!” But no such comments came in. No comments came in at all. It is probably just that I noticed Google Analytics at the right time. It normally takes a couple hundred views before getting a comment. And when the material is technical, it is even worse. So I was relieved, although doubtless some libertarian will eventually drop by and shout at me about the article.

The reason I’ve been paying a bit more attention to Google Analytics is that I noticed a distinct decrease in website traffic over the holidays. I’m used to Frankly Curious getting steadily more popular. Each week gets more traffic than the week before. But suddenly, that wasn’t happening. I thought that maybe I had plateaued. There is also my constant fear that my work isn’t as good as it once was. But ever the optimist, I continued. And then on Friday — the first real day after the holidays — the traffic shot up. And it continued Saturday and Sunday and, I assume, today.

A more important aspect of traffic that has been changing the past few months is that I’m getting a smaller percentage of visitors from search engines. Instead, more people are just coming here directly — apparently to see what the freak is ranting about now. These visitors didn’t decrease much during the holidays. It was more the search engine traffic — most of it going to the archive.

None of this matters all that much, except in that it keeps me writing. But increased traffic does bring some annoyances. Infidel753 recently reported about a bulletin board attack on him, where the commenter wrote, “Dumbf**k Infidel753 encourages the mockery of religion; believes religion and rectitude must be eradicated.” Of course, Infidel753 is a well regarded blogger who’s been around forever. I doubt it bothers him and a comment that silly is hard to take seriously. But it still sucks to have idiots dump on you. And that’s even true when you are throwing bombs, as I did in the article earlier today.

More Libertarian Economic Hokum

Libertarian Party: Just Kidding, We're Republicans!While doing research about the decreasing dangers of police work, I came upon some good work by libertarians. Unfortunately, this also brought too much of the typical brain dead libertarian economic analysis. In particular, at The Freeman, I found an article by Corey Iacono, 5 Economic Myths That Just Won’t Die. It was apparently the cover story of the December issue. It’s an excellent example of conservative affirmative action. If only I could spout this kind of nonsense, I too could be published in a seemingly popular magazine.

A big part of the problem is that the myths are no such thing. No one, for example, goes around saying, “Capitalism isn’t economically superior to socialism.” There literally is no such thing as a pure capitalism or a pure socialism. The libertarians are the only ones who claim that there can exist some kind of perfect capitalism. And even they fall to pieces when you bring up tort law or almost any other practical matter. But even if we grant Mr Iacono his myth, he doesn’t counter it. He only argues that liberalizing socialist countries increases economic growth. That is not the same as showing that capitalism is economically superior to socialism. There is a balance and going too far either way makes things worse.

Typical of the article is its argument against, “Countries like Sweden and Denmark prove that high taxes don’t harm economic growth.” He avoids the subject altogether. He does mention one paper regarding the Danish economy that is not based upon data but on a non-standard economic model. Otherwise, his argument is that in a general sense lower taxation leads to higher economic growth. Again, no one really argues with this. The argument has been that taxes of the rich do not hurt the economy — in a recession at least — because they don’t spend most of their money and so it is just added to the piles of cash rushing around the economy hopelessly looking for places where it can be used. But such economic complexity is anathema in libertarian thought.

The article isn’t without some actual claims that are made, “The government ended child labor. In a free market, child labor would still exist.” But I hardly think it is a myth. He quoted an article by the Economic History Association that stated that child labor ended primarily due to improved incomes of working people from 1880 to 1940. The problem here is that incomes improved due to the rise of labor unions and various government activities. Given that the United States has been seeing little to no increase in real wages for the working classes over the last four decades, we ought to see a rise in child labor if it weren’t for laws. The same argument that Iacono made has been made for a century and a half for how the Civil War was unnecessary because the free market was just about to destroy slavery. In this case, Iacono is apparently fine with generations of children working in coal mines because the bright light of the libertarian utopia is only a few generations away!

His next myth was, “Free trade doesn’t lead to better economic outcomes in the real world.” Free trade is mostly a scam to keep rich countries rich and poor countries poor. There is no way that a banana republic becomes anything else if it can’t protect its infant industries from destruction by powerful foreign corporations. Let me outsource the rebuttal to Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent Bad Samaritans:

The poor growth record of neo-liberal globalization since the 1980s is particularly embarrassing. Accelerating growth — if necessary at the cost of increasing inequality and possibly some increase in poverty — was the proclaimed goal of neo-liberal reform. We have been repeatedly told that we first have to “create more wealth” before we can distribute it more widely and that neo-liberalism was the way to do that. As a result of neo-liberal policies, income inequality has increased in most countries as predicted, but growth has actually slowed down significantly.

But by far the worst of the “myths” was, “The idea that economic growth helps the poor is trickle-down economics — it doesn’t actually help them.” No one says that economic growth doesn’t help the poor. No one. But he doesn’t address this anyway. He actually goes on to argue in favor of trickle-down economics. He wants growth, which he claims that we get “through methods such as limiting the size of government and lowering barriers to international trade.” The size of the government is generally irrelevant, but it is unquestionably actively harmful in the middle of the worst economic period since the Great Depression. There is no “crowding out.” Corporations are already sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars because they don’t see any point in investing. And what possible barriers to international trade is he talking about? As I’ve discussed, our big new “free” trade agreements are more about making countries less democratic and making it easier for owners to collect their rents.

All of this is just the same old libertarian hokum. This isn’t economics; it is theology. It is worship of the free market and the idea that any interference with it will make it angry and turn against us. Economics started as a part of moral philosophy. But amongst libertarians, it has lost all its moral context. It is no longer about the best way to facilitate the sharing of resources. It is about feeding an ideology that can never fail and only be failed. Unfortunately, Corey Iacono isn’t even a priest in the cult of the free market; he’s just one of the true believers sitting in the pews.

Afterword

Iacono wrote a followup article, 5 More Economic Myths That Just Won’t Die. It is an improvement in that it actually contains a widely believed claim that is, in fact, false, “Immigrants take American jobs and reduce American wages.” But three of the remain four myths are all the same: government can’t create jobs. It’s pathetic. But it has 464 shares, because there are scads of people out there who just can’t get enough hokum when it tells them what they want to hear.

Conservatives Don’t Want to Reform Foreign Policy

Reform ConservativeThere is a laugh-out-loud funny article by Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim at The Wall Street Journal this morning, Toward a Reform-Conservative Foreign Policy. These “reform conservatives on national-security issues” want to change the state of our foreign policy. And they want to do it by — Wait for it! — doing exactly what conservatives have always wanted to do. I have major problems with the reform conservatives generally — all they are willing to do is nibble around the edges because they cannot be seen as taking a big bite out of conservative ideology. But at least they do nibble. Dueck and Zakheim don’t even do that.

The argument in the article consists of two points. First, it complains about Obama’s foreign policy. This isn’t serious at all. It just recycles the same tired claims of the conservatives that Obama looks week (generally because he doesn’t act like an authoritarian, but really just because he isn’t a Republican). The second part of the argument is a vague disclaimer that they aren’t like Bush in 2003. And this leads up to their great “reform” conclusion: we need to spend more money on the military.

It is curious that conservatives constantly call for government to be more efficient — except when it comes to the military. Education can be infinitely more efficient. One teacher can manage a thousand students! But the military couldn’t possibly do more with less! One less bomber would destroy our military or at least send the message to the evildoers that it is time to strike! It’s sad but tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the priorities of conservatives. No wonder they hold authoritarians like Putin in such high regard.

Ed Kilgore summed up what they are pushing, The Long-Awaited Reformicon Foreign Policy Initiative: Throw Money at the Pentagon:

So it seems the big Reformicon foreign policy principle is that it is again time to throw money at the Pentagon as a symbolic gesture of national “strength.” This, of course, has big and baleful consequences for Reformicon domestic policy, which on occasion requires some new federal spending. But frankly, honest fiscal math has not been a conservative priority since about 1981.

But it is more than that. The military cuts that we have seen came from the Sequester. The Republicans allowed cuts to military spending and Democrats allowed cuts to social spending. What these guys are really saying is that now that the deal is made, they want to keep the half of it that they like and jettison the half they don’t like. They even mention in the article how important cutting the budget is, “It is indeed imperative to reduce the national debt, but defense spending has already taken more than its share of cuts since Obama took office…” So the idea of just getting rid of the Sequester is off the table. As usual with conservatives, they want everything and are not willing to give anything in return.

They also mention Rand Paul as the leader of the faction of the party that wants to reduce the military. This is critical to their argument. By not being Rand Paul on the left and Bush in 2003 on the right, they are in the “reasonable” center. But it isn’t true. Rand Paul has shown himself to be very slippery when it comes to the military. By the time he gets the presidential nomination, he will be as much a hawk as any of them. And they provide an apologia for Bush in 2003, by noting the special circumstances. But there is nothing that they are proposing that is any different from Bush in 2003, except that they wouldn’t go to war with Saddam Hussein because he’s dead.

But maybe I’m wrong about these guys. In a way, they are right smack in the middle of the reform conservative movement. No one in that movement wants to change anything. They just want to rebrand the Republican Party. And that’s what their article is: a bunch of gobbledygook designed to look like they are dealing with the constant failures of their ideology, without actually doing it. Welcome to the party boys, the money is fine!

Two Myths About ISIS

Raed JarrarThere are so many myths that have been thrown around in the last few weeks. One of them is, as you mentioned, that there is this one bad guy that we are stepping in with our good allies to save the day and get rid of. And this is not an accurate description of the situation in Iraq or in Syria. Although ISIS — this terrorist group — has been committing gross violations of human rights and other atrocities, other groups in Iraq — the ones who we call our allies — have been also committing similar atrocities. Actually, a couple of days ago, one of our allies beheaded Sunni militants. We didn’t see much about that in US media. A few weeks ago there was a massacre committed by one of the Shiite militias backed by the Iraqi government. This massacre was documented by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations. We didn’t seem to hear about that either. We never hear about violations and war crimes committed by the Iraqi government itself — or by other ethnic and sectarian militias in Iraq. That is one part of the problem: that there is media focus on the crimes of one faction in Iraq without focusing on other factions. I don’t think that the crimes committed by ISIS in any way are unique. They are bloody, but they are similar to other crimes committed by others in Iraq — especially those who we are funding with our taxpayers’ money.

The other part that is a myth is that we can defeat ISIS through military action. And that is, I think, one of the byproducts of our foreign policy, which brings up the question that you mentioned, “We have to act!” We either don’t act at all or we have to act by dropping bombs. It doesn’t seem like there are any shades of grey between not acting and dropping bombs on other nations. And this myth that we can bomb Iraq into stability and we can bomb Iraq into moderation — that we can destroy extremism by throwing more bombs on Iraq — there is no evidence that this can happen! The US has tried that many times in the past. Actually, the US tried it while the US had more than a hundred thousand troops on the ground in Iraq. There was a military engagement with ISIS. It used to be called ISI at the time: the Islamic State in Iraq. And obviously, the group was not defeated. I think this is what many people in the US and around the world have been saying for a long time: we can’t defeat extremism by dropping more bombs. Actually, dropping more bombs, and having US military intervention fuels extremism.

—Raed Jarrar, American Friends Service Committee
Interview on CounterSpin

Public Intellectual Umberto Eco

Umberto EcoThe great writer and philosopher Umberto Eco is 83 years old today. Last year, when I marked his birthday, I talked about his novel, The Name of the Rose. And I said then what I will say now: it is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It is rare that I think a novel is too short. I never wanted it to stop. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. And if you’ve seen the film of the same name, don’t let that stop you. It is fun enough, I suppose. And it is probably as good a rendering of the book as could be had on the screen. But the book is something else completely.

But it is probably best to think of Eco as a public intellectual — the sort of person that the United States has largely turned against. I highly recommend his essays. A year and a half ago, I quoted from his essay “Censorship and Silence” in his book, Inventing the Enemy. It is more true than ever: the way that we censor today is not by forbidding the truth but by drowning it out with nonsense. Fox News is the king of this, but more important, it is true of the media establishment writ large. Here is Umberto Eco on the issue:

Noise becomes a cover. I would say that the ideology of the censorship through noise can be expressed, with apologies to Wittgenstein, by saying, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must talk a great deal.” The flagship TG1 news program on Italian state television, for example, is a master of this technique, full of news items about calves born with two heads and bags snatched by petty thieves — in other words, the sort of minor stories papers used to put low on an inside page — which now serve to fill up three-quarters of an hour of information, to ensure we don’t notice other news stories they ought to have covered have not been covered. Several months ago, the press controlled by Berlusconi, in order to undermine the authority of a magistrate who criticized the premier, followed him for days, reporting that he sat smoking on a bench, went to the barber, and wore turquoise socks. To make a noise, you don’t have to invent stories. All you have to do is report a story that is real but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported. It is true and irrelevant that the magistrate wears turquoise socks, but the fact it has been reported creates a suggestion of something not quite confessed, leaving a mark, an impression. Nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story.

Happy birthday Umberto Eco!


See also: The Art of the Opening.