2 Nov 2003 chalst   » (Master)

Across the Abyss
Raph appears to be despairing of the general political debate between left&right. From one of his recent messages:
I'm having a number of fascinating correspondences in email now. For one, I decided to follow up by email to Berend De Boer's recommendation of a piece criticizing a recent op-ed by Krugman, and I'm glad of it. I think there's a good chance we'll both learn something from the discourse -- something that seems to be happening more rarely as the public debate between "liberals" and "conservatives" seems to be getting more polarized.
Raph's proposition, that the public debate between left and right seems to be getting more polarized, I think this is true of the US at a high-level, but not true at a lower level, and perhaps this lower level is more important. Let me make some points:
  1. I think it's mostly a US phenomena, and is driven by a process that disgracefully the US media draws little attention to, namely the cosy agreement that exists between Democrats and Republicans to `jerrymander' electoral boundaries, to ensure that marginal Democrat and Republican seats become safe seats. This means fewer politicians need work to please centrists, and advancement becomes principally a matter of pleasing the party base, who tend to be loudest at the fringes.
  2. As a general rule, the polarisation of representative politics leads to a polarisation of political discussion in the mainstream media.
  3. Also consider 2-party (ie. first past the post), vs. pluralist systems. I think avoiding extremism needs consitutional measures (in the widest sense of that term), in just the same way as the need to eliminate totalitarianism in many European required consitutional measures at the end of WWII.
  4. The advent of blogging is a good thing:
    • There are rightists respected by many leftists, eg. Arnold Kling, Dan Drezner, Eugene Volokh.
    • There are leftists respected by many rightists, eg. Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, and Norman Geras.
    • There are also centrists who can talk to both left and right; eg. Michael J. Totten. Oliver Kamm, although he calls himself a leftist, perhaps fits best in this category.
    For people who think, the interest of ideas is more important than the conformity of their authors. That the blogger phenomenon has sparked off a global conversation where many can easily participate and noone can shout down anyone else is the important sense in which raph's proposition is false.
  5. This goes alongside an important phenomenon that has been going on over the last 20-30 years, firstly on the right (since Barry Goldwater, and as a mass phenomenon since Reagan), and is now gathering steam on the left (Clinton/Blair), namely a fluidity of ideas between left and right. There aren't really any single propositions that mark someone as being a leftist or a rightist anymore; in a sense we are leaving ideology behind. Again, the right is much more advanced in this respect than the left, and I think this is why the left tends to be, to cite George Lakoff, much worse at "framing problems" than the right. None of this is to say that the right is not filled with quite as many dogmatic idiots as the left...
  6. In the above points, when I talk about left and right, I mean those who accept the idea of a state based on principles of tolerance and the rule of law. Communists, ultranationalists and religious fundamentalists are beyond left and right in this sense.
I've more to say on this, but it'll have to wait.

Luskin sleaze watch III
Dan Drezner calls Luskin a stalker.

Worst album covers ever
Via Gene at Harry's place, enjoy this feast for the eyes.

What motivates good science
Randy Barnett argues that the technological spin offs that come from military spending are unlikely to justify the huge sums involved: read his thoughts on Star Trek and Democracy, and on War and Technological Development.

I think he's probably right, but I didn't think the argument he gives is sound. Two considerations:

  • War does effectively separate efficient states from failing states. I hope we don't need it, but the fact that Europe had near perpetual wars for 6 of the last 7 centuries I think is how Europe came to overtake its then far superior rivals in development terms (the Islamic world, China, India, etc.). I'd like to believe that trade favours the selection of efficient states over failing states more efficiently in the long term, since it is less horrible than war, but I'm not yet completely convinced.
  • Fundamental science does not advance in step with technological improvements. Markets promote the latter well, I am not impressed by their ability to promote the former. The non-market driven model of government-funded research foundations (eg. in the US, the NIH and the NSF, in the UK the SERC etc., and Europe-wide the Marie-Curie framework programmes) do a much better job. The obvious reason is that no better way exists of telling what ideas are worth pursuing than the opinion of good people working in the domain of enquiry, and no better way exists way of telling who is good than letting the test of time sort the people with good ideas from those with bad ideas.

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