Catallaxy Files
 

 
polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT mail.com

 
 
 

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    Saturday, April 26, 2003
     
    Voluntary eugenics
    James Watson talks sense as usual:


    Professor Watson, 75, still active in science and still characteristically provocative, argued for parental choice. They should decide whether or not to give birth to a child with Down's syndrome - or, in future, one with enhanced genes, he said.

    "Anything - a short child, a tall child, an aggressive child ... We don't know how. I'm for using genetics at the level of the individual. Nothing like what happened in Germany [under the Nazis], or when we sterilised people because they had mental diseases. It is best to let people try and do what they think is best. I wouldn't want someone else to tell me what to do - as long as you are not hurting someone else."

    Since the launch of genetic modification, there have been alarms about enhancement of future babies. "Enhancement means making better," Prof Watson said. "I'd have liked to have been born brighter. Our whole civilisation has been giving people the right to try and improve things. Occasionally you get very conservative governments who want to stop all improvement. I think it is human nature, the drive to make things better."

    Friday, April 25, 2003
     
    Anti-capitalism for the rich

    The thinking person’s anti-capitalist, Clive Hamilton of The Australia Institute, has been getting quite a bit of coverage for his new book, Growth Fetish. One of the book’s arguments is that we are seeing a significant number of people giving up their addiction to high incomes and excessive consumption, and ‘downshifting’ to a more modest lifestyle.

    This Hamilton argument sits rather incongruously in the latest issue of The Australian Financial Review Magazine (pay per view, so downshifters will need to read it in their local library). On my count, the magazine’s readers have to get through twenty-two pages of advertisements for such trademarks of the frugal life as Louis Vuitton watches, Armani suits, and a 12 cylinder 760Li BMW, plus a story about marketers turning buying luxury goods into an ‘inspirational experience’, before they get to Clive’s lifestyle advice.

    If too many people followed Hamilton’s suggestions there would be no Australian Financial Review Magazine. Indeed, since he wants to ban advertising there would no Australian Financial Review either. Rather ironically, Hamilton can only get so much free publicity because most people ignore his suggestions, and make newspapers easily affordable through advertisers paying most of their production costs.
     
    Greece and anti-Americanism
    The NY Review of Books has a fascinating article on a most unlikely anti-American country - Greece:


    The opinion polls showed deep anger at the US, with President Bush seen as the single greatest threat to the peace of the world. My first conversations with Greek acquaintances confirmed not just that 94 percent of Greeks opposed the war, but that most of them could not help hoping the outgunned Iraqis would somehow stop the US tanks and send the Americans home bloodied. No, people said, they didn't hate all Americans, just President Bush and his advisers; yes, some of them would put a bomb under the US embassy if they could, but not if people were inside. No, they weren't afraid of us personally, but they were afraid of what we might do elsewhere in the world.

    Once shooting starts, logic does not have much to do with human reactions. My Athenian friends acknowledged that Saddam was a vile tyrant, that the US troops did not kill Iraqi babies intentionally, that oil was not the real issue, and that Iraq would ultimately be returned to its own people freer than it was, and probably happier. But by launching a war to demonstrate its power, by supporting Ariel Sharon's repression of the Palestinians, by flouting the United Nations, America would reap the whirlwind. In an unstable moral universe, American power had become a fixed point, Greece's polestar of evil.

    Wednesday, April 23, 2003
     
    Enjoying Pusey's pain
    Last weekend, the Sydney Sun-Herald ran a profile of Michael Pusey, promoting his new jeremiad against economic rationalism, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform. The basic argument of the book is that middle Australia is doing it tough, and that it is all the fault of economic rationalism. I’ll leave it to my review of this book, in a forthcoming issue of Policy, to explain in detail why the article’s title ‘Michael in the Middle’ should have been ‘Michael in a Muddle’. The Sun-Herald article did, however, contain a Schadenfreude inducing irony.

    It seems that when Pusey’s family migrated to Australia, when he was 12, the plan had been to establish a franchise of a textile firm. Alas for the Puseys, on their way here the Menzies government imposed import restrictions, making the textile business impossible and forcing them into sudden downward mobility. This experience, the Sun-Herald says, left its mark on a young mind. On the evidence, however, that mark was not on his intellect. You’d think this personal experience would highlight the social cost of protectionism. But no, the adult Pusey is a protectionist. But it is nice to know that he has suffered for his ideas. His readers certainly have.

    Tuesday, April 22, 2003
     
    RIP Nina Simone (1933-2003)


    Monday, April 21, 2003
     
    Hitler the bibliophile
    I have been among those many who have held a, let us say, very dim view of George W Bush's intelligence and capabilities, in part because he doesn't strike one as terribly literate or knowledgeable or well-read. Alas, my fellow bibliophiles, let's hope not too many people remember that Adolf Hitler was one of us and all his reading obviously didn't do him any good.

    On the other hand, his admittedly prodigious collection seems to have been filled with a lot of tripe with some exceptions (he apparently listed Uncle Tom's Cabin as one of his favourite novels - call the irony police!). Lots of arty farty stuff , theologyand New Age crap, few actual works of good literary fiction and nothing from the physical, biological or social sciences or mathematics. That speaks volumes (in my mind at least):


    the biggest single share of Hitler's library, some 7,000 books, was devoted to military matters, in particular "the campaigns of Napoleon, the Prussian kings; the lives of all German and Prussian potentates who ever played a military role; and books on virtually all the well-known military campaigns in recorded history. Another 1,500 volumes concerned architecture, theater, painting, and sculpture ...

    The balance of the collection consisted of clusters of books on diverse themes ranging from nutrition and health to religion and geography, with "eight hundred to a thousand books" of "simple, popular fiction, many of them pure trash in anybody's language."

    By his own admission, Hitler was not a big fan of novels, though he once ranked Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Don Quixote (he had a special affection for the edition illustrated by Gustave Doré) among the world's greatest works of literature. The one novelist we know Hitler loved and read was Karl May, a German writer of cheap American-style westerns ...

    Among the piles of Nazi tripe (much of it printed on high-acid paper that is rapidly deteriorating) are more than 130 books on religious and spiritual subjects, ranging from Occidental occultism to Eastern mysticism to the teachings of Jesus Christ—books with titles such as Sunday Meditations; On Prayer; A Primer for Religious Questions, Large and Small; Large Truths About Mankind, the World and God. Also included were a German translation of E. Stanley Jones's 1931 best seller, The Christ of the Mount; and a 500-page work on the life and teachings of Jesus, published in 1935 under the title The Son: The Evangelical Sources and Pronouncements of Jesus of Nazareth in Their Original Form and With the Jewish Influences ...

    The Predictions of Nostradamus belongs to a cache of occult books that Hitler acquired in the early 1920s and that were discovered in the private quarters of his Berlin bunker by Colonel Albert Aronson in May of 1945. As part of the Allied occupation forces, Aronson was among the first Americans to enter Berlin after the collapse of the Nazi resistance.
     
    McKibben celebrates stagnation
    The Sydney Morning Herald today features an article byBill McKibben who celebrates and romanticises human imperfections and then uses his tastes to mount a *moral* argument against improvement through genetic engineering. Let me place a disclaimer here - I'm not trying to argue that genetic engineering should be compulsory, I'm not even trying to argue that it should anyone social obligation to improve the species through genetic engineering. All such matters are matters of taste - I watch with amusement colleagues who obsess over their diets and exercise regimens while I chomper away at American fastfood and spend most of my life sitting down - and I'm glad they're not trying to impose their puritanical versions of extropianism on me. However by the same token, bogus arguments which end up with policy conclusions proscribing 'designer babies' and which seem to be based on nothing more than the author's 'ugh' factor shouldn't be treated as if they were serious philosophical arguments. And every line when a 'why?' question comes up when I read McKibben, he doesn't answer my question, which suggests there isn't much of an argument, just a litany of the author's autobiographical details.

    He writes:

    the latest plans of Watson and his followers are monstrous in an entirely new way. They look forward to a world of catalogue children, who might spend their entire lives wondering which of their impulses are real and which the product of embryonic intervention. They replace the fate and the free will that have always been at the centre of human meaning with a kind of genetic predestination that will leave our children as semi-robots.


    Firstly there's a lot of reason to suspect the concept of free will is meaningless and incapable of operationalisation. So discourse would be much improved by dumping the concept. And any discourse which makes use of the concept is equally meaningless. Think of it this way - say agent A reacts to a stimuli B by action C. Now, if action C was somehow dictated by a chain of cause and effect which originated in some biochemical processes at work since the beginning of agent A's life, perhaps this is what McKibben means by A lacking 'free will'. A lacks free will in the sense that his reactions were predetermined. But what is the alternative? Is the alternative that perhaps there was some random element to reaction C coming out instead of reaction D? Is introducing an element of randomness in the chain of cause and effect equivalent to introducing free will? But if that's so, then, all natural phenomena can be said to have free will owing to the fact that we know that strictly mechanistic linear models of cause-effect don't apply even to natural phenomena - the so called 'chaotic dynamics' picture of the world.

    So I suppose what McKibben means is some reaction that isn't assimilable into some cause-effect chain. A bit like an unmoved mover. A bit like God actually. I think the concept of free will is a bit like the concept of God - at best one can be agnostic about its existence. And what the hell does he mean 'fate and free will' and how is that better than a genetic destiny that has been partly determined by a human choice? In fact isn't the latter fate which has been partly determined by human choice according to McKibben's own weird view of the world preferable to one that has been left to 'blind chance'? Or is he just turning the popular expression 'Shit happens' into some sort of Kantian imperative?

    However ignoring all these considerations and taking McKibben's metaphysical verbiage as valid for the sake of argument, what does his claim boil down to? Say, if I happen to be a child of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who is born without Tay Sachs disease owing to concerted efforts by my community


    Concerted efforts by Ashkenazi Jews to use genetic testing to screen for Tay-Sachs, devastating neurological disorder that was high risk for Askenazi Jews, has resulted in virtual elimination of Tay-Sachs; success has emboldened new effort to use screening to eliminate nine other genetic diseases from Ashkenazic population; some geneticist see effort as payoff of Human Genome Project, but others worry about how people will use sreening information and whether or not they should


    Yeah I can imagine one day this child growing up into an adult and lamenting McKibben-style: "My state of well-being owing to lack of Tay-Sachs disease, I wonder, oh I wonder, if only my parents had let it be, whether I would not have had it anyway. How dare they deprive me of experiencing this possibility, how dare they? Better to be a puppet of mystical concepts of 'fate and free will' than a puppet of scientific endavours aimed at improving my well-being'.

    Also, what is the difference between a woman deciding not to get pregnant at 50 because of the heightened risk of Down's Syndrome that comes with late pregnancy and a women who employs other state of the art methods of reducing the risk of disability in the child? What about a woman who decides not to smoke and drink during pregnancy? It seems to me that the degree of eugenics in these cases is indeed, as my formulation suggests, a difference in degree rather than in kind from the more ambitious attempts at voluntary eugenics (like the screening out of Tay Sachs disease) that some parents might choose to practice.

    Hopes of enhancement and immortality are widely and superficially appealing, drawing on the overpowering love we feel for our children and on our weakness for technological consumerism.


    Why isn't what we're doing now to stay alive - for instance, wearing a mask in the presence of a SARS sufferer, avoiding working in places filled with abestos, putting flouride in the water - why aren't all these things 'technological consumerism' relative to what our primate ancestors experienced, pray tell? It seems where we draw a line on this is a personal matter of our own internal trade off. For instance, I don't want to spend my life eating stuff which tastes like cardboard so I'm willing to shave a few years off my life in exchange for eating whatever I want, rather than eating what my health-obsessed colleagues eat.


    It's all too easy to imagine that a society that celebrates botulism toxin injections to fight wrinkles might fall for gene injections that seemed to promise a ticket to Harvard, not to mention immortality. But they reflect the shallowest idea about human life - the sense that more is always better. In fact, it is in our limitations that we find our meaning. An eternal robot might be nifty, but it wouldn't be human


    What the hell is this supposed to mean? How does wanting to be smarter or healthier or wanting to have healthy and smart children if possible have to do with 'more is better' other than in the sense of 'more well being is better'? If the latter, what exactly is wrong with that? And isn't the genuine sense of well-being that we experience come from overcoming our limitations rather than revelling in them? Is McKibben saying we won't have enough limitations to overcome if we're born too smart and healthy? What an optimistic man. Incidentally by McKibben's chain of logic, isn't Homo Sapiens to Homo Erectus as 'the eternal robot' is to Homo Sapiens? Perhaps McKibben would approve of genetic engineering back to our primate ancestors given the increased degree of personal authenticity to revel in our limitations that this will confer upon us.


    Gregory Stock, director of the program in medicine, technology and society at UCLA, has written that "the human mind cannot be the highest summit of cognitive performance". Measured in computations per second, that is certainly true - heck, an executive at Advanced Cell Technology has predicted that scientists soon will be able to add 20 or 30 IQ points to an embryo.

    But the human mind may nonetheless be the apex of thinking machinery simply because it is able to hold things in balance, to understand that more can be too much and that there are thresholds we don't need to cross


    So not only is a higher IQ not a sufficient condition for wisdom (almost certainly true) but a higher IQ may be incompatible with the current levels of wisdom which have brought us the Holocaust, Hutu-Tutsi massacres, S11, etc? Declining returns of IQ to wisdom? Interesting concept. Either McKibben has a higher IQ than me which is why I can't understand why this should be so, or he has a lower IQ than me and therefore is conferred with an ineffable wisdom which renders greater insight into this curious relationship than I am capable of mustering.
     
    American Capitalism

    Why is American capitalism so darn successful and resilient? Because someone, somewhere, will see an opportunity, an unfulfilled market, - and will seek to meet that demand. What other culture would create the environment where some entrepreneurial types would work out a way to make money from enemy propaganda.

    But sure enough - it has happened. First off there is the "We Love the Iraqi Information Minister" web site, where visitors can order some of Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf's (M.S.S.) classic quotes on a t-shirt, or other M.S.S. style quotes on everything from BBQ aprons to coffee mugs.

    Then there is the Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf action figure/doll.

    In other news, Pizza Hut and Burger King are now up and running in Iraq, operating from trailers parked in a British military compound near Basra.

    " The Kuwaiti franchise holders provided staff and raw materials and the Army escorted them into Iraq, although it is understood it will not provide constant escorts for the supply runs."

    It will be interesting to see how efficiently profit-driven enterprises (like Pizza Hut and BK) are at setting up and protecting their own supply routes, compared to the assorted NGO aid agencies.
     
    Russia, Germany - Intelligence Agents briefed Iraq

    Back from holidays ( a week of proper holidays and a week of working on my thesis ) to read the not-so-surprising news in the SMH that Russian intelligence agents allegedly briefed Iraq in the lead up to war, whilst German agents tried to build stronger relationships with Iraq.

    According to the report in todays SMH

    "Russian agents reported to Iraq that the US President, George Bush, hoped to justify war by provoking a conflict with United Nations weapons inspectors, according to Iraqi intelligence documents.

    The documents were found in the smoking ruins of the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Baghdad and showed that only months before war began, the Russian Federal Security Bureau briefed Saddam that the White House was pinning its hopes on Iraq obstructing the weapons inspection teams.

    The information, which appears to draw on intelligence from Russian agents and diplomats around the world, is likely to have helped Saddam formulate his strategy of "hide and seek" with weapons inspectors, rather than obstruct them openly as he had done during previous inspections."


    No surprises here. Russia is a long time ally of Iraq, so it is to be expected that they would have been briefing Iraq. Because this relationship is so well known and established... and never something the Russians have never really tried to hide or shirk from - the political ramifications of this revelation will be pretty minimal. And hats off (in a professional sense) to the Russian intelligence community on this one, as their briefing was pretty much spot on.

    But there is a second allegation contained in todays report which might have some more interesting ramifications.

    "Separate documents suggest Germany's intelligence services attempted to build closer links to Saddam's secret service during the build-up to war. The Iraqis reportedly offered to give lucrative contracts to German companies if the German Government helped to prevent a US invasion."

    Whilst the Germans were only 'attempting to build closer links' in exchange for 'lucrative contracts', it does somewhat tarnish their holier-than-thou anti-war stance. Those in the anti-war camp who were holding up Germany as some sort of role model would do well to be as skeptical about the motives of the anti-war countries as the coalition of the willing.

    Sunday, April 20, 2003
     
    Join the Dots?
    The Sydney Morning Herald has never liked Australian full-fee paying university students. I have a pile of negative editorials and news articles sitting in my office. (Indeed, I don’t think the SMH has ever run a story about higher education favourable to the government, which makes it rather puzzling that this hostile paper has been given leak after leak from Dr Nelson’s forthcoming reform package.). Now they are claiming that the scheme is a failure, because not all theoretically available places have been filled, and saying this casts doubt on plans to relax limits on the number of such places.

    The SMH should read more of its own leaks. As announced in the SMH, the government wants to do two things that will change the dynamics of this market. First, they want to time-limit receipt of government subsidies, meaning perpetual students and those who dawdle over their degrees will have to pay full-fees, and not just those who missed their first preference course by a few marks. Second, they plan to offer government loans to full-fee payers, instead of the up-front charge that exists now. Only a few days earlier the SMH had been digging up ‘anger’ over the debt charge for these loans, suggesting that either their memories are very short or they can’t join the dots between their stories.


     
    WSJ endorses looting
    While John Quiggin and I may disagree over the extent of the Allied Forces' culpability over the recent Iraqi museum lootings, we both start from the premise that such looting is undesirable. Not so the Wall Street Journal (link courtesy of Steve Sailer). Steve Sailer has this to say about it:


    One of the features of the contemporary neoconservative temperament that most irritates people of a wide variety of views is the compulsion to win every single goddam argument, no matter how ridiculous the contortions they have to put themselves through to do it.

     

     
       
       

     

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