30 January 2011

President Obama and the State University of Baloney

It is instructive to juxtapose two recent news events to consider which is more likely to cause harm.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama issued the latest revision of his energy policy. He wants the government to inject itself even more than it already does into the energy business; the government, according to Mr. Obama, must "invest" more in "clean" energy by spending massively on research and incentives. (Translating this from Obama-speak to English, it means that the government must divert funds from free, productive enterprises to non-productive programs that are either popular with environmentalists or promised to special interests favored by the administration and lawmakers.)

"This is our generation's Sputnik," Obama trumpeted.[1] The logic is obvious, at least to Keynesian true believers: The solution to the crushing national debt with which Obama and his predecessors have hopelessly buried us (along with our descendants) is . . . to create another space race. The oracles of the Obama brain trust promise that if only we trust the government, we will "become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015." Actually, President Obama could have boasted more impressively that thanks to the marvels of Bush-Obama spending habits, we are quite likely to have 300 million bicycles on the road by 2025.

Meanwhile, at the University of Bologna, a pair of scientists claimed to have concocted a (relatively) practical cold fusion device. Naturally, this was met with skepticism, particularly considering the history of cold fusion claims. (Remember Fleischmann and Pons in 1989.) According to a report, Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi "announced that they developed a cold fusion device capable of producing 12,400 W of heat power with an input of just 400 W."[2] Supposedly, they performed a demonstration in front of about fifty people, a fact which taken by itself doesn't really say much, considering that Penn and Teller regularly fascinate thousands with somewhat more beguiling illusions before explaining how the tricks were done.

I have absolutely no way to judge the merits of the scientists' claims. The purpose of my bringing it up is that it serves as a useful reminder of how advances are actually made in the civilized world, and how bogus claims don't live very long in a free market. If there is any promise to this research, there is no shortage of private, profit-seeking individuals to invest in it. If cold fusion research ever succeeds, the investors will profit (fantastically, I would guess); if the research fails, the investors lose their own money, not other people's money. If the scientists produce fraudulent reports of progress in order to bilk investors, they can be prosecuted. Above all, no force is exerted upon anybody--scientists, investors, or people who do not wish to invest.

Observe how in every aspect of this scenario, government intrusions can serve only to destroy or hamper progress.

* If there is a potential profit to be made, no government is needed or wanted to call attention to it. Private individuals or corporations will decide to invest in exactly the proportion they judge to be worthwhile.

* Investors risk their own money, and deserve the rewards or punishments accordingly. The government accomplishes only two things when it "invests": (1) it forces some people to pay for others' mistakes and (2) it robs the earnings from private individuals who either would have spent their money elsewhere or would have invested that enterprise anyway.

* Government involvement in any capacity--encouraging investment in this area, discouraging (or forbidding) investment in this area, or encouraging investments in other areas--forcibly distort the market. The adverb "forcibly" is not an exaggeration or metaphor; it is precise. The only thing a government "brings to the table" is a gun.

* In a market free from government intervention--that is to say, free from force-- any research,including cold fusion research, must soon produce a result. The meaning of "soon" is up to the investors, who must balance the timeframe along with other factors when judging the return on their investment. Only when the government is involved can fraudulent or unprofitable pet projects continue without producing anything.

In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama delighted his audience by taking an easy shot at "Big Oil."

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. (Applause.) I don't know if -- I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. (Laughter.) So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.[1]

This single passage is packed with so many blatant lies and logic problems, I would hope that at least ten percent of the audience would stir uncomfortably at our commander-in-chief's disingenuousness. The notion that oil companies, who have been plundered, hampered, and restricted by the government for over a century, are "on their own" is utterly ridiculous. Tax breaks--which mean that the government seizes less money than it would have otherwise--do not constitute a cost, but only let people keep the money they earned. The fact that tax breaks apply force to favor some companies or industries over others is true, but is obviously a result of the governments' meddling. And insofar as oil companies are subsidized, even if that is true, it is by definition the governments fault; they are the ones who do the subsidizing! (I highly recommend reading Alex Epstein's excellent work in this area at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. See NOTE 3.)

In any case, if the cold fusion claims from the University of Bologna turn out to be false or mistaken, nobody who hasn't invested will pay a penny for it--unless, of course, the research is prolonged by grants from the Italian government. When the president's formula for energy progress--massive state intervention--fails, it will inevitably (and absurdly) be blamed on freedom and "greed," providing the pretext for still more government power grabs.

Which of these is the greater evil?


1. "Remarks by the President in State of Union Address," transcript published on White House web site, 25 Jan 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address.

2. Lisa Zyga, "Italian scientists claim to have demonstrated cold fusion," PhysOrg.com, 20 Jan 2011, http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-italian-scientists-cold-fusion-video.html.

3. See, for example, the archives at the Ayn Rand Center, http://blog.aynrandcenter.org/author/aepstein/.

Also: Alex Epstein, "The 6 Myths About Oil," http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2010/12/29/myths-oil/.

25 January 2011

Let's Pretend

Surprise, surprise. The New York Times reported that it is not only politicians at the local and national levels that can drive our cities and our country into bankruptcy. States can go bankrupt, too. And let’s face it: When they do, the federal government will bail them out just as they’ve rushed to prop up every other failure that bureaucrats deemed “too big to fail."

Policymakers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts . . .

'All of a sudden, there’s a whole new risk factor,' said Paul S. Maco, a partner at the firm Vinson & Elkins who was head of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Municipal Securities during the Clinton Administration."[1]

All of a sudden? How this—the fact that state governments are spending like there is no tomorrow—could catch anybody by surprise is bewildering to me. But the most remarkable aspect of this article is its uncritical adoption of the view that is evidently held by the politicians that caused the problems: namely, that things are not what they are until they are spoken of.

For now, the fear of destabilizing the municipal bond market with the words “state bankruptcy” has proponents in Congress going about their work on tiptoe. . .

It would be difficult to get a bill [addressing state bankruptcy] through Congress, not only because of the constitutional questions and the complexities of bankruptcy law, but also because of fears that even talk of such a law could make the states’ problems worse.[1, emphasis mine.]

So, as long as nobody on Capitol Hill faces his problems—as long as everyone tacitly agrees to “tiptoe” past the mess and avoid talking about it—all is well? This is a glimpse into the nature of the welfare state. Because every policy flies in the face of reality, bureaucrats attempt to craft their own “reality” in the hopes that everyone plays along. (After all, it is absurd to think that “constitutional problems” represent an obstacle for most members of Congress.) The fact that The Times is complicit in this game of pretense is outrageous.

This brings to mind the scene in Atlas Shrugged in which Francisco D’Anconia confronts James Taggart, who is reluctantly shadowing Francisco at his (Taggart’s) wedding reception.

“What in hell do you think you’re saying?” Taggart cried furiously, seeing the tension on the faces around them.

“Be careful, James. If you try to pretend that you don’t understand me, I’m going to make it much clearer.”

“If you think it’s proper to utter such—”

“I think it’s funny. There was a time when men were afraid that somebody would reveal some secret of theirs that was unknown to their fellows. Nowadays, they’re afraid that somebody will name what everybody knows. Have you practical people ever thought that that’s all it would take to blast your whole, big, complex structure, with all your laws and guns—just somebody naming the exact nature of what you’re doing?”[2]


1. “Path Is Sought for States to Escape Debt Burdens,” The New York Times, 20 Jan 2011,

2. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1996, orig. 1957), p. 377.

16 January 2011

Mahler's Hammer

With a hat tip to Elaine Fine at Musical Assumptions, I found an interesting article by Gene De Lisa on the topic of the hammer blows in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. I love the Sixth Symphony (though the Second is my favorite) and never realized there was a big controversy about the finale--namely, should there be two hammer blows or three? Or . . . five?

Image of Gustav Mahler, from the Baltimore Sun

I suppose the issue would strike many as pedantic and academic, but Gene De Lisa condenses the tale into a few amusing and fascinating paragraphs. (At least, it was fascinating to me.)

I've been drawn to Mahler's music for as long as I remember. His symphonies are enormous--explosions of colors on impossibly large canvases. His songs are intimate, personal. He was the great opera conductor who never wrote an opera himself, yet there is something operatic about much of his work. His life was at a crossroads: By virtue of his music, he was at the threshold between the romantic and the modern; by virtue of his wife (Alma), he was at the intersection of music, art, and architecture (Klimt, Kokoschka, Gropius). This "hammer blow" vignette gives one a glimpse of Mahler's dedication to his craft, his feverish creativity, and unfortunately, the superstitions that haunted him. (Among those superstitions was the dread of composing a Ninth Symphony for fear of dying after completing it, as had happened to Beethoven and Bruckner before him. As it turned out, Mahler died after his Ninth after all, though some sketches of symphonic material were posthumously completed and called the "Tenth Symphony.")

Anyway, if the story doesn't grip you, there is an assortment of hammer blow videos at the end of the post that might! I've added another one below.

It Was Not Yet Clear

In case anyone needed a reminder of the effectiveness of “tolerance” and debate in the face of fanatic killers, the last couple of weeks in Pakistan have produced a few instructive examples for those who care to heed them. On Friday, a dozen gunmen, presumably Taliban, attacked the home of a fifty-year-old female police officer, killing her along with two sons, two daughters, and a daughter-in-law. On Thursday, two police officers were killed by a roadside bomb. On Wednesday, eighteen police officers and six civilians were blown up. And a couple of weeks ago, Salman Taseer, the outspoken liberal governor of Punjab Province, was assassinated, evoking memories of the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Taseer was murdered by his own elite security guard, who riddled him with bullets at close range.

If multiculturalism has demonstrated anything, it is that a feeble set of modern ideas--“tolerant,” “democratic,” explicitly anti-ideological, and denying the absolutism of values--is no match for a fanatic ideology bent on destruction. How does one seek appeasement and conciliation with fevered killers who want nothing more than martyrdom? What does it mean to be diplomatic--to “meet halfway”--thugs who wish to murder you because you are free and prosperous, because you think for yourself and speak your mind, because you do not bend your knee to their superstitions?

The weakness of today’s intellectuals can be seen in the reports of Taseer’s murder. This was no ordinary Pakistani official; Mr. Taseer was an outspoken opponent of the blasphemy laws that were put in place during the rule of Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980’s. A New York Times article noted:
[Taseer] recently took up a campaign to repeal Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy laws, which were passed under General Zia as a way to promote Islam and unite the country. The laws have been misused to convict minority Pakistanis as the Islamic forces unleashed by the general have gathered strength. The laws prescribe a mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.[1, emphasis mine.]
The blasphemy laws have been misused? How, in the minds of New York Times reporters, would laws that sentence people to death for insulting Islam be used properly? Would the Times be satisfied if, for instance, the Islamists had more “fairly” distributed the death sentence to non-minorities?
Later in the same article, the reporters demonstrate an astonishing refusal to connect the dots.
[Taseer’s] attacker was identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, an elite-force security guard, who surrendered to the police immediately afterward and implied he had killed the governor because of his campaign to amend the blasphemy laws.
“I am a slave of the Prophet, and the punishment for one who commits blasphemy is death,” he told a television crew from Dunya TV that arrived at the scene shortly after the killing, according to Nasim, Zahra, the director of news at the channel.
It was not yet clear whether he had acted alone or on behalf of some extremist group.[1, again, emphasis mine.]
Not yet clear? What could possibly be more clear than the fact that the assassin acted on behalf of Islam? Perhaps this is what passes for unbiased reporting, but it is the very opposite of objectivity. No objective mind could observe the facts and refuse to judge that Islamic totalitarianism is the motivation, the justification, and the inspiration of not just this murder, but all the other acts of Muslim terrorists for the last thirty years.
As long as the western world continues to placate barbaric murders instead of identifying their nature and confronting them with unapologetic force, we will be threatened. I came across an article describing the stepped-up security of a former minister Sherry Rehman, who is also an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws and now fears for her safety in the wake of Taseer’s assassination. “The number of policemen deputed to guard Rehman’s home in Karachi was increased,” the report said. [2] Considering the fact that Mr. Taseer was killed by his own guard, it is not obvious to me how increasing the number of Ms. Rehman’s guards makes her safer.


1. Salman Masood and Carlotta Gall, “Killing of Governor Deepens Crisis in Pakistan,” The New York Times, 4 Jan 2011, “http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/05/world/asia/05pakistan.html?_r=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2”.

2. “Pakistan increases security for former minister Sherry Rehman,” Daily News & Analysis India, 5 Jan 2011, “http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report_pakistan-increases-security-for-former-minister-sherry-rehman_1490703”.