Wednesday, December 31, 2008


by McCleary

The Washington Times reports today on a RNC sponsored resolution accusing President Bush and Republican leader of embracing socialism. About seven years too late to be truly helpful, but I do approve of the gesture.

Still, this line (the Times', not the RNCs') is a bit laughable:

"If enacted, the resolution would put the party on record opposing the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector, which passed Congress with Republican support and was signed by Mr. Bush..."

My advice for Republicans looking to come in from the wilderness: If you really wanted to be "the party on record opposing the $700 billion bailout," maybe your Sens and Reps shouldn't have voted for the bailout, maybe your presidential candidate shouldn't have suspended his campaign to work on its passage, and maybe your President shouldn't have signed it.

Happy New Year

And incidentally, this is an absorbingly weird movie, just rebroadcast on SciFi.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008

Surfing too far

A journalist named Travis F. Smith (you can Google him here) contemplates the limits of Internet sleuthing/stalking after a woman he just met blocks him on Facebook.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tax swap

Bob Inglis and Arthur B. Laffer sketch out "An Emissions Plan Conservatives Could Warm To," which would combine a carbon tax with a cut in payroll and/or income taxes. As they correctly see, there are many reasons -- environmental, national-security, economic -- to take such an approach, regardless of how alarmed or not you are about global warming.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Roosevelt and Hamilton

Max Boot contines to defend, rightly, Theodore Roosevelt against "T.R.-was-no-conservative"-type attacks such as the latest by a Prof. Ronald Prestito. Prestito's WSJ op-ed at least takes the novel approach of contrasting Roosevelt with Alexander Hamilton, contrary to any number of conservative critiques that see both as dangerous deviationists from free-market orthodoxy. Both T.R. and Hamilton were defenders of limited government. Both favored some degree of government activism at times when government was much, much smaller than it is today. Both were examples, moreover, of government competence. A major problem with activist government is that the people in charge of it aren't usually as talented as a T.R. or Hamilton, because that kind of talent doesn't show up regularly or on demand.

UPDATE: Jonathan Adler goes negative on T.R. (and Boot) here, the gist being that various state interventions Roosevelt called for are no longer in favor. I'm not very impressed by Adler's response. For one thing, it's not true that the idea of government ownership of resources such as timber has been utterly rejected; there's no great push for privatizing national forests, though I know some have called for that. Nor is there much momentum for getting rid of all antitrust, which would be the "complete repudiation" Adler claims has befallen T.R.'s antitrust policies. And even if that were so, it would tell us only so much about whether Roosevelt's policies were appropriate for the economy of his time, in which power was concentrated in big companies in a way hard to imagine now.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tango steps

Some advice on how to do things if you're going to dance a tango in Argentina, including how to maneuver on a crowded dance floor.

A big advantage of taking tango lessons, though, is that, outside of Argentina, you'll likely have a fairly uncrowded dance floor once a tango starts. And your performance, if it's like mine, will impress people in the same way as Samuel Johnson's dog "walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The universe and George Will

A Christmas Eve thought: I wonder when George F. Will became an agnostic? I was surprised to find him on the blogroll of Secular Right, and after some quick Googling, to find that he declared himself an agnostic on the Colbert Report. Almost a decade ago, I wrote an article for Reason about weak conservative arguments for religion based on the strong anthropic principle. One of those I took to task was George F. Will, who had opined in Newsweek that certain physics findings were "theologically suggestive." I recall that I sent the piece to Will when it was published. Could it be that my riposte to him was so devastating that it pushed him away from adducing dubious scientific evidence for religion? Probably not, but if there's a multiverse, that might have happened in a universe somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Neocon split?

Jacob Heilbrunn has an interesting piece on "Where Have All the Neocons Gone?" His bottom line is that the Obama administration, with Hillary at State, is going to have considerable appeal to one branch of neoconservatives (particularly those based in Washington) while another branch (mainly in New York) embraces a hard-right Republicanism/Palinism. I don't know if that's correct, but it's plausible. And while I'm more libertarian than either of these putative factions, if I had to choose, I'd go with the center-right over the hard right (and would, incidentally, expect them to be more influential as well).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Apollo 8 anniversary

My piece about Apollo 8 four decades later is now up at Scientific American Online as part of an in-depth report.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No safe havens

by McCleary

When I tell people I work at the business school of private university (Duke), there is always the assumption that I'm at the one place where business is still good. After all, applications to daytime MBA programs are frequently countercyclical, and indeed, Fuqua, like many b-schools, is experiencing an increase in both quality and quantity of applications.

But as the Raleigh News & Observer reported Friday, Duke University's endowment has dropped 19%. The article also mentions other top-tier universities with similar declines: Yale at a reported 25% and Harvard at 22%. As bad as these numbers look, the real story is probably far worse. Most schools have a decent stake in private equity investments, the losses of which are extremely difficult to estimate. So when the dust clears, look for a significant downward revision of endowment losses. For schools relying on endowment income for operations, this will likely mean hiring freezes, salary freezes, and layoffs.

Space stuff

CNN is now posting space photos every week. If you like them, also keep an eye on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day).

Forty years ago today, Apollo 8 got started. Scientific American Online will soon have some coverage relevant to that mission, including a piece by yours truly.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Posting may be light in the near future, unless the guest bloggers show up.

UPDATE: One of my guest bloggers tells me his access has expired, which is news to me and doesn't show up on my side. I will try to fix this, somehow.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ponzi history

Since a Ponzi scheme is much in the news these days, here's some historical background on the original Ponzi, from my recent piece on Boston financial history:

Charles Ponzi , born in Italy in 1882, arrived in Boston in 1903. Then he went to Canada , where he spent some time in prison for forging a check. Not wanting to tell his mother about this, he wrote to her that he’d gotten a job as “special assistant” to a prison warden.
Ponzi returned to Boston in 1917. Two years later, he got a letter from Spain with an international postal reply coupon for mailing a catalog Ponzi was proposing to publish. With that, he came upon the idea of investing in these postal coupons, and making profits from differences in international postage rates.
He started his own firm, the Security Exchange Corporation (not to be confused with the then nonexistent Securities and Exchange Commission) and encountered enormous interest among investors. Unfortunately, Ponzi’s business plan, though legal, was unworkable, involving multiple currency exchanges and postal bureaucracies.
Still, Ponzi promised a 50 percent return on investment in 45 days, and for a while he kept his word. The trouble is that he was paying investors merely by giving them money from later investors. Such deceitful dealing would come to be known as a Ponzi scheme.
More here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Another writer named Silber* explains how he manipulates human minds** at a podcast here.

*- my brother
** - writes marketing copy

Financial radio

I'm slated to be on the Gabe Wisdom Show tonight at 7 pm ET to discuss how a great deal of financial history was made in Boston.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pro and khan

We rented Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, which presented the conqueror in a fairly favorable light, at least as far as it goes through the early stages of his career. This inspired me to reread parts of books I'd read long ago: On the Other Side: a Journey Through Soviet Central Asia, by Geoffrey Moorhouse, which looks at ruins left by the Mongols and sees aggression stemming from evil, and Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, by Morris Rossabi, which depicts the Mongols, including the title subject's grandfather Genghis, as surprisingly tolerant and benevolent rulers, albeit granted they were aggressive when resisted.

Moreover, the second book gives impersonal reasons, including some of climate change, for why the Mongols expanded, whereas the first sees it as pivoting on one man who wanted to take revenge upon the world for his father's death and his clan's betrayal. Where the truth lies I will not guess, but I was fascinated by Rossabi's passing comment that one consequence of the Mongol expansion was to elicit interest in Europe in trade with Asia, thus spurring Europe's age of exploration.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Multiverse cryonics

I tend to think it's a mistake to be influenced in a personal decision by the possibility that there are multiple copies of yourself scattered throughout the universe or other universes, given the enormous and incalculable uncertainties involved. However, if the decision you're making is whether to get your head frozen for possible future resurrection, then I suppose something being highly speculative isn't necessarily going to deter you anyway.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Exceedingly dim

The Spitzer telescope has found the dimmest stars ever, or dimmest brown dwarfs to be precise. There's an evocative artist's conception here, and Bad Astronomy has some comments here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Crisis causation

Peter Wallison has an analysis of the causes of the financial crisis, with an emphasis on government policies. (Via David Frum.) As I found in working on an upcoming article for Research magazine, Wallison also was quite prescient in warning there would be a crisis. Here's a New York Times piece from 1999 on government-sponsored enterprises embracing subprime:
In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's.
''From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.''

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A crisis perspective

I attended a timely lecture tonight at the Museum of American Finance on "the descent of money" by Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. His basic question for the lecture was whether the financial crisis means a "post-American world" or "fall of the American empire." His basic answer: No. Because, ultimately, the U.S. can afford massive expenditures to get through the crisis. And because other nations, from Europe to Mideast oil exporters to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) will be harder hit by the calamity than the U.S. will be, notwithstanding that the crisis was, in large part, created in the U.S. "Life is unfair," he added.

Asked what he would do if he were "car czar," Ferguson said that as "automobile autocrat" or "vehicle viceroy," he would put the U.S.-owned auto industry in a "hospice" to make its demise more comfortable. The carmakers, in his view, are a distraction from the more crucial question of bank solvency. He rejected (a bit too cavalierly, I think) thinking in terms of a dichotomy between market and state, noting that government has always had a role in the economy but also that much 1970s-era regulation was harmful and needed to be gotten rid of. As for what government should spend money on, he made, to my mind, pretty good sense: "Growth does not come from leveraged consumption. Growth comes from productivity-enhancing technological innovation."

Rational madness

Jennifer Rubin wonders whether Blagojevich might be just plain crazy. I wonder whether sounding like a nut on the phone was cooly deliberate preparation for an insanity defense.

Joe the Plumber returns

A passionate statement of political principle or a desperate bid to stay in the limelight? You decide.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More libertarian disputations

I found a great deal to disagree with from all three participants in this PJTV discussion about libertarianism. I disagreed with Katherine Mangu-Ward's encapsulation of libertarianism as "sex, drugs and property rights" (do you have to love drugs or is it enough to dislike drug laws? And what exactly is the position on sex?); Will Wilkinson's statement that the most important libertarian issue is peace (does it matter what kind of peace it is or how it's attained?): and Todd Seavey's inclination toward anarchocapitalism and seeming lack of interest in even the possibility that some functions of government may be necessary (and that anarchism may be what's kept libertarianism in its marginal condition thus far). But I recommend the segment for people who are interested in this kind of thing, which is, I suspect, not that many people.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Good thinking

This just arrived in the mail: When Good Thinking Goes Bad: How Your Brain Can Have a Mind of Its Own. Looks interesting. Wish my brain had time to read it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Anti-left gibberish

Via Maggie's Farm, I came across the essay "The Religion of the Left" by Gerard Van der Leun. I think it's awful, and that its awfulness takes multiple forms: The accusation that the left is all about "the self," as if collectivism and egalitarianism were not leftist tendencies. The unbacked assertion that since there are mysteries at the frontiers of cosmology and quantum physics, therefore we are impelled toward a traditional theism. The conflation of the material world and meaninglessness, as in the phrase "purposeless matter hovering in the dark," without any sense of the differences between, say, a human brain and a cloud of debris. The confusion of political and metaphysical disagreements, as if there were no religious leftists or secular rightists. Smug pseudoprofundity has no fixed position on the political spectrum, as Van der Leun proves.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Look what's happened to Andrew Sullivan

Horrifically, Andrew Sullivan is still on the case of whether Sarah Palin faked her own pregnancy. Michelle Malkin debunks such lunatic conspiracism here, and some of her readers joke that it's "Rosemary's baby." I propose Sullivan investigate further by watching, multiple times, the little-known 1976 TV movie Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, in which the kid gets to college age, finds out he's Satan's spawn, and is understandably upset. So he runs away but the coven keeps coming after him, malevolent and obsessed. Much like Andrew Sullivan.

Libertarian disputations

If you want to read some libertarians debating, with some irritation, what libertarianism means, and not conforming with each other's views on social conformity, this thread has what you want.

Supernova remnant

Spitzer -- the infrared telescope, not Slate's latest columnist -- got a nice view of the cloud left behind by the Tycho supernova of over four centuries ago.

Not so depressed

Virginia Postrel has an entertaining post about "Depression Lust, and Depression Porn."

As much of my work is freelance, I'm noticing this is a boom time for freelancers.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Carbon tax hindsight

Ronald Bailey:
After advocating a carbon tax as the least bad alternative, I have been persuaded that it's politically impossible. People are not going to vote for a politician who promises to significantly boost what they pay at the pump and pay for power.
I almost agree with him, but not quite. The uproar over high energy prices in the past year or so has convinced me that, under most circumstances, a carbon tax is politically impossible. However, there are times when this would be different. Imagine if George W. Bush, right after 9/11, had said that, as a matter of national security as well as environmental protection, we'll be phasing in a carbon tax and an oil import fee, while reducing various income and payroll taxes. I think that would have passed, and been a great accomplishment. Too late now.

Meanwhile in the Himalayas

In case you're wondering where John McCain is right now: Bhutan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Anything for the party

Will Wilkinson has an incisive post about the video below from Truth Through Action, a group that creates "edgy" content to support the Democratic Party. Oh, it's edgy all right, and hilarious in a way that only grotesque propaganda can be.

Right religion history

At The Corner, Jonah Goldberg argues that, contrary to complaints from secular conservatives, "In many respects religion is less central to intellectual conservatism than it was 40 years ago." (Emphasis in original.) As evidence, he cites debates between Brent Bozell, Stanton Evans and Frank Meyer in which all seemed to have "a sincere desire to know God's will." I have my doubts about Goldberg's argument. For one thing, Meyer converted to Catholicism shortly before his death (although granted, I'm not sure at what point he actually abandoned the atheism he'd imbibed as a Communist).

But a better indicator, it seems to me, is the Sharon Statement, drafted by Evans and adopted by young conservatives in 1960 at William F. Buckley's Connecticut estate. It was only by a close vote (44-40) that these conservatives decided to put the word "God" in the statement, and when they did it was to say: "That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual's use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force." The manifesto was, as Glenn Reynolds might put it, religious but not too much.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Armchair Keynesianism

Some well-timed sarcasm from a cigar-waving Fred Thompson. "This holiday season, spend more than you can possibly afford."

(Via Jennifer Rubin.)

UPDATE: Lest my headline give the impression that I'm hostile to everything Keynesian, I'll say that it's really "vulgar Keynesianism" -- which translates to "let's spend a lot of money" -- that's at issue here. How much Keynesian theory tells us about macroeconomics is a subject on which the jury is still out, in my opinion; Greg Mankiw has an interesting post on such matters here.

Programmed for bad journalism

"For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop." That's the New York Times, displaying a profound incomprehension of the concept of individual responsibility. It's in a story about the trampling at Wal-Mart, which as Ed Driscoll notes, the headline ludicrously labels a "Shopping Guernica."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Shape of things to come

by Gil Weinreich

Thanks again to Ken for allowing me to post on his blog. Last week he humbly acknowledged that Obama's retaining Gates was not a ploy. However, I believe hiring Gates is lamentable nevertheless -- for the same reason his mentions of Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar are also worrisome. These Republicans are perfect "useful idiots" for the canny Obama administration. Obama is way too smart to put the hard leftists in spotlight positions; they will have lower-key advisory roles.

Gates will earn plaudits from the MSM as he continues his moderate and statesmanlike weakening of the United States.Don't forget that he, with Baker and Hamilton, was a member of the Iraq Study Group whose report advocated an orderly retreat from Iraq (unlike McCain, and afterwards Bush, who pushed for the successful surge). Under Gates' leadership, Iran is ever closer to its nukes; and remember Russia's invasion of Georgia? Gates did nothing to anticipate it and nothing to reverse it -- that's been handed off to the tigers in the EU. Gates' defense strategy report spoke of collaboration with Russia and China. With his genial and dignified bearing, he will help Obama rein in American power and appease our enemies.