Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for August 2008

Fourth Amendment Shipping Tape

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Is a wonderful idea. Maybe Homeland Security employees will feel at least a little guilty searching your stuff with no probable cause.  I haven’t seen the case law that allowed these checks, but they do seem to be the one modern interpretation more blatantly contradictory to the Constitution than about any other.

Written by James Bailey

August 21, 2008 at 3:46 pm

The World Though Einstein-Colored Glasses

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Just read Albert Einstein’s The World As I See It. The book, published in German in 1933 and in English a year later, was Einstein’s first publication directed at a general audience. The first half is devoted to science, both to an explanation of Einstein’s work and a record of his thoughts on the work of others and on the scientific method.

Next follow a series of letters about what it means to be Jewish and about the Zionist cause. Einstein thought highly of the value placed by Jews on learning and on justice. He hoped they would be able to integrate into Western, Christian societies without losing their own traditions and identity, and he saw the Zionist project as a way to bring all Jews together, whether or not they actually went to Palestine. His views are striking today do to the form of Zionism he advocated. He did not envision Israel as a political entity, a national state; he thought it enough that Jews were once again living together in their ancient home. It was not a problem to be living under British or Arab rule. Significantly, Einstein repeatedly states that the Jews and Arabs must be reconciled, so that when someday when the British would leave, then they could still live together in peace and friendship. I imagine that this very sound advice in 1933 was deemed too much of a risk after the experience of the Holocaust; after an experience like that any people must be reluctant to leave their security in the hands of others.

Einstein proceeds to turn his great mind to the problems of peace, war, economics, religion and philosophy. Einstein was an ardent pacifist, and a believer in the human potential for goodness. He earnestly hoped to see disarmament and the end of war in his own lifetime. He went about pursuing this goal every way he knew how, from attending peace conferences to fostering international ties among scientists to giving public speeches to writing prominent political figures.  But he was not a naive idealist.  He realized the collective action problem presented by disarmament, where each nation has an incentive to cheat; so he hoped for simultaneous universal disarmament.  Second-best would be attempts to punish those who start wars, regardless of the short-term interests of the other nations- so at best, every country would fight against an aggressor; or barring that, every country wold forgo potential war profits and put sanctions on the aggressor.  These last options border on the realistic.  Einstein’s foremost peace crusade was to fight against what he saw as the most evil part of war, but at the same time one of the easiest to eliminate: conscription.  He hoped, through changed laws and widespread conscientious objection, to eliminate the draft, and usher in a world where no man was forced to fight against his will.  In this, at least, he has been largely vindicated.

Einstein praises Americans for many reasons- our technology, our generosity, our freedom.  Much of this praise is still deserved today, to a greater or lesser degree than it formerly was.  But it is sad to see that in his time he placed the highest hope on Americans as the most peaceful large nation and the one most likely to bring about the end of war.  But seventy-five years later, it is the Europeans who have bucked their long history of warmaking, while America still engages in aggressive wars of choice.  I as much as anyone can give many reasons why our continued use of war is a good, or perhaps on balance even a peace-promoting strategy.  But it is sad to realize that a modern-day Einstein’s praise would flow the other way, and that America has given up a part of the moral high ground we long held relative to Europe.

If Einstein’s thoughts on peace do not now seem silly or naive, I thought perhaps he might slip as he waded into economics.  But his thoughts there too seem both wise and intelligent, especially in the desperate era of the Great Depression which left most economists baffled.  He advocated the regulation of monopolies and cartels, a maximum work-week, and a minimum wage.  Most importantly, especially as a German, he recommended the stabilization of the price level, to be achieved by controlling the money supply- Milton Friedman, twenty years early.  He hoped that the economy could be improved through regulation and organization, but recognized the severe inherent limitations of state enterprise:

“It is no accident that capitalism has brought with it progress not merely in production but also in knowledge.  Egoism and competition are, alas, stronger forces than public spirit and sense of duty.  In Russia, they say, it is impossible to get a decent piece of bread…. bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.  I have seen and experienced too many dreadful warnings, even in comparatively model Switzerland…. the state can only be of real use to industry as a limiting and regulating force.”

He saw Soviet communism as a grand experiment; he wondered whether it could work there, or work in a Western nation that would not tolerate such “terror” to enforce it.  But he expresses much skepticism in the project.  All in all, his views pass economic muster today, and are stunningly prescient for 1933.

Finally, Einstein puts forward some views on fundamental questions.  He sees a search for the meaning of life as an absolute necessity.  “The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness and Beauty.  Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, life would have seemed to me empty.”  Yet despite this need for fellowship, he feels “an obstinate sense of detachment” and a “need for solitude”, and is “sharply conscious, without too much regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and sympathy between one’s fellow creatures.”

Einstein sees science as a sort of religion.  He abhors religions based on fear, whether of God or death, and eschews anthropomorphic conceptions of God.  But he believes “a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which our minds seem to reach only in their most elementary forms; it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Einstein really opened his mind and his heart to the world in this book.  He demonstrates that his intelligence is wide-ranging, and in his letters shows himself to be wise, kind, and generous; a truly great man.

To end on a lighter note, and again recall a similarity to Milton Friedman, I quote Einstein’s views on prohibition:

“The prestige of the government has undoubtedly been lowered by the prohibition law.  For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.  It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”

Clearly a wise man!

Written by James Bailey

August 4, 2008 at 11:07 pm

R.I.P. Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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I have immense respect for a man who can go through ten years of hell and come out a kinder, more generous, more courageous, and more articulate person.

Here’s to a great man and great writer.

From The Gulag Archipelago:

“So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil. Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t [p. 169].”

Written by James Bailey

August 4, 2008 at 3:19 am