James C. Banks

Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

9/11 at Ten Years

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm

In case any reader is curious, I have not been blogging recently because I am working on transitioning to a research/editorial internship for Walter Russell Mead’s Via Meadia blog at the American Interest.  But I couldn’t pass by the tenth anniversary of September 11th without commenting in some way.  As I have written before, the September 11th Attacks were a reminder that history actually does continue; the there are no permanent defeats because there are no permanent victories; that the post-Cold War consensus was not so strong that we would never feel the influence of its antagonists.

Strangely, September 11th, 2001 was in many ways, to my memory, a mundane day during the early part of the academic year: Attending a parochial school, none of my classes were cancelled–I distinctly remember hearing that President Bush would be addressing the nation in forty-five minutes after leaving Physical Education class.  I walked home by the same route that I always did, through the baseball fields and picnic grounds of the elementary school across the street from where my parents lived.  This view has hardly changed in the past ten years, aside from some added play equipment–probably played upon for the first time for children born around the year of the attacks, considering that I helped raise those swings and climbing walls in my junior year of college.

My school did not hold an assembly on the events of September 11th until a week after they had occurred.  I have no recollection of what was said and doubt that anyone else who was there can recall either.  The events that have occurred sense then have distorted memory from the naivete of shock that pervaded after the tragedy occurred.  Since the crash of the fourth plane in a field in Pennsylvania, Al Qaeda has moved from defeat after defeat–though the American public at times was unaware of this.

Osama bin Laden’s death last spring was the last necessary victory of the War on Terror.  But these past years have demonstrated to us that whereas once history was thought to be over, it still has much to teach us.  There still is much evil in the world, the potential for which can never be eradicated by mortal influence.  What can be said but God protect us from evil, both in others and in ourselves.

Apple: A Recollection

In Uncategorized on August 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Steve Jobs must have gotten something right for the Mustache of Understanding to recognize–in its worst pun yet recorded–that America needed “more (Steve) Jobs”.  I have never been a prolific user of Apple products; throughout my college days, they were like the Whole Foods of the technology industry: expensive, but only necessary for the chosen few.

I came to know them as the company that did things slightly differently, and always in their own way.  Even their retail stipulations seemed odd.  Their policy of charging retail stores the full shelf-price for a laptop and then paying the store a commission once a sale was made always a bane for me in my brief time as a technology salesman–and an employee at the only Mac store in the panhandle.  (That was back in the quaint days before the I-Pad even existed.)

At times, I wondered if Apple was on to something that all of the other software manufacturers–Dell, Toshiba, Samsung–had missed entirely, or whether they were simply attempting to be unique.  Given recent developments, with Apple briefly passing up Exxon Mobile as America’s most valuable company, I suspect that the former was the case.

Whether the company will be able to maintain its distinction as the world’s most valuable technology company–especially as it is beginning to face competition from companies like Google, with whom no one ever expected it to compete–is as uncertain as its meteoric rise.

But this is perhaps part of the company’s legacy: it was one of a thousand demonstrations that, however small a company begins, or however large it ends up, no single entity is a match for the mutability of the marketplace.  Consumer choice and financial investment are still sovereign and it is only by allying with these two entities that a company will succeed.  The concept that a company could somehow “create its own demand” is as much a reality as the Loch Ness Monster.

Housekeeping

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2011 at 12:58 am

Apologies to readers for not having posted recently.  I am in the midst of travels–as Gulliver was–first in the South, then in Albany and finally settling down around Lake Ontario.  I have been working on a new post, but mustering the discipline to put it up has proved a challenge.  Hopefully, the blog shall continue sooner as opposed to later.

Treat Students as Stocks, Not Bonds

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2011 at 3:28 am

Along with healthcare, higher education is one of the sectors of the economy that probably isn’t getting any cheaper.  This statement is almost a cliché, but the fact that it has been said for so long demonstrates the failure of anyone to come up with a workable solution.  Frequently, I hear youngs idealists say things like “The government could cover all of it.”  This idealism is sounding increasingly displaced as the deficit grows and the government seems less capable of addressing the issue.

Reducing prices for higher education is possible, but can only be achieved through entrepreneurial market solutions rather than through government subsidies.  Typically, when commentators claim this, they are referring to for-profit education providers.  But it is possible to build a marketplace around the borders the non-profit sector.  This is possible because human capital is the most valuable, though least valued, resource.

Human capital is what makes otherwise dead matter into resources in the first place, but, for as valuable as this resource is, few people invest in it directly.  Employers pay employee education debts and state governments and national foundations allocate money to universities, but hardly anyone invests in human capital for the purpose of capitalizing on their investments; there is no reason why this should be.  The lack of it helps neither the rich nor the poor.

The concept of investing in people to earn economic dividends is perhaps slightly taboo, not only in America but in the rest of the world, but this does not prevent it from happening in non-intellectual industries.  Talent agents invest in musicians and actors who they believe can be made into potential stars and boxing managers pay for their fighters’ training and sometimes their rent to earn a profit on the championship title.

These models could be extended to higher education.  An MBA from one of the nation’s leading business schools might cost as much as $80,000-$100,000, but the private industry could save a graduate of Harvard Business School from the stress of uncertainty by taking on her debt before compounded interest set in, requiring in return the contractual right to draw on 10% of the graduate’s wages for her first twenty-five working years. A finance industry specifically designed to assume the risk associated with college debt could fill the same role that such speculation plays for wheat farmers who otherwise work in fear of falling grain prices.

Naturally, this industry would favor students whose majors were likely to win for them high salaries—economics in, art history out.  But, ideally, it would also lead to higher education reforms to offset these effects.  It makes no practical sense to charge the same base tuition rate to a history major as aerospace engineering major.  While the first course of study requires only a room, desks, chairs, notes and a chalkboard, the second requires all of the above and a laboratory facility with a compliance stamp of approval on it as well as computing and gauging equipment.  Hence, if industry were to finance humanities students, their potential capital gains would decrease, so would its risk as they would take on less debt.

These reforms are within the realm of the possible and no unbridgeable legal barriers run contrary to their implementation, but so entrenched is the status quo that the higher education bubble would have to burst before anyone ventured toward this approach.  It is not only the present that favors the status quo.  Throughout its entire history, the university has been thought of much as Jonathan Swift’s Island of Laputa, floating above the base and mundane universe of profits and capital.  Perhaps this is the way that it should be; the world would probably be a better place if individuals still wished to study the artes liberales rather than the artes serviles.  But the modern university must meet individuals as they are, not as they ought to be.  For the good of all who may otherwise condemn themselves to lives as debtors, it is time to make higher education into a profit-generating industry.

Criminality and the Distribution of Guilt

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm

There is little for me to say about the tragedy that occurred in Norway over the weekend.  One can only hope (and pray) that teh country will respond to the tragedy in a way that will ensure that such an event does not occur again; however, that will be difficult, given the excessive leniency of Norway’s criminal justice system. 

A more likely outcome of this tragedy–which is understandable, but nonetheless the wrong answer–will be to respond by cracking down on privileges enjoyed by all citizens, such as Norway’s liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) laws regarding the ownership of firearms. 

One cannot blame Norway if it does react instinctively in this way (though it is not clear that it will). Nonetheless, this perfectly rational tendency reveals a fault of democracies as they become more tolerant of the malevolent: As societies become more tolerant of criminals, it incentivises society to ensure that acts of criminality do not occur in the first place. 

Hence, there is a crackdown on acts of “hate-speech” or heavy regulation of parochial curricula in the name of teaching students “civic virtues” of a multicultural society.  If narcotics are ever legalized, there is little doubt that private industries will immediately begin requiring that their workers be drug tested lest they face the full brunt of civil action lawyers. 

De-criminalization, in short, does not lead to greater liberty, but rather tyranny distributed across a broader population.  This is no time to lecture the Norwegian populace on how they should or should not react to such a gratuitous act of terror, but it is an issue that any democracy must keep in mind as it strives to make progress toward a more tolerant future. 

 

The Unwelcome Return of the Overpopulation Nudnik

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm

One surprising characteristic of intellectual discourse is not that ideas should be so frequently discredited, but rather that their patrons should afterward insist on constantly bringing up such embarrassing notions.  That was precisely what Anne Ehrlich did, taking to the pages of the L.A. Times to argue that the world was overpopulated.

She and her more famous husband have argued that the world was running out of resources before; a point which Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution proved to be, more or less, utterly ridiculous.  Anne Ehrlich’s most recent claims deviate between the vacuous and the unsubstantiated.  Even the claims which seem reasonable on the surface are debatable when subjected to scrutiny:

“Sure, there’s much talk and concern that birthrates are down and will result in not enough workers to support the elderly. But this argument is overblown; after all, a 70-year-old can be more economically productive than a 7-year-old. And a large, pre-working population inflicts costs on a society. Furthermore, the birthrates in developing nations remain high, and the consequences affect us all.”

This claim is based largely on cultural pre-suppositions that children neither can, nor should, be economically productive, but there is no reason why this has to be true.  While few decent human beings would want the era of Victorian factory life to return, it is nonetheless the case that in that era, a nine-year-old in a factory worker’s household would most likely be pulling his or her own weight.  Many of the lower-level office jobs today could probably be performed by a twelve-year-old, part-time, though there is a prevalent ideology that insists on making school a full-time job.  In other words, “a large, pre-working population” is by-and-large a politically-created attribute of society.

Ehrlich then goes on to argue that, “Wildfires threaten ever more people because expanding populations are moving nearer and into forests. Floods inundate more homes as populations expand into floodplains.”  Taken to a more extreme level, why not just say, “introduce mandatory contraception in Florida to prevent the unborn from being threatened by hurricanes.”  A resolution that decides that non-existence for individuals is better for them than any threat, remote or otherwise, is the resolution of a demagogue, not a reasoned analyst.

Ehrlich goes on to claim that: “Overpopulation is also fueling desertification and further deforestation around the world.”  This claim might be true, but there is no reason why population growth must lead to deforestation.  Population has increased in Virginia since 1800, but it has more trees than it did at that time.  Through privatization, America has found a means by which it can sustain resources while at the same time meeting the needs of the average consumer.

This is true about any number of resources; fish farms will likely save the ocean’s aquatic population from extinction and, while the tiger populations of the Indian jungle are dwindling, maulings by privately-owned tigers in Minnesota are on the rise.  This does not mean that privatization is happening fast enough or that it is possible to privatize everything (who would want to own a blue whale, for instance?).  But it is to privatization, not demagoguery that we should look to resolve the problems posed by diminishing resources.

Superhero Movies and the Conservatism of Hollywood

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2011 at 4:38 am

Could the American film industry be on the verge of reform or beginning a slow, painful dissent of aesthetic decline?  This is the question that I’ve been asking myself recently after seeing the monotony of superhero films which, anymore, dominate the summer experience.  I enjoy these movies myself—or at least some of them.

The problem is not that audiences do not enjoy seeing pictures with similar themes and ambitions more than once.  If box office numbers are any indication, than they most certainly do.  However, the increasing trend of comic book movies at the expense of more individual, unsourced blockbusters as were so prolific from the late Seventies through the Eighties is a certain indicator that movie studios are attempting to hedge their bets.  They are going with what is safe.

It is hard to blame anyone for “playing it safe” when, if the anemic economy persists, this period may become America’s “lost decade”.  But it is also difficult for me to believe that the conservative strategy will continue to pay.  Already, the superheroes are becoming so obscure (at least to an individual for whom knowledge of comic book narratives is all secondhand) that the merit of its source will turn irrelevant to theater attendance.

The superhero is, in a sense, more than a escapist frivolity; while he (or, rarely, she) is not nearly as important to American mythos as the cowboy, superhero narratives are capable of functioning as mythological systems, with competing literature of which most in society have some opaque notion, though they may not be able to cite specific passages.

There are only so many superheroes, though, supported by a broad base of common popular culture knowledge.  Everyone’s heard of Superman and knows that he doesn’t like Krypton; I’d guess the average American could get the question right on a quiz that asks whether or not Batman is an orphan.  But these names can only be reused so many times during a given period.  New Superman and Spiderman franchises are in the works while the corpses of the last ones are still warm.

It is hard to say how long Hollywood will be able to keep this formula for financial success running, but sooner than they like to think they will need to start learning to adapt, or preparing to die.

On Income Inequality

In Uncategorized on July 10, 2011 at 3:02 am

This video indirectly addresses the topic.  Inequality may not be as bad as it looks, if the system which produces it is also constantly bringing prices downward.

The Forgettable War

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 at 1:27 am

Whatever happened to Libya?  In case anyone has been wondering that question recently (as I have) the non-war in Libya is still very much on the table and Al-Qaddafi is showing no signs of acquiescing to NATO power.  Apparently, he thinks that he can go on the offensive as well, though this is probably so much idle talk.

The president assures that we are not at “war” because the time commitment is limited (though the White House has set fewer limiting restrictions on this conflict than it has on the very real War in Afghanistan and we have been operating in Libya since March.

It is not totally absurd to argue that intervention in Libya is not a “war” per se.  The United States and allies had instituted a no-fly zone in Iraq for years before the conflict which we commonly know as the “War in Iraq.”  But the civil war is much more intense and visible than the violence in Iraq (which was far more one-sided) during the final years of Hussein’s autocracy.

Only a slight majority of Americans supported intervention in America, and today most would probably be against it if they recall that it is happening.  It is a war that, regardless of the outcome, will probably be more or less easily forgotten.  With the increasing posturing of the Muslim Brotherhood across the border, it is becoming increasingly unclear why the NATO conflict, which will be easily forgotten, should have occurred at all.

Libertarian Enemies of Liberty

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Writers often begin posts like this one by stating that their assertion seems like a paradox.  Mine doesn’t “seem” like anything: It simply is a paradox.  Nonetheless, I know of no greater threat to liberty than the libertarians of the present age.  They are not a threat to liberty because they are extreme and give credit to reactionaries.  Libertarians are extreme; but we live in extreme times and resolving a deficit of $14 trillion requires extremity.

Libertarianism weakness is not its extremity, but its fashionableness.  Libertarianism, while it never succeeds at garnering more than five percent of the electorate, is nonetheless preeminently fashionable and always tries to maintain its status as such.  To be fashionable in America at this time also means to be cosmopolitan—libertarians hate, or at least claim to hate, the death penalty, bourgeoisie family life, nationalism.

To an ideological libertarian—one well-versed in Rothbard and Hayek—sitting atop their Mt. Olympus looking down on the lives of the small and quaint peoples going about their everyday business, this might seem perfectly natural.  After all, these things are prejudices which are, after all, impediments to reason.  However, prejudice—almost as frequently for worse as for better—is the basis of liberty for the vast majority of citizens.  It is in defense of prejudices (or irrational preferences) that people take to the streets with signs and blow-horns.

While it is true that liberal cosmopolitans, such as George Soros, bankrolled freedom movements, these movements were motivated by ideas which individuals like Soros or Ayn Rand would have disdained. East Berliners did not tear down the Wall out of an abstract desire to go where they pleased.  They tore down the Wall out of a desire to go to West Germany.  Jewish Soviet dissidents, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t dissent out of hate for the Politburo (though this came in time), but for their love of Israel.

Nationalism has a mixed record in the twentieth century and it has, to say the least, popularly legitimized regimes which the world would have been happier for never having been able to name.  However, in a world in which a disturbing number of people think of themselves as “global citizens” it is one of the few barriers to wandering statists seeking to impose an elitist philosophy of right.  Without concrete prejudices to defend, liberty is merely a brittle frame that can be broken and scattered with one wave of the hand, and, as libertarian cosmopolitans are ever busy working to hollow it of its content, this outcome becomes increasingly likely.