Monday, April 28, 2008

Я пришел, чтобы мужчина растительное

My Russian is horrible. I supposedly took a couple of years in college. There is only the barest residuum of any of it in my mind. It was a requirement for graduation, which was the only reason I spent any time at all in the classes, which were GPA busters for me. I have very good friends from that era, all of whom were quite fluent and literate in Russian. I am a foreign language moron.

The title is a stupid inside joke several of us shared in college. We measured fluency in a foreign language by how well the speaker could translate one dumb phrase: "I have come to see the vegetable man." I forget the origin of the phrase- it might be a Monty Python quote, or it might have sprung from a bottle of cheap wine we shared.

As I age, and come to grips with the fact that I am mortal, finite, and have all sorts of limitations, my inability to process foreign language stands as typical of things I absolutely suck at. I put no time in to them unless forced. I become dyslexic and twitchy when I try to study them. I am petulant when I have to face them.

I think it might be that I just don't like things that don't seem logical to me. This is perhaps a reason why I gravitated to science. I'm not proud of the blind spots that I have, and I know that in some way, it is something that will always be hidden from me. This pings my curiosity, and makes me sad that I haven't mastered myself more.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why liberal sensibilities turned me Libertarian

I take no end of abuse for saying I am libertarian. Libertarians are the ones that believe that the police and federal highways should be private, remember? And they are just closet republicans that want to smoke dope. And they magically believe that the free market will solve everything. And libertarians don't want to help anybody. So I must be an asshole.

Well, I'll cop to the asshole part, but none of rest of the above is true for this particular libertarian. So I will offer a small apologia.

I'll make it quick, because my conservative and liberal friends will soon drown me out with their incessant squawking about how evil I am.

I don't think that everything can be private. Incentives matter, and there are lots of times when the incentives would be all wrong for private ownership. No one should own the air. Highways can be made private successfully, but in general, there is a sort of monopoly relationship that gets established that isn't healthy.

The legitimate initiation of force needs to be confined to someone at least sort of beholden to everyone. The perverse incentives here are probably obvious. Private security and military operations have their place (I live in the hometown of the founder of Blackwater. Whatever you think of their performance in Iraq, they have a track record of success overall. Yes, they slightly give me the oogies. But so do exterminators.)

My argument can be distilled to a salient example that illustrates my general feelings, which are that if it is ethical, possible and practical to keep things out of the hands of government, then it should be left to individuals. There is a lot of room for debate. That's fine. I welcome it. But this lets you know from where I start, and what sort of convincing you'd have to do to overcome my bedrock assumptions.

Biofuels are in the news. They are helping starve the third world. Yet, they are almost entirely the project of governments that are trying to do environmental good. Pressure was applied from many quarters for the government to mandate biofuels, irrespective of the fact that many economists could see, and verily shouted from the rooftops, that this would create food shortages. The reliably 'progressive' newspaper, the Independent in London (I'm picking on a British paper because I can't mention a domestic news source that right and left won't declare as in the tank for the other side) said in 2005

"At last, some refreshing signs of intelligent thinking on climate change are coming out of Whitehall. The Environment minister, Elliot Morley, reveals today in an interview with this newspaper that the Government is drawing up plans to impose a 'biofuel obligation' on oil companies ... . This has the potential to be the biggest green innovation in the British petrol market since the introduction of unleaded petrol."

Imposing a biofuel obligation was the only way the market would respond. Biofuels do not make economic sense. I'm not going to argue with you- they don't, or they would be pursued in the absence of subsidies. Now, there can be other reasons to do things that are uneconomic, but the environmental argument doesn't hold up well, either. The same newspaper said last week:

"The production of biofuel is devastating huge swaths of the world's environment. So why on Earth is the government forcing us to use more of it?"

I cribbed this observation from Mark Steyn, but even if he were the devil, the damnation comes from their own history. The environmental degradation the Independent decried is not half the problem. The incentives provided for biofuel have incentivized food right out of starving people's mouths.

This bothers me. I do have a heart. I care about people, and I care about the earth. I just think that government, despite its best intentions, ends up making things worse much of the time. Other times, the intentions are not good, and are the raw exercise of power to curry favor. Not everything can be left to the free market (of ideas, as much as money). But given the unresponsiveness of government, and the lack of feedback to dissuade them from disastrous policies (yes, I am thinking of the War on Drugs, despite not partaking myself), having economic chains to yank can give us all more power than ceding all our power to government.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Spring has finally sprung, more or less, in the frozen steppes that make up West Michigan. It is rumored that a minor cold snap is coming, but we have had mid 70 degree weather for the last few days. It has been glorious.

My older son, my 11-year-old, spent hours this afternoon jumping on a neighbor's trampoline. Super fun. We are lucky to have a handful of good-natured neighborhood kids for him to run with.

I was watching, thinking about how his life is so different from how mine was at his age. The trampoline was completely encircled in a protective net. The net is a decent metaphor for how protected his life has been. A metaphor for my childhood would have been laughing kids on a rusted out sliding board with a wasp nest underneath.

We have been very careful with my son. He didn't come to us easily. We struggled with miscarriages and tubal pregnancies and all the heartbreak anyone should have to stand trying to love someone into existence. We had just about given up when he was conceived. We were worried the entire time my wife carried him. Surprisingly, the pregnancy was nearly perfect, as was his birth. He has been a hardy, cheerful and robust child. Tonsillitis got him down sporadically for a few months a couple of years ago, but when the tonsils were gone, he went back to being hale and fit. He has been sick few enough times to count on fingers.

But he doesn't get out much. He gets outside with friends, but he has never willfully done anything I would consider dangerous. He has never stung by a honeybee by trying to catch it (though he did get nailed by a yellowjacket while he was minding his own business). I am certain that by 11 I had been stung at least 11 times by honeybees, trying to put them in jars, or catch them by the wings (which you can do if you are really careful), or by stepping on them. I had friends that deliberately stirred up bees, as sort of a man-vs-nature contest. The combatants included their parents, too. I grew up around fun, crazy, risk-loving nuts.

My son hasn't had stitches or ripped out a scar, or had a bike crash, or had to get a tetanus shot from stepping on something. I, amazingly, did not break any bones other than toes, so we're almost even there. But lordy, I tried.

No, this child has always been prudent. Not cowardly, but brave in a prepared and sober way. Very reasonable, honest, and very principled. I am very proud, even as I marvel at him.

Our second child is 2 at the moment. We had plenty of heartache and trouble on the way to him, too. Like his brother, his gestation was without incident, as was his birth. And so far, he has been hale and hardy.

But this one is also very different from his brother. He is recklessly curious, willing to take physical risks to get in or onto something. He is not showing signs of his brother's willingness to be reasonable or careful. He appears to be trying to learn something most of the time, but is very impatient and moody. He is delightful. Even, if not especially, when he is being stubborn. He's tough and hardheaded, and laughs a lot. He shares those qualities with his whole family. I don't think he'll tolerate us trying to protect him like we did his older brother.

The best part of fatherhood in my eyes is getting to lead these youngsters out into the world and help them poke at it, and learn about it. They are restlessly curious, even the more serene of the two, which is something we can share.