Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Expectations, Part 1

Dale Murphy was stunned by the professional baseball contract he was offered. “I don't deserve this. I didn't play that well last year.”

“True, but I expect you to earn it this year.”

He did.

Of course Murphy was an unusual professional athlete, few would express objections to a big contract. However the team owner, Ted Turner, knew something about the man and how to get the best from people. While I don't agree with much of Turner's belief system, we can learn from how he encouraged his players. He understood the power of expectations in motivating people. His expectations, clearly communicated, motivated Murphy to try harder and improve his game.

That baseball contract illustrates how powerful expectations can be in our lives. Most people tend to live up to, or down to, what is expected of them (provided of course that those expectations are realistic). There are exceptions of course, but they are exceptions. Most people act pretty much as they are expected to act. A child who is told that he is dumb will seldom excel in school while a child told that he can do well usually will do well. If you think you can or think you can't, you are probably right.

Another example illustrates this.

My daughter was throwing a hissy fit. The math problem just seemed beyond her, unfair, impossible. Her teacher hated the whole class. Her middle school was terrible. Finally, after much fussing and fuming, she started to concentrate on the problem. It took a while but she solved it. Next day she presented the correct answer to the teacher and in return got a shock. She had misunderstood. The teacher intended that problem only as an example of what could be solved if the students continued to learn. There was never any intention that the students actually solve it. That teacher inadvertently placed high expectations on my daughter – and she lived up to those expectations.

Whether managing a company, parenting children, teaching students, or running our own lives, good expectations make a big difference in how effective we are. I won't claim that expectations are magic, they must be combined with other management or teaching skills. Had my daughter's teacher not bothered to actually teach some math she would never have solved the problem, regardless of how high her expectations were. However in combination with other important items, high expectations can almost appear to be magic.

One case of this near magic is what happens in top-performing schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students. As Thomas Sowell describes in the Chapter 5 of his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, there are inner city schools that do a wonderful job of educating their students. Those schools have different approaches but all have two things in common: discipline and an expectation that students will study and learn. They accept no excuses. Single parent home? Father unknown or in jail? The gang wants to recruit you? So what? You're in school to learn, now lets get on with it. Putting those expectations on students can make a remarkable difference in their lives.

Meanwhile, many “educators” do just the opposite with the expectations they impose on their students. They tell students that they must be fed before they can learn so they emphasize tax-funded breakfast and lunch more than they emphasize learning math and science. They implicitly tell students that they cannot learn because they are poor – and it is no surprise that those students fail to learn. Apparently someone forgot to tell that to the likes of George Washington Carver and Abraham Lincoln.

The same problem affects many of the poor in this country. They have been told, either explicitly or by implication, that they cannot improve themselves on their own. Community organizers seldom organize people to clean up their own neighborhoods or to improve their education. Instead they organize those people to demand more tax-funded welfare. That sends the toxic message that they must depend on others to improve their lives. If the people have the expectation that they cannot help themselves, they will not work toward that end. Such misled people will remain disadvantaged, regardless of how much others give them.

We must work to give students, employees, and indeed all citizens the correct expectations. That will make a huge difference in the country and in our individual lives. Of course we have to do that correctly, providing challenging but achievable expectations. Next time I plan to address how to do that.

A personal note: I'm afraid I'll have to reduce the number of blogs I write in order to free up time for other things. Starting next week I will probably only write two a week, most likely posting them on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Lessons of Flight 93 - Reprise

On 11 September this year I posted a blog about Flight 93 and how we should learn from the actions of the passengers. We should take primary responsibility for our own safety and try to defend ourselves. I would like to comment further on that because of something that has just happened in my home state of Oregon. Authorities finally found the body of Brooke Wilberger.

In 2004 Wilberger was a 19-year-old college student, home for the summer. She disappeared from the apartment complex where she was doing some cleaning. Finally, over five years later, her killer confessed and described how he abducted her by threatening her with a knife. The killer was careful to place his van so it blocked the view of the abduction. Some in the area heard Wilberger's scream but saw nothing. As a result he was able to bind her with tape, put her in his van, and leave with nobody knowing what had happened.

The killer described how Wilberger fought him when he raped her and said that was when he decided to kill her. He claimed he would not have murdered her had she not fought so hard. If true, that is unusual. Rapist-killers usually want to see their victims suffer, and fighting won't change that. I am reluctant to accept statements from such criminals at face value.

What I do believe is a statement from a retired police captain. CW Jensen has a regular time as an expert on KXL, a local radio station. According to him, the time to fight an abductor is before he gets you into his car. Once you are in that vehicle it is much more difficult to do anything, especially if you are bound and gagged. Potential victims should do all they can to avoid being put into a criminal's car, even at the risk of injury.

Captain Jensen mentioned that he's seen lots of people survive knife wounds, even serious wounds. Many even survive gunshot wounds. However once an abductor gets you into an isolated area with your hands taped, you are usually helpless. He recommends not only screaming but also running like hell to escape. Even if the criminal shoots at you, it is difficult to hit a moving target and most criminals are not trained marksmen. Besides, the noise of a gunshot will attract more attention than will a scream.

Jensen's recommendations make sense, plus he has decades of experience dealing with criminals to back up his beliefs.

We cannot know what would have happened had Wilberger fled when threatened with that knife. Maybe she would have been killed on the spot but I think it more likely she would have escaped, perhaps after being cut. However we do know what happened because the criminal was successful in getting her into his van. Had she fled, even had she been stabbed and bled to death on the spot, that would have been preferable to the pain he inflicted before killing her.

Fortunately crimes such as the kidnapping, rape and murder of Brooke Wilberger are rare. Most of us will never have to make such decisions. However just the idea of being prepared to fight for our own lives and safety will help us should that happen, and will also help defend against other crimes. If a criminal has a gun and only wants our money, we should give it to him. Our lives are worth more. However if he tries to abduct us or to violently assault us we are usually better off to resist, fleeing if possible or fighting if that is all we can do. Such resistance will not only give us a better chance, it will give police a better chance of catching the criminal.

A personal note: I'm afraid I'll have to reduce the number of blogs I write in order to free up time for other things. Starting next week I will probably only write two a week, most likely posting them on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Should we have health care rationing? That is the wrong question; we will have rationing of health care and nearly everything else. The question is how will things be rationed? The fact is that, with few exceptions, we do not have enough of anything for everybody to have as much as they want. We have plenty of air and no reason to ration breathing, but that is the exception. For nearly everything else the sum of human desires far exceeds availability.

Take housing for example. What kind of house would you like? Where do you want it to be? Maybe you want a beachfront mansion, a penthouse atop a skyscraper, or a mountain lodge with all the amenities and a great view. Such desires are natural but now think of what it would take to provide every human, or even everybody in the U.S., with the home of his dreams. How much lumber would it take? How many workers to build it? What would it take to furnish it?

Or consider something as basic as drinking water. Earth is plentifully supplied with water, but not with pure, fresh water. Most of this water is too salty to drink and the rest is mostly contaminated with disease-causing microbes. Good drinking water is a rarity in nature. To avoid disease we have to purify our water before we slake our thirst. Billions of people are ill because they lack safe drinking water and must drink from contaminated sources.

Food is also a common shortage item throughout the world with millions regularly malnourished. Even most U.S. citizens, though not hungry, do not always have the food they would prefer. We eat hamburger instead of filet mignon, tuna instead of lobster tail, green beans instead of asparagus tips. There just isn't enough to go around of the foods we prefer, and in some places there is not enough food of any kind to go around.

I could describe similar problems with clothing, cars, books, and on and on and on. For most commodities there simply is not enough to provide everybody with everything he wants. That is why Sowell describes economics as the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses. We have limited amounts of prime beachfront property. That property could be used for your dream house, for a hotel, for a restaurant or other purposes. Not everybody will have all the beachfront property he wants because there just isn't enough of it to supply all those wants.

Why do we have these shortages? There are different reasons, some we can somewhat control, some beyond our control. There is, for example, only a limited amount of beachfront property and we are unlikely to create more. However many of these limitations are due to human factors. For example (and contrary to popular perception), Earth has a plentiful supply of oil for the foreseeable future. The problem is not an absolute shortage but that (a) much of that oil is in the hands of tyrants who control the flow from their oil fields, (b) much of the oil in the western world is either very deep or tied up in shale or tar sands which make it difficult for humans to extract it with current technology, and (c) political restrictions have placed many potential oil fields off-limits. The resources required to extract much of that oil can be used for other things which is one reason we have not been more aggressive in developing newer sources.

Human skill is another limited resource, in fact the most important limited resource. For example, consider what it takes to produce a physician. The prospective physician must first have a great desire, drive and ability; otherwise he will not qualify for medical school nor will he survive the six to ten years of training required after he graduates from college. In addition to the talent and drive he must bring to the training, we must provide the opportunity for him to learn what he needs to know. That means medical schools and teaching hospitals – both of which are expensive. We must divert resources from other uses in order to train a physician and he must divert years of his life to the training – time he might spend in other profitable pursuits.

The other facets of medicine also demand resources that might be useful elsewhere. Nurses and physicians' assistants do not require the arduous training demanded of physicians, but their training is still time-consuming and expensive. Medications and medical instruments also require both human talent and natural resources. The engineering skills used to develop things like magnetic resonance imaging could have been used to develop things like computers or more efficient automobiles. Somebody had to decide to use that talent for medical equipment instead of other, probably equally lucrative, purposes.

In fact I believe that the main limitation we have is the fact that we have only so many highly skilled people. Engineers, scientists, technicians, plumbers, farmers, all are necessary to supplying our needs and wants but nobody can know it all. Time spent studying medicine cannot be devoted to studying agriculture. Worse, not everybody has the drive to develop and use their talents to the fullest. Humans tend to be naturally lazy and to take the easy way. For every Edison who is driven to improve the human condition there are probably a thousand people who prefer to sit on the couch and watch TV.

The result of all this is that we do not have, and in the foreseeable future will not have, as much of anything as people want. Even if everybody worked his hardest we would not have that, and not everybody works his hardest. That means that there must be some way of rationing what we do have. There are two primary ways of doing this, with of course a continuum of intermediate methods. The pure capitalist way is to simply let everybody earn what can or wants to earn, then spend it as he pleases. Those who fail to earn enough for their needs fall by the wayside as the victims of survival of the fittest (though many capitalists have been at the forefront of providing voluntary assistance to those in need). This has the advantage of encouraging people to work hard in order to meet their needs and desires.

The other extreme is socialism, especially communism. In that system, at least in theory, everybody's needs are met. All production is put into a common pot and doled out as appropriate. This has the advantage that it tends to meet people's needs. However it has the disadvantages of encouraging sloth and of susceptibility to manipulation by those who dole out the resources. Communistic societies tend to share the misery rather than the wealth.

Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. However the capitalistic system seems preferable. If we allow people to benefit from their production, we encourage production and independence. If we take from them the fruits of their labor, we encourage laziness and dependence. That is why I do not believe in government-provided (read taxpayer funded) health care. It encourages dependence and sloth. It also helps people self-justify in not taking care of their health. If they think the government will pay the medical bills, why not watch TV and eat French fries? If the heart attack comes, those nice tax-funded doctors will fix you up – at least until they are forced to ration care because there isn't enough to go around.

So it is with other needs and wants. If we hand them over on the dole, people will not work for them but will become leaches on society. That will increase demand while decreasing production. However if people get what they earn, production will increase and demand will be only what people can afford, based on what they earn. That is a result of rationing by ability to pay, which also means rationing by productivity. Combined with charitable aid for the less fortunate, I believe that will provide enough for everyone. Not all people want, but enough.

Rationing should be done by the market, not by government.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Islamic Fanatics

Today I’ll add some of my own thoughts on the subject of the book review I just posted (Knowing the Enemy, Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck).

First the good news: the jihadis do not have the military might to conquer our country, nor are they likely acquire that ability in the foreseeable future. Even if they get nuclear weapons they cannot take and hold our territory, nor can they overthrow our government. They are a small part of Islam and just don’t have enough people or soldiers to win an open war with any western country. They may be difficult to root out from their hiding places in the mountains of Afghanistan, but they cannot hope to win a war of conquest, at least at present.

There is bad news in this however. The jihadis do have the ability to create terror and disrupt our society as they did on September 9, 2001. If we let our guard down they can do something like that again. Worse, if they obtain nuclear weapons they can do much worse damage to our cities and our economy. I do not know how much danger there is that they will get such weapons. Iran is a possible source but even if that country manages to make nuclear bombs it is not clear that the Iranians would be willing to provide them to the jihadis. Another possible source is the black market. There are persistent rumors of some nukes, or at least bomb components, available to anyone with enough money.

So what are the jihadis likely to do? Anything they think will help reach their goal of collapse of the West and creation of a caliphate, preferably a worldwide caliphate. We must remember that those people have a very narrow focus and that they believe that they should kill their enemies, even women and children. Many of them are willing, even anxious, to die for the cause. We cannot afford to believe that they think the same way we do. In their minds, anything which might advance their twisted version of Islam is righteous; any failure to advance, or even attempt to advance, it is wicked.

We should also remember that those fanatics have a distorted picture of how effective their actions will be. They believe they will win, even in spite of evidence. Setbacks only encourage them to try again. Unfortunately catching some, either before or after they commit terrorism, will not stop others from trying. They will continue their terrorism until they are wiped out, either by death or by somebody like other Muslims convincing them of the error of their ways. Negotiation will not work. Providing economic aid will not work. As long as they live and have the mind-set they do, they will continue fighting the battle they believe is theirs by divine mandate.

All that is bad, but there is likely an even more dangerous aspect of this. Some of the jihadis may Hojjitieh. That is a shadowy fringe group, so fanatic that even the Ayatollah Khomeini wanted them banned. There are indications that the Hojjitieh believe it their duty to create worldwide chaos in order to cause the return of the Twelfth Imam and the establishment of a worldwide caliphate. If reports are correct, their goal is not necessarily conquest but simply stirring up trouble, the more the better. There is some evidence that Ahmadinejad in Iran is a Hojjitieh but that is uncertain at best.

We can be sure that there is a lot we don’t know about the terrorists. However we can be certain that they hate us, along with any semblance of democracy. We also know that they view us as both wicked and weak-minded. They believe that if they hit us with more terror we will give up and accede to their demands. They’ve seen our lack of persistence in other battles and they believe that we will give up the battle against them as well. I’m afraid there may be some justification for that belief; in the years since 9-11 we’ve become rather complacent.

In this country we’ve become accustomed to quick solutions. TV gives us the unconscious idea that all problems can be solved in half an hour to an hour – with time out for commercials. We’ve forgotten that some problems require prolonged effort before they are solved. We get excited about new problems but tire of them after time. That will not solve the terrorist problem. For that we need persistence. Otherwise they will just outlast us, then hit us again. No, I don’t believe we will give up, but we will be exposed to more terrorist actions.

Solving the jihadi problem will require that we put aside some of our squeamishness and prosecute the battle by every constitutional means at our command. That means we selectively go after those most likely to be terrorists. Grandma in her wheelchair may in fact be a terrorist in disguise, but the young middle-eastern man is a much higher probability and should have a higher likelihood of being searched at the airport.

The more mainstream Muslims in the world have a special part to play in this battle. They must take the lead in showing just how far on the fringes the jihadis are. They must speak out, even in the face of danger. Failure to do so risks takeover of their religion by the fanatics. History provides two examples of how that might happen: the Crusades and the Inquisition, both products of what passed for Christianity when a few were allowed to dictate how Christians should act. In fact the jihadi actions look like an Islamic version of the Inquisition. They have the same intolerance for anyone who does not accept their own version of their religion. Wherever they have been in control, they have imposed restrictions and punishments similar to those of the Inquisition. However they combine that with a militaristic desire to force their religion on everybody, something beyond even what the Crusades attempted.

So far the Islamic fanatics remain a fringe group of the religion while the Inquisition became dominant in medieval Christianity. I beg of my Muslim friends: do not allow the same thing to happen in your religion. Please fight those fanatics, for your sake and the sake of the whole world.

In conclusion, the fight against Islamic fanatics will be long and hard. We must be prepared for that and to continue our best efforts until the battle is won.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Knowing the Enemy (Book Review)

I hope my readers aren’t tired of book reviews because today I want to talk about what I regard as a very important book, one that could help us understand and face one of our biggest enemies in the world today. So here it is, another review.

Knowing the Enemy, Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2006. 177 pp plus notes, glossary and index.

Mary Habeck is an associate professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. She has produced here a book which I think should be required reading for anyone who wants to seriously discuss the problem of Islamic terror. I thought that I knew and more or less understood the motivations behind the attacks on embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, the 9-11 attacks etc. However this book showed me that my previous knowledge only scratched the surface.

First, Habeck is careful to distinguish between most of Islam and the small group of fanatics who carry out terrorist activities. She shows that people like Osama bin Laden draw on out-of-mainstream understandings of Islam to create a version of the religion that sees violence as a positive good. Their ultimate objective is a caliphate imposing Islamic rule (Shari'a) on the entire world, beginning with Islamic lands. And their definition of an Islamic land is any land ever ruled by or paying tribute to an Islamic ruler. That includes Spain, the Balkans, even Russia.

In those people's belief, the very existence of any system of government other than the caliphate is an assault on Islam because it tempts people to not join the “true” religion and government. Liberalism (not the US leftists but liberalism in the sense of self-rule) is a positive evil in their view. It is no wonder that they hate every country on earth, even countries most would regard as Islamic.

In the view of these extremists, true Islam does not exist in the world today since it requires a land ruled by the caliph strictly by Shari'a, God's rule. It must be understood that this viewpoint antedates the establishment of Israel and the oil states. It cannot be blamed on Israel, though that country is today regarded as the start of western colonization in Islamic lands.

In the beliefs of those fanatics, Shari'a must become the law of the land. That is their definition of freedom and nothing else will do. They believe that democracy, kings, and all other non-Islamic forms of government will eventually be replaced as people see how wonderful life is under the caliphate.

Also, in the view of the jihadis, any western presence in Islamic land is an assault. That is why Bin Laden considered the US aid to Somalia in the early 1990's as an attack. We were there only to help the people but to the jihadis it was an invasion. This may be difficult for the western mind to understand, but understand it we must if we are to protect ourselves from the fanatics.

There is also a lot of what I would term groupthink and wishful thinking among the jihadis. For example, bin Laden believed that the 9-11 attacks would cause Muslims world-wide to rise up and join the “true” Islam and that the US would fold and leave Arabic and other Islamic lands. When his predictions did not materialize he had to change his tune but that has not changed the minds of the fanatics.

“Because history is dominated by the struggle between good and evil, jihadis assert that all Muslims are called by God to participate in the fight – physically if possible, or at least by word or financially – acting as God's sword on earth to deal with the evildoers and their wicked way of life.” This becomes a duty even if such a fight makes no actual progress toward the caliphate. They also believe if a jihadist dies while killing the enemy, he gets a reward beyond comprehension in this world. That facilitates the recruitment of operatives, even those willing to commit suicide if by so doing they can kill their enemies.

With the jihadis having the described mindset, it is easy to see why they are such a danger. We cannot reason with them, nor can we gain by negotiation (except for brief time periods while they re-arm). They consider treaties useful only to advance their cause and they believe they can break them pretty much whenever it suits their purpose to do so.

Habeck briefly suggests some things we can do to effectively fight the jihadis, though she is clear that a complete plan is beyond the scope of her book. She believes (and I agree) that we must deny them a land to rule as we did in Afghanistan. We must intercept their finances in order to deny them the more potent weapons they crave. And we must counter their preaching and recruitment by showing what a marginal part of Islam they are.

I strongly recommend this book

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Financial Relativity

“Filet Mignon Special: Our best filet mignon, perfectly grilled. Includes baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits. Choice of soup or salad, choice of vegetable and desert. $49.95 per person.”

Two fine restaurants, The Cattleman and The Stockman, offered that same special. Both were in similar locations and served primarily upper middle-income business people and their spouses. The chefs were equally talented and dedicated. Yet The Cattleman sold many more of that special than did The Stockman. Why?

The reason was that at The Stockman that special was the most expensive item on the menu while The Cattleman also offered a more expensive item. The Rancher's Special at $59.95 included a serving of lobster tail. Though The Cattleman only sold three or four Rancher's Specials per year, but they kept the item on the menu because it helped sell the less expensive Filet Mignon Special.

At The Stockman, customers would look at the Filet Mignon Special and notice that it was the highest priced item on the menu. Being cost conscious, most would order something less expensive. However at The Cattleman, the Filet Mignon Special was not the most expensive item on the menu. Cost conscious customers could feel virtuous by ordering the second most expensive item available. While few ever bought the more expensive Rancher's Special, it did serve a psychological function, It helped them justify indulging in the Filet Mignon Special.

This and many other human quirks are documented in Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational. The lessons for our personal and collective decision-making are myriad. The most obvious is that we should beware of such marketing sleight of hand. Many business people know of that human tendency and they often use it to get us to buy something more expensive than we would otherwise. They will offer a high priced item even though they know that few customers will buy it. However they also know that the mere presence of that item makes other items look inexpensive by comparison so they sell more of those.

How can we avoid falling into that trap? How can we keep from spending our hard-earned money inappropriately? The only way is to consider prospective purchases on individual terms. We should concentrate on what our real needs or desires are, how much money we have available, and how that relates to the cost of what we might purchase. If we like the Filet Mignon Special enough to justify $49.95, we should buy it. Otherwise we should pick a different meal. That is true regardless of what else may or may not be on the menu.

The same is true of public expenditures. Politicians often pull the same sort of stunt to get us to think of their programs as really not that expensive. All they have to do is propose a more expensive program than what they really want. Then they scale it down and brag about how much money they are saving the taxpayers. That slight of hand distracts our attention from the fact that they are not saving money, they are only spending less than they first threatened to spend.

We don’t save money by purchasing a less expensive item (unless we were actually going to buy the more expensive option). We save money by not spending it at all.

In fact I fear that we are going to see a distraction along that line with “health care reform.” We've had a very expensive program proposed, one that has aroused the ire of voters and almost certainly will not pass. However even as I write this, some in congress are working on less expensive proposals. Those new ideas will seem inexpensive compared to the original proposal. They should not be evaluated in comparison to their more expensive predecessor. Instead they should be evaluated individually. Is each of them, or any of them, worth the cost to the country?

We must resist the tendency to think of the newer proposals as cheap just because they are less expensive than the original. In fact we should do that with all government programs and private purchases.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

This and That

Before rejecting something as “simplistic” we should remember that in the old story it took a simple child to point out that the emperor was naked as a jaybird.

Come to think of it, just how naked is “naked as a jaybird” anyway? I've not noticed jaybirds being any more naked than any other birds.

And if someone is “dead as a doornail,” just how dead is he? I'm not sure that doornails are any deader than roof nails, framing nails or coffin nails.

If common sense is so common, please explain the people who go from their air-conditioned offices in their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned clubs – where they sit in the sauna.

A “single-payer” healthcare system? Just who is this single payer who will provide health care for the entire country? No, the term is just a cover-up for forcing millions of taxpayers to pay for the care of others. It's not a single-payer, it would involve millions of payers.

Why is it considered a public service job to lobby government for money to create a museum or orchestra, but establishing a company that will bring in food to feed a city or build housing for people to live in is called private greed?

As I write this, millions of Americans are ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-housed. They're on vacation.

Stuffed shirts are usually starched – and accompanied by a suit and tie.

Churchill is credited with saying “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on as though nothing had happened.”

The successful believe that their success is due to their own hard work and ability. The unsuccessful credit the success of others to luck. In fact success is usually the result of work, ability, and luck.

The prepared may not always get lucky, but the unprepared repel good luck as effectively as a spider repels an arachnophobic.

It's amazing how many people with million dollar houses spend their weekends on boats smaller than a poor man's cottage.

Anyone who wants to be president of this country has already shown himself not wise enough to do the job.

A dog can make a good living by wagging its tail. Humans, lacking tails, actually have to work.

However we should not forget that the Lord did not curse Adam with work. He cursed the earth to force Adam to work, and did that for Adam's sake. Apparently He thought work is good for us.

I'm not afraid of hard work. I can lie down and go to sleep right beside it.

It has long been understood that if you want less of something you should tax it. My state of Oregon now wants to tax health insurance and medical services. I guess our governor and legislature want us to have less medical care and insurance.

During the middle ages the Islamic world was the major force in the preservation and advancement of science and literature. Yet that group spawned the Islamic fanatics who now glory in murder and oppose broad-based education. If we understand how that happened, maybe we can prevent other institutions from spawning similar fanatics.

If Dante were to write his “Inferno” today, his inner circle of Hell would probably include the guy who invented that impossible-to-open wrapping used on new CD's and DVD's.

Too many people confuse change with improvement. That is especially true of politicians and some voters. While improvement requires change, not all change is improvement.

It's interesting how many young women will scream at a mouse, then get in a car with a guy they barely know.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

The Lessons of Flight 93

Eight years ago fanatic Islamists hijacked and crashed four US airliners. Three reached their targets, destroying the World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon. The forth, United Airlines Flight 93, made a hole in the ground in rural Pennsylvania. That airliner was probably targeted at the White House or the Capitol. The reason it never reached its target is instructive.

Flight 93 passengers had the wisdom and the guts to violate both conventional wisdom and government instructions. The official line at the time was that hijacked passengers and crew should go along with their abductors, giving them whatever they wanted. The theory was that the hijackers would release everybody aboard once they got what they wanted. That sort of worked for a while, though it did provide incentive for more hijackings. However what the 9-11 hijackers wanted was death – on a massive scale. They got their wish but the Flight 93 passengers denied them total victory.

Those passengers knew that they would probably die regardless, but it still took courage to stand up in defiance of armed men. It had to be difficult to make the decision to act, then to carry out that action. Fortunately those passengers had that courage. Instead of depending on someone else to protect them or make the decisions, they took responsibility for their own situation. In so doing they earned the gratitude of a nation.

Passengers aboard three other airliners followed instructions with devastating results. As recommended they acted like sheep. They were following a long-running trend in the US of handing over responsibility for action to “authorities.” Everybody is now expected to wait for the police to deal with criminals, for the sky marshal to deal with the hijackers. In fact anyone who takes defensive action on his own is likely to be labeled a vigilante. The label is wrong of course, but those who want to hand everything over to government find it useful whether it fits or not.

While there are times that it may be wise to go along with a criminal, those times are probably the exception. If someone with a gun demands money, it is wise to give it to him. However if the criminal is bent on doing bodily harm there is usually little to lose by resisting. If a rapist attacks a woman, she is usually better off to resist. Most rapists are cowards seeking to create terror in their victims. If that fails they lack the confidence to proceed with their actions. It is true that some rapists want to harm their victims, but they will do that anyway, resistance or no resistance. If the victim waits for police, the crime will have already been committed.

Two high-profile incidents illustrate well the benefits of taking responsibility for one's own safety. Though school shootings are less common than the common perception, they can serve as examples.

In April of 2007 a disgruntled student killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. He also wounded many others. That happened nine years after another student attacked Thurston High School in Oregon. However only two died in the Oregon school. Why the difference? Both perpetrators were acting alone. Both were similarly armed with semi-automatic weapons and lots of ammunition. The difference was the other students in the schools. At Virginia Tech, students cowered and did not fight back allowing the criminal to go from room to room and continue his killing spree. At Thurston High a few students took action, subduing the shooter before he could do more damage.

The heroes of Thurston High violated conventional wisdom and the instructions normally given on how to act in such situations. Yes, they could have been shot in their attempt to subdue the criminal, but they could have been shot anyway. It is better to be shot attempting to defend yourself than while cowering like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Now few of us will ever face a school shooting or airplane hijacking and for that we can be grateful. Sadly, a larger number of women may face a rapist. Even more of us may face a pickpocket or burglar. Should we wait for the police? By then the rape will be over, the wallet gone, or our possessions stolen. This goes contrary to conventional wisdom, but I believe we should defend ourselves, our possessions, and our neighbors in such situations. Yes there is risk in that, but criminals like easy marks. If we deny them those easy marks, many will decide that a life of crime is not profitable.

Most police departments do a pretty good job considering the problems they face. However cops cannot be everywhere and they have no way to know where the criminals will strike next. The criminals know that, they know that there is little chance a cop will be there to stop them so they think they have a good chance of getting away with their crimes. However if most citizens were to defend themselves that would change the odds considerably. The criminals would know that they face a higher risk.

This extends to other areas of life as well. Any time we hand our well-being off to others, we become less human than we should be. We are intended to stand up on our hind legs and be adults. Taking responsibility for earning our own living, providing our own food, clothing, housing and health care makes us fully human. Depending on others moves us toward the status of cattle, to be cared for at the whim of someone else.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The President's Education Speech

(NOTE: I was working and did not hear Obama’s speech to the schools. What follows is based on the text of that speech as published on the web.)

OK let's be clear at the outset. The president's school speech was generally pretty good, though it did have its share of political grandstanding and some misconceptions. He hit most of the right things and tried to encourage children to apply themselves to learning. I especially liked the part about how the students must be responsible for their own education, that's something I often use when I teach a class. I've been known to start the first class by saying, “My job is to teach; your job is to learn. Your job is more important

I believe the president made a few minor errors, but that is forgivable. However he also left out some important items, and their absence made his speech much less effective than it should have been. In his focus on the knowledge and information society he forgot that not every child will grow up to be an engineer, a nurse, or a lawyer. Some will become painters, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other types of craftspeople. What about the children who want those careers? They were completely left out. Based on Obama's speech they could well decide that education is not important for what they want to do. That would be a serious mistake.

Unfortunately not only the president, but many other people seem to think that the crafts are a lower status occupation not requiring any intelligence. They want to concentrate on jobs requiring a four-year college degree. That is a grave error (and could put our economy in the grave).

As John W. Gardner said, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

We need people to build our buildings, wire them for electricity, put in the plumbing, paint them etc. In fact I suspect that the average plumber does more for our health than does the average physician. Plumbers help us get pure water and dispose of germ-laden body waste. Without their work, disease would run rampant. Plumbing and other crafts are essential to our economy and our way of life.

Nor are crafts the place for the weak of mind. Most such jobs require regular use of math and geometry. They frequently require creative solutions to unforeseen problems. Uneducated plumbers will give us pipes that don't hold water. Worse yet, public denigration of the crafts will direct young people to other pursuits and leave us with no plumbers and no pipes. Also no electrical wiring, no carpentry, no welding of metal structures. Our society and economy will collapse.

We need people to do the craft jobs and there are young people who prefer to work with their hands. They should be encouraged and prepared to do it right. I still remember in secondary school when we were learning about some geometrical concepts, including calculation of various areas. A classmate raised his hand and asked, “How will I ever use this stuff, I want to be a cat skinner?” (Bulldozer operator)

The teacher' wisely responded, “If you work for somebody else, you probably won't use it. However if you have your own equipment you'll use it all the time to estimate how much dirt you will have to move.”

What that teacher said is true of all the crafts. Painters, carpenters, welders, plumbers, all use their minds as much as they do their hands. If those minds are not prepared, the hands will make mistake after mistake.

We must regard craftspeople as the national asset they are. Joe the plumber, Eli the electrician, Will the welder, all are in good careers, careers necessary to our economy. In fact they have the added advantage that their jobs are unlikely to be outsourced. A company may hire a computer programmer in India. However that company won't be hiring someone in India to plumb their new building in the U.S. or to paint its walls.

I'm reminded of a manager I used to work for, call him Bill. He was a very educated man and also very family oriented. His son was apparently equally talented, good at academics and sports. He could have gone to college on an athletic scholarship as Bill had done. However what the son wanted was to run an excavation company. Bill's reaction was to first be certain that this was his son's real interest. He then helped the son get set up with the equipment and skills he needed. That son will probably never be famous, but he enjoys his work and his job isn't going to be exported.

So, Obama missed the mark on that one. The crafts are every bit as important as any other job in our economy. Those young people who are interested in such jobs should be encouraged to prepare themselves well for the work they will do.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

The Rescuers and the Anointed

The accident looked bad, cars smashed and some passengers obviously injured. Passing motorists stopped and one tried to give CPR to a victim. That was difficult, his “patient” kept trying to get up and walk away. The rescuer had been trained in CPR but he failed to pay attention to the need to check for breathing and a pulse before starting the procedure.

It is often said that the first rule of rescue is “do no harm.” I think that should be the second. The first rule of rescue should be, “make sure rescue is appropriate.” CPR, for example, is for those whose hearts have stopped. Anyone who remains conscious has to have a beating heart. Even those who are not conscious may not need CPR (though they can benefit from other attention.) I think this has a great deal of bearing on the issue of “The Anointed” discussed in my last few blogs, people who want to rescue others whether those others need it or not.

Unneeded rescue may be just a nuisance, but in some cases it can cause harm. CPR can crack ribs which is a minor problem compared to cardiac arrest. However if the patient has a beating heart, there is no reason to risk that complication. There is a real danger if the rescuer is too intent on using his rescue techniques and ignores the question of appropriateness.

Other types of rescue can have similar problems. For example, the Kennedy-Johnson war on poverty (which I discussed in my previous blog) was aimed at a problem, which was diminishing already. However the politicians had some ideas they thought would be wonderful so they instituted those programs anyway. The ultimate result was an increase in poverty and wasted taxpayer money. That was the equivalent of a person who had learned CPR looking for a way to use his skill instead of looking at what was really appropriate.

As an “unpaid professional rescuer”* I have some personal insight into this problem. We all want to use our abilities. If those abilities are aimed at helping others we will want to help others. That can be great, some people need the help. My team once found a woman who had spent two nights lying among the rocks where she fell. She was going in and out of consciousness, with several major injuries. She probably would not have survived the night after we found her since it got very cold then. It was a great feeling watching the helicopter head for the hospital with her aboard.

On the other hand, we often find people who are simply overdue. Maybe they decided to stay out an extra day (not a good idea) or maybe they were lost but remain in good health. We do not call a helicopter for those folks; in fact we don't even put them in a litter. We let them walk out, perhaps with some of our people to guide them. In fact with the advent of cell phones we've been able to direct a couple of them to safety while rescuers stayed home.

Now rescue is exciting. Let's be honest, most volunteers join the team for that excitement and they don't want to stay home when excitement calls. However it is not appropriate to send teams into the field until there is reason to believe that someone needs them. The responsible authority (usually a sheriff's deputy) is charged with determining that need before he calls the teams out.

Firefighters, some cops, and other emergency responders likewise like to respond to the need. Their services are invaluable but they can go too far. We've all heard the story of the bored cop who stops people for trivial reasons, or the physician who wants so badly to use a new treatment that he applies it to a patient who doesn't need it. In extreme cases, firefighters have been known to set fires to create their own excitement. Unless the urge to rescue is controlled it can cause its own problems.

I think this is one of the problems with the “rescuers” described in Sowell's book, “The Vision of the Anointed.” The people who see themselves as rescuers of humanity need problems to solve – and they need to solve them in their own preferred way. When they see poverty they just know that their solution is needed, in spite of the fact that poverty is decreasing already. When they think they see racism, they just know that they must step in and solve the problem, even if what they see is not really racism. An example of the latter is the recent case of the Harvard professor who accused a cop of racism when the cop was really there to help prevent burglary of the professor's home. Many of the “anointed,” including President Obama, jumped on that one. Before they even had the facts, they assumed racism was involved.

As a rescuer, I know the temptation to overreact to problems or even to imagine problems when they might not exist. The only solution is to learn to control our urge to act until we evaluate the situation. Is there a real problem? If so, will our solution really help or will it just foster dependence? Are we really helping or just meddling in someone's life?

Unfortunately our political process is biased toward action, whether that action is appropriate or not. Any politician who refuses to use taxpayer money to solve a perceived problem will be called a “do-nothing” and likely voted out of office. Only when the voters recognize this problem will that change. We must realize that sometimes nothing is exactly what we should do. (See for example http://hallillywhite.blogspot.com/search?q=don%27t+just+do+something)

That is the problem with the people Sowell describes in the two books I've just reviewed. Their arrogance leads them to believe that they can and should solve all the world's problems. However many of those problems are minor or only imaginary. Even the real problems are not usually amenable to the “solutions” created by such people.

We must deny such people the power to meddle in our lives and use our tax money to meddle in the lives of others.

*Some rescue organizations use the term “unpaid professional” to emphasize the need to have skills equivalent to those of paid rescuers, even though we are volunteers.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review, The Vision of the Annointed

Book Review, The Vision of the Anointed, Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell, 260pp plus index and notes, Basic Books, 1995

This book can be considered a follow-up to Sowell's earlier book, A Conflict of Visions. In the first book Sowell describes what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions but strives to take a neutral stance. In this one he makes no pretense of neutrality but describes the problems arising from the unconstrained vision and how some of its adherents successfully ignore those problems. Along with Sowells later book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2001), these books form, not an official trilogy, but at least a triad of books defining these differences and taking to task those who would blindly accept the unconstrained vision. I’ll not review the third book, any readers I have are probably already tired of three straight book reviews. However I also recommend that book.

And indeed (as Sowell describes) much of the problem is blind acceptance of ideas spawned by the unconstrained vision. Contrary evidence is likely to be ignored, dismissed as “isolated anomalies,” or those presenting it called “simplistic” or worse. The big problem is not that the unconstrained are wrong; people have been wrong, often spectacularly wrong, throughout history. The problem is that they are disconnected from empirical checks on their ideas. That allows the damage to continue unchecked.

Who are “the anointed?” According to Sowell they are the self-appointed intellectual elite, firm believers in the unconstrained vision. They regard themselves as of superior morality and wisdom. They think of themselves as the rescuers of the race. As a consequence of this attitude they tend to regard their opponents as benighted, immoral, greedy, or stupid. Because of this self-image they are unable to consider that they could be wrong and someone from among the “benighted” right. In fact it would destroy their self-image to admit to being wrong so they go to great lengths to discredit any evidence contrary to their beliefs.

Examples of the anointed would include Ralph Nader, William Godwin, Antoine-Nicolas Condorcte, and Earl Warren.

Because of their self-image of being the rescuers of benighted humanity, the anointed tend to regard ordinary perceptions as wrong. There is no superiority in accepting what regular people believe, so they find ways to reject it. One way they do that is by adopting as “mascots” those most people reject, such as criminals. They find all sorts of ways to blame society for the anti-social acts of the few, ignoring the possibility that a thief might steal because he wants an easier way to obtain what he seeks.

At the same time they regard as criminals those most of us think of as productive such as business people. If “society” is at fault for the problems of their mascots, then these representatives of society must take the blame.

And of course like all rescuers, they need a reason for their rescue missions. A typical event would proceed through four steps:

Stage 1, the “crisis.” Assertions of great danger to which the masses are oblivious. This is presented as a crisis even though it has not been getting worse and in fact the situation may be improving. For example, the “war on poverty” was proposed by Kennedy and Johnson, even though poverty had been on the decline for decades at the time.

Stage 2, a “solution” is presented as necessary and includes promises of how it will solve the problem. Opponents point out the likely bad effects but their objections are called absurd, simplistic, or simply dismissed. Exactly that happened when the war on poverty was proposed with a promise that it would reduce dependence on government handouts.

Stage 3, the results. Policies are instituted leading to the bad effects the opponents forecast but not the promised improvement. Again the war on poverty is one example; dependence on government programs increased rather than decreasing.

Stage 4, the response. The bad effects and lack of success are ignored, or blamed on complexities, or the claim is made that it would have been worse without the policy. Of course no documentation is provided for why it would have been worse. As is typical, in the war on poverty, the target was moved after the fact with proponents claiming that it was a success because, counting government handouts, it reduced poverty even though it failed to meet its original goal of reducing those handouts. Later even that new target was not met as poverty increased even counting government largess.

This book presents many more examples of how the anointed ignore evidence, misuse statistics and refuse to pay attention to results. They do little real thinking but a lot of talking. However the biggest problem is divorce from reality and empirical evidence. There is a big difference between the effect of a mistake corrected when it is found to be a mistake, and a mistake perpetuated indefinitely in spite of evidence that it is a mistake.

This book has much more than I can include in a review of any reasonable length. I strongly recommend it to everyone.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Conflict of Visions, Part 2

Continuing the review of A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, I’ll look at some of the specific ways different visions affect our thinking. It is not feasible in this review to describe all the concepts this book treats, so a couple of examples will have to do.

One is the concept of equality. In the constrained view, equality means equal opportunity consistent with a person's ability and resources. As long as we do not remove the options different people have, they have equality, everybody has a chance to try whatever he wants with the opportunity to compete fairly. The unconstrained view, on the other hand, seeks equality of outcome. It is not enough to allow everyone to apply for a job and be selected on merit. Instead we must be certain that all have an equal chance to get it. In this vision, a 120-pound woman should have the same right to be a firefighter as a 200-pound man who can carry twice as much fire hose as can she.

The unconstrained view focuses on outcome, trying to make the outcome of everything be what those with this view believe it should be. However the constrained view tends to focus on the process, desiring a process that gives everyone a chance. In the constrained view, the 120-pound woman is welcome to try to become a firefighter but she must demonstrate the same ability as the 200-pound man.

Another example is the idea of knowledge and reason. In the extreme unconstrained view, we know nothing except what we can learn by our reason; the customs and knowledge of the ages are considered suspect or worse. However the constrained vision views individual or even group reason as suspect since no person or group of people can have all knowledge, nor is their reasoning ability or morality likely to be perfect. The constrained vision tends to believe that we should pay a great deal of attention to the accumulated wisdom of the ages and change the practices derived therefrom only carefully.

In this book Sowell follows many writers from the past and present with Adam Smith being the archetype of the constrained vision and William Godwin that for the unconstrained. He also regards the American Revolution with its resulting constitutionally limited government as a result of the constrained view and the French revolution as a result of the unconstrained view.

In summary, the unconstrained vision sees mankind (or at least the elite) as capable of managing, essentially micromanaging, our entire economy and society and morally equipped to do so. The constrained vision views that idea as the height of arrogance. Society is so complex as to be beyond our ability to manage all the details, especially the details of the lives of others. In the constrained view, each person manages his own affairs within the limits imposed by a society that has developed those limits over centuries of experience (though the societal constraints are constantly changing).

This leads those with the constrained vision to be strong supporters of individual freedom and responsibility, believing that each person should earn his own way and be accountable for his own errors and crimes. Criminals, the poor etc. are that way because of individual choices they made. On the other hand, those with the unconstrained vision tend to think that “society” is responsible for everything. Crime exists because society caused it. Poverty exists because of defects in society – defects those with the unconstrained vision believe themselves capable of correcting.

The result of these visions is that people tend to be quite consistent in their beliefs on a variety of issues. Those with the constrained vision tend to want limited government, penalties for criminals, military preparation to protect against national enemies etc. However those with the unconstrained vision tend to prefer powerful government, rehabilitation for criminals, negotiation instead of military power etc. In both cases, their unexamined visions govern how they think about all those issues.

This book is so dense with information that a review of reasonable length cannot do justice to it. To really “get it” you need to read it. All and in all, it is an excellent book, one I believe every politically active citizen should read. In fact if I had my way it would be required reading in every high school in the country. It will help each side understand the other in many of our conflicts.

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