Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Cato Hypocrisy

I have long held that the greatest tragedy, among countless misfortunes that recur in the long and agonizing human story, is not when evil triumphs over good, or when oppression overcomes freedom, or even the wretched loss of ten billion potential might-have-beens. No, the most devastating defect in our character -- a trait that held us down ever since the caves -- is the very same twist in our natures that makes us such fine storytellers.

I am talking about our incredible penchant for -- and creativity at -- self delusion and rationalization. The lengths that we all go to, in order to convince ourselves that we are the smart ones, virtuous and right... often in complete denial of blatant evidence to the contrary. It is the one magical act that all of us can easily perform, at near genius level.

Elsewhere I talk about the organic mechanisms of reinforcement that make us addicts to this sort of blithe, self-righteous assurance, while dismissing all opponents as vile or stupid strawmen. Indeed, I can step outside myself and watch these very tendencies play out -- the same smug assumption of privileged knowledge and superior perception -- even as I type these words. Well, we are of the same clay. This ecumenical allure tugs at even the wise. Even the shy.

Can we escape the bewitchment of solipsism and seductive self-hypnosis? For millennia, the prescription in every culture was to accept, with utter fealty, whatever mythic system was taught by local authority figures. Parents. Lords. State and church. This method replaced (or overlaid) some individually vain "realities" with shared/consensual ones. But while mantric uniformity helped to maintain peace within some communities, it absolutely guaranteed conflict against others.

Above all, the top aim was to make sure no one asked: "Isn't it just a little suspiciously pat and convenient, that my bunch just happens to be 100% right, and my opponents are so completely deluded?" One nation and culture after another imitated the same obstinacy that we see in countless individual neighbors. A steadfastness that is often portrayed as admirable, even -- especially -- in the face of contrary evidence.

Are we screwed, then? Betrayed by an utterly consistent human character flaw? Doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over, with only minor variations of cult and incantation?

Fortunately, a slim ray of light appeared. Gradually, over time, a completely different approach took shape. Instead of clutching a consensual delusion (to augment your private ones), this new method called upon human beings to adapt their subjective perceptions to evidence. By referring both to objective reality (experiment) and the cross-checking feedback of other people, we can catch a relatively high percentage of our mistakes and misperceptions.

It isn't magical. The process requires deliberate effort, overcoming our own egos, as well as humanity's greatest paradox.


If "criticism is the only known antidote to error" (CITOKATE), then suppression of criticism must be the greatest single cause of error, not only in daily life, but especially among the leaders who have been entrusted with statecraft. Name a nation or time when a society's need for cleansing information and argument did not inherently conflict with the most driving need of leaders and oligarchs - to stifle dissent and maintain confidence in their rule.

Especially their own sense of confident superiority and right-to-rule, whether they were emperors, aristocrats or commissars. This conflict of interest runs so deep, it is very likely biological. Don't all of us descend from the harems of kings, who gained reproductive advantage by seizing and holding unaccountable power?

Despite countless, contradictory definitions we've heard it seems to me that the core endeavor of the Enlightenment Experiment is quite simple -- to find ways out of this trap. To escape the paradox of criticism. All of our great accountability arenas - science, markets, justice and democracy - have their roots in this realization... that no man is trustworthy to declare what's true. As Richard Feynman said - "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."


Alas, the paradox only gets worse, the higher your IQ! In every walk of life we are surrounded -- especially at all extremes of the hoary/insipid "political spectrum" -- by bright fools who wallow in sanctimonious just-so stories, blithely dismissing contrary evidence, always ignoring the suspiciously pat convenience of just-happening to be oh-so right.

Take for example* the erudite, "freedom-promoting" scholars of the Washington DC Cato Institute -- purported to be the key think tank for studying and propounding principles of libertarianism. Let me zero in on them, because right now they offer a marvelous case study illustrating our problem -- the mountain of rationalizing human nature that we must still overcome.

Why pick on Cato? I mean, other than the fact that they wear they IQs on their sleeves. You see, these passionate and articulate champions of the free market have lately found themselves in a difficult situation. A real bind.

Year after year, members and affiliates have maintained a marvelous high wire act, claiming surficially to be nonpartisan - to find equal fault between "Republicans who oppress freedom of the bedroom and Democrats who oppress freedom of the marketplace." And yet, as donations poured in from well-heeled private sources, a funny thing happened to the production line of scholarly documents and position papers. It veered right.

Oh, occasionally (for credibility's sake) Cato fellows would fire a very general - and very soft - fusillade in favor of abortion rights or against Alaska's pork "Bridge to Nowhere." Still, as the propaganda wheels turned, there appeared to be one guiding principle behind almost every missive produced by the Cato Institute.

We, who style ourselves as the defenders of a free market, shall obsessively and relentlessly ignore the market's greatest enemy. We will never mention or acknowledge the blatant fact that, for 5,000 years, the most deadly foe of free enterprise has always been conspiratorial aristocracy.

Indeed, the Cato Institute has long promoted the worst social, economic and political conflation of modern times. A delusion that Adam Smith warned against. The notion that ownership of capital is the prime correlate with wise market capitalism. A very different concept, fundamentally, than saying that markets are themselves wise at allocating, rewarding or promoting innovative goods and services.

Just scan Cato's sage and scholarly think tank documents propounding upon the inherently superior wisdom of markets. Apparently, "pre-selecting outcomes" is a sin when it is done openly, by a nation's broadly-inclusive and constitutional deliberative process. Even (especially) when it is shown that intergenerational costs cannot be accounted-for without some regulated market tuning, this kind of accounting is dismissed as an impossibly utopian and unachievable, due to the limited knowledge and predictive power of governing bodies.

Point taken. Score one for Hayek. And yet, "pre-selecting outcomes" is somehow portrayed as perfectly okay, when it is performed by much smaller clades of secretively collusive owners, scheming in small groups to allocate resources, labor and capital as capriciously as the feudal lords of any other era. Eras that, though less trammelled by well-meaning social tinkering, somehow managed to be far, far less successful than our own.

Somehow, under those conditions, nobody speaks about "limited knowledge and predictive power." The secrecy that nearly all economists call poisonous to markets, is somehow portrayed as just fine when it is used by a few golf buddies to manipulate those same markets and squeeze out all players who aren't in-the-know.

While the obsolete, ridiculous and long-discredited spectre of socialism continues drawing ire and alarm, the Cato and its allies keep on shrilly pointing at "government" as the sole and inherent foe of enterprise, never allowing attention to drift toward those who (increasingly) control government for their own enrichment. Aristocracies who exercise extreme influence over law and regulation, ensuring that government favors elites, in ways that Adam Smith cogently denounced during his own era.


catosletterv4n2Take the most recent "Cato's Letter," issued quarterly by the Institute, this time featuring an article by Tucker Carlson (host of MSNBC's The Situation) entitled - "The Decline and Fall of the Republican Party."

Wow. With a title like that , you might think the Catoins have seen the light! That they've realized, at long last, how deeply one of our great parties - and through it, nearly all of our government institutions - is suborned by a narrow cabal of native and foreign elites. That most insatiable subset of aristocrats, imbued with a deep sense of righteous privilege, who have engaged in one of the most reckless campaigns of kleptocratic mismanagement in all of history.

Have the Catoins decided - belatedly - to rise up and help us all deal with the cakocratic fecklessness. The rampant deceit, corruption, willful ignorance, indolence, violence, and anti-scientific dogmatism that has threatened civilization at all levels?

Well... um... not quite.

In fact, the Cato guys pretty much had to issue some kind of denunciation at this point in time. The national wave of revulsion toward today's GOP has risen toward tsunami proportions. The henchman defections that I have long called for are starting to trickle and stream from a myriad cracks in the neocon edifice. Soon, when whistleblowers start feeling safe to emerge, these cracks will grow so wide that Karl Rove will no longer be able to patch his coalition with liberal... oops... I mean generous... dollops of culture war. Under circumstances like these, it is not surprising to see Cato join in, if only to hold onto a little residual relevance.

But the line they are pushing! Ah, that's where things get really cute. Hang on and watch closely. It is better than a streetcorner game of Three Card Monty!


For starters, it seems that the most dogmatic administration in living memory has failed because it was not dogmatic enough.

Oh, but it gets even better. For, according to Tucker Carlson -- the great sin of the Republican Party is that (horrors!) it has sunk down almost to the dissolute, immoral, spendthrift, corrupt and despicable level of Democrats!

Shudder. That low? Mea maxima culpa! If the far right does not renew itself soon, it is in serious danger of drifting down to the level of... liberals.

Talk about blame shifting legerdemain! Didn't I say these guys were bright? Prepare to hear this line more and more, as the political season advances. Let me paraphrase some more.

Yes, the neocons and their fellow travellers have proved to be disgusting, greedy and incompetent. But you must still rationalize holding your nose and continuing to vote for them, because democrats are inherently worse.

Clever, for sure. Only there's a problem with this line. It doesn't match the facts at any level. Not even when you lean upon the insipid crutch of left right cliches. Because the neocons' long road into hell did NOT take them into Democratic territory. In fact, they did it by heading - at warp drive - in diametrically opposite directions.-

-- by massively increasing secrecy in government, rather than reducing it. (The unambiguous trend across the nineties.)-

-- by massively increasing deficit spending, rather than reducing it. (Ditto.)-

-- by massively increasing pork barrel graft, rather than reducing it. (In fairness, the decline of pork in the nineties may have resulted from divided government, with President Clinton forced to co-habitate with the very different (and somewhat lamented) neocons of Newt Gingrich's wave.)-

-- by undermining America's alliances and status in the world in favor of cowboy adventurism, rather than building worldwide consensus and acceptance of mature U.S. leadership.-

-- by rejecting all sources of objective evidence or criticism that might conflict with doctrine, relentlessly undermining both science and the autonomy of skilled professionals, demolishing or repressing advisory panels and suppressing independent thinking in the intelligence and military officer corps.-

-- by crippling the Border Patrol in a blatant effort to emphasize and promote illegal immigration, in preference over legal immigration (the democrats' preference.)-

-- by systematically demolishing government contract-vetting and purchasing procedures, finding every excuse to grant sole-source contracts on the basis of whim or crony connections.

Will a Catoin ever do the correlation - that more actual deregulation of major industries took place during the Carter and Clinton administrations, than was ever proposed during the sum total of the Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush tenures? Never. Cognitive dissonance -- an inability to perceive that which conflicts with comfortable assumption -- will keep that from ever happening.

This list could go on and on. But the core point is clear. Tucker Carlson and the other court savants -- nay, courtesans -- of Cato and the right never look to any of these factors. In calling up an image of today's fallen GOP as nearly as bad as democrats, their sole criterion is to wag a finger and make tsk-tsk noises at the hemorrhaging federal deficit, while propounding that these conservatives have failed us, by becoming -- in effect -- liberals.

But even that tunnel-vision selection of a single litmus test fails utterly! Because it rests upon an obsolete cliche, frantically ignoring the Clintonian surpluses of the nineties... along with every other possible way of looking at a sick elephant.


Up to this point, I have been describing truly grotesque hypocrisies, putting shame to any pretense that these Cato guys are "libertarians," let along honest intellects. Their current program -- promoting clever mantras to help keep in power the most outrageously anti-market and anti Enlightenment clade of cacocrats in US history -- beggars any explanation short of complete sellout or frantic rationalization.

Nevertheless, having just colorfully vented my indignant wrath, I must recall that a truly honest man contemplates limitations to the validity of righteous anger. Especially righteous anger. So let me admit that the Catoins do have one policy difference between neocons and liberals that they can legitimately point to with favor -- from a quasi-libertarian perspective.

Tax Cuts. At the surface, one can at least envision why they'd like this Bushite obsession. For although democrats have transformed into the new puritans, calling for budgetary responsibility and fiscal prudence (as well as waste-not notions of efficiency) there is no doubt that they would begin doing this by rescinding some of the cuts that have amounted to flat out gifts to a narrow and increasingly powerful aristocratic class.

Yes, rightists offer reams of arguments for why the rich should get to keep vastly higher fractions of their passive rents (read what Adam Smith said about this!) than any average working stiff may keep from the sweat of his brow. We've all seen these incantations, so I'll not confront them here. Instead, let me counter with a challenge that is far more general, again turning our gaze to the vast majority of human generations:

While you ignore 5,000 years of human history, I look across that time and see a single failure mode that killed nearly every opportunity, almost every chance for fair market competition, every level playing field, every renaissance of freedom and fair play.

That historic foe of enterprise was not socialism or "big government"... though we should stay wary of those newer failure modes. No, across more than fifty centuries, it was nearly always some cabal of privileged owners who gave into a deeply human and completely natural temptation, to use their status and power to cheat. To stop competing and instead crush competitors, often using state power as their favored tool.

Saying this does not make me a socialist or fomenter of class warfare, any more than a physicist who mentions gravity is trying to bind people to the ground! The historical fact that I describe is blatant, irrefutable and absolutely true. Any theory of modern society must take it into account, coming up with imaginative, realistic ways to foster competition and markets without letting the winners thereupon abuse their power and maintain it by cheating.

Do your theories do that? Or do they conveniently always seem to come up with rationalizations for following the Old Road? For flattering and sucking up to new, would-be lords?


Do I expect any kind of answer to this challenge? Of course not. (See my paper on "Disputation Arenas" for an idea about how the very idea of "challenges" may improve the level of argument, in times to come.)

Indeed, at one level, I don't even care. Because the objects of my ire are irrelevant. Because their old-fashioned ways doom them to triviality. And because -- fortunately -- the Enlightenment ain't dead yet. Indeed, it has stronger allies than its enemies can even begin to perceive.

For example, I would wager that a majority of the wealthy in America and the West "get it" far better than those bright suck-ups at Cato do. From Warren Buffett to Paul Allen, from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos, the guys who made fortunes through the true delivery of goods, services and capital can see what kind of society made all of their opportunities possible. They realize what the parasitic cacocrats have done to America, and they do not like it one bit.

Like the abused professionals of the officer corps, like those henchmen who are starting to turn whistleblower, like thousands of bright sons and daughters who roil in shame over the selfish shortsightedness of their fathers... these market heroes will step forward when we need them most. They will stand up for a civilization that is not about left and right, after all. Or about insipid rationalizing cliches.

What are markets and enterprise and creativity and freedom really all about? They are about maximizing opportunities for individual human beings to argue and invent and reciprocally-criticize and come up with the solutions that we'll need, in order to cross the next century successfully.

Fortunately, this Enlightenment still has friends. Enough (possibly) that we still have a very good chance of making it.


* For the record, I could as easily have chosen some collection of bright fools on the left. There are so many, you could not shake stick at them all in a century. But this is not the direction where the greatest threat to freedom lies.

** See my own papers on libertarianism, and its potential - still only a glimmer - to serve as a third force in American political life.


Anonymous said...

Snicker, chortle ... I take Reason Magazine and In These Times to give me a bit of binocular vision, and every once in a while I get spinoff mail. The Cato Institute sent me one of those phony "surveys" that always end "And don't you think it's important enough to GIVE?" with a set of check boxes.

I sent it back with the comment "When you take of the cause of spying on fellow Americans and other civil liberties issues, I'll be interested."

Then, having read up on their glorious namesake, I added "If you believe the picture presented in Plutarch, the Cato you are named for is a classic case of high-functioning autism. I presume you are named for Cato Uticensis."

(BTW - check it out. Even though Plutarch was writing long after the fact. Snicker, chortle, apologies to those with similar wiring.)

Tony Fisk said...

the great sin of the Republican Party is that (horrors!) it has sunk down almost to the dissolute, immoral, spendthrift, corrupt and despicable level of Democrats!

Hmph! Well, that takes care of that backslider Newt Gingrich!

All this sounds suspiciously like a scene setter for another 'Night of the Long Knives'

Mike Huben said...

This will be added to my Criticisms of the Cato Institute web site.

reason said...

I think that actually perhaps Cato is just a part of more insidious trend - the intellectual mercenary. I posted a rant about this related to Intellectual Property rights on another website - perhaps it would a good starting point for some discussion:

I think this is a much more important than it is given credit. We are increasingly living in a world of winner-takes-all-markets and misuse of intellectual property rights is part of the problem.
I think you need to be clearer on several of the issues here.
1. The difference between basic research and development work. This is where the Libertarian view of this area completely breaks down. It is not possible to reward basic research through the market because in its raw form it has no market value. But it has enormous potential value in applications that can be developed from it. So you have an issue of how to finance necessary infrastructure with all the free-rider problems associated with it.
2. Knowledge does not just have an economic value, it has a social and political value. Having research controlled and directed by economic interests is potentially dangerous. There needs at least to be a process whereby private research can be checked and reproduced in the public sphere (perhaps while respecting private rights).
3. The relationship between value added and reward is extremely uncertain. Many clever people can work hard for a long time and never acchieve anything valuable. Or they may be on the right track but slightly too late (have contributed to somebody else's success). And some rewards can monstrously exceed the value of the work. (Microsoft for instance). Research is like entering a lottery. The logic of this is that like in sports you need some sort of revenue sharing process to keep the grass roots healthy.
4. Research may have value which is not commercially exploitable.
(a) I remember a TV show in Australia called the inventors. One contestant invented a new sort of razor which gave a better shave and allowed razor blades to last much longer than convential razors. The marketing expert said he would be offered lots of money NOT to produce the product as all the money in shaving is in replacement blades. I never saw this product on the market. Draw your own conclusion.
(b) Identifying negative externalities can increase social welfare by allowing regulation or cap and trade control mechanisms. It does not however, make money for the discoverer.

All these considerations make me think the following makes sense:
1. Shorten IP licences
2. Subsidise research
3. Separate functions where possible - manufacturers should not be able to control research institutes either directly or through grants.
4. It may be necessary to licence several manufacturers to ensure competition in product development (see 3).

A thought for an innovative way of financing research. Build a wall between exploiters of research and researchers. Finance ALL research by subscription (perhaps with votes as to which general areas will be researched by contribution). Then rights to use the results of research could be auctioned using already donated research funds (with some time lag) as a pseudo-currency.

Anonymous said...

I'd like permission to print off the section about the Cato Institute and send it to them in their own BRM envelope if they ever again dare send me one of their snarky little "surveys".

reason said...

mike huben -
your link to Phil Agre's Crisis of Public Reason doesn't work.
It should be http://web.archive.org/web/20010726030451/http://www.indymedia.org/print.php3?article_id=3159

Anonymous said...

Ever notice that there is no forum or blog to post comments on the Cato website. It's almost as if they don't want to encourage feedback...

David Brin said...

You folks have permission to quote me, though this rushed screed may bee a bit too passionate and could have used more editing. For example: "Why pick on Cato? I mean, other than the fact that they wear they IQs on their sleeves."

That should have read: "Why pick on Cato? I mean, other than the fact that they wear they IQs on they sleeves."

As for Cato himself, I do quote the guy in EARTH. A virtual prize for whoever comes up with that nugget. It actually is pretty relevant.

There, and some of you thought I had lost my capacity to rant, like Sterling and ilk? Snort!

Anonymous said...

I'm just reading "Infinity's Shore" there's that part (page 99 in paperback edition) where Asx muses about "solipsism". Quite the same main points as the ones featured under "The Paradoxon".
You were preaching that sermon 10 years ago (as many others have for even longer) and still the majority of Americans believes this planet is 6000 years old...
Kinda sad, I guess.

Anonymous said...

The Cato Institute lost all credibility in my eyes over a specific incident some years ago.

At least ten years ago, it was, but I have to backtrack a little more. Well before Cato and their ilk were fighting tooth and nail to deny that greenhouse warming was a problem, they were fighting tooth and nail to deny that depletion of the ozone layer due to pollutants was a problem.

Or, if it was a problem, it would be more economical to simply put on sunscreen and sunglasses rather than force people to replace their freon with costly alternatives.

Again: It was well established amoung the pro-growth anti-regulation crowd that worries about ozone depletion were unwarranted, and anyone who said otherwise was a tree-hugging humanity-hating luddite.

So. Fast forward a bit. There was a long, hot summer in L.A., and lots of worries about . . . ozone pollution. The ground level stuff produced by automobile exhaust that turned smog into a breathing hazard.

A news program had a debate about imposing driving restrictions. On the anti-restriction side was a self-confident weenie from the Cato Institute. He flatly stated that cutting down on ozone pollution would ultimately be counter-productive, because that extra ozone was required to repair the damage to the ozone layer. He sneered at the hypocricy of environmentalists who were, out of fear of a little smog, threatening the lives of thousands with exposure UV radiation.

What a jackass!

I didn't have to wait until the Bush administration to know these guys were full of it. Their stand on environmental issues clearly shows them for what they are: A bunch of self-deluded, brown-nosing, lackeys of the rich and powerful.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

There was of course an element of the Left that used to defend the Soviet Union as "actually existing socialism." David, you have nailed the Right version with their backhanded support for "actually existing capitialism," which, as usual, turns out to be crony capitalism, with the emphasis on crony.

The older I get, the more I understand that FDR and Alexander Hamilton had far more in common than Herbert Croly ever imagined. It is about nation building and nation sustaining--and most DC conservatives and liberals have no real understanding of either.

Rob Perkins said...

Ozone at ground level is poisonous to life. In the upper atmosphere, it serves a purpose most think is useful to the environment. I can't remember exactly but I think it has something to do with filtering UV energy.

So I guess to answer Tangent's question, those who want the ozone layer replenished do not want it manufactured on the ground, for the dual reason that it's a hazerdous substance on the ground and because it encourages noone to stop or reduce emitting pollutants.

That, and it's probably prohibitively expensive. One or more of the three, take your pick.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Reason!

I've known for a long time that more pure research was needed. Once upon a time, universities were the cradle of much pure research. Nowadays, research grants are coming with strings attached, and often they are for applied research, with a particular result or product in mind.

Kevin Crady said...

Dr. Brin:

Regarding "disputation arenas," have you heard of Team Syntegrity? It is a method of non-hierarchical decision-making invented by Stafford Beer and explained in detail in his book "Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity"

TS organizes a group of people into an icosahedral structure (as opposed to the usual top-down pyramids) and employs a set of specified protocols to insure that ideas and information will "reverberate" around the structure.

Links: http://www.syntegritygroup.com/synteg.html

http://www.phrontis.com/PhroDownLoads/Outline%20of%20Syntegration%20Process.pdf (a good short overview, pdf file)

lightning said...

I have some problems with the conventional version of "ozone depletion". I'm not saying it's wrong -- I just don't understand it. However, my understanding is that the problem is that the chlorine from freon- type chemicals acts as a catalyst to destroy ozone. Ship up some more ozone, the chlorine would just break it down.

As to Cato, I lost interest in them when I realized that I could predict their conclusions *exactly*, just by reading the title of the report.

David Brin said...

Stefan, great thoughts! Tho I would only say that “the rich and powerful” is much less helpful a generalization than “troglodytic, klepto-plutocrats.”

The former would perforce encompass - unfairly I believe - Warren Buffett and Steven Spielberg and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs and a zillion others who still stand for all that is wondrous about enterprise capitalism. We need terminology that excludes them from the enemy caste or being lumpied with the Rmurdochs and r’oils and others who fiercely wage total war against the enlightenment, with the clear agenda of restoring feudal ways.

If for no other reason than “we” are more likely to win if a whole lot of powerful rich guys are on our side!

Tangent, there is a HUGE difference between Ozone in the stratosphere and near the ground. They are entirely different, generated in different ways, and have almost no overlap or cross-feed. Down here it is a toxin. Up there, it is a blessing. Cars don’t make the stuff that’s up there.

Rik. Thanks for the citokate... only I have received TONS of requests to quote this. So phtltltltltltltltl! ;-)

(Hey, I make complex arguments, flattering some people out there that they actually have complex minds. My specialty is fresh perspectives. This job ain’t easy. You wanna take over?)

Reason, we must constantly look for clues to what is really going on. Take the true backers of the neokleps. Now, at one level, you might think RMurdoch was a principal nonilluminatti, because of his relentlessly centered vestment in the anti-enlightenment. But this research issue is puzzling. Ahy would he push so much of an anti-science slant?

The r’oils, on the other hand. Their agenda is not so much a re-feudalization of the West as its utter destruction. To that end, quashing science is paramount. Hence, by examining the symptoms carefully, we can derive tentative diagnosis of the true master class behind it all.

Ah, paranoia! ;-)

PT Galt, thanks for the link. Syntegrity looks fascinating. My initial response is that it’s clever and possibly useful, and yet it is clearly aimed at synergistic consensus-building. On the other hand, my disputation arenas are completely unabashed in seeking to become the Fifth Accountability Arena, emphasizing the creative power of regulated competition. You simply cannot argue that markets, science, democracy and justice courts are not incredibly good at this...

...though democracy needs better days. soon.

Tony Fisk said...

The ozone layer is dynamic: continually breaking down and being built up by lightning discharges in thunderstorms (it's at about the same altitude as the top of anvils) It serves to block hard UV radiation (ground level ozone is too thin and dispersed to achieve this)

The humble CFC (an otherwise harmless and useful chemical) acts as a persistent and *very* efficient catalyst to break down ozone. Through an unfortunate (or maybe not) series of interactions involving polar weather systems, it tends to get concentrated in polar regions and in winter produces the ozone 'holes' over the arctic and antarctic, which then break up in spring.

The issues of ozone depletion were being investigated as early as the mid seventies (I know for a fact that CSIRO were looking at it back then). The antarctic ozone hole was first noted in the early eighties. Montreal accord was in 1987. HAving lived with the prospect for years, I can remember being grimly amused at the backflip Clinton did wrt the Accord when the arctic hole was discovered! (at least he was able to backflip!!)

I suspect that the way in which ozone depletion has occurred has been fortunate in that it presented a more clear and present danger than the vague graphs of average global temperature trends.

Denialists have variously claimed that
a) it was all a plot to replace a widespread unpatented chemical with one that is patented, and:
b) all that CFC was coming from Mt Erebus anyway (which didn't explain the arctic hole!)

The CFC levels seem to have stabilised and are now diminishing. The holes are closing For this reason, it looks like the widespread die offs and blindness from UV is one Earth prediction that won't be coming true (thank goodness!)

Tony Fisk said...

BTW David, I've just noticed Jamais Cascio is playing with futurist axes in the same way as you have been with political axes. The two systems look like they complement each other.

Anonymous said...

Great fact-dump, Tony!

I don't know why it didn't post, but earlier I made an entry along these lines:

When I was a wee lad, I saw an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man in which saboteurs were trying to destroy a rocket launching a load of chemicals designed to heal the ozone layer.

The saboteurs: Aliens, in league with Bigfoot. Who was a sort of shaggy bionic android.

Does this mean that the Cato Institute is in league with evil aliens?

Anonymous said...

another fun ozone fact:
Ice crystals at the poles provide a surface for the catalytic reaction involving chlorine and ozone. This greatly increases the reaction rate.

David Brin said...

Sorry Rob, this won't work.

1. I know very well what ozone is.
2. Our ozone down here is almost completely unrelated to stratospheric ozone. Made differently. One source does not supply the other.
3. I doubt very much that your idea scales. Yes, ozone is a trace gas in the stratosphere... but the stratosphere is vast! We are probably talking about many millions of tons. Indeed, the rocket exhaust will probably do more harm than any cargo could do good.
4. I am no chemist, but I'll bet if you squeeze ozone very hard (into a tank) you'll get either a big explosion or a whole lot of just plain oxygen. Or both.

Not to say I am against modernist-engineering meddling! Or at least experiments. e.g. spreading fine powder nutrients across the 90% of the oceans that are "desert"... nearly void of life for lack of upwelling partciles to feed phytoplankton.

Some pacific islands are running experiments to BOTH create new fisheries and fight global warming. I am bemused by the objections of some activists. Exactly what's the harm in these experiments?

In any event, we are drifting afield.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic.

I blame the celebrities.

Many more Americans know the name of Paris Hilton's dog than know who runs, say, Halliburton.

It's almost as if the kleptocrats invented Tom Cruise & Co. as an information shield they can hide behind...

Pay no attention to the billions we're looting...

Look over there!

Brangelina's about to give birth!

As for Cato, I agree completely, but they aren't as hard to contact as some have said.

Most of them have blogs, too.

Here's one of them (with commnets):


There are more.

reason said...

It is great to have somebody notice me. Sometimes I think I am just too tangential. Unless you seemingly directly attack somebody nobody notices.
My (late) father was scientist and he was very concerned about how management of science was being taken over by accountants who he saw were oriented in a way inimical to the process of science. He grew up in culture of a very open network devoted to solving problems and seeking truth, and saw commercialisation destroying it. I'm not saying science shouldn't be subject to revisions as to its cost effectiveness, but the value of science is not just its commercial value. Very often the most important discoveries are chance sidelines anyway, so the target orientation of commercial management can be counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

Nice essay Dr. Brin. Important issues as usual.

The New Republic editors are calling for congressional investigations and say pretty much what you have been saying for a while:

The Hill Needs a Subpoena-Happy Democratic Majority

Also, from the meme-front, I will be spreading the CITOKATE meme to 80,000 subscribers of an online newsletter put out by Quality Digest in my new bi-monthly column entitled "The Six Sigma Heretic." The article goes out next month.

Anonymous said...

It's not the celebrities, Anonymous.

It's the celebrity industry.

The fact that we seem to be wired to be curious about celebrities doesn't help.

Celebrities are like Hot Pockets or Little Debbie snack cakes:

Anybody with an ounce of sense knows they're no good for you, or are at the least an empty distraction, but a large portion of the populace are utter suckers for them.

American Idol isn't the disease, it is a symptom.

The cure is growing up as a society. That probably won't be easy or much fun.

Anonymous said...

You write:

"The lengths that we all go to, in order to convince ourselves that we are the smart ones, virtuous and right... often in complete denial of blatant evidence to the contrary. It is the one magical act that all of us can easily perform, at near genius level. "

Think maybe this applies to your rant here?

Your point seems to be that Cato does not take seriously the possibility of collusion by big capital to manipulate the system. You write:

"the Cato and its allies keep on shrilly pointing at "government" as the sole and inherent foe of enterprise, never allowing attention to drift toward those who (increasingly) control government for their own enrichment. Aristocracies who exercise extreme influence over law and regulation, ensuring that government favors elites, in ways that Adam Smith cogently denounced during his own era."

You ignore one of the main rationales against state planning and intereference in the markets which is that big corporate interests have always liked close contact with the government and the ability to gain favorable trade consessions for themselves at the expense of the broad population. These are the mercantilist policies that Adam Smith wrote against. Large companies and entrenched interests can spend millions dollars lobbying for some favorable regulations that will gain several times their investment in benefit while costing consumers a small additional charge. The public will always lose therefore when it comes to state economic planning (remember the movie "The Aviator" where it was the CEO of TWA that wanted to nationalize the airline industry?). The only way the consumer can get a fair shake is to ensure that companies have to compete fairly in the marketplace. Sure the Cato Institute is not infallible in its policy proscriptions, but most of their solutions are worth looking at and certainly positions on which thoughtful people can disagree without resorting the sort of smear tactics exhibited here.

Anonymous said...


What is the celebrity industry but the "circus" half of bread and circuses?

The kleptocrats standard...feed and entertain the people and you can rob the country blind.

What I hadn't imagined is a third part of that old formula...a large part of the population that actually craves the jackboot of government pressing down on its throat...

The past few years have brought this group into the light, though. In all my reading of history, I'd never thought people wanted to live under a repressive government.

Live and learn.

David Brin said...

aw now Steve. Stop skimming and start reading. There were PLENTY of references to my self-awareness of the irony... that the planet's chief railer against self-righteous indignation-addiction is clearly an indignation junky himself?

Um... duh? I get no points for self-aware irony and honesty? Oh, like YOU'VE done better, putting your own trips in perspective? ;-)

As for the rest of what you said... again, duh? You SAY that I ignore things that I very very clearly addressed. Of course Adam Smith warned against govt being abused and used as a tool for market-warping! Um... isn't that PRECISELY what I was saying?

Nevertheless, govt ALSO serves at the principal tool for market tuning, SO THAT such abuses can be minimized. Laissez-faire has a 5,000 year utter and complete record of absolute failure, compared to the liberal and open regulated markets, that spurred the vast cornucopia we all gre up in.

I happen to agree with reducing regulation! (Me heap big libertarian, eh?) But Carter-Clinton deregulated VASTLY more industries than Reagan-Bush-Bush ever PROPOSED! A clear fact that you just gloss over without perceiving. I wonder why?

The trick about using govt as a beneficial market tuner, without it becoming a manipulated rent-generating engine for elites, is to keep it all above board, honest, reciprocal, unbiased... while maintaining relentless pressure for regulation to be minimized to its level of best efficiency and transparent effectiveness. THAT should be the job of libertarianism...

... and not railing at a scarecrow called BIG GOVERNMENT, using tirades to eliminate all regulations that the kleptos DON'T want, but defending every privilege they do want to keep.

Hey, always look at WHO THE BIG WINNERS ARE! Your reflex is to defend the blatant and obvious cheaters... and your reason is.......?


STefan, you are right as usual. We adore entertainers because we are the world's first adolescent civilization.

Earlier child cultures lived in constat terror and reflexively worshipped warriors who might save their lives. We live in teen-like illusions of safety and immortality, hence we worship those who rescue us from what teens fear most. Not death, but boredom. Hence entertainers.

Who would adults admire? Hey, I am willing to step forward and fill the role, if you adults want. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I think the biggest problem is the kleptocrats steal the money first and then use part of it to fight off anyone trying to stop them.

For instance:

Who owns Iraq's oil?

125 billion bbls of proved reserves.

25 million Iraqis.

At $70/bbl, less a couple bucks for extraction and, say $10 profit, means each Iraq should own the future revenue from 5000 bbls of oil at a minimum of $50 bbl.

In otherwords, each Iraqi family of 4 should be millionaires.

But they aren't.

You can actually measure the amount of the kleptocrats greed in Iraq:

The $1,000,000 in oil wealth should produce at least $50,000 year in income for each Iraqi family (higher than the U.S. average).

Instead, the average Iraqi family is living on about $2000/ year.

Where did the rest go?

Into the kleptocrats pockets...

Anonymous said...

Clarification note:

The 9:44 a.m. post by Steve was me. The 1:36 a.m. post was some other Steve.

(Note to self - sign up on blogger...)

jbmoore said...

Righteous anger is an oxymoron. All anger has pain underneath it. An Enlightened individual recognises that the unenlightened cannot be other than what they are. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The deluded will continue to delude themselves until their suffering is so great that they can't continue the rationalization or belief. In other words, reality trumps perception and/or delusion eventually.

Ben Tilly said...

This comment is for tangent to explain ozone to him.

What ozone does is block a lot of hard radiation that otherwise would cause cancer, etc. Unfortunately you need a lot of ozone between you and the Sun to block any significant amount of radiation. Also unfortunately, ozone is unstable, poisonous, etc. Enough ozone to make a difference in the bottom layer of the atmosphere is enough to cause serious health problems. And ozone created here has a tendancy to sink rather than rise.

Therefore creating ozone at ground level doesn't help. You get suffer side effects, and you can't create enough to be worthwhile.

Creating it in the stratosphere is better, but it still doesn't help much. The problem is that ozone is unstable - it is constantly being created and destroyed. Therefore if you stick a bunch up there, it will disappear on its own fairly quickly (through the reaction 2O3 -> 3O2). Besides, we'd need to put a lot up there to match what is created naturally (eg from lightning). And creating ozone takes energy.

Now you might think, "We can find substances that destroy ozone, why can't we find some that create it?" Unfortunately that's impossible because of basic principles of chemistry. Any reaction that can create ozone can also run backwards and destroy it as well. And since turning ozone into regular oxygen is an exothermic reaction, unless you are actively putting energy into the system, the ozone destroying reaction is going to be a lot more eager to run than the ozone creating one.

David Brin said...

jbmoore, I really can't find much in your statement to agree with, except that power corrupts. Otherwise, geez!

Our human ability to delude ourselves is huge and therfore must have conferred reproductive advantages. One clear advantage is confidence. A great many righteous people are not in misery! They are having a VERY good time! (See http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html) Moreover the utter confidence in their own virtue gives many of them great power to pursue goals with passion and energy.

(Indeed, such righteousness can be RIGHT! e.g. Churchill rallying the West against the Nazis.)

Moreover, women, when surveyed about the most attractive features in a male, seldom cite physical traits first. Confidence is usually first, followed by status/respect in the community. Both of which are bolstered by deeply believing in yourself.

Moreover, if you can tell yourself grand lies it certainly helps in persuading others to believe the same crap... or the same wonderful ideas...

True, deep wrath and anger can kill you inside. But I don't believe I was speaking much to anger, per se. It has a venn overlap with indignation, but no more than half, probably much less.

reason said...

I think Steve (him of the anti-government fundamentalist slant) should be clear on a couple of concepts. A market is by definition regulated. That is there is a set of rules that define ethical behaviour in a market without which a market would disintegrate. There is however a difference between good regulation and bad regulation. Good regulation tends to define results but not methods. It tends to favour competition and encourage free entry to markets. It will where possible internalise externalities so they are represented in the markets and not only in the political or legal system. (Good regulation will reduce the cost of torts for instance).

The other concept that is important is to see the market as a tool (towards social welfare - it is a political argument as to exactly what that means) not an end in itself. That means what is good for the market is not of itself necessarily good. It is good only if the outcome is good (however we want to define good). I think markets can work well - but it is clearly observable that they don't always. I don't buy the argument that they have never been tried. We have had a rather unsucessful 25 year experiment in trickle down, now. It reminds of the christianists - "christianity has not tried and failed it has never been tried"! If only we were purer! Bullshit!

Anonymous said...

I don't have much hope that the "new" wealthy will behave any differently than the "old" wealthy.

Take Paul Allen, for example.

He talked the people of Seattle into building a new, $420 million stadium for his football team, even though they still owed $127 million on the old stadium.

Part of the deal was that he would open the books of his team to public scutiny, but now that he has his stadium, he is refusing...secrecy must be maintained...or he might lose some money.

Meet the new rich, same as the old rich.

Anonymous said...

reason had said: "It reminds of the christianists - 'christianity has not tried and failed it has never been tried'! If only we were purer! Bullshit!"

The actual quote is from G. K. Chesterton: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Even accounting for the humor in that statement, I don't agree with it. Christianity is easy. It requires trust rather than purity or sacrifice. But self-righteousness is as enticing as indignation, and so, like the Pharisees of Jesus's time, many Christians replace truth and trust with excuses for self-righteousness.

On to other quotes. Robert Heinlein, in the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, said, "Man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalizing animal." I suspect that rationalization is such a common human trait because it is a side effect of the survival trait of being able to make quick decisions. No-one has time to think every matter through logically: we must all jump to conclusions occasionally. Then when wise people have time to think or to consult with others, they review their decisions in practical criticism.

For example, before the Iraq war President Bush and many other world leaders had already decided that Saddam Hussein must have hidden weapons of mass destruction. If you recall Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN, he showed unconvincing little tidbits of evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons program. Unconvincing except to those who were already convinced. Those people were asking, "Where are the weapons?" and "How well are they hidden?" rather than "Are there weapons?" The evidence answered those questions and looked good to them. And when it came time for the Bush administration to review their conclusions and apply practical criticism, they didn't. They liked being right, even when it was only in their own minds, and would not risk finding themselves wrong, even when it was the truth.

David Brin said, "...then suppression of criticism must be the greatest single cause of error,..." Mathematically, it is not the cause of the error but a multiplier of the error. If someone is lucky enough to be right the first time, lack of criticism won't cause any problems. However, if someone has made some mistakes, lack of criticism can let little errors grow into big problems.

David Brin also said, "...it is very likely biological. Don't all of us descend from the harems of kings, who gained reproductive advantage by seizing and holding unaccountable power?" I have doubts about that. In some cultures, wasn't one of the first acts of a new king to kill all his relatives who had any claim on his throne? That really undermines his father's reproductive advantage in having a harem.

Erin Schram

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, the word "Liberal" denoted a movement for much smaller government, less economic regulation. The classical liberals were indeed liberals in the modern sense: concerned with social problems, income inequality, etc. Much has been forgotten. Old fashioned liberals have been pushed into an uneasy alliance with the Right contra the socialists.

There still exists a free-market Left, small though it may be. See

* www.progress.org

* www.freeliberal.com

* www.holisticpolitics.org

For example, if you are concerned about the excessive concentration of corporate power, see Shrinking the Corporations. There, you will find ways by which our current regulatory and tax system encourages bigness, and incremental steps to reverse the process.

Or, if you are concerned about the wealth gap, see The Balance of Wealth and Wealth to the Working Class

Finally, the problem of global warming can be attacked much more simply and effectively. See Stop Global Warming for a plan that reduces carbon emissions as it simplifies the tax code.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, the word "Liberal" denoted a movement for much smaller government, less economic regulation. The classical liberals were indeed liberals in the modern sense: concerned with social problems, income inequality, etc. Much has been forgotten.

Indeed. The main thing that has been forgotten is why the Liberals gave that up. Shrinking government and economic regulation was a very good idea when you had systems of serfdom, and in which the nobility and the church didn't pay tax - but the peasants did. (I could go on to name many more such examples).

However, the Liberals of the 19th century saw exactly where that path lead. The Irish Potatoe Famine, various other famines (mostly in India and other colonies), the Congo Free State, Company Stores, Company Towns, and it culminated in the US in the Great Depression. (I could give many other examples).

Having smashed the existing power base to such an extent that it wasn't actively holding down the poor, something was needed to counteract the murderous fluctuations of a Libertarian economy - and that was provided by reorganising the system in such a way that it disproportionately helped the disadvantage. Probably the leading Liberal of this wave was John Maynard Keynes.

(Oh, and almost every word of that rant about the Cato Institute applies to Britain's Adam Smith Institute - which is unsurprising when you look at just how many leading lights in one are also in the other. (The Adam Smith Institute are currently furious because our Labour PM is claiming Adam Smith as left wing)).

Anonymous said...

The Adam Smith Institute are currently furious because our Labour PM is claiming Adam Smith as left wing

My mistake. Gordon Brown isn't Prime Minister yet - he's still Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Anonymous said...

Joke of the day on the Adam Smith Institute homepage:

Q: What is the one thing that all men at singles bars have in common?
A: They're all married.


I think Dr. Brin is being too hard on the Catoites and their ilk.

Unless they're far dumber than we think, they know very well that they're hypocrites.

What's worse, judging by how poorly the Cato-backed Republican plan to loot Social Security faired last year, they're now hypocrites that nobody pays any attention to.

Working at Cato these days is the intellectual equivalent of working in a Tijuana Donkey Show...that nobody comes to see.

Anonymous said...


You said:

"Moreover, women, when surveyed about the most attractive features in a male, seldom cite physical traits first. Confidence is usually first, followed by status/respect in the community. Both of which are bolstered by deeply believing in yourself."

What a smart woman wants is a man who can laugh at himself. Any normal, decent man makes plenty of little mistakes. If a man can't laugh at himself, he is a danger to his woman -- and probably to his community, too.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would love to see where you found *ANY* Cato publication commenting on abortion: they never, ever comment on that because it is outside the scope of their work. That was the first clue that this was a clueless barrage of criticism.

Second, for Patricia Mathews: umm, *no*, Cato is not named for Cato Uticensis, which you would know if you had actually ever looked at the website. It is named after Cato's Letters, as it says in the (surprise surprise) "About" section: "The Institute is named for Cato's Letters, a series of libertarian pamphlets that helped lay the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution."

Further, your equally uninformed comment that Cato is uninterested in Civil Liberties issues: what rock are you hiding under? Not only does Cato Institute analyst Jim Harper write on this stuff for a living, he runs another site on the side: http://www.privacilla.org/

Radley Balko, who recently left Cato for Reason magazine, wrote frequently on the horrific effects of a WOD (War On Drugs, for the clueless) gone mad, esp. with regards to no-knock raids.

and "reason": Cato analysts as "intellectual mercenaries"??? Oh my, that's rich! Do you have a clue how very little policy analysts are paid? They do it because they are passionate about their work. And to "anonymous" at 9:18am: Oh, gee, Cato doesn't give you somewhere to post feedback on their website! Didja ever think that maybe, just maybe, might be because that means hiring someone to moderate the comments?! And non-profits have to be pretty darn careful about the money they put out. You all have some whack ideas on how much money floats around think-tanks! No, I don't work for Cato, but for the sake of anyone else who may stumble across this collection of ridiculous commentary, someone had to at least poke the bubble of your paranoid delusions.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to your "ownership of capital" comment, the one Adam Smith supposedly warned us about. I'd like to hear more on that. I'm no philosopher, just an economics undergraduate, but it seems to me that ownership of capital is not as important as the ability to freely exchange it. However, doesn't that implicitly imply that there would be ownership?

Per Kurowski said...

Please! While you are busy leaving Iraq



Anonymous said...

Strategy for Cato reform:

The next time you receive a fundraising appeal from Cato, simply seal the postage-paid return envelope and return it empty. When the empty envelopes pile up, they will start to figure it out. Fundraising operations hate empty envelopes. When they start coming in from their house list mailings, they will know they have a big problem.

Anonymous said...

tl;dr but right on the money.

I only want to add this:

Adam Smith was replaced by Ayn Rand as the patron Saint of the libertarian ideal.

Smith was against mercantilism & for public healthcare, roads, transportation, & other social infrastructures.

Anonymous said...

tl;dr but right on the money.

I only want to add this:

Adam Smith was replaced by Ayn Rand as the patron Saint of the libertarian ideal.

Smith was against mercantilism & for public healthcare, roads, transportation, & other social infrastructures.