Quick Roundup 173

Monday, April 09, 2007

Possible Light Posting

On the heels of unexpectedly needing to put together one presentation, I find myself having just over a week to put together another that I'd already penciled in. Posting may be somewhat irregular until some time after next Wednesday.

The Pursuit of Happyness

After reading Jennifer Snow's review of this movie some time ago, I was intrigued, but work and travel commitments conspired to keep me from ever seeing it while it was in theaters.

Well, it's out on DVD now, and my wife, who is a big fan of Easter traditions, made me a basket yesterday that had the movie inside since she knew I had wanted to see it.

So we watched it last night, and to say that it didn't disappoint would be a gross understatement. Jennifer summed it up very well when she said, "[Chris Gardner's] bitter struggle to grasp hold of his dream before it escapes is both horrifying and inspirational."

I will add only a couple of things here.

First of all, see this movie if you haven't already.

Second, near the end of the movie, we see Will Smith, as Gardner, walking a crowded sidewalk just after his triumph. You know, from the story of his hardships and his struggles, that, except for his self-control, he would probably burst into tears of joy and relief at this point. On a humorous note, I suspect that many men in Smith's cinema audiences probably had that much in common with Gardner as they had to navigate the crowds on their way out of the theater! I know I would have.

The Wikipedia entry on Gardner is interesting and notes that his mother raised him with such advice as, "You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain't coming." He has also published his memoirs in book form under the same title as the movie.

Easter Bandages

As another humorous aside, my wife is also a little absent-minded sometimes. A box of Band-Aids she happened to buy at the same time as the movie ended up in my basket as well. I will now have an Easter tradition of my own: Giving her a hard time about "Easter Bandages!"

Good One on Global Warming

Newsweek recently put out a very good article on Global Warming Hysteria -- by a scientist who agrees that global warming is happening and that it is due at least in part to human activity. I'll quote his opening and closing sentences here.

Judging from the media in recent months, the debate over global warming is now over. There has been a net warming of the earth over the last century and a half, and our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing at some level. Both of these statements are almost certainly true. What of it? Recently many people have said that the earth is facing a crisis requiring urgent action. This statement has nothing to do with science. There is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we've seen will amount to anything close to catastrophe.


The alleged solutions have more potential for catastrophe than the putative problem. The conclusion of the late climate scientist Roger Revelle -- Al Gore's supposed mentor -- is worth pondering: the evidence for global warming thus far doesn't warrant any action unless it is justifiable on grounds that have nothing to do with climate.
Do I really need to say, "Read it all"?

The biggest flaw in Richard Lindzen's argument is that he fails to mention that the global warming political agenda violates individual rights. Nevertheless, he does at least accept human life as an implicit standard for judging whether a given measure is a "catastrophe" or not. That's more than I can say for many in this debate.

State Enforcement of Aesthetics

This Sunday's Houston Chronicle features an article about how to combat the aesthetic wasteland (at least as its author sees it) caused by suburban sprawl. I found the below passages the most interesting.
This "loop" was not a roadway in the sense of our West Loop. Rather, it referred to the visual loop that the recurring suburban landscape created as we passed through it.

Seemingly every third mile we saw the same school building, then the same church, then the same shopping center, then the same ... well, you get the idea. If it weren't for our arrival at the golf courses, we all would have been convinced that we hadn't actually gone anywhere.


Imagine instead that individual school districts seized the opportunity afforded by their expansive building programs to transform their surroundings and create a sense of place defined by an architecture distinctive to them and them only. Taking the step of making themselves recognizable could set as powerful an example regarding what "recognized" means as SAT scores or state awards do.
R. Gregory Turner then begins to fantasize about adding money to the highway budget to bring the Interstate 10 reconstruction up to his personal aesthetic standards.

I am all for beautiful architecture and landscaping, and I won't belabor what I think of the notion of one man stealing my money in order to finance his personal tastes, even if I happen to agree with some of them.

What I will note is that the one solution he fails to consider is to move towards a more capitalistic economy. Part of why we have such extensive systems of boring highways today is because rail was so over-regulated when it was privately-run. And a huge part of why we have such uniformly ugly (and poor) schools is that they are run by the state. This is not why we should move towards capitalism, but I strongly suspect that a more interesting urban landscape would be one happy result.

Rather than tell me to part with more of my money to put lipstick on the huge, statist pig that wallows across our landscape, perhaps if Mr. Turner would consider letting me have a lot more of it (and my freedom) back.

Unfortunately, I suspect that he shares the same petty power-lust we recently saw with a minor functionary in Sweden who refused to allow a couple there to choose a name for their own child. Yes. Metallica is an atrocious name, but the very idea that some meddling nobody can prevent its use is far uglier. More beauty in the world around us is something we could all use, but not at the cost of our freedom. Indeed, the goal of government-mandated beauty is ultimately impossible, for it will effectively puts blinders around the eyes of the beholder. This is due to the nature of government, the social institution whose function is to wield force, but whose sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights.

-- CAV


: One minor edit.


Vigilis said...

re: State Enforcement of Aesthetics

Yes, government's insinuation of power tramples individual rights. The extent of this is evident in how few citizens vote nowadays (even in Houston), Gus.

At issue is our very ownership of government. Does our government of today treat us as owners? Do we set legislators salaries, or do they set their own? Do our representative listen to 100,000 individual voters, or to paid lobbyists representing $100,000s in contributions?

"Urban sprawl" denigrates those who vote with their feet for the least intrusions by layers of government and the least property taxes. The scheme allegedly harms the environment by failing to avail mass transit, mass waste treatment plants, etc. Ruralism also avoids common prohibitions against the right to own arms, post signs (expression) and the like. Under urban conditions, voters become naturally dependent upon city services and vote more socialistically overall.

Many not-for-profit organizations promote higher taxation through urbanism. Very few, on the otherhand, promote ruralism.

The "aesthetics of urban sprawl" boils down to the latest socialist schene to insinuate more urban power, in my book.

Gus Van Horn said...

You indirectly make an interesting further point by mentioning how few people vote.

Although many "get out the vote" campaigns are premised on the incorrect notion that most people who do not vote want socialism (This is arguably true only of some of the usual target demographics.), consider the fact that many elections offer only "choices" between types or degrees of statism. This fact doubtless keeps many of the voters we would like to see at home or at least not casting votes.

Many people do not necessarily want socialism, but enough do want enough various aspects of socialism (or other flavors of statism) that winning an election by opposing statism on principle would be very hard to do.

So one problem -- that too many people seem to think that we can get away with "a little" government control (We can't.) -- compounds another.

Sid said...

Bjorn Lomborg (Skeptical Environmentalist, but he now says GW is real and man-made) made a presentation recently about how the risks are exaggerated, and how the world faces far greater problems (like HIV/AIDS, malnutrition and the lack of free trade) than global warming.

He doesn't fail to take a few shots at Al Gore along the way.

softwareNerd said...

"Metallica"! There's one kid who's going to grow up thinking that government control can be good!

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for the interesting-looking link. I am not sure when I'll read all of it, though.

Having said that, I have to say that hearing arguments such as these (Lindzen's and, presumably, Lomborg's) is a mixed blessing at best, because they leave unchallenged the notion that the government should be in the business of "solving" such problems. As a result, we end up more likely in some respects to suffer environmental legislation because there now exists a less hysterical and more "rational" case for passage....

Gus Van Horn said...

[Reply to Software Nerd]

Heh. I never thought of it that way! I bet these kids are envious in a way!

Mike said...

Look how Lindzen signs the article.

"Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has always been funded exclusively by the U.S. government. He receives no funding from any energy companies."

That's a pretty good demonstration of the level this debate has decended to. If you don't follow the global warming hysteria fad, your integrity is immediately questioned.

Jennifer Snow said...

I'm glad you like the movie, Gus! I had to put my hands over my nose and mouth so I wouldn't bawl out loud in the theater, but this may be a girl movie-goodness standard. :)

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for pointing that out. This junk comes from so many directions and on so many levels at once, though, that I'm not exactly going to beat myself up for missing it.


Well, actually, that was my joke. I'm a bit of a softie for movies like that, and I'm glad there wasn't a crowd to walk through!


Dismuke said...

vigilis wrote:

"Urban sprawl" denigrates those who vote with their feet for the least intrusions by layers of government and the least property taxes. The scheme allegedly harms the environment by failing to avail mass transit, mass waste treatment plants, etc.

Here is a quote from Paul Johnson fascinating history book The Birth of the Modern which I LOVE to throw in the face of the various "New Urbanists" I have encountered in online debates. In it, Johnson is referring to London in the early 19th century:

"Nor was walking confined to the country. Lamb's letters give innumerable glimpses of him walking 5, 10 or 15 miles within the London area, and sometimes 30 or more in its northern outskirts. The young Macaulay regularly walked from central London to Clapham or Greenwich. London was not yet a multistory city, but was spread out over great distances with scores of thousands of one or two-story houses, often with substantial gardens. Countless numbers walked five or more miles to work and back; every morning between seven and eight, you could see 90,000 people tramping across London Bridge to get to the City.""

Does that sound familiar? Put those people on London bridge in cars and you could be talking about present day Dallas or Houston. In other words, "urban sprawl" has been around for a very long time and is, in fact, a very natural part of the cycle for any urban area. And London, of course, is, today, a very dense urban area. It became increasingly dense as there is a limit on how far it is practical for a person to walk every day to conduct his normal business. Later on, rail and street cars extended the range that people could travel resulting I am sure in more "sprawl." But similar limits exist with rail and street car travel thus bringing the density further outward.

Sure, the automobile made it possible for the "sprawl" to spread out over a wider distance in every direction. But the same principle is at work here as well. There is a limit to how much time a person is willing to spend commuting - and as urban areas grow, the distance one can cover in that amount of time goes down. So the result is that, even in a mega-sprawl city such as Dallas, one is seeing neighborhoods which were once "suburban" in the early 1900s decades and even later being redeveloped with far greater density.

Bottom line is that nothing that is going on today with regard to the growth patters of urban areas is especially new in terms of fundamentals - it is just happening over a somewhat wider portion of geography thanks to the automobile. But the New Urbanist types are notorious for ignoring inconvenient history.

Another thing "New Urbanists" like to speak of as some sort of unprecedented "modern evil" is so-called "big box" retail stores - especially Wal-mart in particular. Here too, there is nothing that is fundamentally new. Wal-mart is doing exactly what F.W. Woolworth, S.S.Kresge, Kress and others did a century ago - they just do it better. If you go back and read what small town shop owners said about Sears & Roebuck in the late 1800s and early 1900s "stealing" away their customers by selling goods for less than they themselves could sometimes purchase them - well, it sounds exactly like what the small town merchants say today about Wal-mart. And, in the 1950s, there was talk in Congress about breaking up the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company - i.e., the A&P supermarket chain, because it was so large and so efficient that it was able to sell for less than any of its competitors and was denounced for its demands on vendors for lower prices. Sound familiar?

I occasionally post to a local architectural forum and have butted heads with New Urbanists on several occasions. The ones who are most obnoxious are not those who argue for it on grounds of environmentalism - they are just fools who have swallowed too much Kool Aid and are regurgitating what they have been brainwashed with. What I find especially obnoxious is that so many of them are nothing more than snobs of the very worse sort. I was involved in a thread where some were advocating a ban on chain restaurants in downtown Fort Worth - places such as Chili's or Bennigans - on grounds that such places attract "rednecks" from the suburbs. A much needed shopping center in a formerly blighted and now booming area near downtown Fort Worth is denounced because its anchor stores SuperTarget, Office Depot and Petsmart are too "suburban" and "low class" for a street that they pretentiously hope will become "Fort Worth's Champs-Elysees." And I went round and round with such people over a proposed ban on smaller houses being built within Fort Worth - the people who buy such houses are not sufficiently "upscale" enough for their "enlightened" sensiblities.

Despite the "New Urbanist" nonsense, however, I am very much enjoying the revival of urban areas. Fort Worth was one of the first big cities to make a come back and it is now one of the more charming cities in this part of the country. Much of what makes inner cities so full of promise is their wonderful pre-World War II era architecture. Back then, aesthetics were considered very important and even low end buildings are often quite beautiful. Part of the reason why so many suburbs today are so sterile and ugly has nothing to do with the fact that they are suburban - it is because so much stuff built after World War II and especially in the 1960s and 1970s is mediocre at best and very frequently it is butt ugly. So I think part of the success of the rejuvenated inner city areas has to do with the fact that when people see them, they get a glimpse of just how beautiful pre-World War II cities tended to be and find it to be a very refreshing alternative. Unfortunately, such areas tend to be very expensive and are usually "upscale" and tend to lack the exciting hustle and bustle that they had back in their heyday. Most of the people who are moving into such neighborhoods are either single professionals, married couples without children and affluent "empty nesters." Once married couples have school age kids, unless they can afford private schools, they tend to flee to the suburbs. Even Dallas has some very charming, upscale and very urban inner city neighborhoods. But no parents in their right mind would send their kids to Dallas public schools. As a result, people with kids tend base their home buying decisions more on the relative quality of the public schools than the sort of things that, under more rational circumstances, would be higher on their list of considerations. My prediction is if public school system were abolished in favor of nothing but private schools, the inner cities would spring back to life with a much more diversity and vibrancy than the mostly "upscale" renaissance we are seeing today.

Dismuke said...

re: Viglis's comments on government power -

I have noticed that it is getting to the point that abuse of government power is even more unchallenged on the local level than it is on the federal level.

My theory is that people whose interest in political matters is based mostly on principle and ideology tend to find local politics uninteresting and thus pay little attention to it. Certainly all of the better and the more famous political commentators focus on national and international matters as most strive to speak to a wider-than-local following. Plus, in many respects, what can be accomplished on a local level is determined by the wider context of what goes on in Washington. So the big debates and battles that occupy the attention and fascination of poltical junkies and those who have strong idelogical passions tend not to be local.

For that reason, I think the people who closely follow or become active in local politics tend to be less ideological and are even more inclined to be guided by a sort of pragmatism that implicitly accepts leftist notions as the default as to what constitutes "common sense." More so than national politics, local politics tends to be dominated by people who are animated by rather narrow specialty "causes" and who could care less about what goes on so long as their pet projects are smiled upon. And, of course, there are always the small time power luster types - second handers who take advantage of the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond.

I live in one of the most conservative counties (Tarrant) in one of the more conservative states in the country (Texas). Even here, however, the elected officials and the underlying tone of most local political debates tends to be SIGNIFICANTLY more leftist than how the county votes in state and national elections. I suspect it is because the vast majority of people (including myself to a large degree, I probably ought to add) simply are not paying enough attention and thus those active in local politics are able to get away with some pretty radical stuff and stay under most people's radar.

Gus Van Horn said...

Very good points on both patterns of urbanization and on how local politics tends to get dominated by busibodies far to the left of the mainstream.

My recent reading of Stephen Johnson's The Ghost Map, which takes place in London in the 1850's, bears out much of what you said about what cities looked like before the modern version of sprawl. (Indeed, it actually makes your picture of same seem idyllic.)

Your comments on local politics brought up points I hadn't considered. I would say that if nothing else, they add to the evidence that people must value their freedom on principle. If more people simply opposed all such government meddling, rather than accepting it "sometimes", the small-time activists and gadflies you describe would have no room to flourish.

Instead, those of us who do value our freedom are so busy fighting so many other battles that we haven't the time or energy left to attend to such.

Haven't the time now to develop that point, but it is an interesting one. Thanks for leaving that comment.

Gus Van Horn said...

One more thing.... In local politics, it's not just small-time dictators springing up from the left. Religious busybodies also pop up more frequently. I knew someone from Arlington, near Fort Worth, who was going to run for City Council as a Republican, but wanted to make wine sales legal in grocery stores. So many ministers called him that it quickly became apparent that his run was probably going to be a waste of his time. (For unrelated reasons, he ended up having to drop out of the race anyway.)

Dismuke said...

"Religious busybodies also pop up more frequently. I knew someone from Arlington, near Fort Worth, who was going to run for City Council as a Republican, but wanted to make wine sales legal in grocery stores. So many ministers called him that it quickly became apparent that his run was probably going to be a waste of his time."

Indeed. And the Religious Right has been especially effective at making their influence felt in local school board elections. In both cases, with the far Right and the far Left, they are able to make their influence felt to a much larger degree than they are usually represented in the wider community. They pay attention to local politics and have supporters they can mobilize while everybody else is more concerned about the more glamorous races at the top of the ballot.

Another big problem with local politics for those of us who champion limited government and capitalism is one is pretty much put in a no-win situation in terms of what can realistically be accomplished.

Let's us suppose, for example, that an Objectivist were somehow elected to the Fort Worth City Council. Now, let's say that there is an opportunity for the City to get its hands on some Federal grant money for things such as road improvements, improvements to the police department or federally mandated upgrades to the sewer and/or water system. Now the issue of whether to go after such funds comes up for a vote. If you were in such a position, what would you do?

On one hand, as an advocate of limited government and capitalism, you think that such federal give away programs ought to be abolished. You want nothing to do with them and would love nothing more than to thumb your nose at them.

On the other hand, many hundreds of millions of dollars are sucked out of Fort Worth and the local economy every year in the form of income taxes and other federal taxes. If Fort Worth does not go for the federal funds that are available for such projects, they will be very quickly snapped up by other cities in other parts of the country - including cities which compete with Fort Worth for industry and other desirable investment.

As a local official who is supposed to look out for the best interests of his constituents, so long as the mixed economy is a fact of reality, do you not have an obligation to try and get at least some of the stolen loot that is taxed out of the city brought back into the local economy to at least somewhat blunt its destructive impact? Yes, it is desirable to stand on principle. But in this case, such a stand will do jack squat in terms of rolling back the welfare state or reducing the degree to which your constituents are looted. And perhaps one of the reasons the city is unable to afford urgent improvements to the police department is because local citizens are already paying so much in federal taxes that it is a struggle for them to pay the local taxes. If so, then why not take the Federal money your constituents have already paid in order to avoid the necessity of raising their local taxes to fund those improvements?

How can a passionate Objectivist vote either way on such an issue and still feel "clean" afterwards?

Bottom line is there is next to nothing a local politician can do in terms of rolling back the mixed economy. Yet the mixed economy is the context in which the affairs of the local government must be conducted. So the particular hat one must wear in that capacity is a rather frustrating one for someone who is passionate about wider ideological principles. The best one can hope to do is merely thwart those who seek to impose some of the especially evil policies that we are increasingly reading about being passed in various cities around the country. Apart from privatizing trash pickup (something I REALLY wish would happen in Fort Worth - our trash pickup system is EVIL) there is really not a whole lot of "good" that a radical capitalist can do in such a capacity other than holding off the bad guys.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hence the popular leftist slogan, "Think globally, act locally."

What they don't know is that a few of us out there understand the importance of the "thinking part" and why it is ultimately more important.

It is more urgent (and more effective) to change the philosophy of the culture than to play small-time games with politics. This is the fundamental error of the Libertarians.