The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Choices We Actually Have

Posted on | January 19, 2013 | 20 Comments

Reading the liberal Gin and Tacos blog yesterday — “It’s Not Like Intellectuals Hating Their Stupid Parents Is a Cliché or Anything” — I came across what the pseudonymous assistant professor of political science offered as a statement of his philosophy, a rant against libertarianism.

That rant by “Ed” was inspired by an 2008 airline trip to Boston for a meeting of the American Political Science Association, where he was job-hunting. He attended APSA receptions hosted by two rightward organizations, the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, and was revolted:

Amid the pie-in-sky libertarianism, free-market circle jerks, and talk of regulation as a criminal enterprise, I suddenly want to be surrounded with libertarians on this plane. I want them as brave volunteers for my experiment in the majesty of the unfettered free market at 35,000 feet. Like there are allegedly no atheists in foxholes, I intend to prove that there are no libertarians in airplanes. . . .
Markets will force airlines to keep their planes safe, otherwise no one will pay to fly with them!
In order for the market to punish the backsliders, consumers must be made aware that Airline X is unsafe. Since we don’t have regulations and inspections, how will we know? Well, look up. We will know which airlines shirk on maintenance and safety when we see their planes plunging out of the sky. Here’s where my Mises Institute friends come in.
As market acolytes, I believe that they should volunteer to be on the plane(s) that serve the purpose of communicating this essential information to all of us. In the airline industry, the market’s way of telling us who is inferior involves a lot of people dying. The system works really well — let airlines be, see who fails, and punish them with one’s wallet — for everyone except the people on the plane.
Inasmuch as I do not think that uncontrolled flight into terrain at 500 mph is a worthy sacrifice for the glories and benefits of unchained race-to-the-bottom capitalism, I am a liberal. . . .

You can read the whole thing, but the point is that this puerile rant is erected on a false-dilemma fallacy. (Question: Shouldn’t introductory logic be a required course for political science majors?) We are not now, nor are we likely ever to be, presented with a choice between (a) complete deregulation and (b) total government control, especially in regard to the field of commercial airline travel.

In fact, as the professor almost surely knows, the air-travel market was substantially deregulated in the 1980s, which helps explain both its relative cheapness and (alas) its routine crappiness. The airlines have never been very profitable, and competitive pressures to lower fares have resulted in cost-cutting efficiencies that make the flying experience generally less pleasant than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Strange to say, however, safety is the one aspect of commercial air travel that has actually improved in recent decades:

There were 0.2 fatal accidents per 1 million departures in the United States in 2008, compared to 1.4 per 1 million departures in 1989, for example, and a review of the statistics in intervening years shows an improving trend overall.
Over the last decade, there has been “a remarkable decrease in accidents globally,” said Bill Voss of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Alexandria, Va.

Weird, huh? Measured in fatalities-per-departure, that’s an 86% improvement in airline safety in the span of less than 20 years.

Whatever the effects of this dreadful libertarian influence in air travel (which the professor offers as the argument for why he’s a liberal), a decline in safety isn’t one of them.

Are there free-market ideologues arguing for the complete repeal of all federal air-travel regulations, the total privatization of air-safety requirements, so that the airlines are self-regulated, answering only to the free market? Maybe there are such arguments being made — perhaps I haven’t been reading Reason magazine or checking the Cato Institute as regularly as I should — but it’s not as if these radical free-market proposals are currently being debated in the halls of Congress. So the theoretical surrender of airline safety regulations to libertarianism is a moot argument at best and, given the fact that substantial deregulation has been accompanied by improvements in safety, not a very good one.

Making far-fetched arguments for the sake of argument is a thing that intellectuals routinely do, and I’ve dabbled in that game myself. As a matter of practical politics, however, we seldom face choices between two extremes and none of us has the authority to impose upon the world his personal ideal set of policies. So my abstract mental exercises — e.g., the abolition of public education — are destined to remain moot, as are whatever utopian schemes Professor Ed may propose.

The debate between Left and Right, between Democrats and Republicans, actually takes place as a series of scrimmages between the 40-yard lines of the spectrum, and the choices we actually have are far less drastic than anything proposed by John Stossel or Professor Ed.

What we are really debating is in which direction society should go: What do we need from government, and what can we afford to do without? These are not moot arguments, given the trillion-dollar annual deficits of recent years and the stagnant economy. Can we afford more Keynesian “stimulus”? Can we afford more “green energy” boondoggles for Obama’s campaign donors? Should we shove Grandma over the cliff?

For all of Professor Ed’s anti-libertarian grievances (and he seems to spend a lot of time fuming about “Randroids”), there doesn’t really seem to be much danger of radical free-marketeers seizing power in Washington anytime soon, so that we are stuck with the D-and-R show.

Here’s the the choice we actually have: Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats can’t produce a budget to save their political lives.

Nobody’s really even asking Harry’s gang to produce a balanced budget —  just give us some kind of budget with actual numbers in it, so we can have a definite idea of where the tax money’s going. But that corrupt swine and his Democrat colleagues either can’t do it or won’t do it, because they know that an actual budget would make clear their fiscal ineptitude, with dreadful political consequences.

Why does Professor Ed spend his time dismantling libertarian strawmen, rather than debating the choices we actually have? For roughly the same reason that Harry Reid won’t produce a budget: Irresponsibility, a desire to enjoy his big-government cake without bothering to explain how he proposes to pay the cost of eating it, too.

It’s cowardly and childish, and no amount of clever blog snark from Professor Ed can conceal his essential irresponsibility.



20 Responses to “The Choices We Actually Have”

  1. K-Bob
    January 19th, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    Interesting write-up, Stacy. Amazing that some people have the time to come up with these fantasies dressed up as philosophy rants to support Obama’s unicorns and skittles approach to governing.

    Smitty’s excellent set of posts on Post Modernism helps explain the bizarre mindset of a guy like “Professor Ed.”

    What I found even more hilarious was some pages I stumbled upon while researching neurons (maybe later). I found several circular references to a concept being dubbed, “quantum thinking.” Evidently, quantum thinking is where they present the math of QED theory as a stand-in for explaining how people think; all of which is based on the “weakness” of logic, as we know it today. Or something.

    That weakness? Well, it’s the fact that our logic does not allow for a host of different states between true and false. In other words, these geniuses seek a mathematical underpinning for their various flavors of “maybe.” They need some way to justify imprecision, lack of principle, and a reason to seek truth.

    It’s a crystal short of the whole cave, I’m afraid.

  2. JeffS
    January 19th, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    Two points, Stacy:

    (1) Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats can’t produce a budget to save their political lives.

    Not “can’t”, “won’t“. That’s a feature, not a bug.

    (2) “Political science” has surpassed “military intelligence” as the greatest oxymoron of all time.

  3. Richard Tuyls
    January 19th, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    Having been involved in the aerospace industry for thirty some years, it is my sincere opinion computers have significantly reduced manufacturing/design flaws. Flaws that would result in catastrophic failures.
    Now, if there could only be an app that would reduce the navel gazing rants of ignorant liberals such as “Ed”.

  4. Steve Skubinna
    January 19th, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    Too bad that Dr. Richard Daystrom got there first with his groundbreaking work in multitronics. I refer you to the documentary “The Ultimate Computer.”

    Sadly, Daystrom’s design was fatally subject to crashing when presented with a logical conundrum, although there have been unconfirmed reports that a high ranking Starfleet officer deliberately sabotaged the system.

  5. Steve Skubinna
    January 19th, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    It often happens that if you let a progressive talk long enough, the subject comes round to the desired deaths of those he disagrees with and how to bring them about.

  6. whig
    January 19th, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    True confessions time. I am a conservative/libertarian social sciences professor in the sort of university that your new chew toy Professor Ed works.

    However, after a long period of education and currently working in education as a tenured professor, I can hazard a guess why there are so many angry lefty libs in this profession. First, many feel that they are the smartest kids in the room because in many instances they were as students in K12-college-and perhaps even graduate school. Yet, despite the fact that they chose academia, they find themselves not earning as much compared to others such as doctors, successful lawyers, businessmen, or even tradesmen. Money in a capitalist society gains access to all sorts of material goodies–nice housing, nice cars, nice vacations and is a symbol of achievement in our society. Thus, it becomes very easy to trash an economic and political system that they feel unfairly undervalues their educational achievements and intelligence. When you consider that many of their colleagues feel the same way, you get groupthink encouragement.

    A second issue is that being a professor with the supposed autonomy and a platform to express their views is very attractive to individuals who like to do nothing but think and communicate. Flexibility in working conditions, clean, pleasant, and safe working environment , and a genuine interest in passing along knowledge to undergraduates means that a lot of time is available for thought. However, compared with higher education in Europe, professors are discouraged to find out that societal respect for their opinions, denigration of their educational achievements, and the decline of actual faculty governance via professional administrators, have attacked the psychological reasons why they chose that career path. Thus flat pay, plenty of time to brood, scant respect for educators by students and administrators, make many professors unhappy but with few viable alternative employment opportunities. By the time most receive tenure, people are in their thirties. By the time you have a family and perhaps a house, you are near forty.

    This time is a time for introspection anyway for many others with mid-life crises. However, the feeling that you spent that much time to catch up with people less smart than you, less driven to perform academically, and often coupled with large student loans, leaves a sense of loss and bewilderment that you spent all the time and effort for nothing. Thus, we see the attraction to great causes as a psychological substitute, whether diversity, policy, politics, university governance, or in some cases focusing on mentoring and preparing students for real life.

    I think regarding why so many find the market repellent is that humanities finds that chemists, business, law, etc. professors make more. Even in some departments, some may make more than others–especially when these jobs have outside applications. Philosophy professors find themselves at the bottom of the pay scale while others make double for basically the same work. BTW, regarding sheer overall brilliance, theorists are often the smartest people IQ-wise in the room but theorists are often the least paid. This dynamic often causes faculty members to reject the system that created such disparities as fundamentally unjust and with no psychological support such as the high regard Europeans have for education, this resentment festers.

    The pettiness, randomness, and strangeness of academic hiring also rubs many raw. There is a clear hierarchical structure with a clear pecking order at conferences, who gets book proposals, publishing opportunities in journals, sabbaticals, etc. These things matter for pay increases, trying to move up in the profession to a better job, and tenure/promotion decisions. Academic conferences accentuate the disparity in professors between your Ivy Leagues, large public institutions, and then the less prestigious public and small private schools. Riding in elevators, some erstwhile colleagues in the same field will not talk with those from a lower ranked school. Major professors in the field walk with their entourage of former and current graduate students at their sides seeking approval and flaunting access. Job interviews often are demoralizing and demeaning experience. When you are a gifted individual educationally, this treatment leaves many cold as they find out that merit and general intelligence doesn’t always matter. This could explain in part why diversity as a proxy for unfairness suffered is held so devoutly by higher education despite the obvious fairness implications for others.

    In my case, I had other careers in private business and military service and even prior political work, I haven’t felt the same motivators and I spent a lot of time considering exactly what I would face in academia. I also keep up with trends and analysis of its future with a weather eye but I know if I have to work at another career in the future, I can. I spend a lot of time on policy analysis and use of statistics which have applications beyond academia. As a former farm boy and prior military service, I can also work construction, fix a car, general and finish carpentry, etc. Thus, I don’t really feel that I am missing something.

    In my case, working on intellectual puzzles that interest me is a strong motivator, job security through tenure and pleasant working conditions are also great. While the the pay is meh, but I made the choice for academia knowing full well that a plumber can make more per year and I am okay with that outcome. I also find working with students stimulating for the most part and quietly mentor them on realities of the job market, where to go to get jobs, how to use their education to make a position, etc. My field also gives me the ability to talk about current events. By avoiding partisan rants or ideological statements, I’ve found that teaching students to question authority, question policy decisions, and think through logic how to address policy problems as the best approach for me.

    My job is to give students the educational tools to survive the outside world–not trying to make them into a mini-me.

    Sorry about the long post Stacy and readers, but I thought it might give a little insight in how and why many academics often appear so angry.

  7. Julie Pascal
    January 19th, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    You’d think that someone would at least try to honestly understand another point of view, even if they ultimately reject it. It’s simply stupid to insist that the only way passengers would know if an airline was safe or not is when planes fall out of the sky. Had a thoughtful person asked, “Doesn’t that mean that you’d have to judge which airline was safe by which ones have accidents?” they’d get an answer, even from someone as “libertarian-lite” as myself. Which is: The airlines, as part of their marketing, would likely use trusted third party private companies as inspectors or raters, so that they could promote themselves as the safe way to travel.

    It’s easy (and lazy) to simply assume that anything that government does *now* would not happen if government didn’t do it.

  8. K-Bob
    January 19th, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

    Heh. Well that, and Daystrom was “not of the body,” and just wasn’t prepared to know the peace of Landrew.

  9. scarymatt
    January 19th, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    I can’t say anything about what the neuron guys did or didn’t say, but fuzzy logic and fuzzy math is a real and useful thing, and we do think in that way a lot of the time.

    For instance, tall vs short. There generally isn’t some magical point at which we say a person is one or the other.

    Or hot vs cold. Fuzzy controllers are real things.

  10. K-Bob
    January 19th, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    Sure, I’ve had to use some of that. Values are weighted, even in parts of our our minds that we weren’t sure we applied weight to. But weighting and fuzziness still follows some sort of decision to act or not act, agree or disagree, follow or not-follow, etc. In fact, using reals causes this to come up frequently. Without some fuzziness, there’s all kinds of places where you couldn’t use them at all.

    But multi-state values are always mappable to regular logic. Otherwise computers would be useless in many places they are used today. Extra “bit” (or q-bit) states only help with speed or compactness of data.

  11. K-Bob
    January 19th, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    …it’s for the common good, after all.

  12. K-Bob
    January 19th, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    Yes, it does. I’d imagine a similar case can be made for folks working inside government, where you have to fill out three separate forms in triplicate to move your office clock to a spot where the most people can see it.

  13. Bob Belvedere
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

    Bingo on both points.

    Regarding #1: Not having a budget allows the Leftists to engage in behaviors that are helping to collapse the system a lot faster – this is a tactic.

  14. Bob Belvedere
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    Eggs for the omelet.

  15. Bob Belvedere
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    Indeed, it does – thank you.
    I think one of the fatal errors such people as Ed make is believing that there is only one kind of ‘smart’ – their kind.

  16. rmnixondeceased
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    Formerly alive liberal professors on this side of the great divide are eternally bound together and the volume of the hot air produced by them operates our power generation system. Green energy and all.

  17. rmnixondeceased
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    There is. The “off” button.

  18. rmnixondeceased
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    It also limits Congress by removing their financial “veto” of any Executive Order, denying them budgetary control over the President’s “fiat” rule.

  19. richard mcenroe
    January 19th, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    All progressive secular movements inevitably seem to end in mass graves.

  20. SDN
    January 19th, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    In which case, the only remaining question is who will occupy them. I vote progressives.