October 13, 2007


Note to first time readers: Generally, this blog covers fairly serious human issues during the week. Weekends, however, are reserved for the commentaries of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are pleased to once again welcome bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of Goat Rope Farm Public Policy Foundation, a senior fellow at several libertarian and conservative think tanks, and an economic advisor to the Bush administration.

It is our hope that features such as this will reduce the tragic polarization of our times, promote a climate of deep listening and profound mutual respect, and encourage a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.



Can this blog get any stupider? I didn't think so.

I noticed some really stupid things in here this week against supply side economics. Let me tell you--supply side economics is AWESOME.

I can prove it statisticoempiricalomathematicologically.

Look at that picture. The little dark guy in the background is me. Pretty handsome, huh? Thanks for noticing.

And see what's standing in front of me? That BIG hen? Yowza! That's what I'm talking about.

I represent demand. Oh yeah...And she represents supply. Out the wazoo...

That's the beauty of the market.

And that's the truth. You bet your cloaca.


October 12, 2007


Caption: This one's for Emily Dickinson.

Along with links and comments on current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is optimism and pessimism. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

A while back, I worked on a project about hope. This was kind of ironic since at the time I didn't have a whole lot on hand.

It wasn't a huge problem for me--I can run pretty well on grim determination and Appalachian fatalism. In fact, the main thing that got me through the Bush years was the story of the hopeless struggle of Leonidas and the Spartans against impossible odds at Thermopylae (this was way before the movie came out).

Moulon labe, baby!

Back to the hope thing...To start with, I tried to look at the literature and research on the subject and found quite a bit. One book that caught my eye was an older study by Ezra Stotland called The Psychology of Hope. His definition of hope spoke to me:

an expectation greater than zero of achieving a goal.

Short and pithy. Spartan even.

It occurred to me that despite my tragic existential streak, I might not be that much of a pessimist after all. Especially if you define hope or optimism in limited and practical rather than cosmic terms.

Pessimism notwithstanding, I've generally found it to be true that if you want to accomplish something that's doable and are willing to put in the effort, then with skill, technique, allies, strategy, intuition, determination and luck you can sometimes do it--even if it's really hard.

(Note: this may require interval training or similar distasteful efforts.)

Even in a universe that often appears indifferent and drifting towards entropy. Go figure.

I especially liked some quotes on the subject of hope by Erich Fromm:

Hope is paradoxical. It is neither passive waiting nor is it unrealistic forcing of circumstances that cannot occur. It is like the crouched tiger, which will jump only when the moment for jumping has come….To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime...

There is no sense in hoping for that which already exists or for that which cannot be. Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.

As pessimistic as I sometimes am, from my own experience I can't escape the truth of William James' statement that "Belief creates the actual fact." In other words, the belief or faith that something is possible often leads to the actions that demonstrate for all the world to see that this is indeed the case.

I may be an optimist in spite of myself...

SURVEY SHOWS SKEPTICISM. More working Americans are doubting the attainability of the American Dream.

GOVERNMENT BY CONTRACT. Imagine a whole government provided by private military contractors...


October 11, 2007


Caption: She's not learned but is kind of helpless.

Aside from links and comments about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is optimism and pessimism. The first three posts tilted towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum. In the interests of fairness, I'm trying to work the other side of the street today.

If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

In 1965, the psychologist Martin Seligman preformed a classical experiment which probably did not endear him with dog lovers and which, if the Buddhists are right, racked up a good deal of bad karma.

The short version was that he put a caged dog in a situation where it seemed that no matter what it did it would receive an electrical shock. Eventually, the dog gave up on even trying to escape it when it was really possible. He called this phenomenon "learned helplessness," which has since been used as a model to explain some types of depression and has been applied to many different situations.

In variations on this experiment, it took many efforts and much intervention for the dog to unlearn the helplessness.

Most of us have probably been in situations where it seemed like we were *&^%-ed no matter what we did. If it happens enough, people tend to give up too.

Since then, in a move probably cheered by dog lovers, Seligman became one of the leaders in the positive psychology movement and developed the theory of learned optimism.

To use the short version once again, he found that the way people think about experiences can make all the difference. As he put it in his book Authentic Happiness:

Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive, and personal: "It's going to last forever, it's going to undermine everything, and it's my fault."

By contrast, optimists

have a strength that allows them to interpret their setbacks as surmountable, particular to a single problem, and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people.

In other words, pessimists (the term is not used in its philosophical sense here) tend to come up with global explanations when things go badly. When things go well, they attribute it to accident and unique conditions. With optimists, the reverse is true. The kind of thinking we engage in can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and has wide ranging effects. According to Seligman, people stuck in the pessimistic groove can learn new ways of thinking that can lead to different results.

There are some who criticize positive psychology as don't worry/be happy feel good fluff. Here's an example of that point of view. Point taken. But on the other hand, if you think changing anything is impossible, you probably won't try very hard to do it.

BEYOND THE CULTURE WARS. A new paper by Third Way looks at ways Evangelicals and progressives can meet in the middle over the common good. This was also the subject of a recent column by E. J. Dionne.

PRIORITIES. This Economic Policy Institute snapshot highlights the Bush administration's spending priorities on war and domestic needs.

IRAQI CIVILIAN CASUALTIES. These are the opening lines from a piece in the Baltimore Sun by two public health professors:

Not wanting to think about civilian deaths in Iraq has become almost universal. But ignorance of the Iraqi death toll is no longer an option.

An Associated Press poll in February found that the average American believed about 9,900 Iraqis had been killed since the end of major combat operations in 2003. Recent evidence suggests that things in Iraq may be 100 times worse than Americans realize.

News report tallies suggest that about 75,000 Iraqis have died since the U.S.-led invasion. But a study of 13 war-affected countries presented at a recent Harvard conference found that more than 80 percent of violent deaths in conflicts go unreported by the press and governments.

DEMAND SIDE ECONOMICS. Supply side economics has become orthodoxy in far too many circles these days. Here's an item by Jeff Madrick in The Nation about the other end of the spectrum.


October 10, 2007


Caption: This man is overcome with pessimism.

Aside from comments and links about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is optimism and pessimism. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier posts.

While a little philosophical pessimism is probably a good antidote to naivete, some people run it into the ground.

A case in point is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He was the pessimist's pessimist. Here's a sample from his essay "On the Suffering of the World"...

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.

In another essay charmingly titled "The Vanity of Existence," he says

Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom by the feeling of the emptiness of life?

I bet that dude knew how to party...

Maybe the attitude that is most useful to life is one that combines some elements of pessimism and optimism. A dash of pessimism could be a check on hubris and even a spur to gratitude. When you realize how bad things could be, it makes you appreciate it when they're not. I make it a practice to try to notice and be glad when I don't have a toothache or a catheter. And since I don't expect to get everything I want, I'm grateful for little victories.

Believe it or not, things could be a LOT worse...

Nietzsche once talked about "a pessimism of strength." What we need is a view of the world that fully acknowledges its dark side, dangers and difficulties but which is willing to take action to change things.

The French writer Romaine Rolland came up with an elegant expression of that approach (later popularized by Antonio Gramsci):

Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.

WHAT HE SAID. Jonathan Chait is one of my favorite New Republic writers. Here's his op-ed on the loopiness of supply side economics from yesterday's NY Times.

PLANET JUPITER UPDATE. OK, so this doesn't' have an immediate connection with economic justice--but it's cool.

MAGICAL THINKING. We're officially against torture. So if we do it it's not torture. Any questions?

"FRIENDLY FIRE." El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, aka the Energy Sacrifice Zone, is the subject of this item from alternet.

PRISONS. A new study by the WV Council of Churches argues that a small investment on community-based corrections could save the state a lot of money and prevent other problems.


October 08, 2007


The theme of this week's Goat Rope is the relative merits of optimism and pessimism. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

One of funniest and most telling refutations of naive optimism was the novel Candide: Or, The Optimist, written by the French sage Voltaire (1694-1778). Voltaire may have been moved to write this classic by the brutalities of the Seven Years War and the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people.

The earthquake struck on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, when many people were in church. It was followed by a tsunami and a devastating fire. This event caused quite a crisis of faith for many religious believers, some of whom came up with elaborate explanations vindicating the goodness and providence of God. Although Voltaire as a Deist believed in a somewhat disengaged God, he would have none of it.

His particular target in this novel is the Theodicy or vindication of benevolent providence of the philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716), who argued that this was "the best of all possible worlds." Let it be noted, however, that Voltaire's jaded view on this question did not stop him from trying to make the world a better place.

The novel tells of the misadventures of the young man Candide, his lover Cunégonde, and optimistic teacher Doctor Pangloss (all talk) over several continents, where they suffer from war, various kinds of violence and mayhem, the Lisbon earthquake, the Inquisition, and a host of calamities.

Through it all, Pangloss keeps maintaining that everything is for the best:

Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches. Stones were formed to be quarried and to build castles; and My Lord has a very noble castle; the greatest Baron in the province should have the best house; and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round; consequently, those who have asserted all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that all is for the best.


...private misfortunes make the public good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more everything is well.

After suffering the buffeting of fate, Candide observed that optimism is

the mania of maintaining that everything is well when we are wretched.

By the end of the book, Candide and his band are living a modest life in the countryside. Pangloss delivers yet another optimistic harangue, but this is the response he gets:

"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."

That's pretty good advice, whether it applies to our private plots or to the ailing garden we collectively inhabit.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the overall health of the U.S. could stand some cultivation. Here's an interesting article from the New England Journal of Medicine that among other things looks at the effects of economic inequalities on health.

HOW TO (NOT) WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE. This is a response to Blackwater from Iraqis.

STAGNANT WAGES. According to the latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute, "Since 2001, median wages in nearly half of all states have failed to keep pace with inflation."

SPEAKING OF GOAT ROPES, El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is in the process of overhauling its Medicaid program, with lots of confusing changes. It offers a basic and an enhanced plan, but people have to opt into the enhanced version. The new basic plan offers less services than traditional Medicaid. There also seems to be a huge information gap. Here's some good coverage from WV Public Radio.

SENATOR BYRD ON MINE SAFETY. The Bush administration is called the "weak link" that has eroded safety for coal miners.

THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID. I admit it; I'm totally hooked on NBC's The Office. And I'm pleased to say that Dwight Shrute has updated his blog. And if you're really hard core, check out Creed Thoughts.

BABOONS THINKING. Darwin once said, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Here's a stab at it.



Caption: Seamus McGoogle has a tragic sense of life.

El Cabrero has been musing on optimism and pessimism lately. It has occurred to me that I know some pretty miserable people who consider themselves to be optimists.

I tend to be pessimistic at times about the Big Picture by virtue of temperament and persuasion but otherwise am pretty content. I'm even optimistic about small things. The universe as a whole may be tending towards entropy but not all parts of it are at any given moment.

Camus once said that while he was pessimistic about human destiny, he was optimistic about people.

Let me explain the pessimistic part first. While I don't think the universe is out to get us, it probably won't go out of its way to cut us any slack. In the human world, bad things happen to good people and vice versa all the time. The distribution of wealth, power, and prestige seems to me to have more to do with randomness than with merit. As the writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes put it:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (9:11)

Another prophet, Leonard Cohen, put it this way:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

(Parenthetically, the next verse of the song pretty well sums up life under the Bush administration:

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died)

Then there's the whole Buddhist thing about the noble truth of suffering. That tradition speaks of six major kinds of suffering that can happen to everyone: birth/becoming, death/dying, sickness, aging and the loss of abilities, having what you don't want and wanting what you don't have. That's a pretty good list.

Many religions teach that all this will be straightened out farther along. That would be nice, but it's beyond the view of the naked eye.

Not that I'm complaining or anything. All this doesn't mean we can't win sometimes--it makes it sweeter when we do. And even though we can't fix everything, we can fix a lot.

Nietzsche spoke about "Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems."

That works for me.

THE LAST WORD on President Bush's CHIP veto goes to Jon Stewart.

AN ENDANGERED SPECIES. The US invasion of Iraq and subsequent events is threatening the survival of what may be the world's last remaining authentic Gnostic sect, the Mandeans. Gnosticism was once a powerful movement within early Christianity and had pagan and Jewish varieties. Here's an interesting op-ed on the subject.

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL. At first I thought this was a joke, but it looks like for a time some folks at the Air Force considered the development of a bomb that would lead to rampant homosexual activity. It even won an "award" of sorts. The possibilities of snark are overwhelming to me at this point, so I'll just pass.

FACTOIDS DEPARTMENT. According to The Week Magazine

The salary of Gen. David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, works out to $493 a day. Senior managers of Blackwater, a private contractor paid by the U.S. government to provide security in Iraq, make $1,075 a day.


More than three times as many blacks live in prison cells than in college dorms, according to a new Census Bureau report. For Latinos, the ration is 2.7 inmates for every dorm dweller. Twice as many whites live in college housing as in prison.

PUT UP OR... E.J. Dionne's newest column asks "Would conservatives and Republicans support the war in Iraq if they had to pay for it?" Speaking of which, I actually got something useful out of a George Will column, to wit this Adam Smith quote:

Were the expense of war to be defrayed always by a revenue raised within the year...wars would in general be more speedily concluded, and less wantonly undertaken.