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Misquote of the day.

" Any government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” - Gerald R. Ford, in his first address to Congress, five days after Nixon's resignation.

Since this sentiment is floating around right-wing fandom, even among people who attribute it correctly (the less literate ascribe this blatantly twentieth-century prose to Jefferson), it may be worth discussing it.

Ford understated the case immensely; it would be closer to the truth to say: Any government is big enough to take from you everything you have. It suffices that government be able to collect revenues and raise a standing army; and Henry VIII had no problem taking everything from the richest bodies in England with an even smaller government. Weak governments have no difficulty being tyrannical; they may be more likely to be, as the only way to get anything done at all.

In our American politics, that would mean that the Federal Government has been big enough to do so since the Washington Administration. President Washington led the largest army of his career to impose a ruinous tax on Pennsylvania in 1794; President Jefferson ruined large sections of the country in 1807.

Why then do we have anything left? Because the Constitution, for all its flaws, does do two things well enough, so far: we do sometimes elect politicians of humanity and virtue; when Washington got to Pennsylvania, he was clement enough to shoot nobody (against the advice of the Cabinet) and he reconsidered the tax once Federal authority had been established.

Again, the Constitution sets the ambition of every politician to correcting the errors even of wise and humane politicians: Jefferson's policy was resoundingly unpopular; Congressmen, even the members of his own party who had passed it, found that their future required they repeal it again. (Jefferson collapsed into depression, and did hardly anything the last three months of his Presidency, but his Congress, and his chosen successor as President, were both elected.)

Another Book to Cross Off One's list

Julian Friedlander, the editor of Doing Well and Good: The Human Face of the New Capitalism, a visiting Professor of Ethics at a business school, is telling the punters at the New York Times  that

  • we [philosophers] should underscore the fact that various disciplines we ordinarily treat as science are at least as — if not more —philosophical than scientific. Take for example mathematics, theoretical physics, psychology and economics. These are predominately rational conceptual disciplines. That is, they are not chiefly reliant on empirical observation. For unlike science, they may be conducted while sitting in an armchair with eyes closed.

but they yield objective knowledge; therefore philosophy doesn't have to be science either. Thus Friedlander.  

Mathematics consists of analytic statements; insofar as it is mathematics, it says nothing about the observable world, and what it says about itself  depends on an arbitrary choice of axioms . (Whether 5+7 = 12 depends on which field of mathematics one is working in; in the ring Z/(11), 5+7 = 1.) Of course, it can be done with the eyes shut.  Insofar as theoretical physics is analytic - insofar as it merely derives consequences of  some given set of assumptions - it doesn't have anything to do with the real world either ; when it interacts with the real world, through  comparison with experimental physics, the physicist must open his eyes and read the physical journals. This distinction goes back to David Hilbert and Ernst Mach, a century ago; it would be nice if our dogmatists would catch up with the literature. 

The sort of psychology and economics that can be done with closed eyes aren't science at all; a priori claims about the observable world are prejudice and superstition. (Introspective psychology, which is observable with closed eyes, is not prejudice; but it is neither objective nor verifiable, so not science either.) We get, therefore, extra helpings of them in an election year.

It's always nice to know which books one does not have to read.

Writer's Block: State of the Union

Who do you think would make a great U.S. president?

View 244 Answers

Russell Feingold; the only senator to vote against the "PATRIOT" Act. Dr Johnson was an optimist; it was the Yalie's first refuge.

The impracitcality of a cheeseburger.?

I have run across a curious essay, claiming that a cheeseburger was so impractical, more than a century ago, that nobody would have though of it: lettuce is a cool-weather crop, tomatoes a summer crop, meat an autumn product. (He does not say impossible; "a time-traveller with an unlimited budget could have had one.")

There is severe dissent in the comments; I'm not sure myself. It Aside from the obvious, that cheese and tomatoes would not be found in the same place before 1492, I'm not sure the argument holds. (and I don't have tomato on cheeseburgers.) It may be useful to distinguish betw\een the Renaissance and the eighteenth century.  But my friends know more about medieval food than I do.


Song for the Times

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few."

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Missing tanka

I wrote no tanka
The first day of this custom:
The Day of the Dead.
Like the Anthesteria,
Japanese ghosts walk in Spring.


Tanka 2

What is a tanka?
It's thirty-one syllables -
Mention a season
Think of radiant August?
Difficult in November


Reflecting Reflections

osewalrus has made a long post on  Occupy Wall Street, here
. While it's worth reading, although long, the most important point may be:

  •  ...many people fret about "the mob," but "the mob" is a byproduct of a frustrated body politic. Arguing against mass protest for fear of "the mob" while doing nothing to alleviate the underlying cause is rather like being opposed to cancer without wanting to deal with smoking or other health risks. 

Meanwhile, even the sympathetic mainstream press, like  Ezra Klein's Four Habits of Successful Social Movements, is  saying things like:
  • But to paraphrase a guy who understood real political power: How many troops does Paul Krugman have?
"Realism" has rarely had a worse example:. The Evil Overlord who said that is gone, and his statues fallen; there is still a Pope in Rome.