Thursday, October 04, 2007

Think Happy Thoughts

By: Michael Akerman


What's your happiest memory?

What event do you look back on, and you can't help but smile? What do you see as the most beautiful moment in your life so far?

I ask this because I was remembering my favorite memory yesterday, which I'll get to in a moment. I was thinking about it, and I think the moment that we consider as our favorite instance in our lives can reveal a lot about what we hold most dear, what we yearn for, and how we consider ourselves.

I'm also just curious about the stories behind other people.

Anyway, my happiest memory is musical.

During my junior year of high school, which was the last year I was in band, we were playing Sweet Georgia Brown as one of our concert band songs. As Mr. Solomon had volunteered to play mandolin with the band for that song (and maybe some others, I don't remember), Mr. Oldham (the band director) decided to loop a rhythm-heavy, melody-poor section and let some volunteers from the band play an improvisational solo over that section.

As a preface, I love playing improvisational jazz. I've been good at it at least since high school, finding myself easily capable of tracing a melodic line from the underlying current of the rhythm and the energy of the room. I wonder sometimes if I'm capable of it (well, was. I haven't tried in ages) because I'm good at math, or for some other talent that also makes me mathematically inclined, or if it's simply unrelated. The link between music and mathematics is fairly well established. I've also got plenty of anecdotal evidence: most of the engineers I know are musicians. At any rate, it seems to me that I evince the right notes to play a beautiful melody in the same way that I pluck out the correct equations and operators to manipulate an equation.

I jumped at the chance to play, of course. We practiced for the length of the semester, but only for the last several practice sessions did the soloists perform in the song. I remember that at least one person played effectively the same thing each time, finding a pleasing ditty and sticking to it with few modifications. The performance was pleasant enough, but it lacked a spark: the energy of the room wasn't in the music. For my part, I improvised. I thought I sounded fine, of course, but it was never anything exceptional.

On the day of the concert, the soloists were to move to the front of the stage in a preplanned order, taking a place next to the mandolinist, the focal point of the audience, and play for a few measures. The band played the opening songs of that concert, whatever they were, and the introduction to Sweet Georgia Brown with no major problems. This, of course, brings us to my part, since I was the first soloist.

I wonder if I can even describe the feeling in words, but words are all I have. Moving to the front of the stage, there were stage lights in front of me and Mr. Solomon to my left, strumming the entrance to the solo section. Audience and saxophone in front, band behind. All eyes on me. And no fear. No nervousness. I felt a purity of stillness, the music of the band washing over me, and I smiled and nodded at Mr. Solomon as I reached the microphone. Closing my eyes for a moment, I brought my saxophone up, a slight smile playing around the edges of my mouthpiece. I played: elements from different parts of the tune danced in and out of the solo as I followed the course that the band set, skipping along the surface of the melody one moment, plunging into the rhythm the next, an otter at play in a river. The music enveloped me, coursing through me, directing my path; the audience drove me, energizing the music, forming my cadence and style. The solo entwined with the room, with the band, with me. The performance was barely mine to control; rather, I served as the instrument of the music that had to be, willingly giving myself over to the tune.

It would be wrong to say, as is cliche, that time stood still. Instead, I had no cognizance of time at all. As if eternity itself coiled through me, writhed around me, erupted from me, I didn't count the measures because the measures were meaningless. I played until the music was finished. I played until the music was supposed to stop, not because of the rules imposed by the performance, but because that was the best way for the music to be. Miraculously, unconsciously, the solo reached it's pinnacle and subsided right at the limit imposed by the rules. The music had confined itself to the limits imposed by mundane necessity, though it felt like it could have strung me along forever.

The feeling was, I suppose, zen. At no other point have I felt so connected to the thrum of the universe and at no other point have I been so proud of my performance. I wonder, sometimes, if it's on tape anywhere, and whether or not I can get a copy of that concert. I'm also terrified of finding one, however. I fear that I wasn't as good as I think I was, or that the performance would be flat, lifeless. How could it be anything but lifeless on a recorded medium, without the pulse of the audience omnipresent? I don't want anything to spoil it because the feeling is what I remember, the performance be damned.

I've stepped back from myself to try to look at that moment from time to time. I think I love it because it was fully my accomplishment: it was not a song taught to me, nor was it something I had carefully planned. The solo had been driven and drawn by the music and the audience, certainly, but it had come through me and from me. Furthermore, it was like the best moments of science: I touched the fabric of the universe, and understood some small, magnificent portion of it, if only for that fleeting space. And, perhaps most fantastically, it was something only I could have performed. I can teach a skill in math or science, or instruct someone how to write with my style, but that performance was unique for the history of the universe: there is no one, anywhere, that can recreate it exactly, including myself.

So, I wonder. What is your happiest memory? What makes you smile to yourself in private? The comments are open.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Poem to Break the Silence

By: Michael Akerman


To all the times we laughed and played
In long-departed summer days
That passed away like so much haze.

To all our friends and foes and ilk,
And lunchtimes over chocolate milk,
With stature short and skin still silk.

To life within that golden time
When joy we plucked from springtime vines
And the future stood, a glorious line.

Here's to what we'd thought we'd be:
The glories that we thought we'd see,
The lives that we all thought we'd lead,
Inspired by hope and not by greed.

Here's to the dreams you once conceived,
The dreams, I hope, you still believe.
Before this mortal shell you leave,
Here's hoping those dreams you'll still achieve.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter Must Die!!!!!

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


I bet that got your attention. Actually, I harbor no particular ill-will towards Harry Potter, that was just a shameless attempt to get people to read this. Though, rest assured, I do think J.K. Rowling should knock him off in her seventh and final installment in the Harry Potter odyssey, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which hits bookstores in about two hours. The New York Times and other papers have apparently illicitly obtained copies in advance and have printed reviews spoiling the endings. I have nothing but contempt for spoilers and have not read or sought out any spoiler details. However, I have been thinking about what the Deathly Hallows was likely to contain and I do have a few predictions.

Dumbledore and Snape

1) Albus Dumbledore: He's Pushing Up Daisies

Yep, let's face it, he's dead and not likely to be coming back. I know some people still refuse to accept this, but it's the truth. Rowling said, point-blank, "He's dead." That's good enough for me. There was something very fishy about the way he died (see below) in the "Half-Blood Prince," but he's still dead. From a writer's standpoint, what good would a revived or resurrected Dumbledore be? He served as Harry's mentor and protector all these years, but the common theme in any myth is that the apprentice cannot stay under the master forever. The master must be removed from the story so that the apprentice can realize his destiny (think how Obi-Wan was killed off in Star Wars, for instance). There is so much that Harry will have to accomplish in book 7 and so many loose ends to tie up that I doubt Rowling will go the trouble to complicate things more by bringing back Dumbledore (or Sirius, for that matter). To Albus, I wish you a fond farewell.

2) Severus Snape: Good Guy

The first time I read book 6, I was floored when I read the scene in which Snape kills Dumbledore. Despite all the clues Rowling had been dropping throughout the book (and in previous books) about Snape's malignant ways, I had refused to see it. Still, I find it hard to accept, though I think there are compelling reasons to doubt Snape's treason.

Earlier in the book, Hagrid reported to Harry and Co. that he'd heard Snape telling Dumbledore that he'd changed his mind and was no longer willing to do it anymore and Dumbledore told him firmly that Snape had promised to it, and so he would have to anyway. Do what? Hagrid assumed Snape was no longer willing to teach at Hogwarts anymore, but that seems unlikely since he'd never before expressed a willingness to leave Hogwarts. What else could Snape and Dumbledore have been arguing over?

At the beginning of "Half-Blood Prince," Dumbledore is severely wounded from destroying one of Voldemort's horcruxes. Snape is able to stop the spread of the poison, apparently, but Dumbledore's hand is dead from this point on. Not to belabor the obvious, but a Snape committed to killing Dumbledore hardly would have saved his life. He could have withheld the appropriate treatment and everyone else would have thought that Snape had tried his hardest, but his hardest just wasn't good enough.

To the contrary, what if Snape wasn't really able to save Dumbledore at all? What if the poison was beyond the powers of Snape to repair? Remember how Snape had bragged about his ability to do many seemingly-miraculous things, including "stopper death"? While I'm not sure what "stoppering death" would entail exactly, my guess is that Snape was able to slow the spread of the poison, to give Dumbledore more time before it finally killed him.

Why would Dumbledore need more time? Because he had to tell Harry everything he knew about Tom Riddle/Voldemort and his horcruxes, so that he could carry on the fight after Dumbledore was dead. It is interesting that it is only in book six that Dumbledore all of a sudden reveals all of this to Harry. After having Harry under his wing for five years, only now does he get down to business, when his mind is concentrated by his impending death. Dumbledore clearly knew his time on Earth was coming to an end (indeed, perhaps it already had, and Dumbledore was in some sense dead, a "walking dead" if you will, during Harry's sixth year at Hogwarts even before the final confrontation on the Astronomy Tower, though I consider this less likely.) Thus when Snape Avada Kedavra'd Dumbledore, he wasn't killing Dumbledore so much as removing the "stopper" he'd placed on death (or alternatively, assuming Dumbledore already in some sense dead, Avada Kedavra would not have "killed" the already technically-dead Dumbledore).

All this was perhaps prefigured in the very first HP book, when Dumbledore revealed that Nicolas Flamel and his wife needed the elixir of life to "set their affairs in order" before they passed on. It stands to reason Dumbledore needed time for the same purpose as well. (I must admit I was not the first to come up with the "stoppered death" theory, so
credit where it's due.)

Alternatively, Dumbledore's death may have been necessitated by the fact that Snape had taken an Unbreakable Oath to help Draco accomplish his task to kill Dumbledore. Snape, I think, agreed to this because doing so would help him gain favor with the Dark Lord, and allow him an opportunity to betray him at a later date. He was also probably acting under Dumbledore's orders to do this, though that's not perfectly clear. In any case, Dumbledore trusted Snape for some reason, though no one else seems to know why.

Snape was a master occlumens and could have shielded his thoughts from Dumbledore (or Voldemort) but Dumbledore trusted him anyway. Snape probably swore an Unbreakable Oath to help Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix back when he started at Hogwarts. The two oaths are mutually exclusive, meaning that Snape's life would have been forfeit. If Dumbledore ordered Snape to kill him, however, he would have been helping Draco fulfill his task while at the same time being completely faithful to the leader of the Order of the Phoenix. Perhaps Dumbledore saw some good that Snape could accomplish this way and considered the cost of his own life to be worth it. Who knows which theory is right? Either way, Snape is a "good guy," of some sort anyway.

The clearest evidence of Snape's "goodness" is that in Snape's flight with the Death Eaters from the castle, he cast no deadly spells at any of the Order or any of the children. When Harry tried to attack him, Snape cast away the curses without casting any deadly ones or even seriously injurious ones back at Harry. Instead, he gave Harry advice on how to cast spells properly, advice such as casting word-less spells. While the advice was couched in the language of mockery, it was still advice Snape was under no obligation to give his foe. Finally, when one of the Death Eaters tried to cast a Cruciatus curse at Potter, Snape stopped him, saying, "Potter belongs to the Dark Lord." But wouldn't Voldemort have been even more pleased with Snape if he'd not only killed Dumbledore but killed or brought Harry Potter back with him? Something doesn't add up here, a lot of somethings.

Not to mention the fact that Snape put his three most closely-held memories in the Pensieve in book 5, and Potter saw one of them (it was Snape being picked on James Potter and his gang and Snape then lashing out at Lilly Potter, an act for which he clearly felt terrible later.) Snape was furious when he caught Harry, but he had no idea what memory he'd seen. My point here is this: if one of the other two memories was about continuing to serve Voldemort as a double agent, wouldn't he assume the worst, that Harry had seen his betrayal of the Order? Instead, he seemed merely embarrassed that Harry had seen him weak and vulnerable. All the evidence seems to point to Snape being good.


Well, I went on at greater length there than I had meant to. A quick note about horcruxes: Voldemort apparently made six horcruxes so that his soul would be divided into seven pieces, seven being a magical number. It appears those horcruxes were Tom Riddle's Diary (destroyed), Slytherin's ring (destroyed), Slytherin's locket (found by someone known as R.A.B. who I imagine is Regulus Black, as he is the only character I know of with the initials R.B.; the locket may not have been destroyed as Kreacher is mentioned in book 5 as having secreted away a number of Dark Magic artifacts, including a heavy locket that could not be opened....) , the Hufflepuff cup, and two unnamed objects (though I suspect his snake Nagini is one of them, as he seems to possess her at times).

The big question is whether Harry himself is a horcrux. To create a horcrux, one has to commit murder, so it's quite possible Voldemort intended to create another horcrux after the murder of James and Lilly Potter, along with their son. Presumably, somehow during the confrontation, Voldemort unknowingly turned Harry into a horcrux. This would explain why Harry has so many of Voldemort's characteristics (such as being a parseltongue) and why Voldemort and Harry have some kind of mental link. It might also explain Harry's scar;
Orson Scott Card thinks that the scar itself is the horcrux, but I am operating under the assumption that horcruxes have to be preexisting objects (for example, the diary) rather than objects created during the casting of the horcrux spell itself. Either way, it seems that Harry is indeed a horcrux, which means that the horcrux within himself must be destroyed before Voldemort can be destroyed (which may very well entail Harry's death, though I suspect he will find a way to destroy it without killing himself).

To finish, I will merely compile a hit list of characters I think are likely to die in book 7, though I could be completely wrong (and in some cases, I hope I am.)

The List of Doom

-Voldemort: He's the main bad guy, so unless evil triumphs, Voldemort is the only sure casualty.

-Wormtail: He still owes Harry that life-debt, so he will help Harry at a crucial moment, betraying Voldemort and most likely dying in the process. I don't think anyone else has commented on it, but I am intrigued by the similarities between Wormtail and Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings. Both are sniveling, pathetic creatures who slavishly serve their respective dark masters. But Wormtongue in the end gets so fed up with being treated so badly by Saruman that he betrays him, literally stabbing him in the back, before himself being killed. I don't know if Rowling has even read the Lord of the Rings, but I can't help but think that the similarity here is deliberate.

Snape: He will also "betray" Voldemort at some point (he actually betrayed him long ago), though he might not die in the process. I'd still bet he doesn't outlive Voldemort though.

Draco Malfoy: Who cares? He's a relatively minor character who is a coward, to boot, so I don't imagine it much matters whether he lives or dies. My bet is he tries to run from the Death Eaters and pays the inevitable price.

Hagrid: He was an important character early on (serving as a mentor to Harry), but not recently. His character doesn't have much to do, so he could safely be axed, yet he is a beloved character, so his death would be felt deeply by the other characters and fans alike. I'm afraid he's a goner, though I'd like to be proven wrong.

Arthur Weasley: Molly Weasly has worried about one of her family being struck down from the beginning. The Weasley's are a large family and are all engaged in the struggle against Voldemort. It would take a miracle for them all to emerge unscathed. Arthur and Bill have both had brushes with death, and it seems likely that was foreshadowing for what is to come. My money is on Arthur dying, though I hope he doesn't, because he's always been one of my favorites.

Harry: He might not have to die, but one theme running through the series seems to be the self-sacrificing hero (think Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore). It would almost be out of place for good to prevail without self-sacrifice. Perhaps the others who will die to bring down Voldemort will mean that Harry won't have to die himself. I lean towards death. At least that way, Rowling won't have to write about him again. It's also hard to imagine him living happily ever after with Ginny in the aftermath of defeating Voldemort. Again, I'd love to be proven wrong, though. After all the kid's been through, he deserves a happily-ever-after.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Ron Paul Economy, or: The Naiveness of the Internet Favorite

By: Michael Akerman


For IVIC's apparent 200th post (according to Blogger's post counter, which probably includes draft posts, making this not number 200), I shall explain why I can't vote for Ron Paul, mostly-conservative though he be.

I shall be succinct first, then expository.

Ron Paul, should he get his economic initiatives passed, would be the worst disaster for the economy since the election of FDR over Hoover.

You probably think I'm crazy in oh, so many ways for that sentence. Onward to the destruction of the inaccurate teachings of your past years!

The Fallacy of Gold

I shall strike down the cornerstone first, that the edifice might fall. Ron Paul has a stated goal, standing foremost in his economic platform and tied in with all of his other economic desires that I can find online, of dismantling the Federal Reserve.

As a conservative, this is truly mind-boggling to me. In dismantling the Federal Reserve, a semi-private entity, Paul wishes to consolidate market control back in the hands of Congress. A supposedly avowed conservative actually wishes to consolidate power in the hands of the biggest possible unit of government in our society! This, of course, is a poor argument against liberals, but should be enough to make conservatives recoil in disgust. It is a No Child Left Behind level of hubris shown by this plank.

So, I shall also attack why this is a bad idea.

The Federal Reserve (hereafter "the Fed," for simplicity), as you should know, regulates the amount of money in the market. In fairly-clear economic terms, it regulates the money supply. It does this through actions known as Open Market Operations, or OMOs. OMOs basically involve buying and selling used treasury bonds on the market. To increase the money supply, the Fed buys a used treasury bond on the market, and deposits money into the buyer's account. This payment is now money that did not exist previously in the economy. The total money supply has risen. To decrease the money supply, bonds are sold on the market. The payment is taken out back, heaped in a big pile, and set alight. Okay, that's not actually true, but the money is destroyed anyway.

But what's the point of this? What is the goal of the Fed in manipulating the money supply?

There are actually a significant number of reasons. The primary long-term reason is to keep the economy at a low, positive rate of inflation in order to allow the continued growth of the economy. In actuality, a zero inflation state would be preferable in the short term, but it is both nearly impossible to attain and undesirable in the long run because it reduces the Fed's flexibility in using the money supply to slow rampant growth or halt recession (both of which are bad things) without causing economic turmoil. That leads to the second reason: in order to use Keynesian economics to mitigate harmful occurrences in the market. The rate of decline of the GDP can be slowed by increasing the money supply. Similarly, the rate of increase in the GDP can be decreased by decreasing the money supply.

Additionally, people need money. If we had limited ourselves as a country to 5 one-dollar bills representing our economic holdings, we would all have a lot of hundredths or thousandths of a penny on us, and holding a dollar bill would be absolutely the best way of getting rich quick. Until, of course, the economy collapsed because of a lack of faith that the money will hold its present value. This would actually be an occurrence of anti-hyperinflation, with money gaining value with extraordinary rapidity. Which brings me to something I should point out.

Inflation is not based solely, or even mostly, on the amount of money in the money supply. Inflation is an effect of the aggregate demand of the economy (that is, all the wanting people do) growing faster than the aggregate supply (all the making people do). Since demand makes supply, there is always a lag in a healthy economy, and so there is a positive inflation rate. The Fed couldn't hold the economy at zero inflation even if it tried really really hard.

Now that you understand why money market control is necessary, let me explain why it's best to let the Fed, and not Congress, carry it out.

Actually, we can look at history easily enough for this. Consider all of the economies that have suffered hyperinflation in the 20th century. We'll take Germany as exemplar. Hyperinflation can only occur under a fiat currency (that is, "unbacked" currency, like the American dollar after Nixon) system, since money can be printed relatively free of charge. It is one of the dangers that come with the astounding benefits of the fiat system, which I'll get to later. Control of the money supply was left in the hands of the government itself. As the government promised more and more spending, they found themselves without the means to pay for it. The solution seemed simple, of course: "We can print our own money!" they said. "And no one will be the wiser!"

Increasing the money supply in this manner works for a very short period of time. They ended up paying off their first promises. Each time they paid people like this, though, they increased the money supply of the economy. According to Keynes (he was right, by the way), increasing the money supply increases aggregate demand. As I stated earlier, aggregate demand growing faster than aggregate supply causes inflation. So, as they keep doing this, their currency devalued. Fast. Each payment they made in this manner cost more units of currency than the last, because the money kept losing value. We know the story of Germany (and now, Zimbabwe), where bread grew to be worth millions of marks.

The Fed avoids this issue. By targeting a specific federal funds rate, they target a specific inflation rate, guarding automatically against hyperinflation. Since they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch, but are a government-owned corporation, they do not have the temptation to print money to pay debts. Moving control to Congress under a fiat currency would be disastrous, removing the failsafes of the Fed. The only feasible control would be moving back to gold-backed currency, which would prevent Congress from crapping things up. Well, sort of.

The Fallacy of the Valueless Dollar

Incidentally, Paul also expresses a strong desire to move back to gold-backed money. Currently, he claims, our money has no backing, and so has no inherent value, and thus has no stability. At any time the dollar could go plummeting into oblivion! Doom and gloom! Falsehoods and lack of economic understanding!

Whether or not the dollar has value depends entirely on what you mean by "inherent value." It is inarguable that the dollar has a very high value of exchange (that is, you can buy stuff with it), and it is true that the paper and ink used to make a dollar are exceedingly cheap (compared to metal-backed money). So, one could say that dollars have extremely little inherent value. However, one would also have to say that dollars on the gold standard have exactly the same very low inherent value, since it is made from the same ink and paper. That makes the comparison useless.

More usefully: the gold-standard dollar is backed by a certain quantity of gold, giving it inherent value. What the Paulies don't see is that the fiat dollar is backed in precisely the same way, but by a much larger pool of resources. The American dollar is backed by the total economic output of the American economy. The Almighty Dollar is a stalwart representative of our impressive GDP. And it is backed in the same way. Under the gold standard, a dollar could be exchanged for the gold that backed it. Under the current system, the dollar can be exchanged for the economic output that backs it.

This also reveals something impressive. Fiat currency encourages economic growth. Not just a little growth. A lot of growth. This is because fiat currency is so cheap compared to gold. This is fairly obvious if you think for a moment. We cannot hope to have as much gold as we have economic activity. It's infeasible: gold is a scarce resource. So, the total dollar supply can have far more value under the fiat system for no inherent cost (other than the risk of hyperinflation, but I've covered that, and it could happen under the gold standard anyway). To use very confusing terms, a dollar now costs a couple of cents to make and represents a dollar. A dollar under the gold standard cost far more, let's say 50 cents (gold costs economic output to produce and acquire. Mining is a use of labor), and represented a dollar. That is a net loss of nearly half of the value.

Clearly, moving to the gold standard is a fantastic means of crippling our economy. So, with plenty of reasons to keep the fiat system, it's clear that the Fed only has one more thing that could be used as an argument against it.

The Fallacy of the Falling Dollar

The value of the American Dollar is falling relative to many other currencies on the international market. This is true. Why? Is it because it has no value? No, that couldn't be it: it's backed by our GDP. Could it be because we import more than we export?

Actually, that wouldn't cause it anyway, but I wanted to use the opportunity to blast apart some really poor economics that happens with trade. There is a prevailing idea that having more exports than imports is a "favorable balance of trade." This is false. Rather, it's incomplete. Trade is always favorable because it allows a nation to exploit their comparative advantage. That is, if Japan is better at making TVs, the US can get cheaper TVs by doing something that they are better at and trading. We make pharmaceuticals very well, and we end up with a net increase in economic productivity, and no loss of jobs. Jobs are made by people. You can't lose jobs overseas. Interestingly, Paul understands the first point, but fails to grasp the second, as seen here.

Consider, for a second, if we took this to the extreme. I can't take credit for this paragraph. It was Bastiat's idea first (French economist). If high exports and low imports are the best thing for the economy, it would be quite simple to make the system perfect. We put all of our goods on a boat. We send the boat to the ocean. We take the crew off, light a stick of dynamite, and blow the ship to kingdom come. If every country does this, there are no imports. The only thing is exports. What a paradise!

I can take credit for this paragraph. Why are imports good? Let us again consider the extreme. One day, off the coast of California, a giant whirlpool opens up. A booming voice echoes forth: "I shall give you any good you want, if you supply me with your American dollars!" it says. The Fed hatches a scheme. This is a simple issue! We print up money, and we throw it in the whirlpool. Out pops a TV, a car, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a house. Someone just got a fully furnished house, for the price of a few pieces of paper. And this is truly valueless paper! In a world with only imports, we never have to pay the debts inherent in the dollars we send out, because the owner of the IOU never comes calling, so the dollars sent are not backed by economic output. They're just paper! The best possible situation would be a no-export, all import economy.

Aside: this trade stuff is covered excellently in Russell Roberts' The Choice. Read it. It's the best book on politics and economics I've ever read, and it's only about 100 pages, and it's narrative. Seriously. Stop reading my trash and read that. Go. Now. It's paperback. It's cheap.

End aside.

This can't happen, of course, unbalancing imports or exports. True exports and imports always balance out. If we import more than we export, we make up for it by exporting investment overseas.

And there's the thing!

The value of the dollar is based entirely on the supply and demand for the dollar overseas! It's very simple: when international markets feel like American economic activity is a sound investment, the value of the dollar is high relative to other currencies. In this case, we import more than we export, because other countries don't want to buy our stuff (useless for us anyway. We can't pay taxes in yen), they want to invest in our economy. This increases our growth. It's a capital inflow, and causes our economy to grow stronger still!

The falling dollar is no one's fault. It is an indicator of the coming, and expected, recession. Every seven to nine years or so we have one. It is no indicator of the collapse of the American currency, nor it is a harbinger of a depression. Which brings us back to the Fed again!

The Fallacy of the Dangerous Fed

Okay, I lied. One more reason to dismantle the Fed: the Fed is dangerous, with their mindless meddling leading to the downfall of the economy in the Great Depression.

Actually, this is kind of true. The Fed did cause the Great Depression. So did FDR, which explains the line in the first section that you all thought was crazy.

The Fed's fault: fear of inflation. Remember that in the 20s, the German economy was in an awful inflationary spiral. The cause was clear: unjustified money was being printed. So, the prevailing economic reasoning was obvious: do not print money without extraordinary justification. So, in the 20s, and especially under FDR, the money supply was not expanding. As it turns out, we know today that it was contracting, but this was something of an accident (they didn't intend to shrink the money supply. Eventually, bills break down). At any rate, when the regular (every seven to nine years) recession hit, the slowing economy suffered under a reduction in the money supply, reducing the amount of trade barter in the hands of consumers and slowing aggregate demand growth. In effect, the actions (or inactions) of the Fed served as a strong braking action on the already slowing economy.

This caused the Great Depression, leading to the stock market crash. Most people think the stock market crash caused the Great Depression, but indeed it is the other way around. Hoover tried to get the Fed to help, but largely failed. They were still worried about inflation. While his balanced budget was a mistake, he also didn't add business controls to the economy. Blamed for the Depression, Hoover was ousted and FDR was beckoned in.

This, it turns out, was something of a mistake. FDR was an advocate of balanced budgets. The conventional wisdom went that you couldn't spend more than you made, and you couldn't "print your way to prosperity." The first is untrue for governments, who can spend more than they take in through taxes by borrowing on the promise of future economic performance (if the borrowed capital is invested, they can always pay back any mature debts). The second is true, but misleading. Guided by these, er, "principles," the money supply continued to contract while FDR cut spending in many areas, expanding, admittedly, social services and public works, but making up for it in increased taxes. That is, his budget was balanced, with a net income of around 0. For the expansion that FDR's spending wrought, he applied an equal or greater contractionary force by increasing taxes and reducing spending. He also added controls on business practices, blaming the corporations for ruining the country. Because, you know, they hate profit.

The public works, incidentally, were pretty much entirely worthless for economic recovery. They were no better than stealing money from one person to give to another (welfare, actually). Taking the form of the classic "move this rock here, then back" job, they followed the unqualified principle that jobs are good. In actuality, jobs must create real, valuable economic output to be beneficial.

Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo broke the Depression. To face WWII, government spending had to increase drastically. Wartime jobs, making real goods of value, had to be created. The accelerator was stepped on again while monetary policy shifted to an expansionary stance to pay for the war. Upward the economy surged.

That quasi-aside is to illustrate something. The mistakes and inactions of the government were not institutional! They were mistakes of economic theory. The issue that matters, the mistakes of the Fed, were caused by the classical economic theory, where inflation is the greatest evil. The savior of the economy was Keynesian economics! And that is the set of economic theory we work under today.

I bring this up because it shows that dismantling the Fed would do nothing to protect the economy from disasters like these. The alternative to having the Fed, a group of well-trained professional economists, running the money supply is having a group of Congressmen (that is, people trained in, at best, law) running the money supply. Either economic theory would be followed, or so-called common sense would be followed. We are either left in exactly the same position (assuming Congress had the economic understanding to apply economic theory), or a far worse position, stuck at the whims of some lawyers. While economic theory could be wrong, I'd rather learned men apply it than less learned men deny it.

Speaking of learned men...

The Fallacy of the Wealthy Bankers

That was a terrible segue to this. Another claim against the Fed is that it was formed by bankers so that bankers could profit. To be frank, they can't. Not from the actions of the Fed.

Remember first that money supply control is done through OMOs, secret purchasing and sales to the market as a whole. Mark one against the wealthy bankers: they cannot ensure they get the "profits" (which are no bigger than the profits from a normal sale) from this purchase-and-sale cycle. The sale goes to the highest bidder, the purchase to the lowest. This is why the bond market is so powerful at doing OMOs: it represents a democratic purchasing area of the economy (since anyone can buy bonds of many different values).

Mark two: there is no way that money supply control could make a banker usefully rich. Let us imagine that a banker gained control of the entire Fed. No whistle-blowers stood up, so they don't get in trouble. The Fed simply kowtows to their desires. They print money, and keep it for themselves. They spend it, but this causes undue inflation: money that shouldn't be in the market is flooding into it. Herein lies the rub: bankers make money from healthy, low-inflation economies. Far more money than they can make by ruining the economy, actually. People only save money when inflation is low, and bankers use saved money for investments and loans, which are the things that lead to profit. In order to gain a moderate (to them), short term financial gain, they sacrifice long term profitability and large future gains (incidentally, you don't get to be a wealthy banker by screwing up investment).

Admittedly, it's theoretically possible. It won't happen, but it could. So, what happens if we prevent it by shifting control to Congress? Wouldn't that prevent corruption? I hope some of you are laughing by now.

Who I've Decided to Vote For

I've finally decided the basic framework under which I have to view this election so far. Ron Paul is the only candidate avidly espousing economic policies that would cripple the American economy. His misguided views are something three months in a college economics class could remedy, but still he curries favor with his meaningless platitudes and false beliefs. So, rather than risk causing irreparable damage to the American standard of living, I am voting against Ron Paul. To defend the American economy from a crippling blow, I am voting against Ron Paul. Instead of hoping that Congress will have the wits to go against his terrible ideas, I am voting against Ron Paul.

To prove my emphasis on this, I'll clarify: even if the race ends up as a challenge between Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton in '08, I will vote for Hillary Clinton in the hopes that Ron Paul will be kept out of office. Foolish social policies hurt few and are easily remedied. Foolish economic policies can crush the country.

As far as references, I can't find the awesome Great Depression article that I'd like to find, and my economic understanding is from Professor McElroy's EC 302H class (yes, I have the notes. Yes, I checked the notes. No, his book is not currently online since it's the middle of summer). So, aside from the reasoning, which I hope is laid out clearly enough, I can direct you to a few Wikipedia articles if you really want. Actually, I think I have that article saved on my computer. If I find it, I'll comment about it, and I'll gladly email it to anyone who wants it.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Streak of Independence

By: Michael Akerman


As I mentioned on CoK, there is a growing trend in gaming consoles toward encouraging outside, small-time developers to make games that are then delivered digitally. Examples include the venerable XBox Live Arcade and the newly-announced initiative from Nintendo to sell indie games in the Wii Shop as Wii Ware. We witness now the birth of a new creative flowering of video games, where a zeitgeist is formed by the masses of computer programmers of moderate to high skill, their ideas revealed to the world for others to imitate.

I should note, certainly, that this is not entirely new. The PC game development scene has been riddled with independent development studios since the time of Zork. One would be hard pressed, however, to point to an efficient delivery and popularization mechanism common to most, or even a large percentage, of PC gamers.

Let us take XBox Live Arcade as an example. In that system we have an interface common to all XBox 360s that provides a platform to announce and deliver games to all XBox users with an internet connection. There is no searching through websites for an executable that will download quickly, nor are there options to fiddle with when installing. There is no need to worry about malware or viruses because all of the games are approved my Microsoft before they are sent out to the masses. Most importantly, there is only one source of digital delivery on the console: all new downloadable games are given roughly equal footing on the platform, and users can easily locate new games.

On PC, the content delivery systems are more similar to warring factions. Steam offers an extremely effective interface with a good number of games to choose from, but all games do not go through Steam. GameTap can also be an effective indie game platform, but the main service requires a monthly fee and GameTap still has fairly low market penetration. The recently-added free versions offer a very limited selection of games, though GameTap could (and should) change this to be a small number of commercial games and a laundry list of free indie games. FilePlanet is available to any PC user, since it requires only a web browser for basic access, and there is a tremendous selection of games, but the site is coated with advertisements for non-subscribers and relegates non-subscribers to long queues in order to download games. As a large-scale content delivery system, FilePlanet is only viable with a paid subscription, since that allows quick downloads and is the only current method set up to pay for games, though that could change to allow non-subscribers to pay per-game.

The console markets are different. Since they are controlled by the manufacturing company, a single delivery system can be accessed by everyone who owns the console. Small games can garner high profiles and, since the delivery systems are designed to allow the manufacturer to charge for certain applications while allowing others to be downloaded for free, indie developers can choose whether to earn profits on the game and how much to make. This encourages small-scale development, causing more creative people to get in the game.

This is all well and good, so far, but what really makes this important is that this is happening on consoles. Mechanisms of keyboard-mouse control have been largely explored, but gamepads have only really been touched by large developers. The Wii especially will benefit from seeing more ideas tested and exposed. The small-scale games provide a safe, stable proving ground for new game and control ideas: failed games are minor setbacks for investors or just a fun hobby for the programmers. The risk of losing millions on a big-name game is evaporated, allowing companies large and small to invest in what is essentially video game research and development. These delivery systems are to video gaming what the space race was to science in the 1960s: a powerful motivating and insuring force to spur the development of better games.

By my hand,

~Michael Akerman

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How the French Duped Washington into Winning the Revolution

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


Hey, I know it's been a long time since I posted last. I have been keeping quite busy this summer, what with a summer class, and work, and getting my wisdom teeth out on Monday and getting my three-year old Dell Inspiron 5150 notebook finally fixed (a long story for another day). Anyway, I might start up a blog of my own at some point along the lines of Akerman's new one, but in the meantime, I do have a brief post of a historical nature, in honor of Independence Day.

We Americans are loath to credit our success to others, but the standard narrative of the American Revolution has finally adapted to place the French role near the center, as it was indeed the crucial element in the 13 colonies' victory over the British Empire. However, the turning point is usually misplaced in most accounts. The battle of Saratoga in October 1777 is usually held to be the turning point of the war, because it was Saratoga that convinced the French court that the Americans could in fact win. It was after Saratoga that the French agreed to sign the Treaty of Alliance with the Continental Congress, in which each side pledged to come to the other's aid if attacked, and to not negotiate a separate peace without the other nation's consent (a mutual defense treaty of a type America did not sign again until the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.) However, this oversimplifies the rest of the war. Victory was by no means inevitable or even probable after the entry of the French into the war.

First, the French had their own agenda: they were in it, not to help secure our freedom, but to score a victory against their hated long-time nemesis, Great Britain. To that end, they were far more focused on helping themselves to Britain's most valuable colonial possessions, from the Caribbean to Cairo to India, than on helping the insurgents in the Eastern Seaboard colonies in North America. The French attacks on far-flung British outposts around the globe forced the British to divert manpower and resources that otherwise would have gone to the American campaign, thus indirectly helping the rebellious colonists.

Second, the first several Franco-American military endeavors--from the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 to the ill-fated attempt to reconquer Savannah, Georgia in 1779--were fiascoes. Little wonder the French chose to concentrate their efforts on harrying the British for the prize of the Caribbean sugar isles! Of course, the French were by this point already delivering crucial amounts of weapons and monetary aid, but the Patriots, most particularly Washington, were impatient for French military aid, which they believed was unduly slow in coming.

By the winter of 1780-81, the war was for all intents and purposes at a stalemate. In the north, the British under General Henry Clinton were enjoying the fruits of the occupation of New York City. In the south, Washington had finally found a general who would fight, in the person of Nathanael Greene. Greene had fought General Charles Cornwallis to a standstill in his campaign to reconquer the southern colonies, leading Cornwallis to conclude, at the end of the campaign ending with the battering his men took at Guilford Courthouse, to quit the theater altogether, and to try to split the colonies in half by conquering Virginia. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, his superior officer, General Clinton, overruled him and ordered him to occupy a position along the Virginia coast that could serve as an outpost for a future campaign (and for the overly-cautious Clinton, any campaign in which he did not outnumber his opponents by at least five-to-one, was a campaign to put off until a later date.)

Meanwhile, in New England, Washington sat brooding. His most humiliating defeat had been the loss of New York in 1776 and he was obsessed with winning it back and erasing the shame of the loss. But as he conferred with the French commanders on possibilities for joint action in the 1781 campaign, they had little enthusiasm for Washington's plans for an amphibious assault on New York City. The French General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau had overseen such campaigns before in the Old World, and knew that New York City was so heavily fortified, an attempt to take it would be little more than a suicide mission. In vain did he try to persuade Washington to give up on his unrealistic thoughts of retaking New York, but Washington was determined and kept pestering Rochambeau as to the whereabouts of the French fleet, which he would need to assault New York.

Fortune intervened in the form of the French fleet under Admiral Francois de Grass. De Grass planned to spend the summer pillaging British positions in the Caribbean, but could be available to head north to calmer waters by late August to avoid hurricane season in the Caribbean. Might my fleet be of service to the cause, de Grass asked Rochambeau, and if so, where? Knowing that Cornwallis was bunkered down at Yorktown where he could be forced to surrender if surrounded by land and sea, Rochambeau went behind Washington's back and told de Grass to head for the Chesapeake. He then told Washington that the French fleet would be in the Chesapeake by September and if Washington wanted a decisive victory in 1781, he should lead the Continental Army to Yorktown to cut off Cornwallis' escape.

Now came the moment of truth: Rochambeau had gone behind Washington's back to ensure the French fleet arrived in Virginia rather than New York, thus styming Washington's plans for an assault on New York. Washington could have let the personal slight and insult enrage him to the point of refusing to launch the audacious 500-mile march from Connecticut to Virginia. If he had, the war might very well have been lost right then and there. Each side had battered and bruised the other sufficently that neither had a strong upper hand in 1781, yet each side was at the breaking point, both economically in terms of being able to finance further conflict, as well as in terms of public morale and will to continue the fight. As Washington himself wrote that spring: "We are at the end of our tether.... and now or never our deliverance must come." Whichever side struck the next big blow would strike the knockout blow of the war and bring whole conflict to a swift conclusion.

Given Clinton's predilection for defense and Washington's desire to prove himself and redeem himself for the loss of New York, it seems most likely that Washington would have tried to launch the knock-out blow at New York--and failed. Of course, the French would have already left town, knowing how hopeless Washington's chances would be, even with French help. The alliance would almost certainly have fallen apart right there, and with it, any hope of winning the war. The defeat of Washington's army, coming as a body-blow to an army that had already suffered mass mutinies over pay and equipment the previous winter, would have sounded the death-knell for the Patriot cause. John Adams once estimated that only about 1/3 of the colonists supported the Patriots, and that number was probably even lower by 1781 as the Continental dollar continued its nose-dive into hyperinflation. Absent the American victory at Yorktown, 1781 would almost certainly have seen only one victory: the complete triumph of the British army over the Continental Army at New York. The rest of the war would have but a "mopping-up" action. A King's Pardon would have sufficed to win over the majority of colonists; the King's hangman would have taken care of the rest, as had been the case in earlier revolts in Ireland and India.

A lesser man would have taken such umbrage, and so doomed the cause for which he had given his life. But instead, Washington chose to put aside his displeasure at being misled by those who thought (and in this case, thought correctly) that they knew better, and take the once-in-a-lifetime chance presented by the French fleet being in the Chesapeake. The story of the long campaign that followed--of the spiriting out of Washington's men to the south, all the while leading Clinton to believe the main strike was still coming at New York until it was too late for him to send reinforcements to Cornwallis; the defeat of the British fleet off the Virginia Capes, allowing de Grasse to cut Cornwallis off from the sea; the narrowly-run battles in the redoubts of Yorktown--all of it makes for a thrilling story. However, the pieces for victory had already been set in motion when Rochambeau went behind Washington's back and Washington decided to play the hand he'd been dealt, even though he still preferred his own unworkable plan.

A man more thin-skinned or convinced of his own infallibility, would never have been able to swallow his pride and adopt the plans of others, as Washington did. We value steadfastness in time of war, as indeed we should, but we should never forget that flexibility can be an even more important battlefield virtue. Thus it is that we come to the delicious irony, not merely that we could not have the Revolutionary War without the help of the French, but that we could not have won without the duplicity of the French, or without the courage of a Commander-in-Chief who decided not to take it too personally. The echoes of that decision reverberate down the present day. As we celebrate the heroism of our forefathers, let us also celebrate the heroism (and duplicity) of our allies, without which, all of their sacrifices would have been in vain.

Viva la France!
Viva la America!
Viva la Duplicité!

Primary Source:
Davis, Burke. "The Campaign That Won America: The Story of Yorktown," Eastern Acorn Press, 1970.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

For Lighter Fare

By: Michael Akerman


Just so you, my faithful readers (reader, maybe? Anyone? Hello?) know, I've set up a new blog for myself. The Chronicles of Kashik will house far lighter posts than this illustrious sounding board. The name is subject to change, because the abbreviation is CoK.

That will also be where I do things that other blogs have done for what seems like decades now: publish my thoughts on news and my life (because you're all so interested!).

What it's also going to hopefully do is give me ideas for topics I want to write about more fully on this, my illustrious, if a little decrepit, essay blog.

Check back here and there as necessary (there more than here). I'd suggest you get an RSS reader, but to each his own.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Monday, May 21, 2007

Army of Athens

By: Michael Akerman


This is not a historical post.

I've played WoW for something around a year now, and I've always been intrigued by the guild system in the game. Many a time have I run into situations where a group of players with some kind of interpersonal ties and expectations of certain behaviors would have been an extremely valuable asset: notably, running dungeons and elite quests would have been a lot easier. Additionally, it would give me someone to talk to while I was out grinding mobs alone (grinding mobs means, effectively, killing monsters for a long time, usually for some kind of rare reward).

For the uninitiated, I should explain the guild system, before I lay out my issues with most guilds, followed by my master plan.

A guild is effectively an organization of players. By joining a guild, you get a bit of text over your head that shows the name of your guild and you get a pane in your social window that shows the members of your guild (having never been in a guild, I don't know precisely how this works). Depending on your guild, you could end up with anything from a total lack of administration, where the guild serves mostly as a pool of like-minded, free-play (casuals, as they are generally called) individuals, to an essentially despotic administration, where the guild leader makes the decisions for the guild and expects the members to perform their assigned role as laid out in the battle plan. This makes for a very effective raiding guild (for hardcore players, the other end of the spectrum from casuals), where, much like in a military, battle roles are laid out: the healer heals, the tank absorbs damage, the DPS people do a lot of damage.

In most cases, these types of guilds are fine. They are not right for me, however. I don't want a freewheeling guild that will never get organized to do any end-game raiding, nor do I want a guild that will force members to participate in end-game raids to stay in the guild. Rather, I want a guild that will respond to the desires of the guild as a whole, that will remain flexible in the face of any events. A historical perspective makes it clear that this is exactly what one wants in the governance of a nation. So, I turned to the governing systems of the past to plan my dream guild. I need a government that will offer both administration and flexibility.

Despotism is right out. Everyone, I hope, recognizes that. There is no flexibility in despotism: the guild succumbs to the will of the leadership. Anarchy is also unwise: there is no governance. Democracy is attractive, but it is slow to react: if every voice must be heard, every voice must be given time to speak. In the large guild that I hope this guild will become, that is prohibitive. So, we turn to the experiments of Athens, and later (and more successfully), Rome. A republic.

This is why the current title of the guild is likely the one I'll keep: the Army of Athens.

To the average reader, it is likely easier to think about America than ancient history. Conveniently, this is as usefully illustrative in this case: America is not a democracy. It is a republic. Representatives are elected to work for the good of their constituents. Every voice is heard by the government through the elected representatives, though every voice need not speak. The will of the populace is carried out without the time-consuming process of town hall-style debate. So, the basic structure is clear: the guild should be a republic or, if you prefer the inaccurate, elementary-school term, a "representative democracy."

The details remain (I shall lay these out more clearly in a second post to which new members will be referred, so they won't have to read my thought process if they don't want to). In order for representatives to execute their duties faithfully, there must be a clear constituency for each representative. These constituencies should have similar challenges and abilities, so no one set of constituents outranks another in the eyes of the representative. In WoW, this delineation seems fairly simple: level-based constituencies. It is clear that certain level ranges have different priorities than others: people of very low level are focused on learning the game, gaining levels, and running the very first instances effectively. Middle levels are focused more heavily on small-group instances. Upper levels begin to focus their attention to raid instances (and the Outland, with the Burning Crusade expansion). These are apparent trends, but they are not necessarily truths for any set of people at a certain level.

This is the beauty of the republic, though. Were I to stand here and say that the low-level representative would focus on leveling, the mid-level on instances, and the upper-level on raiding, the abnormal people (I count myself among them in nearly all of the classifications) would be left out: what of the people who want to run small-group instances at a high level? What of the mid-level people who want to focus on trade skills, and need a network of resources for it?

By dividing the constituency into thirds, a small number of people can impact the politics of the guild. I envision three broad constituencies of around 20 people in each group (clearly, this means at least 63 people must be in the guild, 20 in each constituency with 3 representatives for the plan to come to real fruition, but growth takes time). Classifications would be by low-level (levels 1-23), mid level (levels 24-46) and high level (levels 47-70). As a character grew out of his current level range, he would automatically move into the next one. This creates an admittedly odd situation in that the representatives cover a level range, not a certain group of constituents. I think this is preferable in a situation like WoW, where priorities seem more dependent on level than on the specific people in a group. Of course, if the government as a whole deems this untrue, we amend this virtual constitution to some other form (flexibility, again).

When a group fills, a second grouping in the constituency will form, such that there would be a, for instance, low-level group A and a low-level group B (I think they should be allowed to choose a name for the group when this occurs). The full group will either need to be split at this point, or the new group will simply start with one constituent until more join. This will surely be based largely on the growth rate of the guild, so the decision seems best left to the government as a whole (with careful consideration given to the opinions of the constituents). The exact number to split groups at would also need to be decided by the governing body.

So, there's the nitty-gritty of the constituent groupings. But what is a representative going to be?

Here, I borrow terminology from Plato's Republic because I like the title, especially in the context of the proposal above, though the role the representatives fill isn't the same as in Plato's work. The representatives will be called Guardians, which I think aptly fits their role in their constituency. The Guardians will be nominated by either the guildmembers or themselves, and run in elections. The nominees need not fall into the level category of the constituency, so if the voters so chose, a level 5 character could be the Guardian of the high-level group. A preliminary election will be held within a week of the announcement of candidates in order to narrow the field (think of it like a primary election). The constituents in the group will send their votes to the guild leader (that would be me) via email (I hope to have a website eventually, but I've never set up anonymous voting via a website, so bear with me). The top two candidates will remain in the running. After three weeks (presumably of frantic campaigning), the final vote will be taken. The emails will be tallied, and the winner deemed the Guardian of the group.

The Guardians will act as both the legislative and judicial branch, at least in the early stages of the guild (if everyone is a member of the government, who does the government represent?). Punitive decisions will be based on the rules of the guild, as outlined below and added to by the government as is seen fit. An appeal system will be in place, in which disputed decisions will be allowed to go to the greater governing body before action is taken.

Elections, I think, should be held every three months. There will initially be no term limits, unless the government chooses to amend them to the guild constitution (which doesn't exist yet). Defeated Guardians, or those who choose not to run again, will retire to the Council of Elders, a sort of Senate for the guild. The Council of Elders will consist of all current Guardians (I need to discuss this with the guild members early. Having a double vote throws up warning flags to me), as well as all the retired Guardians still active in the guild. The Guardians will also form a sort of House of Representatives, the Council of Guardians. Clearly, the Council of Guardians will always be smaller than the Council of Elders. Major decisions (raid schedule, rule changes, etc.) will be based on a simple majority in each house. If there is a difference in ruling in each house (that is, the CoG approves a measure while the CoE denies it), the houses will attempt to resolve the disputes in compromise. If this fails, the measure will fail.

Allow me to lay out some facts this implies about Guardians and Elders. Guardians carry judicial power, while Elders do not. This can be seen as a burden or as a boon, depending on the specific person filling the role. The House of Guardians is smaller than the House of Elders, so each Guardian wields more power than each Elder. Therefore, Elders have fewer responsibilities but less of a voice. An Elder can run for a second Guardianship during any election, which would restore both Guardian power and Guardian duties to the Elder.

The final thing I must discuss are the preliminary rules of the guild. These are tenets that I shan't bend on: they must hold for the life of the guild, or there is no guild to me. They are as follows:

1.) Don't be a dick.

This admittedly complex rule set must be the basic foundation of the guild. It implies that the members of the guild will endeavor to be kind to one another in any situation, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt in cases of apparent inability. Remember: one shouldn't blame malice when stupidity will explain the action. Therefore, rather than getting angry at one's guildmate for a perceived injustice or failure to perform adequately, aid him. If you expect him to heal because he's a Priest, discuss this with him. In most cases, you'll find that there are good reasons that he did not do what you wanted (generally, either because he didn't think about it or because he has specifically developed his character contrary to the cause). Resolve disputes in a civilized manner. The punishment for repeated offenses against this rule is banishment from the guild. Since such a drastic measure is to be taken, failure to adhere to this rule will be taken to the Guardian. If found guilty, the case will always go to the Council of Elders (that is, these cases have a forced appeal process). Banishment will only be used on repeat offenders, and will be based on the decision of the council: if you have been clearly malicious in your intent and had reason to understand that your actions would lead to this punishment, you will be removed from the guild. That said, no one will be banished for a first offense against this rule. A warning will be issued, putting the offender in extreme jeopardy should the rule be again unheeded.

This rule is to be the very foundation of the guild: the basis for the existence and governance of the guild. And, if every member follows this rule, and the Guardians and Elders serve in good faith, the Army of Athens can grow to be great: a powerhouse of a guild that maintains the compassion and friendliness it was conceived in, that is fully equipped to help low-level characters while still being flexible enough to execute raids. The guild can grow only as the members see fit. The decisions of the members of the Army of Athens will make or break the guild. I hope the choices are wise.

This post will be summarized later, as I'm aware that it is currently some pretty heavy reading. Besides, most of the procedures need not be known by most guild members, as they can be informed of them when the time comes (elections, for instance).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Iraq: Three (Uh, Make That Four) Years Later: Pt. 4: Pre-empt This!

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


This past week was a milestone both grim and bittersweet: the 4th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to the Anglo-American coalition. It thus seemed appropriate to finish my Iraq war "mini-series" that I started last year for the third anniversary of the invasion and carelessly left only about half-complete (Yeah, I don't really have an excuse, I really meant to finish this series last year).


In the first post in the series, posted over a year ago now, I set as my goal to "attempt to answer the questions: How did we get here? What went wrong? Are we winning or losing? Is it even possible for us to attain anything we'd recognize as 'victory' in Iraq? What should we do now? And how has my own thinking about the Iraq war evolved over the past three years?"

In parts 1 and 2, I thoroughly, painstakingly (perhaps exaustively!) covered the first question, by chronicling how the Bush administration lied our nation into war. That's really not a debate I want to get back into now; to do so would be to repeat myself ad infinitum, as those who still doubt that we were lied into this war have drunk so deep of the Magic Neocon Kool-Aid that they are far beyond the reach of logic.

Having debunked the stated rationale for going to war, in part 3 I examined whether the Iraq war could be justified on any grounds. I concluded that three types of war could be defined as, if not justified, at least better than not doing anything at all--wars of self-defense (fighting back after you have been attacked), wars to help weaker nations defend themselves, and wars to stop a genocide--and that Iraq in 2003 fit none of these criteria (I repeat, I'd be willing to consider Saddam's treatment of the Marsh Arabs to be a genocide, but seeing as the administration never commented on their plight before the war, it would be a stretch to claim it factored in the decision to go to war).

I closed my third post by noting that, "There is one type of war I have not yet addressed: preemptive war. Can a preemptive war be a just war? My conclusions on that, plus the Bush team’s sorry record on nonproliferation, the jus ad bellum of this war, will follow in my next post." I never expected it would take this long for me to return to this, but let it never be said I don't keep my promises.... eventually!

Preemptive vs. Preventive

First, it is important to distinguish between preemptive and prevetive wars, as they are often conflated. A preemptive war is one launched to stop an imminent attack. It is thus a form of anticipatory self-defense. Typically, the agressor in a war is the one who attacks first, so a war can only be considered a preemptive war if the attack is truly imminent, as was the case for instance, when Israel attacked the armed forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq which were mobilizing on its borders in the Six Day War of 1967.

A preventive war, on the other hand, is one in which Country A attacks Country B on the grounds that at some non-imminent future date, Country B would have attacked Country A, and you'll just have to take Country A's word on that. Whereas international law is ambiguous on the legality and justness of preemptive wars, it considers preventive wars to be nothing more than wars of aggression (which are banned in the UN Charter; those who initiate preventive wars can be tried as war criminals).

Can a preemptive war be a just war? The historical record and consensus is not encouraging. In the Caroline Incident of 1837, British troops in their colony of Canada crossed the US border to attack private Canadian and American citizens who were preparing an attack on British forces in Canada. Britain claimed to have acted in anticipatory self-defense (preemptive war), while the US rejected this, maintaining that, in order for a preemptive war to be just, the threat it aims to combat must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment for deliberation." This is a reasonable standard to use and it one we shall return to.

Other examples often cited of preemptive wars are even more ambiguous. The 1981 Israeli attack on the nuclear reactor then under construction at Osirak, Iraq, was claimed by the Israeli goverment to be a preemptive stike, as the reactor, once operational, could allegedly have been used to make nuclear weapons to attack Israel. It is obvious this was a preventive strike, rather than a preemptive one, as the threat, if it even existed, was many years away, and thus was hardly imminent and other options were clearly on the table.

Both world wars can be understood to be preventive wars. In his book, Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? noted historian David Fromkin notes that, in 1914, German leaders were convinced that based on demographic and industrial trends, the balance of power between Germany and it neighbors was shifting against it and that if Germany stood a chance of winning a regional war, it would have to fight this war before 1918. Thus, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited a minor war between Austria and Serbia, it was seized upon by the German goverment as a good excuse to fight the war it was already spoiling to fight while the Germans could still win it.

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was also a preventive strike. Japan was planning to launch a major attack on British, French and Dutch colonies in southeast Asia and worried that such an attack would be the final straw for the Americans. A swift decapitation of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor would buy Japan enough time to finish its conquests before America could intervene. Of course, we all know how well that worked out for Japan!

Iraq: Preemptive or Preventive?

So, let's now look at the Iraq war. It was sold as preemptive war, against what we were told was an "imminent" threat. It was certainly sold as an "overwhelming" threat, and as one that "left no choice for means, no moment for deliberation." When Saddam complied with the UN resolution requiring him to readmit UN weapons inspectors, the inspectors asked the US to share its intel about all the sites the Iraqis had banned materials or activities at. After all, Dick Cheney had claimed, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Iraq now has weapons of mass destruction." The administration refused, instead choosing to belittle the inspectors. Of course, the world's best-trained experts won't be able to find WMDs; it will take US troops with no WMD training to find them!

When Canada and other nations appealed to Bush to give the inspectors two more weeks to search for WMDs, the proposal was turned down. There wasn't time to wait even that long, perhaps because, as Dick Cheney announced ominously three days before the invasion, Iraq "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." The administration clearly tried to portray the invasion as a preemptive war, necessitated by Hussain's WMDs and ties to the very terrorists who had attacked us before and could be expected to do so again. But as no WMDs or ties to terrorists have ever been discovered in Iraq, it is obvious these claims were mere fig leaves to pretty up a preventive war or war of aggression, the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. The threat was neither instant nor overwhelming, and there were clearly other options (letting the inspectors and sanctions do their jobs) and plenty of time for deliberation.

But, wait just a minute, some may say, the administration may have sincerely thought that the threat was imminent. That is quite possible, but seeing as the administration has never presented intel to support that claim (and all the information that has come out over the last 4 years argues to the contrary), it seems unlikely. Of course, actions speak louder than words, and the Bush administration's record speaks for itself as to its concern or lack thereof on nonproliferation.

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Speaking personally, I supported this misbegotten, God-forsaken travesty four years ago, for one reason and one reason only: the president's claim that Saddam had WMDs and ties to al-Qaida. So I was expecting that if Saddam had WMDs he would use them on our troops or even on his own people if it would allow him to keep his hands on the lever of power for even just a few minutes longer. The fact that he didn't was a huge tip-off that he had no WMDs. As our troops moved to occupy the country as April faded into May and found no WMDs, my unease increased. If we knew for a fact Saddam had WMDs that he could give to terrorists before we attacked and we couldn't find them after we occupied the country, then what did that mean? That he'd already given them to the terrorists? That we were too late? That the terrorists could be readying a WMD attack against America even now? Such were logical assumptions.

What would be the logical response of a US government that believed this? "Red Alert! Man all battle stations! This is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill!" So I scanned the papers each day searching for some sign of increased government activity indicating that they were at all concerned about our inability to find these weapons so dangerous we had gone to war to seize, some increase in the terror alert level, increased border security, something! But nope, nada, nothing! Instead, the "matter-of-life-and-death" urgency to find the WMDs of the prewar period was replaced by a "what-me-worry?" attitude. If I had a dollar for every time some administration official told us to be patient becasue Iraq is the size of the state of California.... That was when it finally dawned on me that we had all of us been had. There hadn't been any WMDs in Iraq and the administration had never been seriously concerned about the matter at all.

"We Don't Negotiate With Evil...."

Unfortunately, the administration never took the threat of the nuclear proliferation seriously in any other country either. In late 2002, while the administration was making the case that Iraq had WMDs, Bush claimed that "contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're [North Korea] enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon." The North Koreans denied it and angrily kicked out international inspectors. Only in February of this year was there a promising agreement to resolve the crisis, one that would stop the North Koreans from further enrichment but is tellingly silent on the fate of North Korea's nukes. And now the adminstration tells us that they have only "mid-confidence" that North Korea ever even had this uranium program... it's like dejavu all over again!

Of course, we've been down this road before. During the 1980s and early 1990s North Korea processed enough plutonium for 2 nuclear weapons, according to CIA estimates. In 1994, Bill Clinton and North Korea signed an agreement that put strict limits on North Korea's nuclear activities. During all this period, the North Koreans did not enlarge their nuclear arsenal. Now, the CIA estimates North Korea has enough enriched uranium for 8-10 nuclear weapons. After all that, we end up back with a modified version of the Clinton plan, with nothing to show for our war of words but a threefold increase in the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Great, I feel so much safer!

It's always worth remembering how these twin nuclear crises got started: with Bush's inclusion of Iran and North Korea with Iraq in the "Axis of Evil." Watching the US spend the next year readying for war against Iraq, the leaders of Iran and North Korea drew the logical conclusion: Uncle Sam's making a hit list and you're next! The only way to prevent this attack is to acquire some kind of deterrent, nuclear being the most effective.

It's not a coincidence North Korea's main demand for giving up its nuclear weapons all along has been the signing of a non-aggression pact with the US, something the administration has all along rejected. Just as it rejected the Iranian offer in the spring of 2003 to conduct direct talks with the US, with everything (nuclear program, ties to terrorists, recognition of Israel, and of course a promise of US respect for Iran's sovereignty) on the table. The rejection of this proposal, offered by the previous pragmatic president of Iran, contributed to a hardening of the Iranian position and the election in 2005 of the unstable and unpredictable Mahmoud Ahmadinajad. Bush can screech all he wants about how dangerous each of these countries is, but the fact remains, Bush himself is the reason they are more dangerous today.

Let us also not forget the completely bogus accusations then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton made in 2002 claiming that Cuba had biological weapons -- an accusation so ridiculous, the administration has never repeated it. When pressed on whether the administration had any "hard evidence" for this claim, then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer replied, "Nobody in the government said hard evidence. We said we have concerns." Sounds a lot like "mid-confidence," now doesn't it?

Winston Churchill once wrote, "To jaw-jaw [talk] is always better than to war-war." John F. Kennedy once said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Vice President Dick Cheney's wise counsel? "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it." God help us all.

The Greatest Failure

Perhaps the administration's single greatest failure to take nonproliferation seriously is the way it tried to gutt the Nunn-Lugar program, a program set up at the end of the Cold War to dismantle WMDs in the former Soviet Union. Since the collapse of communism, Russia has been even more of an economic basket case, with the soldiers guarding critical installations sometimes not paid for months and with security often shockingly lax. It's long been obvoious that if terrorists ever get their hands on a suitcase nuke or a vial of smallpox, they will have gotten it from Russia's aging stockpile. There is nothing more vital to US national security than ensuring that al-Qaida and its kin do not get their hands on this material, yet the administration decided to cut funding for this vital program by 10%!

There is a horrible disconnect between the administration's tough talk on stopping rogue regimes and terrorist groups from attaining WMDs and the fact that the administration has presided over the most profligate period of WMD proliferation in history, between Bush's rhetoric that, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," and the reality that the US has spent the last six years permitting--no, encouraging--just that.

The always-perceptive Glenn Greenwald saw the central mistake here: "We have plainly created an incentive system where every rational leader -- not crazed, Hitleresque, world-domination-seeking leaders -- but every rational leader, would assess that it is in his country's interest to acquire a nuclear capability. Of the three 'axis of evil' members, the one which was, by far, the weakest militarily was the one we invaded and shattered. But with the strongest of the three, North Korea, we have proceeded very gingerly, issuing plainly empty threats and bellicose rhetoric but doing little else.

"The message we have sent with our foreign policy is clear -- if you are a militarily weak nation, we may invade you or bomb you at will, but if you arm yourselves or, better still, acquire nuclear capability, we will not. That has become the incentive scheme produced by having the world's only superpower announce to the world that it has the right to preemptively invade other countries."

So, to recap: Preemptive wars are of dubious morality; preventive wars, like ours in Iraq, are immoral as sin; the Bush Doctrine of launching preventive wars and refusing to negotiate with countries we disapprove of has only had the effect of emboldening our enemies and making the world a far more dangerous place. There are those who will chalk this up to incompetence. Incompetence might be a valid excuse if the administration had done a good job of dealing with with other nonproliferation issues, only screwing up with Iraq. Yet, on the entire critical front of non-proliferation, the administration has presided over nothing but screw-ups--indeed, on every aspect of governing (from Iraq to Katrina to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fiscal sanity to immigration to stem cell research to the war on terror to health care to global warming, you name it), they have proven complete failures.

At a certain point, after six years of unmitigated failure, one has to ask the question: does this administration even care about our national security? Do they even care about governing? Or like the Vandals and Visigoths of old, do they have the mindset of a conquering army, swooping in to grab what loot and plunder they can to enrich themselves before they move on, with no concern at all for the people under their protection, with no concern at all for the horrible consequences their actions have for rest of their fellow-man? It is a sign of how badly governed we have been these last six years that the question even needs to be asked.

Update--2:40 pm: As soon as I put the last post to bed, I went up to the on-campus fitness center to work out before class. There, the tv tuned to CNN showed that there had been two shootings on the Virginia Tech Campus this morning, with 1 dead in the first shooting and 7-8 dead in the second shooting. After I got out of my class and got back to my room, I found that the death toll was now up to 22 and is the worst campus shooting in US history. Just now, CNN is saying that the new figure is at least 31 confirmed dead and 29 reported injured, making it the worst shooting in US history. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on this as more information is released about who did this and how and why they did it, as well as whether anything could have been done to prevent it (I'm sure coming four days before the 8th anniversary of Columbine, everyone will turn to increasing campus security as a magic bullet--I don't know about VA Tech but UNCC has a sprawling, completely open campus, so the same thing could happen here and I don't see a way to prevent it), but needless to say, the thoughts and prayers of a nation are with the VA Tech community today.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

In Defense of the Wikipedia

By: Michael Akerman


Right, so it's been a rough semester, but that's no excuse for the blog still wishing everyone a happy New Year, though the sentiment still stands. It's just that the year is not so new anymore. In fact, it's acquired a dull sheen of pollen, I think.

So, a short post to swing into the back of things.

It's a Wiki'd World

As my years in college progress, I am expected to write more papers, essays, and articles for my classes. This is to prepare me for a dismal life of doing the same as I report my findings to my boss or to the scientific community (in real life, it doesn't look like it's so bad. Presumably, you're writing about something interesting). Inevitably, the papers require sources to prove both that you researched something and you're not blatantly plagiarizing the work of others. Nearly as inevitably, a major restriction is hung like an albatross around the assignment: no Wikipedia.

In the scientific world, sources are expected to be trustworthy (well, let's make that "in the world world"). For scientists, this means at least one or two scientists have taken a gander at the paper and found it logically and experimentally sound. This is a wise course to take, of course, because there is a surprising amount of junk science that tries to float out, and it often does even with these safeguards. To the majority of the scientific community, this restriction means that the scientific literature and traditional encyclopedias are fine. Wikipedia is not. The general reason for this is "anyone can write anything they want to!"

This statement is, of course, only slightly true. You can write anything you want to. You cannot get it to stay, and you cannot continue to write anything you want to unless it's true. You get IP banned quickly for willfully vandalizing the Wikipedia, and vandalism is found quickly. Whenever a page is updated, it goes onto the list of recently updated pages. With thousands of nerds reading that page at any time (they have nothing better to do), suspect information is quickly noted, and the page is marked to note that the information might not be true. If someone actually knows information counter to what is posted, it is changed as soon as it is seen.

I remind you that there is a large number of people checking the "recently updated" page, and that these are largely very smart people (they're reading an encyclopedia for fun). It's not hard for them to catch inaccurate information. Clearly, one cannot rely on their steadfast observance in a very obscure subject where an expert is unlikely to be reading, but Wikipedia is generally a terrible source of information for truly obscure subjects, so you wouldn't use it for that anyway.

I ramble a bit. My point is, the Wikipedia isn't a lawless project where people shoot from the hip and onto the internet. It is, in fact, the most peer reviewed source available for most subjects. In the traditional literature, you must rely on the expertise of a small group of people who are tasked with finding mistakes in reports and articles that are often only tangentially related to their field. On Wikipedia, there are enough reviewers that one of them, at least, will be more closely associated with the field in an article than any of the members of the peer-reviewing committees can boast.

This doesn't mean you should take the information on Wikipedia at face value; far from it. You shouldn't take anything at face value, from a newspaper article to a table in "Perry's Chemical Engineer's Handbook." The only way to be certain you get accurate information is to understand the subject and think critically. If information doesn't make sense, it's probably wrong. This applies to traditional literature and the information sources of the digital age. Exempla gratia, I'm working on a computer model for work that uses equations and data from a peer-reviewed article that has been around for some time. One of the graphs in the article is supposedly based on 150 g/L of starch mixture. After the reaction, the graph shows something along the lines of 200 g/L of a mixture of the starches. 50 grams of starch prestidigitate into the data. Something is clearly incorrect in this peer-reviewed paper from a widely-respected source (I'm fairly certain they actually started with 200 g/L, and wrote the wrong trial's data in the text).

The point is, you can't really just trust anything. You have to look at it with a bit of the cynic in you, at least when the accuracy of the information is really important. Wikipedia is no different than the traditional literature, and, for non-obscure subjects, is more reliable.

I think the scientific community will come to accept sources like Wikipedia, but the old guard is the one standing at the door currently. All they've ever known are the journals from organizations such as the American Chemical Society. They are the standards they've relied on, and they have a hard time trusting new things. I think it's the same thing that causes so many senior citizens to resist embracing emails and IMs. It's a harmless change that they are simply not used to.

By my hand,

~Michael Akerman

Monday, January 08, 2007

Same Stuff, Different Year

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


So, Happy New Year and New Blog Formatting. Well, it's once again been a while since I last posted. What can I say, I've been busy. But it doesn't mean I haven't thought of things to blog about. Starting with my own New Year's resolutions, of sorts.

I've never been a big fan of New Year's resolutions. Honestly, the question to ask yourself is not whether you kept last year's New Year's resolutions, but whether you even still remember them. Far better to not even bother. My standby for years has been, "My New Year's resolution is to not make any more New Year's resolutions."

That being said, I do have certain... goals, for the new year. First off, lose a little weight. I've been eating healthier and even started going to the gym towards the end of last semester (which, as those who know me can attest, is little short of a miracle).

I also have come to realize recently how long it has been since I last sat down to write--not a blog post or a school paper, but writing creatively for fun, writing short stories, plays, poems, sonnets, even long stream-of-consciousness ramblings. In middle and high school, I spent a fair amount of time doing just this kind of writing, and I have always enjoyed doing it. I even fancy I'm not half-bad at it either. Somehow since I went off to college, I have virtually stopped writing for fun. I tell myself I don't have time right now, I have so many other things to do, and I'll do it later, but later somehow never comes. And I have plenty of ideas of things I want to write, whole scenes, and stories, and sagas, and plot lines all laid out. So, it really comes down to just taking the time to transfer them down onto paper (I'm somewhat old-fashioned that way, particularly with poems).

This past fall, I went to a poetry reading in Greensboro and after listening to five minutes worth of wooden and uncreative "poetry," declared (very softly to myself) "I can write poems better than they can." I spent the rest of the evening silently critiquing their poetry and devising better poems on the same subjects. Those efforts at one-up-manship (believe me, it wasn't hard) as well as some other poems and a short play that's been incubating in my brain for over a year will all appear on this blog this year. That's my New Year's promise to you, oh legions of loyal readers (and I'm talking to both of you!)


Well, I've not been posting much, but there's been no let up in the news: the usual, people dying or making fools of themselves. The big story has been death of Gerald Ford, which has sent the MSM into a veritable orgy of eulogizing and rhapsodizing about the Great Gerald Ford. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think he was a bad man or a bad president (nor an especially good one, either), but I fail to see what he did that he deserves such accolades and lionization.

The standard narrative, which is taught to us all in school and has been forced down our throats ad nauseum for years is that Ford, Nixon's VP and successor after he resigned, courageously chose to pardon Nixon, a decision which cost Ford election in his own right in 1976 but which is now universally seen to have been the right decision. Honestly, Ford wasn't in office all that long, so eulogizers of Ford have little else to eulogize, so they play this "noble pardon" bit to the hilt. From all the worshipful praise heaped upon this man by the MSM, you'd almost think Ford was one of our greatest presidents. The always-overrated Peggy Noonan outdid herself this time: "When he pardoned Richard Nixon, he threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame, from going too far. It was an act of deep political courage."

Yet what was so noble or courageous about the pardon? How would trying the former president in a court of law have been a "shameful" act? How would treating the president as being subject to the law, rather than above it, have been "going too far?" Didn't Nixon himself bring shame upon the country, didn't he go too far, when he decided that, in his own words, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,"?

What kind of twisted logic is this? Christopher Hitchins for once has it right: "By the standards of 'healing' celebrated this week, one could argue that O.J. Simpson should have been spared indictment lest the vexing questions of race be unleashed to trouble us again... Fine, if you don't mind living in a banana republic."

Implicit in the praise of Ford is the assumption that it would have been a horrible thing for a president who broke the law to be prosecuted for it. Yet, would it? Supposedly, Americans were in such a fragile state after Nixon resigned that it would have been unnessarily socially divisive to have allowed Nixon to stand trial and Americans just wanted to put it all behind them and "move on." Yet, in fact, Americans tuned in in droves to watch the televised Watergate hearings and were overwhelmingly furious when Ford pardoned Nixon, judging by Ford's approval rating falling from 71% to 49% in the week after the pardon. Contrast this with the 2/3 of Americans who told pollsters they thought the Clinton impeachment hearings were a farce and wanted to "move on"-- at a time when the Republican party and the MSM didn't seem so concerned with the delicate emotional state--or even the clear wishes--of the American people. Besides, it certainly isn't the government's job to look out for our fragile national psyche by shielding criminals from punishment.

But who didn't want to see justice done? Who had a vested interest in burying this whole mess? Why, the Republican party, of course. The sooner Nixon faded from the scene, the sooner voters would stop linking the party with its long-time leader and stop punishing Republican politicians at the polls. So, Ford had a vested interest in pardoning Nixon. He may have fallen on a grenade, but he took one for his team, not the American people.

Most obviously, of course, Nixon himself benefitted from the pardon. What is curious is how few people have wondered whether the pardon was part of a quid pro quo. Only a few days before Nixon stepped down, his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, stopped by Ford's office and told him Nixon was contemplating resigning and that his successor could pardon him. As if he wasn't sure he'd gotten the point across, Haig gave Ford two pieces of paper, one that detailed the President's power to pardon, the other a blank pardon form. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more.

Nixon was a brilliant man. He knew he would face legal trouble down the road, so a presidential pardon would be a wise prerequisite for him stepping down in the first place. And surprise, surprise, a month after he stepped down, he got just the pardon he'd asked for from Ford. And all just a coincidence! Honestly, how stupid do they think we are?

Worse, Ford was hardly disinterested in the matter. Since Ford's death, it has come out, in a piece that Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, had been waiting to publish until after Ford's death, that Ford was close friends with Nixon since the late 1940s, long before Watergate. He called himself Nixon's "only real friend," and promised Nixon in 1973 after the Watergate scandal broke, "Anytime you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call, Mr. President."

Most damning of all is this gem from his just-released 2005 interview with Woodward: "I looked upon him as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma."

Got that? He pardoned Nixon because Nixon was his friend and he didn't want to see his friend suffer the consequences of his own actions. A stirring tribute to the enduring power of friendship over the rule of law.

There are other nagging problems with the standard narrative. First, Ford never consulted his own attorney general about the pardon. Second, the pardon was a blanket pardon covering every action Nixon had undertaken as president, a preemptive pardon issued before any charges had ever been filed against Nixon.

Third, Ford didn't just stop with pardoning Nixon. Three days after Nixon resigned, he called Ford demanding that he hand over all of his official documents and the Oval Office tapes he'd made- about 1,000 reels of tapes and 46 million pieces of paper--all potentially incriminating evidence. The same day he pardoned Nixon, Ford announced that he was going to give those documents and tapes to Nixon, "with the explicit understanding that Nixon was eventually going to destroy many of the unreleased tapes." An outraged Congress quickly passed a law placing all the evidence under government protection, evidence which proved invaluable to historians seeking to figure out just how much Nixon knew about Watergate. If Ford had given those tapes and papers to Nixon, we'd almost certainly never have found out the full truth.

The most damaging aspect of this whole sordid mess is that Nixon was allowed to escape justice, setting a dangerous precedent. George H.W. Bush, on his way out the door in 1992, pardoned a number of his associates who had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and were in danger of serious jail time. Bill Clinton did the same. Scooter Libby's defense strategy seems to be to try to drag things out long enough to get a pardon from George W. Bush before he leaves office in two years. And should any former president, now or in the future, be thought in danger of legal action, it would be political suicide for the sitting president not to pardon them. "Why can't you be more like Ford, why can't you be a healer like he was, you're just dragging out our 'long national nightmare.'"

The legacy of the pardon is merely to reaffirm Nixon's chilling philosophy: "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." This kind of presidential immunity cannot help but lead to the futher corruption of our politics and the decay of our democratic institutions, as the principle of no man being above the law is tossed overboard--in the name of "healing" our polarized nation and "moving forward."

A final note: The MSM has found another reason to praise Ford since his death: he apparently also told Woodward in June 2004 that he would never have invaded Iraq and that it was a big mistake. So, Ford gets credit for having warned (more than a year after the invasion, mind you) that we should never have gone into Iraq. Ok, fine. Just one little problem: Ford told Woodward he could not publish or otherwise tell a soul about his true thoughts on the Iraq war until after Ford was dead. Had Ford spoken out publicly in June 2004, it could have made a real difference in the debate and perhaps the election, as well.

It's worth remembering that at the time, there was pretty much no Republican on record as saying going to war was a mistake. Had Ford publicly expressed his opinion on the war, it would have broadened the discussion and made the position of war critic a bipartisan one, indeed, given Ford's stature, a position above politics. We will never know if his speaking out then would have changed anything or led to a change in course in Iraq. But by privately speaking out against the war, while remaining mum on the subject in public, Ford got to have it both ways: to posthumously get credit for opposing the war without having to withstand the barrage of criticism such a position would have earned him from his own party while he was still alive and his criticism could have done any good. There are many things one can call such shallow-minded opportunism, but courage is not one of them.