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