Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net
Saturday, May 31, 2003
Dumb beyond words
If Wolfowitz really said this, then he is dumb beyond the power of words to express:
Official implies top reason for war was to get U.S. out of Saudi Arabia
If these quotes are accurate, then there are only two possible conclusions. Either this is true, and the United States went to war against Iraq so that it could comply with the demands of Osama bin Laden, or it isn't true and Wolofowitz is dumb enough to say something so plainly foolish.
Independent political authorities in the EU and US
There's a common thread that's come to my attention lately in a number of discussions going on across the world of blog discourse. It's not actually a novel problem, but it seems to be on the brink of rediscovery. It is the discovery that answers to the question of who should govern are quite different from questions of how governance should take place.
One of the things that has that put me on this particular track is the discussion of the proposed EU constitution taking place across Junius, Euweblog, and Gallowglass. All are fairly critical of the proposed document.
As someone who has virtually no say in the outcome of EU politics and no more personal stake in it than anyone else who lives in EU jurisdiction, I have the benefit of not having to actually make up my mind about it. I have the suspicion that there is no possibility of an EU constitution which will at once work, stand a chance of actually happening and make anyone happy. I do want the EU to work. I think it is something hugely important. I think the current American model of how governance should happen is incompatible with the way anything outside America actually works, and I'm not too sure it's even compatible with how America actually works. Except for the EU, the alternative models of governance in the world have little appeal for me.
The EU has taken on the problem of making collectives that have very different identities and histories not just coexist, but actually thrive together. This is in sharp contrast to America, which has a stated policy of undermining any collective identity smaller than the whole community. The EU's circumstances bear much a much closer resemblance to the problems of the rest of the world than America's do, and if the EU can succeed, then there is at least one viable model of collective coexistence that might have some larger application.
My support for the EU is not quite a counsel of despair, but it's not a utopian ideal either. Yes, the bureaucrats in Brussels are undemocratic and unresponsive. Yes, the European Council is undemocratic. Yes, the European Parlement is ineffective and often a joke. Yes, the EU is a far from perfect institution which is far from optimally balancing the need for uniformity with the need for local empowerment. However, as bad as Brussels is, would you rather live with it, or Robert Mugabe? Which border would you rather live near, the Franco-German border or the Israeli-Syrian border? Which model has more bearing on the ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions in Africa and the Middle East, the EU or the US? A world that looked like the EU would not be a utopia, but it would be a great deal better than the world we've got.
I note, however, that the issue that seems to give people the most problems with the draft EU constitution is the power of the ECJ - the European equivalent of the Supreme Court. There is a fear - apparently well founded - that the ECJ would interpret this new constitution in a manner that gives it expansive powers over civil and human rights, and the authority to strike down national laws that contravene its interpretation of EU law.
There are two reasons why this might bother people. Either, they don't think it's right for foreign judges to make decisions over their lives, or they have seen the history of "judicial activism" in the US and other jurisdictions and dislike excessively powerful courts.
The first issue doesn't bother me. I find it incomprehensible that people would believe their own citizens to be any more specially competent than other countries' citizens. That a French judge might decide a matter of British human rights is something I would think most people would want to encourage, in part because a foreign judge is less likely to let local prejudices interfere with their judgement, and their own lack of stake in the outcome makes impartiality and uniform application of law more likely.
The second reason, however, has its points. For all the good judicial activism served in the establishment of civil rights in the US, it was this same nearly unlimited ability to draw power into itself which produced the outcome of the 2000 election. Judicial power is hardly incorruptible and it is deeply undemocratic. Worse, in most constitutional systems it is very hard to overrule them. Judges are, for the most part, not subject to direct election and the judges in the highest courts almost by definition never have to justify their decisions to anyone.
This problem isn't unique to judges either. One of the recurring complaints in the British press about joining the Euro is the undemocratic nature of the ECB. I suspect this question of independent authority is the key issue for the EU to overcome. Powerful, independent institutions will be unwanted and unloved, and it will be easy to get people to hate them. Powerful institutions under more democratic control will alienate national governments, which see themselves as the sole legitimate voices of their respective peoples. This makes establishing common institutions - the stated goal of the EU - especially difficult.
At first, I had a hard time understanding this. The Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank in the US are hardly paragons of democracy themselves, and I don't have the impression that the ECB is any less democratic. If I recall correctly, it seems to me that the political independence of the Bank of England is a fairly recent phenomena, and even in America the chairman of the Fed was considered the President's puppet as recently as the Carter administration. Only over the last 20 years or so has giving the governor of one's central bank the kind of independence usually reserved for the judiciary been considered a form of progress, just as the establishment of an independent judiciary is generally considered a progressive move in traditionally unstable countries.
In order to explain how this came to be, I want to draw your attention to an article written by Paul Krugman a couple of years ago on the effect of Sept. 11 on the American economy. It's called The Fear Economy and it discusses the prospect of a prolonged economic downturn in the US. Krugman very neatly summarises the logic that led to the establishment of an independent central bank:
The first line of defense against an economic slump is monetary policy: the ability of the central bank -- the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan -- to cut interest rates. Lower interest rates are supposed to persuade businesses and consumers to borrow and spend, which creates new jobs, which encourages people to spend even more, and so on. And since the 1930's, this strategy has consistently worked. Specifically, interest-rate cuts have pulled the United States out of each of its big recessions over the past 30 years -- in 1975, 1982 and 1991.
Notice how this argument parallels the traditional argument for judicial independence. The governor of the central bank will have little temptation to fiddle interest rates for short-term political gain if he is not an elected figure in the first place, just as a judge who does not have to stand for election has no special motive to make popular decisions. It is exactly the undemocratic nature of the limited autocrat which we are cultivating by advocating independent authorities.
At best, we can try to ensure that the autocrat has no vested interests. Alan Greenspan almost surely doesn't play the stock market. I am certain that he either has to disclose his assets or place them in a blind trust in order to ensure that his interest rate decisions don't affect his own wealth. With judges, it is somewhat harder to keep them disinterested since they may have a vested interest in oppressing minorities they don't like, or - as the 2000 election demonstrated - personal ideological interests. It is unrealistic to expect powerful people not to have opinions, ideologies and preferences, and it is probably no more realistic to expect them to act as if they don't.
I want to note here that Krugman goes on in his article to advocate the economic equivalent of judicial activism.
Now, however, it is widely understood that even if both conventional lines of defense fail, there is still a lot that you can do -- as long as you are willing to abandon conventional notions of prudence. For example, normal practice forbids central banks to invest in anything other than short-term government debt, for fear that decisions about what to invest in will become politicized. And since the short-term interest rate in Japan is already zero, there is nothing more that the Bank of Japan can do within the limits of normal practice. But given the economy's grave state, why not go beyond those limits?
My point is not to claim that Krugman is wrong - I'm not an economist, and I only occasionally play one on the 'Net - but to point to the existence of a more general class of problem. Patrick Nielsen Hayden has made an identical argument on his blog in favour of judicial activism. [As pointed out in the comments, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is not, in fact advocating judicial activism - just pointing out that it has sometimes been necessary.] The judicial activism of the civil rights era in the US followed a century of prudent and careful legal decisions that did not lead to justice. Justice only came - to some degree - when the court exceeded its mandate.
Krugman claims that the economic activities of government should sometimes go beyond what is considered best practice; that mandating consistent growth and price stability sometimes isn't enough. He makes it sound as if the reason for not doing so is simply fear of the unknown, but that is not necessarily the case. The resistance may come from the same place as resistance to judicial activism: from a well-grounded fear of creating new powers that can be manipulated for political ends.
I pointed out before that this is not a novel problem. The issue here is how to ensure good decisions get made when the decision-making process requires both expert knowledge and trade-offs between interests. I think that problem is pervasive.
The oldest category of government power that belongs in this category is military command. The recent unpleasantness in Iraq seems to have suffered from a government that was not competent to direct military affairs and did not leave the job to those who were. George Bush, despite the result of the 2000 election, can claim far more legitimate democratic authority than the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yet I suspect even his most loyal supports would not like to see him drawing up battle plans. The generals, however, do sometimes have to be politically engaged, as the occupation of Iraq shows all too clearly.
This problem is also relevant to any decision that involves scientific issues: Global warming, for example, or food safety. For all that one might claim that science is politically neutral, the debate over environmental issues shows how hollow that claim is. Few people will even try to understand the data and reasoning brought to bear on the problem, and even fewer have the expert knowledge to interpret that data themselves. Regardless of what side one takes, few people can honestly claim that their opinions are wholly their own.
Ideally, one would say that scientists are the experts, so they should decide. However, this is no different from judicial activism. It places power in an undemocratic authority which is far from incorruptible. Scientists are not elected and it is unlikely that electing them would lead to the most competent holding power.
Almost any issue that goes deeper than gut feelings - which basically means everything beyond our most fundamental notions of human rights - involves some aspect of weighing and interpreting evidence and finding competent interpreters. Governments, over the last century at least and possibly for far longer than that, have had to become more and more involved in exactly these sorts of issues.
Unfortunately, I don't think there's any simple, general solution to the problem. I have some ideas though about where to look for a non-simple solution.
Friday, May 30, 2003
Before somone googles it...
It has come to my attention that my great-grandfather's family estate, Apanlee, features prominently in a work of historical fiction called Lebensraum, written by Ingrid Rimland, a Holocaust denier and current owner of the Zundelsite (link leads to the ADL website). I am not, nor is anyone in my family as far as I know, linked to Zündel, Rimland, Holocaust denial, neo-Naziism or anything even dimly related to that end of the political spectrum. Some in my clan are quite politically conservative, none that I know are anywhere near so far to the right.
Most of my readers will not be surprised that I take a dim view of neo-Naziism, but there is a chance someone will find this page by googling for "Apanlee." I am disturbed to find any aspect of my family history invoked to such ends. Any effort to find a pro-Nazi message in Mennonite history - a people who have historically refused participation in any sort of violence even to save their own lives - is pretty doubtful.
There also seems to be some genuine confusion over the ownership of my great-grandfather's family estate in Russia. Since I'm working with nothing but Grandpa's text and what I can get off the web, I can't be sure how accurate my information is. Grandpa writes that Grandpa Dick's father, David J. Dick, owned the Apanlee estate, and Elsa Dick takes about Apanlee belonging to her father, but other sources mention another owner or part-owner. The name Jacob Sudermann also seems to be linked to the estate. I have a letter from Grandpa Dick in which he talks about Mr Sudermann as someone who lived at Apanlee and another document where he mentions him as a neighbour who left in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. Apanlee might have meant the whole area and encompassed several people's estates. I just don't know.
Thursday, May 29, 2003
Index to posts from my grandfather's biographical and geneological writings
To simplify matters, I'm putting up a post covering everything to date, so that I can just link back to it in the future. It includes the post directly below, the latest.
Grandpa Martens' autobiography:
Johann Martens (Grandpa's great-uncle):
Tina Martens (Grandma Dick - Grandpa's mother):
David Davidovich Dick (Grandpa Dick - Grandpa's adopted father)
I am planning to put up threeish posts on Grandpa Dick and his family before returning to Grandpa in the 40's. His life in the 1950's has some bearing on current events, so I'm hoping to get there fairly soon. Then, I may return to old Russia before getting to the 60's and the next generation of Martenses. My timeframe, however, is unsurprisingly vague.
I have not really had the energy for more political and philosophical stuff lately. First, I've decided to spend some time on an older project of mine, one that I might put up on this blog if I like the result. Second, my boss seems to approve of my plans for my department at work. I may even - *gasp* - actually get him to invest some capital in what we're doing. Unfortunately, this implies doing some fairly substantial work for at least a little while.
Grandpa Dick was, as I have already recounted, my grandfather's adopted father and the only father he knew. Grandpa Dick was born David Davidovich Dick on the 17th of October, 1900 in Apanlee, one of his family's estates, located in the Molochna colony, the largest Mennonite enclave in Ukraine.
I know this because when I was a young Russian student in Montreal, Grandpa sent me a photocopy of a document in Russian that he couldn't identify. I was able to tell what it was pretty much right away. It was Grandpa Dick's birth certificate. Translating it, however, was quite difficult. First, I had awful Russian. I was - I think - in my second semester, not too long before I quit Russian to concentrate on my core courses. Second, this birth certificate had been written and certified in 1913, and the Russian language went through a huge reform after the revolution. They didn't just change the way words were spelled, they actually changed the alphabet. The result was that I had a hard time even looking the words up in the dictionary.
The certificate is a printed form with blanks to fill in. I was able, with my trusty Russian-French dictionary and a short lesson in converting the old spellings to new, to piece together this little bit of Tsarist bureaucratic writing. However, there was one segment - just four words - hand-written in one of the blanks that I couldn't make any sense of at all. The dictionary was no use. Finally, I had to go to one of my profs - a native Russian - for help. He couldn't understand it either, saying that it wasn't very good Russian, although at least he had some suggestions on what it might mean. The four words were po reviziy v Goldshtadt', which I translated as "according to the record at Goldstadt." I still have no idea if it was a good choice of words.
At the bottom of the certificate is a printed seal in German. On the photocopy, I couldn't make out the picture in the centre, but around it, there are the words:
Siegel der Molotschner Mennoniten Kirchengemeinde zu Petershagen
There is a lot more material on Grandpa Dick's family than there is on the Neustädters or Martens. I think Grandpa simply knew more of those people. Most of it has not been written by my grandfather or Grandpa Dick, so I'm using several texts by different authors. I'm starting with a history of the Dick family written by Grandpa Dick's sister, Elsa, who concentrates on their father, David Jacob Dick. It goes further back than any other part of Grandpa's work, touching briefly on events from the Napoleonic era.
I am unclear on exactly when it was written. Elsa Dick Reimer was born on the second of March 1905 and survived into the second half of the 20th century, but I have not been able to find out when she died. Grandpa's notes explain that he got this material from Elsa's daughter Louise Reimer Heichman, a farmer's wife in Perdue, Saskatchewan, in October of 1991.
It was on June 29th 1861 that Jacob and Anna (née Schmidt) Dick gave birth to their sixth son, David. The family lived in what was then called South Russia, now the Ukraine, on a large estate called Rosenhof. He had an older sister, Anna the first born, and five older brothers, all with good Mennonite names: Peter, Jacob, Heinrich, Nikolai and Johannes. Later, the family had four more daughters: Marie, Helene, Justine and Louise. All eleven grew up in Rosenhof and were married there. Some stayed their whole life, others moved away, but it was always a closely knit family that stuck together through thick and thin.
So, the Dicks and Schmidts were a large German clan that traced its origins to the Napoleonic Wars. They didn't approve of dancing, but they were okay with three marriages between cousins. Oh, and they have land. Apanlee was actually only the smallest part of the Dick's estate. By the time Elsa was born, David Jacob Dick had inherited or purchased three large estates totalling roughly 35,000 acres. He was a very prosperous kulak. Students of Russia history know that in the end, things didn't work out so well for the kulaks, and the Dicks would prove to be no exception. But that will be in the next part.
Wednesday, May 28, 2003
US finds evidence of WMD at last
Someone at The Guardian clearly thinks he's funny.
The good news for the Pentagon yesterday was that its investigators had finally unearthed evidence of weapons of mass destruction, including 100 vials of anthrax and other dangerous bacteria.
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
On to Tehran
Is it just me, or has the rhetoric against Iran emanating from American media gone up a notch lately? I'm seeing stuff in the Times that looks a lot like what was going on just before Bush went after Iraq. According to Atrios, the professional apologists for American foreign policy are talking up a war. And there are disturbing noises coming out of Washington.
Does anyone know a good self-study Farsi programme? I'm sick and tired of wars where I can only follow half the news.
Monday, May 26, 2003
Finally, I got that quote from The Matrix Reloaded
One of the guys at work scored a 30 second MP3 of the Merovingian on the French language, and I can finally get the exact quote:
I love French wine. Like I love the French language. I have sampled every language, French is my favourite. Fantastic languge. Especially to curse with.
Update: Misspelled a bad French word. Thanks Aidan.
Congrats to the Batchos
Kevin Batcho, over at Beyond the Wasteland hasn't been blogging much lately, so I haven't been hitting his blog quite so often. Well, it seems there's been a new post up for a few days that I've only now just seen. Congrats, Kevin, on your new little girls. So, have they got names yet? If not, my wife recommends behindthename.com.