Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

My European Vacation I

So, I drove through Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. I spent several days in Verona and Rome each, and a day in Venice and day in Paris. I can’t speak for all of Europe, or even all of Germany. I don’t fell I can speak with any real authority on any of these places, because I haven’t been there long enough. Even my statements about things like the roads can’t be take in whole of the network, but merely the roads I drove on, in the late summer of 2009.

The very first thing I learned is that “European” is not the east of the Atlantic version of “American”. In the States we tend to think of Europe as a lot more ideologically cohesive then it really is. People say things like “This is how they do it in Europe”, or “European style”, or “Already for sale in Europe”. When we say “American Way” we aren’t talking about the way Canadians, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, or Argentinians do things. Though those countries are, in fact, part of the American continent, thats not what we mean by American.

We are talking about the US of A way of looking at things. Because we are a nation of immigrants, more than any other nation, the adjective “American” means consistent with a certain ideology, a certain world view. For other nations, “German” or “French” means a racial type, a religion, or ancestry. There is no “European” view point, at least not yet. Maybe after another 250 years of the Union, but right now I would say a small town in Mexico and and small town in Minnesota have more cultural similarity then a small town and Germany and small town in Italy. There is no such thing as a European outlook.

Americans too, are convinced that Europe has far higher taxes then the US. It’s a stupid thought for a lot of reasons. First of all, there is no such thing as European taxes anymore then there is State social security taxes in the US. Each nation has its own way of doing things. Second, inflation is a form of taxation on future tax payers. You have to include inflation, the national debt, etc, when you figure taxes. Also, the US uses lower Federal level taxes, but our local taxes are much higher, making up almost 50% of total government income. If you really run the numbers, Germans pay only about 5 to 10% more total taxes then Americans.

Fuel (diesel in our case) is expensive everywhere we went, about 6 USD per gallon, making it twice what we normally pay. I’m not sure why though…Petrofuel is about the most fungible commodity on earth and traded very aggressively. Economy of scale being what it is in such an industry, the real cost of fuel varies by a few percent worldwide. The huge difference in cost is caused by the level of subsidy or tax placed on the fuel. The countries with the cheapest fuel have the greatest subsidy, and the countries with the most expensive fuel have the highest tax. Where is all that tax going?

Not the roads, near as I can tell. Germany, at least, doesn’t do gravel roads. If a road is government sponsored, its paved. The cost of paving and maintaining paved roads being what it is, they save money on the secondary roads by making them 4 to 8 feet wide, and contour following, which means they are pretty much just poured where ever without grading or cut and fill. The speed limit on them is often around 30 mph, and you have to slow to a crawl and pull of into the brush to let someone coming the other way by.

The roads (outside of Germany) are heavily tolled. I’d say I spent at least 100 USD going 1200 miles on tolls alone. And most bathrooms cost about .75 USD a person. The publicly supported ones were atrocious. Never in a America have a seen anything bathroom as disgusting as tax funded ones in Germany and Italy.

The interstates here (Autobahn in German speaking countries, Autostrade in Italy, Autoroute in France) are not that great. I’m sure in the US, you’ve been driving down the interstate looking at the ¼ mile of cleared right away on each side of the interstate as well as the 100′ wide median and thought, “What a waste of space! What do they need all that extra land for?” Well, growth. No, not every 4 lane interstate is going to grow into a 16 lane (at least we hope not. Yuck.) but lets say gravel road is paved making for a convenient new place to exit. With all that clearance, it’s east to put in a big, gentle, off ramp. Not here.

You usually have about 500 feet to go from full speed to about 18 – 40 mph to hit the turn. Often as not, the turn is banked…the wrong way (For minimum footprint, I guess.) Exits for both traffic flows go to the same side of the interstate, making for long, slow ramps. Since they can’t just lay the road where ever, those dual exits sometimes turn into a mile of highway making odd, sharp turns every could hundred feet (To fit on the existing rightaway between farmers’ fields) before you get the road you were exiting to.

The worst issue with the lack of right-away is construction. In the US, when you have long term repair to make, you just grade the shoulder or median, pour some blacktop and make a new lane while you work on the old one. Not an option here. When they need to close a lane, the have just put the road down to one lane. The individual lanes are so narrow they can’t use F-barriers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-shape_barrier), so they use pre-fabbed aluminum barriers that about 12” accros and 18” high. This makes your narrow lane even narrower, and is the only thing separating you from oncoming traffic. Also, they just slow thing way down. My average speed on the Autobahn/Autostrade from Trier to Verona was 75 KPH, about 46 mph. Bleh.

But the very, and truly worst road experience is reserved for the interstates into big cities. You see, they don’t have emanate domain over here. (In may come to a surprise to many Americans, but the US Federal government has significantly stronger property rights over it’s citizens then any nation I am aware of over here.) So the interstates go right into the center of town, and just sort of die…There you sit. Your interstate died, you are in the middle of a mideval tangle of alleyways, and don’t know how to get out.

Or you could take the train. Rail travel is subsidized here So you would think it is super cheap. Actually, flying is cheaper. The trains are great when you want to go a certain distance, to far to be close, and to close to be far, and where parking is very expensive. Berlin is about 8 hours from here, and the train is perfect for that. It’s about 150 dollars round trip, and you don’t have to worry about paying for parking for a week. But the trains are surprisingly slow. Since passenger rail service is provided as a public utility, the train must stop in every one horse town along the way, even if no one is there to get on board. Since this is Germany, it is rare that you find a spot more then 5 miles long without a stop for ramshackle old train station in some back holler.

Maybe the most surprising thing about this whole trip, (and I feel stupid for needing this shown to me) is that to the people who live there, its just somewhere to live. Some parts of Venice are very nice. Many parts are not. Public bathrooms have poop on the wall in Paris, just like in Washington DC. Over all I had a great trip, but Europe is (over all) much shabbier then spy movies taking place in Europe had led me to believe. Europe is just a place to live. As continents go, it’s pretty nice: pleasant temperature and a lack of anarchy or poisonous fuana make it far more attractive then say, Africa. But it’s not magical.

Rome was great, and probably my favorite part, but it lead to my other big realization. It’s a funny place, because everything you’ve seen your whole life that was supposed to make an area look expensive is in Rome, not looking expensive. Rome doesn’t have 17th century fountains to show off it’s wealth. It has 17th century fountains because in the 17th century, they thought the place could use some fountains. It has Renaissance sculpture because during the Renaissance, people in Rome made sculpture.

In short, Rome doesn’t have all of those icons of “expensive European city parts” to be an expensive European city. That’s why US cities have them. Rome has those things because it must. There are gorgeous fountains in Rome for the same reason there are curbs, stop lights, and fire hydrants in DeKalb Illinois: because when they were put in, it was the best thing to do at the time. Old European cities don’t have quaint winding streets and fascinating back alleys to be quaint and fascinating. They have them because that was the best way to do those things at the time they were done. US cities don’t for the exact same reason. Europeans  haven’t preserved them because of a morally superior relationship to their own history, but because of a tax and income climate that favors preservation rather then replacement.

Prarie Skyscraper, Alton, Iowa

Prairie Skyscraper, Alton, Iowa

In short, specialness is where you choose to find it. The bubbling fountains of Rome are beautiful, and though you can find copies of them all over the world, no city wears them as well. But, then again, the huge, grain elevators of Iowa, white and tall against the endless sky, are beautiful as well. I’ve seem nothing like them in Europe.

September 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Is the American System Good for the World?

This is TJ’s blog.  TJ asserts that the United States is responsible for numerous attrocites and gives references.   The references are largely solid, by my understanding, and, in part, I had this to say:

“In essence the links you have sent me say the US government lies, has poor or evil foreign policy, and uses it’s military for short term profit. Well, of course. No sane person would argue that. The case you need to prove is not that the US government does evil. All large organizations do evil. The case you need to prove is that the US governmental system does more evil than other available alternative systems, when given the same resources”

Specifically, I asked for a per person or per dollar measure of the attrocities, and TJ’s response was…

I appreciate that you say that no sane person would argue what you distilled my links to say: “The US government lies, has poor or evil foreign policy, and uses it’s military for short term profit.” But seemingly sane people seem to argue this all the time; most republicans seem to believe that our military escapades do in fact in some inexplicable way protect our freedoms here at home (even if they are willing to sit idly while these freedoms are stripped away by the government). In fact, I find it hard to believe that this tremendously damaging behavior to our safety and the safety of the globe would be allowed to continue unabated if only the insane would argue it.

My demand for a solid metric for suffering met this (reasonable) response: I don’t quite understand how you could or should expect to wait until the U.S. government is as efficient at causing suffering as say, the Sudanese regime, before trying to do everything in ones power to combat injustice.

Fair enough.  My reasons are as follows. Not all claims have a burden of proof. If you tell me you went out for cocktails with your aunt last night, I’m not going to fight to verify it. If you tell me I should donate large sums of money to you because of reason X, Y and Z, then I am going to verify your claim with rigor proportional to the money you request.  The degree to which claims are investigated and skepticsm is applied is proportional to the risk which is undertaken.

The claim is made, “The American Government should change the way it does things.”  A government is many things, but perhaps above all, a system.  A system is defined by all its parts.  Neither a track, nor a bridge, nor a junction is a railway network, but their sum is.  Changes in a system must be made holistically system wide, or the changes make things worse, not better.

The system can only do what the system was designed to do.  A railway network made for passengers will never work optimally for freight and vice versa.   No amount of refinement can change this because the cause of the failure is systemic.   All systems do what they are designed to do.  Changing the CEO of the railway will not change this.  Changing standard operating procedures will not change this.  Nothing can change systemic failure but systemic change.

If the system produces attrocity better than anything else, it is because that is what the system was designed to do. The issues of military policy, foreign policy, and civil intelligence, are systemic.  Stopping attrocity in those areas will not be achieved with a mere reshuffling of the buercracy.  It requires sweeping changes to the whole US government system.

Such a change is an enormous risk, and for the risk to be justified, the case must be made strongly that the proposed replacement system is better, and define what “better” means.

It is not enough to say the U.S. does harm.  Money is power.  A man with a million dollars could start library, a scholarship, or a charter school.  Or he could commit an act of unspeakable terror upon innocents.  Power is nuetral.  A million dollars can buy a million dollars worth of help or a million dollars worth of harm.  We must prove the current system does more harm and less good then the proposed replacement.  The U.S. currently has 20% of the wealth in the world.  Logically, we have 20% of the power in the world, and we use that power to achieve 20% of the harm done in the world, and 20% of help.

If the new system reduces the harm at the expense of the help, then then there is no net change, and attrocity will continue on, merely with new actors.  Further, the global community is a system as well.  The new system must not only allow for more help then harm, it must not impact the global system in such a way as to increase other nations’ capicity for harm.  Remember the the example of Sudan.  If the cost of reducing American harm is increasing Sudan’s capacity to do harm, the Sudanese system is significantly more efficient at producing harm.  Hence, America’s reduction in harm is offset, and again the attrocities continue with new actors.

For this reason, I do not support any change to the system, regardless of the local harm reduction, until the case is made that a change to the system will actually result in a global net loss of harm.  Otherwise, any fighting we do to change the system will, despite good intention, only result in more people being harmed.

July 21, 2009 Posted by | atheism, Christianity, Government, Politics, Religion, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Godless heathens sin less

This blows my mind.  Instead of blogging about it like I normally do, I just wanted to present the article in it’s entirety here.  So direct from the London times…

RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports: “Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

“The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions.

He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from “ uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

Mr Paul said: “The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America.”

He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane Katrina. He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. “I suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal performance of the Christian states,” he added.

He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

“The non-religious, proevolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

April 29, 2008 Posted by | Government, Politics, Religion, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Americans Hate Freedom

I realized something today.

Americans hate freedom.

Now, this statement will offend some. They will cry out, “We are the freest nation on earth,” “Americans love freedom,” and “Americans love freedom so much they will fight for the freedom of others.” I say, bologna.

As to the first: “We are the freest nation on earth.” How would one measure that? Well, how about percentage of the population incarcerated? Communist China has a population of 1.3 billion with 1.5 million in prison. America has a population of 300 million with a total of 7 million in prison. (1.) The US has more people in prison, both as a percentage of the population and as raw numbers, than any other nation on earth. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. (2.)

Perhaps it could be measured by the amount of red tape through which people have to wade? Well, the tax code (which is not even considered part of the enormous US legal code) is 13,458 pages in total length. (3.)

Well, perhaps, our constitution would tell us. Our first Amendment promises us, among other things, free speech. However, according to Brandenburg vs. Ohio, the Federal government is allowed to stop speech which will result in lawlessness. (4.) Boy, that would make it hard to organize the Boston Tea party, wouldn’t it? Also limited by B vs O is speech which hurts peoples feelings and speech which causes discontentment with the existing government. Second amendment? Superseded by US Code Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 44. What about the 3rd and 4th Amendment? Canceled by eminent domain. (Yes, I am aware that the Bush signed a law that says owners must receive just compensation. How do we figure a fair sale price for that which is stolen?) 5th Amendment? Still good. Except for the eminent domain part. 6th Amendment? Speedy Trial. Need I say more? 7th Amendment? Still good. 8th? Not so much, if you end up as an American citizen in a black site prison (5.) (6.) 9th Amendment? If we don’t follow the constitution, why would rights listed elsewhere be followed? 10th Amendment? Thats, funny. That would mean that any federal power not mentioned in the US constitution belongs to the states. Like the alphabet soup of Federal agencies that dot our political landscape, for instance.

So, pretty much the whole Bill of Rights has gone down the crapper. What about the “War for Iraqi Freedom”? Don’t we love the people of the world so much we will fight for their freedom for them? See, that’s kinda funny, to say “fight for their freedom for them” We go to someone else’s country and say, “We are free. You will be like us, and we will smart-bomb everyone who disagrees.” If you are not free to disagree with the occupying US government, exactly how much freedom are we exporting? You can’t fight someone else’s war for freedom. Not won’t. CAN’T. Freedom is a choice. You can’t make someone be free. It’s like a toddler with a gun saying “Have fun, or else.” Not much fun is it?

If you look at a pie chart of government expenses (Provided conveniently by the US accounting office.)

Federal Budget Pie - where it goes

the government's deceptive pie chart

So, you can see that at least 50% of the spending of the government is social programs. However, the truth is somewhat higher. Many things which you might not consider social programs at first blush, in fact, ARE social programs. The Department of Agriculture administers the Food Stamp program, the WIC program, and makes subsidy payments to agri-industry. $17 billion to Cargill for instance. Not to bad for a company that made $88 billion in sales and is the second largest privately held company on earth. (7.) (8.) Things like that make the above charts a little optimistic.

After spending around 20 to 30 hours (over severals months) here it seems the cost break down is more like 70% handout, 15% defense, 10% debt, and 5% all other federal costs. But, I digress. An examination of social security is sufficient to make the point that Americans hate freedom. The purpose of social security is to take a portion of your income for the rest of your life to pay for the current users. When you need the system you trust that your kids and any recent immigrants will make enough money that their income will pay for your RV. There is a name for an investment system where each set of new investors pays the dividends of the previous investors. It’s called a Ponzi scheme. What if you don’t want to trust a bunch of strangers and the future economy to provide for you? Well, you can still do your own retirement… while paying for everyone else who doesn’t. You can’t love freedom and social security! If you love freedom, you have a problem taking money from other people against their will for yourself, and you have a problem having your money taken away from you to give to other people. Love of freedom and acceptance of coercion can not dwell within the same heart.

So, I conclude, Americans hate freedom. We love coercion. We love it with every part of our hearts. We love telling others what they must do so much, we will surrender our right to decide what we want to do. I could go on and on. But this is only the setup for what I really wanted to talk about today, which is WHY American’s hate freedom.

I can only come up with 2 basic reasons that a person would hate freedom:

1. Freedom is hard work

and

2. Fear of responsibilty.

(One) breaks down into hard physical work and hard mental work. Imagine a person who is not very smart and not born to money. If they want to retire they will have to work many, many hours at unrewarding jobs for many years. They will have to live in bad parts of town (to have low rent) and never drive a new car. This is hard, and not fun, but not as hard as the mental part. The poor person who is trying to save does not get to buy whatever they want, they have to think about every purchase. If they are unintelligent, this will be very time consuming, and again, not enjoyable. They will have to chose work carefully to not spend too much time and money getting to work everyday. They will not be able to vote for whichever politician they like, for they will have to consider things very carefully before they vote or their hard earned money will go away.

(Two) This one is about fear. A person who loves freedom has no scape goat. When they suffer from heart disease at the age of 29, they cannot sue Krispy Kreme. They cannot blame bad parenting, or poor schooling. They can only say, “I did this of my own freewill. I alone am responsible and I alone bear the consequences.” This is anathema to the average American.

I say again. Americans hate freedom and love coercion. Americans hate freedom because they are lazy and afraid.

Now this presents me with a conundrum. All my life I have studied the form of government. I mistakenly thought the important part of government was the form. I realized this was false with the following thought experiment: Who rules more democratically? The king who fears revolution or the president who does not? Obviously, the ruler who must obey the desire of the people or lose his job rules more democratically. The form is meaningless. People who love freedom will self correct any error in form. People who hate freedom will bring coercion upon themselves.

The question facing all government, be it family government of children, church government, or national government is not, “What is the form?” It is this: how do we make people love freedom? The purpose of government is force. (I hear liberals whining about this. I say to them, “Do you think people would pay for those social programs you love so much if no one made them? Government is force.”) Since you can’t force someone to be free, government can do nothing to encourage freedom other than allow it.

But where does that leave me, the little man who wants to make the world a better place? How can I personally encourage freedom? I can’t force anyone to take it. I can’t talk about it for if people desire freedom only because of my words, they aren’t really free.

The only answer I know is this: I must be free. I must enjoy freedom whenever I can. I must fight for my freedom and allow others to do the same. People can then see my life and choose whether they like what they see or not.

March 17, 2008 Posted by | Government, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment