The Long View 2005-01-14: Simple Taxes, Simple Spelling, NGOs & Evil Robots

John noted in this blog post that Google's ad policies were inadvertently standardizing spelling. Google search does much the same thing. If you really wanted to change spelling, maybe that would be the way to do it?

Simple Taxes, Simple Spelling, NGOs & Evil Robots

Now that even the Supreme Court of Ohio has agreed that George Bush really did win reelection last November, his more prominent supporters feel increasingly free to point out the inconsistencies in his program. The chief inconsistency is the Administration's attempt to fight a low-grade world war with a peace-time military and a budget to match. However, the same tensions exist in the Administration's domestic plans. In fact, the most important project the Administration plans to undertake, a reform of the tax code, is inconsistent with everything else the Administration hopes to achieve. As Andrew Ferguson points out in the January 17 issue of The Weekly Standard, this was apparent even from George Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in New York last year:

In the excitement generated by so ambitious an agenda (you knew it was ambitious because the commentators kept telling us it was ambitious) a few things were overlooked. For example, one paragraph before he promised to simplify the tax code, the president promised to make our country "less dependent on foreign sources of energy." And two paragraphs later, he promised to attract new businesses to poor communities by creating "American opportunity zones." And two paragraphs after that, he promised to "give workers the security of insurance against major illness." Then he promised to encourage the construction of "seven million more affordable homes in the next 10 years." and then he promised to make it easier for everyone to go to college.

I was and am a supporter of the Bush Administration, but being happily obscure, I could remark on the incoherence of all this even at the time:

His domestic proposals, which were supposed to set out a forward-looking program, were numerous, petty, and, for the most part wrong-headed. They were also incompatible: how can you advocate simplifying the tax code while basing almost the whole of your reform of entitlements on the creation of new tax shelters?

What is the correct principle? If you really believe in a market economy, then the fiscal ideal for you is a system in which no business decision is ever made for tax purposes.

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Speaking of inconsistencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have until recently been spared serious critique because they are regarded as essentially democratic. Where democracy does not exist, it is thought, they at least embody the civil society from which democracy will later spring. In the developed world, of course, the democratic credentials of NGOs are increasingly under question. Now comes Ray Takeyh, in an article entitled Close, but No Democracy that appears in the current issue of The National Interest. He suggests that, in Arab autocracies, NGOs are a substitute for democracy, and not its precursor:

As political parties have been undermined, popular energies are channeled into NGO activity. The Arab world's liberal autocracies have witnessed a proliferation of advocacy organizations promoting a variety of causes ranging from women's rights to environmentalism. Washington, Brussels and the democracy promotion community erroneously see in such activism the nascent signs of a progressive society deserving assistance. However, given these organizations' elite nature, foreign funding and lack of grassroots presence, they are incapable of mounting sustained opposition to the ruling regimes. It is political parties, not NGOs that can sustain a popular movement, which is the reason the rulers have condoned the activities of the NGOs while preventing the emergence of effective political parties.

Some of the finest organizations in the world are scientific and humanitarian NGOs, but good intentions rarely go unpunished.

* * *

Now that Alternative History is approaching literary respectability, we should note that it is not confined to the United States. Giampeitro Stocco recently published a novel, Nero Italiano, that is premised on the idea that Italy remained neutral during World War II, and that Fascism eventually became respectable. An English edition is expected.

* * *

The humiliating failure of Oliver Stone's film, Alexander, led Caryn James of the New York Times to devise a general theory for cinematic misfortunes of this sort: The Making of a Megaflop: Curse of the Pet Project:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestPassion of the ChristThe Razor's Edge

That's true enough, but I would suggest that one such project, Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, belongs on the short list of the greatest films of all time.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is reason to suppose that English is becoming a Google artifact:

Google's AdWords division, which is responsible for the contextual ads that appear alongside search results, insists on standard English and punctilious punctuation...Google maintains an in-house style guide, which it says is a living document, expanding over time to include neologisms and pop culture references...AdWords submissions are screened by an automated system that flags flagrant violations like multiple exclamation points. Ads that clear this hurdle are posted on the Web, but eventually reviewed by editors.

This development is particularly annoying to spelling reformers, who look to the flexibility of ad copy as a source of new and simplified spellings. However, there is nothing new about an important social institution being driven by a single large commercial enterprise. American law was transformed in the 20th century when the West Publishing Company, for the first time in history, made all the opinions of the higher courts available everywhere.

* * *

I have in the past spoken high words against the old science-fiction series, Battlestar Galactica, which I would only amplify if given even the least encouragement. The premise is that a human civilization far off in space is nearly exterminated by a conspiracy of robots, but the survivors flee to find a new home. The concept is okay, but the execution in the first series gave space opera a bad name. Nonetheless, I recently saw the made-for-TV movie that was stitched together out of the new BG miniseries. I agree with the New York Times review, Retooling a 70's Sci-Fi Relic for the Age of Terror, that it did have an effective post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The review also noted something that had occurred to me, too:

Perhaps the most significant change was making the Cylons capable of passing as human, a decision that grew out of production constraints. "It was initially a practical problem," Mr. Moore said, explaining that it was too expensive to create convincing robots for regular appearances.

The humanoid Cylons are also much better looking than the extras-in-armor who played them in the first series.

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Suffering from jet lag? Bewildered by time zones? You may find some comfort in a sunlight clock. You will suffer no less, but you will at least be able to conceptualize your misery.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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