Friday, August 30, 2013

Notes on "A Crimson Overture"

Many years ago a fan of my Chess Hanrahan detective novels who had read all four in manuscript, and, in fact, had used the manuscript of the last in that series, Honors Due, in her detective literature course at a major university, asked me when she could expect the fifth adventure of the scrutinizer of all things observable. I do not recall what my answer was then. She had already read the manuscripts of the first two Cyrus Skeen Roaring Twenties novels, China Basin and The Head of Athena. Whether or not she had liked them, I cannot recall, either. But she expressed a preference for another Hanrahan.

This column is about why there will be no more Hanrahan detective novels, and why there will be no more Merritt Fury suspense novels, either. I will also explain why I have dwelt in the past and produced five Cyrus Skeen detective novels set in the late 1920's, the latest being A Crimson Overture, which edges into the 1930's.

Before going any further, I should mention in the beginning that what inspired me to write A Crimson Overture was Diana West's American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character, reviewed in my column Our Enemy Inside the Gates (June 8, 2013), in which she documents the influence Communists inside our government had on our foreign policies regarding Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the conduct of World War II. I had always suspected that there was something rotten in that particular phase of American history, and West lays out the whole stinking smorgasbord. She embarked on her project, not wholly incidentally, because she wanted to know why Islamists were having such an influence on our foreign policy, a policy which has grown in suicidal leaps and bounds in scale going back to at least the Carter-Reagan years.

I will not dwell on West's findings here. You must read her book and judge for yourself. I will say that I agree with her thesis one hundred percent.

In the previous Skeen adventure, The Chameleon, the detective's curiosity is piqued when he is paid with a bad check before he has even begun to look into the matter he was hired to investigate. He discovers a murder and an embryonic Nazi Bund a-budding in a university town south of San Francisco. And in the previous title, The Daedâlus Conspiracy, he journeys north of San Francisco to investigate and foil a possible plot to assassinate a prominent U.S. Senator.

Both titles led naturally to A Crimson Overture, in which Skeen delves into the murder of a courier of important information regarding the Soviet and Communist infiltration of our government, and before the third decade is even over (the following decade, the 1930's, will be deemed the "Red Decade"; that is the allegorical meaning of the title).

The chief attraction for me as a writer to work in this series, in that time period, is that the protagonist has far more freedom of action than he would have if he undertook the same actions today. More importantly, he is psychologically healthier, as are many characters in the series' "supporting cast." These aspects are important to me as the writer, as the creator. Were they absent, were they not values I hold in high esteem, I would not be able to lift a pen or poise my hands over a keyboard to write a single word.

To set a story in my own time, and imbue the protagonists with the element of unabridged, unopposed volition that is characteristic of Cyrus Skeen, is psychologically impossible for me to accomplish. My mind and creative powers revolt against the prospect. They refuse to generate any ideas that would lend themselves to a credible story. My mind stops cold.

Call that a failing, if you like. Or a lack of imagination. But it is my psychological health I am speaking of here, and no one else can judge it.

Also important to me are the values that such characters were likely to hold in that period.

I do not know how other contemporary detective and suspense writers manage to write what they do with stories set in our own time. I can only hypothesize.

They are clueless about the peril posed by a government daily acquiring the character of a dictatorship or totalitarian régime. This cluelessness or perceptual malaise would include not just the omnivorous power-seeking entities such as the NSA, the DHS, and the TSA, among other federal usurpers of freedom, but all the other intrusive and regulatory Goliaths such as the EEOC, the IRS, the FDA, the SEC, the HHS, the EPA, and other alphabetical abominations. Such writers seem to take these things as the metaphysical given, or even as metaphysically necessary, and craft their stories to accept them as benign, practical, or workable.

In the Cyrus Skeen series, Skeen is often in conflict with the federal authorities of his time, such as the Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition. He freely, in defiance of the 18th Amendment, consumes alcohol and patronizes restaurants that serve it. He is not above letting the air out of the tires of the automobiles of Revenue Agents., or even taking a sock at a Revenuer.

It is interesting to note that the enforcement of the 18th Amendment began with an arm of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, responsible for collecting taxes on alcohol. It was temporarily transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1933, and when the 18th Amendment was repealed, enforcement and collection of the alcohol tax was returned to the IRS. The ATF, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is its SWAT-happy descendent.

Chess Hanrahan, a private detective who solves moral paradoxes in four titles, and Merritt Fury, a fiercely independent entrepreneur in three, have been "optimized," given the nature and character of today's political and literary culture. That is, there are no more credible actions possible to them in terms of the scope of action they might follow to preserve their values or their lives.

They are men of action. In a culture that prohibits or regulates the kinds of actions they take, no action is possible.

When I wrote the Hanrahan series (With Distinction, First Prize, Presence of Mind, and Honors Due), and the Fury series (Whisper the Guns, We Three Kings, and Run From Judgment), I was pushing the edge of the credibility envelope even then. This was in the 1970's and early 1980's, when some leeway in action was possible and even credible. If they acted in a new story, set in contemporary America, as they do in those novels, they would immediately run afoul of some agency of government enforcement. It is a consequence I could not evade. And, technically, that would be the end of the story that would never be written.

Imagine Merritt Fury, a globe-trotting entrepreneur, submitting to the TSA's groping and searching at an airport. I can't. I won’t. Imagine Chess Hanrahan ingratiating himself with a murder suspect, sensitive to hurting the suspect's feelings and risking a lawsuit. I can't. I won’t.

Literarily and existentially, Hanrahan and Fury would not survive in today's culture. They would find it as repellant, esthetically barren, morally bankrupt, hostile, and doomed as I do. The only alternative for them would be for me to pen a fantasy. I am not a fan of fantasies. So, Chess Hanrahan and Merritt Fury are on strike. They will not reappear until, as John Galt says to Dagny at the end of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, "the road is clear."

In terms of a political and philosophical statement, if anything can be called that, my magnum opus is the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the pre-Revolutionary period and ending with the outbreak of war. That also is a series I wrote because its protagonists had freedom of action, and the freedom to think without worry of repercussions, and who were not vehicles of a cramped epistemology, as most men are today.

In the Cyrus Skeen series, I highlight some premonitions of things to come, and try to emphasize some parallels between Skeen's time and our own. Skeen is a man of the mind as well as a man of action. He is a perfectly integrated man. He notes, on occasion, the intrusions of the irrational in art and politics and even social mores. In A Crimson Overture, for example, he wonders about the futility of President Wilson having sent American troops to restore "democracy" in Russia during that country's Civil War after World War I. The parallels between the American role in the Northern Russia intervention, led by Britain, and our own intervention in, say, Libya, are too obvious to dwell on here. 

I will write more novels for Skeen until he reaches a time when he is no longer free to act without incurring political or social penalties. I will refuse to submit him, and his wife, Dilys, and their compatriots in spirit, to the indignities and baseness of our time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Boycott Kobo Ebooks

The last major ebook publisher, Kobo Inc. of Canada, has refused to remove its MP Publishing (Isle of Man, Great Britain) editions of my Sparrowhawk series from its online catalogue, citing a contract between Kobo and MP Publishing.  See the Wikipedia entries on Kobo Inc. of Canada here:

This overlooks and evades the fact that MP Publishing, with whom I did not sign a publishing contract, was sold the publication rights to the series by a now defunct publishing firm, MacAdam/Cage of San Francisco, which has not paid me royalties earned by the series for the second half of 2012, per the now inoperative contract between MacAdam/Cage and me, and as of today's date. This is clearly a breach of contract, to which MP Publishing is party, because it, too, has not bothered to pay me earned royalties, nor sent me a statement of earnings, and has remained silent on the matter. Culpability in this piracy is clearly extended to Kobo of Canada, because it now has knowledge of the facts in the case.

Kobo's position on the matter is that the legal relationship is between MP Publishing and me, not between Kobo and me. This is transparent evasion and dishonesty, reducing Kobo to the criminal status of a fence.

I am requesting that readers here who use Kobo ebook readers of any kind refrain from purchasing any Sparrowhawk title from Kobo (and, in fact, boycott the firm altogether). Regardless of the status of the contract between Kobo and MP Publishing, it is a contract which expropriates earnings from my intellectual property, which as of this date, is stolen property.

Legal recourse to correct this theft or piracy would entail hiring a British solicitor or attorney to represent me in any action against MP Publishing. This is a costly alternative clearly beyond my means. MP Publishing knows this, and is counting on the prohibitive cost such an action would entail to protect it from any just and untoward penalties. It would probably bring Kobo of Canada into the litigation, as well, making it an international issue and doubly complicated.

Readers who peruse the Wikipedia entries on Kobo will see that the piracy of my intellectual property is international in scope, extending to France, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as Great Britain and Canada.

The simplest and most honest action Kobo could take, considering all the facts in the matter, would be to remove my Sparrowhawk titles from its sites. This it refuses to do. It is willfully abetting MP Publishing's theft of my intellectual property.

Thanks for your cooperation in this matter.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

When Nudge Comes to Shove

In my past column, "Nudging Us to Serfdom," I wrote that on January 30th, Maxim Lott of Fox News reported:

The federal government is hiring what it calls a "Behavioral Insights Team" that will look for ways to subtly influence people's behavior, according to a document describing the program obtained by Critics warn there could be unintended consequences to such policies, while supporters say the team could make government and society more efficient. 

David Brooks of the New York Times on August 8th entered the "nudging" fray with his own mild-mannered perspective, "The Nudge Debate," on whether or not the government should "nudge" Americans to adopt accepted behavior as defined by, well, the government, advocacy groups, and "public-spirited people" with influence in Washington D.C.  

I say "mild-mannered" because to read his op-ed, you would get the impression that he thinks the semi-subliminal autosuggestions, and some of them not so subliminal, promoted by government really aren’t so insidious or bad. The government may or may not know best, but its intentions are benign. You would turn the page thinking he could perhaps be talked out of his wussily worded position on Cass Sunstein-caliber "nudging."

Mark Tapson of FrontPage, in his August 14th "The Soft Totalitarianism of Nudging," more or less "bitch-slaps" Brooks for having endorsed the whole idea, commented:

Brooks looks to saviors he calls “public spirited people” to design ways to rescue us from our incompetence and sloth. These betters of ours are designing “choice architectures” that guide us, like cattle, in the direction of what the left deems to be the proper moral and societal choices. To apply this theory to policy-making, the public spirited people in the Obama administration recently announced the creation of a “Behavioral Insights Team.”

Tapson summarizes the Brooks perspective:

“These days,” Brooks concludes, “we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.” Actually, what Americans need is less condescension and suffocating control from arrogant nanny-state elitists like Obama, Sunstein, and Brooks, and more freedom to exercise our individual rights and personal choices.

The last thing Brooks, Obama, Sunstein and other ambitious "people managers" would want to be called is "totalitarians." After all, some of them have even read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. They suspect, but do not dwell on the possibility, that "some modest paternalism" is inherently the parent of immodest, total control. Once established, it knows no bounds. They suspect the ultimate consequences of such "benign" despotism, but do not identify them. They do not wish to see the naked core cause of all their condescending "humanitarian" proclivities. Because that is where a closer examination of their premises would take them.

All "soft" totalitarians are walking embodiments of Doran Gray, and the essence of their "souls" is not hidden in a locked attic beneath a dust cloth, but in a lightless, dank cellar. They are vampires, and fear the light.

Yes, Tapson is right. What Americans need is less condescension and suffocating controls from the likes of Obama, Sunstein, and Brooks – to name but a few in a legion of such arrogant elitists. But individual rights and personal choices are precisely what they are the enemies of.

Let's examine Brooks' op-ed in some detail. He writes:

….[P]eople are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.

Let's take it for granted that Brooks isn't speaking for himself, though I am of the opinion that he is mentally lazy, for otherwise, like "economist" Paul Krugman, he wouldn’t make such blatantly foolish statements. Who determines what is a "long-term benefit"? Or a "short-term pleasure"? Congress? Consensus? The AMA? Popular opinon? What risks are worth calculating? And whose are they? What does Brooks mean when he says "we're mentally lazy"?

We make decision-making errors when thinking in our own language that we don’t make when thinking in another language. When asked to thin in a second language, we're forced to put in a little more mental effort.

Whatever that means. Perhaps it means, for example, that when we slid into our cars, our purpose is to go somewhere and return safely and sound. That's our "own language." Perhaps by the "second language" he means the government's mandating strapping on a seat belt. Or buying lead-free gas.

As these cognitive biases have become better known, public spirited people naturally want to design ways to help us avoid them. In 2009, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein published a book, called “Nudge,” on how government and other organizations could induce people to avoid common errors. Last year, Sunstein gave the Storrs Lectures at Yale on the topic, which will soon be published as a book called “Nanny Statecraft.” Last month, the Obama administration announced that it is creating a new team to explore applications of this sort of empirical research to policy-making.

There's an interesting concept: "cognitive biases." What it means is that men's cognitive faculties are flawed, subjective, and highly prejudicial. Thus Brooks reveals here that he is WUI, that is, writing under the influence of Immanuel Kant, who alleged that our minds cannot really see or know reality, but only a filtered and highly unreliable "impression" of it.   Ergo, the reality we perceive is deceptive, optional, and malleable. It can be or mean whatever one's "biases" wish it to mean, however it imperfectly comports with our prejudicial "biases."

But are a government bureaucrat's "cognitive biases" more equal than others'? He cannot prove it – reality is unknowable – but your intake of more calories than what his scientists say is good for you empowers him to "nudge" you to consuming calorie-reduced foods, because a "healthy you" is an intrinsic value. To whom? To him. How does he know this? He doesn't. It's just official policy. There's no use in resisting a government policy. Just do it.

Brooks' notion of "cognitive biases" puts him in the dubious company of Paul Krugman, whose August 15th New York Times column, "Moment of Truthiness," dwells on how "others" manipulate reality to make us think wrong things. Writing about the conflicts between voters and politicians, about misinformation and the lies and half-lies of sitting politicians and bureaucrats, he notes that

We…all know that that reality falls far short of the ideal.

Or did Krugman mean that the ideal falls short of reality? Or of the reality?  Reality is optional? Kant said so. "Truthiness" means that there might be an element of truth in an assertion or observation, but we'll never know. To Krugman, a Nobel Prize recipient for his economic flights of fantasy and advocacy of inflationary policies to spur economic growth (the "Keynesian resurgence"), reality is discretionary.

If an economy is "mired" in the consequences of past reckless fiscal policies, the solution is to adopt even more reckless fiscal policies. After all, reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Lots of people running around hectically performing pointless make-work and being paid by the siphoning off of actual economic values is the way to go. If we can't know reality, we can fake it.

Krugman's "ideal," however, the one that is too good for reality, is a virtual world non-stop Looney Tunes cartoon, with Krugman in the role of Foghorn Leghorn.

But, enough of Brooks' brain-brother.

We're entering the age of what's been called "libertarian paternalism." Government doesn't tell you what to do, but it gently biases the context so that you find it easier to do things you think are in your own self-interest.

Context biasing. There's another wussy term for changing the cognitive filters. There's not much contextual difference between a mugger telling you, "Your money or your life," and if you think it's in your self-interest to resist him, he will kill you and take your money anyway – and a government telling you, "File your 1040's or we will destroy you," and if you resist, it will put you in jail and take your money anyway. In both instances, it is values – your money – that is the object of theft, together with your future, which is held hostage.

So, the "soft" biasing in the first instance is in giving the mugger the money and preserving your life; in the second instance, it is complying with myriad government diktats to avoid fiat punishment, diktats ranging from paying "your" taxes, conforming to environmental regulations, not smoking, using seat belts, eating "healthy" foods, enrolling in Obamacare, and in general obeying all the prison rules, and preserving your life. And if you are in business, it is a matter of complying with hundreds if not thousands of regulations that govern manufacturing and services and other tradable values, such as various kinds of insurance.

The truth is that virtually all government policies today are reducible to crude criminality. All employ the element of force or threatened force via fraud or extortion.

Brooks gives us samples of his caliber of "nudging":

Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise. Government could crack down on companies that exploit common cognitive errors to induce you to pay more for your mortgage, bank account, credit card or car warranty. Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.

Brooks of course would argue: Well, a nudge-happy government wouldn't force you to do these things. Adhering to the "superior" value established by government is strictly a "voluntary" choice. And so he covers his bases this way:

But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.

If hell is created by "good intentions," then "moderate" paternalism leads to such things as the regulatory behemoth Environmental Protection Agency, which began as a miniscule offshoot of the conservation movement. The proposed EPA budget for 2014 entails spending billions of dollars. Brooks concedes that policymakers are governed by their own "cognitive biases," but their "meaning well" is justified by their ends, not necessarily by their "means." The movement that began by advocating the saving of trees has spawned a gigantic bureaucracy that commands the saving of the planet.

Individuals may be imperfect decision-makers, but they still possess more information than faraway government rule-makers. If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.

In his single reality-based observation – in his first sentence – Brooks explodes the myth of a "planned," "scientifically managed" economy. But then he qualifies it with the subtle suggestion that individuals "thinking for themselves" means thinking the way the government wishes us to think.

The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism. If companies are going to trick people into spending more on, say, bank overdraft fees, shouldn’t government step in to prevent a psychological market failure?

Brooks obviously doesn't know his history, just as Barack Obama doesn't know his deepwater Gulf ports. There are innumerable instances of "soft paternalism" morphing into "hard paternalism." For example, Weimar Germany was a consequence of the Bismarckian "paternalism" of a welfare state, and the bloody contest for political power between the Communists and Nazis in the Weimar Republic itself paved the way for Nazi rule. The agrarian reformers of Tsarist Russia paved the way for totalitarian Communism and the Soviet Union.

Brooks is right: The role of government paternalism indeed is a philosophic question. But he is incapable of answering it because his woozy conception of it leads him to endorse such paternalism. To wit:

But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections.

All the "voluntary" options cited by Brooks are approved by the government or by one or another influential advocacy group. In Brooks' shrunken universe of "concrete benefits," organ donations, shunting junk food out of sight to a faraway corner, and guaranteeing one's charitable giving are hands-on "empirically verifiable" imperatives, intrinsic in nature, and not to be questioned. He has no need for any "stinking" abstract theoretical objections.

I’d call it social paternalism. Most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good. To some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms, a preference for saving over consumption, a preference for fitness over obesity, a preference for seat belts and motorcycle helmets even though some people think it’s cooler not to wear them. In some cases, there could be opt-out provisions.

So, government paternalism is the same as "social" paternalism. Who establishes social norms and judgments? What does it mean for us to "be good"? Government should embody those norms and judgments, and allow individuals to "opt out" if their "wrong" biases urge them to.

And that's when "nudge" escalates to "shove," and out come the handcuffs wielded by the "public-spirited" wardens of the "moderate" paternal state.