Friday, May 29, 2009

My First Week in Washington

Things are going well. I've been doing a variety of things at my internship. After settling in I've mostly been helping with IT work and doing research on cybersecurity. I did some editing for this piece, and have written a commentary on the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 (S. 773). Where my piece will end up is uncertain at the moment. I'll post with more info on it once it's found a good home.

I visited Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. I started writing about it that evening, and I'm about halfway through what will be my longest blog post to date by a wide margin. Look forward to pictures.

Also, I found out today that the next G20 summit will be in Pittsburgh about a month after I get back. The activist in me has his thinking hat on.

In any case, that's all for now. It's been an eventful week and I need to hit the sack.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day at Arlington

I'd been to Arlington National Cemetery once before my visit this Memorial Day. It was on a trip with the Boy Scouts back when I was in Jr. High (might have been before that even, come to think of it). We didn't stay long; just a visit to JFK's tomb and a jaunt over to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Also, I was probably about twelve; I imagine my worldview was somewhat different a decade ago. This trip, then, was destined to be different. I was alone with my thoughts, and free to set my own agenda.

Arlington is easily accessible by subway. I arrived in the early afternoon--the President had long since left--and the sun overhead stung my eyes as I rode the elevator up out of the station. I didn't really know what to expect in terms of an itinerary; the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Kennedy gravesite are the most famous parts of Arlington, as far as I know, but beyond that I was clueless. The first thing you come across is a visitor's center. I grabbed a map and left.

I decided to work my way towards the northwest corner first. There are a few veterans of the Revolutionary War buried there, and both the Kennedy graves and Arlington House are on the way.

My first stop was at JFK's grave. It's a very moving memorial. You walk a path up to the site that ends at an elliptical paved area. Imagine a line that splits the ellipse in half the long way. On one side of this line, along the edge of the ellipse, there is inscribed a collection of quotes from his inaugural address, which I've reproduced below.
Let the word go forth
From this time and place
To friend and foe alike
That the torch has been passed
To a new generation of Americans.

Let every nation know
Whether it wishes us well or ill
That we shall pay any price - bear any burden
Meet any hardship - support any friend
Oppose any foe to assure the survival
And the success of liberty

Now the trumpet summons us again
Not as a call to bear arms
- though embattled we are
But a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle
A struggle against the common enemies of man Tyranny - Poverty - Disease - and War itself

In the long history of the world
Only a few generations have been granted
The role of defending freedom
In the hour of maximum danger
I do not shrink from this responsibility
I welcome it

The Energy - the Faith - the Devotion
Which we bring to this endeavor
Will light our country
And all who serve it
And the glow from that fire
Can truly light the world

And so my fellow Americans
Ask not what your country can do for you
Ask what you can do for your country
My fellow citizens of the world - ask not
What America can do for you - but what together
We can do for the freedom of man

With a good conscience our only sure reward
With history the final judge of our deeds
Let us go forth to lead the land we love - asking His blessing
And his help - but knowing that here on earth
God's work must truly be our own.
Looking beyond the inscription you see a panorama of the capital, with a clear view of the Washington Monument. Opposite the inscription, on the other edge of the elliptical plaza, a wide staircase of about ten steps leads you up to the grave proper. Kennedy is buried next to his wife and two infant children. Instead of headstones, there are horizontal slabs which interrupt a larger rectangle of cut stone. Amidst the stone and above the polished slabs is an eternal flame.

From there I went a little bit to the south to see Robert Kennedy's grave; it is adjacent to his brother's gravesite. It's a smaller memorial than the Presidents, featuring a relatively humble grave separated by a small plaza from a pool of water at ground level that spills over into a ditch, from where the water is recirculated.

From there I made my way past a burial monument to the unknown dead of the Civil War (housing the remains of 2,111 soldiers), next to which was a wreath with a small tag which read in a curling script, "The President." That struck me as interesting--I liked how it detached the man from the office; no one can accuse President Obama of campaigning through Memorial Day wreaths. A lot of the time, politicians plaster their names on things every chance they get--the sign at the NY/PA border says "Welcome to Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, Governor." Also, it was a nice change of pace from what has felt like the first President who's persona is treated like a brand, complete with snazzy logo. In any case, I didn't stay too long, and moved on to see Arlington House.

Arlington House, I have to say, I was not expecting. I knew somewhere in the back of my head that Arlington used to be private property, but I hadn't heard or had forgotten the story that goes along with it.

According to the Park Service pamphlet I picked up at the entryway, the house was built as a residence and a tribute to George Washington by his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis's daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married a lieutenant by the name of Robert Edward Lee.

A few years later, Lee's plans no longer included residing at the estate; he resigned his commission and joined the Virginian forces. The Union confiscated the estate and began using it as a military burial ground. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Arlington House is a national memorial to Robert E. Lee.

The house itself is nothing incredible; however, it is at the highest point in the cemetery, as far as I could tell, and provides an excellent view of the surrounding area. Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant--the civil engineer and architect credited with planning much of Washington, DC--is buried nearby, which seems fitting.

I wasn't able to find any of the graves of the Revolutionary War veterans when I got to the northwest corner. Lots of interesting tombstones, but nothing that I could identify as belonging to a Revolutionary War vet. Arlington tends to jerk one around a lot, emotionally. On one side of you you'll have a grave of a person who's first name is 10+ letter long, middle name is 6ish letters long, and last name is 3 letters long. This is clearly hilarious. On the other side you'll have a family tomb where the son died at 22 and both parents are still alive, with their names and years of birth on the stone but no date of death. This is rather tragic.

I walk for a while along the western edge of the cemetery, near Fort Meyer. It's about 2:30, and it's started to rain, but I have an umbrella. I hang a right and approach the Confederate Monument. There are graves heading radially outward from the monument in the center, next to which is another wreath from the President. Leaving the main road and approaching the monument, I stopped and looked at some of the headstones.

If someone ever asks me what I think it is to die alone, I'd point them to the spot where I took this photograph. This soldier is nameless, and lost to history. We'll never know who he was or why he fought. I suspect many Americans would be less than charitable in answering that last question. His family never knew his fate, and must have waited anxiously for months before finally giving in to despair. To die on a battlefield far from home would be depressing enough. To leave behind no identifying trace--and no closure for one's family? Devastating.

He couldn't have known it when he died, so I suppose it doesn't matter, but his anonymity left a blank canvas upon which history's pen has left a caricature. He has no name, no face. Others are invited to impose an identity upon him. It's dehumanizing.

Beyond that, though, the tombstone begs you to ask, "what was this confederate soldier?"

I'm forced to answer that he was nothing more or less than a man--imperfect and ephemeral. More that that, I should not presume.

From the Confederate Monument I headed east, towards the Memorial Amphitheater and the adjacent Tomb of the Unknowns. Along the way I saw a memorial to the Americans killed in the Battle of the Bulge; it was a gift from Belgium and Luxembourg. A short ways past it was a group of graves of nurses. There was another wreath at a memorial to Spanish-American war casualties. The wreath stand had fallen over, so I set it back upright.

I walked a bit to the northeast to the Memorial Amphitheater. Everything was still set up from the President's appearance earlier in the day. I arrived just in time for the changing of the guard at three o'clock. Thankfully, it had stopped raining. Before the scheduled changing, there was a minute of silence. I don't remember which government office had made the request. The changing of the guard is kind of neat to watch, but I found it emotionally cold compared to seeing the simple tombstones marked "unknown" scattered around the cemetery. A few photos of the ceremony are below.

Immediately following the changing of the guard, there was a wreath-laying ceremony. I had remembered this from my visit with the Boy Scouts. For whatever reason, the wreath-laying struck me as more personal, both on that visit and this one. Maybe it's because wreath-layings usually involve the public, whereas the guard-changing doesn't? In any case, I took some photographs, although I didn't get a shot of the folks actually laying the wreath, because for that part of the ceremony everyone was asked to put their hand over their heart.

After the ceremony was over, I walked around the Amphitheater a bit. The guards have an office in the Amphitheater, and outside the door there's a small display as well as this plaque:

Next I walked downhill to the east and looked back up at the tomb (towards the west). Looking towards the east, you get a view of the city much like the one from Arlington House or the Kennedy gravesite.

I headed north for a while before turning east, towards the McClellan Gate, which was the original entrance to the cemetery. I was making my way towards the columbarium in the southeast corner.

One of the more chilling aspects of Arlington are the views (like in the photo below) of the rows and rows of identical gravestones stretching out into the distance. I never got used to it. Every time, it felt like a punch in the gut.

It's a sea of tombstones, threatening to swallow you up, as it swallowed them. My head would scan the horizon, side to side. "For what?" I kept thinking. All of them for different reasons, I suppose. It's just overwhelming, really. I couldn't make sense of it.

On the way to the columbarium there's a place where the graves stop. There were a lot of cars parked along the roadside in this section. I realized this was where the most recent burials were.

A group of three servicemen were visiting an old friend. Families were gathered around loved ones. Some of the graves were so new they weren't yet covered in sod and lacked permanent headstones. Many of the graves had objects and letters. One had a poem written in charcoal on parchment. I came across one grave, pictured below, which had a miniature Stanley Cup and a Darth Vader action figure. I digitally erased the name on the marker to protect his and his family's privacy.

This whole section cut at me deeply. Many of the dead here were born within a few years of me. I don't know how to make sense of that. How many more will be laid to rest here, I wonder, before the rest can come home? Its senseless. They should never have left. The whole thing is just insane.

From there I moved on towards the southeast, passing the columbarium. It has simple lines, and the gardens and fountains are very well maintained. It's pleasant and undistracting. I didn't stay long.

Just to the south of the columbarium is what my map calls the "Pentagon Group Burial Marker Sept. 11, 2001." The Pentagon itself is immediately to the southeast of the cemetery. The marker is in the shape of a pentagon. Each side lists the names of the dead. Some of the names have diamonds next to them, others have stars. There's an inscription along the top identifying the monument as being for those who died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. I wondered what the stars and diamonds were for. The last panel that I came to told me. Diamond: passenger on American Airlines Flight 77. Star: no identifiable remains found.

I walked southeast to the road that heads along the cemetery's eastern border and headed back towards the entrance. It started raining again. I exited the cemetery through the Women's Memorial, which is a large semicircle capping the end of Memorial Drive. There was a memorial ceremony going on inside. After poking my head in, I stepped outside and took the stairs up to walk along the top of the memorial. I headed down on the other side and walked back along Memorial Drive towards the metro station, ending my visit shortly after five o'clock.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mr. Babcock Goes to Washington

Tomorrow morning I'm getting on a plane for the capital. I will be doing a 10 week internship with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Should be a good time. Day after tomorrow is memorial day--I'm thinking of catching the metro out to Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects, although I imagine the crowds will be terrible.

The Liberty News Feed seems to be on the fritz--it's showing the default feed rather than the one it should be. No time to fix it now, though--I have to finish packing. Next stop, Washington...assuming I don't get detained by the TSA.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Teaching Austrian Economics to High Schoolers

Yesterday, I returned to my high school as a guest speaker. My captive audience was a class of Senior AP Economics students, and my topic was the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle. An American History teacher, the head of the Social Studies department, and the principal all stopped by for all or part of the talk. I began by laying out two of the most distinguishing features of the Austrian School: (1) free markets are the best way to incorporate information spread out among multiple participants into a coordinated, cohesive economic system; (2) economics is properly deductive, not empirical. Their coursework covered Keynesian and Classical models, so I compared some of the beliefs of the Keynesians and the Austrians in a two-column point/counterpoint list. Then I told the parable of Paul Krugman on Sushi Island (from The Importance of Capital Theory by Robert P. Murphy). I concluded by giving a brief overview of the Austrian analysis of the Great Depression and the current financial crisis.

Then it was time for question-and-answer. This led to a discussion of the difference between a capitalist, socialist, and fascist economy. I explained that in my own opinion, the greatest risk posed by an Obama administration was not the ascendancy of socialism, but rather the emergence of a fascist-style economy: the union of corporate and government power, an activist government that picks winners and losers based on "national interest" and political connections, and a system of privatized profits and socialized losses.

Afterwards one student came up and asked me if I thought that we'd been starting to see economic fascism before Obama. I said "absolutely," and described the trend as going back as far as the '70s (in retrospect, the seeds were there ever before then). I pointed to Eisenhower's farewell address warning to guard against "undue influence" by the "military-industrial complex" as a warning against economic fascism.

The teacher who hosted me gave some concluding remarks which were gracious and open-minded. She told her students that she hoped they'd take away a realization that there were a lot of different ways to think about economics beyond what they'd learned.

The whole thing was filmed, and the high school's media center even edited my Powerpoint slides into the video. I'll be getting a DVD in the mail.

All in all, an excellent experience, and one I hope to repeat. I heard that the Social Studies department has been interested in some kind of curriculum enrichment on the economics of the Great Depression. I'm writing my honors thesis on the topic, so I might ask if I could contribute next time I'm in town .

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Elephant and Castle and Hockey and Politics

Or, How I Surprised a Canadian.

I finished moving out of my apartment in Pittsburgh this Tuesday. On the way home I stopped for dinner at Grove City (home of a very large outlet mall and Grove City College) at a restaurant and inn called Elephant and Castle. The Elephant is modeled after an English pub--the menu consists of things like bangers and mash and Yorkshire pudding.

I ordered shepherd's pie, and a few minutes later my waitress returned to let me know that it would be a twenty minute wait if I wanted the shepherd's pie because the kitchen was lacking the necessary mashed potatoes. I decided to wait it out and asked if I could sit at the bar in the meantime, where they were showing game one of the Penguins/Hurricanes series.

Next to me was a gentleman who I learned was from Winnipeg. We started chatting and the conversation went from what I was studying at Pitt to politics. It turns out this guy had narrowly lost out on being elected to the Canadian equivalent of town council--seven people ran for two spots, and he finished third by a margin of less than 1%. We mostly focused on healthcare and monetary policy.

It was interesting to get a Canadian's perspective on US politics. He told me that most of the time when he asks people why they're a Republican or a Democrat, they say something along the lines of "because my parents were," and are seldom sure exactly what a given candidate supports that makes them want to vote for that person. He mentioned that one of the things he likes best about US government is term limits for the President. He also mentioned that one shouldn't confuse socialized medicine with "free" healthcare--you pay for it, one way or the other. He told a story about how he once needed stitches on his eyebrow, and faced the prospect of either waiting up to six hours at a "free" hospital, or paying $75 for expedited service at a different facility. He noted that the best doctors, including one of his relatives who was a neurosurgeon if I remember correctly, tend to head south where they can make more money.

The gentleman's drink of choice was Coors Light with a shot of Bloody Mary mix.

In any case, I had a great conversation and probably stayed half an hour longer than I should have at Elephant and Castle. Got in to Rochester at about 1:40 in the morning. I'm home for the week, and then I'm heading to Washington, DC, where I am interning with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I start there a week from Tuesday (which it has been for about four hours now, now that I think about it).

I should really get some sleep. Maybe after the Mountain Dew wears off.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Inflation Watch

I saw Star Trek with my brother today. It was a fun time. But let's talk about monetary policy, instead.

'Star Trek' boldly goes to $31M at box office
The best opening weekend ever for the franchise was $30.7 million for 1996's "Star Trek: First Contact." According to inflation-adjusted numbers compiled by, that translates to $51.2 million in today's dollars.
It's figures like that that just make your jaw drop. I couldn't quickly find how calculates it's inflation adjusted ticket prices, and if I'm not mistaken movie tickets have been outpacing general inflation, but still. That's a 67% increase in the price of a movie ticket in just thirteen years. And yet Bernanke and the Fed remain committed to bringing back inflation at all costs.

Years of inflation helped create the current depression by discouraging saving and encouraging excessive borrowing. Inflation makes nominal values worth less over time--the same number in your bank account translates to less "stuff" over time, and the real value of your debt grows smaller even though the number stays the same.

Now, neither inflation or deflation are inherently bad if they are the result of market forces, but in most modern economies, inflation and deflation levels are determined (at least in the long run) by the actions of central economic planners, like my favorite secret society, the Federal Reserve. Meddling with the money supply like this creates distortions in the market which creates or exacerbates the boom-and-bust cycle the Fed is supposed to be combating.

Like many government agencies, the Fed has been given an impossible task, and it would be a better use of government resources to simply shut it down. Instead, it carries on year after year pretending to be an omnipotent, omniscient force for economic good.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Justice Department Report Slams Terrorist Watchlist

AFP: US Terror watchlist has 35% error rate
NY Times: Justice Dept. Finds Flaws in F.B.I Terror List

Details of a Justice Department report on the US's terrorism watchlist came out recently, and the results are rather unsurprising. Thirty-five percent of the bloated list is likely out of date or otherwise erroneous. The Justice Department looked at a sample of 68,669 entries on a list of 1.1 million people. It's hard to believe that there are potentially 1.1 million terrorists out there. Even after you take into account a 35% error rate, that's still 715,000 potential terrorists.

The CIA World Factbook puts the global population at roughly 6,790,000,000, which would mean .01% of the population has close ties to terrorism. That's one terrorist for every 10,000 people. Now maybe I'm wrong, but that seems ludicrously high to me. We should follow the ACLU's suggestion and scrap the current system altogether. At the very least, the current system is a waste of time and money. At worst, it is a massive attack on the civil liberties of hundreds of thousands of people.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It Just Happened Here

"Know that they can come and take anyone in your family away--even your children. And they don't have to be guilty."

"Because there is a gag order in the case, the US attorney in Indiana told us he could not comment, nor could the FBI. The North Carolina Highway Patrol did confirm they assited the FBI with its operation at the Lundeby home on March fifth."

For all I know, Ashton Lundeby was calling in bomb threats to places in Indiana from his home in Granville County, Virginia. It doesn't matter. He has a right to due process, period. The Patriot Act cannot and does not take that away.

Now watch as the Department of Homeland Security calling people extremists and terrorists becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this sixteen-year-old didn't harbor anger agaisnt his fellow man before, he certainly does now--just like the hundreds released from Guantanamo without charge.

Being a citizen used to come with rights and responsibilities. Now it comes with responsibilities and free stuff. If anyone in Washington is reading this, I'd like to trade my free stuff for the rights my parents and grandparents and great grandparents had: the rights my friends, family, and forefathers put their lives on the line to defend.

You know, if it's not too much trouble.