Tuesday, November 22, 2005

torture and national tragedy

Digby writes of torture and says:
At this rather late stage in life, I'm realizing that the solid America I thought I knew may never have existed. Running very close, under the surface, was a frightened, somewhat hysterical culture that could lose its civilized moorings all at once. I had naively thought that there were some things that Americans would find unthinkable --- torture was one of them.
Everyone knows the world changed on 9/11, but it changed in different ways for different people. For me, 9/11 was the day I saw how weak our commitment to morality really was, how quickly we would sell our freedom, how quickly we would kill to make ourselves feel safer, how little we valued the lives of anyone not like ourselves. I thought back to all the years we'd spent lecturing the world on civil rights, morality, and the rule of law, then watched our government round up thousands of people on the barest of pretexts and hold them indefinitely.

And for what? 9/11 was a shocking event, tragic for all those involved. On a national scale, it was a small event. Our reaction to 9/11 has caused far more damage--political, economic, moral, loss of innocent life--than the event itself. If we were willing to inflict this much damage on ourselves after 3000 dead, how much would we sacrifice for 10,000?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

the last abortion clinic

Last night, we watched a split screen TV. On one side of the screen, we watched Frontline on abortion access in the deep south. On the other, we watched election returns trickle in, with a measure restricting abortion starting out ahead before eventually falling behind. When we went to bed, Prop. 73 was behind by the narrowest of margins. It was a bit uncanny to watch the architects of abortion restrictions explain their strategy while watching their latest attempt play out in real time. We woke this morning to find that the measure had been defeated, and to read the comments of the measure's backers predicting that eventual success was inevitable.

I'd heard that access to abortion was difficult in some areas, but the Frontline report drove the point home in a way that mere knowing it did not. The fact that only one clinic in the state still provides second trimester abortions--and that that clinic is in danger of being regulated out of existence--was startling. The notion that Mississippi could have legislated all of its clinics out of existence, all without passing a single law that failed the "undue burden" test, was stunning. Perhaps there's a model there for other constitutional rights that make the majority uncomfortable. Instead of attacking the rights head-on, nibble at the edges with lots of small regulations. Make sure that the individual restrictions are so small that no one could reasonably claim that their elimination would threaten the right, but keep adding one small restriction after another, until the right no longer exists.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

harrowing fiction

Shakespeare's Sister discusses passages from Scooter Libby's novel, and asks:
What kind of mind comes up with this shit, dreams up scenarios where children are raped by animals to train them in prostitution? Oh, right. A conservative one.
I'm pretty sure that conservatives don't have a monopoly on disturbing sadistic and sexual imagiry in fiction, and I'm pretty sure that the ability to dream up disturbing scenes for disturbing effect doesn't mean that the dreamer is disturbed.

Ignoring fiction for the moment, there is a thread in conservative political rhetoric of sexual and social armageddon, an implicit (or sometimes explicit) assumption that the only thing standing between us and the abyss of degradation is law. You see this when nationally syndicated pundits write that without the Law of the Bible, there would be no reason not to murder, that without tbe moral and legal condemnation of society, men couldn't help being seduced by the hedonism of the gay lifestyle. They say these things with such passion, such conviction, that it suggests personal experience, that they either know or are people for whom only strong, enforced law stands between them and dissolution.

I have talked to street corner evangelists, and heard their stories of being saved from hell in the here and now by adhering to God's Law, how they were weak and following the Law made them strong, and I have wondered about the strength of the desires they wrestled with before they found their source of strength, how strong those desires must still be, and I have seen the rage in their eyes when they see people living happy lives without denying themselves pleasures that the Law forbids. And I wonder how much they still want what they deny themselves, and how much that suppressed desire fuels their rage.

Monday, October 31, 2005

gallagher, revisited

A couple weeks ago, the Volokh Conspiracy hosted Maggie Gallagher, who attacked gay marriage because its recognition would attack generitivity, and claimed that a deep understanding of that fact--not animus towards gays--underlay public opposition to gay marriages. The argument didn't seem to hold together. First, it seemed unlikely to me that public opposition was based on such deep analysis. The rhetoric and expressions of those in opposition seem far too visceral to spring from deep analysis. Second, it seemed that if the defense of generativity (as she saw it) was behind, the program would have to stretch well beyond gay marriage, encompassing abortion, birth control, contraception, and extra-marital sex of all kinds. Otherwise, the fragile generative link whose need she asserted would fail.

Imagine my "surprise" when I learned (via Pandagon) of Leon Kass making just such an argument.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

it can't be, but it is

Mark Kleiman observes that maximizing shareholder value can't possibly be an acceptable rule for corporate officers, that the result would be absurd in a moral society. He is, of course, correct, and the results are predictably absurd. Defendants in lead liability cases, for example, are duty bound to avoid paying damages on technicalities, even if that means that the victims of lead poisoning go begging.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

incompetent design

Mark Kleiman summarizes a talk by a Catholic priest on the fallacies of "Intelligent Design," and says the time has come for organized pushback. One place to start is the National Center for Science Education.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

too much credit

Michael O'Hare buries David Brooks and the President in abuse, but somehow manages to fall short. The two problems with attributing the administration's failures to incompetence are that 1) the failures are so broad that it is difficult to imagine that a gang so incompetent could have been elected in the first place, much less re-elected, and 2) that they are not uniform, that failures occur precisely when the failures don't threaten the rich and powerful. That isn't mere incompetence, it's an active campaign to destroy and discredit government, without regard to those who get hurt in the process.

maggie gallagher at volokh.com

The volokh conspiracy was the first blog I ever read consistently, for reasons having to do in part with being a math major at UCLA around 1980. The more interesting discussions have (for me) long since been diluted, and many of the more interesting conspirators have left. The detour into war-blogging left the lingering impression of a group that simultaneously sought to have their words influence the world (even to the point of starting wars) and to claim an academic privilege to conduct thought experiments without regard to the consequences, as if the discussions were merely "academic." Or maybe the basic premise of my visits (that through intelligent discussion, we could find common ground) fractured in the face of unrelenting ideology.

In any case, while I no longer read frequently, I do visit occasionally and today I happened across Maggie Gallagher's defense of opposition to gay marriage (many more articles than might be reasonably linked, but if you're curious and can't find it, start here). I'm sure there are others who have taken on her arguments point by point, others who probably have the time and interest to do a much better job than I. There are, however, a few broad points that seem worth making.

While I concede the point that there may be people whose opposition to gay marriage is driven primarily by concerns over the deep structure of society, and while I am for the purposes of civil discussion willing to assume that Maggie is one of them, I don't for a moment believe the social movement to oppose gay marriage is primarily driven by such concerns. The people and groups who today oppose gay marriage while claiming no animus against gays are the same ones who have opposed every advance in gay rights and recognition. Mrs. Gallagher asks that we not ignore the radicals on the left who seek to remake society and would sanction gay marriage on the way, then asks that we ignore the relatively mainstream arguments of those who blame catastophic hurricanes on our society's immoral tolerance of gay behavior. She asks a great deal.

In my experience, there's little point in "debating" a group or person when the real issue isn't on the table. Even if it's possible to win the current debate, to defeat the rationalization of the day, the only result will be to generate a fresh rationalization. Perhaps this is short-sighted of me. Perhaps every time a debate is won, a few minds are changed on the underlying issue. I cannot, however, escape the impression that I could refute every detail Maggie presented, and it only change the ground of the debate, not the debate itself. It seems to me far more effective to focus on the broad moral issue of social animus towards gays and bank on demographic trends to erode opposition to the resulting particulars over time.

Still, portions of her argument were interesting and revealing. At its roots, she argues that without marriage, people would have sex without babies and babies would grow up without fathers. That happens today, of course, so preventing the recognition of gay marriage doesn't actually fix the problem. She even identifies the cause: In non-industrial societies, children are an individual investment in the parent's future. In industrial societies, there are more effective ways to make that investment, and children become a net cost to the parents. All industrial societies are experiencing the effects of this change to a greater or lesser degree, and I've never seen evidence that the recognition of gay marriage plays any role (much less a significant one) in either hastening or delaying its effects.

If the failure of generativity is the problem and it's already happening, then opposition to gay marriage is clearly not the solution. At best, it would appear to be a small part of a wide program that would include the abolition of divorce, the elimination of contraception, and the re-criminalization of pre-marital sex. If we're to guarantee that people have and raise children in the proper way, and seek to harness "Eros" to achieve that goal, there seems little point in doing so piece-meal. If social incentives around children have inverted, if it's no longer in people's best interests to have children and raise children but social health requires that they do so, shouldn't we recast social incentives to achieve those aims. Isn't denying sex to those who do not follow generative forms a natural way to incentivize generative sex and therefore generativity? That is the position of the Catholic Church, after all--it's certainly an argument with which Mrs. Gallagher is familiar--and there are certainly social conservatives of all stripes who argue that contraception, divorce, abortion, and pre-marital sex will all contribute to the downfall of Civlization As We Know It. If a return to traditional sexual mores, in all respects, is what we need to maintain our society, perhaps we should have that debate. Shoring up the part of a levee that still stands only makes sense if you plan to restore the levee and drain the floodwaters.

If we're not willing to restore and enforce pre-industrial sexual mores and we wish to solve the problem of generativity, we will simply need to find other ways. Nowhere does Maggie even attempt to prove that other solutions don't exist, even though all of her other arguments are based implicitly on the premise.

On the other hand, perhaps we should ask whether the problem of generativity really needs a solution. We live on a finite planet. One needn't be a Malthusian to believe that exponential population growth can't be sustained forever. If industrialization reduces the incentives for individual procreation, that may be a very good thing. Most long-term population control efforts in the developing world depend on precisely that effect. Unless one believes that population control is itself a social evil, the argument that procreation must be universally maintained seems unfounded.

But perhaps the argument isn't that procreation needs to be universally maintained. Maybe the argument is demographic. As Maggie puts it
I’m quite confident that 200 years from now, we’re not going to be living in a world where gay marriage is the norm.

I’m just not sure of the place of Western civilization in that future world.
If we don't procreate sufficiently, others will and we'll lose the race. We'll still be rich, our society will still be industrial and stable (otherwise the disincentives she fears would evaporate), but we'll be overwhelmed by teeming pre-industrial masses, no doubt the same masses that today assault our southern border, the same masses that in previous decades crossed the seas to enter our seaports and airports.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

the other bennett

I popped over to Eschaton to catch the latest gossip, and saw a pointer to Wolf Blitzer's interview of Robert Bennett. Unlike Atrios, I'm not surprised to hear that guests are brought on shows to discuss particular topics, and I don't see any way to conclude from the transcript that questions rather than broad topics are agreed on ahead of time. On the other hand, I conclude from Bennett's response
I mean, I suppose I'll get in trouble by saying that it's well established that men are more violent than women and so maybe if we abort all male babies, we would have a safer world. So I think this is really much ado about nothing.
that I was wrong in my evaluation of why the other Bennett's response had legs. It wasn't that he said blacks are inherently more criminal or violent, but that some people really believed he advocated abortion as a cure for the societal problems that resulted. If his problems stemmed from racism, his "good lawyer" brother wouldn't have defended him by emphasizing that the claim about blacks was factual, would he?

Which makes the responses of Kleiman and DeLong even more puzzling. One would think that if Bennett's problem stemmed from a belief he'd advocated abortion rather than his clear belief in the inherent violence or criminality of blacks, his biggest problem would be with the Republican base. Why DeLong felt it was essential to smooth the waters of Republican discontent is a little beyond me, but I understand the compulsion toward intellectual rigor, even in arguments one would otherwise avoid. Kleiman's response ("Bennett was right on the facts") is simply astounding.

Of course, Atrios also thought R. Bennett's annoyance at the question was more important than his confirmation--and indeed personal claim--of his brother's racism. Clearly, I'm just out of my depth.

DeLong, btw, now sees the racist underpinnings of Bennett's comments as indefensible, and has narrowed his defense to, "Bennett didn't actually propose genocide."

Friday, September 30, 2005

bennett, delong, bush, and kleiman

It's weird watching Bennett reveal himself, DeLong defend him for doing so, and Kleiman proclaim that DeLong's defense of Bennett is somehow more admirable than Bush's denunciation of his words.

Let's start from the top.

Bennett did not advocate genocide. Anyone who believes he did is simply wrong. That fact does not make what Bennett said defensible. His crime was not that (as DeLong put it) reductio ad absurdum arguments don't work on talk radio, but that the implicit assumption underlying his argument (that African-Americans are inherently criminal) is abhorrent. That wasn't an accident. That's a belief. Those beliefs are more than deserving of condemnation.

DeLong's defense of Bennett opens by calling him a fungus ("Your honor, my client is worthless scum"), but that still doesn't quite explain why he would say that Bennett's primary mistake was a poor choice of rhetorical technique. Maybe he'd just returned from a journey to the rhetorical forest he mentioned in another post. If he found the racial characterization abhorrent, why did he focus on the genocide as the point on which Bennett needed defense? Wby did he bother defending Bennett at all? Perhaps he focused so hard on the question of whether Bennett had actually argued for genocide that he failed to notice the problem the genocide might solve.

Kleiman then steps in to admire DeLong's careful parsing of a transcript of a radio conversation. Even assuming that such a careful parsing is deserved (I believe, btw, that charity would be more appropriate than precision in evaluating such a transcript), he also misses the point, again suggesting that the genocide that Bennett didn't propose was the reason Bennett has been criticized. Kleiman, regrettably, takes matters one step further, citing statistics to support Bennett's claim on the inherent criminality of blacks. In DeLong's case, it's possible that he reacted to the wrong part of Bennett's statement. Kleiman can't make that claim.

Garance does good job of describing what makes all of this so skin-crawling. If past history is a predictor, a post describing how this free-thinking is what differentiates academics from the rest of us will soon follow.

comedy in an age of censorship

Perhaps it has always been so, but it seems to me that more stories go untold today than even ten years ago, not the obscure but important stories that don't get the play they deserve, but the stories that everyone knows but decides not to talk about: the questions about whether Bush is drinking again, the deliberate underplaying of bad news from Iraq, etc. It often feels like the press sees its collective narrative of the country as the country itself, and worries that if that narrative were threatened, the country itself would disintegrate, that the Fourth Estate sees itself not as a check on government or the powerful, not as a servant of the public, but as the essence of the polity, the Establishment in a more profound and broad sense than any a 60s radical railed against.

Somerby has, of course, documented the political narratives for years. More recently, he's focused more on how the prevailing narrative shapes efforts at educational reform. I don't know journalists well enough to judge his views of journalistic motives, but it's hard to deny the narratives themselves.

It doesn't work, of course. Reality never matches the narrative completely, so the public is never completely fooled. The public may not know which parts of the story to disbelieve, but they know that they're being told a story, they know parts of the story are lies, that even if the facts are verifiable, the narrative that ties them together is not. The public is, of course, complicit in the charade. We may know enough not to trust the narrative, but that doesn't prevent us from craving it, any more that it prevents addicts from craving the poison that may eventually kill them. We choose to watch and read and listen to the voices that reassure us, even though we know they lie.

And that's where comics come in. Stewart, Letterman, and Co. live in the gap between the standard narratives and unfolding events. The NBC Nightly News can't run a story about rumors of Bush drinking. Letterman can tell jokes about it. The Nightly News can't say that Iraq is spinning out of control. The Daily Show can run the tagline Mess O'Potamia for years.

Humor takes the edge off. The question of where truth ends and joke begins allows people to say and hear things that wouldn't otherwise be acceptable. Mark Kleiman and I discussed this in e-mail in the context of Letterman's Bush joke, leading him to comment on the eerie similarity between the role of today's comics and the role of comics in the old Soviet Bloc. Eerie, yes, but hardly surprising when you compare the role played by our media today with the role played by communist media in the days of the Cold War.

not in defense of Bill Bennett

Brad Delong defends Bill Bennett with faint praise:
Bennett is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument...Never attempt a reductio ad absurdum argument on talk radio. You can't keep exact control over your phrasing in real time, and so somebody is bound to think you are endorsing the horrible absurdity that you are rejecting.
The problem with what Bennett said isn't that he suggested aborting all African-American babies, or that he didn't state strongly enough that doing so would be reprehensible, but that he made the implicit claim that African-Americans are inherently criminal. The problem isn't that he thinks that genocide is an acceptable solution, but that he thinks it's a solution at all.

lagging indicators

I think Kevin got this a bit wrong:
Violence is "above norms" but that doesn't mean things are getting worse. In fact, violence is a "lagging indicator of success"! The more bombs, the better we're doing!
Saying that violence levels were a lagging indicator only means that levels of violence might persist for a while, even with a successful counterinsurgency effort. That's not ridiculous on its face, though the current Pentagon position seems to be that levels of violence may lag success by years or even decades, and in the absence of any leading or current indicators, there's no reason to believe that a successful counterinsurgency effort is in fact under way.

judith miller

I'm probably the only one who finds it strange that Miller's lawyer has been arguing with Scooter Libby's lawyer whether his release of confidentiality was coerced and therefore doesn't allow her to reveal her source. If it weren't Libby, how could that argument be relevant? I suppose it's one of those legal fictions, where Fitzgerald can't legally conclude that Libby was the source based on the dispute over confidentiality. Or perhaps the topic of interest isn't that Libby was a source, but exactly what he said, that he's willing to release Miller from confidentiality so she can reveal that information, but isn't willing to reveal it himself. Or perhaps he has revealed the conversation and the prosecutor is looking for corroboration, in which case Miller went to jail to protect...who knows?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

qualifications of justices

As many have noted, the hearings were an empty piece of theatre, a ritual without import, without even the redeeming insights of good entertainment. The goal, after all, was never to enlighten or inform, but to prevent enlightenment and to obscure. As Somerby asked, why would Roberts have to recuse himself for expressing views on legal matters when his future co-justices have done so in legal opinions for years?

To me, however, that is not the crowning idiocy of the process and its groundrules. That I reserve for the view often expressed by the White House that the Senate should only consider whether the nominee is a good lawyer. For example, after Senator Reid announced his decision to oppose the nomination, the White House responded:
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, responding to Reid's comments, said, "Judge Roberts is clearly qualified in terms of intellect, ethics and temperament. Â… The public does not want to see the Supreme Court become an extension of partisan politics."
In other words he's smart, he knows how to argue the law, that's all that should matter.

What little I know of law and lawyers, however, tells me otherwise. Lawyers are trained to argue any side of any case. The better the lawyer, the more ably they do so. Legal competence may be a requirement for a seat on the Court (though I believe there have been Justices with limited legal background), but the more skilled the nominee in the law, the more important it is to know who or what he represents. A nominee with only nominal legal skills may find it much more difficult to write a coherent opinion that radically shifts the legal status quo than a brilliant lawyer will not. The greater the legal skills, the more important it is to know the nominee.

Judge Roberts didn't merely refuse to share his views with the Senate Committee, he refused to share his views with the American people. He didn't merely say that the Senators had no right to know him, he said that no one had a right to know him, even as he sought confirmation for a lifetime position at the top of American law. Conservatives have been known to rail against the Court as anti-democratic and elitist. It is hard to imagine a more elitist stance than that taken by Roberts and other Bush nominees.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

anonymous sources

While I don't see the point in protecting sources that have used the cloak of anonymity to lie in the past, it may be too much to expect the press to change its practice in this regard. For one thing, if protection becomes something the press can withdraw, it could become more difficult for the press to protect sources in cases where protection is needed and deserved. At that point, the press would no longer be saying, "We protect our sources," but, "We think this source deserves protection."

Fortunately, "outing" dishonest sources is not required to encourage honesty among background sources. If a "senior administration official" gives inaccurate background information, that fact could be reported with as much prominence as the original story. If such an official repeatedly gives inaccurate information, they could be described as an "sometimes unreliable senior administration official." If an administration or group has a track record of lying or twisting the truth, anonymous comments can be accompanied by disclaimers reflecting that history: "A senior administration official said that the moon is made of green cheese, but such statements from the administration have proven unreliable in the past."

Today, of course, our news outlets do little or none of this. Not only don't they expose dishonest sources, they don't expose their dishonesty, leaving the strong impression that they're more concerned with currying favor with those in power than in informing the public. As long as that perception persists, it will be difficult to generate public support for reporters such as Judith Miller.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

the deft use of incentives

From the Red Cross:
Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?

Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.

The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.

For those who haven't been following at home, I'll translate:
The top priority was to get people out of New Orleans, so the decision was made to prevent aid from entering the city. That would only have encouraged people to stay.

Perhaps the failure to provide aid wasn't merely incompetence. Perhaps it was policy. Perhaps people were dying in sewage and those in charge were more interested in providing incentives than food or water. It would be absurd if it weren't eerily reminiscent of arguments against welfare: "We shouldn't provide food, shelter, and medical care for the poor. Doing so will only encourage them to breed."

Friday, September 02, 2005

the no blame game

I visited the Volokh Conspiracy, as I sometimes do, and came across the following from Prof. Kerr:
I have absolutely no interest in assigning blame. My sense is that the crisis is sufficiently great that we need to be forward thinking right now. Assigning blame looks back; it's something you do when the emergency is over, and you have time to reconstruct what happened and see how you could do better next time.
It seems to me that those in power (and those siding with those in power) use this argument to avoid taking responsibility for their actions when things go wrong. I don't blame the President and the Republican Congress to score political points. I blame them because they have never been serious about governing the country. I blame them because they turned Homeland Security funding into just one more pork barrel. I blame them because they staffed FEMA with cronies. I blame them because they spent money where their friends were instead of where it was needed. I blame them because they were more concerned with finding a country to beat up to show that America was still Number One than with making our country safe.

But this isn't news. These things were true before 9/11, and they've been true ever since. I see little reason to give these guys a pass now, simply because their incompetence and lack of compassion has been on open, painful display. To say that I shouldn't blame them now is to say that now that their corrupt view of government has killed who knows how many people, I should be less angry with them than I already was.

I'll leave that forbearance for their fans, for their teammates who can't afford to believe that their leaders don't deserve the description, much less the job.

sometimes people die

It's small and petty of me, I know, but I can't help wondering whether the New Orleans levees would have gotten more attention had the New Orleans Member of the House been Republican, or had New Orleans voted 4:1 for Bush rather than Gore (assuming the Kerry and Gore votes were similar). There's been a lot written over the past few years about pork barrel politics and the way our governing majority has viewed federal funds as spoils to be distributed rather than tools to build a better country. These decisions have consequences. Sometimes people die.

Monday, August 22, 2005

the courage to follow

At Tapped, Mr. Goldberg describes the CW
that most Democrats are wary of turning against the war for fear that the administration will paint them as weak-kneed cut and run liberals.
I'm pretty sure he's got the CW right, and he goes on to ask whether that approach really serves Democratic interests.

I think the problem with the CW is much deeper than that. It doesn't take much courage to take the safe course and avoid being attacked. It doesn't take courage to keep your head down. It may take courage to send troops off to war (assuming you have enough compassion to care), but it takes precious little to let someone else send troops off to war, then support him in order to "support the troops."

It's hard (and depressing) to think that the Democratic leadership believes in the war. If they don't, however, the only words that come to mind to describe their behavior are "weak" and "cowardly." A lot of insults have been hurled at Cindy Sheehan, "weak" and "cowardly" aren't among them.

rally round the leader

Somerby and Krugman look back at the election that started it all, bemused but not amazed that so few Americans know who would have won with a complete recount. Somerby thinks Krugman lets the press off too easily. He's surely right, but I think he lets Gore and his team off too easily. It wasn't, after all, the press who decided which recounts to pursue. It wasn't the press who agreed that the most important issue was a smooth, timely transition rather than counting all votes cast. It wasn't the press who agreed that the American people were too infantile to live with some uncertainty over who the next President would be, and the government too fragile to manage a transition if all the new political appointees weren't vetted and ready to go.

When we consider the Bush Presidency, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it began with the bipartisan consensus that expediency and unity were more important than the truth.

the freedom to be ignorant

The NYT describes the Discovery Institute and its campaign to delegitimize evolutionary theory. One phrase in particular caught my eye:
the institute has in many ways transformed the debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.
Sometimes, I can't help wondering if the larger, largely unconscious agenda is to devalue the meaning of freedom itself. Academic freedom exists to promote intellectual progress by giving those with well-considered, supportable views a seat at the table, even if those views conflict with authority. The intentional use of academic freedom to undermine such progress is at its root no different than repressive forces using the mechanisms of democracy in order to seize power and suppress dissent.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

activist judges

The Daily Howler cites this NYT op-ed as a possible well-founded definition of judicial activism. While the study is interesting (and Somerby is right to say that such studies are more useful than our normal discourse), the particular definition doesn't attempt to correct for political bias. If Thomas has voted to overturn more laws than Ginsberg, perhaps that merely means that Ginsberg agrees with more current law than Thomas, not that she shows more deference to Congress. If the bulk of current law were passed by legislatures more liberal than the conservatives on the court, we might expect less deference on purely political grounds.

While I doubt an attempt to rate individual laws as conservative or liberal would be productive, it might be interesting to look at the legislatures that passed the laws and/or the executives that signed them. Do the justice's records change when laws passed by the party that nominated them are challenged?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

social security, one more time

The President isn't busy talking about how the Trust Fund doesn't exist, he worries about it going broke and the national catastrophe that will surely ensue due to all the broken promises. Policy wonks suggest raising the retirement age, but no one who works because they have to likes that idea. Every once in a while, we might want to ask what the fuss is all about.

The CBO makes that easy. By 2100 (the date of the largest gap in the table), social security will be spending 2% more of the GDP than it takes in. Revenues will be about 5% of GDP, and outlays will be about 7%, all substantial, perhaps worrisome sums.

But if a 2% SS deficit a hundred years from now should worry us, you'd think a 3.6% deficit today would worry us even more. After all, we don't really know what will happen in a hundred years. Today is real. Today, we're spending 3.6% more than we take in. If a potential future deficit of 2% is so ominous that we must act today, how come it is safe to delay action on our current deficit until tomorrow? Financing the 2% SS gap could be closed by raising revenues as a percent of GDP by 12% (16% to 18%) over the next hundred years, hardly a herculean task. Closing our current deficit would require raising our current revenues by 22% in a couple years. Which seems harder?

The CBO federal budget projection has some remarkable details. In 2012, for example, it shows us running a surplus. That requires a hefty increase in revenue, and I wondered where it would come from. In 2004, individual income taxes were 7% of GDP. In 2012, they're projected to be 10% of GDP, a whopping 40% increase. Corporate taxes relative to GDP drop over that period. It's hard to imagine such a scenario actually coming to pass.

what did hiatt really say?

From atrios, a pointer to elton, who characterizes Fred Hiatt's view in this op-ed as "Might makes right." I don't see it.

When Hiatt says
The premise of this highhandedness is that the United States is, on balance, a force for good in the world -- a superpower that uses its might not to subjugate others but to allow them to live freely. This is a premise that The Post's editorial page on the whole accepts -- to the dismay of many readers.
he does not say that the Post accepts high-handedness, but that the Post believes that the United States is, on balance, a force for good in the world. That's a judgement on the effects of US policy, not the propriety of the means. Indeed, his final point
Do we behave as well as we claim, as we should, as we expect of others? That's the beginning of the right conversation...
is that right is necessary to justify might, not the other way around.

Hiatt does not explicitly condemn US unilateralism, and it could be that such unilateralism is enough on its own to outweigh any good a nation could do, however spotless it's record. A policy may need to pass the "net benefit" test to be considered, but that test may still not be sufficient justification for the exertion of power. Hiatt's piece is silent on such issues, and it is fair to criticize that silence. Criticizing the claim that might makes right is not, because that claim was never made.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

hero or traitor?

To be honest, until I saw the first TV promo ("Deep Throat revealed, but is he a hero or a traitor?"), it never occured to me that this was a controversial question. It is hard to believe that the country has changed so much over the last thirty years that this could be seriously debated. And yet it has, and it is.

Felt did not bring down President Nixon, the truth did that. Felt helped the truth come to light. Those who argue that he should not have done so are arguing that Nixon's crimes should have gone undetected and unpunished, that loyalty to the chain of command is more important than loyalty to the nation and its laws, that the highest value in the land is in fact fealty to authority.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

funding the future

Mark Kleiman writes
the government could fund Social Security by paying down enough of its publicly-held debt now, while the OASDI surpluses are rolling in, to be in a good position to borrow later, when OASDI is running deficits. That's not technically "funding," but it's the functional equivalent, just as a family can save by paying down its mortgage.
I don't think future retirement funding can be analyzed in purely financial terms, and I don't think the family analogy applies.

The problem with analyzing the future economy in purely financial terms is that money is only a call on future goods and services. The root cause of the Social Security "crisis" is that we will have more retirees per capita in the future than we have today. There will be fewer people producing goods and services, and more people consuming them. Saving money won't help that, it only means that there will be more money chasing that production, a good recipe for inflation.

Contrast this with the family mortgage. When a family pays down a mortgage, enabling future borrowing against their house, they're preparing to call on resources outside the family. If they later take out a loan, the money they obtain can be used to draw on production outside the family. By saving (whether by reducing debt or increasing assets), they increase their access to production. When we all (as embodied by the government) create or retire debt to ourselves, it doesn't change our ability to call on the resources of others.

Not all of the government's debt is owed to ourselves, of course. A lot of it is held by foreign investors and foreign governments. If we were to pay that down, we might indeed be able to cash in our advantageous financial position to ease the demographic burden. The problem there, however, is not the government budget, but the trade deficit. When we run trade deficits (as we've done for decades), those who sell to us goods reinvest the money we send them in our economy. If we refused to sell them government bonds (by running budget surpluses, for example), they'd be forced to buy stocks, real estate, etc. Either way, the more we sell today, the less we'll have to sell tomorrow. The national equivalent of paying down the mortgage would be running trade surpluses: accepting fewer goods from abroad today so that we'll have the resources to get the goods we need tomorrow. I don't see any sign of that happening.

What other alternatives are there?

We could invest today in the things we'll need tomorrow. That's a nice thought, but private investment today would chase today's returns, meeting the needs of today's society rather than the need's of tomorrow's aging society. Retirement housing seems like a fairly safe long-term bet, for example, but consider the difficulty of building retirement housing today, intending it to sit idle until it's needed. Medical systems would be even more difficult to pre-build because of the strong likelihood that they'll be obsolete by the time they're needed. It's difficult even to pre-train medical staff with an aging focus without patients to pay their salaries or provide them with experience. In a market economy, demand creates supply and supply nearly always trails demand. Why would the infrastructure to meet the needs of an aging society be any different?

We could try to reduce the trend towards inequality in income distribution. I wrote about this in detail months ago. The loss in productivity (and the implied loss in consumable goods and services) are roughly equal to the income shifted to the wealthiest of society over the last 20-30 years, and occurs over the same time period. Perhaps we can address tomorrow's problems by reversing the trend.

We could try to eliminate the demographic bubble by importing workers, skilled ones if we can't educate enough of our own to fill the skilled positions. This probably isn't practical due to the sheer scale of the problem. Even if it were, some of the trends in this area are worrisome. The easiest way to import skilled workers, after all, is to bring them here for graduate school and get them to stay. Over the last few years, foreign enrollment in grad schools has fallen.

Modest increases in the retirement age would eliminate the problem at a fiscal level, but would create inequities in fields where sixty-five is already old. Social Security isn't free of such problems today, but that's not a reason to make the problem worse.

Any others come to mind?

Monday, May 16, 2005

tribalism and democracy, red and blue

Elections don't seem to have solved everything in Iraq. As a sign of how bad things are, consider that officials are trying to reassure people by downplaying "the possibility of outright sectarian war — characterizing some of the recent violence as tribal feuds..." It's not (yet) a sectarian civil war, merely violent anarchy. Quite reassuring.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember my befuddlement when the world celebrated the Iraqi elections as the dawn of a new nation, and my bemusement at the silence of the blogs. I won't claim to have foreseen today's problems, but I couldn't figure out how an election without Sunni participation would strengthen the country. The possibility that it would leave the Sunnis more isolated and alienated than before seemed equally likely.

But of course, I didn't see any evidence that Saddam was about to engage in undeterrable nuclear blackmail. I didn't even see compelling evidence of WMDs.

Meanwhile, back in the homeland, Newsweek prints some old news and gets blamed for starting riots. "Newsweek Lied, People Died" rings out across the blogosphere. August Pollack notes that, "This isn't even not caring. It's beyond not caring. It's taking pride in not caring."

He's right, of course. It's important to take pride in your team/tribe. That which makes our team strong is good. That which makes our team weak is evil. These days, however, the team isn't the country, it's a color. Are you red or blue?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

secure elections, electronically

At eschaton, avedon writes
I join with tech-savvy supporters of democracy everywhere in saying that there is only one appropriate means of making elections secure: Paper ballots, hand-counted on the night, in public.

I hope it doesn't disqualify me as tech-savvy, but I think there are ways to make e-voting more secure, reliable, and open than paper voting. The problem with today's e-voting systems is not that they're electronic, but that they're black boxes. The vote enters the box and disappears. It doesn't have to be that way.

To avoid fraud, a voting system needs to be auditable. Ballots, once cast, must be retrievable. Their content must be tamperproof. Ideally, any voter should be able to check whether their ballot has been counted and counted correctly. Paper ballots achieve the first of these, but as the Florida chads showed, they don't achieve the last two.

Non-secret ballots achieve all three. Voters cast ballots, and since the association between voter and ballot remains, voters can themselves audit the results of elections. They can see their ballots as well as everyone else's. Tampering with votes is nearly impossible (no one ever worries about voter fraud in Congressional votes). Intimidation and retribution, unfortunately, are not.

Suppose, however, that a voting system could be designed that assured privacy, while making ballots themselves public and allowing individuals to audit their votes. Such a system would be strongly resistant to tampering, even if electronic. An electronic system would, in fact, make tampering more difficult by making it easier for more voters to verify their votes. If half the population did so, tampering with a single vote would lead to detection half the time.

What might such a system look like? Let's start with the ballot itself. A ballot is a series of boxes, some checked, some not. A ballot with 100 candidates and 50 propositions (I live in california) has 200 boxes, each with a potential value of 1 or 0. A 200-digit binary number. 25 bytes. In the 2004 presidential election, about 120 million votes were cast. That's 3GB without compression, or about one DVD's worth. Most ballots would be significantly smaller. Any state election would fit on a CD-ROM. Any county's results could be downloaded quickly over the net.

Those are, of course, only the ballots themselves, not the identifiers that would allow voters to verify their results. How would those come to be? Here, things start to get a bit technical.

How would voters verify that their ballot is in the public record? Give each voter a secret key. When they vote, combine that key with the ballot and pass the resulting string of digits through a cryptographic hash function. One key property of such functions is that it is extremely difficult to generate a given hash result without knowing the hash inputs, making it infeasible to generate a pair for a particular voter without access to the key. Append the result of that hash function (not the key) to the ballot. Hash values used for such verification purposes are commonly referred to as digital signatures. Voters wishing to verify that ballots with their choices and their key are in the database can do so by locating ballots with their signature. They can also verify that their key has not been used only once.

Since every ballot can be (at least potentially) verified and the total number of ballots must match the voter rolls (the same mechanism we use today) attempts to change results run a high risk of detection. In a 10,000 voter election where only 1% of voters verify their ballots, an attempt to move results by 1% would be detected about two-thirds of the time, and the detection rate rises dramatically with increases in either the rate of ballot checking or the number of voters in the election.

So, what would be the problems with an approach like this? The main ones appear to be false attacks on the integrity of the system, and the initial verification and distribution of completed ballots. When any voter can challenge the accuracy of an election by claiming that a valid ballot hasn't been counted, it is important to ensure that their claims can be verified, that they did in fact cast the ballots they claim are missing. Ballot verification and distribution is important because the "ballot" the voter will take home is merely a long number. Voters will not be able to look at the number and determine whether it accurately reflects their votes, nor will they be able to remember the number for later verification.

The same technique used to verify that a ballot exists can be used to prevent false attacks on election results. Voters add signatures to their ballots so that they can verify that ballots they created are in fact recorded properly. The voting system can add signatures to ballots to ensure that ballots voters present for verification do in fact represent votes cast. In this case, since the key used to mark ballots valid must remain private, but it should be possible for anyone to verify a ballot, the signature should be based on a public key system.

Completed ballots can be distributed to voters using any printer and verified using digital scanners, the same techniques used today when people print movie tickets or airline boarding passes at home. Such systems encode a number in machine readable form, then validate that number when the ticket or pass is presented. In the voting case, the printed ballot could be verified by a scanner and the results checked by the voter, before the voter left the polling place.

One objection to a system of this type is that the anonymity of voting might be degraded. While the system itself keeps ballots anonymous, voters can reveal votes themselves, raising the prospect of vote selling or intimidation. While this is a legitimate concern, it should be recognized that this prospect exists in any system where monitors do not verify the secrecy of the voting process. Any system that allows people to vote from their homes, for example, allows people to reveal their votes to third parties. Even systems where people cast ballots in carrels then carry them to vote readers allow some amount of vote sharing.

Nowhere in this discussion have I described the security of the voting machines themselves. Instead, the goal has been to make the integrity of the overall system as independent as possible from the integrity of the voting machines. Instead of attempting to verify that a voting machine correctly records a voter's intent, for example, verification occurs externally, using an independent system. Verifiers could, for example, be provided by independent election monitors rather than those in charge of the election.

Is this a complete solution? No. Distribution of secret keys to voting machines for the purposes of signatures is a potential problem. Are there holes? Almost certainly. I've never seen a communication protocol that achieved security without extensive review. A system based on open protocols and public records, however, can get that review. The closed, secretive systems being deployed today cannot.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

the FEC vs the internet

Atrios writes, wrt FEC blogging regulation:
It's ridiculous that some people desire that a medium which requires no money in which to participate - for which there are no real gatekeepers - be effectively more regulated than radio/tv/print/etc.

but it seems to me that adding gatekeepers is precisely the point. In traditional media, the first gatekeeper is cost of access. That keeps out the riff-raff. Once the riff-raff have been excluded, regulators try to maintain some order among those that remain, as much for their benefit as anyone else's. When you remove the initial barrier, the entire system breaks down. The biggest losers are the ones who dominate traditional channels, and since regulations exist for their benefit...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

discrimination against conscience

Pharamacists complain that they shouldn't be required to participate in procedures they disagree with. Senators declare that opposing the appointment of judges well outside the mainstream to lifetime positions is religious discrimination. They're hardly alone. Police and military services discriminate against pacifists. Jury selection discriminates against death penalty opponents. People working in corporations struggle with conflicts between personal ethics and job responsibilities every day. No one's coming to their defense.

The aim of all the special pleading isn't to prevent discrimination against people following their consciences. It's to create a privileged conscience. It's to say that there is a particular set of beliefs that should be privileged everywhere, and that those who hold those beliefs should be allowed to impose their beliefs on those around them at any time or place.

Monday, April 11, 2005

corruption, policy, and politics

Matthew Yglesias writes bout the importance of linking personal corruption to policy in the DeLay case:
They're not free marketers who happen to take bribes on occassion. The policymaking is fully continuous with the corruption.
Both regular readers of my blog will recall that I've written about this before. Personal corruption makes good TV, but it's not really the point. Proof of personal corruption wouldn't make DeLay bad for the country. He'd be bad for the country even if he were Mr. Clean. As long as he was on their side, he'd still get money from corporations defending their interests. If he wasn't, he wouldn't get much no matter how corrupt he was.

Those looking to purchase an agenda probably prefer to buy from the less corrupt. True believers make better spokesmen. They're more reliable. They don't end up in court or hauled before ethics committees. They don't drag their donors' names through the mud with them.

Even without petty corruption, candidates who accept large donations are more likely to represent the interests of their donors than not. Donors support candidates because they expect them to advance an agenda, and they tend support agendas that advance their interests. A candidate's donor list tells you more about what that candidate will do than months of press reports, and the longer a politician's career, the more predictive the donor list will be.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

taking it to the streets

I found my way through eschaton to hullabaloo, to read musings on the nature and relevance of protest. I found myself thinking of the deaf ear turned towards those who took to the street to protest against a war driven by the powerful, and the attention given those who besieged a hospice, a man, and his dying wife. I thought of economic summits held far from the public eye, for fear the public would become unruly. I thought of inaugural parades in front of angry crowds, with those crowds barely noticed by news cameras. I thought of the protests against Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and of the protests in its favor. I thought of the protests that brought down the government in the Ukraine. I thought of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Monday, April 04, 2005

alas, poor darpa

Mark Kleiman mourns DARPA, rightfully so. The NYT article he references describes some of the details. It's a shift away from an open research model to a defense industry model. Even without an explicit shift of dollars from universities to the private sector, the imposition of defense industry accounting practices and restrictions on publication would have driven most university researchers out of the mix.

It is difficult to find a non-cynical explanation for the shift. The result will be neither more efficient nor effective. The need for secrecy is no larger today than it was during DARPA's cold-war heyday. Security did not become more important when the Soviet Union fell.

Cynical explanations, on the other hand, are easy. Defense contractors make campaign contributions. They support the administration. They get more money. They support the new policy:
Despite the complaints, some pioneering researchers support the changes being driven by Dr. Tether and say they are necessary to prepare the nation for a long battle against elusive enemies.

"There are pressures and demands on Darpa to be relevant," said Robert Kahn, a former Darpa administrator who is now president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Reston, Va. "People think it should stay the same, but times have changed."

When war is peace, all things are possible. Any policy can be justified as long as it purports to keep the bogeyman at bay.

Friday, April 01, 2005

inexplicable! inconceivable!

Kevin Drum looks at a new study that appears to show that actual malpractice costs have risen little over the past 15-20 years, and then says:
If doctors were smart, they'd team up with trial lawyers instead of fighting them. Together, they could probably agree on both genuine malpractice reform (as opposed to bogus and ineffective "caps") and insurance industry reform. Instead, they allow themselves to be suckered over and over again by insurance industry lobbyists. It's inexplicable.
It's not inexplicable to me, but then I have the advantage of growing up in a doctor's family and hearing his conversations with friends. They didn't view the rest of us as peers, at least with regards to medicine. We were simply not qualified to hold them to account. Lawyers, who as a group most often did so, were the enemy. Medicine was seen as an inexact art, bad outcomes as inevitable, and accountability as little better than second-guessing.

There are exceptions to this. Atul Gawande has written of the advances made in anesthesiology (death rates reduced from 1 in 5000 operations to 1 in 200000) that occurred when the speciality stopped viewing itself as a craft and began systematic efforts to reduce bad outcomes, in part due to financial pressure from malpractice claims. Anyone who's answered questions before a procedure ("How much alcohol do you consume? Do you use illegal drugs?") has seen the results. Dr. Gawande himself wasn't sure how to apply the same process to a field like surgery, but as long as doctors oppose systematic data collection for fear of adverse personal consequences, the data needed to drive the process won't even exist.

In some ways, I'm quite sympathetic to the doctors' view. Medicine is an inexact science, and tort law a terrible mechanism for addressing inevitable bad outcomes. When such outcomes occur, however, someone has to clean up the mess--pay for additional medical care, support the medically indigent and their dependents, etc. Without better alternatives, lawsuits are inevitable, and I don't see doctors leading the search those alternatives.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

faith in America

Atrios asks why the Faith in America roundtable on Meet the Press has no women. A good question. We might also ask why, at a time when "religious faith" in the US may well be falling, there's no one on the panel representing the third largest "religious" group in our nation, no religion specified:
the greatest increase in absolute as well as in percentage terms has been among those adults who do not subscribe to any religious identification; their number has more than doubled from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001; their proportion has grown from just eight percent of the total in 1990 to over fourteen percent in 2001

I don't consider myself aggressively antitheistic. People believe what they need to believe. If you read media accounts of social trends, however, it would be hard to avoid the impression that we were living through a great religious revival, a time when "traditional values" were coming to define our country, a time when the values of the Right would come to define our nation. This survey doesn't bear that out. If anything, it suggests that during the same time that religion has come to dominate the public sphere, more and more Americans have found it wanting.

This isn't paradoxical. If the power of religious faith were truly growing in this country, religious leaders would have a harder time convincing the faithful that their way of life is under attack. If "traditional values" were truly ascendent, there would be no need for a Traditional Values Coalition.

The Meet the Press preview reads
From the moral issues surrounding the story of Terry Schiavo to religious diplomacy in the Middle East, faith permeates the people and the politics of the United States of America. Sunday's show will bring together prominent leaders from some of the nation's largest religions to discuss the complex and profound role of Faith in America

Given the actual trends, shouldn't a roundtable on faith ask why faith is losing ground? Isn't the real question why faith permeates the politics of our country at the same time that it's less relevant than ever to its people?

Friday, March 25, 2005


According to Bill Bennett, executives have a duty to ignore the courts if their view of the Constitution doesn't match his, and the only recourse if he does so is impeachment. It's an interesting theory, which would seem to require that Bush police every medical facility to prevent abortions.

Monday, March 14, 2005

balkanization of cyberspace

Jack Balkin asks whether blogs encourage balkanization. I am liberal by almost any measure. I was introduced to blogs reading a conservative blog (The Volokh Conspiracy). I found it an interesting portal into the conservative worldview a view I cannot comprehend, even though I grew up surrounded by it. Most conservative sites were so busy deriding other views and attacking their adherents that I saw little reason to visit. Why should I visit a site that exists primarily to hurl insults in my direction?

Over time, my interest in even the better conservative sites waned. The analyses presented (when analyses were presented) typically proceeded from assumptions I didn't share. Attempts to find common ground with the more thoughtful posters were usually rebuffed with restatements of disagreement. I grew tired of the seeing the same memes, tired of being informed of pressing issues I didn't care much about, tired of being insulted.

Today, I read liberal blogs almost exclusively. I don't know this has made more isolated than before. If anything, the conservative blogs I have read have hardened my attitude towards conservatism. At its best, it seems more heartless today than before I read what conservatives have to say. At its worst, it seems more selfish, dangerous, fanatical, and juvenile. If I hold less hope today that out country can find a common vision, it fell from my hands while watching the acts of conservatives in power and seeing admiration in the words of even their wisest supporters.

Friday, March 11, 2005

For shame

From the SF Chronicle, on the vote to limit debate:

Democrats Yes

Biden, Del.; Byrd, W.Va.; Carper, Del.; Conrad, N.D.; Johnson, S.D.; Kohl, Wis.; Landrieu, La.; Lieberman, Conn.; Lincoln, Ark.; Nelson, Fla.; Nelson, Neb.; Pryor, Ark.; Salazar, Colo.; Stabenow, Mich.

From the final vote:

Baucus (D-MT), Yea
Bayh (D-IN), Yea
Biden (D-DE), Yea
Bingaman (D-NM), Yea
Byrd (D-WV), Yea
Carper (D-DE), Yea
Conrad (D-ND), Yea
Inouye (D-HI), Yea
Johnson (D-SD), Yea
Kohl (D-WI), Yea
Landrieu (D-LA), Yea
Lincoln (D-AR), Yea
Nelson (D-FL), Yea
Nelson (D-NE), Yea
Pryor (D-AR), Yea
Reid (D-NV), Yea
Salazar (D-CO), Yea
Stabenow (D-MI), Yea

The Republicans, of course, have no shame. Modern conservatives don't believe in it.

Monday, February 14, 2005

hawking on the corner

Down on the corner, Jonah complains about the hypocritical lefties that dare to suggest that those who support the war should volunteer. When he wrote
No answer I could give -- I'm 35 years old, my family couldn't afford the lost income, I have a baby daughter, my a** is, er, sorry, are a few -- ever seem to suffice.

he left out his most compelling reasons. He now asks where all the lefties lined up for Afghanistan, then goes on to write
Look, in the age of the all-volunteer military, and in a country which prides itself on civilian control of that military, there is no shame in not signing up. Or even if there is shame, it's personal not political. We have, by my rough estimate, some 70 million men of military age. Should they all join-up the moment they agree the military should do something dangerous? I favor aggressive law enforcement at home, does this mean I should become a cop? Of course not.

I'm sure it's possible to engage in more self-serving, delusional sophistry, but most people would have to work at it.

In the age of an all-volunteer army, only those who volunteer are ever at risk for being sent to war. This makes support for war cheap. It's easy to say a price is worth paying when it's paid by someone else. When we had a draft, supporting a war carried a risk. Now it carries none. To Jonah, this somehow makes supporting the war without actually volunteering more acceptable. I think that's backwards.

The question isn't, as he puts it, 70 million men (apparently women of military age aren't worthy of service) should sign-up, but whether they should volunteer to do so. The military couldn't and wouldn't accept all 70 million into service. The department of defense only employs 1.4M people. That's less than 2% of the population of military age (unlike Jonah, I include women in the tally...the last time I looked, they were part of the force). Even if everyone volunteered, they wouldn't all be needed or accepted. One needn't be a soldier to support the war, but those who support it should accept the risk. Half of our citizens support the war, but of the 100M or so of military age, only 1.4M support it enough to put their own lives on the line. It's always easier to risk someone else's life.

He asks why lefties weren't lining up to fight in Afghanistan, a war they supported. Perhaps more should have done so, but it was also a very different war, one fought by proxy, using a small number of highly trained special forces. I doubt that many who joined after 9/11 made it to Afghanistan during the war. We'll never know whether lefties would have volunteered for a more protracted struggle in Afghanistan, because we didn't have one.

Iraq is a bit different. We've been there a while. It looks like we'll stay a while longer. Our presence is severly stressing the military. Recruiting is becoming a challenge. In Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, the military needs people. But even though the public approves of the war when polled, less than 2% of those of military age have volunteered. The cause is important enough for other people to die for, but typically not important enough for people to put themselves at risk.

Jonah writes that there is no shame in that, no shame in requiring someone else to risk their lives for you in a cause where you would not risk your own, and that if there is any shame, it is a private matter not a political one. He's simply wrong. Military service in time of war is not merely a job. Those who promote wars bear responsibility for those who suffer and die. Those who promote wars in which they themselves are unwilling to fight should be ashamed, and it is hard for me to take seriously those who lack the conscience even to recognize that.

Perhaps he has to argue that. To argue otherwise would be to argue that those who would not volunteer should oppose the war. It that view became widely accepted, how long could we sustain the war? If everyone went home tonight and asked themselves whether they would risk their own lives in this fight, and those who answered no began campaigning for its end, how long would it last?

Oddly enough, it turns out that those 35 and older aren't eligible for enlistment. In Jonah's case, merely standing on that might beg the question of why he didn't volunteer earlier, but it's a pretty good reason for not volunteering today. What he's written since only makes him look incapable of clear moral thought.

There's a question I haven't heard discussed much. It seems pretty clear that those who support the war have some moral obligation to volunteer, but what about those who oppose the war, does opposition to the war remove that obligation? It doesn't seem to me that it does. People are still dying, and they're still doing it in our stead. It seems clear that passive opposition isn't enough. On the other hand, it seems clear that someone who spends every waking moment seeking a way to end the war has met their moral obligation. I'm not capable of drawing a clear line between those two points.

In any case, I'm in no position to judge. I'm 45. I never faced that choice.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

dollars backed by pyramids

Brad Delong writes that only the "substantial decline in the stock market in the near future" scenario is likely. By near future, of course, he must mean "before private accounts start to invest," because if it were to happen after that point, private accounts would take the loss rather than receiving the gain.

One problem with that hypothesis is that the stock market is the expectation of funds from private accounts is likely to push the market up, not down. If we give the market a fresh source of investment to chase shares, it's likely to push prices up and help sustain them, at least until retirees begin to pull as much money out of the stock market as they're putting in.

Isn't there a technical term for investments supported by new investors rather than underlying financial strength? If we should worry about the effects on a bond-supported portfolio (the Social Security Trust Fund) when cash flow turns negative, shouldn't we be more worried about the effect of the same cash flow reversal when the assets in the portfolio are set by the market?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

asking questions

A week ago, I asked whether the election in Iraq had changed anything, and then went on to wonder about the fact that none of the usual suspects thought the question worth asking. Matt is now asking (taking his lead from Knight-Ridder. Now that it's safe and the Republicans have had their moment of blue-fingered solidarity, maybe more will do so (apologies in advance for those who have when I wasn't watching).

Monday, February 07, 2005

same-sex marriage, polygamy, and incest

Over at Balkinization, Professor Balkin writes about the legal theories under which same-sex marriage could be declared legal. One of the theories is
The ban on same sex marriage violates a fundamental due process right to marry.

He calls this theory weak because of the difficulty in establishing a compelling state interest that allows same-sez marriage but disallows even more controversial practices such as polygamy and incest. This strikes me as a potentially strong political argument for finding a different legal basis, but a remarkably weak legal argument. If the arguments against legal polygamy and incest are indeed so weak that they aren't compelling, why should they be banned? If the arguments are grounded in mere prejudice and "tradition," shouldn't they be legal? Shouldn't the presumption in a free society be that conduct of free individuals should not be limited without good reason?

Suppose the right to same-sex marriage were affirmed on the basis of a fundamental right to marry, and suppose against all expectation that such a ruling were affirmed by the US Supreme Court to be the law of the land. According to the statistical abstract of the US, there are 925,000 working lawyers and judges in this country, and many more legal amateurs who'd be interested in making sure that polygamy and incest don't become legal. If none of them could find a compelling legal basis for the bans, what does that say about the reasons such practices are banned?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

a future without allies

From the first paragraph of a New Yorker story on the US Marine rescue mission to Sumatra
Sea Power 21, the Navy’s broad plan to respond to the post-9/11 era of small wars and uncertain alliances, is a military policy for a day when America might find itself without allies.

I suppose I should find it reassuring that an Administration that seems bent on alienating allies is planning for the day when we have none left, but the notion that our nation's defense might leave us without allies in the near or distant future, that such a path could possibly make us safe, is deeply and profoundly foolish. The fact that the Administration is making detailed plans for the results of its own foolishness only strengthens my impression that we have many dark years ahead of us.

Monday, January 31, 2005

a bit slow on the uptake

This has been coming for months, and I only realized today that the date for the Iraqi election was driven by the need for an applause line in tomorrow's SOTU. It was pushed back as far as possible in hopes that the security situation would improve, but there was a hard deadline. The election had to go forward, and it had to be this weekend. I'm glad only 40 paid with their lives.

I wondered this morning why the story of Sunni non-participation was so hard to find, then I wandered around some of my usual haunts and discovered that they weren't talking about it either. Kleiman has nothing to say. Josh Marshall is uncharacteristically silent. Atrios has nothing to say. Kevin Drum takes note of it, but only to (unintentionally) understate the amount of Sunni marginalization likely to result when the 7% of representatives they'll get in the assembly aren't the ones they'd have choosen had they voted. The silence is eerie, if not stunning. I guess they all have more important things to talk about.

below the fold

I spent a busy day yesterday not watching the news. This morning, the Chronicle's headline read, "Big Turnout Buoys Hopes." President Bush says the vote shows his policies are paying off. Etc. "Wonder what's happening today," I think to myself and access cnn.com. "Historic," "Large turnout." Etc. Wonder what the rest of the world thinks. In an otherwise triumphant Australian article, I find this:
Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji.

In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.

A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

Wasn't the lack of Sunni arab cooperation the problem leading into the election? Is the fact that the Kurds and Shia went to the polls the least bit surprising? Does it tell us anything new about what's likely to happen next?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

thank you, senator feinstein

Thank you for opposing the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales. I never thought I would live to see the day when the United States claimed the right to torture under national and international law. I never thought I would have to go abroad with images of Abu Ghraib following my passport around the world. I never thought my fellow citizens would legitimize torture be reelecting those who fostered and condoned it. It is scant comfort but still relief that my Senator voted against a man who played (and no doubt continues to play) a pivotal role in one of the darker chapters in nation's history.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

but don't call it discrimination

I know it's not an original observation, but when cultural guardians like Mary Gallagher extol the virtues of marriage, citing evidence like

Adults, too, benefit from healthy and stable marriages. They tend to live longer, healthier lives and are more affluent. Married mothers suffer from considerably lower rates of depression than their single counterparts. Like a good education, a good marriage is a real asset. Married men earn between 10 and 40 percent more than similar single men, and married couples accumulate substantially more wealth. By the time they’re ready to retire, married couples have, on average, assets worth two and a half times as much as their single counterparts. (The figure for married couples is $410,000, compared with $167,000 for those who never married and $154,000 for divorced individuals...)

doesn't it undercut the argument that depriving gays of the right to marry isn't discriminatory? Wouldn't it do so in a just legal or political system? Isn't the undeniable message, "We don't like you, and we're quite happy to hurt you to get our way."

Again, I know there's nothing new or original here. It's just that if you asked those questions of Ms. Gallagher, she'd deny the obvious implications, go home and sleep quite comfortably, and rise the next morning refreshed, ready to fight the perverts without a second thought.

Friday, January 14, 2005

you follow the leader you have

While perusing Paul Krugman's bad novel, I was taken back to the days right after 9/11, when I watched the country fall into place behind the President and his approval ratings soar. He hadn't done anything. The attack took place on his watch. He reacted to it in the crudest possible manner, elevating those who attacked us to avatars of evil, not merely criminals but worthy adversaries in a war between good and evil. His actions made no sense to me then, they make no more sense to me now.

But he was (and is) the President. If he's not up to the task, where are we? Is it really surprising that people would find it harder to distrust a leader in a crisis than to trust one? Is it really surprising that after the price we've paid to follow this path, people would be loathe to change course, to admit that this path is the wrong one, that we have paid this price in vain?

Iokiyar. The alternative might be too much to bear.

torture and partisanship

Andrew Sullivanwonders whether Kerry thought
the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents
and fears he may have been right. If his review is any gauge, those fears are justified. Two paragraphs before, he characterizes those who "made the most fuss" this way:
dedicated opponents of the war in the first place...eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas.

If Sullivan can't avoid characterizations like this in an article critical of the administration and its torture record, can there be any doubt how Kerry criticism on this subject would have been judged?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sarbanes-Oxley and business practices

Mark Kleiman asks why the WSJ would complain about Sarbanes-Oxley, which he characterizes as making "it just a little harder for corporate managers to steal from their stockholders." Sarbanes-Oxley is much more than that. It (and similar measures) have created entire new categories of computer products to meet record-keeping requirements. Companies are starting to store several years of e-mail in write-only devices, with near instantaneous recall. Many functions that used to be distributed are being centralized to increase control and ensure that business practices are uniform and compliant. People are making the kinds of defensive decisions blamed for increasing medical costs. Compliance costs small companies more (it's expensive just to maintain the expertise necessary to comply).

Are these changes rational reactions to SOA? I don't know. The number of actual prosecutions is small, and I don't know whether the actions being taken in the name of compliance are either necessary or sufficient. The overhead may indeed be justified, given the costs of a business system without integrity. The reactions are real, however. It's a bit glib to say that it's only effect is to make it a little harder for a few greedy rich managers to steal.

Monday, January 10, 2005

it's easy to say no when you're never asked

Jeffrey invites and how can I refuse?
I swear that I have never taken money -- neither directly nor indirectly -- from any political campaign or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- in exchange for any service performed in my job as a journalist (or commentator, or blogger, or whatever you think I should be called).
I feel pretty safe taking this oath, and in saying that the likelihood of temptation is remote. This would be a much harder oath for most to take:
I swear that I have never chosen my public positions or based my judgments of the world around on expectations of future gain or position.
I don't think I've done that, but the mind is a powerful engine for rationalization.

Friday, January 07, 2005

dishonest government

Dishonest government can't be good, but apparently once you know how things work, it becomes a little hard to see why, beyond kindergarten-level morality. It never seemed that hard to me. An informed populace is the foundation of democracy, and officials who lie to the public show a corrosive contempt for democracy itself. Being more of an insider, Matt digs deeper and finds a more serious problem: that officials who've lost credibility will have a harder time acting in the future, when action might be critically necessary.

This is an odd argument in any number of ways.

The Bush administration had demonstrated its belief that policy was more important than truth long before Iraq, indeed long before Bush took office. When the administration laid out its case for Iraq, many people (including myself) concluded it was deceptive. Generally speaking, such judgments were written off precisely because they were informed by judgments of Bush and his people, because they were based partly on a well-founded distrust of the administration, a distrust the administration had already earned. Is there any reason to believe the next time will be any different? One can argue whether 51% is a mandate, but one cannot deny that support for Bush is greater now than it was four years ago or that his institutional base is stronger now than it was two years ago.

In any case, if dishonesty were to curb the ability of dishonest leaders to act, wouldn't that be a good thing? Isn't dishonest
leadership itself so grave that it could only be trumped by the most profound external crisis, and wouldn't such a crisis generate its own political base? The public reaction after 9/11 certainly suggests that it would. The frightening thing today isn't that the prevarications of the Bush administration have weakened its support, but that they have not. If Bush is limited today, it's due to an overextended military, not a weakened political base.

It's not hard to understand why dishonest leadership is bad for the nation. It is hard to understand why insiders struggle to explain it. It is hard to understand why those who watch officials lie every day remain easy to deceive, why they struggle to find realpolitik reasons to explain why such dishonesty is, in fact, bad, and why they characterize the obvious answer--that dishonesty leadership corrupts our society--as kindergarten-level morality.

I know I'm being harsh on Matt. He has chronicled many of the known deceptions. He knows they're important. It bothers me, however, that he sees a possible weakening of Bush as the most compelling basis for criticizing his past actions.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

feudal religions

Religion and I parted ways before I was ten. The reasons aren't that
important. I think there were too many contradictions, too many
inconsistencies, but whatever the reason, once I stopped believing,
nothing about the creeds I know inspired new belief.

My wife is Catholic, and I accompany her to mass when asked. Every
so often, something strikes me in ways it hasn't before. Christmas
Eve it was "Dominum." I've heard "Lord" my entire life, but it was
just a word, just how people talked in prayers. When I heard
Dominum, I had visions of lords, serfs, and vassals, and realized
that's what everyone heard for hundreds of years and maybe what everyone
who wasn't born in a democracy hears today.

God as King, as King of Kings, is a profoundly different vision
than God as Love. When I hear, "What would Jesus Do?" I think of
turning the other cheek. A king is first and foremost a leader of
war, embodying authority, demanding obedience. A king is responsible
only for his subjects and punishes disloyalty with death. From
someone with such a conception of Christianity, "What would Jesus
do?" would sound different. At least to me.

And when I look at today's evangelical movement, at the people
following the Rose Parade saturday morning with bullhorns, at Brother
Jed in the Quad warning of the "Lake of Fie-uh!!" at President Bush
with his Crusade, I can't help thinking that they worship a king,
not a man of peace.

The odd thing (to me) is that I see Protestantism, particularly
as seen in the sects that migrated here, as a reaction against
such attitudes, away from a feudal notion of religion and toward
more personal relationships and the American Revolution as a
continuation of the same process. When today's evangelicals strive to
put God back in government, they may be installing the God our
forefathers moved here to escape.

Monday, January 03, 2005


I often find myself at a loss for words at times like this. The gap between what I want to say and what I can say is simply too large, and everything I try comes out trite and empty. I try to find perspective, but I can't.

The most destructive part of a hurricane is the storm surge, but it's effects are concentrated in the eye. The tsunami was vast. If a typical storm surge is 30 miles wide, this was like the storm surge of 30-60 cat 4-5 hurricanes hitting at once, without warning.

Three years ago, 3000 people died and it changed everything. As I write this, 155,000 are known dead. Some are taking the time to write about the benefits the tragedy will have for the local economy. I hope this will change something, that the world will build something better from this.

This is harder, though. There's no enemy to attack. There's no clear defense (warning systems are nice, but hurricane evacuations take hours and all the isolated communities would still be isolated). I haven't heard anyone stand up and say, "Today, we are all Indonesians. We are Sumatrans." Is that because the horror wasn't on live TV, because it happened someplace we care less about, or because it lacked the evil of human agency?

Could we build a Coast Guard Disaster Relief service with global reach, to respond to disasters of global scale? Could we support one, even though it might only be needed once a century? We spend trillions on defense, even though we've only been attacked twice in the last hundred years and those attacks were of much smaller scale. Could we invest in tsunami/flood/storm shelters in limited-access coastal areas? Would such shelters be an extravagance in poor communities where people struggle to feed themselves from day-to-day?