Sunday, December 16, 2012

French names in American geography

When we think of America's origins, we normally think of England, for good reason.  In the Southwest, obviously, there is a lot of Spanish influence.  But we rarely think of the amount of French influence in the settlement of America, even though there is a lot of evidence in geographic names.

Three states -- Vermont, Maine, and Louisiana -- have French names.  Several others get their names from Indian tribes that were first contacted by French settlers, and two of them, Illinois and Arkansas, retain a portion of the French pronunciation as a reminder.

There is a surprising number of cities over a wide geographic area with French names.  We typically think of Louisiana first, especially New Orleans and Baton Rouge ("red stick"), but they are just the tip of the iceberg.  Mobile, Alabama was founded by the French and owned by them for over half a century.  Detroit ("strait") and St. Louis were also founded by the French.  A large number of other cities, chiefly in the upper Midwest, also bear French names:  Des Moines ("of the monks"); Eau Claire ("clear water") and Racine ("root"), Wisconsin; Pierre, South Dakota; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota; Coeur d'Alene ("heart of the awl"), Idaho; Joliet, Illinois; and Terre Haute ("high land"), Indiana.  Not all of the cities were founded by French settlers.  Some get their names from geographic features that were first named by the French, which would make for another interesting list (the Platte River is one obvious example).  It is remarkable how much of America was named first not by English or Spanish, but by Frenchmen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Election post mortem

The presidential election teaches us an important lesson, but not the one that most people have been drawing from it.  It's not that the Republicans are a minority party.  They may be, but there is no way to reach that conclusion from a single presidential election.  In general, people are far too hasty to draw long-term conclusions from short-term events.  In 2000, we learned, supposedly, that America was hopelessly divided between blue states and red states.  In 2004, it looked like Republicans had a virtual lock on the presidency, having won 7 of the last 10, and only one of the three Democrats elected had won a majority.  In 2008, we learned that Democrats were permanently ascendant, and Republicans would no longer be a political force in 10 years.  Obviously, that turned out to be very wrong, as did the previous predictions.  That's one of the reasons that I am sceptical this time around.

Another reason is that there is a bigger lesson:  it's hard to defeat a sitting president.  Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, only four sitting presidents have been defeated for re-election that I can recall.  In 1912, Taft lost to Wilson, but that election was heavily influenced by the 3rd party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1932, Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt.  There was a depression going on, of course.  In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the midst of some very serious foreign and domestic problems.  Probably the most surprising defeat was George Bush in 1992, not only because he was a sitting president, but because he had one of the highest approval ratings in history early in his presidency.  The recession and the breaking of his no new taxes pledge were responsible, but even so it required an extraordinary politician to defeat him.

Compared to those four instances, the sitting president won 14 times:  in 1904, 1916, 1924, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012.  In several cases, the incumbent seemed to be in serious trouble, notably 1948, 1996, and 2012, but still won.  The most lopsided results occurred during a sitting president's re-election, in 1936, 1964, 1972, and 1984.  Reagan beat Carter handily, but he beat Mondale even more convincingly.  Roosevelt crushed Hoover, but he had an even bigger percentage of the popular vote against Alf Landon.  Nixon barely won in 1968, but he won a decisive victory in 1972.

This is one reason I support term limits.  The sitting president has such a built-in advantage that the situation usually must be very bad for his opponent to have a chance.  I originally thought the 22nd amendment was a bad idea, but, I think in retrospect, that we would certainly have had more presidents serving 3 or more terms without it, and having an executive in power for that long is a dangerous precedent.

So the fact that the Republicans lost in 2012 should not be all that surprising.  The lengthy stagnation of the economy for the previous four years was bad, but it was gradually getting better; and I argued last year that it might reasonably lead to Obama's re-election.  Things were going in the right direction, and they were at their best point of his presidency when the election occurred.

On the other hand, as I have said, Romney's defeat should not in any way be a sign for Republicans to panic.  First, the next election, when Obama can't run again, will be a much better test of the relative popularity of Republican and Democrat ideas -- especially since the full effects of the Affordable Care Act will be clear by then.  Second, the fact that Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives by a substantial margin shows that they are not a "minority party" in a meaningful sense.  They may be someday, but for the present they have an equal right to claim majority status with Democrats, and I doubt whether anyone can truly predict how the parties and their popularity will change in the next decade.

Monday, October 29, 2012

David Frum getting real

David Frum has a new editorial up on CNN entitled "Let's get real about abortion."  Anyone who talks about "getting real" on an issue has set himself up a pretty high standard, since he is effectively calling the discussion up to that point unreal -- he is saying that he is bringing sense to the subject for the first time.  Unfortunately, Frum fumbles even a basic understanding of the problem.

To begin with, he regrets that the moderator in a recent Indiana senatorial debate did not follow up one candidate's answer with what Frum admits was an "argumentative" question.  The question was narrowly partisan.  To quote just part of it:
OK, Mr. Mourdock, you say your principles require a raped woman to carry the rapist's child to term. That's a heavy burden to impose on someone. What would you do for her in return? Would you pay her medical expenses?
By the very question, Frum exposes his ignrance of the issue.  He seems to think that requiring a raped person to carry a baby to term implies a responsibility to offer something to the victim in return, as though the government were commonly in the business of compensating victims of crime.  If a criminal robs your house, does the government restore your property?  If a drunk driver turns you into a paraplegic, does the government pay for your medical expenses?  If someone murders you over an argument, does the government pay your family?  In ever case, no.  Your only hope for compensation is from the perpetrator, and that is rarely fulfilled, unless the perp happens to be a millionaire like O.J. Simpson.

Frum's hypothetical moderator continues,
If a woman has her credit card stolen, her maximum liability under federal law is $50. Yet on your theory, if she is raped, she must endure not only the trauma of assault, but also accept economic costs of potentially many thousands of dollars. Must that burden also fall on her alone?
I am flabbergasted at the trifling nature of this argument.  Comparing rape to credit card theft?  We have special laws limiting liability in the case of credit cards because -- well, I'm not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the bank and the merchants sharing some responsibility for validating the user's identity.  But if someone hacks into your bank account and steals a million dollars, you are out of luck (at least over the insurable limit of $100,000), and if someone steals a million dollars in cash from your home, good luck getting that back.  The idea that rape is peculiarly like credit card fraud and not just about every other kind of crime, violent and otherwise, which is not limited by the government, strikes me as inane.

I am remaining neutral on the actual question of abortion for rape victims.  If you think rape victims should be permitted access to abortions, you can surely think of a better argument than Frum's.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Romney Administration

At this point, it's more fun for me to speculate about what will happen after the election than to guess what the result of the election will be, so let's take a moment to think about what major figures might be in a Romney administration.

Sarah Palin:  It would be great for her political career to get some experience as a cabinet officer, but I doubt very seriously she would be picked.  She just attracts so much negative attention, and I would be surprised if Romney wanted to start his administration with that burden.  On the other hand, if things are going very poorly after two years, she might come in and provide some new energy.

Newt Gingrich:  Newt is sort of the elder statesman of the Republican party now, and I find it hard to believe that Romney would not want to include him in some capacity.  It could be in a cabinet post -- I would think he would want to be in on domestic policy -- but it could also be as a White House strategist.

Chris Christie:  He has been a big Romney supporter, and has a large Republican fan base.  If he wants to be president -- and what politican at his level would not? -- then actually serving in one would certainly look good on his resume.  I'd put him at the Department of Education and task him with dissolving his own department.

Bobby Jindal:  Jindal has been widely praised by Republicans for years.  He hasn't made any noises about running for president, but a lot of people would like to see him in the administration.

Susana Martinez:  She declined calls to run for Vice President, but I think a Romney administration would try to pick her up (perhaps as AG).  She has a great story, and her presence further gives the lie to the Democratic talking point about Republicans consisting only of white males.

Allen West:  There are not only two black Republicans in the House of Representatives for the first time in my lifetime, but I seem to be noticing more conservative black columnists than I ever have before.  Putting West in the administration would further emphasize the growing Republican appeal to blacks.  West is also a Tea Party favourite, and Romney will need to secure their support with at least a few appointments (at least one?).

There are many other interesting possible appointments to consider, but I'll stop there.  One other point of interest is that Barack Obama, should he lose, would be the second-youngest ex-president ever (Theodore Roosevelt was younger by a few months).  He would have a long public career ahead of him, including possible future runs for the White House.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Second Debate

The second debate was a strong showing from both candidates.  I tend to agree that Obama won, but only by a little.  Then again, I've already made up my mind, and I'm trying to judge by what undecideds would think.  This brings up the question, are there really people who are undecided about which candidate they would vote for?  Or are they just undecided about whether they would vote for the current candidate for their usual party?  That makes a huge difference in how to score the debate.  I'm sure it's some of both, but I would love to know the breakdown.

Two strong debate performances from two very presidential-looking and -sounding guys.  They may have the two best voices of any pair of candidates in my lifetime.  Obama's is stronger, but Romney has that reassuring, whispering quality that I think makes his a little better.

I agree with those who feel that Romney missed several chances to respond, and not all of them were because the moderator cut him off (or allowed Obama to).  In particular, Obama and Biden and the campaign generally have been driving this theme that Obama will go after anyone who hurts Americans.  That was the message on Osama bin Laden, and that was the message he gave about the four people killed in Libya.

I don't understand why Romney doesn't give the obvious reply:  it's not just about killing people who kill Americans.  We didn't fight in Afghanistan for 8 years just to hunt down Osama; that would be an insane waste of resources.  We were fighting to dismantle al-Qaeda, and, more generally, create a situation where the Afghan government will be friendly and strong enough to prevent al-Qaeda establishing a haven there again.  The death of the Americans in Libya is not just about killing the perpetrators (good luck finding a whole battalion of attackers in any case), but about Obama's naive approach to Muslim nations generally and to the Arab Spring revolts in particular.  I can understand the he wants to appear to be standing up for America, but reducing foreign policy to killing our attackers is the kind of simplistic approach that liberals usually deride in conservatives.

Another slow curveball that Romney should have hit was Obama's line that "we have built enough pipelines to go around the earth once."  Is there any point to that statement?  Does he mean to demonstrate that we have so much pipeline that we couldn't possibly need to build more?  If that's the case, I don't know why he harps so much about  the need for roads; in interstate highways alone, we have enough roads to go around the earth twice, and I'd venture the other roads would at least triple that.  It's a classic example of a useless statistic.

Since Obama is harping on the 47% comment, I wonder why Romney hasn't brought up Obama's famous "If I don't get this done in 3 years, this is going to be a one-term proposition" quotation.  By his own reasoning, he shouldn't even be running again.  Then again, he also denied in 2006 that he would run for president in 2008, so we know what that's worth.

I am among those who don't understand what is funny about Romney's "binders full of women" comment.  Nobody in the audience laughed, it didn't strike me as funny at the time, and I don't get the humour even now that I have thought about it.

Another of Obama's big talking points is all the jobs he saved at GM.  Although I'm convinced that this is one of his biggest mistakes, I'm not sure how effectively Romney could respond without offending a lot of people in Michigan (although that assumes Michigan is actually in play).  He has to explain that GM going bankrupt wouldn't mean that the automobile factories in Michigan would suddenly stop running, but rather that they would be purchased by one or more other companies who would continue to run them, probably more successfully.  I think K-Mart is a good example, but I'm not sure they actually filed for bankruptcy.

Whether that would resonate with the rest of America is hard to tell, but we did sink a lot of money into GM and Obama's representatives took an active role in decision-making there for a while, which I think most Americans would agree is not the role of government.  Isn't this exactly the sort of "corporate welfare" that the Occupiers complain about?  Or does it only count as corporate welfare if the bailout is for banks and investment firms?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What a President Can't Do

I know that presidential candidates have to make themselves seem invincible to win elections, but it is still depressing to watch.  If hell freezes over and I ever became a presidential candidate, I imagine blowing the election in a debate something like this:

Moderator:  "Mr. Croxton, when will your administration get unemployment below 6%?"
Me:  "Never."
Mod.:  "Never?"
Me:  "No, not my administration.  The president doesn't determine who works and who doesn't.  That's a decision made by millions of private individuals."
Mod.: "So you think the government has nothing to do with the economy?"
Me:  "Of course not, that would be absurd.  The federal government can do a great deal to hinder economic activity, and it can do a little to promote it.  But it makes no sense to speak of a president 'getting unemployment below 6%.'
  I will not promise what the unemployment rate would be because it is out of my control.  I will also not promise a certain rate of growth in the economy, or a rise in morals or personal happiness.  The president has only the vaguest influence over all of those.
  I can't even promise that crime will go down or that violence against America will cease, but I will promise that I will do everything possible to make sure we prosecute criminals and defend the country against attackers.
  Moreover, even the things I can do, I can't do all at once.  I will strictly limit the number of things that I promise to do on 'Day One' of my presidency.  I will keep a list and make sure I can do every item on it.  Some things will have to wait until day two, or three, or fifty-six.
  Most of the things a president can do by himself are very limited.  Congress is the most important branch of government, and as president I will not try to usurp its role.  I will continue to propose laws and submit budgets as other presidents have done in the last century, but I will not act as though Congress has a responsibility to do everything I want, and I will not now promise to do things that I know only Congress can do."

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ryan v. Biden

I don't like to watch national political debates.  They make me nervous, way more nervous than their consequences warrant.  Perhaps this is partly the experience of dealing with the Bushes, for whom I constantly felt embarrassed.  Naturally, I missed Romney's terrific debate performance last week.

I thought Biden was effective tonight.  Not that his arguments were better, but it sounds more credible when you say things repeatedly and loudly and indignantly, and he did that.

I thought the moderator was awful.  When Biden interrupted Ryan, her most frequent response was not to try to moderate by giving each an appropriate chance to speak, but by asking a new question -- effectively cutting Ryan off.  She also pressed Ryan on several issues and only once, mildly, pressed Biden.

Ryan was remarkably patient, more patient than was good for him, I thought, in the early stages.  Unfortunately, when two people are talking over each other, the one who falls silent first seems to be yielding, and Ryan constantly gave in.  It was the moderator's job to prevent this sort of thing, but she abdicated.  At least Ryan showed that he was statesmanlike.

I'm not sure what he should have done otherwise.  I would have been tempted to continue talking when Biden interrupted, which Ryan did some toward the end.  What I really would want to do in that sort of situation is step out of character for a moment and make a meta-comment.  You're in a supposedly respectable debate, you're expected to behave in a certain way, including not making comments about extraneous things.  But I don't think I would have been able to refrain from commenting on Biden's interruptions.  Ryan did, once, talking about the ground the Democrats had to make up, but I don't think it was really effective.  What I would have preferred would have been for him to say, "When you can't make an effective argument, it is tempting to interrupt your opponent to prevent him from making a point."  And to repeat that line at the start of every time he got to talk after Biden had interrupted him.  It's probably better that he didn't.

Biden did what the Obama campaign wanted him to do:  attack repeatedly and paint the Republicans as heartless.  On the other hand, Ryan probably also did what he needed to:  appear as a legitimate candidate for vice president.  I have a hard time judging how debates would be perceived by independent voters, but I don't think this one went drastically one way or the other.

One side point is that I think Obama missed a big opportunity in not elevating Hillary Clinton onto his ticket.  In 2008, he didn't need her, and my guess is he preferred to have a vice president who wouldn't upstage him.  In 2012, he could have benefitted greatly from the additional energy she would have brought to the campaign.  It would have been similar in some respects to McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, with the exception that Clinton has already served 8 years in the Senate and 4 years as secretary of state; in other words, she is already a credible candidate for national office, no questions asked.  It may turn out that he doesn't need her this year, either, but my feeling is that he would have been significantly better off choosing her.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Economic logic, part II

The examples I gave in the last entry were clear-cut:  I'm pretty sure that, from the point of view of maximizing your personal pleasure (which is what economics is about), you should not consider the cost to the vendor in your calculations (unless for some reason hurting the vendor was part of your calculations -- but in that case, you would almost certainly be better off not buying from him at all).  The examples in this entry still puzzle me; I'm not sure where the correct logic lies.

The first is from The Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg, which I thoroughly recommend to everyone.  I found myself agreeing with almost everything in it, but one case still leaves me puzzled.  Suppose you are going to a show of some sort and have bought 2 tickets at $50 apiece for you and your guest.  When you get to the show, you can't find the tickets.  Should you buy more, or should you be unwilling to buy them because you don't want to pay for the same thing twice?  What about if you had not bought the tickets, but found that you had lost $100 on the way to the show?  Landsburg says (to the best of my recollection) that most people would not buy the tickets again because they had already budgeted that money for entertainment, and would not want to exceed their budget.  On the other hand, most people would be willing to go ahead and buy the tickets with, say, a credit card, even if they had lost the $100 earmarked for buying tickets.

Landsburg pokes fun at this "mental accounting," but somehow, I find myself agreeing in principle that I would not re-buy the tickets even though I would spend the money if I had lost cash.  I'm probably just being stubborn here, but I wish I could grasp the logic strongly enough to appreciate it more viscerally.

Here's another case which may or may not be related, but it puzzles me in a similar fashion.  Suppose you go to the grocery store to buy a can of green beans.  On the shelf are two types of cans, a store brand for $0.75 and a name brand for $1.  You know there is very little difference in quality between the two; which would you buy?  Now suppose you go to another store to buy a large television.  There are two sets of the same size and resolution that you want, one off-brand for $999.74, and one name brand for $999.99.  Which do you buy?  My gut is to buy the cheaper green beans but the more expensive television, on the grounds that $0.25 out of $1000 is negligible, whereas $0.25 out of $1 is a large fraction of the total price.  But I can't get over the fact that it's the same $0.25 either way.

Now, there are many other factors that one could bring into this, such as the fact that the television is supposed to last longer and therefore the name brand might be worth more even if you can't see any difference in picture quality.  I want to ignore those factors as much as possible and treat the two commodities as sharing all the same basic properties except for price.  I suppose you could imagine that you are buying a truckload of green beans for $999.74 or $999.99.  My sense is that, even in that case, no one would care about the extra quarter in one case, but virtually everyone would prefer the more inexpensive single can (assuming, as we have, that they two cans are the same quality).

Even though the total price difference is a quarter in either case, one could say that, in buying the more expensive green beans, one is creating the potential for spending a lot more money in the long run, since presumably you buy more green beans than televisions in your life.  That makes sense to me, but only with the caveat that it is a mental shortcut:  in general, you should buy the less expensive item of the same quality, even if the price difference in absolute terms is negligible.  For an individual can of green beans, I can't see why the $0.25 you save on the cheaper brand should count for any less than the $0.25 you save when buying a whole truckload of the cheaper brand.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Economic logic, Part I

The discipline of economics is founded on the idea that people are rational, at least to the extent that they will buy less of a good the more it costs.  But people are not always rational, of course (see, e.g., Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational).

Some economists, such as Ariely, think our enduring irrationality is a blow against traditional economics.  I don't agree, but that is a topic for another entry.  What I'm interested in is some examples of apparently irrational purchasing behaviour that I have observed.

For example, I once heard someone discussing what toppings to put on a pizza.  "If I'm going to pay for extra toppings, I like to get meat so it's worth the money," he said.  At first, that seems to make sense:  all toppings typically cost the same, but meat is obviously more expensive than, e.g., mushrooms or onions.  But if you think about it, you're not trying to get the most expensive toppings for your money; you're trying to get the pizza you will enjoy the most for your money.  Imagine someone saying, "Green peppers are my favourite topping, but I want to get pepperoni because it costs more."  That doesn't make sense, but that is essentially the same logic the guy was using.

You might try to qualify this by saying that, other tastes being equal, you should prefer the meat topping, but that doesn't help.  What you are really saying is that you would rather the pizza place make less money from their sale to you even though it provides no benefit to you.  The only way this could make sense was if you were talking about a topping, such as lobster, which is so much more expensive than the other toppings that you rarely get to eat it.  But then what you're really saying is that lobster pizza has more value to you because you get it more rarely.  That's consistent with the basic principle of economics, which is that goods have a decreasing marginal value.  Even though in absolute terms you might prefer green pepper, lobster might have a higher value because you eat green peppers all the time and lobster almost never.

I have been subject to the "minimize profit" fallacy myself in one similar case.  I read that restaurants typically make little profit off of the most expensive items on their menus, because if they charged as much relative to the cheap items (such as vegetarian or chicken dishes) for fancy meats such as veal and lobster, no one would buy them.  For a while, I was caught in ordering the more expensive items because I thought I was getting a better "value" out of them, even though the extra cost rarely corresponded to extra enjoyment on my part.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Democrat Hate Speech of the Week

One of the most annoying things about the tolerance police is that their irony meter seems to be permanently broken.  Otherwise, how could we get a comment like this from the mayer of Boston?

“We’re an open city. We’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion. That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.” (link)

He's all for inclusion -- as long as you agree with him.

Now, I'm not saying there isn't a point that you need to exclude some people to be inclusive of others.  But, come on.  Chick-fil-A advocates for traditional marriage.  You know, the kind humanity has practiced, exclusively, until the last 10 years or so.  To complain that they are threatening anyone with their policies is to degrade the concept of "threat" to the point of meaninglessness.  Even worse, to the point of doubldspeak.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Consequences of the Obamacare ruling in the short, medium, and long term

The fact that the nation is stuck with Obamacare is the least problem with the Supreme Court's ruling today, because health care is -- thankfully -- still not a Constitutional right, and the law can be reversed.  The best thing that is likely to come out of the ruling is a Republican-controlled White House and Congress, which will have a mandate to repeal Obamacare as their first order of business.  I was hoping for a different ruling (more on that in a moment), but I can't deny that today's ruling is probably the best boost a Republican campaign could have.

(It's probably pretty obvious that the reason for this is that Republicans are more likely to be fired up during this election.  For a more detailed discussion of the phenomenon of voting, see Satoshi Kanazawa's articles here, here, and here.  In brief:  people don't like to lose.  If that effect carries over from one presidential election to another, over four years, it seems likely to have an even larger effect in an election just four months after a polarizing decision.)

Not that I think a Republican victory would guarantee the repeal of the law.  Immediately after it passed, Republicans were rallying for repeal, but many were saying things like, "There are good things in the law that we want to keep."  That is a recipe for disaster, because it is not hard to imagine enough Republicans finding a few things here and a few things there about the law that they like so they don't want a full repeal, but neither can they agree on what specific parts of the law they want to get rid of.  I think Romney has it exactly right:  repeal and replace.  Repeal first.  Get rid of the abomination, don't squabble over particulars.  Then come together to pass a new reform after the business of repeal is safely done with.

I think there is a very good chance that Republicans will win the election, and a fair chance that they will repeal the law.  (At which point I feel certain that some Democrats will claim that their repeal is a radical dismantling of the safety net -- just watch.)  But the ruling today is still bad, because it has opened the door for Congress to do virtually anything under the power of taxation.  They don't actually have to levy a tax for a law to fall under the taxation power, and this is a very large loophole.  I realize that Congress could have done substantially the same thing in the form of a tax as it did with the individual mandate, but not exactly the same thing.  The difference is important to me, because now the rather specific power of taxation has become a general power to force people to do things as long as there is a specific penalty attached to failing to do it.  Not only can the government force you to buy health insurance, or a GM vehicle, it can also force you to read government literature (or face a tax) and it can force you to eat your vegetables (or face a tax).  I literally cannot think of anything that will not be covered by this new interpretation of the Constitution.

In fact, if Obamacare stands and the government becomes more deeply enmeshed in our health care, I expect the government to start pushing health directives on people within 20 years.  If the government can force us to wear seatbelts on the grounds that those who don't wear them cause insurance rates for others to rise; and if it can force us to buy health insurance on the grounds that it causes the rates for other people to rise; then you can be certain that this system -- which is guaranteed to run into financial problems like every other government program -- is eventually going to want people to stay healthier on the grounds that unhealthy people cause other people's insurance rates to rise (and/or cause the government to spend more providing care under subsidized insurance rates).  A law to eat your broccoli would be entirely consonant with the logic of the individual mandate.

Even if Obamacare is repealed legislatively, the principle that Congress can do virtually anything is established; and even though this principle has been the result of a century of jurisprudence throwing out everything that the 19th century took for granted about what our Constitution means, liberals will still claim that any reversal is the result of activist judges.  But there is one further potential bright spot, which is that a President Romney would be likely to have the chance to appoint one or even two Supreme Court justices.  The Obamacare ruling, which rests on the slimmest majority ever (something like 4.5 to 4.5, since Roberts is divided against himself on this one -- he sides with the conservatives in rejecting the interestate commerce justification for the law, but with the liberals in upholding the law nonetheless), might be reigned in by future courts.  And while I agree in general that courts should respect precedents, I can't agree that it should follow them slavishly.  The court has overturned some of its own principles in the past (most famously in Brown vs. Board of Education), and if a ruling is clearly bad to a majority of justices, they ought to state as much and rule to the contrary if a similar case arises.

But that's a long, long way off.  IF Romney wins the election, and IF he appoints conservative justices, and IF the conservative majority on the Supreme Court tries to shape some limits to Congress' power, things might get better.  I have been following politics for too long to be very optimistic, however.  For now, there is just a bad ruling, and the only thing to do is to work to overturn it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My privileged life

I have just read the article Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Level, and the comments, and the follow-up and its comments.  The author claims that straight white males (SWM, for short) don't like being told they are "privileged," so he is going to try to explain their advantages in terms they understand.  He then very condescendingly compares their lives to playing a game on the easiest difficulty level, whereas people in other categories have it harder, and black lesbians are playing on the hardest level of all.

I understand that this is a metaphor, or an analogy.  I understand that it is not supposed to be a perfect model of reality.  There are, however, several reasons why I think it is a very poor and misleading metaphor.

First of all, using the gaming-difficulty metaphor implies that SWMs have an easy life.  No one plays at the easiest level unless he is a total noob, and only college students with lots of time on their hands play at the hardest levels.  In fact, while there is probably some advantage to being a SWM, it isn't all that great.  I mention this because the author spends at least a whole paragraph talking about the different ways the game is less challenging on the easiest level -- all in metaphorical terms, of course, not with any real-life examples.

Note that we're controlling for other variables here, such as wealth.  Money makes a huge difference in outcomes, which the author acknowledges; he is saying that, given two people in the same wealth category, the SWM has it easier.  This is important, because sometimes one reads that one of the disadvantages of being black is that you have a greater chance of being born into poverty.  That fact is irrelevant, however, to any given individual; either you are born poor, or you're not, and a rich black person starts with a leg up on a poor white person.  At least, I think the author would acknowledge that much.

So the author sets up a metaphor that makes it sound like SWMs should pretty much sail through life unless they got really unlucky in other respects, such as being born dumb.  Even the wealthy black lesbian from an educated family, he says, is still playing on the hardest difficulty level.

I won't dispute that people who are not SWMs face some additional difficulties.  I don't know anyone who would admit to discriminating against them, and I have not actually witnessed much discrimination that I recognized as such, but I acknowledge that I only have occasional opportunities to witness them, whereas non-SWMs face them every single day.  Presumably, they get bad breaks sometimes just because of who they are and not what they did.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Short people.  Every inch of height is worth one to two percent higher income, and male CEOs are a full 3" taller than average men.  It is also well-known that the taller candidate usually wins presidential elections.  (It's not 100%, more like 67%, but that's still pretty striking.  There is also evidence that height is an advantage in senatorial elections.)  I won't even get into the advantage tall people have in dating.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Fat people.  In one study, children were shown pictures of a black boy, a white boy in a wheelchair, and a fat white boy, and asked which they would not want to play with.  The overwhelming choice was to avoid the fat kid.  Fat people are also one of the last groups that it is okay to make fun of, not only on the school playground, but in public life.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Introverts.  Extroversion is largely an inherited characteristic, and people born with it have a major leg up in getting jobs, getting promoted, and, of course, getting dates.

This is besides the other factors that affect success, such as how much money you have, whether your parents were educated, whether they were married, how smart you are, and how emotionally balanced you are.

If you throw all that together, it seems to me that the added advantage of being a SWM is rather small in comparison.  Now, if there were legal barriers to non-SWMs, that would certainly be a cause for action.  There used to be, but not anymore.  In fact, there are now legal incentives for hiring and not harrassing non-SWMs.

This is why I object to the term "privilege" when applied to white males.  The author of the article says he is trying to avoid the word because SWMs don't like it, but at the same time he says it is a perfectly appropriate word that fits the situation.  Privilege is traditionally a legal distinction:  some people have special protection under the law.  This was very important in the past when the concept of treating everyone equally was unknown; you fought to obtain whatever privileges you could.  People now like to use privilege to mean any advantage, regardless of whether it is legal, institutional, or social.  There was a time when SWMs definitely did have privileges that no one else did; now, they just have some vague prejudices in their favour which they share with people who are tall, thin, and good-looking.  It doesn't seem meaningful to me to use "privilege" in that sense.  It's an advantage, and a fairly minor one (controlling for all other variables).

So what we're dealing with are non-institutional, personal barriers that SWMs get to avoid and other people have to face.  These barriers are similar in nature to the ones faced by short, fat introverts.  One obvious difference is that the nation has never had laws discriminating against short, fat introverts, but that is of little concern to the short, fat introverts of today.  It is also of little concern to homosexuals or women, except insofar as the residual attitudes from the days of discrimination persist.  The only people affected today are racial minorities, who are more likely to be poor and uneducated because of those past laws.  But that doesn't say anything about how they are likely to fare compared to other poor, uneducated people, and I would think that the chances in life are much better for a tall, athletic, extroverted, mentally healthy, intelligent minority of either sex, even though poor and uneducated, than for a short, fat, introverted, neurotic dumbass who is also poor, uneducated, and white.  To say that the white person is "playing life on the easy setting" is about as ridiculous a statement as one could make.

I have yet to mention my biggest problem with the video game metaphor, which is this:  it implies that life is a game with a specific object, and that object is material success.  I'm not going to dispute the importance of material success in a lot of things, but it is, after all, a secondary rather than a primary goal.  No one but the compulsive collector buys things just to have them; what most people want is to be happy.  One definition of happy could be religious fulfillment.  I'm going to leave that to the side, because I don't know of any studies on that subject, and I would be unlikely to get any agreement on their meaning anyway.  I point it out because a good many people care more about religion than about material success or anything else, and I think our society is fixated on materialism as the measure of everything.

So here's another side of happiness:  self-esteem.  Surely people who feel good about themselves are happier than those who aren't.  And if you are discriminated against at every turn, as you must be if you are not a SWM, you must have low self-esteem, right?  Wrong.  As it turns out, black and latino adults have higher self-esteem than whites, on the whole.  Would you rather be a rich, privileged SWM with low self-esteem, or a minority with high self-esteem?  Almost by definition, you would rather be the minority.  This is not to say that minorities are necessarily better off, even the ones with higher self-esteem, but I do want to raise the question whether all the talk of SWMs "playing life at the easy level" really makes any sense if one looks at anything beyond plain material advantage.

On the whole, I am inclined to believe that there is some unsystematic, low-level, but pervasive discrimination against non-SWMs.  I also believe that its effects are largely limited to material gain, and even there, they are minimal compared to other variables.  I am open to being proven wrong, but I would like to see the evidence to the contrary.  You may use a simplistic metaphor that even SWMs like me can understand, but please include specific facts to support your contention.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Martin and Zimmerman

I'm suffering from opinion overload after reading so many comments about the Treyvon Martin killing.  It disturbs me to see everyone so ready to draw conclusions about a case in which a great deal remains unknown.  It's probably no different than what has always happened when information about an event gets disseminated, but it is much easier to see the effects now.

There are only two clear things about the case as far as I can tell.  One is that George Zimmerman should not have followed Trayvon Martin, and if he had not followed him, Martin would still be alive.  The second is that the police should have launched a formal investigation rather than just taking Zimmerman's word for it.

Beyond that, it is mostly speculation.  The key question is how Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a scuffle.  Zimmerman said he was ambushed, which seems unlikely to me, but I have no way of knowing what scenario actually played out.  I'm afraid that no one may be able to learn the truth at this point, although maybe some detectives will come up with evidence through forensic science that tells us more.

Everything else about the case is secondary.  People keep saying that it was not a crime for Martin to be walking in his own neighbourhood.  Fair enough, but it also wasn't a crime for Zimmerman to be on the watch for criminal activity.  Whether what he saw warranted his suspicions is an open question, but it doesn't really matter.  Whether he was confronting a teen returning home from 7-11 or a criminal casing a joint, he had an equal right to ask the person what he was doing there.

It is true that how he asked this question is material.  He may have been approaching Martin with the intention of having a conversation something like this:

"Hey, what's up?"
"Are you just out for an evening stroll?"
 "Just getting some snacks and heading home."
"Okay, man, be safe."

That might be a totally unrealistic interpretation of what Zimmerman was up to.  Perhaps his past experience encounters with people he suspected would shed some light on it.  Maybe he was going to run up to Martin and say, "What the @$%^ are you doing around here at night?"  Maybe words would be exchanged, threats made, and things would have turned ugly.  My point is that Zimmerman was not a priori wrong to notice Martin and to ask what he was up to, any more than Martin was wrong to be out at night buying snacks.  He was wrong if, and only if, he approached Martin in an aggressive manner and precipitated a confrontation, which may very well have been the case judging from his call to police.  But it is not certain, based at least on what I know.
I keep reading about how Zimmerman is paranoid, psychotic, or other terms.  I'm not going to try to be an armchair psychologist, but we should admit that there have been numerous crimes in his neighbourhood and he was trying to stop them.  He was overzealous in pursuing Martin and he was perhaps overzealous in his watch activities in general, but he had a real reason to be concerned.  Some cities have curfews for teenagers.  Sanford didn't, but the fact that curfews exist indicates that there is an inherent concern about young people being out at night.

My point is that there is a big gap in our knowledge of what happened.  We know that Trayvon Martin was innocently walking home from the store.  We know that George Zimmerman was looking out for criminal activity, that he was frustrated with the amount of crime in the neighbourhood, and that he was too willing to try to do something about it himself.  We don't know how Zimmerman acted toward Martin, what made Martin run away, or how the two ended up fighting.  I will be the first to say that a gun law should not allow someone to pick a fight and then use it as an excuse to shoot someone; if that happened, Zimmerman is guilty of murder.  If his version of the story is true -- that Martin ambushed him -- then Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.  If, as seems likely, the truth is some shade between these options, the jury will have to sort out the responsibility.  No one can be sure from what has been reported that events happened one way or the other.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hate crimes

Is anyone else concerned that such a thing as "hate crimes" even exists in our law?  I was reminded of their existence because of the decision handed down today against a Rutgers student who videotaped his roommate engaged in a homosexual act (here and here).  Admittedly, the law uses the term "bias intimidation" instead of "hate crime," but it is widely reported as a hate crime law, and those words probably came up during the debate in the legislature.

The concept of a hate crime seems disturbingly Orwellian to me.  I realize the law considers the mindset of the defendant, whether the act is premeditated, whether he feels remorse, and so forth, but that seems quite a bit different than debating whether he did it out of hate or some other motive.  The end result is the same, and whether the person feels indifferent or antipathy to the victim does not seem to matter much in practice.  Either way, he is sociopathic.  Even if the crime is committed out of a misplaced sense of love, the perpetrator is still operating outside the law and should be punished.

The actual title of the crime in New Jersey law, "bias initimidation," is not much better than "hate crime."  Intimidation is against the law (I presume -- anyway I wouldn't have any objection to a law against intimidation), and I don't know why it would be better or worse to intimidate a person out of bias, jealousy, or just for fun.

As usual when I hear of hate crime laws, they don't seem to add anything useful that existing laws couldn't cover.  The defendant in this case is already guilty of invasion of privacy, which is punishable by jail under New Jersey law.  The bias intimidation charge doubles the amount of time he can be imprisoned, but it doesn't keep a guilty person from going free.  What is the benefit of putting this person in jail for an extra five years if in fact he acted because he didn't like his roommate's sexual orientation?  Why would he merit less punishment if he acted because he thought his roommate was a general loser rather than someone in a protected category?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sandra Fluke is Ruining America

Obviously, Sandra Fluke can't ruin America by herself.  But when too many people share her attitude, they can.

I was led into this by the controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh's description of her as a slut.  At first, I was interested from the point of view of a double standard in the media.  Yes, there is one. But in the course of my research,I went to this page to find out what Fluke really said.  What interested me was that her answer to the obvious question, "In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking what did we expect when we enroll in a Catholic school?" 

She responded with a lot of nonsense.  Such as, "We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally."  Why, does Georgetown provide free contraception to men?  She continued that she expected "to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success."  Not giving women free contraception creates an "untenable burden" to academic success?  That's a pretty low standard for a burden, I must say.  No doubt her school also expects her to rent her own room.  That's a much more expensive, and, I daresay, necessary burden than contraception, yet somehow that doesn't warrant a mention?

She adds, "We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere."  Really?  You didn't expect anyone to suggest that obvious alternative?

But what really bothered me is how she concluded, "And even if that meant going to a less prestigious university, we refuse to pick between a quality education and our health."  This is a problem, first of all, because the choice between buying contraception and having it paid for by insurance is not even a matter of health.  No one who fails to use contraception is less healthy than someone who does, except in the fringe cases that she mentions of women who need to take birth control to prevent cysts -- which she admits is actually covered by Georgetown's insurance anyway.

The biggest problem, however, is the false choice that Fluke presents of a quality education vs. free contraception.  Liberals claim to like choices, but they don't like to admit that choices come with consequences.  Sandra Fluke made several choices:  (a) she chose to go to law school, and (b) she chose specifically to go to Georgetown, and (c) she chose to buy her health insurance from Georgetown, even though she claims it is completely unsubsidized, and of course (d) she chose to have sex.  Having made all those decisions, and finding that they collectively faced her with the consequence of having to pay for contraception, she decided that someone else should pick up the tab.  She decided that Georgetown should not have the choice to offer contraception on its medical care, even if it would be contrary to their beliefs.  She decided that everyone else who buys health insurance from Georgetown should have to subsidize her contraception, even if they don't need or want it themselves.  She is in favour of choices for herself, but not for anyone else.

America is a great country precisely because we have choices.  You can choose to go to law school at dozens of places, you can choose to purchase health insurance from numerous providers, you can choose to have as many sexual partners as you want of any race or gender, which is not the case in many other countries.  You can also choose to be selfish and want other people to bear the consequence of your choices.  That is normal, but what is not normal (or at least good) is when this selfishness makes its way into national discourse as a form of "choice" or "freedom."  It is a kind of freedom that is entirely one-sided, because the choice is all on the part of one person; everyone else is made to bear the consequence, without having any choice in the matter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I have a large collection of random screws, but I can never seem to find the one I need when one goes missing.  Have you ever tried buying a screw by matching all its characteristics?  Obviously you need to know how long it is and how big around it is, and whether you want Phillips or slotted.  Do you want a point on the end?  How about the lag between the head and the threads?  Of course, you need to know the threads per inch and the thread depth, especially if you are using the screw in a metal object.  The head of the screw can be flat, oval, pan, truss, or hex washer, and I'll be darned if I understand the advantage of any but the flat head.  I particularly like this website, which even has a section for "sex bolts and mating screws," which seems appropriate because of all the double entendres possible when dealing with this form of hardware.

So many choices, and all of them dirt cheap.  I keep old screws because I have a hard time throwing anything out, and because they're so small that they're easy to store.  I'm not sure I've ever used any of these around the house, however.  There are so many different sizes that I usually can't find what I need, even if I happen to have the right combination of length, diameter, thread count, thread depth, and so forth.  The thing is, there really isn't any point to keeping screws.  They are so cheap that it would certainly be no imposition to pay for the exact kind I need every time.  In fact, it would be cheaper if you count in the time I spend looking through every one of six dozen different screw types trying to locate the one that fits.

Screws are a very humble part of the modern industrial age, although doubtless many items in my house would fall apart without them.  When I first learned about simple tools, and heard that screws were a variation on the inclined plane, I didn't understand it at all.  Now I can see how the "threads" -- really a single thread -- is just an inclined plane that converts circular to linear motion.  The inclined plane hardly seems like a tool at all, but it lies at the foundation of so many mechanical items:  not only the screw but also the ramp, the wedge, the knife, and scissors.

I like screws because they are easy to use -- I have no talent for hammering nails (another use of the inclined plane, by the way).  I have heard people complain about Phillips head screws; The Straight Dope says that the advantages are chiefly for industrial applications but not for individuals.  I don't know how anyone could think that, since I have spent many frustrating moments when a flat screwdriver slipped out of its slot and I had to realign it.  Does everyone think that slot screws are better?

The one problem with Phillips screws is that it is so easy to deform the slot, making it impossible to remove it again.  I have always wondered why Phillips screws are particularly susceptible to this, and how hard it would be to make a stronger screw that would not buckle so easily.  I'm sure it would cost more, but I would be willing to pay some premium for a stronger screw; the question is, how much more would I have to pay?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Military Rape

Serving in the military is dangerous enough, you would think, without having to worry about your fellow soldiers raping you.  Killing you is bad enough; we know that there are deaths to friendly fire, and almost certainly always will be.  Getting raped by the other side is also a danger that, I would imagine, the laws of war will never completely eliminate.  But there is increasing news coverage of people getting raped by members of their own side.

A Democratic Congressman has introduced a bill that would take military rape cases out of the military chain of command.  If the Defense Department is to be believed, there is a veritable contagion of rape among soldiers:  19,000 sexual assaults in 2010 alone.  Even granted that not every sexual assault would qualify as a rape, that's still a staggering figure.  A new documentary called The Invisible War delves into the problem up close and, from what I have read, in a heart-rending fashion.

I don't know whether other countries have a comparable problem.  I do know that rape is deplorable, and rape on this scale is a scandal.  I also think that this consequence of mixing women and men in military units should have been entirely predictable.  In general, mixing men and women in close living quarters is almost certain to result in sex.  Mixing men and women in close living quarters where they are deprived of a normal social life is even more likely to result in sex.  Mixing men and women in close living quarters and a stressful position is almost certain to result in rape.  It is deplorable, but true.  Of course, one would have to adjust for factors such as the prevalence of rape in a society in general; within a given society, however, I would have to think that this is a recipe for rape, even if not necessarily on the same scale that the U.S. Army is experiencing.

Obviously, the military's response to sexual assault is also an important factor.  It appears that commanders have not taken rape accusations as seriously as they should have, and that may be due to an institutional failing.  I don't, however, think that they are going to eliminate the problem entirely.  And, no, I don't have a solution.  The best alternative, in my opinion, would be to have all-male and all-female units, but that creates other problems.  Women don't officially serve in combat roles now, but can you imagine if they did, and you had to choose between sending in an all-male or an all-female unit into a dangerous situation?  Whatever you picked, the answer would be wrong, and the military would probably end up creating rules about which units had to be committed that would be contrary to good tactics.  I don't have an answer, but the situation needs to get better.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Defense of Manning?

I have been following the case of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing over 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks, with some interest.  I am curious how so many people seem to be defending him.  Since a preliminary investigation led an officer to recommend his prosecution on all 22 counts, we now get to see how his lawyers are going to defend him.  According to the Huffington Post, "defense lawyers say Manning was clearly a troubled young soldier whom the Army should never have deployed to Iraq or given access to classified material while he was stationed there from late 2009 to mid-2010."  Also, "others had access to Manning's workplace computers. They say he was in emotional turmoil, partly because he was a gay soldier at a time when homosexuals were barred from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces."

In other words, he didn't do it, and they shouldn't have let him near classified information anyway, and, besides, it didn't do any harm.

The first of these is the only legitimate defense -- he didn't do it.  I suspect that this is also going to be the weakest line of defense, since there are probably plenty of emails from Manning to Assange and others indicating his intention to release the documents.

Moreover, this defense flatly contradicts the two fallback positions:  it's the Army's fault for letting him near the information, and releasing it didn't damage U.S. interests.  These are two sophistical arguments that I happen to despise, seeing them frequently among high-profile court cases in which the defendant has no real defense.

The Army should certainly have good procedures to keep the unqualified away from classified documents, and from what I have read, Manning's superior officer was going to cut his access shortly before the documents were leaked, but didn't get around to it.  Still, is this a defense?  The law (or Army code) is pretty clear about protecting classified information.  Even if the Army slipped up and let someone near classified information when it shouldn't have, is that a reason Manning should not be prosecuted?  Manning could be a Taliban spy and the same logic would apply:  the Army would be, in that case, foolish to let him near the documents, but he would still be guilty.  Can a bureaucratic mistake excuse an illegal action?  And can anyone who knows how time-consuming a process it is to get a clearance on Manning's level really want the Army to add even more safeguards?

Manning's emotional state might at least count as mitigating circumstances, but the excuse that he was a homosexual at a time that homosexuals were barred from serving openly doesn't count for much.  The rules were in place, and well known, before he signed up.  If you were a polygamist and signed up for the Army, you might be stressed out about it -- don't sign up!  There was no draft that put Manning in this situation; he did it to himself.

The last argument is one of the most frivolous:  that the documents did no harm to U.S. interests.  While one or more of the charges on which Manning is being brought up may require actual damage to be done, surely he is in defeault of at least some rules regardless of the actual consequences of what he did.  I can understand that one would want some rule about significance; you wouldn't want to send someone to prison for a long period of time because he leaked a single, trivial document, for instance.  But Manning leaked over 700,000 documents.  It should not be up to the court to decide whether these documents actually harmed U.S. interests, because then every case of leakage would degenerate into a debate, not about the law, but about the effects of the leak.  People would be able to release classified documents with impunity as long as they did not rise to whatever level of "damage" a military court happened to hold.  It would be risky, of course, but I imagine there are people who would be happy to take the chance.

Unless Manning has some extraordinary exculpatory information that his defense lawyers have yet to bring up, therefore, the case against him looks very strong.  I have long since lost much faith in our jury system, but, since Manning will be tried by a military court, there is some hope that justice will be done.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Think This Through

I got an email about some training that I have to attend.  It includes the following warning:  "Due to limited seating, please plan to arrive early."  I would like to know what train of thoughts went through the head of the author as he wrote that.  If there aren't enough seats, having people arrive early is not going to solve the problem.  Sure, those who do arrive early might get seats, but that just pushes the lack of seats on to those who fail to arrive early.  No matter how early you tell people to arrive, and no matter how much they follow your advice, they will never produce more seats.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Is There A Place For Paul?

Hardly anyone, probably not even the candidate himself, believes that Ron Paul can win the Republican nomination.  But his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire have turned him from a marginal figure into major player in Republican politics.  For many, a strong but unsuccessful run to be a party's presidential nominee could be used as a basis for a future presidential run, perhaps by becoming vice president first.  I think it highly unlikely that Paul will become a vice-presidential nominee, however, because he is too polarizing.  Moreover, at age 76, this is likely to be his last run.

Is there any hope that the Republican candidate, should he win the presidency, will offer some sort of post to Paul?  Should he?  Paul represents an unusual constituency, a small but dedicated group who differ from Republicans in general on a number of issues.  Every political party is composed of diverse interests, but libertarians present a special set of challenges to incorporate into the party mainstream.  Unlike another small but devoted following, the avidly pro-life section of the party, libertarians are not single-issue voters.  There is not even a major issue most frequently identified with them; instead, their views are relevant in nearly every political action.  And while most libertarian views are congenial to most Republicans, there are some views that are so far out of mainstream conservatism that they alienate many potential voters -- issues like drug enforcement and foreign policy, for instance.  It is therefore possible for a Republican candidate to say many things that libertarians approve of, but to have a single libertarian in a Republican administration is likely to attract enormous criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

Still, you don't want to write off the support of this important group of people.  Even if a third party is not likely to rise up any time soon, just having libertarians stay home could mean defeat for a lot of Republicans in close races.  I have even heard of people identifying themselves as "liberal-tarians," libertarians who somehow believe that the Democratic party represents their views better than Republicans.  I find this absurd, but I have to admit that the way Republicans often behave while in office, I can understand why libertarians would be anxious to find an alternative.

So could a Republican president find a place for Ron Paul in his administration?  The department of state can be a refuge for a politician out of step with the main line of opinion in his party, as when Colin Powell served there for George W. Bush.  In Paul's case, however, this is out of the question.  Paul is such an isolationist that his appointment would alienate everyone, including, probably, our allies.  Most other cabinet -level positions would almost be contradictory for Paul to hold.  Labor?  He'd probably want to get rid of it.  Energy?  Likewise.  Housing and urban developement?  Same.  It is hard to imagine someone with Paul's long and consistently-held beliefs taking over the administration of a department that he doesn't think serves a legitimate purpose.  (I'm thinking of Leon Panetta's sudden shift to a defense hawk after his appointment as secretary of defense; I'm not suggesting that Panetta is insincere, but his political philosophy is considerably more flexible than Paul's.)  I suspect that he would decline the position, even if offered.

There is one possible alternative, and that is the department of the Treasury.  It is true that Paul's website calls for a 0% tax rate, which is one of the things that makes it impossible for Paul to win national office.  However, it seems that even he must admit that the government needs to collect some revenue; and since the Treasury was one of the original three cabinet departments, he can't claim that we have ever done without it.  Assuming that he would continue to enforce existing laws while promoting their repeal, Paul would make a strong advocate for decreased federal spending as Secretary of the Treasury.  He would be a strong advocate for taxpayers, and you can bet he would make the IRS less aggressive in its collection methods and less exacting in its rules.

A president would have to have strong assurance from Paul that he would actually enforce existing laws, because his appointment to such a position would have to excite some fears that he would just refuse to collect money; and while I'm pretty sure he wouldn't do that (or would refuse the position if it was contrary to his conscience), you would want some public statements to that effect at the time of his appointment to calm financial markets.  There is always the chance that he would not be approved, and that kind of split with libertarians would be far worse for Republicans than simply leaving Paul to the side.  On the whole, I think the risks of appointing Paul to any cabinet position make it very unlikely that a president would take the risk, but I can think of worse people to hold the office.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Those of a certain age may remember a 1980's band called "Johnny Hates Jazz." Maybe they should have called themselves "Johnny Hates Music," or simply "Johnny Has No Taste."

How can you hate jazz? I am a little more understanding of people who hate, for example, country music. I love it, but I grew up with it and it appeals to me in many ways beyond its musicality. Bluegrass is an even better example. I like classical music, but if some people find Tchaikovsky boring, I can totally understand that.

But jazz? Jazz is like a cool drink when you're thirsty. Jazz is the feel of water covering your body as you relax in the pool on a hot day. Jazz is a full—body massage with scented oils. I guess improvisation might not be for everyone; it might not be your favourite kind of music. But hate it? I don't understand that.

I should qualify that by noting the different types of jazz, some of which are definitely less likable than others. Do you listen to bebop, bossa nova, or Dixieland? Hard bop, neo—bop, post bop? There are even such unlikely types as acid jazz, punk jazz, and ska jazz. I'll be honest, I couldn't tell you the first thing about how these forms differ. I didn't even know what type I liked myself until very recently. I have always liked jazz, but it seemed that every time I listened to an album, it wasn't quite what I wanted. For a long time, I thought I must want smooth jazz, because that is how it sounds to me. It turns out that I was actually looking for cool jazz; smooth jazz is more like elevator music. I can probably attribute my mistake to the time when I grew up, when the adjective 5 "cool" was passe and people were more likely to strive to be smooth. Cool jazz grew up after World War II, when cool was definitely the thing to be.

It's kind of surprising that I would like jazz, because I usually prefer order over spontaneity. There is, however, something incredibly satisfying to the soul to hear a saxophone wander, unpredictably but beautifully, over a string of notes, mixing in happy and sad, anxious and relaxed, leaving me feeling simply content. I find that I want to give a thumbs-up to almost every song. So, if you haven't tried jazz, open up Pandora, type in cool jazz, and give it a listen. You might understand why I am so confused about Johnny's peculiar tastes.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Republican Presidential Candidates: Not Romney

In accordance with my contrarian nature, I disagree that the other Republican presidential candidates are not up to par. I don't have a strong favourite among them, but I think almost any would do a good job.

I admit that I was excited about Herman Cain briefly. In general, I think it is good to get outside opinions into Washington, so much so that I strongly support term limits. My concern with Cain was that he had no previous political experience, not even on a local level. I was afraid that he might get into office and make some embarrassing mistakes because he just didn't have the political background to know how to handle situations, much as our current president has made a number of gaffes, especially in foreign affairs. I acknowledge that this is a trade-off: you can't ask for an outsider and at the same time get the level of comfort that comes with a political insider. I certainly wouldn't rule Cain out because of his lack of experience, but it was a concern. For better or worse, he is no longer a candidate, so I don't have to consider that issue further. (Do you see why I don't follow these things too closely?)

Ron Paul presents another level of discomfort. Unlike Cain, he has a lot of experience, and his stances on the issues are well known. I probably agree with most of his domestic policies. His foreign policy -- the foreign policy of libertarians in general -- is more problematic. When I first saw libertarians promoting themselves as peace candidates back in the 1980's, I was appalled, because I was a hawk and I couldn't understand how these people -- whom I considered allies -- could have such different views. Since then, my views have moved a lot toward a non-interventionist stance (see "A Good Word For Isolationism"). If that were all libertarian foreign policy was about, I might be able to support it. However, when I hear Paul claiming that we are responsible for making Muslims hate us, and saying that a nuclear Iran is no threat, I part ways. A realistic foreign policy can conclude that the U.S. should not be as involved in policing the world as it is now. A realistic foreign policy cannot be premised on the idea that supporting Israel is a good reason for Muslims to hate us. Muslims are going to have to take responsibility for their own destructive actions, and we cannot withdraw from the world so much that we allow vulnerable states to be destroyed to save ourselves from raving fanatics.

Newt Gingrich is an extraordinary person. When he engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, he was my hero. It wasn't long after that that I began hearing some of his curious statements. I particularly remember one interview in which he berated a bunch I of reporters for being surprised that he and President Clinton had been able to work together on an issue: "Let me tell you something: This is a new era. The old rules don't apply." First, his condescending tone was annoying. Second, my scepticism alert goes off whenever I hear anyone talking about "a new era" or "old rules not applying." It's not that things don't change, but they generally do so rarely and slowly. People are too eager to proclaim new eras for the obvious reason that it gets them attention, or -- in Gingrich's case -- because he genuinely thinks that he is capable of bringing about such a formidable transformation. I didn't let these things bother me too much at the time, because I was still in awe of his electoral accomplishment. However, his subsequent statements have reinforced my impression of him who thinks too much of himself. That would not be a serious problem in itself; really, anyone who runs for president has a big ego, and it seems a little trifling to worry about whether Newt's is bigger than everyone else. My concern is that he is a little too interested in placing himself above ideology. He is determined to be an independent i thinker, which is good, but I think he takes pleasure in demonstrating that he is not bound i to standard conservative positions. His well-known support for the global warming crisis 1 is just one example. I can see him waking up some day with a grand government scheme that would transform America and mark him as a heroic president. Liberals would jump all over it because it is basically a liberal idea, and conservatives would be left trying to fight a Republican president.

I took an interesting quiz recently that identified Rick Santorum as the candidate closest to my views. From what I have read, he is a very grounded person with deep beliefs, which is important to me. I was pleased by his good showing in Iowa, but I doubt he is strong enough to win the nomination. My feeling, for what it is worth, is that Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate I think, in fact, that he is going to win the election as well. It is difficult to tell if this would be a benefit for conservatives, but there are many ways that it has to be better than another term for Obama.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Republican Presidential Candidates: Romney

Since I am conservative, you might think that I would be following the Republican primaries closely. I used to: when I was in 5th grade, I carefully tracked the race between Reagan, Bush, and Anderson on a piece of graph paper, recording percentage vote and delegates for each state. In the meantime, I have become jaded. Not that there is anything wrong with the process, but I have so little to do with the outcome that I don't bother to learn much about it until it gets much closer to the convention.

Being unimportant and ill-informed does not, however, prevent me from sharing my views with the world. I have never been as down on Romney as most people are. To begin with, he is absolutely right about the distinction between state vs. federal mandated health care. Not too long ago, I was arguing this point with someone who said, "Don't be naive, Virginia's constitution is more restrictive than the federal constitution, yet Virginia requires people to buy automobile insurance." I was curious, so I looked it up (as expected, the Virginia constitution is on line). Here is what I found: "The authority of the General Assembly shall extend to all subjects of legislation not herein forbidden or restricted" (and further verbiage to the same effect; Article IV, Section 14). In other words, the Virginia constitution is the exact opposite of the federal one, in that it reserves all powers to the government that are not specifically denied to it, whereas the federal constitution reserves all rights to the people and states that are not explicitly granted to Congress. This difference is there on purpose, as the states are supposed to be sovereign governments, and Congress is supposed to regulate relations among them. Even though I would not have proposed a health insurance mandate had I been governor of Massachusetts, Romney is clearly correct to say that it is a separate issue from whether he supports a federal mandate.

I also disagree with the criticism of Romney as too smooth. To be honest, I don't completely understand this criticism. I can see how "smooth" might come across as "phony" in some instances; however, in my view chances to view Romney speak, he seemed anything but phony. Being smooth is not a flaw; it is a highly desirable trait (and I say this as someone who noticeably lacks it). Being smooth implies knowing who you are and where you stand; it implies coolness under pressure. These are precisely the traits that one looks for in a leader. "Leadership" is a fuzzy concept, but I have come increasingly to appreciate its value in politics. Leadership sometimes means taking an unpopular but morally correct stance in public, but I think that is just one aspect of the broader sense of leadership as getting people to do what you want. Sooner or later, politics comes down to persuasion; it is about convincing people of the right path. Surely, having some beliefs that you stick to is part of persuasion. If you merely do what is popular, there is no need to persuade. But that is more like a necessary prerequisite than an essential characteristic of leadership. Leadership requires one to present a convincing case in a convincing manner. It means reassuring people to stick by a decision even if it doesn't appear to be right in the short run; even if, by human measure, it will never seem to work out, but you should do it anyway because it is the right thing. Leadership can be used for bad purposes, of course, and often is. That does not mean, however, that people with good purposes should eschew leadership. It is not only possible, but highly desirable, for a good person to be a good leader. This can come across in different ways. Sometimes a shy or awkward person can turn out to be a good leader. More often, one would expect leadership from someone who is confident in himself and his beliefs. I don't know if Romney necessarily qualifies as a good leader, but his demeanour suggests that he may be, and I don't perceive that as a negative characteristic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Good Word for Isolationism

I am not an isolationist.  I am, however, a lot closer to that position than I was 25 years ago.  Back then, the major threat to the United States was the Soviet Union.  We were in a Cold War, and I thought it was important to fight them and their proxies everywhere.

I don't know if my views have changed because we're fighting a different sort of war now, or if it's just because I've gotten older.  Either way, I'm definitely finding more reason to be sceptical of foreign intervention in a whole host of places.

I was not a big proponent of the Iraq war.  (Is that how history will know it, as "The Iraq War"?)  Attempts to paint it as a "war for oil" are really hard to take seriously, but I was never convinced that Saddam Hussein and his regime posed an urgent threat to the United States or any of its immediate neighbours.  I was not strongly against the war, as I viewed getting rid of a brutal dictator as a good thing.  My major complaint was that Bush should have gratefully accepted the U.N.'s offer to rebuild Iraq after the war was over.  I certainly did not foresee the long counter-insurgency war the U.S. would have to wage to pacify Iraq, but it was easy to predict that establishing a stable government there was going to be a lot harder than defeating Iraq's armed forces.  Having disposed of the dictator, I thought it would be great for the United States to allow the U.N. to manage the more difficult job of reconstruction.  It is a bit cynical, but it would also, I think, have been the best thing for all involved.  Besides, if the U.N. then had problems, the U.S. could always complain, "You should have let us do it!"

But why invade Iraq in the first place?  A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a state is certainly destabilizing and threatening, but I would have to have evidence not only that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons, but that their developement was imminent.  Chemical weapons, which also get lumped under the WMD designation, are not nearly so threatening on a mass scale.

What about Afghanistan?  Since Al Qaeda had effectively declared war on the U.S., and since the Afghan government was either unwilling or unable to restraint it, it makes sense that destroying Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan would be an important U.S. interest.  On the other hand, did we need to establish an effective, friendly Afghan government that would prevent all future terrorist activity for all time to come?  I thought the British and Russians had pretty much demonstrated that fighting a war of conquest in Afghanistan was a losing proposition.  (We're not trying to conquer Afghanistan, of course, but establishing a friendly Afghan government is, if anything, an even higher bar.)  The country is mountainous and hard, people are among the poorest in the world, and they pride themselves primarily on being fighters.  Yes, it would be nice to clear Afghanistan of terrorists, but is that a realistic goal?  Is it easier to establish a solid government there that will prevent terrorism, or to invade and wipe out terrorist camps whenever they become a problem?  We had destroyed the camps within months of 9/11; all the rest of the time has been focussed on making Afghanistan safe for the future.

The idea of making the world perfectly safe is characteristic of modern America, where adults often part with the words, "Drive safely," and kids are methodically protected from everything that might possibly cause them physical harm.  It is also, however, characteristic of great empires, which don't like to tolerate unruly border states.  Who wants to allow potential enemies to develope?  It is important, however, to decide what is worth fighting for and what is not.

I hear a lot about "vital American interests" when discussing wars.  What constitutes a vital national interest in Afghanistan?  Is an unstable Afghanistan like to cause an immediate threat to the United States, or is it a place where a threat could develope in the future?  If there are terrorists there, are they really vital threats to America?  Is it better to attack them there, or to protect America's borders?  I'm not sure what the answers are, but these are the questions that we need to ask.

There is one thing that I am sure is a vital American interest, and that is the developement of nuclear arms by Iran.  Any nuclear proliferation is a potential threat, but an Iranian nuclear arsenal is a more serious threat than most.  Not because Iran would be likely to bomb us -- it will be a long time before it has a missile capable of reaching America.  There is the threat of a terrorist sneaking a small nuclear device past customs; I am not sure how likely that is, but I'm sure Iran would not hesitate to use such a weapon against the U.S.  Even without such direct damage, an Iranian nuclear weapon has the potential to lead to nuclear war in the Middle East.  Regardless of which state is targeted, and regardless of whether the U.S. even needs any oil from the Middle East, a nuclear war there would be disastrous.  The other industrial economies of the world, in Europe and Japan, would be crippled without this oil; and the U.S. economy would be crippled without our major trading partners.  We would have a humanitarian and a selfish interest in preventing such a war.

Isolationism is not a bad word.  The United States will spend itself into oblivion if it defines its interests in such a way as to require preventing every possible threat from developing.  That doesn't mean that there aren't steps short of war that can be used to apply pressure to countries to be more co-operative.  It also doesn't mean that there aren't times when war is the best option.  My concern is that we have decided on war, and the goals of our wars, without adequately consideration the limitations of this aspect of policy.