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January 31, 2004

New Blog

Via RangelMD, welcome to There & Back Again, a new blog from Tolkien fan and soon-to-be medical student Matthew Mittiga. In only his second post, he recommends Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

I've gotta link to this guy.

David Brooks hits the bullseye

I think David Brooks, unfortunately, has it right.

"This, after all, is a party of ideas."

January 30, 2004

Taxes, of the Payroll and Income varieties

The always thoughtful Chris Rangel, MD reminds me that people like John Stossel like to point out that rich people pay more income taxes then poor people do.

This is, in itself, unproblematic. But, you know where this goes. Stossel and others of his ilk (Stossel is clearly an ilk, of the Brit Hume variety) quickly move on to claim that this is either a) unfair on its face, or b) evidence that any further attempts to increase the discrepancy in income taxes between the rich and poor is unfair.

Unsurprisingly, I reject both a) and b). Let's listen to Stossel:

Still you may feel the rich should pay even more. It's a tempting thought, since they have so much.

But let's remember the facts: the top 1 percent of Americans — those who earn more than about $300,000 a year — pay 34 percent, more than a third of all income taxes, and the top 5 percent, those making over $125,000, pay more than half.

Notice that John (can I call you John, Mr. Stossel?) only talks about income taxes. As if that's all the taxes there were. Just income tax.

Yes, John, let's "remember the facts." The fact is that John forgets about payroll taxes. These are, primarily, Social Security and Medicare, often collectively referred to as FICA after the legislation which established them. When politicians talk about tax cuts, they're always referring to the income tax or to other incidental taxes like estate taxes.

Payroll taxes have never been cut. Payroll taxes are the type of tax that most people pay more of than any other, including the income tax. Payroll taxes fall heaviest upon lower-income wage earners.

You might hear the argument (maybe even, if we're lucky, from John Stossel) that payroll taxes aren't like income taxes because they are returned to you in Social Security retirement benefits. Wrong! Remember Al Gore's lock box? He wanted to put Social Security funds in the lock box and throw away the key. Because now, of course, there is no lock box; it's more like a cookie jar, where the poor contribute the cookies and the rich eat them. Most people don't get back what they pay in to Social Security (and those who want to privatize Social Security try not to let us forget this).

George W. Bush, in his rush to cut those nasty income taxes that John Stossel complains about, depends upon the Social Security cookie jar to finance income tax cuts for the wealthy.

Taxes should be progressive. The rich, within reason, should pay more, for the simple reason that one less dollar in a poor person's pocket might affect how much he eats that day, whereas one less dollar in a rich person's pocket wouldn't be noticed. The rich shouldn't be raped, they should simply stop pretending they're solely responsible for their success. The stable society which taxes make possible enabled them to succeed, and they ought to give something back.

So please. John Stossel, (everyone, all together now)...

GIVE ME A BREAK!

Macho politics

Every morning since Iowa, I've asked myself, "where did John Kerry come from?" Needless to say, I haven't been able to answer myself. John Kerry? Perhaps it's because I'm not from Massachusetts, but I don't remember any enthusiasm among Democrats for this perma-senator (a la Bob Dole) before the Iowa caucuses.

One explanation that's as plausible as any other I've heard is that Democrats are looking for the macho man. Just as the Democratic Leadership Council argues that Democrats can't win the White House unless they nominate a Republican, this guy argues that many Democrats also believe they can't win unless they nominate the most manly guy. I suggest that if he's right, it's largely for the same reasons the DLC has looked to right-winginess as the criteria for Democratic electability: the Republicans have won with manliness, so we need manliness, too.

This is ridiculous. It's either ridiculously false, or else it's ridiculous because it's true.

Call it a response to 9-11, a reaction to feminism, or show business taking over the world. But the kitsch of masculinity—the studwear, the Clint Eastwood stare, the programmed finger-stabbing dare—has enormous credibility now. We are trusting our very lives to the man who makes the best action figure. That's a lot scarier than Howard Dean at his screamiest.

Right.

January 29, 2004

Howard Dean and Joe Trippi

I'm not sure yet what to make of Joe Trippi's replacement as head of the Dean campaign. On one hand, Trippi deserves a lot of credit for doing what people said couldn't be done. Remember only a year ago when everyone thought Dean was a long-shot? He confounded the punditry by propelling the Dean campaign to what many of the pundits were calling "front-runner status." Trippi has been tremendously successful by any rational measure.

Nonetheless, it's true that Dean didn't get the results he wanted in Iowa and New Hampshire, despite spending more money ($9.2 million) overall than John Kerry ($6.9 million). Dean spent almost $6 million in Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn't win either. When you consider that in America, people usually vote for the guy who spends the most money, it's fair to wonder whether the Dean campaign should be trying something different.

I'm not saying it's Dean's fault, or Joe Trippi's. The decision of the national media to hammer on Dean for weeks leading up to Iowa surely played some part in the disappointing results. But the fact is, Dean isn't getting the results he wants. The question is, what should change?

Maybe, of course, nothing. Perhaps nothing Dean could try would persuade voters to vote for himself over John Kerry. But let's be realistic; most political campaigns can reliably influence voter behavior, and it's empirically true that most of them succeed by spending more money on television. Sad, but true. The probability that Howard Dean is some rare exception to this general rule is small.

So what's left? In professional sports, if the team isn't winning, the coach gets the boot, even though the players are fumbling too much, not scoring enough power-play goals, or failing to grab enough rebounds. The theory is that the coach has a lot to do with the poor performances of the players. If Joe Trippi were a coach, no one would be surprised that he got fired.

I support Howard Dean because I think he's the best candidate running for President. I'm amazed at Joe Trippi's success at moving Dean from the status of obscure to the status of major candidate. But the results in Iowa and New Hampshire need to be taken seriously and not ignored. Firing Joe Trippi might not be the best response, but no one can know whether it is or not. It's a judgment call.

One idea that's probably clearly wrong is that Trippi's absence will cool the enthusiasm for Dean. The suggestion that it will mischaracterizes Dean supporters in the same way that Dean's opponents often try to do. Here's the New York Times:

But if such a dramatic move was necessary to signal understanding that something has gone awry, losing Mr. Trippi — who may be followed by several top loyal aides — is risky, since he has become a sort of cult hero to the legions of Deaniacs at the core of the movement.

Again, the suggestion is that people who support Dean form some kind of a "cult." Where is the evidence for this? How are Dean supporters any more "cultish" than Kerry supporters? This is an example of why many Dean supporters suspect the national media hasn't been fair to their candidate. If you're going to refer to "Deaniacs," let's start referring to "Kerryacs" and "Edwardsiacs" too, please.

Cooperation

Yesterday, I posted my grades. Far more risky, for me, was posting some of my reactions to my grades. Especially because these reactions are deserving of some guffaws. They basically say, "yeah, I got good grades, but I'm disappointed in them."

The early results of this experiment are encouraging. People have helped me out, both by saying kind words (and some unkind words) about my decision to post my grades, and by saying words like "come off it, you loser, you're not making any sense" about my reactions to my grades. They're giving me a reality check, and I feel more grounded in the real world because of their comments.

Another thing that's far more embarrassing for me than posting my grades is posting navel-gazing entries on my blog. But that's what life's all about: stretching, trying new things, taking risks. . .

January 28, 2004

My law school grades

There's been a discussion in other places about grades. I've been thinking about this, and I've decided that keeping my grades secret is not what I want to do. So I will share them with all of you:

Con Law: A-

Torts: B+

Civ Pro: A-

------

I'm very disappointed in these grades. Why? Because I wanted higher ones. I'm under the impression that very high grades will help professors to remember me. And I want to be remembered by the professors. Since I don't know yet what I want to do after law school, I feel like I need mentors more than anything else. High grades, my thinking goes, will make it easier to find a good mentor.

I suspect that grades are just one factor among many, but I think I have reasonable grounds for believing that if I had earned higher grades, my professors would be more likely to remember who I am. More than that, I sometimes suspect that they'd be more eager to help me get to where I want to go (or help me to decide where I want to go). Perhaps I'm wrong about this effect of grades. But now that everyone knows what they are and how I'm interpreting them, they might be able to tell me I'm wrong. That would be helpful.

So now you know my grades, and you know some of my thinking about my grades. Sure, I have many other thoughts about these grades, but hey, this is only one post.

What I really hope is that this will stir up the pot a bit. Now, you have examples of people who don't reveal their grades, and examples of those who do. Now there's slighty less reason to speculate about grades, because you have slightly more real information about grades. (I know it's only one person, but it's still technically true.)

Property rights

I've just spent the morning reading badly-written arguments on the internet. But I won't hold this against anyone. I, too, am going to indulge my ability, made possible by this blog, to start writing on impulse without waiting to refine my thoughts into something coherent. So let this serve as a disclaimer for what follows:

In Property class, we've read an article by Harold Demsetz. He argues that a system of private property rights will tend to supplant a system of common ownership when it becomes really profitable. (This is a gloss. But listen to Demsetz's jargon: "...the emergence of new property rights takes place in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost possibilities." Eew.) Demsetz uses as an example the supposed emergence of property rights among the native peoples of Labrador after the fur trade began to heat up with the arrival of Europeans. He contrasts this with the continuing reliance on common ownership among the native peoples of the American Southwest, who weren't entertaining offers from Europeans to buy their buffalo hides. Apparently, his anthropological knowledge is woefully inadequate, but Demsetz's ideas may not be.

If Demsetz were writing today, he might have chosen the Digital Millenium Copyright Act as his most powerful example. He might have said, "now that information is so much more in demand, and capable of being inexpensively exchanged, the chances to profit from its ownership are greatly increased. Hence, we are moving from an old system of modest intellectual property islands in the vast intellectual commons, to a system where people are claiming private ownership over great swathes of ideas, speech, performance, and art. We are privatizing the intellectual commons "in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost possibilities." Eew.

Demsetz no longer has to be an anthropologist, he just has to read the news. Perhaps he could use his free time to write more about who "the interacting persons" whose desires are being responded to really are. The RIAA? Disney?

January 27, 2004

Teaching law

Today I went to a lunch meeting about becoming a law professor. Since I still have no idea whether or not I want to be a law professor, the discussion about the pros and cons of law professoring was particularly interesting. According to at least one law professor, the pros are:


  1. Autonomy. i.e. no one really tells you what to do from hour to hour, aside from incidental stuff like requiring you to show up for class a few hours each week, and occasional administrative work.
  2. Solitude. I list this as a pro, but that's because I'm introverted. An extrovert might consider it a con and call it "loneliness."
  3. Little structure. I dislike most kinds of structure, so for me this is also a pro.
  4. Intellectual challenge. This wasn't addressed explicitly, but it was implicit in what was said. Apparently, you get to write about legal problems, publish what you write, and then take boatloads of criticism for it. This sounds like, on a larger scale, writing a blog.
  5. Teaching. For me, this is a big pro. As fish like to swim and cats like to scratch, I like to teach. Perhaps it's the pedantic nature of the enterprise. . .

The cons are:

  1. Little control over where you live. It seems that in the competitive world of law professoring (all kinds of professoring?), you have to take what you can get. If you want to live in Wyoming, or in Durango, Colorado, you're pretty much screwed.
  2. Long-term projects. When I was in medical school, I liked emergency medicine because all my projects (patients) were short-term (in the ED, you work on them for a while and then send them home or give them to another service). I didn't like internal medicine because the same patient would be hospitalized for weeks, constituting, for me, a "long-term project."

So far, the pros are more numerous than the cons, but that's not enough to make up my mind. After all, I would, in addition to many other things, have to write "The Paper" if I wanted to have any success at all becoming a law professor. What should this "paper" be about? What legal field am I interested in? I don't know. Liking the subject matter in all of my 1L classes so far isn't enough to go on.

If I'm lucky, perhaps I'll even wind up liking Bankruptcy. I was told the supply of potential bankruptcy teachers relative to the demand is more favorable for getting hired. . .

Good news, and polar bears

Return of the King has received the most Academy Award nominations of any film this year.

Celebrate by reading about polar bears.

January 26, 2004

Corporate law

I'm interested in corporate law. Surprising? It shouldn't be. Since I have the sense that our society is being damaged by the behavior of large corporations far more than it needs to be, I'm curious about the law that governs corporations.

We tend to think of corporations as natural features of the world, when they're really just artificial constructs of law. Like all institutions, however, the corporate construct influences the behavior of people. In my opinion, these people often act badly under the cover and influence of corporate law.

Recently there's been a lot of debate over Article 1, §8, cl. 8 of the Constitution. That's the bit that gives Congress the right to issue patents (a legal construction) for a particular reason (to "promote the progress of science and useful arts").

Corporations are like patents. They're legal constructions, established by state governments, for a reason. "We the People" established the corporation because we thought it would serve a purpose: the accumulation of large amounts of capital necessary for big investments which would benefit the entire society.

We made corporations because we thought they'd benefit us. And they have. They've worked wonderfully well, made a lot of big investments, and benefitted society. But they've also behaved badly, and damaged the community around them, and committed injustice. Perhaps most perniciously, they've urged us to forget where they came from.

Some people suggest that the corporate focus on the bottom line is established and encouraged by law. Others assert that the narrow-minded focus on corporate profits is solely due to shortsightedness on the part of corporate directors, and that the law governing corporations is not responsible for their bad behavior.

Either way, we shouldn't forget that corporations aren't natural features of our world, but instead are human creations intended to benefit our society. Do they?

January 25, 2004

Citations, cold, headaches.

I'm working on citations for a brief due Tuesday. Bluebooking citations, like loud noise, causes headaches. The solution is to take frequent breaks.

During my last break, I noticed that Ann Arbor got down to -15 F. last night, just missing the record low set in 1897 of -16 F.

Boy, howdy; that's dang cold; yessirree Bob.

Next time I'll check the hockey scores instead.

January 21, 2004

let's not criticize PC, let's emulate it

A friend sent me this about University of Colorado students attempting to document what they say is the "indoctrination" of students by left-leaning faculty members.

I wish I was teaching at CU. I'd give them something to complain about.

Spam

This blog was just hit with 130 spam posts. Plus-or-minus 5 or so.

This is ridiculous. Now I'll have to go clean everything up. Lovely.

Welcome, new Michigan blogger

JKrasch is witty and sarcastic enough to subtlely ridicule all of us with delusions of coolness based on our blogs. And yet, she is nerdy enough to have her own blog.

I love it!

Conservatives: a question for you

If any conservatives read this blog, I have an honest question for you.

Let me say right off that I support the right to own guns, and I oppose most kinds of gun control. So on that issue, most people would call me a conservative, too.

But I'm confused about what seems to be an inconsistency among Republicans. Perhaps some of you could help me out.

On one hand, the omnibus appropriations bill in the Senate, which Republicans support, contains a provison which seems to increase the privacy of gun buyers:

The omnibus bill also includes a little-noticed amendment that has led to sparring between the gun industry and gun control advocates over the use of firearms records. The amendment, drafted in the House with the aid of the National Rifle Association, would require federal officials to destroy records on gun purchases within 24 hours instead of waiting 90 days, as is now required.

My question is this: how do Republicans reconcile their support for destroying records of gun purchases with their support for the Patriot Act, which enables the government to snoop through your library records without showing probable cause or even informing you that your records have been snooped?

Why do republicans seem to trust the government here, and distrust the government there?

Bush's Priorities

On the national stage last night, President Bush made no mention of his off-the-cuff proposal to go to Mars, but he made sure to remind us that he wants the Patriot Act renewed.

The speech President Bush gave was much more about his own reelection campaign than about the state of the Union. As such, it suffered from the faults of most campaign speeches: too little information, too much vacuous rhetoric. But it is an important speech nevertheless, for it gives us a glimpse of how Bush will sell himself this time around.

Last time, remember, he was the "compassionate conservative" who would "govern from the middle." This year's sales pitch will be more closely tethered to reality. This time around, Bush will portray himself as the kind but strict father who will protect the nation from terrorists and gays, in roughly that order of priority.

Even as Bush tells us that our weakness against terrorists justifies a new Patriot Act, he will ask us to believe that the economy is "strong," and that it will be even stronger if we decide to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge. He will tell us that minimizing the government's role in health care will "preserve freedom" even as patients are abandoned to the mercy of corporate insurance firms whose main goal is to boost their stock price by keeping sick people off their insurance rolls.

Bush's sales pitch this time around has the great benefit of being based on reality. Bush is a profoundly conservative man; almost messianic. His Administration will fight for these values (at least when Dick Cheney isn't selling the spoils of office to his cronies in the back hallway). And thus, Bush will appeal to roughly 1/2 of the American people. The other half will find him repellent, patronizing, authoritarian, and wholly unfit to lead our nation.

One thing that Bush's speech makes clear is that he won't try to hide, as he did last time, as a moderate. Now, we all know what Bush stands for, and this time he won't cowardly deny it like he did in 2000. The election of 2004 will be the most important Presidential election in a long time. Because this time around, the voters are likely to get what they ask for.

January 20, 2004

Try this with your principles

What a great comment.

Strict liability for vicious dog

From the Rocky Mountain News, pit bull kills neighbor's dog:

The death of a husky at the jaws of a pit bull has left residents shaken and calling for stronger laws against vicious dogs. . .

According to a Broomfield police report, a pit bull named Lucky belonging to Jacob Talamantes went through a fence Jan. 5 and attacked the husky, ripping its chest and abdomen.

"My dog was doing what any natural dog would do. That's his territory and a dog was coming through," Talamantes said. "It was a horrible situation."

But, he said, "It's not anybody's fault really that this happened. Accidents do happen. This is just like you or I going out there and tripping and falling on top of somebody, and they accidently broke their leg. It isn't necessarily our fault."

And that, Mr. Talamantes, is why we ought to impose strict liability on dog owners.

January 19, 2004

Disappointing, but not dispositive

As Bob Dole recounted tonight on CNN, he won Iowa in 1988 but lost the nomination to George H.W. Bush. Iowa is important, but it's not crucial. Here's some initial thoughts after the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa's caucus system is a little odd. Anyone who watched tonight on C-SPAN saw how odd it was, and probably saw a disproportionate number of elderly ladies at the caucuses. It's likely that the vote for Howard Dean was skewed by this unrepresentative participation. We will see next week how Gov. Dean does in a state with a primary.

We'll also have to see how the media treats John Kerry. Over the past month the media has hammered on Dean, and while no one knows the one "right" explanation for why this happened, a plausible explanation is that Dean was perceived as the front-runner. Now that Kerry has some real numbers suggesting that he is a front-runner, it will be interesting to see if the media hammers on him the same way they hammered on Dean.

Dean still has the best 50-state campaign organization out there, and is the best-prepared for a nationwide battle for the nomination. If anyone could afford to come in third in Iowa, it was Howard Dean.

(Thanks to Ambivalent Imbroglio and Professor Bainbridge for links.)

Sports

These days, we're not watching people compete. We're watching lab animals.

But the Penn team has become acutely aware of a population impatient to see its research put into practice -- the already strong, seeking to get stronger still. Sweeney gets their e-mail messages. One came from a high-school football coach in western Pennsylvania not long after Sweeney first presented his findings at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. ''This coach wanted me to treat his whole team,'' he said. ''I told him it was not available for humans, and it may not be safe, and if I helped him we would all go to jail. I can only assume he didn't understand how investigational this is. Or maybe he wasn't winning, and his job was on the line.''

Other calls and e-mail messages have come from weight lifters and bodybuilders. This kind of thing happens often after researchers publish in even the most arcane medical and scientific journals. A whole subculture of athletes and the coaches and chemists who are in the business of improving their performances is eager for the latest medical advances.

Sweeney knows that what he is doing works. The remaining question, the one that will require years of further research to answer, is how safe his methods are. But many athletes don't care about that. They want an edge now. They want money and acclaim. They want a payoff for their years of sweat and sacrifice, at whatever the cost.

All this talk of steroids and genetic enhancements of athletes makes me wonder whether I might enjoy watching local, amateur sports more than professional sports on TV. If you're a steroid freak, I start to lose interest in what "you" can do. Can you hit 70 home runs? Who cares, if 30 of those home runs are attributable to the androstenedione you took.

Recess appointment: Bainbridge

Bainbridge for Judge!

As Anthony rightly says: "If you're not a right-leaning libertarian, link anyway: Bush isn't going to recess nominate one of your guys, so you might as well help us out."

Might as well. Perhaps it'll come back to us when the inauguration of President Dean means their guys have no chance for any recess appointments. . .

P.S. Bainbridge is clearly qualified; he has the requisite knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien.

January 18, 2004

Beyond Therapy

Gregg Easterbrook reviews Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness by the President's Council on Bioethics.

Easterbrook seems opposed to the idea of stopping any of this technology; he certainly believes that any attempts to do so would be futile. But he points out that the possible ethical consequences are real, and that we're unprepared to deal with them because we've refused to squarely confront the issue:

The muddled regulatory structure results in such theater-of-the-absurd actions as an Environmental Protection Agency decision legally to classify some types of corn as a "pesticide," and a Food and Drug Administration ruling on whether genetically engineered salmon is a "drug."

Here's an extended excerpt from Easterbrook's review of Beyond Therapy:

There is surely an absence of reliable legal standards. Congress has enacted almost no laws concerning biotechnology. There is no over-arching statute, nor one agency with clear jurisdiction. Some biotechnological questions fall to the Food and Drug Administration, but its mandate is mainly to determine whether pharmaceuticals are safe and effective, not whether medical technology ought to be used. Some perplexities fall to the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Institutes of Health or even the Department of Agriculture, but may engage regulations enacted in the 1960s and 1970s to govern toxic chemicals. The muddled regulatory structure results in such theater-of-the-absurd actions as an Environmental Protection Agency decision legally to classify some types of corn as a "pesticide," and a Food and Drug Administration ruling on whether genetically engineered salmon is a "drug."

A few specific biotech questions, such as the protocols for federally funded investigation of stem cells, have been addressed by narrow Washington actions; but Congress and all contemporary presidents have avoided tackling biotech head-on in any comprehensive way. So much is happening in biotechnology, and so swiftly, that there is no agreement on what should be permitted or banned. There is also the suspicion that Washington above all wants to avoid two kinds of blame, first for allowing something horrible and second for not allowing the production of disease therapies. (Stem cell research might lead to a cure for Parkinson's, for example.)

The lack of clear federal guidance, moreover, applies only to federally funded research, most of which goes on at universities. In the private sector of science there are no rules. So long as you are not using federal money, you can pretty much do what you want with human cells, human DNA, human embryos, and whatever mutant chromosomes you may casually create. Anything goes in private labs; one reason why the in-vitro fertilization clinic industry blossomed so rapidly is that it is unregulated. (It is worth noting that IVF assistance for couples having difficulty conceiving was once denounced as a dangerous God-playing technology but now is widely accepted, even by most of the religious right.) Many private biotech firms and IVF clinics have ethics advisers, some of whom take matters seriously; but at the private level ethics are optional.

As Beyond Therapy reminds us, society has scarcely begun to grapple with whether it really wants what biotechnology may produce. Commonly it is assumed that all technological developments are inevitable. Technology may be regulated, but to say that society does not want a new thing or a new device, that it should be placed back into the box and the box sealed and dropped into the Marianas Trench, is wasted breath. Historically speaking, the technological imperative seems always to have won out. But Beyond Therapy begs to differ: we must recognize our moral agency in these matters, the report insists, and ask ourselves whether we really want what biotechnological and genetic engineering make possible. I would add that society must ask itself this question immediately, because many of these innovations are coming fast.

Who wants Justice?

This post, cited approvingly by a great blogger (rhymes with Grian Bleiter) asserts that left-wing writers want justice, and right-wing writers want to perpetuate and increase injustice.

This is too simplistic. Moreover, to the extent that anyone on the left actually believes it, it weakens their ability to prevail over the right-wingers.

The left and the right disagree not about whether justice should be the goal of public policy, but about what justice is. The left thinks justice entails some fair distribution of goods, an obligation on the part of communities to assist individuals who suffer, and a recognition that cooperation is equally or more important than competition for establishing a just society.

The right believes different things about justice (or believes that different things take priority). They envision justice primarily as "just desert" for an individual's bad behavior, strict punishment for individuals who transgress authoritative norms, and a primary obligation of the community to avoid involving itself in the private economic life of individuals. (This book by George Lakoff explains this further and, I think, essentially gets it right.)

When right-wing writers (at least the honest ones) advocate policies that seem unjust to the left, it isn't because they don't want justice. They want a different kind of justice that the left believes is unjust.

This explains the right's tenacity and repeated successes. It isn't that they're cheats, or that they're corrupt, or that they're unscrupulous, or that they're wealthy (although some of them are these things also). At bottom, the right succeeds because it is successful at persuading people that its version of justice, and not the left's, is the correct one.

If the left's version of justice is going to prevail in the public arena over the right's version, the left shouldn't mischaracterize their opponents as enemies of justice. Instead we should argue that they honestly adhere to a notion of justice which is deeply flawed.

The stakes are too high for the left to casually dismiss their opponents. Rather than dismissing them, let's focus on prevailing over them.

January 17, 2004

Staying warm

Some people have been complaining that they're too cold. Luckily, I know something about staying warm, having had to learn during a two-week backcountry ski trip in Idaho when it got down to -11 F. The circulation in my fingers and toes is also really bad, so they get painful really easily in the cold weather. Here are some tips:

1) Generate heat


  • Stay well-hydrated. Hot beverages are best, but not required.
  • Physical activity. Work those big muscles, like your quads. Shovel snow, do jumping jacks, pushups, whatever sounds fun.
  • Eat food. Especially food with a high calorie content. I remember at the end of a long day in the Idaho woods, I was freezing. After chowing down a whole bag of pepperoni, I was comfortable and warm!

2) Retain heat

  • Get out of those wet clothes! Especially if they're cotton.
  • Put on another layer. A big warm fuzzy fleece, or wool sweater. Don't forget your hat.
  • Hide from the wind. You can do this either by taking shelter or putting on a wind-resistant outer layer like a nylon shell jacket.

Note: whining will usually not make you any warmer. Sorry.

January 16, 2004

Cheney's vision: unending war

Michael Froomkin points to a disturbing speech delivered by Dick Cheney, in which the Vice President describes his vision of the future. Mostly, Cheney envisages "war" and "mobilization" and "dramatic overhauls" of our "national security apparatus."

All of this depresses Prof. Froomkin, who admits that "even the politics of this elude me." I won't pretend that I can guess any better than Froomkin why the Vice President sees fit to make these apocalyptic predictions. Nevertheless, I will hazard a guess, and it's a guess I feel fairly confident of.

Dick Cheney does not like democracy.

Dick Cheney's behavior repeatedly shows that he cares little for the idea that "the people" govern America; instead he favors a system wherein the people must take what their leaders choose to give them. Dick Cheney is for increasing the secrecy of government operations. He has made it more difficult for the people to watch over their government by delaying the declassification of presidential papers, by supporting the Justice Department's decision to fight Freedom of Information Act requests, and by arguing that the executive branch can detain U.S. citizens incommunicado solely on a declaration that they are "enemy combatants."

Dick Cheney has chosen to forget that most voters in the last Presidential election preferred someone other than Bush and himself. Although he could have tried to govern from the center, he used the Supreme Court's coronation of his ticket to run the country as if he had a madate from every citizen to radically restructure America's domestic and foreign policies in a way that most citizens find unsavory, and many find deeply repellent.

Dick Cheney, when he wanted to wage war against Iraq, decided to justify his actions not with earnest entreaties and reasonable arguments, but with lies and deceptions about a fictitious "imminent threat" from Iraq. Dick Cheney did not care about the process of taking the nation to war so long as he was able to do so by whatever means necessary.

Dick Cheney wants to call the shots, and does not want to be second-guessed or evaluated by the American people.

Which brings us to Dick Cheney's vision of the future: another long, open-ended "war" against a concept. The constant threat of terrorist attacks will justify the kind of radically anti-democratic policies which Cheney advocates: strengthening the Patriot Act, diverting tax dollars away from domestic programs and toward an imperial military, and shielding the government from public scrutiny by keeping more of its deliberations secret.

The genius of Cheney's vision is that no actual terrorist attacks have to occur to justify these changes. All that is necessary is that the public continue to be frightened by the possibility of such attacks. Dick Cheney chooses language that encourages people to be frightened:

"Scattered in more than 50 nations, the al Qaeda network and other terrorist groups constitute an enemy unlike any other that we have ever faced. . . And as our intelligence shows, the terrorists continue plotting to kill on an ever-larger scale, including here in the United States.

Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of a single attack, or a set of coordinated attacks."

Dick Cheney is making use of the convenient fact that he does not have to tell anyone what "our intelligence shows;" the intelligence is top-secret. Nevertheless, he does not hesitate to refer to this intelligence in a way that's calculated to increase people's fear. Once people are scared, they're more likely to accept the assertion that "next time" we might not lose merely thousands of lives, but "tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives."

There's a word for Dick Cheney's style of communication: demagoguery.

And there's a word that describes Dick Cheney's style of leadership: authoritarian.

Authoritarian leaders are always more valued in times of crisis and war. This is why Dick Cheney wastes no opportunity to tell us how scary and warlike the future is likely to be. The politics behind his vision is, I would guess, one of the oldest and most reliable sources of political motivation known to humanity: a lusting after power.

January 14, 2004

Physicians not competent to make health policy

Economists, however, are perfect for the job.

This appears to be the belief of Donald Johnson over at The Business Word:

The Institute of Medicine calls for universal health insurance by 2010.

I'm sorry, but I think this committee is stepping outside its area of core competencies. Most of the committee members are academics and physicians, not economists or policy makers. They're well-meaning but keep putting out reports that lack credibility (emphasis mine).

"Lack credibility?" Only for those who worship at the Church of Omniscient Economics, like Mr. Johnson apparently does. These true believers deny the existence of a) serious disagreements among economists over policy matters, and b) the importance of perspectives other than the economic in formulating policy.

I could make a living out of posting to this blog and explaining how it reveals the ungrounded assumptions of the far right. Apparently, "academics and physicians" aren't "competent" to make health policy decisions, but of course, "economists" always are. As for "policy makers," the nation needs more academic and physician policy makers. They shouldn't all be economists, or America is doomed.

Mr. Johnson, of course, may not actually be a dues-paying member of the Church of Omniscient Economists. He could merely disagree with the conclusions of the Institute of Medicine that our country would benefit from universal health insurance. Unfortunately, countering this argument would take work. Attacking the Institute of Medicine as "incompetent" is much less likely to be successful, but it's much easier.

Funny Blog Posts

Thanks to Angry Bear and Dispositive.

January 13, 2004

Bush immigration proposal and the question of assimilation

President Bush's recently announced temporary worker program is interesting for many reasons. Briefly, the program establishes a temporary legal status for undocumented foreign workers. It requires that they be employed (or have been offered a job), and that the employer serve as the worker's sponsor for the application process.

The effects of this proposal are hotly debated. My only contribution on this point comes from a conversation with my dad, who suggested that it might get a whole lot of new wage-earners on the payroll tax rolls. Our great nation is increasingly reliant on payroll taxes to generate revenue, and President Bush has cut taxes of every kind except for payroll taxes. Given the dizzyingly huge deficits that prompted expressions of concern even from the IMF, it makes sense that this administration would try to broaden the payroll tax base, and this immigration proposal seems to attempt just that.

Apart from the nuts-and-bolts effects of this proposal, it has pushed to the fore a debate about immigrants and their role in America. One concept that's being brought up fairly frequently is "assimilation."

Conservatives and liberals differ, unsurprisingly, about what "assimilation" means. This is unsurprising, because conservatives and liberals disagree about what makes America a unique and praiseworthy nation.

Liberals are more likely to see diversity itself as a strength of American culture. We are the nation that is made up of many different cultures, each respecting the others. For the liberal, "assimilation" means that you agree to live with people of other cultures without asserting that your own culture deserves somehow to be the dominant one.

Conservatives, on the other hand, see assimilation as a check upon diversity. America can thrive, they claim, only if everyone signs on to a more or less extensive "core" of fundamental American values, and limits diversity to ethnic restaurants and cultural holidays.

Both positions have merit but, of course, they also have weaknesses. The liberal view of multiculturalism too often descends into a simplistic and knee-jerk identity politics, which almost always generates more heat than light.

The conservative position often ignores the fact that American values are contested, most obviously by the right and the left. Conservative paeans to assimilation too often parrot only the list of conservative values under the name of "American" values, and so come off as overly parochial and willfully blind to the real diversity of America.

The truth, if any, is probably somewhere in the middle. Damn. How dull.

January 11, 2004

Borders strike over in Ann Arbor

The vote was 20-12 in favor of accepting a new contract and ending the strike at the Ann Arbor store. More details from the Borders Union site. Hopefully this demonstrates how collective bargaining can produce results that are more fair and just than would have been possible without a union.

The article mentions that sales at the Ann Arbor store were down anywhere from fifty to seventy-five percent, thanks to shoppers who chose not to cross the picket lines. While this public sacrifice wasn't very difficult compared with what the striking workers were doing, it did take some commitment: the Ann Arbor Borders is a fantastic place to browse. I really look forward to hanging out in Borders again through these perpetually gray days of the upper-midwestern winter. (Beautiful, yes, but also perfect for bookstore browsing...)

January 10, 2004

Cruisin' for a losin' again

The conservative punditry says the Democrats have no chance against Bush.

Their problem is, they've said this before.

January 08, 2004

Contra polls

With the election season heating up, I thought it might be a good time to criticize the predictable obsession with polling that seems to infect everyone before each round of actual voting.

Polls seem to be an especially attractive target for the best bloggers. Here's The Decembrist; here's Talking Points Memo; here's Calpundit. Conservative bloggers love 'em too: here's Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan.

What do these polls really mean? Not much. They're undoubtedly useful for campaign managers as they try to assess whether voters might respond to their candidate's message. In the worst cases, a candidate may even choose to change her position on an issue or two in order to get a bump in the polls. But if you're not a campaign manager or a candidate, these political polls are like the daily odds line for sporting events in the newspaper. In other words, they're pretty much meaningless.

Poll results don't determine anything. They're the classic example of "made-up" news; something to talk about when you're impatient for the real election and want to root for your candidate like you root for a boxer, or for a racehorse.

Sometimes, though, polls can be damaging. The metaphor of a political campaign as a horse race is usually harmless, except when people forget that it's a metaphor. Campaigns aren't horse races, they're an exposition and an explanation of a candidate so that voters can decide whom to vote for in an election.

Until the actual election, voters might be smitten first with this candidate and later with that one, but none of these opinions really matters: only when the voter walks into the booth and realizes that he only has one vote, and that he has to synthesize all his previous infatuations with his rational calculations in order to cast that one vote correctly, does his professed support for a candidate actually matter.

But these calculations are too often swayed by otherwise meaningless poll information. The voter really likes candidate A, but he's read in the papers again and again that the polls show candidate B with a "commanding lead" over A. Mistaking the horse-racing metaphor for reality, the voter decides not to "waste" his vote, and votes for B. All on the basis of meaningless poll data.

The poll has perversely made itself meaningful by masquerading as a tangible fact about the campaign. It has erroneously proclaimed one candidate "far ahead" of another, when the candidates were never actually "racing."

In our politically tuned-out society, with rates of voter participation among the lowest of any democracy in the world, this distorting emphasis on polls becomes even more destructive. Many voters choose to stay home when they hear of a poll showing their candidate either "way ahead" or "way behind." But in fact, all candidates are standing in the same place until the actual election pulls one of them out from the crowd and crowns her an "elected official." There never was any such thing as a "front-runner."

But yet, thanks to an obsession with polls, many voters have altered their votes or decided not to cast a vote at all because of meaningless poll data. All the bloggers cited above know this.

I don't want to say that polls aren't interesting; I would get impatient if I couldn't get some hint of whether or not Clark's tax plan was "catching on," or if Dean was "inspiring people," or if Lieberman was "putting voters to sleep." But let's remember that polls aren't very meaningful, and they can be dangerous. For the sake of running a good election, let's not give any more weight to pre-election polls than they deserve.

More on nanotechnology

I've responded to the thoughtful comments on my entry about Bill McKibben's book Enough.

If you're curious about what a typical libertarian argument sounds like for the zealous and irrational pursuit of nanotechnology, here's a piece from Reason magazine.

I won't say too much about this (in my opinion seriously defective) argument here, because I think it will be obvious to most of you who read the article. I'll only point out the author's curious choice of subtitle (the "limitless promise" of nanotechnology--sounds messianic and irrational to me), and the not-so-subtle way in which the author mischaracterizes the call to slow down and think as a call to ban new technology forever.

This is a great example of a flawed, fallacious, and misleading argument if I've ever seen one.

January 07, 2004

What the DLC still doesn't understand

Via Jessica Wilson, some thoughts on the Dean campaign by Arianna Huffington:

The folks besmirching the good doctor's Election Day viability are the very people who have driven the Democratic Party into irrelevance; who spearheaded the party's resounding 2002 mid-term defeats; and who kinda, sorta, but not really disagreed with President Bush as he led us down the path of preemptive war with Iraq, irresponsible tax cuts and an unprecedented deficit.

Dean is electable precisely because he's making a decisive break with the spinelessness and pussyfooting that have become the hallmark of the Democratic Party.

* * *

Far from Dean not being able to "compete" with Bush on foreign policy, he's the one viable Democrat who isn't trying to compete on the playing field that Bush and Karl Rove have laid out. No Democrat can win by playing "Whose swagger is swaggier?" or "Whose flight suit is tighter?" Instead Dean unambiguously asserts that "We are in danger of losing the war on terror because we are fighting it with the strategies of the past... The Iraq war diverted critical intelligence and military resources, undermined diplomatic support for our fight against terror, and created a new rallying cry for terrorist recruits."

Meanwhile, the Democratic Leadership Council continues to cringe on the sidelines, supporting the Bush foreign policy in all of its substantive positions but cowardly refusing to say so explicitly.

The DLC is betting that there aren't any real Democrats left. Howard Dean is out to prove them wrong.

How disgusting; how orcish!

Via Stuart Buck, this travesty.

My coffee habit: keeping the Type 2 DM away

GruntDoc points to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health showing that long-term coffee consumption may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes:

The researchers note that caffeine, the best known ingredient in regular coffee, is known to raise blood sugar and increase energy expenditure in the short-term, but its long-term effects are not well understood. Coffee (both regular and decaffeinated) has lots of antioxidants like chlorogenic acid (one of the compounds responsible for the coffee flavor) and magnesium. These ingredients can actually improve sensitivity to insulin and may contribute to lowering risk of type 2 diabetes.

Now I need a study showing that long-term cheese consumption is beneficial. . .

Neil Gaiman before the Seventh Circuit

Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman and American Gods, is apparently involved in a copyright lawsuit that was appealed by his opponent to the Seventh Circuit.

Gaiman's lawyer was questioned by everybody's favorite, Judge Posner.

Apparently you can hear the exchange by following the link on Neil Gaiman's blog.

January 06, 2004

Why do paleoconservatives care about Serbia?

One of the many things that confuses me about paleoconservativism is this: if paleocons are isolationists, nationalists, and implacable opponents of an American empire, than why are they so interested in what happens to Serbia?

As Americans, why should they care? Why are the pages of the paleoconservative flagship magazine Chronicles loaded with articles on this small, distant part of the world?

This interest in Serbia seems so out of place with so much of what the paleoconservatives profess to believe.

Except. . . Except for the issue of race.

Racism is the heavy chain dragging the paleoconservatives down. Despite their vigorous denials, they can't seem to shake the criticism that their policies on immigration, and their calls for the repeal of the civil-rights laws of the '60s, are anything other than thinly veiled racism.

I'd like to believe the paleocons when they say that they aren't racist. Logically at least, it's possible to not be a racist and to also believe that the federal civil rights laws should be repealed. Paleoconservatism doesn't logically entail racism.

But if the paleocons aren't racist, then why do they seem so ready to take sides in a conflict halfway around the world between white, Christian Serbians and brown, Muslim Albanians? Why is it so easy for the paleos to care so much about Serbia while simultaneously brushing off all the genocidal wars in Africa? Is it because in this latter case, the combatants on both sides are black, and that's what blacks do, and we should just stand back and let them do it?

Paleoconservatism has its good points; most importantly its opposition to the neoconservative myth that America can and should spread American values around the world with force if necessary.

But the reason I'm not a paleoconservative is, among other things, that they stink of racism, despite their denials. And until a paleoconservative can explain their anomalous (for American nationalists) interest in Serbia as anything other than mere empathy for beleagured White Europeans faced with a threat from Brown Muslims, the paleos will continue to look like racists to me.

January 03, 2004

Linking to Amazon.com: just say no

One of the first decisions I made as a novice blogger was not to link to Amazon.com or to Barnes&Noble. Although I expected to be in the minority of bloggers who chose to link to independent booksellers instead of the giant behemoths of online bookselling, I've been surprised to find no other bloggers who have made the same choice.

Thanks to this entry from en banc, referencing this post from Three Years of Hell, I'm now beginning to understand why this is the case.

Apparently, both Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble offer "associate programs" for people who run websites. Amazon's tempts you with this:

Link Up With the Leader. We have the largest and most successful online affiliate program. Over 900,000 Web sites have joined Amazon.com Associates because our program works for you. If you are a Web site owner, Amazon seller, or Web Developer, you can start making money today and earn up to 15% in referral fees.

These "associate programs," as well as their offers of free shipping and their habitual discounts, have got me really down and depressed. It seems that there's no reason why any rational person wouldn't just collapse under the marketing weight of the behemoths and abandon all their foolish attempts to support their locally-owned independent bookstores. Even if, as the en banc post points out, the terms of Amazon's associate agreement doesn't sit well with everyone, the obvious solution is simply to link to Barnes&Noble. Anyone who willfully, like myself, continues to link to Chicago's Seminary Co-op, or to Denver's Tattered Cover, or to Portland's Powell's Books, must simply be a fool.

Well, I may be a fool, but I'm proud of it. I'll continue to support independent booksellers. Here's why:

There is no such thing as a free lunch. True, you can reliably find the lowest prices at Amazon or Barnes&Noble, but you pay extra for their books in other ways. The Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man has gotten a lot of press lately for unwittingly predicting the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that movie had another prediction which is on the verge of coming true:

Lenina Huxley: [T]aco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars.
John Spartan: So?
Lenina Huxley: So, now all restaurants are Taco Bell.

I don't like monopolies in the book business any more than I like monopolies in the TV or radio business. When all the independents are gone, the big booksellers will no longer feel the competitive pressure to sell cheaply or to offer free shipping. When all the independents are gone, we won't hear from authors that Barnes&Noble didn't schedule for readings. When all the independents are gone, the ability for smaller, local publishers to get their books on the shelf might decrease.

Given the tawdry history of Amazon.com's non-respect for privacy, do you think they would have stood up to an intrusive subpoena in the same courageous way that the Tattered Cover chose to do? I'd rather not have to rely on Amazon to keep my book-buying habits private.

If the only choice is Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble, that's no choice at all.

The Brian Leiter Project

In the spirit of open-minded and very playful inquiry, I announce, with Heidi Bond, the Brian Leiter Project.

Brian Leiter himself needs no introductions or announcements. His rankings of law schools and philosophy programs have done more to challenge the USNews orthodoxy than any other critique. His blog is adored by liberals and rationalists, despised by conservative bloggers and would-be theocrats, and linked to by my blog (note how I reserve the highest praise for last).

Anyway, all bloggers of whatever political temperament are urged to participate in this important grass-roots project. Go here for the details.

And all hail Brian Leiter!

January 02, 2004

Mountain trail running vs. Sushi

  1. Both are addictive.
  2. Going too hard up Gregory Canyon and getting blitzed by too much wasabi: both hurt, but they make you want to do it again.
  3. Sushi is much more expensive, unless you live in the midwest and have to drive or fly to find good mountain trails.
  4. Sushi is best done with friends. Mountain trail running is usually done by yourself.
  5. It's difficult to describe the joy of both sushi and mountain trail running to someone who's never experienced either.