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September 30, 2004

Advantage: Bush

I plan to watch the debate tonight between George W. Bush and John Kerry. If this were an intellectual debate, I would be sure of the victor: John Kerry in a blowout.

But this is a political debate, and that means the rules are different. You don't win political debates with argument, with reasons, with logic, or with evidence. Unfortunately, John Kerry's advantages all spring from his superior grasp of argument, reason, logic, and evidence, so in this debate with Bush, Kerry has no advantage at all.

You win a political debate with emotion, and that means the advantages all belong to Bush.

George W. Bush is certain that he is right. And that's his advantage, because this certainty--however unsupported by facts or logic--is emotionally more compelling than John Kerry's more nuanced beliefs. It feels good to be right. This is why some people find it so hard to admit when they're wrong. Willful denial is such a common phenomenon because people feel so badly when they admit their mistakes.

Bush's certainty gives him the advantage in two ways. First, he'll look good in the debates no matter what Kerry says. After all, he's right. He's fighting the evildoers. Iraq is a mere logistical issue. All the viewers watching with less than 100% attention won't notice what either candidate says, but they will notice that George W. Bush looks Presidential. Confident. Self-assured. People will like that.

The other aspect of Bush's advantage is that many Americans are unsure of what policy is correct. They live with the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing whether Iraq will ultimately turn out to have made the nation safer. They don't know for sure if the need to prevent terrorism justifies the surrender of their civil rights. Kerry's message is that in this uncertain new world, we need a President who recognizes this uncertainty, and who is willing to reevaluate the situation and to correct mistakes. Intellectually, this position is close to being unassailable. But many people will sacrifice this superior intellectual position to obtain the more pleasant emotional condition modeled by George W. Bush.

After all, if the President is sure of himself, it might be OK for each of us to be sure of ourselves, too. And that would feel so good.

Call it the "inherent political advantage of the stupid" or whatever. It is a real advantage, and George W. Bush will have it in tonight's debate.

September 29, 2004

What did I miss??

Since I haven't been reading blogs lately I completely missed Ming's adventure on the sick side of life (you looked so normal in the halls), Denise's switch to a much better blogging system (now I can comment on your blog), and Julie's consistently on-fire posts skewering our nation's greatest contemporary absurdity, the Republican Party (and their legions of minions).

These are just a few of the many things I've missed. Well, hopefully I'm back to regular blogging and blog-reading now, so I cleaned up (some) of my links, including my "current reading" link to Robin Hobb's "Ship of Destiny," the last of the Liveship Traders trilogy. So far the series has been better than her Assassin series, but God woman, how much more effort would it take to come up with better titles??? Did your publisher insist on "Ship of Magic" and "Ship of Destiny," or is your creativity completely exhausted by the words inside your covers? Those have to be two of the worst titles of anything currently in print.

I swear, if George R. R. Martin hadn't recommended you, your titles would have scared me off permanently.

Places vs. Commodities

The Supreme Court has agreed to review a case from Connecticut challenging the town of New London's use of eminent domain to seize people's homes in pursuit of a nefarious utilitarian scheme (Kelo v. New London, No. 04-108). New London wants to make the land available to developers to build swanky hotels and offices that city leaders claim will increase tax revenues and improve the town's economy.

As the petition for the writ of certiorari puts it, the issue is simply "whether the public use clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution authorizes the exercise of eminent domain to help a government increase its tax revenue and to create jobs." 2004 WL 1659558.

The Court should decide that it doesn't. I'm sure that it will have no trouble finding solid legal reasons to reject the city's position, which is a fairly extreme interpretation of the "public use" requirement for the exercise of eminent domain. The biggest winners here will be the private developers and private businesses that make use of this gift of land by the State.

In one way, though, the city of New London's thinking is very conventional. It's become normal to think of all property as fungible, because we've made the mistake of treating land as a commodity rather than as a place. This is the kind of thinking that enables city leaders to disregard their citizens' love for their homes, and makes it possible to think that a cash payment for the "value" of their land is always fair.

This kind of thinking will let us cut down the last of the old-growth forests on this continent because the trees are "worth more" as lumber than they are as old trees.

This kind of thinking, where every piece of land can be exchanged for any other on the market, and can always be converted to cash, disregards much of our actual experience as human beings on this planet. It ignores our love of places, and our recognition that places are unique and irreplaceable.

The town of New London shouldn't be able to get away with this.

September 27, 2004

My poor, poor blog!

My poor blog has been ill lately. It was unavailable for several days, due to an error in my hosting company's processing of my domain name renewal. As much as I'd like to think my blog is "mine," it's not entirely under my control. At least for now...

Hopefully I'll get back to regular posting soon. I have no intention of abandoning my poor, poor blog. It's been too good to me, and I will nurse it back to vibrant good health.

Plus, it's got all my links to the other blogs I love to read. I'm not givin' those up, neither.

September 21, 2004

Golf course genetic engineering

Thanks to two major agricultural corporations, suburban golfers might have to wrestle with some issues that have up until now been addressed primarily by farmers and people with an special interest in agriculture.

Monsanto, producer of the glyphosate herbicides known as Roundup, and Scotts, a major producer of "lawn and turf products," are hoping to market a variety of bioengineered bentgrass for use on golf courses that is resistant to Roundup weedkillers. Their plans might be delayed for a while after a recent study showed that the engineered gene is capable of spreading much further into the surrounding environment than previously demonstrated.

Critics of bioengineering have raised concerns that once an engineered gene is introduced into the environment, it will be impossible to contain, and that the consequences of "escaped" human-made genes are potentially dangerous and impossible to predict.

All of this seems plausible. What's confusing me is why this new study, which demonstrates that engineered genes can spread for 13 miles, is so much more helpful to bioengineering critics than the older studies which showed that the genes can spread up to 0.62 miles. All the studies have shown that the genes will spread, and there's no arbitrary distance that anyone could specify that would avoid the critics' argument about the unforeseen consequences of human-made genes in the environment.

But, be that as it may, if this new study helps convice policymakers to SLOW DOWN the approval of bioengineered crops (or grass), it will be a good thing.

As an aside, note how Monsanto is burning the candle at both ends. On one hand, they develop and market Roundup as an effective weedkiller. On the other hand, they are testing and developing crops containing a gene that makes them resistant to Roundup. This is good strategic thinking that will please Monsanto shareholders, at least in the short term. In the long term, will the Roundup resistance gene spread to the extent that Roundup isn't a useful herbicide? Will small mutations in the gene lead to "superweeds" that resist not only Roundup but also many other herbicides? Perhaps that scenario can be resolved by Monsanto, if they can develop an herbicide that targets plants with the Roundup resistance gene. Now that would be a great strategy.

September 19, 2004

Love

I was in Chicago last week for a callback interview, and I was reminded of why I love that city so much. It isn't because of any specific things about the city that people so often point out, and that are so numerous that it would take me all day to list them: the lakeshore, the energy, the food, the architecture, the public transportation, etc.

All those things and more were important for inducing me to love Chicago in the first place, but now it's different. Now, I look at anything that's distinctly Chicago and think "I love that!" Not because it's particularly worthy in itself, but simply because it's Chicago. So I can't tell, now, which came first--the love of the specific thing, or the love of the city.

I suppose this sort of thing is common to all kinds of loves. In the beginning, you can easily say that you love A because of X, Y, and Z. But soon, if you really love A, then almost everything about A becomes lovable just because A has it. Love becomes circular; it's no longer an affect effect that's been clearly caused by things you can identify.

You could tell me that Chicago was pioneering a new style of architecture that involves people living in dark holes, and I'd love that new style because it was pioneered in Chicago.

Is this kind of thing applicable to people that you love? In some ways, it most definitely is. You start to love a person's flaws just as much as you initially loved their excellent qualities. In another way, though, it clearly isn't. A person I loved could start listening to Jon Bon Jovi, or decide to eat nothing but raw cauliflower, or start campaigning for George W. Bush.

Let's just say I wouldn't start eating more cauliflower.

September 14, 2004

Blogs: missing them

This lack of access to the internet is starting to get to me.

In the odd moments I've grabbed to read blogs, I realize how much I miss them. For instance, I wonder about whether my perceptions of a revitalized and feisty opposition to the right-wing policy juggernaut (in this post) is finding a voice in the Kerry campaign (Jessica Wilson doubts it).

I just got an email earlier today about a volunteer opportunity this Sunday. It involves canvassing the neighborhoods around the University to sign up voters, many of whom will vote for John Kerry. I think I'd better sign up to do that. A Bush victory in November wouldn't be as bad as a Vladimir Putin power grab, but it would be a complete disaster of a (thankfully) much less extreme American kind.

Exactly the opposite, Mr. Leavitt

Here's the Bush administration's interior secretary, Mike Leavitt:

"There is no environmental progress without economic prosperity. Once our competitiveness erodes, our capacity to make environmental gains is gone. There is nothing that promotes pollution like poverty."

Sentence 1: "There is no environmental progress without economic prosperity." Leavitt has it exactly reversed. If you consider the long term, there can be no economic prosperity without a healthy environment. If, however, you consider the worldview of this administration--maximum short-term economic gain for favored elements of society, regardless of the costs borne by others--then Mike Leavitt is 100% correct.

Sentence 2: "Once our competitiveness erodes, our capacity to make environmental gains is gone." This is simply wrong. It presumes that a well-functioning economy and environmental health are mutually exclusive. They aren't. If, however, by "competitiveness" Leavitt refers to the Bush administration's commitment to maximum windfall profits for the energy industry regardless of the cost to everyone else, then Mike Leavitt may once again be 100% correct.

Sentence 3: "There is nothing that promotes pollution like poverty." Irrelevant, since responsible environmental stewardship does not force us to choose between "poverty" and some other condition. What Leavitt should have said is that there is nothing that promotes pollution like Bush administration policies that enrich energy industry tycoons and increase the risk of poverty for many other citizens. Then Mr. Leavitt would have been 100% correct.

September 13, 2004

Real malpractice reform?

I'm still without domestic internet service, so I'm forced to blog on the fly whenever I can. If I never face any problems worse than this, I'll have truly lived a charmed life.

Ahem. It seems that physicians who propose "malpractice reforms" that amount to simply capping noneconomic damages are asking for too much, and for too little.

They ask for too much, because their proposals would artificially shield them from responsibility in cases where patients have suffered because of negligent treatment. They also ask for too little, because damage caps will not fix many of the most serious problems caused by our current malpractice liability system. These problems include the mismatch between injured patients and compensated patients, the reluctance of physicians to report errors and mistakes, and the lack of incentives for organizations to pay for systemic quality improvements, among many others.

It's not even clear that caps would necessarily result in lower malpractice insurance premiums. Even if it did, physicians would still bear the psychological burden of knowing that a malpractice suit could blindside them even if they never made a single mistake.

Arbitrary caps on damages make far more sense in other contexts, such as products liability. Although I'm deeply skeptical of them, supporters of these kinds of caps can argue that society would be better off overall with the caps in place. The Republican Party's "tort reform" campaign relies on these arguments, and to the extent that the Republicans also tend to support caps on malpractice damages, it's mostly as an afterthought to their attempts to shield manufacturers from large jury awards.

If physicians want to see real malpractice reforms that will solve many of the problems they identify with our current system, they're going to have to move beyond the rhetoric of caps. They're going to have to convince patients that they aren't simply trying to disavow responsibility for their mistakes.

One possible solution is enterprise liability for medical malpractice. This idea was floated in the debate over Clinton's health care proposals, but has largely been ignored since the Clinton plan turfed. Rather than hold individual physicians legally responsible for malpractice, hold the hospital or the health plan responsible.

It's an intriguing idea. And as soon as I get some internet access in my apartment, I'm sure I'll have more to say about it.

September 12, 2004

Social trends

I spend so much time browsing in bookstores -- I suspect that my awareness of the world is shaped as much by what I see on the shelves as by what I read in the newspapers. It certainly has a greater influence than what I see on TV, because I'm not watching TV at all anymore.

Anyway, here's my impressions about some of what's going down in the world, based on what kinds of books I've seen prominently displayed in the bookstore:

  • The administration of George W. Bush has revitalized the liberals by angering them profoundly. Today's Democrats are not like those of the late 90's, who were either supporters of the "centrist" Democratic Leadership Council, or were tolerant of a Clinton administration that pursued the DLC agenda. The new books in the politics section don't just make fun of Bush (though some do), they seethe with anger in a way that liberals haven't displayed since the Reagan years. The best example is the new book by kindly Garrison Keillor of "Prairie Home Companion" fame.

  • The pharmaceutical industry's intransigence about the exorbitantly high prices charged for prescription drugs won't last. Books like the one by Marcia Angell are proliferating in the business and health sections, all laying out the case against the supposed end to Big Pharma R&D that they claim would result from sensible measures to control the prices of prescription drugs. This one is also getting a lot of shelf space.

  • Fiction publishers are still enamored of the sort of cover design that they used with Caleb Carr's The Alienist. I've seen so many covers with sepia-toned covers with a fuzzy picture of a 19th-century guy in a black cloak that I'm reminded of the feverish imitation that a few reality TV shows have spawned. Too bad I haven't kept track of the individual titles so I could post a few examples. Next time you're in the bookstore, keep your eyes out for this mimicry and you'll see what I mean.

  • September 08, 2004

    Call me a critic

    Now that I've attended all my classes at least once, I can say that I'm glad I picked the ones I did. I mean that in the sense that I'm sure I'll learn good shit in every one of them, and one or two might end up being fantastic.

    But it's too early for me to tell. Unlike certain other students at my law school, I don't usually get all gooey about classes. Or, if I do, it usually takes me a long time, usually so long that the class is long over and done with before I get gooey about it. Until then, it's just a class, more or less fun to go to every day, with more or less interesting reading.

    The things I get gooey about are my new abilities to interpret old problems through the new lenses that my classes sometimes provide me with. Take Contracts, for example (a class that ended back in May, but that I'm now gooey about because I can use the ways of thinking I learned there to think about what I'm doing and seeing now). Why didn't I get gooey about it sooner? Probably because in one sense I expect every class to either teach me new ways of thinking, or new knowledge about a subject. When they succeed, I'm satisfied. When they fail, I'm pissed off, and disappointed. I get gooey only after the class is done, and lo! The knowledge and skills are still with me!

    A good example is the Calculus 150 sequence, which I took my first year of college and which was at the time an interesting, grueling class. I was not gooey. Now, though, I'm completely gooey about it, because I know that it sharpened my ability to think about virtually everything, not just calculus. When I was taking the class, I was just wrestling with the problem sets, and I didn't have the perspective to realize that it was really my thinking ability that was getting exercised. I had no way of knowing that the positive effects of that class would last for years and years.

    I suppose this might make me seem, while classes are in session, like more of a critic than a reveler, a celebrator, or a cheerleader. You know what? I am. I've always been that way, and I'm comfortable with it. Just remember that if I say a class is OK, it might be great. Otherwise, the critic in me will usually say that it sucks and ought to be eliminated from the curriculum.

    So far, all my classes are OK. That's just a first impression, though, so take it for what it's worth. . .

    September 06, 2004

    A town for industry, not people

    Here's another example of this country's rejection of Thomas Jefferson's rural vision, and of the seemingly inexorable economic drive toward the large-scale: Greyhound is eliminating many small-town stops like Ritzville, Washington.

    Residents of these small towns have very few transportation options open to them anymore; all ways out of town are in the car, either yours or someone else's. This shrinkage of transportation options seems at odds with most of modern society, where technology seems to provide a constantly expanding set of choices for doing just about everything that human beings habitually do. At least, that's the way it seems for residents of the modern economy's favored mode of social organization, the megacities with their associated suburbs and exurbs and satellite settlements. If you live in "San Francisco" or "Atlanta" (the scare quotes mean that the precise city limits aren't what matters), you can be sure that you'll have access to every new gadget, restaurant concept, movie, investment vehicle, health-care plan, and advertising gimmick that the modern economy produces. You'll be participating in the modern miracle of economic expansion and greater consumer choice. The one choice you don't have is to move to Ritzville, Washington and expect to participate in the same way. The large-scale dynamism of modern society seems to have required the sacrifice of rural vitality and the health of small-town life.

    The abandonment of rural areas isn't limited to transportation. Ironically, rural areas also suffer from a restricted range of food availability (as this study exemplifies). The rural regions that we've abandoned as places to live and wholly given over to agricultural production suffer from food scarcities.

    The success of the megacities at the expense of the hinterlands, at least as a pleasant place for people to live, can't easily be described as the result of "choice" or of the American people "voting with their feet." Instead, it seems more like a physical imperative. Greyhound doesn't describe its withdrawal of service as anything other than an economic necessity. Small-town stops aren't profitable, and so this move more closely resembles a natural phenomenon than it does a human decision. Greyhound is as much a victim of implacable economic forces as the town of Ritzville. The limited food availability in rural areas is the seemingly inexorable result of large-scale agriculture designed to produce large volumes of single crops for transportation across the entire globe. These economic forces are slowly but surely killing small towns outside the orbit of the megacities. There seems to be no room in the modern economy (i.e. the modern reality) for the small-scale, local, decentralized, and independent way of life, completely apart from any consideration of what actual people "prefer."

    The internet is one example of a modern technology that could make small-scale, independent communities more appealing. But this seems to be an isolated exception. The general rule is that small towns have no place in the modern economy, regardless of whether individual people might prefer the small-town life.

    Ritzville, of course, still has a function, but it isn't as a place for people. Instead, it serves as a "destination point for grain from the surrounding farms, but little else." The grain doesn't get milled and sold in Ritzville, but "is loaded onto freight trains here and shipped to Portland, Ore., then on to Asian markets, where it is used in noodles." Ritzville is slowly becoming a mere waypoint for the worldwide industrial production of food products, and as it does so, it slowly ceases to be a community of people who farm.

    September 05, 2004

    2L year begins...

    This morning, I started reading for my 2L classes: legislation, patent law, health law, and federal antitrust. I think that this means the 2L year has finally begun.

    In some way I feel that I ought to commemorate it somehow. So, to mark the beginning of this new year of law school, I will:

  • make certain resolutions, e.g.: to learn as much as possible, to be a positive element in the lives of my classmates, to answer emails from my friends from medical school (I'm working on it, K!), to keep in better touch with my family than I did last year, to write the best note that I can, to learn to cook new things, etc. etc.
  • post this commemorative post on my blog
  • unpack more boxes in the new apartment
  • make shitloads of pesto sauce from all the basil we bought yesterday
  • finish the fantasy novel I'm reading

    If I had a doggie, I'd take the doggie for a commemorative "first day of 2L year" walk in the Arb, but since I don't have a doggie...

    Oh, well. 2L year will be great, but owing to the lack of a doggie, it won't be perfect. I've got to save some room for improvement for 3L year!

  • September 04, 2004

    Michigan football weekends

    If you've never been in Ann Arbor when there's a home football game going on, and the weather is hot and humid, and the people are streaming through the streets all wearing some combination of Michigan's two colors, and the tailgaters are jammed in every available parking spot, including on the lawns of houses near the Stadium, and the fraternity houses are blaring music to the street as three thousand undergrads manage to cram onto just their front lawn, and down the street you can see three or four other frats, each with their own allotment of several thousand partying undergrads, and old alumni are waddling around with Michigan baseball hats and white tube socks pulled up to their knees, and the gutters are full of red plastic cups that represent just some of the beer consumed before the game has even started, then you've missed what it's like to be on the campus of the University of Michigan on a football weekend.

    It's worth seeing. Afterwards, no amount of time spent in the Law School's gothic buildings will make you forget that Michigan is a Big Ten football school, in addition to whatever else it might be. You won't ever forget that there are enough undergrads on this campus to populate two or three respectably-sized Midwestern towns, or to invade China. You'll wonder how they manage to avoid acute shortages of beer everywhere else.

    One of these days before I graduate, I'd like to get some football tickets and join the throngs surging toward Michigan Stadium. I'd feel like part of the group then, boy howdy, would I ever. Usually, though, when I go for a walk in Ann Arbor on a football weekend, I'm likely to be headed away from the Stadium, toward the bookstore, or the law school, or the farmer's market. I'm a fairly normal, average human being, but on football weekends I'm acutely aware that I'm different from most of the people around me. They all walk south; I walk north. They drink beer; I drink grapefruit juice. They watch football; I post on my blog.

    Michigan football weekends usually make me feel like a unique and self-directed individual.