Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday Break

Even atheists like to give (and get) presents, and also to go on vacation. This blog won't be updated for about two weeks, until early January. Best holiday wishes to all my loyal readers. Merry Christmas, even if I am not on board with the whole Christianity stuff.

And Happy Festivus!

Huckabee and the Theocrats

Usually, I tend to be skeptical about hysterical denunciations of the Christian Reconstructionists. As this 1998 Reason article makes clear, they are indeed batshit crazy -- they really do want to establish a theocracy in the United States. Sort of the Christian equivalent of Muslim Sharia Law, right here in the U.S. of A. Typically, the folks who try to drum up fear of the Christian Reconstructionists do a six-degrees-of-separation act to "prove" that a mainstream conservative really is under their sway.

Now, via Andrew Sullivan and Brink Lindsay, this Robert Novak column which mentions in passing that Huckabee held a fundraiser in the home of Dr. Steven Hotze, a Christian Reconstructionist of some note. Brink Lindsay has the lowdown on this guy, and he's one scary dude. He's associated with the Coalition on Revival, which really and truly does want to establish a no-kidding Christian theocratic state. Here's one of their statements, dug up by Lindsay:

We affirm that the Bible is not only God’s statements to us regarding religion, salvation, eternity, and righteousness, but also the final measurement and depository of certain fundamental facts of reality and basic principles that God wants all mankind to know in the sphere of law, government, economics, business, education, arts and communication, medicine, psychology, and science. All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible.

Yeah, that's right. They want a Magisterium-style totalitarian theocracy, based on their interpretation of an inerrant Bible.

And Huckabee didn't accidentally accept a campaign contribution from this guy. He went to the man's home and held a fundraiser there. Andrew Sullivan throws around the term "Christianist" with far too much abandon. But in Huckabee's case, it fits.

Department of Unintentional Humor

From Ann Althouse: "Of course, Bill Clinton can't be saying of Hillary, 'She sucks less.'"

No, but all know it's true, don't we?

Apple Threatens Nine-Year-Old

One of Fortune's 101 Dumbest Moments in business last year was what seems like a bonehead move by Apple Computer:

Nine-year-old Shea O'Gorman sends a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs suggesting ideas for improving her beloved iPod Nano, including adding onscreen lyrics so people can sing along. She gets back a letter from Apple's legal counsel stating that the company doesn't accept unsolicited ideas and telling her not to send in any more suggestions.

Might I suggest that, while this may have made her feel badly, there's a simple reason why Apple sent her the letter: Next year, after Apple introduces, say, the sing-along iPod, it doesn't want everybody to be reading the story of how it stole the idea from now-ten-year-old Shea O'Gorman and she's suing them.

Seriously, in our litigious society, does Apple have any choice about not accepting unsolicited ideas from people?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Competitive Grovelling

I have remarked before that one aspect of religion that I find most puzzling is the apparent need that God has to be worshiped. This is part of the reason I find it difficult to believe: the notion that an entity capable of creating this entire universe gives a rat's ass about being worshiped strikes me as being inherently implausible. Think about it: what kind of entity creates sentient beings and then demands ritual grovelling at periodic intervals? In my experience with people, those who demand the most obsequious displays from others are the least worthy of them. If God really cares whether people worship a golden calf, he's a megalomaniac. As I said before, if I were God, I'd think it was funny. (Or I would take the golden calf to be a crude representation of Me, made by primitives incapable of understanding My true glory. It's the thought that counts, right?)

I realize that religious people seem to be happy, but honestly, it makes me wonder about people. Why, outside of a kinky sex scenario, would anybody find this sort of ritual self-abasement to be fulfilling? Kneeling, bowing, singing songs that say "I suck and you, invisible being, are great." What's the fun in that? I certainly can't prove this, but it strikes me that religious denominations that require less grovelling have to psychologically more healthy than those which tend to require more. So churches that don't do the whole kneeling thing are better than those that do. At least from this perspective.

Anyhow, as religions go, Islam is certainly very high on the we-require-grovelling scale. As Christopher Hitchens observed, Islam "invokes prostrate submission or 'surrender' as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain." Like Hitch, I want to push back, hard, against the deference and respect that Muslims demand -- which is why I support recreational Koran desecration.

In any case, those looking to explain how screwed-up and backward most of the Islamic world is might consider that the abnormally-high level of abject surrender demanded by Islam might be a part of the picture. P.Z. Myers recently linked to a story illustrating just how screwy Islam is. You know what a "zebibah" is? Well, I didn't, before reading this story. It's Arabic for "raisin," but it refers to a mark on the head caused by bashing one's head on the ground five times a day in prayer, as Muslims are wont to do. Having such a mark is now a status symbol among Egyptian Muslims -- "I'm more pious than you, because I bash my head harder."

Seriously, is it any wonder that Muslims blow themselves up for Allah and whip women for showing some ankle? They think God wants them to bash their heads on the ground five times a day. If you live in a universe run by such a sick deity, it is hardly surprising that you do sick things.

Blade Runner Rocks, Dude

Stephen Metcalf over at Slate discusses the five-dvd Ultimate Edition of Blade Runner (note to Main Squeeze: there are still five days 'till Christmas), and he doesn't much like the movie. According to Metcalf, audiences were bewildered, when they saw it back in '82, and the movie, while visually-stimulating, is a bunch of hooey:

The movie is a transfixing multisensory turn-on from beginning to end. But because its story is underplotted and its characters almost totally opaque, the weight of the film falls to its sumptuous visual palette—its abiding strength—and to its quasi-Nietzschean theology—its abiding weakness.

First of all, they call them motion pictures; the fact that the film is visually-arresting is hardly a point of criticism. As for it being "underplotted" with "opaque" characters, well I suppose if you might think that if you lack imagination or intelligence. Audiences may well have been "bewildered" by the film back in '82, but if so, they were stupid. If the characters seem opaque to Metcalf, maybe it's because he's shallow. (Birds of a feather: his wife laughed at the ending.) The plot is intricate and perfectly-structured; the characters are complex and ambiguous. The phrase "quasi-Nietzschean theology" is pretentious claptrap.

When I saw it in 1982, even as a teenager, I knew it was a great movie. In fact, I saw it three times in the theater during its original release. I was right, and the world was wrong. This illustrates a lesson: when the world says x, and I say y, bet on me.

But his theory about why the film gained popularity is even more idiotic than his musings on a cinematic masterpiece which will undoubtedly outlive his callow prose. I have to quote this passage, lest anybody think I am summarizing him unfairly:

If nothing else, Blade Runner is mesmerizing when caught in pieces; it murmurs beautifully in the background. Unloved on the big screen, Blade Runner found its perfect medium in VCRs and cable TV—in the fragmented, ambient multiplatform afterlife that has become, over the past 20 or so years, the common stuff of movies.

Well, to be fair, there's a glimmer of truth here: were it not for VCRs and cable TV, Blade Runner might have remained obscure, a forgotten masterpiece. But only a glimmer of truth. The notion that it's better when caught in pieces, well, that's ridiculous. I suppose if you lack the intelligence to follow the plot or decipher the "opaque" characters, it's less frustrating to have it on in the background as eye candy rather than actually trying to follow it. But if you want to appreciate the movie, it has to be seen all at once, watched carefully, because it's crafted so that details matter. And, well, the idea that it's "perfect" on the small screen is just absurd. When the final version was re-relased, the Main Squeeze and I saw it together on the big screen, at a late night showing. While that showing did involve a disturbing incident, the film itself is gorgeous on the big screen. Yes, it looks good on TV. But the visual appeal -- which even Metcalf isn't blind to -- is utterly captivating on the big screen.

Blade Runner is proof that greatness wins out, even when not appreciated at first. And Metcalf is proof that some minds are too small to be won over.

Government = Santa Claus

I have often remarked to friends that modern liberals attribute to government the characteristics that small children attribute to Santa Claus. I wish I had said it here, on my blog, because if I had I'd have the perfect "gotcha" moment. As it is, I have such a moment, but those inclined to be skeptical can say (correctly) "but you never wrote it down."

Anyhow, believe me when I tell you that "modern liberals attribute to government the characteristics that small children attribute to Santa Claus" is a Cheerful Iconoclast aphorism. Well, I just saw this Hillary Clinton ad, via Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse:

I have seldom seen more vivid proof of one of my pet theories.

As Ann Althouse says, "Isn't this like when you get presents from family members and you know they charged it on your credit card?" Yes and no.

In truth, yes, of course. The recipients of these "presents" have to pay for them.

But in the mind of her target audience, the answer is no. The modern liberals that she's trying to reach think the government is Santa Claus. And so Santa can come up with these goodies, and nobody has to pay.

You know, there are a lot of libertarian-leaning people who tend to vote Republican who are very disaffected with George W. Bush and the Republican Party he has forged. This ad vividly reminds them of why they don't like Democrats.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mike Huckabee -- The Anti-Corporatist

Some of our friends on the left seem convinced that Mike Huckabee is the genuine anti-establishment, anti-corporatist Republican candidate. Glenn Greenwald wrote a long (well, it's Greenwald) bit -- with five updates! -- about the anti-establishment candidates -- Ron Paul, John Edwards, and Mike Huckabee. Now, it's pretty ridiculous to call Edwards and Huckabee anti-Establishment -- Edwards is a trial lawyer with standard liberal "populist" views, and Huckabee is the ideological heir to George W. Bush. But it's interesting that he quotes, apparently approvingly, Huckabee's claim that he's not part of the "Wall Street-to-Washington axis, this corridor of power." Likewise, Jon Ponder claims that the members of the "corporatist Republican establishment" won't cede power to a Yahoo like Huckabee. Dave Neiwert has similar observations.

Guys, I'm sorry to tell you, but you have it exactly backwards. First of all, Huckabee is the direct ideological heir to George W. Bush. If you hate Bush, you should loathe Huckabee. He's even more of a religious fruitcake than Bush, and, in terms of policies, he seems not to differ from Bush a whit on, well, much of anything.

Sure, Huckabee talks like a populist anti-corporatist. But will that matter a whit in the end? Huckabee is the sort of big government Republican who will undoubtedly embrace all sorts of government programs, rules, regulations, and giveaways. As I noted in this post, corporatism isn't the result of bad people in office -- or not just the result of bad people. It's the result of structures and incentives. And I assure you that Mike Huckabee is not going to fundamentally alter the incentive structures that create corporatism. Nor will Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards, or Barack Obama, or anybody else with a plausible chance of winning.

The bigger the government we have the more corporatism we will have. And from the sound of things, Mike Huckabee wants a very big government indeed.

Obama's Free Ride

This Howard Kurtz article in the Washington Post has gotten some traction in the blogosphere. Kurtz's question: is Barack Obama getting a free ride from the media? Are they leaning in his favor? Hillary's operatives make the obvious claim: the media has been far more harsh and negative about her than toward him. One of Obama's people has a hilarious response:

Obama spokesman Bill Burton says the accusation of softer treatment is untrue but "the Clinton campaign whines about it so much, it becomes part of the chatter. No candidate in this race has undergone more investigations and examinations than Barack Obama has," he says, citing lengthy pieces in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times. "As Obama says, running against the Clintons is not exactly a cakewalk. Their research operation has ensured that if there's any information about Obama to be had, it's been distributed to the media."

Over at TPM, Greg Sargent doesn't take a side, but instead asks readers for their view.
Clive Crook, by contrast, states the obvious: "there's no question that Obama has been given an easy ride." But Crook suggests that this isn't a result of media bias per se -- or not just media bias -- but instead reflects deeper feelings within the populace as a whole:

But is this sentiment peculiar to the press, I wonder, or a feeling in the country at large? I suspect the latter. The United States may have doubts about Obama's policies (if it knows or cares) or lack of experience (compared with Hillary's such as it is), but it likes him. He is new, and the country is giving him the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to Hillary, there is no such instinct. She is asking for eight years in the White House--another eight years, as her claim of greater experience keeps reminding people--and people seem tired of her already.

I suspect that's a part of it. And you can add to that the fact that he seems like a fairly likable guy. And she isn't. Likable, that is. Well, she's not a guy either, but that's not my point. And the whole underdog-wins narrative is fun, too.

Pardon me for mentioning the obvious, but there's another thing going on as well. In our society today, the worst thing you can be accused of (other than child molestation) is racism. And this means that members of the chattering classes generally avoid saying things that may get them accused -- falsely or not -- of being a racist. In Obama's case, this translates into a certain reticence about critcism or investigation. It means pretending that being a "community organizer" is actually a real job, and writing fawning articles like this. It means paying very little attention to the fact that he is a member of what is effectively a black-supremacist church. But the thing is, Obama is black (or half black, and that means he is "black" by cultural argeeement), and he's not obviously insane, like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Obama is the affirmative action candidate.

And the worst part is, the Democrats can't complain, given their institutional commitment to pervasive racial preferences. This is what they asked for, isn't it?

UPDATE: Weird editing glitch fixed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Senators For Segregation." OK, Not Really. But Who Cares What They Really Said?

A Post By Matthew Yglesias:

Remember when Trent Lott was lavishing praise on Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for president on a white supremacist platform? Remember how most of his fellow conservatives disavowed him? Well, here's Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) praising Lott's defense of white supremacy. And then Orrin Hatch (R-UT) did it. And then Arlen Specter (R-PA) did it.

If you read Matt's post without following the links and watching the links, you would think that Lott defended white Supremacy and that Senators Smith, Hatch, and Specter agreed with that defense. That's the plain meaning of Matt's statement.

But if you follow the links, and watch the videos of the statements by Senators Smith, Hatch, and Specter, that's not what they're saying at all. They're saying that Lott's statements were unfairly misconstrued, and that he did not, in fact, defend white supremacy.

These three Senators are not "praising Lott's defense of white supremacy. They're saying it wasn't a defense of white supremacy at all. That the meaning attributed to him was not his true meaning, and that he was unfairly maligned. Now if you want to argue they're wrong, and that he was maligned fairly, fine. Make that argument. But don't attribute statements to people that they didn't make.

Here are the YouTube videos from Matt's links, if you care to judge for yourself:

The Case Against Ron Paul

Stephen Bainbridge outlines a conservative case against Ron Paul (via Instapundit). Some of Bainbridge's issues don't bother me -- he's a conservative, and I am not. But Bainbridge leaves out the main reason to not support him: he's a kook. He's your crazy uncle, if you have one. Charming, well, I think so. Lovable, sure. Funny, when compared to, say, Mitt Romney, who is the ultimate blow-dried politician. Yes, I'd like to see a Republican Party with more Ron Paul in it. I think that the New Deal and Great Society were big mistakes, and that we'd be a lot better off today with much less government than we have now.

But what Ron Paul and many libertarians don't understand is that Americans are naturally conservative, in the sense that they tend to resist radical change. Sure, they say they want "change," but they want change within a certain range. The real challenge for a serious libertarian is finding a path from here to where we want to be. A way of unwinding the administrative/welfare state.

Even if you agree that we'd be a lot better off with less government -- and I do -- the fact is that people do depend on government programs right now. It's all well and good to say we'd be better off thirty years from now if we adopted more libertarian policies, but if you want to sustain a transition to a more limited government, you have to find some way to ameliorate the transition. And that is a question that Ron Paul seems not to even have thought about.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Keeping Food Cold

Andrew Sullivan's Face of the Day is a poor little kid in Tulsa who is still without power due to snowstorms. He supposedly is seeking a hot meal at a local church because they lost all their food in the refrigerator due to the loss of electricity. Now, honestly, I don't begrudge somebody caught in a natural disaster a hot meal. Of course they should feed the kid and his mom.

But the story, as written on Sully's site, doesn't make a lot of sense. According to, the high temperature in Tulsa has been in the thirties for the last week. Under those circumstances, I can imagine many problems, but having food go bad due to lack of refrigeration wouldn't be one of them. If the kid's mom lost her heat due to the storm, her house or apartment would soon be below refrigerator temperature anyway. Just leave food out on the counter. If she has an alternative source of heat, and the home is too warm, she could leave perishables outside. If that's not practical, go outside and get some snow. Use the fridge as a cooler.

Now I can understand how, absent electricity, she might not have the facilities to cook anything. That makes sense. But the whole bit about losing food in the fridge, when it's in the thirties outside and there's snow on the ground, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

What About Those Universities, Cass?

Clive Crook links to this Cass Sunstein article discussing the phenomenon of "enclave extremism." According to Sunstein, there is strong evidence that hanging around with like-minded people causes people to become more extreme:

About 60 Americans were brought together and assembled into a number of groups, each consisting of five or six people. Members of each group were asked to deliberate on three of the most controversial issues of the day: Should states allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions? Should employers engage in affirmative action by giving a preference to members of traditionally disadvantaged groups? Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?

As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of "liberal" and "conservative" enclaves — the former from Boulder, the latter from Colorado Springs. It is widely known that Boulder tends to be liberal, and Colorado Springs tends to be conservative. Participants were screened to ensure that they generally conformed to those stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously both before and after 15 minutes of group discussion. What was the effect of that discussion?

In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others. Discussion made civil unions more popular among liberals and less popular among conservatives. Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion. Liberals, mildly favorable toward affirmative action before discussion, became strongly favorable toward affirmative action after discussion. Firmly negative about affirmative action before discussion, conservatives became fiercely negative about affirmative action after discussion.

Sunstein's particular concern in this article is the internet: according to him, it makes it a lot easier for people to form homogenous enclaves where opinions get radicalized. Arguably you see such enclaves in the form of Free Republic on the right and Daily Kos on the left. It seems clear that mutual affirmation by like-minded is a big part of what's going on at sites like this.

Professor Sunstein does ignore one salient point, though. While it's easy for people to seek out opinions that confirm what you already believe, people of a more (ahem) iconoclastic mindset can certainly find independent and thoughtful voices across the spectrum. And blogging encourages you to read people you disagree with, if only to hammer them.

But I wonder why it is that Professor Sunstein ignores one of the most obvious places where the like-minded can form enclaves: university faculties. University faculties lean well to the left, particularly elite universities. You can hardly expect university professors to be immune to this sort of effect. And you don't need a study to know that "disciplines" like "women's studies," "African-American studies," and -- my favorite -- "peace studies" have to be among the worst

From a practical standpoint, if you believe in freedom of speech, there's not a lot you can do about the whole problem of like-minded enclaves on the internet. I realize that, in Professor Sunstein's case, this is an open question, but for most of us the idea of a regulatory solution is anathema. But in the case of universities, it's easy to imagine policies that would increase ideological diversity. But Professor Sunstein doesn't mention that. I wonder why not.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Costs of Prohibition

Clayton Cramer has an interesting post on drug prohibition and related issues in which he makes a number of very interesting points. It's well worth reading in full, even if you disagree, and I may come back to it in the future, but for now I want to focus on one issue. In discussing the experience with alcohol prohibition, Cramer makes this point:

As I have mentioned before, cirrhosis of the liver rates fell roughly in half within a few years of the start of Prohibition. They came back up again (although not as quickly) with a few years of the end of Prohibition. Pretty clearly, alcohol consumption, and especially the regular, high consumption of alcohol associated with cirrhosis of the liver, fell because of Prohibition. Whether the other negative consequences of Prohibition (such as gangsters and corrupt politicians) was too high of a price to pay is a legitimate question. It is also a legitimate question whether Prohibition disproportionately discouraged those drinkers who weren't the social problem. I rather suspect that people that had the occasional beer before Prohibition, or some wine at home with dinner, weren't the ones hitting speakeasies--and they weren't the problem that Prohibition was trying to fix. But let's not pretend that prohibiting a commodity doesn't affect consumption rates.

First of all, I concede that of course prohibition, whether of alcohol (then) or illegal drugs (now) does affect consumption rates. When you raise the price of something, you have less of it -- that's darn near close to a universal truth.

That said, "gangsters and corrupt politicians" weren't the only cost associated with alcohol prohibition, though it is the one that libertarians tend to talk about the most when discussing the parallels between alcohol prohibition and the current War on Drugs. Rather, one of the costs was that people who wanted to drink were prohibited from doing so. Clayton is right that "people that had the occasional beer before Prohibition, or some wine at home with dinner, weren't the ones hitting speakeasies--and they weren't the problem that Prohibition was trying to fix." They may not have been "the problem Prohibition was trying to fix" -- although Temperance crusaders, like drug warriors, weren't big on the distinction between recreational and abusive uses. But so what? It was illegal for them, too. And because they were, for the most part, law-abiding people who enjoyed some beer or wine but were perfectly willing to do without, they generally did without rather than incurring the risks of breaking the law. And they were thereby deprived of the experience of having a bottle of wine among friends over dinner. Taking that pleasure away from people -- well it's obscene.

I am fully aware that alcohol has very real social costs. And yes, I think that Al Capone and the other gangsters and hoodlums who prospered during Prohibition were indeed a good reason to do away with it. But the infringement on liberty alone was sufficient reason to object to prohibition. I enjoy having a glass of wine with dinner from time to time, or a beer with my pizza, and I don't see why I should be deprived of that pleasure because some people cannot drink responsibly.

Likewise, the War on Drugs has very real costs, some of which I've touched on before. I think those costs are good and sufficient reasons to get rid of the war on drugs. But that's not the only reason. For the most part, I think I think that taking now-illicit drugs is a bad choice, and if the sorts of drugs that people now use recreationally were legalized, I doubt I'd partake in them. But that would be my choice. People who decide to use heroin or meth might well be throwing their life away, making a very poor choice. But it's their life, and their choice. They should have the freedom to make it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shouldn't Huckabee Go Back To Preaching?

My left-leaning Godless friends directed me to this old article regarding Mike Huckabee and his religious faith. It does nothing to belie the notion that Huckabee is one of those scary Jesus freaks:

The reason we have so much government is because we have so much broken humanity," he said. "And the reason we have so much broken humanity is because sin reigns in the hearts and lives of human beings instead of the Savior."

. . . .

"Government knows it does not have the answer, but it's arrogant and acts as though it does," Huckabee said. "Church does have the answer but will cowardly deny that it does and wonder when the world will be changed."

. . . .

I'm often asked why taxes are so high and government is so big. It's because the faith we have in local churches has become so small. If we'd been doing what we should have -- giving a dime from every dollar to help the widows, the orphans and the poor -- we now wouldn't be giving nearly 50 cents of every dollar to a government that's doing ... what we should have been doing all along."

Huckabee also explained why he left pastoring for politics.

"I didn't get into politics because I thought government had a better answer. I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives."

Seriously, is it me or does this make no sense at all? If the "real answer" lies in accepting Jesus, and not in government action, then wouldn't Huckabee do more good preaching the Gospel than running for President, or, before that, serving as Governor? I just don't understand his basic logic here -- the real answer lies in accepting Jesus, not government. So that's why he's running for office? He's an ordained minister -- couldn't he do more, by his own logic, by preaching?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Barack Obama Is Not a Constitutional Law Professor

Barack Obama has at least once, uttered the sentence "I was a constitutional law professor." This has been repeated, uncritically. One of Sully's correspondents, for example. Mark Kleiman, who really ought to know better, called him a "Con. Law Prof."

As Powerline noted back in April, this is, shall we say, a bit of puffery. Obama has taught courses in constitutional law, and so in casual conversation his students might well refer to him as "Professor." But he is listed on the University of Chicago web page as "Senior Lecturer in Law." His publications page lists his two autobiographical books, but no academic work of any sort, much less any academic writings on constitutional law. Now, given his relatively strong academic credentials and the extent of affirmative action in academic hiring, if Obama had written articles about, well, pretty much anything, he would undoubtedly have been able to get hired at an elite law school in a tenure-track position. But he didn't.

Barack Obama may well know a lot more about constitutional law than the average person, or even the average lawyer. But he is not a Professor of Constitutional Law. Nor is he an assistant professor or associate professor. At most, he's an "adjunct professor," which is not the same thing at all.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cory Maye and No-Knock Raids

Radley Balko has a long and moving post about his recent trip to Mississippi where he visited the family of Cory Maye. Now, I sometimes think that Radley goes off the rails, but his work on the Cory Maye case has been exemplary. There's a lot of detail involved in the case, and while I don't claim to have followed every twist and turn, this Radley Balko Reason piece gives some background. Maye's home was raided by the cops late one evening. Awakened from his slumber, Maye ended up shooting and killing one of the police officers on the raid. He claimed he didn't know they were cops, that he was acting in self-defense, albeit mistaken self-defense. The jury rejected his claim and convicted him.

The case touches all sorts of issues involving, poverty, criminal procedures, and the use of arguably-unreliable forensic evidence. But to me the key point is this: so long as we have the "war on drugs," we are going to have cases like Maye's. It's something I touched on in my last post, talking about this California case in which a homeowner shot and killed two young men who broke into his home. In that post I argued that the fact that the homeowner shot the intruders in the back mattered not a whit because it was simply unreasonable, in that confused situation, to demand that he instantly take stock of what his intruders were doing.

By the same token, somebody who is asleep in his or her home, in an environment where a homeowner is entitled to feel safe and secure isn't in a great position to take stock of the situation when a door is broken down in hte middle of the night. People have the right to defend themselves and their homes from attack, and in America they exercise that right. Inevitably, some informants will be unreliable -- they're looking for drug dealers, after all, and most drug dealers don't hang out with schoolmarms and librarians. Inevitably, cops will write down the wrong address, or people will move out. And then, inevitably, some cops and some citizens will be killed. It's just one cost of the war on drugs. One of many.

Monday, December 10, 2007

More On Felony Murder

This is a followup to my earlier post on felony murder, in which I took Radley Balko and some other bloggers to task for their characterization of the facts of a case discussed in a New York Times article on felony murder. In that case, a guy named Ryan Holle was convicted of murder because he loaned his car to his friends -- after being informed that they intended to use it for a burglary, and that it might be necessary to do violence to a young lady named Jessica Snyder in the course of this burglary, Jessica, age 18, was bludgeoned to death by Mr. Holle's friends.

Radley Balko has now added an update to his earlier post, graciously admitting that he should probably have included in his original post the fact that Holle initially told police that he had been informed about the intended robbery and possible battery. But these facts don't change his mind:

It didn’t affect my opposition to the charge, though, because the guy also said he was drunk, and thought his friends were joking. So his crime here seems to have been an error in judgment. Or maybe an error in judgment affected by drinking too much. I can certainly imagine a scenario in college where I, having no criminal record (this guy didn’t, either), may have had too much too drink at a party, had some acquaintance say, “hey, can we borrow your car?” respond, “why?” and they respond, “because we want to break into someone’s house and steal their weed”,” there’s at least a chance I might have thought they were yanking my chain.

To begin with, Radley seems to be taking Holle's current version at face value, accepting it as fact. But it seems to contradict what he told the police at the time and his own testimony that he'd been told it might be necessary to "knock out" Jessica Snyder. I realize that he works on a lot of these "police abuse" cases, but it isn't necessary to take every convict's claims at face value. More to the point, while Holle apparently didn't have a record, we don't know whether his buddies had records, and that's the relevant question, in determining whether it's likely that Holle thought they were kidding. Sure, if one of my friends said, "can I borrow your car to rob somebody," I'd assume they were joking. But then, there's a pretty good chance (as in, a near-certainty) that they would be joking, because I don't hang out with criminals. If Holle hangs out with criminals, he'd be much less likely to think they were yanking his chain.

But that's not Radley's sole argument:

Believe that about this guy, or don’t. I don’t know how credible this guy is. It does seem clear, though, that he didn’t sit down with these guys and plan the burglary. There’s no mention of him getting a cut of the drugs they planned to steal. His culpability here seems to boil down to a split second of bad judgment. No premeditation. No specific intent. The guy who lent someone his car–after a night of partying under terms where there’s some doubt about whether he knew the real intentions of the lendees–got the same charge and sentence as the guys who committed a premeditated robbery, during which they smashed in a woman’s face with a metal safe. That really sound like a just outcome?

Well, I would have sentenced the actual killer to death, so that would eliminate the disparity between Holle's sentence and the killer's. And I can certainly see arguing for reform of the felony murder rule -- maybe making felony murder a form of second degree murder. But, while Holle didn't plan the murder, he did facilitate by providing transportation. So no, it doesn't strike me as being particularly unjust. He was part of the criminal enterprise.

If the case of Ryan Holle gets your goat, though, this California case really ought to drive you bonkers.

Here's what happened: three young black men, including a 22-year-old named Renato Hughes, broke into the home of Shannon Edmonds, who is white, intending to steal some marijuana. During the course of the burglary, they beat Edmonds' stepson, Dale Lafferty, with a baseball bat, causing permanent brain damage severe enough to render him unable to live independently or even feed himself.

During the course of the robbery, Shannon Edmonds managed to get his gun, and he shot the intruders, killing both of Hughes's accomplices. Edmonds had both marijuana and prescription drugs in his system, but he had prescriptions for both (remember, California has legal medical marijuana). Edmonds isn't charged at all. Renato Hughes, by contrast, is charged with felony murder under the California "provocative acts" doctrine. That's right, he's charged with felony murder in the death of his accomplices, despite the fact that it was the homeowner, not charged, who pulled the trigger.

Predictably, some people are playing the race card. They claim the victim ought to be the one in the dock:

The NAACP complained that prosecutors came down too hard on Hughes, who also faces robbery, burglary and assault charges. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

The Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and pastor at Hughes' church, said the case demonstrates the legal system is racist in remote Lake County, aspiring wine country 100 miles north of San Francisco. The sparsely populated county of 13,000 people is 91 percent white and 2 percent black.

Brown and other NAACP officials are asking why the homeowner is walking free. Tests showed Edmonds had marijuana and prescription medication in his system the night of the shooting. Edmonds had a prescription for both the pot and the medication to treat depression.

"This man had no business killing these boys," Brown said. "They were shot in the back. They had fled."
Note the use of the term "boy," despite the fact that the two invaders were 21 and 22, old enough to vote, sign contracts, even buy a beer. All a way of posthumously deflecting responsibility for their own criminality. (I guess Reverend Brown follow the Maureen Dowd theory of childhood.)

According to Reverend Brown's apparent theory, a homeowner has to turn on a dime and hold his fire the second his attackers begin to flee, even if they are still in the house and still a potential threat. That is simply unreasonable -- a home invasion creates a situation of total confusion. Edmonds had no way of knowing whether these people were no longer a threat. And even if they had begun to flee, we have no way of knowing that, with the adrenaline and confusion, this fact had reached his brain at that point. It is absurd to second-guess a homeowner subjected to this sort of attack. (Another reason why police no-knock raids should be strictly limited.)

It is hardly surprising that Hughes's mother is equally outraged. She thinks that her son and his friends were there to buy drugs, not rob the place. Well, I suppose that it is barely possible that this is some sort of drug-deal-gone-bad situation, but it seems unlikely. Most drug sellers don't shoot their customers, and her version doesn't account for the beaten stepson.

It is undoubtedly difficult to face a situation in which your son may well spend the rest of his natural life in prison for a crime he committed at a very young age. It is equally difficult to accept the fact that your son is a thug. But maybe if Judy Hughes and Reverend Brown had done a better job teaching Renato not to break into people's homes to rob them, they wouldn't be facing this predicament today. As in the Jena 6 case, it's a lot easier to cry about racism than to accept responsibility for thuggery.

Frankly, I have sympathy for the real victim, Dale Lafferty, who suffered permanent brain damage. And for Shannon Edmonds, who will undoubtedly suffer anguish over the killings, no matter how justified they were. I have no sympathy left for Renato Hughes or the other two invading beasts killed in the act of their crime. And lest anybody claim racial animus here, I assure you I would have a similar reaction if the invading beasts had been white. If Hughes rots in jail for the rest of his life, well, it's not so bad as what he did to his victims.

This case hasn't gotten a lot of traction in the blogosphere, but I imagine that, if it did, Hughes would get a lot more sympathy, though not from me. I want to acknowledge SteveAudio, whom I credit for the link to the original article. SteveAudio is troubled by what he characterizes as "vigilante style action" by the homeowner. I'd be troubled too if Edmonds had tracked the two guys down and killed them weeks later. But I think it's pretty reasonable to kill attackers who are in your house, particularly when they have beaten one of the occupants with a baseball bat.

Jeralyn over a TalkLeft is also troubled by this case, saying, "I don't like the idea of making defendants liable for the acts of victims." Honestly, I don't see why not -- if the act of the victim is a natural and foreseeable consequence of the crime. In this case, it is eminently predictable that a homeowner might fight back and kill one of the invaders.

Jeralyn also says something else that is quit bizarre. She says that Hughes should be charged with the beating of Dale Lafferty, "assuming it wasn't self-defense." At first I thought this had to be some sort of strange thinko, but then she goes on to say that one of the details she'd like to know is "Was the stepson brandishing a weapon (like a rifle or a gun) at the time he was beaten?"

This suggests that Jeralyn actually believes that these home invaders somehow had the right to engage in "self-defense" with a baseball bat if Dale Lafferty was brandishing a weapon. That's insane -- Lafferty was in his home. He had every right to brandish a weapon at intruders coming into his house. I would argue he had the right to fire a weapon at them. Once you break into somebody's house, you don't have the right to engage in "self-defense."

Live or Memorex?

Megan McArdle says she's with Ogged, who thinks that music sounds better recorded than in concert. There's something to be said for the virtues of recorded music, and it's certainly true that much of the appeal of a live performance comes from sharing the experience with an audience and seeing performers who are really putting out to give a good show.

Most artists don't sound quite as good in concert as on CD, but they make up for it by putting on a good show. Some artists sound significantly worse in concert -- I saw Montgomery Gentry this summer, and I thought they were horrible. Alan Jackson darn near killed me with a saccharine overdose.

But there are some artists whose live show is so transcendently good that it blows their recorded music away. The best example to me is Brad Paisley -- before I saw him in concert, I considered him a middle-of-the-pack country guy with a few funny songs. After I saw him live, however -- well, all I can say is that man can play the guitar. He's not just a singer who plays a note or two and lets his band do the musical heavy lifting Nope, he's a guitar god in his won right, up there with guys like Clapton and Hendrix. Another example would be Martina McBride -- I knew she had a good voice, but she sounds even better live than on CD.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Romney's "Faith" Speech

I listened to Romney's "Faith" speech, and I read the transcript, and I have to say I really do admire how slippery the guy is. His thesis is that religion doesn't matter in politics, except when it does. We shouldn't ask people about their religious beliefs, except when we should. He was absolutely masterful in how he precisely he calibrated the level of attention one can give to his Mormon beliefs. All the weird or bizarre parts are ruled off-limits to discussion, but he gets to take credit for his "faith" in general. So no discussion of how some of us get to be gods of our own planet someday, or whether he wears the funny underwear, but he gets to talk about all the "values" stuff where he agrees with the Christian conservatives.

Here's a key passage, which nicely illustrates his balancing act:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

Romney wants to stay the heck away from the "distinctive doctrines" of the Mormon Church, because Evangelical Christians would think him an apostate, and people not familiar with the more eccentric aspects of the Mormon faith will think he's a weirdo. Objectively, it's no weirder than any other religion, but, like Scientology, it's got a bad science fiction vibe to it. This hilarious video gives a primer:

Romney doesn't want to get into all that. Instead, he wants to focus on shared moral beliefs:

It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter - on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

There's a certain internal tension here, shall we say. As David Frum puts it:

To be blunt, Romney is saying:

It is legitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the son of God?"

But it is illegitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the brother of Lucifer?"

It is hard for me to see a principled difference between these two questions, and I think on reflection that the audiences to whom Romney is trying to appeal will also fail to see such a difference. Once Romney answered any question about the content of his religious faith, he opened the door to every question about the content of his religious faith.

The reason for that is that he thinks some Evangelicals won't vote for him if he doesn't believe that Jesus Christ is the savior. But he also wants to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty details of Mormon theology, because if he does he's screwed. Hence the "distinctive doctrines" dodge. (Also take a look at Marc Ambinder and Ross Douthat for similar thoughts.)

It's true that most mainstream American religions probably have a common core of moral beliefs, but that's because they're part of a wider American culture that tends to pound down the theological differences (i.e., "distinctive doctrines") that result in disparate outcomes. For example, some people used to use the the doctrine of the "Curse of Ham" to justify the enslavement of blacks and then racial segregation. That "distinctive doctrine" went away under the pressure of a wider American culture that found it repugnant. Similar Mormon beliefs regarding blacks have been modified, over the years.

The "distinctive doctrines" of various churches are relevant to a whole host of hot-button issues, including abortion, use of stem cells, etc. Within Islam, doctrines regarding jihad and the application of Sharia law are of great import.

The line that Romney wants to draw is a very difficult line to maintain. Nonetheless, he doesn't have much of choice. He's got a constituency of Evangelical Christians that he needs to vote for him. Now, I do think that urban elites tend to overstate how narrow-minded such people are, but there really are some folks who think that being a Bible-believing Christian is a necessary qualification for office. No Republican candidate for President can ignore that constituency in the primary, and in a fifty-fifty country, he needs almost all such people to show up and vote for him to win the general election. So Romney has to communicate to that group "I am one of you." But if they start asking questions about Mormonism, he knows they will conclude he's not. Hence the balancing act.

The one group that gets left out are the atheists and agnostics. Indeed Romney's arugment is that religion is necessary for the maintenance of a free republic:

There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion... Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people."

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

This is actually a pretty common view. The idea is that if people don't have some religion, they'll just run riot. On this view, religion doesn't have to be true; it's just that it's necessary to keep people in line. This makes the "pick a faith, any faith" line seem reasonable. This is an empirical thesis that is certainly subject to testing. The obvious thing to do would be to look at the children of atheists and agnostics, correct for all the other variables, and see if they are more likely to grow up to be serial killers.

I suspect that the extent to which "human passions" are actually bridled by religion is at least somewhat overstated. And then there is the problem that religion, when taken too seriously, can inflame the passions rather than bridling them -- inspire people to murder doctors who commit abortion or fly airplanes into skyscrapers.

Ryan Sager appears to have been particularly stung by Romney's failure to even mention the possibility of good atheists:

The most remarkable thing about Romney’s address — and even folks at National Review picked this out, notably Ramesh Ponnuru — is that is wrote atheists and agnostics out of the American nation. Whereas even President Bush, whose own cynical politics have done so much to pit believers versus non-believers, has long gone out of his way to include “good people of no faith at all” in his vision of America. While the president’s need to qualify that phrase with the word “good” might be offensive, it’s a warm embrace of the faithless compared to Romney’s declaration that “freedom requires religion.”

Got that? Those of us who don’t believe in Christianity, those of us who don’t believe in God, those of us who don’t believe in the divinity of human-written holy books have no place in the American experiment, can’t be relied on to uphold the principles of our Constitution, and don’t have the morality necessary to keep a Republic.

I think that's the upshot of his thesis, Ryan. I think that's intentional. He's saying to the Christian Conservatives that they have a common enemy: secularists. He is trying to say that the differences between Mormons, Evangelical Christians, and Catholics don't matter, because there are these folks out there who want to take "In God We Trust" off the coins and destroy the Republic. From a purely political perspective, this is probably a good move in his part.

He's not losing many votes, because, while a few atheists and agnostics (like me) adopt a libertarian free market approach, most of the Godless embrace the Big State with both arms. Many substitute a belief in an omnipotent God with a belief in an Omnipotent state. Which is even worse, since religious belief has harmless manifestations, while statism does not.

Which is why, at the end of the day, Romney's musings on faith don't particularly interest me. So long as his religion doesn't motivate him to do something screwy or desstructive, I don't care what he believes. I'd much rather have a candidate who wears funny underwear and is bucking to be God of his own planet than one who wants to raise my taxes, increase the scope of government regulation, and take away my freedom. His feelings toward my atheistic beliefs matter not a whit, so long as he pushes policies preferable to the other candidate.

Hugh Hewitt On Romney's Speech

Hugh seemed to like it:

Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech was simply magnificent, and anyone who denies it is not to be trusted as an analyst. On every level it was a masterpiece. The staging and Romney's delivery, the eclipse of all other candidates it caused, the domination of the news cycle just prior to the start of absentee voting in New Hampshire on Monday --for all these reasons and more it will be long discussed as a masterpiece of political maneuver.

In other news, Hewitt reports that Romney's spooge tastes like a vanilla milk shake from one of those fifties-style diners.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Felony Murder

This New York Times article discusses the felony murder rule, using the case of Ryan Holle, now serving life in prison, as a jumping-off point. As one might expect, there are conflicting interpretations of the facts, but the basic story is this: Holle was out partying with some friends one night, when, at least somewhat intoxicated, he loaned his car to a friend. His friend and three other individuals drove over to the home of a local marijuana dealer with the intent of robbing it. Which they did. In addition, they bludgeoned to death the dealer's 18-year-old daughter, Jessica Snyder, with a shotgun they found at the residence.

All four were convicted of murder, as was Holle, under the felony murder doctrine, which the New York Times describes as "a distinctively American legal doctrine that makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer for murders committed during felonies like burglaries, rapes and robberies." This rule "generally broadens murder liability for participants in violent felonies in two ways. An unintended killing during a felony is considered murder under the rule. So is, as Mr. Holle learned, a killing by an accomplice."

The New York Times notes that the Brits -- whose common law brought us the rule -- abolished the doctrine in the late fifties, while India and other common law countries have done so as well, including our Canadian neighbors. The argument against the rule, generally, is that it is disproportionate, because the defendant is being held responsible for something he didn't personally do. The counter to that is that all participants in a felony share blame for the foreseeable consequences.

Holle, according to the Times article, "had given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary." Indeed, he also testified that "he had been told it might be necessary to 'knock out' Jessica Snyder." So he knew both that a robbery was planned and that violence might well be necessary. Now Holle claims he didn't actually believe them -- he thought that the talk of the robbery was a joke. If true that might well be exculpatory, but, based on the sketchy account in the article, it sounds like the jury didn't believe him.

The problem with The New York Times article is that it conflates two distinct issues. The first issue is Holle's case, and the second issue is the felony murder rule, in general. The article tries to cast doubt on on Holle's culpability, and thereby to undermine the rule, in general. But that doesn't necessarily follow. Even if you believe that the evidence wasn't sufficient in his case, or that he didn't do enough to help that he ought to found guilty, you can still believe in the rule's application, in general. That said, Adam Liptak, the author of the article, deserves credit for fairly presenting the facts that would tend to show Holle did know of the car's intended use and is therefore at least arguably culpable.

The same cannot be said of all the bloggers commmenting on the article. The dishonesty is particularly apparent at TAPPED, where Brad Plumer says:

Do I have this right? Florida courts have long rejected the argument that gun wholesalers are at all responsible for any murders committed with the weapons they sell. But, as The New York Times reports today, if a groggy 20-year-old in Florida lends some friends his car one morning, and they end up killing someone, he can be convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole?

[Correction: he isn't at TAPPED. See update below.] Conveniently left out is that Holle's pals didn't just "end up killing someone," as if by accident. Nor did Holle innocently lend some friends his car. Rather, he lent it to them after being told that they were going to use it for a burglary.

Scott Lemieux is equally dishonest, stating that "Via Brad Plumer, Adam Liptak discusses the case of a 20-year-old in Florida serving life without parole for lending some friends his car. " Sure, that's true enough -- but utterly misleading, as it leaves out the fact that he was told it was going to be used in a burglary.

Radley Balko makes a similar error -- he quotes a passage from the the same New York Times article, and just like the guys at TAPPED, he leaves out the salient facts. Instead, he says this:

Maybe this guy should have been more careful who he lent his car to. Maybe he shouldn’t have drank so much. Maybe he shouldn’t have been partying with such shady characters. But life in prison? Come on.

Or maybe he shouldn't have loaned his car to people who told him they planned to use it in a burglary.

Not surprisingly, Balko's old nemesis, Patterico, is on the case. As Patterico observes, "Balko’s post makes it sound like this fellow simply lent his car to some people, without any idea that they were going to go commit a burglary or hurt anyone."

If you want to argue against the felony murder rule, fine. Personally, I don't have a problem with it, in most instances -- I think that those who participate in or facilitate serious felonies share moral culpability with those who actually pull the trigger or do the beating. And such liability is easy to avoid: if you hang out with people who like to beat, rob, or rape other people, don't loan them your car.

But why is it that the folks who are so critical of the felony murder rule have to lie about the facts, or rather leave out salient facts? If they really think it's a bad rule, then they ought to be willing to argue that Holle shouldn't be held liable for murder even if he knew they were going to be bludgeon the girl to death and lent them the car anyway. Heck, if you really don't think the felony murder rule is a good rule, only the guy who actually did the bludgeoning should be convicted of murder -- even the other burglars get off the hook.

If that's their argument, they ought to make it, rather than twisting the facts to try to make it seem as if an injustice is occurring.

UPDATE: In the comments, Brad Plummer corrects an error on my part -- I had said he was associated with TAPPED, which is not the case. Brad Plumer has his own blog, which I could have noted by the simple expedient of reading. I had found his article following the link from Scott Lemieux at TAPPED, and somehow I got it in my head they were both TAPPED bloggers. One might note the irony of my making a simple factual mistake in a post which accuses other bloggers of getting the facts wrong.

Brad is also quite good-natured about my reference to the way he and the other bloggers referred to the facts, which made me feel worse than I would have if he had launched a scathing attack on me. I used the term "lie" to describe their accounts, and I now think that was overstating. Do I really think they consciously lied? Well, probably not, so I apologize to Brad Plumer, Scott Lemieux, and Radley Balko for using that term.

I suspect, instead, that they didn't see Holle's knowledge of the intended use of his vehicle as being a salient fact. My guess is that this is the reason why all three failed to include it in their original posts. For reasons I've tried to articulate, I think it is the key fact. I continue to believe their descriptions are misleading without it. But a lie is an intentional misstatement of fact, and that was an overstatement on my part. I should not have accused them of bad faith.

I still think they were wrong, though.

UPDATE 2: I fixed a couple of typos.

UPDATE 3: Additional Thoughts Felony Murder Here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Big Government Is Big Business

Radley Balko puts together a couple of interesting tidbits. First, you've got this, from Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute, showing that the number of federal subsidy programs has increased by about 25% since 2000. (Edwards notes the irony that there are now 1,776 such programs.)

And then Balko points to this from the Washington Post: an article about how lobbying is a big growth industry. Apparently, the number of lobbyists has nearly doubled since the year 2000, and they are raking in the bucks.

Balko uses this as an excuse to take a shot at Bush and the Republican Congress, and lord knows they deserve it. But, as I noted before in talking about agriculture regulations, the problem isn't bad people in power, or at least isn't just bad people. The problem is structural. The United States has a 13 trillion dollar economy. The federal government spends about 20% of that, and its policies greatly affect the other 80%. Try this experiement someday, if you can get Bill Gates to fund it for you: fill garbage cans with $100 bills and randomly leave them in Central Park. I suspect you won't have to wait long before people start hanging around in the park, trying to be there for your next money drop.

The same is true of the federal government. They have so much money to toss around and their rules and regulations have so much impact on the rest that people would be stupid not to hire lobbyists and influence peddlers. Want to get rid of it? Fine -- reduce the size and scope of the federal government. But, people being people, it's too much to expect that they won't respond to the incentives generated by a massive, intrusive, federal regulatory/welfare state.

You Know You're in Trouble When . . .

Whoopi Goldberg is the intellectual giant in a group.

(Credit to Yglesias.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Fox & Friends: Apparently Still Dumb

Instapundit links to this amusing tirade by Instapunk regarding the stupidity of the Fox News morning show, Fox & Friends. Apparently he actually watched the show for an hour and a half, and he emerged from the resulting vegetative state to report that Fox & Friends failed to cover the most important story of the day and instead covered fluff. Next he will be telling us that there's gambling in Las Vegas.

Seriously, I've known Fox & Friends was idiotic for years, and I don't think I could survive more than an hour of it. I salute Instapnuk's stamina, if nothing else, and he has earned the right to pepper the Fox & Friends on-air "talent" with gratuitous insults, if so inclined. Which he is. He roundly insults all of the anchors at Fox & Friends, and in most cases his comments are both amusing and on-target.

Still, he crosses the line when he refers to "ballooning midlife insanity of Wellesleyite Page Hopkins, who would like somebody to notice and perhaps have sex with her." Granted, Page Hopkins does bear a startling resemblance to the Joker, but I am still pretty sure she can get a man to have sex with her, when she is in the mood.

UPDATE: Edited for clarity.

Monday, December 3, 2007

An Obaminable Attack

Matthew Yglesias is outraged by a recent Clinton-campaign attack on Obama. As he puts it, "Um, seriously, the Clinton administration is attacking Barack Obama based on an essay he wrote in kindergarden. They follow up with an account of something he did in third grade!"

Yes, it sounds utterly ridiculous. But if you follow his link, and actually read the statement, in context, it is a lot less unfair than Yglesias would have us believe. Obama has attacked Hillary Clinton, arguing that, unlike her, he hasn't been angling for the Presidencey for decades. Hillary Clinton's camp issued a press release which quotes Obama repeatedly telling people, from his law school classmates to his brother-in-law, that he planned to run for President. Yes, the Clinton camp cited statements he made back in kindergarten and third grade, but only as a part of a pattern on his part.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. Every American has the right to want to grow up and run for President -- most Americans get over it. Some Senators (subliminal voice: Joe Biden) ought to get over it. But if one of Obama's claimed advantages is that he only recently considered running for President, then it is surely responsive and relevant to point out a long string of contrary statements, apparently going back as far as kindergarten.

UPDATE: About ten minutes after posting this, I noticed that Glenn Reynolds has picked up the story. He links to both Robert Reich and Dan Riehl, neither of whom seems to approve. (Riehl is nice enough to link to the original press release, rather than a news story about it, which I think is the better practice. So I thank him for the link.)

I am not generally a fan of Hillary Clinton, but read in context, I think she is making a fair point. Obama says he hasn't been thinking about running for President. He claims that as an advantage, a reason why he is a better candidate than Hillary Clinton I think it's perfectly fair for her to point out a series of statements which belie his claim. There's nothing wrong with writing an essay about how you want to President in grammar school. I don't think that Hillary Clinton argues to the contrary. But if you are claiming that you never thought about running for President, the fact that you've been thinking about is since kindergarten is a pretty compelling rebuttal.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Mike Huckabee Phones God -- and Sully Freaks

Sully links to this blurry YouTube video of Governor Huckabee talking to God -- on his cell phone. Sullivan dubs it "horrifying," but I think that's going too far. It would be "horrifying" if Huckabee actually heard God on the other end of the phone, issuing instructions. I don't think he believes that God is actually on the other end, although with Huckabee you can't be sure.

It's my sense that Huckabee was just trying to be funny, although it's not nearly as successful as his Chuck Norris ad. But, while it's not horrifying, it is derivative: he's just copying an old Ellen DeGeneres act.

Was that horrifying too? Well, I suppose it was.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

More On Gerson

In my last post, I talked about the way Michael Gerson is getting hammered by conservatives, but, predictably, he has a few defenders. Ross Douthat links to this Josh Patashnik defense of Gerson, over at The Plank. Patashnik thinks that conservatives are being unfair to Gerson by characterizing him as a statist big-government leftist. In fact, according to Patashnik, Gerson's actual policy proposals are pretty small-bore, despite his highfalutin' rhetoric:

Gerson doesn't want a massive new federal effort to combat social injustice; he wants a modest effort, but one imbued with an awesome new sense of moral purpose. It's Tommy Thompson's ideology wrapped in RFK's rhetoric. One can question whether this is really a unique political philosophy meriting a big book deal, but Great Society liberalism it ain't. To me--and I mean this in a good way--it seems more or less like run-of-the-mill centrism; he probably could have just joined the Republican Main Street Partnership or the DLC and been done with it, though that wouldn't have earned him very much money.

So what exactly is the difference between a small-bore government program with a modest budget that gets implemented because people kinda sorta think it might do some good and exactly the same program "imbued with an awesome new sense of moral purpose"? Does the grandiose rhetoric have any independent value?

I think that the reason for the conservative reaction to Gerson has a lot of roots. To start with, small government types are often tarred from the left with the "you don't care about the poor" brush. Most of the time, it's a stupid, irrelevant distraction from the real policy question about whether big government programs actually achieve their stated goal, but it is a quite common rhetorical strategy. To have that idiotic leftist mantra repeated verbatim by one who is supposed to be one of our own is infuriating.

Further, when Gersonian rhetoric is accepted by folks who are supposed to be conservative, it leaves fiscal conservatives and libertarians rhetorically disarmed when somebody comes along and employs the grandiose rhetoric in support of grandiose programs. Gerson and his ilk may not support massive big-government programs (although I am unconvinced that they don't), but they redefine the terms of the debate in a manner favorable to statist big-government liberalism.

There's also something else going on as well, I think. Quite a few conservatives and libertarian-leaners who have tended to vote Republican have already broken with George W. Bush. And yet, quite a few conservatives still have some residual loyalty to President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Let's face it: Gerson's philosophy isn't that far from that of is former boss. Attacking Gersonism is a way of attacking Bushism without going after Bush.

I've already recommended Matt Kibbe's review of Gerson's book, and again, it is well worth reading in full. Kibbe thinks that Gerson is being stupid when tries to read small government types out of the movement:

It’s true that there has always been some tension on the Right between traditionalists and small-government proponents, but the coalition has also been conservatism’s greatest strength. By arguing that one must pick one or the other, Gerson is indicating a willingness to hack off a huge chunk of the conservative coalition — all the while claiming that this is the way to save it.

True. But isn't that equally true of Bush? Sure, Bush managed to win two terms in the Oval Office for himself, but he's managed to burn down the house Reagan built.

Consider the following passage, from a post by left-leaning blogger Publius at Obsidian Wings:

But 2008 is a new world. The modern conservative movement is both intellectually and practically exhausted. It’s still a powerful force, but the fires ain’t burnin’ like they were 20 years ago. There’s a window here to shift the course of the river – to enact not only a stable progressive majority, but to chart a lasting progressive course on the big issues of our day (health care, climate change, foreign policy).

Can you even imagine a paragraph like that being written tweny years ago? And why is the conservative movement in such shambles? Well, the reason is pretty obvious: the rise of "compassionate conervatism" and the presidency of George W. Bush, along with the Gersonian rhetoric Bush has embraced.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Gerson couches so many of his arguments in terms of what Republicans need to do to wine. Because Gersonism -- or Bushism -- is a sure fire way to get that "stable progressive majority" that Publius yearns for.

UPDATE: Minor editing glitch fixed.

Gersonism and Conservatives

I confess: I am going to break one of my own rules. In general, I make it a practice to refrain from criticizing books I have not read. But after perusing Michael Gerson's column archives at the Washington Post, well, readings of Heroic Conservatism are starting to look like a viable alternative to waterboarding. Still, the world doesn't need me to read the book and criticize it, because Gerson is absolutely getting hammered.

Start with the personal stuff: The Atlantic published an article by Gerson's former White House colleague Matthew Scully which accuses Gerson of self-aggrandizement and exaggeration of his own role in various matters. And of taking credit for other people's work. David Frum weighs in, saying:

I worked closely with Gerson and Scully, and I know both men well, as I do the third member of that once-intimate band, John McConnell. I witnessed the events Scully chronicled, and I can attest to the accuracy of Scully's account.

Frum then goes on to accuse Michael Gerson of plagiarism, which is a pretty serious charge. I mean, you've got to be pretty desperate to plagiarize David Frum.

While this bickering among former Bush Administration insiders is undoubtedly amusing, it isn't of great import. Of course Gerson is a climber who exaggerates his own importance and shades accounts to make himself look good. This distinguishes him not at all from his fellow members of the political caste.

In addition to the nasty, vindictive personal stuff, the book has attracted a lot of substantive criticism as well, particularly from conservatives. George Neumayr at Human Events referred to Gerson's "Heroic Liberalism," and characterized the whole Gersonian enterprise as a "cowardly retreat from conservatism." Jonah Goldberg asked "Why is This Man Called a Conservative"? Even Ross Douthat, who is the sort of squish who might be susceptible to Gerson's style of argument, penned a negative review for Slate, and he's had a couple of blog posts following up on it.

So what, exactly, is Gerson's philosophy? What is "Heroic Conservatism"? Well, as I said, I haven't read the guy's book, and I have no intention of doing so. But it's not clear that such exertion is really necessary. Gerson is the sort of intellectual who would only be so-classed because he's a member of the political caste. Gerson's "Heroic Conservatism" is a warmed-over version of Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism." In his column, he tells us that he cares a lot about the poor, and that people who disagree with him on this or that are uncaring.

In this column, for example, he goes after Dick Armey and Phil Gramm, before going after his real target: the libertarian-leaning wing of the Republican Party. Typical Gersonian rhetoric:

But the moral stakes are even higher. What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all.

Ross Douthat quotes him as saying fiscal conservatives are "small minded, cold and uninspired," and Gerson's columns are imbued with this sort of rhetoric. Gerson is very comfortable sitting astride his moral high horse.

Gerson takes pains to distance himself from traditional big-government statist liberals, but, in practice, his arguments has exactly the same form as do theirs: I care about the poor and dispossessed, while you small-government types don't. He doesn't seem overly concerned about whether his favored nostrums actually achieve their stated goals, whether they have unintended consequences, or whether market solutions are indeed a superior alternative. But, for Gerson, it's not about that. Matt Kibbe's scathing review is worth reading in full, but he absolutely nails it, when he says of Gerson:

But what’s important to note is that it’s indicative of Gerson’s worrisome approach to governing. In his world, it’s not just about creating policy that works, but policy that makes him feel good. He doesn’t want government to get out of the way; he wants to use it to help him find meaning.

The urge to find meaning through politics is one of the most pernicious and destructive urges in human history. At its worst, it leads to atrocities: the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Gulags, death camps. In its most mundane form it leads to bad policies. It's what is wrong with liberalism in its modern sense, and, for that matter, a lot of what's wrong with the Presidency of George W. Bush.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Good Job, Princess Cruise Lines

This is amazing: via Radley Balko an account of a poor old lady who spent ten years saving for an Alaska cruise. Princess Cruises even booked the lady's air travel. Booked her on three different flights, on three different airlines, all to get her to Alaska in, one presumes, the cheapest way possible. So of course this poor elderly pensioner misses the boat, due to ubiquitous travel snafus.

And here's the fun part: not only won't Princess Cruises refund her the money she took ten years saving, they've taken, and apparently plan to keep, the partial refund she got from the airlines. And, stupidly, they continue to be adamant even after being contacted by a Washington Post reporter.

I have to say that if I were a competitor of Princess Cruises, I'd give the old lady a free cruise to Alaska. Then I'd have her tape a commercial saying "Princess Cruise Lines screwed me out of my money, but Cheerful Iconoclast Cruises treated me like a queen!"

Government Largesse: Some Strings Attached

Radley Balko links to this article about the Supreme Court's refusal to review a challenge to a San Diego program in which government officials searched the homes of welfare applicants. People were free to refuse to be searched -- but if they did, they couldn't get benefits. As Mr. Balko points out, the notion that applying for government benefits constitutes consent to a search is pretty broad:

I suspect the law-and-order response to the policy in San Diego would be something along the lines of "if they can’t prove they’re clean, they don’t deserve my tax dollars." Of course, if everyone who received any sort of government assistance had to consent to a search of their home, the Fourth Amendment would be pretty much null(er). For example, I’d guess there’d be quite a bit more outrage if these fishing expeditions/searches were being done on the homes of, say, middle class kids applying for government-subsidized student loans instead of low-income people applying for welfare.

There might be more outrage, but of course many of the same justifications for searching the homes of welfare recipients might apply to student loan recipients. In any case, this practice points to one of the often-unappreciated costs of the massive welfare state: it inevitably leads to increased government monitoring of the beneficiaries of welfare programs. And of course as people become accustomed to searches of all sorts, the willingness to object or resist declines.

The power to do something for you is also the power to do something to you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Presidential Candidates Lie, and It Is (Sometimes) a Good Thing

Over at PowerLine, Paul Mirengoff says that he thinks Bush was lying back in 1999, when he started spouting on about "compassionate conservatism:"

When I first heard George W. Bush talking about "compassionate conservatism" in 1999, I figured (and certainly hoped) that it was at least 80 percent ad campaign and no more than 20 percent policy guide. Eight years later, it seems to me that, in practice, the Bush administration probably hasn't strayed too far to the wrong side of that proportion.

I must confess that I too thought it was PR: I thought that Bush was a straight-up Reagan conservative, and that the "compassionate conservative" crap was about getting votes from the soccer moms.

Unlike Mirengoff, however, I wish that Bush had been lying when he talked about being a compassionate conservative. But he wasn't! Bush managed to ram the prescription drug entitlement program through a Republican Congress at just the time when the "spoiled generation" -- the Baby Boomers -- are about to start retiring and getting sick and bankrupting us all. Bush gleefully signed the "No Child Left Behind Act," a bill with no real benefits that massively increases the role of the federal government in education -- something real conservatives have been trying for decades to reduce. And of course we have the near-miss of the Bush amnesty for illegals. He's gotten his way on plenty of those "compassionate" policies -- enough to do real damage.

And, worst of all, he's gotten Christian Conservatives -- who might have been a lost cause anyway -- used to the idea that big government is their friend, thereby fracturing the Republican coalition. And bringing us "serious" candidates like Mike Huckabee, who, despite having hilarious ads with Chuck Norris, manage to combine the worst elements of nanny-state big government tax-and-spend liberalism with know-nothing Christianist moralizing. Thanks, Bush!

So yeah, I too hoped he was lying back in '99. I was right, but it turned out that he was lying about the "conservative" part.

Mona over at Unqualified Offerings is outraged by Mirengoff's post, but for quite different reasons. She's mad that Mirengoff approves of the lying in the first place. As she puts it, "the point is, Power Line is not just conceding, but approving that a Republican presidential candidate lied to get elected." (Emphasis in original.)

I would be terrified at the thought of having a President who didn't lie, repeatedly and well, in order to get into the Oval Office. Because any Presidential candidate who isn't a good liar would have to actually believe all the nonsense that any person who wants to be President has to say.

What do we want in a President? We want a person who is reasonably intelligent, with an IQ of between, say, 125 and 150 -- no higher because super-geniuses tend to be erratic, but no lower, either. We want somebody who is intellectually curious about the world, well-informed on major issues, who has at least some substantive knowledge of economics and statistics and political theory. We want somebody who is a good manager, and who is good at picking people and evaluating their performance. We want somebody whose world-view is evidence-based rather than faith-based. We want somebody who can think for him or herself, who makes independent judgments about matters.

Note that this is very generic -- it's not about ideology, but about the general intellectual characteristics we would seek in a President.

It's my thesis that any person who meets these criteria will have views that will render the candidate unelectable if expressed openly. Consider the following propositions:

Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme designed to ensure support for big government, but we are stuck with it for the present. America's farmers are a bunch of welfare queens and farm subsidies should be abolished. Evolution is true, and creationists are a bunch of know-nothings. DARE is a waste of money and it should be defunded. Worse, the whole War on Drugs is pernicious. The attack on Iraq was a huge tactical blunder, but having gotten into the war, we need to do anything possible to avoid ignominious defeat. Free trade is a good thing, and the United States should unilaterally abolish all trade barriers. We shouldn't worry about opium being grown in Afghanistan.

All of these propositions are totally defensible in reasoned argument, but, if espoused bluntly, any one could render a candidate totally unelectable. I'm not saying that a qualified candidate would have to believe any or all of these claims, but most independent thinkers of requisite intelligence are likely to believe at least something that renders him or her unelectable.

And so we have a choice: we can insist on total honesty, and we can select a candidate so stupid, dull, or unimaginative that the candidate has no heterodox views. Or we can accept the fact that presidential candidates, like all politicians, lie. They lie frequently, openly, and with great skill. If they didn't, they couldn't get elected.