Friday, August 31, 2007

US Airways -- I Suspect the Customer Service Still Sucks

This is very funny. Earlier today, somebody accessed this post of mine on my lousy customer service experience with US Airways. They got it through a google search for "US Airways Sucks."

The IP address is from the Philadelphia Airport.

Whatever you are going through, buddy, I feel for you. Best of luck. You will need it.

Have I mentioned that US Airways sucks? Particularly the customer service?

Big Brother Is Running For President

Marc Ambinder reports that the Fred Thompson campaign has settled on a catch-phrase: "Security, Unity, and Prosperity," which will apparently be emblazoned on the side of his tourbus.

Perhaps after nearly eight dismal years of President George W. Bush I am succumbing to paranoia, but isn't that a bit 1984-ish?


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Enemies of Reason, Part 2

Part 2 of Richard Dawkins' The Enemies of Reason can be found here on Google Video. I am watching it now; it looks good so far. Part 2 is mostly about quackery and weird health claims.

UPDATE: I think it's pretty good. My only wish is that Dawkins would turn his skeptical eye toward big government. For the life of me, I just don't understand big-government-atheists. The same mindset that led me to reject the idea of faith in god led me to an understanding of the limits of government.

Mechanical or Intuitive Medicine?

Megan McArdle links to this Charles Lambdin review of the book, How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman. Now, I have not read Groopman's book, and it is intellectually irresponsible to comment on books you haven't read, but what the heck -- I'm just a D-List blogger, after all.

Lambdin's main criticism of Groopman's book is focused on Groopman's hostility toward "evidence-based medicine." Silly me, I thought all medical science was supposed to be evidence-based -- I thought that was what distinguished Western Medicine from accupuncture and homeopathy and the rest of the woo-woo stuff. But apparently not, and, at least if you believe Lamdbin, Groopman is on the side of the woo-woos. Groopman apparently admits that doctors, like all of us, have a whole array of cognitive biases, that they are inconsistent over time, and that such inconsistency affects their diagnostic accuracy. Yet, despite that, Groopman objects to attempts to make medical diagnoses more accurate through the use of statistical aids:

Groopman tells us he is troubled that new doctors seem to be trained to “think like computers,” that they rely on diagnostic decision aids and some seductive “boiler-plate scheme” called evidence-based medicine. Groopman’s position, when his various arguments are gathered and assembled, becomes untenable. He admits doctors suffer from innumerable biases that diminish the accuracy of diagnosis, reducing many diagnoses to idiosyncratic responses fueled by mood, whether the patient is liked or disliked, advertisements recently seen, etc. Thus Groopman agrees with decision scientists’ diagnosis of doctor decision making; but then he goes on to wantonly dismiss what many of the very same researchers claim is the best (and perhaps only) remedy, the way to “debias” diagnosis: evidence-based medicine and the use of decision aids. In place of statistics what does Groopman suggest doctors rely on? Clinical intuition of course, the very source of the cognitive biases he pays lip service to throughout his book.

Groopman, though, is not alone. Many doctors don't like "mechanical" evidence-based approaches:

Most doctors do not like decision aids. They rob them of much of their power and prestige. Why go through medical school and accrue a six-figure debt if you’re simply going to use a computer to make diagnoses? One study famously showed that a successful predictive instrument for acute ischemic heart disease (which reduced the false positive rate from 71% to 0) was, after its use in randomized trials, all but discarded by doctors (only 2.8% of the sample continued to use it). It is no secret many doctors despise evidence-based medicine. It is impersonal “cookbook medicine.” It is “dehumanizing,” treating people like statistics.

The reason why "treating people like statistics" is better is that it works.

I've been to Vegas a time or two, and somehow I end up seated at a blackjack table. When I find myself in such a situation, I play something called "basic strategy" -- a set of mechanical rules for how to play based upon my cards and the dealer's cards. Now, I wish I could say that basic strategy results in my beating the house, but the truth is that all it does is reduce the house edge to about 1% and means I lose my money at a relatively slow rate.

Sometimes I've been seated next to somebody utterly convinced his or her intuitions or hunches are better than playing the odds. Sometimes they really do get a five when the they hit sixteen and the dealer has a six up. You can be sure they notice every instance in which a deviation from basic strategy pays off. But they don't notice all the times their "hunches" cause them to get hammered. Apply the same woo-woo approach in medicine, and you get crap like this, bleating on about the wonders of intuition. Playing the odds still works better. That's why they are the odds.

As Megan observes, it's natural to resist the idea of using a formula, even when the formula works:

Every profession resists being told that there is a standard way to do things, that a cookie cutter can cut better than their skilled hand. Journalists famously hate the "inverted U" style of writing a news story, even though it really does seem to work better than anything else; it's boring to write, and leaves no room for individual style. Teachers don't like "teaching to the test" or rigidly programmed phonics curricula, even though the latter produces measurably better results than all but the very best teachers. Unfortunately, for many of us, it may be time to welcome our new robot overlords.

All Hail the Robot Overlords!

The point that neither Megan nor Lambdin makes, however, is that this ties in with health care regulations. It's quite possible that a system of mechanically-trained nurse practitioners armed with expert systems and a few doctors in the loop to handle genuinely difficult problems would work better than the current system of state-licensed High Priests. But the current system of compulsory licensure laws prevents any such competing model from emerging.

I do grant that there is some consumer-protective component, that quacks and weirdos and undoubtedly-sincere homeopaths and natural-food junkies are, to some degree, deterred by current compulsory licensure laws. But it also creates barriers to entry for anybody proposing a radically new model, even if such a model might work better.

Bad Dissertation! Film At Eleven!

Brian Beutler and Mathew Yglesias have been reading David Petreaus's Ph.D. dissertation, and they don't much like it. Beutler calls it a "fantastic exercise in saying nothing," and Yglesias seems to agree.

I must say I am inclined to agree with James Fallows, who characterizes their complaints as "silly." This whole exercise is pointless. So what if his dissertation was bad? Next they'll be telling us that we need to reassess Patton's tenure as commander of Third Army because he was a lousy poet.

(H/T, Insty.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Susie Bright Interviews the D.C. Madam

Thanks to Radley Balko for linking to this fascinating interview with the alleged D.C. Madam, Deborah Palfrey. She talks a bit about the scope of the investigation which brought her down, and she seems a bit paranoid. But I have to say I wonder why the feds spent so much money on this particular investigation. Even if you think that prostitution ought to be illegal, this sort of use of law-enforcement resources is questionable at best. Opportunistic arrest is one thing, but a whole long-running investigation. Why?

The interview is well worth reading, but I found a few tidbits particularly worthy of note. One, even though she doesn't use these words, Susie Bright echoes my own Secret Fear Theory:

I mean, when I think about... It's almost like everything these people rail against becomes the very thing that they're into. It's almost as if they're revealing themselves by their preaching. Whatever they're screaming about...

Precisely. People's politics reflect what they fear in themselves.

Second, Palfrey promises EVEN MORE REVELATIONS. And she doesn't feel bad about it.

I don't wish to ruin anyone's life. However, I do share the same mindset as Larry Flynt: expose the hypocrites. And for those few dozen to a hundred or so that ultimately will be revealed — like David Vitter — I go to sleep very easily at night without any guilty feelings whatsoever about the David Vitters of the world.

Oh, yum. If she follows through, former Bushista Randall Tobias and Senator Vitter won't be the only ones. I can't wait!

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, something I had missed when I previously posted about Senator David Vitter, Palfrey's alleged client. According to Bright, Vitter's nickname among New Orleans Prostitutes was "Vitter the Shitter," because he had a diaper fetish.

Ewwww. I guy who frequents prostitutes can be a charming rouge, and a taste for kinky sex can even add a certain exotic appeal. But diapers! Aaargh, that's just grosss. I don't know how I missed this before -- after all, it was in Wonkette.

Wonkette linked to these advertisements, saying the diaper stuff made them even more "hilarious and disgusting." Well, yes. But I have to say that I feel sorry for Vitter's poor kids, who will undoubtedly find out that Daddy got off being diapered.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Who Counts?

Megan McArdle responds to one of her commenters, "Spencer," who suggests if we limit unskilled and illegal immigration, it will raise wages of those at the bottom and encourage innovation. Which, he argues, will make Americans better off. Megan seems to accept this premise (at least for the sake of argument), but she seems to think that's not enough:

That would seem to make closing the borders a win: Americans get higher wages and more automation. But it assumes that the immigrants themselves have absolutely no moral standing. Their lives aren't made better by the fact that America has automatic fruit picking machines.

This is linguistically misleading in a couple of ways. First of all, if we keep them out, they're not immigrants; they're foreigners who might become immigrants. Second, nobody is arguing that foreigners have no moral standing at all. Immigration restrictionists don't favor hunting them for sport, or bombing their countries at random for our own amusement. Everybody agrees that foreigners have some moral standing.

I think that Steve Sailer has it just about right when he argues for "citizenism" -- that is, American elected officials should tailor our domestic policies, including immigration policy, to benefit current American citizens. After all, we don't expect Mexico, or El Salvador, or Guatemala or even Canada to arrange their policies to benefit us, do we? Their elected officials are elected by their citizens to benefit that political community. Like it or not, until we put in place a world government, the nation-state is the fundamental political unit.

So the short answer to her question is no, the welfare of foreigners who might become immigrants doesn't count. I would arrange immigration policy to benefit current American citizens.

So what would that entail? I am perfectly willing to be convinced that the raw amount of immigration should go down, should stay the same, or even be increased. I'm not wedded to any particular one of these suggestions, but here's a rough cut.

To begin with, most illegal immigrants are unskilled, and, on average, are going to end up being tax-eaters rather than tax-payers. Dramatically reducing illegal immigration has to be top priority. Obvious first step: use physical barriers to seal the border with Mexico. Authorize Border Patrol Agents to use force, including deadly force, against illegal immigrants. It's clear we cannot deport ten or twelve million illegals in one go, but we can streamline the hearing process and hire more immigration judges.

After that, there's a lot we can do to make self-deportation a more desirable choice. Make it a felony to knowingly provide any material assistance to any illegal immigrant -- and by "any material assistance" I mean so much as a glass of water. Certainly setting up a place for day laborers to hang out counts, if you know that lots of them are illegals. Require states and municipalities which receive federal money to cooperate fully with federal immigration authorities. Bar illegal immigrants from receiving any government assistance of any sort.

Once that's done, it's fairly easy to reform the system of legal immigration. To begin with, get rid of chain migration by scaling back family reunification. Limit it to minor children and spouses, not parents, adult children, cousins, nephews, aunts, or uncles. Then select immigrants based on whether they are likely to be tax-payers rather than tax-eaters. As a first approximation, we should look for English fluency, and either scientific or technical skills or demonstrated business acumen. Smart students we let in, even if they are likely to remain in the United States after graduation. Particularly if they are likely to remain in the United States after graduation.

Finally, the United States should actively encourage "brain drain." Not only should we allow the smartest, the most innovative, the most productive people in the world in, but the United States should target, say, ten thousand people a year for active recruitment. We are not competing for land or resources these days, but we are competing for the ultimate resource: brains and talent. So the United States should design its immigration policy with that goal in mind.

More on "Senator Widestance"

Clayton Cramer -- who was kind enough to leave a comment -- links to this Idaho Statesman article regarding Senator Craig's past sexual activities. I think that Clayton may overstate quite how damning it really is, but it does undermine my own tentative theory that innocence was at least a possibility. It seems fairly clear that rumors have swirled around him for some time. If you buy the if-there-is-smoke-there-is-fire theory, it is at least suggestive. And there is at least one plausible, though anonymous report of somebody who claim to have had a sexual liason with him in the bathroom at Union Station, near the Capital. Ick! Cramer also linked to (see update four) this report claiming that this particular bathroom is a well known place of assignation for people seeking anonymous gay sex.

Fine, he's probably guilty. But that wasn't the main point of my prior post. Just to be succinct: my main point was that, if you assume the Roll Call summary of the police report was reasonably complete and accurate, I have a problem with basing an arrest for a sex crime on what's in there, standing alone. I am not going to argue that he's innocent, and I don't actually care that much. I just think there's a larger and more important issue that people are missing, because it's so much fun to stomp on a Senator.

Remind Me To Sit Very Still In Public Bathrooms

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Senator Larry Craig, Republican from Idaho, pled guilty to disorderly conduct after being arrested in an airport bathroom. It's probably a lost cause, but I have to say that, were it not for the guilty plea, the police report alone -- at least as excerpted in Roll Call -- would leave me with quite a few questions.

According to Roll Call, there had been numerous complaints that a particular men's public restroom was being used by gay men as a place of assignation. They dispatched Sergeant Dave Karsnia, in plainclothes, to investigate. Sergeant Joe Friday never had bathroom duty, but I guess Karsnia isn't so lucky in his assignments:

Karsnia entered the bathroom at noon that day and about 13 minutes after taking a seat in a stall, he stated he could see “an older white male with grey hair standing outside my stall.”

The man, who lingered in front of the stall for two minutes, was later identified as Craig.

“I could see Craig look through the crack in the door from his position. Craig would look down at his hands, ‘fidget’ with his fingers, and then look through the crack into my stall again. Craig would repeat this cycle for about two minutes,” the report states.

All right, having some old dude (or any dude) peering through the crack in a bathroom stall door is pretty creepy. However, the report leaves out some key facts: how many stalls were there, and were those other stalls occupied? Peering in the crack is intrusive, but if Karsnia was taking a stall for thirteen minutes and the other stalls were occupied, Craig might well have been "fidgeting" because he really had to go. Thirteen minutes is a long time to be in the bathroom, and maybe Craig was looking for a sign of imminent departure. Creepy, yes. Intrusive, yes. Worthy of a punch in the snoot, even. But not dispositive evidence that he wanted bathroom sex.

Once Craig got, uh, seated in the stall next to Sergeant Karsnia, he did something really incriminating:

Craig then entered the stall next to Karsnia’s and placed his roller bag against the front of the stall door.

“My experience has shown that individuals engaging in lewd conduct use their bags to block the view from the front of their stall,” Karsnia stated in his report.

Um, where the hell was he supposed to put his bag? You can't leave it outside, because it will be stolen. Or, even worse, mistaken for a bomb -- and if that happens, they'll probably arrest you on some spurious charge and try to make you pay the cost of calling out the bomb squad. Unless you are in a handicapped stall, there's usually not a lot of room for a bag. In front of you, against the stall door, is typically the only place to put it.

This is the equivalent of one of those drug profiles where they claim probable cause because somebody is in a hurry in an airport. Of course he put his bag in front of him. What's he supposed to do, hold it above his head?

After cleverly placing his bag in front of the stall door, he tapped his foot. Huh? Yes, he tapped his foot:

“At 1216 hours, Craig tapped his right foot. I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct. Craig tapped his toes several times and moves his foot closer to my foot. I moved my foot up and down slowly. While this was occurring, the male in the stall to my right was still present. I could hear several unknown persons in the restroom that appeared to use the restroom for its intended use. The presence of others did not seem to deter Craig as he moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area,” the report states.

I hate to sound naive, but I had absolutely no idea, prior to this incident, that tapping one's foot in a bathroom was a sign that one wished to engage in lewd conduct. Nor is it particularly suspicious. A guy tapping his foot in the bathroom might be listening to music on his iPod. Or he might be having a particularly uncomfortable or difficult bowel movement. As Mathew Yglesias observed, "surely tapping one's foot isn't a crime in Minnesota."

Following his foot-tapping, Craig made a hand gesture of some sort:

Craig then proceeded to swipe his hand under the stall divider several times, and Karsnia noted in his report that “I could ... see Craig had a gold ring on his ring finger as his hand was on my side of the stall divider.”

Typically, when I use the restroom in a sit-down fashion, I rest my forearms on my legs. However, I haven't asked other guys what they do with their arms, and it's possible some guys let their arms hang as they take a dump. If so, and if Craig has long arms, or if the toilet is one of those low-slung toilets, well his hands might well be visible under the divider.

After this series of events, the officer identified himself and ordered Craig to leave, which he did, apparently without flushing the toilet. Notably, however, there is no indication that Sergeant Karsnia checked the toilet for fecal matter prior to leaving.

I am not saying the guy is innocent. Maybe he really was cruising for lewd conduct in the bathroom of the Minneapolis Airport. Granted, the peering and the hand gestures are suspicious -- the foot-tapping less so. Nonetheless, everything he did really is susceptible to innocent explanation. None of it unequivocally indicate that he was asking for or offering sex. Couldn't the cops have stationed Sergeant Karsnia in the bathroom and waited until two guys are unambiguously going at it and then made an arrest? Do they have to plant an officer and do a sting operation?

Now, I am less inclined to sympathy in part because he did plead guilty to disorderly conduct rather than fight the charges. Clayton Cramer captured my first reaction when he said: "Craig claims it was a misunderstanding. If so, he should have vigorously challenged the charge--not pleaded guilty." Fair point. And it was politically stupid because he had to know it would come out, and that when it did a guilty plea would look really bad.

But it's possible he was, you know, scared. Imagine going to a public bathroom, doing nothing particularly incriminating, and then being arrested and charged with a sex crime. I don't know if a conviction for "lewd conduct" would require one to register as a sex offender, or what the possible penalty would be, but if it does require registration, well, there is a pretty powerful reason to plead guilty to a lesser offense.

I like to think that if I were arrested for pinching a loaf, I would fight the charges. But when you have a charge like that and an authoritative police officer testifying that tapping one's foot is a well-understood gay signal for anonymous blowjob action, it really is an uphill climb. And it's one of those cases where the accusation itself can bring out a "you pervert" reaction which makes a fair trial difficult. Given an opportunity to plead guilty to something innocuous, pay a fine, and get the hell out, I might very well take that option. And it might very well be a smart option.

Now, for a United States Senator, it's probably not the smart option. His only politically-viable option was to stand up, loudly proclaim his innocence, and fight like hell. He also had to accept that, pretty much no matter what happened, a lot of people were going to believe that he was trolling for gay sex in the bathroom. But I can see how he might be innocent, and maybe he took the plea out of fear, and I feel a certain sympathy for him.

Sure it's fun to pile on Senator Larry Craig. But I do think that there are some larger issues involved here, and I think it is troublesome for somebody -- anybody -- to be arrested on such ambiguous evidence and charged with a sex crime.

Friday, August 24, 2007

More Libertarian "Edge" Cases

In response to my post on animal rights, commenter Jeff asks a good question:

I do have a question regarding marginal cases. Do all 'innocent' humans have a right to life? For instance, why would a severely mentally retarded person (with mental capabilities similar to a dog), have a right to life, and the dog not?

Good question, Jeff. Any other questions?

Note that we are talking about somebody who is super-retarded. Not somebody who will learn to talk and read a little bit and maybe get a job cleaning up at McDonald's or bagging groceries. But somebody who doesn't have the cognitive capacity to speak, to understand more than a few words, to tell time, or probably even dress himself.

In principle, I think that Society Girl has a valid point when she says that "The libertarian principles that I have read on this blog and elsewhere, taken to there ultimate conclusion, should lead Cheerful to say the answer is 'a severely mentally retarded person has less rights.'"

Well, of course such a person has "less rights." An individual so limited is never going to learn to drive or live independently. Left to his own devices, like a normal adult, he will die in the streets. The question is whether he has more rights than a dog or other animal of equivalent mental capacity. As a first approximation, I think that Society Girl has a point. My conception of rights is based on mental capacity, and a severely retarded person with the mental capacity of a dog should, you could argue, have the same rights as the animal.

But libertarianism -- my version, at least -- is also a political theory, a theory about the rules necessary to govern the state. I would argue that all members of the species homo sapiens should have the right not to be killed, even if, in individual cases, they fall below the threshold of sapience. The reason I argue that is that I don't trust government officials to accurately make a determination that somebody really only has the mental capacity of a dog. In general I think we should err on giving more rights to the mentally retarded, because I don't trust the government to make accurate determinations in individual cases.

I will add that I think that if we ever manage to genetically engineer more intelligent chimps or gorillas, as in David Brin's "Uplift" novels, I do think they should have the same rights as humans. Likewise aliens of equivalent intelligence, or sapient artificial life forms.

Let me also respond to anonymous commenter who seems shocked by the whole discussion:

Yipes! If Libertarians have not worked out for themselves why (or whether) we ought not to torture animals for pleasure or profit it seems that some remedial homework is in order.

Well, I have worked it out for myself -- personally I refrain from torturing animals for pleasure or profit. Largely because it doesn't bring me any pleasure, and I have yet to come up with a way to make it pay. I suspect that very few libertarians actually favor animal torture. The question is whether the power of the state ought to be used to prevent it, and I honestly think that is a hard question.

Mother Teresa's Sadomasochistic Theology

I read this Time Magazine article about a collection of Mother Teresa's letters just now released, and I seriously considered projectile vomiting -- but I refrained, because I didn't want to mess up my Apple Cinema Display. It is often claimed that one "proof" of the existence of God is that believers have subjective spiritual experiences which confirm -- to them -- that God exists. Of course, such experiences prove nothing, other than the fact that the person having them is prone to delusion or wishful thinking.

Yet, it would seem that Mother Teresa had no such experiences for most of her life. As Time delicately puts it "for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever." She lived, we are told, "in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain." One of the alleged advantages of religion, we are told, is that it provides solace and comfort -- yet for Mother Teresa, it apparently provided none of that.

Meanwhile, even as she felt this spiritual desolation, she kept of this cheery, peaceful demeanor, pretending she had all the answers, when in fact she had none. She was lying for nearly her whole life:

In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"

No shit. I always assumed she was sincere, but it now turns out she didn't even believe the crap she was spewing. And of course Time dances around that fact.

There has always been a healthy dose of sadomasochism in the whole Catholic thing, particularly the fixation on Christ's torture and torment -- the whole Passion thing. Which is why Mel Gibson's The Passion has been referred to as a "gay S&M snuff flick." And don't get me started on self-flagellation or the torture devices developed for the Inquisition.

So it's not surprising that her spiritual suffering is twisted around in some weird sadomasochistic tangle and used as a theological selling point:

For all that she had expected and even craved to share in Christ's Passion, she had not anticipated that she might recapitulate the particular moment on the Cross when he asks, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The idea that rather than a nihilistic vacuum, his felt absence might be the ordeal she had prayed for, that her perseverance in its face might echo his faith unto death on the Cross, that it might indeed be a grace, enhancing the efficacy of her calling, made sense of her pain. Neuner would later write, "It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus' passion." And she thanked Neuner profusely: "I can't express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in ... years — I have come to love the darkness. "

Words fail. She didn't feel the presences of God or Jesus, and this made her miserable. But it turns out this is God's blessing after all! What a twisted bit of logic, that.

If she was into the whole suffering thing, great. Whip it. Whip it good. But what makes her sadomasochistic theology so pernicious -- as Christopher Hitchens has noted -- is that she embraced suffering in other people. She thought that the suffering of the poor was very beautiful, and that the world is somehow aided by that misery. And. even worse, she didn't use pain medications in her hospice -- to do so would be to deprive the dying of a chance to suffer, and get closer to God! You know, her own spiritual torment was her own business. But she didn't stop at that -- she had to inflict pain on other people. And her hypocrisy knew no bounds, because when she got sick, Mother Teresa checked into first-rate hospitals. None of this dying-on-a-cot-with-no-painkiller stuff for Mother Teresa.

UPDATE: Ann Althouse has an interesting post on this story, with some links. Quite a few people seem to have picked up on the fact that she refrained from giving painkillers to people at her hospice. I wonder if this inconvenient fact will seep out into the general world?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Libertarianism and Animal Rights

Perhaps inspired by current events, Jim Henley has issued a challenge to libertarians: come up with a theory regarding of animal-cruelty laws. A distinctively libertarian theory, I might add.

"Bob," commenting over at Megan McArdle's new home, lays down a libertarian marker:

No matter how awful the things he did to his dogs might have been, the fact remains that they were HIS DOGS. Why should Vick lose 18 to 36 months of freedom because he mistreated that specific class of property, when the law would not punish him at all for mistreatment (or destruction) of other items of his property?

In other words, Bob (and his fellow libertarian purists) would argue that, while killing dogs might be disgusting and cruel and barbaric and even immoral, well, if they're your dogs, the state can't use its coercive power to prevent you from so doing. Julian Sanchez initially takes such a line as well, at least tentatively, but then takes it back, saying he needs to think about it some more.

Now, I can think of arguments in favor of laws against torturing puppies. Certainly if I came upon somebody torturing a puppy, I would be prepared to use force to stop such torture, at least if I could do so without exposing myself to undue danger. So if I feel justified in using coercive force on my own, well, the state can do it? Right?

One could argue, for example, that knowing that animals are being tortured by somebody else creates a sort of moral externality. That is, the knowledge creates disutility in those of us who have to watch such cruelty, or even know of its existence. Or you could argue that engaging in cruelty to animals cultivates certain cruel instincts and behaviors, and makes people more likely to engage in violence toward persons. (All those serial killer TV shows claim that torturing animals leads to being a serial killer, after all.)

The problems is that libertarians decisively reject such arguments in other contexts. For example, somebody might feel great distress in knowing that others are viewing pornography, or engaging in homosexual behavior, or even eating ice cream cones. But libertarians are pretty insistent that A's distress at B's private conduct doesn't count as grounds for state intervention, so long as B doesn't interfere with anybody else's rights. (And "anybody else's rights" are defined as the right not to be assaulted or have one's property taken or damaged, not the right not to be offended by gay sex.) Likewise, libertarians tend to be skeptical of the claim that something might lead you to do bad or illegal things justifies government intervention. Even if pornography (involving consenting adults, etc.) does increase the risk that one will engage rape, most libertarians would say it ought not be illegal.

To many libertarians, political theory is like geometry: there are certain first principles -- "the non-initiation-of-force" principle, for example -- and from those first principles all else follows. You can see that sort of structure in Bob's argument: animals are property. Property-owners can do what they want with their property. Q.E.D

I have to admit that, in my younger days, I found this sort of knife-edged categorical reasoning quite attractive. (Don't tell anybody, but I even went through an objectivist phase, although I am now fully recovered, and anybody who says differently is a mooching mystic.) In general, libertarianism doesn't tend to do well with intermediate cases: animals, children, the mentally retarded or insane. For example, suppose a mentally retarded or insane person won't refrain from wandering out into busy streets. Should the state coerce him in some way, or should it just let him be run over? Or what about children? Should twelve-year-olds be allowed to leave home? Enter into binding contracts? Consent to sex? And if they can't, well, are they their parents' property?

Megan argues for a non-binary conception of rights:

As with abortion, there's no inherently libertarian answer to that question. But Julian and some of Jim's commenters seem to be taking a fairly hard line: rights are binary (you have them or you don't); and animals, which don't have agency, cannot have rights.

I'd say that there are different classes of rights-holders; babies are persons, but they can't vote, and they do have the right to be supported by the state. (Of course, some libertarians would disagree with that latter, but I'm pretty firm that they do.) So it seems plausible to me that animals could have limited rights--a right not to suffer for our pleasure, say--even though none of them will ever master the lute.

I find myself being drawn to this sort of intermediate position for all the cases that I have mentioned: children, insane people, retarded people, animals, etc. The problem, from a libertarian perspective, is that it seems to lead to a lot of ad hoc judgments. and part of the whole fun of libertarianism is that you avoid judgments and instead have a clear rule for every case. Once you say "there are different classes of rights," you invite people to come along and say "well, what about this?"

And with animals you have the whole "give 'em an inch they will take a mile" problem with animal rightsers. They want meat-eating to be banned, and any concession will just fuel the demand for more concession. Consider commenter "Gordon Lightfoot, who sanctimoniously tells Megan that: "Until you stop eating animals and pretending to yourself that it's okay because they lived happy productive animal lives all the way up to the moment they were slaughtered to fill your belly, any argument you make on behalf of the animals that you feast upon will ring hollow." Michael Vick is an unappealing character, but I rather prefer him to Gordon.

I won't claim to have a libertarian "theory" to justify my somewhat-conflicted intuitions I suppose if I were feeling clever I could gin one up, but most "theories" like this are just elaborate rationalizations for one's intuitions anyway.

I think Megan has it mostly right, and maybe it's just a semantic difference, but I would put it somewhat differently than she does: instead of thinking of different classes of rights, I would argue for a sliding scale. The closer a being is to a fully-sapient human with all its faculties, the more rights it should have. A lobster, for example, is clearly alive but has almost no nervous system -- it's basically a big sea-living insect. So I don't have a problem with steaming it alive or plunging it into a pot of boiling water. Comparatively more intelligent creatures, like pigs and dogs, deserve more consideration, and I think that banning certain types of animal husbandry practices or dogfighting could be justified under this framework.

In the case of animals closer to us -- chimps and gorillas, for example, I think there might be an even stronger claim for rights, including perhaps a right not to be eaten, or even kept in zoos. Retarded and insane people are people too, and so have the right (for example) not to be beaten or raped or killed, but maybe some limited coercion is justified. Likewise children -- I would argue that children can be coerced in some moderate ways, but not abused or neglected. And I'm fine with having an arbitrary cutoff age at which children become adults --18 is fine. But I also think that a procedure for "emancipation" is a pretty good idea.

I don't know if that will satsify the terms of Jim's challenge, but at least it's first whack at it.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the comment by Grumpy Realist, who suggests a rather interesting argument in favor of treating the animals well: "If we ever do run into aliens, our fittness to join the greater galaxy out there may be judged by what we have done to those weaker than us and in our power."

I know I mark myself as a geek, but this rather reminded me of the (new) Twilight Zone episode "A Small Talent For War." In it, an emissary from an alien race (which planted life on Earth) shows up at the UN and announces that we are set for destruction because of humanity's "small talent for war." He gives the Earthlings one day to fix the problem. Well, the diplomats scramble, and, highly-motivated, every single geopolitical issue on Earth is resolved. When the Alien returns, he's told that, for the first time, all the Earth is at peace. The Alien Emissary gets a good laugh at that -- it seems when he said we had a "small talent for war," he meant we weren't warlike enough, and deep down we really want peace. The aliens were breeding us to be warriors to fight for them, you see, and we just didn't make the grade. So Grumpy Realist, maybe the aliens will refuse to let us in to the Galactic Federation because we don't have enough dogfights, and we are too nice to our food animals.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Post In Which I Agree With Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman has a long post in which he discusses his own religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. I don't want to put words in Professor Kleiman's mouth, but he seems to be a "be-nice-to-the-believers" unbeliever, as opposed to P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are "stomp-on-'em-with-both-feet" unbelievers.

Intellectually, I suppose Kleiman is right, although my natural inclination is toward the Dawkins/Myers approach. In any case, in discussing his own religious evolution, Kleiman said something that really struck me:

At the seder after my bar mitzvah, my father made what I thought (and still mostly think) was an unanswerable argument in debating Jewish practice with his synagogue-going uncle: "Yossel, are you really telling me that Whatever created the galaxies and the omega-minus particle cares whether or not I eat pork?"

This is a variant on the reason I never found religion particularly plausible. I could never wrap my head around the idea that "Whatever created the galaxies and the omega-minus particle" could possibly care about whether I (or anybody else) worships him. It. Whatever.

I mean, if you posit a Great Architect who built this whole universe, one thing we can know about that being is that it thinks big. No tiny little pocket universe -- we get a universe that is big and vast and wondrous. All this obsessive concern about being worshiped strikes me as being, well, petty. I'll tell you this -- if I could create a whole big universe, I wouldn't get all upset if my creations worshiped a golden calf. Truth be told, I'd probably think it was funny.

Male Genital Mutilation For AIDS Prevention

Via Instapundit, I commend this article: the $15 billion anti-AIDS program will be spending money to make circumcision available to African men to protect themselves against AIDS. Please, please, please -- nobody tell Andrew Sullivan. Just don't.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Supposed "Hack Gap"

Mathew Yglesias is an A-list lefty blogger for good reason. He's smart. He writes clearly. Perhaps most importantly, while he is definitely a partisan of the left and the Democratic Party, he's not totally immune to rational argument from people with whom he disagrees. And he pretty much sticks to civil discourse, disagreeing with people but not insulting them. So there's a lot to like about Yglesias.

Nonetheless, he does share some of the faults of his comrades on the left side of the opinion-sphere, the most notable of which is a pronounced tendency toward self-congratulation. In my experience, folks on the left have a decided propensity to view themselves as being smarter, more noble, and more virtuous than their opponents.

This propensity toward self-congratulation is why many liberals fell so hard for the chart purporting to show that states which went for Kerry had a higher average IQ than those that went for Bush -- which of course turned out to be a hoax. Likewise, it's why former New York Times editor Howell Raines insisted that John Kerry must have a higher IQ than Bush, and that his standardized test scores and grades would leave Bush's in the dust. And yet, when blogger Steve Sailer dug into the matter, he found that Kerry and Bush had scored about the same on tests they took when joining the military -- with Bush having a very slight lead. It later turned out that their grades at Yale were nearly identical, again with Bush having a very slight lead.

This characteristic is on full display in this post, where he discusses the Mark Klieman post which I referenced earlier this week. To recapitulate: an idiot columnist named Stu "We Need Another 9/11" Byofsky wrote a column arguing that, well, we need another 9/11. Mark Kleiman wondered aloud why no A-List right blogger had bothered to denounce this justifiably-obscure columnist. Along the way, he used this as an opportunity cast aspersions on "our wingnut opponents."

Yglesias takes this theme and runs with it. You see, according to Yglesias, Kleiman has observed a real problem: the supposed "hack gap." The right (according to Yglesias) has "an army of people" willing to pretend that something like John Edwards' haircut "is the most important thing in the world." As opposed to the left, which, by implication, is unarmed in the hack-war. Which means that the right can create "pseudo-issues" that decide elections, while the left is stuck earnestly advancing good policy arguments.

I don't know how you would measure which side has more "hacks," but I think it's fair to note that the folks on the left certainly manage to gin up their share of absurd, stupid, trivial, exaggerated, or distorted stories. Remember the 2004 debates, when a bunch of lefty bloggers claimed, based on a wrinkle in Bush's suit, that he was "wired" to receive radio transmissions -- presumably from Karl Rove. One wonders why he didn't do a better job in the debate if he was being coached.

Or what about the whole "plastic turkey" controversy? Remember? Bush flew to Iraq and had Thanksgiving with the troops. At one point, he held up a turkey for all to see. But soon epople were saying it was a FAKE turkey, made of PLASTIC. The actual Washington Post report indicates it was a "display turkey" made of turkey, not plastic. What I get from reading the report is that it's not practical to serve three hundred troops a "family style" Thanksgiving dinner, so they serve real turkey from steam trays but prepare a decorative turkey for people to admire. Bush picked it up and smiled for the cameras. He probably didn't even know at the time that the turkey was for display. But even if he did, so what? The soldiers ate a turkey dinner. Why does it matter if they ate that particular turkey? (See more here if you care.)

Or consider CBS News and the "fake but accurate" documents. Think about it: a major television network -- supposedly staffed with serious journalists -- put obviously-forged documents on the air with the likely purpose of swinging a presidential election. And the truth is that, in the pre-internet era, they would have gotten away with it, because none of their fellow journalists would have been inclined to check.

Ironically, as Al, one of Yglesias' commenters, noted, Mark Kleiman -- you know, the guy who referred to "our wingnut opponents" and whose comments sparked Yglesias' meditation on the "hack gap -- had himself posted just the day before on whether Rudy Guiliani had used the Emergency Command Post at World Trade Center 7 as his "love shack." As Al succinctly put it: "Hack gap closed, Matthew!"

I honestly don't know whether the "left wing noise machine" is more powerful than the "right wing noise machine," or whether there are more hacks on the left or the right. Nor do I have any idea how, in principle, such a determination could be made. Both sides seem to believe that there is a "hack gap," but in precisely the opposite direction. Conservatives rail against left wing media bias, and folks like Matthew worry about the "hack gap" and "right wing noise machine."

I think that there are three reasons for that.

First, we all have a view of the world, and, no matter how hard we might try to be objective, that view is going to color how we evaluate factual claims. Somebody who already opposed John Kerry would be more likely to credit claims that he had fudged on his war record, while his supporters would be more skeptical. If I read an article about a government program which supposedly works, I am likely to be skeptical, while somebody who thinks government is great, like Mark Kleiman or Mathew Yglesias, is more likely to accept it at face value.

Second, our perspective can affect our judgment about whether something constitutes a real issue or a pseudo issue. Somebody who believes that President Bush was illegitimately elected and that the war in Iraq is illegal is more likely to be concered about Bush's National Guard record than a war supporter. Likewise, a skeptic of John Edwards' populist message is more likely to believe that his spending a lot on a haircut or a lavish house reveals a telling hypocrisy.

Finally, it is not unusual to exaggerate the importance of particularly egregious bombthrowers on the other side. Lefties love to rail on about Ann Coulter, for example. She says some pretty outrageous things, but she's not a conservative elected official like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, or even Newt Gingrich; she's not a legal scholar like Richard Epstein or Justice Scalia, and she is not a conservative intellectual like William F. Buckley. Sure, she sells a lot of books and gets on TV a lot, but she is actually not particularly important to the conservative movement as a whole. Yet many on the left want to make her an important figure, largely because she is so outrageous. Or consider Kleiman's demand that A-list conservative bloggers condemn Stu "We Need Another 9/11" Byofsky. Maybe they didn't bother to condemn him because, like me, they had never even heard of him before.

Our friends on the left seem to become fixated on the least reasonable conservatives and to see them as representative. And of course people on the right sometimes do the same -- acting as if mainstream Democrats are all members of ANSWER, or demanding that everybody vaguely to the left of Hillary Clinton condemn obscure college professors.

The truth is that there are hacks on all sides, people who make bad arguments from time to time, who are careless with the facts, who lose criticial detachment. And such people span the political spectrum.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bleg: Can Somebody More Technically Astute Than Me Answer a Question?

In my last post, I responded to a post by Mark Kleiman on his blog. When I go to his main page and scroll down to that post and click the tab for "other blogs commenting on this post," my response doesn't show up. Can somebody explain why that is, and how I can fix it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Color Me Outraged! (If That Makes You Happy)

A few days ago, a columnist named Stu Byofsky wrote an inane column arguing -- I kid you not -- that the United States needs another terrorist attack. Why, because it would supposedly help us achieve national unity. Really, he says that. Here's a quote if you don't believe me:

America's fabric is pulling apart like a cheap sweater.

What would sew us back together?

Another 9/11 attack.

The Golden Gate Bridge. Mount Rushmore. Chicago's Wrigley Field. The Philadelphia subway system. The U.S. is a target-rich environment for al Qaeda.

Is there any doubt they are planning to hit us again?

If it is to be, then let it be. It will take another attack on the homeland to quell the chattering of chipmunks and to restore America's righteous rage and singular purpose to prevail.

I saw a link to it -- I forget where, or I would post it -- and I thought "wow, that's pretty stupid." In addition to being utterly immoral and batshit insane, of course. I didn't blog on it at the time, because, well, there's a universe of dumb statements out there and I lack time to blog on all of them. I suspect that many bloggers had a similar reaction. "Dumb, but not worth my time."

This doesn't sit well with Mark Kleiman, who laments the fact that "a Technorati search finds no A-list Red blogger who denounces Byofsky, and a Google search does no better." Well, I don't know if I count as a red blogger -- my politics lean libertarian, and I have been a critic of President Bush in the past. And I know I'm not an A-lister. I'd call myself a D-list blogger if I weren't worried about a cease-and-desist letter from Kathy Griffin's lawyers. Come to think of it, a cease-and-desist letter might very well raise my status. That's the ticket -- I'm a D-List blogger.

Anyhow, I am quite certain that it won't satisfy Professor Kleiman, but here goes: I am outraged by Byofsky's comments, and I denounce him in the strongest possible terms. I think his column is dumb beyond belief, at every possible level.

To begin with, he is wrong to think that another attack would generate national unity. In the case of 9/11, most people believed it was unreasonable to blame Bush, as he had not been in office very long. Now, by contrast, he's been in office for over six years, and he has certainly made the War On Terror his defining issue. People would argue -- correctly -- that his failure to protect us from a major attack was a failure of his strategy in the War On Terror.

Nor is it clear to me that "unity" as such is a desirable goal. Byofsky seems to think that unity necessarily leads to people marching off together to do something worthwhile, but it's my sense that I don't want to be led by the sort of people who demand "unity." Calls for unity often precede atrocities. Not to mention the fact that panicked politicians often do things that are both stupid and counterproductive. Sarbannes-Oxley, for example. I see no reason at all to believe that, if we were attacked again, George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi would get together and do something smart.

Finally, even if Byofsky were right that an attack wold create unity and right that this unity would result in constructive action, well, I don't want thousands or hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans to be murdered. Call me a sentimentalist if you like, but I do think that murder and death are Bad Things. Whatever intangible or morale benefits a major attack might possibly produce, it's not worth it. Not by a long shot.

I think his column was utterly outrageous. It defiled the memory of those who were killed on 9/11. Moreover, the column was a transparent play for attention -- which he has gotten. As somebody who sometimes says outrageous things to stir the pot, believe me, I know it when I see it.

I promise that -- assuming I remember the guy --- if in the future I refer to a column by Byofsky (try to say that ten times fast), I will refer to him as Stu "We Need Another 9/11" Byofsky. And if I fail to remember, well, my ever-growing cadre of loyal readers can correct my error, and I will sheepishly add an update in which I append the moniker.

Professor Kleiman, I may disagree with you on many things, but I stand united in outrage against Byofsky's idiotic column. So, will you link to me now and maybe help me make the C-List?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hey Pope! Pay Up!

Guest-blogging over at Sully's, Stephen Bainbridge links to this Right Coast post, fretting about the sexual-abuse litigation against the San Diego Archdiocese for its role in sheltering pedophile priests. It seems that the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, and the federal bankruptcy court is now considering throwing them out of court, because -- surprise, surprise -- the archdiocese misrepresented its financial status to the court. Professor Tom Smith over at the Right Coast thinks that the judge in this case might be biased against the Catholic Church, because she's pro-abortion. Which might well be true, though he fails to provide any evidence that her rulings have been improper.

But Professor Smith's concern goes beyond that. He is worried that the case will prevent the Catholic Church from doing things like providing semi-decent schools for kids in San Diego:

Don't get me wrong; if anybody, priest or otherwise, rapes a child, I think life in prison is too good for such a miscreant. My late father, a judge in Idaho, sent a Catholic priest to the Idaho State Penitentiary for child molestation, from which he was lucky to emerge alive. But if you were a sexual abuse victim, would you really say, I should get $1 million (and my lawyer a third to a half of that) even if it means closing down the school at Our Lady of the Poor and dropping those three hundred kids into schools where they wont learn to read? I'm not sure what the word for that would be, some sort of reckoning perhaps, but justice it ain't.

The way Professor Smith puts it, there is a choice: either give money to the victims of the pedophile priests or shut down genuinely good things like the Catholic schools, which, unlike government schools, do a pretty good job of educating kids.

But this is a false dichotomy. Sure, it's true that each archdiocese is legally organized as a separate entity, but they are all a part of this great big thing we think of as The Catholic Church. Now, I realize that the current Pope is more interested in covering up allegations of sexual impropriety than in taking responsibility for his church's complicity in it, but, how is this for an idea: the Catholic Church could come up with the money to keep the schools going AND pay compensation to the victims of pedophile priests.

If it doesn't have the cash on hand, well, the Church could put a few of its rare manuscripts, tapestries, or paintings up for auction. According to this Wikipedia article, the Vatican Library has been collecting rare manuscripts for centuries, and the collection now includes the Codex Vaticanus, the oldest nearly-complete copy of the Bible known to exist. Likewise, the Vatican Museums -- plural -- appear to have a pretty extensive collection of valuable art, including what appear to be some very lovely tapestries.

I'm pretty sure raising $150 million would be a snap for the Catholic Church. Granted, the rules of how corporations are organized don't require the Catholic Church in Rome to take responsibility for the actions of an archdiocese in America. Legally, they are separate entities. And the Catholic Church has the legal right to take advantage of whatever rules are in place for organzing corporations.

But shouldn't we, maybe, hold the Catholic Church to a higher standard?

Apparently, the answer to that is no.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"blah, blah, blah," Indeed

Insty links to this Ann Althouse takedown of an Ellen Goodman column lamenting male domination of the blogosphere, including -- gasp -- the "progressive" political blogosphere known as the "netroots." I hadn't heard Ellen Goodman's name in years -- I had no idea that she was still alive, much less writing.

Goodman's column is utterly predictable. She starts with the bad puns -- "E-male" is the title of her column. Isn't that so 1996? Can we stop it with the bad puns about this newfangled internet thing already?

In fairness, the bad puns aren't quite so dull as the rest of the article. She claims that most of the top political bloggers appear to be men. And then she's off to the races with the tired, utterly-predictable explanations. It's the "angry voice" which apparently belongs solely to men. (Nobody tell Ann Coulter. Or Rosie O'Donnel, for that matter.) It's harassment. It's because (I kid you not) "men raise their hands first in class."

And it gets better from there: "Blogger Adele Stan suggests white male bloggers have a network of 'funding, linking, quoting, or bookings on political talk shows.'" Oh please -- the whole point of blogging is that you can do it with zero funding in your pajamas. As to the bit about political talk shows, that's so Old Media. Sure, a few bloggers get booked on TV shows, but it's after they've made it. As to "linking" and "quoting," is there any evidence at all that men won't link to women bloggers?

Does anybody other than me emember the Libertarian Girl Hoax? Back in 2005, a new blogger who went by the name "Libertarian Girl" emerged and became a top blogger in a hurry. Men were more than happy to read and link to her, until it was discovered that the Libertarian Girl bore an uncanny resemblance to a Russian Mail Order Bride named Viktoriya. It turned out that Libertarian Girl was a guy, but when "her" blog was kicking butt, the people who read it and linked to it thought it was a woman's blog. Which rather demonstrated that the claim of male domination of the blogosphere was nonsense. As Dean Esmay put it at the time:

There is no boys' club keeping women out of political blogging. How could there be? There are no barriers to entry, and no "glass ceiling" is even possible. Furthermore, any time a woman does enter the fray of political blogs, she is warmly, even eagerly, welcomed.

Particularly if she looks like a Russian Mail Order Bride!

Anyhow, Professor Althouse observes that Goodman "really doesn't have too much to say." Which is correct, and it's why Althouse entitled her riposte "Gender difference in the blogosphere... blah blah blah..." The "blah, blah, blah" because you knew exactly what Goodman was going to say by the time you finished the second sentence. The truth is that I don't think that Goodman ever had much to say, but it's more obvious now, because she's competing with people who do.

So here's my suggestion for Ellen Goodman. You think that the liberals need more female bloggers. (Conservatives have Michelle Malkin and libertarians have Jane Galt.) So why don't you stop bitching and start your own damn blog? And then you can say nothing, at length. Just like the guys!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Maybe Communism Really Is Dead

Guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's, Bruce Bartlett (whose book on Bush I quite enjoyed), links to an appraisal of the economic thinking at the Kos Kids Konvention by his "old college chum" Max Sawicky, leftist economist at the union-funded "Economic Policy Institute:"

What sort of economic policy was flogged at Yearly Kos? I'd like to know. It didn't look promising for what any knowledgable person would call progressive policy.

Speakers included Austan Goolsbee, an eminent, very smart professor at the University of Chicago who advises Obama. I would say AG is not a person of the left, no disrespect intended. They also had Hale Stewart, a.k.a. "Bondad," a Kos front-age regular, who is in financial services. HS is a fine fellow, also not much on the left. Then there was Gene Sperling, former Clinton/Rubin economics apparatchnik. Robert Shapiro, former Clinton DoC appointee and DLC/PPI honcho. Some French dude I never heard of.

I find myself agreeing (again) with Bruce Bartlett here:

Max's point is that these guys may be liberal by conventional political definitions, but they are hardly men of the left. He finds this dispiriting; I find it reassuring.

Since there is about a 94% chance that the next President Of The United States of America will be a Democrat, it is indeed reassuring that he or she won't be advised by a true Person of the Left.

There is a good reason for that. What does it mean to be a "Person of the Left"?

The left had its run from 1850 until about, say, 1991. While there were all sorts of differences among leftists, some of which might even matter to a person not immersed in the intricacies of leftist politics, I think it's fair to say that the political Left had two core elements. The first was a radical critique of capitalism and the market economy. They thought that Capitalism was Evil with a capital E -- it made the poor worse off, led to exploitation and a whole host of other evils. Just to be clear, they didn't think that the market economy had imperfections or a few little problems -- they thought it was rotten to the core.

The second element was that they had something to replace capitalism with. Details varied -- greatly! -- but it was some form of socialism. So the idea was that we should have a full-bore centrally-planned economy or live in communitarian villages, or have some form of left-anarchy. Something different than an economy based on private property and market exchnages. This, we were told, would make us all better off. (Well, except for the kulaks, and they got what they deserved anyway.) And, just to be clear, ridiculous as it now seems, one of the key claims was that socialism would do a better job of delivering the goods than capitalism. When Khruschev and Nixon faced off in the impromptu kitchen debate, Kruschev didn't say "we will be poorer but happier." No, he said they would surpass the United States and wave goodbye.

In 1935, a serious, intelligent, rational, informed, humane individual could believe these things. That's simply not possible today. The market economy delivers the goods. Attempts to replace it with Something Radically Better have uniformly failed. Socialism proved itself to be one of the Worst Ideas Ever, responsible for the death of somewhere between 50 and 150 million people in the 20th Century.

Yes, there are a few holdouts who still believe in the radical critique of capitalism and who yearn to replace it with something radically better -- aging hippies, red-diaper babies who cannot admit their parents were evil, black-clad anarchists depressed from Seattle's cloudy weather, morally retarded British science fiction writers, Women's Studies professors at elite universities, and the like. But they are the intellectual equivalents of those Japanese troops hiding out on isolated islands who don't realize the war is long-lost. No longer able to plausibly argue that socialism will do a better job of producing the goods, today's leftist are stuck arguing things like "you have too many choices in the grocery store and that makes you unhappy." Yeah, that's sure going to be winner among those working classes.

Unlike Aggrieved People's Studies professors, economists have to have some passing contact with reality. It is therefore not particularly surprising that even those who advise Democrats have realized that an economy based upon private property and market exchange is basically a Good Thing.

The does not mean, of course, that all questions have been decided. Reasonable people can still disagree about the size and scope of proper regulations governing the market, the size and scope of any government interventions designed to help those less well-off, and the like. I suspect that all of the advisors for Democratic presidential candidates favor more government regulation than I do. But they aren't "people of the left" in the sense that they seek to throw out capitalism and replace it with Something Better. And, like Bruce Bartlett, I think that's a good thing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Another Reason to Hate George W. Bush

According to this report, there is a serious move afoot by various Pleasure Police -- in this case, the Bush Administration with the support of the odious Center for the Science in the Public Interest -- to require wine bottles to have the standard "Nutrition Information" labels. Here's what such a label would look like -- it provides almost no useful information.

Of course the Pleasure Police want to uglify wine bottles. Drinking wine is an aesthetic experience that engages the senses -- the smell, the taste, the look of the wine. A well-designed bottle is a part of that pleasure. Which is why drinking wine from a box just isn't the same, even if the box can be designed to be a better container than a bottle. Sullying the design of the bottle is the point. The Pleasure Police are at war with physical pleasure in all its forms. The fact is that the standard nutrition label information on a bottle of wine is utterly useless. And this pious talk about how they just want consumers to get information is so much blather, since government bureaucrats do everything they can to prevent wine companies from extolling the now well-known health benefits of regular wine consumption.

Obama Off-the-Record With A-List Bloggers

Young Mathew Yglesias and Brian Beutler brag about their participation in an off-the-record confab with Barack Obama. A few commenters give them a delightfully hard-time about the rather obvious status-mongering subtext -- "I got to talk to Obama and you didn't, nyah, nyah!"

Puncturing the vanity of Young Mathew Yglesias is Always A Good Idea, but I think that the issues go beyond that. This whole off-the-record thing is one area where bloggers might not want to imitate the Mainstream Media. I can see a justification for an off-the-record conversation with a whistleblower -- somebody whose life or livelihood might be endangered if he or she made on-the-record comments. But Barack Obama is a sitting United States Senator and leading presidential candidate. What is the justification for letting him go off the record? Isn't any statement he makes inherently a matter of public concern? All this "off-the-record" and "deep background" crap is one of the Bad Things about the Mainstream Media, and it's something that bloggers ought not thoughtlessly emulate.

Yglesias and Beutler are free to do what they want -- there's no Blogging Council that will disblog them. But I think that the ideals of transparency that differentiate blogging from the MSM are not served by this sort of secret meeting.