Friday, January 31, 2003

According to Calpundit, Oxblog's David Adesnik believes that "throwaway posts are often the most revealing aspect of a blog." Okay, wiseguy--what does this one tell you?

Thursday, January 30, 2003

In the New Republic,'s "countries editor", Robert Lane Greene, argues that Europe's current spate of anti-Americanism is a kind of substitute identity for Europeans who sense that their continent's spirit of unity has failed to develop as hoped. "The further along the Europeans get in their project of integration," he writes, "the more apparent the differences among European countries become, and the more they struggle to decide what a united Europe will actually mean. Increasingly, most Europeans, usually led by France and Germany, can agree only on what they're not, which inevitably brings them to facile denunciations of American policy."

I have no idea whether Greene's thesis is correct, of course, and I'm reflexively disinclined to believe anything that emanates, in any form, from The Economist. But for me, the claim's credibility is bolstered by its unmistakable ring of familiarity. Greene's description of Europe's turmoil bears an uncanny resemblance to Canada's last quarter-century of inane political, cultural and (especially) constitutional wrangling that rivals Dobby the House Elf's similarity to his supposed model, Vladimir Putin.

Consider: "It has a flag, an anthem, and a currency, its own citizenship....And nobody seems to know how it all fits together. A constitutional convention, begun last year to replace the EU's various founding treaties with a single document, is supposed to help sort that out....

"When Schroeder and French president Jacques Chirac attempted to hammer out the contours of the European presidency over dinner in early January....critics quickly complained of a sloppy back-room deal. But if back-room deals between two men are sloppy, the EU's more formal way of resolving these problems is often even worse. After the 2001 Treaty of Nice made the EU's already bewildering institutional framework even more so to prepare the Union for enlargement, Irish voters promptly stunned the rest of the continent by rejecting the treaty in a referendum....

"Europe is as confused on its so-called collective policies as it is about its own design....The goal of a vigorous common foreign policy is hamstrung by miserly defense spending. And domestic economic policy is a mess....It is against this backdrop that Europe's current tense relationship with the United States, typified by its criticism of American policy towards Iraq, must be understood. Sluggish economies, institutional confusion, and distant elites have helped maverick and xenophobic parties (most of which loathe the EU itself) score victories in recent years....To defuse this growing threat without addressing its own malaise, the European political class increasingly changes the question from 'What's wrong with Europe?' to 'What's wrong with America?'"

To my Canadian readers: sounds familiar, eh?

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Andrew Sullivan notes the extent to which domestic American opposition to an attack on Iraq is intertwined with intense, visceral, personal hatred for George W. Bush, and suggests that the fury may be "[p]ayback, in part....for conservative demonization of Clinton." Sullivan clearly misunderstands the phenomenon. Clinton and Bush II, like Reagan and Roosevelt before them, arouse bitter hatred for two reasons: they are iconic leaders of one wing of the political spectrum; and they are spectacularly popular, successful politicians.

Ineffectual failures like Carter and Bush I are disliked by their opponents, of course, but with contemptuous disdain, not bitter, helpless rage. Successes like Clinton and Bush II, on the other hand, are much more disturbing to their opponents, because they represent a challenge to those opponents' cherished beliefs. The latter, after all, would like to think that their ideas are clearly correct and convincing, and that the public are either already on their side or ripe for conversion to it. How can it be, then, that someone stupid enough to adhere to an obviously misguided set of political views can somehow win a solid majority of voters over to those same misguided views?

There are only two possibilities: either a naive public are being ruthlessly deceived by a hateful, scheming master of evil, or else perhaps his ideas aren't so misguided after all. Guess which point of view tends to have more appeal?

Monday, January 27, 2003

....And while I'm in dead-horse-flogging mode, Jack Balkin, whose racial preferences sophistry I just finished dissecting, has now published a New York Times op-ed on Roe v. Wade. (He also expands on these ideas in a blog posting.) After noting the rather obvious fact that Roe has served Republicans well as a rallying point for "pro-life" conservatives, Balkin proceeds to claim that the decision was in fact "good for the country as a whole and for the democratic process" (my emphasis). "By taking certain issues off the table in religious-based controversies," he writes, "the courts enable political parties to organize around bread-and-butter issues like the economy and national defense." Moreover, he asserts, Roe "functions as a lightning rod, drawing political heat away from the democratic process and onto the Supreme Court itself."

Now, a naive reader, unblessed with Balkin's superlative perspicacity, might have failed to notice this supposed "lightning rod" effect. After all, literally dozens of countries have dealt with the abortion issue through the normal democratic process; they range from Ireland, which only very recently lifted an outright ban on the practice, all the way to the very liberal France, which pioneered the widespread use of the "abortion pill" RU-486. And to the best of my knowledge, in only one country in the world has the abortion debate become so acrimonious as to spawn a real, live terrorist movement responsible for multiple murders--and oddly enough, it's also the one country where the the abortion issue was taken "off the table" by judicial fiat. It's a strange lightning rod, indeed, that increases the number of victims of the violent fury it's supposed to divert harmlessly.

But it seems pointless to quibble with this specific case when Balkin's general argument is that by abrogating majority rule and imposing arbitrary diktats regarding major political issues (and he openly concedes that they are political), the Supreme Court can actually make democracy function better. The sheer Orwellian audacity of the claim is just breathtaking. I don't know whether it's more frightening to think of him as merely engaging in lawyerly casuistry, or to contemplate the possibility that his "less is more" approach to democracy is perfectly sincere.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

No sooner do I post what I hope will be my last word on the subject of racial preferences, than a New York Times columnist seizes the moment and publishes a defense of it so reprehensible that it fairly begs to be refuted. Nick Kristof, acknowledging that both he and President Bush benefited from preferences of one kind or another when applying to college, warns that "it would be a mistake to consider preferences for blacks in isolation. How can we evaluate the justice of preferences that favor blacks without considering preferences that benefit whites (legacy), athletes (football players), the wealthy (children of donors), and farm kids from Oregon (me when I applied to colleges)?"

Yes, let us consider them. Awarding undeserved college admission to the children of wealthy donors is obviously a kind of corruption, but at least it's a fairly frank, undisguised form of corruption, and its victims and beneficiaries are thankfully few in number. The college athletics system, on the other hand, is an appalling travesty that cheats and exploits many thousands of "student athletes", a population of disproportionately poor, minority youth who earn billions for their colleges while being prevented by the NCAA cartel from earning so much as one red cent for their (all-consuming, largely education-free, and often health-destroying) labors.

As for the absurd practices of granting "legacy" and "geographic diversity" preferences, there is good reason to believe that both were originally at least partially intended as a form of racial discrimination. They were introduced into Ivy League admissions procedures in the early part of the twentieth century, at a time when immigrant families from Southern and Eastern Europe, mostly living in the urban Northeast, began producing college-bound children in non-negligible numbers. Needless to say, they also both had the effect of favoring corn-fed WASPs over the new immigrant stock. (Other, more explicit policies, such as ceilings on the number of Jews admitted, were instituted around the same time.) Like today's "affirmative action" advocates, the inventors of these policies were simply trying to engineer what they deemed a more suitable racial and ethnic composition for their student bodies. Today, of course, we would excoriate them as ugly racists.

Or would we? Kristof happily swallows the claimed justification for "geographic diversity", as though it was the most natural thing in the world that college admissions officers a century ago would have believed, like Kristof, that "[i]t's good for colleges to have hicks from the sticks." He even has a good word for preferences that explicitly favor wealthy scions like George W. Bush: "The affirmative action succeeded. If he was in part a diversity candidate, so what?" In other words, in his desperate desire to defend "affirmative action", Kristof finds himself defending a representative pillar of the entire edifice of institutionalized racism that "affirmative action" was originally intended to counteract.

Peter Beinart, in The New Republic, has also recently compared racial preferences with other currently popular forms of discrimination, but at least he never denies the immorality of all the practices involved: "Republicans aren't wrong to espouse merit and color-blindness. They're wrong to espouse merit and color-blindness while ignoring the ways in which they violate those principles themselves." It's a fair criticism--witness William F. Buckley's nauseating defense of alumni legacy preferences in the New York Times. But if many conservatives are hypocritical for supporting some of these odious practices while condemning others, what should we say of the many liberals, like Kristof, who enthusiastically embrace all of them?
What does a society that is not ready for democracy look like? Amira Hass, in Ha'aretz, paints a vivid portrait of one. The Palestinians she writes about are all fervently hopeful for a Labor Party victory in the upcoming Israeli elections, because they believe that Labor's leader, Amram Mitzna, will loosen the tight military control that the current Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, has imposed on the occupied territories. This unrealistic hope, writes Hass, "shows, in particular, just how much people need to hold on to their illusions and outside factors, and do not believe that any change can come from within Palestinian society, Palestinian politics or the ways in which the Palestinian Authority is contending with the Israeli occupation." Says a Palestinian journalist quoted by Hass: "The Palestinians know that they have no influence at all on the Palestinian leadership....all they have left is to dream."

To be fair, the creation of a civil polity capable of standing up to the armed thugs that wield power in one's neighborhood is no easy task. On the other hand, recent public opinion polls show strong support for the current leadership, with Arafat, imprisoned Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and Hamas leader Ahmed Yasin garnering, between them, the endorsement of seventy percent of the population. Apparently, the poll respondents felt safe enough to offer a wide variety of choices from amongst a diverse list of (mutually somewhat hostile) leaders, including some relatively democratic ones. Yet they still mostly endorsed the current collection of terrorists, who are immiserating them, and over whom they recognize that they have absolutely no control. While nothing is impossible, it's hard to be optimistic about a democratic renaissance being in the offing for them under those circumstances.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The Bush administration has filed an amicus brief arguing for the unconstitutionality of the University of Michigan's policy of racial preferences in admissions, and Yale law professor Jack Balkin has responded with a long, involved sequence of arguments to the effect that the constitution in fact never mandated governmental colorblindness. He finishes by asking provocatively whether the first President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court--a decision almost certainly influenced by race--was unconstitutional, and if not, why "affirmative action" in university admissions should be considered any less constitutional than "affirmative action" in Supreme Court nominations.

Now, my opinion of "affirmative action" is quite settled: I consider it morally indistinguishable from the myriad forms of racial and ethnic discrimination that preceded it. As I mentioned in a previous posting, I have yet to hear an argument in its defense that wasn't also used in the past to justify more "traditional" forms of discrimination. In fact, supporters of racial preferences themselves often implicitly acknowledge its flagrant injustice, by directly equating it with practices, such as "legacy" preferences (that is, favoring children of alumni when determining college admissions), that they more or less admit are transparently unfair.

Whether racial preferences are constitutional, however, is another question entirely. These days, of course, such questions are matters of religious exegesis that only the initiated can properly delve into, and I will therefore leave the task of theological interpretation to the true believers. A more interesting question, to me, is whether they should be constitutional. That is, should consideration of racial or ethnic criteria in government decisions be an option that a democratically elected government is free to embrace or reject?

Three observations lead me to lean towards the answer, "yes". First of all, "discrimination" is a continuum that includes everything from racial discrimination, at one extreme, to the consideration of perfectly valid criteria (such as competence at certain relevant tasks), at the other. And even in the case of racial discrimination, cases come up (the casting of actors, for instance) where discrimination is arguably legitimate. For forms of discrimination that are more justifiable, the line between "just" and "unjust" becomes murkier and murkier, less and less fundamental, and less and less amenable to purely judicial analysis. For example, the decision as to whether, say, single-sex junior high schools deserve public support is a matter for the societal consensus of the moment--not a single 200-year-old document (and certainly not a panel of nine lawyers who got promoted)--to decide.

Second, as a matter of history, the courts have been spectacularly unsuccessful at preventing discrimination. Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision that endorsed "separate but equal" treatment (i.e., legally enforced racial segregation), was a classic case of the courts pandering to the prejudices of their time; Brown v. Board, in contrast, was a classic case of the courts being ahead of their time--and thus utterly ineffectual: school desegregation in the south had to await federal legislative action before it was enforced, more than a decade later. The more recent Bakke decision, as well, though it ostensibly declared strict racial quotas unconstitutional, hardly prevented racial quotas from being implemented widely, both implicitly and explicitly, at all levels of goverment.

Third, constitutional rulings, even when both justified and enforced, can only take the fight against discrimination so far. It was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, that outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations--and even so shamelessly despotic an institution as the Supreme Court would never dare find in the text of the Constitution an excuse for imposing such a rule upon private commercial concerns. Since the people must thus be relied on for most of the task of combatting discrimination, perhaps it is just as well that they be relied on for all of it.

Hence, while I fervently hope that racial preferences disappear soon, I find that I cannot in good conscience root for the US Supreme Court to declare them unconstitutional. The fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Cassius, lies not with the courts, but with the American people themselves; if they embrace discrimination, then the court is ultimately unlikely to interfere effectively, and if they shun it, then the court's intervention is simply unnecessary.

(As an aside, although I'm not a high-level constitituional cleric like Balkin, I believe his rhetorical question is actually a matter of private, voluntary, individual actions vs. public, mandatory, collective ones, and has nothing to do with racial preferences in particular. For example, suppose that the first President Bush happened to have begun his deliberations on his Supreme Court nomination choice with a fervent prayer to God to grant him the wisdom to make the best selection. Would that make his nomination of Clarence Thomas unconstitutional? And if not, would it then be constitutional for the University of Michigan to require its admissions committee to begin their first meeting each year by joining in a similar collective prayer?)

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Last month I suggested that the path to success for liberals is to consider conservative positions as if they were the widely accepted conventional wisdom, and start figuring out, as outsiders, how to take potshots at the more politically vulnerable ones. Of course, it's difficult to adopt such a posture if you don't actually believe in its premise, and there are certainly good reasons for skepticism. Another one just showed up in the Wall Street Journal: Bob Bartley hailing the advent of a new, Republican "Establishment".

Bartley quotes the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "The Establishment,": "a social group exercising power generally, or within a given field or institution, by virtue of its traditional superiority, and by the use esp. of tacit understandings and often a common mode of speech, and having as a general interest the maintenance of the status quo." In other words, one thing an Establishment doesn't do is write self-congratulatory op-eds celebrating its new ascension to Establishmenthood. Such a tactic is more typical of an insurgent movement celebrating some recent victories, and optimistically hoping for lots more of the same.

That's not to say, of course, that there's a healthily regnant Democratic Establishment, either; witness last year's book by Judis and Teixeira, entitled "The Emerging Democratic Majority". Obviously, an ideology in firm control of the culture doesn't produce heavy tomes pronouncing its own impending victory; it simply assumes its continuing dominance as given.

It's certainly an interesting time for American politics to be in a state of flux. Ideally, a condition of general turmoil--war abroad, economic troubles at home--would be a usefully challenging crucible in which to test various competing political ideas and ideologies, and determine their relative merits. In practice, however, difficult times tend to push societies towards a simple, coherent consensus, so as to minimize conflict. In other words, one of these two predictions is likely to be correct; we just don't know which one yet.
Michelle Cottle, who apparently covers the "men are pigs" beat at The New Republic, is now complaining about the misogyny of "Joe Millionaire". The "reality TV" series presents a bevy of women attempting to win the heart of a fabulously wealthy heir--who is in fact a penniless construction worker set up with a mansion and butler by the show's producers. To Cottle, the scenario "plays to the basest stereotypes about...the shallow, bitchy, gold-digging, back-biting ways of women." (Andrew Sullivan agrees, although he considers the women's gold-digging to be defensible as "self-protection" and "prudence". Then again, he doesn't have to worry about offending a wife or girlfriend.)

Now, I haven't seen the show, nor have I even discussed it with anyone who has--and perhaps that's the point. While I'm not much of a television watcher in general, there are few shows that I would be less interested in watching than this one. And without having studied the Nielsen demographics, I'd be shocked if the gender breakdown of "Joe Millionaire"'s viewership weren't roughly approximated by that of its cast. Reality TV-minded men--if any exist--are surely much more likely to check out "The Bachelorette" for tips on scoring with a hot ex-cheerleader, than to watch a bunch of shallow, bitchy, gold-digging, back-biting women fight over some loser. (Not that catfights can't be entertaining, of course--it's just that they have to be the right kind....)

If I'm right, then Cottle has no business pointing her accusing finger at the network that serves this stuff up, when all it's doing is catering to the millions of women who are flocking to watch it. Besides, the show could have been much crueler; for example, it could have offered the women the chance to date a penniless construction worker, only to reveal him later to be a multimillionaire computer nerd. Now that would have been a nasty deception!

Monday, January 20, 2003

In the Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell complains that nepotism in government is increasing because "public life has been depoliticized" (his emphasis). "It used to be that 'the issues'--as they're nostalgically called--were so important that a familiar-sounding name was insufficient to win a voter's trust," he writes. Now, though, "[p]eople no longer care enough to look beyond a surname."

Of course, he doesn't mention the unexpected flameouts of political scions Andrew Cuomo and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. These two were among the most promising-looking of the current second-generation crop, but they ran ineffective campaigns and failed to win office. For that matter, he also neglected Jean Carnahan, who, even with the advantage of incumbency, could not convert her late husband's memory into a second election victory. What do these three lack that Caldwell's numerous examples--Bush, Clinton, Chafee, Dole, Sununu, Bentsen, Udall--don't?

The obvious answer is "competence". Politics is not becoming "depoliticized", as Caldwell asserts, but rather professionalized, with a host of management and communications skills necessary where a backroom endorsement once sufficed. Party "machines" once looked for respectable frontmen, but modern parties, shorn of their financial and political resources, now look for candidates who know the trade--raising money, hiring and managing a campaign staff, raising more money, handling the media, raising still more money, and occasionally helping formulate policy. As in all professions, family members of superstars in the field get the huge advantage of learning the ropes from within, at the highest level, and can carry that inside knowledge and experience with them when they make their own runs. (They also have the advantage of being inured by familiarity to the absurdities and unpleasantnesses of the political life, and hence of being more likely willing to embark upon it.)

Of course, in the grueling competition of modern politics, even major-league experience can't compensate for innate talentlessness of the kind displayed by the aforementioned political losers. But their failures demonstrate that voters aren't simply voting the name; they expect, first and foremost, professional-level political skill. Why should they care if it happens to have been learned at a family member's knee?

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Eugene Volokh nicely dissects Julian Bond's bizarre characterization of "affirmative action" as the "righteous spoils of a just war". He leaves out perhaps the most disturbing irony of Bond's claim, though. From Locke's Second Treatise of Government (Chapter 4: "Of Slavery"):
Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service; and he does him no injury by it....This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else but the state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive.
I've long argued that every justification for "affirmative action" is merely a recapitulation of some argument used in the past to excuse more "traditional" varieties of discrimination. But the Bond argument's antecedent is, I would say, particularly embarrassing. "Just spoils", indeed!
It's probably just coincidence, but two commentators on economics have almost simultaneously published exasperated critiques of the current state of computer technology. Robert Samuelson's latest column complains that the "Internet century" turned out to be an "Internet nanosecond" that was followed by three years of failing to deliver on the hype-ridden promises thrown around at the peak of the bubble. "The obvious truth about the Internet", he claims, "is that it's not especially important....if the Internet collapsed tomorrow, most Americans would go on with their lives in a way that would not be true if, say, they could no longer drive their cars." Samuelson blames the Internet technology industry for (1) failing to innovate sufficiently quickly and (2) failing to engineer enough reliability into its products.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley's chief economist, Stephen Roach, took a break this week from his usual macro forecasting to launch into an uncharacteristic tirade on the unreliability of computer technology. "For years, we’ve all heard about the Promised Land of the New Economy," he writes, after recounting a litany of personal horror stories about computer and network failures. "A funny thing happened on the road to that revolution. First, the asset bubble popped. And then the technology disappoints."

What's striking about both essays is that they eloquently testify to the falsity of their own main premise. In fact, in the go-go days of the Internet bubble, computer and network technologies were enormously less reliable than they are today. Few noticed at the time, though, because the services they delivered were intriguing novelties, and users were impressed that they worked at all. Today, Samuelson thinks nothing at all of the Internet's everyday uses ("We e-mail. We buy from eBay. We get homework from the Net. We have access to vast stores of information."), and instead gripes about how people "want them to work -- all the time, not 88 percent of the time." Meanwhile, Roach whines about the failure of an overseas videoconferencing link, the unreliability of his laptop's operating system, and the proliferation of the passwords he needs to remember in order to access various resources over the network, as if these technologies have been working conveniently and flawlessly for decades, only to suddenly go awry all at once. In fact, what has happened is that they are now so commonplace that the likes of Roach and Samuelson can feel quite within their rights to get indignant when they fail to work perfectly. That's as clear a demonstration of the technology's spectacular progress as I can imagine.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Tennessee law professor Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, in his new role as professional blogger (I guess he lacks a Nigerian trust fund), has joined Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig in ridiculing lawyers for the Sony corporation. The lawyers had threatened suit, under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), against a programmer who had posted to the Internet a method to "hack into" Sony's Aibo "electronic dog" to make it do a new trick. Both Reynolds and Lessig consider the decision to be commercially nonsensical. "Management should begin to demand a business justification for copyright litigation. How does this legal action advance the bottom line?", advises Lessig. "Will calling our customers criminals increase consumer loyalty?" Reynolds goes further:
Lawyers don’t think enough about business considerations, it’s true. But the people whose job it is to think about business considerations need to do some thinking too. Then they can clue in the lawyers.

What did Sony have to lose here? If the trick worked, it could only result in more pleased Aibo owners, and thus more Aibo sales. If it didn’t work, Sony wasn’t going to get the blame. And, who knows, Sony’s engineers might have learned something from the trick, too.
Now, I grant that no population in the world is more renowned for their legendary marketing savvy than law professors. (That's why the law profession's "brand" is so universally beloved, after all.) But even a techie like myself, reading excerpts from Sony's letter to the Aibo hackers, can see why Sony's business people--not just their lawyers--might find publication of the hack worrisome:

  • The letter claims that the hack reveals Aibo software that had been encrypted. There may be trade secrets inside that code that Sony had wanted to preserve.

  • The letter also claims that the hack involved circumventing the content protection mechanism in Sony's Memory Stick technology. The same circumvention could presumably also be used on Memory Sticks used for other purposes--such as to protect digital entertainment content. Putting aside the whole issue of the effectiveness and advisability of copy-protection technology, it's easy to see why Sony management would view the breaking of their own version of it as a major danger to their company's commersial interests.

  • Even taken as a hack of the Aibo tout court, it could easily be used to get the Aibo to do much more embarrassing things than mere dancing. And for a toy to come to be associated with the wrong "uses" can obviously be a marketing disaster. (Sony did eventually provide alternate means to write customizing software for the Aibo, but that only demonstrates that they found the threat of illegal hacks more frightening than the threat of brand-damaging customizations--not that they were necessarily thrilled about the latter.)

  • Of course, Reynolds and Lessig, both longtime opponents of the DMCA, didn't really oppose Sony's lawsuit because they stay up at night worrying about the interests of Sony shareholders. Their commercial advice to Sony is in fact based on their own personal preferences regarding the structure of intellectual property markets. And while they probably genuinely believe that their preferences are also in the long-term best interests of corporations like Sony, it might behoove them to show just a little bit of deference to the dedicated employees of a company that has for decades been spectacularly successful at a task (marketing consumer electronics) about which Reynolds and Lessig obviously know, for all their bravado, less than nothing.

    Then again, what do I know about marketing? I'm no law professor, after all.

    Wednesday, January 15, 2003

    A few months ago, in response to Daniel Gross' silly Slate article on the S&P 500, I argued that uninformed stockholders were being ruined by their mindless recitation of the "stocks outperform bonds" mantra. When I posted my comments to the Slate Fray, one reader responded tartly, "[l]ong term the S&P does well. Read the facts." Clearly the cult of retail stockholding dies hard.

    I was reminded of this incident on reading Daniel Drezner's amusingly self-mocking cultural analysis of his mutual fund's annual report. Apparently, his fund is using the excuse of "corporate greed and ambition" (i.e, various accounting scandals) to explain its abysmal performance, and Drezner now wonders whether this contemptuous attitude towards aggressive capitalism is necessarily the frame of mind he wants his investment managers to cultivate.

    Now, Drezner seems like a bright guy--not many people can blog their way onto my "better than their exposure" list, after all--and perhaps his life savings have been allocated with much greater caution than his complaints would suggest. But after three years of overall market decline, and with the price-earnings ratios of the major indices still well above their traditional "sell" tripwire levels, outghtn't he at least begin to consider that the stock market might just be the wrong place for his money? And if he doesn't, what on earth will it take before he and millions of his fellow unquestioning shareholders finally get the message?
    Mark Kleiman has brought to our attention a discussion in Brad DeLong's blog of the well-known Newcomb's problem. The problem is described as follows: a hyperintelligent extraterrestrial alien who can model and predict individual human behavior with perfect (or near-perfect) accuracy offers you a choice between A) the contents of a locked, opaque box, and B) the same contents plus $10. The catch is that the alien has already predicted which you will choose, and previously placed $1,000,000 in the box if he/she/it has predicted you would choose (A), and nothing otherwise. Which do you choose?

    The problem is actually a little misleading; it's cast as a decision theoretic puzzle, but it's really just an illustration of the incompatibility of the idea of free will with the idea of a deterministic universe. Viewed as a decision problem, it produces an odd result: even though choice (B) is in every case strictly better than choice (A) (by exactly $10, in fact), it's not obvious that it's preferable. The real issue becomes clearer, though, if the problem is simply changed slightly: let the box be transparent. Now you can see exactly what the alien predicted, and you have no incentive to pass up the extra $10. Or do you?

    Well, it depends on what you are, really. If you're possessed of free will, and can truly decide on the spur of the moment to take the $10, then you obviously would, if you see the box full of cash--precisely because the alien wouldn't be able to predict such an action in advance. (After all, if you see the box is empty, you can always decide to decline the $10, just to prove the alien fallible. That's what free will means, right?)

    If, on the other hand, you're a deterministic algorithm forced by the laws of nature to make a predetermined choice, then that choice could as easily be to forgo the $10 as to grab it--but in that case, there's no point asking "what would you do?", except as a purely empirical question (i.e., "what would you have no choice but to do?"). You can believe yourself to be one or the other--but Newcomb's problem asks you to believe both at the same time, and is therefore fundamentally self-contradictory.

    Tuesday, January 14, 2003

    Oxblog's David Adesnik--yes, democracy's evangelist extraordinaire, of all people--has declined to echo my searing condemnation of Amy Chua's "market-dominant minorities" thesis. He takes his cue from a recent Michelle Goldberg book review in Salon, which characterizes Chua's position as more democracy-skeptical than capitalist-minority-bashing--a sort of academicized Robert Kaplan-style appreciation of a good strongman capable of restraining the racist rabble. (How odd, then, that Adesnik would spare it his usual righteous pro-democracy fury....)

    Now, I myself have been known to express a version of the Kaplan/Chua position, conceding that it's pointless to try to foist democracy on societies whose enthusiasm for it is weak. (The same could be said of free markets, for that matter.) But Chua's claim is that free-market democracy itself creates dangerous opportunities for racist violence. In fact, as her own examples (Zimbabwe and Indonesia--the ones I cited previously) amply demonstrate, corrupt kleptocracies are more likely to foment ethnic conflict, as a means to bolster their own political power, than to suppress it. Democracy, then, is no more the source of these troubles than it is of, say, the horrors of Islamic fundamentalist violence--which happened to gain strength from democratic elections in, say, Algeria, but certainly depended on ruthless dictatorships in plenty of other countries. The lesson of cases like Algeria is not that democracy is dangerous, but rather that the failure of democracy is dangerous, and that it should therefore not be tried in places where it's obviously doomed to fail.

    Monday, January 13, 2003

    Eugene Volokh notes the interesting story of the scandal that has just brought down the government of Greenland. Apparently, the Danish province's chief civil servant, Jens Lyberth, "called upon the services of a healer to drive evil spirits from the government's offices in Nuuk, Greenland's capital." A major party has quit the governing coalition in disgust.

    Heck, now that I think about it, if I found myself living in Greenland, I'd probably assume I'd been cursed by evil spirits....

    Saturday, January 11, 2003

    With war threatening in the Middle East, Rep. Charles Rangel (D - NY) has proposed reinstituting the draft. "A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military," he writes, "while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." He also hypothesizes that "if those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve.... there would be more dealing with Iraq."

    Well, here's a modest proposal: Rangel's office claims that over 30 percent of military personnel are minorities, but according to Julianne Malvaux, "African Americans [alone] are about 11 percent of the labor market, but 28 percent of our nation’s postal clerks." Malvaux wonders if the deaths of postal workers during the anthrax-letter crisis might have been at least partly due to neglect on the part of the authorities for the safety of a poor, disproportionately-minority workforce. An obvious solution presents itself: the dangerous, soul-destroying, poorly-paid burden of moving the nation's mails must be borne equally by all Americans. If everyone, rich or poor, white or black, were required to give a few months of their lives manning the sorting bins and service counters of the postal system, Americans might have second thoughts, not just about the difficult working conditions of postal workers, but even about the wisdom of having a national postal system in the first place.

    Wouldn't that be a breakthrough for all those downtrodden minority USPS employees!

    Friday, January 10, 2003

    If you're like me, you're no doubt appalled at Robert Mugabe's campaign of terror against white farmers in Zimbabwe, and you consider him guilty of cynically exploiting racial tensions to maintain his hold on power. You would also have been disgusted by the brutal carnage of the anti-Chinese riots that convulsed Indonesia in 1998, many of them instigated by the military in an attempt to divert anger away from the soon-to-be-deposed military government there. In short, you would see state-sanctioned violence against minority groups as most often simply a product of ugly collaboration between racist populations and ruthless demagogues.

    Unless, of course, you were visiting Yale law professor Amy Chua, who (I'm not joking) blames "free-market democracy" for creating (again, this is really her phrase) "market-dominant minorities". "[T]he pursuit of free-market democracy," she writes in the New York Times, "often becomes an engine of ethnic nationalism, pitting a frustrated indigenous majority, easily aroused by demagogic politicians, against a resented, wealthy ethnic minority." That's right--freedom, prosperity and democracy allow envy and racism to surface, and the problem, in places like Zimbabwe and Indonesia (she explicitly cites those two examples), is therefore with freedom, prosperity and democracy. "[I]f global markets are to be sustainable," she warns, "ways must be found to spread their benefits beyond a handful of market-dominant minorities and their foreign investor partners."

    In fact, brutality towards affluent minorities is by no means universal. Many nations do destroy or drive out their mercantile classes--and invariably pay the price in economic ruin. But others--modern America being an obvious example--treat such groups with tolerance, and moreover usually end up sharing in their economic blessings.

    Indeed, one wonders how many of her own "benefits" Prof. Chua, a native Chinese speaker and well-paid professor, is prepared to spread around to help protect her own conspicuously successful minority from a vengeful American majority. Perhaps she should specify exactly what fraction of her own income and property angry white American racists are entitled, in her view, to extort from her, before she no longer accepts their demands as natural and inevitable.

    Then again, I suppose I should be thankful that she didn't mention the original "market-dominant minority", famous for sucking the blood of its majority hosts, in league with fellow rootless cosmopolitan "foreign investor partners". If only Amy Chua had been there at various opportune moments in history, she might have been able to suggest various ways to spread their predatory profits beyond their greedy, clannish hands, and to offer a shrugging I-told-you-so each time a "frustrated indigenous majority", aroused by demagogic politicians, rose up against them.

    Fortunately, such outdated apologias for crude racism are normally considered monstrously uncouth in civilized countries like America--though I hear they've been making a comeback, of late, in places like the offices of the New York Times and the halls of Yale Law School.

    Wednesday, January 08, 2003

    The Bush administration is now proposing eliminating the tax on shareholders' dividend income. The claimed practical justification for the move is that it will function as a fiscal stimulus to the economy; I will leave it to others to criticize it on that score. Personally, I continue to doubt (as I have mentioned before) that a fiscal stimulus of any kind will be any more effective at curing America's post-bubble malaise than have the trillions spent over the last decade building bridges to nowhere in Japan.

    There is also, however, a "principled" argument being made for cutting taxes on dividends: that dividends are "double-taxed", since they are drawn from profits that are themselves subject to a corporate income tax. Of course, all other business expenses, from purchased merchandise to employee salaries to interest on loans, are drawn on those same profits. The special status of dividends is thus based on a presumptive difference between owning a share of a company's stock (and hence a claim on a share of its profits) and merely providing it with a service (such as floating it a loan or working for it as an employee).

    As a practical matter, though, that difference is becoming fuzzier all the time. On the one hand, instruments such as mutual funds erode the "control" aspect of ownership to the point of negligibility; on the other, complex modern financing arrangements can make bondholders' returns very nearly as much a function of market performance as common stock. Indeed, if the tax cut goes through, I would expect to see numerous future issuances of "preferred stock" under terms that make them look remarkably like bonds, with promised dividends in place of promised loan repayments. Encouraging lending and investment to be cosmetically restructured in this manner to satisfy arbitrary tax rules can't possibly be economically useful. Or can it?

    I am referring, of course, to the elephant in the room that gets passing mention but whose shocking implications are rarely addressed head-on: that the dividend tax cut may well be a naked attempt to influence the stock market. As the estimable Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley has pointed out, it is tempting for policymakers to try to juice the market, thus creating a more generally optimistic economic outlook, which may encourage spending and investment, thus restarting the stalled economy, in a replay of the virtuous circle that took hold during the nineties. It's hard to imagine a more explicit white flag of surrender to that temptation than a tax cut designed to encourage people to run out and buy dividend-bearing stocks.

    Now, as ICBW readers know, I'm not exactly thrilled about measures that increase ordinary investors' naive faith in the stock market as the repository of choice for their entire life savings. And today's valuations don't exactly suggest an investor so consumed with revulsion at the thought of taking a chance on equities as to need an incentive in that direction from Uncle Sam. Under these conditions, one might have thought that the authorities would hesitate before attempting to reinflate the disastrous bubble that popped (or rather, began its gradual, long-term and still-incomplete collapse) only three years ago. It appears, though, that one would thereby be placing a little too much faith in the responsible sobriety of the current administration's economic advisors.

    Tuesday, January 07, 2003

    The recent double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv has overshadowed an interesting related development taking place next door in Egypt. According to the Jerusalem Post, President Mubarak has delivered an ultimatum to Hamas, demanding that it accept an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire with Israel, or else be branded an "enemy of peace". The Egyptians for some time have been trying to broker a ceasefire deal between Israel and the combined Palestinian factions (they claim to have the PFLP and DFLP aboard already); however, they appear of late to be pressing their initiative with unexpected urgency. An obvious motivation is their desire to establish some kind of stability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the US attacks Iraq, thus defusing anticipated domestic protests that the Egyptian government's (at least mildly) pro-US stance amounts to a "sellout" of the Palestinians.

    If correct, this interpretation of events directly contradicts the argument raised by opponents of military action in Iraq (most notably Brent Scowcroft) that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute should be given priority over the Iraq issue. Scowcroft, among others, warned that dealing immediately with the problem of Saddam Hussein would be perceived as neglecting the Palestinian problem, and would thus inflame anti-American outrage throughout the Arab world. In fact, Scowcroft et al. got it exactly backwards: by forcing a confrontation with Iraq, the US appears to have improved prospects for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front as well.

    Many predicted, of course, that the departure of the Iraqi leader from the scene might, by eliminating an enthusiastic regional troublemaker, set the stage for a reduction in hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. How many, though, anticipated such an effect from the mere possibility of an impending American attack against him?

    Monday, January 06, 2003

    Lisa Dusseault raises a couple of interesting questions about the nature of fear in modern society. Why, she (implicitly) asks, do people's specific fears often correlate so poorly with the real dangers they actually face? And why are overall levels of human anxiety still so high in our society, given that our lives are spectacularly safer, by every rational measure, than ever before in history?

    Well, I'm no behavioral biologist, but I figure I can construct "just so stories" with the best of them. So here goes....

    Fear is a biological reaction, like pleasure or rage, and is designed to perform certain basic survival functions, like triggering avoidance of certain perennial dangers (snakes, heights) and assisting us in learning to avoid newly encountered threats (hot stoves, musclebound bullies). Like other limbic-system mechanisms that tie into higher congitive layers, though, it is prone to the creation of accidental superfluous associations. (A single adverse reaction to eating a particular food can cause a lifelong aversion to the taste of that food, even if it's normally safe and nutritious. And I'll just mention, without elaboration, the word, "fetish".) From an evolutionary point of view, this is perfectly reasonable; after all, it's far better for an individual to develop an unnecessary fear of, say, rabbits than to fail to develop a fear of tigers.

    The lack of a correlation between overall fear level and overall safety level is perhaps more interesting, because it's even more strongly counterintuitive. Our anxiety levels do seem roughly to track our relative perceived danger levels; that is, we tend to get more fearful when we sense great danger. Shouldn't there also be, then, some correlation with absolute danger levels, which have in fact declined markedly over the centuries?

    I can imagine a number of possible answers:

  • We really are less anxious than our ancestors. How do we know how much anxiety people felt during the Middle Ages, anyway? Or even people in dire circumstances elsewhere in the world today? Sure, footage of people living in squalor in third-world hellholes shows them seeming remarkably at peace with themselves and the world compared to Western city-dwellers, but perhaps that's just an illusion or cultural misunderstanding. For example, it may just be that....

  • The wages of fear have declined. One characteristic of modern, affluent, free societies is that betraying one's anxiety levels carries essentially no price. In other times and places, showing fear may well have meant quick death in many common circumstances, and fear would therefore have been suppressed much more often than it is in today's Western culture. It may therefore be that we actually do experience much less fear than people used to--but we talk about minor fears the way no one would have discussed even deathly terrors in the past. Or perhaps the reverse is true: we work ourselves into frenzies of panic today where our ancestors would have "managed" their fears more effectively by stifling their expression.

  • There's more to life than survival. That which may reduce mating potential, for instance, or safety of relatives, or their mating potential, ought to be viewed with as much alarm as that which may reduce lifespan. And threats to attractiveness (such as highly attractive competitors with large stores of resources to offer) certainly haven't declined along with physical dangers.

  • Fear of the inevitable is useless. A relatively likely threat about which nothing can be done is less worth fearing than a rare danger whose likelihood can be substantially reduced. Now, it sometimes seems as though the opposite is true: we tend to fear situations characterized by helplessness (such as airplane travel) much more than those where we maintain control (such as driving), even when the latter are considerably more dangerous. However, the fear in those cases exists to deter us from getting into situations of powerlessness in the first place--an act we often have a choice about. People who find themselves in dangerous situations they truly have no choice but to endure--those whose neighborhoods have become war zones or high-crime areas, for instance--often quickly become inured to their new risks, which they feel powerless to reduce. The same goes for people who live in circumstances where injury, disease, famine and violence are endemic and essentially unavoidable. However, the myriad options we enjoy in our lives also give us lots of opportunities to fear making dangerous choices that will send us hurtling ineluctably toward disaster.

  • To paraphrase the old joke, I don't have to outfear the bear, I just have to outfear you. In the pre-civilized world, dangers would always have been abundant enough to saturate our ability to fear them. There would thus have been an optimal "fear rate" (anxiety level) which would have provided the best possible tradeoff between the danger-avoiding benefits and the distraction from productive tasks provided by fears. This level would have been selected for through competition between human populations for survival, resulting in our current range of anxiety levels. (Variation in anxiety levels would also be advantageous; a community consisting of fearless warriors and panicky lookouts would do better than a uniform population of either.) Today, our anxiety levels, like our appetites for sugar, are relics of the age of never-ending threats, and we simply distribute them among more and more trivial worries.
  • Ignorance is bliss. In other times, people had very little access to information about dangers, and thus were happy to rely, of necessity, on authorities to tell them comforting (if largely fanciful) stories about how to protect themselves. Today, on the other hand, we have a world of highly decentralized information, in which even the government cannot really be trusted to give reliable information--to say nothing of that ignoramus posting reckless, completely uninformed speculations about the evolution of human nature to his blog. What a frightening state of affairs!
  • Sunday, January 05, 2003

    A deranged German man stole a small plane at an airfield near Frankfurt today and threatened to crash it into a skyscraper. His claimed motive was to call attention to his idol, astronaut Judith Resnik, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986. He was talked down and arrested before causing any injuries or damage.

    We can be thankful, I suppose, that he didn't try to stab Sally Ride....

    Saturday, January 04, 2003

    It has recently been revealed that the British government secretly considered forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of Northern Irish thirty years ago, during a particularly severe flare-up of Catholic-Protestant violence. The plan involved the "separation" of the Catholic and Protestant populations of Northern Ireland, by relocating some 300,000 Catholics and 200,000 Protestants so as to create two religiously homogeneous regions, and then splitting the territory in two accordingly, merging the Catholic portion into the Irish Republic. The plan was abandoned as unlikely to be accepted peacefully by those slated to be uprooted.

    But there's more to the story: at around the same time, Her Majesty's representative in Jerusalem, Gayford Woodrow, was urging "understanding" of the terrorists who had just perpetrated the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And a few weeks later, David Gore-Booth, a first secretary at the Foreign Office, explained that the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner by PLO terrorists that achieved the release of three of their comrades captured at Munich was "a manifestation of the Palestine problem". "Before we shed too many tears about the Lufthansa hijacking", he wrote, "it would be as well to ask ourselves what the implications are so far as the Arab/Israel dispute is concerned."

    As the saying goes, one man's "terrorist" is another man's "freedom fighter"--which is not to say that he's not still a terrorist, of course. The PLO apologists at Whitehall cannot plead woolly-minded naivete about terrorists in general, since they were at the same time contemplating the most drastic measures to deal with their own set of brutal thugs. The only possible explanations for their callous double standard are cynical expediency and irrational prejudice. It's hard to know which is the more likely culprit.

    But the implications of the Israel-Northern Ireland analogy hardly end there. For example, what might have happened if the British government of the day had instead offered to forcibly remove only Protestants from the designated "Catholic" portions of Northern Ireland, setting up the latter as an independent Northern Irish state at the conclusion of a "peace process"? Would public opinion have found this one-sided "evacuation of the settlements" more palatable?

    Of course, the IRA would never have accepted such a compromise, any more than they accepted the compromise that established all but the northern counties of the Emerald Isle as the Irish Free State in the first place. (And they would quickly have moved to gain de facto control over the newly independent territory, establishing it as a terrorist base and sanctuary immune to British or Irish policing.) Then again, the Unionists, faced with such a bitter, violent rejection of their concessions, might have retained a clearer picture of the IRA's utter implacability, and thus avoided their more recent disastrous flirtation with it.

    On the other hand, Northern Protestants, in yet another Middle Eastern parallel, currently face a terrible demographic problem; they now comprise only a bare majority of Ulster's population. Israel proper (excluding the occupied territories) appears to have at least a few generations left before reaching that particular crisis. Perhaps she will somehow find a peaceful means of avoiding it before it's too late.

    Wednesday, January 01, 2003

    Two new studies of global climate change have concluded that the habitats of various Northern-Hemisphere species have moved noticeably northward. A biology professor involved in one of the studies called the results disconcerting, and suggested that some species may even become extinct as a result of these northward shifts.

    Now, nobody knows if the current brief spell of "global warming" is the beginning of a major long-term trend or just a tiny blip that is about to disappear into the noise of normal climactic fluctuations. Nor is it known whether what we've seen so far (and any continuation of it that we might see) is a man-made or natural phenomenon, or a combination of both. But I simply cannot believe that one of its effects, if it persists, wouldn't be a marked increase in the world's biodiversity, since warmer climates are on average far richer in species than colder ones. It would thus surely benefit far more species than would suffer--and the net beneficiaries would likely include humans as well. (The two regions mentioned in the study--Europe and North America--would almost certainly experience an increase in comfortably habitable land area as a result. As a Canadian, I'd say my country clearly has everything to gain.) Indeed, if the effect were somehow determined to be a completely natural one, it might well be viewed as the equivalent of the end of an ice age--an excitingly rapid efflorescence of abundant new life.

    Why, then, would any nature-lover view its potential onset with alarm? Because its cause might be at least partially artificial? Why would that make any difference to a opposed to a human-hater?
    Two bloggers have now commented on phenomena subtly related to my recent post about the political victory of taxation-bashers. Mark Kleiman discusses a New York Times article analyzing the repeated failure of liberal efforts to match the success of conservative commentators in media such as talk radio and cable television. Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner asks why liberals often seem (to him, at least) so touchy about brickbats from across the ideological aisle, in comparison to conservatives.

    My answer to both inquiries is the same: liberals have simply failed to acknowledge the political defeats they have suffered, let alone to begin to use that realization to help them regroup and counterattack. Believing that they are (still) the voice of common sense consensus, they often disdain opposition criticism as impudent carping from ignorant yahoos, and assume that their ideas are being rejected only because they lack of a sufficiently loud megaphone. Such attitudes betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the recent conservative insurgency in American politics.

    Liberals like to portray conservative activists and commentators as ideologically dogmatic robots, a kind of brainwashed army of catechism-spouting aliens ("propaganda organs for the Republican Party", in the words of another blogger, "Hesiod"). Many of them are, of course, committedly partisan--as are many liberals--but careful examination of their tactics shows them to be far more agile and opportunistic than their liberal caricature would suggest. The populist firestorm of conservative support unleashed by talk radio was not generated by earnest students of Hayek or Oakeshott (or Ailes or Rove) repeating their holy writ into the microphone ad nauseam; Limbaugh et al. were in fact extremely astute about spotting and exploiting weaknesses in the underbelly of liberal conventional thinking that would arouse their listeners against a liberal "establishment".

    Conservative commentators generally don't pay much attention to popular, moderate liberal proposals (in areas such as health care or education, for instance); in fact more often than not they'll back down and mute their opposition rather than engage on such issues, and move on to "red meat" issues ("affirmative action", crime and punishment, school prayer) where they see more opportunities for rallying support. This kind of pot-shot-taking is the mark of an "outsider" political movement attempting to weaken an established conventional wisdom; it implicitly recognizes that the public are not necessarily on their side by default. Only political alliances that are convinced (correctly or not) they have the public firmly in their corner dare dismiss their opponents and their criticisms as marginal and irrelevant.

    Liberals used to understand this dynamic much better; in the wake of the 1994 Republican landslide, former president Clinton and his supporters were extremely adept at compromising where necessary (welfare reform being the obvious example) and carrying the battle to their opponents' turf where feasible. However, the political ground has shifted markedly since then. As I long ago explained, the current "liberal" consensus is for the most part the collection of opinions and values held by the upper-middle professional and upper classes, and that cohort understandably finds it difficult to make pragmatic concessions to its opponents in a heavily class-polarized political environment. (It also has understandable difficulty letting go of its perception of its own views as dominant in the country at large.)

    That's unfortunate (from their point of view), because the growing success of conservative ideas and politicians is creating opportunities for creative liberals that are ripe for exploitation. The tax issue is obviously one; if the Wall Street Journal is really pining for the days when it still had lots of taxpayers to win over, then there must be plenty of political weaknesses in this unquestioned anti-tax consensus for liberals to poke at. To succeed, though, they'll have to give up their cherished belief that their opponents' ideas are crazy fringe opinions that can be brushed aside, and start treating them the way '80's conservatives treated liberalism: as a huge, crumbling edifice of popular, established conventions that needs to be undermined, one decayed platform plank at a time, until it collapses.