Friday, May 30, 2003

He's "a potential ally for America in stabilizing postwar Iraq." He "has advised his cooperate with the Americans in rebuilding Iraq", and "wants to avoid a violent confrontation, which he believes would benefit only Iranians and other outsiders." His "relatively moderate tone reflects positions he has taken in recent years", and he "has been seen as a voice of reason and restraint in the Islamic world." So writes David Ignatius in what has to be one of the strangest op-eds ever to appear in the Washington Post. Sounds like a great guy, doesn't he? Well, there's a tiny catch: The man in question is Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the longtime spiritual leader of Hezbollah, who "encouraged the suicide bombers who destroyed the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983." (He also continues to support suicide bombings in Israel, "spearheaded opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq", and now urges Iraqis to cooperate with US forces "even as they resist military occupation", whatever that means. During the war in Iraq, he accused the US of committing massacres in several cities.)

Now, far be it from me to suggest that people can't change, and apparently something is prompting Fadlallah to show the Americans a little leg, by repeatedly inviting American journalists to his Southern Beirut digs for vaguely conciliatory interviews. (That something would appear to be a simmering rivalry with the Iranian mullahs over Shia clerical supremacy. It has caused something of an estrangement between Fadlallah and Iran-allied Hezbollah, and it seems to be heating up over the contest to win influence among the rejuvenated Shia clergy of Iraq.)

But murderous fanatics generally live or die by their murderous fanaticism, and see the light of moderation far more rarely than their romanticizers would have the public believe. (Think Yasser Arafat, for instance.) Fadlallah's overtures to the US more likely indicate that either (1) he's such damaged goods, having been stripped of his power base in Hezbollah, that he'll even court the hated Americans, just to get back in the game, or (2) The US position in the Shia world is so powerful right now that even a legendary America-hater, the inspiration for the Beirut truck-bomber, feels the need to play (American) ball. In either case, it's highly unlikely that any kind of American reconciliation with him would be worth the price in enhanced prestige lent to a legendary terrorist leader.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

A debate has been raging among Oxblog's David Adesnik, Kevin "Calpundit" Drum, Kieran Healy and Matthew Yglesias about economic inequality. Nobody's really enthusiastic about it, of course, but they differ on the seriousness of the problem. Adesnik is relatively unconcerned, while Drum and Healy suspect that something like societal-level foul play is involved.

I would argue that anyone who supports a progressive income tax should also be quite comfortable with rising economic inequality. The moral basis for progressivity in the tax system is that money, like everything else, has a decreasing marginal utility curve: your millionth dollar, when you have $999,999, is just not as valuable as your first dollar when you're flat broke. (In other words, buying a dollar's worth of food when you're starving is a bigger deal than buying a dollar's worth of anything when you're rich.) Indeed, the claim is even stronger: your tenth dollar, when you have only $10, is worth more to you than your last $100,000, when you have $1,000,000. Hence, taxing the wealthy at a given rate (in this case 10%) hurts them less than taxing the poor at the same rate. (Conversely, there exists some progressive tax scheme--in theory, at least--which causes everyone's sacrifice to be equal.)

Now consider what happens as society's overall wealth increases. If we expect everyone to benefit equally from the additional prosperity, then the rich will have to increase their wealth and income much more, in absolute terms, than the less wealthy, since each new dollar brings them much less benefit. And considered as a pure income or wealth statistic, this result will show up as increased economic inequality.

Of course, I have no idea if the rate at which inequality is rising comes anywhere near matching this ideal trend. In particular, if real wealth or income were falling among the poor while rising among the wealthy, then income inequality would indeed be unquestionably increasing in a meaningful sense. But I would argue that even huge economic gains at the top of the scale are quite harmless as long as they are accompanied by a steady, perceptible overall rise--however small--in wealth and income across the scale. (And conversely, falling incomes across the scale are terrible, even if the wealthy are losing much more than everyone else.)
Volokh co-Conspirator Orin Kerr describes it as "a rather unsavory undercover scheme". Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds calls it "pathetic". What has them so annoyed? Well, apparently a police officer in Fort Myers, Fla. dressed as an employee at a McDonald's drive-through window and started....looking into people's cars. Whenever he saw something worthy of police attention, he notified his colleagues down the street, who, in the course of a week, made six arrests, handed out 29 citations, and recovered a "significant amount of drugs" and two pistols.

Now, there are several reasons why Profs. Kerr and Reynolds might find fault with this particular police operation. Unfortunately, none of them really makes sense (not that that would ever stop a law professor, mind you).

  • What the police did was illegal. As a matter of fact, it was not--as both Kerr and Reynolds admit.

  • What the police did was ineffective. Apparently the police are satisfied with the results of their law enforcement effort, and would be happy to repeat it. No doubt both Kerr and Reynolds disdain at least some of the laws that the police enforced using the McDonald's ploy. (These seem to have included both drug and gun laws, as well as child safety-seat laws.) But objecting to the laws themselves is hardly a reason for objecting to the method used to enforce them. Educated fellows like Kerr and Reynolds should be able to make this distinction.

  • What the police did outraged the community. Actually, the police were responding to community outrage--specifically, McDonalds employees' frustration at the amount of criminal activity they saw passing by their drive-through window, unhindered.

  • What the police did was an "invasion of privacy". Again, as a matter of law, it was no such thing. Indeed, it's hard to understand how anyone could think of him- or herself as being "in private" while being served by an anonymous fast-food employee.

  • What the police did was effective. I'm afraid that this is most likely the problem, in the eyes of our lawyer friends. Americans in general--and American legal academics in particular--tend to be so intensely distrustful of law enforcement officials that any change that increases the latter's effectiveness is immediate grounds for the former's concerned suspicion. Effective law enforcement can be used, for example, to persecute the innocent, by mistake or out of malice. It can end up enforcing unjust laws or imposing draconian punishments for minor offenses. It can be used capriciously or corruptly. All in all, it seems, many Americans would prefer that the police just go away and stop enforcing the law altogether.

    As I read about the lawless chaos reigning in Iraq, I feel thankful, for Iraqis' sake, that their country is full of American troops, rather than American law professors.
  • Monday, May 26, 2003

    I trust that loyal ICBW readers will rise to defend this blog against a challenger's spurious claim.

    Saturday, May 24, 2003

    Sparing no expense to inform my readers, I've done a little journalistic legwork to investigate the case of Rick Bragg. Bragg is a New York Times writer who apparently had a habit of getting other people to do his reporting for him, rewriting it with lots of style and local color, and then getting it published under his own name. He has just been suspended for two weeks for having published a long, elegant feature story on oyster fishermen in Apalachicola, Fla.--despite having barely set foot in the place--that relied largely on the notes of an uncredited, unpaid intern named J. Wes Yoder. Knowledgeable journalists suspect that this case is only the tip of the iceberg for Bragg--and the Times.

    From his small but comfortable office in Washington, DC, veteran journalist and Slate deputy editor Jack Shafer sips on a coffee and follows the Bragg story mainly via the Internet on his PC. Shafer is one of those who does not believe the Apalachicola case to be an isolated one. "Bragg's unorthodox use of uncredited reporters may explain the number of corrections the Times has appended to other Bragg stories over the years," he says, between sips. He pulls up on the screen a "hilarious extended correction for Bragg's June 1, 1998, story about a small Alabama newspaper's crusade against corruption, in which he appears to have gotten more facts wrong than right." A few keystrokes, and another, similarly odd list of errata appears, this time, says Shafer, regarding "Page One March 14, 2002, Bragg story about a town that allegedly banned Satan." "Every newspaper employs wordsmiths in the newsroom to rewrite breaking news collected by reporters in the field," he points out. "But the rewrite guy never pretends to be at the scene of the story, as Bragg did."

    On the other hand, even Shafer admits that Bragg's use of an uncredited stringer is neither unusual nor against Times policy. "Given the facts, I can't imagine how the Times could possibly justify giving Yoder a byline," says Shafer, shrugging. And Yoder himself, speaking from his small, tidy desk at the modest but dignified newsroom of his current employer, The Anniston (Ala.) Star, expresses no resentment. "This is what stringers do, the legwork," he says, munching on his lunch, a takeout sandwich. "I did most of the reporting and Rick wrote it. Nothing’s inaccurate. Rick tried to bring the piece alive, to take the reader there, and he did a darn good job of it."

    Meanwhile, Bragg, typing on his laptop computer in an airport departure lounge, waiting for his jam-packed plane to board, dismisses all the criticism as unjustified. "I wouldn’t have done anything different," says Bragg. "J. Wes did great work and we came out with a great story." And he has a point. Media maven Howard Kurtz, grabbing a break between takes of his CNN media analysis show, "Reliable Sources", argues that Bragg is an accidental victim of the recent Jayson Blair controversy. "At another time, Bragg's feature about struggling oystermen on the Gulf Coast would have drawn little notice," he says, before submitting to another round of attention from a quietly efficent makeup artist.

    Perhaps the best defense of Bragg's practice, in fact, is his own article. Here's Shafer's description: "The Apalachicola story abounds with Braggian narrative detail....Oysterman 'Bobby Varnes prods the sandy bottom with a worn wooden pole, rhythmically stabbing at the soft sand as the boat idles along, waiting for the pole to strike a hard, brittle shell.' White egrets 'slip like paper airplanes just overhead' and mullet 'belly-flop with a sharp clap into steel-gray water.'" Surely anyone who reads such ornate, impressionistic prose, and then expects it to embody careful, objective reporting, deserves to be equally misled by its assigned byline.
    Amidst all the controversy over Annika Sorenstam's abortive attempt to take the PGA tour by storm, I have seen surprisingly few comments on her rather unusual reaction to her weak performance: "I've got to go back to my tour, where I belong....I'm glad I did it, but this is way over my head....I wasn't as tough as I thought I was."

    I simply can't imagine any top-level male professional athlete responding this way after failing in his first attempt to break into a new, higher tier of competition. More likely, he'd declare that he'd learned a lot from his defeat, and was looking forward to doing much better in his next try. If he announced that he was way out of his depth and planned in the future just to stick to his proper level, where he "belonged", he'd be derided as a wimp, a quitter, a loser.

    Now, the whole point of having a blog is to be able to say whatever you want, so even though I just know I'm going to get pilloried for saying this, I'll say it anyway: I, too, would have looked down on Sorenstam's reaction had it been from a male athlete. But coming from her....well, I thought it was kind of endearing.

    So there. Vive la difference!

    Friday, May 23, 2003

    Apologies for the recent dearth of postings--other responsibilities have conspired with a nasty cold to impede my blogging rate. In the meantime, I'll merely note that Seinfeld fans will be unsurprised at the appallingly nasty record of recently-captured senior Ba'ath party official (and no. 8 wanted Iraqi) Aziz Saleh al-Numan.

    Monday, May 19, 2003

    In the Washington Post, law professor James Ryan proposes a "sit-in movement" to protest "educational inequality":
    Imagine that next fall, all across the country, children forced to attend poorly equipped and failing schools showed up at the doors of good suburban schools and simply sat down. Imagine if they asked why they, too, could not take advantage of the education offered at this public school. Imagine them asking why they are separated from those whose parents have more money, or why white and black students so rarely attend school together.
    Although Ryan never actually articulates an answer to these questions, one suspects that his goal is to see even more money poured into failing schools--a solution that has been proven time and time again not to work. On the other hand, the protest Ryan proposes is an interesting one, because it raises in a particularly graphic way a legitimate question: why aren't those students allowed to attend public schools in other neighborhoods, if they choose?

    In fact, Toronto, the city where I went to school, allows just such an option: students can register for any school in the city. The system doesn't collapse as a result, and educational opportunities for those in neighborhoods with poor-quality local schools are thus greatly enhanced. However, Ryan's broader complaint is hardly fully addressed, because the Toronto experience suggests that:

  • school inequality doesn't disappear as a result. Neighborhoods where parents are demanding, and school administrations dedicated, produce excellent schools. These aren't only affluent neighborhoods, either; as in most places, working-class immigrant neighborhoods with a high proportion of Asian students tend to produce good schools. Essentially, parents, teachers and administrations devoted to rigorous education tend to find each other, with mutually reinforcing results.

  • Relatively few students take advantage of the opportunities given to them. The high school I attended was one of the best in the city, and a steady trickle of students from other neighborhoods flowed to it. And every year, a flood of relatively affluent local students in their final year of high school rushed away to a less demanding school, where they could obtain their minimum cutoff mark for general arts programs at lesser universities without taxing themselves. Meanwhile, many of my friends from other high schools would insist that their own high school--no matter how poorly rated by universities--was in fact an outstanding institution, far better than mine. (Stronger "school spirit" was often cited as a reason.)

  • Although crusaders like Ryan portray education as commodity piped into neighborhoods--usually in the form of tax dollars--it is in fact, as the Toronto experience demonstrates, a complicated cooperative endeavor involving children, parents, teachers and administrators. And a lack of talent, effort or competence on the part of any of these can undermine the whole project. Hence attempting to ensure equality of supply of education (as of a commodity) is likely to be less successful than aiming to provide all children with an equal opportunity to participate in the endeavor. And if only a modest fraction of children end up seizing their chance--well, that's better than none at all, and perhaps all that can be hoped for, given the reluctance of many families in a large city like Toronto to sacrifice so much as a daily bus ride for the sake of a better education.

    Friday, May 16, 2003

    To my utter astonishment, Matthew Yglesias, a bona fide liberal blogger, is apparently willing to concede that maybe allowing judges to run roughshod over democracy wasn't necessarily such a great idea after all:
    What are we gaining from having such powerful judges? A quick glance at the ugly confirmation wars tells us what we are losing. Are our fundamental liberties really more secure than those of Canadians and Australians?
    To my even greater astonishment, the generally liberal contributors to his comments section have reacted, not with scorn and ridicule, but with understanding and even occasional agreement.

    A cynic, of course, would make the connection between this deathbed conversion and the Republicans' near-complete control (apart from a filibuster or two) of the federal judicial nominations process. (Perhaps that's why Bush v. Gore didn't open many eyes on the left--at the time, liberals presumably still saw medium-term hope of regaining control of the appointments apparatus.) And in any event, the new status quo has conspicuously muted conservatives' once-virulent resentment of "judicial activism", as they contemplate the exciting new powers they may now be able to wield through their judicial proxies.

    Still, a small voice of sanity is a welcome thing, no matter how insignificant its likely effect.
    Daniel Drezner has "decidedly mixed feelings" about the US government's "policy" of letting the dollar weaken with respect to other currencies. I wonder how he felt three years ago about the government's "policy" of letting the stock market "weaken" with respect to US currency, or three months ago about its "policy" of letting oil prices "strengthen" during the run-up to the war in Iraq.

    As Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach has been pointing out for months now, there are deep global economic imbalances that point inexorably in the direction of a lower dollar. The only question is whether the dollar's decline will be relatively orderly, as it has been so far, or catastrophic, like the currency crashes felt by many developing countries in 1998. The best way to ensure the latter outcome would be for the government to embrace the fiction that the dollar's relative value is determined primarily by government policy, and therefore to make a series of inevitably feckless, short-lived attempts to defend it against the insurmountable forces of global supply and demand.

    Thursday, May 15, 2003

    Apparently the world's large ocean fish are disappearing. The Volokh Conspiracy's "Juan non-Volokh" argues for fisheries management as the solution. I'm skeptical, given the enormous economic pressures facing fishermen in these situations. After all, as stocks deplete, the value of each catch actually rises, often faster than the extra costs of finding and catching the now-rarer fish.

    The best hope, I think, lies with fish farming. Here in the Pacific Northwest, salmon farms are seriously undercutting the wild salmon fishing industry, by providing such an abundance of cheap high-quality salmon that only complete fish snobs (of which there is, alas, no shortage in these parts) would bother to pay twice the price for the wild-caught stuff.

    I have no idea whether deep-sea fish can be farmed, but in any event the availability of a wide variety of farmed fish would inevitably cut demand for undomesticable species, in the same way that wild pheasant is rather less in demand than it would be in the absence of domesticated chicken and turkey. And farmed fish are not only likely to be substantially cheaper than wild varieties, but they can also be bred and selected for better taste, nutritional superiority, and low levels of contaminants (whereas large ocean fish are said to be worrisomely contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury).

    It's certainly possible that some species of deep-sea fish will still be in high demand as a delicacy, just as the existence of farmed mushrooms has not eliminated the market for truffles. But they would be the exception; the tuna that gets packed into cans, for example, could easily be replaced with cheap farmed fish--especially as the former gets rarer, and thus more expensive, to catch.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003

    The recent bombing attack on US targets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia raises some interesting questions about the condition of al Qaida, the alleged perpetrators. Matthew Yglesias concludes that "al Qaida is back". I take a very different view.

    First of all, while the ostensible targets of the attack were foreign residents, it is clear that the blow--a large-scale, coordinated terrorist attack right in in the Saudi capital--was really aimed at the Saudi government. Except for the Khobar Towers bombing, which occurred at a remote US military base in June, 1996, al Qaida has never before executed a major operation on Saudi soil--and certainly not in a large Saudi city, let alone its capital.

    Secondly, it's an odd time to attack Saudi Arabia. Its main external military worry, Iraq, has just been neutralized, and the primary justification for al Qaida's hostility to the Saudi government--the presence of infidel US troops on sacred Saudi soil--is in the process of being resolved. With the Western crackdown on financial assistance to terrorist groups in full swing, al Qaida must be more dependent than ever on its Middle Eastern--that is, largely Saudi--benefactors. Some of those benefactors are well connected to the Saudi royal family, and have been paying radicals like al Qaida to make trouble elsewhere. Others may be hostile to the Saudi royals, and willing to support radical activity at the right time--but this could hardly be the right time, given al Qaida's weakness and the Saudi government's strength. Why, then, would they deliberately provoke Saudi hostility?

    One possible answer is that they are fighting for their survival, in response to, or in anticipation of, a massive Saudi crackdown. The time would certainly be ripe for such concerted action on the part of the anti-radical faction among the Saudi royals. Al Qaida, after all, poses a threat to its power, an obstacle to improving its relationship with America, and a recurring source of bad international PR. The Riyadh attackers themselves apparently narrowly escaped arrest by Saudi police only last week.

    But another possible reason for al Qaida to concentrate on Saudi Arabia right now is that it is simply the last place left where they are capable of operating on an attention-getting scale. It was always where their largest reserves of money, manpower and political support resided--even when they were based in Sudan or Afghanistan. And it appears that they are now faced with a choice between mounting attacks where they will cause the most damage to those reserves, and mounting no attacks at all. In effect, they have chosen to eat their seed corn, and I, for one, consider that a positive sign.
    An update to my previous comments on the Jayson Blair scandal: Matthew Yglesias suggests, with some plausibility, that "personal favoritism" is a more likely explanation than racial politics; see my posted comments for more details.

    Monday, May 12, 2003

    Out of frustration at my blog's fairly mediocre hit counts, I've begun thinking of ways to boost my readership. Unfortunately, I haven't the stamina to adopt the most popular tactic--adopting a set of opinions that large numbers of people agree with, and finding different ways to articulate that same set of opinions, over and over again, every day.

    As a substitute, I've decided to create one such posting, and encourage everyone simply to return to it whenever they feel like having their prejudices confirmed. Here goes....

    Why we're obviously right, and they're utterly wrong

    My favorite blog has an incredible story about the current hot topic that'll just have you shaking your head at the latest stupid, evil thing they've done. Of course, if the situation were the one we always compare this one with, they'd be taking the exact opposite position. But we can hardly expect consistency from them, after all....

    It's just like in my favorite pop-culture analogy (or, for my more literate readers, my favorite historical analogy). Again and again, they just keep making the same mistake the bad guys made in my analogy. You'd think that by now, they'd have learned, but I guess they're just too stupidly evil.

    If they were merely a lunatic fringe, they could be dismissed as irrelevant. The problem is that they're firmly in the mainstream, with enormous power over society's institutions, and the ability to persuade a lot of gullible people that they're not as stupid and evil as we know them to be. Eventually, I'm sure, people will recognize just how cynical and wrong they are, but I'm very worried about the damage they can do to this country in the meantime.


    There it is. Send links to all your friends!

    Saturday, May 10, 2003

    A popular blogosphere topic these days is the story of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was found to have engaged in large-scale plagiarism and outright fabrication. From the right, Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus are crying, "affirmative action!", pointing out that the Times hired Blair, who is black, in spite of his substandard qualifications. From the left, Kevin "Calpundit" Drum and Matthew Yglesias argue that since plenty of white reporters (Stephen Glass being one of the most famous examples) manage to compile similarly spectacular records of egregious fraudulence, Blair's race should be irrelevant.

    It seems to me, though, that all of the above participants have misunderstood Blair's story as analogous to that of Glass. In fact, as Sullivan notes, Blair's poor journalistic practices were detected by his editors at the Times:
    His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
    On the one hand, this revelation reinforces the suspicion that race may have been a factor in his preferential treatment, if only because his extra breaks clearly went well beyond hiring, and are thus harder to explain as mere personal favoritism. On the other hand, it recasts the whole story as an enormously heartening vindication of modern journalistic practices. After all, it would not be entirely ridiculous to wonder, after a scandal like the Stephen Glass affair, whether today's journalism isn't so rife with fabrications that Glass had to be a veritable Scheherazade just to get caught. But at the Times, at least, journalistic malpractice is apparently at least detected and dealt with, barring only racial politics--or something else equally corrupting.

    Friday, May 09, 2003

    I'm intrigued by the claim being made by scientists studying the SARS epidemic that different patients have wildly different infectivities. I would guess (ridiculously naively, I admit) that SARS isn't unique in that regard. It might, then, be worth looking into an alternative approach to dealing with epidemics that focuses on curtailing infectivity rather than infection.

    Suppose, for instance, that there were an (otherwise pretty harmless) drug that neither prevented nor cured any particular disease, but did drastically reduce the infectivity of people with a particular highly infectious disease. Mass distribution of such a drug might then be an effective way to combat an epidemic of that disease. It might be as simple as, say, an anti-expectorant that reduced the output of virus-laden droplets from a SARS patient's respiratory tract.

    I hope somebody in the public health field is looking into this approach--if only to refute it as unworkable.
    Sasha Volokh wonders about the origins of the "nonsense" meaning of the word "baloney". I'd always assumed that the usage is based on its first syllable being identical to that of a certain vulgar synonym (when the former is pronounced, in the American style, with an extended schwa, as in, say, "bull"). The expression "son of a gun", originally signifying a man born aboard a ship, appears to have acquired its current, euphemistically derogatory meaning by the same route.

    Anyone with real information, informed speculation, or for that matter an uninformed speculation on this question is invited to comment.
    Six months ago, I wrote,
    the day may not be far off when a president and Senate of the same party attempt to ram through a controversial judicial appointment, and the Supreme Court simply overrules their nomination, holding the vacancy open until such time as the executive and legislative branches are willing to do the Court's bidding and select a replacement deemed acceptable to it....The long process of dismantling American democracy, and replacing it with pure judicial authoritarianism, would then, at last, be complete.
    Well, I got the general idea right, but the details wrong. Newsday reports that Senate Republicans are considering asking the Supreme Court to rule the Democrats' filibuster of judicial nominations unconstitutional. The petition hasn't been filed--let alone granted--and the idea is certainly coming in for plenty of criticism. Then again, there are also a few voices of at least partial support for the constitutional argument behind the proposed petition.

    That's how these things start, of course: an idea is thrown around once, then again, and again, and soon (if there are enough people with a political interest in believing it) it becomes a plausible position to take. All that's needed at that point are a few sympathetic Supreme Court justices willing to run roughshod over democracy (and which of them is not, these days?), and the conversion of the state to effective one-party judicial rule has taken a giant step towards completion.

    Remember: you heard it here first.

    Thursday, May 08, 2003

    The chorus of shrill condemnation of William Bennett, in the wake of the revelation that he's a profligate gambler, has been remarkable for its personal vindictiveness. As Michael Kinsley put it, "gambling would not be our first-choice vice if we were designing this fantasy-come-true from scratch. But gambling will do. It will definitely do." Writes Matthew Yglesias: "Bennett's a bad guy and if the best way to bring him down is playing the hypocrite card I'm now convinced that he is, in fact, a hypocrite, so I guess the card should be played," The New Republic's "&c" agrees: "The real problem with Bennett is that, in Kinsley's words, he's 'smug, disdainful, intolerant.' And that's why he should be hounded out of public life."

    Now, speaking as a sometime moralizer in my own right, it is of some concern to me that moralizers like Bennett arouse such animosity. To be honest, I've found the fellow more than a little grating myself, watching him on television--even though I agree with many of his views about personal responsibility and morality. I think that what makes his particular brand of Pecksniffian sanctimony so annoying, though, is not necessarily the set of beliefs that underlie it (although those would certainly anger anyone for whom, say, the "college consensus" is the last word on sexual morality). Rather, it's the smug ease with which he evokes his principles, as if they concerned maintaining good dental hygiene rather than resisting powerful temptations. "Being virtuous is easy", he seems to be saying, "look--I do it routinely, without even breaking a sweat". For the vast majority of the population--not including myself, of course--for whom resisting at least one vice is a daunting task, Bennett's casual (and apparently misplaced) confidence in his own righteous self-discipline is bound to irritate.

    The comparison with another conservative Republican moralizer is striking. George W. Bush speaks openly about good and evil, doing right and doing wrong, and the guiding importance to him of his religious faith. He also has, to say the least, a somewhat checkered past with respect to certain vices. Yet while partisan opponents are keen to shred Bush for all sorts of shortcomings (including his religiosity), his record of alcohol-related problems rarely even comes up in political discussions, let alone being used as an excuse for contemptuous gloating about his "hypocrisy".

    But then Bush never implied that (what he would no doubt claim to be) his current straight-arrow conduct is an easy matter for him. Although he doesn't discuss the subject much, it's clear from what he does say that he doesn't consider good behavior to be something that comes naturally to him. (I suppose it would look ridiculous for him to claim otherwise, under the circumstances.)

    I suspect that that's precisely the message missing from Bennett's sermons: that the virtues of the past are not traits that we all suddenly lost a short time ago, after having taken them for granted for millenia, but rather, are ideals that most members of society once exerted themselves vigorously (and not always victoriously) to uphold, and now routinely neglect to do the difficult work of maintaining. If the recent public rebukes against William Bennett make more room for the George W. Bush approach, then--speaking as a moralizer--that may not be such a bad thing, after all.

    Tuesday, May 06, 2003

    All sorts of useful technologies have been proposed for making transactions--particularly electronic ones--much safer than they are now. But so far, none of them have taken off, and I think I just learned why. The clue was an article in the National Review by one Frances B. Smith, of an outfit called "Consumer Alert"--apparently a free-market-oriented group intending to act as a counterweight to more traditional "consumer protection" groups.

    Smith's rather confusing article concerns the recent settlement of a 1996 class-action antitrust suit brought by retailers against the big credit card systems, Visa and Master Card. The retailers' complaint was that the credit card giants were forcing them to accept debit cards (or "check cards") based only on the customer's signature, instead of requiring a PIN entry on each transaction. Smith's spectacularly unconvincing argument is that this requirement has improved consumer choice, since customers can choose whether to enter a PIN or not, without fear that a retailer would demand one.

    To understand the other side of the argument, though, one needs to hear from the retailers. And their case is simple: the credit card systems charge very small fees--10 to 15 cents--for check card transactions involving a PIN, and credit card-style fees--1.5 to 2 percent of the transaction--for signature-only transactions. Obviously, then, at least some businesses would prefer to steer their customers towards PIN-entry transactions.

    Why are the two fees so different? One word: security. It's much, much harder to steal someone's check card and their PIN than to steal (or forge) a card and fake the signature. Signature-only check card transactions thus have much higher fraud rates, and the banks that make up the credit card consortia have to charge higher fees to make up for their fraud losses.

    And it would appear that that's why they're against secure transactions. They're basically in the insurance business, charging merchants exorbitant premiums in return for protecting the merchants' retail revenues against rampant fraud. If fraud goes away, though, the insurance part of their business also goes away, and they become a glorified electronic bookkeeping company--with appropriately reduced margins and revenues.

    I suppose we should count ourselves as lucky--after all, imagine if car manufacturers made more money selling high-risk automobile insurance than selling cars....

    Monday, May 05, 2003

    Angry at new, lower crab quotas, protesting crab fishermen in New Brunswick went on a violent rampage, destroying several fishing boats and a fish plant--and thus presumably making honoring the new quotas a little easier for everyone. That's how orderly and deferential Canadians are: even when rowdily protesting a law, they end up helping enforce it.
    I'm not sure just what to think of the climber who was trapped in a canyon for five days by a falling boulder, amputated his own arm to free himself, then applied a tourniquet, rappelled to the canyon floor, and hiked to safety. Certainly his courage, fortitude and presence of mind were extraordinary. On the other hand, it's worth noting that lots of climbers suffer such survivable accidents, and since the vast majority of them are not crazy enough to climb alone, they're fairly quickly rescued, and hence never make it into the news. (Others, of course, suffer unsurvivable accidents and die horrible deaths, but in this age of "extreme sports", when activities that routinely and predictably induce nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches and cramping are wildly popular, faulting a hobbyist for mere risk-taking, as opposed to utterly insane recklessness, somehow seems petty.)

    Incidentally, I mentioned this story to a couple of climbers I know, and both responded, to my horror, with something along the lines of, "now that you mention it, I've gone out alone myself--I don't know if I'd have been able to do what he did, though." I asked one if he'd consider carrying a satellite phone for emergencies when venturing into the wilderness solo. His response: "naah....those things are pretty heavy."

    Let the record show that although I'm way too wimpy ever to go rock climbing--let alone rock climbing alone--voluntarily, I'm quite confident that if I were somehow (I can't imagine how) obliged to venture into deserted regions on my own, I would not be too much of a wuss to lug some kind of bulky communications gear with me. Call me a superhuman stoic, I guess.

    (A side note on "extreme sports": I believe the time has come for "moderate sports". My proposal for a "moderate triathlon": a couple of laps in the pool, a leisurely bike ride, and a brisk walk. The median time wins.)

    Sunday, May 04, 2003

    Daniel Drezner expresses doubt about a prediction in the far-rightist American Conservative magazine that Iraq will be for the US what Lebanon was for Israel. Michael Desch suggested that American troops in Iraq may find themselves in a Vietnam-style "quagmire", taking steady casualties in an unwinnable war against an invisible guerrilla adversary. Drezner thinks this scenario unlikely, but does consider it "a possibility", and suggests that "[t]he Lebanon analogy is a useful one to remember that things in Iraq have the potential to turn sour."

    To understand whether and how the "Lebanon analogy" may apply to Iraq in the future, it's important first to understand just what happened to Israel in Lebanon. The situation there was very much analogous to America's in Vietnam: Israel's enemy, Hezbollah, was able to take advantage of an adjacent sanctuary (Syrian-held territory in Lebanon) where for political reasons Israel's counteroffensive operations were severely limited in scope. Israel was also unable, for both political and logistical reasons, to seal off its occupied zone from the Syrian-controlled sanctuary. The result was predictable: Israeli soldiers were sitting ducks for Hezbollah attacks--shelling, ambushes, raids--launched by guerrillas based in the sanctuary, against whom the Israelis were unable to respond effectively.

    The lesson for the US is clear: the danger to occupying American forces is not from Iraq proper, but from hostile neighbors--Syria and Iran. Syria is probably too weak and vulnerable to be a threat, but it's entirely possible that armed "resistance" groups, trained, equipped and based in Iran, might begin slipping across the border and launching regular attacks on US forces in Iraq. I just hope the latter have the means--and the political green light--to deal with that contingency, should it come to pass.

    Saturday, May 03, 2003

    The recent Washington Post op-ed by PLO flack Ghaleb Darabya contains the usual boilerplate, but it does contain one rather telling statement. "We have waited more than 35 years for the attainment of our rights, equality and self-determination," he writes. He's referring, of course, to the capture of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the Israelis in the Six-Day War of 1967.

    The problem with this claim is that before 1967, the residents of the occupied territories could hardly be said to have possessed their "rights, equality and self-determination". In fact, they were ruled autocratically from foreign capitals--Amman and Cairo. Gaza Strip residents, like Darabya's family, were not even permitted to become Egyptian citizens. And any expressions of nationalist sentiment directed against Egypt or Jordan, rather than Israel, would have been brutally crushed--not that there were any, mind you.

    For, in truth, claims for "rights, equality and self-determination" in Palestinian history have always been--as Darabya's statement demonstrates--synonymous with the aim of destroying Israel and killing, exiling or subjugating that nation's Jewish population. Whenever any opportunity has arisen to imbue these ideals with a more positive meaning, such as independence from fellow Arabs between 1948 and 1967, or peaceful, independent coexistence with Israel during the occupation, few Palestinians ever showed the slightest interest in doing so.

    Friday, May 02, 2003

    Ha'aretz brings us the mother of all character misjudgments, regarding Asif Mohammed Hanif, who blew himself up at a bar in Tel Aviv the other day, killing three and wounding dozens of others:
    His brother, Taz, was quoted by The Sun newspaper as saying Hanif was not the kind of person to carry out a suicide bombing. "Anyone who knew him would tell you. He was just a big teddy bear," he said.
    To be honest, I never thought of my own brother as particularly cuddly, but now I'm wondering if maybe that's a good thing.

    Thursday, May 01, 2003

    Oxblog's David Adesnik, bless his idealistic heart, has proposed a touchingly optimistic response to the recent shootouts between American soldiers and Iraqi gunmen in Fallujah that have left at least 17 Iraqis dead. Adesnik's hope: "what I would really like to see is a thorough investigation of the shooting at Fallujah....What the US military needs to do is establish a relationship with the Iraqi public based on total candor.... the interest of Iraq and the United States are similar enough to make honesty work."

    Now, as I've pointed out before, commissions of inquiry tend to have little credibility even in Western democracies with long histories of accountable, reasonably trustworthy government institutions. In a country like Iraq, where the ruling regime has been casually mendacious for decades, and the regional culture is rife with the most absurd conspiracy theorizing, any expectation that an American commission of inquiry will be believed by anyone not already predisposed to do so is simply naive.

    How, then, should the US deal with such incidents? Well, Slate's David Plotz is no rabid hawk--one of his suggestions for the American occupiers is to teach the Iraqis to sue each other--but he nevertheless advocates that US troops "enforce the occupation ruthlessly....Soldiers can't simply mill about and eyeball girls. They need to bully, coerce, and prod.....American soldiers should relentlessly eliminate any challenge to security or to their authority....This ruthlessness sounds, well, ruthless. It needs to be."

    Plotz is concerned with opportunistic thugs looking to take advantage of a power vacuum to establish their own local--or national--dictatorial rule. That's certainly a risk, but it seems to me that even if no such rogue leadership emerges, differences among Iraqis will inevitably cause many of them to dislike Americans and try to oppose them. To the extent that they find violence effective in doing so, they will use it.

    In that respect, it should be noted, Baghdad is no different from Berlin or Boston: if violence is rewarded rather than punished, it will increase. The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, after all, is not that the former allows people to shoot at the authorities with impunity, but rather that it allows them to influence the government non-violently.

    Of course, Americans will likely not have the stomach to maintain this sort of tough policing for long. (They can't even bear to to deploy it to protect themselves from criminals in their own cities, for pity's sake.) That's another good reason for getting the troops out as soon as possible. As long as they're there, though, they owe it to both themselves and the Iraqis they govern to use all necessary force to maintain order.