Sunday, August 31, 2003

What's most shocking about Barak Barfi's Washington Post op-ed about recently-killed high-ranking Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab is not that it describes him as "A True Palestinian Pragmatist", who "charted a middle path" and "hedged his bets". Nor is it that the article contrasts Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' "one-sided conciliatory approach" unfavorably with that of "true pragmatists" like Abu Shanab, who by "threatening Israel....gain legitimacy among their constituency". Nor is it that the author is a visiting research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time proucer for ABC News, and that his portrayal of a leader of an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group like Hamas as a "moderate" is given a respectable hearing in a major American newspaper.

No, what's most shocking about the column is that its main claim is objectively true. Abu Shanab, a leader in an organization dedicated to destroying Israel through terrorism, really was a moderate by Palestinian standards. He "often spoke of how the Zionist lobby controlled the United States"--but (probably) never stooped to spreading some of the wilder blood libels about Jews often propagated in the official Palestinian media. Although he embraced terrorism against Jewish civilians in Israel as a legitimate tactic, "[h]e tried to avoid praising suicide bombings and had difficulty justifying them." He "often said--albeit in a circumlocutory manner--that if the Israelis retreated to the June 4, 1967, lines, withdrew from East Jerusalem and allowed refugees from the 1948 war to return, peace would be possible." (That is, he demanded that Israel cease to be a majority-Jewish state, but did not call for the death or expulsion of all Jews from the region, as other Palestinian leaders have.)

True, he "did not have the courage and conviction to wholeheartedly denounce violence or stand up for peace"--but then, what Palestinian leader today would dare espouse such extremist views?

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Readers who are familiar with my views on capital punishment, rough police conduct, and even (in extreme circumstances) torture, might expect my reaction to the death of former Catholic priest and convicted pedophile John Geoghan to resemble that of PMStyle's "Mr. PMS" rather than that of Ted Conover. The former (who appears not to support the death penalty, incidentally) wishes that the offending priest had instead been locked in a cell for the rest of his natural life with a burly prison rapist, while the latter is appalled that the prison system once again turned a blind eye to violence perpetrated against a sexual offender in prison.

In fact, I find Conover's point of view far more convincing. What disturbs me most about "Mr. PMS"' wish is that his willingness to impose a brutal punishment is utterly unaccompanied by a willingness to accept responsibility for it. As an opponent of capital punishment, he would surely be no readier to see the state hire an official state rapist than an official state executioner. And yet he's perfectly willing to have the state forcibly hand a prisoner over to a fellow criminal willing to do the same job on an unofficial basis.

Now, as my other stated views demonstrate, I am not necessarily opposed to the imposition of harsh punishments upon criminals. However, I believe that such punishments must be imposed directly, intentionally, and with a clearly understood purpose--not as mere revenge--and that society should be willing to bear the burden of responsibility for imposing them. For example, I believe that capital punishment, in the case of a certain class of murders, serves as both a powerful deterrent and an expression of the seriousness with which society reviles the crime of murder. And the use of stun belts to incapacitate unruly prisoners (another recently raised issue) strikes me--pace Jonathan Turley--as a legitimate, if unappetizing, means to effect the reasonable goal of preventing courtroom disruptions.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the threat of prison rape is much of a deterrent to sexual deviancy (or any other crime, for that matter). And I certainly don't believe that dodging responsibility for punishing criminals expresses society's seriousness about combatting crime.

If we believe that prison without inmate-on-inmate brutality is too cushy to be an effective deterrent (and in some cases, I suspect it might be), then I heartily encourage discussion of how to make it more unpleasant for convicts. However, effectively encouraging them to rape and murder each other would be very, very low down on my list of explicit techniques with which to engineer that outcome, and I doubt that many other people's lists would rank it much higher. Yet it seems to be the default technique of choice--mostly because society hasn't yet properly come to grips with the necessary ugliness that is punishment, and prefers to embrace a convenient psychological escape rather than face some harsh truths about controlling human evil.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Not too long ago, it would have seemed highly improbable for a group blog of leftish transatlantic academics to angrily denounce as "odious" the claim that suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists are justified. Indeed, a little more than a year ago, I remarked on the disturbingly widespread popularity, in certain circles (the pages of The Times and the British Prime Minister's family, to name two), of moral arguments in defense of suicide bombings.

Yet here is Crooked Timber's Chris Bertram passing just such a judgment on British philosopher Ted Honderich, whose "After the Terror" asserts that "probably a majority of humans who are half-informed or better, now at least find it difficult to deny" that "[s]uicide bombings by the Palestinians are right." Moreover, judging by the comments generated in response to Bertram's posting, moral embrace of Palestinian terrorism--though it has by no means disappeared as a position--appears by now to have sunk in popularity to the level where its opponents can forcefully condemn it with dismissive confidence.

It's hard to pinpoint any particular event that might have precipitated such a shift in educated opinion over the past year or so. In fact, I would argue that nothing of significance "on the ground" has changed between then and now. Rather, what we are observing is a kind of cumulative delayed effect from the Palestinian rejection of the Oslo accord, the subsequent three-year terrorism campaign, and Israel's (eventual) vigorous response.

Politically engaged people often find it difficult to abandon a political allegiance--whether to Soviet Marxism, Southern segregationism, or Palestinian nationalism--all at once, as soon as its moral credibility falls under suspicion. Rather, as developments render a particular political position more and more untenable, individual adherents tend at first to redouble their efforts to reconcile fealty to their cause with embrace of "mainstream" opinions. For example, few idealistic Soviet sympathizers heard about the show trials, or the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, or Kruschev's "de-Stalinization" speech, or the invasion of Hungary or of Czechoslovakia, and immediately lost faith in a moment of sudden clarity. Rather, each of these events would have provoked at least some amount of self-doubt in many true believers, which was either eventually satisfactorily resolved or else inspired the slow development of a grudging disillusionment that ultimately led to a decisive break.

One characteristic of this process is increasing polarization, as the dissonance between loyalty to the cause and common sense or common decency grows sharper. Thus, those who continue to adhere to their political alignment are forced to grow, if anything, more extreme in their conviction, while those who defect often become vigorous critics of their former comrades. Perhaps that helps explain the bizarre moral obtuseness of a Ted Honderich, Matthew Parris or Cherie Blair.

It's also worth noting that Israelis themselves hardly abandoned faith in Oslo as soon as the violence broke out in September 2000. On the contrary, it was another year and a half--and hundreds of bloody deaths of terrorists' victims--later before the internal political consensus allowed prime minister Sharon to launch a serious military effort against the terrorist organizations. It's not surprising, then, that Western opinion is lagging behind Israel's in recognizing the ugly implications of the past three years of Palestinian terrorism.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Just for the hell of it, you might want to consider asking your doctor if clomipramine is right for you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

It seems everyone--okay, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, Oxblog's Josh Chafetz and Daniel Drezner, at least--is thrilled about The Guardian's new blog-based campaign to eliminate all agricultural subsidies. The left likes the idea because it helps third-world farmers against rich agribusiness conglomerates. Conservatives and libertarians like it because it creates a freer market in food. What's not to like?

Well, I certainly believe that first-world agricultural subsidies are excessive, but it's worth recalling why those subsidies are there in the first place. In effect, a bit of each person's food bill goes into an insurance fund that underwrites a massive oversupply of food. Food production, after all, is subject to the vagaries of the weather, and by paying for surpluses in times of plenty, we guarantee that the supply will be adequate even in the event of a farming catastrophe. Avoiding famine--with its attendant social disruption, not to mention widespread discomfort--is, I would think, well worth the price of a bit of subsidized overproduction.

The real problem with the current subsidy system is that it was founded at a time when international trade was far less voluminous and reliable than it is today. As a result, it tends to guarantee an agricultural surplus in each individual country separately, rather than simply ensuring that there will be a dependable global oversupply of food. It would make much more sense for the world's major industrialized food producers to ratchet down their subsidies to a point where global surpluses are still guaranteed, even if any one particular country may very occasionally become a net food importer. After all, in the event of a disastrous domestic crop failure in, say, France, the French would still be able to purchase enough food on a glutted world market to sustain themselves, barring some kind of collapse of international trade.

Unfortunately, third-world farmers benefit less than one might hope from such a globalized surplus regime, because their output is too unreliable to form a significant portion of the insured production quota. Or, to put it another way, it'd be nice to be able to steer business towards poor farmers in developing countries--but not if by doing so, we ended up actually relying on them for our food supply.

Still, their production ought to count for something--and that's better for them than the current system, in which most countries act as if domestic supplies (not to mention domestic political pressures) are all that matter.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

A Florida millionaire has apparently just been discovered to have led a "double life" for nearly 30 years, maintaining two simultaneous homes, marriages and families 20 miles apart in the Tampa area. The oddest part: the man's two lives were apparently remarkably similar, each with a lavish suburban home, an active society wife, children--and, of course, many "business-related" absences.

From the look of things, I'd say this fellow's just a bit unclear on the whole "double life" concept. Aldrich Ames led a double life. Clark Kent would be described as leading a double life. But what's the point of leading a double life, if both lives are going to be pretty much identical? Heck, maybe I can claim to lead a double life--it's just that my two identities happen to have the same name, live in the same modest apartment, lead the same quiet life, and hold down the same job.

Moreover, unlike this slipshod operator in Tampa, nobody will ever discover my carefully-concealed second life.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Matthew Yglesias provides yet another demonstration of the colossally messed-up state of the Great American Debate on Race. At issue is California's Proposition 54, a ballot initiative that would bar the government from collecting data that classifies individuals on the basis of race or ethnicity. Yglesias is vehemently opposed to the measure, describing it as a "really and truly awful idea. Really, really awful.....denying the government this data is going to make it totally impossible to do anything about discrimination or even to know whether or not it's taking place."

Now, it's hard to argue with the logic of Yglesias' argument. Race-based decisionmaking of any kind has been forbidden within the government of California since the passage of Proposition 209, but it's widely assumed that various arms of government are still surreptitiously applying racial preferences in areas such as hiring, college admissions and contracting. Without careful data-gathering, though, it will be extremely difficult to detect and expose such covert, illegal discrimination by government employees.

Ready for the crazy part? It's the opponents of racial preferences who support Proposition 54, fearing that the data will be used to impose such preferences, in direct contravention of California law. And it's the supporters of preferences who want to see the data gathered--even though it may help identify and root out those preferences that are still being implemented.

Commenters are encouraged to offer plausible explanations for this utterly bizarre state of affairs.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Eric Rescorla wonders why municipal workmen have been digging up his street (which has no noticeable need for repairs) every two weeks all summer.

It's a little-known fact that many of the engineers responsible for street design in major metropolitan areas got their start as "serious" artists before drifting into a more practical profession. As a result, they tend to be somewhat temperamental and perfectionistic, imagining each street as a unique masterpiece in progress, with its own distinct character and beauty. And, of course, they're constantly spotting slight changes or improvements that they'd like to make to each one, to "perfect" it.

Sometimes, they change their minds at the last moment, and cancel the "repair"; on other occasions, they reverse themselves afterwards, decide that the last alteration would have been better left undone, and schedule work to restore it. There's a major street not far from where I work that some sensitive soul has been continually "putting the finishing touches on" for years now. To the less aesthetically aware among us, it was just fine long ago--but I guess that's why he's an artist, and we're not. I just hope he's satisfied with it soon.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Israeli blogger Shai discusses a recent Israeli television documentary about second- and third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors, now living in Israel, applying for German passports as a hedge against worsening conditions in the Middle East. Apparently, some Israelis view this embrace of Germany as a shameful betrayal of Zionism and the memory of the Holocaust. Others consider it admirably "normal" and "post-Zionist", and see no reason why an Israeli should hesitate to obtain a German passport--any more than would, say, any other citizen of the EU (whose passport is already a de facto German passport, and who probably can also point to his or her country's mistreatment at the hands of Germany during World War II).

Surprisingly, Shai doesn't mention a plausible third view of the act: as a perfectly rational, historically informed reaction to the Holocaust. For if the traditional Zionist lesson is that the Jewish people need a politically independent homeland to survive, an understandable alternative lesson is that the Jewish people, forever on the precarious brink of annihilation, cannot afford to turn their backs on any potential source of sanctuary, however improbable. Today's Israelis may well believe that "it can't happen here"--that the nation they call their own will defend them. But then, so did the Jews of prewar Germany.

It is precisely this idea, I suspect, that some Israelis find threatening and disloyal to Zionism. For it undermines the aforementioned Zionist principle that it is only a Jewish state that can protect the Jewish people. It also implies a weakening of Israelis' resolve to hold onto their country to the bitter end, and thus might perhaps encourage Palestinian terrorists to believe that their murderous deeds are having the desired effect: demoralizing Israelis to the point of military collapse and mass population flight.

But the Jews, of all people, should have learned by now the necessity of not averting one's eyes from even the harshest, most painful of possible outcomes. Israelis who secure a secondary haven for themselves in Germany should their own home country become unsafe are still displaying far more national loyalty, after all, than the thousands who actually move abroad, to the US or elsewhere. And if--heaven forbid--the worst should happen, the very survival of the Jewish people could one day rest on the shoulders of those Jews who sought shelter in seemingly unlikely places.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

The New Republic's "Etc." blogger rejects the notion of a homogeneous bloc of independent, undecided "centrist" voters wooed by both American political parties:
[T]here are actually two groups of "centrist" voters who matter in general elections: 1) upper-income social moderates, who own stock and favor balanced budgets and free trade, but who also favor abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control, and some forms of civil unions or gay marriage. And 2) culturally conservative blue-collar voters, who worry about health care and the loss of American manufacturing jobs, were strongly supportive of the war in Iraq, oppose gun control, are at best lukewarm on gay marriage, and have a cultural (if not economic) suspicion of big government and the far-away "Warshington" elites who run it.
"Etc." then goes on to explain how various Democratic presidential candidates fare among these centrist groups, as well as among the party's left wing. (Matthew Yglesias concurs with this analysis.)

Well, the world is catching up to me, but isn't quite there yet. As I explained long ago, the two middle-class groups identified by "Etc." are not so much "centrist" as in transition, rapidly evolving into the core constituencies of the two wings--and parties--dominating American politics.

The current administration's policies are tailor-made for the latter of the two groups, right down to the profligate government spending and (at least rhetorical) concessions on health benefits and protectionism. Were it not for the Democrats' strong peacenik contingent, it's a fair bet that the libertarian types who would have been solid conservatives on economic grounds during the Reagan years would now be defecting in droves to the Democratic Party.

The main Democratic presidential candidates, on the other hand, are for the most part crafting a message that appeals to the other supposedly "centrist" group: socially libertarian, hawkish on the deficit. And the "traditional" post-sixties left is falling into line, embracing heroes like Paul Krugman who rail against government profligacy like some latter-day Hooverite gold-standard advocate.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the left's continued unstinting loyalty is the party's downfall, dooming its loyalists to second-place status as long as they remain wedded to a dovish foreign policy alignment. If they could only see fit to embrace a more assertive national security agenda, it's likely that their pro-small-investor economics and social libertarianism could pry loose many more of their natural upscale constituents from the Republicans, and help them regain their nationwide competitiveness.

Monday, August 04, 2003

The economic bubble of the late nineties, and the subsequent bust, had a devastating effect on America's corporate pension plans. Absurdly optimistic projections of the plans' future returns led companies to bleed them dry to boost profit numbers, banking on continued spectacular market conditions to make up the difference. Now that the bubble has collapsed, plan managers are faced with a choice between restoring the funds to solvency with huge infusions of costly contributions, to avoid reneging on future commitments, or continuing the charade of implausible Pollyanna projections until the burden of meeting those commitments drives the company into bankruptcy.

One would think the choice to be obvious--but then, one would not be former National Economic Council chair Lawrence Lindsey. He's just co-written a Washington Post op-ed arguing for temporarily easing up on the rules that would otherwise force corporations to fund their employee pension plans properly. His reasoning is that requiring the plans to be properly funded would reinforce, rather than counteract, the business cycle. During boom times, he claims, projections of investment returns inevitably rise, and pension investments decline correspondingly (effectively increasing the amount of money left over for spending, thereby reinforcing the boom). Conversely, when times are tough, estimates of future returns on pension savings are much lower, and cash contributions to those savings are therefore higher. These contributions are subtracted from overall spending, thus exacerbating the economic downturn.

This is all complete nonsense, of course. There is nothing that forces a pension fund manager to get caught up in the insanity of a bubble and naively predict double-digit annual investment returns for his or her fund in perpetuity. That many such managers did so a few years ago is grounds for requiring them to correct their mistake now, in the hope that they will learn a painful lesson and avoid the same error in the future. It is not a good argument, however, for cutting them some slack and letting them wait a few years until their pension funds--and hence their pensionnaires' prospects for not being destitute--are completely demolished.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Mickey Kaus, Matthew Yglesias, Phil Carter and The New Republic's Hassan Fattah have all recently had the same epiphany: that the spontaneous, disorganized nature of the violence directed at US troops in Iraq makes it more dangerous than if it were centrally organized (say, by Saddam Hussein), not less. The justification for this claim is that a centralized guerrilla resistance movement can be crushed by finding and eliminating its leadership, whereas independent bands of snipers can keep popping up indefinitely.

This argument would make sense if the US were planning a permanent occupation of Iraq, and feared losing a never-ending trickle of troops to random attacks. But the American government is at least claiming that its goal is the establishment of a new local government in Iraq. And the threat a centralized underground army poses to the success of this objective is much greater than that posed by scattered anti-American attackers.

An organized guerrilla army, after all, offers an alternative rallying point for disaffected Iraqis unsatisfied for one reason for another with the US Armed Forces' choice of post-occupation government. On the other hand, isolated anti-American thugs on murderous rampages will be more of a law and order problem for the new government than a challenge to their legitimacy or power. And it's not at all certain that they will continue to operate once American troops turn control of Iraq over to a new government and head for home.