Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Fortunately, I always choose an aisle seat.
Just to be contrary, here are a few reasons not to donate to the international relief effort for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami:

  • The most significant damage from this tsunami has already been done. Money donated today would be better spent on establishing an early warning system to reduce the number of deaths next time.

  • Yes, the survivors endured a catastrophe that took tens of thousands of lives in one blow. But that doesn't make them any worthier of help than the thousands around the world who themselves die every day of easily preventable causes. Their misfortunes are no less tragic just because they are suffered at a steady rate over the course of many years.

  • As a result of the publicity, aid is already pouring into the affected areas. Many others in need elsewhere have gotten no such massive response.

  • The victims were disproportionately on the shore (including the beach) at the time of the tsunami. That likely makes them relatively affluent by the standards of their country.

  • India, Indonesia, and Thailand are considered third-world, but they are actually rather large, prosperous countries--5th, 16th and 22nd in the world by GDP, respectively. How wealthy does a country have to be before the rest of the world stops mounting international aid efforts to help them? Does aid pour in from the rest of the world every time a natural disaster strikes, say, a European country?

  • Sri Lanka really is a pretty poor country. But a country that pulls something like this....

  • North America has bigger problems to worry about.

  • Note that none of these reasons absolves anyone of the moral obligation to give generously to charities that help people in desperate need. (And, the above curmudgeonliness notwithstanding, there is no doubt plenty of desperate need among the tsunami's survivors.) However, if this recent appalling disaster triggers an urge to give, it might be worth remembering that the impulse can also be redirected to the cause of one's choice, with undiminished--and possibly even improved--positive consequences.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2004

    The Washington Post complains that insufficiently many women are dying in childbirth.
    Nor, apparently are enough of them dying of cancer or in car accidents. It appears that murder is a leading cause of death of expectant or "new" (whatever that means) mothers.

    Are more of these people being killed than other women, or other people, of the same age? Or of some other age? Is there a trend? In amongst the presentation of many different anecdotes, we are told that "no reliable system is in place to track such cases" and that we don't know "how often it happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome." We're told that in one state, "slightly more than 10 percent of all homicides among women ages 14 to 44 happened to a pregnant or postpartum woman". What is this supposed to mean? The Post investigated one group of 72 homicides. We are given no idea how this group was chosen, but we learn that "nearly two-thirds of the cases had a strong relation to pregnancy or involved a domestic-violence clash in which pregnancy may have been a factor" and that "nearly 30 percent were caused by violence that did not seem related to childbearing".

    The article is very long and tells us nothing we would like to know. Is a pregnant woman more likely to be murdered than a non-pregnant woman or than an old man? What if we investigate a specially selected group of rich women or poor men that were murdered; would we not find that in many cases the death was related to their wealth or poverty? Should we investigate, for example, the murders of ugly, conservative teenagers to see how much we can write on the subject without actually saying anything?

    Wednesday, December 08, 2004

    We all know the story: a grisly murder has unleashed a storm of controversy. The legal and procedural maneuvering aside, the killing has greatly heightened the tension and polarization between the population at large and the alleged killer's minority group. It is a group that has never integrated fully into the larger society, with increasing numbers of its members linguistically separating themselves from the majority, and embracing a grievance-based radical form of Islam. Among the majority, it has come to be associated with unemployment, poverty, crime and drug use. Its alienation level can be judged by the disturbing amount of support its more radical members have lent the alleged murderer.

    On the other hand, this alienation is also born of resentment of years of discrimination and hostility, as symbolized by the use of racial epithets that gained wide attention in the aftermath of the murder. There has been much talk of a massive, ugly backlash.

    So what were the long-term consequences of the O.J. Simpson case, anyway?

    One of the most remarkable non-events in contemporary American politics is the virtually complete disappearance of the issue of race from the national debate--only to reappear, with a vengeance, across the ocean, in Europe. Less than a decade ago, the O.J. Simpson trial--occurring three years after the L.A. riots, and 4 years after the Crown Heights riots--seemed to demonstrate a vast, impenetrable wall of hostility and fury along the American racial divide. Tons of ink and millions of pixels were used up discussing this divide, its causes, its implications and its possible solutions. Today, while Europeans grapple with the same thorny issues (with the same air of earnest gravity), Americans barely give the issue a passing thought. People on both continents would surely benefit from knowing how that remarkable transformation occurred.

    Some possible factors:

  • 9/11.Of course, nothing unites people like a common enemy. Both black and white Americans may feel less hostile towards each other now that they consider themselves equally threatened by terror. News and political debate about terrorism have also probably crowded out other issues, including race relations.

    On the other hand, racial tension seemed to be on the decline even before 9/11, and the actual evidence regarding 9/11's effect is ambiguous.

  • The drop in crime. Crime dropped fairly steeply during the 1990's, for both races, although blacks maintain their proportional lead in both victimization and victimhood. Crime may well have been an important source of racial tension, feeding feelings of resentment among whites (over disproportionately high crime rates among blacks) and neglect among blacks (over less effective crime control in black neighborhoods). Declining crime might therefore have led to improved race relations.

    On the other hand, isolated crime-related racial conflicts over racial profiling and police shootings (for example, in Cincinnati) have continued, despite plummeting crime rates.

  • Welfare reform. The 1996 welfare reform bill is widely credited with undermining the culture of inner-city welfare dependency that was a source of much white resentment and anger, and motivated no end of racially-oriented activism. Then again, it doesn't appear that perceptions of inner-city black culture have changed all that much.

  • Immigration. As a friend points out, immigration complicates America's racial mix, and may therefore have reduced the importance of the original black-white conflict. Of course, extra axes of racial interaction haven't always encouraged calm.

  • Time. Racial hostility may simply have continued the slow, gradual decline it began following the civil rights battles of the 1960s. The boom of the nineties, by reducing black unemployment and income inequality, may have helped matters by reducing the economic--and hence the social--distance between blacks and whites. Perhaps a tipping point of sorts was reached, at which tensions subsided enough to slip beneath the social radar entirely.

    On the other hand, racial integration--widely considered an indicator of long-term progress in race relations--increased only modestly, and in some ways actually decreased, during the 1990s.

  • As you can see, there are many somewhat plausible explanations, and none of them are without compelling counterarguments. Readers are encouraged to offer their own diagnoses, by posting comments. Perhaps our European onlookers will be able to use our ideas to help them identify possible solutions to their own version of the same problem.

    Sunday, November 28, 2004

    Islamism: it's not about women.
    To a hammer, everything is about nails, and to a feminist (that is, a left-winger who's wearing his feminist hat), everything is about the oppression of women. And many people who aren't really feminists seem to have trouble talking about oppression unless it's the oppression of one of a small number of victim classes. Apparently it's just plain boring talking about the oppression of people.

    The simple fact, however, is that Islamism is horrible because it involves the oppression of people, one aspect of this oppression being the imposition of extreme sexual roles on people. Are women oppressed more than men? It seems to me rather nasty to engage in such a victimology competition, but if one insists, then one should at least do the comparison seriously. I've never seen a serious comparison.

    Such a comparison could be quantitative: for example, which sex has more of its members executed for "crimes" that we would never consider crimes? Or it could be anecdotal. We've seen tons of examples of ways in which women are oppressed by Islamism: they must cover themselves, they can't go to school, they can't drive, etc. Documentary after documentary talks about these things, to the exclusion of any mention of how Islamism specifically affects men. The anecdotes about men appear as individual news tidbits about individual instances. For example, we hear about a man having his nose cut off by the Taliban because he shaved his beard; we hear about Iranians lashing a boy to death because he fasted insufficiently.

    I think that many of these feminist-based Islamist-bashers are well-intentioned, and I'm more than willing to give the benefit of the doubt to poor Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered for making a "controversial" documentary about the plight of women under Islamism. But this feminist point of view is not only morally suspect, it is also very dangerous because it completely denies the appeal that Islamism has for women.

    And we see this appeal all the time. Of course the feminist documentaries don't show us female support for Islamism any more than they show us male opposition. But whenever we see mass demonstrations for the Taliban or for similar groups, the women are clearly there in great numbers. When the Iranians kidnapped American diplomats in the seventies, we were often treated on network news to scenes of Islamist women making strange bird calls in support of the Mullahs. In the CBC documentary about Abdurahman Khadr, his al-Qaeda mother and sister are interviewed extensively and it is clear they are absolute monsters. Female suicide bombing appears to be a growth industry.

    The reason I'm writing this now is because of this article by Theodore Dalrymple that has gotten a lot of (positive) attention on anti-islamist web sites. The author states:
    "This abuse [of women] is now essential for people of Muslim descent for maintaining any sense of separate cultural identity in the homogenizing solution of modern mass society. In fact, Islam is as vulnerable in Europe to the forces of secularization as Christianity has proved to be. ... Were it not for the abuse of women, Islam would go the way of the Church of England. ... [A] divide often opens between brothers and sisters in the same European Muslim family; the sisters want liberty, but the brothers enforce the old rules. ... This, I suspect, is the source of the rage against Theo Van Gogh."

    I suspect Dalrymple is wrong. After all, it doesn't take much to "enrage" these people. Dalrymple gives no evidence at all for his assertions and certainly provides no statistics showing that sisters like Islam less than their brothers, or that their brothers only like Islam because it allows them to abuse women. He doesn't discuss all the other anecdotal evidence that many women really like Islam. He doesn't feel any need to refute this British program, Mum, I'm a Muslim that states:
    "Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and women are thought to be the largest group among its converts."
    He should also check out this other Channel 4 program which discusses the shock of a secular, sexual, young male Muslim upon finding out that his old drinking buddies have renounced their whoring ways for Islamism.

    It is easy to explain the attraction in the U.S. to slavery: White people profited from it at the expense of Black people. I sympathize with Dalrymple's desire to see an explanation for Islamism that is just as simple, but I don't buy it. And ignoring the danger from Islamist women only increases our peril.

    Thursday, November 18, 2004

    In the wake of President Bush's re-election, American Democrats have been trying to understand where the Democratic party went wrong, and what it can do to set things right. (For example, Slate hosted a discussion among several writers, and The New Republic published a good, concise, summary of the popular theories.) Of course, some argue that given the fairly small margin of Bush's victory, the Democrats came close enough to winning that they could easily pull off a victory next time with only some minor tactical adjustments--perhaps a more charismatic candidate, a better-crafted message, or a more aggressive attack-ad campaign. Others point to issues, such as foreign policy or "moral values", on which the Democratic Party is allegedly too out-of-step with the electorate to win national elections, and therefore must change its positions to survive.

    The problem with all these analyses is that they assume that both parties actually have clear, well-defined, opposing positions on each major issue, positions that in each case may or may not need adjusting to align them with the majority view. In fact, during this past campaign, the two major presidential candidates agreed--publicly, at least--on most everything. They both supported the ban on gay marriages. They each had a plan, of highly dubious plausibility, to cut the deficit in half. They both believed that the US should "finish the job" of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq, and pursue a vigorous war on terrorism. Their main differences were over matters like the exact tax rate for high income-earners, the right way to discourage North Korea and Iran from continuing with their nuclear arms programs, how assiduously to court European countries diplomatically to get them involved in American foreign policy initiatives, and what position future Supreme Court justices should take on Roe v. Wade.

    These are all important issues, to be sure, but they certainly weren't the foci of either campaign. No doubt that's because in all likelihood anybody who might have been swayed to one side or the other by a candidate's opinion on one of these issues already knew exactly which way they would vote. On issues that might shift moderate, independent voters, however, both sides had no choice but to choose the position that stood the best chance of attracting a majority of them. Hence they ended up agreeing on the majority of the most widely discussed issues.

    The resulting consensus, in fact, provides a fairly accurate road map of the state of moderate, middle-of-the-road America--and a good snapshot of the prospects of both parties for making headway in the quest for a durable majority coalition. For example, on social issues, the country appears today to be against gay marriage (though generally tolerant of gays, as neither candidate dared express anything but respect for gays who choose to live openly as such); somewhere in between pro-life and pro-choice, though perhaps leaning mildly towards abortion rights; and very serious about religion and personal morality and integrity in general (though perhaps not so much in every specific). On economic policy, Americans are apparently relatively unconcerned about the deficit, and unwilling to consider large-scale tax increases to mitigate it. All of these positions are, I believe, embraceable by both parties, without severely alienating their respective bases. (A possible exception might be conservative Republicans' discomfort with the public's moderate stance on abortion and gay rights. But so far, it seems, they've been content to accept a party program based on combatting the most extreme opposing positions, rather than on resisting the pull of the middle.)

    It's in the area of foreign policy, I think, where the most interesting conflict appears. For it's my impression that the Democratic base right now is not simply against aggressive unilateral military ventures, but is in fact to a large degree dovish to the point of being virtually pacifist or isolationist. The Howard Dean bubble during the Democratic primaries provides some evidence of this claim, as does the continuing strength within the party of such strongly antiwar groups as "".

    What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats can reach the same kind of accommodation with the American mainstream's support for a military-backed activist foreign policy that core Republicans appear (so far, at least) to have reached with respect to the public's in-between stance on abortion, homosexuality, and other hot-button "moral issues". If so, then a future Kennedyesque candidate--hawkish internationally, dovish on the deficit, and moderate on social issues--stands a good chance of winning undecided voters, and thereby the presidency, in the not-too-distant future. (Kerry was a poor example of such a candidate, given his history as an antiwar activist and Cold War dove.)

    On the other hand, if the base fails to reconcile itself conspicuously with American geopolitical aggressiveness, then the Democrats may be in for a period much like the seventies and eighties, when their near-pacifism in the face of the Cold War lost them the confidence of the American center, which responded by virtually shutting them out of the White House for nearly a quarter-century.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2004

    Law professor Peter Berkowitz has written an article for the University of Chicago student newspaper, complaining about the conduct of a local sociology professor during a panel discussion there in which they both participated. The panel, Berkowitz writes,
    consisted of Professor [Saskia] Sassen, who spoke on behalf of transnationalism, or principles and forms of government that transcend the nation state; myself, discussing nationalism and how Israel could be both a liberal democracy and Jewish state; Professor Ann Bayefsky (to whom Professor Sassen sneeringly refers) of Columbia University Law School, who analyzed the double standard the U.N. has applied to Israel for decades; and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University geneticist, who sought to equate Zionism with Nazism, racism and apartheid.
    According to Berkowitz, Sassen's reaction to this set of initial remarks was a vigorous condemnation of Bayefsky's and Berkowitz's defense of Israel, after which she stormed out of the session without waiting for a response. To Berkowitz,
    by walking out on the panel midway through the event “after she had spoken for a second time but before she could be challenged” Professor Sassen showed that she held her own opinions to be beyond criticism and regarded her opponents’ opinions as unworthy of serious debate. Professor Sassen’s performance was more than unprofessional. It was rude to the organizers, to the audience, and to her fellow panelists.

    Taking her conduct and comments together, one is led to conclude that Professor Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers; that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence ad arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes; and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.
    I can understand Berkowitz being appalled at Sassen's behavior--but not at her walking out of a discussion where opinions are being expressed that she considers outrageous. In many cases, in fact, that's exactly the right thing to do--to refuse to lend to false or morally reprehensible assertions the dignity and respect of responding to them as if they were credible or legitimate. Indeed, I would have been sorely tempted to walk out on Prof. Qumsiyeh's calumnies against Israel myself, had I been there.

    No, Professor Sassen's shame was not to have stood up for what she believed in, but rather to have believed in some truly awful things. Professor Bayefsky was absolutely correct in pointing out that the UN has, over the years, obsessively condemned Israel--and only Israel--for behavior that is a good deal more scrupulous than the norm for typical UN members. Meanwhile, if Berkowitz correctly characterized the claims of Professor Qumsiyeh, then for Sassen to side with him against Bayefsky was simply shameful.

    But that is the level to which the international debate about Israel has fallen, these days: to savage the Jewish state in terms that, were they applied to any other nation on earth, would be instantly recognized as frighteningly hate-filled--even arguably racist--has become so normal in some circles that merely to point out this state of affairs is itself sometimes criticized as a breach of decorum.

    Witness, for example, what happened when one of the blog "Crooked Timber's" collective of distinguished left-wing academics invited discussion on the topic of why discussions of Israel tend to get so heated. Despite the moderator's promise to "be especially ruthless in deleting comments that I think are unhelpful or that lay the blame all on one side in an overheated way", there followed, among other comments, repeated comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid, dark hints about "Israel’s enormous political influence in the US", and numerous ad hominem attacks against Israel, Israelis and their supporters--all left intact by the moderator. Eventually one commenter suggested that the problem might be that "most poster[s] are strongly anti-Israel, and they make many ad hominem attacks on supporters of Israel." Shortly thereafter, the moderator shut down the discussion, singling out this latter commentator's complaints as examples of the incivility he despaired of ever escaping.

    It is pointless to engage in debate of this sort by standing on matters of civility. There are civil, effective ways to respond to offensive statements, but they do not involve criticizing the offender's lack of adherence to the conventions of public propriety. They involve asserting, frankly and unabashedly, that the statements in question are morally objectionable in the extreme, and explaining exactly why. If the offenders adopt the same position with respect to their opponents, then obviously no reasonable dialogue can take place, and it is pointless to criticize either side for refusing to continue to attempt one. Rather, it is up to outside parties to decide for themselves which side--if either--is in the right.

    For decades following Israel's creation, it was commonplace for Arab representatives to refuse even to acknowledge the presence of Israeli representatives in public settings, so as not to imply that the latter had any legitimacy. At the time, it seemed like a huge propaganda victory for Israelis to be able to point out that they were open to dialogue at any time, but for the rudeness of their hypothetical Arab interlocutors. In retrospect, however, Arab intransigence had its own propaganda value, eventually convincing an astonishing number of people that their steadfast rejectionism was grounded in some kind of ideal of justice, when in fact it largely consisted of ethnic hostility tinged with cynical self-interest. It is long past time for supporters of Israel to stop boasting about their politely indulgent tolerance for their opponents' hatred, and start standing up for moral principle, not just formal civility, by denouncing attacks on Israel for what they are--vile calumnies, rather than mere breaches of etiquette.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2004

    Something interesting may well be happening in North Korea, where it's lately been reported that pictures of leader Kim Jong-Il have been removed from some public places. But the first line of this story--"Hardliners have tightened their political grip on North Korea"--doesn't exactly sound like earth-shattering news.

    Then again, I guess, in Korean terms, that makes it a "man bites dog" story....

    Saturday, November 13, 2004

    This article looks pretty accurate. Then again, I expect it was very carefully fact-checked, to avoid a repeat of this famous episode.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2004

    One of the more bizarre measures of the state of the War on Terror is the one proposed in a New York Times op-ed by Daniel Benjamin and Gabriel Weimann: the enthusiasm level of jihadist propaganda. As Benjamin and Weimann put it:
    One need only listen to the terrorists and observe their recent actions to understand that we face grave problems. After all, their analysis of the battle is a key determinant of the level of terrorism in the future.

    To get a sense of the jihadist movement's state of mind, we must listen to its communications, and not just the operational "chatter" collected by the intelligence community. Today, the central forum for the terrorists' discourse is not covert phone communications but the Internet, where Islamist Web sites and chat rooms are filled with evaluations of current events, discussions of strategy and elaborations of jihadist ideology.

    Yes, assessing this material requires a critical eye since there is plenty of bluster and some chat room participants may be teenagers in American suburbs rather than fighters in the field. Some things, however, are clear: There has been a drastic shift in mood in the last two years. Radicals who were downcast and perplexed in 2002 about the rapid defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan now feel exuberant about the global situation and, above all, the events in Iraq.
    Benjamin and Weimann proceed to give numerous quotations from Islamist Websites to the effect that "that America has blundered in Iraq the same way the Soviet Union did in the 1980's in Afghanistan, and that it will soon be leaving in defeat." Oddly enough, they provide no quotations to support their contention that the rhetoric emanating from these Web sites was "downcast and perplexed in 2002." I wonder why?

    As I pointed out some time ago, the rhetoric of totalitarian movements has nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with fear and violence. The goal of Islamist terrorism's propagandists is not to compile and communicate a clear-eyed, rational description of objective reality, but rather to intimidate opponents into believing--or at least into being afraid enough to pretend to believe--that radical Islamists are unstoppably on the march, and that resistance to them is futile. This purpose is utterly unaffected by facts on the ground, such as the success or failure of American-Iraqi efforts to crush the insurgency centered in the "Sunni Triangle". Any self-respecting Iraqi Jihadist propagandist will fervently proclaim the inevitability of Muslim victory right up to the moment when the Marines break down his door. After all, who knows? Perhaps some gullible American writers are listening....

    Monday, October 11, 2004

    Anyone who still believes the experts' claims that bureaucratic reform is the key to rejuvenating America's national security bureaucracy should read the recent Washington Post op-ed by Brookings scholar and "professor of public service" (whatever that means) Paul C. Light. This august gentleman has discerned two major flaws in his nation's intelligence apparatus:

    1) It is bloated with a horrifying number of senior positions:
    Between 1961 and 2004 the federal government added 41 new executive titles, including tongue twisters such as deputy associate deputy secretary, principal associate deputy undersecretary, deputy assistant secretary, deputy associate executive administrator, and assistant chief of staff to the assistant administrator.
    2) A horrifying number of those positions are unfilled:
    The current appointments process virtually ensures that the new intelligence agency will wait months, if not years, to fill its top jobs.

    The process clearly failed the country on Sept. 11. Two months before the terrorist attacks, just a third of the 166 Senate-confirmed jobs through which the war on terrorism would be led were filled.
    His solution? "[F]latten the bloated hierarchies the new agency will oversee and streamline the presidential appointments process that will fill its top jobs." That way, not only will it be easier to fill all the jobs that shouldn't exist, but it'll also be easier to cut back on unnecessary hiring for all the redundant positions that have already been filled.

    Or something like that.

    Wednesday, October 06, 2004

    Two journalist-lawyers, Yonatan Lupu of The New Republic and Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, have come to remarkably similar conclusions about the recent non-trial of American Taliban-Guantanamo prisoner Yaser Hamdi. After the Supreme Court ruled that he must be allowed to stand trial, the government elected instead to make a deal with him, in which he agreed to give up his US citizenship and be deported in return for the charges against him being dropped. To Lupu and Lithwick, that's proof that Hamdi was obviously an innocent falsely imprisoned for three years for no legitimate reason. (What do they think the real-but-illegitimate reason could have been? Sadism? Racism? Propaganda? Incompetence? Neither writer deigns to speculate.) Here's Lithwick:
    [T]hey let him go. Because Hamdi was, of course, never really the Taliban's Dr. Evil, or even its Mini-Me. He was slammed into solitary on some flimsy assertions contained in what's known as the two-page "Mobbs Declaration." That document was authored by the adviser to the undersecretary of defense policy—a bureaucrat who wasn't actually in Afghanistan when Hamdi was captured, yet felt confident swearing that Hamdi was an enemy combatant, because, according to his captors from the Northern Alliance, he was "affiliated with a Taliban military unit."
    And Lupu:
    The reality is that the government wanted to avoid a Hamdi trial because of the potential embarrassment of admitting that its evidence against him was inadequate. Not only that, but this precedent would undermine its credibility in future cases, such as those of the Guantanamo prisoners. So the administration did with Hamdi what it's been doing now for three years: avoid the courts, whatever the cost.
    Now, it's possible, of course, that Yaser Hamdi really was, as his father claims--and Lithwick and Lupu apparently believe--in Afghanistan "for humanitarian reasons"; that he was somehow taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance and mistaken for a Taliban soldier; that he was then further identified as one of the few hundred high-level detainees worthy of being handed over to American custody and shipped to Guantanamo, based on no credible evidence; and that the US has been holding him for three years now for no good reason whatsoever. In that case, it certainly makes sense that the government would rather release him than risk an embarrassing trial.

    But there's another, entirely plausible--indeed, far more likely--and highly disturbing possibility: that Hamdi really is an important Taliban captive; that he really was captured by the Northern Alliance while fighting for the Taliban; and that he was quite correctly included among the prisoners significant enough to be sent to Guantanamo for further detention and interrogation, rather than being released.

    Let us suppose, for a moment, that this not-so-wild scenario is correct--that is, that the US military isn't engaged in a massive cock-up and/or cover-up, and that what it's claiming about Hamdi is essentially true. How, then, would Hamdi's captors likely handle the Supreme Court's order to either try him or release him? Recall that being a member of the Taliban wasn't a criminal offense at the time Hamdi was captured. (The USA Patriot Act may plug that gaping hole in the future--if it survives the withering attacks of Lithwick and her ilk--but it cannot be used retroactively.) He would thus have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have been actively engaged in combat against US soldiers at some point. Of course, the details of his capture are no doubt somewhat fuzzy, and even finding the witnesses who could corroborate the incriminating circumstances of his detention--let alone shipping said Northern Alliance irregulars-cum-witnesses to the US to testify at a trial, and then withstand cross-examination--is not likely to be a feasible proposition. Meanwhile, Hamdi's lawyer would be free to subpoena testimony from all manner of Al Qaida and Taliban captives, just as Zacarias Moussaoui did. Pursuing a trial would therefore most likely result not only in a prosecutorial failure and a public relations nightmare, but also a disastrous disruption of the isolation and interrogation regime imposed on top Al Qaida captives.

    But would the government really simply release a real, honest-to-goodness high-ranking Taliban fighter, setting him free to rejoin his comrades in battle against American troops--just to allay the concerns of meddling civil libertarians? Indeed they would. After all, among feared enemies threatening to destroy America's armed forces, the Taliban have nothing on the US Supreme Court.

    Tuesday, October 05, 2004

    Does anyone want to starve Terri Schiavo to death?
    Many people claim her husband does. The poor woman is in a state that may or not be "persistent vegetative" according to which doctor you believe, and I have no idea if there is any consensus on whether or not she will ever be able to express a wish to live, or to die. And I therefore don't know if I would support killing her or not.

    Dan has responded (in the comments) to my post on enforced euthanasia, and I plan on responding to his remarks. For the moment, I wish to address one aspect of his remarks that is relevant to the Schiavo case, namely the distinction between the government wrongly causing someone to die or suffer through some action it takes, versus the government wrongly causing someone to die or suffer through inaction. Dan points out that the first is worse, and I agree. Except ...

    For one thing, the relative numbers matter, but I'll discuss that later. For another thing, I think Dan's position here is at least somewhat inconsistent with his disrespect for the "precautionary principle".

    For now, I wish to make the point that in the Schiavo case, as in all cases where one discusses enforced euthanasia, the distinction between action and inaction becomes very vague. The "inaction" of not killing Terri involves a huge amount of very expensive, constant action to keep her alive, all without her explicit consent. The proposed "action" of ceasing to feed her -- also without her explicit consent -- can also be viewed as inaction. In fact, this is how killing through starvation or nonresuscitation is generally presented to the anti-euthanasia crowd: we're not doing anything, we're merely ceasing to do something. In other words, the proposed starvation is an attempt to make people such as Dan happier with euthanasia.

    I don't think this attempt is very successful, at least not with Dan. I believe that if we are going to do euthanasia, we should do it right, even if it means admitting that we are truly performing the action of killing. I think we should treat our loved ones with at least as much decency as we treat (in most states where there is capital punishment) our worst criminals: those that we kill should be killed with lethal injection, that is, with lethal IV. We should allow them a quick, painless death. I would like to think that those people who want Terri Schiavo to die, want her to die this way. Unfortunately, such positive action is generally viewed as being out of the question in our society.

    Monday, September 27, 2004

    Volokh Conspirator Orin Kerr has posed three questions to bloggers who supported US military intervention in Iraq prior to its commencement. Now, given the ambivalence of my prior support for the war, I may not qualify for his poll, but since I mostly answered all his questions back in April, I thought I'd compile my official response:
    First, assuming that you were in favor of the invasion of Iraq at the time of the invasion, do you believe today that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea? Why/why not?
    To quote myself:
    [T]he striking thing about all of the....retrospective assessments of the war is their astonishing level of collective amnesia. The remarkably short, painless, casualty-free conduct of the military campaign itself has apparently now reached the status of an a priori given, and its effectiveness is therefore currently understood to be best measured by the state of Iraq's transition into peaceful, united, democratic statehood....

    If one starts from my initial position, however--that is, sincere ambivalence about a risky, potentially catastrophic military incursion with the sole goal of ousting a horrible, dangerous military dictator--then the whole project looks markedly better in retrospect than it did at the outset. It's true that no "weapons of mass destruction" have been found--although few doubt that a chemical weapons program would have been easy for Saddam to reconstitute, given that he had had a highly successful one in the past. On the other hand, the strongest argument against the war--the largely unuttered "body bags" argument", envisioning a long, drawn-out, horribly bloody campaign involving thousands of civilian and military deaths--turned out in the end to have been completely contradicted by events.
    I wrote that in April, and I stand by it. The conquest of Iraq had all sorts of enormous benefits--for the US, Iraq, and the world. In focusing exclusively on the current troubles there, antiwar commentators have ignored all the previous troubles: a huge sitting-duck Maginot line guarding a resentful Saudi Arabia against a belligerent northern despot (in between terrorist attacks on its barracks and compounds); regular air patrols--including bombing runs on anti-aircraft installations--to suppress an Iraqi air force bent on slaughtering recalcitrant Iraqis all over the country; a collapsing sanctions regime stoking anti-American feelings in both Europe and the Arab world, while increasing internal Iraqi suffering; and so on and so on and so on. (Remember "rogue nation" Libya?)

    If it had been known in 2002 that all of these problems could have been eliminated so cheaply, there would have been no argument at all against the war.
    Second, what reaction do you have to the not-very-upbeat news coming of Iraq these days, such as the stories I link to above?
    Again, to quote myself, in April:
    I've already made it clear numerous times that I consider the grand effort to democratize Iraq to be naively optimistic. And I suppose it's possible that by hanging around for long enough, the American army could ultimately damage its country's strategic position enough to undo its spectacular victory in Iraq. But to declare the current circumstances there a disaster based on a little continued unrest is to lose track of the recent history of that troubled country--which about a year ago experienced, despite a few bumps since, a truly wonderful upturn in its fortunes, thanks to its friends from the United States of America.
    I'd alter this assessment in only one respect--and that change represents my answer to question 3....
    Third, what specific criteria do you recommend that we should use over the coming months and years to measure whether the Iraq invasion has been a success?
    The Iraqi invasion was a success, period. In fact, it was a spectacular success, with many positive effects and very few negative ones. No subsequent events can change that. The management of its aftermath may yet turn out to be a failure, although it would take a great many more major future disasters to turn it into one. At some point, though--and I believe that point has already been reached--blaming future unfortunate developments in Iraq on the initial American military intervention makes about as much sense as blaming them on the invention of fire. The chain of causation may be there, but the myriad oft-unmentioned beneficial consequences overwhelm even the most conspicuous detrimental ones.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2004

    By now everyone who reads this blog has surely read about the CBS document scandal, in which Dan Rather claimed to possess four 1973 documents tarnishing George W. Bush's record with the Texas Air National Guard. The documents were in fact, really poor-quality forgeries, almost certainly edited on a personal computer running Microsoft Word on its default settings, rather than typed on a typewriter in 1973. I will limit myself to two comments:

    1) Much attention has been given to the role of blogs in uncovering the scandal and generally "fact-checking" the press. No doubt blogs increased the speed of the reaction to CBS' malfeasance, but I don't think they would have accomplished much without a much more important development--the collapse of the old "big three" network news oligopoly.

    In 1997, the Food Lion supermarket chain won a lawsuit against ABC, after two ABC Prime Time journalists got themselves hired at a Food Lion, then filmed unsanitary practices they found there with a hidden camera. Although the film taken by the ABC employees (subpoena'd by Food Lion and shown to the jury) proved that the "Prime Time" piece had effectively been a set-up, the press generally rallied around ABC. At a panel on ABC's "Nightline", for example, Don Hewitt--then executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes"--not only spoke in "ABC Prime Time"'s defense, but even castigated the judge for allowing Food Lion to obtain the unbroadcast footage revealing some of ABC's questionable tactics. Hewitt obviously felt that both he and the "Prime Time" producers were in the same boat, as network television magazine journalists, and had to stick together when threatened from outside.

    These days, however, ABC is among the more aggressive news organizations exposing the fraudulence of the CBS memos. With the cozy dominance of the "big three" gone--replaced by a chaotic battleground of cable news stations, satellite channels and foreign outlets accessible over the Internet--ABC has its own credibility (and market share) to worry about, and is happy to cannibalize its erstwhile friends at CBS. Its reports, along with the equally skeptical accounts of such organs as the Washington Post, reach millions more Americans than even the most popular blogger, and are the real reason why CBS had to back down in the end.

    2) This scandal may, in the long run, prove to be the press' salvation. For while much has been made of the crude obviousness of the forgeries CBS fell for, little attention has been paid to a much more fundamental point: the documents "60 Minutes" touted as evidence were in fact photocopies, rather than originals. In other words, if the forger had simply taken the trouble to type them on a vintage typewriter instead of a word processor, then scanned them into a computer and edited in the image of a real (or painstakingly forged) signature, then the documents' authenticity would have been virtually impossible to ascertain, and CBS would most likely have been able to continue to defend the plausibility of their story.

    The problem, of course, is that given the state of modern technology, a photocopied document is terribly easy to forge, in ways that are difficult-to-impossible to detect. If the existing standard of evidence had continued to allow journalists to rely on photocopied documents, then one would expect any number of forged photocopies to be leaked anonymously to the press in the future, and their contents to be dutifully relayed to the public by gullible reporters. The CBS scandal, however, may have sufficiently discredited photocopy evidence that it will never again be considered trustworthy enough to base a story on. If so, then that would without question be the most important positive outcome of the whole affair.

    Sunday, September 19, 2004

    Should euthanasia sometimes be mandatory?
    Conservatives typically abhor all euthanasia. I suspect that's true about the author of this article, but whether or not it is, the author certainly bemoans the slippery slope that leads from the acceptance of some forms of euthanasia to the acceptance of euthanizing children, even without their parents consent. I, on the other hand, am happy falling down that slope. In fact, I want to make an argument that euthanasia should sometimes be mandatory. This argument is only addressed to those people who honestly feel that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable; all others are encouraged to stop reading now.

    So if you're still with me, you agree that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable. Presumably it is acceptable when someone who is dying and suffering but still of sound mind repeatedly begs to be killed. But what if the person is dying and suffering but is unable to express himself? I feel that this person should be "euthanized", whether or not his family consents, and whether or not he has left a "living will" to the contrary. More generally, here is my proposal.

    The State must euthanize every person who, in the best opinion of medical experts, will never be able to express a desire not to be euthanized.

    To put it another way, all you have to do to avoid being euthanized is to say "no thank you", or to have medical experts assert that it's possible you might be able to say "no thank you" at some point in the future. Of course, the "opinion of medical experts" will be taken by a suitable board of medical professionals that has been established for precisely this purpose. There are other situations where euthanasia should be allowed, but I'm only speaking here of conditions where it should be mandatory.

    There are two types of errors that might be made here. Let us call the Type A error the case where we euthanize someone we shouldn't, and the Type B error where we fail to euthanize someone we should. If we weren't afraid of Type A errors we would euthanize everyone, so I assume we are all afraid of Type A errors. If we weren't afraid of Type B errors, then we would euthanize no one. Since you are still reading this, I know you are afraid of Type B errors, as am I. The worst kind of Type B error is where the person is suffering and conscious and wants to die, but can't express it; he may go on suffering like that for years, if we let him. I've been told by anaesthesiologists that even unconscious people can experience pain. The best case of Type B error (if you agree with my proposal) is where the person is so dead-like that nothing resembling pain or consciousness can be experienced; I suppose we could weaken the proposal to let such people live, but I won't consider that for now. The worst kind of Type A error is where the person is in no pain, the doctors are wrong, and the person wakes up in the morning as good as new.

    For myself, I'm afraid of a Type A error no more than I am afraid of any other form of death. In fact, I am a lot less afraid, since Type A errors will be such a negligible cause of death that it's silly to worry about them. I am very much afraid, however, of a Type B error. There are probably about a million of these in the United States right now. I have seen loved ones become them, and there is a very high likelihood that I will become one as well. If we regard a Type B error as a catastrophe, then we should certainly be willing to accept Type A errors.

    But what if a family member wants to keep alive a person who would be killed under my proposal? The article asks, "... since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children killed?" But one can also ask, "Since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children suffer arbitrarily much?"

    But what if a person establishes a "living will" asserting that he should under no conditions be euthanized? We can more generally ask the question: to what extent should a person be able to contract to give away future rights? Should I be able to give you the right to torture me? There are even limitations in our society on the contractual validity of certain kinds of prenuptial agreements. So I have absolutely no problem with limiting a person's right to contract to receive arbitrary suffering in the future.

    Friday, September 03, 2004

    Patriot Act paranoia is a common affliction among the civil liberties-obsessed, but Jeffrey Rosen, Legal Editor for the New Republic, has just taken it to a new level. Rosen is concerned about the FBI's use of the Patriot Act as part of a new, pre-emptive approach to terrorism:
    Since September 11, increased information-sharing has been the first element in the Justice Department's two-pronged strategy to prevent terrorism. The second element involves prosecuting suspicious individuals or groups quickly for low-level crimes rather than waiting years to build a more elaborate case. In many ways, the prevention strategy offers a new twist on an old prosecutorial tactic. Call it the Al Capone approach: Unable to prove that Capone was a mobster, the government prosecuted him for tax evasion instead. Now, the government is using similar tactics to take suspected terrorists off the streets before they can launch an attack.
    What's wrong with this strategy? Well, according to Rosen, "since September 11, the Bush administration has also used its new surveillance authority to prosecute or deport hundreds of people who have nothing to do with terrorism." His evidence? They're being prosecuted for non-terrorism-related crimes.
    A comprehensive tracking study by Syracuse University in December 2003 found that the Justice Department had overstated the number of terrorism-related convictions by creating a new category after September 11 called "Anti-Terrorism," which includes immigration offenses, identity theft, and drug cases "intended to prevent or disrupt potential or actual terrorist threats where the offense conduct is not obviously a federal crime of terrorism." According to the Syracuse study, only half of the more than 6,400 "terrorist and anti-terrorist" matters referred to prosecutors by investigative agencies in the two years after September 11 involved actual acts of international or domestic terrorism....

    What's more, the 9/11 Commission noted that, of the 768 aliens arrested as "special interest detainees" and lawfully held on immigration charges, 531 were deported, 162 were released on bond, and only eight--including [9/11 suspect Zacarias] Moussaoui--were remanded to the U.S. Marshall Service as terrorism suspects.....critics of the prevention strategy, such as David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center, note that, of the nearly 5,000 foreign nationals detained since September 11 on immigration charges, only three were actually charged with any terrorism-related crime.
    That's right--we know that the strategy of convicting terrorists of lesser offenses is being abused to round up non-terrorists, because many of those convicted under the strategy are being convicted of lesser crimes than terrorism. (Perhaps the rest were charged with tax evasion?)

    Rosen has an additional objection:
    [S]tate and local officials seem less enthusiastic about the prevention paradigm than their counterparts in Washington. Four states and nearly 330 local governments have passed resolutions objecting to the Bush administration's use of the Patriot Act and its efforts to enlist local officials in the war on terrorism. For example, the district attorney in Portland, Oregon, insisted that state law banned his city's police from apprehending people who had violated only immigration laws or from collecting information on the political beliefs of citizens, except as part of a criminal investigation.
    Note that the Portland DA's rationale had nothing to do with whether the Patriot Act was being used to target real terrorists or mere petty criminals. That is, his complaint was against the FBI's uses of the Patriot Act tout court, even against terrorists or their collaborators. No doubt many--probably the vast majority--of the local resolutions passed against the Patriot Act and the War on Terror were of a similarly undiscriminating variety, outright condemning the Patriot Act, as applied by the FBI, as an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties. Now, where on earth might all those political bodies have gotten such an idea?

    Saturday, August 28, 2004

    An Exegesis of Feminist Research on Women in Information Technology
    The important computer science organization ACM has a thrice-weekly posting called TechNews of news items about the world of computing and technology. When the posters are not shilling for Linux or actually reporting on something interesting, hardly a third-of-a-week goes by where they fail to discuss what every nonthinking IT professional knows is a crisis of monumental proportions: the small number of Women In IT.

    I have known many feminist computer scientists for a long time, and they have always known the cause of this problem. In the seventies and early eighties they knew that the problem lay with the way that parents and grade school teachers treat very young girls and boys: these parents and teachers (perhaps unintentionally) steer girls away from an interest in computer science. Studies were done, and this explanation was proven correct. Of course, these feminists were young adults with no children of their own. Later they had children and their friends had children and they saw differences between girls and boys, so they no longer offered this up as the explanation; in fact, they had never offered this up as the explanation, so no apologies were necessary.

    New explanations were needed. This is a problem that has to be explained and fixed because ...

    Well for one thing, we need a huge number of additional IT employees (or at least we did before the "bubble" burst), and where else can we find them but amongst women? I suppose we could look for more men, since most men are not IT employees, but presumably the men who aren't in IT have a good reason for not being there: they aren't good at it, or they aren't interested in it, or they are otherwise gainfully employed. Women who aren't in tech, on the other hand, are leading useless lives and need to be saved. For another thing, women have a lot to offer IT that men just don't, and presumably these special skills aren't as important in that other stuff (law, medicine, motherhood, etc.) we want to take them away from.

    Here, chronologically from almost five years of the ACM TechNews archives, are some explanations that have been offered for why there are so few women in IT and for why we need them so badly, as well as discussions of how to solve the problem. I've only chosen a small number of articles that I find especially amusing. ACM is obsessed with this issue (in a totally one-sided way), and this obsession reflects the incredibly totalitarian atmosphere in the IT industry, and especially in university computer science departments. (Remark: My host, Dan Simon, objects to this slur upon the IT industry.)

    I've put (links to) these explanations on a separate page. If you read them you'll learn that sexism is to blame for the large number of female entrepreneurs; or that the real problem is that women don't like introverted white male geeks; that video games are the problem; that men do social networking better than women; that IT is too time consuming; that women are differently abled; that the rise of dot-coms hurt women; that the fall of dot-coms hurt women; and much, much, more. Each of these articles is idiotic and most are self-contradictory, but the sum of them together totally destroys any illusion that the ACM takes this subject seriously.

    Here is a challenge for my reader(s): Find a feminist oriented article about women and IT from the last four years that was deemed too stupid to make it into ACM TechNews.

    Here are the links.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2004

    It should be obvious by now that the battle between John Kerry and the organization known as "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" (SBVT) has nothing to do with what, exactly, John Kerry did or did not do in Vietnam. The actual accusations about his service record are for the most part exceedingly minor--at worst, that Kerry wasn't quite as heroic as he has claimed, and may have exaggerated his bravery a touch. The sole accusation with any potential substance is that Kerry later claimed to have been in Cambodia, when in fact it's doubtful that he ever was.

    But the reason for this accusation's significance is precisely that it calls into question Kerry's political record, not his military one. For while Kerry may have used his claimed military heroism to burnish his character credentials, he later used his claimed runs into Cambodia to buttress his political positions as an antiwar activist and politician. Similarly, most of the SBVT animus towards Kerry, judging by their public pronouncements, is a product of his antiwar activism, not the petty details of the episodes that won him his medals.

    However, SBVT dare not make Kerry's antiwar history the issue itself, for the simple reason that their staunch belief in the justice and honor of that war is far from unanimously shared among voters. Were they to assail Kerry as a hippie pinko radical traitor, they would run up against a great deal of opposition from people who considered Kerry's antiwar stance a principled and justifiable one. Indeed, there's no guarantee that such a debate wouldn't earn Kerry more support than it loses him. So instead, SBVT call Kerry a liar--and who can argue in defense of lying?

    Of course, SBVT hardly invented this tactic. Anti-Bush partisans prefer to call him a liar, a fool or a corrupt dictator rather than discuss the nuances of Iraq policy--on which Kerry has a hard time defensibly differentiating himself from Bush. Similarly, former president Clinton's haters accused him of corruption, dishonesty, immorality, even murder--anything but bad policy choices, since his policy decisions were for the most part highly popular. These days, only unsuccessful politicians get the honor of being attacked for their unpopular political positions. The rest are subjected instead to withering personal attacks, calculated to rally the faithful and perhaps win a few stray fence-sitters, while alienating nobody but the hard-core partisans who are already invested in the attacked candidate's manifold virtues.

    The success of such attacks, however, is far from certain, and ultimately depends on the strength of the attacked candidate's political support. Bill Clinton, for example, was pummelled by a series of far more devastating shots--alleged draft evasion, Gennifer Flowers, and others--yet survived to beat an incumbent president basking in the triumph of a spectacularly successful war. His secret: a detailed, brilliantly crafted policy program that allowed him to dismiss personal attacks as insubstantial compared to the "real issues".

    Kerry, on the other hand, has been light on policy proposals, choosing instead to run largely on the theme, "I'm a war hero"--and, more generally, "I am not George W. Bush". And because the politician who lives by "character" dies by character, the SBVT attacks have exposed a clear vulnerability in Kerry's campaign strategy. If I were Kerry, I'd be instructing my advisors to come up with some surefire, voter-pleasing new campaign promises--and quick.

    Saturday, August 21, 2004

    We need to have a sense of substantivity and proportion about "privacy".
    Substantivity means that our discussions about loss of privacy should actually be about loss of privacy, and proportion means that stronger concerns should actually reflect greater loss of privacy.

    Although I've been interested in privacy issues for some time, the immediate spark for these remarks is a discussion by Eugene Volokh about a decision of judge Kozinski objecting to (and presumably asserting the illegality of) the collection of DNA from people who are on probation after having been convicted of a crime. Kozinski's argument is that this will lead, via a slippery slope, to the collection of DNA from many more people, and perhaps from all people. He points out that a similar expansion has already happened with the collection of (searchable) fingerprints, and I think he is right that there is the "danger" this will happen with DNA. Volokh also feels that the slippery slope argument is well made (oddly, he doesn't explain why such an argument is appropriate to a judicial -- as opposed to a legislative -- decision), although he chooses not to discuss whether or not the "bottom of the slope" is truly a bad thing. Kozinski deplores the bottom of this slope, saying that we will all come to accept it because "the fishbowl will look like home".

    What exactly is so bad about the government having all our DNA fingerprints on record? Unless I've missed something, Kozinski (see page 11530 here) thinks this is not much worse than the government having all our finger fingerprints on record, and he laments about how close we've come to that. He recognizes the huge help these databases provide in solving crimes, and is sad that the public doesn't realize ... what exactly? What is the substantive harm of having our fingerprints on record? You'd think he would give some examples. Perhaps the government goes to legal brothels and collects fingerprints to match with political opponents? Would this be the best way to get dirt on people? At least some people claim that DNA fingerprints are special, in that they could, conceivably, wind up containing health information about people, that can then be used by the government to ...

    The government collects a huge amount of financial information on all of us; both the invasiveness of the collection of this data and the potential for its misuse dwarf by orders of magnitude anything we have to fear from the collection of (DNA) fingerprints. Similarly, the substantive invasion of privacy and potential for abuse from searching my home or person dwarfs that of swabbing my cheek. Why should we be so sure that those "framers" of the constitution would think otherwise if they were brought technologically up to date?

    People generally have nonsubstantive and/or disproportional attitudes towards "privacy". They are horrified at the possibility that Microsoft might collect some information about their computer hardware while doing an "update". But they have no concern whatsoever that the phone company keeps records of every cell phone call they make or receive, including who they call, when, and for how long. (I know these records exist because I receive a copy of them every month with my bill.) And Mastercard knows about all my travels and purchases and the movie rental store knows about my kinky tastes in film, but these are not typically our concerns.

    One of the big scandals of the modern day is that our medical records are not computerized and networked so that any doctor with a legitimate need can have access to them. In addition to giving timely and accurate access to the most important aspects of a person's medical history, this would allow automatic checking of many things including adverse drug interactions. The one and only reason given for not doing this is "privacy concerns". These concerns are substantive, but greatly disproportional to the enormous loss of life that happens every day due to the nonexistence of this system. (I hope to write more sometime about the pros and cons of such a medical system.)

    I am not denying that we have much to fear from inappropriate behaviors of our government. Just to give one example, I am horrified that merely because I am suspected of using my car to deal drugs, the government can take that car away from me. But we should deal with substantive abuses in a direct way, and not by arbitrarily denying the government access to the data it should have. If by consenting to have my cheek swabbed I can greatly reduce the probability of my house being broken into and my family assaulted, this is not an example of living in a fishbowl, but rather an example of my privacy being greatly improved in every substantive way. If Mr. Kozinski lives in an apartment building, we can be reasonably certain that he insists on having a doorman who monitors everyone who comes and goes and who learns a great deal about the occupants of the building. He can afford this, and no doubt he also has access to whatever (very intrusive) bodyguards he needs to follow him around and protect him. I would guess that when it comes to his own life, he chooses substance in privacy over whatever he imagines the framers would want for him.

    Friday, August 06, 2004

    The New Republic apparently believes that economic redistributionism is due for a big comeback. This past week, it published two articles on successive days advocating the return of taxing the rich to pay the poor (or at least, the not-rich). Now, I'm anything but a fanatical libertarian, and it's entirely possible, for all I know, that current levels of government-mediated wealth redistribution in America are less than optimal for maximizing collective happiness. But these two articles are so nonsensical in their reasoning that they cast more doubt than light on their common position.

    The first, by economics professor Barry Schwartz, argues as follows: studies have shown that people who are overwhelmed by an excessive number of choices are less happy than those with a more moderate range of options. Wealthy people, because of their wealth, have inordinately many options in life, and are therefore most likely overwhelmed by them. Hence, taxing them and giving the proceeds to the poor (who have far fewer options) will tend to make both groups much happier.

    It's, as they say, a creative argument, to be sure. And no doubt some rich people would actually be happier with simpler, more spartan existences. But such people have an uncanny ability to find means--drug addiction, religious discipline, self-impoverishment through profligacy--by which to reduce their choices in life. It's hard to imagine that the failure of the rest to find such means is due to a lack of resourcefulness, rather than a lack of inclination.

    The second article on the subject is somewhat less obviously ridiculous than the first. In it, political science professor Jacob Hacker argues that public opinion about the economy is pessimistic these days--despite the economy's fairly robust performance--because family income has become more and more unstable over the years. Hacker's solution: massive government-mediated income redistribution in the form of "insurance" against income instability, in the spirit of the Social Security program. By increasing the safety of the average family's income, Hacker argues, such programs would increase public confidence and encourage economically productive risk, in the same way other forms of insurance make otherwise excessively risky activities feasible.

    Now, I'm all in favor of risk reduction through insurance, and I'm not at all averse to government-provided insurance, in those cases where it's valuable for it to be universal. Retirement and medical care are two such cases, in my opinion, and while I acknowledge the problems that have beset government-run health care and retirement insurance plans lately, I'm far from convinced that these problems are inherently insoluble.

    But Prof. Hacker's argument suffers from two glaring flaws. First of all, he rests his case on the premise that today's pessimism about the economy is a product of rising income instability. But his own figures indicate that income instability in America rose massively from the 1970's to the 1990's--the latter period being one of widespread economic optimism such as the nation hadn't seen for decades. Apparently, gloomy predictions are less well correlated with widespread income instability than he implies.

    Secondly, Prof. Hacker writes as though economic insecurity is crowding out risk-taking on the part of anxious Americans. Yet American household debt--as pure an indicator of risk-taking as one can imagine--is at an all-time high today. (Indeed, this kind of risk-taking is likely more potent than income instability at generating feelings of economic insecurity.) If Hacker's goal is to correct the level of risk-taking among households, then he'd do better to recommend ways of increasing the costs of risk to today's credit card-bingeing, zero-down mortgage-signing American households.

    There was a time when appeals for income redistribution were straightforward: one would cite the plight of some miserably disadvantaged group, and declare it a shame that they should suffer so terribly in a society where the privileged enjoyed such wealth. Apparently, it's much harder than it used to be to find such people, because today's advocates of redistributionism have to resort instead to absurdly specious arguments in making their case. We are, indeed, living in fortunate times.

    Thursday, July 29, 2004

    On The Importance of Averting A Crisis
    I don't know how many Americans are following it, but there is a serious crisis brewing in the relations between Canada and Iran. Canadian citizen and journalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested for taking pictures during a protest in Iran in July, 2003. She was (apparently) beaten to death in prison. Now the Canadian government is demanding that the government of Iran see to it that the people responsible for this murder are brought to justice.

    Fortunately I happen to have a book of interesting front pages of the New York Times, and I came across an article describing a very similar situation. That situation was resolved peacefully, and hopefully we can learn from it so as to resolve the current one equally well.

    The situation I am referring to was described in the Times on October 15, 1933. A short time earlier -- in separate incidents -- an American citizen, a Swiss citizen and a British citizen had been beaten in Germany for not giving the Hitler salute. There followed outraged responses by the respective governments. Happily, everything worked out okay. The persons guilty of attacking the American were arrested in Berlin and are "facing prompt sentence by a special court attached to the Berlin Landgericht". In fact, we are told that the trial is supposed to take place on Monday. (The article appeared on Sunday.) The other incidents were resolved more quickly. The Germans stated that "the political police arrested today four storm troopers who had taken part in the outrage on [the Swiss and British citizens.] The storm troopers were taken to the Oranienburg concentration camp."

    The article (at least on the front page) doesn't explain what a concentration camp is, and I for one have no idea, but at least the crisis was averted and peace restored. I'm sure everyone in the Canadian government is hoping that things will work out just as well with Iran.

    Thursday, July 15, 2004

    Hodding Carter, advocating wetlands restoration in a New York Times op-ed, has unintentionally written one of the funniest sentences I've ever seen in a newspaper column:
    The Everglades, once an awe-inspiring, slow-moving river rife with screaming birds, saw grass and alligators, is now just a big swamp.
    Singing the praises of a mosquito-ridden, alligator-infested bog--while keeping a straight face--can't be easy. But doing so while dismissing today's slightly smaller version of the exact same mosquito-ridden, alligator-infested bog as "just a big swamp" is quite a trick.

    Then again, Hodding Carter, once an awe-inspiring, slow-moving press secretary....

    (For more ruthless ridicule of the "save the Everglades" movement, see my comments at the bottom of this old Slate article on the subject.)

    Wednesday, July 14, 2004

    Slate seems these days to be on a one-publication crusade to gut the criminal justice system. First, Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg, whom I've ridiculed in the past, published a bizarre, incoherent anti-death-penalty article with the apparent theme that because the death penalty makes many people feel uneasy, it will therefore always....uh....make many people feel uneasy. (The occasion for this article, incidentally, was the recent declaration by the governor of Maryland that his approval of an execution didn't make him feel uneasy.)

    Five days later came defense lawyer Gerald Shargel, who had only a month earlier decried Ronald Reagan's "pernicious impact on the federal judicial system", in the form of the "unforgiving legislation" with which he "sought to smite what he perceived as the criminal menace." This time, Shragel was crowing victoriously about the "unprecedented chaos and procedural paralysis" created by the US Supreme Court's recent Blakely decision, which struck down one of Shargel's least favorite Reagan-era initiatives, the federal sentencing guidelines. To anyone other than a defense lawyer, the prospect of chaos in the criminal justice system might seem a trifle alarming, but apparently the editors at Slate find the defense bar's naked enthusiasm for mayhem to be far more compelling fare.

    In between Weisberg and Shargel--that's three pro-leniency articles in a five-day span--came law student Dana Mulhauser, who echoed the standard complaint about the now-stricken-down federal sentencing guidelines: "the results have been Draconian", because "legislatures....tend to be punishment-happy". One of his examples: "[f]or legal immigrants, convictions for offenses as minor as writing a forged check result in mandatory detention and deportation."

    Now, as a matter of fact, I happen to be a legal immigrant to the US, and in the highly unlikely event that I were to be convicted of check fraud, I could hardly blame the INS for deporting me. If I can't even justify greater leniency towards people in my own exact circumstances, then why on earth is (presumed American citizen) Dana Mulhauser--or the rest of Slate's stable of anti-punishment activists--complaining on my behalf?

    Tuesday, June 22, 2004

    According to the Guardian, a "senior US intelligence official" is about to publish a book that amounts to a "bitter condemnation of America's counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an 'avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked' war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden's hands." Spencer Ackerman has apparently interviewed the book's anonymous author, giving a fairly detailed picture of his view of the war on terror. (NBC's Andrea Mitchell has also interviewed him.)

    All in all, the position taken by "Anonymous" is not a surprising one for a foreign policy bureaucrat to take. It is, however, surprising coming from an American foreign policy bureaucrat. For his words perfectly encapsulate the worldview that has dominated European foreign policy thinking for decades. It is a worldview, in particular, that will be strikingly familiar to any student of a certain British statesman, circa 1938.

    Consider his characterization of Al Qaida: the enemy are extremely angry, and not entirely without justification. ("Bin Laden's critique presents in resonant Islamic terminology a coherent jihadist explanation for practically everything Muslims can find offensive about the U.S.") Confronting the enemy would entail unspeakable bloodshed on the most massive scale imaginable. ("To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden....this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.") Fortunately, the enemy's grievances are limited and regional. ("U.S. support for Israel that keeps the Palestinians in the Israelis' thrall; U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian peninsula; U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants; U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low; U.S. support for apostate, corrupt and tyrannical Muslim governments.") We can therefore avoid confrontation--and the resulting horrific carnage--by acceding to the enemy's demands. ("I think we should look somewhat at our relationship with Israel. Clearly we need an energy policy, not just in the United States but in the West, that makes us less dependent on oil out of the Gulf. For myself, I can't figure out what American interest we would have in Saudi Arabia if it wasn't for oil.") Then they will happily return to butchering their minorities and leave us alone. ("If they all killed each other to their heart's content, it wouldn't affect America at all.")

    Now, it should be noted that despite its most famous calamitous failure, appeasement--as characterized by the above list of principles--isn't an obviously foolish strategy in every instance. As applied to Europe's rebellious colonies, for example, it provided a fairly apt justification for a war-weary continent to disengage from its troublesome overseas possessions--a policy which had plenty to recommend it at the time, and even in retrospect can claim at least one spectacular success (India) and many positive results for postcolonial Europe (if not always for the populations of the former colonies themselves). Clearly, appeasement's costs and benefits must be evaluated for each case independently.

    How well, then, does European-style appeasement apply to America's war on terror? Two crucial incompatibilities leap to mind. First of all, the radical Islamists' goals--however limited they may have been at the start--are clearly no longer merely regional. Their rhetoric, their global reach, their choice of targets--all point to a movement dedicated to attacking "infidels" wherever they may be found, not merely in the Middle East. (Indeed, pace "Anonymous", Al Qaida has shown remarkably little interest in Israel for a supposedly regionally-focused organization.)

    Even more jarring, though, is Anonymous' assertion that apocalyptic levels of violence will be necessary to crush Al Qaida. ("They've ridden out two wars. They're on the offensive at the moment. What are we left with? If we don't use our military power, we really just sit and take it.") His claim that the war in Afghanistan was a complete failure demonstrates the absurdity of this view: "[soon] you're going to have a government back in Kabul that looks like the Taliban, perhaps under a different name." Perhaps, but the last Taliban government crumbled completely in a couple of months at the hands of a ragtag rebel army, assisted by a few well-placed American smart bombs and special forces ops.

    And that's the real weakness of the appeasers' claim that America's military prospects are hopeless: Al Qaida is not Nazi Germany, with a formidable modern army poised to conquer Europe. It's not even Iraq under Saddam Hussein, with a large-but-decrepit army and rumored caches of chemical and biological weapons. It's a terrorist organization with no territory of its own, hiding out among allies in a few regions where at least some of the locals are friendly. Such groups make enemies as easily as they make friends, and America only has to help those enemies enough to keep the balance of power firmly weighted on America's side.

    Afghanistan has already fallen; Pakistan appears to have been won over, after a couple of failed assassination attempts clarified the Pakistani president's thinking somewhat; and Saudi Arabia's royal family now has ample reason to respond to Al Qaida's threat to its own hold on power. However chaotic Iraq may be right now, there will doubtless be plenty of Shiites and Kurds eager to accept American help in subduing al Qaida-allied Sunnis, the descendants of Saddam's murderous henchmen. Where, then, will the terrorists go? Syria? Iran? Dangerous enemies to be sure--but again, regimes that are not exactly world powers, and not without regional (and even domestic) adversaries of their own. If this is the threat of which "Anonymous" speaks, then one can only imagine how frightened he must have been of Saddam Hussein, who now inhabits an American-run prison. Rank timidity and abject capitulation in the face of any threat of violence may seem like a perfectly reasonable prescription for toothless Europeans, but it's strange advice to offer to a well-armed, assertive America. I'm afraid Anonymous has wasted his career on the wrong continent.

    Monday, June 21, 2004

    Conspirator Eugene Volokh has been hosting a discussion of the controversial topic of what makes a man sexy, and whether modern men are up to snuff in that department. It all began with a comment from a friend of his to the effect that "most men can learn to be sexy", but that "most men don't really want to be sexy; they want sexy to be them". That is, they "behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting. The idea of growth and change don't make the radar." [sic]

    There followed claims that men do try to be sexy, but in the wrong ways (i.e., by being financially successful, instead of elegant or charming); that male sexiness is a matter of confidence--which specifically includes comfort with one's natural self; and that women create the problem by being forgiving of poor presentation in men, while the latter are far more exacting in their standards regarding women.

    What puzzles me about the whole discussion is that it takes for granted Prof. Volokh's friend's original assertion that modern men are unwilling to pursue sexiness to please women. Yet, within my lifetime, I've witnessed a veritable revolution in men's fashion, in which it has become perfectly acceptable (for some, positively mandatory) for a man to spend hours per week at the gym, building his muscles, large amounts of money on exotic hair and skin care products (and considerable time each day applying these products), and even larger amounts of money on conspicuously labeled designer clothes that at one time were seen, when worn by men, as the very symbol of risible superficiality.

    In fact, the real novelty of the complaint that began the discussion is that it was phrased, not as a romantic wish for an idealized Prince Charming, but rather as a mildly petulant scolding of the not-up-to-snuff male. Of course, revulsion at slovenly, charmless men is hardly new--these were the heroines' dreaded matches in countless traditional romances of past eras. Today, though, women are not bound by the need to secure their material futures through such unappealing marriages--they can fend for themselves in the job market quite nicely, thank you. As a result, they are free to demand more from men--the same things, in fact, that men have always demanded from them: conformity to their own ideal of attractiveness and charm in the opposite sex.

    And men are complying in droves, toning their muscles and highlighting their hair as demanded by the new, independent woman. No wonder Prof. Volokh's friend feels free to ridicule the blindly self-satisfied male as hopelessly uncompetitive--for in today's market, that's what he is.

    Thursday, June 17, 2004

    I have a long-term interest in "freedom of speech", and in trying to understand and explicate what it means, or at least what it should mean. I am not especially interested in what any particular law or constitution or court has said about this. Rather, I am interested in what freedom of speech should mean, and in what laws our legislators should make regarding freedom of speech. Some of what follows is original, and some is not.

    "Freedom of speech" means, in its simplest form, the freedom for me to speak to people who want to listen to me. This is indistinguishable from the "freedom to listen", that is, the freedom to listen to those who want to speak to me. I think it is also indistinguishable from freedom to write (to those who want to read me) and freedom to read (those who write for me). It is a special, and most important, case of freedom of association and freedom of activity between mutually consenting adults.

    There are many issues that have to be discussed relating to this. Some examples are: libel and slander, copyright, conspiratorial speech, crime facilitating speech, crime inciting speech, advertising speech. I hope to address all of these in the future. For now, let me just say that libel and slander laws do such immense harm to freedom of speech and give us so little in return, that I think we should completely get rid of these laws.

    What I want to address for now are some aspects of the issue of how the Speaker and the Listener get together. Some of this is very difficult. For example, what laws, if any, should there be restricting "spam"? After all, one man's annoying spam is another man's perceived penile improvement.

    But some things are simple. If you want to speak to someone who you know doesn't want to listen to you, then this is not your right by freedom of speech, and it interferes with his right to freedom of association. For example, some people have suggested that protesters have the right to "confront Bush". But in fact, no one has (or should have) the right to confront anyone (other than law-breakers) who wishes not to be confronted.

    So what then is the legitimate purpose of protesters? The legitimate purpose of protesters, or demonstrators, is to present information and opinions to those who might care to hear them. The targets of their statements are probably not the object of their protest but rather potential sympathizers, and decisions about how and where they should be permitted to protest should take this into account. Now I realize this is easier to say than to do, especially since we shouldn't expect or desire our public officials to make decisions about public speech that are too subtle. But there is no reason we should go out of our way to protect the right of some people to harass others.

    For example, if I shouldn't be allowed to harass a co-worker by following her and imposing my views on her, then I shouldn't be allowed to get together with my friends and harass people going to an abortion clinic. Or harass delegates at a conference under the guise of an "anti-globalization" protest.

    Now I am more for free speech than just about anybody, but we should realize that massive, harassing, often threatening demonstrations are not about speech, but rather they have more in common with a riot -- in which case they shouldn't be allowed, or with a parade -- in which case parade permits should be issued for use of public land on whatever basis parade permits are issued. In practice these massive demonstrations are very much against freedom of speech, since the participants usually do every thing they can to inhibit and drown out the speech of those they disagree with. I don't know exactly how demonstrations should be constrained, but the goal should be to minimize harassment and maximize the number of different views expressed that can possibly influence people.

    A related issue concerns the question of when it is right to send someone a complaining letter/email/phone-call. Since we don't know how to regulate spam I don't expect we will be able to regulate this, but at least we can think about the morality of the situation. A typical example is when an ivy league professor says that Bush is worse than Hitler and what the U.S. really needs is to be attacked a lot more by terrorists. A typical response by outraged bloggers is that everyone who is disgusted by this should send the writer complaining email; a phone call or two wouldn't hurt either. Why do they advocate this? Are they seriously trying to change this person's views? No, they are merely trying to harass him so that he will think twice about making such statements in the future. I have been on the receiving end of such harassment, the perpetrators being ivy-league-professor-types and their friends. The real harm done by such professors is not the disgusting public statements they make, and not even the much more damaging harm they do by imposing their views in their classrooms, but rather their near total success at intimidating colleagues who disagree with them into silence. We should fight this intimidation, and not become part of it.

    A similar problem arises with a recent remark by Tim Blair, who is well-intentioned and who I generally respect. Unfortunately he thinks that because Jon Bon Jovi made some public statements that some people disagreed with, it is appropriate for those people to drive by his house and shout things out. I don't think it is appropriate, and I don't think harassment like this should be legal.

    I hope to write more on this subject. By the way, the best writer on the internet on Freedom of Speech, Eugene Volokh, has also discussed many of these issues here.

    I've updated this post, adding a 4th item to the list of things bloggers shouldn't do.