Saturday, January 29, 2005

Matthew Yglesias asks a very pertinent question that concisely summarizes the skeptical position on the US intervention in Iraq:
Even if the election goes well as a procedural matter tomorrow, what good will it do?
Wrapped up in that question are a number of fears about the outcome of the intervention: post-election Iraq might descend into chaotic, bloody civil war, or be taken over by Ba'athist or Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, or fall under Iranian domination, or....remain a violent, draining de facto US protectorate from years to come.

Well, I could respond by reassuring the skeptics that Iraq following the election will no doubt become a model of peaceful, free, pro-Western democracy, from which American troops will be able to depart within months, happy that their work there has been completed. Unfortunately, I can't muster the optimism to declare such an outcome the likely one.

But we can separate the question, "whither Iraq after the elections?", into two separate ones: "whither Iraq in the next few years?", and "how will the elections, in particular, affect the next few years in Iraq?" And it seems clear to me that whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second is likely to be, "quite positively".

First of all, the election offers a process by which unviable Iraqi political forces (quite possibly including Iyad Alawi's current interim government) can be weeded out, and a viable political party given a chance to govern. That fact alone makes the likelihood of complete political breakdown and outright civil war less likely (though far from impossible).

Second, the parties projected to do well--the unified Shia and Kurdish slates--are hardly the most disastrous choices one could imagine. Either or both could, of course, turn tyrannical or bloody or unusually corrupt or incompetent or any combination of the above. But the odds of this are probably considerably less than for most other plausible combinations of ruling parties that might find themselves at the top of the heap under an alternative government selection process.

And finally, the mere smooth, uncorrupted exercise of the democratic process, I believe, can have a salutary effect on a nation's long-term political health. It's worth remembering that Germany and Japan--two of the most surprising converts to democracy in history--actually had functioning democracies in their not-too-distant pasts, before embracing fascist dictatorship. Other countries as well--most notably France, as well as a number of Latin American states--went through one or more cycles of established and collapsed democratic systems before finally stabilizing under a democratic government. Still others had what might be called "sham democracies"--parliaments and elections that were not in fact democratic--that eventually evolved into actual democratic governments. A transition from pure dictatorship to functioning democracy, on the other hand, is much, much rarer.

Of course, Yglesias is probably more concerned about Iraq's short-to-medium-term future than its long-term political development--particularly insofar as the near-term presence of US troops makes the former a pressing issue for Americans. Fortunately, one can be a pessimist about the immediate implementation of full-fledged democracy while still being optimistic about Iraq's immediate future.

Consider the situation in post-election Afghanistan, for example: the Karzai government isn't exactly the Blair government, the warlords haven't disappeared, the Taliban still threatens, and American troops remain. Still, Karzai turns out to be politcally shrewd enough to hold the central government together and negotiate successfully with regional leaders. And with the help of a modest American military presence, local Afghan forces have been able to stave off any major Taliban comeback. A similar outcome in Iraq is not entirely implausible--certainly no more implausible than it would have been in pre-election Afghanistan itself. And at this point, achieving such results in Iraq would also have to be considered a tremendous American success.

Monday, January 24, 2005

A couple of years ago, I made fun of the Supreme Court's decision that it's unconstitutional for the police to point infrared scanners at homes to detect heat (from basement marijuana farms, for instance). Some of my ridicule was directed at Eugene Volokh, who defended the decision (Kyllo v. United States) using a wholly (and admittedly) arbitrary "reasonableness" criterion: infrared detector searches are, to him, "unreasonable", whereas searches of neighborhoods for, say, dirty bombs using a Geiger counter (scientifically not terribly different from an infrared scanner) are "reasonable".

Well, now fellow Conspirator Orin Kerr has provided the first plausible justification that I've heard for the Court's Kyllo ruling. He also sees it as part of a recent trend in the Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Unfortunately, he also sees this trend as a "potentially troubling development".

The justification, according to Kerr, can be deduced from a recent decision (United States v. Place) in which the Court found police searches for drugs using drug-sniffing dogs to be Constitutional. Kerr believes this decision to be part of a pattern, in which the Court determines whether particular searches are Constitutional under the Fourth Amendment based on what information they extract. Drug-sniffing dogs, for example, only determine the presence or absence of drugs--a matter of pure guilt or innocence, which citizens are therefore presumably not entitled to hide from police officers--and are therefore permissible to use in warrantless searches. Infrared scanners, on the other hand, can potentially detect a wide variety of details about the interior of a person's home--including details that the police have no business knowing, and might conceivably abuse upon discovery.

To Kerr, this new trend is a deviation from earlier jurisprudence, which held that the Constitutionality of searches depended strictly on whether they violated some notion of property rights (suitably abstracted to include, for example, rented properties, but not, say, telephone conversations). In his view, the "information-based" criterion is a product of an oft-misinterpreted "privacy doctrine"--that the Fourth Amendment exists to protect individual privacy in general from police snooping--that is in fact, when properly understood, simply a restatement of the narrower, property-rights-based criterion.

Now, whatever else one might say about the "privacy doctrine" approach of considering what information a search extracts, it at least has the virtue of being possibly, conceivably tied to some notion of public opinion on these matters. Judges are not really in a position to know what kind of information the public want the police not to be able to extract without a warrant, but if they were to guess, they might plausibly come up with an answer such as, "information, such as the inner appearance of the suspect's home, as revealed by an infrared scanner, that does not pertain to whether the suspect has committed a crime". On the other hand, a response like, "that which can be obtained without violating the property rights of the individual, defined in a technical, abstract legal sense, and irrespective of its relevance to the suspect's guilt or innocence", is somehow less plausible as a reflection of the public's preferred definition of the bounds of their own protection from police searches.

Of course, if judges--or law professors like Prof. Kerr--wanted their judgments to defer to the popular will, they could always leave it to the people's representatives to decide. And we all know what horrors that would entail....

Friday, January 21, 2005

Heresy at Harvard
Harvard president Lawrence Summers recently dared to suggest that it is possible that innate differences between men and women may be part of the reason that there are many fewer women in science than men.(See here and here.) Feminists are outraged, and one went so far as to swoon.

1) Any attempt to explain the small number of women in science has to explain the much larger number of women in the (traditionally male and very time-consuming) areas of management, medicine and law.

2) Feminists very often declare there to be vast differences between men and women. Of course, women usually come off better in these comparisons: nurturing rather than violent, for example. If you read my selected articles from ACM TechNews (all of which are 100% feminist approved) about why there are few women in science, you'll see that the explanations in many of them involve the assertion that men are different from women; the articles are generally too incoherent to explicitly say whether or not these differences are innate, but since the differences make women superior and since no societal explanations for the differences are usually given, the implication is that they are innate.

3) This is not the first time that swooner Nancy Hopkins has been reported in the news as leading the Feminist Fight. In the nineties there were complaints at MIT that female scientists were being treated worse than male scientists. Dean Birgeneau appointed a committee to study the complaints. What was the role of Hopkins? She was the chief Complainant and she was the Head of the committee appointed to evaluate the complaints. ("Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown."). Birgeneau is an idiot, and he went on from this success to doing as much damage as he could as president of the University of Toronto; he has now moved on to bringing a much needed breath of fresh political correctness to Berkeley. But if Hopkins' complaints were well-founded, she is also an idiot for investigating them herself, and thus ensuring that no serious person would ever take them seriously.

4) If there are prejudices in Universities against women in science, they are remarkably subtle. The prejudices against men are institutionalized and overt. Concerning institutional restrictions against any speech the feminists don't like: these restrictions are massive, overpowering, and virtually 100% intimidating. On the rare occasion such speech is uttered by a professor in a prominent university, it tends to be national news.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Groundhog Day", "Superman" and "The Wizard of Oz"
Jonah Goldberg asks for arguments for or against the movie "Groundhog Day". Ever since I first enjoyed and hated this movie I've wanted to write about it, and now I have an excuse.

"Groundhog Day" was very well done and was very funny and entertaining.

But it had at its core a horrible message, namely:
"Normal, heterosexual men are fundamentally evil and should be banished to a circle of hell." (Of course, after suitable re-education there, a few may be redeemed.)

What exactly are Bill Murray's sins?

It's true that he makes fun of people, but that doesn't seem to be what the movie really complains about. I think it's clear that his real sins involve his attitude towards women. What is that attitude? He likes attractive women, he wants to have sex with them, and he doesn't pretend otherwise. He is superficial and self-centered.

And what about the woman he likes? Andie MacDowell isn't attracted to unattractive men such as Chris Elliott just because they're nice, but rather to attractive men who aren't especially nice. But she wants more than just attractive. She wants her man to be knowledgeable about French poetry, AND to expertly play a musical instrument. And then her man must seduce her in just the right way and without making any conscious effort to do so! And the movie sees nothing wrong with this.

The movie "Superman" can be viewed as a satire of "Groundhog Day". (This is possible, even though "Superman" came out first, because of that whole faster-than-light thing.) "Superman" is aware of the superficiality of women, but instead of banishing them to hell it merely pokes gentle fun at them. Clarke Kent is clearly not man enough for Lois Lane, and -- as she makes clear in her flying soliloquy -- she has to be literally swept off her feet by a man before she will consider him adequate. It is possible to make fun of people, or of a group of people, without the stark cruelty of "Groundhog Day".

And speaking of expecting too much from men, or from fathers, I can't resist mentioning my favorite line from "The Wizard of Oz". When Dorothy realizes that the Wizard is a fraud, she says to him, "You're a very bad man!" He responds, as many husbands and fathers have:
"No, I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard".

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Few choices are more tempting objects of cultural snobbery than choice of diet. (At least one entire country, just west of Germany and Northeast of Spain, has enthusiastically yielded to the temptation.) One might expect egalitarian leftists to be less prone to this particular vice, but Belle Waring (of Crooked Timber) and Mark Kleiman have both fallen prey to it. Waring speculates idly that the problem with the diet of the American poor is that it doesn't resemble Singaporean cuisine:
I was thinking today of how much better off the residents of American inner cities would be if the Singapore model of hawker centres prevailed. Sure, there’s fattening char kway teow, but every hawker centre has a fruit juice and sliced fruit stand with cheap papaya, watermelon, and kiwi fruit, not to mention carrot juice. I understand that crime is a deterrent, but why exactly is it that US inner-city markets have such awful, expensive, fly-blown produce, even the ones in Oakland CA? Is this true in poor neighborhoods in Great Britain?
Mark Kleiman at least avoids Waring's "let them eat papaya" cultural condescension. But he exudes condescension of a different kind: intellectual condescension.
10. The prosperous generally are more health-conscious than the poor, which among other things means they're more likely to know and care about what foods are healthy.

11. Healthy food is relatively more available and cheaper to the prosperous than it is to the poor. This is both and effect and a cause of (10).

12. Lots of unhealthy food actually tastes vile, and encouraging people to eat it reduces their enjoyment of food as well as damaging their health. There's simply no taste comparison beteen a mango and a candy bar.
Kleiman believes the poor eat unhealthily because "[u]nhealthy eating habits are promoted by the food industry, including the fast-food restaurant trade and the convenience-food segment of the grocery trade." In other words, poor people aren't culturally benighted--they're just pliable sheep being brainwashed by commercials to eat expensive, unhealthy, foul-tasting swill.

I would respond to Waring's musings and Kleiman's points with a few points of my own:

  • Poor diet and its consequences are hardly confined to the poor. There are plenty of middle-class and wealthy people who overindulge and get unhealthily fat.

  • Conversely, one doesn't have to eat fashionably to eat healthily. Plain, basic American foods can easily be put together in reasonable quantities to create a balanced, healthy diet.

  • Nobody needs to be brainwashed to eat junk food. The corporations that invest so much money in advertising fast food also spend a fortune fine-tuning its taste to make it universally appealing--to rich and poor alike.

  • The only diet-related health problem that is recognized by a consensus of the public health community to be both widespread and serious is overconsumption of calories. This problem cuts across class lines, and has little to do with either cultural norms or advertising. Rather, people overeat because eating is enjoyable, and anything that is enjoyable will prompt many people to do it more than is healthy.

  • Efforts to encourage people to eat healthily should therefore treat their targets as responsible, intelligent people, and focus straightforwardly on the adverse consequences of an unhealthy diet. Progress can be expected to be slow and difficult, but not impossible--consider the history of anti-smoking campaigns, for instance. Patronizing attempts to recast the problem as one of misled or unsophisticated poor people, on the other hand, will fail to convince the poor, or anyone else.
  • Saturday, January 01, 2005

    It being New Year's Day, it's time for me to review my predictions for 2004, and list my new predictions for 2005. First, the review:
  • George W. Bush will soundly defeat his Democratic opponent, Howard Dean, in November. The Republicans will maintain control of both houses of Congress, with roughly the same margins as today.
  • A mixed score for this one. I got the winners right in all cases, but overstated the presidential margin, understated the congressional margin, and failed to predict the Dean collapse of early 2004. Perhaps if Dean had kept his mouth shut....
  • Paul Martin will not win a majority government in a Canadian federal election.
  • My big winner for the year. One commenter even asked if I was "joking". Nope--just being my usual serious-but-eerily-insightful self.
  • US troops will still be in Iraq in substantial (though somewhat reduced) numbers at year's end.
  • Did I say reduced? Silly me. I meant increased, of course.
  • Of the four leaders I mentioned last year, all will remain in power by year's end (Chavez by falsifying or ignoring the results of the upcoming referendum), barring death by natural or accidental causes.
  • To refresh your memory, those leaders were Yasser Arafat, Kim Jong Il, Ayatollah Khamenei and Hugo Chavez. Arafat died peacefully in a hospital near Paris, and the rest are still going strong. (This is a fairly easy prediction to make, of course, but it's meant to counter the remarkable number of commentators who like to predict the imminent ouster of one or another of these characters each time he appears to be encountering a patch of political turbulence. Plenty of people were expecting a defeat for Chavez in the past year's referendum, for instance.)
  • This year the overpriced major American markets will experience a net decline (and this time, I mean it!). The US dollar will also fall, relative to foreign currencies. Inflation and interest rates will tick upward, in reaction to the falling dollar--but not by that much. Economic growth will slow substantially, but will not tip into recession until after the election.
  • Another mixed bag. The markets ticked upward again, earning people who don't follow my advice yet another year of respite from the inevitable decimation of their savings. Growth also outstripped my prediction. The dollar, inflation and interest rate predictions, on the other hand, were pretty good.
  • Conflicts between the US and Europe will be overshadowed by conflicts between the US and China (over trade, exchange rates, weapons proliferation, North Korea, and human rights).
  • Well, neither set of disputes had a particularly high profile in 2004, although I suppose the American election did temporarily highlight European hostility to the current US administration, making my prediction, technically speaking, "wrong". (Or, as I prefer to say, "premature".)

    Now for this year's predictions:

  • There will be a major effort to rejuvenate the Middle East peace process, following the upcoming Palestinian Authority elections. The effort will come to absolutely nothing, and attempted Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli military incursions into Palestinian towns will be roughly as frequent at the end of 2005 as they are today.

  • The coming election in Iraq will completely change the characterization--though not the actual character--of the American involvement there. A new Iraqi government, dominated by the Shiite slate, will assume power, and invite the US military to remain to continue its reconstitution and training of the Iraqi army and security forces, and to help protect the country from "insurgent groups", who will increasingly be labeled as foreign-supported and even foreign-staffed. Syria will be the main target of this rhetoric, because it's much weaker than Iran. But no action beyond diplomatic and economic sanctions will be taken, partly because the US is loath to expand its military burden, and partly because maintaining the Syrian fig leaf will be too useful for both the US and the new Iraqi government as an excuse to support the continued presence of US troops.

  • Messrs. Chavez, Khamenei and Kim will remain in power yet another year, barring natural or accidental death. Likewise, Kofi Annan will survive the oil-for-food imbroglio and remain UN Secretary General.

  • The US stock markets will decline overall in 2005. The real estate market will (finally) peak and decline. Inflation will be kept under control by lower oil prices and rising interest rates, but the dollar will continue to fall--though somewhat less precipitously--and economic growth will slow accordingly as interest rates, the drop in the markets, and the ripple effects of the slowdown in China all take their toll.

  • An event will occur in 2005 that will blossom into a huge, crippling scandal for US president Bush--though possibly not until 2006.

  • A scandal will also damage the career of television psychologist "Dr. Phil" McGraw.

  • Note: These predictions were made on a closed course by an untrained non-professional. Do not attempt to emulate them, if you hope to retain a shred of your dignity.
    In a classic case of a hammer looking for nails, geography/physiology professor and author Jared Diamond believes he has discovered the keys to why and how various societies have collapsed and disappeared throughout history, and hence how to avoid the collapse of future societies, as well--such as our own, presumably.
    What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now....

    Other lessons involve failures of group decision-making. There are many reasons why past societies made bad decisions, and thereby failed to solve or even to perceive the problems that would eventually destroy them. One reason involves conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society....can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society. Another is the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival....

    History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions....The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense.
    Diamond gives us several charming historical examples of societies that failed to heed these lessons, and collapsed as a result. We learn all about the environmental depredations of the Easter Islanders, the stubborn unwillingness of the Norse Greenlanders to adapt their culture to a shift in their climate, and the callous insularity of the Mayan kings who did nothing to halt the deforestation and soil erosion that eventually destroyed them.

    But strangely, while Diamond gives us much sparsely-supported speculation about the possible environmental and social causes of some famously mysterious and poorly-understood societal collapses, we hear remarkably little about what's surely the cause of the overwhelming majority of more mundane societal disappearances: conquest by hostile neighboring societies. Certainly far more New World civilizations--that is, just about every one of them in existence in 1492--were destroyed by the European invasion and conquest (together with the resulting epidemics) than by their own poor ecological stewardship of their domains. Likewise, the very cradle of civilizations--the Middle East--was home to innumerable noble civilizations over thousands of years that did just fine till being gobbled up by even nobler ones, and disappearing completely except for a stone relic or two.

    Of course, a rule like, "be sure to stay militarily stronger than your neighbors", or, "try to avoid falling so far behind technologically that you're easy pickings for invaders", is both less emotionally satisfying and less fashionable than, say, "be kind to mother Earth". Still, Diamond really ought to allot it more than the mere passing mention he offers, given its overwhelming historical importance.