Thursday, June 04, 2009

Letter to a Christian Friend

The argument for gay marriage belongs, mostly, in the realm of equality before the law. But in the interest of dialog, I have also recently argued about matters of faith with someone from the "other side." This is taken, with some very light editing, from a private correspondence with a Christian friend who does not support gay marriage. Having spent some significant time on it, I'd like to think it might make a few points of general interest. I have not edited it for grammar, as I typically do an "official" blog post, please excuse any sloppy grammar...

So, I am pretty sure I have alluded to this previously, but I will lay it out here in more explicit detail. I happen to agree that the question of moral imperatives and absolutes is the real question that might challenge an atheist or skeptic. There are certainly other reasons that many people are religious, but I cannot give much consideration to them. My desire to feel comfort, or to be reassured, or to feel that I have some eternal existence beyond this physical body, are all things that can sympathize and empathize with as a person with feelings, but none of those hold up as any sort of reason to actually believe anything. Any sort of faith based on that strikes me as nothing more than wishful thinking. As much as I might like to believe for those reasons, I cannot given them any real weight. I also wish I was stronger and smarter and didn't have so much gray hair, but oh well...

No, but the question of morals does hit home. Now, quite frankly, that too, could, in principle, just be more wishful thinking. It is most certainly possible, from a logical, empirical standpoint, that we are just on our own, morally speaking as well. Might makes right, or whatever you want to do goes... But it doesn't have to be so, in a Godless universe. Quite simply, I say God is "an" answer to the metaphysical question, but not necessarily "the" answer.

I have proposed that the basic moral laws can simply "be," just as the physical laws of the universe can simply "be." If someone else (you, perhaps) wants to say that God made them, or perhaps that God IS them, it is both impossible and undesirable for me to quarrel with you. This is a "lawgiver God," and I am explicitly indicating both moral law and physical law, and I have no problem with this conception. I imagine we're cool so far, yes?

Then, I expect, we get not so cool rather immediately after this. Terms, please: yes, in spite of my apparent "agnostic" concession in the above regard, I nevertheless would use the term "atheist" because my understanding of the "theistic" God is that the concept goes well beyond the "lawgiver God" that I designate above. A God that actively intervenes in the world, takes note of individual behavior, passes judgment on us, helps or fails to help us (or even when he's not answering our prayers, it is all according to some inscrutable "plan")??? I think this is all extremely unlikely. In my view, this is all NOT merely abstract metaphysical reasoning, I think the notion of an activist, interventionist, and benevolent God is actually subject to empirical analysis, and that that conception of God does not survive the encounter with facts in very good shape.

But let me not make the general case here. This has been my own preamble to an assault on the specific notions about sexual "sin." Is it really your contention that the creator of the universe concerns him/herself with how and with whom we rub body parts together? Apparently so, and the rather obvious proximate source for this belief appears to be these ancient texts, purporting to represent God's revelation to humanity. Really? That's where you're going to hang your hat!? You've already acknowledged, then, how you have no scriptural basis for condemning polygamy. How about stoning as punishment for adultery or fornication? How about slavery, explicitly endorsed in Leviticus? How about the genocide of the Israelites against the Canaanites?

OK, on those last two, I'm slipping back into the general case, but I think they remain rather difficult questions, to say the least... back to the main. Why, WHY would God make these rules!!?? Even more to the point, why would he make them, and then turn around and make people who, profoundly and deeply in their very nature, passionately want to break them!!?? I really think this God, if he existed, would be a real sick bastard. Having heard both directly and indirectly the stories of a good many gay people, almost all the stories I have heard indicate that there were signs from a VERY early age. And this is no surprise to me. Although I knew nothing of sex until much later, I do know that by 5 or 6 years old, I was interested in girls. And I was not just modeling adult behavior (although it was partly that, no doubt). I mean I was intrinsically fascinated by girls and women in some way that my fellow boys simply did not interest me. And as I have said, the stories of gay people I have heard are just the same, only it was the same and not the opposite sex that caught their eye in this way. If you think God made people (and I don't, but you do), then God made gay people. He made them, and then told them they could not act on their deepest sexual desires. While I guess I feel fortunate to not have been given that particular curse, I would have to call Him a bastard for cursing so many in this way.

The only rational basis for these proscriptions that I know of (and I use "rational" a bit loosely, here) is the purely teleological theory of sexual desire: God made sex in order to ensure the propagation of the species, and any other sexual expression is therefore a perversion of His design. Whew. Uh-oh. Guess I am cursed after all. Everything I have ever done in this regard, which was not specifically intended to at least theoretically produce a baby, was ALSO a perversion, right? Which was your point, in saying that we are all sinners... Well then, here is where I will call you on a different inconsistency then, why pick one perversion and single it out for moral (or legal) distinction? Either non-sanctioned sexual practices (anything other than married vaginal intercourse, apparently) are a "big deal" kind of sin, or a "little deal" kind of sin. If it's no big deal, then let the gays alone, let them do what they will, just as many of us do. If it IS a "big deal" kind of sin, then let's get right on in there and make sure all us heteros aren't doing any non-reproductive rubbing...

And consider, yes, the animals. In particular the dolphins and the bonobos, who are both observed to engage in non-reproductive, same-sex pairings. I think, in this instance (as with myriad other instances, in fact all instances I know of), evolution makes a whole lot more sense than some sort of divine design. Our brains evolved to enable all sorts of complex, social behaviors, which, in the aggregate, have enormous payoffs in survival and success. Sex has become, in part, one of those many forms of complex, social behavior, and it has, in many contexts at least, been divorced from its direct link to reproduction. A byproduct of our big, creative, adaptive brains. Not, I argue vehemently, a sick joke by a cruel God.

I will close out with more high-level theological musings. Do I assault your Christianity, per se? Well, I don't know, you may feel that I have, and perhaps it's true. But I really, truly do NOT object to the "lawgiver God." Not at all. But what I believe we should strive for, in talking about those laws, is to look for the deep structure laws, the ones that get at the core principles of what it means to be moral. I think worrying about where people put their genitals is WAY off track. It's there (in the Bible) because the people who wrote that book were quite concerned about it, for reasons that are not always clear (though I have my theories), but have nothing to do, in my view, with the will of a benevolent God.

I would take a cue from Jesus, in fact. He swept away all the arcane, Old Testament Jewish proscriptions about food in single sentence (I paraphrase from memory): "A man is not made unclean by what goes into his mouth, but by what comes out."

I would take his phrasing and suggest a reformulation for this context: A man or woman should not be judged by the places they put their sexual organs, but by the love that flows from their heart.

Sincerely, and with much regard,

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Torturers

Goddamn fuckers.

Yes, I am culpable too. If you are an American, or one of our "allies" who facilitated this, then you are culpable, too. I should have done more. I didn't know exactly what to do. I did squeak my little pipsqueak voice out into the uncaring void. I did contribute to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. I didn't do enough. I have let the petty distractions of life stand in the way of a moral duty. I am sorry.

I mention and link to some of my stuff on torture below, not because I want "credit" for anything, but because I don't feel like repeating myself. Again.

Yes, prosecute them. Nothing less is really acceptable. If our chickenshit system won't do it because of political cravenness, maybe some of them might forget themselves and go to Europe, or Canada, or somewhere else, where maybe they'd get snatched up and held to account there. A boy can dream, anyway.

Goddamn fuckers.

(If you are someone who believes that the torture that happened under Bush can be defended, this is a rare opportunity to say whatever you want to me without response. I will not respond to or engage with any arguments of that sort, at this point.)

Some of my old stuff, if you care...

12/31/05 - Outlaw Administration My very first blog post ever. Summary: the Bush administration was an outlaw administration, and not in the cool Waylon and Willie sense, but in the need-to-go-to-jail sense. Torture is featured.

1/24/06 - Outlaw Outsourcing. Summary: No smoking guns, at that time, to directly link Rumsfeld, Cheney, & Bush to Abu Ghraib, but not really necessary. Aside from the semantic games they loved to play about waterboarding and such, it had just been documented how we used dictatorial or authoritarian governments nominally "aligned" with us to torture on our behalf.

12/30/06 - One Year On, and the Outlaw Administration Rolls On... An anniversary piece, of sorts, for my blog. Summary: Includes a handy recap of some of the known facts about our torture practices, including legal documentation of the torture of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen.

1/27/07 - Thatcher on "gitmo." Summary: Margaret Thatcher shamefully and dishonestly compared her treatment of certain IRA prisoners--which, whether you liked her decisions or not, were conducted according to the rule of law--with the Bush administration's practices at Guantanamo Bay, where Bush asserted unchecked executive power beyond the rule of law (and was eventually overruled). An excerpt (not quite on the main topic of the post): for "rendition," i.e. the outsourcing of torture to unscrupulous foreign governments, one would hope such a practice would be considered despicable in its own right, but the fact that completely innocent people have been tortured at our behest should shame even the most hard-core Bush defender. Should, but apparently doesn't. Disgusting. It shames me as an American, even though I didn't vote for Bush.
I had a "mini-series" on waterboarding, and the confirmation hearings for Mukasey as attorney general, in November 2007. Here, here, and here.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why the Teabaggers Really Were Full of It (and I Don't Mean Tea)

**Special note to any of my GOP-minded friends that might happen by here. I do, in fact, call some of your partisans "twits" and "pinheads" below. But I am sure I didn't mean you, and I do stand by my characterizations of those who did and said the specific things discussed.**

In the midst of a good, friendly debate over at the DinkZone blog, my bud Heath (tongue-in-cheek) said he hoped I "had fun teabagging" on Wednesday. While far too much has already been made of this whole dismal spectacle, I feel the need to take a moment to distance myself from this particular "protest." If you told me, in abstract terms, about some people who legitimately believed that our government was excessive in size, and who decided to take April 15 as a day to stage a peaceful, respectful, and principled demonstration in favor of reducing said wasteful government, then, yes, I would confess that it sounds like something I might endorse, or hell, in which I might even participate.

Of course, the "tea parties" that took place on Wednesday were nothing of the sort. Yes, the twin facts that various entities and individuals within the GOP establishment, including Fox News, organized and promoted it heavily, even while Fox simultaneously hyped the parties as "spontaneous citizen protests" would have been funny, had it not been so insulting to our collective intelligence. But beyond that, the blatant hypocrisy of so many of the twits that showed up at these events was truly hard to stomach. After sitting by and watching 8 years of astounding fiscal irresponsibility and the biggest expansion of federal spending since at least LBJ, now is the time to get outraged at excessive government spending!?!? Anybody who really meant a damn word of their "I believe in small government" speechifying, would have to admit that the Bush administration has trounced all others in recent memory in expanding spending, executive power, and secrecy. To pick this moment, and this (still very new) administration as your target is ridiculously and transparently partisan and oxymoronic (or perhaps just moronic), even if the provenance of this "movement" had not already made that clear.

Please don't associate me with any of these pinheads. All of this was really enough to put yours truly, a genuine believer in limited government, off his lunch. Nearly as much as feeling obligated to finally go look up "teabagging" at the Urban Dictionary. Now there is something I really did not need to know.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Christmas Trees and Kandy Keynes

So, in the interest of "getting it" and not being labeled as some wild-eyed extremist, let's consider the theoretical, and perhaps empirical, case for government "stimulus." (Am I alone in wishing that Beavis and Butthead would make a brief reappearance to snicker idiotically at the phrase "stimulus package"?) Hopefully, I can get my economist friend to offer a critique, if I am missing something fundamental.

The true essence of Keynesian stimulus theory is psychological. The free market critique of Keynes seems so straightforward as to be unassailable, as long as pure rational market actors are assumed. That is, neither the government nor the private sector can magically create wealth. It is, as always, a marriage of capital and labor to produce something of value. And if the government is allocating capital, then it is inevitably displacing something else that could be done in the private sector, i.e. opportunity cost. A quick sanity check on this: the money must come from somewhere! So the government must either tax it, borrow it, or print it. Either taxing or borrowing removes the money from private hands, and printing it is the ultimate illusion (no new stuff, just more money to buy it with--inflation). So, in a classic, rational market, government stimulus could be compared to scooping water from the deep end of the pool and pouring it into the shallow end.

But the reason Keynes could be right would be that, in the midst of a severe downturn, a crisis of confidence can cause those with capital to basically withdraw from rational investing. That is, there are bound to be good opportunities somewhere (there always are, there have to be, it's just a matter of finding them) it's just that in this moment of crisis, investors have no faith in anything and want to sit on their cash. So, enter the government. Said fearful investors, unwilling to bet on anything else, are nonetheless willing to lend to the government, i.e. buy treasury bonds. By being the borrower and spender of last resort, government gets the money moving again.

Keynes in a nutshell: psychological! Unless you really do believe that government, on average, as a matter of principle, actually does a better job at allocating resources than the private sector. And if you do believe that, then I think maybe the "S" word does apply... though I won't utter it, seeing as how mercilessly McCain (for whom I did not vote) was mocked.

And so, further, it does not really matter, from this point of view, whether the money is particularly well-spent or not. Yes, other things being equal, it is better for government to spend wisely rather than unwisely, but if what you want is stimulus, and if Keynes is right, just show me the money! Enjoy the Christmas tree of a bill that we have! Let us hope our children don't regret having to pay for it...

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Friday, September 19, 2008

First thing we do, let's kill all the canaries and roosters!

Comes word from on high that market regulators are considering banning or otherwise restricting short selling, to "help stabilize the markets." Genius. Thank God our men and women of vision are on the job, saving us from the evil speculators.

It brings to mind how in the old days, miners would take various birds, most famously canaries, down into the mines, presumably because they enjoyed the plumage--the mines being otherwise such a dark and dreary place. Trouble is, the birds would die occasionally, and there was very often a buildup of toxic gas in the mine at the very same time! Clearly the canaries were a serious hazard, the gas buildup often sickening or even killing miners. Thankfully, the practice is now a thing of the past, the birds are rarely taken into the mines, and the number of gas-related miner deaths has declined apace!

On a related note, it has come to my attention that nearly all recent stock market declines have taken place during daylight hours (market local time, that is). Given the seriousness of this problem, I call for a large scale rooster-slaughtering program. Eliminate the sunrise, and I can nearly guarantee that the stock market will stop dropping (if not immediately, then at least after one final round of selling). Yes, this does raise the problem of how we will get more chickens in the future, but I am simultaneously calling for our genetic scientists to get to work on cloning hens, which should resolve the matter in short order.

You can thank me later.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Biden v. Palin Update

Let me make the VP debate my own little theme here, for a while. (Why not? I am thinking of retooling the whole blog idea away from politics and toward philosophy, physics, metaphysics, that sort of thing, but for the time being, this is sort of fun...)

Dahlia Lithwick offers sound advice to Biden & co. over at Slate. I think this is perfectly fine, as far as it goes. It is perfectly consistent with my own take, where I simply suggest, "be confident, relaxed and charming." Lithwick offers other substantive notes on the gender/culture dynamics at work in the debate. While, again, I think she has sound advice, it is merely a list of helpful suggestions about maximizing Biden's debate performance, and minimizing some of Palin's natural advantages, and it is not, alas, a real prescription for winning.

It does not affect the fundamental dynamic, as I have called it: Palin wins the pre-debate expectations game, and therefore wins the debate...

But go, go, counter-meme! It is just barely possible that the "Palin should win" counter meme could win out, and an expectations inversion saves the day! As an Obama partisan, I'd be happy to see that happen, but I'm still doubting it.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

More On Palin's "Surprising" Debate Victory

Tim Cavanaugh at Reason is calling it for Palin, also. He predicts

[T]he hyper-informed Biden will demonstrate his mastery of the facts, leave no doubt about his flair for complex policy questions, get his ass handed to him in the debate, and never understand what went wrong.

An "ass-handing" no less! If this kind of talk can gain MSM credence (and I believe it is highly unlikely) then it could cause an inversion of expectations. Again, this is nothing the Obama/Biden camp has any control over, it is all about the media narrative, the dominant expectations meme in the media environment at the moment of the debate.

The most likely outcome is a "functional" ("actual") tie, meaning competence on both sides and no major gaffes. The "win" will go to whomever is the consensus "underdog" going in, which is almost certain to be Palin.

The only way Palin can lose (barring improbable meltdown) is if she is somehow expected (by media consensus) to win.

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And the Winner of the Vice-Presidential Debate...

Palin! Natch. Mickey Kaus is already calling this one, and I pretty much agree.

Here's how it breaks down: The expectations game will easily break in her favor. Biden's much greater relative experience level will raise his performance expectations and keep hers dampened. She will study hard. (Seems to be capable enough, and will master her flash cards easily enough--this is not snark, Biden will study as well, but he has less of that sort of prep work, because of said experience.) She will easily rattle off whatever foreign policy talking points are required. She will be focused (as will Biden) on attacking the top of the opposing ticket. She will easily meet all the basic requirements. Merely even "holding her own" against Biden will be declared a victory for Palin in the media meta-story, and not a damn thing Joe Biden or anyone else can do about it.

Caveat: As of today, I see only one narrative line that leads to a potential Palin weakness in the debate. It is possible that she will stay in full-bore attack dog mode so much of the time that it could come to taint her aura. (Some have already dubbed her a "pit bull in lipstick".) She was apparently quite scathing in her convention speech, which certainly played well to the base, but there is a possibility of taking it too far for the swing voters in play. Doesn't seem likely. First, apparently there is something of a gender/appearance card in play, whereby (non-Hillary) women get away with saying nasty things that would backfire on a man (see: Ann Coulter, Sarah Silverman). Second, even if this stigma does begin to attach to her, she would just need to dial it back a bit for the debate, and presto! Perfect lady again!

The odds breakdown (as of September 4):

1) Media calls "Palin Win" - 90% (Note sub-breakdown below.)

1a) Palin "wins" by keeping it close and "beating expectations" - 85%

1b) Palin truly beats Biden by any reasonable measure - 5% - This means even partisan Dems agree she wins. She masters all questions, gives better answers, gets in all the zingers, and/or Biden chokes with major gaffe or loss of composure.

2) Media Calls "Draw" - 5% - This means Biden really does look better, but no so-called "knockout blow" is landed. By still "beating expectations," she is given the draw.

3) Media Calls "Biden Win" - 5% - Palin really stumbles. Gets lost or stumped, loses composure, or commits serious gaffe.

Biden's best hope? Look charming and confident, cross fingers. Perhaps another hurricane or other act of God intervenes, scrapping the debate...

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hold On Tight to Your Burgers, or At Least Chew Fast

William Saletan is on the case in the new "War On Junk Food". I'd like to point out that, while I was aiming at humor with Cheeseburger in Purgatory (and note that the pictured food in Saletan's article is a cheeseburer), my tone was light, but the substance was heavy. That is, I was really serious about the threat. Given their druthers, the nanny-staters will ban junk food, and the comparison to drugs will fuel the fire. At least some of the folks over at Reason are fairly sanguine about all this (Nick Gillespie, I believe, among them). Their point being that this will amount to overreach, i.e. people will revolt when they come for our cheeseburgers. I hope they are right, but I am personally a bit more antsy. In spite of ample evidence that marijuana is no worse than, and quite likely more benign than, alcohol, it remains banned and people are being locked up every day for possession. If evidence doesn't really matter, then even specious evidence, such as some of this speculation about "food addiction" can be a powerful weapon in the hands of the demagogues.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

European "Tolerance" and "Pluralism"

Christopher Hitchens is spot on with his latest biting critique of the sorry state of European liberalism, by which I mean "classical liberalism" or the Enlightenment idea that human rights are universal and non-negotiable. It is difficult for me to express the contempt I have for this particular notion of "tolerance" and "pluralism."

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gentlemen, Start Your Waterboards!

Just to keep track, and wrap up my commentary on Mukasey and torture: all four of the Democratic senators who are running for president skipped the vote on Mukasey's confirmation. (That is, Clinton, Obama, Biden, and Dodd.)

As strongly as I feel about this issue, I probably have to say that I would consider a vote to confirm a disqualification. As it is, I would say they all get big black marks next to their names for general weaselly lack of courage and/or conviction.

McCain also skipped the vote!(?) If someone forced me to vote for one of the "major" Republicans, I would probably hold my nose and pick McCain (but I'm sure glad no on can force me!). So, philosophically, does McCain get a pass on this? On the one hand, I could see forgiving him a lot on the issue of torture, if someone can earn a "pass" I would guess he qualifies. On the other hand, if anyone should know better, then that's him as well... Anyway, it's his unequivocal denunciation of torture that has distinguished him from the other Republicans, as far as I'm concerned. That's why I would choose him, if forced.

In short, none of the senators who are running for president actually voted on Mukasey's confirmation. Now that's courage!

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tortured Logic, and the Outlaw Administration Rides On

We've addressed the nauseating semantic games about "waterboarding," also known as "drowning," here before, but there is also an opportunity to deal with legal precedent. The game, apparently, is to treat the status of this procedure as somehow "ambiguous" and "unsettled" as a point of law, or a matter of individual (and apparently partisan) opinion, at least in the hands of people such as right honorable Senator Orin Hatch, when discussing our (apparently) new attorney general.


The technique (and a number of closely related procedures) have all been defined in American courts as torture. This is not partisan or political; it is about as firmly established as law gets. Former J.A.G. Evan Wallach gives a brief history in the Washington Post. If you are up for a longer read, check out Wallach's journal article (in draft form) heavily laden with citations.

We include some relevant quotes here. These are taken from the "Judgement of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East", which was convened in the aftermath of WWII to try Japanese war criminals.
The practice of torturing prisoners of war and civilian internees prevailed at practically all places occupied by Japanese troops... Methods of torture were employed in all areas so uniformly as to indicate policy in both training and execution. Among these tortures were the water treatment...
There were two forms of water torture. In the first, the victim was tied or held down on his back and cloth held over his nose and mouth. Water was then poured on the cloth... As he opened his mouth to breathe or to answer questions, water went down his throat until he could hold no more...
In the second, the victim was tied lengthways on a ladder, face upwards, with a rung of the ladder across his throat and head below the latter. In this position he was slid first into a tub of water and kept there until almost drowned. After being revived, interrogation proceeded and he would be reimmersed.
The practices map precisely with those described in our current discourse as "waterboarding." I guess the modern penchant for euphemism knows no bounds. So, as explicitly as possible: we tried and convicted Japanese soldiers for torture, for using these techniques on American soldiers, as well as civilian internees.

Any questions?

The Democratic "leadership" has, once again, proven itself worthless and spineless. Dahlia Lithwick efficiently eviscerates Feinstein's "elegant" compromise, which is really nothing but a sham, a cave-in being spun as a compromise. Those feelings I have--where I am inclined to vote for Dems because they are, in all their awfulness, still the lesser evil--are going fainter every day...

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Waterboarding is Drowning, Not "Simulated Drowning"

I find myself, again, getting viscerally angry as we play semantic games about torture. I don't want to repeat all the arguments in detail. I understand there are those who make arguments about the moral acceptability of torture in certain circumstances, and I do not accept those arguments.

If you have thought seriously and deeply about the issue and disagree, I can respect that, even if I believe you are profoundly and dangerously wrong. But let's not obfuscate the issue with contrived rhetorical dodges--if you support torture, you should say so and defend your position. Waterboarding is a form of controlled drowning, not "simulated drowning." (Follow the link, it is compelling stuff, and please note the source, this is no liberal-pinko-commie pansy, this is a U.S. soldier whose job was training soldiers to withstand torture. Think about it.)

The Bush administration wins yet another victory over a compliant press corps as long as they are permitted this phony distinction. Torture is torture. Are you up for it?

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Copyright Cops on the Ooze

Libertarian types (such as myself) are generally sympathetic to "privatization" plans, as long as they don't represent blatant giveaways. The general idea being that the private sector can do many (but not all) things more efficiently, etc. because the profit incentive is not inherently evil; and that there really is something to this "invisible hand" thing.

One government function that is NOT appropriate for privatization is policing, as a rule. This is not to suggest that private firms might not be a good choice for providing security, say, at specific sites where public assets need protection. What I'm talking here is about actively seeking out and arresting criminals. Once again, we see signs of a trend whereby the government is effectively deputizing private citizens or organizations to enforce laws, in this case, copyright laws, and doing so at the behest of the recording industry.

Without rehashing the intellectual property debate in full, we obviously do need to respect copyright. But the current state of law has skewed heavily, ridiculously even, in favor of the big-monied copyright holders and away from traditional, constitutional limits on intellectual property protection. Now, we not only have big media writing the laws (with their bought-and-paid-for congress-people) but writing more laws to force colleges to police their draconian copyright laws.

Companies that we do business with are being forced to monitor our phone calls, scrutinize our finances, and who knows what else. Librarians are forced to watch our reading habits, and now schools are supposed to rat out their students for sharing files? This seems like some amoeba-like police state in progress, pseudopods oozing ever so gradually into more and more parts of our society.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Girl Scout Death Squads

Another front in the war to ensure you eat virtuously: Girl Scout Cookies. As the author, Katherine Mangu-Ward, points out, at least this particular campaign isn't advocating a government ban--yet. But the same puritanical impulse drives this as the trans fat ban, and this sounds like busybody meddling to me. I hope the Girl Scouts resist the pressure. I think I'll buy an extra box or two this year.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Kling follows up and, among other things, defends the link between libertarians and "conservatives" by arguing that the Left is "religiously" worse than the Right. I'd say he's right about the Left's ideological religiosity, but wrong that it is worse than the Right's. As long as placating the Republican base means visiting Bob Jones University and paying respects to the likes of Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson, the GOP can never really be the party of liberty.

The term "social engineering" is often used sneeringly by "conservatives" to dismiss "liberal" programs aimed at, say, ending poverty. But "engineering" really just refers to a teleological enterprise, i.e. trying to shape or build a structure (or other artifact) with a specific goal or vision in mind, and this can be accomplished by proscriptions as well as prescriptions. What are prohibitions against all manner of individual choices, such as with whom we may enter into life partner relationships, and what sort of chemicals win intake in private, if not "social engineering?" Maybe we don't see these restrictions as such because we are accustomed to them, but those sorts of limits are certainly designed to make our society "better" by constraining our individual choices. Just because something is traditional doesn't make it right. Like Kling and his "liberal" friends, I myself lead a pretty traditional or "conservative" lifestyle, but living conservatively either brings its own rewards or it doesn't. If it does (and I find that it does), then the government need not enforce it; if it does not, then government sanction is unjustified and counterproductive.

In proving my libertarian bona fides, let me take just a moment to vent at the Left again. Just as Kling decries how the GOP Right has betrayed small government conservatives in the arena of fiscal responsibility, so to has the Democratic Left stomped all over small government ideals in the domain of personal liberty. Just to cite a couple of examples, they want to essentially expand the drug war to include tobacco, and they also seem hell-bent on legislating the foods we are allowed to purchase and eat. And there are at least a couple of dimensions to these prohibitionist impulses. One of their big justifications is that because society is on the hook for medical expenses incurred by poor lifestyle choices, society is thereby empowered to prohibit those choices. This is, indeed, Hayek's road to serfdom in spades, look no further. If the government is daddy when it's time to pay the bills, then you have to live by daddy's rules… But while fiscal responsibility is the enabling tool for government expansion in this scheme, it is hardly the ultimate impetus; the driving force of the Left's vision of the nanny state is plain old unadulterated Puritanism. Junk food and tobacco simply do not fit into the moral standards of today's so-called "progressives," and they are going to take them from you by force, if need be.

No, I cannot abide the Right's Bible-thumping moralizing, but I can only occasionally barely tolerate the Left's preachy paternalism—just long enough to vote for divided government, which I did. Principled non-voting increasingly looks like my preferred approach, in general, with a vote for the Democrats if divided government is at stake.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Trade and Morality

I rather enjoyed this recent pro-trade piece by Tim Worstall at TCS, in which he lays out a strong moral case for trade, and I would add that I more or less agree with his position and its underlying reasoning. It did, however, remind me by association Steve Landsburg calling John Edwards a bigot in Slate a couple of years back--which I liked a good deal less. The overall point is much the same: trade is unquestionably turning hundreds of millions of poor people into non-poor people, and therefore a force for good in the world. Opponents of trade are therefore on some pretty shaky ground, especially since workers in the developed world aren't really any worse off absolutely than they were, it's just that the rich are getting richer faster, so that they are relatively less rich than before.

That last point is pretty important, however, in making the case to middle class and working class people, and in the realm of politics in the rich countries of the world. If someone is actually being harmed by globalization, it is rational for them to get upset about it. And if you're a politician who is trying to represent those people, it makes sense to give voice to that discontent. It doesn't make you a racist, just mistaken. Perhaps it's bad form to quote yourself, but it can be efficient. I posted this in the Slate Fray as a response to Landsburg:
Let's be clear--this is not about agreeing or disagreeing with your position on international trade. ... I come down as a pro-trade sort of person. That is, assuming that the truth is probably somewhere between the Lou Dobb's scare-mongering, "outsourcing is evil" alarmism and its polar opposite ..., I think the polar opposite is closer to the truth. I think the free traders (and I have to assume you are one) are probably right. (I support Kerry and Edwards, however, because other issues outweigh the trade issue for me.)

But that has little to do with calling John Edwards a xenophobe or worse. The argument for trade is that we will ALL be better off in the long run, NOT that a foreign worker is just as deserving of a given job as an American. If the idea of free trade is merely that foreigners deserve American jobs, then it is NOT xenophobic to oppose it. In fact it would be a dereliction of duty for an elected official to do otherwise. We elect officials to represent our interests, not to engage in some sort of international welfare program.

I repeat, I think trade is good--Ricardo's comparative advantage and everyone ends up wealthier and all that. But that means that trade is GOOD for Americans, not bad. That's an argument a politician could (and probably should) make. But you aren't saying that, you're saying that if someone running for office believes trade is BAD for Americans, they should support trade anyway, because Americans have some moral duty to give other people their jobs. You are arguing that giving the welfare of Americans priority over the welfare of foreigners makes a politician no better than a common racist. Nonsense, and shame on you.
Worstall, as I indicated, makes the same basic point about trade without the nasty slur used by Landsburg, but I am saying that you still need to make the case in terms of "everybody wins." "Everybody else wins, you get screwed, but you should be all right with that because you're helping poor people!" is not only a political loser, but not necessarily a moral winner either. If the fat cats are getting ever fatter, why is it the middle class' duty to sacrifice for the poor?

Dramatic and growing income inequality might have negative implications for democracy, but it isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, as long as absolute income keeps growing across the board. Conflating relative poverty with absolute poverty is the sleight of hand that Krugman and many others engage in. Krugman, since I think he supports trade, must be angling for good old-fashioned redistribution. Others are trying to shut the borders, to both goods and people. Some of them are xenophobes (Lou Dobbs, Tom Tancredo, and Pat Buchanan come to mind), but others are merely misguided.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Kling's IATF RFC

I set out to respond to Arnold Kling's interesting "IATF RFC" article at TCS, but realized as I digested his piece that I might well fall outside the scope of his intended audience. Kling has described his own journey as that from the "far left" to a libertarian right, and his RFC suggests to me that he may be a bit more of a neocon than I had realized. However, let me hasten to add that while I don't exactly share their worldview, I don't use the term "neocon" as a slur, and indeed see some valid points in their program. I would further hazard a guess that I have moved along a similar ideological evolutionary path as Kling, but perhaps not as far. I neither would have describe myself as initially "far left," nor would I choose the term "conservative" to attach to my current libertarianism. I side with Friedman (and according to Friedman, Hayek as well) in preferring the term "liberal." As an acknowledgement to modern usage, it is possible we have to accept "libertarian," but it seems to put us into a political/linguistic ghetto.

I continue to adamantly reject the GOP as the proper home of a (classic) liberal or libertarian. It also occurs to me that I see a revision to a classic libertarian metaphor which helps explain why. I would argue that there are at least two roads to serfdom. There is the road of creeping statist economic encroachment which concerned Hayek as he coined the phrase, and his intellectual heirs, Friedman chief among them, have focused their efforts there. It does seem that we have slid further along this road in recent decades, but this "progress" always seems to come in fits and starts, and, significantly, there are occasional "setbacks" to this march, where economic freedom ekes out an actual victory. (Think of both welfare reform and the expansion of the earned income tax credit under (gasp!) Clinton.)

But the other road to serfdom is even more direct, and progress can move swiftly. I refer to the expansion of an ever-grasping, preening, imperious, and unaccountable executive. As has been a recurring theme ever since I started this blog, the current administration has engaged in not merely an aggressive advance of executive power, but a breathtaking disregard for the rule of law. In a particularly revealing profile of Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington at the New Yorker, we can see that this executive power grab was really in the "master plan" all along, and that 9/11 was opportunistically seized upon to advance the agenda. To be fair, I would note that 9/11 was more than mere pretext, since Cheney and Addington surely genuinely believe in this mission, and that the attacks not only advanced but also justified their cause. (I found the Addington piece via an excellent overview of the Addington/Cheney/Bush power grab by Dahlia Lithwick.) But this vastly expanded vision of Presidential power is still a fundamentally bad idea. As important as our Constitution was, the Magna Carta was probably even more fundamental, as the notion of codified law and limited powers owes its modern incarnation to that document. Secret executive detention without independent judicial and legislative oversight is precisely what the Bill of Rights was intended to stop. We proceed down this road at great peril to our freedom. Surely, the Star Chamber is another form of serfdom.

On social issues, Kling also surprised me a bit. I agree with him and many, many others, so-called "conservatives" and "liberals" alike, that the family is an institution of great importance, even primacy. While his passing mention of gay rights seems tolerant, it is a bit less so than I would have expected. I see no particular reason for a "profound" skepticism regarding gay families and their role in strengthening (or weakening) families overall. I also raise an eyebrow when I note that Judeo-Christian values are singled out by Kling for mention when discussing religious foundations of our modern moral values. I do not subscribe to the notion that, say, Islam in inherently less tolerant and peaceful. Yes, yes, I have heard ad nauseum about Mohammed and the other Caliphs' roles as simultaneous political and religious leaders, as well as the warlike passages of the Koran. But you really do not have to spend much time with the Old Testament before you run across barbarity on an epic scale. The Israelites were told by God to exterminate all sorts of heathens (and apparently often did as they were told), and separation of church and state is nowhere to be found! History and cultural evolution have produced a (generally) more benign religious tradition in the modern West. The problem with large swaths of the Muslim world is precisely that-cultural and historical, both India and Indonesia represent relatively healthy and open societies with large numbers of Muslims. I do NOT accept that violence and intolerance is "baked into" Islam in some way. As a secular person (but with a religious upbringing), I think that while all of the major religions are potentially intolerant and dangerous, they can also be instruments of positive change.

Most of the rest of Kling's libertarianism I can heartily endorse. He has written numerous articles advocating effectively for reduced government interference in health care, for example. And I have almost come 'round to endorsing vouchers for education, thanks to the writings of Friedman, Kling, and others, but I still have a cavil or two about how it can be done constitutionally and fairly. I'll leave those for another time.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Thatcher, the IRA, Gitmo, and Torture: Not the Same

An article by Peter Cuthbertson at TCSDaily discussing Margaret Thatcher's legacy, and whether Hillary Clinton can (or should, or really intends to) claim it, makes a decent point or two, but also engages in some fairly deplorable rhetorical sleight-of-hand, as does Thatcher herself, apparently. While I have mellowed a little on Ronald Reagan, I still don't think much of him, and it is at least in part because, as I have argued here before, he wasn't really a small government conservative. All talk and no walk. (Or two be more precise, he actually enlarged government, so it's really backwards walk.) Thatcher, on the other hand, actually did take on and reduce some of the sclerotic welfare state she inherited (and was widely reviled by the left for it, even more so than Reagan), and I believe probably does deserve some credit for rejuvenating the British economy. More significantly, I have come around to the view that the staunch moral stance that both leaders took against totalitarian communism was, in fact, both important and the right thing to do, and they are to be commended for it. I think they were, indeed, vindicated by history, although mainly because of Reagan and Gorbachev's historic Reykjavik summit and subsequent treaties, not because "they won" the cold war. (I think the continued pressure at the very end of the Soviet Empire helped push it over the cliff, but it was clearly the inherent flaws in its system, combined with the 40-something years of the Cold War, that really did it in, of course.)

But Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Cuthbertson really go beyond the pale when trying to equate Thatcher's strong anti-terrorism stance against the IRA with the current "war on terror." Cuthbertson admires Thatcher's strong stance against leniency or special treatment of IRA terrorists, and rightly so. But then, we fast forward to modern times and, as Cuthbertson writes:
In prosecuting the war on terror, she would make little time for those whose chief cause is to prevent the rendition of terrorist suspects or improve conditions in Guantanamo Bay. Instead, her response to court rulings favorable to terrorists has been the exhortation that "Conservatives everywhere must go on the counter-offensive against the New Left human rights brigade."
Well, gosh, I guess maybe the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and rendition of suspects to foreign governments really is just the same as Britain's treatment of IRA bombers… Except… something is tickling at the back of my mind, some nagging little detail… what was that? Oh yeah, now I remember-it's called the rule of law.

The IRA prisoners, with whom Thatcher refused to negotiate or show clemency, or to capitulate to when some (in)famously went on hunger strike, were all convicted criminals. They had been duly tried, convicted, and sentenced in accordance with the laws of the United Kingdom. They were also incarcerated in actual prisons under humane conditions, in accordance with the law and modern standards of criminal justice. On the other hand, the Guantanamo detainees have persisted in a legal nether-world, their status invisible, and their jailers unaccountable to anyone outside of the direct chain of command back to the White House. Yes, of course all freedom- and life-loving people want terrorists locked up or dead, but how do we know they're terrorists? Because Dick Cheney says so? Why have most of the Guantanamo detainees been quietly released since the administration was told (by the Supreme Court, not some "liberal" human rights groups) that it had to actually take steps to prove that the detainees are actually guilty? The questions answer themselves. And as for "rendition," i.e. the outsourcing of torture to unscrupulous foreign governments, one would hope such a practice would be considered despicable in its own right, but the fact that completely innocent people have been tortured at our behest should shame even the most hard-core Bush defender. Should, but apparently doesn't. Disgusting. It shames me as an American, even though I didn't vote for Bush.

It seems like those who support this illegal behavior must be taking the old saw "break some eggs to make an omelet" to heart. While this expression apparently did not originate with Stalin, it is widely attributed to him, and rightly so, I'd say. I reject the hyperbolic rhetorical overreach of saying that Bush is "just as bad" as bin Laden, or the more general version that the U.S. is "just as bad" as the terrorists. I also don't have any particular problem with Bush's (in)famous use of the term "evildoers." But I do think that when we torture, solicit torture, and trash our proud heritage of freedom AND the rule of law--truly the envy of the world, or at least it used to be--by disregarding the Constitution, then at some point that "evildoers" finger does begin to turn back at us.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

One Year On, and the Outlaw Administration Rolls On...

A year after I began posting here, writing about the outlaw administration, our esteemed leader shows no greater respect for the law, other than that which he makes up as he goes along.

Dahlia Lithwick has a handy recap on the Bush administration's continued progress into unchecked, illegal, extra-legal, and post-legal governance. Just for the record, we have not only exported "terror suspects" for torture by "friendly" governments, we have exported innocent people for torture, at least twice. Oops. And we have clearly tortured Jose Padilla as well, at this point. This includes sleep deprivation, isolation, sensory deprivation, stress positions and extreme cold. (If your going to argue about whether this is torture or not, go have a nice argument with Bill Clinton about what constitutes sex. The rest of us understand torture when we see it.) As to whether Jose Padilla is actually guilty of anything, well we may never get to know. After successfully keeping him out of the legal system for years, the administration may or may not actually prove its case in a real court someday. Surely it wouldn't just drop the charges and release an allegedly dangerous terrorist. Of course not, that could never happen here!

Happy New Year!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Holidays! (And Yes, I Mean That Literally)

In our last few days slouching toward Bethlehem, let me pause a moment to offer my own brief thoughts on the “controversy” concerning how we extend our warm wishes this time of year. Never minding (much) the breathless hyperbole of the Christmas warriors over at Fox, I was ever so mildly disappointed to see the highly readable Jacob Sullum over at Reason pitch in his own two cents dismissing “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” in the now-standard way—that is as lily-livered euphemisms by cautious Christians who do not wish to offend anyone. (Sullum’s column is otherwise cogent and well-argued, and I recommend it, as usual.)

I have always (as opposed to dreaming this up in response to the recent brouhaha) thought of these phrases as entirely straightforward and unrelated to political correctness. There’s Christmas (which should always be called such, not the execrable “Xmas”) and then, a mere seven days later, New Year’s Day. Um, hello, that’s two holidays. Two, as in plural. And two holidays that are essentially unrelated, New Year’s being perfectly secular. As for “Season’s Greetings,” if you throw in Thanksgiving, the slightly-over-a-month period contains three major holidays (here in America, at least) and is widely considered the “Holiday Season.” That’s all there is to it, as far as I’m concerned. When I was but a wee southern child, back in the free-wheelin’ 70’s, people were not overly concerned about offending Jews or other non-Christians, at least with something as innocuous as “Merry Christmas.” It’s just that the “classic” phrase “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” shortens quite nicely and efficiently to “Happy Holidays.” The only possibly valid line of critique I see here would be of the well-worn “what’s the harried modern world coming to if we’re so rushed we can’t take a couple of seconds to… blah, blah, blah.” To this I would say that there is grain of truth in it, and for what it’s worth I generally take the extra moment with friends, family, and colleagues to say the longer phrase—unless I happen to know that they don’t celebrate Christmas. However, if you consider the many, many interactions we have, for example, with cashiers, casual acquaintances and such, those few seconds can actually add up, when multiplied by hundreds!

It is certainly possible that in some quarters, “Happy Holidays” has taken on this PC role, but it isn’t necessarily so, and I steadfastly refuse to believe that there is a thing wrong with it. So whatever your sacred tradition, or lack thereof, Happy Holidays! And if you don’t appreciate that, to hell with you! ;-)

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