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Archive for April, 2009

The New Puritans

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

This Yglesias post reflects a group of beliefs regarding public health that tend to cut across ideological lines, probably because they resonate with some deeply embedded cultural puritanism that affects both the right and the left in America.

To simplify somewhat (but not much), the argument is roughly that health care costs so much because people get sick, and people get sick because they have bad habits. So the key to cutting health care costs is to get people to behave better.

Right-wingers tend to frame this argument in terms of “individual responsibility,” while lefties are more prone to blame structural factors, but in both cases the solution to the problem is the same: get Americans to stop stuffing their fat lazy faces with “junk food,” soda, alcohol, and cigarettes, so we can get health care costs under control.

This argument is wrong-headed on a whole bunch of levels. In particular it assumes that people get sick primarily because of their lifestyle habits, when in point of fact people get sick mainly because they get old. And old peoples’ health care costs a lot. But an even bigger problem is the assumption that improving peoples’ health means their health care will end up costing less.

Indeed, consider the one item on this agenda that would actually improve public health: decreasing smoking rates. It’s far from clear that decreasing cigarette smoking would actually save health care costs. It may well be that the improved health quitting smoking produces decreases costs in the short run, but increases them in the long run, because non-smokers live so much longer.

As for the other stuff, it’s been 90 years since Prohibition and the spiritual descendants of Carrie Nation are very much with us. When a smart guy like Yglesias simply assumes that alcohol consumption is a net negative to society it’s easier to understand how this nation’s insane drug policies remain so difficult to reform. It should be unnecessary to point out that alcohol seems to have a markedly beneficial effect on the health, even narrowly defined, of moderate drinkers. This doesn’t even take into account that drinking produces enormous amounts of pleasure, which of course is why the puritans hate it so much. Surely that should count for something. Drinking also generates considerable social costs, but to assume without argument that America would be a better place if people drank less is completely unwarranted.

As for soda and “junk food,” Barry Glassner’s The Gospel of Food is a nice introduction to the moralistic hysteria surrounding these subjects. In any case the notion we can cut health care costs significantly by getting people to drink less soda and eat fewer Doritos is unsupported by any evidence.

The bottom line is that health care costs have risen so much in large part because health has improved so drastically in America. 100 years ago life expectancy was 50, most diseases were basically untreatable, and health care costs were really low. Getting everybody to stop smoking, give up the demon rum, and eat like Alice Waters isn’t going to return us to that utopia.


Free to be me

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

My wife just received a certified letter alerting me to the odd news that I’ve somehow received tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor.

This is great news for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that my deeply conservative political views — which I’ve successfully veiled for the past two decades — can now breathe comfortably in the highly oxygenated atmosphere of academic freedom. It’s been a tough road. During my undergraduate years, I struggled to maintain an affected loathing for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and an equally feigned approval of tax-and-spend liberalism. To avoid losing the confidence of my English- and History-major friends, I celebrated the introduction of inferior literature to the canon; I decried transparently valid national security positions as “Peace Through Strength”; I mocked the swarm of yellow ribbons that helped sustain the nation during its fisticuffs with Saddam Hussein; I howled like a wounded goose as Clarence Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court. Prior to graduating, I wrote a pupil-dilating thesis on the 19th century socialists who lived at Brook Farm — realizing all the while that their gentle, agricultural fumblings masked an authoritarian, leveling sensibility that, cast broadly, would have turned the antebellum United States into a brutal, unitarian gulag. All of this I did because I understood that our liberally fascist graduate schools would never consent to admit a genuine conservative into the lower ranks of the academy.

By the time I entered my Ph.D. program, the ruse was second-nature; I wielded my liberalism in the fashion of two mighty, robotic claws, grafted to my arms at the elbows and upholstered with a synthetic sheath that carried the appearance and sensation of actual human skin. And so — part-man, part-liberal — I shook my fists at God’s blue sky for an agonizing eight years. From one seminar echo chamber to another, I sharpened my craft on the whetstone of nihilistic theory — poststructuralism, Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, postcolonialism — before turning them on my students, whose brows I pounded relentlessly with an array of manufactured grievances. Those who molded their beliefs to my framework of godless, anti-nationalist disdain earned their pieces of silver; the right-thinking ones I drove into demoralized hibernation. After composing an inferior slab of a dissertation, I completed my doctorate in October 2001. My oral defense was devoted mostly to ridiculing George W. Bush and evaluating the ways that I, with my newly-minted doctorate, might serve the cause by weakening the nation’s resolve in the face of the Islamofascist menace.

And so it was determined that I would be most usefully placed in the geographic margins, where — unbeknownst to the rest of the nation — a bold, conservative woman was completing her second term as the mayor of a small town called Wasilla. Over the next seven years, I continued to function as a conventional left-liberal academic, espousing views in print and in the classroom that I knew to be false but which I also knew would earn me the strategic confidence of my peers. I even joined a couple of liberal blogs, where I sustained the deceit on a near-daily basis. All of this, once again, was for the greater good. When the time came, I valiantly labored to upend the vice presidential aspirations of the governor whose state university has now offered me a perpetual source of income. As a fake liberal, I did this to help bring about the election of Barack Obama, whom I was supposed to presume would correct the pernicious historical infractions of the previous regime; as a genuine (albeit sub rosa) conservative, I did this — well, to help bring about the election of Barack Obama, who I knew would destroy the nation so that it might one day be saved by a new generation of conservatives like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal.

Now that I am tenured, the full scope of my deception — and its thoroughly defensible rationale — can at last be revealed. I look forward to a long and successful career atoning for the gross ideological errors I adopted out of necessity. I look forward to purging my lecture notes of the corrosive influence of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Ward Churchill. I look forward to telling the truth about the Civil War, the Great Depression, Vietnam, the Clenis, and the triumph of neoconservatism. And yes, I look forward — at long, sweet last — to tea-bagging a liberal before he or she might crouch to teabag me.

It’s morning again in America. Palin/Jindal 2012!

libertarians and women

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

Will Wilkinson approvingly directs me to Jason Kuznicki’s half-hearted defense of Peter Thiel’s unfortunate musings about the tragic consequences of women’s suffrage. Kuznicki basically admits that by publishing Thiel CATO was essentially trolling their own magazine:

This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose.

But even after this admission, he offers a narrow defense of Thiel’s essay:

Yet Thiel’s claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems — to my mind at least — regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women’s suffrage.

This defense-through-exceedingly-narrow-reading technique is obviously kind of silly; it’s rather hard to imagine, as a thought experiment, Wilkinson and Kuznicki defending a similar column in which the statist voting habits of African-Americans are grounds for a jeremiad about the emancipation proclamation (leave that for Byron York!). But even as a narrow defense, it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Thinking as a libertarian for a moment, it seems to me one could rather easily construct a model of male policy preferences and voting tendencies that are hostile to libertarianism and libertarian outcomes. Which, for example, has contributed more to the growth of the oppressive power of the state–wars or welfare benefits? And which gender is easier to sucker into supporting the life-and-liberty destroying miracle gro-for-the-state practice we call war?

Furthermore, men are more likely to support anti-liberty socially conservative policy initiatives and goals than women. But you could play this game with any major voting bloc in the United States, becuase although many people are enamored with libertarian logic and/or rhetoric from time to time, at the end of the day they’re not particularly libertarian at all. It’s not that Thiel is wrong, it’s that his singling out of women is utterly arbitary, and his column could be repeated for any other group. Under such circumstances, why does Thiel focus on women? I can think of a few possible answers, and none of them speak particularly well of Thiel.

Why Do People Say Stupid Things?

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

Condoleeza Rice explaining why the use of harsh interrogation techniques was justified against Al Qaeda suspects, but not World War II German POWs:

With all due respect, Nazi Germany never attacked the homeland of the United States

In fact, the German Kriegsmarine sank approximately 600 US and Allied merchant vessels in and around US territorial waters between January and June 1942. These attacks came shortly after Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. Approximately 1500 American sailors were killed in these attacks. I suspect that an attack on an American ship in US territorial waters would be interpreted by just about anyone as an attack on the homeland of the United States.

With all due respect, it’s probably best not to use the construction “with all due respect,” or to refer to your interlocutor as “dear,” when you have only the most tenuous grasp on the underlying facts…

A River In Texas

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

Shorter John Cornyn: Having more congressional races where we’re uncompetitive is a good thing, because it will save us money! And while Al Franken continuing to win against Norm Coleman’s frivolous lawsuits would be highly unlikely — indeed, an upset on the order of the Cavaliers beating the Pistons — this would still be a good thing because…you know, heighten the contradictions! Profit!

On Minority Party Status

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

If you don’t want to read uninformed, pointless speculation on the future of the Republican Party, skip this post…

Let me start off by saying that, while the Specter defection does create certain problems for the Democrats in 2010, it indicates much larger problems for the Republicans. Specter, for the Republicans, is not a case of addition by subtraction. He’s certainly an opportunist, but political parties in the United States and elsewhere require the services of opportunists in order to survive and prosper. When the opportunists start jumping ship, it indicates serious problems.

There’s no question that the media oversells the notion that particular elections spell doom for one party or another; we all remember claims about how the 2002 and 2004 elections spelled the end for the Democrats, meant that they would have to fundamentally restructure their approach to politics, and so on and so forth. The party system of the United States rarely restructures itself in a grand way; the New Deal simply reoriented the party coalitions that already existed, and the Reagan Revolution failed to do even that.

That said, political parties do die. They don’t die often, but even in the United States they sometimes go belly up. I think that the Republican Party has become stuck in an ideological and demographic trap of its own making, and I’m not sure that it understands the seriousness of the situation. It’s Congressional deficit is greater than any that the Democrats have faced since 1931. It’s struggling to maintain its share of a part of the electorate that is steadily shrinking, and it has failed to make serious inroads into any other demographic. Indeed, the GOP core is actively hostile to Latino Catholics, the one part of the electorate that might have the most sympathy with its ideological principles. Moreover, the intellectual structure that undergirds the GOP is both strikingly inept and deeply resistant to change. As Erik puts it,

The Republican Party reminds me of a perverse version of Students for a Democratic Society circa 1969: a once influential and powerful organization falling apart over issues of ideology with each era of leadership demanding increasing radical ideological purity and purging those who do not follow the party line with proper rigor.

The US electoral system favors broad based coalition parties, while governance in the US and everywhere else favors ideologically cohesive parties. Karl Rove’s 50%+1 strategy was a recognition of the contradiction between the former and the latter; parties that can win large majorities are forced to compromise in ways that make governance difficult. Rove’s goal wasn’t to re-create the vast Democratic Congressional majorities that prevailed from 1932-1994, but rather to create a party just large enough to win without making sacrifices on core issues. It ssems to me that this strategy has failed for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. The practical reason is that the ideological planks that undergird the Republican coalition are disastrous when actually effected into policy. The theoretical reason is that electoral politics include much ebb and flow; the 50%+1 coalition that prevails in one cycle is much different than the 50%+1 coalition that can prevail two years later. The glory (and frustration) of an ideologically diffuse coalition party in the American system is that the Democrat running for election in Alabama can make a much different set of promises than the Democrat running in Vermont. The manner in which the Republicans have created and maintained ideological coherence has made it extremely difficult for the GOP to retain the flexibility demanded by electoral pressure and everyday governance.

It’s also worth noting that the idea of the GOP as a quasi-permanent minority party isn’t crazy. By 2010, the Republicans will have controlled the Senate for 20 of the last 78 years, and the House of Representatives for 16 of 78. In these terms, the GOP is less becoming a minority party than returning to minority party status after a brief moment in the sun. That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, because the ideological coalitions that underpin the two parties are much different today than they were in 1932. Nevertheless, the idea that the GOP might become a permanent minority party, congressionally uncompetitive in vast swaths of the United States, isn’t particularly new. This is not the worst position that the GOP has faced; it trailed by 26 Senate seats and 155 Representatives in 1967. Moreover, in spite of the all the difficulties associated with the contradictions in the coalition (tensions which were much greater than those within the coalition today), the Democrats achieved marvelous things between 1932 and 1994; they essentially created the modern American welfare state, which the Republicans have been unable to destroy. It’s unclear to me that it would have been easier to build the New Deal and Great Society if a substantial part of the coalition had been exiled to the GOP.

My wager is this; the GOP is lose several Senate seats (although perhaps not House seats) in 2010, and is going to get crushed by an incumbent Obama in 2012. The primary fight is going to be bloody, between a traditional establishment type (Romney) and a populist type (Palin or Huckabee). After 2012, the establishment is going to retake control of the asylum, and we’ll see the GOP begin to build a new electoral coalition. It’s almost inevitable that the GOP will see congressional gains in 2014, and I suspect it will field a competitive Presidential candidate in 2016. I suspect it will be harder, however, to expand the GOP’s congressional reach beyond its base in the old Confederacy, and that the first half of the 21st century will look a lot more like 1932-1994 than post-Gingrich.

I Have Seen Watchmen 151 Times!

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

Cincinnati is not normally the kind of city that deals well with weirdness:

Via DCist.

The Law Enforcement Model

[ 0 ] April 30, 2009 |

This is a kind of interesting clip about the British approach to fighting terrorism. We recently had a speaker at Patterson knowledgeable of British intelligence organizations, and he made more or less the same argument as Reza; the United Kingdom faces a substantial domestic terror threat, but has managed it effectively through law enforcement techniques. I think it’s incontestably true that a law enforcement framing of terrorism makes more sense and works better than a war frame. It’s not the entire answer; any objection I might have to UAV strikes against terrorist targets centers on the practical, rather than legal, difficulties. It’s worth noting, however, that British internal security services have much wider powers of surveillance than their American counterparts. This is more or less the case on the Continent as well, as many European states have longer histories of dealing with domestic terror than the United States. I say this not to suggest that they are models for emulation, but rather to point out that European citizens are far more tolerant of the national security state than Americans, and that this matters for the ability of European intelligence services to focus on a law enforcement model.

Is New Hampshire #5?

[ 0 ] April 29, 2009 |

It’s up to John Lynch now.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 13 to 11 in favor of the bill, but only after a last-minute amendment strengthened language granting legal protections for religious groups and organizations that do not want to perform or otherwise help carry out same-sex marriages.

The House, which approved the marriage bill by a seven-vote margin last month, will now vote on the Senate’s amended version. Supporters and opponents both predicted that version would pass the House, which is more liberal and was more enthusiastic about same-sex marriage from the start. The bill probably cannot gain enough support in either house for an override, so its fate almost certainly rests with Gov. John Lynch.

It is unclear whether Gov. Lynch, a Democrat, will veto the law or whether the new language will persuade him to endorse it. Mr. Lynch has consistently opposed same-sex marroiage but has never said whether he would veto the bill or let it be enacted without his signature.

He did not reveal his intentions after the vote but reiterated his belief that the state’s two-year-old civil-union law provides sufficient rights and protections to gay couples.

“To achieve further real progress,” he said in a statement, “the federal government would need to take action to recognize New Hampshire civil unions.”

On the one hand, the wrong venue/method tactic of delaying marriage equality is annoying and tiresome. But it’s heartening that we live in a climate where direct adovcacy of marriage discrimination is increasingly beyond the pale. (See also: the hysterical claims of censorship of ministers that were a major part of Prop-8 advocacy, the much-mocked NOM video, etc etc).

Speaking of NOM, they’re here to remind us that judicial legislative policy-making is elitist, countermajoritarian, and anti-democratic.

Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which was established to fight same-sex marriage around the country, said the group would intensively lobby Mr. Lynch to veto it. “This vote is in no way representative of what folks in New Hampshire want,” Mr. Brown said, adding that the Senate leadership had used “arm-twisting” to change the votes of a few crucial Democrats. “If the governor is going to stand by his words and his stated position, he will veto this bill.”

Bachmann’s dreams take wing

[ 0 ] April 29, 2009 |

The best reaction I’ve seen to Michele Bachman’s undilutedly stupid musings on the “Hoot-Smalley” tariff:

I hope she makes history lessons a regular part of her work in the House. I want to hear about how the Second World War II began when the Japanese bombed our base at Pearl Bailey in the Hawaiian Tropic, and how women like Rosa Parks the Riveter went to work building bombers like the Enola Heterosexual Marriage.

As for me, I’m curious to learn how I could have lived in Minnesota for nine years without knowing that a well-regarded former Twins shortstop could have played such an important role in prolonging the Great Depression.

Reining In the Arbitrary Executive

[ 0 ] April 29, 2009 |

See Greenwald and Daphne Evitar on a potentially important decision from a Ninth Circuit panel repudiating at least one element of the expansive “state secrets” privilege claimed by the Bush and Obama administrations. In this case, the Bush admininstration put forward the position that this incredibly broad privelege could apply to a civil suit involving a third party, and (disgracefully) the Obama administration continued with this assertion. While the ruling does not deny that the privelege exists in certain narrow circumstances, it rejected the broader claims put forward by Bush and Obama:

Today, in a 26-page ruling (.pdf), the appellate court resoundingly rejected the Bush/Obama position, holding that the “state secrets” privilege — except in extremely rare circumstances not applicable here — does not entitle the Government to demand dismissal of an entire lawsuit based on the assertion that the “subject matter” of the lawsuit is a state secret. Instead, the privilege only allows the Government to make specific claims of secrecy with regard to specific documents and other facts — exactly how the privilege was virtually always used before the Bush and Obama DOJs sought to expand it into a vast weapon of immunity from all lawsuits challenging the legality of any executive branch program relating to national security.

We’ll have to see if this is heard en banc or by the Surpeme Court, but hopefully the suit against Jeppesen Dataplan for abetting an extraordinary rendition that led to torture will be allowed to proceed.

All diseases must be named to maximize national stigma

[ 0 ] April 29, 2009 |

Oh, Jesus:

The outbreak of swine flu should be renamed “Mexican” influenza in deference to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork, said an Israeli health official Monday.

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu,” he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel.

Both Judaism and Islam consider pigs unclean and forbid the eating of pork products.

I hadn’t realized the kosher proscriptions against pigs extended to evoking them by name to describe an illness for which they are in fact the carriers. Moreover, I would think that calling it “swine flu” would tend to reinforce the whole pigs-as-filthy-beast thing. Indeed, since many people continue to have a medieval understanding of disease, I’d not be surprised to learn that sales of pork products had taken a hit this week, or that plushophiles were jerking off less frequently to old Miss Piggy videos. If I were part of a community that had disparaged a particular species of animal for thousands of years, this is probably exactly the sort of taboo reinforcement for which I’d have waited a lifetime. But since I haven’t been driven insane by my religious beliefs, who cares what I think?

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