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Archive for December, 2009

Give ‘Em Enough Rope

[ 3 ] December 22, 2009 |

This largely fawning Times Magazine profile of Robert George nonetheless manages to be quite damning. George’s purportedly major intellectual contribution, Fitzpatrick explains, is to apply tautology and bare assertion natural law to contemporary questions of jurisprudence and political theory. You will probably not be surprised to learn that this would-be modern Aquinas has discovered that “natural law” and “practical reason” reveal…a near-perfect photocopy of the 2008 Republican platform:

Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.


The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on. “Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.”

It is to his credit, I suppose, that he’s so straightforward about his cafeteria Catholicism. But it is nonetheless clear that the argument he’s making fails on its own terms. Surely the truism that “you can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions” applies no less to abortion policy than anything else, which makes it highly relevant that George’s preferred policy mix (draconian criminalization of abortion, reactionary gender politics, minimal welfare state) in fact has a notably dismal record even when it comes to reducing abortion rates. Indeed, there’s much better evidence that robust welfare states reduce poverty than that abortion criminalization substantially reduces abortion rates (as opposed to the incidence of safe abortions.) Moreover, it seems rather clear that grubby politics rather than natural law is the primary factor in determining why George and his adherents are more concerned with same-sex marriage than, say, no-fault divorce when addressing alleged offenses against traditional marriage.

As a punchline, I’ll also highlight this tidbit: 

Later that year, when Bill Clinton denied Casey a chance to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, it was George who had helped to write Casey’s speech.

Yes, the fact that Casey was denied that speaking slot sure was an outrage…


Lee Sigelman

[ 0 ] December 22, 2009 |

Rest in peace.

Where Are The Votes?

[ 0 ] December 22, 2009 |

I think Nate Silver’s decimation of the reconciliation dodge is definitive. Granted, I roughly share his ideological priorities, and as a result I don’t think there’s a very serious argument the bill doesn’t improve the status quo (and any such argument would apparently have to rely on some pretty reactionary propositions, such as “compensation in the form of health care should be permanently exempt from taxation.”) So any argument for blowing up this bill does indeed have to rely on claims that a better bill could be obtained through reconciliation. Which seems implausible in the extreme. As I see it, the key points:

  • There’s no way that there’s even 50 votes for a public option sufficiently robust to be worth risking the bill’s regulate-and-subsidy provisions over.
  • Once you consider the lost votes of Feingold and Byrd — as well as God knows how many centrist wankers who would use reconciliation, and the threat is poses to their leverage, as a pretext to vote nay — it’s not even obvious that there are 50 votes for a weak public option through reconciliation.

The bottom line is that holding out hope for a better bill through reconcilation is to fundamentally misunderstand the politics of the situation. The fact that pre-existing majoritarian Senate rules would probably result in a better bill most certainly doesn’t mean that using reconciliation would result in a better bill — many Senators have a vested interest in the existing rules. So killing the bill in the hope of reconciliation would almost certainly make the rest of the bill much worse, and at best would result in a weak public option in exchange. As a percentage move, this would be roughly akin to having Babe Ruth circa 1923 bunt with a runner on second down three runs. It may be true that the threat of reconciliation could have led to a better bill, but I doubt it for these reasons — especially once Feingold made it clear that he wouldn’t play ball, I don’t think either conservative Democrats or Republicans would have viewed the threat as credible.

At any rate, the only reason to oppose the bill is if you think it’s worse than the status quo on the merits. The rest is ice cream castles in the air.

Right Addition, Wrong Subtraction

[ 0 ] December 22, 2009 |

I’d have to agree that Richard Cohen — if only for his status as a nominal “liberal” — merits addition to this list. But I’d remove the merely boring Hoagland instead; while I understand Duncan’s point, I’ll insist that three years of Kelly is worth a full decade of the typical winger. For those who don’t remember, read this.

I’d also have thought that Applebaum would be an easy choice, but honestly I can’t identify anyone else I’d remove…

…Henley, despite his inclusion of Dionne (hey, electing Obama was always going to fray the libertarian/liberal alliance) makes a good case for Cohen. And he’s also right about how horrendous Broder is.

Teenage Runaways Need to Up Their Game

[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |

Because there’s running away from home, and there’s sailing away from home.

OK, technically, they’re not sure how she transported from The Netherlands to the Dutch Antilles, but I would think that it’s somewhat difficult for a 13/14 year old to just up and buy a KLM ticket and board without any indication that this is approved by a parent / guardian / the state.

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that Laura Dekker could withdraw €3,500 from her personal bank account. When I was 13 (or 14, as The Guardian reports her age to be) I didn’t have a personal bank account, let alone €3,500 to put in or take out of it. Hell, come to think of it, I don’t have that now.

British Party Leaders to Have Three Debates

[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |
Because apparently nobody watches the weekly PM’s Question Time.

This is a good idea in general, but a bad idea for Gordon Brown and Labour. As his approval ratings are trailing those of his party, and likewise he is trailing David Cameron, I’m not sure how this will help him. Especially as a lot of his negatives are tied to his personality, not his policies.

I expect that if it adds anything to Cameron’s chances (growing somewhat after having dipped for a few weeks) it will solidify and reassure the support of those who voted Labour or Lib Dem in 97, 01, and 05. The real winner here could be Nick Clegg, because a) nobody knows who the hell he is at the moment, b) like Cameron, the five people who have heard of Nick Clegg have no idea what the hell he or his party stand for, and c) he will appeal in contrast to Gordon Brown even if he fails to utter a single word all night.
I also anticipate that these debates will be of a vastly superior quality to their American inspirations, both in terms of the type of questions asked as well as the directness of the responses. But I’ll miss the Palinesque moments . . .
. . . and I do look forward to the British reaction to their first ever debates, wondering how soon, and how often, some media turd will bemoan yet another Yank import sullying the culture, like Halloween and a currency that one can divide by 100.

Winger of the Day

[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |

Treason In Defense Of Slavery Yankee.

Although Erick certainly gave it a nice effort.

…added (by davenoon): And today, TIDOS Yankee withdraws himself from the hindquarters of a pig, dons his John Calhoun wig, and expresses his doubtlessly sincere hope that a dormant posse of armed yokels decide not to wake up and begin shooting people over HCR and cap-and-trade legislation….


[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |

Sorry, Drexel:

Back in 1903, W.W.H. Mustaine, the director of physical education at the time, called some students together and passed around the hat until there was $3 in it — enough to buy a ball. He then told them to start playing.

The first season got off to a bumpy start. The Wildcats went just 1-2, their only win an 11-10 escape over the Lexington YMCA.

The next year, Mustaine was out.

From those modest beginnings, a powerhouse emerged.

Over a century later, what started with a handful of students and a single leather ball has grown into one of college basketball’s biggest brands, one that has woven itself into the fabric of the Bluegrass.

There have been 1,998 victories since that squeaker over the Lexington YMCA, including seven NCAA titles and 25 Southeastern Conference tournament championships.

Now the program which proudly proclaims it has “the greatest tradition in college basketball” can add another bullet point to its resume. A win over Drexel on Monday would make the third-ranked Wildcats (11-0) the first team in NCAA history to reach 2,000 wins.

As one UK professor tweeted:

Note to Univ. of Ky fans: Anticipating 2,000th bball win today, I have conveniently placed unwanted items, matches in front yard.

One market under God

[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |

Jon Chait has an interesting piece in TNR on the sclerotic condition of contemporary conservative free market dogma, as it tries to parry the Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis, global warming, and health care reform. As Chait emphasizes, all of these issues are textbook cases of market failure, which means that as an ideological matter contemporary American conservatives have difficulty acknowledging they even exist:

Partisan self-interest–an accurate belief that Obama’s legislative failure offers Republicans the most likely road back to power–surely accounts for some of the party’s obstinacy. But at least as powerful is the deepening hold on the GOP of anti-government ideology.

Several years ago, I wrote in these pages that the fundamental difference between economic conservatism and economic liberalism is that the former is driven by abstract philosophical beliefs in a way that the latter is not. Conservatives believe that small-government policies maximize human welfare. But they also believe that they increase human freedom. Liberals, by contrast, believe in government intervention only to the extent that it increases human welfare.

If liberals could be persuaded that tax cuts would actually increase living standards for all Americans, they would embrace them. (This is why nearly all liberals believe that some level of tax rate, be it 50 or 70 or 90 percent, becomes counterproductive.) If conservatives came to believe that tax cuts failed to increase economic growth, most would still support them anyway, because they enhance freedom. As Milton Friedman once put it, “[E]conomic freedom is an end in itself.”

For this reason, liberals tend to do a better job at devising policies that maximize human welfare. They do not do a perfect job, nor is there always a singular definition of “human welfare”–some of the thorniest dilemmas of public policy involve trade-offs over whose welfare to maximize. Still, you’re going to fare better at maximizing human welfare if that is your sole goal, rather than one of two oft-competing goals.

Conservatism can succeed at maximizing human welfare when faced with government failure or some other circumstance that naturally lends itself to ideologically congenial tools, like inflation in the 1970s. But conservatism is plagued by blindness in the face of even textbook cases of market failure.

The piece also contains an amusing review of the too-seldom referenced GOP flip-flop on Medicare, which in the space of a few years has been transformed from the ultimate instrument of socialist tyranny to a sacred human right.

Things that will suprise no one

[ 0 ] December 20, 2009 |

Hey, it looks like Sarah Palin is just making stuff up again:

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, who has had a rocky relationship with the state’s capital city, says in her book there were some ugly threats made against her daughters while they were attending Juneau schools.

Those threats reportedly caused daughter Willow Palin to be removed from the Juneau School District.

Palin said it ended the “honeymoon” for her kids in their new role as children of the state’s governor, though she admitted the honeymoon had already ended for her.

The alleged threats made against Palin’s daughters are raising questions among officials who would likely have been made aware of them at the time, had they been made or had Palin taken them seriously. . . .

Palin provided no details about where the Internet site was, how seriously she took the threats, how she knew it was posted by students, or what steps she’d taken to ensure her family’s safety.

Former Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan was superintendent during the period in question and said she never heard of such concerns. . . .

Juneau Police Chief Greg Browning similarly said his department has no record of ever being alerted to such threats.

His department’s school resource officers are in Juneau schools daily, and would likely have been alerted to such threats, had they been made, he said.

The Alaska State Troopers provide a security detail for Palin, but trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said the first they heard about the allegation was from Palin’s book.

“AST has no record of a report like that being made to our agency,” Peters said. “Additionally, we have no way of determining if a report of that nature was made to another agency.”

I figured someone would report on this sooner or later. Juneau is a small town in many ways, and of the many stories I’ve heard about Palin’s kids — especially the two older ones — this one had never come up. And now I suppose we know why.

I’ve pretty much given up on trying to plumb the psychology of someone like Palin. But as far as this latest fable goes, it seems possible that she invented it to add greater (albeit fabricated) detail to the outrage she expressed over David Letterman’s tasteless joke about her daughter being impregnated by A-Rod. More likely, I suspect, the story is one more aspect of Palin’s deranged relationship to Alaska’s capital. Describing Palin’s relationship with Juneau as “rocky” would qualify as a major understatement. Her loathing for the city was palpable during the brief periods she actually spent in residence, and her absence from the capital city during legislative sessions (especially 2008) was the stuff of legend. Her book is almost completely uncomplimentary about Juneau, which she portrays as a swamp of political corruption and extramarital affairs. She congratulates herself for living in the governor’s mansion for a few months (and for firing the chef), but about the only thing we learn about the people of Juneau is that she was happy to annoy her neighbors by installing a trampoline in the front yard. (As an aside, I’ll note that I have acquaintances who live in that neighborhood, and no one recalls her putting a trampoline there. Nor would anyone have given a shit if she had.)

With that in mind, I’m not surprised that Palin would make up stories about her imperiled kids to justify her decision to leave Juneau and take a state per diem for living in Wasilla. Palin ranks among those Alaskans — most of whom live in the Anchorage region — who would prefer to remove the capital entirely from Southeast Alaska, where it’s been since the Russian purchase in 1867. (Juneau has been the capital since 1906.) Over the past decade, the loss of government jobs in Juneau has been a source of growing concern; the past several administrations have relocated significant positions (including commissioners’ offices) to the Anchorage area, producing a phenomenon known as “capital creep.” Several formal efforts to move the capital — most recently a ballot referendum in 2002 — have failed, but the informal process continues to be a problem. As everyone knows, the departure of government entirely from Juneau would absolutely wreck the region, hacking away a quarter of its economy at the very least. And Sarah Palin was the sort of person who seemed to believe that outcome would be completely acceptable.

So is Sarah Palin the sort of person who would make up stories about threats of gang rape to provide literary cover for her personal and political aversion to her state’s capital city? I dunno. Her fabrications usually have such a random quality to them, it’s hard to imagine she’s operating with much of a method. Like a Zen koan, Palin’s lies can only be understood by relinquishing the quest for understanding.

Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist (as is praying for and/or to "JaMarcus Manning").

[ 2 ] December 20, 2009 |

Annalee Newitz writes that “[w]hether Avatar is racist is a matter of debate,” but it isn’t: the film is racist. Its fundamental narrative logic is racist: it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists). Unlike King Kong—which wrestled with the racial logic of the originalAvatar reproduces the racist logic of its source material. This is not to say the film is not also a condemnation of American imperialism or disastrous environmental policies, because it’s that too. I’ll address the racial politics more in a moment, but let me address the portrayal of the military (much bemoaned here) first:

It all adds up to crossing a line that I’ve never experienced in a major American film: drawing the audience to cheer the brutal deaths of Americans who are clearly symbolizing the military.

Blackwater/Xe Services LLC is not the military. Mercenaries are not symbols of the military. They are a perversion of the military. James Cameron has an unabashed love for the military (Aliens, The Abyss, etc.) but that love does not extend to those who make war for profit. It’s obvious that the only authentic military man in the film is the protagonist, Jake Sully, who lost his legs in a legitimate conflict. He turns from the soulless mercenary-logic like a good proxy for the audience, and this is where the racial politics become problematic.

The titular “avatars” are genetically designed Na’vi bodies that can be remotely piloted by people like Sully with the intent of studying the natives. (Think anthropological immersion at its most literal.) The Na’vi are not merely distrustful of “the space people,” they’re inherently xenophobic, incapable of trusting any sentient being that doesn’t look like them. If that mistrust is justified for some other reason (like a hairy first contact), the film never mentions it, meaning (in a classic case of projection) the humans assume that the Na’vi will be xenophobic before they even meet them.

But the racial essentialism of the film creates a whopper of an unintended thematic irony.* The planet and everything on it do not simply coexist in a harmonious balance of the New Age variety: they are hard-wired into a single neural network that makes the entire planet into a single entity and “the space people” less like a colonizing mercenary force than a disease. The humans are to be resisted not because they are economic imperialists (though they are) and not because they glory in militaristic combat (though they do) but because they are different. They do not belong to the planet and therefore there is no possibility for peaceful coexistence. The only way humans can be accepted is for them to forsake their humanity and become Na’vi. (Think literal assimilation.)

This is not a vision of a racially harmonious social politic: it is an inversion of the logic of passing that seems acceptable only because it imagines the experience of becoming a person of color as necessarily ennobling. The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible … and those assumptions are racist. In football terms, this is a variation of the black quarterback “problem.”

For decades, coaches and scouts wished they could find a black body with a white brain in it. (“If only someone could find a way to stuff Peyton Manning’s brain into JaMarcus Russell’s body!”) The essentialist logic at play there is obvious: black people are more athletic than white, and white people are smarter than black. No matter how descriptive these people thought they were being, in truth they were creating the conditions they claimed to describe: black quarterbacks were increasingly valued for raw athleticism, white athletes for their pocket presence and tactical acumen. That’s an expectations game based on racist expectations … and it works according to the same logic behind the narrative of Avatar.

*I’m analogizing race and species here because Cameron’s space fable encourages me to do so with all the subtlety of a fry pan upside my head.

In Fairness, There’s Also A Strong Consensus Against Waste, Fraud and Abuse. And For Limiting Welfare Recipients to Three Escalades A Year.

[ 0 ] December 20, 2009 |

One thing to add to the fact that foreign aid is one of the tiny number of specific areas in which cuts to government spending are actually popular is that (unless public awareness of federal spending levels has increased to implausible levels since 1995) it’s quite definitely the exception that proves the rule:

The weekend before President Clinton’s State of the Union Address, the Wall Street Journal assembled a focus group of middle-class white males to plumb the depth of their proverbial anger. These guys are mad as hell. They’re mad at welfare, they’re mad at special-interest lobbyists. “But perhaps the subject that produces the most agreement among the group,” the Journal reports, is the view that Washington should stop sending money abroad and instead zero in on the domestic front.

…a poll released last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland which stated that 75% of Americans believes that the US spends “too much” on foreign aid, and 64% want foreign aid spending cut. Apparently a cavalier 11% of Americans think it’s fine to spend “too much” on foreign aid. Respondents were also asked, though, how big a share of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The median answer was 15%; the average answer was 18%; the correct answer is less than 1%. A question about how much would be “too little” produced a median answer of 3%–more than three times the current level of foreign aid spending.

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