Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Scott Lemieux

rss feed

Charles Murray: Yet More

[ 0 ] January 20, 2007 |

Ezra presents a very useful summary of critiques of Charles Murray in light of his latest repellent op-ed. To add to this, I’ve put excerpts from the New Republic symposium on The Bell Curve online here and here.

Murray claims that his belief that the government can’t do anything to redress poverty and racial inequality is not due to his indifference to these problems, but reflects sincere libertarian beliefs. The Iraq War is a useful way of testing one’s commitment to this principle: surely, if welfare programs are a bad idea, then razing a government and hoping that an entirely new state and society can be constructed in its place is a really bad idea. Murray, needless to say, was all for the Iraq War, not only contemporaneously but in retrospect.

Another example of Murray in practice is his assertion–which he takes to be a slam-dunk case against government intervention–that the 55 MPH speed limit had “no visible difference” on highway fatalities. As Louis Menand noted in his review of Murray’s What It Means To Be A Libertarian:

Having asserted that the 55-mph speed limit made “no visible difference at all,” Murray doesn’t trouble us with the actual numbers. They are as follows. In 1970, 54,600 Americans died in traffic accidents; in 1973, the number was 55,500. In 1974, after the passage of the 55-mph speed limit, traffic deaths fell to 46,400. In 1975, they fell again, to 45,900. In 1976, there were 47,000. Measured as deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, which is the form Murray prefers: in 1970 there were 4.7 deaths per 100 million miles traveled; in 1973 there were 4.1; in 1974, following the passage of the 55-mph law, there were 3.5; in 1975, 3.4; and in 1976, 3.3. These decreases correlate with a decrease in the average speed of cars on interstate highways, which fell from 65 mph, with fifty percent of cars exceeding 65, in 1973, to 57.6 mph, with only 9 percent of cars exceeding 65, in 1974.

It is hard to see how Murray can claim, short of pointing to another cause, that the 55-mph speed limit made “no visible difference” in the number or the rate of traffic deaths. What is notable about the decline in the fatality rate, in fact, is how decisive it was. For the effect of reducing the speed limit to 55 cannot be meaningfully measured against all motor vehicle travel, which is how Murray measures it. The effect is obviously limited to travel on roads where the speed limit was previously higher than 55.

These were, for the most part, interstate highways, which are built, maintained, and regulated by federal and state governments and which are statistically the safest roads in the nation. The least safe, as it happens, are locally built and maintained rural roads. The fatality rate on interstate highways in 1994 was .74 per 100 million vehicle miles—higher (.99) on rural sections, where speed limits have generally been raised, than on urban sections (.58). On noninterstate rural roads, it was 2.66. Murray naturally does not get around to pointing out that by 1994, following aggressive government efforts to require the use of seat belts and air bags, the total number of traffic deaths had dropped to 40,676, or just 1.72 per 100 million miles traveled.

Murray’s whole discussion of this matter starts, of course, from a false premise, which is that Congress voted to reduce the top speed limit in 1974 in an effort to decrease the rate of traffic fatalities. It did not. The purpose of the law was not highway safety; it was energy conservation, a response to the threat of an oil embargo by OPEC. And in this respect the law was also effective (though a steep rise in the price of gasoline no doubt helped). The average number of gallons consumed annually per vehicle fell from 851 in 1973 to 788 in 1974 and 790 in 1975. The 55-mph speed limit was an extremely modest political measure. It added a few minutes to long drives on interstate highways; in return, it helped to save a little oil and, as an unanticipated bonus (and contrary to Murray’s explicit claim), thousands of lives. It was slightly nerve-wracking back in 1974 driving at 55 miles an hour on roads where one was accustomed to doing 75 or 80, but there was also a weird sense of solidarity about the experience, as though people, by driving in what at the time seemed like a farcical slow motion, were pulling together, doing the right thing to meet a national crisis. It was possible to resent the loss of time, but I don’t think very many people experienced it as a loss of freedom.

Indeed. And as Menand notes, Murray makes similar silly claims about Jim Crow (“The notion that the movement toward desegregation between 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, and 1964 was the result of a voluntary and natural trend in human relations below the Mason-Dixon line, unaffected by federal court orders, Supreme Court decisions, and the deployment of federal troops, is of a piece with the notion that a decrease in the number of highway fatalities from 55,500 to 46,400 does not, despite mathematical appearances, represent a saving of thousands of lives.”). The man is simply not a serious thinker or scholar.

Bye Bye Johnny

[ 0 ] January 20, 2007 |

Brad Plumer offers more evidence for Josh Marshall’s thesis that McCain is dead. They’re right. Essentially, McCain was always a longshot for the Republican nomination because (as 2000 demonstrated) he is distrusted by much of the evangelical base. To compensate, he hitched his wagon to 1)becoming Bush’s lickspittle, and 2)being a particularly visible and unrelenting Iraq cheerleader. And as Brad points out, this has worked out about as well as betting your live savings on Ball State to win the BCS, except with a lot more loss of life and money and damage to national security interests.

Given this, and also given that Giuliani’s potential campaign is a farce , the interesting question is, who could win the nomination? Mark Schmitt offers a good lay of the land. He thinks Romney has little chance (for plausible reasons, although it’s hard for me to say whether evangelicals will be able to deal with his Mormonism or not), and likes Gingrich. I think Brownback and Huckabee have the best shot of the candidates under discussion; again, I assume the former is something of a longshot, but 1)I don’t know enough, and 2)distancing himself from the war suggests some political savvy.

Rox was on this last year.

And When the Third SUV Conks Out, You Have To Wait Until Monday For A Decent Mechanic

[ 0 ] January 19, 2007 |

Submitted without comment, the opening grafs of a NYT “Homes” section article:

FOR some people, the most elusive aspect of owning a vacation home that sits beyond big-city borders isn’t finding the time to enjoy it. It’s finding someone to service the deluxe appliances inside.

“We called Viking over the holidays every year,” Rosemary Devlin said of her half-decade-long (and mostly futile) efforts to schedule manufacturer service for her mutinous dishwasher. The appliance was installed along with a suite of Viking cousins when Ms. Devlin and her husband, Fay, whose main house is about 20 miles north of Manhattan in Irvington, N.Y., built their six-bedroom ski house on Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vt.

[HT--I think--to Becks.]

"From Progadanda To Surrealism"

[ 0 ] January 19, 2007 |

Shorter Glenn Reynolds and Don Surber: “Only Luddites believe that drug companies should disclose payoffs to doctors and advertising; everyone knows that if drug companies didn’t make unlimited profits from copycat drugs, then R&D would effectively cease, just like in Canada. Except for that new cancer drug, but we preemptively blame the non-existent opposition on hypothetical anti-drug Luddites anyway.”

Do they ever argue with non-strawmen?

Not Top-10 List

[ 0 ] January 19, 2007 |

I’m still behind, so it will be a little bit before I can get an arbitrarily numbered film list out (come to think of it, I haven’t even done 2005 yet–maybe this weekend.) So, instead some movies that (while not without their virtues) will not be on my top-10 list:

  • The Notorious Bettie Page I was inadvertently reminded to do this by Tia, who takes the somewhat rare among people of taste but correct position that the film version of American Psycho is not, in fact, good. I guess some people admire the film for giving a feminist take on a “misogynist” novel, but the novel (while quite terrible) is not actually misogynist–it’s not as if Ellis is portraying Bateman as a good guy. And while it’s a relief to have most of the exceptionally gross violence excised, the problem is that without the violence you’re left with nothing but Ellis’s crude metaphors for Consumerism in Reagan’s America, which were excruciatingly banal when the novel came out, let alone a decade later. It was the kind of sophomore flop that made me question my immediate admiration for I Shot Andy Worhol. TNBP is, at least, reassuring about Mary Harron’s craft: it’s perfectly paced, very well shot, well-acted, and entertaining enough. She’s a potentially major filmmaker, no question. The problem, less egregiously than her previous film but still fatal, is her choice of material. Going into the film, I had no idea why Bettie Page was some kind of postmodern/(post)feminist icon, and leaving the film I still didn’t.
  • Little Miss Sunshine A movie I was able to catch up on the individual screens thankfully installed by Air Canada, and…well, it was OK for an airline movie. As far as Annoying Indies go, I would take the opposite tack from IT; I much prefer last year’s much-derided Me, You, and Everyone We Know. Both have the annoyances that come from the parade-of-eccentrics structure, but July’s film is much more empathetic, and also manages to be both more original and more organic seeming, less willful. The characters in MYaEWK have some independent life; the ones in LMS are there to (only) score points, and the road-movie arc is deadly in all but the most gifted hands at this point. What makes LMS wacthable, at least until the conclusion, is the surfeit of acting talent; Colette, in particular, is a marvel, but everyone does the job.
  • A Prairie Home Companion. Admittedly, I pretty much take the “be more funny!” position on Garrison Keillor, so YMMV. But I think it would be a condescending insult to the legacy of the great Robert Altman to claim that this snoozefest is a good picture.
  • A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints Not that I wouldn’t like to tout a movie set in the mean streets (and I use the term advisedly: the movie even uses the mock-typewritten credits of Scorsese’s 1973 classic) of Astoria, but I don’t understand why this pretentious, frequently tedious movie got the kind of critical reception it did. It has its moments, but it feels repetitious, extends unintersting scenes and characters and leaves too soon from more interesting ones, has annoying visual effects, and (here the comparison with Scorsese is particularly unflattering) the music works neither as period background or in its own terms. He shows enough glimmers that he might make a good movie someday, but this ain’t it.

In addition to this, there are the movies that I’m extremely unlikely to see before writing: Inland Empire (not that I don’t admire a lot of Lynch, but I can’t say that the coherence of Lost Highway at the length of Dune holds much appeal); Fast Food Nation (Good book, but Didacticism+Richard Linklater=pass with extreme prejudice); the Iwo Jima movies (meh.)

Now George Bush, There’s a Suit You Can Set Your Watch To!

[ 0 ] January 18, 2007 |

OK, so the New York Times publishes a monumentally idiotic (and egregiously sexist) article about the fashion choices of female political leaders. No allegedly seriously blogger (with a tendency to invoke claims of sexism, if only as a spurious club to attack liberal opponents) would think the article poses worthwhile substantive questions, right? Right? I think you know where this is going. (Answer to title question: who the hell cares?)

My question: who’s a better example of why it’s bad to discuss politics like a particularly superficial 11-year old: Ann Althouse, Maureen Dowd, or Chris Matthews?

Webb of Prescience

[ 0 ] January 18, 2007 |

In TAPPED comments, Bob Somerby directs is to this 2002 op-ed from Virignia’s newly elected Senator:

Other than the flippant criticisms of our “failure” to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. This reality was the genesis of a rift that goes back to the Gulf War itself, when neoconservatives were vocal in their calls for “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad.” Their expectation is that the United States would not only change Iraq’s regime but also remain as a long-term occupation force in an attempt to reconstruct Iraqi society itself.

The connotations of “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad” show how inapt the comparison is. Our occupation forces never set foot inside Japan until the emperor had formally surrendered and prepared Japanese citizens for our arrival. Nor did MacArthur destroy the Japanese government when he took over as proconsul after World War II. Instead, he was careful to work his changes through it, and took pains to preserve the integrity of Japan’s imperial family. Nor is Japanese culture in any way similar to Iraq’s. The Japanese are a homogeneous people who place a high premium on respect, and they fully cooperated with MacArthur’s forces after having been ordered to do so by the emperor. The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.

In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.

In fairness, if he didn’t say this to you personally it doesn’t really count, so the war’s critics were really all just reflexive pacifists…

Who Is With Jane Galt?

[ 0 ] January 18, 2007 |

I note here that Al Gore’s pre-war remarks hold up rather better than the predictions of the war’s cheerleaders, despite attempts to claim that everyone was equally wrong. Atrios does us the favor of collecting some of the contemporaneous reaction to Gore’s speech(including Neal Pollock’s dead-on Michael Kelly parody.) I particularly enjoy this from Andrew Sullivan, who after upbraiding Gore for not being terrified of the nuclear weapons Saddam was about to send to the U.S. on the wings of armor-plated unicorns said:

He says we have “squandered” the good will generated by the attacks of September 11. Really? A liberated Afghanistan, where women can now learn to read, where a fledgling free society is taking shape? No major successful terrorist attack on the homeland since the anthrax attacks of last fall? Growing support among Arab nations and at the U.N. for enforcing U.N. resolutions that Gore’s own administration let languish? Signs that Arafat may soon be sidelined on the West Bank? Squandered? The only thing that’s been truly squandered is what’s left of Gore’s integrity. At least Lieberman has been consistent. I must say, as a former Gore-supporter who was appalled by his campaign lurch to the left, that there are few judgment calls I’m prouder of than having picked Bush over Gore two years ago. Now I’m beginning to think we dodged a major catastrophe in world events.

Yeah, that holds up really well today, especially the claims about Bush’s competence.

Meanwhile, while we’re doing flashbacks just for fun I thought I’d bring up my favorite example of McArdle’s use of personal anecdotes as an all-purpose trump card. In explaining why John Roberts was right to claim that the government should use civil rights laws designed to prevent terrorists from obstructing the exercise of constitutional rights shouldn’t apply to anti-abortion terrorists trying to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights, McArdle said:

Similarly, Mark Kleiman’s attempt to excuse NARAL’s ad by calling Operation Rescue a terrorist group is an abuse of the word. Is Operation Rescue attempting to keep women from having abortions by making them feel shame and public humiliation at an extraordinarily vulnerable time? Undoubtedly. Have they attempted to physically block women from entering clinics? Indeed they have. But speaking as one who used to form a human chain in front of clinics to help women through the protesters, I’ve never seen anything from Operation Rescue that even remotely qualifies as terrorism, nor seen anyone physically threaten a woman (shoving a picture of a fetus in her face does not count).

I suppose it would be too uncharitable of me to wonder if McArdle’s activism took place in front of the A. Pocryphal Health Clinic. But even if this is true, let’s remember that in 1991 alone there were “2 cases of murder or attempted murder of abortion providers, 9 bombings/arsons (or attempted bombings/arsons), 83 cases of invasions, assault and battery, vandalism, death threats burglary or stalking, and 3,885 arrests at blockades. To take one example, by the end of a seven-week Operation Rescue operation in Wichita that summer, “police had arrested 1,734 people for 2,657 acts of trespassing, resisting arrest and violating injunctions against blockading.”" But I’m sure none of this was intended to intimidate abortion patients and providers, because McArdle didn’t witness every one personally! Or perhaps she looked into the heart of every vandal, obstructionist, and issuer of death threats and saw that frightening women was the last thing on their minds. (Just as she can tell in advance that anti-war protesters deserve a good, swift, but non-intimidating 2×4 to the head.)

Arguments That Were Made

[ 0 ] January 17, 2007 |

Ezra points us to Julian Sanchez’s excellent rebuttal to Megan McArdle’s claim that critics of the war were just a wrong as the supporters. For my part, it’s somewhat difficult to respond to McArdle’s post, since not only does she argue strictly from anecdote but she also declines to specify most of the allegedly erroneous anti-war arguments. Adding on to Sanchez, it’s worth identifying some arguments that were, in fact, in circulation at the time:

  • The war would be enormously costly, and the administration’s claims that the war could be funded primarily by Iraqi oil revenues were transparently farcical. (As Matt says today, a candid assessment of the costs would have made it impossible to justify the war, and it’s obviously false to say that everyone took them at face value.)
  • The fact that Iraq was riven by ethnic divisions and lacked a strong civil society made it a particularly implausible candidate for forced democratization.
  • Whether or not Iraq had some weapons that could fall under the essentially useless “WMD” rubric, it did not pose any significant security threat to the United States. (Obviously, possessing chemical weapons that are significantly less dangerous to American civilians than bombs you can build with materials at any Home Depot do not constitute a meaningful security threat, especially since Iraq had no means of delivering such weapons.) There was never good evidence that Iraq had any nuclear weapons capacity, or was anywhere near acquiring it.
  • Iraq had no substantial connection to Al Qaeda, and was a diversion from pursuing Islamist terrorism in the wake of 9/11.
  • The Bush administration was dishonest and incompetent, and even if the war might be a good idea in the abstract in particular the war was unlikely to come out well. Some people (although not me) were smart enough to use this principle to discount any WMD claims made by the American government entirely. As Daniel Davies says, “[g]ood ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.”

I don’t mean to suggest that critics of the war didn’t make bad arguments or erroneous predictions–they did. But it’s equally silly to claim that all anti-war critics were simply lucky, or that none of the outcomes of the war were foreseen. If McArdle never heard any of the above arguments, this says more about her circle of friends (and the general exclusion of anti-war voices from prominent media outlets) than about the quality of anti-war arguments.

[Also at TAPPED.]

More On Campus Rape

[ 0 ] January 17, 2007 |

In light of the recent discussion about rape on campus, it’s particularly worth reading Courtney Martin’s article about this country’s dearth of rational sex education and the extent to which this may contribute to the problem. She also adduces some useful data:

Every two and half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America. Many of these assaults take place on college campuses; 80 percent of rape victims are under age 30. Two-thirds of all rapes are committed by someone who is known to the victim, not a stranger in a dark alley. (Though rape statistics are notoriously inaccurate, we can assume that these, from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) are at least close to the truth, as they are derived from a survey of multiple studies, including the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2005.)

All the more reason that this shouldn’t be dealt with as if it were academic misconduct.

And Some of the Scripts Were A Little Pedantic

[ 0 ] January 17, 2007 |

From the recent Times article about attempts to turn Atlas Shrugged into a movie:

Under Mr. Aglialoro’s sponsorship a succession of writers and producers developed at least four scripts. One writer was Mr. Peikoff’s ex-wife, Cynthia Peikoff, who had been Rand’s typist. Some of the scripts, she said, were too sci-fi, others reduced the novel’s characters to caricatures, and she was told that her own attempt was no better than “workmanlike.”


Not only that, but some of the scripts eschewed dramatization and just had the characters give interminable speeches outlining the author’s philosophy or its strawman opposition! What a betrayal of Rand’s artistic vision!

What’s Actually Important

[ 0 ] January 17, 2007 |

Make sure to wish Jane well.

  • Switch to our mobile site