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Category: djw

Trains and transportation subsidies

[ 96 ] January 31, 2013 |

In 2008, the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act was passed and signed into law. An unfortunate feature of this law was a provision to sunset Amtrak subsidies for shorter routes (those under 750 miles from endpoint to endpoint), requiring the states (most of which already cover a part of the subsidy) to cover the costs of those routes. This means that federal funding for Amtrak going forward will focus more on subsidies for the less useful, less efficient long distance routes, many of which offer an expensive sort of “train cruise” experience for niche market of wealthy train aficionados*and little use for anyone else. Meanwhile, efficient services with times already competitive with driving between (for example) Chicago/Milwaukee, Portland/Seattle, Sacramento/Bay Area, and Albany/New York will soon cost those states more money to support. The good news is several of these trains have been steadily increasing their farebox recovery rates and as such the needed subsidy has been declining. This is true systemwide, the needed subsidy is as low as its been since 1975. It’s possible that if this law were to go into effect in 5-10 years rather than now, it might not even be necessary for some of these routes, as 100% farebox recovery is not implausible. But as it’s hitting now, in a time of austere state budgets, even the trivial subsidies currently needed might be a touch battle. Some thoughts on Cascades’ future from the always wonderful Seattle Transit Blog.

This law is a very small example of the truism that Republicans claim government doesn’t work, and set out to prove it. It will focus Amtrak’s subsidies on long distance routes like the “Robert Byrd limited,” AKA the Cardinal, a train that meanders three times a week from New York to Chicago in a cool 30 hours, with stops in approximately 437 small towns in West Virginia, while passing through a major population center, Cincinnati, in the dead of night–in other words, the sort of line that’s always going to rely on a hefty government subsidy to exist. This law is designed not so much to save Amtrak money, but to make Amtrak look more like what Republicans claim it looks like.

I was inspired to write this post when I stumbled across this excellent post:

A new report from the Tax Foundation shows 50.7 percent of America’s road spending comes from gas taxes, tolls, and other fees levied on drivers. The other 49.3 percent? Well, that comes from general tax dollars, just like education and health care. The way we spend on roads has nothing to do with the free market, or even how much people use roads.

“Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways,” writes the Tax Foundation’s Joseph Henchman. Another $28 billion of that $155 billion comes from revenue from the federal gas tax.

Even more interesting is to compare roads to Amtrak, a favorite target of self-styled fiscal conservatives in Congress. Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of its operating costs from tickets — a relative bargain compared to other modes. Even accounting for capital costs, Amtrak — which operates mostly on privately owned tracks — covers 69 percent of its total costs through ticket prices and other fees to users.

I was immediately annoyed with myself, because while I know that the driving equivalent of user fees (gas taxes and tolls) don’t come close to paying for roads, and that Amtrak’s subsidies are modest and declining, but I never but these two things together in my mind; a certain sort of right-wing narrative about trains had colonized a part of my mind; even though I knew better, I hadn’t been able to put those facts together to make this clear and obvious point–drivers are subsidized at a higher rate than train passengers, and this is true even before we consider the public health and environmental externalities from driving.

In other transit news, a toll is being considered for I-90 across Lake Washington. Residents of Mercer Island (per capita income, $124,000; median home value, over $1 million, lacking many basic services a town of 20K very rich people might have due largely to extraordinarily restrictive zoning laws) compare this development with turning their home into “Alcatraz.”

*To be clear, I’m not deriding said aficionados.  If I were rich I would definitely be one of these people. One of these years, when I plan far enough in the future to get a decent room rate, I’m going to take the Empire Builder to Seattle. But our transit subsidies shouldn’t prioritize such things.

Extinction: Not a pressing concern for humanity at this time

[ 99 ] December 5, 2012 |

Ross Douthat is doubling down on the notion that intentionally choosing to have less children constitutes “decadence”:

But the modern path has many possible endpoints, and it seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up — slightly above replacement level, slightly below, or in the depths plumbed by countries like Japan — must represent the best of all possible worlds.

After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had? And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?

If I’m reading this correctly, Douthat is using the specter of the extinction of the human race in order to generate a moral imperative to have more children. I see little harm in conceding the point: were the human race facing imminent extinction, the moral calculus might plausibly look a bit different.

Fortunately, we’re in no such situation. Here’s a global population growth chart, showing three projections for population growth, high, medium and low, generated by the UN two years ago. In the high growth rate scenario, the population in 2100 is 16 billion and growing. In the middling scenario, the global population is leveling off at around 10 billion. In the low scenario, the global population will continue to grow to over 8 billion until around 2050, when it will level off and begin a decline, remaining above 6 billion in 2100. (My own read of the demographic projections is the most likely scenario lies between the low and middle projections; leveling off somewhere north of 8 billion but south of 10, with a more gentle decline than the low suggestion projects).

So, it’s safe to say that Douthat can retire his fears of decadence-induced extinction of the human race. He further argues that while in theory we could deal with the challenge of population decline in wealthy societies through greater immigration, as “humanists” we should seek to maintain those populations through children instead, because we’re so rich that we can provide better childhoods than other people.

This is spectacularly unconvincing. A broad commitment to something we might plausibly call humanism might very easily lead to the opposite conclusion: that providing an opportunity to migrate to a wealthy society for people suffering considerable oppression or mired in hopeless poverty scores at least as high on the humanism scale as having a not especially wanted additional child. I would also submit that a humanist commitment to the well-being of future generations is, first and foremost, concerned with the quality of life of those future people, rather than quantity in which those people exist. (Is Douthat a closet Parfitian?) Given our rather pathetic lack of progress to date to scale human consumption to a level that doesn’t dramatically alter the earth’s climate, a somewhat lower population at some point in the future might be worth pursuing as a necessary but not sufficient condition of ecological stability, despite the policy challenges it presents.

I’m in agreement with Douthat that a sense of obligation toward future generations is an important moral value, and a general duty to contribute to the care, cultivation, protection and education of children is a central way in which the duties associated with that value are discharged. From there, however, it does not follow that people should feel a moral obligation to have children when they are uncertain or unenthusiastic about doing so. It’s a duty that can be discharged in a variety of ways, including the support of the sort of family-friendly public policies Douthat mentions in his original column, as well as contributing of the care and support of children and parents in one’s extended family, community, and social circle. There’s no reason to conclude, with Douthat, that such an obligation can only be discharged through having (more) children of one’s own.

Freedom and Work

[ 69 ] July 1, 2012 |

If you haven’t yet seen it, Corey Robin, Chris Bertram, and Alex Gourevich have a magnificent, epic post at CT on freedom and the workplace in the context of an ongoing conversation with the bleeding heart libertarians blog. I won’t bother to excerpt it; it’s all good, read the whole thing, etc etc.

One good way to conceptualize the massive blind spot of the BHL crowd here is their insistence on focusing on government rather than governance. Employers are engaged in a form of governance. Governance, as libertarians constantly remind us in other contexts, is a dangerous thing indeed; far too dangerous for a exit right that often amounts to empty formalism to manage. The particular nature of the dangers of corporate workplace governance are obviously somewhat different than the governance of governments, and as such the particular form of democratic control ought to reflect that difference. The Elizabeth Anderson post on BHL I recently linked to made a similar point well: “a more illuminating conceptual map would identify government with any organization in which some people systematically issue authoritative commands, backed up by penalties, to others.”

The argument from definition

[ 36 ] May 29, 2012 |

John Corvino:

Early in our collaboration Maggie Gallagher e-mailed me with the following challenge, “What’s your definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask the average person to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch him stammer. Then try words like “law,” “opinion,” “religion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite common to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate its definition.

Okay, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely I have some definition to offer? Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a single definition.

As already noted, marriage is multifaceted. It can be variously understood as a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on. Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. So my rejection of a single, final definition stems not from the fact that I don’t know what marriage is, as critics will doubtless allege, but from the fact that I do. As one writer helpfully puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

The post is well done and worth reading in its entirety. I pass this along because it’s an excellent demolition of the argument by definition strategy, which is always an exercise in sophistry when dealing with a concept that has a complex social history and is both an empirical and normative capacity. I can’t say I’m a fan of the project from which this post is drawn, however: Oxford University Press is among the most prestigious academic presses in the world; from what I’ve seen of the quality of Maggie Gallagher’s arguments regarding marriage equality (let alone her problems getting her facts straight) they don’t come close to what I understand the standards of that press to be. I’m not prepared to join the call to boycott engaging with her; for better or worse she’s a major spokesperson for the anti-marriage equality position and should be treated as such. But unless she’s managed to up her game substantially, the book won’t meet what I’ve come to understand OUP’s standards to be. I don’t think she’s worth it.

Libertarianism, proprietarianism, feudalism

[ 0 ] April 15, 2010 |

I have a weird sort of idea that I should somehow avoid letting my snark:serious post ratio exceed 1:1, so I’ve been feeling mildly guilty about this little indulgence with nothing to balance it out. I’ve got a post about the whole ‘liberaltarian’ thing in the works, but until then, I recommend this post by John Holbo, who has a similar guilty conscience about snark, but with considerably more follow-through.

(I was looking forward to Jacob Levy’s response, but it appears we’re going to have to wait for the book)

Why I can’t take the construction “libertarian freedom” seriously, part 43,542

[ 52 ] April 13, 2010 |

David Boaz of the CATO institute published an article last week about the relationship of the libertarian vision of freedom with the (American) past. I presume he meant it to serve as a corrective to the good deal of libertarian-flavored rhetoric embracing the American jeremiad about the lost ‘golden age’ in our discourse at the moment. As far as it goes, and if suspend your skepticism about the value and coherence of the libertarian conception of freedom, it seems like a sensible and rather obviously correct piece.

While some libertarians (usual suspects: Levy, Wilkinson) have endorsed this position, it has inspired some bizarre and creative innovations in the field of being hopelessly wrong in others. Jacob Hornberger and his co-blogger Arnold Kling, for example, takes the point about slavery being not entirely consistent with libertarian freedom, and sets about constructing an argument in which the year 1880 serves as the pinnacle of freedom in America. When it is gently pointed out that such an argument could only possibly be made if we ignore the freedom of those other than propertied white males, Kling responds by freaking out and, for reasons that remain quite unclear, typing the words “Stop dehumanizing me!” into the comment box.

But Hornberger and Kling hardly prepare us for Bryan Caplan. The details are still sketchy, but as far as I can tell, the facts are as follows: On the morning of April 12th, 2010, Bryan Caplan, an Associate Professor of Economics and George Mason University and adjunct scholar at the Cato institute, got out of bed, ate breakfast, kissed his wife goodbye, drove to work, sat down at his computer, and wrote a blog post that purported to demonstrate that and I quote, “Women of the Gilded Age were very poor compared to women today.  But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.” This post has required no less than four follow-up posts attempting to further demonstrate the obviously correct nature of this position and reply to various critics. Trying to excerpt a particular passage or point in pretty much pointless, as the whole thing simply has to be seen to be believed. (It’s just peppered with gems like “I’ll admit that coverture doesn’t sound like a very libertarian doctrine.”) That said, I was particularly struck by his response to a commenter who brought up the marital rape, which was oddly not mentioned in the original post. His reply:

To be blunt, this issue is almost entirely symbolic.  While it’s a heinous crime, I seriously doubt that more than a small fraction American women in 1880 worried about being raped by their husbands.

If Caplan bases his ‘serious doubt’ on any actual factual knowledge about the social and gender history of the late 19th century, he’s keeping very quiet about it. A main thread of his reasoning throughout is that a wife’s power within a marriage is pretty much unrelated to both the law and social norms, because…oh, hell I can’t paraphrase this

This is a good example of the difference between the law and social reality.  [so far so good....] If a women in 1880 wanted to write a contract, I think she did the same thing a woman in 2010 would do – talk about it with her husband.  If he refused, she did the same thing she’d do today: complain, argue, bargain, etc.  A man in 1880 was legally allowed to make a contract without his wife’s approval, but in practical terms, his problem was the same as it is today: If your wife puts her foot down, it’s almost impossible to move forward.

It’s one thing to swallow whole the cultural stereotypes of the domineering wife and her henpecked husband, but it’s quite another to transport it back in time 130 years. I can’t help but be reminded of John Stuart Mill: for all the blindingly obvious reasons, but also for the following observation from On The Subjection of Women:  “[O]ne can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man’s wife is like, from his opinions about women in general.” Apparently Bryan Caplan is applying the same technique (but across time) to understand the power dynamics of domestic life in 1880′s marriages. At least, I assume that’s what he’s doing, because I’m at a loss to see any other method at work here.

(For more commentary on this exciting new trend in libertarian historiography, take a look at a number of recent posts at Crooked Timber one two three four five)

UPDATE: I mistakenly referred to Kling as Hornberger’s co-blogger, he is in fact Caplan’s co-blogger. I apologize for the error. Kling also feels as though Will Wilkinson misrepresented and distorted his position. I’m not sure exactly how or where Wilkinson distorted his views, but in fairness to Kling, I’ll reproduce here his post on the issue without comment; whether he deserves to be lumped in with the weird wrongness of Hornberger and Caplan is an exercise I shall leave to the reader.

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

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5 minutes of CNN

[ 21 ] April 9, 2010 |

I haven’t glanced at CNN for months, but at the gym today I clicked over to CNN to see what they were saying about Stevens and the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy. I like to think I’m quite aware that CNN is breathtakingly vacuous and has no discernable redeeming value or purpose, but even I was unprepared for what I saw.

The scene opens with former Minnesota governor and 9-11 truther Jesse Ventura, who appears to be the “host” of the program. He is interviewing disgraced and indicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on the following topic: Are the Tea Party protesters good for America? this little vignette is wrapping up as I tuned in. Back in studio, an young woman of Asian descent with whom I am not familiar appears to be arguing that Obama and Bush are more or less identical because Bush took us  to war in Iraq, and Obama took us to war in Afganistan. Ventura’s remaining connections to reality are apparently sufficiently robust for him to call bullshit on this particular narrative, and as he is doing so, he is interrupted by an off-screen and previously unseen Ron Paul, who proceeds to speak uninterrupted for approximately 27 minutes on the dangers of creeping socialism. When he pauses for air, Ventura interrupts to observe that he “makes a lot of sense” and they cut to commercial.

At the current rate of deterioration, what will CNN’s programming look like in 5 years? The mind, it boggles.

Coalitions and politics

[ 14 ] April 8, 2010 |

One curious line of reasoning used by many who defend appalling exercises like Confederate History month is to attempt to muddy the waters by observing that Lincoln, the Republicans, or “the North” were not, in fact pure as the driven snow with respect to slaver. On its own terms, this line of argument seems to pretty clearly be a dead end: a moderate shrinking of the moral gap between the North and South would do nothing to move the absolute position of the South on the moral spectrum here, which is what’s at issue when discussing the appropriateness of this kind of public historical narrative. But beyond that, the notion that Lincoln and many Northerners were primarily motivated by goals other than the abolitionist cause is true, but this is a deeply trivial truth. Indeed, the following is true: De Jure slavery was ended in this country by a political coalition which contained the following: some committed abolitionists, some lukewarm, timid abolitionists, and some people who were largely indifferent to the abolitionist cause. (Lincoln himself moved from the second category to the first). In this sense, the end of slavery is exactly like every other major political accomplishment in American history–by skill, luck or both, a group of committed reformers manages to steer a larger coalition long enough to accomplish a major goal. That’s how good things happen in politics. The notion that this ‘revelation’ makes a moral evaluation of the Confederacy more ambiguous is beyond bizarre.


[ 0 ] March 1, 2010 |

When this blog was launched nearly six long years ago, it was a Seattle-based blog, as all three ‘founders’ were graduate students in the political science department at the University of Washington. Shortly thereafter my two founding co-bloggers headed east to take tenure track positions in New York and Kentucky. I remained in Seattle, and spent the next several years adjuncting all over town and not finishing my dissertation. Eventually, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, I managed to get a full time non-tenure track lecturer position and finish my dissertation. These two accomplishments were a tremendous relief, emotionally and financially. However, the funding for my position has been increasingly difficult for my department to sustain, and it became clear it would not be renewed forever.

In the Fall of 2010, this blog will lose its last connection to the city of its founding. I will leave the persistent and urgent uncertainty of my career to date behind (at least for six years) as I will make the increasingly and distressingly rare leap to the ranks of tenure track faculty. I will be taking up this position at the University of Dayton in Ohio, where I will teach a range of political theory courses as well as an introductory course in comparative politics and a course on comparative democratization. Academically, this is an improbably ideal step for my career; the teaching/research mix and general intellectual environment at UD is just about perfect for my tastes and talents, and I’m remarkably fortunate, and given how many talented, sharp and accomplished people in my field who remain un- and under-employed, humbled to have been offered this job.

The difficulty, though, is leaving Seattle, a place that is very much my home. I have never lived outside Western Washington, and the city and region have become constituitive of my identity to no small degree. With the exception of my whirlwind 36 hours of a campus interview, my only experience with the state of Ohio has been a couple of hours on a layover in the Cleveland airport, and my only experience with the midwest has been a handful of visits to Chicago. So I’ll be heading east this summer with some trepidation. So, people of the internets: the purpose of this thread is to solicit advice, suggestions, warnings, and endorsements regarding any and all aspects of life and living in Dayton, SW Ohio, and the midwest more generally.

Libel laws

[ 1 ] February 26, 2010 |

Like any good traitorous socialist lefty, I am supposed to treat European culture and politics as decidedly superior to the American alternative. And I often do! But on the subject of libel laws, it seems quite clear to me that Americans have a much more sensible approach than, at a minimum, the English and the French. The appalling nature of English libel laws became known to me through McDonald’s decision to turn a couple of environmental activists into free speech martyrs with a libel suit in 1990. This was, predictably, a bit of PR fiasco for McDonalds, and many of the claims made by the activists were determined in court to be true. Still, it’s appalling that McDonalds was able to drag a couple of protesters into court for the better part of a decade, and the burden of proof fell squarely on the defendants.

In looking up the case I’m pleasantly reminded that five years ago the European Court of Human Rights agreed with me:

The ECHR ruled that the lack of official funding had effectively given rise to procedural unfairness and denied the litigants a fair trial. It was held to have contributed to an unacceptable inequality of arms with the Corporation. The court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 6.1. The award of damages ordered against the litigants was deemed disproportionate to the legitimate aim served. The court found that the damages awarded “may also have failed to strike the right balance”, The subsequent awards were £36,000 for Steel and £40,000 for Morris.

Now, via Henry Farrell, I learn the French appear to have similar issues. Henry’s post and the EJIL summary and statement are well worth reading, but the executive summary is: Karin Calvo-Goller writes a book, it recieves a negative review in the European Journal of International Law, she demands the editor take down the review from the website, he refuses, she sues him for libel, and now he will be forced to defend himself in a criminal proceeding at his own expense. The substance of her complaints seem quite specious to this non-expert on her subject, and the review itself is a pretty run of the mill negative review. In the pretrial hearing, he was told by the examining judge that she couldn’t rule on substance and the case would be going to trial. Obviously, the idea that book review editors could be subject to criminal sanction, or even defending themselves against criminal charges, could certainly have a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom.

As with the McDonalds case, it’s difficult to grasp why the complainant finds this particular course of action wise. Even if the book review in question contained actionable libelous claims, which seems doubtful, the notoriety of effectively declaring oneself an enemy of academic freedom will surely do more damage to her reputation than a couple of unfair critical remarks in a book review.

I’d certainly be curious to hear a defense of the “burden of proof lies on the defendant” approach to libel law on the merits, because it’s not easy for me to imagine what that would look like.

In the EJIL editorial linked above, the editor who is headed to court makes the following appeals for assistance:

a. You may send an indication of indignation/support by email attachment to the following email address Kindly write, if possible, on a letterhead indicating your affiliation and attach such letters to the email. Such letters may be printed and presented eventually to the Court. Please do not write directly to Dr Calvo-Goller, or otherwise harass or interfere in any way whatsoever with her right to seek remedies available to her under French law.
b. It would be particularly helpful to have letters from other Editors and Book Review Editors of legal and non-legal academic Journals concerned by these events. Kindly pass on this Editorial to any such Editor with whom you are familiar and encourage him or her to communicate their reaction to the same email address. It would be
especially helpful to receive such letters from Editors of French academic journals and from French academic authors, scholars and intellectuals.
c. Finally, it will be helpful if you can send us scanned or digital copies of book reviews (make sure to include a precise bibliographical reference) which are as critical or more so than the book review written by Professor Weigend – so as to illustrate that his review is mainstream and unexceptional. You may use the same email address

I think I’ll send in Brian Barry’s review of Nozick, and perhaps Okin on Sandel or Nussbaum on Butler.

CBO projections as political props

[ 0 ] December 25, 2009 |

Glenn Greenwald has a nice catch here, on Matt Welch’s egregious hackery. Calling a document traditionally labeled a report a report ‘lying’ is pretty rich, but the larger issue is, as Greenwald demonstrates, Welch and Reason’s writers are perfectly happy to cite CBO “reports” as accurate and reliable when it serves their purposes to do so.

There’s a sense is which Welch is kind of right, of course–CBO budget forecasts change quite a bit from year to year. This kind of projection is just inherently speculative, as all kinds of important complicated factors for program cost and cost savings, including but not limited to the performance of the economy overall. Welch points readers to the Peter Suderman piece on the CBO, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t really offer much new information and insight, other than reiterating what we all knew–economic projections are volatile and uncertain. Suderman labels them “Gatekeepers” and means to suggest tehy are a powerful independent actors, but their power is rather clearly limited to the power politicians wish them to have. Somehow, CBO cost projections failed to prevent the Bush tax cuts or the Iraq war. Suderman obviously overstates the CBO’s independent political power; their power is clearly a product of other political actors.

Interestingly, Suderman cites this Jon Gabel op-ed from August, in which Gabel demonstrates that the CBO has systematically underestimated cost savings from previous Medicare reforms. If this is continuing to occur, then obviously the use of the CBO is making good HCR more difficult. The current director of the CBO responds to this and other charged here. On the other hand, the CBO dramatically underestimated the costs of the Iraq war. What I’d really like to see, though, is some more systematic data on the accuracy of the CBO’s projections, and the directional trend of their inaccuracy. (This may well be available, and if it is please point me to it. I’d conduct a more thorough search myself, but my current internet connection is intolerably slow.)

More on felon disenfranchisement

[ 0 ] December 9, 2009 |

In the thread to the post below, Scott P. suggests denying felons the right to vote is consistent with social contract theory. I think that’s probably true for some but not all versions of social contract theory, but not a particularly helpful observation. Another commenter, Thomas, suggests “One who has wronged society should not get to participate in the legislating of that soceity until their debt is paid.” This is, I think, simply too abstract a way to think about the issue to be of much use.

I’d recommend that anyone who finds this line of thinking persuasive read this old Matt Welch piece. Central to his argument is that, when we take a closer look at the laws, most of us are probably unprosecuted felons. It’s much more helpful to think of the disenfranchisement of felons as the disenfranchisement of a subset of felons–those who live in populations where felonies are agressively policed, and who commit felonies we choose to actually enforce.

Once we view the matter in this light, abstract social contract theory about the treatment of ‘those who have wronged society’ becomes much less helpful in thinking about this issue in the context of contemporary American politics. We’ve chosen some felonies and some populations to agressively police and prosecute, and others to almost entirely ignore. In the contemporary American political context, the relavent question is not “should those who have wronged society have their participation in collective governance suspended?” A better question would be “should everyone who has ever taken a hit of X have their voting rights stripped if they happen to get caught and for some reason are not given the opportunity to plead out?” An even better one might be “should communities whose illegal drug use is heavily policed deserve their collective voting power diminished vis a vis communities whose illegal drug use is not heavily policed?”

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