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Torture is an impermissable evil, except when it’s, like, really important to find something out

[ 0 ] May 2, 2009 |

That’s the practical gist of this Charles Krauthammer column, which begins by invoking the much-mocked “ticking time bomb” scenario, but quickly moves on to this gem:

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great.

This is the kind of “exception” which illustrates perfectly why the abstract philosophy seminar question of whether there’s any circumstances in which it might be morally permissable to torture is both much harder to answer and much less practically useful than the real question, which is, should we institutionalize torture? Because as soon as you institutionalize the practice, you’ll end up generating rules like this one, which through the impeccable logic of bureaucratic rationalization are certain to turn every case into an exceptional one.

Every use of torture that is anything other than the purest sadism always proceeds on the assumption that the tortured is a high value enemy in possession of information likely to save lives. Indeed, if the interrogation is failing to demonstrate this it can only be because the subject hasn’t cracked yet. Otherwise, the people doing the torturing are nothing but sadists, and since they know that’s not the case . . .

The spookiest aspect of this column is that Krauthammer is a psychiatrist. Does it not occur to him that every torture regime rationalizes its actions through precisely the sort of exceptions he advocates? Pure sociopaths, after all, are supposedly rare– although reading the sort of pro-torture porn that’s become a respectable part of political debate in this country does make one wonder.

Take it to the Bank!

[ 0 ] May 2, 2009 |

In the three years that readers of LGM have relied upon my Derby prognostication, I don’t believe that a single horse I’ve picked has won, placed, or showed. This, of course, means that I’m due:

  1. Musket Man
  2. Friesan Fire
  3. Dunkirk

Paying for health care and "healthy choices"

[ 0 ] May 2, 2009 |

Matt Yglesias points out he doesn’t really think that raising sin taxes will reduce health care costs. And he doesn’t make that argument in the post in which I attributed it to him, although he does link approvingly to people who do.

As Matt Weiner notes in the comments to my post, I over-interpreted what Yglesias was saying — he was arguing that “sin taxes” are a desirable way to raise revenue to pay for health care, and may well improve public health in the bargain. I’m more skeptical than he is about the latter point, for reasons I reference in my original post.

But my real concern is an argument that shows up all over the comments to Matt’s post, and, somewhat more significantly, is implicit in such pronouncements as Obama’s preposterous claim during the presidential campaign that rolling back obesity rates to 1980 levels would save Medicare a trillion dollars.

That argument is that people get sick because of lifestyle choices, which means that being sick is your own fault, which in turn means that “forcing” me to pay for your health care means I’m being forced to subsidize your bad lifestyle. This argument isn’t completely false, but it wildly exaggerates the extent to which “bad” lifestyle choices are responsible for health care costs. (As I pointed out in the context of cigarette smoking, it’s not even clear that a healthy lifestyle produces a net health care savings to society in comparison to a less healthy one). And it’s fueling such dubious innovations as quasi-mandatory “wellness programs” for employees

In other words, the really invidious effect of this argument is that it provides yet another handy excuse for not socializing the cost of health care, since needing health care at all, in the most extreme version, becomes a “choice.” And it’s disturbing how many people buy into some version of that claim.

Tortured Defenses

[ 0 ] May 2, 2009 |

Shorter Condi Rice: We didn’t want to do anything illegal responding to 9/11. Happily, if the President does it, it’s not illegal! I also think that Iran is a fair standard for evaluating our country’s human rights record.

Don’t Look At Me, I Didn’t Do It

[ 0 ] May 1, 2009 |

Mark Penn has uncovered an excuse for blowing huge institutional advantages in the Democratic primary, wondering what would have happened if John Edwards hadn’t run. Myself, I think the more interesting hypothetical is what would have happened had Hillary Clinton’s campaign not been run by an apparently innumerate pollster whose primary strategy seemed to involve relentlessly insulting the intelligence of Democratic primary voters.

Souter’s Legacy

[ 0 ] May 1, 2009 |

I have some thoughts up (with a somewhat misleading title) at Comment Is Free.

Stop Oppressing Affluent, Expensively Educated White Men!

[ 0 ] May 1, 2009 |

Yep, were going to see a lot more of this type of whining. Which, given that when it comes to Supreme Court appointments you’re obviously choosing from among a large pool of potentially good candidates rather than trying to identify the “best qualified” candidate in any meaningful sense, is even sillier than usual. Although, in fairness, I’m sure it would be difficult to find a woman who’s a towering intellectual and legal giant on the order of Anthony Kennedy.

Meanwhile, some useful information about Diane Wood and Sonia Sotomayor.

…The inevitable whining is going to be even funnier coming from Ed Whelan. In addition to the usual boilerplate about how anybody who disagrees with Ed Whelan’s assertions about what the Constitution means is insufficiently “dispassionate” and a list of potential consequences of an Obama appointee, all of which reflect positions for which there is not a single vote on the current Court, which would be a neat trick), here is his case against Elena Kagan, in its entirety:

Or Elena Kagan, who led the law schools’ opposition to military recruitment on their campuses, who used remarkably extreme rhetoric—“a profound wrong” and “a moral injustice of the first order”—to condemn the federal law on gays in the military that was approved in 1993 by a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, and who received 31 votes against her confirmation as Solicitor General.

Oh, horrors, she opposed discrimination against the unimpeachable moral authority of Bill Clinton. How appalling! At any rate, if I understand the Republican coming position, to exclude qualified gay and lesbian people from military service entirely is not only acceptable but opposing it is downright un-American, while nominating a qualified woman to the Court while there might be a qualified white man out there is beyond the pale.

Souter To Retire

[ 0 ] May 1, 2009 |


This isn’t terribly surprising, at is well-known that Souter disliked life in D.C. and wasn’t likely to stay on the Court as long as possible in the manner of the typical modern justice. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected him to be the first vacancy. He was a good justice, and certainly was as good a justice as could have been expected at the moment in history at which he was appointed. I’ll have more tomorrow. In the meantime, from the LGM achives, in one of the great moments of perverse consequences I note that Bush I appointed Souter in large measure because some people at the DOJ felt that Ken Starr wasn’t wingnutty enough….

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…