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You know what I want (or maybe you don’t)

[ 0 ] February 25, 2009 |

One uncomfortable truth about this still incredibly rich country is that fully half of middle-aged and older Americans own essentially nothing. The median 50-year-old has no retirement savings to speak of. Not “inadequate savings to retire comfortably with,” but none, or so close to none as to make no difference.

Arguments about Social Security and Medicare often manage to avoid any contact with this fact.

Of course as soon as the Dow gets to 36,000 these problems will seem less acute.


"Government Speech" And the First Amendment

[ 0 ] February 25, 2009 |

As was widely expected, the Supreme Court today that Pleasant Grove, Utah’s unwillingness to display a monument erected by the Summum did not violate the religious group’s free speech rights. Alito, writing for the Court, argued that “the placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech.” Once the action is held to fall into the “government speech” category, there was no First Amendment violation, as the government (while it may be required to provide neutral access to public fora) is not required to be impartial when speaking itself, as long as its speech is consistent with the Establishment and Equal Protection clauses.

In an interesting concurrence, however, Justice Stevens attempted to draw some useful distinctions between today’s case and previous cases held to be in the “government speech” category. For example, Altio’s opinion approvingly cited Rust v. Sullivan, in which the Court narrowly held (over three dissenting opinions, including one by Stevens) that the infamous “gag order” that prevented any medical professional receiving federal family planning funds from even discussing abortion with a patient did not violate the First Amendment. As Stevens points out, however, there’s a major difference between the two cases: the gag order interfered with private speech, which today’s decision did not, as Pleasant Grove didn’t do anything to prevent the Summum from displaying a monument on their own property. I agree with Stevens that today’s decision is sturdier than many of the much more dubious “government speech” cases.

Bobby Jindal: Soft on Volcanoes

[ 1 ] February 25, 2009 |

If I were as vapid as Ann Althouse, I’d probably wonder if Bobby Jindal’s hostility toward “volcano monitoring” weren’t some variety of passive aggressive challenge to Sarah Palin, who spends a lot more time near active volcanoes than most of the GOP’s rising stars.

But no. Rather, Bobby Jindal — who I hear from Michael Gerson patrols the land on a horse made of crystal — simply has terrible ideas about the public utility of science:

The $140 million to which Jindal referred is actually for a number of projects conducted by the United States Geological Survey, including volcano monitoring. This monitoring is aimed at helping geologists understand the inner workings of volcanoes as well as providing warnings of impending eruptions, in the United States and in active areas around the world where U.S. military bases are located.

Among the scenarios in which the USGS’s monitoring can assist — the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, which killed 57 people (including a geologist monitoring the mountain) and was the deadliest and costliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history ($2.74 billion in 2007 dollars). This event was preceded by thousands of earthquakes in the two months before the volcano blew its top; some of these prompted the Governor of Washington to declare a state of emergency and many residents were evacuated from a designated danger zone.

About 50 volcanic eruptions occur around the world every year, according to the USGS. The United States ranks third, behind Indonesia and Japan, in its number of historically active volcanoes (those for which written accounts exist). Most U.S. volcanoes are located in the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, with the rest distributed around the West.

It’s pretty clear from the context of Bobby Jindal’s remarks that he doesn’t merely think that $140 million for geological work is misplaced in a stimulus bill. He actually argues that volcano monitoring is inherently silly. As the governor of a geologically-vulnerable state, you’d think Jindal would have a bit more sense than that, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the new GOP — now with 50 percent more crazy — this past year has given us.


[ 1 ] February 25, 2009 |


If it sounds like Jindal is targeting his speech to a room full of fourth graders, that’s because he is. They might be the next people to actually vote for Republicans again.

Of course, what makes it really funny is that Jindal is apparently the GOP’s idea of a Deep Thinker. Yeah, good luck with that.

Today In Tilting At Windmills

[ 0 ] February 25, 2009 |

The mortgage deduction is indeed bad policy. Alas, it’s pretty much an object lesson in path dependence; when you get policies like this wrong it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. But making it less regressive is potentially viable and better than nothing.

Innovations In Wingnut Constitutional Doctrine

[ 4 ] February 25, 2009 |

A third-stringer at Andrew Breitbart’s new site Stalinist Aesthetics For Dummies starts us off with some boilerplate that reminds us that “politically correct” has become the most useless phrase in the English language:

If you call 411 or customer service for almost any service-related company today, you’re greeted with, “Thank you for calling. Press #1 to continue in English.” Excuse me, but when did English cease being the default language in this country?

See, there’s this economic system called “capitalism.” Businesses, as a rule, tend to want to attract customers. Offering to conduct business in languages many of their customers are more comfortable speaking will tend to attract customers. Oh, and if the introduction is in English and English is the first option, then English is in fact the default language. I realize this is very complicated.

Wait, it gets better:

And this is just one of the politically correct or (PC) aspects invading our culture and stifling free speech.

Um, so businesses being willing to conduct business in multiple languages…is a violation of free speech. (Now if we passed a law forcing business to conduct business solely in English, that would be upholding free speech.) I dunno, I think that’s even funnier than Sarah Palin claiming that being criticized violates her First Amendment rights.

Elsewhere at SAFD, the Stalinist-in-chief provides us with another classic of anti-“PC” rhetoric. Now, it’s hardly surprising to see that conservatives seem unwilling to consider the possibility that Clint Eastwood is playing a character, some of whose views he may not even endorse, in Gran Torino; this is a pretty common failing among winguts. The fact that they think that the character’s overt racism makes him a conservative hero, though…well, they said it, I didn’t.

Wankers of the Day

[ 0 ] February 25, 2009 |

The New York Yankees.

A Teaching Moment…

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

I normally have a post each semester about what I’m teaching. This semester I’ve let events get away from me a bit, but no time like the present. The courses I’m teaching this semester are Diplomacy 750: Defense Statecraft, and Diplomacy 600: History of Strategic Thought (DIP 600 is a catch all for courses that don’t have their own number).

This is the fourth time I’ve taught Defense Statecraft, and the course has changed a bit each time. I think I revised the list a bit more this last time than previously, in part because I shifted some readings to other courses, and in part just because I wanted to update. For example, I moved Clausewitz from Defense Statecraft to History of Strategic Thought, mainly because I didn’t think the students (about 10 are taking both courses) needed to read Clausewitz twice in the same semester. This has gone okay so far; I’ve noticed several times now that I find references to Clausewitz as I revise and prepare DIP 750 lectures. I exchanged Stephen Biddle’s treatment of the Afghan War for his treatment of the 2006 Lebanon War, which worked out pretty well; both are outstanding, and both make essentially the same point, but the latter is more up to date. I’m using three new texts for the airpower week (including one by Charles Dunlap), and I added a separate week for chemical and biological warfare. I kept the structure of the last five weeks (all of which concern the bureaucratic and industrial components of the defense complex) the same, but changed out most of the readings, in part because I got bored of them and in part because they had become outdated. We’re in week 6 right now, and I haven’t really had the opportunity to regret any of those decisions thus far. We’ll see how the absence of Clausewitz works out for the rest of the course.

History of Strategic Thought is a new course, developed from the concept of an old “Great Books” course that hadn’t been taught at Patterson for many years. This course is reading heavy and lecture light, and I’ve been conducting it as a graduate seminar, which is unusual at Patterson. Thus far, things have worked out pretty well; Thucydides and Sun Tzu were big hits, although Delbruck didn’t work out quite so well. While much of the course focuses on original source material, not all of it does; in a couple of cases I relied on contemporary works (Trachtenberg’s History and Strategy, for example) that did a good job of summarizing a particular body of thought. History of Strategic Thought is a very nice change of pace from Defense Statecraft, and I’ve generally been pleased with the course of the course thus far.

Judicial Term Limits and Rare Calls For Lochnerism

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

Readers of this blog will know that I approve of the primary objective of this group of scholars and litigators, which is calling for the kind of judicial term limits that pretty much every other constitutional democracy has (and that the United States would probably have had if the initial unattractiveness of jobs in the federal judiciary didn’t make them superfluous.) Rather than reiterate my arguments, I thought I would have some fun with TigerHawk’s outraged response:

  • I would respond to TigerHawk’s arguments on the merits, except that he doesn’t actually have any arguments on the merits. Rather, he simply dislikes the proposal because of what he considers the short-term political consequences to be. And the thing is, because sitting justices could only be given incentives to retire, it likely wouldn’t even have these effects; Obama’s justices would be term-limited while Scalia, Thomas et al. would stay on the Court until they resigned.
  • He fumes that “It is not hard to imagine why these “legal experts” did not make this proposal last year.” This projection of opportunistic partisanship is quite a serious charge, and one would think that he would make at least a cursory attempt to look into the charge of hyporcisy before he made it. I can’t find a list of all the signatories, so maybe someone has changed position on the issue in the last few months. However, the organizer of the letter wrote a book favoring judicial term limits…that came out in 2006. Another scholar quoted in the article, Eric Posner, is a conservative who recently wrote a book defending Bush’s expansive conception of executive power during wartime. As far as I can tell, the only person here viewing tern limits exclusively through the lens of short-term partisan politics is TigerHawk.
  • I do have to admire the candor of his, ah, eccentric call for the Supreme Court to return to its thoroughly-discredited Lochner-era doctrines: “The sainted FDR intimidated the Court into abandoning “substantive due process” — the only real protection that rights in property and contract had against legislative power run amok.” Leaving aside the facts 1)that most historians don’t buy the intimidation narrative (Owen Roberts had already decided to cast the fifth vote to sustain major New Deal programs before the Court-packing plan was even announced, although the decisions came out later) and 2)most of the disputes were delegation and commerce clause cases rather than “liberty of contract” cases, the scare quotes around “substantive due process” seems to concede that the Four Horesmen had no particular constitutional warrant for arbitrarily deciding that economic policies they disagreed with were unconstitutional. Somehow, I’m guessing that TigerHawk’s attempt to claim that we should kind of pretend that the Fourteenth Amendment does enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics is not going to find a wide audience, particularly during the Bush Depression.
  • To summarize his historical argument, FDR proposed something that was unquestionably authorized by the text of the Constitution, in order to prevent national policy from being obstructed by constitutional arguments so dubious that no Supreme Court justice of any stripe has advanced them by many decades. This proves that FDR was insufficiently fastidious about the Constitution. And also provides an argument against judicial term limits because…well, I don’t really see the connection.

Frankly, the quality of arguments against judicial term limits has to be considered one of the best points in their favor.

…given TigerHawk’s graciousness in response, I’ll withdraw the “fuming” charge…

The endless whine of Sarah Palin

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

Please make it stop.

Looking back on her interview with ABC News’ Charles Gibson, in which Palin seemed unsure of how to define the Bush doctrine, the Alaska governor said she was disrespected in a way that another candidate would not have been.

“I’d have to say there would be much more respect shown to the subject, yes,” she said.

I don’t want to interfere with Sarah Palin’s apparent need to develop an alternate history of the 2008 campaign, but Charlie Gibson interview was predictably — and appropriately, I suppose, given the responses he received — lightweight. This is why the McCain campaign agreed to grant him the interview. There were any number of difficult questions that a journalist might have posed to the vice presidential nominee, but Gibson — because he’s not a useful journalist — didn’t bother to ask them. Instead, he served up two species of questions during their sessions together: (1) those anyone with a basic literacy in current events should have been capable of answering; and (2) those allowing Sarah Palin the chance to elaborate on her general suitability for office.

Some of the questions were delivered in a condescending tone of voice, but the claim that Palin received no “respect” is transparently silly. If anything, the interview revealed for the first time the McCain campaign’s open contempt for its potential supporters, whom they evidently believed were prepared to fall for someone with a substantively weak appreciation for the issues that had been dominating the campaign (and would continue to do so for another week or so, before the necrotic economy took over). Most telling was Palin’s inability to coherently discuss — or, for that matter, even recognize — the foreign policy that was responsible for her son’s deployment to Iraq, which took place the very day the Gibson interview first aired.

The problem was not, as Palin defenders like to argue, that she was depicted by the press as a moron — as if Not A Moron were an adequate starting point for this sort of thing. Rather, the problem was that she revealed herself to be a profoundly incurious person with terrible baseline notions about how to approach an array of policy problems. These traits aren’t guaranteed to interfere a candidate’s ascent to office — see “Bush, George W., the elections of 2000 and 2004” — so it’s a testimony to Palin’s unique deficits that she came out so badly in all of this.

The Lockean Proviso

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

As someone who observed much of Locke’s governorship first-hand, I would say that just as he looks better on paper than in practice as a national candidate, so he wasn’t nearly as good a governor as he should have been. He was sort of a Naderite parody of a cautious Democrat — when it came to political capital, his accumulation-to-spending ratio was roughly 100-0, and in particular he was notably ineffectual in responding to the tax reform nitwits trying to emulate California’s wonderfully effective fiscal straitjacket.

Having said that, commerce secretary seems like a good job for him; he was a competent enough administrator, this job doesn’t require bold agenda-setting, and he certainly won’t rock any boats.

We, on the Other Hand, Reimburse Promptly

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

Little known fact: John Bolton was, like, a HUGE fan of the UN until the UN stuck him with the tab for lunch back in 1978. After that, it was all downhill…