Thursday, June 28, 2007

You'd Think We Would Learn

The CIA recently released some files referred to internally as "the family jewels" detailing a lot of the nasty and illegal stuff they'd done during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

Of course, much of this we already knew, but it's nice to have official confirmation.

What surprises me though, is that there isn't more comparison to the present day. Let's see, using illegal wiretaps, assasination plots, and, oh, infiltrating and spying on peace groups. Nothing like the situation today, right?

What I liked best was the mention of a "no-holds barred" mentality when it came to dealing with the threat off Communism. 'Cause you know, we've been like, really chill about this whole terrorism thing, man.

Ri-god-damn-diculous.

Smart Bastards

Some clever blokes in America are offering their services to wait in line for the iPhone when it comes out on Friday, making $250 or more per day.

Wish I'd thought of that. . . If I was in America. . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Supreme Court Thoughts

So the Bong Hits 4 Jesus kid lost in court today. I'm always sad to see a free speech case lost, but to me one of the most important points was what the Chief Justice pointed out at the beginning - the kid was not suing to have his suspension reversed or to set a precedent, he was seeking financial renumeration.

Dahlia Lithwick has some interesting thoughts on the case in Slate. I myself can't see how Roberts thinks that speech "celebrating drug use" can't be political. Why not? It also seems like a remarkable leap for someone who's so big on only interpreting what's actually there to make conclusions about what the content of "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" actually means.

I've been thinking more about the constant 5-4 decisions from this court, and I've realized it may not actually be so odd. The supreme court doesn't hear a random sampling of cases. It hears only cases that have made their way up the judicial ladder and been accepted by SCOTUS because they're interesting and hard to decide. Viewed in that light, it's not hard to see why controversial cases result in close split decisions.

You'd Think This Would Be A Sign

If, after invading a country with thousands of troops from many countries, the opium crop is larger than it has ever been, that would be a sign that in the "war on drugs" throwing manpower and armaments at production areas does not actually result in a decrease in production.

But then again, we're dealing with the ONCDP. It's probably ACTUALLY a reason we have to stay there forever.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Our Fourth Branch of Government

Is apparently the Vice-President. Seriously, read this.

Is there any doubt these days that Cheney is crazy? How can you seriously think that the VICE-president is not somehow under the umbrella of the President?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This SHOULD Be Obvious

But apparently, it's not.

The Supreme Court decided today that not only drivers, but passengers as well, have the legal right to challenge the validity of a traffic stop. Not surprisingly, the vote was another squeaker, 5-4. I can understand the Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts have a more expansive view of government power, but can you really tell me that a passenger in a car is not being detained when that car is stopped by the police.

Tell you what: next time you're a passenger and the driver gets pulled over, you get out of the car and walk away. My guess is you get cuffed, stuffed, and probably tackled and hit for your trouble. And I doubt these guys would have much sympathy for you if you then tried to sue because you weren't being detained.

My advice to passengers - ask the cop if you're free to go, if he says no, then at least you have some reason to say you were also being detained. God only knows if it will work.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

When Republicans Are Right. . .

They're partially right. The democrats are, I am sorry to say, actually cowards. But it's not about failing to stand up to terrorists and dictators. As I've said before, "standing up" to much weaker countries when you legislate for the most powerful country in the world that is currently filled with nationalistic sentiment, is actually an incredibly easy political choice.

What does make the Democrats quiver in their little pink boots, apparently, is the though of actually sticking by their principles and opposing the president even if he says mean things about them. Instead, they've caved to the president, in the face of overwhelming public support of their position, and taken the deadlines out of the Iraq bill. Money quote:
Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of leaving Washington for a Memorial Day break — the second recess since the financing fight began — and leaving themselves vulnerable to White House attacks that they were again on vacation while the troops were wanting. That criticism seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.
What??? They're afraid they might look bad over memorial day weekend? Could they do anything more to make confirm Republican suggestions that they are weak and indecisive? The public is on your side, morons, throw this "not supporting the troops" shit back in Bush's face!

"not supporting the troops" is such a vague, meaningless canard that it only has weight and meaning if you act like it does. Throw it up against Bush and he'll reject it out of hand, and for that very reason, it won't work. Why the Democrats don't see this is beyond me.

And Yglesias makes a great point. Who gives a flying fuck how the Democrats look over the weekend? It's how they look in November 2008 that matters, and they'll look a hell of a lot smarter if they were trying to bring this debacle to an end in May 2007.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Credit Where It's Due

Sometimes someone else just makes your point better than you, in which case, it's best to just let them speak. Julian Sanchez clarifies what I was trying to saying yesterday about the notion we should always respond aggressively to provocation:
have you ever noticed that there's a radical disconnect, according to the mainstream hawk narrative, between how we react to attacks, and how our opponents are imagined to react? If someone attempts to attack or intimidate us, as we all know, this invariably backfires, for the American people merely become more resolute and determined to defend ourselves and/or strike back. We don't back down. It's dangerous to attack us.

But apparently, we're supposed to be unique in this way. If, as Ron Paul did last night, you suggest that people elsewhere in the world might react similarly when we intervene in or attack other countries, it is offensive and crazy to even suggest that this may fuel their animosity or make them prone to retaliate. I guess we're just special here.

Testify brother.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why Noam? Why?

I like Noam Chomsky a lot. I like his books, his lectures on DVD, and I'm usually prepared to defend him against those who accuse him of hating America, thinking the west is evil, and the like.

Usually, my biggest criticism of him is that his writing often gives you the impression that violence, coercion, and subjugation in the world are all getting worse, when he actually explicitly states that things are much better across the board.

But today I saw Noam on Penn & Teller's show Bullshit!, albeit on a selectively cut interview, defending speech codes on college campuses because the college is "a student's home" and you have a right not to be assaulted by speech in your home.

Is the campus not also the offender's home? Where should they put up their posters, shout their slogans, or make their insensitive remarks if not inside their "homes"?

The notion that public universities, funded by tax money, are the home of whoever happens to be studying there also sounds ridiculous to me. I suppose that private universities have every right to institute speech codes, I just think it's a terrible idea. Haven't we learned that freedom of speech is good? And since when did being offended become such a terrible thing?

Say it with me now everyone: Fuck speech codes!

The "Weakness" Thing

Bernard Lewis writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying essentially that the Soviets were feared in the Middle East because it was known they would retaliate whereas we would wring our hands and try to apologize. All until The Decider came to save the day and unleashed a shocking counter-attack (despite, perhaps, attacking the wrong target), but now that liberals are in charge again Muslims have regained hope of destroying our will to fight.

A couple of thoughts:

First, the idea that people will think you are weak if you don't retaliate has some merit, but it's constantly employed as if it were an absolute, and no other considerations should be made. And while we may be feared if our response to anything that displeased us was massive retaliation, it's not hard to see how that could unite smaller countries against us and make us less safe. It's not like other countries couldn't also adopt a policy of escalation in response to the slightest provocation. Oh yeah, and there's that thing about how it's wrong to kill people.

There are some quibbles
with the history Lewis is recounting. I don't know much about the period, but the two examples he gave where an instance in which the USSR retaliated for a kidnapping through local agents murdering some of the perpetrators, and the Afghan war. While covert assasination may achieve some ends, I marvel at how the world has changed when the burden of proof is on those who DON'T want to use methods that characterized Soviet Russia. And while Muslim countries may have equivocated in opposing Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, this may reflect the fact that the Islamic world is not, in fact, united, and ethnic loyalties are at least as important as religious ones. And again, Russia's war in Afghanistan is hardly the kind of thing we want to emulate. As Yglesias points out, the Russians have been fighting Muslims for over 200 years, and they're still dealing with the problem. Is that what we want?

Finally, if our goal is simply to establish that we retaliate when provoked, why didn't we just bomb the shit out of Iraq (and presumably now do the same to Iran)? We'd have saved a lot of money, our armed forces would be better off, and we would not be dealing with falling public support for the war, which would now be over. Moreover, none of our potential enemies would see us as bogged down in a war and therefore unable to do the same to them. Hell, given the ethnic violence we've unleashed, the total Iraqi casualties may well have been the same.

If you think the above is what we should have done in Iraq, you may not like the democrats, but Bush is hardly your man. Again, the only problem here is our principles. We like to think we've entered an age in which mass slaughter of civillians is an innappropriat way to achieve policy goals, but maybe it's not true. If not, we should come out and admit it, and forget this "freedom is on the march" bullshit.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Calling Out Cowardice

Sometimes I just don't understand this country - particulary the part of it that agrees with me about things like the "war on terror."

I'm reading a Glenn Greenwald post about this documentary from PBS on the governments illegal domestic spying, and see this quote from John Yoo, one of the chief legal architects of our disregard for such trifles as habeus corpus and due process:
YOO: Look, there's no doubt that ah. . . there are important Fourth Amendment issues here. One is, is this a reasonable search and seizure? You can still have warrantless searches, but they have to be reasonable.

And then the second question is, does that restriction apply to wartime operations. We don't require a warrant, we don't require reasonable searches and seizures when the army, the military's out on the battlefield, attacking, killing members of the enemy.

HEDRICK SMITH: But that's usually abroad and it doesn't involve the American homeland and American citizens . . .

YOO: But this gets to my point, is do you want to make it more difficult for our government to try to stop terrorist attacks. The closer members of Al Qaeda get to the United States, the closer they get to striking our cities as they did on 9/11. You want to make it more legally difficult for the government to stop that? I don't think so.
Ok, where do I start? I could point out that it's entirely possible that while our constitutional protections from government overreach may complicate finding terrorists in specific instances, that the whole system helps foster a more dynamic and productive society that is better equipped to deal with terrorism in the long run, but I'd probably be told I don't have the balls to "stand up" to the bad men in the world.

What is almost no one in the anti-war/spying/throw-out-the-constitution wing of the country is doing is to point out that it's the very people who want to do all of this crazy stuff in the name of safety who are cowards.

Here we are with the most powerful military on earth, a vast intelligence network that has cooperation from most of the other powerful nations on earth (at least where terrorism is concerned), where attacks on our own soil are EXCEEDINGLY rare, and where we constantly talk about how great our freedoms are and how they should be exported around the world, and yet we are ready to give them up in the hope (not certainty) that we can prevent another attack that may or may not be in the workings.

Shit happens, people. Life is risky. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens die on our nations highways and roads every year. Our own choices (smoking and drinking) kill us by the hundreds of thousands every year. We profess to have the greatest respect and admiration for those who would lay down their lives in service of abstract principles of liberty, and yet we would give them up in fear of a movement who's latest great idea was to pass up all the soft targets in New Jersey and ATTACK AN ARMY BASE.

At least the guy who wanted to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch didn't try to make a documentary about it beforehand. . .

Monday, May 14, 2007

Fraudently Sex Should Be Rape???

I really do think the writers over at Feministing are giving sensible Feminism a bad name with their ill-considered screeds against a ubiquitous patriarchy. While I have deep sympathy for the broad goals of Feminism, some of this stuff is just whack. Case in point:
MA Court: Sex by fraud isn't rape

From TalkLeft:

She went to bed one night, in the bedroom she shared with her boyfriend, and a man she thought was her boyfriend got into bed and had sex with her. It turned out the man was her boyfriend's brother who pretended to be her boyfriend...Is that rape? The Massachusetts Supreme Court says no.

Lovely, huh? Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that consent for sex obtained through fraud or deceit isn't rape. The court said that MA's law defines rape as intercourse "by force and against [the] will" of the victim and that "fraudulently obtaining consent to sexual intercourse does not constitute rape as defined in our statute."

There seems to be this reflexive drive to label sex under anything other than ideal circumstances rape. Now don't get me wrong, using fraud to obtain sex is sleazy and disgusting, but that doesn't make it rape. And what about the implications of a reverse ruling? People tell a LOT of lies to get sex (sure I'll respect you in the morning/I'm a millionaire/I'll take you to my house in the Hamptons, etc, etc.). If everything isn't on the up and up, it's rape?!?

Even if such behavior were considered criminal (which I think is probably a bad idea) it's just simply not the same as lying in wait in and alley, attacking, and forcibly raping a woman. Not same ballpark, not even the same freakin' league. To have the same statute and punishment cover both kinds of acts seems ridiculous.

In other news, Julian Sanchez has a nice post making points similar to the one's I made that warning women about real dangers in the world is not "victim blaming" or "slut shaming".

Read the post - Feministing writers even accuse Google's algorithm of sexism for returning "did you mean HE invented" when you type "she invented".

Think people!

UPDATE: And how about "sure I'm clean, I was tested!". If I agree to sleep with you after hearing that, does that make it rape? Cause I sure would be a lot more pissed if I woke up with herpes that if I woke up with someone who wasn't actually a millionaire or backup singer in a famous band. . .

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bill Richardson Is Cool


This might be the best campaign ad I've ever seen. It's funny, it's hip, it takes a shot at the current political landscape in which you have to be immensely famous to be a contender. It also highlights Richardson's background, which is the best in the democratic field, and doesn't reduce important and complex issues to sound bites.

Dammnit Bill, I wanted to be the first to have these kinds of ads when I run for president!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Paternalism Gone Wild

Wow. The Nanny-State springs eternal, this time in the form of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the age of consent for erotic films should be raised to 21 so that girls will be unable to permanently embarrass themselves by showing their tits to America via Joe Francis.

Let's see - is there any evidence that 21 year olds make better decisions than 18 year olds with regard to removing their clothes? And is the governmnt really the one to decided what constitutes a good decision?

Is there any evidence this will actually work?

To me the most amazing this is that there's no consideration of the infantilization and loss of freedom for the nation's 18-21 year olds. Sure, we may not think showing off your breasts is the best use of one's time, but haven't we learned by now that people are better of making their own choices - particulary with respect to relatively inconsequential matters like this.

Thank you, Matt Yglesias, for defending freedom of choice for young people. Apparently it's not just a libertarian thing.

Another thing that irks me is that it seems mandatory to preface your arguments by saying that Joe Francis is scum and that the fact that he made millions means our society is sick. Where is that written?

While pornography (and for that matter, prostitution) may be unseemly, it is ubiquitous in virtually all societies, and I personally think that our somewhat unrestricted porn trade is healthy - and would be better if we were more like Europeans, and didn't get in a tizzy about breasts on a news stand, or god forbid, the superbowl.

And in a capitalist world, Francis does in fact deserve millions of dollars for having the insight that men wanted to look at normal, hot, college-age women, and were being underserved by Playboy and other porn outlets that delivered air-brushed and picture perfect models. He also realized that the girls would WILLINGLY come to him, because it's a form of validation. If you don't like it, don't watch. I don't watch gold, but that doesn't mean I don't think Tiger Woods deserves his millions.

For the record, I have never bought Girls Gone Wild, and my knowledge of it is restricted to the infomercials, and one Rolling Stone article on Joe Francis.

In a pluralistic society, we have to be able to say "to each his/her own"

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Buying The War

I just finished watching Bill Moyers' new PBS documentary Buying The War, and I highly recommend it. It's hard to imagine that we've learned so little from all of this, but at the end of the show, Moyers shows that aside from Judy Miller (the token scapegoat), most of the people championing the war have only had continued success and rising stature in the media. Freakin' amazing.

I have to admit I believed Saddam had WMDs (a phrase that in retrospect seems totally meaningless - mustard gas and nuclear arms are not related in any meaningful way), mostly because I didn't believe it was possibly to twist the arms of the entire media that way. I thought the incentives to bring out the truth would be high enough to ensure someone would be there to do it. As it turns out, Knight Ridder was doing just that - but unfortunately I don't remember reading any of their articles.

I'm not really sure how we can avoid being swindled the same way next time there's a rush to war or some other such thing. The current distrust of the administration in the media gets no points with me - it's simply the popular thing to do now, as was supporting the war in 2003. What's clear to me is that I need to pay much closer attention to the stories I read, and give very little credibility to something simply because it comes from a major news source. Anonymous sources, defectors, and other interested parties need to be scrutinized much more closely.

I also seem to remember being somewhat persuaded by a surprisingly hawkish Frontline show on Iraq right before the invasion - that show wasn't mentioned in Moyers' documentary.

I may have more thoughts on this later, but for now, if you haven't seen Buying the War, you really should.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Prescription Drugs

Glenn Greenwald shows off some surprisingly libertarian ideas in this post, as well as a fascinating comparison between the doctor-patient relationship and the attorney-client relationship (and why, indeed, is it doctor-patient rather than doctor-client?).

Why is it that lawyers are obligated to follow their clients directions even if it goes against their own advice while doctors have no such obligation, and patients have to ask them "if zocor is right for you"?

In general, I think that adult people ought to be able to do whatever they want, provided it doesn't harm others. If that means taking a medication your doctor doesn't think is right, that should be your choice. Hey, drinking Drano is dangerous (probably fatal) but we have the freedom to do that.

I often feel infantilized by the prescription regime currently in place - I am fully capable of reading relevant information about the effects of a given drug and making an informed decision about whether it's right for me, and in most cases I would readily adhere to my doctor's recommendations because he/she does, in fact, have superior medical knowledge, but what if I disagree? and what if it's just not conventient?

My girlfriend had a hell of a time getting a 6 month supply of birth control to take with us to China? Why? Yes, I'm sure getting regular gynocological exams is a good thing, but is that reason to deny us the convenience of getting important medications in the US as oppossed to China, where fake medications are a huge problem? Is there really a danger we would misuse birth control? I know, I know, we could always give it to a seven-year old and thereby encourage her to have sex, turn gay, and use drugs. . .

We also had to pay over one hundred dollars each before our trip to have a nurse explain to us things we already knew about the vaccinations we already knew we required. Really, what reason is there for preventing someone from acquiring a tetanus shot without medical supervision? And is there a black-market in malaria vaccines I don't know about? The main service a medical professional is providing in these instances is to check for anything in the medical history which would indicate against a particular drug or vaccine, and computers are better at such things than people anyway. So why continue to make everyone who goes outside of the first world waste a medical professionals valuable time?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

God We're Stupid

These findings by the Pew Research Center are just oh so depressing. 69% of people can name the current vice-president? Jesus, how are these people holding down jobs if they're so stupid? I would never hire anyone who couldn't name the vice-president or the current governor of the state - it suggests complete ignorance and apathy.

THIS surprised me though. I haven't been blogging enough to have many mistakes to apologize for, but if you'd asked me I would have bet that O'Reilly and Limbaugh's audiences were stupider than average - they're not. In fact, they're as well informed as NPR listeners or Jim Lehrer's viewers. Damn. At least Colbert and Stewart viewers still retain their rightful place at the top.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Not Another Czar

Are you kidding me? The President thinks it will help things if he appoints a "war czar" to "cut through the bueracracy" and help manage the war effort. 'Cause you know all those other czars have worked out so well. We surely would still have a drug problem if we didn't have a drug czar (enter Jon Stewart "who appointed this guy sarcasm czar?"), oh wait.

I can't find the link but I think Matt Yglesias is on to something in pointing out that the administration is constantly trying to put forward some charismatic figure that's supposed to solve the problems in Iraq and divert attention from their own bungling.

As Yglesias and Fred Kaplan at Slate have noted, that's not the problem in Iraq. The problem is not the pentagon's organization or beauracracy, it's the mission itself. The military is good at fighting wars, not building governments or conducting occupations. To do occupations correctly we'd have to get rid of this 'light, lean, and fast' mentality, and start putting a lot more boots on the ground. It might not hurt to start giving civillian casualties a modicum of the import we give to our own casualties. It's not hard to see, looking at the numbers, why other peoples would think we value an American soldier (who chose to join the Army) something like 100 times more than an Iraqi civillian (who made no such choices). When we drop a bomb likely to kill thirty or more civillians (requiring the Sec Def's authorization, so we know this stuff happens) so that we can blow up a truck that MIGHT be used against some of our soldiers, that tells you something.

And the fact that four generals have refused the post tells you something about how they view our situation in Iraq. I believe the military has a word for it: FUBAR.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The "Responsibility" Straw Man

So this woman from South Africa invented the vagina dentata, something like a female condom with metal teeth inside it as a rape detterent, and I thought, that's awesome.

The author of the article points out that it could also inflame an attacker (or group of them), and while that's a problem, if many women started using them (they cost pennies) the overall deterrent effect would be huge. And I have to agree with the author that criticisms that this thing is "vengeful" are pathetic. It's vengeful to hurt someone's penis when they rape you?

Then she ends with this little gem:
The biggest problem though, is that it places the onus for stopping rape not on the perpetrators, but on women - entirely the wrong way around. It implies that rape is an inevitable part of human culture and that women need to adapt accordingly. Still, you can understand why South African women might be willing to try anything. Each year, 1.7 million of them are raped. In this environment, vengeance seems fair.

I've argued against this thinking before, but until now I never realized exactly how stupid it is.

A single woman (or man) cannot (instantly) change the world. For an individual woman rape is indeed an inevitable part of human culture, as is murder, theft, and unkindness in general. This argument is a straw man in that no one is trying to absolve rapists of their crimes, but it also seems very damaging to women in that it makes their efforts to defend themselves part of the "patriarchal oppression" they should be fighting against.

This is akin to arguing that you shouldn't call the police if you're being attacked because you're attacker shouldn't be attacking you. Perhaps the real problem with armies is that they absolve other nations of the responsibility not to invade you. And don't female condoms (or the pill) put the onus on the female to avoid pregnancy rather than the man, who, after all, is responsible for the sperm?

We DO hold rapists accountable - we try them and put them in prison. But in the real world we realize that rapists are not going to stop raping, just as killers will not stop killing and thieves stealing just because they really should do so. Real women deserve to be able to protect themselves, and they should ignore fools who tell them they're failing to hold men accountable.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

9-11 Changed Everything

And we won't ever be supporting terrorists because it serves our narrow, short-term interests, right? Wrong. Turns out we're supporting terrorists in both Iraq and Pakistan, in addition to our recent decision to allow Ethiopia to buy weapons from North Korea (were our own weapons contractors too busy?).

This gives makes me feel like Chomsky is right and that if we really want to fight a war on terror we should just stop supporting anyone who is remotley involved in it, and just accept that we can't have our fingers in every pot around the globe.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Want To Be A Libertarian?

Read this article in the Washington Post, Via Radley, and that'll take you at least part way there. I didn't even know the USDA had a "rural development program" or that it had hands out something like 10 billion dollars a year.

And let me tell you, I'm pretty disgusted that it's going to Provincetown, Hyannisport, and Martha's Vineyard. Really? I mean, it's one thing for some middle-class town to apply for money from a program for poor and undeveloped communities, but ridiculously rich resort communities? That's just pathetic. Good going there government. Heckuva job.

Reminds me of how I felt when I learned that the Rolling Stones (and U2! Et tu Bono?) used tax shelters in the Netherlands to pay less than 2% taxes on $400 million dollars of income. Tax avoidance is one thing - that's just wrong.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Why the Democrats Suck

So Bush criticizes Pelosi for visiting Syria on the grounds that it sends "mixed messages."

Why doesn't anyone in the democratic party have the balls to state the obvious: that of course we send mixed messages because we have a mixed government and not everyone is as blind and ignorant as our Commander in Chief. I have yet to hear a Democrat say this.

For someone who wants to spread freedom so badly, the President shows a sad misunderstanding of our system. Of course the Syrians can bad their time and hope for a change in policy because we periodically have these things called ELECTIONS in which our government, and our policies, very well may change. Policy inconsistency is to some degree inherent in a democratic system.

I also have yet to see anyone but Jon Stewart accuse the President of treating us all like 7-year olds, and I can't understand why. It seems like this would be an extremely effective counter to his endlessly repeated talking points: "mixed messages" "spreading freedom" "fighting evil with good".

Does anyone really think that Syria's top diplomats would not be aware there is large domestic opposition to Bush's foreign policy if not for Nancy Pelosi? Or that terrorists would be unaware we can tap their phones if not for the New York Times? Perhaps we should hide the entire existence of the CIA. Maybe then the terrorists would forget that we are watching. . .

Pointing Out The Obvious

Thank you, New York Times, for informing us that (surprise surprise) local merchants don't share John Mccain's rosy view of Iraq that he bases on a stroll through a marketplace surrounded by 100 soldiers and attack helicopters.

But it doesn't change the fact that the media has for years been blithely repeating the innane assertions of congressman who go to Iraq and tell us how nice it was, while ignoring the fact that a visit conducted under heavy security cannot possibly tell you anything about the general security situation.

The Weekly Standard would have us believe that people who criticize these tactics wanted Mccain to stroll about unprotected, but this is a fairly pathetic straw man. Of course any important government official who visits a dangerous place must be protected - it would be a disaster if Mccain were killed - but that's exactly why the visit is meangingless. Sure, if he wanted to investigate the state of water or electricity delivery in Baghdad, he could probably do that, but the security situation? Please.

An official requiring extra security conducting a security inspection is necessarily viewing a Potemkin village.

Mccain or this Mike Pence character could just as well visit the worst neighborhoods in America under heavy guard and declare them safe (don't listen to that hysterical media!).

The fact remains that the best qualified to speak sensibly on the security situation in Iraq are people who look like or are Iraqis (so that they can wander about unguarded and don't arouse suspicion or invite attack) but are preferably expats so as to avoid heavy emotional investiture in the conflict. Obviously, such types are most likely to be employed in Iraq by THE MEDIA.

Needless to say we should also probably ignore diplomats, contractors, or anyone else who recieves armed escort when out and about in Iraq when they tell us how safe the situation is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Charles Murray

Having read only descriptions of his work and articles related to it, I used to wonder why Charles Murray provoked such a backlash, and why people viewed his work as racist.

Matt Yglesias points me to this article in Commentary, in which Murray explores the various causes of Jewish overrepresentation in Science, Medicine, Law, etc, and you can almost sense his urgency to come to the his final (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) determination that Jews are the chosen people.

Obviously the overrepresentation he's talking about is indisputable, but while he is meticulous in establishing the fact that Jews seem to overachieve in these areas, he ignores and glosses over alternative explanations to get to his favored cause: inherited intelligence.

While I'm open to the idea that some degree of selection could result in higher average IQ in some groups, it's not hard to see why Murray's single minded focus on intelligence's genetic component and casual conclusion lead one to suspect he really wants it to be true.

For the record, I do believe intelligence has a large inherited component, and though I can hardly claim to be familiar with relevant empirical data, I know that IQ tests are hardly reliable indicators of your intellectual horsepower, and that high achievement in any field involves not only ability, but opportunity, connections, etc, all of which are entirely social phenomonen.

While I don't think we should axiomatically accept that all groups of people everywhere have the same average intelligence (do they all have the same average height?) based on our belief in equality, I would be surprised if those differences were very large. And while height certainly has a genetic component (as well as being correlated with things like income), we should remember that the average height has been steadily increasing in Japan and China over the last several decades, and I hardly think there's been a great deal of natural selection or evolution during that time.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crazy for Children's Safety

Kevin Drum references this article in the LA Times about the completely unreasonable fear of sexual predators that parents across the nation seem to have.

The magnitude of this fear is baffling to me, as is the idea, expressed by one person in the article, that the number of predators has increased in the last 30 years "because of the internet." Whaaaaaaaa?

Come off it. I don't have any evidence to back myself up, but I'm fairly confident that the small percentage of people who are pedophiles have always been around. In the past, we didn't know about it, and when we did, we didn't want to.
I doubt that priests molesting children is a new thing either - just imagine how often it happened in the 30's, or god-forbid, the middle ages.

What has changed is the media, our openness to formerly taboo subjects, and an increasing safety paranoia that makes this a soft spot to go after a parents natural fear-response to any perceived threat to their child.

If you don't think we've gone crazy with fear, just look at what's happened to Halloween. I hear (I'm only 25) that back in the day people used to give out homemade pie and apples, but all of this stopped, and now people are even afraid that the candy might contain needles or poison, rumours of which are almost entirely false or greatly exaggerated. You'd think it would be obvious that the biggest dangers associated with trick-or-treating are falling and getting hit by a car.

To me, the salient statistic in the article is the fact that 90% of molestations are perpetrated by someone known to the family, so that the 'don't talk to strangers' rule will not help in the least. And while staying indoors all the time MIGHT cut down on the risk of a random assault, if someone has been watching your kid and plotting, they are going to wait for the ripe moment, and keeping the kid from biking to school is not going to help.

The fact is we have become inordinantly risk averse in this country. People die at all ages, all the time (and as bad as molestation is, it's better to be molested than dead). There is nothing you can do to negate the fact that risk (and risk of death) is an inescapable part of the human condition, and that we should accept that, and manage the risks in a sensible and rational fashion.

Matt adds that driving (being driven in) cars is probably the most dangerous (in terms of threats to the child's life) thing that kids do. I would bet this remains true until past 40. Whenever I hear of some safety hysteria (like New York City wanting to ban metal baseball bats for little league) I always think to myself that driving to the game (event, party) is probably the most dangerous part.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Et Tu Carlos?

Say what you want about the show, but I liked Mind of Mencia. It was edgy, funny, and made a good replacement for Chappelle's Show. And I don't give a fuck that his name is
really "Ned Holness" and that he changed it. What, you thought Tom Cruise was Tom Mapother's real name as well?

When Joe Rogan started accusing him of plagiarism I listened, but he mostly just insisted Mencia had without providing a lot of evidence (there was one clip of him doing a joke similar to that of a comic he toured with). In addition, with something like comedy, there's always going to be some degree of overlap - there are only so many funny observations and only so many subjects. When the coincidences start piling up, however, you have to start changing your mind.

The Cosby riff in this YouTube clip is fairly old, and it's only really the punchline that's the same, but it doesn't look good. I'm beginning to lose faith in Carlos.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Freedom and Authority

Sullivan discovers that back in the day Guilliani said something like "Freedom is about authority" and "Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do. . ."

I agree with Yglesias that this sounds kind of creepy, but apparently it goes back to Hegel, which Julian doesn't think is very comforting. I've never read Hegel, but it sounds bad to me as well.

I would just add I don't think authority or order precedes or establishes freedom, it's just that they provide the best conditions for freedom. To me, the simplest (and best) definition of freedom would seem to be the lack of outside coercion. In anarchic situations, or in say, present day Iraq, there may be little governmental interference, but there's still plenty of coercion, much of it much more fearsome, and more controlling than anything even repressive governments do. Government authority doesn't seem to me any intrinsically better than the control of a warlord or other source of power; it's just that a legitimate government is more likely to have sensible, consistent, and fairly applied rules.

Legitimate democratically elected government with powerful but limited authority gives us the optimal (and possibly widest) set of free choices.

What Rudy is saying would also probably be embraced by many authoritarians and even totalitarians (freedom is sticking to the party line), which does not give me great faith in his ideas about freedom or liberty. Authority allows freedom to flourish, but it seems crazy to say that's what freedom is 'about'.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Rudy, Toughness, and National Survival

I was reading this post on Matt Yglesias' blog where he quotes the Corner's K-Lo in the New York Post reviewing Hugh Hewitt's book on Mitt Romeny:
Hewitt opens the book with an odd quote though: "Mr. President," Dean Acheson says in a call to Harry Truman. "The North Koreans have invaded South Korea." Hewitt writes, "It is with evenings like that one of June 24, 1950, in mind that Americans ought to cast their primary and general election votes for presidents. When devastating surprises arrive, whether on Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 11, 2001, or any such future day - and there will be many - our country's survival depends upon the man or woman in the Oval Office."

K-Lo says that upon reading this, she thinks of Rudy; Matt thinks it's odd that conservatives automatically and unquestioningly accept this characterization of Gulianni.

I'd like to go a bit further. What about the situation described suggests that any sort of toughness was required? What Hewitt is intimating, of course, is that if a weakling like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or worse, John Kerry, was in the White House they would piss themselves and immediately sue for peace rather than perpare for war. The ridiculousness of this idea is almost beyond commentary.

We are, of course, talking about the single most powerful person in the world, commander of the world's best funded and most advanced military, and we are supposed to be afraid they won't use force because the lack the guts?

Let me ask some similarly stupid rhetorical questions. If you were superman, would you be afraid to stop an armed robber? If you were a mafia boss, surrounded by his armed enforcers, would you lack the guts to mouth off to a big scary biker?

Now, it's fair to criticize those who favor diplomacy over war on the grounds that diplomacy is the wrong course - but where the democrats actually showed weakness was in their failure to stand up to the president in the run up to war, not their inability to stomach

Hillary Clinton was asked why she thinks she can stand up to the 'evil and bad men' in the world. Aside from the fact that she's a woman (that's a joke people), why is this even in question? The question should be, "why do you think you can stand up to vastly less powerful but still evil and bad men?"

I realize why an image of toughness is an assett in inspiring people and making them feel safe, and thus very important when running for president. But the fact that people can even contemplate a US president quivering in their boots over a potential conflict with a third world country (like Iraq, or the non-nuclear North Korea of 1950), leads me to believe that Einstein was right, and human stupidity really is the only thing that is surely infinite.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Our Mercenary Problem

A various interesting read on Blackwater USA and the new reliance on mercenaries that characterizes the post-Rumsfeld armed forces.

I really think that some of the stuff associated with these people is going to be one of the big revelations once the definitive history of the Iraq war is written.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Why The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario Is Crap

Via Andrew Sullivan, John Yoo in the Montreal Gazzette (link is dead):
"Death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don't see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don't have an absolute prohibition on killing. Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified. But that, in some circumstances, it is justified seems to me to be just moral common sense. How could it be better that 10,000 or 50,000 or a million people die than that one person be injured?"
Under some forms of act-utilitarianism, he is right, but I think the number of people who heartily endorse that kind of ends-justify-the-means thinking is vanishingly small. While such a decision may save a million lives at the expense of one, my hunch is that making that correct assesment is a one in a million chance.

But back to the ticking time bomb, which is the classic scenario under which torture is supposedly justified. First, the scenario is so unlikely as to be not worth considering, as three conditions would have to be met: 1) we have to no with absolute certainty that there will be a terrorist attack and we have to know the time (otherwise we have no reason to think time is running out on the clock) 2) we have to be absolutely certain the person we want to torture has the relevant information, and 3)we have no idea where or how the attack will take place, or at least so little that we have no hope of succeeding with conventional investigation and the only possible solution is to extract the plot with torture.

This combination of absolute certainty and virtual ignorance about the same event is highly unlikely in the first place, but it also negates the utility of torture. Torture can reliably make someone talk, but it cannot force them to tell the truth. To use torture effectively, you have to have some knowledge of the situation so can separate the lies from the truth. In the time bomb scenario, you don't need to know anything about the time-frame (since you know the clock is ticking), but since you have no leads about the method or location, there's no way of knowing whether the toruree is telling the truth until you waste time (which is limited) following potentially false leads. Then again, the torturee may not even have the information you're looking for, although he's certainly going to give you AN answer if you torture him, it just won't be the RIGHT answer.

Then of course, we can remember that most expert interrogaters don't believe that torture is effective - you eventually here what you want to hear, and end up with a load of false information. And let's not forget (let's not forget) that despite using the mind probe and killing probably billions of people on Alderaan, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin still didn't get the real location of the rebel base from princess Leia.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Simple Test

Via Pete at Drug War Rant I learned that "Dr" David Murray from ONDCP was on Bill Bennett's radio show and said this:
This is really hurting us, and it's hurting the people because it's a fraud. There is no medical value to smoked, raw, weed marijuana -- the Food and Drug Administration, scientific bodies have weighed in on this. This is not an open, or a contested issue -- it's clear. It is risky. It is dangerous to the people who use it, and it is not therapeutically valuable. It's not a medicine, so the fraud is to keep offering it as a medicine. And in state initiatives supported by very powerful legalization lobbies with millions of dollars behind it, they've sometimes pulled the wool over voters in state initiatives in places like California, and now even New Mexico.

Like Pete says, it's not really worth debunking this nonsense because it's just an outright lie.

But I'd like to suggest that we agree on a simple definition of medicine: If a number of doctors (say more than 100) want to use something to treat patients, it's medicine.

Medicine is as medicine does. If trained professionals are using some treatment and believe it is effective it is ipso facto medicine.

Not all medicine is equally good, and its effectiveness depends on the circumstances and the practitioners ability to identify said circumstances. But the "market" of medicine will work best if we have different doctors with different ideas of what works using different strategies to treat patients. In the long run, more effective treatments will gain more popularity and wider use.

Whatever your personal (or professional if you're a "doctor" like David Murray) opinion of medical marijuana, there is clearly a plethora of doctors who have used it, are recommending it, and continue to believe that it has a place in medical treatment. Doctors today have wide latitude in prescribing accepted medications for 'off label' uses; denying them the ability to prescribe marijuana for any use is stupid, criminal, and representative of the demonizing politics that I unfortunately believe will continue to dominate American politics for decades to come.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sensible Animal Rights

This op-ed in the New York Times has motivated me to say a few words about animal rights.

We need a sensible animal rights movement. That means one separated from PETA. They are crazy. They think owning a dog is akin to slavery. They think animals are our equals and we have no right to kill, own, or use them in any way under any circumstances. They also refuse to condone criminal activity in the name of animal rights (which I don't yet consider terrorism because they haven't killed anyone).

But just because you like to eat meat and think riding horses is somewhat different than raping your negro slaves doesn't mean you think animals have no moral standing and we can and should do whatever we wish to them.

Farm animals in the US, particularly at 'factory farms' are indeed subjected to shocking and horrifying treatment. Sorry PETA, the Holocaust is not a correct analogy because that's people, who are different, but it is equally large in scale, and certainly very, very wrong.

I would be willing to pay more for meat and eggs that come from animals treated humanely, and I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one. Someone needs to start an animal rights movement that doesn't rely on crazies like PETA. Or, if that movement actually exists, they need to get better at publicity. Right now PETA is the only prominent animal rights org that I can think of, other than perhaps the Humane Society, which has a different focus.

More Thoughts On Gun Control

Matt and Julian discuss the "collective right" and "individual right" interpretations of the 2nd amendment. I think I agree with Julian that the "collective right" doesn't really make sense in any meaningful way. Matt is certainly right that an unlimited individual right (the right to buy tanks and nukes) is crazy, but that does seem to be what the text says. I do think he is right that the wording is the result of political compromise, and illustrates that as lofty as the founders were, their political system was as messy and confounding as ours is today.

Obviously in today's world it makes lots of sense to have some limits on the right to own or bear arms. I'm not entirely comfortable with Bush, Blair, Musharraf, Hu, and others on the trigger of nuclear weapons, but lets at least keep it to that. Besides, if the intent of the second amendment is to ensure we can overthrow a tyrannous government, I think the events in Iraq are demonstrating that a sufficiently motivated and sufficiently popular movement can create severe problems for the world's most advanced army using limited resources. If we added in the problems inherent in trying to get soldiers to use deadly force against their fellow citizens, I don't see much hope for maintaining control over a country like America simply by means of the military.

So there are some reasons to restrict ownership of particularly dangerous weapons, but it seems to me these are best limited to A) weaponry that would have national security implications if sold to the wrong people (so this could not include any firearms except highly experimental ones) and B) weaponry that would give an individual a substantial firepower advantage against a number of police officers (I don't think the cops should be better armed than the rest of us, but I don't think any of us should be MUCH better armed than the cops).

Returning to DC, the source of all this commotion, let me just point out that their restrictions go far beyond hand guns. Stun guns and mace are also prohibited, as I'm sure are various folding knives and extendable batons.

This seems silly. No one is going to accidentally kill a family members with a taser, but they could certainly prevent a mugging with one, and it would certainly increase the deterrant effect.

In fact, I can't see why extendable batons are illegal anywhere - it's highly unlikely that you would accidentally kill someone with one, and if you did use excessive force in, say a bar fight, you deserve the punishment. You could also have used a bar stool to kill your victim, so the mere presence of a baton is not likely to be the crucial factor in whether the victim lived or died.

A baton would, however, be a superb self defense weapon. It's light, easy to conceal, and brutally effective in close quarters. Besides, if you take the time to learn stick fighting, I think you deserve to kick some ass. The main point here is that the District of Columbia has outlawed virtually all effective means of self-defense beyond your bare hands. A councilman who was asked what a person who feared assault should do replied "where a whistle." Sorry, that's ridiculous.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Conflicts of Interest

Usually when I'm reading some article and the journalist in question writes "full disclosure," there usually follows something like "I worked with this person once," "I was once employed by someone who was connected to this," or the like. It usually doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's good to know they want to put anything that could be influencing them up front.

It's amazing then, to read this column by Robert Kagan, and see no mention of the fact that the surge is basically the brainchild of his brother, Frederick Kagan. What's more, the Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz, who thinks anonymous comments on the Huffington Post are noteworthy, doesn't think this is a big deal because Robert Kagan was always pro-war.

Amazing. Glenn Greenwald has a good post on the subject asking why anyone would even listen to Robert Kagan anymore, as does Matthew Yglesias.

The Weekly Standard, not to be outdone, has Fredrick Kagan's wife Kimberly write about the success of the surge. I wonder why Kagan is so eager to embrace the surge, as I seem to recall him recommending 50,000 troops, and getting less than half that.

The fact that this is not huge news outside of the blogosphere is another indication that we do not, in fact, have a liberal media. What we have is a perception of a liberal media, and a media that is eager to avoid any hint of appearing liberal, while Fox News can be unabashedly conservative (and there's nothing wrong with that) and still be seen as an similar media outlet.

Far more than any political persuasion, it seems to me, the media is influenced by ITS OWN INTERESTS. Why did the media let us down before Iraq? Because war is great for all types of media. We stay glued to CNN for hours, read the paper daily for updates and the like. Why is the media not reporting all the "good news" from Iraq? The same reason that school openings don't make the headlines here: if it bleeds, it leads (and the fact that the school in question immediately becomes a target for collaborating with the aggressors). No hidden partisan motivation is needed; it's simpler and more reasonable to attribute this behavior to self-interest.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dinesh D'souza Can Read Definitions

D'souza is predictably under attack for writing a book claiming that cultural liberalism and the left is responsible for 9-11. Reading his response to critics on the right, I was shocked to find that he had, in the book, claimed that the 2000 attack on the USS Cole was not, in fact terrorism:
. . .Terrorism is defined as an attack on innocent civilians. Given that bin Laden declared war on America in 1996, al Qaeda’s assault on an American warship is not terrorism in the classic sense. This was an attack on a military target, akin to the Japanese kamikaze attacks on American ships during World War II.

Bravo. Anything done by Al Qaeda seems to be taken as terrorism these days, but when the Cole was hit we had already sent cruise missiles at training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, trying to kill Bin Laden. To suggest that he is somehow out of line attacking a US warship is ludicrous. Granted, he is attacking us, and we should try to kill him for it, but it's not terrorism.

Similarly, you can, if you want to be generous, argue that the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon was not an act of terrorism. The Pentagon is the heart of the American military, and though it sounds good to claim the 'war on terror' was brought to us on 9-11, we had been using lethal force against Al Qaeda for some time. The only question is the civillians on the plane used to hit the pentagon. Now, just war theory holds that you can KNOWINGLY kill civillians (usually with some caveats about taking proper precautions, proportionality, and such), but that it's impermissible to INTENTIONALLY kill civillians. If the people who hijacked that plane truly believed they had no other way of attacking the US military, they could argue the act was not an act of terrorism.

The problem with this sort of justification (especially when used by the military)is that it's easy to say "gee, it's too bad thirty innocent people were killed, but we were after a legitimate target and we take such great precautions," and the public has essentially no way of knowing whether that is true. The military claims it does not keep records of civillian casualties, which you would think would be a prerequisite for taking extraordinary care not to cause them. How do you know whether you're doing a good job if you don't measure?

My own personal opinions is that the 9-11 hijackers probably did intend to kill the people on the plane, and their goal was to cause as big a spectacle as possible, regardless of who got hurt.

I doubt that the US military ever intentionally targets civillians (except for the occasional low-level commander who wants to get all the 'ragheads'), but that we don't particularly care when we do. Despite all of our protestations, I think if we really cared about not killing civillians, you would see different tactics, and efforts to determine casualty levels. The refusal to count the innocent dead is criminal, in my view.

Many today lament that we "don't have the will to fight the way we need to," usually meaning to ignore civillian casualties and inflict as much damage as possible to crush the enemy's will, as we did to Germany and Japan. I agree, we would be more likely to stop attacks against our troops and the Iraqi government if we did that, but it would destroy any possibility of justifying the war on moral grounds. There's no concievable way Iraq is 'better off' if we start indiscriminately killing.

We massacred the Germans and Japanese because we were engaged in a global conflict, which, while not existentially threatening to us, was so threatening to our allies, and it was clear (particularly in the case of Japan) that battlefield victories alone were not going to end the war. The situation here is entirely different.

At any rate, I've wandered from the original subject of this post, D'souza and his book. D'souza is right that his critics have not refuted his claim that Al Qaeda decided to attack America because of the left's actions. What they are criticizing is the implicit suggestion that we should alter our culture to accomodate those who attacked us (by becoming less disgusting heathens), which would rightly be called appeasement. Sorry buddy, America is the land of the free, and it's worth fighting and dying for to keep it that way. I don't know enough about Al Qaeda to say exactly why they attacked us (although I suspect that our foreign policies have much more to do with it that our culture), but it doesn't matter. Domestically, we ought to have freedom, and internationally, we ought to do what is best for America first, and more generally what is good for the world. Most especially, we should stop doing the grievous harm caused by such blunders as Iraq and Vietnam. We should do these things because they are right, regardless of why our enemies might want to kill us.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Have Conservatives Fallen That Far?

Yes, they have. Lindsey Graham, in an effort to reassure conservatives about John Mccain, tells them "This is not Luke Skywalker here."

Words fail me. Does he not realize that Luke Skywalker is the HERO? Apparently fighting against the evil empire is not a plus for conservatives anymore.

My only hope is that what Graham really meant is that Mccain is Chewbacca. Nobody worries about upsetting the democrats, but then, democrats don't pull people's arms out of their sockets when they lose.

A Non-Believer In Congress

The Secular Coalition For America is promising to release the name of the first non-theistic member of Congress. They're offering $1000 bucks if you'd like to hazzard a guess, but you'd better do it soon.

I have to say this is a good thing, publicity stunt though it may be. Non-religous people are probably more numerous than homosexuals in America, but although we can have an openly gay congressman (and, if congress is to "look like America" we should have several), there are still no Atheists or Agnostics to be found.

Gun Control, DC and the Courts

Ah, it's refreshing to be able to post on one of my more conservative/libertarian views. I fear I was starting to sound like a big lefty, which I'm really not.

Anyway, so the D.C. Court of Appeals has thrown out the city's gun ban on the grounds that it violates the second amendment. Fairly unprecedented if I understand it correctly, but I really don't because I'm not a lawyer, I haven't read the court documents, and I'm not going to. Unlike a lot of commentators, I'll admit that.

I have to agree with Radley that the Washington Posts editorial on the subject is indeed shrill, and seems to assume that gun control works without a whole lot of evidence.

Take this section:
The NRA predictably welcomed yesterday's ruling. According to its myth, only criminals have had guns in the city and now law-abiding citizens will be able to arm themselves for protection.

Myth? Isn't that kind of self-evidently true? If it was, in fact, illegal to have a handgun in the city, you would be a criminal for carrying one. And Radley pointed out (although the link he cites is dead, or at least not accessible from China), the NRA opposed the lawsuit, though why it did is beyond me.

Let me lay out a few thoughts on the subject:

1) It's easy to get guns into DC if you don't mind breaking the law. All you do is go to Virginia, which doesn't have such laws, and bring them back. There aren't any checkpoints, to my knowledge. And if you don't think that in a nation where you can buy identities online, and drugs on any street corner, that there's a black market for guns, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Incidentally, this is also true of basically any other state or city with strict gun laws.

2) If you're planning on shooting someone, you don't care about violating gun control laws. This just seems obvious to me. Even if you aren't going to shoot someone, but you need a gun because you run drugs, are in a gang, or are a gun nut, you're not going to care either.

Given those two postulates, what reason is there to think gun control laws have a chance of reducing violent crime committed with guns? And the idea that criminals don't fear getting shot when they rob a liquor store or mug someone is ludicrous. Why do gang members carry guns for PROTECTION?

Now, I don't completely buy into the 'more guns=more safety' line. It seems to me that if there are more guns in (generally) law abiding citizens' hands, there are going to be two results. A) there will be some deterrent effect on criminals, who are as afraid of getting shot as anyone, and B) there will be some disputes (say in bars) that because of the presence of guns will result in shootings where there otherwise wouldn't be. The question is which of these two effects will be larger. There are apparently some good studies showing that more guns does lower the crime rate, and others showing the opposite. I simply don't know enough to tell which ones are better or why.

But consider this: DC has had (and still has - the ruling does not go into effect yet) these very strict gun control laws. Why then does it continue to have such a high crime rate and so many shootings?

UPDATE: Davin points out that another effect of increased gun ownership will be more family members of gun owners getting shot.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What We Should Have Done With Social Security

After posting on another blog of mine about the giant investment fund China is going to create with its foreign reserves, I thought I'd put up some thoughts on Social Security in the US and what we should have done while it was being widely discussed. I realize I'm a day late and a dollar short on this one, but hey, I just started blogging.

Conservatives were absolutely right to point out that a diversified portfolio that includes stocks and other assets will have much better return than pure treasuries. Adding a small amount of stock to an all bond portfolio can even lower the risk slightly. What was never clear to me was why this necessitated private accounts.

There's no reason the Social Security Trust Fund couldn't simply be managed like a university endowment. Universities have very long time frames and tons of money, and as a result they do better than almost any other investors out there. While I'm not sure if it would "solve" the "crisis" in Social Security, it would certainly improve the situation. It would also force congress to be more responsible. Buying treasuries just means giving the money to the government who promises to pay it back with interest. Any money that goes to the private sector would not be available to be frittered away on things like tax cuts, giant spending programs, and foreign wars.

Private accounts though, seem like a bad idea to me. For one thing there's almost certain to be corruption in the way the accounts are managed, and how companies are selected for what would be an enormous opportunity. Can we say no-bid contract?

Second, the idea of private accounts undermines the idea behind Social Security, which is not an investment, it's social insurance. That's why the poor get more than the rich, there's disability insurance, and spouse benefits. Yes, you get credit for what you put in, but the system is designed to help the less well off, and so the rest of us can be more comfortable taking risks (which is essential for a capitalist economy), knowing that there is some degree of a safety net for us.

Finally, the results of every American individually choosing what to do with their slice of the Social Security pie would probably be much worse than that of a combined trust fund. There may be wisdom in crowds, but if splitting up investment pools made lots of sense than pensions and endowments would be split up amongst many managers - they are not. Additionally, there would be significant administrative costs to keeping track of some 200 million or so accounts. It couldn't be cheap, and my guess is we wouldn't be getting a good deal.

Now, why couldn't someone have proposed this when Bush was stumping around the country trying to drum up support for private accounts?

Friday, March 9, 2007

Ann Coulter

If you've never read any of her stuff, you really should. Not only does she through around words like "faggot" and "raghead", but she's a transparent liar and completely crazy.

She can claim without any evidence that Liberals want everyone to die so we can save the planet (apparently you don't have to actually read what people have said to argue against them in Coulter-world), and then offer such blatantly false gems as this:
There are more reputable scientists defending astrology than defending "global warming," but liberals simply announce that the debate has been resolved in their favor and demand that we shut down all production.

Sorry, no.

The best part is, the whole point of this article is that liberals are disconnected because they live in their Malibu mansions, unaware of how 'the rest of us' actually get by in the world. Andrew Sullivan points out that Coulter has a 1.7 million dollar Palm Beach house, which I hope she was in when she was writing this article.

Just for fairness, I should say I also think Michael Moore is pretty dishonest, but I don't think even he is ever that loose with the facts, and tends to use less inflammatory language.

Guliani

Is apparently the 'guy to beat' right now in the absurdly early starting horse race for 2008, with a 20 some point lead over McCain.

One question: how does being Mayor during 9-11 give him national security credentials? Yes, he gave some nice speeches, and looked resolute and tough, and I'm sure he would do the same if America were attacked again, and that would be good. But those aren't national security credentials. What does Rudy know about intelligence? What does Rudy know about Foreign Policy? Matthew Yglesias has been writing about this extensively, also observing that Rudy is kind of crazy.

And it's not just liberals who think he's a tad authoritarian and petty.

My girlfriend thinks that "Guliani" sounds too ethnic to connect with red-state Americans, but when was the last time you heard about anti-Italian sentiments? I would be surprised if even half of Americans could identify the currect slur for Italians (in case you can't, it's wop).

Thursday, March 8, 2007

WHEN not IF

People who want to emphasize the danger posed by terrorists often point out that the next terrorist attack is a matter of when, not if. That's absolutely true, but it shouldn't add to our perception of danger. Here's a list of other things that are a matter of when, not if:

- A pandemic Flu
- A super Volcano (like the one that nearly extinguished our species over 200,000 years ago, and one that is sitting under Yellowstone)
- An asteroid hitting earth
- the next world war
- the cubs winning the world series
- the death of you, your family, your friends, and every other person on the planet.

The critical piece of information for all these events is how often or how probable they are. Sure, many terrorist attacks will happen this year, but what about one like 9-11? Not likely - that kind of terrorist grand slam is a once in a blue moon thing. Cheney likes to give the administration credit for not having any attacks since 9-11, but there hadn't been an attack by a foreign terrorist (so we don't count Oklahoma City) since 1993, when they attacked THE SAME DAMN BUILDING. It's not likely we would have been attacked again if we hadn't changed a thing, and of course we were going to beef up security - the question is whether we needed warrentless wiretapping and indefinite detentions.

Given that the amount of people killed by an asteroid or a pandemic flu would outnumber those killed in 9-11 by orders of magnitude, shouldn't we be devoting at least of fraction of the resources we devote to preventing terrorism to allieviating those threats?

Fear of Terrorism

John Stossel can say infuriatingly wrong things about many subjects, but on the war on drugs or fear of terrorism, he's absolutely right.

It's amazing to me how effectively the fear of terrorism has been sold to the American public. People just cannot seem to grasp that 9-11 was an exceptional success for terrorism, and one that is not likely to be repeated that often. Stokers of this fear say that "there are people who want to kill us" as if this wasn't true back in the innocent 90's, or the 80's, 70's or at any point in history. Then they make comments about how we should quietly assasinate Iranian scientists and politicians without any hint of irony.

And now a question: Why isn't the opposition to this fear-mongering and aggression effective at making the point that this fear is exactly the point of TERRORism and getting us to react to is was the whole point of 9-11?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Atheists

It's amazing to me that some people can claim Christians in particular and religious people in general are being discriminated against when polls show that we'll vote for a black man, a woman, or a Mormon, but only 45% of us would vote for an Atheist. If Christians are being discriminated against, they are being sold out from within their own ranks; they do, after all, control congress, the presidency, and seven out of nine supreme court seats, the other two held by Jews.

The fact that Atheism is a choice can lead you to conclude this sort of discrimination is ok, but choosing to live as a homosexual is similarly a choice. Forcing or pressuring them to ignore their sense of identity and innermost feelings is wrong because while living as a homosexual is a choice, being one isn't. Andrew Sullivan (a fine example of reasonable, non-crazy Christian) has written about being called to faith, and born into belief - why can't the same be true of Atheists? No one should be forced to hide their true beliefs to fit into society, and it's almost certainly true that many do. It would be almost inconceivable if, out of the 500+ congress people, the president and his cabinet, and the supreme court, there were not some who privately did not REALLY believe in God, given that between 3 and 9% of the population does not adhere to a Religion.

Radley Balko writes about the issue in connection with Mitt Romney's comments a few weeks ago that we need a "person of faith" to lead the country. While Radley points out the fallacy of those who believe Atheists cannot possibly believe in natural rights or morality in general, I think those who want to advance the political prospects of Atheists, Agnostics, and Deists should also take on the idea that we have no faith.

I have faith in democracy and rule of law, and it is faith because I believe that in spite of countless examples in this country and others of those principles being cast aside by elected leaders. We can have faith in human ingenuity, faith in science and the human capacity to understand, and faith that we can improve the world.

Faith is important in politics because asking for someones vote necessarily involves asking them to overcome deep cynicism and suspicion that they are entirely right to have towards ambitious people seeking to rule the most powerful country in the world. You need to have some faith to donate money and spend time and energy campaigning for someone who might not even win a primary, or might ignore their promises once in office.

Faith is necessary, just not religious faith, and Atheists are as capable of having faith as any other Americans.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Civil Committment

The New York Times investigates treatment centers where sex offenders who have served their prison sentences are civilly committed to involuntary treatment because they are deemed to pose a risk to society. While it certainly concerns me on civil liberties grounds, I do think we have to remove dangerous people from normal society. But why not just do this through longer sentences, life sentences if need be?

The bigger problem seems to be that the wrong people are committed. Many violent rapists are being let out while people who expose themselves to children are locked up for life. The article give examples of patients over 70 (and one who is 102) being held in these treatment facilities at the cost of over $100,000 a year.

I think we need to have many more distinctions when it comes to sexual crimes. Someone who exposes them self to a child is entirely different than someone who rapes a child, who is completely different from someone who has sex with a 16 year old. These are different sorts of crimes (and in the case of statutory rape, it seems questionable to me that it's even a crime), and deserve different approaches in terms of prevention and treatment.

We also might consider placing such people in separate facilities from the get-go, since they are often the victims of sexual predations in prison. Of course, society doesn't seem to care that much about what happens to criminals, much like they don't care about what happens to middle easterners who may or may not be terrorists.

The Filthy Rich

The New York Times has a very interesting article on how the wealthiest Americans keep getting richer. The problem is, they've chosen a few bad examples. Here's one:

To see his point, take Oracle’s founder, Lawrence J. Ellison. Mr. Ellison’s net worth last year was around $16 billion. And it will probably be much bigger when the list comes out in a few weeks. With $16 billion and a 10 percent rate of return, Mr. Ellison would need to spend more than $30 million a week simply to keep from accumulating more money than he already has, to say nothing of trying to spend down the $16 billion itself.


First of all, Ellison's money isn't in a bank account or in bonds. He can't just earn 10% a year. His money is in stock, chiefly in Oracle, the company he founded and continues to run. He CAN'T give his money away without losing control of his company, which could lead to losing his job. The same holds true of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, or anyone whose wealth is mostly in the stock of a company they run.

The article goes on to talk about the Waltons and other families with inherited wealth, and here the concerns are perfectly applicable, and the question remains valid: why on earth do they need all of that money?

This is why we need the estate tax. People argue that the money has already been taxed, but I find this unconvincing. It's already been taxed as another person's money. I could make a similar argument about profits made from selling a car or a house - the person who paid me had already paid taxes on that money.

Individuals should pay taxes on any money coming into their possesion for the first time; we only use the estate tax because it's simpler to tax the estate than sorting through income taxes for all the beneficiaries.

The Republicans have been effective in labelling the estate tax the "death tax." Why haven't Democrats been equally effective in labelling it the "Paris Hilton tax?"

Double Standards, Distancing, and Ann Coulter

So Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot in so many words. It's not at all surprising that Coulter says innappropriate and bigoted things, but I am actually surprised that she has used that word twice now. Aside from nigger, faggot has to be the second most taboo slur in America today, and Coulter has now applied the term to two prominent democrats (She called Al Gore a fag in jest). In this country you can get away with saying awful things about certain groups (and Coulter has said far worse things about arabs, liberals, and others), but just ask Micheal Richards how well the ethnic (or in this case homosexual) slurs go down.

Liberals are outraged, and are rightly pointing out that while Democrats are regularly called upon to 'distance' themselves from left-wingers saying outrageous things, and Coulture continues to be invited to speak at major conservative events, to be invited on television (on liberal networks no less), and generally viewed as an accepted member of the conservative establishment.

On the whole, I'm not a fan of pressuring public figures to distance themselves from outspoken, vulgar, or offensive allies. What someone with similar idealogy says shouldn't reflect badly on you, and guilt by association is one of the big problems with the political environment today. That said, it does seem to be much more common for progressives to be hounded to distance themselves for wacky allies (recall Peter Jennings asking Wesley Clark about Micheal Moore calling Bush a 'deserter'). I think this is a result of conservatives having been much more effective at controlling popular perceptions in the past decade or so. They've succeeded in creating the impression of a liberal media, and also the idea that the left is filled with extremists that hate America.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Blog Comments & Email Mean NOTHING

While Glenn Greenwald is sometimes a little verbose for my tastes, he makes excellent arguments and the Logic Ref rarely feels the need to call foul on him. Today he makes an excellent point regarding the attempt to use blog comments (and sometimes hate emails) to prove something about what your political opponents think. In this case, the comments in question are related to the recent suicide-bombing in Afghanistan, and some people commenting that they wish Cheney had been killed or some other nonsense.

The usual suspects, shocked by such anti-american, hateful sentiments, broadcast them to the world as evidence that liberals are angry, venomous, and hate the USA. Sigh.

What these comments (and others you will find on conservative blogs, and on message boards whose subject matter ranges from horticulture to football) mean is that the internet is full of trolls. Nothing more. The internet is a relatively anonymous communication medium, and this has the effect of encouraging people to spew out things they would never express in person. This effect was the subject of a recent New York Times article.

Furthermore, it's just silly to collect the most ill-considered and offensive comments or emails you can find and use them to conclude that 'liberals,' a group that includes tens of millions of people in this country alone, are blinded by partisan hate. It's silly to use any small sample of a given group to make conclusions about the whole group. How would Malkin or the NRO people react if I were to conclude, based on Abu Ghraib, that all American soldiers are sadistic, sexually deviant torturers? 'Nuff said

Similarly, the fact that someone recieves hate email does not say anything about their political opposition; anyone with a modicum of fame (and certainly any blogger, or someone who's reputation comes from their work online, and who's email address is published) gets hate mail like the rest of us get spam. Michelle Malkin is particularly annoying in this regard as she constantly uses racist hate mail she recieves to malign liberals.

Say it with me now: the internet is full of trolls. The fact that one of them said something mean and nasty to you means exactly squat.


UPDATE:

Opponents of the administration's war efforts should realize that it would have been a very BAD thing if Cheney had been killed. Do we really want more nationalistic militarism stirred up by the assasination of our #2 by a suicide bomber?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Flypaper Theory

Remember how Iraq is supposed to act as a sort of terrorist fly-paper, drawing them in to a certain death fighting the US army? Well, there are a lot of people dying in the act of fighting the US army, but that doesn't seem to be decreasing the incidence of terrorism worldwide, according to this post by Kevin Drum.

Of course, this theory was always crap. There's nothing keeping any terrorists who may be in Iraq from leaving the country and launching attacks elsewhere. The US army does not patrol the borders seeking to keep people in, and any terrorist who doesn't actively "fight us over there" will be unmolested by our forces. The right often makes a point of rhetorically asking if liberals think the terrorists would just lay down their weapons and leave us alone. Well, if by terrorists you mean the Sunnis, then the answer is yes. If you mean Al Qaeda, of course the answer is no, but we'd be in a better position to combat Al Qaeda, and we wouldn't be giving the insurgents in Iraq reason to make common cause with them.

Speaking of terrorism, I have to comment on the incessent bitching from right wing bloggers that the media should stop referring to fighters in Iraq as insurgents and instead label them terrorists (I realize I'm about 3 years late on this, but I just started blogging).

Guerilla warfare does not equal terror. Killing US soldiers is a perfectly legitimate thing for people who at war with us to do. Yes, guerrillas who don't wear uniforms violate the Geneva conventions, but they didn't sign them; they are simply giving up any claim to protection under them. Yes, we are within our rights to withhold Geneva protections from them, but we do it anyway for reasons of self-interest.

Setting an IED to kill US soldiers does not make you a terrorist. Intentionally killing civillians makes you a terrorist. No, I am not 'on the side' of our enemies in our Iraq, and I think the army should do everything it can to kill people setting IEDs, but if we're going to have a long drawn out war terror, we need to be clear and consistent about what terrorism is. The State department has a perfectly serviceable definition of terrorism:

The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

It's not hard to see that killing soldiers who have invaded your country (even if that invasion were just) does not meet the definition.

Why are we shocked that people with vastly inferior resources refuse to fight us on equal terms?
Do we really expect people without jets and cruise missiles to line up in uniform and fight us on a battlefield?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Who's Responsible for Preventing Rape?

Jessica at Feministing is upset that the Scotsmen has 'put the onus on women' to prevent themselves from being raped.

I suggest that warning women is simply more effective. Women are more likely to be raped than men, and because people are self-centered, they care more about threats to their own well-being, and warning those at risk that certain situations are pose greater risks seems like a sensible way to help stop rape. Warnings to men not to rape women will probably be ignored, and can also convince them feminists are out to get them, desensitizing them to the problem of rape.

OF COURSE it's the rapist's fault and his responsibility not to rape, but my hunch is that rapists aren't concerned about rules or responsibility. It's not a rich persons fault if they are mugged and have their fancy watch stolen. The could, however, have decreased the risk of such an event by not wearing fancy jewelry in high-crime areas.

I'm tempted to foray into the questions of consent and intoxication, but I'll leave most of that for later. I will say that I do not think an intoxicated person cannot consent to have sex (that would make a large percentage of the sex that occurs rape), and that I think we ought to have different laws and penalties for violent rape attacks and the 'date rape' sort of cases where the issue is whether or not there was consent.

American Exceptionalism

In some ways, America truly is an exceptional nation, often in a literal sense of the word. Most of the western industrialized democracies offer much more than we do in terms of social welfare, our immigration system is very different from most of Europe, our foreign policy and military might stand out from the crowd, and, of course, our history is different (although somewhat similar to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). In all these ways, we are indeed an exception to the norm.
There are also things that make the American 'national character' distinctive, and all of this is very interesting, and worth talking and writing about.

When used by the politicians or the media, however, American exceptionalism often means something much more sweeping: a view that America alone is capable of changing the world, or has the right to set the world in order; that Americans are more virtuous than other peoples, and deserving of a place at the top of pecking order.

Some of this is just pandering, but I think the long-term effects of absorbing this strain of thought are pernicious and insidious. You can see it on both sides of the aisle, when President Bush tells us that responding to 9-11 with courage is "distinctly American," or when Barak Obama says that it's only in America that a poor kid from a mixed family can make it.

Somebody better tell all those half-white half-Kenyan kids in the UK or Australia to just give it up now. And those limey bastards across the seas just cried and shat themselves when they got hit.

Can we please stop pretending that we're the only country with hard-working people who can rise to the occasion and do extraordinary things? And can we please stop saying that America is "the freest nation on earth" as if this was somehow obvious? What's so unfree about France? the UK? New Zealand?

Shower Sex at Yale

Apparently, a couple of students at Yale are living it up in the coed dorm shower stalls. A conservative blogger at the University sees a continued decline into the void of moral bankruptcy created by Yale's intellectuals (surely liberal elites). Please. We're talkling about COLLEGE STUDENTS here, and the fact that one couple out of 300 students is getting it on in every possible location is hardly surprising.

At Dartmouth, students commonly try to do it in several notable campus locations, including the library and the 50-yard line.

Ezra points out that coed showers hardly encourage shower sex, and are probably an impediment.

I would add that shower sex is not nearly as fun as it sounds. Good sex requires some degree of lubrication (natural or synthetic), which gets washed off by the water. Turning off the water just means having sex in a tiled room while wet, which is hardly fantasy material.

Paris Hilton For President!

Matthew Yglesias laments that no one is taking Bill Richardson's presidential campaign at all seriously because he's short on celebrity, even though he's got qualifications up the wazoo (served in congress, energy secretary, ambassador to the UN). Today we seem to care less about demonstrated competence and experience than celebrity, fame, likeability.

I'm usually skeptical of the amount of influence the media has on our thinking, but the media strike me as the obvious source of this phenomenon. Is the populace really clamoring for celebrity politicians over career civil servants? I do believe that in a democracy you get the government you deserve, and America really does seem to deserve a Hilton/Richie administration.