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.


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


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


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.