Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jobless Recoveries

There's been much talk lately about the "jobless recovery" we're experiencing. The recession is technically over, in the sense that GDP has returned to growth. But unemployment continues to rise and most indicators of job creation are still negative (with a few contrarian bright spots: temp employment is up and hours worked are up).

The problem with all the talk is that this is the normal course of things. In their early stages, most recoveries are "jobless". Companies are loathe to hire when they are unsure about the future. The way economies normally recover is that consumer spending picks up, inventories fall, then manufacturing picks up, and finally employment rises. In the normal "virtuous circle", the rise in employment then leads to more consumer spending (since employed people have more money to spend than unemployed people), and so on. We've seen some signs in the first three stages of this cycle, but they're weak. So it's no big surprise that the last stage remains to be seen.

Government intervention can prolong the process. The "stickier" employment is, the less risk companies want to take in hiring someone new. It already takes months for most new employees to learn a new job; it's often that long before the new hire is earning money for the employer. When additional costs are piled on - guaranteed health care, unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare - that just increases the risk. And when it's hard to lay someone off, that increases it further.

That doesn't mean that these measures are necessarily wrong, but we should recognize the costs of having them. One of those costs is that employment recovery following a recession will be slower than it might otherwise be.

Rudolph the Handicapped Reindeer

Now that I have a child of my own, I finally noticed that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is really not such a great model for kids to learn about relationships. Poor Rudolph has a handicap, and as a result he's snubbed and shunned. Until that fateful foggy Christmas, when his handicap happens to be useful, and then suddenly he becomes Mr. Popular. One wonders what happens the day after Christmas: do the other reindeer still respect him in the morning?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

OK, enough health care chatter for now. It's Christmas Eve!

I thought I'd post here the original editorial from the New York Sun entitled "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus", written in 1897 by Francis Pharcellus Church.

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

"Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?
"Virginia O'Hanlon, 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street"

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds. Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are no there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Party of Big Business

It's easy to get so involved in the policy details, procedural battles, and daily vicissitudes in the positions of key players that we miss the bigger picture. The health care bill is proving a case in point. Almost no one seems to like this bill. It is polling in the low 30s. Markos Moulitsas of the powerful netroot site Daily Kos has called to "kill the bill". Conservatives have wanted to kill it for weeks. So why does it live on?

The bigger picture here is actually a simple one: when government gets involved in business, business reciprocates. Before the Department of Justice launched anti-trust investigations of Microsoft in the early 1990s, Microsoft did almost no lobbying. By 1998 it was spending over $1 million per year, and in 2008 it passed the $10 million per year mark. Tech firms as a group spend $120 million per year and rising.

A similar story played out during the "robber baron" days of the 19th century. This episode has long been misunderstood as a few monopolists being curbed by the populist hand of government. But a more accurate interpretation of those events is that a few connected companies encouraged regulation in order to curb competition. That is, the monopolies were created by the government, not stopped by it.

The progressives of the early 20th century saw this dynamic clearly. Their vision of the future involved, not nationalizing private enterprise, but co-opting it. The "public-private partnership" is a key element of the progressive agenda.

But partnerships involve two players. The government regulates companies; companies lobby the government. These tend to go hand in hand, since more regulation creates more value for the lobbying dollar both in defense (e.g., carving out exceptions for your company or niche) and offense (e.g., helping forge regulations that disproportionately harm competitors).

Progressives might argue that this is a great argument for shutting down lobbying altogether, "getting money out of politics" as they say. The only problem with that is that it offends several of America's foundational principles as identified in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

One might then argue that corporate lobbying is not an instance of the people petitioning the Government. But how would that hold water? Corporations represent the interests of stockholders, employees, officers, etc. Perhaps stockholders could hire independent lobbyists to represent their interests, but the results would quickly converge to the present situation.

I mentioned before that almost everyone is displeased with the bill that is being debated in the Senate. Who is pleased with it? The insurance companies who stand to gain, via government regulation, millions of new customers. Some of these customers will be positively harmed by this coercion; others, who are subsidized, will merely harm the taxpayers. Either way, the insurance companies win.

They will have to conform to some new regulations, yes, but as we have seen historically, such regulation serves more to entrench existing companies than to create the sort of competition that brings with it innovation. (The progressive "solution" to this problem, i.e. the public option, would certainly not have helped with innovation, and indeed would have been a direct path to a fully nationalized insurance regime. All the government would have to do is consistently undercut private insurance prices, in the name of "public interest", until they all went out of business.)

Progressives want to believe that, if only they could enact the reforms they wanted, they could design laws, regulations, and institutions that could further their aims. With Democrats controlling the Executive branch, a huge House majority, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority, they will rarely see a better opportunity than now to act as they please. And still we see progressives wringing their hands about the results, because their own members were (they say!) suborned by Big Business dollars.

But this is inevitable, predictable, and has in fact happened many times in our history. Maybe it's time progressives started taking this into account before attempting to radically change huge portions of our economy.

Monday, December 21, 2009


To honor the current state of the legislation after the tensile effects of the past few weeks, I think we should start calling it the Health Care Deform Bill. It's really not reform unless you call any change "reform".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Does a Safe School Czar Do?

It would seem that the last thing he does is make schools safe - or at least innocent.

The one appointed by President Obama is a fellow named Kevin Jennings, the founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN maintains a list of recommended reading material for students. Frankly, it's shocking. How can an organization in good conscience recommend books depicting rape scenes to 7th graders? How is this sort of thing supposed to "ensure safe schools for all students" (to quote GLSEN)?

After the Van Jones flap and now this, I have to wonder: how exactly does the administration vet its appointees? Are its political instincts really this poor?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Job Lock

Kos is on fire today: another good post about the lost economic efficiency in the U.S. due to "job lock", i.e. the career choices people make based on their health benefits rather than their salaries.

Couple of things, though: first, I'm not sure the effect is so great as to be the #1 reason why the first decade of this century is on pace to be the worst one for economic growth since WWII. Even if the numbers quoted are correct (about 1.5 million workers in "less efficient" jobs as a result of health care decisions), that's only a bit over 1% of the American work force. And of this 1%, the amount of lost efficiency is some fraction of that, probably no more than 10%. So this effect might explain 0.1% in lost economic growth. But that's not enough to explain the slow decade.

Second, of course Mr. Devilstower from Kos cannot help but blame Republicans for this. He's entirely wrong. The reason we're in this pickle in the first place is because of wage freezes put in place by the FDR administration. And the only Presidential candidate in 2008 who wanted to level the playing field between buying health insurance indepenently and buying it through your employer was... John McCain. Obama simply pilloried him for this. Furthermore, breaking the link between employment and health insurance is a feature of many Republican counter-plans.

Kos is Right!

But for the wrong reasons.

Today Moulitsas himself argues that Dems should strip out the "mandate" provision from the health insurance "reform" bill under consideration by the U.S. Senate. He's right: they should. Even if the mandate is Constitutional - and that's not a layup - it is just what Mr. Kos says: is, after all, an epic giveaway to the health insurance industry.

The problem is that Kos also thinks that the GOP wants the mandate to stay in because of their corporate-lobbyist friends. This is a little surprising coming from Kos. While his political philosophy is nuttier than Jimmy Carter's farm, he's usually pretty clear-eyed about the politics. Surely he's aware that his Democratic buddies, President Obama included, are raking in huge piles of money from the health insurance lobby?

If a "progressive" (who would supposedly be immune to the allures of PAC money, unlike, say, a Blue Dog) offered to strip the mandate, it's possible that could pull in a Republican or two. But it also very well might push out a Democrat or two beholden to PAC money. There's no guarantee at all that the trade would be favorable to passing a bill.

More on Early 2010 Senate Projections

In the spirit of climate science and financial derivatives, let's put some mathematical gloss on those horserace projections from yesterday.

First, let's pick some probabilities out of the air like Al Gore mentioning that there's a 75% chance of there being no Arctic ice in six years. For the sake of argument, say that if John J. Miller considers it a "likely retention", then the party retains 90% of the time. If he considers it "leaning retention", then the party retains 75% of the time. And if he considers it a toss-up, it's a 50/50 proposition. In that case, his breakdown gives us:

  • 4 GOP seats are "likely retain"
  • 3 GOP seats are "leaning retain"
  • 8 seats are "toss-ups"
  • 5 DEM seats are "leaning retain"

So assuming independence, it's a simple matter to calculate the probability of different senate compositions after the 2010 elections. And without further ado, it looks like this:

  • 21% chance that the GOP ends up with 39 or fewer seats
  • 17% chance that the GOP ends up with 40 seats (same as today)
  • 61% chance that the GOP ends up with 41-45 seats
  • 1% chance that the GOP ends up with 46 or more seats

The bad news for the GOP is that of Miller's 20 "interesting" races, half of them are currently owned by the GOP. Naturally it would be better for them if their races were safe and all the DEM-controlled seats were in play. The worse news is that there's at least one chance in five that, even with the favorable poll numbers we're currently seeing, the GOP could drop even below 40, and two chances in five that they go no higher than 40. That would keep the filibuster off the table (although, as we've seen with health care, corraling 60 senators can be harder than it might be, especially in the teeth of countervailing public opinion).

The good news for the GOP, of course, is that there are three chances in five that they pick up some seats.

Take this analysis with liberal doses of salt and any other spices you happen to come across. Things are looking moderately up for the GOP, but there's a lot of work to be done before next November.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Early 2010 Senate Projections

On NRO today, John J. Miller runs down the 2010 Senate races. It's very early, so these are about as accurate as using, say, the rings on a single tree in Siberia to predict global warming. But if you assume the toss-ups really are basically 50/50 propositions and that the leaning or likely retentions hold as Miller predicts, then the GOP picks up just one seat. (Eight toss-ups, five for Dem seats and three for GOP seats.) Of course, with the 60-40 Senate balance today, one seat is a big deal.

Here are the toss-ups: Colorado (Dem), Connecticut (Dem), Missouri (Rep), Nevada (Dem), New Hampshire (Rep), North Dakota (Dem), Ohio (Rep), Pennsylvania (Dem).


Lately, several large banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, have either paid back or completed negotiations to pay back the money lent to them by the federal government under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). In a sense, this is good: it's good to separate the banks from the government again. Temporary emergency measures have a disconcerting way of becoming permanent, so the quicker they can be reversed, the better.


Before we're too quick to celebrate, we should remember that a great deal of damage has already been done. One reason why these banks have been able to raise private capital to replace the TARP money is precisely because of TARP, or rather, because investors now believe that their money is safe; the banks are "too big to fail," and shareholders won't be held accountable. That's not the way the capital markets are supposed to work.

To be sure, shareholders in the big banks have taken a hit. From September 15, 2008 (the date when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch) to yesterday's market close, the S&P 500 is down 11%. But over the same period, Wells Fargo is down 25.7%, B of A is down 54.3%, and Citigroup is down a massive 79.4%. But the latter two banks likely would have gone under without TARP, leaving shareholders with nothing.

The bully-pulpit nonsense about "fat-cat bankers" is really smoke and mirrors. If these banks are to be competitive, they have to pay their employees comparable wages and bonuses. The real problem is that no one was really punished, and in the end, we've just set up the next bubble. Investors in bank stocks are a little more certain that they'll be saved again the next time, which makes them a little less diligent in making sure their boards are watching out for them.

TARP may have (repeat: may have; we don't really know) prevented a massive wave of bank failures that could have brought our financial system to a standstill. But it was mishandled. Rather than trusting the capital markets to punish less-than-prudent investors, we're setting up a system where investors are kept safe, and trusting regulation to instill prudence.

A better system would be to have both. The capital markets need some regulation, because they are so critical to the operation of the country. But they also require free-market controls. Investors need to be fearful in order to be careful. We've just removed, or at least weakened, that safety line.

Slicing Pizza

When you get a pizza, it's usually not sliced exactly through the center. So some pieces are bigger than others. For over 40 years, mathematicians have been working on the problem of classifying exactly who gets more if two diners share alternate pieces of pizza from an unequally-cut pie.

This classification has now been found. It's not the most ground-breaking research. Deierman and Mabry won't become household names, and won't be nominated for a Fields Medal for this work. But I love this sort of thing because it shows how the application of some intelligence, hard work, and cleverness (not the same thing as intelligence) can simplify decidedly nontrivial problems.

The solution, btw, is simple enough to write down here:

  • If at least one cut passes through the center, then the two diners will always get equal amounts.
  • If you cut your pizza an even number of times (say, 4), then the two diners will always get equal amounts.
  • If you cut your pizza an odd number of times and that odd number is expressible as 4n+3 (say, 3, 7, etc.) then the person who eats the piece that contains the center of the pizza gets more.
  • If you cut your pizza an odd number of times and that odd number is expressible as 4n+1 (say, 5, 9, etc.) then the person who eats the piece that does not contain the center of the pizza gets more.

One cool consequence of this result is that, if you have a pizza with an odd number of unequal cuts, and you want to share it equally between two people, all you have to do is just cut it one more time (the new cut must pass through the common intersection of all the previous cuts). Then as long as the diners take alternate pieces, they will get equal amounts. That's a nontrivial, counterintuitive result, and with a practical application!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Interracial Marriage Patterns

Very interesting article on interracial marriage by Steve Sailer. He addresses the question: What explains current imbalances in intermarriage rates between American blacks, whites and Asians? According to the 1990 U.S. Census, in 72% of black-white marriages, the husband was black, while in 72% of white-Asian marriages, the husband was white. This all goes against expectations, as Sailer explains in some detail. (The 2000 Census shows no great changes in these trends.)

Sailer only really gets into trouble when he tries to explain the disparity. Searching for correlated variables, he happens upon muscularity. Using the percent body fat goal as determined by a TV fitness expert as his proxies, he notes that the ratio between differences in body fat goals for various pairings. To get the flavor of his methodology, the difference between black men (12%) and white women (22%) is 10%, while the difference between white men (15%) and black women (19%) is 4%. This 10:4 ratio is almost an exact match to the 72:28 ratio in marriage rates. And the ratio for white-Asian marriages is also 10:4, matching their 72:28 marriage ratio as well. Thus, Sailer concludes:

When, in the names of freedom and feminism, young women listen less to the hard-earned wisdom of older women about how to pick Mr. Right, they listen even more to their hormones. This allows cruder measures of a man's worth -- like the size of his muscles -- to return to prominence. The result is not a feminist utopia, but a society in which genetically gifted guys can more easily get away with acting like Mr. Wrong.

This is certainly thought-provoking, and like any concatenation of correlations, may contain some truth. But we should not imagine that it is too scientific. For starters, body fat goals are not the same as body fat. Are blacks actually more muscular than whites? Sailer has no idea, or if he does he doesn't say. Are black men in black-white marriages typical of all black men? (And for that matter, are the white women typical?) The same questions apply to white-Asian pairings, of course. And of course, Sailer does not (and really cannot, given the data he has to work with) tackle the gap between correlation and causation that so hampers amateur investigation.

Even with all these shortcomings, an interested social scientist could use Sailer's ideas as a jumping-off point for actual scientific study. If we had any interest in such things, perhaps one might.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Time to Cheat

Daily Kos sees no way to get the health care reform they want, so they're ready to throw in the towel, and blatantly cheat to get it:

There are so many barriers to getting 60 votes, it's time to refocus on what can actually be done with 50 votes. That's the public option, Medicaid expansion, and/or Medicare buy-in. Do the things by reconciliation that will really help solve the crisis for the most people via reconciliation, and pass the insurance reforms, which have broad support, in the regular process.

No surprise that Kos encourages the misuse of a tool designed to resolve small budget issues to reconfigure one-sixth of our economy. For them, it's all about winning. Screw democracy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Blame Game

Had a terrorist bombing in Baghdad today
It was George W. Bush's fault!

And the housing market continues to sway
But it's George W. Bush's fault!

Unemployment rate continues to rise
It's still George W. Bush's fault!

Health care's collapsing before our eyes
And it's George W. Bush's fault!

Got stuck in traffic on the Belt Parkway
'Cause it's George W. Bush's fault!

The Celtics lost on the home parquet
It was George W. Bush's fault!

On Thanksgiving Michelle made too many pies
That was George W. Bush's fault!

I can keep this up for three more years, guys
Always George W. Bush's fault!

Job Creation

Congress is currently considered another job stimulus that would be "deficit-neutral", meaning that it would take $200 billion in savings from TARP and spend it instead on "stimulus".

Even NPR finds this a bit hard to believe. In their report last night, they pointed out a couple of problems: first, that any savings found in any federal program tends to be spent three different ways. So we'll probably end up even worse off. Second, that the "stimulus" under consideration isn't very stimulating: extensions to unemployment benefits (which, er, don't help create jobs, although they may ease the pain for the unemployed), subsidized loans to small businesses (which might help if those businesses wanted loans; many don't since they aren't expanding anyway, with consumer spending off).

Here's my alternative, which I present as free advice to Congress and the Obama administration: stop. Stop meddling with health care. Stop talking about cap and trade. Stop encouraging the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions. All of these are job killers, but health care is the big one. How can any business - especially a small business - budget for employees when they may be on the hook for health-care-related penalties or insurance at any time? It's no surprise that no one is hiring; uncertainty looms everywhere.

Must we reproduce now the typical liberal error of spending a trillion dollars to "fix" something, then another trillion to fix the problems the original fix caused, and so on forevermore?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hopenhagen Fever!

The prostitutes in Copenhagen
Are offering a free Gropenhagen
To climate scientists and politicians
Who want you to believe in Hopenhagen.

The timing could not be worse, though.
Hacked e-mails make them Mopenhagen
About the prospects for a new treaty
Like Kyoto, but with even greater Scopenhagen.

But they should not reach too quickly for that noose-shaped Ropenhagen.
When the data doesn't fit
They can clean it with a little Soapenhagen.
And maybe a blessing from the Popenhagen.

The Mann hockey-stick might be no more real than a Zoetropenhagen
But the politicians see lots of opportunities
To bring to their districts eco-Porkenhagen.
And the scientists want to keep the eco-funding spigots Openhagen.

Do they think we're smoking Dopenhagen?
It's time to say Nopenhagen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Honduras Update

So the U.S. has decided to do the right thing and recognize the Honduran elections. Good. That actually is a step towards resolving this crisis.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"No Problem"

Does it bother you when you thank someone and the response is an airy "no problem"? This is increasingly common, especially among the younger crowd. As a not-terribly-old adult, I find myself succumbing to the same reflex all too often. But is there really anything wrong with "No problem"?

It's true that it somewhat undercuts the original thanks. Spelled out in full, "thank you" essentially means: "I appreciate you going to the trouble to help me." The response "no problem" expands to: "There's no need to thank me because it was no trouble." The implication is that you may continue to ask for help as long as it remains no trouble, but please piss off if you really do anticipate causing a problem. Compare to the traditional "you're welcome", which says that you are welcome to continue to ask for help when you need to.

Confusion between gratitude and praise may be part of the explanation as well. When praised, it's certainly not impolite to self-deprecatingly deflect the praise somewhat. It can be embarrassing to be praised. But being thanked is not the same thing, and deflection can create the impression that perhaps the gratitude was misplaced. If it really was no problem, why extend thanks at all? We do not thank someone for stopping at a red light.

How do other responses to "thank you" stack up? "My pleasure" is an ambiguous one. It could be taken to mean, "there's no need to thank me because not only was it not a problem, it was actually a pleasure." This goes even beyond "no problem" in its deflection of the gratitude proffered. Or it could mean, "it was my pleasure to serve you," a statement beyond "you're welcome." Then there is "not at all" and "sure thing" and the like, which are essentially along the deflectionary lines of "no problem."

These contemporary social formulae reflect our increasing preference for casualness. It's no longer cool to care greatly about much of anything. "You're welcome" indicates that you cared and appreciated the thanks. "No problem" indicates just the opposite: you're a laid-back fella, for which nothing much is a problem. It was no problem to pass the salt. Oh, you ran over my cat with your car? No problem.

That casualness is the real problem. To digress for a moment, I like the story of the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1913. The performance was so radical both musically and choreographically that a riot broke out, so severe that the dancers could not hear the orchestra playing, and police had to intervene to break up fistfights in the aisles. Can anyone imagine such a scene today? Not that I wish for more fighting during music performances, but it would be nice if people cared that much. There was a welcome outburst during the last intermission of a performance of Götterdämmerung I attended a few years ago: some intepid audience members yelled out please not to applaud at the end until the opera was entirely over (rather than applauding over the final few notes, as had happened in the first two acts).

I didn't yell out a "thank you" to them, but I'm pretty sure that if I had, I would not have heard back: "No problem!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Safe Zone Violation

Jay Nordlinger likes to write about "safe zone violations," a term he coined to mean unwelcome intrusions of politics into otherwise apolitical settings. A music critic and golf aficionado (as well as political opinion journalist), Nordlinger has written most often about such violations during classical music performance and sports reporting.

I had my own such encounter a week ago, when my family took my three-year-old son to see a musical production of "The Three Little Pigs" at a local theater. The production was a bit of a mashup, and somehow Little Red Riding Hood was incorporated with the pigs. All was going along swimmingly until the following exchange between Red and her mother:

Red: I'm not afraid of anything!
Mother: You're not afraid of the dark?
Red: No, I'm not afraid of anything!
Mother: Big bad wolves?
Red: No, mother, nothing!
Mother: Sarah Palin?
Red: ...well...

(If I were a nut for symbolism, I might make something of the fact that a character named "Red" is afraid of Sarah Palin. But I'm not, and I won't!)

This is just gratuitously insulting. Even in suburban New Jersey, probably a third of the adult audience is at least neutral to Palin; why risk pissing them off? Is it worth the laugh from the other two thirds? Obviously, kids' shows feel the need to insert adult humor to keep the parents engaged. But does it have to be political?

Pelosicare: Commerce Clause Irony

From Nancy Pelosi's Web site:

The 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states… or to the people. But the Constitution gives Congress broad power to regulate activities that have an effect on interstate commerce. Congress has used this authority to regulate many aspects of American life, from labor relations to education to health care to agricultural production. Since virtually every aspect of the heath care system has an effect on interstate commerce, the power of Congress to regulate health care is essentially unlimited.

I'm sure health care affects interstate commerce in lots of ways, except, oh yeah, for the ability to buy health insurance across state lines.

Nominations for "Most Abused Constitutional Amendment" must start with the Tenth, no? Does any other even come close?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Climate Research Scandal

I haven't posted on the "Climategate" scandal, but it's terribly relevant, of course. Here's a better summary than I could put together, anyway.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sarah Palin Going Rogue

I won't be reading it, but then I don't read much contemporary autobiography. Lately I've read biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (and am just finishing one of Rudyard Kipling - see sidebar). The youngest of these died fifty years ago; that's about the right degree of marination to put historical figures into proper perspective. Palin's significance at that remove is likely to merit her at most a paragraph in the lives of the truly influential people of our age.

That said, I'm not a harsh critic of hers. She's a populist with solid conservative underpinnings. She primarily appeals to a different demographic than mine, but her appeal can still be a valuable part of the conservative movement.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Health Care

So the Senate will get their Spendorama debated. It really says something about the political climate that this monstrosity wasn't just laughed out of committee. Imagine if the Republicans tried to pass off as fiscally responsible a bill in which the revenue kicks in five years ahead of the spending, justifying it by looking at a 10-year budget number that (a) depends on factors that everyone pretty much knows are not true, (b) includes ten years of revenue but only five years of spending and, to top it off, (c) still costs over $800 billion? Not to mention that, beyond that budget-busting figure, another quarter-trillion dollars of spending was pushed into a separate bill to make this one look smaller. And not to mention that the $800 billion is a net figure: gross spending is, of course, much higher. Gross spending is what we should really care about: we're paying for it eventually regardless.

The good news is that Democrats are worried. Just getting the bill to floor debate cost them several Senatorial arms twisted and $100 million of largesse to Louisiana. How much harder will it be to vote for cloture? Those Democrats whose arms are in slings this week are going to need more of that treatment, especially those, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who are up for re-election in 2010. I don't think it's a stretch to say that a vote for this bill ends her Senate career. Is she willing to take that hit? Daily Kos seems to think she can plausibly vote for cloture and then against the bill. I'm not so sure that being the 60th vote for cloture gives her the coverage she needs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

KSM Trial

It's a terrible decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed like a common criminal. We will be handing intelligence over to our enemies. During the trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, intelligence that we were interested in Osama bin Laden was communicated from "secret" discovery documents to OBL's ears within two weeks. We will be handing KSM a public forum from which to put U.S. foreign policy on trial - a factor that some believe may actually underlie the reason for the transfer, as it gives the Obama Administration the ability to try Bush Administration officials without actually bringing them to court. On the plus side, if KSM behaves true to form, it will be for anyone to continue to deny the explicit destroy-America message his brand of radical Islam preaches (but does anyone seriously deny this now? who that still needs convincing will be convinced?).

One reason for disapproving of the trial that I've heard but disagree with is that it sets perverse incentives, i.e. if you kill our soldiers abroad, you are tried in a military tribunal, but if you kill our civilians at home, you get the enhanced protections of a civilian criminal trial. I highly doubt terrorists respond much to such incentives. Consider the already severe disincentive of committing suicide to carry out your attack, for example. If you're willing to do that, I don't think the moderate difference between the civilian and military courts is likely to change your behavior.

But worst of all, it's effectively a show trial. Attorney General Eric Holder has already guaranteed a conviction, and President Obama has essentially guaranteed an execution. These guarantees are not possible under the rule of law. If KSM is not convicted, will he be released? Of course not: that would be political suicide. I wonder if Obama is playing a subtle game here: suppose KSM were found innocent on the technicalities of his not being Mirandized, the waterboarding, the interrogations, the "illegal" (they will say) detainment at Guantanamo, etc. Then of course he would be re-arrested on some other charge, but now Obama could blame the Bush Administration indefinitely. "Well, we tried to legimitize his arrest, but because of all the mistakes they made, we can't. Don't blame us!" Considering that Obama is still blaming Bush for everything he can ten months after his inauguration, the strategy seems possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Mammogram Guidelines

Last night, NPR interviewed Dr. Bruce Calonge, chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which recently issued new recommendations for mammography this week. The previous guideline was that women should have them every 1-2 years starting at age 40. The new guideline is that women should have them biannually starting at age 50. This has caused huge controversy, of course.

The interview was singularly unhelpful, however, in helping to explain whether the new guideline is sensible or not. Dr. Calonge pointed out early on that the new guideline by no means restrict mammograms to women over 50; it merely recommends that women not automatically start getting them at age 40. Other considerations, such as lifestyle, family history, and other risk factors, may certainly lead a doctor and patient to opt for a mammogram earlier.

Fair enough, asked NPR's Tom Ashbrook, but what about women under 50 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and lived because of the early detection provided by a mammogram? Dr. Calonge responded in three parts: first, that some of those women have risk factors that would have led them to have a mammogram anyway; second, that some of those women would have lived anyway because their treatments were unnecessary (apparently some breast cancers are treated aggressively even when they are not malignant); and third, that there are actual harms associated with mammograms, and that these harms must be weighed against the benefit of early detection.

I was hoping to hear more about these harms, because they is absolutely central to the cost/benefit analysis. We know the benefit of mammograms: it's fairly small in women under 50 (for whom the breast cancer rate is quite low), but is a positive number. If expense is not considered (and it was not by the USPSTF), then the only other costs would be health-related. Unfortunately, Mr. Ashbrook continued to focus on the fact that some women under 50 have had their lives saved by mammograms. Asked and answered, I kept thinking! Dr. Calonge continued to give the same answers, of course. What else could he say?

Looking it up on other sources, I find that the harms include: overdiagnosis (many studies show that as many as 10 breast cancers diagnoses are unnecessarily treated per life saved); exposure to radiation (a relatively small factor; apparently such exposure leads to approximately 1 life lost per 50 lives saved); and "stress" (mammography, unfortunately, yields a high rate of false positives - at least 10% - and a patient receiving such a result will naturally be upset by it). But is that it? These harms rate (in my mind) as: very common, but not at all severe (stress); somewhat common, and severe but not life-threatening (overdiagnosis); rare, but life-threatening (radiation).

When this combination of harms is placed on the scale against the life-saving benefits, which is weightier? It's pretty tempting to say "the benefits", without knowing more. (How can we say that ten overdiagnoses per life lost is a net negative? A life is pretty valuable.) And that's why Mr. Ashbrook's interview was so dissatisfying; had he probed the question of harms, Dr. Calonge might well have pointed out others that I missed in five minutes of Googling. Or perhaps the harms would have been as relatively minor as the ones I located. NPR did not do its job last night.

All of this has implications for the health care debate, of course. The GOP is making the point that this is the sort of rationing that you get under government-run health care. True, although of course it would get even worse if they were actually running the show, since then expense would inevitably be a factor. Still, it would be a mistake for the GOP to push this point too hard: having a government body change its recommendation is not the same thing as the government rationing care, and may be the right move for all we know: patients and doctors should make their decision individually, and the USPSTF has said no different.

Whether the USPSTF guideline has been improved or not, though, it smells like the government trying to prevent women from unnecessary, expensive treatments (that, by the way, might save your life), which is exactly the sort of thing that will come up more frequently the more government controls health care. The controversy over this one treatment shows that Americans do not want this. Let's hope their Senators are listening.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Movie Review: Pirate Goats Who Stare at the Radio

The theme of this movie (known in the U.K. as "Radiomen Who Pirate Goats") is subversion against a tyrannical government, and that's something I can definitely get behind. Ultimately, though, it fails to deliver anything beyond an ungainly display of Sixties counterculture nostalgia.

The premise is that Puritanical British government-controlled radio refuses to play more than a few nanoseconds of rock-and-roll per day, and so the stimulation-starved populace listens to so-called "pirate" radio broadcast from ships anchored in international waters. Unable to prevent the broadcasts by legal means, the British government eventually enlists the help of a secret U.S. Army program in which common soldiers have been trained in psychic combat.

The pirate radio ship is populated by central casting Sixties-ites, who are interested in nothing other than sex, drugs and, obviously, rock and roll. The psychic warriors turn out to be warriors for peace, specializing not in fighting the enemy but in finding lost people or objects, gathering information, and spiking their regular-Army counterparts' breakfast with LSD. Taken together, these characters prove more adept at spouting slogans like "rock and roll will never die" and "give peace a chance" than at generating any audience sympathy.

That sympathy would never be tested anyway, though, given the lack of any real tension in the film. There are a few scattered tense bits, to be sure, such as when a rogue violent psychic threatens his commander with a gun, or when the pirate ship is involved in an accident and sinks. But you know nothing actually bad will happen, because anything bad happening as a result of the characters' irresponsibility and moral failures might puncture the film's Utopian vision. Technically, "Pirate Goats" should be styled a "comedy." The only problem with that designation is its dearth of laugh-inducing moments.

Rumor has it that this movie was once two separate films, one focusing on the "Pirate Radio" aspects and an entirely separate one in which goats play a central role (in the final version, the goats only enter the picture when the psychics, switching sides, help the pirates escape the authorities by mentally cloaking them as the little cloven-hoofed beasts). The fractured plot lines of the resulting movie expose its dual roots, but thematically the admixture is seamless.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mad Men Moment: Duck and the Dog

My wife and I are watching the AMC series Mad Men on DVDs from Netflix, so we're behind the actual run of the show: we've reached about the middle of season 2. It's a tribute to the excellent writing and plotting that little moments can lodge in one's thoughts for long after each episode.

One tidbit that struck me of late was Duck Phillips' abandoning his dog, Chauncey. His act spoke volumes. The moment of abandonment resulted in audible shock from both my wife and me. Why did he do it? There is the practical reason: he had learned that his ex-wife was marrying a man who was allergic to dogs, so Duck would have to keep Chauncey (who had previously stayed with the ex and the kids). Perhaps as a single man in Manhattan he could not have kept a dog.

But this does not explain why he would not have given Chauncey away, instead of just abandoning him to his fate. Duck earlier had treated the dog like a valued member of the family - more so, in fact, than his own children. My wife and I had actually agreed about that earlier in the episode.

A clear turning point in Duck's mind appeared to have been reached when he - a recovering alcoholic - nearly took a drink after a stressful day. With Chauncey at his side, he was unable to do it, haunted, evidently, by guilt sparked by the dog's trusting gaze. After abandoning Chauncey outside the building, did Duck return to the office to have his drink unburdened? We don't know.

Another clue comes from the exchange between Duck and Pete Campbell just prior to Duck's near drink. Pete shows affection for Chauncey and indicates an interest in having a dog, but only around the office. Duck rebukes him. If he had wanted to escape the responsibility of keeping a dog, that was his opportunity. But clearly he wants no part of Chauncey.

Chauncey represents the last vestige of Duck's past. His kids are teenagers and live with their mother, who is remarrying. He wants to forget his alcoholic, failed life in a London ad agency. He is trying to start a new life with Sterling Cooper in New York. He feels obvious love for the dog, but he is able to harden his heart and cruelly abandon him for the sake of "moving on."

In this way Duck is not unlike Don Draper, who is also capable of taking extraordinary measures to escape his past. It remains to be seen how the already strained relationship between these two similar men will develop.

An Inverted Sense of Urgency

Imagine the following scenario. It's a lazy Sunday morning at home. You are having breakfast and reading the newspaper. In the Local section is an article about how the water table has been rising and could lead problems in your area if trends persist for the next few decades. You have a basement, so this could be a problem for you. Meanwhile, you're eating am omelette, and it occurs to you that your doctor told you to cut down on the cholesterol - oops! Otherwise, it could be a problem in a few years. Just then, this tranquil scene is shattered by a cry from your spouse: a grease fire in the kitchen! Quick, what do you do?

If you were the current administration of the United States, you would, first, call up your neighbors to talk about this water problem and see what they're doing about it; second, throw out the rest of that omelette, collect and discard any other eggs in the house, and start researching other ways to cut down on fats. But what about that grease fire? It's spread to the kitchen counter and threatens to burn down the house. Oh, well: a final decision on that can wait a little longer, right?

The issues taking up most of the President's time these days are analogous: global climate change, health care, and Afghanistan strategy. The first of these, climate change, might become important to the U.S. in 50-100 years. The second, health care, is important now, but even the administration, in its hurry to get a bill passed, has no intention of having its provisions take effect before 2013. So it can't be that urgent. Finally, Afghanistan strategy has been left dangling, undecided, for months. Remember when Afghanistan was the good war being neglected because of our attention to Iraq? That seems to have changed around January 20.

My analogy is far from perfect, of course: Presidents can and must deal with multiple issues at the same time (as then-candidate Obama chided McCain when the financial crisis struck last October). And the fire in Afghanistan threatens to engulf that country, not ours. The fact remains, though, that while the President and his Democrat allies rush to ram through one- or two-thousand page bills to deal with problems that have timescales of years or decades, they just can't find the time to make a decision that really needed to be made yesterday - or preferably, half a year ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hasan Allowed to Keep Job Because of His Religion

On NPR this morning, it was reported that Hasan nearly lost his job for a pattern of misconduct, including not answering the phone when on call and trying to convert a patient (!). A committee actually met to discuss Hasan's future, and it decided not to proceed with termination because the process was so difficult and convoluted. That's bad enough, and merits review of the system we have for terminating army doctors (is it really that hard to get kicked out of our armed forces? really?).

But the really bad part was this: the committee also decided that it would "look bad to terminate one of the few Muslims on staff." It's hard to blame this committee, which is only reflecting the larger culture in which it exists. But how much worse does it look now?

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ft. Hood Shooting

This commentary on the shooting by Arsalan Iftikhar epitomizes the sort of muddle-headed, milquetoast arguments that we have heard and can expect to continue to hear from "diversity" advocates.

Most of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims know that the Holy Quran states quite clearly that, "Anyone who kills a human being ... it shall be as though he has killed all of mankind. ... If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he has saved the lives of all of mankind."

It is not worth getting into a scriptural debate here, and there is plenty of nasty stuff in the Bible as well, but... the relevant quote from the Koran is actually this:

5.32: For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men; and certainly Our apostles came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land.

5.33: The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement,

5.34: Except those who repent before you have them in your power; so know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

A bit different in context, no? Mr. Iftikhar is not being entirely honest with us.

First of all, someone simply saying "Allahu Akbar" while committing an act of mass murder no more makes their criminal act "Islamic" than a Christian uttering the "Hail Mary" while murdering an abortion medical provider, or someone chanting "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombing a gay nightclub, would make their act "Christian" in nature.

Really? This is his argument? I certainly would presume that a murderer who screamed Christian sayings while committing his crimes was committing them in the name of Christianity. That would not stain all of Christianity as a matter of course, but it would if other Christians did not make the strongest possible denunciations of him. Furthermore, if he had been discovered talking to other Christians who were preaching murder, I would certainly expect those others to be expelled and denounced (if not criminally prosecuted) to the greatest extent possible.

Thus, with thousands of patriotic American Muslim women and men proudly serving in our United States Army in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps it would behoove our army leaders to consider sending a strong message of American unity by appointing an American Muslim to be a part of the prosecution team against Hasan.

This would help show that the mass murders allegedly committed by Hasan have nothing to do with the teachings of our religion.

I have an alternate suggestion, Mr. Iftikhar. Perhaps you and your coreligionists could root out and expel elements that nurture people like Hasan. Perhaps you could denounce people like the imam Anwar al-Aulaqi. Considering that Hasan had a history of anti-Americanism, perhaps you could encourage the U.S. Army to get its act together, find any other soldiers engaging in this sort of thing (if there are any), and dishonorably discharge them before they commit similar crimes.

Think of what a powerful statement that would make.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Health-Care Debate Economic Confusion

It strikes me that one reason Democratic plans to "reform" health care cannot be made to work financially is that they make the common progresssive mistake of confusing economics inputs with economic outputs.

In the standard micro-economic model, we have three properties: supply, demand, and price. The first two are properly thought of not as single values, but as curves. Their intersection point determines the prevailing price (and the amount of goods sold at that price). Thus, supply and demand are inputs; price is the output.

Progressives imagine that they can fiddle with these three properties independently. In health care, they want, simultaneously, to increase the quantity of goods sold while reducing price. Fine: this can be done by increasing supply. But they also want to restrict supply. And that's just not possible, any more than it's possible to repeal the laws of thermodynamics.

Although given Democrat energy policies, maybe there is a parallel here...

Honduras Update

The latest deal has broken down. I'm interpreting this to mean that Zelaya did not think he could win a vote in Congress, and so is trying to stall. Delays only help Zelaya, since the interim government of Honduras is diplomatically isolated, and elections held while it is in power may not be recognized by other nations.

What a stinking mess. And the U.S. was central in creating it. Had we strongly supported Micheletti from the outset, or at the very least made it clear that other nations should butt out of Honduran internal affairs, this crisis might have been over months ago.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Evolution of Morality

Dinesh D'Souza proposes to demonstrate (in a 3-part essay: Part I, Part II, Part III) the existence of the afterlife using the fact that humans are possessed with moral sensibility. I find the argument interesting, but highly flawed.

D'Souza outlines his argument in this way (from Part I):

Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by "facts," we are internally moved also by "values." Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be. Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.

One sentence in the middle is the most contentious, and unsurprisingly is the part D'Souza spends the most effort on: the idea that "morality [has] an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust." Let us see if this idea has any merit.

The first argument raised in its defense is this (from Part II):

So if we are mere evolutionary primates, how to account for morality as a central and universal feature of our nature? Why would morality develop among creatures obsessively bent on survival and reproduction?... Darwin argued that "although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet . . . an advancement in the standard of morality will rtainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." Darwin’s point is that a tribe of virtuous patriots, with each of its members willing to make sacrifices for the group, would prove more successful and thus be favored by natural selection over a tribe of self-serving individuals.

But as biologists now recognize, the argument has a fatal flaw. The question we have to ask is how a tribe of individuals would become self-sacrificing in the first place. Imagine a tribe where, for instance, many people shared their food with others or volunteered to defend the tribe from external attack. Now what would be the fate of individual cheaters who benefited from this arrangement but hoarded their own food and themselves refused to volunteer to fight? Clearly these scoundrels would have the best deal of all. In other words, cheaters could easily become free riders, benefiting from the sacrifices of others but making no sacrifices themselves, and they would be more likely to survive than their more altruistic fellow tribesmen.

D'Souza says this is a "fatal flaw" and dismisses it without further consideration. I think he should not be so quick on the draw, though. The most obvious rejoinder is that altruistic tribes do not suffer cheaters lightly: they punish them severely, by exile or death. The development of altruism need not have the same genetic basis as the development of punishment, but clearly the combination of the two is powerful. Once this combination, which we might dub "enforced altruism", develops, it would quickly outperform selfish tribes.

Note that this does not say that all members of the tribe are forced to act altruistically (which is not really altruism). What it says is that some individuals express the altruistic trait, and that those who do not either fake it or get punished. (A few probably cheat and manage to escape punishment, of course. But now we are down to arguments over numbers: the conditions under which enforced altruism proves genetically successful depend on the ratio of altruists to cheaters, and of undetected to detected cheaters.)

Another argument for the evolution of altruism is based on the idea that individuals can be thought of as "survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," in the words of Richard Dawkins. In D'Souza's words:

This idea helps us understand why certain insects, birds, and animals endanger their own welfare to promote that of their fellow creatures. Vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, for instance, give warning calls that signal approaching predators, sometimes at the cost of becoming the target of those predators. Why would they risk their lives in this way? Kin selection holds that it is because they are genetically related to those they are helping. So there is an evolutionary payoff: The risk-takers are maximizing not their individual chance for survival but the chance for their genes to make it into future generations. From the gene’s point of view, helping one’s kin is simply a form of helping oneself.

But of course kin selection is a very limited explanation, in that it only accounts for why animals and people behave altruistically toward relatives. In life, however, humans and even some animals behave that way toward innumerable others who don’t share their genes.

It's worth pausing at this point to mention that this last bit is a major stolen base. All of us share the vast majority of our genes; only a tiny residue of genetic difference separates Swedes from Australian aborigines. So the selfish gene hypothesis could easily explain all altruism among humans.

But of course kin selection is a very limited explanation, in that it only accounts for why animals and people behave altruistically toward relatives. In life, however, humans and even some animals behave that way toward innumerable others who don’t share their genes. Robert Trivers argued that this is because of "reciprocal altruism." A better term would be reciprocal bargaining: What Trivers means is that creatures behave generously toward others in the expectation that they will get something in return....

Even reciprocal altruism, however, cannot explain the good things that we do that offer no actual return. A fellow gets up to give his seat on the bus to an 80-year-old woman. No, she isn’t grandma, nor is it reasonable to say that he’s doing it so that next week she will give him her seat. So neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism provides any solution in this case....

Some biologists concede that evolution is at a loss here. "Altruism toward strangers," writes biologist Ernst Mayr, "is a behavior not supported by natural selection." Still, some diehard champions of evolution do try to accommodate such behavior within their evolutionary framework. Their best attempt is to argue that seemingly disinterested altruism toward strangers has a well-hidden personal motive. Essentially it is performed in order to enhance one’s social reputation.

Again, though, there are easy responses to what D'Souza characterizes as intractable problems. First, as already mentioned, all humans are kin. Given a random gene in a random human being, the odds are extremely good that that gene also exists in any other human. Second, the description of reciprocal altruism is too limited. While we may not expect that particular individual to reciprocate, we are members of a social species. A fellow who gives up his seat on the bus may expect that someone else will give him a seat when he is 80. The best way to perpetuate the social behavior of "giving up bus seats to the elderly" is to practice them. This is a different and more subtle argument than the simplistic one of enhancing one's personal reputation.

But all these responses are not really necessary, because D'Souza's arguments are weakened by his insistance that every instance of altruism have a genetic basis. Nowhere in evolutionary theory is it required that genes evolve unerring behavior. Many insects are fooled by flowers into "mating" with them; D'Souza would presumably argue that this behavior could not have evolved because insects that were not fooled would outcompete the others. But in reality, it's just not worth it not to be fooled: the cost of being fooled is low. Similarly, the survival cost of giving up one's seat on a bus is low. Some of his other examples (e.g., "assisting AID victims in Africa") are better, but note how few people engage in these forms of altruism.

He also ignores the fact that humans have brains. Once a capacity for altruism (even just kin altruism) and a capacity for abstract thought have both evolved, it is not a stretch to infer that those capacities might start to be connected. Human evolution is not only a genetic story, but also a social one. This is obvious to anyone who has raised children: in their state of nature, they are not particular moral. A young child will lie, steal and cheat if he can get away with it. It is only through normative socialization that these tendencies are curbed; clearly they are learned, not genetic. (This is not to say that genetic tendencies toward moral behavior are stronger in some than others. But no one is born a saint any more than they are born an NBA All-Star.)

One other point D'Souza makes about morality (in Part III) is this:

All evolutionary attempts to explain morality ultimately miss the point. They seek to explain morality, but even at their best what they explain is not morality at all. Imagine a shopkeeper who routinely increases his profits by cheating his customers. So smoothly does he do this that he is never exposed and his reputation remains unimpeached. Even though the man is successful in the game of survival, if he has a conscience it will be nagging at him from the inside. It may not be strong enough to make him change his ways, but it will at least make him feel bad and perhaps ultimately despise himself. Now where have our evolutionary explanations accounted for morality in this sense?

The argument here is that evolutionary explanations for morality reduce it to just a greater form of self-interest, and that this cannot be explaining by a "nagging conscience." But this is far from clear. Why couldn't the mechanism for inducing altruistic behavior be a mental tug that we call a "conscience"? D'Souza seems to imagine that evolution must express self-interest by a little red devil in our minds encouraging us to act deviously. But consider hunger, a sense that we can hopefully agree developed via evolution. When we are hungry, we are not induced to merely ape the motions of others who are eating. Rather, we feel sensations akin to pain, which we have learned we can assuage by actually eating. Similarly, our conscience is our mental conduit for feeling our moral sense, and it is expressed by a sort of pain when we do not act appropriately. Our conscience is designed to be triggered by things which even D'Souza would recognize as being in our gene's self-interest but, being an imperfect mechanism, is sometimes triggered by things which are not. This should not be any more surprising than the discovery that we sometimes eat unhealthy things.

Having made his various points about evolution, D'Souza hits us with his conclusion:

Now let’s make the supposition that there is cosmic justice after death and ask, Does this help to explain the great mystery of human morality? It seems clear that it does. Humans recognize that there is no ultimate goodness and justice in this world, but they continue to uphold those ideals.

By now it should be obvious why I think this is flawed: the premise - that human morality is mysterious and has no otherwise good explanation - is not reasonable. Human morality can be explained perfectly well by evolutionary means; D'Souza does them a disservice by his overly-simplistic explication of them.

Full disclosure: even if I did not think evolution provided a good explanation for human morality, it would take more than D'Souza's argument to convince me of the existence of an afterlife in which we are judged for our actions in this life. His argument makes the common error of confusing metaphysics with science. What evolution can predict is a scientific question: it can be tested, verified or found wanting, modified and tested again, etc. Such is the scientific method. His hypothesis, however, is untestable, and his argument, metaphysical. It requires us to assume at a minimum that there is no physical explanation for morality. As a somewhat silly example: suppose humans did not evolve from primates at all, but - as in 2001: A Space Odyssey - were created by aliens, who inserted some moral sense in our genetic code. That is certainly an alternative explanation for the origin of morality, and it does not require us to posit an alternative universe to which we are connected (by no means detectable to science). It would require us to posit alien genetically engineers with an interest in humanity, but it strikes me at least as an open question which hypothesis is the more unlikely. In the meantime, the evolutionary explanation seems to work better than most.

On Gay Marriage

On the Leonard Lopate show on NPR today, guest Alan Van Capelle, Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda, discussed strategies for bringing "marriage equality" to the entire nation. I'm not particularly opposed to gay marriage as an idea. But I do find that many of the arguments of its supporters, including Van Capelle, range from the weak to the absurd.

One argument is that gays do not have "equal rights" because they are not allowed to marry. That's not true, of course. They are allowed to marry in exactly the same way that anyone else is allowed to marry, i.e. one man is allowed to marry one woman. What they seek is not an "equal right" but a new right. The only way an equality argument could be made is if rights inhered, not to individuals, but to couples. If that were the case, then an entity composed of two men or two women would in fact be denied a right granted to an entity composed of one man and one woman. But, in fact, rights inhere to individuals, so that argument is not sound.

On the other hand, some corporate entities are granted rights similar to those of individuals. But the rights so granted are granted to the entity as an individual; that is, if marriage were a right granted to a corporate entity, then that entity would have a right to "marry" some other entity. This is not what gay marriage supporters seek, obviously. It is quite clear that they seek a new right, not "equality."

An argument that Van Capelle trots out - one that I had not heard before - is that "human rights should not be subject to vote." One can understand, in the wake of California's, Maine's, and other state's rejections by referendum of gay marriage laws, why a supporter would say such a thing. Philosophically, such a statement is as incoherent as is the line between human rights issues and other issues (for example: are income taxes, which are the legalized taking of your property to fund state-directed projects, a human rights issue? if not, why not?). But even ignoring that problem, the statement is simply incorrect in our Constitutional democracy. The Bill of Rights is certainly subject to vote, for example: any item in it could be overturned or modified by Constitutional amendment.

The best argument for gay marriage is that the government really should not be in the business of granting benefits or preferential treatment to persons based on marital status. But that has less to do with gay marriage per se than it does with actual marriage, and its differences with non-marriage. Van Capelle today mentioned that a New York State marriage license grants 1,324 (I think it was) rights and responsibilities. One quick way to bring unmarried gay couples closer to equal status with any other person, couple, or group of people would be to reduce this number, ideally to zero. That's an unlikely outcome politically, though, so gay marriage might be the lesser of two evils.

The problem with all arguments for gay marriage, though, is that they have trouble with this question: What principle would prevent marriage between three or more persons? Or between brother and sister? If it is a human rights issue, which presumably trumps other considerations (and should not even be subject to vote!) then such marriages should be allowed. The objection I generally hear is that these types of marriages are not being called for and would not be required - which is true, at least for now - but if no principle would prevent them, then how would we as a society object if such a right ever is demanded?

Getting back to the realm of everyday politics: the most distasteful part of the pro-gay-marriage movement is its disdain for popular opinion. If a clear majority wants gay marriage, let them approve it in law. That is how democracy works. Ramming it down our throats via the courts is not the way to resolve the question any more than Roe v. Wade resolved the question of abortion rights. Comparing gay marriage as a "human right" to the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century is both disrespectful and inaccurate, and unnecessarily raises the temperature of the debate. Gay marriage advocates should concentrate on convincing voters, not bypassing them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Honduras May Not Yet Be Lost (but it probably is)

I may have overestimated Zelaya's chances. Looks like his reinstatement is far from automatic, but would have to be approved by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court, both of which ousted him just a few months ago. More here.

Even if the final result is right, forcing this deal down their throats doesn't accomplish much to further democracy. Democracy hit the green in one, and we're requiring a mulligan. Also, it still looks like Zelaya gets back in: countries are already calling the special election, which is over three weeks hence. What a triumph of democracy, when the heads of other nations can just decide not to accept a result they don't like!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Christie Wins?

Hard to believe, but Christie still up 50-44 with 71% reporting, and has been called the winner by AP. That's a much bigger margin than I ever would have expected. Democrats must be reeling.

Quick Election Night Notes

  • In the end, I held my nose and voted for Christie. Why? Well, I figure the state of New Jersey is doomed either way. But a vote for Christie sends a message to Democrats in purple states that they can be voted out in 2010.

  • CNN's coverage on Larry King is starring: James Carville, Ben Stein, and... Jesse Ventura. Seriously?

  • As of 9:30, Christie leads Corzine by a 50-44 margin. But over half of precincts still to report, so too close to call at this point.

  • Clean sweep in Virginia by incredible margins. We all knew McDonnell would win, but by nearly 20%! Wow. Good sign for Republicans.

New Criterion

I've been reading The New Criterion for a few months, and I'm greatly enjoying it. Where else would you get an opening paragraph like this one (from the latest issue):

Until quite recently, whenever I read D. H. Lawrence I felt as if I had been immersed in a tepid bath of bodily fluids taken in the booth of a fairground soothsayer. I found his paganism ridiculous, his prose frequently overwrought and hysterical, and some of his ideas distinctly fascist, if not outright Nazi. As for his eroticism, I found it about as compelling as a gourmet would find appetizing a detailed description of the workings of the digestive system, right up to the inevitable denouement thereof. I thought some of Lawrence's poetry was goood, even very good, but (curious idea) I thought it good despite its provenance.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Honduran Debacle

Deposed President Manuel Zelaya is allegedly on the brink of reinstatement. This is bad news for the U.S. for two reasons.

First, while Honduras is not exactly the most consequential nation on the world stage, it is in our backyard and may act as a bellwether for relations with Latin America. Zelaya is not only not friendly to the U.S., he is quite friendly with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, an avowed enemy of ours. While provisional Honduran President Roberto Micheletti was a member of Zelaya's political party, he opposed Venezuelan interference and would have helped keep Honduras neutral. If Zelaya regains power, Honduras will fall back into Venezuela's sphere.

Second, and even more troubling, this crisis demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the rule of law by the U.S. and other foreign powers. Zelaya was deposed by Constitutional means after he was caught trying to illegally convert himself to a President-for-life along the lines of Hugo Chavez (you can see why they're friends). So what conceivable reason could there be for the Obama Administration to support Zelaya over the rest of the government (who were almost entirely united in their opposition to him)? Imagine that, during Watergate, major European nations announced their support for Nixon and that any attempt to remove him via impeachment would result in trade sanctions against and diplomatic isolation of the U.S. Would that not be cause for outrage? The story in Honduras is far more outrageous. Zelaya committed worse sins than Nixon ever contemplated; our influence on Honduras (in the form of military aid and trade) is greater than Europe's on us (especially in 1974).

I'm still trying to fathom the motivation behind our behavior in this crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy." It's hard to see how this can be true in any sense. Had Zelaya not had foreign support, the "crisis" would probably have ended as soon as he was deposed, and he'd be living off his Swiss bank account on some Venezuelan beach by now. Instead, we've extended and exacerbated the crisis, undermined democratic rule of law, and helped to entrench an ally of our most outspoken Latin American enemy.

What's in it for us? Our interests and our principles were aligned in this case: support of Micheletti would have helped the U.S. That should have made our foreign policy easy. Instead, both interest and principle were ignored in a vain attempt to, what, court Chavez? Maddening.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Einstein Vindicated Yet Again

One of the responsibilities - and joys - of doing science is in discovering something new, something that doesn't fit with existing theories. For that reason, it's important to continue to test those theories, and to test their limits.

NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope has been operating over the past year in this capacity. In 1905, Albert Einstein developed the theory of Special Relativity, which is based on the assumption that light travels the same speed under all conditions. This is hard to test thoroughly on Earth, because light travels so fast. The Fermi telescope, though, can record Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) - very short-term events (a few seconds at most) emitting a wide range of photon energies. GRBs sometimes occur very far away. The photons emitted race toward Earth for millions, even billions, of years, and we can record their arrival and calculate their relative speed.

In May, 2009, a GRB lasting 2.1 seconds detonated in a galaxy about 7.3 billion light years away. Fermi detected photons with energies about a factor of a million apart, which arrived only 0.9 seconds apart. Thus, the maximum difference in speed between the two would have resulted in a 3-second disparity in arrival time over 7.3 billion years (and possibly no disparity at all, depending on when the photons were actually emitted). This corresponds to an accuracy about 1 part in 100 million billion, or put another way, a difference of 3 nanometers/second in a speed of light of 300,000 km/second.

This is "good news" in the sense that it eliminates a class of theories about the structure of the universe. Some theories held that the speed of light actually was not quite constant under certain conditions, and would have predicted a much higher discrepancy that was measured here. Those theories must now be rejected or, at least, modified.

But it's sort of "bad news" (to the extent that any scientific fact can be given such value labels as "good" or "bad") in that it means we didn't discover a new discrepancy in our understanding of the universe. Such discrepancies are the source of all new theories; Einstein himself based Special Relativity on the Michelson-Morley experiment (which demonstrated that 19th-century theories about the propagation of light were fatally flawed). It would have been more "helpful" to find a large discrepancy in speed, which would enable us to reject all theories except those that admitted such a discrepancy. But, facts being facts, there's no use crying over it.

We know that the two great theories of 20th century physics, Relativity and Quantum Theory, are incompatible. The grand project of determining how they fit together just took another baby step.

NJ Governor

The race for NJ governor is a little like the World Series in my mind: on one hand you have a team that I dislike and that can buy whatever it wants; on the other a band of underdogs, who look like they might win, but about whom I can't summon up much enthusiasm other than the desire to see the disliked team lose.

I'm talking, of course, about Corzine and the Yankees on the one hand, and Christie and the Phillies on the other. About the former there's not much to be said that I haven't already. About the latter: how can I be enthusiastic about Chris Christie? His strongest credential is fighting corruption. Since we have a corruption problem in NJ, that would seem to be important. But we have a much more urgent problem: we're going bankrupt. It's bad already and the dynamics are only getting worse.

As of right now, New Jersey suffers the highest tax burden of any state, according to the Tax Foundation. So the treasury coffers must be bursting, right? Well, no. In fact, our debt continues to balloon to ever-greater heights while, at the same time, both residents and businesses flee the state. Eventually, whoever is left will have to pay this off, so let's hope the last person left in the state is really wealthy.

Back to Christie: he talks a little about cutting spending and cutting taxes, but there's no reason to believe he's serious about it. He won't take on the public employees' unions that are sucking the state dry. He might cut some taxes, or reinstate the property tax rebates that Corzine suspended, but without commensurate spending cuts that only delays the inevitable.

The only reasons to back Christie at all are that he's not Corzine, and that electing him would send Obama Nation a message that people are getting fed up with Democrats - even in New Jersey. Is that enough to get me to vote on Tuesday? I'm not sure. Maybe I'll be out celebrating a Phillies victory instead.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whole Earth Discipline Previewed

One of the environmental movement's founding fathers, Stewart Brand, has a new book out: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In it he lays out the case why environmentalists should embrace nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and mega-cities. The book grew out of an earlier article Brand wrote for the MIT Technology Review in 2005.

This is remarkable. Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, and preached the merits of "back-to-the-land" life, seemingly the opposite positions of those presented in his new book. But he has not given up his environmentalism; rather, he has come to the realization that modern civilization requires high technology, and that such a civilization is more likely to be environmentally friendly than is barbarism.

I have heard Brand interviewed on NPR, but have not read the book yet. When I do, I will post a complete review. This is a welcome sign that the stultified dogma of the environmental movement may finally be cracking.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Public Option Opt-out

So the public option lives on. Good for Reid: he's sticking to his guns. Unfortunately (for the bill, and for us if it gets signed into law), this Frankenstein monster he's crafting contains the worst elements of its forebears, and risks bringing out the villagers with pitchforks once the full details and implications become widely known.

The latest idea is to have a public option, but allow states to opt out. While the instinct to federalism is admirable, it's hard to imagine a worse compromise. It undermines the stated purpose of a common national health care plan, which is to force all insurers to compete with a "lowest common denominator" plan. (Of course, this won't work - if payments remain on their current trajectory, it will merely shift costs from health care consumers to taxpayers; if payments are cut, it will cause a shortage of health care. But that's the stated purpose.) This compromise means that insurers will be able to lobby their states of business to keep them free of this new competitor.

Imagine a bill establishing the U.S. Postal Service, but allowing states to opt out. Reid's compromise is just slightly less ridiculous.

Obviously, this was done to calm nervous Democratic senators from conservative states, who can now tell their constituents: Look, if you don't like it, just opt out of it. Which just shows that the Democrats have no philosophy, no unifying ideals that they aren't willing to compromise, as long as they get their beloved public option somewhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Biden in Poland

VP Joe Biden is in Poland to get their buy-in to a revised plan for missile defense in Eastern Europe. There's obviously some diplomacy going on here that isn't being reported. The previous plan was withdrawn in response to Russian objections (ridiculous ones, incidentally), the assumption being that we would obtain as quid pro quo Russian assistance in reining in the Iranian nuclear program. But Russia gave no public assurance of that at the time and has since only stymied international efforts in Iran.

So is the new plan just a face-saving measure? Instead of reinstituting the old plan, which would be an admission that their strategy vis-a-vis Russia had failed, the new plan is put in place for technological reasons. (But if that's the case, then surely we should be updating our own missile defense sites in Alaska and California immediately. Aren't they more important to our own security that the Eastern European site?)

Let's hope that's the case, and that the new plan is much better. But I can't help but think back to 1930s Poland, whose independence was "guaranteed" by Great Britain and France after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. When Poland was subsequently carved up by the U.S.S.R. and Germany in September, 1939, Britain had no choice but to stand by helplessly and watch, because they simply had no way to back up their guarantee. Lesson: don't make guarantees you can't back up. And don't provide Eastern Europe with a missile defense system that can't do the job.

More Obama Financial Incoherence

There's a mythology growing up around the financial collapse last year that's going to lead us to make policy mistakes if we don't dispel it: that the problems were due only to speculation, derivatives, and over-reliance on incorrect models. That was certainly part of the problem. But underlying all of that was the fact that banks were loaning money to people who couldn't pay it back.

Yesterday, President Obama said the following:

"When I hear stories about small businesses and medium-sized businesses not being able to get loans, despite Wall Street being profitable, that tells me people aren't thinking about their obligations," Obama said, chastising bigger banks.

(Let's hope Obama isn't just "hearing stories," but is actually looking at hard data.) But let me get this straight. Obama thinks banks have "obligations" to lend money to small businesses? All small businesses? Even ones that, maybe, the bank thinks won't be able to pay them back? He's in favor of "tighter regulation," but apparently in his mind that means looser lending rules. Despite the fact that loose lending rules got us into this mess in the first place. Someone please tell the President that when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Defends Free Speech Now?

Mark Steyn has been embroiled in a Section 13 case under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Recently, he testified to the Canadian parliament about this. Speaking of the case, Jay Nordlinger today writes:

And it is very interesting that, in these times, the burden of defending basic liberty has fallen to people known as right-wingers. As an old Ann Arbor kid, I find that very, very interesting, and astounding.

Interesting, maybe. Astounding, not at all. The Left (and here I mean the institutional Left, not necessarily your neighbor who tends to vote Democrat) champions free speech as a tactic only while they do not control the commanding heights of speech. The fact that they now wish to suppress speech merely confirms what we already know: they do now command those heights. "We" may have Fox News and talk radio, but "they" have every other TV network. We may have the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New York Post... but they have nearly every other newspaper. And so on.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NPR's Grasp on Finance

Heard on NPR this morning (paraphrasing): "Think of the [New York State] loans [for weatherizing houses] as a bridge. These people can save $10,000 over the next ten years. But only if they spend $10,000 now, which they don't have. These loans provide that."

No wonder NPR needs all those pledge drives, if they invest their money like this.

Friday, October 9, 2009

DNC Losing It

This just in from the Democratic National Committee (via Daily Kos):

The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists — the Taliban and Hamas this morning — in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize. Republicans cheered when America failed to land the Olympics and now they are criticizing the President of the United States for receiving the Nobel Peace prize — an award he did not seek but that is nonetheless an honor in which every American can take great pride — unless of course you are the Republican Party. The 2009 version of the Republican Party has no boundaries, has no shame and has proved that they will put politics above patriotism at every turn. It's no wonder only 20 percent of Americans admit to being Republicans anymore – it's an embarrassing label to claim.

This is standard fare on the over-the-top hate-fest that is Daily Kos. But for some reason I expected better from the DNC. Guess I learned my lesson today. If nothing else, we have certainly learned that while it is unacceptable to question someone's patriotism for, say, opposing funding combat troops in an active war zone, it is perfectly OK to do so for questioning the propriety of winning a Nobel Peace Prize after ten days as President.

Something to remember the next time you hear Kos - or any other liberal - complaining how the DNC pulls its punches.

Other Prize News

In other news:

The New York Yankees have been awarded the 2009 World Series. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said, "They're such a good team, and everyone likes them, and they've worked so hard to get here. They deserve it."

Brazil has been declared the winner of the soccer gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games. "After all," said IOC President Jacques Rogge in a written statement, "they will be the home team. Does anyone really doubt they will win it?"

Nine-year-old Peewee League quarterback Johnny Minton of Odessa, Texas, has been announced as the winner of the 2020 Heisman Trophy. Asked about the honor, Johnny said, "Well, why not? President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I have a lot of potential, too."

Nobel Absurdity Prize

So Obama has now won the Nobel Peace Prize. World leaders have certainly won it before:

2008: Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, won "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts."

2002: Jimmy Carter, former president of the U.S., won "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

2000: Kim Dae Jung, then president of South Korea, won "for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular." While only elected president in 1998, Kim had been in politics since 1954.

Other world leaders winning the Prize won for finding peace in Ireland, in the Middle East, South Africa, Indochina, etc.

Remind me: what exactly has Obama done? The Nobel committee says: "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Could they, maybe, name a few? Desmond Tutu (winner of the 1984 Prize) had this to say:

"In a way, it's an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all," he said. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."

Right. So it really has nothing to do with any accomplishments at all. Got it.

This will not bode well for our President's already inflated ego.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

French Happiness

A recent story in the New York Times (free registration required) points to data showing that France's suicide rate is the highest in Europe, and about 50% higher than America's. Even more surprising, most of these suicides appear to be related to workplace stress.

Two months ago I came at this from a different direction:

And does [France's 35-hour work week] lead to more personal satisfaction? There may be "some indication" that it does, but there is also plenty indication that it does not. The world map of happiness shows the U.S. ranked 23rd out of 178 nations surveyed (and the highest-ranked really large nation). France comes in 62nd. "Industry is the enemy of melancholy," said William F. Buckley. Why should we assume that more leisure equals more happiness?

These suicide numbers are just more evidence that mandatory short work weeks does not happiness make.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Liking Paterson

I have to admit to having a soft spot for Gov. David Paterson of New York. Sure, I don't like many of his policies. Sure, he's a liberal Democrat. But he specializes in annoying all of the right people. After months wrestling with New York's fiscal woes, he's denied funding increases to the powerful state health care industry, fought with the teachers' union, and now comes a story in which he announces an 11% across-the-board cut in spending. Well, not quite across the board: Medicaid and public education are left untouched. But it's a start, and for an unpopular governor facing almost certain electoral defeat it shows gumption. Kudos.