Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Having received a nice link from my favorite blogger, I'm feeling pretty excited. I hope I keep saying useful things!

One thing I've been doing in spare time lately is surfing minor right-wing blogs and politely correcting misperceptions about Democrats. (I look at this as a reasonably successful sortie.) I do this partly because attacking a straw man is probably the most effective argumentative fallacy in politics. You convince your audience that your opponent is a dumb or evil person with a dumb or evil view, that they don't need to read any more about the opposing view, and even that the opponent's accurate presentations of his view are dishonest flip-flopping. The echo-chamber tendencies of the blogosphere cause straw man arguments to spread rapidly -- the less contact you have with sophisticated expositors of the opposing argument, the less likely you are to make contact with the real argument you're attacking.

(On the non-straw-man side, it's also good to spread facts that will keep right-wing fantasies from raging out of control. It would've been nice to quickly debunk the rumor about the embed planting the "hillbilly armor" question to the soldier, which was running throughout the right-wing blogosphere a week ago. Unfortunately I saw the article too late.)

I don't have any illusions that my actions immediately convert anybody. But there are some things that I hope to accomplish. For one thing, our opponents will put more effort into being intellectually honest if they're aware that there's a liberal out there in the audience, ready to stop any straw man action they try to pull. Remember that there's one thing that conservatives will regard a liberal commenter as an authority about -- liberal positions and arguments. While you might not make much headway on "How bad are things in Iraq?", you're likely to do much better on "Is Howard Dean a radical pacifist?" or "Do Democrats love Yasser Arafat?"

This goes without saying, but politeness is a prerequisite for this kind of work. Putting a friendly face on liberalism is very valuable, and being more polite than your host is one way of doing that. The only thing that one should show anger about, I think, is a drastic misrepresentation of liberal positions. (For example: when it's claimed that our attacks on neocons are actually covert anti-Semitism.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

The doing / allowing distinction

Matt Yglesias makes some good consequentialist arguments for bringing back corporal punishment. I imagine that lots of the resistance to this idea comes from the different attitudes people have to doing harms (for example, by flogging a criminal) and allowing harms (for example, by putting a criminal in prison where other prisoners keep raping him). Even if it isn't me personally doing the flogging but the government acting as my representative, corporal punishment trips the 'doing' intuition. On the other hand, the harms done to the criminal by other prisoners count as things I've allowed but not as things that I've done. Doing harms is usually taken much more seriously than allowing them.

It's interesting how imprisonment -- the currency of punishment today -- allows us to do so little harm but allow so much.

Bob, Viragen, and Social Security

Bob the security guard is one of the most-loved figures at Kirkland House, where I spent my last three years at Harvard. In 2000, my friend Ed Chen and I found out that Bob had, several years ago, been the victim of an unscrupulous broker who convinced him to put $5000 into a struggling biotech company called Viragen. Bob had bought his shares somewhere around $35 in early 1997, and watched them decline for several years.

Bob really didn't know anything about the stock market. He didn't know that if you get a cold call from a broker you don't know trying to convince you to buy some stock, you should never take the deal. Usually this means that some big holder wants to sell quick and most investors know the stock is overpriced, so nobody wants to buy. Some scammer gets hired to dredge up buyers however possible. Bob just listened to what the broker told him and paid $35 for a stock that's worth less than $1 today. (Fortunately, Bob doesn't still own Viragen. Ed and I got him out of it at about $18 during the 2000 biotech craze. All prices mentioned here are split-adjusted.)

If Social Security gets replaced with a system of private accounts, I imagine that cases like Bob's will be a lot more common. Many people in this country don't have even the most rudimentary investment skills. Forcing them to handle stocks when they have no idea how to invest is a very bad idea. And when you eliminate the old Social Security system that would have taken care of everyone no matter how bad an investor they were, you leave these people with nothing to fall back on if they get scammed out of their retirement money. This is a recipe for disaster.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Immortal souls

As a Christian, CS Lewis believed that human beings had immortal souls while animals did not. This did not justify humans in being cruel towards animals, however -- in fact, it gave us an extra reason to be kind towards them. Unlike us, they could not "be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this."

The intuition here is a bit more of a Rawlsian one than a utilitarian one -- animal suffering is especially bad because it's hurting those who have the least. In any case, it's something that nonbelievers in any immortal souls can quite happily take on board. For us, making the world a better place is a matter of special urgency. Nobody -- human or animal -- will be recompensed for present suffering by happiness in another life. So we need to act now to prevent suffering and foster happiness on earth.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas music

I generally dislike Christmas music. I suspect that part of the reason stores play it so much is to remind you that it's the season for buying lots of their stuff. However, I do enjoy hearing a cheerful young woman singing that it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with me. Strange techno/ alternative/ industrial renditions of old Christmas favorites are also welcome.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Excused absence, kinda

Perhaps you were wondering why I didn't blog much between the 14th and the 19th, though you probably weren't. I was busy defending liberal sex education on a blog that belongs to two conservative friends of mine. I'm generally happy with how the discussion went.

Okay, so I was also busy playing way too much Medal of Honor. Lately I've been playing under the name "donald rumsfeld is a n00b lamer." It's an epithet that fits Rumsfeld rather well* and it's cool for a military-themed first-person shooter. (For a while I was "IraqStyle: No Armor" but I thought that might go over people's heads.)

*In team video game slang, n00b, short for newbie, has a connotation of general incompetence. "Lamers" are people who behave in lame ways, usually getting their teammates killed or preventing them from achieving goals.

Regionalism gone mad

From an article about the freakish crime in Kansas where a pregnant woman was killed and her baby stolen:

Hours before her arrest, Montgomery and her husband showed off a newborn girl at a restaurant, said Kathy Sage, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Melvern, a small eastern Kansas town...

"You read about this stuff," she said. "It blows you away when it's here. This stuff is supposed to be in New York City or Los Angeles."

Is this the way that people in red states think of blue states? No wonder Kerry lost the election.

Edwards '08.

Social Security semantics

Like a good analytic philosopher, Josh Marshall tests our conceptual intuitions about a counterfactual scenario and explains why it's correct to say that the Republicans are planning to eliminate Social Security.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Missile defense follies

The latest about the multibillion-dollar scam that is national missile defense: It appears that the system's designers are afraid to test it in the rain.

The test would be the first since a December 2002 failure in which the "kill vehicle" -- a Raytheon Co.-built 120-pound package of sensors, chips and thrusters -- failed to separate from its booster rocket. Of eight intercepts attempted so far, five hit their targets, but under highly scripted conditions.

In some cases, 'scripted conditions' means sticking a homing beacon onto the target so that the kill vehicle can find it.

The best way to stop nuclear missile attack is to buy up all the loose nuclear material so the terrorists can't get to it first. Putting international pressure on countries to stop developing their nuclear arsenal -- as the Europeans successfully did with Iran -- is also big part of the plan.

Democracy and terrorism

Enough reading of Yglesias and other smart people has taught me that setting up democracy doesn't help you eliminate terrorism, at least in the short term. Since terrorists don't need to be state-sponsored, they can flourish no matter what kind of political system they're in. Terrorists of both the international and intranational varieties may even do better in democracy, since democratic governments are less likely to take hard-core repressive measures that could stop them. And as far as intranational terrorism goes, cohesive ethnic/religious minorities (N. Ireland, the Tamil in Sri Lanka, Basque separatists) will still engage in terrorism because they don't want to be part of the same democracy as everybody else, since that just allows the large number of other people to rule them.

Iraq is a perfect example of a state that's going to run into these problems. You can't split up the country because Sistani and the Shiites won't let you. So the minority Sunnis are going to be stuck in the same country as the Shiites whom they held power over for so long. Since the Shiites control lots of the oil-rich lands and the Sunnis don't, there are going to be explosive economic issues at stake too.

There are long-term ways in which democracy helps against terrorism. If democracy leads to the government helping the people develop their economy, and they all get rich and happy, they might not do so much terrorism of either kind. And if they feel that their government represents them, they're probably not going to attack it. But in the short term (which could be a few decades) terrorism continues.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Amartya Sen interview

Here's an excellent interview with Amartya Sen, winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (known to some as the Nobel Prize in Economics). He's one of my favorite economists, and my thinking on globalization/trade issues has come to run in the direction that he's pointing here. I've excerpted my favorite parts below:
...economic globalization itself could be a source of major advancement of living conditions, and it often is. The main difficulty is that the circumstances in which it produces the maximum benefits for poorer people do not exist now. This is not however an argument for being against global economic contact but rather an argument for working towards a better division of benefits from global economic contact.

It is not, by and large, the case that as a result of globalization the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, which is the rhetoric that is often used, and which I believe is mistaken. It may have happened in a few countries, but by and large, this is not the case. The relative success or failure of globalization should not be measured by whether the poor are getting a little richer; the question is: could they have become a lot richer by the same process if the governing circumstances were different? And the answer is yes. This requires both national, local policies like advancing educational arrangements, particularly school education, advancing basic health care, advancing gender equity, undertaking land reforms. It can also be helped by a more favourable global trade situation and more equitable economic arrangements, for example better access to the markets in the richer countries, which would help the poorer countries to benefit more from global economic contact. For that, patent laws have to be re-examined, arrangements have to be made whereby the richer countries are welcoming to commodities coming from poorer countries, and so on. Globalization can become more equitable and effective through these changes. So the issue is not whether economic globalization is ruining people. It may not be doing that, and yet it can actually benefit people much more - and this is the central issue - than it is doing now.
When, at a point of particular repression in British India, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a journalist in London what he thought of British civilization, Gandhi had replied, "It would be a good idea."
There is often a peculiarly mistaken diagnosis suggesting that somehow it is the celebration of reason in the Enlightenment, beginning in the mid-18th century, that is responsible for the Nazi concentration camps, the Japanese prisoner of war camps, and the Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda. I really do not see why people take that view because these are quintessential examples of people being driven by passion rather than by reason. In fact reason could have played a major part in moderating such turmoil. When a Hutu, for instance, is being told that he is just a Hutu and he ought to kill Tutsis on grounds that Tutsis are an enemy lot, a Hutu could reason that he is not only a Hutu but he is also a Rwandan, an African, a human being, and all these identities make some demands on his attention. It is reason which could stand up against the imposition of unreasoned identities on people (such as, "You are just a Hutu and nothing else").

As a child, I saw the Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s and I know how easy it is to make people forget their reasoning and the understanding of the basic plurality of their identities in favor of one fierce identity, whether fiercely Hindu, or fiercely Muslim. There again the appeal has to be to reason. Indeed, precisely because we have emerged from such a blood-drenched century, it is extraordinarily important to fight for reason - to celebrate it, to defend it, and to help expand its reach.
Colonialism imprisons the mind. But the colonized mind often takes a deeply dialectical form. One of the forms that the colonized mind takes is rabid anti-Westernism: you judge the world in terms of having been dominated by the West for a hundred years or more, and this can become the overarching concern, drowning all other identities and priorities. Suddenly, for example, activist Arab-Muslims might become persuaded that they must see themselves as people who are trying to settle scores with the West - and all other affiliations and associations are unimportant. The whole tradition of Arab science, Arab mathematics, Arab literature, music, painting would then have lost their informing and identifying role. That is the result of a colonized mind because you forget everything else other than your relation with the former colonial masters. I would link the outburst of some of the violence we see today to a deeply misguided reaction to colonialism; it is certainly not unconnected with colonialism.
The success of India in preventing famines is an easy success, because famines are extremely easy to politicize: all you have to do is to print a picture of an emaciated mother and a dying child on the front page and that in itself is a stinging editorial. It does not require much reflection. But in order to bring quiet but widespread hunger to public attention, in order to publicize the debilitating effects of lack of schooling and illiteracy, and similarly the long-term deprivations of not having land reform, you need a great deal more engagement and use of imagination.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Secret identity

Originally uploaded by ethicalwerewolf.
By the command of Super Majikthise, I bring you Neil the Werewolf. It was especially nice that the UGO Hero Machine allowed me to be holding fire and sword -- those who have seen me at parties can guess what'll happen next.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Abstinence-based confusion

Occasionally, abstinence-based education programs include some really weird things. Among these are the claim that HIV can be spread by sweat and tears and that 10% of women who have abortions become sterile. But the thing that struck me as creepiest was this:

Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for "admiration" and "sexual fulfillment" compared with a woman's need for "financial support." One book in the "Choosing Best" series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. "Moral of the story," notes the popular text: "Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess."

Note to any princesses who might be reading: TELL ME HOW TO KILL THE DRAGON. Tell me in excruciating and redundant detail if need be. I'll survive, you'll look smart, the dragon will be dead, and I'll get to hear you talk more, which turns me on. Or, hey, if you're better at killing dragons than me, I'll be content with doing the dishes and freeing up your time for more monster slayage. Good men don't let gender roles get in the way of utility-maximization.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Fafblog for you!

Fafnir explains why the national debt is really cool.
In a way it is a national treasure, like in that movie "National Treasure," only here instead of bein a big thing of money it's a big hole where money used to be.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Incoherence and Satan

I've been up for about 27 straight hours now. This isn't because of any bad circumstances, but because I've been having way too much fun. I went to a talk, then a reception, then played video games with John, then went to a party, then talked about philosophy and economics with Howard, and then played more video games for 6 hours with Howard and an asian dude named Albert whom we met at the computers. This post will probably be incoherent. I will go to sleep soon so I can go to dinner at Dennis' place tonight.

Howard and Albert and I were playing Medal of Honor, a first-person shooter. Albert got us onto a modded server. We soon discovered that one of the stages, where people fight on a set of ruins that includes a deserted church, had been modified so that the church was Satanic. If you sold your soul to Satan, you would get cool powers like the ability to fly around. We ended up losing that stage since it was so much fun to keep selling our souls that everyone forgot to fight properly. We couldn't stop laughing about it. (Obviously, there are reasons why elements like that do not exist in the original games.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Undercover Epistemic Agents

I want to introduce you to the funniest philosophy paper I've ever read: The Real Guide to Fake Barns: A Catalogue of Gifts for your Epistemic Enemies, the first paper listed on Tamar Gendler's homepage. Getting all the jokes does require some familiarity with contemporary epistemology, however.

being pleased that

Suppose Ed McMahon shows up at my door with a huge check, telling me that I've won the sweepstakes. I am very pleased! I continue to be pleased for the next few minutes, until it's revealed that this is all a big reality TV prank and I haven't actually won anything. Ed and the camera crews go home. I go and get something to eat.

Consider the following statement, said after the event: "Neil was pleased that he had won the sweepstakes." Is it true or false? I solicit replies from philosophers and non-philosophers alike. No defense of your view need be given, unless you feel like it.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Offensive rebound

The situation described at the end of my previous post has been rectified. I stopped in at the bar where Colleen works -- she's a waitress as well as a part-time student -- had a beer, and got her email address.

Popular mistrust of atheists, however, continues to plague America.

(Post updated 2:21 AM)

Thursday, November 25, 2004


In a rare and wonderful event, many philosophy boys and beautiful girls were sitting together at a piano bar tonight. American Pie was being played, and my friend Howard stuck up his middle finger and yelled when the singer left an opening for "The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost". Kaitlin (who is in her 2nd year at MSU law school) was a little taken aback. "Sometimes Howard's atheism gets in the way," I said. There was an expression of distaste on her face, and I continued, "I'm an atheist too, but it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying the song."

"Are a lot of philosophers atheists?" she asked.

"Well, you sort of make a list of the things you can say exist," I replied. "And for many philosophers, God doesn't make the cut."

She got an amused smile, as if this way of regarding religious belief was something peculiar and amusing. Does this attitude towards religion seem peculiar to a lot of non-philosophers? For me, it's always been the way to evaluate the belief in God. You treat it as any other belief and reject it if it's ill-supported by evidence. For a while in college, I tried to see if I could induce religious belief in myself, thinking that it would be a happier and more meaningful way to live. I now have firsthand knowledge that desiring to believe p does not cause one to believe p. But even this took place against a general background of knowing that there weren't any good epistemic reasons to hold metaphysically outlandish theistic beliefs, and that that was the proper form of evaluation for such belief.

Most atheists I know come to their position simply because they don't see good evidence for belief. It's not that they dislike the idea of a God. (Some, like Nietzsche, do. Personally, I'd think it was really nice if some powerful being were to give people a pleasant afterlife.) Gallup recently asked Americans the following question: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a 'X' would you vote for that person?" For x=atheist, only 49% said yes. This was worse than gay people, who were accepted by 59%. I wonder how much of this comes out of confusion about how atheists come to their beliefs. There may be a perception that atheists are generally hostile to religion, that we're anti-theists rather than mere nonbelievers. (Howard, I guess, is. My point is that he's the exception rather than the rule.) What's really important to me, as a hedonic utilitarian, is how much pleasure and pain are in the world. If you want to help me crank out the hedons and you've got a good plan for doing so, I couldn't care less what kinds of other beliefs you tote along. I imagine that most atheists are similarly welcoming to theistic allies who will help them implement their ethical programs. Our concern about religion is merely that theism motivates people to fight against our ethical programs, as in the gay marriage issue.

(In other news, I had a wonderful conversation with a sweet girl named Colleen, and passed up my golden opportunity to get her phone number. But my relationship-starting incompetence is a far less interesting topic.)

Monday, November 22, 2004

Brand Democrat

Between now and 2006, I want to see us do more of this.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Hazards of being a Leiter student

I just sent 6 copies of the following email to Brian Leiter. I don't know how significant a figure the person I refer to here as [Large Philosopher] is in his field, since I don't know that much philosophy of language, but he is physically very large.
Hi, Brian!
I just went to a Linguistics-Philosophy workshop here at Michigan. I met some good people working in the philosophy of language and had some excellent conversations.

I just wanted to make sure you knew that [Large Philosopher] had moved from [University A] to [University B]. It was not listed as a 'Major Faculty Move' in the PGR, although [Another Philosopher]'s departure from [University B] was. [Large Philosopher] was very upset about this and shook me multiple times tonight on the way back from the bar. He also told me to send you 6 emails about this matter. (Although the shaking was quite forceful and my jacket made unusual noises, I am unharmed. Also, I have not included some of the content he asked me to include in these emails.)


Friday, November 19, 2004

foreign and domestic policy: we are screwed

How badly has the Bush administration wrecked our relations with allies? So badly that six NATO members, including Continental heavyweights France, Germany, and Spain, have refused to help us train Iraqi police officers. No combat duties were involved.

Meanwhile, inflation is coming to town and Alan Greenspan is preparing to raise interest rates on the village in order to save it. I wish there were more appealing foreign stocks to buy -- I'd like to get as far away from the American economy as possible. The one thing that didn't crash during the recent recession was real estate. When you raise interest rates, you're making it really hard for people to find the money for mortgages on new houses. The decline of the real estate market will not be pretty.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Help me maximize utility

With fellowship checks coming in, a cheap ($325/mo!) apartment, and some quick stock market gains, it's time for me to start making significant charitable contributions. The top candidate for my money right now is Doctors Without Borders. If anyone knows of a charity that would be more effective in cranking out the hedons, please do tell. And yes, I am approaching this in the classic hedonic utilitarian way: I'm looking for the option that allows me to generate the most pleasure or prevent the most suffering.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Biblical lego fun

Here is one of my favorite educational web sites, Brick Testament. It includes thousands of depictions of scenes from the Bible, done entirely in Legos. The story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis is quite good -- the first page is hilarious and the rising waters are depicted very well. If you're not disturbed by Lego nudity, sex, and violence, learn about the biblical prohibition on bestiality.

Happy Dreams

I keep having dreams in which it's before the election and there's something I can do to help John Kerry. The other night I dreamt that I was doing some kind of organizational work at the Democratic convention. While napping tonight I dreamt that I was helping out with data entry with a Democratic volunteer group. Waking up is disappointing.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Israelis and Palestinians

The following is my simplistic understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Am I missing anything?

Moderate Israelis just want the Palestinians to stop blowing them up.  Moderate Palestinians just want to be under some kind of functioning government that represents their interests.  (The Israeli government doesn't represent Palestinian interests, and the Palestinian Authority doesn't have the territory or the power to be a functional government.)  Both desires are legitimate, and at present nobody has what they want.  This is partly because of extremists who polarize everybody, destroying the possibility of big moderate coalitions getting together and working things out.  While suicide bombers are blowing up Israelis and settlers are building fortresses deep in territory that would be part of a Palestinian state, neither side trusts the other, and you can't get a critical mass of moderates together from each side who'd trust the other side to engage in good-faith negotiations and keep a leash on their respective extremists. As long as this continues, nobody gets what they want and the violence keeps happening.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Alberto Gonzales, your next Attorney General

"Gonzales publicly defended the administration's policy -- essentially repudiated by the Supreme Court and now being fought out in the lower courts -- of detaining certain terrorism suspects for extended periods without access to lawyers or courts.

He also wrote a controversial February 2002 memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, which said it helped led to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. "

Sunday, November 07, 2004

How we'll live now

People whom I care about are feeling really bad about the way this election went. They're right to feel this way; it was a disaster. For the next four years, terrorists will benefit from our foreign policy ineptitude, hundreds of billions will be spent in idiotic ways, and crackpot judges will be nominated to high positions. What makes this election especially heartbreaking is that the left got powerfully mobilized, like it had never been in my life, and we still lost. The margins were small but decisive -- 3% in the presidential, 2% in each of 3 senate races we lost. In previous posts I've discussed some of the things we need to do to win future elections, and I'll discuss more in the coming days.

But for now I want to address the issue of how we should personally respond to this disaster. I want to specifically reject all this 'moving to Canada' talk. I come away from this election with a sense of how huge and consequential the battle for the soul of America is. While I might still teach overseas once I get my Ph.D, my desire to spend most of my life in this country is much stronger than it was in October. So much in the world depends on the makeup of the American government, and an America where morality is about helping people, treating others with respect, and preventing human suffering will be able to do enormous good. But an America where morality is contaminated with prejudice, where self-serving professions of religious faith trump genuine concern for the well-being of others, and where people choose a leader based on his posturing rather than his policy will be a huge source of suffering everywhere. There's no way to escape being a citizen of the world, and the best thing you can do for the world is remain a citizen of America.

This election made me fully aware that the battle for the soul of America isn't something one fights at the beginning of November. It's something that I'll have to fight all my life. It falls to us -- Americans whose moral beliefs are based on benevolence rather than prejudice and whose factual beliefs are based on reality rather than fantasy -- to make the battle for the soul of America part of our lives. We don't need the kind of activism that chains itself to trees and makes noise at rallies. We need the kind of activism that carefully searches out the most effective strategy for making a difference and aggressively pursues that strategy. In the short term, we'll write letters to key Senators and donate to 527s that show ads to win support for Democratic filibusters. In the medium term, we'll spend many summer and fall hours volunteering for 2006 Congressional and Senate campaigns. And in the long term, we'll find ways to use our particular talents, resources, and influence in the world to set things right. If I spend a decade teaching ethics classes at the University of Arkansas, it'll be a decade well spent. All I want is for those students to engage in the slightest critical reflection on the supposed immorality of homosexuality -- to watch conservative moral philosophers scramble to construct pathetic arguments against gay rights, and read John Corvino's excellent rebuttal -- and the Enlightenment will have won a small battle against the darkness.

In the meantime, we've been defeated by bad men whose shortsightedness and prejudice threatens to lead our country into ruin. I look at this in a basically Irish way. Defeat won't prevent us from taking pride in having stood by John Kerry. And no defeat is severe enough to keep us out of the field when they next sound the call to arms.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

'Values' and irrational epistemic pressures

Yglesias points to Freedman, who gives good evidence that the contribution of the 'values' issue to our electoral defeat is being overestimated on the left.

There's a good psychological explanation for why people like us would make exactly this mistake. According to the 'values' theory, the agents of our defeat are precisely those people whom we're the most opposed to -- religious nuts who hate gay people. In making our defeat the fault of our worst enemies, it attracts more credence than one would be justified in giving it.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Five things we did right

1. The organization and mobilization. We'll have to review the effectiveness of organizations like MoveOn and ACT, which I thought were going to deliver us the election. But the fact that these organizations sprung up and were filled to the brim with hardworking people was awesome. My deepest hope for the Democratic Party's political apparatus is that these organizations remain strong, continuing to attract funding and volunteers in future elections. My deepest fear is that people will regard them as losers and not show up again or fund them again.

2. Unity on the left. My second deepest hope about this election is that people on the Nader-2000 left continue to stick with the Democrats, despite the defeat. I imagine they will, since the GOP is going to be moving right and the gap between the parties will increase.

3. Our guy won the debates. Kerry won each debate, beating Bush by a lot in the first and third. The way he acted during the debates was the best counter to the GOP's 'flipflop' spin. By my count, Kerry threw only two interceptions -- "global test" and "Mary Cheney." It's to the shame of Kerry's (otherwise very capable) Clintonite media team that Bush's Osama gaffe and Kerry's winning streak weren't the story of the day, while the Mary Cheney thing was.

4. Edwards for VP!. Edwards didn't say anything dumb to give the Bush people talking points. In his own speeches, he attacked Bush and Cheney with all the effectiveness one could expect from a VP candidate. He had the best approval/disapproval ratings of any of the 4 national candidates throughout the campaign, and we've got a solid guy on the shelf for 2008.

5. Building an internet donor base. I'm really optimistic about the potential for internet fundraising. I'd never given any money to political campaigns until this year, but the internet made it really easy to see some 527 group's ads, give them money, and participate in what they do. This is going to be very helpful in the 2006 midterm elections, because we'll be able to do a good job funding House and Senate races in other states.

Change politics, keep policy

In the post below, I don't suggest any substantial policy changes. That's because I think they simply aren't needed. If we had lost 61-38 instead of 51-48, there'd be some reason to change our policy stances. As it is, we lost by just 100,000 votes in Ohio. The only real losing policy stance we had was the right to marry, and that's an issue where demographics are trending slowly in our favor. Terrorism doesn't really count -- Bush's advantage there comes out of personal identification with him rather than any kind of policy difference.

Furthermore, one thing that we can all learn from Bush is that your political rhetoric and your policy only need to meet at a few points. Bush talks about democracy promotion while weakening the hopes for democracy in Iran, Russia, Central Asia, and much of the Middle East. He talks about fighting terrorism while blowing the obvious opportunities to kill Zarqawi and Bin Laden. He talks about NCLB but fails to fund it. Your signature policy proposals only need a tenuous connection with the rhetoric you use to sell them, and you'll do just fine. Since it's the rhetoric that voters hear, that's what we need to change.

There might be some issues in our current policy portfolio we need to emphasize more, though. Raising the minimum wage always seemed like a political winner to me, especially if we have John Edwards to sell it as a moral issue of giving hard-working Americans what they deserve.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Six things we could've done better

1. Nominate the Southern guy. Tomorrow when I write "Five things we did right," I'll talk about things Kerry did well -- there definitely were some. But next time we absolutely have to nominate a Southern or border Democrat for president if we want to win. There's an automatic suspicion that red-staters have of Massachusetts types that makes them immediately willing to listen to the right-wing spin machine. Any spin that attempts to connect the Democrat to stereotypes of the effete liberal Northerner will be unduly successful, however hard we try to dispel it by having our candidate go hunting and talk about his military service. But if we nominate a Southern or border-state Democrat whom red-staters can identify as a normal guy like them, they'll be more charitable in assessing his character. He'll also be less threatening to those dreaded "Moral Values" voters, and some of them might not go out in the rain to vote against him.

2. Run a convention that actually accomplished something. Whatever the polling results showed (and I don't know what they showed, since they were all different), we failed to establish any of the things we needed during the convention. I wish Kerry had given a convention speech where he laid out the foreign policy narrative of the previous years, including Bush's failure to capture OBL, the lack of focus on al-Qaeda, the rush to war on Iraq, and the bad decisions that the administration made in running Iraq. We ended up not getting any of the facts we needed into play. I wish Obama had given a speech that had done something other than elevate his rock-star status in the Democratic Party. The sole thing that got established for the Kerry campaign during the debate was that Kerry was a veteran who had pulled Jim Rassmann out of the water. (Here I ignore Clinton's wonderful speech and the funny hamster story.) Then the Smear Boaters came along and damaged whatever we gained...

3. Hit back quick and hard against the Smear Boaters. These guys should've been instant laughingstocks. Schachte had claimed to be on a boat with 2 other guys and Kerry, and that Kerry wounded himself with a grenade launcher. The two other guys said he wasn't there and that nobody used a grenade launcher. The stories were more transparently false than the much-ballyhooed CBS memos, and yet they hung out there in the media for a month.

4. Do some straight-up Osama-bashing. Kerry talked about Osama more than Bush, which was right. But he should've pushed this to the point of saturation. Bush couldn't talk tough about Osama, since he hadn't caught Osama. Kerry should've been invoking 9/11 and talking about how disgusting it was that the perpetrator was still running around. Continued sincere expressions of anger about this would've eaten up some of the Bush lead. The major flaw with this strategy is that early on, there was no guarantee that Bush wouldn't catch Osama by election time. But in the last two months, it would've scored plenty of easy points.

5. Don't let the GOP stack the ballot-initiative calendar. I'm assume a portion of the reigning conventional wisdom -- the GOP won this election in large part by loading ballots in 11 states with ballot initiatives to deny gays the right to marry. Did this really increase Ohio Republican turnout enough to let Bush win? I don't know. But it seems to have added to GOP turnout wherever it came up. If at all possible, Democrats should've let Republicans pass these measures through legislation rather than as ballot initiatives. (Of course, stopping the initiatives with a majority vote is preferable, but letting them become turnout-boosters is a disaster.) For all our 527s, there's an ancient and powerful organizational advantage that the GOP has over us. On the Sunday before the election, they can get a sizable percentage of their people to sit through an hour of moral indoctrination that culminates in the imperative to go out and vote. Giving them salient ballot initiatives to rant about just makes their job that much easier.

6. Run a "I'm not concerned about Osama" ad mocking Bush's earlier comment. Where were we with this one? Running the ad would've gotten Bush's gaffe onto the TV-talk-show docket after the last debate, and stole some of the spotlight from the Mary Cheney issue. By itself, the ad wouldn't have changed things too dramatically, but combined with an earlier emphasis on antiterrorism and the Osama-bashing mentioned above, it would've hit Bush quite hard.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Something to cheer

Yesterday was a bad day for Democrats, and particularly for gay people. But at least Dallas now has a Hispanic lesbian sheriff!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

I love Detroit

Nobody knows how the election will turn out. But in advance of any such knowledge, let me say that today has been beautiful.

Dennis Clark and I were poll monitors at the Emerson School in Detroit, with Election Protection. In a 95%-black polling place where 600 people had turned out for Gore in 2000, about 1100 turned out for Kerry. Despite the two-hour wait in the morning, most people toughed it out and stayed the whole time. There were 2 precincts in the same polling place, and I did most of the work of directing the voters to their precincts, helping everything go smoothly.

One of our jobs was to redirect voters who had come to the wrong polling place, and tell them where they were supposed to vote. Unfortunately, the 1-866-our-vote hotline was too busy and it took forever to get through. So I decided to call my sister and have her look up people's correct polling locations on the internet. Thanks to her efforts, as many as 4 people were successfully redirected.

It was also really nice to talk to lots of the people in the neighborhood, hear their reactions to political issues, and get a sense of how they relate to each other. I don't spend much time in urban majority-black communities, and I was glad to spend much of a day chatting with their local activists.


Sorry for the dearth of posting leading up to the election. I've been doing a lot of volunteer work for Kerry and things are going well.

In about 7 hours the polls will have opened in Detroit, and that's where I'll be. Unlike most of you, I probably won't be saying much about Kerry or Bush between 7 AM and 8 PM. I'll be a poll monitor with Election Protection, a nonpartisan group that tries to make sure that nobody intimidates voters.

If you want a prediction, here it is: Kerry wins the Presidency, Republicans keep the Senate by 2, slight Democratic gains in the House.

Even if you're not in a swing state, make sure you vote. There are Congressional and local races all down the ballot. You could advance the career of the next Barack Obama (at this point, he's still just a Illinois state Senator). And it's important that Kerry win the popular vote too, so we can get a clear rejection of the Bush presidency.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Why does Osama want Bush to win?

Because once a terrorist is disconnected from any nation's support, Bush loses interest in catching that terrorist. Of course, terrorists can operate perfectly well without national support, so this policy is disastrous. Want an example other than Osama? Look at Zarqawi.

(Note: this is not the only reason. Osama also likes the way that Bush wanders into ambushes, alienates allies, unites Muslims against America, and gives Al-Qaeda a perfect recruiting tool.)

Friday, October 29, 2004

Rum, sodomy, and Satan

The Royal Navy has recognized Satanism as a religion, with the enlistment of their first openly Satanic sailor.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

See subsequent post

Andrew Sullivan, who can come to the right conclusions if you give him enough time, has expressed the view I express below.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Bush lets terrorists get high explosives

Did Bush care about protecting us from WMD at all? Or about making things go smoothly in Iraq?

If you think he did, you've got to explain why he failed to guard 350 tons of high explosives that the IAEA was keeping close tabs on until we drove their inspectors out of Iraq. These explosives could be used in making a nuclear fission bomb. (They're not the hardest part of the bomb to get, but they're hard enough that the inspectors were making sure Saddam didn't do anything with them.) Now the explosives have all been looted out of the bunker, and it seems that they're being used to blow up American troops and Iraqi policemen.

Fortunately there weren't any genuine nuclear or biological weapons in Iraq, or Bush's invasion would've put them in the hands of terrorists. It's as if Bush's foreign policy is designed to defeat all the lofty goals that you hear about in his speeches. Democracy promotion, weakening al-Qaeda, keeping dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands -- any actions promoted on these grounds will, through incompetence and inattention, achieve the exact opposite.

Want to get this idiot out of office? See if you can bilk his campaign out of the price of a vacation. They're flying volunteers to swing states, at party expense. Maybe you can pose as a Republican and get them to buy a ticket for you. What you do with it is your business. Times of consequence call for a consequentialist's measures.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


Many people in Mongolia have only first names. Now the country is trying get everybody to take up family names as well. There are good reasons to do this.

Odonbayar, the herder, concurred. "During the socialist times, two of my relatives got married without knowing they were related," he said. "After a big wedding party, they had children who were all deformed. Hopefully, surnames can help protect against this sort of thing."

Deontic vs. Evaluative

At the Wisconsin Metaethics conference, Michael Smith presented a question that I hadn't considered before, and which I'll think about more in the future: Which is more fundamental, deontic predicates or evaluative predicates? Can all of one be defined in terms of the other? I don't know what the best way to put the deontic/evaluative distinction is, but the notions of obligation, warrant, and "the thing to do" (a nice expression I hear a lot at Michigan) are on the deontic side. Evaluative notions are more likely to attach to the goodness of a state of affairs than to guide an agent in belief, action, or emotion. As an externalist and realist about the goodness of pleasure, I'm employing an evaluative notion that I regard as irreducible to deontic terms. Smith also thinks that evaluative terms are fundamental, though he thinks that there are a lot more reductive steps before the evaluative comes out as the winner. Let's see if I can remember how this goes: He'd want the goodness of pleasure to be analyzable in deontic terms -- we all have normative reasons to generate pleasure. But this in turn is analyzable in evaluative terms -- being motivated to generate pleasure is good. There's one more deontic step -- one ought to make oneself into the type of person who is motivated to generate pleasure. The clinching evaluative step is that being someone who wants to make himself into the kind of person who is motivated to generate pleasure is good. This fits nicely with part of his view in The Moral Problem, but I'm dubious about whether it works. I don't want to grant him all these reductive moves, but someone on the deontic team who granted these steps might be able to push for more. In any case, it gives a good view of how the deontic/evaluative game could be played.

David Sosa wrote a paper called "Consequences of Consequentialism" that tried to capture a lot of deontic talk in terms of the goodness of states of affairs. It was quite good, and I wonder if Smith has looked at that.


The Des Moines Register helped John Edwards a lot when it endorsed him in the primaries. While a general election is probably less likely to be influenced by endorsements than a primary, the endorsement of John Kerry is a big help. The thing I like best about this piece is that it takes on the flipflop/soft-on-terrorism attacks from the Bush Administration by pointing out that they're just a bunch of campaign mudslinging.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Life of Neil

The first thing I did after Daniel Nolan's excellent talk tonight was watch that Huckabees movie. It was okay -- the acting was good but the script was uneven and unfocused. It had some Being John Malkovich properties, but it wasn't nearly as good. After the movie we went to a bar, and then back to the department to eat post-talk leftover food and drink my hard liquor.

Then a few of us went to a crazy nightclub. While it was gay night, there were a fair number of straight girls. I hadn't danced in a long time, and pulled every trick I knew. I must be in pretty good shape, since I was keeping up the twisty-leg dance and the knee-walk for serious amounts of time. People were watching and enjoying, especially when I kneewalked forward and then sharply reversed direction. I was doing my best to amuse the ladies, and Howard told me that I was generating a large number of utils. Still, attempts to parlay dancing-induced amusement into something bigger (someone dancing with me? or talking with me? dare I hope?) failed. Goodness knows I tried.

By 1:45, I'd lost a lot of skin on my knees, my pants were a mess, and I was done with dancing by myself. I staggered back against a wall, exhausted and resigned. Two lesbians -- a blonde girl and a short Southeast Asian -- were passionately making out against the wall a few feet away. Some guy tried to join in, but they spun away in my direction. I stood an arm's length away, watching them do things I haven't done in 8 months. I watched for ten minutes before offering to hold their drinks. They declined, but kept going right there for five more minutes before leaving the bar.

There is some justice in the world. What one gives, in the economy of voyeuristic pleasure, is returned.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

No truer friend

When we on the left talk about weakened alliances, we don't just mean France and Germany. Andrew Sullivan points out that our alliance with Britain is also severely frayed:

there's been less attention paid to how Bush has dealt with the U.S.'s most critical ally, Britain. The answer is: terribly...

Bush's own radioactive personality in Europe means that any British leader who wants to support him must also consider political suicide.

The Tories are now anti-Bush; almost the entire Labour party is anti-Bush; the Liberal Democrats are pathologically anti-Bush. And this is the success story of Bush's diplomacy! Again, the worst thing about this is that it undermines our ability to wage this war in future. When you lose the Brits and half your own country in a vital war, you deserve to be fired as president. I'm sorry, but it's time the pro-war camp began to deal with this.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Boston over Houston: the hope

There's a good reason for a Democrat to not want St. Louis in the championship. I don't want people in Missouri thinking of Massachusetts as an enemy state in late October. And obviously, I want Boston to win it all so that people will be associating Massachusetts and triumph.

By the way, has anyone remarked yet that the Schilling-bleeding-ankle story from Game 6 gives a powerfully literal meaning to "Red Sox?"

Wisconsin metaethics conference

By the way, the reason for the dearth of posts this weekend was that I was at the Wisconsin Metaethics Workshop. It was good, though I didn't know that all the papers were online. (When I came back and saw them, I realized why so many people had such well-prepared and intelligent things to say right after hearing a talk. It made me feel a lot better!)

Take your pick

At least one of the following is true:

A. Pat Robertson is telling an enormous lie.
B. George W. Bush is even stupider than I thought.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Domestic issues

Michigan buddy Ira Lindsay comments on the "faith" and "women in your lives" questions last night: Do these moderators think that "Domestic issues" means "things you do at home"?


I was worried at the beginning. For one thing, Kerry seemed to be avoiding some questions rather than answering them. And his answer on gay marriage was no good. The thing about wives supporting their gay husbands probably sounded kinky to lots of the folk in the heartland, and the "Cheney's gay daughter" bit is a creepy move. (I sense a dark strategy there in which the Kerry team is happy to have us all talking about it and making sure everyone knows it.) Bush did a solid job on that issue.

But once we got into the bread-and-butter economic issues -- health care, jobs, and thank Bob Schieffer for bringing up the minimum wage -- Kerry steamrolled Bush. He was confident, knowledgable, clear, and presidential. If I had to pick a word, it'd be "authoritative". Bush had his class-clown smirk, and the one joke I can recall went nowhere. (This is the media bias joke that only hard right-wingers probably enjoyed, and which Bush bailed out of before the punchline.) I can't remember a single memorable Bush economic policy line, and I thought his demeanor was worse than in debate #1. I was very happy with Kerry's assault weapons answer, which linked back to his past as a prosecutor, mentioned Osama's terrorist handbook, and brought up the AK-47 in the drug dealer's house. And I'm happy that Kerry did things to get the Bush "not worried about Osama" line on national TV.

The debates are done, and I'm happy with where we stand. Now it's up to KE04 to play smart fourth-quarter football, and up to Steve Rosenthal and the GOTV generals to make it happen on the ground. Karl Rove be damned, I think they can do it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Grand narratives, grand insecurities

If Bush wins despite being completely incompetent at running this country, running the other country, and running the War on Terror, this will be a part of the explanation:

It's comforting to think that Al Qaeda might be as easily marginalized as a bunch of drug-running thugs, that an ''effective'' assault on its bank accounts might cripple its twisted campaign against Americans. But Americans are frightened -- an emotion that has benefited Bush, and one that he has done little to dissuade -- and many of them perceive a far more existential threat to their lives than the one Kerry describes. In this climate, Kerry's rather dry recitations about money-laundering laws and intelligence-sharing agreements can sound oddly discordant. We are living at a time that feels historically consequential, where people seem to expect -- and perhaps deserve -- a theory of the world that matches the scope of their insecurity.

I think that the terrorists (Afghanistan aside) can't be beaten by invasions -- they'll be beaten by winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, by using diplomatic measures to run more effective international policing, and by exactly the kind of alliance-building that Kerry has in mind. But the above would explain why the American people won't settle for simple and careful measures that will actually work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Play that wonky music

Much in the next presidential debate may depend on how specific and how varied the questions are. If the questions are general and Bush can just repeat a bunch of talking points without appearing evasive, he probably won't do so badly. But if the questions get specific, Kerry's greater policymaking experience will give him more to say that directly addresses the issue. Variety of questions is important -- if you remember how flummoxed Bush was by the "clean air and water" question in the last debate (that's where he started mumbing about diesel engines), you can see how Bush might break down against a bunch of unexpected questions from different angles. This, again, is something on which Kerry's decades of Senate experience are likely to help.

What worries me most is that Bob Schieffer, whose brother was named ambassador to Australia after being a business partner of Bush's, is moderating the debate. If he's the one coming up with the questions, this could be trouble.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Dred Scott

Why was Bush referencing the Dred Scott decision last night? Paperwight can tell you -- it has much more to do with abortion than with slavery. Thanks to Mark Kleiman for the pointer.

Profiles in hackery

I’m happy to see GOP hacks keep attacking Kerry on the "global test" issue. Anyone who actually listens to Kerry will see that their attacks don’t match up to his positions. If that’s what the Republicans are going to blow their spin opportunities on, fine by me.

Jonah Goldberg makes two criticisms that don't really go well together: "Not only did the crowd not laugh at Kerry's jokes, but Kerry didn't make any." He's wrong on both counts. From the CNN transcript:
Now, for the people earning more than $200,000 a year, you're going to see a rollback to the level we were at with Bill Clinton, when people made a lot of money. And looking around here, at this group here, I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me, and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too.


Fight in the town hall

The foreign policy half of this debate had me on the edge of my seat. It was like a fight scene in a good action movie -- I could feel the fury of the participants, I winced at some of the blows Kerry took, and I was excited when he struck back powerfully. I'd call that one a draw in absolute terms, though given that Kerry is still probably rated below Bush on foreign policy, that probably strenghtens Kerry a little bit in the polls.

Things went kind of loose in the domestic policy debate. Kerry won that, but not by as much as he should have. He should've spent his entire time in response to the environment question talking about the environment. And when Bush botched the last question, talking about how he'd take responsibility for making mistakes but not actually taking responsibility for any, Kerry should've called him on that. I don't know how palpable the disconnect between Bush's big talk about how he'd take responsibility and his inability to do so was, but Kerry really should've pointed it out, and then launched into his critique of Bush mistakes.

I was really happy with Kerry's response to the cute blonde girl who asked about abortion. He started strong, looked her in the eye, and ran the public/private sphere distinction that's familiar from liberal political philosophy. This allowed him to come across as a morally upstanding guy who cares about religion, and at the same time be supportive of freedom in the public sphere. Bush's last response to him on that question suggested an inability to comprehend the objections (health of the woman, incest) that Kerry had set on the partial-birth and parental-consent issues.

So I'm looking forward to the domestic debate now. That's Kerry's home turf, and I think he can hold it. People on Tapped have reported that the value of the "Bush wins" contract on tradesports has gone from about 61 to about 54 today. I don't think that big a swing is justified, but I do think we probably eked out material for a small gain tonight.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

My precious...

Cheney's best moment from the VP debate:

I don't talk about myself very much, but I've heard Senator Edwards, and as I listen to him, I find some similarities.

I come from relatively modest circumstances. My grandfather never even went to high school. I'm the first in my family to graduate from college.

I carried a ticket in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for six years. I've been laid off, been hospitalized without health insurance. So I have some idea of the problems that people encounter.

So I think the personal stories are, in some respects, surprisingly similar.

It's like when you hear Gollum's backstory in The Fellowship of the Ring and you learn that once, long ago, he was an ordinary hobbit named Smeagol.

Bush campaign self-destructs

Just look at the new justification for invading Iraq.
WASHINGTON - President Bush (news - web sites) and his vice president conceded Thursday in the clearest terms yet that Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) had no weapons of mass destruction, even as they tried to shift the Iraq (news - web sites) war debate to a new issue — whether the invasion was justified because Saddam was abusing a U.N. oil-for-food program.
So Bush spent $200 billion, damaged our alliances, sent tens of thousands of soldiers away from their families, and got a thousand of them killed because Saddam was abusing a UN oil-for-food program

So much for staying on message. So much for being a steady leader. So much for making the least bit of sense. If they had gone to the "there were no WMD, but we had to eliminate Saddam to win the global war on terror for vague, unspecified, and implausible reasons" justification, they'd be better off. If they went to the "there were no WMD, but we had to make a bold and completely incompetent attempt at starting democracy" justification, theyd be better off. But this? When most Americans probably hadn't heard of the UN oil-for-food program before?

This election is in John Kerry's hands.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

VP debate contentment

Edwards was clear and focused and smily and easy for the folks at home to follow. The closing address was exactly what you'd expect from him, and I was very happy with it. I'm thinking he accomplished more than Cheney did here -- he reemphasized parts of the Democratic message that we want voters to hear on election day. He repeated the Osama points and defused objections to the tax plan. I'm a little unhappy that he didn't bring up the minimum wage, and I had a stronger response to the flipflop question in mind than the one he offered. But, all in all, a good performance.

Cheney didn't do anything too bad, but he spent a significant amount of time looking down and scowling. He didn't drop as many talking-point bombs as Edwards did. I think he was somewhat harder for a non-politically-interested observer to follow than Edwards was -- he simply doesn't have Edwards' rhetorical abilities in organizing a speech. The knockout blow some people wanted him to score tonight -- demonstrating that Edwards was an intellectual lightweight -- wasn't scored, but it's not something that you could score since Edwards is a sharp guy.

In the end, Edwards advanced the ball further than Cheney did, so I'm content with this one.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How Osama got away

A few excerpts from a CSM article describing the bad planning on the ground:
Pir Baksh Bardiwal, the intelligence chief for the Eastern Shura, which controls eastern Afghanistan, says he was astounded that Pentagon planners didn't consider the most obvious exit routes and put down light US infantry to block them.

"The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair with a short list of the Al Qaeda fighters who were later taken prisoner. "And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters, had the Americans acted decisively. Al Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet."
Untrustworthy allies:
Indeed, Mr. Ali paid a lieutenant named Ilyas Khel to block the main escape routes into Pakistan. Mr. Khel had come to him three weeks earlier from the ranks of Taliban commander Awol Gul.

"I paid him 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000] and gave him a satellite phone to keep us informed," says Mohammed Musa, an Ali deputy, who says Ali had firmly "trusted" Khel.

"Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more, and so Ilyas Khel just showed the Arabs the way out of the country into Pakistan," Mr. Musa adds.
It's not like we were lacking troops in the area:
More than 2,000 US marines are on standby in the Arabian Sea and Pakistan for what may become the largest manhunt in history, the search for Osama bin Laden.
How did all this go wrong? Military planners at the top were distracted, as Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack" describes (transcribed by topdog04, whose piece on this is worth reading):
When he was back at the Pentagon, two miles from the White House across the Potomac River in Virginia, Rumsfeld immediately had the Joint Staff begin drafting a Top Secret message to General Franks requesting a "commander's estimate," a new take on the status of the Iraq war plan and what Franks thought could be done to improve it. The general would have about a week to make a formal presentation to Rumsfeld.... (p. 5)

"Hey," Newbold said in his best take-notice voice, "I've got a real tough problem for you. The secretary's going to ask you to start looking at your Iraq planning in great detail - and give him a new commander's estimate."

"You got to be shitting me," Renuart said. "We're only kind of busy on some other things right now. Are you sure?"

"Well, yeah. It's coming. So stand by."

..."Hey, boss," Renuart said, reporting that a formal request of a commander's estimate was coming. "So we'd better get on it."

Franks was incredulous. They were in the midst of one war, Afghanistan, and now they wanted detailed planning for another, Iraq? "Goddamn," Franks said, "what the fuck are they talking about?" (p. 8)
The conclusion:
In retrospect, it becomes clear that the battle's underlying story is of how scant intelligence, poorly chosen allies, and dubious military tactics fumbled a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden as well as many senior Al Qaeda commanders.

do widzenia

Looks like Poland is going home earlier than expected. Who will Bush boast about now?

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Additional debate thoughts

If there was one moment where Kerry stepped ahead of Bush in appearing more presidential, it was on the "what's the biggest foreign policy threat" question. Kerry immediately answered that nuclear proliferation was the biggest threat, and proceeded to talk intelligently about it. Bush, unable to come up with anything bigger (because hey, there really isn't much bigger than that) just fell in line behind him. Suddenly Kerry was leading and Bush was following.

Why can't Cubanos visit Cuba?

Bush Administration policies usually make sense. Not in the "I can see how this would make the country better" kind of way, but in the "I can see why Karl Rove thinks this will help Bush get reelected" kind of way. A notable exception is the Bush Administration's new restriction on Cuban-Americans visiting their families in Cuba and sending them money. The younger generation of Cubans doesn't have the furious anti-Castro sentiment that would get them to support something like this, and many people in the more hardline older generation doesn't see any substantial benefit in it. This measure is a loser with the only community of people it seriously matters to, and it's not a winner with anybody else. So why is Bush pushing it?

I had a conversation tonight with Cuban history expert Rebecca Scott (wife of metaethics superstar Peter Railton). She made me aware of the weirdness of this situation and said that she didn't know how to explain it. Family is everything to Cuban-Americans and being deprived of the opportunity to visit a dying grandmother if they've already visited Cuba that year is something that will make them very unhappy. She can only conjecture about some kind of strange backroom deal between Bush and some major Cuban-American leaders, who have far more anti-Castro fervor than their constituents, under which Bush passes this agreement and the Cuban leaders deliver some dark and shadowy favor unto him. It's something to keep in mind when you're thinking about Florida.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Kerry 1, Bush 0

...and that's on a scale going from -5 to 5.

I was watching it with a bunch of Democratic grad students of the UM phil dept, and many of us were worried (not least my buddy Ira, one of the more politically astute folks I know). Kerry clearly didn't say the awesome things that many of us hoped he'd say. Lots of his time was spent in mumblytalk about alliances and global tests (can't you see the next GOP talking point?) and junk like that. But he had a few solid moments that genuinely advanced the ball. He explained his stance on the war: we both thought Saddam was the threat, but we had different ideas on how to disarm him. He criticized Bush for prioritizing Saddam over Osama, which led to an amusing Bush error where the two got conflated. And he saved his most pointed terms of criticism -- "colossal error of judgment" -- for that criticism. That's some astute media strategy right there. It's his most intensely worded criticism and it's what the papers will pick up on since he used his toughest words there. I'm glad to see that getting into the press, since I think the American people at least recognize the greater 9/11 significance of Osama over Saddam.

Bush, on the other hand, failed to get anything done. He just repeated the same tired "mixed message" talking points, and when Kerry failed to provide a stark example of a mixed message, the talking points seemed empty. Kerry even managed to turn the points against Bush on the North Korea issue. Bush had plenty of minor bloopers -- Saddam/Osama, the weird "tax gap" junk, and for the love of God "Poland!" -- which count against him. Worst of all, he seemed to stumble at the beginning of every question and didn't seem a bit like the strong leader that his campaign desperately needs him to appear as.

But if there's one thing I have to leave you with, it's this: the polls prior to this debate have Bush over Kerry in the solid double-digits on Iraq and terrorism. Just by standing up there and not saying anything disastrous, Kerry had the power to close that gap. Given that he outperformed Bush in a foreign policy debate, he's shored up perceptions of himself on the issue where he was weakest, and this bodes very well for him in the broader context of the race.

note: This post has been brought to you by several local Michigan brews, Captain Morgan, and a super-smooth Irish whiskey called Bushmills.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Getting facts into play

As the debates draw closer, one of my major concerns is that the Democrats haven't yet established a few key facts in voters' minds. This is something we could've accomplished during the convention if we weren't so concerned about being positive. But we didn't, so now we have to go into the debates with lots of undecided voters being aware of the following two facts in particular:

-The weapons inspectors were on the ground in Iraq, successfully getting Saddam to destroy some minor banned weapons, when Bush went ahead and started war. (My guess is that most Americans believe Saddam hadn't caved and allowed the inspectors at that time. If they knew inspections were going on, Bush's line about defending America vs. taking the word of a madman would be revealed as empty.)

-We had Osama pinned down in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, when Bush shifted military planners away from catching him and towards preparing for the Iraq war. (My guess is that most Americans think we never had any idea where Osama was in Afghanistan, and don't know that focus on Saddam made it harder to get him. If people were aware that the relation between capturing Osama and deposing Saddam was closer to an exclusive disjunction than a biconditional, they'd see how the Iraq war was a distraction from fighting terrorism.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Reading Gallup

The Gallup Poll has Bush's 55-42 lead narrowing to a 52-44 lead in national polls. Still bad for Kerry? Not if you look at Party ID:
Likely Voter Sample Party IDs – Poll of September 13-15
Reflected Bush Winning by 55%-42%

Total Sample: 767
GOP: 305 (40%)
Dem: 253 (33%)
Ind: 208 (28%)

Likely Voter Sample Party IDs – Poll of September 24-26
Reflected Bush Winning by 52%-44%

Total Sample: 758
GOP: 328 (43%)
Dem: 236 (31%)
Ind: 189 (25%)
Bush went from a 13% advantage, when the sample went Republican by a 7% margin, to a 8% advantage when the sample went Republican by a 12% margin! Given that the 2000 turnout figures were 39D-35R, there's cause for rejoicing here.

Election Protection

Many posts ago I promised to mention an exciting Democratic volunteer opportunity. With the Election Protection program, you can go to polling places where Republican operatives have pulled dirty tricks in the past like posting flyers that advertise the wrong day for the election, intimidating voters at the polls, and exaggerating the requirements for voting. Your job is to notify the proper authorities if these things happen. Since suppressing minority votes through trickery is an important part of how Republicans win elections, this is a really important way to help the Democrats.

Unfortunately for my Texas readers, the program is only running in nine battleground states (well, eight plus Illinois). Michigan is one of them, so I'll be doing it up here.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Ten cuidado del nombre "Bush"

More from the New Democrat Network. I've had the song stuck in my head for a while. It's just an internet ad and not a TV one, but it's crazy fun.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Read the Book

You might have heard about how the RNC is sending out scare mailings claiming that Democrats want to ban the Bible. Michigan grad student Josh Brown opines that Republicans wouldn't be affected if such a thing were to happen, since they clearly haven't bothered to read the part about not bearing false witness.

(Admittedly, the joke has some paradoxical character. In the deeply counterfactual world where Bibles are banned, the GOP's claims would not be false.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Only with the Democratic plan...

...will we have a better life.

So goes the last line of the New Democratic Network's ads, which are aired in Florida and target Hispanics. You might want to watch their Spanish ad about the minimum wage before you see the English one. Excellent stuff.

Update with spoiler (read only after you've seen the ad): There is a whole lot I like about this ad. It has a simple but powerful plot twist, it makes you feel the travails of a minimum-wage worker no matter how much money you make, and in endorsing the Democrats in general, it promises to help a whole bunch of Democratic candidates of the present and future. The beginning -- a man and a woman seemingly about to go to bed -- makes you wonder if something sexy is going to happen, which draws your attention. And then you see that nothing like that can happen, since the guy has to go off and work his second job. The plight of poor people is made sexually tangible. Wow.

Theoretical Taxonomy: Wussy and Badass

Via Jeremy Alder comes a taxonomy of philosophical views as Wussy or Badass. I agree with the comments about the wussiness of semantic tricks and win-win situations. I agree about the badassness of bullet-biting and Buffy (at least, in seasons 1-3). But this, surely, is false: "whenever a view compromises metaphysical commitments for epistemological reasons, it's totally wussing out."

What's more wussy than a view that gains all its resources by begging them off of an overly permissive epistemology? What's more wussy than the self-indulgence that refuses to do without even the most theoretically expensive metaphysical comfort? The badassness of epistemically rigorous, ontologically simple theories is the badassness of MacGyver. Remember MacGyver, who would outwit his enemies by building a bazooka out of a toaster, a 9-volt battery, and some dental floss? Deny him all but the weirdest, most unlikely resources, and he'd still defeat you. Such is the badassness of David Hume, the Logical Positivists, and Nietzsche. They charged into battle naked as woad-painted Celts, and the bards will sing of their boldness forevermore. While David Lewis loses big points for epistemic rigor, he gains them back by resourcefulness and a strange sort of simplicity. Here's a man who built accounts of modality, value, and the mind using nothing but concrete objects. Sure, he used way more concrete objects than anyone had ever seen fit to use before, but he didn't help himself to any abstracta or any irreducible properties of the normative or mental kind. It's quite an exercise in bazooka-building!

Monday, September 20, 2004

Kerry on the warpath

Kerry finally gets serious about criticizing Bush's foreign policy. I wish this had started at the convention or before. But I don't think it's too late now.

Go Alan Go!

At first, I thought this was parody. Then I realized that it was just Alan Keyes being himself.
CHICAGO - (KRT) - Declaring that his campaign strategy is dependent on controversy, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes told the state's top GOP donors at a recent closed-door meeting that he plans to make "inflammatory" comments "every day, every week" until the election, according to several sources at the session.
This will be really fun to watch!

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Charter school disaster

It hadn't occurred to me that something like this was even possible.

The tragedy of coherentism

According to coherentist theories of justification, a belief is justified if it is consistent with the other things you believe. An unfortunate characteristic of these theories is that an entirely false set of beliefs can come out justified, if the beliefs are consistent with each other. Here's an illustration from a National Guard member who heard Kerry criticize Bush for misleading America about Iraqi WMDs:

"What he was saying about George Bush not telling the truth on Iraq - I just don't believe that. George Bush did tell us the truth, so I guess I couldn't believe what Kerry was saying."

That's why stories about the absence of Iraqi WMDs are still worth printing.


-I saw a band called Saturday Looks Good to Me that wasn't especially good. There's a good guitarist who is a very bad vocalist. While the female lead singer was cute and had shiny black hair close to her eyes, which promised something Yeah Yeah Yeahsy, she didn't have the Karen O supersquealysexy thing going on, or any other attitude that would make it cool.

-At the bar, I met an undergrad who had taken a class in the Michigan philosophy department, and he could say some basic things about Hume, like when he was alive and what some of his basic ideas were! He even knew some basic stuff about G.E. Moore and some of the H20/Water Putnam cases. He even seemed to share my intuition about the Putnam case -- water could still be multiply realizable, if XYZ actually exists! I hope my students come out of school with this kind of ability. He's going into urban planning and I wish him well.

-I need to relearn my favorite song, "Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile." I sang a lot of it to Dustin on the way back from the bar, but I forgot the last verse. Must listen to the Clancy Brothers recording of it a few more times.

-I smiled at a hot girl briefly, and she smiled back. You've got to start somewhere.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Edwards and experience

Matt Yglesias asks: who'd be a better candidate than Kerry?

John Edwards, clearly, has the raw material there, but I think it's pretty clear that such an inexperienced guy would've gotten slammed in the first post-9/11 election.

When the "you're too inexperienced" argument runs up against the "you've screwed everything up" argument, I think the latter wins. It's doubtful that the American public puts very much weight on experience when voting for president. And if Bush wanted to emphasize his greater experience, he'd be on weird territory. The public image of Bush as resolute and determined is pretty well ingrained, while he has no reputation for being an experienced and competent leader.

Not to mention, Edwards would blow Bush away on domestic issues.

Becoming an ethical werewolf

Suppose I had the opportunity to drink a potion that would change me into a different kind of creature. I'd lose any cognitive capacities above those of a dog, my linguistic capacity and most of my conceptual capacities, and my higher-order desires. But my desire to do things that caused pleasure to other beings would be greatly strengthened, and my aversion to events that caused pain to other beings would also be strengthened. I would also gain amazing physical powers. And when I was turned loose on the world, I would be even more successful in maximizing aggregate utility than I would have been in my human form. I would rescue people in distress, intimidate villains, and do amazing works for the world.

First, would I be morally justified in drinking the potion? Second, would the creature I became count as a morally good agent?

I think the answer to both questions is yes. The first one is simple, if you're a utilitarian. As to the second one, my intuitions support reducing morally good agency to desiring the good. Being a morally bad agent is desiring the bad. For a utilitarian, pleasure is the good while pain is the bad, but I imagine that someone who accepted some other ethical theory could replace pain and pleasure with the things valued under that theory.

As per David Sosa's distinction, I evaluate the moral worth of agents separately from the goodness of the events that are their acts. If you live in a bizarre world where you are thoroughly deluded about the effects of your actions, you can be a good person and do only bad acts, or vice versa. So the stuff above about morally good agency being reduced to some desire-state shouldn't be taken as a denial of consequentialism about the goodness of everything else.

Note: The notion of ethical werewolfhood employed in this post is different from the notion employed in my first post.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


I think the following is more than 50% likely to be true:

The most memorable event of election 2004 hasn't happened yet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Matt Yglesias explains how the Bush administration is making us more likely to get hit by Nuclear bombs.

At this point, one would be unjustified in believing that the Killian memos are authentic. If this is true, we can conclude that CBS News is a bunch of idiots. If the case that Bush went AWOL depended on that document, Democrats would have reason to worry. Of course, the case can be constructed on other documents entirely.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Making the rounds on Monday

Kerry takes Bush to task over North Korea. This should've happened long ago, but it's good that it's happening now.

PCmag compares the IBM Selectric's type to Times New Roman. Can you tell which is which? The Killian memo could still be a forgery, but at this point one isn't justified in believing that...

...and even if one were, US News can show that Bush didn't fulfill his obligations, without relying on the Killian memo.

What Gore could've done

I agree with Matt that the Bush-AWOL story isn't likely to matter very much in the election. Lindsay's distinctions are the right ones to draw, but I think her analysis would be better applied to the 2000 election. (Also, I'm not entirely happy with the way she relativizes 'should' to the beliefs and desires of each voter, but let's leave that aside for now.)

I didn't know anything about the Bush-AWOL story until this year, and I was following politics quite closely in 2000. If it had been dumped on Bush through some media leaks shortly after he became the de facto nominee, I think it would've been fairly effective. Combined with the drunk-driving dirt that Chris Lehane dug up (dumped too late to shape perceptions of Bush), it could've defined Bush in such a way that the cocaine rumors would've seemed plausible enough for the mainstream media to give serious attention to. And if people heard about this stuff before they heard Bush's born-again personal bullshit narrative, many would regard that story as his shifty way of not taking responsibility for his past. The resulting picture of Bush would be of an unreliable reprobate whom nobody should trust with the responsibilities of the presidency. Gore could then run as the opposite kind of character -- the smart, reliable guy who could be depended on to continue the Clinton economic/budgetary magic.

It's good when you can define yourself and your opponent in directly opposing terms. Once you've done that, when you say "I have good quality X!" everybody feels the implicature that your opponent has bad quality not-X. Bush has done that in this election -- when he says that he'll be steadfast against terrorism, the implied contrast to the supposedly flipflopping Kerry is palpable. Gore could've done that to Bush in 2000 when Bush was new on the scene and definable, but for some reason Gore didn't. Maybe it has to do with the greater reluctance of Democratic candidates to go negative, or maybe it has to do with general incompetence in the Gore 2000 campaign. The current sentiment among many Democrats that Kerry should be emphasizing his competence (sure it's complicated to tell this story, but can't somebody manage it?) against Bush's policy incompetence (effects of which include a bad economy, high deficits, Medicare premiums going huge, Osama running free, North Korea with nukes, and the Iraq quagmire) seems exactly right to me -- it gives us a great opposition to work with, and one that matters more to voters than the Vietnam-AWOL opposition.

Ought we have a politics where these ways of painting someone's character determine the course of elections? I don't think so -- I'd like it if everyone were a boring policy wonk and didn't care about these kinds of issues. But it seems we do have a politics like this, and if you don't play these dumb character-assassination games right, fools will run the country into the ground.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


Mark Schmitt has done some good work pointing out how the Bush Administration uses anonymous quotes to generate the spin it wants. The anonymous sources get to say ridiculous and/or self-serving things without being held accountable, and sometimes their excuses for anonymity are quite silly. If the White House were half as good at running Iraq as it is at playing the media, parts of Baghdad would not be exploding right now.

(PS - I'm proud to be the sender of the email mentioned at the beginning of the post.)

Friday, September 10, 2004

Reports and thoughts

-Philosophical blogging will probably increase from hereon, since the number of philosophy classes I'm in has jumped from 0 to 4. There are 2 metaethics classes (Gibbard and Velleman), 1 normative ethics class (Anderson), and 1 phil. of science class (Sklar). They are going well.

-I'm going to talk with Peter Railton about his 1986 paper "Moral Realism" sometime next week. This will be a big event, since Railton is probably my favorite contemporary metaethics guy. He's also, by all accounts, a wonderful person to talk to.

-I've been offered a chance to participate in a really cool volunteer activity for Democrats on election day -- more details forthcoming.

-Whenever I arrive for the first week at a state college, I'm always taken aback by the sight of so many pretty girls in short skirts. I regard them with more wistfulness than lust.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

This isn't Willkietime

Max's post calls for some response. One of the reasons Willkie should be admired for not attacking FDR on national security is that FDR's policies during WWII were generally good ones. FDR saw that Hitler and Hirohito were our main enemies, and his foreign policy was focused on defeating them. If FDR's foreign policy had been worse (suppose he had lost focus and decided to open up a new front by attacking Franco's Spain) Willkie ought to have criticized FDR for this and made national security a partisan issue. If the incumbent has a bad war strategy, this is the kind of thing that needs to come up during a campaign.

This is how I and many other people on the left see the Iraq War. While Bush went blundering into Iraq, spending around $200 billion and a thousand lives to eliminate weapons that weren't there, North Korea got a nuclear missile and Osama Bin Laden got away. Sure, Saddam was an evil dictator, but he had no WMD, no allies, no support from al-Qaeda, and a decrepit army. Attacking him was a bad move. Under these circumstances, Kerry would be blameworthy for not pointing up Bush's national security failures. (If things keep going the way they are, he is to be blamed for not making Bush's national security incompetence his central foreign policy issue in the campaign.)

The Instapundit Fun Page!

Glenn Reynolds quoted Matt Yglesias as saying "The situation, clearly, can only be resolved by Russian concessions on the underlying political issue in Chechnya." He mocked Matt's for trying to accommodate terrorism, leaving off the next two sentences which dramatically qualify Matt's claim: "At the same time, in the wake of this sort of outrage there will not only be no mood for concessions, but an amply justified fear that such concessions would only encourage further attacks and a further escalation of demands. I don't see any way out for Russian policymakers nor any particularly good options for US policymakers." Matt was trying to point out the things that make the situation so tricky, and Glenn faulted Matt for ignoring one of the things he was actually trying to point out.

Glenn stands by what he wrote, saying that his quoting was merely "done via cut-and-paste." What do you get when you quote Glenn the same way? Let's see...

Glenn's disappointment with the GOP Convention!
"I'm just sad that the Republican Convention became such a hatefest"

Glenn Supports Kerry on Sudan!
"Just noticed that John Kerry is calling for strong action on Darfur. That's good."

Glenn wants you to keep pushing the down button without actually reading!
"Just keep scrolling."

None of the above involve passing off someone else's views as his own (though one involves ignoring sarcasm). If you're willing to work "via cut-and-paste" with those, you can make this and worse:

"Bush sucks."

[Links are dead as of 2019.]

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Get well soon, Bill

The big guy's in the hospital with some heart trouble. I thought this would be a good time to thank him for the greatest legislative achievement of my lifetime -- his 1993 budget. See those blue bars going down and down until they become negative? That's his tax increases at work, turning the deficit into a surplus. And in case you're thinking to credit the GOP congress, please note that they don't seem to have had any significant effect on the rate of deficit reduction when they appear in '94. It's hard to see how they could, after Bill shut down Newt Gingrich's revolution. The red bars on the far right, by the way, show you what's happened to the deficit under W's watch. The data comes from the CBO.

Unfortunately, my side axis got blacked out and I don't know how to fix that. Well, I've got to get to sleep soon... leaving for MI in ~9 hours, which may cause posting to be light for a few days.

Last SBVT post (I hope)

I posted the following in the comments to the last post, but I like it enough that I think I'll put it up here too:

For a nicely footnoted rundown of the SBVT claims and the evidence, go here.

To summarize:

-Schachte claims to have been the 4th man on the skimmer when Kerry got his Bronze Star, and says Kerry hurt himself with a grenade. Runyon and Zaladonis, two other men who everyone agrees were on the skimmer, deny that Schachte was there and say Kerry never used a grenade. (This story, by the way, was the one that Michelle Malkin tried to spread on Hardball.)

-Thurlow claims that Kerry wasn't under fire when he pulled Rassmann out of the water. He is contradicted by everyone on Kerry's boat, a guy on his own boat, well-corroborated military records, and intelligence reports that show 1 VC killed and 5 wounded in the battle. While Thurlow claims that some of the reports were written by Kerry, not all of them could have been.

-Elliott now claims that Kerry merely shot down a fleeing defenseless wounded enemy and doesn't deserve his Silver Star. This fits ill with Elliott's intense praise for Kerry during the war, and is contradicted by Kerry's crewmates and William Rood, who say the enemy had a rocket launcher and could have blown up Kerry's boat.

-The one thing I will concede is that Kerry wasn't in Cambodia during Christmas. He was there later though, and I think the experiences that he described as 'seared into' his memory (a winter holiday, allies celebrating and firing weapons, Nixon being president) are from Tet rather than Christmas.