Thursday, June 30, 2005


So I'm in DC now, and I'll be spending this week in the home of the legendary Tom Lotze. I won't be blogging much, if at all, so I got myself a pair of guestbloggers for now until Wednesday night!

Whom, you wonder? When I asked them, Kevin Drum and Mark Schmitt expressed great interest*, but I turned them down on grounds that they are not related to me. So I present unto you Robin and Supriya Sinhababu. As the last name suggests, they are my (younger) siblings. They are much cooler than me. Most of the non-folk-song music I listen to, I discovered through them. (Expect some amount of music blogging in the next week.)

*this did not actually happen

[Update]: Robin's home blog is One or Two.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Me and my donkey

A while ago, dadahead felt lots of discontent with the Democrats and started thinking about third parties. He'd still work within the Democratic Party, he said, though they were on the outer margins of being acceptable.

I said that voting for third parties wouldn't help. Even if you cost them elections, the math works out so it's foolish for Democrats to move left to appeal to you. Pulling the American public left to you, so the Democrats can take up your view and win, is the only thing to do.

Dadahead's response focuses largely on criticizing this assertion of mine: "Assuming a normal distribution of voters across each of the political/philosophical axes, moving left puts [Democrats] at risk of losing the people in the center, and there are way more voters in the center than on the edges." I think he'd say that my caveat -- "Now if you have some reason to think that there isn't a normal (bell-shaped) distribution on your issue, this analysis may not apply." -- is applicable to lots more cases than I think it is. He accepts that we're in the minority with regard to parental consent laws and gay marriage, though I think we both agree that our pro-gay stance is a great investment for the future.

To pick just one issue, there is enormous support in the political 'center' for government-guaranteed universal healthcare, a paradigmatically 'progressive' issue. The same goes for rolling back upper-class tax cuts, keeping Social Security, avoiding unnecessary wars, etc.

I agree with dadahead, his friends at the DLC, and John Kerry that rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the rich is something to push for without hesitation. Against Bush's Social Security Death Star, Han and Lando have put aside their grievances, the shields are down, and the Millenium Falcon has flown into the core reactor shaft. When this fight is over, we're going to have a big Ewok party on Endor with New Democrats kissing Deaniacs while the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Franklin Roosevelt smile upon us.

Serious health care reform, however, is an issue on which we've got to do a lot of work to persuade Americans to our side. They'll love it once everyone gets nice cheap health insurance, but irrational fears of government interference in the economy will make them fear it until they have it. We'll be up against an insurance industry fighting for its life. Americans only love government programs that already exist, and the insurers will make our proposal seem like the scariest piece of socialized medicine ever. I don't believe we have the power yet to win this fight, though I'd be really happy to be proven wrong. In any case, I see this as the time for people like us to lay the groundwork. (If anyone can sell health care reform in the near term, I think it's John Edwards.)

And then there's Iraq. Look, if everyone had seen in advance how it would turn out -- no WMD, no terrorist links, terrible management, the destruction of American soft power, a medium-term crippling of the American military, huge costs, Iraq becoming Jihad University, an interminable military commitment, so many dead -- Republicans might have nixed it themselves. (Sure, most of them won't say that now. They don't have the courage to flip-flop.) The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party was right on this all the way. But questions of retroactive political strategy are not easy here. After an easy-looking campaign in Afghanistan, and after earlier successes in Bosnia and Kosovo and a disastrous non-war in Rwanda, Americans simply didn't think things would go wrong in war. For years, they had been taught that Saddam was the biggest villian on earth, and they were terrified by 9/11 and anthrax. Could we have convinced them that this wasn't going to go well? (I wouldn't have expected Bush to screw things up so badly either. I mean, I thought he'd do a bad job, but the sheer botchery that has occurred is pretty phenomenal.) I suppose we could've tried a "finish Afghanistan first!" message. Or maybe we could have made our strong stand, gotten slaughtered at the polls in '02, regrouped, and won in '04 with a pure and clear message. Who knows?

I really don't see myself as a liberal or a centrist, as these intra-party disputes go. I'm just a utilitarian, trying to avoid the Pundit's Fallacy, and playing the hand I'm dealt.

John McCain and Girls from Maine

Norquist supports my view that McCain Dealt himself out of the 2008 GOP primary:

Speaking to the same group a few hours later, party strategist Grover Norquist lambasted three Republicans who broke party ranks over the issue of judicial filibusters. He referred to them as "the two girls from Maine and the nut-job from Arizona" – Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and John McCain.

Can't say I especially like the belittling use of "girls" here. I mean, I've occasionally called them the "girls from Maine" myself, but the connotations are all different. It's more like, "If the Senate is close and we send them a real nice invitation, I wonder if the girls from Maine will come to our Party?" I know it's just a fantasy and they don't think of us that way, but a boy can dream...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

In praise of Fafblog

The last month or so of blogging has been exciting -- two guestblogging stints at Ezra's place, and sitemeter-spinning links from Brian Leiter (about Porter Goss' secret identity) and Matt Yglesias (about my advice for Riot Girls). But perhaps the coolest thing is that I'm now blogrolled by Fafblog! To commemorate this exciting event, I present five of my favorite Fafblog quotes:

Giblets against John Edwards:
He is a trial lawyer! As a trial lawyer Edwards repeatedly stole money from poor corporations to give to greedy children crippled by their products! Do we really need a vice president who is a lackey of Big Children? Giblets thinks not!

Fafnir on interacting with Republicans in NYC:
Show your Republican that your home an culture are nothin to be afraid of. Take him to the park or to a Yankees game! Remember to bring lots of umbrellas an sunscreen because your Republican is not used to the harsh light of open nature. He has been raised in dark squalid caves filled with toxic poisons where he hunts bats an small elves for sustenance. Do not take your Republican to a museum! He comes from a "Red State" where all art is banned an has been replaced by very large engines eternally pumpin greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for no reason whatsoever.

Fafnir on extraordinary rendition:
maybe the torture jobs we send overseas will help build up the foreign torture markets so overseas torturers can get better salaries an buy more goods an help their economies in developin countries an such. Global torture lifts everybody's boat and we all win the end! Or just turn into monsters.

Fafnir on the election:
“Eleven States voted to Define Marriage tonight,” says Lester Holt, “and they have Defined it as a slow-moving, thick-skulled poison-spitting reptile that hates queers. America has spoken.”

Giblets on pigs and academic advice:
Giblets is proud of his beloved pet pig and has decided to reward it with a delicious treat. A treat like dynamite!

"You really shouldn't feed dynamite to your pig," says Juan Cole, mideast expert and professor of pig studies. "Dynamite has never been a safe feed for pigs and has only resulted in disaster for pigs and the pig community."

Oh what do you know Juan Cole! Your expertise in the fields of pig history and pig theory just means you have swallowed the standard academic dogma regarding the pig-dynamite dynamic! Giblets has reason to believe his pig will receive fantastic dynapig powers, but Cole has been too heavily indoctrinated by pigs and Arabists to see the truth.

"Dynamite is explosive," says Juan Cole. "If you feed it to your pig, your pig will explode."

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Philosophical advice for Riot Girls

Amanda makes the old Marxists proud -- by placating the workers, the moderate socialists prevent revolution! -- as she makes their move in a feminist context:

In fact, I would argue that Morrissette and Stefani and all their little Avril Lavigne imitators are actually bad for women because they provide nice little outlets that help contain female rage so that it's not turn onto tearing down the institutions that oppress us.

I think this the thing to consider: In the absence of Avril and Alanis, who would fill their space and get their audience? My guess is that bands like Bikini Kill wouldn't, especially in the Avril case. If some necessary aspects of teenybopper marketing preclude feminism, you don't get feminist teenybopperhood. Now maybe these antifeminist aspects of teenybopper marketing can be avoided, even while getting Avril's audience, or at least a large portion of it. This isn't an area that I know much about, so I don't know what the counterfactual possibilities look like. But if a world without Avril has Justin Timberlake devouring her audience, a pro-Avril position may be the one to take. The problem isn't her, it's whatever social phenomenon blocks a better version of her. There, O Riot Girl, shall you find your true enemy.

The Boobs of Justice

Now that Ashcroft is gone, the 1930s-era "Spirit of Justice" statue at the Justice Department can bare its breasts. Maybe the topless male "Majesty of Law" statue nearby will give it beads.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Taft for dog catcher!

From an article about the travails of Bob Taft, now in trouble due to Coingate:

His political service is over to the state," said Charles Burke, a political science professor at Baldwin-Wallace College. "I don't think he could be elected dog catcher in Cincinnati."

I've heard this expression before, and I'm curious -- has "dog catcher" ever been an elected position anywhere? It seems like the kind of position that one gets appointed, or more likely, hired to. What kind of platform would you run on, anyway? Would your opponents attack you for being soft on dogs? Would you get PAC money from companies that sold nets?

Save the frogs!

Biodiversity is useful:

Before the arrival of Spanish colonizers some 500 years ago, Indians in what is now Ecuador dipped their arrowheads in venom extracted from the phantasmal poison frog to doom their victims to convulsive death, scientists believe.

More recently, epibatidine -- the chemical which paralyzed and killed the Indians' enemies -- has been isolated to produce a pain killer 200 times more powerful than morphine, but without that drug's addictive and toxic side effects.

Pharmaceutical companies have not yet brought epibatidine to market but hope to discover other chemicals with powerful properties in frogs, which are a traditional source of medicine and food for many of Ecuador's Indians.

They may want to hurry because the treasure trove of the world's frogs and toads is disappearing at a catastrophic rate.

Us and what army?

I'm not entirely happy with this advice from Matt:

I think those of us who'd like to see the troops brought home soonish are going to need to choose between two things: a desire for a withdrawal schedule, and a desire to see George W. Bush admit that he was wrong about everything and he's a really bad president. The shortest route between where we are today and withdrawal is a positive, upbeat, adequately nationalistic argument that we've accomplished just about everything we can hope to accomplish and that it's time to move on to other things... If that strategy works, it means letting the president take a victory lap that liberals won't feel he deserves. That'll be a bitter pill to swallow, but the alternative is to absolutely ensure that the war continues through 2008.

First, it's not about seeing Bush admit anything -- it's about wrecking Republican credibility on foreign policy for a generation. But second and more importantly, it's hard to see what power Democrats have here. Unless something truly special happens, we won't have a Senate majority before 2008. And this is an issue where the executive branch still has more power -- what can legislators do here besides vote against funding (or worse, filibuster it) and get whacked for not supporting the troops? If Bush wants to spend the next four years as a lame duck chasing a white whale, Democrats won't be able to stop him. Now, there might be political benefits to be achieved by staking out one position rather than another, but it's hard for me to see how the Democrats can causally contribute to an early pullout.

(There is also the small matter that things in Iraq are not going well, and we'd have to push a weird smily message through suicide car bombings and all manner of political instability.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Secret identity

In an interview with Time, CIA director Porter Goss reveals his dark secret.

He's the Medium Lobster.

Q. When will we get Osama Bin Laden?
Goss: That is a question that goes far deeper than you know...

Q. It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of where he is. Where?
Goss: I have an excellent idea of where he is. What's the next question?

Q. ...Could the US go to war again based on false intelligence?
Goss: I would not agree to surmise that America has gone to war based on false intelligence. I would say that the right question is: Should America be checking out threats to America?

And to think he appeared to be just another CIA director. To our limited perception.

Your source for horse porn

After installing the Sitemeter hit counter (the TrueFresco counter was making pages take too long to load) I got the ability to see the search strings that bring people here. I learned, much to my astonishment, that many visitors to this site seek pornographic images involving horses. This is what happens when you engage in reasoned argument about the moral status of bestiality. People routed to that page include europe horse sex aficionados, Arabic speakers, and those merely interested in werewolf sex. Some other blogs appear in the listings if you do horse-sex-related searches, though this mostly results from comment spamming by porn sites.

In other news, I'm #5 on Google for "gay dudes". I rise to second when those words are in quotes. (I am not, by the way, a gay dude.) My daily visitors are in the high double digits, which is more than I expected.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Weekend at Ezra's

Looks like I'm going to be Ezra's werewolf this weekend! Last time went really well, and I'm looking forward to doing this again. No more posts here today, but you'll know where to find me tomorrow.

[Update]: My work is done! And here it is:

Torturing Straw Men: Republicans confuse the torture debate by not mentioning the actual torture.
Big Bird's Values Are My Values: Family-friendly Democrats should get behind PBS and Family Choice Cable.
Don't Kick the Donkey: When moderate Democrats attack liberals, they actually give the party a left-wing reputation.
Gird Your Loins: Focusing on Bush's non-planning for Iraqi reconstruction will make sure that blame is properly placed.
Things Happen in Gitmo: Silly Republicans! This T-shirt does not help you!
Elizabeth Anderson Will Set You Free: Traffic laws show why libertarians are wrong about freedom. Liz is awesome.

While I'm linking to stuff, let me direct you to a short Laura Rozen post on how the incompetence of John Bolton prevents America from getting anything done.

Bad logo

Here's the website of a North Korean front group, the Korean Friendship Association. When people are afraid of your capacity to shoot nuclear missiles at other countries, having a logo with four lightning bolts striking outward isn't likely to put anyone in the mood for friendship.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Explanations and birds

If anyone knows enough epistemology or philosophy of science, I'm wondering if there's an orthodox thing to say about explanations in cases like the following:

You're a hippie, lying on your back in a meadow where birds are fairly uncommon. You're carrying a drug that will cause you to have a visual hallucination of a flock of birds flying above you, but leave your reasoning abilities as normal. You take the drug, and soon enough, you have a visual experience as of a flock of birds flying above you. If you had experienced this without taking the drug, you would've believed that lots of birds really were flying overhead. But you know that you did take the drug.

I think it's pretty clear that in this case, it's rational to believe that there are no birds up there. Even though a causal story that implies the existence of birds would explain all the observational data, and even though you have no counterevidence against the birds' existence, you have no reason to accept the existence of the birds. All your observational data is already explained by something you have good reason to believe -- namely, that the drug has given you illusory bird sensations. If you have one good explanation of something, you don't keep buying other explanations and accepting them in conjunction with the first one. Maybe you accept an inclusive disjunction of them if other reasonable explanations are offered, but you don't jump to accepting the conjunction without further evidence.

So here's my question: What general principle of explanation do we appeal to in rejecting the real-birds explanation in the above case? One possibility is simplicity. You take on existential commitments in making explanations -- commitments to the existence of a causal mechanism by which the drug influenced your sensations, for instance. Occam's razor will slice away redundant existential commitments like a commitment to real birds.

I post this because I have a similar example in a paper, and I thought simplicity was doing the work, but Brian Leiter thought that was weird. If anyone has a better idea of what principles are involved here, I'd like to know!

Mukhtaran Bibi email

Read Ezra's post, and then write one of your own. There's seven people to send it to. If you don't have an Indian name, you'll probably have more impact than me -- the Pakistanis are likely to think I'm just another anti-Pakistani Indian stirring up trouble. And I don't imagine there's a need to be as polite or as lengthy as I'm being.

I write to protest the utterly vicious way that Pakistan has treated Mukhtaran Bibi.

She is a truly heroic woman. After having been publicly gang-raped by men of her village at the order of a tribal council, she testified against her persecutors and had them put in prison. She used the money she received as compensation to start schools in her village. When her case became known to the rest of the world and people sent her more money, she expanded the schools, set up an ambulance service, and worked to protect women from violent abuse.

Shortly after she was invited to speak in America, your government put her under house arrest, cut her phone lines, released the men who raped her, and imprisoned her at a secret location. At this point, nobody can contact her. I am among the many people who are concerned for her safety.

I will telephone my Congressman and Senators tomorrow to express my fury at the imprisonment of Ms. Mukhtaran. I am also doing what I can to make more people aware of her plight. A country that mistreats one of its heroes in this horrific manner deserves no support from America.

--Neil Sinhababu

If you write an email, feel free to mention it in the comments section. I'm wondering how many of my readers will take action here.

[New Update]: Things are looking better for Mukhtaran Bibi. (That link now points to Tom Watson, who's been leading the charge on this issue. He's probably the person to go to for updates.) I'm holding off on the phone calls for the time being.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The awesome life of Mark Felt

Not only was he Deep Throat, but he twice led FBI probes to find Deep Throat. It's the setup for a classic plot twist!

And his daughter Joan looks real nice even at age 61. This was a movie waiting to happen.

Moore-tal Kombat

After Kevin Drum beats down on his first WSJ editorial defending supply-side economics, Stephen Moore is down to zero health. Finish Him!

Adjusting for inflation and population growth, the supposedly horrible 70s produced an increase in tax revenue per person of 25%. The Clinton 90s produced growth of 40%. In fact, Reagan produced the slowest growth in tax revenue [18%] of any decade since World War II.


Monday, June 13, 2005

Advice to third party people

Dadahead is musing about third parties. If you -- like him -- would like to see the Democrats move left on some issue or another, there's a way you can work to accomplish this. It doesn't involve voting for a third party, however.

You've got to go out there and convince ordinary people that your stance on the issue is the right one. Generate popular support for a measure, and politicians will drift towards you. Or support measures that will, if passed, generate popular support on your issue down the road. For example, if you support marijuana legalization, push real hard for big federal research money for rigorously testing the safety of marijuana vis-a-vis other addictive drugs, and wait for the windfall when the "Is Pot Really Dangerous?" headline appears on Time and Newsweek, with lab-coated scientists on the inside answering in the negative. Not all issues are marijuana legalization, and other issues will give rise to other strategies. But remember that your task is first and foremost one of convincing more people that you're right. The voting part is smaller and comes after.

I hope you're not just interested in voting for a party that represents you. What you ought to be interested in, if you are a mature political agent, is getting substantive policy changes enacted. It's hard for me to see any path leading from a Nader vote to actual leftwards movement in American policy. In most cases, there's no reason to believe that the Democrats will, on purely strategic grounds, move left to appease you, even if you cost them multiple elections by voting third-party. Assuming a normal distribution of voters across each of the political/philosophical axes, moving left puts them at risk of losing the people in the center, and there are way more voters in the center than on the edges. Now if you have some reason to think that there isn't a normal (bell-shaped) distribution on your issue, this analysis may not apply. And there are positions, like Kerry's "alliances!" foreign policy stance in the last election, that don't have real appeal to anybody anywhere and should be changed. But any time that there are substantially more people in the center than on your edge, the Democrats won't move left to accommodate you. They do better conceding Nader his 3% than moving left and giving the GOP 10% off the middle. (Also remember that when Democrats lose one of their moderates to the GOP they need 2 votes to make up for it, while losing a lefty to Nader can be made up by one.)

Dadahead is thinking about abortion, which incorporates a bunch of different questions. There is majority support for the right to have an abortion, but parental consent and notification laws have support in the 70s. Look, I want to get rid of these laws too, for all the abusive-parent reasons that you guys do. But the thing for us to do isn't to abandon the Democrats over this -- it's to make a good TV ad that incorporates the lessons in Alley Rat's story, fund it, and make a big controversy when the networks don't air it, so people go on the web and check it out. When the numbers get closer to even, the Democrats will pick up the issue, and bad laws will be repealed.

These aren't easy strategies and they don't promise immediate gain. But unlike the fantasy of somehow moving the Democrats to your position by voting Green, they have a chance of actually succeeding someday.

Moral obligation and irresponsible heroes

Time for me to get back to philosophy! So here's my latest case:

Suppose you're a trucker, driving your last shipment before you retire. A bunch of rich parents have hired you to drive a shipment of toys to their city as Christmas presents. You've signed a contract to deliver them, and promised to have them there by Christmas. If you don't deliver the toys, the rich kids will miss out on some fun, but they'll have a bunch of other presents anyway, so it won't make a big difference to them. Their parents will be annoyed, but it'll still be a good Christmas for them overall.

You're driving through a poor area, and you realize that you could give away all the presents to the poor families nearby. You know that this would be awesome for all the poor kids and their families -- while the toys are nothing special to the rich kids, the poor kids will be absolutely overjoyed, and will have a wonderful time with the toys. This will be the coolest thing that has happened to them all year.

Assume that there's no danger that the toys will be confiscated from the poor kids or that there will be large social consequences for the trucking industry or anyone. Either way, you're planning to retire to some faraway land where you can't be pursued after making the shipment, so both options are the same as far as your life goes.

Two questions come out of this example:

First, are you morally obligated to deliver the toys to the rich families? (Clearly it's illegal for you to do otherwise, but this question is about moral obligation, not legal obligation.)

Second, would you be morally justified, all moral factors considered, in delivering the toys to the poor families? (There are cases when you're morally justified in doing stuff that you're not morally obligated to do -- for example, something heroic that goes above and beyond your obligations. I'm wondering if there are cases where you're morally justified in doing something that you're morally obligated to not do.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Foreign policy a utilitarian could love

So this is all at a pretty high level of abstraction, but these Truman Project people are saying exactly what I want to hear. I feel a bit funny about the American Exceptionalism part, but as long as it's understood as conditional on our behaving better than everyone else, I'm okay with it. Plus, it's important for winning elections.

[Update]: I also like the fact that they analogize us to a foreign policy superhero. I have yet to hear one of the bad guys quoting Uncle Ben.

Laura Rozen's good articles

Let me summarize these two Laura Rozen articles for you, with some additional background info:

GOP Congressman Curt Weldon is writing a book called "Countdown to Terror" that contains lots of scary stuff about terrorism, complete with "confidential intelligence memos" which come from a mysterious dude named "Ali". Many of the terrorist plots described in the book didn't actually happen and came to nothing when they were investigated. So Laura goes to figure out who Ali is, and he turns out to be an old Iranian ex-official who is getting all his info from an arms dealer. The arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, is so shady that the CIA has instructed its people not to talk to him due to his past history of lying a lot and trying to con people in weird scams. Now the White House has started to listening to this stuff, and the CIA is freaking out because it's just more bad intelligence that will confuse everything, like with Iraq, where Ahmed Chalabi and some guy codenamed "Curveball" sold the White House a pack of lies and started a war.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The democracy promotion non-debate

Democrats have been pretty assertive about pointing out that the original justification for the Iraq war had a lot to do with WMD and hardly anything to do with democracy promotion. The strange impact that shifting justifications for the Iraq War had on discussions of democracy promotion, however, hasn't been so clearly noticed.

If we had ever had a debate about how to expend our energies in promoting democracy, the idea of invading Iraq to set up a democracy would have been regarded as utterly absurd. For the price of the Iraq War, you could pay for enough foreign aid incentives and prop up enough local opposition parties to catalyze democratic transitions all over the globe. Iraq didn't have a credible domestic opposition party that could easily transition into government. And then there's the matter of the American and Iraqi lives that wouldn't have to be risked if more peaceful means were adopted. The fantastic claims neocons made about the effects of Iraqi democracy wouldn't have survived debate:

Neoconservatives widely predicted an easy occupation followed by an immediate peace, followed by "a flourishing democracy which would cause a domino effect across the region creating democracies elsewhere," said Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And then the very first foreign policy position taken by this new democratic Iraq, run by their exile friends, would be to recognize Israel, and that would somehow end the Arab-Israeli conflict, and bunnies would dance in the streets, and we would find life on Mars."

But of course, we didn't ever have a debate about this. In the post-9/11 climate of fear and horrific Judith Miller reporting, people got frightened into thinking that Iraq had WMD. When no WMD was discovered, the White House shifted to a democracy-promotion justification for the Iraq War. Conservatives got to act all high-and-mighty about the awesomeness of democracy, while ignoring the fact that they'd gone about promoting it in a terribly inefficient way. And at the time when we actually had to rebut their idiotic strategy for democracy-promotion, we had twenty thousand other things to complain about. So the debate about how to promote democracy never happened, and Bush was allowed to win it by default.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Social Security and the metaphysics of ownership

Like a good mischievous philosopher, I've been thinking of ways that we could give the "Ownership Society" people the metaphysical comforts that they want from Social Security while not actually changing anything. "Ownership Society" people are those who think something's gained when you change Social Security into a program where beneficiaries actually own the resources that fund their retirement, rather than having money dispensed to them by the government. Most people don't care about ownership versus entitlements -- they just care about being provided for in their retirement, and the distinction is immaterial to them. In fact, this entire post is probably worthless because "Ownership Society" people live only in the imagination of some Republican speechwriter. Anyway, the following is my plan to give Social Security beneficiaries ownership of actual assets (at least as much as the Bush plan does):

We issue all future Social Security beneficiaries a certificate entitling them to a chunk of money determined according to the formula for calculating Social Security benefits each month after they pass age 65. We don't have to actually give these certificates to people -- we can just keep them all in a vault somewhere in the names of their owners. The owners will be restricted from selling them to others and pocketing the money, to make sure everybody has the stuff they need for their retirement. Now rejoice, for they have ownership of the assets that provide for them in advanced age!

Keep in mind here that it's perfectly reasonable to call someone the owner of a thing she's never seen that just sits in a bank vault, which entitles her to a stream of funds from a third party, and which she can't trade to others for spendable money. If you use your private account under the Bush plan to buy shares in an income-oriented mutual fund, that's what you own. (Actually, I don't know if there's even a paper document that realizes the property of being a mutual fund share. For stocks there are stock certificates, but mutual fund ownership might just live in a computer somewhere.)

I'd hope to build ownership-person support for a system functionally identical to the status quo with this post, but since there are no ownership people, I just wasted a half hour.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In praise of the V-chip

Garance, Matt, and Kevin Drum are talking about whether Democrats should attack popular culture to win the parent vote. If we do it, let's do it with the V-chip.

If you're a recent grownup like me or Matt, you want to gain the political benefits of accommodating parental unease about pop culture while not getting rid of the awesomeness that is Grand Theft Auto. While you don't want to actually do anything that would restrict artistic brilliance and fun, it's important to have some nice legislative proposal you can push to show you're serious. Clinton's support for legislation mandating a V-chip in every TV was a great way to do this. It enabled him to empathize with all the concerned parents while not actually censoring anything. It'd be nice if one of our left-wing policy shops could think up some insignificant but cuddly-sounding proposals so we can do this thing again.

Monday, June 06, 2005

John Thune gets spiteful

Losing that South Dakota Senate race has turned out about as well as we could hope. This is mostly because Tom Daschle got replaced as Senate Democratic leader by the feisty Harry Reid. And now John Thune has decided to go through with his vengeful threat of retaliation against Bush for closing Ellsworth Air Force base after Thune campaigned on his ability to defend it:

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., says he'll vote against John Bolton, the president's embattled nominee to be United Nations ambassador. Thune does not discourage the notion that he's retaliating for a Pentagon decision to close a major Air Force base in his state. "I'm concerned about our diplomatic posture as a nation, and I'm concerned about our defensive posture," Thune says.

Hooray for you, Mr. Thune! A blessing to your petty and spiteful crusade. May it continue long!

[Update]: Dolphins protect their snouts with sponges.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Yglesias-Sinhababu Marx correspondence

So, I got a great email from Matt on my Marx post. It's below, and my reply follows.

Marx is often accused (ever since Bernstein and the revisionist Marxists of early 20th century Germany) of neglecting the fact that a democratic proletariat could simply vote to mitigate their living conditions, but that's not really where he went awry. What he thought was that as productivity increased, an ever-smaller workforce could produce enough stuff to meet aggregate world demand, leading to ever-increasing unemployment, declining consumer power, falling wages, and an inevitable economic collapse.

Then what would happen is that we would realize that we had all these capital goods lying around, all these unemployed people, all these productive workers, and that it would be easy enough to meet all of our needs by just abolishing ownership and letting everyone do their own thing.

And, indeed, despite the claim that "Communism doesn't work" it would actually be very easy for us to guarantee everyone a standard of living that would be quite comfortable by mid-19th century standards on an egalitarian basis.

What he missed was that productivity wouldn't decrease the size of the workforce needed to maintain a mid-19th century living standard, instead it would increase people's expectations of what constituted a viable standard of living. This is the old-time classical economic principle "Say's Law" which holds that supply generates its own demand. The trouble is that Say's Law seems to break down at times (e.g., the Great Depression) leading to the sort of deflationary spiral Marx worried about. This did, in fact, lead to calls for a Marx-style solution (see Upton Sinclair's EPIC plan) where you would solve the problem of unemployed workers and idle factories and farms by . . . giving the idle factories and farms to the unemployed workers. Fortunately, Keynes showed us that you can boost demand by manipulating interest rates and government spending and get out of these sinkholes.

The interesting issue is what sort of a law Say's Law is. It has a great deal of empirical support from history. Usually things do work out like this. But there isn't really a very sound mechanism to explain it. One would need some kind of account of human psychology to know whether or not it's ALWAYS the case that people will want more and more stuff. It seems at least possible that we COULD invent technologies (like Star Trek's replicators, robots to do personal service work, etc.) that adequately meet everyone's demands while only requiring a minimal amount of work gathering some kind of plentiful energy supply. Then what do you do? The Federation appears to operate along socialist lines of some sort where people compete for prestige rather than material rewards. But we never see very much of civilian life. What happens to people who don't happen to want a glamorous career exploring the stars? Are they sitting fat and happy back on earth, or are they horribly oppressed by the space traveling elite?

I respond:

Hey, thanks for all this, Matt!

I don't yet see how the objection about the democratic proletariat voting to improve their living conditions goes away. It's still true that as soon as you get a substantial number of impoverished voters, they'll vote themselves more good stuff, right? As you point out, the non-Say's-law framework implies that you do get lots of unemployment. But now they're unemployed happy people who have stuff, and I don't think people like that would start a revolution. Perhaps there are economic consequences I'm not seeing here. Or maybe if you put big emphasis on the claims about how we realize our species-essence in organized productive activity you can still get a revolution, since the unemployed proletarians will clamor for some way to engage in work. But it seems that they'd be happy to play basketball or D&D all the time instead.

I actually had never heard of Say's Law before, and I too am curious how robust a law it is and where it comes from. Personally, I'm not really a confirming instance of Say's Law -- I haven't cared enough to get electricity started in my apartment since I got back to Texas a month ago, and I hope to someday have so little stuff that I'll be able to keep it all in my office and live there. But I am unusual.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Where Marx was right (and wrong)

Looking back through the TAPPED archives, I found this from Matt:

Social Security survived the transition from a 16:1 worker/retiree ratio to a 3:1 worker/retiree ratio and now the Republicans expect us to believe that moving from 3:1 to 2:1 is impossible? The answer to the riddle, of course, is the magic of productivity growth. One worker circa 2005 -- armed with his higher median level of education, five decades of additional capital accumulation, massive technological improvements, and Flynn effect-driven increases in raw intelligence -- can produce the goods and services of many workers circa 1955.

One of my favorite things about Marx is his faith in capitalism. Really. Marx believed that capitalism was necessary, since it could develop the forces of production to such a high level of efficiency that eventually enormous resources could be cranked out at the flip of a switch. That's productivity, and it sure has increased under capitalism! Marx also was right about another, less pleasant feature of capitalism, at least in its purer forms -- it generates massive inequalities. That's why Marx saw late capitalism as a time when enormous resources would be generated, but they'd be concentrated in the hands of a few super-rich individuals. The proletarian majority would be huge and impoverished. But when they took over, they'd redistribute the awesome gains of the factories they took control of. Everyone would have enough and be happy, due to the awesome legacy of capitalism.

Marx was wrong in thinking that a sudden violent revolution would be necessary to generate a more equitable distribution of resources. In democracies, the proletarian majority can vote for laws that redistribute wealth down the income scale (Social Security, among other things) allowing them to get their share of the resources without any violent redistribution. Of course, some countries like Russia and China weren't democracies when the number of unhappy proletarians got big enough for revolution. So that's where you actually got Communist revolutions. I don't understand why Marx thought the proletariat would be held down until the resources were developed fully enough -- given that the rich would be at their weakest early on in capitalism when they didn't have such enormous resources to expend in their defense, it seems that jumping the gun was inevitable.

In Social Security, we can see where Marx was wrong and where he was right.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Evil bird attack

As I was walking back from dinner, sipping water and wondering how consequentialist ordinary moral intuition is, I felt something hit me hard in the back of the head. There was a high-pitched hooting and fluttering, and I realized that I'd been hit by a bird. This is the second time such a thing has happened to me, and as soon as I regained my composure I kept walking. Then the bird hit me in the head again. It fluttered away to a tree above me, and I yelled at it, "What the fuck is this?" It might have been an owl, though darkness prevented me from getting a good look at it. It sat there for a moment and then came down for a third time. I ducked, but spilled my water all over myself. Then I ran into a building.

Do any of you have insight on why owls would attack humans? There were no mice on my head. I can understand birds accidentally flying into my black hair on a dark night, but repeated attacks are an inexplicable new feature of avian-Neil relations.

[Update]: Sahotra Sarkar thinks the bird may have been freaked out by a big nocturnal animal (me) getting too close to its nest.


As an atheist, it's hard for me to get personally agitated about Koran desecration. Of course, it enrages Muslims and we don't want that, but I don't have a strong personal emotional reaction. So this list of offenses just strikes me as wacky:

In other confirmed incidents, water balloons thrown by prison guards caused an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; a guard's urine came through an air vent and splashed on a detainee and his Quran; and in a confirmed but ambiguous case a two-word obscenity was written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.

What the hell was going on over there?

Proper names

Garance applies the standard semantics for proper names to the verbal outputs of Republican consultant Lionel Sosa. This is an error.

After being very critical of John Kerry for lacking the kind of interpersonal warmth Hispanic voters want to see in a candidate -- and consequently the kind of credible, optimistic messaging -- Sosa seemed surprisingly bullish on Hillary Clinton...

It all comes down to self-image. As Sosa told me, "We may not be millionaires, but as long as the door is open we are equal to anybody in America." That's what people want to hear -- and how they want to be treated, too.

Now, whose message does that sound like? Warmth, optimism, the need for equality of opportunity... goes to show that when a Republican recommends a Democratic primary candidate by name, you have to interpret him as recommending a candidate to whom the name is not causally linked.

Writing at new places

I see that they've got TPMCafe going. I'm looking forward to more Mark Schmitt output, and I'm really happy that Matt Yglesias got such an awesome position as one of their featured bloggers.

One of the things I felt in my time guestblogging for Ezra was the way new environments reshape the way you write. It wasn't just a question of trying to write for Ezra's audience -- an audience which I take to be quite interested in arguments that advance the debate on substantive policy issues, as opposed to partisan rah-rahing or goofing around. (My Robby Gordon mockery was the only real departure, I think.) To a certain extent, Ezra's own past output constrained my output, and I felt some need to make my posts fit with his in style as well as content. This was a very good thing, since he's an excellent writer and I can profitably move in his direction.

I look forward to the time when Matt gets entirely comfortable writing in the Matt-style at TPMCafe -- I don't think it's happened yet. I think he's entirely comfortable on TAPPED:
My friend Julian Sanchez wrote a defense of judicial review for Reason a little while back that I also think is worth reading. The thing about Julian, though, is that he's a libertarian and Reason is a libertarian magazine. If I, like him, subscribed to a morally bankrupt fringe ideology I, too, would be a judicial review enthusiast because fundamentally (in the common-law context) it's a libertarian institution providing an additional check against government activism in all spheres.
I can see how writing at TPMCafe could shift your style in odd ways. He's in a new place with a whole bunch of heavy hitters. I wouldn't have thought of this before the guestblogging experience, but now I see it. (I hope the new typeface he's got at TPMCafe isn't swaying my opinion. I associate Matt pretty strongly with Arial, not TNR, and there could be some weirdness going on there.)

Update: Now I'm really worried that it's just the typeface.