December 30, 2008

Back Again

Just got back from a vacation in Mexico with the family. It was awesome.

December 18, 2008

Blaming the victim and taking responsibility

Last week, Cara at Feministe wrote a post criticising this Rolling Stone article on Proposition 8. Cara's criticism, in brief, was that Tim Dickinson was blaming the victim when he wrote things like these:

Don't blame Mormons or black voters - the California activists who tried to stop Prop 8 ran a lousy campaign

Prop 8 should have been defeated — two months before the election, it was down 17 points in the polls — but the gay-rights groups that tried to stop it ran a lousy campaign. According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote.

That is, Dickinson was arguing -- at least -- that gay activists could have done more or better to stop 8. Cara objects to the corollary -- actual or merely implied -- that gay activists are responsible for the passage of 8. Let's call the first one `Dickinson's thesis', and the second one `the corollary'. (Due to context and some specific sentences, Dickinson may actually be arguing for or believe the corollary as well. Let's ignore this for the purpose of this post.)

Now, in the comment thread, Cara seems to clarify that it really just is the corollary that she has a problem with, and not Dickinson's thesis. And I'm inclined to agree -- Dickinson's thesis is true, but the corollary is objectionable victim-blaming. The problem is a belief about responsibility that I suspect is widespread. As a first pass, the belief is that, if X could have done something that prevented a bad thing Y, and X did not, then X is responsible for Y. If we accept something like this -- and the qualifications we include don't rule out this particular case -- then we have an inference directly from Dickinson's thesis to the corollary.

The problem is more general for any leftist or progressive. We certainly want to claim that groups of oppressed people and their allies can and should do more to end their oppression, and we want to talk about successful and unsuccessful strategies for doing so. But we don't want to imply that oppressed people and their allies are responsible or blameworthy for their continuing oppression just because they haven't successfully ended it yet. To say that anti-poverty groups could do more to prevent poverty, that feminist groups could do more to prevent sexual assault, that anti-racist groups could do more to prevent the use of stereotypes in the mainstream media, or that worker's groups could do more to promote strong and active unions is not to say that anti-poverty groups are thereby responsible for continuing poverty, that feminist groups are thereby responsible for continuing sexual assault, that anti-racit groups are thereby responsible for the continuing use of stereotypes, or that worker's groups are thereby responsible for the degradation of union power.

One way to deal with the problem is to throw in such qualifications to the belief about responsibility as to block the inference -- it only applies to acting and not refraining, there's a distinction between practical and ethical responsibility, we need a clause about X's intentions, or whatever. However, as a pragmatist who denies the acting-refraining distinction, I don't like any of these qualifications, and I can't think of anything more promising.

Another way is to look more carefully at the other assumptions we are making about responsibility and blame in the corollary and the consequent of the belief about responsibility. If you read Cara's post and the ensuing comments carefully, you'll notice that I've slightly misrepresented the objectionable corollary. The problem isn't so much the responsibility or blameworthiness of opponents of 8. Cara's problem is the way Dickinson seems to deny proponents of 8 any responsibility or blameworthiness. That is, the objectionable corollary is really that conservatives are not responsible for the passage of 8. (Go back and read that first quoted sentence from Dickinson again.)

The solution to this problem is straightforward. The inference from the corollary about the opponents of 8 to that about the proponents of 8 assumes that responsibility is exclusive, ie, if agent X has responsibility for outcome Y, then any other agent Z does not have responsibility for outcome Y. And that's clearly a silly view.

Still, this doesn't seem to get at the heart of problem. Even if we admit that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression, there's something uncomfortable about saying that the oppressed are responsible for continuing oppression. While part of the problem with victim-blaming is the way it is often used to exculpate the oppressor, this is not the whole problem. Especially when the oppressed are trying (albeit failing) to end their oppression, it seems odd to say that they are responsible for continuing it.

In one of her last papers, Iris Marion Young developed a notion of `political responsibility' that she finds in Hannah Arendt. (`Responsibility and global labor justice', J Poli Phil, 12:4 (2004), pp 365-88) This notion of responsibility is meant to contrast with `responsibility as liability'. Briefly, while responsibility as liability is focussed on positive actions in the past by identifiable agents (individual or institutional) that lead (causally) to the current state of things, political responsibility is focussed on not-yet-realised courses of action that could bring about dramatic changes in the future.

Large parts of this notion seem to depend on a distinction between acting and refraining, so I can't take it up completely without serious modification. What I can do here is take up one central feature:

Political responsibility seeks not to reckon debts, but aims rather to bring about results, and thus depends on the actions of everyone who is in a position to contribute to the results. Taking political responsibility in respect to social structures emphasizes the future more than the past. Because the particular causal relationship of the actions of particular individuals or even organizations to the structural outcomes is often not possible to trace, there may be little point in trying to blame and exact compensation or redress only from a few who have caused the outcome. The point is not to blame people participating in the institutions and structures and produce injustice, because in many cases avoiding such participation is difficult or impossible. Having understood that structural processes cause some injustices, those participating in the production and reproduction of the structures should recognize that their actions contribute along with those of others to this injustice, and take responsibility for altering the processes to avoid or reduce injustice. (379)

Young says that political responsibility is `forward-looking', as opposed to the `backward-looking' responsibility as liability. It thereby disconnects responsibility from blame. This allows us to say that the oppressed have a responsibility to end their oppression, without inferring that they are blameworthy for not yet ending it.

An important corollary of this feature of political responsibility is that many of those properly thought to be victims of harm or injustice may nevertheless have political responsibility in relation to it. In a fault model of responsibility, blaming those who claim to be victims of injustice functions to absolve others of responsibility for their plight. In a conception of political responsibility, however, those who can properly be argued as victims of structural injustice can be called to a responsibility they share with others in the structures to engage in actions directed at transforming the structures. In the case of labor exploitation, the workers themselves ought to resist if they can by means of their own collective organization. Without the support of others taking responsibility for working conditions in ways that support them, however, they are less likely to succeed. (387)

There's one remaining problem, however. Either political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, or the two complement each other (say, responsibility as liability looking at how we got to where we are, and political responsibility looking at where we go from here). Neither is satisfying here. If political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, then we cannot infer from the responsibility proponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness for its passage. That is, we cannot say that conservative religious groups are to blame for the passage of 8. Or, more generally, we cannot say that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression. We've removed the link between responsibility and blame that allowed us to make those inferences in the context of responsibility as liability. On the other hand, if the two notions of responsibility complement each other, then we have not actually blocked the inference from the responsibility (as liability) opponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness. They're still liable for its passage, and hence still blameworthy. It doesn't seem enough to say that, in asking what to do now, blaming them isn't all that important or useful.

At root, I suspect the problem is that -- at least once we have removed the distinction between action and refraining, and partially discounted intentions -- the two notions of responsibility are symmetric, in that neither distinguishes between the responsibility of opponents of 8 and proponents of 8. Meanwhile, the `intuitions' that motivate the criticisms are built on an asymmetry between oppressed and oppressor. If this is right, then we cannot fix the notions of responsibility by reinstating the distinction between action and refraining, or looking only at intentions, since neither of these tracks the distinction between oppressed and oppressor. What we need is an account of responsibility that is sensitive to this last distinction. And that's something I'll need to think about more.

December 16, 2008

Secretary of food

Via Feminist philosophers and Nick Kristof, a petition calling for reforms to the Department of Agriculture in favour of `sustainability in agriculture, humane husbandry, food and renewable energy production that revitalizes our nation’s soil, air and water while stimulating opportunities for new farmers to return to the land'.

December 15, 2008

In (Very Slight) Defense Of Heroes

Ok, so tonight's episode was actually pretty decent. It took way too many episodes of crap to get here, but it is what it is.

What I really want to say is that there's a criticism of Heroes that I find entirely annoying and completely unfair. After every episode, there's a certain contingent of people online that start posting about how the recent episode or the current storyline is like storyline X from a comic. Indeed, the teaser for the next volume of the show, starting in '09, looks to borrow a turn or two from the classic Claremont story "Days of Future Past". But if you limited a show about super powered beings to stories which haven't been trodden in a comic at some point you'd have no stories at all. The problem with Heroes isn't that they've borrowed too liberally from comics, it's that they haven't learned enough from the great comics stories.

December 14, 2008

That Liberal Iraqi Media

I'm sure most of you have seen this, but here's an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush during his Farewell To Iraq tour. Maybe they can give that journalist David Gregory's slot on MSNBC now that he's taking over Meet The Press. This guy would certainly be more interesting. Link.

December 12, 2008

Theistic evolution

John Wilkins, blogger, philosopher of biology, and agnostic, has a post up on theistic evolution -- the view that natural selection (`Darwinism') and theism are compatible, because God can (somehow) use the mechanisms of natural selection to achieve God's ends, whatever those happen to be. Wilkins' argument is that theistic evolution, in order to be based on natural selection as biologists actually understand it, must include some rather stringent criteria that have some strong theological implications. In particular, he argues against a view he calls interventionist evolutionism, on which God is actively involved as a proximate efficient cause of at least some part of the process of natural selection. The alternative view -- which he doesn't name, but we can call non-interventionist evolutionism -- has God involved only insofar as God chooses to create a world in which random events turn out in such a way that the natural laws lead to the realisation of God's ends.

That will probably make sense only if you know a fair bit about how natural selection works and have read Augustine on free will. So, imagine natural selection as an extremely complicated progressive betting dice game. Every round, the dice are rolled, and your payoff (or loss) depends on the number showing and how you and the other players have done in the last few rounds. The interventionist God fixes the dice and makes players bet certain ways on every single round, while the non-interventionist God chooses the players (based on their betting habits) and loaded dice before the game starts, and then steps backs and lets things run of their own accord.

Wilkins' argument that interventionism `establishes a limitation to science, and is indistinguishable from special creation' and that, on the interventionist view, `to be a theist is necessarily to give up some of the explanatory power of science in favour of a providential account (which we cannot know anyway, because God's Ways are Mysterious)'. The idea seems to be that the interventionist God amounts to a supernatural black-box, into which natural science can never peer, and hence can never explain in full detail how an organism came to have this or that feature. Meanwhile, secular biology (and non-interventionism) can give these sorts of full-detail explanations, at least in principle, and so interventionism comes with the price of not being able to do everything secular biology (and non-interventionism) can do.

Those of you who were at UPS with me might remember a similar argument against creationism and intelligent design. (Yes, I know I made some pretty ridiculous claims in that paper. I was young, give me a break.) I still think this argument (suitably rewritten) is a strong one against creationism and intelligent design. But I don't think it's strong against interventionism. Wilkins is playing a double standard here, requiring the interventionist to give explanations that are very different from those of secular biology itself.

Let's consider how a creationist, an interventionist, and a secular biologist would all explain the evolution of the human eye. The creationist claims that God simply created humans, eyes and all, in one fell swoop. This is, as per my old paper, a completely unexplanatory `explanation'. God simply acts, and we can go into no further detail. The secular biologist gives us an elaborate structural narrative, describing the different structures of the human eye, the order in which they developed, and the selection pressures that lead them to have the features they do.

Such an explanation leaves open a lot of details for further research, while still being satisfying at a certain level. It does better, in both respects, than the creationist account. However, it does not offer an account of the history of the eye that can even hope to be accurate down to the last detail. What we will never get in this explanation is an account of the causal factors of the point-mutations in the DNA of our ancestors. Even if paleontology could give us the DNA of every single animal that was an ancestor of contemporary humanity, the causes of the genetic differences between those animals (errant high-energy photons, for example, or some virus) are lost forever. To go back to the gambling example, even if we knew the rules by which the gamblers bet and the result of every single dice roll, we could never hope to explain why the dice came up with the result they did. We will never get what we might call a complete causal history, either of the dice game or the human eye. While we can hope to get a structural explanation of incredible detail, we cannot hope to get a causal explanation.

Finally, note that the interventionist God is involved only at the causal level, not the structural level. Like rigging the dice on every round to get a specific result, this God fiddles with the DNA of creatures at the level of point-mutations. Hence, the interventionist can still hope to give a structural explanation at exactly the same level of detail as the secular biologist; similarly, her theological commitments imply that her hopes of giving a causal explanation break down at the same level of detail as those of the secular biologist, albeit for different (or additional) reasons.

We really shouldn't be surprised: A dark comedy in two acts

Act I:

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced major changes Thursday to the Endangered Species Act, causing environmental groups to charge that the "midnight rules" set to go into effect before President-elect Barack Obama takes office are intended to eviscerate the nation's premier wildlife-protection law.

The regulations eliminate a requirement that federal agencies seek review by government scientists before approving logging, mining and construction projects to make sure the activities don't endanger rare animals and plants.

In addition, the regulations say the law could not be used to protect polar bears, walrus, mountain frogs and other species vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

When challenged, Kempthorne argues that these changes have been made to `clear up confusion'.

Act II:

The Vatican on Friday said life was sacred at every stage of its existence and condemned artificial fertilisation, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and drugs which block pregnancy from taking hold.

What else is new, right? Go back and read it again. I missed it the first time, too.

It said most forms of artifical fertilisation "are to be excluded" because "they substitute for the conjugal act ... which alone is truly worthy of responsible procreation".

It condemned in-vitro fertilisation, saying the techniques "proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected and discarded."

So much for the argument that, if you don't like gay marriage because `they can't have kids', then you can't like an infertile straight marriage either. One man's modus tollens and all that. You can read all of Dignitas Personae here.

December 08, 2008

Obama Rocks A Zune

That's the rumor at least. Still loving my Zune. Maybe Obama and I can be Zune buddies. Link.

Really, two former university presidents should know better

Dumb editorial in the Boston Globe:

As college operates today, when you take summers and term-time breaks into account, virtually all BA-granting schools shift into low gear for about half the calendar year. At a first approximation, you could run two complete colleges, with two complete faculties, in the facilities now used half the year for one. That's without cutting the length of students' vacations, increasing class sizes, or requiring faculty to teach more. Simply by spreading the fixed costs of a campus over twice as many participants, you could make degrees meaningfully less expensive. More students could go to college and receive better educations.

First and foremost, we need to distinguish three basic kinds of facilities on a typical (residential) college campus: offices (and similar workspaces for faculty, staff, and administrators), classrooms, and dormitories (and dining halls and other facilities used by residential students). When Karelis and Trachtenberg (former presidents of Colgate University and George Washington University, respectively) point out that classroom instruction typically covers only about 30 weeks out of the year, they're talking about one use of one kind of building.

Office spaces are typically used throughout the year. I would estimate that the average faculty member uses her office somewhere between 40 and 45 weeks out of the year. While doubling the number of faculty might not require doubling the number of faculty offices, it would still require a massive physical plant investment. Staff, who don't have the flexibility of working from home, work around 50 weeks a year, depending on the university's vacation plan. (And let's not overlook the fact that twice the students and twice the faculty would also require about twice the staff -- or require them to work much, much harder than they do right now.)

Turn next to classrooms. Instructional time isn't the only time classroom facilities are used during the term. There are also two or three weeks of finals every year (depending on whether the school operates on semesters or quarters), plus a `reading period' where classrooms are used for review sessions leading up to finals week. All together, I'd estimate that classrooms are used for 3-5 weeks out of every year beyond the 30 weeks of instructional time. Take off a couple more weeks for university-wide vacations (eg, Thanksgiving and New Year's) and the need to actually maintain the classrooms, and I suppose you'd have just enough time (14-15 weeks) to squeeze in another term.

But class-related activities aren't the only things classrooms are used for. There are also debate tournaments, conferences, orientation activities for first-year undergraduates, alumni reunions, REUs, and summer camps. The more non-instructional activities the college or university wants to use its classrooms for, the more time has to be shaved off that extra session.

And finally there are dormitories, dining halls, the student union, and other such buildings used by residential students. Students typically use these facilities for at least a week before (for new students) and after (for graduating students) the regular academic year (and that's including finals). Depending on the size of the residential life staff, another week or two is necessary to clean and maintain these between academic years. This makes it logistically impossible to double the use of the dormitories, or even bring in another group of students for the extra summer session that is a substantial fraction of the regular-year group.

This is why -- at least in my experience -- colleges and universities don't use their dormitories to house (undergraduate) students during the summer, even when they have a summer session. Instead, those residential facilities are used as cheap and convenient housing for conference attendees, REU participants, summer camps, etc.

But this means that the number of students around to take advantage of a summer session is relatively small. And so, despite the complaints of Karelis and Trachtenberg, the typical summer session offers only a relatively small selection of non-specialised and introductory classes -- with only a fraction of your students around, it's hard to get a quorum of majors that can take an advanced upper-division seminar, but there are always people who need to take or re-take calculus.

So it would actually be quite difficult for most colleges and universities to roughly double their faculty and student body by adding additional sessions. There are ways to squeeze a few more efficiencies out, of course: more night and weekend classes could be adopted almost universally, and schools with a relatively small residential population (as is the case with many public universities) could offer a full slate of summer classes. But these are not going to result in a dramatic reduction of the cost of a college education. Karelis and Trachtenberg themselves give only one example -- Dartmouth, which requires students to take a full courseload one summer, in place of a regular-year term -- which increases enrollment by only 14%. Considering the effects of adopting such a plan on a medium-sized private university (George Washington), they estimate savings of only 1% of the endowment per year.

December 07, 2008


Metallica's "Death Magnetic" is pretty good. Certainly a ton better their last, "St. Anger".

December 06, 2008

Conscience clauses

So still-President Bush is trying to expand `conscience clause' rules, which permit health care workers (doctors and nurses) to refuse to participate `in any procedure they find morally objectionable'. (See, for more, this widely-linked piece in the LA Times.) The expansions would cover, not just carrying out procedures, but even providing information or advice about, eg, to whom to turn to have the procedure done. The expansion may or may not include pharmacists (you may remember some noise about pharmacists appealing to conscience clause reasoning in refusing to distribute birth control); since I'm going to be talking about this reasoning in general, I see no harm in including them as `health care workers'. Since the two sides of the dispute here should be obvious, I'll skip all that, and go right to the philosophy.

I assume, first, that there is something compelling about the claims made by conscience clause reasoning: if I really do see abortion as the intentional murder of an innocent human being, it's quite ghastly to force me to be materially involved, in pretty much any way, in carrying out an abortion. But I also assume, second, that we have some prima facie obligations to aid others in carrying out their projects, even (in some cases) when we think those projects are morally reprehensible. Such is the price we pay for living in a pluralistic liberal society. The question is: how do we balance these two compelling claims? (Let's just bracket the question of whether or not we're talking about the right of freedom of conscience itself. I find thinking in terms of `rights' to be too absolute for most purposes anyways; how could you possibly balance two conflicting yet equally absolute rights claims?)

Now, I think it's vital to distinguish between conscience clauses that allow individuals to refuse to participate in morally objectionable procedures and conscience clauses that allow institutions the same privilege of refusal. A patient confronting a recalcitrant and unhelpful (in the patient's eyes) physician, nurse, or pharmacist need, in principle, only find another, more helpful physician, nurse, or pharmacist (as appropriate) to achieve her aims while respecting the conscience of the first health care worker. And, except in a very small number of very rural communities or emergency cases (eg, late at night), this shouldn't be that hard to do.

Where this in-principle change of physicians gets fouled is when we move to the institutional level. It's not at all uncommon for all the hospitals in a town or small city to be owned and operated by religious organisations that are opposed to abortion and birth control. And when workers do have health insurance (though it's extraordinarily unlikely to cover either birth control or elective abortion), that insurance is usually tied to one particular local hospital. For the patient, it's no longer a matter of just walking down the hall; in the case of abortion, significant costs may be introduced by the institutional context, including the need to arrange time off work and pay for travel and lodging (not to mention the costs of the procedure itself).

In short, while there's a relatively large power differential between the patient and her physician, it pales in comparison to the power differential between the patient and the bureaucratic institutional context within which she must move. This suggests that the proper place to balance all these competing factors (the two compelling claims I identified above, plus the power differentials I've identified over the last two paragraphs) is at the institutional level. Finally, I assume a certain preference for individuals, namely, that respecting the moral views of whole institutions is less important, in general, than respecting the moral views and projects of individuals. This is especially so when there is a significant power differential between the individual and the institution.

Putting all of these considerations together, the following seems to be a reasonable preliminary compromise: A health care institution (pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, etc.) should be required to at least provide patients with information about where and how to obtain procedures and technologies that the institution itself considers morally objectionable. Individual health care workers need not be required to provide this information, so long as patients still have ready access to it. Larger institutions and oligopolistic institutions (eg, the two chains of pharmacies that have stores in a region, or a large regional system of hospitals) should also be required to actually make the procedures and technologies available, in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable fee.

Productive work, care work, and economic stimulus

Via Feministing, an Op-Ed by Randy Albelda in the Boston Globe. Albelda is arguing that all the talk of economic stimulus has focussed on keeping manufacturing jobs (the automakers, for example) and infrastructure projects, and that, since these industries are all male-dominated, the stimulus plans floated thus far are neglecting such female-dominated industries as education and health care (remember that the vast majority of people working in health care are secretarial staff, support staff, and nurses, who are all still much more likely than not to be women). They are thereby neglecting the large percentage of families with children (Abelda says 25%, which sounds about right) `headed and supported' by women.

At Feministing, Courtney responds as follows:

But we must not lose sight of the fact that caretaking, teaching, and wellness roles have been traditionally both imposed and embraced by women. Sometimes women have authentically been drawn to these fields; I certainly have female friends who love teaching, social work, and other caretaking professions. But some have been pressured into these professions along with traditional gender roles....

So, yes Albelda, let's pressure Obama to create lots of jobs in the educational and healthcare fields, but let's ask that his team do it, not because traditionally gendered jobs will continue perpetually to fall into "dude jobs" and "lady jobs," but because caretaking is valued as much as construction. And further, let's continue to support efforts like Men Teach and Non Traditional Employment for Women, that encourage both men and women to break out of traditional gender roles and follow their true calling.

I really only want to disagree with Courtney about three words. More specifically, her use of `but' in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and twice in the first sentence of the second paragraph. Using `but' in the way she does here, she suggests a dichotomy between (a) creating jobs in female-dominated fields as well as male-dominated fields in order to create jobs for both men and women, and (b) recognising that those gender disparities are unjust and therefore should be challenged.

But there's no dichotomy here. (a) is a short-term project, especially when we're talking about an economic stimulus plan with a horizon of about five years, while (b) is a very long-term project. (a) is exactly the sort of thing we want a progressive-minded welfare liberal/Keynsian state to be doing, while (b) is probably best accomplished by the sort of non-government insurgency groups Courtney names. Neither the plans themselves, nor their justifications, are in the least bit competitive. Indeed, I would claim that the two are mutually supporting: It's precisely because of the injustices associated with these gender disparities that pouring money into male-dominated fields, to the neglect of female-dominated fields, will benefit women less than pouring money into female-dominated fields as well. The barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers in construction, for example, are why it's important to create job opportunities for them in fields like education and health care, in the short term, even as we work to tear down these barriers in the long term.

December 04, 2008

December 02, 2008


Wow, no more election. My post count has dwindled even lower than it was pre-election, which was pretty sad to begin with. Sadly, full time jobs and blogging are hard to maintain, particularly when there's so little out there getting me riled up. I just can't get excited about the "Obama cabinet guessing game!" Wheee! Humbug.

Anway, I'm sure something will spark my interest soon. In the mean time, here's Play Auditorium, which is way awesome. Link.

Ford CEO comes down with a sudden case of egalitarianism


Ford's $2m-a-year chief executive, Alan Mulally, today vowed to work for an annual salary of just one dollar if the struggling US car maker has to take government money as part of a $25bn (£16.76bn) bail-out of the US car industry.

In a further move to woo congressional support Mulally has vowed to sell Ford's fleet of corporate jets, cancel next year's bonuses for global management and US employees as well as closing more plants, trimming its dealer network and stepping up its work on electric vehicles.

And the NYT:

The three men also had been criticized for flying corporate jets to Washington to ask for financial assistance. This week, Mr. Mulally plans to drive a Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle to Washington to testify a second time before Congress, and Ford said in its submission that it planned to sell all five of its corporate jets.

The company said that it would speed up its plans for electric vehicles, starting to introduce them in 2010. Ford will also invest up to $14 billion to improve fuel efficiency over the next seven years.

November 25, 2008

Ezra is puzzled

about why Clinton is headed to State:

Conventional wisdom, in this memo, was another way of saying 'Hillary Clinton, her foreign policy adviser, and the people who agreed with her about things.' And Obama just appointed her to the most important foreign policy position in the US government. She will have to carry out his overarching priorities, of course, but beneath that, she will have significant managerial autonomy, and considerable opportunity to use her judgment. The very judgment Obama oriented his campaign against. Which is not to say that this is a bad pick, or that Hillary Clinton will do a bad job. But it is a very sharp break with the Obama campaign's central message.

You mean, the central message that it's important to incorporate a wide range of points of view into the governance of the country?

And, pretty much what a guest blogger at Shakesville said:

Barack Obama has some really effective rhetoric for engaging the most energetic left flank of the Democratic Party, but beyond that rhetoric, he is fundamentally a principled incrementalist reformer with a deep affinity for coalition-building and compromise. This is not to say that he's a bad person or a liar or that I have anything other than the highest hopes for his presidency. It's simply to say that he's not the generational revolutionary he has been made out to be by some bloggers. Barack Obama isn't the angry young man who brings down the system and gives hope to a weary world, much to the dismay of angry young man bloggers everywhere. But anyone who wasn't deeply invested in their own projections and neuroses during the primaries should already know that, right?

I suppose the primary difference between most progressive bloggers and me is that I see `principled incrementalist reformer with a deep affinity for coalition-building and compromise' and I say `yay!' But then, I'm also the guy considering writing a dissertation on John Dewey.

PS also this

John Stuart Mill, je t'aime

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.

On liberty, 1859

November 13, 2008

Abortion and Obama

A friend of mine -- a leftist Catholic theologian who, I believe, is pro-life -- posted this open letter to Obama on Facebook a few minutes ago. The argument, in essence, is that the new administration can win a great deal of support from pro-life evangelicals and Catholics, but liberal and conservative, by building its approach to abortion policy around `reducing the number of abortions, for instance initiatives to help facilitate adoption, provid[ing] care for pregnant women and children, of a kind that will make it easier for women with troubled pregnancies to keep their children, introduc[ing a] sex education curriculum that teaches responsibility and the sacredness of sex that [Obama] ... talked about in [his] campaign'. That is, through policies that have a more-or-less immediate effect of reducing the incidence of abortion, while still being consistent with the basic pro-choice position.

I meant to write a post about abortion and Obama before the election, but never got a chance. One of the few benefits of being a leftist, pro-choice atheist at Notre Dame this past election cycle has been watching -- and helping -- my colleagues and students think through how to weigh their profound opposition to abortion against their otherwise generally Democratic-leaning views. I actually discussed the line of thought in this letter with my students in a special section of class, and with a couple of my fellow grad students over Facebook.

Some of my interlocutors did not find it convincing. They felt that either the symbolic value of an abortion ban -- or overturning Roe -- would be too important, or that Obama's voting record suggested he would not actually implement these sorts of policies recommended in this letter. I certainly respect their opinions, even as I don't understand the first (that's a pragmatist for you!) and think the second is too speculative.

But many did find it at least very compelling. And about five weeks ago I came to the same conclusion as the author of this letter: I think a genuine overlapping consensus -- an agreement at the level of public policy acceptable to all reasonable views -- is possible in the abortion debate. I don't think it's yet clear what the content of that overlapping consensus will be. That will require a lot of time and a lot of work, both intellectual and emotional. And what I'm seeing, from both pro-life and pro-choice camps, is not a willingness to compromise. Instead, there is a willingness to deliberate, to respectfully speak to and listen to each other and identify points of agreement. I'm optimistic that this will be the great social project of our generation, the détente of the culture wars, that Obama can (and, even more, will) be the leader who takes us in that direction at a national level, and that the recommendations of this letter are the right first step.

November 12, 2008

Bowling Alone and the `culture of death'

From this review on Pandagon.

If you’re succumbing to depression because of the sterile, lonely world you live in, rhetoric that promises, “Join us and your world will be teeming with life,” starts to sound good, no matter how illogical it is. I think most of us can sympathize with this problem. It also goes a long way to explaining how easy it is to freak out members of the religious right with sexual fantasies about all the crazy shit other people are supposedly doing. If you feel isolated from others, it’s much easier to imagine that their behavior is strange and inhuman. Merely knowing some gay people and seeing they don’t have fangs or scales goes a long way towards calming fears stoked by the religious right.

(And, if you don't get the post title.)

I agree with Amanda/her reading of Hedges up to this point. But I find the conclusion they draw from this analysis, frankly, horrifying: `he strongly suggests that people interested in an open society give up the idea that we can have some sort of discourse with people on the religious right'. After all, isn't increasing marginalization and alienation of anyone just going to exacerbate the root cause they've identified here?

November 11, 2008


I'm continually baffled by conservatives. Right now, conservatives are up in a huff about the Obama Administration bringing back the Fairness Act, which they have no stated intention of doing. They're all lathered up about the fact that Obama's podium during his first press conference said "Office of the President-Elect" when, I guess, there's officially no such thing in the government. That Obama is the Presiden-Elect and has an office is, I guess, not an adequate rebuttal. And now a Republican Congressman is suggesting that President Obama wants to establish his own Gestapo.

I had a conversation with a Republican the other day, and I told him that what I find most frustrating about his party is that there's a non-insignificant portion of his party which is ignorant. He threw up his arms in frustration. Danced about the room as if a great offense had taken place. "No, no, no, Ben! They're not ignorant!" He protested. "They just disagree with you!"

"No," I replied, "on some issues you are right and I'm willing to have an honest disagreement with anyone. Still, on some issues there are a non-insignificant portion of the Republican electorate which is ignorant. And it's not that there aren't ignorant Democrats. 9/11 conspiracy theorists and people who think President Obama is going to pay their mortgage for them are ignorant. The difference is that national politicians like President Obama and the national party, when they run, they run to the center; as far from they crazies as they can get. Republicans run to the right, right into the arms of their crazies, and sometimes elect them to office.

November 10, 2008

The REAL Problem With "Heroes"

They should have just hired me as the show runner back in Season 1. Seriously, at every staff meeting someone would say, "Hey, but what if X?" to which I would reply, "No, that's dumb." I'm sure the end result would be a much better show.

November 08, 2008

November 07, 2008

A superficial explanation of the fundamental difference between supply-side and demand-side economic stimulus theory

Supply-siders believe that economic productivity is driven from the top: that capitalists will take their new tax breaks (or whatever the stimulus mechanism is), invest in expanding their businesses and increasing production. Then, because this generally requires employing more people, unemployment will drop, the middle class will expand, and demand will be increased indirectly. The problem here is that the capitalists will often actually use their increased income to increase their personal spending rather than invest in expanding their firms, ie, the luxury yacht market will do great, but that's about it.

Demand-siders believe that economic productivity is driven from the bottom (or, more accurately, the middle): that the poor and workers will take their new government aid (or whtever the stimulus mechanism is), buy more food, more clothes, better housing, and generally creating more demand. Then, because this generally requires producing more stuff, businesses will have an indirect incentive to expand, and unemployment will drop. The problem here is that putting more money into the hands of consumers causes inflation.

Is racism over?

That depends on what you mean by `racism'. Are there still large numbers of racists -- people who hold racist views? Well, duh. Do they still hold anywhere near as much power today as they did twenty or forty years ago? Obama's election suggests that the answers here is clearly no. And, as much as Obama's presidency will go towards marginalizing those views (and hence, one imagines, decreasing the number of people who hold them), it will not completely eliminate or completely marginalize them. Remember that some people still think of Martin Luther King primarily as a disruptive anarchist/socialist.

But limited-albeit-sweeping progress in these two respects isn't the full picture of race in American society. As brownfemipower recently put it,

I woke up far too early this morning, and thus was incredibly beyond cranky at all the white folks speculating if racism is…could it be…DEAD???? Because, you know, if one black man could make it as a president, Katrina didn’t *really* happen just years ago. And racism only exists in the form of some ancient by-gone problem of the black community not being able to vote, right?

And, to borrow the fantastic phrase of a recent acquaintance, the elimination of racism in American society is not the elimination of structural racial injustice. Poverty, education, disaster relief, crime and punishment, the recession (honestly, the technical definition is just not helpful; let's drop the euphemism already) -- all these and more are experienced differently depending on one's race or ethnicity (and gender, sex, ability and economic class, of course). Even if racist beliefs or intentions no longer play an important role in causing injustice, injustice still has a racial aspect that cannot be ignored.

November 05, 2008

Prop 8 And Obama

As excited as I am about Obama's victory yesterday, I am really disheartened at the success of Prop 8 in California. I would have thought, as did many I think, that California would be a leader on this issue. Ok, maybe not a leader as in being the first, but as a high populous, liberal state affirming the rights of gays and producing a huge amount of gay marriages which could show the rest of the country that there's nothing to fear. I mean, if Prop 8 can pass while Obama takes 60% of the state's popular vote, well, that just really troubles me.

In fact, I think this issue is going to be tabled nationally for a while. If we can't rely on a big liberal state like California to welcome gay marriages, then it's hard to argue this issue on a national scale. Fighting hard for gay marriage nationally would probably cost Obama a huge amount of political capital and I'm not even sure anymore if he could come out the other side winning the day. Maybe we can get hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, etc. That wouldn't be nothing, but it's far short of the goal and it's far short of what's right.

This issue will be Obama's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

One Last Thing, Then Bed

Oh, it looks like (looks!) Prop. 8 in California, which would ban gay marriage in the state by Constitutional Amendment, is going to fail. Hooray!

Update: Nope, I was wrong (and I suppose, so was the story I had read online late last night). Prop 8 failed, but Props 1 & 2 passed. Small consolation, but there it is.

Obama Wins

And wow, that was a great acceptance speech. After eight years of rolling my eyes or becoming legitimately afraid every time the President addressed the nation, it was an amazing feeling to be so inspired by a leader.

November 04, 2008

October 30, 2008

Elections In Azeroth

How many electors does Azeroth get? Link.

October 28, 2008


This last weekend I told my friends about an idea that I had had: That if Obama is elected, MSNBC will be transformed into a respectable news station just as Fox was under the Bush Administration. Before 2001, Fox was a joke. Everyone knew they were just a collection of right wing nutjobs with an insane drive to take down Clinton. With Bush in the Whitehouse, however, suddenly they were getting all kinds of increased access. Fresh talking points came to Fox first. Politically powerful people did interviews on Fox shows. Everyone knew they were still hardcore to the Right, but they were legitimized by the patronage of the powerful.

This, I theorized, is about to happen to MSNBC, which floundered for several years as the poor man's CNN until after 2004, when their primetime programming started drifting leftwards. But in an era of conservative dominance they weren't taken seriously. Keith Olberman was just the angry guy with no ratings. Chris Matthews was (and to some extent remains) a hack with a penchant for man crushes on tough-seeming pols. But it's all about to change, I said. Scoffed at, I was. Difficult to see. Always in motion, the future is. Where was I?

Oh, well now MSNBC is beating FOX in primetime four out of ten days. That's not dominence, but it's not nothing. Oh, and with a week left in the most important election in his lifetime, where is Obama going for an interview? Rachel Maddow.

October 23, 2008

My Bad Dawgs

I accidentally slept in. We'll get 'em next time though, right? Link.

Who's Elitist Now?

Look, I don't care about gaudy shopping sprees on the Republican contributor's dime. I'm sure a few of them might not like having bought ridiculously expensive clothing for the VP candidate and her humongoid family, but it's just not a big deal to me, personally. But I remember not too long ago we heard all kinds of outrage about Obama buying expensive Burberry suits. Can we at least now get a break from the elitist rap? Of course not...that'd be silly.

October 22, 2008

The wealthiest, most powerful third-world nation

Two things from this Guardian piece:

In a survey of 120 major cities New York was found to be the ninth most unequal in the world and Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, and Miami had similar inequality levels to those of Nairobi, Kenya and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Many were above an internationally recognised acceptable 'alert' line used to warn governments.

"In western New York state nearly 40% of the black, Hispanic and mixed-race households earned less than $15,000 compared with 15% of white households. The life expectancy of African-Americans in the US is about the same as that of people living in China and some states of India, despite the fact that the US is far richer than the other two countries," it said.

Obnoxiously, the article provides no information that you can use to actually find and read the report they're summarising. (It's from a `new United Nations report on the urban environment'. Thanks, John Vidal!)

October 16, 2008

OMFG! Obama campaign and NYT both use the English language!

Truly, truly damning evidence that the NYT is in the tank for Obama: both the Obama campaign talking points and the NYT debate preview
  1. quote John McCain!
  2. mention the economy!
  3. talk about the McCain campaign's ineffective negative campaigning!
  4. use punctuation!
  5. spend lots of time praising Obama's `Rescue Plan for the Middle Class'!

Oh, wait, no. Not that last one. The Times doesn't so much as mention Obama's economic policies. Via Pandagon.

David Brooks doesn't believe that he believes the things that he believes

Things like this

In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

would come across as a lot less disingenuous if they weren't written by the guy who said this just over four months ago:

Well, the movement [Obama's primary campaign] hit some natural parameters among highly educated, affluent people, people who live in places like Portland, Oregon. There is a movement, and that movement is still going on. And it's big. It's a big, historic movement, but the magic is not felt by a lot of people. It's not felt, obviously, by a lot of less educated people, downscale people. They just look at Obama, and they don't see anything. And so, Obama's problem is he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee's salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there. And so he's had to change to try to be more like that Applebee's guy, and as he's done that, he's become much more transactional, much more, "I'm going to deliver this, and this, and this for you" on policy.

The Debate

After every debate of the presidential election this year the media has called it a win for McCain/Pailin, and then polls following the debate show that Obama/Biden won all the debates by double digits. You'd think that would have given commentators pause yesterday before saying that McCain beat Obama and gave his best performance, but it didn't and then they were all shocked, *shocked*, when the snap polls showed Obama winning by around 30 points. Link.

October 12, 2008


I'm not as hesitant as Erza to withhold credit from John McCain for telling his supporters to back off some of the crazy things they've been saying at his rallys. Yeah, he's really the source for a lot of what his supporters are going around saying. Still, the news is only partially going to be that McCain is being reasonable. Mostly it's going to be that he doesn't think people need to be scared of an Obama presidency and doesn't think Obama is a terrorist. To a certain extent, I think this undercuts his own campaign's ads. Link.

On a related note, I'm absolutely *done* with people talking about how negative "this campaign" has gotten. 100% of McCain's ads lately have been negative against Obama while 33% of Obama's ads have been negative against McCain. That's simply not equivalent, which would justify talking about "the campaign" in general terms applying to both candidates. McCain has gone completely negative and Obama is responding while continuing to put out a positive message.

I'm Back!

Ugh, my laptop, which was running perfectly fine even though it was around four years old, fell a week or so ago and was irreparably damaged. So here I am, blogging on my fancy new desktop computer! Anyway, I'll certainly be around more now.

P.S. I haven't been able to play anything close to modern PC games for a long time, so if anyone has any recommendations, I'm open. I just picked up Sins of a Solar Empire. Noumena, how are you liking Spore? I certainly salivated over that game for a long time.

Feed The Animals

Thanks NPR! I heard about DJ Girl Talk's new mashup album, "Feed The Animals" on, I think, Radio Times the other day. If you're into mashups at all it's worth checking out, particularly as he's distributing the album on a donation basis. But let me say that if this album doesn't make you feel like dancing, or at least bob your head, you have the emotional capacity of Data pre-emotions chip. Link.

October 03, 2008

The cause of the housing market meltdown, according to libertarians

Conventional wisdom blames the collapse of the housing market -- and, thereby, the broader credit market collapse which appears to be about to drive us into recession -- on the deregulation of the mortgage and financial industry that, first, allowed lenders to offer homeowners ill-advised mortgages and, second, allowed financiers to build complex investment instruments on top of these ill-advised mortgages. Or, as an economist writing for that most infamous of socialist organisations, the Bank for International Settlements (an international organization of central banks), put it (PDF),

Compared with other countries, the United States seems to have: built up a larger overhang of excess housing supply; experienced a greater easing in mortgage lending standards; and ended up with a household sector more vulnerable to falling housing prices.

Since the obvious long-term remedy on this account -- stronger government regulation of the housing market -- is antithetical to libertarian principles, I've been wondering for the past week what libertarians think caused this mess, and what should be done (including nothing because the market will sort itself out, &c.). Not so much that I've bothered to ask any of my libertarian friends. Just an idle curiosity. In particular, after reading Andrew Leonard's schadenfreudisch announcement that deregulation is, essentially, dead, I wandered over to Reason. Where I read this:

Easy money from the Federal Reserve, coupled with easy credit provided indirectly via the Community Reinvestment Act and directly via government-sponsored-enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac created an unsustainable housing bubble. By corrupting the standard of value and bullying financial institutions into giving loans to the unqualified, these government actions distorted relative prices and caused generalized errors in economic calculations and investment decisions.

Now, the next paragraph is an argument that the just-passed bailout plan is tantamount to Soviet-style economic planning. And he later misconstrues the bailout as `[a]llowing investment banks to go to the government for a $700 billion line of credit'. So perhaps your sensible intellectual libertarian isn't going to consider this the libertarian analysis of the housing market over the last five years.

But what the hell. Let's take a closer look at the account. If it's right, the housing bubble was created by a confluence of three factors. We'll take them one at a time.
  1. `Easy money from the Federal Reserve'

    I simply have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The Fed does three things: buy and sell US treasury securities on the open market, make short-term loans to private banks so they can maintain liquidity, and specify the amount of funds banks must keep on hand (ie, not loan out). They don't just give money away.

  2. `easy credit provided indirectly via the Community Reinvestment Act'

    The Community Reinvestment Act is a 1977 bill designed to prevent redlining -- offering borrowers worse terms on their mortgages based on their race, ethnicity, or neighbourhood. The idea, I guess, is that requiring banks to offers loans based on quantifiable criteria effectively required them to offer loans that lenders couldn't pay back. I'm far from an expert, but the quotations, paraphrases, and references on this Wikipedia page seem to be telling: there appears to be a great deal of empirical evidence against this claim, and little to none in support of it.

  3. `easy credit provided ... directly via government-sponsored-enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac'

    Again, I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. `Fannie Mae receives no direct government funding or backing; Fannie Mae securities carry no government guarantee of being repaid. This is explicitly stated in the law that authorizes GSEs [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac], on the securities themselves, and in many public communications issued by Fannie Mae.' So neither is government sponsored. At least in any sense of the term that would imply they receive sponsorship from the government. They also don't provide credit. They buy mortgages in the secondary market, ie, from the lenders that do provide credit. This helps create liquidity, thereby making it easier to get a loan -- not because the loan costs less, but because lenders have more money with which to make loans.

So. `The' libertarian account blames the housing market collapse on government interference, in the form of three purported causal factors. Two of which are incoherent on their face, and third that seems to lack empirical support. Maybe I'm missing something, but it's not exactly a compelling laissez-faire alternative to mainstream narrative.

By the way, if you were wondering how our Reason writer would actually fix the mess, he says we need `a more rational conversation about how to remove real barriers to better-functioning markets'. I'm guessing this translates into `talking the markets up' and more deregulation.

October 01, 2008

Palin wants abortion to be both illegal and legal

From the last part of the Palin-Couric interview:

Couric: But ideally, you think it should be illegal for a girl who was raped or the victim of incest to get an abortion?

Palin: I'm saying that, personally, I would counsel the person to choose life, despite horrific, horrific circumstances that this person would find themselves in. And, um, if you're asking, though, kind of foundationally here, should anyone end up in jail for having an … abortion, absolutely not. That's nothing I would ever support.

To be fair, she never comes out and says that she thinks abortion should be illegal. But the alternative just makes her `pro-life' position vapid rather than incoherent -- which doesn't strike me as a significant improvement.

September 27, 2008

Google officially opposes Prop. 8

Read the post here.

Prop. 8 is the ballot initiative in California to overrule (if that's the right term) the finding earlier this year that the state's gay marriage ban is (was) unconstitutional. Google have just announced their opposition to Prop. 8. This is interesting to me -- not only as a Californian in exile who happens to also be opposed to Prop. 8 -- but because, a few months ago, Notre Dame switched its student email system to gmail. And, of course, while opposition to gay marriage isn't as big an issue here as abortion, contraception, and premarital (straight) sex, I doubt the conservatives are going to be thrilled with Google. I'll certainly let the one person who reads this blog know of any cranky letters to the editor in the student paper.

September 26, 2008

Cue uncontrollable giggling fit

Again, from the Couric-Palin interview:

It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border.

Oh noooooes!


Via Shakespeare's Sister, an excerpt from Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin:

Couric [on tape]: Why isn't it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with healthcare, housing, gas, and groceries—allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy—instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

Palin [on tape]: That's why I say, I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bailout. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are [glances down] concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed [glances down] to help shore up our economy. [glances down] Helping the—oh, it's got to be about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So healthcare reform [glances down] and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief [glances down] for Americans, and trade we've—we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing, but 1 in 5 jobs being created in the trade sector today. We've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout [is a part of that].

September 23, 2008

AO Scott on Lee's Do the right thing

Spike Lee's Do the right thing is one of my favourite films of all time, for far too many and far too complex reasons to go into here. I just wanted to point everyone to
this video of AO Scott, film critic for the New York Times, discussing Do the right thing and the state of race relations today. Note that the clips in the video amount to some fairly significant spoilers.

September 21, 2008

I do not think that word means what you think it means: `Ordinary' edition

Copy from a Facebook ad for Heroes: `Are you the one person on the planet who isn't already a fan? Don't be ordinary. Be extraordinary. Become a fan now.'

I'm not an economist, but I play one on the internets

Paul Krugman (whom, let me be clear, is not the `I' of the title of this post) has been working on a nice series of blog posts commenting on the impending bailout. He gives a nice, rigorous version of the basic liberal problem with the plan in its current form: it's a huge transfer of wealth to the already extraordinarily wealthy people in the finance industry who got themselves (and us) into this mess, with absolutely no guarantee of success.

In the linked post, Krugman breaks the situation down into a cascade of four stages:

1. It all starts with the bursting of the housing bubble. This has led to sharply increased rates of default and foreclosure, which has led to large losses on mortgage-backed securities.

2. The losses in MBS, in turn, have left the financial system undercapitalized — doubly so, because levels of leverage that were previously considered acceptable are no longer OK.

3. The financial system, in its efforts to deleverage, is contracting credit, placing everyone who depends on credit under strain.

4. There’s also, to some extent, a vicious circle of deleveraging: as financial firms try to contract their balance sheets, they drive down the prices of assets, further reducing capital and forcing more deleveraging.

The current Bush administration plan targets stage 4 by attempting to set a sufficiently high floor in the prices of `toxic' assets (that is, mortgages with such egregious terms that the homeowners may not be able to afford to pay them, and derivatives based on those mortgages; isn't it great how the financial difficulties of working class people are being reframed as `toxic' for the wealthy and powerful?). Krugman's points out that, if this floor is too low, it might not do much to help out struggling firms.

As an alternative, he suggests intervention at stage 2. Rather than becoming the buyer of last resort for these `toxic' assets, he wants `public injections of capital, in return for a stake in the upside'. I assume it would work something like this: to deleverage (move the balance sheets from red to black), firms with `toxic' assets would issue more stock (rather than selling those assets), and the US government would be a (or the) major buyer of that new stock. That way the struggling firms get black balance sheets now, and when their stock prices go back up, the government can gradually sell those stocks and get a nice little return on the investment. According to Krugman, compared to the Bush administration plan, this plan is not as risky, is more likely to be successful, and doesn't involve just handing nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money over to the `geniuses' in the financial industry with no strings attached.

Another possibility -- that I'm surprised to see no-one making at all on the lefty blogs -- is an intervention at stage 1. Rather than bailing out the wealthy idiots who caused this problem, why don't we help out the people who are likely to default on their mortgages? If these mortgages aren't in danger of failing, or failing as dramatically, the assets based on them are no longer toxic, or as toxic.

There are two obvious ways of doing this, corresponding to two radically different ways the government could intervene in the borrower-lender relationship. First, the government could give a direct cash infusion, covering the gap between what the homeowner can pay and what the terms of the mortgage require. Second, the government could change the terms of the mortgage, eg, negotiating a lower rate.

I actually don't like this plan, whichever of the two strategies it adopts. This is because it not only fails to deal with the ultimate underlying problem, but it can actually exacerbate the underlying problem.

Go back and look at stage 1 in Krugman's list. This all started with the housing bubble -- the inflation of housing costs, especially the cost to buy a house, over the past 20-25 years, especially in places like California and large cities (SF, LA, Chicago, the Acela cities, etc.). A wide variety of serious development and environment issues -- the spread of suburbs, the proliferation of single-driver cars, car-based rather than pedestrian-based communities, etc. -- are connected with the housing bubble in various ways, and a contraction in housing prices is, frankly, necessary for addressing most of them in any effective way.

But addressing stage 1 of the current crisis by preventing mortgage failures in pretty much any way is maintaining housing prices at the current inflated level. It's preventing the deflation in home prices that is necessary to get people to move out of the suburbs and back to the cities.

I genuinely feel for the people who have already and will lose their homes due to predatory lending practices. Owning a home is an important part of the ideal of American middleclassness to a lot of people, and, more pragmatically, declaring bankruptcy also completely ruins your ability to get credit. (Although pretty much no-one can get credit at this point -- which is the part of this whole mess that has the wealthy and powerful worried.) But owning a home is, ultimately, not that important, especially when it's owning in a home in a bedroom `community' built on top of a paved-over wetland.

Let me make one final point. Perhaps everyone in the leftist blogosphere has already realised everything I've said in this post. Still, it's something we -- including the leftist blogosphere, but also the citizenry of this country as a whole -- need to be talking about, if for no other reason than it gets us thinking about the nature of the problem. Right now, the mainstream discourse seems to be all about `fixing' the economy. But fixing something requires first having an explicit idea of what the thing is supposed to do, and how it does it. The mainstream discourse doesn't talk about what the economy is supposed to do, much less what we want the economy to do. Do we want it to produce and distribute lots of cheap consumables -- cheap food, cheap clothes, cheap houses, cheap electronics? Or do we want it to go for quality rather than quantity? Simply getting the finance industry `working' the same way it has been for 25 years isn't fixing the industry if it's been radically dysfunctional for that period of time.

September 20, 2008

Hacking on autism

Evidently, the philosopher of science Ian Hacking has been doing some thinking -- and writing -- about autism as of late. So, via the philosophy blog What Sorts of People, here is a post on Ian Hacking on what do we know about autism?, with an accompanying link to a fascinating book review in the LRB.

More from Latin America: Unions in Colombia

To balance out the anti-Chavez post below, here's an anti-capitalist article in The Guardian, on the literally life-and-death struggle to unionise workers in the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia:

The Colombian paramilitary groups were spawned in the conflict between the state and revolutionary guerrillas. In 1982, officers under General Landazábal, the defence minister, worked with multinationals and cattle ranchers to organise and fund "defence groups". Ostensibly they were to fight leftwing insurgent groups, but increasingly the paras, as they are known, became entwined with the drug cartels and the army. They formed death squads, attacking and killing anyone considered to support the leftwing guerrillas - basically anyone working in human rights or trade unions. It is a common refrain among the establishment and security forces that the guerrillas and trade unionists are one and the same.

Carlos Castaño, leader of the paras, claimed that 70% of his organisation's funding came from the cocaine industry. But he was also an ardent supporter of neoliberal economic policies and of multinational investment in Colombia - so why shouldn't national and international companies support them? In a newspaper interview, Castaño maintained there was always a reason for the paras' attacks. "Trade unionists, for example. They stop the people from working. That's why we kill them."


What was the Coca-Cola Company's response? Its website displays the only public audit by the Coca-Cola Company into their bottlers in Colombia. This was conducted in spring 2005, more than eight years after Isidro Gil was shot dead. Intriguingly, the audit conducted by the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation focuses on compliance issues: the report notes several health and safety breaches, including the absence of a protective guard on a syrup container at one plant, the incorrect number of fire extinguishers at two plants, and incorrect documentation for an employee at one plant. I am happy to report that the appropriate remedial action has been taken to comply with health and safety regulations. To this day the Coca-Cola Company itself has not investigated the alleged links of Colombian bottling plant managers with the paramilitaries.

Oh Venezuela

De Le Monde:

Le gouvernement vénézuélien a expulsé, vendredi 19 septembre, les deux membres d'une délégation de Human Rights Watch (HRW) qui avaient présenté, la veille à Caracas, un rapport accusant le régime du président Hugo Chavez d'avoir "affaibli les institutions démocratiques et les droits de l'homme".

On Thursday, September 19, the Venezuelan government expelled the two members of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation who had presented a report the previous day in Caracas accusing the regime of President Hugo Chavez of ``weakening democratic institutions and human rights''.

Le ministre [vénézuélien des affaires étrangères, Nicolas Maduro] a fustigé "ces groupes qui se font passer pour des défenseurs des droits de l'homme" et qui "sont financés par les Etats-Unis". " Ils suivent, a-t-il dit, une politique visant à attaquer les pays qui construisent de nouveaux modèles économiques." Le 11 septembre, Caracas avait expulsé l'ambassadeur américain, par solidarité avec la Bolivie qui venait d'en faire de même.

The [Venezuelan] minister [of foreign affairs, Nicolas Maduro] thrashed ``these groups that pretend to be defenders of human rights'' and that ``are financed by the United States''. They followed, he said, a political aim of attacking those nations that are constructing new economic models. On September 11, Caracas expelled the American ambassdor, in solidarity with Bolivia, who had just done the same.

(My translations.)

September 17, 2008

Reason on Palin

Cathy Young, a `contributing editor' of the libertarian magazine Reason, has a piece in said magazine arguing that Sarah Palin is `a feminist hero'. Why? Let's work through the list.
  1. While anti-abortion, she belongs to a group called Feminists for Life.

    Feminists for Life's feminist credentials are themselves a little sketchy. Not too long ago, FfL's website prominently featured long-since-disproven and dubious claims about, for example, connections between abortion and breast cancer and abortion and depression. They've since removed these claims, but at the very least a sceptical eyebrow should be raised.

  2. more representation for feminism across the spectrum of political beliefs is a good thing

    This is question-begging. Of course women can and do disagree about all kinds of beliefs. And of course feminists support women making up their own minds. But this doesn't mean that any woman with political beliefs is ipso facto a feminist.

  3. Palin is a mother of five who resumed an intensive work schedule days after giving birth, and whose husband seems to be a full partner.

    Fair enough. But it's one thing for Palin to be a symbol of a successful balance between family and career and another for her policy positions to give other women the same opportunities. And given McCain's opposition to the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (I can't find any solid information on what Palin thinks of Ledbetter), comprehensive sex ed, expanded federal education funding, etc., it's hard to see what policies she could support that would give other women these same opportunities.

  4. the hypocrisy of feminist liberals who deploy sexist weapons against her

    At this point in the piece, Young has apparently decided she'd rather attack `the feminists' than defend Palin. But fine, let's see what these sexist attacks are: Novelist Jane Smiley called Palin `arrogant'. A sex educator/UU minister and the former editor of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, YM and Us Weekly both called her a bad mother. And Gary Kamiya wrote a piece on Salon about Palin titled `The Dominatrix'.

    Maybe Young just doesn't understand that there are subtle but important distinctions between feminists, women, and Gary Kamiya?

  5. The Biden-sponsored VAWA represents a toxic mix of gender-war feminism that treats such crimes as acts of patriarchal oppression rather than individual wrongdoing, and paternalism that sees women as deserving of special protection

    This tangent seems to have mutated into a non sequitur.

  6. Palin represents by far the better version of female empowerment

    This is from the penultimate sentence of the piece, which suggests it's something like the thesis. It's hard to see what it has to do with the `Palin is a feminist hero' claim. I guess it's the thesis of the second part of the piece, where Young suddenly starts talking about VAWA and Joe Biden's toxic feminism. Up until that point, we didn't really seem to have anything on the table about contrasting versions of feminism.

    On the other hand, she never says anything at all about what Palin thinks about VAWA. So she clearly can't think that the last point was an argument for this one. You can't support a compare-and-contrast thesis without talking about both sides. So maybe the contrast is between the hypocritical sexist attacks used by various non-feminist `feminists' against Palin and the non-hypocritical sexist attacks used by Palin against Clinton earlier this year?

I have no idea. I'm going to go play Spore.

September 16, 2008

McCain's health care plan is kind of the opposite


A study coming out Tuesday from scholars at Columbia, Harvard, Purdue and Michigan projects that 20 million Americans who have employment-based health insurance would lose it under the McCain plan.

Maybe the idea is to solve the crisis of the American health care system by getting rid of the American health care system?

`The new colossus', Emma Lazarus, 1883 (inscription in the Statue of Liberty)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

September 15, 2008

How much has Palin helped McCain?

According to Gallup, today John McCain is enjoying a slight but not statistically significant lead over Obama, 47-45 percent. Three weeks ago, on 24 August, just before the Democratic convention, McCain was 2 percentage points ahead of Obama, 46-44.

So it appears Palin has given McCain a net boost of 1 percentage point. Why are we paying so much attention to this woman?

September 13, 2008

Tortured Fingers

A new Obama ad point out several ways in which John McCain is out of touch, including the fact that he doesn't know how to use a computer and can't send email. Clearly, as the charge is that he's out of touch, the point being made is that he isn't cognitively familiar with sending email; that it's not something he understands in the same way that he doesn't understand the economy. He's admitted to this stuff himself.

The response from the right? This is a new low for Obama because John McCain has had trouble typing every since...wait for it...he was tortured as a POW. I never would have imagined that they'd be able to work the POW schtick into every criticism but they find new ways to impress me every day. What's next: "John McCain lost his ability to use diplomacy in the Hanoy Hilton! How dare Obama question his war mongering!"?

Are the media finally pulling their heads out?

Karl Rovean political campaigns rely heavily on certain assumptions about the behavior of talking heads: that they enjoy spreading gossip as news, are obsessed with drugs and sex, and reflexively jerk to the right at the merest hint of the phrase `liberal media bias'. Keep the talking heads talking about artificial scandal and inane innuendo, the thinking goes, and Democrats (and moderate Republicans) won't have a chance to get a policy word in edgewise.

This past week has seen an especially ugly Rovean campaign on the part of John McCain. And it's not just me who thinks so. It's the New York Times:

Mr. Obama has also been accused of distortions, but this week Mr. McCain has found himself under particularly heavy fire for a pair of headline-grabbing attacks. First the McCain campaign twisted Mr. Obama’s words to suggest that he had compared Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, to a pig after Mr. Obama said, in questioning Mr. McCain’s claim to be the change agent in the race, “You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” (Mr. McCain once used the same expression to describe Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health plan.)

Note that this isn't a `Senator McCain said ... but the Obama campaign responds that ....' story, the usual pattern these sorts of stories take. McCain is twisting Obama's words, making false claims and incorrect assertions. The truth is identified, not as talking points from the Obama campaign, but as assertions of fact. Even better, the article is accompanied by a graphic in which McCain and Palin's assertions about Obama's policy positions (and the Bridge to Nowhere) are contrasted with nonpartisan analysis of those policy positions.

Are the media finally waking up and realizing that their job in the political process is fact-checker, not stenographer and gossip rag writer? The more -- and more prominently -- stories like this appear, the worse the Rovean campaign tactics will misfire. This NYT piece -- and the fact that it's linked on MSNBC's and US Today's front pages -- are positive signs. As is this piece on Newsweek's front page. On the other hand, CNN and (of course) Fox News have absolutely nothing.

September 11, 2008

Couple Good Links

Here's a good clip from Rachel Maddow's show. Are she and Olberman the picture of impartiality? Of course not, but then neither if Pat Buchanan and there's room for openly liberal and openly conservative talking heads in the media.

Wasilla, AK made rape victims pay for the rape kits which are essential to prosecute their attackers while Sarah Palin was mayor. In fact, it was the only town in Alaska to do so, but forced the state legislature to pass a law forbidding them to do this. Let's just put it plainly: Under Sarah Palin's stewardship Wasilla charged rape victims thousands of dollars for being raped. Link.

Edit: $50/hr to pick lettuce for a whole season. McCain's offering, but only because you *can't do it*! Link.

Chris Matthews

In case you didn't know, MSNBC, after accusations that they have tilted too far towards Obama, benched Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews as anchors for their election coverage. The spot has been given to David Greggory who isn't bad exactly but isn't exactly exciting.

Anyway, I'm watching Chris Matthews on Rachel Maddow's new show and he looks like somebody kicked him in the gut. Don't get me wrong, I think Matthews is anything but out and out liberal and way too prone to shallow crushes on mostly male politicians. Still, he always had a fire that he brought to his coverage that just seemed drained. Maddow kept trying to get a rouse out of him, but every time he started to get warmed up it was like someone behind the camera told him to take it down a notch. In short, he was just sad.

September 10, 2008


Good ol' Dan Brottman sent me along to this blog post (I gather it's his friend's blog) arguing that John McCain, and not Barack Obama is the elitist. Yeah, I know, we all know this, but he breaks it down better and more clearly than you often see. It's a good read.

September 09, 2008


Fringe is similar to Tru Blood in some ways. They both deal with a world which is very much like ours with a pretty significant, and oh-so-mysterious, twist. They both obviously have a pretty expansive mythology which will be explored over the course of the series. What Fringe did that Tru Blood didn't in its first episode, however, is manage lay out the hints at the larger plots with tantalizing hooks. It also did a much better job of cutting the drama with humor. All in all, I'll give Tru Blood a couple episodes to pick itself up, but Fringe doesn't need that space. It's good already.

September 07, 2008

Obama On O'Reilly

Obama did an interview with Bill O'Reilly this last week. Evidently this is just the first of four parts, the rest of which air Monday through Wednesday if you want to keep up on that.

John McCain's campaign won't let Sarah Palin answer so much as a question from reporters and Obama goes into the lion's den in what most certainly could have been an interview stacked with cheap questions and then edited in post production to make him look terrible.


Good to have the gang back.

True Blood

Ok, so it's a first episode. First episodes of even the best series can be iffy, and especially a show like this that relies on a mythology that obviously will need some time to flesh out. Still, "Six Feet Under" this is most surely not. Anna Paquin is Rogue, and for that there will always be a special place in my heart. But really, let's be honest, she's never had wicked acting chops. The writing has some intriguing aspects, but sometimes it's downright blunt.

After "John From Cincinnati" tanked, HBO really could use a new hit. Here's hoping this show gets a bit of time to breath before they decide whether it's worth the risk or not. I'll certainly give it a couple episodes.

September 06, 2008


You want to know the difference between kids' sports movies and adult's sports movies? Kids' movies are all about sportsmanship and enjoying the sport. Adult's sports movies are about winning. Also, I guess it's worth mentioning that I'm watching "The Mighty Ducks" now. I know, I'm super lame.

September 05, 2008

Give Huckabee A Job

Ok, so I have a bit of a crush on Mike Huckabee. Yeah, some of his positions are straight up crazy. That's fine, I can accept that, but damn, every time I see that guy I can't help but like him. He was just on the Daily Show and, like always, just exuded charisma.

So, my quandary is this: is there any job we can give Huckabee in the next administration which would be simultaneously extremely visible and almost entirely without power? Actually, during the primaries Huckabee got tons of flack for his populist positions, so maybe we can find something that plays up that aspect of his politics and, shall we say, de-emphasizes his social conservatism. Department of Labor? Interior?

The Politics Of Conventions

I might have another post in me that's more specifically about Senator McCain's speech accepting his party's nomination for President, but what struck me most about it was tone. The Democratic Convention had some firey speeches to be sure, but the ones that come to mind the most, John Kerry and Joe Biden, got their fire from tying McCain's positions to the clearly wrong positions of the current President. Everyone admitted that John McCain was a patriot and a decent guy who was simply wrong about just about everything. It wasn't jarring then, when Barack Obama came out and hammered John McCain's positions for being wrong and gave his alternatives.

Last night was jarring. After two nights of smarmy, sarcastic speeches implying all kinds of terrible things about their opponents, John McCain comes out and waves his hands at playing nice before essentially talking about his life story for an hour. Now, out on the campaign trail it's possible to claim that you don't have control over people who aren't in your campaign. If Rudy Giuliani gave an interview where he tore apart Obama like he did two nights ago, John McCain, if he felt he needed to, could legitimately say "I don't employ Rudy, so I can't exactly make him stop, but I sure wish he would because I don't agree with him." Now, as we learned with Swift Boaters, a nominee can disapprove all he wants, but the bile gets out into the discourse anyway. Still, at least there's some separation.

What isn't credible, however, is to have these two perspectives smashed together at the same convention. If John McCain truly respects Barack Obama, what didn't he tell Rudy, or Mitt, or Sarah to tone down their speeches? Why not ask them to focus on Barack's policies that you disagree with rather than making fun of community organizers? Why not present a whole convention with the type of stuff that you yourself to say if you were speaking every night?

The answer is that the few nice things John McCain said about Barack Obama last night aren't what the Republican Party believes. They believe the stuff from the last few nights and John McCain had to have those speeches to mollify his base. And he had to say those nice things about Obama last night to try to attract independent voters. So which night of the convention show what John McCain truly feels? I'm betting whichever one is most likely to get him elected at any given moment.

September 04, 2008

Swing voters breaking for Obama

From Gallup: `The percentage of voters who are "up for grabs" has declined sharply in the past week, from 30% to 21%, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll.' Assuming no-one has gone from being certain to vote from Obama to certain to vote for McCain (or vice-versa) in the past week, of that 9%, 6% went to Obama and 3% to McCain. This gives Obama a 42%-37% advantage over McCain in the popular vote.

Gallup's description of the methodology is unclear, but I think the comparison is based on surveys done last weekend (30-31 August) and yesterday.