The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Articles filed under Politics


there, I fixed it

Let’s fix college sports, shall we? We do it like this:

1) Eliminate all athletic scholarships. (What’s that you say? Athletic scholarships have been key to getting people from poor and otherwise marginalized communities into the nation’s colleges? Then let’s take the scholarship money that now goes to athletes and send it towards those communities without asking whether the young people involved can run fast or kick a ball accurately. Since big-time sports are money-losing propositions for almost all schools, there may even be some extra money for scholarships.)

2) Keep all the sports that universities currently sponsor, but treat them largely as clubs. Or, if the varsity/club distinction must be maintained, limit the number of coaches and pay them on the same scale used for, say, theater or dance teachers.

3) Disband the NCAA.

4) Encourage the boosters who have poured millions of dollars into their favorite universities’ sports teams to work with the NFL to create something like England’s Football Association. Ideally, the NFL would become the equivalent of the Premier League, with only the twenty best teams in the top tier, and a promotion/relegation fight each year. The boosters would likely be far happier as team owners, able to shop for and buy talent without having to try to dodge onerous NCAA regulations. At the outset, the second tier of FA-USA would be made up of the twelve weakest current NFL teams plus eight teams located at the sites of long-standing college football powerhouses: Austin, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Pasadena, Norman, Columbus, Ann Arbor, and so on. With the application of some marketing skill — including shrewd color choices and the signing of local heroes — fan loyalty could relatively easily be transferred from the universities to the new professional teams. And the universities could make some money by leasing their stadiums to the new leagues.

5) The promotion/relegation model could be applied to basketball and perhaps baseball as well, again drawing on local fandom and university arenas. (Imagine how much fun it would be to see the Tar Heels promoted and the Bobcats relegated in the same year. Talk about rivalries!) Connect the traditional basketball powers to the NBA’s developmental league — assuming the NBA eventually gets its act together — and the traditional baseball powers to appropriate levels of the minor leagues.

6) Eliminate aluminum bats at all levels of competitive baseball. (Yes, I know that’s not really relevant here, but while I’m dreaming. . . .)

7) Encourage the FA-USA to create college scholarships for their players, to be taken advantage of in the off-season or after retirement. Let those who like the current system because they are concerned about the athletes having opportunities after college make contributions to this fund.

There, it’s all better now. You’re welcome.

Arrogance or Insecurity?

Ross Douthat:

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate . . . Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science. Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin thought that they had done the same to global economics. The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history; the architects of the European Union thought that a common currency could do the same for Europe. . . .

To which Daniel Larison replies:

Experts and technocrats can get things badly wrong, but the Iraq war is a good example of what happens when people embark on a large project while ignoring all the many experts who said that it was folly. Something similar could be said about the European project that Ross mentions in the same breath with Iraq. There were many people before and since the adoption of the euro who saw that a monetary union without comparable fiscal and political union would not function very well for long. The creation of the euro was an important part of the ideological project of forging European unity in defiance of historical experience and despite the resistance of many Europeans. In both cases, the people involved in crafting these projects were there because they endorsed the project’s ideological goals, and critics of both projects were ignored or dismissed largely because they did not have the correct ideological commitments.

I want to endorse both of these perspectives on the question at hand, but I think there’s an element missing from both Douthat’s and Larison’s accounts.

The European project was not a crazy one. It was the expression of two defensible political convictions: that formal unity was necessary to prevent a renewed outbreak of European war, and that formal unity was necessary to achieve sufficient “weight” in international affairs to hold their own vis-a-vis the United States (and, to some extent, rising future powers like China). One can argue about optimal currency regions and so forth, but I rather doubt, if it comes to that, that the United States or China constitute optimal currency regions; a great deal of policy is adopted for reasons other than some kind of theoretical economic optimality, and sometimes for very good reasons indeed. The salient fact about the European project isn’t that it was a crazy idea but that it was never successfully sold to the peoples of Europe. This is the “democratic deficit” that everyone talks about. Rather, it was adopted by steamrolling it into place, and then hoping that it “worked out” so that it would be endorsed after the fact. Precisely because it was adopted this way, indications that it wasn’t working out properly could not be listened to.

This is a pretty good description of how we got into Iraq as well. The Bush Administration came in with plans to go to war, whenever the opportunity might first present itself. That wasn’t exactly a secret – agitation for renewing full-scale hostilities with Iraq was open in the press and in the halls of Congress for the entire decade between the Gulf War cease fire and the 9-11 attacks. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the case was made, directly, either domestically or internationally. Rather, the policy was: steamroll, and then hope it works out so that it will be endorsed after the fact. Getting into war this way is one major reason why it was almost impossible for the government to recognize its errors once it had made them.

There wasn’t actually any steamrolling necessary to get the American mortgage debacle going, because greed, at all levels, did all the work needed to persuade. But why would Alan Greenspan have been interested in persuading a bubble into existence in the first place? Greenspan has, in retrospect, said that his great failure was in believing that Wall Street would be self-regulating because a financial crisis was not in anybody’s interest. But he understood that something had gone wrong well before that, back in 2002-2004, when he was actively urging a property bubble into existence in order to compensate for the collapse of the internet bubble. Greenspan understood full well what he was doing: he was encouraging people to leverage themselves more highly, doing cashouts and refinancings at lower apparent rates, even if they were taking more interest-rate risk down the line and increasing their exposure in the event of a hiccup in the housing market, because that boost to consumption would cushion the impact of the recession. Greenspan must surely have understood that a bubble, as such, cannot create wealth. The hope, though, was that it would get the economy “back on track” to where a recovery would be self-sustaining, and “back-fill” an increase in earnings power that would justify the higher housing valuations. Of course, that didn’t happen, and in retrospect it’s obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. But one had to believe that it would happen because, otherwise, one had to face the prospect that one didn’t know how to fight the recession effectively.

What these situations have in common is not arrogance – the assumption that, of course, whatever we do will work out and, if it doesn’t, well, that’s a problem for the little people, not for us. It’s insecurity. Dissenters weren’t dismissed because they were upstarts and nobodies who weren’t worth listening to – they were dismissed because if they were right then what were we going to do? If Greece wasn’t really meeting the criteria for EU membership, then what on earth are we going to do about it? Better not to see what they are up to. If housing valuations are wildly out of line with fundamentals, then what are we supposed to do to keep consumption up? And what are we going to do about the mountain of new, unstable mortgage debt? Better not to countenance the possibility of a nationwide housing correction. If invading Iraq is only going to make us weaker, then how are we supposed to establish that we are in control of events in the region?

Larison thinks that ideological thinking is what causes a refusal to accept threatening facts. I think that has the arrow of causation backwards: threatening facts are what prompt a turn to ideological thinking as a way of getting said facts out of the mental frame. And it is an insecure mind – insecure of its own judgment, or its own expertise, or its own authority, or what-have-you – for whom facts are threatening things.

Now, the reason for that insecurity is yet another good question, one I don’t have a good answer to. But, to return to Ross Douthat’s original piece, which opens with Jon Corzine, it’s worth pointing out that the kinds of traders who frequently get into the biggest trouble are those who haven’t learned to take a loss.

Election Predictions

I’ve paid less attention to this election season than just about any in my adult memory. So take this all with a grain of salt. But I’m going to predict now that Barack Obama will be re-elected President in a year’s time.

My reasons:

1. He’s already President. People who are already President usually get re-elected if they run.

2. His party, and his political tendency, are united behind him. The recent exceptions to the prior rule are Presidents Carter and George H. W. Bush. Carter faced a substantial insurgency within his own party during the primaries, and the general election featured a protest candidacy by John Anderson, a liberal Republican, who was a comfortable choice for people who wanted to vote against Carter but who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Reagan. Bush faced a more modest insurgency within his own party during the primaries, but a much more substantial third-party candidate in the general election, coming from the center but oriented around themes and from a regional and demographic base that had more in common with the GOP than with the Democrats. For all the various gripes about him, there is no real movement for a challenge to Obama from within his coalition, neither from the left nor from the center.

3. The GOP will not be united behind their candidate. They are united in their dislike of and desire to retire President Obama. But the only plausible candidate currently running – Mitt Romney – not only elicits no enthusiasm, he elicits columns like this. Indeed, the nominating process as it has unfolded so far has basically featured a series of desperate popular eruptions against the overwhelmingly likely standard bearer. Romney’s competition, just in terms of plausibility, is much, much weaker than McCain’s in 2008, or Kerry’s in 2004, or Dole’s in 1996, or Clinton’s in 1992, or Bush’s in 1988. But the party just doesn’t want to believe they have to settle on him. I have little doubt that he will eventually close the sale, but buyers remorse will set in almost immediately. Democrats in 2004 and Republicans in 1996 were far from enthusiastic about their nominees, but neither Kerry nor Dole elicited the antipathy and distrust that Romney does. (McCain elicited a different but even more intense antipathy, and look how he turned out.) Romney will be an exceptionally weak nominee for that reason, someone who will have to watch his right flank not only if he is elected, but during the general election campaign, for fear of re-igniting an insurrection within his own camp. And that’s no way to win a general election.

4. The GOP has nothing to campaign on. Reagan and Clinton each defeated incumbent Presidents in times of economic dislocation and distress. Both ran campaigns that made clear diagnoses of the cause of that dislocation and distress, and proposed remedies. The Obama Administration has plainly failed to deliver a substantial recovery that would earn it an enthusiastic vote to reelect. But the country still knows that the economic crisis hit during the Bush Administration, so any plausible diagnosis of the cause of the crisis must at least refer to that period in history. The dominant GOP themes so far – regulatory uncertainty? seriously? – have not the slightest hint of plausibility. One can, of course, imagine alternatives to the Obama Administration’s policies that would be plausible and potentially persuasive – for example, the GOP could run on more substantial monetary easing coupled with fiscal retrenchment. That’s not what I’ve been arguing for in this space, but it’s a very plausible argument. But Mitt Romney can’t run on a platform of looser money – because his base is increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of abolishing the Fed entirely and going back on the gold standard. Of course, he’s not going to run on that platform either. On the economy, Romney is going to run, basically, on double-talk and assertions of his own special competence because he’s . . . a former banker. Right. Now there are other issues out there besides the economic situation. But, unlike in 1988, law-and-order questions are not uppermost in people’s minds (crime remains much lower than it was in the 1970s or 1980s). Unlike in 1980 or 2004, foreign policy questions are not pressing either – and if they are, Obama can run on a record of liquidating Osama bin Laden and winding down the war in Iraq, while Romney will likely run on a platform of extreme bellicosity. So what is he going to run on? And note, I’m not saying that a candidate other than Romney would do a better job. There is simply nobody actually running on the GOP side who is saying anything that could serve as the germ for a general election campaign. The GOP doesn’t want to run on anything. That’s why, as Ross Douthat correctly suggests, they’ll likely choose a nominee like Romney, who represents nothing. But, as the saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing.

5. The unemployment rate will probably go down, steadily if slowly, from now until election day. Chairman Bernanke is committed to preventing us from slipping back into recession. He’s not going to tighten between now and election day – not with unemployment as high as it is, and with Europe as fragile as it is, and with a substantial chorus from his own side of the aisle arguing that money has been and still is too tight, and with the knowledge that everyone would perceive precipitate tightening action as politically motivated. Congress is going to be useless, but President Obama isn’t going to shoot himself in the foot – if there’s anything he can do on his own authority to tackle unemployment, he’ll do it, and if Congress is actively obstructive he’ll tie that around the GOP nominee’s neck. So barring an external shock (like an Israeli attack on Iran), the unemployment situation should improve steadily if slowly. That’s not as good for the President as if it were improving rapidly. But it’s different from the situation the first President Bush faced. From November 1991 through July of 1992, the unemployment rate increased with every reporting. Obama’s situation may be more comparable to the situation under the second President Bush, when unemployment inched its way down from its peak in July, 2003 through just before election day. Now, obviously, the absolute level of unemployment is going to be way too high on election day for a majority of people to be satisfied with President Obama’s performance. But the trend probably matters more at the margins. A strong positive economic trend led to an overwhelming reelection victory in 1984 even though no sitting President since World War II had been reelected with such high prevailing unemployment rate. A weak but positive economic trend in 2004 led to a modest reelection victory even though the absolute level of unemployment was much better than it was in 1984. That’s what I expect for President Obama in 2012: a modest reelection victory based on weak but improving fundamentals.

6. I’m talking my own book. In 2008, I announced my support for then-candidate Obama by saying I was an “Obama skeptic for Obama.” I’m still an Obama skeptic for Obama, and barring something very surprising I expect to support him for reelection. I don’t agree with him on everything, and I don’t think he’s been a particularly strong leader during the economic crisis. On pretty much all major issues he’s a very conventional thinker and a cautious political actor, which is what I thought he was during the campaign. But the Republican Party really doesn’t offer a serious alternative.

Those Boos

Allow me to stop talking about monetary policy for a minute, to second Andrew Sullivan’s anger (if that makes any sense) about the booing of the gay soldier in the debate last night.

The shocking silence on the stage – the fact that no one challenged this outrage – also tells me that this kind of slur is not regarded as a big deal. When it came to it, even Santorum couldn’t sanction firing all those servicemembers who are now proudly out. But that’s because he was forced to focus not on his own Thomist abstractions, but on an actual person. Throughout Republican debates, gays are discussed as if we are never in the audience, never actually part of the society, never fully part of families, never worthy of even a scintilla of respect. When you boo a servicemember solely because he’s gay, you are saying he is beneath contempt, that nothing he does or has done can counterweigh the vileness of his sexual orientation.

Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.

Doubt-Fucking

PEG’s defense of capital punishment – the most imaginative and perhaps convincing one I think I’ve read – got me thinking more specifically (but not that specifically!) about my own objections to it. I’ll settle on the one objection that I haven’t heard anyone else air (which assures you that it will be weird). I’m not even sure it, in itself, amounts to an argument against capital punishment, as much as it is merely a characterization of what makes it politically repulsive to me: The specter of the state pondering the ultimacy of the sentence it’s about to execute – the dignity and gravity it would seem to call for, the juridical certainty it would seem to require – as against the earthy politics that underlay the prosecution and the inherently flawed procedures used to reach that sentence, and the fact that in executing the sentence it is depriving itself of the prospect of redeeming those flaws (which prospect implicitly underwrites all of its non-capital judgments), and then having the official and unofficial process of appeal and critique carry on for however many months or years, perhaps tilting the balance of judgment in the direction of greater and more reasonable doubt, if not into wide belief in actual innocence, and then having the state, anxious to avoid the appearance of self-doubt and, indeed, anxious to assert the primacy of its decisive powers over doubt and the procedures that encode it in this high-stakes moment it’s brought upon itself, stand (figuratively) at a podium with a defiant sneer on its official lips and say: “Fuck it. Kill him anyway.”

There’s an element of this in every death penalty case that reaches the public consciousness. A collective sigh naturally rises when the prisoner is finally killed, in doubt about the state’s authority to take a life, and, more tellingly, in skepticism about the procedure that brought the state and its prisoner to that particular point. In reaction, having placed itself under burdens it can’t actually meet, the state has to claim, as Rick Perry congratulated the State of Georgia for implicitly claiming, that such hypothetical doubts of academics and other professional nay-sayers have cost it not a moment of sleep. It can’t claim to have satisfied the doubts that nag its choice of punishment, and that its choice of punishment directs onto its legal institutions. But it’s obliged nonetheless to effect confidence, certainty. After you’ve killed a suspect is no time to go publicly musing on the flaws of eyewitness testimony or the idiosyncratic ways of your forensic arson voodoo specialist. So instead the state claims to float royally above those doubts. Its dignity and legitimacy at the moment of such a final decision rest upon, and attest to, the power the people have vested in it to say: “Fuck doubt.”

The disturbing thing – or perhaps the awesome and reassuring thing, depending on what you’re looking for in political legitimacy – is that this power is real. It works. People are reassured when the state negates doubt not procedurally or epistemologically but existentially. The death penalty throws citizens into a crisis of knowing that the state resolves on their behalf through a defiant willingness to act with finality in the face of valid doubts, a stance you might call doubt-fucking.

Doubt-fucking is a condition of ecstatic untruth. We all experience it, in those moments when we can give no more time to deliberation and simply must act. But it takes on surly and disquieting notes when it’s the state, and the state is ritually killing people, because as prosecutor the state has publicly draped itself in expectations pertaining directly to the truth of its criminal judgments, which capital cases force it to disavow at the last minute, and force the people who have traveled that far with the state to disavow alongside it. The state says, and invites its citizens to say: We are literally beyond caring about the truth, or, we reject that our convictions about the truth should be linked to valid procedures for discovering it. Our actions in this moment testify to our unquestioned capacity to act, our power to set the terms of legitimacy in action by acting.

Now I realize that politics is neither the review procedure of a scientific journal nor beanbag. I admit that political authority will always have this element of peremptory self-assertion. I do, however, think that policies that force the state into a repeating performance in which it trumps the epistemic scruples of its own procedures with a surly display of its decisive authority set a certain unhappy precedent, invite and perhaps condition people, in awe and maybe something vicarious, to accede to state power precisely because it is self-given, grounded in power itself.

A long disquisition on the death penalty that ultimately doesn't resolve anything

The death penalty is again in the news and on Twitter because of the execution of Troy Davis. It seems apparent that there is more than a reasonable doubt that Davis was in fact innocent and so that whatever one’s position on the death penalty, this was an unconscionable miscarriage of justice.

And indeed I should stress that everyone, regardless of position on the death penalty, indeed especially advocates of death penalty, should be strident advocates for due process and stringent standards of evidence.

But predictably enough people are also using this time to argue (or rather, hammer on) against the death penalty.

I ultimately and reluctantly support the death penalty, but perhaps more importantly I just think most of the arguments against the death penalty are bunk. (To be sure, most of the arguments for the death penalty are also bunk.) It reminds me of when I was against the Iraq War, and also against the arguments against the Iraq War.

The arguments most often brought up against the death penalty are, in my view, bunk. There’s only one valid argument against the death penalty. It’s also the one least often brought up.

So after reviewing some of the wrongheaded arguments against the death penalty, I hope to argue that the death penalty is preferable to alternatives, or at least justifiable and defensible.

Frustratingly, I had written many pages about this a while ago but lost them in a laptop theft, so I will try to breeze through the arguments and might be curt.

Here are some of the arguments we hear against the death penalty:

The death penalty is not a deterrent. That’s right. There is strong evidence to back this up. But it presupposes that deterrence is the only goal of judicial punishment, which I don’t think is correct. More on which below.

The death penalty is vengeance. No it’s not. If you brutally beat, torture and murder someone, vengeance is to brutally beat, torture and murder you. That’s what “an eye for an eye” means. Affording you all the privileges of due process, an attorney, human detention at trial, and as painless an execution as we can, all of which we should certainly do, might be bad, but it is just not vengeance. In a sense, it is even an opposite of vengeance, which is motivated by rage and hatred, whereas the death penalty carried out under judicial due process is (must be) dispassionate and careful.

The state should not have the power to kill people. This is a facially conservative/libertarian argument; a more liberal version goes something like a civilized society should not have to rely on killing. Again, this strikes me as so self-evidently bunk that I don’t understand why smart people say this stuff. Every society in recorded history that I’m aware of makes allowances for lawful killing. Exemples of society-sanctioned lawful killing include self-defense, defense of an other, police and military action. These things are highly regulated (literally, in the sense that there are rules on when self defense or discharge of a police firearm or war are legal) but I’m aware of no society that does not allow the killing of its members under certain circumstances, including through arms of the state. These days, even London bobbies have guns. And few proponents of this argument against the death penalty argue for the unilateral disbanding of the military and law enforcement, or the immorality/illegality of self-defense.

I seem to remember Will Wilkinson, who makes the vengeance argument here, arguing elsewhere that soldiers who kill under the laws of war are murderers. Which… fine. If that’s where he is, I’m not going to be able to convince him of anything. But I’ll point out that while libertarians might bristle at any kind of killing by the arms of the state, they tend to be fans of the right of self defense, and while that is not killing by the arm of the state, it is certainly state-sanctioned killing.

The death penalty is cruel. It certainly is. It certainly is, and yet like any policy it must not be weighed in a vacuum but in relation to alternatives.

I remember then-presidential John Kerry trying to explain his opposition to the death penalty in terms that swing voters might agree to. The alternative to the death penalty, life imprisonment, is so hard, so cruel, that it’s actually worse punishment than the death penalty, Kerry said (my words, not his). I agree with John Kerry! I happen to draw the opposite conclusion. And here we get to arguments for the death penalty.

I cannot imagine punishment more cruel than life imprisonment, or indeed, any kind of extended imprisonment. It seems to me to be incredibly, furiously antagonistic to human dignity.

It seems to be a fact that any given society will have cold-blooded, inexcusable killers of shocking cruelty. And we all seem to agree that these people should be punished. How do we suitably punish them? The question then becomes not, is this punishment cruel or that punishment cruel—to some extent, all are. The question would be better phrased, at what threshold of cruelty should civilized society blanch, and where do possible punishments fall below or above that threshold.

And it is my sincere conviction that this threshold should be somewhere below life imprisonment. And therefore, because there needs to be some ultimate punishment for the most heinous crime, that threshold should be somewhere above the death penalty.

But it’s not just about what I believe, it’s about what society should believe. And I believe there are important society-wide considerations in favor of the death penalty.

They go something like this. (Argument two.)

When I was a first-year student in law school, we spoke about the difference between civil law and penal (criminal) law. The reason we have two different legal systems is because civil law is about protecting individual persons’ interests, while penal law is about protecting society’s values. It was not always thus: under some ancient moral codes, after being convicted of a crime you could either face punishment or “reimburse” the victim’s family, and in some societies “blood money” is still a thing. I believe this distinction is one of the features of civilizational progress.

To take an academic example: suppose I kill an unattached, homeless vagrant. Why should I be punished? Whose interests are harmed? If the victim has no loved ones, who can claim reparation? And under a morally blind, utilitarian argument, you can made the case that I’ve actually helped society’s material interest by removing a net burden. And yet, we decide that I should face punishment. Not because of any utilitarian calculus, but because we as a society have decided that we hold life to be an important value and that killing is gravely offensive and deserves to be punished.

(You could make some utilitarian arguments against wanton vagrant-killing: maybe that person is homeless but will one day discover a curse against cancer, so society should preserve the option value of the homeless becoming productive members of society; or maybe there’s a likelihood that someone who kills vagrants will move on to killing “valuable” members of society and so punishing vagrant killing is a deterrent against “actually harmful” killing. Whatever. These arguments make some sense, but if you believe that they’re the actual reasons why we punish killing vagrants, I suggest you give up your tenured professorship and sample the real world.)

Penal law is not about retribution. We don’t have the death penalty (as seen above) because of “an eye for an eye.” And though it should definitely have deterrence as a strong objective, the only criterion for penal law is not deterrence. Penal law is ultimately about a society deciding the hierarchy of its values.

And this is where the second argument against death penalty comes in: there is something skewed about a liberal, democratic society, saying, in essence: “We won’t take your life because that’s just so awful, but we reserve the right to take away your liberty in the most complete way imaginable.” It suggests that that society places life as a more important value than liberty. I submit that this is a serious and bad thing for a democratic society.

Life is a very important value. I want to live in a society that values life highly. But it is not, and cannot be, the most important value under any conceivable moral order. And particularly in any democratic order.

I just want to underline this point for my libertarian and pseudo-libertarian friends: you should be concerned about a society that says “Taking your life is beyond the pale, but taking your freedom is not.” That’s backwards.

So, that’s my two points in favor of the death penalty:

  • Prison is immoral, cruel and unjust, and particularly life imprisonment. If we want to talk about what punishments are too cruel and beyond the pale, and we should, extended prison terms strike me as much more cruel than the death penalty.
  • A free society should reflect in its laws the judgement that liberty is a higher value than life, though life is very important.

You might say that my argument for the death penalty as an alternative to prison is an argument against prison, not for the death penalty, but the thing is that there are evil, inexcusable murderers in the world. The question is what to do with them and, again, how far we are willing to go in terms of cruelty toward them. There might be an insanity defense for Anders Breivik, but not for Lawrence Brewer.

I just want to stress how horrible prison is. Except perhaps in Scandinavia, I’m not aware of any “good” prison, anywhere. They are everywhere a form of torture. Everywhere, violence and rape are rife. Everywhere, they are a laboratory and a school of crime. They are not only torture, not only institutionalized torture, but grotesquely and intrinsically so. And everywhere, the way politics work ensures that they will remain this way, because there will never be strong coalitions in favor of making prison “livable”, if that were possible. And even if it is, on principle alone, it remains an institution that is profoundly shocking to any notion of freedom. There is an argument for short and “medium” prison terms as punishment and rehabilitation, but I don’t believe there is one, in a democratic society, for very long ones.

“We will torture you with no reprieve for 20 years, but we won’t kill you, that would be too cruel.” Give me a break.

So that’s my case against prison, and for the death penalty.

All that being said, I haven’t broached a final argument against the death penalty, which is the risk of a miscarriage of justice. The death penalty is irreversible, and in the case of a miscarriage of justice there can be no reparation to the condemned.

And my answer to that is… That there’s no good answer. It is surely better to let a hundred guilty men go free than let one hang, and the mind reels at the thought of an innocent man hanging, as they surely have throughout history. That’s the reason why John Paul II personally opposed the death penalty. It’s also the reason why my parents and my wife do.

There are rejoinders: someone who is wrongly executed cannot ever be compensated, but can someone who was wrongly imprisoned for 10 years ever truly be compensated in any meaningful way? Punishment of the innocent is terrible to contemplate whatever the punishment, and yet society must punish and will always be imperfect. With increasing prosperity and improving evidentiary science miscarriages should only become less likely, not more.

Because of the concerns outlined above, I ultimately and reluctantly still come down on the side of the death penalty, but I don’t think there’s a logical “proof” that the possibility of miscarriage of justice can be overcome. I think it comes down to personal conviction and a personal weighing of values. If this is the reason why you oppose the death penalty, I disagree with you….and yet I can’t disagree with you.

(Going back to Troy Davis, this case becomes even stronger when it’s limited to the contemporary American criminal justice system, which is frightful in many ways.)

So there you go. A long disquisition on the death penalty that ultimately doesn’t solve anything. But I hope it does slay a few wrongheaded ideas and puts forward some useful ones, about how we think of legal punishment, freedom and hierarchies of value.

Industrial Policy Bureaucrats As Hedge Fund Managers

An old saw in finance research is what you might call the “monkeys at a typewriter” problem. If you put an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, one of them is going to bang out Hamlet. Does that mean that monkey is a great writer?

Or, if you put a thousand people in a room and tell them to flip coins, one of them is going to flip heads 10 times in a row. Does this mean this person has particular skill in flipping coins?

By the same token, if a hedge fund manager has even a long track record of success, is that due to skill or to random chance?

It’s possible to see how this applies to industrial policy. If you have over a hundred countries pursuing industrial policy for the past 60 years, even by random chance a handful of those countries are going to end up with successful policies in a number of key areas. But that shouldn’t strike us as an endorsement of industrial policy as such, any more than we should listen to Ray Dalio when he says correlation doesn’t exist.

Looking at my own country, I’m struck by how right we’ve gotten some policies (VAT, energy, transportation) and how wrong we’ve gotten others. Is there some overriding logic behind those successes and failures that another country could draw inspiration from to replicate the successes and not the failures? It’s doubtful, at least.

Tit-For-Tat Unilateralism

The great virtue of unilateralism is that you don’t have to get any agreement to execute it.

Consider Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. There will undoubtedly, always be debate about why he pursued withdrawal in the face of so much opposition and in direct contradiction of his party’s platform. Was this the first step of a larger plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank, and implement a two state solution on Israeli terms? Or was it intended merely to divide the Palestinian entity into two, making it that much easier to hold on to the West Bank? I incline toward the former interpretation, but many informed observers disagree.

But what we can all agree on is this: Sharon implemented unilateral withdrawal from Gaza because he wanted to withdraw from Gaza.

The alternatives to getting out of Gaza unilaterally were to stay, or to get out as the result of negotiations. Assuming he didn’t want to stay, the question becomes how likely negotiations were to succeed. And I think most honest observers would conclude: not very likely.

To achieve the withdrawal, Sharon had to confront directly those forces within Israel who were opposed to the objective, as well as those who worried about the consequences of unilateral action. But he didn’t have to get an agreement from the other side, and then, if that could be achieved, sell that agreement (which, to achieve, would require very far-reaching concessions) to the Israeli people.

Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral declaration plan strikes me as a similar gambit. We can debate the longer-term strategy of which such a declaration may or may not be a part. But most simply, Abbas wants to declare independence because he wants the Palestinian Authority to be recognized as a state.

Declaring statehood unilaterally within the 1949 armistice lines requires Abbas to confront those who oppose anything less than a comprehensive solution, as well as those who remain opposed to any two-state solution, comprehensive or no. But it doesn’t require him to get any kind of agreement from Netanyahu. Nor does it require him to sell that agreement – which, no doubt, would require very far-reaching concessions – to the Palestinian people.

Withdrawal from Gaza was something both sides wanted, but neither could achieve because of other issues with which it was linked. Unilateral withdrawal did not take place on terms that made the Palestinians happy, but the result – the removal of the Israeli settlements and the Israeli army – was still a Palestinian objective that was achieved. And likewise an Israeli objective.

Outside of the precincts of Israeli and Palestinian fantasists who believe, respectively, that Jews can rule over a captive Arab population forever, or that the Jews will simply surrender their hard-won homeland one day, a Palestinian state of some sort is understood to be an objective of both sides. Unilateral declaration, if it is followed by widespread recognition in Europe, will achieve that objective. It won’t be on the terms the Israelis want, but it’ll still be an achieved objective. And likewise a Palestinian objective.

It’s not a “solution” to the conflict. But, like the Gaza withdrawal, it would be the achievement of a concrete objective that both sides actually want, but cannot achieve because they cannot agree on other questions with which the question of independent statehood is linked.

And it’s worth pointing out that, had the Netanyahu government seized the diplomatic moment and tried to get a statehood resolution that the Israeli government could endorse out of Abbas, he might have failed. Any declaration that Netanyahu actually could endorse, after all, would surely be understood by the Palestinians as a treasonous sellout of Palestinian interests. It’s one thing if Abbas risks decoupling the Palestinian diaspora from the issue of statehood for the sake of dealing the Israelis a big diplomatic defeat. But in the context of an agreement with the Israelis, such a risk would be totally unacceptable. The most likely result of any hypothetical Israeli engagement on the declaration would be a neutered declaration that didn’t actually achieve the objective of recognition of a state – something more comparable to the 1988 declaration. Such a declaration would not advance the ball one bit.

Tit-for-tat unilateralism is not preferable to a negotiated solution. But it may be preferable to a negotiated impasse.

Me, Inc.

Megan McArdle and Arnold Kling (two bloggers who are very helpful in understanding the actual economy where we now live, by the way) make the point that life can be good when you have a comfortable job, but it’s dangerous, because it is likely to go away. Here’s Kling:

A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.

The way I have put this is that workers in our economy are in a race between development of as-yet-non-commoditized cognitive capabilities on one hand, and wage reductions as capabilities are commoditized through technological advances (broadly defined) on the other. This has been going on for a long, long time, but it does seem to be speeding up – why?

I think there are several non-mutually-exclusive causes:

1. Information technology. Moore’s Law is creating the kind of advances in information storage, processing and transmission that automate knowledge work in the way that technologies 50 – 150 years ago were automating physical labor. Market research managers, journalists, software engineers, and most of the people they know, are now being subjected to this unpleasant process. As a practical example, the Internet has automated out of existence much of the labor that journalists, librarians, many middle managers in corporations and others used to do. The term we normally use to describe this (when it is not happening to us) is “productivity growth.”

2. Globalization. The decreasing relevance of large-scale war under Pax Americana combined with the economic re-emergence of Western Europe and Japan by the 1970s, and the Asian heartland more recently, have created trans-national labor pools through a mix of outsourcing, immigration, and importing labor content via shipped manufactured goods. We move the stuff, the jobs or the people; but, in all cases, labor in Indiana increasingly competes with labor in India. Ceteris paribus, this creates upward pressure on wages for the most skilled, and downward pressure on wages for the less skilled.

3. The market for corporate control. Starting with the leverage buyout movement of the 1980s, U.S., and later European, companies became more aggressive about seeking shareholder value through automation, outsourcing, and just stopping doing things that did not generate returns above cost of capital. The underlying causes were technology change and globalization, combined with a flexible American political economy which made the best of a worsening situation.

4. The death of the “Detroit model”. The comatose state of the whole Big Auto, Big Steel and related industrial supply chain is a very important example of these effects, but was also accelerated by other contingent factors. Because of its size, this matters. American domestic production of oil peaked in 1971; oil imports doubled between 1970 and 1975; and OPEC was able to drive large price increases. This tended to disproportionately harm those industries that were the source of high-wage union jobs. Private sector unionization has withered across the economy as the bargaining power of industrial workers declined. In what is probably inextricably both cause and effect, “non-­distributive services” (finance, professional services, health care, and so on) became in 1970 a larger part of the private economy than goods-­producing industries. This shift to services tended to enhance the prospects of the cognitive elite at the expense of traditional industrial workers.

I think that what both McArdle and Kling are pointing to is less an aberration, than a return to what is a more natural situation. The comfortable post-WWII combination of high incomes plus stability is the anomaly.

Of course, what sticks out like a sore thumb in all of this is the position of public sector workers.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)

Declarations of Independence

Yasser Arafat declared an independent state of Palestine in 1988. This state was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly that same year. So what’s the big deal about the current agitation for another such declaration?

Well, Arafat’s declaration specified nothing about particular territorial claims. Moreover, it called for negotiations under existing UN resolutions to establish the borders of this state. As such, the political significance of the declaration was that it signaled the PLO’s formal acceptance of a two-state solution in principle.

As we learned after the Oslo Accords, acceptance in principle is very different from acceptance in fact, and the Arafat tenure as head of the Palestinian Authority was not characterized by the kind of institution-building that could have laid the foundations for an actual independent state. (He’s not alone to blame for that – Israel did many things to undermine the development of such a state – but it is difficult to identify anything Arafat did to lay those foundations, suggesting that it was not really a goal of his to do so.)

A decade after that first Palestinian declaration, during the last Netanyahu government, Arafat began to mutter about another declaration. Netanyahu openly dared Arafat to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood. The rationale was very simple. Such a declaration would have been a violation of the Oslo Accords. Israel would respond to this unilateralism by seizing whatever chunks of the West Bank it most wanted to retain – the Jordan Valley, the major settlement blocs, etc. Israel would surround and choke the new Palestinian state. But: there would no longer be any question of a Palestinian “right to return” to sovereign Israeli territory – because there would be a declared Palestinian state for them to “return” to if they so chose. And there would no longer be any question of a “one state solution” – there was a declared Palestinian state; the two-state solution would be a fact. Negotiations, when and if they resumed, would be about borders, security, etc. – what would the Palestinians be willing to give up in order to get (some) of the West Bank back and Israeli recognition. Those are exactly the terms Israel would want to be negotiating on, if and when negotiations resumed.

Of course, the diplomatic fallout in the region would have been horrendous – but Netanyahu has never worried about that. He would have been dealing a serious blow to the credibility of the Clinton Administration, which had painstakingly tried to shepherd both sides towards some kind of final status agreement – but Netanyahu has never worried about that either; he spent much of the 1990s trying to figure out how to ditch the American alliance while keeping his friends on the American right.

Most likely, though, Netanyahu knew no declaration would be forthcoming; he understood that Arafat’s threat to declare statehood was a bluff, and he was simply calling it.

Now we’re back again with the possibility of a Palestinian declaration of independence, which would likely be endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. One might ask: what could possibly be the significance of such a declaration? How would it be different from 1988? The major difference is that, this time, there is a government – the Palestinian Authority – that has (partial) control of territory making the declaration. Moreover, the declaration would clearly be a claim to Palestinian sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza. The declaration would be a prelude to organizing pressure from governments around the world against Israel, aiming at forcing it to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 boundaries. The symbolism of the 1988 declaration was: the PLO accepts the principle of partition. The symbolism of a 2011 declaration would be: the terms of partition were set in 1949.

Formally, the Netanyahu government is lobbying fiercely against such a declaration. But notwithstanding this, such a declaration is probably in the interests of the Netanyahu government, and Bibi undoubtedly knows this. Anything that heats up the conflict probably bolsters the right in Israel. Netanyahu has shown very little concern for the possibility of diplomatic isolation; indeed, he continues to work hard to try to sever what few relatively friendly relationships Israel already has. And a Palestinian declaration would provide the pretext for the Netanyahu government to seize what it wants to keep, and to establish parameters for future negotiations (if any) on terms they prefer. Abbas might claim all of the West Bank, but how many divisions does he have? Meanwhile, by declaring the West Bank and Gaza to be Palestinian sovereign territory, there is implicit recognition of Israeli sovereignty elsewhere. And, of course, if the declaration is never made, then Netanyahu looks like he forced Abbas to back down, which also strengthens him.

So why on earth are the Palestinians considering another declaration?

It’s something of a desperation move, but it also reflects the interests of the Abbas government. Mahmoud Abbas has staked his historical reputation on securing some kind of permanent legacy for the Palestinian people. He is making a similar choice to the one Ben Gurion made in response to the Peel Commission: take something – anything – that would constitute sovereignty, even if the territory is far less than you wanted or thought you might achieve. Get something that is your own, that you can build on.

The United States stands to lose the most in the short-term from a Palestinian declaration. Such a declaration would mean the end of the Oslo process that we have invested so much in. It would place the United States in a very uncomfortable position vis-a-vis our European and Middle Eastern allies; Israel will come under pressure post-declaration to expeditiously exit the West Bank (which would be recognized by much of the world as sovereign Palestinian territory), but will stoutly refuse to bow to such pressure, leaving America stuck in the middle. America will, undoubtedly, not even recognize a Palestinian state, which will make it exceptionally difficult for us to continue to try to be a broker between the two sides, but our non-recognition will stand out like a sore thumb once the bulk of the world has extended such recognition.

In the longer term, though, it’s the continuation of the conflict that creates problems for America. So whether a Palestinian declaration is bad in the long term depends on whether it makes it more or less likely for the conflict to finally be resolved. And that, in turn, depends on whether Abbas’s gamble pays off – whether he can midwife a Palestinian sovereignty that is actually functional and viewed as a modest success. If he can, then Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would be “normalized” – it would be a conflict between two states rather than a conflict within a state. And the former type of conflicts are much more amenable to negotiated solutions than the latter. So that’s another way that a declaration would serve the interests of Abbas: even though it would represent a kind of slap to the Americans (who have urged him strongly not to go this route), it would tie his fate even more closely to American interests.

And, contra Daniel Larison, it’s not clear that the Palestinian diaspora would materially suffer from a declaration. One must ask what, exactly, the Palestinian diaspora has ever gained by the strategy followed since 1949. Israel is never going to accept a Palestinian “right to return” as part of a negotiated process. The chimera of such a right, however, has been a real obstacle to achieving a final settlement, and therefore achieving anything concrete either for Palestinians in Palestine or for Palestinians in the diaspora. A statehood declaration would sever the negotiating link between the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian state. They would be revealed to be separate questions. Which, in fact, they are: the interests of Palestinians in Palestine and Palestinians in the diaspora are wildly out of alignment. Severing the connection might actually make it possible to make some kind of progress on a more realistic framework for compensating Palestinians in the diaspora. It’ll feel like a huge blow, of course. But it might be a blow that opens the path to actual, material progress. And nothing would prevent the Palestinian diaspora from maintaining a strong, supportive connection with a new Palestinian state. (Indeed, such a connection would be vital to any success that state might have.)

A declaration is a high-risk gamble by Abbas, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Boxing Abbas into a situation where he feels he needs to make this kind of desperate gamble is itself a gamble by the Netanyahu government – a gamble that Israel would be better off more deeply isolated but in a stronger negotiating position. It’s not at all surprising that Netanyahu would take that gamble; it’s consistent with everything about his leadership history.

The certain short-term losers are the Americans. Which is why we’re so opposed. But it’s not clear to me how much of what we stand to lose is actually a new loss, and how much is recognition of a loss we’ve been saddled with for some time. And sometimes, recognizing a loss that’s been sitting on your books can be clarifying.

The Mind Killer

I’m looking out my window right now at the cranes on top of the rising Freedom Tower – they only recently became visible, previously being obscured by other buildings in lower Manhattan. And trying to figure out what’s worth saying about the attacks of ten years ago.

I could reminisce about my own experience of the day, but it was not terribly exceptional or interesting. I reacted more like the flag-cake woman than I would probably care to admit. I wandered around in a daze of rage and fear for, oh, days it seems. My boss was actually trapped in Europe at the time, trying to close a critical deal – he didn’t get home for weeks, and I recall my inarticulate amazement that he could focus on anything. I couldn’t do much more than stare out the window at the plume of smoke.

I remember being struck by how nobody seemed to understand that everything had changed – everyone still sounded like themselves, still said the sorts of things that they would have said before, still believed the sorts of things they believed before. And in retrospect, I feel the same way, including about myself. Most people didn’t change their minds about anything. The belligerent ones found a new justification for their belligerency. The self-critical ones found a new justification for self-criticism. The nervous, finger-to-the-wind types found new reason to be extremely careful about figuring out which way the wind was blowing before committing. Even the iconoclasts set out to find a new basis for their iconoclasm. And those who did change, it seems to me, had been primed for a change beforehand in some fashion or other. However people reacted, it said more about them than it did about the attacks, what they might have meant.

Because the attacks meant almost nothing, at least in terms that would mean anything to us (which are the terms that matter in this case). They were not a sign of some kind of essential decadence or weakness. Al Qaida successfully exploited a series of simple loopholes that allowed an unprecedented attack to succeed. If we had had almost any kind of screening for passengers, the attacks would have failed. If cockpit doors had been routinely reinforced, the attacks would have failed. If the officers and crew had imagined that terrorists might not hijack or blow up a plane, but instead want to use one as a flying bomb, the attacks would have failed. And so forth – the attacks succeeded basically because we had no defense in place at all against such an attack, and preventing a recurrence was actually trivial.

The political significance was similarly nugatory. Al Qaeda’s political goals were outlandish to the point of absurdity. Afghanistan was more like Grand Fenwick than it was like the Empire of Japan. Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers. All the efforts to ascribe a meaning to the events – the terrorists hate our freedom, or they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region, or they hate that we are infidels, or they hate that we are engaged in wars of aggression against Muslims, or whatever – were responses to our need for meaning rather than to the events themselves. But the indifference of reality to our needs – in this regard as in most – is comprehensive.

In retrospect, what suffered the most lasting damage from the terrorist attacks of ten years ago was my belief in my own rationality. I believed that I was thinking things through seriously, and coming to difficult but true conclusions about what had happened, what would happen, what must happen. Here is part of what I wrote, to friends and family, several days later:

Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us.

There is not a single factual assertion in that paragraph that I had any reason to believe I could substantiate. I did not know anything about the enemy. I had no idea whether or not there were “operations” in dozens of countries – I don’t even know what I meant by “operations.” I know what I was referring to with the business about being “supported” by friends and enemies, but “support” is a deliberately fuzzy word; I wouldn’t have used it if I was trying to make a concrete assertion with clear implications. The purpose of that assertion, like everything else, was to build up my first assertion. We were at war. And it wouldn’t be short or easy. Because that conclusion, though grim, was one that imparted meaning to the murder of 3,000 people. I thought I was being serious – examining the facts, calculating the likely negative consequences of necessary action, preparing myself for the unfortunate necessities of life. But I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was engaged in a search for meaning in which reason was purely instrumental.

The great intellectual victors in the immediate post-9-11 period were the people who could imbue it with meaning. To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances. In other words, the very fact that there was so little we knew, and that what there was to know wasn’t very satisfying in terms of imparting meaning to events, very naturally empowered those whose views didn’t depend on knowledge. That’s how we wound up in Iraq. The advocates of war did not begin advocating for war on 9-11 – “finishing the job” in Iraq had been on the agenda for the entire decade prior. Nor did they need to prove any connection to the 9-11 attacks. We wound up in war in Iraq, in a very real sense, because “finishing the job” in Iraq imparted an appealing meaning to the terrorist attacks. And opposing the war felt like it tore the meaning off that terrible day, leaving its empty horror naked before us. That’s how it felt to me, at the time, when I think back.

And that’s what I mean by saying that what suffered the most lasting damage was belief in my own rationality. Or in anybody else’s.

All I hope is that this has been a fortunate fall from a kind of innocence, that, aware that I – and others – are not nearly so rational as we suppose, that we want to understand more than we do, and that this motivates us to believe that we do understand more than we do – that, aware of this, I will be less likely to lead myself to believe what I do not know.

(But, then again, if I really did that, I suppose I’d have to stop blogging. And if I do that, then the terrorists really will have won. Won’t they?)

No, illegal file-sharing is not theft

Matt Yglesias seems to have gotten himself into a debate about whether illegal file-sharing is stealing. And he’s absolutely right: it’s not theft.

As in the debate about whether corporations are persons, I think it’s important to understand that words have meaning.

One of the cool things about France’s civil law system is that it places a premium on defining things precisely, and thus I’ve never seen a better definition of “theft” than that of the French Penal Code: the fraudulent subtraction of another person’s property.

The word “subtraction” here, of course, is key. To steal something is to fraudulently subtract from their property. With file sharing, of course, no subtraction occurs, since the file is copied.

And under French law, illegal file sharing falls under the rubric of counterfeiting, which I think is accurate. If you create a false document, you are not stealing anything from anyone, but you are fraudulently impinging on legal rights.

Neoliberal fascism

Thanks to Scenester David Sessions for alerting me that Friend of the Scene Freddie thinks I’m a neoliberal fascist because I wrote a column arguing for France to

Insert here a joke about how I don’t know which label to be most offended by.

I’ll only make a couple points, one about process and one about content.

First of all, about process. I am accused of endorsing fascism because I wrote a column urging the President of France to take rapid action to reform France’s economy.

I urge the president to “legislate by decree”—this sounds fearsome, but the process of “ordinances” is routinely used to legislate in France. What happens is that Parliament votes a law that enables the government to pass decrees that have the strength of law, on a certain topic and for a certain period, and after that the decrees have to be ratified by Parliament again to permanently gain the force of law. That’s not how a bill becomes a law in the US, but it is still perfectly consistent with legal democratic process. I’m sure there are also “fast-track” procedures in the US Congress.

I also suggest in one throwaway line that the President might wish to exercise the special powers clause of the French Constitution. It’s unlikely that he would be allowed to do so because, as a Freddie commenter points out, there are strict judicial controls on these war powers.

Second of all, about content. My “neoliberal fascist” policy recommendations for France are the following: enormous short-term stimulus spending, a revenue-neutral overhaul of the tax code and the end of various professional guilds and price controls. I don’t even say anything about unions. This puts me pretty much in line with that other sellout, liberal in name only, Paul Krugman (see e.g. here re: rent controls ).

I mean, we can have different views about financial reform and progressive taxation or what have you, but it’s pretty striking that someone would think calling for no tax cuts and a dramatic increase in government spending (I throw out a figure equivalent of 10% of France’s GDP) is neoliberal bitter medicine.

But hey, at least we now know it’s not only conservatives who suffer from epistemic closure.

The Physics of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Matt Yglesias, a writer whose work I greatly admire, continues to (willfully or not) misrepresent the views of pro-lifers.

He wrote a post last week on Ron Paul’s pro-life stance and its compatibility with his (professed?) libertarianism, and writes:

some people want to tell me that if you accept the erroneous metaphysics of the anti-abortion movement, that then treating women who terminate pregnancies as criminals makes perfect libertarian sense. For one thing, I don’t accept the erroneous metaphysics of the anti-abortion movement.

There’s a crucial point to be made here, which, if it were understood better by pro-choicers, would lead the abortion debate in a much saner direction. Here it is, and I can’t state it emphatically enough: the pro-life position has nothing to do with metaphysics.

In the contemporary United States a lot of people who hold pro-life views are also religious folks, and this understandably leads a lot of pro-choicers to believe that pro-life views are religious in nature, to the point where it’s become a sort of axiom.

But the biological, moral and legal status of the unborn child isn’t a question of metaphysics.

Whether life begins at conception isn’t a matter of religious faith, it’s a scientific question, and the answer isn’t very hard. Of course, you can choose to disbelieve it, just like you can choose to not to believe that CO2 molecules redirect infrared variations.

Now, science isn’t a moral guide. The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn’t necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection. But again, resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.

It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.

At first blush, it seems to me and many others that the entire project of the Enlightenment and modern Western civilization is premised on the idea that every single human being has certain inalienable rights. That these rights are not earned through accomplishment or inherited from forebears but that they are, well, universal, received simply by virtue of being human, and that it is incumbent on any just, or at least liberal, government to protect the rights of all human beings under its writ, not just the most visible.

And of course, that’s a wholly debatable argument. For most of human history the idea of universal human rights was unthinkable and then laughable and even now some people dispute its relevance. We find many examples throughout history of societies with classes of people bereft of rights, including societies ostensibly founded on liberal principles.

And we can say all sorts of things like, well, maybe a fetus has a right to life, but a woman’s right to not be pregnant is stronger.

We can talk about all sorts of things.

But the idea that the pro-life argument is based in metaphysics is false, and I wish that people would stop perpetuating it. Of course, perpetuating it is politically advantageous for pro-choicers as it frees them from talking about the relevant questions and allows them to instead brush off their opponents’ arguments as “erroneous metaphysics.”

PEG Answers Bill Keller On Religion

Retiring New York Times editor Bill Keller has a column out arguing that candidates should be asked “tougher” questions about their religion.

Tim Carney mocked the column for labeling the Catholic Rick Santorum an Evangelical Christian, and indeed it’s easy to mock the secular Times as seeing all Christians as the same. And sure, though he never comes out and says it, it seems that there’s a bit of a “let’s pin those crazy theocrats” undercurrent to Mr Keller’s column. But I do think the column’s central point — that religion in general, and Presidential candidates’ in particular, matters, and thus should be treated seriously — is quite right.

If “hard secularists” and religiously-motivated political actors have one thing in common, it’s that they think religion is important, and that’s as good a starting point for discussion as any.

In a blog post attendant to the column, Mr Keller lays out a few questions he’d like presidential candidates to answer. Although I haven’t officially formed my exploratory committee, allow me to say how I would answer if I was a presidential candidate. (And also how I would like a Christian presidential candidate to answer.)

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?

It’s absolutely fair to question presidential candidates about anything that could affect what kind of president they will be.

2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?

Sure.

3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in practice?

I’m not sure what I can say about the words of unnamed “religious leaders.”

I can tell you what I think.

I think that the principles on which America was founded draw on a number of intellectual traditions, including ideas that are common to the Judeo-Christian faiths. I think that the ideals of self-determination and individualism, and indeed of the separation of church and state, have many roots, but one of the main roots is the Bible. It was Jesus who said his kingdom is not of this world, and who said we should give back to Cesar what belongs to Cesar, and implicit in the New Testament is the idea that a person’s choices determine their fate, not their station at birth.

I think that many people came to America specifically to practice their religion in peace and freedom, and that therefore our history and collective imagination is weaved through with religious fervor in a way that is unique among nations, and that this is good. I think that religion plays a positive role in American society and culture in getting people to care for their fellow Americans, their communities, and yes, sometimes to work towards policies that they believe are best for the common good.

I think that America should and does welcome everyone, regardless of religious belief or ethnicity. I think that the fact that many of our principles come from the Judeo-Christian tradition does not mean that they’re not universal; indeed, the opposite.

4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

Here’s the oath of office of the president: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s the job I aspire to.

I also aspire to promote policies that, to my mind, are the best policies for the common good of the American people. I hope to make the case for these policies on grounds that all Americans can understand. And I hope that’s how Americans will judge me.

5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

Here are my criteria for nominating judges: whether I agree with their philosophy of legal interpretation; whether I think they are outstanding Americans of great integrity.

6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

I honestly don’t care.

7. What do you think of the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

I think that Dominionism exists largely in the minds of a few agitated cooks and of a lot of media editors based on the coasts of the United States.

And for the record, no, I don’t think Christians, and only Christians, should be able to hold political office. That would be unconstitutional, un-American. And also very stupid.

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

a) My attitude toward the theory of evolution is that as far as I can tell it’s settled science, and so I accept it as such. For the record, this is also the stance of the Catholic Church to which I belong. But that’s not why I accept evolution as settled science.

b) I think public schools should teach all kinds of sciences.

9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

The federal government’s deficit last year was over a trillion dollars. The national debt is almost fifteen trillion dollars. The unemployment rate is 9.1%. I can’t even keep track of the number of foreign wars we’re in (do drone strikes over Yemen count?).

All of which is to say: I really, really don’t care.

Worst Case Paul

TAS Alum Conor Friedersdorf asks a very sensible question: what’s the worst thing that could happen in a Ron Paul presidency?

Salon’s Alex Pareene gamely takes up the gauntlet, and I largely agree with his diagnosis, although, of course, not always with his characterization of the diagnosis.

This, in particular, is regrettable but probably true:

Hacks with contempt for good government make bad political appointees, as Bush taught us. Ideologues actively opposed to the existence of a powerful federal government probably make worse ones.

In all likelihood a Paul presidency would start with a lot of gridlock and end with Congress basically taking over the country and overriding Paul’s veto pen. And anything that can get two thirds of Congress is certainly not going to be great, but it’s probably not going to be terrible, either.

But, as I told Conor on Twitter, the almost greek tragedy-like dilemma of a Paul presidency would be that to get anything he believes in done, Paul would have to embrace and extend the imperial presidency he so obviously detests.

And if Paul makes this Faustian bargain, then he becomes much more dangerous.

So here’s the worst case scenario of a Paul presidency, as I can see it.

President Paul and his appointees, realizing that they can’t end the Fed through Congress, decide to launch a bunch of far-reaching federal investigations of the Fed. Maybe a true-believin’ special prosecutor is appointed. American law being set up in such a way that if you investigate deeply enough you’ll always find something illegal someone did, the Fed is incapacitated. Maybe key figures and even Bernanke are driven to resignation and put before a Grand Jury but maybe it just makes it impossible for them to do their work.

Then an external shock—or just the market freakout caused by unleashing the Spanish Inquisition on the Fed—causes a financial collapse. Obviously a bailout is not forthcoming, nor is easy money. Maybe it’s not the banks that fail but investors who stop trusting the dollar and buying treasuries. (In which case the banks would fail, too.) The financial collapse turns into another Great Depression.

Fin.

You can also come up with a scenario under which prematurely yanking troops from Afghanistan ends up with such chaos that Pakistan becomes a failed state and nukes end up in the hands of terrorists. (And India invades to prevent that and China meddles and Paul is like “What? It’s way over there! Not our problem!”) But that’s probably fairly unlikely.

The most likely scenario is still nothing-happens-for-four-years. But most people who underestimated Ron Paul’s ability to do damage have been surprised.

Speaking of science and policy

Since we’re talking about the politics of science and the limits between the two…

There’s plenty of scientific advances I wish the US conservative movement would not be so uncomfortable about, like anthropogenic climate change and evolution.

If there’s one scientific fact I do wish, however, that the American left would come to grips with, it’s this one: that an embryo is a human being, by any reasonable definition of those words.

Now, just like recognizing the reality of the warming of the planet does not mean embracing a carbon command economy, recognizing the fact that a unicellular human being is still a human being does not automatically entail embracing the pro-life position.

As Jim rightly notes, the borders of actual science are not as wide as many people seem to think. What kinds of human beings should get which rights is a moral and political decision, not a scientific one.

But if we’re going to insist (as we should) on political actors embracing scientific consensus, we should do so consistently.

The Boundaries of Science

Kevin, you’ve stirred up quite a spat with the left-wing blogosphere concerning how much we should care about the scientific views of politicians, with specific reference to the cases of global warming and evolution. I’m very sympathetic with your frustrations, but I’d put a similar objection somewhat differently. What I think would be most helpful in this discussion is rigor in defining the boundaries of science.

Physical science has enormous, justified prestige as an intellectual discipline that has created vast improvements in our material standard of living. Progressives routinely attempt to drape the label “science” over assertions that do not have the same reliability as physical science in order to create political advantage. This occurs in two dimensions.

First, scientific findings in some area are used to justify some related political or moral opinion. Key examples are exactly the topics you touch upon: global warming and evolution. In one example, the indisputable scientific finding that CO2 molecules redirect infrared radiation is used to argue that “science says” we must implement a massive global program of emissions mitigation, when in fact, the argument for this depends upon all kinds of beliefs about the growth of the global economy, Chinese politics, technological developments and so on for something like the next couple of hundred years. In the other example, the incredibly powerful scientific paradigm of evolution through natural selection is used to argue that “science says” we have just eliminated the need for God in the creation of the human species, when in fact, as a simple counter-example, the genetic operators of selection, crossover and mutation require building blocks as starting points, and therefore leave the classic First Cause argument unaddressed.

Neither the left nor the right is guiltless here. The left attempts to stretch science to justify what are really non-scientific viewpoints, but conservatives often react by attacking the underlying science, rather than making the more complicated, but more accurate, point that the actual scientific findings published in peer-reviewed journals (i.e., “the science”) don’t really imply the political assertion.

In the second dimension, fields such as economics that lack the reliability of physical science are often treated by partisans on both sides of the aisle as if they should speak with scientific authority. Macroeconomics is not valueless, but we should not grant its assertions the same rational deference that we grant to those made by physical chemistry.

The role of rational politicians, then, is to have an understanding of the boundaries of actual scientific expertise, and accept consensus scientific findings within these fields as practical “givens” in determining policy – but not to be snowed by everybody with a bunch of equations into accepting their personal politics as indisputable by any rational human.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)

Why US global hegemony is here to stay

Inspired by a Tumblr conversation, I wrote a piece on Business Insider explaining why US global hegemony is here to stay, and why that’s a great thing, not just for the world but for the US.

The problem with Ron Paul and other isolationists (and their opponents) is that they’re looking at the problem the wrong way and missing the forest for the trees.

They’re missing the forest for the trees because the part about America’s global military power isn’t the part that fights wars. It’s the much, much bigger part that doesn’t fight any war.

And they’re looking at it the wrong way, because people make it a debate about politics, when it’s really about economics.

And the economics part of the discussion is important because there is so much overlap between libertarians and isolationists, and this is where the vigor in the isolationist movement comes from.

In a word, libertarians need to come to grips with the fact that global trade (which they love) is only made possible by global American hegemony (which they think they hate).

PEG Leads, The Economist Follows

Patent edition.

Previous editions: swashbuckling French entrepreneurs and pensions.

Hey, just sayin’.

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