Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Anecdote Party!

Is it really news at this point when a Republican politician is involved in a gay sex scandal? Not really. But Hit & Run provides a couple of fun side items about the case. Balko:
Finally, any sympathy I might have felt for Craig evaporated when I read in the police report that he played the ol' "do you know who I am" game, by giving the cop his U.S. senator business card and asking, "What do you think of that?"
I don't have sympathy either, but I do have a lot of envy for that cop. What do I think of that? Wouldn't you like to know!

And then there's this great quote that Dave Weigel dug up:
Republican Sen. Larry Craig is citing Hillary Clinton as the reason he opposes renewing the Patriot Act in its current form, saying Mrs. Clinton is likely to abuse the security measure if she becomes president - unless additional safeguards are built in.

"There will come a day when there will not be a George W in the White House," Sen. Craig warned, after calling top conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday to explain his position. "And tragically enough, and I hope never, it could be a Hillary Clinton."

Craig wondered aloud: "Who will be her attorney general, and what might he or she do to your liberties and mine? There's the question."

The Idaho Republican told Limbaugh: "You know, I've been here a little while, and I remember Janet Reno, and I remember Waco and Ruby Ridge."

"And I fear the day that we get a president, not this president, who has a very liberal attorney general and sees the opportunity, to leap through the holes that are crafted in the Patriot Act, that could tread on our civil liberties."
It's like reading satire! I would think he would be sophisticated enough to come up with some bullshit "change of heart" justification for suddenly opposing the Patriot Act as soon as a Democrat sits in the White House, but he just came out and said it.

A Democrat sweep in 2008 looks fairly likely at this point; if we wake up in 2009 to a blue-team President and two-house Congressional majority, we will also wake up to a Republican party once again deploying libertarian arguments.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Simple Truth, part 2

Hurf makes a good point below about safety, that is, that we can never perfectly achieve it. There is an important corollary to this idea, and that is that perfect safety is not only impossible but undesirable. Let me explain.

Something like 40,000 people die each year in car accidents. We could make ourselves safe from this formidable threat to our national security by outlawing the ownership and use of cars entirely and relentlessly prosecuting anyone who failed to comply. Of course a few subversive types would almost certainly try to hold on to their precious death machines, hiding them in barns and driving them in secret, or perhaps traveling (or even emigrating!) abroad to indulge their reckless desires. Tracking down the very last of these would require a few compromises in our treasured liberties but is any price too high for perfect safety?

Obviously this is a load of tripe and no one would seriously suggest such a thing. Yet, it is what we would have to do to make ourselves perfectly safe from car accidents. In rejecting the above plan we implicitly acknowledge that though safety is valuable, beyond a certain point it comes at too high a price, and given that we live in the real world where you have to pay that price, we don't want it. Car accidents are a trivial example, but this extends to nearly everything. You can eradicate an infectious disease like smallpox through well-executed public health policy. No public policy, no matter how well designed or implemented, can eradicate accidents, terrorism, crime, corruption, poverty, drugs, racism, sexism, or whatever the bogeyman of the day is. That doesn't mean that we want to have terrorism or crime or racism in the world, in and of themselves, only that given the constraints we face, we would rather live in a world where a small to moderate amount of Bad Things exist than pay the costs of reducing them further. Our experience with drugs, and alcohol before them, suggests that the optimal amount to tolerate may in some cases be quite large, when the costs we face to fight them are also large.

This is not to say that we should not fight terrorism, or crime, or whatever. It is simply to say that we not only cannot ever fully annihilate evil, that when the sacrifices are too great we should not even desire to do so. To come back to Hurf's context, we will not be safe from Iran whether they give up their ideology and weapons or not, so we must ask whether the safety we would gain at the margin is worth what we have to give up to get it. If we can achieve that by asking nicely, sounds great. If it means more decades of war and the further entrenchment of the American Police State, it's probably not worth it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Read It Again, For The First Time

The Democrats are not going to engage in repeated efforts to force an end to the war. If they did, Republicans might say bad things about them on Fox News. So they’ll give the President what he wants, in exchange for which, Republicans will say bad things about them on Fox News. They’ll even be the same bad things, but Democrats will have the moral comfort of being confused and sad about it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Simple Truth

Yglesias links a National Review piece that - here's a shocker - defends the President's decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as terrorists. I already blogged about that so let's eat the dessert first.

But the simple truth is that, unless Iran’s regime gives up both its terrorist ideology and its weapons, we will never be safe.

Here's a simple truth for you.


We will never be safe from terrorists. We will never be safe from drunk drivers. We will never be safe from random crazy dudes with knives. We will never be safe from pet camels. We will never be safe from lightning strikes. We will never be safe from falling down in our own bathtubs.

Of all the delusions of 21st century foreign policy debates, the absolutist pursuit of safety needs to be the first to go.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Meaning of Inflation

Here we have a decent little article on the debate over the humble penny. The cost of producing our 1 cent piece is hovering around 2 cents, which despite lacking any real significance as a fact has prompted some to suggest we discontinue it. The idea of eliminating the penny in turn has raised this fear:
Weller, who has long lobbied for the penny with a group called Americans for Common Cents, argues the penny is good for the economy. Its absence, he said, would lead retailers to raise prices, influencing inflation.
Ugh. The implicit idea, which I've heard voiced elsewhere as well in similar discussions, is that retailers would simply round ever transaction up to a multiple of 5 cents, were the penny to be unavailable for making change. First of all I find this rather unlikely relative to the obvious alternative of rounding transactions to the nearest 5 cents, which assuming the last digit follows a uniform distribution will, on average, not alter final prices at all. But much more importantly, even if every transaction were rounded up, this would not influence inflation in the slightest. The reason is that inflation is one of those sneaky words like "liberal" that has been stealth-redefined during the 20th century. When we talk today of "inflation" we are speaking of a rise in the general level of prices, or in the level of prices in some sector. Milton Friedman is famous for stating that inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon, and in doing so he inadvertently pointed out the original meaning of the word, which is an increase in the money supply. It is very telling that in the modern age all sorts of explanations for and t theories of "inflation" have been put forth, while the truth lie all along in the original form of its very definition.

Point being, there is no possible way that rounding prices up one to four cents could influence inflation, because inflation has nothing to do with prices.

Of course the real prime mover for this preposterous claim is not ignorance but avarice. As is noted in the article, the above quoted individual is a lobbyist for a firm that sells zinc to The Mint for penny production. As we say on the internet, shock level zero.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Power Of The Dictionary

Behold, an amazon link to an underrated piece of tyranny literature: Wild Swans. It's a long, first-person history of 20th century China, from the warlords through the war through Mao.

One of the things that struck me when I first read it (the time was a few years before 9/11, and I an impressionable high school student) about Jung's depiction of life at the nadir of China's communist experiment was the power of the word "counter-revolutionary". Communist propaganda was built around the importance of the revolution, and thus counter-revolutionaries were the ultimate enemy. But who exactly were they? Was there some underground organization? Some foreign government? No. They were whoever party officials wanted them to be.

The word "terrorist", of course, is what I'm really posting about. As IOZ posts more pithily than I can, a lot of legal loopholes have been created for "terrorists" and "enemy combatants" based on the "special challenges" of trying to "fight the war on terror". In non scare-quote words, there's no possible way we can pursue normal criminal justice in occupied countries so the only way we can look like we're getting anything done is to just round up whoever we can and break out the waterboards. After all, they're not in uniform, and they aren't employees of a state, but it's still war!

Except now, they are in uniform, and they are employees of a state, and we're calling them terrorists. When you give words power, you give that power to whoever gets to define that word.

It's tempting to attribute the administration's unabated chutzpah despite sub-30 approval ratings to their stubbornness or isolation from dissenting opinion, but there's a better explanation. Congress remains willing to kowtow any time the president threatens to accuse them of being "soft on terror". Can you really blame him for thinking he can still get away with whatever he wants?

The wiretapping bill is one of those pieces of news that's depressing enough to turn me off of politics for a while, hence the light posting. There is an incompetence explanation - that the Democrats are still living in 2003 and shit their collective pants at any opportunity to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution if doing so might cause Rush Limbaugh to call them a wuss. There is also a malice explanation - that a Blue-team victory in 2008 is so certain, that the Democrats are voting to expand executive power because they plan to hold that power. Needless to say, neither explanation is charitable.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


BETTENDORF, Iowa - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Wednesday defended his five sons' decision not to enlist in the military, saying they're showing their support for the country by "helping me get elected."