Friday, September 09, 2005


Lashawn Barber links to a Boston Globe story about two gay activists who are posting the names and addresses of signatories to the anti-gay marriage petition being circulated in Massachusetts. The objective, states Mr. Thomas Lang, is to
"...give gay people the tools to know, to defend themselves and their families, to let them go neighbor-to-neighbor and say, 'I don't appreciate your signing this.'"

"I'm going to be aggressive personally," he said. "I want to know that the people I do business with are not against (gay marriage). This is going to be won by economics."

The names and addresses are a matter of public record, but obviously this action will make them a lot more public. Ms. Barber responds:
Nasty fellows, aren't they? I hope supporters of the ban on "gay marriage" will be just as aggressive in trying to stop this madness. What do all these rabid activists plan to do with the information? Mail letters? Call and harass people who signed the petition? Show up on their doorsteps? There are laws against trespassing, and the last time I checked, it was legal to own a gun in Massachusetts.

While I agree I that this particular project gives me somewhat of a pause, it seems that the activists have been pretty clear that the objective is NOT to intimidate.
[Alexander] Westerhoff already introduced himself to one of the first petition signers, Madelyn Shields of Beverly. Shields told the Herald she found the meeting "a bit odd," but described Westerhoff as gracious. She said she hopes other exchanges between gay marriage advocates and petition signers are as gracious.

Sounds real intimidating. Given all of that, I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan (who--I'm assuming she's referring to him--Ms. Barber refers to as "some big liberal blogger." Geez, one vote for Kerry and it's off to the races isn't it?) that Ms. Barber's response is way out of proportion.
Here's the question: why not mail letters trying to persuade people out of their position? Why not try and persuade people who disagree with you? Besides, wouldn't you be proud to have signed a petition that bars gay marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and the like, if that's your position? Why wouldn't you be eager for a dialogue? Why is your first thought about gay activists coming to your door is that you'd be prepared to shoot them? Maybe I don't want to know the answer to that last question.

Ms. Barber responds that "his version of what I wrote is inaccurate." While I assume that Ms. Barber doesn't actually believe that "see gay person, load rifle" is a proper sequence of events, it's really her who has distorted the issue. The Globe story makes it pretty clear that all the gay activists want is a dialogue--or, at most, the opportunity to not provide economic succor to people who seek to deprive them of fundamental rights. Both of these things--deliberative democracy and free association--seem to be not just acceptable but noble goals in the most American of traditions. Wizbang, concurring with Barber's argument, says that he thinks that the amendment should be on the ballot and that he'd vote against it--that this is the way democracies should work. That may well be, but another part of democracy is discussing and debating the merits of the issues we propose. Democracy is dysfunctional without some sort of debate--that's what's being stifled here, an attempt at a grassroots, person-to-person discussion on the merits of an issue of vital importance, free of the distortive and corrupting effects of lobbyists, interest groups, and massive ad buys. What on earth justifies Ms. Barber's "lock and load" suggestion? Sure, it's possible that some kooks will call and harass the survey signers. That's unfortunate, but my opinion of how to make a functioning democracy is to default to more speech, not less. And in any event, this particular argument wasn't made until after the fact: the post title specifies that Barber thinks it's the two activists themselves who are trying to "intimidate," not any particular nutcase who might piggy back on their efforts. Hence, it seems to be the product of her own text and intent (we know how much conservatives love those!) that the gun be pointed at gay activists who want nothing more than a discussion. That's appalling.

There is something critical to note here--the importance of context. Holstein Grove claims that if the actors were flipped (that is, it was anti-homosexual activists putting up names and addresses of gay rights supporters), everybody would be up in arms. I can't make claims as to the relative sanity of the mass media--but we have to note certain things. As noted above and contra the Grove, this is not an effort to intimidate but an effort to initiate a dialogue. If a reversed attempt was made by Christian activists that was also focused on dialogue (as opposed to harassment), then I say sure, let's go. But the record of the "Christian" right isn't so hot here. They published the names and addresses of abortion doctors, for example--but did it to put them on Most Wanted posters and crossed their names off when they were killed. A .45 may speak volumes, but it doesn't count as a conversation in my book. I'm not saying that a reversed effort would necessarily turn out like that. But if it did (and since it has before), then the Katie Couric sob story would be perfectly justified. In ethics, intent matters. As the intent here seems to be benign, if not noble, I see no problem with it.

And with that, I leave for my lovely Carleton College. When I next post, I'll be living large in Northfield, Minnesota. See you in Central Time!

"The Dirty Near-Dozen": Principled Deficit Hawks?

At TMV, I listed the 11 Republican congressmen who voted against the Katrina emergency relief funds--labeling them "the dirty near-dozen." QandO took me to task, saying that the Representatives voted nay because they thought the money was being spent too frivolously and needed more oversight--not because they opposed Katrina relief by the government in principle. I responded that it seemed a bit specious for Republicans to go back to the deficit hawk mantra when they've been big spenders all around for the past few years. Someone pointed out, correctly, that this was too broad a brush--it was entirely possible that these folks had held their ground and had bucked their party on major spending bills. Not being one who likes to stand behind allegations without backing them up, I decided to check into the matter myself.

The 11 Representatives in question, Republicans all, are:
Rep. Joe Barton - TX

Jeff Flake - AZ

Virginia Foxx - NC

Scott Garrett - NJ

John Hostettler - IN

Steve King - IA

Butch Otter - ID

Ron Paul - TX

James Sensenbrenner - WI

Tom Tancredo - CO

Lynn Westmoreland - GA

I looked through several House spending and tax cut bills, to see which representatives, if any, voted "nay" on both Katrina and the "control" spending/tax cut bill. Since the point of this exercise was to see whether or not the 11 had voted against bills which they might support "in principle," but objected to reckless spending on it, I tried to find bills that were supported by Republicans generally, or by the entire House generally. Voting nay on those would showcase an ability to cross party lines to enforce spending discipline. I'll admit it's an inexact proxy, but with the time and resources I had I couldn't think of another. The names listed are the cross-overs (who voted nay on both the bill in question and Katrina Aid).

HR 2744--Agriculture Appropriations Bill: Flake, Paul, Sensenbrenner, Tancredo.

HR 2863--Defense Appropriations Bill: Paul.

HR 2360--Homeland Security Appropriations Bill: Paul.

HR 3010--Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Bill: Flake, Otter, Paul, Tancredo.

HR 6--Energy Policy Act of 2005: Flake, Paul.

HR 8--Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act: NONE.

In case you're wondering about Rep. Paul, he's a definitive libertarian, and votes accordingly. Here are the scores for everyone:
Rep. Joe Barton - TX (0/6)

Jeff Flake - AZ (3/6)

Virginia Foxx - NC (0/6)

Scott Garrett - NJ (0/6)

John Hostettler - IN (0/6)

Steve King - IA (0/6)

Butch Otter - ID (1/6)

Ron Paul - TX (5/6)

James Sensenbrenner - WI (1/6)

Tom Tancredo - CO (2/6)

Lynn Westmoreland - GA (0/6)

Six of the eleven voted nay on none of the bills, two more on one, and one each for two, three, and five nays. So, I suppose I'll grant "principled status" to Representatives Paul and (since I'm feeling generous) Flake. For the rest, "spending discipline" seems to be a fair-weather friend, no?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Luck, Pluck, or Just Plain F**cked?

Henry Swift at Armchair Capitalists (a highly underrated blog) comments on an observation about liberalism by Angry Bear: specifically, the role that plain old bad luck has in creating society's winners and losers.
So if I had to encapsulate in a few words why I describe myself as a liberal, I would simply say this: I believe in bad luck. I think that a huge number of the forces that affect most people's lives are outside of their control - the parents that they were born to, the quality of their local educational opportunities, the management of the company that they happen to work for, the fortunes of the city or town in which they happen to live, or the industry in which they happen to find work - and that individuals who suffer from a bad family, poor education, being laid off, or a hurricane, should not be left to live with the consequences of their plain bad luck without help from society at large.

I think many liberals (including myself) would agree with that, and I also think that it accurately describes a major point of differentiation between liberal and conservative worldviews. Liberals are skeptical of the free market to naturally create "right" outcomes--believing their are many externalities that are simply unaccounted for. Conservatives, by contrast, think that results are determined primarily by "pluck," that is, the more talented, determined, or otherwise meritable persons will rise to the top. Presumably, both will concede that there are cases on the other side--liberals acknowledging people who succeeded on merit, conservatives admitting that some folks really did just get hit by a streak of bad luck. The point of contention is how much is on each side.

Henry believes that one can measure which side is right empirically. That is, we can design a test and go "aha! The poor really ARE poor because they are lazy bums," or vice versa. I'm not exactly sure how one would design such a test. For one, it seems there are way too many variables to isolate. I've seen a lot of studies which show how a parent's income correlates to their child's future income, which would indicate that being born poorer has some effect on one's future life chances. But one can easily imagine the conservative responses: that if it is bad habits which make someone poor, then it is likely that they will transmit these negative values to their children, thus insuring they'll be poor. Or perhaps they'll make a genetic argument--successful people tend to marry other successful people, and are more likely to conceive successful children. Both of these explanations would absolve society of its accountability and shift the blame back on to the poor and their families.

A second problem comes in the definition of "luck," and where the cross-over point is between a lack of luck and a lack of pluck. This is very important, because different life positions require different amounts of each to be successful. The son of a rich, upperclass businessman needs both less effort and fewer breaks to succeed than the kid trying to escape the ghetto. When does an amount of effort we'd say is "reasonable" become a super-human effort that, while laudable, can't be expected by the average man or woman. After all, one cannot assign moral duties beyond the capacity of the common man. As J.O. Urmson writes:
If we are to exact basic duties...and censure failures, such duties must be, in ordinary circumstances, within the capacity of the ordinary man. It would be silly for us to say to ourselves, our children and our fellow men, 'this and that you and everyone else must do,' if the acts in question are such that manifestly few could bring themselves to do them, though we may ourselves resolve to try to be of that few....So, if we were to represent the heroic act of sacrificing one's life for one's comrades as a basic duty, the effect would be to lower the degree of urgency and stringency that the notion of duty does in fact posses. The basic moral code must not be in part too far beyond the capacity of the ordinary men or ordinary occasions, or a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code would be an inevitable consequence; duty would seem to be something high and unattainable, and not for 'the likes of us.' [J.O. Urmson, "Saints and Heroes," in Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by A.
Melden. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958), 211-212.

This standard is context-critical. That is, while it's easy to say from here "just say no" to gangs, when "saying no" means your 13 year old sister gets raped and continuing to say no means she'll be killed, it becomes much more difficult to make "saying no to gangs" a moral imperative. We simply cannot evaluate the life choices of those trapped in disadvantaged environments without simultaneously analyzing the real material conditions that exist their lives.

This example, I'd hope, would unanimously be labeled as beyond what a 14 year old can be expected to do (I don't call it extreme because as far as I can tell, it accurately represents the type of choice faced by typical ghetto youth trying to avoid Gang life). However, in other cases, Liberals and conservatives would probably differ in where to draw the "luck/pluck" line. Ideology and observation reinforce each other--conservatives are probably more likely to view more things as reasonable "choices," which pushes them to a more conservative position that encourages to label yet more choices as reasonable. For liberals, it's the reverse. This type of split would probably doom any empirical barometer, since nobody would able to agree on the scale.

The preceding analysis assumes that there is a dualism between "luck" and "pluck." It's either one or the other. However, as my title suggests, I believe there is a third explanation for negative outcomes in modern society--those who are victims of structural hostility (racism, sexism, anti-Semetism, heterosexism, etc.) which makes it impossible (or significantly more difficult) for them to succeed.

There are two reasons why I think that this differs from "luck." The first is that bad luck is inherently related to something bad. If my basketball shot just barely rims out, that's unlucky, but it doesn't suggest that we should "change the rules" per se. The solution to rimmed-out shots is to take better shots. So if being born poor is "bad luck," then the solution is to have less poor people, because we all agree that being poor is a bad thing that we wish didn't exist. But it would be weird to respond to racism by saying it's "bad luck" to be born black, and try have fewer black people. Blackness isn't inherently something bad, it's been made bad by social constructs that should be eliminated.

The second is that luck implies randomness. That is, bad luck can't be traced to any cause, and where it clusters is a complete mystery, it's--well, unlucky. Structural factors, by contrast, are not random but guided--they always hit people of subordinated races, or sex, or sexual orientation, or religion. It doesn't count as "luck" if it's predictable. This is important, because it implies a greater degree of social responsibility than simple "bad luck" does. We may not be able to predict that New Orleans will be entirely wiped out in a Hurricane--or Sri Lanka in a Tsunami, or that Happy Toy Factory will close down, or whatever. But we can predict that a racist society will disadvantage people on account of race. Knowing that this outcome is likely raises the moral cost of not doing anything to stop it--especially when (again, unlike issues of "luck"), the privilege reap benefits from the unjust system. This also has the benefit of taking out the arguments of the extreme right wing (Objectivists and hardcore libertarians) who would respond to the "luck" case by saying "so what? It's not my fault they got unlucky. It sucks to be them, but that's no reason to take my property to help." The F**cked position creates the moral imperative to assist the disadvantaged by creating a degree of causality that doesn't exist with luck. It notes that their disadvantage is, at least in part, what creates our advantage (indeed, disadvantage is a comparative term. It is impossible for someone to be disadvantaged without someone else being advantaged. Consequently, it's impossible for someone to be unjustly disadvantaged without a corresponding class of people who are unjustly advantaged.) "Pluck" says it's their fault, "luck" says it's nobody's fault, "f**cked" says it's everybody's fault (even if blame can't be traced to any one individual). Though luck still has a role for many, explicitly denoting and exploring "f**cked" creates a deeper and more vigorous justification for social intervention. Ultimately, this is a much stronger philosophical position than luck alone.

Bipartisan Bloodletting

I'm not the biggest fan of the Daily Kos, but one thing I will say for them is that they've shown zero compunction to try and shield Democrats who might be implicated in the big scandals--like Tom DeLay's corruptathon or the Katrina disaster. Take this for example:
The right wing bloggers are running with claims by the Red Cross that state officials kept them from going in too soon. The geniuses at Powerline conclude:
The Democrats may need to re-think their calls for an investigation.

See, that's the difference between us and them. They put their party above the country, and would rather stifle a real investigation than be forced to shoulder any blame.

We say, "investigate away", and let the chips fall where they may. If any Democrats share the blame, then so be it. We need to know what went wrong, who f'd up, and how we can prevent this sort of thing from happening again. If Blanco or another Democrats gets fingered in this epic screwup, that's okay.

Equal opportunity bloodthirst for inept politicians. That's what I like to see. I don't know who will be the heroes and villians when all is said and done on Katrina (well, I'm pretty confident about where Michael Brown will fall, but the rest are still open questions), and I don't care. It could be the entire Democratic establishment in Louisiana, and I still would say they should be strung up and flayed alive. The folks who screwed up, NEED to be held accountable. That's bipartisan bloodletting.

Price Gouging or Market Clearing?

While quite a few people (including liberal blogger Mark Kleiman have posted defenses of so-called price gouging and noted their opposition to government price caps, Dave Hoffman's argument seems to blow them out of the water. Actually, he makes two arguments, but I like the second one best:
In civil emergencies, markets don't work to clear information in rational ways. Even high prices will not serve to reduce demand for, say, water and gasoline, over the short term if folks think their lives are going to depend on having such commodities nearby. Price gouging regulations do two things to reduce panic and regulate demand. First, they increase trust in market transactions (an SEC-like role) and thus will act to reduce "panic demand" in emergencies without increasing price. Second, the regulations - when publicized appropriately - have the same information forcing effect as higher prices themselves, teaching people that there are supply interruptions and they should change their use patterns until conditions improve. In both ways, price gouging regulations use norms and soft-economics to accomplish market stabilization in a more satisfactory way than the market would, if left to its own devices.

I know zero about economics, so this is an entirely uninformed opinion. But there is something intuitively appealing about the notion that people behave irrationally in emergencies, and thus normal market forces don't work the way we want them to work. It seems to me that letting gas prices rise in the wake of a crisis could as easily cause a run-panic, pushing prices even higher, as it would reduce demand and let prices fall back to normal.

Simply Stunning

A must-read account from one refugee of the absolutely atrocious response on all levels to Katrina refugees. Regardless of whether anyone "predicted the Levees would fail," it doesn't take a 20 person committee of Mensa members for the authorities to treat desparate refugees with common decency and respect. This was just horrifying.

Bitch, Ph.D., with the heads up.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another First For California

The State Assembly has just approved the bill passed earlier giving full marriage rights to homosexual Californians. California was the first state to strike down laws banning interracial marriage, and one of the first states to repeal sodomy laws. Today is another landmark as California continues to be the vanguard of equality.

Let's see if Governor Schwarzenegger has the cajones to sign it--or will he submit to his right flank and veto? I hope for the former--but expect the latter.

PS: Kevin Drum remarks on the legal question regarding the relationship between this bill and Proposition 22. He notes that under the prevailing interpretation of Prop. 22, it appears the referendum was not a definition of marriage, but rather an interpretation of statutory law insuring that California did not recognize gay marriages from other states (them being, at that point, inconsistent with state policy).

Divine Wrath

Eugene Volokh writes a spectacular take-down of the dissident religious view that the natural disaster to hit New Orleans was a product of its wicked and sinful ways. If natural disasters are God's way of handing out punishment, Volokh notes, then God must really hate the poor--because it's them and not abortion doctors or homosexual tourists or high-roller gamblers (or corrupt officials, for that matter) that die in these sorts of thing. So, either being poor is a worse sin than all of those, or else God has a screwed up sense of accountability. I'm reminded of the old stereotype of the evil overlord (Number 45 to be exact), where the overlord turns to a general who screwed up, says "this is the price of failure," and then turns and shoots some random underling.

I rejected the secular version of this argument by refusing to jump on the "poor are responsible for staying behind" meme. To me, it's rather simple--poor people face structural disadvantages in their lives, some of which might be their fault, many of which are not. To hold them responsible for the ancillary effects of being poor, to me, represents a lack both of human empathy and a far too optimistic view of our system's meritocratic qualities.

However, some folks still are defending the "it's the poor's fault" line. Michael Williams argues that:
As a rather conservative Christian myself, it appears to me that most of the evil and terrible things that happen to people in the world are either the direct result of their own evil actions, or the direct result of the evil actions of others. Arguably, much of the suffering in New Orleans is due to poor/incompetent preparation by local officials who neglected their duties -- and some of that blame then rests with the voters who elected them.

The first note here is that Williams is explicitly equating "stupid decision" (electing incompetent officials in NO) and "evil." That seems a mite bit harsh, no? Second, it shifts a lot of the blame away from the federal government, whom these residents have almost no say in the actions of--this line of reasoning works only with local officials whom one can reasonably say the poor underclass of NO had a chance of reasoning. New Orleans is in Louisiana, and Louisiana voted for Bush, and Bush appointed Michael Brown, who has been an abject failure this entire episode, stretches the line of causation a bit too thin. Thus proving yet another time how "Christian" interpretations of events always magically and perfectly mesh with Republican talking points. Amazing.

But more fundamentally, I'm skeptical about how much one really can link the selection of officials in New Orleans to the dead and victimized underclass. There are several reasons to suggest that it is not innercity black voters who are really empowered here. First, they might not be voting--it's well known that poor black voters are registered and vote at a far lower rate than their fellow Americans. So their power is at a far lower level than their numbers would seem to dictate in a democracy. Second, even those who haven't become totally disenchanted with the democratic process may not be able to vote--either because of draconian felony disenfranchisement clauses, or because they have no way of getting to polling places, or because election day isn't a holiday and they can't get off from work. Third, many don't have the education to make an informed decision. The vast majority of Americans couldn't tell you what constitutes a viable, effective, fast, and comprehensive evacuation plan for their city in the event of a disaster. We don't have the expertise to make the decision. So even on the off chance that the issue came up on the campaign trail, poor voters--even less than privileged New Orleaners--have absolutely no basis for determining that one official has a "good" plan and one has a "bad" plan.

I'm probably--okay, almost definitely--being too hard on Mr. Williams. I'm sure he is very sympathetic to the plight of those killed or ruined in the wake of Katrina, and I'm quite skeptical that he believes that they "deserved" what happened to them. But the sort of Panglossian logic that tries to rationalize the horrific suffering of events like Katrina as necessary, inevitable, or justified offends me as deeply as it does Professor Volokh. Certainly, this view doesn't jibe with my conception of who God really is.

Monday, September 05, 2005

It Still Could Be Worse

So, Rehnquist will be replaced by his old clerk, John Roberts. My commentary remains the same as it was when he was nominated for associate justice, aside from some oddities regarding O'Connor's departure, it still "Could Be Worse."

So basically, I have nothing more to add to the Roberts nomination. I was kind of rooting for McConnell still--but water under the bridge. Indeed, if anything Roberts is more acceptable as Chief, both because I think everyone agrees he has the right temperament for the position, and also because he is much more ideologically aligned with Rehnquist than with O'Connor.

However, that makes Bush's second bite at the "replace-O'Connor" apple quite a bit more tricky. Most everyone thought that Rehnquist would resign before O'Connor, and planned their nomination scenarios accordingly. Bush could nominate a Rehnquist-esque conservative to appease his right flank, and Democrats couldn't complain too much since it was a right winger for a right winger. Then he could do a moderate later, when O'Connor left. When O'Connor resigned first, it threw everyone for a loop, but now we're roughly where we started--Roberts the conservative sop replacing a fellow conservative. So, who will be nominee #2?

O'Connor noted that she would have liked to have been replaced by a woman. Like Jack Balkin, I agree that the calls for Bush to appoint a minority or women will be renewed, and will be harder to ignore this time around. Could Edith Clement (remember her?) be resurrected? Or perhaps it will be Janice Brown Rogers--Orin Kerr argues that she is actually significantly more liberal than she is made out to be (she's quite libertarian--giving us a brutally conservative economic regime and a brutally liberal social one)--but an unlikely Bush pick. I thought that Bush would nominate a minority last time and was wrong--could this be the time? After giving the right Roberts, the door for Gonzalez may be open. Or perhaps Larry Thompson--he's kept a low profile from liberal attacks (I'm still rooting for boring white male Michael W. McConnell though). In any event, Professor Bainbridge has posted the odds.

Obviously, the Chief Justice is an important position--especially, as Bainbridge notes, his authority to assign opinions. But when of Rehnquist's greatest legacies was that he depoliticized that power. Unlike Burger, who would assign unpopular opinions to judges he disliked and was a masterful manipulator of his fellow justices to secure an opinion of the Court closest to his views, Rehnquist, by all accounts, was asstudiously fair in his assignment process. I see nothing in Roberts' record that would suggest he'd be any different.

But even if I thought that Roberts would be worth opposing (and I don't), I wouldn't recommend it--and it's Rehnquist himself who set the precedent. Democrats went full throat against him when he was to be elevated to Chief, a move which ultimately had no impact. Meanwhile, uber-conservative Antonin Scalia slipped through with nary a peep. Restless Mania sees that scenario happening again. But with Roberts looking like a shoo-in, I'd just as soon have Democrats meet with Bush and trade a Roberts confirmation for a moderate nominee. No sense getting distracted by the same fake twice.