Friday, March 17, 2006

I've Got An Idea!

Okay, I took a brief shot in my round-up post that it's the GOP that has no ideas, and Mark Olsen doesn't believe me. The original post Mark made dealt specifically with Iraq, which, as he points out, I'm not the best target for since I supported the war. I will point out, however, that his own example here wasn't exactly top-notch.
Well ... the Administration and the military seem to have plenty of ideas [of what to do in Iraq right now]. [H]e wrote this during a major anti-terrorist operation north of Badghad which is interesting for its contrasts with the force that had been requied in Falluja (and who is now doing the majority of the operations, i.e., Iraqis).

But this isn't a "new" idea, it's the same old idea (blow up the insurgents) we've been using for three years now. It didn't work in a vacuum then, there's no reason to assume it will start now. What is really needed is a strong focus on democratic institution building, especially restoring trusts between the Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds. The good news is that's exactly what Ambassador Khalilzad has been focusing on recently (I'm a big Zalmay Khalilzad fan). The bad news is that it appears to be about a year or two too late. Whether or not it will do any good now is, at best, a toss-up.

Withdrawing from Iraq may or may be not be a better idea, but it is a new (in that it's a tactic we haven't tried yet) idea that has some plausibility. The line of reasoning goes that our forces are the primary point of friction for a significant portion of the population, so by setting a withdrawal point, we (a) take the wind out of the sails of at least a portion of the insurgency, and (b) put pressure on the various squabbling sects in the government to get their act together before we pull out. Do I buy this argument? Not yet, although it's certainly been growing on me since it was originally proposed. But I have a lot of trouble arguing why it isn't better than staying the with the same old tired, failing strategies the Bush administration has been pushing in the region. As for what we should have done instead of invading, the obvious answer is focus on rebuilding Afghanistan (remember when the Bush administration was so focused on Iraq it "forgot" to put in any money for the Afghani reconstruction? That's an example of what we call a bad PR move). A bird in hand, after all....

But, as I said, I'm the wrong guy to talk to when it comes to Iraq. So let's look at some other issues I see a greater distinction between my and my party's beliefs, and those of the GOP. Start with Social Security. Mark says that while this may be a bad solution, it's better than the Democratic claim that there's no problem at all. First of all, it's entirely plausible that Democrats are right: there might not be a problem. The estimates of Social Security solvency are always pessimistic--we've outperformed the market estimates they're based off every time. But even if Democrats are wrong, they're still right, because (a) Social Security running a deficit makes it no different from every other federal program, and (b) if the market actually is running that poorly, that may hurt the SS status quo, but it kills any market-based solution for fixing it. But second of all, I'm not sure how "not having a solution" comes off as comparatively disadvantageous for the Democrats anyway--why is nothing worse than a "solution" that exacerbates the problem? That's the other thing--I blogged previously on how privatization won't actually "solve" anything, because political reality mandates we still cover retirement losses, and the transaction costs will skyrocket our deficit to the point of making this administration look thrifty. If we have a spare 2-3 trillion dollars that we're just aching to spend, why can't we just use it to shore up the solvency deficit directly (I think I read that this amount of money would keep social security solvent well into the 22nd century), rather than embarking on some new and unknown program (whatever happened to the Burkean conservative?). I think it's a bit rich to give Republicans a pat on the back for coming up with a "solution" that doesn't even come close to addressing the actual problem. If that's our standard, fine, my "solution" is that we give Shetland ponies to every little girl when they turn seven years old. I have no idea how that will reduce our solvency deficit, but thankfully, that's no longer relevant to saying we've fixed the problem. Our party gives out ponies. Where's the GOP at?

On to health insurance, medicare, et al. Mark pretty much admits that the "reform bill" was a disaster, and proposes that we amend the constitution to prohibit the government giving insurance. This might be an interesting argument, but what national Republican is running these days on abolishing Medicaid? I must have missed that part of Bush's campaign speech. I'm kind of reminded of a line by Kevin Drum on the Federalist Society:
[they] talk[] about whether or not genuine originalists should overturn New Deal opinions from the 40s, which strikes me as sort of like arguing over whether or not Superman could kick Green Lantern's butt: harmless, to be sure, but hardly part of the real world. If Federalist Society members are convinced that...what's really needed is someone who will vote to repeal the Social Security Act, they're just fantasizing, not discussing real-life issues.

Again, it's a bit rich to give Republican's credit for an idea they're not actually proposing. Getting rid of the welfare state is not part of contemporary American politics--Republican or Democrat. So what's the Republican "idea" for fixing the healthcare crisis? Admittedly, perhaps Mark is right, and they don't actually care, and thus the Medicare reform bill was actually a very clever attempt to sabotage the massive mainstream support for the program. But I hardly think bait-and-switching the electorate is the type of "idea" we're talking about here, so I'm going to assume that the GOP congressional leadership honestly wants to fix the healthcare crisis.

In which case, the idea (and it is pretty much singular) is Health Savings Accounts. Only Republicans could see a polity where millions lack insurance, and say "this is horrible! We need to create another tax shelter!" It honestly defies belief, but I think it warrants my claim of the GOP being tax cut obsessed. Health Savings Account, it hardly needs mentioning at this point, are another "give a pony" solution to a problem that has nothing to do with ponies. Besides the fact that the folks who are currently not insured tend not to overlap with the folks who can afford to set-aside $2000 in discretionary income each year, even if we manage to get past that, it still doesn't fix the major problem, which is coverage of catastrophic healthcare scenarios. Your $2000/year layaway is lovely, but it ain't going to do jack if you come down with cancer. Still, until then, more places to hide your income from the tax boys is a nice perk (for those who can afford it).

The Democrats, by contrast, have Universal Health Insurance as their answer. Mark can't figure out who would support this besides "healthcare professionals" (God forbid we listen to Doctors on healthcare policy!). I think there's a rather obvious group #2 we can add...the uninsured. Presumably, they'd prefer having health coverage, to, um, not having it. Group #3 is big business. They're finally coming around to universal healthcare, because they want to get what is turning into a massive liability off their backs. The amount of money they put out on healthcare puts them at a huge competitive disadvantage compared to European firms who get it governmentally subsidized. And the ones who did commit to giving health benefits are suffocating from them (remember when Mark wanted to let the entire American auto industry go bankrupt?). In fact, the only major constituency group opposed to UHC is the Health Insurance industry, because it ruins the racket they've got going.

UHC solves the healthcare crisis in several ways. First, it obviously fixes the problem that millions can't afford private health insurance. I've never seen the GOP even pretend to try and solve for these people. Second, it solves for catastrophic health concerns because it pools risk. Most of us won't come down with cancer, and those who do can draw from a much larger pool of resources than they could with their puny HSAs. Third, it restores competitive balance between American and Europe, by removing our largest corporate liability. Fourth, it saves costs by allowing for price negotiations, and removing the inefficiencies latent in our current hodgepodge mix of HMOs, PPOs, employer insurance, private insurances, ER attacks, etc.. Are there some kinks to work out? Probably. But at least this solution actually addresses the problem at hand, which is more than you can say for HSAs. And contra what Mark says, this sort of long-term thinking is perfectly feasible for politicians (and I'm a cynic!). Saying "I've just ended your insecurity about health expenses" is certainly competitive with "I'm going to cut your taxes until my eyes bleed." And insofar as it isn't, that's primarily because Republican's have perfected making the "tax cuts now, pay for them later, let the others eat cake" argument win votes. To then say that the government shouldn't do insurance because it's too concerned with the short-term is like the guy who kills his parents, then asks the court for mercy because he's an orphan. I'm sorry, but you can't claim advantages from a problem of your own creation. Just because Republicans haven't seen a future-interest they won't sell out for short-term political gain doesn't mean all politicians do it. Otherwise, why are so many Democratic politicians pushing for these longterm benefit plans?

As for the rest: in every case where there's been a conflict, the modern-day GOP has sacrificed it's purported policy objectives for tax cuts. Every. Time. NCLB? Left underfunded. Pay-as-you-go? Threatens further tax cuts, so it's out. Homeland Security programs? Bush threatened veto because he was afraid the price tag would threaten his latest batch of tax cuts. Deficit hawks? Please--we've raised the debt ceiling again and again to accommodate a ballooning deficit. Iraq war? When the Senate tried to pay for it by repealing a few upper-income cuts, Bush threatened veto again. It never ends.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Chutzpah Roundup

Brief overview of who's showing some balls on the web (or pointing out others who are).

Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's assassin, is denied parole. He claims that Mr. Kennedy would not have wanted him to remain in prison. Jim Lindgren responds: "I suppose that it is just Sirhan's bad luck that somebody killed Robert Kennedy."

San Diego Law Professor Larry Alexander has a new paper arguing that "academic freedom" should not extend to professors when they are not doing an academic duty--e.g., politicizing their classroom. I only half-buy that argument anyway (I agree with it the context of a professor politicizing his Chemistry class, but disagree if it target's a professor expressing radical views in a "private," non-academic speech), but more importantly these endeavors always seem to boil down to trying to censure professors one disagrees with, irrespective of whether they are behaving inappropriately or not. And sure enough, Professor Alexander lays the blame directly at the feet of those favored whipping boys, the practicioners of "identity politics" and "crude post-modernism," making me suspicious that this is just one more salvo in the ongoing war between the liberal and conservative wings of the professoriate (and their respective allies). Thanks to Rick Garnett with the heads-up.

In California, a man wants the city to pay for damage done to his truck when a city dump truck crashed into it. The problem? The same guy was driving the dump truck at the time.

A family is suing its doctor because he didn't discover signs of likely birth defects in a developing fetus. The family claims that had they known of them, they may have chosen to abort.

Michael Froomkin reports that a slim plurality of Americans support Senator Feingold's censure motion--primarily due to surprisingly high numbers from Republicans. The FRC accuses Feingold (and presumably, the plurality of Americans who support his motion) of treason. As for me, I think intimidating dissenters into silence is far more treasonous to American ideals than holding a President accountable for breaking the law.

According to Kevin Drum, the most common word people associate with George W. Bush is "incompetent." Followed immediately by "idiot" and "liar."

Professor Bainbridge (with a cool new site design) still supports the retailiatory reaction against Justice David Souter for his Kelo vote. I still think he's wrong. So does Ann Althouse.

Mark Olsen says Democrats have no ideas (on Iraq). Jonathan Chait says Republicans are out of ideas (on everything). While on Iraq I don't think anyone has any idea (a state of affairs which can partially be laid at the feet of this administration, for so badly mismanaging the war that no option appears to be a good option), on other issues I side with Chait (stunning, I know). But seriously, what's been the last big idea from Republicans on any major issue of policy that's even been mildly popular? Social Security privitization bombed, the medicare "reform" is widely recognized to be a disaster, their only solution to the healthcare crisis are the crackpot "Health Saving Accounts," which aren't actually a solution even if one thinks they'll work exactly as planned (which they won't). As far back as a year and a half ago I was already claiming that Republicans had absolutely no agenda besides cutting taxes until the government went bankrupt. I think I've been vindicated.

...Versus a Four-Year Old Child

I want to thank everyone who commented on my query of when "life" begins. I received many erudite responses, all of which helped clarify the position in my eyes. I am sufficiently convinced to take as a provisional position that a fetus is endowed with moral personhood at the commencement of higher brain activity. This seems like a suitable brightline, and is intellectually coherent as it seems to actually correspond to a feature we feel importantly distinguishes humans from other creatures. This does raise interesting questions about the non-health-related abortion of a fetus whose higher-brain function has begun (I gather this happens around the 3rd trimester). I think some commenters were too glib in saying that even these abortions should be left entirely between a women and her doctor, but it's a tough issue. I also want to note a provocative argument made by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson (cited by Lindsay Beyerstein):
In a famous paper the pro-choice philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson assumes the full human rights of fetuses for the sake of argument and goes on to make a very strong argument for the permissibility of abortion. This is a radical view, even among pro-choicers. Normally we don't think that the right to bodily sovereignty entitles us to kill another person who is impinging intextricably upon your person but who is not directly threatening your life....[However,] Thompson doesn't say that the woman's right to control her own body simply overrides the fetus's right to life. Rather, she maintains that an innocent person's right to life doesn't include the right not to be killed if that person should inadvertently end up parasitizing another person's body against their will.

It's an interesting claim. But that's not what I want to go into right now.

What actually has been nagging at me is the example I gave to show why "life begins at conception" isn't really a viable position. I'm going to modify it slightly to provide some symmetry for the point I'm going to be making, but I don't think it really changes the base analysis:
If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you can only save a petri dish with three blastulae or a four-year old child, who do you save if all are equally persons?

The point of the question is that I'd clearly save the four-year old. And I would not feel the slightest bit guilty about it. By contrast, if the blastulae were equally "persons" to the child, I'd presumably be obligated to save the blastulae (there being more of them), and leave the child. I can't imagine any person with a soul actually doing that though.

The problem, though, is that on further reflection, the argument may prove too much. Consider this modified scenario:
If a fire breaks out in a hospital and you can only save three newly born, 5-week old triplets, or a four-year old child, who do you save if all are equally persons?

Here's where the problem lies, because I'd still probably save the four year old. I'd feel incredibly guilty about it, but I cannot imagine I'd turn away from a child crying for help in the face of a few infants. I'm just guessing my visceral reaction here, but I really think I'd do it. However, I don't think that infants are not full moral human beings, and I don't think they can be generally deprived of their rights as persons.

At first, I was willing to chalk this up to my predisposition to linking moral personhood to enhanced brain activity--four-year olds top infants on that score. Problem number one with that approach is that it ruins my brightline--I dislike stupid people, but I definitely don't think they deserve fewer rights, so creating a sliding scale of protection linked to brain function is problematic. Problem number two is that the analogy falls apart in the face of the next scenario:
If a fire breaks out in an office building, and you can only save three fifty-year old accountants, or a four-year old child, who do you save if all are equally persons?

Uh-oh. Even here I can easily see myself saving the child. Again, with lots of guilty feelings, but that's my gut. Why is that? It's hard to think of a rational reason. I think that we have a deep-set aversion to letting children come to harm. It seems that at least part of that sentiment stems from the feeling that a child's gifts have not had time to develop, the potential they hold within them is still untapped. Oh God, the potential argument! I thought we got rid of that back in the last post, when responding to the point that a fetus was a "potential" human being. But, like a video game boss character, it has re-emerged from the dead, in far stronger form than when we last battled. Whereas the mere potential of a fetus to become a human being does not intuitively drive me to recognize its full rights as a person, the potential of a toddler to become a great poet or brilliant scientist leads me to give it considerably enhanced protection compared to other persons.

Of course we give additional protection to small children all the time, for a variety of reasons. But none seems particularly applicable here. Small children are comparatively more helpless than adults, but then, so are fetuses (and blastulae). Society has a special interest in developing the talents of its young, but generally "special interests" don't extend to letting many people die so that one can live. Nor is this a triage situation; the child is no more or less likely to survive the fire than the accountants, should you choose to rescue her.

I'm not even precisely sure how this relates back to the abortion debate (if it does at all). But it's a moral dilemma that's been troubling me for some time. Am I entirely off-base here? Or is there some justification for my decision to over-protect four-year olds over other people?

What does this all mean?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Etz Chaim

David Bernstein compares the Federalist Society to Conservative Judaism (which, as some of his commenters now have been made aware, is quite different from conservative Judaism. Capitalization matters, folks!).

The Federalist Society: "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be."

Conservative Judaism (as expressed by Rabbi Kenneth Cohen): "[T]he role of the rabbi is not to decide what the law should be, but rather what the law is."

But wait! Follow up on that Cohen quote:
Nevertheless, there are always new situations which were not clearly anticipated in the classical literature. For instance, rabbis have always insisted that smoking is prohibited on Shabbat. But recent health data might compel a rabbi to rule that smoking is prohibited altogether. Although this is an innovation, it is in conformity with the Torah injunction to preserve life. Similarly, our understanding of human sexuality has undergone remarkable changes in recent years. This information needs to be considered sensitively when applying Jewish law.

Halacha has never been determined in an ivory tower, removed from the "real world." It has always reflected the environment in which it thrived. The Torah is an "etz chaim - a tree of life" with solid and ancient roots but also with branches and leaves which continue to grow.

A tree of life? Sounds like a living constitution to me!

People often forget how legalistic Judaism is (indeed, that was one of Jesus' early critiques, was it not?). It is definitely a law based religion. So all of those later texts that are so important to us--the Talmud, the Mishnah, Responsa, etc.--all are essentially legal interpretations, akin to court rulings. That's why examining the Jewish tradition can yield such fascinating insights on legal thought. We've got thousands of years of experience dealing with a fluid and flowering tradition.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cut Some Slack

Orin Kerr (over at his new blog! Check it out!) writes about so-called "good driver stops." Basically, if a cop sees you showing good driving ettiquite, they pull you over, but instead of giving you a ticket, they give you a sports game. Or some other fabulous prize!

The tragedy is, according to Professor Kerr, that these stops may be unconstitutional. To be fair, there are good reasons to be wary. Kerr notes that:
Another reason the programs run into constitutional difficulty is the juxtaposition of the programs with the permissive rule of Whren v. United States. Whren offered a bright line rule: Probable cause to believe that a person has violated a traffic regulation justifies a traffic stop, even if the stop is pretextual (that is, the officer really has no interest in enforcing the traffic laws). If "good driver" stops are constitutional and co-exist with Whren, you end up with what strikes me as a pretty remarkable result. Unless I'm missing something, the police would be able to pull over pretty much any one at any time. Any driver who is violating any traffic regulation could be pulled over under Whren, and any driver who is not violating a traffic regulation could be pulled over under the "good driver" program.

Once someone is pulled over in a traffic stop, if the police officer sees something that tips him off that another crime may have occurred (a marijuana joint on the passanger seat, for example), he can search the vehicle for that purpose too.

That concern troubles me too, but I'd like to think we can find a way out of it--if for no other reason than I like people being nice to each other, and giving me free baseball tickets is a nice thing to do.

It seems like we must be drawing this line in some contexts anyway with Terry stops though. The police can "stop and frisk" me if they have reasonable suscpicion I'm either committing or am about to commit a crime. Fine. And if I live in a small town, where I know the local beat cop, he might come up to me for no other reason than to say hi, chat about my family and school, etc.. If he sees a gun-like bulge in my jacket pocket, can he stop and frisk me just off that? I think probably--but I'm not sure I think that's a problem either. It seems weird to say the original conversation with the cop is a 4th amendment violation. And maybe my friendly neighborhood cop is a distinct situation from a traffic cop--its more of an imposition to be stopped while driving, for example. But at the same time, clearly we have to have mechanisms that let police officers be nice people and good community members without implicating the 4th amendment.

Kerr also does not believe that this program encourages good driving either, but I'm still undecided on the subject: presumably that depends on how many good driver awards are given out. Eventually you get a panoptican effect (but in the nice, fuzzy, Santa Claus way). But even if the odds are low, people might driver safer anyway. After all, people buy lottery tickets based on much lower odds (admittedly, a much higher payoff too). And even beyond that, just the news of the program and the stories might exert subtle pressure on people to drive more safely--benefits which might exceed marginal.

I'm not so invested in these programs that I want to preserve them at all costs. If "good driver stops" mean the 4th amendment becomes effectively meaningless on the highways, then I'll let it go. But I'd like to think that we can get around this. Can good cops be good neighbors too?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Use It or Lose It

I've had these links sitting on my computer for awhile, and kept planning on writing an insightful and fascinating blog post about them. Alas, that never materialized. So now, I just want to get them down so I don't lose them forever. They're reviews of two books on the Jewish community in India. Very interesting.

The first is of the book "Who Are The Jews of India", and the second is of "Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures--A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl". The former got a great review, the latter got a more lukewarm reception. But in general, the topic is one I find fascinating.

Particularly interesting was the relative lack of anti-Semitism against Jews in India (compared to the murderous violence they faced in Europe and the Middle East). Several hypothesis have been forwarded for this fact--India's polyglot nature being more tolerant of diversity in general, the lack of Abrahamic roots in either Buddhism or Hinduism checking against minor theological disputes turning into holy wars, or more generally the polytheistic nature of Hinduism allowing for other Gods to co-exist in peace. Irregardless, the Jewish community in India is a relatively happy story for our people, and proof positive that being in the diaspora does not have to mean either assimilation or persecution.

I'll admit I know very little about the Indian Jewish community. I did know it existed, and I knew that it's presence had heavily contributed to the thawing of India/Israeli relations after the cold war, as well as the burgeoning tourism industry in India catering to Israeli civilians. If I get time, I'd love to pick these two books up.

Rite of Passage

Guess what! I got my first hate-comment on my blog today! On my "On the Shelf" post, "A Goyim" wrote in the comments:
Zionism is disgusting.
Don't pass the buck. The billions and billions of bucks and nuclear secrets, Mr. Moneybag Israelite.

What do I think when I look at a list of fascistcorporate CEOs and see Steinbergs, Bernstiens, Cohens, Wolfowitzs, etc? Sure, What a bunch of evil Christians! You f--king twit.

Christianity doesn't even exist in todays world, except as ZIONISM, it is a dead religion.

Part of me feels like I should be upset, but I'm not. Honestly, it feels like a rite of passage. Once you get your first piece of hate mail, that's when you know you've made it.

So I guess the fact that I've been blogging almost two years now without getting a message like could be seen as an indicator that I'm still a minor player in the blogosphere. But I prefer to see it as a sign of just how wonderful the folks who comment regularly on my blog are. You know who you are. I see other blogs and know how lucky I am that we have virtually no trolls and no flame wars here. That's a blessing. And both when you agree with me and when you don't, I love your input and thank you for your patronage.