Friday, February 26, 2010

The Pledge in Montgomery

A middle school student who was escorted out by two police officers after she refused to say the pledge is likely to receive an apology from the teacher and school, for, you know, flagrantly violating her constitutional rights.

Germantown, Maryland is located on the other end of Montgomery County, where I grew up. My history with the Pledge in school is slightly different, but if one could call any part of Montgomery County "conservative", that might be it (though it's all relative).

Hurting America for Pork

I think the pork issue is generally over-rated. It's not that I particularly care for random unnecessary pet projects sprouting up across the United States; it's that these projects are a relatively insignificant part of the federal budget, and thus "opposing" them (usually by Senators themselves shoulder-deep in the trough) is an easy way to sound fiscally diligent without actually doing anything about it.

But I do get annoyed when Senators and Representatives actively threaten the national security of the nation simply to point jobs towards their district. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), on the other hand, is proud to be doing just that:
In his first television interview on the subject since then, the lawmaker admitted he put a near-blanket hold on 47 Obama nominees for a simple reason. "Well, I did it to get the attention of the administration," Shelby said.
Shelby is remarkably candid about the reasons for his controversial action. At a time when bringing home the bacon makes for some unappetizing politics, he unapologetically explains that he is just trying to put money and jobs into his home state.

"Ultimately, I am a senator from Alabama. I wanted to make sure there was fairness because if there was fairness, the jobs would go there," Shelby said.

He eventually lifted his hold on all but three nominees for senior Air Force positions.

Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said those vacancies "adversely affect the organization."

"Without these highly qualified professionals, we are not firing on all cylinders," Morrell said.

Shelby admits that issue doesn't really much matter to him. When asked about the qualifications of nominees he held up, Shelby replied, "Oh, I don't have any idea."

He openly concedes he is blocking them for one reason: leverage. "That's part of the life up here," he said.

Because this is an article written by the media, there is the requisite shot at Barack Obama, who placed a hold on Hans von Spakovsky when he was nominated to the FEC. Notably, they don't give any quotes from Obama, but simply ask von Spakovsky what he thought about the hold. And while he tries to play the martyr, he gets at an important distinction: Obama opposed von Spakovsky himself, on the merits of his nomination. And why not? Von Spakovsky's main claim to fame is as an expert at voter suppression -- not exactly what you want to see on the Federal Elections Commission. Maybe he could tag-team with Robert Mugabe.

In any event, Senator Shelby's holds had nothing to do with the nominees' policies, or indeed, about the nominees themselves. It was simply a power play to try and bring jobs to his district.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ed Cite Roundup

My weekend begins whenever law review says it begins.

* * *

We've heard this refrain before: It is such a grave injustice when "anti-Israel" rioters are punished for violating the law.

Maryland set to recognize out-of-state gay marriages. The state Attorney General held that the prohibition on gay marriage did not constitute a strong public policy, meaning that gay marriages ought to be placed in the same category as other marriages that Maryland does not perform in-state but recognizes when done out-of-state (such as common law marriages).

If only Blackwater did something really heinous, like registering Black people to vote! Then we'd have 'em!

Some Jewish and Christian organizations were organizing against "Israel Apartheid Week" at York University. Until the school decided to cancel all their events due to "security" concerns. It's nice to see that York cares so much about the safety of its Jewish students.

UNGA poised to urge Israel and Hamas to conduct investigations into the Goldstone allegations, even though Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon already noted that Israel has followed up on every allegation through processes which are identical to those by other Western countries. Whose surprised that the UNGA doesn't care?

It's tough to not sound condescending when your interlocutor a) knows less than you and b) takes great offense at the insinuation that he could stand to learn more.

Admin Law Nerds, Rejoice!

The famous Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is back in the news!

We Can't Rely on this Brand of Support

Last year, discussing Mike Huckabee's comment that evangelicals are more supportive of Israel than the Jews, I remarked that perhaps that should be a flag to Gov. Huckabee that the brand of "support" his peers promulgate for Israel is perhaps not the ideal form.

I don't think Matt Yglesias quite gets the argument right, but the data he presents showing a correlation between Republican affiliation, support for Israel, and belief that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intractable gets at this problem. As he writes:
To conjecture a bit beyond what the data can strictly tell us, I think it’s plausible to posit that there’s a large Republican-identified Christian Zionist bloc that’s extremely comfortable with the idea of aligning itself with Israel for the purposes of an endless religious war and of course they have their counterparts in the “revisionist” strand of Zionism in Israel and among American Jews. To my way of thinking—and I think that of most Jewish liberals—this is a chilling vision and we choose to believe that the conflict both can and will be resolved at some point. But many Americans have a level of cultural and ideological affiliation with violence and coercive domination that makes it easy for them to identify with this version of future Israeli history.

I don't deny that there are "revisionist" Zionists who sign on to this, but I think it is fair to say that far and away the dominant purveyors of this ideology are not Zionist Jews but the evangelical Christians Governor Huckabee was referring to. And Jewish opposition to that vision isn't just hopeful pollyannaism -- we recognize that the substantive vision of the future underlying the alternative is one that is deeply dangerous to Israel and the Jewish community, regardless of whether it carries forward American support or not.

It's bad for Jews and Israelis to be caught in an endless apocalyptic ethnic conflict. It's bad to have your lives perpetually at risk, it's bad to have spend inordinate amount money and resources on security concerns, it's bad to nourish extremists inside and outside the Jewish community, and it's bad to have to constantly make extraordinarily difficult choices regarding human rights and national defense. And of course, it's bad for the Palestinians to be left without equal political and social rights indefinitely. All of these things are more likely to be recognized by Jews, because we have more invested and have to deal with its consequences to a degree that dwarfs the stake held by the American Christian right. When they get all cowboy, it's our lives that bear the burden, and I for one don't appreciate it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Then Again....

Maybe I shouldn't have underestimated the potency of the crazy-right wing in a classic red state.

Carrie Prejean Inspires the Next Generation

Ms. California Carrie Prejean, best known for her openly anti-gay marriage views, seems to have done a great job inspiring the next generation of California pageant competitors. Now working her way up the California ranks comes Lauren Ashley, who doesn't just oppose gay marriage, but opposes letting gay people live:
“The Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman. In Leviticus it says, ‘If man lies with mankind as he would lie with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death and their blood shall be upon them.’ The Bible is pretty black and white,” Ashley told Pop Tarts.

“I feel like God himself created mankind and he loves everyone, and he has the best for everyone. If he says that having sex with someone of your same gender is going to bring death upon you, that’s a pretty stern warning, and he knows more than we do about life.”

Fortunately, she assures us, she has gay friends. Because nothing is ever bigoted, ever.

I imagine that some sniveling liberals will want to condemn this brave young woman for advocating putting to death homosexuals. Political correctness runs amok in this country, let me tell you.

The Green Prince

An interesting profile in Ha'aretz about the son of Hamas' founder, who later became a critical Shin Bet asset responsible for averting untold terrorist attacks.

UPDATE: Hamas is labeling the story "Zionist propaganda", but given that the man in question is writing a book on the subject, I'm not sure what their angle is. Sounds like they're just deeply embarrassed at how badly they got played.

LA Times Gives Dubai Assassination Quick Hits

I almost missed the pun ... I assure you, it's unintended.

The LA Times has a mini-symposium on the legality and morality of the Dubai assassination of a top Hamas leader (presumed, but not proven, to be done by Israel). It's very interesting reading.

With a bit of critical distance from my initial reaction, I think my view on the matter is changing slightly. What I wrote then, and what I still believe, is that within the facial framework by which Israel is being evaluated upon, this assassination was an unqualified success: one terrorist eliminated, no civilian casualties, no civilian hardship. It's also not particularly scalable, which is why it's unreasonable to base an entire security apparatus around it. But more importantly, it's somewhat annoying to see folks who last year were holding Israel to unreasonable standards regarding the degree of care it had to take regarding civilian casualties being equally aggrieved by this operation. It really feeds into my broader intuition that -- no matter what they protest -- the real objection is Israel doing anything to defend itself at all.

That being said, I do think there are perfectly legitimate concerns about undertaking these operations. The sovereignty violation bothers me. The passport theft bothers me even more. And that doesn't get into the diplomatic hellstorm that develops when you forge passports from your nominal allies. Bradley Burston's frustration is not unwarranted.

What I think is really going on here is the continued dearth of sophisticated visions regarding what a progressive, human rights oriented law of war should look like in the era of terrorism and counter-insurgency. Instead, we have visceral reactions tinted by our pre-conceptualizations of what (and who) constitutes good and evil, and then build out principles to match. And lo and behold, such an approach doesn't create optimal incentives. But when we keep changing the rules in midgame, it can't come as a surprise when people begin to suggest there are no rules at all. And that, unsurprisingly, is even worse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prosecutors and Prostitots

Some scary stuff happened in the Denver area recently:
Residents were alarmed last summer by a rash of thefts, trespasses and burglaries in Stonegate, a neighborhood in Douglas County.

Fear turned to panic in July after an intruder reportedly climbed into a second- story window and groped an 8-year-old girl in her bed.

A sicko was on the loose and pressure was on to catch him.

And they got a suspect:
A week later, Sheriff David Weaver announced that his office had made an arrest.

What Weaver didn't say is that the suspect, Tyler Sanchez, a thin 19-year-old redhead, looks nothing like the 40ish, stockier, brown-haired intruder described by the victim.

What the sheriff left out is that Sanchez has serious cognitive delays.

What the news release failed to mention was that investigators' only evidence against him is a short statement that seems to repeat what Sanchez was told about the crime during 17 hours of interrogation by detectives who didn't seem to catch that he's mentally disabled and hearing impaired.

Like responsible investigators, they decided to run a DNA test. It didn't match. So prosecutors were left with two theories:

1) A bare bones confession by a mentally disabled 19-year old who looks nothing like witness reports maybe isn't reliable, and they've got the wrong man, or

2) Have you seen the clothes young girls are wearing these days?
District Attorney Carol Chambers' office should have dropped the case when the state released its DNA report in November. Instead, the 18th Judicial District official keeps pressing charges because she says the results don't prove anything.

"With the low-cut jeans that girls wear, she could have picked up anyone's DNA off any surface her panties touched while they may have been riding up above her pants. I hate those low-cut pants," Chambers said Friday, swear to God.

"Depending on how long she had been wearing those panties and where, they could have rubbed up against the back of her chair at school, a restaurant, the couch at home that someone else had been sitting on, a bus seat, someone's toilet seat if she did not pull them down far enough — there are many ways to get unknown DNA on clothing. Another kid could have snapped the elastic on her underwear — kids do that sort of thing."

You have to admit: the latter is way less embarrassing for the prosecutor cooler.

Via the Agitator.

Red Guy in a Blue State

The dynamics of the minority party in an (effectively) one-party state like Maryland are interesting. On the one hand, one sees plenty of moderate Republicans in MD, both because the entire window of mainstream politics is shifted left, and because honestly, that's the only way they'll be elected. Steele and Ehrlich certainly shift right on the national scene, but in terms of what they proposed and did in Maryland, they were firmly on the party's moderate wing.

At the same time, the very fact that the Maryland Republican Party is, all things considered, pretty tiny, does give outsized influence to the crazies. And so it is we have Dr. Eric Wargotz, Republican candidate for Senate in my home state (he claims he's the "presumptive nominee", but I have no idea how presumptuous that is), who is a loud and proud birther. It's a strange thing.

How Does More Information Affect Attitudes Towards Healthcare Reform?

Apropos the debate we've been having regarding how more facts would affect political views, Tapped links to some interesting polling which sheds light on the question at least with regards to health care.

My thesis on these issues is that facts can persuade when the underlying dispute is factual, but not when it is based on values. So if American opposition to the Obama health care plan is based off a principled objection to government intervention in health care, then more facts won't change that value assessment. By contrast, if opposition is premised off factual miscues about what is in the bill, then providing the truth would result in some changes.

The poll in question first starts by simply asking respondents whether they support or oppose the Obama plan, and come out with a 40/48 split against. They then poll the individual components of the plan, finding that Americans like pretty much all of it, except the parts where they have to pay for it (Californians empathize). Finally, the poll informs the respondents that the previously named components are the Obama plan, and ask them again to register support or opposition. The results in this second round are a 48/43 split in favor -- not overwhelming, but still a pretty substantial 13 point swing (as TAPPED notes, this might understate things given the reticence some people might have to effectively admitting that their prior opposition was based off a lack of information and their own fickleness).

Consequently, it seems apparent that some, though certainly not all, opposition to the Obama plan is traceable to factual error. More importantly, the poll here indicates that this matters at the margin -- that is, providing the facts makes the difference between plurality opposition and plurality support.

Monday, February 22, 2010

It Turns Out Taxes are Uncertain Too

The folks at Verum Serum decided to call out TNR's Jon Chait for supposed hypocrisy, after he flagged poll results indicating that the American people think the rich don't pay enough in taxes. You see, Jon Chait also was outraged (or Isaac Chotiner -- but probably Chait too) "threw a hissy fit" regarding Sarah Palin's "death panel" nonsense. But here, they argue, Chait is relying on those same ignorant viewpoints he previously condemned. Doesn't he know that the rich actually pay the far and away largest share of American income taxes?

Oh, boy, this is going to be good. Anytime Chait gets the chance to throw down with smug idiots who think they got game, I break out the popcorn. And he doesn't disappoint.

Chait kind of eviscerates the post on every angle, but I want to focus on one thing in particular. The VS authors seem not to understand the difference between facts and values. The death panel claim was factually incorrect. The claim "the rich don't pay enough in taxes" cannot be factually correct or incorrect -- it is a subjective value judgment. This isn't to say facts can't play a role in forming normative judgments, only that they never inherently support one side over the other. It is entirely plausible to notice that the rich (defined as they are in the studies in question) pay 70% of total federal income taxes, and still say they should pay more. It's particularly plausible when one notes that the rich make over 50% of America's total income. Let's keep repeating this for the slow folks in the class: in any society with income stratification and percentage-based income taxation (including a flat tax) the rich will pay a higher percentage of the total income tax receipts than anyone else. That's not a shortcoming in the system design, that's a product of elementary mathematics.

VS offers a remarkably weak-sauce response that, to the extent it proffers an argument, claims that Chait is advancing falsehoods because if people knew the facts about tax rates, they wouldn't hold the subjective opinions that they do. Chait says there's virtually no reason to think this is true, and I agree -- as I noted above, there is a perfectly compelling story where -- taking into account the share of wealth owned by the wealthiest 20%, a preference for a progressive tax structure, and a desire to counteract regressive state tax structures -- the wealthiest 20% paying a 70% share of taxes is perfectly sensible or, indeed, too small of a share. I'm not saying that's the only plausible inference from the facts, but the VS folks are effectively saying the opposite, and that's simply not feasible. It's almost definitely true that most Americans don't know the specifics of federal tax rates or distributions. But it is hardly the case that knowledge of these specifics would compel a change in belief, even from a ideal deliberative standpoint.

That the VS folks believe the facts to so obviously compel one normative outcome, even as other folks believe (with equal fervor) that the same facts point to a completely opposite normative stance, is explainable based on a popular misconception of how facts aid political deliberation. Generally, we believe that as people learn more facts about a given subject, their policy beliefs on the subject will begin to converge. The idea makes sense: learning more means dispelling inaccurate stereotypes and prejudices; as information is attained, people begin discarding stances that don't fit the facts and instead adopt those which do.

Unfortunately, as research by Dan Kahan and others indicates, the opposite is usually true (Professor Kahan actually delivered a lecture at Chicago today on this very topic). Providing additional facts and information doesn't cause policy convergence, it causes policy polarization. The reason is that most fact patterns contain narratives, inferences, and interpretations which plausibly can be deployed to support diverse policy positions. People accordingly interpret the information they receive in manners which support their prior dispositions, only now they feel more comfortable in these beliefs because they have "facts" to back them up. Given this latent ambiguity, there is no incentive to agree, and lots of psychological incentives to latch on to friendly fact stories in order to preserve ones preexisting beliefs.

Fundamentally, one cannot bridge the fact/value division here. It is true that I do, in fact, support higher taxes on the wealthy, and part of my reasons have to do with the above factual account I gave (wealthy earn a higher share of the income, state tax systems are often regressive), mixed with some value positions (progressive tax schemes are good). But I would never claim that the above factual account mandates the policy positions I hold, because that would be nonsense -- if you have different values than I do, the same facts will carry entirely different meaning.* Facts matter, but at bottom what really matters are subjective value preferences.

So to be clear, the reason Chait is right and the VS folks are wrong isn't because the facts prove his policy prescriptions correct. The facts don't prove anything by themselves; they are vessels for attaining our value preferences. Chait is correct because he recognizes that tax policy is a value judgment and thus opinions about it exist on a fundamentally different plane than purely factual claims like Sarah Palin's imaginary death panels.

* Professor Kahan related an amusing story on this. Regarding a study he published on differing interpretations of facts surrounding the HPV vaccine debate, he cited a blogger who reported the study and then said it showed why some conservatives opposed the vaccine: "they're biased -- they just interpret the facts to support a preexisting worldview!" Of course, Professor Kahan noted, the point of the study is that this is how everyone evaluates facts -- the people who support vaccination are as "guilty" of it as the opponents -- and the errant blogger was a perfect illustration of that very theory: s/he interpreted the text presented in such a way as to verify prior intuitions, even though it actually contained no such normative force.

UPDATE: At TMV, I adopted this post to focus more specifically on the inability of increased information to give us the fabled convergence towards "moderate" policies.

Lieberman to Lead on DADT Repeal

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) has announced he will be the sponsor of legislation repealing the military's risible "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy forbidding openly gay soldiers from serving their country in the armed forces. Now, Sen. Lieberman has annoyed the hell out of me in recent years, but fair is fair -- he's doing the right thing here, and I have no problem recognizing that.

Now, I unfortunately can't say I share John Cole's optimism about the impact of Lieberman's announcement:
I know I am going to be accused of hippie punching and gay bashing, but a certain someone has been claiming for months this is how this was going to happen. Let the military get out in front and be agents of change, neutering Republican opposition, and then let the Democrat who the Republicans simply can’t attack as anti-military propose the bill. And with the public showing great support for repeal, it will pass, Ike Skelton be damned.

This might have been a good strategic move or not, but let's not deceive ourselves with the one "Democrat who the Republicans simply can't attack as anti-military" business. Of course they can attack Lieberman as anti-military. They can attack anyone as anti-military. They're already attacking the military leadership as anti-military -- why on earth would Joe Lieberman be immune.

I think we're going to win the DADT battle. Aside from the bent of the arc of history and all that jazz, the polls are strongly in our favor as well. But let's not kid ourselves. The GOP pitches a fit over any proposal to allow gays and lesbians equal status as American citizens. There is no reason to suspect they'll do any different here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Man's Last Stand

With the announced addition of women's boxing to the summer Olympics (which Cuba will not partake in), ski jumping stands alone as the final sport in the Olympics without gender parity. The reason? Well, there really isn't one: just a parade of sexist non-sense which should embarrass any remotely egalitarian individual.