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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sam Harris Talk

An interesting talk by Sam Harris, of "The End of Faith" fame, at TED. This is worth listening to, about 18 minutes. His idea is that there are scientific facts that tell us a lot about what we should value, which begins to bridge the gap between science and morality, ultimately making it possible to have a "science of morality".

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Healthcare Humbug from Mathews

Chris Mathews slipped in a puzzling comment on Hard Ball last night, that he's in favor of "ObamaCare" because he thinks people should "take responsibility" for their health care. This is an odd invocation of the concept of responsibility. Why should being forced to purchase something be thought of as "taking responsibility"? I have a friend, for example, who's in his mid-twenties and hasn't been to the doctor in years. He's not happy about adding another line item for expenditures each month, because frankly put, he's not worried about getting sick. If he did get sick I suppose he'd pay out of pocket if it wasn't too serious, or go to the emergency room if it was (I didn't ask, but I suspect I'd receive these types of responses). In short, he doesn't want to purchase health care, because he's healthy. He wants to spend his money on other things (say, giving to the Red Cross for disaster relief, or, okay, buying nice stuff). He wants to take responsibility for his own purchasing decisions, you might say.

So this is the point: Mathews' line about purchasers of mandatory insurance "taking responsibility" is humbug, because the concepts of "responsibility" and of "coercion" are naturally at odds with each other. When we tell our children to "take responsibility" say, for cleaning their rooms, we typically mean that we are tired of reminding them, and that we want them to internalize the value of it without us threatening them with punishment. Likewise, when my friend resists spending money on a health plan for himself, on grounds that he's healthy and wishes his money to be put to other uses, he is taking responsibility for his health care; he's saying "I'm not interested in making the purchase at this time", which is making a decision based on his circumstances and his judgement about his needs. It's therefore silly to claim that he'll be "taking responsibility" for his healthcare, just as soon as it's made compulsory. Downright humbug.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

That $%#@$ Stupak!

WSJ reports that Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, who has been targeted by antiabortion folks after voting for the health care bill, is now in the crosshairs of the prochoice camp, furious because he voiced concerns about abortion funding in the legislation in the first place (translation: even if you voted for it, Stupak, you talked about not voting for it first, damn you). Says Elizabeth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-choice America:

"This one's personal. For us and a lot of our members in his district, we're going to do what we can to make that man leave office and retire."

Love the "that man" thing. But Shipp's threat is worlds better than the messages Mr. Stupak has been receiving from the antiabortionists, who've expressed their displeasure with his vote with suggestions that he get diseases, bleed out of orifices, and die (really).

Oh, well. Sucks to be you, Mr. Stupak. Perhaps we should modify Lincoln's famous aphorism about only pleasing some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, to something about pleasing no one, ever.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Boring Numbers

The Associated Press is reporting that economists believe the economy will not continue to pick up steam:

"Many economists, however, think the economy has slowed in the current quarter to about half the pace seen at the end of last year."

Why? Last year's growth came from manufacturing, not consumer demand (which weakened), restocking dwindling inventories from businesses who had let them lapse in the face of weakened demand for goods.

Like this:

Consumers stop spending --> businesses stop buying goods --> inventories go down --> factories occasionally get orders to restock the shelves --> small blips in production show up, but don't last (because consumers haven't started spending yet)

So? Sooo? So the unemployment is at 9.7%, not likely to change much, because the economy is forecasted to grow at only 2.5 - 3% next year, which isn't enough to pull us out of the bad effects of the recession. (I suppose the bad news will breathe new life into Super-Keynesian Paul "Spend, Baby, Spend" Krugman, who will argue afresh that this proves that the first stimulus wasn't enough.)

Oh well, on the economic debate goes. As actress Kate Beckinsale once quipped, "numbers are boring". Well, they are. And scary sometimes, too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

ACORN Packs It Up

This isn't breaking news anymore, but I'm still bitin':

Community activist group ACORN is disbanding, blaming failure on partisan attacks from the right. This ignores, of course, an obvious explanation, regarding getting caught on camera giving tax advice to pimps and prostitutes. Still, where are our priorities? And how prude have we become? Members of the oldest profession can now expect greater difficulty getting quality tax tips. Nice job, catchers-of-ACORN-giving-tax-tips-to-pimps-and-prostitutes. I hope your high-minded caught on camera antics were worth it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Health Care's Many Voices

Katrina vanden Heuvel writing for the Washington Post assures us that the Health Care bill--now law--is a good start, but does not go nearly far enough on the road to government-managed medicine. Holman W. Jenkins writing for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) explains why insurance companies--supposedly the "evil" players in health care--are quite happy about ObamaCare (hint: if everyone has to have coverage, there are lots more people to stick with skyrocketing costs).

David Brooks writing for the New York Times (NYT) observes, convincingly, that we're not really wrestling (yet) with the enormous costs we're incurring as a country, health care the latest charge on the card:

"This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it."

One of my favorites, moderate Tom Friedman, also writing in NYT brushes aside the partisan "yes we did" (Democrats) and the "OMG, they did?" (Republicans) on the health care debate in favor of an interesting discussion about fixing government, making it work better for all of us. As he puts it, we need a "tea party" for the middle of the country.

And my opinion? Oh, who knows? It's too early to tell. Punt.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Those Polarizing Bloggers

Law professor Cass R. Sunstein argues in Infotopia that blogs tend to create group polarization, where political views become more radical (so, if you're conservative and read conservative blogs, you become more so, and so too with liberal views and liberal blogs). Of course everyone wants to pretend that their view is just "the reasonable one", but the truth is that having a point of view will tend to put you somewhere on the political spectrum. Case in point: if you believe abortion should be legal--if you support the Roe ruling, for instance--you're almost ipso facto socially liberal, as few if any social conservatives are pro choice. On the other hand, what makes people so interesting is that many of us have strange amalgums of liberal and conservative views. One might, for instance, be pro choice and "pro military", in the sense that one doesn't support spending reductions in the military, supports the war in Afghanistan (I guess the war in Iraq was "won", by the standard that the media doesn't talk about it anymore, leaving it to historians), tough foreign policy on Iran, and so on.

Anyway, following Sunstein, we would do well to read a range of blogs to avoid polarization (which he argues is bad, as one might have guessed, since it tends to reduce the amount of available information in groups, which means there's less chance of making an informed decision).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Stamp Act

Today is the 245th anniversary of the Stamp Act, apparently. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to comment on how, well, American it is to hate taxes. I'm sure most people "hate taxes" to the extent that folks don't much like money going out, rather than coming in. But Americans have a rich history of really hatin' on taxes, from the colonial era onward. George Washington himself wasn't having the ole' "pay your taxes" spiel by Mother England, and of course the Stamp Act gave rise to a mob. After ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton tried an excise tax on frontiersman, taxing mainly their whiskey, which was used almost as currency at the time. This resulted in armed rebellion, squelched only by the amassing of some twelve thousand soldiers in response. In short, Britain found from the get go, sustained and determined resistance to the paying of taxes. Now, we can debate about whether Americans should rethink this kneejerk resistance to paying Uncle Sam, but it's no argument that it's as American as Apple Pie.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Like, Whatever

This certainly qualifies as petty itself, but I'm in "gonzo blogger" mode right now, typing away at my suddenly indispensible 12" Netbook (it sat unused for several months while I shunned it in favor of a laptop) in the caffeine-frenzy of Saturday night at the Barnes and Noble. Free Wi-Fi! The petty part is this. A couple of young, high school aged girls have plopped down next to me, and within seconds they have launched into this string of "ya knows" and "I'm likes", and "and then he was like", and the obligatory "whaateverrr" (with that strange California surfer tone that somehow is emitted by all young people, no matter where they grew up. I'm convinced that there are sixteen year old girls in Iran right now munching on Persian bran muffins in bookstores and coffee shops, like-whatevering-it in the exact same prosodic rhythms as their sisters in the Barnes and Nobles and Starbucks of America's towns and cities).

So I'm finished. Forget plowing through another chapter of "Proust was a Neuroscientist" for now. There's really no where else to sit, and its impossible to read with the jackhammer of dunderheaded comments rattling away beside me. Anyway, in gonzo mode it's fun to people-listen, I tell myself. Let's listen! And what do you know, before long my initial despair has transmogrified into this kind of purient curiosity: how vapid can they get? Can Jamie actually manage something so trivial and stupid, that Bergen--who is herself dedicated to the trivial and stupid--actually becomes self-conscious? Is it possible for the weight of the triviality to collapse on them both? Or can they really keep what-evering it, indefinitely, cheerfully oblivious that they are in fact the unwitting subjects of the middle aged gonzo blogger next to them? How will our story end?

I'm on the case now. Surreptitiously absorbing the latest tale of "and-then-he-said, and-I-was-like, and-so-he-goes, but-I'm-like". There's a kind of internal logic to it, really, because exactly why did Heath text Bergen in class, telling her that he made out with what's-her-name? No kidding she was like "no", I'm now thinking, because I'm suspecting--as they are, I take it--that Heath's like, you know, he's like, a jerk.

So, I'm in it to win it, now. I hit upon the idea of transitioning from mere passive observation to posing a question to them. What will they do? Will they smile? Or laugh? Or look at me in horror? I figure I'll turn to them, and, in the best older-professional, respectable face I can muster, hit them with something like: "Hi, excuse me, but I'm writing a book on the decline of intellectual conversation among America's youth, and I was wondering if you could just continue in the vein that you've begun, and if you don't mind I'd like to write about some of your conversation. The chapter that's relevant is called "The Intolerable Vapidity of Carmen and Laney", a kind of catchy title (I hope) about how highschool kids drone on and on about the pettiest, most trivial desiderata...".

(But, alas, I can't muster it. And it's just as well, I think, because as quickly as they erased any possibility of reading and thinking, they've wrapped up about Heath, met up with two more friends, and are up and on to somewhere else. This leaves me in a comic state of affairs, contemplating the near total disappearance of my initial bemused aggravation twenty minutes ago, left now with a slight disappointment in their departure. Me, abandoned to my reading on Proust and neuroscience, which now seems more effort than fun.)

So our story nears its end. It suffices to close with a few admittedly cursory thoughts on "kids today". Kids today, they seem so adroit at juxtaposing this manifest silliness with busy-body success, achievement. They're like, studying all the time, and, like, aceing their SATs, too. It's entirely possible that the Trivial Two who sat next to me will go on to study law or medicine or English at a respectable college, and end up a few years from now in graduate school, and land white collar, well-paying jobs, and on and on the American dream goes. Kids can, like, talk like this, for, like, a long time, and still end up getting taken seriously later. Onward and upward, for most of them. The "Achievatron", as David Brooks calls it, just keeps going and going. Many of these kids, seemingly so vapid, are in fact wired for success. (It's notable that they were, like, at a bookstore on a Saturday night, after all.) The Achievatron is much more difficult to stop then anything Heath can muster, and Heath himself may end up Harvard law. Smart money is: that paper will get written before class on Monday. And as far as Heath goes, you go girl. Like, whateverrr about him.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Joe versus The Liberal

Put this in the "off the cuff observation" bucket:

Like many of us, I discuss politics fairly frequently with friends and colleagues, many of whom are left-leaning or liberal (they are pro-choice, for universal health care, worried about global warming, sceptical about corporate America, and so on).

Over the years I've noticed a pattern of subtle (sometimes not so subtle) snickering with regard to "Tea Party" types, or what we used to call the "Nascar crowd". I'll admit to enjoying a little snickering about "them" myself. Why? Because--so the stereotype goes--they're the types that forward stupid chain emails about how Obama's not a U.S. Citizen, who have goofy bumper stickers about the inferiority of Ford on the back of their Chevy pickup, who work the blue collar jobs and get WAY too excited about football games, beer drinking, and BBQ. They think Palin would be a good President. They're all about patriotism (defined mostly as America the Strong Military, the "Ass Kickin'" America), plain speaking folks, SUVs, baseball games on the weekends for the kids, and country music. They distrust egghead intellectuals ("He can talk, but can he change a tire?"), government bureaucrats who want to raise their taxes, and, above all, anything that smacks of what "liberals" might say or do.

So, The Liberal tends to snicker at these types (which makes a certain sense, since these types don't like him much, and The Liberal knows it). But what is the meaning of the snicker? The snickering--and scoffing, harumphing, and guffawing--is damn peculiar, actually, because if we remove the political differences, many of the Tea Party/Nascar folks are not rich, well-to-do types who might feel targeted by liberal social or economic policy changes. They're Joe the Plumber types, making a modest income, having less than the best health care, and less than the best opportunities for higher education, and on and on. Many of them would stand to gain, in fact, from the very policies that The Liberal espouses: less taxes on working folks, more on rich folk. Health care for little Johnny. Tax credits for education, and so on. Somehow, though, Average Joe American doesn't seem to want any of it, and he receives a snicker from The Liberal as his reward.

So, the situation is peculiar, on its face, because Average Joe American seems to despise policy that, ostensibly at least, would seem beneficial to him, and The Liberal is caught snickering at the very common folk type about which he professes such concern. The Liberal in fact talks incessantly about Americans who are not rich, and who don't have all of the opportunities that well-to-do Americans have. The Liberal seems worried half to death that CEOs are getting all the attention, not the common worker. But who is Average Joe American, the object of his snickering? He's a plumber, or a truck driver, or he works down the road at the Walmart. He's not a CEO. He doesn't know squat about Wall Street. He owns a pickup truck with 150 thousand miles on it. He has no 401K, lives in a modest four bedroom house, and has two kids in the public school system because he and his wife, a manager at Target, couldn't even begin to afford private school. So, why does The Liberal snicker (and why doesn't Joe like The Liberal)? It's damn peculiar.

One explanation we can reject is: The Liberal snickers because Average Joe American is conservative (he's pro-life, for low taxes, hawkish on defense, thinks global warming is "fishy", and so on). We can reject this idea, because The Liberal does not snicker at educated conservatives; he just disagrees with them. He might even get mad and flustered at them. But he doesn't snicker.

And so the plot thickens. If it's not the substance of the ideas, the difference in the ideas between The Liberal and Average Joe, what is it? A possible--if painful--explanation is that The Liberal snickers because, deep down, he doesn't think Average Joe American is in his league. He's not as educated, he's probably not as smart, and he shouldn't be in charge of anything--except perhaps the weekend little league tournament. This is, of course, a very strange posture for The Liberal, because it's flatly in tension with the self-absorbed, perpetual concern he has for those-who-have-less. It's the plight of the working stiff that infuses The Liberal with her energy, her sense of moral indignation. The Liberal is "all about" those that are less fortunate, whether in monetary or educational or other terms. "She didn't have an opportunity to go to college", "He can't afford health care for his children", "Why doesn't the CEO give his bonus to his share holders?", and on and on. The Liberal is talking about Average (or below average) Joe American on the one hand all the time, while snickering at him on the other.

So, to return, what is the meaning of the snicker? As I've explained, it can't be that Average Joe American has conservative views. Many people have conservative views, and those with liberal views are happy to engage them in endless intellectual debates, with nary a snicker, or guffaw, or scoff. It must be something about Joe. But what is it? Joe's a guy: are men to be snickered at? Not really (The Liberal might be a "guy", too). Joe's white: are white people properly snickerable? Well, no, it's more complicated, we hear. He's not so rich: So? He's one of the have-nots, a "damn shame", in a country with such wealth. So that's not it. But wait, Joe didn't go to college! Ha! That must be it! He's uneducated! Snicker away! But not so fast again. We don't ridicule people for their lack of education; we expand access. We make college more affordable. We educate people about its benefits, and so on.

And on and on. We're still nowhere explaining the snicker. What could it mean? I don't know, really. But I'll be mischievous and offer up the maarvelously scaaandalous possibility I suggested earlier. Suppose that The Liberal--so publically concerned about those with less education, and less money, and less opportunity--really thinks, deep down, privately, that those kinds of folks suck? In this case, is the meaning of the snicker: don't you realize, you idiot, that you're an uneducated working class stiff? Why don't you shut up, and let us help you and your kind? (They are, you know, so fragile, but so noble, in their plight. Didn't you read Rousseau? Oh no, of course you didn't.) This view, so cynical of course, would have the virtue of "making sense of the data", as some scientifically-minded chap might say, receiving no doubt a suspicious look from our Joe (who would never call anyone a "chap"). Mmmm, dataaa, muses Joe, moments later. Ha!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Speak Up, Prius

Does the damn Prius have a sticky gas pedal, or not? And, if not, how lame is it to pick on the feel-good Prius? People are driving around, thinking in self-interested terms about how much money they're saving at the pump, and in global terms about making the world a better place with smart technology, and some jerk in San Diego falsely claims that his Prius stormed off at 94 mph (this seems like good PR, actually: the Prius can do 94 mph?), conjuring images of a horrific crash, blood smeared across the once-sexy "Hybrid" decal, its battery hurled into the street, maiming pedestrians caught unawares, jarred out of their pleasant stroll by the smell of burning tires, fire, and death. Death! Death by Prius!

Okay, maybe a bit too far. But, again, does the Prius have a sticky gas pedal, or what? Those hapless execs at Toyota must be close to seppuku.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Big Idea Guys

I shelled out 10 bucks this Sunday before it was even noon (though the morning was further along than I realized, due to daylight savings time). Four bucks for a triple grande latte, and six bucks for the print edition of the Sunday New York Times. Swell.

So, failure to blog is not an option. Here goes.

The New York Times (NYT) today, in Week in Review, wonders "Is Failure Forgivable?", referring to Obama's "all-in" strategy on health care. A more interesting question, to me, is why modern American presidents seem almost irresistibly drawn to the Big Idea (or "Big Agenda"), which, if it fails, tends to fail "big", too. It's "all-in" these days for our President, whomever he is, whatever the party, it seems. Reagan served two terms on the idea of winning the Cold War (is that big enough?), Bush Sr.--the exception that proves the rule--left out Big Ideas and managed to lose to an unknown former Southern State governor (didn't we try this with Carter?), who himself devised a Big Idea strategy, including health care reform, in his first term. (Of course we all know Clinton decided the middle of the country was safer after the "HillaryCare" debacle, and ran as a centrist for his second term).

Bush Jr. took office as a "don't rock the boat" Compassionate Conservative early in 2001, and seemed a bit at sea, until September 11 galvanized his Presidency and gave him his Really Big Idea, democratizing the Middle East, aka his "Freedom Agenda".

Obama, of course, wants universal health care, ideally, or at least some sweeping changes to status quo health care if the former proves unattainable. He wants bold action on cap and trade, a revamping of No Child Left Behind, a troop surge in Afghanistan (this is a Big Idea if you're a Democrat), an overhaul of immigration policy, and on and on. And his words these days do nothing to dispel the Big Idea label. Speaking to an audience in Pennsylvania last week, he pointedly noted that the issue about health care reform "should be what's right, not the politics" (quote from NYT). Translation: "I don't care what the polls say, this is my Big Idea, and I think it's right, so we're doing it." Sound familiar, anyone?

And so it goes. All the way back to those Big Idea Presidents who wanted to fight a war with England for independence, who fought a civil war to preserve the Union, who plunged the U.S. into the fight against Nazi Germany, who gave us the New Deal, a man on the Moon, the Great Society, and a botched, anemic rescue attempt of hostages in Iran (oh, wait, skip that one). And of course into the modern era we go with "Tear Down That Wall", "Saddam and His Brothers Must Get Out" (of their own country), and Health Care for Everyone (this really is a Big Idea in America, because unlike in Western Europe, the notion that health care is a fundamental right is still very much debated here).

Well, good then. That's the job, apparently. Win the Presidency, and win the right to set the agenda with your very own Big Ideas. If you're a President worth a historian's ink, you'll have only one agenda, the Big Agenda. You'll have an agenda that makes everyone take notice. Your agenda will make everyone talk about your Big Ideas. No room for wimps in the White House. The most powerful American must also have the biggest ideas (if not in substance, in their consequences for the rest of the world, at least). Why? Because it's America, that's why. The American President embodies America itself: he's larger than life, he has an implacable optimism for the future, and dammit he has SUV-sized ideas. He's a Big Idea Guy.

If this sounds a bit scary to psychologically conservative types, remember: for small idea, petty politics, we still have the Congress, after all. Just ask our Big Idea Guy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Profiling Non-Blondes

I've gotten comments and been in discussions with people who seem to think that my "Blonde Jihadist" post argues that profiling is effective. I'd like to clarify that what I'm arguing is that the case of LaRose does not establish that it is ineffective (or that it is effective) to profile. It says nothing useful about the debate at all, in fact, contra Rachell Maddow's claim that LaRose shows that profiling is "stupid". It does not, and Maddow should know better.

That said, profiling might still be stupid. In fact, there's good reason to believe that ethnic profiling, by itself, is stupid. See for instance this 2002 article from CNN's Fareed Zakaria for more discussion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Blonde Jihadist

The indictment of Colleen LaRose, a 46 year old white woman who was charged with providing material support to terrorists has raised, once again, some interesting questions about racial or ethnic profiling. LaRose, aka "Jihad Jane", converted to Islam "several years ago" according to law enforcement officials and was involved in trying to recruit jihadists to kill Lars Vilks, a cartoonist whose "depictions of the Prophet Muhammad incited protests by Muslims".

Rachel Maddow at MSNBC has pointed to the case of LaRose as a clear example of why racial profiling for law enforcement purposes is pointless and "stupid". Maddow's point, presumably, is that profiling doesn't work, because when a 46 year old white woman with blonde hair can end up "Jihad Jane", it's clear that not just young men of Arab descent are engaged in terrorist planning and activities. Maddow, in other words, makes what I'll call the Effectiveness Claim: profiling doesn't work because people outside the profile engage in criminal or terrorist activities. This makes the profiling strategy bad, because when looking for people who fit the profile, actual criminals or terrorists could slip right by. Fair enough.

Whatever the merits of the Effectiveness Claim, however, it's doubtful that Jihad Jane provides much confirmation of it. For one, LaRose is an outlier, an abnormality, which is why she ended up on the Rachel Maddow in the first place (if "she" had been a "he", from Saudi Arabia, say goodbye to MSNBC coverage). Outliers do not disprove statistical norms. Not every person who is a terrorist will fit the profile, as even profilers agree. The rationale behind profiling is that most of the people who engage in some behavior will fit a profile, or even that many will. The point is that the distribution of factors like ethnicity, age, and gender in the population of terrorists are not simply random. So, given the Effectiveness Claim, the LaRose case says nothing, since we would expect outliers in any realistic sample of terrorists.

Second, the LaRose case is troubling for the Effectiveness Claim because, recall, LaRose is a self-admitted Muslim. In this sense, then, she fits a profile of jihadist terrorist types rather than helps disconfirm one. She is, in other words, another example of a Muslim engaging in jihadist terrorist planning or activities. This of course doesn't show that all Muslims are terrorists (certainly not true), or even that most or many Muslims are terrorists. But it does show that one more Muslim is a terrorist, and it does not show that non-Muslims are terrorists, too.

So, the LaRose case does little, actually, for proponents of the Effectiveness Claim, like (apparently) Maddow. What Maddow and others who oppose profiling might want to argue instead is something I'll call the Moral Claim, which says that because not all terrorists are members of a particular religion or ethnicity or gender, even if many are, it is morally unacceptable to profile people based on those factors. It's much harder to argue with the Moral Claim, particularly when one recognizes the frustration and humiliation that wrongly targeted people must feel when they find themselves victims of profiling.

Read story here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Obama Inherited

Pollster Scott Rasmussen writing in the WSJ breaks down the problem with ObamaCare, as only a pollster can: 15 consecutive Rasmussen Reports polls over the last four months show that 52-58% of Americans continue to oppose the plan, while only 38-44% are in favor.

Deflating results for Mr. Obama, particularly in light of "repeated and intense sales efforts" by him and by his supporters on the Hill.

But why the negative numbers? Mr. Rasmussen points out that pitching the plan as deficit neutral garners little traction among Americans, who think spending cuts are more important today than deficit reduction. However, the "bigger problem" is that Americans no longer trust official projections, from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) or anywhere else in government. 81% of voters say "it's likely the plan will end up costing more than projected." Only 10% report that the official numbers from CBO are "on target."

So, people are either becoming wise to the farce of "expert" financial predictions, or they've become sceptical that politicians who invoke such experts for political purposes are giving them the straight scoop(or the brow-crinkling is shared to some proportion between the two). Either way, it bodes poorly for ObamaCare, and for new program creation tied to spending generally.

This point is worth fleshing out more. Opposition to the health care plan is frequently explained in terms of right of center Americans who are distrustful of big government and "socialized" medicine. But this analysis does not account for the lackluster support from independent voters, who have not aligned with any party, and who presumably try to vote "on the issues" rather than on Republican talking points about the dangers of socialism, and so on. These independents comprise a new kind of voter who, like Republicans and Democrats, tend more and more to be distrustful of the effectiveness of government generally, apparently including the CBO.

It would strain credulity to claim that Mr. Obama, in the span of a few short months in his first term (and in diametric opposition to his "yes we can" campaign message), managed such a wholesale change in our perception of government. This phenomenon must have, in other words, started long before Mr. Obama took office. It's fair to speculate whether, in fact, it has its roots in the projections and prognostications of prior administrations, notably the Iraq War WMD fiasco in the Bush years, and other glib notions about Republican administrations and fiscal responsibility.

At any rate, the "lies they tell us" brand of cynicism about government is clearly a factor in Mr. Obama's health care woes, and suggests that selling other Big Ideas to a weary American public in the face of historic deficits and unemployment will be an uphill battle. Perhaps 9-11 "changed everything", as has been said. One of the things it's appeared to change, at least for our current political age, is the notion that what government says and does is true and good.

Monday, March 8, 2010

That Bedfellows Thing

David Brooks of NYT compares the Tea Partiers to the 1960s anti-establishment "New Left". His argument is that the most salient aspect of the Tea Party movement is its relation to institutional power, to The Man, and in this sense it resembles the New Left. Common to both movements, he writes, is the assumption that the common folk are the good guys and that our leaders and institutions are corrupt. The solution? Start over, tear it down, get the power back to the people.

Brooks' analysis is certainly not anything approaching comprehensive, but it seems right to me as far as it goes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

City of Angels

Timothy Egan writes in the NYT about the perplexing reduction in crime in L.A., with homicides down 80%. Apparently Omaha, Nebraska has a higher murder rate (I guess this is noteworthy because places like Omaha or Nebraska in general are supposed to be full of rock solid heartland types driving pickup trucks, giving strangers stranded on the Interstate a lift to the local diner).

Egan is a bit short on explanation -- he cites several, none of which seem much more than anecdotes -- but the general idea, it seems, is that the drug wars are cooling down, and people like the police, and they do a pretty good job. Well, okay.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Due Process in McDonald

Expectations are that the Supreme Court will find in favor of plaintiff in McDonald v. Chicago, which will effectively apply the Heller decision-- that the individual has a right to bear arms in relation to the Federal government-- to the states. In this case, the individual has this right in relation to his or her state. Proponents of gun rights rightly point out that this effectively makes gun bans unconstitutional (it does not prohibit, of course, reasonable restrictions on the sale and use of guns, including certain types of guns, like so-called "assault weapons").

The Court will likely argue its case using the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the clause responsible for transporting much of the Bill of Rights to the states (also, famously, the non-enumerated "right to privacy", which played a pivotal rule in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.)

Likely absent in the upcoming gun rights ruling will be any invocation of another 14th Amendment clause, prohibiting states from abridging any "priviledges or immunities" of US citizens, which was argued away from application to anything but protection of rights when citizens are "on the high seas" (no joke) by the 1873 Slaughter House rulings, widely thought to be flawed by liberal and conservative Constitutional scholars alike.

Anyway, it looks like Mr. McDonald will get his handgun for self-defense (he does live in the South Side of Chicago, after all). For those chagrined about the ruling, try to remember that the right to keep and bear arms is "right there in the text", as Justice Scalia pointed out. For those worried that the Constitution has been getting trampled on in recent years, it would be a strange state of affairs if this didn't provide some solace, however small.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

McDonald vs. Chicago

The Supreme Court today considers whether a ban on handguns in Chicago is Constitutional. McDonald v. Chicago promises to be a significant ruling on the right to bear arms, as the conservative Court will decide whether to extend the Heller decision to states.