Archives for March, 2005

Cato University: Economics for Citizens

The registration deadline is fast approaching for Cato University’s Spring Weekend Seminar, which will be held in D.C., at Cato, April 28 to May 1. This session is Applied Economics: User-Friendly Tools to Understand Politics, Business Enterprise, and Life:

How do free markets solve problems? Why does government fail so often? What role does the Constitution play in a free and prosperous society? How does international trade create wealth? What are trade deficits, and how do they differ from budget deficits? How can “safety regulations” actually decrease safety? How does investment drive economic growth, and why do personally owned retirement accounts create wealth that government Social Security doesn’t? How can you convince more of your neighbors and friends to support free markets and limited government?

If you’ve never been to Cato U., you’re missing out. It’s a terrific program designed to impart the knowledge and skills necessary to change minds in favor of freedom. You can register online. And hurry, “registration should be submitted by April 8.”

Posted on Mar 30, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Origin Story

In the WaPo today there’s a story that explains Gene Wilder’s endearingly gentle comic gift:

It’s 1941, and Wilder is an 8-year-old named Jerry Silberman, living in Milwaukee. A doctor has come by to check on his mother, who has recently had a heart attack and is just home from the hospital. After an examination, the doctor spots Jerry, grabs him by the arm, leans in and whispers, “Don’t ever argue with your mother — you might kill her.”

The doctor is fat and his face is sweating. “Try to make her laugh,” he adds. Then he’s out the door.

For years, Wilder labored under the impression that a few sharp words could mortally wound his mom, and that some well-timed jokes might actually extend her life.

Posted on Mar 28, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Swearing and Swearengen

I have no objection to cursing as such. Salty language is an essential verbal seasoning. But HBO’s Deadwood lays it on a little heavy, and worse, I’ve always suspected, anachronistically. I can believe that cowboys cursed like gangster rappers, but not exactly like gangster rappers. Turns out there’s some justification for that suspicion:

Did 1870s Americans really use such colloquially foul language with the Tourettic frequency of a Hollywood producer?

Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and the scholar of cussing who wrote The F-Word, says probably not. Not that frontiersmen were genteel. “There were cursing contests when cowboys would get together and insult each other,” he says. But “the evidence that we have is that they were using more religious blasphemy than the sexual insults which are popular today.” And on the show.

Deadwood’s creator disagrees, but his arguments aren’t that convincing. I scanned Maledicta, the “international journal of verbal aggression” to see if they’d written anything on the subject, but no luck.

Posted on Mar 27, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Culture of Life

Recently, Justin Logan asked:

If unplugging Terri Schiavo might help the United Arab Emirates get democratic, would conservatives be in favor of it?

There’s a serious point in that wiseass comment.

I find it easy to be cynical about most things politicians do, but the GOP’s involvement in the Schiavo case is a qualified exception. Even before the alleged Santorum memo turned out to be a fake, I had the sense that while there was political opportunism involved, for many (most?) of the legislators trying to keep Terri Schiavo alive, the convictions are genuine. I know too many serious pro-lifers to think differently. Much as I deplore the G.O.P.’s willingness to throw federalism and enumerated powers out of the window, there is something admirable about a political movement that can agonize this much about a solitary human life.

I think President Bush was sincere when he said, upon signing the Schiavo Bill: “In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life.” I believe he believes that, even though, despite serious questions and substantial doubts about whether Iraq was any sort of a threat to us, he launched a war that’s killed anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 people. I think the protestors at Schiavo’s hospice and the courthouse and the posters at FreeRepublic–the majority of whom no doubt wholeheartedly supported the Iraq War–are sincere in believing that one innocent human life matters. We all contain multitudes of contradiction.

I haven’t posted much on the recent, positive developments in the Middle East. In part that’s because I don’t think one reading of From Beirut to Jerusalem 10 years ago makes me an expert on political developments in Lebanon–and because I don’t have a blessed idea what this all means or what’s ahead. But it would be churlish to deny that the image of Iraqis voting has had a major role in pushing democratic reform in the Arab world.

Two years out from the start of the Iraq war, all participants in the debate over that war–from people in power to us dweebs with keyboards–we should all be humbled. Those who were certain that this trailer-park tyrant was coming to kill us. And those of us on both sides who confidently pronounced that we knew what the reaction from the Arab world would be.

Some good has come from a war that I thought and still think to have been manifestly immoral. There’s no metaphysical principle that says when your government kills thousands of people, all the ensuing consequences will be bad. We ought to embrace the good that came from the war, while recognizing that it’s a far cry from that attitude to one that says: let us do evil so that good may come.

However imperfectly, however inconsistently, pro-lifers are people who take rights seriously. They are not moved by the argument that aborting an innocent, any innocent, might somehow increase the sum total of Benthamite happiness “units” in the world. They are unmoved–or, rather, insulted–by the argument that legal abortion might improve conditions for the living. And rightly so.

But they have a blind spot, as so many of us do, when it comes to war. Arguing the war with a pro-life friend not too long ago, I cracked, “maybe it would help if you thought of civilian casualties as extremely late-term abortions via JDAM.” There are conservatives who do. But they’re few and far between. If your heart can go out to Terri Schiavo and her parents, if you’d move heaven, earth, and the federal courts to save her, then you ought to feel more than a twinge about a little girl covered in the blood of her dead mother and father, killed by Americans who were understandably frightened and didn’t sign up for this shit. A twinge for her and for them and for countless others.

Countless in part because the Pentagon doesn’t count civilian casualties, at least not systematically. “We don’t do body counts,” as Tommy Franks put it. So we’ve left the counting to the humanitarians, who have an antiwar agenda. And we get various estimates, of varying reliability. During the active combat phase of the war we get over 3,000 civilians from AP. Iraq Body Count, based on public news sources, puts the toll at somewhere above 17,000. And the medical journal Lancet puts the most likely number at close to 100,000. (For what it’s worth, one government demographer put the civilian toll from the first Gulf War and its immediate aftermath at over 80,000. She almost got fired.)

It’s true there are many reasons to quibble with their numbers (small sample size in the case of the Lancet study, conflating deaths-from-insurgents with deaths-from-American-ordnance in the case of Iraq Body Count). But we’ve established the principle, and we’re now haggling over price.

The principle is that war isn’t a last resort, something to be entered into with fear and trembling over the moral issues involved. It’s an instrument of policy. It’s a way to actively, consciously make the world a better place. It’s a view, in its furthest extreme, that sees the American state as somehow anointed–a God-like utility maximizer that says these must die so that these others may live free. It’s a view that anyone who takes rights seriously should find repugnant.

And this is not simply another occasion where I get to get on my libertarian high horse and bash conservatives for hypocrisy. My sect is as guilty as yours, if not more so. I’m a member of a political movement that gets all torqued up about interstate restrictions on wine purchasing, one that gets Randian-bombastic over capital gains taxes–but all too often can’t recognize war as a maelstrom of rights violations, the state at its horrific worst.

Posted on Mar 24, 2005 in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Live Like a K-School Kid

Marie Gryphon is headed back down to D.C. this summer and looking to apartment swap (no money changes hands) with someone who needs to summer in Cambridge, Mass, near Haaahvahhd. Pics of her apartment can be found here. Drop her a line if you’re interested.

Posted on Mar 24, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Institute for Humane Studies

Errant Googling somehow took me here, to this five-year-old piece by Spencer Ackerman, presumably the same guy who now writes the New Republic’s Iraq’d blog. It’s about IHS’s Liberty and Society seminars. Ackerman attended the seminar as a lefty-affirmative-action admitee in 2000 and seems to have had a good time, even if the piece is at turns snotty and overwritten:

Dogs bark at us, women spit on us, our families sit shiva. The sorrows of young Werther, fooled by the siren song of the free market. Will Werther next don black leather gloves with rabbit- fur lining, jodhpurs, a steel-stiff gray service blouse with deep French cuffs and scalloped flaps, a cap with a doeskin crown and celluloid sweatshield?

Whoa, dude. I can’t make any sense out of that, but the piece does take me back to the IHS seminars I enjoyed years ago. You’re a fool if you’re eligible and you don’t apply. As a recent email from the good folks at IHS informed me:

Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) Summer Seminar deadline approaching March 31, 2005.

Each summer, IHS sponsors a series of seminars for undergraduates, graduate students, and recent college graduates exploring a wide variety of issues. From globalization and the environment to the limits of freedom, we bring top students and faculty from around the world together for lectures, discussions, films, and socials lasting well into the night.

This year, we’re sponsoring eleven seminars from coast to coast, and we’ve added a “Civil Liberties in the 21st Century” seminar exploring the limits of personal and economic freedoms.

For more information, please go to:

Posted on Mar 24, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Libertarian Panics

A former law professor of mine, Adrian Vermeule, has a new paper on “Libertarian Panics.” He offers the term in contrast to “security panics”–episodes in American history where a frightened populace supports unjustified crackdowns on civil liberties. As Vermeule explains, in the “standard model” these security panics recur periodically because of cognitive flaws in the way we assess risk. For example, we’re more likely to overestimate the prevalence of risks that are highly visible. Your kid may be far more likely to be hit by a car walking to school than get killed by a rampaging classmate, but given Columbine and what just happened in Minnesota, you probably spend more time worrying about guns in school. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine anything more “visible” than September 11th or Pearl Harbor, and the resulting fear can lead to reactions disproportionate to the threat.

But, says Vermeule, that cuts both ways. As he puts it, “panicked crowds may run in any direction.” There’s no reason to think that the mechanisms that lead us to panic about security threats can’t also lead us to panic about “jackbooted thugs.” The same biases and cognitive flaws that make Americans hysterical about the risk of terror can also make us hysterical about the risks of government abuse. If Pearl Harbor was highly visible, so too was Japanese Internment, the result of the security panic caused by “the day that will live in infamy.” Michelle Malkin aside, internment has formed part of a historical narrative that leads us to fear unjustified government crackdowns on civil liberties. The visibility of such examples may lead us to overreact to liberty threats from government in the same way we might overreact to terrorist threats to security.

And that’s just what’s happened, says Vermeule: “Libertarian panics have been a regular occurrence in American history[.]”

It’s a plausible enough claim in the abstract, but when we get to the section entitled “Libertarian Panics in America,” there’s very little there there. That section consists of two examples, the American Revolution and the Patriot Act.

Funny as it may sound, he has a point on the first. Anybody who’s read The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is struck by how thoroughly convinced the American Revolutionaries were that the British government wasn’t just trying to recoup revenue spent fighting the French and Indian War–it was trying to reduce the colonies to slavery. Much as I love the men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of American Independence, they weren’t exactly reasonable people. Their behavior could have served as the first chapter in the Paranoid Style in American Politics.

The second example Professor Vermeule uses is the Patriot Act. I’m no expert on the Patriot Act, but I find his account of what it does pretty tendentious. To take one example, he writes:

Second, consider Section 215 of the Act, which allows courts to issue subpoenas for business records in national security investigations. Many have denounced the provision as a mechanism of governmental oppression. Yet the provision codifies a power that grand juries (typically dominated by prosecutors) have long exercised without judicial oversight. Measured from that baseline, as opposed to some imaginary libertarian one, the addition of judicial subpoenas looks no worse and possibly better, from the point of view of targets and defendants.

But isn’t it a signal difference that, under the Patriot Act, you might never know whether a third party has been forced to disclose business records, medical records, or other personal information about you? As Dahlia Lithwick notes:

Downplaying the extent of these changes, the DOJ argued to Congress that 215 is no big deal, since grand juries could always subpoena private records in the past. The difference they don’t acknowledge is that investigators may now do so secretly, and these orders cannot be contested in court.

Lithwick asks: “Would you know if Section 215 had been used on you? Nope. The person made to turn over the records is gagged and cannot disclose the search to anyone.”

I’m not one to get hysterical over the Patriot Act. I’ve barely blogged about it, being more concerned with enemy combatant detention of American citizens, which many people wrongly associate with the act. The clever acronym has led to an Orwellian backfire. Very few people have any idea what’s in it, but they’re creeped out by the name. However, if I had to bet, I’d put money on its renewal.

But by far the limpest part of Vermeule’s argument is his discussion of “cost-externalization.” As he explains,

The literature on security panics often runs together the diagnosis of panic with a different idea: that democratic majorities will sacrifice the civil liberties of outsider groups–foreigners, resident noncitizens, illegal immigrants, and so on–in the interest of
maximizing the majority’s security. This idea strictly speaking has nothing to do with panic. On the picture sketched by these accounts, a rational, albeit self-interested, democratic majority would sacrifice the civil liberties of outsider groups just because the
majority captures the security gains while shunting the costs of its illiberal policies onto others.

But here again, Vermuele points out, this cuts both ways. Those with an overprotective attitude toward civil liberties might structure things so as to impose the costs of those liberties on others in the form of increased security risks. Vermeule writes:

it is quite possible that democratic majorities will externalize the costs of liberty onto minority and outsider groups, purchasing too little security because majorities do not bear the costs of insecurity.

Here’s his example:

the red-state voters who supported the Republican party in 2000 and 2004 might cause the national political process to provide too much liberty and inadequate security for blue-state urban centers.

The footnote to that passage cites a bunch of articles about how federal homeland security aid is going to Alaska, Wyoming, and suchlike states in greater proportions than it should if the risk of terrorist attacks was the guiding factor:

Dean E. Murphy, Security Grants Still Streaming to Rural States, NY TIMES A1 (October 12, 2004); Keven Diaz, Pork-barrel security; Federal money to protect Americans from terrorism may not be going to states that need it the most. Formulas and politics are behind the disparities, STAR TRIBUNE (Minneapolis-St. Paul) 1A, (September 11, 2004); Elizabeth Shogren, More Federal Aid Sought for Cities at Risk of Attack; Under the current rules, a large chunk of such funds goes to less vulnerable areas. Efforts to redirect money have stalled in Congress, L.A. TIMES A21, (August 10, 2004).

But what in the world does this have to do with libertarian “cost-externalization”? It’s typical porkbarrel politics. Vermuele may have noticed that New York and D.C. are “blue zones” that align themselves overwhelmingly with the political party currently (opportunistically) opposed to civil liberties crackdowns. He complains about communities passing resolutions against Patriot while failing to notice that New York and D.C. are two of those communities.

To recap: Vermuele suggests we should be concerned about civil-libertarian overreaction to perceived government abuses. Such overreaction, he claims, can lead a panicked citizenry to favor liberty over security. His two primary examples are the American Founding (a good thing, no?) and a law that got passed in the midst of a security panic, and that is likely to be renewed.

I’m not impressed. If he can come up with examples of this magnitude, I might be. Until then, don’t panic about libertarian panics.

Posted on Mar 22, 2005 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Capitalist Peace

I’m skeptical of the line that, as Thomas Friedman put it, no two countries with a McDonald’s will ever go to war with each other. (Didn’t Serbia have a McDonald’s?). But surely, no two countries with a Hooters…? (I wonder if they call it “Owl Restaurant.”)

Posted on Mar 21, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Healy Pass

While I’m at it, I may as well mention one of the most chest-crushingly beautiful places I’ve ever been, the Healy Pass on the Beara peninsula in Western Ireland. The name is probably taken from some ancestor of mine, though I’m totally ignorant of my own genealogy. The Healys I’m descended from are from County Cork and our coat of arms is about the least glamorous thing you can imagine. It’s three pigs’ heads, not even a sword or anything. Clearly, the Healys were peasants who stank of pig dung and got pushed around by their landlords. I also have a picture of one of my great-great grandfathers on my mother’s side, who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. The picture, with him in his dress blues, reminds me of that scene in Gangs of New York where the Irish get off the boat and sign right up with the Union recruiter to get a few bucks.

Anyway, the Healy Pass: the West of Ireland is now pretty touristy, and in places, a bit tacky. Some towns in county Kerry remind me of the Jersey shore with shamrocks. But the Healy pass is untouched, and might by itself convince me of the merits of state-owned nature preserves. It looks like Middle Earth.

Update: my dad informs me that the Healy Pass is likely named after Tim Healy, Irish representative in the British Parliament and the first governor-general of the Irish Free State. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that during the Easter Uprising of 1916, Healy was asked by a representative of the British government if there was a rebellion in Ireland. “There is,” he replied. “When will it end?” Answer: “When Cromwell gets out of hell.”

Posted on Mar 17, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Happy St. Paddy’s Day

NRO is green today, and they’re running a symposium on “the perfect St. Paddy’s Day.” But they didn’t ask John Derbyshire to contribute. Here’s a nice essay on being Irish-American by Thomas Fleming, historian, patriot, and Jersey City mick. And here’s a favorite of mine by Matt Hogan on How The Irish Wrecked Civilization. Chiefly through police brutality and ritualized public vomiting, it seems.

Posted on Mar 17, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

What Are You In For, Kid?

I used to joke about the local library having a “Wanted” Poster with my picture on it. It’s no joke, apparently:

the cops found Jones had a warrant out for “detaining city property” and missing a related court date. They promptly clapped the cuffs on the 20-year-old man.

Turned out he had 18 books, worth a total of $268, long past due to the Burlington Public Library (search).

“I told [the police], ‘They’re right on the table, take them,'” Jones told KOMO-TV of Seattle. “They said, ‘No, we have a warrant, we have to arrest you.'”

Posted on Mar 16, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off


Today is my three-year blogiversary. Looking back over three years of accumulated commentary makes you all too familiar with your own authorial voice. “George Bush sucks. Nothing matters. Wiseass comment.” Man, I’m sick of my schtick. Then again, it’s better than most people’s. So we press on.

Posted on Mar 16, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Recent Rentals

I would avoid Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow unless you are possessed by an overmastering desire to see Gwyneth Paltrow punched in the face. But if you are, it’s about 1:15 in.

I would also avoid Napoleon Dynamite. It’s one of those movies, like Garden State, that’s full of fake quirk. That is, what it lacks in plot and character development (and it lacks a lot), it tries to make up for by accentuating the oddball nature of its characters well past the point of plausibility or artistic sense. The result is about as authentic as those mass-produced T-shirts at Old Navy, bearing pre-faded logos like “Stew’s Rib Shack” and “Iron Man Gym: Detroit” from old drive-thrus and sports clubs the wearer’s never been to. Movies like this try too hard in one sense, but in another, they don’t try hard enough. There’s plenty of bizarreness surrounding us in everyday life (or maybe it’s just my life). In order to make a film with quirkiness that rings true, you have to, like, observe and take notes, not just make up a bunch of nonsense that has nothing to do with the way people actually live in Utah or New Jersey.

However, I wholeheartedly recommend UFC 47, featuring Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, and some good undercard fights. After its late-90s trouble with the law, when most UFC events were held on offshore oil platforms or from various locales in sub-saharan Africa it’s nice to see the UFC hit the big time in Vegas. They’re even starting to draw some Hollywood stars: recent bouts have included Shaq, George Clooney, and Cindy Crawford at Octagon-side. In particular, I have newfound appreciation for Juliette Lewis, who seems to show up at every fight, and is bubbly and bloodthirsty at the same time in prefight interviews.

Posted on Mar 13, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Don’t Panic

Justin sends along the following ABC News piece on the risk of terrorism:

A secret FBI report obtained by ABC News concludes that while there is no doubt al Qaeda wants to hit the United States, its capability to do so is unclear.

“Al-Qa’ida leadership’s intention to attack the United States is not in question,” the report reads. (All spellings are as rendered in the original report.) “However, their capability to do so is unclear, particularly in regard to ‘spectacular’ operations. We believe al-Qa’ida’s capability to launch attacks within the United States is dependent on its ability to infiltrate and maintain operatives in the United States.”

The 32-page assessment says flatly, “To date, we have not identified any true ‘sleeper’ agents in the US,” seemingly contradicting the “sleeper cell” description prosecutors assigned to seven men in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2002.

I’ve suspected this for going on three years now (see here, for example).

If true, it means that both sides of the war debate have overestimated the risks of terror: those portraying the fight against Al Qaeda as a clash of civilizations of World War IV proportions, and those (like me, on occasion) who warn of an apocalyptic backlash resulting from ill-conceived foreign wars. The evidence for either proposition doesn’t seem to be there. In particular, it’s surprising that the estimates for the number of foreign fighters in Iraq consistently remain at around 1,000 or fewer.

I remain concerned about terrorism, but mainly because of its potential to cause “security panics” that lead to permanent legal changes. The D.C. Sniper incident, being totally unconnected to international terrorism, hasn’t lead to a single new law or eroded a single constitutional protection. It’s hard to believe that would have been the case if Muhammed and Malvo had been Al Qaeda operatives.

Posted on Mar 13, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guns Are Baddd, MmmKay?

Now, the mean-spirited among you may think this video clip is a hilarious example of government incompetence, but that’s not why I’m linking to it. I’m linking to it because I think it’s an inspiring example of grace under pressure and one intrepid DEA agent’s ability to improvise on his feet (after shooting one of them). Note how he incorporates the unexpected incident into his presentation, as a pedagogical example illustrating the entire point of the lecture. Nicely done.

Posted on Mar 11, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment