Sunday, December 23, 2012

Growing class inequality in education

In a New York Times article with the headline "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall," Jason DeParle writes:

Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater. . . .

Four years later, . . . [n]ot one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed.
If the "experts" are so surprised, perhaps they should rethink their assumptions.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why is most child murder not in the news?

Emily Bazelon says this about the Newtown, Connecticut mass murder:

They could be us, and we could be them, right? It was so easy for me at least to feel that way, looking up Newtown’s suburban demographics: Family median income $100,000 a year, almost half the town families with children, nearly three-quarters married couples. I don’t live in the suburbs, but I live in a small-city neighborhood filled with two-parent families about 45 minutes from Newtown, and I have a son in elementary school. That was more than enough to share in the chill that spread through the country Friday. I wish I identified as much with the families of drive-by shootings of children in my city, but I don’t. I use class and, I’m sure, race to distance myself. That doesn’t work this time though.
Based on a quick Google search, well over 1,000 children are murdered in the US every year, and somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 children are killed by guns every year. (It's not surprising that the second statistic is much larger than the first — accidents and suicides are more common than murder.) How does the media decide that 20 children killed are more important than thousands of other children killed? Of course, what happened in Newtown was especially horrific because of the large number of children who were killed all in the same place and at the same time. But how much less horrific is the murder or reckless killing of one child? In the latter case, the pain may even be compounded by the realization that it isn't considered "news."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Facts about guns, gun laws and mass shootings

Ezra Klein lays out 12 of them. Two of his points:

8. More guns tend to mean more homicide.

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there’s substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states. Citations here.

9. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.

Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive . . . .

How to talk to children about tragic events in the news

By Fred Rogers.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How much smarter are Americans today than a hundred years ago?

Nicholas Kristof points out this shocking fact:

The average American in the year 1900 had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would measure about 67. Since the traditional definition of mental retardation was an I.Q. of less than 70, that leads to the remarkable conclusion that a majority of Americans a century ago would count today as intellectually disabled.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

Ravi Shankar, the sitarist and composer, died yesterday at age 92 in Southern California, a few days after undergoing heart surgery.

The New York Times obituary says:

Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose performance style embodied a virtuosity that transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music. . . .

Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of day, seasons of the year or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums.

Mr. Shankar’s quest for a Western audience was helped in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles began to study the sitar with him. But Harrison was not the first Western musician to seek Mr. Shankar’s guidance. In 1952 he met and began performing with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: “West Meets East” (1967), “West Meets East, Vol. 2” (1968) and “Improvisations: East Meets West” (1977).

Mr. Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. He collaborated with the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early ’60s. Coltrane met with Mr. Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Coltrane named his son Ravi after Mr. Shankar. . . .

In addition to his frequent tours as a sitarist Mr. Shankar was a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras. . . .

[I]n 1990 he collaborated with the Minimalist composer Philip Glass — who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s — on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Mr. Glass composed for each other.

“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Mr. Shankar said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”
My family and I were recently watching this amazing performance of his from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival:

Charles Rosen (1927-2012)

Charles Rosen, the classical pianist and writer, died of cancer on Sunday at age 85 in Manhattan, which is also where he was born. His books The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation are full of uncommon insights on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt.

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Rosen the polymath was possessed of a lightning-fast, seemingly limitless discursiveness that has been described variously as enchanting and intimidating.

A conversation with him, associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.”

It was said of Mr. Rosen that when he practiced the piano, a discipline to which he hewed daily well into old age, he might choose to read something — not a musical score but an actual work of literature — at the same time.
In an article on freedom in art, he wrote:
Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know.

We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room. Schiller claimed in the Letters on Aesthetic Education that art makes you free; he understood that the conventions of language and of society are in principle arbitrary—that is, imposed by will. They prevent the natural development of the individual. The clash between the imposition of meaning and freedom has given rise to controversy in ways that Schiller could not have predicted. . . .

The ambiguity of spoken or written language is far less than the ambiguity of musical meaning, a disconcerting ambiguity powerfully described by Denis Diderot in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets:
In music, the pleasure of sensation depends on a particular disposition not only of the ear but of the entire nervous system…. In addition, music has a greater need to find in us these favorable dispositions of the organs than painting or poetry. Its hieroglyph is so light and so fleeting, it is so easy to lose it or to misinterpret it, that the most beautiful movement of a symphony would have little effect if the infallible and subtle pleasure of sensation pure and simple were not infinitely above that of an often ambiguous expression…. How does it happen then that of the three arts that imitate Nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and the least precise speaks the most powerfully to the soul?
I have quoted this elsewhere (in The Classical Style as an epigraph), but it is important to see how clearly the nature of musical discourse was understood by the second half of the eighteenth century. Felix Mendelssohn found the meaning of music more precise, not less, than language, but that is because music means what it is, not what it says. . . .

The triumph of Beethoven’s musical image of freedom [in his Ninth Symphony] depended on more than just the contemporary popularity and relish for the idea. It needed an adequate musical language for its expression with subtle and complex articulations. These articulations had thickened within a few years after his death, making way for a powerful and rich chromaticism. . . . We are always haunted by the past, even when we try to destroy it. . . . Our freedom is hemmed in on every side. We must be grateful for what remains.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few points about Justice Scalia's comments on sexual orientation and murder

Speaking at Princeton University, Scalia was asked by a gay student why he equates laws banning sodomy with those barring bestiality and murder.

"I don't think it's necessary, but I think it's effective," Scalia said, adding that legislative bodies can ban what they believe to be immoral.

Scalia has been giving speeches around the country to promote his new book, "Reading Law," and his lecture at Princeton comes just days after the court agreed to take on two cases that challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. . . .

"It's a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the 'reduction to the absurd,'" Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"
(Source.)

My mom, Ann Althouse, links to that article and points out that Justice Antonin Scalia is "antagonizing — antoninonizing — students."

My thoughts on this:

1. I interpret Scalia's phrase "moral feelings against" to refer to disgust. He lends this an air of dignity by using the lofty word "moral," but what he's really talking about is a visceral or aesthetic reaction expressed by interjections like "Eww!" and "Yuck!" We need to think about whether it's actually legitimate for disgust to serve as a primary motivation and justification for passing a law. There's no question that there are good laws that prohibit behavior that happens to be found disgusting. But the question is whether mere disgust can justify a law that would otherwise not seem to have a rational justification. It's fine for people to be disgusted at the thought of a particular couple having sex or even showing any kind of affection. This could be based on any number of factors, including the couple's gender, age, or physical attractiveness. Most people would find it offputting to see certain couples do so much as kiss in a movie — more offputting than they would find a movie scene showing a brutal act of murder. There's a much wider audience for images of violence than for atonal chamber music, but as long as even 1% of the population finds that kind of music pleasant, some people are going to happily exercise their right to create it, no matter how large a majority experiences it as a bunch of noise with no redeeming value. I wouldn't want to live in a society where the presence or absence of such feelings of disgust and revulsion determined what kinds of behavior we're allowed to engage in.

2. I assume Justice Scalia realizes that mentioning gay people and murderers in the same breath is going to be very inflammatory to a lot of people, and isn't the best way to win over those who didn't already agree with him. (He winked at this by sardonically adding: "I'm surprised you aren't persuaded.") This doesn't mean his words were poorly chosen — he might have good reasons to try to stir up controversy over this. And, of course, he has a right to express his viewpoint in his own inimitable style even if he offends people. But while he's remarking on the way voters can make their decisions based on visceral repulsion, he might want to consider that many people are viscerally repulsed by the way he makes his point, and this may affect people's votes in future presidential elections.

3. What matters far more than anyone's visceral feelings about what is or isn't disgusting is this: Murder laws uphold the principle that everyone in a society should have equal rights and responsibilities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nicholas Kristof on poverty and unintended consequences

Nicholas Kristof writes:

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability. . . .

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire. . . .

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households. . . .

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.
Kristof talks about this article on Facebook:
With today's column about domestic poverty, I've turned the tables. Some liberals are irritated, while conservatives are sharing the column. I find the politicization of poverty a bit depressing. The evidence of what works and what doesn't in social policy is getting better, so let's put aside ideology and look at evidence!
Amen!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who supports a carbon tax?

A piece in the New Yorker makes the case for a tax on carbon emissions.

That's not very surprising. What's more surprising is that, as the article points out, over 100 big corporations — including ExxonMobil and Shell — have expressed support it. In contrast, the White House spokesperson, Jay Carney, recently said: "We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bottle recycling in the United States, from the '40s to now

The Conversable Economist (Timothy Taylor) points out:

We often think of programs like curbside recycling as driven by a pure environmentalist agenda. But Bartow J. Elmore makes an intriguing argument these programs were passed in substantial part because of pressure from U.S. beverage makers, who were trying to address a public relations nightmare and to increase their profits. . . .

Compared to the 1940s when 96 percent of bottles were washed and reused, often a couple of dozen times, where do we stand today? Elmore cites evidence that in the mid-2000s, maybe 30-40 percent of cans and plastic bottles are recycled.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rubio and Ryan try to kill Romney's "47%" line

Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan gave speeches last night "delivering an implicit, but sharp, rebuke to Mitt Romney's '47 percent' line." I like this point:

“Every country has rich people, but only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class,” Rubio added, calling it a “fundamental promise of America” to have the opportunity to make it to the middle class.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Epistemic closure

Public Policy Polling says that "Republicans are taking the results [of the election] pretty hard":

49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn't exist anymore.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The final issue of Nintendo Power

The cover is a tribute to its first issue.

That post says:

Nintendo Power has been on the stands since 1988, first as an official Nintendo publication, and then later as an independent entity. For players of a certain age who grew up with the NES and SNES, this is something of the end of an era.
People are paying tribute over at Metafilter. The best comment:
*tosses red potion on curb*

*door appears*

*escapes into shadowy dreamworld*

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Warren Buffett's weird editorial on capital gains taxes

Normally, you'd expect a columnist who's claiming that a tax isn't going to have any deterrent effect to have to make an argument for why not. But when Warren Buffett writes an editorial for the New York Times, it seems to be good enough for him to say, in effect: Trust me, I'm rich!

Buffett wrote a similar NYT editorial last year.

Thomas Sowell has made the case for keeping capital gains taxes much lower than income taxes. Even the left-leaning Matthew Yglesias has supported that position, saying:

[T]his is definitely an issue where the conservative position is in line with what most experts think is the right course, and Democrats are outside the mainstream.
Maybe Sowell and Yglesias are wrong. But if they're wrong, there must be some reason why, and the reason isn't that Warren Buffett has more money than them.

Should we be so trusting of the super-rich in making claims about taxes? Or could it be that a multibillionaire like Buffett, who has a lifetime guarantee of  having more wealth than he could possibly spend, might be out of touch with the kinds of incentive effects that apply to most people?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Twinkies

All this talk about the end of Twinkies is better advertising than any company could choose to pay for, guaranteeing that they'll be back eventually to meet the demand. They're the Arrested Development of snack cakes.

How to expand the government

Cut taxes.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Judge Richard Posner's bad reason to keep the electoral college

Judge Posner gives "five reasons for retaining the Electoral College despite its lack of democratic pedigree." He says they're all "practical reasons, not liberal or conservative reasons." I disagree with all of them, but especially this one:

3) Swing States

The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes induces the candidates—as we saw in last week’s election—to focus their campaign efforts on the toss-up states; that follows directly from the candidates’ lack of inducement to campaign in states they are sure to win. Voters in toss-up states are more likely to pay close attention to the campaign—to really listen to the competing candidates—knowing that they are going to decide the election. They are likely to be the most thoughtful voters, on average (and for the further reason that they will have received the most information and attention from the candidates), and the most thoughtful voters should be the ones to decide the election.
Sure, they pay the most attention now — because the current system makes their vote matter a lot more than those of voters in most states. Maybe the voters in those other states would start paying more attention if they knew their vote was as important as everyone else's!

And how does Posner get to decide which voters are more "thoughtful" than others? There are a couple huge problems with this. The most fundamental problem is that this isn't Posner's decision to make. In fact, it isn't anyone's decision to make: no one should have the authority to decide which states' voters get to be counted as more thoughtful than other states'. Everyone who's eligible to vote should have the chance to make a thoughtful decision and to have their vote count equally.

It's also naive to think that what distinguishes swing-state voters is that they're just really smart at deciding on a candidate. In fact, there is no category of voters that can be counted on to make objective, well-informed decisions. Everyone is influenced by their self-interest. People in some states care about ethanol in ways that people in non-decisive states don't, and this has a huge effect on federal policy.

Posner's "reason" for the electoral college actually restates the main problem with the electoral college: it privileges some voters' opinions far above other voters'. The fact that the electoral college is empowering to voters in some states is not a good thing; it's a bad thing, because the more you empower the voters in those states, the more you disempower voters in other states. There should only be such an imbalance in the democratic process if there's an extraordinarily strong justification. Considering how arbitrary state boundaries are, the possibility of vague differences among voters in different states is not a sufficient justification.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Can Jon Huntsman save the Republican Party?

Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China, never seemed to have a chance at the 2012 Republican nomination. But I hope that Republican pols are considering whether this was unfortunate in retrospect. Huntsman is only 52 years old, and if he ran again, he could benefit from the Republican Party's preference for nominating someone who has already run. (The lone recent exception was Bush in 2000; the rule has held up with every other non-incumbent Republican nominee going back to Nixon in 1968.)

Maybe the 2012 election will force Republicans to realize what Democrats have understood for a while: primaries are less about choosing the ideal candidate for the party's base, than about choosing a candidate who's going to appeal to swing voters in swing states. Huntsman, like President Obama, seems like the kind of person you'd expect to be the president of the United States in the year 2012 and beyond. Mitt Romney seems less like a modern-day president — or anyone the average American would expect to meet in their day-to-day lives — and more like someone who could have played the dad on the Donna Reed Show. (See the update at 8:58 in this live-blog from 2008.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How can Republicans win after 2012?

Self-proclaimed "liberal Democrat" Bill Scher has some advice for Republicans on how to win in the future. (And yes, it's genuinely good advice, not sarcastic or insincere!)

Condoleezza Rice says:

When you look at the composition of the electorate, clearly we are losing important segments of that electorate. And what we have to do is to appeal to those people not as identity groups, but understanding that if you get the identity issues out of the way, then you can appeal to Americans on the broader issues that all Americans share concerns for.


Alex Knepper (a libertarian Republican) agrees and elaborates:
That’s exactly right. The social issues serve as a barrier to persuasion. New voters — young people, immigrants — tend to identify with one of the parties on a ‘big picture’ basis — not by going down a checklist of issues and comparing the party platforms. The social issues are not only the easiest for the uninitiated to understand, but they have the most emotional impact. It’s one thing to argue over the merits of adjusting the capital gains tax rate — most people will submit that it’s an issue about which reasonable people can civilly disagree. But when Hispanics hear that the Republican presidential nominee has openly advocated making life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they won’t even want to live here anymore (that’s what “self-deportation” means, people), then an enormous wall has been created. When you’ve lost the trust of a minority group, they won’t listen to a word you have to say about Medicare, tax reform, or deficit-reduction. There’s nothing inherent about brown skin that makes a person hostile toward capitalism. But if people with brown skin think that the party of the free market hates them, then they’ll run into the arms of the party of statism. And why not? People need to feel assured that you view them with dignity and respect, not with contempt and loathing. There’s nothing that should be surprising about that.

We don’t need to win the Hispanic vote — we just need to increase our share back to levels more like George W. Bush’s. Changing our policies and tone toward immigration issues is only a first step to achieving that — not only because it is practical, but because it is the right thing to do. Once that issue is out of the way, then we can go about the vital task of reaching out to Hispanic voters on the basis of the timeless American values of upward mobility, economic freedom, and individual liberty.
I think a lot of people go along with Democratic economic policies largely because they've already decided to be Democrats based on social issues. As Knepper points out, social issues are relatively easy to have clear, unwavering views about. Given the choice between memorizing and repeating a few slogans to sum up the mainstream Democratic positions on economic issues, or reaching your own conclusions on those issues by soberly weighing the smartest arguments on all sides, many people just don't have time for the latter, no matter how much more intellectually honest it would be.

Yet people would rather feel a sense of clarity than uncertainty on the major issues of the day. So, when they don't have time to master those issues, they develop shortcuts, like saying their side cares, and the other side doesn't care — or, only cares about the wrong people. That approach is simplistic but powerful enough to be able to explain almost any political divide. Given that Republicans are the party of social and economic conservatism, and that their social conservatism is blatantly uncaring, socially liberal voters have a readily available shortcut for taking a stand on Republican economic policies: just as Republicans' social policies show that they don't care about women, blacks, gays, immigrants, etc., their economic policies show that they don't care about the middle class (or the poor), and that they only care about the rich (or corporations).

It's not just that many voters are socially liberal and prioritize social issues, causing Republicans to lose a portion of the electorate every Election Day based on those issues. Of course, that's true, but Republicans have a broader problem: their positions on social issues are turning off many voters from the very idea of agreeing with them on any issue. Conservatives like to bring up "the law of unintended consequences." Well, how many professional Republicans are willing to face the fact that their party's retrograde positions on social issues have been inadvertently holding economic conservatism hostage?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Live-blogging the final presidential debate of 2012

I'll say anything I have to say about tonight's presidential debate, which you can watch live online, in this post.

I'll be writing down any quotes on the fly, without the aid of a transcript or pause/rewind button. So they might not be 100% verbatim, but I'll try to keep them as accurate as possible.

9:07 - Jill Stein (Green Party) wants to "bail out the students, not the banks." I'm not so sure. Stein makes it sound like of course we should bail out someone, and the question is who to bail out. Maybe the real problem is the very idea of bailouts.

9:09 - Stein criticizes President Obama for "expanding free-trade agreements," which will "continue to offshore our jobs" and "undermine American sovereignty." She wants a "fair-trade agreement" to protect workers and the environment. Isn't supporting "fair trade" really a euphemism for opposing free trade?

9:12 - Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) unsurprisingly starts out by expressing his support for free trade, pointing out that it makes goods and services cheaper for us as consumers. The problem is when free trade turns into "crony capitalism." Instead of creating loopholes, government should "get out of the way" and "create a level playing field for everybody." He'd eliminate the corporate tax.

9:16 - Stein describes a scenario where 100 loaves of bread are distributed to 100 people, and says that 1 person would get 40 loaves, while 50 people would get just 1 loaf. The bread is all of America's wealth, and the 100 people are the American people. She then says she supports a "living wage," which presumably means dramatically increasing the minimum wage. She doesn't explain how forbidding employers and employees from entering into mutually beneficial arrangements would equalize the distribution of wealth, rather than increasing unemployment.

9:20 - Johnson lambastes Stein for her support of increasing corporate taxes: "Why not increase the corporate tax rate to 70%? Why not 100%?" He argues: "Whatever we tax, we get less of" — raising corporate taxes causes businesses and jobs to leave the United States.

9:22 - Johnson warns of a "monetary collapse" resulting from government-backed inflation. "I am livid over the fact that we bail out Wall Street from making incredibly bad decisions — that they don't lose their money. . . . Capitalism on the way up, communism on the way down!"

9:26 - Stein is also against the fact that banks are considered "too big to fail." It seems like everyone is.

9:28 - Stein: "After a decade of war, over $5 trillion spent, and thousands of American lives lost, what have we accomplished?" Not stable allies or women's rights. Unlike in the Obama/Romney debate on foreign policy, she raises criticisms of Obama's drone war.

9:32 - Johnson: "Drone attacks potentially take out the target, but only 2% of its effectiveness is on the target. The rest is unintended consequences."

9:33 - Johnson flatly says that foreign aid "should stop." "Contrary to what we were brought up to believe, foreign aid does not go to poor people. It goes to prop up dictatorships. But it goes to dictatorships that are supposedly in America's best interests. . . . It's poor people in this country giving money to rich people in foreign countries."

9:35 - Stein seems to support foreign aid in principle, but says we need to "end the predominant form of foreign aid, and that is military aid." But even if our foreign aid didn't include any military aid, wouldn't it effectively make it easier for the recipient countries to spend more on their militaries?

9:39 - Johnson: "There are unintended consequences to our military interventions — always worse rather than better!"

9:40 - Stein says that "there are countries in the Middle East that do have nuclear weapons now, and that includes Israel." That's not officially public knowledge, so it appears unpresidential for a candidate to state it explicitly.

9:42 - Stein connects anthropogenic climate change to currently displaced people in New York. She pins the blame on "fossil-fuel politics," which she says Obama has participated in as much as Republicans.

9:45 - Johnson says he believes climate change is anthropogenic, but he doesn't think he as president could stop it. As always, his solution is economic growth spurred by free markets: consumers will demand that their products somehow reduce carbon emissions.

9:48 - Johnson bravely supports price gouging. $7 per gallon gasoline would lead to shorter car lines at the pump, and would attract entrepreneurs.

9:51 - Johnson says that all government action is "well-intentioned"; of course, the problem is unintended consequences. He describes his efforts as Governor of New Mexico to respond to a forest fire — which itself was caused by government. (Wikipedia has information on this episode.)

9:53 - Stein says climate change is an "emergency." "It's as if we've been attacked." She says it's a bigger emergency than Pearl Harbor.

9:57 - Johnson says that Stein seems to think government is the answer to all our problems, and he asks Stein what she thinks about net neutrality. Stein says she's for it, and adds that she doesn't assume government is the answer to every problem. "I'm not an ideologue. I'm a doctor. I don't actually know much about ideology. As a doctor, I look for practical solutions."

9:59 - Both candidates say that they're not aware of any way that Wikileaks is a threat to national security. Stein goes further and says that secrecy is the greatest threat to security.

10:03 - Stein warns that President Obama has "reinterpreted" the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force to authorize himself to "assassinate anyone, including American citizens."

10:05 - When asked about police brutality and excesses, Stein brings up a recent experience when she showed up at a presidential debate to insist on being included. She was arrested and "cuffed tightly to a chair for 8 hours."

10:07 - Johnson's response to the police question focuses on drugs: "I am going to do everything I possibly can to bring an end to the drug war. I would like to see the legalization of marijuana now."

10:08 - Johnson calls the TSA a "Constitution-free zone."

10:09 - Johnson says that if either Obama or Romney wins, we'll have "a heightened police state," "a continued state of war," and "unsustainable spending."

10:12 - Johnson does an extended impression of Obama giving a press conference where he started out saying that European countries that practiced austerity avoided the problems of countries that spent more money than they had — Obama then went on to say (according to Johnson) that the United States is different because we can print more money and use "leverage."

10:14 - Stein disagrees with Johnson, saying that the track record of "austerity" in Europe and the United States is abysmal. Johnson: "I think that's just baloney!" He says we need to stop spending more money than we have, or we'll have a "national collapse."

10:21 - Stein and Johnson both support labeling of genetically modified foods. Johnson connects this to the idea of a free market: consumers should make choices based on accurate information. He says he wouldn't be able to function if not for food labels, since he has Celiac disease and can't eat gluten.

10:23 - In her closing statement, Stein says she'll "put an end to student debt." She calls students "indentured servants."

10:24 - Johnson says in his closing statement: "Vote for the person you believe in. That's how you change this country for the better. I'm more liberal than Obama when it comes to civil liberties. I'm more conservative than Romney when it comes to dollars and cents. . . . I made a name for myself [as governor] by being a penny-pincher. . . . I don't know if there's a more important vote right now if you want to register your distaste with what's happening in this country." Johnson ends by asking for 5% of the vote, which will let the Libertarian Party get more ballot access and receive federal matching funds. So, the libertarian's slam-dunk argument for why you should vote for him is that it will let him receive federal-government benefits.

Why it matters that drones haven't been debated in this presidential race

Ramesh Ponnuru explains:

Neither side wants to look softer than the other on terrorists. Hence the bipartisan support for the strikes. Liberal groups that might be inclined to protest the policy have been quiet because Obama put it in place. The lack of debate about our reliance on drones is a shame, because there are both practical and moral objections to it.

A few conservatives have raised one practical concern: Killing terrorists is justified, they say, but we need to kill fewer and capture more to gain intelligence. You don’t have to support waterboarding, as some of these critics do, to agree with that point.

Another concern, raised by a few liberals, is that the strikes have increased anti-Americanism abroad. . . . The Pew Research Center has found strong opposition to drone strikes in almost every country.

But the morality of the policy is what most deserves scrutiny. . . . In January, Obama said, “I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found hundreds of civilian casualties in Pakistan, including 176 children.

In May, the New York Times reported one possible explanation for the discrepancy in estimates: Obama “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In other words, Obama has not found much evidence of civilian casualties because he’s not looking for any. . . .

The president’s aides told the Times that he is a “student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas” and can be trusted to make the right judgments. His practical definition of combatants as anyone we happened to kill suggests otherwise, although too much of the program is secret to say for sure. The fact that we have barely debated this issue makes it hard to believe that our political system is getting it right, either.
Read the whole article for more thoughts on how just-war theory applies to Obama's drone war.

Previously: What is President Obama's drone war in Pakistan doing?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why politicians lie

This explains so much about politics and government (written by an Australian economics professor, but applicable in the US to Democrats and Republicans alike):

We demand of our politicians that they share the same beliefs as we do, even if they are ridiculous beliefs, and that they explain everything as favourably for our self-esteem as possible, including our undoubted victory in the next war and the end to poverty within our lifetime. The impossible promises given out regarding war and poverty are repeated for almost anything. For instance, we all want good schools, but we don’t want to pay for them or accept that to really improve the education of the majority means letting go of other ideals, such as the ‘no kid behind’ doctrine that in reality translates into an extremely low base level of learning. We want our cakes and eat it, so we fully expect to see many new initiatives that promise improvement but not much change in reality. Similarly, anything that we as a group have agreed is objectionable or desirable is something we expect our politicians to promise to remove or provide. Politicians are thereby mandated to promise us to remove poverty and climate change, whilst they will deliver economic growth and justice. . . .

Whether or not politicians are actually able to generate 100,000 jobs or not is also irrelevant. What matters is whether the majority of the population believes such job-creation is possible. Hence the limits to lies are given by the education and intelligence of the population. The population knows full well that politicians cannot overnight make their husbands and wives more attractive and caring, and would thus quickly brand any politician promising such things a liar. . . . So the politicians must be honest about their inability to improve husbands and lie about the effect of their policies on climate change. . . .

If you are good at reading the hidden desires and proclivities of your population, you win elections and thus ensure you and your party thousands of cushy jobs and all the associated trappings of power. The competitive nature of politics furthermore ensures a continuous search for storylines that gather political support. Those storylines are sought from the wide world of truth and fantasy alike: whatever is believed and is popular goes – the truth in one instance, a complete fabrication in another. The political process is thereby a search for popular truths and lies and will deliver both in ample measure.
The comments about education remind me of this passage by the British philosopher A.C. Grayling in Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age (162):
Although there are few if any true democracies in the world — most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies — the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to treat everyone alike. This latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains. But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denomniator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Businesses help people

The Sandy experience has reminded me of this Thomas Sowell column.

People keep talking about the role of government in helping people. (On the day the cyclone hit New York City, the New York Times ran an editorial with the headline: "A Big Storm Requires Big Government.") That's a valid point, but a lot of the credit for helping people recover from the storm should go to businesses. It's all too easy to implicitly exclude businesses from our mental category of those who help people. (Why? Because they're driven by profits? Is that worse than being driven by votes?)

I can think of many ways that businesses helped me get through the past 5 days, when the power was out in my apartment and my workplace. (It came back in my apartment earlier today.) I just had breakfast at a diner in Manhattan, which seems like an amazing experience now even though the menu was limited. I also went shopping at Whole Foods to replace some of the food I had to throw away when my power went out. During the blackout, I bought much-needed food and supplies at stores around town; some of these stores struggled to open as soon as possible after the storm even though their power was still out. My credit-card companies emailed me to offer various kinds of assistance. Cafes, stores, and banks let people linger to charge their phones and computers, allowing them to stay in touch with friends and family who could offer further help.

Government has been helpful too — the police being the main visible example. Government may have also helped me in unseen ways, and the same could be said of businesses.

Untitled

Untitled

(Photos were taken by me yesterday. The first is La Lanterna Caffe; the second is Mamoun's Falafel in Greenwich Village.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Observations in the aftermath of Sandy

1. The traffic in the blackout areas of Manhattan is lawless in the most literal sense: the traffic lights aren't working, so the law cannot be applied as usual. But "lawless" doesn't seem to be a fitting description; the driving seems better-behaved than usual. We're so used to seeing people act under a system of government rules that it's easy to assume that without the rules, everything would descend into chaos. But perhaps free people are generally capable of acting decently on their own. Of course, that's never going to be universal; but then, people break the law too. In fact, a dense set of rules tempts people to see how close to (or how far across) the borderline of legality they can go without being penalized. In the absence of governmental laws, people might focus more on other kinds of laws: social norms and ethics.

[Added: There actually is a law that applies when the traffic lights aren't working, but people probably don't know about that law, and they definitely aren't following it. We never get the chance to do a pure experiment on how people would act in the absence of any government, but this is closer to such an experiment than we usually get.]

2. Whenever there's a high-profile disaster, whether it's a storm or a mass murder or terrorism, so many people's instinct is to declare that their political ideology has been vindicated.

3. I like Adele, but the people who work at Starbucks must get tired of listening to nothing but Adele.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

The New York Times reports:

Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was 104.

Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon. . . .

He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.

Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.

As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
I first read his book on writing, Simple and Direct, during high school, and I still reread it now and then. I still try to follow his guidelines on how to use the words "the" and "a," which turns out to be a surprisingly difficult matter.

Here are a few passages I've picked out from my copy of A Jacques Barzun Reader:
Removing ignorance in school is as painful as removing tonsils and calls for a rarer skill. Besides, the teacher should not use an anesthetic or be one. (593) (undated)

The purpose I gradually fashioned took the form of a resolve to fight the mechanical. . . . Where, then is this enemy? Not where the machine gives relief from drudgery but where human judgment abdicates. Any ossified institution — almost every bureaucracy, public or private — manifests the mechanical. So does race-thinking — a verdict passed mechanically at a color-coded signal. Ideology is likewise an idea-machine, designed to spare the buyer all further thought. (5) (from 1990)

Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles. We need them both for comfort and for action. A society, however pluralist, needs some beliefs in common and will not trust them unless they are labeled truths. It is there that our efforts betray us. Sooner or later, experience jabs us with an event, a feeling, or a perception that shatters the truth-value of the great inferred idea. . . [T]he breakup of old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement, which are part of man's fate. It should only strenghten tolerance and make us lessen our pretensions. (18-19) (from 2000)

In a high civilization the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse. (9-10) (from 1990)

In presence of the highest art, you have to believe it to see it. (594) (undated)

[T]he abstract and the general (as Blake pointed out) are the death of art. It is because art embodies particulars that it deserves to be called a creation; that is why systems and absolutes falsify it under guise of giving us an explanation; and that is why also a lifelong student of art like John Jay Chapman said very soberly that "we cannot hope to know what it is." (592) (from 1947)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Live-blogging the foreign policy debate

9:22 - President Obama says that every time Mitt Romney has taken a position on foreign policy, he's been wrong. Then he praises Romney for supporting Obama's war in Libya.

9:38 - Obama criticizes Romney for cutting education spending as Governor of Massachusetts. I thought this was supposed to be a foreign policy debate. Also, I hate the debate tactic of pointing out that someone has cut spending. That's not very informative, and it's not inherently bad to cut spending on something important. How efficiently were those dollars spent?

9:41 - Romney: "Our Air Force is older and smaller than it's been since 1947." Well, of course it's older than it's ever been before! Everything is always older than ever before.

9:44 - Obama to Romney: "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. . . . It's not a game of counting battleships." Good point, but Obama made the same fallacy on education spending. [Update: Actually, the point about bayonets wasn't so great.]

9:46 - Obama says our sanctions against Iran are "crippling its economy." He adds: "Their economy is in shambles." Bragging about destroying a whole nation's economy seems rather callous.

9:59 - Romney has said the word "tumult" several times tonight.

10:01 - Romney describes Obama's foreign policy with words like "tumult," "turmoil," "tension." Obama says Romney has been "all over the map," whereas Obama's decisions aren't "poll-tested." If this debate has any purpose, it's for the candidates to seem presidential while repeating these kinds of buzzwords to frame the other side. I find it hard to believe that many voters are going to make their decision based on any substantive differences on foreign policy the candidates are airing tonight.

10:04 - Obama points out that many people in his administration, including his own vice president, were opposed to his decision to kill Osama bin Laden.

10:08 - Obama is beating Romney in the contest to mention as many regular citizens as possible.

10:11 - Romney is asked what he thinks about Obama's drone war. We don't get much in the way of details about what the drone war is actually doing, either from the moderator's question or Romney's answer: "I support that entirely." When it's Obama's turn to respond, he doesn't even mention his drone attacks, but talks vaguely about feel-good concepts like government reform in nations we're "engaging with," women's rights, etc.

10:15 - A Facebook friend says the moderator, Bob Schieffer, referred to "Obama bin Laden," but I didn't notice it.

10:19 - Romney accuses China of "artificially holding down the value of their currency." In other words, China is making our dollar stronger, and Romney would like our dollar to be weaker.

10:24 - Romney criticizes the US policy of "writing checks" to bail out the car industry — which, he points out, started with President Bush.

10:25 - Romney says he's in favor of public investing in "basic research," not "investing in companies." Actually, that's a surprisingly euphemistic way for him to refer to Obama's policy of transferring taxpayers' money to corporations.

10:28 - Romney finally catches up with his references to ordinary people in swing states. This is now the second debate where Appleton, Wisconsin (population 78,000) has been mentioned.

10:35 - The debates are over. Do you think the campaigns made an agreement that the candidates would have the exact same interaction at the beginning and end of each debate? They always pat each other on the side of the arm while laughing, as if one of them had said something funny in the previous split-second.

My mom, Ann Althouse, sums up the debate:

By adopting a strategy of only modestly challenging Obama and mostly seeming the same as Obama on foreign policy, Romney neutralized foreign policy as an issue and kept the election focus on the economy. He even refocused the discussion on the economy whenever he could over the course of the evening. The election is about the economy, and nothing either candidate said tonight will change that. The only way Obama really could have won is if Romney had tumbled into some kind of exploitable gaffe. That didn't happen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A hypothetical, inspired by last night's debate

Say you're a police investigator, and you find a dead body with no clear cause of death. It's a high-profile case, and the public wants to know if there was foul play. You give a press conference in which you say, "One thing's for sure: no act of murder will ever shake our resolve." By making that statement, have you announced that the person was definitely murdered? No. You've just uttered a platitude to express the fact that you're taking the case seriously, without committing to a position on what actually happened.

(See the "10:15" update on my live-blog of the debate.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Live-blogging the "town hall" presidential debate

[Here's the transcript.]

I'll be live-blogging the 2nd presidential debate here. Keep reloading for more updates.

For more live-blogging, check out Althouse (my mom), TalkingPointsMemo, and the Economist's Democracy in America.

As always, any quotes will be written down on the fly, so they might not be verbatim but I'll try to make them reasonably accurate.

9:04 - A college student asks Mitt Romney how he's going to be assured of having a job after graduating. Mitt Romney says we need to continue giving Pell grants. "I know what it takes to create good jobs again. . . . I'm going to make sure you get a job."

9:05 - President Obama seems very upbeat: "Your future is bright!" He segues into paraphrasing Romney as saying: "We're going to let Detroit go bankrupt." He also strains to connect education to "investing in solar energy."

9:09 - Romney: "We have fewer people working today than when President Obama took office." Romney says that the unemployment rate is the same, but it would be much higher — over 10% — if the work force were as big as it was 4 years ago. He also retorts to Obama: "You say I wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt; you did let Detroit go bankrupt!"

9:11 - Obama: "Governor Romney doesn't have a 5-point plan. He has a 1-point plan: to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. . . . That's exactly the philosophy that's been in place for the past decade." It seems like a questionable strategy to impute the whole time he's been in office to his challenger's philosophy.

9:14 - Obama promises a questioner: "You're not going to pay as much for gas." Both of the candidates seem to be under the impression that the president is the Commander of the Economy.

9:17 - Obama says when Romney was governor, "you stood in front of a coal plant and said: 'This plant kills. We're shutting it down.'"

9:18 - While continuing the debate on coal, the two of them both walk slowly toward each other while accusing the other of lying about coal statistics. Romney to Obama: "You'll get your chance soon; I'm still speaking." [Here's the video:]



9:22 - Candy Crowley starts to move on to a new topic, and Romney, as usual, starts to debate the debating rules with her. She insists on going to a new topic, but Romney talks about the old topic (energy) anyway. Obama: "Candy, it's OK, I'm used to being interrupted."

9:25 - Romney is asked about his tax plan. He emphasizes: "The top 5% of taxpayers will continue to pay 60% of income tax the government collects. So that will stay the same." He also repeats what Paul Ryan said last week: that Obama's spending increases will lead to higher taxes on the middle class. Of course, Obama says the opposite: that he's going to cut taxes for the middle class. We've heard all this before, and neither candidate's "plan" is very convincing. (See the 9:47 update in my live-blog of the vice-presidential debate, where I said Ryan had a "brilliant tactic.")

9:30 - Obama says that Romney said during the primaries that he'd give a "tax cut" — not a "tax rate cut" — for everyone, including the rich. Does Obama really think it's going to be effective for his critique of Romney on taxes to hinge on that semantic distinction?

9:31 - Romney blatantly panders to women by referring to the increase in "women living in poverty" during the Obama administration. Has there not been an increase in men living in poverty, or do men living in poverty just not matter as much?

9:36 - Obama points out that Romney was "a very successful investor," and would never have accepted a plan as "sketchy" as Romney's proposal of tax cuts and military-spending increases. Romney flips this around by suggesting that you should trust him because he's been so successful in business and government. Romney's retort to Obama: "How about $4 trillion in deficits? That's math that doesn't add up. . . . He said he would cut the deficit in half; instead he's doubled it."

9:37 - Obama is asked what he's going to do about women earning less on average than men. "That's a great question." Why should we trust Obama's explanation of any statistics, if he isn't willing to point out the statistical fallacy with inferring discrimination from raw averages which don't consider any of the legitimate factors that cause people to be paid differently based on the different choices they make?

9:41 - Romney says we need to have "flexible schedules" to help women. How is it the job of the president to decide what job schedules people have?

9:45 - A member of the audience asks Romney what the biggest differences are between him and George W. Bush. "Trade — I'll crack down on China. President Bush didn't." "I'm going to get us to a balanced budget; President Bush didn't." He says "President Obama was right" to say that deficits were outrageous under Bush; of course, Obama increased them even more. "President Bush had a very different path, for a very different time."

9:50 - Obama goes for the jugular, pointing out that Romney is investing in China while promising to crack down on China. "Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China."

9:51 - Obama says Romney is different from Bush: "George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush supported comprehensive immigration reform; he didn't suggest self-deportation. George Bush didn't stop funding Planned Parenthood."

9:53 - Obama lists his accomplishments in a much snappier way than he did in the first debate: he ended the war in Iraq, he's fought terrorism, something about health care, etc. He then lists several of Romney's promises, repeating that he's vowed to defund Planned Parenthood.

9:55 - Romney walks toward someone whose question has just been answered by Obama, speaking to him directly: "I think you know better. I think you know that the economy for the last 4 years hasn't been as good as the president just described. . . . He keeps saying: look, I've created 5 million jobs. That's after losing 5 million jobs!" Ah, Romney nows says there are more "people in poverty." So, men do count after all! Romney is very fluent with his statistics: "Median incomes are down $4,300 per family."

9:59 - An immigration question. Romney: "America is a nation of immigrants. . . . We welcome legal immigrants into this country." Anyone with a degree in science or math should "get a green card stapled to their diploma." He'd punish employers for hiring "those who came here illegally." He uses that phrase — "those who came here illegally" — over and over. He's clearly been advised that some people are offended by the word "illegal" being used as an adjective applied to a whole person.

10:01 - Obama starts out by echoing Romney's answer: "We are a nation of immigrants. But we're also a nation of laws." Like Romney, he says we need to encourage highly skilled people to immigrate.

10:04 - The moderator, Crowley, asks Romney to "speak to self-deportation." Romney: "No!" But a minute later, he does explain his views on "self-deportation." Romney likes to pick fights with the moderators.

10:06 - Romney brings back the issue of China, repeatedly asking Obama: "Have you looked at your pension lately?" Obama: "No, mine isn't as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long to look at." Romney: "Look at your pension — you also have Chinese investments." Crowley asks Romney "if I could have you sit down." [Here's the video:]



10:11 - Obama on the killings in Benghazi, Libya: "We'll find out who did this, and we will hunt them down. When folks mess with Americans, we go after them. . . . These are my folks, and I'm the one who's got to greet those coffins when they come home."

10:12 - Romney on Benghazi: "This was not a demonstration — it was a terrorist attack. It took a long time for that to be told to the American people."

10:13 - Romney goes on autopilot, listing his talking points about Obama's foreign policy: "The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour," Obama is "leading from behind," his foreign policy is "unraveling."

10:15 - Obama gives a forceful rebuke to Romney's description of his response to the Benghazi attacks:  "That's not what we do." He says that he called it a "terrorist attack" immediately afterwards, in his Rose Garden address. Romney says it actually took him 14 days before he used that language. Crowley intercedes, saying that Obama is right that he immediately used the word "terrorist," but Romney is right about his larger point that it took the administration 2 weeks to stop characterizing it as a spontaneous reaction to a video. [Added: A transcript on Fox News quotes Obama in the Rose Garden address, the day after the attacks:]

The United States condemns, in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. . . .

We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.

The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts. . . .

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.
What do you think? Did he refer to the killings as terrorism? If you take his words literally, he was talking about what no acts of terror will ever do, without specifying whether terrorism had just occurred. At most, there's an implication that the Benghazi killings were terrorist attacks that would not shake our resolve and so on. But that's too debatable for the moderator to be weighing in on who got it right.

[Update: A hypothetical.]

[Added: Here's the video of the whole section on Libya:]



10:26 - They're asked what their plan is to reverse the trend of jobs being outsourced to foreign countries. Romney brings back the line he used at the beginning of the first debate, saying that Obama has used "trickle-down government." American businesses can't compete with countries that have more lax regulation. He threatens to impose "tariffs" on China.

10:35 - Romney shouts at Obama: "Government does not create jobs! Government does not create jobs!" That's not what he said in his first answer in the debate!

10:35 - Romney uses a line he often repeated during the primaries, but which he didn't say in the last debate: "I spent my life in the private sector, not government." A few minutes later, he makes a list of promises and says: "I served as governor and showed that I can get this done."

10:38 - Obama rattles off platitudes: "Everybody should have a fair shot, and everybody should do their fair share, and everybody should play by the same rules."

10:38 - Finally, Obama brings up the fact that Romney said that 47% of the country refuses to take personal responsibility for themselves. "When my grandfather fought in World War II and came back and got a G.I. Bill that enabled him to go to college, that wasn't a handout." And with that, Obama has the last word in the debate. It seems quite unfair that Romney wasn't given a chance to respond to Obama's attack.

At the very least, Obama "won" the debate by cutting off the narrative that had been going on since the last debate about his lack of vitality.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why have the Democrats gotten the most attention in the debates?

Isn't it weird how in both debates so far, the candidate whose performance got the most attention was the Democrat? But they're the incumbents! We can judge them on their record in office. We don't need to resort to looking at how well they handle themselves in debates. The debates should be a more crucial test for the Republicans. Everyone seems to have this backwards.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thoughts on playing sad songs and easy guitar parts

I'm working on a major project that involves me playing cover songs. I hope to eventually release it to the public once it's finished, but that won't be for a while (maybe years). Of course, I'll post something on the blog if and when I do release it.

(If you want to receive an email alert once it's released, send me an email with "album alert" in the subject heading, and feel free to leave the rest of the message blank. You can find my email address in this blog's sidebar. I won't use your email address for any other purpose.)

A couple things that have come to mind while working on this project:

1. The easier a guitar part sounds, the harder it is to play. The audience expects perfection in the seemingly easy parts — which are often clean and exposed. But they'll overlook flubs in the seemingly hard parts — which are usually blurred with distortion.

2. Every good sad song has an ironic subtext: "Yes, life may be miserable at times, but hey — at least we're making this great music about it." Happy songs are more straightforward: they're supposed to make you feel roughly the same feeling expressed by the music.

That second point was prompted by covering this song:



I saw the Zombies in concert recently, and I highly recommend seeing them if you get the chance. Their normal show has the full five-piece band, though the two in that video are the only original members. The keyboardist, Rod Argent, is the genius who wrote "She's Not There," "Tell Her No," and "Time of the Season."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Live-blogging the vice-presidential debate of 2012

[Added: Here's the transcript.]

I'll be live-blogging the only vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan here, starting at 9:00 Eastern tonight.

Keep reloading this post for more updates.

You can watch the debate online on C-SPAN.org or YouTube.

As always, I'll be doing writing down quotes on the fly without the aid of a transcript or pause/rewind button, so they won't necessarily be verbatim but I'll try to keep them as close to accurate  possible.

Feel free to comment on the debate in the comments.

9:03 - They're sitting down. That might produce a calmer vibe than in the last debate.

9:04 - Biden promises "to find and bring to justice the men" who killed Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

9:05 - Biden says that Obama on day 1 made it a top priority to get Osama bin Laden, whereas Romney said during his previous campaign that he "wouldn't move Heaven and Earth" to kill bin Laden. "It was about more than taking a murderer off the battlefield. It was about restoring America's heart, and sending a message to terrorists."

9:06 - Ryan says that "if we're hit by terrorists, we'll call it what it is." Instead, the Obama administration "blamed the YouTube video" for the killing of Stevens. Ryan thanks veterans, turning to Biden and extending the thanks to his son Beau.

9:08 - While Ryan keeps giving his long answer about the attacks, Biden rudely mutters over him: "Do I get to say anything?" Once it's Biden's turn, he says, "With all due respect, that's malarkey. Because none of what he said was accurate."

9:11 - Biden says that Romney's decision to hold a press conference about the Libya attacks was "not presidential leadership." Is Romney not allowed to say anything about a foreign-policy crisis during his campaign just because he's a challenger? That doesn't seem fair.

9:14 - Ryan says a Romney administration, in contrast with the Obama administration, "will have credibility" on sanctions against Iran. Biden: "Incredible! . . . These are the most crippling sanctions in history, period. Period."

9:15 - Biden rhetorically asks if Ryan wants to start a war with Iran. Ryan interjects: "We want to prevent war!" Biden asks what more Romney/Ryan would want Obama to do on Iran, "unless they want us to go to war."

9:19 - Ryan's main debate tactic on Iran seems to be repeating the word "credibility."

9:20 - The moderator, Martha Raddatz, says Biden is "making it sound like [Iran doesn't] want a nuclear weapon." Biden says no, but "facts matter," and they're still far from being able to make a weapon.

9:22 - Ryan is stumbling over his words a lot, e.g. saying "desperation" when he means "daylight."

9:22 - Ryan warns of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, which would set off "a nuclear arms race in the Middle East."

9:23 - Biden on Iran: "We've made it clear . . . This president doesn't bluff."

9:24 - Biden paraphrases Romney: "47% of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives." He mentions that Romney himself pays relatively low taxes, and points out that Romney's "47%" includes veterans and elderly people on Social Security.

9:25 - Biden says Romney/Ryan are "holding middle-class tax cuts hostage" in order to cut taxes for the very wealthiest Americans. He's clearly putting into practice what many people felt President Obama should have done last week.

9:27 - Ryan repeats Romney's defense of tax cuts for the rich, which is that those taxes apply to small businesses, which create jobs. Why couldn't they amend the tax code with enough precision to give a break to those small businesses, without cutting everyone's personal income taxes?

9:30 - The debate has been pretty somber. Biden brings up the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter.

9:31 - Ryan focuses on something I don't remember hearing about at all in the previous debate: the fact that there was single-party Democratic control of Congress and the White House for the first half of Obama's term. "They had the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. Look where they are right now." He points out how much higher unemployment is than the administration projections.

9:34 - Ryan gives a passionate, personal defense of "entitlements" — Medicare and Social Security — describing how they helped his mother and grandmother to be successful. He and his mom collected Social Security benefits after his dad died, and this allowed her to go to college and start a business.

9:37 - Biden says Ryan supported the Bush administration's plan to privatize Social Security. "Imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money were in the market."

9:38 - Ryan: "They got cut with their hands in the cookie jar, turning Medicare into a piggy bank for Obamacare."

9:39 - Ryan: "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we didn't keep interrupting each other." True. [Added: here's the video:]



9:42 - Ryan says Biden has "nothing to run on," so he's painting his opponent as "something to run from." Ryan says Biden is wrong to call their Medicare plan a "voucher" system.

9:47 - Ryan: "There aren't enough rich people and small businesses to pay for all their [Obama/Biden's] spending. So when they say it's time for the wealthy to pay their 'fair share' — watch out, middle class, they're coming for you!" [Added later: this was a brilliant tactic of inverting Obama's argument from the first debate that the math of Romney's tax plan doesn't add up, and the middle class will end up getting stuck with the bill.]

9:50 - The moderator asks why Romney/Ryan aren't giving the specifics of their tax plan. After Ryan answers, the moderator sums up: "Still no specifics."

9:51 - Raddatz should be more aggressive about stopping Biden from constantly interrupting Ryan.

9:53 -There's an extremely busy back-and-forth between Biden and Ryan over what kinds of taxes and tax deductions Romney would cut.

9:55 - Ryan accuses Obama of trying to cut the Navy to its smallest size since World War I.

9:59 - Biden says Romney's position on withdrawing from Afghanistan is: "It depends." "It does not 'depend' for us."

10:01 - Ryan on Afghanistan: "What we're seeing when we turn on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy."

10:04 - Biden on Afghanistan: "The only way to make 'em step up is to say: 'Fellas, we're leavin'. Step up.'"

10:05 - Ramesh Ponnuru asks: "Are normal people still watching this?" He also made a good point back in the section on taxes:

The Democrats could have permanently extended the middle class tax cuts in 2009-10 if they really wanted to.
10:12 - I'm not following the discussion of Syria, and I wonder if it's really going to affect anyone's vote.

10:14 - Ryan is asked about his criteria for military intervention in any country. "Only when it is in our national-security interest."

10:15 - Ryan, asked about abortion, says: "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life — or from their faith. . . . I believe that life begins at conception. . . . The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother." [I originally didn't catch whether or not he included the mother's "health" as an exception. Based on the transcript, he didn't.]

10:17 - Ryan says Democrats used to say abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare," in Bill Clinton's famous words. "Now, they support it without restriction, and with taxpayer funding."

10:18 - Biden says he's personally opposed to abortion based on his Catholicism, but "I refuse to impose that on equally devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews."

10:25 - Ryan says Obama won't show us a "credible plan" to prevent the debt crisis. (Again, he emphasizes credibility.) What we get from the administration is "speeches, not leadership." He's trying to hoist Obama on his own petard (they won't show us their plan).

10:27 - More disorienting crosstalk from Ryan and Biden. Raddatz: "Let me calm this down." She asks what each of them could bring to the country that no one else could. Ryan smartly rejects the premise that no one else could bring what he would.

10:30 - Biden, in his closing statement: "You probably sense my frustration with their attitude toward the American people. My friend [Ryan] says 30% of the American people are 'takers.'" He repeats Romney's 47% line. "They're talking about my mother and father."

10:30 - Ryan thanks the moderator, the college hosting the debate, and "you, Joe. It's been an honor." Unless I missed it, I think Biden thanked only the moderator and the college, not Ryan.

10:32 - "Mitt Romney and I want to earn your support." He pauses and says the word "earn" very emphatically, as if to say: Obama and Biden didn't earn it.

10:40 - The debate is over. I was so wrong in my prediction that the debate would be relatively calm because they're sitting down. Here are two live-blog updates from my mom, Ann Althouse (an hour earlier than here):
8:51: The stress level is rising. Biden is so angry. Why is he yelling? Ryan needs nerves of steel not to lose his cool. I'm impressed that Ryan, when he gets his turn, is able to speak in an even, natural voice. It's hard to concentrate on the policy itself, because the emotional static is so strong.

9:11: Biden has been yelling at Martha Raddatz for the last 15 minutes (as the subject is war). It's so inappropriate!
Based on Jonah Goldberg's Twitter feed, where he's been retweeting other people including other National Review editors, it seems like conservatives weren't very happy with Ryan's performance. Jeffrey Goldberg says:
Biden right now is talking to people, Ryan is talking to members of the House budget committee.
Jonah Goldberg also says:
If Biden was advised to be angry at everything he doesn't find hysterical, he's executing perfectly.
So, Biden was too rude and aggressive, while Obama, by his own admission, was too polite and not aggressive enough last week. Maybe after Obama's campaign puts him through debate "study hall," he'll finally get it just right.

10/11/12

It's today! We'll have a couple more of these, then we need to wait about 90 years for the next one.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The fundamental difference between Obama and Romney that might explain how Romney won the first debate

Alex Knepper opines:

Barack Obama is much better at being than at doing. For all of his life, he has been rewarded for who he is — what he represents — rather than what he has done. . . .

Indeed, he seems instantly bored with whatever position he has ascended to — as Byron York hilariously (and depressingly) points out: he spent a few years as a community organizer, got bored, headed to the state legislature for a few years, got bored, went to the Senate for a couple of years, got bored, decided to run for president. . . .

Whatever his flaws, Mitt Romney is a doer, a man who is used to delivering the goods when it counts — and he came to last week’s debate ready to win. Obama, the man who only knows how to be — to sit back and bask in the adulation of people willing to reward him for merely existing — is simply not used to dealing with people who refuse to submit to his outsized ambitions — and it’s highly doubtful that he’s going to learn how to do that in just two weeks’ time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A one-million-dollar salary for the president, members of Congress, and federal judges

You might not have expected to see the conservative/libertarian Thomas Sowell supporting that idea. But his argument isn't necessarily inconsistent with his ideology:

Any successful engineer, surgeon, or financier would have to take a big pay cut to serve in Congress. A top student from a top law school can get a starting salary that is more than we pay a Supreme Court justice.

No doubt many, if not most, government officials are already paid more than they are worth. But the whole point of higher pay is to get better people to replace them.

We may say that we want people in Congress, the courts or the White House who have some serious knowledge and experience in the real world, not just glib tricksters who know how to pander for votes. But we don't put our money where our mouth is.

Let's face it. You're not likely to get a good suit of clothes at a flea market. And you're not likely to get the cream of the crop to go into the government when they would have to accept a big drop in income to do so. . . .

There will . . . always be some people who are willing to sacrifice their family's economic security and standard of living, in order to get their hands on the levers of power.

These are precisely the kinds of people whom it is dangerous to have holding the levers of power.

Can we afford to pay members of Congress, the President of the United States, and federal judges the kinds of money that would enable us to tap a far wider pool of far more knowledgeable people with successful real world experience? We can't afford not to. . . .

To get some idea of the cost, ask yourself: How much would it cost to pay every member of Congress, the president, and every federal judge a million dollars a year?

There are 535 members of Congress, so a salary of a million dollars a year would cost $535 million, or just over half a billion dollars. There are 188 federal appellate judges and one President of the United States. That's 189 more people, bringing the total number of people to 724, and the total cost to $724 million, at a time when people in Washington are talking trillions.

That is less than one percent of the annual cost of the Department of Agriculture. Put differently, we could pay all of these 724 officials a million dollars a year each -- for an entire century -- for less than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

If we limited how long any given individual could hold office in the government -- preferably one term -- we could have highly knowledgeable people with real world experience in charge of taking care of the nation's business, instead of spending their time doing things to get reelected.

They would be a lot harder for special interests to bribe with campaign contributions, when high officials would face no more campaigns after getting elected. We don't need career politicians. . . .

Is all this a realistic prospect in the world today? Of course not! What is the most realistic prospect today is the status quo today.

But the New Deal was not a realistic prospect three years before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. It was not a realistic prospect in 1775 that the American colonies would become an independent nation a year later. The whole point of discussing new ideas is to get people thinking about them, so that they might become realistic prospects in the future.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ducks swimming for the first time in their lives



Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary explains:

Almost a year after our initial efforts to rescue over 160 ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens that were living with a hoarder in appalling conditions, we were finally able to bring them to safety. They are now enjoying sunshine on their feathers, water to swim in, clean bedding, warmth, grass under their feet and room to roam for the very first time. Initially, we tried working with their owner towards an amicable surrender, pleading with her to consider the quality of life for the birds and used many of our own resources to help provide a cleaner environment for them. The hoarder’s initial intentions were good and her love for the animals apparent, but she neglected to see how their overcrowding, over-breeding, lack of shelter and space and filthy conditions were hurting them. She also continued to buy chicks and ducklings online and mail ordered to her.

In the end, it took efforts by both us and the Ulster County SPCA, and then a judge’s seizure warrant to obtain the birds. Many were suffering from ailments caused specifically by their filthy living conditions. They lives in small sheds and animal carriers, overcrowded, living among layers of caked feces, and breathing in dust and the stench of ammonia. Due to inadequate housing, several of the birds did not have access to proper shelter and have lost toes and combs to frostbite. Inside her trailer we found another 25 birds running around freely and over 20 living in an enclosed back porch. The indoor quarters were worse than the outdoors. All the birds show signs of nutritional deficiencies.

We are treating all of their health issues by providing veterinary care, nutritional supplements, quality food and vitamins daily in their water. They are beginning to thrive with their new freedom.
Good intentions aren't good enough.