Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sarah Palin — engaged in world affairs, just doesn't want to leave anybody out

A new snippet from Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin just came out, and it should resolve any question about whether Palin has had a long-standing interest in the issues facing our country and our world (scroll down for the transcript):


Katie Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious: what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Sarah Palin: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
KC: But, like, what ones specifically? I'm curious.
SP: All of 'em, any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years.
KC: Can you name a few?
SP: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where, it's kind of suggested and it seems like, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C. may be thinking and doing when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

Michael Crowley reacts:
"All of them"? Not just Commentary but Dissent, too? Impressive!

(And have you heard that they've merged to form Dysentery?)

Well, I don't know if she's been reading those, but I have a feeling she's a fan of Seinfeld -- particularly the episode called "The Red Dot," where George is sucking up to Elaine's boss, Mr. Lippman, to try to get a job:
MR. LIPPMAN: So, have you ever done this kind of work before?

GEORGE: Well, you know, book reports — that kind of stuff.

MR. LIPPMAN: Who do you read?

GEORGE: I like Mike Lupica.

MR. LIPPMAN: Mike Lupica?

GEORGE: He's a sports writer for the Daily News. I find him very insightful...

MR. LIPPMAN: No, no, no — I mean authors.

GEORGE: Oh! Lot of good ones ... lot of ... good ones. I don't even want to mention anyone because I'm afraid I'm going to leave somebody out.
MR. LIPPMAN: Name a couple.

GEORGE: Who do I like? ... I like ... uh ... Art ... Vandelay.

MR. LIPPMAN: Art Vandelay?

GEORGE: He's an obscure writer. Beatnik, from the Village.

MR. LIPPMAN: What has he written?

GEORGE: Venetian Blinds.

UPDATE: Palin was asked the same question in an interview today (Oct. 3). Now that she's had weeks to think about it, she has some specifics. See the last minute of this YouTube clip.

Anti-vegetarian argument #1: "Aren't you morally condemning most people?"

Megan McArdle says she's morally compelled to be a vegan, but she's uncomfortable with the implication that she's morally condemning people who aren't vegans.

How do vegans or vegetarians resolve this dilemma (if it is a dilemma)?

On the one hand, she says:

Like most vegetarians, I suspect that my angriest critics are those who, like me, feel that eating meat is wrong--and therefore want me to do it too, so that they don't have to think about their own choices. Well, apologies, but I think that I have a moral obligation to be a vegan.
But on the other hand:
Obviously, having decided that it's morally wrong to eat animal products, I can't exactly say that I think it's perfectly okay for other people to do so. On the other hand, I recognize that the universe is a complicated place, and my moral judgements are imperfect.

Or maybe a better way to say it is that there are moral judgements, and then there are moral judgements. I wish more people would stop eating meat, but I also think it is possible to be a perfectly good, moral human being and still eat meat, in a way that I don't think it is possible to be a good moral human being and still rape twelve-year olds. I have judged the behavior and found it wanting, but I do not judge, in any way, the people who indulge in it. I think there's something wrong with eating meat, but I don't think there's anything wrong with meat-eaters.
(By the way, she says she wouldn't raise her kids vegan, because she doesn't think that's healthy. But she would consider raising them vegetarian. And she obviously thinks it's healthy for an adult to be a vegan.)

I admire her attempt to resolve this issue through some kind of middle way. And she seems close to the right answer with her distinction between "the behavior" and "the people who indulge in it." But that still strikes me as too facile, because it begs the question: "Well ... why not judge the people who indulge in it?"

I think McArdle is making two key mistakes:

1. Even though she's trying to point out a grey area, it's just not enough of a grey area! I can't imagine that meat-eaters will be thrilled to learn that they aren't as bad as child rapists. She's still implying that she draws a big dividing line of moral judgment, with herself on the good side of the line, and meat-eaters on the other side. Now, she does explicitly contradict this. But I don't see her resolving the contradiction -- it just hangs there.

2. She's focusing on the negative. The whole theme of her post is moral condemnation: should we judge such-and-such people as immoral, or not?

Here's what I propose instead:

1. Don't compare one group of people vs. another group; compare how someone stands if they take one path vs. how that same person stands if they take another path.

And this is key: remember that there are millions of moral decisions any given person faces.

Whether to eat meat is a moral decision. You don't get to just walk away from it -- unless it's truly impossible for you to live a healthy vegetarian lifestyle, which is doubtful. But it's just one of many. There are lots of personal decisions that might matter more. There are social or political movements you might be involved with. And on and on and on. The world is complicated, and there are too many moral issues out there to divide people into good vs. bad based on one issue.

All I know is that I'm a better person than I would have been if I'd been eating meat for the past 17 years. But this in no way implies that I'm a better person than any particular other person who eats meat. After all, they might have their own cause that's dear to their heart that I haven't been active in doing much about.

I mean, if you have a friend who contributes a lot of time and money to fighting malaria, would you even think of saying, "Hey, you can't think it's a good thing for you to be doing that, because I've barely lifted a finger to do anything about malaria, and it would be highly presumptuous of you to think that you're better than me!"?

Of course not. You would just say, "Well, that's great. Good for you." In other words, you would stay POSITIVE! And that would be the end of it. No one's condemning anyone. And that leads to my second point...

2. Being a vegetarian/vegan is contributing to a good cause.

We need to put aside any notions of "Meat is murder!" (Whether such extreme views are nearly as common among vegetarians as they're often portrayed is another question.) The fact is, in our society, eating meat is the default, the baseline, the path of least resistance.

If you're utterly unconvinced by the arguments for being a vegetarian, then fine -- there's nothing more to the analysis. For you, that "baseline" is all there is.

If, on the other hand, you're (at least somewhat) convinced, then it's up to you to judge for yourself what's worth doing to go above that default baseline.

Maybe you'll be a vegetarian (like me) or a vegan (like McArdle). Or you might be a "flexitarian" instead. (Michael Pollan, the author of the popular book In Defense of Food, has endorsed this idea. See item "6" under page 11 in this article.)

Given how strong the message is in American society that eating inordinate quantities of meat is the norm, I consider any effort at cutting down on meat consumption -- even if it's not totally eliminated from your diet -- to be a contribution to a good cause.

It just so happens that I've "cut down" by 100% (just for meat -- there are plenty of other areas where I'm far from pure). If I could (somehow) convince two people each to cut down by 50%, I'd consider that to be exactly equivalent to convincing one person to do what I've done. I don't care about any given person's moral purity; I care only about the actual consequences for the world as a whole.

But now here's the meta point: who cares what I think? Who cares what Megan McArdle thinks? We're just random bloggers. We don't have any authority over how you live your life. So even if we're judging you, why does this matter?

Maybe you're thinking, "Well, you two specifically don't matter a whole lot, but you represent what most vegetarians do, and that certainly matters, doesn't it?" Well, no, I don't think it does. If I don't have any authority over you, then neither does the aggregate of all vegetarians in the world.

You might also be surprised by how little they're even thinking about you at all. Meat-eaters sometimes seem to forget that vegetarians live in the real world, where 90-something % of people eat meat on a regular basis. It's just not remarkable in the slightest to see someone eating meat. Based on everything I've ever experienced in real life, the image of vegetarians who are easily shocked or offended at meat, or who go around condemning people they see eating meat, is a myth.

But let's suppose, just for the sake of argument, that they are condemning you.

Well, they haven't really perceived you. I don't have the information I would need to judge you even if I wanted to. You're the only one who's seen how you've lived throughout your whole life. So the only person who can fairly judge your moral character is you.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The problem with incentives under capitalism

First of all: 100th post!

OK . . . I don't know much about economics, but it's important to me to have some strong opinions about it anyway. If I have a strong opinion about something, that gives me a good feeling that I have some minimal understanding of it (which is open to question when it comes to me and economics).

[UPDATE: That paragraph elicited an unexpectedly strong reaction from LemmusLemmus over at Church of Rationality:

I say hats off for writing that. I'm pretty sure that 99% of humans, including myself, are like that, but no one ever admits it.]
So hearing this brief comment by Mickey Kaus in the latest "Bob & Mickey" Bloggingheads diavlog was a minor revelation for me. It could certainly provide the impetus for one to shift significantly leftward in one's economic views. The point seems so obvious that he couldn't have been the first to come up with it, but it hadn't occurred to me before.

I'm going to try to notice more instances of this, not just about bankruptcy. It obviously has huge implications for the controversy over the United States government's bailout of Wall Street in the current financial crisis, which is the context in which Kaus brought it up.

Someone should write a whole article based on this insight. Not me! To steal an old running feature that a blogger used to have, I should start "Jalcoh's assignment desk." I assign this to . . . Mickey Kaus! (By the way, the first paragraph in the blog post I just linked to was pretty prescient about terrorism.)

"Why is he waving a stuffed moose?"
No, it has
nothing to do with Sarah Palin.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Live-blogging the first Obama vs. McCain presidential debate

Other live-bloggers: 

9:01 - Starting . . .

9:18 - The first interesting thing I've heard: McCain responds to the argument that earmarks are a tiny percentage of the budget, so why does he make it the center of his economic plan? He gives two reasons: it's grown at a very fast rate (of course, it's grown from really tiny to somewhat less tiny), and it's "corrupt." Typically, McCain substitutes moralism for facts.

9:27 - Obama says we won't get done everything that "needs" to be done, but we'll get done everything that "has" to be done. That's a pretty fine distinction!

9:29 - I agree with National Review's Rich Lowry: "Obama is talking too fast."

9:31 - Lehrer asks a key question: are you changing anything about your previous plans based on the financial crisis? Clearly they should both have prepared a strong answer to this, right? Yet neither one seems to have anything to say.

9:34 - Obama gives it another shot. He clearly acknowledges he might have to put some of his proposals on hold, but he won't give specifics. Neither of them seems to have rethought any of their ideas on a qualitative level, as opposed to just accepting that there might be fewer funds available to do what they already wanted to do. McCain's whole answer is that he would be against "wasteful spending" -- which, of course, is no change at all to his earlier economic "plan."

9:44 - Key line from Obama: "You act like the war began in 2007."

9:46 - Good catch from TNR: Obama used the word "orgy."

9:48 - A pithy reality check on McCain and health care.

9:55 - McCain says, "I would not publicly state that I'm going to attack [Pakistan]." But doesn't that very statement imply that he would privately plan to attack Pakistan? (Or, rather, strike inside Pakistan, since that's all they're really talking about.) Now that he's publicly made that implication, hasn't he sort of . . . publicly stated that he might strike inside Pakistan?

9:57 - McCain: "I don't think Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came into power." I don't think McCain understands what Obama understands.

10:00 - "I've got a bracelet." "I've got a bracelet too!" Are these serious adults running for president, or is this summer camp?

10:04 - Subtly insightful advice for Obama:
Obama would do well not to say things like "al Qaeda are attacking our troops in a brazen fashion, they feel emboldened." It's academic language to describe something he should be passionate and visceral about. It reminds me of John Kerry.
10:08 - One of the things you want to watch for in these debates is if a candidate has a tell-tale facial expression or gesture. McCain trying to pronounce "Ahmadinejad" might have been one such moment. For a split-second, he seemed crazed. [UPDATE: Here's the clip.]

10:13 - A creepy statistic from McCain: "The average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean." And this comes shortly after McCain quotes Ahmadinejad calling Israel a "stinking corpse." He's apparently working on a strategy of revolting bodily imagery. I can't quite explain it, but there's something fundamentally McCain-esque about this.

10:19 - McCain's staff clearly told him in the prep sessions, "Keep repeating, 'Obama doesn't understand . . . doesn't understand . . . doesn't understand...'"

10:23 - Obama: "We have only 3% of the world's oil reserves, but we consume 25% of the world's oil," so we can't just drill our way out of the problem. Maybe Obama was reading my "How Obama lost me" list, particularly point (6)(a).

10:34 - McCain says Obama's refusal to admit he was wrong on the surge is a problem because "we need more flexibility in a president." Hmmm...

10:36 - Good for Obama for getting explicit about his exotic family background and name, and connecting it to patriotism.

10:37 - It's over. They casually shake hands — "Good job, John!" "Good job!" It's impossible to know, of course, but I'll bet they basically like and respect each other. They have to grasp at straws for attacks they can use against each other because it's their job, but it's hard to take any of it very seriously. For all Hillary Clinton's warnings about how she was just giving us a taste of what the Republicans would use against the Democratic nominee, her attacks had real bite to them in a way that's lacking here. There was plenty of negativity tonight, but doesn't it feel kind of rehashed and watered down? Does anyone really believe that either of these two guys still feels passionately about how to parse Obama's comments from last year about meeting with dictators?

Afterthought — It's hard to imagine this debate swaying a significant number of voters based on people thinking that one candidate did better than the other, though I can imagine it swaying people toward Obama if they simply weren't familiar with him before and had to get more comfortable with him. Earlier today I was listening to the Beatles song "Wait" (from Rubber Soul), which made me remember a critic's very apt comment (paraphrasing): "It has a hypothetical, unfinished quality that makes it hard to feel strongly about." That's how I feel about this debate. It's sort of like: "here are some things they might say if they had a debate." More like a rehearsal than the real thing. They both did as well as they had to and didn't say much that's likely to be remembered for very long.

One more thought — The media consensus seems to be that it was close to a draw, with maybe a slight edge for McCain. But two focus groups and two polls all show that undecided voters were much more likely to think Obama won. I have a theory to explain this discrepancy. If you're a professional journalist, you're so used to all McCain's and Obama's rhetorical and personality quirks that you look past them and focus on who scored the most points. Most normal people don't sit there with a notepad keeping score. It's not: "Oh, he was just oversimplifying about taxes, but oooh, then he made a good point about energy . . ." No — you take it all in and get an overall impression. Obama's presentation is simply more appealing than McCain's, and — obviously this is subjective, but I do believe this — Obama comes off seeming like the more reasonable and intelligent of the two.

Music Friday: Older albums I've been listening to

So far all the Music Friday posts have been about here's-what's-going-on-right-now music. To mix things up, here are some older albums I've recently acquired and have been delving into.

The Art of Noise -- Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? -- Prototypical noisy art.

The Sugarcubes (photo to the right) -- The Great Crossover Potential -- Pretty good new-wave music by the pre-Bjork Bjork. (I don't do accents.)

Pavement -- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain -- The indie-est of indie-dom.

Charles Mingus -- Cornell 1964 -- 2 CDs, released last year. My favorite jazz musician playing with the great Eric Dolphy at my alma mater, with an emphasis on half-hour-long jams. Apparently this recording was recently unearthed, having been lost for decades.

ELO -- Greatest Hits -- I got this mostly because I think "Livin' Thing" (video below) is one of the all-time greatest rock songs by someone who's not one of the greats ... which could be a pretty good blog post unto itself some other time. This would be a good companion album to the most recent album by Camera Obscura (from an earlier Music Friday).

(Photo of the Sugarcubes from this post on Grapejuice Plus.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Obama lost me, part 3

Click here for the premise of this list and #1-5.

Click here for #6-8.

At the risk of making this Obama supporter even more mad at me, here's the rest of my list of "How Obama lost me":

9. Rigidly opposing the surge

Obama's two main responses to being asked whether he was wrong on the surge (which you can see starting around 4:00 of this clip) are, to paraphrase:

  • It didn't do what it was supposed to do.
  • No one, not even Bush or McCain, expected it to achieve the positive results that it did.
So his position is: the surge wasn't successful enough ... and by the way, it was successful beyond our wildest dreams?!

If he wants to present himself as such a nuanced observer of the surge now, he should have taken a nuanced position back then. Instead, he seems to have opposed it without considering the possibility that it would work out.

I have very little understanding of the situation in Iraq, but I can understand this: if he got the surge right, he should explain why. He hasn't done so. If he got it wrong, he should be as blunt as John Edwards was in admitting he was wrong about whether to invade Iraq. 

10. "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." (#87 in my campaign moments list)

This line -- from a speech Obama gave to the pro-Israel AIPAC in June -- was a worse foreign-policy gaffe than anything I've heard Sarah Palin say.

Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus -- both of whom, like me, are still supporting Obama despite lots of reservations about him -- give a very thorough explanation of why it was so awful:

11. Rev. Jeremiah Wright

I don't agree with all the attention and criticism Obama's pastor got, but that's water under the bridge. It was reckless of Obama to run for president, knowing he had something as explosive as this with the potential to tilt the election to the Republicans, and apparently do nothing to prepare for it. 

He could have had a Sister Souljah moment by proactively distancing himself from Rev. Wright early on. He could have even done this out of the blue, before anything hit YouTube. And once the clips started circulating, he should have acted immediately and decisively. By dragging things out for weeks and weeks, he just delayed the inevitable reject-and-denounce, while making it look like a reluctant political calculation.   

And lastly, of course...

12. Inexperience

I hate to say it, but he shouldn't have decided to run for president with just 2 years of qualifying experience.

I think I understand his calculation: he had the growing excitement around the beginning of the primaries, whereas if he'd waited around for years being a boring ol' senator, that might have eroded his luster. But he just should taken that gamble and run in 4, 8, or 12 years -- when he would have been in his 50s or just turning 60. It would have been worth it to be able to run as someone who's more fluent in policy, has more specific accomplishments to point to, and doesn't compel people to doubt whether he's "ready."


So, that's my list. To be clear, none of this is reason enough for me not to vote for Obama. Every candidate has a slew of flaws, and I think McCain's are worse. There are the staggering self-reinvention and flip-flops, which dwarf anything I've seen from Obama. There's his refusal to admit that invading Iraq turned out to be a bad idea. There's his painfully shallow understanding of economics. There's his "How dare you question my integrity or righteousness -- I was a POW!" attitude, which makes Bush look humble by comparison. 

And yes, there's his age. Of course I think people in their 70s can handle serious jobs. I have no problem with, say, an 80- or 90-year-old judge, as long as they're able. But being president is a uniquely stressful and demanding job, so I do have a problem with an 80-year-old president (which is what McCain will be if he has a full, successful presidency). The idea that this is somehow offensive or taboo is ludicrous. The stakes are just too high to worry about offending people. 


I haven't gotten to read all the comments on this list yet, but I might have an update once I do. Thanks for all the civil discussion. 

And thanks to the many bloggers (and one Twitterer) who linked to this list and made it almost certainly my most-read content yet -- I've gotten about 20,000 visits since I started the list on Monday, compared with about 60,000 total visits to this blog. Thanks especially to Instapundit and my mom.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How Obama lost me, part 2

As I explained in this post, I've become disillusioned with Barack Obama as a candidate (read the intro to that post for the details). Here are some more points in the continuing list of reasons why:

6. Does Obama have a problem with "policy specifics"? Yes and no...

This critique has always bothered me. The fact is, most voters are moved by speeches about broad themes and values, not policy wonkery. And I find it highly suspicious that everyone makes this complaint about Obama, while no one says it about McCain, even though McCain is even more vague than Obama on policy. But...

a) Hearing Bill Clinton's convention speech, where he mentioned actual statistics and explained how they matter to ordinary people's lives, made me think: it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Obama is just not operating at the Bill Clinton level when it comes to communicating policy. Of course, very few people are at Bill Clinton's level -- but Obama has been billed as the next Clinton. And given the Democrats' history with presidential elections over the past few decades, Bill Clinton would be a pretty good person to emulate.

b) While saying "His policies are on his website!" is appropriate as a response to anyone who suggests that he truly hasn't offered specific proposals ... it's not very satisfying. If he really cares about those policies, he should be devoting real effort and political capital to trying to convince people of their merit instead of just passively hosting them on the web.

Also, he obviously didn't sit down and write that stuff from scratch and hit the "post" button; he found some smart, knowledgeable person to do it for him. Nothing wrong with that! That's true of every candidate. But it would be more useful if we could see him actually explain and defend these policies in an extemporaneous setting (or as close as you can get, given the scripted nature of campaigns).

Many Democrats are (rightly) skeptical of whether Bush, McCain, or Palin genuinely understands and believes in their own official economic policies. Voters are entitled to be equally skeptical of Obama.

c) Campaigns aren't fair -- that's life. Even if you don't agree with the narrative that "Obama is inspiring but too vague," as long as that idea is out there, it's Obama's burden to proactively convince voters otherwise.

He actually tried to do that in February while campaigning in Wisconsin ... but the result just wasn't very interesting! I watched one of his "specific policy" speeches, and the only thing I remember from it is that he wants to give college students a few-thousand-dollar tuition credit in exchange for community service. If I'm understanding it correctly, he's basically saying he'll offer a bunch of low-level government jobs specific to college students. That may be a perfectly fine thing to do, but it's not the kind of idea that's likely to sway anyone's vote. Yet it was the climactic moment of his whole policy speech.

d) A couple of his most distinctive policies -- that is, ideas specific to him rather than simply reflecting the consensus of mainstream Washington Democrats -- are notably bad ideas:
[C]hildren are already forced to work when they are sent to school. School is work. Respect that work. Let them know that it is work, and it's their job. And when they are done, let them play. Let them have their free time. Don't appropriate any more of their time. How dare you!
  • The faith-based initiative. Why put so much emphasis on a reheated leftover from Bush's 2000 campaign? Admittedly, this is an example of actually backing up his bipartisan rhetoric with policy specifics ... but if that's what Obama's bipartisan approach is really like, then I can do without Obama's bipartisan approach! (To be clear: I admire religious organizations for doing good works, but I don't want my tax dollars favoring the religious over the secular.) He claims the program will fund only "secular programs" and not "proselytizing" ... but money is fungible: give a church more money for their charitable works, and you're indirectly giving them more money for everything else they do.

7. As much as I hate to admit it, there's a lot of truth to the "He's all about speeches, not ideas" critique.

This is similar to #6, but broader. In other words, even beyond policy, what has he ever said about anything that's so exciting or original?

This is another point I've been resisting for months and months, but I couldn't deny the basic truth that Robert Wright -- another skeptical Obama supporter -- hit on here (transcript of key point followed by video clip):
If you are a great orator ... and you don't use your skills to surprise people or stake out a position that's a little risky and really do the work of convincing people that that's the right position -- if you take your great oratorical skills and just keep repeating "I'm a uniter, not a divider," plus several boilerplate predictions that are totally poll-driven -- you look like an empty suit!

(end of quote -- back to me...) It's getting clearer and clearer that what has gotten him so much attention and adoration despite his inexperience is not his ideas or policies or even his life story. It's two things: he's black, and he can give a great speech. If you took those two things away, it'd be inconceivable that he'd be chosen over Biden, Richardson, or Dodd, let alone Hillary Clinton. I'm not complaining about the focus on his race -- I think it's really important to have the first black president. And I'm glad he gives a great speech. But look, fellow Obama supporters: that's not really enough, is it, considering the crisis America is in right now?

Many commenters on my previous post complained that if I'm going to make all these anti-Obama points, I shouldn't turn around and vote for him. Well, there's a difference between whether to vote for him, and whether the excitement surrounding him has been justified. None of the points I'm making in this list convince me to vote for McCain instead of Obama. But at the same time, I think it's worth pointing out that it's really hard to see the justification for the unprecedented level of excitement around the guy -- which I myself participated in.

8. His take on race has been disappointing.

I largely agreed with the praise showered on his race speech. But it was pointlessly overshadowed by the famous passage in which he criticized his own grandmother for fearing black men on the street -- the implication being: even basically decent people have some racism in their hearts.

The problem is: whether or not you think Jesse Jackson and others are racist to feel relieved if the person towards them down a dark street turns out to be white, the fact is that many Americans do feel this way and don't consider themselves racist, anymore than they'd consider it sexist to feel relieved upon seeing that the person walking towards them turns out to be a woman. It's fine with me if Obama privately thinks otherwise, but that doesn't make it a productive thing for him to say when he's running for president.

Of course, the fact that he later tried to clarify that part of the speech by explaining that his grandmother was being a "typical white person" only compounded the problem.

Another example: when he was asked at a debate whether he, as the son of a Kenyan immigrant, has had to deal with the problems facing most black Americans, he jocosely mentioned "trying to catch a cab," then pointedly cut himself off as if to say to the audience: Now, doesn't that just about say it all? Of course, this got enormous applause. First of all, if that's one of the worst problems facing blacks in America, given our racial history, then we should all be overjoyed. Second, this image conjures up an affluent man standing around in NYC, waiting for a driver who -- let's face it -- is quite likely a minority and/or an immigrant trying to make ends meet. That's not exactly a crystal-clear symbol of everyday black people being thwarted by The Man.

UPDATE: Concluded here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How Obama lost me

In September 2004, my mom (Ann Althouse) posted "How Kerry lost me." She never particularly supported Kerry, and she ended up voting for Bush. She didn't mean "How Kerry lost me" as in "Why I stopped being a supporter" -- she just meant how she went from open-minded about him to turned off from him.

I'm not usually explicit about my political preferences on this blog, so I want to be clear: I've supported Obama since I watched his announcement in early 2007 with excitement, I voted and caucused for him in the Texas primacaucus, and I'm going to vote for him in November.

So in what sense did he "lose me"? As with my mom's "How Kerry lost me," I haven't gone from supporter to non-supporter. What I mean is that I used to hold these beliefs:

  • I thought he was clearly, dramatically preferably to Hillary Clinton.
  • I thought he was virtually the dream candidate for 2008, with the obvious but overlookable exception of his thin resume.

I now believe that I was wrong. Specifically:
  • He's probably better than Hillary would have been, but it's at least really close, and I'm even open to the idea that she would have been better.
  • I still support Obama, but not particularly more strongly than I'd be supporting any other mainstream Democratic candidate who was the nominee.
  • He's just not a good enough candidate. Democrats are entitled to feel very disappointed about this.
It's taken me a long time to get to this point because there's no single issue or moment that decisively turned me off from him.

Rather, it's a long list of things that add up to the "He's not good enough" conclusion. Here are the ones that most stand out to me:

[UPDATE: The list is now finished, with part 2 here and part 3 here.

1. "It's not surprising that they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations." (#28 in my list of campaign moments, by the way)

It's not the "bitter" part that bothers me. In hindsight, this was a tactless choice of words, but not worth devoting days of media coverage to.

The "cling" part is what bothers me. There's no context that justifies this; it's simply unacceptable for an American presidential candidate to put on the record any kind of negative comment about people clinging to guns and especially religion. How could he have possibly thought it was a good idea to list "religion" along with "antipathy towards people who aren't like them," as if both of these things were part of some larger problem with middle America? (And if he didn't realize all this was going on the record, in the age of blogs and YouTube, he should have.)

This comment alone has given people grounds to doubt the sincerity of his politically convenient conversion to Christianity as an adult. I don't personally care what his religious views are, but a lot of voters obviously do care and doubt whether he's really a Christian.

2. His answer about "evil" in Rick Warren's Saddleback Forum

I'm sure this kind of analysis -- focusing on moral equivalence and the need for American "humility" -- goes over well at elite liberal cocktail parties, but he's supposed to know to avoid that image. He should have realized that McCain would turn the question into a question about defeating terrorism. There's no benefit to ceding moral clarity to McCain on that issue.

3. Saying he would personally meet with dictators in his first year without preconditions

Everyone knows that Hillary got this right and Obama got it wrong. When he was asked about it after the debate, he should have been humble enough to admit that he wasn't paying enough attention to the details in the question when he gave an unqualified "yes" answer. Instead, he's subjected us to tortured explanations for why he really did have the right answer. He seems to have based a whole foreign-policy plank on standing up to Hillary and McCain's taunts about this gaffe!

4. I think he got a bad rap for supposedly flip-flopping and moving to the center immediately after he clinched the nomination, but his timing and PR could hardly have been worse.

And what did he get out of it? Very little, as far as I can see.

How many voters still remember the nuances of his positions on various Supreme Court decisions? How many voters are truly upset about his utterly innocuous comment about being willing to "refine" his Iraq policy based on talking to military commanders about the changing circumstances? Probably not many anymore, since ... circumstances in Iraq have changed, which would force any rational president to ... refine their Iraq policy!

It's not Obama's fault that the media -- and, let's face it, the voters -- have an unrealistic expectation that a candidate should be able to sum up a clear foreign policy in the form of simple soundbites that don't change for years. Obama is smart enough to know that foreign policy doesn't work like that, and his only gaffe was letting it slip that he understands that things are more complex than the media or the people would like them to be. So I'm basically sympathetic to Obama on this. But he let McCain and the media run away with the narrative instead of taking charge of his own narrative.

5. The Palin pick seemed to catch them utterly by surprise.

My mom was gearing up for the Palin pick well in advance (blog post, Bloggingheads video clip). Lots of other pundits and bloggers were gearing up for the Palin pick. So why wasn't the Obama campaign gearing up for the Palin pick?

Continued here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Imogen Heap - Beauty in the breakdown

And now, a paean to Imogen Heap!

She's someone I often listen to and think: "Wait a minute . . . isn't this the kind of music that's meant for teenage girls, not me?"

But several years ago I was listening to an interview with Ben Folds on the radio, and he said something that made an impression on me: you should choose the music you listen to purely based on what you want to listen to, regardless of whether it's a reflection of your personality. I try to live by that.

On that note, Imogen Heap has written what I imagine will be two of the most enduring songs of this decade: "Hide and Seek" and "Let Go."

1. "Hide and Seek" — First, here's the official/studio version:

Then there's this live performance (done for a radio show), in which you can see her transforming her own a cappella voice into the 21st-century, computerized equivalent of a Renaissance madrigal:

2. "Let Go" — Here's the studio version by Frou Frou (a duo comprising her and a producer/co-songwriter):

I recommend listening to that version first, then watching this live performance, which reveals the skeleton of the song:

There are few songs I find more evocative of my time in Ithaca, NY than "Let Go": ice cold but inviting.

Speaking of production, she's not just a singer, songwriter, and pianist; she did just about everything for her latest album, aptly titled Speak for Yourself. Not only did she compose, perform, and produce all the music as a one-woman band (as it says on her website, "armed with Pro-Tools, some geeky toys and a room full of instruments ranging from a cello to carpet tubes"), but she also started her own record company to release it, and even did the artwork and graphic design.

3. "Just for Now" — In the clip below, you can see her single-handedly building up a whole song from scratch. Seeing her use electronic loops to layer melody upon melody on the spot is inspiring.

There was a Metafilter post specifically about this clip, which got a big response from people who'd never heard her music. Sample:

I've listened to this about ten times now and am still exhilarated and amazed. When everything else about the world depresses you—when everyone in politics seems to be taking the easy way out and when the plastic packaging of pop culture deadens your soul, this is precisely the antidote. It made my day, and thanks again.

If you want to have that version of the song in your iPod (the arrangement is dramatically diferent from the album version), iTunes has a similar performance in something called Live Session EP — iTunes Exclusive.

4. "Daylight Robbery" — This is a taste of what one of her concerts is like. The video clip below was uploaded by a fan, but Imogen Heap herself has specifically plugged it (in one of the countless instances of how content uploaded by people who weren't involved in its creation actually benefits the creators).

It reminds me of a comment made by Debussy. He said that some people achieve greatness through excellent taste, and some achieve greatness through bad taste. And he said that Mozart is an example of the former, while Beethoven is an example of the latter. Well, not many people would agree with him about Beethoven, or mention Imogen Heap in the same breath as any of those greats (though I just did). But the idea of "greatness through bad taste" comes to mind when I hear this song.

If you had just described this music to me on paper before I'd heard it, I might not have given it a chance. Rationally, I shouldn't even like it. But . . .

I highly recommend these albums:

Imogen Heap — Speak for Yourself

Frou Frou — Details

(Photo by Kris Krug.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More of the greatest moments from the 2008 presidential race (up to 99)

And now: the latest installment of my ongoing list of the greatest moments from the 2008 race for president.

In case you missed them the first time, here are the previous installments:
1 - 44 (on the path to becoming #44)
45 - 77

As always, I've mostly given just quotes without attributions so that the list can double as a fun trivia game to test your campaign knowledge, if you so desire.

The new ones are mostly from the general election, with a few stragglers from the primaries that were just too good not to include:

78. "Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."

79. "Did I mention he's black?"

80. Obama kicks off the general election by reaching out to whites

81. "We should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies."
[video] + [commentary]

82. "How do we beat the bitch?" "... That's an excellent question."

83. "That's not change we can believe in!"
[video, starting at 1:20 and interspersed with commentary]

84.  "[She] came to us with news that, as parents, we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned."

85. "That old Beach Boys song, 'Bomb Iran'? Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb..."

86. "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?" "In what respect, Charlie?"
[video + transcript]

87. "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

88. "I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere."
---> "I was for infrastructure being built in the state, and it's not inappropriate for a mayor or a governor to request and to work with ... their Congressmen, their Congresswomen, to plug into the federal budget ... a share of the federal budget for infrastructure. What I supported was a link between the airport and the community, and we have found that link now."

89. "I just gotta make clear: I got tested with Michelle."

90. "Learning about sex before learning to read?!"

91. "You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession."

92. "I wanna cut his nuts off."

93. awkwardest pause ever

94. "He's the biggest celebrity in the world."

95. "I think -- I'll have my staff get to you. It's condominiums where ... I'll have them get to you."
[audio] + [story]

96. "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

97. "I've been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years, as anybody who's been around us knows. ... So the story's just false."

98. "Suppose for example you're a voter. And you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver. For whom would you vote? [pause] This has nothing to do with what's going on now."

99. "I want you to ask yourselves: were you just in this campaign for me?"
[video + transcript]

(Photo of the Obamas and Bidens from Obama. Photo of Palin with troops originally from a government site and preserved by A Second Hand Conjecture. Photo of McCain on TV by sloomis08.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thanks again for the bridge to nowhere

Yesterday I pointed out that, as the New York Times apparently didn't realize, Sarah Palin is still supporting the so-called bridge to nowhere.

But I also said something is bothering me about what the whole bridge-to-nowhere debacle says about the state of the race.

This Slate article is a good starting point: even discussing earmarks at all could be implicitly forfeiting a more important argument to McCain:

The Obama campaign has been working hard to make an issue of the Bridge to Nowhere, and the McCain campaign doesn't mind. Aides believe any discussion about earmarks is one McCain is winning. Instead of talking about taxes or the larger economy and whether McCain's policies will be a change from Bush's, Obama is arguing over a $16 billion portion of the budget where McCain has actually been a force for change. Arguing over earmarks shrinks the field of debate into one where he has a long track record. Obama has waged no significant battles with Democrats.
Of course, almost any issue is an issue Obama has no "long track record" on, because Obama doesn't have much experience, period. But that obviously can't be much consolation for Obama supporters (of whom I am one).

I have to wonder: could it be that Obama just isn't very comfortable talking policy specifics, and that's why he's chosen the easier tack of pointing out the falsehoods in McCain/Palin's assertions instead of questioning their basic economic premises?

Jon Chait has pointed out that (1) earmarks just aren't very important, and (2) the McCain campaign seems unwilling to single out specific earmarks for criticism aside from the bridge to nowhere. Presumably that's because if voters were faced with the reality of what earmarks are really about, their reaction would be, "Hey, that actually sounds pretty good!" (That's why earmarks increased when they became more transparent.)

Big picture: McCain's position on this is pretty weak, and Obama himself has procured a lot of earmarks. So why doesn't Obama proactively admit this and justify his position to the people?

To be clear, I'm not accusing Obama of being deceptive on this, since he's actually been forthcoming in divulging the relevant information about his record. A couple examples chosen semi-randomly from his website:
AIDSCARE, Inc., for general operating support, $750,000 -- AIDSCARE is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that provides housing and care for homeless children, families and adults living with advanced HIV/AIDS in the Chicago Area. ...

Chicago State University, for research into unmanned aerial systems, $5,000,000 -- Funding will be used to improve the effectiveness of the military's unmanned aerial systems by replacing conventional power supply systems with fuel cell technology packages specifically made for mobile robotics systems.
How hard could it be for the Obama campaign to talk about federal funding of these programs in a positive light?

(A caveat: without having scoured through every single one of Obama's statements, I can't say for sure that he hasn't made the argument I'm describing. But I assume the campaign hasn't emphasized it, since I haven't heard it. Also, he was asked about his record on earmarks in one of the primary debates, and I vaguely remember thinking his answer was weak.)

There's a broader point in all this: why does Obama keep letting his campaign get lured into quicksand by McCain? It's seeming more and more like every time Obama tries out some new initiative or campaign strategy, McCain takes it and turns it into something negative. Off the top of my head: the choice of setting for his convention speech ... the emphasis on his "community organizer" background ... the "lipstick on a pig" critique of McCain's message ... the decision to choose Joe Biden over Hillary Clinton ...

For each of those cases, you can easily defend Obama's decision if you want to. But isn't there an undeniable pattern? (1) Obama does something that seems like a good idea; (2) McCain gets the better of him somehow; (3) the Obama campaign uses up a lot of energy and media coverage reacting to McCain; (4) the whole thing ends up looking like a big mess that neither candidate really won or lost.

Could it be that Obama is just not such a great candidate, and that if the nominee had been one of any number of other Democratic primary candidates (including "candidates" who didn't even choose to run but surely considered it), that person would have been as effective in the general election if not more so? I've resisted this conclusion for a long time, but I've been increasingly thinking that it's simply too obvious to ignore. More about this soon ...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hey, thanks for the bridge to nowhere!

I usually stay away from rank punditry and campaign-related error correction on this blog, but I have to point this out...

The New York Times had a story on Friday that seemed to be very hard-hitting against Sarah Palin and John McCain's stormy relationship with the truth. Most of the article was about McCain's lying ads, but there was also this:

[W]hat Ms. Palin has often told audiences about pulling the plug on the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, an expensive federal project to build a bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island that became a symbol of wasteful federal spending. “I told Congress, ‘Thanks but no thanks’ for that Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska,” she said this week in Virginia.

But her position was more like “please” before it became “no thanks.” Ms. Palin supported the bridge project while running for governor, and abandoned it after it became a national scandal and Congress said the state could keep the money for other projects. As a mayor and governor, she hired lobbyists to request millions in federal spending for Alaska. In an ABC News interview on Friday with Charles Gibson, Ms. Palin largely stuck to her version of the events.
Here's the problem: while that appears to be the NYT going after Sarah Palin and McCain for their lies about Palin's record, the Times is actually going too easy on them.

All the Times says is: she originally supported the bridge, before she rejected the earmarks.

That itself would be bad, but that's not the whole story.

Assuming that this news story is accurate (link via TPM), Palin is still, to this day, supporting the bridge to nowhere:
Gov. Palin’s administration acknowledges that it is still pursuing a project that would link Ketchikan to its airport -- with the help of as much as $73 million in federal funds earmarked by Congress for the original project.

"What the media isn't reporting is that the project isn't dead," Roger Wetherell, spokesman for Alaska’s Department of Transportation, said. In a process begun this past winter, the state’s DOT is currently considering (PDF) a number of alternative solutions (five other possible bridges or three different ferry routes) to link Ketchikan and Gravina Island.

The DOT has not yet developed cost estimates for those proposals, Wetherell said, but $73 million of the approximately $223 million Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) earmarked for the bridge in 2005 has been set aside for the Gravina Access Project.
So, this is yet more fuel for the argument that the Obama campaign seems to be testing out, albeit somewhat haltingly so far: "John McCain would rather lose his integrity than lose an election." [UPDATE: Right after I posted that, this Obama ad debuted.]

You know, I'm all in favor of them making that argument ... but at the same time, there's something about this whole focus on earmarks that doesn't inspire me with tons of confidence in Obama. Stop back tomorrow, and I'll explain ...

UPDATE: Continued here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"I hate hate hate hate the new SiteMeter."

ALERT: This blog post is now outdated -- see "UPDATE #3" below.


That's my mom's reaction to SiteMeter's revamped website, which debuted today. And I fully agree.

For those who don't know, SiteMeter is the website you get to if you click the little icon at the very bottom of the right-hand sidebar of this blog. It's the most popular service for giving people information about their website's traffic.

Or I should say, it was the most popular such service. I have to assume everyone will desert it now. And I just have a free account; as for the paying users, I can't imagine they'd want to actually spend money on this.

If you search for "sitemeter" on Google Blog Search right now, you get blogger after blogger complaining about the redesign. A representative sample of blog post titles:

I Hate The New Sitemeter

Bye-bye SiteMeter

The New Sitemeter is much much worse

New Sitemeter Really Sucks

They've ruined SiteMeter

The new Sitemeter is useless

A lot of people are saying the main new feature they'd like to see is an option to use the old design.

This blogger is immediately setting to work on programming a new traffic-tracking site for his wife's blog. He says:
My wife loves looking through the SiteMeter stats on her blog.... Today she was frustrated to find she can no longer access those stats. SiteMeter redid their user interface for free accounts, so that it is very difficult to actually access the stats. I waded through it for a while trying to find the stats, and someone as computer illiterate as my wife would never find it.

So, I told I'd have to build her a traffic meter. She jumped in glee that I'd be able to do that....

In the mean time SiteMeter will be gone since if the stats are unreadable, it's of no real purpose anymore.
Of course, that last sentence is what it's all about. SiteMeter seems to have failed to realize the purpose of their own website -- they were too distracted by frills, toys, gizmos, gimmicks.

I'm not seeing any positive comments from bloggers.

Well, I have seen an occasional comment along the lines of "Yes, it's prettier, but it's harder to use." But that's wrong! It's not prettier. It's a lot fancier. But that's not the same thing. The old version was a classic example of a basic, well-functioning website. It wasn't beautiful, but at least it was simple, and simplicity counts for a lot. The redesign has no focus. There are no orderly visual motifs that organize the information in a way that helps you understand what's being presented to you.

The type is extremely small, bordering on unreadable, and it can't be enlarged. It's like they didn't test this out on anyone before they launched it.

On top of all that, everything is slower (presumably because it now uses Flash). I'd be fine with that if it were a trade-off for real features. But the redesigned SiteMeter doesn't have "features" in the sense of "things you'd want to use."

I can't believe there are people who actually got paid to create this redesign and recommend implementing it. Why wasn't there anyone in charge who stepped in and said, "Wait, we can't do this -- it's just not good enough"?

What a huge mistake.

Time to figure out Google Analytics ...


A commenter over at my mom's site has some insight into the "What were they thinking?" question:
This type of change is the sign of a program manager trying to justify his salary. I've been seeing it all the time at the software companies I work at.

Note that by putting it into Flash, the program manager makes this content inaccessible to people with visual acuity issues. But hey, pretty colors! ...

Truly, young software developers are the most selfish and self-absorbed people in the world.
And this other commenter sums up the whole thing as concisely as possible:
The New Coke of websites!


I've added StatCounter. (Thanks to the commenter on my mom's blog who recommended it.)

You can see the StatCounter near the top of the sidebar of this blog. (If it's not there when you're reading this, check the very bottom of the screen -- I might move it later.)

I've just spent a few minutes browsing some of the features, and I'm tentatively convinced that StatCounter is even better than the old SiteMeter design, and a fortiori better than the new-and-destroyed SiteMeter. For instance, you can see the total percentages of how much traffic you're getting from each search term and referring site, whereas SiteMeter gives this info only to those with paid accounts; if you have a free SiteMeter account, you can also see those data, but only listed individually for each visitor rather than aggregated into percentages.

Again, that's just something I've noticed in the first few minutes -- I'll report back later on how I ended up liking StatCounter. But I have no doubt that it's better than the new SiteMeter.


Well, SiteMeter listened to us! They're changing it back.

They "apologize for the botched rollout," and they claim that future redesigns will be done smoothly.

But wow, I've never lost total confidence in a website so suddenly. I wonder whether most SiteMeter users will accept the quick correction to the problem, or whether this has permanently undermined their confidence in SiteMeter.

In my case, that won't matter, though, because SiteMeter has given me an excuse to check out competing sites by so thoroughly screwing up their own site. And it seems pretty clear that StatCounter, not SiteMeter, is the way to go. I mentioned some of its advantages over SiteMeter in the previous update. The statistics are comprehensive and aggregated instead of just piecemeal, though you still have the option to see the piecemeal data if you want. I also see that the free account shows you the past 500 visitors, which is 5 times as many as SiteMeter shows. [CORRECTION: I believe StatCounter just shows you the past 500 pageviews, not visitors -- so that's slightly less than I thought, but still much better than SiteMeter.]

So as of today, you'll only be seeing the StatCounter counter on this blog, not the SiteMeter -- thanks to SiteMeter!

Friday, September 12, 2008

I'm not here. This isn't happening. I'm not here...

I usually do a music post on Fridays, but it seems a bit gaudy after the September 11 post.

So here's a song for you: "How to Disappear Completely." (Lyrics.)

Radiohead couldn't have been writing this about the attacks, because the song came out in 2000. But with its eerie pall and relentless trudge, it sounds like it was written about that day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When the fire was lit - TNR on 9/11

I'm glad to see that The New Republic has dredged up some of its old pieces conveying "the immediate reaction" to the September 11 attacks.

Here are two articles that I still remember making an impression on me:

1. Fault Lines, by Peter Beinart (Oct. 1, 2001)


[P]erhaps the most pitiful thing about [Robert] Fisk and The Nation's efforts to rationalize bin Laden's hatred of the United States is that they don't even correspond to what bin Laden himself says. . . . In bin Laden's mind, America's greatest offense — by far — is its military presence in his home country of Saudi Arabia. . . . And that's a harder line for Western leftists to peddle. Because bin Laden isn't upset at the United States for bolstering Riyadh's oppressive policies — after all, the Saudi government's views on individual freedom and the status of women roughly mirror his own. Bin Laden is upset simply because non-Muslims live in the Holy Land around Mecca and Medina. His first priority is banishing Christians and Jews from Saudi Arabia. And his second priority is banishing Christians and Jews from every other Muslim country. As he told ABC News in 1998, "Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers, and especially the Arabian Peninsula." . . .

If Fisk and The Nation really want to argue that America brought the World Trade Center attack on itself, they shouldn't delude themselves. They are not defending the Palestinians' right to a state or the Iraqis' right to medicine. They are defending a Muslim's right not to live with a non-Muslim.

2. How to Fight, by Eliot Cohen (Sept. 24, 2001)

We will pay a price in convenience and even, perhaps, in the full scope of our personal liberties. We will spend more time waiting in line at airports, find access to government offices more difficult, and quite likely submit to more intrusive monitoring by police and counterintelligence than we have known since the early years of the cold war. We may come to understand, at least in our big cities, the experience of Israelis today or of Londoners several years ago, when IRA bombs meant not being able to go into a cinema without having one's belongings carefully searched. Welcome to the world of omnipresent video cameras, retinal scanners, and perhaps even national identity cards.
Cohen concludes this essay by quoting Winston Churchill's response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor:
Silly people—and there were many, not only in enemy countries—might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before—that the United States is like "a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate."
In the last sentence of the article, Cohen adds his own sentiment to Churchill's:
The fire has been lit.

"Do you see what's happening?"

There's only been one day in my life when I could get a phone call, hear "Do you see what's happening?" as the first sentence from the person calling me, and, without having any context aside from being in America, know exactly what it was about.

I'm sure there have been other events in United States history when that would have also been understood — the assassination of JFK or MLK. But those were before my time.

And those were deaths of single individuals. As sad as it is for a sitting president to die, it's bound to happen sometimes. People die, and we need to have a way of dealing with it. But we should never have needed to deal with our greatest city being torn down.

Commentators on the right and left (William Safire, Matthew Yglesias) have compared the deaths in those attacks to car accident statistics. More people die in car accidents each month in the United States than died in the attacks.

Well, I think that's wrong on a lot of levels:

1. It's easy to focus on the deaths you know about; it's harder, but equally important, to focus on the hidden deaths that you can't see or that haven't even happened. The terrorists didn't go to all that effort "just" to kill 3,000 people. The fact that such a relatively small number died while so many more escaped is amazing. Tens of thousands of people escaped the World Trade Center. The terrorists foolishly attacked shortly before 9 a.m., when many people hadn't gotten to work yet. One of the four planes didn't even strike its target. They were trying, and are still trying, to do a lot more damage than they did on September 11.

It's common to use "3,000 deaths" as a shorthand for "the extreme consequences that can result from terrorism." But this number is (understandably) used for its emotional resonance, not because of any genuine numerical exactitude. The September 11 attacks have already happened; we can't change that. We need to be worrying about the number of people killed in the next terrorist attack, and there's no telling what that number will be. It could be 3, or 300, or 30,000, or 300,000.

2. Yes, only a tiny proportion of deaths are due to terrorism, but it doesn't follow that terrorism should be a negligible concern. As impolitic as it may be to point this out in our "culture of life," some deaths are more worth accepting than others.

We've spent a century getting used to cars. Over time, we've collectively decided that having the widespread benefit of cars is worth the tradeoff of resulting deaths — which are a tiny percentage of the beneficiaries even though the absolute numbers are huge.

Cars can kill people; they can also make life more comfortable. They can even save lives if, say, you need to be rushed to the hospital for life-saving treatment, or you need to leave town to escape a natural disaster. Most people basically accept this calculus, and those who don't like it have a lot of power to minimize the role of cars in their lives by not driving, being extra careful when crossing the street, and so on.

You can't say the same thing about terrorism. We haven't gradually gotten used to its presence in our life and systematically worked on minimizing the damage in a way that's broadly acceptable to most people.

I also find it really odd when people argue, in effect, that "we don't take car accidents seriously, so we shouldn't other deaths seriously either." The fact is, we do take car accidents very seriously, as well we should. We've taken all sorts of measures to try to reduce the harm they cause: speed limits, drunk-driving laws, airbags, etc. If one of the premises of your argument is that cars aren't a very morally serious issue, then you simply have a false premise.

Above all, there is no real cost-benefit tradeoff with terrorism because there's no benefit! Terrorists don't offer us a mix of good and bad that we look at and say, "Well, we'll accept that, on balance."

Al Qaeda-style terrorists offer an obsession with death and a dehumanizing ideology, and that's it.

3. The death toll alone doesn't capture the enormity of the destruction caused by terrorism.

Again, people use "3,000 deaths" as a synonym for "the harm caused by the attacks" -- understandably so, as it would seem crass to focus on some of the other harms. But if reality is a little crass, then so be it.

There was enormous economic loss. For some estimates, look at this list and scroll down to the dollar figures. (New York magazine link.) One that stands out: the cost to NYC in the month after the attacks was over $100 billion. That's a million dollars, multiplied by 1,000, multiplied by 100, for just one city, in one month.

There were the toxic environmental effects in Manhattan.

There was a deep psychic wound left on our country's soul.

And there were people who didn't just die, but had to live their last moments hanging out of skyscraper windows and deciding to plummet to their deaths.

That's what I try to remember every year this day. But it's so unfathomable that I can't imagine it.

I don't know how you factor that into a cost-benefit analysis. I don't know how you balance that against the costs of annoying airline security measures, or library records being given an extra look beyond just checking for late fees.

Maybe you can't. You just keep trying to do whatever you can, whatever tiny amount that might be, to stop this from ever happening again.

WTC World Trade Center September 11 memorial in NYC

(Photo of September 11 memorial by Denise Gould. I got this photo from pingnews, which got it from the U.S. Department of Defense photo collection.)