Thursday, April 30, 2009

How increased transparency can improve security while empowering individuals

Here's science journalist John Horgan's vision:

Several years ago, the U.S. intelligence services created Intellipedia, a Wikipedia-style website where spies from the FBI, CIA, NSA and other federal agencies can swap information, ideas, speculations related to national security and seek communal consensus. The program was intended to break down the communication barriers that hindered security agencies from preventing 9/11. Intellipedia is called “open-source spying,” but it isn’t open at all; only people with security clearances can access the site, which contains classified information.

The world needs—and will soon have—a truly open-source, unclassified, grass-roots Intellipedia, which will publish information on threats to humanity, whether criminal gangs or corporations, religious cults or governments. The site will post reports from any sources, including non-profits such as Human Rights Watch, international organizations such as the U.N., the media, governments, corporations, and credible individuals. Reports may include satellite and cell-phone images, data from radiation and chemical sensors, transcripts of conversations, records of purchases of potential weapons components, and any other relevant evidence.

Ubiquitous, omni-directional surveillance may remind some of George Orwell’s Oceania or Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, dystopias in which central authorities keep citizens under constant scrutiny. But the whole point of omni-directional surveillance is to eliminate traditional, Big Brother-ish agencies like the CIA and KGB, whose secrecy enables abuses of power. Surveillance will be omni-directional; the public will know everything about the police and other governmental authorities, and vice versa.

Privacy—and the right of civilians to bear arms–is a small price to pay for peace, especially since we’re headed toward radical transparency anyway.
Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Do women earn less money than men for equal work?

Economics professor Nancy Folbre says they do, in this blog post that the New York Times' website published yesterday. At the top of her post, she claims:

Tuesday is the day on which women’s wages catch up to men’s wages from the preceding week. On average, female workers have to put in more than six days of paid work to earn what men earn in five.

Among those who usually worked full time during the first quarter of 2009, women’s median weekly earnings were 79 percent those of men. That implies that the catch-up clock for them rings at about 10:38 a.m. on Tuesdays (assuming a standard five-day week and eight-hour day starting at 8 a.m.).

Some women earn less than men because they choose less lucrative occupations or take more time out from employment. But a 2003 Government Accountability Office study controlling statistically for these factors showed that women’s average pay between 1983 and 2000 flat-lined at about 80 percent of men’s over the entire period.
You'll notice that her link on the word "study" goes to this PDF of the 2003 U.S. government report. Well, if you actually click the link and read the report, you'll find that her summary is literally correct but misleading. The authors conceded that while they tried to control for confounding factors, they might have failed to adequately consider others:
[W]omen have fewer years of work experience, work fewer hours per year, are less likely to work a full-time schedule, and leave the labor force for longer periods of time than men. Other factors that account for earnings differences include industry, occupation, race, marital status, and job tenure....

Even after accounting for key factors that affect earnings, our model could not explain all of the difference in earnings between men and women. Due to inherent limitations in the survey data and in statistical analysis, we cannot determine whether this remaining difference is due to discrimination or other factors that may affect earnings. For example, some experts said that some women trade off career advancement or higher earnings for a job that offers flexibility to manage work and family responsibilities.

In conclusion, while we were able to account for much of the difference in earnings between men and women, we were not able to explain the remaining earnings difference. It is difficult to evaluate this remaining portion without a full understanding of what contributes to this difference. Specifically, an earnings difference that results from individuals’ decisions about how to manage work and family responsibilities may not necessarily indicate a problem unless these decisions are not freely made. On the other hand, an earnings difference may result from discrimination in the workplace or subtler discrimination about what types of career or job choices women can make. Nonetheless, it is difficult, and in some cases, may be impossible, to precisely measure and quantify individual decisions and possible discrimination. Because these factors are not readily measurable, interpreting any remaining earnings difference is problematic.
Now, maybe you think 80% is such a huge discrepancy that it couldn't plausibly be explained by unmeasured factors.

But that's an old report -- it only looked at data up to 2000. The GAO released a new report yesterday that looks at data from as recently as 2007 and suggests that we should be much more optimistic:
GAO used data from the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) Central Personnel Data File (CPDF)--a database that contains salary and employment data for the majority of employees in the executive branch. GAO used these data to analyze (1) "snapshots" of the workforce as a whole at three points in time (1988, 1998, and 2007) to show changes over a 20-year period, and (2) the group, or cohort, of employees who began their federal careers in 1988 to track their pay over a 20-year period and examine the effects of breaks in service and use of unpaid leave....

The gender pay gap--the difference between men's and women's average salaries--declined significantly in the federal workforce between 1988 and 2007. Specifically, the gap declined from 28 cents on the dollar in 1988 to 19 cents in 1998 and further to 11 cents in 2007. For the 3 years we examined, all but about 7 cents of the gap can be explained by differences in measurable factors such as the occupations of men and women and, to a lesser extent, other factors such as education levels and years of federal experience. The pay gap narrowed as men and women in the federal workforce increasingly shared similar characteristics in terms of the jobs they held, their educational attainment, and their levels of experience. For example, the professional, administrative, and clerical occupations--which accounted for 68 percent of all federal jobs in 2007--have become more integrated by gender since 1988. Some or all of the remaining 7 cent gap might be explained by factors for which we lacked data or are difficult to measure, such as work experience outside the federal government. Finally, it is important to note that this analysis neither confirms nor refutes the presence of discriminatory practices.
GAO's case study analysis of workers who entered the workforce in 1988 found that the pay gap between men and women in this group grew overall from 22 to 25 cents on the dollar between 1988 and 2007. As with the overall federal workforce, differences between men and women that can affect pay explained a significant portion of the pay gap over the 20-year period. In particular, differences in occupations explained from 11 to 19 cents of the gap over this period.
Prof. Folbre acknowledges this study and blandly recites a few of its findings, but she buries it under her sweeping, sensationalistic announcement that women need to work till "10:38 a.m." on Tuesday of a second week to catch up to what men make in one week.

She also asserts that "the pay gap is narrower among federal employees than in the work force as a whole." Her theory for why this is the case: "Job descriptions are more standardized in government employment, and salaries are a matter of public record."

But is that what's really going on? Is federal government hiring more enlightened than hiring in America as a whole?

Or is it simply easier to effectively control for variables when you're looking at a narrower slice of the whole job market?

A commenter on her post ("Milton Recht") gives some specific reasons to think so:
[T]he reason that non-government job studies show a greater gender wage difference that the government sector is that the statistics on private sector wages do not include the employer cost of benefits as part of the wage. All government jobs provide about equal benefits.

Studies are published that show women on average will choose a job with better benefits over higher salary and men on average choose jobs with higher salaries over better benefits. The same studies show that men on average will choose a job without health benefits for higher salaries and women on average will not.

When private sector benefits are adjusted to include employer cost of benefits, the private sector difference shrinks to about the same seven percent difference as government wages....

[T]here are probably valid non-observed, non-discriminatory variables for the pay gap. Otherwise, any employer would be foolish not to hire the cheaper labor if it were comparable in every other aspect except gender.
I realize he's referring to "studies" without mentioning or linking to them, so I'm skeptical of his specific claims. But his theory seems more plausible to me than Prof. Folbre's conclusions, even though she links to several empirical studies.

[UPDATE: Since I wrote that, Milton Recht dropped by in the comments of this post and added details: "A January 2009 Department of Labor study (link below) that studies of gender wage discrimination do not include total compensation." He quotes from the study:
Specifically, CONSAD’s model and much of the literature, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics Highlights of Women’s Earnings, focus on wages rather than total compensation. Research indicates that women may value non-wage benefits more than men do, and as a result prefer to take a greater portion of their compensation in the form of health insurance and other fringe benefits.]
More citations, links, and figures don't necessarily add up to a better analysis. For instance, Prof. Folbre's link to support her claim that women overall catch up on Tuesday at 10:38 a.m. doesn't seem to make any attempt to control for confounding factors. The report she links to simply says:
Women who usually worked full time had median earnings of $649 per week, or 78.9 percent of the $823 median for men.
That's essentially meaningless if we don't know a lot more details about what kinds of jobs they had, what their credentials were, and how much they worked. (Perhaps the study secretly controlled for these factors, but if so, it's not apparent from the link.) Of course, Prof. Folbre emphasizes these findings over the GAO reports.

It's nice to link to multiple studies and invoke the principle of controlling for variables. But if you ultimately cherry-pick the gloomiest-sounding figures you can find, and -- whoops! -- by the way, forget about those pesky variables, context, and alternate explanations based on factors other than sexism ... then you've given up any pretense to empirical validity.

UPDATE: Comments over here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Blogs vs. "continuous eloquence"

Blaise Pascal said:

Continuous eloquence wearies. Grandeur must be abandoned to be appreciated. Continuity in everything is unpleasant.
(Quoted by Ambivablog.)

My initial reaction to this quote was: this is a huge problem with blogging. You can't do consistently eloquent posts while making a large audience want to keep reading on a regular basis.

But then I thought: no, it really explains the problem with books, and blogs are the perfect antidote. Even the best blogs are rarely if ever "continuously eloquent," but that's a good thing.

Blogs put more of a burden on readers to make their own judgments about what's worth reading and where the real truth is. Books and blogs both consist of the same basic substance: human thought expressed in language (with maybe a picture here and there). But only a book seems to beg its audience to revere it as a grand accomplishment. Blogs are criticized as incomplete and lacking in credibility, and it's fine to point out those flaws, but only if we also recognize them as virtues.

People who have a knack for "continuous eloquence" have a dangerous power, because they can lull you into beliefs that have little basis but the eloquence itself.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rap, gender, race, and degradation

"OM," writing on the excellent website Butterflies and Wheels, says:

I wrote to the women's studies list yesterday to ask for thoughts on sexist epithets....
Here's one of the replies she got:
"Recently, I was standing at the bus stop with a young man who was singing along to rap music. Suddenly, he yelled "Bitch!" and I almost ran for cover.

But he was just singing along to the music.

Can anyone wonder why young women are treated so badly when the music kids listen to describes them as bitches, evil, and mean?"
This degradation -- of women and society -- reminds me of an anecdote recounted by John McWhorter in this column from 2003:
Not long ago, I was having lunch in a KFC in Harlem, sitting near eight African-American boys, aged about 14. They were extremely loud and unruly, tossing food at one another and leaving it on the floor.

What struck me most was how fully the boys’ music - hard-edged rap, preaching bone-deep dislike of authority - provided them with a continuing soundtrack to their antisocial behavior. So completely was rap ingrained in their consciousness that every so often, one or another of them would break into cocky, expletive-laden rap lyrics, accompanied by the angular, bellicose gestures typical of rap performance. A couple of his buddies would then join him. Rap was a running decoration in their conversation.

Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.
PREVIOUSLY: "My problem with rap."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who cares about blasphemy? Who'd want immortality?

I don't read novels anymore now that I'm not required to for school. So I'm grateful when people who do read them excerpt some of the good parts. Example:

She had always found a paradox in the crime of blasphemy, for it seemed to her that any God who could be discountenanced by the words of human beings was by definition not worthy of reverence.
That's from Michal Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, quoted by LemmusLemmus on his blog, The Church of Rationality. He gives the obvious solution:
[A]nti-blasphemy rules were not made by and for gods, but by and for believers.
Once you decide that it's OK to rationally scrutinize religion, the flaws become so obvious that, whether or not you're a believer, it feels a little embarrassing.

Another one:
Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
That's from Susan Ertz's Anger in the Sky, excerpted in the Yale Book of Quotations, via AskMetafilter.

Here's what I don't understand about how Heaven fits in with Christianity: I thought Christians justify the existence of evil in the world by saying you need free will to allow for goodness, and free will leads to evil human behavior. If Heaven is free of evil, doesn't that also mean people in Heaven aren't free, and doesn't that mean Heaven isn't very good?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Overheard in Albany, NY: sotto voce by the espresso machine

Cafe worker 1: Did he say if he wants room for cream in his Americano?

Cafe worker 2: I'd leave a little room — he looks like he takes cream.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"This LP is basically not very good."

This review of Chris Cornell's new album, Scream, is actually more useful than the average review by a professional music critic. (Via ChordStrike.)

In that spirit, I wrote a review of St. Vincent's yet-to-be-released album Actor (which I was anticipating last Music Friday). Here it is, in full, originally appearing as a status update on Facebook:

John Althouse Cohen thinks the new St. Vincent album is pretty good but not as good as Marry Me. Better-produced, though.
You might read reviews of the album in Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, where the critics are trying to (1) satisfy people's word-count expectations and (2) show off their (a) facility with metaphor, (b) aptitude for lyrical analysis, and (c) knowledge of musical influences (probably mentioning Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell), but my Facebook status update tells you everything you need to know.

If you're a fan of St. Vincent based on Marry Me, it's worth getting Actor, but expect a bit of "sophomore slump." If you don't have either of her albums, get Marry Me first, and only get Actor if you really like Marry Me. Any ink spilled, or bandwidth hogged, dissecting this album in any further detail will be superfluous.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Food rules" for Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan -- author of the excellent In Defense of Food, which I'm in the middle of reading -- asked for people's "food rules."

New York Times readers gave over 2,500 of them in the comments of this blog post.

Do you think it's someone's job to read all of these? I just made it through the first page of comments, and here are a few I liked:

My main food rule is “cook your own food from scratch.” This was as much a food rule growing up in my family as it was a budget rule. Same for “eat your vegetables.” I threw out “clean your plate,” though.
— Heather

If I can pronounce all of the ingredients and can create a mental picture of the ingedients in a food, then I eat it. If I cannot, then I do not eat it.
— Jessica Neece

Our rule is simple: fresh food, varied meals, portion control. It’s a variant of Julia Child’s reaction to food fetishism, a French truth: pretty much anything is ok as long as it is real food and as long as we eat all kinds of foods routinely.
— hazbin

When the children were little, it was 7 vegetables at each dinner (garlic and herbs counted, for example, and two kinds of mushrooms = two vegetables). Now that we’re only grownups at home, we rely on local organic grocers and farmers’ markets for seasonal products and a little color on the dinner plate, but are no longer doctrinal about the 7-veg rule.
— Demington

Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.
— DS

If man didn’t eat it 10,000 years ago you shouldn’t eat it now.
— Greg

If you love to eat but hate to cook, marry someone who enjoys cooking. It will provide a lifetime of happier, healthier eating. (And cleaning up the kitchen burns calories.)
— Jessica Rodocker

If you haven’t been to the farm where it’s from and seen how they treat their animals you shouldn’t been eating it.
— John Deserio

(Shallots photo by Don LaVange.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"We Have Ways of Making You Bolster Our Erroneous Preconceptions"

That's Matthew Yglesias's heading, perfectly capturing the case against torture based on foreign-policy realism (aside from the obvious moral argument against it).


It's "bad for the environment."

Judges as "workers"

Another insight from the introduction of Richard Posner's How Judges Think:

[J]udges are not moral or intellectual giants (alas), prophets, oracles, mouthpieces, or calculating machines. They are all-too-human workers, responding as other workers do to the conditions of the labor market in which they work. ...

Because behavior is motivated by desire, we must consider what judges want. I think they want the same basic goods that other people want, such as income, power, reputation, respect, self-respect, and leisure. ...

[L]egal uncertainty ... creates the open area in which the orthodox (the legalist) methods of analysis yield unsatisfactory and sometimes no conclusions, thereby allowing or even dictating that emotion, personality, policy intuitions, ideology, politics, background, and experience will determine a judge's decision.
It's ironic, then, that many conservatives will claim that conservatism is based on an understanding that human beings are imperfect, and human nature can't be changed. These same conservatives will find it outrageous that judges' decision are influenced by factors outside the narrowest definition of "the law."

Speaking of judges' fallibility, Posner makes a blatant factual error on pg. 22:
Presidents differ in their ideological intensity, and taking account of that difference can improve the accuracy of the attitudinal model. Seven of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were appointed by Republican Presidents, but it is more illuminating to note that four conservative Justices were appointed by conservative Republicans (Scalia and Kennedy by Reagan, and Roberts and Alito by the second Bush), two liberal Justices by a Democratic President (Ginsburg and Breyer, appointed by Clinton), and one liberal and two conservative Justices appointed by moderate Republicans (Stevens by Ford, Souter and Thomas by the first Bush).
Did you find it?

I count two liberals and one conservative appointed by Ford and Bush Sr.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What's that stuff up there?

"Burned poster remains" (cropped), by Stewart Butterfield, who thoughtfully made his photos "some rights reserved." (You don't set your Flickr photos to the creativity-thwarting "all rights reserved," do you?)

It's from his "Roman Textures" set. Any of these would also make a great background image for your computer's desktop. (If you want to do so, click on a photos thumbnail, click the "all sizes" button above the photo, click "original" size, download the photo to your computer, and go into your control panels to set the desktop photo using the downloaded file.)

How do you like the new banner? Would you prefer one of the other Roman textures instead?

By the way, thanks to three AskMetafilter users for helping me edit my template to make the linked text the right color to stand out from the background. One of them was so nice as to send me a follow-up email to give me a completely unsolicited tip about how to spice up all the links on this blog. OK, so it's not as awe-inspiring as using AskMetafilter to find where your grandfather lived in Vienna before fleeing the Nazis, but it reaffirmed my confidence in the internet as a machine that fosters people helping other people.

So, do you see what I did to the links?

The Obama administration is "bewitched by language."

The New Republic's John Judis says:

The Obama administration continues to have trouble filling positions because of the ironclad rules it has installed to keep lobbyists from holding positions where they have authority over issues on which they once lobbied. According to the New York Times, the latest casualty is Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Malinowski is barred from holding a human rights post in the administration because he lobbied for human rights.

In defending these stances, administration officials insist they are not going to make “value judgments” or that if they allow one lobbyist in the door, they’ll have to let them all in. But appointing officials is precisely a matter of making value judgments, and in this case, the administration’s judgments are being hampered by a self-imposed orthodoxy based on the uncritical use of the term “lobbyist.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would say they are being “bewitched by language.”
Click the link for a brief history of lobbying in America, and how the Obama administration is failing to learn the lessons of that history.

PREVIOUSLY: "How Obama's lofty campaign promises are crippling his own administration."

Should boys be taught different manners from girls?

Perri Klass, M.D., says in the New York Times:

Not long ago, in the clinic, a fellow pediatrician and mother asked whether we were still teaching our sons old-fashioned elevator etiquette: stand back and let the ladies off first.

We all protested that we don’t particularly like it when men pull that elevator stunt — hospital elevators tend to be packed, and the best thing to do if you’re near the door is get out promptly — but we had to admit we thought our adolescent sons should know the drill.... 
As a pediatrician with two sons and a daughter, I acknowledge the need to emphasize manners and respect as boys maneuver into adolescence and adulthood, and to help them understand the implications and obligations of their increasing size and strength. And I acknowledge that for their own protection, boys need to understand that there are people — male and female — who will see them as potential predators, and judge them automatically at fault in any ambiguous situation.

But I am enough of an old-fashioned feminist to want to teach daughters the same fundamental lessons I teach sons: err on the side of respect and good manners; understand that confusion, doubt and ambiguity abound, especially when you are young; never take advantage of someone else’s uncertainty; and, just as important, remember that adolescence should be a time of fun, affection, growth and discovery.

It’s too bad that one side of teaching our children about sex and relationships means reminding them that there are bad people in the world; stay away from them, stay safe, speak up if someone hurts you or pushes you. But everyone needs that information, and that promise of adult support. We have to get that message across without defining some of our children as obvious perpetrators and others as obvious victims, because that insults everyone.
I've never understood that elevator thing. If there are men and women getting onto an elevator, and the men "let" the "ladies" go in "first," then what happens if it's a big group of people all going to the same floor? The men will be right in front, meaning they're the first who should exit. I've actually seen this happen in a packed elevator, with the result being that a man (not me) was standing directly in front of the door when the elevator opened and we were all supposed to get out. He just stood there, immobile -- he couldn't simply get off the elevator like a normal person, because that would violate the "ladies first" rule. There was enough space that the rest of us could go around him, but the entrance was narrow enough that we had to awkwardly squeeze by. His behavior didn't help anyone; it just caused some slight discomfort. That's what happens when you prioritize traditional gender roles over common sense.

The same thing can happen with people trying to get in the elevator -- a commenter on AskMetafilter says:
[T]he only thing time a display of chivalry is annoying me is when there's the big cluster of people trying to get on the elevator, and I'm standing behind a guy, and I want VERY much to get on -- but he can't see me, and he's standing like a stone because he's letting the cute girl he CAN see in FRONT of him on first, and meanwhile I'm standing behind him seething because he's in my way and I just want to get on the freakin' elevator, GOD almighty....
Aside from elevators, the general rule of "ladies first" isn't even consistent with traditional gender roles. Whoever goes first is physically protecting the person who goes second. If you go first, you're the one who's testing out the conditions: whether there's an unexpected drop, a slippery floor, people recklessly charging through, etc. So if you subscribe to the traditional view that it's men's job to courageously protect women at every turn, you should favor a "ladies last" rule. Right?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Do tobacco taxes unfairly burden poor smokers?

Over 20 states were considering raising taxes on tobacco as of this New York Times article from last month. On April 1, the federal tobacco tax was increased by 61 cents to pay for health insurance for needy children (SCHIP).

smoking packs of cigarettes with health warning smoking can cause a slow and painful deathBut some people complain that raising taxes on smokers burdens the poor, because smoking is more prevalent among the poor than among the general population. (For instance, the argument is made in this video clip, and this blog post argues that it burdens blacks as well as the poor.)

First of all, it doesn't burden "the poor," since most poor people don't smoke. At most, it burdens poor smokers. (29% of Americans living below the poverty line smoke, according to the American Heart Association.)

But that's not accurate either. It burdens them only to the extent they keep smoking.

Is it hypocritical for liberals to support policies that burden that group of people to that extent? Not only don't I think it's not hypocritical; I think it could actually redeem liberals for how welfare and welfare-like programs have harmed the poor.

When you give someone money, you increase the likelihood that the person will buy harmful stuff (cigarettes being one of countless examples). That's true of everyone -- not just poor people, not just smokers.

And since money is fungible, this is true even if you give earmarked benefits like food stamps. If you give someone $X money on the condition that it be spent on such-and-such goods that they would have bought anyway, they'll spend that money on those goods, but they now have $X more to spend on whatever they want. (I'm no economist, but that's my rough calculation -- please correct me if I'm wrong.)

All of this might make me sound like a right-winger who's opposed to welfare on the ground that the poor will just do bad stuff with it. I'm not. But I think that even if you support welfare, you should be aware of its costs. Raising tobacco taxes mitigates one such cost by deterring poor people (along with everyone else) from buying cigarettes.

RELATED: Last year, my mom blogged this new law:

Congress cracks down on flavored cigarettes to show it cares about children ... and has to cut a swath around menthol to show it cares about black people.

Or... wait... is it supposed to show it cares about black people by helping them like smoking less? It's so hard to be a caring congressperson these days!

(Photo of cigarette packs in Italy by Aneta Leavitt.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why Republicans should support same-sex marriage, according to McCain's 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt

Steve Schmidt gave a ground-breaking speech to the Log Cabin Republicans today. Here's the gist of the speech:

The institution of marriage is the foundation of society and alterations to its definitions shouldn't be lightly undertaken. It has always been defined as the legal union of a man and a woman, and it's understandable that many Americans are apprehensive about making a definitional change to so profoundly an important institution. But it is a tradition, not a creed, or, at least, not a national creed. It is not how we define ourselves as Americans. And while we shouldn't carelessly dismiss the importance of enduring traditions, we should understand that traditions do change over time in every society. And as long as those changes do not conflict with the tenets of our national creed then they can, and inevitably will, be modified by a society that has come to view them as inequitable.

Our national creed is a declaration of natural rights, not a compact for the preservation of social customs, as important as many of those customs are. It was precisely and elegantly defined 233 years ago as adherence to certain self-evident truths. All are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans' fidelity to that creed ended the tradition of slavery because it was understood that slavery denied to the slave the universal rights America was founded in blood to protect. Women were constitutionally disenfranchised. But in time that injustice was rectified because the nation realized such discrimination violated our national creed.

The argument of the pro-life community acquires its moral force because it holds that the life of the unborn is not distinct in its dignity from the life of the born, and, thus, possesses a God-given right to be protected. The same protection cannot be argued to extend to the institutional definition of marriage as exclusively the union of persons of the opposite sex.

[I]t cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others. On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence - liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ...

I'm confident American public opinion will continue to move on the question toward majority support, and sooner or later the Republican Party will catch up to it. ...

Whether you are for or against same sex marriages, every Republican ought to value the right of people to make such personal decisions for themselves. As former Vice President Cheney observed, freedom means freedom for everybody. And I think Republicans should always be on the side of freedom and equal rights.

I, and I believe most people, believe you are born with your sexuality. It is not a choice. It should offend us as Republicans and Americans when gays are denigrated as degenerates or un-American or undeserving of the government's protection of their rights. And the Republican Party should give voice to genuine outrage when anyone belittles the humanity of another person. It is offensive in the extreme to the values of this nation, and we should be in the forefront of rejecting such truly un-American prejudice. ...

We should publicly affirm that gays are entitled to the same respect and protections we accord heterosexuals to be secure from discrimination in their employment and the places they choose to live; to enter into contractual relationships with another person that grant them the same benefits and privileges allowed married couples, such as tax advantages accorded married couples or the responsibilities to make end of life decisions for one another. ...

I think the institution would be strengthened by the inclusion of more couples who are genuinely committed to each other. But even if you believe marriage would be changed for the worse by same sex unions, I'm not sure it's a compelling argument for their exclusion. We don't forbid divorce, a more proven and prevalent threat to the health of our society.

As I said, I respect the opinions of Americans who oppose marriage for gay couples on religious grounds. I may disagree, but if you sincerely believe God's revealed truth objects to it then it is perfectly honorable to oppose it. But those are not the grounds on which a political party should take or argue a position. If you put public policy issues to a religious test you risk becoming a religious party, and in a free country, a political party cannot remain viable in the long term if it is seen as sectarian.

There is a sound conservative argument to be made for same sex marriage. I believe conservatives, more than liberals, insist that rights come with responsibilities. No other exercise of one's liberty comes with greater responsibilities than marriage. In a marriage, two people are completely responsible to and for each other. If you are not willing to accept and faithfully discharge those responsibilities, you shouldn't enter the state of matrimony, and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if you're straight or gay. It is a responsibility like no other, which can and should make marriage an association between two human beings more fulfilling than any other.

Marriage can be a profoundly gratifying state that strengthens the virtue of individuals and societies, and increases the measure and quality of the happiness we enjoy. It seems to me a terrible inequity that any person should be denied that responsibility, and the emotional enrichment it can provide. And I cannot in good conscience exclude anyone who is prepared for such a commitment from the prospect of such happiness.

In closing, I'll return to our national creed, what Lincoln called the inestimable jewel of American history, and offer my respect for and urge my fellow Republicans to respect every human being's rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as they cherish their own.

Customs change. Societies change. People change. But that creed must never change.
I agree with all of that, including the observation that being in favor of same-sex marriage is a conservative position. I hope Republicans take Schmidt seriously.

A car chase is coming to my town, Albany, NY!


Reality check on taxes

NYT's Economix has the perfect retort to this week's tax protests:

"Where were the Medicare tea parties?"

RELATED: "The Top Ten Reasons I'm Thrilled to Pay High Taxes," by The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn (not to be confused with me).

NOTE: I've crossed out the link to The New Republic because it no longer works. It was destroyed in TNR's redesign. Although some of their links were reformatted, this piece can't be found even through Google. What a waste!

St. Vincent and Regina Spektor, part 2

I haven't been this excited about two upcoming albums in at least a couple years.

There's St. Vincent's second album, to be released May 5, and Regina Spektor's fifth album, sometime in June.

[UPDATE: You can hear the St. Vincent album streaming online, free at NPR's site, for two weeks starting on April 21.]

I blogged about both of them in my inaugural Music Friday post.

Here's "Actor out of Work," a song St. Vincent has pre-released from her upcoming album, Actor (via her website):

I'm glad to hear her trademark sound intact: lovely compositions reminiscent of Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, incongruously overlaid with grinding dissonance.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

HuffPo's devious technique of giving readers what they want

Jack Schafer has a roughly 1,700-word article in Slate about the mainstream media's grievances against the Huffington Post.

Here's the key point, which appears on page 2 of the article:

I personally don't like the way the Huff Post "showcases" the work of other journalists, but I don't get heated about it, either....

Instead of getting wigged out at the Huffington Post, offended sites would be smarter to glean a lesson from experience. Top journalists aren't going to like hearing this, but not everybody has time to lounge about with the 2,000-word masterpiece that you and your editor handcrafted. They want to get to the salient point, and they want to get there now. As heretical as it may sound, the Huffington Post is adding value by skinning alive that beautiful baby seal you just birthed and serving its fresh, beating heart to readers in a hurry.

Instead of feeling diminished by the Huff Post's excerpts, more publications might want to pre-empt the site by serving distilled versions of their own articles.
Again, it took 1,700 words to make that point.

"I officially retract any attempt at levity associated with my earlier post."

Republican economic policy defies parody.

15 rules of blogging for myself

As I've been blogging this past year, I've slowly been creating a set of private, unwritten rules for myself. With this post, the rules become written and public.

These may or may not be useful to any other bloggers. If they're useful, then great. If they're not, I still like having them down in black and white.

1. Err on the side of putting things in list form.

2. Never describe things as "interesting" or "funny"; just be interesting or funny. Using the word "interesting" is a sure-fire way to make anything boring.

3. Ask: does this really matter? Will people still be interested in reading about it weeks, months, or even years from now? Or do I just feel like blogging it because it seems to be the thing to blog about? There are issues, memes, and YouTube clips popping up every day that have the aura of "This is what everyone is blogging / talking about / linking to right now." Those can be the most attractive things to blog, but they're often the most pointless.

4. Ask: do I have something to add to the discussion of this issue? Or am I just piling on one more link? That doesn't just mean contributing a completely original thought — if you set the bar that high, you probably wouldn't blog very often. But it at least means a way of sharpening the focus on a point that's too often blurry and dull. Or highlighting an intersection of two issues that wouldn't normally seem to have much to do with each other. Penelope Trunk compares this to her brief dabblings with visual art:

[O]ne really cool thing someone taught me is that the color I choose is most interesting where it intersects with another color. Just knowing the right color to use is not the clever, interesting thing. Rather, interesting is when I am unsure what the two colors will do when they interact.

The same is true for writing. The interesting part of writing is not the part of the piece where you know exactly where it's going. The interesting part is when you get to an unplanned moment in a paragraph and you surprise yourself by what you write next. It's the moment of uncertainty, when you have to look inside yourself to keep going, and pull out something you didn't know you had before.
5. Have self-confidence, but with enough modesty and disclaimers that you don't veer into arrogance. Freely admit you don't know much about a certain topic or aren't sure of your position on an issue.

On the other hand, don't let modesty turn into excessive timidity. Some bloggers seem to think that blogging is such a limited form that the most you can sensibly do is to draw attention to someone else's line of thinking and make some bland comment about how it's a "potentially useful line of further inquiry." Boring! If that's all you have to say, why even blog at all?

Blogging is not inherently limited or terse. Anything that can be expressed in an article, lecture, or book can (in theory) be said in a blog post or series of posts. While those other media certainly have some advantages over blogging, every medium has people making rash or bold or outrageous pronouncements without really knowing what they're talking about. Better to have a cacophony of voices making statements that might be shocking or overstated — even ill-informed or poorly thought-out — than to have a murmur of uncertain voices afraid to reach firm conclusions. The former at least invites others to join in and chip away at the clunky misstatements, which makes it more likely that we'll approach the truth.

6. Put a little extra attention into a post to give it a real beginning, middle, and end. For instance, a post should start out by orienting the reader. Too many blog posts, especially if I haven't read the blog before, keep me wondering, "What's this basically about?"

7. It's good to spruce up a post with a photo or video clip. All other things being equal, more people will tend to read your post if it includes visuals, but only use them if they're high-quality and relevant (and, of course, respect the creators' rights).

8. While you should fearlessly state the principles you believe in, try not to hold yourself out as a paragon of these principles. If you have something to say about what it is to live a good life or achieve self-actualization, then by all means write it down — but don't claim that you yourself are living a good life or have achieved self-actualization. First of all, you're probably not the best judge of your own success at these endeavors. But even if you have been successful as you think, that's just not very important for your readers to know about.

9. There are no official rules for blogging — you can do whatever you want. You need to compensate for this underlying anarchy by imposing standards on yourself. Good writing still matters. Write in complete sentences. (Aside from the occasional rhetorical flourish.) Deploy your vocabulary with aplomb. Avoid the passive voice. Write concisely (see Strunk & White) and elegantly (see Joseph W. Williams's Style). Sarcasm and vague allusions are fine in moderation, but don't encrust your writing with so much irony and engima that the astute reader is likely not to understand what you mean.

10. But it's not just about conventionally good writing — there are also writing tricks that are specific to blogging.

For instance, people will pay more attention to your point if it's in a one-sentence paragraph unto itself.

You don't want every paragraph to be just one sentence. That would be too choppy. But err on the side of shorter paragraphs.

Long paragraphs just don't work very well online. I often have to add paragraph breaks when I'm quoting someone because they made their paragraph too long. I don't think I've ever felt the need to remove paragraph breaks in something I was quoting because the paragraphs were too short.

Putting something in bold or italics can be useful to make sure a key point doesn't get lost. But I used to do this too much. You don't want the reader to feel like you don't trust them to figure out what's important. And too much of it just looks messy.

11. There's another blog-writing trick, one I picked up specifically from reading Josh Marshall's posts on Talking Points Memo. He doesn't always use the short-paragraph technique. But he does something similar. His sentences are shorter than most people's. It's not so much that he's better at being concise. It's something more mundane. He's very quick to end a sentence. And then he'll start a new one, often beginning with "and" or "but." When you use a lot of short, declarative sentences in a row, you convey a sense of authority. It says I know what I'm talking about. And it says I'm getting straight to the point. I'm giving it to you straight. Long sentences contain so much text that you can feel like the truth is being hidden amid the verbiage. A short sentence feels more stark and revealing. You can easily overdo this. But it can be effective when used in moderation. And I never get tired of it.

12. Don't link to another blog for the sheer purpose of promoting it. If there's a new blog I like enough to want to promote, then surely it has at least one specific post I can blog about. Not only will this make for a better post on my blog, but it will be better promotion for the other blog.

13. Assume that anything you write will be seen by your family or your employer or your prospective employer or anyone. And once you publish it, it will never go away. (Even if you delete a post or your whole blog someday, search engines can retain caches of the deleted content.)

14. Don't worry about giving your blog a "focus." Write about whatever you want. Let the themes emerge organically, unconsciously, haphazardly.

On the other hand, be aware of how a given post fits in within the whole "web" — not the world-wide web, but the web that is your blog. I like to think that eventually, all the posts here will reveal themselves to be interconnected — to the theoretical reader who takes the trouble to sort out all the connections. Is that realistic? Of course not, but I'm driven by imagining that the blog will get closer and closer to that ideal.

15. If possible, end a post with something that invites the reader to think more about the topic, beyond the surface of what you've written.

What are your personal rules for blogging? Let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My favorite quotes from a year of blogging

The following are my favorite quotes by other people that I've blogged in my first year of blogging (April 12, 2008 to April 11, 2009).

For the sake of readability, I've removed all formatting (italics, etc.) and alterations (ellipses and brackets). If you happen to need a more exact quote, just click the attribution link and look for it in the original post.


"My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it." -- Daniel Gilbert

"Don't confuse simple, reasonable honesty with radical silliness. There is no reason to try to articulate blurry feelings or over-explain every detail. The point is to be honest instead of internalizing, not to try to extract juicy confessionals out of everyday life." -- Summer Anne Burton


"Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world. The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable." -- Bertrand Russell

"One of the worst pieces of career advice that I bet each of you has not only gotten but given is to 'do what you love.' If you tell yourself that your job has to be something you'd do even if you didn't get paid, you'll be looking for a long time. Maybe forever. So why set that standard? The reward for doing a job is contributing to something larger than you are, participating in society, and being valued in the form of money. -- Penelope Trunk


"You might declare that global warming and energy insecurity, not to mention urban sprawl and pollution, have intensified the sin of indulging one's motoring desires. And I would not argue with that point. You're right. I am a bad man. But over the long term, if you want to develop a new transportation and energy policy, you'd probably want to err on the side of assuming that people won't change much. And it is human nature to like to be empowered." -- Joel Achenbach

"If you're a progressive, if you're driving a Prius, or you're shopping green or you're looking for organic, you should probably be a semi-vegetarian." -- Mark Bittman

"On the one hand, we are told that our overconsumption is polluting and cluttering up the earth with garbage, using up resources and showing insensitivity to all the needy people in the world. On the other hand, we are told that until we start buying more goods and services, the economy will be in the dumps and we will leave many of our fellow citizens jobless, homeless and hungry. Something is wrong with that picture." -- Ina Aronow


"We have grown terribly -- if somewhat hypocritically -- weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace -- as their predecessors did -- big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth -- however provisional it might be." -- Cristina Nehring

"Is Mount Everest more 'real' than New York? I mean, isn't New York 'real'? I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean, isn't there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there's nothing that different." -- Wallace Shawn

"Complexity and obscurity have professional value -- they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery." -- John Kenneth Galbraith


"It is an odd fact of evolution that we are the only species on Earth capable of creating science and philosophy. There easily could have been another species with some scientific talent, say that of the average human ten-year-old, but not as much as adult humans have; or one that is better than us at physics but worse at biology; or one that is better than us at everything. If there were such creatures all around us, I think we would be more willing to concede that human scientific intelligence might be limited in certain respects." -- Colin McGinn

“Instead of explaining why this recession (or depression) is just like the others, we should attend to what is new and especially problematic about the current downturn and why it may not respond to policies modeled on avoiding the errors of the past. To speak of a crisis of financial epistemology may sound abstract, but it has had very concrete and disastrous consequences.” -- Jeffrey Z. Muller

"And this is the point in which I think I am superior to men in general, and in which I might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men -- that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know." -- Socrates


-- "Is life in general more rewarding if you are spiritual, and a real believer? Does someone who truly believes that God is watching my every step, God is taking care of me, whatever happens to me is somehow approved by or helped by God, does that person live a richer, fuller life than someone who thinks: we're on our own here?"
-- "It depends on your specific conception of God, because belief can equally well leave you with this constant sense that you're coming up short and you're being judged and you're not doing quite the perfect thing. You know, I was brought up very religiously, and I never totally lost that sense, you know, that I'm screwing up." -- Joel Achenbach and Robert Wright

"Our general repression of matters disgusting prevents us facing up to a serious health problem. If we are the 'god that shits,' then we are in full flight from ourselves. I even wonder whether religion itself and the whole idea of a god is produced by our self-disgust." -- Colin McGinn

"Every religion I know of has changed its views with respect to concrete controversies over long periods of time. People's views about the morality of homosexuality are likely to undergo some change, even though they're making judgments based on their religious beliefs. Because in fact, religion is an extremely durable, and yet flexible, way of trying to apprehend what's good and what's bad in the world. In fact, its durability comes from its flexibility. Now, speaking from inside a religion, it's hard to talk that way." -- Jack Balkin


"It is this claim to a monopoly of meaning, rather than any special scientific doctrine, that makes science and religion look like competitors today. Scientism emerged not as the conclusion of scientific argument but as a chosen element in a worldview -- a vision that attracted people by its contrast with what went before -- which is, of course, how people very often do make such decisions, even ones that they afterwards call scientific." -- Mary Midgley

"If a psychological Maxwell devises a general theory of mind, he may make it possible for a psychological Einstein to follow with a theory that the mental and the physical are really the same. But this could happen only at the end of a process which began with the recognition that the mental is something completely different from the physical world as we have come to know it through a certain highly successful form of detached objective understanding. Only if the uniqueness of the mental is recognized will concepts and theories be devised especially for the purpose of understanding it." -- Thomas Nagel

"We're all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer. Just because natural selection created us doesn't mean we have to slavishly follow its peculiar agenda. (If anything, we might be tempted to spite it for all the ridiculous baggage it's saddled us with.)" -- Robert Wright


“Something that’s unsustainable, like a dysfunctional relationship, can go on longer than you expect, and then end faster and messier than you think.” -- President Obama's budget director Peter Orszag, as quoted by David Leonhardt

"The confidentiality of the judicial process would not matter greatly to an understanding and evaluation of the legal system if the consequences of judicial behavior could be readily determined. If you can determine the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing or smelling it, you don't have to worry about the produce clerk's mental processes." -- Richard Posner

"And that was an unedited interview with the secretary of state taped earlier this morning from Jordan. We appreciate Secretary Powell's willingness to overrule his press aide's attempt to abruptly cut off our discussion as I began to ask my final question." -- Tim Russert


"I'm not a vegetarian. Now, don't get me wrong -- I like animals. And I don't think it's just fine to industrialize their production and to churn them out like they were wrenches. But there's no way to treat animals well when you're killing 10 billion of them a year. Kindness might just be a bit of a red herring. Let's get the numbers of animals we're killing for eating down, and then we'll worry about being nice to the ones that are left." -- Mark Bittman

"If you eat meat, something like that is going on in the background for you too." -- Ann Althouse


"Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing. Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful." -- Pashe Keqi, as reported by Dan Bilefsky

"No matter how bad things get for boys/men, well, they're men, so they can look after themselves. Women, on the other hand, need a Presidential Council to make sure they're doing all right, even if by many metrics they are outperforming men." -- "Sofa King"

"[quoting this New York Times article:] 'Women's desire is dominated by yearnings of self-love, by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need.' A lot of feminist writing would say that the culture has oppressed women by presenting them as the object of male desire. What if that originates in the woman? Well that would shake the foundations of feminism!" -- Ann Althouse

"From the moment of conception on, men are less likely to survive than women. It's not just that men take on greater risks and pursue more hazardous vocations than women. There are poorly understood -- and underappreciated -- vulnerabilities inherent in men's genetic and hormonal makeup." -- Marianne J. Legato


"We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters." -- Ed Hickling, as reported by Gene Weingarten

"Those subject to capital punishment are real human beings, with their own backgrounds and narratives. By contrast, those whose lives are or might be saved by virtue of capital punishment are mere 'statistical people.' They are both nameless and faceless, and their deaths are far less likely to be considered in moral deliberations." -- Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule

"Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part." -- Bertrand Russell


"The devaluing of the visual goes along with the theory that there is no such thing as quality, i.e., good versus bad, a theory that inevitably comes to parody itself as a prejudice against the beautiful." -- Richard Lawrence Cohen

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Top 10 posts from a year of blogging

A year ago today, I took a walk to Mother's in Austin and wrote in a Moleskine notebook over breakfast (probably migas and coffee). When I was done, I walked back home, typed up what I'd written, and published it to the world:

First post

So, I've started a blog...

I want the blog to be personal. ... Does "personal" mean a blog that's obsessively self-centered and introspective, confirming all those critics of blogs as internet-powered narcissism? I certainly hope so. I'll do my best...

I want this to be a leisurely, contemplative blog, not a "Here's what's going on this second" blog. There's probably a greater excess of content in the world right now than at any previous point in history. We have a glut of content but a dearth of thought. I'm trying to correct the balance.

And as you can see from that statement, I'm also trying to avoid the false modesty that's rampant on the blogosphere. So many blogs pitch themselves as "random babblings" or "incoherent rants." Why all the self-deprecation? Anyway, I'll have none of that here! I either want to do this well or not do it all.
And now, in the spirit of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement heralded by that first post, here are my top 10 posts from a year of blogging. "Top 10" may be a misnomer, since this isn't necessarily "the best of Jaltcoh" -- I'll leave it to others to judge their actual merit. But here are the ones I find most worth going back to:
1. What are the disadvantages of being male?

2. Thank you, Tim Russert (1950-2008)

3. The top 40 grunge songs -- 40-36, 35-31, 30-26, 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, 10-6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the end.

4. The death penalty -- does it saves lives, and if so, should liberals support it? -- post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4

5. The top 120 moments on the path to the White House -- post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4

6. Live-blogging the 2008 debates -- post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4

7. Imogen Heap - Beauty in the breakdown

8. The problem of evil -- post 1, post 2

9. How to write a New York Times article to make it seem like women work harder than men

10. Michel Petrucciani, 1962-1999
I ended that first post in mid-air: "Let's see how it goes..." So, how did it go?

In the last year, I've posted 265 posts, been linked at least 217 times, and had about 108,000 visitors.

Thanks for this goes, above all, to my mom (Ann Althouse) and Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit). Of course, the full thanks would go to more people than I can keep track of -- everyone who's followed the blog, commented, linked, and given feedback. This includes LemmusLemmus (Church of Rationality), Summer Anne Burton (Boingy Boingy), Jeff (Stuff Running 'Round My Head), Zachary Paul Sire (Sire Says), Stubborn Facts, my girlfriend (Danielle Pouliot), and my dad (Richard Lawrence Cohen).

Thanks to everyone for reading, thinking about, adding to, and arguing with what's on my mind when I'm typing on my MacBook or writing in a Moleskine at a cafe. I hope to keep going for at least a few more years.

Blackbird Parlour

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Ideology trumps evidence."

Even for doctors?

No -- that couldn't be! I thought they were the smart, good, trustworthy people.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Something's coming

Make sure to check in with this blog throughout next week -- a special week here at Jaltcoh...

(That's Dave Grusin's NY Big Band featuring Michael Brecker, playing an instrumental arrangement of "Something's Coming," from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Click here for the full instrumental credits.)

Richard Posner on the benefits of America's legal system and why we care about how judges think

Here are some more tidbits from the introduction of Richard Posner's excellent book How Judges Think:

  • [I]t is even harder to estimate the benefits of our legal system than its costs. Legal rights are options that may have value even if never exercised, but how to value such options? And legal duties deter harmful conduct — but how effectively is extremely difficult to determine too.
  • The judicial mentality would be of little interest if judges did nothing more than apply clear rules of law created by legislators, administrative agencies, the framers of constitutions, and other extrajudicial sources (including commercial custom) to facts that judges and juries determined without bias or preconceptions. Then judges would be well on the road to being superseded by digitized artificial intelligence programs. [Footnote:] I do not know why originalists and other legalists are not AI enthusiasts.
  • The confidentiality of the judicial process would not matter greatly to an understanding and evaluation of the legal system if the consequences of judicial behavior could be readily determined. If you can determine the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing or smelling it, you don't have to worry about the produce clerk's mental processes.
Do you think we underestimate the benefits of the legal system because they're so hard to assess?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cured, all right

We just watched the great Stanley Kubrick movie A Clockwork Orange last night, and today I read in Will Saletan's blog Human Nature that a new drug might "cure the urge to steal."

Saletan quotes a report by the University of Minnesota School of Medicine:

An 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was conducted to evaluate the safety and efficacy of oral naltrexone for kleptomania. Twenty-five individuals with DSM-IV kleptomania were randomized to naltrexone (dosing ranging from 50 mg/day to 150 mg/day) or placebo. . . .

Subjects assigned to naltrexone had significantly greater reductions in . . . stealing urges (p = .032), and stealing behavior (p < .001) compared with subjects on placebo. Subjects assigned to naltrexone also had greater improvement in overall kleptomania severity. . . . Naltrexone demonstrated statistically significant reductions in stealing urges and behavior in kleptomania.
Saletan adds:
Naltrexone is better known as a drug for alcohol or drug addiction. Many of us, while accepting these addictions as diseases, continue to regard theft as a matter of personal responsibility. Should we rethink that distinction? If the same drug relieves both conditions, should we take kleptomania more seriously as an illness?

How Judges Think by Richard Posner

I'm reading How Judges Think, by the eminent judge, professor, and blogger Richard Posner. I highly recommend it to anyone who's interested in understanding what really drives judges' rulings.

Here are a few tidbits, all from the introduction:

  • Ivan Karamazov said that if God does not exist everything is permitted, and traditional legal thinkers are likely to say that if legalism (legal formalism, orthodox legal reasoning, a "government of laws not men," the "rule of law" ... and so forth) does not exist everything is permitted to judges -- so watch out!
  • [M]ost judges are cagey, even coy, in discussing what they do. They tend to parrot an official line about the judicial process (how rule-bound it is), and often to believe it, though it does not describe their actual practices.
  • The secrecy of judicial deliberations is an example of professional mystification. Professions such as law and medicine provide essential services that are difficult for outsiders to understand and evaluate. Professionals like it that way because it helps them maintain a privileged status. But they know they have to overcome the laity's mistrust, and they do this in part by developing a mystique that exaggerates not only the professional's skill but also his disinterest.
More to come...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Brooks on moral reasoning vs. moral instincts

David Brooks's latest column claims that we're undergoing a revolution in how we think about morality. The whole column is well worth reading, though I have a lot of disagreements with it.

Here's a basic outline of his argument:

1. Philosophers have traditionally assumed that "moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it."

2. But "[t]oday, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. . . . Moral judgments . . . are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong."

3. "The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions."

4. Brooks (who's normally referred to as a conservative) says this new understanding represents "an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." (In a clever twist ending, Brooks explains how it should even "challenge the very scientists who study morality.")

Here's my response (these numbers do not correspond to the above numbers):

1. The column seems derivative of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink ("rapid intuitive decisions ... snap moral judgments"), and shares one of its main drawbacks. As Gladwell himself concedes, it's problematic to hinge everything on gut feelings. If those, and not deliberative reasoning, are the best guide to truth, then how can you confidently say that racism, sexism, or homophobia are immoral? After all, many people's instincts are bigoted.

Brooks seems to recognize this when he says:

There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.
So he's saying that our emotions and instincts have moral validity except when they don't. That's limitedly helpful.

2. Brooks lists about 10 or 20 different values and, following the fashion among present-day intellectuals, announces with a flourish that they're all rooted in evolution. There's reason -- but also emotions! There's competition -- but also cooperation! Individuals -- community! And to make sure you remember that Brooks is a conservative, he lists "loyalty, respect, traditions, religions."

Well, if you list enough different facets of human behavior and attribute all of them to "evolution," it's almost a foregone conclusion that you can find moral goodness somewhere in evolution.

But Brooks isn't just taking nature as he finds it. Even assuming he's correct in everything he describes as evolutionary, there are also lots of evil behavior that are easy to explain in evolutionary terms (a few examples spring to mind: theft, rape, murder, war). One way or another, he has to sift through the good and bad in order to isolate what he considers good.

How can he do that if he doesn't have some preconception of what's good?

For instance, he says:
The evolutionary approach ... leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.
Now, in that sentence, he's clearly viewing morality as much more than just a bundle of "aesthetic" reactions. He has a set of fundamental concepts ("individual responsibility," "goodness . . . as an end in itself"), and he's using them to analyze what kind of behavior counts as morally good.

Isn't there a term for that approach? Isn't it called "moral philosophy"? Or "moral reasoning"?

As much as he might like to draw a clear line between his view of morality vs. what "philosophers" do by using "reason," he himself is doing philosophy and relying on reason.

3. His premise that "psychologists" and "cognitive scientists" have corrected our previous view of morality is highly suspect. Even if you have perfect empirical information about how people form moral views, that doesn't necessarily tell you whether the views are right or wrong. But it's hard for me to say much more about this without seeing the specific studies he's thinking of.

[UPDATE: Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings makes the same point and goes into much greater depth than I've done here. Sample: "the research Brooks cites does not show what he seems to think it does, since the question how we make moral judgments on the fly is not, and does not answer, questions about the role of reasoning in morality."]

4. Brooks predictably caricatures the "new atheists" without engaging with any of their actual arguments. As with his general attack on moral philosophy, this critique is painted with such a broad brush that the result is analogous to one of those huge paintings that's just a solid color. We're told they rely too much on "reason" -- but where exactly has their reasoning gone wrong? It's hard to imagine that Brooks has actually read Hitchens's God Is Not Great, which explains how atheists can have the "feelings of awe [and] transcendence" that Brooks describes, or Sam Harris's The End of Faith, which embraces spirituality and acknowledges that a world filled with nothing but "reason" would be a cold and barren place.

UPDATE: More critiques of Brooks's column by John Schwenkler (The American Scene), Will Wilkinson, and PZ Meyers (Pharyngula). Meyers says:
I strongly urge that Mr Brooks try using his cerebral cortex in addition to his brain stem and hypothalamus when writing — that's another of those areas where emotional prejudices need to be supplemented with reason and knowledge.
And here's a cartoon about it! (Via Language Log.)

IN THE COMMENTS: My dad and I try to figure out what was really going on with Brooks's column.