"I am the Lord your God" isn't a source of U.S. law

I'm trying to put together a good legal post prior to the Supreme Court hearings on the related cases of the 10 Commandments in-between the Texas state legislature and the Texas Supreme Court, and the copies of the 10 Commandments on the walls in two Kentucky court houses. But I haven't gotten around to reading the lower court opinions yet, and I haven't had a class in law school yet which would really prepare me to comment on the Supreme Court's Establishment clause jurisprudence.

But one funny bit, from the Texas Attorney General's Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle:
Among those commemorations is a replica of the Ten Commandments. The six-foot, red granite marker was donated in 1961 "to the youth and people of Texas" as a way to combat juvenile delinquency and promote a personal code of conduct for youth. In that spirit, the Legislature accepted the monument and placed it halfway between the Capitol and the State Supreme Court building, signifying the secular impact the Ten Commandments have had on the state's legal institutions.

What's funny about that, you ask? The word secular. It's funny because it does all the work in the argument. If you want to write an unbiased piece (and I would also say a credible piece), you don't modify the word impact with anything, and the paragraph doesn't lose it's ability to communicate. If you're arguing the other side, you can take the same paragraph and replace "secular" with "spiritual" or "religious." Those words fit the preceding sentences just as well. Now, the Attorney General is on one side of the case, so maybe asking for him to be unbiased isn't reasonable. But really the problem I have is that he's only writing a piece designed to persuade someone who thinks he's right. I'm far more interested in an article written to persuade me. More on this topic later after I've brushed up on it.



I think both of these are examples of things people were idiots to say, but which of these two is more outrageous:
1) A tenured university professor saying, ex post, that a vicious terrorist attack that killed thousands was entirely justified and demonstrated considerable restraint considering what was actually deserved. Also, the same professor has engaged in academic fraud.
2) A sitting member of the House of Representatives saying, ex ante, that he personally wants to drop nuclear bombs on Syria and that, "We won't have to worry about Syria anymore." Oh, and he claims to have said this to the President.

Number one is of course Ward Churchill, who has been embroiled in controversy for weeks. Number two, Representative Sam Johnson, just made his remarks this weekend. Hopefully this will get some attention as well. Two caveats: The story about Johnson is new, so it's not very well developed and more could come out about it. Also, Johnson, as a member of the House of Representatives, has access to intelligence I don't. From the actual remarks he made, he appears to be saying that because the Weapons of Mass Destruction which weren't found in Iraq are now in Syria (which could, in principle, be based on intelligence he has access to, though I doubt the intelligence would first be released in this manner), it would be a good idea to drop nuclear bombs on them. This second part is a moral and strategic claim, and is pure nonsense.

Update: Yglesias calls the Representative's office here.

Update: I'm trying to find out about how many people would be killed by the small (nuclear) bombs which an F-15 would be able to carry. This has some bearing on whose statement is more outrageous, though it's not dispositive.




Oscars live-blogging

1) Chris Rock was weak. I was disappointed in that. I liked the joke about sending Cuba Gooding, Jr. $80, and the return of that theme in mocking himself for Pootie Tang. The rest of it was weak.
2) They appear to be going incredibly fast.
3) Good for Morgan Freeman. I think this cements Jamie Foxx for best actor.
4) The Pepsi/Spartacus ad was better than any commercial at the Super Bowl, and the Cadillac one wasn't half-bad either.
5) Robin Williams just provided a welcome contrast to Rock's weak opening, though I would not want to see Williams doing that shtick for the length of the show.
6) I didn't say Shark Tail and don't plan on it, but Incredibles was head and shoulders better than Shrek 2. In fact, that's understating the difference.
7) This man on the street skit isn't bad. The line about DiCaprio and The Beach was good. And Albert Brooks is excellent. But this skit is funny even when Leno does it, and Leno isn't very good, so I don't know how much credit to give Chris Rock for it.
"...boring us to death with his politics." The Tim Robbins introduction was very funny.
9) I have no opinion on Best Supporting Actress, I haven't seen enough of those films.
10) I haven't seen the Aviator, but given her reputation, how could Thelma lose?
11) This Counting Crows song is really good...for me to poop on!
12) See the Teleprompter leads to them saying really inappropriate comments because Catherine Zeta-Jones isn't really there. Isn't that clever.
13) Sunset clearly deserves this.
14) Man, an award where I've actually seen enough of the candidates to have an opinion, and they get it wrong. Sideways is good, but the script for Before Sunset is clearly superior.
15) Lumet movies I've seen, ranked:
1. Network
2. Dog Day Afternoon
3. 12 Angry Men
4. Murder on the Orient Express
5. Night Falls on Manhattan
6. Family Business
The drop off between four and five is the biggest, though I also think one is much better than two. Notably, I've never seen: Serpico, the Verdict, the Pawnbroker, or Fail-Safe.
16) Question to those who for some reason chose to see the film version of Phantom of the Opera: Where does that song fit into the narrative?
17) "Dog's bollocks" is now the phrase of the week. Try to work it into conversation.
18) Both giving some awards out in the audience area and having all of the nominees on the stage for some awards are interesting changes from the standard format. I think they're both good ideas, but I'd have to think more about it.
19) I'll bet you Dan Drezner loved that Selma Hayek joke.
20) The set for this song would have been too cheesy for Spinal Tap. And I had no idea Antonio Banderas could sing.
21) Travolta being on stage reminds me: I officially predict that Be Cool will be disappointing. Not just that it will obviously be worse than Get Shorty, but that given the capabilites of the ensemble and re-uniting Travolta and Uma, it will pretty much be bad.
22) This is a rough year for film deaths, and getting Yo Yo Ma to perform is a very tasteful way of commemorating it.
23) Singing the winning song was the most interesting acceptance speech of the night.
24) The speech Sean Penn just made was reminiscint of people who say, "Behind every good man is a great woman." This is sort of a sexist idea. And his "defense" of Jude Law, which seemed quite sincere, demonstrates rather thin skin, though loyalty is a nice trait also.
25) Kate Winslet should have won.
26) Classy speech by Swank though.
27) That joke about Gwyneth breastfeeding an apple went over my head. Until further notice, I assume she named a child Apple, or Macintosh, or possibly Golden Delicious. Anyone want to enlighten me?
28) Nice job Charlie Kaufmann, you deserve that one.
29) I'm done with this, I'll update tomorrow on the other awards.


Canadian troops in vietnam

David Adsednik says: ANN COULTER: It's a cheapshot from the folks at Michael, but it's still pretty funny. Given some of the crap Coulter has pulled, I dispute that any criticism of her, unless it is based purely on lies, would constitute a "cheapshot." I mean, she lies all the time. Follow the link though, because it's really funny.

Update: Damn research. Canadian troops weren't fighting in Vietnam under Canada's flag, but they were there. Which makes this much less funny, since Coulter wasn't really wrong.




A Different kind of rhetorical excess

Kevin Drum has a fun post up about a scandal in England invovling flying pigs and accusation of anti-semitism. Drum really likes a quote from a BlackBerry message that is a central part of the scandal, calling them words to live by. The quote is: "Pigs not great but ok." Now that is funny, but there's another quote involved that I like better.

"I am shocked the Labour Party finds it remotely clever or amusing to impose the faces of probably the two highest-profile Jewish politicians onto flying pigs," said Andrew Mennear, Tory candidate for Finchley and Golders Green. "There is nothing more distasteful for a Jew than being associated with a pig."

I am aware of the existence of the rhetorical device of hyperbole, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. In that spirit, here is a list of some things this Jew finds more distasteful than being associated with a pig.

1) Tomatoes
2) Being killed
3) Necrophilia
4) Bestiality
5) Pederasty
6) Being tarred and feathered
7) Some combination of 3-5.


On the march

Some sucessful Democracy promotion in Egypt. Mubarak agrees to an election with opponents, though he is extremely likely to win. As has been noted by people who are far more intense watchers of Egyptian events than I am, it seems that one of the causes of this decision was Condoleeza Rice calling off a trip to the region to protest the imprsionment of Ayman Nour, an opposition political leader. So, nice job, Bush administration.

Now please stop trying to destroy Social Security and renounce torture.




More odd posts about words

I've noticed a new word turning up a lot lately. Actually, I don't think it's new so much as I've been reading more of the sorts of materials where it's mentioned, particularly discussions of Social Security, but that's neither here nor there. I just saw it again in a post at DeLong's and I can't take it anymore.

What in the world does the term "pre-funding" mean as opposed to "funding?" The temporal element is exactly the same.
It's generally used for when you're paying for something in advance of when you in particular are going to be using it, but funding does all the work necessary there. For instance, look at this sentence: Then the appropriate thing to do is start pre-funding a health care system for our retirement.

Now imagine that sentence without the prefix "pre." It would mean exactly the same thing. I cannot recall having ever seen the phrase pre-funding used where funding wouldn't have worked just as well. Please don't use the word pre-funding.

Google returns 65,000 hits on the word, including a company with the name. I gather that it's a term of art in discussions of Social Security and other pension systems, but I still fail to see a situation where "funding" wouldn't be able to do the same work.


Fun with homophones

I was just revising a memo for one of my classes. I noticed that instead of saying "Counsel for Adam Young" (Adam Young being our hypothetical client) it said, "Council for Adam Young." I've been having trouble not laughing, because I keep picturing a secretive bunch of lawyers, dressed in hooded robes and seated around an circular table, plotting how best to promote "Adam Young" in the world.





*Spoilers for last night's West Wing below. Do not read if you care what happened on West Wing but didn't see it.*

This episode featured far more of the ensemble than any episode since Josh left to run Santos's campaign. With all of the campaigns back in Washington, the show was able to divide it's time between characters far more effectively than, for instance, the campaign episodes which feature Josh, Donna, Will, Santos, and Russell, almost exclusively. I've said before that those episodes force them to spend too much time with those characters at the expense of the episode as a whole, and the quality of this one really demonstrates that. By not spending too much time for any given character, and coming up with interesting plot lines for almost everyone (except Jed), the show was able to create a far more entertaining balance.

The show also very effectively moved back and forth in time, without using title cards to indicate when things were. Since title cards are annoying, this was pretty great. This is mostly because all of the sequences out of straightforward chronology were in one location, so that any events in that location were obviously outside of the time sequence.

Josh and Toby fighting was not implausible. I can understand people saying that physical violence is very different from anything that has previously happened on the show. This is true in the sense that it has never before been shown. But, Josh, Toby, and Charlie have threatend violence more than once, and there is no question Toby has been in a fight, offscreen. So the issue isn't whether or not Josh and Toby would get into a fist fight (they would), but whether or not they'd fight each other. To that, the most imporant issue is that Toby wants to fight his brother. His brother gave up by killing himself, and Toby equates Josh to his brother in that situation, on multiple levels. Both the surrender and the brotherhood are there between the two of them. Furthermore, Josh is realizing that he made some mistakes in picking Santos and the Campaign in general. Both of them have many reasons to be angry and, more importantly, reasons to direct their anger at each other.

Richard Schiff deserves an award based on that episode. But Allison Janney deserves one even more based on everything she's ever done for the show.

Grade: A.




That went swimmingly

In their bumps (title cards into andout of adbreaks), Cartoon Network's Adult Swim has been running a Hunter S. Thompson quote or two every night. I shouldn't admit this, but I find them quite moving. Partially because I've wanted to write something about Thompson's death (I've only read two of his books) and haven't known what to say. Tonight's quote was, "The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."

On a lighter note, on tonight's Futurama, Fry says, "
Every Christmas my mom would get a fresh goose - for goose burgers. And my dad'd whip up his special eggnog out of bourbon and ice cubes." Note to self: Running very low on Knob Creek 'eggnog.'



Alex Tabarrok, quoting DeLong, says:

Cost to buy and free all the slaves? $90 per capita.

Yes, but the institution of slavery would still have been in place. The people to whom the $90 had been paid to would find a way to buy more slaves. I know that the transatlantic slave trade had been illegal since 1807, but smuggling was ongoing and there is no way the skyrocketing demand wouldn't have led to an upsurge in smuggling. So it's not clear what the $90 would have bought.


Big government is bad (when it's banning booze)

The Agitator reports that the legislatures in Illinois and Missouri are trying to ban a machine that is installed in bars and lets you ingest alcohol as a vapor, rather than a liquid. Cleverly, this vaporizer is called AWOL, Alcohol Without Liquid. After some googling, there are also proposals to ban this in Colorado, and Westchester county executive Andrew Spano is opposed to the machine as well.

The Agitator, being opposed to essentially all laws that make restrictions whose rationale is avoiding someone harming their own health, is opposed to these potential laws. I am too, but primarily because as of yet their is no evidence whether there are any new health risks with this machine that don't go with plain old alcohol. Multiple opponents claim it will lead to increased underaged drinking and drunk driving, but there is no causal mechanism proposed for how it would actually increase either of those. And, according to Wikipedia, the machine has previously been available in Europe and Asia. So if there were increases of these problems, statistics from some country or another in those two continents should be available to demonstrate the phenomenon. Oh, the most disturbing thing about this machine, at least to me, is that the people selling it claim you have to inhale the vapors for twenty minutes to get the equivalent of one shot. That's much too long to get one shot.


Further Adventures of Dutch Wagenbach

Shield Season 3 was released on DVD Tuesday. Shockingly, I don't have it in my posession yet. I'll remedy this mistake today.





The 40th anniversay of Malcolm X's death led me to wonder about the disappearance of assassination from the American scene. I obviously haven't forgotten about Hinkley, and one of my explanations deals with him a little. The rest of this is almost a verbatim comment I left at the apostropher in response to his post on Malcolm X. What lessons can be learned from the lack of assassinations in the United States since 1970?
Some possibilities:
The civil rights movement was very successful, after success it stopped being such a visible target.
Security has improved at a faster rate than the ability of assassins.
Despite a lot of talk otherwise, the country isn't nearly as divided as it was in the late 60's and far fewer people consider assassination a possible way of achieving their political goals.
The Illuminati has strongly cracked down on assassinations after too much back and forth killing decimated their ranks.
Not sure if that last part works as a joke, since most American assassination victims can't be plausibly imagined, even in a fictional Illuminati run world, as being on opposing sides of a massive conspiracy.


Unhappily, yea?

Sadly, No! is usually very funny, and the post I'm about to discuss is no exception. Being funny doesn't make it right though. Also, this post is from the beginning of last year, so I'm a little late in discussing it. But it was linked to from the front page today, so it's my first time seeing it.

In a discussion of the role of Howard Dean's wife, K-Lo from The Corner says, "I've actually thought more than once that one of the useful aspects of West Wing is to show how influential a political wife can be (i.e. not always for the good)--Bartlett’s is quite the activist when it comes to her issues, sometimes making him more radical than he would have been." Sadly, No! responds by coming up with absurd examples of what they learned about the real world from watching TV shows. For instance, I always thought one of the most useful aspects of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is to show that with sufficient intelligence and training, cats can master the intricacies of English grammar and be extremely funny at the same time." That's laugh out loud funny, but they also say that K-Lo can't tell the difference between fiction and reality and generally come up with other examples as if her point was laughably stupid. But of course, there are things you can learn about the real world by watching fictional television. In particular, the relationships between fictional characters can be very interesting and teach you things about the possible dynamics of relationships in the real world.

I think Carmela and Tony's relationship on the Sopranos can shed some light on many issues.
Josh and Donna's relationship on West Wing clearly makes some interesting comments on fear of committment, power imbalances, and a couple of other things.
On Gilmore Girls, Rory and Lorelai and Lorelai's mother can teach you real things about parent-child relationships and how difficult they are to maintain. There are many more examples.
I can't resist throwning out by attempt at absurd one though. I've actually thought more than once that one of the most useful aspects of The Simpsons is to show that people almost never remember what happened to them last week, and stay the same age forever.


From the Annals of Traffic Court

How could this have failed? "A man was accused of making an illegal turn. He confessed but insisted it was not his fault. He couldn't help it, he said. The poisonous airborne fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union arrived in New York and hit his elbow, which was sticking out his driver-side window, and this distraction caused him to turn his car accidentally. The defense failed. So the man produced a doctor's note saying that he had eaten bad turkey."
That excellent argument seems analagous to saying that because a country can’t prove their lack of weapons of mass destruction, they should be invaded. When that argument fails, point out that there hasn't been an attack by Islamic terrorists in the United States since September 11th, therefore the war is a good idea.

Also, I like this judge: One driver swore that he was certain of his speed because his fiancée happened to be eye-level with the speedometer. "Obviously not brilliant," the judge said.
This one seems similar to arguing that you know you came to a full stop at a stop sign because the nun you ran down two hundred feet before really slowed you down.

And the one that worked: Mr. Levine, an affable Bronx native who said he once worked as a night manager of a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Buffalo, likes to tell about one of his cases that has become a traffic court legend. His client, who had been going 95 miles an hour at 2:30 a.m. on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, claimed that he was a gold dealer making a delivery to a Brooklyn jeweler and that he was being followed by a would-be thief. (A gold dealer, really? "He had an invoice!" Mr. Levine said.) Not entirely trusting his client's version of things, though, Mr. Levine braced himself for the trial. But when the police officer presented his case, it turned out that a strange car had been following the defendant. "I was shocked!" Mr. Levine said. "You could have knocked me over with a feather." Still, the judge was not convinced. He found "the whole thing about the gold" to be incredible, Mr. Levine said. "He cross-examines like crazy." But his client had an answer for every question, and the judge, unable to shake his story, acquitted him.

All excerpts taken from here.


(sort of) Altruism

One of the workers at a blood drive told me today that voluntary blood donation is far more of a normal routine in life in Europe and Israel than it is in the United States. Does anyone know if that's true? I tried googling around and couldn't find the numbers on it.


Important semantics

Apparently, using the term Jihad to describe terrorism is pernicious and conveys anti-Muslim sentiment. The proper term to use for violent attacks by Islamic terrorists is: harabah. For more good discussion on this issue, see Liberals Against Terrorism, here.




But I'll be sober in the morning

I'm back from a relaxing weekend vacation from both New York and blogging in general. Getting back into the swing of things, a couple of thoughts:

Because the AARP is opposed to Social Security privatization, they are being smeared with the accusation that they're pro gay-marriage. Note both the lack of concern for the truth in making accusations about ones opponents and the use of homophobia as a wedge issue. The people behind this campaign know that some will respond to the bare association with gay marriage with irrational disgust, causing them to switch sides. Remind you of anyone's election strategy? Unfortunately, this indicates that it will work.

Also, a commenter at Unfogged made an allusion to a great Churchill (Winston, not Ward) quote. Churchill had recieved a very critical letter, and he wrote: "Dear Sir, I am in the smallest room of the house and your letter is before me. Very soon it will be behind me." Actually, atribution of this quote to Churchill may be apocryphal, but I'm going to stick with it for now.

I'm confused by the meaning of the phrase, 'on the latch' in the following excerpt, I think it's British idiom but it could just be a phrase I've never seen. "Cordelia had no premonition of tragedy as she pushed open the street door which was kept perpetually on the latch for the convenience of the secretive and mysterious tenants and their equally mysterious visitors." Does 'on the latch' just mean 'open'? That almost works in the context, but doesn't quite go with the repeated mentions of 'mysterious'? Does anyone know?

I'll put together a piece on this weekend's Ethicist column later.





Mark Kleinman has posted a Rebus puzzle, but I don't get it. I get: hippopotamus, rubber ducky wearing makeup, two picture which I think are llama's faces but could be gerbils really close up, hippopotamus, rubber ducky, two pictures of whatever animal that is, hippopotamus, ducky, buck deer, dancer I don't recognize (is it Astaire?), hippopotamus, ducky, same llamas. Someone please solve this for me. For some reason I feel like Lisa on the Simpsons where she thinks she has a gene for stupidity.


I fear for the world

62% of self-identified Republicans would elect George W. Bush over George Washington. Other than his work as a general in the Revolutionary War and at the constitutional convention, I don't know much about Washington's accomplishments. Of course, he did take steps to make sure the executive didn't become too powerful, like not running again after two terms. I'm sure he did lots of other good things, but I don't know about them. George W. Bush, on the other hand, has this new methane reduction plan that seems pretty good. And if he provided any funding for it, No Child Left Behind wouldn't suck. But he's also led us to the point where people opposed to torture are arguably not in the mainstream of political discourse. And his tax cuts sucked, and Iraq was a mistake. And Medicare was a complete mess, and he lied about the cost. And Social Security too. But clearly, he's better than Washington.




Circumventing "don't ask don't tell"

Professor Ian Ayres at Yale Law School has a very interesting proposal for gradually phasing out the military's sexual orientation discrimination. I've only read his summary of the plan, rather than the complete essay, but it seems to be based on a very optimistic view of human nature. "Would you prefer to serve in a command without any gay personnel? Imagine that every soldier upon entering the military was asked a simple question. Soldiers would know that if they answer “No” they would be assigned to an “inclusive” command, and that if they answer “Yes” they would be assigned to an “exclusive” command."

The idea is that as its seen that the inclusive units are no less effective than the exclusive ones, future soldiers will be more likely to join the inclusive ones. Eventually, all units will be inclusive. I have a couple of questions about this plan, any or all of which may be addressed in their complete article.

Most obviously, what if very few soldiers do choose the inclusive groups? If this were to take place, it seems like it would actually reinforce don't ask don't tell, since it would show that most soldiers don't want an integrated unit. Another problem would be the military setting up this program in bad faith, purposely assigning commanding officers such that the inclusive units are less successful than exclusive ones. But even assuming that a good number of soldiers do choose inclusive units and the military acts in good faith and (as seems extremely likely) the inclusive units are as effective, I think there could still be a problem here. Couldn't setting up the choice between inclusive and exclusive in the military cause that option to become widespread, or at least widespread within government? If it's acceptable to organize the armed forces that way, why can't parents demand the choice for exclusive or inclusive schools? That would be very bad, and it's not totally clear to me that making this acceptable in the one situation wouldn't lead to it being seen as increasingly acceptable in others.

Update: A commenter at Balkinization notes that major exercises, inclusive units would have to work with exclusive ones. This would lead to a plethora of problems with Ayres proposal.
In conclusion, the military has to stop discriminating based on sexual orientation. Supposed problems with unit cohesion where combat effectiveness is damaged by sexual relationships or jealousy all assume that the current system completely prevents homosexual relationships between combat soldiers, rather than just driving them underground and penalizing soldiers who engage in them.




Life imitates disturbing art

The fact that this news story about twin ob-gyns being sued for misconduct doesn't mention Jeremy Irons or David Croenenberg is just surreal. More evidence for the Poor Man's post two days ago about how a media whore being an actual whore proves that a) God exists and b) God has a really unsubtle sense of humor.

(hat tip: Unfogged)


Perverse covenant incentives

I’ve never given any thought to the concept of covenant marriage until today, and I’m trying to get a grasp on it despite not knowing a bit of family law. In particular, I don’t see how it actually makes divorce importantly more difficult than no-fault, other than through additional delay and an unspecified amount of counseling. One of the six legal grounds for divorce in the Louisiana version of the statute is, “The other spouse has abandoned the matrimonial domicile for a period of one year and constantly refuses to return.La. R.S. 9:307 (a)(3).

So one spouse can just decide to leave, go anywhere they want to for a year, come back, agree to counseling, and then they can get a divorce. Or at least, this is what I thought at first. But it turns out that if the other spouse doesn't care about your abandonment enough to ask for a divorce, you have no grounds to get it. Similarly, I thought originally that the statute created a perverse incentive to commit adultery ((a)(1)), since adultery creates grounds for divorce. But I was wrong, one's own adultery is never a ground for them to request a divorce. Instead, it creates an even worse incentive to be caught committing adultery, and to do so so flagrantly that eventually your spouse can't tolerate it and asks for a divorce themselves. Or commits adultery or a felony in response to your adultery. Are these really the sorts of incentives we want to create?

Is there a change from no-fault as far as the likelihood of the non-covenant breaching party receiving a more economically valuable marriage settlement and more custody rights? There’s nothing about marriage settlements in the material I read. If one accepts the stated goals of people in the covenant marriage movement to avoid creating single-parent or dysfunctional families for the benefit of the children, it's not cleat that the actual institution disincentivizes that in a meaningful way. It seems to just create a way for a supremely tolerant and most likely supremely miserable spouse to avoid divorce forever?

All of the above not withstanding, I think it should be available to people who want it. None of the above negatives overcome a presumption that people should be able to come to voluntary arrangements about their relationship to each other, though there are always issues of what is and is not truly voluntary. Of course if you're the first person who wants it in a particular state, it make take a while for the legislature to pass it.

Also, a point inspired by what Will and Phoebe had to say about covenant marriage: it seems likely that covenant marriage will make normal marriages less special or less sacred or cause whatever devaluation of marriage that gay marriage supposedly would cause.

Very cleverly, Sam Heldman makes the point that being asked to enter a covenant marriage is really insulting, since it means the person asking you thinks their future self is going to need extra special restraints to keep them in the marriage.

Finally, Waddling Thunder adds some historical perspective on the gradations of legal marriage in ancient Rome.




What is free speech?

Remember my not so well-written post titled Unacceptable Rhetoric? I hope not. Either way, today I found someone doing a much better job of making the point I wanted to. As part of a discussion of how polling data shows that high school students (and adults, in seperate polling) don't really support civil liberties, especially press freedom. Don Herzog managed to say something far more eloquent than I was able to:

There's more to free speech than whether the government engages in censorship. Campaigning in 1984, Ronald Reagan remarked,

I think that the current leadership of the Democratic Party, the leadership that we saw last week in San Francisco I think their instructions for getting to the convention were: Go west to San Francisco, and then turn left. They've gone so far left that they've left the mainstream.

Walter Mondale, beyond the pale? Oh please. It's crucial that contenders in liberal democracies respect the role of a loyal opposition. [My emphasis] So it's worse than worrisome that popular commentators cash in by trampling on that respect. Anne Coulter flouts that norm when she writes,

Liberals promote the right of Islamic fanatics for the same reason they promote the rights of adulterers, pornographers, abortionists, criminals, and Communists. They instinctively root for anarchy against civilization. The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.

And Michael Moore flouts that norm when he writes in an open letter to the president,

As Bill Maher said last week, how bad do you have to suck to lose a popularity contest with Saddam Hussein? The whole world is against you, Mr. Bush. Count your fellow Americans among them.

Does free speech mean that Reagan, Coulter, and Moore have the right to talk this way? Absolutely, if that means it would be outrageous for the government to try to sanction them. But they are still damaging liberal democracy, making a mockery of government by discussion. Their language isn't sharply focused criticism of anything in particular. It's mere invective, designed to banish the opponent from public discussion. The more shrill, the more polarized, the more contemptuous the public debate, the less we can listen to and learn from each other. Yes, politics is a continuation of war by other means. And yes, it's always easy to claim that the other guys started it. And yes, the line between hard-hitting argument and hitting below the belt is sometimes hazy. But if you permit yourself a secret — or public — snicker when "your" side gets off a good sharp nasty salvo of contempt, or if you fasten on the "other" side's nastiest rhetoric and refuse to hear what else they're saying, you're part of the problem, too. The cleavage that matters here is not left/right. It's the one between those of us intent on keeping political debate constructive and those engaged in hurling mud. On this issue — not how radical our views are, but how stridently we support them I'm inclined to quip: extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice.



So apparently the NYPD is organizing a massive prostitution sting. In the story, new officers are being taught about how to work a prostitution sting. There are a lot of funny quotes from this piece, but the one I really liked was:
You're going to get some very unusual requests: kissing, hugging, talking, medical procedures," Detective James Held of the Vice Division told his November class, adding that none of those requests was a crime. He offered an example: "What if someone comes up to you and says: 'Do you know what I want you to do? I want you to dress up like a girl and I want to go back to a hotel room, and I want you to paint my toenails. I'll pay you a thousand dollars for the hour."
"I'll bring the nail polish!" called out Tisjé Golden, an officer from the 25th Precinct in East Harlem. Laughter rippled outward from her seat and spread though the audience.
Still, Detective Held clarified, that's not a crime. Prostitution is not like a game of horseshoes. Close isn't good enough. To determine whether a suspect's behavior is illegal, officers must consult a rigorous recipe. The first ingredient is a sexual act, whether promised or performed.
My reaction to this was to try to come up with jokes comparing prositution and horse shoes. I came up with three of these, and had three other, mostly better, ones submitted by a friend.

Q: What's the difference between prostitution and a game of horseshoes?
A: People are embarrassed to be caught involved in one and the other involves paying for sex.

Q: How is prostitution like a game of horseshoes?
A: They both involve catching something loosely on a pole.

Q: How do you tell the difference between prostitution and a game of horseshoes?
A: One's fun and the other involves throwing metal rings at a stick.

Q: How is prostitution like a game of horseshoes?
A: They are both something your dad does in the backyard.

Q: What do prostitution and shoeing a horse have in common?
A: Both can be done by local blacksmith for a nominal charge.

Q: How do you tell the difference between prostitution and a game of horseshoes?
A: I'll tell you later.




Inside (academia) baseball

First, if you haven't read this site for awhile, I recommend skipping every post from today besides this one, and everything from Saturday and Sunday, except that I think the last paragraph of Unacceptable Rhetoric is worth reading Though there's a logical error in that paragraph which I had pointed out to me, having to do with the concept of distance from the truth. But I thought my Thursday and Friday posts were pretty good, so check those out if you missed them.

On to the main point, I guess it's lateral hiring time for next year. Brian Leiter reports that UPenn has lured Steven Perry away from my current institution and that the latter is trying to take two professors, Cynthia Estlund and Samuel Issacharoff off of Columbia. Leiter further notes that,
"this would be the first time in memory (perhaps ever) that NYU successfully recruited faculty away from Columbia." I don't know precisely what this means for some visiting professors that I have, since I don't know what their goals or expectations were about being hired, nor whether NYU will be making more offers. Still, I'll be on the lookout for professors in not so great moods this week. And hope that they aren't reading this, or don't mind me writing it if they are. I find this surprisingly similar to the baseball trading deadline.


OxBlog gets Left Behind

David Adsednik has a series of posts reviewing the first book in the Left Behind series. The posts are calm, cool and collected. He is either doing a good job of reading them without his pre-conceived notions of what they'll say get in the way (which I don't think I could do) or at least doing a good job of keeping those notions out of his blog posts. The main theme he's focusing on is anti-intellectualism in the books and some interesting conflicts he finds with it. He notices passages where the authors seem to be indicating that they want Chrisitianity to appeal to intellectuals (whoever it is that actually describes) for intellectual reasons, right near other passages which are bashing intellectuals. He allows that this makes sense in the books world because there has been direct evidence in that world of the existence of God. I haven't read any of the books in the series, but based on hearsay, the impression I've gotten is that the authors think there are just as good reasons to accept the truth of their particular brand of evangelical christianity in the real world. So I'd hazard that he's being too diplomatic, but I don't really know.


Up with blogs!

Have you heard that blogs are a new and important medium? No? Well after reading today's Times, you'll have heard that. The NYTimes has a story today about how conservative bloggers got Eason Jordan (head of CNN's news division) fired. There is a lot of invective I'd like to say about this involving different standards of truthfulness for people on one's side as opposed to one's opponents. Because if, for instance, Rush Limbaugh, could lose his job for making false statements and not fully retracting them, he should be fired every day. But I don't want to make an argument generalizing about everyone on one side of the political spectrum. Instead I'm going to talk about a more interesting article about affirmative actions in law schools.

This article is also, at least in my mind, blog-related. The law review article which the report is based on argues that affirmative action causes lower bar passage rates among African-Americans and therefore fewer total African-American lawyers than there would be without affirmative action. This report, which was in the NYTimes yesterday, was blogged about by the professor who wrote the original article beginning on the fifth of November. Prof. Jim Lindgren, who also writes on the Volokh Conspiracy, was quoted in the Times article. So was Ian Ayres, who blogs over at Balkinization. Basically my point is that anyone who's anyone has a blog now.

If you do follow that link over to Balkin, and then read the Bruce Ackerman article cited to in the second post down, try to figure out what kind of idiosyncratic meaning of "neoconservative" he's using, because I honestly don't know why he thinkgs neoconservative describes Justices Scalia or Thomas. It normally has a lot to do with people's views on foreign policy, but that can't be how he means it there.


Asked and Answered

The Poor Man wonders how crazy you have to be to be elected a Senator from Oklahoma, after finding out that Sen. Inhofe assesses the truthfulness of scientific research by counting the number of footnotes. For instance, if you compare a Michael Crichton novel which suggests that global warming doesn't exist and is instead a massive conspiracy involving every climatology scientist in the world to an overview of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment which doesn't include the notes from the unreleased actual report, you find infinitely more in the Crichton novel. Therefore, the Crichton novel speaks the truth. So pretty damn crazy.




Unacceptable rhetoric

Via Unfogged, I came upon the amusing, but rather frightening American Traitor. This page is made up photos of Democratic or liberal politicians, media figures, and other people who are left of center. Next to the photo it lists some of their political views. Due to these views it classifies them as traitors. Reading the blurb for Wesley Clark, it becomes entirely clear that opposing the re-election of President Bush is a sufficient reason to call someone a traitor. Here's what they have to say about Clark: General 'once removed' -- and "Madonna's Choice" -- Wesley Clark is one of that rare breed: A military man who claims to be a Democrat. Sure, there are military Democrats -- just as some German Jews surely voted for Hitler in the 1930s. The man who couldn't effectively run a "police action" in the Balkans dares to criticize a sitting President for ineffectively battling terrorism? He must have those General's "stars in his eyes" because Bush vanquished two regimes (so far) and caused a third (Libya) to change sides. And that's just for starters!

I also recommend their very reasonable descriptions of Hillary Clinton (
Liberal NY Carpetbagger She-Devil Senator), Michael Stipe (Athens GA Hate Rocker), and George Soros (Satan Personified). I'm not going to make the claim that calling your political opponents traitors shows how degraded our poltical discourse has become, since someone could probably go back and find one of the Founding Fathers calling another Founding Father a traitor, or some similar historical example of respected figure X calling respected figure Y a traitor. But I do want to suggest that anyone who does it should be ignored, shunned, and otherwise kept out of any discussion. If I were to call someone a traitor, my meaning would include, "That person should be tried for a crime, the potential penalty for which is death" (see 18 USCS §2381). Now these people hopefully don't honestly believe that their political opponents should be executed, but then they shouldn't be eager to throw around the term traitor so casually. Doing so makes it harder to describe someone who, "owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere." ( 18 USCS §2381). You'd probably have to call such a person "double plus traitor," since you've decided that traitor just means, "Advocates ideas I am opposed to."

Because I'm wary of turning a blind-eye to rhetorical problems on the left, I should note that if you're willng to call members of the administration "War Criminals," you're accusing them of a very serious crime and suggesting that putting them to death would not be out of the question. This is an equivalent rhetorical excess unless followed up by citing the specific war crimes that you think administration members should be charged with and the evidence which would be used to convict them. Using myself as an example, I take it that most liberals are pretty far from thinking that George W. Bush should be jailed, let alone anything more serious than that. Therefore, don't call him a war criminal. Same goes with describing political opponents as murderers. Sticking to "idiots" or "evil" or "liars" or "power-mad" doesn't have these particular problems, though depending on who you're describing that way there could be other difficulties.

Google has about 75,300 hits for ("John Kerry" traitor) and about 55,400 hits for ("George Bush" "war criminal"). If you're willing to accept that these are equally factually inaccurate and that zero of the hits are referring to Bush 41 (which is pretty unlikely), and that this measure is a proxy for the right's rhetorical excess versus the left's, you find that the right is only 1.36 times worse. Surely we can do better than that. Or you can just deny that one or both of those claims is un-true, but to do so sincerely you have to be committed to imprisoning the person, and possibly to executing them. So don't do that.


If only I was a photo-blogger

If you're in or around New York, I strongly recommend going to see the Gates in Central Park. Other than being exceptionally busy, I don't know why you wouldn't go see it. C'mon hypothetical reader, stop being so lazy, and walk around the park for a while. I have a list of three possible reasons people should go to see this massive installation, all of which are sufficient and independent reasons.

1) Aesthetics: You might think they're really pretty. One of the gates by itself isn't that impressive, but at certain points in the park where many of them are visible at once, especially where multiple paths are converging, it's quite impressive.

2) Effort/planning: If you don't find the Gates aesthetically pleasing, it's worth contemplating all the work that went into them. In particular, they had to map out all of the pathways through the park in advance, since the width of the gates changes with the width of the trail you're walking on. Consider the number of person-hours that went into this project and redeem your belief in the power of volunteer work.

3) Walking in Central Park is a good thing all by itself. As long as you don't find the Gates actively displeasing, which I find hard to imagine, you still get the positives of just wandering around a nice park and seeing what people are up to. I was there on the first day of the exhibit and the additional crowds weren't an issue at all in my enjoyment, I don't think future days, especially weekdays, will be worse.

Gothamist has been doing a lot of Gates blogging, they started talking about the project months ago.




Effecient Markets Hypothesis

I just read Daniel Davies' post over at Crooked Timber which includes a fairly lengthy article about how an economist avoided a famine in Sierra Leone. The economist in question then wrote a book about it, which after reading the article I'm going to have to buy. Damn him for writing an interesting book. This useless post brought to you by me trying to avoid a zero-post day.




Nickeled and Millionaired

I started reading two books in Barnes & Noble today, both of which I plan to read in full and have heard fairly-to-very good things about. And yet within ten minutes of starting each one I noticed them making claims that struck me as being a mixture of odd, misleading, and plain wrong.

On the third page of the introduction to Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich cites the statistic that, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "in took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one bed-room apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient's [sic] landing a job at such a "living wage" were about 97 to 1." Having not done studies on housing affordability in 1998, I obviously won't say that this is wrong. But it seems designed to mislead, since what it measures isn't really relevant. I think this is pretty well known, but I'll briefly explain that Ehrenreich's project was to go out and get a series of around minimum wage jobs, and write up the experience as investigative journalism. Part of the inspiration for that was changes that were going on in the welfare system which would lead to many former recipients having to go it alone. But the studies above aren't going to help figure that out, I think. The problem is using a national average to measure people who will be systematically and predictably not average. The issue isn't whether or not the people going off of welfare can afford the average nationwide one-bedroom apartment, but whether or not they'll be able to afford apartments in areas where low-income people tend to live. Since that isn't the average area, I would think that using those studies in this way disguises more than it illuminates.

The other book is James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. It's about how by aggregating the information of groups, you can, with certain types of questions, get more intelligent answers than if you were to ask the smartest members of the group. He has lots of good anecdotal evidence for this, and I've only read the introduction and the start of the first chapter, so I'm sure there's plenty more evidence to come. But one piece of evidence he used is wrong. On the third and fourth pages of the first chapter, he discusses the show "Who Want to be a Millionaire?" and the different "lifelines" which were available on the show. He describes the friend in the "phone a friend" lifeline as, "a person whom, before the show, she had singled out as one of the smartest she knew, and ask him or her for the answer" and the audience in the "ask the audience" lifeline as, "random crowds of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio." If you were a regular viewer of the show and understand the thesis of his book, you should already know where this going and why it's wrong. He goes on to give the percentage of questions the friends got right (65%) and the audience (91%). Surowiecki then graciously admits that these results, "wouldn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. We don't know how smart the experts were, so we don't know how impressive outperforming them was. And since the experts and the audience didn't always answer the same questions, it's possible, though not likely, that the audiences were asked easier questions." There are a couple of problems with this last part.

First, while it is true that if something happened almost never that thing also happened "not always," it's odd to say it that way. While contestants could use two lifelines on one question, using ask the audience and phone a friend together was exceedingly rare. I don't have access to the actual numbers, but trust me. I watched the show a lot. Furthermore, he claims that it is not likely that the friend questions were harder than audience questions, while I think it is nearly certainly the case. Based on my extensive viewing of the show, I would wager a large sum that "phone a friend" was systematically used later on in the questioning than "ask the audience". Since the questions got more difficult as the show progresses, this means that the experts were getting more difficult questions. That was also the strategy that I always advocated for contestants who I watched, since the early questions were more likely to be general knowledge or pop culture, while the later ones tended towards specific sub-fields. Since the experts really were answering harder questions the vast majority of the time, the difference in rates of success proves nothing.


Friday reading list

The last two posts from The Decembrist have both been really worth reading. The latest, "Too Many Evenings" is excellent. They're partially about tying together disparate progressive groups, like environmentalists, anti-war advocates, pro-choice movement members, and labor unions, under a common ideology. One reaction to this might be: most of the anti-war people I know are pro-choice, pro-labor, environmentalists. But there are a lot of people who are very committed to one of those issues and don't really care about the others. The environmental movement is in some ways a paradigm of this.

The post is also about how to turn those specific groups into a more viable unified political movement, taking into account what Mark calls the "transactional" model of group membership. This model talks about how people no longer identify as deeply with a particular group, instead moving in, doing some work on it, and moving on. If more and more progressives looking for this model, structuring groups to take advantage of it will have obvious benefits.

If you found the tort reform post from yesterday interesting, there is a great conversation going on about it in comments at Washington Monthly. Kevin updated his original post in response to an e-mail I sent last night, and now smarter people in comments are explaining why I'm wrong. The comment thread has a shockingly high signal-to-noise ratio. See especially Sam Heldman's comments.

Also, see Yglesias on looking at other countries for some perspective on the problems in our own. To put it briefly, Russia is really screwed up.

Next. Dan Drezner, who I don't link to enough, on different responses to North Korea's nuclear weapons announcement yesterday. He thinks stepped up sanctions by Japan will be effective in bringing North Korea back to negotiations. Also, does China like having a mad-man running a nearby country who makes trouble so as to distract world attention from the Chinese government's own problems? Because if China were to drastically cut their economic ties with North Korea, they could get them to do most anything. I'm sure there's more to it than that though.

Finally, Alex Tabarrok on the market for restaurant reservations.




Rule 23

I just lost an extensive post on the tort reform bill which passed the Senate today. Here's a slightly shorter with less discussion of civil procedure. Primarily, the bill creates Federal jurisdiction for a lot more class-action cases than previously had it. While I haven't seen evidence for this, I presume the reasoning behind this is that the mean federal damages award is lower than the mean state damages award and significantly lower than the awards in some of the outlier jurisdictions where many class-actions are filed. I have no idea whether this is a good or bad idea.

One quote from the NYTimes says that, "But critics of the bill have said it may effectively create an impossible situation for many plaintiffs, since federal courts are barred under a 1985 Supreme Court ruling from considering class actions in which there are "material" differences in the laws among the affected states. Thus, the critics say, the law may create a "Catch-22" in which class-action plaintiffs find both federal and state courthouse doors locked." As far as I can tell, this isn't true. The bill doesn't strip state courts of their jurisdiction, and indeed I don't know where Congress would get the power to do that. So if the Federal courts are unable to hear an action, presumably the state courts will. Lending credence to this is that the bill provides guidelines for when Federal courts may, and when they must, remand cases to the state court they were filed in. The bill also makes some changes in how attorneys fees will be measured in cases where the settlement involves coupons.

There's another line in the Times which really rubs me the wrong way. It says, "The Senate vote this afternoon followed repeated attempts by some Democrats to enact amendments curbing the effects of the measure. They were beaten back in part because some Democrats had also seen problems in the current state of the law." Everyone sees problems in the current state of the law, the issue is whether or not this bill fixes them. Implying that some Democrats think the status quo is perfect is false, and possibly malicious.



As someone who really believes that people are in principle and in actual practice persuadable by reasonable argument, even in some of their most fundamental belief, this Christian-Science Monitor article is very reassuring. It provides a welcome contrast to the vitriol of many blogs and other political commentators, and to our governments policies of dealing with detainee's by extraordinary rendition. For those who aren't going to read it, it's about a Yemeni judge who has argued the meaning of the Koran with many people convicted of terrorism, and has an astonishing rate of convincing them that terrorism is strongly disapproved of by the Koran. Extraordinary rendition is the fun practice of sending detainees to countries where we know they'll be tortured because, you know, torture is good policy.


Blogroll update

I just added eduwonk, Will Wilkinson (The Fly Bottle), and The Poor Man, to my recommended sites list.
Eduwonk is fairly self-explanatory, they cover news on education policy in a brief but witty manner. Three related topics which they frequently discuss are charter schools, battles with (and within) the teachers union, and testing.
Will is a libertarian with a philosophical bent. He tends to focus less on current events than most blogs and more on philosophical arguments.
The Poor Man is hard to describe. It's a liberal general commentary blog, focusing (lateyl) on events in the news, intra-blogosphere spats and sports. They just did a really nice re-design on the site. One of their regular features is mocking extreme right wingers. It's mean, but hilarious.
Last time I updated the list I put on Belgravia Dispatch, which is mostly focused on the war in Iraq, terrorism, and other events in the middle east. He's more to the right, at least on foreign affairs issues, than a lot of my other links. He's also extremely knowledegable.
I also added Unfogged last time, but they're hard to explain. Two of the four bloggers there go by the pseudonyms Unf and Ogged, though Unf has fallen off the face of the earth. Usually good for quick, funny posts, though also some more philosophical material.




Oh, Phuket

I was really pleased with West Wing this week. The confrontation between C.J. and Abby Bartlett was very well written and acted. It's also an intereting illustration of the sort of power struggle that can happen when the President is in a weakend state. I'm surprised Abby didn't put up more resistance when C.J. finally pressed her. Two possible explanations for that are:

1) She is planning on passively resisting by going back to Jed and getting him to over rule or ignore C.J. This is somewhat reinforced by her refusal to go to the opera. It wasn't a direct reproach of what Claudia Jean asked for, but it was more her taking it out on Jed he is perfectly willing to risk his health for his job, plus just unleashing some anger.

2) She knew that C.J. should be making decisions like that, not her, and was just testing her limts.

Obviously, the dicussion of setting up a constitution for Belarus is meant to contrast with showing how the day to day workings of the office don't include people like C.J. exercising a great deal of power, while the President is limited by his illness. They made this somewhat less subtle by specifically mentioning the emergency powers provision.

What was going on with the Christopher Lloyd character, a law professor helping to write the Belarussian constitution, being named Lawrence Lessig? Lessig is of course, a real live law professor who is renowned for his work on internet law, copyright law, and work relating to the intersection between the two. He has a column in Wired, is a key member of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, etc. (apologies to readers who can't imagine not knowing who Lessig is). The Lloyd character wasn't anything like him, as far as I know, other than also being a law professor. And it's just weird doing an homage like that to a real, live, fairly well known person. It took me out of the show's reality for a couple of minutes.

I was happy to have Lord John Marbury back. He's a little grating, but he also serves as a pleasant reminder of the show's past greatness.
The ending fight between Abby and Jed should have been shown, since both actors do great work off of each other.
Leo's reaction to the Ms. World contestant was great.
I don't want to give this episode an A-, but it was a good deal better than the other two episodes I've graded, so imagine that I'm downgrading both of those when I give this a B+.


Standards of living

I actually find the details of the social security policy debate interesting, so I've been following the policy debate fairly carefully. I haven't seen many new arguments policy-wise for about a month. Today I did, but I have to fill in some background first.
Currently, social security benefits are indexed to wages, not prices. There is a fairly complex method behind this, involving "bend points" and other things not worth getting into right now, but overall the rate of growth of social security benefits is faster than inflation, because wages rise faster. In order to lower the future growth of benefits and avoid funding problems sometime in the middle of this century, the Bush administration has publicly discussed indexing benefits to prices, so that they would grow at the same rate as inflation.
As a counter-argument to this view, it is pointed out that indexing to prices freezes the standard of living. If social security was indexed to wages in the 1930's, the elderly would only be getting enough of a social security benefit to pay for a 1930's standard of living, ie., no indoor plumbing in most of the country. I thought this was a very solid argument, but Tyler Cowen's post today has me thinking that a gradual process of switching to price indexing is the way to go. One of the great things about Tyler is that he uses both economic and ethical arguments quite well. His discussion of absolute versus relative standard of living is key and quite worth reading.


Just Deserts

Yesterday, Andrew Cuomo gave us a website to go to in order to stay up to date on the death penatly debate in the state assembly, and to sign a petition opposing it's reinstatement. I've done so, and would like my readers to go here, (or click on the Network for Justice banner in the sidebar) scroll to the bottom of the page, where it says, "Sign our petition and join Matthew's Network here," and fill in the required fields. Since I don't know what my readers' opinions are on the death penalty, I'll explain why I signed the petition.

The death penalty risks making us morally complicit in the deaths of innocents. If that seems too simple, keep reading. I'm opposed to the death penalty and hope that New York does not decide to reinstate it. This is not because I don't think there is any crime so heinous that the perpetrator deserves to die. I think there are crimes serious enough that the person committing it has forfeited their right to stay alive. How that makes it acceptable for the government to kill them is a difficult question, analogous to asking, after it's been established that one doesn't have a moral right to their income, why the government then has a right to take it. If I was making a pro death penalty case, I'd have to address that, but I'm not.

If I accept that there are crimes severe enough that person committing it deserves to die, why am I opposed to the death penalty? This may seem really obvious, but I'm opposed to it because of mistakes. The criminal justice system is an imperfect institution. It makes errors. It fails to punish guilty people and punishes innocent ones. It also makes mistakes about severity of guilt. For instance, we read a case yesterday in which the Supreme Court said it was constitutionally permissible to sentence someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine. Whether or not that is correct constitutionally, it seems obviously disproportionate morally. Since the system makes mistakes both about who to punish and how much to punish them, it is vitally important to make sure that mistake isn't made via killing them. Death is irrevocable, all other forms of criminal punishment are revocable (accept for the aspect of being labeled a criminal, which can persist even if one is found to be innocent). If the system is willing to risk irrevocable mistakes of this severity, people at large will, and should, see the system as less legitimate and be less willing to accept its authority and participate in it when needed. So the death penalty hurts the institutional viability of the criminal justice system. Oh, it also risks making us morally complicit in the deaths of innocents.


Coming distractions

I have two topics I'll be talking about today. Hopefully I'll be able to come up with something short to write, I'm not happy with the length of some of my recent posts.

First, addressing a conversation about the connection between supporting a war and being willing to fight in that war. There is a great thread on this at unfogged (see comments, the post is less than half of the interesting material).

Also, more on the death penalty in New York.


Sort of Super Bowl blogging

The Eagles say that their quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was so sick during the fourth quarter that he almost vomited. Actually, he did throw up, but the Patriots intercepted it.
-Conan O'Brien, five minutes ago




Cuomo and Packwood

I just got back from a talk by Senator Bob Packwood and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary and possible future New York State attorney general, Andrew Cuomo. The topic was supposed to be about what the 2004 election meant and where the country is going from there. None of that was particularly informative, Packwood opined that gay marriage was "a factor" in deciding the election, but not on how substantial a factor it was. I didn't take notes or anything, so I'm just going to try to paraphrase a few interesting points each made or stories they told.

One of Cuomo's points which is worth repeating was that the New York State legislature is currently debating whether or not New York state should have the death penalty, and it's getting no media attention at all. He illustrated the point about no media attention by asking the audience to name the important issue which the New York State assembly is currently debating. No one answered immediately, and death penalty was eventually the second or third answer the audience proffered. Next, he asked the audience if New York if New York state currently has the death penalty. The audience was split pretty evenly between yes/no/and didn't want to answer. The answer is no, and I got it wrong (that'll probably blow my credibility for a while). I was under the impression that New York State had reenacted the death penalty in 1994 when Pataki was elected, but had not executed anyone since sometime in early 70's. That part was right, but I missed the New York State Court of Appeals decision in June which found the current form of the death penalty unconstitutional under the state constitution.

For evidence, other than my ignorance, of the assembly death penalty debate not being in the news, I ran a couple of searches. A google news search on New York death penalty gets hits, but a quick scan shows very few of them are actually on point. Another search on Pataki death penalty assembly only fifteen relevant hits.

Packwood, a socially liberal (pro-choice, pro gay marriage) Republican, had quite a few interesting things to say. Gay marriage was actually a big topic of discussion, with both of them predicting it would be non-controversial in between twenty and forty years. When asked about people in politics he admired, he talked about his meetings with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Following a 1982 massacre in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Shamir came to the United States and met with some Senators. Sen. Joseph Biden asked him how he felt about the massacre, in a somewhat accusatory manner. Shamir said he felt horrible about it, just like you (Biden) did. Then he said it was inappropriate for Biden to question him like this. Biden responded, "No it ain't," and then said something about the "bill" the United States has paid for Israel. Packwood said that Shamir responded, "we have fought, we have bled, we have died for our country, and we will fight, we will bleed, we will die for our country, whether or not you pay a bill." Packwood said that he was hugely impressed by Shamir's courage, since the U.S. does give Israel a lot of aid. The above is all a paraphrase of Packwood's telling, so it's third hand. Packwood did emphasize the word "ain't" though, it seemed to stick out in his mind that Biden used it. Also, this isn't meant to be (and I don't think it comes off as) an anti-Biden story.

They also each told stories about Daniel Partick Moynihan. Packwood said Moynihan had once tried to have a bill passed banning the word "reform" from appearing in the name of any bill. Packwood told a couple of other stories about Moynihan, who he seemed to have a deep admiration for. Cuomo told a story about how when he was managing his father's gubernatorial campaign, Moynihan's press secretary was Tim Russert. Apparently, Russert did a great Moynihan impression and would call people up and convince them he was Moynihan.

There was a small protest outside of the auditorium when I walked in. The protest was because of Packwood's sexual harassment while he was in the Senate. According to the flier they handed out, Packwood's sexual harassment involved at least nineteen victims. Along with the flier they gave out stickers with the slogan "I oppose sexual harassment," and I think other stickers with other slogans, though I'm not sure. I didn't count, but I'm fairly sure a majority of the audience was wearing one of those stickers. I know I was.

While I understand and agree with protesting to point out Packwood's misdeeds, the protesters also seemed to think that the people who were going to listen to the talk were doing something wrong. If that was there view, I disagree. I don't see how going to see someone speak communicates support for their views or acceptance of their past wrongdoing. For instance, if I went to go see Ted Kennedy speech, would I be committed to the view that he did nothing wrong in the Chappaquidick incident? Would going to see the Unabomber speak show support for his bombings or for his manifesto? It is entirely possible that I got the wrong idea, and the protest was just a useful reminder of the dangers of sexual harassment, in which case I apologize for saying anything bad about it. But I got the impression that the protesters thought there was something wrong with seeing the speech.