Mark A. R. Kleiman

Tuesday, December 31, 2002
 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

May you always be able to provide champagne to your true friends ...
and true pain to your sham friends.



 

GUILFORD COUNTY REPUBLICAN ISLAM-BASHING UPDATE

Monkey Media Report, for which this is a hometown story, has a connected account of the link between the Guilford County, NC, Republican Party website and Islamexposed.com, which calls al-Islam "nothing more than a barbaric occult invented by savages for savages."

And once you're there, don't forget to scroll down for the latest on Congressman Cass Ballenger (the one whose mother just washed his mouth out with soap). Seems he used to refer to the lawn jockey in his front yard -- which he has just repainted white -- as "Rochester."

If I were running The Onion, I"d be getting nervous. The competition from reality is getting just a little too stiff. (Though the "copycat killings" story dated January 1 2003 is really pretty good.)



Monday, December 30, 2002
 


THIMEROSAL SUMMARY


Glenn Reynolds was good enough to post a note I sent him reviewing the legislative history of the thimerosal caper, along with some of his own reflections. For those not coming in via Instapundit, here it is, in a slightly edited and expanded version. (For those who are coming in from Instapundit or who are new to the story, see the links further down this post.)

The legislative history:

1. Frist offered a bill to get Eli Lilly off the hook on thimerosal in the Senate. No hearings were held.

2. That provision appeared in neither the House nor the Senate version of the Homeland Security bill as passed before the election, since it has nothing to do with homeland security.

3. After the election, a version of the Homeland Security bill was reported out by the conference committee, with several special-interest goodies, including the thimerosal language, that hadn't been in either the House bill or the Senate bill.

4. There's no mystery about who put it in: Armey did. But Armey had no particular interest in the thimerosal stuff. The "mystery" is who asked him to put it in. Frist, the author, specifically says he didn't, though Armey says he put the language in after consulting with Frist. But no one will say who asked to have it inserted. The natural suspect is Mitch Daniels, the Director of OMB; the early reports were that the pressure came from "the White House," and Daniels is an ex-officer of Lilly and planning to go back to Indiana, where Lilly is based, to run for governor.

5. The Frist version had a necessary conforming amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. The Armey version, the one that passed, didn't. As a result, the bill as passed blocks all lawsuits and directs the claims to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, but the VICP trust fund is still barred by law from paying any such claim.

6. All the thimerosal claims are time-barred by the terms of VICP. Neither the Frist version nor the Armey version deals with that.
[UPDATE: This isn't quite right. See Wampum for the details.]

So unless the thing gets undone, the families are out of luck. Even if you think -- and it's a reasonable, but not inescapable, view -- that claims of damage done by thimerosal ought to be handled under VICP, there's simply no excuse for this sort of midnight legislating. If you're going to short-circuit the process, you need to be absolutely sure that you have the substance right.

The back story

The thread starts here, with an exposition of the claimed thimerosal-autism link and the legislative legerdemain.

Then there was this, following up on the politics and relaying some arguments offered by a friend that the thimerosal claims did belong under VICP.

The next follow-up relayed some technical doubts about the likelihood of a link from medicinal chemist Derek Lowe. http://markarkleiman.blogspot.com/2002_12_01_markarkleiman_archive.html#90015533

Here's the post relaying Dr. Manhattan's discovery of the Internal Revenue Code problem.

And finally this, on Lilly's having purchased thousands of copies of Frist's book, creating at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Note that I'm just playing columnist here; Hesiod has been doing the real political-journalist legwork, and the serious discussions of the technical and policy issues are in Dwight Meredith's P.L.A. (here, for example), Dr. Manhattan's Blissful Knowledge, and Derek Lowe's Lagniappe. This is as good a place as any to mention the high level of both technical seriousness and good manners all three of them have displayed about a topic that could easily have had them throwing brickbats at one another.


 

PLEASE TELL ME THIS IS A JOKE

The same Saudi prince whose $10 million offer of post-9-11 help, accompanied by a suggestion for a change in US Middle East policy, was rejected by Rudi Giuliani, has made a $500,000 contribution to the George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund at Phillips Andover. The semi-official Saudi press suggests that the donation was solicited by George Walker Bush.

Here's the link to the New York Sun article, and here's the Gweilo Diaries post where I picked it up.

 

HOW'S THAT AGAIN?

Does anyone know why the Time/CNN results posted on Polling Report are different (Bush has a 61% job approval rather than a 55% job approval) than Time reports for the same poll? Did someone fumble the numbers that Time wrote up and then catch the error later? Does that explain the curious silence? Did CNN not report that number because no one had figured it out yet? This one gets stranger by the day.

UPDATE

Wrong! Two different polls: one for CNN and Time, done by Harris Interactive, the other CNN/USA Today/Gallup. Thanks to those who straightened me out.



Sunday, December 29, 2002
 

KEEPING THE US EMBASSY IN RIYADH JUDENREIN

And speaking (see below) of disgusting stuff we do in obedience to our Saudi masters (Oooops! Sorry! That should be "allies." Silly me!), how do you like this? Neither do I, and neither does Conrad, the Gweilo Diarist, to whom I owe thanks for the pointer.

[Oh, and here's some more about the Kingdom, in a Times op-ed. Thanks to Matthew Yglesias for the pointer, and his comments about how fellow feeling among the folks in the "ahl bidness" might have something to do with our current policies.]


 

SHHHHHHH! IT'S A SECRET!

Dwight Meredith links to, and comments on, a story about the final report of the Joint Intelligence Committee on 9-11. Bob Graham, who has now semi-declared for President, says that an unnamed "sovereign foreign government" -- he doesn't say "Saudi Arabia" -- "assisted, not just in financing" the 9-11 mass murders. Graham notes that much of the material is classified, "I think overly-classified." The obvious interpretation is that naming the country would violate the secrecy rules. [That may also be true of Attorney General Ashcroft's reticence, of which the Gweilo diarist and I made such fun last month.] Obviously it isn't Iraq, or all that stuff would have been declassified and spread all over the newspapers.

Two thoughts:

1. The failure of the Bush Administration to keep its promise to make those who paid for 9-11 pay in full is potentially a huge issue. If Bob Graham is smart enough to see that, he may be smart enough to be President, which he seems to want to be, and maybe even smart enough to get to be President.

2. Abuse of the classification system to control public debate is pervasive. Only subset of classified material would really be of use to a potential enemy. Additional material is properly classified for "sources and methods" reasons: the information itself isn't sensitive, but revealing that we know it might reveal where the bug is or which attache is selling us secrets. But those two categories together do not exhaust what can properly be classified according to the statute. Any information the release of which would tend to impede the foreign policy of the United States is properly classifiable. So if our current policy is to suck up to the ibn-Saud, any information, including translations from the Riyadh newspapers, the revelation of which would tend to annoy the Saudis, can be, and almost certainly is being, protected by a "Top Secret" stamp.

When I was young and irresponsible, I worked for the Justice Department, analyzing drug policy. In that capacity, I was put through the full security mumbo-jumbo and received a Top Secret clearance and, on top of that, clearances for various very highly taboo Codeword categories. (The initiation ceremony involves being dipped in the blood of ... well, I could tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya.)

Having been cleared, what did I learn that it would then have been a felony for me to reveal? Nothing that would have helped the Russkis or the narco-bad-guys. But I did learn the names of assorted corrupt high-level officials in various of the Carribean banking havens Jeff MacNelly once lampooned as "Rinky-Dink and Tobasco." No elaborate spying had been required to learn the names; apparently it was routine cafe gossip in the countries involved. So why, I asked, is this material classified? Not that I had any desire to reveal it, but I was curious.

The senior security guy in the Criminal Division set me straight: Yes, everyone knew that the Rinky-Dink-and-Tobascanese Finance Minister, or Central Bank president, or whatever it was, was crookeder than a dog's hind leg. He knew, we knew, the Prime Minister knew, the Prime Minister knew we knew, we knew he knew we knew, ad infinitum. Maybe the Rinky-Dink-and-Tobascanese voters didn't know; that was their lookout.

But it was our policy to make nice to Rinky-Dink and Tobasco (honest, I forget which contrylet we were talking about). If it were revealed publicly that the US Government had knowledge that Mr. So-and-so was on the take, that would embarrass the Rinky-Dink-and-Tobascanese government, thus impeding U.S. foreign policy. Ergo, properly classified.

There's a story Khruschev used to tell, back when he was General Secretary of the CP-USSR (i.e., dictator). In the story, an Old Bolshevik goes crazy, and runs through the halls of the Kremlin shouting "Khruschev is a fool! Khruschev is a fool!" Naturally, he's promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, to twenty-three years' corrective labor: three years for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a state secret.

An enormous amount of classified information consists of state secrets of the Khruschev-is-a-fool variety. And the incumbent adminisration is completely free to decide that revealing any given bit of information would be consistent with our foreign policy, and reveal it. As Henry Kissinger used to say, "I never leak. I de-classify." This is a huge problem, and an excellent reason not to have anything resembling an Official Secrets Act.


 

SUSPECTED AS MUCH

Did it ever occur to you that ever since (roughly) the Rolling Stones, lots of contemporary mass-market music has been just deliberately ugly, with the singing in particular something you'd be embarrassed to do in the shower? You and me both. If you're like me, you felt a little tentative about that perception; maybe the stuff really was beautiful in some way you and I were too old-fashioned to hear? Guess not:

Nowadays people don't want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That's what angle I'm going to shoot for. That's where the money is. So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me that sounds terrible, don't feel ashamed, just wait until the money rolls in because every day people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records.

-- A letter from Jimi Hendrix to his father, reprinted in today's New York Times Magazine, p. 25.



 

BY HEART

Let's hear it for memorizing poetry, an excellent educational practice given up for no especially good reason. As Carol Muske-Dukes points out in today's Times, "learning by heart" isn't merely different from "learning by rote": in some ways, it's the opposite, because it internalizes the material rather than leaving it on the page as something to be learned about. As Muske-Dukes also points out, memorizing poems is natural, and people, especially children, in fact do it all the time. The question is whether they're going to memorize some good poems along with the advertising jingles and sitcom theme songs.

And I wouldn't stop with poetry: no reason eleventh-grade American history shouldn't include learning the Gettysburg Adress and the Declaration of Independence (omitting the catalogue of grievances). The benefit of learning by heart is more than having some good phrases ready to hand and some good literary models stored up inside you: learning to speak someone else's words aloud in a way that conveys its meaning is among the best preparations for speaking well extempore.


 

CHARITY AND VOLUNTEER WORK

Jane Galt has a reflective post on the public-income-support-vs.-private-charity issue. It's all worth reading.

I continue to be puzzled about why we think that, unlike virtually everything else we want to get done, the specific job of providing one-to-one service to poor people is the one that needs to be done by people not specifically talented at it or trained in it, most of whom also don't want to do it. Not only is it in some sense inefficient to have an engineer working in a food pantry, but there's reason to worry that people who are dragooned into volunteering by social pressure may take out the resulting aggression (mostly without being aware of it) on those they're supposed to be helping. Unless the consciousness-raising benefits are really overwhelming, why shouldn't a well-off person with a social conscience just spend those hours at work and write a check to pay someone whose comparative advantage is in serving food or helping kids with their homework?

I think there may be an answer to that question in the difficulty of managing the social-service process, but I'd still be inclined to think that the solution ought to lie somewhere in the direction of improving social-service management. Think about it: if you needed help, would you rather be helped by an amateur or a professional?

UPDATE

Glen Whitman has done the same analysis (first) about the legal profession, and calls the resulting prescription "proxy bono." He discusses as a possible advantage of non-proxy pro bono work what he calls "character development," but suggests that the marginal value of an hour of pro bono work in developing character may fall sharply after the first few hours. Perhaps as important, or more important, than "character" is what might be called "education." A lawyer who has actually done a substantial amount of legal services work may have a different, and more accurate view, of the legal problems facing poor people than one who has merely written a check, in ways that may be reflected when that lawyer serves on a Bar Association board or ALI committee, or as a legislator or a judge. That's more or less the Peace Corps model, and it has real value. Perhaps actually working in a soup kitchen has similar benefits.



Saturday, December 28, 2002
 


CLAUDE RAINES AWARD IN GUILFORD COUNTY, NC


The chairman of the Guilford County, NC, Republican Party has suddenly become aware -- via a phone call from a reporter fo the local newspaper -- that his organization's website carried a link to a site called Islamexposed.com, dedicated to exposing al-Islam as "nothing more than a barbaric occult invented for savages by savages." Naturally, the chairman was shocked -- shocked! -- and took the link down right away. "That's not what we're about."

Well, of course they need to clean up their act now: they have to get ready for their annual Ronald Reagan dinner, with Ollie North as the invited speaker. (The link is broken; maybe that's last year's dinner. His foundation has a link on the site, as does Ralph Reed's.)

Only those with long memories, as blogospheric memories go, will recall that the link to the Islamexposed site had been discovered by Media Whores Online, and referenced on this very site, a couple of months ago. As to the chairman's shock, he ought to read his email; I sent him a polite note at the time, to which he didn't reply. And he ought to talk to his webmaster, who had already posted a somewhat weaselly partial disclaimer shortly after the original link went up.

Guilford County isn't the sticks; it's the third-largest county in the state. And its Republican party has had up a link to what can fairly be called a hate site for at least six weeks, and only took it down when a reporter called. Anyone who thinks that the Republican Party purged itself of its reliance on bigotry when it demoted Trent Lott needs to think about that.

[MORE here.]

 

TESTING FAILS

Now lemmesee....

--Using high-stakes tests to reward and punish schools and their staffs encourages cheating.
--The relatively cheap (on a per-student basis) tests that have to be used if testing is to be done on a census, rather than a sample, mean that the tests meaure only a subset of what we want the students to know and to be able to do, which is likley to distort curricular decisions.
--Even accepting what the tests test for as a valid reflection of educational performance, sheer measurement error makes it hard to disistinguish signal from noise in year-to-year variations. (Doing sample rather than census testing may improve validity, but it increases sampling error.)
--And now the largest study of the actual results of high-stakes testing programs suggest that they boost scores on the tests used, but actually reduce performance on nearly every externally validated measure. [Study by Audrey Amrein et al. at Arizona State. Report in today's New York Times.]

The critiques of the study by the proponents of testing, including Chester Finn, are pretty pitiful; that suggests that, despite its funding by a coalition of teachers' unions, the study must be methodologically sound. (Finn is reduced to suggesting that the other educational "reforms" in the state-level packages that included high-stakes testing must be at fault.)

So what we have here is a policy that won't work in theory and fails in practice. Why, exactly, are we supposed to be for it?

These results put the proponents of high-stakes testing in what ought to be an inescapable rhetorical box: a dilemma in the proper sense of that term. If trying something out, measuring its results, and acting accordingly is the right thing to do, then having tried out high-stakes testing, measured its results, and found them to be bad, we ought to dump it, or at least fundamentally redesign it. If trying, measuring, and responding isn't the right thing to do, then what's the argument for high-stakes testing in the first place?

I have a very strong prejudice for managing by the numbers, especially in an area such as education where the non-quantitative theorizing is so wooly and our knowledge of the underlying processes so inadequate. (How to produce high-quality research in a field where the relevant university units engage mostly in training for a poorly paid, low-status profession is a different problem.) So I'd be inclined to strengthen the testing regime by broadening the base of knowledge and skill tested for and by making aggressive use of sampling, rather than just dumping the whole thing and letting the education establishment vapor on about how every child is different, every teacher is a skilled professional, and therefore nothing can be measured.

But there is now no case whatever for continuing to combine high stakes with low measurement quality. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Stinks. Next case, please.


 

CAN YOU SAY 'CYNICAL'?"

I was sure you could....

If the memo weren't bad enough, the lying spin about it puts the cherry on the sundae.


 

AN OPEN-ENDED 'WHO ARE YOU?' QUIZ

Are you one of the people who can't resist those "Which Fairy Tale Character Are You?" quizzes? So am I, though I've never gotten what seemed to me like a surprising or insightful answer. (Finding out from "Which Science Fiction Writer Are You?" that I was Robert Heinlein merely meant that the quiz-maker hadn't read Alexei Panshin.)

Anyway, the quizzes clearly speak to something deep (or should that be shallow?) in many of us. That raises the question whehter a more interesting and illuminating quiz type could be developed. (Yes, of course there are MMPIs and Enneagrams and Koans; I'm talking about something quick and fun.)

This came into focus as I was looking at the Analects, and it occured to me that the Confucian junzi (a technical term of which "gentleman" is the approved, though in many ways misleading, translation) treats life as a ceremony, while a modern celebrity or politician treats it as a performance. Those aren't the only options if one is likening a life to an activity: others might be journey, search, quest, task, celebration, feast, dance, prayer, education, game, struggle, contest, war, and so forth. (No doubt the ones I've listed say something about me, and the ones I've omitted say more.)

So we have a quiz question, or rather set of questions:

If your life were an activity, what activity would it be?
Which would you like it to be?
Why?

Note: Given the large number of perfectly good conceptual metaphors for a life, and the myriad ways they could be arranged -- If your life were a document, would it be a novel, a short story, an official dossier, a folktale, a riddle, or a joke? -- there is obviously a self-help, pop-psych "I'm OK, Your Parachute is from Venus" best-seller here somewhere, and I'm open to offers co-author it: pseudonymously, of course.


 

DOES HOWELL RAINES RENT OUT HIS SPIKE?

In case you've missed the latest minor storm in the blogosphere:

1. Time and CNN ran a poll about ten days ago. The results showed Bush's job peformance down to 55%, down eight from the last poll and slightly below the declining trend line starting right after his post-9-11 peak. That line had been going down steadily until the trend was broken by the bump Bush got around election time. He's now essentially within a point of his pre-9-11 level. The poll also asked a question new to me: "Do you think that Bush is a leader you can trust, or do you have doubts and reservations?" The answer: 50% "trust," 49% "doubts."

2. Time ran the results prominently in print, but did not put them on line. Thus Polling Report, which usually has the Time/CNN data, has no mention of it; it still shows Dec. 9-10 rather than Dec. 17-18 as the most recent Time/CNN figures.

3. CNN did put some of the results, under the headline "Bush Advisers Get Favorable Marks" (as opposed to Times "Bush's Approval Comes Down to Earth"). The CNN story metions the trust number only casually, and doesn't mention the job-performance number at all.

4. Liberal Oasis posted some of the numbers from the Time story and cited the downplaying of the results as an instance of conservative media bias

5. Kos urged us all to chill, explaining that this is a slow news season and the folks at Time have other fish to fry, including "Person of the Year."

6. Interesting Times posted a scanned version of the Time story. [Same link as above.]

7. The Red Blog States know nothing of it.

Now, "chill" is almost always good advice. It doesn't matter much whether these numbers are discussed now. Yes, bad polling news has some momentum effects, but if Bush's job performance rating has really fallen into the mid-50s someone else will measure that and report it. [UPDATE: MYDD links to another poll showing a virtually identical number, and points out that it still puts Bush in good shape for 2004.] As usual, laziness and screw-ups are more likely than deliberate misfeasance.

That said, the story certainly seems to have rated more play than it got. The numbers on the "trust" question, in particular, testify to something less than wild popularity. And it's really hard to imagine what sort of news judgment could have informed CNN's decision to report the results so oddly. Certainly if the New York Times had behaved similarly with respect to good news for Bush, both You-Know-Who and Whatsisname would have mentioned it by now.



Friday, December 27, 2002
 

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY?

Ever since I heard of it, I've been impatient with the proposed "precautionary principle"; it seems to me it ought to be called the Animal Crackers principle, after the college president played by Groucho Marx in the movie of that title, who sings a song with the chorus:

I don't care who proposed it or commenced it,
I'm against it.


By what cockamamie reasoning could the fact that a risk is unknown be taken to imply that it is unacceptably large? I mean, really!

But Sasha Volokh proposes a different and more plausible way to think about it than the arguments I've seen in the past: that we should consider the variance, as well as the expected value, in choosing risks.

The principle of diminishing marginal utility suggests that rational decision-makers ought to be risk averse with respect to high-stakes decisions. Bernoulli's St. Petersburg Paradox and its extensions show that, for any player with a finite initial endowment, a series of positive-expected-value gambles will lead to almost certain ruin if the stake is significant compared to the endowment.

Think of a project that would increase the US GDP per capita by a tenth of one percent, unless it ran into a one-in-ten-thousand chance that led to a reduction of US GDP per capita by 50%. Clearly the expected value is positive, and just as clearly (it seems to me) we ought to make it illegal if that's the only way to stop it. And I'd think the same thing even if the probability of catastrophe were much smaller than that.

I would differ with Sasha on one point, though: it's not, strictly speaking, the variance that matters. A very-high-variance gamble can be quite attractive, as long as the stake is small compared to the initial endowment. A project with 999 chances in 1000 of making $100, and 1 chance in a thousand of losing $95,000, has a huge variance, but is still attractive for a company that can take the hit if the odd chance happens. (That's roughly the business of an insurance company, for example.) The same gamble wouldn't appeal to me at all as a personal investment, unless I could figure out a way to lay off the risk.

The conceptually hairy issue arises where we have no good basis for calculating the risk: in the case of fundamentally new technologies. And that is the situation for which the precautionary principle was designed. Sasha is clearly right that in its most radical form the precautionary princple is self-defeating, since incaction also carries unknown risks. But it looks from the argument above as if any proposal where a plausible story can be told of truly catastrophic risk (i.e., risks equivalent to substantial fractions of total national or world wealth) ought to be forbidden until the probability attached to the risk can be plausibly quantified. This is much stronger than Sasha's proposed "slight bias" against risk; it's most of the way to the precautionary principle itself, as long as the worst conceivable case is bad enough.

As David Burmaster has pointed out, worst-case thinking in routine environmental management is a recipe for over-regulation.
[See Burmaster, D.E. and R.H. Harris, "The Magnitude of Compounding Conservatisms in Superfund Risk Assessments", Risk Analysis 13(2):131-134 (1993).] But risk aversion means that a sufficiently bad "worst case" ought to be enough to kill a project, even with what would otherwise be a negligible probability attached to it. That's not the answer I wanted, but it seems to be the one I just got.

As a committed technological optimist, I will be deeply grateful to whoever can find the error in this reasoning.

UPDATE

Kieran Healy responds, and I comment, here. Briefly: he wants to know why I mind the conclusion when it means restricting innovation but not when it means vaccinating immediatley. Brief answer: the opportunity cost of forgoing, e.g., genetic modification of food species, is much higher than the cost of a vaccination program.


Thursday, December 26, 2002
 

SOME GOOD NEWS ON SMALLPOX

Joshua Epstein of Brookings and Donald Burke of Hopkins report the results of an agent-based simulation showing that pre-vaccinating all hospital workers and 60% of the general population, and then vaccinating all family members of confirmed cases while the outbreak is going on has a very good chance of "quenching" an outbreak. The good news is that about 60% of the population has been vaccinated in the past. That probably doesn't give them immunity, but Epstein and Burke report that the side effect risk is an order of magnitude smaller for those previously exposed. They're being careful in what they say, but it sounds like a plan to me.

One caveat: their model assumes a single "index case" in a town, or rather a pair of towns, with a total population of 800. They point out that, one case in 800 is equivalent to 15,000 infected in Manhattan. But they're assuming that the "attacker" is a single person who has infected himself, rather than a small crew armed with nebulizers spraying virus into the air at airports and in subway stations. Since, as they point out, by the time someone's smallpox has reached the infectious stage that person is usually too weak to walk, it seems to me that the nebulizer attack is the more plausible threat. I'd want to see how robust the model is to that change in assumptions.

But the fact about the low side-effect risk for the previously vaccinated is tremendous news. Not having to think about vaccinating kids means a much lower level of emotion surrounding both the policy discussion and the implementation. Assuming that 60% would really do the job, the big remaining question is how great the risk would be to the immunocompromised population if people around them were being vaccinated. Some of the chatter has suggested that the infection risk comes entirely or almost entirely from either touching the vaccination site directly or being touched by a vaccinee who has himself touched the site. If that's right, the risk should be manageable, especially since we're going to be dealing with adults. If the direct mortality risk from re-vaccination is on the order of 0.1 to 0.3 per million, then 160 million re-vaccinations would produce something under fifty deaths, or about a third of the daily highway death toll.

This rates an enthusiastic, if still tentative, "Whooppeeeeee!"


 

SMALLPOX UPDATE

A letter in today's New York Times offers a serious argument on the anti-vaccination side. Current estimates of vaccination risk come from an era where there were few immuno-compromised people walking around. Now, HIV and cancer chemotherapy mean that the population for which infection with vaccinia could create real health hazards is much larger. Even if they're not vaccinated themselves, vaccinia is communicable. That observation drives up the threshold at which the threat of a smallpox attack outweighs the cost -- in the fullest sense of cost -- of the vaccination program

Kieran Healy's note on the smallpox-vaccination question points up the difference between a measurable risk and true uncertainty. If the risk is known, the calculation of whether a given precaution is worthwhile is conceptually straightforward, thought it may be computationally difficult. But an unknown risk poses a harder problem.

Analytically, the right way to deal with that issue is to work the problem backwards. To simplify, imagine a decision with only two options (V for vaccinate and W for wait) and only two possible states of the world: the event the RAND study calls a large-scale attack happens, or no attack happens. The goal is to minimize the expected value -- the probability-weighted sum -- of the total damage done by the disease cost (if there is an attack) plus the vaccination cost.

Call the cost of, and damage done by, a vaccination program S, for side-effects.

Call the damage done by an attack on an unvaccinated population X, and the damage done by the same attack if vaccination takes place first Y.

Call the probability of an attack p.

The expected-value cost of option V, e[V], is then:

e[V] = S + (Y x p)

because we bear the fixed cost of vaccination in any case, plus an additional probability p of an attack that will do Y damage, where Y is less than X because of the prior vaccination.

The expected-value cost of W is simply:

e[W] = X x p

We face costs only if an attack happens, but then we face the larger cost X.

Given estimates of S, X and Y, such as those provided in the RAND report, we can then compute the "critical value" of the probability of an attack. The critical value is the value that would make the expected costs equal. (I'm simplifying by ignoring the tricky question of whether we should be risk-neutral, risk-averse, or risk-seeking.) If the actual probability is higher than the critical value, vaccination will have the lower expected cost and is therefore the preferred option; else, not.

Since the critical value is the value that makes the two risks equal, we can set up the equality

e[V] = e[W]

which in this case means

S + (Y x p) = X x p

and then solve for p. The value of p that makes the equality hold is the critical value.

Rearranging, we have

p = S / (X - Y)

Call this critical value p*.

That is, the critical value of the probability of an attack is the damage done by the vaccination divided by the lives saved by the vaccination if an attack occurs. It's worth spending a dime to protect a dollar if the risk to the dollar is at least one in ten.

Using the numbers in the RAND report, something over 400 deaths from vaccination and about 40,000 lives saved (50,000 + deaths without vaccination, 10,000+ deaths without: I'm deliberately rounding here because the precision of the estimates in the RAND report don't reflect the imprecision of the assumptions that generated them), we get a critical value p* of something like 1%: a vaccination program is worth undertaking as long as the risk is that high or higher. (If the Times's letter-writer is correct about the importance of immuno-compromised populations, the critical value would be correspondingly higher; if I'm right about the effects on other countries and the possibility of an attack ten or a hundred times as large as the one hypothesized, the value would be correspondingly lower; decision theory is a way to process facts, not a substitute for them.)

So now, instead of moping around, saying "What do you think the probability of a smallpox attack is?" "I dunno, Marny, what do you think the probability of a smallpox attack is?" we have something to concentrate on: is the probability as high as 1%, or not? If there's more than one chance in ten that Iraq has weaponized smallpox and the capacity to deliver it, and more than one chance in ten that, assuming Iraq has that capacity, it will use it against us if invaded, then we ought to be getting ready for mass vaccination. (Of course if there are significant non-Iraqi risks, e.g. from al Qaeda or North Korea, those enter the mix as well. And something ought to be figured in for the effect of vaccination in depressing the risk of attack.)

Thinking that the risk of a major smallpox attack from somewhere within, say, the next five years, is as low as 1% requires much more precise knowledge of hostile capacities and intentions than I think we actually have. I don't insist that my conclusion is right, because I'm fully aware of the paucity of data here, especially on the actual damage done by vaccination. But I'd like to see someone lay out the calculation supporting the current policy.

[Smallpox thread starts here.]

[A former CDC director has some thoughts; he thinks we need to be prepared for a mass attack with aerosolized virus, not just a few suicide cases walking around being infectious. And he points to the importance of developing a vaccine with fewer side-effects.]

[MORE here]

Tuesday, December 24, 2002
 

HERE'S HOPING

The business-travel column in today's New York Times, concerned with such crucial issues as the availability of upgrades and the threat to frequent-flyer balances posed by the United and USAir bankruptcies, is headlined "Expectations Trimmed in a Year of Grim News."

So here's my Yuletide wish, for all my faithful friends and readers:

Since 9-11 clearly didn't do it, may nothing happen in the coming year to teach American journalists the meaning of the word "grim."



 

JUST FOR FUN

The author of a study cited by Max Sawicky thinks this shows that protest demonstrations are "good for you" and people should do more of them. Well, that's one way to read it.

Here's another reading: Now we know why so many people put so much time and energy into demonstrations that are self-evidently worthless, or even counterproductive, in terms of actually achieving their announced political goals.

In the Jim Crow South, a "demonstration" actually demonstrated something: the ability of blacks to speak out together in the face of threats of legal harrassment and deadly force, and the willingness of some whites to stand with them. A contemporary anti-war or right-to-life rally demonstrates only that its participants have nothing better to do, and prefer partying to actual political action.


 

A CONFUCIAN THOUGHT FOR OUR TIMES

Since nothing is more obvious than what is hidden,
keep watch over your actions even when you are alone.

--Loosely translated from Chung Yung (The Doctrine of the Mean)




Monday, December 23, 2002
 

ONE HAND SCRUBS THE OTHER

Atrios quotes Bill Schneider of AEI as saying that Eli Lilly -- the beneficiary of the thimerosal rider on the Homeland Security bill -- bought thousands of copies of a book by Bill Frist -- the author of the amendment -- "to distribute to its customers." If this is true, the impropriety could hardly be more obvious.

Of course, the money couldn't possibly have been important to multi-millionaire Frist, any more than the money involved in the White House travel office could have been important to the Thomasons. But there remains the fact of a direct financial benefit provided by a company that gained enormously from an especially sneaky legislative maneuver to a Senator involved in that maneuver. [But see the update below.] And of course the benefit to Frist of having his book distributed was more than financial; his Presidential ambitions have never been a secret.

In any case, the press has a well-documented tendency to prefer small, simple financial scandals -- or even non-scandals, such as the one involving the House credit union -- to the complicated, serious stories about how influence is really bought and sold in Washington. And the link to the thimerosal shenanigans not only gives the story human interest but also means that it won't go away, because the families, and Sens. Chafee, Collins, and Snowe, aren't going to forget the promise Trent Lott made to revisit the thimerosal question early in the next Congress.

[For more on the thimerosal business, see here and here. To make a very long story short: Some people think that the very rapid rise in the incidence of autism over the past decade has something to do with the expanding number of childhood vaccinations, and in particular the use of a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, made by Eli Lilly and eliminated from the vaccines in 1999. Liability claims against vaccine manufacturers are barred by something called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which sets up a no-fault compensation system instead. But it's not clear that a vaccine additive such as thimerosal would be covered by VICP, leaving Lilly vulnerable to lawsuits. Frist proposed a bill to provide shelter for Lilly by putting additives under VICP. The bill never had hearings, but the provision somehow appeared in the final version of the Homeland Security bill. Even those who think that covering thimerosal under VICP is substantively the right thing to do have nothing good to say about the process. As John McCain said at the time, "I'm too old to vote for this kind of crap." Moreover, it turns out that, due to what seem to have been drafting errors, the provision as passed does close the courts to the families but does not actually make them eligible to apply for compensaton under VICP.]

If Schneider's reported assertion about the books is true, this is a story that might make a splash.

UPDATE

MSNBC confirms that Lilly bought 5000 copies of the book. It adds that the royalties go to two charities designated by Frist. That means that money from Lilly didn't literally find its way into Frist's pocket. I've changed the headline of the post accordingly.

My bad. I should have remembered that the Senate outside income rules require such an arrangment.

The Indianapolis Star, Lilly's hometown paper, has more on Frist's impact on the thimerosal issue. It also quotes a spokesman for Frist as follows:

Smith, Frist's spokesman, said Lilly's promotion of the book did not affect the company's relationship with the senator.

"All of the book sales were handled by the publisher," Smith said. "I don't know that Senator Frist knew who was buying how many copies at what time."


Gee, if we believe that, will you tell us another one?

SECOND UPDATE

Dr. Manahattan reports that the original Frist bill would have fixed the Internal Revenue Code problem; he doesn't mention the time-bar problem. That gets Frist partly off the hook, but intensifies the puzzle about how those provisions got left out in the course of Armey's cut-and-paste job, and why no one noticed.


 

"COLD AS CHARITY"

Next time you hear someone criticizing public income-support programs and talking about how much better it is to handle misfortune via private charity, give that person this to read. Don't read it yourself; it will just make you sad and angry.


 
KRISNA WEPT!

Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Boston Globe, claims that "Hinduism" is largely a nineteenth-century cobbling-together of a variety of largely disconnected indigenous Indian religious practices, seen through the eyes of Western monotheists. Now that the BJP seems to be riding sectarian violence to political dominance -- with little or no audible objection from the United States, happy to have India as an ally against radical Islam -- Misra's account of Hindu nationalism makes grim reading.

It's amazing how often "ancient religious hatreds" turn out to be relatively recent inventions.

[Another find on Arts and Letters Daily.]




 

UN-OOOPS

Reading Mickey Kaus this morning, I had that horrible sinking feeling that only comes from having made a false accusation in public. Following Josh Marshall's lead, I had noted what seemed to be a pretty openly racial appeal from Frist's first run for the Senate in 1994: charging that his opponent, Jim Sasser, had been "transplanting Tennesseans' money to Washington, D.C., home of Marion Barry." What, I demanded rhetorically, did Barry have to do with the Senate race in Tennessee?

Mickey had an answer to that: Sasser was the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, responsible for the federal subsidy to the bloated DC budget. Barry, as mayor, was a legitimate symbol of that. Oooops!

Just as I was pondering whether to eat my words plain or with mango chutney, Josh rode to the rescue, reminding all of us that Marion Barry wasn't the Mayor of Washington in 1994, having been replaced by Sharon Pratt Kelly in 1990. Un-ooops.

Mickey, if you're interested, I have some nice chutney here ...

UPDATE

Oh, my. Mickey seems to have forgotten a basic principle of karma yoga, American style: When you're in a hole, STOP DIGGING.

Responding to Josh Marshall, he says:

The truth is that Barry was a perfectly good synecdoche for Democratic willingness to tolerate failed, bloated, union-hamstrung city governments for fear of offending African-American pols. [Emphasis added.]

So instead of denying that Frist's appeal had racial content, Mickey now insists that it did have racial content, but that was all right because Marion Barry's race was part of a perfectly legitimate issue: Democrats' bad behavior motivated by their "fear of offending African-American pols." He then goes on to suck his thumb hard about whether the Willie Horton ad was also legitimate: Mickey isn't quite sure.

Well, okay. No point arguing about words. If Mickey wants to say that Bill Frist's campaign ethics are no worse than Lee Atwater's --admitting that they were no better -- I for one don't much care whether he calls that sort of behavior "racist" or not. But if that's the conservatives' definition of being non-racist, then the whole Lott affair simply means that Republican politicians need to learn to give their racial appeals some sort of veneer to make them look different from simple bigotry.

Funny, that's sort of what I suspected in the first place.




 

CONCERNING COASEAN LIGHTHOUSES

Daniel Davies of the D-Squared Digest reviews the bidding on the economic history of lighthouses and the famous Coase/Samuelson controversy about public goods. Yes, lighthouses were provided by private entrepreneurs, not by public agencies. But the payments from shipowners were imposed by law, not negotiated, and the system didn't work very well. Score one for the interventionist side.

I've been wondering who on the Web was writing as clearly and entertainingly about microeconomics as Brad DeLong does about macro. Question answered. [Thanks to Electrolite for the link.]



 

SMOKING SOMETHING?

Paul Fishbein has the details of the proposed changes in Canadian cannabis laws up on Drug Policy Digest. It appears that it will be only slightly illegal (a "contravention" punishable by a fine leaving no criminal record) to possess or grow up to 30 grams of cannabis. As Paul points out, that would seem to require home-growers to learn to cultivate something less than one plant. Just another piece of evidence that what Andrew Weil calls "stoned thinking" is at least as characteristic of people who regulate drugs as it is of those who use them.


 


SOME BAD ECONOMIC NEWS FROM ASIA

The foreign editor of The New Republic reports that those spectacular economic-growth numbers coming out of China may be largely fictional. And India, which we all know has become self-sufficient in food, still can't deliver adequate nutrition to half its children, according this report in The Hindu, posted by Brad DeLong.


 

ATTITUDES ON DRUG POLICY

Paul Fishbein at Drug Policy Digest reports on some polling done by Zogby for NORML. He offers the appropriate caveats -- some of the phrasing of the questions was pretty outrageous -- but some of the results are interesting, especially the age gradient, which hasn't been visible in other polling.


Sunday, December 22, 2002
 
MORE ON THE SAUDI/AL QAEDA CONNECTION

Sean-Paul, the Agonist, links to a story by Joel Mowbray at National Review Online, which in turn cites a "report prepared for the United Nations Security Council." I don't know the history here, but "prepared for" is somewhat ambiguous; did the President of the Security Council ask for the report -- written by the firm that's promoting the suit against Saudi Arabia by the families of the 9-11 victims -- or did the author, Jean-Charles Brisard, send it of his own accord?

The document itself is persuasive and detailed, naming persons and institutions, but it seems to be thinly sourced. I lack the competence to evaluate its accuracy. The report focuses on the practice of zakat (charitable giving) as practiced under official auspices in Saudi Arabia; the total sum involved is estimated at $10 billion per year, which means that a little leakage into terrorism funds a lot of terrorism.

A Google for "Saudi terror Brisard" shows nothing on this report, dated December 19. There are earlier stories quoting Brisard in the Washington Times. Pardon me? Where are the allegedly liberal media, and the alleged Democrats, on this issue? The Saudis financed 9-11; the Bushes are in bed with the Saudis; and conservatives are the ones making the fuss?



 

THE THIMEROSAL RIDER: A LEGISLATIVE "OOOPS!"

Dr. Manhattan at Blissful Knowledge (thanks to Instapundit for the pointer) stands to the "pro" side of the thimerosal-rider debate as Dwight Meredith of P.L.A. stands to the "anti" side: a knowledgeable, intelligent, and calm advocate, and a good writer. Now that they are aware of each other, the rest of us can sit back and wait to be enlightened.

However, Dr. Manhattan's latest post seems to me to make the strongest case yet against the rider, and more to the point, against the process by which it was tacked on, without hearings, as a "midnight amendment" to the Homeland Security bill. He cites an article in the authoritative Tax Notes which points out that the terms by which the Vaccine Injury Compensation Trust was established forbid its use to compensate thimerosal victims. [That's aside from the problem that the claims would be time-barred by another provision of the same law.]

Dr. Manhattan's comment: "ooops!" I imagine that the families might use somewhat stronger language. This is exactly the reason that complicated legislation shouldn't be pushed through without hearings. And these two mistakes suggest that Dr. Frist, the sponsor of the original amendment, Dick Armey, who has sorta-kinda acknowledged that he was responsible for pasting it into the Homeland Security bill, and the still-anonymous-but-widely-believed-to-be-Mitch-Daniels White House gnome who passed the word to Armey all failed to perform due diligence. (Unless, that is, it was their intention to deprive the families of the right to sue and "accidentally" leave them with no recourse whatever.) If you're going to short-cut the process, you ought to be certain you've got the substance right.

There's nothing that keeps the new Congress from fixing these problems. But the Lilly lobbyists, and their friends on the Hill, including the new Majority Leader, now have the huge advantage of the status quo. And Frist may not regard himself as being bound by the promises to undo the damage that Trent Lott made (and immediately started to back away from) to hold on to the Republican moderate votes he needed to pass the bill last session. The families and their friends are now in the position of begging the other side for whatever concessions it might deign to offer. Not a pretty picture.

As to Dr. Manhattan's suggestion that the Congress might repeal the amendment entirely if a mercury-autism link were shown, thus exposing Eli Lilly to bankruptcy, what planet is that prediction about? Not the one I live on. I can recite the arguments now: (1) It wasn't Lilly's fault; (2) We can't afford to lose a major pharmaceutical company; (3) We need the smallpox vaccine, and no one will produce it unless VICP is known to be airtight.

For all we know, there's a "smoking gun" memo somewhere in Lilly's files, where a company researcher says "We should check whether the mercury burden in all these new vaccines might create a risk of autism" and his boss writes back "Forget it." If such a memo were to come out, the pressure to throw Lilly to the wolves might become overwhelming. But no Congressional committee is going to find that memo. Only the greedy tort lawyers will, and they're now out of this business by Congressional fiat.

The final outcome of the tobacco cases was disgusting, and I've said so in print. But let's not forget that we now know, rather than merely suspecting, that the companies were consciously creating and maintaining nicotine addiction, only because the tort lawyers finally managed to beat the documents out of them. Ditto with the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse: all the key documents came out of civil lawsuits, and it was only then that the public prosecutors began to come in with criminal charges.

Litigation is a nasty process, which is why I tend to prefer regulation and no-fault compensation of victims as means to dealing with risky products and services. But as long as money talks as loudly as it now does on Capitol Hill, litigation will remain the most effective route to uncovering and punishing some kinds of corporate malfeasance.

[Previous thimerosal post here.]




 

MORE ON SMALLPOX: BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.

Ever hear of "Dark Winter"? Me neither. Phil Carter has. Don't read close to bedtime.

Notes:

1. Time to add the Secretary of HHS to the NSC?
2. Time to get an HHS Secretary who knows something about medicine?
3. Who's the senior health official at Homeland Security?

Earlier post here. Thanks to Eugene Volokh and Glenn Reynolds for the links.

Brookings will have a paper out and available on line Monday at 10 am.

Via Glenn, here's the "Consensus Statement" on smallpox as a bioweapon, published in JAMA three years ago. [Link requires subscription, but your organization, especially if it's a university, may be a subscriber. Or you can pay nine bucks.] It mentions that only some states have mandatory-isolation laws; has anyone followed up on this? It also mentions a three-year lead time to gin up vaccine production capacity. Ugh!


Hey, there, you in the left blogosphere! Yeah, you! This is about ten times as important as Trent Lott, AND it's a terrific issue to make against Bush and the Mayberry Machiavellis. Smallpox is a major national security issue, and they wimped out on it. Let's have some noise here!

Next in thread here

 

REVENGE OF THE PO-MOS

Did you have a good laugh when a physicist got his spoof paper on the textuality of quantum physics published in a journal of cultural criticism? Did you ever wonder, just for a moment, whether some of the cosmologists were just making it up as they went along? Read, and weep.

Now that the score is even -- though the latest case seems to involve unintentional nonsense rather than hoaxing -- it's worth noticing that there's less here than meets the eye. The Sokal hoax didn't prove that the entire project of post-modern cultural criticism was empty, and the latest fiasco doesn't prove that about cosmology.

It's too bad that referees sometimes sign off on worthless papers, but journal publication isn't the same as influence on a field. If either the hoax cult-crit paper or the worthless cosmology papers had been cited in other papers published in good journals, that would have said something pretty devastating about the fields involved. But that doesn't seem to have happened in either case. (Sokal's immediate revelation of his own hoax can be seen as putting a premature end to what he calls his "experiment" on cultural studies.)

Someone pointed out that the institution of blogging has solved the basic problem that plagues other forms of on-line interactivity: flaming. A blogger can post whatever offensive nonsense he wants; if no one links to it, no real harm is done. In that regard, journal scholarship is like blogging. Data-based hoaxes, a la Bellesiles, matter, both because (not being obviously nonsensical) they do get cited in the professional literature and because non-scholars use their results in real-world arguments. But theoretical nonsense -- as opposed to the subjectivism that seems to have been Sokal's real target -- threatens mostly the reputations of the journals in which it appears.

[Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for the pointer.]



Saturday, December 21, 2002
 

A YIDDISH PROVERB FOR BLOGGERS TO PONDER

Never argue with a fool.
People might not be able to tell the difference.


 

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY!

Nebraska Right-to-Life apparently learned its ethics from the Watergate conspirators. Stephen Charest of To the Barricades reports in clear, clean prose and with what can only be called unholy glee. A man after my own heart.



 

A HAPPY SOLSTICE TO ONE AND ALL

Light returning, light increasing.





 

NEW CANADIAN CANNABIS POLICY

Paul Fishbein at the Drug Policy Digest reports on Canada's proposals to change its cannabis laws to eliminate the threat of arrest for simple cannabis possession. (The post doesn't mention the proposal that had been floated in the press to decriminalize growing cannabis for personal use.) Paul goes on to reflect on the likely impact on the drug situation and drug policy in the US.




 

DIAGNOSIS

J.D. Connor (or perhaps a headline-writer) at Slate has finally given a name to the madness that is Bush Adminisration economic policy: Deficit Attention Disorder.


 

FOLLOW-UP

Did any of the folks who were calling Ron Suskind a liar over the DiIulio story ever apologize? Patrick Ruffino, for example, or Robert Novak or Ari Fleischer?

No, I didn't think so.

Does it bother anybody but me that the official spokesman for the President of the United States seems to tell fibs just to keep in practice?

But note how successful the Bushies were in turning the issue from their utter lack of seriousness about domestic policy first to the question about Suskind's veracity and then to the morality play about DiIulio's recantation.


Friday, December 20, 2002
 


MORE WISDOM FROM WILLIAM BLAKE


The man who pretends to be a modest inquirer
into the truth of a self-evident thing
is a knave.


 


WORDS TO LIVE BY


From Tanya, the Redsugar Muse (with thinks to the Gweilo Diarist for the pointer to Tanya):

there are better reasons to hate people than the color of their skin.
hate them for the content of their character, dammit.





 


BLAKE WAS RIGHT!

A Truth that's told with bad intent,
Beats all the Lies you can invent.


Nine true statements add up to one crashing falsehood.

So here's the tenth question for the quiz. It's fill-in-the-blanks, rather than multiple choice:

When white racists found themselves no longer comfortable in the ---------- Party, they joined the ---------- Party, which welcomed them, catered to their prejudices, and rode their support to national dominance.




 

NOT THE DAMNED HAIRCUT AGAIN!

I have no notion why Eugene Volokh, whose good sense and good taste I admire, found this slimy little bit of vituperation worth linking to. Perhaps whoever can explain that can also explain why Kerry's $75 haircuts make him ineligible to compete for the good-old-boy vote, while Bush's $2000 Oxxford suits don't.



 

BILL FRIST PLAYS THE RACE CARD

Before the entire conservative movement dislocates its collective shoulder patting itself on the back about having purged itself of racism -- by demoting Trent Lott to the lowly position of United States Senator -- here's a world from our alternate Majority Leader, courtesy of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo. Marshall quotes a Frist campaign speech from 1994:

While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry.

Perhaps someone can come up with an innocent (i.e., non-racist) meaning for that speech. But I can't. Sasser wasn't backing extra payments to the DC municipal government. Presumably, by "transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington," Frist meant supporting federal programs generically. (Tennessee, like most of the red states, is of course a huge net gainer from the Federal fisc, but let that pass.) So what did Marion Barry have to do with the price of fish?

As Marshall adds, there's no reason to think that Frist is a racist personally, any more than there's reason to think that about GWB. But each of them was willing to benefit from frankly racial appeals when the chips were down, because that's a principal way Republicans win elections in the South. If the Republicans want to shed the stigma of racism, they're going to have to be willing to give up its benefits.

Really and truly, it wasn't just Lott.






 

HOW IT WORKS

Did you ever wonder how it comes to be that anyone, after the 2000 and 2002 campaigns, still believes in the fairytale about liberal bias in the mass media? Well, here's a tiny example.

Glenn Reynolds links to a post on a deservedly obscure blog called Fraters Libertas. He writes (I quote in full):

FRATERS LIBERTAS DOES A BIAS TEST on AP's description of Bill Frist. It comes back positive.

That's all. Most of the tens of thousands of people who see that post won't bother to click through. They will trust Glenn (perhaps not noticing that he hasn't exactly endorsed the finding of bias) and note that the AP is biased against Bill Frist. Well, what do you expect from the liberal media, anyway?

The minority that clicks through will find this (again quoting in full):

You've got to love the way the Associated Press chooses to introduce new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to America:


With Lott's departure, Frist, a close ally of Bush, was the only publicly declared candidate to replace him and quickly emerged as the favorite to do so, lawmakers and aides said. The Tennessee lawmaker, a wealthy heart surgeon, revealed his candidacy Thursday evening and had garnered public support from several key senators, including Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, No. 2 Senate Republican Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and John Warner of Virginia.

A close Bush ally? And he's wealthy? Come on now AP, is it really newsworthy that a member of the Senate Republican leadership is a Bush ally? Or that a heart surgeon is wealthy? I don't want to tell you professional journalists your business, but no, it's not. If the opposite were true, then that would bear mentioning. Something like, "Bill Frist, an indigent, homeless heart surgeon and avowed enemy of the Bush administration is the only declared candidate to assume leadership of the Senate." See how that jumps off the page and grabs you by the lapels? That's the definition of news, baby! Keep listening to me boys and people may just stop reading blogs and start coming back to the daily fish wrap for the truth.


Note that the brothers don't actually accuse the AP of "bias." (That was Glenn's contribution.) But note also that both of their points are wrong.

Frist isn't merely a prosperous heart surgeon. He's what they call in Texas "Big Rich," with a personal fortune somewhere in eight figures. That leaves him a poor relation compared to his billionaire brother, who runs the for-profit hospital giant HCA, but it's still a lot more than the typical heart surgeon can show. It would be fair to criticize the AP for using such a weak word as "wealthy" to describe Frist, but his wealth is certainly a newsworthy fact about him. So is the fact that most of it is still in HCA stock, which gives Frist an automatic conflict of interest every time a health care issue is debated. [So long, patient's bill of rights.] The stock is supposed to be in a blind trust, but in fact the trust barely needs glasses; Frist knows perfectly well where his money is, and of course his brother's holdings are public record.

As to being a supporter of the President, Frist is closer to the White House than Lott, whom he replaces, or Nickles or Santorum, who seemed to be his competition. The choice of Frist is a clear win for Rove and Bush. That's also news.

So we start with a perfectly reasonable piece of political reporting, filter it through the ignorance of some obscure blogger, add a little bit of spin from the world's least obscure blogger, and -- Hey, presto! -- we have more evidence of media bias. And as always, a misstatement takes about ten times as long to explain as it did to concoct. I don't have any reason to think that either the Fraters or Glenn were in bad faith; they just saw what they wanted and expected to see, and passed it on to an audience that wants and expects to see the same things.

And that's the way it's done.


 

PRIMUM NON NOCERE: ET SECUNDUM, ET TERTIUM, AD NAUSEUM

A RAND report in the NEJM estimates that pre-emptive mass smallpox vaccination would have a positive expected value of lives saved if the risk of a high-level attack exceeds 1%. It then recommends against mass vaccination.

That can't possibly be right; what basis is there for thinking that the risk of a major attack is as low as 1%? (And why should we take an attack on 10 airports as the worst case?)

Moreover, the report makes three crucial mistakes:

First, it ignores all the non-mortality impacts of a smallpox attack against an unprotected population: not only temporary disruption and panic, but the substantial risk of sometimes heartbreaking disfigurement.

Second, it ignores the benefits of pre-emptive mass vaccination in case of a hoax attack.

Third, it ignores the deterrent effect of pre-emptive vaccination. Vaccination reduces not only the damage from an attack, but also the risk of an attack, since it means that a potential attacker has less to gain.

The study also seems to assume that the efficacy of post-attack contact tracing followed by isolation and vaccination is independent of the number of susceptibles in the population, which hardly seems plausible. (More fundamentally, it also assumes that the post-attack response will work as well in real life as it does on paper, which is hardly a conservative assumption with respect to the conclusion the study draws, but is not reflected in the sensitivity analysis.)

The estimated death toll from mass national vaccination is about 500: about 3 per million vaccinated. Are we really going to put the whole country at risk of a devastating attack in order to avoid 500 deaths? Now primum non nocere -- first, do no harm -- is a valuable maxim of medicine. But if doing no harm were all we expected of our health care system, I know where we could save a trilliion and a half dollars a year. At some point, health care needs to do some good, even at some risk.

The report is a good illustration of why M.D.s and Ph.D.s in public health aren't reliable substitutes for people with serious training in policy analysis. Any second-year MPP student should have been able to spot those issues.

The report isn't a matter of merely academic interest, since the policy it recommends -- vaccinating health-care workers only -- is the one the Administration is actually pursuing. I hope this means that we have good intelligence showing that Iraq doesn't have the capacity to mount a smallpox attack. If we're about to be at war with Iraq, and if we're not morally certain that Iraq has no such capacity, it's time for some actual homeland defense.

UPDATE: ANOTHER GOOD REASON TO GO AHEAD

Duhhhhhhh.... I forgot that a substantial smallpox outbreak in the US would certainly spread to other countries, which is another major cost of not going ahead with vaccination now. Vaccinating our health care workers won't do anything to protect the rest of the planet. Even ignoring humanitarian considerations -- which we shouldn't -- explaining to everybody else in the world why we decided to put them at risk wouldn't be any fun at all.

Glenn Reynolds, who made the international point before I did, tells me that the real reason for not going ahead with mass vaccination now is logistics. If that's right, I know what Tom Ridge's first job ought to be: breaking the logjam and getting this job done.

SECOND UPDATE

Phil Carter notes that the Pentagon is drawing up plans for the use of the military to enforce quarantines in case of a bio-warfare attack, and points out that in those circumstances procedural niceties would have to bow to public health. One more cost of not vaccinating now.

[More here.]

 

YOU'RE KIDDING ME, RIGHT?

Bin Laden's brother and brother-in-law were investors in GWB's oil business? Does anyone know if this is for real?

 


THE 9-11 PROBE


As virtually his last official act as the Republican leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, bowing to White House pressure, stiffed the 9-11 victims' families by not appointing Warren Rudman to the 9-11 commission. It's fair to ask what the White House was afraid of. Meanwhile, it turns out that former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who has no obvious qualifications for dealing with the issues before the Commission, is on the board of Amerada Hess, which does extensive business with Saudi Arabia. Now that's reassuring.

 


"ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF ABSENCE"

Dwight Meredith has a long, reflective post at P.L.A., summing up the state of play on the thimerosal issue.

 

ANY STICK TO BEAT A DOG?

Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, thinks that Cardinal Law is a bad, bad person.

Right.

She thinks he has done awful things.

Right.

She thinks he deserves to be punished.

Right.

She thinks that it's too bad the laws of Massachusetts don't actually forbid any of those awful things.

Right.

She thinks that prosecutors should try to invent some new legal theory to convict him anyway, because he is a bad, bad person who has done awful things and deserves to be punished.

Wrong!


Thursday, December 19, 2002
 

"...A MUCH WORSE STATE THAN I THOUGHT"

Michelle Boardman of the Volokh Conspiracy (permalinks aren't working now, but the post is from this morning) objects to Bill Clinton's blast at what he calls "Republican hypocrisy." Michelle says,

...if one of our two national political parties is founded on and driven by racism, we are in a much worse state than I thought.

Well, "founded on and driven by" is certainly too strong, but would you believe "deeply and persistently entangled with"?

Remember, Lott's record was no secret, though the media hadn't played it up until now. His colleages knew perfectly well what they were voting for when they chose him Majority Leader.

And it's not just Lott. (See "Cadence Count," below). No Republican since Eisenhower has won the White House without playing footsie with the sheetheads.

Latest example: John McCain's campaign was paying a $20,000 a month consulting fee to the editor of Southern Partisan magazine, which runs articles praising slavery and ads for t-shirts with Lincoln's picture and the words "Sic Semper Tyrannus."

That's John McCain. He knew that to win the nomination he needed to win South Carolina, where the editor, Richard Quinn, served as his campaign chair, and that to win a South Carolina Republican primary he needed a share of the unreconstructed vote. So he did what he thought he had to do. In the end, it wasn't enough: Bush's buddies out-race-baited him by, among other things, spreading the word that his Sri Lankan adopted daughter was his natural child by a black woman.

Has anyone checked the Memorial to see if Lincoln's statue is weeping?


 

CADENCE COUNT

It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just LOTT!

Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}
Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}

[Again!]

It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just LOTT!

Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}
Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}

[Louder!]

It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just LOTT!

Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}
Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}

[LOUDER!]

It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just LOTT!

Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}
Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}

[AHHHHHH CAAAAAIN'T HEEEEEEEEEER YOOOOOOOOOOOO!]

It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just Lott!
It-wasn't-just LOTT!

Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}
Thurmond! Nixon! Reagan! Bush! ASHcroft! {two, three, four}

[Good! Now keep it going!]

It-wasn't just Lott!
It-wasn't just Lott! ....


 

FOR THE SPLIT INFINITIVE

The whole prescription/description argument about usage strikes me as embodying a category mistake. Prescription and description are properly theories of lexicography: A dictionary can either try to reflect the language as it is actually used, or it can try to reflect the language as those who are its most skilled users think it ought to be used. But we all have to be prescriptive in deciding what to say ourselves and in evaluating (when we must) things said by others, such as our students or writers whose word choice we decide to make fun of. (Not, I would argue prescriptively, "of whose word choice we decide to make fun," because this is an informal rather than a formal setting and because "make fun of" is an idiom that can properly be treated as a "virtual verb" in such constructions.)

Now in prescribing to ourselves or others how to use the language, we can take either an "elitist" view, which will tend toward conservatism in accepting change, or a "democratic" view, which will tend toward ready acceptance of innovation. An elitist will want to use dictionaries and usage manuals prepared according to prescriptivist theories, while a democrat will find descriptivist manuals more useful. I tend to elitism, while Eugene Volokh has democratic leanings, and we've gone back and forth on issues such as (not "like") the "nucular" pronunciation.

But today he boldly stands up for the grossly slandered split infinitive, and I proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him against the hordes of offended pedants who assail it. The prejudice against the split infinitive stems, I have been told, from the tendency to try to fit English grammar into the categories of Latin. Where Latin makes its verbs do different jobs mostly by inflecting their endings, English does the same thing mainly by adding auxiliary words. In Latin, the infinitive is a single word, which is, as we all know, unbe-f*cking-leivably hard to split. In English, though, it's two words, and there's no earthly reason not to put an adverb between them when the construction makes it natural to do so. No one would think twice about "splitting" a phrase including a verb and its other helpers: "I was happily going to the store" is both impeccable grammatically and different in meaning from "I happily was going to the store." Why treat the infinitive differently, just because it was a single word in a different language?

Stubbornly to insist on unsplit infinitives is pointlessly to annoy the reader.

UPDATE

A reader points out that the final sentence above is needlessly tortured, and proposes the following unsplit construction: "To insist on unsplit infinitives stubbornly is to annoy the reader pointlessly." He's right about the final prase, which is much better with "pointlessly" at the end. I'd still put "stubbornly" in the split position, though, to avoid having the reader try to parse "stubbornly is to annoy" until it becomes obvious that the adverb refers back and not forward.

[In a follow-up post, Eugene identifies the Latinate origins of the taboo -- with Dryden as the villain of the piece -- and claims a similar origin for the prepostion-at-the-end taboo, up with which I will not put.]



 


NUKE THE WINDMILLS!

Would you like to start a fistfight at a gathering of eco-fanatics? How about pitting wind power against migratory birds?


 

MORAL RESPONSIBILITY IS NOT A PROBABILITY DENSITY FUNCTION

Sometimes people do damage to themselves, or incur the risk of doing so, at the (often not disinterested) prompting of others. Call this pattern "temptation," and the parties the tempted and the tempter. The tempted, and their friends, often blame the tempters for the bad results, and sometimes sue them or demand that the activity of temptation be constrained by law. The tempters, and their friends, always respond that the tempted need to start taking personal responsibility for their actions, and that the tempters can't be held accountable for the foolish acts of others.

The proposition that the blamelessness of the tempter follows from the responsibility of the tempted strikes me as obviously fallacious, but clearly many other people find it convincing. Since disagreeing with me is clear proof of error, the question arises as to the origin of this error, and I think I have found it.

That "It's not A's fault; it's B's fault" seems to embody a valid argument stems from the intuition that the moral responsibilities in a situation must sum to unity, like the probabilities of a set of events that partition an outcome space. But that intuition is transparently false. An outcome may be largely the result of chance, or of impersonal physical or social forces, in which case the human responsibilities sum to less than one, or it can be the result of independent actions by a variety of persons, each a necessary condition of the end result, in which case the sum of the responsibilities will be greater than one.

After all, the Lord seems to have held Adam, Eve, and the Serpent all fully responsible for that unfortunate business with the apple.

[Every time I try to illustrate a general conceptual point with a policy example, somebody or other crawls all over me, assuming that I'm only arguing the general point in order to push my policy preference about the example (, he grumped). So I won't this time. Instantiation is left as an exercise for the reader.]



 

A NUMBER TO PASTE IN YOUR HAT

William Gale and Peter Orszag at Brookings estimate that adding 1% of GDP -- roughly $100 billion at current rates -- to the long-run annual Federal budget deficit will add between half a percentage point and one percentage point (50 to 100 "basis points" to long-term interest rates. So if the Bush tax cuts, once fully in place in 2010, will reduce Federal revenues by about $300 billion per year, that would add about 200 basis points to long-term interest rates (remembering that the GDP will be bigger by then).

That helps explain why, even with inflation, inflation expectations, and short-term interest rates all very low, long-term interest rates have stayed up: since January 2001, the interest rate on three-month Treasury bills is down from from 5.5% to 1.25% -- a drop of 425 basis points -- but 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rates are down only 110 basis points, from 7.25% to 6.15%. Long-term rates are naturally less volatile than short-term rates, so one wouldn't expect anything like a point-for-point drop, but the stickiness of long rates has been remarkable.

Brad DeLong provides a link, and a quick explanation of why -- contrary to the protestations coming from the vicinity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- expected deficits increase interest rates and thus depress long-run economic growth.




Wednesday, December 18, 2002
 

INCENTIVIZING RANDOMNESS

Great seminar yesterday by my colleague Tom Kane. The talk focused on a major problem with the "No child left behind" bill, which proposes to create incentives for schools to perform well by rewarding and punishing schools and their staffs for year-to-year changes in student test scores.

The problem is measurement error, both random and non-random. [This is separate from the problem of systematic cheating due to Dukenfield's Law of Incentive Management.] The measurement error is large compared to the actual variability among schools; as a result, incentive programs that reward, e.g., "most improved" schools wind up, as Tom said, "Mostly paying for the noise rather than the signal."

In addition, since the sampling error goes down as sample size rises, small schools are much more likely to be rewarded and much more likely to be punished than larger schools; the principal of a big school has so little chance of getting a prize as to largely eliminate any incentive effect. When schools a rewarded only if every identified ethnic group does well, and punished if any of them does badly, schools with heterogeneous populations will predictably come up on the short end.

Apparently no one in the White House or on the Hill noticed any of this until Tom and his collaborator Doug Staiger pointed it out: after the bill had passed both houses and had gone to conference.



 

MANTRAM

Not a speech,
a lifetime.
Not a man,
a platform.

Not a speech,
a lifetime.
Not a man,
a platform.

[Say it with me.]

Not a speech,
a lifetime.
Not a man,
a platform.


[Say it slowly]


Not a speech,
a lifetime.
Not a man,
a platform.


[All together, now.]


Not a speech,
a lifetime.
Not a man,
a platform.

[Now you try it.]

Not a speech ....



Tuesday, December 17, 2002
 

SHEETHEADS

Philippe DeCroy of the Volokh Conspiracy is so offended by a comment from Paul Krugman that he refuses to link to it. [I wonder if Eugene's criticism of public inter-blog delinking ceremonies extends to ostentatious non-linking to other media?]

Here's the comment:

"The media were shocked, shocked to discover that prominent Republicans have a soft spot for segregation � something that was obvious long before Mr. Lott inserted his foot in his mouth."

And here's the link. (The segregation comment is actually a throwaway in a story about the new policy permitting religious discrimination in hiring for publicly-funded positions under the faith-based initiative.)

I'm not sure what the pseudonymous Monsieur DeCroy's objection is. Perhaps Krugman would have been wiser to insert "some" before "prominent Republicans" and to substitute "segregationists" for "segregation." Otherwise, it's a statement of sober fact, reflecting Nixon's Southern strategy, Reagan at the Neshoba County Fair, the elder Bush awarding Thurmond the Medal of Freedom (!), the younger Bush pandering to the seggie vote in the crucial South Carolina primary, and so on and so on.

It's not just the leadership, either: only a third of Republican voters think that Lott should step down as Majority Leader, according to the ABC News poll. (Of course, the view they express is a reasonable one if they think the issue is simply Lott's boneheaded comment, which has been the main spin on the story, rather than the careerful of evidence that the comment reflected Lott's genuine feelings. A quarter of Democrats, and a quarter of African-Americans, also think that Lott shouldn't step down. This suggests to me a role for Democratic politicians, and anti-segregationist bloggers of all political persuasions: Help make it clear to the country that this isn't about a speech, but about a career and a political strategy.)

Anyway, I wouldn't advise M. DeCroy to read Chris Andersen's post on Interesting Times ; it would just raise his blood pressure. Andersen talks about the GOP's racial strategy and its need to get out of that box:

"The Southern Strategy, first formulated in Nixon's time, was a deliberate attempt to win electoral advantage by giving aid and comfort to racists and bigots...The problem for the Republicans is that, once let into the living room, it has become increasingly difficult to keep these embarassing relatives from lounging on the front-porch making obnoxious comments to others passing by."

Andersen, whose blog joins the blogroll, also relays Gene Lyons's one-word description of segregationist-leaning voters: "sheetheads." Perfect!



 

ANOTHER CONSERVATIVE GETS TIRED OF THE DRUG WAR

The Agitator is pleased to see that Dan Burton, the (very conservative) outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform (that's the old GovOps) is so frustrated with the failure of the drug war to eliminate the drug problem that he is talking in public about "taking the profit out of drugs," by which he seems to mean creating some sort of legal market that would undercut the illicit market.

Burton's claims about how the drug problem just gets worse and worse are hard to reconcile with the data, but it's certainly true that the enormous expansion of drug law enforcement over the past two decades (going from about 30,000 dealers in prison to about 450,000 dealers in prison) hasn't had nearly the effect on the illicit markets that a simple model would have predicted: heroin and cocaine prices are both down about 80% over that period, adjusting for purity and inflation.

Burton doesn't make it clear just what he's proposing, or what he expects to happen. I can't tell whether he thinks (1) "taking the money out of drugs" would lead to less consumption because it would reduce the glamour and turn off the marketing effort, (2) the same amount because everyone who wants drugs already gets them, or (3) more consumption but less black-market crime, and he's willing to take that trade-off.

In my opinion (1) and (2) represent extremely poor guesses about the hypothetical future.

(3) is an arguable position, and how you ought to react to it depends both on the drug under discussion and on how you weigh harms to self against harms to others, and how you weigh damage to the middle class (whose kids are to some extent protected against addiction by the drug laws) against damage to the inner cities wracked by the drug trade.

Making heroin legal would benefit crime victims and current heroin addicts at the expense of marginal heroin addicts -- those not addicted under current policy who would become addicted if it were legal. It would also benefit those who would otherwise have become involved in heroin dealing (which is a superficially attractive but predictably disastrous career choice) and who under the new conditions would stay within the legal economy. Since the crime victims, drug dealers, and current addicts are concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where heroin is already readily available, and the marginal addicts are mostly non-poor, the bulk of the benefits of legalization go to the inner city and the bulk of the costs go to people who voted for Dan Burton.

Now given a straight-up choice, I'd rather protect people from one another than from themselves, and would be reluctant to help the better-off at the expense of the worse-off or whites at the expense of blacks and Latinos. If legalizing heroin led to only a 50% increase in the number of heroin addicts, I'd be for it.

But what if it led to a fivefold increase, from the roughly 1 million we now have to 5 million? That would still be only a third of the number of problem drinkers, which is the best estimate I have of the number of people likely to get in trouble with a legal intoxicant that has a significant "capture rate" from occasional use to abuse and dependency. (Heroin would probably be less popular than alcohol even if it were legal, but it would probably have a higher "capture rate.") If that were the result, I think I'd prefer to stick with our current laws.

Cocaine is an even less attractive candidate for legalization, since cocaine, especially combined with alcohol, is much more likely than heroin to lead to acting-out that damages other people. Methamphetamine is a worse candidate yet, since it's at least as nasty behaviorally as cocaine but generates much lower enforcement costs under prohibition.

The most plausibly legalizable drug among the currently popular illicit drugs is cannabis. I would support a policy under which people who wanted to grow and use cannabis, or grow it and give it away, didn't face any legal penalty for doing so, but under which sales would remain forbidden. (That would avoid the huge increase in problem cannabis consumption that would result if the beer and tobacco companies were able to turn their marketing ingenuity loose on the project of creating and maintaining cannabis abuse and dependency.) But cannabis isn't the drug that's filling our prisons or generating the bulk of the drug-market violence. Non-commercial legalization of cannabis would leave the bulk of the costs of the drug war exactly where they are.

What's discouraging about Burton's comments is that he proceeds directly from the observation that current policies have unsatisfactory results to the conclusion that we need to move to their polar opposite. It's either the drug war in all its dumb, cruel, ineffective glory or some version of selling the stuff across the counter. That's a view that both drug warriors and their "drug reform" opponents find congenial, since it spares them the effort of thinking.

What that reasoning leaves out is the possibilty of getting drug prohibition right. That would involve (very partial list):

1. Redesigning drug law enforcement to target specifically dealers, and styles of dealing that generate the most external costs: violence, neighborhood disruption, and the use of juveniles as apprentice dealers.

2. Reducing the volume of drug-dealing arrests and the sentences for drug offenses to cut the incarceration burden of the drug laws in half.

3. Using the the probation, parole, and pretrial release systems to control drug use among drug-involved offenders, who among them consume more than half the volume of the hard drugs.

4. Taxing alcohol more heavily, and moving to deny access to alcohol to those convicted of drunken assault or drunken driving.

[For more thoughts on practical drug policies, see here and here.]

The bulk of both mass and elite opinion today supports the drug war, though somewhat dispiritedly. A smaller but vigorous movement opposes it and wants to more or less repeal the drug laws. No one has yet succeeded in putting any significant organizational muscle behind the project of cleaning up the current drug control effort to make it serve the public interest better. I'm open to suggestions.




 

AN 'AUSTRIAN' DEFENSE OF THE TORT SYSTEM

Sasha Volokh has a thoughtful and well-reasoned post in which he confronts Ben Stein about the notion that tort lawsuits somehow represent an intrusion of "big government" into the otherwise pristine workings of the market system. No, says Sasha, the tort system is a way to force economic actors to take into account the risks their actions impose on others, just as they should. Compared to explicit regulation, tort suits are both decentralized and relatively immune to some of the rent-seeking that goes on in the legislative and administrative processes. Thus, from a libertarian perspective, the common-law tort system is actually the preferred means of regulation.

All of that seems right, though I'd offer a modification to Sasha's argument. He says that ideally an entrepreneur would get all the benefits and pay all the costs of his innovation, and argues that tort damages are part of "all the costs." But -- putting aside the external-benefit point, which Sasha makes -- the only entrepreneur who gets all the benefits of his innovation is the hypothetical price-discriminating monopolist. In the more usual case, there are consumers' surpluses. (Being forbidden to buy a vaccine at the market price would leave the consumer worse off.)

So if we stick manufacturers with all the costs, but can't secure for them all the benefits, then the overall level of market activity will be suboptimally low. Tax-induced and other "wedges" just make this worse.

That suggests second-order policies to deal with the distortions caused by first-order policies, which was exactly Hayek's fear: that each intervention becomes a justification for the next. Not being a libertarian, I don't regard that as a problem, but I agree that it's a fact.

From a non-libertarian perspective, I'd think about the tort-liability problem somewhat differently. Market-based activity sometimes creates risks of large, stochastically-distributed losses. The expected value of those risks ought to be thought of as a cost of the activity, and the market will not function properly unless the party which generates the risk is forced to pay the cost. In addition, those who are at risk of suffering large losses have a reason to want to spead that risk around (risk aversion due to the diminishing marginal utility of income). Sometimes private insurance can accomplish that risk-spreading, but often private insurance markets fail due to adverse selection and moral hazard.

So we need a system both to limit risk-imposing actions and to compensate large-volume losers from such actions. Tort litigation competes with regulation plus social insurance as a way to serve those two purposes. Which system, or combination, is best will vary from circumstance to circumstance. The people who praise Europe for not having an American tort system also criticize it for having lots of regulation and generous social insurance. But the two sets of choices aren't independent. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

UPDATE

Sasha responds, and corrects my imperfect statement of his position. His bottom line is precisely mine, about this and most other policy choices:

As it happens, what we have to choose between in reality is the imperfect tort system and an imperfect regulatory system.





Monday, December 16, 2002
 

ORGANIZING THE SENATE

Thanks to the Daily Kos for this link to RonK, the Cogent Provocateur, who gives us the inside baseball about Organizing Resolutions. Most important fact: the Vice-President's tie-breaking vote probably doesn't apply to matters of Senate organization, so if the chamber is 50-50 the status quo continues. In any case, it continues until a new Organizing Resolution is voted, which gives the Democrats some leverage. Oddest fact: a majority of both Democratic and Republican Senators come from states where the governor is of the opposite party. (So much for "Red" and "Blue" as metaphysical categories.)



 


ASHCROFT NEXT

Speaking of Confederate sympathizers, Atrios is on the case once again.






 

CLASS WARFARE FROM THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION

Remember how the Bushies denounced any attempt to determine the allocation of the Bush tax cuts among the income percentiles as "class warfare"? Turns out Republicans don't believe in preaching class warfare; they just go ahead and practice it. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty.

The Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers are hard at work on increasing taxes for the non-rich. First step: redefinition. Let's make the current system look more progressive than it is, so we can then make it less progressive without feeling guilty.

[The convention of ignoring the regressivity of state and local taxes, and treating the federal system as if it existed in a vacuum, is too well established to be worth mentioning, so I won't. But Timothy Noah at Slate does, with links to the numbers.]

Since the payroll tax for Social Security is the federal tax that hits the non-wealthy hardest, the folks at Treasury have now decided that -- could I possibly make this stuff up? -- they're not taxes after all. Why not? Because the people who pay them later collect benefits. (No one who pays income tax, of course, gets any benefit at all out of the programs the income tax supports.)

Isn't that a pleasant surprise? Of course, if they're not taxes, than the payouts from Social Security aren't "government spending," either. Can we expect that from now on the estimates of the share of government spending in GDP are going to be adjusted accordingly?

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal had an editorial lamenting that lower-income Americans didn't carry their fair share of the tax burden. It was carefully weasel-worded to avoid drawing the obvious inference, but the distance from saying that someone's taxes are too low to proposing that they should be increased isn't really very great. However, when Paul Krugman reported that the WSJ was urging a tax increase for the poor, he was promptly called a liar by the usual claque: Andrew Sullivan for example.

I'm waiting to hear some apologies to Krugman.

...I'm still waiting....

Hello? Hello?

Oh, forget it. How about a little outrage on the substance, though?


 

HAS MDMA USE PEAKED?

The annual statistics on high-school drug use from the Monitoring the Future survey get more attention (within the little world of drug policy) than they probably deserve. The survey tells us much more about casual drug use than it does about problem drug use. But this year's numbers are not without interest. Paul Fishbein provides a good summary, with links.

The new results largely confirm the downtrend in drug use of all kinds among eighth-graders; from the peak in 1996, most of the numbers are halfway or more than halfway back to the low point in 1991. The tenth-grade and twelfth-grade numbers are coming down more slowly.

More interestingly, the new results seem to show a break in trend for what had been the fastest-growing drug, MDMA ("ecstasy"). The other big drug survey, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), shows a rapidly rising trend in MDMA "initiation" (i.e, first use) through 2001, and lots of us thought that MDMA was on track to become the second-most-widely-used illegal drug, after cannabis. That could still happen, but the new figures lengthen the odds.

As Paul points out, there is a correlation between self-reported risk perceptions about particular drugs and disapproval about their use and self-reported use of those drugs. One theory to account for this is that perceived risk and disapproval prevent initiation. If that's true, the current strategy of putting out scary stories about whatever drug is currently coming into fashion is likely to be effective in reducing its spread.

Another theory that covers the same facts is that the more students think their peers regard using a drug as risky and bad, the less likely they are to say they use it when filling out a survey form in a classroom with their classmates present, whether they actually use it or not. (We know that such response bias is a problem, since the classroom numbers from Monitoring the Future are always much higher than the numbers collected from the the same age range as part of the NHSDA, where the survey is conducted in the home with the parents present.) Insofar as that theory is right, the anti-drug ads may influence reported behavior more than actual behavior. (Astonishingly, despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on the two surveys, neither does a confirmation subsample using toxicology, in order to measure the gap between what's said and what's done.)

I believe that attitudes and risk perceptions influence both actual behavior and the veracity of self-report, so that a decline in self-reforted use accompanying a rise in perceived disapproval is likley to be real, but probably smaller than it appears.



 

MORE PEDANTIC NITPICKING

I see that the editors at the Associated Press don't know the distinction between "anxious" and "eager." If I'm anxious about something, that could make me eager to get it over with, but I'm not, properly speaking, anxious to get it over with.

And Jacob Levy notes that the editors of the Wall Street Journal don't know "if" from "whether."

I don't know if I'm anxious to read any more of this.



 

DECIDING BY LOTT

1. The Republicans are going to let Lott bleed from now until January 6? Madness, madness! Just on tactical grounds, they need to get this out of the way fast. By the same token, those who are outraged about Lott will now need to keep the pressure on for three more weeks.

2. Given the nature of the1948 campaign, the references to Lott's losing his job as "lynching" by Pat Buchanan and Richard Shelby are in astonishingly poor taste. Lynching victims didn't get to retire to lucrative lobbying practices.

3. The newspapers keep referring to the issue as Lott's speech. That's wrong. The issue is Lott's career as a race bigot, forced into the public's attention by the speech. As someone remarked, apologizing for what you did makes sense. But there's no point apologizing for who you are.

4. Republican senators are largely discussing this, in public, in tactical terms: Has Lott been so damaged that he can no longer be an effective leader? None of them seems to feel that there's any moral issue about being led by someone with unreconstructed racial attitudes. (Two intersesting statistics: The claim that Lott gets a third of the black vote turns out to be a lie; the actual figure for 2000 was 11%. Of 65 people on Lott's staff, one, a mailroom clerk, is black.) That Republicans see the problem in tactical rather than moral terms is implicit in the proposal to lure Lott to step down from the leadership by making him a committee chairman. The gap between the elected leadership and the Republican opinion visible in the media (including blogging as a medium) couldn't be more profound.

5. Lott is a race bigot. Nickles's bigotry is around sexual orientation. Question to Republican senators: Do you regard that as an improvement, and does it satisfy you?

6. We're going to hear about how tough this is for the Republican moderates. In some ways Nickles is worse than Lott. But the vote in the Caucus isn't the final vote. There is then a vote in the full chamber, determining which party is the majority. If any of the moderates say that they will not vote at that point to make a bigot Majority Leader, then the rest of the caucus will have a choice between selecting a non-bigot or selecting a bigot to lead what will then be the minority.

7. That point should be driven home. If Trent Lott hangs on as majority leader, or if Nickles replaces him, it will be because Lincoln Chafee and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and Bill Frist and Dick Lugar find that result acceptable. If the whole town doesn't have more than one righteous person in it, the right thing to do is obvious: leave, and don't look back.



Sunday, December 15, 2002
 

CLARENCE THOMAS AND THE PRACTICE OF RACIAL PREFERENCE

No one, I think, believed George H.W. Bush when he said, on nominating Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall's seat on the Supreme Court, that he had chosen simply on the basis of "merit": "The fact that he's a black and minority has nothing to do with this. He is the most qualified person." [National Journal Congress Weekly, July 1, 1999, according to a helpful reader.]. No one seemed to be able to specify a race-blind algorithm for selecting judges would have popped Thomas's name out first.

That should have been an embarrassment for those among Thomas's supporters who oppose affirmative action, but they didn't seem noticeably embarrassed, and no Republican Senator, no matter how insistent that race should be ignored in, e.g., admission to law school, was found to cast a principled vote against the practice of ticket-balancing at the Supreme Court level. On the other hand, supporters of affirmative action who criticized Thomas as not qualified for the job also had to do some twisting around: he wasn't grossly unqualified, and their own principle cast doubt on any rigid insistence on choosing the best qualified candidate in some abstract sense.

My occasion for raking over these old coals is Thomas's extraordinary performance in the cross-burning cases. He acted against type not only by speaking when he is normally silent, but by challenging the usual conservative opposition to restrictions on "hate speech." His point was that the burning cross carries with it the burden of 100 years of terrorism, and that the Virginia statute could reasonably treat it as embodying a deadly threat.

I'm not sure what I think about the merits of the case. I once held the view that Thomas expressed, both about the burning cross and about the swastika. But Eugene Volokh showed me that the argument as I made it proved too much: would parading with a hammer-and-sickle through a Ukranian neighborhood be subject to the same objection, and, if not, why not? [Perhaps one could argue that the hammer-and-sickle had not been associated with systematic political violence in the US, but then neither had the swastika.] Or, to use an example that Eugene didn't use, how about a UMW sticker in Harlan County?

But the burning cross, in its American incarnation (as opposed to its use to summon assistance in the clan warfare of highland Scotland) is the rallying symbol of a set of terrorist conspiracies. [I wonder whether it was the inspiration for the Dark Mark in the Harry Potter stories?] Its specific message is, arguably, "We will kill to protect racial privilege." If that is the case, must the law insist that he threat be directed at some individual (as it was in one of the cases) before criminalizing it, or is it reasonable to say that any use of the burning cross constitutes a criminal threat?

Whatever one thinks about the merits, Thomas's intervention showed that race remains relevant to the exercise of the office of judging in the United States. Unexpected as it was, it was hardly inexplicable. The same speech from Scalia or Rehnquist would have been much more surprising, and probably less persuasive. For the purposes of this case, a Supreme Court with a black member is a different court from a Supreme Court without a black member. If you think that upholding the Virginia law -- which the Court seems much more likely to do now than it did before Thomas spoke out -- is the wrong thing to do, that may make you even more opposed to racial preferences in hiring. But it's very hard to argue that race shouldn't be considered because race "doesn't matter." Obviously, it still does.

UPDATE

No, I don't regard the argument above as dispositive. I still haven't figured out my bottom line on preferences. My thinking is expected to clear up once my colleague Andy Sabl finishes his project on the ethics and pragmatics of ethnic categorization.



 
THE KNIVES START TO COME OUT

Don Nickles has suggested a new vote for Majority Leader. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell seems to be taking the censure threat seriously, making a counter-threat against Robert Byrd. Atrios, fresh from his heroic role in the Lott affair, hints that there's similar material on Nickles. Can't wait.

UPDATE

Ahhhh.... turns out to be gay-baiting around the Hormel affair. I wonder whether the discrediting of bigotry that the Lott flap represents will generalize beyond race?

Philippe DeCroy wants to know why libertarians are presumed to lean Republican, when so few Republicans (elected Republicans, anyway) lean libertarian. Me, too.

Meanwhile, Tom Edsall, who had the story first, supplies some evidence that Lott's deeds aren't far behind his words.

Saturday, December 14, 2002
 

PUTTING FOOD ON THEIR FAMILIES

Oh, goody!

George W. Bush, having refused to intervene to get an extension of unemployment benefits through the Congress this fall, has suddenly discovered that the extension ought to be "a first order of business" when it comes back this winter.

Of course, the benefits run out December 28 for several hundred thousand families, and Congress doesn't come back until after the first of the year. Bush wants the extended benefits made retroactive, which I'm sure won't pose any difficulty for the families involved: can't they just borrow against their trust funds?

Of course we don't know yet what disgusting riders Lott and Hastert will attach to the bill in order to put the Democrats in the position of either voting for the riders or further squeezing the unemployed. If that wasn't the whole point of this maneuver, pray tell me what was?


 


OPERATIONAL SECURITY AND POLITICAL ADVANTAGE

Phil Carter, whose blog joins the blogroll. reflects on the journalistic responsiblity not to publish order-of-battle information that would be useful to an enemy. His argument is a solid one. But he does not reflect on the documented willingness of the Defense Department to use operational security as an alibi to hide whatever is embarrassing. Optimally, the press wouldn't publish anything genuintely threatening to operational security, and the Pentagon flacks wouldn't try to hide anything else. But we live in a suboptimal world. It's natural, though wrong, for the flacks to regard any information that gets to journalists other than through them as a Bad Thing, and for the reporters to regard any information they can get from other than official channels as a Good Thing. The abuse of the classification system for political and bureaucratic advantage discredits the whole system, and the people who carry out such abuse need to take their share of responsibility for the resulting casualties.


 



YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR


Henry Kissinger's resignation from the 9-11 panel, occasioned by the demand that he reveal his list of consulting clients, will be mourned only by William Safire and others who would prefer not to know what went wrong, plus the Saudis and their friends, who will have to hope that the Bush Administration can find another chairman who will agree in advance not to mention the elephant in the living room. (Now's the time to pound the drum hard for Warren Rudman.)

George Mitchell's declination of the job of vice-chair -- or at least the reason for that declination -- is a different story. I don't know enough about either Mitchell or Lee Hamilton to know whether the trade is a net loss or a net gain. But Mitchell's stated reason -- that he couldn't afford to give up his legal practice for the term of the inquiry -- ought to give us pause.

It's part of the cost of what might be called the Cincinnatus Fallacy: the belief that public service is better performed when it is undertaken at private sacrifice. It explains why a Supreme Court Jusice is paid less than a fourth-year associate at any good law firm. It explains why the Secretary of Defense is paid less than anyone in the executive ranks of any of the major defense contractors. It explains why Wendy Gramm was paid more for attending an occasional board meeting at Enron than her husband was paid for his more-than-full-time work as a U.S. Senator. And, further down the scale, it explains why the best of my master's students, the ones who win Presidential Management Internships, are expected to go to work for $33,254 a year, or something less than half the median salary for a new MBA.

Sometimes Cincinnatus is available: someone, that is, willing to do the public's business at a loss, and then go back to his private plow without seeking o cash in. [Sometimes that's someone simply too rich to care about the loss, which of course reinforces the class bias in the distribution of political power.] But sometimes he (or she) isn't, and then we get one of two things: someone willing to work cheap because "cheap" is better than his next-best alternative, and is therefore not likely to be very competent, or someone who has figured out a way to use a spell of "public service" to enhance his private marketability, and is therefore not likely to be very devoted to the public interest even when nominally doing the public's business.

When a major corporation wants to get its internal workings looked into by someone distinguished, it pays a market rate. Why can't the Feds do the same? They do, sometimes, when hiring outside legal counsel. Kenneth Starr and his assistants weren't expected to work at General Schedule wages, nor were the other special prosecutors. Why does the 9-11 inquiry deserve less?

And, in the long run, shouldn't we stop being so penny-wise about the wages of the people who do the actual work? And, while we're at it, could we stop passing out the casual insults aimed at civil servants that are so characteristic of American political discourse, especially though not entirely on the right? A number of people have noticed that the switch from private contractors to federal employees has substantially improved the courtesy and efficiency of airport screening, but no one seems willing to draw the obvious moral.

Right now, we're getting, at the Federal level, substantially better than we pay for. But if we persist in underpaying and insulting the people who work for us, we may succeed in recruiting and retaining a group of civil servants who deserve low salaries and contempt. And that will cost us plenty.



 

A RURAL STRATEGY FOR THE DEMOCRATS

Timothy Egan had a thoughtful and troubling essay in last Sunday's "Week in Review" about the decline of rural America. The piece points out that most rural workers are no longer in agriculture, so the money that gets showered on agribusiness mostly misses the point. (Forget about the fact that giving money to landowners was never a good approach to helping rural workers.) Why not make assistance to enterprises conditional on location rather than industry, and make broadband access the new version of rural electrification? Sounds like good policy, and maybe even good politics. Let the Republicans have the Farm Bureau; try to make the Democrats the party of rural non-farm workers and entrepreneurs.






 

METEORS

Just back from the high desert between Victorville and Barstow, where the Geminids put on a pretty good show, despite partial overcast. As predicted, not a very high rate, but a very high proportion of slow meteors with visible trails.

Looking up at those shooting stars and thinking about how small they actually are -- I read somewhere that the little ones are roughly grains of sand, while something as big as a tenth of a gram is fairly substantial -- I wondered how much it would cost to put up a satellite with a payload of a few kilograms of sand and gravel, and how you could convert that payload into a meteor storm in honor of, say, the Fourth of July. Given that the whole country could see it, it might be a cost-effecitve fireworks show.


 

WHAT IF LOTT STAYS?

Contrary to my earlier prediction, Lott's job really seems to be on the line. (I forgot about the possibility that someone would look through the record and find all the other bad stuff.) If he goes, lots of interesting things might happen. But what if he stays? How can the Democrats keep the issue alive, both to reduce the damage that can be done over the next two years and to mobilize Democrats and demoblize Republicans for 2004?

Unlike the House, where the formal vehicle for the decision about which party gets to organize is the vote on the Speakership, the Majority Leader is elected by the caucus, not by the Senate as a whole. So it's the vote to organize that will in effect make Lott Majority Leader. There's probably some advantage in emphasizing that, for example by organizing letter-writing campaigns aimed at selected Republican senators, urging them to abstain in the organizing vote unless Lott is replaced. There would be some Republican support for such a campaign. It's barely conceivable that it might actually succeed, either in forcing Lott out or in peeling off the three abstainers or two switchers it would take to give the Democrats the edge. But the main point would be to make the vote an event rather than a non-event, so that every Republican who didn't break ranks could be held responsible for "voting to make Trent Lott the Senate Majority Leader."

Another way to put Republican senators on the spot would be to offer a resolution of censure. This has at least two disadvantages. First, it would open a host of procedural and precedential questions. There have only been nine censures in the history of the Senate, and none provides a close parallel. (McCarthy was censured, as a formal matter, for dissing the investigating committee, not for impugning Gen. Marshall's patriotism). The Thurmond comment alone seems an inadequate basis to even propose censure; Lott's history of cooperation with the CCC might make it stronger. Second, a censure motion would put some Southern Democrats in a bind. Bush's comments about the speech -- "offensive and wrong" -- would certainly help. Not obvious to me whether or not this is worth pursuing. I'd certainly give priority to Plan A, above.

UPDATE

Philippe DeCroy, one of the new Volokh Conspirators, says what seems obvious: Republicans need Lott out. Therefore, the Democrats would benefit from his staying, and ought, as a tactical matter, to ease up on him now. I'm not sure that's right. Surely the Republicans would benefit (would have benefited) from a hasty exit by Lott. (Assuming he doesn't walk out all the way, giving a Democrat his seat.) In the end, they are probably better off without him than with him, even if he refuses to jump and has to be pushed. But there are two good reasons for Democrats not to ease up.

First, Democrats get a lot of votes, a lot of work, and a lot of money from people who think that putting racism behind us is Topic A. It's not enough that those people be (more) disgusted with the Republicans; they have to believe that the Democrats are with them wholeheartedly. The fury some Repulican sympathizers have shown on this issue makes me think better of them, Claude Raines awards or no. The Democrats must not be behindhand. It's now public that the Senate Majority leader is a largely unreconstructed racist. We're less surprised, and less embarrassed, than our friends on the other side, but we shouldn't be, and mustn't act, less outraged.

Second, the view that race relations are Topic A is a reasonable view. (Why, it happens that I hold it myself.) And from the viewpoint of that public purpose, having Lott lose his job for letting his robes and hood show once too often would constitute a major victory. It may well be long out of the voters' minds by 2004, but politicians won't forget it that soon, if ever. As Voltaire said, the English have found it advisable to hang an admiral from time to time, "pour encourager les autres." The memory of Trent Lott's fall will encourage a scrupulous avoidance of racial appeals by Republicans.

Granted, all is not lost if Lott hangs on to his job. I think this incident may be to flirting with racism what Gary Hart's cruise was to flirting with bimbos. Reporters, having been sensitized to the issue, will now be watching more closely. But his political survival would still be a blow. The Democrats should make it clear that they will make the Republicans play a terrible price for not dumping Lott. If I were in the Senate, I would be saying, "The choice of the Republican leader is up to the Republicans, and it's not for Democrats to give them advice. But if they choose to keep Senator Lott, knowing what they, and we, now know, that will send a terrible message to the entire country, and both members of this body and the voters will have to decide whether a party of which Senator Lott is the leader deserves to be in the majority."


 

A PRETTY GOOD DAY

Law down, Kissinger down, Lott still standing.
Two out of three ain't bad.


 
THE GOP FORMS A CIRCULAR FIRING SQUAD

Isn't it wonderful to watch Republicans behaving like Democrats? One of the GOP's big advantages in recent years has been its ability to keep internal squabbles quiet and the willingness of its damaged leaders (Gingrich, Livingstone) to get off the stage quickly to minimize the damage. Not this time, though.

Lott is drawing fire from hard-line conservatives (on non-racial issues) who appear to be only too happy to use the current flap to force him out. It turns out (who knew?) that the right-wing purists have always disliked Lott because he was more a pork-barreler than he was someone who, as a friend of mine said yesterday of Don Nickles, "looks through every appropriation to see if there's something in it that helps poor people, so he can cut it out." That helps explain why Nickles still hasn't uttered a word of support for his leader. Lott, on the other hand, is pulling a Lani Gunier, and threatening to do worse:

... in a sign of the Lott camp's concerns, some allies are quietly suggesting to GOP senators that Lott might resign from the Senate if he is forced out as leader, a move that could jeopardize the party's one-seat majority. Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) presumably would appoint a Democrat to replace Lott, they note. That would leave the Senate evenly split, enabling Democrats to regain the majority if they could persuade a moderate Republican to switch parties.

That threat has to be a bluff, but it's nice to think about, isn't it?



Friday, December 13, 2002
 

THE TEMPEST AT EAST-WEST PLAYERS, LOS ANGELES

No time right now for a full review -- I have to reread the text first -- and I'm not a drama critic. But if you're in LA you must see the production of The Tempest by the East-West Players. Last three performances Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. I saw it tonight, and I'm still reeling.

If, like me, you're a Shakespearean purist, you're going to find this hard to believe. The text is "adapted" (mostly just cut) by director Andrew Tsao, so the whole thing runs just 90 minutes, without an intermission. No "You do assist the storm," no "Born to be hanged." Ferdinand and Caliban are doubled. Ariel and Miranda are doubled. The Ariel/Prospero relationship is highly sexualized. Gonzalo is played by a woman. Just the sort of screwing around with the Bard we hate, right?

Wrong. It works. It works spectacularly. Partly because the directing is terrific, partly because the cast -- especially Matthew Yang King and Gwendoline Yeo in the doubled roles -- is superb, partly because Tsao is actually on to something in the doublings, Ferdinand/Caliban in particular. The net result is the most powerful and moving Tempest I've seen in thirty years.

Run, don't walk.

East West Players
120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
(213) 625-7000


Thursday, December 12, 2002
 

LOTTS OF DISLOYALTY

The President, having stood by Trent Lott until the heat got to be too much, now deftly slips him the shiv to win applause from a black audience:

"Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized, and rightly so. Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American."

And Lott, after days of pretending he'd just been misunderstood, follows the John DiIulio model by making an abject apology when Big Brother says to: "Senator Lott agrees with President Bush that his words were wrong and he is sorry. He repudiates segregation because it is immoral."

This is good for the country. It would have been better if Bush had spoken out before the sh*tstorm hit, leading the country rather than following the mob. It would have been better if Bush had said those words to an audience of white Southerners rather than black social workers. But it's good for the country nonetheless: the political price of raw racism just went up, and it's not coming back down.

This may mean that Lott is gone, though Fleischer is still saying that Bush stands behind him. (On current form, I wouldn't want Bush standing behind me unless I had armor plate under my jacket.) The awful stuff about Lott keeps coming out: there's reportedly another tape of Lott saying Thurmond should have won, he worked hard to keep his fraternity segregated, the list of his links to the CCC keeps growing, people are looking back at his voting record, and on and on and on. As a patriot, I hope he does go, though the sheer partisan in me wants him to kick around in 2004. And I agree with Al Gore that a motion of censure would be a good way to help him find the door.

Nevertheless, today's Presidential performance was an ugly one, with Bush showing utter disregard both for the personal dignity of someone who has suddenly become a political liability and for any political interests but his own. He could have tipped Lott the wink, allowing him to make a real apology before being landed on by his leader. And his hesitation mousetrapped most of the Republican leadership on the Hill, which has spent this week defending Lott only to have the President say (what was obviously true) that his words were indefensible. This sort of disloyalty was Bill Clinton's real besetting sin, and it cost him and the Democrats horribly. Someone who likes Bush as much as I dislike him ought to take him aside and tell him so.

PIDDLING PEDANTIC FOOTNOTE

"the founding ideals ... was... and remains"?? Who write this crap? And which school did they attend?

UPDATE: NESHOBA COUNTY

Josh Marshall reminds us that Lott refused to sponsor a resolution honoring James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, victims of political murder by segregationists. But the Gweilo Diarist -- a Mississippian by birth -- tells me, at least, something that I didn't know, and much more damning:

Lott convinced Ronald Reagan to begin his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi -- the site of the murder of three civil-rights workers in the early 1960 and still a bastion of segregationist sentiment. No intelligent Mississippian can pretend not to understand the symbolism of and history associated with Neshoba.

That speech has always seemed to me a conclusive argument against the proposition that Reagan, whatever you think of his policies, was actually a decent human being: he chose to start his run for President with a gesture to murderers and their friends. (Reagan's speech was all about "states' rights," the seggie battle cry, making no mention of the murder victims.) But I handn't known Lott was the evil genius behind that move.


 

CONCERNING OFFICIAL MISCONDUCT

Harold Bashman calls our attention to a truly astonishing piece of prosecutorial misconduct: a prosecutor in the sentencing phase of a capital case made a big play with the fact that the defendant was homosexual. The defense objected, the judge overruled the objection, the prosecutor kept going with the argument, the defendant was sentenced to death, his lawyer (the same lawyer he'd had at trial) never raised the issue on appeal, his other state-level appeals were rejected, and now the Tenth Circuit has rejected his federal habeas corpus petition. He is scheduled to die tomorrow.

Having read both sets of appeals courts decisions, I reach the following conclusions:

1. The defendant, a cold-blooded multiple killer, will truly not be missed from this crowded planet, despite his subsequent remorse. He's just about the poster child for capital punishment.

2. The "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996" forces federal appeals judges to go through endless contortions to affirm capital sentences generated by fairly appalling processes.

3. The prosecutor in this case, and even more the trial judge, are a disgrace to their respective professions. The appeals court (before going on to assure us that it all don't make no never-mind) dryly comments, "There does not appear to be any legitimate justification for these remarks. They are improper."

What truly fries me, as in all such cases, is the virtual certainty that the neither the prosecutor nor the judge will face any professional discipline, or even any career discomfort, due to their egregious misconduct when a man's life was at stake.

I have a lot of sympathy with the critics of letting obviously guilty defendants off to "punish" misconduct by the police or prosecutors. They reasonably ask, "Why not punish the official malefactors?" But then those same folks take exactly no action toward punishing said malefactors, any more than Janet Reno or Louis Freeh did with the FBI officials responsible for the Waco catastrophe.

The same argument was heard with respect to the thousand or so extra votes Bush got in Florida when a county clerk helped the local Republican party doctor some defective absentee ballot applications, which was a felony under Florida law. "Why disenfranchise the poor innocent voters? If the clerk committed a crime, she can be punished for it." But of course she wasn't, and no one intended that she should be or thought that she would be. That argument was merely what it always is: an excuse for looking the other way when a result you like is procured by illegal means.

What ever happened to "personal responsibility"?


 
MORE MORAL CLARITY FROM THE RIGHT FRINGE

Another little gem courtesy of Roger Ailes, who now joins the blogroll: Wesley Puden, the Rev. Mr. Moon's tame editor, has some thoughts on the sodomy case now before the Supreme Court, and about a British move to create a legal marriage-substitute available to gay couples. Roger wonders how Andrew Sullivan, with his sharp nose for anything that looks like gay-baiting on the left, feels about writing for a paper whose editor compares his love life to that of people who do it with sheep?

But this raises a broader question. The Washington Times is more or less the official newspaper of Republican Washington, used for Adminisration leaks, spin, and trial balloons, and actively praised by Republican officials. It's edited by a bunch of bigots (Robert Stacy McCain, the assistant national editor, is a member of the neo-Confederate League of the South) and owned by a convicted felon with close ties to a foreign intelligence service. Is this really a tolerable situation? Will no Republican speak out against it? And if not, isn't it time for Democrats to start to make a fuss about it?



 

DIVISIVE? WHO SAYS TRENT LOTT IS DIVISIVE?

Why, he's even got me agreeing with Charles Krauthammer.

[Though as Roger Ailes notes, Krauthammer wants Lott to resign as majority leader, not to quit the Senate entirely. It seems that unconstructed racism is tolerable in a backbencher, especially when a Democratic governor would get to choose his successor.]

[Roger has lots more on the Lott affair: so far, the conservative media are all over him like a cheap suit, but Republican officeholders, including Bill Frist and Arlen Specter, are circling the wagons. A motion of censure seems like a better idea every day.]






Wednesday, December 11, 2002
 

COME WATCH THE STARS FALL

The Geminid meteor shower reaches its peak about 2am (Pacific Time) this Saturday morning. That's also moonset, Pacific time. The show won't be spectacular -- one or two per minute -- but there should be some slow meteors and fireballs.
If you're in the Los Angeles area, the best place to watch is probably on either side of the Tejon Pass. Frazier Park is good, but it's both high up (which means cold this time of year) and crowded enough so that headlights are a problem. My personal favorite is a spot near Gorman, which is just on the Los Angeles side of the pass.

Even if the meteor show is a bust, the general stargazing from there is a treat if you live in a city, and Orion will be high in the sky at that hour.

Any insomniac or stargazer in LA who wants to join a small expedition should email me at kleiman@ucla.edu. Leave about 2, get there just before 3, watch for an hour or two, get breakfast at a truckstop, go home and sleep.

"Stars, I have seen them fall,
but when they drop and die,
no star is lost at all
from all the star-strewn sky."


Tuesday, December 10, 2002
 

TRENT LOTT, RECIDIVIST

A joke? A mere gush of flattery at a mentor's birthday party? An ad-lib that went wrong? An "unfortunate choice of words"? Not quite.

Turns out Lott had said virtually the same thing -- how good it would have been if the Dixiecrats had won in 1948 -- during the Reagan campaign in 1980. Tom Edsall, who's a great reporter when he's not being a thoughtful scholarly writer on politics, found the smoking gun.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported Lott's earlier comments in a Nov. 3, 1980, report about a rally for the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in downtown Jackson at which Thurmond was the keynote speaker.

Thurmond, according to the story, told the gathering of 1,000 people that the country "cannot stand four more years of [President] Jimmy Carter. . . . We've got to balance the budget. Jimmy Carter won't do it, but Ronald Reagan will do it."

Then Thurmond declared: "[We] want that federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of the states." For many supporters and opponents of civil rights, the phrase "state's rights" stood for the right of states to reject federal civil rights legislation.

After Thurmond spoke, Lott told the group: "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."


[Thanks to Virginia Postrel for the link.]

[And where the hell were Carter's opposition-research people in 1980?]

The Gweilo Diarist, who, like many anti-racist conservatives, is much, much angrier about this affair than most liberals, says Lott is finished. I'm still betting he stays in office. But this hurts.

UPDATE

And he's a liar, too. Scoobie Davis compares what he said about his Council of Conservative Citizens contacts on the Hannity show with the actual record.

[The CCC is the successor-in-business of the White Citizens' Councils, which someone called "The Klan in neckties." Byron de la Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers, was a WCC member, and the WCC raised money for de la Beckwith's legal defense. Lott keynoted one of the CCC's national meetings, then denied he knew what the group stood for -- only to be contradicted by his own uncle, one of the organizers.]

SECOND UPDATE

Lott even filed an amicus brief in the Bob Jones University case on behalf of a bunch of segregated private schools in Mississippi. He may have been right or wrong as a matter of statutory construction, but he makes it clear that he supports the substantive policy he says the statute implements: giving tax-free status to institutions that discriminate based on race.


 

OUR SON-OF-A-BITCH #127

Here's a disgusting little item from Stratfor.

With Mobutu gone, I guess the administration feels the need for some African thug-cum-kleptocrat to play games with, and Moi is certainly a good second best. Dealing with folks like this seems so practical and realistic: until it turns around and bites you. Does anyone know if Pat Robertson is doing business in Kenya?

Kenya is important, dammit. Kenya could be a success. We need some successes in Africa.

I can hear Mugabe's advisors talking now: "See, boss, if we just let al-Qaeda set up shop near Harare, then we can offer the Americans help in getting rid of them if they'll shut up while we drive out ALL the whites."

*Sigh*.


 

DANA MILBANK ON THE DIIULIO AFFAIR

Milbank's trio of quotes is pretty scary. Actually, I think DiIulio is right to be apologetic, though I'm delighted that he made his criticism and don't doubt that it's substantively correct. White House staffers have a very strong duty not to kiss and tell. But he does sound a lot like the defendant at a show trial, and there's no doubt Bush, Rove & Co. wanted to make him sound that way. That doesn't say good things about them.




 

AGAINST CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

Eugene Volokh points out, with reference to the "Nuremberg Files" case, that some of the tactics of some elements of the civil rights movement were similar to some of the tactics of some elements of the anti-abortion movement: at least similar enough to be legally indistinguishable. (There's a substantive difference between threats of violence backed by occasional window-breaking and threats of violence backed by systematic property destruction and occasional murder, but it's not obviously a legally congnizable difference.) He draws the conclusion that the bounds of free speech should be drawn broadly enough to protect the Nuremberg Files operators. The same conclusion is often drawn about various forms of "civil disobedience": since the civil rights movement was justified in using them, then it would be unreasonable to deny them to other groups.

In general, I endorse, and practice, the intellectual strategy of considering the limits on legitimate political tactics without reference to the purposes for which they are to be used: bracketing, arguments from symmetry, geese and ganders, whatever your favorite metaphor is. You can't say "Vote stealing is OK if Democrats do it but should be forbidden to Republicans."

But it's also true that desperate circumstances call for desperate measures, and it's wrong to then try to re-import the standards of desperation into ordinary activity. Michael Walzer once said that "You can prove anything using Hitler": i.e., since virtually any tactic would have been justified to defeat Hitler, it's possible to argue that no tactic should be ruled out absolutely. But, as Walzer said, that proves too much: unless we're actually confronting Hitler, arguments about what would be justified if we did confront Hitler lose their force. The same applies to arguments from things Lincoln did -- such as arresting the successionist majority of the Maryland Legislature -- to win the Civil War.

The system of racial subjugation that prevailed in the American South between the end of the First Reconstruction in the great sellout of 1876 and the Second Reconstruction that started in the late 1940s was truly a desperate circumstance. It was maintained both by law and in defiance of law (both the ordinary criminal laws and the Constitution). Since it involved the illegal denial of the right to vote, recourse was not available through the ballot box. Since the local judiciary was largely complicit, recourse was not available through the courts. There was no reason to think that the white majority could be persuaded to give up its caste privileges.

It was a circumstance that, by the standards enunciated by Locke and Paine, would have fully justified armed revolution. But armed revolution, too, was infeasible, even if it had been desirable. (Which, because of the other virtues of the American Republic, it would not have been.) So the civil rights movement mounted an unarmed, predominantly non-violent, revolution, which was largely successful. Its goal was not to overthrow governments, but to overthrow the system of subjugation. In the course of that revolution, many things were done that would have been intolerable in the context of ordinary democratic politics and ordinary civil life. Violence was threatened, and sometimes used (though of course the violence on the other side was incomparably more pervasive and more deadly). Property was destroyed, and property-owners intimidated. Parts of the Federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, became "result-oriented," and stretched the judicial function, and various other statutory and Constitutional provisions, to or beyond the tearing point in trying to finally put the Reconstruction Amendments into practice.

I'm glad that happened: not glad that otherwise improper means were required, but glad that, given their necessity, they were used, and used successfully, by an interracial coalition. But, now that the revolutionary phase of the struggle is behind us, I see no reason to pretend that those means were, in themselves, other than improper. Everything William F. Buckley said about the tactics of the civil rights movement and about how lawbreaking for political ends sets a bad precedent was true. All the falsehood was in what he and his friends didn't say: what Mark Twain, writing about slavery, called "the silent lie."

So I see no reason to extend any license to use such tactics to anti-abortionists, animal rightsers, deep ecologists, or opponents of the coming war with Iraq. There is no general right of civil disobedience, and no general legitimacy to its use as a political tactic. If Operation Rescue and Earth First! want to act like racketeers, punish them as racketeers. (Though I'd be open to the argument that the RICO statute, passed in the face of the war waged by the Mafia against the wider society, was another measure of temporary necessity that should now be abandoned.)

But, I hear you say, the people who believe that abortion is murder face a situation quite as desperate as the one that confronted the civil rights movement. That.s right. If you really, truly believe that abortion is murder, then you have good reason, from your perspective, to threaten or use violence to stop it, or to mount a revolution if you can. (That's why no one should say it who hasn't calmly reflected on the implications should say "Abortion is murder.") Since I don't believe that abortion is murder, I have no good reason, from my perspective, to tolerate such actions. Bracketing can only carry you so far; eventually you're forced to take a stand on the substantive moral questions.

Take, for example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As it happens, I agree with them that lots of what goes on in factory farms is needlessly cruel, and ought to be stopped. But since I don't agree with them that doing bad things to animals is as bad as doing bad things to human beings, I don't think they're justified in using extreme tactics in a cause that might very well prevail -- at least as much as it deserves to prevail -- through persuasion. Similary, I oppose cutting old-growth forests, but insofar as that fight can't be won in the legislatures and the courts I don't concede the legitimacy of winning it through tree-sitting, let alone tree-spiking.

You can prove anything with the civil rights movement. But not everything so proved is true. Put me down as an advocate of law and order.

UPDATE

[Sam Heldman wrestles with the same question and finds a different answer.]

Jane Galt thinks I'm just saying that anyone I agree with gets to break the law. (She also comes up with the perfect name for the fallacy I was trying to criticize: Argumentum ad Crowium. I intend to steal that line.) But her post makes it clear that I succeeed in making myself misunderstood. My bad.

I'm not saying that what the civil rights people did was all right as a matter of law. It wasn't. I'm not saying that it "deserved a pass" as a matter of law. It didn't. I think Claiborne Hardware was wrongly decided, as a matter of law.

But there are (very rare) times when it's morally legitimate to break the law, and maybe even (if you're a judge) to twist the law, and the Second Reconstruction was one of them.

It is simply not the case that the white majority in the South was "persuaded" to give up its caste privileges, unless you call what a bank robber does "persuading" the teller to hand over the money. Equality, or some approach to equality, was imposed on the white South by Federal law -- some made by the Congress and some made by the courts -- and in some cases at the point of Federal bayonets. Once that was done, most white Southerers came to accept it, and blacks had enough power through the ballot box and the courts to protect their new-won rights.

If you think -- as a considered moral judgment, not as a slogan -- that abortion is murder, then now is another time when breaking the law is justified. If such is your considered view, we disagree about that. Not disagree as in "agree to disagree," but really disagree. You may see it as your clear duty to break the law, to threaten violence, even to inflict violence. And I will see it as my clear duty to try to have you punished to the full extent of the law.

That's part of the reason the abortion issue is a litmus test for both sides of the debate: the pro-choice forces suspect, not without cause, that some -- not all -- "pro-life" judges will feel justified in twisting the law (as in the case of the judge Michael McConnell defended in his First Things article).

As I thought I'd made clear, I do not think that the moral justification for breaking the law extends to every cause I support. It doesn't extend, for example, to environmental protection or the prevention of cruelty to animals. It's a once-a-century thing.

I'm not going to pretend that I regret that the civil rights movement did what had to be done to drive a stake through Jim Crow's heart. But I'm also not going to make that a license to break the law every time the democratic process produces a result you sincerely think is wrong.




 

PARDON ME, WHO DID YOU SAY WAS SOFT ON TERRORISM?

A Moroccan named Mounir el-Motassadeq is on trial in Germany on charges of having helped plot the 9-11 atrocity. The German authorities found the business card of a Saudi diplomat in Motassedeq's apartment, and traced phone calls from him to an extremist group headquartered in Riyadh.

The Germans asked the Saudis for help in investigating this, and were stiffed. No surprise there.

They also asked the U.S. for access to two witnesses, including including Zacarias Moussauoi, and for help in tracing the Saudi phone calls. The Justice Department has refused, and won't say why. Here's the story from the New York Times.

(Glenn Reynolds headlines this "Saudi Suck-up Watch," and speculates about the influence of Saudi money. Note that "Saudi money" in this context doesn't have to be traceable to the Kingdom; think of all the American individuals and firms -- take Henry Kissinger and Halliburton as random examples -- whose ability to do business with the Saudis is part of their meal ticket, and who can either carry water for the Saudis themselves or give money to others who will.)

Three quick thoughts:

1. Schroeder has to be tempted to unload on this, after all the petty crap he's taken from the Bushies. I hope he does.

2. I hope George Mitchell is paying attention.

3. Democrats should make Bush defend his policy of kissing whatever body part the Saudis offer. Let's hear from John Kerry: it might even take Mickey Kaus's mind off his haircut.


UPDATE

A teensy bit of progress: Graham is calling for an investigation of foreign sources of funding and declassification of what's already known. But why can't he say "Saudi Arabia"? Is it, like the Tetragammaton, too sacred to pronounce?

Monday, December 09, 2002
 
KEEPING TRACK OF THE DRUG ISSUE

For the last several months, my friend Paul Fishbein has been sending out regular emails with copies of, or links to, news stories and research reports about drug abuse and drug policy. At my urging, he has now moved that activity to a weblog called The Drug Policy Digest. So far, he has several interesting items, including one about drive-through cocaine sales at a Burger King and this one on the abuse potential of Provigil, a stimulant marketed as a treatment for narcolepsy.

If you have a serious interest in the drug problem, the new blog should be on your "favorites" list. I've added it to my blogroll.




 

FINALLY

At last, the Trent Lott story has escaped from the blogosphere.

Monday, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson figured it was about time to catch up with Al Frum and Andrew Sullivan in criticizing Trent Lott for his nostalgia about the days of Jim Crow.

Lott helped give the story legs by denying that he'd meant what he said.

�A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past,� Lott, R-Miss., said in a statement. �Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.�

Lott's record makes his denial a little hard to swallow. His connections with the Council of Conservative Citizens (successor to the White Citizens' Councils) are old news. But now it turns out that segregation isn't all that Lott is nostalgic for. Or perhaps he no longer claims Jefferson Davis as a political model? (Thanks to Josh Marshall for finding this delicious quote, albeit from 1984.)

Lott also needs to work on his sense of timing. If he'd backed off promptly, he might have made the story go away. Now he's just helped it through another news cycle. How credible is it that he only figured out yesterday that what he'd said Thursday constituted an endorsement of segregation? But maybe he figured that with the Democrats -- at last -- starting to pile on, the story was finally going to get some ink, so it was time to back off just a little bit. (On the other hand, of the five politically aware people with whom I had dinner Tuesday evening, none had heard of the story at all.)

The New York Times, which never bothered to report on the speech itself, has a story about the apology. And Paul Krugman is on the case, too. I repeat: it's pretty scary when your side's best political columnist is an economist in real life.

Tom Daschle has decided to make nice. Does anybody recall Lott doing the same for Daschle when, e.g., Rush Limbaugh was calling him a traitor? Does anybody expect Lott to return the favor?

Previous posts on this topic:

Trent Lott Comes out of the Closet

Whistlin' Dixie

Waiting for the Outrage




 

SO MUCH FOR LOYALTY DOWN

Brad DeLong explains why Larry Lindsay was fired, why that was actually a bad thing substantively, and what the process shows about Bush, the Bush the White House, and the press corps. Not a pretty picture:

"...the people who matter in the Bush White House--from the President on down--don't know what the government does or how what the government does affects the country, and don't care."

and

"...it never crosses the minds of the powers-that-be in the Bush White House that good economic policies might be worth pursuing because good economic policies lead to a stronger economy. To the powers-that-be in the Bush White House, economic policies are way to reward favored groups of constituents. And their effect on the economy? They don't need to think about no stinking effect of policy on the economy."

and

"If you listen closely, you can hear what the assistants to the press secretary told the reporters as they informed them of what the White House story was: "they didn't quit, they were fired"; "notice how the President didn't praise anything O'Neill and Lindsey had done"; "notice how downbeat Ari Fleischer was in his description of their service to the country"; "see how decisively President Bush acts on the economy--he decides they have to go and they go, with no interval to allow them to save face and no pretense that this is what they want to do."

Admittedly, it doesn't make much sense to anyone who isn't a spin-doctor. They are obviously failures in their jobs, and yet you let them hang around for two full years? You fire them without having any replacements set up, so you demonstrate that you are in control of the economy by creating large holes in your table of organization where the people who prepare your briefings and present you with your options should be? The message is: "I wouldn't listen to them. So they were associated with the biggest failure area in my administration. So they must be fired!"

But the spin-doctors do know the Washington press corps well. Half of the Washington press corps is sufficiently partisan that they will buy the administration line, and the other half of the Washington press corps is too lazy and too cowardly to challenge what the White House spin-doctors say. So the media consensus will be that Larry Lindsey did a bad job in the George W. Bush White House, and was deservedly fired ..."


Maybe Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, if they've done enough Paul Krugman-trashing for now, need to start on DeLong. After all, shooting the messenger is a proven way of causing the bad news not to be true, right?

UPDATE

As Brad predicted, here's some truly disgusting White House spin, courtesy of CNN.com. Knifing your friends in the back when it pays is "pragmatism" and shows "Presidential qualities." Ick.




Sunday, December 08, 2002
 
WAITING FOR THE OUTRAGE

The Trent Lott story is still huge in the blogosphere (see Jeff Cooper's summary, with links) and dead outside it. The right blogosphere is at least as angry as the left. If anyone is defending what Lott said, I haven't seen it. But the mainstream media is eerily silent. Glenn Reynolds is almost as puzzled about the weird silence as he is angry about Lott's mouthing off . Make that two of us.

Keven Drum offers what seems like the right answer to Glenn's question about why the right-bloggers seem angrier than the left-bloggers: they're surprised and hurt, and we aren't really surprised (except that Lott said what we already mostly thought he believed) and aren't hurt at all.

And just in case you're tempted to swallow the line that Lott's comment was a joke or an ad-lib, Kevin has posted a link to the tape. (It comes at about minute 33.) Lott is clearly following a script -- he even leaves in one of those "X was a friend of mine and you're no X" lines after Dole has already used it. The camera cuts away to Thurmond as Lott delivers the line, but when it cuts back there's no hint of a smile.

Matthew Yglesias wants to know why Northeastern Republican moderates don't form their own regional party and hold the balance of power. Good question. But I think the answer is easy: they couldn't get elected on the "Bull Moose" ticket. The regular Republicans would run candidates against them, splitting the right-of-center vote, and the Democrats would win. In the short term, they could caucus as a third party, bargaining over which party gets to organize the Senate and demanding their own allocation of commitee assignments. But they'd be in big trouble come election time. Money would be hard to raise, and they might not be able to win Republican primaries against the conservative opposition they'd be sure to draw. Ask Dick Riordan.






 

HONESTY AND CIVILITY

The Gweilo Diarist, fresh from his exciting discovery that the faith of Averroes, Avicenna, and Omar Khayyam "is at its heart a false, empty, hateful, and failed religion," has decided to give me a lesson in honesty and civility. He thinks, or at least says, that Elliot Abrams "manifestly isn't" a felon, and implies that I am therefore dishonest and uncivil in arguing that he might legitimately be called one.

Honest and civility are highly valuable qualities, and I aspire to improve every day in every way. So of course I'm grateful to Conrad for offering to instruct me. But I wish he could be a little more explicit about the nature of my failings.

My argument, to recap it briefly (Conrad found my longer exposition "convoluted"), was as follows:

1. Elliot Abrams deliberately deceived a Congressional committee conducting an investigation.
2. Deceiving a Congressional committee conducting an investigation is a felony (18 USC 1001).
3. Someone who has committed a felony can legitimately be called a felon.
4. Therefore, Elliot Abrams can legitimately be called a felon.

Now with which step in this chain of logic does Conrad disagree? #4 seems pretty easy. #2 requires no more than reading the statute. So the open questions seem to be one of fact -- did Abrams "conceal a material fact"? -- and one of language -- does committing a felony make someone a felon, or is it only being convicted of a felony that makes someone a felon? Simply saying that Abrams "manifestly isn't" a felon (based on his being allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, for which he was subsequently pardoned) doesn't really constitute an argument on either point. So where do we disagree, Conrad? About what Abrams did, or about how to refer to someone who committed a felony but wasn't convicted of one? And to repeat my earlier question: Am I also forbidden to call O.J. Simpson a murderer?

Let's not forget: Abrams wasn't deceiving the Congress about his sex life. He was involved with covering up war crimes by the government of El Salvador and the Reagan Administration's support of Contra terrorism in Nicaragua.

Conrad cites Glenn Reynolds as also disagreeing with me. (His reading of Glenn's somewhat Delphic utterance matches Kieran Healy's, though Kieran agrees with me rather than Conrad on the underlying question.) Whether the Oracle at Knoxville buys my argument or not, he at least states it clearly: that it can be appropriate to call someone a felon even if he hasn't been convicted of a felony.

One step toward honesty and civility in discourse is to accurately report an opponent's argument, rather than misrepresenting it to make him look bad. Perhaps when Conrad is finished dealing with my moral deficiencies he might want to consider that. Motes and beams, motes and beams.

UPDATE

Dan Simon more or less agrees in principle, but suspects me of a double standard in distinguishing Abrams's false testimony about war crimes from Clinton's false testimony about his love life. I don't think that all felonies are created equal, but they are all equally felonies; as I said in my original post, I think it's appropriate to call Clinton a perjurer even though he was never convicted of perjury. Simon is of course completely right that my motivations in defending someone who calls Abrams a felon, and in repeating the charge myself, are largely partisan and ideological. But my position is consistent, even if my vehemence about it might vary with the circumstances.

But you'd have a hard time convicing the Gweilo Diarist, who now adds "decent" and "honorable" to "honest" and "civil" on the list of things my post isn't (and wonders why I'm taking it personally). He continues to assert that Abrams "is not" a felon, though his argument shows only what no one has ever denied: that Abrams was never proven to be a felon in a court of law.

Conrad seems to live on a planet otherwise similar to ours, but on which prosecutors never take a cheap plea bargain because they can't prove (beyond a reasonable doubt, under the whimsical constraints of the common-law rules of evidence) that someone is guilty of something everyone knows he's guilty of. The only difference between the misdemeanors Abrams admitted committing and the felony I say he was guilty of is intent: the prosecutor would have had to prove that Abrams's "failure to testify fully and accurately" was a "knowing and wilful" act. (As to materiality, the hearing was about Reagan Administration policy toward Central America, and the fact concealed was all the stuff Ollie North was running out of the White House basement. Any further questions, counsellor?) Absent a confession, a witness, a diary, or a telepath, those states of mind are virtually impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt, and none of those aids to justice happened to be present in this case. So the fact that the prosecutor didn't think he could prove that Abrams deceived the Congress deliberately rather than in a fit of absent-mindedness hardly demonstrates Abrams's innocence.



Saturday, December 07, 2002
 

WHISTLIN' DIXIE

Virginia Postrel is the latest right-blogger to demand Trent Lott's resignation (Daniel Drezner and Glenn Reynolds beat her to it). She really means, it, too, and proposes a serious campaign to make it happen:

Why isn't every reporter, at every press conference, asking Lott or his spokesman what the Senate leader meant when he said a Thurmond victory in 1948 would have meant "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years"? Exactly which problems? How would Thurmond have been better?

Hector the man. Make him answer. Again and again. Ask every other Republican elected official whether he or she agrees. Ask Ari Fleischer what the president thinks. Every day.

Make the White House embarrassed to be associated with a party leader who appears to wax nostalgic for lynching and segregation.


I doubt that either the press or the Democrats are up to it, but let's give it a try. It could help energize both the ideopolitan and African-American elements of the Democratic coalition, and perhaps peel away some of the surburban women who broke Republican at the last minute this fall. If the folks at National Review want to complain that criticizing Lott's nostalgia for lynching and the poll tax is "playing the race card," they can be my guest.

But actually replace Lott as the Senate Republican leader? Dream on. Embarrass George W. Bush by associating him with the Confederate-flag crowd? That's his base. To his credit, he's spoken out against Muslim-baiting post 9-11. But has he ever spoken out against race-baiting? No, and he never will. (It's not as if his co-partisans hadn't given him enough opportunities.)

Republicans win elections by winning the South, and they win the South because whites perceive them as the party less friendly to blacks. [No, dammit, I didn't say that everyone who votes Republican is a racist; but every (white) racist knows which party to vote for, and that gives the Republicans a bunch of votes they couldn't otherwise touch. Not just in the South, of course.]

I predict that no Senate Republican will so much as suggest that Lott step down. If the Democrats and the press make enough of a sh*t storm, Lott will issue some lame non-apology apology; if not, he won't even do that much. [Small hedge here: With Landrieu winning, any two of McCain, Chafee, Snow, and Collins could shift the Senate back to the Democrats by crossing the aisle. The Lott fiasco could give them an excuse, if that's what they wanted to do. But I'm giving 20-to-1 against it.]

Democrats like me have to deal with the fact that the teachers' unions' hold on the party makes it impossible for us to do what would be needed to provide decent educational opportunity for poor urban kids, or world-class schools for the 'burbs. Similarly, libertarians and others whose commitment to lower taxes, less redistribution, looser gun control, and less regulation -- or simple inability to tolerate the Democrats -- leads them to coalesce with the Republicans have to deal with the fact that they're voting to put substantial, if not dominant, power in the hands of a bunch of folks who really do wish that the Second Reconstruction hadn't happened. It's worth it, or it's not. But there it is.

So far, I haven't seen any libertarians saying, "I voted Republican this time, but if Trent Lott is still Senate Majority Leader in 2004 I won't vote for Bush or my local Senate candidate." Whether they ought to be saying that isn't, of course, for someone like me to decide. But unless and until they do, their outrage will have approximately zero weight in practical Republican politics.

[earlier post on this topic]

 

THE DR. BESHAROV DIET

The poor, like the rest of us, are getting fat, and yet federal programs are still designed as if they were starving. Doug Besharov explains.

[What to do about obestity in the 85% of the population that isn't poor is a different question. Probably a harder one.]



 

THEIR WORD IS THEIR JUNK BOND

Seems that Bush and Lott are trying to see if they can get away with welsching on the deal they made with the families of the 9-11 victims to have one of the Republicans on the Kissinger Commission not be an administration lapdog. McCain and Shelby were supposed to get to pick someone to fill one of the Republican seats, though formally the choice is up to Lott. McCain and Shelby picked Warren Rudman, who's been running a private commission on defense against terrorism along with Gary Hart. Now the White House is objecting (behind the scenes, of course) and Lott is waffling on his commitment.

Rudman chaired McCain's primary campaign, and the Christian Coaliition and Strom Thurmond's buddies in South Carolina made sure their fundementalist voters knew that Rudman was Jewish. Maybe Bush is afraid that Rudman might have a memory. Or maybe he figures that Rudman, as a friend of McCain's, would have a strong incentive to make trouble for Bush. Or maybe they're just so afraid of what an honest, competent inquiry might turn up that they're going to insist that the "independent" seat be filled by someone too weak or too ignorant to be effective. (Tell me, just how did it come about that all the bin Laden relatives in the U.S. were whisked away to Saudi Arabia before the FBI could question them?)

If there's enough outcry, Lott and Bush will probably back off. No bets either way.

If there were a Democratic Party, it would be taping ads right now with the 9-11 family members talking about how they got stabbed in the back. They might come in handy a couple of years from now.



 

TRENT LOTT COMES OUT OF THE CLOSET

Now that he's safely in power, the former president of the Ole Miss student body tells us what he really thinks. And Bill Kristol, evidenly hoping to be the next Claude Raines award winner, pretends to be surprised. "Party of Lincoln"? Right.

UPDATE

Glenn Reynolds can barely contain his disgust.

Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer pretends not to have heard about it and refuses to distance the President from it. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you Bush is a decent human being. Thurmond was running against an anti-lynching bill, among other things. Atrios has the official Dixiecrat ballot from Mississippi in 1948.

SECOND UPDATE

The blogosphere is pretty upset, but this story doesn't have much mainstream legs, at least not yet. P. 6 in the WaPo, nothing in the NYT, nothing on the wires. The Voice of America covers the party, but doesn't mention the Lott comment.

Republican Senator Trent Lott, who is to become majority leader when a new Congress is sworn in next month, alluded to the weather as he paid tribute to Senator Thurmond's Senate career.

"I always knew that Strom Thurmond would never leave the Senate until the Capitol froze over," said Mr. Lott.

Senator Thurmond began his political career as a Democrat but left the party in 1964 and became a leading conservative in the Republican Party. He came to the Senate as an opponent of the civil rights movement, but his views moderated over time.


THIRD UPDATE

Where is the New York Times story on this? Has Howell Raines been so mau-maued by Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan that he's lost his nerve, and his news judgement, entirely? The Majority Leader of the United States Senate just said that it would have been better for the country if the segregationist candidate for President had beaten Harry Truman, and hasn't taken it back. The President of the United States, through his spokesman, declines to comment. This is news.

[more]








Friday, December 06, 2002
 
TWO TED RALL CARTOONS

Glenn Reynolds links to a Ted Rall cartoon about war and oil prices. See which of them you agree with.

In the meantime, Rall attracted considerable flak for this one, which I think is pretty raw, but not as raw as some of the political behavior it lambastes.

But then, I like my political cartooning on the vicious side, even when I disagree with it: the early Herblock ("Here he comes now," as Nixon comes up from the sewer), the early MacNelly (the three Security Council cartoons), even Michael Ramirez sometimes (his "Taco Bell" anti-bilingual ed. cartoon).

There ought to be a nasty cartoon archive on the web. Is there?


Thursday, December 05, 2002
 
MORE ON THE GATEWAY THEORY

Iain Murray is upset that Reuters has misreported the RAND "gateway" study. (Much less upset, I can assure you, than the study's authors.) As noted before in this space, the study used simulation techniques to show that the observed correlation between cannabis use and use of harder drugs could be explained without invoking any causal link between the two. It did not do what the Reuters story claimed it did: show that the "gateway effect" did not exist.

But I think that Iain Murray, who for other reasons is a strong advocate of maintaining cannabis prohibition, overstates his case when he says:

The researchers have only offered an alternative explanation, not disproved the gateway theory. The gateway question needs to be answered. It has not been yet.

To which I would respond: What question? The gateway effect was proposed as an explanation for a set of observed phenomena: the strong correlation between cannnabis use and subsequent use of other drugs. Morral et al. have now managed to explain that correlation more parsimoniously, without invoking any gateway effect. That leaves us with no reason to believe that the gateway effect exists. Unless someone can point to phenomena for which the gateway effect is the most parsimonious explanation, it's time to send the gateway theory to the compost heap.

After all, Einstein never proved that the luminiferous aether didn't exist: he just managed to explain all of the observed electromagnetic phenomena without invoking it. It will be a fine day when policy advocates are as willing as scientists to shave with Occam's Razor.









Wednesday, December 04, 2002
 

WHEN DID HOWELL RAINES START EDITING BUSINESS WEEK?

Brad DeLong links to a piece by Howard Gleckman of Business Week, explaining why making the Bush tax cuts permanent would lead to disaster. More left-wing media bias, I suppose.



 

MORE THIMEROSAL

Having a weblog is almost as cool as being a reporter or a Congressional staffer: express a casual opinion based on the slightest trace of knowledge, and lots of smart, well-informed people rush to educate you.

Medicinal chemist Derek Lowe has ltwo thoughtful posts on the thimerosal-autism issue, making what sounds to an amateur like a pretty solid, but (as Lowe clearly says) not airtight case that there's unlikely to be a link. Of course, with a disease of largely unknown etiology, it's very hard to be sure based on mechanism alone whether something will or won't trigger it.

I'm still betting on the epidemiology to tell us the story: either the rate of autism goes down sharpy in the cohorts not exposed to thimerosal, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, start looking for another cause of the surge in incidence. The classfication problem should be manageable by counting only the really profound cases.

Earlier posts on this here and here and here.

[Subsequent post here.]

 

ARE SODOMY LAWS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, OR MERELY DISGUSTING?

Stuart Banner, a new Volokh Conspirator, challenges the whole project of Constitutional interpretation by pointing out how closely (at least in some areas of law) people's Constitutional opinions track their policy preferences. (Eugene Volokh replies.)

Perhaps it was that exchange that prompted me to reflect on the beliefs, widespread among my friends (both liberal and libertarian), that Bowers v. Hardwick was wrongly decided and that the Court is likely to more-or-less reverse it in the Texas case. I think that anti-sodomy laws are a thoroughly bad idea, and that politicians who support them are mostly pandering to prejudice. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that those laws are unconstitutional.

If the Constitution stated a right to unrestricted consensual sexual activity, or a right to privacy written in a way that included such activity under its protection, the question would be different. And if I were making a constitution, I might well want it to enshrine such rights. But that is because I think that sex, like religion, matters so much to people that we should try our best to keep it out of politics. Restrictions on consensual sex will impose considerable suffering, and arguing about sex will distort the political process. Sex is, in this regard, like religion.

But, unlike religion, sex isn't explicitly protected by the Constitution. And the argument that sex shouldn't be regulated because it's none of the public's business -- like the parallel argument about religion -- seems to me transparently false.

Sex, like religion, has overwhelmingly important consequences. Sex occasionally produces babies, and the rate and pattern of reproductive activity, and the subsequent behavior of those who engage in it toward the resulting children, is clearly a matter with substantial social impacts, including impacts on those who aren't making babies themselves. Sex can also spread disease, also evidently a matter of public rather than merely private concern. And patterns of sexual activity help shape broader social patterns, as the institution of marriage makes clear.

In my view, removing the disabilities faced by homosexuals, including the rule that restricts publicly recognized marriage to opposite-sex couples, would on balance make non-homosexuals better off. (It's very hard to see how recognizing gay marriage could fail to reduce the rate of HIV transmission, for example.) Even if I didn't believe that to be the case, I would still support getting rid of gay-unfriendly laws because I think homosexuals are morally entitled to policies that treat them decently, even at some cost to others.

But I don't see the arguments for the contrary empirical and moral judgments as so obviously flimsy that the courts ought to overrule the legislatures. That a given law bears unusually heavily on one class of persons can't possibly, by itself, make it a violation of the principle of equal protection. Assault statutes, after all, bear heavily on those with assaultive personalities: and, for that matter, on males as opposed to females. The ban on gays in the military, because it punishes status rather than conduct, seems to me harder to defend, on an equal-protection basis, than the sodomy statutes.

I'll be happy if the Court reverses Bowers, and even happier if its doing so, or failing to do so, helps split the Republican coalition. That's not the same thing, however, as thinking that striking down the law would be right as a matter of Constitutional interpretation.


Tuesday, December 03, 2002
 

WHEN DOES COMMITTING A FELONY
NOT MAKE SOMEONE A FELON?


Elliot Abrams, who joins John Poindexter in the Bush Administration rogues' gallery, is being called a felon (by the Washington Times's Insight, no less), and Glenn Reynolds echoes the disapproval of the Gweilo Diarist, who says the label is a libel.

In fact, Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, and was subsequently pardoned. Poindexter was convicted of five felonies, but beat the rap when an appeals court decided that his immunized testimony to Congress might have been improperly used to convict him.

As a matter of law, a felon is someone who has been convicted of a felony and whose conviction has neither been reversed nor cancelled by a pardon. The same is true of terms for specific crimes: burglar, for example, or robber, or murderer. Legally, no one is any of those things until a conviction enters. Thus you would be wrong, technically, to call Hitler a war criminal, O.J. Simpson a murderer, Al Capone a racketeer, or Bill Clinton a perjurer or even an adulterer, since none of them was ever convicted of any of those crimes. (Adultery, let's recall, was a crime at common law, and is still a crime in some states.)

But as has been noted before in this space, it's far from clear that the legal presumption of innocence ought to be binding on non-courtroom discourse. Legally, it is self-contradictory to say "John murdered Jane but was never convicted of it." Nonetheless, it's perfectly good English, and may in fact be true. That is, it may well be the case that John committed an act that should have led to his conviction for murder, but didn't.

Perhaps "felon" ought to be reserved for the legal status of being a convicted (non-overturned, non-pardoned) felon, even if the terms that apply to particular crimes aren't. But that's a matter of judgement or taste, not one that can be solved by consulting a Black's Law Dictionary. Calling someone a felon who has not in fact committed a felony is morally wrong, and in some cases may be legally actionable. Calling someone a "convicted felon" who has never been convicted is wrong in the same way. (I'm not as clear about those whose convictions were overturned on technicalities or who were subsequently pardoned.)

But one perfectly reasonable interpretation of the sentence "Elliot Abrams is a felon" is "Elliot Abrams lied to Congress, and lying to Congress constitutes a felony." On that interpretation, the sentence is, arguably, the truth. His being allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and then being pardoned (by one of his co-conspirators), doesn't change the facts. Even if the claim that Abrams actually committed a felony turned out not to be the truth, it would still be the expression of a reasonable opinion. So I very much doubt (speaking here under the correction of those who know) that it constitutes libel, or would constitute libel even if Abrams weren't a public figure.

In any case, you'll have to admit that it's more pleasant to argue about the proper use of terms than it is to worry about having a President with a penchant for appointing persons-who-have-committed-actions-forbidden-by-criminal-law (musn't say "criminals") to important national security posts.



Monday, December 02, 2002
 
SIC UTERE TUO UT ALIENUM NON LAEDAS
AND OTHER CHEERFUL THOUGHTS



Glenn Reynolds predicts that the Supreme Court, having accepted cert., will strike down the Texas sodomy law. [Sam Heldman (Ignatz) makes the same prediction, though cautiously.] In that connection, Reynolds mentions a fascinating (to a non-expert) law review article he wrote with David Kopel.

The article considers two polar views about the scope and limits of the "police power." Reynolds and Kopel prefer what they say is both the older and the more recent view, which would limit the police power to banning actions likely to cause direct harm to others, on the maxim "Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas" (Use what is yours so as not to harm what is others'). They criticize the movement, which they trace to the turn of the last century, extending the power to virtually anything not explicitly reserved to individuals by the Federal or state constitutions, on the maxim "Salus populi est suprema lex" (The public health [safety, good, welfare] is the supreme law).

Reynolds and Kopel make an interesting choice of contemporary bad guy: Robert Bork, who claimed that state-level majorities, acting through their legislatures, could ban anything they found offensive whether it did any actual harm or not.

One implication of their preferred view which they don't make explicit is that the drug laws would have to go. That doesn't bother them, but it does me. Thinking of the principles at stake in terms of the sodomy cases, and with the specter of Bork looming in the background, makes it tempting to opt for the more restrictive view, but in this case I think I'll resist the temptation.



 
MORE ON THE SAUDI CONNECTION

Michael Isikoff comes back for another bite. Mark Steyn of the Chicago Sun-Times has some more details. Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post draws some general lessons. Virginia Postrel, who may not be as prone to wishful thinking as I am, thinks the change in political mood toward the Kingdom is likely to be lasting.


 

DOUG BESHAROV ON WELFARE REFORM

Here's a piece that won't make pleasant reading for either liberals or conservatives.

Besharov -- who more or less counts as a welfare "hawk" but who always gets his facts and arguments straight and who actually knows and cares about the plight of poor people -- demonstrates that the "welfare reform" movement culminating in the replacement of AFDC by TANF accounts for only about a third of the decline in the welfare rolls. The balance he attributes to improved economic conditions and expanded benefits for poor working families.

The humanitarian disaster predicted by the liberals didn't happen, Besharov says, but the changes made a very large number of poor people even poorer. And while the change in welfare offices to a "jobs-first" culture is real, the time limits and work requirements have been mostly bluff, for good administrative and human reasons. Now that the people who were easy to move into the labor market have mostly moved, and with the 90s boom only a fond memory, futher shrinking the caseloads is going to be hard work, and the states probably won't do it.

In the meantime, all those benefits for poor working families are extending disincentives to work and marriage well into the middle third of the income distribution, and vastly expanding the potential voting constituency for further strengthening the social safety net. (Besharov is more convinced than I am that the latter effect is a bad thing.) The last Congress punted on the reauthorization of TANF, so it's going to be high on the agenda of the new Congress whether Lott, DeLay, and Rove want it there or not.

Reading Besharov's sober discussion of how hard all this is going to be makes John DiIulio's account of the childish level of domestic policy discourse in the Bush White House even more depressing. I guess we will now get to see whether "compassionate conservatism" actually has any content or not. Don't bet the ranch on it.

UPDATE

Brad DeLong says that the article makes him (as a liberal) pretty happy. I agree that its news about the past of welfare reform is mostly cheerful. But its implications for the future may be less so. Besharov points out that we managed to largely get rid of "welfare as we knew it" by moving toward a more European-style welfare state, with substantial benefits for working families as well as the very poor. That makes Besharov nervous, though it doesn't bother DeLong (or me) very much. What makes me nervous is what the folks now in power in Washington -- none of them as thoughtful, as knowledgeable, or as worried about the sufferings of the poor as Besharov is -- are likely to think about it and do about it, as TANF gets reauthorized this year.


 


RAND SHOWS THE "GATEWAY THEORY"
THE DOOR


Andrew Morral and his colleagues at RAND seem to have put a major hole in the "gateway theory" so beloved of the drug warriors. Their paper, which appears in the current issue of Addiction, isn't yet up on the journal's website, and when it is it will be available by subscription or one-time payment only. (Look for Vol. 97, Issue 12.) In the meantime, here's a rather mealy-mouthed press release from RAND (eager to distance itself from any hint of supporting the l-g-l-z-t--n of dr-gs) and a pretty good UPI story. [Note that the DEA spokesperson utterly misses the point.]

I predict the study won't make much of a splash, despite the mention of it in Bill Keller's New York Times column on Saturday, for two reasons: (1) it's methodologically complicated (using a simulation model) and (2) it reaches the politically incorrect conclusion.

Here's my while-I-stand-on-one-foot version of the story:

1. There is a strong observed correlation between mariuana use and use of other drugs. The "risk ratios" (the conditional probabilty of, e.g., using cocaine given marijuana use divided by the conditional probability of using cocaine given no marijuana use) are in the double digits.

2. That has led people to postulate a "gateway effect" by which marijuana use causes the use of harder drugs (in the sense that, other things equal, a change in external conditions leading some people to use marijuana who otherwise wouldn't have will increase the proportion of that population that goes on to use, e.g., cocaine).

3. The alternative assumption is that the correlation reflects an underlying characteristic of people that leads them both to take marijuana and to take cocaine.

4. The difference has important implications for policy choice. If the correlation reflects merely differences in underlying propensities for illegal mood-alteration, then changes in marijuana availability, price, or consequences that lead to changes in the prevalence of marijuana use won't have any impact on the level of cocaine use. If the correlation reflects instead a real "gateway effect," then loosening up on marijuana policy now would tend to increase cocaine use later. (That the big increase in youthful marijuana use in the 1990s hasn't yet produced any echo in cocaine use is encouraging, but not dispositive, on this point.)

5. Morral et al. tried to determine whether that "propensity" interpretation can explain the observed correlation, or whether a "gateway effect" is needed.
The succeeded in building a model that assumed there was no gateway effect, but which still fit the observations.

7. Ergo, the gateway effect is a superfluous hypothesis, not needed to explain the phenomena, and (by Occam's Razor) ought to be discarded.

8. Given the design of the study, it could not "disprove" the existence of a gateway effect. But the finding removes any need to hypothesize such an effect in order to explain what actually goes on in the world. Until someone comes up with new observed phenomena that can't be explained in this way, or shows that the underlying propensity assumed by the study either doesn't exist or doesn't have the assumed distribution, the gateway hypothesis must be classed with what Mark Twain called "vagrant opinions, living without visible means of support." (Unfortunately, the social safety net underlying vagrant opinions of this type is quite strong, with no work requirement or five-year time limit.)

Morral's results don't imply any particular set of marijuana control strategies. (The Reuters story illustrates confusion on this point by calling the gateway theory "a basic principle of U.S. anti-drug policies," as if even a well-supported causal hypothesis could by itself be a principle of action.) Marijuana drug causes enough damage on its own account so that one could reasonably oppose commercial legalization (as I in fact do) or even support full prohibition (as I used to do and might do in the future) without making any "gateway" claim at all.

But I doubt that many people or organizations on the pro-drug-war side of the debate will want to make that rhetorical shift. That side had made too heavy an investment in the gateway idea, and not been nearly careful enough in marking it as a plausible causal mechanism rather than an established fact. I predict that those who find the results inconvenient will ignore them, lie about them, or slander the authors, rather than sending a favorite argument to the recycling bin.

UPDATE

More here.
And I should have referenced Rob MacCoun's clear-headed exposition of the seven different things "gateway" might mean.

 
THE SOUTH PHILLY MADISON
VERSUS THE MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLIS


John DiIulio seems to be backing off some of what he's quoted as saying about the Bush Administration in the new Esquire. [I haven't read the Esquire story.] The Bushies and their bloggic allies (including, of course, Glenn Reynolds) are using this to divert attention from the substance of DiIulio's observations. ["Baseless and groundless," says Lord High Denier Ari Fleischer.] No one has yet specified which of the quotes in the Esquire piece were wrong or taken out of context.

All of this reminds me of how the Reaganoids managed to make the flap about David Stockmann's admitting that "supply-side economics" was a deliberate fraud on the country into a flap about whether Stockmann was going to be fired for saying it, and Bush's fairly successful attempt to make the issue about his having repeatedly lied about his drunk driving conviction an issue about how it was a "dirty trick" by Al Gore for a Democrat with no campaign connections to alert reporters to the existence of a public record.

In any case, the Esquire website posts the full text of the letter from DiIulio to the reporter, and I quote some of the juicy bits below. It includes all the hot-button quotes from the New York Times article. John does his best to be optimistic, but his description of the Bush domestic policy process is still pretty devastating.


To: Ron Suskind [ESQUIRE Magazine]
From: John DiIulio
Subject: Your next essay on the Bush administration
Date: October 24, 2002

Dear Ron:

For/On the Record

[SNIP]

In my view, President Bush is a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency. He is a godly man and a moral leader. He is much, much smarter than some people-including some of his own supporters and advisers-seem to suppose. He inspires personal trust, loyalty, and confidence in those around him. In many ways, he is all heart. Clinton talked �I feel your pain.� But as Bush showed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he truly does feel deeply for others and loves this country with a passion.

[SNIP]

But the contrast with Clinton is two-sided. As Joe Klein has so strongly captured him, Clinton was �the natural,� a leader with a genuine interest in the policy process who encouraged information-rich decision-making. Clinton was the policy-wonk-in-chief. The Clinton administration drowned in policy intellectuals and teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work. Every domestic issue drew multiple policy analyses that certainly weighted politics, media messages, legislative strategy, et cetera, but also strongly weighted policy-relevant information, stimulated substantive policy debate, and put a premium on policy knowledge. That is simply not Bush�s style. It fits not at all with his personal cum presidential character. The Bush West Wing is very nearly at the other end of this Clinton policy-making continuum.

Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. There is still two years, maybe six, for them to do more and better on domestic policy, and, specifically, on the compassion agenda. And, needless to say, 9/11, and now the global war on terror and the new homeland and national security plans, must be weighed in the balance.

[SNIP]

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking-discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

[SNIP]

This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis-staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.

[SNIP]

Even more revealing than what happened during the first 180 days is what did not, especially on the compassion agenda beyond the faith bill and focusing on children. Remember �No child left behind�? That was a Bush campaign slogan. I believe it was his heart, too. But translating good impulses into good policy proposals requires more than whatever somebody thinks up in the eleventh hour before a speech is to be delivered, or whatever symbolic politics plan-�communities of character� and such-gets generated by the communications, political strategy, and other political shops.

[SNIP]

Karl [Rove] was at his political and policy best, I think, in steering the president�s stem-cell research decision, as was the president himself, who really took this issue on board with an unusual depth of reading, reflection, and staff deliberation. Personally, I would have favored a position closer to the Catholic Church�s on the issue, but this was one instance where the administration really took pains with both politics and policy, invited real substantive knowledge into the process, and so forth. It was almost as if it took the most highly charged political issue of its kind to force them to take policy-relevant knowledge seriously, to have genuine deliberation.

Contrast that, however, with the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can�t �coordinate� over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.

[SNIP]

Whether because they will eventually be forced to defend the president�s now thin record on domestic policy and virtually empty record on compassionate conservatism, or for other reasons, I believe that the best may well be yet to come from the Bush administration. But, in my view, they will not get there without some significant reforms to the policy-lite inter-personal and organizational dynamics of the place.

Shalom,
John





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