The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mi Casa Es Su Casa (III)

Knoxville columnist Frank Cagle picks up the idea:
In 2006, all Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for reelection. They ought to be turned out in droves. Their conduct for the past six years has betrayed every promise they ever made about smaller, less-intrusive government and fiscal responsibility.

[Via Instapundit.]
Early adopters: Neolibertarian Network.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Winter of Discontent

Protection racketeer Eliot Spitzer has started to arouse more vocal opposition. Stephen Bainbridge, writing at Tech Central Station, thinks "Spitzer Goes Over the Line":
Spitzer has no statutory or regulatory power over mutual funds fees. He simply isn't entitled to decide whether Alliance Capital's fees were too high or not. As such, his oft-stated plan to require fee reductions as part of any settlements he reaches with fund companies is a gross abuse of prosecutorial power. Alliance's fee structure had nothing to do with the legitimate charges against it -- late trading and market timing. It's as though you got busted for pot possession and the DA said you had to give up snowboarding. What business does the prosecutor have using his leverage that way?
On his blog, Mr. Bainbridge also points to a Wall St. Journal editorial:
Unquestioned by a media that live off his news leaks, and unchallenged by businesses afraid of retribution, Mr. Spitzer has expanded his power to usurp the legitimate roles of elected officials and federal regulators.
and to a federal lawsuit filed against Mr. Spitzer by a mutual fund firm.

It is clear that Mr. Spitzer has prospered from his past extortions. Only force or the credible threat of force can stop him from continuing to turn the crank. New York's courts have proven incapable of stopping him; let's hope the federal courts can do better.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Safety Web

R. Alex Whitlock, commenting on a previous post of mine, writes:
I prefer limited government, but to be blunt giving many of these displaced people a check is signing their death warrant because many amongst the poor have made self-destructive decisions that keep them poor. That kind of self-destruction in the form of a block grant could be an explosion.

I agree that many potential grant recipients, with a track record of poor decision making, would not be kept out of trouble by the receipt of a large block grant. Many of those dependent on the safety web [a better name than "safety net", I think, since it alludes to the web's tendency to enmesh those whom it supports] are dependent precisely because they cannot reliably plan for the future. Thus Mr. Whitlock's fears are justified.

I believe that housing vouchers [apparently now approved by the Senate] are not very prone to this kind of abuse, and thus deserve support. Many reconstruction measures, which would build infrastructure in areas chosen by politicians and bureaucrats, would effectively harness the poor for the enrichment of the chosen few.

Friday, September 23, 2005


I believe several things about affirmative action: some of them are summarized here, here and here. However, it is easy for a proponent of affirmative action to ascribe my position to disguised racism, and to point to the absence of prominently successful black people as evidence of a racist society. My statements are consistent with this insidious theory, so I cannot falsify it. Other social conservatives and believers in individual responsibility are of course in the same predicament.

The malign influence of affirmative action makes us doubt the achievements we do see. Was Thurgood Marshall a leading legal mind; or a token black man? How about Clarence Thomas? Indeed, one of the strangest consequences of affirmative action has been the repulsive spectacle of affirmative-action aficionados using exactly this argument to call Mr. Thomas's achievements into question -- apparently unable to see what it means for the rest of their argument.

Thus we are eager to see a black person succeed. And, with Colin Powell and then Condoleeza Rice, we have seen this pleasant spectacle in two spectacular instances in the Bush administration. [Yes, I know about Rod Paige et al. But they are far less visible.] Mrs. Rice's success, combined with her clarity of speech and apparently hard-nosed approach to statecraft, seems like a vindication of our belief in individual responsibility. It is not necessary to say that "If she can do this, anyone can," -- and this is hard to defend, since Miss Rice appears extraordinarily able -- but rather, "That she can do this shows that lack of opportunity is not best addressed with specifically race-based policies." Our admiration for her is real, and its realness in turn adds this extra frisson of vindication.

Thus Miss Rice stands extremely high in straw polls of GOP voters. They haven't seen much, but they like what they see. And this is where the problem enters.

What are Miss Rice's policies on energy initiatives? On the environment? On faith in the public square? On abortion? Space? Stem cells? The deficit? Her supporters don't know -- they haven't asked. They only know that she makes them feel good. This is, in a word, tokenism.

Note that Miss Rice's current status as a token does not imply that her followers are racists. They are people who want the best, who believe that it is best obtained with a program of equality of opportunity, not one that rewards wealthy blacks at the expense of poor people of all races. They believe in their program, but they enjoy affirmation that their ideas may be right, and Miss Rice is the token that provides that.

If Miss Rice is a serious presidential candidate, she should be treated to the same scrutiny as the McCains and Giulianis and Allens. We should know her positions on all these things, not just that she is a tough and energetic Secretary of State. Then we can make an informed decision as to her fitness for the most demanding of all jobs.

We need equality, not a token on a pedestal. We need to know her ideas, and to evaluate them without bias against her -- but also without the will to vindicate ourselves through her.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A New South

The rebuilding of New Orleans is in doubt; as it should be. The question of what to rebuild, and where, has received only a tiny fraction of the attention it deserves. The best resource I can find is Mark A. R. Kleiman's weblog, where Mr. Kleiman, Michael O'Hare, and Steve Teles have begun to think about the issue. Another post by Mr. Teles addresses some practical issues. In particular:
One thing that would seem to be imperative would be to make whatever resources that are given to individuals as mobile as possible. Thus, in an area of the kind that O'Hare imagines, you at least would want to make sure that there were no disincentives to moving--such as housing subsidies that are in-kind rather than in voucher form.
Vouchers help individuals by, well, helping individuals; geographically constrained housing subsidies rob the needy of choice, sacrificing the individual good to the "Cities Are People Too" fallacy.

I do not know what forms of rebuilding will be economically practical. But conservatives who do not want government to dictate where people live, and liberals who do not want government aid used to form ghettos of the underpriveleged in undesirable locations, should be united against any government attempts to force the rebuilding of New Orleans as it was.

This will not be easy. As Mr. Kleiman notes:

I like the idea of giving money to individuals. So should anyone who believes in limited government. It's fast, it's efficient, and it's fair. But I'll bet any amount of money that's not what happens, since it would deprive those currently in office of the chance to hand out goodies on a discretionary basis and thus to accumulate chits in the favor bank.

[Update: Mr. Kleinman's trackbacks, like Kevin Drum's, are broken. The compilers of those left/right blogosphere comparisons should probably this apparent pattern into account.]

Touchy, Feely, Empty

Kevin Drum and Jack Schafer expose the utter vacuity of the recent Page One article in the New Yokels' Times, titled "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood". Mr. Drum concludes:
This leaves Story with only one thin remaining hook, something she tacitly admits in the 33rd paragraph: the possibility that Ivy League women talk about being stay-at-home moms more than they used to. And maybe they do, although there's no real evidence for that either, aside from a tiny collection of ambiguous quotes from Ivy League professors and administrators.
But even if this were true, it would hardly be Page 1 material, would it? For that you need the survey. And the survey demonstrates nothing at all.
In short, the article is more of the usual, news for children. Evidence, continuity, and measurement remain Somebody Else's Problem.

Golem Runs Amok

The Golem, Chancellor of the United Kingdom and Tony Blair's presumptive successor, believes in an odd sort of activist government, with broadly higher taxes paying for a smorgasbord of small "incentive" programs. He appears to have erred on the side of eagerness with this one; the Times article is headlined "Step this way to get free cash from Gordon Brown".
From April next year, taxpayers will be able to make thousands of pounds in their pension fund risk-free.
... The ploy centres on the ability to take tax-free cash out of your pension and immediately reinvest it to earn extra tax relief.
You can already do this, but it is cumbersome under the present rules because you have to take an income from what is left. [After the change] you won’t have to draw benefits, making it much more appealing because your fund stays intact. Members of company schemes might have to set up a private pension to benefit.
It works like this... anyone aged over 50, rising to 55 in 2010, will be able to take a quarter of their fund as a tax-free lump sum. Say you have a pension worth £500,000 and you earn £150,000. On your 50th birthday you ask your pension company for your tax-free cash. It will probably send you a form, and in due course you receive £125,000 — a quarter of £500,000. You put £75,000 of that cash back into your pension and get tax relief, boosting the overall contribution to £125,000.... But you have kept £50,000 of the tax-free lump sum you removed — and you don’t stop there.
The Times goes on to explain how you can then withdraw a quarter of the £125,000, and then reinvest the entirety to get another tax credit, and so on ad infinitum.

The Continental Europeans, having grown accustomed to The Golem's public criticism of their finances, may have left a tingle of schadenfreude when Britain began running excessive deficits, despite a long run of City-driven growth:
From the East, the EU’s Joaquin Almunia formally charged the Chancellor with the sin of running excessive deficits, not just for the past two years but most likely for the next two as well. Britain is becoming the new Germany. From the West, Rodrigo Rato, managing director of the IMF, said that growth would be lower and deficits higher than consistent with Mr Brown’s own budget rules, let alone Mr Almunia’s or anyone else’s.
Both attacks are stingingly embarrassing. The Chancellor has persistently lectured IMF members and, as chairman of Ecofin, is continuing to tell fellow European finance ministers how to run their affairs.
Britain is not part of the eurozone and Mr Brown has quite reasonably criticised the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact that he is now charged with breaking. He has even helped France, Germany and Italy to get round them. Mr Almunia, the EU’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner, conceded that Britain’s budget deficit was only a little over the 3 per cent limit permitted to member states at the bottom of the economic cycle.
Mr Brown, however, had no excuse to run any kind of deficit. As Mr Almunia so damagingly noted, the UK has not been languishing in recession. Until the past few months, the economy has enjoyed several years of above-average growth.

Unfortunately, these problems are not confined to England. Expensive and meddlesome government is easy to find; who is offering anything else?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Second Draft Released

Second Draft has released its first media study, on the "Pallywood" staging of propaganda which became our "news". Go there, not here. Now.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Trouble in Basra

Two British soldiers, wearing plainclothes and driving a civilian vehicle, were arrested and charged with the killing of an Iraqi policeman. The British army responded by demolishing Basra's central jail to spring them. But their first attempt apparently failed:
The two men, said to be on an undercover intelligence mission, were sprung only hours after British forces had encircled the building but were forced to flee by a violent mob hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. Two Iraqi civilians were reportedly killed in the riots, during which two UK Warrior armoured vehicles were set alight.
This appears to be a debacle of the first order. Basra's own leaders claim that their sovereignty has been undermined, while the UK's own opposition insist that it must be a deliberate government action:
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, said from the party conference in Blackpool: "It is hard to see how relations between the British military and the civilian Iraqi authorities in Basra will ever be the same again.
"This is bound to be seen as a humiliation by many Iraqis - something the insurgents will use to their advantage. An operation of this kind must have gone to the highest level - "I would be surprised if the Prime Minister had not been consulted."
To be fair, we have to note that the Liberal Democrats are a weak [by European standards] and reliably antiwar third party. Thus the presence of the above quote is indirect evidence that senior Tories, and in particular the shadow Foreign Minister, did not see fit to provide a tasty quote to the Times.

I don't know how bad this is going to be in the end. I did derive grim amusement from the Times's followup article this morning: Iran blamed as militias step up Basra violence.
There are strong suspicions that the bloodshed is being orchestrated with weapons and encouragement from Iran.
The clashes and the arrest of two undercover soldiers was almost certainly triggered by the arrest at the weekend of Sheikh Ahmed al-Fartusi, the leader of the Mahdi Army, a banned militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. He was seized by British troops in a raid that also netted his brother and another colleague.
When the American-occupied north was restive and the British-occupied south peaceful, the press would maintain that their superior rapport with the Iraqis and less "heavy-handed" approach were responsible. [Here is an example from the AP.] The new violence, however, is atributed not to the a breakdown of this principle but to exogenous interference, in this case Iranian.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Cities Are People Too

Back in February, I outlined the "nations are people too" fallacy, and proposed some axioms:

1) Nations are not living beings. They are organizations, formed by humans, with certain characteristics (notably the ability to control some territory).

2) Nations have no feelings; no rights; and no moral existence of their own.

Now that we are being told how "New Orleans has suffered", but we will "bring it back to life". Once more, then, slowly: Cities are not living beings -- they are labels of convenience given to groups of humans. Cities have no feelings; no rights; and no moral existence of their own.

Words matter. The words used to describe New Orleans matter because they will shape real actions: and if those words are focused on the imaginary "life" and supposed "suffering" of a city, the resulting actions will be aimed at these illusory targets, rather than at the real life and real suffering of the real humans we should be trying to help.

The Next Japan

Those attempting to see the positive in yesterday's German elections are, sadly, self-deluded. Schroeder did come back from a huge deficit; he did use anti-American rhetoric in the process, and it was apparently very effective. The CDU cannot form a majority government unless it gains the support of two or more small parties, but the Greens and PDS are both to the left of the SPD, and are hardly going to support free-market reforms.

The immediate prognosis for Germany is paralysis of the higher functions of government; its limbic system will continue running the state, but no significant reforms will be considered. This makes it certain that the nation will slide several more years down its disastrous demographic slope before acting.

The Euro bond market has rallied sharply this morning, in anticipation of a future of low growth and correspondingly low rates. Proprietary traders who shorted bonds in anticipation of a Merkel victory are suffering: ironically, their actions also created a veneer of positive economic indicators which may have aided the incumbent government.

[Update 31 October: A Wall Street Journal editorial on Paul Kirchhof, Mrs. Merkel's economic advisor, has much more on anti-American rhetoric:
Mr. Schröder left it to his minions to spell out where all these scary ideas would lead. "Kirchhof is the German representative of the American neocons who surround Cheney and Wolfowitz who are also responsible for the Iraq-war," the Social Democrats' parliamentary deputy head Michael Müller said. Mr. Kirchhof hadn't uttered a word about Iraq; but in order to demonize someone in Germany, one has to make him American. These were cheap but effective distractions from the real issue Mr. Kirchhof talked about -- the economy.
Hat tip: David's Medienkritik.]

Friday, September 16, 2005


At Belgravia Dispatch, Greg Djerejian has written the post we've all been waiting for. It's quite long (including a long excerpt from a Jason Vest article which Mr. Djerejian calls a "must read piece"), and concludes with 10 (ten) bullet points for maximizing the chances of success.

I will start with a quick carp on Point 4:
Find the right balance between ink-spot and counter-insurgency in the Red Zone, but likely deemphasize reconstruction projects in the Kurdish North or Shi'a South in favor of projects in critical 'tipping point zones' like Kirkuk, or Sadr City, or in towns near the main aiport road to Baghdad.
Like the strongest of true-COIN advocates, I am very reluctant to "reward failure" by reconstructing unfriendly towns or even areas. Mr. Djerejian's idea of emphasizing "towns near the main airport road" sounds good, but I still think of aid to Kirkuk or Sadr City as something to be avoided. Instead, I would prefer to enrich their neighbors, thus offering a visible example of the benefits of American largesse (near enough to be noticed by inhabitants of the aforementioned cities), and allowing opportunity-seekers to move there if they desired. If we can successfully create a visible contrast between the wages of insurgency and those of peace, the benefits should be great.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Hysteria and Democracy

I think I can fairly claim to have been one of the first to denounce the Supreme Court's atrocious decision in Kelo v. New London. In fact, I overreacted:
I want a different litmus test. I want at least one Senator, preferably a Republican, to announce that he will not support any candidate who will not declare an intention to reverse Kelo. Who will do such a thing?
Glenn Reynolds, proposing questions to ask John Roberts in today's New York Times, expresses a similar sentiment in more measured language:
2. Justice Joseph Story wrote in 1833 that "since the American Revolution no state government can be presumed to possess the transcendental sovereignty to take away vested rights of property; to take the property of A and transfer it to B by a mere legislative act." Was Story wrong? Or was the Supreme Court wrong this year when it ruled in Kelo v. the City of New London that a government had the right to take property for the use of private developers?
The Kelo decision is harmful to society and contradictory to the plain language of the Constitution: bad legislation and bad interpretation combined in a tidy package of bad law. But, contrary to my earlier words and to Mr. Reynolds's, this does not make it one of the most pressing judicial issues of our day.

By way of comparision, consider the Tobacco Trust Treaty of 1998. You haven't heard that name before [because I just coined it], but you have heard of "the tobacco settlement" or "the tobacco deal". My name for it, however, is the right one, highlighting the fact that it is a treaty [whose signatories are States, in violation of the Compact Clause of the Constitution], and that it creates a Tobacco Trust, a competition-suppressing agreement to benefit the existing Big Tobacco companies.

The Tobacco Trust Treaty represents nothing less than the foundation of a shadow government within the confines of the United States. It is not a large government by our current standards: its annual budget [$20,000,000,000 or so] is less than 1% of that of the constitutional government. It is parasitic on the constitutional government for enforcement of its laws. In thinking of this shadow government, it is instructive to compare with the European Union. Both, despite their creation through the mechanisms of democracy, have an intrinsic "democracy deficit" stemming from the lack of accountability to the populace of voters.

Kelo is a blip, a ruling less than three months old whose backlash has already been more influential than the ruling itself. This is not to say that the battle for meaningful property rights is not worth fighting, and seeing through to a thorough victory. But the Tobacco Trust Treaty is now over seven years old, and there has been little effective protest or action against it. A few lonely souls have carried on the fight: see here, here, or here. They deserve publicity and public support, and they will need it.

Bashing Kelo is fashionable, and easy. Fighting the Tobacco Trust is hard, easily forgotten... and far more important.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Stephen Green rants against stem cell research limitations:

I understand why pro-life people are so upset by fetal stem cell research, but let's get something straight here. If there's a woman out there considering an abortion, her decision will not be based on the promise of medical research. The fact that some fetuses can (or rather, could) be used, is perhaps the only positive thing to come out of a very bad situation. But anyone who thinks there's an army of women getting themselves impregnated then gleefully having abortions for The Cause… well, the person who thinks that is an idiot. Not to mention a misogynist of the most cynical sort.
Now that we have the pertinent
Forbidden Issue out of the way, let's get to the meat of the matter on stem cells – fetal or adult.

Despite Mr. Green's claim to "understand why pro-life people are so upset", his straw man clearly shows the opposite. People may make a considered moral choice not to participate in or abet an ongoing evil; and Mr. Green does not even mention this consideration. He continues with a plea to self-interest:

The meat is: The very future of this country.
... We won't stay rich in the 21st Century by drilling more oil in Alaska or wherever – that's so Early Industrial. We won't do it by building better cars, a relic (still useful, but still a relic) of the last century. We'll stay ahead of newcomers like China the same way we overtook our European competitors over the last 100 years: By seizing what's new, and pursuing it freely and fearlessly on a large scale.

I would ask Mr. Green to stop for a moment and consider what morality might mean. In particular, he should consider that trying to live a moral life sometimes means that we refrain from doing things, even things that would serve our best interests. A moral argument that can be undermined by a plea to self-interest is not moral at all, but merely an argument of convenience.

Mr. Green's advocacy of more aggressive stem-cell research shows that his moral qualms, if he holds any, are in this case subservient to self-interest. There is nothing really wrong with that: this is a difficult and ambiguous question, and Mr. Green's position is completely defensible. However, his choice of argument shows a profound ignorance of the very concept of what it means to hold a moral position.

Coinciding with self-interest does not make the immoral moral.

A Penny Saved

Kevin Drum bemoans budget cuts related to Gulf Coast flood control:

Here's a timeline that outlines the fate of both FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration. Read it and weep.

I am going to skip over the parts related to reassignment of reporting lines, and focus on spending decisions. "Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests." [All non-block quotes are from Mr. Drum's timeline.]

Among emergency specialists, "mitigation"--the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters--is a crucial part of the strategy to save lives and cut recovery costs. But since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half, and now, communities across the country must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars.
As a result, some state and local emergency managers say, it's become more difficult to get the equipment and funds they need to most effectively deal with disasters. In North Carolina, a state regularly damaged by hurricanes and floods, FEMA recently refused the state's request to buy backup generators for emergency support facilities. And the budget cuts have halved the funding for a mitigation program that saved an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in three eastern N.C. communities alone after 1999's Hurricane Floyd. In Louisiana, another state vulnerable to hurricanes, requests for flood mitigation funds were rejected by FEMA this summer.

I would like to point out that Florida and North Carolina are the focus of the mitigation funding in this article. If the lack of federal funds for Louisiana was considered outrageous, is the absence of funding for a boondoggle in North Carolina equally so? Another tidbit from the same article:

As the Cold War ended, FEMA turned greater attention to handling natural disasters, but the agency proved unequal to the task. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew assaulted Florida and other Southern states with 170-mile-an-hour winds, killing 23 people and leaving a trail of devastation. The severity of the storm caught FEMA off-guard, and the agency did too little, too late to help the state recover, enraging thousands of storm victims.

Of course, everything was better in the Clinton years, as North Carolina's farmers will attest. Then, "June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed."

The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2005 budget includes only $3.9 million for the east bank hurricane project. Congress likely will increase that amount, although last year it bumped up the administration's $3 million proposal only to $5.5 million.
"I needed $11 million this year, and I got $5.5 million," Naomi said. "I need $22.5 million next year to do everything that needs doing, and the first $4.5 million of that will go to pay four contractors who couldn't get paid this year."

Given that the levee which broke was one which had been repaired, this looks like $5.5 million, and hopefully more in 2005, saved that would have been wasted. But here, hindsight focused on New Orleans once again makes the savings look smaller than they really are. Unless Louisiana's politicians were singularly inept, we can expect that similar savings were realized all along the Gulf Coast and south Atlantic; who is now going to say that would have been money well spent?

Mr. Drum then descends to Dowdification: "June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes." Going to the source, we see:

In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding.
It would be the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district, Corps officials said.

That's right, these destructive funding cuts hadn't even happened yet.

To generalize: to criticize the lack of spending on New Orleans, one must advocate greater spending for every locality at risk from any disaster. Any other sort of criticism is simply an attempt to look clever with the benefit of hindsight.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Second Draft

Solomonia has posted an interview with the clear-minded Boston University Professor Richard Landes. Dr. Landes's project, "Second Draft", will compare the news reporting of the recent past with the primary sources from which the reports were gleaned. Even in the interview, he is able to look deeply into the abyss of bias, sensationalism and willful ignorance which distort our news. The Second Draft project itself should be available soon, and should be the most important sociological work of our young century.
Professor Landes' new web site, Second Draft, a project of 21st Century Media Group, will open to the public in early September. The URL would be released at that time.

[Via Carnival of the Vanities.]

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Every Good Tree

A few days ago, I wrote:
A central part of the conservative mindset is an intuitive recognition of how weak is the moral coupling between intentions and results, rejecting the progressive idea that good intentions can somehow place the results above suspicion.
I was put in mind of this again while reading Alex Tabarrok's comments on Jonathan Kozol. You should read Mr. Tabarrok's entire post, but I want to comment on the quote from Mr. Kozol at the end:
Vouchers elevate the lowest instincts of humanity over the most beautiful instincts.
There are actually two separate statements contained in this sentence. One is the statement of normative intent: the fact that vouchers, like markets, work even in the presence of base motives is, for Mr. Kozol, reason to oppose rather than to praise them. But the second implicit statement, of priorities, is even worse: it is Mr. Kozol's statment of the important of his own aesthetic judgement. By even advancing this argument, he claims that his sensibilities deserve to be weighed on the same scale as the real well-being of those affected by vouchers, and to come out heavier. I wouldn't treat a dog with that kind of arrogance.

By preferring "beautiful instincts" to results, Mr. Kozol is effectively advocating for purification of the soul through suffering. Yet he is called, not medieval, but "progressive".


Greg Djerejian, at Belgravia Dispatch, has finally wigged out. The landfall of Hurricane Katrina seems to have been the catalyst:

Well, it's not unbelievable, sadly. It has become standard operating procedure with this Administration. Colossal missteps are made (no serious attention paid to what might happen if the levees were breached, no thought of moving to expeditiously evacuate the Superdome, no apprecation that basic law and order might be grossly imperiled if the city became submerged in floodwaters, no contingency planning for an insurgency in Iraq, no appreciation of the full ramifications of tossing aside the Geneva Conventions) and time and again there is a staggering lack of accountability. Well, here at B.D. we're sick of the empty bear hugs and cutesy nicknames, the circle the wagons damage control mentality, cheap ass-covering and rampant buck-passing, the guitar-strumming and talk of Trent Lott's porch looking all antebellum swell post reconstruction and Kennebunkport 'let them move to Texas' insouciance. Above all else, B.D is sick of the sheer spectacle of grim incompetence that humiliated this nation as New Orleans descended into mayhem reminiscent of wartime Haiti or Liberia--with hundreds if not thousands perhaps needlessly dying because of government ineptitude...

Mr. Djerejian was, at his peak, a leading and maybe even great blogger. His prose, while marked by a tendency to swerve into grammar-free insider jargon, was reliably serviceable; and his analyses were clearheaded and informed by a broad and professional understanding of the real issues of foreign relations.

Over the past year or so, Mr. Djerejian has become vocally dissatisfied with the American effort in Iraq. His objections are sound: first the prisoner treatment fiascos, then the apparent conflict within the administration and Pentagon as to whether we have sufficient troops, and the apparent inflexibility of the American strategy. He is animated by a particular dislike of Donald Rumsfeld:
A Secretary of Defense who has presided over the worst P.R. debacle since My Lai, who didn't even deign to contemplate the prospect of a post-war scenario characterized by the specter of a resilient insurgency, who went along with significantly under-manning the war effort--hasn't he dangerously under-performed?
But more generally, Mr. Djerejian is convinced that the pacification of Iraq is failing. Thus propels him to a belief that the administration should learn from its mistakes, and thus to calls for "accountability" -- in other words, heads must roll for the failures he perceives. He responds strongly against overoptimistic rhetoric:

But, with all due respect to Wretchard, it would have to be quite a "casual observer" indeed who would write so breezily of the "defeat of the Iraqi insurgency." This is such utter flimflam and snake oil, and needs to be called mightily lest too many people on the Thinking Right (of whom I count a good deal of Belmont's readership) buy into the "last throes" spinnage making the rounds.

So far, there is nothing really wrong here. It disturbs me that an observer as informed as Mr. Djerejian takes a pessimistic view; but that surely does not mean he is wrong. The real problem is that, in his own disappointment, Mr. Djerejian has become the very thing he would formerly have loathed: a stationary Washington insider, focused more on personnel and officialdom than on the action on the ground, full of sniping complaints but with nothing to suggest in the place of the policies he despises.

Getting bent out of shape is the easiest thing in the world: criticism is the second easiest. The difficult tasks of measuring success, shaping policies which can withstand criticism, and following projects through to completion have been dropped from Belgravia Dispatch's discourse. During Mr. Djerejian's attempt [apparently abandoned in midstream] to form a "conscience caucus" of Republicans and war supporters willing to actively oppose torture, I commented:

Mr. Djerejian: .... You have promised a few times in the past to articulate a proposal on what treatment is permissible for enemies not protected by the Geneva convention, but it seems you have been sidetracked into chronicling the latest horrors instead...
Until you write that proposal, there's nothing to say that's not mere repetition.

But no proposal, or even any hint of a policy, was forthcoming. This is not principled opposition, this is carping.

And now we must prepare for more of the same on Katrina. I would ask Mr. Djerejian: if President Bush had turned on Michael Brown, promising to fire him at the first opportunity, how many lives would have been saved? Who would have been helped? Was there anything whatsoever to be gained, besides a sop to those who are already focusing on the blame rather than on the relief? The question answers itself. Mr. Brown may well be a fool, but the horse has left the barn. The short-term alternative is an empty space in the org chart.

More level heads would stay focused on the progress of the rescue effort, and the hard economic choices ahead. More mature observers would be willing to wait until the crisis had passed, then give the administration a short but decent interval to replace inadequate officials. Belgravia Dispatch used to be a page you could open for such maturity and steadiness. Alas, no more.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Being Poor and Rural

John Scalzi has a poetic and thought-provoking post on Being Poor [hat tip: R. Alex]. It serves as a humane reminder of problems that, as they only affect other people, are very easy for most of us to forget. Its mindset is quite urban, though; thus, though I have not been poor for some time, I will presume to offer a few entries.

Being poor is hanging out in the parking lot because you're not welcome in the store.

Being poor is knowing the opening hours at the day-old bread store.

Being poor is pushing the dead car into the back yard because it costs $50 to tow away.

Being poor is always knowing the next day's weather without having to look it up.

Being poor is rusted springs poking you through the blankets you covered the couch with.

Being poor is always knowing who's in the bathroom.

Being poor is trying out for the sports where the school provides uniforms.

Being poor is eating the same thing for a week because it's cheaper in the big box.

ZDF Accusation

Via Kevin Drum (whose trackbacks are still broken), we find a reader Email reproduced at Laura Rozen's blog on U.S. hurricane response:
There was a striking dicrepancy [sic] between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.
ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.
The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF.
Mr. Drum is buying: "This goes beyond stage management. This is criminal." Indeed, if true. The next step is the Google News search for "ZDF New Orleans" which, as of this writing, gives three hits.

The first is a September 4 article in the Workers World [sic] entitled Military moves in, not to help but to repress. It closes as follows:
But after this monumental disaster, no amount of posturing and media manipulation can hide the ugly truth.
After Bush's much-publicized photo-op, where he played hero and hugged two young Black women in Louisiana, the German television station
ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open-air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after he and the herd of "news people" had left. Others that were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.
The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF
I have placed in boldface the part of the quote which is repeated verbatim by Ms. Rozen's correspondent. The Workers World article is credited to Dierdre Griswold, and flagged by Google News as "3 hours ago", i.e., around 2 AM EST.

The second hit is a posting at, which gives the same story in different words:
German TV, however, filed a much different report. ZDF news reporter Christine Adelhardt reported the president's visit to be a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open-air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was hastily set up for his photo-op and then torn down immediately after he and the herd of "news people" had left. And those women Bush hugged for the camera were not even Biloxi locals. Some have even speculated that they were looters who were just individuals wandering in the area that were quickly recruited as props for Bush's faux compassion photo-op.
The author is listed as Bruce Wilkey of Signal Mountain. It adds color and different wording, but the verbatim overlap [again in bold] seems beyond coincidence.

The third hit is a false positive, a Herald Tribune article on the upcoming German election. So we are left with two related but not identical roots. Mr. Wilkey is a frequent correspondent to the Chattanooga Times -- this seems to cast doubt on his impartiality. It seems safe to assume that Mr. Wilkey read of the ZDF reports and found them plausible, so we are most likely left with a single source.

This, of course, in no way implies that that source is false. For that, we need someone who has seen the ZDF feed or, better, was involved in the photo-op itself. Unfortunately, Mr. Whitlock represents the southernmost outpost of my readership, so this will have to be undertaken by someone more industrious.

[Update 27 September: It appears the ZDF reports are not to be believed. Congratulations to Idealistic Pragmatist and Respectful of Otters, who did the legwork. Perhaps Mr. Drum will provide a retraction; though, since his trackbacks are still broken, he may not be aware of this update.]

Friday, September 02, 2005

Good Enough

Megan McArdle has an excellent pragmatic post, In praise of price gouging. She concludes:
Prices of everything rise after a disaster, and a good thing too, since that encourages people and material to flood into the damaged area, where they're needed most. When well-meaning politicians impose "anti-gouging" laws, they slow the flow of resources to repair the damage.
So let's all do our part by grinning and bearing higher oil prices, and remembering to be nice to our friendly neighbourhood price gougers. But you don't need to thank them; after all, they're just doing their job.
I would amend this slightly, noting that praise of gouging is not the same as praise of gougers. The beauty of the market-driven system is that it enables good results, which as Mrs. McArdle shows are driven by price gouging, to flow from selfish motives.

How easy it is, too, for evil outcomes to arise from the best of motives. A central part of the conservative mindset is an intuitive recognition of how weak is the moral coupling between intentions and results, rejecting the progressive idea that good intentions can somehow place the results above suspicion. But Mrs. McArdle is close to making the reverse error, assuming that good results reflect well on the intention and character of their agents -- the price gougers.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

News for Grownups

To understand how news reporting is so bad, we have to look at the sections of the newspaper where the news is actually good [i.e., of high quality]: sports and [to a lesser extent] business. It is instructive to consider the distortions which degrade the sports section to match the quality of other sections:
  • If only games decided by over 10 runs (or 30 points) were mentioned, it would be like the local news.
  • If each team's manager got all the credit or blame, regardless of what the players accomplished, it would be like the national news.
  • If only personality clashes were described, never actual game results, it would be like the international news.
  • If the paper mentioned only games which the Yankees lost, it would be like the war news.
The sports section has three great strengths. The first is standings, which encapsulate the myriad of context [betting lines, when available, are even better for this]. Second is recent game results, which describe each team's success at achieving a previously agreed objective. Finally, there is analysis of the future which makes a clear distinction between causes and effects. [This last is the great weakness of financial sections, which see the effect first, and then try to ascribe it to some haphazardly chosen cause.]

News for grownups must be complete with context, emphasize processes rather than events, and focus on the continuity of developments. An article about Iraqi unemployment or power shortages begs several questions [e.g.,the history of such unemployment and comparable statistics from neighboring countries]. Answers to these are never offered.

Markets can offer a lot to the news. For example, in reporting on the possible failure of New Orleans to recover, information on land prices in the area [with historical context!] would be far more informative than some reporters' and politicians' self-serving speculation. New markets can be created for interesting stories: for example, a company like InTrade might market a contract on the population of New Orleans at the 2010 census. [There are currently 7 open contracts on the John Roberts nomination, so this is not an exorbitant demand.]

Context, measurement and continuity are the crucial ingredients of news for grownups, just as lurid pictures are the heart of news for children. Providing these requires skill, including some degree of numeracy, which might be rare in today's journalism profession; but surely it cannot be altogether absent.

Back in March, I wrote:
As long as spectacular pictures dominate news coverage, the side that is in the business of creating such images will have an unassailable advantage. There is not terribly much individuals can do about this, either; it will improve only to the extent that news coverage begins to have a memory, to be able to compare today with yesterday, or last week, or last year. Right now the entire sphere of news -- the blogosphere included -- is like an infant in the night, terrified anew by each atrocity, beguiled by each pretty dancing flame.