The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, October 31, 2005

Long Memories

Greg Djerejian is back at Belgravia Dispatch, with a burst of activity over the weekend. In the course of a well-balanced post on the past and near future of the Bush Administration, Mr. Djerejian says:
... I suppose it's no secret that this blog has become rather disenchanted with President Bush and his administration. Indeed, I no longer really count myself a supporter, truth be told, for some of the reasons I will spell out below.

These are words to conjure moonbats from the vasty deep: and indeed they have promptly appeared in the comments section. A couple of the canards which show up there seem representative, and widespread enough to merit rebuttal.

Let me start with this one, from one "Mitsu":
However, the political fallout of our actual Iraq debacle will be a continued association of the Iraqi government, however democratic, with American attempts to violently impose our will, with American torture, disdain for Islam, etc., etc. This will have massive political ramifications for us for an indefinite future --- Islamic civilization has a LONG memory when it comes to things like this.
Over and over we have heard how this "people" or that "civilization" has a long memory, never forgets a slight, and so forth. In everyday life, there is a simple word for people who never tire of holding a grudge. They are called losers.

This is doubly true for civilizations. A people in decline, which perceives its own decline and seeks to rationalize it, will latch onto and perpetuate extenuating explanations, especially those which shift the blame to some easily identified outsider. An Islamic world which is rotten to the core, mired in corruption and poverty despite the incredible oil wealth of its masters, will be filled with such peoples. One which has taken charge of its own destiny and accepted the responsibility for its own future will, quite frankly, have more important things on its mind.

[Snarky generalization to today's Democratic Party deleted.]

The Abu Ghraib debacle has certainly empowered our enemies. But it will only have staying power if Iraq is a failure in more general terms. Otherwise its mention will be on par with grievances about the Reconquista -- a sign as sure as that "L" on the forehead.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

No Retreat

From the Associated Press [via Tim Blair]:
President Bush ended his push to put loyalist Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court Thursday and promised a quick replacement. Democrats accused him of bowing to the “radical right wing of the Republican Party."
The near-term partisan implications of the Mrs. Miers's withdrawal are now crystal clear. Democrats are perfectly positioned to attack any nominee as "radical right wing." Given this sure supply of enemies, the Bush Administration will be obliged to garner some friends by choosing a nominee who is, well, right-wing. They will have to find someone with ironclad qualifications, since the fight will be hard enough without unnecessary disadvantages. Even that might not be enough to win confirmation.

Conservatives, with varying degrees of ardor, wanted a fight. They have one.


Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) has advanced evidence that MP "Gorgeous" George Galloway knowingly profited from misallocation of Iraqi oil under the so-called "oil-for-food" program. Christopher Hitchens summarizes the case for the prosecution.

However, there is one strong point in Mr. Galloway's defense. The testimony of Tariq Aziz, formerly Iraq's foreign minister under Saddam Hussein, cannot carry weight. Mr. Hitchens, oddly, attempt to use Mr. Aziz's lies as an indicator of his truthfulness:
I do not think—in case anyone tries such an innuendo—that there is the smallest possibility that Aziz's testimony was coerced. For one thing, he was confronted by Senate investigators who already knew a great deal of the story and who possessed authenticated documents from Iraqi ministries. For another, he continues, through his lawyers, to deny what is also certainly true, namely that he personally offered a $2 million bribe to Rolf Ekeus, then the head of the U.N. weapons inspectors.
If the case against Mr. Galloway can be prosecuted without relying on Mr. Aziz's testimony, then I would urge both the American and British governments to press on. But on this narrow point, Mr. Galloway's reaction is justified:
The evidence is statements made by people on trial for genocide and now living in the dungeons of the American occupation in Iraq.
A missed tackle on Mr. Galloway would be a debacle. Get him right.

[Update 31 October: at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies wargames a hypothetical Galloway prosecution, showing the substantial difficulties.]


Baseball Crank has a comprehensive and persuasive argument, in the form of a quiz, against Harriet Miers's confirmation. Beldar has argued well on the other side, but I think the ammunition is unfairly distributed. I oppose the Miers nomination.

[Update 10:33 EDT: Wow, last in before the doors shut! Is this further proof of my wide influence, or what?]

[Update: Reviewing the record, I seem to have been wrong and wrong again.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


James Lileks has extended the food section of his Institute of Official Cheer with a pamphlet on Bar-B-Tricks. In one case, however, I must defend tradition against Mr. Lileks's futuristic mockery. On SOS steel wool pads, he writes:
Okay, so it’s interwoven. Noted. They seem quite proud of the fact, even though you have no idea what it means.
If you have ever used a steel wool pad, you know precisely what this means. Brillo pads, which are not interwoven, swiftly collapse into separate tentacles like a bundle of french fries tied at one end. Meanwhile, the SOS pad steadfastly maintains its overall shape, and thus its utility.

Brillo pads are also square, rather than pleasingly oblong, and stubbornly red (whereas SOS pads are now a soothing pale blue). Thus practical and aesthetic superiority are harmoniously conjoined in the SOS pad.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


The estimable Scott Burgess articulates the case against the gatekeepers of today's art in an exceptional post, New Philistines Unite!:
The real objection of the New Philistine is not that a small group of
people choose to entertain themselves in such ways - many of us share a
libertarian perspective that is happy to let people spend (their own) money on
such pursuits.
Our concern is with the cultural arbiters' dismissal of those
who aren't interested in watching a queue of people asking each other the time
as being contemptible, stupid, and possibly dangerous purveyors of "nonsensical
prejudice", as Mr. Searle would have it.
Read the whole thing. I'm obviously willing to be counted in [but can't we be "dreaded neo-Philistines" or something?].

Mr. Burgess also has the tip jar out for a "pledge week". His blog is better than mine, and a lot more work goes into it, so please consider pledging. Especially if you're British.

Monday, October 24, 2005


I have been thinking about the following description of individual powers, from Niven and Pournelle's best-of-breed first contact novel, The Mote in God's Eye:

"How do you compete?" Whitbread's Motie asked. "Efficiency. We have commerce, you know. [...] Partly, Masters buy responsibilities -- that is, they show they can handle the job. They get other powerful givers of orders to support them. [...] And some givers of orders work for others, you know. Never directly. But they'll have a job they take care of, and they'll consult a more powerful Master about policy. A Master gains prestige and authority when other givers of orders start asking her for advice. And of course her daughters help."

"It sounds complex," Potter said. "I think o' nae time or place similar in human history."

"It is complex," said Whitbread's Motie. "How could it be anything else? How can a decision maker be anything but independent?"

[Emphasis mine.] This reminds me strongly of the mix of cooperation and competition, and the endless struggle for links and prestige, that we call the blogosphere. Not bad for 1974.

[Update 26 October: Mote is up to #45,770 on Amazon, in a compelling demonstration of the power of the blogosphere!]

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Great Motivator

A comment thread at Crooked Timber, following a post on whether resistance to same-sex marriage is motivated by an attempt to recreate the past, took a diversion into economics with one comment:

I would take all these attempts to restore the Golden Age Of The Family a lot more seriously if they were combined with attempts to restore its economic base; full employment and jobs for life.
This is, of course, a dishonest complaint: work miracles first, it says, and then I'll grant you a fair hearing. But the desire for "full employment and jobs for life" is nonetheless valid, and deserves an explanation of why it can't be done.

Megan McArdle gives a useful introduction to the concept of structural unemployment:

Skill implies specificity. Some skills are general, like reading, but many more are very specific; knowing how to run a metal lathe doesn't teach you very much about perming hair or setting a broken bone.

What that means is that when the industrial composition of our economy changes, because machines can do some jobs better than people (word processors instead of secretaries), because other countries can do some things better than we can (Chinese-manufactured electronics), or simply because some markets got overcrowded (telecoms and web retailers), it takes a lot longer for employment to adjust than it used to, because workers' skills are very specific to their old industries or jobs.

And, in my reply to the original comment, I used another example:

The Miners’ Strikes in Britain in the 1970’s provide an instructive example. With the demand for coal declining, and the cost of extraction from older pits increasing, the Coal Board attempted to close some of the most unprofitable pits. But this would necessarily have resulted in a decrease in the number of miners employed, leading to two rounds of strikes (the first won by the miners, the second by the rest of society). If you can never change, you will never grow.
[More on the Miners' Strikes, here.] It should be clear that the postwar period, when industries established during the war were redirected to civilian use and grew with recovering demand, could sustain very low levels of structural unemployment; indeed, the idea of structural employment itself came under attack during this period, as people generalized from their current circumstances. [Here is an example from 1965.]

The reported level of structural employment is a measure of the insecurity of jobs. But it is also a measure of confidence, in the sense that if unemployment were a more awful fate, workers would be forced to take more active measures (such as holding multiple jobs, or retraining while still employed) to avoid it.

To remain productive throughout a working lifetime, most workers must change and learn new skills. This is unpleasant and humbling, and they can certainly be forgiven for disliking the process. But if our economy -- and with it our standard of life, and the scope of out abilities to learn, explore and protect -- is to grow, this process cannot be avoided. The jobs the coal miners defended so tenaciously were, by today's standards, terrible jobs to have. Their pay was above the median for the time, but very low compared to today's.

Can companies, or governments, or unions decide when retraining is due? Not realistically. There is a Hayekian knowledge problem, worse even than the problem of pricing because it involves the employee's own preferences and abilities. Forced (or subsidized to the point of coercion) retraining will waste time and effort and reduce each worker's freedom to choose the best path for himself, as well as compounding the humiliation of being moved from a more prestigious but obsolescent job to a lower rung on a newer ladder.

The benefits of retraining are all deferred into the uncertain future, while its costs are real and immediate. How can we get workers to swallow this bitter pill? More generally, how can we make workers give thought to their own futures, e.g., prefer growing to dying industries, thus applying their own knowledge to solve their own resource allocation problem? There is only one way: something bad must happen to them if they don't. In this case, that something is the possibility of a layoff from a dead-end job in a dying sector, followed by a stint of humiliating poverty, hopefully ending in a new job in a viable sector.

If nothing bad happens to those who do not plan ahead -- if full lifetime employment is universally guaranteed -- people will have no need to plan, and will not do so effectively. Fear is the great motivator, the only one powerful enough to extract the needed tribute of attention and effort.

This is a regrettable truth, and I have tried to phrase it in a way that shows its ugliness. We may imagine a world where fear can be replaced with some more humane combination of altruism, curiosity, ambition or steely self-discipline, but that is not the world in which we live. The miners' strikes again illustrate this principle; the miners struck for the "right" to mine coal which their employers did not even want (as its extraction cost more than the market price). They did so not because they were evil, but because they were merely human.

Too much fear condemns many to lives of hopeless overwork; too little dooms the whole society to stagnation and eventual poverty. The balance is a policy choice; for example, American policy has sought a different balance from Europe's.

Those working at a job of little value to society, if they are being paid more than the value of what they produce, are impoverishing that society as surely as dole riders or (in the short term) students. If such jobs are widespread, all of society suffers until finally all are too poor to overpay the underemployed. They are like cancers of the economy, whose voracious feeding starves the vital functions.

"Greed and fear" are widely quoted as the main drivers of investment decisions. In fact, they are even more: they are the fuel for the great engines of the economy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


[On reflection, it occurred to me that the post below was particularly ripe for parody. Here it is.]

3) Why are bloggers so bad?

For example, Sammler [trackback status not determined -- no one has tried] writes:
If any of you, my loyal readers, have any ideas as to why my blog’s popularity has declined, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Here’s some possibilities...
The main answer here is overextended ambition. Bloggers can no longer be content with producing a competent analysis of something they understand. Part of this is dictated by reality -- consider how little most people actually do understand -- and part by pride, largely misplaced, of the writers in their own cleverness.

A common flaw, based in pride and ambition, is the overenthusiastic pursuit of subtlety. A textbook case is The Stone City. The author is so keen to show the multitudinous and conflicting motivations of humanity that, in the end, he is left with no conclusions at all. Subtlety is, as its name suggests, a subtle thing, and the acclaim for those who can use it skillfully is justifiably high; thus everyone pursues that acclaim.

[Note: The block quote above is taken from American Future -- no comment on the quality of that blog is implied.]


Via Marginal Revolution, a great essay by Brian Caplan [apparently lost in the shuffle around last year's elections] on The Idea Trap.
One of the most important facts about economic growth is that, on average, poor countries do not catch up to rich countries.1 The main reason seems to be that poor countries consistently have bad policies.2 Many of these countries are democracies. But they almost never elect a candidate on the theme "We need to copy the policies of more successful countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, and turn our backs on our failed national political tradition."
It gets better from there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hollywood (III)

[Continued from below.]

3) Why are movies so bad?

For example, Kevin Drum [from the non-trackbacking side of the blogosphere] writes:
But you know what? You can have a movie with lots of car chases, raunchy language, and special effects and still have a smart story. It's not as if a tightly written production would actively drive kids away, after all. So what keeps Hollywood from producing decent scripts? Hell, they can produce cartoons with smart enough writing to attract adults while still appealing to children, so surely they could do the same thing with live action movies? What's up?
The main answer here is overextended ambition. Scriptwriters and directors can no longer be content with producing a competent straight-line plot. Part of this is dictated by reality -- consider the derision aimed at films with such plots -- and part by pride, largely misplaced, of the writers and directors in their own cleverness.

For example, consider two supernatural suspense movies: the competent but somewhat pedestrian The Gift [2000], or the moody The Others [2001]. The latter has a plot twist which is indeed unexpected; unfortunately, it is a self-eviscerating plot twist which retrospectively renders the entire film incoherent even on its own terms. The acclaim granted to this movie is symptomatic of the elevation of unpredictability to the greatest virtue of scripting.

A different common flaw, also based in pride and ambition, is the overenthusiastic pursuit of subtlety. A textbook case is Where Angels Fear to Tread [1991]; the director and actors are so keen to show the multitudinous and conflicting motivations of their characters that, in the end, they are left with characters who act with no motivation at all. Subtlety is, as its name suggests, a subtle thing, and the acclaim for those who can use it skillfully is justifiably high; thus everyone pursues that acclaim.

Hollywood (Intermezzo)

[Contains spoilers for the films Adaptation and High Tension.]

In yesterday's Bleat, James Lileks reviews the recent French thriller High Tension, and is less than impressed:
Friday night I watched one of the worst horror movies ever made on any planet, “High Tension.” From the trailer I thought it would be one of those elegant nail-biting cat-and-mouse movies, as our Spunky Lank Gamine Heroine eludes a killer in a farmhouse, but no. It’s another “tribute to the horror films of the 70s,” a genre for which I have no affection, so I FF’d most of it. It’s French, for one thing, and I think French cinema is generally overrated.... But. “High Tension” has one of those post-Sixth Sense “plot twist shockers” that renders the entire movie absolutely meaningless & impossible – but so Fronsh in its own way, non?
Naturally, I read Mr. Lileks's spoiler [cleverly embedded on the page in white-on-white font; I can't wait to see the Google cache]. The incredible chutzpah of the French movie then came clear to me: its plot is that of the Impossibly Bad Screenplay, The 3, which becomes an implausible success in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Right down to the utterly impossible, self-eviscerating car chase. Mr. Lileks again:
The Spunky Lank Gamine Heroine who battles the mass murderer is – gasp! – a lesbian, and... as we learn about 70% of the way through the movie, the murderer is a figment of her psychotic imagination. She’s been driven mad by suppressed lesbianism... As if this isn’t annoying enough, it makes the entire movie suddenly . . . unimpossible, to quote Ralph Wiggums – there’s a scene in which the killer uses his truck to drive our heroine’s car off the road.
[Emphasis and first two ellipses mine.] Since Adaptation is a relatively recent film [2002], I checked the dates on IMDB -- and High Tension was released in 2003. But so cutting edge. So unorthodox. So daring.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Hollywood (II)

[Continued from below.]

2) Why are superhero movies so popular?

There are two strong reasons for this. First, the universe of comics is far smaller than that of books; thus even a second-tier comic-book character is recognized by more people than almost any novel's characters would be [Harry Potter aside]. For example, Daredevil is -- and was before the eponymous movie -- certainly more widely recognized than Captain Ahab. Films drawn from pre-existing fiction (which are not a new or even disreputable phenomenon) stand to gain more the more widely recognized their characters are; this practically explains the phenomenon in itself.

This effect is reinforced by the fact that comic books provided a generational link between the youth of the last generation and their own fathers. Now that those youth are today's fathers -- and, in this post-print age, their own children are not reading or collecting comics -- the silver-screen embodiment of an adolescent memory offers them a chance for a little of the same generational bonding.

Hollywood (I)

Some questions are asked repeatedly, and often rhetorically, about the state of the American motion picture industry. I believe some of them have answers.

1) Why are many stars outspokenly liberal? Why should we care? Who is listening?

These questions are best taken back-to-front. The opinions of the glitterati are important not as causes, but as symptoms. The outspoken anti-Americanism of a Tim Robbins (to take one example) is not important not because Mr. Robbins is going to change people's minds. Instead, it provides a unique window into the opinions of those unburdened by either knowledge or professional responsibility. The opinions held by an actress are a decent barometer of those which would be held by a receptionist or travel agent.

Second, actors are self-aware to a fault, have a strong professional if not emotional need to be liked, and are fully cognizant of the public nature of their statements. Thus the opinions they voice are not precisely symptomatic of those truly held by the generally ignorant; they are those for which the ignorant would expect to gain approval. The popularity, in this context, of anti-capitalist and anti-American views is symptomatic of the failure of capitalists, patriots (and, most notably, devout Christians) to make respect for their views more popular than disrespect. The actor who mouths off at a premiere is just the messenger.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Kennedy in 1961 (Commentary)

This is in reference to John Kennedy's inaugural address, posted below.

Its first salient feature is the omnipresence of God, to an extent that would probably be unacceptable in public discourse today. But a more important consideration is that it is exclusively focused on foreign, never domestic, policy, and explicitly addressed to a foreign audience. This is an ironic juxtaposition: the idea that the non-Christian populations of the third world, the battleground between Godless communism and Godly America, might be alienated by this rhetoric seems never to have occurred to the speechwriters.

Next, consider Kennedy's repeated imagery of sacrifice and hardship: not just the famous "Ask not what your country can do for you," but over a dozen references in almost as many paragraphs to "pledges", "burdens", and so forth. Recall that Mr. Kennedy had outflanked Richard Nixon on the right, accusing him of being soft on Cuba, in the infamous televised debates; this address was in keeping with that, declaring American toughness and interventionism unhindered by self-interest.

See also Christopher Hitchens's fascinating screed against, well, everyone except President Eisenhower, in which he refers to President Kennedy's inaugural as "bombastic [and] menacing."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kennedy in 1961

In 1961, newly elected President John Kennedy delivered an inaugural address. His words, heard at a remove of over forty years, have an alien ring to them; I present them here without further commentary.

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary belief for which our forbears fought is still at issue around the globe, the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of this first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this country, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.

This much we pledge--and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of co-operative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom, and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of the border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds, in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support: to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah to "undo the heavy burden . . . [and] let the oppressed go free."

And if a beachhead of co-operation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first one thousand days, not in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation," a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty,
disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.


R. Alex Whitlock has a blunt, straight and true post on the relationship of blog partisans to real politics. No excerpt -- read it all.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Getting to No

Tom Maguire takes a moment off from his Herculean struggle with the Plame/Wilson/Fitzgerald/Libby/Rove/Cooper/Miller saga, which has long since blown past my own meager attention span to ask briefly about Miers:
How will righties react if Hillary attempts to appoint, over my placard-bearing dead body, her personal attorney?
How do we get from here to "No"? I'm already refusing to contribute to Bush 2008...
How, indeed? The principled right can raise worries, but that's a long way from getting substantive changes.

On a slightly different note, Kevin Drum rounds up fiscally liberal policies and wonders why, since they are so obviously right, they have not swept the Democrats into power:

... the fact remains that the things on both Avedon's list and my [anonymous] friend's are exactly the kinds of issues that Democrats routinely campaign on. And they lose.

Why? If all these policies are really that popular, it's hard to believe they could make exactly zero (or negative!) progress over the past 25 years. And it's not that no one has tried. Clinton made only minimal progress on this stuff. Al Gore ran on a populist platform in 2000 and lost. (I know, I know....) John Edwards ran on a similar message in 2004, and he didn't even win the nomination.

So this all leads back to the place it always leads back to: Democrats just don't know how to talk about these things. We frame them badly. In 25 years, not one single Democrat has figured out how to effectively sell these policies to the American public.

And I'm not sure which scares me more: the possibility that this is right or the possibility that it's wrong.

Sometimes you just don't hold enough cards to win. You can't get to no. You can delude yourself about the popularity of your ideas and wonder how you lost; you can regret the bedfellows you had to choose to get where you are; but you can't always make your position the popular one.

This is why the emphasis on character in elections is a good, not a bad, thing. Like it or not, we are electing statesmen [in the positive, not the normative sense] who will apply their own judgement, not functionaries for ideological platforms. "Character" is a shorthand for "Does this person want the same things I want? And will he go as far as I would -- but not farther -- to get them?"

Consider Mr. Drum's demented insistence on state-funded childcare as a sine qua non of liberal progress -- despite its great expense, its naked hostility to the surviving fragments of the traditional family, and the fact that its fate, when applied to the poor, is clearly prefigured in the public school system. Apparently the hardest thing, for those who care about their ideas enough to become deeply involved in selling them, is to give some up for the advancement of others. It's like selling some of your retarded children to pay tuition for the most promising.

The right has made this trade in 2000, and been forced (by foreign policy issues and by the low quality of the opposition) to make it again in 2004. We do miss those kids, though.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Actuarial Work

Here are the ages of the current justices:

John Paul Stevens, 85 (born April 20, 1920)
Sandra Day O'Connor, 75 (March 26, 1930)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 72 (March 15, 1933)
Antonin Scalia, 69 (March 11, 1936)
Anthony Kennedy, 69 (July 23, 1936)
Stephen Breyer, 67 (Aug. 15, 1938)
David Souter, 66 (Sept. 17, 1939)
Clarence Thomas, 57 (June 23, 1948)
John Roberts, 50 (Jan. 27, 1955)
Using these life tables, and excluding O'Connor and Roberts, we find an expectation among the remaining seven justices of 0.25 deaths in the coming year and 0.75 over three years. Excluding Justices Scalia and Thomas, these figures are 0.22 and 0.63. And who knows, one of these old men might even loosen his vulture-like grip on power, and stun us all by retiring. It is reasonably improbable that this is President Bush's last Supreme Court nomination; and the next one, likely replacing a liberal justice, perhaps with only months remaining in President Bush's term, will call out all the artillery either side possesses.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

One and One Half

I must beg my readers' pardon, but I am going to put in one more post about Harriet Miers. Rather than debate Miss Miers's own virtues, which I imagine you can get your fill of elsewhere, I want to discuss the voice of the Supreme Court and its effect on the creation of law.

It has been pointed out (notably by Bill Dyer) that the present, academically oriented Court tends to produce, in place of clear rulings which create strong precedents, a muddle of opinions striving for attention:
You're going to end up with a Court full of prima donnas who can't "just" concur, but instead feel compelled to write countless separate opinions. You'll often have no majority opinion, but instead special concurrences, partial concurrences, separate dissents, and partial concurrences only in Part III-D-6(f) but not Part III-D-6(g) of another's minority opinion. You'll get a Court that on the same day finds a display of the Ten Commandments constitutional in Texas and unconstitutional in Kentucky. You'll get a Court that takes up an incredibly important issue like redistricting, one that's splintered the Court in previous years, and then just leaves things more splintered when it's done. You'll get a Court that flip-flops within the space of a few years on issues involving capital punishment and what the government may or may not do in an attempt to promote morality.
Mr. Dyer focuses on the effects of this lack of clarity at the trial court level, but I would like to consider their consequences at the Federal appellate level -- and, in particular, on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That body, which has exhibited substantial creativity and determination in finding, both in precedent and in the Constitution, interpretations pleasing to itself, has been hugely enabled by the Rehnquist Court's failure to provide unambiguous standards in many cases. The Ninth Circuit is half Supreme in itself -- and it is far more liberal and far less bound by the text of the Constitution than is the true Supreme Court.

If President Bush and his advisers are aware of this problem, it would help to explain their choice of John Roberts over more academic conservative stars like Michael Luttig and Michael McConnell. Mr. Roberts may be the man most able to crystallize conservative opinion into clear and principled precedents, which would greatly narrow the ambiguous region from which the Other Half derives its power. The choice of Miss Miers, who is apparently not a prolific writer and thus more likely to contribute to consensus than to concur separately, appears as a force multiplier for this strategy.

Finally, there is the issue of Miss Miers's age. She is old and will soon slide into senility and retirement (hopefully not in that order). This behavior, as the software boys say, is by design. President Bush believes in an emerging Republican majority, in a country which is becoming more conservative. In fifteen years' time, he expects that the likely replacements for Miss Miers will be more, not less, conservative. In this context, why should he give lifelong power to a youngster?


I have belatedly noticed Dale Franks's insightful essay on the assault on emotional privacy:
The inner lives of other people are, quite frankly, none of your business. You have no right to demand people bare their souls to you, and you transgress the bounds of decency to demand it, especially from those over whom you have authority. Peoples' inner lives are their own, and if they share them with you, the only proper way such sharing should be given if it is offered voluntarily.
The obsession with apologies, which I have noted several times, is another part of this assault.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Last Best Hope

In a comment at Belgravia Dispatch, Joseph Britt writes:
I actually think the stakes involved in the American commitment in Iraq are quite large, but I also think they are very different than Greg does. To me, these stakes involve America's sense of proportion, its ability to set priorities, and its understanding of the limits to its resources. Five years ago hardly anyone in this country would have considered the less-than-even odds of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq worth the price in blood and treasure we have already paid. They weren't wrong then; Greg is wrong now.
If I understand Mr. Britt correctly, he is saying that America's "sense of proportion" and "understanding of [its] limits" are important -- so important that they, rather than the more commonly voiced goals of reducing terrorism and autocracy, dominate the stakes in Iraq. I interpret this to mean that Mr. Britt thinks it would be a great good if America gained such an understanding of its limits.

I cannot agree. An America that thinks in terms of limits, that errs on the side of ratiocination rather than idealism, is just a larger version of Europe. My thinking is undoubtedly a throwback to the days of proclaimed Manifest Destiny, but I believe there is a rational case to be made that a more powerful America corresponds directly to a better world.

In particular, suppose that America had carefully weighed the costs and benefits, and had decided that the invasion of Iraq was not worthwhile. This would surely have been the act of a less powerful, less self-assured, more European America. It would also have been the last nail in the coffin of international law, which would have been starkly revealed to have no coercive power over any dictator capable of suppressing his own citizens. The defense of international law -- even an international law which is in the eyes of many tainted by a too-close association with the world's sole policeman -- was an expensive, idealistic, non-European choice; a choice which showed America's lack of a sense of proportion.

Capitalism has evolved over many years to allow people to prosper together even while pursuing their own best interests; and even capitalism is so fragile that it depends on a complex social fabric to function well (consider the fate of Russia). The relations between nations have evolved on a shorter timescale with far less breadth of experimentation, and no such system is even close to emerging. In this world, American involvement in the Middle East is irrational but generous.

Mr. Britt also mentions "ability to set priorities", which seems to me completely tangential. Our domestic priorities, with borrowing far exceeding the cost of all our foreign ventures, and with runaway increases in special-purpose earmarks, are utterly muddled. The Iraq war, by contrast, has been entered into with extensive national debate, and the opposition has certainly not been shy of publicizing its cost. Our Iraqi project represents, not a lack of priorities, but a choice of priorities.

Finally, "understanding of the limits to its resources." Many of the limits to our resources are self-imposed: a childish aversion to nuclear power, a refusal to honestly balance the costs and benefits of ever-increasing medical care, and our continuing and expensive betrayal of the public-schooled poor spring to mind. I have a burning understanding of those limits, and an equally strong wish to lift them -- not to limbo under them.

Europe will not lead; and where China will go, you will not want to follow. America, in all its arrogance, remains different, and usually for the better. As Abraham Lincoln said:
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.

More Miers

Bill "Beldar" Dyer has a strong and persuasive defense of Harriet Miers that anyone interested in the nomination should read. In particular:
Harriet Miers' experience at the trial court level in complicated civil litigation covers many years, and every pretrial, trial, and post-trial aspect of a wide variety and number of cases. With comparatively fewer years in private practice, John Roberts has absolutely no such trial court experience — he's never picked a jury, never tried a case, never even taken a deposition. (And now that he's Chief Justice, he almost certainly never will.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Remember how "nuance" erupted into the popular lexicon after John Kerry used it in last year's Presidential debates? The next big word has just surfaced. Written by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist no. 76, it was quoted by Randy Barnett in today's Opinion Journal [HT: Stephen Green]:
.... candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.
It's the new nuance!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Capital of the World

An aside in Joel Kotkin's recent article, America Still Beckons:
New York City, the traditional center of European immigration, provides an excellent case in point. An analysis of recent census numbers indicates that white immigrants to New York (the vast majority of whom are from Europe) represent the largest number of contributors to the net growth of educated young people in the city. Without the disproportionate contributions of these young Europeans, New York would actually have suffered a net outflow of educated people under 35 during the late 1990s. Overall, there are now half a million New York City residents who were born in Europe.
[Emphasis mine.] One pillar of the conventional wisdom is that the big "blue" cities are a magnet for America's best and brightest. Indeed, many Democratic-leaning commenters have not been shy in claiming a causal connection between the observed liberalism and the assumed educational superiority of such cities. For an example, we of course look to Matthew Yglesias, who can always be relied upon for partisan rationalization. Here is one example:
Beyond simple regional pride -- go Northeast! -- there's a serious point here. Virtually all of the globally competetive [sic] sectors of the American economy, film, television, music and other media, software, financial and legal services, etc. are concentrated in Blue America. The Reddish portions of the country are living off federal subsidies, tarrif [sic] barriers, and military spending.
[This use of the word "serious", by the way, is a repeated rhetorical tic of Mr. Yglesias's, signifying that he has noticed something agreeable to him.] One of Mr. Yglesias's commenters repeats this conventional wisdom more bluntly:
The votes of the best educated, most financially successful, most culturally sophisticated people in the country don't count, so the politicians just don't talk to them.
How is this belief, which seems important to the self-image of blue-state liberals, to be reconciled with New York as an exporter of young talent, rather than a magnet?

[A related post by Michael Lind, here.]

Harriet Miers

Ms. Miers just went up to 50% bid on Tradesports (between 0706 and 0711 NY time). Now 60% at 0712. Bids for Luttig and Jones have evaporated. Looks like we have a winner.

[Update: for the record, I believe that Bush's selection of the head of the selection committee, here as in Mr. Cheney's case, betrays a substantial flaw in Mr. Bush's character. I am a great fan of Mr. Cheney's, but cannot approve of a selection process whose director has such an incentive to subvert the search. If I want a qualified employee, I ask a headhunter -- but I don't hire the headhunter.]

[Update: Powerline goes off the reservation! I thought they had a charter that forbade that...]

[Update: Is Ms. Miers meant to fail? Those looking for Roveian plots everywhere would enjoy this possibility. Rejection of Ms. Miers in the Senate might embarrass female-quota proponents and make a conservative successor more likely, while also prolonging the confirmation process (generally a winner for Republicans) as long as possible. Frankly, I do not think Mr. Bush is this tricky.]

[Update 13 October: John Fund has much more on the original failure of process.]