Mail to Hypocritical.Weasels@Borders.com

We're all pretty ticked off at Borders.

  • Mitch Townsend at Chicago Boyz:

    Until you grow a spine, don't expect to see me back in your store.

  • Dale Amon at Samizdata:

    We abhor your cowardice in the face of the enemy and your lack of moral fibre to stand up for the First Amendment in the face of those enemies.

  • Dale Bidinotto:

    Your company's craven policy of capitulation in the face of the mere hypothetical threat of terrorism is absolutely appalling -- a complete moral abdication that only encourages those threatening our rights and liberties.

  • LGF:

    This has nothing to do with sensitivity; it's all about pure, simple fear. If a Christian group complained to Borders about Bibles being placed on a bottom shelf, they would be laughed out of the room. But when Muslims do the same thing, Borders institutes a store-wide policy. The difference? The implicit or explicit threats of violence that accompany the latter.

  • At Huffington Post we have, … um, nothing. Hm.

But Borders is ticked right back. In an open letter to Charles Johnson, the CEO writes:

Charles, I've got a book store to run and having you sic a bunch of bloggers on me and tell them to ride my ass because we're not shelving a pip-squeak magazine from those tools at the "Council for Secular Humanism" (Jesus wept!) is just not getting it done.

Please note that it's already April 1 in some parts of the world. Most links via Instapundit.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:27 AM EDT
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Pinkerton's Panacea

The second part of James Pinkerton's two-part series on the "crisis of process" in the Federal Goverment is up at Tech Central Station. (The first part is here, which I blogged about here.)

The new article provides more thought-provoking points, but I'm less convinced of Pinkerton's diagnosis as time goes on, and so I'm even more skeptical of the "fix" he proposes.

The fix, is, essentially, to reshape and reorganize the Executive Branch:

Take the functions of the federal executive branch and turn them all into five "super departments." That is, take the existing unwieldy 15 Cabinet departments -- and umpty-ump independent agencies -- and collapse them into a user-friendly quintet:
  • National Security — including Defense, State, the CIA
  • Economy & Trade — ncluding Treasury, Commerce, Special Trade Representative
  • Justice, Border & Homeland Security
  • Energy, Environment, Science & Technology
  • Human Resources & Transportation

The five heads of these "super departments" would be "Super Secretaries" working closely with the President.

I'm far from an expert on organization issues; it could very well be that this might "work better" (in some sense). But Pinkerton's arguments aren't very convincing.

Take the one of the prime examples he thinks demonstrate the need for a "fix": FEMA's Katrina response. In the first article he claimed that the problems were due to FEMA being "tangled up in turf issues inside the Department of Homeland Security." But in the second article:

But, some will object, what about the Katrina/FEMA problem? That is, Washington wisdom these days is that the once-independent Federal Emergency Management Agency lost clout when it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown says he was unable to muster sufficient resources to react to Katrina, because he didn't have the pull, buried as he was inside the DHS domain. There's some merit to that argument, but there's even more merit to the argument that "Brownie" wasn't very good. And as noted, Chertoff doesn't add much value, either.

Erm, so which is it? Incompetent people, or a "process failure"? Will solving one problem solve the other? Why? There's a lot of handwaving in Pinkerton's article, but no clear and convincing demonstration that a reorganized Executive Branch would have gotten relief to New Orleans any faster than the current one did.

I tend to think we don't have a "crisis of process" so much as two other things:

  1. A crisis of vision: Pinkerton doesn't consider that it simply might be that no central goverment can handle certain things competently. His historical examples of government "working" are, tellingly, all about war: his heroes are Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman.

    I'm willing to grant that centralized governments do a great job of killing their enemies, foreign and domestic. But it's at least plausible (and, I think, real likely) that other sorts of governmental tasks are better off decentralized. Pinkerton's plan doesn't really deal with this.

  2. A crisis of PR; the standards by which government is said to "work" are notoriously flexible. Generally, opinion makers and the media will think the people they like are doing a heckuva job. Since a lot of those folks currently despise Bush, they're more than happy to play up bad news and assign blame. And we conclude that "government doesn't work".

But go read the article, Pinkerton's at least provocative.

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Republicans Probably Need to Lose

Everyone who despises restrictions on political expression should read Byron York's article at National Review describing how Republicans are lining up behind an effort to restrict funding for so-called 527 groups.

In the meantime, a US District Judge has ordered the FEC to "explain in detail why regulations are not needed or begin proceedings to develop such rules." The FEC voted in 2004 to not regulate 527s. The GOP apparently feels they'd rather shut down the 527s' free speech (calling it a "loophole") than compete with the Democrats in this area.

It's outrageous that so few members of the major parties can be relied on to consistently protect and defend political expression.

I've written my Congressman, Jeb Bradley! Of course, he only just now got around to answering my mail about the House Majority Leader race a couple days ago. That election was held nearly two months ago. (He voted for Blunt. Sigh.)


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Jill Carroll is Cool With That

Journalist Jill Carroll was released by her Iraqi captors this morning. As reported in the WaPo:

"I was treated very well. That's important people know that," she said in an interview broadcast by the Iraqi Islamic Party. "They never said they would hit me, never threatened me in any way. …"
Well, they threatened to kill her, actually. But apparently not to her face.

And, as Charles Johnson comments: "Her interpreter, murdered during the kidnapping, was not available for comment."

We'll see what she says when she's safely out of the country, I suppose.

UPDATE: A recent Christian Science Monitor article indicates I was wrong to criticize Ms. Carroll's remarks as if they were freely given. More here.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:29 AM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-30

  • Via InstaGlenn, Tim Blair links to a news story that Borders and Waldenbooks are not stocking the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry magazine, because it contains pictures of the Prophet You-Know-Who. And, since Tim has a long memory, he also points out Borders' previous sanctimonious hosting of banned-books events. It's a great day for hypocrisy.

    Andrew Sullivan suggests a boycott. Sure thing, glad I can agree with Andrew about something. (I wish I could pretend this was some great sacrifice, but the nearest Borders is about 40 miles from my house.)

  • Slate's Paul Boutin sticks a well-deserved sharp pin in the hype balloon of "Web 2.0". Much more on target, methinks, than the Andrew Keen article I discussed here.

  • Clayton Cramer goes to Moscow and back and provides pictures. Including a couple of the fabled "Schiermans Slurp•N•Burp".

  • Immigration is one of those topics where I often find myself agreeing with the last thing I read. So while I found Professor Sowell making a lot of sense a couple of days ago, I'm also thinkin' Professor Caplan makes a lot of sense here and here. Even though they're on opposite sides. Hm, how to decide? Caplan's got the better basketball team on his side … although I bet Sowell could take Caplan in a one-on-one …

    I'm very confused.

  • Carl Schaad juxtaposes, right in front of God and the Whole Wide World. (Updated with permalink, removed snide comments about their being no permalinks, removed description of amusing filed-under tags, which are now gone. Whew.)


Last Modified 2006-04-21 9:59 AM EDT
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Serendipitous Reading

On Sunday, I read this New York Times article about curricular changes brought about by No Child Left Behind.

Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it. …

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art.

And I'm thinking: "Social studies, well, OK. Art, OK. But science? That's kind of a shame."

But then I read this Shannon Love article at Chicago Boyz. And suddenly, I'm more relaxed about cutting back on "science" curricula too.

(Seriously: kids need to be up to speed in reading and math. Are they going to get much of worth out of any other classes if they aren't? Unlikely.)


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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-28

  • Charles Murray has a thought-provoking new scheme to scrap the American welfare state:
    … I call it simply "the Plan" for want of a catchier label--makes a $10,000 annual grant to all American citizens who are not incarcerated, beginning at age 21, of which $3,000 a year must be used for health care. Everyone gets a monthly check, deposited electronically to a bank account.
    OK, so now almost everyone's saying "Waiiiit a minute …" Murray's written a book about the Plan: In Our Hands : A Plan To Replace The Welfare State (which I've just ordered). Tech Central Station's Max Borders interviews Murray here. K-Lo is the interviewer here. Andrew Ferguson comments here. I'll write more once I've read the book.

  • It occurs to me that I could, if I wanted, get a lot of cheap posts by simply filling in the blank in the template: "Thomas Sowell makes a lot of sense today with a column about          ; check it out." And then maybe quoting one or two paragraphs to give readers a feel for what he's saying, wrapping it up with a short snappy remark.

  • Thomas Sowell makes a lot of sense today with a column about immigration; check it out.

    How often have we heard that illegal immigrants "take jobs that Americans will not do"? What is missing in this argument is what is crucial in any economic argument: price.

    Americans will not take many jobs at their current pay levels -- and those pay levels will not rise so long as poverty-stricken immigrants are willing to take those jobs.

    See?

  • Is it wrong to cheer for a college basketball team simply because you admire the school's economics and law faculty? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't recognize as many names from any other school. Including UNH.

    I don't remember when I last watched a basketball game. But I watched George Mason beat … um … oh, yeah, UConn on Saturday. Go, Pats: the team of the libertarian blogosphere.

    But go ahead and improve your mind while you're waiting for the next game: via Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy, here's a PDF resource about the Forgotten Founder, the Father of the Bill of Rights, George Mason. (It does not, unaccountably, mention what Mason's free throw percentage was, but gets in a lot of other impressive stuff.) Andy at the Club for Growth has additional links and Mason-related tourism suggestions.

  • Consumer note, Entertainment Division: USA Today reports that the King Kong DVD out today is OK,
    But you won't see any deleted scenes or added footage. Director Peter Jackson is saving that for an extended cut of the film to be released on DVD later this year and will include a new making-of documentary.

    Bottom line: just wait, if you think you'd like that stuff.


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Setting the Global Thermostat

Drudge points out Time's "Special Report" on global warming. It's unusually hysterical, even for Time. And it has drawn the usual debunkers; for example, see Red State.

There are plenty of risks on all sides. One possible near-term outcome is draconian regulation that will wreck the global economy, increasing international resentment, and have minuscule effect on greenhouse gas levels. The folks that (for example) criticize the Kyoto treaty in this regard are pretty convincing. (For example: Pete Du Pont in today's WSJ.) But they're getting drowned out by doomcriers on all sides.

However, I think nearly everyone is arguing about the wrong stuff: whether global warming is happening, how much is caused by human action, how much regulation could help, whether Al Gore is insane by official clinical standards or just in an eccentric-aunt kind of way, etc.

Here's something that totally changed my thinking on the issue: read this 1997 Reason article by Gregory Benford. Go ahead, I'll wait here. Here's the thesis:

Forty years ago, the noted atmospheric scientist Roger Revelle declared that "human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment" by pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The question before us should not simply be how best to stop the experiment--and, by extension, the prosperity and progress allowed by cheap, abundant energy.

Rather, the question should be how best to design that experiment, so that we maximize benefits and minimize costs. As the citizens of the advanced nations become convinced that global warming is an immediate threat worthy of response, they will legitimately ask for solutions that demand the least sacrifice.

Benford goes on to propose a host of relatively cheap technical "geoengineering" fixes to sop up carbon from the atmosphere, raise planetary albedo, and the like.

This goes against the environmentalists who see "mankind as the problem", of course; their quasi-religious vision is an Earth on which humans have at best minimal environmental impact. Let's ignore that for now. (And hopefully forever.)

It seems this argument is hard to refute:

  • We have the ability to mitigate global warming right now; we even had it back in 1997, when Benford wrote his article.

  • We're only going to get better at it; on the decades-to-centuries time scale envisioned by global warming proponents, advances in technology and climate modelling will easily outstrip the problem.

  • Hence, Real Soon Now we'll be able to dink the global climate to pretty much whatever temperature we want, without driving the global economy into a regulatory ditch.

So what's the problem again? Well …

There's a sense in which technological solutions to global warming are even scarier than global warming itself. You think you have conflicts setting the thermostat in your house, with Pa wanting to save energy and Ma wanting it warmer, and the kids complaining no matter what? Multiply that kerfuffle by a few billion, erase the familial love, and give everyone armed forces. Uh oh.

But if geoengineering our way out of global warming seems difficult, it's even less likely that we'll do it via legislation and the heavy hand of regulation. I know where I'd be putting my money.


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Kinsley on Billionaires

Michael Kinsley can make sense at times, but more often he's merely infuriating. Last Thursday's op-ed in the Washington Post is an example, and it appears to have cheesed me off more than usual.

According to Forbes magazine, the world is enjoying a boom in billionaires. Twenty years ago there were 140 billionaires. Three years ago there were 476. This year there are 793.
You can check out the stuff Forbes has made available online here. Kinsley appears to have read at least first few sentences of this article (and has summarized them in a non-plagiaristic manner). Did he read anything else? Let's see.
Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get. But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous.
Kinsley implies a tired and fallacious argument:
  1. Let's imagine two diametrically opposed, absurd positions that some (unnamed) people might hold;
  2. I hold neither of these positions;
  3. hence I am reasonable and correct.

Anyone convinced? Me neither. Let's move on:
It's probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us.
Hedging and vagueness with "probably" and "most", but it's good that Kinsley acknowledges this up front.

I bet you can tell me, without peeking, what the first word of his next sentence is, however.

But the Forbes list includes plenty who merely chose rich parents.
Still vague ("plenty"), and getting way too cute with the tired "chose rich parents" cliché.
There are many whose accumulation of vast wealth, however gumptious, does not fit the Adam Smith model of individual drive and greed being channeled into activities that benefit all.
Still vague ("many"), but undoubtedly true.
The rising value of exclusive franchises given away by the government, such as cable TV and cellphone licenses, creates billionaires without generating any general social payoff.
This is probably the best sentence in the article. Yes, many governments (not just "the" government) shower economic favors on groups and individuals. It's an interesting and important topic. But Kinsley is on the moral indignation road, so this is a mere aside. We go immediately from a valid insight to sheer fatuity:
Real estate investors do not create a square inch of land.
Free advice to op-ed columnists: when you find yourself writing a trivial and obvious truth as if it contained some precious insight, maybe you should examine your assumptions. OK, real estate investors don't create land. Duh. What do they do? Never mind, because Kinsley just barrels along:
Meanwhile, science undermines the notion that people deserve moral credit for their smarts, daring, vision, dedication and similar virtues, even when these are applied in socially beneficial ways. Intelligence was the first to go. Why should you get the credit if your brains make you a billionaire? Increasingly, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are showing that the same logic applies to other admirable qualities.
Kinsley's invocation of "science" is tendentious bullshit. If people deserve "moral credit" (or, for that matter, moral blame) for anything at all, they deserve it for what they do: the uncoerced choices they make. "Smarts" (etc.) are involved only indirectly, in the sense that they may make it more likely that people will make good choices, and (hence) deserve moral credit.

If you can imagine (say) people of equal "smarts" (etc.) making different uncoerced choices, doesn't it necessarily mean they deserve whatever moral credit (or blame) as a result? Sure. Kinsley's just wrong.

(Of course, if "science" has made you a thoroughgoing determinist, then people don't "really" make choices at all, and "moral credit" and "moral blame" are simply illusions. But Kinsley isn't saying that, is he? I don't think so; it's hard to care.)

Adam Smith explained how our individual efforts serve the common good. We work to produce things that can be traded for things we want. That's an improvement on making everything that we consume ourselves. The first exchange of one caveman's dinosaur meat for another's rather attractive decorative rock started a process that, after millions of years, leads to DVD players at Wal-Mart that cost less than DVDs. Or something like that.
A breezy trivializing of the process by which great masses of people have escaped subsistence and privation, don't you think? Again, there's a good story there, but Kinsley's only interested in being superficial here. He's eager to go back to sneering at rich people:
But billionaires are beyond the desire for more money to buy more stuff. Just look at Forbes's breathy descriptions of the billionaire lifestyle. Add it up. Yachts can cost up to $300 million to buy plus 10 percent annually to run, and a Russian on the list has three. So you need three, all bigger than anyone else's. Assuming that each one sinks after five years, this will cost you $270 million a year. The most expensive car Forbes could find was something called a Bugatti Veyron, costing $1 million. Get a new one every year -- heck, get three -- throw in a full-time driver, and luxuriate in a visit to Jiffy Lube whenever you feel like it, and you're still talking barely $4 million a year. Forbes reports that actually the top 10 billionaires drive cars much cheaper than this.
OK, so Kinsley did read beyond the first paragraph of the main article; good for him. But, despite his proclaimed interest in the moral worthiness of how these 793 acquired their wealth, he's really more interested in sneering at their alleged need to acquire conspicuous amounts of stuff. But note the tailing admission about the cars; doesn't it cast some disconfirming cold water on Kinsley's point? Let's look at what Forbes actually says:
The cars and trucks driven by those in the Top 10 of the 2005 Forbes list was, in short, shocking. You won't find a Bugatti, Ferrari or BMW driven by these billionaires. But you will find a Lincoln, a Mazda, even a Dodge and Ford. It seems that for the super-rich, a vehicle is seen not as a status symbol, but as a means to an end in which to get from point A to point B. Status is something that these billionaires need not prove to others. In many cases, the people on our list prefer to live inconspicuously, avoiding the limelight at all costs. This might explain why many of their vehicles cost less than your own daily driver.
Emphasis added. But never mind, Kinsley rolls on:
House? Prince Ahlwaleed bin Talal Alsaud has a palace that cost $130 million. Suppose you own five of these, and every 10 years you start again. Even including maintenance, air conditioning and condo fees, you have to struggle to hit $100 million a year. Put one of your houses on your own private island. The most expensive island Forbes could find for sale was listed at $39.7 million. Buy a new one every year, but don't go see it. Fly a private jet to the Bahamas instead. Forbes says you can charter a plane to the Bahamas for $40,000. So do that every weekend. It adds up to $2 million. Check into a nice hotel. Add another million and use the mini-bar.
More of the same. Is there a point to be made in largely imagining how a billionaire might spend money? I suppose that, if you're writing op-eds, you have to come up with a word count, and this is how Kinsley does it. (For someone who felt it necessary to point out "Forbes's breathy descriptions of the billionaire lifestyle", Kinsley is pretty breathy himself.)
Staff yourself silly with personal assistants and special British-trained security agents. Have a Starbucks latte every single day. Total? Uh-oh, you're spending over $400 million a year. At that rate, the average billionaire's $3.3 billion stash could be gone in less than a decade. But about 90 percent of that is the boats and the houses. Settle for one maximum-size yacht, two enormous houses (plus a Las Vegas time share) and only one private island. Congratulations, you're down to barely $100 million a year. At that rate, you can live like a Saudi prince, and $3.3 billion will last you and your children forever. (Depending, of course, on how many children you have. This guarantee does not apply to actual Saudi princes.)
Three paragraphs of nearly fact-free snarking at how someone might spend their wealth. Anyone see a point? If you do, Kinsley's about to pull out the rug:
Surely billionaires are not inspired to accumulate more billions by the prospect of a third gigantic yacht. Most billionaires spend far less than these amounts.
"So never mind that stuff I've been writing about."
Many of them give huge amounts to charity. But it's also hard to believe that the chance to give it away is a major motive for earning it in the first place. And if billionaires do earn it primarily to give it away, that itself would require a special economic theory just for them, different from the one that explains the rest of us.
Um, fine. So is Kinsley about to apply the same "economic theory" to billionaires as he would to the rest of us?

Dream on.

The prevalent theory of billionaire behavior is that it's a matter of keeping score. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn recently told Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, "I enjoy winning and making money." Keynes meant something similar when he used the term "animal spirits."
Yes. Immediately after denying that there should be a "special economic theory" for billionaires, Kinsley is now explicating a "theory of billionaire behavior."

Never mind because we're about to come to the real point:

Okay, fine. But if it's all about winning, wouldn't (say) half as much money be just as much winning -- as long as everybody else in the game had half as much money as well? If Icahn is right, a stiff tax on billionaires ought to have no effect on the fragile incentive structures of billionaires, as long as it is applied to all billionaires equally. I'm not advocating such a tax. I am, though, suggesting that the exquisite sensitivity to the incentives of rich people that dominates our tax policy may be overwrought.
After 900-some words, it's all about taking their money away. Kinsley, based on an offhand comment from one gigabuccaneer, is ready to decree that a 50% wealth tax on billionaires wouldn't alter their incentives much. Maybe. Although he's not advocating that.

Feh.


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Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part CXVII

Good news: they're making piggies with high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. I'm thinking: Mrs. Salad will someday be able to replace those salmon filets with pork chops. A couple strips of bacon every day to replace the fish oil capsules. Not bad!

But now it appears that all that Omega 3 hype may be on the way out.

The finding, if confirmed, will place fish oils at the top of the list of medical shibboleths that turned out to be myths. Among them are claims that fibre can prevent bowel cancer, vitamin C can halt colds, spinal manipulation can cure back pain, tranquillisers can cure anxiety and removing tonsils can prevent throat infections.

Maybe Woody Allen will turn out to have been uncannily right after all:

Dr. Melik: [puzzling over list of items sold at Miles' old health-food store] ... wheat germ, organic honey and... tiger's milk.
Dr. Aragon: Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible!

(Pig link via Carl Schaad.)


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:29 AM EDT
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Eyewitness

[Amazon Link] [4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

This is a rerun of a fondly-remembered mystery-thriller flick from a quarter-century ago. You can see Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, and Pamela Reed near the beginning of their movie careers. The script is full of rare quirkiness, but never feels forced. Sure, Sigourney Weaver is a TV newscaster on whom William Hurt is crushing, and also just happens to be engaged to … oops, sorry, no spoilers here.

Steven Hill and Morgan Freeman play world-weary but diligent detectives. James Woods is great as Aldo; Hill's character observes "When he was a kid, Aldo must have wanted to be a suspect when he grew up." One of the all-time great movie lines.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 7:59 AM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-26

  • Janice Brown has started the Cow Hampshire blog. All things Granite, done in an attractive and professional manner. (Including a link to Pun Salad, so I'm reciprocally grateful.)

    Her humorous look at the "welcome sign slogan" controversy is especially good. (Discussed previously here.)

  • Seeing a "test page" in your web wanderings isn't exactly uncommon. Here's one on this machine: /. Which simply means I'm too lazy and uncreative to put anything there. And here's a similar one you get with the CentOS Linux distribution.

    Simple, no big deal, right? But there's probably nothing on the web people cannot misunderstand and overreact to. Here's a hilarious e-mail exchange between CentOS support and the City Manager of Tuttle, Oklahoma. (Via LWN.)

  • Patterico examines the proposed FEC regulations on political speech on the internet. He's been consistent and principled on the issue at stake: a system under which government regulators dole out "exemptions" and "exceptions" permitting us to engage in political speech is odious, contemptible, and has no place in a free society.

    I unconscionably failed to take Patterico's pledge last year, but will do it now:

    If the FEC makes rules that limit my First Amendment right to express my opinion on core political issues, I will not obey those rules.
    Of course, that's a pretty cheap pledge to make, given the minuscule likelihood of an FEC crackdown on Pun Salad. Nevertheless, there it is.

  • And back in January, I fearlessly predicted that the Google would return around 500 hits for the phrase "Oprahfication of America" around now. Instead it gives "about" 257 hits (as I type), up a whole 13 hits from two months ago. I think we're looking at (at best) a Stagnant Meme here. Remember this, should you ever be tempted to rely on Pun Salad for social prognostication.

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Lazy Muncie Revisited

Everyone see Lazy Muncie? (A URL du Yesterday, and also linked to by a pile of other folks.) OK, we're up to speed.

Mickey Kaus doesn't make a big deal about it, but points to an article in Muncie's Star Press newspaper that discusses the background behind the video. It effectively debunks the thesis developed by Rob Long (and quoted by Mickey):

So what does it say if you're Lorne Michaels -- the guy who runs Saturday Night Live -- or, for that matter, the head of comedy development for pretty much any network -- and it turns out there are two funny guys in Muncie who don't really need you to give them permission to make a funny little movie because You Tube is their network …
Too good to be true, unfortunately. The newspaper story makes it clear that it's not "two funny guys in Muncie"; it's an established TV writer/producer from LA (but who lived in Muncie until he was nine) Chris Cox, and a professional actor, (originally from Wyoming) Kirby Heyborne.

It's still fun, and part of the charm of the video is that the guys really do look like they could be two funny guys from Muncie. But it's not quite an Army of Davids case study.

Someday, though.


Last Modified 2006-03-26 8:53 AM EST
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Wedding Crashers

[Amazon Link] [4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

As usual, I'm probably the last person on the planet to see this movie. But on the off chance you haven't: it's very funny, and has an inventive premise, which is adequately captured in the title.

Aside from the premise, it's pretty predictable. All these movies have the point where things are going swimmingly, then it all comes crashing down around our heroes, seemingly irretrievably. It's here too! Old dotty person saying outrageous things? Check! Heroine cannot detect that her boyfriend is a horse's patoot, a fact obvious to everyone else? Check!

Nevertheless, things are still fun to watch even when you see them coming.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 7:58 AM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-25

  • OK, I can be cynical at times, but Scott Adams makes me look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. He's a cynic's cynic, even cynical about cynicism. No mortal is immune from his withering glare.

    Hence, when he goes into hero-worship mode, it's impressive. Go read.

  • Staying in the cartoonist theme: say what you will about Jim Davis, but he's a good sport.

  • Thomas Sowell fans won't want to miss this interview from today's Wall Street Journal.

Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:31 AM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-24

  • Constrained Katie offers a cold shower of reality to those of us with sentimental thoughts of college debating teams issuing careful and nuanced deliberation of all sides of an issue.

    The phrase "high school debate camps" appears, which I found mind-bending. Those must be the kids not cool enough to go to band camp?

  • Another Paul at Power Line notes and debunks what he terms a modified strategy for the Democrats: don't attack Bush's policies, instead constantly whinge about Bush's "incompetence."

    Paul has a long memory, so he properly recollects back to Mike Dukakis claiming "What matters, my friends, is competence, not ideology" when he ran against George HW Bush in 1988. That didn't work out too well for him.

  • Dr. Helen lacks sympathy for Affirmative Actioneers who find that the game can be played to the detriment of their daughters. (Via who else?)


Last Modified 2006-03-24 6:34 PM EST
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Vermont Geezerhood II

A couple weeks back, I posted about a March 4 New York Times article concerning Vermont's current and future demographic woes (now behind the TimesSelect wall).

Most of my comments still apply, but I should correct the following:

Another statistic reported by the NYT is the Census Bureau's projection of state population trends until 2030. Which, as near as I can tell, they managed to get wrong. They claim 30.4% of Vermont's population will be 65 or older in 2030; in contrast (they claim) 25.7% of the US's population will be 65 or older then.

But the Census Bureau's spreadsheet (Excel, sorry) puts these values at 24.4% for Vermont, and 19.7% for the US. Vermont's projected to be the eighth "oldest" state in 2030.

I read this too quickly. The percentages reported by the NYT were percentages of the adult population, not the total population. And it's easy to do the calculation from this Census Bureau spreadsheet to reproduce the values reported by the NYT. My bad.

However, as long as I was exercising my long-defunct spreadsheet skills, I did the calculation for all the states (plus DC). It turns out that while 30.4% of Vermont adults are projected to be over 65 in 2030, that number is 33.9% for Florida. And seven other states are projected to have higher percentages of over-65 adults than Vermont (specifically: New Mexico, Wyoming, Maine, Montana, North and South Dakota, and West Virginia). (The number for New Hampshire is 27.3%)

So, while Vermont's projected to be significantly older than the US average in the near future (at least by this measure), they're hardly unique.

Credit for this correction goes to Renee Murawski at the NYT who politely pointed out my error after I badgered the Public Editor.

However, the original NYT article also contained this:

While Vermont's population of young people shrinks, the number of older residents is multiplying because Vermont increasingly attracts retirees from other states. It is now the second-oldest state, behind Maine.
My comment in the original posting:
According to the Census Bureau, the "oldest" state in the 2000 Census was (of course) Florida, with 17.6% of its population over 65. Maine was 12th (14.4%) and Vermont was in 31st place (12.7%). I doubt things changed that much in 6 years.
My source was this Census Bureau spreadsheet.

When pressed on this point, Ms. Murawski said:

Regarding your disputing Vermont's ranking as the second-oldest state, behind Maine, there are indeed several ways to measure "oldness.'' Pam Belluck, who wrote the article, says that median age, which is what the article used, is commonly used by demographers and state officials to describe how old a state is. Median age is used because it shows how the age of a state's population is changing by looking at the mix of young and old, not just the number of old people.
Also very polite, but in this case I think I'm correct. Or, more precisely, more correct than the NYT. You can find numbers that seem to corroborate the NYT here. It reports Maine and Vermont at the top of the median-age pile, with 40.2 and 40.1 years respectively; Florida is down at 39.1.

But at the head of that page (in not particularly fine print) is:

NOTE. Data are limited to the household population and exclude the population living in institutions, college dormitories, and other group quarters.
If you look here instead, a table that doesn't contain that caveat, you'll find median age data more in line with, um, the reality of the entire population. This has Vermont with merely the fifth-highest median age, behind West Virginia, Florida, Maine, and Pennsylvania.

When I pointed this out to Ms. Murawski, she e-mailed back: "I think we'll have agree to disagree on median age." Uh, fine, I guesss. But the flat statement that Vermont is the "second-oldest state" is true only by tortured cherry-picking. I think the article's author was stretching to find stats that would support her case that Vermont's situation is unique and dire.

So: one cheer, one raspberry for the NYT. Considering my own mistake, we'll call it a draw. And considering the NYT's other current credibility problems, this one is pretty minor.


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Commies Abuse Cuteness

Joe Malchow at Dartblog has the goods on those Commie bastards. Plus a cute picture.


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Arnold Kling, Blog Hero Du Jour

As Ken Layne originally pointed out: "We can fact-check your ass." Where:

"we":
bloggers
"your ass":
claims made by the press and mainstream punditry.
The latest example is Arnold Kling, who debunks a WaPo op-ed from Harold Meyerson, in a particularly easy and gratifying way: Meyerson quoted an article by Princeton economist Alan Blinder in support of his thesis. Arnold retrieved Blinder's article and points out what Meyerson left out: Blinder's actual conclusions, which were pretty much the opposite of Meyerson's.

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Noam Chomsky on Wealth Inequality

"It's OK as long as it's my wealth."

Well, I paraphrase. But Peter Schweizer at the National Post has the goods. (Via the Club For Growth Blog.)


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Yet Another Good Movie Unmade

Via Galley Slaves, a pointer to a description of a Star Trek movie set during the era when Kirk and Spock went to Starfleet Academy.

Spoilers galore, but since this movie is off the front burner, also the back burner, and probably out of the kitchen entirely, you won't almost certainly won't spoil anything. Here's a line where McCoy is asked by starstruck cadets whether Kirk and Spock were friends at the Academy:

FRIENDS? I never met two less likely candidates for friendship in my entire life. That surprises you, doesn't it? Well, it's the gospel truth. They were as different as night and day. As Vulcan … and Iowa.
Sigh. I'd be there. I'd totally be there.

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Link List Update

Don'tcha just hate bloggers who don't keep their blogrolls up to date? Me neither. Nevertheless, here are changes to the list over there on the right somewhere:

  • New URLs for Achenblog and Hoy Story.

  • Removed the Man Without Qualities, since he has unfortunately become the Man Without Posting Anything Since January 8. Too bad, I'll miss him. Someone let me know if he returns.

  • Added Mark Levin's blog, based at National Review.

  • Added Phi Beta Cons, a group blog covering higher education issues, also based at NR.

  • Added the infidel Treacher, because I was not getting enough drug-induced humor, 90% of which I don't even understand.

  • Added Carl Schaad's new blog. Now freed from the cold corporate shackles of the Accuweather site, Carl is finally able to freely engage in his own brand of humor. Like those dog whistles, the humor may only be detectable by those of Scandinavian descent.

  • Finally, added WitNit, because he's a Richard Mitchell fan. Good enough for me.


Last Modified 2006-03-22 6:46 PM EST
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Fedora Core 5 Woes

Upgrading this server from Fedora Core 4 to 5 went unsmoothly. Sorry if you noticed the long outage.

  1. The CDs I burned failed the initial media check. Impossible! A quick check of the Google showed the magic words to type at the boot prompt: linux ide=nodma. This caused the media check to pass and allowed us to proceed.

  2. No surprises for the actual upgrade, except that it was verrrrry slllow. I assumed this was due to extra careful error checking, although I have no actual idea. The FC5 install screens are pretty.

  3. Finally, we reboot to the upgraded OS. And things look just swell, except …

  4. Crap, the network isn't working at all. Output from ifconfig shows that the system thinks the interface is up, but there are a lot of errors on the transmit and receive sides.

  5. After dinking around with network configuration tools, I try unplugging the ethernet connector from the NIC, and plugging it back in. Hallelulah, things work again! … for about a minute, then we're back in Suck City.

  6. Desperate, I'm thinking there's something wrong with the new network card driver. This is a pretty generic box, a Dell Dimension 4500 with a Davicom chipset ethernet card (CNET Pro200WL). How bad could that be? Nevertheless, I scrounge from our local hardware guru a couple more ethernet cards, one 3Com-based, one Intel-based.

  7. Surely if anything's gonna work, the 3Com card will. Nope. If anything, it's worse than the Davicom, because unplugging and plugging doesn't even make it work for a minute.

  8. OK, try the Intel card … Yah, we're back now. After about 7 hours of being off the network. Feh.

Was that painful enough for you? I have no idea why the other cards aren't working, they're pretty standard. Experimentation may cause further outages over the next few days. I don't think I can recommend this upgrade for non-geeks.

Last Modified 2012-10-25 7:59 AM EDT
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Joel Achenbach is Funny

Joel Achenbach does us the favor of reproducing a few paragraphs from his speech to the National Space Club last week. It's Dave Barry-level funny. Excerpt from the intro:

I dread public speaking, and sometimes get a bit jittery even when I'm just mumbling to myself in the car on the way to work. Anyway, there were 2,500 people in attendance, though I couldn't see anyone in the audience once they beamed the bright lights at the podium. To calm myself, I pretended I was speaking to only 1,750. …
"Heh."

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Buck on McGrath on Dennett

Stuart Buck points approvingly to a short PDF lecture transcript by Alister McGrath on Daniel Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. McGrath is an explicit Christian, but the arguments against Dennett's anti-religion book don't really seem to rely on that perspective.

My basic attitude toward religion is a deeply confused sort-of-agnosticism (I know, you didn't ask, but if I waited for people to ask before blogging, I wouldn't be blogging at all.) I don't go to church, but, on the other hand, I don't want to make the baby Jesus cry.

When I read Dennett's Freedom Evolves, I found arguments at the beginning of the book tight and basically convincing; later chapters looked to be full of garrulous handwaving. McGrath is more polite than I, but seems to be seeing the same thing.

McGrath is also very hard on the concept of "memes". As one who's probably used the word too much in the past, I'm appropriately chastened. Please read past posts that contain the word "meme" in an informal, unscientific, and perhaps ironic sense.


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Service Note

Pun Salad may be unavailable at various times over the next few days, as the hosting machine is upgraded from Fedora Core 4 to Fedora Core 5.

(Fedora is the free distribution of the Linux OS sponsored by Red Hat, Inc. More info here. Heartily recommended here.)

I don't really expect outage will be longer than an hour, but upgrades to a just-released OS version are fraught with peril.

I also don't know when the outage will begin, since I'm having problems downloaded the CD images. BitTorrent, always a champ in the past, suddenly decided to get unreliable.

Bottom line: if Pun Salad is unresponsive, don't worry, and please try again later.


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Prof Volokh on the Slippery Slope

Speaking of slippery slopes (and I was, see below), Prof Volokh has a good article on a slippery-slope argument seen in a recent court decision involving the Google. It is notable for a great illustration of the following caption:

Camel (A) sticks his nose under the tent (B), which collapses, driving the thin end of the wedge (C) to cause monkey to open floodgates (D), letting water flow down the slippery slope (E) to irrigate acorn (F) which grows into oak (G).
It's unfortunate he couldn't work a snowball in there somewhere.

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The Right Not to be Offended … by Amazon

You've probably noticed that search engines like Google's and Amazon's offer alternate searches in case you've misspelled a word you've entered. It's extremely useful for us fumble-fingered typists and poor spellers. Amazon also adds a bit of commercialism to the algorithm: if a significant fraction of users search for "B" after searching for "A", they'll eventually offer up "B" as an alternate for people searching for "A".

Sometimes that doesn't work out too well, when the folks perusing your site are of a certain obsessive persuasion. From the NYT today:

Amazon.com last week modified its search engine after an abortion rights organization complained that search results appeared skewed toward anti-abortion books.
Oh no! What happened?
Until a few days ago, a search of Amazon's catalog of books using the word "abortion" turned up pages with the question, "Did you mean adoption?" at the top, followed by a list of books related to abortion.
Gasp! Outrageous! Obviously, this can not stand!
Amazon removed that question from the search results page after it received a complaint from a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national organization based in Washington.
One complaint, and Amazon leaps into action! Because people who search on the word "abortion" shouldn't be forced to see the word "adoption"! It's insensitive. Or something.

The "Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice" has its website here. And, true enough, you'll see "Pro-faith", "Pro-family", and "Pro-choice" on that page, but the word "adoption" is nowhere to be seen. It does show up (for example) on their FAQ, where they claim to be for it.

Or rather they're equally open to you choosing it. "Whatever!"

Unless, apparently, you happen to see it on an Amazon search page.

Because that's bad:

"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis, a retired Episcopalian minister in Charleston, W.Va. "It represented an editorial position on their part."
Perfect. Censorship demanded by religious fanatics. Gee, we've never seen that before.

Of course, Amazon has a lame excuse, which also has the minor advantage of absolute truth:

Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said there was no intent by the company to offer biased search results. She said the question "Did you mean adoption?" was an automated response based on past customer behavior combined with the site's spelling correction technology.

She said Amazon's software suggested adoption-related sources because "abortion" and "adoption" have similar spellings, and because many past customers who have searched for "abortion" have also searched for "adoption."

A million geeks think at this point: Duh!
Ms. Smith said the "Did you mean adoption?" prompt had been disabled. (It is not known how often searches on the site turn up any kind of "Did you mean..." prompt.)
Amazon, of course, is free to do whatever it wants with its search engine. Including putting a bold magenta notice on it: "Offended by something you see? Let us know, we'll disable it! We're huge wusses!"

But the reactionary forces still are rearing their ugly heads:

Customers, however, are still offered "adoption" as a possibility in the Related Searches line at the top of an "abortion" search results page. But the reverse is not true.
That's the way it works for me, I just checked. And why is that?
Ms. Smith said that was because many customers who searched for abortion also searched for adoption, but customers who searched for "adoption" did not typically search for topics related to abortion.
Apparently, Amazon is going to continue making automatic related searches available based on the actual search patterns of its customers, without second-guessing the politics involved. One cheer for Amazon.

But the folks at RCRC are still a little miffed.

Still, the Rev. Jeff Briere, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a member of the abortion rights coalition, said he was worried about an anti-abortion slant in the books Amazon recommended and in the "pro-life" and "adoption" related topic links.
Here's Jeff's page, by the way. Fave quote: "Cyndi Lauper is my favorite theologian." No, I'm not making that up. Go look.

Anyway, if Jeff is "worried" about an "anti-abortion" slant when looking at "pro-life" books on Amazon, then I think … well, he must be worried all the time about just about everything. (Jeff, when you search for "vampires", you're going to see some references to fangs and blood. Just letting you know ahead of time.)

"The search engine results I am presented with, their suggestions, seem to be pro-life in orientation," Mr. Briere said. He also said he objected to a Yellow Pages advertisement for an anti-abortion organization in his city that appeared next to the search results, apparently linked by his address.
Jeff would prefer that he lead his life sheltered from "pro-life" suggestions and advertisements. His is a delicate soul, apparently.

Or is he really more worried that other people might be exposed to such suggestions and advertisements? Maybe. Unitarians, in my experience, are pretty much "that's cool" type folks, but apparently pro-life suggestions and advertisements are enough to turn them into censorious Ayatollahs.

Web software that tracks customers' purchases and searches makes it possible for online stores to recommend items tailored to a specific shopper's interests. Getting those personalized recommendations right can mean significantly higher sales.

But getting it wrong can cause problems, and Amazon is not the first company to find that automated online recommendations carry risks.

The "risks" seem to be that easily-offended people, might see something that offends them, and (ignorant of the technology involved) assume a political motivation where none exists. Certainly Amazon would prefer that not happen.

But (equally certainly) if Amazon bows to pressure to tweak its search results and sidebar ads in response to pressure groups, it will find itself on a very slippery and steep slope. Hope they keep that risk in mind, too.

(Link to the NYT article via the Corner.)


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:34 AM EDT
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The Americanization of Emily

[Amazon Link] [2.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

Gosh, they don't make movies like this any more.

Black and white, that is. Don't be fooled by the DVD box.

I kind of remember watching this as a young 'un. Not as good as I remembered. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, and it is oppressively satirical, without actually managing to be funny. Nobody ever told Paddy "show, don't tell." The action, such as it is, only exists to support Paddy's dialog, and is often inexplicable. Julie Andrews and James Garner fall in love—why? James Coburn suddenly turns into a martinet—why? Garner finds it necessary to "cure" Julie's mother of her denial of her husband's death (in an unbelievably facile way)—why?

Although the movie the movie is tediously pacifistic, the horror of war is kept safely off screen. We only see one guy killed at Omaha Beach, and that turns out to be a mistake.

If you have to watch one 1964 B&W satirical anti-war movie, though, this would be a good bet. Oh, wait


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT
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The Legend of Zorro

[Amazon Link] [3.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

This sequel to The Mask of Zorro was a box office flop and a critical failure (25% on the Tomatometer.) Allegedly set in 1850 California, the history is ludicrous. And it's especially bad in comparison to the movie it's sequelizing, which was great.

Still, it's dumb fun, as long as you don't think too hard about it. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones can still buckle their swashes, the special effects were impressive. The kid playing their son is not insufferable at all, and it was kind of amusing to see his genetics go into play as he breaks out of his pampered aristocrat role. Not an awful way to spend a couple hours.

I also spent some time watching the "Extras" disk from Star Trek: Nemesis. Coincidentally, Stuard Baird was the director of that movie, and was the editor on this one. Not that that matters, just a coincidence. The main thing I noticed on the disk was the sheer amount of thought and effort that goes into making even a mediocre movie. I'm not sure that's what they wanted to convey.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT
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Ruth on the Rocks

A basic course in Disgraceful Argument covers this one in the first few weeks:

  1. I have received death threats from people who disagree with me;

  2. Therefore, I'm right; and, in addition:

  3. If you disagree with me, you're the kind of person who issues or encourages death threats.

Between naps, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dabbled in this sort of argument recently. Ed Whelan and Marc Levin have the quotes and comments.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:37 AM EDT
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Annie Agonistes

Annie Proulx wrote on the Oscars for the UK's Guardian. Clearly, she was disappointed that Brokeback Mountain (based on her original story) lost out to Crash for Best Picture. But she was a totally good sport about it:

And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline.

It's somehow refreshing to know that even a critically-acclaimed professional author will occasionally write like a half-witty 14-year-old girl in a tearful snit because of a perceived snub at her middle school. ("I can't believe Smellily and Lamy - excuse me - Emily and Amy said that!") I strongly recommend you check out Shawn Macomber for further analysis.


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Getting Pedantic with Pinkerton

James Pinkerton has an important and insightful article at Tech Central Station, part one of two, about the "crisis of process." Boring as that sounds, the article deserves to be shoved under the noses of the President, top executive-branch staff, and each and every Congresscritter. Couldn't hurt, anyway.

[P]roblems of process inside the federal government are threatening not only our national well-being, but also our national security. … [We] will remind conservatives and free-marketeers, who like to affect a nonchalant disdain of government - even when they are running the government - of the following reality: Nobody makes you run for elective office. But if you want to hold high office, then you have to take that office seriously. If you are in the government, you have to govern. And that means, either make the existing system work, or else bring forth a better system. What you can't do is pretend that it's someone else's problem. The buck stops with you.
Excellent point. The devil's in the details, however. For example, I'll quibble with the following:
Six months after Katrina, nobody will argue that FEMA handled the storm well. The only question is: who, what, and who else is to blame?

Well, actually someone does argue that FEMA did a pretty good job. Here's an excerpt from Popular Mechanics' take on it:

[T]he response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest--and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall. … While the press focused on FEMA's shortcomings, this broad array of local, state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary success--especially given the huge area devastated by the storm. Computer simulations of a Katrina-strength hurricane had estimated a worst-case-scenario death toll of more than 60,000 people in Louisiana. The actual number was 1077 in that state.

While it's easy to imagine that FEMA could have handled things better (and PM mentions "Bumbling by top disaster-management officials"—it's not as if they have their heads under a basket), painting the problem as a "process" catastrophe to be laid solely at FEMA's door doesn't work for me.

Similarly, when Pinkerton claims:

… Uncle Sam can't actually run the schools, but the feds can set in place a system of carrots and sticks to make sure that kids get the education they need—and America gets the competitive workforce it needs.
… the skeptic in me says: where's the evidence that the feds can actually do that? (As opposed to what they claim they can do, or what they would like to be perceived as doing?) Where's the evidence that they won't simply be pushing on one end of a long string, in a vain attempt to get the other end to move? It doesn't exist, I fear.

Pinkerton points to a long string of Presidential education promises, going back decades. He points out the dismal lack of results. He fails, however, to draw the straightforward conclusion. I don't get it.

But check out the article. Lots of good points.


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Mail from Walter Soehnge II

Walter Soehnge read yesterday's post and sent me some comments, which I'll reproduce unedited, save for HTMLizing.

I read it and thought it well said.

FYI, my name was an answer to a trivia question on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" My cousin, in Austin heard it and told me about it. I do not know if the program is national or local. The only other thing is that GE Financial has requested that the 'Providence Journal' print retraction of the Bob Kerr article. The last I heard, they were not so inclined.

I restate that J C Penny MasterCard (owned by GE Financial) told me via Jim Ulseth that no personal or financial information was given to any branch of the Federal Government. However, several people prior to my speaking to him did say that. We only had voices on the phone. Which voice does one believe when you're thinking "WHAT"!?!?

I still hold that JCPMC is constrained under some part of The Banking Secrecy Act, 31 U.S.C. 5312 (a) (2) (A) through (X) to do what they did. And, until I can prove to myself or until some one can prove to me they didn't, I will continue to believe it. There is no more information stating the act doesn't constrain JCPMC and others than there is stating it does. On that point, we will have to disagree as it seems you hold a dissimilar opinion. That's okay though. The debate was what I wanted to happen. In the beginning of this issue (may be non-issue), I had three goals. The first is stated in the article I am responding to. Second, motive others to stand up and be counted, not to go around mumbling and grumbling and whining when something is believed wrong. Third, is to shout that 'we the people' have been sluggish long enough. We must assume a much more vigorous role in the governance of our country; use pen and paper, the telephone, work in the elections and use the ballot box. Two and three are intertwined.

I have corrections to my document; one a typo, two and others are a misheard name while the third was a bonehead. First, (see 03/08 or 03/09/06 and 03/10/06 p2) the name is Jim Ulseth. Then, (see 03/10/06 Jim Allsup (a well spoken professional)... the second bullet should end with the words seven people. The bonehead was thinking that Fitzgerald had contacted a spokesman for JCPMC and that Ulseth (Allsup) was he. I thank you for bringing that to my attention.

I've made the indicated changes in yesterday's post. Comments:
  • I think it's clear that Walter is an extremely decent fellow.

  • He's received contradictory information from JCPenney about whether his transaction was reported to the Feds or not. It seems that the more definitive source, Ulseth, says that it wasn't.

  • Hence, even more doubtful is that what happened is related to a terrorism investigation under the Patriot act.

  • All of the MSM coverage, and most of the coverage on the web assumes a certainty on these points that just isn't warranted.

But irrespective of what happened in this particular case, I think it's clear that there is a privacy problem with financial information. I've previously pointed out this article originally from the Wall Street Journal, beginning:
The government's use of the Patriot Act to force financial institutions to report suspicious transactions has resulted in an avalanche of unwanted paper and computer tapes that officials who collect the data say is undermining efforts to detect money flowing to terrorists.

… so even the Feds say that the amount of data they're getting on unusual but innocuous transactions is hindering rather than helping terrorism investigations. I think both Walter and I, with all reasonable people, agree that this is idiotic and offensive.


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URLs du Jour — 2006-03-16

Haven't done one of these lately …

  • I argued yesterday against Alan Greenspan's (hedged) claim that a growing wage gap between high- and low-skilled workers might (among other things) fuel demand for "misguided economic policies". Serendipitously, Bryan Caplan today reports on a paper that tends to support my end of that disagreement.
    Low-skilled workers are more opposed to immigration because they are less economically literate, not because they selfishly calculate that immigration is especially bad for their pocketbooks

    I.e., inequality by itself doesn't lead to misguided economic policies. In your face, Al! In! Your! Face!

  • In another matter discussed here a couple days back, John Fund reports that Yale has suspended Alexis Surovov, who sent abusive, anonymous e-mail to two alumni organizing the protest against the admission of a former Taliban official. Meanwhile, Anne Morse announces that she's significantly culled the list of schools to which her son will be applying. It's gone from "any school" to "any school but Yale."

  • I would guess that a significant fraction of Pun Salad readers would want to read an article containing:
    The bottom line: This change would be a tax on male nerd sex.
    And that article would be here.

  • And, via GeekPress, a must-read story on what to do when your eyeball falls out. In case you don't want to read the whole article, the bottom-line answer is:
    Get it put back in, and soon.
    Pun Salad is happy to provide that advice to anyone who might be inclined to do otherwise. Pun Salad: keeping an eye out … for you!


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Sleepy Hollow

[Amazon Link] [3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

We'd missed this 1999 movie back when it came out, and never managed to rent it before. But I suspect Mrs. Salad kind of has a Thing for Johnny Depp, because when she was browsing around the video store a few months back, she noticed his brooding visage staring from the wall, and asked me to put this movie in the Blockbuster queue.

So I did, we got it, and she wound up sleeping through the last hour.

I liked it a bit more than that. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane as kind of a proto-geek, and the script otherwise takes considerable liberties with the Washingon Irving yarn, turning it into a supernatural detective story. IMDB reports that 18 people are decapitated in the movie, so be forewarned. Tim Burton directs, which just about always means that the movie is full of amusing sights and scenes. And, for some reason, he always attracts some great actors. Besides Johnny, there's Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken, Christopher Lee, Michael Gambon. And … who is that guy? … oh, yeah, the Emperor from Star Wars.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT
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Looking Harder at Greenspan on Inequality

In previous posts (here, here, here, here, here, here) I think I've at least convinced myself that "inequality" as currently discussed is (at least) two different "problems", each spurred by different and incompatible visions. The first, exemplified by Paul Krugman, et. al. is all about the very tippy-top of the income/wealth distribution: one percent of the population or less. This view is seemingly fueled entirely by resentment of the "rich", relies on fallacies for argument, and can't point convincingly to any specific social ills caused by having a relative handful of people at high income levels. Adherents offer no "solution" other than taking (more of) the income/wealth of "the rich" via taxation. This is often termed "redistribution", but generally there's more interest in the taking part; the arguments showing how "redistribution" will help the non-"rich" are weak to non-existent.

The second vision is typified by Alan Greenspan's Senate testimony last year. I briefly discussed the testimony a couple days back, mainly to argue that Krugman (et. al.) took Greenspan's "inequality" concerns out of context to bless their vision. But I'd like to look at Greenspan's comments on their own here.

[F]or the past twenty years, the supply of skilled, particularly highly skilled, workers has failed to keep up with a persistent rise in the demand for such skills. Conversely, the demand for lesser-skilled workers has declined, especially in response to growing international competition. The failure of our society to enhance the skills of a significant segment of our workforce has left a disproportionate share with lesser skills. The effect, of course, is to widen the wage gap between the skilled and the lesser skilled.
Greenspan makes it clear (well, as clear as he ever does) that his vision of the "inequality" problem is about large population segments, not a mere percent or fraction thereof.

In a democratic society, such a stark bifurcation of wealth and income trends among large segments of the population can fuel resentment and political polarization. These social developments can lead to political clashes and misguided economic policies that work to the detriment of the economy and society as a whole.
This is superficially reasonable, especially given the tentative phrasing about what "can" happen. But (wait a minute, Al), are we really seeing that much resentment now? Dan Drezner says "there is surprisingly little grumbling about [about inequality] within the mainstream political discourse". This repeats a point he made nearly three years ago, where he drew supporting arguments from David Brooks (here and here).

How about political polarization? Everyone says there's a lot of these days; is it due to the wage gap between high- and low-skilled workers? I think that's a tough argument to make. For example, here's a Brookings Institution "Policy Brief" by Pietro Nivola that examines a number of likely causes of current polarization; economic factors don't make his list.

Are "misguided economic policies" in the offing as a result of inequality? Professor Drezner mentions protectionism as a possible candidate. Fine; but I'd tend to vote for simple xenophobia as a more likely cause of increased protectionist sentiment over inequality.

So I don't find Greenspan's claims for the baleful effects of the wage gap too convincing. But that's OK; surely a workforce which (on average) is skilled below its potential is a Bad Thing on its face; we don't really need to make indirect arguments about its further effects on resentment, polarization, etc.

So how to fix that? Greenspan again:

[S]trengthening elementary and secondary schooling in the United States--especially in the core disciplines of math, science, and written and verbal communications--is one crucial element in avoiding such outcomes. We need to reduce the relative excess of lesser-skilled workers and enhance the number of skilled workers by expediting the acquisition of skills by all students, both through formal education and on-the-job training.
Appealing to improved education is an obvious choice. It's a no-brainer! (Heh.) Krugman, however, is scornful about this sort of thing:
The notion that it's all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it's just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system - and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.
In short: if there's nobody to blame, and it can't be used as a partisan issue, I'm not very interested!

For more reasonable folks, Greenspan's education solution is at least better than redistributionist schemes. In a certain sense, we "know" how to teach skills to willing learners. And all we have to do is to implement that through the current schooling system. Easy!

But it's not a quick fix, is it? Years elapse before any additional educational magic at the elementary level works its way into the workforce.

My guess would be that plain old market forces would be a better bet than yet another educational reform. Not very sexy. The most efficacious role for the state might be simple and similarly non-sexy: to get out of the way.


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Mail from Walter Soehnge

I previously blogged about Walter Soehnge here and here; it was widely alleged a few weeks back that his $6,522 payment to his JCPenney Platinum MasterCard was reported to the Department of Homeland Security because this payment was "a certain percentage higher" than his normal payment. This became a minor cause célèbre, as it was considered yet another harbinger of the impending long fascist night in Bush's Amerikkka. I was skeptical.

Mr. Soehnge has sent me mail (and I have no reason to doubt that it is Mr. Soehnge, not some hoaxster.) I'll reproduce it here, unedited save for HTMLizing:

I am sending you this document because one of my friends read your site and sent the link to me. The chronology and content are correct. I hope the info clears up some things for you. Google hits have not been checked since 10March06. Exercising what I considered to be a right;let the genie out of the bottle. My very conservative friends think I am unpatriotic. My liberal friends think I am a crusader for personal freedoms. I thought I was saying, "Hey guys some unusual stuff is going on out there. Be aware of it...get active...stand-up and be counted".
The Homeland Security/J C Penny MasterCard (JCPMC) Fiasco: A Sequence of Events

01/17/06 -
Payment made on internet
01/20/06 -
Money cleared bank
01/25/06 -
Card refused and D'Anna is told by J C Penny MasterCard (JCPMC):
  • (1st person spoken to) Check had to clear bank
  • (2nd person spoken to) Took 10 days or more before posting could be done - both things had occurred
  • (3rd person spoken to) The reason was due to a Homeland Security regulation(s). Customers were not notified so they could not find a way around the regulation(s). (Latter and former responses to direct questions)
01/28/06 -
D'Anna checks account via internet and speaks to three persons by telephone at JCPMC
  • Balance marked paid
  • Credit limit/cash advance level same as before $6,520 payment
  • (3rd person spoken to) Reiterates that money is being held due to Homeland Security regulation(s)
  • Money would be released in 10-14 days from date of payment
  • Would transfer to someone who would set her up with a different account that she could use
02/01/06 -
Walter calls JCPMC to follow-up the above information
  • Three persons reaffirm Homeland Security regulation(s) is reason money is stalled
  • Asks for copy of regulation(s) constraining J C Penny MasterCard
  • Told it would be sent
  • Contacted ACLU, Channe1 12 and Bob Kerr of the Providence Journal and attorney
02/07/06 -
Walter calls JCPMC to follow-up on promised letter and is told Letter sent on 02/02/06 arriving by 02/15/06 - it is yet to arrive
02/24/06 -
Bob Kerr article in Providence Journal
02/28/06 -
Article in Scripps Howard News Service
03/08/06 -
Walter Jay Fitzgerald of Boston Herald have telephone interview
03/08 or 03/09/06 -
Fitzgerald speaks to Jim Ulseth, JCPMC Credit Services/Customer Affairs (813) 969-1209
03/10/06 -
Boston Herald article comes out
03/10/06 -
Walter calls JCPMC offering them choice: give over regulation(s) or the affair is put in the hands of an attorney. Assurances are given JCPMC that money will not be the focus of any legal action taken
03/10/06 -
Jim Ulseth (a well spoken professional) calls the Soehnge home and says the following things
  • The seven persons referring to Homeland Security Regulation(s) had misspoken
  • The problem was a misunderstanding on the part of those seven people
  • An internal investigation was under way
  • Homeland Security had not been given any of our personal information
  • JCPMC internal security decided the payment was suspicious
  • He would send a letter ("perhaps by registered mail") fully explaining the issue
  • That our card was fully usable with maximum balances available
03/10/06
Walter reiterated that balance/availability was not the issue. At issue was the Federal Government's interest in my finances and whether JCPMC had given that information to some unregulated and insidious bureaucracy.

Some Google Miscellany to Which to Go H-m-m?
Banking Secrecy Act, 31 U.S.C. 5312(a) (2) (A) through (X) - 244 hits
Walter Soehnge - 13,300 hits

Mr. Soehnge seems like a straight shooter, I've got no reason to doubt his patriotism, and I'm sure the above account is accurate, at least within the usual uncertainties introduced by recalling the details of phone conversations after the fact.

But it's worth pointing out:

  • Absent is any actual statement that any information whatsoever about the Soehnges or this transaction were provided by JCPenney to the Department of Homeland Security. (Or any other governmental agency, for that matter.) At least one JCPenney spokesmodel denies that DHS was given any "personal information."

  • Also absent is any indication that this had anything to do with a terrorism investigation. DHS (as seemingly few realize) is tasked with emitting regulations and undertaking investigations in the credit card crimes area, even if they are non-terror related.

  • Also absent is any indication that this happened due to new regulations issued under authorization of the Patriot Act.

I'm not saying that any of those things aren't true, just that there seems to be remarkably little support for the assumption by so many people in the MSM and on the Web that they are true. See, for a reminder: Andrew Sullivan; J. Francis Lehman; Bob Kerr of the Providence Journal; Bruce Schneier; and Slashdot.

Also, for that matter, see the Boston Herald story referred to in the timeline above. The author, Jay Fitzgerald, confidently states (without any supporting evidence provided) that Mr. Soehnge's payment "set off an anti-terrorism alarm." To his credit, Fitzgerald actually did some calling. Oddly, instead of calling the DHS, he called the Department of the Treasury. Their spokeswoman "could not verify Soehnge's particular claims." Fitzgerald also called JCPenney and spoke to a "spokeswoman", who is quoted only as saying "We're trying to figure out why that happened." Missing, as usual, is any verification of what specifically happened vis-a-vis reporting to DHS.

So I'm still skeptical. I've seen nothing to dissuade me from my original notion that peoples' political preconceptions are causing them to lower their shields, skepticism-wise.

But I've asked Mr. Soehnge to send along any additional information he receives from JCPenney or anyone else. And, if he does, you'll probably see it here.

Update: changed some stuff to reflect Walter Soehnge's corrections.


Last Modified 2006-03-16 8:59 PM EST
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Paul Graham on Inequality

One of the essays in Paul Graham's book Hackers and Painters discusses the inequality issue, an issue much on Pun Salad's mind lately. (For example, here, here, here, here, and here.) Graham's essay is is a refreshing change from the usual arguments seen from economists, philosophers, or political scientists. I'll quote the first four paragraphs:

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different from any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?

Graham makes a good case, pleasantly free of the sheen of apology in a lot of defenses of inequality. It makes (for example), Jacob Hacker's response essay at the Cato Unbound online magazine look a bit limp, to my mind.

Unfortunately, this essay is not one that's available at his website, so you'll have to pick up the book for the rest. The website does contain a different essay on the topic, also great, check it out.


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Michigan vs. Yale in the Big Game

We recently remarked on the efficacy of a Harvard education toward one's ability to give nuanced and sophisticated commentary on current events. ("Censorship is bad."—Natalie Portman) Now comes one Alexis Surovov, Yale graduate, currently an advisor to the Yale Anglers Journal, and Assistant Director of the Annual Giving Programs at Yale Law School.

Alexis was incensed at the recent effort of Clinton Taylor urging protest of the admission to Yale of one Sayeed Rahmatullah, Taliban official. Specifically, Taylor suggested sending "glamorous, decadent, shameless-hussy-scarlet press-on nails" to the Yale Development Office and President as a reminder of the Taliban's policy of removing the fingernails of women who ventured to wear fingernail polish. (Or, sometimes, apparently not wanting to mess with the details of fingernail removal, taking a whole thumb.)

Alexis e-mailed Mr. Taylor anonymously:

What is wrong with you? Are you retarded? This is the most disgraceful alumni article that I have ever read in my life. You failed to mention that you've never contributed to the Yale Alumni Fund in your life. But to suggest that others follow your negative example is disgusting.
Unfortunately, the e-mail was easily traced back to Alexis, and now Yale has to deal with multiple embarrassments.

In contrast to the venerable realms of the Ivy League, one might expect that the University of Michigan would show even less respect to free expression. Via FIRE's Torch blog, we have the results of that experiment, as recounted by the editor in chief of the student paper, The Michigan Daily.

The problem was a number of editorial cartoons printed in the paper:

The most controversial of these cartoons portrayed a high school classroom full of dark-skinned students and one white student. At the front of the classroom, a black teacher tells the class that they can all expect special preferences when applying to college - except for Bob, the lone white student.
Somewhat predictably:
Student leaders, arguing that the cartoon was "objectively racist," demanded retractions and printed apologies. Later, a committee of the University's faculty senate even argued that it was potentially illegal - that the caricature of "an institutional policy favoring diversity" could, by encouraging a "racially hostile learning environment," violate federal equal-protection laws.
Some student newspapers when confronted with such a situation fold like a sleeping fruitbat. (Many more avoid such situations in the first place by avoiding content likely to cause such a response.) Fortunately, the editor has a spine:
In the interest of free debate, the Daily will continue to print cartoons that may occasionally offend you. That's an inevitable part of being a newspaper, and a campus newspaper especially should be a place where ideas are exchanged freely. It would be much easier for us to simply pull all cartoons that are potentially offensive, but we would be doing the campus a disservice.
Read the whole thing, it's an eloquent defense of free expression on the campus. It's especially recommended to readers at Harvard and Yale.

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Hackers and Painters

[Amazon Link] Subtitled "Big Ideas from the Computer Age," this book is a collection of essays from Paul Graham. They are designed to appeal to computer types who at least have pretensions to thinking about other things than computers. They are well-written and provocative.

I'm personally indebted to Graham, since one of the essays included here ("A Plan for Spam") was the springboard for Bogofilter, which has helped reduce the time I spend on dealing with unwanted mail by at least an order of magnitude. (That's a decimal order of magnitude, in case geeks are reading.)

Other topics Graham ruminates on: the ecology of startup tech companies; how to have heretical thoughts and survive; why nerds are unpopular; the superiority of Lisp over other computer languages; the superiority of web-based over host-based applications. And more. Like all good essayists, Graham makes these interesting even to people who might not be directly involved. If you want to sample, many (maybe most, maybe all, I haven't checked) of the essays are available on his website.

He's convinced me that I should learn Lisp. Or, more precisely, that I should have learned Lisp before my brain calcified and made me impervious to such radical rewiring.

He also argues about inequality, a topic much covered on this blog of late. I'll probably devote a separate post to this later.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:25 AM EDT
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Devil Citing Scripture

A number of the recent comments on inequality have pointed to last year's testimony by Alan Greenspan before a Senate committee. For example, Heather Boushey in her WSJ debate with Russell Roberts:

Even Alan Greenspan agrees that growing inequality poses significant problems for the U.S. economy.

And Paul Krugman in his NYT op-ed:

And I'm with Alan Greenspan, who - surprisingly, given his libertarian roots - has repeatedly warned that growing inequality poses a threat to "democratic society."

If you're like me, you're asking: "OK, what did Greenspan really say?" Here is a link to his testimony. This allows us (unlike Boushey and Krugman) to put the comments about inequality in context.

Greenspan is famous for delphic utterances that leave people arguing about their import for months afterward. But here he is utterly clear about what he thinks is the underlying problem:

Another critical long-run economic challenge facing the United States is the need to ensure that our workforce is equipped with the requisite skills to compete effectively in an environment of rapid technological progress and global competition. … At the risk of some oversimplification, if the skill composition of our workforce meshed fully with the needs of our increasingly complex capital stock, wage-skill differentials would be stable, and percentage changes in wage rates would be the same for all job grades. But for the past twenty years, the supply of skilled, particularly highly skilled, workers has failed to keep up with a persistent rise in the demand for such skills. Conversely, the demand for lesser-skilled workers has declined, especially in response to growing international competition. The failure of our society to enhance the skills of a significant segment of our workforce has left a disproportionate share with lesser skills. The effect, of course, is to widen the wage gap between the skilled and the lesser skilled.

Cliff's Notes summary (of what Greenspan says he's already oversimplifying): changes in demand for skilled vs. unskilled labor drive wage trends in opposite directions.

Then comes the part that all the lefties quote:

In a democratic society, such a stark bifurcation of wealth and income trends among large segments of the population can fuel resentment and political polarization. These social developments can lead to political clashes and misguided economic policies that work to the detriment of the economy and society as a whole.

Greenspan then provides his obvious solution:

As I have noted on previous occasions, strengthening elementary and secondary schooling in the United States--especially in the core disciplines of math, science, and written and verbal communications--is one crucial element in avoiding such outcomes. We need to reduce the relative excess of lesser-skilled workers and enhance the number of skilled workers by expediting the acquisition of skills by all students, both through formal education and on-the-job training.

I may (probably will) comment further on Greenspan's testimony, but for now, it's worth pointing out that Krugman is particularly shameless about "quoting" Greenspan while actually in fervent disagreement with his underlying thesis. His column was spurred by new Fed Chairman Bernanke's comments essentially saying the same thing as Greenspan:

Responding to a question from Representative Barney Frank about income inequality, [Bernanke] declared that "the most important factor" in rising inequality "is the rising skill premium, the increased return to education."

Krugman is indignant:

That's a fundamental misreading of what's happening to American society. What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

So, really, Krugman (et. al.) and Greenspan/Bernanke are really talking about different things, both called "inequality." Confusing, no?

But it's intentionally confusing when Krugman and his ilk dishonestly quote Greenspan in support of their thesis. Greenspan's view of the "inequality problem" is "solved" by broad training initiatives to put the skill distribution of the American workforce more in line with demand. Roughly speaking: work on inequality by shoring up the bottom side of the distribution.

Krugman's "inequality problem" (on the other hand) can't be solved that way. Because even then, we'll still have that "small, privileged elite" that so chaps his hide. (We will swallow, for now, the cognitive dissonance involved in reading a NYT columnist railing against a "small, privileged elite.") Clearly the solution must involve taking those other folks down a peg or two, or nineteen.

What do we do, specifically? Krugman is typically coy, but ominous, writing: "It may take some time before we muster the political will to counter that threat."

Krugman probably doesn't advocate countering the "threat" of inequality by putting the Forbes 400 into concentration camps or anything. I would guess, if you pressed him, he'd simply argue for confiscatory high levels of taxation on income and wealth, with appropriate "regulation" to insure that victims of this legalized theft high-income taxpayers can't escape avoid it.

Or perhaps the lack of a plan simply indicates that all the "eat the rich" rhetoric about inequality is just a cynically-designed issue to inflame the populace, which they desperately hope will help the Democrats win back political power. When and if that happens, the issue will be safely consigned to the memory hole.

Update: Welcome, AmSpecBlog readers, and humble thanks to Shawn Macomber for the link.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:24 AM EDT
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Mr. and Mrs. Smith

[Amazon Link] [2.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

Another movie I'm getting around to seeing relatively belatedly; it turns out I didn't miss that much.

The good: some clever dialog, Vince Vaughn, and a pretty good score. (Maybe I should explain that last: I hardly ever notice movie music, but here the music seemed to fit in pretty well with what was happening on screen.)

(Late addition: I especially liked the line where Mr. Smith describes Mrs. Smith's (imaginary) job as being "like Batman for computers." That's a self-image I'd like to aspire to. Except that Batman gets the crap kicked out of him every so often; I'd like to avoid that part.)

But I seem to have maxed out on cartoon violence, where somehow the good guys manage to avoid getting shot in the head, despite bullets flying thicker than flies at the dump.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT
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March of the Penguins

[Amazon Link] [3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

I'm only just now getting around to seeing this good nature documentary about how emperor penguins carry out their lives in Antarctica. (If you haven't seen it: a lot of walking is involved.)

The film's makers do a bang-up job of staying out of the picture. It's easy to guess that they were a lot less comfortable than the penguins during the shoot. (At least they weren't menaced by seals and albatrosses.) I imagine they were tempted to compare the penguins' hardships with their own; they let the opportunity pass, fortunately.

However, it is just a nature documentary. Geez, it's not like it's Citizen Kane or anything.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:25 AM EDT
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Natalie Portman Displays the Fruits of a Harvard Education

The Boston Herald reports the following quotes from Queen Amidala, recent Harvard graduate, heard at a gathering at Columbia University:

  • "Censorship is bad."

  • "I don't think it's right to take down the Twin Towers."

  • "My immediate reaction is that torture is wrong."

(via Best of the Web)

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(Still) More on Inequality

Two responses to David Schmidtz's article on inequality at Cato Unbound; one from Peter Singer, the other from Tom Palmer.

Singer argues for egalitarian policies on a utilitarian basis. (Since $100 is presumed to be more utile to a poor person than a rich one, we can raise overall utility by taking it from the rich guy and giving it to the poor person.) That aspect of Singer's response is critiqued here by "KipEsquire", who really disagreed.

Much better, in my view, is Palmer's article. He observes:

Most—perhaps all—of those who are intent on eradicating inequalities of wealth, or income, or welfare start by assuming that they are entitled to rearrange the lives and entitlements of other people. It's just obvious to them that they have a legitimate right to determine how other people live. Of course, they assume that it's not "they" who have those rights; rather it's the state, which is assumed to be their—er, our—agent, that has those rights.
Mr. Palmer then proceeds to blow this assumption out of the water in masterful fashion.

But, as I observed before, it's Inequality Season, and Arnold Kling has a good article on the topic too. He asks a question I've often pondered myself, on both this topic and others:

The question I have for people on both sides of the debate is this: what would the data have to look like to get you to consider changing your position? That is, if you think inequality is a big deal, what would the data on relative consumption or wealth or income have to look like to make you think it is not a big deal? Conversely, if you think inequality is not a big deal, what would the data have to look like to make you think that it is a big deal?

Since I quoted the question, I suppose I should attempt to answer from the "not a big deal" side: I'm not so sure I can answer it in a "data" sense, but in a policy sense: we have to worry when the illiberal political processes put up barriers to the dynamism that fuels economic and social mobility. I'm not so much interested in what the wealth or income distribution statistics "look like" as I am in in having a free and prosperous country.

(Of course, this conveniently answers the question in a way that avoids changing my position. Sorry, Arnold.)

Via Arnold's article, you can also check out this debate at the WSJ site between lefty Heather Boushey and Cafe Hayek's Russell Roberts. Not surprisingly, I think Russell has the better argument there. And (finally), see Russell's co-blogger, Don Boudreaux, on the topic at the Cafe. Among the good points made there is a parenthetical one:

By the way, I put "distribution" in quotation marks because, as David Henderson once reminded me, income and wealth in market economies aren't "distributed" in any meaningful sense of that term; income and wealth are created and initially owned by those who create it. Wealth isn't created and then distributed. The pattern of wealth's possession is determined by the process of its creation. Therefore, what we call "redistribution" of wealth is really distribution of goods confiscated mostly from their creators.)
Huzzah!

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HR 1606

If you get a chance, you might want to drop your Congresscritter an e-note encouraging a "yes" vote for HR 1606, the "Online Freedom of Speech Act". (Or, hey, this is America. If you feel differently, encourage a "no" vote. You weasel.)

The idea is simple enough: "to exclude communications over the Internet from the definition of public communication" for purposes of McCain-Feingold regulation. This was the status quo as recently as the 2004 election. This bill, however, was made necessary by a ruling from Federal judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, when she overturned the exemption established by the FEC.

RedState is all over this in their FEC Section. A good place to start is this recent article at RedState by Brad Smith, an ex-FEC commissioner. (Why, he gets so exercised, he even says "heck" at one point.)

I think, generally speaking, that restrictions on political speech are a bad idea everywhere, not just on the internet. But, given the judge's ruling, HR 1606 is a good start.


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Scott Adams: Sick, Not Nuts

Scott Adams has a great mini-essay on his recent medical adventure, involving his inability to speak in some situations; it's an interesting mix of humor and horror; perhaps it could be transmogrified into an episode of House. Once he'd done the research to determine his likely (but very rare) ailment:

Now all I had to do was convince my doctor(s) that I wasn't nuts and that I had a very rare condition. As you might imagine, when you tell a doctor that you think you have a very rare condition, that doctor will tell you that it's very unlikely. Your first impulse might be to point out that "very rare" is a lot like "very unlikely," but you don't do that, because doctors have wide latitude in deciding which of your orifices they will use for various medical apparati. So you go with the protocol which involves systematically eliminating all the things that are more likely.
I have some medical woes common to guys of a Certain Age: a minor melanoma; cholesterol, weight, and blood pressure all higher than they should be. Reading Scott's essay made me grateful that they are relatively common; at least I don't have to convince the doctors that I have them.

Last Modified 2006-03-13 9:47 AM EST
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UNH Relatively Safe from Dangerous Profs

David Horowitz has recently written a book entitled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Acadmics in America. There's an associated website (non-functional as I type, but you may have better luck.)

Now (sorry, David), I'm mainly interested in one thing about the book: did anyone from UNH make the list? And I hadn't been able to find the list until today: graciously, WitNit has done the compilation.

And the answer is… no, apparently nobody from UNH is there. Rats. I thought Marc Herold would have had a shot.

And … nobody from Harvard. Nobody from Harvard? I think this is rigged.


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Good Movies You'll Never See

Eric Raymond proposes eight movies that Hollywood would make "if it were really brave". (Hence the title of this post.)

I'd probably be in line for the first-night premiere of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, one of Eric's ideas. Eric suggests Nicolas Cage for Manny, Mira Sorvino for Wyoming Knott. I'll chime in with Robin Williams for the voice of Mike. (Sorry if that would drive you crazy.)


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Crystal Wosik Should Run For (Even) Higher Office

A recent American Spectator article by Max Schulz discusses Crystal Wosik, the current Miss Nevada. This position put her in the running for Miss America; that competition was held in Ms. Wosik's home of Las Vegas.

The competition involves an interview with judges; Ms. Wosik's interview was not televised, but she was asked her opinion about the plan to store radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas.

She said, reportedly, "It has to go someplace, and that was the best-built facility in the country."

Apparently the judges then asked, well, what if people die as a result?

Now, she could have retreated into simple-minded responses: hem and haw, and say, well that would be bad for children, butterflies, and flowers, sure hope that doesn't happen. You know: Miss America stuff.

She could have also pointed out that the probability of that happening is roughly comparable to that of an alien attack against Area 51. She could have pointed out that it's far more hazardous to not have a facility for radioactive waste storage.

She could have also asked whether the judges were asking what-if-people-die followups to all the contestants' views on public policy issues. ("So, Miss Minnesota, you're in favor of mandatory aluminum recycling? What if people die?")

But instead she granted the premise, didn't complain, didn't retreat into happy-talk, and (reportedly) said: "We just have to take one for the team."

Crystal didn't win anything at the pageant, except a place in the heart of all admirers of courage and straight talk. (And apparently, she's now getting threats from the usual group of knuckle-draggers.) She should forego the beauty pageant stuff and go into politics.


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Today's Gold Medal for Best Opening Sentence …

… goes to (drum roll) George F. Will, who begins:

The institutional vanity and intellectual slovenliness of America's campus-based intelligentsia have made academia more peripheral to civic life than at any time since the 19th century.
Not the sort of small talk you'll encounter at your average faculty soirée, but makes you want to read the whole thing.

George's column is about the recent Supreme Court opinion that unanimously dismissed arguments by law-school profs on the matter of military recruiters' access to law-school students.

(Law School Professor) Ann Althouse is less than impressed with George, however:

See what you get when you write a crisp, clear opinion? Columnists portray you as impatient and tart. Damn it, Will! Roberts is writing well.

I, for one, love 'em both.


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The Smartest Woman in the World …

… also turns out to be well above-average in generosity and courage. And she wasn't really using that other kidney anyway. Impressive.

Glenn Reynolds passes along a report that Ms. Postrel is doing fine and Ms. Satel is recovering. Keep them in your thoughts and, if it's the sort of thing you do, your prayers.

Update: Virginia has a brief report with pictures here.


Last Modified 2006-03-07 7:29 PM EST
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The Right Not to be Offended

The Torch points out that the Supreme Court has just upheld the principle that "there is no right not to be offended, especially on campus."

Now if only we could get University administrators to realize this; perhaps they could make an early morning habit of chanting it like a mantra.

The offendees were Catholic in this case. But (as Torch concludes): No group, religious or not, does itself any favors by calling for censorship.


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Schneier on Paying Off Your Credit Card Balance

Bruce Schneier blogs about the Rhode Island man who alleges that his recent $6,522 payment to his JCPenney Platinum MasterCard was reported to the Department of Homeland Security because this payment was "a certain percentage higher" than his normal payment. I discussed this last week here.

Schneier's article is a mixture of good and bad, mostly good. Unlike the original article reporting this, he manages to get the name of the applicable law correct: the Bank Secrecy Act. He has pointers to the way the legislation was amended by the Patriot Act. He has pointers to a couple of excellent debunking posts by Seth Finkelstein, which I'll relink: here and here.

One of the commenters makes the observation that none of the statutes and regulations Schneier links to in his article have anything to do with the claimed facts; as near as I can tell, that's correct. There's more than enough reason to be extremely skeptical of the report.

Unfortunately, Schneier still feels that it's necessary to carp:

… certainly this kind of thing is what financial institutions are required to report under the Patriot Act.

Remember, all the time spent chasing down silly false alarms is time wasted. Finding terrorist plots is a signal-to-noise problem, and stuff like this substantially decreases that ratio: it adds a lot of noise without adding enough signal. It makes us less safe, because it makes terrorist plots harder to find.

Which neatly ignores:

  • The Bank Secrecy Act has been around since 1970.

  • The ACLU griped about this back in 1990:
    The ACLU said that it was only seven years ago that Congress amended the Bank Secrecy Act to require that banks file so-called "suspicious activity" reports, which banks must file whenever a transaction of $5,000 or more is carried out by a customer.
    Again, note carefully: the ACLU is talking in 1990 about a seven-year-old amendment to the BSA. Well before the Patriot Act.

  • It's far from clear that this case (assuming that it happened at all) was a "terrorism" investigation; as Finkelstein points out, Homeland Security does criminal credit card fraud investigations as well, and it's very probable that this happened under that umbrella.

By pointing to terrorism and the Patriot Act, Schneier is almost certainly doing some "chasing down" of "silly false alarms" of his own. Again: if you want to raise the bar for reporting of financial transactions to law enforcement agencies, that's fine by me. But saying it's all due to the Patriot Act and terrorism investigators gone wild is just wrong and lazy.

For a much, much worse example, see the recent Slashdot article, which (unsurprisingly) is completely unskeptical of the original report; the light/heat ratio of the hundreds of comments is also quite low. (Maybe zero. Didn't read 'em all.)


Last Modified 2006-10-12 11:28 AM EDT
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(Even) More on Inequality

It seems to be Inequality Season out there. No sooner than we post two articles on the issue (here and here), more good stuff pops up on the web that's worth pointing out and commenting upon.

Max Borders at Tech Central Station posts on (perhaps) a solution of the mystery of why (some) folks get so het up about inequality: it's a combination of emotions hard-wired in our brains left over from Stone Age tribal times. We simply are built to feel (a) guilt for being more fortunate than someone else; (b) envy, for being less fortunate than someone else; and, finally, (c) indignation when we, as third parties, observe an inegalitarian situation between others.

These emotions are (the argument goes) appropriate for small tribes struggling for survival against nature and other tribes. The emotions become counterproductive, however, as "society" grows larger than the typical tribal unit.

So is that what's going on with inequality-phobes like Paul Krugman? Is he just letting his old tribal emotions come to the fore, then dressing them up afterward in language appropriate to the pages of the New York Times? Hey, maybe.

Also beginning today at Cato Unbound is a more philosophical take on the issue. The link will take you to a "lead essay" from David Schmidtz; reaction essays will soon follow. Schmidtz's essay is dense but extremely sensible, I won't summarize it here. I will quote one paragraph that effectively debunks the oft-used athletic-race metaphor used by egalitarians:

In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race's purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society's purpose. We form societies with the Joneses [as in: "keeping up with the Joneses"] so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.
It's interesting how easily a bad metaphor can corrupt further thought. Using an athletic race as a metaphor for society is just one example. So is using a pie as a metaphor for income or wealth distribution, for that matter.

Last Modified 2007-04-02 12:43 PM EDT
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Kaus on Krugman

I commented on Paul Krugman's February 27 column on inequality here. Mickey Kaus reminds us why he is (unlike me) actually paid to do that sort of thing here.

Mickey wrote a book a number of years back titled The End of Equality, which I've actually read; I was impressed at the time at how refreshingly free of liberal cant it was. He did a great job of arguing that social inequality was almost certainly more worth worrying about than the raw economic inequality. He resummarizes the thesis:

We're Americans--we don't mind people getting rich. We do mind richer people lording it over less rich people, or even thinking they're better than less rich people.
Exactly. His book is very much worth reading, if you can find it.

Mickey also not-so-subtly recalls that Krugman was all for free-market wages in the past, when it was his own wage in question.


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Stalag 17

[Amazon Link] [4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

This is #182 on IMDB's top-250 list, and, to my mind, utterly deserves to be there, or even higher. Even today, it's an unusual blend of comedy and keen suspense drama. And the comedy is a mix of broad mugging and subtle wit. Billy Wilder's involved.

Everybody's really good in this. William Holden (an Oscar-winning performance) is the guy everyone else hates, because he's a successful capitalist in the eponymous German POW camp, and everyone suspects him of being a spy for the Krauts. Except, of course, the actual spy for the Krauts, who is … nah, if you don't know, go rent it. Holden is able to turn the tables on the bad guy in a very satisfying denouement.

The immortal Harvey Lembeck also turns in perhaps his finest performance here. Otto Preminger, ditto. And from IMDB:

The uncredited soldier singing at the Christmas Party is Ross Bagdasarian, also known as 'Dave Seville' , the leader/creator/voice of 'Alvin and the Chipmunks'.
I'm, like, whoa. That's worth renting the movie, right there.

Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT
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Vermont Geezerland

The NYT reported yesterday on Vermont population trends:

This state of beautiful mountains and popular ski resorts, once a magnet for back-to-the-landers, is losing young people at a precipitous clip.

John J. Miller spins this politically at the NRO Corner:

From the land of Howard Dean, Jim Jeffords, and Bernie Sanders: Young people can't get out of Vermont fast enough, according to this report.

Fair enough, but is it true? I'm not shy about making invidious comparisons between my own beloved New Hampshire and Vermont. For example, the difference in Business Tax Climate (NH is sixth-best, Vermont is #46) might have something to do with this, since young folks tend to vacate states without jobs. And surely the overall state tax burden (Vermont is sixth-highest, NH is #49) might also be a part of the explanation for the Vermontian exodus.

The NYT, unfortunately, wastes time on looking at non-economic explanations. They point out, for example, that Vermont has the lowest birth rate of all states. This report from the National Center on Health Statistics confirms that; Vermont is actually tied with Maine with a 10.6 birth rate. Utah has the highest birth rate, 21.2. The US overall birth rate is 14.1

But New Hampshire has a 11.2 birth rate, only 0.6 above Vermont, and 2.9 below the US rate. So why isn't the NYT writing about New Hampshire?

We might as well also look at fertility rate, since I took the time to look it up: The NCHS deems the fertility rate to "provide a more refined picture of geographic variation in childbearing." And (indeed) Vermont has the lowest state fertility rate: 51.1, compared to the US rate of 66.1. (Maine's fertility rate is 52.1, Utah is highest with 92.2.)

New Hampshire, however, is right down there with Vermont and Maine, with a fertility rate of 52.7. (1.6 above Vermont, 13.4 below the US rate.) So, again, why isn't the NYT reporting this about New Hampshire?

Another statistic reported by the NYT is the Census Bureau's projection of state population trends until 2030. Which, as near as I can tell, they managed to get wrong. They claim 30.4% of Vermont's population will be 65 or older in 2030; in contrast (they claim) 25.7% of the US's population will be 65 or older then.

But the Census Bureau's spreadsheet (Excel, sorry) puts these values at 24.4% for Vermont, and 19.7% for the US. Vermont's projected to be the eighth "oldest" state in 2030. Maine, in contrast, is projected to be second only to Florida in geezer population (26.5%) in 2030. New Hampshire's projection is 21.4, which puts it in a more comfortable 17th place. (Update: I misread this, and the NYT is actually correct. Please see here.)

The NYT also gets this wrong:

While Vermont's population of young people shrinks, the number of older residents is multiplying because Vermont increasingly attracts retirees from other states. It is now the second-oldest state, behind Maine.

According to the Census Bureau, the "oldest" state in the 2000 Census was (of course) Florida, with 17.6% of its population over 65. Maine was 12th (14.4%) and Vermont was in 31st place (12.7%). I doubt things changed that much in 6 years.

What about total population? This is where you really see a difference. The Census Bureau expects Vermont's population to grow by 16.9 percent between 2000 and 2030. In comparison, the the US projected population growth is 29.2%; NH's is 33.2%, Maine's is (only) 10.7%. (North Dakota trails the pack with a projected 5.5% drop in population, a neat trick considering nobody lives there in the first place.)

How you feel about this mainly reflects how you feel about population growth in the first place. But the easiest point of comparison is that NH's population is projected to grow significantly above the national average, while Vermont's and Maine's growth rates will be below-average.

So the NYT is mistaken to point to birth rate data to explain Vermont's woes, since New Hampshire is able to maintain (relatively) high population growth with (similarly) low birth rates.

Speculation: what Vermont is seeing (and Maine, too) is the inevitable result of anti-growth policies pursued for years. They thought (with all "good intentions") that they could limit "growth" while somehow keeping other things, like a healthy population of young folks, the same.

The NYT, to its credit, at least gingerly touches on such issues. Young people can't afford housing, which is purchased by retirees instead. Vermont voters are terrified of "overdevelopment", so place onerous restrictions on new housing. And, finally, there's the overriding issue:

Vermont has also lost many good-paying jobs, driving away many well-educated young people and further discouraging businesses.
Of course, it is the New York Times, so no mention is made of parasitic levels of taxation as a possible cause of "lost" jobs. The only mention of taxes is the current governor bewailing that that there won't be enough tax revenue in the future due to people leaving.

The governor has also proposed "giving college scholarships requiring students to stay in Vermont for three years after graduating". I can imagine your average Vermont wigh school senior weighing (a) a college tuition break versus (b) a real good chance at being unemployed for three years afterward. Hm. Tough choice!

With any luck, New Hampshire will be able to continue to look at Vermont as a shining example of what not to do to maintain economic health.


Last Modified 2006-03-23 6:22 PM EST
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Schulze Gets the Blues

[Amazon Link] [1.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

Boring. Dreary. Dry. Dull. Humdrum. Irksome. Monotonous. Stuffy. Tedious. Tiresome. Uninteresting. Wearisome.

OK, probably it wasn't that bad. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for a quiet, arty movie. Sometimes a quiet, arty movie will just put you right to sleep.

Fortunately, this will probably allow me to stay awake for an entire Saturday Night Live. Natalie Portman is on. As long as she's not quiet and arty.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 7:59 AM EDT
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The Feds Are Watching — As If That's News

Andrew Sullivan has a post entitled The Feds Are Watching, which I'll quote in its entirety:

Don't pay off your credit card debt in one big chunk, or Homeland Security will be after you.
The link goes to a blog entry of J. Francis Lehman, which is entitled "That 'harmless' and 'neccessary' [sic] Patriot Act". Which quotes in full a February 22 column written by one Bob Kerr from the Providence (RI) Journal. Kerr's column is titled "Pay too much and you could raise the alarm".

Kerr writes about Walter Soehnge, who claims that his recent $6,522 payment to his JCPenney Platinum MasterCard was reported to the Department of Homeland Security because this payment was "a certain percentage higher" than Walter's normal payment.

Kerr reports this with the standard mixture of snarky sarcasm and grave concern for endangered rights.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."

Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

But the experience has been a reminder that a small piece of privacy has been surrendered. Walter Soehnge, who says he holds solid, middle-of-the-road American beliefs, worries about rights being lost.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to others," he said.

But at this point I'm saying: doesn't this kind of sound like the story about the UMass student who claimed that DHS agents visited him because he checked out Quotations From Chairman Mao over Interlibrary Loan? His story fell apart over the course of a few days, but it remains as a demonstration of how easily both bloggers and MSM-types can be gulled by a yarn that feeds their political preconceptions.

Is that happening here? I think so. One warning flag is that Kerr (apparently) is relying solely on Soehnge's version of events. And Lehman relies on Kerr, and Sullivan relies upon Lehman. There's no independent verification at all.

And it's tough to tell what's being referred to by the "Bank Privacy Act". But this suggestive blurb appers at the ACLU website in the midst of a 1990 article entitled "ACLU Says Banks Continue to Spy on Customers":

The ACLU said that it was only seven years ago that Congress amended the Bank Secrecy Act to require that banks file so-called "suspicious activity" reports, which banks must file whenever a transaction of $5,000 or more is carried out by a customer.
The "Bank Secrecy Act." Is this what Soehnge is talking about? Almost certainly. It Googles up a storm, anyway. It was originally passed in 1970; as the ACLU says, it requires banks to file "Suspicious Activity Reports" for out-of-the-ordinary financial activities, and the results go to a host of law enforcement agencies. The details of what banks are required to report have changed over the years, and some of the changes are due to the Patriot Act, but the main reporting mechanism has been in place for decades. (The banks have some discretion about what to report, and this recent WSJ article suggests that they're erring on the side of Way Too Much.)

If you're in the mood to browse the regulations, here is the "Comptroller's Handbook" issued by the Treasury Department. One of the things it expects banks to report is a "spike in the customer's activity with little or no explanation." And (please note) the date on this document is September 2000, well before the Patriot Act was a gleam in the eye of Chimpy McBushitler.

Hence, I strongly suspect that what Walter Soehnge experienced with his big check to JCPenney was a routine occurrence, both before and after the dreaded Patriot Act. Silly as it is, it's nothing particularly new.

Of course, if anyone wants to rip out the 36-year-old legislation that requires banks to routinely report weird-ass financial transactions to the Feds on the possibility that they might be related to illegal activity, they'll get two thumbs up from me.

But the point here is that this is almost certainly not a privacy abuse due to Dubya, Homeland Security, and the Patriot Act. Even a little skeptical checking on the part of Kerr, Lehman, or Sullivan might have revealed this. Instead it looks as if we're seeing the same old story: Bush-hatred makes one incredibly gullible, incapable of thinking critically about tales that seem to show we're all in terrible peril of losing our rights because of That Man.

At least Andrew Sullivan doesn't do this sort of thing on a regular basis. Oh, wait


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Counterintuity

David Mastio looked harder at the Federal Reserve study on family income. (I snarked about it here.) He finds plenty that has been totally ignored by Major Media, almost certainly because it doesn't comport in with their story line. You may find some surprises too, like I did, so check it out.


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Underpants Gnomes Critique Katrina Response

We've previously discussed the Underpants Gnomes of South Park. They sneak into kids' rooms at night and filch their underpants. Why? Because, it turns out, they have a business plan:

Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: Profit!

None of the gnomes really understand what "Phase 2" involves, but they're pretty sure it's there.

Reading Andrew Sullivan's comments on the AP stories about the pre-Katrina White House briefings reminds me of the gnomes. Andrew pronounces the AP stories "damning evidence of this president's eery [sic] detachment." He comments:

Four days after the storm, Bush declared "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." He was either lying or had slept through his pre-storm meetings. The latter is possible. The record shows he asked not a single question in the pre-Katrina briefing. Maybe he was miffed his vacation had been spoiled. Michael Brown seems on the ball in comparison.
Like the Underpants Gnomes, Andrew apparently sees something like this as happening:

Phase 1: Bush is "briefed".
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: Hundreds of Lives Saved! Or something.

But there is, in fact, no credible scenario that gets you from Phase 1 to 3 in this case. Andrew doesn't even attempt to provide one. Neither does the AP.

Andrew frequently claims to be a "conservative", but episodes like this show that he's in thrall to the unconservative utopian vision. If only wise and moral people were in charge, this could not have happened! We must find the stupid and malicious people! Give us scapegoats! Preferably ones named "Bush"!

All this would be bad enough if the AP stories accurately summarized what was actually said in the briefings. But people who've compared the provided source material with the AP stories conclude that the AP significantly misrepresented the briefing content. See, for example, Power Line:

The AP article is fatally compromised by its factual errors, and adds nothing to our understanding of the issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina. … The AP took what appears to have been a substantial quantity of leaked material, and turned it into a brief against the Bush administration.
Or Big Lizards:
This is a hit piece in search of a body. First, they lie and falsely claim that a video shows Bush being warned in an emergency meeting that the levees might break -- when all the video really shows is a TV weatherman (on the tube) warning people that water might flow over the top of the levees. And second, they have no clue themselves what Bush might have done if someone had told him there was a chance they might break... run over to New Orleans and stick his finger in the nearest dike?
Or WizBang:
There's lots of heavy breathing on the left about the AP story, but unfortunately for them it has all the hallmarks of the Bush Air National Guard story on 60 Minutes II by Dan Rather and Mary Mapes. The AP has dressed up mundane video to try and prove that President Bush (and everyone else) knew that the levees in New Orleans were going to breech. The problem is the evidence they present in their story to make that point does nothing of the sort.

Could Andrew Sullivan have bothered to do the critical thinking and skeptical fact-checking of original sources, just like at Power Line, Big Lizards, and WizBang? Sure, he could have. But apparently that kind of thing is not in his business plan.


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Inequality, Eek!

A running gag in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly involve variations on the line: "There are two types of people in the world, my friend …"

In that spirit, I'd like to say: There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who get all excited about inequality and those who don't understand the first kind of people. I'm in the latter group.

This observation is set off by a Daniel Drezner blog entry where he mentions he's also usually "unfazed by income inequality." (He also adds some reasons why other people might not be as fazed as they could be.) Professor Drezner was, in turn, inspired by a Brad DeLong blog entry, which (in turn) quotes liberally (heh) from a Paul Krugman NYT op-ed column behind the TimesSelect wall; it's clear that DeLong and Krugman are in the first group.

Here's Krugman:

So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that. A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.
And my attitude is about 50-50 between
  1. So what?
  2. Good for them!

We're supposed to look at these numbers and shiver with horror and revulsion, apparently, but (once again) there are two types of people in this world, my friend, and I'm the type that doesn't do that.

Let me mention some common well-known fallacies about these kind of numbers:

  • The people in the "top X percent" of the income distribution aren't the same people from year-to-year, although the Krugmans will invariably speak as if they were an unchanging group of citizens over years and decades. This feeds the "us-versus-them" resentment mentality, but it's a considerable fudge.

  • Also the strong implication in Krugmanesque rhetoric is that the amount of income in any given year is a fixed, given, pie. Once it's baked, someone (the "distributor", I guess) figures out how to "distribute" it. If someone gets more of the pie, it necessarily follows that someone else got less than they would otherwise. This (of course) also feeds the "us-versus-them" mentality. But there's no such cause-and-effect. Someone's income is a result of economic activity, not a baking recipe. If Steve gets a $5000 raise, that doesn't mean that $5000 inexorably (and somehow magically) disappears out of everyone else's paychecks.

But let's assume that, fallacies and eat-the-rich rhetoric aside, a small fraction of people (unfortunately none of them our close personal friends) really do have considerably higher incomes and wealth than the rest of us from year-to-year. Again: (a) so what?; and (b) good for them! Is it any skin off our relatively unwealthy noses?

Krugman and DeLong would no doubt go out of their way to deny that they're powered by mere resentment; they probably think that those numbers indicate that there's some real trouble a-brewin' due to income inequality. Here's Krugman's handwaving on the matter:

Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project.

Let's be generous and assume the correlation Krugman asserts between inequality and corruption is correct. (Even though, since it's Krugman, there's no particular reason to believe it's not bullshit.) Even if that's true, isn't it clear that the "arrow of causation" points the opposite direction than Krugman implies? Were the Indian tribes that hired Abramoff caused to do so (somehow) because of inequality? Or did they do so to shift "income inequality" their own way? The question answers itself; corruption is almost certainly a cause of increased inequality, not the other way around.

Finally, I'd be derelict if I didn't (like Prof Drezner) link to James Joyner, who does a little math on Krugman's numbers:

So, shockingly, only the very rich are very rich. Or, to put it another way, not that many people make $6 million a year. Or, to put a number on it, only 29,821 Americans make that amount.

That's just wrong.

That's just funny.

Last Modified 2006-03-02 9:51 AM EST
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City of God

[Amazon Link] [2.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

I'm supposed to like this a lot better than I did. It's number 15 on IMDB's top movies of all time. But to my mind, it's not that great. The "shocking" thing here is you see children getting shot, and children shooting people in return. But once you get past that, there's not much else except a standard story of criminal rise and fall, which has been done numerous times, and better.

There's also a lot of tricky camera-whirling, which seems to have impressed some people. But it's just not my cup of tea.


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:22 AM EDT
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Hope I Die Before I Get …

Oops. Happy Birthday to Roger Daltrey. Roger is 62 today. (The Who is touring this summer. Do they still do "My Generation", and, if so, do they change the lyrics any?)


Last Modified 2006-03-05 7:41 PM EST
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Hitting the Big Time

Well, anonymously. I'm quoted at the NRO Corner here. (Background is here and here.)

I regret forfeiting the much-coveted prize ("guided tour of NR World HQ, free coffee provided"), what a fargin' ripoff, but I'll somehow go on with my life without it. Should have told Derbyshire that I read his book. (And this is sitting pretty high up on my to-be-read list.)


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:22 AM EDT
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