Thursday, June 29, 2006

Flag Burning Amendment

A few adjectives to capture the farcical attempt to amend the Constitution:

Vain, hollow, trivial, senseless, frivolous, empty, petty, vapid, pompous and dumb.

And it came within one vote of passing the United States Senate.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What If It's Wrong?

I should have mentioned this in the last post: what if the story about Zubaydah is wrong?

In that case, life should be easy for the President. He can simply and categorically deny the whole thing: he can deny that Zubaydah was mentally ill and only a bit player in Al Qaeda; he can deny that he ever tried to save face by torturing an insane man; he can deny that he sent the American security apparatus on wild chase after wild chase pursuing a tortured lunatic's fantasies.

Should be easy, shouldn't it?

Indefensible

If this is true, the President must resign. Bush lied to the American people. He pretended that Zubaydah was an key plotter when he was really a split-personality sufferer responsible for minor logistics. To avoid "losing face," he directed the inhuman torture of Zubaydah, who under unimaginable pain produced wild fantasies about planned attacks across the nation. And so "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

It wasn't just a lie. It was an indefensible one. The President can, in a twisted but barely sound way, justify lies about warrantless wiretapping through its effect on terrorists: the program would work best if terrorists didn't know about it. But there is absolutely no justification for lying about the fight against terrorism for petty, political gain. And there is no justification for torturing a mentally ill man and using critical national security resources to confront his wild imagination.

It is indefensible.

And in less than a week, I'm due to be honored by this man as a "Presidential Scholar." Ugh.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Flat Tax

I've noticed that advocates for a flat income tax tend to proceed very quickly between two conclusions:

1) The tax code's needless complexity is an enormous drain on our economy.
2) We should scrap the current income tax and replace it with the simplest tax possible: a flat tax.

I certainly agree with point #1. But the argument that only a flat tax can adequately simplify our system is faintly ridiculous. The existence of a few more tax brackets means, at most, an extra addition or two.

The "simplicity" argument is a red herring, a means to advance a flat tax whose actual justification is different. Many flat income tax proponents, for instance, think that the high marginal rates at the top of a progressive tax system are too economically damaging. But the public, understandably, isn't too fond of this supply-side logic. Neither am I.

And so we have the flat tax chorus: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Why doesn't anyone ever note how positively silly this is? The tax system isn't complicated because it's progressive. Let's blame the real villain: the ridiculous accumulation of exemptions and loopholes. Then, let's get to work creating a simple, sensible, progressive income tax.

Break from Seriousness

Quick break from stuffy policy talk: Here is Colbert Report video of possibly the dumbest, least articulate member of Congress I have ever seen. He sponsored a bill to post the Ten Commandments in Congress yet can't name more than three of them. After reflexively mentioning the Department of Education as a possible place for spending cuts, he can't think of anything else.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

I saw An Inconvenient Truth this Monday. It was a well-made movie, leaving me with an eerie sense of historical significance. Barring any heretofore undocumented mechanism steadying the Earth's temperature, immensely disruptive warming will occur in the next few decades. Years from now, we'll probably look back at this debate with a sense of sadness and bafflement: why, when the science was so clear, did we fail to take action?

There are three issues I consider particularly important.

First: why should global warming require a standard of "proof" unused in any other circumstance? There is significant uncertainty about its precise magnitude and effects, but these ambiguities hardly indicate an undeveloped theory. Global warming skeptics have a rationality fetish: they fancy themselves to be cool-headed, reasonable observers confronting environmental hysteria.

Of course, they are utterly irrational. Thoughtful people, when confronted with potential disaster, don't retreat to rhetorical jibes and loud ramblings about "uncertainty." Even the most obsessive skeptic can't ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus about global warming's existence and danger. Yes, there are skeptic scientists—but you can find scientists who are skeptical of almost anything. In fact, if you read this article, you'll note that the leading scientific skeptics in the field appear rather kooky.

So, when the vast majority of scientists agree on a serious danger, do we hold out and demand more proof? Do we commission a study on fire with house already ablaze? No. We evaluate its potential consequences (enormous) and weigh them against the cost of reforming our practices. That brings us to my next point.

Second: the costs of truly confronting global warming, widely panned as gargantuan, aren't nearly as dramatic as they might appear.

Case in point: wind energy. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the "cost of electricity from utility-scale wind systems has dropped by more than 80% in the past 20 years." Even if they're exaggerating, isn't it reasonable to expect that costs might drop another, say, 30% in the next 20 years? Might economies of scale have dramatic effects on cost? With serious resources committed to wind power research, might we achieve even more dramatic technological gains? Soon, we're talking about power that's extremely competitive with any other source.

Without any government action, it still might not be completely competitive: there's more uncertainty, and the immediate costs might still be slightly higher than with, for instance, coal. But this is because the full effects of other electricity sources aren't automatically incorporated in the free market: they're externalities. Economic theory does not hold that we should ignore externalities, although industry shills like the Competitive Enterprise Institute apparently disagree. Instead, a responsible government will enforce policies—like targeted taxes—that compensate for externalities and make a market truly efficient. According to a study mentioned here, the pollution from coal power leads to 24,000 deaths every year. Is this included in the current price of coal? No. Should it be? Absolutely. In fact, sound economics demands it. And alternative sources like wind power, already approaching market competitiveness, become clearly superior.

In almost every past debate over environmental legislation, industry lobbyists have claimed that any action would have devastating economic consequences—witness the furor about the Clean Air Act. They have a consistent record of failure: today, the Clean Air Act stands as a sparkling success. The ozone layer is recovering, and the elimination of CFCs failed to have any significant adverse economic impact. History demonstrates that the cost to alleviate environmental problems is far lower than scare-mongering estimates suggest. Scientists develop new technologies; the nation becomes more competitive. That's what we want with the current environmental crisis.

Finally, my third point: morose defeatism accomplishes nothing. I'm talking specifically about worries that developing nations, particularly China, will increase their emissions so dramatically that any American action will be inconsequential. Of course, such concerns are usually (and cynically) employed by global warming skeptics who really want to "win" whatever the argument. But out of concern that this argument might find its way into the popular consciousness, I'll continue.

To confront global warming, we will need multinational cooperation. This will involve convincing developing nations that they should industrialize in less carbon-intensive ways. We cannot possibly hope to convince anyone, however, if we don't take decisive action in our own nation. After all, we're easily the worst offenders in carbon pollution.

And this period of rapid development, in China and elsewhere, actually represents a spectacular environmental opportunity. If these nations can develop cleanly, they will set an important example for other developing nations. The massive investment such development requires will lead to further improvement of clean technologies. And, if the United States seizes its potential to become a leader in renewable science, it will create new opporunities for export and growth. Win-win? I think so.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Iraq

As an observer, I'm necessarily bothered by the hopelessness of the Iraq situation. Our continued presence is not making the situation any better. At the same time, we don't want to leave. We certainly don't want to see a vacuum in Iraq; most appalling, however, is the message sent by "cutting and running." There's no net positive escape.

Here's a suggestion: why not hold an Iraqi referendum on the continued presence of American troops? This should be an obvious step: if we're in the business of promoting democracy, we're obligated to let Iraqis themselves decide whether our military should remain in their nation. More importantly, such a referendum can't make the situation worse. If the verdict is "yes," we will possess considerably more legitimacy. There will inevitably be claims of vote-rigging, but we can't possibly appear less credible than we are now. If the decision is "no," then we're provided with the best remaining exit: we can effectively "cut and run," but we'll be honoring the will of the Iraqi people. Best of all, this instantly dissolves ubiquitous Arab conspiracy theories about American imperialism.

Why not?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Libertarian Party

Given libertarianism's increasing acceptance as a mainstream political philosophy, akin to "liberalism" or "conservatism," I decided to visit the Libertarian Party's website and take a look at its platform. I'm certainly not going to pretend that the party represents all libertarians simply because of its name, but it's a good place to start.

There's also no particular reason to select this topic for my inaugural "real" post. It's just what came to mind.

I was surprised by how thoroughly the platform is driven by impractical ideology. It is, frankly, not the manifesto for a serious party.

The first section, "Individual Rights and Social Order," isn't particularly egregious. It certainly goes beyond prudent policymaking in several areas, but it proceeds in predictable fashion. Well, at least it comes close—take a look at the section on juries:

"Juries should be composed of volunteers, not forced jurors. In addition, the common-law right of juries, to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law, should be recognized and encouraged. "

How many people actually want to participate in jury duty? Not many. As they are compelled to take part, citizens often respect jury service as a civic obligation, but it's very hard to imagine that many would actively volunteer.

So you have a very small pool of potential "volunteers" who would be responsible for the justice of our legal system. What kinds of people would they be? What if they weren't remotely representative of community values? When you introduce an enormous selection bias—the rare willingness and ability to volunteer for a jury—into the process, you can't reasonably expect to avoid distortion of the system.

The platform compounds all these difficulties by exalting the "common-law right of juries to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law." You don't need to be wildly imaginative to see the potential problems.

The pool of jury volunteers would be very small compared to the population at large. Otherwise marginal groups would suddenly be able to seize a great share of power in civil society's most fundamental apparatus: the justice system. "Here! Just show up and we'll let you reevaluate the justice of any law on the books!"

What's most ironic is that this idea can't possibly be successful (except where it perverts justice) if we assume that humans are rational, profit-maximizing creatures. One might think that this assumption is the entire basis of libertarianism, but apparently the pragmatic economics-based variety isn't nearly as strong as the strictly ideological kind. The decision to volunteer for a jury would have enormous economic costs for all but a few segments of society. We'd be left with juries of the elderly and the unemployed. Do we really want the civil justice system to be an outlet for unemployed, unstable people with nothing else to do and the desire to vent? I'm not characterizing every possible volunteer for jury duty as "unemployed" or "unstable" (certainly not!), but I think that they might make up a substantial portion of the pool. And regardless of their exact makeup, volunteer juries wouldn't come close to accurately representing the community and its values. Now take this declaration by the platform several sentences later:

"
End the practice in capital cases of excluding jurors who are opposed to the death penalty (referred to as 'death qualification'), which denies capital defendants the right to a trial before a jury representative of community values."

Apparently, some people didn't plan their rhetoric very carefully.

Perhaps the idea is to compensate these "volunteers" with a sizable salary. But then you have more problems. Since there's absolutely no accountability in jury work (and the party doesn't propose any mechanism for it—not sure how it could), it would certainly be an attractive occuption. It would be particularly attractive to those who couldn't find a "real" job: is that the pool of people you want making critical judgments?

This is a terrible idea.

Although there's plenty more to discuss, I'll move to the section on "trade and the economy." This is how the platform describes the issue of taxation:

"
Government manipulation of the economy creates an entrenched privileged class -- those with access to tax money -- and an exploited class -- those who are net taxpayers."

Yes, some groups do obtain unfair access to government funds, and I'm the first to oppose them. But this is an absurdly overblown characterization of the situation. What people form the bulk of this "entrenched privileged class"? The poor? They are, in general, the ones who collect more from the government than they contribute. And just what is this "exploited class"? The wealthy. Labelling the poor "privileged" and the wealthy "exploited" is positively Orwellian.

But it becomes much worse. Look at the suggested "transitional action":

"
As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately. In the current fiscal crisis of states and municipalities, default is preferable to raising taxes or perpetual refinancing of growing public debt."

Eliminating all sanctions against tax evasion effectively eliminates taxes themselves. And this party thinks that we should default on the national debt? Russia... Argentina... the United States? Do they actually not grasp the utter financial collapse that would ensue? But as I'm starting to learn, this isn't a pragmatic philosophy. It's not about the actual benefits of free markets. The party's only principle is the obsessive belief that government is evil.

The section on "Inflation and Depression" calls for an end to all government control of currency. I'm beginning to wonder how the party plans to pay for government. It doesn't call for abolishing government outright
—that would be inarguably extremist—but it doesn't specify any way to pay for it. This absurd omission embodies a lack of seriousness that pervades the entire document.

Embracing an already apparent lack of logic, the platform becomes even less coherent. The section on pollution wins:

"
Pollution of other people's property is a violation of individual rights. Strict liability, not government agencies and arbitrary government standards, should regulate pollution. Claiming that one has abandoned a piece of property does not absolve one of the responsibility for actions one has set in motion.

We support the development of an objective legal system defining property rights to air and water. Rather than making taxpayers pay for toxic waste clean-ups, individual property owners, or in the case of corporations, the responsible managers and employees should be held strictly liable for material damage done by their property."

Aha! Lawsuits are the answer!

It's hard to read this passage without mocking it. How can we define "property rights" to air? Everyone breathes it. How, for instance, would we fight smog? Everyone is a plaintiff (we all breathe air); almost everyone is an offender (our cars produce sulfur dioxides, among other pollutants). This is truly the most vacant, brainless proposal I have seen all week
—and I'm living under the Bush Administration!

Starting Up

What is this blog?

Well, a few weeks ago, I was wondering: how often am I right? If I didn't think carefully, I would probably conclude that I'm "almost always" right. This might be a valid conclusion, but I can't escape the possibility that I fall victim to the same self-deception that affects so many others. I need a way to retrospectively evaluate my varied ideas and criticisms. That's the idea behind this blog.

Here, I'll post whatever comes to mind: primitive outrage, thoughtful discussion, or transparent silliness (like the alliteration in the title?). I plan to have an "eat crow" day every three months, starting now. I'll review the posts in my blog history, attempting to poke as many holes as I can. Wish me luck!

Incidentally, I doubt that many people will ever actually read this blog. Although I'd be happy to have others read it, that really isn't the founding purpose. I'm using the blog medium as a means to self-evaluation because of its convenience and (hopefully) its permanence.