Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Bailout: Coming to Automakers Near You!

To the tune of $17.4B. Oh yeah, and those union concessions? In the by and by.

From the Fox Fact Sheet:

Viability Requirement: The firms must use these funds to become financially viable. Taxpayers will not be asked to provide financing for firms that do not become viable. If the firms have not attained viability by March 31, 2009, the loan will be called and all funds returned to the Treasury.

Definition of Viability: A firm will only be deemed viable if it has a positive net present value, taking into account all current and future costs, and can fully repay the government loan.

Help me out here: is "positive net present value" the same thing as "profitable?" I think that a company must be profitable if the difference between its expected earnings earnings and its expected liabilities, discounted to the present, is positive. But who knows what the future holds? This sounds like a number begging to be gamed. I'd have preferred something like actually earning more in sales than in spends. Actually, I still would have preferred no bailout.

Let the record reflect that Φ has lost patience with the Bush Administration.

UPDATE: In the comments, Bobvis explains that, yep, "net present value" can indeed be gamed:

A firm can certainly be unprofitable and still have a positive expected net present value. A company that loses $1000 every year for the next 100 years and makes $100,000,000 the year after that and closes will have a positive net present value despite ceasing operations and being unprofitable less than 1% of the time.

Of course it's hard to say what 2108 will look like though. That is why some poor financial analyst will be sitting in the administration next year under tremendous psychological and social pressures to make rosy assumptions of the far off future to justify additional loans today.

Parental Consent Laws Reduce STDs

Via Bobvis, an article in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization by Klick and Stratman: "Abortion Access and Risky Sex Among Teens: Parental Involvement Laws and Sexually Transmitted Diseases". The conclusion is that, whatever affect they have on abortion rates, parental notification/consent laws reduce "risky sexual activity" among teens as measured by the STD rate.

I particularly appreciated Bobvis' observation:

You might object that states with such laws are more likely to be conservative. However, (1) if that makes a difference, then obviously teenager behavior is manipulable by something, either these laws or by societal conservatism. Also, (2) they controlled for such societal effects using adult gonorrhea rates. It is unlikely that conservatism in a states affects teens, but not the broader society.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Filibuster Eric Holder?

So, Clinton retread Eric Holder will be nominated for Attorney General. Now it's time to draw the line in the sand.

Nevermind Holder's role, such as it was, in Clinton's farewell pardons of Marc Rich and the FALN terrorists. During the campaign, Obama promised (albeit in his have-it-all-ways manner) that he supported an individual right to keep and bear arms in general, and the Heller decision in particular. Yet his prospective attorney general signed an amicus brief to the case denying an individual right, and criticised the decision when it was issued.

Whatever the fantasies of Handgun Control, Inc., the American people did NOT vote against the 2nd Amendment this November. As I have written before, this is the opportunity for Republicans to win back some political capital.

Eric Holder should have no place in the Department of Justice. Obama should be held to the substance of his campaign pledge, and every senator who even pretends to care about our rights under the Constitution should be required to vote against him.

"Reaching Across the Ideological Divide"?

So, it appears that Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration.

This was a smart move on Obama's part. It will buy him a lot of a lot of goodwill with the Christian center-right, as indeed it should. But we center-rightists often confuse goodwill with credibility -- see, for instance, our support for Dubya. These are not the same thing, and we should keep in mind that an invocation is, policy-wise, pretty meaningless.

Playing into Obama's hands here are the Human Rights Campaign and People for the American Way. Their criticism of Obama's selection actually increases the potency of Obama's cross-ideological feint. He can count on us to say, "Wow, those guys are angry at Obama, so I guess we can go back to sleep for the next eight years knowing Obama won't do much we won't like!" Meanwhile, David Axelrod is quietly assuring the gay lobby that they will really like Obama's judicial nominees.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Understanding Inequality

Our pastor told the following story in church this week:

An elementary school had what was called a "hunger banquet" intended to "raise awareness of world hunger," [or something]. They took the students and divided them among three tables. The students at the first table were served plenty of pastries and fruit. Those at the second table received a doughnut and a juice box. The third table had only saltine crackers and water.

The teachers/experimenters solicited feedback from the students, and reported two reactions in particular. A student at the fruit-and-pastry table said she enjoyed her food, but felt bad for the students at the other tables. Meanwhile, a student at the saltine table asserted, "Everybody should get the same food."

What to make of this?

I would speculate that few if any of the students would assert that all students should get the same grades. Many would like to receive, and may think they deserve, higher grades than they actually do, but few would quarrel with the proposition that grades ought to reflect what a student learns in class and demonstrates on tests and homework.

So which -- school or the table experiment -- is a more appropriate metaphor for understanding inequality?

This is not an attempt to assert some kind of metaphysical justice in inequality. On the contrary, even academic performance is front loaded with all kinds of differentials well beyond an individual student's control. To start with, nobody deserves credit for having been born with intelligence, or good health, or energy. No student deserves credit for having attentive parents who set high expectations, who solicit feedback from teachers and monitor progress, and who create a home environment conducive to education. I would argue that these have far more to do with what a student learns that his own disembodied sovereign will. But at the end of the day, some students have learned more than others, and nobody thinks that grades oughtn't reflect these differentials.

Likewise for economic inequality. We should get little personal credit for having been lucky enough to be born to a people who, for reasons not fully accounted, evolved the ability to build the civilization we have inherited. A civilization that protects property and enforces contracts. A civilization that nurtures discovery, industry, cooperation, and enterprise. A civilization that, by the hard work and self-discipline of our forbears, left us huge reserves of capital: physical, social, moral and intellectual. This is the world to which we Americans have been born.

But there is no fruit-and-pastry-dispenser-in-the-sky who sets more food before some than others. The people of some nations grow more food, produce more value, generate more wealth than the people of other nations. These productivity differentials drive the differentials in living standards. This doesn't require that the less fortunate suffer a character flaw. On the contrary, a third-world subsistence farmer may labor much harder than his American counterpart, but his tools -- physical, mental and social -- are much, much weaker.

It is on this ground that the fruit-and-cracker lesson comes up short. The students contributed nothing to the meal in front of them, but life doesn't usually work like that. I can think of several improvements to the exercise. For instance, what if the students at the "rich" table had to slice the fruit and bake the pastries? Yes, they would get better food, but they would have to work for it. What if all the ingredients were distributed equally, but only the rich table was given appliances and utensils. Or only the rich table received the recipe. Or maybe (not that a public school would or should actually do this) the "poor" table had to work with the short bus riders who set about wrecking the work of others. Now we would be closer to teaching the real causes of wealth and poverty.

As it happened, the topic came up again during Sunday School. Our class had signed up to "do Christmas" for a poor family in the city (the real city, not Φ's lily-white little burg) through a charity that puts churches in touch with such families that apply to it. We generally thought this meant gifts for the children and Christmasy food items; we pitched in with a ham, for instance. Anyway, for reasons not here important, we were asked to also consider a second family. Two things stood out about this family's application (I mean, other than an evident history of sexual incontinence, which almost goes without saying). First, the children were older. And second, under "needs", the family had listed some expensive electronics (XBox) and -- get this -- "gift cards."

Let me take a stab at what was off-putting about this. In theory, gift cards are a way of avoiding the risk that the gifts we bring are things the family doesn't want or can't use, and they don't have quite the level of condescension as cash. But some of the families in our class are going through a lean stretch; as one mother pointed out, she didn't buy much in the way of new stuff for her own children. And even I don't have an XBox. But also, while I'm happy to bring a little Christmas cheer to young children who can't help what their parents are, teenagers really ought to begin to feel the sting of their circumstances. Maybe, it will help them evaluate their choices in life a little more wisely.

So how do you draw the line between "helping" and "enabling"?

As Ross once pointed out, the reason rich people give millions of dollars to rich universities is because real charity is hard work. At least a university will put your name on the building. But you can drop millions of dollars into poverty with nothing to show for it but more poverty. Really helping people requires knowing them up close. Knowing, for instance, that they have a car that needs a working solenoid so that they can get to work, or which child has worn out her shoes, or that they're behind in their utility payment this winter because of a layoff, even though they keep the thermostat way down. It's about knowing enough not to be gamed, and that's not even getting into the developmental issue of how to get someone beyond needing help. It means getting close to people from whom we are seperated, not just by race or income or class, but by a whole range of moral and character factors that govern how we make important decisions. It means getting to know some deeply, deeply dysfunctional people with whom we have almost no common frame of reference.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What Counts as Pro-Life Policy?

Ross nails it:

[J]ust because it seems intuitive - to liberals, at least - that Planned Parenthood's efforts at making contraception available and affordable dramatically reduce the abortion rate doesn't necessarily make it so. Here I'd refer you to the extended, years-old argument between Megan (then "Jane Galt," of course) and Peter Northrup on contraception and abortion . . . . [A] quick gloss on the state-level data from the 1990s that Megan cited in her debate with Northrup would seem to suggest that the best way to reduce your abortion rate is to straightforwardly make abortions harder to get, through legal restrictions and cultural pressure.

[snip]

Now of course correlation isn't causation, and there are presumably many other factors at work in these state-level numbers than just the legal and cultural climate - racial and ethnic disparities, urban and rural differences, and so forth. But at the very least I'd like to see a lot more rigorous, data-rich analysis on this subject before I'd even concede that Planned Parenthood's preventive efforts do have a bigger impact on the abortion rate than legal and cultural efforts to restrict abortion, let alone that they trim the rate of unintended pregnancies sufficiently to outweigh the organization's efforts to make the procedure as cheap and easy to obtain as possible.

But the deeper point is this: The interaction between public policy and social trends is highly complex, and very difficult to predict, and thus there are any number of policy choices that can be plausibly said [to] bear on the abortion rate, for good or ill. The distribution of contraception is just a small part of the pantomime. Which means that once you take the legal debate over the rights of the unborn out of the picture, and start redefining being pro-life as "pursuing lower abortion rates through policy choices," almost any policy preference can be re-cast as "pro-life" . . . . If the definition of being pro-life is "desiring the sort of circumstances that tend to reduce the abortion rate," than almost everybody is pro-life, because almost everybody thinks that their favored positions on trade, government spending, tax policy, the minimum wage and so forth will lead to better socioeconomic outcomes overall - and better socioeconomic outcomes overall will probably lead to fewer women seeking abortions. Now I'm obviously happy to have broad debates about public policy, and I certainly think that pro-lifers should be interested in crafting a broadly pro-family politics in addition to seeking a more pro-life legal regime. But the pro-life cause is primarily about issues of law, morality and justice, and if pro-lifers treat the broader pursuit of socioeconomic progress as a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the pursuit of legal protections for the unborn, then they've given up on their movement's raison d'etre to no good effect.

Read the whole thing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Imperial Judiciary, State Edition

From the AP:

The Illinois attorney general has filed a motion with the state’s highest court asking justices to remove scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich (bluh-GOY’-uh-vich) from office.

Lisa Madigan took the action Friday as pressure on the governor intensified to step down. The motion challenges his fitness to serve and asks that the Supreme Court oust him.

Elsewhere:

[California governor Arnold Shwarzenegger] also stated that "because the Supreme Court very clearly in California has declared [a legislative prohibition on same-sex marriage] unconstitutional" it is "not the end" of the fight against true marriage, and expressed hope that the state would "move forward" after Proposition 8 [the amendment to the California Constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage] would be overturned in the courts.

Three separate court battles have been filed against Proposition 8. Anti-marriage lobbyists claim that adding the true definition of marriage to the state constitution is an illegal revision, rather than an amendment.

According to the Washington Post, some legal experts say Proposition 8 could be overturned if opponents convince judges that it constitutes a breach of California's equal protection law.

Do we not even pretend to be a republic anymore? Example A: everybody stopped liking Blagojevich this week. But rather than expecting the legislature to fulfill its constitutional obligations and remove him from office, the AG says, "Why wait? We'll get the state Supreme Court to do it. After all, nobody can stop them." Call it the Turkish model.

Example B: The people of California vote in a referendum to amend their consitition and overturn a state Supreme Court decision mandating gay marriage. And the governor says, "So? The state Supreme Court will overturn the amendment. After all, nobody can stop them."

I place no bets either way as to how these two courts will rule. But I fear that the politicians involved have correctly taken the pulse of their consituents' attachment to their own self-government: it's pretty damned low.

The same is true at the federal level. It should be difficult, looking at Obama's cabinet lineup of holdovers and retreads, to find anyone who believes his election presages much of a change in government policy from the last 8 - 16 (or 20) years. Rather, the only change comes in the selection of Judges, where the entire political system assumes (correctly) the real power -- the power to affect the things that anybody actually cares about -- resides.

Megan on Foreclosures

I caught Maxine Waters on CSPAN Wednesday gassing at treasury flacks about how they aren't spending any of the $700B on bailing out homeowners. But Megan writes:

How easy it is to address foreclosures, however, depends on what the reason is for the foreclosure. Are people missing payments because changed circumstances mean that they can't afford them, or are people missing payments because they don't want to make payments on a house that was worth $500,000 when they bought it, but is now worth $300,000?

That's actually a complicated question, because many people bought a house they couldn't really afford on the assumption that rising markets would give them the equity to refinance into a mortgage they could afford. This turned out to be a bad bet.

But people with ARMs are not, by and large, actually in the position of having suddenly seen their interest rate jump by double-digits. They're in the position of having seen their interest rate go from a low teaser to a still pretty low adjustable rate. The interest rate indices generally used to set ARM payments are actually quite low right now, though of course, the rates are often lagged. Still, the problem is not that people got caught out by surprisingly high rates.

That leaves us with two questions: how low a rate are we willing to provide in order to produce a workout? And what if the problem is, as even some liberal commentators are arguing, that people don't want to make payments on a house where the value has dropped by half?

I don't think that the US government can provide price protection against falling home values, for several reasons. The first is the moral outrage. It's one thing to help people who got caught out by bad life circumstances by reducing a crushing interest rate, especially when the government has, as now, such low borrowing costs. It is quite another thing entirely to simply give someone tens of thousands of dollars in home equity on an unaffordable house they bought without any substantial downpayment. Are those people going to be allowed to profit from their heavily subsidized houses if the market recovers?

People who bought homes they could afford, or people like me who rented because they thought housing was in a bubble, won't stand for it. Especially since propping up those peoples' home values will not only require substantial tax contributions from me, but also make it harder for me to buy a house.

Megan also writes that we can't afford it: given historic trends, our housing is still overvalued by anywhere from 15 - 40%. Assuming, as Megan does, that the true overvaluation is 25%, and that housing prices must sink by this amount from where they are today, then homeowners must split a further $3.5T drop in equity. Sorry, but the Chinese won't give us that much money. Not anymore.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sex Partner Math II: the British Problem

We now consider the solution to the British Problem: What is the age difference between the British male and female onset of sex partner accumulation that will account for the difference in the survey data reported by ABC News?

The Model:

We assert a profile of sexual activity thus: sex partner accumulation begins at one age and continues at a constant rate until another age when subjects settle into monogamy until natural death. The age at which partner accumulation is different for males and females; however, both sexes accumulate the same number of partners at the same rate for the same length of time.

Simplifying assumptions:

We assume a uniform age distribution throughout the population. We will assume zero population growth (or decline). We will assume the average parameters actually apply to all members. (This probably isn’t a necessary assumption, but we state it anyway.)

Constants:

The survey reports that the average number of sexual partners of the female population is 9; we assume this survey included no women younger than the age of onset. The survey reports that the average number of sexual partners of the male population is 7; we assume that this includes those men with zero partners between the age of female onset and the age of male onset. We assume that men begin their accumulation of sexual partners at age 19 and cease accumulation at age 37. Men will remain monogamous from age 37 until their death at age 72. We assume that women begin their partner accumulation at some age 19 – Dy, cease accumulation at age 37 – Dy, and live monogamously until age 77.

Variables:

N: total number of lifetime sexual partners for both men and women.

T: partner period; as in the length of time (in years) between different partners. The rate of accumulation is therefore 1/T.

D: difference in age between male onset and female onset, measured in multiples of T. Thus, D*T = Dy in years.

Rm: length of male monogamy, measured in multiples of T.

Rf: length of female monogamy, measured in multiples of T.

Equations:

Men accumulate N sexual partners at rate 1/T in the 18 years between 19 and 37. Thus,

Men remain monogamous for the 35 years between age 37 and 72. As measured in T,

Women live five years longer than men, but they stop accumulating sexual partners D*T years earlier. Thus:

The last two equations are tricky. We must express the average number of sex partners for both men and women in terms of the other variables. Consider women first. Given the model and assumptions, the average number of sexual partners of women between age 19 – Dy and 37 – Dy would be:

But the average also includes women who have already accumulated their N partners, So the actual equation is:

We now consider the equation for the male average, which includes a number of young men with no sexual partners for D*T years. This equation is:

We now have 5 equations in 5 unknowns.

Solution:

Using algebra and Matlab, we can solve for the partner period T = 1.44 years and the onset age difference D = 3.9 multiples of T, or 5.6 years. Thus, women begin sexual partner accumulation at age 19 – 5.6 = 13.4 years of age. The total number of lifetime sexual partners for men and women is 12.5.

Conclusion:

Using this simple model, and a plausible set of parameters, we can account for the survey results merely with the age difference between men and women at which they become sexually active.

Sex Partner Math

Via Half Sigma comes a report from "ABC News":

Young British women are more promiscuous than their male counterparts and more likely to be unfaithful, a new survey has revealed.

The study of 2,000 women in the UK, commissioned by More magazine, found that by the age of 21, women have had an average of nine sexual partners; two more than their male partner.

Maybe I'm missing something, but assuming an equal number of men and women, how is it possible for the average man to have more sexual partners than the average woman?

Let's imagine ten men and ten women. Each man sleeps with every woman, therefore each man has had 10 sex partners. But so has every woman.

Let's imagine that each man sleeps with only the first woman. So each man has had only 1 partner, and that one woman has had 10. But on average, the number of sex partners per woman = (1*10 + 9*0)/10 = 1 partner.

The article specifies "by the age of 21." Perhaps British women under 21 are acting on a preference for men older than 21. So by the time they retire from the ring, so-to-speak, men have caught up.

Perhaps the survey restriction to under-22 isn't really necessary in this case? Let's model a situation where younger women have relations with older men thus:

X1   O1

X2 / O2

X3 / O3

X4 / O4

X5 / O5

X6   O6

Pretty crude, but the idea behind each slash mark is that it "partners" the male cohort X below its row with the female cohort O above its row. Thus X3 couples with O1, X4 couples with O2, etc. Let's calculate the average number of sex partners for X1 - X6: (0 + 0 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1)/6 = 0.67. And also for for O1 - O6: (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0 + 0)/6 = 0.67. Same number of sex partners. But let's kill off the oldest cohorts (5 and 6) and bring two new cohorts (1' and 2') into the game. Everybody couples again (presumably with a different member of the cohort):

X1'    O1'

X2' /  O2'

X1  /  O1

X2  /  O2

X3  /  O3

X4     O4

Now X1 couples with O1', X2 couples with O2', X3 couples with O1, X4 couples with O2. Remember that now X4 and X3 have had sex twice, X2 and X1 have had sex once, and X2' and X1' have never had sex. But O4 and O3 have had sex once, O2 and O1 have had sex twice, and O2' and O1' have had sex once. Averaging for X = (0 + 0 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 2)/6 = 1. Average for O = (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1) = 1.33.

Run the iteration again and discover that the X average remains at 1 while the O average climbs to (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2)/6 = 1.67. Both the X's and the O's will all have had two partners by the time they die, but this fact will not be reflected in a survey of the entire population at any snapshot in time.

We should be able to use this model, to calculate the typical age difference in male/female couplings based on the data given in the article (male average = 7, female average = 9) and some rate of sex partner change. I will explore this in a subsequent post.

The article also specifies that each women has had "two more [partners] than their male partner." Doesn't this assumes that all respondents have a partner? Perhaps the survey was taken only among those "sexually active". Perhaps there are a greater percentage of non-active women than there are of men, and that the women who are active are doing extra duty.

So to speak.

It Sucks to be a Minion

The recent arrest of the Democrat governor of Illinois gave me a thought, which might even be original:

There are powerful parallels between the Clintons and the Obamas and the effects that their rise to the presidency had on their erstwhile associates. In both cases, the men (and their wives) came from humble backgrounds; in both cases they saw (or, at any rate, used) politics as a means of making money. In both cases, they (and their wives) were deeply connected to various schemes of graft, sometimes shading into corruption, that enriched themselves and their close associates.

In both cases, their associates played important roles in their early political careers. Without knowing the details, I speculate that the associates rejoiced at the prospect of these men off to Washington: just think of the money that could be made there!

Except . . . it didn't turn out that way. In both cases, power brought visibility, and with visibility comes scrutiny. While the candidates themselves were unhindered, the associates not only saw no profit, but faced prison in the bargain.

The takeaway is this: both the national media and federal law enforcement have become adept at rooting out the kind of graft that otherwise goes unmolested at the local and state level. Those involved in such graft flourish only to the extent they can avoid the national spotlight. If their political front men (Clinton, Obama) go national, they themselves may escape the law, but they extend no cover: everyone else is in for some rough handling.

My other thought is this: is corruption really this universal? We're going two-for-two now for scandal-prone self-made politicians. (GWB doesn't count, obviously: he was already wealthy before he went into politics, and he didn't "come through the ranks".)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Where do you sign up for a stalker?

Meet D and J, married eleven years now. J is pretty, vivacious, and just a little ditsy. D is an engineer, quiet, and just a little pear-shaped. They're perfect together.

In Sunday school this week, apropos of our effort to put on a Christmas concert, it came out that D and J were in the same high school band.

"You were in high school together? How cute!" chirped Φ.

"Not at the time," replied J. "He didn't pay any attention to me while we were in high school, so I just followed him around. I only took band because he was in it, and I couldn't get in to any of the smart classes."

"She stalked me," said D, smiling.

"Ha ha, yeah, well, who's laughing now?" replied J, also smiling.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Douthat on the Economy

Ross writes:

[W]hen you read about how the American leadership class acquitted itself at Citibank, or on Wall Street in general, I think you can see the dark side of meritocracy at work - the same dark side that shadows an instititution like Harvard, where a job in investment banking became, for a time, the summum bonum of meritocratic life. The mistakes that our elites made, and that led us to this pass, have their roots in flaws common to all elites, in all times and places - hubris, arrogance, insulation from the costs of their decisions, and so forth. But they also have their roots in flaws that I think are somewhat more particular to this elite, and this time and place. Flaws like an overweening faith in technology's capacity to master contingency, a widespread assumption that the future doesn't have much to learn from the past, and above all a peculiar combination of smartest-guys-in-the-room entitlement (don't worry, we deserve to be moving millions of dollars around on the basis of totally speculative models, because we got really high SAT scores) and ferocious, grasping competitiveness (because making ten million dollars isn't enough if somebody else from your Ivy League class is making more!). It's a combination, at its worst, that marries the kind of vaulting, religion-of-success ambitions (and attendant status anxieties) that you'd expect from a self-made man to the obnoxious entitlement you'd expect from a to-the-manor-born elite - without the sense of proportion and limits, of the possibility of tragedy and the inevitability of human fallibility, that a real self-made man would presumably gain from starting life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (as opposed to the upper-middle class, where most meritocrats starts) ... and without, as well, the sense of history, duty, self-restraint, noblesse oblige and so forth that the old aristocrats were supposed to aspire to.

Also, read his NYT editorial on abortion compromise.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Youths" Riot in Greece: Let's play "What's Missing?"

From the AP:

ATHENS, Greece – Rioters rampaged through Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki Sunday, hurling Molotov cocktails, burning stores and blocking city streets with flaming barricades after protests against the fatal police shooting of a teenager erupted into chaos.

Youths wearing hoods smashed storefronts and cars in Athens. Riot police responded with tear gas while the fire department rushed to extinguish blazes. Several bank branches, stores and at least one building were on fire on a major street leading to the capital's police headquarters. Clashes also broke out near Parliament.

Scan the story for the word "Muslim." Can't find it? That must mean there isn't a Muslim Connection, right? Right?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Decline and Fall of The Simpsons

I've been a fan of The Simpsons since it premiered while I was in college. It's particular strength was its ability to mock the cliches and vanities of the zeitgeist, be they liberal or conservative.

So it was with great disappointment that I watched this week's episode, in which a Muslim family moves to Springfield. With a complete absence of irony or satire, and in the very week that Muslim terrorists murder 200 people in Bombay, The Simpsons' Muslims are straight out of a hallmark card: the young son is perfectly obedient and well-mannered, the parents are friendly and courteous, and the message o' the day is: Muslims-are-wonderful-we-must-be-tolerant-fear-is-paranoia.

This treacle would embarrass an after-school special, even if it were actually true. As it is, the show merely peddled the same falsehoods as the dominant culture.

The series can't survive many episodes like this one.

Style Tip o' the Day

Once my future wife decided she was sufficiently committed to me to invest her advice, she shared the following:

After a swim, when you lift your swimming goggles off your eyes without removing them, be sure to reposition them above the hairline. If you put them in the middle of your forehead, they will leave behind a red indentation that makes you look like a geek, defeating the purpose of putting in the laps in the first place.

NB: If you, um, don't have a hairline anymore, reposition them on your swim cap (if you wear one), or just take them all the way off.

Every little bit helps.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Econ 101

From I John 2:

15Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

16For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

17The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

"The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." Years ago, a Sunday school teacher summarized the ethic for me thusly:

I want it.

I need it.

I deserve it.

Is there any doubt that this describes the ethic that brought our economy to the edge of the abyss? From the borrowers who bought more house than they could afford and spent their inflated home equity on consumer goods to the politically connected Fannie Mae execs who greenlit dangerous risk while collecting seven-figure bonuses: all are implicated in the ethic of entitlement that will pass away with the world it governs.

I thought of this the other day while reading Bobvis' post on the minimum wage. Before it degenerated into name calling, commenter Biloo's defense of a minimum wage relied specifically on this ethic of entitlement: he wants it, therefore he must deserve it. Indeed, he can't imagine any other basis:

[I]f it's not about what people "deserve" or have a "right to" why have such an intervention in the first place?

I can't think of a better reply than Bostonk's:

You can't have a "positive freedom" without essentially entailing some other unnamed party(s) to provide it, probably free of charge.

I have, late in life, developed a Burkean skepticism of the rights-based paradigm as an approach to social philosophy; however, if there is such a creature as a "right", surely the "right of property in oneself and the fruit of one's own labor" must rank as the most fundamental.

But as I have said before, I am no libertarian. Since my blog is an unlikely hangout for doctrinaire libertarians, no thoroughgoing refutation of libertarian philosophy is necessary, but I will say this: rights may be possessed individually, but they are secured collectively, and that collective requires accommodations that in practice are worked out politically. If indeed a collective (by which I mean political community) is to be a bulwark of security rather than an engine of predation, it absolutely, with 100% certainty, must be composed, not of a random collection of individuals, but of a community with a shared sense of its own destiny. For the same reason that a buffalo has no "rights" enforceable against a lion, so too the members of a community only have "rights" to the extent that the rights serve the interests of all rather than some.

The reason I am much more sympathetic than I once was to calls for a minimum wage is that our governing elites have forgotten this. Through a combination of legal, regulatory, trade and immigration policies, they have systematically driven the demand for low-skilled labor overseas while importing massive numbers of low-skilled laborers. The result is exactly what the supply-and-demand curves would predict: "the fruit of one's labor" isn't nearly as fruitful as it once was for the lower end of society.

Thus has our community of interest been fractured, and nowhere is this more evident than in the assertion of "rights" against the labor of others. Indeed, such assertions are the antithesis of rights, but rather the demand that the political community become an engine of predation. The libertarian may yelp all he wants; so too may the buffalo. Both are powerless without a community.