Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thought for the Day

"If my husband sacrificed our child to save thousands of people, I might recognize, at some abstract level, that he had done the right thing. But we wouldn't stay married." -- Megan McArdle

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How to Reform Graduate Education (or not).

Via Half Sigma, an op-ed in the NYT on the problems with graduate education.

Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans). . . . [A]s departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems.

So far, so good. But Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, goes on to offer solutions that range from trite to dangerous.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

Recommending an interdisciplinary approach to problems is not a bad idea, but it is hardly new; in fact, I'm pretty sure my own graduate school makes widespread use of interdisciplinary "research centers". But I'm less sure it's appropriate for undergraduates. More on this later.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. . . . Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs. A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.

Here is see two problems. First, there is the matter of Professor Taylor's assertion that water supplies will be a significant issue in "the coming decades." Now, I'm not a water guy, but then neither is Taylor, so I'm not sure what makes his prediction especially informed. And in general, predictions of impending resource scarcity have a very poor track record of being, you know, accurate. So . . . what if he's wrong? Sure, graduate students are supposed to specialize in something, and it might as well be water supplies. But undergraduates are supposed to obtain skills applicable to a broad discipline rather that a narrow problem. Taylor is asking them to specialize from the get-go on the prediction that the demand for water people will increase in the future. This strikes me as a very bad bet for an undergraduate to make.

My second objection is . . . theology? Don't get me wrong: it should be obvious from my blog that I think theological issues are important. But I try, as I'm pretty sure I should, to keep theology bracketed from science. It all comes back to the fact/value distinction. And the looming water shortage is first and foremost a technical problem with policy implications. It is not clear to me what we accomplish by involving, say, social workers and theologians in its solution. Sure, the social works and theologians get to say, "Look at me! I'm relevant to the real world!" But what would they do other than become enforcers of political correctness. Issues involving stem-cell harvesting involved far more glaring ethical problems, and I would be surprised to find that Columbia's theologians had provided much in the way of push-back.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions.

Taylor's one good idea. It should start with making credits more easily transferable.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.

So one of the solutions to the problem of too many graduate students than their fields will support is . . . web pages and video games? Words fail me.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

This sounds like the age-old liberal-arts conceit: because its students have learned, not a marketable skill, but how to think, they are thus qualified to jump into any position. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this self-promoting line hasn't persuaded corporate America in at least a generation. As for non-profits, I can't really say, but it is not clear to me that non-profits are a growth industry. Those latched to the federal teat certainly are, but those that rely on private money are hardly positioned to make room for a spate of new liberal arts grads, no matter how much those grads have "been exposed to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues, etc." In any case, I will humbly submit that what America needs right now is a greater portion of its population working in non-productive sectors of the economy.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.

Oh yes, tenure. It is a measure of the left's perception of its own political invincibility that they are now treating academic freedom as some sort of medievel relic. I suspect that this proposal would have been greeted with much hostility 25 years ago, or even four years ago, but now the prospect of abolishing tenure invites relish at the opportunity of punishing, say, Kevin McDonald.

The concept of tenure is problematic on a number of levels, certainly, but then direct public support to educational institutions is also problematic. Ideally, the problems of university governance would be corrected by the market: the "leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally" would be that no students would pay to attend his classes. But higher education has become sclerotic. There is no meaningful competition: the Harvards, Yales, and Standfords of 100 years ago are the Harvards, Yales and Standfords of today, and poor performance is almost never punished with failure and bankruptcy. Nothing Professor Taylor proposes is going to change that.

Jane Austen on Sex

Trumwill has written a pair of posts summarizing how he would talk to his adolescent children about sex. As luck would have it, I had a conversation with my almost-nine-year-old daughter along this line last night.

My regular readers will be unsurprised to know that the parental message on this subject has been consistent and uncompromising since my daughter was old enough to read the Seventh Commandment: sex is for marriage. Morally speaking, it doesn’t really get any more complicated than that. But last night, in the course of reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to her at bedtime, she gave me the “teaching moment” that every parent longs for:

Daddy, what is this book about?

This was pretty funny, considering that we’re about half way through it. But here, more or less, is how I answered her:

Sense and Sensibility is about courtship and marriage. More specifically, it is about “sense” – in other words, what and how we think – and “sensibility” – what we feel. Sense and Sensibility is Austen’s explanation of how “thoughts” and “feelings” are not the same thing, and how both play a role in courtship. In particular, Austen demonstrates, through Marianne’s attraction to Willoughby, the dangers of allowing our feelings and desires to run unconstrained by thoughtful deliberation.

I realize that, at age almost-nine, you don’t really have any feelings yet. But you will have them. In another five years, the feelings will come upon you quite powerfully. These feelings aren’t bad; on the contrary, God gives them to us for a purpose. Kind of like your father keeps an H&K USP for a purpose. But both are dangerous if not controlled properly, and for much the same reason.

Here is the best advice I can give you, advice that I will repeat as you grow older: be self-aware. Be honest with yourself about your feelings. Admit to yourself what it is about a boy that arouses your feeling of attraction to him. If you can do that, if you can acknowledge and bracket your feelings for what they are, you are much better prepared to think about what’s really important.

Jane Austen herself gave a compelling example of what happens when we don’t separate our thoughts and feelings in the last book we read, Pride and Prejudice. Consider the character of Mr. Wickham, the man who runs off with Kitty. Mr. Wickham had a number of positive qualities. He had élan. He had wit. And most of all, he had charm. And these qualities made him the life of the party! They made able to make people feel good in his company, and he easily ingratiated himself into the Bennett’s social circle. But the key here is that because he inspired positive feelings, the Bennett’s and everyone else attributed to him qualities of character that he did not, in fact, possess. It was only when forced to consider the charges laid against him by Mr. Darcy that Elizabeth realized that nobody knew anything about Wickham’s character. They had no good report of his qualities other than what he gave them himself. And this is how he fooled them all.

Young men still fool people this way. In fact, they even run websites to teach other young men how to pull this off.

So here is what you will want to ask yourself (and your parents) about young men seeking to court you: is this person suitable? Does he share your values? Does he possess good character? Is he honest? Is he faithful to God and his family? Is he temperate, wise, and considerate of others? But you can ask yourself these questions only if you are able to disentangle the answers from your feelings about what you want the answers to be.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"SecularRight"? Or Just Plain Secular.

Let me take a shot at articulating what I find so frustrating about Ross Douthat's divalog with Heather McDonald on the subject, "God and Man on the Right", or rather, what role should religion play in conservativism.

To provide context, Heather writes for the City Journal website on affirmative action and immigration (she's against both), and in general attacks the way that what passes for "Civil Rights" distorts our society. It is probably fair to call her a race-realist, although I don't know that she describes herself that way. She also blogs at Secular Right, about which more later. Ross Douthat, of course, needs no introduction.

Heather's argument comes in two parts. First, she asserts the existance of "universal human values," by which she means values that are derived independently from religion. Ross gently points out that she observes a civilization steeped in Christian influence even in places that have shed their overt religiosity. For my part, I don't see how a conservative could refer to "universal human values" with a straight face. Certainly, humans possess universal drives: to eat, to screw, to acquire status. From a classical liberal perspsective, we possess universal rights, as in life, liberty, property, and I suppose that it is respectable for conservatives to believe this. But universal values? Which values? Not freedom, certainly, which appears to be a niche taste. Not humane and rational self-government. Not peace with ones neighbors. And certainly not tolerance. In fact, I can't think of a single "value" the least bit politically relevant that isn't contested by a significant fraction of the planet.

Heather's second argument is that secularism is the better protector of these values than religion. Ross gave her almost a complete pass on this, but I won't: never mind the secular projects of Nazism and Communism for a moment. Let's look at something more prosaic: the treatment of fellow secularists Larry Summers and James Watson. I know for a fact that Heather is sympathetic to race realism, and I'm pretty sure she appreciates the math behind Summers' foray into sex differences. How much tolerance and reason did secularism display in response to those controversies? Indeed, in general, on university campuses, where secularism's power reigns the strongest, to what extent do we see reaon and tolerance on display?

Heather wants to point to post-Christian Scandinavia as representing her ideal society, and specifically uses them to rebut the argument that people turn promptly to barbarism without religion. There is some truth to this: there are many factors that make a society humane, cooperative, and industrious, and overt religiosity at the inter-societal level appears to have little bearing. (At the intra-societal level, it's more significant.) But Ross points out that only a generation ago these very Scandinavians were all good Lutherans, so it's a bit early to announce that the post religious future works in the long run. And I would go further yet: the significant threat to Scandinavia is not that Scandinavians will stop being law-abiding without Christianity. It's whether Scandinavia can be roused to defend itself in the face of invasion. Here I speak, obviously, of immigration. Scandinavians do not seem to be willing to invest in their own future by having children; better to import immigrants instead. But these immigrants are bringing their own culture with them, a culture in which freedom and tolerance are noticeably lacking. These trends virtually assure that post-Christian Scandinavia in non-viable in the long run, regardless of how law-abiding and tolerant the last living Scandinavians are when they are finally put to the sword by their new Islamic masters.

Ross further observes that one of the significant factors driving how humane a society is is its wealth, a point that directly rebuts Heather's technique of reaching into history to find examples, usually Catholic, of religious intolerance or any other failure of a Christian society to conform to late 20th century American political norms. There are at least two reasons to doubt the appropriateness of this benchmark. First, Christianity came into a Europe -- indeed, an entire world -- that was darkly barbaric. As Ross points out, it immediately set about civilizing this world: improving the status of women, the treatment of slaves, and combatting routine practices like crucifixion and infanticide. That this work wasn't accomplished in a generation or two should not surprise us, and for Heather to arbitrarily pick a point in this civilizing process and say, "look, here is a 'Christian' society and look what it did!" ignores the broader sweep of our history. Yes, that sweep also depended on increasing wealth. Second, a more secularized America has given birth to its own injustices, abortion being the obvious example.

As a Roman Catholic, Ross feels obliged to defend Catholicism, and indeed spends a good deal of time speaking of religious faith as bringing order to a widely shared impulse to transcendent feeling. For my part, I make the more specific claim that American political culture arose very specifically out of Anglo Protestantism. So, yes, Heather is correct to point out that other confessions were indifferent to slavery as an institution. And she is correct that many Christians of all stripes did not embrace emancipation, for instance, or the Civil Rights movement. But these evils were universal: slavery had always been what the strong did to the weak, and morality had always been what people owed exclusively to its own in-group. For her to blame these evils on Christianity because Christian societies didn't instantly dissolve them would seem to require that there was some better state of affairs before Christianity's arrival, and such a state simply does not exist. But significantly, when movements arose seeking this better state, the important point here is they were animated by Christianity.

But here's the thing: I can appreciate that a liberal might look upon our contemporary political controversies and see Christianity on the opposing side. If you want gay marriage, the suppression of competition to the public schools, and a doubling of the national debt in four years, then sure: it's hard not to notice the Christians standing in your way. But Heather McDonald identifies as a conservative. What's in it for her?

Heather mentions a couple of concrete issues. She points to the Christian emphasis on traditional family arrangements as standing in the way of further female emancipation. Heather can believe this if she wants, and she may even be right, but how is this a conservative argument? Indeed, such concern as religious people have about this is primarily defensive: we want to preserve space in which we can live order our families in the traditional way. That Heather objects to us resisting further efforts by the government to destroy this space is certainly feminist, but is in no way conservative.

The irony doubles on the issue of Civil Rights. Ultimately, the vision of Civil Rights, articulated by Martin Luther King, that America bought was specifically Christian in its orientation. But in no way was it conservative; most conservatives, including some Christian conservatives, had serious reservations (as well they should have, hindsight being 20/20). So why is Heather, as an athiest and a conservative, trying to take credit for the other team's moves?

In fact, Heather would have a very strong position to attack religion from the right if she chose it: the argument that the universalist morality of Christianity undermines our particularist aspirations. Indeed, I have expressed sympathy for this position myself. Take, for instance, the Civil Rights movement. As I have written before, what we call "civil rights" not only began a massive transfer of wealth and opportunity from the white Americans to blacks, but also empowered racial minorities to began an armed insurrection against the Whites unfortunate enough to cross their paths, and in so doing have exchanged one set of injustices for another. The legacy of Civil Rights seems to be an unwillingness to preserve the identity that makes the values Heather champions possible. I would think that Heather's apparent sympathies for HBD would have made her turn to this argument. But she only attacks Christianity from the left, which is appropriate only for an actual leftist.

Come to think of it, this is my criticism of the outfit she blogs for, Secular Right, and herein lies my frustration. While I would welcome the development of secular arguments for conservative policies, nowhere do I see this in evidence. Nowhere do I see any "Right" in "Secular Right". I only see fratricide: lazy and self-congratulatory attacks on the religious conservatives with whom they ostensibly share the bulk of their political agenda. Their arguments are not likely to convince anybody not already convinced; but they are likely to further divide what remains of the conservative coalition.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How Do You Hatch a Cuckoo's Egg?

Yesterday, I referenced Trumwill's discussion of cuckoo's eggs in the context of attempting to articulate the injustice of requiring child support from the cuckolded father: that for the same reason that a man shouldn't have to maintain a woman that sleeps with someone else, he likewise shouldn't have to maintain children conceived by someone else, except by consent. Trumwill ran a great symposium on what the ideal legal regime ought to be; I will now try to summarize the state of this debate and my own recommendations.

In comment #27, Sheila Tone, a family law attorney, helpfully lays out the legal standard: if a man “holds himself out as the father and accepts the child openly in his home,” he acquires the rights and liabilities of fatherhood regardless of his genetic contribution, unless the bio-father makes a legal claim against the child within a two-year window after the child's birth. (Update: In many states, the law also gives the husband a two-year window within which he can rebut the presumption of paternity.) The injustice of this standard is readily apparent to anyone not named Sheila Tone: if the man thinks the child he is raising is his, then he is the victim of fraud; and his "holding himself out" is a direct consequence of that fraud. For the law to sanctify that fraud even after it is discovered is (I believe) without parallel in any other aspect of jurisprudence.

So, what do we do? Trumwill proposes a policy offering all husbands, at the time of a child's birth, a paternity test prior to the finalization of the birth certificate. He leaves open the question of what the birth certificate should read if the father tests negative for paternity but wants it anyway, but this is a moot point: we agree that virtually no husbands who's first knowledge of their wives' infidelity is herein revealed would accept paternity. But the husband could waive the paternity test in writing, either because he trusts his wife or because he already knows the child's origins and is emotionally reconciled to being the legal father anyway.

Here's the problem as I see it, based on my familiarity with how large bureaucracies work. The paternity test waiver will be buried in a stack of paperwork that a nurse hands to the distracted father with the words, "Here, sign these." Maybe the father notices what he is signing, and maybe he doesn't, but even if he does, he's likely to be lead to believe that signing the waiver is routine, kind of like the "collision and damage waiver" that rental car companies ask you to initial. The paternity test will cost him money, unless insurance companies pay for it, and since the test is "optional" there is no reason why they should. (Update: Trumwill proposes making the test "free" -- i.e. government funded -- a point on which I would reluctantly concur.) So the father's likelihood of submitting himself to the test is inversely proportional to his trust in his wife. Thus the cruel irony: the more in the dark the husband is as to the child's true origins, the more likely he will remain in the dark by waiving the test.

Alternatively, the test could be made mandatory and universal, but this carries problems of its own. As I pointed out on Hit Coffee, the general knowledge of the paternity testing mandate would provoke many women to procure abortions at the mere possibility of a negative result. There is the issue of whether uncovering adultery in this way might wreck relationships that might otherwise be viable. And there is again the question of whether a non-father could even choose to accept paternity if the state knows it's not so. But even if a non-father is given the choice, it's a high-stakes choice made in a very narrow window. If he rejects legal paternity, he permanently devolves to the status of step-father, with very few legal rights except what the mother chooses to give him, and it opens the door to the bio-father to insinuate himself into their family life (although that door remains open anyway in some states). But if he accepts paternity, he does so almost certainly in the expectation that his relationship with the mother survives, a very expensive gamble in the face of very long odds.

The fact is that the issue of true paternity is almost never a legal issue except in a child support award in the course of a divorce. It is for this reason that I would advocate making any contested child support award contingent upon a positive paternity test or, alternatively, allowing a father to subsequently challenge a child-support award on the basis of a negative test. It is impossible to predict when a non-father will learn of his wife's deception, and the law should make allowance for this.

It is also impossible to prove when a non-father knew or suspected a child's true origins. In this vein, Sheila Tone gives us a vignette:

Here’s the typical situation I see in my job: Guy and woman have a few kids together; they may be married, maybe not. Sometimes they fight and spend periods of time apart. They have sex with other people during these breaks. Eventually they get back together, and he’s the recognized head of the household. He suspects — and she often tells him — he may not be the bio dad of one of the kids. He makes the choice not to make it an issue.

He gets some benefits from not making it an issue. One benefit: He doesn’t want that other potential dad hanging around. He probably hates the guy. Or, he just doesn’t want to complicate things.

Then when they split up for good some years later, he suddenly takes issue with paternity due to his desire to reduce support obligations. NOW he wants a paternity test. But he’s been acting as this kid’s dad for years. The kid thinks he’s the dad.

Sheila's assumption is that the above situation would represent some kind of manipulation of the system by the non-father. I'm not convinced. The "benefits" the non-father enjoys ought to be his as long as he chooses to provide for the family both financially and in assuming his share of the "shit work", the not-fun part of bringing a crying, barfing, pooping, tantrum-throwing creature along to semi-adulthood. As long as the non-father is doing this, then I don't really begrudge him the benefit of keeping home-wrecking bio-dads away from the family.

In the course of all this, maybe he bonds with the child. Maybe that bond comes to be independent of his relationship with the mother. And maybe, in the event of divorce, he's willing to pay child support either because he really wants to ensure the child is cared for or because he merely wants to get his share of custody and visitation.

But then again, maybe the bond doesn't form. Maybe the child's mother poisons the child against him to the point that he's ready to be quit of the entire package. Or maybe he really is a callous SOB who turns his hatred of the mother on the child in the course of divorce proceedings.

Any of these iterations is possible, and I'm unwilling to turn a courtroom into a three-ring-circus trying to figure it all out. All I'm saying is that even if we assume the worst faith imaginable on the part of the non-father, the mother and child are not materially worse off than they would have been had he rejected paternity immediately, as he would have been perfectly within his rights to do.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Each Man's Castle

Years ago I saw an episode of one of those candid camera style video ambush shows that stayed with me. Many of these types of shows strike me as fundamentally cruel: people are walking along minding their own business when some embarrassing trick is played upon them for the amusement of the audience. But this particular episode serves as a Rorschach test revealing the difference between the way men and women view social interaction.

The ambush works like this: an attractive, dressed up woman approaches a man in a parking lot, and asks for help. The tire on her car is flat and she doesn't know how to change a tire. So the victim chivalrously sets about changing the tire. About half way through this process, the darkened window of the car rolls down to reveal another man sitting in the car doing pretty much nothing except listening to music.

I told this prank to my wife, and her first reaction was probably representative of most women: the man in the car ought to be out helping change the tire. But this is a relatively small source of the outrage that the victims and, vicariously, the male audience feel. The outrage has its primary source in the understanding that the victim's assistance is not unadulterated altruism.

Women hear this and say, "What did he think? That he was going to get lucky? That he was going to get a date?" Well, no. Or at least, not necessarily. The victim may have made no assumptions about the woman's availability. He might have expected nothing more than a smile and "thank you," and he may have been equally willing to lend assistance to another man in that situation. But the nature of the social dynamic that the situation creates is one in which the victim is invited to play a social archetype, the knight-in-shining-armor, to a beautiful woman. To rephrase it in PUA or evo-psych terms, he is "demonstrating value" by changing her tire. It doesn't matter whether he consciously expects, or would even accept the offer, to get laid for his efforts: the social dynamic itself activates these regions of the brain.

Likewise, the inevitable punchline. The discovery that the woman has her own able-bodied man sitting in the car reveals to the victim that the dynamic he thought was in play was not: as Dogbert might put it, his paradigm shifted without a clutch. And his inchoate rage belongs to a man tricked into providing, without compensation, aid and comfort to another man's woman, and indeed to the other man himself.

I speak from personal experience. The story I am about to tell is one in which I take no pride in the way I handled. On the contrary, it was closest that Mrs. Φ and I came to breaking our engagement; certainly Mrs. Φ would have been within her rights to do so.

In our social circle at the church we attended, there was a beautiful and vivacious young woman on whom I had developed a substantial crush (for want of a better word) some six months before Mrs. Φ had attracted my notice. This was hardly remarkable; I probably had a crush on all attractive women who weren't overtly hostile. And, as usually happened, by the time I could find out whether this girl -- let's call her S -- had a boyfriend, she did: an older, more successful "alpha" in her own career field at work. (Significantly, he didn't attend our church.) I was phlegmatic about this discovery; after all, S would have been a substantial reach for me even if she had been unattached.

Flash forward by around ten months, and three events happen in rapid succession in I forget which order: I begin seriously courting the future Mrs. Φ; Mrs. Φ begins sharing a house with S; and S terminates her relationship with alpha dog.

Mmmm . . . funny how life works.

The result is that I began to play a supporting roll in this drama as the comfort-guy. Not that she literally cried on my shoulder, and the truth is that my involvement was mainly though not exclusively experienced vicariously through Mrs. Φ. But I was privy to the stories of the emotional abuse and (it was credibly alleged) sex addiction, and so I felt as if I was part of the support group. I didn't object to this roll at the time. I reasoned that S had recognized her relationship mistake, corrected it, and merited my assistance in moving on with her life.

And then . . . the other shoe dropped. Mrs. Φ calls to tell me that not only would S be returning to the arms of the abusive alpha, but that they had been actually married the entire time!

This revelation left me blindingly, irrationally angry. It wasn't just that both S and Mrs. Φ had deceived me as to the true nature of the relationship. It wasn't even that alpha dog's apparent victory amounted to a net psychic loss for team beta. It was that I, personally, had been tricked into providing, without compensation, aid and comfort to another man's woman.

It is from this perspective that I view the associated problem of how to adjudicate the paternity of children conceived in adulterous affairs, as we debated over at Hit Coffee last week. It explains why I react so viscerally to the injustice of demanding that a cuckolded ex-husband pay child support for another man's offspring. I am unpersuaded by the assertion that a man who was deceived into thinking such children were his own has "enjoyed the rights and privileges of fatherhood;" this is like saying that Bernie Madoff's clients "enjoyed the priviledge of watching their investment portfolios grow every month" when the scam was still going. And it is why I especially regard as morally insensate such female comments as "so what? . . . It’s his kid, biological or not." (Indeed, such an attitude can be found almost exclusively among those constitutionally immune from the injustice at hand.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Taxing Status

Megan McArdle and a liberal professor (I assume) at UCLA named Mark Kleiman have a bloggingheads discussion about a couple of issues. They began by discussing crime, and crime prevention. This appears to be Kleiman's field of expertise, and he shares a number of statistics and anecdotes about ways of reducing crime that are well worth the 86 minutes you spend listing to, especially if you're looking for an excuse to avoid working on your thesis, like, um, other people (yeah, that's it . . .).

Megan makes an important point about the effect of high marginal tax rates that I hadn't heard expressed quite this way before. It has been well understood that increases in marginal tax rates change not only the investor class's risk-reward calculations, but also the point at which people make trade-offs between work and leisure. At some sufficiently high level of taxation, the heart surgeon (for instance) decides that the after-tax income of an additional dollar in revenue isn't worth the X amount of time he has to put in at the office. So he arranges his life to work a shorter day, or he heads off to Florida for the last two months of the year. This inevitably reduces the supply of heart surgery in the economy, which raises its price for everybody, including people who weren't the intended targets of the higher rates. Plus, to the extent that the surgeon's activity employed ancillary services like nursing, the economic wellbeing of these workers is depressed.

But Megan makes an additional point. Not only do the tax rates affect the surgeon's tradeoff between work and leisure, but it affects his tradeoff between work and any other non-taxable activity. She gives the example of house painting. At market prices, the surgeon might rather be doing surgery than painting his own house, but after taxes, he may decide to use his "leisure" time painting his own house. This has immediate downstream affects: not only is the surgeon shielding himself from taxation, but he is doing something that he doesn't particularly enjoy and may do it poorly and inefficiently, reducing his overall wellbeing. The professional painter, meanwhile, is hit even harder: the surgeon's choice has cost him the income for doing something he does enjoy and at which he has a competitive advantage.

Consider restaurants. People eat out because they enjoy paying people to prepare meals for them, and restaurants presumably enjoy economies of scale and efficiency in food preparation. But this, too, is all taxable activity. The heart surgeon can reduce the activity he does well (surgery) in favor of an activity he does poorly (cook), at net loss to both himself and the restaurant, and greater in-efficiency all around.

Now, it is true that many professionals (my relatives among them) enjoy the mental relaxation that working with their hands affords them. And others, like me, are constitutionally averse to paying anyone to do anything for me that I think I can do myself (with a few exceptions). And indeed, few families would choose to eat out all them time, regardless of tax policy. But before the crunchy-cons among us wax lyrical about the benefits of "nutritious, lovingly prepared meals served at home," let me point out that for many families these days, "home-cooked" means Hamburger Helper or frozen pizza.

Obviously, government expenditures have to be financed, so taxation will always be necessary. And I am officially agnostic about what level of taxation results in a net social loss. But this is an important consideration.

One more thing. It's not every day that you can catch a liberal honestly expressing their worldview in all its repulsive glory. So I have to praise Kleiman's candid admission that his enthusiasm for high marginal tax rates has less to do with raising revenue for the government and more about hurting people who make more than he does. According to Kleiman, money buys social status, and status is zero-sum. Ergo, the wealth of someone like Bill Gates allows him to acquire status at the direct expense of . . . Mark Kleiman!

I suppose I could say that, whatever you may think of Bill Gates, he acquired his money, and therefore his "status", in the free market by persuading customers to buy his operating system and manufacturers to install it on their computers. He didn't do it by using the power of the state to take other people's status and give it to himself.

More on point, though, I would say this:

Q: Which is the tenth commandment?

A: The tenth commandment is, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's."

Q: What is required in the tenth commandment?

A: The tenth commandment requires full contentment with our own condition and a right and charitable frame of spirit towards our neighbor and all that is his.

Q: What is forbidden in the tenth commandment?

A: The tenth commandment forbids all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections towards anything that is his.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Wrestler

I saw the movie The Wrestler last night. A few thoughts:

  • It is a commonplace that professional wrestling isn't real. But the stunts that pro wrestlers do are real stunts, stunts that carry significant risk of serious injury and are physically taxing even when performed as intended. The movie, poignant in all its respects, is particularly vivid in its depiction of the bodily wreckage a 20+ year career in the sport leaves behind.

  • Fifty-seven-year-old Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the man inhabiting that bodily wreckage. He develops genuine feeling for Marisa Tomei's Cassidy, a career-downside stripper who's services he patronizes. She develops genuine feelings for him as well; unfortunately, she is unable to successfully transition him from her mental basket labeled "customer", a basket around which she creates a fantasy-world of make-believe sexual desire, to the mental basket labeled "real life". As a consequence, she drops him in the middle, where she accepts him neither as a customer nor as a friend. She poignantly (again) displays discomfort at meeting him for a shopping trip to help him find a present for his estranged daughter. Afterward, she becomes painfully embarrassed when he once again shows up at the club where she works. By so doing, Randy has intolerably bridged the carefully compartmentalized aspects of her life. Much as pro-wrestling takes its physical toll on Randy, sex-work has taken its emotional toll on Cassidy. (NB: At 44, Marisa Tomei continues to keep a gravity-defying body, but in this movie she allows her age to show around the face and perhaps in the elasticity of her skin.) (God, I'm starting to sound like the WKSB!)

  • Another aspect that rings true: pro-wrestlers are not exceptionally aggressive men. Wrestling isn't boxing: the contest isn't real; the "competitors" collaborate in a pre-arranged outcome. Hence, although they work hard (and take steroids) to build their muscles, Randy and the other wrestlers are in their personal lives as gentle as lambs (almost), and Randy humbles himself before all manner of indignities. Even in his one angry outburst (wherein he quits his job at a supermarket deli), Randy hurts nobody but himself, and the damage he causes (knocking products off their shelves) is obviously more for show than a real attempt at destruction.

  • Pro-wrestling is a low-class, low-IQ activity. Unsurprisingly, Randy mismanages his life in virtually every respect, falling behind on the rent, missing a dinner date with his daughter, etc. But he displays another aspect of the class divide: emotionalism. In particular, Randy on a couple of occasions weeps openly. While these episodes were not without reason -- The Wrestler contains enough heartbreak for several movies -- it occurred to me how the same emotional control that keeps upper-class adults from bursting into tears in public is the same control that keeps them from engaging in other self-destructive behaviors.

  • I have to give the filmmakers points for linking, even obliquely, the estranged daughter's apparent lesbianism to the trauma of paternal abandonment. In an age where sexual-preference-is-a-valid-lifestyle-choice, surely this was controversial.

  • Someone should really call an end to the shaky-camera documentary style of film making for anything other than actual documentaries. The technique comes across as lazy in The Wrestler. I'm pretty sure I've seen this point made elsewhere.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

King of the Hill Gets Religion (sort of)

As much as I admire Mike Judge's portrayal of the Texas everyman Hank Hill, I was always disappointed with what appeared to be his lack of any religious affiliation. While I've seen him occasionally interact with what I always assumed was Arlen's female Lutheran cleric, I can't recall an episode in which he was actually in church.

So I was prepared to be amused with last Sunday's episode, "Born Again on the Fourth of July". To recap, Hank and Peggy instruct Bobby (who's not ready at departure time) to follow them to church on his bicycle. Bobby instead orders pizza with money taken from his mom's purse. In a fit of remorse, Bobby accompanies Lucky to a Pentacostal storefront congregation, wherein he becomes "saved".

Now obviously (or perhaps not obviously) I don't object to exploiting religion for its comedic possibilities; The Simpsons, for instance, gets religious humor right almost always. And I don't even mind that Bobby, upon his "conversion", becomes kind of a prick, especially since Lucky calls him out on this.

But I do think that if Judge wants to show us a Pentacostal coming-to-Jesus, he's kind of obligated to mention, you know, Jesus. But somehow, faith in Christ is replaced in the episode by "really, really, wanting to be saved." That's it! That, and some nods toward cleaning up your life, is all that's mentioned. What makes this especially disappointing is that Judge's animators clearly spent some effort in getting the Pentacostal style right. They should have paid a little more attention to the substance, kind of like Robert Duvall did when he made The Apostle. Whatever you think about Duvall's movie, you have to admit that the Gospel was preached correctly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Piracy and the Law

For those of you who did not catch Amitai Etzioni's essay yesterday:

The main reason pirates roam freely is only whispered in the corridors of power, because it is very politically incorrect to openly state that pirates are protected by a radical interpretation of human rights. The various navies involved are operating (or more precisely, are not operating) because of one or more of the following points:

  • Do not capture the pirates because if you do, they will have to be brought to trial in some national court. There are no international courts in which they can be tried. To try them, you will need evidence that will hold up in such courts. Most ship hands do not have the kind of police training needed to collect evidence properly, observe the chain of evidence, and so on.

  • Once brought to your homeland, the pirates may seek--and possibly be granted--asylum. (In several European countries one can gain asylum by showing that he or she is coming from a part of the world in which there is a sufficient level of indiscriminant violence that one's life would be in danger by remaining there. One need not show that he or she was specifically persecuted.) Thus, courts may let them walk and you would then have dozens of Somali marauders roaming free in your country.

  • You will be unable to ship them back to Somalia for trial because there they would likely be subject to torture or execution.

  • Piracy is a crime and crimes are a matter for the police to deal with, not armed forces. But national police forces have no jurisdiction, a high seas catch-22. Pirates cannot be shot when they close in on your ship because they may be fishermen engaging in their peaceful business. The fact that they are armed cannot be used as evidence because in these parts of the world practically all men are armed.

  • If you fail to respect their rights, you may be hauled in front of one or more of your national courts, the European Court of Human Rights, condemned by United Nations, and excoriated by the parts of the media and by human rights activists.

Our political class have largely abandoned their responsibility to protect the interests of their own people. It has forgotten that the reason we established the concept of rights actionable against the government is that we wanted them for ourselves, not that we wanted to grant them to the rest of the world. They have further forgotten that such a regime is suitable only to the character of a people who are fundamentally law-abiding. Just because we can afford to grant ourselves these immunities does not mean they are appropriate for peoples of a decidedly different character.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Krugman on Taxes

Ace chortles that Paul Krugman now opposes increasing taxes. But to interpret this as "going off the reservation" would require the Democrats to be actively seeking those tax increases, which they are most assuredly not. Their goal is to establish the now-doubled Federal budget as the new baseline and then let Republicans take the political heat for insisting that it be actually paid for. In the mean time, they seem perfectly content to drown our country in red ink.

Krugman's thumbnail sketch of fiscal policy in the 1930s isn't necessarily wrong, but he misses the lesson. It is true that FDR's decision to balance the budget after the 1936 election drove the unemployment rate back up to 20%. But the lesson from this is that FDR's New Deal deficit spending had utterly failed to actually "solve" the Depression, by which I mean it failed to grow the real economy to the point that it could actually support government expenditures at full employment. Obama's program will similarly fail, and at the end of it we'll be saddled with 3x the debt we had a year ago.

Reflections on Dubai

Megan linked to this Alternet piece a while back, and quoted a section detailing Dubai's punitive bankruptcy laws, but the entire thing should be read.

Dubai's Lesson to America: How the Middle East's Shangrai La Became a Hell on Earth

It appears from this article that its Western residents, and particularly the British, are collaborating in the Emirati's massive exploitation of its third-world residents. But let's do a thought experiment: what if these expats, who comprise the vast majority (some 95%) of the country's population, were to up and depose the Emirs? It seems apparent from the article that these Westerners couldn't keep the place running without the good graces of the other members of the UAE, which they almost certainly could not obtain. The Filipinos and Bangledeshis that comprise Dubai's de facto slave class couldn't keep the place running under any circumstances, and in fact wouldn't want to.

But I'm more interested in the kind of reaction such a revolution would inspire back here in the West. Would we:

  • 1. Rejoice at the creation of a true liberal democracy on the Persian Gulf and applaud the liberation of the slaves; or

  • 2. Denounce the colonialist temerity of the Westerners for imposing their Christian values on an Islamic Country.

I'm guessing #2. Just guessing.

Reflections on Class

Two stories, followed by some analysis.

Story One:

I did some field work with a “non-profit” organization that does research into search-and-rescue related techniques and technology. In truth, I didn’t know even that one sentence worth before I volunteered. My advisor sent out an email soliciting assistance for the project and, sensitive to the danger of not looking like a team player, I put my name in.

We assembled at a state park on a cold and rainy Sunday about forty minutes from where I live. I had never been to this park or anywhere near it and I took an additional 30 minutes and three phone calls to find the pavilion where we were set up. I had asked a couple of times for directions ahead of time. “Google it,” was the terse reply. Yeah, well, the park had multiple entrances and areas that didn’t connect. Proper directions would have been easy to give had someone had the courtesy to issue them.

There were some equipment difficulties early on, but eventually the NP leader briefed us on the CONOPS. We would be positioned against various backgrounds at precise GPS-recorded locations while a hired Cessna flew over and took pictures of us from various altitudes. These pictures would be analyzed for an ideal flight profile, and the Cessna would take a second round of photographs using the best profile. So basically we volunteers were just warm bodies to stand in a muddy field for sortie one and in the woods for sortie two.

We stood around in the cold for what seemed like a long time while (I thought) the air crew drove to the local general aviation airport. Eventually, one of the NP guys started putting us grad students in the field and recording our positions. This process was interrupted about half way through when we were called back in: the aircrew had left the camera at the pavilion. “We have to figure out what to do,” NP guy said.

“Well, it sounds like someone needs to get the camera to the aircrew,” I said, just a little annoyed.

“Yeah, that’s what we’re probably gonna do,” NP guy replied.


“Well, would you like me to drive the camera out to the airport?” I asked.

“Do you want to do that?” NP guy asked hopefully.

“No!” I lied, “but if it needs doing, then I’ll do it.” Though the truth was that driving somewhere beat standing around in the cold. The sun was shining when I left home that morning, and although I did have a Gor-Tex parka, I would have liked to have had a fleece lining for it. “Give me directions to the airport.”

“Uh . . . ,” NP guys scratched his head. “I don’t know how to get to the airport. Maybe we can find it on the GPS map. Hey, NP guy #2, can you find the airport on the GPS map?” A while passes while the GPS is fiddled with unsuccessfully. “Well, maybe we can find it on our computer maps. Hey NP guy #3, can you find the airport on one of your maps on the computer?” But these are all topographical maps that don’t show airports.

“Well, how about we call the aircrew and ask them how they got to the airport,” I suggested. “Hey that’s an idea,” said NP guy. He calls the aircrew and has a conversation that, weirdly, didn’t seem to include writing down any directions. What is it with these people and directions!?! At some sufficient threshold of incompetence, I will eventually assume command of somebody else’s flailing operation, and we were getting mighty near that threshold.

But then NP guy #4 pipes up.

“I know the way to the airport.”

“How do you get there?”

“Um, maybe it would be better if I rode along with you.” So off we went, me driving my car at my usual speed.

“Hey, the speed limit along this rode is 50mph,” he said of the four-lane country rode we were on, “and the police usually patrol it pretty well.”

“I’ve never received a speeding ticket for anything less than 15 mph over,” I said truthfully.

A few second pass.

“Now remember, the speed limit is 50 mph,” he said again.

“I heard you,” I said as I accelerated to 64 mph.

Perhaps it was my driving, but the airport turned out to be not even 5 minutes away. And it involved exactly two turns. As I wondered why one of the aircrew didn’t drive back for his camera, I began to develop an impression of the people staffing this NP that I wanted to check out.

“So, NP guy #4, are you with [big organization sponsoring my PhD research]?”

“Oh, no,” NP guy #4 said. “I just volunteer with NP.”

“So . . . what do you do?”

“I’m in school at α-tech.” I hadn't heard of it.

“What kind of program is it?”

“It’s a ten week program in ____”

Ten weeks?!?

“Do you have job lined up when you finish?”

“No. Company ____ supposedly hires people in this field, but they don’t have any openings right now.”

Story Two:

As I commented over at Hitcoffee a while back, I attended a moderately large state school with a well-regarded engineering program—indeed, perhaps the best such program in the region. While I was there, I attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. A whole bunch of us involved in the campus IVCF ministry went there because it was close to campus and the staff worker taught Sunday school. But to a degree to which I was then only dimly aware, the church was Old Money. It was Old Money in the sense that many of the members’ college-aged progeny attended expensive private schools in other cities. During the school year, Sunday school was in large measure an extension of my social life on campus. During the summer, however, when my classmates had returned home, I was left with these progeny who had returned for their summers, and it was this new social environment that I found, over the course of several summers, to be impossible to penetrate.

One of these returning students was named T. T was a beautiful girl of exceptional tolerance--exceptional enough to tolerate me, at any rate. Thinking back on it, I don’t remember her being warm with me exactly, but neither was she cruel. I do remember specifically that she once threw a house party to which I was invited (or considered myself invited; who knows what her intentions were). I had my parents (I think) drive me over; in my desire to be on time, I arrived early. She greeted me graciously and gave me a tour of her parents’ house. Located in the toniest section of the city (the actual city, not the ‘burbs), it was palatial.


In researching this post this morning, I looked up T on Google. I learned that she competed in track for the city’s elite Christian day school, a school whose tuition exceeds by half again that of my college. I learned that she graduated from an expensive private college with a median SAT score just above that of my engineering school (although our math score is slightly higher). But I wasn’t aware of this at the time. Back then, she was just a pretty girl with a big house. And so what? My family’s fortunes had had their ups and downs. At the high point, we had had a house like this. My uncle had attended the same college she had. My family had as much education as hers did, if not more. And what of it? Sure, I knew that class existed out there somewhere, in movies like The Outsiders and whatnot. But this was church; it wasn’t supposed to matter here.

So there I was with my ill-fitting, second-hand clothes and my engineer’s personality, showing up and expecting to be treated as a peer and a friend-to-be. I can only imagine the details of the impact this presentation of myself made, but clearly it had one.

But I can, and did, describe in detail the presentation of the people staffing the non-profit I worked with on Sunday. People who were terribly slow at solving simple problems. People who were afraid of police and speeding tickets even when they weren’t driving. People who got suckered into paying for ten-week “crash courses” promising employment prospects that weren’t likely to materialize. None of this makes the NP guys bad or unpleasant. They just didn’t make for particularly interesting company, and for this reason I couldn’t really imagine spending any of my own time with them.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my experience on both sides of the class divide. I guess I wonder how my own choices affect my children. We chose to live in a pretty exclusive town, a town whose residents pay a substantial premium to be surrounded by people like themselves. But our house is in its lower end. Our street is populated with high proles and over-educated egg-heads (like Φ). We could have obtained financing for a house about twice the cost of what we did, but we chose not to. Are we hurting our daughters by not buying them upper-middle-class neighbors? Will they someday be shut-out by the same people who shut their father out? I’m guessing not: their experiences as beautiful girls will be very different from those of a nerdy guy, and their mother’s sense of style will put them light years ahead of where I was. But who knows?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Rescue of Richard Phillips

I received the following email today. I can't vouch for the details, Snopes and TruthOrFiction have nothing on it, and I will happily run a retraction if the story is false. That said, the details match what I have read in the mainstream press. So, herewith:

Having spoken to some SEAL pals here in Virginia Beach yesterday and asking why this thing dragged out for 4 days, I got the following:

1. BHO wouldn't authorize the DEVGRU/NSWC SEAL teams to the scene for 36 hours going against OSC (on scene commander) recommendation.

2. Once they arrived, BHO imposed restrictions on their ROE that they couldn't do anything unless the hostage's life was in "imminent" danger

3. The first time the hostage jumped, the SEALS had the raggies all sighted in, but could not fire due to ROE restriction

4. When the navy RIB came under fire as it approached with supplies, no fire was returned due to ROE restrictions. As the raggies were shooting at the RIB, they were exposed and the SEALS had them all dialed in.

5. BHO specifically denied two rescue plans developed by the Bainbridge CPN and SEAL teams

6. Bainbridge CPN and SEAL team CDR finally decide they have the OpArea and OSC authority to solely determine risk to hostage. 4 hours later, 3 dead raggies

7. BHO immediately claims credit for his "daring and decisive" behaviour. As usual with him, it's BS.

So per our last email thread, I'm downgrading Oohbaby's performace to D-. Only reason it's not an F is that the hostage survived.

Read the following accurate account.

Philips’ first leap into the warm, dark water of the Indian Ocean hadn’t worked out as well. With the Bainbridge in range and a rescue by his country’s Navy possible, Philips threw himself off of his lifeboat prison, enabling Navy shooters onboard the destroyer a clear shot at his captors — and none was taken.

The guidance from National Command Authority — the president of the United States, Barack Obama — had been clear: a peaceful solution was the only acceptable outcome to this standoff unless the hostage’s life was in clear, extreme danger.

The next day, a small Navy boat approaching the floating raft was fired on by the Somali pirates — and again no fire was returned and no pirates killed. This was again due to the cautious stance assumed by Navy personnel thanks to the combination of a lack of clear guidance from Washington and a mandate from the commander in chief’s staff not to act until Obama, a man with no background of dealing with such issues and no track record of decisiveness, decided that any outcome other than a “peaceful solution” would be acceptable.

After taking fire from the Somali kidnappers again Saturday night, the on scene commander decided he’d had enough.

Keeping his authority to act in the case of a clear and present danger to the hostage’s life and having heard nothing from Washington since yet another request to mount a rescue operation had been denied the day before, the Navy officer — unnamed in all media reports to date — decided the AK47 one captor had leveled at Philips’ back was a threat to the hostage’s life and ordered the NSWC team to take their shots.

Three rounds downrange later, all three brigands became enemy KIA and Philips was safe.

There is upside, downside, and spinside to the series of events over the last week that culminated in yesterday’s dramatic rescue of an American hostage.

Almost immediately following word of the rescue, the Obama administration and its supporters claimed victory against pirates in the Indian Ocean and declared that the dramatic end to the standoff put paid to questions of the inexperienced president’s toughness and decisiveness.

Despite the Obama administration’s (and its sycophants’) attempt to spin yesterday’s success as a result of bold, decisive leadership by the inexperienced president, the reality is nothing of the sort.

What should have been a standoff lasting only hours — as long as it took the USS Bainbridge and its team of NSWC operators to steam to the location — became an embarrassing four day and counting standoff between a ragtag handful of criminals with rifles and a U.S. Navy warship.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Projection: It's Not Just a River in Egypt

The new DHS/FBI report identifying conservatives as the new domestic security threat offers a window into the liberal soul. Reading it, one becomes easily convinced that much of the stated Democrat fear of the expansion of police power in response to the 9/11 attacks was a classic case of projection: the attribution of their own ethic of power to their Republican adversaries. In this instance, Democrats feared that power given to a Republican government to combat terrorism would be used against themselves precisely because Democrats would use it thus against Republicans.

The flip side is . . . that this reality should of necessity be a factor in Republican national security policy. Whatever our enthusiasm for combatting terrorism, we must remember that we will not always wield the power we give the state, and what the inevitable Democrat administration will do with it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent

I'm not a fan of American Idol, and I had never even heard of its across-the-pond counterpart, Britain's Got Talent, on which Simon Cowell is also a host. But on the recommendation of a friend, I checked out Susan Boyle's appearance on the show earlier this month. If you haven't seen it, please do. I don't want to ruin the surprise, but I will tell you that the look on Simon's face alone is priceless.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ross on the Tea Parties

I missed our local Tea Party yesterday. It conflicted with dinnertime, and anyway, I'm now more content to conduct my political activism from the comfort of my laptop. But word among people at choir practice yesterday evening was that it was well-attended.

Ross Douthat, who defends the demonstrators against some pretty absurd criticism, also had this to say:

But they do have all of the weaknesses of the anti-war marches: Their message is intertwined with a sense of disenfranchisement and all kinds of inchoate cultural resentments, they've brought various wacky extremists out of the woodwork (you know, like Glenn Beck), and just as George W. Bush benefited from having opposition to his policies identified with peacenik marchers in Berkeley and Ann Arbor, so Barack Obama probably benefits from having the opposition (such as it is) associated with a bunch of Fox News fans marching through the streets on Tax Day, parroting talk radio tropes and shouting about socialism.

Trumwill has said something similiar about opponents of the death penalty: they conduct their protests in such a way as to make their opposition of a piece with a broader crticism of (take your pick) American foreign policy, race relations, capitalism, or what-have-you. This alienates potential allies who do not accept their seamless garment of left-wing ideology. (Trumwill: I searched for your post on this point without success; it may have disappeared down the Bobvis memory hole.)

But Ross's link above goes to a collection of photos of the protest in the Washington Independent. Take a look for yourselves, for I will comment on them one by one:

  • A poster thanking Fox News. I don't watch news on TV, but from what I have seen, I haven't found anything to support the liberal syllogism, "if it was on Fox, then it must be either wrong or more wrong than if it was on CNN."

  • A poster supporting the idea that America is a Christian nation. This can be interpreted in several ways, some of which make the statement indisputably true. But it's not really on topic in a protest about the doubling of the national debt in the first year of the Obama administration.

  • A joke about the teleprompter. This is only interesting in the context of the media's fawning coverage of Obama's speaking ability and misleading comparisons to Bush's unscripted verbal stumblings. But also not relevant to the issue at hand.

  • The birth certificate. Look, the only actual evidence for the proposition that Obama wasn't really born in Hawaii is the fact that he hasn't produced it! But then, such evidence can be wrong: people often hide their innocence for their own dark reasons. Saddam Hussein hid WMD that he didn't really have from U.N. weapons inspectors, for instance; Bill Clinton obstructed every request by Ken Starr for information regardless of its incriminatory content. Either way, questions about Obama's citizenship amount to "Trutherism", and mainstream conservatism should keep it at arm's length. Not really relevant to the issue at hand.

  • A poster urging border security. Depending on the presentation, an issue directly relevant to our fiscal health. And in fact, a more popular position even than opposing the runaway spending.

  • Another sign criticising the runaway debt passed on to unborn children. Again, directly relevant. Although, I suppose that a liberal could read into it a position on abortion, and it otherwise highlights America's fertility patterns in ways that give liberals hives. But the protest is aiming at the swing voters, not the far left.

  • A slew of conservative media personalities. So what? I mean, even if I was in the center, you would still have to explain to me what it is that makes any of these people so disreputable that they undermine that protestors' argument.

  • Obama bin-lyin. A bad move. Exactly the kind of thing that amuses the true believers at the expense of alienating the majority of the country. But, yeah, mainstream conservatives do believe in free markets, not free terrorists.

  • A reference to National Socialism. The Independent has it right: this is Godwin's law in action.

  • Support for Pat Toomey. Completely appropriate considering Specter's voting record on the issue at hand.

  • Keynes was wrong. Pretty nerdy. And hardly comprehensive. And yet, the consensus view is that the stagflation of the 70s had undermined Keynes' simplistic models of government spending. The fact that simplistic monetarist models are now also undermined doesn't make Keynes suddenly right again.

  • Illegal immigrants are a fiscal burden. Exactly.

  • Some Kenyan. In my darker moments, I think this too. But the public isn't ready.

  • Ayn Rand references. Pretty nerdy. But here again, the only people who do know who John Galt is tend to be fans. So I don't see how this hurts.

These are what grass-roots protests look like. Some people will have trouble staying on message; others' creativity will be over the top. I don't know if these are representative of what the Tea Parties offered, but even if they are, I don't see anything here that throws me off my lunch. As Brandon Berg points out in the comments, these protests were a model of middle-class orderliness.

But then, perhaps I, too, live in the echo chamber. I'd like to know how these protests are really perceived by the swing voters. In the mean time, here is the picture that should be plastered across every t-shirt, banner, and protest sign going forward:

One more thing:

Still, here we are in the sixth year of the Iraq War, and all those anti-war protests, their excesses and stupidities notwithstanding, look a lot more prescient in hindsight than they did (to me, at least) when they were going on.

No, they don't. Virtually none of the protests to which Ross refers were offered because of their predictions about what actually happened, but for other reasons. What we saw at the anti-war rallies was third-world solidarity: in our post-Vietnam cultural moment, any tin-pot dictator that defies an American -- and especially a Republican -- president enjoys automatic support from a significant fraction of North American and European residents. That's very different from pointing out that the occupation will flunk the cost-benefit ratios.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amnesty: Why Now?

Steve wonders why Obama is pushing illegal immigrant amnesty during the economic downturn, when opposition to immigration is likely to be at an all time high.

Φ's answer: because the downturn will get worse.

Obama knows perfectly well that nothing he is doing will grow the real economy to the point that it can actually support his doubling of the federal budget. He also suspects that the electorate of 2008 did not put him in office because it suddenly stopped caring about the nation's fiscal solvency and the debt burden we pass to our children. Obama infers from this that his party will likely suffer significant setbacks in 2010 at the hands of these same voters; therefore, his power vis-a-vis the immigration issue (as, for instance, his handy intimidation of Senator Gillebrand into abandoning her career immigration skepticism) will never be greater than it is right now. How best can he avoid being turned out of office?

Import a new electorate!

What's a Stalker?

Φ: "Have you ever been 'stalked'?"

Mrs. Φ: "No, actually. But then, I was always careful about where I went at night."

Φ: "No no, I didn't mean stalked as by a stranger on a dark street. I mean stalked as by a spurned suitor who wouldn't leave you alone."

Mrs. Φ: "Oh, that kind of stalker. Yes! There was a boy in high school that I went out with a few times but I wasn't really interested romantically in him."

Φ: "He was a pity date?"

Mrs. Φ: "No. More like, here is someone to do stuff with over the summer.

Φ: "A placeholder then."

Mrs Φ: "Yeah, a placeholder. But he tried to play silly head games and I eventually decided it wasn't worth it." [NB: The only thing worse than no game is bad game.]

Φ: "Tell me about the stalking."

Mrs. Φ: "Well, one time when I was driving along [rural road near where she lived], I passed him driving the opposite direction. And he stopped his car in the middle of the road!"

Φ: "You mean, kind of like someone might do if he wanted you to slow down so he could speak to you through the driver's side windows?"

Mrs. Φ: "Um, yeah, like that. But I kept going."

Φ: "That was it? That was the whole stalker episode?"

Mrs. Φ: "Well, yeah. Plus, for a while afterward, he only dated girls named [Mrs. Φ's first name]. I mean, that was just weird."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Who Owns Choice Hotels?

On the way back from our vacation in Florida, we needed a stopover in Georgia. For this I almost always turn to the Choice Hotels network: the quality is consistently good, and the prices reasonable. I initially made reservations through the website at a hotel in south Georgia but needed to change the reservation when we decided to go home a day early. So I called the hotel directly. I found myself speaking to someone with a very strong Indian accent; so strong, in fact, that I failed to understand (or so I assume) their instructions to call the national chain to cancel the reservation made through the website, although they could create a new reservation for me.

On the way home, we made better time than we had estimated, and decided to change our reservation again to a hotel in north Georgia. So I called the hotel again to cancel the reservation. Another Indian. This time I did understand the necessity of calling the national chain, which I needed to do anyway to make a new reservation in N. Georgia.

I called the national chain and spoke to a white guy with good English who cancelled the initial reservation and made a new one. We arrived that evening at the hotel and were checked in by a very polite and helpful young Indian woman. The next morning we went into the lobby to eat (free!) breakfast, and an older and much more reserved Indian man was working the desk.

Today, I received an email from Choice Hotels inviting me to fill out an online survey of my experience. The email was signed:

Sona Gupta

So . . . what's up with this? Is Choice Hotels a predominantly Indian operation? Is it a Georgia thing? Or is it random chance? I never remember getting that strong an Indian vibe before.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Seeking an Arrangement?

Via Half Sigma, a NYT article about the matchmaking site,

. . . a down-and-dirty marketplace where older moneyed men and cute young women engage in brutally frank transactions. They’re not searching for longtime soul mates; they want no-strings-attached “arrangements” that trade in society’s most valued currencies: wealth, youth and beauty. In the cheesy lexicon of the site, they are “sugar daddies” and “sugar babies.”


Beth Bailey, a Temple University historian of courtship, said that her first reaction to the site was “revulsion.” But when she reconsidered it within the historical context of dating, she had a somewhat different response.

Heterosexual relationships, including marriage, have long involved economic transactions, but Bailey points out that when men provided financial security, they traditionally did so in exchange for a woman’s sexual virtue (and potential to bear and rear children), not for sexual thrills. For that, they often turned to prostitutes and mistresses, involving a more frank money-for-sex exchange. It’s only in the last century that money has been traded — albeit indirectly — for sexual attention from “respectable” unmarried women. In the early 1900s, courtship shifted from girls’ porches or parlors to a commercial venture: a date. Etiquette manuals of the time were explicit — boys were to pay for meals, entertainment and transportation, and in return, girls were to provide well-groomed company, rapt attention and at least a certain amount of physical affection. His money bought not only companionship but also her indebtedness.

“It made a lot of people uneasy, because if men’s money was central to the dating relationship, what distinguished it from prostitution?” Bailey says. Seen in this context, Bailey argues, Seeking Arrangement “is a piece of contemporary society. It’s simply more explicit and transparent about the bargains struck in the traditional model of dating.”

With an important distinction. Whatever the transactional standing of 20th Century dating culture (and how innocent it seems in retrospect), up until quite recently it at least pretended to be actual courtship, i.e. a way of wooing a husband or wife. In contrast, the whole point of is that marriage is explicitly off the table from the get-go.

But then, marriage seems almost an accidental byproduct of mainstream "dating" culture anyway. Once you allow sex outside of marriage, you find all the secondary defenses against complete sexual anarchy to be so weak as to be hardly worth the effort.

So it's hard for me to get much upset by Brandon Wade's creation. On the contrary, from a nerd's point of view, it is appealingly democratic: money is fungible, and here it buys opportunity for an almost-exclusive GFE with a pretty young woman. Plus, it has two apparent advantages over prostitution: it's more satisfying to the ego, and it's more cost effective. Remember that Ashley Dupre' wanted $5k per hour, whereas here $5k buys a month or more of attention.

But the externalities remain: such activity continues our distortion of the sexual marketplace away from monogamy, marriage and family.

One more thing:

Sugar babies outnumber daddies 10 to 1, Wade says.

In hindsight, it's hard for me to remember why I was once so fool as to believe in the moral superiority of women.

Friday, April 10, 2009

GRE Percentiles: The Affirmative Action Effect

In my last post, I examined the graduate school exam percentile score data as published by Steve Sailer, and discovered that the low percentage of black college graduates scoring above the white median (~16% for the GRE) is partially but not fully explained as an artifact of the different distributions of ability between blacks and whites: specifically, that the black mean in cognitive ability is one standard deviation below the white mean.

In this post, I will examine whether affirmative action in college admissions affects these results. Based on my initial model, the answer, by inspection, would be: no effect. No student, black or white, magically acquires cognitive ability by the mere fact of college admittance. If +1 SD ability (i.e. an IQ of 115) is necessary to graduate from a competitive college, then admitees with lower ability would simply fail to graduate.

But this analysis ignores the fact that college admissions criteria only estimate a student's ability. There is no bias in these criteria, but there is error: as any college registrar can tell you, some students do, in fact, outperform their admissions portfolio . . . and other students underperform it. I myself saw students with 800 math SAT scores earn C's in calculus. I also saw students with a score of 540 earn the same C.

Thus, students taking the GRE have met two complementary standards: they tested well enough to meet the college admissions criteria, and then they performed well enough to graduate. So, if a college relaxes its admissions standards for black applicants, but maintains the standards for graduation, some of the affirmative action admits will succeed in meeting the higher standard. As has been amply documented, such policies come with great human costs: the greater majority of the AA admits will not graduate, but enter the work force with less work experience, a mountain of debt, and no credential.

Our extended analysis makes use of a two-dimensional probability distribution f as a function of tested ability t (in other words, their composite admissions portfolio as determined by the college) and demonstrated performance p (their actual ability in college). This pdf is defined by the equation:

Let's go over these variables one at a time: μ-bar is a vector of the tested mean μt and the performance mean μp. σt and σp are the tested and performance standard deviations. ρ is the correlation coefficient, a measure of how much variation exists between tested ability and demonstrated ability. If ρ = 1, then the admissions tests would absolutely predict performance; this was the unstated assumption in my previous post. If ρ = 0, then the two variables bear no relationship to each other. In practice, ρ will fall between 0 and 1. Σ is called the covariance matrix and is a convenient way of representing the data.

As before, we will model the white population as a standard distribution: μt = μp = 0 and σt = σp = 1. (There is no reason to suppose the tested and performance means and variances differ with respect to each other. I will arbitrarily set ρ = 0.5. For those who think this estimate is too low, let me say that from my experience, admissions criteria are not nearly as accurate a predictor as most people think. Using my earlier example, I once ran a regression between math SAT scores and performance on Calc I. The correlation coefficient was about 0.3. I imagine that other factors (GPA, extra curricular activities, etc) improve on that estimate, but I would be surprised if we exceed 0.5. So our 2D pdf is now:

As before, we will expect our GRE-takers to have met a +1 SD standard along both the tested and the performance dimensions. I have started to question this parameter, because the number of students meeting both standards is (by my calculation; your mileage may vary) only 6%, down from 16% for a single standard. This implies that more than 60% of students testing above +1 SD fail to perform at that level. Since graduation rates are higher than that at competitive colleges, then assuming my other parameters are correct, I am guessing that many if not most of their admissions committees build a margin of error into their admissions standards.

Returning to the GRE: assuming that GRE takers have successfully met the +1 SD standard along both dimensions, we can calculate the median performance pmed by:

where tc = pc = 1. I computed this as pmed = 1.5, slightly higher than the result for as single dimension.

We will model the distribution of black ability as:

We will then calculate the percentage of black test takers who exceed pmed:

If we assume that black test takers were admitted without affirmative action, i.e. the admissions cuttoff for blacks is the same for whites, tcb = tc, then the percentage of blacks meeting the white median climbs to 38%. But let's assume that the college has a quota for blacks, and admits them up from +1 SD from the black mean or up from the white mean of zero. If tcb = 0, then %med = 31%.

In conclusion, the affirmative action assumption, applied to our two-dimensional model, brings our calculated value for the black percentile a little closer, but still some distance from the actual percentile of 16%.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Affirmative Action-free GRE Scores

Steve Sailer publishes a table of graduate school admissions tests results, broken out by race. Steve explains:

To make all the numbers comprehensible, I’ve converted them to show where the mean for each race would fall in percentile terms relative to the distribution of scores among non-Hispanic white Americans. Most of us have some sense of what the distribution of talent is among whites—political correctness doesn’t demand we avert our eyes when it comes to whites—so I’ll use whites as benchmarks.

Here is is table:

Mean Score as Percentile of White Distribution

TestDegreeYear White Black Asian Tot Hisp Mex-Am
GMATM.B.A.200850%13%55% 27% 24%
GRE-VerbalPh.D./M.A.200750%18% 47% 29% 28%
GRE-Quant200750%14%66% 29% 28%
LSATJ.D.200650%12%47% 19% 29%
MCAT-VerbalM.D.200750%10%36%/td> 19% 21%
MCAT-Phys Sci200750%14%61% 24% 25%
MCAT-Biol Sci200750%10%54% 24% 25%
DATD.D.S.200550%16%60% 27% NA

Steve has his own commentary on what these numbers mean. What I want to examine is the median black score as a percentile of the white median. Looking at the GRE scores, for instance, we see that only 16% (cumulative estimate) of blacks scored above the white mean. This is extraordinary when you consider that the test is presumably taken exclusively by college graduates, among which the black representation presumably reflects their -1SD mean cognitive ability.

But what should the black percentile be? Our initial guess might be: 50%. After all, whatever affirmative action might be present in college admissions, blacks have presumably met the same graduation standards, correct?

Actually, no. First, there is abundant evidence that black graduates are overrepresented in less-demanding fields of study: elementary ed, say, rather than engineering. But second, even aside from academic specialty, there is additional reason to expect that black GRE scores would be lower: the distribution of test takers is not normally distributed; rather, they are distributed along the upper tail of a normal distribution.

Consider a hypothetical. Let's assume that college graduates taking the GRE possess a minimum +1SD academic ability above the white mean. This strikes me as reasonable. Granted, many more students than this attend college, but the dropout rate is high, and will will assume at present that the just-got-by students don't aspire to professional school. Thus, in the graph below, if the blue line represents the distribution of academic ability among the white population (μ = 0, σ = 1), the shaded area represents the distribution of white GRE test-takers.

It is from the shaded area only that the median white score (in SD's) must be calculated. For the math geeks, given a cutoff score of tc = 1, we are trying to find the median score tmed:

For the bit-heads, the Matlab code looks like this:

t_c = 1;

t = t_c:.001:(t_c + 2);

t_med = ...

max(t((1 - normcdf(t))./(1-normcdf(t_c))>.5))

Given my assumptions, tmed turns out to equal around 1.4 SD. Thus, assuming no selection bias or other means of skewing the results, the black percentile score would be calculated by comparing the percentage of the black distribution (μ = -1, σ = 1) that exceeds the median white ability tmed = 1.4 to the percentage of the black population that exceeded the cutoff for taking the test, tc = 1:

Again with the Matlab:

percentile = ...

(1 - normcdf(t_med,-1,1))/(1 - normcdf(t_c,-1,1))

This percentile score turns out to be about 35%. In other words, lower than 50%, but not as low as the measured value of 16%. How can we account for the difference?

Steve provides some additional data on the number of test takers among the different ethnic groups as compared to their representation in the population. It turns out that blacks have only half the representation among test takers (e.g. 47% for the GRE) as their percentage of the population would predict, which sounds low . . . until you consider that the black share of those with +1SD academic ability is only 14% of their percentage of the population.

Well, I did make up the +1SD standard. Is there an ability cutoff whereby black representation among test takers would be 50% of its representation in the population? For those of you keeping score at home, we are trying to find:

t = -1:.001:0;

t_c = ...

max(x((1 - normcdf(t,-1,1))./(1-normcdf(t))>.5))

t = t_c:.001:0;

t_med = ...

max(t((1 - normcdf(t))./(1-normcdf(t_c))>.5));

percentile = ...

(1 - normcdf(t_med,-1,1))/(1 - normcdf(t_c,-1,1))

The solution to the standard tc to this equation turns out to be -0.68 SD. Not only is this number absurd (equivalent to pretending that an IQ of 90 is sufficient to graduate from college), but it still only gives a percentile score of 25%. In other words, it's closer to the measured value of 16%, but still not close enough. In fact, the only standard by which only 16% of black test takers would exceed the white median would be: no standard. In other words, if we were to administer the GRE to the entire population (or some random sample thereof), the white median would be zero (in a standard distribution), and 16% of blacks would exceed it. Bear in mind what we are measuring: as the standard goes up, the black representation among those that meet it decreases; however, among the blacks that do meet the standard, the percentile score compared to the white median improves.

In order to account for the black percentile score, it is necessary for us to drop the assumption of a single standard. Clearly, the GRE and other graduate school exams dip much further in the pool of black college graduates than they do in the pool of white college graduates. How much more? Well, let's return to our assumption of a t_c of +1SD, but apply it only to the white students. What would the standard applied to black test takers (herewith t_cb) be in order to lower the percentile score to 16%?

t_c = 1;

t = t_c:.001:(t_c + 2);

t_med = ...

max(t((1 - normcdf(t))./(1-normcdf(t_c))>.5))

t = 0:.001:t_c;

t_cb = ...

max(t((1 - normcdf(t_med,-1,1))./(1 - normcdf(t,-1,1))<.16))

The value thus calculated for tcb is 0.64. This is equivalent to an IQ cutoff for black college graduates of 110 versus an IQ cutoff for white college graduates of 115. In conclusion, while we can partially account for the black percentile score on the GRE by improving our model of the distribution of test-takers, we cannot account for all of it. It is therefore fairly evident that Steve's analysis is almost certainly correct: the GRE and other graduate school exams dips much further into the pool of black college graduates than it does in the pool of white college graduates. Why this is, and indeed why there is a deeper pool from which they can draw, is a question that merits more examination.