Friday, February 26, 2010

Are the Parts of the Obama Plan Popular, While the Whole is Not?

In the bipartisan health care summit on Thursday BHO used a talking point you see around a lot. Reminded that poll after poll show that the American voter is solidly against his health plan (in one, a combined 75% want him to either start over or drop the health care issue altogether) he said:
...what's interesting is actually when you poll people about the individual elements in each of these bills, they're all for them.
The generally fair and thoughtful conservative columnist Byron York (plus, he has nineteenth-century hair!) points out the large grain of truth in this claim:
Just look at the latest survey from CNN and Opinion Research. When asked if they support "preventing health insurance companies from dropping coverage for people who become seriously ill," 62 percent say yes. When asked whether they support "requiring all large and midsized businesses to provide health insurance for their employees," 72 percent say yes. And when asked if they support "preventing health insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions," 58 percent say yes.
So what gives? Are people really stupid enough, as BHO suggests, to support all the parts of something and reject the whole? Probably what he is thinking is that the voters have been confused by the propaganda of the folks who don't like his plan. But people would have to be really, seriously stupid to be manipulated in that way. Either people are committing a gross logical fallacy, or they have been bamboozled into having an opinion on the plan while remaining grossly ignorant of its most basic components.

York has a sensible explanation for these odd-looking preferences, one that avoids the assumption that Americans are blithering morons: when you ask about the parts one at a time, that sounds like incrementalism, and when you ask about the whole enchilada, that sounds like radical change. Americans prefer incrementalism to radical change. Whether you agree with that preference or not, it is one that neither violates the requirements of logic nor reflects abysmal ignorance.

I have an additional possible explanation. When people are asked about the components, no mention is made of possible costs. Would it be nice to eliminate pre-existing conditions as a consideration for health insurance? Sure, why not? Well, if we enacted that component, and did nothing else, then people would have no reason to buy insurance until they develop and expensive medical condition. Paying for routine doctor visits and medicines would cost a lot less than my premiums do right now. But then premiums would skyrocket, far beyond where they already are. Would you like that? That's not the question, and of course most folks wouldn't be thinking of that unless the pollster points it out. Questions about components ask you about whether you think they would be a good thing and do not encourage thinking about costs.

On the other hand, one of the things everybody knows about the whole package is that its defenders say it would cost around a trillion dollars over the first ten years. Here probably a lot of people are thinking of costs, even in the absence of encouragement to do so. Thus to some extent answers to the part-questions and whole questions are about different things. Also, the answer to the whole-question deserves to be taken more seriously, since taking costs into consideration is exactly the sort of thing that common-sense prudence requires.

People aren't as stupid as their leaders think they are.

Also, I don't think it is true that people are "all for" all of the provisions of the bill. Lists like York's, and the one Obama gives in the comment I quote from above, omit mention of the least popular provision in the plan.

For this one, poll numbers swing wildly, depending on how the question is asked. Here is the result of one poll (note that this question does mention one of the costs of the provision):
Question: "Let's say that Congress passed a new law saying that everyone either would have to obtain private or public health insurance approved by the government or pay a tax of $750 or more every year. Would you support or oppose this law?"

That's 71% opposed. Pretty terrible numbers for a provision that folks are "all for."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What is Terrorism?

Joseph Stack's suicidal attack on the Austin IRS offices last week sparked an interesting debate about what terrorism is. Opinion is divided on whether Stack was acting as a terrorist. Here is my take.

Scenario #1: There is some act, A, that I want you to do. I approach you and a friend. Your friend is "innocent" in the sense that they are not responsible for your not doing A. I draw a gun and point it at you, threatening to kill you if you do not do A. This is coercion.

Scenario # 2: Same as above, but I initiate our conversation by drawing my weapon and blowing your friend's brains out, right before your eyes. I then point my weapon at you. You are terrified and demoralized. Your capacity for rational deliberation has been more or less wiped out. Whatever I do next, you are much more likely to do A than you were a moment ago. This is terror.

[Hat-tip: For these examples I am indebted to professor and dissertator Mohamed Abed.]

Terror is a non-coercive use of violence, though typically it is part of a wider coercive plan. Another sort of violence, quite different from both, is revenge. Coercion and terror are both cases of strategic behavior (aimed at altering future behavior on the part of someone else) while revenge is non-strategic. In revenge we inflict harm as an end in itself.

Revenge is retrospective and despairing. It redresses an evil in the past, not by making the future better, but by adding another evil. Terror is prospective and optimistic. The terrorist is trying to steer the future in a good direction. Terrorist suicide bombers do not commit suicide because they see their lives as hopeless: quite the reverse.

Some people have argued that Stack cannot be regarded as a terrorist because he was not part of a conspiracy, such as Al-Qaeda. If you accept the above view, this is quite irrelevant to whether he acted as a terrorist or not. Terror is defined by motive and method, not by social context.

Others have pointed out that his suicide note said he hoped that his attack would spark an uprising. I am inclined to think that this is evidence that his act was terrorist in nature. At least, it suggests that his behavior was strategic.

Still others have said that the fact that he burned his house down is evidence that his behavior was not terroristic. That may well be right. This seemingly pointless act of destruction suggests that his motives were pure hatred and anger, and that his act was non-strategic, belonging in the category of revenge and not terror.

Others have said that the only reason he is not universally regarded as a terrorist is that he was white. I rather doubt this, as his act was genuinely ambiguous. It really depends on which aspect of his act you take more seriously.

Unless someone gives me a good reason to think otherwise, I currently lean toward thinking of Stack as a despairing, vengeful nut and not a genuine terrorist.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Market Failure or Government Failure?

This evening there will be a panel here at the University of Wisconsin on one of the greatest issues of the day: Should we be more worried about the way markets fail, or the way governments fail? When markets go wrong, voters tend to flee to the safety of state power. But is it really all that safe?

The two speakers include economist Edward Lopez, an economist with a George Mason Ph. D., and a philosopher of economics, Dan Hausman, from my own department. (Yay home team! Actually, on this one, I may sympathize more with the other side. Of course, it depends on what they say.)

I will be moderating, if moderation should prove to be possible. The poster at the left has all the details. (Click to enlarge. It tells the whole story.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Agreeing with Terrorists

Here Neil Cavuto asks Scott Brown for his reaction to Joseph Stack's terrorist attack on the Austin TX IRS offices and the "crazy stuff" on the web page he wrote just before going out to (apparently) attempt mass murder, and Brown seems to be saying that it may have been an instance of the mass disaffection with the system that swept him into office. (For a more sophisticated statement of a similar idea, see this.)

Okay, he's put his foot in it, but his maladroit answer raises an interesting ethical issue: What should I think or feel if people who hold some ideas that I also hold do evil acts on the basis of those shared ideas?

I see two possible arguments here. One says something like this: Maybe these ideas caused that person to do that evil thing. Therefore, maybe I should not believe this idea, or express it too vigorously. It causes bad things to happen. Basically, this is what I call "the climate of hate theory." I think it is a very bad idea. Essentially, it is an argument against drawing conclusions that might make some people, who believe those conclusions, angry. It is an argument against drawing conclusions that imply there is something seriously unjust about the system you live in. It's hard to imagine an argument that is friendlier to established power, or more hostile to dissidence of every sort.

Ideas that radically dissent from the established order will tend to make people who accept those ideas angry. As a group of people becomes generally more angry, it becomes more probable that some nutcase will do something violent. So what? Is that a reason to stop radically dissenting? I say it is not.

The other possible argument would be something like this: Maybe these ideas would justify the bad thing that person did. Therefore, maybe I should not believe this idea, or express it too vigorously. It implies that things that are unjustifiable, are justified. This is a perfectly good argument. Obviously, an idea that would justify evil is a wrong idea: it has false implications.

If I hold ideas that would justify what Joe Stack, or the Unabomber, or Dr. Hasan did, then I jolly well ought to take another look at those ideas. Fast.

On the other hand, I am not per se responsible for the bad things that people who agree with me do.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Joe Stack: Left or Right?

Joseph Stack deliberately crashed his plane into the Autin TX offices of the IRS, killing one person (in addition to himself), after apparently having set fire to his own house with his wife and daughter inside. (Update: Later reports indicate that his wife and daughter were not home at the time of the fire). Within minutes the blogosphere was buzzing with leftists claiming Stack was a right winger (he hit the IRS, after all, and left a suicide note on the web attacking the government) and with right wingers claiming he was a leftist (he attacks giant corporations, capitalism, organized religion, and the rich recipients of state largesse). Another instant opinion said he was neither left nor right. Yet another said he was both left and right, and therefore insane. A column on Newseek's web site hints at ideological connections with the Holocaust denier James von Brunn and the murderer of Dr. Tiller, though there is nothing remotely anti-Semitic in Stack's rant, and no mention of abortion or any other issues dear to "values" conservatives.

Yes, I've read his so-called manifesto. It attempts to explain his dreadful crime by telling the sorry story of his life, and as such reading it is like tearing the lid off Hell and hearing the howls of the damned and their demonic tormentors. As far as as some elements in it can be interpreted as expressing an ideology, though, or at least as fitting into one, I find it perfectly intelligible -- even familiar. What he says there is consistent with left libertarianism, or what one of its practitioners calls "free market anti-capitalism."

In Joseph Stack's America, when giant corporations and their super-rich managers screw up, they are bailed out by their buddies in government, at the expense of millions of suckers who are too slow in noticing that the rules are not made with their interests in mind, because they are very far from being "too big to fail." In his America, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living and provide for your old age in the independent private sector. More and more, to get along you must join up with the bloated, politically connected corporations or their partners in the government.

Believe me, I'm neither blaming nor exonerating anybody here. I'm just saying that, though he was most likely a non-ideological person simply reacting the the circumstances of his own failed life, if we want to find ideology in his statement, the above notions are consistent with the left-libertarian view. The people who found Stack's screed incoherent or uncategorizable are simply not familiar with this alternative interpretation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Mystery of the Huntsville Shooter

More bizarre details are emerging about Amy Bishop, the U. of Alabama shooter. According to the Boston Globe:

In March, 2002, Bishop walked into an International House of Pancakes in Peabody with her family, asked for a booster seat for one of her children, and learned the last seat had gone to another mother.

Bishop, according to a police report, strode over to the other woman, demanded the seat and launched into a profanity-laced rant.

When the woman would not give the seat up, Bishop punched her in the head, all the while yelling "I am Dr. Amy Bishop."

Bishop received probation and prosecutors recommended that she be sent to anger management classes, though it is unclear from court documents whether a judge ever sent her there.

The woman, identified in court documents as Michelle Gjika, declined to comment, saying only "It's not something I want to relive."
By now, the pipe bomb story is well known, as is the "accidental" shooting of her brother, and the long record of obnoxious behavior toward neighbors. A picture has emerged of a person who has always been mean and dangerous.

So many things about this case are mysterious, I am tempted to throw up my hands and quote Procopius, the last of the ancient historians (he was speaking of fortune's "perverse and unaccountable will):
But these things, I believe, have never been comprehensible to man, nor will they ever be. Nevertheless there is always much talk on these subjects, and opinions are always being bandied about... as each of us seeks comfort for his ignorance...
Among the opinions "bandied about" in early reports of the murders involved reference to "the academic pressure cooker" and the "the pressure cooker world of technology startups." Sheesh. Now everyone is a victim, even the privileged, pampered denizens of the modern university. Procopius, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

I see two huge mysteries here. One is what Paul called "the mystery of iniquity" ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7). On this one I rather lean in Procopius' direction. We may never understand completely why people do such things.

The other is: how did this mean, obnoxious, unstable person get as far in the social system as she did before she crashed and burned? Here I can hesitantly suggest an answer. Notice that the comments on her "Rate My Professor" page are actually much more favorable than those of most of the people she shot. Note that her department's tenure vote was not overwhelmingly against her, and that the chair actually supported her. What I suspect is that she had a talent which is very valuable for a deranged maniac to have: she was able to be very selective regarding the targets of her mean and violent behavior.

If someone had to be pleased, she was willing and able to do so.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Professors Who Kill

This demonic face (click to enlarge, unless you are prone to nightmares) belongs to the University of Alabama professor who is alleged to have shot six colleagues yesterday, killing at least three, because they had voted to deny her tenure. As the police took her away, it is reported that she screamed: "It didn't happen! There's no way ... they are still alive!"

Maybe it's because I'm a professor myself, but for whatever reason I find this personally very disturbing. It's hard to think about anything else for the moment. I'm sitting here googling to find other cases of homicidal academics. They seem to be very, very rare. We academics are really uncommonly peaceful as a group. So far, I have only found three other cases, aside from the U of A shooter:

Of course, there is the loathsome George Zinkhan, University of Georgia business school prof who killed his wife and two others, then committed suicide after burying himself alive. This last was probably part of an malicious attempt to prevent the world from ever finding out what happened to him (it nearly succeeded).

Then there was Valery Fabrikant, a Canadian professor of engineering who shot four colleagues to to death for denying him tenure. [Update: But see comment thread on this.] Reportedly, he continues to do research from his prison cell. A decade after the killings, he posted on a web site a comment that suggests an utter lack of remorse: “I hope to be remembered as a person who had enough courage to fight lawlessness with deadly force and I hope to encourage others to do the same.”

Strangest of them all was Eric Muenter, a Harvard German instructor who slowly killed his wife with arsenic and then skipped town. He resurfaced in Texas under a different name and eventually became a professor at Cornell. He re-entered history when he decided to single-handedly end World War I by blowing up the Capitol in Washington D. C., assassinating J. P. Morgan, and blowing up munitions ships. His cleverly designed bomb took out the reception room at the Capitol and knocked a guard at the other end of the building off a bench on which he had been snoozing, but otherwise did no harm. He did manage to get a slug into Morgan before being subdued by Morgan's butler, but Morgan later recovered. As to the ships, one of them did mysteriously catch fire on the day Muenter claimed his bomb was set to go off, but this could be a coincidence. The ship frantically sped to the nearest port so the fire could be extinguished before its cargo could blow the whole thing to smithereens.

You know, I just noticed something all four cases have in common, other than being profs and killers: they were all bat-sh*t crazy.

Perched on the platform of this tiny sample, I hereby heroically leap to the conclusion that, compared to other people, academics have a powerful inhibition against committing heinous acts, unless they are actually insane.

So, despite yesterday's horrors, you don't have to worry about our behavior. As far as that is concerned, we are bovine and harmless. On the whole, it's our ideas that do real the damage.
Update: The story of the U of A shooter keeps getting stranger. She is no stranger to violence, it tuns out. When she was about 20, she "accidentally" shot her 18 year old brother to death. I have long suspected that many fatal gun "accidents" are murders or suicides. This looks like it is just such a case. Guns are scary things and adults naturally handle them with care.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Government is Unfair

Here is my old friend from my days as a Minnesotan, Danny Shapiro, talking about his critique of the welfare state (sadly, this video is not embeddable). His thesis: just about every welfare state policy is inferior to some alternative, even by the standards of those who advocate such policies, including the standard sometimes known distributive justice (or "fairness").

A glaring example, possibly different from the sort he cites, just popped up in a Madison WI newspaper.

First, a word of explanation. One way to grasp the idea of distributive justice is to think of the phrase from The Communist Manifesto, "to each according to his ____." How you fill in the blank varies -- according to his moral virtue, talent, contribution to society, effort, or maybe (Marx and Engels' favorite) need -- but the basic idea is that your wealth, income, or whatever, ideally ought to be part of an ordered response to characteristics people have which indicate that they "deserve" the income, etc. Discussions of distributive justice commonly take place with the following sort of background assumptions: There is little chance that free markets will conform to any of these ordered patterns. If distributive justice makes sense, then the government should step in and fix the situation. The question is whether it does make sense and if so which form is the best (to each according to his ... what?). That is how Robert Nozick discusses it in his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

People seldom ask whether government itself is distributively just. Take a look at this list of the 20 highest paid municipal employees in Madison WI last year:

John Nelson, Bus driver, $159,258

Dean Brasser, Comptroller, $151,551

Noble Wray, Police chief, $143,585

Michael May, City attorney, $143,434

Carolyn Hogg, Assistant city attorney, $138,084

Mark Olinger, Planning and Development director, $136,787

Randy Gaber, Assistant police chief, $136,248

Debra Amesqua, Fire chief, $136,163

John Davenport, Assistant police chief, $134,382

James Keiken, Assistant fire chief, $133,589

Michael Dirienzo, Assistant fire chief, $133,144

Paul Bloom, Assistant fire chief, $132,873

David Dryer, Traffic engineer/parking manager, $130,831

Tom Carto, Overture Center president, $129,566

Carl Gloede, Police Captain, $128,750

Katherine Noonan, Assistant city attorney, $126,709

James Hess, Monona Terrace director, $126,593

Roger Allen, Assistant city attorney, $126,592

Brad Murphy, Planning unit director, $126,363

Greg Tatman, Bus driver, $125,598

Note that two of them, #20 and, astoundingly, #1 are ordinary city bus drivers. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz did not earn enough to make it on to this list. Now, I'm not anti-bus-driver (my grandfather drove a bus in Detroit MI all his working life) but surely there is no sane version of the distributive justice idea that can justify this arrangement.

The above-linked article, by the way, explains why this odd distribution of income happened: Bus drivers, unlike mayors, are unionized, and the Teamsters got the municipal bus drivers a contract with lavish pay for overtime, and apparently no limits on how much overtime any one employee can accumulate. The article also mentions that this situation last came to John Q. Public's attention in1998, when it caused a bit of a flap. Obviously, the resulting public ire had absolutely no effect on the situation during the twelve long years that have crept by since then.

I draw two conclusions:

1. Government can be distributively unjust, even absurdly so.

2. It can be very, very difficult for John and Jane Public to do a damn thing about it.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Green Police

This was the only Superbowl commercial that caught my attention last night, and boy did it ever.

What the Hell does it mean? My first reaction was note to self: never, even if you can ever afford it, buy an Audi, ever. But then I thought, maybe its depiction of an environmentalist police state is a parody of over-the-top eco-mania. (Note that, in the second shot of the eco roadblock vignette, one of the cops seems to be using a contraband-sniffing aardvark.) If so, it misfired as far as I'm concerned.

I know, I know, their main message is that buying their car will be proof of your environmentalist virtue, but this seems like a creepy way to say that.

Here is an analogy: (Hat-tip to a commenter on Hit and Run) In a movie set in the holocaust, the protagonist is in a death camp, mayhem and death is all around him. Just as it seems it is his turn to be killed, the Kommandant summons him to his office: "We have discovered you are not a Jew after all. You are free to go." He walks out of the camp smiling: happy ending. Obviously, the makers of such a movie do not appreciate how evil the holocaust was. Similarly, the makers of this add do not seem to appreciate the oppressiveness of the behavior they are depicting in it.

BTW, note that the bit about the incandescent bulb is barely fictional. I love the warm, true, continuous-spectrum light of incandescent bulbs and loathe the cold, false, jagged-spectrum light of fluorescent sources, and that I suppose is another reason I'm not in the mood to laugh at this.
Uptdate: Evidence of satirical intent: it turns out the firm that made the commercial is based in San Francisco, where it actually is illegal to put an orange rind in your sink (because you're supposed to compost it). That doesn't necessarily mean the ad is coherent and not-creepy, though. See the comments thread, below.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

"Red Eye" Turns Three

Greetings truth-seekers! "Red Eye" turned three years old yesterday. It's the edgiest, most radical news and views show on TV. In its early days I thought of it as "that show where everybody seems to be gay, even though it's on Fox."

Now I see it for what it is: Like "Clash of the Titans," if by "Titans" you mean "crazed maniacs." There's conservative Greg Guttfeld. If trenchant commentary were three hundred bucks, I'd blow him in Disneyland. Then there's libertarian Andy Levy. He's so bright I'm starting to think of those annoying halogen headlights as andylevylights. And liberal Bill Schulz. In the Andaman Islands he is thought to be a mollusk. He's also the wittiest of the three, I think.

The only problem with the show, other than its many lapses from good taste, is its time slot. As if to protect us, Fox airs it at 3:00 am eastern. But they are easily foiled with the help of a programmable recording device. Long may Red Eye prosper!