Thursday, April 29, 2010

That Arizona Immigration Law

Boy, you know that things have gotten crazy when Chris Matthews is is the voice of reason. I think he is right here on all counts. In particular, there's been a lot of nonsense said about the new Arizona law. That's the one that takes the (admittedly extraordinary) step of creating a state offense that mirrors a federal offense -- illegal immigration status -- and empowers state officials to take enforcement steps regarding this new offense (presumably leading to the illegal resident's being turned over to federal officials).

Matthews probably is thinking of the comment by the Roman Catholic Cardinal of LA that the new Arizona immigration law involves "Nazi and Communist" techniques. The ADL agrees that these Nazi comparisons are obnoxious and trivialize the atrocities of the Third Reich. Of course they are right about this, too.

I hate to say anything so boring, but it seems to me this is one of those cases where there are weighty arguments on both sides.

The part of the law that a lot of the screaming is about reads like this: "For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency…where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person…" That is, representatives of any law enforcement agency can ask people for their papers on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" alone, provided the contact between the agent and the person is otherwise lawful.

Proponents of the bill have pointed out that this does not empower the cops to stop people in order to ask for their documents. The typical case, they say, would be a routine traffic stop over a missing tail light.

The wording seems to me, though, to include any contact that is not illegal, including a conversation on the street, at least if it was initiated by the civilian, who may be seeking help or trying to report an accident or crime. I have read several cases of people who go to the police for help and end up being under suspicion themselves, sometimes with very nasty results. [Update: I've just noticed that, since I wrote this, the bill has been amended to eliminate the broad "lawful contact" language, replacing it with a requirement that the cop asking for papers must be stopping, detaining, or arresting the individual involved on other grounds than immigration status concerns. Presumably, this was intended to eliminate just the sort of overbreadth problem that I am talking about here.]

Again, proponents have pointed out that non-citizens are already required by federal law to carry papers proving their legal right to be here. However, unless America became a police state while I was asleep last night, citizens are not. True, in most states (not quite all) a drivers' license is adequate proof that you are legal, but you are currently not required to carry it when you are not driving. (I often don't.)

Under this law, Arizona citizens are liable to have to interrupt what they are doing and go with a police officer to a place where they can prove that they are not illegals. While it does not saddle them with a new obligation, it does expose them to a new liability to being interfered with and, quite possibly, harassed. This is a big change from the status quo and I don't blame them for being upset.

Then there is the complaint that this law is unconstitutional because federal law preempts state law, and the state of Arizona is violating a fundamental principle of federalism.

I'm not so sure of this one. After all, Arizona is trying to enforce federal law, not undermine it. This dubious measure was only enacted because, due to the feds' refusal or inability to enforce their own laws there are now almost 1/2 million illegals (so far) in Arizona. It seems like the preemption argument has to maintain that, not only does federal law trump state law, but federal incompetence and cowardice does so as well.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

GM Commercial: Is this a Lie?

Here is an interesting philosophical question for you. Is this commercial a) misleading, b) deceptive, or c) a bare-faced lie? I'm wavering between b and c.

In it, the CEO of General Motors argues that the massive TARP loans made to them last year by the Obama administration (with money dedicated by congress to bailing out banks, not car companies) were not such bad idea after all, given that they have now paid them back, in full, with interest, and five years early. When I heard that, I thought what millions of others thought. GM must have made a miraculous recovery and paid the taxpayers back with money they had earned from their customers. CBS news described the White House as "exulting" in the fabulous news. And no wonder!

Except that this is not what happened at all. As revealed in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee the day after all the exulting began, what GM had actually done was to take billions from another fund of taxpayer money, held in escrow for GM by the Treasury Department, and simply transfer it to another account. This was explained yesterday in a well-reasoned, gentlemanly letter Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) sent to Treasury Secretary Geithner. (His letter has for some reason disappeared from the senator's web site, but you can read the full text in this blog post.)

It's possible to deceive people by means other than lying. To lie, you must make a statement that is false. This man, and the exultant administration, are lying if you judge that what GM did doesn't not count as a "repayment." After all, if the taxpayers were payed by in effect taking even more money from them, they are no more solvent than they were before. In fact, the wording of Grassley's letter suggests that the money in the escrow account is loot GM has no legal obligation to ever give back to the taxpayers, so what they are doing sounds more like a default than a repayment.

On the other hand, you might decide that, by state decree, the money in that escrow account is legitimately the property of GM, so that they really are repaying the taxpayers, though with money that used to belong to them.

However, as I've said, it is possible to deceive people without overt lying. You are being deceptive if you make a statement on the basis of which a reasonable alert, reasonably trusting audience will believe something that is false. I and millions of others did believe something false on the basis of this ad. You are dishonest if you are deceptive in a way that is morally wrong. Your deception is morally wrong if you are doing it in order to gain at the expense of the deceived person.

It seems to me that, by these definitions, this ad and the exultant administration spokespersons are being both deceptive and dishonest. Not only are they being deceptive but if we remain deceived about this goofy shell game then in the long run they gain and we lose.

By the way, I love the title of this commercial: "Trust."

(Developing: Go here and scroll to 2:18, and you can see Obama earlier today repeating GM's lie, or whatever it was, word for word. For an account of the real reason GM paid the $6.7 billion loan now rather than later, look at this. No, it's not a nice reason.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Should You Tone Down Your Rhetoric?

The charges made in this video clip -- eg., that Palin and Beck are (almost!) guilty of the crime of sedition -- are far beneath contempt, but over the weekend Bill Clinton made a related point that raises and interesting ethical issue.

Apparently referring to Cong. Michelle Bachman's remark at a tax day rally that we currently live under a "gangster government," he said:

By all means keep fighting, by all means, keep arguing. But remember, words have consequences as much as actions do, and what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City. [See also this.]
That is, rhetoric like Bachman's can cause a new Timothy McVeigh to bomb another Murrah Building.

It's wrong to contribute to causing evil to be done, seems to be the idea.

Now, depending on context, I think there can be very good reasons for avoiding angry hyperbole, but ordinarily I don't think this is one of them.

I am old enough to remember the Vietnam era. I and my young contemporaries were hopping mad about the draft and the war, and we expressed our rage fluently, intemperately, at times obscenely. But I never heard anybody say, "You'd better tone your rhetoric down. It's liable to cause riots, bombings, and arson." Come to think of it, we did have plenty of riots, bombings, and arson. At my school someone put a bomb in the faculty club. It killed a janitor, who apparently thought it was trash and tried to move it. He managed to crawl halfway to the faculty club swimming pool before he died. (He was apparently trying to extinguish the flames that had engulfed his body.) There was a similar case here at UW-Madison (the bomb killed a grad student). But when these things happened, no one said "Tsk, tsk. Now do you see what you went and did with your overheated rhetoric? You better tone it down!"

Why not? The short answer of course is that this would have seemed like a really, seriously stupid thing to say. Just as "Tone it down or you might set off some unbalanced maniac!" would have seemed a stupid response to people who said "Bush lied and people died."

What's the difference between these two situations on the one hand, and Oklahoma City and the Tea Parties on the other?

In the first two cases -- Vietnam and Iraq -- everyone sees the cause of the rage, and any violence that might have come of it, in the policies that people were angry about: the two wars, the death and mayhem they caused, and other horrific government policies. We don't see it as caused by things people said about the policies. Whether we supported the wars or not, we could see how these policies can make people really angry. Governments that do such things had better be ready for some rage, and not snivel and whine about it when they get it.

In the other two cases, some of us see the anger involved as caused (partly) by the object of the anger, while others do not see it as caused (even partly) by the object. Personally, I think that if the Murrah bombing had any cause other than McVeigh's evil mind, it was the government's assault on the Branch Davidian Compound two years earlier, which Gore Vidal later described like this:
during a six-hour assault, the building was set fire to and then bulldozed by Bradley armored vehicles. God saw to it that no F.B.I. man was hurt while more than 80 cult members were killed, of whom 27 were children. It was a great victory for Uncle Sam, as intended by the F.B.I., whose code name for the assault was Show Time. ...

The April 19, 1993, show at Waco proved to be the largest massacre of Americans by their own government since 1890, when a number of Native Americans were slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
I can see how such state actions can make someone really angry. Bill Clinton cannot. He thinks the cause can only reside in what people said about the attack.

Similarly, in the above clip, anti-Obama anger is explained in terms of everything but his policies: "seditious" rhetoric, racism, bad economic times. The bailouts, stimuli, and gigantic new government entitlements, the massive government moves into huge sectors of the economy -- they had nothing to do with it. (Despite a statement in the clip that seems to assert that Obama has only been president for a few months, during which nothing has changed, these comments were made three days ago.)

In a way, there is a difference in value judgments here. Independently of what I might think of the specific policy issues involved, I see all four cases as serious enough to make someone really angry. Bill, and the people in the video clip, do not. That I think is what separates us.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dissent Is Un-American. Again.

You can't read them in this image of it, but the banners on this City Lights Bookstore postcard say: Dissent ... Is ... Not ... Un ... American.

When I bought it during my visit to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I was tempted to say to the cashier, "I'm glad you found time to make this postcard during the Bush years, when this slogan was still true. Otherwise, it would never have been made." But I didn't think he would have known what I meant.

At least they are continuing to sell the card. I commend them for that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Taxed Enough Already? Or Not?

Here on Jefferson Street we payed less in taxes this year. For the first time in years, we got a refund, instead of scrambling to pay tax we still "owe." This is mainly because our income plunged in 2009. But we also benefited from the maze of tax credits Obama brought in to nudge, wheedle, and bribe people into forms of behavior that he likes. One of his favorite theories is that everyone should go to college. Since we have a kid in college, we got an Obama pat on the head for that.

On tax day, Obama said that he was "amused" by the tax protests going on all over the country. Given that so many are paying less this year, "You would think they'd be saying thank you."

I'll give him one thing, at least: If you are worried about big government, taxes aren't really the problem. The real problem is spending. Every time the government spends more, it must do one of three things, all of which are bad:

1) Yes, it can raise taxes now. That is apt to be problematic, both on grounds of efficiency and those of distributive justice. Efficiency: it prevents you from spending your money on things that you would choose to spend it on and directs it instead toward things that, for whatever reason, you did not choose to spend it on. Does the person who gets your money value it more highly than you? Maybe, but probably not. That's a net loss of happiness in the world. As to distributive justice: taxation takes money from the productive and in many cases gives it to the unproductive. Further, this money was taken from you by force, and in my opinion it takes a lot to justify using force. Whatever they are spending your money on, it had better be very, very important. My point though is that the government can cover new spending in two other ways, in addition to presently raising your taxes. As ethically problematic as this alternative is, the other two are much worse.

2) It can go further into debt. This means taxing you and future generations later on, and with interest. To the distributive justice problems involved in taxation itself, it adds two others. The future generations who will have to pay this debt off will be suffering costs without reaping most of the corresponding benefits: they will be paying for things that were gobbled up and pissed away long ago. Public debt is a sophisticated way to carry out one of the oldest and shabbiest functions of government: shoving one's costs on to other people. Moreover, when your grandchildren finally do pay your bills, the people they will be paying their money to may be people you do not feel are more deserving than they, such as corrupt crony-capitalists in China.

3) Finally, the government can cover new spending by inflating the currency. This is in effect the most dishonest, chaotic, and unjust form of taxation. It benefits borrowers at the expense of debtors, those to consume at the expense of those who save, and injures the old more than other age groups. Moreover, it disproportionately benefits people who receive money directly from the government: they are spending the extra dollars on things that have old, low prices. As the money ripples through the economy, it drives prices up and ends up in the hands of people far from the government money-faucet, who also have more dollars, but who by now are buying things that cost more dollars. They do not come out ahead. And people who do not get any extra dollars, because they live on fixed incomes, actually come out behind. (Hat-tip here to Ludwig von Mises.)

The root of all these evils is spending, and obsessing too much about taxes will cause the two even-worse options to be taken. This is hardly an idle point, as obsessing about current taxes, current tax hikes, and possible tax cuts is one of the cardinal sins of the Republican party.

The question in the title of this post is really the wrong question. But I think the tea party protesters basically understand this better than the Republicans do. If you look at the signs at those rallies that are attracting thousands upon thousands of first-time activists, or this statement of principles based on half a million online votes, what these people are so heated up about is the spending -- the bailouts, stimuli, and gigantic new entitlements. Obviously, these things haven't resulted in new taxes -- yet. But that only means that what will happen, eventually, will be even worse than immediate tax hikes. Unlike Obama, these people are looking at the future.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day!

If you are one of the 53% of Americans who still pay federal income tax, I feel your pain. Literally.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Argumentum ad Obaminem

Disclaimer: I find Sarah Palin's views on foreign or military policy appalling and am not defending them here. My point is a simple one about the logic of this exchange, not its policy content.

As I have pointed out before, Obama has a curious penchant for obviously fallacious reasoning. Here, if you scroll to 35, you will see a textbook-worthy use of argumentum ad hominem. The Obama administration has recently released a "nuclear posture review" that promises never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers who adhere to the non-proliferation treaty. Palin claims that pledging you will not use weapons in your possession is a strategy that weakens your defenses against aggression, like a kid on a playground who pledges not to hit back if struck.

Obama could have responded to this seemingly inevitable objection with one of the available counterarguments (a couple of which seem obvious to me). Instead, with smirking contempt, he belittles the source and says, in effect, that nothing she says on this subject could be possibly deserve a logical, factually-based reply.

This merely illustrates something I have said before. Obama's fallacies are not mere non sequiturs. He tends toward ones in which he attacks an opponent in ways that are unfair or disrespectful. (See above link.) This man's addiction to fallacious reasoning is not an intellectual failing at all. It is a moral one.
BTW, getting a little closer to the substantive policy issue, a better version of the Palin objection was that given yesterday by John Derbyshire:
Last week the administration put out its Nuclear Posture Review, telling the whole world the circumstances under which we will use nuclear weapons, so long as we still have them. This misses the point that the whole purpose of nuclear weapons is to make one's enemies nervous, not knowing whether you'd use them or not. Will we go nuclear if China invades Taiwan? Will we go nuclear if Iran attacks Israel? Will we go nuclear if Russia marches back into Estonia? How about if some terrorist lets off a nuke in Seattle and we trace it to North Korea? When, where, and how will we go nuclear? Let 'em guess!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Why Don't I Like Naked Love Scenes in Movies?

According to this story, the actor Neil McDonnough (I know him from the memorable series, Band of Brothers) has been fired from ABC's new series, Scoundrels last week for refusing to do an explicit love scene with Virginia Madsen.
The reason? He's a family man and a Catholic, and he's always made it clear that he won't do sex scenes. And ABC knew that.
I'm not quite sure why, but I've never really liked explicit sex scenes in a legitimate narrative film. They have always given me this slight cringing feeling of "too much information." By "legitimate narrative film" I mean to exclude hard core pornography. That I actually don't mind at all.

Is this an unusual reaction? I really don't know for sure. I notice that, even in this age of anything goes, full frontal nudity is still rather rare in American movies. I'm told that it is much more common in European movies, but I would be willing to bet that most of the film industries in the world fall far short of the European in this respect.

W. C. Fields famously said "never work with children or animals." The obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that you never know what the damn things are going to do next. Another would be that, as long as you are on screen with a kid or a hippopotamus, the audience will not be looking at you. They will be looking at the kid or the hippo.

Sex, for human beings, especially in cultures that still have some standards of modesty in dress and behavior, is emotionally extremely powerful. If you put full frontal nudity on screen, you had better be sure that this person's pubic hair is the most important thing in the shot, because the audience will be unable to see anything else. Similarly, explicit eroticism is tremendously distracting from everything else.

In pornography there is of course nothing to be distracted from: no plot development, no characterization, no interesting dialogue, no symbolism, no subtle emotional cross-currents, etc., etc. Hence there it works completely differently. In fact, the material that would be so distracting is the very thing you are there to see.

Speaking of working with kids, take a look at this clip, from the British TV series, "Outnumbered":

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

H1N1: What Have We Learned?

Now that the annual flu season is over, and it was no worse than usual, is it too early to ask: Do you remember the swine flu? I wrote the post below almost a year ago, in the naive belief that the government-induced panic over H1Ni was subsiding, whereas it had barely begun. I think that's the only thing in it that I have to take back now.

In America, schools closed (against the advice of qualified medical personnel) that didn't have a single case of swine flu. People with no symptoms came into emergency rooms demanding to be tested for the disease. The Egyptian government killed all of the 330,000 pigs in Egypt. Egyptian pig farmers (who for obvious reasons are all Christian) rioted. The only pig in Afghanistan (a zoo animal) has been quarantined. Useless travel advisories have damaged the already devastated economy of Mexico.

Is it too early to start speaking rationally about this thing? I sure hope not.

The excellent Dr. Marc Siegel pointed out a couple of years ago that the two previous global health scares to fizzled in recent years - SARS and the bird flu - had something in common: the CDC and the WHO. The swine flu makes three in a row.

This is a beautiful example of of some of the problems with strategies of anticipation, or searching out possible problems and preventing them from happening, as contrasted with those of resilience, or solving problems after they occur. I've commented on both here and here.

The trouble with resilience is that the costs of waiting until a problem show up can be avoided by heading it off -- if you can predict it. The trouble with anticipation is that prediction is often nearly impossible. Anticipatory systems, if over-used, will waste resources on threats more or less imaginary.

Obviously, the CDC/WHO system is doing just that. Some would say, "well that's just the price you pay -- you can't be too careful!" Oh yes you can! It's possible to spend too much on anything. The limits of the value of anything are given by the things one forgoes in order to get it.

In case it seems like security is so important that it is worth every sacrifice, just remember that the things we could have done with the resources we spend on any one safety precaution might well have been spent on other safety precautions. As Prof. Siegel says of the theoretical possibility of a new avian flu pandemic:
The priority being placed on it as a potential threat to humans is obscuring diseases that are already worldwide killers: malaria, which kills more than 1 million people a year; tuberculosis, more than 2 million; and HIV/AIDS, more than 3 million.
Fearful reactions to danger often block rational reactions to it. Siegel points out that Bush slashed AIDS research and vastly increased anthrax research in the wake of the anthrax attacks that killed five people in the wake of 9/11. Some time after Siegel wrote this, we found that the attack was most likely the work of a deranged FBI agent who worked in the biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick. Oh, the symbolism of that!

As Lewis Thomas said, we are ever at the mercy of our Pentagons. Often it is not the disease but your own immune system that kills you. It is the fever your body fires up in order to cook the invader to death, but ends up cooking you instead, or the flood of secretions that is supposed to float it out of your body, but ends up drowning you first.

Our reaction to certain sorts of dangers -- and terrorist bombers and mutating flu viruses both seem to be cases in point -- are always over-reactions. Sometimes we even create institutions, like the CDC/WHO nexus and the Department of Homeland Security, that are hardwired to mimic these deranged reactions.