Thursday, December 27, 2012
Saul Alinsky's Rules
In the right-wing blogosphere there has long been a theme that says that Obama is a disciple of the old lefty, Saul Alinsky, and that he and Hillary Clinton are (literally) playing from his rulebook, an actual book called Rules for Radicals. Hillary's senior thesis at Wellesley was on Alisnky, so they say. I'm not interested in that issue. BHO's behavior won't look any worse (or better) to me depending on where he learned it. But some quotes from that book interested me.
I don't really know anything about this guy, except that leftists often mention him as as a sort of wise, lovable old coot, a sort of leftie Yoda.
I found an electronic copy of the book and read (most, I think) of a chapter titled "Tactics." My jaw dropped. The core of the chapter is thirteen tactical rules for changing the world (in good ways, supposedly). Most of them belong with the sort of tactical advice you can read in The Prince or Mein Kampf.
Yoda he is not. Look at this. (And as you read, try to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Thoreau saying any of this.)
RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."
One thing this seems to mean, if we read it in connection with some of the rules that follow, is that his goal is to intimidate those who disagree with him, controlling them through fear, and not to convince them of something by appealing to their mind or conscience. Note also that this power seems to be based on deception of some sort.
RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.Rule 2 is actually good advice. Base your arguments on your own experience and that of your audience. Knowing that your case is based on solid evidence increases confidence and dispels fear. But notice that he applies this valid principle in reverse against others. Spreading this disabling fear far and wide is just what Rule 3 advises.
RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
This rule might have been defensible if it meant that you should expose hypocrisy or take advantage of the impracticality of your opponent's moral code. But that is not what he has in mind. He says that everyone is vulnerable to this tactic, not just hypocrites. And the example he gives, of answering every letter, is actually a decent and sensible rule. He is advising you to take advantage, not of your opponents' hypocrisy and foolishness, but of their decency and their ideals. And to take advantage of the fact that they can't do something that, according to him, nobody could do anyway.
RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force [note his word choice here] the enemy into concessions.
I take it the idea here is something like this. Instead of engaging in a debate with Dick Cheney about the ethics of torture -- where you'll end up dealing with a mass of theories and supposed facts -- make fun of him for shooting his friend in the face on a hunting expedition.. If you do it right, people will just start to snicker when he shows up on TV. They won't hear a word he says. It will be just as though you have turned off his microphone. If you are really lucky, he will lose his temper and look even worse.
As with Rule 13, below, the basic strategy here is the respond to speech by delegitimizing the speaker. I can't think of a single practice (short of the use of threats and violence) that is more deeply inimical to the basic principles of civilized discourse.
RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
In other words, disable his opponent's capacity to reason.
RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
Need I say more?
RULE 10: The major premise of tactics is the development of operations that will maintain constant pressure on the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
Translation: Provoke your opponents to doing irrational things that are not in their interest, but are in yours.
RULE 11: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
Get them to abandon reason altogether and resort to violence. Now you are a martyr. Yay! you win!
RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
I think this rule is the most evil one of the lot, partly for the reason I gave under Rule 5. But there is more.
I have long been convinced that the problems in the world are due to bad institutions and not ultimately to bad people. Bad institutions reward bad behavior, punish good behavior and distort people's ideas. When bad people are at the center of things, it is generally because we have created an institution in which the only people who can flourish are ones with certain moral vices.
This truth, that "it's not the people, it's the system," was one of Marx's most distinctive ideas, and it is responsible for what is true in his doctrine.
It makes it hard to reform the world, however, because people don't get energized about "institutions," and even find them difficult to think about. The issue has to be personalized somehow.
What Alinsky is recommending is that you personalize the issue in the cheapest, most duplicitous, and cruelest way: pick out hate figures and demonize them.
If old Saul's disciples are indeed in the saddle, we are headed straight for Nastyville. I'm not going to enjoy the ride one bit.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Ban Big Ammunition Magazines?
The principle I offered was "the ultra-hazardous weapon principle": A weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it cannot be used safely. The idea is that if you are using such a device, it is too likely that you will eventually be subjecting those around you to an unreasonable level of risk from which they gain no benefit. Since you have no right to do that, banning it would not violate your rights.
I argued that civilian "assault weapons" pass this test and my not be banned without violating individual rights. What about large ammunition magazines and clips -- ones with more that 10, 20, or 30 (different limits exist in different states) round capacities? Obama is pushing hard for Congress to act quickly, I would even say precipitately, and it's likely they will place some nation-wide limit on magazine and clip size.(From now on I'll say "magazine" to refer to both, though that's technically not correct.)
Clearly, such a ban is not supported by the ultra-hazardous weapon principle. It is easy to use a large magazine safely. Millions of responsible citzens use them on shooting range and (where legal, I hope) for hunting with no one getting hurt.
But notice that my principle only rules things in as candidates for banning -- it "may be banned" -- and doesn't rule anything out. Maybe large magazines may be nominated as candidates for banning on the basis of some supplementary principle. One reason I have seen given by talking heads lately as a reason for banning these things is that they "serve no legitimate purpose."
I would flesh this out like this: a weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it has criminal uses and serves no legitimate purpose for which there is no perfectly good substitute,
I have some sympathy for this a s a general principle. The intuitive idea, I guess, is that such a ban would interfere with criminal acts and, though it would coercively deny the object to innocent people, the coercion involved does them no harm. I'm not generally keen on coercing (ie., threatening) the innocent at all (it violates the libertarian side constraint), but it if does them no harm, I'm at least willing to consider it.
There is another problem with this principle, though. It's not so easy to think of an object currently in use in the civilian population that has no legitimate use for which it lacks perfect substitute. Some years ago, I was working on a paper on gun owners' rights (this one) and I tried to propose an example of a weapon that would fail this test and could well be banned: in fact, it already is more or less illegal throughout the US. The example was sawed-off shotguns. This weapon, I said, emits a spray of projectiles, any one of which can cause a nasty injury, and cannot be controlled very well by the shooter (I could have argued just as plausibly, or implausibly, using the ultra-hazardous weapon principle, but I had not thought of it yet).
Anyway, my editor for that paper, Samuel C. Wheeler, pointed something out to me. This weapon could be very appropriate as an answering-the-door gun for an elderly gentleman who, say, lives in a dangerous neighborhood (it's the best he can afford) and has had his Social Security check stolen and been mugged, and so has legitimate concerns about his safety. At close quarters, like ansering the door in and apartment building, the projectiles can be controlled quite well enough. Plus, the pellets will not pass through the opposite wall of the hallway, injuring the innocent.
I deleted that part of the manuscript.
Another problem with the "no legitimate purpose" principle: grading or ranking purposes. After all, there is one legitimate purpose that is served by a big magazine, and there is no conceivable substitute: reloading avoidance. Not having to reload so often. Nothing illegitimate about that.
Obviously, the principle has to include a qualification about how the purpose has to be "important" enough to qualify. Maybe the fact that it serves mere convenience is not enough.
I don't know about you, but I'm still enough of a liberal to get queasy about deciding whether a purpose -- someone else's purpose -- is "important" enough to exempt them from heavy fines or a jail sentence. It is something the law has to do from time to time, but I would like to keep it to a minimum.
Finally, to get back the the big magazine issue itself: I believe these things do pass the "no legitimate purpose"test." To see why, take a look at this compelling essay by history professor Clayton Cramer. You'll see that not having to reload can make a life or death difference in situations that civilians do find themselves in from time to time. Indeed, this feature might be more valuabe to the law-abiding than it is to mass shooters. Further, not only can they save innocent lives, but they can even enable you to safely spare the life of your assailants. If that sounds impossible, just read the essay. Please.
On a somewhat related not, here is a very interesting post by my old friend, philosophy prof and sci fi aficionado Kevin Hill.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Ban "Assault Rifles"?
There is an important distinction to be made between the abnormally hazardous and that which is normally hazardous. I think a related idea applies to weapons, and with similar reasoning. Some weapons cannot be used safely. And since your neighbors are not being compensated, by means of some economic good being made available to them, for the risk they are subjected to, there is no reason they should put up with it. That means you can't have nuclear weapons, bazookas, hand grenades, incendiary grenades, or a machine gun.
Notice, and this is very important, that a modern gun, as such, is not (to coin a phrase paralleling the above legal one) an ultra-hazardous weapon. In fact, it is in one way the opposite of that. If used at the range at which it was intended to shoot, a modern firearm, in contrast to the old muskets and flintlock pistols, is a precision instrument. I like to tell my students that if I had a good pistol I could dot the "i" in that exit sign at the other end of the lecture hall. (Some of them look startled.)
An AR-15 is a precision instrument and not an ultra-hazardous weapon, in my sense. It is not a machine gun.
This brings me to the reason I put "assault weapons" in scare quotes, above. True assault rifles were invented for the military during WWII (in Germany and Russia). The military definition is: (a) a medium range rifle that (b) has a selector that switches the weapon between fully automatic and semi-automatic. Select "fully" and it becomes a machine gun.
The latter clause is why the AR-15 (pictured above) such as the one the Sandy Hook murderer used, does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle. It lacks this switch and only has the semi-automatic mode of functioning.
What "semi-automatic" means is this. When you fire a bullet, the mechanism uses some of the energy expended to do three things: expel the spent cartridge, move a new bullet into the chamber, and cock the firing pin (this is called cycling). To fire, all you need to do is pull the trigger (this is called single action trigger).
In a semiauto weapon, only the cycling is automatic. The firing is not: ie., the gun does not keep cycling and firing, both, if you just hold the trigger down.
A typical revolver, like the S & W .38 I inherited from my Dad, accomplishes somewhat the same effect of a semiauto by means of a double action trigger: as I pull the trigger, it rotates the cylinder, moving the spent cartridge out of the way, presenting a fresh round to the firing pin, and cocking it. (I just timed myself and got up to four shots per second. The gun was unloaded, of course.) Doing all that work with your trigger finger makes the weapon less accurate, unless you have a really fine, smooth-shooting revolver like the Colt Python, but that would run you around $1,500.
Hm. Maybe you'd rather have a semi-automatic pistol, like the classic Colt 1911 (named for the year it became standard issue in the US Army). This highly esteemed weapon is just as automatic as the AR-15, except for one thing: before the first shot you fire, you must cock it manually by pulling back the slide. Thereafter it cycles automatically.
Or, if you want to avoid that one little hitch, you might try one of the many kinds of semiauto pistols where the trigger is double action on the first shot, single action thereafter, and auto cylcing throughout. These weapons are exactly as automatic as the AR-15.
Now you can probably guess what my point is: These "automatic" weapons have been extremely common for a long time. They have been standard military issue for a century. They are carried by virtually all armed police officers. There are millions and millions of them in the possession of civilians who use them for entirely legitimate purposes.
As a matter of fact, they are the weapon of choice of mass murderers, overwhelmingly preferred to weapons like the AR-15.
It's easy to see why. These weapons, as I have said, are made for medium range shooting: shooting at enemy coming over the next hill. Not for long range sniping, and not for shooting somebody in the same room with you. Hell, it has a 20-inch barrel, for medium range accuracy. What do you need that for, when your victim is in the same room with you? You've accepted the weapon's bulkiness, clumsiness (at close quarters), and conspicuousness, and gotten nothing in return. You are better off with a 1911 and a bag of loaded magazines over your shoulder.
[I don't mean this in a crass way. Innocent lives are at stake and to figure out what we should do about it we have to take no-BS way about what these demented dirtbags are actually going to do.]
The "automaticness" of these "automatic" weapons does not make them "ultrahazardous," in the sense in which that could justify banning them, and they give the mass murderer no advantage they couldn't get from weapons that are extremely common and obviously legitimate. It is no reason to ban them as a response to mass shootings. None.
There actually is another issue here that I have not touched on. There is one difference between AR-type weapons and pistols like the 1911: magazine size. The magazine in Lanza's AR may have held as many rounds as 30 (the max allowed in the state of CT). Magazine size of a 1911: 6. Is that a reason to limit the size of magazines (in effect, banning all larger than the limit)?
I'll try to post about that later.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Why Can't These People Say "Christmas"?
Watching the Food Network a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I noticed something that gave me the creeps. None of the regulars seemed to be able to say "Christmas." (No, this is not some Bill O'Reilly war-against-Christmas BS! At least I hope not. Please read on!) Tyler Florence pours red and green sauces on on enchilada and Guy Fieri says, "Boy those are some holiday colors!" Sandra Lee is wearing a red sweater and making evergreen-tree-shaped cookies, and she keeps calling the "holiday cookies."
Right away I got this weird feeling. These people are not free. Someone off-camera is pointing a gun at them. The evil gnomes who run the Food Network Corporate Borg are compelling them to speak this weird jargon, probably just to degrade and humiliate them. (This could also explain those creepy claymation figures -- see the picture above.) Is this going on at other channels? Has the whole world gone insane while I was paying attention to other things? I really don't know, as Food Network is almost the only channel I can stand to watch (and it sucks, but I won't go into that now).
What could possibly be the problem with saying the word "Christmas" in public? Below are some more or less random observations on this baffling question. Most of what I am about to say is pretty obvious and far from original, but I think it is worth saying anyway. Apparently, it is not obvious to some people.
Yes, not everyone celebrates Christmas. And it might, conceivably, just barely conceivably, be unpleasant to be wished "Merry Christmas" when you do not. As a university professor, I sometimes find myself in a room full of people who are talking about how bad conservatives, Republicans, or libertarians are, as if they assume I am a Democrat like themselves. So I have some sympathy for people in that situation. But not very much. After all, the people in my roomful of Democrats are saying that people like me are morally or intellectually inferior to people like them. They are insulting me. The person who wishes you Merry Christmas is not. In fact, he or she is wishing you well. They are trying to be nice.
My Golden Rule is: Never, ever make someone sorry that they were nice to you. Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes said that this is one of the most basic rules of civil society. He was right Violating it is one of the most ignoble and stupid things you can do.
The problem is not that there are other holidays at this time of the year. You can celebrate more than one. In our house, we always celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Holidays don't exclude on another, religions do. By wishing somebody a Merry Christmas, or using the word to describe a cookie, you are not excluding anybody from anything.
Admittedly it is true that Kwanzaa was invented by the Marxist Prof. Ron Karenga as an "alternative" -- his word -- to Christmas. He did intend his holiday to be exclusionist. But apparently, the African-Americans who celebrate it today do not see it that way. (As often happens, the hearts of "ordinary" people have proved sounder than those of the supposedly wise men who seek to lead them for their own good.)
Nor is the problem that not everyone is a Christian. Even atheists love Christmas. As I have said, the problem, so far as there is one, is merely that not everyone celebrates Christmas. So try avoid wishing Merry Christmas to someone who does not celebrate it.
Often, banning the C-word is simply hypocrisy. None of the FN "holiday" specials that I saw contained a single reference to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything but Christmas. By banning the C-word, they are pretending to an inclusiveness that they do not practice. To the minor sin of non-inclusiveness they add the major one of lying about it.
If you are talking about a holiday, and the holiday in question is indeed Christmas, there is no possible harm in calling it that. There is no excuse for saying "holiday cookie." None. If it is shaped like a dredl, call it a Hanukkah cookie. If it is shaped like one of those trees, call it a Christmas cookie. If you don't, you'll just sound like an idiot.
Please join me this "holiday" season in trying to avoid this canting hypocrisy.
Update: And now, here is fellow atheist Penn Jillette, with a different take. Notice that he is not answering the sort of argument I am giving here. He is answering the O'Reilly notion that this is an "attack on Christianity." That of course is not what I am saying. On the other hand, he does seem to be saying one thing that I have been arguing against: that refraining from "Christmas" is being inclusive.
Friday, December 14, 2012
Mass Shootings Are Irrelevant to the Issue of Gun Control
The laws of this nature are those which forbid one to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and more arbitry injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance.This argument applies best of all to mass shooters like James Holmes. Like most such people, Holmes did not suddenly "snap." He planned his atrocity well in advance, beginning at least four months ago, with great patience and determination, accumulating an arsenal of weapons as well as elaborate body armor, and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment. It is obvious that someone who will shoot seventy completely innocent and defenseless strangers in a darkened theater is not going to be deterred by "oh, I can't buy that weapon -- it's illegal," and it's also pretty clear to me that Holmes would have had the determination to get weapons from an illegal source. Like drug laws, gun bans do not make the banned item disappear, rather they drive it into the netherworld of criminal commerce.
If you are going to advocate a law based on a single horrific case, then that law has to be one that would have prevented that horror. Otherwise, that one case is, logically, completely irrelevant to whether that law was a good thing or not. And gun bans would do nothing to prevent and atrocity like Aurora.
Having said this, I have to admit that the principle I have just placed in italics, which makes perfect sense to me, seems to have no effect on most my fellow human beings. When Oswald murdered Kennedy with a gun purchased through mail order, Congress responded by passing a law that banned such purchases. Even at the time, as a teenager, it was obvious to me that, whatever the reasons for such a law might be, the Kennedy assassination was not one of them. Who could think that Oswald would not have killed Kennedy, or tried to kill General Walker, if he could not have gotten his cheap Mannlicher-Carcano through the mail?
Mass shootings like Aurora are not good reasons for weapons bans; they are emotionally powerful symbols of violence. Those who are moved to ban a weapon by such incidents are acting on emotion and not on the basis of reason. Especially in the realm of the law, that is a terribly dangerous thing to do.*
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The Death Penalty: Bad Arguments on Both Sides
In the wake of the Troy Davis (pictured) case a lot of people are thinking about capital punishment, including some arguments that seem silly to me. I just read a column by Jonah Goldberg that gives an argument for the death penalty that I find stupefyingly unconvincing.
Opponents of the death penalty believe that no one deserves to be executed. Again, it’s an honorable position, but a difficult one to defend politically in a country where the death penalty is popular. So they spend all of their energy cherry-picking cases, gumming up the legal system, and talking about “uncertainty.”
BTW, you can find my reply to Goldberg here.
Friday, October 26, 2012
Conference on Gun Control at UW
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
9/11 as a Religious Act
You know, of course, what prompted the "new atheism," the surge of books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, as well as lesser luminaries, some of whom burn hotter if not as brilliantly. It's because of 9/11, the day that changed everything.
That morning I rose late, about ten o'clock or so, and began what I expected would be a slow day. At noon my friend Don Downs of the Poli Sci Department was going to bring over some documents about a professor who had been de-tenured and fired by the Board of Regents, a case that we though raised some serious due process issues. We were thinking of trying to get the faculty senate to take a position on the case.
Quite unexpectedly, the front door bell rang. It was Don. I opened the door and looked at him sourly. "You're early," I said.
He looked at my bathrobe. "You haven't turned your TV on yet, have you?" he asked.
"Why? What happened?"
"Somebody flew a passenger plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center and knocked it down."
"O my God," I said stupidly, "that must have killed hundreds of people."
"Oh, thousands," he corrected me.
The next thing I said was an angry outburst: "Do you see how wonderful religion is!? How it helps everyone to live together in peace?" Don looked startled.
How did I know, instantly, that this was a religious act? I don't think I was even sure right away which religion was involved, but that religion was at to bottom of this seemed beyond doubt. You have to admit that, wherever there is widespread and persistent violence in the world, especially irrational vioulence -- whether it is on Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Aghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka -- it is usually caused by religious differences. Hitchens argues convincingly that the last European war, the civil war in Yugoslavia, was really about religion as much as anything else. "Ethnic cleansing" was really religious cleansing. It was Christians killing Muslims, and doing so because the Muslims were Muslims and, most particularly, because the Christians were Christians.
Years later, it occurred to me that there was a simpler explanation of how I knew that this was a religious act. The clue lay in the fact that the violence on 9/11 was obviously suicidal. The pilots of those planes must have died together with their innocent victims. When we secular humanists commit an atrocity to make the world a better place, it is because we selfishly want to live in that better world. If the atrocity can't possibly have that motive, one knows at once the motive was religious. The statement an Islamist once made to a reporter, "We will win because we love death as much as you love life," surely is a profoundly religious statement.
Hitchens would quickly point out, and he would be right, that this does not really undermine his thesis. After all, the very worldliness of the secular is a constraint. If I want to live here with you, that is a tie between us. My selfish desire to live is something you can appeal to when I grow too indifferent or hostile to your interests. In the gravest extremity, when all else has failed, it makes possible the ultima ratio, the last of all reasons, the threat of death. Religious fanatics, with their "self-sacrificing," "altruistic" behavior (which incidentally are a fake self-sacrifice and spurious altruism in people who think that they will be rewarded with eternal bliss) cannot be appealed to in this way.
In view of this, why do we persist in associating religion with peace and public order? I do it myself! To some extent I think it is a sort of illusion of perspective. We in the liberal West have a distorted view of what religion is really like. Our religions have been corrupted by two centuries of contact with peaceful secular humanists. The idea that peace and public order are good things is by no means a product of religion: the three great monotheistic religions resisted it quite violently for many centuries. It arises from the sort of thinking that secularists have been doing all along: naturalistic thinking about life on earth.
Friday, August 10, 2012
Who to Vote for on Tuesday?
My vote is going to Mark Neumann.
Mark has worked really hard to get educated on constitutional and related liberty issues that matter profoundly to me. He's the only guy talking credibly about the NDAA, HR 347, state sovereignty, national sovereignty, and a range of other issues.
He's also demonstrated that he'll be accessible to the grassroots. Just one prominent example: A fellow organizer of mine is working on the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway (FWHP) issue up in the Appleton area. He called Mark up to talk to him about it. After 20 minutes, Mark said, "You know, I think this requires a longer discussion and face time." So Mark asked if this organizer would come with him on the campaign trail one day so that as they were driving across the state, he could explain to Mark more about the FWHP. He has now taken a principled position against it...because he opened himself to being educated on the issue. Educated by whom? By the grassroots.
Same with Agenda 21. He didn't know what it was when he showed up at my group to be vetted. He does now. Once he knew he had a gap in his education, he worked hard to fill it.
He's going to listen to us. Will he always agree with us? I can't promise that, and I'm guessing he can't either. But one thing I know for sure is that he will hear us and consider what we have to say...and on many issues where he's been listening to us so far, there is agreement once he understands.
That is really, really rare in politicians and candidates most of whom just pretend they're listening, dismiss you, or ignore you altogether. Mark is something really special that way. He has truly EARNED my trust. I didn't just give it to him. He worked for it.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Renewed Calls for Gun Control
By now I must have written on every single topic that I find interesting or important.
I was thinking of blogging about the renewed calls for gun control in the wake of the Aurora CO murders, but I realized I had already written about renewed calls for gun control in the wake of a mass murder. That was in April of 2007, when another maniac killed even more people on the campus of Virginia Tech. Here are some of my comments. I think that with some obvious adjustments they are applicable here.
(Warning: Some of the ideas expressed below will shock and offend some people. At least, they did the first time I posted them.)
The idea behind theses calls for more gun control is pretty simple: we have a problem here, and the problem is guns. The guns are the problem.
In a way, this is obviously true. Those people were killed with a gun. What may be a little less obvious, though, is that guns might be part of the solution as well. Notice that not one of the thirty three murder victims was armed. Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?
This a particularly poignant question, because in 2005 there was a bill in Virginia that would have allowed students with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns on campus, but it died in committee. (Hat-tip to historian David Beito here.) The victims of this atrocity had been deliberately disarmed by their own government. Adding horribly to the irony of this is the fact that one Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, praised the death of this bill:
"I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions," Hincker said on Jan. 31, 2006, "because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."Feel safe," maybe. But isn't being safe more important?
Notice that these shooting sprees are only ever seem to occur in places like schools, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, post offices. Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar? Bars are full of people with poor impulse control. They have been working for hours at reducing their impulse control, shrinking their profit-horizons, and trashing their ability to distinguish right from wrong. Why don't you ever see the headline, "33 Killed in Saloon Rampage"?
There is a pretty obvious answer. The people in a bar may not be the nicest or most rational people in the world, but they all know that the bartender probably has a gun and a baseball bat behind the bar. They also know that he (or she!) would be happy to use them in order to maintain good order and public peace.
These killers go into schools and playgrounds because they feel safe there. Don't you think it is time to interfere with their government-given sense of security? If an armed professor or student had brought the Blacksburg killer down, it would have saved innocent lives immediately. It would also have given the next insane murderer reason to pause and go elsewhere, or maybe just to either seek help or keep his evil thoughts to himself.
Monday, July 16, 2012
"If You've Got a Business, You Didn't Build That..."
People in the right-o-shphere are going ballistic over the argument that the president gave yesterday for the governmemnent's taking back, through its power to tax, some of what society has gaven you over the years. I agree that this argument is a bad one, but it I am used to hearing it. I have seen it in many, many places. Here is a post I wrote on the occasion of Tax Day (April 15th) 2008 about it. I wrote it when I discovered that Herbert Simon, of all people, had given the same argument. (Simon must be the smartest person ever to use this argument. Must be.)
Happy Tax Day! I hope you are enjoying the one day of the year when most people feel the same way about the state that I feel on the other 364. God knows I am not.
I was shocked to learn recently that the late Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate and former colleague of mine, once recycled, in a published essay, what is probably the worst of all moral justifications for taxation. As far as the morality of taxation is concerned, he is supposed to have said, the state would be perfectly justified in taking away 90% of the income of the people in the developed countries, as this is the amount of your product that is due to certain features of our social system. The most important of these features are probably these three: a relatively efficient and decent legal system, a government that (unlike most) is not simply a kleptocracy, and the vast stores of knowledge long accumulated by other participants in the economy. The government's taking 90% of what you own away from you, according to Simon, would merely be a matter of returning it to its real owners, which presumably is the people who comprise the state.
I can hardly believe that Simon said something so silly. He must be the wisest and smartest person ever to repeat this ridiculous argument. That is no doubt why we often see this idea attributed to him. It did not originate with him. Like many a bad joke, it is truly anonymous.
It is true of course that an enormous part of my income is made possible by the fact that I live in a half-way just, semi-free society, instead of one of the horrible Hell-holes in which many human beings have to live out their lives. If I taught philosophy in Russia or Mexico, instead of Madison Wisconsin, I would earn a very small fraction of what I earn here, even though I would be doing the same brilliant job that I am now doing. Why? Well, the people in those societies are working within political and legal systems that have been devastated by centuries of horrible government and rotten laws. As a result of this, the other participants in those economies have less powerful ideas, theories, methods, and skills -- in a word, less knowledge -- and are less productive than the people I deal with over here. In a system in which the government does not stop them from doing so, people come up with new and better ideas, year after year. Because of the human capacity for memory, the discoveries and inventions of past generations remain here after they have left the scene, and in some cultures the resulting total reaches truly staggering dimensions. Even though my brain contains the tiniest fraction of this total, living among these highly knowledgeable people is very beneficial to me. In general, it is to my advantage to trade with more prosperous, more productive people rather than less wealthy, less productive ones. (In case this is not obvious, think of it this way: those less prosperous people are going to pay me for my contributions with ... what?)
There is no harm in summarizing what I have just said by saying that a lot of my product is possible because of "the contribution of society," as long as we remember what that means. It means that a lot of fine people worked hard at developing good ideas about things and implementing those ideas by building institutions that endured after they departed. I owe these people my eternal gratitude. Gratitude, not cash.
The reason is very simple. They all made their contributions in return for compensation, which they were paid by others. They may have wanted more in return than they actually got (don't we all?) but they regarded what they got as sufficient to offset all the trouble they went through to make their wonderful contributions to our way of life. We know this because we know that they did decide to actually take that trouble and make those contributions.* Why should you lose 90% of what you produce in order to compensate them for what they did? They have already been paid! (Not to mention the fact that the great majority of them are now dead.) This would mean paying them twice.
By the way, doesn't this mean that I should be paid twice too? I contributed something too. It may not have been much, but I am still alive and can actually be compensated. Come to think of it, doesn't it also mean that I get my 90% back? But then where is all this money going to come from, now that we are paying everyone twice what they produce?
Actually, I should say that Simon would be proposing to pay everyone twice, if the money were really going to the actual contributors, the heroes who make this wonderful life possible. But of course it isn't. Simon wants the state to get it. Why on Earth should it get any of this money? Insofar as the state makes any contribution to my product, this contribution was the work of individuals who have been compensated** and at any rate would never see any of Simon's vast pile of loot.
So this argument is rotten for two reasons: 1) the real contributors have already been compensated, and 2) the alleged compensation would actually go to the wrong people anyway. Like I say, worst argument yet.
* For simplicity, I am ignoring the fact that some contributors were defrauded or coerced. Some were literally enslaved. Those people were not adequately compensated. Maybe we should compensate their heirs. But this is not the sort of compensation that Simon is talking about. It would not justify payments to the state, but only to the heirs of victims. (Also, note that most of these past injustices were actually committed by the state -- and its hangers-on, such as slave-owners.)
** Furthermore, their contribution consisted in large part in restraining the power of the state, which becomes predatory and extremely destructive if not restrained, and subjecting it to the rule of law. If it weren't for them, the state would mainly be pursuing its ancient calling of conquering, pillaging, and murdering. Moreover, these brave men and women were often paid by the state for their efforts with torture, imprisonment, dishonor, and death. Maybe the state owes them, and their heirs, something?
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Meet My Little Friend, Crotalus viridis
Odd that exactly the same thing happened to me almost thirty years ago, in almost exactly the same spot. This little fella is cooling off on the floor of Indian Creek, Bufflalo Gap National Grassland. Last time, it was much bigger one, who was slithering through the prairie grass, about 100 yards away.
That was also at sunset -- rattlesnake time! That's when the are out and about. Though I should have been wary, both times they took me completely by surprise.
BTW, this one isn't as big as he probably looks to you -- a little bigger in girth than my index finger. I wouldn't want to be bitten by him just the same. Even if a rattler bite doesn't kill you, it will leave you gruesomely maimed and disfigured if you don't get antivenin soon. The nearest hospital to where I was at this moment is probably in Rapid City, about 40 miles away, and some of those miles on some really bad roads.
So the best medicine in this case is not to get bit in the first place.
Saturday, July 07, 2012
'The Penaltax: A Problem Here?
Here is what I haven't quite figured out. First, the facts:
The Affordable Care Act at one time, so they say, had language that described the penalty for refusing the buy health insurance when the government says you can afford it as a "tax." That was taken out, many people think, because the bill could not have become law if this charge, cost, impost, whatever it is, is a tax. If it was, it wouldn't have gotten through Congress. It had to be a penalty, not a tax.
Then, in the Supreme Court, it became a tax again. Why? If it were a penalty, it would not have gotten through the Supreme Court. This is certain. Unless Chief Justice's discussion of the Commerce Clause argument was a blatant lie, he was bound to side with the three other conservatives and Anthony "Swing Vote" Kennedy and strike down the individual mandate.
So in order to get through Congress, it was a penalty, and in order to get through the SC, it was a tax. All the Republicans seem to have to say about this (not including Romney in this case) is something like "Aha! So you did raise taxes! So there!! Nyah nyah!" Am I the only one who sees a deeper problem here? Does anybody see any "checks and balances" issues here? Something about the rule of law? Anybody? Anybody? Hello?
I haven't quite put my finger on it yet, but I think there's a problem here: A law means whatever it has to mean in order to get passed and stand.
Sunday, March 04, 2012
Top Five Reasons Not to Write a Nasty Obit
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Police Surveillance Drones: Time to Draw a Line?
"Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around something that they're interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want," said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. "I don't understand all the comments about the Big Brother thing."
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
The Contraception Mandate
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
The Mass Media: Polluters of the Human Soul?
Here we are in the midst of a primary election campaign, and there is a huge amount of reporting on who is going to win (though it's fairly obvious who will win), little reporting on the candidates' positions on the issues, and almost non on the issues themselves. That is exactly the sort of "inversion" Ortega talks about below.
[H]oy no existe en la vida pública más “poder espiritual” que la Prensa. La vida pública, que es la verdaderamente histórica, necesita siempre ser regida, quiérase o no. Ella, por si, es anónima y ciega, sin dirección autónoma. Ahora bien: a estas fechas han desaparecido los antiguos “poderes espirituales”: la Iglesia, porque ha abandonado el presente, y la vida pública es siempre actualisima; el Estado, porque, triunfante la democracia, no dirige ya a ésta, sino al revés, es gobernado por la opinión pública. En tal situación, la vida pública se ha entregado a la única fuerza espiritual que por oficio se ocupa de la actualidad: la Prensa.
Yo no quisiera molestar en dosis apreciable a los periodistas. Entre otros motivos, porque tal vez yo no sea otra cosa que un periodista. Pero es ilusorio cerrarse a la evidencia con que se presenta la jerarquía de las realidades espirituales. En ella ocupa el periodismo el rango inferior. Y acaece que la
conciencia pública no recibe hoy otra presión ni otro mando que los que le llegan de esa espiritualidad ínfima rezumada por las columnas del periódico. Tan ínfima es a menudo, que casi no llega a ser espiritualidad; que en cierto modo es antiespiritualidad. Por dejación de otros poderes, ha quedado encargado de alimentar y dirigir el alma pública el periodista, que es no sólo una de las clases menos cultas de la sociedad presente, sino que, por causas, espero, transitorias, admite en su gremio a pseudointelectuales chafados, llenos de resentimiento y de odio hacia el verdadero espíritu. Ya su profesión los lleva a entender por realidad del tiempo lo que momentáneamente mete ruido, sea lo
que sea, sin perspectiva ni arquitectura.
La vida real es de cierto pura actualidad; pero la visión periodística deforma esta verdad reduciendo lo actual a lo instantáneo y lo instantáneo a lo resonante. De aquí que en la conciencia pública aparezca hoy el mundo bajo una imagen rigorosamente invertida. Cuanto más importancia sustantiva y perdurante tenga una cosa o persona, menos hablarán de ella los periódicos, y en cambio, destacarán en sus páginas lo que agota su esencia con ser un “suceso” y dar lugar a una noticia. Habrían de no obrar sobre los periódicos los intereses, muchas veces inconfesables, de sus empresas; habría de mantenerse el dinero castamente alejado de influir en la doctrina de los diarios, y bastaría a la Prensa abandonarse a su propia misión para pintar el mundo del revés. No poco del vuelco grotesco que hoy padecen las cosas -Europa camina desde hace tiempo con la cabeza para abajo y los pies pirueteando en lo alto- se debe a ese imperio indiviso de la Prensa, único “poder espiritual”. Es, pues, cuestión de vida o muerte para Europa rectificar tan ridícula situación. Para ello tiene la Universidad que intervenir en la actualidad como tal Universidad, tratando los grandes temas del día desde su punto de vista propio -cultural, profesional o científico.
[T]oday, there is no “spiritual power” in public life, other than the press. Public life, which is the truly historical life, always needs to be governed, like it or not. It is, in itself, anonymous and blind, without autonomous direction. Well, then, in these days the old “spiritual powers” have disappeared: the Church, because it has abandoned the present, and public life is always superlatively current; the State, because, with democracy triumphant, the state does not direct it, but the reverse, as the state is governed by the opinions of the public. In such a situation, public life has handed itself over to the only spiritual power still functioning at present: the press.
I have no great desire to abuse the journalists. Among other reasons, there is the possibility that I am no more than a journalist myself. But to close oneself off to the obvious fact that the spiritual powers present themselves as a hierarchy is to delude oneself. In this hierarchy, journalism occupies the lowest rank. And so it comes to pass that the public consciousness today receives no other pressure nor command than those that arrive from that debased spirituality that drips from the columns of newspapers.
So degraded is it that it often does not attain the level of spirituality at all, being in a certain manner a form of anti-spirituality. Due to the abdication of the other powers, the one left with the charge to nourish and direct the public spirit is the journalist, who is not only one of the least cultivated classes that society presents, but who, for reasons I hope are transitory, admits to his profession unkempt pseudo-intellectuals full of resentment and hatred for the true realm of the spirit. With no sense of perspective or architecture, they take for the reality of the times whatever makes a momentary noise.
Real life is characterized by a certain pure currentness. But journalistic vision deforms this truth, reducing the current to the instantaneous, and the instantaneous to the sensational. Hence the world appears to public consciousness by way of an image rigorously inverted. The more substantial and enduring importance a thing has, the less they speak of it in the press while, on the other hand, they highlight in their pages whatever will be a “success” and bring notoriety. Even if they were freed from motives that in many cases are unspeakable, even if money were to remain chastely aloof from infuencing the opinions of the dailies, they would nonetheless pursue their mission of depicting the world inside-out. No little of the grotesque inversion we see today – for some time now, Europe has been going along with its head below and its feet pirouetting above – is owing to the undivided power of the press, the sole “spiritual power.” It is a matter of life and death that Europe should rectify such an absurd situation. To that end, the university must intervene in current affairs. It must do so as the university, treating the great themes of the day from its proper points of view, cultural, professional, or scientific.