an in-between move

Cool kids read The Bellman.


Don't read this blog!

I mean, thanks for dropping by my little corner of the blogospheric backwaters, but the blog you should be reading is The Bellman. The stuff I post there is much, much less likely to be imbued with dormitive powers.


[German, from zwischen, intermediate + zug, move

Literally an "in-between move". A move in a tactical sequence is called a zwischenzug* when it does not relate directly to the tactical motif in operation. |source|

image copyright TWIC

From this position, black played a zwischenzug: 19…d5
(Linares 2002, 1-0)


about your blogger

David Rowland studies philosophy at the University of Illinois - Urbana / Champaign, where he's an active member of the Graduate Employees Organization. He used to play a lot of chess, but wasn't all that good. He has a blog. And email.


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$zwichenzug$ sell-out zone





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some philosoblogging

Six views about reasons
Seidman on reflection and rationality
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Tiffany's argument for strong internalism
Internalism v. Externalism
What do internalists believe anyway?
Rationalism and internalism
The experimental method in philosophy
Advertising to children
On moral skepticism
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Normativity and morality
Political intuitions
What it is, what it was, and what it shall be
Objectivity and morality
Thinking revolution
Abortion and coercion
Moore on torture
On the phenomenology of deliberation
Even more Deliberation Day
more Deliberation Day
Deliberation Day run-down
He made a porch for the throne where he might judge, cont.
He made a porch for the throne where he might judge
Every shepherd is an abomination
Droppin' H-bombs
ad hominem

Wednesday, March 31, 2004


more deliberation day

In yesterday's post I dismissed Robert Musil's objection without much comment. It seemed either to misunderstand A&F or not to be distinguishable from Posner. Since then, Musil has updated his post in order to clarify his view. This is helpful, and I think the revisions are significant enough to make taking another look worthwhile.

The old:
One might also note that Judge Posner's thinking can be extended to explain why many (perhaps most) people simply should not vote at all, just as many investors should be satisfied with being "free riders" on an efficient securities market. The parallel is not perfect, of course, because the political market ("marketplace of ideas") is not nearly as transparent or efficient as the American public securities markets. But there is a lot of efficiency, and, to the extent the market place of ideas is inefficient, that can in some circumstances be reason to leave the voting (pricing) to the relative experts.
The new:
MINOR UPDATE: These two last paragraphs are, obviously, not criticisms of Deliberation Day itself, and it is quite irrelevant to what is said here that A&F are well aware that political activity has low utility for most citizens. Further, the problem identified and addressed by classical portfolio theory is not that investing in public stocks is of low utility for most investors. The problem is that most investors cannot and should not try to make individualized investment decisions because other investor know so much more - so most investors should simply buy a market-weighted basket of securities and hold them. One cannot "solve" the portfolio creation problem by holding an "Investors Deliberation Day" and having everyone talk about stock investment issues. The stock markets are never-ending "Investors Deliberation Day" in which the people who are best at picking stocks do most of the talking - and everyone else just listens and takes the market price. To some (highly imperfect) extent the "marketplace of ideas" is like the stock market - and that suggests that many voters should do something other than trying to make personal individualized decisions about individual candidates. Staying home and letting more knowledgeable people vote is one possibility. Voting a straight party line is another. Following the advice of a trusted political analyst or friend is a third.
Let me say, first, that I don't buy the claim that Musil isn't trying to object to Deliberation Day itself. Given the context, that just doesn't make any sense. So I'm going to understand him as claiming that he's saying more than merely what A&F acknowledge, namely that most citizens have, from the point of view of instrumental rationality, good reason not to become politically informed. This might be unfair as a reading of Musil, but what I'm trying to do here is see if the material he's generated can be used to generate a powerful objection to A&F. If the objection, once constructed, is something he doesn't want I'll just keep it for myself.

So what might this further objection be? Well, it's clear that it relies on an analogy between investor activity and political activity. Musil admits that the analogy is imperfect, but thinks that the imperfection has to do with the lack of transparency or efficiency of the 'political market'. One thing to notice is that to say that the concepts of transparency and efficiency apply seems to require that one already be licensed in thinking of political discourse and activity in terms of markets. (side note - what explains the lack of efficiency of political markets? Is it just the lack of transparency, or are their other factors?)

To develop this objection, then, we need to know what it is about political activity that licenses the analogy. One clear point of contact is the fact that the incentives for engaging in either can be explained in terms of instrumental rationality. Is this sufficient to say that there is a market? If so, we should be able to say what it is that is being traded. We can, I suppose, say that the citizen seeks to exchange political activity for some political benefit (that is, we can describe the citizen as a rent seeker). But who is the citizen's trading partner? I guess you have to say the state.

If this is right then the relevant question for the participant in the political market is, 'how do I get the highest rent for the least cost?' This formulation makes it sound as if the analogy merely identifies one horn of A&F's dilemma.

The point of Musil's clarification, I take it, was to avoid this result by amplifying the point made in his original post that, "there is a lot of efficiency, and, to the extent the market place of ideas is inefficient, that can in some circumstances be reason to leave the voting (pricing) to the relative experts."

The point of bringing up the inefficiencies of the market is, I think, to show that the citizen's total utility is affected less by the cost he pays than by the rent he receives. So the worry isn't that you won't get a sufficient return for your investment of time and effort. In fact, I think Musil means to describe the political market in a fundamentally different way. The idea seems to be that you have instrumental rationality operating on two levels. At the first level the citizen is involved in a political market with the state and the citizen trades her vote for the services of the state. The question, from the point of view of instrumental rationality, is what vote should be cast in order to obtain the highest rent. At the next level the citizen must decide how much time and energy to expend in deciding how to cast her vote.

The analogy with stock markets is at this second level. Musil points out that most investors do worse by devoting time and energy into deciding what stocks to buy at what prices. They're better off if they just trust the experts. Similarly, Musil argues, for many citizens increased deliberation (and especially not only on a single day) is unlikely to improve the rents they obtain. This calculation is different than that referred to by A&F, because the cost paid doesn't lie in one's own loss of time, but rather in a degradation of benefits.

If all this is right, then we can at least see where the disagreement with A&F lies. Previously, I laid out A&F's motivation for their project as follows:
The democratic ideal, as they see it, is for the policies and practices of the state to be guided by the considered opinions of the public. When the public is not well-informed about political matters this ideal will not be realized - either elites will manipulate public opinion to serve their own ends or the nation will be guided by unreflective public preferences. That is, an uninformed citizenry yields either bread and circuses as the whole of public policy or bread and circuses as a mask drawn over public policy by a decision-making elite.

Since these results seem to be a bad thing, you might expect that each citizen has good reason to become informed and to deliberate about public policy. But doing so has a cost. Time spent reading newspapers and debating the finer points of NAFTA could instead be spent on other projects and interests. Moreover, the influence any individual citizen has on the direction of policy is likely to be quite small. As a result, unless an individual happens to find politics intrinsically interesting, the utility of civic engagement is quite low.

If all this is right, then we face a serious dilemma. Our democratic ideal requires that the state be responsive to the considered preferences of citizens, but individual citizens have little reason to acquire such preferences. Deliberation Day is intended to dissolve this dilemma by providing incentives for citizens to become informed.
The disagreement, if there is one, is with the democratic ideal espoused by A&F. On Musil's view, things will be worse if govt policies more closely reflect the considered preferences of citizens about those policies (I think this is fair even though Musil talks about candidates rather than policies).

The key claim for Musil is pretty clearly the claim that deliberation about politics won't generally yield better judgment. The analogy with stock markets doesn't establish this claim (in fact, the evaluation of this claim will determine our answer to the question of how close the analogy is). Nor does anything else Musil says provide much by way of support. For my part, I think the prospects for establishing such a claim are dim, and would note that the parallel result in classical portfolio theory was counter-intuitive.

But even if it were shown that increased deliberation had bad effects from some instrumental point of view this wouldn't be enough. The ideal appealed to by A&F is not that of democracy as a modus vivendi. Instead, their claim is that political participation is, in some sense, intrinsically valuable. From that point of view, the elevation of the considered preferences of the public is desirable even if such an elevation has material costs. So it would also have to be shown that political participation isn't intrinsically good.


Deliberation Day run-down

It looks like I might have an opportunity to write something about this Deliberation Day stuff that gets printed on actual paper. That's right, I may be killing trees. Anyhow, this post is pretty much me gathering, categorizing, and hazarding critiques of some of the arguments out there. It'll be rough. This is for my own use, so feel free not to read any further.

Robert Musil has a useful link to Richard Posner, and he amplifies Posner's linked argument a little bit. I'll follow the Posner link next, but I want to note that it appears to contain a misreading of Ackerman and Fishkin, and that misreading seems to be repeated in Musil's amplification:
One might also note that Judge Posner's thinking can be extended to explain why many (perhaps most) people simply should not vote at all, just as many investors should be satisfied with being "free riders" on an efficient securities market. The parallel is not perfect, of course, because the political market ("marketplace of ideas") is not nearly as transparent or efficient as the American public securities markets. But there is a lot of efficiency, and, to the extent the market place of ideas is inefficient, that can in some circumstances be reason to leave the voting (pricing) to the relative experts.

As I made clear in an earlier post, A&F are well aware that political activity has low utility for most citizens. Musil is merely pointing out the problem A&F have set out to solve. This objection fails. Follow up

Posner seems not to have committed a misreading. He sees that the best strategy for objecting to A&F is to question their articulation of the democratic ideal. Or, at any rate, he sees that some of the time. It's difficult to tell because his general theme seems to be that markets are better than elections, and this tempts him to say things that make it look like he doesn't understand A&F's dilemma. His best shot:
I do not believe that private concerns are petty and that people are fully human only when they are deliberating about the “common good.” I do not even think such deliberations are productive of much except sound and fury...I will be called cynical for doubting the value of political debate among ordinary citizens, for casting them in the role of passive onlookers of a struggle among ambitious politicians, and for questioning the possibility of meaningful reform of policy. I am merely being realistic. Reform does not well out of deliberation, but reflects passions and interests...People are intelligent and engaged about issues that concern them directly and that do not require abstract analysis to understand. The more local and concrete the issue, the more meaningful deliberation by average citizens is; the more remote and abstract, the less meaningful such deliberation is. People know when they are hurting, and the knowledge motivates and engages them in political struggle.

Stripped of the market rhetoric this begins to sound like a denuded civic republicanism. Posner denies, contra civic republicans like Rousseau, that political activity (as currently understood) is a necessary part of a fulfilling life. But, with civic republicans, Posner locates the value of democratic institutions in the fact that they provide an arena for political action.

I would like to believe that Rousseau is right, that having a voice in the institutions that direct one's life is an essential part of the human good. But this is a difficult thesis to maintain in the face of widespread political apathy. A&F have a response ready for this objection, but it isn't convincing as it stands. They want to say that apathy is the result of the fact that the mainstream political parties are not responsive to the concerns of citizens. The difficulty with this response isn't, as Posner alleges, that deliberation would lead to discord (how could he know? And what a silly thing for a supposed pragmatist to say!) but rather that responsive parties would reduce dissatisfaction and this, it seems to me is likely to increase apathy. After all, why bother with politics in good times?

Can the response be strengthened? Perhaps. A&F would have to show that political engagement under a regime of responsive political parties would be, in some sense, intrinsically interesting. This would solve the opportunity cost problem, but how would they know? Politics as it is now is bloodsport and that accounts for a lot of the interest. If the bloodletting gets worse, and more people are interested, well, that doesn't seem like progress. So assume A&F have something else in mind. What could it be? I think I know the answer, but I don't think you get it by having a national deliberation day.

It will help to note an agreement and a disagreement I have with Posner. I agree with Posner that the focus of deliberation in most people's lives is with issues that involve them directly, and that they tend to be effective deliberators in these areas. I disagree that, when hurting, people have adequate recourse through the American political system. Drawing on these notions, I suggest that the way to make political engagement relevant to citizens is build political institutions that address, on a day to day basis, their particular and local concerns.

Deliberation day won't do this - the solution isn't to insert deliberators into democracy, but to insert democracy into the locations where deliberation takes place. So this is pretty much the line I've been pushing in a couple of recent posts. (here and here.

Insults Unpunished repeats the WSJ's dumb paternalism argument. I've already addressed that. Does better replying to comments, but doesn't go past noticing that people are apathetic.

PoliBlog earns my respect by noticing that there's a dilemma to be addressed. go him! Has two versions of the paternalism argument. One just repeats the mistake I've dealt with before. The other is more interesting, because it alleges that there's no way to run deliberation day non-paternalistically.

Actually, I think paternalism is the wrong word here. Let's call it the bias argument. It goes: During deliberation day and the lead up to it, citizens will be provided with briefing materials to inform them about the issues. But these briefing materials, no matter who prepares them, will be biased by the preparer's own view. The biased materials will affect the outcome of the deliberation, so the result won't be truly democratic. Hence, deliberation day will fail by its own lights.

I'm not so sure about the inevitability of bias, and I seem to recall that A&F's answer is to have both parties prepare materials. But leave those worries aside. Suppose that the result is affected by bias in the way described. This is only a fatal difficulty if the goal were to achieve some sort of democratic ideal. But it isn't. Rather, the hope is to do better than we are doing now. So the question is, would the bias be so severe that it would prevent that (assuming, of course, that the rest of DD worked as A&F argue it would)? I see no reason to think so. (perhaps the reason is that when A&F have run workshops the deliberators have become more liberal. Now, you could argue: (1)A&F are liberals;(2) A&F prepared the briefing materials; (3) since A&F are liberals, the materials must have been biased; (4) this bias must have altered the outcome; (5) there is no other explanation for the outcome; (6)-(10) the bias argument. But 4 and especially 5 are contentious. It could be, after all, that the leftward movement is explained by the merits of the left's positions. There's also probably an increased likeliness that people with a real voice in govt will trust govt action.)

Last poliblog: proposes that we just teach more govt classes in school. I say: Mr. Mountain, meet Mr. Ant.

Signifying Nothing 1 doesn't have much substantive comment, there are a couple of links that might be worth following later. Does have a Posner quote (from the article linked above) that blatantly commits the ad hominem fallacy by suggesting that supporters of deliberative democracy are motivated by their own imagined argumentative prowess. Fallacy or no, Posner might have a point. I'll think about it.

Signifying nothing 2 presents Iowa caucus madness as an example of the breakdowns that one might expect on Deliberation Day. Good rhetoric, but not much of an objection. Juries work.

Signifying nothing 3 some fruitful links, but I've already followed them.

left to do: Go through the 4 OpinionJournal arguments, follow the links in SN1

Tuesday, March 30, 2004


He made a porch for the throne where he might judge, cont.

Deliberation Day sounds a little nutty, there's no getting around that. The idea, as you may recall from yesterday, is to establish a national holiday a week before important elections, and for citizens to spend that holiday deliberating collectively about the issues facing the nation. Those who participate in this exercise in mass deliberation, and who follow up by voting, are paid $150.

Ackerman and Fishkin, the guys proposing the adoption of Deliberation Day, aren't crazy.

The democratic ideal, as they see it, is for the policies and practices of the state to be guided by the considered opinions of the public. When the public is not well-informed about political matters this ideal will not be realized - either elites will manipulate public opinion to serve their own ends or the nation will be guided by unreflective public preferences. That is, an uninformed citizenry yields either bread and circuses as the whole of public policy or bread and circuses as a mask drawn over public policy by a decision-making elite.

Since these results seem to be a bad thing, you might expect that each citizen has good reason to become informed and to deliberate about public policy. But doing so has a cost. Time spent reading newspapers and debating the finer points of NAFTA could instead be spent on other projects and interests. Moreover, the influence any individual citizen has on the direction of policy is likely to be quite small. As a result, unless an individual happens to find politics intrinsically interesting, the utility of civic engagement is quite low.

If all this is right, then we face a serious dilemma. Our democratic ideal requires that the state be responsive to the considered preferences of citizens, but individual citizens have little reason to acquire such preferences. Deliberation Day is intended to dissolve this dilemma by providing incentives for citizens to become informed.

Now, this wouldn't be much of an improvement if what it led to were an informed choice between the Democratic and Republican platforms as currently constituted. But Ackerman and Fishkin argue that a public commitment to deliberative practices would have a transformative effect on political discourse with the result that the parties would become more responsive to the genuine concerns of citizens.

There seem to me to be three legitimate strategies for objecting to this proposal. First, you might argue that we really don't face any such dilemma. This line of objection would do best, I think, to focus on the ideal that Ackerman and Fishkin identify and to argue that their articulation of the democratic ideal doesn't identify what we ought to value about democratic institutions. A second line of objection would admit that the dilemma is real, but deny that Deliberation Day represents a workable solution. And, lastly, one might admit that the dilemma is real but deny that it is solvable.

That's all for now. Later, I'll go through a few of the objections that are floating around cyberspace* and develop my own critique of the proposal.

* does anybody even say 'cyberspace' anymore?

Monday, March 29, 2004


Blogger zwichenzug sells out, loses three punk points

Bringing me down to 7.

Anyhow, I set up a CafePress shop, with Zwichenzug branded merchandise for the people. There's a link to it over on the right, the Sell-out Zone.

Actually, I set it up because I wanted to make the Refuse Control Freedom Box:

Update: It occurs to me that some readers may not get the joke. So, perhaps you shoud visit this site, and this one.


He made a porch for the throne where he might judge

More on this later, but I've discovered that an article I'm reading this afternoon as part of my >ahem< scholarly research has been making waves on the right wing of the internet for the last week or so.

The article is "Deliberation Day" by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. It appeared in the Journal of Political Philosophy in June of 2002, and has apparently been expanded into a book.

In the article the authors argue for the establishment of a national holiday, Deliberation Day, to take place about a week before important national elections. On that day, citizens will gather in groups ranging from 15 to 500 in order to discuss the issues of the day. Those who take part in such forums, and follow up by voting, get a check for $150.

Sounds crazy, I know. In the article, but perhaps not the book, the authors seem to be aware that this plan is unlikely to find broad political support. There, they offer the proposal as an exercise in what they call 'rational utopianism.' I'm still working my way through, so no opinion yet on whether the idea stands up to scrutiny.

I can, however, say something about the conversation the book is generating online.

That conversation was prompted by this review in the WSJ's OpinionJournal (don't know how I missed it). The review has been blogged about at PoliBlog, Signifying Nothing, and Political Wire.

My preliminary impression is that none of the blog entries seriously grapples with the issues raised by Ackerman and Fishkin. But the first two bloggers at least appear to have given the matter some thought. Political Wire, though, merely notes the appearance of the OpinionJournal review and repeats one of its weaker points:
Unfortunately, the reviewer says the main problem with the book is that it "castigates Americans for their political ignorance but seeks to use their tax dollars to subsidize their re-education. It wants to guide ordinary people to the deeper democracy that they are apparently incapable of creating for themselves."

This critique might be appropriate if Ackerman and Fishkin were proposing that a benevolent dictator impose Deliberation Day on we poor voters. But that's not what Ackerman and Fishkin are doing. They are, rather, proposing to a democratic constituency that it adopt a particular policy for the improvement of democratic institutions. So this is yet another example of the right wing's tendency to conflate democratic governance and dictatorship.

Anyhow, I'll post more on this later. If the idea interests you, here's a link that will download a pdf of an earlier version of the paper. And here's an article by Ackerman and Fishkin in the Winter 2004 issue of Legal Affairs.


Morbid, hell-bound empty woe*

From the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry Dictionary of Theology's entry on logic:
Deductive logic is the method of validating a claim by means of supportive information where both the claim and the information are necessarily true. For example, People exist. All people breathe. Therefore, all people breathe.

A slightly more authoritative source defines the fallacy of begging the question as:
A form of circular reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion. Normally, the point of good reasoning is to start out at one place and end up somewhere new, namely having reached the goal of increasing the degree of reasonable belief in the conclusion. The point is to make progress, but in cases of begging the question there is no progress. [source]

I kid because I love. Seriously, CARM has a good front page for the bible here. It's not the most poetic translation, but the web interface is well thought out and it's much faster than similar sites.

*This post's title is from the poem, 'Oh sin, please die!' which can be found in this corner of the CARM site.

Saturday, March 27, 2004


Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

A little while ago the University of Illinois conducted a student referendum on the question of whether to retain Chief Illiniwek as an honored symbol. Unsurprisingly, the students voted to keep the Chief. My own view, as I've blogged before is that we ought to get rid of the Chief. But I only bring the matter up now to give context to an incident I heard about that illustrates a point I tried to make a few days ago.

The incident involved one of my peers, a Teaching Assistant here at the university. On the day of the referendum he arrived at his classroom to find that the walls were covered with a dozen or so bright orange 'Keep the Chief' flyers. Finding the flyers to be distracting he went around the room taking them down and deposited them in a neat pile on his desk. When a student asked if this was something he ought to be doing, the TA explained that he found the bright orange color of the flyers to be a distraction.

It seems to me that those flyers are a form of political speech and that, as such, the bar for removing them ought to be fairly high. That said, I'm not sure whether the TA acted inappropriately by removing them. I didn't see the flyers and don't know how distracting they really were. And it may be, for all I know, that University policy expressly forbids the posting of such flyers. Perhaps most importantly, the pro-Chief side doesn't have any problem getting their message across to the campus community.

But even with these caveats, I think we do well to recognize that the removal of the flyers is the suppression of speech. Even if the suppression is a justified one, our justification should include an acknowledgement that suppressing speech is what we have done.

The public justification the TA gave doesn't include such an acknowledgement. This may be no problem at all. We aren't required to give a full justification for all of our actions, or even to know what a full justification would include. Taken in the context of a full semester, this incident might well turn out to be insignificant.

Still, it worries me. Freedom of speech is a core democratic value and restrictions of speech carry remarkable symbolic power. Conservatives seem to believe that universities are liberal strongholds where left-leaning academics silence rival views and seek to indoctrinate students. Irregardless of the accuracy of this view, it's prevalence is a contributing cause of the unwillingness to fund higher education in the United States. The suppression of speech, even if justified, will resonate with those who are already inclined to believe that lefty professors offer little more than state sanctioned brainwashing.

When I expressed these reservations to the TA, he refused to acknowledge that his actions had amounted to a suppression of speech. He claimed that since he had only intended to remove a garish distraction, that's all he had done. Moreover, he insisted that my worries arose only because I insisted on seeing everything in political terms.

This is a bad argument by any standard, and maybe when he sobers up my colleague will reconsider (these are the sorts of incidents, after all, that tend to be discussed at a bar). But maybe not. The ad hominem stands in for a predilection to limit the range of activities on which its appropriate to focus a political lens.

I'm not sure how to go about arguing for a broader view. What I've done here is look fairly closely at an incident and seen political implications. Do I have to justify the use of a political lens to make those implications salient? It seems to me that the fact that the use of the lens is fruitful ought to be enough.

This point can be put in the vocabulary of John Dewey. We observe and interpret the world according to certain habits of thought. These habits, in turn, place a limit on the beliefs we can hold and the actions we can take. The justification for these habits, and for the limitations which come with them, lies in the contribution these habits make to our successful negotiation of the world. It follows, then, that a change of habit can be motivated by showing that the proposed habit is useful to us.

(Yes Virginia, the TA in question is a bit of a Dewey scholar)

One of McChesney's points was that the corporate media has adopted a lens for looking at politics that limits its view to a small circle of actors and restricted catalog of events. I'm not sure that I agree with McChesney that the adoption of this lens is caused by corporate influence. But McChesney's other point, that we have good reasons to broaden the focus of our view, seems right to me. I think the incident above shows that broadening our view can be fruitful.


On a related (but not obviously) note, it looks to me like Matthew Yglesias misses Chomsky's point.

From Chomsky's innovative blog (that's short for weblog):

About half the population doesn't bother to vote. The voters are heavily skewed towards the wealthy and privileged, who tend to vote for the more reactionary of the two factions of the business party. That's of course not enough for the Republicans to obtain the statistical tie they achieved in 2000. They did get a considerable majority of the male white working class vote, women too, but the reasons are important. Turns out the main issues on which they voted were "religiosity" and gun control -- not their primary concerns, by far, but the primary concerns don't come up because on those -- e.g., international economic arrangements -- elite opinion and popular opinion are generally opposed, so the issue has to be kept off the electoral agenda. In fact, "issue awareness" -- knowing where candidates stand on issues -- hit a historic low in 2000. That's not by accident; rather, design. Candidates are trained to keep away from issues and focus on "values" or personality. For good reasons. And the population is aware of that too.

True, there's no mainstream critique of the whole electoral process. That would be next to inconceivable. Rather, there are enormous propaganda campaigns to try to induce people to vote and trying to make the elections look very serious. We're right in the middle of them now. They have some success, but it's limited.

Yglesias focused on the final paragraph and remarked that:

Now it's true that you don't see a ton of coverage devoted to questioning the wisdom of the US electoral process but that's mainly because (a) the ins-and-outs of alternatives are very boring and technical, and (b) the prospects for altering the system are relatively dim. Whenever it seems timely, though, the media practically explodes with people calling for an end to the electoral college or the institution of single-transferable votes or some such thing.

The problem is, Chomsky's critique of the electoral process isn't about things like single-transferable votes. Rather, he's saying that the electoral process is flawed because the structures of political power are constructed in such a way that the most relevant issues are excluded from the debate. Once you acknowledge this, it may be that a wonky discussion of technical fixes is appropriate. But the timely explosions Yglasias mentions don't amount to an acknowledgement of Chomsky's point, and so aren't a 'critique of the whole electoral process' in the sense Chomsky means.

Friday, March 26, 2004


Zwichenzug Culture Watch, blogosphere edition

What we've got here is nothing but top-dollar super-funky presto-chango all-natural new-and-improved psycho-alpha-disco-beta blogs. The list, with a representative passage from each:

Real Live Preacher: Matthias, the struggle is good. Being unsure of what God is calling you to is good. Wrestling with angels and demons in the wilderness is good. Not knowing is good. Being afraid is good. Being real and human and wanting truth so badly that you can taste it is good.

Brad Delong's Semi-Daily Journal: So I called Bumiller, and asked her why she had made it into a "she said, he said" article rather than into a Cheney-said-something-so-bizarre-that-nobody-else-will-endorse-it article. Her replies seemed, to put it politely, incoherent. The reasons that she didn't stack five contradictory quotes from five different sources against Cheney--and so make him look like the liar or idiot that he is (as Dana Milbank would probably have done)--appear to be that she "doesn't write opinion," that "the news was Rice contradicting what Cheney had said to Rush Limbaugh," and that she "only had 300 words." My assertion that whether Clarke was out-of-the-loop or was the loop itself is a matter of fact, and that a reporter has a duty to ascertain and to report to her readers such matters of fact, did not meet with a response.

First Draft: The bathroom is not the place to make new friends. I don't know who you are, scary lady with big eyelashes and bigger teeth, so don't come right up next to me (hello, claustrophobia, how I've missed you) and start telling me about your cousin's bypass surgery. It's not a social club. Please move. I need to wash my hands. Oh, and crazy woman who sings to herself? Badly? Loudly? The bathroom isn't the Eagles Ballroom, either, not that you could get a gig there. I find my downstairs neighbor's cat's yowling more appealing than listening to you singing "Sugar, Sugar" while you pee.

A Small Victory: I can define myself in many ways; atheist, Republican, Yankee fan. Whenever anyone in those groups does something I find offensive, I distance myself from them. I make sure to stand up and say “Hey, I’m an atheist, but don’t lump me in with those other atheists. I do not condone what they are doing.” So where are the followers of Islam who do not condone the branch of their religion that is being practiced by those who see suicide belts as a fashion statement? Do they even exist?

Philosoraptor: Contempt for reason manifests itself differently on the Right and on the Left. The extreme Left of the spectrum, influenced by postmodernism, tends to denigrate truth, reason, and objectivity on (preposterously shaky) theoretical grounds and reject them even as ideals. Consequently, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism are common on the Left. On the right, it is common to pay lip service to the ideals of truth, reason, and objectivity, while in fact blatantly flaunting those ideals. One of the most baffling things about radically irrational right-wing authors like Ann Coulter is that they take great pains to represent themselves as paragons and defenders of reason. The fuzzy-headed relativism of radical Leftists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Left, and the radical dogmatism of radical Rightists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Right.

Talking Points Memo: It's amazing how many partisan Democrats and disgruntled former employees working under cover as career civil servants, spies and military officers have betrayed this president. It just seems to happen again and again and again. I mean, just think of the list: Rand Beers, well-known partisan Democrat and hack, Richard Clarke, self-promoter, disgruntled former employee, and "self-regarding buffoon", Karen Kwiatkowski, conspiracy theorist and all-around freak, Valerie Plame, hack and nepotist, Joe Wilson, partisan hack, self-promoter and shameless green tea lover. When will the abuse end?

Yellowtext: Once again, I'm poised to kick butt in my office Iditarod pool: my man Martin Buser is first out of the Nikolai checkpoint. Of course, the race has barely even begun (Nikolai is about 300 miles into the 1100-mile trail) but given that he's driving a proven and confident team, and that once again I'm the only person taking part in the big office Iditarod pool, I'm fairly confident that I'll be taking home the HoneyBaked® Ham this year.

Do I want you to tell me about other great blogs? You bet your sweet banana!


That'll be three Hail Marys

(via boingboing, who found it somewhere else)

If you'd been reading a daily dose of architecture you'd already be thinking about avante garde urinal design.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


All the news that's fit to print

A few weeks ago I had a chance to read Robert McChesney's 1997 pamphlet Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. Though already outdated, it's an interesting little book and I'd like to see more like it.

One of McChesney's arguments, perhaps the main one, focuses on the way that mainstream news coverage distorts our perception of reality through the choices they make about the kinds of stories that count as news. McChesney's not, or not mostly, talking about the media's decision to cover something like the 9-11 commission hearings rather than, say, the current deadlock on Bush's proposed budget. Both of those stories are of pretty much the same sort, and you can imagine the budget story topping the headlines on a different day.

There are two things that the stories have in common, and that make them fundamentally different from the kinds of stories that rarely make it into the news. First, the stories both have a discrete and easily identifiable location in time and space. The federal budget is important year round. What makes it news today is that the budget deadlock is an event. Second, both stories feature a cast of characters who are easily recognized as newsmakers. They are important people; the sorts of folks who can create an event by opening their mouths in public.

There are a lot of reasons why the mainstream media chooses to (mostly) limit their coverage to stories that fall within these parameters. It's easier and cheaper than spending a lot of time mucking around trying to figure out what really matters. It's what the audience is used to, and as a result, is safer than other choices might be. And it may be, as McChesney alleges, that corporate owners wouldn't tolerate a different paradigm.

McChesney's point, by the way, is not that events like the budget debate and the 9-11 Commission hearings aren't stories that should be covered. What he's saying is that by focusing on stories like those you get an incomplete picture. It's essentially the social history critique applied to current events.

Something I've noticed about the blogosphere is that, for the most part, bloggers mirror the mainstream media in their choices about the kinds of stories that count as news. This strikes me as unfortunate.

One of the things I've tried to do in this blog is develop a beat that takes a broader view. For the most part this means that I pay a lot of attention to labor news.

I think labor news is important for a lot of reasons. To begin with, labor news has to do with real and significant events in people's lives. Also, looking closely at labor disputes provides insight into important structural forces at work in American society. Most importantly from my perspective, though, is that strong labor unions are the only institutions I know of that have the potential to resolve the most pressing issues facing us today.

Let me say something about this last claim. What are the most pressing issues? One of them, I think, is the rising cost of health insurance and the growing number of people who have to make do without coverage.

Some time ago I was talking to a first year teaching assistant, trying to convince her to join the union. She agreed that our health insurance was lousy, that a strong union could help us secure better coverage, and that by joining the union she would help make it stronger. Still, she wouldn't sign a card. Why not? She didn't think it would be fair for graduate employees to have affordable health care when so many others would remain uninsured. If I had been trying to get her to join some organization that would only lobby Congress she would have jumped on board. Since I wasn't, she wasn't interested.

As I've blogged before, I think it would be great if we had a comprehensive national healthcare system. But I also think the only way to get there is by having strong unions that win major concessions from employers. Why? Because the only way to fund comprehensive national healthcare is by imposing a new tax on employers. And the only way employers are going to sit still for that is if the burden of the new tax is offset by savings in their employees' benefits packages.

Even short of this, unions represent considerable concentrations of political power. Today The Joe Hill Dispatch called my attention to this article from Crain's Chicago Business. The key paragraphs:

Illinois hospitals have agreed to provide free or discounted care to the uninsured.

Under terms of the deal the Illinois Hospital Assn. (IHA) reached with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Friday, uninsured families with incomes up to $18,850 per year will get free care. The income limit is tied to the federal poverty level and increases based on family size.
In addition to requiring free care for patients at or below the federal poverty level, the agreement compels hospitals to provide services at cost to anyone who earns less than $18,620.

From my point of view this is big news and a big victory. SEIU was acting here as a health care advocacy group, but their ability to do this is directly tied to the fact that workers have come together and pooled their resources. We have an organization here in Champaign, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, that acts as an advocacy group for issues like this. I really admire the CCHCC, and think they do a fantastic job, but their funding comes entirely from grants and donations so they'll never have the kind of muscle that SEIU does.

To be fair, it's pretty likely that the SEIU story will get a lot of play, especially here in Illinois. But the story behind the story won't. That story has to do with the day to day work of building organizations like SEIU. One of America's open secrets is that the deck is stacked against those who try to organize unions. This is in sharp contrast to the public mythology of super-powerful unions that distort markets and drive employers out of business. This is a myth that wouldn't survive media, or for that matter blogospheric, scrutiny.

Will a change in media focus bring about fundamental changes in the way our society operates? Of course not. Talking isn't the same as doing, and there's a hell of a lot to be done. But a change in focus is one of the necessary steps.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


To execute judgement upon all

Here's a critique you've heard from me before: The United States wields immense military and economic power. As a result, actions taken by the United States affect people everywhere. Those affected by American power are aware of this fact and are also aware that they have no voice whatsoever in the direction that the American policy takes. The exercise of power over someone is apt to cause resentment whether you act in their interest or not. Rightly or wrongly, the perception around the world is that the United States does not act in the interests of those over whom its power is exercised. A further source of resentment is the apparent hypocrisy of the ubiquitous American refrain that other nations bring ruin upon themselves because they aren't sufficiently committed to democracy.

While I don't think this critique represents anything like a full diagnosis of the causes of terrorism and anti-Americanism, I do think it's an important part of the story. So it's no surprise that an op-ed with the title, U.S. election: the world should also have a vote would catch my attention.

Check this out:

The options on offer from both candidates are few and the choices far between. This is not only a bad sign for the United States but also for the rest of the world. World peace and the lives of six billion people on this planet hang on the outcome of the elections. How the United States under its next president takes on the reconstruction of Iraq, tackles terrorist threats and nuclear nonproliferation, deals with Muslim societies, and copes with issues of trade, currency and the global environment, will all have a significant effect on the entire global community.

Under the current U.S.-centered international system, the United Nations has been sidelined. Longstanding U.S. allies like Britain and Japan have been relegated to a "coalition of the willing" (now minus Spain), while other major powers such as China and Russia are frantically trying to make "transactions" with the United States. No country has the power to effectively restrain America.

This all sounds right to me. And even if the core claim, the claim that the United States is the bull in the world's china shop, is false, the fact that the claim is being made is a point in favor of my analysis.

The author goes a little hyperbolic a few paragraphs later:

Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "The End of the American Era," believes that since Sept. 11, 2001, the system of checks and balances has broken down in the United States. Internally, opposition parties have almost disappeared, and those expressing a dissenting view are few. Bush critics are condemned as unpatriotic, and only in the past four to five months have opponents of Bush's foreign policy begun to creep out from behind the rocks.

That view strikes me as overly pessimistic. But whatever.

Where they really lose me is with the proposed solution:

The idea is to hold a mock election via the Internet at individual discretion, giving everyone around the world with access to the Internet the chance to cast a vote. Voters would be able to choose the candidate they think is best for the world, giving reasons for their choice. The results should then be published before the real election on Nov. 2, allowing U.S. citizens to take world opinion into account when making their own decision.

Talk about a counterproductive idea. How do you think the vote is likely to come out? Me, I think Bush wouldn't do too well. Now, imagine that the results are published a few days before the election. What do you think the effect will be on the American political scene? I'm thinking backlash. But hey, if you want to vote, this site will let you.


Total Information Awareness

Right now I'm annoyed because Federal News Service has this morning's 9-11 Commission transcript up but it hasn't made it over to LexisNexis. In fact, it looks like it takes two full days for transcripts to make their way over. The problem is that I'd have to pay to access FNS, but I already paid (sort of) for LexisNexis.

What a geek. In my defense: (a) it's spring break; (b) it's raining.


Follow up

In a post yesterday I took the news media to task for misrepresenting some of the things Joe Biden said on ABC's This Week last Sunday. My criticism was based largely on my memory of what Biden had said. Later, I remembered that as a fully bonded graduate student I have access to LexisNexis. So I went and dug up the transcript. Here's the core of the critique I remembered:

...the fundamental division in this administration is Paul Wolfowitz's view that you cannot have an international terrorist organization that is coordinated unless it's state sponsored and the other view held by Powell and others say, no, you can have such an organization.
...they mean state sponsorship as an individual head of state who is sponsoring this. They don't mean that making, accommodating like the Saudis did, accommodating like Taliban did, accommodating like, like Iran did to some extent. Accommodating is not what they mean by sponsorship. My discussions with them as then as chairman of the committee was this is a specific thing where you have Saddam Hussein saying, look, I'm with you. Here's the deal. Let's work this out together. That's what they mean by sponsorship.

That's pretty clear. There's just one problem for my analysis: Biden's apologetic occurred much later in the show. Here's that quote in full:

BIDEN: Can I say one more thing? I think it is unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it. Even if he had followed the advice of me and many other people, I still think the same thing would have happened. I think Iraq is another problem that's almost distinct and is sapping our energies and sapping our, and we did it all wrong in my view, but I think, I want to make it clear I do not believe because we went to Iraq this is the reason why this organization is starting to morph.

Does this get the press off the hook? It might depend on what you think Clarke's core allegations are. If you think that Clarke is mainly saying that there's a correlation between the invasion of Iraq and a subsequent rise in terrorist attacks, then using Biden's quote to defend the president is fair. But look at how the quote is situated in USA Today:

"Rumsfeld said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq," Clarke said on Sunday's 60 Minutes. "I said, 'Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with it.' "

The White House defended the consideration of a potential Iraq link. "Given Iraq's past support of terror it would have been irresponsible not to ask if Iraq had any involvement in the attack," it said.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Sunday on ABC's This Week that while he has been critical of Bush policies on Iraq, "I think it's unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it."

At best, the quote is a non sequitor. But it's clearly placed in such a way as to make it seem relevant to 9-11 rather than 3-11. In fact, the USA Today article doesn't mention the idea that the invasion of Iraq has created a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. So I'll stick with my claim that leaving out the rest of what Biden had to say constitutes a serious misrepresentation.

The Guardian fares better. Their use of the quote comes a few paragraphs after this:

"Nothing America could have done would have provided al-Qaida and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country,'' Clarke wrote.

Clarke added: "One shudders to think what additional errors (Bush) will make in the next four years to strengthen the al-Qaida follow-ons: attacking Syria or Iran, undermining the Saudi regime without a plan for a successor state?''

Biden's quote is a response to this charge. The only problem is that the Guardian's article buries Biden's remark below two paragraphs of Lieberman defending the Bush Administration's focus on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.


Listening to the commission...

Tenet was just asked what the government did and could have done to fight al-Quaeda prior to 9-11. He said, "I'd suggest that you ask Mr. Clarke later today," and went on to explain that Clarke's office would have had responsibility for those sorts of things.

Translation: Clarke was in the loop.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Cursed be the deceiver

This evening I bought a USA Today for the first time in a few weeks. Now, I'm not one of those people who thinks that USA Today is an intolerably lousy newspaper. In fact, I think the Sports section is pretty darn good. Their news coverage, while not great, has been getting better and better. They did an outstanding job fact checking Bush's State of the Union, and their coverage of the National Guard semi-scandal was as good or better than anybody else's.

Anyhow, today's paper had what seemed to me to be a very slanted article about the Administration's response to Richard Clarke. It was basically a series of attacks on Clarke's credibility peppered with an occasional mention of the charges Clarke is making. What the article lacked was any attempt to evaluate the substance of either Clarke's charges or of the attacks against him.

I mention all of this by way of explaining how I came to be searching the web for Monday's USA Today, to see how Clarke's charges were handled there. That article isn't all I might have hoped for either, but it does a better job of presenting Clarke's case. So on the initial charge of craptastic reporting, USA Today gets a provisional acquittal.

But buried near the bottom of Monday's article was this paragraph:

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Sunday on ABC's This Week that while he has been critical of Bush policies on Iraq, 'I think it's unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it.'

As it happens, I watched Biden's appearance on This Week. He went on to make the point that the Bush team could and should be blamed for failing to recognize that the United States faced more serious threats from diffuse terrorist organizations like al Quaeda than from rogue states like Iraq. In other words, Biden was making one of the same charges as Clarke.

Biden wasn't defending Bush. By reducing what he was saying to a soundbite, USA Today totally misrepresented his point. I don't know whether this was the result of bias, negligence, incompetence, or what. But its annoying.

Before you decide never to buy a USA Today again (except when you need to see the Sports section) consider that they're not the only ones who got it wrong. The Guardian's article on Clarke's allegations has Biden saying, "Even if he had followed the advice of me and many other people, I still think the same thing would have happened."

So what happened? Well, Biden made a very sharp and moderately complex criticism that he softened with the addition of a few conciliatory words. The press, for some reason, ignored the criticism and ran with the absolution.

There's probably a lesson here, but I don't think I want to learn it.

ps - At least one person agrees with my understanding of Biden's point.



About the only real benefit of having a counter on this site is that I find out what google searches people are using to get here. Here's a selection from my current report:

13 quicktime
12 s
10 sound
7 flask
7 boobie
6 +
4 bite
3 mars
3 halliburton

Perhaps you noticed, in the middle there, seven hits each for flask and boobie. Those are hits on this post from the middle of February. The hits started coming about ten days ago. So here's my deep cultural question: What happened ten days ago that suddenly made the boobie flask so popular?

Saturday, March 20, 2004


You talkin' to me?

Don't get me wrong. Tang and Velcro are great, but NASA's latest looks like a real humdinger. They've apparently figured out how to detect words that you think but don't speak.

The technique involves small sensors on the neck and powerful pattern recognition software. These sensors detect nerve impulses sent to the muscles responsible for generating speech (I guess that when you think the word the nerve impulse is strong enough to be detected, but not strong enough to cause any noticeable twitch in the muscles). The pattern recognition software then correlates these impulses with simple words or commands. So far, the vocabulary is very small -- less than 20 words. But they've been able to use that simple vocabulary for tasks as complex as browsing the internet.

There are clearly a lot of uses for this kind of technology, even if the vocabulary remains limited. NASA talks about using it to allow astronauts to more efficiently control remote devices. It occurs to me that this technology could really improve the lives of the severely disabled. Commercially, well, there will be a lot of very cool gadgets. And, of course, the technology raises all sorts of philosophical issues as well.

For example, this development sheds light on our concept of action. Most people think that there is a significant difference between thinking something and saying it. So if I'm standing in line for the premiere of Hellboy and think "Jerk!" when you cut in front of me, nobody would say that I've insulted you. On the other hand, if I was decked out in NASA gear that routed my thoughts through a loudspeaker, we probably would say that I'd insulted you. We might even say that if I didn't know about the NASA gear. In the first case I didn't perform an action, in the second I did, and in the third I may have.

One thing that's interesting here is how easily our concept adapts to the new circumstances. We are easily able to accommodate the new facts which move some thoughts from the realm of the private into the realm of the public. The complexities of the third kind of case aren't different from the sorts of complexities we're used to dealing with (imagine that you called your boss a jerk when you were sure that she was out of earshot). At the same time, the sensitivity of the concept to changes in circumstances dramatically illustrates that whether or not I have performed an action isn't a fact about me in isolation. Instead, its a fact about a complex social situation of which I am a part. That is, its a fact about my relations to other people.


Friday, March 19, 2004


Zwichenzug culture watch, NCAA Tournament edition


They made me the keeper of the vineyards

Rosemary points out that federal employees are no longer protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Formerly, victims of discrimination could register their complaints with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). But as of a few weeks ago:

The OSC has removed references to sexual orientation-based discrimination from its complaint form, the OSC basic brochure, training slides and a two-page flier entitled "Your Rights as a Federal Employee." 

The OSC also removed from its website a press release issued by the OSC in June 2003 that announced the settlement of a case involving discrimination based on sexual orientation against an applicant to the Internal Revenue Service. [link]

Credit for the change goes to Scott Bloch, who started a five year appointment as head of the OSC in January. Mr. Bloch says, "People confuse conduct and sexual orientation as the same thing, and I don’t think they are."

But his interpretation of of this right-wing chestnut is novel, to say the least. Under Bloch's OSC:

A gay employee who is fired or demoted for attending a gay pride rally would receive protection from the Office of Special Counsel. But the same employee would have no recourse at OSC if he was fired or demoted simply for being gay. [link]


Transit strike blogs

It looks like there are now three blogs dedicated to the transit strike in Minneapolis. They are: Strike!, TC Metro, and transitlibrarian. Each takes a different approach to blogging about the strike, so check them all out. And, yeah, they're all by workers.

Here's a snippet from TC Metro:

Strike Day 13
Drivers'/Mechanics' Cumulative Loss $6,552,000 (wages)
Riders' Cumulative Loss $6,581,250 (75,000 riders' parking and gas less bus fare)
Metro Transit Approximate Cumulative Gain $3,900,000 (per own statements)

Yesterday was truly a sad one for our state. Our governor proclaimed "As governor, you have responsibility to solve large problems. Bottom line: I don't want to lose the Twins or the Vikings on my watch." He should have added "Our mass transit infrastructure, also a large problem costing the community $1,000,000 per day, is simply less important than helping two of the wealthiest people in the world, and important contributors to our party, add financial value to their entertainment assets so they can sell them for maybe twice what they paid." [TC Metro]

The latest news is that a couple of Minnesota state legislators are going to introduce a bill that would increase funding for the MTA by $10 million. The idea is that a well-funded MTA will be able to afford to pay their workers, and that this would put an end to the strike. My humble suggestion: put a rider on the bill that prohibits the MTA from using that money (or any money) to give out alternative transit grants.

For news of the strike, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has set up an index of their coverage here. I think the coverage is slanted against the strikers (see today's article, Metro buses stay quiet, but people speaking up), but it's the only mainstream source delivering regular news. The TwinCities IMC is a good place to go for balance.


An indirect citation

So a certain blog, Confessions of Shameless Agitator, does a weekly 'shameless agitator award.' This is cool enough in itself, but this week's award winner, Kathryn Cramer, has put together an amazing series of posts about those South African mercenaries who were arrested in Zimbabwe last week on their way to overthrowing the government of Equatorial Guinea.

There's an index of Cramer's posts on the topic here. Go there now.

Thursday, March 18, 2004


Holding Zone

It's probably clear to any >ahem< regular readers that I'm pretty much making this up as I go along. One thing that's been happening is that this page, which started out as a tool for me, has begun to carry more and more content. But maybe I'm the only person who knows that.

Anyhow, if you drop by here only for my purple prose, then the holding zone won't interest you very much. But if, on the other hand, you're here as part of a rigorous exercise in procrastination, then it might be worth looking in on from time to time.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004


The roads must roll

It's not making waves outside of Minnesota, but for my money the biggest domestic news story of the past several weeks is the Minneapolis transit strike. We're a few days short of two weeks in, but this is looking like another dispute that could last for months.

You might ask, "How dare those workers strike, knowing the inconvenience it could create??"

Well, the cause of the strike is simple enough to explain. The key (official) players are the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Acting under Pawlenty's direction, the MTA decided to submit, as their final offer, a contract proposal that featured a whopping 1% raise, an increase in employee premiums for family health insurance, and, get this, a plan to phase out health insurance benefits for retired workers. [source]

That's right. The MTA's final offer includes a plan to renege on benefits that have already been earned. It's as if you were to pay into your 401k for 25 years and then have the bank tell you that they've changed their policy and will be reallocating the money to meet other lending needs.

The union balked. Maybe I'm biased, but I'm not willing to describe this one as a greedy union using its vast power to distort the market.

It looks like a bad time to be a pensioner. Suppose this strike drags on for months, the way the California grocery strike did. Every day that goes by, the workers on the picket line will have to ask themselves whether they're willing to forgo a paycheck in order to save somebody else's benefits. There's going to come a time when the answer will be 'no.'

So Pawlenty and the MTA have cooked up some pretty strong kung-fu. Unless the union has got Wong Fei Hong waiting in the wings, we may be looking at a beat down.

It gets worse.

Governor Pawlenty, it turns out, is beholden to an organization called the Minnesota Taxpayers League. These charming folks are from the Grover Norquist school of backroom bathtub accounting. Their hope is that the strike will drag on long enough for all mass transit customers to find alternative ways to get around. Once this is accomplished, the riderless MTA can be drowned in their basin of choice.

By the way:

The University of Minnesota estimated the annual metrowide -- not statewide -- spending on roads by all levels of government at $4.2 billion in 1998. That's 14 times the amount spent on transit, or about 96 percent of all government money spent on metro transportation. And it fails to count the private costs of driving -- money spent on cars, fuel, insurance, parking and maintenance, or the external costs of pollution, congestion and loss of productivity. [link]

Anyhow, the Taxpayers League has been doing their darndest to get stories into the press about how convenient it is not to have the roads congested with all of those bulky buses. They've even been releasing a new transit fact every day. Tuesday's was, "Transit will never serve US cities well because we don’t like living cheek by jowl."

(Another fact cited in Tuesday's Taxpayers League press release is that, "The most dense U.S. city is Los Angeles." If that sounds wrong to you, then you're right. This analysis from the Census Bureau shows that in 1990 L.A. ranked 8th in population density among the 20 most populous U.S. cities.)

Propaganda is as propaganda does, I suppose, and the Taxpayers League wouldn't be much to worry about if all they did was write press releases and stare longingly at the bathwater. But check out the plan their man Pawlenty came up with on Friday:

We will be making grants totaling $100,000 per week to nonprofit social-service agencies for additional transportation services they provide to transit-dependent people. The money comes from dollars that Metro Transit is saving while the buses aren't operating. If we find that the needs are greater than we expected, we'll expand the program. [link]

There's a part of me that wants to object to this proposal just because it's clearly part of an effort to bust the union. But I'm fair minded enough to acknowledge that the MTA has a right to continue to attempt to provide services during the strike, so I'll let that go.

The real problem is that the proposal transforms public transportation into something provided as a charity rather than as a city service. Take a minute and ask yourself this: what non-profit organizations in my neighborhood own and operate buses? If your answer was reasonably close to, "Why, I believe the Seventh Day Adventists have a bus or two," then your neighborhood is a lot like mine.

Faith-based busing for the poor!

Ahh, progress.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004


Notes from the peanut gallery

As I was sitting here not sleeping, I noticed a post on Pandagon that paralleled a question one of the folks from Y.O.K.E.L. (the Young Objectivists Know Everything League) asked Kucinich earlier. The Y.O.K.E.L. asked Kucinich whether he didn't think social security taxes amounted to theft. On Pandagon, the issue is whether welfare is theft.

Kucinich's answer to the Y.O.K.E.L. appealed to the idea that providing for the basic needs of the citizenry was one of the legitimate functions of government. This is okay as far as it goes, but it's not going to convince a Y.O.K.E.L. For one thing, Y.O.K.E.L.s think that it's immoral to place anyone else's good on a par with your own. What seems to be missing is a substantive account of what it is that makes something a legitimate function of government.

Ezra Klein at Pandagon does a better job of addressing this particular bit of tomfoolery, but still falls short. On his account, welfare isn't theft because the laws which established welfare were legitimately passed by a government which has our consent. The difficulty is that the argument depends on what the Y.O.K.E.L. refuses to give -- namely, his consent. Now, you might plausibly think that the Y.O.K.E.L. would be irrational to refuse consent, but what right have you to demand that he be rational? None that I can see.

To answer the Y.O.K.E.L., you need an argument that starts from premises he accepts. Here's one such premise: All citizens ought to be treated equally by the state.

So here's an argument:

(1) All citizens ought to be treated equally by the state.
(2) Whatever else equality of treatment includes, it must include equal opportunity to participate in political decision making.
(3) One cannot be an equal participant in political decision making unless one has sufficient material resources.
Hence, (4) states must ensure that all citizens meet some minimal level of material well-being.

Once you've got 4, it's a pretty easy step to programs like welfare and social security. You can also pretty easily get things like universal health-care, housing programs, and state-sponsored education.

Will a Y.O.K.E.L. accept this argument? Well, no. As noted, they're irrational. More importantly, they'll point out that 3 is extremely contentious. Be that as it may, this argument at least provides a way of answering the Y.O.K.E.L. without begging the question. Besides, it's possible that 3 is the sort of thing that can be fruitfully investigated by the social sciences.

(For you philoso-nerds: I first heard this line of argument from John Exdell, in a paper he wrote criticizing welfare-to-work programs. I suspect that it's out there in other forms, but I've never seen it more clearly expressed. I'd like to say that it's implicit in Rawls, but Rawls seems committed to the notion that consent and legitimacy are intimately connected.)

Monday, March 15, 2004


Democracy NOW! (okay, tomorrow)

I don't know about you, but I'm excited about tomorrow's Illinois Democratic primary. Got my slate all scoped out, right down to the convention delegates. If you'd like to see a copy of the ballot for yourself, you can visit the office of the Champaign County Clerk.

I went to a Kucinich event this evening. To my great surprise, over 1000 people showed up. How can a guy whose candidacy is, well, hopeless put that many butts in seats? It's not like the media has been all Kucinich all the time or anything. Something is going on out there.

Kucinich convinced me that he was a serious candidate when he was the first speaker of the evening to figure out how to work the microphone without deafening the audience with feedback. Here's a tip for all the political candidates out there: the trick is to turn off all but one of the mics.

The message is a little thick on hokey new-age spirituality, and Kucinich has an annoying tendency to lapse into pop scientific metaphors when expressing complex ideas. But even though it doesn't always work, you have to give him credit for trying to develop a new vocabulary for talking about politics.

Kucinich doesn't resort to cliches, and he doesn't talk down to his audience. There were times when, while answering a question, you could tell that he was struggling to find a different way of expressing a familiar thought. He wanted to say it differently because he wanted to make it fresh, wanted his audience to actually think about it, judge it, and do something with it other than reshelving it in the same place as before.

I'm not so sure that the presidency is ready for Kucinich, but I'll vote for him tomorrow. And I'm damn glad he's in the Congress.


Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit

The debate around the Spanish train bombings is reminding me of what it felt like on September 11 and for weeks and months afterward. I'm more or less a pacifist, but I was consumed with bloodlust for several days, and continue to feel the effects today. If George Bush had decided to nuke Saudi Arabia on September 12, I would have watched the mushroom clouds billow on my TV, nodded my head, and said, "that's about right."

I don't know if terrorists are themselves insane, but I do know that their attacks create a kind of madness. The world was crazy enough before; now it's certifiable.

One of the things that made those attacks tragic was the utter impossibility that the grievances which spurred them would be furthered in any way. Could Mohammad Atta really have thought that flying a plane into the World Trade Center would make the United States less likely to throw its weight around in the Muslim world? If he did, it was one of the greatest miscalculations in history.

There can be no doubt that there will be other terrorist strikes on the United States. And you can be sure that when they come our gorge will rise and we will again be driven towards berserk attacks and questionable policies.

So it seems especially important now, in this moment of relative calm, to ask what can be done about the roots of terrorism. Some on the right may be content to assume that terrorists are just crazy, that they have no legitimate grievances. I'm not so sure. But even lefties might be reluctant to, so to speak, reward terrorists by addressing their concerns. Consider:

Evidence has also been piling up that it really was al-Qaeda behind the bombings, not ETA. So another possibility is that the voters (or at least some of them) were upset that Aznar's support for the Iraq war was responsible for al-Qaeda targeting Spain, which seems to be the theme of this Washington Post story. This would be a considerable victory for al-Qaeda and would reflect very poorly indeed on the Spanish electorate. It also doesn't smell right to me. [calpundit]

The worry here is that:

The goal of terrorism is to affect public opinion and to scare people into not opposing the terrorists' aims. If (if!) the Spanish electorate was punishing Aznar solely because they perceived his actions as being anti-terrorist enough to provoke an al-Qaeda attack, the terrorists have accomplished their goal: the Spanish public has shown that if they are attacked they will vote against a politician who strongly opposed the terrorists. [calpundit]

If you believe that some terrorists are sometimes responding to real grievances, then there is a serious dilemma here. The problem in those cases is that the terrorist is trying to get you to do something you ought to do anyway, but is using impermissible means to get you to do it. There is a worry that if you respond to the terrorists' grievances you will be, at the same time, legitimizing the means that they used. At the very least, you show those means to be effective.

The simple solution is to deny that the obligations are in tension. Consider the Spanish case. If you believe, as I do, that the invasion of Iraq was seriously immoral, then you should also believe that Spain ought not to support it, and so ought to withdraw its troops. Although this is what the bombers sought, it's okay to endorse it as long as your motivation isn't fear of terrorist reprisals. Combine this with a commitment to pursue terrorists and the problem is solved, right?

Well, no. Motivations are fickle things, and are difficult to detect under the best of circumstances. Besides, we're talking about policies, not people. Even if we knew what motivated people, policies aren't the sorts of things that have motivations.

So there isn't a simple answer. When it comes down to it, we have to look at particular cases and evaluate them on their individual merits. Sometimes the fact that terrorism has been used in support of an end will be enough to vacate our obligation to pursue that end. Sometimes it won't.

This much seems clear: the problem arises because of a previous failure. That is, real grievances were left unattended and real obligations were left unfulfilled. But I've already said my piece about that.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


If you read this post, the terrorists will have won

.jasonblog. doesn't think we're at war. Nobody who thinks we're not at war is qualified to be President. Hence, .jasonblog. is not qualified to be President. I'm also unqualified for the office. Once again, the world is made safer by a syllogism.

.jasonblog. argues, and I tend to agree, that the war metaphor doesn't map very well onto the struggle against terrorism. The enemies aren't well enough defined, it isn't clear what could count as victory, and, worst of all, the invocation of the language of war is used to legitimize calls for national unity behind policies that, otherwise, would be seen as divisive and unwise.

But if not war, what?

.jasonblog. has this to say:
We may be able to (and we should!) thwart specific terrorist groups, but they will always exist in some form or another. Terrorism is not a nation which can ultimately surrender in the face of our incredible military might. Terrorism is a crime in which small groups of individuals can engage. [.jasonblog.]

One of the ideas here is that fighting terrorism is better understood as police work than as a military action. But there is a second idea, the idea that terrorism is somehow inevitable. You might say that the terrorists, like the poor, will always be with us.

Why should this be so? Consider this passage from a right-leaning blog:

Bombings, assassinations, terrorist acts - the only folks who use them are those who realize that their desires cannot be achieved by any rational political process. And they don't seem to realize that their their actions shove people even further away from the acceptance of their stance - if it doesn't piss them off enough to go on the offensive and end the threat in a permanent fashion in the first place. [milblog]

I think milblog is half-right. The motivation to engage in terrorism is tied to a belief that one's political ends can't be achieved through normal channels. But I think that milblog is also claiming that the reason that those political ends can't be achieved through 'any rational political process' is because the ends themselves aren't choiceworthy.

This is sometimes true. The Unabomber's radical ludditism wasn't going to be chosen, and in that light his project of destroying the world's technological infrastructure makes a certain screwy kind of sense. The same goes for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. There are more than a few terrorists like them, terrorists who are best understood as nutball political reformers. As .jasonblog. suggests, those folks will always be with us.

But I don't think that this analysis generalizes to explain all or even most terrorism. Whether the bombers themselves are nutball political reformers, the environments which tend to produce terrorists are those in which large populations are denied a voice in the political process. Understood in this way, terrorism is, as much as anything, a plea for recognition.

George Bush is fond of saying that the terrorists hate us because we are a democracy, because we are committed to value pluralism. Even leaving aside the obvious hypocrisy, this isn't a credible explanation. It assigns to terrorists an irrational hatred that renders them inhuman, silencing any discussion of their real grievances -- or, which is more important, of the real grievances of the populations from which the terrorists emerged.

The fact is that the United States wields tremendous power in the world. Decisions made by elites in the United States affect the lives of people everywhere. As helpless as American voters feel in the face of our political system, at least we know that our government is responsive to popular pressure from us.

American politicians talk a good game about democracy, but American foreign policy consistently pursues the goal of increasing the United States' ability to behave autonomously. If we really believed in democracy, we'd try to strengthen international organizations even if it meant sacrificing some part of our sovereignty. Instead, we constantly undercut those kinds of institutions.

I thought this was the lesson of 9-11. I thought the American people would see that they couldn't afford to ignore the effects of American power. Guess I was wrong.


Tiger in my tank

Saturday morning and I'm still recovering from a week of hard-core labor organizing. Really should be reading Rawls but instead I'm reading blogs and listening to NPR.

Which brings me to my point: CarTalk just played a Split Lip Rayfield song. Guess which one.

Monday, March 08, 2004


Light posting this week?

I'm heading out of town to do some union activist hoo-haw. It may turn out that I have internet access on the road, and it may turn out that I don't. That's just one of the many uncertainties standing in my life-path(tm).

In the meantime, I'm looking to capitalize on the power of distributed meat-computing.

Lots of people say that it's wrong to break the law, but very few people say why. I've been trying to figure it out. Here are the best reasons I can come up with. Tell me whether any of them are right. While you're at it, feel free to insult one another in comment form.

Have fun.


Nine reasons not to break the law

1. Some laws prohibit immoral acts. When an act is itself wrongful, committing it would be wrong even if it were not against the law. Murders, for example, fall into this category.

2. The law is superior to the individual, and so the breaking of law is illegitimate disobedience of proper authority. (There is some ambiguity here. Does the superiority have to do with the status of law as such, or does it depend upon the authority of the person or institution which established the law?)

3. The institution of law creates conditions from which the individual benefits, and the violation of law is thus contrary to duties of reciprocity.

4. The institution of law exists only because people have agreed to be governed by it. But those agreements have the same status as a promise, and so a breach of the law is a violation of the duty to abide by one's promises.

5. Each of us has a prudential duty to look out for our own well-being. The breaking of law is an unnecessary risk, and so is a violation of our personal prudential duty.

6. The institution of law creates conditions from which all citizens benefit. Each of us has a duty not to harm our fellow citizens. Although some violations of law do no immediate harm, the breaking of law tends to undermine the institution of law. Damage to that institution is a violation of our duty not to harm our fellows.

7. Each of us ought to act according to the best reasons. The law is the codification of the behaviors which society judges to be most reasonable.

8. Societies ought to be organized democratically, because that kind of organizational structure strikes the best balance between the interests of each. In such a society, the law represents the best estimate of the proper balance and establishes a moral equilibrium. Violation of law violates that equilibrium, and is wrong for that reason.

9. The institution of law is constitutive of a way of life and is not separable from customs and other regulative social practices. So the laws create the conditions within which individuals are able to function and flourish and influence the values that individuals accept and pursue. Violation of law is thus a violation of shared values.


Backroom shenanigans

A few weeks ago something from the 'News You Can Use' segment of the National Farm Report radio broadcast caught my attention. Mort Krim said something like "Our sources indicate that President Bush's recently announced Mars initiative is just the tip of the iceberg. American space scientists have been working for decades to craft the technology necessary to secure the high frontier. Billions have gone in to these secret programs, and a Mars mission will give them the chance to test some of the technology they've developed."

This is a paraphrase from memory, so don't take it too seriously. But here are my notes from that day (yes, I take notes while listening to the radio):

mort krim, national farm report
-control the high ground
-the Chinese have restarted their space race
"For the record the U.S. is committed to the explanation of outer space strictly for peace purposes, but from the earliest days of competition with the Russians…"

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the National Farm Report is aimed at a conservative audience. What struck me when hearing this particular segment was the enthusiastic endorsement of secret defense programs. The prospect of those kinds of programs gives me the willies, so it seemed odd, and maybe even significant, that their existence would be reassuring to conservative listeners.

Here's an argument I often hear from conservatives, but never hear from liberals: "You say the President shouldn't have done X, but you have no standing to criticize him because he has all kinds of information that you don't have."

There's a connection here somewhere. I thought about posting something about this at the time, but I didn't really know what to do with it, and the Mars story passed into irrelevance pretty quickly. So this unfinished thought has been rattling around in my head, lonely, for over a month.

Now I think I've got something to connect it to. On a conservative blog I read fairly regularly, this cropped up last week. The wallet test:

And the final question - would I have enough trust in the man to hand him my wallet with 5 $100 bills in it - and then leave the room for an hour? Then come back, get my wallet back - and leave without checking it, KNOWING it would have been safe? Do you get that feeling when listening to Kerry? When watching him?

I don't.

Oddly enough, I got that feeling from Bush. But not from Gore.

And I won't vote for Kerry if I don't get it from him. [milblog]

There are lots of reasons why I don't think the wallet test is a very good way to pick a president. To begin with, politicians are generally so rich that the amount of money in any normal person's wallet would be insignificant to them. More to the point, it's difficult for me to understand how an honest politician could get elected. And, given the limited information voters have, I see no reason to trust the assessments voters make of the personal character of politicians.

Standing over and above all of these considerations is another: I don't see how a scrupulously honest politician could be effective.

What I think Mort Krim's high frontier story draws attention to is the fact that conservatives share this last view. That is, they don't think it's possible to expect complete honesty from government officials, especially where national security is concerned. Given that view, it makes some sort of sense to demand that public officials be persons with great personal integrity.

One problem with this position is that the political process doesn't give us any real insight into the candidates' personal integrity. What we get are benign public statements and carefully crafted imagery both designed to convince us of the high moral character of the Great Man. And, from the other side, we get attack ads aimed, mostly, at personal integrity.

A more serious problem is that it utterly divorces public integrity from private character. So George Bush lied about WMDs? He must have had a good reason, after all he's a man of great personal integrity. This gets you uncomfortably close to the sort of logic that undergirds conspiracy theories.

But given the admission that full public integrity is undesirable, what alternatives are there to a reliance on private integrity?

I don't have anything like a full answer to this question, but I can suggest the beginning of an answer.

To begin with, the impracticality of full public integrity doesn't mean that all governmental secrecy should get a free pass. To take a topical example, it seems to me that the Bush administration should have been much more honest about pre-war intelligence. Changing EPA reports so that they don't reflect the best science on environmental threats also strikes me as beyond the pall. As to where the exact limits are, I don't know. We don't often discuss such limits, but perhaps we should. My feeling is that there ought to be a presumption against secrecy and misinformation.

It also seems to me that voters ought to vote according to issues rather than according to perceptions of personal integrity. I don't think much of Clinton's personal integrity, but he was fairly good on the issues. At any rate, he was better on the issues than any Republican was likely to be. Progress on issues also has the merit of verifiability.

As I reread these last two suggestions they strike me as the most obvious of banalities. I would delete them and try again, except that it also seems to me that, for some reason, a lot of conservatives don't agree. If that's right, then there's got to be something about these seeming banalities that strikes some people as wrong. I just don't see what it could be.