Friday, October 05, 2007

The Trouble With Rudy: Part the Third

I don't know how I missed this when it came out, but in case you were thinking "Yeah, Rudy, kind of a nut on the foreign-policy side of things, but I bet his fiscal policies are pretty good" - well, not so much:

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani said Friday that the
alternative minimum tax — which is expected to generate as much as $1 trillion
over the next 10 years — could be eliminated over the long term by balancing it
out with even more tax cuts.


The alternative minimum tax, or AMT, was enacted in 1969 to ensure that
a handful of wealthy taxpayers could not exploit a series of loopholes to avoid
paying any income taxes. But the tax was never indexed for inflation. It
now applies to more than 4 million taxpayers and has been the target of tax
reformers who say it will soon unfairly target middle-class taxpayers, if it
hasn't already.

But eliminating the AMT would be extremely expensive, costing $100 billion
in 2010 alone. Giuliani told the 700-member audience of the Northern Virginia
Technology Council that he wants to cap the tax, and perhaps eventually
eliminate it altogether.

"Over time we can figure out how to eliminate it. ... If we were going to
eliminate it, though, we'd have to balance it with additional tax
," Giuliani said, leaving confused expressions on his audience.
"That might be by making the Bush tax cuts permanent."

Emphasis added.

This is an extreme version of what's become a seemingly universal belief among conservatives that cutting taxes usually, or always, results in greater tax revenues. Exactly how this became the pet economic theory of Republican Presidential candidates is the subject of a recently-published book, but the basic theory is something like this:

Tax revenues don't automatically increase as tax rates increase, because at some point the tax rates become so high that people either leave the country or find more ways to hide their income from the tax man. At some point, it becomes counterproductive to raise taxes, and in theory, at very high rates, a tax cut could actually increase tax revenues. That's not crazy. The principle behind the Laffer curve isn't completely nuts.

What is crazy is the way a surprising number of people use it. The biggest problem with the Laffer curve is that nobody really knows where that point is, and the second biggest problem is that they frequently assume that, no matter how much taxes are cut, we're still on the wrong side of it. Income tax rates for the highest income brackets have declined steadily from a high of (IIRC) 91% under that pinko Eisenhower. Today they're roughly 35%, less for lower tax brackets. For the U.S. to be on the wrong side of the Laffer curve (so much so that tax cuts would increase tax revenues significantly), we would have to think that the optimal tax rate is well south of that.

Giuliani's big idea - which he later confirmed was not a misstatement - is that (1) we should cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans and (2) if that reduces government revenue, we can pay for that by cutting other taxes even more. It does not seem to occur to him that if the government loses revenue by (1), it is past the point on the Laffer curve where (2) even kind-of makes sense. Not to mention that, if we're on the side of the curve where raising taxes raises tax revenue, doing either one is objectively nuts without also significantly cutting government spending. Since his foreign-policy positions envision a robust use of the U.S. military, explicitly contemplating a war with Iran, we are left to conclude that he will be cutting domestic spending sharply even as most of the country favors some form of universal health care.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Michael Medved Should Stick To Movie Reviews, Too.

I have vague memories, as a kid, of reading The Golden Turkey Awards and the Hollywood Hall of Shame. Making fun of bad movies is entertaining stuff, and reading people make fun of bad movies is almost as good, especially if you are, as I was, a smartass 14-year-old. Those two worthy tomes were the work of Harry and Michael Medved, the latter of whom was at the time a pretty well-known film critic. Sometimes I'd catch him on "At The Movies," which if I remember right had as co-host Rex Reed. Which must have been pretty weird on the set, given the kind of homophobic projection Medved displays here:

The ignominious fall of Senator Larry Craig casts new light on the importance of the nation’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning open homosexuals from military service.

It ... does?

If preventing public sex in airport men’s rooms is important enough to
justify the deployment of undercover cops, isn’t it similarly significant to
avoid, at all costs, sexual encounters in military latrines?

Not sure about this "at all costs" business. Using undercover cops seems like a pretty low-cost solution to the airport-men's-room problem, really, although you could certainly argue that there are more important things for the airport police to be doing. Likewise, I hear the military has "Military Police" - perhaps they could look into this problem at little additional cost.
Imagine the impact on morale and unit cohesion if two guys from the same barracks engaged in toe-tapping hanky-panky (and perhaps much more) while occupying adjacent bathroom stalls in the military facilities?
Yeah, good thing that's never happened. Also, what if two guys from entirely different barracks did it? It'd be like the Sharks and the Jets, only with M16s and hand grenades.
Of course, advocates for gays in the military will insist that any such indulgence would involve a violation of the rules, with offenders facing stiff, severe consequences. But the impact of gay GI’s on bathroom atmospherics doesn’t just stem from the real chance of actual sex acts in the latrine, it involves whole sexualization of one of the most frequented and important conveniences on any base.
"Stiff" consequences? "Whole sexualization"? What are you trying to say, Mike?

Also, "bathroom atomspherics"? Your objection is aesthetic? I would have gone with "Sex in public is bad, mmmkay?" but ... let's see where you're taking this.
If openly gay males do nothing to compromise restroom integrity and security, why not invite female soldiers into men’s bathrooms, or open the door of women’s facilities to males? Surely, the same rules that would, theoretically, prevent gay men from hassling other men in the head would prevent hetero males from harassing women (or vice verse). Just as a gay male in the military would receive punishment for bathroom misbehavior, so to a straight guy could be busted for making improper overtures to women in the ladies room – but that wouldn’t make him any more welcome in a female facility.
There are a lot of responses to this, but the first one that springs to mind is that there are already gay soldiers using the same latrine as their straight brothers-in-arms. Thus far, I've not heard of any cases where gay soldiers hanging out in the barracks toilet raped someone. There are, however, lots of reports of female soldiers being raped when they use the latrine at night. Which suggests that being gay isn't the same thing as being a woman, which Medved apparently needs to have pointed out. He also needs to have it pointed out that Craig and men like him don't identify as gay; letting openly gay guys serve in the military has no bearing on whether repressed closet cases serve, now or tomorrow.

I've said this before, and I'll probably have to say it again, but fear of punishment is not the only or most important factor in keeping people in line. It's socialization. The social structure of the military isn't going to be conducive to gay cruising anytime soon, and if it were - well, again. They're called "Military Police."
The problem isn’t just the chance of molestation, it’s the radical change of mood and sensibility if you know you may be checked out as a sex object at a very private moment (of urination or defecation) when most normal people prefer to avoid any and all thoughts of physical intimacy. A bathroom becomes a vastly more uncomfortable and even menacing place if it’s used for sexual encounters, whether those connections involve gay or straight sexuality.
I'll defer to his apparently greater experience in this area, but I think it's appropriate to note that women get "checked out as a sex object" all the time. He doesn't seem to understand how, if the bathroom is uncomfortable and menacing if it's used for either gay or straight sex, his point about how "teh gayz r destroye amerika!" is invalidated. It's the "sex in public," not the "gay," that's the problem.
In a column in Sunday’s New York Times, Laura MacDonald insists that toilet sex never involves one-sided, unwanted attentions. According to the research she cites (based on “a groundbreaking dissertation” of a doctoral candidate at Washington University nearly 30 years ago) “a straight man would be left alone after that first tap or cough or look went unanswered. The initiator does not want to be beaten up or arrested or chased by teenagers, so he engages in safeguards to ensure that any physical advance will be reciprocated.”
Certainly in the case of Larry Craig, the arresting officer did nothing to discourage the Senator’s attentions until the very moment of the arrest and almost certainly invited his advances. The near unanimous revulsion regarding the incident (from Republican and Democrat, gay and straight alike) therefore has nothing to do with sexual assault or attempted rape, or any notion of the mild-mannered, bespectacled 62-year-old legislator somehow forcing himself on the burly, buff and much younger cop.
Since the cop was there undercover as part of a sting, discouraging Craig would have been pretty counterproductive. Also, the cop just sat on the toilet until Craig slipped his hand under the stall; at what earlier point does Medved think he should have said "Whoa, there. I'm not like that!" I submit (again) that at least the liberal disgust with the behavior has nothing to do with the sex per se, but with the "in public" part of the program.

Also, that last sentence is kind of hot. Maybe Medved can rework it into a film treatment.

The disgust for the three term Senate toe-tapper arises instead from the very association of men’s rooms and amorous meet-ups, of toilet stalls and sex acts. We have a common and compelling interest in keeping such places free of erotic tension and that’s why we dispatch police officers to patrol public rest stations—even though they’re hardly needed to prevent outright assaults.

I'm not sure we have a "compelling interest" in keeping anywhere "free of erotic tension." Free of public sex, maybe.

And if regular users of airport or public park facilities have a right to escape suggestive glances or inviting gestures that can poison an already fetid atmosphere, how much more so do young recruits (many of them eighteen or nineteen years old) the same right to avoid similar attentions (or even suspicions) from their fellow soldiers in the intimate quarters necessitated by military service? It’s no wonder that despite some fifteen years of relentless propaganda, most high ranking members of the armed services remain unconvinced that we should alter regulations to allow participation of open homosexuals.
I submit that no "right to escape suggestive glances" exists, and if it did you could probably arrest half the country every Friday night. It's not clear why the age of the soldiers is relevant - presumably all the hot gay sex Medved is worried about would be just as rampant among the older soldiers. Maybe the younger guys are also "burly and buff," like the cop. And although it's true that "most high ranking members of the armed services" are opposed to openly gay servicemen, it's mostly a generational thing. Those guys are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They grew up in a much more homophobic society, and they were socialized to that standard. Younger soldiers, surveys show, don't much care. Most younger Americans don't much care; they've been socialized in a culture that's been partially shaped by that "fifteen years of relentless propaganda" Medved refers to.
The national shudder of discomfort and queasiness associated with any introduction of homosexual eroticism into public men’s rooms should make us more determined than ever to resist the injection of those lurid attitudes into the even more explosive situation of the U.S. military.

Again, Mike, it's not the homosexuality. It's the "public" part of "public men's room."

Medved was a sometimes funny and insightful movie reviewer. It's a shame he doesn't demonstrate the same gifts as a political and cultural commentator. Perhaps he should go back to the gig he's good at.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Gregg Easterbrook Should Stick to Football

I like Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column quite a bit. He's a smart guy, he watches a lot of football, he usually makes a pretty good case for his point of view. It's also true that he advocates a style of football play that, if every team adopted it, would make the game really boring; but since that's not likely to happen, and the teams that do run well and often and make fewer mistakes win more often, I can't really hold it against him.

On the other hand, he frequently interrupts his column to comment on non-football related matters, and here he gets himself into trouble. A few years back the column was booted from ESPN after Easterbrook wrote an
ill-advised rant in The New Republic about the high incidence of violence in movies that an uncharitable reader could have understood to be a complaint about all the Jews in Hollywood:

"Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message--now Disney's message--that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself."

I don't think he meant anything more than "It's really strange that people who were threatened with genocidal violence 60 years ago should now be making money selling depictions of violence to other people today." It's still, I think, a weird argument (to really work, the Weinsteins et al. would have to be committing actual genocidal-type violence on other people, which ... they're not. Or he'd have to support the argument that filmed depictions of violence lead to the real thing, but ... they don't), but I don't think it was anti-Semitic, particularly given the fact that Easterbrook regularly gets a bee in his bonnet about mass-media depictions of violence (because he really does think that the depictions lead to the real thing). Still, it's the kind of thing that it's easy to misread. In that case, the misreading led to the (temporary) loss of one of his jobs.

He's also posted some daffy articles on science-related issues, such as
evolution, global warming, and string theory. This week's TMQ contains (among other things) his NFC preview, which is interesting; a somewhat odd take on the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal (which I'll be getting around to in a bit); and a very strange mini-rant about how the various acts that performed at the Live Earth concerts are a bunch of lousy hypocrites:

Madonna, Sting join hands to demand that others do what they will not

In July, numerous pop musicians and celebrities flew in private jets, then rode limos to the Live Earth concerts, where they demanded that others conserve. Some 150 acts performed at the event's various venues. Suppose half the acts flew commercial, half aboard private jets. Flying a private jet a transcontinental distance generates greenhouse gases equivalent to driving a Hummer for a year. So that's 75 Hummer Years of greenhouse gases caused by the Live Earth acts that arrived by private jet. (TMQ proposes that henceforth, environmental hypocrisy be measured in Hummer Years.)

If the other acts flew commercial, assuming the average act has five performers and crew and flies a medium distance, that would translate to about 550 tons of greenhouse gases, which is another 60 Hummer Years of global-warming emissions. Now factor in all the spectators and staff attending the various Live Earth concerts. John Buckley of estimated that around 35,000 tons of greenhouse gases were caused by spectators and logistical support for Live Earth -- converted into HYs, that's about the same as driving a Hummer for 4,000 years. Four thousand years' worth of Hummer emissions for an event demanding conservation! And we're just talking about one day of screeching guitars and slurred lyrics, not about the many pop stars who live the private jet lifestyle the year long. As Marina Hyde of London's Guardian newspaper pointed out, Sting's wife recently charted a helicopter to fly her to an environmental meeting.

It's absolutely true that jets and trucks and tour buses all generate a whole lot of carbon. It's also true that the idea of using a helicopter to fly to an environmental meeting is pretty dumb, since helicopters are among the least energy-efficient ways to get anywhere. And Easterbrook might have a point if (1) absent the Live Earth concerts, nobody involved would be using them, or (2) there was some significantly more energy-efficient way for the people involved to get there. But neither of those things are true.

First, all the people performing are famous professional musicians. Their business is pretty much playing concerts. The odds that many or most of them would not be performing absent the Live Earth concert hover somewhere between "slim" and "none." All that Live Earth did was arrange for them to be performing at more or less the same time. The concert itself is extremely unlikely to have generated any extra emissions that wouldn't have been generated anyway. The same goes for the audience; whether or not you chose to drive or fly to the concert, you'd probably still be driving around running errands or having fun somewhere else. The planes people flew to get there - to the extent that the audience was flying commercial - would have been flying whether or not those particular people were on those particular flights.

Second, the fact is that rock concerts and famous musicians require some logistical arrangements that are going to use up a lot of energy. Stacks of amps don't move themselves. It's amusing to imagine the Rolling Stones taking the bus to a show, but it's not really practical. So apparently Easterbrook thinks that either we shouldn't have rock concerts at all, because all of the emissions they produce are wicked bad for the environment; or that rock stars shouldn't use their fame to encourage people to take more care of the environment, which doesn't really seem to help much. If the acts that performed at Live Earth could haul all the stuff they need around in a chariot powered by unicorns and pixie dust that actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on the way, that'd be swell, but as far as I know, not even Sting has one. It's fun to point out the hypocrisies of the rich and famous (David Crosby's liver transplants are an evergreen source of amusement), but this doesn't seem like a very good example of it.

His Michael Vick bit is interesting because he points out what relatively few people have, which is that we do worse than what Vick was accused of all the damn time. To wit:

"Thousands of animals are mistreated or killed in the United States every day without the killers so much as being criticized, let alone imprisoned. Ranchers and farmers kill stock animals or horses that are sick or injured. Some ranchers kill stock animals as gently as possible, others callously; in either case, prosecution is nearly unheard of. As Derek Jackson pointed out last week in the Boston Globe, greyhound tracks routinely race dogs to exhaustion and injury, then kill the losers, or simply eliminate less-strong pups: "184,604 greyhound puppies judged to be inferior for racing" were killed, legally, in the past 20 years."


"Much more troubling is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who eat meat and poultry -- I'm enthusiastically among them -- are complicit in the systematic cruel treatment of huge numbers of animals. Snickering about this, or saying you're tired of hearing about it, doesn't make it go away. Most animals used for meat experience miserable lives under cruel conditions, including confinement for extended periods in pits of excrement. (Michael Pollan, who enthusiastically consumes meat and fowl, describes the mistreatment in his important new book The Omnivore's Dilemma.) Meat animals don't magically stop living when it's time to become a product; they suffer as they die. One of Vick's dogs was shot, another electrocuted. Gunshots and electrocution are federally approved methods of livestock slaughter, sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture for the killing of cows and pigs. Regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 give federal sanction to shooting cows or pigs, or running electrical current through their bodies. Shooting and electrocution are viewed by federal law as humane ways to kill animals that will be consumed. Federal rules also allow slaughterhouses to hit cows in the head with a fast-moving piston that stuns them into semiconsciousness before they are sliced up. Being hit in the head with a powerful piston -- does that sound a bit painful, a bit cruel? It's done to tens of thousands of steers per year, lawfully."

As a vegetarian myself, I feel uncomfortable telling people this kind of thing, because I think it sounds a bit like an ex-smoker telling his still-smoking friends how bad cigarettes are for you. They already know that! They don't care! Still, there is a double standard in play here. Cockfighting was legal in New Mexico and Louisiana until quite recently, and it's hard to see how Vick's dogfighting was so much worse than that. My point is not "Eh, it wasn't so bad." Rather, we should think more seriously than we do about why we think it's OK to let cattlemen electrocute steers, but we're morally appalled when Vick does the same to a dog.

Then he makes a strange argument regarding Vick's punishment:

"Legal note: Vick might be compelled to repay the Falcons a huge amount of bonus
money, and will lose $25 million or more in endorsement income. I have no sympathy for his loss of endorsement income: Vick was hired to bring Nike and other companies he endorsed good publicity, and instead brought them bad."

Yep. He probably should have thought about that while he was setting up the rape stand in the basement. Or, better, before that.

"But think about the income loss in the calculation of overpunishment of Vick. One or two years in federal prison, and perhaps state prison time if state charges are filed as well; plus $25 million in lost endorsement income and, oh, $50 million in lost or returned NFL income."
But, dude. It's not "overpunishment" if the court isn't imposing the penalty. Strictly speaking, it's not punishment at all. Losing all that was a risk he chose to run. If I do something stupid and wind up doing a stretch in prison, the court isn't going to care about the loss of my job and income; I should have thought of that before I did something stupid.

"That's overkill! Often the indirect financial consequences of legal proceedings are worse than the official ones, in the same way that a speeding ticket might cost you $75 but add $1,000 to your annual insurance bill."
It's only "overkill" because Vick was already making a whole lot of money. Money that in fact enabled him to engage in this criminal activity in the first place. It's true that the indirect consequences are sometimes a bigger problem than the official penalties; that's something potential criminals might well keep in mind before they start illegal dogfighting operations out of their basement. As an example.

"In effect, the federal indictment of Vick is resulting in him being fined around $75 million, which is far too much retribution. The legal hang-up is that since 1984, federal courts have been forbidden to consider monetary loss in private life as counting toward punishment. But a year of banishment from the NFL, a guilty plea with suspended sentence and probation (meaning the sentence is imposed if probation is violated), seems plenty of punishment for a first offense by someone who has not harmed another human being. Prison time and a $75 million fine? What Vick did was indecent, but now excessive punishment is being imposed, and two wrongs do not equal one right. Justice, after all, must be tempered with mercy. That's what you would think if you stood in the dock accused."
This is ridiculous from start to finish. What Easterbrook describes as a "legal hang-up" is a rule designed to ensure that the rich and the poor get about the same treatment for the same crimes. If we took into account "monetary loss in private life" as part of punishment, wealthy people - who have more to lose - would be sentenced to milder punishments than poor people for the same crimes. They would "in effect" be buying their way out of jail time.

And let's consider that $75 million. Easterbrook says he has "no sympathy" for the loss of endorsement income, so he's either contradicting himself just one paragraph later, or he thinks that Nike et al. should pony up the cash despite the fact that a new "Bad Newz" footwear line would go over like Larry Craig at the Boise Rotary Club. The $50 million he got from the Falcons - note that some of that was salary he'd earn for playing in games, which he's not going to be doing thanks to his extended stay in prison - was subject to a "personal behavior" clause, as pretty much all pro sports contracts are these days. If he didn't know that he'd be forfeiting that money if he got caught, he should read his contracts more carefully in the future. Easterbrook apparently thinks Vick should be getting paid while in prison for work he can't do, some of which Easterbook agrees he shouldn't be entitled to.

Let's also pause to wonder why the loss of $75 million is "too much." Easterbrook never really says, but I suspect that it's just because that's a whole lot of money. The fact that Vick was in a privileged position to begin with is the only reason why he has that much to lose, though. If I "were in the dock accused" (and let's remember, because Easterbrook does not, that Vick pled guilty to the dogfighting charges, so there's no presumption of innocence at work here), I would not lose $75 million, because I never had the opportunity to earn that kind of money. I would have thought that having that kind of money to lose would make a pro athlete more circumspect than Vick was in choosing his hobbies, but apparently not.

Long answer: Gregg Easterbrook should stick to writing about football games.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Track of the Day: 8-24-07

Today's Track of the Day:

King Crimson - "21st Century Schizoid Man"

King Crimson is, without question, my all-time favorite band. Better, even, than Wilco. This - the very first track from the very first album - remains one of their best songs. KC has had a lot of lineup changes, and the first was pretty good. Greg Lake handled the vocals, and (with apologies to Adrian Belew) remains the best singer the band has had. On this track, though, he isn't asked to do much besides shout the lyrics - lyrics which, it has to be said, are more interested in sounding badass than making sense, but still pack a punch nearly 40 years on: "Death seed blind mans greed/Poets starving, children bleed/Nothing he's got he really needs/Twenty first century schizoid man."

The real meat of the song, though, is the jawdropping instrumental section, where the band does some wild, intricate playing - really fast tempo, really weird time, and TIGHT. It's sick, is what I'm saying. Also, despite the freaked-out jazzy stuff they're doing, the song rocks. Fast, loud, and heavy - and also really, really complex.

I once say KC in concert in San Francisco, and the opening act was a truly awful metal band that decided to "pay tribute" to KC by ending their set with a cover of this tune. I gained a new and deeper appreciation for exactly how hard it is to pull off listening to these guys absolutely butcher it - with (1) fewer musicians and (2) 35 years or so to have learned it.

The recorded version on In the Court of the Crimson King, though, is superb.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Torture's Bad, Mmmmkay?

I had thought that most people were pretty much in agreement with the idea that torture was bad. Evil, even. That's why the revelations about what happened at Abu Ghraib got so much attention; why the three-year detention and abuse of Jose Padilla generated so much controversy; why the American Bar Association and American Psychological Association recently condemned the practice and the participation of any of their members in it. It appears, however, that I was mistaken. Professional blogger Megan McArdle yesterday posed what she seems to think is a very difficult question: why shouldn't we torture people?
One of the most facile dismissals of torture is that it doesn't work, so
why bother? That's tempting, but it's too easy.

To be fair, she's not actually advocating torture. So she's got that going for her. However, we should note that, from the beginning, she gets things backwards. The argument that torture is ineffective only arises if you happen to be discussing torture with someone who already thinks it's morally acceptable. The theoretical argument is logically prior to the practical argument.
Torture seems to me very likely to work provided that you can verify the
information, which I assume interrogators can in at least some circumstances.

If the information can be verified, what's the point of the torture? The usual justification for the use of torture is that the information that the torture is intended to reveal can't be obtained any other way. This, at least, has been Alan Dershowitz's argument, and he remains the most prominent advocate of legalizing torture in the United States.
Nor is it obvious to me that the quality of information is likely to be
lower than that obtained by other means: yes, people will say anything to avoid
torture, but they'll also say anything to avoid imprisonment. Maybe the lies
will be vivider or more voluble under torture, but it doesn't seem necessarily
so that the ratio of lies to truth will increase.

I admit that I'm not entirely sure that I follow McArdle's thought here. It seems to be that torture is no less reliable than other ways of getting information from someone (interrogation, for example, seems to work reasonably well for the police). But that's not really to the point; what she ought to be arguing is that information that is obtained through the use of torture is more reliable, and the enhanced reliability justifies the extreme measures. I don't know what evidence she could use to support the argument, but what she's actually saying here doesn't help her out at all.

I'd rather see people take the hard stance and say "Yeah, torture may still
work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong."

Well, OK. Torture may work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong.

I note here that she herself is unwilling to "take the hard stance" - she just wants "people" to do it. Why she's unwilling to make the incredibly bold statement that torture is wrong remains unclear.
Otherwise, you're kind of stuck if someone comes up with a way to make it
effective. I've been thinking about this in relation to the much vaunted lie detecting brain scans.

Huh. I've been thinking about this in relation to our own government's documented abuse of "enemy combatants" (and, indeed, its own citizens) but I guess freaky mind-reading devices are also a threat. Judging by the Wired article she cites, the "lie detecting brain scans" would be an alternative to torture rather than an accessory for it, which makes her concern here speculative at best.
Most people have talked about the implications for the criminal justice
system--does the fifth amendment still apply? But what I wonder is, what does
this mean for torturers?

Weird that she's concerned not with the potential invasion of the civil liberties of innocent people posed by lie-detecting machines, but with how said apparatus will affect people who are engaged in criminal activity.
If you can actually tell accurately when someone is lying, torture suddenly
becomes very, very effective, doesn't it?

Or, you know, unnecessary, because presumably you'd know if they were lying even without torture. I think she wants to say that this lie-detection stuff will justify using more extreme measures to induce people to tell the truth, but she's not saying it and I'm not sure how she'd get there.
And yet, it would still be wrong. So make the case on those grounds.
Efficiency is a dangerous red herring.

As a consequence of starting from the wrong end of the argument against torture, she ends where she should have begun. She throws out a challenge to her reader to make the case that she's either unwilling or unable to make: that torture is wrong. Her entire post comes down to: "Torture's wrong because it doesn't work, but what if it did? Would it still be wrong?"

And this woman is paid well by the Atlantic Monthly for this.

But it's not just her filling the tubes with this lazy, poorly thought out stuff. Her Atlantic colleague Matt Yglesias responds thusly:
For some sense of "necessarily" this may be true, but this flies in the face of
historical practice. It seems unlikely to me that torture's most famous
systematic applications almost all come in the context of regimes specifically
looking to generate spurious confessions. Stalin's Russia, North Vietnamese POW
camps, the Spanish Inquisition, it's always the same story. It's not the case,
however, that torture "doesn't work" -- Nikolai Bukharin and others confesses to all
sorts of preposterous crimes
exactly as Stalin wanted them to. The question
is whether routinized torture of al-Qaeda suspects is a useful method of
advancing any public purpose.

Yglesias gets a point for noticing that most torturers are less interested in the truth of the confessions they get than the fact of the confession (I'm guessing the "unlikely" in the second sentence shouldn't be there). But then he loses it for missing the moral question McArdle attempted to bring up. The question isn't the utilitarian one of "whether routinized torture of al-Qaeda suspects is a useful method of advancing any public purpose." That's just the effectiveness argument in a different dress. The question is whether torture is morally acceptable at all.

Megan counterproses that "people take the hard stance and say 'Yeah, torture may
still work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong.'" I think Megan
thinks that people from the "torture doesn't work" camp are arguing in bad
faith, but I'm really not.

Well, maybe he just doesn't read very carefully. For one thing, there's no reason I can't think both that torture is morally unacceptable and also ineffective as a practical matter, so there's no reason to suppose someone has to be in one "camp" or the other. Nor does McArdle imply that the argument that torture doesn't work is being made in bad faith; she's saying she finds it unconvincing because she can imagine a situation where it could work, and wonders what the objection to torture could be in that situation. (Hint: it's moral!)
I don't think it makes any sense at all to say that there's a categorical moral
against smashing people's fingers with a hammer or whatever other depraved acts
of torture you may care to imagine.

Oh. Well. I suppose I'm being nonsensical when I say that, morally speaking, Yglesias' opinion here is troglodytic.
After all, I believe (as most people believe) that it's sometimes morally
praiseworthy for the state to have its agents kill people with bullets, bombs,
mortar shells, etc. so there's surely some end such that torturing someone
would, if effective, be a just method of achieving that end.

I'm going to have to disagree with your police work here, Matt. War, and violence generally, is not the same thing as torture. Let's see if you can spot the difference:

The difference is that despite the horrors of war, there's a very strong
argument to be made that if good people systematically disavowed war-making as a
practice that bad guys would run roughshod over us. When Hitler's tanks start
rolling across Europe, someone's got to shoot back. By contrast, I don't see any
examples of societies using routinized legal torture to gain a decisive
advantage over their foes or any evidence that the current era of torture has
been a net positive in fighting al-Qaeda.

Ah. No, he can't. For Matt Yglesias, the only real argument against torturing people is that it hasn't been a "net positive." If it were, he'd presumably be first in line to work the rack and smash some fingers with sledgehammers. Or maybe he'd just leave the dirty business to other people and enjoy the "net positives."
To say that a method of investigation works "provided that you can verify the
information" is, after all, merely to beg the question. Consulting a psychic
works provided that you can verify the information, but spending person-hours
chasing down the psychic's "leads" isn't going to make the country safer.

Oooh, "person-hours." How very enlightened. Matt Yglesias, in favor of "net positive" torture, but not of hurting the tender sensibilities of people who might be offended by the term "man-hours." On the other hand, he did notice that "verifying the information" is a problem for McArdle's original post. So, kudos, I guess.

McArdle's not the type to take that kind of thing quietly, so she responded as follows:
I don't think that Matt &c are arguing from bad faith. Indeed, I agree with
them that torture in most cases isn't very effective. I don't agree with what we
might call the "strong case" against the efficacy of torture, which is that it
never works. If I have, say, a kidnapper from whom I want to get the location of
his victim, and I can credibly promise to shoot out his kneecap if the victim
isn't where he says she is, then I think I have a reasonable chance of finding
out where the victim is by torturing him. If he knows, it is clearly in his best
interest to tell me rather than a) playing dumb or b) giving me false

Unless he really doesn't know or has some even more powerful motivation for not telling you. But, sure, it might work. So might other methods that don't involve shooting his kneecap off. Police use them all the time.

Now, those cases might be rare. Which is why many people, I assume Matt
included, make what we could call the "weak case" against torture, which is that
it generally isn't that effective. But I don't think that this is a very good
argument to deploy if your goal is, as mine is, a legal ban on torture by the US
government. The weak case doesn't prove we shouldn't use torture; it just proves
that we should limit it to cases, such as the above hypothetical, where there is
a reasonable likelihood that it will be effective. I doubt the rules for doing
so would be as complicated as, say, the New York City building code.

Which is basically Alan Dershowitz's argument for "torture warrants." Except the part about her goal being a legal ban on torture. I'm pretty sure Alan's not in favor of that. I'm not too sure about Matt, either.

The other problem with the weak case is that torture can theoretically be made
more effective. Those brain scans are real; a workable machine might be less
than a decade away. (It also might well not; the history of science journalism
is littered with the corpses of "next big things" that turned out not to,
y'know, actually work.)

I really wish she'd left the scary mind-reading devices out of this. I think even she realizes it doesn't do anything for her argument.
If you cannot make the case against legal torture without resorting to efficacy
arguments, what the hell do you do if it becomes pretty damn effective?

Well, exactly. What's your argument, Megan?

My position is that even if it is 100% effective--in the sense of producing only
true information--we should ban it. I don't trust anyone, not myself and
certainly not the state, with the power implied by sanctioned torture. I don't
want to live in a state that tortures people. And I don't think you need an
efficacy argument to make that case.

So, still kind of kicking it to someone else to do the work, then? I mean, I agree: we shouldn't torture people. I don't understand why McArdle is uncomfortable making a moral argument against it, though. And I really don't understand why the Atlantic is paying her good money to ask other people to make her arguments for her; surely they could find someone who's willing to take a position and support it. For example, here's one way:

First, to address Yglesias' idea that since he supports war in some circumstances, he must also support torture in some circumstances. Fighting is different from torture. If you're in a fight, you can fight back, or you can run away. You have options. Torture is a fundamentally different thing; the essence of torture is that the victim can't get away. The relation between the torturer and the victim of the torture is one of total dominance and total powerlessness. The point of torture is to break down the victim as thoroughly as possible until the torturer gets whatever it is he wants. Combat is different. A soldier may want to kill the enemy, but he runs the risk of being killed himself - neither side is utterly at the mercy of the other. It's possible to fight and die with dignity, but it's impossible - for either the torturer or the victim - to emerge from torture with human dignity intact. So, no, Matt - you can say that in some circumstances, it's right to fight and die without being forced to agree that sometimes, pulling out fingernails is OK.

Torture is immoral because the practice of torture is the most profound violation of a person that we can practice. Torture deprives its victims of any control over their persons. Indeed, whether it's inflicting physical or psychological damage to the victim, it's actively using the person's body and mind against him. Furthermore, assuming the victim survives, he bears the scars - mental and physical - for the rest of his life; in that sense, torture doesn't "end." If you think that there is a basic human right to control of your own mind and body, torture is immoral.

That is an argument against torture that has nothing to do with how useful it might be to the depraved people who would engage in its practice.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Track of the Day - 8-22-07

Today's Track of the Day:

Led Zeppelin - "Fool in the Rain"

I like Led Zeppelin a lot, but I really prefer their later stuff. I suspect I'm in a small minority holding that opinion, but it seems to me that by Houses of the Holy they'd gotten a little bored with the heavy blues-based rock. "D'yer Mak'er" showed the band trying out a little reggae, and on Physical Graffiti they got a bit more experimental. The experiments didn't always work, but the later stuff is more musically interesting.

On what turned out to be their last studio album, they started to vary the instrumentation a bit, adding keyboards on top of the guitar, bass, and drums. This track is a fun, poppy little number with an irresistible groove and a catchy riff that would be just fine all on its own. The lyrics are pretty amusing, too. But what really sets this one apart and makes it one of my all-time favorite Zeppelin tunes is the wild Latin break that the band goes into as a bridge. It kind of comes out of nowhere, but the band switches gears and does a really credible salsa thing for a few bars, complete with whistle and a some really cool piano work. Sort of like the Baroque piano solo in "Love Me or Leave Me," it opens up the song in a way that lets you see the whole thing from a different perspective. Good stuff.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Trouble With Rudy (Part 2)

I promise this is not going to turn into a rabid "Rudy Sucks!" blog.

At least, not exclusively.

But with Mr. Giuliani the Republican frontrunner, it seems prudent to me to take a closer look at what he says he'd do in office. This New Yorker profile doesn't exactly inpire confidence in his coolheaded decisionmaking skills, judgment, or plans for the future, I'm afraid. There's a lot of the same stuff that was in the Village Voice piece, but (as is the New Yorker's wont) it goes a bit further afield. For me, the most chilling parts are the quotes from Norman Podhoretz, who's been hired as Rudy's foreign policy advisor:

In any case, Podhoretz said to me, he believes that George W. Bush will
settle the matter himself, by bombing Iran before he leaves office. “I’m
probably the only person on the face of the earth who thinks that Bush will
order air strikes,” Podhoretz says. “But we’ll find out. If Bush doesn’t kick
the can down the road, then the issue becomes moot, obviously. But if he fails
to do what I think he will do, Rudy seems to me to be the best bet for doing
what is necessary.”

It seems to me that with the country currently fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with neither of them looking like they're going to be wrapped up soon, the absolute last thing we need to do is to start poking another hornet's nest. Setting aside, of course, the plain fact that Iran (a) doesn't currently have nuclear weapons and (b) if it did, it has no way of doing much of anything to us with them and (c) probably has no real desire to actually use them. Nor is it likely that Iran would use nukes against Israel, since Israel already has nukes and would surely retaliate in kind. So the fact that America's Mayor's senior foreign policy advisor both advocates bombing Iran and thinks Rudy's the guy who'll get that job done ought to give us all some pause.

Also, Rudy had this to say regarding the meaning of freedom just a few days ago:

We look upon authority too often and focus over and over again, for 30 or 40 or
50 years, as if there is something wrong with authority. We see only the
oppressive side of authority. Maybe it comes out of our history and our
background. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people
can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority.
Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful
authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

[ Interruption by someone in the audience. ]

You have free speech so I can be heard.

Yes, he really said "Freedom is about authority." Rhetoric more evocative of 1984 is difficult to imagine.

Track of the Day: 8-17-07

Today's Track of the Day:

Nina Simone - "Love Me Or Leave Me"

I'm a big Nina Simone fan, and this track is really outstanding. Her voice is always rich, warm, and expressive, even in a lighthearted tune like this. What's really great about the song, though, is her piano solo, which takes up half of the track and includes a wild baroque section that's unlike anything else I've heard except maybe Keith Jarrett. It's as though Bach decided to sit in with a jazz trio for a chorus or two. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Track of the Day - 8-16-07

Today's Track of the Day:

Tom Waits - Ol' 55

Early Tom Waits mainly comes in two flavors. There's the Melancholy Ballad - Waits has a real gift for matching sweetly minor-key melodies with evocative lyrics about love gone wrong. And then there's the Weirdly Perverse Cabaret, with uptempo jazzy music and lyrics that range from stream-of-consciousness rambling to bizarre and sometimes kind of disturbing stories, frequently delivered in a kind of spoken-word monotone while he and the band vamp in the background. He still does this stuff; "Alice" is a great ballad from the eponymous album, and "Misery Is The River Of The World" off of Blood Money is, beneath the eerie music, a good late example of the Perverse Cabaret. He's gotten more interesting, writing songs about all kinds of odd things and showing a real fascination with unusual musical textures, but you can see the seeds of his later work in the early stuff.

"Ol' 55" is the first track on Closing Time, which I think was his first album. So it's the earliest example of the Melancholy Ballad - lyrics about leaving his lover early in the morning, wishing he hadn't. It's actually pretty upbeat for an MB, but the superficial cheerfulness seems (to me, anyway; maybe I'm hearing stuff that isn't there - wouldn't be the first time) to be concealing a deeper regret. It's brilliant at capturing the a conflicted emotional state that I've experienced myself from time to time - mingled joy and regret. The lyrics have the song taking place right at dawn, and the transition between night and day parallels the emotional transition of the narrator: it's twilight both literally and figuratively. Which may seem a little on the nose, laid out like that, but the effect is pretty clever for a three-minute pop song. It's good stuff.

The Trouble With Rudy (Part 1)

I lived in New York for two and a half years while Rudy Giuliani was mayor. I left the city well before The Evil Terrorist Attacks That Occurred On September Eleventh, and at the time I left I had the distinct impression that I'd probably seen the last of Rudy. Patrick Dorismond. "Giuliani Time." Amadou Diallo. The affairs (and, ultimately, the messy divorce, played out in public). The silly fight he picked with the Brooklyn Museum. By the summer of 2001, New York was mainly tired of the man.

But before New York was quite done with him, TETATOOSE gave him new political life. I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that, had those attacks not ocurred, neither Giuliani nor G. W. Bush would still have political careers. In Giuliani's case, he became "America's Mayor" and he's got a realistic chance of being elected President next year, based almost entirely on his legend. The Onion piece describing Giuliani as running for "President of 9/11" was all too accurate; it's his alleged experience at dealing with terrorists that forms the core of his appeal.

Which is why this article in the Village Voice is so important. Wayne Barrett and Alexandra Kahan examine the claims Rudy has made about his TETATOOSE experience and qualifications, and finds them to be almost wholly without any substance. Unfortunately, because it's the Voice, a lot of people - even many liberals - are likely to either not read the piece at all or dismiss it out of hand. Which is a shame, because so far Rudy's campaign hasn't been able to show any real flaw in the research they've done. Rudy doesn't have much in the way of qualifications, and if his main appeal is basically bogus, I think it's doing us all a service to inform the voting public about it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Track of the Day - 8-15-07

Today's Track of the Day:

The Meters - "Stormy"

I like lots of different kinds of music - jazz, pop, blues, classical, folk, rock, funk, you name it, really. This particular track, like most of the Meters' earlier stuff, is basically (for want of a better term) "instrumental pop." It (and they) take a lot from the funkier parts of jazz and soul, but it's smoothly melodic and a lot of fun to listen to. This particular track is one of my favorites. A moderately slow beat from the rhythm section kicks things off - it's kind of a slow burn, really, all the way through - and is joined by the guitar and keyboard. The song is really a showcase for Art Neville's organ work. It's a nice, mellow jam that repays repeated listening.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Back By Popular Demand

So after all this time, I still have people (well, OK, one person - but I like to think he speaks for multitudes) asking me to do this thing. And so I shall. Bob, this one's for you.