the test

I think it is very possible that how Mr. Obama handles this situation will prove to be the most consequential test of his performance as president.

Well known in China for his vocal opposition to government corruption, 40-year-old Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng fled house arrest last week and remains missing, although there's speculation that he's taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. CBS News reports that Chinese and U.S. diplomats are now believed to be bargaining over Chen's fate, only a day ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's scheduled visit to China...
The challenge of foreign policy is how best to balance our values with our interests. If Mr. Chen doesn't qualify for political asylum, I find it difficult to imagine who would. If there is a country we can less afford to piss off carelessly, it's China. Them's high stakes.

My instinct is that I'd rather have China unhappy than emboldened. I'd rather take a hit on trade than go weak in the knees on human rights. But that's really easy and self-serving of me to say from where I'm sitting.

I don't envy Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton their jobs at the moment. And I sincerely hope they bring their A game...because this is the sort of thing that has the potential to have consequences far beyond November.

in defense of "bullshit"

I use quotes above because what I aim to defend here is not bullshit itself, but rather, the linguistic convention of referring to ideas which have little or no relationship to reality as "bullshit".

Sullivan weighs in on the kerfuffle kicked up by Dan Savage over the weekend thusly:

The case must be made about the inconsistent way that Christianists read the Bible to tilt it focus entirely on gays. But the case against the hypocritical, selective reading of the Bible is so strong that it undermines it to use the term "bullshit".

In other words, Sully (who is naturally pretty sympathetic to Savage's larger points) makes essentially the same argument that Mr. D makes in the thread at his place: that you gain no ground using language that alienates the people whose mind you are trying to change.

Though I have great respect for both Sullivan and Mr. D, I think that this argument, is...well, I think it's bullshit.

People are not blank slates. It would be a lovely world indeed in which everyone could encounter facts presented objectively, entertain arguments made logically from universal first principles, and through calm, deliberate reasoning reach conclusions about what the world is, how it works, and how people can best construct a society as to interact with each other peacefully and productively.

This is not the world in which we live.

People come to the table with all sorts of preconceptions, prejudices, and dogmas. Some--perhaps many--are well-justified, rooted in deep experience, and work well as heuristics for at least their particular time and place in human history. We have a habit of referring to such heuristics as "truth". This is probably adaptive--reconstructing the moral universe every generation from zero is rather taxing--up until the point that it no longer is.

I can think of no more salient example than the fact that for all of human history up until about half a century ago, the physical and economic consequences of sexual activity outside the confines of a stable family structure recognized and supported by the larger social group were huge, and disproportionately so for women. In that context, it is perfectly understandable why sex outside of marriage would be seen as taboo--it was literally dangerous! It is further understandable that while it was critical to keep the womenfolk in line for their own good, the indiscretions of males could be more tolerated because they maintained a certain level of plausible deniability.

Giving women control over their reproductive function changed everything. The culture war we are still fighting to this day is 90% people still getting used to that one, utterly revolutionary change.

I've already digressed pretty far from the point I want to make, which is this: reason and gentle persuasion are admirable, but experience suggests that they are no match for dogma. Having a "cherished belief" directly challenged necessarily involves discomfort for the challenged. Without discomfort, there is no reason to discard dated, incorrect, harmful, bullshit beliefs.

Sometimes, you just have to aim an argument for the gut.

I want people who use their faith to justify bigotry to feel uncomfortable about it. They should be made to feel awful about the consequences of their professed beliefs. And beyond that, those that stand up for belief qua belief, while trying to maintain their personal distance from the bigots, should be forced to examine who and what it is that they are effectively defending.

I don't believe for a solitary second that this is about using the word "bullshit" instead of, say, "hooey" or "nonsense". Sure, there is a little more gut-level impact with "bullshit"--and therein lies its power--but the meanings are essentially the same. Let's not split linguistic hairs, when what we're really upset about is the content of the argument itself. Or more likely, the fact that it is even being made. 

on bullshit*


And in case you think I'm being an asshole by declaring all religions bullshit (i.e. factually incorrect), I'd just like to point out that the only reasonable alternative—that there is only one true religion, and all the others are bullshit—is equally assholic.
To which I will simply add, "Amen."

*with apologies to Harry Frankfurt.


the manattan projects

On the off chance the words I write here spur you to actually check out Jonathan Hickman's new comic series The Manhattan Projects (Image), I don't want to say too much about it. Alternate histories of World War II are well-worn territory in science fiction and comic books, from Captain America to Crytonomicon. Somehow, TMP manages to be fresh, at least based on the first two issues. The premise is that the public purpose of the Manhattan Project (to build the first atomic bomb, in case you missed that history class) was actually just a cover for much more interesting stuff. The main characters are the most famous physicists of the 20th century, fictionalized in a pretty entertaining way: Robert Oppenheimer (has a bit of an evil twin problem), Richard Feynman (hilariously vain), and Albert Einstein (kind of a badass, it turns out) to name a few.

Check it out. 


sullivan on hitchens

And then his last words. As he lay dying, he asked for a pen and paper and tried to write on it. After a while, he finished, held it up, looked at it and saw that it was an illegible assemblage of scribbled, meaningless hieroglyphics. "What's the use?" he said to Steve Wasserman. Then he dozed a little, and then roused himself and uttered a couple of words that were close to inaudible. Steve asked him to repeat them. There were two:
In his end was his beginning.

More here


half-formed thoughts

If the biggest scandal in the history of an agency that has been in charge of investigating counterfeiting for 147 years and responsible for protecting the president for 110 years is that a few agents hired some hookers in another country, I'd say that's a pretty stellar record on balance. Especially considering that they failed miserably in the latter duty at least* once.

Articulating beliefs that might get you declared criminally insane in Norway can help get you elected in (parts of) the United States.

One of the common objections to public transit projects is that they do not pay for themselves, and indeed, tend to lose money. Why is that not an argument against building more roads? Roads don't make any money, either, and nobody expects them to.

You can institute all of the Buffet rules and millionaire taxes you want. As long as the government is using the tax code to get you to have children/buy a house/use alternative energy/populate Alaska/go to college/insulate your home/generally do what they want you to do, those with means are always going to find a way to minimize their tax liability.

*Some people still have doubts about Harding. Look it up.


congratulations to eli sanders

One of the things I've really enjoyed about my time in Seattle so far--and particularly my time in Capitol Hill--has been being able to pick up a copy of The Stranger every Wednesday (though I often don't get around to it until after work on Friday) and know that I am reading the work of people I see around the neighborhood with some frequency (their 11th Ave office is on my daily walk.)

Though the publication--like most alt weeklies--is largely known for irreverent pop culture criticism, dubious restaurant reviews, politics slightly to the left of Che Guavara, and exhaustive ads for transsexual escorts and  "medical" marijuana, they occasionally manage to slip in acts of real journalism. And yesterday, they got some well-deserved recognition for the latter in the form of a Pulitzer Prize for Eli Sanders.

Sanders won for his piece The Bravest Woman in Seattle, which I will freely admit left me in tears when I read it. It is damn hard to read, but you should do it anyway, as well as the follow-up by the subject of Sanders' piece, Jennifer Hopper.

But seriously: set aside some time, and a bit of privacy.


Radley Balko has a good roundup of criminal justice bloggers' reactions to the Zimmerman indictment, which run the gambit from approximately  "FAIL" to "it's shit". He concludes:

None of this is to say Zimmerman didn’t commit a crime. I still really have no idea. But what’s happened in the last couple weeks doesn’t feel like justice. It feels like a railroading...

The anger and outrage about how black people are treated in the criminal justice system is well-founded, well-supported, and consistent with my own experience reporting on these issues (although I think the common denominator is increasingly more poor than black). And there appears to be some of that history in Sanford as well, particularly in the way police investigate crimes—including this one. I’ve read in several places the proposition that if the races had been reversed that night in Sanford, Trayvon Martin would have spent the last month awaiting his murder trial from a jail cell. I think there’s plenty of history to support that sentiment. But we can’t hang all of the inequities of the criminal justice system on George Zimmerman. He deserves to be tried only on the facts specific to his case. Even gung-ho, wannabe cops deserve due process, and a fair crack at justice.

He is, of course, completely right that this case should be about whether Mr. Zimmermn is criminally culpable for the death of Mr. Martin, and not anything else. Second degree murder does seem like overkill at this point, at least based on publicly available facts. The possibility of some type of criminal negligence on Zimmerman's part still seems likely to me, but I do not support prosecutors overcharging in hopes of forcing a plea to what they actually think happened. I hope that isn't what is happening, here, but it sounds like it could be, and that is troubling.

Ta-Nahisi Coates chimes in:

We began outraged at the investigation, and deeply troubled by Stand Your Ground. Now we're off on these meta-outrages. I never thought the point wast [sic] to "Make Zimmerman Pay." Is that where we're going?

I hope not.  As I've said from the very beginning, I've been more bothered by the possible complicity of the local police in covering something up than by all the other noise. When there's a dead, unarmed kid, and a guy claiming self-defense for having killed him, you do not just take his word on that.

Still, I am loathe to ascribe purely political motives to the prosecutor, if for no other reason that this case seems like an absolute no-win situation for the prosecution. You're either compounding racial injustice if you pursue the case, or abetting it if you do not. Take your pick.


justice, not a scalp

Today is a day to let better writers speak for me. I'll simply second everything Ta-Nahisi Coates has to say here:

What I know is that I care much more about him being charged, then I do about him being convicted. What always rankled about this case wasn't that Zimmerman might not see a jail cell (that's what judges and juries determine) but that law enforcement had done everything to foreclose that possibility. We may find that they still have. I imagine a lot was lost in bungling. But at the very least this says, "We take the loss of life seriously."
Yup. As I mentioned already, the surveillance video is damaging for Mr. Zimmerman. But it is damning for the cops.

If Zimmerman is innocent, I sincerely hope the judicial process bears that out. And if cops covered this up, I hope they find their way to the defendant's table as well.

This is marvelous:

Up until the weeks before I parted ways with Cato, I never felt any overt pressure to toe any sort of party line. But almost as soon as I left, I found that I was noticeably less reflexively defensive about anti-libertarian arguments. I found it easier to the see merit it in them! I feel sure that much of this has to do with the fact that at some level I had recognized that my livelihood depended on staying within the broad bounds of the libertarian reservation, and that this recognition had been exerting a subtle unconscious pressure on my thought. Once I became an independent operator, much of that pressure lifted. And as soon as that pressure lifted, I began to feel much less attached to the libertarian label. And as that sense of attachment waned, I became even less reflexively defensive about anti-libertarian arguments. It became hard for me to avoid the conclusion that my political self-conception had been interfering with my ability to evaluate arguments objectively. I had been letting people on my team get away with bad arguments, and I had been failing to acknowledge the force of arguments against my team's tenets. The fact that everybody else does this, too, doesn't make me feel any better about my own sins against Truth.
So I am resisting a strong sense of ideological identity. If pressed, I'll say I'm an inscrutably idiosyncratic liberal. This has been paying dividends! How do I know? Because I feel very confused.
Read the whole thing. I've long felt that Mr. Wilkinson and I have been on parallel tracks, ideologically. He just has a lot more time to think and write about it than I do, and does so superbly.

Confusion breeds inquisition. Certainty breeds stagnation.

Don't get too comfortable.



A floor fight at the GOP convention would have been great, in a pass-the-popcorn sort of way. But I have to admit I am pretty goddamned relieved to be able to refer to "former presidential candidate Rick Santorum".


counting the cost

Lately, I've been talking a lot about the astronomical cost of US foreign policy. It's worth a reminder that it isn't all about dollars and cents:
Consider that documented civilian deaths in Iraq since Bush’s 2003 invasion—noncombatants killed by military or paramilitary acts or because of the breakdown in civil society—have numbered nearly 120,000. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, some 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced by the chaos unleashed by Bush’s war. This number includes 2.4 million internal refugees, some half a million of them living as squatters in slums. Another 2.3 million have fled the country altogether and have not returned.

This is a civic catastrophe that gets little attention in America. By way of illustration, a proportional civilian death toll in the United States would be nearly 1.2 million. The proportional refugee total would be 45 million.
Another way to put that would be the entire city of Dallas killed and the entire combined populations of California, Nevada, and Oregon displaced.


why i have no faith in the Libertarian Party to do anything except fuck up libertarianism for the rest of us

"I think the important thing now is to make sure Obama is not elected,and that means in my mind, I would love for a libertarian like Gary Johnson the two term governor of New Mexico would actually get elected President, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen so therefore it’s got to be Romney there is no choice."
 Who said it?

Ron Paul? Rand Paul? Andrew Napolitano? Neal Boortz?

(Amazing how quickly one can run through the list of quasi-famous sort-of libertarians.)

Anyway, the answer is Wayne Root, who was the LP's VP nominee in 2008 and is currently a member of the Libertarian National Committee.

The mind reels. 

a reason to be interested

Personally, I don't care a whit who Mitt Romney picks as his running mate. It will have exactly zero impact on my vote in November.

But I am interested, because I'm reasonably certain that there is money to be made on this at Intrade. I don't think it will be Rubio (past with Mormonism, and as many years in statewide office as Sarah Palin in 2008), Christie (he won't do it), McDonnell (too socially conservative for the general election), or Ryan (he won't do it either.) Those are Intrade's top 4 as of this posting.

I'm not certain who it will be. But I am thinking about buying up some long shots while they are trading low, and shorting the (current) top 4.


a quick thought on the veepstakes

If you really like Paul Ryan for his views and influence on economic policy, why on earth would you want him to be Vice-President, where his ability to accomplish anything in that arena would be virtually nil? If he's really that important, the last thing you want him doing is attending state funerals and breaking ties in the Senate.

If he's your man on the budget, he's already got the best job you could hope for him to have. What you really want are more congressmen that will work with him.

(Personally, I like about 60% of what he proposes. I'd like to see Medicare replaced and SS privatized, and I think the idea of opting out of deductions into a flat income tax is a good start on simplifying the code. I'm less bothered about high marginal rates or capital gains. I used to think a consumption tax was a good idea, but man it makes revenues volatile if you count on it too much. But I do give the man credit for being one of the few in either party that seems to take the budget seriously.)


Yesterday Mr. D pointed out that if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate (thus effectively gutting the ACA, or "Obamacare", if you must) that a host of other federal regulations long considered to be cases of congressional and/or executive overreach could become fair game, to which I responded with some skepticism.

However, Will Wilkinson delves into this from an angle slightly askew (as he is wont to do) and ends up reaching a similar conclusion. After attempting to discern the substantive difference between "mandating that individuals buy stuff and taxing individuals to buy them stuff" (short version: there isn't one), he writes:

One principled libertarian line on this question is that government has the power to tax only for the purpose of spending on the provision of those public goods, such as the common defence, which voluntary exchange on the free market cannot be relied on to provide...A ruling to the effect that government may not force citizens to do business with private entities could be useful to a libertarian legal activist precisely because there really is no sound distinction between mediated and unmediated transactions. Having used a spurious distinction to elicit a decision striking down government's power to make people buy things, the savvy libertarian legal eagle can turn around and attack the very same distinction in order to set limits on the government's current power to spend tax dollars on anything it likes.

Maybe. But this is (nearly) the same Court that ruled growing a plant for your own consumption can be regulated under the authority of the interstate commerce clause. These are humans, not machines, which means among other things that they are prone (just like the rest of us) to all manner of mental gymnastics to justify whatever course of action they choose to take. The justices may very well rule against the mandate (and I'm not completely sure that they shouldn't), but they certainly won't be doing it for the benefit of libertarian activists, savvy or otherwise. Nor do I think they will have any trouble ignoring the ironclad logic of really smart guys like Mr. Wilkinson, if it suits them to do so.

It's a lovely fantasy to envision an unraveling of federal power flowing forth from a single decision with all the inevitability of water reaching the lowest point. But I'm pretty sure it isn't more than that. Even republics are governed by men.

my life as a republican, pt 3.5

Something I forgot to mention in my write-up of this past weekend's caucus struck me as...well, not so much funny as genuinely confusing. More than one speaker made reference to "restoring the Reagan conservative foreign policy".

This is a serious question, and not one I really had the chance to ask anyone there: what the hell does that mean in 2012?

There is no Soviet Union left to defeat, only one Communist country in our hemisphere to undermine (and short of invading, what else could we do to Cuba that we don't already?) and the other big (nominally) Communist country is one of our most important trading partners. Apartheid is over, eastern Europe is almost uniformly democratic, and Russia itself is a pale shadow of its former empire.

Is this just a nostalgic shorthand for "peace through strength"?

Is it just a way of saying "not Ron Paul"?

Is it just a way to avoid mentioning George W. Bush?

Seriously, I have no idea.

UPDATE (with a further thought): Other than sending troops into Grenada and bombing the Qaddafi compound...Reagan didn't really engage in any "hot" warfare during his term. Bush I, by contrast, went to war with Iraq. Clinton continued bombing Iraq, and sent troops into the Balkans. Bush II...well we all know how that went. Obama has had to manage the commitments he inherited, but his own initiatives have basically been (with the exception of the Afghan surge) small-scale, limited interventions with special forces and flying killer robots.

I mean, I realize you can't make an apples-to-apples comparison here, but it seems to me that the post-Reagan president with the most Reagan-like foreign policy is arguably...Barack Obama.

But I'm certain that's not what my Republican neighbors mean.


my life as a republican, pt.3 (and probably last)

The 43rd Legislative District Republican caucus was an experience I'll not soon forget.

It hasn't made a great deal of news, but the Paul campaign is soldiering on with its delegate strategy here in the Evergreen State. And at least in Seattle, it's working.

I hadn't answered my phone (which rang about 30 times in the week before the caucus), nor did I go to any "caucus training", because I felt my time commitment to this thing was already a bit much. So, I didn't know about the late alliance that had apparently been forged between the Santorum and Paul campaigns until I arrived Saturday morning, as was handed a copy of the "open convention" slate, and found a few fellow travelers to fill me in on what was going on.

A digression is in order. The delegates to the 43rd  there to support Ron Paul can be divided into two groups: those that were part of an organized effort, and those that for lack of a better term, I will call "rouge Ron Paul delegates" (RRPD). RRPD consisted largely of people like myself: under 35 (though typically quite a bit younger than that), from Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Central District who were the only people who showed up from their precincts on March 3 and thus automatically became delegates. We didn't care to have anything to do with the organized Republican Party.  Most of us ignored our phones. (We were still getting robocalls from the Paul campaign, even as the caucus started.) And we found each other by being the only people in the room wearing black and having visible tattoos and/or piercings.

In other words, we were the only people in the room that actually looked like we lived in the 43rd District. Together with the less obvious RRPD, we were easily 1/3rd of the Paul contingent. 

The idea of the open slate was simple: it was a mixture of Paul and Santorum supporters, ranked by priority (I assume some horse trading had determined the order.) The Romney campaign had also produced a "unity slate" which, though nominally in coordination with the Gingrich campaign, consisted entirely of Romney supporters, similarly ranked. Because of the way the balloting is done (something like 60 candidates for 14 slots, everyone votes for 14 names, and on the first ballot you only need 50% plus one to win a slot) there is an obvious advantage to bloc voting (hence the slates.) People who don't get at least 10% of the vote are dropped off for subsequent ballots. Such a system often does not produce winners on the first ballot, and several rounds are often required.

After some wrangling about the rules for the day, it was determined that delegate candidates could give 30-second speeches before balloting. The Romney camp (which I should mention included all of the district officers) didn't want this, nor did many of the Santorum supporters. It would later become clear why. You see, for those of us not "in the know", we really had no way of knowing which potential delegates supported which candidate, unless they told us. But once they started making speeches, many--though not all--declared who they were supporting.

The speeches were mostly pointless, boring, and inept. The highlight was when the a Romney supporter--the vice chair of the district and head of the rules committee, who had herself tried to forestall these speeches--proclaimed that if "we don't vote for the unity slate, we're going to send a whole lot of Paul delegates to the state convention." Over half the room erupted in cheers.

I don't think that was the response she was looking for.

However, the real action during the speeches was happening in the audience. Among the RRPD, many of us concluded that we had no intention of voting for Santorum delegates knowingly--we had not been a party to this alliance--and started crossing those that declared themselves for Santorum off the slate, and replacing them with Paul supporters further down the list.  When the ballots came out, we voted as a bloc.

On the first ballot, 9 of 14 slots were filled outright. All with Ron Paul supporters. On the second, 3 of 5 were for Paul, one for Santorum, and another an open slate candidate who had not said who they were for (though I have been told is for Paul.)

Romney had been swept. About half the Romney contingent left the room in a huff. Inevitability was starting to look a lot like disappointment and desperation.

It was beautiful.

I don't think it will make a difference in this election. It probably won't even make much of a difference at the state convention--Washington outside the borders of Seattle is a very, very different place. But still, there was something deeply potent about witnessing firsthand the power of a largely unorganized group of people to turn an established order on its ear, playing their game by their own rules, and simply refusing to go along with what is expected.

There is still power in the word "no". 

somebody you should be reading

Why aren't you reading Ta-Nehisi Coates? Seriously, why aren't you?

He might be the best political/cultural commentator of my generation. I don't think he does much (or any) TV. (Not watching very much of that sort of TV myself, I cannot be completely sure.) You will occasionally hear him on NPR's On the Media (which is itself excellent.) But, mostly, you will find Mr. Coates blogging at The Atlantic.

Check out this take-down of Juan Williams, which actually reads much better as a broad critique of the intellectual laziness that characterizes modern punditry of all political persuasions.