Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Rope We Give Them

The FBI was a few years back given the authority to issue national security letters, which demand that communications firms, libraries and so on cough up info on whom you're communicating with, what books you're checking out, and so on, without all that bother about the subject actually having to be under suspicion of a crime, Recipients of such lettesr are forbidden under penaty of law from disclosing that they have received one. According to its own inspector general, the Bureau has managed to issue far more of them than originally claimed in its own reports, and seriously misused the authority Congress gave itin the wake of 9/11. But apparently, it's just a glitch, don'cha know:

An "employee is responsible for taking every (national security letter) lead that is sent to OGC and manually entering the pertinent information into the OGC database," Mueller said in his testimony on Tuesday, referring to the FBI's Office of General Counsel. "Nearly a dozen fields must be manually entered, including the file number of the case in which the (letter) was issued, typically 15 digits and alphanumeric identifiers."

That, combined with other problems, led Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine to conclude that official reports to Congress "significantly understated" the actual number of national security letters. "We were unable to fully determine the extent of the inaccuracies because an unknown amount of data relevant to the period covered by our review was lost from the OGC database when it malfunctioned," his report said.

No big thing, FBI director Robert Mueller assured a Senate committee in testimony the other day. "What I did not do and should have done is put in a compliance program to be sure those procedures were followed," he assured the committee. "The statute did not cause the errors. The FBI's implementation did." And that was plenty good enough for at least one Senator, Orrin Hatch of Utah, to cloyingly assure the Director that "You've acknowledged the problems and pledged to fix them," Hatch said. "That's what Congress and the American people need."

It's funny how the "errors" always seem to multiply to fill whatever free space the current "statutes" make available. Those in government will quickly take whatever power we give them. Since they're the ones with the wiretaps, the search warrants, the prisons, etc., it behooves us to ration that power carefully. Some senators are surprised at the FBI's malfeasance, but some of us told you so.


More European Wilding

More European wilding, this time in Paris yesterday (see video below) and in Utrecht several weeks ago, the latter a reaction to a police shooting and the fruit of conflict between white and Moroccan youth. The Paris incident began when subway offcials were punched during a ticket inspection. Not as bad as some incidents I noted previously, but symbolic of the same problem - large numbers of European youth (predominantly minority in Paris, white in Utrecht) capable of erupting when you least expect it. Expect more of the same.

Hat tip: ¡No Pasaran!

Friday, March 23, 2007

What is Higher Education For?

Two recent stories have caught my interest. In the first, Hamilton College in New York has announced that it is eliminating merit scholarships, so that more aid may go to the needy. According to the AP story, the reason is that “colleges have been criticized for using their resources to lure high-achieving students — many of whom don't need the money to attend college — thereby improving a school's academic standing at the expense of its economic diversity.”

Meanwhile, in Britain, Theodore Dalrymple reports the following:

The government also announced a new policy on university admissions: henceforth, when selecting students, universities must enquire as to whether applicants’ parents have university degrees themselves, in order to discriminate against them and favor applicants whose parents do not have degrees.

In other words, the British government sees universities more as instruments of egalitarian social engineering than as institutions of teaching, scholarship, and research. And it is far easier, of course, to admit students from poorer and less educated homes to university by administrative fiat than it is to raise standards in the high schools that they attend so that they might actually benefit from a university education.

On both sides of the Atlantic we have universities deciding that economic leveling is a primary function of the university, displacing at least to some extent other objectives such as pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, rewarding merit or other things that conflict with this notion of social justice.

This is a disturbing trend. It assumes that a “college degree” is a magic elixir that undoes the inequalities of society. The reason that college graduates earn more than those without college degrees is not because the sorts of people likely to get into and succeed in college are different (at least on average) from those who do not, but because colleges are supernatural transformative devices that can take anyone, wave their curricular wands and turn out a uniform, undifferentiated "college graduate."

In addition, the university seems to assume no significant loss of high-achieving students, who "don’t need the money" (read: have a bottomless pit of it somewhere in one of their parents’ McMansions) to attend and will come even without the aid. Of course, if other schools don't go along and instead continue to offer the aid these students have demand curves just as negatively sloped as anyone else's, and will go where they get a better offer. If this happens, I suspect the university would in an ideal universe willingly incur these losses because "economic diversity" is its overpowering objective. Indeed, in the Hamilton case, some measure of the commitment to economic diversity at the expense of everything else can be gleaned from the fact that they are eliminating these merit scholarships even though it will increase the financial-aid pool by less than five percent.

If great colleges and universities are to succeed they must value achievement, intelligence and creativity. These measures suggest that increasingly many do not. They see their primary, perhaps only mission as remedying society’s broader injustices. Do not get me wrong; merit is not defined purely by SAT scores, nor is it found primarily among the wealthy. A college should search for it wherever it might be found. But ultimately merit – the ability to do the most with (in a sense far more profound than simply being able to earn more money) and to advance knowledge – has to be the first consideration for any school that aspires to anything. Turning the pursuit of knowledge and excellence into a scheme for undoing past wrongs and leveling society’s (often inaccurately) perceived unfairness is a mistake we, with our still unmatched higher-education system, will come to regret.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Environmental Neurosis

"Neurosis: a mental and emotional disorder that affects only part of the personality, is accompanied by a less distorted perception of reality than in a psychosis, does not result in disturbance of the use of language, and is accompanied by various physical, physiological, and mental disturbances (as visceral symptoms, anxieties, or phobias)."

- Merriam-Webster Online

"What we're facing now is a crisis that's the most serious we've ever faced. We do not have time to play around with this anymore."

- Al Gore, on global warming, March 21, 2007.

In the marketplace of ideas, environmentalists have been among the most successful entrepreneurs of the last 100 years. From modest pledges to preserve some of nature in the face of rapid industrial transformation (Teddy Roosevelt environmentalism) to alerts about the effects of poisons occurring as the result of industrial activity (Clean Air Act environmentalism), it has now persuaded a significant proportion of the world's population that we stand at the threshold of a crisis (anti-human environmentalism).

As I have said before, I am not a global-warming "skeptic," because I don't have the scientific expertise to be, or not to be. However, such knowledge as I do have leads me to think that modern environmentalism has gone seriously astray, particularly with its increasingly fundamental belief that human activity, creativity and ingenuity in remaking the environment for human purposes damages something higher and purer, and is thus morally repugnant. (On this point, see the bizarre story of the animal-rights activists in Germany who want a polar-bear cub abandoned by its mother to be killed rather than raised by zoo staff, because the latter option would not be "species-appropriate.") Mr. Gore's testimony is vivid evidence of this trend in environmental thinking.

When thinking about the environment, it is important to first remember that the point of environmental policy, as with all public policy, is to advance human interests. It is not to preserve or expand some virginal Nature unspoiled by human degradation. It is OK, perhaps even morally compulsory, to build freeways or factories, to have higher standards of living, and so on as long as these things can be done at acceptable cost, because they advance human interests. We have always altered the earth to our ends from the moment we planted our first seeds, and CO2 emissions are no different. Environmental damage is something bad that happens as a by-product of something good, human prosperity and achievement. All proposals to "protect" the environment (from humans and their pursuits, presumably) must be seen in this light, or they go nowhere ethically.

Of course, humans have differing interests. Some want land to be used for a new sports complex, serving the interests of all who will use it, some want the land to remain as forest for their own self-interested purposes. It often falls to politics to referee these disputes. (Mr. Gore, like all central planners enamored of their own wisdom, disdains self-government as "playing around.")

And so when this clear clash of interests in the environmental arena happens, a few observations are helpful in deciding what is right. First, the interests of those damaged by environmental regulations are just as valid as the interests of those helped by them. The frustration of the dreams of billions of desperately poor people is every bit as costly as the frustration of those who don't want to see humans raise the planet's temperature.

Second, the hostility of environmentalism to progress and achievement, achieved through free competition, suggests that they will tend to overestimate the consequences of environmental problems. They view the central plan, the limiting of human freedom from on high, as the only way to solve problems. But if the planet warms, or if the rainforest declines, humans will, first, get something out of it (much more control over their own lives because of greater prosperity), and, second, be able to deal with it through their own ingenuity. If sea levels rise then barriers will be built or buildings will move away from the seashore; if some agricultural areas become less productive so too some will become more productive, and human consumption and production patterns will shift accordingly. Jared Diamond, a very compelling writer of the doomsday-environmentalist stripe, points in his book Collapse to previous civilizations in places like Easter Island that over-consumed resources in ways that prompted their extinction. All of that was before modern science and modern property rights (his example civilizations typically had none) allowed us to cope with problems so much more effectively.

Third, the costs of environmental regulation will be understated because they are invisible. We will never know how many cured diseases, technological breakthroughs or other important achievements will be foregone if dramatic limits on carbon, or any other pollution or resource use, are imposed. But there is no reason to assume that these costs are insubstantial. Environmental regulations, like all regulations, are limits on creative possibilities. Sometimes, when the threat is direct and severe (dumping pollution into drinking water), this tradeoff clearly favors regulation. Sometimes (preventing the construction of an office building or shopping mall because a grove of trees will be cleared) it does not. Unanticipated consequences from the exercise of government power are often the most severe ones.

The idea that believers in government as the mighty problem solver might overestimate their competence and underestimate human resilience in the absence of their grand plans might be called the planner's fallacy. Modern environmentalism, prone to see crisis everywhere (polar bears, who somehow survived the more dramatic medieval warming centuries ago without any help from the U.S. Congress or the International Panel on Climate Change, are now supposed to be actually threatened with extinction by the modest warming predicted to occur in the next century, e.g.), is unusually prone to it.

Human civilization has been around for millennia. It has dealt with bubonic plague, genocide, geological disasters, and worse. The idea that human society is now a plague on the earth, causing "the most serious crisis we've ever faced," is the narcissim and neurosis of the person who specializes in very specific knowledge - of human impacts on the earth - a little too much. It must be resisted at all costs. The earth is a device for human ends, no more. To accept the philosophical premises of all too much of modern environmentalism would provoke the real crisis.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Banned in China

The phrase "Banned in Boston" used to denote a certain cachet, a work of art that pushed the envelope just a little bit, not enough to be truly appalling but enough to tweak the noses of the Puritans.

Soon that phrase will have to be replaced with "Banned in China," which denotes a website that discusses topics to which, in the eyes of the all-knowing Communist Party, fragile Chinese minds should not be exposed. The website Great Firewall of China claims to test whether a website has been blocked from access via China or not. I type in this blog's URL and find that it is, in fact, verboten in the People's Republic:

In my log files I periodically get visits from Chinese state Net providers in out-of-the-way places like Heilongjiang. Now I know why.

Hat tip: No Pasaran.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Better Late Than Never: Is Norman Angell Finally Right?

No one seems to have noticed it, but war - between states, between groups within the states, between anything in between - is on the decline worldwide. The down-and-dirty numbers are found courtesy of The Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, in their Peace and Conflict 2005 report (pdf). Here is the key figure:

The cresting of war of all sorts just before the breakup of the USSR has passed, I must say, with surprisingly little comment. One might suppose we are standing on the threshold of one of the greatest human achievements of all time, on a par with the adoption of agriculture or the Industrial Revolution - the obsolescence of war as a means of dispute settlement in all but the remotest (from civilization) regions of the world. But there has been almost none from officials in the UN or major world governments, who might be expected to crow at this development.

As a matter of "if it bleeds, it leads" this is understandable. One major war is the war in Iraq, where the world's mightiest military power is mired in a seemingly mindless conflict where car bombs against innocent civilians and death-squad beheadings are the primary means of waging war. Mix in the fact that the U.S. military, with all of its PR officers, its embedded journalists, and the predisposition of journalists to seek out its failings, cries out for opportunistic coverage, and mix in too the spectacularly telegenic carnage of September 11, and it is no wonder that very intelligent people feel that the world is in the midst of an epoch, world-historical struggle. (I visit the sites of some of these thinkers regularly - this one is perhaps my favorite.)

But the numbers, clearly, say otherwise. Why is war on the way out? Norman Angell, whose name is in the title of this piece, had the misfortune to claim, in The Great Illusion, that economic interdependence among nations was making war obsolete. (That trade deters interstate war is a proposition supported in the research, and that it deters tribal conflict within nations is a favorite theme of this blog.) Alas, he had the misfortune to write it in 1911, a mere three years before the attempted suicide of Western civilization after Sarajevo.

But there is surely something to the idea that we depend on one another so much that it is more productive to bargain and trade than to try to settle disputes forcibly, the more so given the spectacular destructiveness of today's weapons. Others might attribute the epidemic of peace to the rise of the collective-security system through the UN, or the creation of organizations like the IMF and the WTO that give nations venues to jaw, jaw, jaw, as Churchill is said to have put it, instead of war, war, war.

A political scientist at Ohio State named John Mueller has what may be the most provocative thesis - that war has simply become morally unacceptable to most of humanity because of its costs, and so has become shamed into its darkest corners, much as slavery was gradually over the previous several centuries. (Slavery still goes on, of course, but it is seen as a disgrace; even nations that practice it pretend they don't.) Indeed, he amplifies the thesis in a self-evident (from the title) way in his latest work, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National-Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

If these people are right, we are at potentially a critical, even epochal moment (if we seize it) in human history - a moment when global opinion can relegate warmaking to the dustbin of our disreputable past. It is a provocative thesis, which we ignore at our peril. But there are other historical regularities worth noting, notably the rise of China combined with the tendency of such newly minted powers (Germany in the 1870s, the U.S. from 1845-1898, Japan from 1905-1941) to throw their weight around aggressively in their own neighborhood, and the unchallenged military dominance (in an interstate sense) of the U.S., which provides temptations to see military force as the hammer before which all its international disputes become nails. Despite its immense promise, given the power of modern weaponry the thesis would only have to be wrong once for disaster to happen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Noted Without (Much) Comment

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, remedial economics division:

Gov. Jim Doyle's top deputy insisted today that Wisconsin can levy a new $272 million tax on oil company profits over the next two years and stop them from simply passing it on to consumers by raising pump prices.

"We will make it absolutely clear" that oil companies who simply boost gas-pump prices to offset the tax will be prosecuted, State Administration Secretary Mike Morgan told legislators who opened their review of Doyle's 2007-'09 budget.

"You will not manipulate markets," Morgan said, referring to statements from Republican legislators who said oil companies will simply find one way or another to raise pump prices by up to 5-cents per gallon to offset the tax.

"We will fight them here, in the federal courts and in Washington," added Morgan, who is an attorney. "The governor will not allow big oil to defeat a very good policy."

Since everyone knows oil companies have a bottomless pit of money just waiting for the people's representatives to find and put to good use, it is natural that passing a law prohibiting such a thing will be sufficient to prevent the Governor's new tax from being passed on to consumers, or indeed to have any resource-allocation effects whatsoever.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Europe's War Between the Generations

A theme of this blog is trying to predict the future. It is difficult under the best of circumstances. My prediction of the Chinese economy being headed for a crash, for example, has yet to be vindicated. But in "The Welfare-State Squeeze," I wrote the following in 2005: "Population aging there [Germany, Italy, France] means a future of diminished expectations and intergenerational bitterness." The argument was that welfare-state spending will in aging nations more and more crowd out other public spending, including that which would benefit the young. Instead, they will be hit with a gigantic tax burden.

Now William Underhill and Tracy McNicoll write that fundamental resentment of the old by the young has arrived:

It's election time in France, and the promises are flowing fast. If you believe the candidates, young voters are in line for a fat slice of state largesse, no matter who wins the vote. On offer from Nicolas Sarkozy, the right's presidential candidate: interest-free loans for young entrepreneurs and a €300-a-month allowance for training. Not to be outbid, his rival, meanwhile, the Socialists' Ségolène Royal, has pledged more housing, €10,000 loans and guaranteed jobs or training after six months of unemployment. As Royal told a party rally last week: "As a mother, I want for all children born and raised in France what I wanted for my own children."

They now seem unlikely to get it. Young adults in France, like their contemporaries across Europe, face a slew of problems never experienced by their middle-aged leaders. Consider: a 30-year-old Frenchman earned 15 percent less than a 50-year-old in 1975; now he earns 40 percent less. Over the same period, the number of graduates unemployed two years after college has risen from 6 percent to 25 percent, even if they typically have better degrees. Thirty-year-olds in 2001 were saving 9 percent of their incomes, down from 18 percent just six years before. Young people who snag stable jobs, gain access to credit and buy homes later in life are particularly angry that the older generations continue to rack up public debts for which they will get the bill. And they are very skeptical of the pledges of boomer-generation politicians. "If all this were financially possible, it would have been done long ago," says Clément Pitton, the 23-year-old leader of Impulsion Concorde, which recently circulated a petition declaring "We will not pay your debt."

The whole article is worth a read if you care about Western Europe and its future.


What a Culture!

"Most of my Chinese friends are Jewish."

- Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro

The International Herald Tribune has the astonishingly scrambled life story of a girl, Ms Shapiro (née Fu Qian, born in Jiangxi). She was adopted from a Chinese orphanage and was raised by a lesbian couple in New York. According to the article, one of her parents was raised by atheistic Jews, the other was raised Catholic. They both ultimately turned to Judaism and raised the girl Jewish, and the article concerns her bat mitzvah, at which, like all girls who go through it, she had to speak Torah verses in the original Hebrew.

What are we to make of a story like that? It certainly puts the lie to the dreary rigid multiculturalism that divides us into permanent groups and reinforces those differences. It also has something to offend nearly everyone - the objector to gay adoption, the Chinese nationalist who is sure that race is cultural destiny, the Jewish traditionalist. This is clearly a girl who belongs to no culture, or maybe more accurately is part of the invention of a new culture - neither fully Chinese, fully Jewish, in an environment neither fully traditional nor (because of her parents' permanent attachment as a couple and observant religious practices) fully revolutionary. This is America.

Is culture a thing constantly in need of reinforcement, or a thing constantly improving through cultural competition, a product of sorts? I find myself with sympathy for both views. As Edmund Burke argued, cultural traditions have all sorts of hidden wisdom encoded within them, and so to angrily overthrow them in the name of a new order (as in revolutionary France) is to scatter that knowledge to the winds and, perhaps, have to regather it the hard way, one social catastrophe at a time. If we are too eager to cast aside, for example, the traditional form of marriage that has been the bedrock of societies of all kinds for centuries, then consequences will clearly follow, and there is no reason to assume that they must be good. (Defenders of traditional marriage have taken to calling it "natural marriage" in an attempt to emphasize its transcendent nature.)

And yet to reinforce particular cultural practices goes against every instinct I have about central planning. Cultural has always been dynamic, and some of the most reactionary violence against modernism has been and is being committed in the name of maintaining the old ways. Ultimately there is no stopping progress, even if not every single cultural experiment ultimately brings it. Indeed, Reform Judaism itself is one such invented culture. While beginning in Germany, it flourishes primarily in the U.S. (Authorities in highly secular Israel, where the saying is "We don't go to synagogue, but the synagogue we don't go to is Orthodox," do not recognize Reform conversions. Ms Nealon-Shapiro, since she is not the biological child of a Jewish mother, is not Jewish in Israel. Nor, AFAIK, do Orthodox girls even go through these ceremonies.) It is by far the most common form of Judaism in the US (and possibly, therefore, in the world), though its critics scornfully note that since Reform Jews intermarry a lot and have few children it is ultimately programmed for extinction.

And so someone like me, who believes both in the value of tradition as the bearer of hidden information and the utility of privatized cultural experimentation, has a problem making sense of the world he finds. For a believer in Western culture, may of whose aspects I think are indispensable to human progress and achievement even as they are under threat, ultimately must preserve and defend it from the bottom up, one persuasion at a time. There is no saving it from the top down. America is like no other country in its ability to reshape cultural forms (the young lady says that "Judaism is a religion, Chinese is my heritage and somewhat my culture, and I'm looking at them in a different way. I don't feel like they conflict with each other at all."); dynamism is our essence. Our cultural reach means that this kind of cultural creativity is going to spread. Traditionalists will revolt, but there is no stopping it. Ms Nealon-Shapiro's unconventional road to Judaism via Jiangxi has gotten her there just the same, and Judaism will be permanently different for her having arrived there.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Away for a Few Days

I will be out of town until the middle of the coming week. There will be no posts until then.

The War Over Children

There is a quiet war simmering among the chattering classes over children and the responsibility to have or the irresponsibility of having them. People who don’t have kids have more rewarding lives than “breeders,” or people who don’t are selfish. Property owners implicitly (because they don’t want to run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws) pitch themselves to the childless by advertising the desirability of the property for a “quiet adult person” or “single” people, so as to protect the existing residents from the rug-rat plague. It raises an interesting question: which is the more responsible choice?

The most straightforward, and morally correct, answer is “whatever choice the individuals involved make.” People who don't want to have children have no moral obligation to, and might be expected to make poor parents in any event. But there are interesting issues raised, particularly with regard to who is subsidizing whom. The proudly childless often argue that their taxes must subsidize public schools without getting the (small) tax breaks that parents get, so that those with children in them free-ride to some extent on the taxes of the childless. Meanwhile, ChicagoBoyz argues that the decision not to have kids is free-riding by being unwilling to produce future generations.

I think that neither of these positions is correct, although the second is more nearly so. Suppose there is an island with 500 couples on it. 250 couples have one kid, 250 have none. The next generation thus has 250 couples. Soon, obviously, this society is headed for extinction (or conquest by other islands).

But there is no obligation to maintain the human species per se. People who are never born never experience any loss, while people who refuse to have them experience gain. However, the problem arises for those who are alive in the increasingly childless society. The primary positive externality from children is not the perpetuation of the species, and certainly not the ability to fund the state pensions of future generations, a view that sees future children as partial slaves. The externality arises because others are deprived of potential trading partners. In the example above, if everyone had two children, each of 1000 people in the next generation would have 999 potential trading partners; as it is each of 250 only has 249. (I am assuming you can trade with as many people as you like.) Everyone in life, childless or not, only has trading partners because others have decided to have children. Children are a massive positive externality, and those who don’t have them are free-riding on the children of everyone else in every trade they consummate.

Admittedly, children also consume scarce resources – oil, e.g. – and generate pollution, but this is trivial when set against the ideas, innovations, knowledge and value they create. As the economist Steven Landsburg notes in his very readable Fair Play, even the love and joy that children throughout life generate in others must be accounted as a positive externality. Against this must be set the harm they do to others, a negative externality, but unless one takes an unusually dim view of human nature these effects are for most people (hardened criminals or democidal dictators aside) outweighed. In that sense measures taken in the name of population control are as inefficient as any policies on earth.

Having said all that, if people want to start child-free housing developments or restaurants that is their right in a free society. (A town does not have the right to require that developers operate this way, as at least one town in New Jersy has recently done.) But here is a hint for those who fret about children being in a particular restaurant where they hoped to enjoy a child-free meal: if you go in and it has kids’ menus or highchairs, it is a place where children belong.