Sunday, 12 December 2004

Locke out

Steven Taylor attempts to remind Kevin Drum that a belief in natural rights, such as that of Clarence Thomas, is hardly a right-wing radical (or reactionary?) notion; indeed, it was a bedrock principle that this nation was founded on, explicitly discussed in the Declaration of Independence and inherent in the Constitution—the “Blessings of Liberty” referred to in the preamble didn’t just emerge from thin air.

Update: Note that there is nothing inherently Christian in the Jeffersonian natural rights doctrine; as Jon Rowe points out, Jefferson and most of the key thinkers behind the Founding and the Constitution were not really Christians.

Hammers, nails, and bias

Stephen Bainbridge is outraged (yes, outraged) to discover bias in an exam question on the presidency:

In a five-page, double spaced paper in a 12-point font, write a memo to President Bush on how to assure that in his second term he become known as a persident who unites rather than divides the American people. In your memo you should concentrate particularly on the models past presidents provide for success as uniters. You might also point out the mistakes made by past presidents that President Bush ought to avoid.


Write a memo on the actions President George W. Bush ought to take in the first one hundred days of his second term to deliver on the promises he made during the election AND to build a strong legacy for his presidency overall.

In your essay you should be mindful of the following observations made by seasoned pundits David Gergen and William Schneider:

”[The Bush Administration] has already shown ominous signs of ‘group-think’ in its handling of Iraq and tha nation’s finances. By closing down dissent and centralizing power in a few hands, he is acting as if he truly believes that he and his team have a perfect track record, that they know best, and that they don’t need any infusion of new heavyweights. He has every right to take this course, but as he knows from his Bible, pride goeth before…” (David Gergen, “The Power of One,” The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2004).

“Rallying his conservative base paid off for Bush. But he did it by running on divisive social issues, such as same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and a ban on late-term abortions. His strategy will make it harder to heal the painful divisions created by the 2004 campaign. Just wait for Bush’s first Supreme Court nomination.” (William Schneider, “Exploiting the Rifts, ” National Journal, Nov. 6, 2004).

“The post-election Times/CBS News poll asked whether, in the next four years, Bush’s presidency will bring Americans together or divide them. The results were closely divided but tilted toward pessimism: 48 percent said Bush will divide the country, while 40 percent predicted that he will bring America together. In other words, the country remains divided-even over whether Bush will continue to divide the country.” (William Schneider, “Divided We Stand,” National Journal, Dec. 4, 2004.)

Except for the problem that both options essentially ask the same question (which, er, makes the inclusion of this option pretty stupid—pick one and stick with it), I’m a bit at a loss as to how these questions demonstrate bias, although I suppose the Gergen and Schneider quotes might stack the deck a little. I am curious what examples of “uniters” the question’s author has in mind, though; I can’t think of any post-Washington examples of presidents who managed to please most people, although I suppose there were presidents who managed to unite vast majorities of people in opposition to them (Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon spring to mind).

There is more to SEC schools than football (maybe)

My first thought on reading the headline NASA Chief Said to Be Top Contender for L.S.U. Job” was “What does NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe know about coaching college football?”

Omitted caveats

Jeff Licquia writes of a lesson he learned after some problems (thankfully resolved) with tires he bought at Sam’s Club:

Nevertheless, as a lesson hard won, it bears repeating: do not buy anything from club stores that you foresee needing ongoing customer support for, including automotive parts, computers and other electronics, or anything else where warranty support is important to you.

It seems to me that he omits the caveat “if you don’t plan on keeping your membership through the warranty period.” Given the extremely generous Costco and Sam’s return policies on most goods, maintaining one’s membership would seem to be a relatively inexpensive insurance policy.

The rectal chapeau brigade

George Will has a good column on the problems that face the Democratic Party these days:

The reason that Moore is hostile to U.S. power is that he despises the American people from whom the power arises. Moore’s assertion that America “is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe” is a corollary of Kuttnerism, the doctrine that “middle America” is viciously ignorant.

Beinart is bravely trying to do for liberalism what another magazine editor—the National Review’s William Buckley—did for conservatism by excommunicating the Birchers from the conservative movement. But Buckley’s task was easier than Beinart’s will be because the Birchers were never remotely as central to the Republican base as the Moore-MoveOn faction is to the Democratic base.

The nation needs a 1947 liberalism—anti-totalitarian but without what Beinart calls the Bush administration’s “near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might.” Wish Beinart well.

Will is right, again. We need an opposition in this country that can make a credible argument against intervention, without resorting to the hysteria of the asshats at You can argue that Iraq was a strategic error—that it won’t make us safer—or that it’s not worth the loss of life, or that the military could be better used elsewhere, but it’s a hard argument to make when you actually hate your country and think it exports misery. That is Michael Moore’s legacy, and oddly he plans a sequel for 2007.

The Democrats could take a principled stand against totalitarianism, as in 1947, but I doubt they will: the lure of opportunism is too strong these days. For evidence, look at McQ's post on this Chicago obituary. Absolutely laughable: died of a broken heart due to the election. Yeah.

BTW, I still don’t like Will’s use of the word liberalism, but I think my quixotic quest to change that has run its course. For now, anyway.

Spelling follies

Will Baude and Heidi Bond are considering the difficulty of spelling various words correctly. Baude and Bond suggest “necessary, privilege and judgment” are difficult, as is “license.”

The latter two are perhaps difficult because the Commonwealth spellings “judgement” and “licence” are similar (but invalid in Standard American Written English).

Personally, I only seem to have trouble with “tendency”... which I managed to misspell on the American government exam I gave today, and is confusingly different from words like “attendance” that are pronounced the same. The moral of this story: flyspell-mode is your friend.

China's ascendancy

China seems to be all the rage these days. I’ve seen the issue of China’s ascendancy in at least one textbook and one test in recent months. The question is generally asked as a comparative advantage question, such as “If China has an absolute advantage in producing all products (meaning it can produce each of them with fewer inputs per unit of output) against the U.S., will China still choose to trade with us?”. The answer is a modern spin on Ricardo’s “wine and wool” scenario between Britain and Portugal.

I would be interested to hear a contrary answer, provided it doesn’t contain overheated rhetoric about “predation” and so forth.

The answer, of course, is “yes”, China would continue to trade with us because it’s too expensive for them not to. Even if they have an absolute advantage in everything, they will still be internally better at producing some good and there’s an opportunity cost associated with their production choices. So it behooves us to not respond to their ascendancy with quotas or tariffs, but rather to continue trading with them. Monetary theory adds some additional difficulty but the answer should be the same (I would be interested to hear a contrary answer, provided it doesn’t contain overheated rhetoric about “predation” and so forth). Business Week has a good article on the economic history of the U.S. and Europe that provides a present-day lesson:

The close links between the U.S. and Europe fostered growth in both regions then, but how is trade affecting the U.S. today? Just as Europe prospered in the 1800s despite the rise of America, the U.S. is faring relatively well now, in a world where manufacturing jobs are moving in droves to China and white-collar jobs are outsourced to India. GDP per person in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, is up 6% since 2000 despite a recession, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and a massive trade deficit that is subtracted from GDP.

Surprisingly, real wages are up as well, as inexpensive goods from China hold down inflation and help paychecks go further. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages of private-sector workers are up 3.3% since 2000. At the high end, real wages rose 5.1% for managers and 3.1% for professionals despite the recession and pressure from information-technology jobs transferring out of the country. At the less-skilled end, over the past four years there has been a 4.1% real wage increase for clerical and administrative support workers, a 3.2% gain for less-skilled blue-collar workers, and a 6.7% jump for traditionally low-paid health-care workers. These are solid improvements, even compared with the boom years of 1996 to 2000, when private-sector wages showed a 5.4% increase.

As for innovation, the U.S. still has a comparative advantage in key areas such as biotechnology and finance. Biotech, which many believe could fuel the next global boom, is still concentrated in the U.S. And the American financial system, far deeper and more robust than its fragile Chinese counterpart, is much better suited to be the global financial hub.

But as history shows, in periods of political, economic, or military turmoil, the free flow of goods, capital, and ideas can get choked off. And some countries feel the pain more than others. Europe found that out during World War I and the Great Depression. While America was developing mass production and a domestic automobile industry, “Europe was distracted by wars and interwar economic chaos,” writes economist Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University. The result: The U.S. grew while Europe stagnated. From 1913 to 1950, U.S. GDP per person rose 1.6% per year—as fast as in the previous 100 years—while Europe struggled with a meager 0.8% annual gain.

This evening I had dinner with a buddy and he and I discussed how the U.S. is pretty unique among the nations of the world. For most of them history is a story of war, poverty and short lives. Thomas Sowell put it very well in his Fourth of July column this year:
When you have learned of the bitter oppressions that so many people have suffered under, in despotic countries around the world, have you ever wondered why Americans have been spared?

Have scenes of government-sponsored carnage and lethal mob violence in countries like Rwanda or in the Balkans ever made you wonder why such horrifying scenes are not found on the streets of America?

Nothing is easier than to take for granted what we are used to, and to imagine that it is more or less natural, so that it requires no explanation. Instead, many Americans demand explanations of why things are not even better and express indignation that they are not.

Some people think the issue is whether the glass is half empty or half full. More fundamentally, the question is whether the glass started out empty or started out full.

Those who are constantly looking for the “root causes” of poverty, of crime, and of other national and international problems act as if prosperity and law-abiding behavior were so natural that it is their absence that has to be explained. But a casual glance around the world today, or back through history, would dispel any notion that good things just happen naturally, much less inevitably.

If we have enough sense to listen to our own history, we’ll know that China, assuming they don’t have a banking crisis due to the currency peg, will not grow at our expense, but to our advantage. They’ll produce some things better than us and we’ll benefit from trade with them. Really, given their population, it’s surprising that it’s taken them so long to outgrow us in aggregate—except for the fact that they were economic communists until the 1970s.

There will be challenges due to China’s growth—and those that see economics as an extension of their penises will probably feel threatened by it—and we’ll have to address them through education, job retraining and income assistance. Even so, we’ll end up better off and, assuming they pose no military threat to us, we shouldn’t feel threatened by another country throwing off poverty and developing a middle class.

Via the still-valuable-even-though-the-election’s-over Real Clear Politics.

All I want for Christmas is an answer to this question

Finals are now mercifully over. Unfortunately, I forgot to use my Professorial Powers of Evil to ask my tuned-into-the-Zeitgeist students the question that’s been bothering me for the past two weeks: what’s the deal with Lindsay Lohan? No, really, I mean it. Anyone?