Thursday, April 28, 2005

Homework

Again, I have some real world issues to address, so I would have anything new until the weekend. However, I would recommend checking out this post on confirmation bias. I want to talk about this more, but I won't be able to do it justice until next week.

Anyway, be sure to stop by this weekend. We'll be talking about oil (fun stuff -- I assure you).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Sucker-Be-Gone! Yours If You Act Now!

Are you a frequent mark for con men? Have you recently purchased a year supply of "miracle cream" that you saw advertised on late-night television? Still investing in laetrile?

If so, have I got something for you! It's the most recent issue of The Skeptic's Circle offered by our good friends over at Thoughts from Kansas. Simply apply liberally at regular intervals. Absolutely, positively guaranteed to remove all trace of suckerhood from your person, or double your money back.

You have my word on it.

Centrism: Another Word for Useless

Kevin Drum recently directed his readers to a Ronald Brownstein article which argues that there exists a real opportunity for a centrist political party to seize control of the White House in 2008. Kevin quickly dispatches the notion that the Internet could somehow be the engine for such a movement, a point I completely agree with. But, I'm willing to go further and suggest that the notion of a popular centrist movement outperforming the existing political establishment is sheer fantasy. And, I'm willing to back that up.

First of all, let's think about what a so-called "centrist" voter really is. A large percentage of those who so identify are actually individuals who simply have no vested interest in the political issues of the day. In other words, they are utterly apathetic. Those who are not completely disconnected from politics are unified only by their distaste for the system. They reject the partisanship displayed by politicians in general and therefore view both sides of the spectrum as equally problematic. Now, these people may represent a large portion of the electorate, but I don't really see them as the basis some sort of centrist revolution. The combination of apathy and aversion isn't exactly a recipe for the type of radical political change we are discussing. These people are more likely to see politics as the problem itself, rather than an avenue for innovative solutions. Therefore, no one is going to be riding their backs to victory.

Of course, there are other self-identified centrists out there. These individuals have opinions, but these opinions fail to overlap neatly with either major party. Could these be the basis of a centrist political movement? My opinion: no. Here's why.

When people talk about centrist politicians, they often refer to their ability to behave in a bipartisan fashion. Lieberman and McCain are often cited as examples of individuals who are willing to buck the party line in support of their personal principles. Here's the thing though: on individual issues, are these centrist politicians taking centrist positions or are they really taking a position in opposition to that of their party? You see, on many issues, there really is no center. You either support the issue or you don't.

Take abortion. You can talk all you want about how it's a personal issue, how you view it to be a sin, etc. But, in the end that's just talk. The issue is whether or not the government should be able to regulate it. If you take the pro-choice position (i.e. little or no government regulation), no one on the pro-life side is going to care that you wouldn't get an abortion yourself. If you subdivide the issue and began talking about parental consent or partial-birth abortion, you are in the same boat. You either like parental consent or you don't. Same with partial-birth abortion.

Now, you might argue that, because you take differing positions on the various subissues (i.e. pro partial-birth ban, anti-parental consent), your conglomerate abortion stance is centrist. Maybe. But the question isn't really whether or not you achieve political centrism by taking alternating positions within the overarching question. The question is what can you do, politically speaking, by holding these positions.

Centrism, as it plays out in practice, is sort of a cafeteria ideology. You take a little from the left on issue A, B, and C while taking a little from the right on issue D, E, and F. It's a regular smorgasbord. However, every centrist is going to serve himself something different. Every plate will be unique. Therefore, you aren't going to end up with any unifying themes upon which to base a political movement. Instead, you are going to have a million centrists who can't agree with each other. Again, not exactly what he would call a recipe for political dominance.

The real reason that people like McCain win elections is that they are perceived to have integrity and/or charisma. You might disagree with McCain on many issues, but because you feel that he is an honest broker who will always do what he feels is correct, you're willing to support him over a candidate who blindly toes the party line. Or, if you are not a particularly issue driven voter, you can be charmed by someone like Clinton. Either way, though, you aren't pulling the lever because of a shared centrist ideology. Such a thing simply does not exist.

This is not to say that playing to swing voters has no strategic merit. Of course it does. But when such a strategy works, it does so only when personal integrity and/or charisma overcome the apathy or ideological difference within each captured voter. The middle has no ideological consistency to court. You can use their votes to pad those supplied by those in your political base on the right or left. If you can sway enough of them to your side, they can definitely turn an election your way. But, they will never be anyone's base simply because there is no there there. Without ideological coherence, they simply cannot be addressed as a group. And without that foundation, nothing can be built upon them.

So, in the end, centrism is a nice idea. It is a sort of utopian ideal, a place where we can all get along. But, like the lost city of Atlantis, it doesn't really exist. And just like I'm not planning on building a house on Atlantis' upper West side, I wouldn't be planning a political campaign based on the fable of a centrist majority.

Monday, April 25, 2005

It's the Resources, Stupid!

As one of the more memorable phrases to emerge from American politics in the last 15 years or so, James Carville's "It's the economy, stupid!" was not merely a snappy rejoinder to the question "what is the campaign about?" It was a reminder that, no matter what other issues might be in play, those who chose to ignore the significance of economic concerns could ever come to understand the modern political landscape. Other issues might exist, but they only come to prominence once people have achieved a sense of economic security. While certain issues (such as national security) might temporarily distract us, our focus inevitably returns to our pocketbooks. It is the Rosetta Stone of the American political scene.

However, once we expand our focus beyond our domestic political microcosm, there is another universal rule that we should begin to acknowledge. Political movements may rise and fall in accordance with the economic successes that they provide, but these movements are just one element within the larger cosmos of society itself. Once our analysis begins to operate at that level, the significance of economic oscillation is suddenly dwarfed. Instead, a separate, yet related, factor emerges as the preeminent determinant of success or failure. In a word: resources.

The question of rising and failing civilizations is one that I approached with a certain naïveté until very recently. The wealth and power of Western Civilization was something that I accepted uncritically, rarely stopping to wonder how it had come to pass. In moments where I did consider possible explanations, I was largely drawn to the theory of Western cultural exceptionalism. This was never a theory that I bother to flesh out in its entirety, but there was something satisfying about it at first glance. Western culture had given us individualism, the Enlightenment, and the Puritan work ethic, all of which combined might have given Western society a competitive advantage over other civilizations.

However, I experienced a radical paradigm shift after reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (a shift that was further cemented after completing Diamond's follow-up effort, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). Rather than attempting to answer the question by studying the cultural philosophies of modern-day civilizations, Diamond's examination began literally at the dawn of human society. By doing so, he was able to develop an incredibly persuasive theory that largely explains the current state of human affairs here on planet Earth. And, yes, it's largely about the resources.

These days we all have a basic understanding about society's need for certain resources. This awareness is brought into sharp relief with every visit to our local filling station. But many of us, myself included, often fail to realize the full scope all of our society's resource requirements. Some are acquired so cheaply and easily that they can hardly be considered resources at all. Moreover, the facility of this resource acquisition often disguises the fact that these resources are not distributed equally across the globe. Again, everyone knows that petroleum resources are concentrated in a few select locations. But how many of us have really considered the distribution of highly productive agricultural land.

Of course, modern technology and globalization have served to obscure these uneven distributions. However, if you are examining the human societies of our distant ancestors, the importance of resource access is brought into focus. Suddenly, the resources in question become far more foundational in nature. As it turns out, the availability of high protein grains and the presence of domesticable large animals played a critical role in the evolution of early human cultures. But, due to the fact that these resources were not available to humans in all locations, those that did have them enjoyed a competitive advantage over those that did not.

And so, resource distribution played a critical role in establishing the modern hierarchy of civilizations. But, the initial presence of resources is only half of the story. As we are well aware, certain resources are nonrenewable, such as petroleum and hard rock minerals. Others are renewable, but the rate of renewal is slow and is potentially exceeded by the extraction rate. Finally, the "renew-ability" of many resources is determined by nonstatic factors, such as climate. Therefore, resource availability determines not merely the rise of certain civilizations, but frequently their fall as well.

The importance of resource access to a functioning society cannot be overstated, yet is frequently overlooked. What I wrote about the opium problem in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, this was the issue that I felt was missing from the debate. We have a tendency to assume, usually unconsciously, that the poverty of Third World nations is the result of local mismanagement. The unstated belief is that, with the appropriate application of technology, ingenuity, and effort, these problems would evaporate. Maybe they can't make it work, we think, but surely we could. But this is no less than pure arrogance on our part. Our technology might improve crop yields, but it could never level the playing field between nations rich and poor in resources. It is a fantasy to believe otherwise.

As we move into the 21st century, we will begin to confront the resource question more directly for the simple reason that many of them will be exhausted soon. As always, we are cognizant of this fact with respect to petroleum. However, the same can be said for topsoil, water, forests, ocean and freshwater fisheries, to name just a few. Moreover, as the climate changes, so will the distribution of these renewable resources be changed. Regions that currently enjoy high levels of agricultural productivity may suddenly discover themselves to be unable to feed even themselves. In short, we face a looming crisis whose consequences will be both dramatic and widespread. This isn't just some fantasy of the environmental extremists; it's very real.

I suspect that within the next few decades, we will look back upon this time as a period when public policy was driven by our obsession with short-term economic ebb and flow, while we ignored the long-term ramifications of our shortsightedness. We will wish that we had considered how these policies affected our resource management when it was still relatively painless to do so. We will be bitterly amused as we study those political careers that turned on a small hike in inflation or unemployment. We will be looking back from a very different world then the one we currently occupy. It will be a world of conflict driven by the shortages that are only now emerging and we will long for our current era of plenty. During that time, there will be a political consultant who will hang a sign above his desk in order to keep his campaign on message, and that sign will say "It's the resources, stupid!"

The Real Enemy

This is required attire for all fans of Mr. Show. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. The link is funny in its own right.

(Via Majikthise)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Workers of the World Unite

Yes -- I know. Things have been a little inconsistent for the last few days. I apologize. I will have something new up later this afternoon.

Until then, why not head over to Red Harvest to check out the latest Carnival of the Un-Capitalists. You'll find a lot of meaty material over there -- surely enough to satisfy you until I can get my act together.

Update: Link fixed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Who Loves You, Baby

Not everyone likes me, but some people do. What a relief!

Anyway, my little shop has received in the tiniest bit of attention this week and I thought I would memorialize the moment with this short acknowledgment. First, we have been added to the blogroll over at Heraldblog. Second, we made the cut for Kathy's Friday Random 10 over at Citizen's Rent. So, congratulations to me.

But, this isn't just some exercise in self-aggrandizement. Both of those blogs are pretty interesting and worth checking out. Plus, a number of the other blogs listed on the Friday Random 10 deserve some investigation. So, when you get a chance, be sure to click on over.

Fun with Images

This here is a little experiment. This is what I would look like if I lived in South Park.





Amusing, no?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Little Regulation

Not 15 minutes after I finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed do I discover Publius referencing Jared Diamond in this post regarding the coming oil wars. Now, that is what I call a coincidence.

Anyway, while Publius limits himself to discussing the oil problem (something Diamond decidedly does not do), he nails the problem that we're facing.
As Diamond might explain, when you have multiple parties competing for scarce resources, you should expect conflict. And that’s essentially where we are today. The economies of the world powers need reliable supplies and suppliers of oil. In addition, they need to remove potential threats to these stable supplies of oil. Thus, as we might expect, we are beginning to see these world powers engage in a string of seemingly isolated global conflicts to secure supplies of oil – both in the sense of physical conquest and/or in the sense of removing threats to the stability of oil-producing regions. This is what I mean by the "Oil Wars."
On the one hand, this is a fairly elementary stuff. If you need something bad, you will go a long way to get it. If others get in your way, things have a tendency to get ugly. It's not exactly what you would call rocket science. And if that something is something like drugs, everyone gets on board. But, if that something is oil, there's a segment of the population that has a tendency to go batshit.

This reaction was typified a few weeks ago when I was listening to Rush Limbaugh pontificate on his radio show (yes, I know, I know -- I don't know what the hell I'm doing listening to that show either). He had been asked whether or not he was worried about the finite nature of the oil reserves here on planet Earth. His response was, essentially, that (a) oil isn't that scarce and (b) the market will solve this problem.

Thus, the idea that scarce resources could play a role in conflict is unacceptable because it challenges the notion of the "magical" market, a divine system that, when left alone, will rain blessings down upon all earthly creatures. Surely, they claim, the market would address the issue of resource scarcity long before it would be resolved through armed conflict.

Generally, I'm not one to forcibly disabuse the faithful of the objects of their adoration. If it makes you happy to believe in spirits, the Easter Bunny, or a the talents of John Travolta, who am I to stop you. In this situation, though, I can't let this pass. Too much is at stake.

There are many ways to look at the modern capitalist market, but one analogy that I find to be incredibly useful is that of an ecosystem. In essence, the market is the environment in which business entities compete for consumer dollars. And, just like natural ecosystems, the entities that are best suited to the environment succeed and thrive, while those less suited tend to evaporate (through bankruptcy or buyout). This dynamic is what creates the market efficiency so beloved by its libertarian/conservative advocates. The threat of failure pushes these business entities to constantly improve and adapt in order to succeed. They are forced to constantly streamline and reduce waste. Over time, this process transforms them into incredibly proficient operations.

So, I acknowledge without complaint that markets are indeed incredibly efficient systems. The problems arise when you take the next step and ask "what are markets efficient at accomplishing?"

The answer is simple: generating profits. While there are many beneficial aspects of this goal, it is in of itself an amoral pursuit. There is nothing inherently good or bad about it-- it merely is what it is. The positive and negative repercussions arise out of the ancillary effects of this pursuit. Therefore, the mistake that is made is assuming that the positive effects vastly outweigh the negative ones. Sometimes they do, but often they do not.

Some of the negative effects stem from the scope of the specific business entity's profitability forecast. The activity of a company is often determined by its outlook. If a company is forward-looking and concerned about profits 100 years in the future, it will take measures to assure that its current activity will not preclude future profits. However, if they are concerned only with their next quarterly report, they will take actions that provide the highest profits currently available regardless of the effect that that will have on the future. Thus, economic resources can be plundered for short-term gain, leaving those in the future without what they need to conduct business.

Other negative effects are related to what is commonly referred to as the collective action problem. The basic idea is that rational entities acting independently cannot address collective issues. For example, if all farmers in a town allow their cattle to graze all in the town commons, the land will soon be overgrazed and useless to everyone. However, they cannot choose to independently limit their grazing because others would simply take advantage of the situation by allowing their cattle to graze further. In such a situation, those acting on behalf of the group are punished while those acting on their own interests are rewarded. To solve the problem, limits must be established and enforced collectively.

There are many such collective action problems in the modern market. Many natural resources are finite (oil) or are slow to recover from exploitation, yet independent business entities cannot unilaterally decide to conserve them. The production of industrial pollutants damages the environment for everyone, yet businesses cannot independently assume the costs of prevention and cleanup. The fact that businesses compete with each other means that they cannot be trusted to consider the interests of anyone but themselves.

Finally, profit is itself a nebulous concept. Profits can be achieved in many ways. In the most general sense, increasing profits are derived from a widening gap between revenue and cost. However, reducing cost can be achieved by increased efficiency or by externalization. If an operating cost can be taken off the books and revenue is neutral, profit increases and the behavior is rewarded. But lots of cost externalizations are bad for society at large. For example, hard rock mines typically force the public at large to pay for the environmental damage they cause. The profitability of the mine increases, yet we are worse off collectively.

Defenders of the market might complain that I am ignoring the fact that consumers have the ability to pressure business entities that act irresponsibly. Supposedly, consumers will recognize bad actors and boycott their products. Sometimes this does occur and, when it does, it can be very effective. However, more often than not, such consumer resistance fails to materialize. There are three reasons for this. First, consumers lack the time, energy, and information required to consistently exert such pressures. The modern market is far too complex and compartmentalized for consumers to fully comprehend the effects of their market choices. A consumer might be unhappy about the environmental consequences of copper mining, yet unable to discover which of their consumer products contain copper from the offending mines. Second, consumers often do not understand the severity of certain corporate bad actions. Some environmental damage is difficult to perceive and frequently requires high levels of expertise to truly comprehend the threat. Finally, consumers are independent actors as well. In so, they might disproportionately benefit from certain consumer choices in spite of the fact that the collective is damaged. For these reasons, consumers can never be the final arbiter of appropriate business practice.

The market accomplishes many things very well. A large percentage of our modern comforts are derived from the market system. Whenever possible, it is advantageous to use market solutions to accomplish our collective goals. However, unfettered markets do not work purely for our benefit; they work purely for their own. Sometimes the interests of the market align with ours and in those instances we should give it free rein. But, when our interests diverge, we must change the market environment so that it produces results that are beneficial to us. Like it or not, this means regulation. There are systemic costs for imposing regulation, but the consequences for failing to do so are much more severe. How and what we regulate is an ongoing discussion and is something that we should constantly be refining. Yet, the question of whether or not to regulate should be settled.

The free market is a tool. It is neither good nor evil. It is merely a thing. It is how we use the market that will determine whether or not it is our salvation or our ultimate undoing. It can go either way -- but, if you want a world your children can live in, the choice is clear. A little regulation is, without a doubt, a good thing.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Expertise Matters

A few weeks ago I proposed a theory as to why so many continue to cling to the idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction immediately preceding the American-led invasion. While this was far from the best thing I had ever written for this site, I felt that it was worth at least a little attention. However, I admit that there was some hesitation on my part. I knew that many might find the substance of that post to be rather irritating and that it was quite likely that I would experience some blowback. After a few minutes considering the pros and cons, I decided to enter it in the Carnival of the Vanities. I mean, really. How bad could it be?

As it turns out, not that bad. A lot of people read the post and I didn't get any death threats. But, at least one gentleman let it get under his skin and he laid into me in the comments and own his own blog. Alas, rather than address the subject of the post, the discussion largely digressed into a debate over the existence of WMDs. But, beggars can't be choosers. If that's what a reader wants to discuss, who am I to argue?

Anyway, during this little debate, my adversary (unintentionally, I think) revealed that he was unfamiliar with the conclusions of the Duelfer report. Since this document is essentially the final word on the subject, I didn't see how we could have a rational discussion until he was up to speed. In light of this fact, I recommended that he read this article, published in the Washington Post.

I realize this is a lot of prelude, but here comes the interesting part. Since this gentleman is of the conservative persuasion (he considers FOX News to be the most evenhanded major news source), he wasn't about to let the Washington Post be the final word on the issue. Therefore, he tracked down the actual Duelfer report and read it. Then, he posted an extensive summary of the report, arguing that the Washington Post had "shamelessly cherry-picked" quotes from the report in order to distort its meaning.

Now, if you didn't actually click through to the extensive summary, you should because that post is going to provide us with some context moving forward. As you can see, my friend has constructed a very compelling rejoinder to my claim that the WMD issue is settled. Moreover, he has quotes directly from the Duelfer report backing his position. I'm sure that many would read that post and come away believing that the jury is still out. Hell, after reading that post, I almost believe it.

In the end, though, I don't. And neither should you. Here's why.

The Duelfer Report is not exactly what you would call a thrifty read. It tops out at approximately 1000 pages (the complete PDF files total 200 MB). So, as you can see, when they refer to it as a comprehensive report, they aren't kidding. It's an extremely thorough examination of the WMD issue, truly leaving no stone unturned. This is, of course, exactly as it should be.

Unfortunately, when documents get to be this size, it starts to become difficult to summarize their meaning. When so much is said, how does one decide what's really important? Moreover, how easy is it for someone with absolutely no expertise in the subject to interpret the document's findings?

Not easy. Not easy at all.

This is a problem that I am starting to notice more and more in the blogosphere. In this modern era, we have access to enormous amounts of raw data. We also have at our disposal incredibly powerful tools for finding and evaluating this data. And finally, we have a medium in which to publish our conclusions. But, with all this power at our fingertips, is there any meaning to what we are producing? Or are we just a bunch of nimrods with cable modems and free time. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell.

On the one hand, I have to commend my conservative friend for actually getting into the trenches and doing some real work to back his position. Far too many people are willing to hold convictions on faith, sometimes even refusing to consider evidence brought to their doorstep. But, at the same time, you have to know your limits. A few weeks ago, when I was writing about the Lancet study regarding excess Iraqi deaths postinvasion, I faced a similar problem. I read the report (only about 10 pages) and I know more than the average bear about statistics. However, I don't know much about epidemiology or about cluster sampling. Therefore, I spent a lot of time reading what experts had to say about it before I presented my conclusions. To paraphrase Rumsfield, there are things that I know I know, things that I know I don't know, and things that I don't know that I don't know. Or something.

The bottom line is that, in the blogosphere, with the knowledge and tools at our disposal, almost anyone can seem like they know what they're talking about. However, the world is an incredibly complicated place and access to information does not directly correlate with comprehension. Often times it takes years of training and experience to extract meaning from a given data set. There was a time not long ago when that training and expertise would be a prerequisite for seeing the data in the first place. The fact that that is no longer true is mostly a good thing. I'm all for the widest distribution of information possible. But it means that we can no longer assume that the analyst knows more than we do. The presentation can be sharp, appealing, and loaded with raw data -- but still be completely wrong. Unless you're the expert, there's almost no way to know for sure.

With respect to the Duelfer report, it turns out that the authors anticipated this problem. As part of the full report, they published a short summary of key findings for each section (which, conveniently, can be downloaded separately (PDF)). It's sort of a Duelfer Report for Dummies, an ideal companion for nonexpert bloggers like myself. It's only 19 pages and is much easier to understand. And it shows how far off my conservative friend’s interpretation of the full document actually was.

But, I don't want this to come across as a slam against this gentleman. Sure, on the one hand, as consumers of blog-product -- buyer beware. On the other, though, blogger beware. This gentleman is far from the only one to get in over his head (I'm looking at you Powerline and Daily Kos). I've tried to avoid this particular pitfall, but if I have so far succeeded, I am sure it is only a matter of time before my intellectual hubris gets the better of me. No doubt, my downfall is quickly approaching.

So, remember: expertise matters. We've all got megaphones now, but all that means is that we're really fucking loud. Unless we really know what we're talking about, we're doing no more than broadcasting our ignorance. And that might make us feel good, but in the end, is that really why we're out here?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Separated at Birth

For some time now, Ward Churchill has been the poster child for the right-wing's distaste for the academy. No tirade against academic liberal bias would be complete until Churchill's name makes an appearance. No iteration of the academy's sins can conclude without prominent mention of this specific case in point. One is sometimes left wondering what conservatives would do on this issue without the house whipping boy. I'm sure that they would dig someone else up, but is doubtful that anyone else could provide them the mileage that Ward Churchill has. He is as important to the anti-academy movement as anyone -- even David Horowitz.

Funny thing, though. I've been noticing recently a surprising similarity between these two gentlemen. Now, they exist on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, so this isn't what I'm talking about. Instead, what I have realized is that when it comes to method and presentation, they are, without a doubt, brothers in arms. I'm sure that if either of them ever read that last sentence they would explode in rage and indignation (which would, as an aside, be fairly entertaining). But, the more I think about it, the more it rings true.

Let's take a look, shall we?

First off, both men are clearly ideologues. The investigations into their respective fields of inquiry are driven not so much out of a pure quest for knowledge, but as a springboard for change. While they both publicly present their findings, they most frequently do so in the service of their respective agendas.

Of course, that describes nearly every pundit, politician, and advocate in America, so that isn't the most insightful observation in the world. Where things get interesting is when you begin to investigate the quality of the data that they present. Now you're talking about some serious double vision.

As I pointed out in this post, Churchill has for many years been making claims that are, shall we say, poorly supported by his research. Most notably, he has claimed that an 1837 Native American smallpox epidemic was instigated by the United States Army despite compelling evidence that this is untrue. He has also made questionable claims regarding his own ancestry, frequently representing himself as Native American -- an affiliation denied by the nations in question. While these facts fail to impugn his character in its entirety, it does demonstrate a certain nonchalance with respect to accuracy.

However, Churchill isn't the only one with a casual relationship to the truth. In service of his assault on the academy, he has frequently circulated anecdotal evidence that has later been proven to be false. A recent example of this phenomenon was his claim that a student at the University of Northern Colorado was asked on a midterm exam to "explain why George Bush is a war criminal." As the story goes, she responded by instead explaining why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal. Her efforts were rewarded with a failing grade, thus demonstrating ideological discrimination on the part of her instructor.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not a student should receive a good grade for a non-responsive answer, is the story even true? As it turns out, not so much. Follow the preceding link to get the whole story, but the bottom line is that Horowitz failed to confirm the assertions of a complaining student, falsely claimed that the student had testified during legislative hearings, and, when the story started unraveling, essentially asserted that the gist of the story was correct even if certain particulars were mistaken. I guess that if you lie in service of a greater truth, it all comes out in the wash.

"Wait," you say. "That's just one example. Are there more?" Why, yes. I'm glad you asked.

In support of his claims regarding the 1837 smallpox epidemic, Churchill relied heavily upon the work of another historian. Russell Thornton, the Cherokee scholar and professor of anthropology at UCLA, had investigated andwritten about this same event. The problem was that he true radically different conclusions. Therefore, using Thornton's research as support for his claims is a little dishonest. But, more than that, it's pretty stupid. After all, the first person to check Churchill's references would uncover the deception (which is exactly what eventually happened). And if that hadn't tripped him up, there is always Thornton himself. When asked about Churchill's misrepresentations, Thorson replied, "Issues like Ward Churchill cast aspersions on legitimate Indian scholars. The history is bad enough -- there's no need to embellish it."

Horowitz also seems to have problems interpreting the work of others. The most recent example was on display a few short days ago. He had challenged Michael Bérubé to an online debate regarding Horowitz's new web site, Discover the Network, and the extent to which it attempts to blur the distinction between Roger Ebert and Osama bin Laden. This debate was to be published in its entirety at Horowitz's main storefront, FrontPage Magazine. And it was, except for one little thing. I'll let Michael take it from here.
[W]hen I went to the FrontPage site to check out the “debate,” I found that almost all my replies to David had been cut from the “conversation,” and that Glazov and Horowitz, after chopping all the stuff I’d written, slapped me upside the head for not replying to them…
Michael then proceeds to publicly bitch-slap Horowitz for both his dishonesty and his shocking stupidity. Afterwards, Horwitz claimed that he somehow had "missed" the responses in Bérubé’s last reply -- an honest mistake that anyone could make. He then posted the conclusion of the debate with the previously excised responses intact.

Whether or not this was an honest mistake is anyone's guess (although, the blogosphere is never short on opinions). However, that question aside, it shows the same slavish dedication to ideology as does the Churchill/Thornton example cited above. Surely it should have struck Horowitz as bizarre that Bérubé would have failed to respond to the points that he had raised. But the nonresponsiveness confirmed his pre-existing conclusions about liberal academics. It was the data point that he was looking for and, thus, he failed to approach it with an appropriate level of skepticism. Likewise, Churchill read Thornton's work and found what he was looking for, despite the fact that it wasn't there.

I'm sure that any exhaustive examination of these gentlemen would uncover more differences than similarities. I realize that my presentation is more of a rhetorical exercise than an honest inquiry. That said, the similarities that do exist are worth noting because of what they say about the conclusions that these men draw. Perhaps there are kernels of truth within their pontifications. Yet, any such truth is lost under an avalanche of dreck, impossible to distinguish from the morass of misinformation that engulfs it. Intellectual honesty matters because intellectual dishonesty cannot be contained. It infects the entirety of one's discourse. The fact that you may be speaking to a larger truth will not serve to fortify your position. Every brick of the foundation must be solid lest the entire structure collapse. That may impede the progress of an ideological assertion, but at least the progress achieved will be real.

So ends today's edition of "separated-at-birth." Tune in next week when we examine the link between Tom Friedman and Ann Coulter. You won't want to miss that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Borderline

First, understand the problem.

That's a good rule. Whether you're trying to answer a math problem or trying to reform Social Security, if you aren't clear about the nature of the problem, the odds are that your solution won't address it. If it does, it's just dumb luck -- and who wants to rely on that?

These are the thoughts that arise when I think about the Minuteman Project now in progress down in Arizona. For the remainder of the month, volunteers will be providing "assistance" to border patrol agents who are attempting to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. These volunteers are motivated by their belief that the federal government "is not fulfilling its mission to protect American citizens from the economic and physical danger of porous borders." The hope is that, by bringing attention to the issue, the federal government will be shamed into action.

Unfortunately, I strongly believe that the Arizona Minutemen do not understand the problem that they are supposedly trying to address. Therefore, they are doomed to fail.

Here's the situation. There are, in the most general sense, two types of crime. First, you have victim/perpetrator crime. In each instance there is an entity that profits from the activity and an entity that experiences harm. These crimes are zero-sum in that there must be a winner and a loser for each occurrence. Murder, theft, and vandalism are all examples of victim/perpetrator crime. The second class of crime is what you might refer to as transactional. In these crimes, both of the directly involved entities gain from its commission, while the negative effects are experienced by tangential entities. Drug sales and prostitution fall into this category.

From a law enforcement perspective, transactional crimes are much more difficult to address for numerous reasons. First of all, since those directly involved benefit from the crime’s commission, the police are usually unaware that a crime has even occurred. There may be complainants, but due to the fact that they are tangential entities, they rarely have valuable information to offer. The second difficulty facing law enforcement is that transactional crimes tend to follow a supply-demand dynamic. Merely focusing upon the supply side of the equation results in higher demand and thus a stronger incentive to engage in the specific criminal activity. Busting drug dealers has the effect of driving up the street value of narcotics, which in turn draws new dealers into the market. Therefore, any effective law enforcement response must address both supply and demand. If you don't, you'll never make a difference.

What about illegal immigration? Where does it fit in? Well, despite all the rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs and using up valuable municipal resources, it pretty clearly falls into the transactional category. While most people recognize the immigrants themselves as criminal entities, few seem to recognize their partner in crime: employers. Overwhelmingly, individuals cross the border in order to find work, not to live off of the American welfare state. And employers are all too happy to have them. When the two sides meet, they both benefit and a transactional crime is born.

Now, let's return to the Minutemen. Their focus is sealing the border, pure and simple. But, in the transactional crime model, this addresses only one half of the equation -- the supply half. Assuming they are successful in reducing the flow of immigration, it will merely serve to drive up wages, making immigration that much more attractive. Through this process they could potentially drive wages so high that it would no longer make sense to hire illegal workers, but it is hard to imagine anyone investing the resources that that would require.

If the Minutemen truly wanted to make a difference they wouldn't merely be standing on the border. They would be monitoring strawberry and avocado farms or standing outside HomeDepot and writing down the license plate number of each car that picked up an immigrant to help around the yard. But, I've noticed that they aren't doing that. No one is.

Having insecure borders is a real problem, especially when we live with the constant threat of terrorist infiltration. That said, it's a fantasy to think that we can address the problem in this manner. As with most transactional crime, the solution isn't to stop it, the solution is to regulate it. Secure borders could be achieved with an appropriately constructed guest worker program. Immigrants would much rather pass through a border patrol station than through the Mexico-Arizona deserts. Employers would be happy to continue to employ these workers. Border patrol agents would much rather focus their efforts on immigrants with truly nefarious intentions, as opposed to those simply trying to earn a living. It's a win for everyone.

Unless, you just don't like foreigners. The following is from the Minuteman Project welcome page:
[The Minuteman Project] is a reminder to Americans that our nation was founded as a nation governed by the "rule of law", not by the whims of mobs of ILLEGAL aliens who endlessly stream across U.S. borders. Accordingly, the men and women volunteering for this mission are those who are willing to sacrifice their time, and the comforts of a cozy home, to muster for something much more important than acquiring more "toys" to play with while their nation is devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens. Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious "melting pot."

The result: political, economic and social mayhem.

Historians will write about how a lax America let its unique and coveted form of government and society sink into a quagmire of mutual acrimony among the various sub-nations that will comprise the new self-destructing America.
Okay -- maybe my solution isn't a win for everyone. But it sure makes clear what everyone's problem really is.

Monday, April 11, 2005

An Ode to Mothers Everywhere

Just click here. You won't be sorry.

Blog Still Off

Sorry folks. I'm really almost there. Check back tomorrow.

If it makes you feel any better, this is way worse for me than it is for you.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Blog Off

Almost done, so I'm going to focus for the remainder of the weekend. I'll have something new up on Monday. Blog off till then.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Stuff Other People Wrote

Here's what's worth reading today (damn these graduate school essays!).

Matt Yglesias has a good take on Senator John Cornyn's comments from the chamber yesterday in How to Do Things with Extremists.

If you are interested in understanding the debate surrounding the upcoming change in Senate filibuster rules, The Next Hurrah has a 11 part primer: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

Over at The Carpetbagger Report we find The Role Reversal on Rationalizing Evil, which notes how many on the right spend time looking for root causes of evil, rather than demanding accountability. Quite amusing.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Things Worth Reading

In Punditland, a Little Imagination Could Yield Needed Diversity offers some interesting perspective on the issue of women and minorities in the pundit classes.

If you'd like to design your own South Park character, click here.

Think people having control of their retirement investments is a good idea? Think again, after reading (Why) You Suck at Investing.

I usually think of Roger Ebert as a soulless marketing tool who whores out his thumb to the highest bidder. But, proving the adage that even a broken clock is right twice a day, he takes an admirable stand against creationism here.

Jonnybutter is guest blogging at TIA and has presented us with a fantastic rant in Against Euphemasia. I'm probably going to have a bit to say about this post once I'm done with my graduate school essays (damn them!).

Sunday, April 03, 2005

I Hate Graduate School

And I'm still in the application process!

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I have to take a few days off here. I have to write up a bunch of stupid essays this week and I'm using this blog to procrastinate. So, while I'd rather pontificate aimlessly in this medium, I have to do something else for a few days.

But, rather than simply turning the blog off, I'm going to experiment with something. Over the coming days, I'll be posting links to other interesting stuff that I find and consider worth reading. There will be little or no commentary offered, but it will keep things idling around here. Once I bang out my graduate school applications, things will return to normal.

And let's start right now.

"It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes." from Hullabaloo.

More later. Wish me luck on the whole graduate school thing.

Friday, April 01, 2005

You Can't Prove a Negative

Actually, the above statement is false. Let me explain.

Oftentimes, in the course of debate, we find ourselves in the awkward position of claiming that a certain assertion is false. Are aliens visiting Earth? Is there a Santa Claus? Or, the ever popular, were there weapons of mass destruction present in Iraq immediately preceding the American-led invasion? I don't know about you, but I want to answer "no" to each of these questions. The problem arises when your adversary responds by saying, "Oh yeah? Prove it!"

I generally try to avoid this predicament by refusing to provide an outright denial. Instead, I try to shift the burden of proof to the individual making the claim. "Is there a Santa Claus? Well, I can't say for certain, but I don't see any affirmative evidence demonstrating his existence. Come back when you have some and we'll talk."

But, some people just won't let up. For them, this expression of healthy skepticism comes across as weasel-speak. Or, it is used to claim that the positive and negative position are equivalent; neither proved nor disproved and thus equal. This can be extremely frustrating, especially in situations where there have been extensive investigations that have failed to prove the assertion. For example, for years, children across the globe have attempted to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus, often going to extraordinary measures to achieve discovery. To my knowledge, no child has yet succeeded. So, when the adversary claims that neither the "Santa Claus exists" nor the "Santa Claus does not exist" proposition has been proved and, therefore, each position has equal merit, I tend to get a little annoyed.

It is at this point that I tend to lose it and scream (or type in all-caps), "You idiot! You can't prove a negative! Therefore, the burden is yours!" Then, I tend to feel a little better.

However, as I thought about this some more, I realize that this isn't exactly true.

There are lots of negatives that can be proved. I am not a woman. Babe Ruth never played for the Atlanta Falcons. There is no beached orca decaying in my living room. You are not reading this article in today's edition of the New York Times. I could go on. These are all negatives and they are all easily disproved. Therefore, I've been a little disingenuous on this point from time to time.

That said, I'm not forced to endure the triumphalism of fools. I just need to clarify what I actually mean.

The problem isn't specifically with the negativity of the assertion I am making. It actually has to do with the size of the domain in which such a proof would have to occur. If the domain is large enough, many positive assertions are also impossible to demonstrate definitively. Jim Lippard offers us a clear explanation of the problem.
This is really the idea behind the claim that "you can't prove a negative"--that we don't have the resources or ability to exhaustively enumerate all examples over the entire universe. But notice that this is an issue whether the proposition is positive or negative, and that all positive propositions have equivalent negative propositions, and vice versa. Also notice that, if the scope of the domain is sufficiently small, proof can be quite easy.

Let's take our domain to be swans, and look at the property of being purple. Which of these statements is supposed to be impossible to prove? (1) All swans are purple. (2) Not all swans are purple. (3) There is a purple swan. (4) There is no purple swan. Now, statements (1) and (2) are easy to disprove and prove, respectively--each requires only a single non-purple swan to demonstrate. The former is a universal positive statement, the latter is a negated universal. Statement (3), a positive existential statement, requires only a single purple swan to prove, but takes a lot of enumeration to disprove. Statement (4), a negative existential, is a statement of the type that is supposed to be impossible to prove, and it clearly requires the most work to demonstrate, but only a single purple swan to disprove. (This statement is equivalent to the universal negative, "All swans are not-purple.")

All that lies behind the more precise statement, "you can't prove a universal negative (or negative existential) statement" is that the most straight-forward, direct manner of proof--exhaustive enumeration--is not always available due to practical limitations.
Therefore, to all of you out there that I have admonished with the "you can't prove a negative" reprimand, I apologize. I was wrong, and I take credit for this failing. I should've said, “It is impossible to enumerate through all possibilities within the domain in a reasonable amount of time -- and thus, the burden of proof is yours!" It doesn't have quite the same zing, but at least it's accurate.

And, when you get down to it, it doesn't change a thing. So, for everyone out there who believes in aliens visiting Earth, Santa Claus, or Baathist WMD programs -- the burden is still yours. Step up if you can. Otherwise, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.
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