April 30, 2005

Vonage Is Great

I ordered Vonage not a week ago and it arrived today. For those who don't know, it's a VoIP phone system - Voice over Internet Protocol or just Voice over IP. The great thing about VoIP is that you don't need to hassle with the phone plugs in the wall and you don't need anything but cable-internet or DSL. Of course, if the Internet or the power goes out or flickers then you can lose the call, but that's not a huge problem nowadays.

Vonage assigns you a phone number, and you can pick an area code from virtually anywhere in the country (except a few places) even if you don't live there. I picked an area code 3,000 miles away from where I live. This makes calls to and from people in that area code local, and therefore free. If you get the $24.99 plan then you get unlimited calling. I got that one, so I don't have to watch the clock and because I tend to use the phone quite a bit.

I already had a DSL and a wireless router hooked up, and I just hooked the broadband router they sent me in after the wireless router. This allows the laptop to use the wireless router feature and allows the phone to use the second router for VoIP. It was easy; I didn't even have to use the install CD or do anything online beyond what I had already done in the ordering'registration process. After hooking it up, I only needed to wait a few minutes and I got a dial-tone. Subsequently, I activated 911 service, which some VoIP services do not offer, by entering in the address.

It works quite well, with excellent sound quality. In fact, since I needed to use a little filter plug to scrub out the DSL on the phone before, the VoIP is an improvement in my phone's sound quality.

So if you don't understand, it's simple. You pick a phone plan (they have maybe two or three options), order the thing and then they send it to your house. You receive a box with promo stuff and instructions, plus a linksys router. [You MUST have cable or DSL high speed internet for it to work.] You plug the modem into the router, the router into the computer, the phone into the router, and then the router into the wall. Wait a few minutes and pick up the phone - you now have a dial tone.

No doubt most people have to use the installation CD; I have had various routers and modems going into my computer, including broadband routers, so I may have had the necessary files installed. The process was perfectly easy.

I use my phone service extensively, and I have used both the Verizon Freedom package and the MCI The Neighborhood deals. They're both advertised in the 45+ dollars range, and with taxes and so forth come out to over $60 or $70 in the end. The Sprint unlimited calling plan has been canceled, I assume due to failure to return profits on it. Since phone service here is Sprint-only, I was left without an unlimited calling plan. I regularly use large volumes of calling minutes in a month for long distance, so unlimited calling is by far the most economical way for me to pay for phone usage. VoIP systems are in a far better position to provide unlimited-calling plans, apparently, and so my switch to Vonage makes sense.

It also has an option to keep your existing, non-VoIP phone number (which is not by itself extraordinary) and of course if you move then my understanding is your Vonage phone number will follow you wherever you go, provided you have cable/DSL internet.

Since people seem to have trouble understanding the point of Vonage, or perhaps I'm not very good at explaining it, I will stress that this is a perfect substitute for regular phone service, and that the people you call don't need to own a computer, only a phone. You, of course, have to possess cable/DSL internet access, though Vonage and most VoIPs don't need the computer to be on to function, nor do they interfere with the use of the Internet. It's also far less expensive; it can cost as little $14.99 a month for Vonage service.

What I find interesting is how it fits into the changing personal communications landscape, and how it may ultimately signal the obsolescence of phone lines entirely. After all, if one cable to your home could bring television, internet and phone service, why would companies bother with lines that can only do two of the three? Of course, it will take some time to get to the point where people can readily take advantage of the technological shift. There will continue to be old people who do not have broadband internet and would be unable to use VoIP. But it does suggest that there's far less of a long-term future in phone lines than cable-based lines.

Of course, the whole thing might be mute if cell companies can just simplify their billing plans, expand their coverage (my Sprint PCS gets a weak signal in maybe 5% of this house, spread out in random patches, and is dead in the rest) and improve their reception quality. Eventually they could replace land-line phones, which appears to be the current trend, and pre-empt VoIP before it really gets going. Of course, if you can't get a damn signal in your own house it's worthless.

VoIP is by far superior to all my other options. Vonage gives me the plan I need at a far more reasonable rate than I've ever seen anywhere, with high marks from techies for reliability, and it works in my own house. Maybe personal phones that follow every person from place to place are the wave of the future, but VoIP sounds better, works where I need it, and won't require the plundering of a small island nation to cover the cost of the calls I want to make.

April 28, 2005

Non-Theistically Pro-Life

The recent spate of arguments equating rejection of a religious Justice-candidate and rejection of a pro-life Justice-candidate have just been another assumption in a long line by left and right to lump abortion into a religious and cultural heading. Religious and pro-life do not align so neatly, nor do non-religious and pro-choice.

The problem is that the more self-righteous pro-choice advocates are very likely to equate being pro-life with being a hillbilly, redneck, yokel Bible-thumper with no capacity for independent thought, and someone who probably doubts the veracity of evolution and the benefits of fluoride, too. Of course, the self-righteous pro-life advocates sometimes have a strong interest in painting pro-choicers as being rationalist, blue-blood, elitist, Manhattan penthouse atheists with no capacity for human compassion, and someone who probably values being gay over being straight, and being Muslim over being American. Okay, so I packed too much into those stereotypical stereotypes, but the point is clear.

The problem is that the more extreme advocates are allowed to set these stereotypes because to some degree they're correct. They are not widely indicative or logically linked, but there is definitely a correlation between geography, culture or religion and one's position on abortion. This is tragic because it ought to be a question of simple science and basic ethical law; in other words, science tells us it's a human, and ethics tells us to ban the murder of humans. Instead, it gets wrapped up in social issues when it's not automatically one.

This is a problem for people like me, who are ultimately disinterested in the stupid struggles of the culture war and unwilling to side with the hypocritical, cross-hating left or the dim-sighted, gay-demeaning right. When I take a survey or poll and it asks me what my most important issue would be, my impulse is to say "abortion." But if that doesn't have its own category, it gets lumped in with gay issues and prayer in school. I am massively disinterested in the school-prayer "controversy" and I don't see any reasonable pretext to treat gay people differently in matters of law.

If I answered "social issues" then I would invariably be lumped in with people who think Mexicans are ruining the country by being janitors and that a big slab of concrete chiseled with ten little rules of courtesy is going to save everything. I'm not a social conservative, though perhaps I sympathize with many of their efforts against an overly-aggressive left. I don't want to be lumped in with them, and I refuse to reduce my principled opposition to abortion into some crude expression of political geography.

Being pro-life is not a religious question, it's an interpretation of facts that leads you to support the necessary, logical conclusion. Either it's a human person that can't be lawfully killed or it's not a human person that can be lawfully killed. Religion need not enter into it at all.

There is a good case to be made that many Democratic activists are hostile towards certain religious viewpoints, but it's a far stretch to say that turning down someone for being pro-life is really an attack on religosity.
Reagan and Immigration

At Liberteaser, Joseph Weisenthal brings up Michelle Malkin's immigration blog as another tasteless example of the hair-pulling looniness oft found on the right that helps compete with the teeth-cracking wackiness of the left. I also recall seeing the Reagan quote associated with the country controlling its borders.

I laugh when I see it. Why? Because Reagan was probably the first politician to talk about a NAFTA-like provision. In 1979 he said we should have a North American accord to let people, goods and capital move freely across the borders of the US, Canada and Mexico. At the time, Mexicans and Canadians thought it offensive and did not appreciate the proposition. Of course, Reagan signed the FTA with Canada less than a decade later, so something went right.

It's simply absurd how the social right tries to claim Reagan for itself largely based on the perception that he was some sort of gunslinging war-hawk, when in actuality he was essentially a moderate libertarian. For evidence, check out this excerpt from Reagan's 1964 speech that shot him into Republican stardom:

    You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or a right. There is only an up or down: up to man's age-old dream -- the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order -- or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Granted, it's not necessarily anything that the social right would disagree with but the libertarian right definitely prefers this kind of language and thematic worldview. Not only that, but it's incredibly positive and forward-looking, while most of the social right prefers more pessimistic, forward-slowing imagery.

I'm not saying Reagan was a doctrinaire libertarian, but I think it's incredibly ignorant or self-serving to try and claim Reagan for the social right, which is especially true regarding the close-the-borders crowd.
De Facto vs. De Jure

Over at liberteaser, someone seems to have a criticism of my entry on tradition, laws and the filibuster. I'm not entirely sure what the refutation was, because it went into something about tradition and innovation being compatible. It appears to be either an excuse to talk or an excuse to disagree. Considering the reference to "big government" when I don't recall mentioning such a thing, I'd assume the latter.

Perhaps I didn't make myself clear, but I intended to make plain in the original post that America has a great deal of tradition. Everywhere has a lot of tradition, because people traffick in tradition (people being habit-forming). Since America is also incredibly innovative, we would naturally have a fair amount of both tradition and innovation.

However I think any amateur political scientist could compare the US and the UK and acknowledge that the UK has a great deal more emphasis on tradition than on written law, measured against the US. Maybe this works for them most of the time, but I think we have a greater need for law here in part because we expect to do things when they're not illegal. The British get along better avoiding activities that are lawful in part because of tradition.

I think the Burkean-style "tradition is collected knowledge" style arguments I'd counter with a vague reference to Paine's The Rights of Man. I'm not really interested in the Burkean-style arguments about tradition because they always struck me as both obvious and stupid, but more to the point they're not the point of my original entry.

My point was simply that a lot of people are pointing out historical anecdotes about the use of the filibuster in judicial nominations; if they wanted it to be a binding, extant rule then it needs to be by statute, not simply repetition. I'm not sure how you can really disagree, absent a tendency towards disagreeability for its own sake, that a written Senate rule is more binding than an unwritten Senate rule.
Anti-Prosperity Propaganda: MTV's Trippin'

Starring Cameron Diaz and some of her idle-rich movie star friends, MTV's show Trippin' sets out to do what's impossible for any rational, fair-minded person: make the meanest, poorest and dirtiest conditions on Earth look not only honest but superior to the Western and American standards of freedom, prosperity and convenience.

Basically, they travel around the world in planes and SUVs (they claim to have offset the anti-environmental effects of their travels by buying carbon credits, which are based on the somewhat dubious notion that pollution will simply cancel out if only we just plant enough trees, bogs, etc.) and they try to make it look like the poor people they're showing you are living these great and wonderful lives.

As though the poor subsistence farmer with vitamin deficiency, complete illiteracy and a total lack of any functional knowledge of the world more than ten miles outside his village CHOSE to live that way. Don't you think he'd rather be a cabbie in New York or a janitor in Nebraska? I mean, not getting rickets and dying of a staph infection at 34 is pretty hard to compare favorably with having access to medicine, luxury, technology and convenience.

But wait! It gets more moronic! Read this article for some of the dumb things Diaz and Drew Barrymore said. What I found interesting was this bit, from the same article:

    "That is so awesome. I like Bhutan," Diaz said, noting that the country has "maintained a careful balance of Old World tradition and modern convenience."

    "Life moves at a different pace here in Bhutan," she said. "The fusion of religion, tradition and a genuine respect for the environment give the whole country a peaceful balance."
Bhutan, which is ranked unfree by Freedom House, is a tiny little country - the first to ban smoking nationwide in public places, with a penalty the equivalent of two months of the average Bhutanese salary.

Apparently the "different pace" that carefully balances tradition and convenience is the same regime that started a cultural assimilation policy against Nepali-speakers that ended up in displacement and even soldier-led rapes. From Freedom House:

    Reversing a long-standing policy of tolerating cultural diversity in the kingdom, the government in the late 1980s began requiring all Bhutanese to adopt the dress of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. Authorities said they feared for the survival of Drukpa culture because of the large number of Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, in the south. The situation worsened in 1988, when the government began using a strict 1985 citizenship law to arbitrarily strip thousands of Nepali speakers of their citizenship. The move came after a census showed Southern Bhutanese to be in the majority in five southern districts.

    Led by the newly formed Bhutanese People's Party (BPP), Southern Bhutanese held demonstrations in September 1990 against the new measures. Accompanying arson and violence led authorities to crack down on the BPP. As conditions worsened, tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled to Nepal in the early 1990s, many of them forcibly expelled by Bhutanese forces. Credible accounts suggest that soldiers raped and beat many Nepali-speaking villagers and detained thousands as "anti-nationals."
No doubt it's a lovely place... as long as you don't speak Nepalese.

Of course, what's so horribly condenscending about the whole affair is the idea that the poorest people in the world choose to be so. You know what we call people like that here? Freaks and zealots. Seriously; how many people seriously want to emulate the Amish when they take a stand against modern conveniences or who really finds something valuable when Christian Scientists or Jehovah's Witnesses die without needed medical treatment? Even if we respect their commitment, we don't find it advisable to share it. That's because it's stupid.

Unless you have doubts about the efficacy of modern medical treatment, you ought to accept it when you can. But the people living in remote New Guinea or the Andes peaks aren't choosing to forgo modern living because they read a few works by Whitman and Thoreau; they're just poor. It's not a choice, it's not a lifestyle decision and it's not brave. Everybody lived that way when there were no other options, and if not for technology we'd still be living that way - though billions of us would die in our early years and hundred of millions would be felled by disease, broken legs or simple infections before reaching thirty-five.

Show me the honor in turning down anti-biotics to cure a basic infection. Why should we respect people who are forced to frink from water that hasn't been sanitized, to prepare most of their food a few days before consuming it, and that spend almost all their time just trying to keep their houses from falling apart and making sure they will have enough food to scrape by. That's not noble; that's deprived.

I don't blame them for being poor, but I'm not going to put on green-colored glasses and call it anything else. They are poor, and it's stupid environmentalist policies that help keep them that way by crowding out jobs, making consumables too expensive, and making development too difficult. If it weren't for poilicymakers who think like the writers of Trippin' there would be considerably less objective poverty in the world.

April 27, 2005

Anti-Capitalism and the Trumped-Up 'Tragedy of the Commons'

In doing a google search to look for interesting quotes on capitalism, I found this old article from 1997 posted online: Capitalism and the Tragedy of the Commons. The argument is that essentially capitalism doesn't address "the commons" and that people are self-interested and therefore overuse resources like "the commons" rather than save it for the long term. In other words, it's basically an unknowing reptition of Hobbes' argument that people's self-interest is short-sighted and that a central authority is wise and far-sighted. From the article:

    To pick an example particularly important to me: I have been diving the coral reefs of Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida for almost twenty years. In that period of time, the glorious coral heads have given way to spottier, smaller stretches of discolored coral, and fish that were common (such as grouper) are now never seen at all. The degradation of the reefs is painfully visible in two decades of my lifetime and the cause is patently obvious. Each fisherman takes more fish than he should, each dive boat takes too many divers on too many trips, and the shipping companies run too many large ships, including oil tankers, over and eventually into the reefs.
The solution I see first is obvious to a capitalist: let somebody own the reef. It's possible they might not be interested in using it and that they might mismanage it, but then self-interest would be in utilizing it as a resource. It could be used for fishing or for eco-tourism, either of which might turn out to be profitable. My bet is that getting people to come on their vacations and see the coral reef could turn out to be profitable, coupled with other benefits and attractions.

But there's little interest in preserving the coral reef when nobody owns it. And why should there be? Does the coral reef have rights? No. Does the coral reef belong to somebody? No. Is the coral reef fundamentally unique or amazing? No, not any more than the rest of nature.

This is where the religiosity of environemntalists intrudes on the article. Suddenly the coral reef is deserving of protection. After all, it has brights colors and cute little clownfish, and more importantly this guy likes to dive there and only evil profit-seekers need to go there. Of course, how is it fundamentally different from a scrap of underbrush or a forest in somebody's backyard? They're both quite complex, they both shelter and feed numerous animals and much plant life, and they both involve a part of nature that's truly amazing in its operational ability.

But we've been knocking down little meadows and patches of forest for hundreds of centuries to make way for farms and homes, to open space up for factories and warehouses. No doubt the author eats food from those farms, has lived in one of those houses and uses a computer that was built in a factory and shipped through a warehouse. At one point, plants and animals used that area as their own, and now they don't.

It's just historically ignorant to say we have to protect a coral reef when we didn't protect so many other parts of nature. People prioritized: we can use this area as forest for bugs and squirrels to multiply or we can use it for homes. The difference here is that the author LIKES the coral reef more than the lost forest area. Ultimately, it's his preference that other people should obey his desires for an area he doesn't own. He likes it how it is, therefore his desire should decide the policy. I don't need to explain how that's selfish (perhaps understandably so).

The solution here is to let someone own the reef. The owner could decide to leave it alone, to develop it for eco-tourism, or to exploit it for fishing purposes. But the resource would be protected then, inasmuch as it would be protected by an owner. it's possible the owner might ignore destruction or over-exploitation of the reef, as would be his right, but the way to focus capitalism on the issue is to increase capitalism, not decrease it. The problem is that nobody owns it and hence nobody has any interest in protecting - aside from those who like it because it looks nice or gives them a special feeling inside - religiously-environmentalist types.
Capitalism By Halves

Boudreaux and Roberts at Cafe Hayek have both blogged on the issue of call centers being forced to disclose their location. The intent is obvious: discourage call center companies from using Indian and other foreign locations and employees. Why would so many Democrats back this sort of law, which they might otherwise consider xenophobic or even racist?

It's a simple idea, something I tend to think of as capitalism by halves (or socialism by halves). Because of political and (less importantly) economic considerations, Democrats can't just advocate out and out socialism. Republicans can't just advocate out and out laissez-faire capitalism. This is assuming that they wanted to, of course. Since nobody gets the full system, political economy consists largely of perfecting an imperfect balance of socialism and capitalism, regulation and freedom, prosperity and equity.

The result, all too often, is a deeply flawed system. Take the recent flu vaccine problem. There weren't enough flu vaccines to meet demand. Why is this so? Because the price was controlled such that it was difficult or impossible for a company to turn a profit, and the flu vaccines would be useless for the next season when the vaccine mutated. So companies exercised free market prerogatives to avoid an over-regulated market. But in exercising the free market powers, they showed the gaping flaw laws had left: now nobody was going to make the vaccines available.

By leaving the system half-regulated, the government had run out any interest in the market without securing any non-market way to meet demand. By leaving the system half-free, the government had ensured that the product demand would not likely be met. Whole capitalism would have responded by raising prices to a point where the companies could return a profit. Whole socialism would have responded by forcing companies to stock the vaccine regardless of cost or ability to return a profit. Either way would have brought about the product, and would have met demand. Now, the capitalist system would have been far more likely (more or less certainly) better at allocating its resources effectively, but either whole socialism or whole capitalism would have 'worked' in the sense of getting products to meet demand.

Another example: California power brown-outs. California "deregulated" its energy services some time under Gov. Wilson. Unfortunately, "deregulated" was still pretty regulated. In effect, prices were deregulated and energy sellers could charge whatever the market would bear. But it was a truly boneheaded construction that effectively limited who could enter the market. New plants could not be built due to environmental legislation (which is funny, because newer plants tend to be cleaner and more efficient - par for the course, then). The ultimate effect of the regulated half was that it was difficult to get energy into the market, but quite easy to charge any price.

Under capitalism by halves, you had a government-mandated oligopoly, where a few sellers were protected from competition yet allowed to sell for any price. Under whole socialism (before the deregulation of Wilson) you would have had prices controlled. Under whole capitalism you would have had newer power plants built or energy from outside the state moved in by whatever means available. Either of these would have met demand, though of course capitalism would almost certainly have been more efficient and effective at the allocation.

Now, when I say 'halves' and 'wholes' I don't mean exactly half, nor do I necessarily mean a system where every law and practice is either socialist or capitalist. What I mean by half is that two substantive portions of a market are handled oppositely, resulting in a skewed effect. What I mean by 'whole' is that most of the relevant portions follow the same socialist or capitalist theme, and that the non-socialist or non-capitalist parts are either mundane or fairly irrelevant to the narrow issue at hand.

The theory generally applies whenever a system of sloppy half-regulation causes a problem in the market operation, but I prefer to point out the times when this causes the half-market to fail to meet demand.

So how do the call centers come in? Well, this example of capitalism by halves is a minor one and doesn't really involve a problem in meeting demand. The anti-free traders don't like outsourcing so they want measures to stop or slow it. The "full disclosure" nonsense is just a minor example of this. By forcing call centers to disclose they hope to deter them from using foreign nationals. Of course, I doubt it would work very well since most consumers a) already can tell the foreigners by accent and b) just want to fix their problem and get off the phone anyway.

But it's part of the larger problem of outsourcing. If the US had somewhat more competitive laws on corporate income taxation (we have one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the OECD) then maybe we would see fewer US companies leaving and more foreign companies coming. Moreover, if we allowed more visas for immigrants to come and work here, and coupled it with the right to work for below minimum wage, then we'd definitely see US companies preferring to stay here.

On the other side, whole socialism, they could just ban going overseas. The blunt sword of socialism could just stop it wholesale, and though this would probably be circumvented or avoided wherever possible, it would achieve the end goal better.

Capitalism by halves in outsourcing policy is that we continue to keep the cost of labor high and keep inexpensive laborers out, yet allow companies to go overseas to get them. It's a truly boneheaded combination of policies, because we try to keep inexpensive labor illegal and outside this country, yet we allow companies to leave the country to pursue it. If we simply allowed whole capitalism in this area, then we'd see companies staying here to capitalize on inexpensive domestic labor. And with whole socialism we'd see the companies staying here (though this would require a great deal of statutory protections because eventually the US would have to compete with foreign companies that did capitalize on cheap foreign labor).

And that's capitalism by halves: unwilling to embrace an efficient and fair distribution of goods, unwilling to embrace an authoritative command-and-control distribution of goods, politicians battle to plug the leaks and meet the flaws of our half-regulated system rather than addressing the root problem. There's ultimately very little room for fence-sitting in economics.

UPDATE: This is now an editorial amidst the issue articles.
Law, Tradition and Government: America versus Britain

The Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees go against 200-some years of Senate practice, precedent and tradition that saw such a practice shunned and apparently never practiced. Even when Eisenhower judicial appointments starting enforcing civil rights protections in the Jim Crow South, there were not (from any evidence I've seen) judicial filibusters.

This was a strong tradition, but it was not a law. If anything, the written rules seem to allow the filibuster pretty clearly. There's always been some grousing about whether the filibuster is constitutional - almost always from the side holding the majority - but it's clearly in the Senate rules.

The Democrats can't be accused of breaking the law, only of breaking tradition. That's definitely something that can carry weight in this country, since you won't see these popular phrases anywhere in the Constitution: judicial independence, checks and balances, balance of powers, separation of church and state. These are traditions supported by the law and they communicate the intent behind our laws, but these concepts are not themselves found written in law.

Tradition is a poor substitute for simply putting something down on paper. We are a nation of laws, of dynamism, and of innovation. We love new things, new inventions, new prosperity, expansion and energy. We tire of old people, old methods and old ways unless they provide a common sense benefit to us (and even sometimes we tire of them despite what they provide).

In this land of dynamism with a government based on laws, we should not be surprised when tradition puts up a poor defense. If we want to protect something with the force of law, we can't use tradition as a suitable proxy. Codification is the name of the game, because any decent lawyer will tell you he prefers going into court with a citation to support his argument, rather than just a well-known concept.

The English system is heavily undergirded by tradition, custom and practice. Burkean to the core, they don't even have a written constitution. In fact, Britain is the poster child for a more classically liberal code of laws, since their legal system has been so shrouded in confusing and little-known laws that it's often difficult to know just what is and isn't the law. They don't centralize their laws and they don't have a founding document as such that contains the provisions of what the Parliament may and may not do. In fact, the Parliament can pretty much do whatever it wants, because they don't have a Supreme Court to strike their laws down (though they do have judicial review of a sort) and the royalty is not going to do anything substantive these days. The only thing preventing them from doing just whatever they want is tradition and political constraints.

They value certain traditions and so they don't overrule them. If political winds shoudl shift, however, it would be supremely easy for the majority party in Parliament to do... well, anything.

This mass of traditions serves the English well in part because they respect tradition for its own sake. In America, we have some of that English reverence for tradition, but we have a strong preference given to innovation, creativity and the natural progression of ideas. We expect cars, televisions, houses and clothing to be different and improve over time - and we have a subtle but persistent expectation that governance will also continue to improve over time.

We are a country of laws. Asking tradition to stand up against statute in an environment where law is almost always preferred is a heavy task.

If we want practices and customs to become de facto rules, then we ought to make them de jure rules. It's that simple.
Small v. US Decided (tip to VC)

The Supreme Court has ruled on Small v. US, and Breyer wrote a decision for Stevens, O'Connor, Souter and Ginsburg that sided with Small. Scalia and Kennedy joined with Thomas in dissent (Rehnquist took no part).

Small was arrested for possessing a firearm after being convicted in "any" court of a gun charge - specifically, he was convicted of a gun charge in a Japanese court. The crux of the case came down to whether "any court" means "any US court." I side with the left Justices here and with Small: the phrase "any court" has to mean "any US court." This is for two related reasons.

One, if we have to be literalist and assume that "any court" could include foreign courts, then it could include non-governmental courts. This would mean that para-state institutions like Pakistani or Sudanese shari'a courts in backwoods Islamist areas count in "any court." It would mean that a group of East german radical college students convening a mock court count in "any court." If you cannot infer that it means American courts then you can't infer that it means government courts. That would be absurd by itself, but it's unconstitutional for a very clear reason - which is my second point (next).

Two, convictions in non-US courts often cannot be reviewed and often involve weaker guarantees of freedom and due process. Japan, for instance, is notorious for having a near-perfect conviction rate, aided by weaker civil protections, occasional use of very tough interrogation (torture, basically) and a general societal impulse to value obedience and order over freedom and due process. It's still basically a free and prosperous country, and one Americans should not be afraid to live, work or travel in, but it doesn't have all our laws, rights and customs.

What about, say, North Korea or Cuba? Those are courts, too. There's very little chance that Papa Fidelito is going to give us access to review a case in Cuban courts, let alone protect due process rights of the accused. This is true to some degree for any country. Even if the country in question has a good recored on due process, can we really expect review and appeals in US courts of foreign convictions? That's not going to happen.

I would argue it's simply unconstitutional in most cases to use a foreign conviction in US courts, unless every trial protection and due process right given in the US is guaranteed in those proceedings. This is effectively impossible, and the rights of appeal and so forth are imperfect. In at least most and maybe all cases, a foreign conviction ought not result in lost rights in the US. The exemption might be immigration proceedings and foreign nationals in the US. My sense is that keeping out immigrants based on conviction in foreign courts of certain crimes might be a good idea and is almost certainly acceptable from a constitutional standpoint.

However, absent that, I believe it's safe to infer the "US" modifies the word "court." Why? Because they wouldn't have meant literally any court that any single person could fake. It wouldn't mean the mock trials of Bush and Blair and Howard for war crimes, and it wouldn't mean the travesties of justice that go on in North Korea and so forth. It wouldn't mean some bigoted shari'a court (as opposed to say, a run of the mill marriage-focused Islamic court) and it certainly wouldn't include Stalin's show trials.

Yet if we accept the literalist interpretation, then Stalinist show trials and college radical mock courts would be included as "any court." Since it's obvious they didn't mean these stupid or criminal conventions in the phrase "any court" the logical alternative is they meant the US court system, so that they could eliminate the distinction between federal and state convictions. It would be silly to assume they implicitly meant "any legitimate court" or "any court that protects due process" but not assume they meant "any US court." All three are implicit assumptions, and therefore non-literalist.

And again, I'm not entirely clear on the full boundaries, but it seems unconstitutional in my eyes that we might allow in convictions from other countries where various trial protections and due process rights were not protected. Maybe it would be okay as long as Japan or France or England or wherever else in question followed US protections to an acceptable threshold (meaning the same expectations held of US criminal trials) but I doubt that situation is common if it exists at all. We can't take away Small's rights if his original trial didn't conform to all US expectations of our home-grown criminal trials (possible exceptions being foreign nationals).

As noted elsewhere, it is interesting that the pro-gun Justices took the literalist position against Small and the anti-gun (pro-control?) Justices took the implicit position for Small. Of course, the Second Amendment was not played up really at all. That strategy seems to have worked, considering Small won the case.

April 26, 2005

UK Elections

The British election season is in full swing in preparation for May elections. You wouldn't know it if you're an American, though, unless you watch C-SPAN or frequent British news sources. Probably in part because Tony's expected to win in a walk as far as the US consensus is concerned. That's not entirely true, as both the Liberal Democrats and Tories are making a run for better things (Tories to be in government; LibDems to be the main opposition), but ultimately Tony's pretty safe and will carry enough seats to win.

Just a reminder: this is a parliamentary election (they say "general election") and then the winning party wil pick the PM. So in many ways it's like the Electoral College, except with constituencies instead of states. This is how Labor took less than 41% of the vote in the last election but still has (according to ElectionWorld) 413 out of 659 seats in Parliament.

What I found interesting about watching the leaders of the big three parties be interviewed with Jeremy Paxman of BBC NewsNight (who by the way is a huge jerk and always makes you sympathize with whoever has to put up with such unfocused badgering) was their styles. Blair and to a lesser extent Howard were clearly behaving in a manner reminiscent of Parliament, especially Prime Minister's questioning time. They were rather animated, excited and emphatic. This was strange to watch on television, especially since the BBC cameramen and directors apparently found it more dramatic to occasionally get in fairly close shots (basically the knot in the necktie and up).

Beyond that, though, they were much better at responding and sparring in debate and ing etting out their message. Kennedy was more reactive, but still better than I'd wager many politicians would do. It's unusual in the US for our politicians to go through the wringer on a regular basis like in PMQT, but it prepared Blair and Howard to send both character and message across in brief statements amidst intense sparring.

Howard was even better at reducing it to the key phrases and then expounding on them, but he seemed quite concerned with the dishonesty of Labor. Fortunately, he didn't only mention Labor's dishonesty. though, because running an ethics-only campaign is not very wise. I would also say he was kept talking about immigration a little too long, but he managed to be vague, while still getting his point across.

Blair did a pretty good job at being interesting and seeming thoughtful, but he didn't have a lot of talking points to sell - nor is that surprising. He mentioned plans and ideas and specifically said he had a lot of things to do for the next term. But he didn't have a list of reforms or talking points. In the campaign most of what he's had is moving Britain "forward." This is why, even though he'll probably win, the energy for now is with the Conservatives, and to a lesser extent with the Liberal Democrats.

New Labor has been progressing nicely and the respectable growth of the British economy will keep them looking good for a while, deserved or not, but eventually the energy has to die. Without a revival within the party, they're going to have to be replaced. You can't be perpetually riding down rollercoasters without the tedious clacking preparation beforehand. The issues strength has gone to other parties.

The Liberal Democrats are far too much the leftovers to politically coalesce nationally. They can have a series of local successes based on the failures of local Tories and Laborites, based on the popularity of local LibDem leaders, or based on capturing the middle class opposition to a local competitior party. Ultimately, though, they are too watered-down to present a serious alternative. There isn't enough of a reason to vote for them or enough of a pre-existing social base (they tend to be middle class, I believe) to go on. They can't do much until they decide what they believe and how they fit into national politics; right now it's hard to tell whether they want to be left, right ot Third Way. All three of those options are taken by existing political forces.

The Tories won't win in part because Tony is still so popular and because he's holding back the rampaging socialist history and impulses of Labor. By pulling in a mix of left-leaning reforms and right-leaning market economics, he can draw enough people to win handily. But when Tony leaves, the Laborites will have to decide how closely to follow the New Labor legacy of low interest rates and a more market-driven economic policy. If they abandon all pretenses of accepting the basic market precepts, then they will watch their electability dissolve.

Tony's very likely going to win, but in all likelihood he will see his margin shrink some, mostly to the Tories. After this third term, it will probably be time up for Blair. We'll see whether he realizes it - and moves cleverly enough to ensure a New Labor legacy follows him.

April 24, 2005

NYT: Assault Weapon Ban Was Meaningless

The NYT admitted in an article (not an editorial) that:

    Despite dire predictions that the streets would be awash in military-style guns, the expiration of the decade-long assault weapons ban last September has not set off a sustained surge in the weapons' sales, gun makers and sellers say. It also has not caused any noticeable increase in gun crime in the past seven months, according to several metropolitan police departments.
The article later includes all sorts of bones thrown to the gun control advocates, from quotes to arguments, but it's rather amazing that this admission came. Granted, the editors didn't issue an editorial withdrawing their doomsaying about the ban's expiration, but at least the news is being reported despite going against the Times' views.

In an editorial last September, the NYT editorialized that the Assault Weapons Ban was a "demonstrably effective" check on gun crime. They advanced the notion that its end would usher in "gun mayhem" in the country, and criticized president Bush and "greedy" gun dealers, for the bill ending. They also threw in the requisite grandstanding about the gun lobby's unbreakably supreme influence. Read it here.

The reason the ban was stupid should have been obvious: except for a few aspects, the banned guns were changed slightly and resold as other models - perfectly legally. They couldn't sell cartridges as large, but you could get ones that had already entered the market prior to the ban. Of course, ultimately the ban was pointless. The few criminals that wanted to get big flashy semiautomatic rifles still did so, either illegally or with the post-ban models. But ultimately it didn't stop really much of anything.

It is interesting that the same argument made by pro-freedom people to let the ban expire -that it did basically nothing to stop crime- is now being latched onto by the anti-gun and pro-control people as some sort of evidence of the irrational power of redneck gun lobbyists. Actually, it's the fact that the bill's authors are apparently ignorant either of guns or of policy-making. They wrote the law and it's their fault it sucked. They managed to inhibit the Second Amendment while leaving gun criminals untouched. Bravo.

If the gun ban was really so meaningless, then the article's author ought to pass that tip along to the NYT editors. Amidst their fear-mongering and name-calling they held the ban up to be a critical and "demonstrably effective" block against "gun mayhem" in the streets. Advice to the NYT editors: next time you know you're going to lose an issue, don't make assertions that can be so easily disproven. Hopefully we'll see them modify their statement in the next few weeks or months to account for the lack of any appreciable increase in crime using the so-called assault weapons that are no longer banned.
Salary-Fixing and the Voluntary Trade Council

In my earlier post on salary negotiations, I urged doctors to push the envelope in their salaries (for a number of reasons). I received an e-mail from Skip Oilva, President of the Voluntary Trade Council. He informed me that the Federal Trade Commission has apparently been very aggressive - libertarians would say 'tyrannical' - in keeping physicians from negotiating above-market salaries. The Voluntary Trade Council opposes this sort of nonsense, and in the e-mail he explained what else the FTC does to fix doctors salaries.

Apparently the FTC tightly controls the business relationship of doctors and insurers. Beyond that, they've prosecuted, according to the VTC, more than two dozen physician groups (meaning roughly 12,000 physicians) because they negotiated above market salaries. Yes, trying to make more money in contract negotiations is now a prosecutable offense. Further, the VTC President tells me that refusing to sign a contract can be deemed illegal if the insurer complains and that signed contracts have been invalidated on the grounds that the insurers were coerced by the physicians' negotiating for higher salaries.

As far as I can tell, this power seems to extend from the antitrust authority of the FTC, though how doctors can appropriately qualify for antitrust action, even when organized into groups, is beyond me. I wasn't amenable to antitrust legislation anyway (the government always seems to be the biggest obstacle to entry in a market) but I didn't realize it was being used so broadly.

Sorry, Tanto. If the insurers and the doctors agreed to the salary, I don't see the coercion. Insurers shouldn't get special favors from the FTC (nor should doctors) but it seems another under-monitored part of the federal bureaucracy is expanding its powers. And you thought the elected politicians were bad. At least most of their time is spent chasing cameras, thus keeping them busy and unable, if only temporarily, to wreak more legislative havoc.

So what's the VTC? Excellent question.

    The Voluntary Trade Council (also known as Citizens for Voluntary Trade) is a nonprofit research and education organization that develops practical solutions to the problems caused by violent state intervention in free markets. The VTC focuses on the harm caused to individuals and businesses by the enforcement of antitrust and other “competition” laws. Through publications, filings with government agencies, and the Internet, the VTC applies the principles of free market economics and rational ethics to contemporary antitrust policies and cases.
This sounds like an important task; it sounds like a role that is desperaely needed. For all the experience and observation we can gain from simply watching the abysmal failures of the old Soviet Union price control boards, the FTC is either willfully ignorant of them or stubbornly trying to defeat the laws of supply and demand. Let's all wish the Voluntary Trade Council the best of luck in limiting these abusive and unnecessary exercises of power.
Yaron Brook: The Pro-War Ward Churchill

Perhaps in a case that will help explain to the loony left just how freaking wacko those on the fringe truly are, Yaron Brook, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, said at Tufts University last night that George Bush ought to dispense with democratization and simply kill all the enemy - including civilians who are normally regarded as non-combatants.

Without relying on the tortured, anti-capitalist machinations of Ward Churchill, Brook said in effect that in a war any enemy is a valid target, even regular people. He called them part of the war machine and said that chemical or nuclear weapons would be morally necessary to use if they were necessary to win the conflict.

He criticized Just War theory, which sets specific conditions which any conflict must meet to be morally justified, and more broadly blamed altruism for the failure of policymakers to implement his ideas. Apparently we're acting out of an effort to be nice, rather than any sort of moral objections to wholesale slaughter of an innocent populace. Gee, you'd think an Objectivist would understand morality is more than an attempt to be generous.

From the Tufts Daily article:

    "All Americans today owe their lives to leaders who do whatever it takes to win the war - [those past leaders] were willing to kill anyone. Civilians of enemy nations are part of the [enemy] war machine," he said.


    He also criticized just-war theory's idea that combatants should be distinguished from non-combatants. "Directly targeting civilians is perfectly legitimate," Brook said. "If it's possible to isolate the truly innocent - such as children and freedom fighters - at no military cost, then do so. But insofar as the innocent cannot be isolated ... they should be killed without any moral hesitation."
So obviously he either has mild autism or he's a sociopath. He's got a few screws loose, however.

I like what one of the feedback comments says:

    What is Objectivism? Some sort of collectivist/socialist ideology?

    I find it monstrous to kill innocent civilians for the crimes of their leaders and their armies. That's nothing but collectivism at its most ugly. Morality and justice pertains to individuals, not to collective entities like the state.
Right on the money. If you can be killed for the misbehavior of others then you have no freedom. You're nothing more than a member of tribe in a collectivist war. Objectivism is supposed to be individual-focused, and this sort of thing is fundamentally anti-individual and anti-freedom.

These ideas are absolutely despicable.

April 23, 2005

Raich v. Ashcroft Still Pending

The medical marijuana case is still awaiting a decision from the Court. It was argued last November, so the Court has already waited longer than the average length from arguments to decision.

One sidenote of the issue is that 10 states have medical marijuana laws: California, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Notice anything there? They're all about as far away from DC and the Southeast as you can get in this country. This doesn't include Montana, which passed a medical marijuana initiative just last November. Except for Idaho, the geographical cluttering is amazing.

It's interesting that partisan affiliation and population density don't seem to have an effect. Hawaii and California are reliably Democrat; Montana and Alaska are reliably Republican. California has the US' largest state population and some of our densest areas. Alaska is the 49th state in terms of population and has wide areas of extremely low density. It also spreads by climate: Arizona is hot and dry, Washington is wet, Alaska is freezing, Hawaii is tropical, etc. The most distinguishing feature - thanks to Maine - seems to be distance from the Southeast. (If not for Maine, then I would say being Western is the feature.)

Aside from that little tangent, this is a very multifaceted issue. The right side of the Court is going to be tempted to vote against it because it's marijuana. The moral and social implications of pot will skew the normal federalist impulses of the Justices. The left side of the Court is going to be tempted to vote against it because it's federalist. Federalism is not really their cup of tea and so they're likely to go against it. However, it would be possible to see left Justices go for it for the same reason the right Justices go against it - and vice versa. That's not considered likely by many observers, though.

So just how does it connect to federalism? Simple. In 1995, following the Republican Revolution and the 1994 Contract With America, a 5-4 majority on the Court found in Lopez v. US that Congress had over-applied its interstate commerce powers. This was the first such ruling since the New Deal. Specifically, the federal law about discharging firearms near schools was invalidated - since it's neither interstate nor commercial.

The feds argued that crime can affect the economy in an area and that school violence can affect education and therefore eventually impact the economy. The Court said "fuck no" and reasoned that if the feds got away with that line of reasoning, then there was no reasonable limit to "enumerated powers" from the Constitution. Since the Constitution did enumerate powers, that means there must be some powers intentionally not enumerated. So the law was struck down.

The problem with these recent matter is that the medical marijuana in question was grown and not sold. It's not commerce and it's not interstate because they're all Californians. The feds are saying it's interstate commerce because medical marijuana would, in effect, alter the pricing of illegal marijuana and affect the war on drugs in other states. Of course, this is about as ridiculous as the "school violence hurts education which hurts the economy" line. I mean, does the Interstate Commerce Clause really refer to intra-state non-commerce that might eventually change the price of illegally exchanged goods? I doubt such an expansive definition was really what the Constitutions means; with globalization, the Internet and the institution of nationwide media, practically anything can be argued to be interstate now.

Fortunately, Rehnquist already answered this question with Lopez. Congress is allowed, under the Interstate Commerce Clause to regulate the channels of commerce, the instrumentalities of commerce, and actions that substantially affect interstate commerce. Clearly neither the first nor second condition is satisfied - it's not sold, so it isn't commerce. It's hard to say that growing pot in your backyard and giving it to people with illnesses is going to substantially affect commerce, let alone interstate commerce. What's unanswered is whether "commerce" includes illegal activities. Certainly it would seem to elevate drug dealers to a more respectable plane if the Supreme Court calls selling drugs "commerce."

I like Randy Barnett's counter-argument (see the orals transcript) where he respondsto the roundabout link the government makes from personal growing to the drug market. In effect, he says that prostitution is an economic activity, but marital sexual relations are not. If we were to follow the government's line that market-affecting activities can be regulated to control commercial activities, then the government could regulate marital sexual relations to protect its regulatory regime against prostitution.

Of course, marital privacy is separately protected, but otherwise the comparison is the same; after all, if husbands had more sex in marriage, it's arguable that SOME of them would not use prostitutes or would resort to prostitution less. Naturally we would reject this invasion, because marital sex is not an appropriate way to regulate a commercial activity (assuming that illegal acts appropriately count as commerce).

With such a very weak connection to interstate commerce, the Court would betray the Lopez line of cases. By handing more power to the feds to define interstate commerce as "anything we want to regulate" a decision for the government in this case would seriously hamper both the implementation and reputation of Lopez.

Right now, Lopez has to deal with left-leaning people who think it's an excuse for right-wingers to stop legislation they dislike while allowing laws they agree with - conservative activism, in other words. If Raich were to go for the government, then Lopez would suffer in implementation because it would be even less clear just what the feds could and couldn't do. The lower courts were already having trouble following Lopez for several years after. Lopez itself is a fairly narrow standard, still giving broad leeway to the government. If it were to be further limited by a bad decision on this case, then we would see barely any grounds for limiting Congressional power under the commerce clause.

Those same critics who view the federalism revolution very skeptically are going to see themselves confirmed if the government wins this case. It would undermine the intellectual credibility of Lopez and cast it in a horrible light. It would appear to be at worst a self-serving piece of tripe that protects conservative issues like guns but not left-wing issues like marijuana. At best, it would look like a hiccup in the Court's history; a spin-off effect from the Gingrich types and the Republican Revolution that died a decade later under the burden of big-government Republicanism. More importantly, it would drop in the estimations of many writers, scholars and observers of the constitutional law scene. Lawyers and jurists espousing federalist ideas would be forced into the Lopez-Raich contradictions, even if they disagreed with the holdings.

In short, it would deal a serious blow to the federalism revolution, and cede ground back to the government-expansionists. Hopefully Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, O'Connor and Rehnquist will see this and do something to protect Lopez. However, this is not very likely at all.

More likely, the Court will be 8-1 or 9-0 to hold for the government, and then Rehnquist will write it in such a way to circumscribe the decision and protect some of Lopez's holdings. If they're not careful, Lopez/Morrison/Jones could end up being limited to the facts, and not set any precedent at all.

I'll be expanding my amateur How Does The Supreme Court Work? series after the Ashcroft v. Raich decision comes down, in order to get an overall sense of what happened in the 'federalism revolution.'

The decision will come down shortly, and it will almost certainly eviscerate the intellectual underpinnings of Lopez, despite likely attempts from the Court's conservatives to the contrary.
Salary Negotiations (tip to CH)

After reading this excellent and lengthy New Yorker article on medical costs and reimbursements, I have an important but unrelated point to make. The article essentially begins and ends with a doctor naming his desired salary for his new job (an excellent starting point for the discussion it spawns).

For anyone who finds yourself in such a situation: don't say anything. Avoid saying anything. Don't even ask for a minimum. Make them say it first. Why? Because it weakens your negotiating position and it spoils your starting point.

I say this drawing on my mother's experience as a re-employment consultant for executives (companies hire people like her organization to place their laid off employees in new companies, and she does it for friends and family). I'm not just shooting my mouth off, in other words.

If you say a salary, you potentially lower yourself to a salary below what the employer would have paid. You screwed yourself, in other words. If you overshoot intentionally to a very high salary, you can look unreasonable (perhaps even being rejected for employment in a few situations). Screwed again.

Make them say it, because they won't undershoot too far most of the time - it could risk insulting you. If they do undershoot, which they will at least a little, you can still say "Well, I was expecting something more like X" or otherwise explain that they need to crank that up a bit. They will not overshoot, by necessity.

I recall one story my mom recounted of a woman who REFUSED to take this advice (perhaps because my mother was being paid by the former company, and not the woman, so she didn't fully establish the payment-advice connection) because she had to know they could pay her enough. She was insistent that the employer be able to pay her a certain salary (which if I recall was somewhere in the low six figures, plus benefits). She was so concerned they wouldn't be able to meet it that she was very specific about the number.

The company was more than happy to pay her that amount - since, as she learned later, the normal salary for people in her position paid at about twice the salary she had named. Simply saying the number would have been bad enough, but she painted herself into a corner by basically saying she would settle for that number. She screwed herself because she wouldn't take my mother's advice and wait for them to start with a number.

So were I in the position of the author of the New Yorker piece, I would have requested that the employer make an offer or two, which I could then review. If he needed, he could take a few hours and fax something over. Assuming he continued to push, I would have been polite but insistent that he give me an idea of the salaries they work with, and what they typically offer to people coming in with similar qualifications and in a similar slot. It's not like he's going to just say no fifty billion times; eventually he'll give you an answer.

The good doc did not have access to this sort of negotiation advice, and did come up with a number. The fact that the employer agreed immediately (from what I can tell) suggests that the salary was at best average and more likely lower than the threshold.

That's the thing - these guys don't go into that sort of situation to negotiate salary without being at least somewhat informed of what's too high and what's average. They know what's lowball, what's over the top, and what's industry average. In a lot of places like health care, they probably have an actuary or accountant who actually places a number - based on anything from position and specialty to college and age - that tells them the limit on how much they'll pay.

When the doc said a number that was below or near the threshold, the interviewer grabbed on and didn't let go. He probably had some authority to authorize a hire with a salary a little above the threshold (this kind of thing changes from place to place, naturally) but I'd be surprised if he didn't have a pretty darn specific number in his head.

It's just like blackjack. If you play in your basement with family at holidays, you probably think "double-down" is some sort of sex move. If you play for any appreciable amount of money or watch celebrity blackjack on TV, then you know that there are precise moves for most hands dealt. If you're dealt a soft 16, a hard 14, or two aces, or whatever then you pretty much know your move. You can alter it to adjust to the risk-benefit ratio (say you need to win quickly or want to lose more slowly) but ultimately a good blackjack player has all these numbers in his head. Hit on X, stand above it. Double down if I get this or that. And so forth.

It's the same for salaries. If the doc said 245k, then guy knew to say yes. If the doctor had asked for 315k, the interviewer probably would have suggested a lower number ("We had something more like X in mind"), to illustrate.

The benefit is to not go first. When the interviewer says a number, which is crafted to not bankrupt his company by being too high, to not offend you by being too low, and to prepare for negotiations by being below what they'd settle for, you can just try to pull it up. I realize doctors may not like the idea of negotiating salary, but it seems awfully silly that doctors go to school for most of their youth and end up being some of the most educated and trained people on the planet and then get swindled by something that needs little more than streetsmarts and access to a JuCo-certified accountant.

This brings me, ultimately, back to markets and health coverage. Employers and insurers play hardball with doctors. It's only fair that these life-savers - forced to deal with death, charged with curing pain, expected to save life, required to sacrifice many years for education, and given to working more than sixty hours a week - should expect a very handsome return for their efforts. Don't be ashamed to push the envelope on salaries, doctors.
Canadian "Universal" Health Care (tip to Club For Growth)

A great article at Tennessean.com on Canada's health provision system explains just what the real-world costs are of government monopoly in health insurance. Of course, this "universal" coverage in most provinces doesn't include dental or prescription drugs, and often doesn't include optometry.

The worst part of Canada's system is ultimately that they pay less, actually. That sounds like a benefit, and normally it is, but the problem behind putting less money into health coverage is that it's under-staffed, under-trained, under-equipped and behind schedule. The direct cost of not investing wisely and adequately in health care can mean life and death:

    A recent mayor of Toronto was forced to wait eight long hours on a stretcher, with a broken leg, before seeing an emergency room physician. And this was in a Toronto hospital! As excruciating as it sounds to us, Canadians are accustomed to it.

    Here in the United States, if you are diagnosed with coronary artery disease caused by severely blocked arteries, you can expect life-saving bypass surgery in short order, sometimes the next day. Even if you do not have health insurance, when your life is at risk, you will get health care.

    In Canada, it's ''Take a number, please.'' With several months left to go before his scheduled bypass operation, my grandfather succumbed to complications arising from his badly-blocked arteries.

    My grandfather was a baker, as was his father before him and one son after him. His confections were mouth-wateringly rich, as I am sure many Toronto tourists discovered, but he was not a rich man. He could have afforded medical insurance, however.

    Instead, the government gave it to him, and as another law of economics says: You get what you pay for. The health care he received wasn't worth much. The federal government is well aware of the general dissatisfaction that Canadians, on both sides of the stethoscope, feel toward their health-care system. That is why it is illegal to sell medical services privately.

    Criminal charges would have been the reward for any cardiothoracic surgeon who tried to save my grandfather's life by operating on him, thus bypassing two blockages — one in his aorta and the other in a vast bureaucracy.
Read the whole thing and be glad that we have a market-based system that encourages better training, better facilities and more education.

April 22, 2005

It's Time For The GOP To 'Lott' DeLay

Trent Lott said something vague and controversial: that the country would be better if Strom Thurmond were elected. It seemed to be about segregation, and in my opinion most likely was, but it wasn't explicit. For all we know he could've been talking about federalism or the South sticking with the Democrats. But Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign was primarily - then and now - seen as a vessel for post-Confederate racism and segregation. That's a pretty accurate assumption to make, too.

Strom Thurmond disavowed those beliefs years before, and Trent Lott disavowed the strong appearance of segregationism he had given before. He didn't really have the bad race record that Thurmond did - or even Bob Byrd (KKK), Jimmy Carter (GA racists) or Zell Miller ("pottage") did - but he still talked about how he loved black people and practiced affirmative action and he went on BET to prove it. Alas for him, the GOP replaced him as leader.

Why did they do it? One, because that was really fucking stupid. If he couldn't watch his mouth at a birthday party where he knew his remarks could get out, then he obviously didn't understand the sensitivity of race. I mean, where has he been all these years? Just stupid.

Two, even though everybody makes mistakes, that doesn't mean you have a right to forgiveness and keeping your super-important job. As a politician, his primary job is to make his side look good. A lot of Congressional leaders suck at this because they're chosen for the patronage and friends they have in Congress, not necessarily for looking good. But Lott's job was to make the GOP look good, in addition to other important duties. By basically showing off racist sentiments, he cast doubt on the whole GOP - something that Democrats have done for years and something the GOP, especially Bush, is trying to come out from under.

Getting rid of Lott had the opposite effect on race - it showed the GOP wouldn't stand for that stuff. There's a higher standard held to the GOP on race - after all, Bob Byrd was in the KKK but he still got to be Democratic Majority Leader for years and the Democrats give barely a peep when he said "white nigger" in an interview (and the supposedly-leftist MoveOn.org is giving Byrd a million bucks this year). So the GOP corrected Lott by kicking him out, because they want to show they're better on race than the Democrats and the media say.

And third, they didn't really like Lott anyway. He was kinda old-school, he loved pork, and he was just kind of bad for the cameras. He was not an especially good face for the GOP. So they didn't want him anyway.

Frist is miles better, even if he is dragging his feet on judicial appointments. He isn't a firebrand, but he comes across as clean-cut, honest, concerned and reasonable. He's also a doctor, which means he's educated and he dedicated his life to helping people. More importantly, he makes it harder to stereotype the GOP as a bunch of redneck good ol' boys from the South - a stereotype Lott reinforced.

I think the GOP needs to 'Lott' Tom DeLay. He's a liability. Aside from shooting his mouth off about judges having to answer for their decisions in the Terri Schiavo case - which most people interpret as terrorism but which is almost certainly an afterlife deal - he also says stuff the vast majority of Americans and Republicans disagree with. Take evolution; DeLay apparently blamed school shootings on teaching working moms, daycare, teaching evolution and birth control pills.

Or take a recent interview where Delay criticized Justice Kennedy as outrageous for getting his research on the Internet and suggested that the Congress should try to redefine the constitutional limit on justices serving for "good behavior" as requiring they make good constitutional decisions.

His ethics charges aside, he's a major liability. He's also easily characterized - not necessarily incorrectly - as a redneck creationist. Do the Republicans really need to put up with this guy as one of their main faces in Washington? I should hope not.

Frankly, I wish it would be possible to simply cut DeLay loose in the same way in the same way they did Lott. Let him hold his House seat and face the Ethics committee as a member, not the GOP head guy. Of course, he has a lot of power and he's done a lot to cement himself in-place as the leader. It would take a massive internal GOP movement to unseat him, or his resignation.

More importantly, you Democratic weasels need to shut up about it. Republicans will only circle the wagons if Democrats keep attacking DeLay. If you could just calm down it might be possible for the GOP to get rid of him itself. It's probably too late, considering the fuss the Democrats and the media have already made about it. By making a stink, it's already been polarized - any Republican going against DeLay now is liable to be seen as a Democratic flunkie.

It would be very beneficial to the Republicans if DeLay would just leave. He redistricted in Texas, opening the door for hyper-political redistricting at awkward times between Censuses. He fiddled with the Ethics Committee, trying to neuter it against himself. He's now talking about kicking out judges who, though they might be making horrible or boneheaded decisions, are supposed to be protected by judicial independence.

He's not a good face for the GOP. He has apparently no respect for checks and balances and makes statements that are both impolitic and incorrect. It would be best for the GOP if DeLay would step out - NOW. In Congress, elections are always just around the corner. DeLay is a serious liability. If the GOP wants to pick up seats in the House in 2006, then DeLay as leader is the first thing that needs to go to.
Genetic Religion

I've linked the entirety of Andrew Sullivan's blog. Although eventually this will become outdated, for now it's appropriate. More or less all of the latest few dozen entries are about religion and the new Pope. Pretty much everyone is a rehashing of his diatribe against Ratzinger and mainstream Catholicism.

So why is this guy, who apparently really doesn't like the church's teachings on several key issues and doesn't like this Pope, still even a Catholic? He tries to hit on the issues a few times. He says, in essence, he feels the truth and power of the religion and he feels some need to stay. Why can't he feel these things alone or in some other denomination - like UCC or Methodist or something? After all, the Episcopalians now have a gay Bishop (Robinson) or whatever. They also have female bishops, they're pro-choice, and they probably fit really well with his political and theological views. In a lot of ways, Episcopalians are basically Catholics that can divorce. Why not just make the jump over to Anglican?

It would appear that he considers the Catholic Church his family and he likens it to his biological mother. This is pretty fundamentally anti-Christian in its outlook, if not necessarily in its theology. I mean, if nobody left their religion, wouldn't all the Christians have stayed Jews? Christianity (perhaps moreso Protestantism than Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox) is based broadly on the premise of human fallibility - and correcting human mistakes as much as possible. That's an oversimplification and ignores other factors (like God's grace) but it's relevant here: Christianity would not exist without change and reform.

Don't like how Catholics do things but don't think they will change? Then leave and join some other church that's closer to what you think is right. Seems simple.

It's just that so many people view religion as a cultural thing and not a theological thing. This is fallacious. Church is not a social club and it's not supposed to be a genetic identity. You are not supposed to stick with a church because you were born into it. You stick with a church because it's what you believe and what you think about humanity and the universe. It's simply silly to stay in a Church out of no more reason than it feels like yours. I mean, that's like staying because all your friends are in that church.

A lot of people do see church as a merely social event. This is fine, I suppose, but it doesn't make sense to stay in a church for non-theological reasons then complain of its theology. You made the trade-off to stay for petty, vernacular reasons instead of leaving over theological and moral ones. If you don't like the trade-off, then leave. You're allowed to complain, sure, but why go through the torture and headache when you ought to have resolved this already?

What's especially is the surprise some of these errant Catholics seem to have when they find the church being confident in its moral views and acting 'as though' it had God's ear. Umm. Actually, according to my basic understanding of papal infallibility, the Pope DOES know what God wants. If you don't buy into papal infallibility - as I don't - then at least don't be shocked when Catholics do. After all, that's a signature distinction between Catholics and non-Catholics, and something they tend to take some flak for in theological debates (deservedly so).

But how can any Catholic be offended when the Pope speaks as though he knows what's right? Correct me if I'm way off the dogma here, but isn't that basically his job? Isn't that part of the doctrine.

I mean, it's not like they're the first people in history to criticize the Catholics as centralized, squelching dissent, and casting down unquestionable moral edicts from on-high. It's just that the previous critics tended to realize that these were signature parts of Catholicism, and left for other religious groups.

It's not likely to change, because that's how things have been done and will likely continue to be done. Protestants stopped trying to reform the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Get with the times. If you don't like the Catholic Church, then there is a wealth of other options for you. Just because you were born Catholic doesn't mean you have to stay Catholic. It's not like race or hair color or something. It's open to change.

I suppose it's ironic that many of the Catholic critics say the Church isn't reforming but refuse to reform themselves and just convert.

April 21, 2005

Up Or Down Vote

That's how simple it ought to be: every nominee deserves an up or down vote. Instead of waiting fro 18 months or two years to get some action, all nominees ought to be able to move to the floor for a vote. Even if they fail in committee. Committee rules have different ways to move something out to the floor. On nominees, they can forward them to the floor with a positive recommendation, with a negative recommendation, or with no recommendation.

Every nominee deserves to get a vote in committee - and if they fail the first two votes the third vote ought to be understood to move them to floor. Or they could simply amend the rules to automatically move a nomination to the floor after a committee votes on it.

This is how it went with Bork. He was controversial and failed in committee on the first vote and then the second. The third vote moved him to the Floor where he was defeated by the full Senate. Simple and fair.

That's really what it's about: fairness and motion. The Democrats, like the Clinton-era Republicans, are blocking nominees because they don't like them. Fine, don't vote for them, then. But every nominee ought to get an up or down vote. It's worth noting that the Republicans never filibustered nominees, though. They legitimately controlled the Senate and held stuff up, but they didn't use a filibuster tactic to effectively force a nominee get the support of 60 Senators instead of a simple majority of those voting (quorum being present).

This is the kind of rule I could definitely jive with even if the Democrats were running the Senate and the White House, because it's just simple fairness. Every nominee deserves an up or down vote.

Why the Republicans are avoiding such a simple idea is crazy, especially since Byrd (as Democratic leader) limited the use of the filibuster four times. The filibuster is not in the Constitution, it's simply a very longstanding and pro-minority tradition and rule of the Senate. Captain Ed is so angry at the GOP for wasting time on nominees that he's decided to forgo any contributions to them until they change their act or change their leaders.

There's nothing wrong with amending the filibuster out of simple fairness - especially when the filibuster is OBSTRUCTING debate, not encouraging it. The Democrats shouldn't be able to get away with defending the filibuster as a part of debate. They're blocking debate and motion by using the filibuster.

Every nominee deserves an up or down vote. Simplicity itself.
It's All Over!!!

VodkaPundit has an intriguing entry on the plight of Europe in the face of hypothetically worsening Islamicization and immigration and how the result might be something similar to Balkan-style ethnic warfare. The comments are even drearier.

The basic tone, at least in the comments, is that Muslims are immigrating in and they're going to be a demographic majority that will force essentially Islamist governments to rise in Europe. Or something to that effect.

I think this mentality that Muslim immigrants are going to ruin everything is incredibly defeatist, pessimistic and most of all anti-American. Why, you may be thinking, would people who are probably strong proponents of American power and prestige ever be rightly considered anti-American? Well I don't mean they oppose America, only doubt (or forget, which is essentially the same) the power of the values that Americans love.

Specifically: faith in a just outcome (happy endings), love of truth, amazing rhetorical support for liberty, and a happy embrace of material luxury and success in wealth. These are very addictive things - just ask people who escaped communism to get here. Plenty of ex-Soviets fled to the US and were shocked by all of these things.

Everyone knows we're rich, and not just rich but luxuriously so. But it's not limited to the US. Coca-cola, rap and basketball go around the world in addition to a bajillion other US staple goods. I mean, they go gaga for Levi's in Poland or pop CDs in Germany. They drink our sodas, wear our clothes, watch our movies, listen to our songs and they eat in our rstaurants. McDonald's in Europe is a different affair from in the US (they change most of the menu to fit local tastes) but it's still considered American in style.

There's resentment over this success to be sure, but whatever grumblings you get from the paleo-euro right and the paleo-green left over in Europe don't seem to be biting into the bottom line very much. They may complain, but they still buy US stuff - often BECAUSE it's from the US.

Does this mean the US gets whatever it wants? Of course not. But it does mean that we have widespread appeal. Our biggest ambassadors to the world in the last century were guys like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. These people are astoundingly famous across the world, and can often rival names like Jesus in name recognition.

But once they get here, people are amazed - the success, the wealth, the optimism and the happiness. People here are freer, richer and happier than almost anywhere else in the world. That kind of attitude is very infectious and to foreigners and migrants it's very obvious.

I just don't see an ideology that much less luxurious, much poorer, much less exciting and much less happy and polite overcoming US culture.

The problem for Europe is that they're nihilistic and depressing. They aren't just post-religious, they're post-everything. They don't have a whole lot of purpose and they don't have much of a view of the world except that it sucks and everyone should look out for his own narrow interests. It's very easy for Muslims, cut off from their ancestral countries, to cast about for a cultural and ideological niche. Seeing the hopelessness and malaise of Europe, they revert to Islamic culture even if their parents and grandparents weren't really that religious or conservative. It's a proxy for the lack of European culture and ideology.

But they won't be able to simpyl take over Europe, both because there is quite a bit of lingering European orthodoxy, even if it's not very appealing or transferrable. But moreover, they'd have to take a continent full of people who are prodigious consumers of American goods and culture and turn it into a bunch of people who are willing to forego many of the same luxuries and accept an Islamist government.

I just don't see it happening. We won't have a European Caliphate or a Eurabia. Even if Europe becomes 40 or 50 percent Muslim in a few decades, I think most of them would become somewhat agnostic and enjoy consumer goods and be vaguely yet clearly affected by the values Americans are also affected by. It's too universally adaptable and too universally appealing for freedom, wealth and success to be ignored.

If anything changes in the Islam versus the World power struggle, I think we'll be seeing the opposite: a greater influence of Western and American ideology of liberty and consumerism in the Middle East proper.

April 20, 2005


The feds effectively shook down Wal-Mart this week, forcing the company to pay $11 million to avoid criminal charges for exchanging money for labor with evil Mexicans. A dozen businesses that contracted the janitorial services to Wal-Mart are paying $4 million in fines and are pleading guilty to criminal immigration charges.

God forbid illegal immigrants ever manage to find employment in this country, because then they might, you know, eat and stuff. I'm not thrilled with the increasingly gray market aspects of immigration and immigrant employment either, but I don't see how this fine furthers anyone's interests except the immigrant-haters and the government people who get prestige from it.

Even the Wal-Mart haters won't get anything more than a smirk from it, since this will only force Wal-Mart to limit future raises and benefits and to raise prices on consumers.

It sure doesn't help the gray-migrants who come here by the droves with the idea that they can find work, if not exactly on the up and up. They will now have to look harder to find work, even though they're willing to work difficult or unpleasant menial jobs.

And it doesn't help businesses ( and therefore it doesn't help consumers), who will now have to contend with a more aggressive Justice Department and will have to stiffen their compliance efforts on even contracted employees or risk being sued for the malfeasance of others. I mean, Wal-Mart is getting a huge fine because they OUGHT to have known, since the actual law-breaking was done by the contractors. Maybe Wal-Mart executives did know or have an idea, and maybe they probably should have put two and two together when they saw how low the contract bids were, but the fact is that this move will only force companies to pay more accountants and lawyers to cover their asses on immigration compliance.

It's raising the cost of doing business, if only marginally, and that negatively affects employees, consumers or both.

I realize that immigration is still often a crime, but maybe we ought to realize that it shouldn't be so heavily punished. It is interesting that the Justice Department will fine employers for letting those dirty migrant workers clean toilets and mop floors but the Homeland Security Department can't be bothered to stop them from coming in. After all, the argument against Wal-Mart is that they OUGHT to have known, but the Homeland Security Department DOES know many migrants are coming across the border and yet doesn't stop it. Maybe the government ought to sue itself.
Relativism, Ratzinger and Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, in going through his protestations on the new Pope, is disputing Ratzinger (via Novak) on the relation of Nazism and Marxism to relativistic thought. Sullivan asserts that Nazism and Marxism are based on thinking their way is the scientific truth of all things. What he apparently doesn't realize is the disconnect between moral relativism and scientific determinism.

The Nazis thought - or at least said and argued - that race was scientifically determinative on the success and intelligence of humans. Some races are better than others, and some races and blights on humanity, in other words. They believed this was fact and truth.

The Marxists thought - or at least said and argued - that economics was socially determined and would eventually result in a humanity-wide communist world. Economics has a natural progression and communism is the final, highest result, they said. They believed this was fact and truth.

What Sullivan apparently misses is the moral relativism of both ideologies. The Nazis and Marxists were essentially sophists, taking some cues from postmodernist ideas. Nietzsche, often associated with Nazism, was essentially an early postmodernist. Other postmodernists in Europe associated themselves with various grains of socialism and communism, and Marxism generally. In fact, most pomos are socialists or anarchists or trending that way.

The Nazis and Marxists doubted the validity of most existing moral judgments; they argued that many of the currently existing values were fake, were inappropriate, could not be made, or were simply irrelevant. They didn't merely assault them as wrong, they assaulted the very foundation of moral objectivism on which the values were based. Without moral truth of any type, how could specific morals be true? This laid the groundwork for arguing Nazism or Marxism; once the old values were tossed out they were subsequently replaced with new ones.

Don't let yourself be confused by the hypocrisy you might notice. Relativists are almost necessarily hypocritical, because relativism, subjectivism, postmodernism or whatever you call it is not a sound basis for intellectual consistency. Indeed, how could you be that concerned about hypcrisy if you're arguing there is no moral truth?

And that's the distinction. First, it's hypocrisy; just because they were arguing certain things that seem to require moral truth, doesn't mean they were using relativism to undermine the moral truths of others. Second, it's a division between what they saw as scientific determinism and what they used as moral relativism.

It's almost important to remember that both Marxism and Nazism reduced men to their bodies and minds, but never their spirits or consciences. Consciences were ignored or turned into something almost meaningless. Marxism treats people as essentially bodies to be given food, water, sex and shelter. Some strains of Marxism treated the minds of people as well, giving them acceptance and love, but rarely encouraging the spirit or the conscience. Nazism as well reduced people to body and to the lower impulses of the ego. You are your race, the physical characteristics that you were born with, and your impulses to kill or dominate must be fed to the exclusion of almost anything else.

Naturally I'm both exaggerating and generalizing, but it's necessary to show the connection. Marxism and Nazism were indeed important parts of relativism, and came from many people who were direct heirs to the relativist and postmodernist spirit. Connecting the ideology of orthodox Catholicism to the ideologies of Nazism and Marxism is grossly simplified and basically a playground-caliber insult.
Reflections On Catholicism

I was raised loosely Protestant - loosely meaning I was never baptized and I only ever went to church when visiting my grandparents, and then usually only at Christmas. My view of the Catholic Church is naturally going to be affected by coming from the direction of the people who were created out of criticisms of the Church.

To be honest, I really sympathize historically with the Protestants, even as I realize they had problems of their own. But the Catholic Church was big, cranky, stubborn, anti-reform and just generally corrupt. To step briefly into theology, I also find that Catholicism reminds me of Sufism - integrating local pagan, pre-monotheistic beliefs and rituals with the forms and basic ideas of a major religion. I mean, come on, the Catholics have a patron saint for different cities and countries and for different activities.

How is it any different to have a patron saint of travel or medicine than to have a god of journeys or a god of war? Strikes me as incredibly primitive and tribalistic that all the little villages in Italy worship their patron saint.

And of course, a lot of Catholics have this strange obsession with Mary. I'm no theologist, but I'm pretty sure Mary didn't have any god-like powers and didn't save us all from damnation. In fact, I understood that the only thing miraculous about her was her virginity. Jesus died for our sins thus allowing us all God's grace into bliss, but you want to worship his mom because she never had sex? Doesn't make much sense to me. It sounds sort of like they want to worship a Nature Goddess or a Mother Earth sort of figure, and Mary is the most famous woman in the Jesus story so she got the role.

So I'm not exactly amenable to a lot of Catholic practices and rituals like these. To be perfectly honest, it really undermines my view of Catholic spirituality and theology when I see some Catholics doing stuff like this. It just seems like tradition, orthodoxy. Just like a bunch of people got together to defend the whole mass of practices and customs they'd already set on.

As you can see, I take a Protestant-esque line on the Catholic Church - especially on their huge churches which are surpassingly beautiful but strike me as an insult to God. I guess I also take the Protestant line that all dealings with a Christian conception of God ought to be humble, since humans are flawed and any pretension of spirit or of edifice would always be unworthy. This is especially interesting since I'm a Deist and I don't think God has done anything since creating everything.

I see the Catholic Church generally as just a big club of people backing their traditions, not so much a theological vessel. This is true to some degree of all religions, but it strikes me as more true of Catholics generally than Protestants generally.

But I don't hate the Catholics. I just don't agree with their theology, so you'll probably never see me converting to Catholicism. But since they never try to convert me personally, I have no problem with the people; I have a problem with the theology. And the anti-Catholic biases that used to be more common in this country 150 or 160 years ago don't sit well with me at all. I disagree with theology, not with Catholics being near me or being in this country (after all, I'm from St. Louis which has a heavy concentration of Catholics).

I also realize that the Catholics can set their own practices and values. If they don't want to hear my views on the deification of Mary or the pretentiousness of large cathedrals, they don't have to - and they certainly don't have to follow any of what I say. It's, for lack of a better word, their club. Like an interest group, a bowling alley or a religion is a club; a private association of people with similar interests, values or goals. Since it's private, they don't have to listen to what I say and I don't have to listen to what they say. Amazing how well a little autonomy works out well.

I am not a Catholic and I don't want to be or claim to be. If someone doesn't like the Catholic beliefs on one issue or another, they are free to join me or to ignore that. So when a bunch of people who want the Catholic Church to be open to abortion, contraceptives, women priests and the like complain that the Catholic Church doesn't listen, I'm not very receptive. If the Pope wanted to throw them all out he'd be perfectly within his rights to do so as far as I'm concerned.

There's is no right to be a member of other people's churches. If they don't want you for your sexual behavior, for your race, for your beliefs or for your income level, then so be it. You can argue, probably successfully, that it's dumb of them to be exclusionary or bigoted or that it's also wrong or hypocritical, but don't pretend like they OWE you some right to be inclusive. They do not.

Don't like it? Start your own damn church. That's what the Protestants did and that's where Eastern Orthodox comes from. If they agree to allow dissent then that's their choice. They are not bound to be democratic, except by their own rules and by their own choice. They are not bound to listen to your opinions, even if you are or claim to be an adherent of their faith. They are in a private group and can do whatever they want with their own stuff and their own ideas.

If you don't like the Church's view on gays, don't be Catholic. Hey, simple! It's not a state religion. I'm not Catholic and I don't want to be. If you clearly hate the Catholic position so much on gays and condoms, then don't be Catholic. You have the right to stay as long as they let you and to try and convince them to change, but you are not entitled to anything in the Church's faith. They are not obligated to be modern, nor are they obligated to be tolerant or to adhere to a certain political viewpoint other than what they choose.

You're free to criticize, from within if they allow it and from outside whenever you like, but you can't demand anything from a private association like a church and expect it to carry weight.