Saturday, January 19, 2002

Enron Advisors

Paul Halsall writes to Andrew Sullivan (with a blind copy to me) to point out that both William Kristol and Irwin Stelzer of The Weekly Standard served on the Enron advisory board with Paul Krugman. Since Stelzer wrote a piece praising Enron for helping to deregulate the electric and gas markets, Halsall suggests Andrew should be as hard on Stelzer and Kristol as on Krugman, since they all served on the same panel. But Stelzer mentioned he served on an Enron advisory board with Kristol and Krugman in his article, while Krugman's last admission he was on the panel came a year ago. Granted, Krugman shouldn't have to disclose every time he writes a piece about Enron, but I'd argue he should have mentioned it again when he began his attacks on the company. But the damning issue is why Krugman wrote a piece praising Enron to the winds two years ago when Krugman was receiving $50,000 from them, but now he considers Enron the poster child for institutional corruption. Granted, as Halsall says, Krugman has the right to change his mind. But most of us at least explain that we are changing our mind and detail our reasoning when it happens. And when you write lovely commentary about a company when it's paying you, but attack it when the money runs out, you have an added obligation to address the inconsistency.
War and International Law

With the United States having taken six Bosnians into custody, the tensions between wartime actions and legal actions may be warming up. As William Quick points out, if we consider ourselves at war, this is a legitimate action. We've secured six people we have reason to believe are belligerents, a reasonable and prudent measure to protect American citizens. But the Bosnian Supreme Court ordered the suspects released for a lack of evidence, so if we're not fighting a war, only dealing with terrorism through legal means, we may be on the wrong side of the fence. A declaration of war (recommended by Will) would resolve this question nicely, as we are certainly de facto at war, if not de jure.

Nonetheless, as long as the President chooses to fight a war without asking Congress to declare it, he needs to ensure we're as open as reasonably possible with the process. Using military tribunals is fine, but the evidence and the results should be made public whenever possible. As has been correctly noted by several bloggers, we need to show the world we're better than the terrorists (despite that being painfully obvious to most thinking people). That means all our dealings with terrorists should be kept open as much as humanly possible. When the trials or tribunals of al Qaeda begin, we will be wise to publicize everything we do that won't endanger intelligence sources. It won't matter much with those who already are convinced we're right, nor will it help with those who are convinced we're wrong. But there's a sizeable fraction of people out there still willing to be convinced.
Enron and Krugman

Andrew Sullivan is pummelling Paul Krugman pretty hard about Krugman's links to Enron. I think he's making a little more out of it than is necessary, but he does raise one very good point. Not one member of the mainstream media has raised any questions about Krugman's former job as an Enron flack. Is this evidence of media bias? Maybe, although it's just as likely this represents a different kind of media bias--institutional self-protection. The media guards its reputation as defender of free speech (such as it is) quite jealously, and it may be as difficult for them to admit one of their own acted improperly as it is for Democrats to condemn President Clinton or Republicans to come out against Bush's use of executive privilege. I suspect that's the prime driver in the echoing silence regarding Krugman.

Friday, January 18, 2002

The Horror of 'Objectionable Material'

The editor of Texas A&M's student newspaper, the Battalion, is under fire for his decision to run an editorial cartoon considered "blatantly racist" by the A&M African American Student Coalition. I haven't been able to see cartoon itself, but the description certainly could be considered offensive. So the African American Student Coalition wants the school administration to "act upon any objectionable material featured in the Battalion." That's a pretty broad mandate. Take a look at most newspapers, and try and find an article someone couldn't find objectionable.

And that's how it should be. There are important questions out there that need to be answered, and we can't get to a good answer if we waste all our time being offended by the others' arguments. If this editor really is a racist, then he's going to pay for it sooner or later. In the real world, people who make assumptions about other races are going to come up short, sooner or later. There's a reason why groups like the KKK draw mostly from the poor. In the interim, the A&M African American Student Coalition would do itself a favor by ignoring the slight, real or imagined.
Those Darn Petards

Andrew Sullivan has also dug up some interesting dirt on Enron's least favorite columnist: Paul Krugman, who has done as much as any columnist to bring the Enron troubles to light. It turns out that Mr. Krugman not only served on an advisory board for Enron a few years ago, he received $50,000 to do so and wrote an article extolling the virtues of Enron back in 1999. Virginia Postrel suggests Krugman can't survive this revelation, and will soon be a former New York Times columnist. To borrow one of Jerry Seinfeld's favorite phrases, 'That's a shame.' I'm not convinced Krugman won't survive this, however. History suggests people on the left can survive behavior that would be cause for a media feeding frenzy if performed by a conservative (see the relative treatment of Bob Packwood and President Clinton for an excellent example of this). And there's little doubt the Times will find someone else to pen screeds against the Bush Administration. It will be entertaining to watch, however, as Krugman's attempt to take down the Bush Administration via Enron stands at least a fair chance of backfiring now.
Dr. West and Mr. Summers

Andrew Sullivan has been chronicling the question of why two black Harvard professors are referred to as Dr. by the New York Times when other PhDs like Lawrence Summers are simply called Mr. Andrew's research implies Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates have asked the Times to address them by Dr., as the Times policy is to call everyone Mr. or Ms. unless asked to do otherwise. I think this hints to the reason West blew Summers asking him to do more scholarly work so far out of proportion.

West is an intelligent man, his recent foray into rap notwithstanding. Deep down, he knows what he's doing these days isn't real scholarship. When Summer came to West as he had to several other professors to discuss grade inflation and penning a scholarly work rather than a rap CD, West played the race card instantly, triggering a series of attacks on Summers for his failure to worship properly at the affirmative action god and suggesting Summers might even be a conservative. Why launch such a vicious and unnecessary attack? Because West knows Summers' accusations are accurate. So West reacted as most of us do when confronted with an unpleasant truth: he lashed out at his accuser.

It seems reasonable to wonder if this isn't a side effect of affirmative action. Will minority scholars ever be certain they're taken seriously as long as calls for diversity and quotas force businesses and institutions to lower their standards to achieve the proper racial balance? Harvard's experience with Cornel West suggests they may not.

Thursday, January 17, 2002

Gun Control and Diminishing Returns

Brian Linse argues in favor of doing whatever is necessary to keep guns out of the hands of criminals:
Whatever we can do to make it more difficult for people who are legally prohibited from owning guns to get their hands on them should be done. If the rest of us have to be inconvenienced, so be it.
I think Brian is allowing hyperbole to influence his writing in this case. The law of diminishing returns applies in politics as it does in economics. Basic gun control laws will have the greatest effect, as the majority of people are law-abiding and will work within the laws. To get more of the guns off the streets requires progressively more active measures, and each layer of laws will locate fewer and fewer illegal guns. If Brian's words are to be taken at face value, we would have to move inexorably to a police state to 'make it more difficult for [criminals] to get their hands on [guns].' Given Brian's excellent defense of the Bill of Rights a few weeks ago, I believe that isn't really what he intends, but his words gloss over the key question of gun control: how far should we go?

The general consensus on guns in America are that the Second Amendment does protect the individual's right to own guns, but some controls are necessary to protect society. There is a vast gap between the extremes of the Bill of Rights as written and protecting society, and where to draw the line is an important question that is often overlooked in the debate. Extremism tends to draw attention, and so the battle is generally portrayed as all or nothing, when in fact there exists a vast spectrum of possibilities, from no controls whatever to a police state where every gun is directly under the control of the government (a significant inconvenience for all of us). We will disagree as to when the inconvenience outweighs the benefits, but this is the true argument regarding gun control.
Why Not to Blog

Andrew Hofer demonstrates the extreme down side of blogging.
Why I Blog

Glenn Reynolds and Virginia Postrel have been having a debate on the value of blogging. Glenn feels we're on the cusp of a new Reformation, reducing the power of Big Media through our ability to counter attempts by the media to spin stories to one side or the other. Virginia, conversely, feels blogs are being hyped well beyond their worth; blogs are a valuable extension of the media, but not a successor to it.

I have to concur with Virginia. Even the kings of blogging, like Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds and Virginia Postrel probably don't get more than 25,000-30,000 visitors per day. That's impressive relative to the average blog, but taking into account repeat visitors, they all probably have audiences that pale in comparison to most magazines. Further, blogging is dependent on big media. I try to put original content out as much as possible, but the vast majority of my posts are responses to news reports and op-eds. Without media reporting, blogging would dry up.

So why blog? Jonah Goldberg calls blogs vanity sites, and there's certainly some truth to that. I check daily to see how many hits my site's received, because it's an ego boost to see that somebody actually read what I have to say about something. Conversely, it can also slap my ego down in a heartbeat, especially when I compare my paltry numbers against even a less well known blogger like Andrew Hofer. The same can be said of noting how many sites do not choose to link to my blog; for about two days, my site had a link on Virginia Postrel's site, something that did wonders for my ego. But she took it down, providing an equally strong blow to my ego as I wondered why. I would be willing to bet many bloggers don't last very long for that very reason. It can be tough to realize your writing isn't as good as you thought it was.

There is another reward of blogging, however, that provides a far greater reward. Most people have little ability to influence major philosophical or political debates. We read the op-eds and articles and talk to our friends, but our voices rarely enter the argument. Blogs allow us to enter the argument and influence it. Only incrementally, of course, and sporadically, but our effect is there, nonetheless. Good blogs tend to draw attention to themselves, as other bloggers link to the best arguments they find on topics they find of interest. Those arguments will influence other bloggers, and eventually will find their way to the media through people like Glenn, Mickey, Virginia and Andrew. They're unlikely to adopt the arguments wholesale, of course, but if the argument is done well, it will influence their future writings on that topic. And because they write not only blogs, but also articles and books, an argument that starts on a blog can eventually influence an audience far greater than the small slice of individuals who regularly check out blogs.

Why blog? Because if you do it well, if you construct good arguments, you can affect the course of the argument. That is significant; when else in history have so many people been able to contribute to the major political or philosophical issues of their day? I won't pretend to be on the cutting edge of anything, nor am I setting the tone of political discourse for the country. But I'm making an argument that, if it's good enough, can make a small contribution to the larger questions.

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Fireman and the NY Memorial

Rod Dreher weighs in on the question of changing the races of the firemen who raised the American flag at Ground Zero, discussing it with some firefighters.
The Walker Decision

The Justice Department has finally decided it will charge John Walker on four charges, including conspiracy to kill Americans outside the United States. He'll be tried here in the United States under standard rules, rather than under a military tribunal. Although Justice was somewhat more lenient than I think was appropriate, it's good to see they're at least planning to do something in response to his actions. Walker will face multiple life sentences, but not the death penalty.
The Vultures Circle

NOW isn't the only political group hoping to cash in on September 11, but it's certainly among the most brazen. NOW's Legal Defense Fund is threatening to sue if it doesn't get some money for affirmative action programs, so it can push to further integrate the NYPD and FDNY. All of the interest groups should be told to get lost and the money should be focused on helping New York and the area around the Pentagon; real help, not the make-believe help NOW-LDEF is offering.
Firefighters and Statues

I noted the attempt to make a monument to the FDNY politically correct on Monday. Now a Brooklyn firefighter is circulating a petition among his comrades to try and convince the mayor not to do it. I suspect such a petition will have little effect on the mayor's decision, but it will be interesting to see what the consensus of the rank and file is, as opposed to the politicians who run things.
Combat Pay

Melana Zyla Vickers argues combat soldiers should receive greater compensation for the risks they take, rather than the nominal $150 a month soldiers now receive for serving in a combat zone. She also decries the military pay scale that pays according to rank rather than by job description. To her argument I would only add that the military might do well to pay more to soldiers who serve in combat units, regardless of whether or not they're serving in a combat zone. Army units currently have some difficulty even filling combat units, as those positions are frequently unpopular. Service in combat units is strenuous and demands much of a soldier and his or her family even in peacetime. Combat units have to train frequently and hard if they're to be successful in real combat. The more soldiers that have to be added as 'fillers' once a conflict starts, the less effective those units will be. September 11 demonstrated how quickly we may need units ready to go to war; a revised pay scale will help us ensure those units will be ready.

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

"I'll raise your taxes"

Bill Quick points out Dick Gephardt's pledge that he wants to raise taxes, and wonders if that will be the key plank of the Democratic party in their run for the House and Senate this fall. If so, it will be a far less interesting race, although the Democrats will deserve the drubbing they'll take.
Enron and Campaign Finance

Jonah Goldberg has a good piece demonstrating why campaign finance reform is not only unnecessary, but possibly counterproductive. As he points out, not only didn't the Bush Administration or any of the many, many other Congressmen who received money from Enron help Enron in its hour of need, they will now be extra-hard on Enron in the investigation to demonstrate they're not bought and paid for. It would be amusing if this reaction actually were to lead to businesses choosing to donate far less to candidates, given the payback they can now expect.
National License Standards

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the representatives of state drivers licensing boards, has decided it needs to standardize licensing procedures. This will require $100 million from Congress, but they assure Congress that because the drivers license is a de facto national ID card, they need to ensure it is used properly. Civil liberties advocates are rightly decrying this move as simply a backdoor means to creating a national ID card. Personally, I just don't think I want anyone down at the DMV having access to all that information.
Funding Abortion

Wendy McElroy takes on the question of New York using tax dollars to train doctors to perform abortions. As she points out, this decision takes a private moral choice and provides taxpayer dollars to those who choose one way over the other. Like McElroy, I consider myself pro-choice, but also like her, I dislike the idea of using my tax dollars, or anyone else's, to pay for that choice.

Initially I asked myself if this wasn't similar to requiring a pacifist to pay taxes despite some of those taxes going to military operations. But the military is a public institution that provides a service to all, even those who don't pay a dime in taxes. Abortion, conversely, is a right (not enshrined in the Constitution, but that's an argument for another day) that only benefits those individuals who choose to use it. Using tax money to fund it, therefore, is both unnecessary and wrong, as it diverts limited tax monies from the true purposes of government to fund a moral cause. New Yorkers should stand up and protest Mayor Bloomberg's cynical and opportunistic attempt to spend their money on his pet causes.
Lessons of September 11

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two key commanders on Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, were cashiered for failing to prevent the attack. There were numerous investigations of the attack and the mistakes America made in the months and weeks leading up to the attack, all aimed at preventing a second such attack. Even today, sixty years later, historians argue about whether or not President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming, and what could have been done to prevent it.

In the wake of September 11, we have seen absolutely zero introspection at the official level. Although the press has done a fair job of locating and identifying several failures of the past ten years, the government seems utterly uninterested in learning what it might have done wrong. And in so doing, we sow the seeds of another attack. There's no doubt al Qaeda is still out there, although they have been knocked down from their pre-September 11 peak. As long as we keep military pressure on them, from Afghanistan to the Philippines and Iraq, they will find it difficult to launch new attacks. But sooner or later the war will end.

Then we will be protected by the same infrastructure that failed to detect or prevent the attacks on September 11. If they're to do a better job, the government has to take a long hard look at them and decide where things went wrong. Not to hang people out to dry, and not to have the ability to point fingers. They need to honestly determine where things went wrong, and decide how they're going to fix those problems. If that isn't done, however, the deaths of so many on September 11 will have been in vain.

Monday, January 14, 2002

Race and September 11

New York City wants to construct a statue commemorating the three FDNY firefighters raising the American flag over the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Not content with what actually happened, however, they want to change the race of two of the firefighters so, instead of three white firefighters raising the flag, there will be one black, one white, and one Hispanic. Rich Lowry takes on the stupidity of this idea, so I'll just agree with him.
The Enron Question

With the Democratic Party working to determine the best way to turn the Enron bankruptcy to political advantage, there's already a number of discussions about it among bloggers as well. Before I go out and see what my fellow bloggers are saying, I'll put down my personal feelings before they're affected by others' arguments.

Much as I hate to say it, the Bush Administration has shot itself in the foot on this. I don't know if they did anything wrong, but they've already been cozy with Enron and several other companies, and so have created an impression they might have done something, or some things, to assist Enron improperly. Now all they can do is make the best of it, and that means getting all the facts in the open quickly. If anyone from the Administration did act improperly, than they should be canned immediately and publicly. Any attempts to cover embarrassing facts is just going to do more damage in the long run. Yes, President Clinton demonstrated you could stay in office by delaying the release of embarrassing information, but it crippled his presidency. President Bush can't afford that. A rapid and public uncovering of whatever happened is the best course of action. Barring that, much as I hate to say it, Congress does need to conduct a thorough investigation if the White House won't come clean.
The Airlines

Since I had an opportunity to observe airline security and air travel for the first time since September 11, a few comments. I've read an inordinate number of horror stories on blogs regarding this subject, so I was somewhat apprehensive about the trip, but I was pleasantly surprised. The security personnel I was able to observe seemed reasonably alert and were polite as well. I had to be checked with the wand when I failed to remove all the change from my pocket, but the woman running the search but quick and polite. Conversely, my garment bag was searched once because the young woman running the x-ray machine saw the hook used to hang the bag, but it made it through security on three other occasions with no comments. The hook was not actually a weapon, of course, so I'm not sure if this young woman was simply more zealous about security, or if the other checkpoints were less alert.

All in all, I think bloggers have already made the point that most, if not all of this security is worth very little anyhow, so my concern was more with the hassle and politeness factors, both of which the airlines passed. These flights were only marginally more inconvenient than flights I'd taken prior to September 11.
Back

Apologies for my absence; I had to fly to Chicago and Green Bay for a job interview, and was unable to post to that effect before I left.