My book, The Value of Living Well, now exists in physical form, for those who are interested. It looks like Oxford plans to ship next month, but it can be ordered now from Amazon. It is a work in contemporary ethical theory: I try to flesh out a view of the nature of practical rationality (in particular, norms for successful practical rationality, or practical wisdom), conjointly with an account of living well. This I take it is the structure of ancient eudaimonist theories, such as Aristotle’s. But Aristotle wasn’t worried about a lot of the things we are, after two millennia of philosophical ethics. So I give it a shot. There are lots of words, so some are probably true! Oxford may not get it out in time for Mother’s Day (more’s the pity), but it will be just in time for Father’s Day and lots of graduation days! Buy all you like! — OUP will print more.
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Rob Farley over at LGM makes two key points about the bombings that are worth passing along:
1. Our thoughts are with anyone injured in the bombing.
2. Initial reports are very likely to be wrong; this is inevitable, and does not mean that a conspiracy is afoot.
I’d add a few others about terrorism:
1. The President should not be criticized for not calling, initially, the Boston attack a “terrorist” bombing. As the Washington Post reports, he “was careful not to use the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ as he spoke at the White House Monday after the deadly bombings, but an administration official said the bombings were being treated as an act of terrorism.”
Although forests have been cleared debating the definition of terrorism, a good definition I use is that terrorism is the intentional targeting of (or threat to target) innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends by non-state actors. Given this definition and a lack of anyone apparently claiming public responsibility at the time, the President was likely not sure that this was at attack with political ends as opposed to criminal behavior. Therefore, circumspection and caution was warranted in his speech even as the administration worked to figure out what happened and who was responsible.
2. Given my working definition above, I would argue that the old saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is ridiculous. It is never morally acceptable in my view to intentionally target innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends. And anyone interested in freedom properly deplores such attacks and anyone engaging in such actions is not a true freedom fighter. Of course, many governments around the world find it advantageous to call insurgents fighting against them terrorists but that doesn’t hold water (the Patriots at Lexington and Concord, for example, were not terrorists by my definition). This case was a pretty pure case of targeting innocents. So if there was a political agenda of any sort behind these attacks, we should properly label the perpetrators terrorists and the appropriate level of government should punish them to the fullest extent of the law (and, of course, if there was not a political agenda behind the attacks, the government should punish the criminals behind it).
3. If the attack was committed by terrorists, we need to remember that law enforcement and public resilience are two of the best means for winning the “global war on terrorism” (yes, I know, we don’t call it that anymore).
A few weeks ago, Jason responded to my critique of the new atheists (which was inspired by an excellent review done by Damon Linker). Jason’s response was interesting but (modestly) mis-characterizes my argument.
Jason boiled down what I was saying to a simple logical argument for the existence of God. Though I don’t mind such attempts, it was not my purpose. My key point was not about the existence or role of God (which would require some sort of definition for God, for starters). My essay was on the implications of denying the metaphysical.
Science is agnostic, and rightly so. Science is about drawing conclusions from observable phenomena. For instance, human beings have the capability to discuss moral values and can behave in ways consistent with moral values in observable and describable ways. A large body of neuroscience literature can tie these moral faculties, emotions, and reasoning back to basic brain chemistry. And evolutionary theory can describe the development of human morality through the powerful (yet often hard to falsify) theory of natural selection. Moral notions that improve reproductive fitness are more likely to be selected and become part of the human genome. Cultural evolution of moral notions happens, too, as those values which promote the survival of human societies are carried forth not only in our genes but in our cultural patterns.
But those observable patterns do nothing to answer the question of why one should care about them. And science has nothing to say about whether the existence of humanity, the world we occupy or even the universe is something we should care about. Indeed, why should the moral intuitions and reasoning of any species be of a concern unless there is a reason to care about that species in the first place. In the scientific view, the initial big bang created a universe of energy and matter. But there was no purpose for this, no cause, no choice, no reason, no intent. There was just the physical.
So, at every point in the natural history of our species we have consisted only of chemistry. We cannot be more because there is nothing more. The only difference between our world and the primordial soup from which crawled the first life forms is that the chemistry on the earth now (including the creatures known as human beings) is different than it was before. Not better or worse, just different. Creatures on the earth now are more capable of sustaining themselves against various environmental forces, but they consist, still, only of chemistry. Since all that existed at the beginning was chemistry, we can’t borrow from the metaphysical world and come up reasons for why some chemical compounds (humans) matter more than other chemical compounds (rocks). The period table contains all sorts of information about the universe. It contains no information about morality.
A simple process of water crossing cell membranes is, according to this hyper-naturalistic view, not fundamentally different than a complex mass of chemicals known as a human being offering assistance to another human being. Both are the result of chemical process that are entirely the function of a long string of pointless, random events occurring in a pointless, random universe. Chemicals do not make choices. They just obey the immutable laws of the universe. Do not the chemical interactions in our brain that precede the chemically-based signals from our brains to the different body parts (signals such as: do this, say that, pick that up) obey the exact same fundamental laws that cause osmosis to occur? Do chemicals stop and consider their actions? Well, maybe if you get the right combination of chemicals together in sufficient numbers in the right quantities and combinations, they will pause for a moment of reflection?
All the new atheists and their naturalistic brethren really have to tell me is a story of how the chaotic universe produced creatures that are capable of intuitions (both conscious and subconscious, perhaps) and reasoning, which they like to call morality. But that morality exists, according to them, only because it has selective value that produced and preserves our species. They have nothing to tell me about why the species or anything about it—including its ability to reason—has any value in the first place.
They can tell me, perhaps, how living a moral life might bring me or others more pleasure or satisfaction (all of which can be reduced, of course, to chemical reactions in the brain), or they can tell me how certain ways of living are consistent with respecting the dignity and autonomy of others. But they can tell me nothing about why I should care about any of it.
It is from that unobserved, unexplained wellspring of value that true morality comes. It is what gives us answers, however incomplete, to why one would care about humanity and the moral questions humans ask. One thing is sure. Those answers don’t come from the periodic table.
From Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence:
One of the paradoxes of the Angolan conflict was that Cuban forces were given the task of defending American-owned oil installations from attacks by American-backed rebels.
My position on the Reagan Doctrine and American intervention in places like Angola has changed a lot over time. As a much younger man, I bought into the administration’s (and Charles Krauthammer’s) argument and was led to believe that people like Jonas Savimbi could help increase human freedom in the Third World while aiding U.S. interests in the Cold War struggle with the Soviets. Oh, how time, experience, study, and data have changed my mind! Not only were peripheral conflicts like Angola unnecessary for beating the Soviets and securing US interests but many US proxies were ultimately found to be hostile to American values as well. And then we have the sheer human cost and blowback from US policies.
Here are some further points from Meredith about the war in Angola that may be useful when reflecting on the Reagan Doctrine, Jonas Savimbi, and other aspects of what today seems like an ancient historical contest:
The overall cost of the war was huge. During the 1980′s more than 350,000 died and a million more – deslocados – were uprooted from their homes (601). [GC - And this doesn't count the costs of the civil war that continued after the end of the Cold War)]
As for Unita, it was Savimbi’s personal fiefdom, a vehicle for his relentless drive for power. For all the praise heaped on him by President Reagan and other Western admirers, Savimbi was a ruthless dictator with a messianic sense of destiny, insistent on total control and intolerant of dissent and criticism from anyone in the movement (603).
Yet, like the MPLA, Savimbi relied heavily on an extensive security apparatus to maintain his grip, using fear as a method of control. He systematically purged Unita of rivals and critic, ordering death sentences not only for party dissidents but for members of their family as well. Human rights groups reported incidents of how women and children, accused of witchcraft, had been publicly burned to death, on a bonfire (604).
Margaret Thatcher, the so called “Iron Lady,” died on April 8th at the age of 87. The White House released the President’s statement, characterizing Baroness Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty.” (Note: In this instance, being a champion of liberty is a positive attribute). A poll conducted by the Guardian finds a mixed evaluation of various aspects of her legacy. A.C. Grayling (The New York Times), in contrast, sees little nothing to celebrate in Thatcher’s legacy:
The curious feature of Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy is that although she struck an ax-blow deep into the heart of Britain, it is society, not the political sphere, that remains deeply divided by a widening gap between rich and poor.
By contrast, the country’s politics have almost ceased to be ideological, as if exhausted by the Thatcher era. All the main British political parties now strive for the center ground, and the differences between them are about managerial style, not questions of principle.
For those who are interested, Reason has reprinted a 2006 article that Thatcher contributed. It is well worth a few minutes of your time. Here is a brief excerpt:
A system of state control can’t be made good merely because it is run by “clever” people who make the arrogant assertion that they “know best” and that they are serving the “public interest” interest which of course is determined by them. State control is fundamentally bad because it denies people the power to choose and the opportunity to bear responsibility for their own actions.
The Economist notes: “The essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom…She thought nations could become great only if individuals were set free. Her struggles had a theme: the right of individuals to run their own lives, as free as possible from the micromanagement of the state.”
Margaret Thatcher, RIP
Great piece in Slate that fits nicely into the relatively packed genre of recent works on the decision to go to grad school or not (which is probably just a subgenre of bearish pieces on academia). The bitterness just drips off the page, from the title (“Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You Into An Emotional Trainwreck, Not a Professor”) through to the end. Here is just one awesome paragraph:
So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)
I’m fairly ambivalent about my decision to go into grad school and then to double-down by ultimately staying within academia (and it didn’t help to hear tonight at dinner from an extremely successful lawyer who doesn’t b&lls^&t people that I would have been a great and very highly-paid lawyer). But right now I’m one of the 4-pack-a-day smokers among the 6% who survive small-cell lung cancer (see the Slate piece to get this reference). So life is good. And I love so much about my job and the human capital I’ve built. Yet I wouldn’t – and don’t – advise students to follow my path. Too many chances to fall off (or be pushed off) that path or to be extremely bitter and/or broken mentally even if you make it to the promised land. And let’s not even get into the personal wreckage one might face even in the promised land when creative destruction comes to higher ed. But if you must go to grad school, choose economics or something in the sciences that will give you more fungible capital.
I think I have now answered Steve Landsburg’s puzzle. The difference between his example (or mine) of an action that imposes only subjective costs and his example of an activity such as reading pornography, or Bork’s of using contraception, that imposes only subjective costs, is not the nature of the harm. The difference is that in the one case the cost is of a sort that can be measured, the action controlled, via a property rule. In the other, it is not.More precisely, the property rule under which I have a right to read porn and you can only stop me by offering to pay me not to do so produces its result by ignoring the cost my porn reading imposes on you, since, as with the case of risks imposed by careless driving, including that cost requires an unworkable contract between all of the prudes and all of the would-be consumers of porn. The property rule under which you have a right to forbid me, or anyone else, from reading porn, produces its result by ignoring the cost your ban imposes on me, for the same reason.Neither property rule gets the cost/benefit calculation correct, but the former rule is a great deal less expensive to enforce than the latter, which is an argument for it.What about a liability rule? That is the point at which the subjective nature of the harm comes in. It is true that, from the standpoint of economics, all harm is ultimately subjective—having my arm broken or my car dented would not be a cost under sufficiently bizarre assumptions about my preferences. But some subjective costs are a lot easier to measure externally than others. When I claim damages for my wrecked car, there are market prices out there for repairing or replacing it that provide a court with a reasonable basis for estimating the cost. When I announce that your reading of porn, or oil drilling in a wilderness I never plan to visit, inflicts large psychic harm on me, there is no such basis for checking my claim.
My Twitter feed has been filled with Americans and others expressing outrage about a Saudi court’s sentencing a man to be paralyzed from the waist down. He had stabbed a man in the back, paralyzing him.
I’m not going to defend or oppose the sentence, but I am going to defend a principle here: the violence inherent in the justice system should be obvious rather than hidden.
A couple of years ago, Peter Moskos suggested bringing back flogging as an option for prisoners: a year off your sentence for every stroke of the lash. He wrote eloquently of the horrors of the carceral state. And, so long as judges don’t simply respond by increasing sentence duration, it’s hard to see how the option to choose the lash would make prisoners worse off. As I wrote at the time:
I’m pulled to agree with Moskos. But I worry. I worry that the best evidence seems to suggest that prison deters crime mainly through incapacitation – criminals cannot commit crimes except against other criminals while behind bars. There’s good evidence for deterrent effects through things like California’s three strikes legislation, but incapacitation matters a lot. Longer term crime rates could go down with a switch from prisons to flogging if those committing crimes were better able to maintain a connection to the community and if prisons encourage recidivism. But rates would almost have to increase in the short term: those viewing flogging as much cheaper than a jail term would expect a reduction in the effective expected punishment for a criminal act. I’d hope that Moskos’s prescription would maintain the use of prisons as preventative detention for the really scary crazy dangerous cases.
A decade ago I would have worried that reducing the price of punishment experienced by the state would increase the total amount of punishment. If it’s expensive to keep a prisoner for a year, the state might be reluctant to put marginal offenders in jail. That’s not proven much of a constraint, so I worry rather less about that now.
But I do worry that the mob used to enjoy the spectacle of a public hanging.
When I read about cases like John Horner, (likely) entrapped by the DEA and facing a 25 year mandatory sentence for having sold his leftover prescription pain medicine to another man who had made him believe that he was in desperate pain, I wonder whether it’s the Saudis or the Americans who are really out of line. If you had two young daughters, and were facing 25 years delivered by the American justice system for doing no harm to anyone, wouldn’t you prefer surgical paralysation? I would.
Sometimes I wonder whether the focus on injustices committed abroad are a way of avoiding thinking of the ones at home.
In other news, we now have decent evidence that “tag and release” is more effective in preventing recidivism than incarceration. Here’s the abstract from the newly published paper by Di Tella and Schargrodsky in the Journal of Political Economy:
We study criminal recidivism in Argentina by focusing on the rearrest rates of two groups: individuals released from prison and individuals released from electronic monitoring. Detainees are randomly assigned to judges, and ideological differences across judges translate into large differences in the allocation of electronic monitoring to an otherwise similar population. Using these peculiarities of the Argentine setting, we argue that there is a large, negative causal effect on criminal recidivism of treating individuals with electronic monitoring relative to prison.
Lengthy carceral sentences for drug crimes are arguably behind much American inner-city disfunction. When a reasonable proportion of men of marriageable age are in prison, really bad things start happening to family formation.
Moskos is looking more right all the time.
It is a pleasure to introduce Eric Crampton as our guest blogger this week at Pileus. Eric is an economist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is currently working on projects relating to voter knowledge, electoral stock markets, alcohol regulatory policy and paternalism. He hails originally from Canada but earned his doctorate at George Mason University. He usually blogs at Offsetting Behaviour.
Pileus veterans may remember that Eric’s first attempt to guest blog here was interrupted by the 2011 New Zealand earthquake. We hope that nothing like that occurs this time. Welcome Eric! Looking forward to your always interesting thoughts.
David Stockman has an interesting piece in today’s New York Times (“State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America”). If the title doesn’t grab you, here is a paragraph from the last page of the article:
These policies have brought America to an end-stage metastasis. The way out would be so radical it can’t happen. It would necessitate a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy. It would require a renunciation of crony capitalism and its first cousin: Keynesian economics in all its forms. The state would need to get out of the business of imperial hubris, economic uplift and social insurance and shift its focus to managing and financing an effective, affordable, means-tested safety net.
The article provide a taste of his new book, The Great Deformation. I have not read it yet (I believe I had it on advanced order at Amazon).
From a recent short posting by Steve Smith of the USD Law School:
Everyone favors equality: Everyone thinks that like cases should be treated alike. Nobody argues, “These groups are alike in all relevant respects, but they should be treated differently.” So when people disagree about legal or political issues, they aren’t arguing for and against equality. Instead, they are disagreeing about whether two cases, or two classes of people, actually are alike for the purposes of whatever is being discussed.
So the real disagreement is not about equality, but rather about what marriage is, or what it should be thought to include. Among the vast spectrum of human relationships, many of them valuable or ennobling, which ones should be classified under the heading of “marriage”? On that question, there are various views. Some think marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman. Some think it can include relationships between two committed adults, regardless of sex. Some would not limit marriage to only two persons. Some would not limit it to adults.
Reasonable people can debate these views in good faith and in various vocabularies—cultural, psychological, political, theological. So there are important debates to be had, and important decisions to be made. But the debates will only be cluttered up, and the decisions confounded, if the issue is framed in the question-begging terms of “marriage equality.”
Well said. And I would add that simplifying that which is not simple (human sexuality, for instance) does not make any group, in the long run, better off.
Roger Koppl argues this week at ThinkMarkets that “Income inequality matters.” He thinks it matters so much that he says it twice. He believes “Austrian,” pro-market, economic liberals should be speaking up more on this “central issue.” I think Koppl could not be more wrong. The issue deserves all the inattention we can muster for it.
The problem I think is not Koppl’s motives. He rightly says that we should “watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others.” He is certainly right about that. He argues that unjust state policies may be skewing market results in such a way as to increase inequality. He may be right about that. But he is wrong in suggesting that we ought therefore to be paying attention to income inequality. We ought therefore to be paying attention to those policies. Whether they produce greater inequality is neither here nor there.
Koppl gives four examples: (i) policies that privatize profits and socialize losses, (ii) bad regulation, (iii) collapse of the rule of law, and (iv) public schools. I can certainly join Koppl in a hearty wish that we not only attend to these unwarranted policies, programs, and tendencies, but that we do so with a degree of urgency prompted, in part, by their effects on the poorest and most vulnerable among us. But talking about inequality is precisely a distraction from doing so.
In a great paper of a few years ago, Harry Frankfurt argued that “Egalitarianism is harmful because it tends to distract those who are beguiled by it from their real interests.”* Frankfurt thought that focusing on equality was actually pernicious because it distracted us from attention to real harms, of which inequality is at most an indicator. And he was right. It may well be that, for example, the evisceration of the rule of law results in greater income inequality. But it also might not. Whether or not it does so, however, it is unjust, and it deserves our attention. Similarly for the increase in moral hazard and regulation, to say nothing of the deplorable system of public education. All of these need attention, and one prime reason they do so is because of their effects on those least capable of circumventing their evils. If we care about the poor, what we ought to care about is bad policy, not indicators that may or may not have anything to do with policies that are making people worse off. As long as we are worrying about income inequality, we are worrying about the wrong thing.
* In “The Moral Irrelevance of Equality,” Public Affairs Quarterly, April 2000.
More seriously, these disturbing cases illustrate how the irrational paranoia of an ethnic majority drives discrimination and repression toward minorities in several places around the world. In the case of Sri Lanka, the mostly-Buddhist Sinhalese feel themselves threatened by nearly a billion Hindus next door in India. In Burma, the state has long (falsely) accused the Muslim Rohingyas of being illegal immigrants and deprived them of citizenship. (Many Muslims have also immigrated to all parts of Burma over the years.) In my paper linked above, I find that a move to majoritarian political institutions is associated with greater likelihood of new discrimination. However, the executive-constraints aspect of democratization tends to inhibit discrimination. These are tensions that Burma and Sri Lanka will both have to deal with as they move toward more representative institutions.
We here at Pileus obviously have our differences with Paul Krugman (mainly when he is Paul Krugman the political columnist not Paul Krugman the economist). But he is obviously a very intelligent person who has produced a lot of sound scholarship and even some good political commentary (especially when he drops the annoying condescending tone). Here he is last night with a nice little post on Cyprus. I recommend the whole thing, but below is a small bit:
A correspondent whom I respect has (gently) challenged me to say plainly what I think Cyprus should do — leaving aside all questions about political realism. And he’s right: while I think it’s OK to spend most of my time on this blog working within the limits of the politically possible, and relying on a combination of reason and ridicule to push out those limits over time, once in a while I should just flatly state what I would do if given a chance.
So here it is: yes, Cyprus should leave the euro. Now.
The reason is straightforward: staying in the euro means an incredibly severe depression, which will last for many years while Cyprus tries to build a new export sector. Leaving the euro, and letting the new currency fall sharply, would greatly accelerate that rebuilding.
One of his best non-technical pieces, though, is this older essay on comparative advantage, that is still of note and worth having a look at if you have thought much about trade policy lately. Here is what Krugman sets out to do in this piece:
My objective in this essay is to try to explain why intellectuals who are interested in economic issues so consistently balk at the concept of comparative advantage. Why do journalists who have a reputation as deep thinkers about world affairs begin squirming in their seats if you try to explain how trade can lead to mutually beneficial specialization? Why is it virtually impossible to get a discussion of comparative advantage, not only onto newspaper op-ed pages, but even into magazines that cheerfully publish long discussions of the work of Jacques Derrida? Why do policy wonks who will happily watch hundreds of hours of talking heads droning on about the global economy refuse to sit still for the ten minutes or so it takes to explain Ricardo?
In this essay, I will try to offer answers to these questions. The first thing I need to do is to make clear how few people really do understand Ricardo’s difficult idea — since the response of many intellectuals, challenged on this point, is to insist that of course they understand the concept, but they regard it as oversimplified or invalid in the modern world. Once this point has been established, I will try to defend the following hypothesis:
(i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.
(ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.
(iii) At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage — like opposition to the theory of evolution — reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models — simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers.
So, how much does National Review owe him or what does he have on Rich Lowry? Of course, I’m joking – but one does wonder what is going on when a flagship conservative magazine/blog allows a rich man with some conservative ideas and quite a few ideas antithetical to that worldview into/onto their pages. I’m not making an argument that magazines have a thin party line. But some things, shall we say, dilute the brand: like Black’s favorable coverage of both FDR (and the New Deal) and Richard Nixon – two of the three worst Presidents in the 20th century from a conservative perspective (at the time he wrote them)!
Now today we get an article from Black titled: “Pope Francis, Say Yes to the Pill“ One could certainly argue in favor of the pill and contraception in general, but this article is so facile in its treatment of Catholic thought on the matter and so disdainful of this tradition that it is surprising to see it in a flagship conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley. I should note that the article doesn’t distinguish among different types of contraception – so the title could be a bit misleading. But we also don’t get a careful discussion of perhaps how the Church could do some of the things he would like when it comes to sexuality without going all in on contraception (ex: barrier methods within a loving, marriage yes, other forms no) and really undermining important arguments within Catholicism.
In a recent review (“Where are the honest atheists?“), my always-interesting friend Damon Linker pans a forthcoming book by A.C. Grayling, one of the “new atheists,” for accomplishing little that hasn’t been said before (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchins, etc.,) and for exhibiting the same shortcomings. He wants them to confront the “terrible” consequences of what they are saying:
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
The new atheists differ from the old atheists primarily by their passionate devotion to modern science (or, we might say, whatever the consensus view is at the moment). Central to this devotion is the cosmological theory commonly referred to as the Big Bang, in which a “singularity” of infinite density and temperature erupted about 14 billion years ago and formed the universe we experience today. There is a lot of observational evidence for the cosmological theory. The new atheists have their articles of faith, too. The first is that this original event (we are not allowed to ask what came before the origin) was devoid of any purpose, intent, or meaning. The second article of faith is that this pointless universe is, in its entirety, nonetheless governed by a vast body of immutable physical laws (which come from…..ummmm, hold that thought).
A small part of the pointless universe, though not a part with any particular import, is made up of the masses of chemicals known as human beings. Indeed, since the universe as a whole is pointless and meaningless, it is ridiculous to even talk about any group of chemicals as having importance. Placing relative values on things, which is what importance means, makes no sense in a universe void, from the beginning, of subjective values. We can talk about how different chemicals function within the universe, such as emitting energy or holding objects together or sustaining life. But with respect to matter, nothing matters more than anything else. Indeed, life itself is no more valuable than the absence of life. A fundamental law of science is that we cannot create something from nothing, which means that we cannot extract values from a valueless and unvalued universe. How could one chemical or combination of chemicals have more moral standing than another? Indeed, to even talk about the moral standing of different chemicals or combination of chemicals is nonsense.
Imagine our own world hundreds of millions of years ago when life was just “emerging” (due to some highly fortunate but completely random occurrence of the right chemical and environmental conditions) and when there was nothing more on the planet than simple one-celled creatures. What sort of ethics governed these creatures? If it seems like a silly question, it is because it is a silly question—but no more silly that the question of what sort of moral code governs any of the long line of descendents from those one-celled organisms, including human beings today. Since there was, in our natural history, no design, no intent, no meaning, no value, no good, and no evil, we are really no different, in ethical terms, than our one-celled ancestors, are we not? How could it be otherwise? Remember, something cannot come from nothing. Sure, we can evolve into new chemical combinations and follow new evolutionary pathways, but none of those have any meaning or value or import. They are just different. In short we are just a cosmic accident, an accumulation of chaotic, pointless events and, therefore, no more important than an amorphous cloud of gas encircling some lifeless planet.
The new atheists and their fellow travelers have written many books (I’ve got a shelf full of them) about the evolution of a “moral sense.” It is quite logical to think that certain attitudes and ideas promote reproductive fitness and the thriving of the species. But all this really gets us a world where some chemical conglomerates have evolved methods of sustaining themselves that, as far as we know are not seen elsewhere in the universe. These arguments have nothing to tell us about whether the species is worth maintaining. Should we cease to exist, kill ourselves in a nuclear Armageddon, for instance, there is no more loss, in any moral sense, to the universe than when a cloud of gas dissipates and its components combine with other elements to become something else. How can there be loss when there is no value to begin with? Scripture teaches that we are made from the dust and will one day return to the dust. Believers share this view with the new atheists. The difference is that for the atheists, that whole process—including the part we refer to as our lives—can be of no consequence whatsoever. That is the unavoidable conclusion flowing from their articles of faith.
This is the truth Linker wants the new atheists to admit honestly. But they won’t, in general. They will acknowledge that their cosmology allows for no universal moral laws (this can be very convenient for purposes of self-justification, incidentally), but they still want it both ways. They want to mock moral intuitions and metaphysical powers but at the same time reserve the right to extract, from the stratosphere apparently, moral ideas as they suit their fancy. Linker refers to this as “superficial happy talk.” They want to hang on to the rich moral sense that humans have and pretend it could have been a produced, by accident, from a universe that began without any purpose or reason for being. And they think we believers are too dumb to notice this sleight of hand.
Grayling argues, for instance, that when we exorcise religion from our lives, we have something much more wonderful to put in its place: humanism. This claim is completely mindless—and by “mindless” I mean in the deepest, truest sense of the word. He says that humanistic ethics are founded in the “facts of human experience” and are subject to, first of all, the constraint that “one’s choices must not be aimed at harming others.” Well, why ever not? Since I am a product of the same pointless history of random chemical reactions that created the amorphous cloud of gas mentioned above, I have no more worth than that cloud. Kicking a fellow human being is just as morally arbitrary as kicking a rock down the road. We (the rock and I) are both the chemical products of a pointless sequence of random events. Why should anyone worry about kicking a rock or, for that matter, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere. Why should humanity have any special moral relevance over any other random dump of chemicals in the universe?
The typical response is that we are different because we have reason. Ahhhh, there you have it. We can think. So why does this make me special? I also have very powerful and diverse enzymes in my gut that do all sorts of wonderful things. I can also regulate my internal body temperature without even thinking about it. Indeed, I have a wide variety of advanced brain functions. The thing they all share in common is that they are all governed by chemistry. As the new atheists like to tell us, “there is no ghost in the machine.” No soul. No mind. No spirit. Just a very cool chemical machine. Reason allows me to reflect on all these things, but is it any more than just chemistry, any more worthy of respect than my complicated digestive system? I can find no rationale within the atheists’ cosmology to conclude that it is. Chemistry has no moral value, even if it is nifty.
Now, unlike the rock, I may care about being kicked, but the pain I feel and the emotions resulting from being kicked are just chemical reactions in my physical brain. Those chemical reactions have no more consequences than the vast number of chemical responses occurring all over the universe. The same goes if I am the one doing the kicking, right? It’s just chemistry. And, where does Grayling get off talking about “choice.” How can these great thinkers assume or even talk about choice? All they can observe are stimuli and responses. Sure, they can use words like “choice” or “decision” to pin as descriptors on the chemical reactions in my brain that occur after stimuli and prior to some action, but why should these chemical reactions be any more special than all the other chemical reactions going on in my body (or outside of it), such as those regulating my breathing or keeping my anal sphincter tightened. Choice? How can we possibly get choice in a universe that does not even have intention?
Any ethical theory has to start somewhere, and starting with the idea that humanity matters appeals to people of many philosophical bents. Certainly the atheists can engage in the practice of moral reasoning (just as they can play chess or cricket), but that is far afield from having anything to say about morality. Linker wants the new atheists to confront honestly the terror induced by their arguments, but I want to go a step further (a step that Damon may not want to take). I think that in adopting their particular cosmology, the new atheists have forfeited any right to preach to the rest of us about ethics, about what people should value or how they should treat each other. This is not (merely) as punishment for inflicting terror upon their fellow beings, but because the foundations of that cosmology shout forth, in every dimension, the utter worthlessness of humanity (actually, the utter worthlessness of everything).
If nothing starts with value or objective, then nothing can end with value or objective. Of course the new atheists have played different variations of this game before. They claim we have produced consciousness from unconsciousness, life from the absence of life, reason and order from chaos, beauty and art and love and sacrifice and kindness and anger and hate and spite from….chemistry. They mock religious faith, yet the leap of faith required to believe in all these unobservable miracles they cling to is truly astounding.
So, fine. Go live in your godless universe. And, while you are at it, stop pretending you have anything coherent to tell the rest of us about morality.
From his WaPo column:
I asked [John] Allison recently about mortgage bankers who made lousy loans that they knew would go bad, and investment bankers who knowingly packaged them into securities, and ratings agencies that gave them their seal of approval. His explanation was that once a misguided government provided the wrong incentives and opportunities, such profit-maximizing behavior was to be expected in a market system — a system that eventually would have punished those who were misguided or unethical if the government hadn’t foolishly bailed them out.
Note the Gordon Gekko-like logic here: Because pursuit of self-interest is the essential ingredient in a market system, it somehow follows that individuals and firms are free to act as greedily and selfishly as they can within the law, absolved from any moral obligations. And it’s not just in the movies. The same amorality was on display at those Senate hearings in 2010 where Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre and the team from Goldman Sachs tried to explain to incredulous lawmakers why it was perfectly reasonable to peddle securities to clients that they had deliberately constructed to default.
More self-imposed stupidity? Or does he really believe libertarians believe that?
About the ideological Turing test.
Hypothetically, switching off the lights for an hour would cut CO2 emissions from power plants around the world. But, even if everyone in the entire world cut all residential lighting, and this translated entirely into CO2 reduction, it would be the equivalent of China pausing its CO2 emissions for less than four minutes. In fact, Earth Hour will cause emissions to increase.
As the United Kingdom’s National Grid operators have found, a small decline in electricity consumption does not translate into less energy being pumped into the grid, and therefore will not reduce emissions. Moreover, during Earth Hour, any significant drop in electricity demand will entail a reduction in CO2 emissions during the hour, but it will be offset by the surge from firing up coal or gas stations to restore electricity supplies afterward.
And the cozy candles that many participants will light, which seem so natural and environmentally friendly, are still fossil fuels—and almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs. Using one candle for each switched-off bulb cancels out even the theoretical CO2 reduction; using two candles means that you emit more CO2.
What I could get behind is a “Night Sky Hour” or something similar in which people would shut off outdoor lighting for a specified period of each night or of one night a week to cut light pollution during that time. Night pollution is a huge negative externality and many sources of it do little other than create such pollution (since the impact of home and street lamps on safety are very much overrated).
Here is what I said last year on light pollution:
Light pollution which brightens the beautiful dark sky with an ugly muted glow is one of the most underrated negative externalities around. I talked a little bit about this earlier. Unfortunately, it is a really difficult problem to solve.
On the one hand, Coasian bargaining can’t solve the problem given the huge transaction costs of dealing with the millions of people who cause the natural dark sky to disappear (not to mention that a property right in the skies relevant to this issue can’t really be defined or allocated easily unless you gave someone a near monopoly grant).
On the other hand, even government solutions would be resisted by the “cult of light” that has formed around the notion that we need artificial lighting outdoors in order to be safe and secure (or to properly advertise business activity). I can’t imagine a tax on improperly shielded outdoor lights large enough to change behavior and decreasing light pollution would be very popular with the electorate. And light fixture and bulb companies would almost certainly use their vast lobbying power to help kill such a tax even if it had an electoral chance. That leaves regulation – which might suffer from the same political barriers – and education.
Of course, someone might argue that the harm done is so small in the aggregate that it isn’t even worth a political decision costly to the preferences of many more people. Maybe so, even though I generally reject utilitarian defenses of any particular act or policy.
So I think we are stuck for the immediate future with the ugly sky we’ve created through the millions of innocent and often well-intentioned decisions of market participants that harm others without compensation.
Perhaps “Night Sky Hour” would be some compensation for those of us harmed by this externality?
According to Slate:
Official data from China’s health ministry has revealed just how pervasive abortions have been in China since it instituted its one-child policy. Since 1971, Chinese doctors have performed 336 million abortions in a country with a population of 1.35 billion. They have also performed 196 million sterilizations and inserted 403 million intrauterine devices, a birth control procedure that some have said are forced on women in China, reports the Financial Times. China has estimated that without the birth restrictions its population would now be around 30 percent larger.
I can’t imagine (well, sadly I can) that any but the most enthusiastic Mathusians, eugenicists, or pro-abortion activists don’t cringe when seeing these numbers. In about 40 years, Chinese doctors aborted a population of fetuses/babies the size of the entire US population! That is just staggering. What the Slate piece doesn’t discuss is to what extent these were coerced or “incentivized” abortions (by the latter, I mean women who were pressured by the threat of steep government fines or other penalties). I’m also curious to what extent those sterilizations were voluntary.
Here’s just one of many stories about how the Chinese government has been violating the most basic fundamental human rights of mothers and children. I’m sure even pro-choicers are almost unanimously appalled by such events. Really puts our discussions of big government in the US into context. From CNN:
When Ji Yeqing awakened, she was already in the recovery room.
Chinese authorities had dragged her out of her home and down four flights of stairs, she said, restraining and beating her husband as he tried to come to her aid.
They whisked her into a clinic, held her down on a bed and forced her to undergo an abortion.
Her offense? Becoming pregnant with a second child, in violation of China’s one-child policy.
“After the abortion, I felt empty, as if something was scooped out of me,” Ji told a congressional panel in September. “My husband and I had been so excited for our new baby. Now suddenly all that hope and joy and excitement disappeared. … I was very depressed and despondent. For a long time, whenever I thought about my lost child, I would cry.”
As she lay unconscious, she said, an IUD to prevent future pregnancies was inserted.
Horrible, just horrible.
Perhaps it is this one by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic. The piece is technically about how the MSM blew it in their coverage of Rand Paul, but Friedersdorf captures something important about libertarians and those that cover/discuss us that non-libertarians largely miss.
Here is just one interesting little section of the piece, but I give it my highest recommendation (so to borrow from Friedersdorf, “Seriously, read the whole thing“).
Revisiting this coverage is important because it helps to clarify the flaws in the way that many journalists cover libertarianism generally — even if you think, as I do, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was extremely important legislation that ought to be celebrated by all Americans for the good it did; and that, if better executed, covering Paul’s position on the subject would have been legitimate. Unfortunately, the actual coverage unfolded in a way that left the audience ill-informed.
The particulars won’t surprise anyone familiar with the template the political press uses to cover libertarians. As Chris Beam wrote in 2010, “For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged.” He nailed the perception among journalists.
One consequence is something I call reductio ad libertarium.
On a given issue, a journalist confronted with the libertarian position, like legalizing drugs, objects by pointing out the most extreme possible consequence: “So I could go buy heroin at the store?” Fair enough, except that there are no analogous challenges to the establishment positions. A candidate whose stance is that drugs must remain illegal is never asked, “So you’re okay with imprisoning millions of people, empowering violent street gangs, destabilizing multiple foreign countries, militarizing municipal police forces, and still having ubiquitous drug use?”
Thanks to status quo bias, libertarians are labeled “crazy” and “kooky,” even as the establishment makes historic blunders for which they are never pilloried and that many libertarians opposed.
(Take the Iraq War.)
So, if you are tempted to use the reductio ad libertarium, make sure you are willing to challenge (or be challenged about) the logical extensions of your own priors – or admit that a principled position may lead you into some uncomfortable avenues that demand reconsideration of the principle, consideration of what deviations from that principle are justified and under what conditions (particularly certain given historical factors), or whether the principle should be guiding even under the difficult case (especially in order to avoid erosion of the principle).
UPDATE: I changed the original title since I don’t want to engage, today, the debate about what is a libertarian and whether Friedersdorf fits. I mostly don’t have enough data about the latter issue.
Is the name an ominous choice for those of us who would like to see the Catholic Church more fully embrace markets? St. Francis was known for his adoption of a life of poverty and commitment to animals. This Francis – from the little I know – is said to be committed to “social justice.” So “social justice” and environmentalism??
From Monetary Affairs:
I asked Professor Mankiw, “If you had carte blanche today, what three economic reforms would you put in place?” His answers: (1) raise the retirement age of Social Security and Medicare by 10 years gradually over a period of time; (2) raise the gas tax by $2 and rebate it to have neutral distributional effects; (3) reform taxes by broadening the base through eliminating exemptions, excepting charitable deductions, and lower the marginal tax rates.
The first would be super but seems politically impossible under current conditions – though the gradual process would lessen opposition to a certain extent. The second is theoretically positive to deal with pollution externalities but will incentivize greater population concentration – which I can imagine having lots of bad effects for the things I care about. The third should be favored by everyone who isn’t a rent-seeker, assuming that other more radical tax plans are off the table.
BTW, here is a recent paper on some of the distributional issues raised by such a gas tax.
In case you missed it yesterday, Ross Douthat at the New York Times had a fairly positive piece on Rand Paul that stressed the connection between the filibuster and the intra-Republican foreign policy debate. Here is a nice section but the whole thing is worth a read:
Officially, Paul’s filibuster was devoted to a specific question of executive power — whether there are any limits on the president’s authority to declare American citizens enemy combatants and deal out death to them. But anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power.
Predictably, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol panned the filibusterer and thought it was a lot of “sound and fury” (which is rich given Kristol’s boosterism for Sarah Palin who couldn’t hold a candle to Paul when it comes to discussing the Constitution and civil liberties). Kristol’s ire is a good sign.
Paul is no doubt a threat to the big government conservatism and aggressive foreign policy that Kristol and the neocons in the Republican Party have been pitching for decades. There have been other critics of this (failed) approach, but none with the political skills and intelligence of Rand Paul. Let’s hope that Rand surrounds himself with good advisors who keep him away from some of the weirder themes and fringes of the libertarian-paleocon world that his Dad found hard to ignore – because an attractive libertarian realist foreign policy approach is out there that could benefit the Republican Party brand and more importantly the country.
Establishment hacks are lining up to sneer at Rand Paul’s filibuster as accomplishing nothing (see for instance, here and here in The Economist). “The U.S. government is not going to use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil,” so the line goes. “So what’s the point?”
It’s hard to know what to make of lines like that. Are the writers feigning stupidity, or are they really stupid?
A majority of Americans currently support the drone strikes the U.S. government is conducting in Pakistan and Yemen, far away from any actual battlefields or imminent threats. They’re wrong to do so. But how do you show them that they’re wrong? You show them the logical endpoint of their principle: If the U.S. government is authorized to assassinate alleged enemies in neutral countries away from any battlefield or imminent threat, then what is to stop it from assassinating alleged enemies within the U.S.?
The assertion that the U.S. government would never do this because it has better alternatives is beside the point, even if true. Our constitution isn’t designed around the principle that politicians will always do the right thing. The point of Rand Paul’s filibuster was to establish that it would be unlawful, not just impractical, for the U.S. government to target its own citizens on its own soil in the absence of an actual attack. And if that would be unlawful, then so is what the U.S. government is actually doing. The Obama Administration saw this threat clearly and for that reason refused to concede Paul’s point. Even the letter they ultimately issued doesn’t clearly concede the legal issue.
Paul himself says his filibuster was just the beginning. Let’s hope so.
I blame Dennis Rodman.
Apparently the Republican future theme I wrote on quickly this morning was also on the mind of a lot of others today. Drudge helpfully put up a bunch of links from a variety of sources on Lindsey Graham and John McCain going after Paul. Reason had the quote of the day on this theme:
“The Republican Party is at war, folks, and let’s hope Rand Paul and his troops win.”
Wouldn’t it be great if Paul’s efforts last night turned into something like Reagan’s 1964 speech for Goldwater? In this case, Daddy Paul and his insurgent campaign was Goldwater and his insurgency, and son Rand is the beneficiary and future Reagan? Or am I just engaging in wishful thinking?
I had to sort of hunt this morning to find any coverage of Rand Paul’s historic filibuster in the NY Times. I can just imagine that if it were Chuck Schumer talking about abuses of power by the Bush administration, it would be front and center.
I’m sure their strategy is not to do anything to undermine the view that Senator Paul is just some libertarian nutcase with no influence in his party or in the nation. Giving him coverage would just make him look heroic, and we couldn’t have that could we? To her credit, the ever-funny Gail Collins had some marginally positive comments about the filibuster (even though it was couched within a condemnation of Mitch McConnell and full of negative barbs against Paul).
What we do have on the front page of the “paper of record” is limits on abortions in Arkansas, more post-Chaves news from Venezuela, a charity taking on the evil gun lobby, bad behavior by the Syrian rebels, employers unwilling to hire people even though they have lots of good candidates, and–get this–a story about how Brennan’s chief job in the CIA will be confronting the CIA interrogations of the past (read: Bush really was evil after all).
Why am I not surprised?
One that is defined by these members and Obama dinner companions:
John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Bob Corker, Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, John Hoeven, Dan Coats, Richard Burr, and Mike Johanns.
Or one defined by these Paul filibuster supporters:
Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Jerry Moran, Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, John Barrasso, John Thune, and Mitch McConnell.
Or perhaps it will be the overlap:
Saxby Chambliss and Pat Toomey.
If you haven’t seen any of Rand Paul’s filibuster of the President’s CIA Director nominee, you have been missing a civics lesson. Watch here on C-SPAN.
Ted Cruz is currently talking about the danger of concentrating power in the executive as we speak.
UPDATE: Here is a compilation of some of the best Paul quotations from the filibuster.
John Lott (of More Guns, Less Crime fame) writes:
Mass shootings occur in places where people of all ages are defenseless, such as so-called gun-free zones in which lots of people congregate and guns are banned. Since at least 1950, all but two of the public shootings in America with more than three deaths have taken place where guns were banned.
Take the Aurora shooting last summer. Within 20 minutes of the murderer’s apartment there were seven movie theaters premiering the Batman movie. The shooter didn’t go to the one that was closest to his apartment. And he didn’t choose the one with the largest audience. Instead, he went to the only one where guns were banned.
I’m not sure these empirical claims would withstand more careful scrutiny (there are likely important confounders here), but certainly this is claim worth more attention that most of the public fussing since Newtown.
This is a powerful story of injustice and one woman’s refusal to stand for it:
On August 17th, 2011 Katharine “Katie” McCall, a licensed midwife, was convicted of practicing medicine with out a license for a 2007 birth she assisted as a student. The charge arose from a home birth where Katie’s supervising midwife could not arrive because she was at another birth. Instead of leaving the family to birth unassisted, Katie stayed. She recommended that the family transfer to the hospital and the family refused.
She was imprisoned. After being released, she decided to move from California to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project and is blogging the move.
Mr. Chávez, in the final analysis, was an awful manager.
Actually, the piece provides an interesting overview of Chávez, the “boligarchs,” and his 14-year experiment. Carroll reports:“by 2011 you could see graffiti with the slogan ‘bajo el gobierno, viva Chávez’— ‘down with the government, long live Chávez.’” Now that Chávez is gone, el gobierno remains. Doesn’t it always.
1. I’m not a big fan of CNN but it occasionally produces an interesting piece. This one on a surrogate who rescued a baby with birth defects from the natural parents (or so she thought!) who wanted the baby aborted is a must-read and raises a lot of interesting questions about law and ethics. It also highlights how states are still relevant actors in our lives despite the encroachments of the federal government (and see #3 below).
2. One of the great benefits of government spending cuts (including the sequester) is that politicians and bureaucrats have to think more seriously about trade-offs. Of course, the sequester cuts are absolutely tiny – as Nick Gillespie at Reason nicely points out - and thus don’t pinch those folks enough. But this piece at the USNI site notes one potential benefit – the Navy may have to reduce its efforts in support of the drug war. Of course, the article makes it sound like the possible shift is a bad one but this is yet another war the US won’t be winning.
3. As citizens and visitors to the Tar Heel State know too well, North Carolina has a state liquor monopoly. In this white paper, lawyer Jeannette Doran of the NCICL “addresses whether North Carolina’s monopoly system violates the State Constitutional provision which declares and mandates: ‘monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free state and shall not be allowed.’” Here is a nice quotation from the conclusion of this short paper:
It is dangerous to permit the State to engage in monopolistic activity. To tolerate a government-sanctioned monopoly by any entity, including the State itself, is “contrary to the genius of a free state”, according to the common sense of our Constitution. If the State is given wide discretion to monopolize spirituous liquor sales on the justification that it is doing so to protect public health and safety, there is little constitutional barrier to the monopolization of other products and services.
This is the title of an interesting piece by Monica Prasaad in today’s NYT. I will provide the lead paragraph in the hope that it will entice you to read the piece in its entirety.
Why do European countries have lower levels of poverty and inequality than the United States? We used to think this was a result of American anti-government sentiment, which produced a government too small to redistribute income or to attend to the needs of the poor. But over the past three decades scholars have discovered that our government wasn’t as small as we thought. Historians, sociologists and political scientists have all uncovered evidence that points to a surprisingly large governmental presence in the United States throughout the 20th century and even earlier, in some cases surpassing what we find in Western Europe.
European countries do have larger public welfare states, and this brings down their poverty and inequality rates. But in return, European corporations received a gift: a political economy biased against consumption and geared toward production.
Prasaad’s past research in comparative political economy and fiscal sociology has been quite interesting (in particular, her fine book The Politics of Free Markets). Her new book is The Land of Too Much: American Abundance and the Paradox of Poverty.
The New Yorker‘s humor is often lost on me, but this fake report on the sequester’s impact on the Pentagon is pretty funny. I particularly enjoyed the shot at Lindsey Graham – and you will too if you’ve ever seen him on the Sunday morning talk shows and in other media appearances. However, the “nine-thousand dollar pen” comment feeds a very misleading argument that has been widespread since the 1980′s (remember the $600 toilet seat charge that turned out to be not nearly as good an example of military waste, fraud, or abuse as it seeemed to many at the time). Nonetheless, enjoy:
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—The spending cuts mandated by the sequester may hamper the United States’s ability to invade countries for absolutely no reason, a Pentagon spokesman warned today.
The Pentagon made this gloomy assessment amid widespread fears that the nation’s ability to wage totally optional wars based on bogus pretexts may be in peril.
“Historically, the United States has stood ready and able to throw billions of dollars at a military campaign with no clear rationale or well-defined objective,” said spokesman Harland Dorrinson. “Our capacity to wage war willy-nilly is now in jeopardy.”
In the past, Mr. Dorrinson said, the Pentagon has had the resources to fight three meaningless and completely random wars at any given time, “but now in our planning meetings we are cutting that number back to two.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R—S.C.) agreed about the catastrophic effects of the Pentagon cuts, telling reporters, “The ability of the United States to project its military power in an arbitrary and totally capricious way must never be compromised.”
The cuts are already being felt in a tangible way at the Pentagon, which today cancelled an order for a nine-thousand-dollar pen.