Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I’ve listened to NPR in the car a fair bit over the last two weeks.  If I learned my economics from that station, I’d have to conclude that wealth is essentially just something that exists and is expropriated by individuals and countries.  It is a fixed pie that one either has a slice of (or two or three or four in the case of rich people and nations) or not.    Little sense that wealth is created, that liberal institutions and values are better at creating the conditions of wealth-creation than others, and that one’s piece of pie can grow without the slices of others getting smaller.  And perhaps most importantly, it is an article of faith on NPR that state action is required to remedy just about any problem (and consistent with the nirvana fallacy, only rarely is there discussion of the problems of such remedial actions and their agent).  Or perhaps I just happened to not be in the car at the times that other views were shared ( I did catch a short bit of a piece talking about a failed foreign aid project.  Fair and balanced at NPR!).

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Hedging and the Dollar

Leaving aside those of you who have rushed to gold over the last year or five, are any of our readers hedging against the future value of the US dollar by buying foreign currencies (or something else)?  If so, which ones?  Are any of you betting on the US dollar?  Why or why not?

One of the reasons I am asking is that I hear a lot of libertarians worried about future inflation.  But I want to know their revealed preferences (assuming transaction costs are low enough that it is easy enough to reveal one’s concerns through action).

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This article on the boom in companies using solar power is only one of many I’ve seen recently on the declining costs and increased usage of this wonderful sun-based power source.   It even has this nice graphic (see below).  One might even be tempted to conclude that businesses are doing good by doing well.

Solar CapacityBut I’m curious why one rarely hears about the pollution created by the production of solar panels and the environmental costs associated with solar panel disposal/recycling.  We certainly hear a lot about pollution (and disposal costs) caused by carbon-based or nuclear power sources.  Even I think about water pollution when I hear the word fracking since this negative externality has been repeated so often in discussions of this extraction method — and I’m the kind of person excited by what the fracking revolution means for the US and believe that the environmental costs have been overstated.

So, are the negative aspects of solar power discussed so infrequently because they pale in comparison to the alternatives?  Or is it because the solar business and their environmentalist allies want us to ignore the kind of accounting they insist upon for other power sources (even wind energy seems to get more negative publicity)?  Is it because production frequently takes place outside of the US so the costs are less obvious or less salient to Americans?

I’m honestly curious.   And I’d really love it if solar were truly so good that it could be less environmentally harmful and more efficient than other sources of energy.  But I’d like to hear more about the costs (other than the obvious aesthetic ones).  And of course, the government subsidies deserve more mention as well (but this is true of all energy sources, including wood!).

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Interestingly, the latter Google search yields 4.4 million hits, while the former yields just 1.9 million hits, yet the Google search for the latter redirects to that for the former, unless you tell it not to. Apparently, either term is acceptable. I find “brinksmanship” more euphonious, perhaps due to the parallel with “marksmanship.”

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Below is a selection from Abraham Lincoln’s response to Stephen A. Douglas in the first of their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates (this one occurred on August 21, 1858).  Mark LeBar, and other readers, may find it particularly interesting given his prior thoughts on supporting the troops.


And so I think my friend, the Judge, is equally at fault when he charges me at the time when I was in Congress of having opposed our soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war. The Judge did not make his charge very distinctly but I can tell you what he can prove by referring to the record. You remember I was an old Whig, and whenever the Democratic party tried to get me to vote that the war had been righteously begun by the President, I would not do it. But whenever they asked for any money, or land warrants, or anything to pay the soldiers there, during all that time, I gave the same votes that Judge Douglas did. [Loud applause.] You can think as you please as to whether that was consistent. Such is the truth; and the Judge has the right to make all he can out of it. But when he, by a general charge, conveys the idea that I withheld supplies from the soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war, or did anything else to hinder the soldiers, he is, to say the least, grossly and altogether mistaken, as a consultation of the records will prove to him.

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The title is from Fergus Cullen’s latest editorial in the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Here’s a taste:

A dilemma for conservatives is that to advance the cause of limited government, some of them have to join government and pass laws. Ironically, the most active state legislators come from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who was on Ron Paul’s New Hampshire delegate list last year, has filed 21 legislative service requests, or proposals for new laws, more than any other state legislator. Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, a six-term legislator well known for his literal interpretation of the Constitution, is second with 19. Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, another Ron Paul supporter, submitted 17 LSRs, tying him for third with Manchester Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, the most active Democratic bill filer. Privacy watchdog Neal Kurk, R-Weare, is fifth with 13 new bills. Reps. Dan and Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, who are members of the Free State project, combined for 14 proposed bills.

For more, go here.

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At least according to the New York Times, not so well:

Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011.


Since the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, Tripoli has slid steadily into lawlessness, with no strong central government or police presence. It has become a safe haven for militants seeking to avoid detection elsewhere, and United States government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, have acknowledged in recent months that Abu Anas and other wanted terrorists had been seen moving freely around the capital.

I’m shocked, shocked to see the Obama administration’s policies backfire.  This is what happens when the do-gooders and revolutionaries, rather than realists, get to drive.  Keep this in mind since those folks never seem to get too far from the wheel.  And we are the wacko birds?

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Negotiation 101

I find this quote rather revealing: 

“We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)

 Perhaps Rep. Stutzman could benefit from the advice of the Stanford Business School. The first pitfall to avoid in negotiation:

1. Poor Planning: Successful negotiators make detailed plans. They know their priorities — and alternatives — should they fail to reach an agreement. You must know your bottom line, your walkaway point. In addition, you need to understand time constraints and know whether this is the only time you will see your opponents in negotiation.

As things stand, one side refuses to negotiate and the other side has no idea what it would want to get out of a negotiation.  This remains a fascinating situation.

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A new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that social and political activists may be harming their own causes.  Here is a piece in the Pacific Standard that highlights the study and summarizes its finding thusly:

Why don’t people behave in more environmentally friendly ways? New research presents one uncomfortable answer: They don’t want to be associated with environmentalists.

That’s the conclusion of troubling new research from Canada, which similarly finds support for feminist goals is hampered by a dislike of feminists.

Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted,” reports a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir. This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

Or as the study itself notes:

Ironically and despite good intentions, therefore, the very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.

This is probably not that surprising to many libertarians who have seen “civilians” turned off by their fellow libertarians, especially Randians, Free Keeners, and drug legalization advocates, who act in socially inappropriate or off-putting ways.  Repeat after me: public displays of nudity in the town square are not going to make people excited about the ideas espoused by libertarians.  It might be fun to do (political activism as consumption behavior), shock Mom and Dad (political activism as rebellion), or show your purity (political activism as religious signaling).  But it isn’t all that likely to make people want to join your cause – and may help create negative stereotypes that harm it.

And now we have some social science research to support my own position that we have a better chance of winning if we make the case for liberty calmly, rationally, and with a good sense of humor (and intellectual humility).  This will be aided by not dressing like a radical, even donning a tie, and maybe even bringing the non-political wife/husband along* to show you are a relatively “normal” person who has been able to convince at least one other person to freely associate with you!  Being rude, looking scrubby, and libertarian-logic-weed-guns-ban-pineapple-politics-1364612547smelling of pot probably isn’t going to win the day.  And yes, I’m engaging in grossly wrong stereotypes.  But the fact that these exist (and we know they do – just see to the right of this post one among many internet images mocking libertarianism), even if untrue, could mean a lot to the cause of liberty given the findings of this study.

Indeed, I may type up an IRB request soon to try and see if this research works with libertarians.

* Be careful using kids for this purpose unless they are old enough to be consenting adults.  I don’t like to see kids manipulated for the political causes of their parents.  So at least keep the kids from holding signs if you must drape them around you when you campaign for yourself or your cause.  The exception is showing your children on campaign literature since it signals important information about the person running (especially that the person may discount the future less than those without children).

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A Fine Metaphor

This ad is quite amazing (and yes, more than a bit creepy). While it is focused on Obamacare, it seems an apt metaphor for NSA surveillance and so much more.

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A real abstract from an article in a new journal on critical security studies:

We offer a provocation – that we should stop appending ‘Critical’ to ‘Security Studies’.  Critical security as an academically and politically contested terrain is no longer
productive of emancipatory alternatives. In making this claim, we seek to reflect upon the underlying dynamics which drove the boom in critical security studies in
the 1990s and the early 2000s and its pale afterlife in the recent years. To support the argument empirically, the attention is paid to the role of emancipatory agency at the
heart of critical security understandings. As we argue, the current state of ‘critical’ security theorising is no longer informed by the emancipatory impulse of the 1990s
and the critical claims have been much damaged by the retreat of liberal internationalism and rise of non-emancipatory and post-emancipatory approaches. The critics that
remain in the field thus articulate much lower horizons with regard to policy alternatives and conceptualise no clear agency of emancipatory possibilities. Ironically,
‘critical’ security theorists today are more likely to argue against transformative aspirations – rather than in favour of them.

I have a fairly high tolerance level for academic jargon and complex writing.  But this overwhelmed me.  I’d also add that the prevalence of this type of work in Europe helps explain why European political scientists are so often ignored.

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Monday Links

The weekend is over and a new week begins. Here are a few links to fill those empty hours in the office:

For those who continue to dismiss Carter’s leadership in times of crisis, here is a story of one of his successful campaigns against an invading force (complete with body counts).

Obama to visit Ford plant to highlight industry turnaround. Interesting choice, given that Ford refused to participate in the bailout (even if it may have benefitted, according to the Car Czar Steve Rattner)

The resolution on the Affordable Care Act passed by the AFL-CIO is quite critical of Obamacare. The good news for the administration: things could have been far worse absent White House Intervention.

Meanwhile, Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer float draft legislation that would ban senators for receiving government contributions for their health insurance cost if there is “probable cause” they solicited prostitutes. Senator David Vitter is not amused.

Larry Summers withdraws consideration as next Fed Chair. The markets rally. As for the next Fed Chair, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren share the same preference.

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Ronald H. Coase, RIP

Ronald Coase has died at the age of 102.  Many scholars in law, economics, and public policy benefited greatly from Coase’s insights. His 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Costs” is one that I have assigned annually in several of my courses and it has always given rise to some lively discussions. There is a nice overview of Coase’s life at the University of Chicago Law School.

By the way, Coase’s last book, How China Became Capitalist (coauthored with a former graduate student) was published when he was 101 years old.

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Congress and Syria

So nice – in one sense* – to be talking about whether Congress should authorize the use of force and to think the outcome actually might matter.  But now that Congress is in the driver’s seat, I encourage you to participate in the democratic process by contacting your representative and letting him/her know your opinion on the subject.**  Here are the phone numbers you’ll need: House and Senate.

* I, of course, wish that there was peace/justice/liberty in the Middle East and there would be no issue at all to discuss.

** Pileus as an entity is not taking a stand on any particular piece of legislation before the US Congress.  Indeed, we might disagree about this particular matter.

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In many ways, Presidents Obama’s speech reflects well on him and his administration. Indeed, I think it was among his best since it wasn’t just about relatively meaningless sentiment but a nice mix of political thought and policy detail.  Plus it is the right thing to do regardless of how we feel about the particular case at hand.  However, I think that he decided to go to Congress largely because he was shamed into doing so by the British example which showed us how a democracy ought to behave when it comes to the decision to go to war.  But (and more) importantly, the result will be one more consistent with the rule of law given that the U.S. Constitution demands that Congress authorize the use of force (whether in terms of a formal declaration of war or otherwise). 

If we wish to remain a government under law and one acting consistent with the enumerated powers of the Constitution, the President cannot simply make this decision on his own.  Indeed, consultation with Congress is not enough to satisfy the law of the land.  (I even consider the War Powers Act – the one that many Republicans and conservatives consider to be too binding on the executive branch – to be unconstitutional because Congress itself cannot surrender to the President an ounce of its enumerated power in this area).  Given this, I found the opening clause of the following statement in the President’s address to be flatly wrong and inconsistent with our Constitution:

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. 

The second part of the sentence is probably true and thus the President’s decision to ask Congress for approval is quite welcome.  However, it would have been a great moment in the history of our country – and a critical step back to the original Constitutional order – if he had accepted without reservation the necessity of seeking Congressional approval before a President can use force (except in the case of an actual or imminent attack on the United States).   Indeed, it would have gone down as perhaps his greatest act as President; he could have turned the tide on the imperial presidency that candidate Obama derided only a few years ago. 

Nonetheless, those who demanded that the President seek Congressional approval have won this battle and hopefully it will set a precedent through which we can win the war (though the same Constitutional order invites Presidents to violate it given the blunt instruments Congress has to defend its powers against a grasping executive).  So thank you Mr. President. 

Now onto the battle over what Congress should or should not authorize…


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No, this isn’t about Jason’s righteous holy war against feral cats, here and here.* 

But kittens do enter into the best paragraph I’ve read today.  The context for it is the New York City mayoral race.  Apparently the NYC subway was recently shut down for 90 minutes to protect two little kittens that were on the tracks.  The candidates were subsequently asked if they would shut the subway down for this reason - with all of the candidates except one falling overthemselves trying to appeal to cat lovers (and show their kind hearts to the rest of us): “Christine Quinn said she would. Bill Thompson said he would “work” to save the kittens. Anthony Weiner said he wouldn’t just shut down the subway, he’d personally crawl across the third rail to rescue them. John Catsimatidis submitted a few noncommittal lines of poetry.”

This provoked this wonderful paragraph from Slate writer Josh Barro:

It’s a microcosm of this whole campaign, in which the candidates run around making big promises with no apparent acknowledgment of the city’s tight finances, or of the fact that policy choices involve trade-offs, or even of the mayor’s lack of control over certain policy areas, like income taxation, rent control, and anything the MTA does. Yes, the candidates say, I’ll save the kitties, I’ll make the Wall Street fat cats pay for it, and I’ll give you a middle-class tax cut while I do it. Only Lhota gave the correct answer: No, you do not strand thousands of New Yorkers for 90 minutes in a futile effort to herd two cats whose lives we are inexplicably prioritizing over the rats who are run over, or drowned, or exterminated in the subways every day.

Josh Barro for mayor of NYC?!?

* BTW, Jason and I both respect the lives of animals.  I think I can speak for Jason and say that we do not think the concerns of animals should be entirely subjugated to the needs of human beings.  Moreover, I will not take the life of an animal without good cause.  However, this does not mean that animal control is unnecessary or inhumane (especially to protect the lives of other animals, especially birds and reptiles).

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As reported in the Weekly Standard, Nadler announced this today:

The Constitution requires that, barring an attack on the United States or an imminent threat to the U.S., any decision to use military force can only be made by Congress — not by the President.  The decision to go to war — and we should be clear, launching a military strike on another country, justified or not, is an act of war — is reserved by the Constitution to the American people acting through their elected representatives in Congress. 

Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the Constitutionally-required Congressional authorization. “Consultation” with Congress is not sufficient. The Constitution requires Congressional authorization.

The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open, with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a Congressional vote. If the President believes that military action against Syria is necessary, he should immediately call Congress back into session and seek the Constitutionally-required authorization.

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Great piece by John Fund today highlighting a lot of themes we’ve discussed here in relation to the war in Libya and the potential for war in Syria.  This section and the point by Marsh just left me stunned:

Oh my, how liberals have learned to love the imperial presidency they used to so scorn when Richard Nixon or George W. Bush was in office. Last night, I appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight with Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant whose clients have included the late Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, our current secretary of state. Armed with the latest Democratic talking points, she dismissed any need for Obama to consult with what she dismissed as “a special Congress.”

Marsh is worth quoting at length:

There is a special Congress that we’re dealing with right now that has the lowest popularity rating in history and Republicans who overwhelmingly would oppose taking any action. The president of the United States cannot be handcuffed by the same Republicans that are holding the rest of the country hostage on every other issue. That is wrong.


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This piece from the Economist discusses subjects dear to my heart – the importance of geography and how different cartographic projections can distort our understanding of the world.  And here is a cool map that shows how big Africa really is:


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Time magazine reminds us that President Obama had this to say about the use of military force back in 2007 when he was candidate Obama:

In 2007, Barack Obama was asked when Presidents have the authority to launch a military strike without congressional authorization. He had a precise answer at the ready.

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat,” Obama told the Boston Globe.

Joe Biden thought such an action would warrant impeachment.  I guess by Presidents, they meant only Presidents named Bush.  

Wow, I’m shocked that candidate Obama was a lot better than President Obama (just like I was shocked that candidate Bush in 2000 was better than President Bush  – indeed, better than both of them!).  Let’s remember this the next time we fall in love with any particular candidate for President.*
* Though I can imagine Rand Paul backsliding less than most – or at least backsliding more on the conservative things he’ll have to say to win the nomination.  I could live with that scenario for sure!

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I would oppose the use of military force by the U.S. against Syria no matter the process that the administration uses to justify/initiate any act of war.  It simply isn’t in the national interest for the U.S. to get involved in a civil conflict such as this one.  But even if you think it is important for the U.S. to intervene, doesn’t it make sense that President Obama should – at the least – be consulting with Congress and seeking its approval.  There is absolutely no rush to use force.  No one is suggesting that the U.S. is in any imminent danger of being attacked by Syria and thus there are no speed considerations like in actual national defense.  Moreover, nothing I’ve read in the papers suggests that the Syrian opposition is about to collapse (assuming that the U.S. has an interest in keeping the opposition alive).  So what is the rush?  Didn’t the Founders specifically empower Congress in this area so that, among other things, a reasonable discussion of the issue could be had by our representatives (and through the discussion, a wiser policy formed)?

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I happened upon this video clip in the midst of some research on another subject.  Despite the Cold War and the box that was (is) the basic hegemonial worldview of American elites then (and now), it would have been nice if Reagan had chosen the option of unabashedly criticizing both the fundamentalist regime then in place and the Shah’s brutal government.  Here it is (including the cringeworthy “whatever he might have done….” line):

BTW, I don’t know the source that posted the video (so it could be a pro-Iran group) nor am I pleased with how it is cut at the end.  But the video is noteworthy for those interested in Cold War history.  I tried to find another version but the only other one I could find on the web was also cut the same way.  If someone has the whole clip (to see if Reagan did criticize the Shah), please send the link along.

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In the past, there have been a number of Pileus postings on graduate school and the state of higher education (here, here, here, here, here, and here). Today’s installment focuses on President Obama’s new proposal for a  rating system “to evaluate colleges on tuition, the percentage of low-income students, graduation rates and debt of graduates” (Washington Post). The rating system would be reinforced by changes in the allocation of federal financial aid. While the former could be accomplished via executive action, the latter would require statutory changes. The goal is to bend the old cost curve. The ratings and changes in federal funding could create incentives to control costs, which have grown at an obscene rate and forced families and students to incur high levels of debt. It would seem to be a political winner regardless of political party.

The Washington Post article predicts that there will be resistance from higher education institutions and it will be difficult to create a consensus on the core indicators. As the president of the American Council on Education notes: “It is hard for me to imagine there is a … system that we would all nod our heads to and say, ‘Yes.’” Does this matter? The most influential rating system (U.S. News and World Report) uses a number of indicators that many in higher education find odd, to put it mildly. But they are closely watched by university presidents and boards-of-trustees anxious to make the changes that would help elevate their institutions in the annual rankings.

Certainly, more information is better. But as noted in earlier postings on this topic, there is a lot of pressure to contain costs and one of the easiest routes will be to substitute contingent workers (the adjuncts, visitors, and grad students) and MOOCS (massive online open courses) for tenured professors.  Ultimately, all of this could help control the costs of higher education. Society wins.  But it does not bode well for those dreaming of an academic career or at least an academic career in the traditional sense.

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For those like me who think macro-variables are most important to the outcome of national political campaigns, a new book by two political scientists will warm your hearts (even if you wish the election had turned out differently).  The book, by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, is titled The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.  Here is a relevant point in a recent LA Times review:

As Vavreck and Sides say, there were no “game changers” in the 2012 campaign but instead a lot of “game samers.” The country began the election season divided between partisan camps and ended it that way. The economy grew slowly but fast enough to make the incumbent the favorite. The rare moments of drama — the videotape of Romney disparaging 47% of the population as “takers,” Obama’s listless performance at the first debate — actually moved relatively few voters and largely canceled each other out.

Of course, this still doesn’t justify the silliness of Republican party insiders and primary voters choosing the godfather of ObamaCare as its standard-bearer (not to mention all of the other big negatives about Romney).  It just tells us any Republican would have had a steep climb and that campaign horse races are less important than the punditocracy make them out to be.

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Eric Crampton has responded to my commentary on New Zealand (as one of two places with better long-term prospects for liberty than the United States) on his blog, Offsetting Behaviour. In essence, he says he has changed New Zealand from a “buy” to a “hold,” citing some recent policy developments of concern. These policy developments are indeed concerning, but my only comment is that most (but not all) of them have to do with chipping away at the edges of freedoms (speech, privacy) that well-informed Americans would consider bedrock-fundamental — but generally not bread-and-butter issues of personal well-being. The symbolism is bad, and the precedent even worse, but the immediate effects for most people are unclear.

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[Cross-posted here.]

Dear Friends, Students, and Colleagues:

I have accepted a new position and will be leaving Yeshiva University. As of September 1, 2013, I will be the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University.

This is a tremendous opportunity for me. The Center is beginning its sixth year of existence, having been funded by continuing support from the BB&T Foundation. The Center’s mission is to encourage the study of capitalism in all its facets, and, more generally, to explore the institutions that enable human flourishing. We want to know how a society of free and responsible persons can live together peacefully, and we want to examine the political, economic, moral, and cultural institutions that encourage prosperity and humanity. 

Wake Forest’s motto is “Pro Humanitate,” which is usually translated as “for humanity.” But the Latin word humanitas is much broader, and deeper, than what the English word “humanity” usually means today. It indicates not only human beings, but humane life. It denotes a distinctly human virtue whereby people treat each other with the respect, dignity, and compassion that humanity requires. In this way, “Pro Humanitate” means something like: “in the service of promoting a fully humane life for all.” That captures perfectly the mission of the Center for the Study of Capitalism. 

I emphasize that the Center’s name is “Center for the Study of Capitalism,” not the “Center for Capitalism.” That is a small but momentous distinction. We are interested in figuring out what these prosperity-enabling institutions are, and promoting them, whatever they are. Our investigations will thus be nonideological and nonpartisan. Capitalism has been a source of tremendous, even unprecedented, prosperity; like all human institutions, however, it is not perfect. We will want to examine it disinterestedly, understanding and exposing both the good and the bad, and then promoting the former and discouraging the latter. In other words, the Center’s work will be not only rigorous but serious. There is too much at stake to take any other stance.

For those of you who know me or my work, you will recognize that these are my own central scholarly and intellectual concerns. So this position is a great fit. 

We also hope to create a true intellectual community comprised of people from various disciplines and perspectives who are united in their commitment to the spirit of the Center’s enterprise. If you are a person who shares our sense of purpose, and might like to associate with us somehow, donate to us, or just keep abreast of our activities, please reach out to me and let me know.

As excited as I am to begin this new chapter of my career, I must also admit to some sadness to be leaving Yeshiva University. Before all else, I will miss my students. As I have had occasion to say to many people in many forums, the students at Yeshiva are outstanding—unlike any others I have encountered elsewhere. Their seriousness of purpose, their intelligence and diligence, and their genuine interest in ideas, all combined with a typically light, even humorous disposition, have made them a delight to work with. Every day I have learned something new from them, and every class I taught they kept me on my toes. 

To my students: It has been my honor and my privilege to work with you, and to make whatever meager contribution I could to your development. You have demanded the very best from me, and I have willingly given it; but you have given me your best in return, which has made everything more than worthwhile. A professor could ask for no more from his students. I thank you for what you have given me.

James R. Otteson

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Population paranoia

I just read an article in the NY Times about Germany’s fight against population decline.  For a professional demographer, the article is old news and a bit funny because of all the countries that are facing this problem (which is the whole developed world and some of the developing world), Germany is sort of the definition of “the least of our problems.”

I participate in meetings of academic demographers quite frequently, and I don’t think I have ever seen any panel on the problems of overpopulation (though I don’t study fertility).  Demographers long ago shifted their focus to the problem of sharp declines in fertility and the associated problems that occur when a population cannot even replace itself.  Some of those problems are economic, but they extend well beyond that.

When reading the article, I was betting, however, that readers who comment on the Times articles would all be upset, since much of the world is still stuck in the 1970s and the pseudo-problem of the population bomb.  Yup.  If you want a good laugh, read those comments, full of warnings about overpopulation, environmental catastrophes, resource depletion (fracking party, anyone!), silly references to the carrying-capacity of the planet, and our finite resources, and you will think  you entered into a time portal taking you back 40 years.

So, dust of your copy of Limits to Growth or the Population Bomb, and grab your disco shoes.  You are in for a good laugh.


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President Obama did an effective job a couple of weeks ago, I thought, of giving voice to why African-Americans tended to see the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as a racial incident.  A lot of Americans had been waiting some time for him to say something similar.

This past week, author Jesmyn Ward writes about her experiences of growing up black in Mississippi in the 1980s, as well as her family’s history of far worse experiences, including the murder of her great-great-grandfather in the 1930s by white thugs who were never held accountable.  It is a passionate account, the type we have been seeing more in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal.

Ward concludes her essay with a paragraph this is both powerful and chilling:

In the end, I learned that all I could do against something so great and overwhelming, all those histories and years and lives and deaths and threats secreted like seeds, was to open my mouth and speak. I could not let it silence me as it had done when I was younger. There is power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight. A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed like roaches. It makes us acknowledge it. Confront it. And in confronting it, we rob it of some of its dark pull. Its senseless, cold drag. When we speak, we assert our human dignity. That is the worth of a word.

The powerful part of this message is that it reminds us that we can’t forget our past or ignore our present and persistent problems with race.  No argument there.

The chilling part is this:  Ward seems unconscious of the destructive effects of naming something racism when it is, in fact, not racism.  The power of naming something is a power that, like any important power, needs to be used very cautiously.  Indeed, the abuse of that power can seriously undermine the progress most people want to continue.

Which brings us to the case of George Zimmerman, the man whose foolish actions brought the life of an unarmed young man to a tragic end.  There are many aspects of this case that deserve social scrutiny and discussion.  Any time a civilian carries a gun into a contentious situation is a case that deserves scrutiny.  But is this really about race?

We cannot ever know this for sure, but there are ample reasons to be very cautious.  A large, hooded young man walking at night comes into the view of an overzealous man wanting to protect his neighborhood.  President Obama said after the incident that this could have been his son.  Well, I got news for everyone.  It could have been my son, too.  And it probably could have been yours.

Guess what, America?  In case you haven’t noticed, young white men walk around in practically every neighborhood in America wearing hoodies and baggy pants.  And so do Asians, Hispanics, Italians, and Greeks.  Hasidic Jews probably would, too, if the young men thought they could get away with it.  Before the 911-operator asked the race of Martin (and before Zimmerman mentioned it—a fact that NBC news intentionally edited out, for which they deserve the hefty defamation lawsuit that seems to be headed their way), Zimmerman was complaining about the “punks” always getting away with it.

So everyone can look into his heart and tell he meant “black punks?”  My bet is that if you go up to a group of hoodie-clad white kids at the skateboard park, they can regale you with stories about how they are hassled by the police, given dirty looks by passers-by, judged by nothing more than their appearance.  This is likely even more to be true if they tattoos or piercings or long hair or low-riding jeans or if they specialize—as many young men of all races do—in giving menacing looks to passers-by.

Is any of this fair?  Not particularly, but let’s not forget that almost all violent crime in America is committed by adolescent and young adult males.  There is very little more deeply embedded in our human nature than the inclination to quickly assess threats and to respond—often with little or any conscious thought.  Are those quick threat assessments shaped by social attitudes (as well as social realities)?  Sure they are.  But they are still enormously complex.

The potential threat from an interaction with another person is a function of many things: time of day, place, age, gender, mannerisms, clothing, body size and type, and, yes, race.  But in many situations race is completely incidental to the threat assessment.

If you heard footsteps behind you in the afternoon and turned around to see a middle-aged woman in a frumpy business suit, it would not make an iota of difference whether said woman was white or black.  Frumpy, middle-aged women do not scare anyone who is not married to them.   Similarly, if you were in a urban, high-crime neighborhood late at night and heard heavy footsteps behind you and turned and saw a large, young man, head covered by a hoodie, hands in his pockets, and a menacing look on his face, most people (with good reason!) would feel at least a little fear, and they would react.  It would make little difference whether that face was a white one or a black one.  Context matters.

That black men are much more likely to be seen as threatening (and are much more likely to be the victims of crime, not coincidentally) are social facts that deserve attention.  But to racialize an individual case that seems to be about everything but race doesn’t help us address those social facts.  All it does is inflame passions and harden walls.  The media love to tell stories about evil white people (even if they have to make them up—such as by flooding the airwaves with pictures of a much younger, smiling Martin and a menacing-looking photo of Zimmerman), and the old guard civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have nothing else of value to get themselves on TV except by jumping at every opportunity to call someone a racist.  If a case with so much uncertainty and reasonable doubt is the only one that the race-card-players can latch onto, then maybe things have improved more than previously thought.

I can understand why many blacks immediately want to cast this story in terms primarily of race. Those visceral reactions are there for reasons, important reasons that we need to keep talking about.  But that doesn’t mean that we should let the visceral reactions carry the day, that we let empathy conquer good judgment.

I appreciated the President’s comments, but I was also saddened.  It is good to have a President who can say, “I understand.”  It would be even better to have a President brave enough to say, “I understand, but….”

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The war on drugs (like most politically proclaimed wars) has been a disaster. Even if you do not consume illegal drugs (I prefer red wine or an occasional glass of Bookers), the cost of the war on drugs should be of great concern.  Incarceration rates have skyrocketed (as have the financial and human costs). With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States houses about one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are serving mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses in prisons that are already running over capacity. Moreover and there is evidence that the focus on interdiction has had an unintended consequence.  Marijuana is bulky and easy to detect; the risks of trafficking have both driven up the costs of marijuana and created incentives for dealers to shift to drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth and prescription pain killers. The result: the costs of more dangerous drugs have fallen significantly. For for many young people, experimentation with drugs involves far more dangerous and addictive drugs than in the past.

One can take some pleasure at the news that Attorney General Holder is going to announce a significant change in federal policy. As the Washington Post reports,” low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.”

Holder is calling for a change in Justice Department policies to reserve the most severe penalties for drug offenses for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. He has directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.

Such a move is certainly a step in the right direction (although I can imagine that it will attract the ire of many social conservatives and those in the GOP who automatically reject any policy proposals from the Obama administration). Unfortunately, the change in policy does not appear to extend to the issue an marijuana legalization in the states. As the Washington Post notes: “Holder does not plan to announce any changes in the Justice Department’s policy on marijuana, which is illegal under federal law. Two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized marijuana in November. Supporters of the measures argued that hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on a failed war against marijuana that has filled American prisons will low-level offenders.”

The Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.  This places  it in the same category as heroin–an absurdity from a public health perspective. One could only hope that Congress would promote the legislative changes that would allow the states to make their own policies with respect to marijuana while embracing Holder’s announced changes in mandatory sentencing.

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Journalists R us

Chris Matthews of MSNBC was defending his network against the idea that they are in bed with the Obama Administration:

Well, he agrees with us, and we agree with him sometimes.

One might riff on that quote in any number of directions.  I think the most interesting word there is “us.”  All people, including journalists, have political opinions that one might agree or disagree with.  And it is no secret (lots of surveys tell us this) that journalists are more to the left than the average American.

But what Matthews is saying suggests a strong group think, one that is coordinated, shared and enforced.  If Obama agrees with us, then we must have a unitary opinion on all things political.  I mean, it isn’t logically possible to agree with a group of people unless they all believe the same thing, is it?

Of course this is nothing but completely obvious.  It is just unusual for the most recognized voice in the MSNBC one-note choir to come out and say, “we are not even pretending to be a news organization.”


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@JasonSorens on Twitter

I’ve finally broken down and joined Twitter. If you want to read my occasional (judicious) microblogs, you can follow me here.

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A few days ago, I mentioned the Concord, NH police department’s request for a grant to purchase an armored truck due to the risk of “anti-government…domestic terrorism.” The grant specifically named “Free Staters,” as well as Occupy New Hampshire, as presenting “daily challenges.”

Now the Free State Project is demanding an apology from the Concord PD and reminding them that false statements on the grant application threaten its success. I myself received an e-mail from a former Free Stater working in Singapore who is now worried about deportation because of this story. Will the Concord police correct their mistake? Stay tuned.

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  • Concord, NH is about to acquire a Bearcat “tank” with federal grant money, similar to the one that spurred protests from all walks of society in Keene, NH recently. (One Keene councilman looks back and describes the purchase as a “waste of money.”) More disturbing is the fact that the Concord police cited “Free Staters” and “Occupy New Hampshire” as examples of potential domestic “terrorism” justifying the armored truck’s acquisition.
  • The New Hampshire Union-Leader criticizes Chris Christie’s recent attack on Rand Paul and libertarianism: “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has no patience for people who are concerned that the government might be violating their civil liberties in pursuit of increased national security. That is going to make a run through the New Hampshire primary really annoying for him.” The Union-Leader‘s influence on the GOP primary is often overstated (they endorsed Gingrich last time), but they are most effective when in attack mode. Their attacks on Romney helped suppress his vote share well below what was initially expected in the 2012 primary.

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The Onion mocks so many of us so effectively in this piece titled “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.”  It must leave Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, smiling!

Longtime acquaintances confirmed to reporters this week that local man Michael Husmer, an unambitious 29-year-old loser who leads an enjoyable and fulfilling life, still lives in his hometown and has no desire to leave.

Claiming that the aimless slouch has never resided more than two hours from his parents and still hangs out with friends from high school, sources close to Husmer reported that the man, who has meaningful, lasting personal relationships and a healthy work-life balance, is an unmotivated washout who’s perfectly comfortable being a nobody for the rest of his life.

Here is a link to Dreher’s book on this subject and a review of his book at TAC (where Dreher also blogs).

Despite being attracted to some of Dreher’s themes, I’m not sure his book has been subject to the critique it deserves.  But please pass along candidates for that honor. Nonetheless, it is an important book whose themes we should all consider.

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Thoughts on Two Photos

Two photos in the news elicited a few thoughts:

Photo 1

Dawn Blitz













Even though my brain knows that Japan is a US ally now and that World War II was a long time ago, it was still a bit jarring to see this picture of a Japanese military platform bearing the “rising sun” military flag amphibiously “attacking” the US coast as part of a military exercise.  Like South Koreans and Chinese – as the Wikipedia (!) entry on the flag notes – many people associate that flag with militarism and imperialism.  I do too.  In particular, I think of Nanking and Pearl Harbor.  I wonder why the US didn’t forbid the use of this flag after WWII, especially since it only inflames anti-Japanese sentiment around Asia.

Photo 2










Pretty darn cool for George H.W. Bush to shave his head in support of a child’s fight against cancer.  The child in the picture is the kid of one of the members of Bush’s security detail – pictured above.  But aside from thinking well of Bush the Elder’s action, I was struck by how large his security detail is.  If all of those men are securing a former President, imagine the cost to the US taxpayer!  Those men don’t come cheap in terms of salary and benefits.  Of course, it makes sense to offer protection to former Presidents, especially since this one was actually targeted after he left office.  But are this many security personnel required at this point in time – 20 years after he left office and years since the death of Saddam?

HT: Farley at LGM.

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According to a Chinese news source:

A wheel-chaired Chinese man set off a home-made explosive device outside the arrivals exit of the Terminal 3 at around 6:24 p.m.. The man was injured and is currently under treatment.

The explosion caused no other injuries.

Glad to hear no one else was hurt.  But did wonder if this man had seen Breaking Bad.

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Marriage and maturity

Articles about the sex lives of college students always create a fair amount of buzz.  The article about University of Pennsylvania students last week in the NY Times is part of a much larger set of stories and articles (I recommend Ross Douthat’s take on the story).

The average age of marriage of both men and women has risen considerably in the last 40 years.  For women, the age was steady from 1950 through the early 70s (it had been higher in the past) at about 21, but it has risen steadily since then, to around 27 today.  Divorce during that same period rose sharply, but then fell.  Dana Rotz finds that about 60% of the decline in divorce between 1980 and 2004 can be explained by the increase in women’s age at first marriage. The effect of age is also non-linear, meaning delaying marriage from age 18 to 22 leads to a much greater effect than delaying from 22 to 26 (there isn’t much gain for waiting beyond that point).

The decline in divorce since the early 80s should, however, be viewed in the larger context.  Divorce rates are still much higher than they were in the 1950s and 60s.  The probability of divorcing within the first 20 years of marriage is still close to 40%.  For those marrying in the early 1950s, it was less than 20%.

There are costs and benefits from delaying marriage.  According to the Times story, the women at Penn are actively weighing those costs and benefits, and are largely concluding that “hooking-up” is better than serious relationships.  There are economic factors of course—finishing college has a huge effect on lifetime earnings, for instance—but the benefits and costs are highly idiosyncratic.

This story is troubling at a number of levels that I won’t delve into today.  What really causes me to pause are some of the attitudes among the interviewees in the article.  Let me quote this one in particular, from a woman who has a regular “hook-up buddy” who, according to her own account, she doesn’t even like when she is sober.

I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. That sounds terrible.

I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.

This view strikes me as both naïve and immature (indeed, she probably isn’t ready for a relationship).  Successful marriage always takes accommodation and sacrifice.  A marriage, in my view, isn’t as much about two people who have molded themselves into a particular kind of person and then find another “complete” person who is an ideal fit as it is about two people who are willing to work towards a common goal of figuring out how to make a good fit.

Marriage takes, in a word, maturity.  Because age is strongly correlated with maturity, the effect of early marriage on divorce existed back before the sexual revolution, maybe forever.  Immaturity is, to a large extent, selfishness, an unwillingness to accommodate the views, feelings and desires of other people.

What we have done to a disturbing extent in our modern world is that we have made immaturity permanent.  We see this in the attitudes reflected by the women in this article.  We see it in the millions of young men who are failing to grow up and take on the mature responsibilities of marriage and family.  We see it in the persistently high rate of marital dissolution in our society and the increasing percentage of people not marrying.

The dynamics of marriage over the past 60 years is a fascinating and perplexing area of research.  I’m convinced that as much as we may focus on demographic and economic factors to explain trends, the changes in underlying social norms and attitudes are still the most important factors.

No norm is more valuable—or threatened—than the old-fashioned one that marriage is about different people coming together willing to work and sacrifice and create something greater than the sum of its parts.

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Elites have really failed to educate Americans about the importance of the 1st Amendment when this happens, as reported in Reason:

In a survey released today by the Newseum Institute, 34 percent of Americans say the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, up from 13 percent in last year’s survey. This is the largest single-year increase in the history of the State of the First Amendment national survey.

Depressing.  Of course, there is an even more depressing possibility: These Americans have been well-informed about the benefits and grounding of the 1st Amendment and have still come to this conclusion.

Are we at the point at which this is appropriate?



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Disappearing Work?

I think libertarians need to figure out a good response to the forecasted developments discussed here in this Wilson Quarterly piece.  But first, is a response unnecessary since these developments won’t really come about (perhaps due to Say’s Law*)?  Or will there indeed be a larger and larger number of difficult to employ people around due to technological changes – and also more fodder for a policy response to redistribute wealth to them?

* Is the reemergence of domestic help a sign that Say’s Law will come into play and save the day?  But will the policy responses advocated here actually make the supply of people willing to meet such demand harder to find?  File this under market distortion!

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Shame and courage

Here is a simple truth.  It isn’t surprising or even terribly interesting.  This is it: I’ve done shameful things in my life.  I’m not going to say any more because—obviously—I’m ashamed.  I try to be a good person, but I can look back over nearly a half century of living and still recall actions that bring up feelings of shame and remorse when I think about them.  Fortunately.

Shame and guilt, however, don’t have a very good reputation these days.  We live in an age where the cardinal public virtue has become tolerance.  We are supposed to accept who we are and accept others without judgment.  Certain attitudes, like racism, cannot to be tolerated, of course.  Other traits, like integrity or kindness, are declining in prevalence but are still holding on fairly well—for the moment.  But traditional virtues of fidelity, chastity, temperance, humility, modesty, self-denial and self-sacrifice often lack defenders in the public square.

Public shame these days is short-lived and often contrived.  In New York, we have now have two  formerly disgraced public officials, Anthony Weiner and Eliott Spitzer trying to make a resurgence as public servants.  South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, the governor who followed the Appalachian Trail all the way to the lair of his Argentinian mistress, is also trying for a comeback.  One wonders why these intelligent men who are capable of many things are so insistent on living in the public eye—that craving for attention may be even more disturbing than their sexual dalliances.  Any shame or embarrassment they may have felt is clearly covered up by a bottomless well of narcissism. This is what we want for leaders?

Americans tend be a forgiving and tolerant lot.  Bob Dole asked in 1996, “Where is the outrage?” during the campaign against Bill Clinton.  At the time he asked this question, the bimbo druptions and long string of ethical lapses by the Clintons were well known.  Perhaps the saddest thing about the Lewinsky scandal that came later was not that we had a President with so little self-mastery and so willing to abuse his position of public trust for cheap gratification.  The really sad part was that we knew about it and chose him anyway.  Shame on us.

I understand that people have different views on the morality of sexual indiscretions or their relevance to political life. But there are usually other issues wrapped around the sexual indiscretions.  Clinton’s infidelities may not be of public concern, but the imbalance of power in that relationship between the President of the US and a lowly intern should concern us.  Spitzer’s use of prostitutes while Attorney General and Governor involved not only sex, but gross hypocrisy, not to mention law-breaking. The people of Massachusetts may think little of the drinking and carousing of Teddy Kennedy, but does this mean they should overlook—ever?—his leaving a young girl to die in the cold water off Chappaquiddick?  [See also Grover's excellent points about sexual virtue in public life.]

In our society we do not have legal sanctions for all actions that are immoral.  Dishonesty, for instance, is a crime in certain contexts (such as when testifying in court), but generally liars go unpunished.  There are no sanctions for adulterers or those who say mean things to children.  Poor sportsmanship is not a crime.  Without legal recourse, we depend critically on social disapproval to sanction immoral actions.  Indeed, our social order is threatened when people feel no shame for shameful things.  The Founders understood well that we needed both to have our liberty protected and a civil society that valued public virtue.  In other words, we depend on shame to create a society worth living in.  Unfortunately, our popular culture often celebrates public behavior that was once thought shameful.  Those who may condemn public indecency are castigated for pointing out what is shameful, while those who act shamefully are lauded as heroes.

In a civil society, condemning shameful acts needs to be balanced against the social benefits of forgiveness and charity.  Wearing a scarlet letter does not allow people to change and move on, and it reinforces hypocrisy and hidden acts (which everyone has).  Privately, a forgiving heart is essential to happiness, I maintain.  Yet we have little hope as a society if we reach a point where most people feel no shame for that which is truly shameful.

Recently the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” feature asked the question, “Would support for abortion rights grow if more women talked publicly about their abortions?”  It is still largely the case that women who have had abortions do not talk about them widely, even among friends and family.  In some cases, they feel ashamed; in others, they fear being made to feel ashamed.

That we live more or less peacefully with an astronomical 1.2 million abortions a year is possible only because abortionists have managed to do what those who commit atrocities (slavery, genocide, caste systems of various types) have always done: they dehumanize the victims. As imaging technology becomes better and better, this fraudulent dehumanization project is harder and harder to maintain. The percentage of Americans who claim to be “pro-choice” has slipped from 56% in 1995 to 45% in 2013.  Abortionists fight tooth and nail against regulations that require women seeking abortion to confront the humanity of the fetus rather than buying into the deceitful language of “uterine contents” or similar euphemisms used in the industry today.  They don’t want the public debate to center around what abortion is at its core.  This is because the truth of abortion can yield nothing but shame.

Those who want to reduce the shame associated with abortion face a Catch-22: the more people realize how commonplace abortion is, the more they will realize how that commonality is evidence that most American abortions are performed not to protect the health or life of the mother, not because the fetus is deformed or disabled, not because of abject poverty of the parents, not because the mother is a young teenager.  The central fact of abortion in America today is that it is performed mostly for the sake of convenience.  Unplanned pregnancies can cause significant inconvenience, to be sure, but, in most cases, the circumstances are not desperate.  Because there are morally legitimate reasons to have an abortion, one can make the case (not a strong case, mind you), that such a decision should not involve the government.  But even though there is sharp disagreement about abortion policy, it will be a truly sad day if the shame associated with illegitimate abortion is removed from our social norms.

This past week the Times published a shameful essay entitled, “My Mother’s Abortion,” in which a woman talks about how her family was there to proudly support Wendy Davis in Texas as she waged a filibuster against stronger abortion restrictions.  She argues:

What the movement for reproductive rights needs is for the faces of freedom to emerge from the captivity of shame. To my mother’s generation, I ask: Speak openly about the choices you have made. To all women: ask your mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and partners about their reproductive histories. Show that abortion has myriad faces: those of women we love, respect and cherish. You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom. You have made decisions that are private, even anguishing, but the weight of this political moment demands that you shed light on those decisions.

The author, Beth Matusoff Merfish, urges that women like her mother tell their stories so that we will all understand the importance of “reproductive freedom” (as if abortion has anything to do with freedom).  Her mother’s abortion took place when she and the father were in their early twenties, students at a prestigious state university, and engaged to be married.  Does this sound like hardship?  Is Ms. Merfish’s mother really the “courageous” woman her daughter makes her out to be?

No. This is simply shameful. To say so doesn’t make me any better or worse than the people involved  because my moral failings have nothing to do with the shamefulness of what happened here.  Should we forgive?  Of course.  But no one’s forgiveness will bring back the life that was taken.  That is truly a shame.

The courageous are those who hold themselves accountable for their actions, who take responsibility.  They are those who defend and preserve life, not take it.  Everyone on this planet has a mother.  All of those mothers made personal sacrifices in having children.  Some of them made extreme sacrifices.  They are the ones who are truly courageous.

In the Times debate mentioned above, Daniel Allott concludes his essay fittingly: “The closer we get to abortion, and the more we understand about fetal development and the effects of the procedure on women, the more repellent it becomes.”

Let’s hope he is right.  And let’s hope we don’t lose our capacity for feeling shame or take advice from those who want to turn our moral compass upside down and call that which is shameful courageous.

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