Jul 31, 2006

To "find international solutions to world problems" [LINK]

It's hard to imagine a more perfect expression of wooly-headed liberalism. To be misguided in so many ways, and in so short a space!

I thought I've read everything, but a new standard has been set.

Janet Fitch Parker says John Bolton's bid for permanent appointment as U.N. ambassador should be rejected because, in his words, he has tried "to work with others to advance our national interests." Instead, Ms. Parker insists he should be trying to "find international solutions to world problems."

It boggles the mind that anyone would so casually assume there's a contradiction between these two statements, that other U.N. ambassadors are not working in their countries' interests, or that we should be appointing officials who are effectively responsible to no one. Who should Mr. Bolton be working for, anyway, Bulgaria?

Jul 27, 2006

The fallacy of Mideast proportionality [LINK]

A target-rich environment this morning:

I agree with Jeffrey Sternklar that the notion Israel must be "proportionate" in its response to external aggression is foolish, but I think the premise that Israel's response has been so grossly disproportionate is also misguided. After two weeks of enduring retaliatory military action, Hezbollah is still firing rockets at Israel, and today's headline declares that "Israeli troops battle an unbending foe."

On a related note, A "Casualty Quiz" cartoon by Dan Wasserman from the day before asks us, rhetorically, whether from the rubble of a battlefield we can tell the difference between the terrorists and the civilians. Given the fact that Hezbollah members do not wear uniforms and deliberately place their military installations in neighborhoods of noncombatants, I find that a compelling question indeed, though perhaps not for the reason the cartoonist intended.

Jul 26, 2006

Exporting Democracy [LINK]

A response to a Mencken admirer:

Comparing George Bush's shortcomings to those of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Newburgh is right to question America's ability to export its democratic impulse to Iraq. Still, he ignores those cases in which non-Western countries successfully adopted democratic institutions contrary to values entrenched in their culture.

Today India has a strong democracy, largely due to the imposition of British imperialism. Up until 60 years ago, the Japanese were not even allowed to gaze upon their emperor, but now they have a thriving democracy, thanks to American occupying forces.

It's easy to condemn both Bush and Wilson for "hubris and ignorance," but much harder to understand why we don't say the same of Truman and MacArthur, who upheld much the same policy.

I'd add that while Wilson failed to create institutions that would lead to peace in Europe, following WWII everyone realized how prophetic his efforts had been.

Jul 20, 2006

Denuded salt marshes as "environmental collapse" [LINK]

The casual use of the word "environmental collapse" in this letter reminds me of that story attributed to the late journalist Charles Kuralt.

Two reporters are driving on a highway through Texas, and one of them notices the odd name of the town they're passing through: "Mexia." They get into a discussion of how to pronounce it: does the word have a hard "x" sound, or is it the more throat-clearing sound that actual Mexicans use? Also, is there emphasis on the second syllable? They argue about it a bit more, so much so that they decide to pull over to ask someone to settle the issue.

So they find a place that's open and ask the guy, "Excuse me, sir, can you please tell me how you pronounce the name of this place?"

"You want to know how to pronounce the name of this place?"

"Yes."

"Okay. It's DAAAAIIIIIRRRRY QUEEEEN."

I understand that to be an aggregation error, one of mismatching scope.

Paul Lauenstein argues that we should treat signs of "environmental collapse" with the same urgency as the threat of terrorism, but the example he uses undermines this conclusion.

The Biosphere 2 project was an attempt to replicate, in small scale, a functioning ecosystem suitable for human habitation. While it's true the project's failure means that humans have no option to "escape" a collapsing ecosystem, it also means the scientists who devised the experiment failed to adequately understand the sort of system they were modeling. The Earth's many dynamic feedback mechanisms lead to remarkably stable long-term environmental stability, but the Biosphere's spun out of control and quickly became uninhabitable for reasons that were understood only after the experiment took place.

Granted, mocking up a small ecosystem is vastly different than understanding how an entire planet works, but such failure should still lead us to question our current state of knowledge. In particular, when confronted with a report that local salt flats are becoming denuded and that scientists have little idea why, the proper response is to study the problem more, not to assume out of ignorance that it's a sign of widespread environmental collapse.

"Human civilization has always defined the start of human life as birth." [LINK]

A letter I sent to a total stranger:

Dear Mr. Rouse,

I read your letter in today's Globe, and I responded to your first paragraph's central point:

In defending embryonic stem cell research, Andy Rouse argues that "human civilization has always defined the start of human life as birth." While nominally correct, this statement is undermined by doctors' newfound ability to raise extremely premature infants outside the mother's womb, a capability that alters the traditional definition of "birth." Such a being is clearly alive if cared for, and yet there remains the option to discard it.

Regardless, I can't help but wonder how many readers who respond to Mr. Rouse's traditionalist argument reject it when applied to the definition of marriage.

I also take issue with your second paragraph, but that would require a different letter entirely. I'm unaware of anyone making a good-faith argument that an unfertilized egg is alive. While specialized for the purpose of reproduction, an egg has no unique genetic identity and simply can't grow into a baby. It would be as absurd as saying any other cell in your body is a person. You'd be on firmer ground if you referred to the numerous fertilized eggs routinely lost through miscarriage. Still, the essential distinction is between spontaneous death and intentional killing. Doctors who think they can save viable miscarried fetuses are certainly right to try.

One other point. "If a human embryo is indeed a human being, then a whole new body of societal law needs to be written involving embryonic welfare protection." This is already being done. Pregnant women who are substance abusers are sometimes charged for negligence when their children subsequently experience developmental problems. And Scott Peterson was convicted of two murders, not one.

I don't consider myself an abortion "extremist." (Of course, who does?) I'd be opposed, for example, to a ban on first-trimester abortions, especially if it were judicially imposed. Nevertheless, it's important to consider the ethical questions more carefully.

Jul 19, 2006

The Floating Snickers Bar [LINK]

When picking up my daughter from camp today, the teenage counselor took me aside and told me, rather gravely, "I just want to let you know, the pool was not available today. We had to shut it down because one of the children had an... um... accident." Accident? "No, I mean an accident with his pants." Oh, okay.

My thoughts, in sequence:

  1. Well, oops.

  2. The pool is brimming with chlorine. Couldn't they just fish it out with a net and keep going? No, I guess that won't do. It's a hazmat event.

  3. Just how does a poo get away from you like that? Was he wearing really baggy swim trunks?

  4. Oh my God, that poor boy. All the other kids know what he did. On one of the hottest days of the year in the middle of a heat wave, he kept hundreds of other kids from going in the pool. It'll follow him into grade school. Kids will compose songs about him. You might as well just start shopping around for a therapist right now. Take out a second mortgage if you have to. That kid'll need it.

  5. Okay, so the counselors probably had a brief huddle to decide how to present what happened to the parents. After all, they're paying a lot of money for day camp, and one of the big things they're paying for is that pool. Hottest day of the year, for crying out loud. So did the girl really have to talk to dozens upon dozens of parents like me, using that deeply serious, hushed voice of hers? How on Earth could any normal teenager keep from cracking up?

Jul 6, 2006

Pan Mass Challenge [LINK]

This is a photograph of my brother–in–law, Bryce McHale. Bryce died last year from complications relating to colon cancer, a few days shy of his 41st birthday. I am riding in the Pan–Mass Challenge in his memory, and ask your support.

Bryce was a smart, gentle, kind, and funny man. A chemist, he built up a successful environmental testing firm in suburban Detroit that he ultimately willed to his employees.

Despite state–of–the–art treatment, including consultation at the world–class Mayo Clinic, his death can be partly attributed to a simple failure to distinguish the recurrence of cancer following chemotherapy from a persistent surgical infection. It was rather a shock for members of his family to realize that, despite all the advanced research and the availability of expert specialists and complex testing equipment, there are such gaps in our more mundane abilities. Successfully treating cancer patients in the future will involve work in all these areas.

The Pan–Mass Challenge is a two–day bicycle ride across much of Massachusetts that supports Boston's Dana–Farber Cancer Institute via its Jimmy Fund. I will be riding from Sturbridge to Provincetown, a total of 192 miles. Aside from my fundraising goal, my personal goal involves getting to the finish line each day well before noon.

The PMC is the nation's oldest fundraising bike–a–thon, and raises more money than any other charitable athletic event. It is run almost entirely by volunteers, which means an impressive 97 percent of all funds raised goes directly to cancer research. In turn, Dana Farber receives near–perfect scores from the National Institutes of Health in the quality and efficiency of its research.

Last year's Pan–Mass Challenge raised $23 million for the Jimmy Fund, the largest one–time gift in Dana–Farber's history. I had the opportunity to ride in 2005, unfortunately too late for it to serve as inspiration for Bryce himself. I was overwhelmed by the dedication of the event's organizers and volunteers, not to mention its thousands of riders.

Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you contribute whatever you can.

To donate, follow this posting's link and click on the e-Gift button. Otherwise from anywhere else on the PMC.org site, click "e-gifts." In the resulting screen, select "sponsor one rider," then "select a person by eGift ID." My ID is MS0257.

Jul 5, 2006

WaPo on Texas rice "farmers" [LINK]

If you do not respond to positive arguments in favor of free market economics, perhaps a negative one will suffice. There's a rather maddening article in the Washington Post that reports on the state of American agricultural policy, concentrating on subsidized "farmers" in Texas rice country.

Following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, GOP leaders crafted legislation that promised to wean farmers from government subsidies. It didn't work; the legislation was a compromise that is referred to rather laughingly:

[The legislation] offered farmers annual fixed cash payments as a way of weaning them off subsidies.
Hey, trade you some crack cocaine for your heroin! The article doesn't examine whether that legislation was a net plus or minus, but rather concentrates on continuing perversities that render that question largely academic. Indeed, the hardest thing is to keep track of all the unintended consequences.

After all these years, farmers continue to be paid not to farm. Some of those defined as "farmers" have never farmed and have no intention to do so. Some of them are very rich indeed. The promise of subsidies increases the value of land to perverse heights, crowding out undercapitalized players who hope to enter the market or expand -- the poor farmers for whom Willie Nelson staged concerts. Since your residential land can be labeled "agricultural" without growing anything on it, it qualifies for a much lower property tax rate, distorting the local tax base. While the program was implemented to help save the local rice industry, the result was a huge decline in acreage devoted to rice production. "Farmers" received payments regardless of whether prices were high or low, and regardless of whether they planted. You can raise cattle or timber while collecting money for a crop you didn't plant. And since actual farmers who rent land qualify for the payments, owners' incentive to rent out the land vanishes; owners keep the payments themselves. Alternately, landlords increase the rent to capture the payments.

Clearly, agriculture requires further reform. Is there any reason to hope for anything meaningful in my lifetime? I keep thinking that the Soviet Union seemed premanently entrenched, then one day it simply disappeared. While this is a comforting thought, so is the idea that your football team can win if the quarterback throws a "Hail Mary" pass.

Jul 1, 2006

What brands you as a dictator? [LINK]

For one thing, nationalizing private resources:

I take it as a source of some dismay that no less than a law professor would recommend a government-appointed oversight body establish control over how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends its money. "If one person alone decided how to spend a nation's $70 billion," he reasons, "he or she would be branded a dictator." But Bill Gates is not a king, and the money he earned does not belong to the nation. Professor Levine should consider such an elementary distinction.