Monday, November 27, 2006

FILM: Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette film posterI'm late to the party to praise Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, but as with life at Versailles, more is more. Expectations were high after Lost In Translation, but Coppola's talent for realizing places and moods, sensations and sensibilities, certainly translated from Tokyo jetlag to Versailles excess. The film presents a vivid portrait of a woman more complicated than the standard charicature of her, set against the rich visualization of the intricacies and intrigues of Bourbon court social life, and the sartorial and culinary extravagances of the time. Kirsten Dunst is outstanding as the intimidated young pricess who transforms into a remarkable and confident woman, and Jason Schwartzman carries off the hesitant and ill-at-ease Louis XVI perfectly. The Marie Antionette we get to know through this film is much more interesting and sympathetic than her infamous "let them eat cake" reputation, and more accurate (according to historical biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, whose novel provided the source for the film). And the film is a visual feast, with much of it having been shot on location at Versailles, with royal reams of couture and cuisine. (The Devil Wears Prada now has serious competition for the Best Costume Oscar.) The soundtrack, an eclectic mix of baroque opera with modern rock, complimented the film perfectly, providing a decadent texture as well as a good listen.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Fishers of Fishermen

Sometimes the world can be transformed just by one person making an impression on another. Last June, seeing a documentary film and having dinner with Jean-Michael Cousteau and a National Geographic marine biologist, President Bush became so inspired that he took action to create the world's largest marine preserve, a new national monument comprising 84 million acres along the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Earlier this year, Walmart announced a commitment to sustainable fisheries, pledging to switch to wild-caught seafood from certified sustainable fisheries. Walmart was making a business decision based on a long-term view of sustainable supply, but the input and impetus for the decision came from a personal relationship developed between Peter Seligmann, co-founder of Conservation International, and Walmart Chairman Rob Walton over the course of scuba diving vacations.

Of course not everyone can take in a film with the President of the United States, or go scuba diving with the Chairman of Walmart. But the most successful sustainable fisheries program, that in Alaska, has only come about because fishermen at an individual level have become convinced that their best future lays in cooperating in a sustainable stewardship program. We as consumers can encourage this type of transformation by being responsible consumers, and buying and eating only sustainably harvested fish. And by encouraging our friends to do the same. Learn more here.

Jonathan Chait Thinks Out of the Box

Jonathan Chait surveys the options for responding to Iraq, and in seeking the least worst of a bad lot, comes up with a creative solution: put Saddam back in power.

The disadvantages of reinstalling Hussein are obvious, but consider some of the upside. He would not allow the country to be dominated by Iran, which is the United States' major regional enemy, a sponsor of terrorism and an instigator of warfare between Lebanon and Israel. Hussein was extremely difficult to deal with before the war, in large part because he apparently believed that he could defeat any U.S. invasion if it came to that. Now he knows he can't. And he'd probably be amenable because his alternative is death by hanging.

I know why restoring a brutal tyrant to power is a bad idea. Somebody explain to me why it's worse than all the others.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Left Or Right, Liberal And Conservative

As I have grown older, I have had increasing difficulty in locating myself on the traditional "left-right" spectrum for characterizing political philosophies and attitudes. In my college years, I identified with the liberal left, being strongly in favor of personal freedom and being highly suspicious of the Moral Majority (which rose to ascendancy at that time). But as I've grown older, I've become more aware of my own dissonances with the left. I see labor unions as having largely outlived their useful contribution to society, and I think government action is often not the best answer. And to my surprise, I find myself agreeing with my aunt (self-described as "to the right of Attila the Hun") once in a while. Though she's definitely much further out in right-wing talk radio-land for my tastes, we do find some common ground in people like Larry Elder and Shelby Steele. On the other hand, I'm a staunch subscriber/listener to the allegedly left-wing plot known as NPR. Among other things, I listen to a radio show called "Left, Right, and Center", and I find myself agreeing with each of the four commentators (there's also a "progressive independent" to add a new dimension) at various times (although I agree with the Left one the least).

It's quite possible there has been a rightward shift in my thinking as I have aged, but even so, I think the one-dimensional left-right system is wholly inadequate. I'm much more intrigued by the various attempts to plot politics on a two-dimensional landscape. Popular versions of these two-dimensional systems typically plot a social axis (from completely deregulating sex and drugs on one end, to having the government in your bedroom on the other) and an independent economic axis (from free market to government-controlled economy). The first time I saw this was taking the "World's Smallest Political Quiz", which asks 10 quick agree/maybe/disagree questions, and plots you on such a two-dimensional political map. It's kind of quick-and-dirty, and I don't always plot exactly the same, but I tend to be a libertarian with centrist leanings. You can see my score at right. This quiz is sponsored by a group called the Advocates for Self-Government, whose goals include promoting libertarian ideals and awareness, and changing the dominant but inadequate one-dimensional left-right model of politics. They claim that 5 million people have taken their quiz, and 35% of them score as libertarians. Their theory is that many people have libertarian ideals to some extent, but don't think of themselves as libertarians. I think this is probably true for two reasons. One, touted by the Advocates, is that libertarianism doesn't neatly fit in the left-right paradigm which is how most people think, so many aren't even aware of it as an option. Another reason (not put forward by the Advocates) is that the Libertarian Party in practice tends to put up a lot of crackpots for election, and even many people who recognize themselves as "small-l" libertarian in philosophy eschew the capital-L Libertarian Party. I think the quiz is roughly accurate, in that I do find much more resonance with libertarian philosophy than with either the Left or the Right. And I also like that the way they've oriented their quadrants, libertarianism is neither left nor right, but "upword".

A more sophisticated (and less American-centric) two-dimensional map can be found at The Political Compass, whose quiz is not the smallest (it's six web pages of questions) but still only takes about 10 minutes. Their map is essentially the same, but rotated 135 degrees, and with different labels on the axes. In this assessment, I turn out to be in the libertarian quadrant (the green dot in the lower left), with a "social latitude" of -4.87 (on a 10-point scale, with positive being authoritarian) and an "economic longitude" of 1.13 (with positive being free market). Interestingly, they have plotted a number of world leaders, and most of the western world ends up in the "northeast" (free-market-oriented statists), except for the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, who end up east but slightly south of the equator. Practically all US politics is in the "northeast", as are the New Labour and Conservatives in the UK, but they also get the Liberal Democrats in the southeast, the Greens in the southwest, and the British Nationals in the northwest. Me, I'm in the same quadrant as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, but with communitarian sympathies pulling me closer to the "prime meridian" (beyond which lay Gandhi and the Dalai Lama).

An earlier and more philosophical variant on the two-dimensional political landscape is called the Pournelle Chart, where the axes are "statism" (confidence in centralized government) and "rationalism" (confidence in planned solutions to social problems). The "statism" axis can plotted neatly on maps like The Political Compass, but the "rationalism" axis is a different dimension with no clear correspondent on the other maps. Pournelle labels the poles of "rationalism" as "reason enthroned" and "irrational", although as the Wikipedia article notes, "irrational" is not meant in a pejorative sense. As I understand it, better labels for the poles might be "idealist" and "sceptic". I've not seen any accompanying quiz that plots people on the Pournelle Chart, and I'm less certain where I'd land here. I'm probably somewhat west of center on the "statism" scale, and conflicted on the "rationalism" scale. Idealism runs deep in me, but I've grown to appreciate pragmatism more as I've aged, and I think I'd be relatively equatorial (probably somewhat north or south on different issues). Interestingly, Pournelle locates "various libertarians" in his northwest quadrant. However, most of the "small-l" libertarians I know and respect would be fairly west and fairly south, where Pournelle has put "classical anarchists" and the "American Counter-Culture". Indeed, one such libertarian I know and respect calls himself a "minarchist", and several of them feel the pull of the classical conservative Burke (whom Pournelle puts at the far south, but neither east nor west).

A friend once told me that "if you're not a liberal in your 20's, you have no heart, but if you're not a conservative in your 40's, you have no brain". At the time I didn't believe him, but I was in my 20's then. Now I'm in my 40's and it's seeming more credible. I do think it helps to be a certain age to appreciate Burke's pragmatism regarding human nature and his scepticism of sweeping idealistic reforms. (Burke is, like fine whisky and cigars, a taste I thought I would never acquire, until I did.) But my appreciation for conservative philosophy has not diminished in any way my appreciation for liberal philosophy. One of the revelations of breaking out of the one-dimensional political thinking is the discovery that communism is not the opposite of fascism, rather they are orthogonal. Similarly, conservative is not the opposite of liberal, and in fact at this point in history, it is perfectly reasonable to be both liberal and conservative. I must point out here that I mean "liberal" in the classical sense (think Jefferson, Madison, Locke, and Mill) and I mean "conservative" in the classical sense (think Burke and Hume), which are often far from the way these terms have been abused in current American discourse (where "liberal" is the straw-man target of Ann Coulter's polemic performance art, and "conservative" is mindlessly equated with Republican pork programs and Christianist agendas). Insofar as a conservative attitude means a reluctance to make sweeping changes to proven social institutions, and since we Americans now have a two century track record of a constitutional republic based on liberal principles that has served us well, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to say that I am both a liberal and a conservative. Perhaps I have a heart and a brain after all.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Witch Hunts of Our Time

The election results gave us much to be happy about, but there were a few disappointments. One notable one was the passage of Prop 83 in California, by very large margins. Sex offenders are already listed on public registries, Scarlet Letter style, for the rest of their lives, and prohibited from living too close to schools. With the passage of Prop 83, the expanded restrictions on where they can live effectively exile them from most cities altogether. And even as they're living out their lives in trailers in the Mohave desert, the state will continue to track them all by GPS. Even the ones that are 75 years old, and have served their full sentence for a crime committed decades ago.

With all due respect to the real victims of sex offenders, the punitive hyper-reaction of our society to sex offenses has turned it into the witch hunts of our time. The topic stirs a primal fear -- the threat of harm to our children -- which induces hysteria, and all hope of rational analysis and proportionate reaction flies out the window. The phenomenon is not new. I saw the witch hunts first-hand in the 1980s when I lived near Manhattan Beach, where the McMartin family was being practically pilloried for accusations of sexual abuse in the preschool they operated, charges that turned out to be totally baseless. But the flames of hysteria spread like fire in the California hills when the dry Santa Ana winds are blowing, and an innocent family and their preschool was utterly ruined by it.

I also saw this first hand a few years ago when a friend was accused and convicted of a ridiculously bogus child molestation charge, for which he served several years in prison. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that the alleged incident occurred in a completely open and public place, in plain view of many people, and was not corroborated by anyone including the boy's mother who was sitting right next to her son and interacting with my friend when the "molestation" supposedly occurred. Unfortunately, when the charge is a sex offense against a minor, hysteria trumps rationality, and any defendant is guilty until proven innocent (and still guilty even then). For this clearly bogus charge, a five year prison sentence was handed down, which of course is only the beginning. Thanks to the latest manifestation of sexual abuse hysteria -- the Draconian exile-the-sex-offenders voter initiatives -- my friend will pay for this non-crime for the rest of his life.

With these anecdotal experiences, I do not mean to suggest that sexual abuse and its victims do not exist, or that these are not serious crimes. But I do mean to suggest that our society has a heightened sensitivity to these issues, bordering on hysteria, which prevents dispassionate rational consideration of the issue, and leads to completely disproportionate reactions. Case in point: we saw several Congressional scandals this season, mostly involving bribery and influence-peddling, which ought to stir outrage and bring Congressmen down in a rational country. In America, not so much. William "cold cash" Jefferson, caught on tape and with $150,000 in cash in his freezer, is being sent back to the Washington gravy train for another ride. However, Bob Foley sends lewd and inappropriate text messages to some of his pages, and that brings the House down. Again, not saying what Foley did wasn't reprehensible. But the comparative reaction to Foley vs. Jefferson, Ney, and their ilk is completely unhinged.

As California jumped on the sex-offender-demonization wagon this week, I submit that the voters voted out of ignorance and primal fear. Did anyone bother to ask whether the uniquely punitive measures were proportionate? (Is it reasonable to treat a sex offender as worse than a murderer?) Even more pointedly, is there any evidence to suggest that the punitive measures enacted would have any practical effect on incidence of sex offenses, or on recidivism rates? (There isn't.) Those things would have mattered to anyone considering the issue rationally. But where sex offenses are concerned, rationality gives way to irrational fear. Shame on the 71% of California voters who approved this spiteful initiative. (One can hope it gets overturned in the courts - it is already being challenged.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Intervention Accomplished

Like so many Americans, I stayed up late last night watching the results come in, and was delighted to see the rising tide of change. Andrew Sullivan had been saying for a while now that this wasn't an election, it was an intervention. And indeed it was. My faith is restored in Americans to respond appropriately when the pendulum swings too far in any direction. I had been a bit worried. While we'd been hearing about the rock-bottom approval ratings of Congress, I had also heard a poll measuring people's approval of their own Congressmember, and that was in the 60s. But last night, all politics was not local. I was amazed and encouraged at how many people looked past the local, and voted for change even if they liked their own Congressmember.

While it is tempting with such a wave of euphoria to raise the "Mission Accomplished" banner, it would be as premature now as it was when President Bush proclaimed it on the aircraft carrier. The election was only the beginning. Now that the Democrats have control, let's see what they can do. We've heard very little about a Democratic agenda, but rumors of one are starting to emerge. In expected-Speaker Pelosi's speech today, she articulated raising the minimum wage, enacting recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and fixing Medicare to allow government negotiation of drug prices. According to pundit Jonathan Chait (who seemed to be the only person who knew that the Democrats had an agenda), the agenda also includes cutting the interest rate on student loans, relaxing limitations on federal funding of stem cell research, and imposing "pay-as-you-go" budget rules. It was encouraging to see both Pelosi and Bush being magnanimous in their statements today, and it was very welcome news to hear that Rumsfeld has already been given his orders. Amidst the obligatory bipartisan platitudes about working together, there was at least some hint that they may actually find some common ground (like a guest worker program, for example).

So the Republicans fumbled, and the Democrats recovered the ball. Let's see if they can actually move it forward. They would do well to keep in mind the sage observation of Senator Coburn, reflecting on the Republican wreckage: "One of the great paradoxes in politics is that governing to maintain power is the surest way to lose it."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Let's Party Like It's 1994?

There is much anticipation about the possibility of an anti-Republican tidal wive in next week's election that takes away GOP control of the House and maybe the Senate too. Comparisons are being drawn to 1994, also a midterm election, when the GOP swept into power ending years of Democratic control of Congress. But if such a sweep occurs (and I hope it does), I hope it's clear to everyone that it's not a Democratic sweep, but rather an anti-Republican one. It is truly a sorry state of affairs that even at this time of extreme GOP vulnerability, the Democrats are offering nothing, other than "we're not Republicans".

Granted, some will argue that in terms of election strategy, it is in the Democrats' interest to make it a "referendum election" (i.e., voting based on approval/disapproval of the present administration), while Karl Rove would like to make it a "choice election" (i.e., deciding between the two parties). But when the opposition has nothing better to say than "look how horrible they are, and we're not them", and the party in power has nothing better to offer than throwing up scary straw men and saying "imagine how much worse they would be", that in itself belies an agreement by both parties that the administration is doing a lousy job. Notice that you don't find many Republicans asking us whether we're better off now than we were four years ago. The real problem for the Republicans is that it's getting harder and harder to imagine how much worse it could be than it already is.

So there's clearly rumblings of dissatisfaction. But this is so not 1994. That year, the centerpiece of the campaign that swept the GOP into power was not "we're not Democrats". It was the Contract with America, a positive vision and substantive program of policy. Flash forward 12 years to the present. With the GOP in a shambles, if the Democratic party had any vision at all to offer, any compelling proposals, they would shine like the shining city on the hill in contrast to the Republican wreckage. But where is the Democratic equivalent of Dick Armey or Newt Gingrich? Where is the Democratic contract? Nowhere. "We're not Republicans." Pathetic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Prop 87 Flunks Econ 101

Proposition 87 claims to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by developing alternative energy technologies, and proposes to fund this research with a tax on in-state oil drillers that is forbidden to be passed on to consumers. This proposal defies basic economics. First, we have this ridiculous statute that forbids any attempt "to gouge consumers by using the assessment as a pretext to materially raise the price of oil, gasoline, or diesel fuel." (Yes, it really says that. See Sec. 18, 42004(c)). Basic laws of economics dictate that there is a relationship between costs of production (including raw materials, labor, etc), revenues (i.e. prices for goods sold), and profits. Regulating one aspect of the equation is like squeezing a balloon - compensatory effects will be distributed elsewhere. Putting a tax on one component of production costs will have effects in terms of upward pressure on prices as well as downward pressure on other component costs of production (e.g., labor). Thinking that it will simply come out of profit is naïve. Profit is the air in the balloon. If you reduce that, incentive to undertake the enterprise risk is reduced, the whole balloon deflates. Legislating that costs have no effect on prices is not unlike legislating that water must flow uphill.

Then there's the brilliant bit about reducing our dependence on foreign oil by levying a tax that applies only to domestic oil. Given that oil extracted in California competes in a global market with oil extracted outside of California, the expected effect of putting a tax only on California oil would be to discourage domestic production and increase the demand for foreign oil. Kind of like a protectionist tariff, but totally backwards. Neat. If that works, maybe we can try reducing pollution by taxing low-emission vehicles.

I'm all for reducing our dependence on oil, and encouraging alternative energy sources. There's a simple though painful way to do so, and that's to put a significant tax on gas at the pump. Pain-free "solutions" like Prop 87 that seem too good to be true are. (And shame on Bill Clinton, who ought to know better, for selling this economic snake oil.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prop 90: A Reluctant NO On This Mixed Bag

Proposition 90 is a great example of why the initiative process is a poor tool for policy-making. On its surface, Prop 90 is a response to the horrendous US Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. New London, which eviscerated constitutional limits on government's eminent domain power. In short, SCOTUS said that a city or state could take property from one private party and give it to another for the flimsiest of "public benefit" excuses. That was a travesty, and part of Prop 90 would make reasonable amendments to the state constitution to prevent such outrages from occurring in California.

Had the authors of Prop 90 stopped there, it would have been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, they didn't. Under cover of a "Kelo correction" amendment, they also slipped in a radical new proposal that would require governments to compensate property owners for any hypothetical economic damages caused by any new government laws or regulations. As one example, if my city enacted a new zoning rule that prohibited structures in my residential neighborhood from exceeding 2 stories in height (where no such restriction existed before), even though my neighborhood is entirely one and two-story houses, I could claim damages since my right to knock down my house and build a 27-story office building has been taken away, and I could sue the city for the hypothetical value of the 27-story office building that I can no longer build.

Personally, I think it's an intriguing idea with strong libertarian appeal, going straight to philosophical beliefs about fundamental property rights. But there is no doubt that the impact to all levels of government will be sweeping, and that this radical change will have unforeseeable, unintended, and likely undesirable consequences. Oregon is the only place such a thing has been tried, and it's really too early to tell how it's going there (though see here and here for some perspectives). This idea needs to be explored more thoughtfully and openly, not slipped in under the radar.

What's worse, the language in this particular proposition is broad, apparently applying to any governmental action (not just land-use-related regulations) and to any tangible or intangible property (not just real estate), and leaves many questions open to interpretation. (See a good neutral discussion here.) Enacting this as an initiative constitutional amendment is the worst possible way to take on such an experiment. Later, when consequences are better understood, and inevitable corrections are needed, this will be embedded in the Constitution where it can't be fixed without another initiative constitutional amendment. That's a foolish way to conduct a radical policy experiment.