Archive for the ‘blogospheric tail chasing’ category

No Doubt Ms. McArdle Will Reassure Us That The Rhetoric of Violence Has Nothing to do with Violence

April 6, 2010

This threat to Senator Murray reminded me of the McArdle nonsense discussed here (at great length, as is my wont).

But not to worry.  Just because elected leaders and the highest profile opinion makers on the right have been calling health care reform “armageddon” and the Democrats who passed it tyrants, there is no need to fear that idiots with lethal firepower will mount threats to our elected officials.

Just to forestall the likely “that’s not what I meant” retort from Ms. McArdle, I concede that it is true that merely carrying a weapon does not indicate the intent to use it.  But it sure gives you the means to do irreversible harm if you do so choose.  And blithely dismissing ratcheting rhetoric and the impact of the public display of weaponry as unconnected with actual increases in the risk of violence is willed blindness.

Props, by the way, to the FBI, on the case in a big way this time.

Image:  Knotted pistol in front of the UN building in New York.

Why Andrew Sullivan Continues to Piss Me Off…little things edition

April 5, 2010

Andrew Sullivan, as I and many have noted, is a true pain in the ass.  He’s sometimes brilliant,  more or less always deeply committed, capable of howling error and, in the one great strength that any opinionated journalist needs, completely unfazed by that fact.

But he’s also beset by the one true sin of someone who would both know and interpret the world (which is a fancy way of saying a journalist of and with opinions):  he is selectively incurious.

That is there are certain assumptions that just don’t get their spring and fall airing out — and they manifest themselves as seemingly permanent thumbs on the scale.

I’m onto this because, while procrastinating yet again in submitting expense reports for the four-trips-in-three weeks stint just past, I sauntered over to his blog just now to find in a post about Mark Thiessen’s serial lies, this:

Media Matters is a group I remain somewhat skeptical of, but the data they have assembled on “Courting Disaster” is truly impressive.

This annoys because of its magisterial dismissal of his source, Media Matters.  There is the matter of tone — I bridle at his “We are not amused” affect.  There is the awakening of the grammar nazi in me:  the clause is better written (IMHO, of course) “Media Matters is a group about which I remain somewhat skeptical…”

But most of all there is the assumption not in evidence, the argument not made.  Sullivan distrusts Media Matters, despite their seemingly admirable work in this instance, because?….

We must infer, and I do: I’m going to guess that Sullivan’s residual distaste comes, for all that Sullivan has moved a lot from his naive Bush-and-war worshipping days as a callow blogger, Media Matters has consistently documented sins by many of Sullivan’s friends, former or otherwise.

It galled then, I’d imagine, and it galls now.*  But this is weak sauce, to steal TNC’s epithet: if you are going to undercut your authority you need to explain why (a) they merit general distrust and (b) how the work you praise is different.  Sullivan doesn’t, ruling instead ex cathedra, which, as we have all recently been reminded, is a perilous place from which to opine.

And there there’s this, in a post on the presumed greater conservatism of Hilary Clinton (compared to Obama):

I think Bruce needs a qualifier: “ideological conservatives.”

This is another one of those asides that turn up fairly often on his blog, in which Sullivan again tries to defend his general claim that he is an arbiter of authenticity.  I wrote recently about his Christians vs. Christianists trope — and his chiding of Bruce Bartlett is more of the same.  There are real conservatives — those whom Sullivan recognizes as fellow heirs of a lineage that includes the inevitable Burke and the locally omnipresent Oakeshott…and then there are all those who have followed false prophets, and become merely “ideological” conservatives.

Sullivan is, of course, absolutely entitled to construct his own typology.  I have an unsolicited suggestion for him, in fact:

I agree with him that those using the term “Conservative” in contemporary American politics are not — in either the political-historical sense of the term, its philosophical sense, nor in any reasonable reading of its plain meaning.  Rather, they are, to dredge up a term from British politics, Radicals.  If he’d start using that to describe the Palins and the Kristols of the world and all the rest, with an account of the Anglo-American roots of the word as used in politics, that would be great.

But for now, some attention must be paid to the way the word is actually understood in current usage.  Movement conservatives, self-identified American conservatives, the folks who love torture and hate health care reform assert, as conservatives have often done, that there specific stands are derived from a more global commitment to some established base of eternal truths articulated most clearly in some idealized past — and there is not reasonable understanding of conservatism as a political trope that doesn’t recognize such claims as a broadly shared element in the definition of of what it means to be conservative.

That Sullivan deeply dislikes the form in which this commitment takes in our politics today, and that he sees it as mostly or entirely a fiction (i.e. — there is no reading of history that yields the “truths” that Palin says she sees as foundational, a view with which I entirely agree), doesn’t mean that he gets to decide who stays in the conservative club and who gets booted out.

Again, I’d trace this back to Sullivan’s still incomplete grasp of the contradictions within his worldview and experience — conflicts which he has been more open than most about expressing.  He’s someone who thinks deductively, from axioms he believes or accepts to be true.  He is sensitive enough to experience to recognize at least some of the times when those axioms turn out to be falsified by daily reality — hence, among much else, his passionate battle against the perpetuation of the American torture state.  But old habits of mind don’t simply undo themselves…and here, in two casual asides, you see how they dull thought.

Which, I suppose, if I’m honest, would be most useful as a warning to self.  There is no such thing as herd immunity in the thinking-and-writing biz.

*There may even be a hint here, to my perhaps oversensitive ears, of a kind of class disdain:  Media Matters may be just a bit too grubby to be taken seriously. (I could be detecting phantoms here. There’s nothing like being a member of an Anglo-Jewish upper-ish family to give one perhaps a too-finely-tuned sensor for English class distinctions, as a recent conversation with a friend who happened to be an old-Harrovian (sic?) classmate of a cousin of mine reminded me.  With just two Jews at Harrow at that time, the tension within an identity of same-and-other was constant.)

Image:  Titian, “Portrait of Cardina Pietro Bembo” before 1547. Bembo is a favorite of mine for many reasons, not least that he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia before he being made a cardinal.

RIP Jon Swift

March 4, 2010

By now I’m sure most of those who read this blog will have heard the sad news that one of the best of those who chose to write in this strange new form has died.

Jon Swift, aka Al Weisel, died late last month of complications of an aortic aneurysm.  Tom Watson has a moving tribute here, and there is nothing in my brief and passing blog acquaintence with Mr. Swift that can add to that.

What I can affirm from personal experience is that Jon Swift (the name by which I knew the man we’ve lost) was at once a marvelous, caustic wit who accomplished something very difficult — creating a wholly plausible alternative world in which his views and words became plausible — and hence  hilarious in the one we laughingly (because we’re too big to cry) call “the real world.” And for all of that wit and slash, he was a believer in the idea of community on the blogosphere, and did more than almost anyone to make that easily typed sentiment an actuality.

He put a lot of muscle behind blogroll amnesty day, for example, and it is a sad tribute that Inverse Square got traffic today from his ‘roll, to which it had been added a Feb. 3 or two ago.  And he tried to notice small and new blogs when they were trying to make a move; he did so here, promoting what remains one of my favorite pieces of the last couple of years.   We corresponded a couple of times — I thanked him for that notice, and he wrote back, noting that while he didn’t agree with the piece, he thought it argued its point sharply enough to make it worth pushing into the conversation.

So that’s my story:  this was a generous man, and one who clearly loved both the solitary act of writing and the collective practice of thinking.

The good die to damn young.

Image: Nicholas Poussin, “Les Bergers d’Arcadie (Et in Arcadia ego)” 1637-1638

Last, for now, to Galt’s Gulch. A Libertarian Commenter Proves Mah Point…

February 3, 2010

Jim K., in this comment thread takes issue with my claim that anti-tax glibertarianism is (a) one of the root causes of Colorado Springs’ current predicament and (b) is powering a potentially deep decline in American wealth and power.

The issue, he says, is not the shortfall in taxes, but the “abomination” — his word — that city employees are overpaid,  excessively well-benefitted, and inflexibly secure in their jobs.  This labor greed and rigidity, and not the collapse of tax revenues in the context of anti-tax politics is to blame for the loss of police and fire jobs, the darkening of city streets and so on.

In Mr. K.’s words:

The argument that folks like me (who are apparently wrecking the American way of life) have is not with government provision of services per se but the fact that a great proportion of the dollars we are paying into the government these days is going to support unsustainably high compensation schemes for government employees.

To demonstrate how iniquitous is this burden, he offers some numbers:  a presumed final salary after 40 years of work of $75,000 that would, he claims, linking to the Colorado public pension system’s benefit calculator page, yield a 100% pension — the equivalent, he asserts of an annuity that would cost one million dollars and change to buy on the open market.

And wait! it gets worse:

Additionally, most state employees do not fund any contributions to their pensions from that 75K.

Sounds bad, I guess — except for two problems that are to me illustrative of the absolute intellectual poverty for what passes for libertarian argument in this country.  First, such arguments are usually deeply empirically challenged, as they are here.

That is:  Mr. K.’s key numbers are wrong, apparently simply made-up.  It may be true that if you, as Mr. K. says he did, “plug some numbers” into the the benefits calculator you get a retirement payment equal to your salary at retirement.  But no actual Colorado public employee does.

Instead, as Mr. K. would have discovered had he employed his mad intertube skillz just a little more rigorously, the retirement benefit ranges runs by yearly steps from 10% after five years of employment to a maximum of 87.5% at thirty five years of service and above.  Significantly that percentage is not calculated on the final, and commonly the highest paid year of service, but on a formula that provides for a lower figure and that, in essence, prevents any sweetheart raises from skewing the retirement payout. (All this can be found by clicking on this link and then downloading the relevant benefit explanations.)

There’s more, of course.  Mr. K. asserts that most state employees don’t contribute to their pension plans.  Maybe in his universe, but not in this one.  The Colorado plan, PERA reports that in 2008, employees contributed $717 million to the plan, while employers provided $863.5 million. You can, I suppose, argue about the appropriate ratio — but the key message is that, of course, Mr. K. said something flat out wrong that, conveniently, supports his myth of the leech-like viciousness of public servants.  In the real world, the employees of Colorado Springs have been paying significant amounts to their own future compensation.

At the same page, you’d find that the average monthly retirement benefit for 2008 was $2772, which annualizes to all of $33,264 — not nothing, truly, but hardly the caviar and Cadillac compensation of Mr. K.’s fever dreams.

Enough: you get the point.  Mr.K., like many of the anti-government crowd I’ve argued with in the past, feels free to assert what he is convinced must be true.  That’s behavior I recognize as I raise my small son — but it is something that, thankfully, at age nine, he has begun to outgrow.  It seems a developmental disorder afflicting much of the body politic that a similar progression has not taken place amongst too many alleged adults.

The problem with such invention is that it has real consequences.  In this case, Mr. K. wants to see Colorado Springs employees taking one for the taxpayer:

What else am I forgetting? Health care benefits, much better job security, and hours and holidays most of us would envy….What is really destroying the American way of life, the unwillingness of some of us to pay ever more to support this abomination or the fact that we have created a class of citizens who demand ever more of our money in return for keeping the streetlights on?

Hey! I thought class war was for my side!

This is the second problem with glibertarian discussions of the evils of government.  They really do believe in magic ponies.  Streetlights good.  People who go up on lifts to change them? “This abomination.”

I don’t doubt that there is waste and sloth and indifference in government service.  Hell, I’ve seen it in every business  or institution I’ve owned or worked for, so I don’t see why the public sector should be any different from the private and non profit ones.

I also know some folks high up in big-city government so  I know (a) problems exist and (b) very smart and dedicated people work like hell to deal with them.  And I know and or receive services from a lot of not-so-high up folks.  And what gets me is the way that folks like Mr. K. seem to think two things:

First, that contracts may be binding for thee and me, but not if your contract happens to be collectively bargained and between an individual and the state.  The cop who started work ten years ago signed on to a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous job in exchange for a defined compensation package.  Now we should throw this away?  I don’t think so.

Second, that whatever we pay our civil servants is always too much, and hence ill-gotten, which is why it is OK to cut people’s pay  while expecting them to provide the same labor.

Here’s the horrible truth:  we don’t pay civil servants very much, really.  A Colorado Springs police sargeant makes, broadly, between $55,000 and $70,000 — or roughly $27.50 to $35 an hour. That’s for an experienced person in a supervisory role, working a job that requires considerable expertise and specialized skills, not to mention acceptance of the risk inherent in police work.

Why do skilled and smart people do the work — be they cops, teachers, whatever?  Because they like it, one hopes, but also because they accept a bargain — they’ll take a constrained wage in exchange for security and good benefits.  Take some part of that bargain away, and you’ll lose folks.  Usually the best ones, if you accept free market notions of rational self-interest, which I do.

So you have to ask yourselves:  Do you feel lucky today?  How much do you cut before these kind of people say f*ck it, and move on?

Seriously:  you can always cut something.  But you lose something when you do.  And if you have so committed yourself and your community to the idea that government is an abomination, it should come as no surprise that the cuts start to hurt.  But it does, which is why folks like Mr. K. have to make stuff up to get the horrible facts of real life out of their heads.

To which I say — move to Colorado Springs!  Show us what paradise can be.  I double dog dare ya.

Image:  Vincent Van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.

Further to Galt’s Gulch: A Sorta, Kinda, No Not Really Apology To an Aggrieved Ms. McArdle

February 2, 2010

I see from a rather intemperate comment on this post that Megan McArdle has committed a cardinal error:  never give a (sadly) obscure critic the satisfaction — or the notice — that may render them (and their critiques) less obscure.

Not that I mind, mind you — always judge a person by the enemies they attract.  (Though in this case I am reminded a bit of Denis Healey’s famous characterization of a debate with Sir Geoffrey Howe.)

Ms. McArdle actually has just a bit of a cause for complaint.

She writes  — at more length than I would have thought the provocation deserved, but such is blogging —  that I accuse her of claims she has not made, that she is in fact a supporter of government in its proper place, and that therefore I should not have associated her with Colorado Springs’ announcement of severe cuts in government services brought on by a revenue shortfall.

On reflection:  she has not posted any opinions on Colorado Springs tax or spending policies, so far as I know (I don’t read her regularly enough to be sure — rather I ration myself to a kind of once a month rubbernecking of the analytical and journalistic trainwreck her blogging (and the next three parts of the tome that begins at that link) presents to make sure I don’t get too caught up in documenting the fail).

Given that silence, leaping to the thought of someone who used to blog under the pseudonym “Jane Galt” in my bit of reflection on the real-world consequences of a Randian view of government was, if predictable, something of a stretch — for which lapse I apologize.

But — I can’t resist this — Ms. McArdle can’t even protest such leaps of association without committing further rhetorical sins.  I’ve documented before her passion for straw man arguments, and they show up here again:

…have I ever advocated getting rid of the police, streetlights, or education spending?  Why no, I haven’t!  Of course that way requires actually firing up Google, which means you could sprain your fingers. You can understand why Thomas Levenson didn’t want to risk it.

Let us leave aside how the wounded soul ramps up the rhetoric…after all my contempt for Ms. McArdle’s work should be clear from the pieces linked above, so I can’t exactly fault her for her attempts at returning the favor.

But, in fact, you will note in the objected-to passage that I did not say the Ms. McArdle favored the things she says she does not.  What I did and do assert, in effect, is that in the body of her work you will find a consistent argument that government cannot perform well a broad array of functions, including those that many of us, at least would recognize as essential.  See for example, this post, which I excoriated here and here.

It is certainly true that when you pound through Ms. McArdle’s posts you will find support for some government actions — not health care reform, in any of its current guises, nor many aspects of proposed financial reforms and so on — but certainly some taxes (on health care plans, among other targets) and in some areas.

But she’s much more nervous about a lot of other stuff too — regulating or legislating against credit card company exploitation of seniors suffering from dementia, for one example, because, in her view constraining such behavior would involve too great a transfer of individual autonomy to governmental paternalism.

Well, that’s a point of view, and it’s not my intent here to reargue the obvious responses to the weaknesses within that perspective. (Think — what significant non-governmental, non-individual center of power is left out of the libertarian argument here?)

Rather, what I’m saying is that, for all of Ms. McArdle’s claim of balance and the pure exercise of sweet reason, when it comes down to cases, she most often defaults to the ideal of an individual’s choice trumping an assertion of a common good that requires some constraint on or cost to the individual.  There is both a logical end (drown government in a bathtub) and a practical outcome that derives from that kind of thumb on the intellectual scale.  And I stand by my claim a real-world example of that endpoint can be seen right now in Colorado Springs.

So no, I don’t think, nor did I ever say, that McArdle wants to fire every cop in Colorado.

What I do think, and say, is that there are recognizable consequences to arguments consistently made…and Ms.McArdle’s position leads in practice, if not in  the theory that lights the spotless sunshine of her mind, to local disaster and, unchecked, the long term erosion of American power and (relative) wealth.

Image: John Leech, “Rome Saved By The Cackling of Geese” from The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett, c.1850.

Open Lab 2009!

January 14, 2010

Now this was a nice bit of news to receive:

The list of posts selected for Open Lab 2009 — a collection of 50 exemplary science blog posts from the last year — was announced earlier this week, and on it you will find this post by your humble blogger.  It’s a look at the rhetorical debt Charles Darwin owes to Isaac Newton, and it’s pretty good, if I do say so as shouldn’t.

You can see the complete selection here.  It is great company in which to find oneself — kudos to all here represented — and my thanks to the heroic team of judges, led by Scicurious of Neurotopia, who worked through more than 700 pieces to reach this conclusion.

Illustration: Franz Eugen Köhler “Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)” 1887.

A Bleg

December 8, 2009

Dear readers,

I’m thinking about moving my blog to a host that allows me more flexibility than WordPress allows.  I’ll be redirecting from here, so there will be some continuity, but I wonder if anyone has any thoughts about the new domain name.


Or is this a distinction without a difference?

Hive mind help gratefully appreciated.

Image: Dr. Marcus Gossler, The subject catalogue (“Schlagwortkatalog”) of the University Library of Graz. 2005.