Archive for the 'language' Category

A note to everyone who looks like the people from the bar last night: you’re on my list

[by JSC5]

If you were looking for a concrete example of what I was talking about in my previous post on how terribly puerile our privacy culture is these days, then look no further.* The libertarian/conservative law prof blog Volokh Conspiracy has you covered. Here’s Prof. Kenneth Anderson talking about the effect the JournoList ‘scandal’ has had on his perceptions of reporters in general:

When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much? 

So Kenneth Anderson used to have tremendous respect for Peter Finn’s work as a reporter because of his extensive body of work as a journalist. But post-JournoList, suddenly Kenneth Anderson has grave doubts about Peter Finn’s reporting — so much so that he’s decided to cast aspersions about Finn’s work on a widely-read media outlet.

That’s quite an about-face to be caused by one listserve. For those of you who’ve rationally decided to care more about your own things than the latest inside-the-beltway ‘scandal’, here’s a brief recap. JournoList was a private listserve for center-left journalists, opinion writers, professors, bloggers, and public intellectuals. From what I know, J-Listers used it to chat about current events, policy, sports, gossip, and the state of journalism. Some members clearly used it to let off steam. Dave Weigel, a former journalist/blogger for the Washington Post, famously used it to complain to his friends on JList about Rush Limbaugh and some other celebrities on the right. Someone with an anti-Weigel axe to grind leaked the JournoList archives to a new right-wing website called the Daily Caller. It was a win-win for all involved in the shady deal: the Daily Caller got a bunch of new hits, and the leaker got Weigel fired and may have destroyed his career (we’ll find out in a few years).

Some conservative media outlets decided to run with the story that JournoList was a liberal cabal coordinating stories and manipulating the news. The evidence to support this view is pretty weak / non-existent, but that hasn’t stopped some people – like Kenneth Anderson – from moving into full freak out mode.

It’s probably unfair to single out Kenneth Anderson, since there are plenty of other examples, but I think it’s important to have a concrete example of how insane our culture has become. Anderson used to have a very high opinion of some journalist named Finn based on years of experience consuming and appreciating  his reporting. But now that some partisan hack media outlets are publishing vague accusations of journalistic misconduct among a group of people on J-List, Anderson is suddenly extremely distrustful of ALL JOURNALISTS. I apologize for the profanity, but that’s just fucking nuts. I’ll echo my colleague JSC7 in asking why vague allegations about JList, or specific citations of intemperate words said in private, should be such a powerful signal that should change a person’s professional credibility despite years and years of actual work product that could provide a more accurate source of judgment?

Let me put this another way: A random, untrustworthy dude on the street comes up to you and says that some heinous shit went down at a local bar last night. Do you (A) dismiss the bum’s allegations and go on with your life unless you get some actual, credible information, or (B) gasp in horror and publicly question the morals and credibility of anyone who even looks like the people who would have been in that bar last night — even if you had just recently asked one of them to be your newborn child’s godfather?

Common sense says (A). Certain oh-so-earnest and concerned political operatives on the right say (B).

Does this mean that everything about JournoList was above board? I don’t know. I wasn’t on it. But nothing yet has come out that makes me think JournoList was any more problematical than an office water cooler. So like any sane, good-spirited person, I’m choosing not to believe the worst and most outlandish conspiracy theories until I see some credible evidence. I’d like to even stop reading, writing, or caring about this topic untill/unless this credible evidence materializes. Unfortunately, the cause of maintaining standards of decency and privacy is too important.

* The title of the piece in question, as you’ll notice if you click through, is “A note to all the non-JList reporters”. Combine that with my bar analogy later in the post and you have the odd title to my blog post. Sorry about that.

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State-owned enterprises

[by JSC5]

A good illustration of the incoherence of our discourse about government-owned enterprises, from today’s NYT:

Neil M. Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program of the Treasury Department, said both carmakers [GM and Chrysler] needed to shut down some underperforming dealerships. But it questioned whether the cuts should have been made so quickly, particularly during a recession. The report, released on Sunday, estimated that tens of thousands of jobs were lost as a result.

After having read and watched most of Mr. Barofsky’s congressional testimony for a one of my jobs, I can honestly say that I think he’s done a great job as Special Inspector General for TARP. This latest SIGTARP report, however, seems to suffer from a problem shared by just about all analysts, commentators, politicians, and academics who work on bailout issues and the problems of state ownership. What exactly are our goals with these bailed-out institutions? Should we run them for the public benefit, or run them as businesses to return them to profitability as soon as possible? Or do we have hybrid, competing goals?

I think conservatives (and the rest of us!) were worried that state-owned enterprises would get treated like adjunts of the state and be forced to operate suboptimally in order to support public goals like employment. It now turns out that the Administration, perhaps afraid this perception, has been very aggressive in pursuing profit-maximizing personnel cuts and dealership reorganizations. Does anyone think this will win the Administration any love from conservatives (or from the rest of us)? If anything, the Adminstration is now catching flack for not doing enough to support employment.

All I’m saying is, we need to decide what the proper goals for SOEs are. And then we need to tell SIGTARP, congressional representatives, and everyone else in the system, so that we don’t get whiplash going from shouts of “socialism!” to “free market ideolog!” in 2.6 seconds.

The internet and privacy: stop taking the easy way out

[by JSC5]

[Update: Thanks to Jonathan Bernstein for linking to this on his site and giving us our biggest readership day since we started. For all of you new-comers, if you like what you see, please feel free to look around the rest of the site and sign up for our RSS feed.]

Jonathan Bernstein may be (is!) a brilliant analyst of the structure of American politics in the modern era, but I really hope people don’t start taking his words of wisdom on other major life issues seriously:

Kids: never, ever, ever, write something anywhere that you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.  Forget the WaPo; the universe is going to make you suffer, and it’s just brutal.

Let’s imagine I’m an impressionable kid and I take Jonathan’s advice seriously. What effect does it have on me? I’ll give just two of many examples:

  1. I’m going to have a hell of a time maintaining long distance relationships of any kind (friendship, family, romantic). The phone only really works if you pre-plan a meeting time that works for both of your schedules, a challenge that becomes especially thorny if you’re calling across time zones. Written communication opens up the possibility of regular, spontaneous contact — the kind of contact that social relations thrive on — by letting the sender write when she has the opportunity and the receiver read it when he’s got a free minute. But would I really want the New York Times to run with the hyperlinked headline: “So-and-So Calls Shake Weight Ad ‘Funny as Shit’ ‘” ? Like an inmate or an astronaut, I guess I better restrict my long distance relationships to a once-a-week phone call from now on.
  2. I will never go on the record with an opinion stronger than “I guess it could be defensible to conclude X, but proponents of !X make some good points, too.” This one’s a no-brainer. It’s really hard to know what the big issues of the day will be 10, 20, or 50 years from now when people might be digging through my written record for a quote to exploit. No one’s ever been impeached for saying they love America, apple pie, and grandma — or for omitting their opinion entirely. If I want to have a successful career, clearly I’m going to have to turn into either a blithering idiot of a stereotypical politician on the one hand, or Elena Kagan on the other.

Whether we’re talking about private missives or public pronouncements, Jonathan Bernstein’s advice to keep yourself out of the written record is just terrible. When so much of who we are is mediated by writing, it’s detrimental to humanity to tell young people that the tyranny and whim of public standards of acceptability should determine who they are and what they write.* And unfortunately, Bernstein’s advice seems to be pretty common. The popular reaction to the Weigel affair, which Bernstein is writing about, seems to be: hey, he shouldn’t have written those emails with the expectation of privacy, and he should have known what was coming to him if they got out. That’s the typical advice to young people regarding internet privacy, and privacy in general.

Maybe it’s good strategic advice for an individual — but, given the developmental and experiential importance of putting yourself in your writing, maybe it’s not. Either way, it is a terrible standard to be advocating to the public. We desperately need to move away from a society that invests zero effort in understanding what someone is really trying to say and instead focuses on the ‘controversy’ surrounding the statement itself. We desperately need to move away from a society that doesn’t give a damn about context, presumptions of privacy, or the complicated inner world of all human beings.

I think most people realize we need to end this culture of public tyranny. And yet very few people seem to be willing to argue against it when it matters. Telling someone you’ll keep your trap shut if ya know what’s good for ya may help him avoid getting whacked by the mob, but it won’t do much to end the reign of terror of La Cosa Nostra. And that is, after all, what we need to do.

*This may seem at odds with my previous post on Elena Kagan, in which I defended her for making sacrifices and structuring her life to maximize her odds of ascending to the Supreme Court. I’d separate these two posts by noting that Kagan is an individual who should be free to choose the life she wants, which apparently involved neutering her public, written opinions in order to have success in her profession. That’s a legitimate choice for an individual to make, and far be it from me to start criticizing her work-life balance. People are allowed to prefer work. Jonathan Bernstein’s advice, however, applies more broadly to just about everyone, and affirms the principle that we all ought to judge others and expect to be judged by whatever the prevailing standards of middle-of-the-road, vanilla opinions are these days. As a standard that would apply to everyone, I find this very disagreeable and worthy of ridicule.

English, do you speak it?

That title was just so I can throw this classic out here. Best use of 6.5 minutes ever.

Back to the topic at hand. If you travel a fair amount, you notice a wide range of English ability around the world. Some countries are a breeze to get around in with just English, while in others you’re stuck pointing a lot and learning the tricks of the mime trade. I’m amazed that there isn’t some more universal standard to measure this, and that every guidebook ever written sticks to saying something to the tune of “English is growing in popularity among young people” to summarize the state of English in every country, but I digress.  What I’m most interested in is what causes this variation.

Continue reading ‘English, do you speak it?’

Shifting definitions of ‘liberal’

Ross Douthat is the New York Times’ wunderkind conservative pundit. Like anyone with a forced, public writing schedule, he writes some very smart things, but then he goes and writes some not-so-smart things.

His column today mainly argues that only time will tell whether conservatives or liberals are right about the health care bill that just passed. He guesses that it’ll take 20 years before the data is in, but after that, someone is going to be able to say, “I told you so.” That’s true, and it’s useful to keep some perspective on these matters. Don’t believe anyone who says they know exactly how this bill is going to affect the US health care system, health outcomes, the budget, and the broader economy over the next quarter century.

Where I part from Ross is when he calls the bill itself ‘liberal’, designed by liberals, and resting on naive liberal assumptions. He says that liberals believe “a bill this costly, this complicated and this risky can be made to work, so long as the right people are in charge of implementing it.”  He concludes, “As a conservative, I suspect they’re wrong.”

First, a liberal bill is a single-payer bill, which would put the federal government in charge of insuring everyone in the country (kinda like how the federal government is in charge today of insuring all seniors, veterans, and lots of poor people in the country through Medicare, the VA, and Medicaid). It works for many current US programs (Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for poor people, and the VA for veterans), and it somehow magically works for a large number of wealthy, industrialized western nations — despite Ross’s pessimism to the contrary.

That’s what a liberal bill looks like. A slightly more moderate bill, but still on the liberal side, would have created a government insurance program with a large price advantage that would compete head on with private insurers (ie, the public option). Clearly that’s not in the bill that passed last night.

A truly moderate, evenconservative, bill would probably retain our private, employer-based insurance system while creating new and deeper markets for private insurance in the individual market. Funny enough, that’s exactly what this bill does. It is by far a more moderate, even conservative bill, than that offered by Republican President Richard Nixon. In fact, the bill that passed last night looks most like the compromise bills Republicans were offering to President Clinton in the early ’90s, or the proposals of Bob Dole and other aging Republican luminaries from 2009. And it particularly resembles Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.

This cannot be repeated enough: the bill passed last night is a piece of moderate legislation, not a radical, liberal attempt at social engineering. Yes, it was backed by liberals and attacked by conservatives, but its a moderate, even conservative policy approach to start fixing the health care system. I don’t know when it became normal for conservative pundits to call increased competition, reliance on private enterprise, and creating new markets “liberal”.

My second point has little to do with the first, but it’s important nonetheless.

Ross’s pessimism about our ability to do anything, ever, with government is just plain weird. I wonder if Ross’s well-intentioned doubts about the ability of government to implement large, complicated bills apply equally to big things that Republicans like? What about the Bush tax cuts (much higher price tag than health care reform, with dire budgetary consequences)? Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize social security (certainly a much more radical, sweeping change to social policy than anything in the health care bill)? The attempt to engineer a vibrant democracy in Iraq? What about  Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which Ross seems to like (it envisions ending Medicare as we know it)?  Are any of these proposals just too big, costly, and complicated to actually work?

Or is Ross’s pessimism about government action less about philosophy and more about which party is making the proposal?

Why can’t they just say what they mean?

My father recently became interested in constitutional law. As a genuine, gun-toting liberal, he was particularly interested to read Scalia’s majority opinion and Stevens’ dissent in the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, [which established 2nd Amendment rights as individual rights and applied the ruling to all federal enclaves but not the states]. First he read Scalia’s opinion and found himself persuaded. Then he read Stevens’ dissent and thought his argument, too, was persuasive. His ultimate complaint fell against the Founders: “Why couldn’t they have just said what they mean?” This is a typical complaint against laws in general and the Constitution in particular. Wouldn’t life be simpler if these documents just said what they mean?

Maybe that’s asking too much. Keep in mind that the Constitution is two things at once: 1) our founding document and basic law, and 2) a political compact, the result of negotiations rooted in a particular historical context. Clarity and precision might be desirable for a constitution, but it can be anathema to political compacts. The Founders were trying to entice the separate states into a permanent political union with each other, a complex negotiation that required drawing in the disparate geographical regions, economies, social classes, races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions then present among the states.

As any negotiator can tell you, specificity can be essential to bringing agreement. The 3/5ths compromise on representation (a boon for the southern slavocracy) was balanced against the prohibition of the slave trade after 20 years (a boon for the anti-slavery faction north and south, as contemporaries thought that slavery would never survive through natural population increase). Specific constitutional provisions were needed to entice these two opposing factions into political union.

But sometimes specificity can be an obstacle to political compromise. One big sticking point during the constitutional convention and later during ratification was the philosophical disputes between the federalists and the anti-federalists on the nature and duties of government. Very briefly, Federalists like Hamilton thought that securing specific rights in the Constitution was unnecessary (since non-enumerated rights were still reserved to the people) and antithetical to the idea of a democratic government (since only under monarchies did people negotiate with their rulers to carve out liberties). Anti-Federalists like Jefferson and Madison were very concerned with securing an enumerated list of the people’s liberties that was as complete as politically possible in order to prevent tyrany of centralized government.

Short of solving this age-old philosophical debate in the few short years of negotiation, ratification, and initiation of the federal government (which is clearly impossible), how could the Framers entice these two sides into a political union? One answer seems to be the artful use of ambiguity. Agree to enumerate a brief Bill of Rights in the first Congress, but make the Bill brief and vague enough to be open to interpretation. After all, that’s why you went to the trouble of creating a judiciary based on common law in the first place. Like any good negotiator, when the Founders were faced with an intractable problem, they did their best to satisfy people’s deepest concerns, and then kicked the can down the road to let the judiciary sort things out as best they could in the future.

Let me conclude by saying this is a feature, not a defect, of our Constitution. A handful of rich, old, white men working in a short span of time cannot sufficiently answer every single constitutional question that will face a nation of any longevity. They can do the best possible given their cognitive, temporal, and political constraints, and then leave the task up to us to continue. That’s why they can’t just say what they mean. They don’t know exactly what they mean, and some things are best left ’till later.

Update: It’s nice to get some back-up from someone who’s actually an expert on conlaw. Here’s Justice John Paul Stevens’ take on political compromise, ambiguity, and the role of the judiciary from a great profile in the New Yorker:

[Stevens] recalled an incident involving an antitrust law: “I remember explaining one of the tricky problems in the statute to one of the members of the [House] committee. I got all through it, and he said, ‘Well, you know, let’s let the judges figure that one out.’ ”What that told [Stevens] was that “the legislature really works with the judges—contrary to the suggestion that the statute is a statute all by itself,” Stevens said. “There is an understanding that there are areas of interpretation that are going to have to be filled in later on, and the legislators rely on that. It’s part of the whole process. And you realize that they’re not totally separate branches of government—they’re working together.”

“The greatest moral challenge of our day”?

I promise this is the last post on David Brooks — at least until the next one. Overall, I think his point in today’s column is worthwhile and pretty much correct. He argues that ideologues on the left and the right fundamentally misunderstand President Obama, and calls the president “still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington” and a pragmatic progressive. He concludes:

In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

I think Brooks right. But in the course of being right on his overall point, he makes an error that is just plain weird. He says that “the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade” is “the greatest moral challenge of our day.” Huh?

OK, if you own a lot of capital and are invested in T-bills, then I think there are rational reasons for you to be very, very worried about the national debt. It may even be your number one policy issue. No problem there. And if you’re young (like me), then you have every reason to be angry at how the system is set up such that we’ll be left holding the bag for the last 30 years of fiscal hypocrisy. I know I am. That means that dealing with the future debt crisis is high on my list of priorities.

But “greatest moral issue of the day”? Puh-leaze. Economic development, education, scientific progress, health, justice, security, happiness, freedom — aren’t these more likely candidates for “greatest moral issue of the day”? Sure, our unsustainable fiscal outlook makes addressing each of these things harder, but the only reason to care about the debt is because you care about the effects of the debt on other, real policy concerns. Otherwise, you’re just looking out for the parochial interests of bondholders as a defining “moral interest”. I have no problem with looking out for the parochial interest of bondholders, by the way. I just don’t pretend it’s a moral issue.

People need to stop turning “things I care about” into “great moral issues”.

Update: It seems to me that people are tempted to show their tough-nosed pragmatism and centrist tendencies by discussing the overriding importance of the deficit and the debt. I guess it makes other people think, “Wow, this person sure does think a lot about numbers and esoteric topics. I bet s/he is really smart, unlike those bleeding hearts who worry about things like peace, development, and happiness.” It’s a sort of fad contrarianism designed to signal intelligence, independence, and realism. But to me it seems utterly devoid of moral motivation and reads more like a political ploy than a declaration of principles. I’ll say it again: the only good reason to care about the debt is the devastating impact it is likely to have in the future on other things that matter.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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