Saturday, November 29, 2003

I've read Orwell's essay twice now, and I think it will (or should) be a regular habit. Phrases like supporting our troops, defending freedom, liberal media, and compassionate conservatism, float through our public discourse like litter through the windy streets (would George approve of that last one?). Ease of parody, I think, measures inversely depth of thought. Who is easier to impersonate than a politician? Journalists are the only class of professional easier to imitate in satire. Politics and editorials are reduced to slogans and appropriating phrases. Conservative editorials fling Unamerican at anyone who criticizes the president. Think how unnatural it would seem to hear a liberal call a conservative Unamerican. If anything, it would seem like an intentional irony. "Look at me, the liberal, calling a conservative unamerican, how decidedly unliberal of me." What about conservative and liberal? Can you be a liberal republican? How about a conservative democrat? Of course, my commentary here is clearly unamerican. How could I be accusing the commander in chief of double talk, when everyone from the Crawford Coffee Shop to the Beltway agrees he is a straight talker? I remember when Bush was running in 2000, and all the republicans were still trying to defend W's reputation for being, well, not exactly Rhode Scholar material. (Aside: is it just me or has Rhode Scholar taken on a connotation similar to White House Intern?). The republican boosters all said the same thing: "He's a great manager. He'll put together a great team. He knows how to take advice". Well those are admirable qualities. They are even necessary traits for a President. But they should be refining compliments to leadership. Presidents need beliefs, guiding principles, and good advisors. But above all they need intellectual horsepower. Can GW press Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz on the finer points of their global strategy and ideology? Can GW articulate to Powell that hopes for global coalition building were dashed by the growing impact of terrorism? How can he be expected to decide between competing and compelling arguments from each? At the same time, the democrats seem incapable of connecting with anyone. Look at Kerry's stance on the war. Can anyone summarize it? Could there possibly be a slogan for it? I suppose that is Dean's appeal. He is clearly defined as the anti-Bush candidate. Then there is Dick "no-comment" Gephardt. How could a candidate for the presidency try to get away with saying nothing about the most stirring symbolic act the president has made since visiting ground zero in 2001? At least Gephardt is literally saying nothing.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Most of this article is just a summary of what's been happening - and why I object so much to the Bush administration's foreign policy - but, for what it is, I like it, and I think the last paragraph nails my feeling about how we could lead the world. It doesn't go into too much detail (and skips over some things like the infusion of fundamentalist Christianity into the Bush administration) but it is a good place to start a conversation... Or maybe I just like it because I agree with it. As for Bush's visit to Iraq, I agree with John. He may have acted in a calculating way but who cares? It was a good thing to do and he did it. The real challenge for the Democratic candidate is this: how do you find a way to break the spell that Bush's content-free nationalistic rhetoric and appearances have cast on key swing voters and expose the damage that his administration is doing? Though he doesn't say much of anything beyond "God Bless America and we will prevail against evildoers," no one has been able to formulate a compelling response for people who don't have time to read. Bush is perfectly perpetrating the political crime that George Orwell describes in this blistering essay:
The NY Times article, Democrats Temper Praise for Bush Visit With Criticism, shows just how much the democrats have lost touch with the country's mood. It would have been smarter politically to give firm and unequivical endorsement of the President's gesture. The closest to the mark was the Jano Cabrera's quote: "visiting with the troops is exactly what a commander in chief should do". In other words, the candidates could compliment the gesture and emphasize that this is what they believe a president should do -- a sentiment in accord with most of America, especially on Thanksgiving. By taking a purely affirming position, it would be easier to remain authoritative. Criticism in the moment, even if coupled with credit for a heavily symbolic gesture, only makes the candidates seem petty. Criticism from the candidates opens them to an attack of the form: "apparently they care more about the election than supporting the troops". The job at hand for all of these candidates is to secure the democratic nomination. Every democrat said the same thing. The president's visit was an opportunity to distinguish oneself from the primary field. The country won't forget the president's gesture. If his visit turns out to be an empty political pandering, he will be criticized vehemently. Thursday, however, he did the right thing.
First post in punto, the Italian version of stitch [in italiano]

Sunday, November 23, 2003

AR wrote to me about the Metaphysical Club post, comparing the idea there to the observer's paradox. As I understand it, the observer's paradox is that human subjects invariably behave differently when they are aware of any observer: a person, a camera or a tape recorder. However, observing and recording human subjects without their permission is ethically questionable. So AR, was suggesting a parallel between the individual reaction of a single subject, and an entire society, where being watched as an individual is similar to being modeled as a society.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

In the Metaphysical Club Louis Menand traces the development of American intellectualism from the Civil War until close to the beginning of WWI. Part of the dramatic development at that time included the veritable creation of the concept of "social sciences". The idea, which is taken for granted today, was to apply the scientific method to the study of society. Evolution, as pursued by Darwin and other evolutionary thinkers, provided a more specific method of analysis. Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (also treated in the Metaphysical Club) wrote a landmark work called The Common Law, which laid down the argument that the Law was not based on Logic, but on experience. He goes on to explain how the Law "grew". Holmes' work was immensly influential, and I have seen him quoted as one of the earliest figures in the current dominating theory of law: law and economics. Theories about the law, it seems, also grow. Which brings me to my point. Unlike the physical or biological sciences, the study of society cannot make observations in isolation from the subjects. Certainly, blind studies are possible -- but eventually studies are translated to theories and those theories are disseminated. Theories about law eventually, even inexorably, effect the law itself. So, how can the scientific method be applied to social studies? There is a joke among scientists; they like to say that "The universe doesn't care how we think it works, it just works." This joke and the maxim underlying it cannot be applied to societies. The study of society inevitably effects society, so one way or another, a model of society is in danger of becoming inaccurate because knowledge of that model spreads through the society it is meant to represent. There are obvious examples of these changes -- social darwinism and the role of law and economic theory in the creation of policy. I believe that one of two strategies may prove more effective than the direct modeling of society itself. Both are variations on applying the scientific method to evidence other than human agents: - information flow, for example the dissemination of different social theories - Situational factors, for example the weather, options prices, location, age, and so on In both cases, the theory is to measure and model the underlying engines of social change, rather than a given society. Furthermore, the hope is that these engines are consistent across societies, and do not bend to prevailing theories about their function.

Friday, November 14, 2003

The Economist reports progress in the creation of Artificial life. Absolutely breathtaking. The concluding sentence raises the unholy specter of custom designed terrorist viruses. I wonder if making the virus brings us closer to manufacturing the antibodies? If so, imagine the arms race.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

I want to investigate the economic arrangements for trial lawyers. Asbestos litigation is a notable class of suits resulting in enormous settlements that have combined to bankrupt corporations. Recent movements for tort reform at the federal level have included proposals to cap total damages awarded in cases. The theoretical problem with this approach may make it economically attractive for large corporations to commit enormous transgressions without suitably large liabilities. I believe inefficiency of the system is not in the size of awards, but in the number of cases brought to trial, which have no merit. The system relies on incentivizing both plaintiffs and their lawyers to bring suit. In theory, trial lawyers, who are only paid if they win, should seek to represent clients they believe can win. However, extremely large settlements and correspondingly large fees for lawyers make another strategy more attractive. If a very large possible payout exists, it is more compelling for a lawyer to prosecute as many trials as possible rather than seeking trials that have merit. The system therefore encourages lawyers to seek as many trials for which a large payout is possible. So how could a system be arranged to incentivize lawyers to focus on cases with merit? How could the market forces be tailored to encourage lawyers to be more selective in the cases they try? The answer is not to cap the total damages, but rather, to cap the dollar amount a lawyer can collect in fees. If the total fee amount were capped, the winning strategy for trial lawyering would be to seek as many high-probability cases as possible. The legal system could still reward damages commensurate with the resources of guilty parties, but the artificial pressure to try more and more big ticket cases could be alleviated. Has this idea ever been proposed? Trial lawyers operate an enormous lobbying infrastructure, but I believe it would be easy to popularly promote a policy based on capped fees for trial lawyers and open damages for plaintiffs.