SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

July 5, 2009 - July 11, 2009 Archives

11 July 2009 11:24 AM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Freddie writes:

There are no consistent and widely used standards to indicate that a personal trainer knows what he or she is doing. There's dozens of certifications that are close to meaningless because there's no real regulatory body maintaining the standard and saying "yeah, this person knows what he's doing." Some of the different certifications are given out by people who are pretty rigorous about it; some you can simply pay a fee and get a piece of paper over the Internet. Sometimes, you have both for the same kind of certification, so that one person actually went through an intensive course to get the certification, and someone else just printed it out. The effect is the same; people shopping around for a personal trainer end up looking at sometimes dozens of different types of certification and having no possibly way to make an informed choice. And there are serious consequences for consumers. Google around a little and you can find hundreds of horror stories- trainers who led their clients to tear their ACLs or break vertebra or rip muscles. There have been a few deaths. The fact that there's no kind of regulatory body at all and no consistent standards ensures that consumers can't make informed choices, and that leads to injury.
Indeed, countless Americans injure themselves each year, sometimes seriously, because they exercise without personal trainers to guide them! This phenomenon goes on in gyms across the United States -- and on public streets too. Just yesterday I saw a guy playing pickup basketball in shoes designed for running that didn't offer anywhere near the ankle support that he needed. As Freddie says later in his post, "regulations that protect people from bodily harm are what a lot of people actually want most from government, and expect most from government," so it makes sense to at least consider assigning a government sponsored personal trainer at public playgrounds, and a basic licensing requirement for employees at Foot Locker so that they can better advise customers on their athletic footwear needs. This is especially true if we're moving toward a national effort to reduce health care costs, and to shift some of the burden for care onto the public generally. We need to weigh the right of people to exercise on their own against the cost they impose on society by doing so.

Later in his post Freddie writes:

Clearly, even if there were regulations concerning what kind of training and testing was necessary to sell your services as a personal trainer, that wouldn't obviate the need for consumers to do their homework. You'd still want to look around, to search the Internet, talk to references, etc. But just like the existence of formal regulations for medical doctors ensures (with a vanishingly small number of exceptions do to out-and-out fraud) that the doctor you see will at least have met a certain minimum level of schooling and testing, so some kind of organized, national certification process for personal trainers could help people to choose a personal trainer with at least some confidence.
I'm glad that he proposes national standards. The rise of long distance running and cycling has probably increased the number of people crossing state lines during training to make this a plausible instance of regulating interstate commerce, so no need to worry about Constitutional concerns. Plus I can think of no better use of Congress' time or skill set than to draw up a canon all existing personal trainers would have to prove that they know in order to continue earning their livelihood. Funds from a second stimulus could be used to fund the National Office of Personal Trainer Oversight, which could employ roving inspectors who enter gyms unannounced to check certification paperwork and licensing fees.  Every taxpayer can feel good about funneling resources to a cause as worthy as preventing the affluent from being injured by the folks who help them exercise. Or perhaps the full cost of the permitting could be born by the industry itself, marginally raising the price of personal trainers and lowering the number of people able to get help exercising. But I'm sure that the health benefits of the people who won't get injured will outweigh the health losses of those who won't hire personal trainers, because that is my intention, and as we all know, so long as the federal government is called upon based on good intentions, the resulting policy is bound to be sound.

Finally, as someone who'd like to one day have a kid or two, and who intends to raise them in the middle class, I'm glad to know that should they ever desire to become a personal trainer, I'll be able to make that happen for them by funding their classes at the local certification center, and that they won't have to worry about competing against the dread poor people for whom classes of that kind are a much greater financial burden. There are a few matters to be wrinkled out, of course. If I agree to help my friend get into shape, or help my next door neighbor learn how to surf, or show a guy in my hotel exercise center how to use the back extension machine, how is the state going to be apprised of my lawbreaking? After all, they can spot check every gym, but exercise advice can easily be given in any garage training center or back alley in America.

Oh well. We wouldn't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good.


10 July 2009 5:52 PM

Breathalyzer Revisionism

The LA Times reports:

Alcohol levels in a breath sample are converted mathematically to derive a blood-alcohol percentage....The standard formula for converting breath results to blood-alcohol levels is not accurate for everyone, however, and can vary depending on an individual's medical condition, gender, temperature, the atmospheric pressure and the precision of the measuring device, the court said.

"The question is whether a defendant who has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more measured by breath is entitled to rebut that presumption that he was under the influence" in certain cases, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote. The court's answer was yes.

I am very much against drunk driving. Among my high school friends in California, it is a point of pride that everyone is quite careful about either abstaining or sleeping on a floor or sofa rather than driving home if they've had too much to drink. I am nevertheless puzzled by Kevin Drum's reaction to this news:

As a legal matter, this might be the right ruling.  I don't know -- but the decision was unanimous, which suggests there was little controversy about it.  As a practical matter, though, it's a pain in the ass.  In the trial I sat on, the defense attorney played up this stuff for all it was worth, essentially trying to convince the jury that breathalyzer tests were so variable as to be completely useless.  And it almost worked.  Most of the jury was initially willing to let our guy walk because they were so confused by all the testimony that they figured there just had to be reasonable doubt.  It basically turned the case into a circus -- and one that, needless to say, can only be played by wealthy defendants who can afford fancy lawyers.

I was disgusted by the whole thing.  If there's a very specific reason to think a particular breath test is wrong -- equipment malfunction, relevant medical condition, etc. -- then I wouldn't mind this kind of testimony.  But just as a general catchall to allow defense attorneys to throw mud on the wall and confuse people?  No thanks.

If a breathalyzer test can be rendered inaccurate by "an individual's medical condition, gender, temperature, the atmospheric pressure and the precision of the measuring device," aren't there always several specific reasons to suspect that the measurement rendered is actually incorrect? It is, rightly, a big deal to be convicted of drunk driving. This would seem to demand that law enforcement use accurate means of assessing guilt.

10 July 2009 5:16 PM

Video

"If Bush Had Done That ... "

10 July 2009 4:32 PM

All The Ladies Making Money...

Judith Warner begins her latest column with an interesting anecdote:

Two years ago in June, Bridget Kevane, a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University, drove her three kids and two of their friends -- two 12-year-old girls, and three younger kids, age 8, 7 and 3 -- to a mall near their home in Bozeman. She put the 12-year-olds in charge, and told them not to leave the younger kids alone. She ordered that the 3-year-old remain in her stroller. She told them to call her on their cell phone if they needed her.

And then she drove home for some rest.

About an hour later, she was summoned back to the mall by the police, who charged her with endangering the welfare of her children.
Ms. Warner and I are in agreement that charging this woman with a crime is absurd. But I am genuinely puzzled by the turn the column takes (emphasis added):

The issue I want to take up today, however, is not that of tricky choices, or over- or under-involved parenting, questions that have already been discussed with much gusto elsewhere. What really sent my head spinning after reading Kevane's story was the degree to which it drove home the fact that our country's resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women is spiraling out of control. The prosecutor pursued her child endangerment case ultra-zealously because she "said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their 'heads are always in a book,'" Kevane writes. "I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education," the prosecutor wrote to Kevane's lawyer.
I know a fair number of well-educated women, and affluent women too. As yet, I haven't sensed that they are resented by "the country," whatever that means, and although I concede that they experience society differently than I do, I doubt many would say that hatred of people like them is spiraling out of control. This isn't to say that women don't face problems that men don't. The estimable Megan McArdle is an excellent blogger whose comments section is testament to the fact that being a woman elicits reactions from some folks one just doesn't deal with as a man. But all that is beside the point.

Ms. Warner goes on:

The idea that women with a "major education" think they're better than everyone else, have a great sense of entitlement, feel they deserve special treatment, and are too out of touch with the lives of "normal" women to have a legitimate point of view, is a 21st-century version of the long-held belief that education makes women uppity and leads them to forget their rightful place. It's precisely the kind of thinking that has fueled Sarah Palin's unlikely -- and continued -- ability to pass herself off as the consummately "real" American woman. (And it is what has made it possible for her supporters to discredit other women's criticism of her as elitist cat fighting.) The idea that these women really should "be quiet" comes through loud and clear every time.
Admittedly, I don't really know who Ms. Warner is talking about here, but when I think of affluent, intelligent American women known to the general public, the most visible figures who come to mind are Oprah, Michelle Obama, Katie Couric, Meg Whitman, Bianca Trump, Karen Hughes, Condi Rice, Sandra Day O'Connor... that's just off the top of my head, but it doesn't seem to me that these women are hated for being affluent or educated -- indeed the majority of them are quite popular, the kinds of figures magazine editors put on their cover to sell lots of copies.

Am I missing something here? Isn't it affluent women who are basically accepted and emulated in American society? The example that opens this post notwithstanding, isn't it more often women like Britney Spears who are criticized for child neglect -- that is to say, women who are perceived as undereducated and ignorant of middle class child rearing norms -- and women like Paris Hilton who are stereotyped as "dumb" and "slutty" who come in for criticism in America?

10 July 2009 4:24 PM

Label Maker

Ezra Klein thinks mandating calorie counts at chain restaurants is a good idea. He writes:

I went to Potbelly's for lunch today. I used to eat lunch at Potbelly's a lot. I do so rarely now. But my order is the same: Vegetarian on wheat with triple hot peppers, and a bag of Baked Lays. I'm having a bit of a bad day, though, so I made a rare addition: a warm, gooey, oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie.

All quite delicious. When I got back to the office, though, I decided to see what it added up to. First, I looked up the cookie. A solid 450 calories, with 19 grams of fat. Yikes. But what might have actually changed my purchase was knowing the content of my sandwich: According to the nutrition calculator, 525 calories.

The calories in the cookie weren't startling. But their calories relative to my sandwich proved a bit off-putting. I could pretty much have ordered a second sandwich for the caloric cost. Buying them without the information, it was easy enough to just consider them a side dish. As it happened, the cookie was more like a second lunch. I wouldn't have ordered a second lunch. Good to know.

You can imagine a lot of marginal changes like that after a menu labeling law goes into effect.
Mmmm. Cookies.

10 July 2009 3:16 PM

Yogi Solidarity

The New York Times reports:

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ten years ago, with yoga transforming itself into a ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon from a niche pursuit, yoga teachers banded together to create a voluntary online registry of schools meeting new minimum standards for training instructors in the discipline.

But that list -- which now includes nearly 1,000 yoga schools nationwide, many of them tiny -- is being put to a use for which it was never intended. It is the key document in a nationwide crackdown on yoga schools that pits free-spirited yogis against lumbering state governments, which, unlike those they are trying to regulate, are not always known for their flexibility.

Citing laws that govern vocational schools, like those for hairdressers, chiropractors and truck drivers, regulators have begun to require licenses for yoga schools that train instructors, with all the fees, inspections and paperwork that entails. While confrontations have played out differently in different states, threats of shutdowns and fines have, in some cases, been met with accusations of power grabs and religious infringement -- disputes that seem far removed from the meditative world yoga calls to mind.

This is a perfect opportunity for a bipartisan pushback against licensing requirements. There is no reason why the government should concern itself with overseeing the training of yoga instructors. Back when I edited a DC Web magazine called Culture11 I published a piece about how licensing requirements in New Jersey were destroying the traditional barbershop.  

10 July 2009 2:35 PM

Marketing as a Funnel

Though the end is behind a pay wall, the beginning of this McKinsey Quarterly article is pretty interesting:

If marketing has one goal, it's to reach consumers at the moments that most influence their decisions. That's why consumer electronics companies make sure not only that customers see their televisions in stores but also that those televisions display vivid high-definition pictures. It's why Amazon.com, a decade ago, began offering targeted product recommendations to consumers already logged in and ready to buy. And it explains P&G's decision, long ago, to produce radio and then TV programs to reach the audiences most likely to buy its products--hence, the term "soap opera."

Marketing has always sought those moments, or touch points, when consumers are open to influence. For years, touch points have been understood through the metaphor of a "funnel"--consumers start with a number of potential brands in mind (the wide end of the funnel), marketing is then directed at them as they methodically reduce that number and move through the funnel, and at the end they emerge with the one brand they chose to purchase (Exhibit 1). But today, the funnel concept fails to capture all the touch points and key buying factors resulting from the explosion of product choices and digital channels, coupled with the emergence of an increasingly discerning, well-informed consumer. A more sophisticated approach is required to help marketers navigate this environment, which is less linear and more complicated than the funnel suggests. We call this approach the consumer decision journey.
The publication is also a crackup because its editorial illustrations are the kind of nonsensical graphics you see in corporate Power Point presentations.

10 July 2009 2:16 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Radley Balko:

Last month, I blogged on a series of DNA exonerations of men convicted of rapes in the early 1980s due to the extraordinary claims of Florida police dog handler John Preston, now deceased. Now a fourth conviction has been called into question.

Questions about Preston's miracle dogs have persisted for two decades. See, for example, the jaw-dropping Geraldo Rivera 20/20 segment below. One state's attorney even resigned in protest, stating he wouldn't be a part of his colleagues "manufacturing evidence."

Yet prosecutors continued using Preston.

10 July 2009 1:45 PM

Well Dressed on Wheels

Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

I love this Copenhagen blog, Cycle Chic, showcasing people looking good while riding bikes. Dresses, heels, suits ... European bikers put the bikers in the U.S. to sartorial shame!

To do my small part, I have been riding to work in heels this week. It is really just as easy as riding in sneakers.

Is she implying that clip in cycling shoes are unfashionable?


10 July 2009 1:45 PM

Business / Economics

Stimulus, Part Deux?

Ezra Klein says we should think about the wisdom of a second stimulus as follows:

Imagine I'm at the market and I'm predicting how hungry I'll be later tonight. I figure I'll have a big lunch, so I buy a modest dinner. I get busy, though. I don't eat a big lunch. I eat my modest dinner. I'm still hungry.

Did my dinner "not work"? No. My level of hunger changed. And that's what looks to have happened here: The stimulus was built for lower unemployment expectations. We can assume the stimulus will work in blunting some of the impact, but also predict, quite confidently, that it will not be fully up to the task. The question is whether we should go back to the store for more dinner materials after our light lunch, knowing we'll need it later? Or wait and hope that our small dinner is enough, knowing the stores might be closed and we won't be able to get anything?

I'd say this analogy is perfect, except that the shopper should take into account the fact that he doesn't actually have any money to pay for more groceries, so that he'll have to put anything he buys on an already maxed out credit card that extends extra buying power only at a hefty interest rate. Also, a good percentage of whatever the shopper buys is going to just fall out of the bag on the way home and be wasted on the side of the road. Nor will the food taste particularly good, or be very healthy.


10 July 2009 1:15 PM

Palin Myths

Okay, last Sarah Palin post, I promise -- offered only because Peggy Noonan articulates all the points I've been trying to make far better than I've done. Man can she write a column. "Mrs. Palin has now stepped down, but she continues to poll high among some members of the Republican base," she begins, "some of whom have taken to telling themselves Palin myths."

To wit, "I love her because she's so working-class." This is a favorite of some party intellectuals. She is not working class, never was, and even she, avid claimer of advantage that she is, never claimed to be and just lets others say it. Her father was a teacher and school track coach, her mother the school secretary. They were middle-class figures of respect, stability and local status. I think intellectuals call her working-class because they see the makeup, the hair, the heels and the sleds and think they're working class "tropes." Because, you know, that's what they teach in "Ways of the Working Class" at Yale and Dartmouth.
What she is, is a seemingly very nice middle-class girl with ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits.
"She's not Ivy League, that's why her rise has been thwarted! She represented the democratic ideal that you don't have to go to Harvard or Brown to prosper, and her fall represents a failure of egalitarianism." This comes from intellectuals too. They need to be told something. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College. Richard Nixon went to Whittier College, Joe Biden to the University of Delaware. Sarah Palin graduated in the end from the University of Idaho, a school that happily notes on its Web site that it's included in U.S. News and World Report's top national schools survey. They need to be told, too, that the first Republican president was named "Abe," and he went to Princeton and got a Fulbright. Oh wait, he was an impoverished backwoods autodidact!
America doesn't need Sarah Palin to prove it was, and is, a nation of unprecedented fluidity. Her rise and seeming fall do nothing to prove or refute this.
"The elites hate her." The elites made her. It was the elites of the party, the McCain campaign and the conservative media that picked her and pushed her. The base barely knew who she was. It was the elites, from party operatives to public intellectuals, who advanced her and attacked those who said she lacked heft. She is a complete elite confection. She might as well have been a bonbon.
"She makes the Republican Party look inclusive." She makes the party look stupid, a party of the easily manipulated.
"She shows our ingenuous interest in all classes." She shows your cynicism.
"Now she can prepare herself for higher office by studying up, reading in, boning up on the issues." Mrs. Palin's supporters have been ordering her to spend the next two years reflecting and pondering. But she is a ponder-free zone. She can memorize the names of the presidents of Pakistan, but she is not going to be able to know how to think about Pakistan. Why do her supporters not see this? Maybe they think "not thoughtful" is a working-class trope!
"The media did her in." Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in. Actually, it's arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they're perfect in every way. It's yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.
"Turning to others means the media won!" No, it means they lose. What the mainstream media wants is not to kill her but to keep her story going forever. She hurts, as they say, the Republican brand, with her mess and her rhetorical jabberwocky and her careless causing of division. Really, she is the most careless sower of discord since George W. Bush, who fractured the party and the movement that made him. Why wouldn't the media want to keep that going?
Her conclusion about why this matters is worth reading too.

10 July 2009 12:45 PM

The Idea of Summertime

Listen to the horn arrangements in "And It Stoned Me" by Van Morrison. They're just perfect. So is the imagery. It evokes a summer day's magic for anyone fortunate enough to have experienced that.

Half a mile from the county fair And the rain keep pourin' down Me and Billy standin' there With a silver half a crown Hands are full of fishin' rod And the tackle on our backs We just stood there gettin' wet With our backs against the fence
Then the rain let up and the sun came up And we were gettin' dry Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by So we jumped right in and the driver grinned And he dropped us up the road We looked at the swim and we jumped right in Not to mention fishing poles
Once I spent a week in Napa Valley wine tasting with one of my best friends from high school. The sunny afternoon I remember best is when we set off down the road to find a vineyard. Rolling fields of grape-heavy vines spread out on our right. An occasional car whooshed past. The sun beat down on our backs. Oh the wine. It tasted cool like we stowed it in a mountain stream. I think of that day when I hear "And It Stoned Me." Also the scene in The Sun Also Rises where Jake and Bill are out fishing on the Iruna:

I found the two wine bottles in the pack, and carried them up the road to where the water of a spring flowed out of an iron pipe. There was a board over the spring and I lifted it and, knocking the corks firmly into the bottles, lowered them down into the water. It was so cold my hand and wrist felt numbed. I put back the slab of wood, and hoped nobody would find the wine...
Bill put the trout in the bag and started for the river, swinging the open bag. He was wet from the waist down and I knew he must have been wading the stream.
I walked up the road and got the two bottles of wine. They were cold. Moisture beaded on the bottles as I walked back to the trees. I spread the lunch on a newspaper, and uncorked one of the bottles and leaned the other against a tree. Bill came up drying his hands, his bag plump with ferns.
"Let's see that bottle," he said. He pulled the cork, and tipped up the bottle and drank. "Whew! That makes my eyes ache."
"Let's try it."
The wine was icy cold and tasted faintly rusty.
"That's not such filthy wine," Bill said.
"The cold helps it," I said.
The last verse of "And It Stoned Me":

On the way back home we sang a song But our throats were getting dry Then we saw the man from across the raod With the sunshine in his eyes Well he lived all alone in his own little home With a great big gallon jar There were bottle too, one for me and you And he said, "Hey! There you are."
Oh the water.

10 July 2009 12:15 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"?

Chris Hayes tells Reihan Salam that the filibuster needs to go:


10 July 2009 11:52 AM

Video

The Man from Google

10 July 2009 11:45 AM

Business / Economics

Where's the Beef?

Rich Lowry argues that the stimulus was a bad idea:

The rosy apocalypse is an artifact of both ideological naïveté and knowing cynicism. The administration genuinely believed, against all historical experience, that government spending would boost us out of the recession. And it knew it had to assume an unrealistically rapid, robust economic recovery, because otherwise the already-horrid deficit projections would look worse. So Obama talked up the crisis to get the stimulus passed, and after that . . . happy days again!

If only the job market were cooperating. In a report prior to the passage of the stimulus, the soon-to-be head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, suggested the unemployment rate wouldn't increase beyond 8 percent. It now stands at 9.5 percent and will go higher. The Obama stimulus is falling victim to the poor timing and inefficiencies of all such recession-fighting spending programs.


10 July 2009 11:15 AM

Business / Economics

Paging Financial Journalists

Please explain this.

10 July 2009 10:45 AM

Murder Mystery

Nathaniel Rich explains "why the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide novels."

10 July 2009 10:00 AM

A Tricameral Legislature?

Via The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, I've been apprised of a thought-provoking blog post by Patrick at Popehat:

It's not that all laws are bad.  We're not base anarchists. It's that lawmaking no longer resides, if it ever did, with the people.  Conversely, the individuals who are responsible, under the Constitution, for passing these laws seem utterly ignorant of the law themselves.  The days when even an attorney could be described as "learned in the law" are long gone.  Today we have attorneys who specialize entirely in such arcane niches as regulatory permitting for power plants, or nursing home standards litigation, or Medicare fraud defense.  And the laws pile up. Perhaps what America needs is an authority whose sole job is to get rid of outdated, ill-conceived, or just plain bad laws.
He fleshes out the details here.

10 July 2009 9:30 AM

Business / Economics

Who Needs Paper and Ink?

Michael Crowley likes the New York Times' new e-reading application:

Given that some people spend $5 per day on coffee, paying that much per month for online access the best newspaper in the world strikes me as an absolute no-brainer. I myself would pay twice as much. I hope the idea catches on, and I hope this marks a shift from the days of newspapers panicking to the start of successful new business models.

One way the NYT can make online subscriptions far more appealing is by doing a better job of promoting the terrific new TimesReader 2.0, a simple but slick Adobe-based application that you install onto your computer in like two minutes. I've been meaning to plug this for a while, because it was only after I tried the incredibly user-friendly and print-like TimesReader that I could imagine surviving without the Times on paper. Among other things, it's most excellent for traveling, because it downloads the day's entire print paper (with regular auto-updates from the web during the day) and saves it offline on your hard drive, which lets you read it anywhere, regardless of whether you have an Internet connection.

10 July 2009 9:00 AM

String Theory Explained

10 July 2009 8:30 AM

Calvinism Loosed on the World

It's about time that Damon Linker put up a new blog post. It's characteristically interesting:

Once an idea is unleashed upon the world, there's no telling where it will lead. That is one lesson to be drawn from studying the astonishing influence of John Calvin's theology on the subsequent history of the world. Born five hundred years ago today, Calvin deepened the Protestant Reformation by building on Martin Luther's break from Rome, formulating a sternly ascetic version of Christian piety that, as Max Weber powerfully argued more than a century ago, inadvertently laid the psychological groundwork for the development of capitalism. Others have noted the surprising ways that Calvinist ideas helped to legitimize representative political institutions. Less widely acknowledged, though no less historically significant, is the profound impact of Calvinist assumptions on the formation of American patriotism -- and in particular on the country's sense of itself as an exceptional nation empowered by providence to bring democracy, liberty, and Christian redemption to the world. It is this persistent theological self-confidence (some would say over-confidence) that distinguishes American patriotism from expressions of communal feeling in any other modern nation -- and that demonstrates our nation's unexpected but nonetheless decisive debt to John Calvin.
Read the rest.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cut Down on Plastic Packaging

A greener society could start in the landfill More

10 July 2009 7:30 AM

Business / Economics

The Authenticity Con

Yesterday I disparagingly linked this manifesto.

Julian Sanchez didn't like it either:

A handful of genuinely innovative business practices--for certain purposes, at any rate--are planted in horseshit, watered with marketing jargon, and voila, Capitalism 2.0 springs forth and blossoms. There are vague hints that this will somehow produce well-functioning capital markets that aren't as susceptible to bubbles and crashes, but if there's an actual model for enterprises above the scale of the village fruit stand, I'm missing it. But of course, that's not Havas' wheelhouse--their job is to bundle and peddle those elements of true novelty as a kind of meta lifestyle brand, with which to sell their clients to you, and themselves to new clients. And it's a hell of a pitch: Why settle for making consumers crave the self-image you're selling when you can make them dependent on you for Authentic Community?

Bonus points for chutzpah: If you point out that they're not actually, you know, saying anything, these shameless con artists will accuse you of cynicism. I'm hard-pressed to come up with anything more cynical than gussying up the 21st century equivalent of the Burger King Kids Club as a "movement," but I'm funny like that.

That actually might do a disservice to the Burger King Kids Club. Paper crowns? How bad could it be?

09 July 2009 4:46 PM

Safety in Numbers

Heather MacDonald on the NYC renaissance:

The cause of this bust-to-boom revival is largely uncontested: the city's victory over crime. If New York's lawlessness had remained at its early 1990s levels, the city by now would be close to a ghost town. But the cause of the crime rout itself remains hotly contested. Though New York policing underwent a revolution in 1994, vast swaths of the criminology profession continue to deny that that revolution was responsible for the crime drop. They are wrong--and dangerously so. The transformation of New York policing is the overwhelming reason why the city's crime rate went into free fall in 1994. And that transformation, in turn, was aided by an increase in the size of the police department.

This truth means that government budget woes must not be allowed to jeopardize the department's ability to keep crime rates low. The FBI's designation of New York as the safest big city in the country is an economic marketing tool of immeasurable worth. Lose that designation, and Gotham's ability to climb out of the recession and retain and attract businesses and residents will be dealt a severe blow.

She backs up her assertion here.

09 July 2009 4:03 PM

Technology

Department of Tin Foil Hats

Wired reports:

Hackers who commandeer your computer are bad enough. Now scientists worry that someday, they'll try to take over your brain.

In the past year, researchers have developed technology that makes it possible to use thoughts to operate a computer, maneuver a wheelchair or even use Twitter -- all without lifting a finger. But as neural devices become more complicated -- and go wireless -- some scientists say the risks of "brain hacking" should be taken seriously.

"Neural devices are innovating at an extremely rapid rate and hold tremendous promise for the future," said computer security expert Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington. "But if we don't start paying attention to security, we're worried that we might find ourselves in five or 10 years saying we've made a big mistake."

Yikes.


09 July 2009 3:16 PM

Then Again, She Never Blinks

Michael Goldfarb writes:

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is the top choice for those Republicans who put national security first and ties Romney for first among voters who list economic issues alone as the priority.

In a perfect world national security conservatives would probably choose Cheney as the 2012 nominee, but he wasn't on the Rasmussen list, and folks shouldn't be terribly surprised that Palin comes out on top in this breakdown.
As a voter for whom foreign policy is my top priority, I think it is absolutely nutty that Sarah Palin is the top choice for these folks. She doesn't have any foreign policy experience at all! Nor has she articulated any insights, opinions, or guiding philosophies that would shape her decision-making on these matters.

It is deeply irrational to believe that putting Sarah Palin in the White House rather than another Republican would improve America's national security. Of course, the fact that Dick Cheney would head America's foreign policy in Michael Goldfarb's perfect world demonstrates that his judgment on these matters is quite different from my own. Even so, can Goldfarb possibly think that Sarah Palin would make the next best choice?

09 July 2009 3:02 PM

The Deadly Idea Insurgents Use to Kill

See Graeme Wood on roadside bombs -- a typically elegant dispatch, and another opportunity to worry for his safety.

09 July 2009 2:52 PM

Night People Can't Become Morning People

I've known this for some time.

09 July 2009 2:35 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

-- Comparing America to Nazi Germany.

-- A movie about the View-Master.

-- Center court lineups based on hotness.

-- Nerve-prone drug smugglers.

-- Believing your daughter's implausible excuse for being pregnant.

-- Publishing unbearably smug manifestos that'll embarrass you starting five years from now until you die.

09 July 2009 1:59 PM

Technology

I Like to Ride My Bike

Why hasn't the Segway caught on?

...however impressive its technology, it was fulfilling an already-met need. There is nothing the Segway can do that that humble 19th-century technology, the bicycle, can't--except, of course, not give its user cardiovascular exercise (and any bike can be easily equipped with an electric engine). Kamen has said that eliminating pedestrianism, Wall-E style, was not his goal; as the New Atlantis noted, "Segway is intended to fill the gap between pedestrian travel and car travel; its niche is for those trips that are inconveniently far to walk and annoyingly close to drive." Reducing the shocking frequency with which Americans drive for trips of under a mile--the quart of gas for a quart of milk--is certainly a noble social goal; but again, a beat-up Trek on Craigslist does the same thing.
And you can fix a broken bicycle yourself.

Flickr user Babaloo Rocks

09 July 2009 1:43 PM

Hairlessness as a Male Ideal

Michelle Cottle:

The NYT has a piece today about the trend of men going hairless--waxing, shaving, depilating--with body parts until recently allowed to grow wild.

I'm intrigued by this. I always thought much of women's quest for hairlessness was related to the idea that body hair smacked of masculinity. (Certainly, excessive hair growth in odd places is one of the more unwelcome side effects of testosterone therapy for gals.) 

Sure, too much of anything can be disconcerting. I have friends whose backhair is the sort of thing you'd expect to find covering the floor of a 1973 den. But a non-peltlike growth on a guy's chest, legs, or groin (yes, the Gray Lady touches on the rise of the boyzilian--though she does not stoop to use to the term) helps keep most men from looking like prepubescent boys.

One incredibly shallow caveat: There is a class of super-hot, super-buff men--underwear model types--that are such delectable eye candy it would be criminal for one inch of their flesh to be obscured by body hair. To them, I strongly urge: Wax, baby wax! But for even your above-average-built male who isn't an Olympic swimmer or Tour de France competitor seeking that aerodynamic edge: Why?

Good question!


Flickr user Ben+Sam

09 July 2009 1:19 PM

A Small Step for Blueberries, A Giant Leap for Bubble Tea?

Chris Beam sends an interesting idea via Twitter:

Replace bubble tea tapioca balls with blueberries.
If I had a bubble tea shop I'd do it. In the short term, however, I'm pretty sure that opening a chain of mango lassi shops would be more lucrative. It's delicious, currently available only in Indian restaurants, and oh so refreshing.

09 July 2009 1:12 PM

Business / Economics

The Rise of China

The Economist says the Monroe Doctrine is dead:

YOU could have easily missed a small bit of news this morning: China has supplanted the US as Brazil's biggest trading partner. Beijing, seeking to take advantage of Latin America's raw materials, has greatly increased its activity in the region over the past decade (much as it has done in Africa). The US, meanwhile, has been beset by wars and economic crisis, leaving a vacuum. This is not to say that China is now the dominant force in the region--McClatchy reports that "trade between the United States and Latin America still dwarfs China's trade with Latin America". But it is a useful economic warning sign. Whether you are Lula da Silva or Hugo Chavez, would you rather deal with China's "no-questions-asked" foreign policy or an anti-corruption, pro-transparency, pro-labour, environmentally conscious, human-rights-pushing American government?

09 July 2009 12:32 PM

Business / Economics

Public Employee Unions, Cont.

Freddie is upset by a previous post wherein I suggested that public employee unions should be abolished, and a Matt Welch post highlighting the outrageous costs imposed by public sector unions in California.

Freddie writes:

Welch ascribes the lions share of California's fiduciary crisis to (can you guess?)... the unions! Meanwhile, he does nothing to acknowledge why unions exist and why people join them: because unions help workers to improve the material quality of their lives. You could be excused, reading economic conservatives' attitudes about unions, for thinking that unions must be a product of some malevolent intelligence bent on destroying our society. In our discourse about unions we are not allowed to point out that unions exist because they are a net positive influence on the lives of those within them, or that improving the financial security and material well-being of the people within society is one of the basic functions of government.
I'll certainly acknowledge that California's public employee unions improve the well being of its members. The problem is that the outlandish compensation it wins workers comes at the expense of the common good. The most obvious example are public employee pensions. In California, a state worker can retire at age 50, do absolutely nothing all day, and collect 90 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives! 5,000 of these pensions amount to six figures incomes. Nor can the state afford the system it has. As the Matt Welch piece mentions, "the state's annual pension fund contribution vaulted from $321 million in 2000-01 to $7.3 billion last year." That is a rather alarming rate of growth, and an astonishing figure, don't you think? Given that the state is bankrupt and issuing IOUs to its creditors, it doesn't seem unreasonable to complain that public employee unions have extracted benefits that are both obviously unaffordable and far in excess of what is enjoyed by the taxpayers who finance them.

Freddie goes on to write:

We are instead expected only to constantly harp on the horrible greed of Detroit autoworkers or California teachers, who have the temerity to want to maximize their wages, to gain job security through their labor and to collectively bargain with their peers in order to do so. Whether or not on net those positive public goods outweigh the negative economic effects of union is a matter of argument. But to ignore those things entirely is not to have an argument at all. That's where we stand in our discussion of unions, though, with only the bad effects at issue and the positive effects dismissed as sops to special interest groups. This is not weak manning. It's no-manning, thwacking away at an antagonist idea without even a shred of a notion that it is necessary or helpful to consider why people support unions in the first place.
Reading all this, you'd think that Matt Welch and I attacked the idea of unions generally. In fact, we attacked public sector unions in a specific state. The specific argument we're making is that their costs outweigh their benefits. Though Freddie acts as though every union is generally under attack, he mentions the teachers unions and Detroit autoworkers specifically because they are other examples of specific unions that come under fire because their effects are particularly deleterious.

I'm sure that somewhere out there, you'll find an economic conservative who attacks all unions as corrupt and terrible. That would be wrongheaded. Some unions are necessary. Sometimes the benefits of unions outweigh the costs. That isn't the case with California's public employee unions.

One last point I'd like to address before closing:

Welch and Friedersdorf  are comfortably entrenched in the world of elite media. That's not a knock on them, and I'm sure they both deserve it. Nor is it precisely an argument against their position. Whether or not unions are a net good for society that we should defend can't ultimately have anything to do with how critics of unions live.  But I wish on an emotional level that people like Welch and Friedersdorf would take care to think a little bit more about what exactly they are advocating, to acknowledge that real people will face real hardship without unions, and to stop talking like every union member is some nefarious villain.
Ah yes, elite journalism. What a comfortable, well-compensated life we all lead! Folks in a cushy growth industry like ours wouldn't even have any use for lifetime job guarantees or defined benefit pensions. It's no wonder we aren't more deferential to, say, a retired pr flack from a municipal fire department pulling in 90k per year to do nothing from 50 on.

09 July 2009 11:00 AM

"Worst Idea Ever"

CQ reports:

CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee that the agency had misled and "concealed significant actions from all members of Congress" dating back to 2001 and continuing until late June, according to a letter from seven Democrats on the panel.

The letter was dated June 26, two days after Panetta appeared before a closed door session with the committee and it asked that the CIA chief "correct" his statement from May 15 that "it is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress."

Well. That's a big deal, isn't it?

09 July 2009 10:30 AM

Design Ideas

Look! A blog where every post looks different.

09 July 2009 10:00 AM

Technology

Much Ado?

Ryan Tate:

The tech world is atwitter: Google just announced a new operating system, which will compete with Microsoft Windows. The only problem? It's not a new operating system, and it doesn't compete with Microsoft Windows.

The new "Google Chrome OS" is a nifty instance of branding, we'll give it that. But stripped of the marketing talk, here's what Google just introduced: A distribution of the Linux operating system, plus a "new windowing system" and a copy of Google's Web browser.

In geek parlance, Google built a "shell," not an OS. The kernel and, almost certainly, a large chunk of the "userland" programs that make up an OS come from elsewhere.

But it's in Google's interests to puff up its new technology. The press loves a nice, simple fight between tech industry giants; Google's branding is thus sure to generate loads of free buzz for Google's "operating system," as programmer and longtime tech pundit Dave Winer has pointed out.

09 July 2009 9:30 AM

Business / Economics

Calling All Financial Reporters

This sounds like a bad idea:

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- Morgan Stanley plans to repackage a downgraded collateralized debt obligation backed by leveraged loans into new securities with AAA ratings in the first transaction of its kind, said two people familiar with the sale.
But despite my diligent efforts to understand the finance industry, I can't be sure. Help! Megan? Michael Lewis? Planet Money?

Is this a bad idea?

09 July 2009 9:00 AM

The Idea of Pizza

Frank Bruni writes:

INDISCRIMINATE gluttons and discerning gourmands alike have long been crazy for pizza. But over the last few years, they have elevated their passion to a vocation, sending pizza into a whole new stratosphere of respect. It isn't just loved, and it isn't just devoured. It's scrutinized and fetishized, with a Palin-esque power to polarize.

Does a wood-burning brick oven yield more flavorful crusts than a coal-burning one? Which flour lends the most character to dough? Is buffalo-milk mozzarella a silky blessing or watery curse?

On such questions the most durable of friendships have foundered and the most principled of pizza makers -- pizzaioli, they are now called -- part company.
I submit that the whole substance of those paragraphs is overwrought bullshit -- that pizza is not particularly polarizing, that it hasn't entered a whole new stratosphere of respect over the last few years, and that it has never ended a durable friendship

09 July 2009 8:45 AM

Energy / Environment

Feedback Fears

Kevin Drum:

One of the most alarming aspects of climate change is the existence of positive feedback loops.  For example, as polar ice melts, less sunlight is reflected back into space, thus heating up the ocean and causing more ice to melt.  Rinse and repeat.  Another one: warming causes the permafrost in the Siberian tundra to melt, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, thus warming the earth and causing yet more tundra to melt.
He quotes this Washington Monthly piece:

The world's forests are an enormous carbon sink, meaning they absorb massive quantities of carbon dioxide, through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration. In normal years the Amazon alone absorbs three billion tons of carbon, more than twice the quantity human beings produce by burning fossil fuels. But during the 2005 drought, this process was reversed, and the Amazon gave off two billion tons of carbon instead, creating an additional five billion tons of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. That's more than the total annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined.

The drought was not evenly spread across the vast expanses of the Amazon, but in the worst affected areas there was severe dieback. Some trees stopped growing, others lost their leaves, and many of the fastest-growing trees and creepers died altogether. Perhaps more surprising, comparing exact measurements of tree diameter, wood density, and biomass against measurements taken in earlier years, Phillips and his colleagues found that even in places that seemed to emerge relatively unscathed--where the forest looked no different to the naked eye--there had been a loss of biomass. Rainforests, it seems, are more sensitive to drought than was previously understood.

09 July 2009 8:29 AM

Down with Diamonds

It wouldn't be a blog written by me if I didn't take time out to inveigh against my least favorite stone. If you click through just two links today, do read Edward Jay Epstein's fascinating piece on the history of diamonds from The Atlantic's archives, and my comparatively brief jeremiad against the diamond engagement ring. Also note that Graeme Wood once went on the diamond boat.


09 July 2009 8:00 AM

Male and Female Nudity

Gawker notices a double-standard.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give Struggling Authors a Chance

For the sake of literature, it's time we tipped the odds in favor of small-run fiction. More

09 July 2009 7:45 AM

Elsewhere on This Beat...

... check out The New York Review of Ideas.

08 July 2009 5:55 PM

Newsmakers

The Pawlenty Plan


08 July 2009 5:48 PM

"You Are the Future of Philanthropy"

08 July 2009 4:15 PM

Technology

G-OS

Alan Jacobs rounds up thoughts on what a Google operating system will be like.

08 July 2009 3:45 PM

Publishing Idea

Write a ransom note for your own book.

08 July 2009 3:03 PM

Business / Economics

Breaking the Bank

Matt Welch on California:

During the last two decades, the Golden State has been transformed from what was once known as the nation's most anti-labor outpost to a state essentially run by public-sector unions. Nearly three in five publicsector workers are unionized, compared to less than two in five public employees in other states. The Democratic Party, which is fully in hock to unions, has controlled the legislature and most statewide posts, with the notable exception of the governor's mansion, for more than a decade. That means more government workers, higher salaries, and drastically higher pension costs. 

According to Adam Summers--a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this magazine--the state's annual pension fund contribution vaulted from $321 million in 2000-01 to $7.3 billion last year. According to public databases, more than 5,000 people are drawing pensions in excess of $100,000 from the state of California each year.

So pervasive is the union influence that big labor doesn't even try to defend its deleterious effects on California's finances. Just before the special election, a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board asked Service Employees International Union chief Andy Stern to respond to charges that unions are the 21st-century equivalent of the railroads that were once all-powerful in California. Stern verbally shrugged: "I think democracy is an ugly thing at times."

Here's an idea: outlaw public employee unions.


08 July 2009 3:00 PM

The Elite Conservative Media

Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin draws crowds -- that's why she grabs the headline and subhead written by my excellent editor at The Daily Beast. The core argument of my piece, however, is that despite conventional wisdom suggestion her demise is due being hated by America's elites, Governor Palin actually garnered a lot of support from powerful, rich, well-connected Americans.

Why elide the fact that Sarah Palin is a darling of Fox News, the highest rated cable news network in America? Or that she is regularly defended by Mr. Limbaugh, famous television personality Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin, a nationally syndicated radio host whose latest book just ended a run atop the New York Times bestseller list? Or again, surely these savvy Sarah Palin defenders know that the editors of National Review and The Weekly Standard, tenured members of the political establishment, lined up behind her candidacy, and that Gov. Palin herself is a millionaire who enjoyed a six-figure family income before she ever took the statehouse--never mind the lucrative book contract and pricey speaking fees now available to her.

Isn't it actually the case that a good chunk of elite America loves Sarah Palin, or at least is willing to lend rhetorical and financial support to her.
I go on to make the case that conservatives won't get better leaders until they acknowledge that the ones they've got are part of America's establishment ruling class. See that argument here.

08 July 2009 2:45 PM

Business / Economics

"Let's Treat Borrowers Like Adults"

Todd Zywicki:

Imagine a man in California who speculated in real estate at the height of the housing bubble. He bought a house with no money down and an adjustable-rate mortgage. But before he could flip that house for a profit, the market collapsed. He then owed more than his house was worth, but he knew that under his state's laws it would be impossible for his bank to sue him for the balance of his loan if he abandoned the house to foreclosure.

What is this man likely to do?


08 July 2009 1:20 PM

Technology

The Teen Who Hacked the iPhone

The Wall Street Journal reports:

PHILADELPHIA -- Like many teenagers, Ari Weinstein spends his summers riding his bike and swimming. This year, the 15-year-old had another item on his to-do list: Foil Apple Inc.'s brightest engineers and annoy chief executive Steve Jobs.

Ari is part of a loose-knit group of hackers that has made it a mission to "jailbreak" Apple's iPhone and iPod touch. The term refers to installing unapproved software that lets people download a range of programs, including those not sanctioned by Apple.

It's a fascinating piece.


08 July 2009 12:45 PM

Technology

Should Remote Voting Be Allowed?

Jason Zengerle:

Why, in this day and age of teleconference and videoconference and now even telepresence technologies, do senators need to be physically present to cast votes anyway? Amazingly, the technological developments that have facilitated telecommuting in pretty much every white-collar profession in America have yet to take root among legislators. And it's not just the United States Congress. Even state legislatures, the laboratories of democracy, have been slow to embrace technological change. Only two chambers--the Florida House and the Pennsylvania Senate--allow remote voting, and it's decidedly 1.0, as the legislators must have a colleague cast their vote for them; in Florida, the "absent" member must actually be present in the chamber to authorize the proxy.

08 July 2009 11:45 AM

"Worst Idea Ever"

-- What AIG did.

-- Celebrating sans Afghans in Afghanistan.

-- An incorrect diagnosis of tinnitus.

-- Provoking a constitutional crisis out of a misguided great man theory of history.

08 July 2009 11:00 AM

Elections Aren't Everything

Tony Blankley asks a fair question:

What is it about Mrs. Palin that elicits such furious bipartisan Washington dismissiveness? After all, the polls show her to be tied with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for the very early lead in the Republican primary. As an outspoken conservative with about 80 percent favorable rating amongst Republicans and a high-40s percentage favorable plurality among independents, objectively she should be seen as quite competitive nationally (compared to other Republicans, particularly given that Republicans generically are weak, and she has been so viciously targeted by the media).

Mrs. Palin draws by far the biggest crowds of any current politician other than, perhaps, the president. She was the only news phenomenon capable of knocking the Michael Jackson story off the cable news lineups. Impressively, while President George W. Bush was able to elicit a Bush derangement syndrome from liberal Democrats and President Obama has succeeded similarly with many conservatives, only Mrs. Palin has induced simultaneous derangement form both Republican and Democratic professionals.

I'd say the dismissiveness is grounded in the fact that politicians who win higher office are afterward forced to govern. Whatever Ms. Palin's electoral chances, there isn't any reason to think she is capable of that task -- in fact, there are many very good reasons to think otherwise.

08 July 2009 10:30 AM

Business / Economics

Behind the Financial Crisis

Michael Lewis:

Here is an amazing fact: nearly a year after perhaps the most sensational corporate collapse in the history of finance, a collapse that, without the intervention of the government, would have led to the bankruptcy of every major American financial institution, plus a lot of foreign ones, too, A.I.G.'s losses and the trades that led to them still haven't been properly explained. How did they happen? Unlike, say, Bernie Madoff's pyramid scheme, they don't seem to have been raw theft. They may have been an outrageous departure from financial norms, but, if so, why hasn't anyone in the place been charged with a crime? How did an insurance company become so entangled in the sophisticated end of Wall Street and wind up the fool at the poker table? How could the U.S. government simply hand over $54 billion in taxpayer dollars to Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and all the rest to make good on the subprime insurance A.I.G. F.P. had sold to them--especially after Goldman Sachs was coming out and saying that it had hedged itself by betting against A.I.G.?


Since I had him on the phone I asked Jake DeSantis for what Congressman Grayson had asked Edward Liddy: names. He obligingly introduced me to his colleagues in London and Connecticut, and they walked me through what had happened--all of them speaking to someone from the outside for the first time. All, for obvious reasons, were terrified of seeing their names in print, and asked not to be mentioned by name. That was fine by me, as their names are not what's interesting. What's interesting is their point of view on the event closest to the center of the financial crisis. For while they disagreed on this and that, they all were fairly certain that if it hadn't been for A.I.G. F.P. the subprime-mortgage machine might never have been built, and the financial crisis might never have happened.


08 July 2009 10:00 AM

Is Politico the Future of Journalism?

Michael Wolff:

In the fourth issue of Wired magazine, in the fall of 1993, just as the Internet was entering public consciousness, Michael Crichton, the author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, wrote an essay arguing that newspapers were doomed because they were too dumb. As information became cheaper, more plentiful, and easier to get, consumers, he argued, would become ever more immersed in their specific interests and understand that their more generally oriented paper--at least in the matter of a reader's special interest, but also by inference everything else--had no idea what it was talking about.

Sixteen years later, the ultimate result of Crichton's theory about the fallacy of general-interest news--and, as a corollary, the answer to the riddle of who's going to report the news when traditional, general-interest news organizations stop doing it--is, for better and worse, Politico.

Politico is the Web site (and accompanying newspaper) launched by two former Washington Post reporters to cover the 2008 presidential campaign, and which, with 100 or so staffers, is defying all reason and expectations by continuing to prosper beyond the election season. Not only is it, in its way, a direct manifestation of Crichton's observation about flaccid and dumbed-down news, but it is also something rather close to one of those sinister and unstoppable forces in a Crichton novel: more information than you want to know, as well as more than you probably should know and can know, altering the very metabolic rate of the people who supply it and of those who become habituated to trying to know it.

08 July 2009 9:30 AM

The Problems with Meritocracy

Noah Millman:

Ross is critical of the idea of meritocracy as the prime organizing principle of society. So am I. I'm interested, though, in how Sarah Palin represented a meaningful response to that idea. Meritocracy, in practice, means the selection of the "best and the brightest" for positions of power and authority, primarily by means of testing and scholastic hoop-jumping. The elite chosen in this manner are Nicholas Lemann's "Mandarins." And there are alternative roads to power and authority in this country. For example, you can work your way up slowly through an organization - Lemann's "Lifers." And there's always nepotism - an important social force in any society, and unfortunately something you can't talk about objectively in America because we're supposed to be against privilege of birth (all the while we strive mightily to ensure just that privilege for our children). And then there are Lemann's "Talents" - people who distinguished themselves by achievement in an entrepreneurial fashion - the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Michael Bloombergs.

Sarah Palin would, presumably, be one of this last group. But what, exactly, is her achievement, beyond her one election to the Alaska governorship? The big problems I have with meritocracy include: that it tells the chosen they are better than other people (in some objective sense), which is an anti-democratic ethos; that it very consciously separates our elite from the people, which isn't healthy for democracy either; that it separates the elite from "real life" in a way that ill-prepares them for the reality that will inevitably smack them in the head one way or other; and that it selects for particular personality types that, while useful in an elite, need to be balanced with other personality types. It is not one of the problems of meritocracy that it tries to select people an elite as such, or tries to select one that will be good at its job. You have to have an elite; you can't have a functioning society without one. That being the case, what exactly is the great counter-meritocratic message that Palin purportedly embodies, and that Ross wants to salvage (presumably for some future candidate) from the wreckage of her brief career on the political stage?

08 July 2009 9:00 AM

Business / Economics

The Coming Tax Hike?

Derek Thompson:

The problem with trying to pass a $1.3 trillion universal health care plan, on top of raising the price of carbon emissions, on top of spending over a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy is that, as they say, a trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money. So let's talk about real money. Where're we gonna get some? Your paycheck. How're we gonna do it? Raise your taxes.

So I'm pleased to see the Economix blog is putting together a motley crew of economists and journalists who have said just that: Taxes are coming. With federal revenue less than 19% and federal spending surging over 20% with the bailouts, it stands to reason that even if health care reform miraculously turns deficit-neutral in a decade, we're going to need politicians to get serious about higher taxes -- and maybe not just for the rich.
Naturally, President Obama pledged during his campaign that he wouldn't raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000. Put another way, if he keeps all of his promises, he is going to put America in an even more reckless, unsustainable position than we're in already. So much for the reality based community.

08 July 2009 8:20 AM

Education

What Makes a Successful Teacher?

The head of Teach for America has a theory:

We've done a lot of research on the characteristics of our teachers who are the most successful. The most predictive trait is still past demonstrated achievement, and all selection research basically points to that. But then there is a set of personal characteristics. And the No. 1 most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge -- you can't see it unless you're in the context of a challenge -- have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system.

In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed -- kids, kids' families, the system. And yet you'll go into schools and you'll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, "It's not possible to succeed here," and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it's so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.
Sounds like the same quality that makes for a good free safety.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Get Rid of Polls

Too often they're not only wrong, but counterproductive -- and they distort the electoral process. More

Flickr user Fairyboots

08 July 2009 7:45 AM

In the City

The Wall Street Journal reports:

U.S. cities that for years lost residents to the suburbs are holding onto their populations with a mix of people trapped in homes they can't sell and those who prefer urban digs over more distant McMansions, according to Census data released Wednesday.

Growing cities are growing faster and shrinking cities are losing fewer people, reflecting a blend of choice and circumstance.

Lewis McCrary considers the political implications:

If it is to return to electoral success, the Right must craft a message that appeals to more urban and inner suburban voters. Large scale federal "urban renewal" policy has typically produced disastrous results, especially in the federal city itself. Conservatives should speak out against more federal spending as the solution to urban problems, but must also present alternatives.

While making the case that federal bureaucrats aren't to be trusted in shaping urban policy, conservatives must become involved in grassroots city politics. Perhaps new leaders might emerge in the mold of one-time-candidate for Mayor of New York Norman Mailer, who recognized that city authorities have a role to play in solving social problems while simultaneously insisting on neighborhood and community self-determination, free from domination by large-scale bureaucracies and corporate interests.
I suggest pointing out how public employee unions are enriching their members on the public dime. The coming pension crisis will drive the point home.

08 July 2009 2:59 AM

Business / Economics

Google's Big Announcement

PC World:

Alas, poor Microsoft. First Google dominates the search engine market. Then Google enters the Web-based e-mail market. Android invades Windows Mobile's turf. And then Google jumps into the browser market with Chrome. Tonight Google announced that it has upped the ante yet again, and will release a new operating system based on Google Chrome.

The new operating system, aptly named Google Chrome OS, will be an open-source operating system initially geared toward netbooks, Google announced in a press release this evening.

Google claims the new operating system, which should ship in the second half of next year, will be "lightweight" and heavily Web-centric.

With Chrome OS, Google plans to follow the same formula it used with its browser: "Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We're designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds," Google stated in its announcement. "The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web."

Google will also make security a high priority with Chrome, stating that they "are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work."

Good idea! See more here.

08 July 2009 1:35 AM

Remodel Idea

Turn your garage into an office.

07 July 2009 4:15 PM

A Better Electrical Outlet

07 July 2009 3:53 PM

Health Care

Does Taxing Calories Work?

Ezra Klein is skeptical:

A few weeks ago, Tom Laskawy took issue with my contention that we don't really know how to convince people to eat better. "Junk food--and that includes any processed food that crosses the line from nutritious to purely caloric--has to get more expensive," he wrote. "Period."

The theory behind this is simple, and, on an abstract level, unassailable. If calories cost more, people will consume fewer of them. If the government slaps a $10 tax on every bag of chips, Lays would probably go out of business. But that isn't likely to happen. The question, rather, is whether relatively modest taxes on calories are effective. Are people extremely price sensitive when it comes to food? Or not?

The evidence appears to point toward "not." A recent study conducted by researchers at the RAND Corp. used evidence from the Health and Retirement Study -- which is generally considered to provide very high-quality data -- to estimate the impact of a 10 percent reduction in the cost of all calories (they use a reduction because, well, food prices have been going down, so that's where we can find real-world data on how people respond to price changes in food). The data isn't very encouraging.


07 July 2009 3:47 PM

"At the Gates of Notre Dame"

Joseph Bottum:

We all knew this fight was coming. The Catholic Church and the Catholic colleges have been heading toward a crash since at least 1990, when John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his apostolic constitution for Catholic institutions of higher education. And now, at last, the battle is public--brought to fever pitch by Notre Dame's bestowing of an honorary law degree on a prominent supporter of legalized abortion.

As it happens, that supporter of abortion is also the president of the United States, which is unfortunate in a number of ways--beginning with the fact that the office of the president, regardless of who holds it, deserves respect and honor from American citizens of every political persuasion. For that matter, a majority of at least self-described Catholics (54 percent, according to widely reported exit polls) voted for Barack Obama in November, and, as our first black president, he serves a symbolic function in American political life that Catholics should applaud.But even when we know a fight is coming, we don't always get to choose the field on which it will be fought.

07 July 2009 2:33 PM

Propriety in Conduct

David Brooks muses on how far America's public code of conduct has fallen since the days of George Washington, and writes:

...there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.
It's a column that DC political journalist and inside the beltway gadfly Robert Stacy McCain is certain to dislike. The alternative code of conduct he once lauded:

To be a journalist in Washington is to live one's life surrounded by men who have never driven 110 mph, never spent a night in jail, and never won a fistfight in their lives.

The upper echelons of American journalism have become the exclusive monopoly of former teacher's pets, who as children were never sent to the principal's office, who as teenagers were never suspended for showing up drunk for chemistry class, who as college students never woke up at 6:30 a.m. on the porch of the ATO house, who never played in a rock band or sold a pound of weed or dove from a 50-foot cliff into an abandoned rock quarry.

Washington journalism is like some kind of perverse alternative reality where the Beta males are dominant.
I wonder if McCain is a Marion Barry supporter. As a leader, he's no George Washington, but you can't deny that he's hard core.

07 July 2009 2:07 PM

Ideas 2009

Dept. of Municipal Complaints

Ryan Tate:

In San Francisco, citizens complain to the city over Twitter. Bostonians have it even better: they got an iPhone application just for carping at City Hall. It's never been easier to funnel your complaint into a Kafkaesque black hole!

Jim Murray

07 July 2009 1:36 PM

Education

Meet the New Boss

Megan McArdle says job retraining programs are usually a bad idea:

Students are overoptimistic.  Schools encourage them in their folly while collecting checks.  And employers demand real-world experience that training can't give.  It works best on people near entry-level, and those with complementary skills.  But that rarely describes the people most in need of retraining, like displaced autoworkers who have spent decades at semi-skilled labor no longer in demand.
Read about her own experiences here.

07 July 2009 1:27 PM

The Garden Trend

Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

The MSM is teeming, teeming!, with farm/garden related trend pieces. Urban rooftop gardening! Chicken farming in suburbia! Real estate developments built around organic farms! Women farmers! "New-age agrarians" flock to farm internships!

Even the (not-particularly-zeitgeist-y) AARP Bulletin Today has gotten in on the action.

I had previously never seen an advertisement seeking agricultural reporters on journalismjobs.com; last week I saw two in a row.

What exactly causes these things? What has caused this one in particular? Some cryptic combinaiton of the recession (both in its economic affects, and it's attendant subconcious push toward localism), the frequent food contamination outbreaks, the release of Food Inc., the rise of food politics author/gurus, and the summer time? Does it start with the New York Times and then everyone just follows suit? Is it just something to fill space now that twittervangelism has died down? Is there a secret farmer cabal behind the whole thing? What is going on?

07 July 2009 12:00 PM

Ideas 2009

Those Pesky Editors

Theodore Dalrymple:

I was recently the victim of a politically-correct sub-editor of a distinguished medical journal for which I write. I do not claim to have suffered inordinately as a result; at most I experienced a brief spasm of anger, leading to a slightly longer period of irritation. Then I calmed down: 99.99999 per cent of the world's population would never read what I wrote, and of the 0.00001 per cent that did read it, 99.99 per cent would not notice the change.

On the other hand, as Burke said, liberty is seldom lost all at once; usually it is nibbled away, until - to change thinkers to Tocqueville - people become 'a herd of timid and industrious sheep, of which the government is the shepherd.' (It needn't be the government that does all the shepherding, intellectual apparatchiks will do just as well.)

Therefore, at the risk of sounding and even becoming a little paranoid, and of seeing dangers to our freedom lurking everywhere, even in insignificant phenomena, it is necessary sometimes to protest at the most minor acts of arbitrary power.

07 July 2009 11:30 AM

Ideas 2009

On Commencement Speakers

Apollo wouldn't pay a million dollars to hear a speech by Michelle Obama -- or anyone else:

I've long thought the culture of high-end commencement speakers was stupid. Virtually every college in the country would benefit if it just gave up on that game and instead had a well-regarded professor speak to the students. It would save money, have  more content, better connect with students, and not subsidize the egos of political and media elites.
Bill Keller spoke at my commencement. Given my interest in journalism I quite enjoyed it, though not enough that I'd have paid for it. Walter Cronkite spoke to the Pomona College class that graduated the following year. I covered it for the local newspaper. It was an awful speech.

07 July 2009 10:45 AM

Ideas 2009

Utopia or Dystopia?

Via Kevin Drum, a report from Irvine, California:

It's a religiously tidy community. Homeowners associations regulate the smallest details: the shade of paint, from eggshell to beige, what trees may be planted, the mowing and edging of every stretch of grass.

Police Chief David Maggard said he sees his department as a service-based organization, operating under the assumption that safety is contagious.

"If people have a sense that their community is safe, they will go out at night, they will interact with their neighbors, they will use the parks," he said, "and that does have an impact on crime."

Cops don't come to Irvine to bust heads or run-and-gun, and several officers interviewed seemed satisfied that they are able to spend time solving cases that might be shrugged off in towns with more crime, even while some say the pace of activity in Irvine is at times too slow.

"It's not that there's absolutely nothing that happens in Irvine," said Barry Miller, a field training officer.

"It just seems like there's no call we won't take," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Miller responded to a typical call.

On the street of two-story suburban homes, lined with jacarandas and palms and curbside recycling bins, a father and his 14-year-old son were arguing about water polo practice while he gave his other son a haircut in the garage.

Two police cars were on the scene within minutes.

Miller defused the situation with some gentle words to the father and son, smiling as he stood on the front lawn, looking more the part of mediator than hardened lawman.

The officer quickly typed the police code for "disturbance" in his patrol car's computer: 415 over son not doing what dad wants. Verbal only. No crime.
I grew up in a lovely neighborhood in nearby Costa Mesa. Crime in my tract is also very low, even though everyone paints their house whatever color they damn well please.

07 July 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Gardening

Amanda Marcotte:

Salon has not one, but two articles up right now about the resurgence of gardening, particularly urban gardening.  One is about the urban gardening trend itself, and one is about the giant organic garden at the White House that Michelle Obama has spearheaded.  The explosion of interest in gardening is obviously due to converging trends---the growing concerns about sustainability and our screwed-up agricultural system, plus an economic collapse that has people thinking long and hard about frugality.

What's interesting about the trend is that it's not really certain that growing your own garden is necessarily going to save people money, as Amy Benfer notes.  In the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt's push for people to start victory gardens was incredibly effective---up to 40% of all produce grown in the country was in victory gardens.  Numbers like that would make one think that this resurgence would have similar results, but I think a lot fewer people (particularly the political foodie types that generally live in urban centers) have as much space to garden, and collectively, we have a lot less know-how.  Of course, if people stick with it for a few years, they'll learn what works and what doesn't, and it will start to save them money.  Of course, that requires staying put for long periods of time, which is also not so easy for modern urbanites.

Still, even if this is only a minor savings or a wash for a lot of people starting out, I still think that this trend is overall a good thing for people.  First of all, gardening---even just if you grow your own herbs---encourages people to cook at home more, which is healthier and cheaper.  Plus, it's a good place to start when it comes to finding ways to eat better overall.  Even with Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman out there telling people that good cooking is easy, I think many people are afraid to start doing things like exploring the bulk section at the supermarket.  I know I was, but gardening has this psychological effect on you.  I dare say it's a genuine example of empowering yourself.

07 July 2009 9:32 AM

Ideas 2009

A Strangely Unpoisoned System

David Frum:

This "great recession" has harshly reshaped the lives of tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of million of people around the world. And yet in one way, it has had surprisingly little impact: We have not seen the kind of upsurge of anti-system political radicalism that might have been expected to follow so painful a shock.

For more than 6 months, Americans have heard one revelation after another of betrayal of customer interests by financial firms - of reckless risk-taking, self-dealing and dereliction of fiduciary duty. Yet there has been no wave of outrage against banks and bankers. The furor over the AIG bonuses blew over in 48 hours. The Obama administration's promised financial "reforms" turn out astonishingly modest. Who would have imagined that after the worst financial crash since 1929, the only institution to be threatened with abolition by the federal government would be ... the Office of Thrift Supervision?

In fall 2008 a friend in a very senior job on Wall Street confided to me, "When the public discovers what has been going on these past years, there is going to be a reaction that will turn this country upside down." Hasn't happened.  There have been no modern equivalents of the Depression-era Pecora hearings. An unequivocal crook like Bernie Madoff can be sentenced to prison, but who has a harsh word to say against Franklin Raines? The public by and large has been trusting and accepting of established institutions and traditional leaders.

Why?
His answer is here.

07 July 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Folks Who Shouldn't Throw Stones

The New York Times reports:

Engineers, architects and fabricators, aided by materials scientists and software designers, are building soaring facades, arching canopies and delicate cubes, footbridges and staircases, almost entirely of glass. They're laminating glass with polymers to make beams and other components stronger and safer... and analyzing every square inch of a design to make sure the stresses are within precise limits. And they are experimenting with new materials and methods that could someday lead to glass structures that are unmarked by metal or other materials."Ultimately what we're all striving for is an all-glass structure," said James O'Callaghan of Eckersley O'Callaghan Structural Design, who has designed what are perhaps the world's best-known glass projects, the staircases that are a prominent feature of every Apple Store.
Check out the photo.

07 July 2009 8:27 AM

Ideas 2009

Maverick Tendencies

Chris Orr has an idea for Sarah Palin:

If one believes, as I do, a) that Palin has every intention of running for president, barring the emergence a scandal that makes this impossible; b) that she will not win the GOP nomination; and c) that the bitter grudge-holding that has characterized her career will continue; she seems an unusually plausible risk to launch a base-shattering third-party candidacy.
In the (extremely!) unlikely event that she wins this third party bid you know who to blame.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tell Americans What They're Really Paying for Their Food

If they only knew, farm subsidies might become a thing of the past. More

07 July 2009 12:10 AM

Ideas 2009

DIY Furniture

John Schwenkler discovers Ikea Hacker:

So how in the hell had nobody ever told me about this? I mean, backyard chicken coops made from bunk beds and bottle racks? A kids' play kitchen made from a supercharged table leg? This is a penny-pinching directions-hating capitalist libertarian do-it-yourself-er's frigging paradise, and I have to hear about it from Rod? This is your job, readers, so please make a note.

06 July 2009 3:30 PM

Ideas 2009

The End of TV as We Know It?

The Cajun Boy writes:

...we believe eventually someone will independently shoot and distribute an episodic series online that will become a cultural phenomenon, something people discuss around the proverbial water-cooler on a regular basis, and that will be the moment when the scale is officially tipped and the television networks run the risk of becoming little more than relics of a bygone era. How far off into the future is something like that happening is anyone's guess, but it certainly seems as though we're getting closer and closer with each passing day.
Are the networks self-destructively hastening that process by putting their shows online?

06 July 2009 3:00 PM

Ideas 2009

When Is Secession Justified?

Ilya Somin has an interesting take:

One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct "people" or culture. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same ethnic groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons.

Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government - the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the text - and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very same rationale for independence could just as easily have been used to justify secession by, say, the City of London, which was more heavily taxed and politically oppressed than the American colonies were. Indeed, the Declaration suggests that secession or revolution is justified "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends" [emphasis added]. The implication is that the case for independence is entirely distinct from any nationalistic or ethnic considerations.

By contrast, modern international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assigns a right of "self-determination" only to "peoples," usually understood to mean groups with a distinctive common culture and ethnicity. If the American Revolution was justified, the ICCPR's approach is probably wrong. At the very least, secession should also be considered permissible where undertaken to escape repression by the preexisting central government. For example, Taiwan's de facto secession from China in 1949 was surely justified, despite the fact that most of the island's population consists of ethnic Chinese.

06 July 2009 2:00 PM

Ideas 2009

Congestion Pricing

Felix Salmon reports on a study of New York City congestion, and the cost each vehicle imposes by driving in Manhattan:

Being a cyclist, I'm acutely aware of the issue of externalities -- it generally costs you nothing to blindly step off the sidewalk and into the bike lane, or to open your taxi door without looking behind you, but it can affect me greatly. Komanoff's a cyclist too, but he's concentrating in this spreadsheet mainly on vehicular traffic. After crunching the numbers, he calculates that on a weekday, the average car driven into Manhattan south of 60th Street causes a total of 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else. (At weekends, the equivalent number is just over 2 hours.) No one car is likely to suffer excess delays of more than a few seconds, of course, but if you add up all those seconds for the thousands of affected cars and trucks, it comes to a significant amount of time.

Many of those hours are very valuable things, especially when you consider big trucks, staffed with two or three professionals, just idling in traffic. Komanoff calculates (check out the "Value of Time" tab) that the average vehicle has 1.97 people in it, and that the average value of an hour of saved vehicle time south of 60th Street in Manhattan on a weekday is $48.89. Which means, basically, that driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else.

Matt Yglesias writes:

People seem to be unaware of this, but the evidence suggests that traffic congestion costs the country tends of billions of dollars a year in lost economic activity. If we implemented congestion pricing in those metropolitan areas suffering from chronic congestion and then gathered up all the revenue and lit it on fire, we would swiftly find ourselves living in a more prosperous society. And if we gathered up the revenue and did something else with it, we'd be even better off.

06 July 2009 1:20 PM

Ideas 2009

Switching Days Off

Matt Yglesias has a vital reform proposal:

Let me say that I've really enjoyed this rare Friday-off three day weekend. I think it's been a lot more fun than your traditional Monday-off three dayer. I think it's the difference between a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Saturdays and a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Sundays. But whatever the reason, I think we should formalize the switch, eliminate our "observed on Monday" national holidays and shift them to Fridays.
Thoughts? Having blogged a fair amount on Friday, I am unqualified to weigh in.

06 July 2009 12:45 PM

Ideas 2009

Video of the Day: Does Religion Do More Harm or Good?

In a wonderful exchange, Bob Wright and John Horgan grapple with that question:


06 July 2009 12:15 PM

Ideas 2009

"Federer as Religious Experience"

In winning Wimbledon on Sunday, Roger Federer secured a remarkable 15th major title, surpassing Pete Sampras. The late David Foster Wallace wrote the definitive piece about watching the great champion play:

A top athlete's beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer's forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice -- the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game -- as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or -- as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject -- to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

One thing it is not is televisable.

06 July 2009 11:45 AM

Ideas 2009

"A Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing"

Peter Dougherty writes:

Books -- specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers -- retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:

First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms -- narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical -- thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.

Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas -- whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism -- when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.

Hard ideas define a culture -- that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing -- and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.

06 July 2009 11:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Does Pornography Stop Rape?

Tim Worstall argues that it does:

It has long been said that there's a connection between pornography and rape and other sexual crimes and attacks. Recent evidence shows that there is indeed a connection, but it is that the more porn there is available, the lower the incidence of rape.

This goes against two powerful strands of thought in American society, strange bedfellows though they may be. From the conservative side (best exemplified by Ronald Reagan's Commission on pornography and obscene materials) there is the allegation (perhaps supposition is better) that exposure to more sexual material in the form of porn leads to more sexual acts, of which rape is simply one.

In what is a case of very strange bedfellows indeed there is also a critique from the feminist side: that as porn objectifies women exposure to it will lead to more rape as those exposed to porn will continue to objectify women.

Both groups are therefore claiming that the more porn there is around then the more rape there will be. The only problem with this idea is that in recent decades the incidence of rape has dramatically declined. As the above chart shows, since the mainstreaming of porn into American lives in the early 70s, marked by the release of "Deep Throat", the incidence of rape per capita has declined by an astonishing 85%. Yes, this does include rape and attempted rape, homosexual and heterosexual. Something, clearly, fairly major has been going on in our society. It's also true that we've seen an explosion in the availability of pornography over this period, so perhaps the two points are linked, the availability of porn and the prevalence of rape?

He makes the case for that proposition in the rest of the piece.


06 July 2009 10:30 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Obama

In his Sunday column, Andrew Sullivan says that Barack Obama is an instinctual and temperamental conservative, that he obeys the Constitution, and that he "likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people."

Andrew goes on:

The question buzzing around Washington's chattering classes is the following: is the actual historical moment that Obama inherited -- unforeseen in its scope and danger this time last year -- the right moment for these instincts? Are his caution and delegation a liability in a period of a dysfunctional Congress, a near-psychotic Republican party and a potentially lethal global depression?

After a period in which the American executive claimed vast powers and institutionalised torture and abuse of suspected terrorists, is it enough simply to forget and forgive the past and try to glue onto the existing system more checks and balances and decency? Is the conservatism we sought, in other words, adequate to the radicalism that may now be required?

I've been pleased by the Obama Administration's foreign policy insofar as it's been more conservative and prudent than its predecessor. On domestic matters, however, I must disagree with my colleague's assessment. President Obama's agenda is nothing if not ambitious, whether measured by the number of major issues he hopes to address or their unprecedented cost.

As Andrew himself writes later in the same column:

The more you observe, the clearer it is that Obama is working on an eight-year time cycle. He wants deep structural change, not swift superficial grandstanding and conflict. He is taking his time and keeping his cool. The question is whether a volatile electorate in a terrible economic time will be patient enough to wait.

A president engaged in a calculated attempt to make deep structural changes to the nation's public policy may be right or wrong, but he isn't engaged in a conservative project, nor is he an instinctual conservative -- rather, he is an instinctual progressive whose political strategy is cautious and methodical. I happen to think we should resist his agenda. Others support it. Either way, there should be no illusion that he seeks a permanent and substantial increase in the size and scope of the federal government.

I also want to take issue with this:

I learnt long ago not to underestimate Obama's strategic skills and persistence. The drawn-out stimulus spending might actually help to prop up the economy in the coming months -- and it's utopian to believe that any Congress would have borrowed even more money this winter after Bush's $700 billion banking bailout and the vast projected deficits of the future.

The word I'd use for borrowing more money at this point would be dystopian.

06 July 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Class, Politics, and Bootstraps

Ross Douthat writes his latest column on Sarah Palin.

In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal -- that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal -- that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It's been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she's botched an essential democratic role -- the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it's also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

There is something about this narrative that doesn't sit right with me. This "ordinary citizen" who "takes on the elites" happened to be a sitting governor with a net worth over a million dollars, and her family enjoyed a 6-figure plus income even before she became governor. She rose to the national spotlight largely because the editor of an inside the beltway conservative magazine enjoyed meeting her during his luxury cruise ship trip to Alaska. It is true that she isn't an elite in the sense that George W. Bush and John McCain were -- they came from families with political connections -- but it is hard to see how she embodies the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative more than Barack Obama (or Joe Biden, for that matter).

In Ross's telling, what separates the meritocratic ideal from the democratic ideal is whether you can be a success story without having attended Columbia or Harvard. Okay. Well Joe Biden was born into a middle class family to a father who had a long spell of unemployment, and later found work as a used car salesman. He made a success of himself having graduated from the University of Delaware in Newark and the Syracuse University College of Law. Why isn't he the embodiment of the democratic ideal?

But I actually don't want to concede Ross's premise. Given the history of race in America, the election of a mixed race black man to the presidency -- Columbia and Harvard or not -- ought to have as much a claim to fulfilling the democratic ideal as the nomination of a woman who didn't attend an Ivy League college. We've had our Andrew Jacksons and our Jimmy Carters. Despite the frequency of Ivy League presidents, no one doubts that a candidate from a less elite educational pedigree can be elected. Which candidate caused more Americans to reconsider the kind of person who might be elected to the presidency, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin?

Ross goes on:

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Didn't Chelsea Clinton go through the tabloid wringer? Wasn't George W. Bush's religion mocked? Wasn't Dan Quayle's political record distorted to better parody him?

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You'll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You'll endure gibes about your "slutty" looks and your "white trash concupiscence," while a prominent female academic declares that your "greatest hypocrisy" is the "pretense" that you're a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

I do think that Sarah Palin was in the unique position of running for high office as the mother of a large family, but Hillary Clinton was certainly attacked for being an ambitious careerist insufficiently focused on family, Mike Huckabee has certainly been sneered at for how he talks, and the "slutty looks" and "white trash" jokes, while unfair and in bad taste, hardly seem any more prevalent than the white trash jokes made about Bill Clinton, or the most strident criticism academics leveled at Dick Cheney.

To sum up, it seems clear to me that Sarah Palin has been criticized unfairly at times, sometimes offensively so -- and equally clear to me that every candidate on a presidential ticket in my lifetime has been mocked and misrepresented. Anyone who doubts that others have faced similarly offensive attacks have too short a memory.

Ross concludes:

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don't even think about it.

There is obviously resistance to having a female president -- an unfortunate fact that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have helped to diminish by garnering support for female candidates on either side of the aisle.

As for social class, however, I am unconvinced by Ross's argument, because Sarah Palin is about as imperfect a test case as one could find. In seeking the second highest office in the land, she garnered uncommonly strident pushback not because she failed to check the Ivy League box, but because she couldn't put a check mark next to any of the boxes that qualifies one for the White House.

Ross mentioned Andrew Jackson as a historical example of the democratic ideal rising to the presidency. Prior to becoming president, Jackson fought in the American revolution, heroically commanded forces at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, served as military governor of Florida, was a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention, served in the House and in the Senate, and sat on the State Supreme Court of Tennessee. He was also a very successful businessman.

Sarah Palin served a partial term as governor of Alaska, demonstrated policy knowledge on exactly one subject, and excited the base. The message to another candidate of similar qualifications should be "don't even think about" running for the vice-presidency. It isn't about social class. It's about everything else.

06 July 2009 9:30 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of California

california.jpg

California's cascading crises prefigure America's future unless Washington reverses the growth of government subservient to organized labor. The state cannot pay its bills, poorly educates its young, and its taxation punishes whatever success that its suffocating regulatory regime does not prevent. -- George Will

There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. -- Edward Abbey

California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. -- Raymond Chandler

Here is a climate that breeds vigor, with just sufficient geniality to prevent the expenditure of most of that vigor in fighting the elements. Here is a climate where a man can work three hundred and sixty-five days in the year without the slightest hint of enervation, and where for three hundred and sixty-five nights he must perforce sleep under blankets. What more can one say? ... Nevertheless I take my medicine by continuing to live in this climate. Also, it is the only medicine I ever take. -- Jack London

California, that advance post of our civilization, with its huge aircraft factories, TV and film studios, automobile way of life... its flavorless cosmopolitanism, its charlatan philosophies and religions, its lack of anything old and well-tried rooted in tradition and character.  -- J.B. Priestley

California is a queer place -- in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific. It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort. -- DH Lawrence

The attraction and superiority of California are in its days. It has better days and more of them, than any other country. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion will live here in only the most temporary way. -- Joan Didion

The devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again. -- George F. Kennan (on California's resemblance to heaven)

You don't have to enjoy being miserable anymore; you're in California now. -- Mathew Fisher


Flickr user Eileansiar

06 July 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Are "Aptocrats" Running America?

Walter Kirn attacks the SAT and those who make it their lodestar:

I call this group of contemporary strivers -- a group that has largely supplanted the moneyed gentry as our country's governing class -- the "Aptocrats," after the primary trait that we were tested for and which we sought to develop in ourselves as a means of passing those tests. As defined by the institutions responsible for spotting and training America's brightest youth, this "aptitude" is a curious quality. It doesn't reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul, but some quotient of promise and raw mental agility thought to be crucial to academic success and, by extension, success in general. All of this makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more aptitude that a young person displays, the more likely it is that she or he will have a chance to win the golden tickets -- fine diplomas, elite appointments and so on -- that permit you to lead the aptocratic establishment and set the terms by which it operates.
The SAT is a significant factor in admissions to the most selective colleges in America. But the author assumes something more -- that one's score on the SAT determines success not only in college admissions, but in life. Is this true? What would one find upon surveying America's political, business and cultural leaders? Are they the same folks who scored highest on the SATs, or does admission to a highly selective college actually matter less to future success than Mr. Kirn seems to assume?

I suspect that a high score on the SAT isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy of success -- it seems to me that many high scorers would've been fine regardless of what college they attended, and that plenty of highly successful folks didn't care that much about the SAT or the uber-selectivity of their college. Certain fields privilege this sort of pedigree, but they seem to me the exception rather than the rule.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't do a better job recognizing promising aptitudes other than those measured by the SAT, but it isn't as though there's a good test for the knowledge in your head or the wisdom in your soul. Should a reliable way to measure those things arise, I'm sure that metric will be used too.

geerlingguy

06 July 2009 8:30 AM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: Flagging the "Weak Man" Argument

In a post on The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson uses a strange line of reasoning to analyze the impact of Sarah Palin's sudden resignation:

Conventional wisdom suggests that short-term the Palin decision was unwise -- e.g., "quitter," unpredictable, sulking, etc. But what else are her critics really going to say? It's not like a Letterman can trump laughing at her on late-night television as he puns that a Yankees star had sex in a dugout with her 14-year old daughter. Can Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic website go beyond his slurs that she did not deliver her own child? How much more cleverly can N.Y. feminist pundits tsk-tsk her that she's a Wasilla trailer-park retread?
The presumption here seems to be that the American people judge Governor Palin by listening to the least convincing arguments offered by her most virulent critics -- if these critics can continually top themselves, Palin's political fortunes suffer, whereas if they find themselves unable to muster ever more extreme criticism her future presidential chances are a-okay.

Actually, something like the opposite is true. When the public perceives that Gov. Palin is being attacked unfairly, the backlash redounds to her benefit. Hence her tendency to exaggerate insults and draw ever more attention to any criticism that her base will perceive as unfair. On the other hand, when she is criticized for good reason -- for example, when her inability to complete a single term as governor, or even to cogently explain her resignation, is cited as evidence of an erratic nature and an unfitness for the presidency -- the average American voter thinks to him or herself, "Yeah, a small town mayor who hasn't even completed a single term in higher office and explains her resignation by employing an impenetrable basketball analogy probably shouldn't be our next president." This is particularly true when her actions are so inexplicable that the class of people actually being critical of her expands to encompass almost everyone save her most dedicated boosters.

Imagine if in 2005 someone would've written, "Yeah, President Bush has already been likened to Hitler and burned in effigy, so I don't think he's going to get any more unpopular -- how can his critics go any further criticizing him than they already have?" It's almost as if one is led astray by evaluating a politician and his or her prospects through the lens of the weakest arguments against them.

In other "weak man argument" news, Jonah Goldberg associates himself with Mr. Hanson's weak man post, and Jesse Taylor at Pandagon does one better, arguing that the failures of Mr. Goldberg are in fact a refutation of the whole conservative movement. 

06 July 2009 8:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Quote of the Day

The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds. -- Mark Twain

Monday, July 6, 2009

Facebook Your Way to Universal Healthcare

A do-it-yourself approach just might be the answer More

05 July 2009 9:10 PM

Festival Panels

ASPEN PANEL: Building Palestine

05 July 2009 12:53 PM

Ideas 2009

Ideas from the Archives: "As We May Think"

In the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, Vannevar Bush remarked on the stunning number of innovations lately produced by science -- and the impossibility of keeping up with them:

Of what lasting benefit has been man's use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers--conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The proposed solution?

"A new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge."