Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Security Theater

In response to Eric Posner's observation that "security theater" has some beneficial effects: Yeah, sure, so stipulated, but that's not the point. Rather, we should ask ourselves whether the benefits of theater outweigh the costs?

With regard to 5a it may very well be the case that some terrorists will be deterred, but the false sense of confidence engendered by ineffective security measures may decrease overall vigilance on the part of travelers and airport staff, thus allowing security breaches which might not otherwise have occurred. Similarly, with respect to 5b, the increased sense of security may cause some people to travel who might have otherwise done so. At the same time, however, some people may choose not to travel by air due to the additional hassle that arises from such theater as forcing people to take off their shoes. There's a balance between costs and benefits in both cases and it is far from self-evident that the balance favors the appearance of security over actual security.

Absent evidence to the contrary the above suggests that the appropriate approach to take is to favor truly effective security measures over those which are highly visible but do little to improve actual security.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Individual Insurance Mandates

I find Jonathan Adler's argument regarding the constitutionality of individual insurance mandates to be persuasive. There appears to be no grounds on which to distinguish health insurance from any other product, so it follows from there that if Congress can mandate the purchase of health insurance they can mandate the purchase of just about anything. That's an absurd result, which argues strongly against such a mandate actually being constitutional.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Education Rates Can't Go Up Forever

(via Daily Kos) The Washington Monthly has a short blurb on a report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) indicating that the rate of educational attainment in the United States has declined. The piece doesn't provide any details and the report itself is behind a paywall, so the entire statement should be taken with a grain of salt.

While its entirely possible that relative rates have declined its also important to consider the absolute education level. People can't go on outstripping their parents indefinitely; the question to ask is not whether people are more educated than their parents, but whether they're appropriately educated. My wife and I both have terminal degrees, but if our children decide that they don't want to go to grad school I hardly think that's cause for alarm.

Oh For The Love Of God, Part II

I feel compelled to point out that it shows an utter lack of self-awareness to complain about people conflating assault and infidelity after having equated rape with the release of dirty photos.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Theory of Justice, Part 3

I've made it through chapter 5 of A Theory of Justice, which deals with the problem of distributive shares and wraps up the discussion of the two principles for institutions. As such it represents the climax of the work; what I've read of chapter 6 so far leads me to believe that the rest of the book will be devoted to filling in the details and dealing with special cases.

Let me start by saying that I have fewer reservations about Rawls' general method now than I did in my previous post. His reliance on considered judgments isn't just convenient intellectual cover for a pre-determined outcome; there's plenty of evidence in chapters 4 and 5 that he's following the principles he's laid out to their logical conclusion. In doing so he comes out in favor of plural voting, comes out against the minimum wage, and flirts with eugenics, all positions which ran counter to common practice at the time the book was written. Nor are they particularly popular positions to espouse, which helps explain why some people seem to really dislike Rawls.

He also manages to reconcile the first and second principles in an interesting fashion, though not necessarily one with which I agree. In my first post I'd asked how he was going to make the second principle meaningful given some (apparently) strong statements about the right to property being one of the liberties protected by the first principle. As it turns out it appears that Rawls rejects a natural right to property; no one is entitled to the fruits of eir labors. This position is consistent with his belief that a person's lot in life is entirely the result of historical contingency. That being the case people are allowed to hold and accumulate private property at the sufferance of the state; the liberty of private property to which Rawls refers is the right not to have your property pilfered by your fellow citizens. On the other hand there appears to be little or no restriction on what the state may do with an individual's property. The only bound that Rawls places on taxation and other wealth transfers is that the cannot be so heavy as to prevent the appropriate rate of savings for the next generation (p. 286), presumably by discouraging productivity in the present generation. He's very clear in his discussion of taxation (p. 277 - 280) that there are two regiemes; one to fund the necessary functions of government and the other to address inequalities in income. It all hangs together very nicely in the end, though as I've noted previously I think that the fundamental premise is incorrect.

One thing that I'm starting to appreciate is that, in addition to this particular treatment of property rights, the edifice which Rawls constructs is greatly influenced by how risk is handled in the initial position. Though he mentions it only in passing, and it doesn't receive an entry in the index, the fact that his hypothetical contractors are incredibly (perhaps event perfectly) risk adverse wags the final solution to a large degree. They want to secure a minimum level of comfort for themselves and their descendants in perpetuity, and that's all they want. They're not interested in a greater upside with an accompanying greater downside.

This strikes me as unrealistic; no one is perfectly risk adverse. Moreover, different life plans entail different levels of risk. While it's true that individuals in the original position have no knowledge of their specific appetites for risk they do have access to the fact that such appetites vary. It strikes me that the logical thing to do in such a situation would be to agree to a set of rules which allow for such varying appetites. But such seems not to be the case; Rawls nowhere suggests that a citizen might forgo some or all of the social safety net in exchange for oh... say... a reduced tax burden or some such.

And this brings me to the point where I think I have a legitimate beef with how Rawls presents his theory. He states numerous times throughout the first 5 sections that the two principles are compatible with a wide variety of ends, but it's pretty clear that he's tailoring the system with a fairly narrow range of ends in mind. You get a hint of this on p. 256 in his discussion of the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness, but he comes right out and says it a little later on:

It is a mistake to believe that a just and good society must wait upon a high material standard of life. What men want is meaningful work in free association with others, these associations regulating their relations to one another within a framework of just basic institutions. To achieve this state of things great wealth is not necessary. In fact, beyond some point it is more likely to be a positive hindrance, a meaningless distraction at best if not a temptation to indulgence and emptiness. (p. 290)

Rawls' ideal society is composed of petite bourgeoisie who take their lunch at the Lions club. Apart from filling me with a sheer æthetic terror it's pretty clear that the two principles which Rawls has proposed permit a much wider range of life plans. For example, I see no reason to believe that a life of monastic contemplation violates either principle, but such a plan runs afoul of the above description.

I think this presupposition on his part explains why, though his theory of justice hangs together well from a purely logical standpoint, in the end the resulting society ends up feeling a little bit alien. He's constructed a cradle-to-grave welfare state which largely shields its citizens from the consequences (both good and bad) of their actions. They are free to pursue their meaningful work, provided its not too grandiose, unhampered by the material concerns that shape contemporary society. Its a seductive utopia, to say the least, but the devil is in the details. I have a hard time believing that such a system could persist as Rawls envisions for a prolonged period of time. It's easy to imagine the society assuming a stable, but totally unintended, configuration which calls to mind nothing so much as The Time Machine.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Musical Interlude

Alternative working title: Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, and Sometimes You Just Scratch Your Head.

I recently had a couple of Amazon gift certificates bestowed upon me, which gave me an opportunity to raid my wish list and pick up a few CDs. The results were mixed; since I've seen little or no press on any of the bands which I purchased I figured I'd toss in my $0.02 for general consumption.

The big win was The Butcher's Ballroom by Diablo Swing Orchestra, an excellent album which I stumbled upon by way of an Amazon recommendation. "Swing orchestra" is an apt description for the group; the initial track on the album, "Balrog Boogie", is a swing tune spiced up with electric guitar and other non-swing elements. I'm admittedly a sucker for this type of thing; I have a soft spot for contemporary re-interpretations of older forms with a little bit of an edge to them.

Such endeavors have a tendency to descend into gimmickry, but DSO manages to avoid that for the most part. They don't limit themselves to swing; other tracks on the album evoke Spanish ballads ("D'angelo"), middle-Eastern string compositions ("Gunpowder Chant"), and classical music ("Velvet Embracer"). All of the tracks on the album are technically well-constructed, stylistically interesting, and show genuine creativity. If I have one minor complaint its that the female vocalist (vocalists?) sing in an operatic style for the entire album, which starts to get a little old after awhile. But apart from that I highly recommend it.

On the other end of the win/lose scale is New Erections by The Locust. I don't recall how this one got on my list; I think I may have heard them on The End. In any case the album is a big, fat bucket of fail; it was genuinely painful to listen to the entire thing from start to finish. Justin Pearson screams his way through the entire thing, completely negating whatever musical virtue it might otherwise exhibit. It's like listening to an amalgamation of the worst aspects of the DeadKennedys and System of a Down. According to their Wikipedia page that's intentional; Mr. Pearson says that he "wanted to change the way people perceive music, or maybe just destroy it in general". Well, let's hear it for success.

And then there are a couple that I haven't quite made up my mind about, Summon by Bloody Panda and All Reflections Drained by Xasthur. Neither have much in common with typical notions of "music", but unlike New Erections both albums are at least listenable even if the effort frequently seems academic.

Summon feels like a cohesive composition that someone has put a modicum of thought into, but its not something that I'd toss in casually at a party. It tends towards sustained electric guitar and organ alternately punctuated by chanting, screaming, and percussion. Not particularly accessible or melodious; definitely an "art" piece, treat accordingly.

All Reflections Drained is so-so; taken one by one there are a number of pieces which aren't bad, but after awhile they all start to sound alike. Maybe it's just the mixing/recording quality; often one instrument will drown out all the others on a particular track. The drums, in particular, sound like they were recorded in someone's garage. Lastly, and perhaps I'm being uncharitable here, the first time I read the track listing it brought to mind nothing so much as this Penny Arcade cartoon.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mike Huckabee Didn't Kill Maurice Clemmons

PZ's sentiment is understandable; all available information makes it look like Huckabee screwed the pooch. But trying to hang the killings of the police officers or Clemmons on him is simply unsupportable. Sure, if Huckabee had acted differently Clemmons might still be in jail, but the same can be said of various other officials that Clemmons encountered between 2000 and now. Why not criticize the judge who most recently granted him bail? Because that judge is a political non-entity and Huckabee is a visible figure that people want to vilify.

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