The Deficit Crisis

The Deficit Crisis

Not just the budget deficit, but that other one: the attention deficit.

Now's when I'm really missing Fred Thompson as a candidate:

[T]his is . . . about more than winning the elections next year. We must win the argument upon which the necessity for spending reductions is based. . . . Economic numbers fluctuate. The principles on which our economic salvation rests do not.

Suppose Republicans win next year because we are “not the other guys.” Then what? Winning is necessary but not sufficient to save our country from fiscal disaster. Two years later the Democrats will still be offering free stuff and the postponement of pain. We can’t win the several subsequent elections that will be necessary to put us on the right path unless we win the war of ideas and develop the ability to explain why restraint and reform are necessary and that fostering a nation of free people, free markets, and the rule of law is not only morally just and right but is the only way to sustainable growth and prosperity.

It's the same problem I posed in the context of wars that require a purpose of more than two years' duration. The people have to have the purpose. We can't count on shifting elected leaders to embody it by themselves.


I am not currently free to discuss this subject, but I would like to hear what the lot of you think about it. Here are some others' thoughts.

STRATFOR: the process of pulling back accelerates and particularly as allied forces increasingly hunker down on larger and more secure outposts, their already limited situational awareness will decline even further, which opens up its own vulnerabilities.

One of these will be the impact on not just situational awareness on the ground but intelligence collection and particularly exploitable relationships with local political factions. As the withdrawal becomes more and more undeniable and ISAF pulls back from key areas, the human relationships that underlie intelligence sharing will be affected and reduced. This is particularly the case in places where the Taliban are strongest, as villagers there return to a strategy of hedging their bets out of necessity and focus on the more enduring power structure, which in many areas will clearly be the Taliban.

(Obama's Afghanistan Plan and the Realities of Withdrawal is republished with permission of STRATFOR.)
The Washington Post:
PRESIDENT OBAMA failed to offer a convincing military or strategic rationale for the troop withdrawals from Afghanistan that he announced Wednesday night. In several ways, they are at odds with the strategy adopted by NATO, which aims to turn over the war to the Afghan army by the end of 2014. For that plan to succeed, military commanders believe that U.S. and allied forces must hold the areas in southern Afghanistan that have been cleared of the Taliban through this summer’s fighting season as well as that of 2012. They also must sweep eastern provinces that have not yet been reached by the counterinsurgency campaign.

By withdrawing 5,000 U.S. troops this summer and another 5,000 by the end of the year, Mr. Obama will make those tasks harder. By setting September 2012 as a deadline for withdrawing all of the 33,000 reinforcements he ordered in late 2009, the president risks undermining not only the war on the ground but also the effort to draw elements of the Taliban into a political settlement; the militants may prefer to wait out a retreating enemy. It also may be harder to gain cooperation from Pakistan, whose willingness to break with the Taliban is linked to its perception of U.S. determination to remain engaged in the region.
Richard Cohen, at least, is very happy:
The American Century just ended. This was the phrase coined by Henry Luce, which so aptly described America as the modern-day colossus, more powerful than any nation had ever been. Wednesday night, President Obama said that power had reached its limit. He was bringing 10,000 troops home from Afghanistan. The war was not finished, but we are.

“America, it is time to focus on nation building at home,” the president said.

There it was, the theme of the speech. We had done what we could in Afghanistan, and there was, of course, more to do. But the purse was empty and the nation was tired -- this is me, not Obama, talking, but he said much the same thing. “We must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute,” Obama said. In other words, we are going to pick our fights more carefully, and when we do, we can use the new weaponry of drones and the units of SEALs and such. No need for massive armies anymore. From the president’s mouth to God’s ear, I would add.
A Historic Moment:

A Turkish admiral sails into Abu Dhabi "for the first time in centuries," says the news; and longer still since one was welcomed!

Just how long? I'm not sure: This might be a starting point for figuring that out.

Singing in the Rain

Singing in the Rain:

A local theater was showing it tonight; I didn't get by, but I regret that I couldn't make the time. It was a favorite of my mother in law's, and a classic of American culture.

The idea of watching it in a historic theater, today, reminds me of a scene in The Professional, in which Leon goes to a similar theater alone. An immigrant alone in New York without good English, he has no human connections; and the scene shows him sitting in the theater by himself, face alight with joy, looking cautiously at the few others in the theater in the hope of seeing that joy reflected. The look is cautious, from that old human fear of intrusion into the business of others: the fear of rejection and exclusion.

The one scene and the other play off each other well. I am sorry that I can't find the right clip online so that I could show them both to you: a scene of transcendent joy, and a scene of very ordinary isolation and fear even in the presence of that joy.

The Spider & the Diving Bell

The Spider & the Diving Bell

This Discover Magazine site's column called "Not Exactly Rocket Science" is one of the best finds I've made in a long time. Check out this piece on a spider that blows an underwater bubble and uses it as a kind of detachable gill organ.

Every week the author lists a couple of dozen links to a variety of articles by others as well, like this link to an amputee who tattooed his remaining shoulder to look like a dolphin, or this one about levees and the illusion of flood control. It's easy to get lost here.

Birds Do It, Bats Do it

Birds Do It, Bats Do It

Do our bodies contain an ancestral but atrophied gift for "seeing" magnetic fields? Birds navigate with the aid of a protein in their retinas called cryptochrome, which is sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field and therefore serves as a built-in compass. And it's not just birds that can do this trick but bats, turtles, ants, mole rats, sharks, rays, and flies. What's more, the molecule that confers the sensitivity is "an ancient protein with versions in all branches of life," including humans. Drosophila flies can be trained by artificial magnetic fields to search for food in a particular direction. Remove the gene responsible for their cryptochrome and they lose the ability -- but it can be restored by giving them human cryptochrome.

Even if human bodies contain a retinal molecule that is sensitive to the angle of the magnetic field, that doesn't mean that humans have (or still have) a sensory and neural apparatus that permits them to translate the molecule's sensitivity into a useful perception. There has been limited, and disputed, research into whether some people have a robust sense of direction that can't be explained by visual cues. The investigation is complicated by the possibility that any magnetic/directional sense we do have is tied to the retina and therefore hard to untangle from ordinary visual clues. Still, the possibility of these mysterious ninja talents always enchants me.

Related: From a link at the same site, an article about echolocation and the "the brain’s extraordinary flexibility and power to squeeze perception out of a range of information streams, some of which are normally non-conscious to us." Some great video there:



The Supreme Court has just ruled that 1.5 million women cannot proceed in the form of a class-action lawsuit against WalMart for employment discrimination. The ruling did not address the merits of whether Wal-Mart has discriminated against women, only whether the proposed class met the standards for certification, which require (among other things) that there be questions of law or fact common to the class, i.e., "commonality." (The justices ruled unanimously on a subsidiary question of class certification, but split 5-4 on the threshold issue of commonality.) The Supreme Court found that the Wal-Mart plaintiffs had failed to identify an alleged practice of discrimination that applied broadly to the entire class of all women hired since 1998.

The alleged harm in this case does not arise from an identifable company-wide policy. It arises from a delegation of subjective salary and promotion decisions to each local manager. The plaintiffs's expert sociologist argued that, notwithstanding the employer's formal corporate-headquarters policy against gender discrimination, Wal-Mart's "corporate culture" made it somehow "vulnerable" to gender bias. From this, the plaintiffs concluded that Wal-Mart had a duty to take effective action to ensure that women did not suffer statistically in terms of access to higher pay and promotions. The sociologist, however, could not go much further than to point to a vulnerability to bias; in particular, he was unwilling to hazard a guess whether there was a 0.5% or a 95% chance of "stereotypical thinking" producing an incorrect result in any particular decision about a raise or promotion. The Court stated:
[Plaintiffs] wish to sue for millions of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding together the alleged reasons for those decisions, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members' claims will produce a common answer to the crucial discrimination question.

Accordingly, although the plaintiffs may proceed with their individual discrimination actions, they will not be permitted to proceed on behalf of all women employed at Wal-Mart -- a setback that will markedly reduce their settlement leverage.

This is a "disparate impact" case. The plaintiffs don't propose to prove that each of millions of employment decisions was activated by gender bias, but only that the percentage of women in Wal-Mart's workforce decreases as you proceed up the ladder of pay and responsibility. Women account for 70% of the hourly jobs in the stores, for instance, but only 33% of management employees. The theory is that local managers improperly exercise their discretion over pay and promotions so as to favor men. The illegal "disparate treatment" of women, therefore, takes the form of Wal-Mart’s refusal to limit its managers’ local authority in order to bring it more into line with the gender-neutral aspirations emanating from headquarters, despite headquarters' obvious awareness of the disparate impact.

The basic theory of their case is that a strong and uniform “corporate culture” permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decisionmaking of each one of Wal-Mart’s thousands of managers—thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.
Rejecting this argument, the Court held:
"[W]hether 0.5 percent or 95 percent of the employment decisions at Wal-Mart might be determined by stereotyped thinking” is the essential question on which respondents’ theory of commonality depends. If [the expert] admittedly has no answer to that question, we can safely disregard what he has to say. It is worlds away from “significant proof” that Wal-Mart “operated under a general policy of discrimination.”

Because I'm naturally sympathetic with women, but just as strongly skeptical of "disparate impact" cases where the actual mechanism of discrimination is hazy, I like to do a thought experiment with this kind of dispute. I've often puzzled, for instance, over the scarcity of conservatives in academia and journalism. Should conservatives be able to bring a class-action lawsuit against the New York Times or Harvard University for disparate impact? (I realize political orientation is not a legally protected class, but just go with me here.) It would be childs' play to establish that many hiring decisions in academia and the press involve subjective discretion, and that the institutions' leaders are vulnerable to stereotypical thinking about the relative merits of the analytical powers of conservatives and liberals. They may not even be fully aware of their own vulnerability. As the dissent noted in today's decision:

The practice of delegating to supervisors large discretion to make personnel decisions, uncontrolled by formal standards, has long been known to have the potential to produce disparate effects. Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. . . . The very nature of discretion is that people will exercise it in various ways. A system of delegated discretion, [according to Supreme Court precedent], is a practice actionable under Title VII when it produces discriminatory outcomes.
The dissent's position may be more in line with Supreme Court precedent on these technical class-action standards; I honestly don't know. I do know that this kind of fuzzy thinking about discrimination is dangerous, particularly when it seeks a remedy for unconscious bias. If the Wal-Mart plaintiffs had prevailed, what could the remedy be, other than a removal of discretion from local managers in favor of some kind of blind quota system designed to ensure that equal numbers of women appeared at each rank of corporation position and salary? How else can you extirpate unconsciously bad behavior? When has that kind of rigid affirmative action improved an institution's performance or avoided backlash against the unfairly favored group?

I'd prefer to see employment discrimination cases limited to cases where the bugaboo is something more specific than "discretion." If the presence of discretion in business decisions is really the worst a plaintiff can complain of, then I have no problem with limiting the case to that particular plaintiff, rather than expanding the lawsuit to cover millions of employees working for hundreds or thousands of different bosses, male and female, in numerous different stores, on the theory that some vague over-arching institutional "vulnerability to error" was operating on them all in the same way.

Who's Integrating?

Who's Integrating?

A remarkable comment from the UK:

Muslims are integrating into British society better than many Christians, according to the head of the Government's equality watchdog.

Trevor Phillips warned that "an old time religion incompatible with modern society" is driving the revival in the Anglican and Catholic Churches and clashing with mainstream views, especially on homosexuality.

Normally the idea with integration is that newcomers integrate into the existing society. This is a queer reversal of the meaning of the word -- the kind of meaning-shift that is the hallmark of a kind of political murder. What is at stake is British society's ability to regulate itself according to its ancient rights and customs.

That's the kind of thing that has provoked regular wars in British history, and rightly so. The ancient customs and rights were won on the field of battle, and must be defended there; for if they are lost, there is only slavery before the state.

Father's Day

Father's Day:

Today is Father's Day. I want to tell you about a man I know, a friend of mine who is a very good father. He is also a Commander in the US Navy Reserves, an officer and a gentleman.

He and his wife have two children who are both special-needs. The bills associated with them, even with the kind of insurance and help that you get as a member of the military, have run to over a million dollars. Though an officer in the US Navy is reasonably well-paid, he is not nearly so well-paid as to have a million dollars in savings. So he signed whatever he had to sign to take care of his kids, and took the debt -- as well as the responsibility for their future care -- onto his shoulders.

He already knows how he will be spending the rest of his life: working hard to try to earn enough to pay off what he owes, so that when he dies the banks can seize and sell off the rest. No matter how hard he works, he will likely never accumulate enough to pay off the debt for his children.

We talk about people walking away from their mortgages -- or their families, or their kids -- in pursuit of personal pleasure or advantage. It's worth remembering just what the cost is for the man who does it right. It is a life of hard work, responsibility, and self-sacrifice, in return for nothing except the smiles of your children and the sense of having done what was right.

I am proud to call this man my friend, but there is a reason we don't see more of him. Our world, with its abundant pleasures, has accepted pleasure as the rule: the unlimited sexualization of our public space has driven all objections to its continual march aside; marriage is to be valued chiefly as a contract between two parties seeking pleasure from it, to be dissolved as soon as it is no longer pleasurable; children are to be welcomed only when they are wanted and without special needs, otherwise tidily aborted. All of this makes it possible to live a very easy life, filled with pleasures, each responsibility shrugged off as soon as it becomes noisome.

The good father does otherwise. His life is harder and filled with far less of this pleasure that rules other lives. What he gets in return is hard to say; but it is clearly true that rational man, economic man, would not make the choice. It is honor -- for honor is sacrifice -- that commands it.

Thus we owe good fathers a very great deal of honor. I doubt most of them get it. A nation that has forgotten how to pay every other kind of debt is likely to forget this one too. Nevertheless, gentlemen, I salute you.