Comet alert

We may get a glimpse of a comet just after sunset for the next few days.  Comet Pan-STARRS came within about 100 million miles of Earth a few days ago and now is going to come within about 45 million miles of the Sun.  That will make it bright, but unfortunately it also means we'll only get a glimpse right after sunset.  It's worth a try tonight, though viewing may be better for the next couple of days after.  We're nearly at dark of the moon; that will not only help with viewing but possibly give us a dramatic contrast in a couple of days, when the new crescent moon will be just above the horizon near the comet right after sunset.

I got a pretty good look at a comet -- was it Hale-Bopp? -- in the mid-90s from the window of a commercial airliner.

Mad Middle Earth

The way to a man's heart . . .

. . . Is through his coffee cup.  Well, not literally a man, but a flying insect vis-à-vis flowers trying to decide what kind of nectar will keep 'em coming back for more.  It seems that citrus nectar has a lot of caffeine in it.  In controlled experiments,"three times as many bees remembered the connection between odor and reward if the reward contained caffeine."

The article says that citrus leaves have toxic levels of caffeine, presumably to ward off insects.  I must say that it doesn't deter leaf-cutter ants.  They go straight for our citrus trees, preferring them over almost every other leaf, and can strip and kill a tree in days.  They've been particularly bad this year.

H/t Rocket Science.

No problem with the California budget

Guest blogger Gregg Stevens at CoyoteBlog reminds most of us why we're not trying to make a living in California, and why Douglas really needs to get working on that exit strategy.  The operator of a camping site near Eureka in extreme Northern California, Stevens found one day that a large fir tree had fallen over into the river, leaving a hole six feet deep and ten feet wide.  Thus began a strange and wonderful journey through familiar bureaucratic mazes he fondly imagined he already had mastered, in pursuit of permission to move the fallen tree (now "salmon habitat") and fill the hole.

It turned out that the tree issue was readily resolved, but the hole was a problem on a Kafkaesque scale.  Stevens sent off a $2,500 application fee and prepared the usual richly illustrated and annotated research paper examining the impact of filling the hole, then waited.  And waited.  In the meantime, he shoveled some of the displaced gravel over some exposed utility lines and put up a temporary fence to prevent campers from falling into the hole.
Then one winter day, more than a year after I had filed the application, I received a certified letter from the Coastal Commission.  They had been surreptitiously monitoring the work we had done, or not done, at the site.  And we were looking at a fine of $30,000 and up to $15,000 per day for doing the work.  Or not doing the work.  The letter was a bit vague on that part.  But one thing was clear.  Whatever it was we had or hadn’t done was wrong and thoroughly illegal.  And we were to be punished severely for it.
But all's well that ends well. No one was driven into bankruptcy this time, the salmon continue their happy lives uninterrupted, and all the wonders of modern technology were brought to bear on a cavity-mitigation project that's not quite visible from space.

The man who killed 40,000 elephants

He loved elephants, but he did it to save the land.  Then he found it made desertification worse instead of better, and devoted the rest of his life to figuring out why.  These are his conclusions and proposed solutions.  He and his team have restored desertified grazing land on several continents by increasing grazing herds instead of decreasing them, with careful rotation and movement.  It sounds a lot like what Joel Salatin does with his moveable fences and frequently moved cattle herds.  It's also a good deal like the restoration of cool oases from hot desert that is described in Gaia's Garden, a favorite permaculture resource in the Texan99 household.

The before-and-after shots are like something out of a dream of Paradise.  These are results he's achieving on poor lands with poor people.

H/t Watts Up with That, who's more excited about this than I've ever seen him.

Taxing today to pay for yesterday

The "Antiplanner" reacts poorly to a San Francisco councilman's proposal to tax email to help the U.S. Postal Service out with its operating deficit.

H/t a comment to an article linked by Rhymes with Cars and Girls, from Free Northerner, about Matthew Yglesias's inability to understand how we might structure a rail system that didn't rely on taxpayer subsidies: "What kind of system could possibly cause people to invest resources in providing valued services to others in an efficient manner solely so they can profit from operating surpluses?"


I'm obsessed with hoaxes lately, and our ability to admit what we don't know.  This is a wonderful art quiz.  Can you tell the masterpiece from the hoax?  I scored a 67%.  This is a similar quiz.  Again I scored a 67%.

Visual arts not your thing?  Try this prose quiz, and distinguish snippets of Faulkner from a bad machine translation of German.  I was more disappointed this time, because I scored only a 75% score, and I thought I could do better than that with an author I like very much.

iCure for cancer

The guy who writes "Rhymes with Cars and Girls" under the pen-name "The Crimson Reach" is a funny man.  Today he wonders whassup with Apple these days:
And of course as everyone knows it’s been like a year and a half (AT LEAST) since Apple has released a revolutionary new product every single year.  That’s a long time.  Is Apple dead?  The answer seems clear.  This is cold hard objective number reasons going on.  It’s not like there was just a Steve Jobs personality cult or something.
His blog banner reads:
Dabbler who knows a little about a lot, and a lot about very little. All lies within The Crimson Reach. 
This blog has been FULLY vetted AND fact-checked. (There were some issues.)

Natural law

From First Things, as I continue thinking about Grim's question about where Heidegger went wrong:
The truth is that we cannot talk intelligibly about natural law if we have not all first agreed upon what nature is and accepted in advance that there really is a necessary bond between what is and what should be.  Nor can that bond be understood in naturalistic terms.  Even if it were clearly demonstrable that for the majority of persons the happiest life is also the most wholesome, and that most of us find spiritual and corporeal contentment by observing a certain “natural” ethical mean—still, the daringly disenchanted moralist might ask: “What do we owe to nature?” 
To his mind, after all, the good may not be contentment or even justice, but the extension of the pathos of the will, as Nietzsche would put it: the poetic labor of the will to power, the overcoming of the limits of the merely human, the justification of the purely fortuitous phenomenon of the world through its transformation into a supreme aesthetic event.  What if he should choose to believe (and are not all values elective values for the secular moralist?) that the most exalted object of the will is the Übermensch, that natural prodigy or fortunate accident that now must become the end to which human culture consciously aspires? 
Denounce him, if you wish, for the perversity of his convictions.  Still, after all hypothetical imperatives have been adduced, and all appeals to the general good have been made, nothing would logically oblige him to alter his ideas.  Only the total spiritual conversion of his vision of reality could truly change his thinking. 
To put the matter very simply, belief in natural law is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good:  one whose dictates cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural. 
There is no logically coherent way to translate that form of cosmic moral vision into the language of modern “practical reason” or of public policy debate in a secular society.  Our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions.  And, in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self, nature’s “laws” must appear to be anything but moral.

German philosophy

In "The Weimar Touch," A.J. Goldmann explores the German influence on American film culture when Jews and others fled Germany starting in 1933.  Ed Driscoll goes further, and posits a broad intellectual American takeover by the Weimar Republic:
[T]o respond to the query by Thomas Friedman last year in the New York Times, ‘Can Greeks Become Germans?’ 
Well, 50 years ago, we did, didn’t we?
He quotes Alan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind":
I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined.  Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world?  The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier. . . .


One of the weakest points in the anthropogenic global warming argument is the heavy reliance on positive feedback assumptions.  CO2 is a weak greenhouse gas, and can be projected to cause rapid, catastrophic warming only if we assume that it will increase water vapor, which is turn is a much stronger greenhouse gas.  The problem is that there is little evidence that the positive feedback mechanism exists, and even some reason to suppose that the feedback may be negative.  New evidence from NASA's water vapor project highlights the uncertainty:
Climate models predict upper atmosphere moistening which triples the greenhouse effect from man-made carbon dioxide emissions.  The new satellite data from the NASA water vapor project shows declining upper atmosphere water vapor during the period 1988 to 2001. . . .  The cooling effect of the water vapor changes on OLR [outgoing longwave radiation] is 16 times greater than the warming effect of CO2 during the 1990 to 2001 period.  Radiosonde data shows that upper atmosphere water vapor declines with warming. . . .  Both satellite data and radiosonde data confirm the absence of any tropical upper atmosphere temperature amplification, contrary to IPCC theory.  Four independent data sets demonstrate that the IPCC theory is wrong.  CO2 does not cause significant global warming.

Unclear on the concept

From the Washington Post, an explanation of the forecasting embarrassment that was Snowquester:
Still, I blame the storm more than I blame the computer models.  The models are pretty good.  It’s Nature that messed this up.
H/t Watts Up with That, which adds the comment: "I hope he escapes from his alternate reality soon, people must be looking for him."


Can you remember when you learned to swim?  I was too young, but I'm sure I wasn't an infant.  I've seen shows demonstrating that babies can learn.  I've never known anyone, thank God, who lost a child to drowning.  It was bad enough that a young school friend lost her dog that way during the family dinner, an experience that's always made me teach young dogs where the steps in the pool were, on those rare occasions when any of my dogs have encountered a pool.

More school bashing

Or is it more Big Apple bashing?  Both, of course, but in another sense not really.  Obviously, this CBS report that 80% of graduates from New York City high schools need remedial classes in the three Rs before they can start on credit courses in community college is an indictment of New York City public schools.  But there are two nuggets embedded in the story that inspire a bit of hope.  One is that the community college system hasn't caved in to what must be considerable pressure to dumb down the entry-level credit courses so that they include material that ought to have been taught in high school.  The other is that the community colleges apparently have a system for quickly teaching the kids what they missed in high school, so we know it can be done.  We just don't know why the high schools can't do it, at least for kids motivated enough to seek additional education after they've finished high school.

The One Horse Town of Nelson, Georgia

Well, not one horse exactly.
The town has one police officer who is on patrol eight hours a day, leaving residents largely to fend for themselves the rest of the time.
I know that area very well. The next "town" over is Ball Ground, which was very close to where I grew up. I guess Ball Ground has a police department too -- I know it does, because I've seen their car parked on the street. Their officers I haven't seen, not in all the years I've passed through there.

Sort of in between the two towns is Two Brothers Barbecue, which gives every sign of being more populous than either of these metropolises of an evening.

It's a lawless, lawless region.

The courage not to know

By "the courage not to know," I'm not referring to anything as obscure as Keats's "negative capability," just the willingness to admit that we have no basis for an opinion when we lack all information.  Take the nice, caring people in this video, who are trying to reach a responsible position on issues of public policy:

H/t House of Eratosthenes.  Or to take another example, Assistant Village Idiot posted a link to this description of Richard Feynman's experience on a California school board textbook committee.  The other committee members took such careful notes of what he said about most of the many books they were to have reviewed that he gradually understood they hadn't actually read most of them.  One set was supposed to contain three volumes, but he received only two.  Committee members kept asking him what his opinion was of the third book, and he kept answering that he hadn't read it and therefore had no opinion.  Many of the other members had rated it.  Then a representative of the publisher joined the meeting and explained that they hadn't been able to make the publishing deadline for the third book, so they'd included a set of blank pages between the usual covers, meaning to include the real book later.  The other reviewers were so determined to have an opinion that they came up with a rating on a book with blank pages.

Only one of the people interviewed in the video above was willing to come right out and say she had no idea what the absurd question meant.

Canterbury Tales

Victor Davis Hanson continues worrying about the future of California:
In medieval California, the elderly and retired sometimes head to the foothills, a poorer man’s coast, where there is less crime and less worry over what California has become.  I never quite fathomed fully why a classical Greece of city-states on the plains became an Ottoman Greece of villages perched on mountain slopes.  I knew, of course, in the abstract that Greeks fled Turks to escape the taxman, conversion to Islam, and the Janissaries, but I can now appreciate that maybe such a sense of impending dread is real in interior California, as valley towns become darker at night from lights that no longer work, and streets that are no longer safe and assumptions that are no longer familiar.  Even the most liberal retired professor seems to head for the hills once his thirty years at CSU are up.


I find this kind of thing completely incomprehensible.  The assumption seems to be that men can't be strong unless woman artificially make themselves weak.  Where does this come from?

Sugar sugar

I thought this was a joke when I found it in my inbox, but apparently it's not.  It's a whole website full of ultra-serious discussions about the fell hand of Big Candy, which wants to drive down sugar prices with cheap imports and deprive Americans of reasonably priced chocolate bars.  (What will Rand Paul use to sustain himself during his next filibuster?)
----- A Message from American Sugar Alliance ----- U.S. sugar policy ensures homegrown supplies, instead of depending on unreliable imports, as we did in 1942 when sugar was rationed. Support food security. Support sugar policy.
We primates do like our sweets. Sugar cane may first have been cultivated in New Guinea.  At some point, people figured out how to crystallize dry sugar out of the cane juice, which produced a concentrated and easily transportable commodity.  Sugar spread west to Persia, then exploded into Europe with the advance of Islam, and later with the return of Crusaders, who brought the curious "sweet salt" home with them.

As Europeans discovered how to grow and process this labor-intensive product in their hot-climate colonies, it spurred some of the earliest large-scale slave-labor economies. In 14th- and 15th-century Europe, crystallized sugar was priced similarly to nutmeg and cloves.  By the 18th century, supplies increased and prices dropped enough to permit sugar consumption to soar.   In the middle of that century, a German chemist discovered beet root as an alternative source, which grew in importance after Napoleon cut off sugar imports from England in 1813.  Sugar production became increasingly mechanized and less dependent on large supplies of cheap labor.

Currently, the U.S. relies more heavily on high-fructose corn syrup for sweetening.   Developed in 1957, HFCS began to swamp the market in the 1980s after import sugar tariffs, imposed in 1977, inspired food processors to seek a cheaper substitute.   U.S. and Canadian sugar prices are at twice the global market level, while corn production is heavily subsidized.

Sidney Mintz wrote a book about the role of sugar in history that is said to rank with other recent epics about saltpotatoes, and corn.  I haven't read Mintz's work, but the other three were great.

History of the world

Reader James of "I Don't Know, But . . ." led me to Dr. Boli's Celebrated Magazine, in which the eponymous scholar publishes incisive summaries of history that are slightly less drunken and irresponsible than "1066 and All That."  Dr. Boli is not a fan of Justinian.  One installment details this fascinating and contradictory Byzantine ruler's reign in the 6th century A.D., while the next turns to the abrupt rise of Islam:
Why did Islam spread so fast? Well, it is always very bad historical practice to assign a single cause to a complex historical event that must of necessity have had many causes. But, in a word, Justinian.
In chapter 15, Charlemagne turns the lights back on.  An eager public awaits the publication of chapter 16, "More Fun with Barbarians," addressing the Vikings, as prefigured by our own Lars Walker in a forward-thinking comment.

Another excellent post from Dr. Boli concerns unusual musical instruments.

Matthew 7:15-16

A question people continue to ask, decades after his death: how can we take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher, given his outright embrace of Nazism? The instinct to ask the question is the one Jesus referenced in the passage whose citation is the title of the post: When judging prophets, you will know the tree by its fruit.

So if that is right, and it seems right instinctively, poison fruit means a bad tree. But many medicines are poisons if taken in the wrong proportion.

I've been reading Heidegger recently, and some commentaries on him. He is said to be a genius, and if he impressed Hannah Arendt he must have been something like one. On the other hand, I get the strong impression that many of his commentators don't understand what he wanted to say -- not, I mean, that I understand things they have failed to understand, but that I get the sense they are flailing a bit. It is fairly clear that we are still not sure exactly what he meant to say, or why he wanted to say it.

That makes it hard to say just where he went wrong. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe says it was in being too tied to the organic: favoring the family and therefore the blood, and therefore 'the race,' against the cosmopolitan. But it is possible to err in the other direction too. We often see that from liberal pundits who want to suggest that the US military ought never to be deployed except when it isn't in our interest (for humanitarian reasons, that is, but never because the US has something to gain). It may be that there is a poison here, but it may also be a medicine if you can get it in the right place, and in the right proportion.

Somehow he failed to do that.

When oil failed to peak

Stanley Kurtz has a three-part article in National Review Online about the movement to divest university funds of their fossil-fuel holdings.  In part one, he introduces us to Bill McKibben, the anti-Keystone XL pipeline activist who advocates leaving 80% of known fossil-fuel reserves underground.  "Since writing off 80 percent of reserves would wreck the oil industry’s profitability, McKibben maintains that only government compulsion can keep all that energy underground — through a steeply escalating carbon tax, for example."  He also notes the discovery by McKibben's ally Naomi Klein "that the reparations movement had dropped its polarizing label and had seized instead upon 'climate debt' as a backdoor way of advancing global wealth redistribution."

Part two traces McKibben's advocacy of controlled economic decline.
McKibben is convinced that averting global warming requires a winding-down of modernity. . . . Th[e] [pre-modern] world of tight families and interdependent neighbors, says McKibben, was far more satisfying than our hyper-individualist, consumer-driven, tech-saturated present. He explains that his attraction to this pre-industrial social model long predated his encounter with the “greenhouse effect” in the Eighties. . . . Living in an increasingly isolating, secular, and materialist universe, McKibben’s young followers seem intent on turning climate apocalypticism into a substitute religion.  That won’t fill the gap. You can run from the economy, but you can’t hide.  And catastrophism alone will not a morality make.
McKibben has pivoted adroitly to address changing beliefs about fuel reserves and climate, from global cooling to global warming, and from peak oil to the need to sequester 80% of supplies that suddenly are burgeoning to dangerous levels:
Just three years after McKibben consigned peak-oil denialism to the dustbin of history, peakism itself looks ready for the broom.  Drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other technologies for tapping so-called unconventional oil have ushered in a new era of fossil-fuel abundance.  And it has all followed the classical economist’s playbook.  As oil scarcity forced prices up, technical innovations once too costly to consider increased supply.  Mistaken end-of-oil predictions have been issued since the dawn of the industrial age.  All have been swept away by technological breakthroughs driven by the law of supply and demand. 
While a few peak-oilers hold out, McKibben himself seems to have surrendered.  Not scarcity but fossil-fuel abundance is our problem, he now says.  His divestment campaign is essentially an attempt to induce peak oil artificially, via political pressure.
Today's final installment examines the level of debate-squelching needed to make all this seem like good sense to the voters now emerging from fine campuses.

The Importance of Training

Well, someone needs some training, anyway.


What does 'extraordinary' mean?.
Yes, the president does have the authority to use military force against American citizens on US soil—but only in "an extraordinary circumstance," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday.
Well, nobody doubted that, if "extraordinary" means "a state of war or insurrection." The examples given in the letter are Pearl Harbor and 9/11, both odd examples since they don't involve US citizens as aggressors. If you'd shot down the planes on 9/11, for example, you'd have killed some US citizens... but it would have been accidental to your purpose. It would have been justifiable under the Just War Doctrine of Double Effect for that reason.

I would have thought an example such as the Whiskey Rebellion or the Civil War would have been more to the point. The question isn't whether there might possibly be circumstances in which a President can use military force on US citizens, but exactly what the defining terms are.


The school where a budding juvenile delinquent chewed his poptart into the shape of a gun and was suspended is now offering counseling for anyone traumatized by the event.  As notes:
To be fair, the phrasing leaves open the possibility that the students would be "troubled" not by the imaginary gun but by the suspension, and by the ensuing realization that they're powerless pawns in a vast, incomprehensible game run by madmen.

Arms manufacturers voting with their feet

Sounds like some sensible states may get a chance to lure jobs away from gun-hating home states.

Price fixing

We're sure it will work this time.

The natural gas industry is experiencing a boom from shale and fracking.  Dow Chemical wants to keep gas prices low so it will have a cheap source of feedstock. "'Unchecked LNG export licensing can cause demand shocks, and the resulting price volatility can have substantial adverse impacts on U.S. manufacturing and competitiveness,' Mr. Liveris [of Dow] said in prepared testimony" before a Senate committee.  Translation:  If gas producers can sell overseas, the increased demand will raise prices, and I deserve to have them held artificially low.

It's encouraging to see that J. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat with 24 years of experience on the U.S. Senate Energy Committee, completely grasps the principles of supply, demand, and pricing:
The free market might not always lead to everyone's definition of the sweet spot, but experience has shown that it is a better allocator and regulator than bureaucrats and politicians.  We should heed the admonition of Adam Smith that demand begets supply:  Allow the free market to allocate the nation's newfound energy bounty.
Unfortunately, he's been out of office since 1997.  The current batch of idiots will try anything to destroy the newly booming energy market, whether it's lunatic EPA regulations, price-fixing schemes, or squelching of pipelines.  Thank Heaven for the House.  For now.

Spring is Coming

Aye, and so are the rakes.

St. Patrick's Day is close, now. It's worth getting a song in your heart.

Now here's another song, perhaps appropriate given the recent push for gun control and the general utilitarian desire to control us for our own good.

Well, the Irish aren't the only ones who have their hearts in the right place.

Past Things Are Never Probable...

...nor improbable. Not, at least, if you are English.
The idea that you can assign probabilities to events that have already occurred, but where we are ignorant of the result, forms the basis for the Bayesian view of probability. Put very broadly, the 'classical' view of probability is in terms of genuine unpredictability about future events, popularly known as 'chance' or 'aleatory uncertainty'. The Bayesian interpretation allows probability also to be used to express our uncertainty due to our ignorance, known as 'epistemic uncertainty', and popularly expressed as betting odds. Of course there are all gradations, from pure chance (think radioactive decay) to processes assumed to be pure chance (lottery draws), to future events whose odds depend on a mixture of genuine unpredictability and ignorance of the facts (whether Oscar Pistorius will be convicted of murder), to pure epistemic uncertainty (whether Oscar Pistorius knowingly shot his girlfriend).

The judges went on to say:
The chances of something happening in the future may be expressed in terms of percentage. Epidemiological evidence may enable doctors to say that on average smokers increase their risk of lung cancer by X%. But you cannot properly say that there is a 25 per cent chance that something has happened. Either it has or it has not.
Well, yes, that seems to be right. It's true that Bayesian probability allows you to assign probability to past events, but it is characteristic of the Bayesian approach that a probability that reaches 1 or 0 never changes thereafter.

What does it mean to say that there was a chance of a past event going otherwise? It means saying that the past is not ruled by physics, at least not as we generally understand physics. The house burned down for physical reasons that ought to be reliable: the heat plus the fuel plus the air. Given that, and a response from the fire department slower than Y, and the house should burn.

I think the judges got this one right. Taking an alternative view requires some philosophical sophistication that is incompatible with democracy. But even given that sophistication, it seems wrong to me.

If a tree falls in the forest

This story about a Florida Supreme Court decision upholding a drug arrest on the basis of a dog alert when no narcotics could be detected by humans reminds us of the dangers of outsourcing intelligent judgment to experts.  Apparently the science of dog detection is settled.

First Confession

So today I made my first confession to a priest, as opposed to a kind of general confession to other people -- as I sometimes have confessed to you. It was a remarkable experience. I'm not sure what I expected it to be. What it was instead was a remarkable lightening, a genuine release of weight. I can't quite explain it, but perhaps some of you know what I mean. My sins have been grave, and greatly regretted; and to be absolved of them turns out to be moving in ways I did not expect.

I mention this in case any of you have been thinking about it. I wouldn't have thought that it would make any difference, but it turns out that it matters a lot.

Here it comes again!

Periodically a certain contingent in Washington re-discovers the problem that some Americans seem unwilling or unable to save up enough money during their working lives to provide for a secure retirement.  What to do?  According to Employment Benefit News,
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to introduce legislation this year to require businesses that don’t offer a pension or 401(k) plan with a company match to automatically enroll workers in a so-called USA Retirement Fund. . . . “The dream of a secure retirement is getting fainter and fainter,” Harkin said Feb. 12 in a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “Savings rates are low and there’s no simple way for people to convert their savings into a stream of retirement income they can’t outlive.”
Wait.  Don't we already have a mandatory USA Retirement Fund?  I know conservatives say it's flat busted, but it's an article of faith among progressives that conservatives are spouting defeatist nonsense:  the Social Security system is fine.

Granted that it's a public policy problem if too many Americans lack retirement funds, is the solution really to keep enacting mandatory government retirement funds, spend the money on something else, discover with shock that people don't have adequate retirement funds, and enact new mandatory government retirement funds?

Against Feminism and the Modern World

Last week Cassandra posted an article praising Ace of Spades for his embrace of the label "feminist." There follows at Cassandra's place a long discussion, involving several of you, which seems to take as read the idea that some form of feminism is compatible with conservatism, and indeed a necessary condition for a just society. I'm disinclined to agree with either proposition.

That is not to say that I think that a just society ought to treat women badly: that would be nonsense. I hope that my respect for all of you, and the women you know I value in my private life, will convince you to take this criticism of feminism as a criticism of a bad strain of ideas, and not an attack on women as a whole. (See "Feminism as Analog to Christianity," below.) I simply believe that the feminist movement is not the way to a just society, neither for women nor anyone else, because it is rooted on some principles that are incompatible with right principles of justice, with our ideas about the market, and with our ideas about the role of the state. The problem is that conservative thinkers are apparently unable to deploy a criticism of the movement that does not seem to be a criticism of women, which has severely damaged them. Yet conceding the ideas means losing the overall debate about the structure of a just society.

Some of the conservative problems may arise because many conservatives don't really like women, but I do. Furthermore, you will find that I am criticizing not just feminism but the entire modern political project.

I recently told Tex that you should always ask a "conservative" what he means to conserve, and a "progressive" what he takes for progress. In my first two sections, I will explain some general principles that I think need to be conserved at all costs. In the later sections, we will talk about feminism more precisely.

I. Just What Is Meant By Equality?

The proposition that Ace offered is based on what he thinks "low-information females" take feminism to be:
1. Women are equal to men; and
2. Women's values and beliefs are just as important as men's; and
3. Women have, or ought to have, ambitions equal to men.

Now, it seems to me likely that a great number of low-information female voters probably believe that's about the extent of what "feminism" is, and that anyone calling himself, or herself, a "non-feminist" is against such things. Which of course we're not; virtually nobody is.
Now recently we have had several relevant discussions about the difficulty of defining terms. One of the terms that we really need to define in order to have this debate is "equality." This isn't just about feminism: Hannah Arendt, the late-20th century philosopher, raised the point more explicitly about what it meant to be Jewish in Europe.
Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. Though more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus all the more unequal do individuals and groups become. This perplexing consequence came fully to light as soon as equality was no longer seen in terms of an omnipotent being like God or an unavoidable common destiny like death. Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any guage by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is ‘normal’ if he is like everybody else and ‘abnormal’ if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from a political into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.”

(Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism.)
Now what Arendt is saying here is difficult to get at first pass. She starts off by saying that "equality of condition" is "a basic requirement for justice." But what does she mean by "equality of condition"? It isn't that conditions be equal for everyone -- that's just what she says isn't achievable, and gives rise to dangerous trends (such as thinking the poor to be inferior, or the rich to be sneak-thieves). What she means by it is a very limited form of political equality, without any regard at all for what people do with it, or how they end up: "otherwise unequal people have equal rights."

Yet we still have some definitions to make, because we need to ask what it means to "have equal rights." What is a right? (These are little questions, small matters, aren't they? What is 'equality'? What are 'rights'? But on these little things the whole world turns.) Now there are several answers to that question that people have proposed, some of which are better than others. My own (which I take to be Jefferson's, but also Robert the Bruce's, and the idea behind Magna Carta) is that rights are pre-political conditions for the formation of a polity: that is, they are the things that a group of people agreed to as conditions for accepting a government, the defense of which is the purpose of the government, and the abrogation of which makes the government illegitimate and fit for overthrow. But that is not the only answer we could give.

Another discussion we have had recently concerns Rousseau's project. Now Rousseau was a very bad man, as he himself was first to admit. He clearly despised himself, and in part because he knew he didn't live up to his own ideas. His ideas, though, have been very persuasive to many people, and form the root of a very broad current of modern thought. In part this is because he did a very wise thing, and expressed his ideas not in the form of an argument -- not as I am doing here! Arguments like this are a waste of everyone's time -- but in a novel. The novel is called Emile, or On Education, and it is one of the most influential books ever written.

Rousseau makes the argument that our rights arise from what it takes to perfect a human being. Now this has roots in an older, better idea: the idea of Aristotle and Ibn Rushd and St. Thomas Aquinas that there are certain natural rights, which is to say that our natures makes certain things necessary, and therefore we must find a way to have those things. Such things include food and shelter, but also sex of a procreative nature (because we must, as a species, produce the next generation) and a social structure stable enough to raise children (because children must be educated in order to assume their roles in society). That last aspect is Rousseau's staring point: what would it take not merely to raise a child to assume a role in society, but to raise a human being to be morally perfect? Whatever that is, since the end is so high -- the moral perfection of the individual -- it must be a kind of natural right. If you deny them any aspect of it, you and not they are responsible for their failure to achieve this perfection.

There are three things that make this a deadly idea. The first is that it is beautiful. The idea that humans are basically good, and that if only we raise them right they will grow up to be wonderful and perfect creatures, is the hope of every parent. It is also entirely untrue. Many evils are bred in the bone. Many children raised right turn out to be wicked. Some of them do terrible things that their parents never taught them to do. Nevertheless, this is what we wish were true. It is what we hope for our child. It is something we already try to achieve. And thus, it was persuasive.

The second is that it puts the emphasis on perfection. Now all things are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Even if perfection were in fact achievable (which it is not), and if it were merely a question of providing enough resources to the child in the right ways at the right times (which it is not), perfection requires a level of expense that no society can ever meet. The child needs shelter -- but not a shack! The child needs education -- and the very best sort. The child needs health care -- complete and thorough. The child needs... well, whatever it takes to ensure that the child is denied nothing that might stand between that child and perfection. And it has a right to these things, you see, because if we deny them to the child we are taking on any sins it may someday create. We are responsible, because we selfishly denied the resources the child needed to actualize his or her own moral perfection.

The third thing, then, is that the idea puts the responsibility for immorality on everyone except the actor. This surely sounds familiar, and well it should. In fact you see several of our greatest problems as a society rising from this source: the idea of "positive rights," that is, that you have a "right" to be given things at someone else's expense; and the idea that you aren't really responsible for the things you do wrong. These are attractive ideas for many people (perhaps especially for Rousseau! For he was a very bad man, as he himself knew).

So let us return to the original question. What does it mean to have equality, or "equality of condition"? Well it could mean that the rights that the government was structured to protect are extended to you as to everyone else. "Equality of condition" does not mean material condition, and it certainly does not mean that you are as good or as wise or as fat as everyone else. It means no more, on Arendt's terms, than that the government structured to protect freedom of religion and ensure a trial by jury protects your freedom of religion and ensures you get a trial by jury. That is the medieval view, out of which grew Jefferson's view, and mine.

But there is room to go all the way up: "equal rights" could mean that we defend a material right to whatever you need to achieve your own moral perfection, a perfection for which you are not responsible, and whose absence indicates chiefly that you need more material resources to be directed to you (from, necessarily, someone else).

So it will not do to endorse "equality" in a "low-information" way. You have to fight, and you have to fight every time, over the precise meaning of these terms. You have to make sure people understand what is at stake. Getting it wrong here means losing the whole argument, and indeed the whole society.

So one thing I wish to conserve is the idea of what it means to have rights, and a notion of equality that is limited to having equal rights on these terms. That is the first general principle.

II. Against Universality

Another problem with "equality" as a standard is that it implies that everyone should be subject to all and only the same rules. This is very basic to the modern political project. Kant thought that the moral law was self-legislated, but purely rational; and therefore, as reason is the same for all people, it would turn out to be the same not only for any human being, but for any rational agent of any kind. Hegel thought that universality was a basic necessity for any rule to be just. This is a terrible mistake.

Equality can rightly only mean equality of rights, where rights are viewed in the particular way described above. It cannot mean equality of anything else. One thing it cannot mean, for example, is equality of duties. A parent has responsibilities that are unique to that role. They took them on freely (with the obvious exception of pregnancy by rape, which we can break out as a special instance deserving a separate discussion). They are bound by these duties for two reasons: because they chose them, and because they have an obligation to their blood. Someone cared for them as an infant, or else they would not be here to choose and act themselves. It would be immoral to refuse to do for your child what was done for you: that minimum, at least, is owed as a debt from grandparent to parent to child.

This is a general principle that we have lost sight of as a society. Aristotle said that justice means treating relevantly similar cases similarly. Note how different that principle is from the "equality!" that we hear in our own time. First of all, there is the discussion of what is relevant. Take any two individuals and any problem, and ask how the cases are relevantly different. You will come up with a very long list! The only relevant similarity may be the problem (which, by hypothesis, we assumed to be the same -- in actual fact there will be differences in the problem, too).

So what does this principle of justice require? First, that the cases be handled "similarly" rather than "exactly the same way." If a true universal was in play, we would expect exactitude: "For all x, if x then y." But that is not what Aristotle is suggesting. What he is suggesting is that the cases be handled in a way that is not entirely out of proportion, not that they should be done in exactly the same way regardless of circumstance.

And circumstance is the second condition. If "relevantly similar" is a basic condition for justice, then a refusal to consider relevant differences means that you are insisting on injustice.

There are a huge number of relevant differences in any two people. Justice cannot therefore be a set of rules. It must involve practical wisdom, applied to each case as the unique problem that it represents. There can be no universals in justice. What we are looking for is similarities and differences, and each of these need to be taken seriously in order to come to a just result.

The problem with universals is that they destroy this human, and humane, capacity to talk about people as the individual people that they are. They reduce you to a mathematical figure, an x that goes with a y. That application of cold logic to human beings and human institutions lies behind the destruction of so much that we hold dear. Some of you may be following along in this lecture series on Hegel that I suggested to Cassandra. If you aren't, do no more than listen to the episode from Valentine's Day (that is episode 12, from 02-14). You will recognize that Hegel's mode of thought, as presented by this very modern and insightful professor, underlie the destruction of marriage and the family in our society. It is this very modern approach to thinking about these human institutions that is destroying them. The argument is logical, and it is universal, and it is deadly. Human beings require more practical wisdom -- what Aristotle and the Greeks called phronesis, the application of wisdom to particular facts in order to achieve justice.

So another thing I wish to conserve is phronesis. That is my second general principle.

III. On Markets and Freedom

With those general principles in mind, let's talk about something that is really modern: economics. Markets are old, but economics in a real sense did not exist before Adam Smith. Much of what we call the conservative movement is built around a love of these economic ideas, which have produced a prosperity unheard-of in human history. Though I have offered criticisms of existing economic theory elsewhere, which I trust you will keep in mind, here that is not my purpose.

Rather, I want to talk about freedom as it arises from and relates to markets. Now one reason to love markets is that they are exercises of freedom. It is possible both to overstate and to understate this principle. If you want to overstate it, you will ignore the fact that we are usually engaged in the market out of necessity: we have to eat, we have to pay our rent, we have to buy the things we need to survive. Thus, you can criticize the market as an institution of freedom because participation in it is not a fully free choice. It is forced upon you by your nature that you must find a way to be useful to others in order to survive.

But it is also possible to understate the freedom that the market makes possible -- indeed, I just did it. By focusing too much on the fact that you must participate in the market, you lose sight of the wonderful things that the market makes possible. For one thing, you can buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle. These would not exist if it were not for markets. The freedom of the roads is a function of the market that made the Harley possible, and which also created the wealth that was used to make the roads on which a Harley can glide. If you can find a way to make yourself useful enough to your fellow man, you will become free in ways that no human being ever was in decades before. Meanwhile, people striving to make themselves useful produce new forms of music and art, food and drink, clothing and thought, so that the array of choices is ever improving.

Now all of this is based on free choice. If you are willing and able to pay the price, you may transact for anything you wish. Nor is the price fixed: you can offer a different price, and if the seller is willing, transact a bargain.

So one of the criticisms I want to deploy against feminism is a market-based criticism. Ace's formula can't be adopted without debate, but the alternative formula being offered has a more cleanly-defined standard for equality and for freedom. Equality is economic equality (equal pay for equal work given equal years of experience -- about which 'equality' we will say more directly): freedom is freedom to leave the market.

Now that is a nice freedom! We just said that participation was necessary arising from our natural needs -- so in order to have that freedom, you have to arrange to be taken-care-of by someone else. Now that is an economic transaction, viewed in a certain way: you are providing some service (say, the raising of children and the keeping of house) to some other party who will provide for your economic needs in return.

On this reading, what is really being sought is not the freedom to leave the market. It is, rather, a demand that a certain kind of transaction should be treated as respectable. A kind of feminism would criticize this: it would say the woman is being 'kept,' or something similar, and that this must needs be a despicable condition to which no woman ought subject herself. Another kind would endorse it, as respect for the free choice of the woman ought to be at the basis of respect for women in general.

But it should be clear that neither is the correct reading. What is happening here is not chiefly or properly an economic transaction at all. It is the taking-on of an unequal duty: the very one I suggested before as an example, the duty of parenthood. This has nothing to do with economics, which again did not exist before Adam Smith. It has priority. The respect due to the parent is not anything like 'do not show disrespect for an economic choice that I am free to make,' but rather the positive and genuine respect due to someone who is doing their duty. This is the moral sphere, not the economic sphere. Of course it ought to be treated with respect, and the very highest respect. It is not merely an exercise of freedom, but the fulfillment of duty.

Now, there is a reply to this, which is to say that nothing escapes the laws of economics. What right do you have to take on a duty that you cannot support? If you cannot support a child -- either through your own economic activity, or through a blood alliance with someone who both can and will -- how dare you have one? On the other hand, from this perspective, if you can and will ensure that the means are there to support the child, how dare anyone question your free choice?

A lack of questioning your free choice is not adequate, though: a greater respect is due to the doer of duty than that. We have to recognize the overlapping but independent spheres in order to see the behavior in its proper moral light. It is right, on market terms, insofar as the economics have been worked out so that the child can be supported by the parents. But it is right, on moral terms, in a far stronger way. It is the answering of duty, and duty is among the highest calls that we know.

That is the answer to the question of "the freedom to leave the market," but what about the demand for economic equality? That also raises interesting problems.

Take a person who wishes to buy not a Harley but a Yamaha motorcycle. There are reasons to do this: for one thing, Yamahas are at least as well-made, possibly better-made in some cases, and yet they are cheaper due to the popularity of the Harley brand. But let us say you are motivated simply by patriotism. You're an American, and you want to own an American-made bike. Is there anything wrong with that? Possible answers are yes and no.

If the answer is yes, it is because we are once again overlapping the moral and the economic spheres. You may say that patriotism is not a worthy value: that patriotism is really just another name for nationalism, the destroyer of worlds. Or you may say that patriotism is fine, but not American patriotism, because remember Dresden and Hiroshima and slavery and the murder of the Native Americans.

But if the answer is no, we are defending the principle of free choice. It is none of my business why the guy bought the one bike or the other: the money was his, and his reasons are his, and he can do whatever he likes. This freedom is something that many conservatives, and all libertarians, want to conserve.

Yet now look at the question if we ask about what a worker is worth. Take two workers, A and B. An employer is willing to pay A $20 an hour for A's labor, but only $15 an hour for B. Assume (A,B) have spent the same number of years in similar jobs, and have roughly similar outcomes in sales or whatever other means of performance are relevant. One of (A,B) is male, and one female. Is this transaction right or wrong?

Under the feminist critique, it is wrong if B is the female (especially if the employer is male, but even if it is a female, and especially if the reason is that the employer prefers to have male employees). It is less problematic if B is male. But the real problem is, to what degree is it any of our business?

What justifies us in telling the employer that he or she must employ A and B at the same rate? It isn't economic theory. The economic theory of value is that the value of something is nothing other than what the buyer and seller agree upon. If the employer offers B $15/hour, and B accepts, that's B's market value. It's not fair or unfair, it is settled by the only standard economics has to offer.

So we must be looking into the moral sphere, which is the sphere of rights and duties. Is there a duty to pay A and B the same rate? Where would such a duty be located? (Remember, one of A and B is female and one male, but it's not determined which one.)

One place we might locate such a duty is in their dignity as human beings. But if we introduce human dignity to the market, we've got a whole set of problems with the marketplace. The marketplace is about exchanges of valuable things, in which I offer you a good or a service that is worth something to you. What is my dignity worth to you? If the answer is "nothing," you're not usually obligated to pay. (If the answer is more than nothing, let me know and I'll help you set up recurring payments at whatever rate you think my dignity is worth.)

In other words, what we've come to view as "equality" here is not the equality of rights from the first section. It has something important to do with equality of outcomes. But we have no basis for this: there's nothing in our moral or philosophical standards that justifies favoring equality of outcomes in the market. Furthermore, there is nothing in our general principle on equality that justifies it, because that principle has nothing to do with unequal outcomes. It has only to do with ensuring equal rights.

Elise wrote in the debate at Cassandra's place that "I think when I get around to starting the New Federalist Party, my slogan in going to be, 'Almost everything is none of my business.'" But here is one thing that we normally would take to be none of our business, which we are making explicitly 'our business.' It is unclear just why we are doing so in this market-related matter, because doing so is a violation of our usual principles as pertain to the market.

IV. Strains of Feminism

In addition to the market critique, there is a problem that arises from feminism's internal divisions. Tex was talking recently about how she is reading a lot of discussions about the sad state, or crumbling, of feminism. Surely we have all been reading long enough to know that this seems to be the perpetual state of the movement. The apparent crumbling does not represent an actual crumbling. What is at stake is that the movement is genuinely diverse, and its internal tensions are real (indeed they are healthy).

The acceptance of a "low-information" version of feminism as a label for yourself, though, doesn't solve anything. There are strains of feminism that really deserve a wholehearted rejection. I'm sure all of you can name a few, but I want to talk about one in particular. This is the Marxist-influenced feminism, which has taken an interesting idea and used it in a particularly bad way.

You're familiar with the word "deconstruction," which characterizes so much post-modern thought. The idea originates with another French philosopher, Derrida, and the concept works like this: wherever you find a hierarchy, or an ordering of one thing as better than or more-important-than another, you should reverse the hierarchy and see what happens.

As a way of critiquing our received standards and beliefs, it's an interesting approach. Sometimes it reveals genuine insights, although one must always be careful to be sure that one understands why the hierarchy was built in the first place. This is like Chesterton's example of the fence in the middle of town -- you can't take it down until you can explain why our ancestors thought it was important to build it: it didn't happen by accident, and we need to know the reason in order to evaluate whether we still need it or not. If you do know, though, you can evaluate the reason perhaps better in light of the mental experiment of what it might be like if things were otherwise.

The Marxists took the thought experiment for a practical program. Marxism is built on the idea of revolution. Overturning hierarchies is thus its real business. The idea that you ought to overturn hierarchies mentally is appealing to them, but only as a first step toward overturning them practically. But overturning practical structures, which have proven their worth over centuries, is a practice that should be undertaken only carefully and on Chesterton's standard: it should not be the reflexive position.

I know a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Women's Studies who has decided to write her dissertation against "dualism." Now she doesn't mean what you or I mean by the word, which is that there might be an immaterial soul or a mind in addition to the material body and brain.
She means that any sort of thought that divides things and orders them is wrong. If you divide things into male/female, good/bad/, right/wrong, up/down, you're engaged in the kind of thinking that gives rise to oppression because you think your hierarchy justifies boosting the one and suppressing the other. But of course she is doing the same thing: by saying this is wrong, she is dividing it from what is right. She is led by the logic of Derrida's ideas, and Rousseau's, to an impossible place. If you accept the "low-information" version of the movement, in the eyes of the "low-information" voters you are endorsing the whole structure. But the structure is leaning dangerously.

I am only sketching this argument, but the point is this: at least most, and possibly all, of this movement is based on untenable currents in philosophy that deserve to be rejected outright. Because the movement is wrapped up with the dignity of women, however, women feel inclined to defend it. What we need is another way to defend the dignity of women, one that does not stand on bad philosophy.

V. Feminism as an analogue to Christianity

The real root of this embrace of "feminism" by conservatives thus is not conservative principle, but seems to be something like patriotism among women for women. That's not bad -- no more than patriotism generally -- and I don't mean to criticize it. I cannot be guilty of patriotism toward women, but I can certainly be an ally of their nation.

Consider what Cassandra says here:
The horrified objections of many male conservatives, who nearly fell over themselves trying to convince Governor Palin that she reeeeeally didn't know what she was talking about (or that she should accept their definitions), managed to irritate even women like myself who don't particularly identify with feminists/feminism except in the vague general sense Ace describes.
That's the problem we're facing here. On the one hand, feminism has a lot to criticize. On the other hand, it sounds to women like men are criticizing women, and that naturally provokes a defense.

I want to raise an analogy to Christianity, which is even more all-embracing than feminism. (In theory, it is all-embracing, even for non-Christians.) Christians seem to be pretty good at criticizing themselves internally, but they tend to reject criticisms of "Christianity" as a whole that come from outside. Almost no Christians have a problem rejecting Fred Phelps' so-called church, but if someone tried to paint the whole of the faith as defined by Phelps' nonsense, that outsider would receive a well-deserved rebuttal.

The problem we all face, though, is that we do need to find a way to field the criticisms of feminism as a whole. This ought not to be, and if done properly should not be seen to be, a criticism of women. Women like Tex's mother are outstanding, deserving celebration whether or not we want to apply a given label to them. (Do we know if it is a label she chose for herself?) There needs to be a principled criticism available to us.

If we can't do that, we're in trouble. Maybe it's possible to criticize the movement from within it, but I doubt it. I am inclined to criticize the movement from very far outside it: for my problem isn't with the internal structures of the movement so much as with its foundations. It is the whole modernist project that has gone wrong, with its embrace of universality and French philosophy. In rejecting that, I'm rejecting not just the roots and branches of feminism, but the darkened earth from which it grew.

That kind of wholehearted rejection must be done from outside. So I cannot join Ace, or anyone else, in thinking of myself as a feminist. In love and respect for women, however, I declare myself devoted. I gladly accept the duties that follow from that declaration. I see no reason why it should not be possible to fulfill those duties and live out that love without embracing the label or what it represents.


I've just finished another terrific book, "The Checklist Manifesto," by Atul Gawande, the surgeon whose book "Complications" I was admiring here several weeks ago.  The book's focus is the usefulness of brief, efficient checklists modeled on those used by aircraft pilots, but a couple of mildly off-point anecdotes caught my eye.

First, Gawande describes the disparate organizational approaches to the Katrina crisis in New Orleans. He concludes that organizations are prone to break down in a crisis unless their management cedes control to the most far-flung workers.  Rigid federal and state authorities froze up, as did many local authorities, but police and firefighters accepted and coordinated the help of hundreds of small boat owners to conduct unorthodox rescues of tens of thousands of residents.  Many private businesses flailed in the complex aftermath of the disastrous storm, but WalMart shone.  Its CEO announced:
This company will respond to the level of this disaster.  A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level.  Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.
Wal-Mart had to close 126 stores; 20,000 employees and family members were displaced.  But within 48 hours, more than half of the stores were open again and able to consider, "Oh, my God, what can we do to help these people?"  On their own authority, managers began distributing diapers, water, baby formula, and ice to storm victims.  They improvised crude paper-slip credit systems for first responders at a time when FEMA was still paralyzed.  One assistant manager went through her badly damaged store with a bulldozer, salvaging what she could and giving it away in the parking lot.  She also broke into the store's pharmacy in response to a local hospital's call for help.  Senior Wal-Mart officials, rather than micromanaging or second-guessing these efforts, concentrated on coordinating with line employees and state agencies to meet needs as they arose.  What has this got to do with checklists?  I'm not sure.  Gawande is struggling toward an approach to unpredictable complexity that avoids stultifying central control without accepting anarchy as its alternative.  He approves of "a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation -- expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals."  He thinks this approach can be codified into simple checklists.

The second anecdote concerned a CDC worker in Karachi who tried an inexpensive, low-tech solution to infectious disease outbreaks.  Procter + Gamble wanted to prove the value of a new antibacterial soap.  The CDC worker got a grant to study three groups:  one supplied with ordinary P+G soap, one with the new antibacterial soap, and one left to its own devices for soap.  Test subjects were encouraged to use the soap in six specific situations, such as just before feeding an infant.  After a year, various infectious diseases dropped by between 35% and 52% in both groups using the P+G soap.  The study was a failure in P+G's eyes, because the new antibacterial soap conferred no noticeable advantage, but it showed the CDC how a simple routine could combat persistent public health problems.  The soap, Gawande says, was a "behavior-change delivery vehicle."  It came with instructions for its use in six separate situations.  The households already were using soap at the rate of two bars per week on average, but the study apparently caused them to use it more systematically and, because it was pleasant-smelling and well-lathering, more enthusiastically.  "Global multinational corporations," as the CDC worker noted, "are really focused on having a good consumer experience, which sometimes public health people are not."  What's more, the people enjoyed receiving the soap:  "The public health field-workers were bringing them a gift rather than wagging a finger."

Getting back somewhat more convincingly to the "checklist" theme, Gawande interviewed a successful investor who put his colleagues into six categories according to how they evaluated the entrepreneurs who were seeking their venture capital.  "Art Critics" assess entrepreneurs at a glance on the basis of intuition and long experience.  "Sponges" gather information exhaustively, then go with their gut.  "Prosecutors" challenge entrepreneurs with hard questions about how they would handle hypothetical situations.  "Suitors" woo entrepreneurs rather than evaluate them.  "Terminators" make a superficial initial choice and plan to fire and replace incompetents ruthlessly later.  Finally, "Airline Captains" take a methodical, checklist-driven approach, consciously overriding their intuition.  Gawande reports that the final category outperformed the rest dramatically, though they made up a small minority of the whole, which was dominated by Art Critics and Sponges.  Why were the Air Captains so rare?  Gawande muses that something in us makes checklists seem like buzzkills, like an abandonment of romantic ideals of competence.  When his own experimental surgical checklist project for the World Health Organization showed impressive gains in reducing complications from infection and errors, he nevertheless felt a personal reluctance to implement them for his own surgical team:  "[I]f I told the truth -- did I think the checklist would make much of a difference in my cases?  No.  In my cases?  Please."  It did, though, and it strengthened his conviction that modern humans are engaging in complex cooperative tasks that require a new approach to discipline and focus than comes naturally to us.