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    A Doll’s House

    Posted by Sean at 22:50, June 14th, 2010

    You might have thought that the current economic climate would reorient people toward practicality: a job that satisfies you is still a goal worth pursuing, but the highest priority is earning your way in life and remembering that there’s dignity in all honest labor, even if the work you’re doing at the moment would have not have been your first choice.

    But no. The Saturday Night Fever-era blather that you’re perfectly justified in throwing a fit if your work turns out not to be a Fulfilling Personal Journey and an opportunity for the Real You to blossom is apparently more current than ever, and often in the damnedest contexts.

    Those, like Ann Althouse, who have posted about this column by Sally Quinn—executed with a ’70s-throwback accuracy so flawless as to inspire awe—have understandably focused on the points it raises about marriage. Here’s another part that brought me up short, though:

    Al and Tipper were a team, in it together and in it to win, all the way to the White House.

    Her role as wife of the Congressman, the Senator, the Vice President and the presidential candidate was all-consuming. Then, just as she was about to become First Lady, a role that would give her the clout to make a difference, the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. Al won the election but lost the presidency [I still thank the elements for that, like, weekly, BTW—SRK], a devastating turn of events that sent him into a deep depression.

    Imagine what that must have been like for Tipper. Her entire life had been tied to his career. Suddenly, it was all gone. “Poor Al,” everyone thought. “Is Al OK? How’s Al taking it?” What about Tipper? Not only did she lose her career, but she lost her husband, too, at least emotionally.

    After he came out of his depression, Al’s new career as Nobel Prize-winning environmental activist kept him traveling the globe. His new interests were not hers. Tipper had been the good wife for 40 years. Now it is time for her.

    Indeed? Quinn really wants to argue, in an economy in which millions of people have seen the livelihoods cut out from under them, that we should be feeling sorry for Tipper and Al Gore because not scoring the presidency got them down?

    I mean, just how depressing can it be to be Al Gore? You wander into the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, flunk more than half your classes, and later wander in and out of Vandy Law School without taking a degree, and it’s all sort of okay, because you can just go into the family business. And once there, you rise and rise and rise until it seems inevitable that you and the wife will be in an official position to lord it over your 350 million fellow Americans for at least four years. When it doesn’t happen, I have no doubt it sucks.

    I have no position on whether the Gores should be getting divorced. Maybe Al’s been beating Tipper for years. Maybe Tipper’s been slowly poisoning Al for the inheritance. Maybe Tipper had an affair with the stable boy. Maybe Al had an affair with the stable boy. I can think of few topics about which I’m less curious than the workings of the Gore household, and I am willing to trust their judgment about their own lives.

    What I find odd is that Sally Quinn apparently thinks that “Well, you know, he didn’t get his first-choice job, so of course their shared life went into a tailspin, and now it’s time for each of them to have his own space and learn and grow separately!” requires no elaboration. Did Tipper and Al never turn to each other, while sitting in one of the fifty rooms in their house or while lolling in the back of their car as the driver shuttled them about, and say, “Suppose we don’t actually win the presidency…what’s our Plan B?”

    Politicians are probably the top performers in America when it comes to eliding the fulfillment of personal career ambition with high-minded civic service, but public-school teachers run a close second. A hilarious/appalling story in the NYT yesterday described school administrators who’ve been cheating on assessment tests to avoid running afoul of No Child Left Behind requirements (via Joanne Jacobs). If you’re impervious to nuance, you might think that’s fraud, plain and simple, but you’d be wrong:

    No national data is collected on educator cheating. Experts who consult with school systems estimated that 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers — thousands annually — cross the line between accepted ways of boosting scores, like using old tests to prep students, and actual cheating.

    “Educators feel that their schools’ reputation, their livelihoods, their psychic meaning in life is at stake,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group critical of standardized testing. “That ends up pushing more and more of them over the line.”

    Their, uh, “psychic meaning in life”? The phrasing makes my gorge rise a bit, but all right. Maybe it’s not that much different from considering teaching a near-spiritual calling.

    It’s just that Schaeffer is talking about cooking the books to cover your failure to raise your students’ test scores by actually helping them learn something. And to me, that sounds a lot less like “desperately clinging to your psychic meaning in life” than like “defending your income stream and future employability at the expense of owning up to your real performance,” the high-mindedness of which escapes me. I realize that teachers and school administrators are not entirely to blame for their students’ lack of progress; I just dispute that it’s the teachers and school administrators we should be feeling sorry for when their instinct for self-preservation turns them into crooks.

    OTOH, things are a little different when the students are supposed to be grown-ups. The NYT also ran a much-discussed article last month about the crushing debt some college students are incurring. The columnist took a human-interest-feature tack, profiling a woman who was graduated by NYU in 2005:

    Ms. Munna does not want to walk away from her loans in the same way many mortgage holders are. It would be difficult in any event because federal bankruptcy law makes it nearly impossible to discharge student loan debts. But unless she manages to improve her income quickly, she doesn’t have a lot of good options for digging out.

    It is utterly depressing that there are so many people like her facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting.

    But perhaps the biggest share lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process. And I would argue that they had an obligation to counsel students like Ms. Munna, who got in too far over their heads.

    The balance on Cortney Munna’s loans is about $97,000, including all of her federal loans and her private debt from Sallie Mae and Citibank. What are her options for digging out?

    Her mother can’t help without selling her bed and breakfast, and then she’d have no home. She could take her daughter in, but there aren’t good ways for her to earn a living in Alexandria Bay, in upstate New York.

    Well, yes, colleges do have the most knowledge of the financial aid process, but students and their parents have the most knowledge of their personal finances and plans for the future. Taking out USD100K in debt is risky for anyone, but it might have been an understandable gamble for a student whose plans included a high-demand, lucrative profession. Or who had a rich, doting Aunt Betsy with a bad ticker.

    That’s not the sense you get from her profile, though. If you click through that link to Munna’s mother’s bed and breakfast, you land on this page:

    Fast forward through twenty-five years in San Francisco and Indianapolis, to the 1990s and another loss – that of my beloved husband John. Widowed, with two miraculous daughters and a career as a school teacher, I found myself at another fork in the road. Where did my compass lead me? Back to Alexandria Bay and the recuperative spirit of the Thousand Islands.

    At the age of fifty, I chose to deny my chronological age and become a doctor and I was accepted at a prestigious Upstate New York medical school. Then, while studying for an exam I was hit with yet another loss. My dear friend died suddenly, and the exam prevented me from attending the funeral. Enough of that.

    I knew there was another way I could care for people. I could feed them! And the best place to do that was a Bed and Breakfast. Thus began the transformation of The Captain Visger House, a process I would describe as magical, painstaking, life-changing…and a few other choice words not suitable for print.

    It’s a sweet story, but it makes you wonder whether the elder Munna’s example gave her daughters the impression that you just kind of follow your bliss and expect things to work out. I’m not making light of the pain that the loss of husband and father must have visited on the family; nor am I arguing that giving up a career in medicine to do something less prestigious but closer to your heart is bad. The problem is that “closer to your heart” and “earning enough money to repay a hundred grand” don’t usually intersect, which is why responsible people figure out which one they’re going to compromise on before they’re in deep doo-doo, as Munna Mére phrases it.

    I’m perplexed by the contention that expensive universities are to blame for not telling needy students the cheap state school down the pike might be a better option. Why is it the fiduciary duty of the Viking salesman to suggest that you might be happier with a Kenmore? When I was a student in the early ’90s, those of us on financial aid were required to sit through at least one session explaining how our grants and loans worked—accurately, IIRC—and to meet with our financial aid officer yearly to ensure we were up to speed on what we’d gotten ourselves into. I have no doubt that they could have been more ruthlessly honest about the potential downsides of debt, but my father and I made it our business to crunch the numbers.

    I also made it my business to go early and often to the career planning office, where there was all kinds of stuff about, you know, what sort of work you could expect to get with what sort of degree. My counselor—terrific woman who became a personal friend—warned against failing to consider opportunities in not-so-cool cities that could bear real fruit later on down the career path. She also recommended that those of us in humanities majors take at least a few accounting or math-y classes beyond our distribution requirements, and she warned me very frankly that my comp lit major was unlikely to be marketable in a direct way unless I stuck with the Japanese up to expert level.

    None of this seemed dream-deflating; I was perfectly aware that I was from a family of straitened means, which meant that I was lucky even to be at a private college. Plenty of kids I went to high school with had high-income parents who informed them that they were going to Penn State, which (the parents pointed out accurately) was the best imaginable value for a Commonwealth resident.

    In response to the deluge of comments, many of which make points similar to mine, Munna responds here. To her credit, she does repeat that she’s not looking for a way to weasel out of her loans; but I still get the sense that she considers it an external problem that she’s had difficulty finding employment. One of the more egregious ninnies among her supporters (though this character gives him or her a run for the money) writes this:

    [W]hat this young woman has learned is what a university offers: the tools to understand the world and society. She will do well, even though it’ll be tough paying off those loans. Sure, we need mechanics and sheetrock installers, but we also need those who can Think Big, who can See the Big Picture, and who can make educated and intuitive jumps in logic that will lead to a better country, a better way of living, and better lives for mechanics, sheetrock installers as well as academics.

    One might ask why, if those jumps in logic are so “intuitive,” one needs to spend USD50K a year learning to make them. One might also ask just what Munna has really learned that could enhance the lives of mechanics and sheetrock installers. And if she focused so narrowly on her studies that she was unaware that she was on an express train to insolvency, how much can we really say she learned about seeing “the Big Picture”? Plenty of people find ways to take courses that interest them in college while still being realistic enough to get a degree in something they can make a livelihood out of. Hovering in too much of this discussion is the idea that Munna somehow deserves a job that rewards her for really caring about what she studied. But unless you work for the federal government, you’re going to have to look for a job that produces something of value people are willing to pay for. I’m not sure she’s well served by commenters who encourage her to bide her time until the world comes around to appreciating her. I prefer Erin O’Connor’s take, which is characteristically sensible (though not directly specifically at the NYT story about Munna):

    My line on this is the minimalist one: Don’t take on any debt, ever, that you don’t have to take on. If you can’t afford a private school, then do not enroll in one. There are still affordable publics in this country, and you can even still get a good education at them.

    This is not to say that we don’t need lots and lots of reform, within the student loan industry and within colleges and universities themselves. Student loans have been too easy to get, and they are too hard for too many to pay off. And if you read this blog, you’ve heard me time and time again about the way bureaucratic bloat, excessive executive pay, unnecessary country-clubbish perks, academically lame boutique programs and majors, and so on have pushed costs up way beyond what’s viable–even as they have failed to do anything meaningful for improving actual education. You’ve also heard me over and over again about how we need to rethink the idea that a college degree is the only path to economic success. That’s just dumbing it all down while wasting the considerable talents of people who are not “book smart” but are very smart, talented, and able in other ways.

    But people are getting smarter–and the recession is forcing them to become just a bit more financially literate than they were before. Fewer folks are going to make decisions that they know will harm them financially–and colleges and universities are, I hope, going to have to recalibrate when they struggle to enroll, when diversity falters as a result, and when they are forced to confront their ethical lapses in recruiting students who cannot pay for the product they are selling (we need to be brutally economic in our vocabulary in this instance).

    She’s right: there are many institutional problems, and colleges deserve much of the hot water they’re now in. But the inadvisability of taking on tons of debt without being sure you can shoulder it is not some new phenomenon no one was aware of until the recession hit. Nor is the inadvisability of having no backup plan if your ideal career path doesn’t pan out.


    Posted by Sean at 17:46, April 18th, 2010

    Instapundit reports that Bill Clinton thinks…well, it’s not entirely clear what he thinks. Basically, it’s like, “If you’re angry at runaway government power, you’re probably not a would-be terrorist…really, I’d never insinuate any such thing…it’s just that real terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh were also angry at runaway government power…and therefore unless you embrace Big Government in all its benevolent, nurturing modalities, well, there’s no getting around it: you’re kind of enabling the next McVeigh, don’t you think? So don’t get on the Internet unless you’re going to sing hymns to Washington.”

    You may recall that this is not the first time he’s used that maneuver. (Eric says of the Clintons, “To be kind about it, their gaffes [at least I think they’re gaffes] keep coming!” That’s a much more comforting angle on things than that we’re seeing their authentic, unfiltered worldview.) One of Virginia Postrel’s most memorable columns from when she was editor of Reason was this one from 1995:

    This is what the president of the United States said in a widely praised speech at Michigan State’s graduation: “I would like to say something to the paramilitary groups and to others who believe the greatest threat to America comes not from terrorists from within our country or beyond our borders, but from our own government….I am well aware that most of you have never violated the law of the land. I welcome the comments that some of you have made recently condemning the bombing in Oklahoma City….But I also know there have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy.” (Emphasis added.)

    “There have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy.” Clinton may start with the “to be sures”—acknowledging that his nameless opponents are law-abiding and condemn the bombing—but he ends with guilt by association. Anyone who “believe[s] the greatest threat to America” comes from the government might as well be a terrorist. After all, they’re on the same philosophical team.

    Just who is purveying hate and division now? Just who is using wild words? Just who is paranoid, spinning out conspiracy theories built on blurring distinctions and imagining “links”?

    He then cleverly moves the argument from whether government power is something to be feared–obviously not, since the problem is a few rotten workers–to whether violence against public employees is justified. Here, he lumps together “people who are doing their duty” (the Nuremberg defense), people who are “minding their own business,” and “children who are innocent in every way.”

    It’s not clear who advocates killing any of these people under current conditions. But at least in theory they are distinguishable. One can imagine circumstances under which self-defense might be justified against the first group; it’s hard to conjure up rationales for attacking either of the other two. But Clinton’s rhetorical mode is to blur distinctions.

    And to smear by innuendo. By never specifying whom he is attacking—Who exactly claims the right to kill “children who are innocent in every way”? Who claims the right to kill “the people who perished in Oklahoma City”?—Clinton manages to call all of his political opponents murderers and then say he didn’t.

    He accomplished the same thing with his vague attack on “loud and angry voices.” Was he talking about all conservative and libertarian talk radio hosts? G. Gordon Liddy? Or just conspiracy theorists like “Mark from Michigan”? He was in fact smearing them all, but preserving his deniability.

    Edifying, huh? Virginia’s conclusion remains the right one:

    Such tactics must not work. Loud voices are not the same as violent deeds. Criticism is not the same as murder. Exposing government violence is not the same as blowing up buildings. It is grossly irresponsible to blur these distinctions. And those who rely on such smear tactics are in no position to lecture the rest of us about toning down rhetoric.

    In fact, wide-open debate is the best chance for restraining violent impulses. Contrary to the Los Angeles Times editorialists, hearings on Waco would be a very good idea, especially now. Information is the enemy both of out-of-control government and of paranoia. Vigorous, open dissent is a powerful check on government excesses—and an important, peaceful outlet for citizen grievances.

    Of course, that argument only has heft if you believe government excesses should be checked.

    There is a light that never goes out

    Posted by Sean at 18:32, April 8th, 2010

    Joanne Jacobs applies her usual deadpan to Duke’s new policy on campus sex, which she describes thus:

    A person seen as “powerful”—such as a varsity athlete—may “create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion,” the policy states. For the “powerful,” it’s not just that “no” means no and silence means no. “Yes” means no too.

    In addition, sex with someone who’s been drinking—not like that ever happens—is considered a form of rape because the policy considers any level of intoxication makes a student unable to consent to sex.

    The document itself is as coruscatingly stupid as you’d expect. It never ceases to amaze me how brain-dead college administrators are about student drunkenness:

    The use of alcohol or other drugs can have unintended consequences. Alcohol or other drugs can lower inhibitions and create an atmosphere of confusion over whether consent is freely and effectively given. The perspective of a reasonable person will be the basis for determining whether one should have known about the impact of the use of alcohol or drugs on another’s ability to give consent. Being intoxicated or high is never an excuse for sexual misconduct.

    Note the way the lowering of inhibitions is assumed to be an unintended consequence of drinking. After all, no college student would ever drink purposefully to get over feeling like a slut for wanting sex, feeling like a pervert for wanting homosexual sex, or feeling like a loser for wanting sex with someone who acts like a jerk once the clothes are back on. You might argue that students with such inhibitions should heed them rather than using alcohol to surmount them, but it’s hard to argue that they’re doing something they haven’t been in a position to consent to.

    There are, naturally, helpful scenarios of sexual misconduct given, with a careful distribution of sexual orientations to show that everyone is at least hypothetically a potential sexual assailant. The actual events don’t ring particularly false, but the prissy, desiccated way we’re supposed to interpret them does. Naturally, I’m going to homo home in on the gay guys:

    Andrew and Felix have been flirting with each other all night at a party. Around 12:30 a.m., Felix excuses himself to find a bathroom. Andrew notices Felix slurring his speech. Andrew wonders if Felix went to the bathroom to vomit. When Felix returns, the two begin flirting more heavily and move to a couch. As the conversation continues, the two become more relaxed and more physically affectionate. Andrew soon suggests they go back to his room, and Felix agrees. As they walk down the stairs, Andrew notices that Felix looks unstable and offers his arm for support and balance. When they get back to his room, Andrew leads Felix to the bed and they begin to become intimate. Felix becomes increasingly passive and appears disoriented. Andrew soon begins to have sexual intercourse with him. The next morning, Felix thinks they had sex but cannot piece together the events leading up to it. This is a violation of the Sexual Misconduct Policy. Felix was clearly under the influence of alcohol and thus unable to freely consent to engage in sexual activity with Andrew. Although Andrew may not have known how much alcohol Felix had consumed, he saw indicators from which a reasonable person would conclude that Felix was intoxicated, and therefore unable to give consent. Andrew in no way obtained consent from Felix.

    Okay, fine. But that omits a lot of the story that would explain how they ended up having sex. For example:

    Andrew and Felix have been flirting with each other all night at a party. Felix has pretty much accepted that he’s gay, but whenever he’s attracted to a guy and thinks about doing something about it, the things his parents used to say around the dinner table about homosexuals start echoing in his head, and he gets rattled and feels like he’s stirring things up that he may not be able to handle. The attention from Andrew is making him feel terrific—attractive and interesting—but Felix isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do next. Andrew can hold his liquor pretty well, and Felix doesn’t want to look like a lightweight, so he’s trying to keep up even though he knows he’s already had enough.

    Andrew is going berserk. He almost never hits it off with a guy this quickly. And Felix has no idea how cute he is—the slightly sheepish manner, the shrug, the offhand smile. When he leans forward, there’s this place where the back of his neck comes out of his T-shirt collar that Andrew wants to bury his face in. Felix seems to be getting really drunk, but Andrew, though he keeps good motor control, knows that he himself is probably no longer thinking as clearly as he feels he is. Around 12:30 a.m., Felix excuses himself to find a bathroom. Andrew notices Felix slurring his speech. Andrew wonders if Felix went to the bathroom to vomit.

    When Felix returns, the two begin flirting more heavily and move to a couch. As the conversation continues, the two become more relaxed and more physically affectionate. Felix doesn’t taste like vomit when Andrew kisses him, so maybe he’s okay after all? Felix feels and smells a little sweat-damp beneath his T-shirt, and Andrew is beside himself.

    Felix would never have been able to initiate that kiss, but he likes it. He’s dimly aware that his senses of touch and taste aren’t working right, but he really wants Andrew to like him and be attracted to him. He’s afraid that he’s going to look like a dork if he tells Andrew he needs to go home now but would like to see him again when he’s more sober, so he keeps responding as enthusiastically as he can while Andrew makes out with him.

    Andrew soon suggests they go back to his room, and Felix agrees. As they walk down the stairs, Andrew notices that Felix looks unstable and offers his arm for support and balance. Andrew stumbles a few times along the way, and Felix giggles, a little relieved that Andrew’s also more drunk than he’d thought. When they get back to his room, Andrew leads Felix to the bed and they begin to become intimate. Felix is fighting hard to stay awake and perform well so that Andrew isn’t disappointed. Andrew actually asks once whether he’s okay, and Felix makes a huge effort to enunciate a clear “Yeah, I’m fine.” Felix becomes increasingly passive and appears disoriented. Andrew soon begins to have sexual intercourse with him. He’s keyed up, and Felix is responsive enough to keep his arms around him and to get off. The next morning, Felix thinks they had sex but cannot piece together the events leading up to it. He feels like hell: not only is he a failure at being straight, but he apparently can’t even be a faggot without screwing it up. Andrew probably thinks he’s a loser.

    Andrew doesn’t, in fact, think Felix is a loser; he wonders whether Felix wasn’t as attracted to him as he thought, since he had to get so drunk before he would make out with him. Felix miscalculated, trying to distance himself from his desire for Andrew while indulging it at the same time. Andrew might have just taken Felix to home if they’d left the party earlier, but by the time they got up to go, he was too keyed up and horny to think of it. Although Andrew may not have known how much alcohol Felix had consumed, he saw indicators from which a reasonable person would conclude that Felix was intoxicated, and therefore unable to give consent. Andrew in no way obtained consent from Felix. But Felix kept drinking past his own limitations; Andrew never put a funnel into his mouth and poured vodka down it. And his own faculties of reason weren’t all operating, either.

    How is it helpful, at this point, for some Student Life lackwit to wade in and tell Felix he’s a victim and Andrew he’s a perpetrator of sexual misconduct? And in general, how is it helpful to assume that in most drunken couplings it’s the bigger, hornier, more sober party who was the one doing all the “manipulating”? No one who’s ever watched men and women flirt could possibly buy that for a moment. I don’t think it does anyone (except ambitious Student Life lackeys) any good to plant the idea in undergrads’ heads that every bad sexual experience is “misconduct,” in which mustache-twirling offenders can be clearly separated from ravaged victims. Or that there’s some mystical “coercive” power inherent in high status in the social hierarchy. This is supposed to be preparing kids to handle grown-up life?

    You happy puppet

    Posted by Sean at 14:30, April 5th, 2010

    Authoritarianism is, more’s the pity, an inexhaustibly relevant topic these days. Instead of the unexamined assumption that all government agents have a rightful claim on our respect, Eric has tackled the more general assumption that being under authority is a good in and of itself that we should learn to like:

    What never ceases to fascinate me is the sheer gall of liberals in attributing “authoritarianism” to conservatives and libertarians while pretending that liberals are the authoritarian antithesis. It is one of liberalism’s biggest lies. Like so many of the people who drive around with bumperstickers that say “QUESTION AUTHORITY” — while they really mean to say “QUESTION AUTHORITY SELECTIVELY.”

    A lot of liberals don’t seem to think that sententious moralizing counts as sententious moralizing if you’re not using religion to back it up. I’m not sure where they get that idea, but as Eric says, it’s sheer effrontery and surpassingly annoying.

    Added on 6 April: One of Eric’s commenters (the first in the thread) took issue with his wording:

    Since when have libertarians considered “social shunning” to be “censorship”? Don’t people have a right to decide with whom they will associate?

    I didn’t see Eric use the word censorship there, though Phyllis Chesler did, and he quoted her approvingly. Her point doesn’t seem unreasonable, though—that a lot of leftists (especially university leftists) don’t just want to discredit the opposition by taking its ideas seriously, pulling them apart, and then refuting them; they want to keep it from being heard altogether. That’s a lot more like censorship than unlike it.

    Social shunning is less like censorship than, say, blocking the publication of a book. But your criteria for choosing friendships say something about your character, and it’s not out of bounds to maintain that they say something about your political positions, too, if you’re going to drop friends for their politics. At least when I was a boy, we were taught that it was practically a civic responsibility to assume good faith on the part of your political opponents and to seek out opportunities to get to know people with differing views. If someone shares your values about how to treat people—politeness, respect, consideration—and you otherwise have compatible personalities, I don’t think it speaks well of you if you decide he’s no longer worth breaking bread with because you disagree over politics.

    He said, “I’m a minister, a big-shot in the state”

    Posted by Sean at 22:23, April 4th, 2010

    I said, “I just can’t believe it—boy, I think it’s great”

    A few days ago, the Unreligious Right posted about this piece, in which Ben Stein grouses that his fellow conservatives don’t respect public servants enough. As usual, UNRR’s comments are worth reading in full. There’s just one key section that I think is worth expanding on:

    When people complain about “bureaucrats,” they don’t mean cops, firefighters, teachers and CIA agents. And for the most part, they are complaining about the system and how the government conducts business, rather than about the individual people involved. Praising government workers as necessary and valuable is every bit as big a gross over-generalization, as is demonizing them.

    He’s responding to this passage from Stein’s article:

    Government employees include cops and firefighters, who do some of the most dangerous, vital work in the society. Government employees include prosecutors and prison guards, who do work that is often extremely difficult and deeply necessary.

    Government employees are the doctors and nurses at VA hospitals. They are the teachers who try to teach our kids. They are the men and women who keep track of our economic and health statistics, without which we cannot measure progress or failure.

    Government employees are the CIA agents who launch drone strikes to kill terrorists and who sometimes get killed. Bureaucrats would include the people of the FBI and it would also include the men and women at the Pentagon who guide our armed forces. These people are the muscle and bone of the nation.

    I’m not a conservative, but to the extent that the much-hyped conservative-libertarian alliance has ever existed, it’s been based on a shared opposition to government overreach; and from that perspective, in any form of it that I’m aware of, Stein’s arguments make no sense.

    All the work Stein mentions is necessary—does anyone think it isn’t?—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it must be done by the government. Just about all of us agree that the military and the police should be run directly by the government because they fall within the job description of protecting free citizens from harm. Firefighting is a grey area. Some places do just fine with voluntary brigades. And otherwise, it’s not clear why these people need to work for the government. Statisticians? Health-care personnel used by vets? Schoolteachers? They all have direct private-sector analogues. One doesn’t have to denigrate the work they do to wonder whether it could be done better if not run by the government. When services are paid for from tax money, it’s functionaries, not the citizens who are end users, whose preferences tend to decide what gets delivered, and effectiveness and efficiency get tossed aside in the bargain. Additionally, government employees create, as Nick Gillespie puts it at Hit and Run, “a permanent lobby for expanded government and higher taxes.” It might be nice if we were able to draw a firm line between necessary and superfluous civil servants, but in reality the latter only have positions to fill because the former shrewdly figured out how to entrench themselves and expand their power base.

    Also, even if we decide that every last agency currently in existence really did need to be public rather than private, we still have a right to ask whether everything it’s doing is justified. It’s one thing, for example, to recognize that law enforcement officers work under dangerous conditions and will sometimes make fatal mistakes in good faith, for which they shouldn’t be punished legally or ostracized socially. It’s another thing entirely to insist that any old incompetent thing a cop or prosecutor does is excusable because he or she is just trying to protect us from the baddies out there. I’m not always fond of Radley Balko’s tone, but click at random on his list of articles and posts at Reason . You have your botched raids by paramilitarized police, you have your prosecutors going unpunished for getting suspects convicted with evidence they faked, you have your assets seized from people who are never charged with a crime. Also, don’t forget about the traffic fines not intended to increase road safety but to fund public operations.

    You don’t have to harbor any animus against The Man to recognize that there’s a terrible danger in encouraging those in the justice system to use the “we’re doing a dangerous job” card to get a free pass on any old error they might make. The power to shoot, arrest, and land people in prison should require more, not less, accountability than other work.

    Ben Stein is welcome to point out that most government employees do the best they can and don’t deserve to be stereotyped as exploitative and shiftless. The flip side, which neither he nor other apologists for big government ever seem to get around to thinking about, is that individual citizens don’t deserve to be viewed by civil servants as fonts of tax revenue who should shut up and do what we’re told by our betters because every intrusive little rule they’re moved to come up with is vital to the social order. If more conservatives are starting to realize that, so much the better for them.

    A case of you

    Posted by Sean at 10:22, March 28th, 2010

    I try not to say nasty things unless I feel I’ve been given no choice, so I can’t claim to be a fan of Ann Coulter’s. Nevertheless, her enemies have a way of proving her points about freedom of speech time and again.

    If you haven’t encountered the story yet, Coulter just did a speaking tour of Canada. Mayhem naturally ensued. Rondi has a few posts up that give a good quick summary.

    Mark links to a post by Kathy Shaidle on the spooky approbation censorship gets in Canada from (though she doesn’t put it this way) the very people who have the most to lose when speech isn’t free:

    Sadly and inexplicably, Fox News chose radical lesbian activist [<--NB: person who has the most to lose when speech isn’t free—SRK] Susan G. Cole to represent Canada on one segment on the Coulter-In-Canada controversy. Here’s how Cole (who, as a playwright, has sucked on the taxpayer teat for most of her career) characterized my country:

    We don’t have that same political culture here in (Canada). . . . We don’t have a 1st Amendment, we don’t have a religion of free speech. . . . Students sign off on all kinds of agreements as to how they’ll behave on campus, in order to respect diversity, equity, all of the values that Canadians really care about. Those are the things that drive our political culture. Not freedoms, not rugged individualism, not free speech.

    It isn’t that Cole’s characterization is inaccurate. It really is word perfect, actually.

    The problem is, that fact should shame and disgust Canadians. Alas, most of my fellow citizens are either in complete, smug agreement with Cole, or just indifferent.

    Having reached a Certain Age, I shouldn’t be surprised when gay activists blithely support censorship in the name of “tolerance” or “diversity,” but it still dumbfounds me. Because gays and lesbians aren’t a visible minority unless we speak up for ourselves, freedom of expression is directly in our interest. The current way of rigging the game, of course, is to protect what we say and give a good caning to anyone who “disrespects” us and our delicate-flower sensibilities. But giving the government all kinds of power to intrude on people’s lives, under the assumption that your friends will always be wielding it on your enemies, is an exceedingly dangerous precedent to set. There’s a lot more acceptance of homosexuality than there used to be, and I’m obviously very happy about that; but our liberties are still very new historically, and minorities with few friends don’t always fare so well when there’s a social upheaval. We have no way of knowing when the next climate shift or terrorist attack or asteroid is going to hit.

    If we want people to believe that we’re part of society and invested in its future, we can’t be constantly fixated on momentary concerns: someone called someone a fag five minutes ago, someone said the Bible condemns homosexuality in an editorial on the opposite coast yesterday, someone made a joke about sweatpants to a lesbian colleague. I’m not saying none of these things deserve a response, but the proper response is more speech, not a ball gag. I can think of no better way to betray the gay kids who are going to be coming out in fifty or a hundred years from now than to leave them a heritage of petty, snippy, thin-skinned screeching for the censors at every little hint of opposition. Rough-and-tumble debate is the best way to test and sharpen your ideas. When you smugly try to shut it down, the unmistakable implication is that you don’t have nearly as much conviction as you want people to think you have.

    The issue with Coulter wasn’t just a gay thing, of course, but the dynamic is the same. Sensible people look at this crap, and her opponents look whiny and emotionally underdeveloped, while she looks fearless and unbowed under pressure. Great PR move.

    Added later: More great moments in merchandising: Eric reports on that brouhaha over a movie about transsexuals that some activists were trying to get removed from the Tribeca Film Festival:

    According to the festival description, the film has a deliberately campy empowerment theme about transgendered women turning the tables on their attackers (“the violated vixens turn deadly divas”). This, it seems, is intolerable to the prudish pacifist censors (who presumably want transgendered people to be victims):

    That summary alone was enough to prompt many angry comments at the tribecafilm.com Web site. One commenter who gave her name as Marie wrote, “This movie trivializes people dying for being who they are. You need to consider whether you want to be remembered for such transphobic trash.” Another commenter named Margaret B wrote, “I can’t imagine a more offensive film to denigrate and demean a minority group. Please remove this film from your line up.”

    The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has made the same demand of the Tribeca festival. In a statement, the alliance said, “The film, its title and its marketing misrepresent the lives of transgender women and use grotesque, exploitative depictions of violence against transgender women.” The alliance added that Mr. Luna and the festival “have refused to take responsibility for the problematic content and offensive marketing of this film,” and urged its membership to contact the festival and demand that the film be pulled from its schedule.

    In an important way, this isn’t an effort at censorship, since it doesn’t involve bringing in the state. But it’s still an attempt to keep challenging ideas out of circulation, rather than trusting the audience to be able to weigh them and make up its own mind. Happily, the committee isn’t caving, according to the NYT:

    The Tribeca Film Festival responded in a statement: “The filmmakers provided a copy of this film to GLAAD in February, and for weeks the organization had been supportive to the filmmakers. In fact, GLAAD representatives advised the film’s producer, director and cast on how to describe the film to its core constituency.” The festival added that it “looks forward to the film’s premiere” next month.

    I’m not sure what the problem is. Would the people who are flipping out prefer to see a movie about transsexuals who live in the suburbs, serve on the school board unmolested, and convince the good citizens of the community to fund a new crisis center? When someone tries to beat them up, should a cop show up in five seconds and disable the miscreant with his bare hands, just to show that you should wait for the government to defend you and that weapons are bad? Seriously, if you think a different movie should be made about transsexuals, then why don’t you just make it? Or support it with your ticket-buying power when someone else makes it?


    Posted by Sean at 12:27, March 27th, 2010

    I loved this from Hit and Run about a push to regulate tax preparers. They sometimes take advantage of people, you see, and nice Mr. Government wants to put a stop to that.

    No, of course, he’s not going to do it by actually making it easier to do your own damned taxes. What do you think this is, a country founded on self-reliance or some other such anarchist balderdash? You’re supposed to call the IRS helpline.

    “It’s always fun to ask public officials with the power to simplify our tax code whether they do their own taxes,” Katherine Mangu-Ward begins, then cites this from the Daily Caller:

    Rep. Xavier Becerra, a top Democrat on the Ways & Means Committee that was holding the hearing, is keeping a watchful eye on those tax preparer services, who he says sometimes fleece unwitting customers. “Americans who could fill out a simple [tax forms] are being charged hundreds of dollars to do what they” could on their own, he said.

    So does Becerra prepare his own taxes?

    “No. I have a tax preparer back home who’s been doing it for me for many years,” he told The Daily Caller. Becerra explains that his finances are more complex — and his tax filings fall under far greater scrutiny — than ordinary Americans who could figure out the forms if they tried. [Don’t you seriously want to reach through the screen and thump people sometimes?—SRK]

    How about the chairman of Ways & Means oversight subcommittee that asked for Shulman to testify Thursday?

    “Oh no, no, no, no, no. I have an accountant that I’ve been using for years,” Rep. John Lewis said. He said he needs to head home this weekend to fill out paperwork for his accountant.

    Lewis’s suggestions is for people who are having a hard time with the forms go to the IRS for help. “Get on the telephone, call an IRS service center or go visit a service center … and have them walk through their filing,” which, he noted, the IRS does for free.

    Of course, as Reason‘s Mangu-Ward points out, the problem is not just that time is money, and “walking through” one’s filing with an IRS representative—strap the rat cage to my face NOW, please!—takes more time than it’s worth it for a lot of people. It’s also that the tax code is so en-pretzel-ated that even IRS employees can often only give it the old college try when you ask them a question.

    But in my experience, it’s not just sticky, ambiguous clauses that get them. Years ago when I moved to Japan, I did my own taxes. (If you’re American and have never lived abroad, you may not know that you have to file a federal return, but you do.) Having received my Japanese income statement for the year—a tiny form with the numbers carefully written in by hand by our bookkeeper and then signed off on with the big, square company chop—I called the help line to ask what I should do with it. Some, but not all, of the information was available online then (1998 or so).

    The guy was nice. I don’t think he was stupid. But it took me forty-five full minutes (on an international call!) to get him to stop telling me to get my company to issue me a W-2.

    “This is a dif-fer-ent coun-try, sir. They don’t have W-2’s. I live in Tokyo. I was hired in Japan. I’m paid in yen. My company is registered in Japan. I can translate the income statement for you, but then you’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m telling you my whole income. Do I have to go to the embassy and get it notarized? I’ll follow the rules. I just don’t know what they are.”

    Now, of course, all I really had to do was to ask one of the longer-serving Americans at the office what he did when he filed his taxes. I subsequently did that. But I was flabbergasted that it was necessary. Maybe it’s my dessicated, schematic, divorced-from-emotion, homosexual-male brain, but I was envisioning an instruction booklet with diagrams of the official statements used in the various countries in which lots of Americans earn income, with guidelines about which number counted as your gross income and how many of the little cells you had to translate. I mean, I knew what my gross income was, and I didn’t mind translating the whole damned form—but it was perfectly obvious that this guy, though assigned to the help line for international filers, had never considered the possibility that other countries don’t issue W-2’s.

    I mean, look, I wish the tax-preparer industry would fall to the ground; there has to be better value the market could get from people who are skilled in both numbers and law. But in the here and now, with the tax code so baffling, it’s not surprising that people are willing to pay them good money in exchange for fewer headaches, less time spent navigating among multiple documents, and an end to that nagging sense that they’ve missed an exemption or something else in their favor.


    Posted by Sean at 17:54, March 26th, 2010

    Are you tired of worrying about what these new “reforms” are going to do to screw over America? Well, you’re in luck, because if you read this post, you can think about how they might screw over our loyal ally Japan.

    You feel better already, right? Consider it a present from me.

    The lead editorial in Wednesday’s Nikkei carried the headline “America’s direction after conclusion of historic health-care reform bill”:

    It’s an event that will surely leave a mark on US history. Sweeping reforms of health care, under consideration for years, have been realized through the leadership of President Obama. Word is that the bill passed by the United States Congress will allocate approximately 85 trillion yen over ten years and decrease the number of people uninsured by 3.2 million.

    On the other hand, there were almost as many votes against as for, with congresspersons, centered around the Republican Party, concerned about the tilt toward “big government.” It boosts taxes levied on the high-income brackets, and it gave rise to splits between left and right, high- and low-income brackets. That will have its effect on economic policy and policies toward Japan as well.

    In order to wipe out the clash of interests between high- and low-income strata, expanding the economy as a whole would be the best thing. It will also be necessary to promote growth in order to achieve real-term containment of the ballooning public-debt burden. The direction the Obama administration is taking will use growth as the driving force, in the next five years doubling exports rather than household consumption, which has taken a beating from the Lehman Shock.

    What’s the Nikkei afraid of? That the US, desperate to come up with money for this venture in egalitarianism, will start leaning on its trading partners to be more open to exports from here than they would otherwise have desired to be based on their own markets.

    In that context, there is the possibility that demands from the US toward its ally Japan will grow more stern. The backblow against Japanese products such as automobiles is forceful. There are also many fronts on which the opening of markets, such as that for agricultural products, is sought. Even if [Washington] continues to show concern for Japan, which has gone to a lot of trouble over the Futenma military facility, it’s also a fact that there’s less willingness to go the extra mile than before.

    Both the US and Japan have painful domestic situations on their hands. When affairs at home aren’t going well, it’s standard political practice, anywhere and everywhere, to draw the attention of the citizenry to foreign relations; however, the possibility cannot be ruled out that that will cause a rift in the US-Japan alliance if pushed too far. And that should be avoided. Not even for Japan will the wounds left on American society by the debate over health-care reform be someone else’s problem.

    Tokyo has little moral ground to claim when it comes to manipulating trading partners for the interests of its own enterprises, but the Nikkei itself is a pretty consistent supporter of free markets, so it seems unfair to wave away its concerns. The Japanese government knows a thing or two about mushrooming health-care entitlements squeezed from a shrinking pool of workers, so it’s no wonder it’s looking eastward and feeling afraid.

    Now don’t you ask yourself/who they are?

    Posted by Sean at 20:06, March 22nd, 2010

    This chivalrous gentleman takes Instapundit to task for comparing the United States Congress to honest, client-serving harlots (via Hit and Run). My favorite line:

    With a prostitute, constituents get what they pay for. Also, if someone goes to a prostitute for sexual intercourse, the prostitute rarely throws in other, less desired services, like taking over General Motors.

    Prostitutes also, in every account of their working lives I’ve seen, say that a lot of their job consists of listening to johns who just want to talk about what’s weighing on their minds. Haven’t seen a lot of that from Congress lately.

    Skim the cream/And fill the brim

    Posted by Sean at 09:32, March 22nd, 2010

    I’m not sure why everyone is all up in arms over this ObamaCare thing. I lived in Japan, which has social insurance, for a decade, and let me tell you, it works great.

    There’s always America to piggyback on.

    It has a freer market—not free, heaven knows, but freer—and it has a tradition of risk-taking and death-defiance, so you get more clinical trials of chancy new ideas for pharmaceuticals and devices there. America’s less controlled system also means there are more post-doc programs and publications and stuff to help Japanese doctors enhance their practice. And I think we can all agree that socialized medicine, because it humane, and never happen.

    So really, countrymen, there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll just let America do all the vulgar, pushy, hazardous dirty work, then we can enjoy the benefits while smirking about their delusions of immortality as we always have. It’s kind of like the way mafia dons in the movies never have to leave their tomato garden or openly talk about cinder blocks even when someone’s gotta be whacked, see? As long as America’s still got a health-care system that’s on speaking terms with capitalism, we’re golden, just golden.