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Category: Public Policy and Public Discourse

The Nigel Tufnel of American Presidential Politics

I finally figured out what Vivek Ramaswamy reminds me of:

Lick My Love Pump

Anyone who is a fan of This is Spinal Tap will understand.  To those who aren’t — it’s too hard to explain.  You just have to watch it.

Vivek is like Nigel Tufnel…

He has these brief lucid intervals where he seems genuinely smart, thoughtful, and insightful, speaking intelligently and clearly about some complex issue.  You nod your head at his sagacity.  You find yourself listening, despite your doubts.  You want to believe in someone with that kind of honesty, directness, clarity, and courage…

And then, suddenly and without warning, he’s…   not!  He has reverted to type, to someone else entirely: an emotionally and morally stunted, intellectually challenged, self-aggrandizing metal-head (or tech bro) spouting simplistic and dangerous adolescent nonsense…

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An Israeli Cease-Fire?

The toll on civilian bystanders in Gaza shocks the conscience, so the heart cries out for it.

My heart cries out for it.

And, yet, my head also cries out: What is the alternative?

Because, in the absence of an alternative, a demand for a unilateral and permanent cease-fire is, in effect, a demand for preservation of the status quo.

And the status quo is unacceptable!

The status quo is more October 7ths — or worse — again and again and on into the indefinite future.  Israel cannot and will not accept living with such a continuing threat.  Nor should it be expected to.  No rational and moral government could.

So, to all those demanding an Israeli cease-fire: where are your corresponding demands on Hamas?  Have I missed them?  Where are the calls for Hamas to:

  • Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally releasing all the hostages they are holding?
  • Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally disentangling their military forces and equipment from the civilian populations and sanctuaries they are using as human shields?
  • Surrender the war criminals who planned and carried out the rape, maiming, and butchering of civilians in an unprovoked attack to face justice, either in the Israeli courts or at the Hague?
  • Turn control of governance in Gaza over to some organization whose goal is the well-being of the Gazan people rather than conquest and destruction of a neighboring country and its citizens?

And how do you plan to make sure all those things happen?  I suspect asking nicely won’t be quite enough…

Yes, I want Israel to stop waging war on Gazans.  But…I also want Hamas to stop waging war on Israel!  And, when it comes down to it, the reality is that Hamas will never do that.  As long as they are left in charge in Gaza, the status quo — constant low-level warfare occasionally erupting into high-level warfare — is going to continue on and on and into the indefinite future.

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Should advocating for genocide against the Jews constitute a violation of campus codes of conduct?

It is only reasonable to defend repugnant proclamations as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of a principled policy of support for “free speech” if you actually and consistently have such a policy.

Defending repugnant proclamations on that basis when you, instead, have a well documented history of suppressing free speech to assuage the feelings of a panoply of highly offendable favored constituencies sounds exactly like what everyone is seeing it for: a defensive self-justification for treating one particular disfavored constituency with contempt.

When faced with situations that are murky or difficult or fraught with contradictions — when our own knowledge and experience seem inadequate, when we are simply ignorant or when our hearts and our heads seem to pull us in different directions and we are unsure of which to follow — we often look to “established experts” and “leaders” of various types to guide us. We accept that guidance not merely because of some perceived expertise but because of a perceived moral authority — an authority to guide us not merely on what is “true” or “effective” but on what is “good” and “proper”.

In some other world, the Presidents of three of our most prestigious centers of academic excellence, institutions nominally dedicated to the extension, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, would seem to be exactly the kinds of “leaders” and “experts” we might call upon for guidance.

Yet, the fact is, because of what has been happening on their campuses on their watch, those three had no moral authority to lecture us on the value of “freedom of speech”.

Their testimony was akin to Donald Trump asserting the moral authority to lecture us on the value of honesty…

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FWIW: How is the U.S. actually doing on reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions?

Per the EPA (emphasis added):

Greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 (after accounting for sequestration from the land sector) were 17 percent below 2005 levels

from “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” (data through 2021, published in 2023)

Further, that 17% decrease in emissions happened while the American population increased by ~12.3% (from 295.5M to 331.9M per the U.S. Census Bureau).  So, under the same assumption, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions per capita has been decreasing at an even faster average rate: more like 2%/year, nearly twice as fast as the rate of decrease in the actual emissions.  Demographic projections by the U.S. Census Bureau predict a declining rate of population growth (and even the beginning of a decline in actual population) over the next century (to something like 350M by 2050 and to 366M (and decreasing) by 2100).  Under the same assumption about per capita emissions that we made about overall emissions — that the average percentage rate of change will remain consistent —  we might then expect the net effect, taking slowing population growth into account, to be an overall reduction in emissions (again, below 2005 levels) of more like ~57% by 2050 and ~83% by 2100.

Those numbers are not, perhaps, what climate activists want or what climate scientists would say we should target.  They are certainly not “net zero”.  But, they represent real, measurable, and steady progress.

So they are also not, perhaps, what the most alarmist headlines would lead you to believe about how we are doing.

It may well be that we are not doing quite enough.  But, we are far from doing nothing…

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American Malaise…?

In the interest of completing the set — not to be the curmudgeon who laments about “…in my day…” or “…you don’t know how good you have it!”, but merely to remind people that this, too, shall pass — I have been thinking about what things were like in 1980, the year I graduated from high-school and began my journey into adulthood.  We were, for example, the last generation for whom the moon landing, Watergate, and Vietnam were all memories of experience rather than history learned from books. But, we were also a generation who came of age in what was widely described, at the time, as a period of malaise…

In 1980…

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Guns and Gun Control

A few highlights: click through for the full discussion…

Bottom line: As both a moral and a practical matter (“practical” meaning if they want to elicit enough cooperation to actually move forward on solving the problem), people who understandably and legitimately want to minimize the damage that guns do to the innocent need to respect and accommodate the concerns of those who value their own equally understandable and legitimate right to bear arms; but those who value their right to bear arms need to take responsibility for minimizing the damage guns do to the innocent — and must, without doubt, accept some amount of constraint, and even sacrifice, to achieve that end.

And, yes, “gun culture” and its fetishization of guns — which is completely different than the right to bear arms — is pathological…

* * * * *

People who value free speech object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to censor anything.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to censor things are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” limits on speech is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” limits on speech actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban speech outright (or, at least, to ban outright any speech they disagree with, which is effectively the same thing).

People who value access to abortion object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on abortion are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban abortion outright.

And, yes.  People who value access to guns object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on gun access are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban guns outright.

If you want to bring along the sensible, practical people who lament the current state of affairs and, yet, who value their right to have access to guns for self-protection and/or sport, you need to do more than “re-frame” the language and the argument.  You need to convince them that you are both sincere and trustworthy.

You are asking them to rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in their coalition.  In the same way, you need to convince them that you can effectively rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in your coalition.  You need to convince them that the “reasonable” proposals you have in mind really are — truly — your ends, and not merely a means to initiate a march toward something more extreme.

It has been a bedrock principle of liberal American justice that people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty; and it has often been said (typically by those on the “left”) that it is better that ten murderers go free than that one innocent man be unjustly condemned and punished as a murderer. We are exquisitely sensitive to injustice and unfairness. It has, arguably, both instigated and consumed much of our political discourse in recent years.

If we want to pursue policies that try to predict who should not be trusted with exercising legitimate individual prerogatives (like owning guns – or, say, owning cars), we had best design such policies with multiple and nimble levels of appeal and review, with ample opportunities for error correction, and with the onus of the major effort resting on those who would curtail such prerogatives rather than on those who would retain them.

And we had best design them to minimize, as much as possible, false positives.

To be clear: we all need to acknowledge that it is unreasonable and implausible to expect we can define a system that generates no false positives at all.  Gun rights enthusiasts just need to come to grips with that fact: any system that is effective enough to be useful in reducing the carnage is going to sweep a few innocents into its net.

But, the alternative is what we have now: far too many other innocents being swept into the net of gun mayhem.  That is unacceptable.

Yes, there is a price to be paid for freedom.  But, news flash for the gun crowd: not being shot in your classroom or at the supermarket or while playing on your front stoop is also a kind of freedom, and arguably more fundamental than a right to own a gun.  We need to be willing to pay the price to protect that freedom, as well.

That said, people who want to enact various gun-related policies (and many other “progressive” policies) also need to acknowledge something: that restrictions on liberty, of any kind and no matter how “reasonable”, do, indeed, come with costs as well as benefits – yes, immediate human costs but, also, through legislative/legal precedent and an induced cultural complacency about such restrictions in principle, long-term systemic costs as well.  The fact that the short-term, human costs are not ones that you, yourself, care about or will pay, or that the long-term systemic costs seem distant and abstract or are not ones you can imagine or lament, does not mean they don’t exist or are unimportant.

If you want cooperation from people who will bear those costs, you need at least to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge that building in safeguards to minimize those costs is a reasonable and beneficial part of any such policy.  Insisting – as many on the “left” do – that concern about those costs is irrational or illegitimate – or, worse, is depraved and malevolent – is guaranteed to make cooperation impossible.

Being averse to research on “gun violence” is not irrational, for the reasons of trust cited above: the people calling for and performing such research are, in far too many cases, doing so in bad faith.  Calling for research on “gun violence” is a nearly certain sign that the proposed “research” is not actually about science: it isn’t aimed at investigating and understanding root causes; and it isn’t aimed at testing a variety of hypotheses.  Rather, it is aimed narrowly at proving a specific hypothesis: that “Guns cause violence (and should, therefore, be banned).”

That is poor science because it presumes the result it is purported to be researching.

More importantly, that is poor science because it is overtly political – it implies that the “research” is not as much intended to expand the boundaries of knowledge as it is to manufacture justifications for pasting a “scientific” patina onto a pre-determined policy preference.  It is, all too often, advocacy disguised as science.  It would be like proposing research narrowly focused on “Black criminality” or on “The cognitive bases for gender disparities”.  There may be real-world observational evidence that those things exist — quite likely the result of historical circumstances, including historical injustices.  But, we can and would probably safely assume that anyone proposing such narrowly-defined “research” had some agenda in mind beyond the simple advancement of human wisdom.

Yes, by all means, let us research the nature and sources of violence and what might be done about it.  But, don’t limit our focus to one specific tool.  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture (including, but not limited to, “gun culture”) that breeds such solipsism and lack of empathy?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that fails to discourage people from acting out that solipsism, from inflicting it on others?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that so consistently fails to instill in its citizenry a respect for other people and a reverence for the Golden Rule?  And what can we do about that?

I would venture that the “framing” I identified – that people who want to be able to use guns thereby assume a responsibility for ensuring that all gun use is responsible gun use – may be the key to engaging with those who value access to guns.  Because, if we can turn the conversation from “rights” to “responsibilities” – if we can turn the conversation from “how we plan to impose our coercion upon you” to “how we expect you to step up and do the right thing” – the rest of the conversation will be immeasurably easier.

Perhaps, if we can find a way to turn our conversation about guns toward the duties of responsibility, rather than making it an argument about rights and regulation, we can not only make progress on guns but, then, extend that approach to politics and governance beyond guns into all the other subjects that currently divide us.

It occurs to me that perhaps the most effective policy for controlling gun violence would actually be to require any gun that can accept an external ammunition clip — which is a reasonably good proxy for its potential high-volume/long-term rate of fire — to be colored hot pink and fitted with a grip shaped like a phallus.

It would have no effect on the gun’s performance or its availability.  But, slinging a giant pink penis over your shoulder or strapping a giant pink penis to your hip to carry it around, or wrapping your hand around a giant pink penis in order to aim and shoot, would simply not look macho or cool.  It would not be photogenic.  It would not project an automatic aura of menace and authority.  It would, to the contrary, be rather emasculating.  It would indeed, make you look silly.

That would somewhat clarify exactly why it is that people think they need such firepower — it would tend to separate those who have some genuine need for a tool with that kind of performance from those whose primary need is actually for a brace to prop up their sagging self-esteem.

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Deterrence

Regarding W.F. Buckley’s musing on whether or not, in the end, Ronald Reagan would actually have given the order to launch our nuclear response, I must point out that such ambiguity was always at the heart of the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction — that it is, in fact and by its nature, at the heart of any strategy of deterrence.

For deterrence to be successful requires two elements that must both be present:

    • That your opponent believes you have the capability to retaliate
    • That your opponent believes you have the will to retaliate (including the will to depend on retaliation, rather than backing down)

Note that neither element requires that your threat be ‘real’ — that is, that you actually have the capability in the first instance and that you actually have the will in the second.   What matters is that you can make your opponent believe both are real.

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Why is “the right” so hostile to “climate change”?

The American “right” latched onto an “anti-climate change” attitude — and took that to the ridiculous extreme of being proof-of-membership-in-the-group — in large measure as a direct response to the early (and, alas, continuing) attitudes of the American “left” toward the subject.

From the earliest discussions of the potential for climate change and what we might do about it, the left succeeded in tying “climate change” nearly inextricably to “highly coercive and disruptive government mandated emergency command-and-control remedies”.

In that environment, there was simply no way to be both ‘conservative’ and accepted as someone who took climate change seriously. You were either wildly progressive or you were a “denier”. As far as the green left and the media that echoed its talking points was concerned, there was nothing, and no room for anything, in between.

To the extent that the “left” succeeded in transforming “climate change” from a legitimate scientific and policy debate into merely another excuse for getting what it had always wanted anyway and for other reasons — a self-righteous justification for telling us all how to live our lives coupled to yet more coercive authority concentrated in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats (to be guided, of course, by academic intellectuals) — it did mean that the opposition from the “right” to “climate change” was much more about opposing that coercive policy agenda than it was about the science, itself.

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