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(if I were) King of (the) Forest Posts

Airport Congestion

The problem of overcrowding at peak load times is the result of a basic philosophical premise on the part the FAA: that takeoff and landing slots are a public resource properly allocated on the basis of “fairness” or “equity” or some other moral ideal — moderated, of course, by political suasion — and in defiance of any economic consequence. The predictable result is that the benefits of such allocation accrue to the winners in the allocation lottery while the costs are socialized across the whole system.

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The Supreme Court vs. The Powerless

Recently The New York Times has taken to criticizing the newly ‘conservative’ U.S. Supreme Court for rulings that respect and enforce Constitutional limits on the authority of the Congress and of regulatory agencies and of lower courts and of individual citizens to extract money and penitence from “powerful” individuals and corporations for perceived misdeeds. More often than not such criticism scarcely mentions the legal principles involved in the rulings or even the individual circumstances of the cases; rather, it invokes a misty-eyed empathy for the unfairness of the result, where “unfairness” is most often adjudged strictly in terms of whether or not the downtrodden were lifted up and/or the powerful diminished.

I wrote this to point out what should be obvious: that Supreme Court rulings are supposed to turn on points of law not on the degree of sympathy for or animus against particular litigants.

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“Bad Apples”, “Bad Bets”, and Bad Rhetoric

In March 2007 The Boston Globe published an opinion piece by Peter H. Schuck of the Yale Law School and Richard J. Zeckhauser of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard which described the adverse effects of so-called “bad apples” and “bad bets” on the effectiveness of government assistance programs… As a matter of optimizing allocation of scarce public assistance resources, Schuck and Zeckhauser advocated finding ways — and highlighted a few ways that have worked in the past — to shunt assistance around such people either by excluding them from the system entirely or by finding less resource-intensive ways of managing their disruptive conditions.

Amusingly, two of the three responses published by the Globe parroted precisely the objections the professors themselves noted in their article as the major roadblocks to implementing such a policy: an abhorrence among those who generally support public assistance programs toward either stigmatizing people as “bad” or giving up on them as “hopeless”; and a concomitant determination to solve the problem of “bad apples” or “bad bets” by allocating yet more resources toward their redemption. In other words, a dogged determination to ignore the realities of affliction, venality, and scarcity.

I had a different objection, not to their goals but to their prospects for success.

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15-year-old “women without husbands”: reporting on statistical analyses

Although I agree wholeheartedly that there is a general ignorance among both reporters and editors (and, by the way, among lawyers, and politicians, and “activists”, and a lot of humanities professors, and even some social scientists, and ecologists, and economists, and physicians) about those subjects, and that much better vetting of such stories is essential, the real problem goes beyond those narrow bounds.

The broader problem is that statistical and mathematical and scientific ignorance is magnified by a fundamental disconnect in language between those who generate such information and those to whom it is reported. Sometimes that disconnect is the result of simple misunderstanding. But often it is intentional – a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch used to manipulate public opinion.

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Social Responsibility

In December of 2005, Ellen Goodman wrote a column for the Boston Globe in which she pondered the general passivity and ignorance with which most of us, generous as we may be, approach our charitable giving. Her experience — and mine is similar — is that, upon reflection, we realize we actually know very little about many of the charities to which we direct our money. We pledge to the walk for Breast Cancer, but do we know how much of the money ends up actually used for research and whether that research is useful? The state Firefighters Association or the Association of Chiefs of Police asks for $25 and we think firefighters and policemen risk their lives for us and deserve our support — but do most of us have any idea how the money we give actually benefits firefighters or policemen? Even the large and well-known charities like the United Way or the Red Cross or our favorite church don’t always use their resources in ways we might expect or approve of.

The punch-line of Ms. Goodman’s column was a challenge to her readers to be less careless with their giving, to view it not merely as an act of compassion but as an act of social activism, to put some effort into envisioning what they want society to look like and to direct their resources with care into those organizations that can make the most progress toward achieving that vision.

And almost as an afterthought — but with the definite feeling that everything beforehand was leading up to this point — she challenged us to be equally discriminating in controlling the use of our tax dollars — in other words, to vote scrupulously for those who would use the government to further our own particular social vision.

Given the general sense in most of Ms. Goodman’s writings that almost any problem is best solved by some government program or regulation, I found an irony in her advocacy of individualized moral responsibility that I doubt she or many of her readers could see. I wrote this to try to point out that irony, but for some reason I don’t remember (but that probably involved some kind of holiday crisis) I never submitted it for publication. So here it is now, a year later but I believe still relevant.

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The “Judical Activism” Straw-Man

The complaint is not, and has never been, that judges are acting to enforce constitutional boundaries on the legislature; it is, and has always been, that they fail to act to enforce those boundaries — or act without constitutional warrant to make up new boundaries to enforce out of whole cloth — when reading the constitution rigorously would undermine some extralegal cause to which they have committed themselves. The complaint is not that judges act, but that they act in deference to some cause other than the rule of law that they have sworn to uphold.

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Loyalty, Competency, and Democratic Government

In early May, Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times chastised President Bush for undermining American government with his obsessive focus on loyalty over expertise as a desirable characteristic of high level officials — for surrounding himself with “yes men”. While I agreed with Mr. Friedman’s lament, I thought his column focused too much on internal psychological factors that might explain that obsession — factors about which we can do nothing — and under-emphasized possibly correctable external factors that exacerbate the tendency.

My particular concern was and is the failure within the current hyper-partisan environment to distinguish between policy disputes in the political realm — public and private debates among politicians and citizens over what policy should be — and policy disputes among those whose job it is to implement the policies that the body-politic has chosen to support. Citizens disputing policy politically is honorable and patriotic. Public servants, either elected or not, undermining implementation of politically decided policy from within the government through chicanery and obstruction is not.

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Early Presidential Primaries

Whether those states are Iowa and New Hampshire or some others, equally small and compact, there is, notwithstanding the preferences expressed by Derrick Z. Jackson and the leaders of the Democratic party, a benefit to holding our first caucuses and primaries in states that are neither so large as to prevent effective personal politics nor so dominated by a single large media market as to require enormous sums of money even to begin a campaign….

…For your consideration, I would submit that such a move would have made it impossible for some relatively unknown and underfunded but charming southern governor — say someone like Bill Clinton — to have emerged as a serious candidate. And I submit it would likely have prevented some brand-name candidate anointed and bankrolled by the political party establishment — say someone like George W. Bush — from having to confront any serious challenge or insurrection by the dissatisfied centrists who almost made John McCain the candidate in his place.

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