Friday, January 17, 2003

Stimulus Package: Who cares if Bush's tax plan will provide short-term stimulus? Let the economy take its course! I can't figure out why everyone expects the government to magically create jobs and prosperity. The best the government can do is preserve the rule of law and let private industry handle wealth creation.

Furthermore, why should the feds bail out state governments which face budget crises? That money all comes from the same place: you and me. Let the states manage their own budgets and face the consequences of their own choices. I can’t stand the notion that Washington, D.C. is just some kind of bottomless source of money to be doled out to whomever wants it.

If California faces a budget crisis, too bad for California. We here in Washington State face a budget crisis, too, and I don’t see how routing my tax money through the other Washington is going to help that.
MLK Day roundup: Libraries will be closed on Monday, so I probably won't be posting. Here are some links in honor of the occasion:

Charles Krauthammer wrote an excellent column during the Trent Lott affair which highlighted an important part of King's legacy: the absence of political violence in the United States. This one is really worth your time.

Robert Jamieson Jr., one of my favorite Seattle P-I columnists, writes about the problems at the Seattle NAACP. Although he is describing just a couple of people at one chapter of that venerable organization, I think his column could have been written about the "civil rights" movement in general as it exists in 2003.

A local professor asks, "What would King say about Iraq war?" He answers, predictably, that King would have thought exactly like the professor appears to. Boy, do I hate it when pundits and professors start cloaking themselves in the mantle of the long dead. How arrogant do you have to be to speak for MLK, or Jesus, or anyone else?

Point 1: nobody knows, or can know, what King would have thought about war in Iraq. Maybe he would have been a boneheaded peacenik; maybe he would have been a principled and thoughtful opponent of war; maybe he would have been a principled and thoughtful supporter of war; maybe he woudl have been a raving bloodthirsty warmonger (although that last one seems rather unlikely). King's statements on Vietnam offer little in the way of guidance, any more than James Madison's discussions of the proper way to balance the budget in fiscal 1793 are useful to the OMB today.

Point 2: It doesn't matter what King would have thought. He was a great man, no denying that. But he wasn't God, and--even supposing we could know what he would have thought--we don't need to obey him. Certainly, his thoughts have relevance, in the same way the thoughts of James Madison have relevance to modern-day debates about the relationship of citizen to state. But 99% of the material describing what King "would have done" is pure exploitation--attempts by writers who can't win debates on the merits to win by invoking a dead man who can't contradict them. If Jesus or MLK is your personal moral touchstone, good for you. But don't try to tell me I need to agree with you because, according to your own account, King would have agreed with you! Try making an actual argument instead.
Affordable Housing: A letter to the editor of the Seattle PI (scroll down) claims that the local "affordable housing" authority is offering a $30,000 subsidy on homes costing $250,000 to couples making less than $93,000 a year. My first reaction is "WTF"??? Why in hell should a couple making that much need any subsidy at all? My second reaction was "Why isn't this money being spent on people who actually need it???" You know the ones--domestic violence victims, laid-off single moms, etc. My third reaction was "Why can't people rent if they can't buy?" There's nothing wrong with that, and home ownership isn't some kind of Constitutional right. My final reaction was "Why didn't we get housing assistance?" When my wife and I bought our house, we were making roughly 30% less than that limit--and our house cost less. So now my property taxes are going to folks buying houses more expensive than mine on incomes much, much larger than mine.

Thank you, liberal affordable-housing advocates, my heart is warmed by your concern for those less fortunate.

The letter writer also claims that he and his wife make $90,000/year, and are "scraping at the bottom of the local housing market" in a northern suburb of Seattle. I live in the city itself, where houses are considerably more expensive. If a grad student and a secretary can buy a house in the city, there's no reason two professonals making $45k each can't figure out how to buy one in a much cheaper suburb--this is just pointless bitching from someone who thinks the world owes him a house.

See why I hate big government?
Personal Note: On a purely personal and entirely non-political note, I had a great day at the rifle range yesterday. As much as being unemployed sucks, there is one upside--I can go shooting when everyone else is at work. I had the place to myself, and of 120 shots fired at 50 yards off-hand, all but 2 landed within the 4.5" radius of a typical biathlon target. More than half landed in a 2" circle. That was my best day with a rifle ever. I guess all that dry-fire practice paid off! Now I need to go skiing on a weekday to prep for a biathlon!

Actually, to add a slightly political tinge, one of my left-liberal friends from college spent two nights at my house last week, and one night I took him out and taught him to shoot pistol at the local indoor range. Though he's not going to run out and buy a gun, I think he had a good time. But what's most telling is his attitude toward gun control--he seems ready to believe that I don't need to be controlled, but he worries about other people, who may be dumb or a litte crazy, and who therefore shouldn't have guns.

I'm sympathetic to this view--I have to share the shooting range with morons whose incompetence poses a direct threat to life and limb--but I'm still disturbed by both the elitism and naivete which is hiding behind it. (I'm not trying to insult my friend--he's a good guy and I like him, and as it turns out, lots of my friends take this same view--but I can't think of better words for what I'm talking about).

Here's what I mean: you can sum up this attitude with this statement: "Of course I don't mind if you have guns, Rob, but what about all the lumpenproles out there who will just end up hurting themselves? Don't we need laws to control them?" It's pretty easy to see the elitism in that statement, especially when you consider that most of the people who make it have graduate-level educations, as do I. (In fairness, no one I know has ever used the word "lumpenproles.") It's far too easy to stereotype people you'll never meet, especially if Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is you primary source of information about gun control.

But the notion that somehow gun control can be enacted without shrinking my rights is also terribly naive. From the perspective of the government, I am one of the lumpenproles who needs to be controlled. The government cannot possibly differentiate between me and the genuine idiots out there--and it shouldn't try. That means that my friends' good intentions--exempting me, mentally, from the list of people they worry about--does literally no good in the face of laws they support for other people. Nor will it save me when the creeping incrementalism of gun control ends up criminalizing the possesion of some of my guns. If my friends are sincere about not wanting me to wind up losing my rights, they need to tolerate the risks that fools pose to themselves and others.

I keep on plodding on, trying to change one mind at a time. Actually, it's more fun that way--I'm so tired of the bad faith and ignorance of the public debate (for the last time: a .223 Rem. IS NOT A "HIGH POWERED" RIFLE, YA FRICKIN' DIPSHIT!) but teaching someone safe gun handling and having a respectful disagreement with an old friend is actually a real pleasure.
Sniper Lawsuit: Some families of D.C. sniper victims have sued the gun maker and the gun store from which the gun came (illegally--it was probably stolen by an employee and sold under the table). How strangely American: a lawsuit about guns. Can we throw in a burger and Coke?

Most of the liability lawsuits filed against gun companies and stores in the last few years have been utterly bogus. Some companies have been accused of selling "defective" guns, where "defective" is defined as "not made with personalization technology which doesn't exist." Others have been accused of selling "too many" guns in bad neighborhoods--which leads one to wonder, if they refused to sell guns in those areas, would they be accused of racism? Probably.

This lawsuit might have some merit, however, since the store involved, Bull's Eye Shooter's Supply, has lost over 200 guns in the last few years. That's probably more than $100,000 in merchandise! I can't believe that that level of loss could be missed unless a store's accounting practices were somewhere between ultra-shoddy and non-existent. And, of course, such a large loss would probably be the result of criminal activity by an employee--activity that real inventory control would have caught. So a claim of contributory negligence is not insane.

On the other hand, it's hard to understand why the plaintiffs would name the manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms, in their suit. It's not like Bushmaster can possibly be expected to audit the books of all of the thousands of gun stores which carry their products. Still less plausible is the notion of Bushmaster actually counting guns on the shelves of those stores. That move looks like pure gold-digging. Alternatively, since Sarah Brady's gun-ban lobby is bankrolling the lawsuit, perhaps it is ideologically motivated. After all, why not sue the BATF, which, unlike Bushmaster, actually does have the responsibility of keeping gun stores honest?

I'm not sure how I feel about this, except to say that Bull's Eye has been a disappointment, and may well deserve the fate it faces.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Jackie Robinson and AA: While waiting for my job interview, I was stuck in a conference room alone with some inspirational posters. Seeking an escape from the jarring lameness of their slogans (Pride sets us apart, just like eagles, which is good for reasons we don't have time to explain), I ended up studying an art museum poster depicting baseball cards from 1909 to 1953. Amoung them were such names as Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

Most people know Jackie Robinson as "the first black man to play Major League Baseball." That he certainly was, and it was quite an accomplishment too. I doubt very much that I have half the grace, patience, and dignity that were required to tolerate the shockingly ugly open racism from fans, opponents, and occasionally even teammates.

But the reality is, even if Robinson had been white, he would have belonged on that poster with the greatest players of his era, because he was one of the greatest of all time. Compare him to, say, Ted Williams. Robinson had a career batting average of .311, Williams was a bit better at .344. Robinson hit 734 career RBIs and 137 home runs; for a 9-year career, that's an average of 82 and 15 per year; Williams hit 87 RBIs and 25 HRs per year. But Williams, in 21 years, stole just 24 bases, while Robinson stole 22 per season. Robinson's fielding percentage was better, too, at .983 vs. .974. Robinson was also the only rookie to lead the league in both batting average and stolen bases until Ichiro Suzuki's rookie year in 2001. (Ichiro dismisses the comparison, saying that he isn't even close to Robinson, which is in a certain sense true. 60 years after a major war with Japan, white Americans think nothing at all of chanting the name of a Japanese national at the top of their lungs.) (All stats from Major League Baseball.)

There were at most a handful of white players who were Robinson's equal when he played. No one could convincingly have claimed to be a significantly better ballplayer than he. He was dramatically superior no only to almost all of the white players of his era, but to almost all of the players of any race before or since.

I find it a little sad that this fact is overshadowed by Robinson's skin color. It takes no talent to be black; and while Robinson's dignity in the face of bigotry is commendable, I don't think his fortitude on this point exceeds that of most of the nameless civil-rights marchers who braved firehoses, attack dogs, and police truncheons covered with barbed wire.

I'd like to see a world where we don't obsess over the number of women and minorities in Congress, where it doesn't matter who was the "first black" whatever, or the "best black" whatever. And I see just that world in the world of sports, where pure meritocracy reigns. No one thinks that black men need preferences to compete in the NBA, even though they may come from neighborhoods where personal trainers and stay-at-home mothers are rare, and conversely, no one frets over the "underrepresentation" of Asians on the average offensive line. Lots of people would also like to see this world, but I think that those who encourage race concisousness are delaying, not speeding, a colorblind society.

A large part of the reason for this lack of racial conciousness and strife is the example of Jackie Robinson--a man who was asked to play in the big leagues not merely because of his skin (though that may have played a role), but because he was one of the best damn ballplayers around. By contrast, when racial preference programs are in place, minorities who benefit from them are relegated to "best black" status--the best of a particular minority group are hired or admitted to college, rather than the best of all. Perhaps this is a necessary evil, but I'm more inclined to call it simply an evil to be ended ASAP. AA programs give racists an excuse for their racism; they give non-racists a motivation to change their minds; they give "beneficiaries" an incentive to give less than 100%.

White racism made Jackie Robinson's race an issue when it shouldn't have been. He was ultimately successful in the face of hatred because he was one of the best, hands down. When we rembember him first and foremost as a black man, we are doing exactly what the bigots of the past did--and exactly what they would want us to do. And, in a certain sense, we are betraying his greatest legacy, which was a racially-integrated and meritocratic sports world. I'm not suggesting we "whitewash" Jackie Robinson, I'm suggesting we put his talent before his pigment, just as today's managers and coaches do.

I'm also suggesting we do the same for everyone else.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Busy, Busy, Busy: Job interviews; back tomorrow.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson is reportedly a very smart guy with excellent diplomatic credentials. If he can solve this North Korean crisis (and I mean "solve," not "delay for a couple of years") then more power to him.

But isn't it just a little annoying to have freelance diplomats running around? The whole point of vesting treaty making and other powers in the President is to permit the 50 states to speak with one voice to foreign nations. That means governors should keep their mouths shut when in the presence of foreign dignitaries.

Of course, it's possible (though pretty unlikely) that Bush asked Richardson veeeeeery quietly to do a little talking, in which case I retract everything.
More Race: I've been writing a lot about race, and I'd kind of like to get off of the topic. I think most of the debate comes down to an philosophical difference which I'd like to highlight.

Consider this essay about a white woman recently was called for jury service. She noticed that the jury candidates were all white and the defendant was black, and had this to say:
I was dismissed, and the trial proceeded with an all-white jury. Maybe you think it's fair. I disagree; I think an all-white jury is inherently biased. Kitsap County Superior Court can't find one black juror? What do you think the prosecutor thought was more important for justice, the advantage an all-white jury can mean for a conviction (the state wins!) or fairness?

I resent this a great deal. What this woman is doing is accusing me of bigotry. She has decided that because I have white skin, I must be a racist who is unable to fairly judge the evidence in criminal case involving a black man. Or, perhaps more charitably, she thinks I need the benefit of the "black perspective" to overcome my unconscious racism.

If I were on trial, I'd take a group of leftist black lesbians who would carefully weigh the evidence over a bunch of conservative straight white guys who were going to base their decision on whether I "looked guilty" or not.

Now consider this Ampersand post about the number of women and minorities in the new Congress. Lots of people, including many in the mainstream media, think these numbers are terribly important, perhaps as important as the Democrat/Republican numbers. I, on the other hand, find the constant dissection of the racial makeup of Congress tiring. As I said in Ampersand's comments, I (a straight white man) would vote for Tammy Bruce (a lesbian activist) or Thomas Sowell (a black economist) before Jim McDermott (a straight white guy, and my actual congressman). Hell, I'd actively campaign for Bruce or Sowell.

And, of course, I voted for a Chinese-American Democrat (Gov. Gary Locke) over a straight white Republican (radio blowhard John Carlson) in the last gubinatorial election, because Carlson is an arrogant ass unfit for public office. Locke is a bit of a milquetoast leader, but he's finally coming into his own with his bold if unpleasant budget cuts.

One last thing to consider: recently, I claimed on a comments board that racism in 2003 was a shadow of the racism of 1964. Someone retorted that the statistics on housing, employment, and law enforcement proved me wrong. Presumably this person meant that more blacks are poor than whites (relative to the total black population), more blacks are in prison than whites, and that neighborhoods remain somewhat segregated. I'm at a genuine loss to understand how such statistics could possibly prove the existance of racism, since racism is neither necessary nor sufficient for such disparities to arise.

But there is indeed a theme which ties my confusion and outrage on these point together. I focus relentlessly on individuals; my philosophical opposites are interested in groups. To them, economic disparities between racial groups are the very definition of racism; I define racism as animus towards individuals based on their skin color. I care only if a determined individual can succeed, and don't care if many undetermined individuals fail; they care about the total number of indivduals succeeding and are less interested in examining the causes of success. The white jury candidate didn't really care about her fellow candidates; she didn't know if they were smart or dumb, rational or illogical. She just knew they were white, which made them inherently biased and predisposed to convict. Likewise, she didn't care if a prospective black juror were smart or dumb, predisposed to acquit based on racial solidary, or perhaps predisposed to convict based on past experience with crime; the important thing was that somone should "represent" all blacks at the trial.

In like manner, those who delve into the numerology of Congressional race and sex don't really care about the competence or politics of the women and minorities they count--to them, it matters only that the right shades are present on the floor (OK, that an exaggeration--I'm sure a black Jim Traficant would not be considered a great asset to the black community. But the headcounts collected after each election certainly imply that race and sex matter more than competence). I can't help but regard that as an extremely weird attitude, since as I've said, I care nothing at all about what particular subgroup my representatives belong to. It heartens me to see Republicans in power; it doesn't much matter to me if they're white men or not.

I don't think these philosophies can really be changed by debate. I could be convinced that, back in 1955, race was such an huge factor in one's life that things like racial quotes and racial gerrymandering made sense. But in 2003? My opponents assert that racism is nearly as pervasive today as 50 years ago. Since their definition of racism is different from mine, we can agree--and yet still disagree.

I will, however, say this much--a strong focus on group identification rather than individuals is destructive. It does not serve anyone's interest to divide the U.S. into a bunch of warring tribal camps, each attempting to plunder the others via government. In fairness, white men have in the past engaged in just such divisive and racist behavior, so in a sense one could rightly say "they started it!" Still, it accomplishes nothing for everyone else to now join in that game, any more than it is useful for demonstrators to respond to police brutiality with violence of their own. Non-violent protestors suffering from brutality have far more moral authority than rioters. They are more likely to convince others and less likely to destroy things they themselves depend on such as local shops providing employment. In like manner, for minorites to engage in just the sort of race-based rent seeking once engaged in by whites is destuctive, and only likely to reinforce animus which is gradually falling away on its own.

No, we do not live in a colorblind society. But the quickest way there is to enforce colorblindness, and vigorously punish racism of any kind. Obsessive focus on race--even with the best of intentions--delays, not hastens, the ideal which all of us seek.
Affirmative action and footraces: A common analogy used by proponents of AA is a footrace. Dwight Meridith writes this over in Ampersand's comments:
Imagine a footrace. The first to the finish line will be the winner. That is "fair" as every contestant has an equal chance to win. Any difference will be the result of merit(footspeed).

Now assume that one contestant in preparation for the race is provided with a personal trainer, good food and state of the art training techniques and equipment.

The other contestant is prohibited from training, forced to eat lousy food and has to run in workboots.

Is the contest still fair merely because the first to the finish line is the winner?

Analogies are dangerous, not the least because they are usually carefully chosen to support a particular point of view, and admit few resolutions other than the one desired by the person making the analogy. Who wouldn't want to give a leg up to a runner hobbled by workboots?

Me, for one. Let's just assume, for the moment, that Dwight's runner comparison is a good one and not dwell on its faults.

First off, what's wrong with not winning a footrace? I was a cross-country and track runner for years; it was a rare race indeed which I entered believing I could win. The satisfaction of running is not found exclusively in victory, but also in achieving personal records and knowing that one ran well. In like manner, one need not attend Harvard to get a good education; one need not be CEO to have a satisfying career.

Some runners had greater natural talents than I had; some may have had better coaches, or less schoolwork to keep them up late at night. But I never asked for, and never would have gotten, a head start, regardless of the obstacles to success. Some people are possessed of advantages--rich parents, powerful friends--which others do not have. But it is certainly not the case such advantages are the sine qua non of a comfortable life, any more than a world-class coach is necessary for a runner to make progress and improve.

Moving right along, we should ask why it is that head starts and penalty laps are the only means of redress for unfairly disadvantaged runners. If a runner has only boots to wear, instead of weighing them and judging them to be worth 10 yards advantage, why not buy him a pair of running shoes? If some runners have superior training and nutrition, why not work to provide superior nutrition to all, rather than attempting to approximate the time value of a lousy diet? Why not focus heavily on lousy high schools, rather than offering certain minorities preferences in college admission? To be sure, that's a much more difficult goal--but also one which everyone can agree on, and one which truly moves us toward a colorblind society.

Do the incentives created by head starts bother proponents of affirmative action at all? It should surprise us not one bit if a runner who is guaranteed a 10-yard head start never achieves the speed of his non-preferred competitors. If he can win without it, why bother? And at what point do head starts become a hinderence rather than a help? The University of Michigan law school offers minorities a leg up in admission, which makes me wonder: how can a black kid from Harvard claim he is "underprepared" due to racism and Jim Crow? How many head starts does one person need before he can stand on his own--or will he ever be able to stand on his own, once he is accustomed to head starts?

Nor, of course, should we ignore the obstacle to reconciliation that such preference programs create among members of the majority class, in particular when a poor white kid is judged "privileged" relative to a wealthy black kid. Does it not behoove race official to focus on boot-shod runners, rather than simply assuming that all runners of a certain racial group wear boots? Why screw over the boot-wearing white guy while offering advantages to minorities who may or may not be wearing boots? In other words, if lousy high schools are the problem, why not focus on all students from particular schools, rather than all students of a particular skin color, regardless of school?

Race directors should certainly not go around affixing weights to the ankles of members of certain minority groups--and hiring managers certainly should not refuse to consider certain applicants because of their skin color. If some runners are showing up unprepared, it is certainly worthwhile to try to help them out--but by improving their preparation, not by giving them head starts. Nor does it make sense to simply assume underpreparation based on skin color.

So Dwight: sorry, you just haven't convinced me. I'm all for AA in the face of invidious discrimination (and therefore, perhaps, would buy it from a corporation with a history of bigotry), and I'm willing to consider preferences for poor people, but you'll be awfully hard-pressed to prove that Harvard's admissions office is a hotbed of racism. To me, it often comes back to the success of Asian-Americans and Jews, two groups that once faced discrimination much like that of blacks and hispanics--hard work, not government programs, is what helps people truly overcome. (Pointing out that Jim Crow laws were laws, not mere social conventions, only helps if you are willing to give up AA for Hispanics and ignore the old anti-Asian laws in western states).