Friday, February 07, 2003

Blind Spots: Everyone has their blind spot. Thomas Friedman puts his on display with his bizarre faith in his ability to divine public opinion based on the audiences at his lectures. This isn't the first time he's done this. Tom: those people are not a random sample. Is it possible, just maybe, that since your appearences tend to be in cities rather than rural areas--and I'd be willing to bet they often take place at universities--the audiences might not be a good cross-section of the U.S.?

Nick Kristof, whose foreign affairs insight rivals Friedman's, has a similar blind spot on gun control. His columns on that subject are a unique mix of willful ignorance and malice which is not found in nature. Hours after publication they have been ripped to shreds by high-school dropouts with AOL connections.

Both of these guys are very smart and obviously capable of deep thought about complicated and nuanced subjects. Both of them must receive tons of email and comments about these issues; I don't think they can plausibly claim ignorace unless it is self-imposed and intentional. I conclude that they simply have blind spots: areas of weakness which they are not capable of perceiving for one reason or another.

I'd like to poll the readership of my blog to see if you think I have any similar blind spots. I don't mean areas of intellectual disagreement--don't waste my time and yours with my refusal to acknowledge the obvious superiority of Social Security to 401(k) accounts. But is there any area where I'm as blind to reality as Friedman is to statistical methods?

Write me: bigots-at-keepandbeararms-dot-com

Tomorrow I'm going skiing; I need to be up early. Now to bed!

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Warning Memos: Every time something bad happens, we hear about the warning memos written in the weeks, months, or years before the tragedy. What we are never told, however, how many such memos are written every year.

Bureaucrats are not known for their boldness; if something bad happens, they want some sort of shelter for their posteriors. A vague memo that says something like "I have concerns about the security of XYZ" won't be remembered if nothing happens, but can be waved about after a tragedy. It's a kind of insurance for careerists; it gives new meaning to the term "rearguard."

But that means that LOTS of those sorts of memos must be written--one for each civil servant, for each possible contingency. And that level of dilution, even if half the memos are genuine, you'll never be able to tell the wheat from the chaff, and any real warnings will be lost in the shuffle. Certainly any non-specific warning will get ignored (presumably, a memo that said "Door 21 doesn't lock" would get appropriate attention).

We're hearing about vague, meaningless memos in the Columbia investigation; none of them seem to identify actual hazards. A similar thing is happening here in Seattle after the theft of a baby's corpse from a morgue. I can't take it seriously at all--anything other than the identification of a specific threat is more likely to be a CYA action than a meaningful piece of evidence in the investigation.

Telemarketing: I got a telemarketing call just now (8:45 pm). It was for--wait for it--cemetary plots! I am apparently entitled to $200 off a plot at a local burial ground. I know times are tough, and many people may be postponing death until they can afford it. Perhaps we should consider adding funeral benefits to Medicare? It might prevent this sort of drumming-up-business call.

Seriously--I'm 25, and I'm hoping to go at least another 50 years before I need one of these. How creepy is it to have someone calling as asking if I think I'll die soon?

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Poverty and Welfare: I've been having an email debate with Ampersand about poverty and welfare. The points made by both sides have been predictable, but there are a couple of things that came out of it for me which are worth thinking about.

To begin with, my fundamental philosophial objection to welfare is simple: responsibility. Before I pay to take care of someone, I want to understand why it is that that person can't take care of themselves. I really mean can't, by the way; won't isn't good enough. Now, this attitude isn't a terribly useful one for questions of government policy, for which the question is not "How did these people get into trouble?" but rather "How can we get them out of trouble?"

Still, I think that welfare would be a lot more palatable to me philosopically and politically if responsibility were a more integral part of left-wing rhetoric. Most people who are in deep trouble are there because they made bad choices; a simple acknowledgement of this fact would make me a lot more comfortable with handouts even if the handouts themselves didn't change.

Another question on the responsibility front is "Why should I work?" Right now I have a low pay, low skill job--driving a truck for an auto parts store. It isn't exactly intellectually challenging; some of my coworkers are annoying (not all); there's more physical risk than I'd like (hoisting 50lb brake rotors over my head while standing on a ladder); and, most importantly, it deprives me of the ability to read and respond to my favorite bloggers (although my wife has started downloading my favorites and bringing them home on disk). Why did I take it? Because I need to fill the time between getting my physics M.S. and going to law school with something which pays the bills.

I'd rather be on welfare, blogging cheerfully full-time, doing some home repairs, volunteering a bit so I don't feel useless, and spending lots of time at the shooting range. And it annoys me that I work my crappy job while someone, somewhere, gets part of my paycheck because he or she was too incompetent to put a condom on correctly.

Ampersand responds that I should support welfare because someday, I or someone dear to me may be unable to work. To begin with, the question of outright disablility is different from the question of unemployment or lack of skill. Even so, if I had been unemployed for the entire 8 months between MS and law school, I had enough savings to replace my income. Again: my wife and I responsibly saved what we could, denied ourselves what we didn't need or really, really want, and built a cushion against that time. And again, it's irritating to pay money in taxes that goes to people who couldn't be bothered to save.

But the truth is I do want to support people who are really desperate, even if they got their by their own stupidity--but I'd like to see some penance on their part, and I'd like to have some assurance that the mistakes won't be repeated.

Moving right along, one point of contention between the two of us was about the effectiveness of government vs. private solutions to poverty. I suggested that only a strong free market could end poverty for large numbers of people; Ampersand pointed out that France, with its big welfare state but ailing economy, has a much lower child-poverty rate than the U.S.

Let's assume for the moment that the child poverty numbers are truly comparable; that the definition of poverty is the same, and that the difference truly is due to redistributive programs, and not cultural factors or other influences. Still my point remains: government programs don't pull people out of poverty--they may pull people out of starvation, but an end to poverty, and upward mobility, come only from employment. Since the "poverty line" is a fairly arbitrary number, it's easy to push people above it--not so easy to make them self-sufficient, which ought to be the real goal.

And, in the end, we will always have poor people. Some people will always be making the kind of bad decisions which land them in dire straits, so any "war on poverty" will be permanent, and success cannot be judged by the number of people in poverty, but rather by the number who have been pulled out.

Don't look for agreement on this subject anytime soon...

Random Act of Pomposity: I saw, on the streets of Seattle, a car with the vanity license plate "EXONIAN." In Seattle, of all places. Wow. (If you don't get it, that's OK--it merely adds to the driver's smug sense of superiority. Ask Jane Galt.)

Framing a Story: Care for a little media commentary? Here's a Seattle P-I story about a local doctor who allegedly diagnosed child abuse where there was none--and a judge's ruling protecting the doctor from lawsuits. The paper quotes "child welfare advocates" who cheer the ruling as protecting the child-abuse-prevention system.

Yet, it seems to me that false accusations of child abuse, which come with traumatic exams and interrogations, and perhaps even involve separating children from loving parents and placing them in foster care, are themselves a severe abuses of children--and that true advocates of children's welfare would be just as concerned with false accusations as with true ones.

But, as is usual for a newspaper, this term has a radically different meaning--it refers to a specific side in this dispute: "child welfare advocates" vs. wrongly accused parents--and thus implies that parents are somehow not advocates for children's welfare.

Stereotypes: Here's an editorial decrying jokes offensive to dwarves (or little people, or whatever you like.) I agree with the writer, until he decides to describe viewers of a particularly childish comic show as "slack-jawed hillbillies." Gee, if you're writing about offensive stereotypes, maybe you should avoid using them yourself? Just a thought.

The Columbia: I can't write anything meaningful about the tragedy of two days ago. I haven't been able to read Lileks, but I'd bet a good amount that he wrote something wonderfully appropriate.

The only coherent though I have in my mind is "I wish Richard Feynman were alive." You can read his account of the Challenger disaster investigation in his book What do you care what other people think?, and I would strongly urge anyone interested in the current process--or in spaceflight generally--to do so. I just hope that the current commission has someone like him--iconclastic, technically brilliant, and bureaucratically inept--to get to the bottom of this.

Bush's drug plan: I'm really skeptical of any attempt to get the government to pay for people's drugs, but here's even more reason to be skeptical: Bush's plan to add managed care may already be in operation, and failing.

My favorite quote is this:
But consumer advocates [there's that framing device again--Rob] and critics of managed care counter that the industry's bottom line--not inadequate government funding--is dictating decisions to drop coverage.

In what sense, exactly, are these two ideas in conflict? If the government doesn't pay enough, that affects the bottom line--which then may drive decisions to cut people off. But if the governement increased payments enough, presumably keeping them insured would be profitiable again, which would prevent their being dropped.

SotU update: Armed liberal has a brilliant response to the SotU. If the Democrats actually talked that way, I'd vote for them, no question. Not, of course, that the Republicans actually talk that way, either. I wanted to email him, but my internet access is still really limited--so here it is: great job, man. Keep it up.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

I know where I came from: The hospital now known as the "Family Beginnings Center" on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

On the other hand, the obligatory black character on CSI came from a poor, high crime neighborhood and was set on the path to success as a police investigator by the wise coach at the local rec center. Talk about packing your stereotypes as dense as possible! And on the last episode, he actually told his old coach, "Hey, I know where I came from." I would have been tempted to write this off as yet another stereotype--how many black TV characters have said that?--except that the radio where I work is perpetually on Top 40, and I've now heard Jennifer Lopez's song about being "Jenny from the block" enough times to last a lifetime (and added J-Lo's singing alongside J-Lo's acting and J-Lo's ass on the master list of Things That Don't Impress Me Much).

Lopez, of course, also felt compelled to say "I know where I came from," which means that the stereotype has at least a grain of truth in this instance. So I got to thinking--why is it that people with humble beginnings feel the need to assure everyone that they remember their origins? In particular, why do those who have "made it" seem so eager to assure their former neighbors that they don't think themselves superior to those who haven't?

In most parts of the world, of course, earning one's wealth is considered inferior to inheriting it. People will go to great lengths to conceal their humble origins. This, I suppose, is just the vestige of the old-fashioned class systems which seem to have plagued most of humanity. Perhaps this behavior has lessened in recent years as class divisions have broken down; but Americans have been lapping up rags-to-riches stories since at least Horatio Alger, and probably from before that time as well. Upward mobility is part of our culture, and we generally admire people who overcome adversity, so it makes sense that successful Americans should want to make sure everyone knows where they came from.

But the weird thing about the examples I cited above is that they aren't aimed at impressing anyone--they have just the opposite goal, that of assuring others "from the block" that, in fact, "making it" isn't that impressive. When someone says "I know where I came from," it means, roughly, "I don't think I'm all that great just because I'm rich and successful."

Now, certainly I'm not endorsing arrogance or a dismissive attitude towards one's former friends. But why would we assume that people who rise from poverty to wealth are arrogant? Why would we assume that they have "forgotten" their origins? Why is it that we insist wealthy stars pretend--and indeed they usually are pretending--that they haven't changed a bit? Why don't stars with middle class origins feel the need to remember where they came from? And, for that matter, why do some stars (like Tupac) feel the need to pretend they grew up poor?

I don't know the answer--I can't even state the question clearly--but it's an interesting question.

Unintended Consequences: A Seattle P-I editorial about a Federal law designed to fix dangerous intersections--which ended up making some intersections less likely to be fixed (thank trial lawyers for that result). Congress tried to fix the law--and ended up accidentally making a bunch of important public records secret and stepping on the toes of state court rules of evidence.

It would have been nice if some of these rather obvious problems had been considered when the law was first enacted...or, even better, if the Feds had kept their damn noses out of an obviously local function.

February: February is Black History Month--the coldest, shortest month. But did you know that the first week is also Tarsier Appreciation Week?

Actually, I just made it up. But in between Malcom X retrospectives and burning Trent Lott in effigy--both worthwhile activities--why not take a moment to learn about an endangered species or two?