Of Statistical Mirages and Public Employee Compensation in Wisconsin

It has never been advisable to take the statistics thrown out in the heat of political battles other than with a grain of salt.  As the old saying goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”  There are many ways to slip in the lie.  For example, one can introduce variations in the way that common terms are understood, or compare apples and oranges, or simply imply that facts have a significance that lacks any reasonable justification.  The battle between the Left and Right in Wisconsin over public unions has generated some interesting examples. 

One of the most egregious comes from the left, although the right is hardly without sin in these matters.  Specifically, Ezra Klein of Journolist fame is citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that purportedly “proves” that Wisconsin public workers are actually under-compensated compared to their counterparts in the private sector.  The basis for his claim is a nice graph included in the study comparing public and private sector compensation as a function of educational attainment.  In all these comparisons except at the high school level, the public sector workers seem to be taking a huge hit, amounting to a deficit of anywhere from a quarter to a third compared to the private sector.  However, Ezra’s post quotes a couple of paragraphs from the EPI source document citing some caveats regarding this rather striking graph.  For example, at the very end of the quote, which appears in somewhat finer print than the bulk of the post, we learn that,

Controlling for a larger range of earnings predictors—including not just education but also age, experience, gender, race, etc., Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.

There is no explanation of why these controls weren’t factored in when the bar graph referred to above, which seems to show that public sector workers make a much greater sacrifice in order to serve the people of Wisconsin, was created.  It happens that one can find some possible reasons for the discrepancy if one “Googles” the EPI.  It turns out that Ezra somehow forgot to mention that the organization describes itself as “non-partisan but progressive.”  For those who happen not to be astute followers of US politics, those who deem themselves “progressives” are rather more likely to be found on the side of the public sector workers than the Republican party in Wisconsin.   Ezra also forgot to mention that the source of a big chunk of the EPI’s funding is unions.  Perhaps he thought it was too insignificant to mention.

The cost to the state of public pensions is, of course, one of the major bones of contention between Wisconsin governor Walker and the public sector unions.  It would, therefore, seem a matter of some importance to calculate this cost with some rigor, and to explicitly document the method used in any document citing that cost.  Unfortunately, the EPI source document does not do so.  It merely states that,

Retirement benefits account for 8% of state and local government compensation costs compared with 2.5% to 4.9% in the private sector.

It is unfortunate that the details of the method used to arrive at this 8% figure are not described.  It seems rather dubious on the face of it.  For example, Wisconsin teachers who retire after 30 years service will draw 48% of their top pay in pension for the rest of their lives.  It would seem plausible to assume that “top pay” is rather larger than “average pay.”  A teacher hired at the age of 25 would reach retirement age at 55.  At this age, the average life expectancy for US males is about 25 years, and for females about 28.  Any way you figure it, the cost of providing a pension of 48% of top pay for over a quarter of a century dwarfs the 8% figure cited by EPI.  Throw in the fact that this figure does not include retiree health and other non-cash benefits, and the discrepancy gapes even wider.  On the other hand, the average teacher will likely work for less than the required 30 years.  The EPI article does not mention how these and other seemingly salient factors are included in the data.  Apparently, its figure is based on the amount of money the state is currently setting aside to fund the pensions, a wildly inaccurate metric for determining what they will eventually actually cost.  Given that the organization is anything but an unbiased third party, this would seem to be a rather prominent red flag to anyone tempted to cite them as a source.

In a word, dear reader, to credit statistics thrown out by ideologues is to skate on thin ice.  Their main value lies in pointing the way to source material.  Should you really be so bold as to seek to isolate a small fragment of something as evanescent as the truth, you will have to endure the tedious task of sifting through a great deal of that source material on your own.

1848 in the Middle East

Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves.  The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception.  The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war.  In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh.  Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever. 

In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals.  For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view.  As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions. 

In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion.  The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right. 

What, then, of Egypt?  Who can say?  The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos.  Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky.  One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.

A Shooting and a Narrative

There is no such thing as news.  There is only narrative.  The significance of most of what passes for news is derived from the attention the media pays to it rather than its intrinsic importance.  A case in point is the remarkable, ongoing obsession of the news media on both the left and right with the shootings in Arizona.  In this case the feeding frenzy was set in motion by the left.  Even though there have obviously always been people on both ends of the spectrum who have no life outside of politics, I was still taken aback by their desperate attempts to seize on this issue like so many drowning men grasping at straws.  Evidently their resounding defeat in November was even more galling than I imagined.  They made no secret of the fact that they were waiting with bated breath for some incident they could construe as evidence of the “violent nature” of the Tea Party movement, conservative talk radio, and the rest of their pet bogeymen.  They admitted as much. As their reaction to the shootings makes clear, they were very eager indeed. They’re acting for all the world like so many Communists marching behind the coffin of a murdered “martyr” in days gone by. All that’s missing is the red flags.

Some examples of their overwrought reaction can be found here, here, and here, all based on zero evidence that there was any link whatsoever between the shooter and the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or anyone else on the right. The “objective” CNN even went so far as to write a panegyric of Sheriff Dupnik, now infamous for his ham-handed attempts at political exploitation of the murders, as the soul of wisdom, complete down to everything but his birth in a log cabin.  I doubt we’ll be seeing more of the same from those quarters, as in the meantime the good sheriff has been giving off such a stench that even the stalwarts of the left have begun holding their noses.

The left’s seizing at this particular straw was, obviously, ill-considered.  Other than not bothering to come up with any evidence to back up their accusations, only to find out after the fact that there was none, they set their own hypocrisy on a pedestal for the right to take pot shots at.  After all, the left doesn’t commonly engage its opponents in reasoned discourse.  Its forte’s have always been demonization, virtuous indignation, and a style of “eliminationist rhetoric” all its own.  They gave the other side a perfect opportunity to point that out, as they did with relish, for example, here, here and here.

There is little that can demonstrate the extent to which the left overshot its mark in its crudely insensitive attempts to exploit the Arizona deaths and the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords than the reaction of the foreign media.  Germany’s for example, is usually reliably leftist, often taking its talking points directly from the New York Times.  It is all the more remarkable that the Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, Marc Hujer, penned an article entitled “America’s Insane Debate,” in which he wrote, among other things, 

The very people who got so upset about the tone of debate in the past year, about the rhetoric of the Tea Party, the harsh words of the Right, the unabashed caricatures of Obama as Hitler, are now poisoning the debate themselves with shameless insinuations. Without learning the facts, they seek the guilty behind the attack, and commonly find them on the right, in the Tea Party, in Republican Party chief Michael Steele and Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.

The language chosen by Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers was doubtless raw and over the top, but doesn’t come close to providing any proof for the claim that they motivated the shootings in Arizona. Indeed, what is known about the shooter at this point gives no indication that he is a member of the Tea Party movement, or a fan of Palin, or that he has any clear political convictions at all. His favorite books included the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan, a weird collection. However, there is no indication that his act was motivated by politics.

The massive criticism directed at Sarah Palin is delusional, and not just because it’s a baseless accusation. The attempt to weaken Palin in this way could accomplish the opposite.

That’s strong stuff coming from a source that’s usually reliably critical of the right, in the U.S. as well as in Germany.  The left in this country might do well to take heed for their own good.  Perhaps more worrisome than their baseless accusations is what they propose as a cure; a further dismantling of the Bill of Rights.  In this case their targets are the first and second amendments to the Constitution.  If the history of the last hundred years is any guide, we have more reason than ever before to continue to fight against any diminishing of those rights.

Of Thanksgiving, Socialism, and Historical Revisionism

 An interesting piece recently appeared in the New York Times entitled, “The Pilgrims were… Socialists?” Written by Kate Zernike, the NYT article was apparently intended as a response to the custom on the right of drawing attention to the relative success among the pilgrims of private ownership of land as opposed to the original communal arrangement, citing it as an example of the impracticality of socialism.  As such, it was unusually weak, even for the NYT, whose authors have long since ceased trying to preach to anyone but the choir. 

To get to the bottom of the story, let’s consider what the pilgrim sources actually said about the transition from communal to individual plots referred to above.  Although mentioned by colonist Edward Winslow and others, the most complete account is probably that in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, so I will quote him at some length.

According to Bradford, (Chapter 4 of the History)

All this will no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. Aty length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view – for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance – all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and instability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class.

If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

In brief, it would seem that one would have to be foolhardy to challenge the assertion by conservatives that the early history of the pilgrims demonstrates the superiority of individual to communal ownership, or socialism.  They are merely letting Bradford speak for himself.  Be that as it may, the meme has been more visible than usual this year, and that apparently stuck in someone’s craw at the Times.  In any event, the editors decided to stick their necks out, knowing that most of the readers that remain to them would simply close their eyes and swallow. 

The article begins with a de rigueur swipe at the Tea Party movement:

In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Here we see the convenient but bogus view on the left of the Tea Party as a monolithic whole, with a uniform view of all things.  I can think of no past association of human beings that has in any way qualified as a “movement” to which that description is less appropriately applied.  The Tea Party movement is a lose association of people who generally favor a smaller role of government in their lives, but who in no way can be said to uniformly believe some common orthodox doctrine, or even to agree on who their “leaders” actually are.  On the left, however, the Tea Party has been racked and squashed into a quintessential outgroup in keeping with the time-honored tradition of our species. 

The author then goes on to create some strawmen, who go well beyond Bradford’s simple claim about the superiority of private property to communal ownership to claim that the pilgrims embraced capitalism, and held their first Thanksgiving to “celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”  The problem is that she can cite no examples on the right in which such claims are actually made, nor can I find any in a shakedown of the usual subjects.  For example, Rush Limbaugh’s offering for this year can be found here.  In it, he quotes Bradford at length, and mentions capitalism only once, and then merely as a system usually associated with private property.  There is nothing there to the effect that Thanksgiving was originally a “celebration of the glory of the free market and private property.”  Rather, according to Limbaugh, the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving to “thank God for their good fortune.”

There is no more sign of Zernike’s “Tea Party version,” on the websites of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Powerline, Instapundit, or any other conservative or libertarian blog I can find.  She claims that her “Tea Party version” appears in a one day course entitled “The Making of America,” by one W. Cleon Skousen, but there is no reference to Thanksgiving in the link she provides.  She also claims it appears in a post entitled “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax,” which celebrates the work of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, but here, again, there is no sign of the TP Version.  Zernike takes the trouble to pull a quote out of context from the latter:

Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.

In fact, the posts author, Richard Maybury, explicitly states that the first Thanksgiving was not held for that reason earlier in the post.  The statement above reflects his contention that the celebration would not have continued to the present day but for the abundance made possible by the change in system, not some revisionist interpretation of the intent of the pilgrims themselves as implied by Zernike.

The rest of the article is more of the same.  Zernike takes issue with Bradford himself:  

…historians (here the usual anonymous ‘experts’ make their usual appearance) say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

Since the pilgrims themselves saw the difference in systems as one between property held in common and helf by private owners, apparently they never read the books of the expert historians. 

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

True, as far as the shareholders were concerned, but completely beside the point as it relates to the distribution of property in the colony itself.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Again, this flies in the face of the source accounts of Bradford and others, who explicitly and repeatedly asserted that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not “enough to get them by,” and who noted in passing that grain was, in fact, rationed.  It always helps to actually read the book.

The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

Again, completely at odds with Bradford’s own account, according to which the cause of the grumbling was the system of distribution, and in no way supports Pickering’s fanciful revisionist version.

Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

This in the teeth of Bradford’s own, explicit assertion, quoting Plato, that the original system, in fact, didn’t work, and that the new system initiated a new era of abundance.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

This “real reason” seems to have escaped Governor Bradford, who was actually there, but was, apparently, not as clever at ferreting out hidden causes as Mr. Pickering.  Before finally fading away with a homily about the Iraq war, Ms. Zernike continues,

The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war.

and, once again quoting the ubiquitous Mr. Pickering,

“What’s going on today is a tradition of conservative thought about that early community structure,” Mr. Pickering said.

No, in fact, no “tradition of conservative thought” is necessary.  All that’s needed is to actually read Bradford’s History, where the assertion that private ownership proved superior to communal ownership is simply and clearly stated.  It’s hard to imagine why anyone would even bother to dispute the point, unless, of course, in spite of its abject failure wherever it’s been tried, they still retain a defiant faith in socialism.  I don’t doubt that, while it’s quite extinct among Chinese Communists, and even North Korean absolute monarchists, it lives on in blithe disregard for the events of the last 50 years in the breasts of a subspecies of American journalists.

For that matter, it seems to live on in Europe as well.  As often happens, the usual suspects at Der Spiegel have picked up on the NYT article, repeating it almost word for word in places, and then adding some thigh-slapping embellishments of their own for their credulous readers, ever eager as they are to read anything that portrays Americans as “weird,” “absurd,” or “crazy.”  In an article written by Marc Pitzke entitled, “Tea Party and Thanksgiving: How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism,” he serves up the usual “Tea Party as monolith” gambit, and then assures his fans that the “Tea Party thesis,” has been “gleefully plucked to pieces” in Ms. Zernike’s lame offering.  Taking care not to let Bradford speak for himself on the matter of communal versus private ownership, he, too, quotes the omniscient Mr. Pickering’s irrelevancies about shareholders.   Aware of the lack in Germany of any source of information that could seriously challenge the mainstream narrative about things American, Pitzke goes Ms. Zernike one better, describing the Tea Party movement, which represents a quarter of US citizens, give or take, as an “arch conservative” group, and, better yet, “a rebellious wing of the Republican Party.”

In pointing out the absurdities of the Left, it would be unfair to leave the impression that the Right is any better.  Their fanciful assertions that Ronald Reagan or, in the case of Catholics, the pope, defeated Communism single-handedly, and that Thomas Jefferson was a good Christian, are at least as dubious.  And the moral of the story?  Read the source material and make up your own mind.

H. L. Mencken and the Good-in-Itself

I just ran across an editorial by the Sage of Baltimore in his American Mercury that should be required reading for students of good and evil.  In the piece, which appeared in the issue of November 1926, Mencken encapsulates facts about the nature of morality that have been obvious to some of our best thinkers since at least the time of Aristotle, but about which academic and professional “experts” on the subject in the 21st century seem hopelessly confused.   Specifically, in spite of all that we have learned recently about the wellsprings of morality in genetically programmed and innate mental traits, and the fact that these traits exist only because they evolved, a great number of these experts persist, implicitly or explicitly, in defending the “noble purpose” fallacy.   By this I refer to the illusion that Good is a real thing, existing independently of subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and it has a goal or purpose, variously described as promoting “human flourishing” or some other chimera of that nature.

Mencken included his observations in a piece attacking Prohibition, which he considered an obscene assault on individual liberty.  In it he identifies the notion of Good as a real thing as the “categorical imperative.”  It is worth quoting his thoughts at length (bold and italics are mine):

That great statute has not only had the profound political effect of ereviving the old love of liberty in the hearts of the people, and their ancient willingness to run some risks for it; it has also had the still profounder philosophical effect of blowing up their old naïve faith in the categorical imperative. True enough, the name of the categorical imperative was a stranger to them, but nevertheless they once gave it full credit, and it was implicit in all the ethical schemes that bedeviled them, whether theological or merely constabulary. Right, in their view, was a definite entity, a Ding an sich (thing in itself), and as real as hot or cold. Wrong was equally clear and invariable. On this postulate all the gaudy nonsense of their law was based, and all the still gaudier nonsense of their theology. To question it was a sort of sin against the Holy Ghost, and indistinguishable from question democracy itself. But now they have learned to question it, and it seems to me that this learning has brought them many plain benefits, and vastly increased their intellectual dignity. For the first time in their history that have come to a surprised but not unpleasant understanding of the fact that the law, even the moral law, is after all only a human contrivance, and that what is put into it today may be taken out of it tomorrow. In other words, they have begun to realize that behind all categorical imperatives there stand concrete and highly human moralists, most of them with something to sell, and that the great and revolutionary discoveries of these moralists, when subjected to analysis, are very apt to turn out to be buncombe…

This rent in the moral fabric is greatly deplored by specialists in indignation, but it must be manifest to the judicious that it lets in a lot of welcome light. The whole imposture of law is salubriously illuminated, and with it the whole imposture of government. Hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – of simple men, hitherto in the habit of taking such things on faith, have begun to look into them a bit suspiciously – and suspicion, in that field, as in pathology and amour, is the beginning of wisdom. There is no slackening of belief, so far as I can make out, in those moral principles which ground themselves firmly upon human experience; swindlers, as everyone knows, are still reprehended, and the jail-doors clap upon them every day. But in the regions wherein morality itself becomes a sort of swindle, and the Good Man is indistinguishable from a Florida land speculator or a seller of Oklahoma oil stock – in these regions there is a growth of agnosticism, and even of infidelity, and out of it, in the long run, there will flow unmistakable benefits…

I long ago pointed out the colossal opportunity awaiting any Federal judge with enterprise enough to embrace it – and courage enough to face the blast of the Anti-Saloon League. Let him exhume the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments from the cold, cold ground, let him loose a bold judicial whoop for the whole Bill of Rights, let him begin sending Prohibition agents to the hoosegow, whence they issued to afflict a free people – let him do these simple things, all within his lawful powers, all within the strict boundaries of his oath, and he will come to such fame as not even the late Valentino ever encompassed. (That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?)…

The treatment that remains is to get the patient on his legs, and let him pursue his own devices, taking what he wants and rejecting what he wants. In other words, the remedy is to heave the categorical imperative out of the window, and with it all the ethical osteopaths and chiropractors who merchant it. It is perhaps easier, since Prohibition, to get new moral legislation on the books. The uplifters have learned how to crack their whips, and the legislators have learned how to jump. But it is vastly harder to get moral legislation obeyed. That far, at least, we have gone…

The next bit is a beautiful encapsulation of the inevitable difficulties even the most brilliant of our intrinsically moral species has in discussing and understanding morality.  Our responses to what we see as gross impostures almost inevitably have some moral coloring, even if the imposture we are rejecting has to do with morality itself:

Perhaps we are destined to go still farther. For years I have spilled ink denouncing the hypocrisy that runs, like a hair in a hot dog, through the otherwise beautiful fabric of American life. Now I begin to suspect on blue days that I have been chasing a categorical imperative of my own. Is hypocrisy, then, infamous per se? I can only confess that, at the moment, I am in some doubt. It seems to work. In the face of it, and theoretically impeded by it, there has been the great advance in ethical realism that I have been describing. Perhaps hypocrisy is an anesthetic that makes major moral operations possible; without it they might be intolerable. Perhaps it is a necessary function of democracy – a general assumption of the not-true, embracing many lesser but inevitable assumptions of the not-true. It may be that candor, like honor, would be fatal to the whole democratic process – that it presupposes a contempt for the general opinion, and no less for the general lack of opinion, that verges upon anarchy…

…one sees only that the ancient authority of the moral law has begun to crack. Not only the wicked, but also multitudes of the naturally virtuous, have brought the concept of duty into the light of reason. A law among us is no longer something to be obeyed automatically; it is something to be weighted and discussed, and maybe to be rejected. It seems to me that Prohibition is mainly responsible for that benign change. It has destroyed a very dubious and dangerous axiom by putting it into terms of the intolerable. That is a public service of high value, and even of a certain austere dignity. Let the band blow a blast or two in honor of the preposterous Mr. Volstead (Prohibition was referred to as the “Volstead Act”). He aimed at the bird of freedom (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and brought down a whole sky-full of buzzards (Buteo wowseris).

How refreshing and reassuring it is to read a piece like that at a time when moral “experts” can come up with some goal or purpose, arbitrary other than the fact that it must seem an attractive goal or purpose to most of the other members of the group to which the “expert” belongs, and claim with a perfectly straight face that, because the goal is desirable and attractive, it is, therefore, also “really Good,” and hence, by some strange, mysterious process, linked to the human emotional traits we associate with morality.  We still live in an asylum, and it’s probably worse than even Mencken thought.  For all that, occasionally a little light still shines through the cracks in the wall.

A College Professor Licks Boot

Apparently VDH isn’t the only one to feel the wrath of the secular priesthood lately.  Inside Higher Ed gives us a foretaste of what freedom of speech will look like once we have achieved “human flourishing.”  Here’s the blurb;

Eau Claire Professor Facing Punishment for Anti-Gay E-Mail

Administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire say they will punish a professor who sent an e-mail discouraging students there from holding a gay film festival because he decries “attempts to legitimize (homosexuals’) addictions and compulsions,” the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported. The student had sent an e-mail to a group of employees last month asking for faculty support in publicizing the Eau Queer Film Festival, a new event that took place last week. In reply, the newspaper said, Tom Hilton, chairman of the university’s information systems department, sent what university administrators characterized as a “hurtful and condescending” reply, saying that gay people, “our fellow humans, deserve our best efforts to help them recover their lives. We only hurt them further when we choose to pretend that these walking wounded are OK the way they are, that their present injuries are the best they can hope for in life.” Hilton told the Telegram Leader that he had worded his e-mail “very badly” and said that he was sorry and would cooperate if the university punishes him.

Charming! If only he’d asked for the “Supreme Measure of Punishment” it would have been a perfect caricature of one of Stalin’s show trials, with the unfortunate professor in the role of a Trotskyite.  As Instapundit puts it, “Academia, where dissent flourishes.” When the grab bag of evolved human emotions we share with other animals, and collectively refer to as Morality, are jury-rigged to run modern human societies, whether university systems or states, this sort of abject groveling must be the inevitable result.  The process of natural selection culminating in human moral behavior never took into account the fact that liberty and freedom of speech might someday be critical to our survival, allowing us to grope towards finding a way to accommodate  behavioral traits that evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago in small groups of hunter-gatherers to modern societies that are utterly alien to that primitive world.   Good never comes without Evil, and rulers who would defend the Good must punish the Evil that threatens it.  In our day that Evil comes in the form of heresy, the expression of opinions that are out of step with the prevailing moral paradigm.  Perfect morality implies perfect tyranny.

Would you learn more about how humans can be made to grovel and live on the intellectual level of ants?  You need look no further than the morality-based utopias of the past and present.  Read, for example, Roy Medvedev’s account of Stalinism in Let History Judge, or Yuan Gao’s account of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or observe the behavior of the current population of North Korea, or consider the manner in which dignified professors in academia are made to crawl on their bellies.  Those societies are the real face of morality-based “human flourishing.”  I personally don’t consider them immoral.  I have no objective standard on which to base such a judgment.  As an individual, however, I would prefer not to live in one of them.  If there are other individuals who agree with me, it would behoove us to consider how we might best live together in the future in societies that account for moral behavior, but don’t enshrine it.

The “Racism” of Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson has just been given a taste of what will be in store for those who aren’t quite in step with the orthodox dogmas of the religious Left once we’ve “turned up our moral knobs to include all mankind” and the new era of “human flourishing” has dawned.  The exploitation of human moral emotions to create new utopias always implies an “evil” as well as a “good.”  The “knobs” of our nature don’t allow us to turn on the one and turn off the other.  They always come as a package.  Hanson has dared to disagree with his “enlightened” colleagues in academia.  He is seriously out of step with the new orthodoxy.  He is a heretic, and, like all heretics before him, he is, therefore, “evil,” or, to use the currently fashionable alternative word for “evil,” employed by the priestly zealots who have just attacked him, he is a “racist.”

I personally don’t care to live in a world in which intelligent people who differ with the prevailing orthodoxies are silenced by the anthemas of secular religious bigots.  I have an alternative suggestion.  Let’s refrain from cobbling together another New Morality, and try reason instead.  It’s not exactly a novel idea.  You’ll find it in the pages of Aristotle’s Politics, Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  The Founding Fathers of the US gave it their best shot, and the results weren’t entirely negative.  In fact, they were better than anything that had come before.  If we keep trying, taking care to account for but not indulge our moral emotions, we might do even better in the future.

A Nuclear 9/11: Can we Defeat Nuclear Terrorism by Securing the Ports?

In a word, no.  Anyone who wants to smuggle the key ingredients (highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium, otherwise known as special nuclear material, or SNM) needed to make a nuclear weapon into this country can easily do so, and the installation of any combination of the most sophisticated radiation dectection devices on the planet at our ports will do nothing to alter the fact.  The idea that lots of expensive detection equipment at our ports, or any other ports, will significantly reduce the terrorist nuclear danger is based on a fallacy:  that terrorists capable of securing enough SNM to build a bomb will be brain dead.  They would have to be brain dead to try to sneak SNM past sophisticated detectors when there are a virtually unlimited number of ways one could get it into the country without taking that risk.  It’s not necessary to smuggle a nuclear weapon in one piece.  It could be brought in broken down into small components and assembled at the target.  The SNM could be smuggled across our borders in pieces small enough to be virtually undetectable by backpackers, on commercially available mini-submarines, light aircraft, small pleasure boats, or what have you.  The SNM could then be assembled and easily fabricated into any desired weapons configuration in place.  The whole debate about defeating nuclear terrorism sounds like it’s being conducted in a lunatic asylum.

For example, The Daily Caller (hattip Instapundit) cites a GAO report to the effect that, ”

The nation’s ports and border crossings remain vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 despite a $4 billion investment since 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a number of programs aimed at preventing nuclear smuggling around the world.

Senators similarly admonished DHS in a recent Senate hearing for failing to uphold its end of the bargain with the American people.

“Terrorists have made clear their desire to secure a nuclear weapon,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Given this stark reality, we must ask: what has the department done to defend against nuclear terrorism on American soil? The answer, unfortunately, is not enough… not nearly enough.”

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for the domestic aspect of DHS’s nuclear terror deterrence, received approximately half of the $4 billion investment, which it spent deploying over 1,400 radiation monitors at the nation’s seaports and border crossings in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

But these radiation monitors have a serious flaw: they can only detect radiation from lightly shielded radiation sources.

The only problem is that spending billions more to fix this “flaw” won’t help, unless you happen to have invested your nest egg in detection equipment.  The article continues,

The GAO report uncovered a bureaucratic nightmare involving DNDO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which resulted in the failure to properly develop and deploy detection equipment that could detect radiation from heavily shielded sources.

DNDO began working shortly after its founding in April 2005 on what it called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) and the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) ̶ intended to automatically detect radiation from heavily shielded sources in a user-friendly fashion in order to screen cargo containers in the nation’s ports and border crossings.

In the first place, radiation detection equipment doesn’t come in just two flavors; “good for heavily shielded sources” and “not good for heavily shielded sources.”  There are a great number of different types, all with their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of sensitivity, energy resolution, etc.  In the second place, it doesn’t matter what kind are installed at the ports, because terrorists will simply bypass them.  The whole port security paradigm is based on the premise that our opponents, in spite of their ability to acquire SNM in the first place, will be bone stupid.  They won’t, and there are much more effective ways to spend all the money we are throwing down this particular rathole.

The article goes on to cite Cato Institute budget analyst Tad DeHaven, who plays a familiar broken record to demagogue the sheep:

They are not subject to market forces and other controls, so they can screw up federal money,” DeHaven said. “There are not going to be any angry shareholders, and in most cases you are not going to lose your job, so the incentives for the federal government to efficiently and effectively procure goods … are poor.”

One wonders if he reallly gets paid to churn out such hackneyed stuff.  Tell me, Tad, do you actually know anything about the people who work for DNDO?  Did it ever occur to you that many of them might be ex-military, that they might be highly motivated and dedicated to their country’s welfare, and that it’s not out of the question that they care a great deal about working to “efficiently and effectively procure goods”?  You might actually try meeting and talking to some of them.  They work just down the street from you.  Did it ever occur to you that the problem might not be their lack of patriotism and dedication, but the fact that they’ve been given an impossible task?  And BTW, no, I don’t work for DNDO or DHS.

The article concludes in a somewhat more sober vein,

Heritage Foundation homeland security analyst Jena Baker-McNeill instead blames Congress for setting what she sees as an unrealistic goal of inspecting every container that passes through the nation’s ports and border crossings. Congress imposed the goal for political reasons without considering its practical implications, she said. Baker-McNeill believes more emphasis should have been placed on increased intelligence aimed at intercepting nuclear smugglers abroad due to the volume of cargo that enters the country and limited resources.

It seems to me Ms. Baker-McNeill might be on to something.  If we’re going to spend money to defeat nuclear terrorism, I suspect it will be much better spent on finding ways to keep terrorists from getting their hands on SNM in the first place.  Once they do, we can install the most efficient radiation detectors with the most clever software ever devised at all our ports, and it won’t deter them in the slightest.  We will only have bought ourselves a dangerous sense of false security.

State’s Rights and Federal Power

There’s no doubt the federal government of the United States is bloated beyond anything the Founding Fathers ever intended.  For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote in response to a scornful letter from some Englishmen, who were our enemies at the time,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

James Madison, a major architect of the Constitution, rejected the broad interpretation of the General Welfare clause that later became an essential rationalization for the cancerous growth of government.  As noted in Wikipedia,

Madison vetoed on states’ rights grounds a bill for “internal improvements,” including roads, bridges, and canals:

Having considered the bill … I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States…. The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified … in the … Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.[27]

Madison rejected the view of Congress that the General Welfare provision of the Taxing and Spending Clause justified the bill, stating:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

As noted at OffMyFrontPorch, he also wrote the the Federalist Paper, #45,

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite……The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

Jefferson was of like mind with respect to the meaning of the Taxing and Spending Clause, writing in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,

Resolved, That the construction applied by the General Government (as is evidenced by sundry of their proceedings) to those parts of the Constitution of the United States which delegate to Congress a power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” and “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution, the powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof,” goes to the destruction of all limits prescribed to their powers by the Constitution: that words meant by the instrument to be subsidiary only to the execution of limited powers, ought not to be so construed as themselves to give unlimited powers, nor a part to be so taken as to destroy the whole residue of that instrument…

Even arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton wrote,

The State governments possess inherent advantages, which will ever give them an influence and ascendancy over the National Government, and will forever preclude the possibility of federal encroachments. That their liberties, indeed, can be subverted by the federal head, is repugnant to every rule of political calculation. (Speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 17, 1788)

But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States. (Federalist No. 32, January 3, 1788)

That and much more like it can be found in the writings of the men who actually drafted the Constitution, and nothing that supports the creation of a centralized state of the kind the United States has become today.  Such ideas are now labeled “extremist,” as is anyone who objects to the radical redefinition of government in the United States that has taken place since the New Deal.  The Taxing and Spending Clause became the key to the massive growth of a centralized state after all, and the Tenth Amendment has become a nullity.  To remedy the situation, some are now calling for a Constitutional Convention to reign in the power of the federal government.  It won’t happen, or at least not anytime soon.  Franklin Roosevelt managed to stay in power through almost four terms, in spite of his dismal performance in managing the economy until he was rescued by the start of World War II, by passing out benefits to favored blocs of voters, who could then be counted on to defend their own interests on election day, normally conflating them with the interests of the country.  Federal power will continue to expand for the same reason, and all the Tea Parties in the world won’t stop it.

Wapo’s “Top Secret America” Extravaganza

The Washington Post’s editors were singularly unfortunate in their choice of weeks to publish their “Top Secret America” series, as it was quickly upstaged by Wikileaks. It’s just as well, as the content was pretty lame, and probably elicited many a sardonic scoff from the folks who work for the NSA and CIA. I’m certainly receptive to the serie’s central theme that “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.” Unfortunately, the articles are written in the time-honored “expose” style with its insinuations that the reader is being let in on “confidential” information that, like the dead tree media itself, has become an anachronism since the invention of the Internet.

In the first article, entitled “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” for example, we are presented with this spine-tingling description of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center at Liberty Crossing in McLean:

Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.

Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can’t conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.

Now, if Liberty Crossing “tries hard to hide from view,” it’s rather hard to divine how the second hit in a Google search of the words “Liberty Crossing Intelligence” could be the homepage of the National Counterterrorism Center itself, but it is.  Apparently the folks at NCC are singularly inept at hiding.  As for not being on any public maps, the first hit takes care of that problem by providing a satellite image of the campus and surrounding area.  The “men in black” are, no doubt, some of the ubiquitous security guys the enterprising tourist can find at any number of the Defense, Intelligence, and other federal agencies in the Washington area, many of them a block or two from the mall.  They don’t commonly “jump out of nowhere,” because, as I can confirm after having visited any number of secure facilities, they have no reason to hide.  I doubt that it would ever occur to one of them to draw their weapon because someone took “one step too close without the right badge.”

The article treats us to the first of several implausible anecdotes that run through the entire series. For example, one of the Department of Defense’s “Super Users,” the upper echelon guys who supposedly have access to everything, is quoted as complaining because,

at his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with classified information would have been aware, he had merely to ask for a classified notebook.  Such a “Super User” would surely have known this.  I’ve been to many classified briefings, but never in a room I would consider “tiny.”  Maybe he works for the wrong agency?  As for the darkness, he probably wouldn’t have committed a security infraction by switching on the lights.  He might not have seen the Powerpoint slides as clearly, though.

We are treated to more of the same in the remaining two articles.  The next in the series, entitled “National Security Inc.,” focuses on the supposedly baleful influence of the many contractors supporting the nation’s Intelligence programs, all of them apparently just waiting for the opportunity to betray their country to promote the interests of the evil corporations that employ them.  The authors never get around to explaining exactly why it would be in the best interests of the shareholders of these companies to supply government with a stream of traitors, nor does it attempt to enlighten us concerning the reasons that virtually all of the real traitors employed by federal intelligence agencies who have been exposed in recent years have not been contractors, but federal employees.  I happen to be a contractor with a clearance myself, but it seems to me these questions are germane to the points at issue. 

The authors claim that contractors are more expensive than federal employees.  However, if that’s true, it’s only true on the basis of a head-to-head salary comparison.  It doesn’t count the generous pensions and health care benefits that feds get when they retire, all of which must be paid for by the taxpayers in the same coin.   It also doesn’t count the fact that, while feds who don’t pull their weight are almost impossible to fire, contractors can be and are dismissed at a word from the federal officials who support them.  The author’s revelation that the firms providing contractors to government are actually in business to make a profit may be shocking to the editors of the Washington Post, but it hardly proves that contractors are more expensive or less effective than federal employees at performing their jobs.

The final article in the series, entitled “The Secrets Next Door,” is the most puerile of the lot, containing such silly stuff as,

Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. “TS/SCI” whispers an official, the abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information” – and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.

From this one can only assume that the official in question was grossly imposing on the author’s credulity.  One Jeani Burns, “who lives in the Fort Meade cluster,” is quoted as saying about top-secret workers,

I can spot them. They have a haunted look, like they’re afraid someone is going to ask them something abot themselves.

Guess I’d better take a better look in the mirror to see if I can pick out that “haunted look.”  Stuff like this does not leave one with a high opinion of the intellectual calibre of the rubes who still read the Wapo.  That’s not to say the author’s should loose heart.  They may score a Pulitzer yet.  After all, they’ve been awarded for stuff that was a lot worse.

UPDATE: From Stewart Baker at The Volokh Conspiracy, “If there’s no big story to write, and the database puts readers to sleep, why did the Post spend scarce resources on these things at a time when newspapers are in desperate shape?”  According to his theory, it was part of a complicated scheme to carve out market share.  It seems to me Stewart is over-analyzing this.  I suspect it’s more likely the editors at the WaPo are simply dinosaurs who haven’t noticed the meteor has landed.