Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alexander And The Great Man Theory Of History

I recently watched Oliver Stone's 2004 bio-epic about the life of Alexander the Great, Alexander, and while it's not by any stretch of the imagination a great movie - a script that's too meaty in some places and too thin in others and Stone's histrionic direction prevent that - it does illuminate interesting data point in the long-running academic debate about historical causation.

The so-called "great man" theory of history, that history is determined by the actions of exceptional individuals, has been under fire for more than a century. Tolstoy savaged it in War and Peace, and academics beginning with Herbert Spencer have subjected it to ever-increasing skepticism as ostensibly more scientific theories emphasizing economic, sociological, and geographical factors, such as Marxist historical materialism and Guns, Germs, and Steel-style environmental determinism, have come into intellectual vogue. Rather than focusing on the personalities or choices of the individuals involved in them, it has become the preferred mode of the historian to analyze events as the results of complex webs of historical causation, and to argue that in many cases underlying social, economic, and political conditions made them, if not inevitable, then highly probable. There is definitely some validity to this mode of analysis - it's hard to look at, say, the state of the Catholic church in 15th century Europe, and conclude that the emergence of a reformist leader of the ilk of Martin Luther wasn't extremely likely, or to make sense of the decisions of the Japanese empire in the period between World Wars I and II without being aware of that country's desperate need for steel, rubber, oil, and other material resources. Nevertheless, solely materialistic explanatory models have their limits as well, and Alexander the Great is a perfect illustration thereof.

It's hard to look at what the man did - expand a tiny, backwater northern Greek kingdom into a vast empire that stretched thousands of miles across three continents, and spread Greek cultural, philosophical, and artistic influences throughout it - and plausibly attribute to it any sort of purely materialistic explanation or sense of historical inevitability. Even if there were some inevitable historical impetus spurring the Greeks to expand their civilizational reach to the east - a highly debatable proposition, in my opinion - it's impossible to see it happening so quickly or extensively without a leader of Alexander's military brilliance, far-reaching vision, philosophical ambition, and political savvy. If Greek ideas diffuse slowly through the cultures of the middle east rather than arriving in a sudden, massive wave, Hellenistic influence may not have taken root in Baghdad or Persepolis until much later, if at all, and the Arabic civilization of the Middle Ages may have looked very different. It might not have preserved and expanded upon the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, and or reimported it into Europe when it conquered Spain. The knowledge, if it were to survive, would have done so in a different form, and the Renaissance, if it were to happen, would have happened very differently. The whole picture is obviously very complex, and deterministic forces no doubt do play a role, but it is nevertheless pretty difficult to see things unfolding the same way they did if Alexander never lives, or lives but is a man of lesser ability.

The debate among historians about the influence of individuals versus the deterministic power of large-scale historical forces will no doubt go on, possibly forever. To me, however, Alexander the Great is a clear example proving that the former matters at least somewhat.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chris Dodd Comes Out Against Oil Spills, Genocide, Mosquito Bites, Traffic Jams

It's good to know that the soon-to-retire Connecticut Senator is upset by the ongoing ecological disaster currently unfolding in the Gulf. I'd certainly be more likely to vote for a candidate who shares his view than for a member of the pro-baby-birds-drowning-in-crude-oil movement. Blaming George W. Bush for the disaster is a bit much, though. Bush's Presidency was a train wreck on multiple levels, and had this spill occurred on his watch I don't doubt that some scandal involving incompetence or lax enforcement at whatever bureaucratic arm of the Department of the Interior regulates offshore drilling would have emerged. The thing is, Bush isn't the President any more, and hasn't been for a year and a half. He's just a retired old man living on a ranch in Texas. Obama has had more than enough time to overhaul the executive branch to his liking, and screwups therein are on his watch and have been for awhile.

Of course, when your party controls both branches of the legislature, and its approval ratings look like this, I suppose it makes sense to deflect attention from yourself as much as is possible. Someone how I doubt "Ooga Booga Wall Street George Bush Party of No" is going to be an effective slogan for the fall campaigns however.

Monday, May 24, 2010

News Flash: Life Ain't Fair

Courtesy of Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode comes this jaw-droppingly stupid editorial from the Washington Post on "beauty bias". Certain people, shockingly, are considered more physically attractive than others by society, and this, equally shockingly, advantages them unfairly in their professional and social lives:
Just like racial or gender discrimination, discrimination based on irrelevant physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and undermines equal-opportunity principles based on merit and performance. And when grooming choices come into play, such bias can also restrict personal freedom.
The solution? We must, of course, include people who are ugly, fat, bald, and the like in the category of victims of discrimination and extend the umbrella of civil rights legislation to cover them. Don't worry, Rhode assures us, this will not result in a spate of frivolous litigation or the undermining of popular support for legitimate civil rights claims:

Such bans have not produced a barrage of loony litigation or an erosion of support for civil rights remedies generally. These cities and counties each receive between zero and nine complaints a year, while the entire state of Michigan totals about 30, with fewer than one a year ending up in court.
That, of course, might change if lawsuits based on this sort of claim ever gained any traction in the courts, or if we actually instituted the kind of legal apparatus that would be necessary to enforce a society-wide ban on discrimination based on appearance. As Andrew Sullivan (quoted in the article) succinctly put it:

By the time you've finished preventing discrimination against the ugly, the short, the skinny, the bald, the knobbly-kneed, the flat-chested, and the stupid, you're living in a totalitarian state."
I know that unattractive people are disadvantaged by their looks, and I sympathize, I really do. But all the evidence science can muster suggests that our preference for interacting with individuals we find attractive rather than those we find unattractive is a biological reality hard-wired into the human psyche. Progressives are very fond of arguing that certain things of which conservatives disapprove (homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, youthful irresponsibility, etc.) are ineradicable artifacts of human nature, often with justification. Why can't they accept that that's also quite likely true of things they don't like, such as behavioral gender differences or the tendency to judge others on the basis of appearance? How can a woman with a law degree and a teaching position at Stanford not have learned the elementary lesson that life isn't always fair?

Every totalitarian state in modern history got its start by assuming that human nature could be changed and the imperfections of our existence legislated out of existence if we only had enlightened enough leadership and instruments of social control well-designed enough to do the job, which ought to persuade any rational person of the folly of such assumptions. We can ensure, to an extent, equality under the law, and perhaps even equality of access to opportunity. But there's no way to ensure that absolutely everyone gets a fair shake in every situation. Unless I'm wrong. Perhaps we should give Rhode's proposal a try? And if civil rights legislation fails to correct the problem, we can always push for ratification of the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tough Cases

I'm rather uncomfortable with giving the President the power to extrajudicially execute American citizens, but people like American-born Yemeni Islamic radical Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has taken to advocating the murder of American civilians on the internet, make it clear that preventing him from doing so creates strategic difficulties, and also makes it difficult to object persuasively to the practice purely on the basis of constitutional rights.

What we need is a legal mechanism by which people like Al-Awlaki, who have left the U.S. with the clear intent never to return and declared themselves mortal enemies of the country and its people, can be stripped of their citizenship, and their right to trial-by-jury. Trials for treason in absentia, perhaps. This would make them fair game to be blown to pieces without creating a troubling legal precedent as to the war powers of the President.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thirteen Year Old Climbs Everest In Epic Feat Of Daring/Child Abuse

Thirteen year old Jordan Romero of Big Bear, California has just become the youngest person to climb Mt. Everest. While there's no doubting that reaching the summit is quite an achievement at any age, one must question the wisdom sanity of his parents in allowing him to attempt it. Though it's far less dangerous than it used to be, climbing Everest is still serious business - to date 216 people have died attempting it, according to Wikipedia, and every year that list grows. Furthermore, if you should suffer a misfortune on the higher slopes of the mountain, it's quite likely nobody will be able to help you, or even, for that matter, retrieve your body should you expire. It is, in short, no place anyone who can't make a fully informed, adult decision to voluntarily place his or her own life at great risk ought to be.

If we're going to prohibit minors from drinking, driving, having sexual contact with adults, and a host of other mundane activities on the grounds that they're not mature enough to engage in such behaviors responsibly - and no one with any sense would argue that we shouldn't - there's no way we should be letting them climb Everest. The government of Nepal, sensibly, recognizes this, and has imposed an age limit for climbers, but China for some reason has not, even though mountaineers consider the route to the top from Tibet a more difficult climb. That Romero made it to the top is a great human interest story. Assuming he makes it back down, we should all be thankful it turned out to be that, and not a tragic anecdote of terrible parenting.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Le Affaire Rand Paul

We libertarians don't have much of a voice in national politics, so it was refreshing to see Rand Paul win the Kentucky Republican primary (and, in a right-leaning state in what's shaping up to be a Republican year, almost assuredly a position in the Senate). I'm not under any illusions that a new libertarian golden age is on the horizon, but to at least have someone with a high-profile position from which to explain libertarian principles and advance libertarian arguments is a step forward for the movement.

As happy a development as that was, the reaction to Paul's now-infamous exchange with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC has been equally depressing. Paul's attempt to explain his philosophical and constitutional objections to the heavy-handed exercise of government power in legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was quickly spun into unqualified opposition to the law itself, which was then in turn spun into opposition to the goals of the law. Liberals have been tripping over themselves to declare Paul at worst a closet racist nutjob, and at best a hopelessly naive ideologue who doesn't grasp the "adult" truth that free market principles don't work in the real world. The White House has piled on with a self-serving statement that Paul's critique of government interference in individual rights "has no place" in today's political dialogue. Paul has begun to dig himself out of the whole with a clarifying statement, and I don't think this kerfluffle will hurt him in November, but the fact that the primary response from the left has consisted primarily of name-calling, a furious onslaught against libertarian strawmen, or both, does not speak well to the state of political discourse in the country right now.

While I see where he's coming from, I disagree with Paul that market forces and the choices of free citizens would have quickly dispensed with the Jim Crow regime, without the need for Federal intervention. Racism in that era, in that region, was simply too virulent and socially entrenched for a simple change in the laws outlawing de jure discrimination against blacks to have made much of a difference. As in my opinion any intellectually honest person should be, I'm willing to concede the point that in some instances my preferred political philosophy may not have the right answer. But it's at least an argument worth having, and Paul should not be laughed out of the room for making his side of it. His contention that citizens freely choosing not to patronize openly racist establishments would have brought about change in the social norms might not be correct in this instance, but one cannot on those grounds dismiss his entire philosophy as naive or unrealistic any more than one can dismiss liberalism because some liberals don't understand that government services aren't free. Nor can one dismiss the indisputable point he makes that, as noble as its goals were, the Civil Rights Act did involve a real intrusion on the rights of free assembly and private property on the part of the government. When we weigh our response to the pressing issues of today - terrorism, the drug war, immigration, health care, and all the rest - the impact that government policy has on individual rights ought to be a major consideration in the debate. Conservative and progressive ideology both have a tendency to trample on these rights in different ways in pursuit of their respective visions of an ideal society, and as the driving forces behind the two major political parties in our country, they are in a position to do so. The libertarian impulse is a necessary philosophical check on the excesses of both.

Though the test case in question is flawed, Paul makes a reasonable argument that society can deem the behavior of certain individuals highly objectionable without thinking that it is therefore prima facie legitimate to forcefully alter it by government fiat, and the related and important point that more government may not always be the best solution when there is a social problem. That he is the victim of (excuse the expression) a virtual lynch mob for doing so doesn't say much for the discernment or intellectual capability of his critics.

Why Do Still Need The Concept Of Evil?

In this secular, modern age, it's become fashionable in many circles to demote the concept of evil from a universal moral absolute to a cultural construct that's a product of the contingent norms and values of particular societies and thus differs across them. Implicit in this second definition of the term is the idea that people in one culture can't presume to pass moral judgment on those in another.

There is a certain psychological appeal to this, insofar as it allows liberal-minded cosmopolitan elites to feel good about themselves and avoid confronting in serious detail the more unsavory aspects of a number of ethically fraught issues which they'd prefer not to think about (e.g., abortion). And as someone with a great appreciation for the diversity of human cultures in the world, and a respect (for the most part) for their different traditions, I see a grain of truth in it, at least insofar as it applies to small-bore issues like dietary restrictions, codes of dress, and the like. That westerners as a rule don't eat dog meat does not ipso facto make the consumption of dog meat immoral, and I don't see how we can presume to judge cultures in which people do eat it.

In some cases, however, this nice, non-judgmental, situational, value-neutral attitude is utterly inadequate. All the Socratic parsing and moral relativism in the world are of little avail when there are still people like this in the world.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Specter Goes Down!

Every Pennsylvanian's favorite RINO-turned-DINO has lost the Democratic primary to U.S. representative Joe Sestak. This isn't a surprise to anyone who'd been paying attention, and was pretty much an inevitability, if not now then in November. After his after his near death experience in the 2004 Republican primary, in which he narrowly defeated Pat Toomey, Specter saw the writing on the wall and realized that a squishy Rockefeller Republican like him wasn't likely to survive long in the furnace of right-wing activism that has become the Republican primary process, and duly switched his affiliation to Democrat, but his late career defection transparently smacked of opportunism and desperation and won him little-to-no trust or goodwill in his new party while alienating whatever support he might have had left among similarly centrist members of his old one. His critical votes in favor of the polarizing stimulus and the health care reform bills weren't enough to save him when the state's Democrats thought they had a chance to elect a more reliable liberal like Sestak to his position.

Unfortunately for them (but happily for me, desperate as I am to see divided government at least put some kind of a check on Obama's spendthrift ways), I think there's a pretty good chance that Toomey, who's back at a more opportune time, is going to defeat Sestak just as he likely would have beaten Specter. An arch fiscal conservative who's a ferocious deficit hawk has the right message at a time when voters are extremely put off by how much money the Federal government is spending. And while Sestak made hay in the Democratic primary by tying Specter to George W. Bush, that kind of tactic will be less successful this year, not only because Bush is gone and the marginally popular President now in the White House is of his own party (as is the extremely unpopular Speaker of the House in the Speaker's chair), but because Toomey has been out of office for five years and is clearly the candidate best positioned to brand himself as an "outsider" in this election, contra Sestak whose fingerprints are all over the Obama agenda, including the most unpopular parts of it.

Every political career comes to an end sooner or later, even one as long and tenacious as Specter's. It's hard to believe the arc of the guy's career - from principle architect of the magic bullet theory during the Warren Commission hearings in the 1960s, to failed mayoral and gubernatorial candidate in the 1970s, to a five-term Senate stint culminating in a role as chairman of the judiciary committee during Bush's second term - and I don't know that we'll see many of its like happen again in today's political environment. Whatever you thought of Specter (I voted for him in 2004 but certainly had my disagreements with him), there's no denying that he was a smart, tough, and hard-working politician, if not the most principled one. Here's hoping Pennsylvania's next Senator can equal him in the former qualities, if not the latter one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Look Who's Talking

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it's just come out, once referred to users who trusted him with their personal information in the social network's early days as "dumb %#@&$". While it needs to be taken into account that at the time he made this comment, he was a teenager, and that the context was a private IM conversation with a friend (i.e., the sort of milieu in which off-the-cuff bullshitting is not unknown), it still reveals that Zuckerberg was aware of the potential breach-of-privacy issues posed by Facebook at a very early stage in the network's development. And given that his company has come under increasingly heavy fire in recent months for its indifference to user privacy, it's not exactly good for the site for its founder to be quoted in the media expressing a cavalier disregard for the privacy of and contempt for its users, even if the quote is the better part of a decade old.

Given that Zuckerberg never figured out how to monetize his product without alienating his customer base with heavy-handed marketing gimmicks and obtrusive invasions of their privacy, maybe he's the one who's a dumb %#@&.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oh, Please

In a move that will surprise absolutely no one with either half a functioning brain or a shred of intellectual honesty, the C.B.O. has upped its cost estimate on Obamacare to more than $1 trillion over the first ten years. The additional costs reflect the expenses of implementing the overhaul - setting up the insurance exchanges, assembling an enforcement apparatus for the individual mandate (20,000 more IRS Agents, whoopee!), and so on. As a result, the magical "savings" we were going to realize as part of enacting a massive, expensive new entitlement have already begun to evaporate, before the bill even takes effect. Never fear, however -'s resident Obamacare apologist/B.S. monger Timothy Noah tells us not to worry. It might cost more than we were told it would, but it's still a great deal! And it's not going to get any more expensive - really! This sentence is particularly dishonest:
But given the roughly $113 billion in government spending it currently
looks like the bill will save, it seems a safe bet that Obamacare will be able
to finance itself over the next decade.

Before the C.B.O.'s readjustment, it "looked like" the bill was going to save more than that. The fact is, what it "looks like" something will cost before it is actually implemented is a completely meaningless number. The C.B.O. acknowledged that its initial estimate of the price tag of Obamacare did not reflect the costs of unspecified "discretionary spending" included in the bill to fund its implementation, which essentially means that the estimate is worth precisely nothing to anyone trying to predict how much it actually will end up costing. Obamacare opponents, meanwhile, spent months prior to the bill's passage hammering precisely the point that the program was likely to cost more than projected, along with the related point that it would make it far more difficult to reduce the budget deficit by making some of the few cuts to government service that are politically feasible and using the proceeds not to pay down the debt but to offset new spending. The vast majority of Obamacare isn't even law yet, and already the critics have been proven right on both counts. If Noah thinks it's a safe bet that Obamacare is actually going to save the government $113 billion over the first ten years, he's welcome to put his own money down on it. Personally I'd opt for something with better odds - PowerBall tickets, maybe.

10 Directors You Didn't Know You Hated

The Onion A.V. Club has re-posted an old list. I didn't recognize many of the names on the list, and it's true that of the movies discussed, I disliked or outright hated most of the ones I've seen. I can't recall the direction being a major reason for this distaste in most cases, probably because in most cases it was merely one, forgettably mediocre-to-bad aspect of movies that were mediocre-to-bad across the board. One thing this list does prove is that the Michael Bays, Brett Ratners, and M. Night Shyamalans of the world truly are unique talents - there are obviously plenty of forgettable, indistinguishable hacks directing movies in Hollywood, so to separate yourself from the pack and achieve memorable, transcendant badness the way they have is a real accomplishment.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

E.U. Finance Ministers Kick The Can Down The Road

On the heels of their bailout of Greece, the finance ministers of the 16 member states of the Eurozone have approved a 500 billion euro plan aimed at stabilizing the currency. It would guarantee member states access to €440 billion worth of loan guarantees, and another €60 euros of emergency European Commission funding as a way to shield them from "difficulties caused by exceptional circumstances beyond their control". No doubt the intent is to reassure the bond markets as to the long term viability of the single currency.

The problem is, this package does precisely nothing to address the root of the problem, which is that European governments (and particularly those of the PIIGS countries), continue to spend beyond their means. Giving a government with massive debts access to emergency loans doesn't change the likelihood of eventual default on those debts, it just shifts the moment of truth further into the future. It's the equivalent of paying bills due at the beginning of the month with a credit card that isn't due until the end of it - unless you can cut expenditures in the interim, and/or find a new source of cash flow, it doesn't solve the problem, it makes it worse. As the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson points out in this trenchant, pessimistic column, the long term outlook is even more depressing. With an aging population and massive social welfare commitments looming on the horizon in pretty much every member state, the eurozone's long term prospects for economic growth are dismal. And its citizens don't appear willing to begin tightening their belts any time soon either. That being the case, it'd appear that the smart money is on bets against the euro in the long run.

Bond traders, not being stupid people, realize that. They're going to recognize that the euro isn't any better a long-term investment today than it was yesterday, and at best they'll hold onto their euros a bit longer in hopes of squeezing some short term profit out of them. Then, they'll sell. That is to say, they'll inflate the debt bubble a bit bigger with some good old fashioned currency speculation.

The eurozone boat is taking on water, and the finance ministers' response is to bail it from the back of the boat and dump it in the front. The U.S., Japan, and much of the rest of the industrialized world are in similarly dire straits. And politicians, like the band on the Titanic, prefer to go on playing a happy tune rather than to even acknowledge that there is a fiscal iceberg fast approaching. Ain't democracy grand?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Then, They Came For My Saltshaker...

Having already gone after trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, public health nanny staters are now agitating for banning salt in prepared foods. From a culinary point of view, this is an outrage - as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain points out in the story, salt is an indispensable ingredient in good cooking. There are aren't many recipes that don't taste better with at least a bit of salt in them, and some dishes simply can't be prepared without it. I'm as ready as the next person to denounce T.V. dinners - they're disgusting, and there's little doubt they're unhealthy. But if you enjoy eating food that tastes good when you go to a restaurant, the possibility of a bill like this becoming law should make you shudder in your boots. This is doubly so given that the evidence that sodium is uniquely pernicious in its effects on heart health is scant. The Japanese eat a lot of salt. They also have a very low incidence of heart disease and hypertension compared to Americans. Perhaps this is because their diet is relatively low in fat, cholesterol, and other substances which raise the risk of heart disease. As far as I can see, the best we can say about consuming a lot of salt is that it's bad for you in conjunction with consuming a lot of other substances. I don't see how eating it alone is a problem.

If the government wants to encourage people to eat more healthily, there's a simple solution that doesn't entail nanny state regulations, and has the benefit of raising a bit of revenue to boot - taxes. As a libertarian-leaning free-marketer, I see no problem with the idea that the prices of unhealthy foodstuffs ought to reflect their true costs to society. I'm fine with taxing the holy hell out of soda, cookies, doughnuts, chips, and whatever else is causing Americans' waistlines to bulge and their hearts to give out, the same way we do with tobacco and alcohol. I see no reason whatsoever why soda, for example, should be cheaper than bottled water. If the price of a two liter bottle were to go up fifty cents or even a dollar, it might discourage people from guzzling it as if it were water while not impeding their ability to pay for it as an occasional treat, and force people who do want to continue to drink it regularly to pay for the negative externalities that creates. The same is true of every other unhealthy food. If we decide that salt belongs in that category, I'll be happy to pay an extra $0.30 for my real French Onion soup rather than eat an alternative prepared without salt.

Good News On Public Health!

In North Korea at least, there are plenty of health service personnel and obesity is not a problem, according to the head of the World Health Organization. Good to know that at least one country has enough doctors, even if it's an oppressive Stalinist hellhole that shoots citizens who try to leave. As for obesity, well - it's hard to see how people could get fat when they suffer from chronic food shortages. No doubt the occasional nationwide famine has also contributed to the viability of the North Korean health care sector, by killing off the weakest 10% of the population and reducing their contribution to health care costs!

Suddenly, the answers to America's health care problems are clear - all we need to do is collectivize agriculture so that people can't get fat, and institute a police state to force doctors to work for free. Why hasn't anybody been pushing these solutions?

Friday, May 7, 2010

How Is Facebook Like the U.S. Dollar?

Dan Drezner has the answer.

My view: Drezner's analogy is a clever one, but I think the differences he notes in how the two entities achieved and maintain their current positions are more important than the similarities between them. Facebook is popular as a forum for online social interaction because more than any other social networking site, it has succeeded in making itself popular as such, and in the beginning at least, that was because its features were superior to those of its competitors. It's a question of consumer choice, albeit on a very diffuse mass scale. If the site continues to experience controversies over privacy and security breaches of the sort it has recently, the trickle of people abandoning it because of these issues will increase to a steady flow, and the tipping point at which its hegemony collapses will come quickly.

The dollar, on the other hand, functions as the global reserve currency because it is the only world currency that is viable as a currency of exchange on a worldwide basis as of right now. The yen might be competitive around the Pacific Rim, and the euro in Eurasia (though that will be less so once the Greek debt crisis shakes out), but only the dollar has unquestionable economic utility everywhere - until that becomes true of another major currency (something which I, contra Drezner, tend to suspect we should be able to see coming), nothing the U.S. government does to abuse holders of dollars will change that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brain Damaged Ben?

Irrespective of which he was guilty of anything criminal in the incident for which he wasn't charged last month, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is clearly a major asshole, as this Sports Illustrated cover piece reveals in painful detail. That's not necessarily news (plenty of professional athletes are assholes - paging Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Jose Canseco, and Michael Jordan), nor is it something about which I've got much more to say than I already have. However, one of the reporters responsible for the piece, David Epstein, wrote a very interesting sidebar piece exploring the possibility that Roethlisberger's antisocial behavior may be the result of damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. Impulse control problems of the sort Roethlisberger clearly has are consistent with injuries of that sort, and in addition to four documented concussions suffered on the football field, he also sustained serious head injuries in a motorcycle accident in 2006, as the story notes. Obviously, Epstein is no neurologist, and the neurologists he interviews for his story haven't examined Roethlisbeger, so this possibility is mere speculation, but it is intriguing speculation.

From the sad cases of Andre Waters and Mike Webster, it's quite clear that a long career in professional football poses a significant risk of serious and enduring head injury, and while the league has taken steps to increase awareness of the issue, they can't alter the fact that violent collisions between very large men running at full speed are a part of the game. Given that, a certain number of brain injuries are inevitable, and I wonder if at a certain point we won't decide as a society that football, at least as it's played now, is too dangerous to be respectable, a question Malcolm Gladwell explored in a provocative piece in the New Yorker last autumn comparing the sport to dogfighting. I'm not quite ready to ban the game (I love it as much as the next American man), but I am becoming increasingly convinced that fundamental rule changes to make it safer may be imperative. Limiting substitutions is one idea I like - if players had to play both ways and endurance were as important as speed and power, as in similarly physical sports like rugby and ice hockey, smaller physiques would predominate and collisions would entail less force. Furthermore, one of the major points of opposition to sweeping change in any sport - the argument from tradition - wouldn't apply in this case, since football originally was played two ways and if anything, such a reform would be returning the game to its roots. There are a lot of ideas out there (some of which Gladwell notes), and it may be time to start looking into some of them.

In any case, as much as I enjoyed playing football when I was in high school (and I did), I'm glad I quit before it turned my brain to mush.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Persistent Specter Of Terrorism

This is obviously good news, but the fact that cases of attempted terrorism of this sort are becoming bi-annual feature in the news media is frightening. My stepmother works in the security industry, and she says that for every failed plot that's reported in the news, there are a dozen more that don't get reported, and given that, I suspect it's only a matter of time until there's another successful attack on American soil. We can be thankful that terrorists as a group seem to lack imagination - as many people as it might kill in Times Square during a busy time of day, a van full of explosives could do a lot more damage if it blew up next to a chemical plant - but there are clearly enough people with both motivation and means that eventually one of these attempts is bound to succeed. Given the dire state of the economy that's the last thing we need.

Monday, May 3, 2010

For A Politician, Moderation In All Things, Including Unwarranted Certainty

Why is Andrew Sullivan so enthused about the fact that the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party, Nick Clegg, is a fan of Samuel Beckett? He says that he "cannot imagine a presidential candidate in the US unloading this five days before voting", and that's probably true, but really, who cares? Nick Clegg's literary tastes are irrelevant to the question of how he'd run the country, and if I were a British voter considering whether to vote for him I'd prefer an editorial on a substantive question that shed light on his political philosophy.

More to the point, is "a willingness to question the things the rest of us take for granted" really the kind of trait a political leader ought to admire? Or a borderline nihilistic existentialist who considered human existence a largely pointless and self-defeating farce really the sort of philosophical model one ought to have? Clegg cites as the reason for his fondness for Beckett the playwright's "courage to ask questions that are dangerous because, if the traditions and meanings we hold so dear turn out to be false, what do we do then?" I am at least provoked to thought by such attributes in a writer or a philosopher, and admire them in people belonging to those professions. In a politician, however, I think the type of personality that favors stronger if simpler convictions might be preferable. There's a fine line between firm conviction and dogged self-righteousness, of course, as someone like George W. Bush demonstrates, but I think our former President erred primarily in the strength of his convictions rather than in his judgment when he famously cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher. Irrespective of one's religious convictions, or lack thereof, and leaving to the side the fact that the Christian right has abandoned many of them, one must admit that the basic tenets of the moral philosophy articulated in the Gospels - do unto others, take care of the disadvantaged, refrain from being judgmental, etc. - are good ones on which to base a just society. Or at least, they're better than whatever moral precepts one might derive from Waiting for Godot. Even if they're not necessarily truer, they're functionally more effective - and therefore, it behooves someone entrusted with maintaining the safety and stability of society to treat them as if they were truer.

A strong willingness to defend functionally effective principles is more often what's required of a good leader than a philosophical inclination to deconstruct them. Leaders are by definition people charged with the responsibility of making decisions, and they must be willing to do so, even if those decisions turn out to be inadequate or downright poor ones in the long run - and even if the principles on which they are based are at best arbitrary, and at worst possibly untrue. A person who's thought is motivated primarily by epistemological doubts, who spends his or her time pondering whether the "traditions and meanings" that he or she holds dear might be false, can be of exceptional service to a democratic society as a teacher of analytical thinking, or a trenchant critic of conventional wisdom, see, e.g. Socrates. But such a person is unlikely to make a good leader - an observation frequently made by another playwright with whom Mr. Clegg is no doubt familiar - William Shakespeare.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Can't Sell The Sizzle If They Don't Like The Steak

The Democrats have unveiled their 2010 midterm campaign slogan, and it is "The Results Party". This is fair enough - they have succeeded in passing the stimulus bill, TARP, healthcare reform, and a number of other items that were on their agenda, so there's no denying they've gotten results. There's just one teensy little problem - the public doesn't like those results. The bank bailouts were wildly unpopular. So is health care reform, despite Obama's pre-vote promises to Democrats that once it passed widespread opposition to it would subside. Dickerson acknowledges this in his piece, but then suggests that Obama may be able to overcome the massive unpopularity of Congress by returning to the broad, idealistic themes that got him elected in 2008. Count me extremely skeptical. Empty post-partisan rhetoric is a well that starts to run dry almost as the cleanup for the post-election victory party starts, because it's easy to campaign as a post-partisan politician, but impossible to govern as one - as soon as the rubber meets the road, you start having to make controversial decisions, and in doing so start alienating voters and antagonizing ideological opponents. If what you're doing rubs voters the wrong way, your opponents can and will oppose it. In this case, the Republicans very possibly are guilty of politically motivated obstructionism for maintaining near unanimous opposition to most of Obama's agenda, but that's irrelevant. It's unlikely to hurt their stock much given that said agenda is broadly unpopular, and its signature accomplishment, Obamacare, was rammed through on a narrow partisan vote to boot. Furthermore, while the voters may give Obama somewhat higher marks than they give Congress, with a sub-50% approval rating himself he's not exactly in a position to be an effective pitchman. Poll after poll shows that independents turning against Obama and the Democrats, and without those voters, it's pretty tough to maintain a governing majority. All the soaring oratory in the world won't change that.