Archive for July, 2009

The Cop and the Professor

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

The title “The Cop and the Professor” sounds like a romantic comedy on Hallmark television channel, but has turned out to be an illuminating window onto contemporary American culture. For those who have been under a rock for the last few days, on July 16  the Cambridge police were called when a passersby, according to police reports “observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks” and “one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.”  The neighbor did not realize that the two men were Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and his driver returning to Gates’s rented home. The good professor had locked himself out. The police arrived. After this the details get murky, but Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. According to the police, Gates was unruly while Gates says he was treated with disrespect as a “black man in America.”

When people are confronted with stories of an incident with insufficient information from which to draw a definitive conclusion, there is a tendency to draw from personal experiences. African Americans who have experienced unfair police treatment in their past would be inclined to believe the account of Professor Gates. Those who have met Harvard professors might not be surprised to find one that was loud and arrogant in response to a perceived insult. One is reminded of William F. Buckley’s oft quoted remark that he would rather live in a society governed by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston phone book than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.

Unwisely, when confronted with a question about the incident at a press conference, President Barack Obama volunteered both that he did not have all the facts and that the police “acted stupidly.” While reluctant to comment on the Iranian unrest because of a lack of information, Obama, neglecting his obligations not to bias a case as the chief law enforcement officer in the country, was willing to opine on this particular incident. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol has suggested that Obama’s touchiness on the issue may be less an act of racial solidarity than class identity. Obama just feels more comfortable with Harvard professors and is willing to believe the worst about working-class police officers.

As the facts have sorted themselves out, the police officers involved are looking vindicated. Sgt. James Crowley as turns out is unlikely racist who valiantly tried to save Boston Celtics Reggie Lewis with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation 16 years ago. Lewis unfortunately died of cardiac arrest.

Obama has offered an apology of sorts calling Sgt. Crowley a “good man.” At this point, most have reached the conclusion that if Professor Gates had a cooler head he never would have been arrested and if Obama had declined to comment on a case on which he had limited information he would have lived up to his promise of being a transitional figure in US race relations. The unfortunate part, is that police officers will continue to feel defensive, real incidents of racial bigotry will be given less credibility, and Professor Gates will have one more tale of victimhood with which to regale his students at Harvard.

Soft Despotism

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

One of the problems with Liberals is that they often look for tyranny in all the wrong places, and are blind to real conspicuous threats to liberty that come with a smile. While I disagree, there is some value of the Liberals clamoring  to extend full Constitutional criminal rights to terrorists at war with us when captured on the battlefield. It is certainly of value to question the limits of enhanced interrogation techniques. Conservatives would like to return the favor to Liberals. We remind them that if the US were to experience tyranny it would likely not be of the jacked-booted variety. Such a despotism would not wrap us in chains, but a warm blanket from which escape would be difficult. Many have pointed out that French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville described this after his visit to the United States in the early nineteenth century. I repeat his words here, this week in the shadow of health care reform, because of their uncanny accuracy and eloquence.

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. .  .  .

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen. .  .  .

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd. .  .  .

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Economic Calculations

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

There is a broad consensus that when the economy is in a downturn, the government can mitigate the effects by stimulating the economy. There are at least three ways to stimulate the economy: (1) the Federal Reserve can increase the money supply reducing interest rates to encourage economic activity, (2) the government can reduce taxes in the hopes that this will spur economic activity, and (3) the government can increase spending to pump up economic demand.

In general, option (1) is preferable. The Federal Reserve can act quickly and potentially nip incipient downturns early. Admittedly, the money supply is a blunt instrument, but compared to tax decreases or spending increases variations in the money supply can act as a scalpel excising he effects of downturn. Sometimes, actions by the Federal Reserve may not be sufficient and one of the other two alternatives are necessary.

In general, Conservatives prefer tax decreases, in part because of their stimulative effect and in part because of the conviction that money in the private sector is more efficiently spent and is a greater spur for economic activity. Liberals believe that the government can act as an engine for economic growth, helping those at the bottom of the economic ladder, and that sometimes the government can allocate resources more equitably than the private sector.

However, discussions about a long-term strategy for growth are less important in dealing with the immediate impact of a severe downturn. The urgency has long been recognized.  Last winter, even before inaugurated, President Barack Obama was emphasizing (and thus perhaps contributing to) the severity of the downturn. In arguing for his stimulus package which passed in record time in February, Obama “wanted to shine a spotlight on how severe this downturn is all across the country, and to make sure that members of Congress understand the sense of urgency that I feel in getting something done.”

There was a common understanding that something should be done quickly and the Obama Administration took advantage of the “crisis” and decided that spending increases were the best approach. Conservatives argued that tax increases, by contrast, could be felt in pay checks almost immediately. The Obama Administration responded that there were “shovel ready” projects that could inject money in the economy. Indeed, the Administration predicted in January that if nothing was done, the unemployment rate would peak at 9% and with their stimulus package unemployment would reach no more than 8%. It is now only several months after the prediction, employment has reached  9.5% and is still increasing. Just given economic momentum and the current derivative of employment with respect to time, it is not unreasonable to expect double-digit inflation values. Those shovel-ready projects are, as anticipated by Conservatives, taking longer to implement than expected.

Stimulus packages of whatever variety are meant to be temporary expediencies.  The large deficits created should be alleviated when unemployment abates and economic growth accelerates. However, given the slowness of the economy to respond, certainly slower than promised by the Administration, the current deficit hole being excavated will be far deeper and require exceptionally large growth rates to overcome. It also calls into question the ability to afford Administration health care initiatives and to economically accommodate the climate proposals. The Administration’s response that the inherited economy was worst than they anticipated does not ring true given the alarmist arguments they were making both during the election and the rush to pass their stimulus package. If they can be so wrong so quickly about the economy, how can their judgments about the health care and the environment be trusted?

Thoughts on Hypocrisy

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

“He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves.’’ — William Hazlitt.

“Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.’’ — François de la Rochefoucauld.

During a plenary session at  a large scientific conference I attended last year in Boston, Dr. Berrien Moore, a member of the International Panel on Climate Change, gave a thoughtful presentation on the dire consequences of global climate change. His well-received presentation suggested that unless there were radical reductions in future carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the world would experience grave environmental consequences. It is not clear how many others were conscious of the irony of the situation. We were all at a conference having flown hundreds or thousands of miles from many parts of the world fretting about the consequences of modern society’s large carbon footprint. If we all took the thesis of the presentation seriously, why were we all flying many miles to attend a conference that might have been held virtually?

Now, I fully appreciate the benefits and importance of face-to-face contact at scientific meetings, but should not those who appreciate and understand the impact of climate change be the first, buy their example, to adjust their lifestyles as a witness to the importance placed onminimizing the impact of man on the environment. The fact that we ignored this implicit hypocrisy does not make the case for concern about global climate change any less or any more valid. Hypocrisy, however, corrodes credibility. If former Vice-President Al Gore can refer to the passage of the cap-and-trade bill as a “moral imperative’’ and Nobel prize-winning economist can describe opposition to the bill as “treason against the planet,’’ it seems little to ask that we save the fuel by conducting a conference virtually.

This distinction between personal behavior and public pronouncements was also conspicuous this week as Governor Mark Sanford admitted ignoring his marital pledges and jetting off to Argentina to spend time with a mistress. Sanford had publicly argued in favor of traditional family values, but clearly has difficulty in meeting these aspirations. It thus afforded an opportunity, for those who prefer a world where traditional family values are given less weight an opportunity, to ridicule Sanford. Given some of Sanford’s peculiar post-scandal behavior, it is hard to imagine a character easier to ridicule.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of advocates represents a convenient way to avoid dealing with very real issues. The high carbon footprint of those who argue for limiting carbon missions does not make the threat to the climate any more or less severe. The inability of those who argue in favor of traditional family values meet their own aspirations does not make the attenuation of these values any less socially destabilizing. Indeed, when people harp excessively on the hypocrisy of others, it is reasonable to suspect that they are motivated less by aversion to hypocrisy than the opportunity to score political points. Perhaps a better measure of consistency would be if those who fundamentally agree with an advocate of a certain position are first to criticize deviations. For example, do environmentalists take to task those of their own who live high carbon footprints, or are traditionalists quick to criticize those of their own who do not live up to their aspirations?

In Mark Sanford’s home state of South Carolina, 13 of 27 Republican Senators are calling for Sanford resignation. However, at a meeting of those who take the possibility of global warming seriously, there was nary a concern for the carbon footprint of the meeting. The latter, at least seems a bit too convenient.