Sunday, January 30, 2005

Reality Games

Just how "real" is the Social Security trust fund? This issue came up again over at NPR's Talk Of The Nation, and Bob Somerby had a lot of fun with their confusion. I can't clear up the confusion, but I can explain why it is confusing. Let's run through a few alternative reality scenarios.

1) Some people buy US savings bonds to save for their retirement. Anyone who does not think these are real assets can stop reading now--the trust fund is no more real than US savings bonds.

2) The government requires us to buy US savings bonds to save for our retirement. Still real?

3) The government creates a kind of federal insurance corporation to hold these bonds for us. The 'contributions' to this corporation come from payroll taxes. The proceeds are paid out as annuities. Still real? This accomplishes two important goals, by the way: it keeps some people from outliving their retirements. They would otherwise become a burden on future workers--their children and/or communities--unless you think we should just set them on ice flows? It also keeps the children/heirs of those who die young from inheriting the unused bonds; if they did then they would also become a burden on future workers. The idea is to maximize benefits to the elderly while minimizing the burden on the young.

4) At the same time the government creates or raises the tax dedicated to buying bonds to save for the worker's retirement, it lowers other taxes by the same amount. Notice that this is a totally pain-free method for "fixing" Social Security. It has no net effect on either the money supply or on total taxes--for the short term. Its only effect is to create a debt that future generations will be required to pay--to us! What a deal! Is the trust fund beginning to look a little less "real"? Some will say yes. But notice that this is treating future generations no worse than if we run up a deficit and pay for it through method # 1. Notice also that we could achieve the exact same result--in terms of the burden to us and to future generations, if not in terms of perception--by simply passing a law that says that future generations must provide for the elderly. How are the IOU's in the trust fund (or for that matter the IOU's in scenario #1) any more "real" of an asset than the guarantees of such a law?

5) Like #4 above, except that we lower other taxes more than we raise payroll taxes. Otherwise known as the Reagan/Greenspan plan, this saddles future generations with the double whammy of having to provide for the elderly and for the other investors who funded the "roaring eighties" and the not so roaring 0's.

Permalink 3:36 PM

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Testing, 1,2,3...

I don't know whether anybody besides Kyle and I and occasionally Avedon Carol (thanks, Avedon) look at this website, but I'm still a little new to HTML, and so I sometimes have to publish an article a bunch of times to get the HTML right. There is a "Preview" feature provided by Blogger, but things don't always work the same in the preview as they do on the web site. In particular, javascript doesn't work right in preview. (And I'm using scripts to allow for a summary on the main page which expands to a full post when you click the permalink.)

Anyway, sorry for the disconcerting appearing/disappearing/morphing posts, if you were reading earlier.
Permalink 1:50 AM

Bush is cheerful in the face of death (other people's)

via Atrios

James Wolcott writes about Bush's sunny disposition in the face of death.

At NRO's Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez is impressed by the endorphin surge President Bush displayed during his press conference today.

"I only saw parts of it so I'm not going to be particularly helpful in relaying specifics--but, wow was he in a good mood. You almost get the impression he enjoys doing these now.
Posted at 11:14 AM"

Scroll down a bit and you'll see two earlier entries from the gal they call K'Lo.

"31 DIE [KJL]
in a Marine helicopter crash in Iraq.
Posted at 09:43 AM

W is holding a press conference at 10 a.m.
Posted at 09:39 AM"
Permalink 1:12 AM

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Thomas Frank: Why are Conservatives so Pissed Off?

Today I caught the tail end of "Making Contact", a radio program by the National Radio Project, which had an interesting talk by Thomas Frank (author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?") where he described the perpetually pissed-off modern conservative coalition. Click permalink for the rest... I recently started listening to a new (to me) public radio station, WEOS out of Geneva, NY, and I'm loving it. For one thing, it seems to have slightly more edgy political programs than the regular NPR stuff. For another thing, I've never been so crazy about classical music, which is the bulk of what you get on most public radio stations. The music on WEOS is much more eclectic; their "World Cafe" program plays a great mix:
David Dye plays quality music. Rock 'n' roll, R&B, folk, reggae, world, a little jazz now and then. He plays Norah Jones, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Damien Rice, Richard Thompson, kd lang, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Dave Matthews, and others.

and my favorite teenage leftwing musical prodigy, Nelly McKay.

But actually what I'm writing about is "Making Contact" a program created by the National Radio Project. Thomas Frank is the author of the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?", which I haven't read, but I understand to be an analysis of how liberals and the Democrats lost the support of rural states such as Kansas, which used to be hotbeds of populist politics.

Today I caught the tail end of a talk by Thomas Frank where he basically described what's going on with the modern conservative coalition that has pretty much taken over all levels of government in the US. I can't find a transcript, but from memory, here are some of his main points:

  • The conservative movement today is an alliance between big business conservatives and cultural values conservatives.

  • Big business conservatives vote their interests, but cultural values conservatives routinely vote against theirs.

  • A pillar of modern conservatism is the belief that things are screwed up by the "liberal elite" who rule government, Hollywood, our schools, etc.

  • Conservative victimhood. Modern conservatives spend most of their time being pissed off. In spite of controlling both houses of Congress, the Presidency, most governorships, the judiciary and a sizeable hunk of the media, conservatives still view themselves as poor, pitiful victims of the liberal elite.

Permalink 11:52 PM

Creative (or just Goofy?) Alternatives to War

(via Alicublog)

Peggy Noonan suggests that Steven Spielberg could single-handedly bring peace to the Middle East if he "...sent out a casting call for males age 12 to 30 he would immediately establish a new Mideast peace, at least for the length of the shoot. Because the only thing the young men there would rather do than kill each other is be a movie star."

Okay, that's pretty goofy, but considering that we will have spent a few hundred billion dollars, over 1000 US lives and many times as many Iraqi lives before we are through in Iraq, it does seem that it might have been worth while to experiment with alternatives to war. For example, what if, instead of invading, we had just bribed Saddam Hussein to leave the country? Maybe we could have offered him $1 billion, that still would have been getting off cheap. Or maybe we could bribe the insurgents: offer each of them $20,000 or so to give up their arms. That would still be much cheaper than war.

So why aren't more creative alternatives to war ever tried? Is it because bribery is immoral and sets a bad precedent? Is it because we know it wouldn't work? Because we worry that the rest of the world would make fun of us?

It's hard for me to see how a solution could be worse than spending $200 billion and killing 100,000 people (many if not most innocent).
Permalink 11:20 AM

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Christian Hypocrisy, or Just Human Weakness?

Via Avedon Carol's "Sideshow" who gets it from Relentless Optimistic,
Ronald J. Sider comments in Christianity Today:

The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general."1 Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.

Permalink 1:57 AM

Merit and College Admissions

Recently on "NPR News with Tony Cox" (I heard it on WEOS Geneva, NY) I heard an interview with Ward Connerly, an African American who has long fought against racial preferences in College admissions in California and Michigan. Connerly believes that admission to college should be based on merit, not race. Right now, I'm not going to get into whether affirmative action is appropriate, or helpful, but I'd like to ask a more fundamental question: Why should college admission have anything to do with merit?

It seems to me that a university is providing a service to its students. The students are basically customers. Does it make sense to ask whether a customer is deserving of your product?

Well, here's one answer: I think that there may be a good reason to be somewhat selective in offering eduction in that you don't want to waste time and effort trying to teach someone who doesn't have the capacity and background necessary to learn what you are teaching. It seems to me that the selectivity to get into some colleges (such as the Ivy League schools) goes far beyond the question of proving that you have what it takes to handle the material.

What it really amounts to, in some cases, is that colleges are so selective because that that drives up the value of a degree. It's a self-reinforcing circle: The degree from a prestigious university is valuable because it is so hard to obtain, and it is so hard to obtain because there is so much competition to get in, and there is so much competition to get in because the degree is so valuable.
Permalink 1:24 AM

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Who said this?

"These so-called ill-treatments and this torturing... were not, as assumed, inflicted methodically, but were excesses committed by individual leaders, subleaders, and men who laid violent hands on internees... It is obvious that there were elements among them who would ill-treat internees, but this ill-treatment was never tolerated."

Was it:

A) White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales?


B) Rudolf Hess during the Nuremberg Trails?

Click the article title to see the answer.
Permalink 11:36 AM

Thursday, January 20, 2005

CBS and the Bloggers: What it Really Means

Okay, many things have been written about CBS, Dan Rather, and the bogus memos. From the Fighting Keyboardists on the right side of the blogosphere, the story is one of triumphalism: The bloggers dug up the truth and exposed CBS as the lying, liberal propaganda network they've always known it to be. From the left, it isn't about liberal bias on CBS part, it was just a dumb mistake in a rush to get a story out.
"And third, because it's pretty clear that the reason the story was aired wasn't due to liberal bias, it was because of a far more prosaic journalistic sin: wanting to beat the competition." (Kevin Drum). Or, as Kyle says, it was to the benefit of Bush, diverting attention from Bush's record to CBS.

To me, though, it means the end of independent media in the US. The right-wing bloggers such as those on Little Green Footballs who held CBS' feet to the fire weren't driven by a burning desire to find the facts. There was no effort to discover the truth of Bush's service record. There is no comparable diligence in holding Bush's feet to the fire over his dishonest statements in support of the war, his tax cuts, his plan for privatizing Social Security. No, truth was not the objective. The objective was to punish CBS for daring to step out of bounds in criticizing their President. The message is clear: follow the approved script, or get pounded.

While the right wing complains about liberal media bias, the left complains about media cowardice in investigating the truth, in reporting truth, and in holding powerful politicians accountable.

The other side of the coin is the increasingly cozy relationship between journalists and politicians. The latest outrage, of course, is conservative commentator Armstrong Williams being paid to promote Bush's educational agenda. But the use of "embedded" reporters in Iraq is another example of the government trying to get journalists on their side. The deal there was the usual bargaining over "access": Politicians say "Play nice with us, and you'll get the juicy stories and exclusives. Otherwise, you get nothing."

The carrot and stick in combination are proving tremendously effective in keeping mainstream US journalism in line. The right wing might find this an occasion for rejoicing, but what it means is that increasingly, hard-hitting investigation of the powerful will only happen if it is being egged on by a powerful opposition. It's all politics, now.
Permalink 10:33 PM

Eric Alterman Exaggerates

Eric Alterman says:

What is one to say about today? To the horror of its well-wishers across the world, the United States—once the “last, best hope of mankind”- is re-inaugurating the worst president in its history; one who has exploited an attack, the success of which its own incompetence helped enable, in order to execute an extremist agenda that is killing thousands, costing trillions and leaving all of us far more insecure than when it began.

It's an exaggeration to say that Bush is the worst President ever. But his second inauguration is historic, in that he is almost surely the worst President ever to get re-elected.
Permalink 8:58 PM

Uniter or Divider?

Poll: Nation split on Bush as uniter or divider

Like Avedon Carol, I found this headline hilarious, for some reason.

According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday, 49% called him a divider, 49% called him a uniter, and 2% were not sure.

This shows that there are two types of Americans---pessimists, and those in denial.
Permalink 8:30 PM

Prophets and Wise Guys

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." — H. L. Mencken

(Someone quoted this in a comment to some blog, but I don't remember where)
Permalink 5:39 PM

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Human preferences are often not totally ordered, and this makes the results of democratic decision-making ambiguous. The classic case of this is voting with
three or more candidates.

Let's go back to Nader vs Gore vs Bush in 2000. I'm going to make up numbers, rather than use real numbers. Suppose that there were 4 groups of voters:

A. 47% Love Gore/Hate Bush
B. 49% Love Bush/Hate Gore
C. 2% Love Gore/Hate Nader
D. 2% Love Nader/Hate Bush

With those statistics, a majority of voters prefer Gore over Bush, and a (different) majority prefer Bush over Nader and yet another majority prefer Nader over Gore. Rock beats scissors beats paper. So what is the true will of the majority in such a case?

This article is not about voting methods, it is about policy choices. Click permalink for the rest of the article Suppose that the Republicans wanted to eliminate Social Security, but they didn't dare propose this because Social Security is a massively popular program. So how could they get to their preferred goal without risking the voters' wrath?

They would have to create a rock/paper/scissors cycle of preferences. For example, there might be three possible positions on Social Security:

1. No Social Security at all (if people want to save a portion of their
paychecks for their retirement, they are free to do so).

2. Pay as you go Social Security. Take a little out of the pay check from each worker, and use it to pay for guaranteed retirement benefits.

3. Mandatory private accounts. Each worker makes a mandatory monthly contribution toward his/her own retirement account.

4. Voluntary private accounts (which is actually the same as 1.)

It is very easy to convince people that 2 is preferrable to 1, and Bush is trying to convince people that 3 is preferrable to 2. But if you have mandatory accounts, aren't voluntary accounts (number 4) even better? But 4 is really back to square 1, which is where the Republicans want to be.

I think that there is a similar rock/paper/scissors cycle involved in public education. Nobody would support directly eliminating education, but I think you can reach the goal of eliminating public education if you do it in steps: the first step is to introduce vouchers...
Permalink 10:14 AM

Monday, January 17, 2005

Fair's Fair: Update to Gang Ethics

Conservative blogger John Cole of Balloon Juice, who I accused of being unable to be fair to his political opponents, has written a piece defending Kos of The Daily Kos against the charge that there was something unethical about Kos being paid to blog for the Dean campaign. Click permalink for the rest...John writes:

Let's review:

- Armstrong Williams is secretly paid $240,000 to be an advocate for administration policies, informing no one of the payment.

- The DasvhlevThune blog is secretly paid by the Thune campaign, all the while representing itself as mere partisan supporters.

- Kos and his associate are paid to do political work for the Dean campaign, disclose their relationship repeatedly, and make sure that people know that they are working for Dean and support Dean.

How anyone can confuse this issue and think it is the same thing is simply beyond me. While the Armstrong Williams and DaschlevThune cases are clear conflicts of interest, with no disclosure, there is no such ethical issue or appearance of impropriety from the MArkos and the folks at the Daily Kos.

So fair-mindedness is not completely absent among fierce partisans.

Permalink 10:48 PM

Short and Snarky II: Weird News from the Pentagon

Via the stinging nettle

THE Pentagon considered developing a host of non-lethal chemical weapons that would disrupt discipline and morale among enemy troops, newly declassified documents reveal.

Most bizarre among the plans was one for the development of an "aphrodisiac" chemical weapon that would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Provoking widespread homosexual behaviour among troops would cause a "distasteful but completely non-lethal" blow to morale, the proposal says.
Permalink 3:41 PM

Short and Snarky I: What they say about free advice

Driving directions from Haugesund, Norway to Trondheim, Norway (given by Microsoft's MapPoint Software). Posted by Hello
Permalink 3:36 PM

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Conservative Broadcast Systems

Something missing from most (all) coverage of the Dan Rather 'memogate' story is a very obvious point: CBS's sloppy reporting benefitted George W Bush. If it was an example of bias, then it was an example of conservative bias. [Click permalink to read more...]

Bush's National Guard record was already being re-examined by several major media outlets. The Associated Press, Boston Globe and USN&WR all had concurrent stories with new revelations about Bush's special treatment in the National Guard. And it has been widely reported that one of the reasons for CBS's rush and sloppiness was that other news shows were getting ready to run a similar report. If CBS had given the memos the scrutiny they should have, we would all be talking about NBC's or ABC's or even CBS's expose of Bush's irresponsibility and pampered treatment--instead of CBS's "discredited" report. By including obviously forged documents, CBS not only discredited its own report but effectively poisoned the waters for that entire line of investigation.

This is a repeating pattern. The media does something that benefits the Republicans. Other elements of the media claim that this benefitted the Democrats--or was intended to--and this proves their liberal bias. Most people believe this, because the media has established a reputation for liberal bias, and because no one is telling them otherwise. The ones who made the mistake in the first place say "it wasn't intentional," but they don't really support this claim. This reinforces their reputation for liberal bias, and makes the whole trick even easier to pull the next time.

Another good example of this was the early call of Florida in 2000. The only statistical analysis of it, that I know of, found it slightly more likely that it benefitted Bush than Gore. How many people know that?
Permalink 7:11 PM

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Mote In FDR's Eye

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. --Mathew 7:3-5

An open letter to President Bush. [Click permalink to read more...]

Dear Mr. President:

I realise that you and I have very different political philosophies, so I am not someone you are likely to look to for advice on how to deal with such issues as the looming social security crisis. Ironically, however, while we have very different philosophies, we share the same favorite political and economic philosopher. His words, as I have quoted above, are some that I try to contemplate whenever I set about to help someone with a problem. I believe they are particularly apt today.

Social Security, if left on its present course, is expected to be short by about 4 tenths of one percent of GDP per year, starting in about 40 to 50 years. That is to say that it will be obligated to pay out that much more than it has in assets or dedicated revenue. The federal budget, excluding Social Security, has been short by about 4 percent of GDP every year since you have been in office. Yes, Social Security has a problem; but Mr. President, that problem is a mote compared to the beam that is the present federal deficit.

When the time comes, future Congresses and Presidents may simply choose to borrow the 0.4 percent of GDP needed to make up the Social security shortfall. That may not be the best solution, but it would certainly be no worse than borrowing the same amount to pay for a prescription drug benefit, or a tax cut or any of the other things that collectively are forcing us to borrow ten times that much--in relative terms--today. In fact, our present budget crisis is literally ten times bigger than the future Social Security crisis is ever expected to be! And that present, much greater, crisis is far more your resposibility than a distant, much smaller, one--if only because you were elected in 2004, not in 2044.

Finally, if we continue to run these kinds of deficits for the next 40 years, just the interest on the debt that we will have amassed will be far greater than Social Security's shortfall. Conversely, if we eliminate that deficit and the accompanying drag it places on the economy, the economy might grow at such a pace that Social Security could remain solvent indefinitely. Remember that in the 1990's, as budget deficits were brought under control and finally--at least briefly--eliminated, Social Security's "crisis date" was pushed back 15 years in less than 8. If we could keep that up, then there would be no budget crisis, Social Security or otherwise. In other words, Mr. President, that mote you see in your brother's eye could well be merely a reflection of the beam that is in your own.

Yours faithfully,

Kyle McCullough

Permalink 9:21 PM

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Just Getting Started

Hi, I'm Kyle McCullough. My brother, Daryl, has kindly asked me to co-host this blog. (I may have something to say about the evils of nepotism later--after my upcoming rant on hypocrisy.) I hope to add to the public discourse--especially about politics, society and economics--with whatever wit I can muster. I have quite a few thoughts on current events and the course our country is taking--and of course, the course it ought to be taking. And if I manage to leave a few of you with a bit to think about, then I will have accomplished something.

A little personal stuff:

I'm younger than Daryl.

I have a wife and three kids. I'm sure I'll be writing about them sometimes.

I'll try not to embarrass them too much.

I have a degree in engineering, but I never use it. I work as a programmer in northern Virginia, not far from DC.

I do not know any Americans more liberal than me (except maybe Daryl's wife); but I do know some Australians, Irishmen, Chinese, Canadians, Brazilians, and maybe a Frenchman who are. American's are, as a whole, very conservative. I blame the press. More on that later.
Permalink 10:43 PM

Sexual Orientation -- Update

This or related topics have started popping up around the blogosphere. Check out:
Will Wilkinson
Matthew Yglesias
Sebastian Holsclaw
Permalink 8:45 AM

Monday, January 10, 2005

Gang Ethics and US Politics

A main feature of hyperpartisanship or gang ethics is complete inability to see things from the other person's point of view. In the mind of a gang member, there is nothing that his gang has ever done bad, except to respond forcefully to the evil actions of the other side. This complete absence of self-criticism makes each round of retaliation more deadly than the last. Compromise or restraint begins to seem like betrayal to one's own side.

Well Democrats and Republicans haven't gotten to the point of drive-by shootings, but it does seem to me that politics in the US has sunk to a low that makes me wonder whether compromise and dialogue are even possible, anymore. Mutual mistrust so poisons the air that absolutely every issue threatens to become a partisan battle.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but let's look at a couple of examples.
[Click permalink to read more...]
Here's a supposedly reasonable conservative blogger writing about the dispute over votes in Ohio: John Cole of "Balloon Juice"

Most reasonable Democrats (and this includes James Carville, Paul Begala, and Michael Moore, so perhaps I am stretching the meaning of the word reasonable) acknowledge that Bush won the 2004 election fair and square. However, the wingnuts will have their say to bring up all the nonsensical charges that there was voter fraud in the 2004 election...

When they Democrats tried to steal Florida in 2000, the result was a large swing towards the GOP...

Notice that John calls Democrats "wingnuts" for raising the possibility that there might have been voter fraud in Ohio in 2004. Yet, in the same post, he makes the charge that Democrats tried to "steal Florida" in 2000. Like a gang member who can only see the wrongs done to his own side, John sees Democratic charges of possible Republican wrongdoing as evidence of paranoia. But on the other hand, he thinks nothing of charging Democrats with attempting to steal an election.

Other examples are the complaints made by Republicans against Democrats for blocking judicial nominees. Of course, when Clinton was President, the Republicans did all they could to block his nominees. But somehow, Republicans only view it as reprehensible when Democrats use all tools at their disposal.

There are other examples that I'm too lazy to look up right now. But the upshot is that Republican routinely decry in Democrats behavior that they have no problem with when Republicans do it. You could call it hypocrisy, but to me it seems worse than that. It seems like gang ethics, where the only virtue is loyalty to one's own side.

Permalink 9:11 PM

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Liberalism and Conscience

To me, being a liberal means giving primacy to the conscience of the individual. I know that this sounds like I'm just saying "We're the good guys!" Everybody thinks that their side is the "good guys", so it's pointless to make such a claim (except as preaching to the choir). However, I think that while everyone thinks of themselves as the good guys, not everybody thinks that they are good in the same way.
[Click permalink to read more...]

Giving primacy to conscience means two things: (1) Conscience is the ultimate arbiter of whether something is good, moral, just, and (2) moral training consists of honing one's sense of conscience---becoming more sensitive to injustice and to the suffering of others.

I believe that this is very different from the way most conservatives think about morality. (If any conservatives are reading this---which I doubt, since as far as I know, I only have about 3 readers so far---please correct me if I'm wrong about this.) I think that conservatives are more concerned with teaching the rules of moral behavior, and they distrust or even disdain conscience. Some examples of conservative ridicule of conscience: In the old days, the epithet for liberal was "bleeding heart". That is making fun of the liberal's tendency to be guided by his or her heart. A more modern term of derision is "tree hugger". Obviously, having pangs of guilt about the human destruction of the environment is evidence of foolish sentimentality.

The conflict between liberal and conservative notions of morality is most stark in the case of religion. In spite of recent talk that associates conservativism with religious faith, I really don't think that conservatives are any more religious than liberals are. But there is a difference in their relationships to religion. Conservatives tend to think that morality derives from their religion. Liberals who are religious don't think that. Instead, their morality is something inner which they turn to religion to give outward expression to.

A couple of examples: First, there is the issue of homosexuality. To many liberals, denying someone's basic humanity or their rights as citizens or religious observers on the basis of sexual orientation is just wrong. And it really doesn't matter to them if you can find quotes in the Bible condemning homosexuality---their sense of morality doesn't come from the Bible. That doesn't mean that liberals reject the Bible or reject the teachings of Jesus, but that the morality comes first: The Bible is holy because of the morality of so much of its teachings, rather than the teachings being moral because they are in the Bible.

Another case is the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (Yes, it's probably unfair of me to analyze this in terms of liberal/conservative, since it reflects the sensibilities of a people 3000 years ago that can't fit in modern terms). Abraham was told by God (or some Angel claiming to speak for God) to take his beloved son, Isaac, up into the hills and kill him as a sacrifice to God. And Abraham went along with this hideous request. (For those who haven't read the story, it turns out okay in the end...)

From the point of view of many religious people (and I would tend to think that these would be religious conservatives), Abraham was showing amazing religious faith and moral courage to obey God even when his heart told him to do otherwise. But as a liberal, I'm outraged by Abraham's wimpiness. If God told me to kill my child, I'd say: Screw you, God! Conscience for me is primary, even over the will of God.

This actually relates to some Socratic dialog---maybe someone more educated than I am could help me identify which one. Socrates acknowledges (for the sake of argument, at least) that the will of the gods is good. But then he asks: Is it good because it is the will of the gods, or is it the will of the gods because it is good? The liberal and the conservative may have different answers.
Permalink 5:04 PM

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


I've always admired libertarianism because it is one of the few idealogies that attempt to derive their political positions from first principles. Conservatives, in contrast, seem to work their way backwards from what they want to why it's the right thing to do, anyway. Liberals, I think, are more concerned with results than with principles. But libertarians are genuinely concerned about what is right, in their view. The notion of what is right for the libertarian, it seems to me, ultimately revolves around the issue of ownership.

Any interaction between human beings is legitimate, for the libertarian, if it is the result of a free exchange between owners. If I have something that you want, and you have something that I want, then it's nobody's business but ours if we decide to exchange them, as long as nobody was coerced into making the exchange.

I like this philosophy because it's simple to understand and to reason about. But I don't really believe in it anymore (I once did...)
[Click permalink to read more...]
There are two problems that I have with libertarianism: (1) I don't think that the notion of fair exchange is well-founded, and (2) I think that unmoderated libertarianism leads to a state that is functionally equivalent to feudalism.

First, well-foundedness. Libertarianism is about a process, how to get from point A to point B through legitimate means. If we agree that I own this car, and we agree that the $20,000 in your wallet belongs to you, then if we freely exchange your money for my car, then afterwards, we agree that you own the car, and I have the money. Right? Okay, but how do we agree that I legitimately own the car? Well, I must have legitimately bought it from somebody. But how did he come to own it? There is a chicken-or-egg problem here. If the only way I can legitimately own something is by buying it from a legitimate owner, then how did the first property come into existence?

I think libertarians have two answers to this question. The first answer is that if you go back far enough, land wasn't owned by anyone, so the first person to claim it and defend it was the first owner. What that ultimately boils down to is that the first owner was someone who had the military might to kick other people off the land. So ownership ultimately got started through force. To me, that calls the whole notion of a principled notion of a free exchange into question, since we are all tainted by the original sin of violence.

The second answer is more pragmatic---just take for granted the current notion of ownership as practiced by our society, and from now on let's make sure that exchanges are all free. The problem with this is that the current notion of ownership is not the libertarian notion. What basis is there for thinking that the current state of ownership is fair?

The second issue I have with libertarianism is that I think that over the very long run, libertarianism is not much different from monarchy. At first glance, that probably sounds ridiculous? How could libertarianism, which believes in minimal government, be like monarchy, where one person (or family) has absolute governmental power? To see the connection, imagine a situation in which all property in a country is owned by a single person. That is a perfectly legitimate state of affairs for libertarianism. But in practice, such an absolute owner would be an absolute monarch. Nobody would dare say or do a word against this person, because you depend on this person for the food you eat, the job you hold, the house you live in, everything. I guess one small difference between monarchy and this extreme case of libertarianism is that an absolute monarch can have your head cut off, while the worst that an absolute owner could do to you was to have you exiled. So maybe it would be a kinder, gentler type of monarchy. But it wouldn't be liberty, by any stretch of the imagination.

This extreme case of ownership in the hands of one person may seem far-fetched, but I don't think it really is. Money can be leveraged to make more money. With no mechanisms to redistribute wealth, I think that the natural course of things is for money and property to become more and more concentrated. With the number of multi-billionaires growing while median wealth has been stagnant for several decades, I don't think that monarchy (or at least feudalism) is far off.
Permalink 9:45 PM

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sore Winners

It seems to me that conservatives are a bunch of sore winners. We all get grumpy when things don't go our way, but conservatives have been on a roll everywhere (in the US, anyway). They've won the White House, the Senate, the majority of governorships. They have majorities in the courts (and those majorities are likely to grow with new appointments by Bush). Yet conservatives aren't happy. Instead, if you read the conservative blogs, they are as grumpy as ever. They are still complaining about the (much diminished) voices of liberalism that can still be found in Congress, on college campuses or in the media.

I think that conservatives have a different view of the roles of progressive and conservative voices than I do. The way I see it, both conservatives and progressives are indispensible to society. Progressives are needed to point out what are our shortcomings as a society, where we could be doing better, where there are injustices. Conservatives are needed to act as a break on progressive enthusiasm. They are needed to point out that a drastic cure can sometimes be worse than the disease. Then need to point out that there are merits to the way things have been done in the past that are not appreciated by those who are too eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

To me, good politics comes about through a dialogue between progressives and conservatives. In contrast, modern conservatives have almost an eliminationist view of progressives. They act as if the country would be better without them.
Permalink 1:10 PM

Monday, January 03, 2005

What Is Sexual Orientation?

If you are male, and sexually attracted to females, or if you are female, and sexually attracted to males, then you are heterosexual. If you are female, and attracted to females, or male and attracted to males, then you are homosexual. That's simple enough. But I realized a while ago that I really don't understand what it means to be attracted to males or to females.

Why is that a difficult concept? Well, let me answer with another obvious question: what makes someone male or female? That has a technical answer, which is that the males are the ones with penises and the females are the ones with breasts and vaginas. But that answer is very unsatisfactory to me. For me, the first blossoming of heterosexual attraction took place before I had ever witnessed a vagina (and years later, when I finally did experience one first-hand, so to speak, I didn't find it particularly attractive). Breasts are more obvious, but I would say that when I was a child, I was attracted to girls who did not yet have any noticeable breasts. So what does it means to be male or female? What does it mean emotionally to someone who is just learning to be interested in romantic love? It doesn't make any sense to say that I was attracted to someone because she lacked a penis.

I think that what might be closer to the truth, emotionally, is that I have an idea of the female, and I am attracted to anyone who embodies that idea. But what exactly does that idea consist of? I would say it has something to do with someone who is soft and pretty and small, but that doesn't seem to fit the facts, exactly, either. Females can be tall and tough and muscular and still they count as females in my inner ategorization. On the flip side, "pretty" males don't do anything at all for me.

With nonhuman animals it all seems so simple: Some chemical scent tells you that what you have before you is a male or a female, and that's enough to jump start sexual behavior. But with humans, we can feel attraction towards a voice on the phone, or a photograph in a magazine, so the chemical explanation falls short. I'm still puzzling out exactly what this all means. More later...
Permalink 11:49 PM

The Whole Fam Damily Posted by Hello
Permalink 4:17 PM

Testing, testing, is this thing on?

Hello, I'm Daryl McCullough, and this is the first post to my new blog, "Combing the Sphere". The significance of the title is that you can't actually comb a sphere, but I'm going to try. My blog will be an eclectic combination of politics, science, math, philosophy and whatever is on my mind. I'm going to try to encourage respectful discussions in my comments.

A few personal notes:

Age: I'm probably older than you are.

Family: I have four children, Brennan (16) Katie and Dommiss (8) and Bridget (6). I am married to Connie Dee-McCullough and I have a cranky, ancient grey cat named Fafard (I'm not sure how to spell it, and he's never told me). I have extended family in Virginia, Georgia and Alabama and my wife has family in Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts. For some pictures of my whole fam damily, see my family page.

Employment: I work in computer science, the details are not that interesting.

Education: I know something about mathematics, logic, computer science, AI, and physics.

Politics: In contrast to the usual trajectory, I started out conservative (libertarian, actually) and have gradually gotten more liberal as I've gotten older.
Permalink 1:50 PM