Thursday, January 31, 2008

Siegel on the Stars and Bars

My good friend Mike Siegel takes on the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

Mike makes two observations:

(1) Even if the Civil War wasn’t “about” slavery, the issue was so entrenched with the war, the distinction is academic. Without slavery, there would have been no war.

(2) It doesn’t matter if blacks’ offense at the Confederate flag is rational or not. The flag is supposed to represent all the people of the state. If some fraction finds the flag offensive — whether their offense is reasonable or not — it should be changed.

It's pretty hard to argue that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, especially in South Carolina. Consider the following snippet from South Carolina's Articles of Secession:

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

This is the first substantive issue raised in the document, and it recurs throughout. To me, that says that it was the most important issue on their minds.

On the other hand, I don't think that the display of the confederate flag today is about slavery or even racism. I think it stems more from the fact that all people, regardless of their station in life, want to believe that they are descended from distinguished and honorable forebears. I expect there is no history so infamous that the descendants of the perpetrators will not try to whitewash it, or failing that suppress it.

I'm generally sympathetic to this impulse. It seems unjust to hold people responsible for events in which they had no say. However, distorting the historical record is the wrong way to deal with the problem. The right way involves a frank admission of what happened in the past, a recognition that we are not our ancestors, and a resolve that we will be better than they were. That, however, is a lot of verbiage, so maybe we need a name for the concept that is a little punchier, something like "Truth and Reconciliation". It has kind of a ring to it.

That said, I do have to object to the "whether they are reasonable are not" comment. Surely what we mean by an "unreasonable" objection is that it should not be heeded. If not, then I wonder, what exactly is the difference between a reasonable and an unreasonable objection? Furthermore, rejecting any standard of reasonableness when "some fraction of the population" objects to something seems like bad policy. Surely there exists a fraction that is too small or an objection that is too wacky to merit serious consideration. The point is that that's not the case here. Trying to weasel on whether or not the objections are reasonable only weakens the argument.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Seven. Billion. Dollars.

Hold that number in your mind for a minute. Try to visualize it as, say, a stack of $100 bills (apparently about 7.5 km, in case you were wondering).

Now, there's this bank in France, see. And the bank employed this dude, you see. He was about 30 years old, and for some reason I imagine him having a goatee, but I confess that's just my own embellishment. So, you'll never guess what this dude did. Get this, he lost over $7 billion for his employer. Whoops. How does a 30-year old goatee-guy get hold of $7 billion without somebody, you know, asking him what he plans to do with it. I can't even get a measly $10k for new research equipment without navigating a labyrinth of forms and approvals, and I don't even have a goatee.

Sometimes You Even Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Doesn't Blow

I'm not a big fan of January. It's cold, the sun goes down before I leave work, it's cold, there's salt all over the roads, and most of all, it's really, really cold. The one good thing about January, however, is that organizations like the American Astronomical Society and the American Meteorological Society hold their annual meetings, and for a brief time science gets to be in the news without being pressed into service as a foot soldier for politics.

This week's AMS meeting saw the publication of a study indicating that warmer oceans could reduce the number and intensity of hurricanes striking the US. This result is contrary to the conventional wisdom that warmer sea surface temperatures (SSTs) will result in more and stronger hurricanes. The culprit, it seems, is wind shear. Wind shear disrupts tropical cyclones, and the study finds that higher SSTs produce more shear; thus, fewer cyclones. One particularly interesting feature of this study is that it is based on observational data, rather than on climate model calculations.

If this study is borne out, then it will add an interesting new dimension to the climate debate. In practice it is unlikely that any climate change will be unambiguously good or bad; rather, there will probably be some who are helped and some who are harmed. This, then, is where the future of climate research lies: not in pointless debates over whether or not climate change is happening, but in serious study about the likely effects, for good or ill, of the change that is always happening.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

We're back

It's amazing how much catching up there is to do after a measly two weeks away visiting the family. I finally managed to slap together a post tonight, and I've got a couple more things I want to write about when I have time; I think Jennifer does too.

Until then, um, well, Happy New Year?

The Daily Show - Wait and Switch

The Daily Show takes on lobbyists. Apparently there is a law afoot (for now, still just a bill) that would prohibit lobbyists from hiring people to wait in line for front-row seats at meetings of committee meetings and the like. My question: who wins and who loses if this bill passes?

First, let's set aside the notion, compelling though it may be, that lobbyists are anthropomorphic pond scum bent on buying out our government. There are good causes, and there are bad causes, all of which have lobbyists. For example, I once met a lobbyist for the National Science Foundation. I presume we can all agree that we're in no danger of the government selling out to… the government.

In fact, consider this: there are 300 million people living in this country. With only 535 members of the two houses of Congress, that's roughly 600,000 apiece. If a legislator spends all day, every day, 365 days a year talking to citizens, never stopping to sleep, that would give us each about 50 seconds a year to make our concerns known--to just one member out of 535. Clearly, we can't all go up to Capitol Hill and make our concerns known. What we can do, however, is to get together with a bunch of like-minded people and hire a spokesman to go up to Capitol Hill for us and tell our concerns to as many Congresspeople as will listen. That is, we could hire a lobbyist. In this sense lobbyists perform a valuable service. Without them, only a select few would get to express their views to the Congress, and I have a hunch that it wouldn't be you and me.

It's not a perfect system, I concede. People with more money can hire more and better lobbyists. Some lobbyists engage in questionable practices, if not out-and-out bribery; however, sadly, it's the best we've got.

But, we were talking about the effects of the new (proposed) law. It turns out that you have to wait quite a long time to get into these meetings where you can get on with educating legislators, expressing concerns, and whatnot. And it turns out that good lobbyists are in demand, so they command shockingly high salaries (as anyone who has competed in the housing market in the DC area will ruefully tell you). Consequently, having them wait around in a queue for the legislators to show up is a tremendous waste of money. Better to hire a bike messenger (or even an "unemployed puppeteer") at much less cost to wait while the expensive guy does something productive (inasmuch as the deadweight losses associated with influencing government can be considered "productive" -- work with me here).

So, what happens if you can't hire cheap placeholders for the line? Well, then you have to have the actual lobbyists do it, which means that each one accomplishes a lot less in a day. Equivalently, lobbying gets a lot more expensive. Who loses from this (apart from the placeholders themselves, of course--apparently the pay is pretty good)? At the margins, every cause will consume less political lobbying, but for interest groups who can already can afford to do only a little bit, that marginal decrease translates to a huge reduction in their effectiveness at influencing policy. Conversely, well-funded interests may at the margin get fewer hours of face time with legislators, but will overall be more effective due to reduced competition from other interests.

Conclusion: Congressmen Cohen's bill, however well-intentioned it may be, will probably have the effect of concentrating influence in the best-funded special interest groups while driving niche interests out of the political process.