Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Duke Rape Case

This editorial in the Washington Post sums up the Duke Rape Case issue nicely. The author starts out by admitting that she was biased against the players when news of the case broke. Her reasoning here is what you would expect. They were rowdy athletes, intoxicated, upset that $800 had only bought them a couple of minutes worth of a show; there was, of course, the email and the (alleged) racial insult, and let's not forget that some of these boys have pending charges on other past violent incidents. They fit a certain profile, no denying it.

But fitting a profile, as we're endlessly reminded when it comes to "driving while black" incidents and airport searches of Arab passengers, is not a crime. And this columnist, at least, understands the difference. The overall point of the article is that, despite early damning circumstantial evidence, as facts of the case have come to light it looks increasingly like the charges are false.

What's interesting is the way the column ends:

In an odd way, I hope Nifong's proved right, because the alternative -- that he began with a dubious case and stuck with it as it became shakier -- is so troubling.

I couldn't disagree more.

Right - the idea that a DA would stick with a shaky case to earn some cheap political points during a primary (Nifong was up for election when the case broke, and the black vote in Durham, which is 60% black, is extremely important) is troubling in the extreme. But this columnist is kidding herself if she thinks this never happens. More to the point - whether or not Nifong's pursuit of the case is on the up-and-up, that there was political pressure on him to pursue "someone, anyone on the Duke lacrosse team" is beyond dispute. The black community held regular meetings on the matter (some of which Nifong attended), and any number of articles on the subject available on the internet make it crystal clear that a great many people in Durham and elsewhere made up their minds about this case on much less evidence than this columnist presents for her own early bias. Whether or not the charges turn out to be true, this is a deeply disturbing demographic fact. And whether or not Nifong bowed to their pressure, the unsettling fact that pressure was being exerted does not go away.

For an idea of the level of argument on the "they're guilty, I just know it" side, have a look at this ridiculous blog. Among the "reasons" given why the athletes must be guilty:

Let's just imagine that this assault took place at a predominately Black university and the victims were white, this would've been front page national news. [...] It seems to me that this story has remained local to the North Carolina area.

Is this serious? The story has certainly NOT "remained local to the North Carolina area." Even at the time of writing (March 29) this was national news!

Cultural masculinity is a sickness that can turn men into monsters, and men in college sports are exposed to more of this virulent stuff than anyone.

"Cultural masculinity is a sickness that can turn men into monsters." I couldn't make this crap up. Sure, masculinity has a dark side, and that dark side definitely does involve rape. But masculinity has lots of positives as well: devotion to duty, responsibility, single-minded pursuit of goals, industriousness, material production, etc. Masculinity is not a "cultural sickness," and femininity is far from above reproach.

The quotation above continues:

Do I excuse these rapists? No, of course not - they are responsible for what they've done, and I fervently hope they rot behind bars.

"These rapists," as though the trial had already taken place. Not only are they guilty, but our omniscient narrator also knows what the sentence should be: "they rot behind bars." And all this because the police had just (remember, this is March 29) picked up some suspects. Tell me true, is it a healthy civic attitude to assume that whoever the police pick up deserves to have the book thrown at them? I'd say it's as if these people have never heard of framing before - but of course they have heard of it, and that's what's so sick about this kind of reaction. Knowing good and well that innocents are sometimes falsely accused, they want the coviction anyway - for no other reason than that these boys aren't "their kind of people."

On a site linked in the entry that purports to be an objective study of media coverage:

Alas, I'm not at all surprised that these two-legged hyenas with dicks for brains are getting a relative pass from the media. Nor would I be surprised if they get away with rape. But one has to wonder what responsibility Duke University will assume for this crime, and what action they will take to reinforce their institutional integrity.

"two-legged hyenas with dicks for brains." That's lovely, that is. This for a crime no one has yet proven. A crime that Duke University is supposed to take responsibility for, despite the fact that there hasn't even been a trial?

Look, people, due process isn't a trivial thing. It's a right. There's a damn good reason that right is enshrined in the Constitution - and it has to do with people like you - people who make up their minds based on surface details and circumstantial evidence for political convenience. It is because abuse of power is real that we need such protections.

I have my own biases in the Duke Rape Case; I'm human, after all. As a white guy who has frequently seen the race card played against his friends and associates for mere convenience, I admit I wouldn't mind seeing this come out in favor of the players. But I understand that the case has to turn on facts and evidence, and not my personal preferences. If the players are guilty of rape (or even of a lesser violent crime), they should absolutely go to jail. The difference between me and the people I've quoted is that I understand that revenge fantasies do not trump reality on the ground.

So in response to Ruth Marcus, I couldn't disagree more. We don't know whether the crime really happened, and we won't know until the case goes to trial (and even then we might not know - let's face it, guilty parties have gotten off before, and innocents have gone to jail before). What we do know for certain is that there is a highly dangerous and bigoted lobby pushing for a conviction they want to see not because they know for certain that they boys are guilty, but because they want to believe they are - a dangerous and bigoted lobby that in some important sense doesn't care whether these particular boys are guilty because they have already decided that "masculinity is a cultural poison," or that white people are automatically privileged, or whatever else. Whether or not they get their way in this case, they will be hanging around for the next one, and the next one, and on and on until they learn the lesson they claim to want to teach others: that fitting a profile is not a crime, and that due process is a guaranteed right in no small part because appearances are often decieving.

If we're going to indulge in fantasies about how a particular case should or shouldn't come out, then I think there's more reason than not to hope the boys are innocent. First, of course, it's always good to have one less real rape in the world. Second and equally obvious, it's always good to have a few less criminals in the world. But third, this case is highly publicized, and a lot of bad people have a lot riding on the idea that the boys are guilty for ... well, for being white boys on a sports team, frankly. This would be a lot of egg in those people's faces. And these are people who need egg in their face, I think we can all agree. Left to their own devices, they're happy to dispense with due process to put people behind bars because they "fit the profile." That's a cultural trend that could use a big setback - to the benefit of all of us.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


So, today marks the end of Indiana's (successful?) experiment with Daylight Savings Time. For the first time this year, this state changed clocks with everyone else in the summer, and now we are managing the transition back to "normal" time. There's a website about it here.

Naturally, certain places like Gary and Evansville have managed to get themselves exempt - on the basis of being close to other places in different time zones. So what we get on this webpage is clocks that say things like "The time in most of Indiana is 5.31am."

There's also a national time zone map, though, and it's obvious that Indiana is far from being the only or even the most dysfunctional state when figuring out what time it is. For example, it might not surprise you to find that Idaho is split between Pacific Time and That Other Time that the Middle of the Country Uses. But it's weird when you find out where it's split. Not "everything east of the corridor" turns out to be on Rocky Mountain Time, as you might expect. Rather, the corridor is on Pacific Time and everything in the main part of the state is not. Eh? North Dakota's even weirder - with the lower left quarter of the state on Rocky Mountain Time for no reason I can figure.

But whatever. Nice to be back on standard time. I can totally use the "extra" hour.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Good Episode, Poor Writing

Yesterday's episode of Battlestar Galactica was a breath of fresh air. I still maintain that we're not yet out of the woods. The show still suffers from logistical problems, mostly due to character inconsistencies as a result of having abandoned a lot of continuity in the second half of the second season. However, the overall plot direction is showing a return to the complex handling of difficult themes that characterized the show's early days; this is a welcome (and long-overdue) sign that things are slowly returning to normal.

Let's start with what was wrong:

  1. What's with Tigh and Adama? I feel like we've never been given a good explanation of what's going on here. Tigh has always been a deeply flawed character, fine - but when the show started Adama had faith in him. Now, it's not that his decision to promote Lee to Admiral over Tigh to command Pegasus didn't make sense. Tigh seriously screwed up his shot at command when Adama was incapacitated, and Lee had, on several occasions, proved himself a capable leader. Fine. What's annoying is that absolutely no screentime whatever was devoted to Tigh's reaction to this. There's reason to believe that Tigh wouldn't actually be all that bitter about it. He's said several times that he doesn't want command; mostly he serves Adama, whom he deeply admires. But at the very least Tigh's wife Helen would have issues with this, and whether or not Tigh respects Adama Sr. and his decisions (which he clearly does), he has personal animosity toward Adama Jr. So I feel a bit cheated that we didn't get scenes dealing with this involving Tigh, Lee and Helen at the very least. Now we see Tigh sitting on a secret jury which is kidnapping occupation collaborators and spacing them, a fact which he doesn't mention to Adama? I dunno - maybe we're supposed to believe that their relationship is sufficiently strained by this point. And logically, I guess that makes sense. Tigh fought the resistance on the ground while Adama (both of them, actually) was still on the Battlestar. This fight cost him his wife. Throw in any buried resentment over Lee's promotion, and you have a plausible explanation. Only...well, human relations are complex. I need a bit more than plausible to convince me that those old bonds are severed. In the early episodes, Tigh positively worships his commander. However plausible this implied rift, I just don't feel it, sorry. I'm having trouble stomaching the idea that Tigh sits on this jury and Adama knows nothing about it.

  2. Kara's turning into a comic book cutout. I don't like what they're doing with Kara. She's become one-dimensional - and overnight at that. They were doing so well. What was going on with her and Loeben - that was very interesting and deliciously creepy. That's the kind of thing that made this show great - pushing things just beyond the comfort level, but remaining iron-clad believable, never gratuitous. Loeben's psychological games are well-written and thematically interesting. Now, granted, this experience (of being tricked into believing she'd forcibly had a child with someone she hates) is no doubt traumatic for Kara. I completely buy the rethinking of her relationship with Anders, and I absolutely believe that she wants to fight back at something, anything, as she says. Also, the fact that she just charges ahead recklessly - well, that's nothing if not in character for her. What I don't like, though, are the pat phrases coming out of her mouth. Kara was always hotheaded, emotional and reckless, but she was never a walking cliche dictophone, nor was she ever this shallow. Inner conflict is compelling when the actor isn't fully aware of her motivations. But in Kara's case, it's clear that she is fully aware of her (not-so-)subconscious motives and knows that they're destructive, regrets them, and follows them anyway. Hardly the "fuck you" attitude we've come to expect! I especially didn't like her outright explanation to Anders that she was lashing out as a way of working through her problems. Give me a goddam break. People who are lashing out only talk like that in pulp fiction - so there went my suspension of disbelief in a puff of pale blue powder. What we've been led to expect from her is a kind of manic cruelty in these situations. We've seen it before - and the writers trusted the audience then to know what was really going on. Why not now? What we now get instead is a commentator talking through the mouth of a character. A script plan rather than dialogue. No thanks. Ditto that awful scene at the end with Gaeta where she demands that he beg. Why? Because she needs him to? Fine - but you don't get prisoners already showing steely resolve to beg by begging them to beg! I mean, I get that she needs Gaeta to suffer as part of that misdirected revenge motive she has that she spelled out to Anders in clinical detail. We're kosher on that point. What doesn't work is that she again knows it, doesn't care, and spouts comic book dialogue rather than real human words. Her whole tirade to Gaeta comes across not as the emotional unwraveling that it would have been in the show's early days. Rather, it comes across like the plot device that it is. Yes, we get the offhand mention of the dogbowl that saves Gaeta's life. Check. Oh yeah, and make sure the viewer knows that Kara's coming unhinged. Check. If that's "natural" narrative then I'm the funkiest dancer in Harlem.

  3. The "fat" theme with Lee is still going nowhere. So Lee is making an effort to control his weight now. Great. And Adama is chiding him for it because he doesn't seem to quite believe Lee's sincerity. Fine. What I still don't get is why any of this is happening at all, what theme or plot thread it serves, and what it's supposed to mean.

  4. So Tom Zarek is President of the Colonies after all. Of course he is legally. He was Baltar's VP after all. But if that's the case, then why did we see Laura Roslin sitting in the President's office on Colonial One sighing relief that things were "back to normal" if that was actually Zarek's office? When did she start recognizing his presidency? And when did he start issuing executive orders? (Zarek, as it turns out, gave the order for the secret jury that Tigh, Tyrol and (later) Kara are sitting on.)

  5. Yet another character no one's ever met jerking our heartstrings. They could have spared me that garbage about *fill in name, I didn't bother to learn it* mourning over his son who was "only 7 years old" (was that even the actor talking? Or did they maybe just dub in lines from any of about 5,000 movies?) after Jammer went out the airlock. These writers used to understand that you only get emotions from audiences in this savvy post-structuralist age if you build up to it. William Shatner couldn't even pull this off ("Kowalsczky! Those Klingon bastards! They killed Lt. Kowalsczky! He was like a son to me! If I have to tear this universe apart star by star...") in the 60s - what makes them think it flies in 2006?

So that's my shit list for this week. But I didn't want to end on that note because as I said above, this episode is a huge improvement overall - a hopeful sign that things are getting back to where they belong. Let me take some time to spell out what they got right:

  1. Zarek doesn't really explain his motives for cedeing authority to President Roslin. Not that I really enjoyed watching her ask him (more of that pat dialogue), but I find what Zarek is doing completely believable. I can't explain why exactly, but that's usually a sign of good characterization. In real life people's motives are often inscruitable, and it takes a talented writer to show you a character acting in logically mysterious ways but have you convinced all the same that it's exactly what would happen in a similar situation with a similar person in real life. There's Othello and there's Hamlet, and in this thread with Tom Zarek, ladies and gentlemen, we are in the presence of Hamlet. Never mind that it doesn't make logical sense, it makes personal and emotional sense. Good job!

  2. Gaeta is back to being Gaeta. There's no more of the "true believer" about him. He flatly says that "Baltar was president of the colonies. Remember? We all voted for him." Right. We don't exactly know who Gaeta voted for personally, but it's completely in character for that not to matter to him. He does his duty, and that's exactly what he was doing on New Caprica. Never mind that he didn't support the policy, and never mind that he didn't like Baltar. Gaeta does what duty requires. It's also in character for him to do "what he can" for the resistance, and not to bring up this fact in a pathetic attempt to save his life from vigilantes the way Jammer did. The writers got Gaeta's character absolutely right in this episode - which I personally really appreciate since, as I have said before, Gaeta is my favorite character. It's nice to see he'll be sticking around as himself, and not just as what some writer needed him to be for a couple of minutes (as we saw in the previous episode).

  3. Baltar - WOW! Not much to say about Baltar except WELL DONE. We see the actor's (and the director's, it must be said) skills tested and certified. Not to mention, the image of him sitting alone in the big room in the giant fleet of Basestars cut off from humanity - well, subtle it ain't, but as an expression of the emotional pit Baltar has been slowly sinking into throughout series, it really, really works. I also like the mind games they're playing with him. This is the Cylon enemy we know.

  4. In spite of everything, the "secret jury" theme worked. Yes, fine, it's obvious, not particularly deep commentary on the War on Terror. But it worked, I thought - and this in spite of the campy dialogue noted above. We saw the system abused as Tigh and others manipulated Tyrol emotionally to get convictions they wanted. We saw a completely convincing turn of events that had them almost execute as a traitor the one man (Gaeta) who arguably did more than any other for the resistance. (I am also personally pleased to note that I was wrong about what was going on with Gaeta and Tyrol. I thought Tyrol knew that Gaeta was his inside contact. It's nice to know he didn't; that makes that whole exchange in the first episode this season between the two of them believable.) But most importantly, we're convinced that there's a real moral grey area here. Zarek's secret jury, just as he says, can't easily be dismissed as immoral. It does help Roslin get rid of people who need getting rid of with plausible deniability - and this is something she needs. (I thought they handled her reaction well. She takes advantage of her opportunity to look down on Zarek, but they both know that part of her knows he's right.)

So the episode was more than just a net positive - it was a decided positive. It was, as the title suggests, a good episode that just happens to be weak on writing. The bare events of the story are all right on - it's the way they're dressed that's a bit lacking. This is especially evident with Kara, but it applies all round, I think. We got a good story poorly written, which I prefer to see as being a good story that happened to suffer from bad writing rather than bad writing that accidentally managed to tell a good story. I would prefer that they let some of these themes build - not try to tackle everything at once. But I also don't want to complain too much. Things are getting back on track. Here's hoping it keeps up next week!

Roadside Wisdom

Seen by the side of a road:

[Update] This also spotted!


There's a whole photo archive of these things here.

Price Inflation: Real and Rhetorical

On the Mises Blog there is an article claiming that cars would cost $600 and hamburgers only $0.12 if only the government would hold the money supply fixed - or, more precisely, if only the government had held the money supply fixed from 1959 to the present.

I don't want to dispute the wisdom of fixed money supply. On that subject, I'm what you might call an agnostic who wants to believe. Not quite Fox Mulder, but definitely not Dana Scully. And if I'm not Mulder, it's only because I haven't been "out there" looking for the "truth." Lots of ink has been spilled on this subject, and I've read very little of it, so I'll hold judgment until I know more.

Certainly the naive common sense view is that a fixed money supply is a good thing. This is because it prevents arbitrary distortion. Ultimately, an economy is just a collection of "useful stuff," or "utility," as some prefer to call it. There are things and services out there that people want or need, they are willing to work or produce to get them, and so the engine goes on turning. If money is anything at all, then it's the grease that keeps this engine running smoothly. Ultimately what people are trading back and forth are goods and services - the aforementioned "useful stuff." All money does is facilitate this process. So in some sense it shouldn't matter how many paper dollars there are floating around out there. What changes are the prices, and if there are always the same number of dollars "out there," then we expect prices to go down as more stuff gets made. It's another way of saying that stuff gets more affordable. Fine, maybe your salary doesn't rise, but the amount of "useful stuff" that you can buy with it goes up, and that's what really matters. So we can do this one of two ways: we can have ever more paper dollars with ever-higher salaries and prices, or we can have the same amount of paper dollars with ever-lower prices and more-or-less fixed salaries. The only reason to prefer one system over the other that I can see is that the fixed-supply system is less dangerous. Since the money supply never changes, there is no opportunity for the government to get its numbers wrong (and, really, when doesn't the government get its numbers wrong?) and print way more money than we actually have, causing distortions in prices, etc. etc. It's better to just know that there is only so much in cash floating around and let prices (which are, after all, determined by the people on the ground actually moving the economy, not the people in their ivory tower in Washington running numbers that may or may not have much to do with how much "useful stuff" is actually changing hands) do the work of telling us how well the economy is doing. However, as I said above, I don't want to commit to saying too much here because I don't know nearly as much about it as I should. The naive view seems to paint a fixed-supply system in a nice light, but it's certainly happened to me before that my naive intuitions failed to appreciate subtleties that became apparent on closer examination.

The overall point, though, would seem to be that what matters to people on the ground, ultimately, is not how arbitrarily low or high prices happen to be, but what their individual actual purchasing power is. Whatever creative accounting we do to make the system look one way or another (I guess people respond better to seeing their salary go up than they do to seeing prices go down when all is said and done - though it can amount to the same thing in the end), the economy ultimately boils down to "how much useful stuff do I have and what do I have to do to get more?" And that's got more to do with earnings-to-price ratios than it does with raw prices and the raw money supply.

This is the point that I think Mark Brandly is glossing over (he wouldn't be missing it - he's a trained economist!) in his article. Brandly uses a simplistic formula to show that prices are as much as 34 times higher than they were in 1959 - numbers which are really shocking. This is how he does it. He reasons that the ratio of the 1959 money supply to the money supply in a given year should also be the same as the ratio of 1959 price to price in a given year. Fair enough - that makes a certain amount of sense. Of course, more of product x is probably being produced now than was being produced in 1959 (unless maybe it's hair curlers or pointy glasses), but this should be reflected in the price. (Remember, in theory a price is expressable as a percentage of the total wealth available.) Brandly admits that this model is simplistic - it's merely meant to give a rough idea:

For example, if the money supply increased from $100 in period one to $200 in period two, then the price level in the second period would be twice as high as it would have been in the absence of the expansionary monetary policy. Admittedly, the increased money supply may not have this proportional effect on the price level. However, all price indices are arbitrary and imprecise calculations that are often presented to the public as precise numbers. The following calculations are simply estimates of the price level effects of government policies.

On this we surely cannot fault him. It's clear that these numbers are not meant to be taken as scientific writ (and really, what in Economics ever is?).

So the way this works is that you simply cross multiply. If the money supply in 1959 is to the money supply in 2006 as prices in 1959 are to prices in 2006, then you can multiply prices in 2006 by the money supply in 1959 and divide by the money supply in 2006 to get an estimate of what the price of a given item would be today had the money supply remained fixed since 1959. Makes sense, right?

But here's where I think the magic comes in. The point is, people's earnings are not expressed in 1959 dollars, they are expressed in 2006 dollars. So while Brandly is in some sense correct, according to his formula, that a hamburger "should" cost $0.12 and a car "should" cost $600, it's also true that people like him "shouldn't" be making anywhere near as much money as he is actually depositing into his bank account every month. Simply saying that a hamburger should cost only $0.12 means nothing to me if I don't know what that is as a percentage of my income. And here's where Brandley's sleight-of-hand really comes into play:

Currently, price inflation is thought of as an increase in the price level above some previous level. However, if we think of price inflation as the increase in the price level over and above what the price level would have been in the absence of the expansionary monetary policies, then this gives us a more accurate picture of the effects of government policies. The estimations provided here show that the price level effects due to government manipulation of the money supply are much larger than indicated by standard price indices.

So that's right in absolute terms, yes, but in meaningful terms (i.e. in terms of whether my purchasing power has gone up since 1959) not so much. In meaningful terms, the government estimates of how much better off people are today than they were in 1959 are probably not as far off the mark as Brandly claims.

Now, Brandly would no doubt say that he never claimed they weren't - but I beg to differ. It's true that nowhere in this post does it specifically say that that if the money supply had remained fixed since 1959 that I would be able to buy 34 Big Macs for the price of one today, but Brandley doesn't seem to mind people getting that impression. Indeed, that last line in the quote above says to me that he's actively promoting the misinterpretation, as does the title.

So this is yet another disappointing post from the Mises Blog. The error in persuasion here is different from the one in the Rockwell post that I complained about earlier, though. My complaint about Lew Rockwell was that he was sabotaging support by arguing only in stark and simplistic terms of principle; he would have done better to take the obvious concerns of his readers about drunk driving into account and address them. In the case of this Brandly article, I think the sabotage is more insidious. Superficially, this article is very convincing indeed. It has the numbers to back up its claim, and it promises the reader something that he presumably wants to hear: namely that if we adopt Libertarian economic policies he will be rich in a short amount of time. But the numbers do not actually work out in the way promised, and any intelligent reader will eventually see through this, if maybe not on his first read. So Brandly is just setting himself up to fall. The Democrats and the Republicans can get away with this because nobody honestly expects them to deliver on their elections promises. We're used to hearing sunny predictions from them while bracing for business as usual. I don't believe third parties have this luxury. When you propose a radical change in a system and people go along with you, they bank on what you say, and they get petulant when things don't work out as you promised.

Now, as I said, I haven't read as much about this as I probably should have, so it's entirely possible that I'm overlooking something; maybe Brandly's right that I should be able to buy a fleet of 34 cars for the price of the one I have now. But that just seems wrong. Even if it's true that Libertarian economic policies in general would have netted us this level of wealth over the last 50 years, surely money supply policies alone would not have! Not that it even seems likely that 50 years of Libertarianism would have turned us all into owners of fleets of vehicles either...though I'm pretty damn certain that we'd all be a lot richer and more comfortable today if instead of embracing the so-called "Great Society" we had turned to the free market to help us spread the wealth around. So I guess I wish that people like Brandly would keep their claims realistic. After all, bottom-line better is bottom-line better - and that we can definitely deliver. When we promise people the moon, we just end up sounding like Lenin in the 20s. It's not only the government inflating prices here, in other words.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Our Ignorant Cousins

Today on Reason Hit and Run there is a post about homosexuality in the wild. Apparently, there is evidence for it after all, at least according to the BBC report that inspired it.

But the Hit and Run post isn't so concerned with natural homosexuality as it is with knockin' on a certain commentator's opinions of it. Admittedly, this guy says some pretty dumb stuff. In addition to dragging out the tired old argument that homosexuality can't exist in nature because it would cause the species exhibiting the behavior to go extinct (as though homosexuality would be caused by a single gene that could be selected for, or as though overtly homosexual humans don't sometimes mate and reproduce anyway), he also wants to say that Norway's "Homosexuality in Nature" museum exhibit has a "clear political reason" based on the fact that "In some countries, laws are on the books which call homosexuality a crime against nature." Right, because in some countries women have to wear veils, ergo there is a political motivation behind tittie bars? Whatever - I can't make this stuff up, go have a look see yourself.

What's interesting is why this two-bit net troll has attracted the attention of Reason Hit and Run. He seems like pretty small potatoes to me. I've certainly never heard of him before. But I suspect I know what's behind it...

Hit and Run notes:

The BBC also reports that one unnamed American commentator described the exhibit as "propaganda invading the scientific world." The commentator in question turns out to be one Nathan Tabor, described in his author's bio as "a conservative political activist based in Kernersville, North Carolina."

Interesting that they should have stoped the quote there. Here it is in full from his webpage:

Nathan Tabor is a conservative political activist based in Kernersville, North Carolina, where he owns a successful small business and was recently a candidate for Congress. He has his Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.

Now at the very least, you would have expected them to complete the sentence - you know, fill in the blank all the way to the end of that bit about owning a successful small business. Or at least, that would be the default. But then, we're lampooning Tabor, and it's no fun if we have to say nice things about him.

So forgive the soapbox, but why does the stuff that counts against him include the fact that he's from North Carolina?

I find this stuff really fucking annoying. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but the implication seems to be "see, guys, he's just another one of those dumb conservative southern rednecks, and we all know how ignorant and closed-minded they are."

Now, full disclosure: I'm from North Carolina and damn proud of it. I fully intend to move back there after I graduate if at all possible.

That said, I've lived 9 of the past 11 years in other places, and I'm not aware that there's any more opinions of this kind in North Carolina than anywhere else. It's just like Foxworthy used to say about the South in general: "It's not that we're stupider than anyone else, we just can't keep the dumbest among us from off the television set!"

But I suppose as long as it makes the rest of the country feel better about itself, we'll keep on executing this feedback loop. I sort of wonder if the Reason post wasn't actually a (subconscious?) response on the part of its author to this line from the BBC report:

An American commentator said it was an example of "propaganda invading the scientific world".

Again, seems strange. A BBC report about a museum in Norway needs to quote an (unheard-of) "American commentator" ... why exactly? Surely there is someone in Britain who feels the same way ... surely. This article about the exhibit on Yahoo! News, for example, notes only that "local church groups" are angry over it. Presumably, "local" means "Norwegian." And this gay.com article only mentions "evangelical Christians." Exactly what's important about Tabor's being "American" isn't clear, save that the BBC has the same kind of interest in promoting the "backward Americans" stereotype that Hit and Run has in promoting the "backward Southerners" stereotype. Always comfortable to assume that prejudice comes from somewhere else.

So maybe there's a cascade effect here. The BBC subtly lays prejudice at Americans' feet, and Jesse Walker wants to make sure everyone knows it not Americans per se, just those ignorant secessionists down South.

Yeah - spare me. Well, as I said, I might just be reading to much into this. There certainly isn't any reason why news sources have to cite local opinion exclusively. But I can't shake the notion that there's some preconceived thinking going on in Reason's choice of words, and the BBC's choice of commentators, all the same.

Death Watch Day 15

We're now into day 15 of the death watch on SourceFilter. Noah has managed 3 posts in the last two days (though nothing over the last week), so it's looking like the death watch was unwarranted. It will continue for the next two weeks as a formality, of course, but SourceFilter is definitely recovering.

How Many of Me?

Noah has some interesting news. He has just found out that he does not exist.

More precisely, it's statistically unlikely that anyone in the US has the name "Noah Silbert." So it would be fairer to say that he's just a statistical freak (or a statistics freak), which could have been arrived at by other means. (A grad student who reads for fun?)

The site in question is here.

My own results were:

  Joshua Herring  

  • There
    are 111 people in the U.S. named Joshua Herring.


The interesting thing is that I actually know one of these 111 people. Or, rather, I know of him. In high school I used to get my hair cut from a woman who had another customer named Joshua Herring - and his father's name also happened to be the same as mine. What are the chances, I ask you?

(No apology has been provided for the shameless imitation of content.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Echo! Echo!

Noah is a funny guy. He has started a death watch on my other blog because ... well, in his words:

Well, it has been some time since he posted to this second blog. In fact, it has been nearly as long as it was between my last post and today's unexpected flurry of bloggery here at Source-Filter. It is possible, perhaps plausible, that this delay, like the delays in my own posting schedule, indicates that Josh's secondary blog is terminally ill.

So there you have it folks, Noah admits that his blog is "terminally ill!"

Ok, alright, point taken. This deathwatch is richly deserved. I haven't posted to Knuth's Masterwork in a week. If I don't post today, it will indeed have been every bit as long as it was between posts for Noah when I started the deathwatch on Source Filter.

So - I have some reading to do!

One correction to Noah's post. The Art of Computer Programming is actually intended to be 7 volumes, not 3. I have only set myself the task of reading 3 because (a) that's really all the time I have (and if I keep at the pace I've been going I won't even have time for that!) and (b) the first three volumes are the only that were available for many years anyway, so I suppose they are the core of the "foundational book in algorithms" that Noah describes. Knuth started writing this book in 1968 and hasn't finished it yet. As legend has it, he became frustrated with the typesetting of the second edition, and in 1977 resolved to create an electronic typesetting system of his own to fix the problem. This became TeX, which most people know though the document preparation macros built on top of it called LaTeX. Reading up on this today, I find that Guy Steel - heroic co-creator of the Scheme programming language and therefore friend of all mankind! - was also influential in its development as he just so happened to be visiting Stanford when Knuth started on it. I guess few worlds are as small as computer science was in the 70s.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that the book is intended to be 7 volumes. Knuth got sidetracked mid-project, so for many years only three volumes were available. Sometime in the late 90s, volume 4 came out to much fanfare, and according to Knuth's website, he will be finished with volume 5 shortly. If you read between the lines on the same site, it seems that prospects are dim for volumes 6 and 7 ever seeing the light of day. Knuth is getting old, and in any case may have crammed everything worth saying into the first 5 volumes in the end.

I only intend to read the first three volumes by the end of the semester. Speaking of which, I should probably crack one now, eh? Before Noah performs last rites (or whatever the Jewish Atheist equivalent is) on my blog...

More Thoughts on Abortion

Samizdata's abortion thread went strong for 4 days and now is dying down. Discussion in the comments section was remarkably civil given the topic. Since the thread was started in part at my request (I asked another commenter to explain his pro-life views from a Libertarian point of view, in part to rethink my own views on the subject), I thought I would take some time to review some of the thinking I've been doing on it.

The position I started with was that human life begins at conception, along with a full right to life. However, the mother's right to bodily integrity is also an inviolable right, and as no right to life can be exercised that demands the services or sacrifices of another, the mother's right trumps the child's right. She may abort for any reason up to actual birth.

The position I ended up with. I went into the debate expected to emerge with an opinion a bit more favorable to the pro-life side. After all, I had asked for a Libertarian justification of the pro-right position (for the record, I don't accept religious justifiations of political or moral positions). Unfortunately, the person who took up the "rights begin at conception" position was more interested in his self-image as someone who had taken the dispassionate view and reasoned his position from first principles to be bothered with answering questions, so what I got from that end, really, was a caricature of the pro-life position. In short, I'll need to have another one of these discussions with a less emotional pro-lifer before I can say I've honestly buried the position. However, caricatures can be useful too, and it's larely some reductio ad absurdum views on the pro-life argument that I wanted to discuss.

  • The eugenics objection doesn't work. Ok, I admit it, I'm a sucker for slippery slope arguments. Use them all the time myself. One case you often hear pro-lifers making is that legal abortion is tantamount to an endorsement of eugenics - you know, because in theory it allows people to abort children they simply don't want because, well, they might be the wrong sex or not likely to be tall enough, or whatever else. Without ever having really thought about it, I had always assumed this to be a decent argument. Not strong enough to overcome the woman's right to do what she will with her body, of course, but nevertheless a reasonable case. During the course of this debate, though, I had occasion to do some thinking on it, and I realize that it is, in fact, simply ridiculous after all. There is nothing in banning abortion that prevents eugenics, in fact, because once the technology is available we will presumably be able to string DNA together ourselves - no need for sex at all, really, or even direct use of a single sperm cell and single egg for fertilization. That is, given the amount of capital currently thrown at biotechnology, I can easily see "designer DNA" happening in my lifetime. Nothing about life begining at conception prevents this because stringing DNA together is just conception by another name. Fine, perhaps the pro-life position prohibits us from aborting failed such experiments, but it's hard to see what it would do about a general eugenics program, given about 30 years of advancement in medical technology. This isn't the sort of outcome my principled look at the matter would have led me to expect. After all, I had assumed that I was in an argument of body rights (those of the woman) versus the overriding sanctity of life (the pro-life position). But I realize now that the reasoned (as opposed to religious - which actually is a "sanctity of life" position) pro-life position is no such thing.

  • Development plays a role in legal status. Again, my position had always been fairly divorced from the "messiness" of the issue. I had just assumed that children were full persons at conception, but that the mother's right to bodily integrity was the overriding concern (i.e. in the legal sense it simply didn't matter that the child was a "person" - that only became a concern after birth). However, arguing this over the past couple of days I've come to see that that's unsustainable. Development plays a role - it must. This is obvious when we think about things like prohibitions on sexual relations with children. Of course, any bans on sex with children will be based on the notion that children are immature. Sexual relations with them are forbidden because they (a) are not fully sexually developed and (b) are not cognitively mature enough to give legal consent anyway. Granted, the age of consent is an arbitrary line (some people are ready for sex early, others are arguably never emotionally mature enough to handle it), but the point is that the right to give sexual consent is something that one is not born with. And of course I've only chosen this particular example because it is so stark. Any number of others would do: the right to make medical decisions for oneself, for example, doesn't accrue to children. Neither does the right to inherit property or own businesses, etc. etc. Well, then why not a right to life? Why isn't this a diminished right for a time as well? Indeed, I can think of no good reason why it is not, and several why it is. Contrary to what I had always assumed, the mere existence of combined human DNA is not a sufficient demarcation of when a right to life begins. It would, indeed, be absurd to maintain that it were. See next item.

  • DNA alone cannot be afforded legal protection - the thing we value must lie elsewhere. Over the course of the discussion, I presented as an example/thought experiment the idea that scientists have developed the ability to splice DNA together. Suppose these cells are stored in some solution in a container, and one of the scientitsts working on the project accidentally drops the container. I think it is fair to say there isn't a person on the planet who would charge the poor chap (or girl, I mean! Because we all know women are just as capa... yeah yeah) with manslaughter. It simply isn't, can not be mere DNA that we value. We can easily imagine manufacturing DNA chemcially, and this just isn't the same. No, it's something about the development into a full adult that matters. I didn't like having to face this because I'm now no longer sure what it is, exactly, that we base our right to life on - but at times in the past in my life I have supported positions that assert that it's consciousness (with all that that implies - including legal infanticide and wanton euthanasia of coma patients). I will have to consider re-adopting that position, as it seems the only rational one.

  • There doesn't seem to be anything particularly wrong with infanticide. Of course, we want to forbid it as a scheme of general respect for human life. Once a child is separate from the mother, the mother's right to bodily integrity no longer applies, and so there is nothing that trumps the child's right to life. Ergo, we can't simply kill it or even let it die of exposure. That should have been done by the mother before term if we were going to do it. However, given all the points I've made above, I can't see infanticide as full murder. Something like voluntary manslaughter, but tailored to this situation so that it does not have to be a crime of passion, would seem to be more appropriate.

Paradoxically, I've come out of the debate believing more strongly than before in my "legal life begins at birth" position, but I'm no longer as comfortable with that position as I used to be. This issue is really messy; there don't seem to be clean answers to be found anywhere. So I guess you could say I'm more pro-choice than ever, but also more willing than ever to listen to new viewpoints. YUCK! Time to go shoot some squirrels before I get the urge to pray to a crystal or tolerate Islam or something.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

You Are So Welcome!

More evidence from the Cato Institute that Bush may well be the worst president since Johnson. It is a short (2-page) report on the number of Federal Subsidy programs. Needless to say, they are at a record high, and their numbers are also growing faster than at any time since the 1960s.

Hope you guys are enjoying your...well, whatever the hell it is you're getting on the taxpayer bill. I just really can't fucking wait to get out of college and sign over 30+% of my paycheck to keeping you all happy! 'Cause that's what I'm here for - to be a bottomless ATM for everyone's pet programs! Wonderful system, really.


Today in Syntax Reading Group we discussed Pesetsky and Torrego's 2004 paper The Syntax of Valuation and the Interpretability of Features. This paper has been quite influential and has even raised a number of eyebrows (apparently for being a direct challenge to one of Chomsky's theories?).

In an nutshell, the topic is something like this. Various syntactic phenomena are instances of what we might call feature sharing. So, for example, Latin adjectives agree in gender, number and case with the nouns they modify. In puella pulchra ("beautiful girl"), the adjective is "pulchra" (rather than "pulcher" or "pulchrae" or "pulchram") to show that it modifies a noun which is singular, feminine and nominative. Things like number and gender can be thought of a "features" of the noun.

Chomsky wrote some stuff in 2000 and 2001 spelling out a kind of typology for features. In particular, features vary on two oppositions. They are interpretable/uninterpretable and valued/unvalued. The idea with valued/unvalued is pretty clear: this is the position that the adjective "pulcher" isn't specified in the lexicon as to whether it's feminine, masculine or neuter, etc. It comes into the derivation in some indeterminate form, and then it agrees with the head noun. We believe this because adjectives seem to vary for the nouns they modify - not vice versa. (Evidence for this in English would be nouns like "scissors," which is inherently plural. We are aware of no adjectives which are inherently plural. The same phenomenon exists in Latin - there are nouns which are inherently feminine or plural, but adjectives seem to be able to combine freely with any noun, and to change their forms to fit that noun.) The idea, then, is that adjectives have "unvalued" features for person and gender that get valued when they come into contact with (are in the same syntactic domain as) a noun. Chomsky uses the somewhat misleading terms probe and goal for this. A "probe" has an unvalued feature and it looks for a "goal" (that invariably comes later in the sentence) which has a value for the feature. So in the example above, "pulcher" is the probe and "puella" the goal. Once the probe "pulcher" hits the goal "puella," it values its gender featuer as [feminine] and becomes "pulchra."

The interpretable/uninterpretable dichotomy is not so straightforward. What it seems to mean is "relevant to semantics." So, if a feature somehow affects the meaning of a sentence it is "interpretable." If not, if it is there for purely grammatical reasons, it is "uninterpretable." Gender features are presumably uninterpretable in most cases, whereas number is probably interpretable. Now, this is where Chomsky's theory gets a little weird. Chomsky's Minimalist Program has a principle of Full Interpretation, which says that uninterpretable features can't be passed on to the semantic module (called LF). The semantics only deals with things that are relevant to meaning. (It goes without saying that Chomsky is committed to a highly modularized model of grammaticality. Syntax and Semantics are separate things, as are syntax and pronounciation, etc.) So, if we get an agree relation related to an uninterpretable feature, Chomsky stipulates that this feature then simply deletes. (If you're like me and you have issues with the idea of things "deleting" when there is no possible empirical test that could verify that any such thing happens, then it's best to think of it this way: syntax is a kind of compiler. It transforms an underlying form into something that the interface can use. Just like in a computer program, anything that's in the program but is ultimately inconsequential to the execution stage will just be ignored by the compiler. I prefer to think of "deleting" as a shorthand for saying "this was here just for syntactic purposes and it will never be used again - so we just ignore it from here on out." Of course, if something with an unvalued/uninterpretable feature never gets that feature valued, then the sentence will be ungrammatical. But once its condition is satisfied then it ceases to play a further role.) It deletes because of Full Interpretation - becuase the Semantics doesn't know what to do with it, so we just stop considering it after we know it's satisfied. Chomsky's theory is also a bit weird in that it just sort of assumes that any unvalued feature will also be uninterpretable. The reasoning here seems to be that Syntax cannot possibly know what the Semantics will need to interpret - and yet it still needs to know which features to delete as part of its operations. So, it just deletes anything it values. Ergo, language is constructed in such a way that only the features that cannot possibly be meaningful to Semantics sometimes happen to be unvalued.

This is what's extremely annoying about Chomsky's theories. He gets carried away with the analogies he uses. There's no reason the Semantic module (and that's another thing - who says grammar is modular to this extent? Why can't Syntax and Semantics all be part of the same process - or at least happen simultaneously?) can't simply ignore the things that don't apply to it, no? I mean, even if we buy this modularity and say that Syntax can't know what the Semantics will need, it doesn't follow from that in any way that Syntax needs to delete anything - because for all we know the Semantic module might be capable of just ignoring whatever residue is left over from the Syntactic operations. Fine, you say, but does it matter? Well, yes, I think it does - becuase it leads Chomsky to goofy "generalizations" about language such as "only those features which don't apply to the Semantics can ever be unvalued." As though this were a useful or insightful thing to say! Why build machinery you don't need?

So Pesetsky and Torrego wrote this paper to try to weed out some of the unintuitive aspects of the theory. Fine, noble goal and all - but (and this is the point of this post) the solution they end up coming up with is more or less just HPSG plus a bunch of irrelevant stuff on top. What they end up saying is that, rather than one feature valuing another, what happens instead is that the features share values. Which is exactly HPSG. HPSG is a theory that builds up syntactic/semantic (there is no modularity) objects successively by adding on words. As words get added on, the whole object takes on the features of the new words. If there are conflicts, then the combination is not possible and the sentence is ungrammatical. It's a much simpler, more consistent system without all the extra baggage. And because it doesn't have the extra baggage, it avoids a lot of unintuitive stipulations. Like, for example, why is it that the "top" word is always the one with the unvalued feature (by "top" here we mean roughly "closer to the beginning of the sentence")? Why do we need this kind of "directionality" with "probes" and "goals" and all that jazz? Why can't it just be that one or the other has the valued feature, and one or the other is not valued, and whenever a word gets merged into the greater syntactic object it just feature shares - no directionality implied? I can't see that rigid adherence to this directionality buys you anything, and it seems to have the added danger of forcing you to conclusions you might not otherwise reach or need (we might, for example, have to at some point specify some movement operation just to make sure that the "probe" is ahead of the "goal" in some derivation. I can't think of an example, but it seems like a possible danger of writing this otherwise unnecessary directionality constraint into our grammar.). With HPSG, there is no directionality - just feature valuing, so no danger of later unnecessary stipulations (at least, not on this point.)

Pesetsky and Torrego seem proud of the fact that they've gotten rid of Chomsky's stipulation that all and only the unvalued features are uninterpretable. But this seems to me to come at a cost. Rather than getting rid of the extra baggage, they've added more on. Now we have a four-way distinction: rather than saying (as Chomsky says) that all unvalued features are also uninterpretable, Pesetsky and Torrego say it's possible to have unvalued-interpretable features too. And also valued-uninterpretable (from the lexicon - in Chomsky these delete as soon as they're valued). Great, so now we have four to deal with instead of just two (and those two were already pretty silly - because Chomsky goes to the trouble to say that there are two oppositions here - valued/unvalued and interpretable/uninterpretable - when actually we only needed one opposition. We could have just said "probe" and "goal" and not bothered explaining all this crap about valuation and interpretability, right? I mean, if there are only two kinds of features, why use four descriptive words to spell out their differences???). But the point is we don't need any of this save for the assertion that Syntax and Semantics can't talk to each other. That is, the only reason we're going into so much detail about different kinds of features in the first place is because we're assuming that there has to be some kind of operation that gets rid of all the stuff that Semantics doesn't need before Semantics applies. But no one has ever proven that Semantics needs to apply after Syntax. Why can't it just happen at the same time, like it does in HPSG? And even if we do believe in all this (completely unmotivated) modularity, why do we have to get so nitpicky about the features at all? Can't we just leave it up to Semantics to ignore the features it doesn't need? I mean - what the HELL is the motivation for stipulating that if we leave in a feature Semantics needs and Semantics happens to see it that the derivation will crash and the sentence will be ungrammatical? (???)

I dunno - maybe (probably) I'm mising something - but it just seems like a lot of handwaving over something that doesn't seem to have a whole lot of motivation. HPSG just works.

The reason I'm taking up so much time with this is because Chomsky is on record saying that HPSG is just a "notational variant" of Minimalism. What a crock. First of all, HPSG was talking about features long before Minimalism was a gleam in its daddy's eye. Back when HPSG was getting off the ground (in the 80s), Chomsky and his buddies were busy making functional heads for absolutely bleedin' everything and moving words willy-nilly all over the place to get the bottom line to work out. Hardly anyone's idea of an elegant or parsimonious theory, and not particularly intuitive to boot. But more importantly, if HPSG is a "notational variant," then it seems to be the superior notation and we should adopt it immediately. It doesn't commit us to things like four-way distinctions between features that we can't even study because they "delete" before the sentence gets produced!

What's annoying about Pesetsky and Torrego is that they actually cite some papers in the HPSG literature in their bibliography. So why on Earth, one wonders, didn't they just write something to the effect that HPSG gets a nicer solution than Chomksy? Oh yeah, and there isn't a scrap of data to be found in the whole paper. Aside from the Latin example given above and a couple of sentences which illustrate (but do not motivate) a side-point they were making about complementizers, there isn't a single motivating example anywhere in the paper. They're just "cleaning up" Chomsky's theory for him. Well thanks, but no thanks. HPSG has already done that well enough.

I think it isn't for nothing that my old syntax teacher said that "GiB-berish" is a technical term for the kind of Lingusitics that GB/Minimalism people talk about...

I have to give the presentation on the rest of this paper next week (Tossi did the first 8 pages this week), which means I'll need to read the paper very carefully. I'll be sure to write a correction post if anything I've said in this one turns out to have been unfair.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Good Episode but still not out of the Woods

Some belated thoughts on Friday's episode of Battlestar Galactica.

This episode was fun to watch - a good "jailbreak." For the most part, everyone is back in character. They went easy on the sentimentality, considering.
Most importantly, we're back on track. The colonial fleet is back together, no more of this weird Cylon occupation stuff. Maybe we can finally put season 2.5 behind us.


It's just that, once a show is broken, I don't think it can ever truly be fixed - not completely. Battlestar is getting better - no doubt about it. But I don't see how we're ever going to be back to the amazing show that was Season 1 - and this "Exodus" episode is sort of a case in point.

Where is Cally? For one thing, where's Cally? In the cliffhanger leading into Exodus pt. 1 showed her rescued by Tyrol just as she was about to be caught in the crossfire of the Colonial rescue operation. (This, by the way, is in direct contradiction to what we saw of her at the end of Precipice, when she is running as the shots begin. In Exodus pt. 1 Tyrol throws her to the ground just as the shots begin.) It's weird that she's such an important character in Exodus pt. 1 and Precipice but is nowhere to be found during the rescue operation. Surely they could have paid the actress enough for a cameo?

How did Lee get off Pegasus? This was some annoying sleight of hand. We first see him going down with his ship on a suicide run into a Cylon Basestar, but then he appears at the celebration without so much as a scratch?

Mr. Gaeta is out of character again As I've said, Mr. Gaeta is my favorite character, and so discontinuities with him annoy me more than most. Gaeta was never a "believer" in Gaius Baltar. What Gaeta is is someone who sucks it up and follows orders. He's an extremely reliable officer - that's his MO. It was totally in character for him to do his job for the new president - regardless of who that president might be. But it's silly for him to pull a gun on Baltar for being a traitor when (a) it's out of character for him to do so in the first place and (b) it should be obvious to him of all people that Baltar is as much a victim as anyone else. In any case, Gaeta - or, at least Gaeta as shown up to this point - has more sense than to be taken in by someone like Baltar (especially when there is no evidence whatever that Baltar has any other fans anywhere in the universe - save Caprica Six, of course.)

Why is Tom Zarek willing to stand aside for Laura Roslin? Some people online have complained about this - but I personally think it makes sense. The colonials have just been through some tough times during the occupation. Zarek is power-hungry - but he's not a complete idiot. Making a cheap political ploy out of the rescue operation and asserting his right (as vice president) to succeed Baltar is beneath even him. However, I do think it's an interesting question why he's under arrest to begin with. After all, he is vice president, and not exactly the most noble person in the fleet. Doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would completely refuse to aid the Cylons.

So now we're back to square one The Cylon occupation is revealed to be a "reset button" after all. It lasted all of about three episodes, and now the series bumbles back to where it was, more or less, before they screwed things up in Season 2.5. This is a shame. If you're going to go to all the trouble to so something so drastic as have Baltar win the presidential election and then the Cylons show up to conquer, something may as well come out of it story-wise. One interesting suggestion I heard on the net was that the Cylon occupation should have been beneficent. We should have seen houses built, food provided, etc. - a "lotus-eaters" story. THAT would have been interesting psychologically and philosophically. There would have been good stories to tell from such a thing. (For example, the secret police story they told would have been more compelling if it hadn't been so obvious that the society was repressive. Then it would have been easy to believe in recruits who were also in the resistance and keeping their status as police secret, and there would have also been real drama when the police were asked to do brutal things, as opposed to the "DUH!" moment we got with Jammer. More importantly, they could have done the interesting plotline with Starbuck and "her" child and Loeben justice. Instead, well...)

Kara was taken in by Loeben's trick? Really? I dunno - I was kinda disappointed in that. I expected more fight from Kara. Certainly it's believable that she would bond with Kacey and want to rescue her, but it seems unlikely that she would simply take Loeben's word for it that Kacey was her child. Maybe they're building up to something, though. Kara's biological clock is ticking, perhaps, so she believed what she wanted to believe? They may yet be able to save this thread - but it seemed to me that it was ended too quickly, and with Kara looking a lot weaker than we're used to seeing her.

I don't want to say that this episode was all bad. It was definitely fun to watch, and it got rid of the Pegasus in a convincing way (and good riddance! It was getting annoying having two battlestars - though of course the writers will now forget that Pegasus ever existed and we'll get no more glimpses of animosity or integration problems between the two crews. Oh yeah - and no word on where everyone will live now that the biggest ship is blown to bits.). I also really liked the scene where Colonel Tigh kills his wife. That was believable and well-acted. And I appreciated that they brought it up again during the victory celebration. Point taken. But as a whole, this episode is just proof that something's gone wrong with the show, and that even relatively strong eps like this one aren't enough to convince us otherwise. Once your train derails, you can put it back on the tracks, but the passengers aren't going to feel as safe. I see about a hundred things they could do to screw this up, and very little they can do to keep things working right.

And just to reiterate - the biggest annoyance is that the Cylon occupation turns out to have had no story value. It was just a bandaid - only there to give them a plausible way to fix the mistakes of the last season. A giant distraction. Well, thanks but no thanks. In an important sense the same thing is wrong with this show that was always wrong with the X-Files. They start out by giving you the impression that it's all leading up to something - that there's a good story with an overall point to be told. But then you find out that it's nothing of the kind. The writers might have intended such a story, but they didn't plan it before the series started, and by the time they get around to telling it, they've painted themselves so deep into so many corners... The X-Files was a great show while the government conspiracy was still in the shadows and we just got small glimpses of it. It would have continued to be a great show if the writers had ever actually known what that conspiracy was and told a consistent story about it. Then revealing it, as they eventually did, wouldn't have been so problematic. But as it stands, once they start revealing things it's rapidly clear that no one is in charge of the story, and the whole thing just ended up really cheesy. Ditto Battlestar. There was a prescient comment on the web early in the year where someone wrote on a discussion board, mimicking the opening credits to the show, "The Cylons have a plan. And the writers don't know what it is." Right - the writers DON'T know what it is, and that's the whole problem. And now, I think, it's just too late. The Cylons have been so erratic at this point that there's really no easy way to tie it all together. Which is a shame - because this was once a really compelling show.

At least, though, after Friday's episode, we know that it will still be fun, even if it's never going to be perfect again. On the whole, things are looking up.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chavez for President forever!

Hugo Chavez, president(e) of Venezuela, is goading the opposition not to boycott this year's election by threatening to amend the Constitution so that he can run for president as many times as he likes. Venezuelaanalysis.com claims that the Associated Press misreported this by saying that Chavez was actually seeking a referendum that would make him president until 2031. They have a point and they don't.

They have a point in that the AP's coverage of the announcement is a bit biased. It's hard to dig up the story at this late date, but I did find this copy on a leftist website, which contains the line:

It was not clear if Chavez was talking about holding a legally binding vote to eliminate term limits or proposing a plebiscite.

Technically that's not entirely fair. Chavez was talking about holing a referendum to eliminate term limits.

However, they don't have a point in terms of the overall picture. The term limits were written into the Constitution as a campaign promise when Chavez amended it in 2000. Probably this was a way of soothing angst ahead of his "enabling act" that passed the next year - making him dictator until 2001. In any case, we really have to ask why Chavez put it in the Constitution only to threaten to take it out again 6 years on? More to the point, he himself is president, so the only possible motivation for taking it out, obviously, would be so that he can run again after this next term (which should legally be his final). More to the point, he said this:

"I am going to ask you, all the people, if you agree with Chavez being president until 2031," he said.

In other words, sorry guys, but you'll have to do better than this. The man is on his way to becoming an all-out dictator, many of which do stand for "election" every so often, after all.

My favorite line in the post is this one:

No, such a referendum would not be about "whether he should govern the country for the next 25 years." A referendum would be about whether Chavez would be permitted to run every six years and --in the event that he were to continue winning elections-- serve multiple presidential terms.

Riiiight...like Pinochet did. I'm sure they're all convinced that Pinochet's rule was legitimate. (Of course, Pinochet had the added virtue of being an effective leader who left his country with a better economy than when he started and didn't embarrass it every time he spoke in public, but who's splitting hairs?)

Polygamy is WHAT???

Today's bad reasoning/bad stats example comes from (ironically enough) Reason Online. It has to do with polygamy.

I have very mixed feelings about Reason. Occasionally, they hit the nail right on the head and are a true pleasure to read. Even less occasionally, they provide a perspective that I hadn't considered, or fill in the blanks for a libertarian argument in favor of a position that I had previously been arguing with inadequate information. But many times, unfortunately, they lean toward the left-libertarian. They're classic examples of the annoying subculture of libertarians who feel the need to assure the public that we don't really believe in our principles. Now, I'm all for being persuasive, and indeed I have said before that unwillingness to be convincing is the major problem facing the Libertarian Party - the biggest obstacle standing between it and modest success. Libertarians should approach public debate as pragmatic partners - willing to go over the facts of an issue and actually address them without quickly retreating behind ivory principles. But saying that we should use statistical arguments to persuade people that the policies our principles lead us to is in their best interests is not the same thing as saying that we should abandon principle and go whereever the numbers lead. All too often, however, Reason is willing to do just that.

The article linked above is a case in point. It purports to show that the ban on polygamy is a social good, that removing it would be a demographic catastrope. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort - many of the key steps in the reasoning being either missing or ignored. But more to the point, it flatly refuses to address the issues of individual right and choice involved, assuming that its empirical "arguments" will be sufficient justification for policy.

The argument goes something like this: marriage is a zero-sum game. For every woman on the "market," there are a number of "buyers" looking to convince her to marry. If we allow polygamy (which is likely to overwhelmingly take the form of polygyny, given human historical experience), then some of these buyers will sweep up a lot of the product, leaving others with nowhere to go. These disaffected men will become a social problem, forming gangs, increasing the crime rate, etc.

This argument is not very convincing, for several reasons.

Men tend to marry older. The period in their lives when men are most likely to be violent (16 to 29, as I understand it) is also the period in their lives when men are unlikely to be married anyway. Men go adventuring during this period. Just out of college, it is unusual for a man to be able to provide for a family. Of course, it happens, but more often than not he needs a couple of years to shop for a job he can live with, get promoted in that job to the point where he can afford children, etc. Men are also less likely than women to want children immediately. They like the process of making children, but wanting to take care of them is something they need to grow into. What I'm getting at is that men from ages 16-29 are not likely to abandon lifelong hope of marriage just because it sometimes happens that some men take more than one wife! They are accustomed to competing with each other at these ages anyway. It's hard to see how legal polygamy would change that.

Gangs are not known for equal sharing of women. One of the silliest arguments proposed in the article is the idea that unmarried men are likely to form gangs in frustration.

In particular communities — inner cities, for example — polygamy could take a toll much more quickly. Even a handful of "Solomons" (high-status men taking multiple wives) could create brigades of new recruits for street gangs and drug lords, the last thing those communities need.

Um...how is this different from inner cities today? As far as I know, women are available in areas with high gang violence, and this hasn't stopped anyone from joining. And since when do people join gangs to get married anyway? The way I understand it, gangs tend to have a top dog who gets first stab at all the women (who tend to be outright enslaved or somehow otherwise bonded to the group at second-class status). The others get scraps - and usually just sex, not really any kind of stable relationship. Men who join gangs can't possibly be escaping from polygamist society, in other words. Gangs are, in some sense, the closest thing to a polygamist subculture within our own fiercely monogamous society (second to certain religious groups, I mean).

Caring for children is never a motivation for crime?. Related to the previous point, it's worth bearing in mind that caring for children can also be a motive for crime. People among the "have-nots" who have trouble making ends meet will often resort to robbery and so on to make up the shortfall. Obviously, the cost of raising a household is greater than that of simply providing for oneself, so without numbers (which the article does not, in fact provide), there's no real way to settle the question of which groups are more likely to be criminal. It is plausible that the strain of having to provide for a family drives some men to criminality who would otherwise have stayed in line.

Women have no say?. I think the main point the article is missing has to do with the behavior of women. The article seems to assume that people in affluent societies behave the same way as people in poorer societies, but that is unlikely to be the case. Polygamy makes a kind of economic sense in poor societies. When resources for raising children are scarce, those who command the most resources are also saddled with the most children. People who have no resources find themselves cut off from caring for children (though they may father them). In affluent societies, however, where it is easier to obtain the material goods one needs to care for children, there is less reason for women to flock to the few who have the most money. Women will be less likely to enter into polygynous relationships where they have to share their husbands with other women, possibly accepting second-class status among the wives. Passages like this one are especially misleading:

Hudson and den Boer suggest that societies become inherently unstable when sex ratios reach something like 120 males to 100 females: in other words, when one-sixth of men are surplus goods on the marriage market. The United States as a whole would reach that ratio if, for example, 5 percent of men took two wives, 3 percent took three wives, and 2 percent took four wives — numbers that are quite imaginable, if polygamy were legal for a while.

Actually, I find those numbers very difficult to swallow in modern America. Even the way they are presented here, they seem implausible. One in ten households polygamist? Really? But the trick being played is that they are only presented from a male point of view. With an unlimited number of women, it might indeed be plausible that one in ten men would take more than one wife. The authors are forgetting to mention how many women this involves, though. In terms of percentages, the numbers above mean that roughly 27% of all marriagible females would be involved in polygynist relationships. Is it honestly even remotedly plausible to assume that roughly one-third of the female population would agree to such an arrangement? I should think not - especially not in this day and age of female empowerment. Women agree to such arrangements when they neither are capable of taking care of themselves nor can count on society to be able to take care of them. But in modern America, women are fully capable of taking care of themselves and do not need to rely on men to carry their burdens. Consequently, they need not accept polygynist arrangements and will not, I believe, choose to do so.

Divorce doesn't happen?. Another important difference that the authors are glossing over between polygamist societies and modern America (related to the previous point) is the high divorce rate in modern America. People who are not satisfied with their relationships are free to split off and form new ones to a degree unprecedented in human history. I think it's reasonable to assume that polygyny will not fare as well in modern America as it has in the past because men will be under more pressure to actually please their four wives. In societies that have traditionally practiced polygyny, it is far from clear that there was much (or any) such pressure. Men simply bought women using their connections and status, and the women were expected to bear them children. Needless to say, our concept of marriage has changed a bit since then. Divorce has the effect of putting old players back on the market. So even if rates of polygyny increased with leaglization (and I suspect they would - especially among the wealthiest men), there is no reason to assume that women would stay married to these men. To use the author's crude (if only implied) formulation, many women would be back on the market soon enough.

All of the objections above have merely been hinting at what I think the real problem with this article is, and that's that we have yet another mass-media example of the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: correlation does not imply causation.

No doubt it's true that polygamist societies suffer from all the problems outlined in the book the article takes as its inspiration. What's not clear is that polygamy actually causes these problems. More likely than not, what causes the problems is just the general lack of material wealth and lack of transparent justice systems that tend to be associated with polygamist societies. Polygamy is simply co-existant with these problems. Poor societies need a way to keep up the birthrate, and they also need a lot of surplus men to fight their wars and provide the cheap labor necessary to getting capital expansion off the ground. It is plausible to assume that polygamy thrived in the past because it helped accomodate these goals. It was neither directly caused by nor the cause of the general poverty, it just happened to thrive as a social institution in that environment.

Whatever polygamy would exist in modern America would hardly be the same polygamy that existed in the past. Indeed, modern monogamous marriage is hardly the same monogamous marriage that existed in the past. There is a much greater emphasis on romantic love in modern marriage than there likely has been at any time in history - and for no other reason than that this is a luxury people can now afford. Such polygamy as exists in modern America is unlikely to be motivated by the same factors or give rise to the same problems that it did in the socieites being used as comparisons.

I understand that popular sentiment is against polygamy. Given its history, it is seen as being bad for women (most polygamy is polygyny). What I don't understand is why a libertarian magazine is pandering to this prejudice. Surely the last thing that any "libertarian" publication should find itself advocating is the legislation of public morality in the name of social engineering? I would expect to find the kind of reasoning here in Socialist or Conservative publications; it has no place among Libertarians. If there is one thing I would have hoped defined the Libertarian movement, it is a lack of faith in social planning. People should be left free to make their own decisions, for better or worse.

If Libertarianism ever seriously hopes to become a political philosophy the public takes seriously, there are twin rhetorical evils it should avoid. The first of these is characterized by writing that I see on the Mises Blog - and that's a reliance on purely ideological arguments that seem almost flippant for lack of concern with data. Of course, we should preach our ideals. The goal, after all, is to convince others to share those ideals and principles. But principles alone are usually only persuasive to people who already share them. If you want to convince people outside the choir, you have to also illustrate that your principles lead to desireable results, and this involves providing your audience with data and realworld examples. The second of these is characterized by writing (such as this article) in Reason. Reason seems to be overly concerned about Libertarians' image as ideologues - so much so that they constantly want to show everyone that we're really not that different from the general population. "See?," they say, "we're not crazy! I mean, gay marriage, is that so much to ask? It's not like we want to legalize polygamy or anything!" And no doubt this is indeed soothing to the general public. But it is also ultimately unpersuasive. The fact of the matter is that Libertarians ARE different. We ARE radicals. We DON'T like society the way it is - that is the whole bleeing point. You cannot convince people to give up political norms that, to them, appear to be working in favor of something radically different by assuring them that you're really not going to push things that far! People will either (a) mistrust you (and rightly so) or (b) not see the reason in adopting your program when the Republicans will do just as nicely and actually stand a chance of winning! No new product enters the market by advertising that it is "roughly the same as our competitors, and harder to find in stores!"

If Libertarians want to win, we need to show the public that its assumptions are wrong - that business as usual isn't working. We need to do this in a way that is serious and convincing, to be sure. We should not shrug away their concerns (many of which are quite legitimate) with the kind of hand-waving arguments one finds on the Mises Blog. But even hand-waving, purely philosophical arguments are preferable to the product that Reason peddles, which more often than not, as in the case of the present example, isn't even Libertarian in any meaningful sense of the word.

If Libertarianism means anything, it means putting faith in individuals to make their own choices. The key word in that sentence was indeed faith. We KNOW that people will not always make the right choices, but we believe that those choices are nevertheless their choices to make, and we believe that, from a global perspective, allowing freedom of choice does indeed work out better for everyone in real matieral terms in the end. We believe this because no one has more invested in an individual's success than that individual himself. Top-down micromanaging of individual lives is as immoral as it is ineffective; Libertarians seek political power to abolish such power.

Articles like this one, that leave the rights of individuals to determine their own fates out of the discussion, are not Libertarian in any way I understand the word. They are the opposite of Libertarianism - the very thing that Libertarians should be fighting. Individuals have the right to determine for themselves with whom they will spend their lives and on what terms. That is the Libertarian position on marriage - and it includes (consenting) polygamists. If you are not comfortable with that, then I would love to try to change your mind, but I will not pretend that you are a Libertarian because you are not. This article belongs in National Review...or maybe the garbage can. It has no place in a publication that claims to advocate "free markets, free minds."

(I should add that there is one consistently good, and consistently Libertarian, writer at Reason, and that is Jacob Sullum. Perhaps not surprisingly, he also has sensible things to say about polygamy.)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Thoughs on Abortion

In a discussion on a thread on Samizdata the issue of Libertarian pro-lifers came up. The main editor has promised to seed a thread sometime in the near future (probably tomorrow) to let us flesh out this discussion in the comments section. In preparation for that, I thought I would outline my own thoughts on the matter. Abortion is a complex issue, so this is no easy matter.

One commenter, in fact, said something that I very much agree with - namely that it's always important to break a moral issue down into its component parts. Precision is important, and one should be wary of people who try to package issues together on the basis of mere relatedness. Abortion definitely fits the category of an issue which is actually several separate issues infelicitously thrown together. As far as I can tell, these are the components of the debate in the US:

Roe v. Wade. I'm sorry but I have to insist that the legal appropriateness of Roe v. Wade is a separate issue from the ethics of abortion per se. Whatever side of the debate you happen to find yourself on (and as will become clear, I'm absolutely solid pro-choice), I don't think the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade is defensible. I'll let Justice White, who wrote a dissenting opinion on the case, do my talking for me:

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand. As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.

The Court apparently values the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence and development of the life or potential life that she carries. Regardless of whether I might agree with that marshaling of values, I can in no event join the Court's judgment because I find no constitutional warrant for imposing such an order of priorities on the people and legislatures of the States. In a sensitive area such as this, involving as it does issues over which reasonable men may easily and heatedly differ, I cannot accept the Court's exercise of its clear power of choice by interposing a constitutional barrier to state efforts to protect human life and by investing mothers and doctors with the constitutionally protected right to exterminate it. This issue, for the most part, should be left with the people and to the political processes the people have devised to govern their affairs.

Right. There is simply nothing in the Constitution that covers this. Therefore, it should have been left up to state legislatures, which would, in time, have legalized abortion I am sure.

The negative effects of allowing the Court to legislate in this fashion are difficult to overstate. Others have made the arguments well, so I will simply leave it at that.

Does being alive imply a right to life?. This is the crux of my opposition to abortion restrictions. Justice White can't find a constitutional basis for placing the convenience of the mother over the life of the foetus, but I believe I can find an ethical one. I am personally content with the idea that life begins at conception. I can't think of a better point from which to define it, actually. Anything else is simply arbitrary, and I do not believe that what amounts to accusations of murder can be based on anything so arbitrary. True, a baby at this point is just a "jumble of cells," but it is nevertheless a potential human with a unique DNA sequence. It came into existence when this sequence was formed - no two ways about it. The only possible alternative definition that I could see would be "viability." Can the foetus survive (with medical assistance, of course) outside its mother? But there are legal side-effects of a "viability" definition. For example, are invalids and coma patients thereby legally dead? Etc.

At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, my conclusion on this branch of the issues is that being a human life and having an unqualified right to life are not the same thing. A foetus is undoubtedly alive from the moment of conception, and undoubtedly human. But I do not recognize a right to life that depends upon the consent and effort of another. The woman still owns her body and may do with it what she sees fit. If she does not wish - for whatever reason - to be an incubator, then I see no reason to obligate her to be one. We can, of course, pass personal judgments on women who are irresponsible enough to use abortion as birth control. Certainly there is something creepy about people who are sanguine about late-term abortions for convenience - or abortions for convenience at all. But I do not believe that legal distinctions should be made on feelings. In similar situations, we would not require people to become medical servants of others. For example, suppose that someone has AB- (an extremely rare type) blood and begins donating to a hemophiliac. Let's say this is happening in a small town, and other donors are either unavailable or unknown. Now, imagine that our donor gets a foreign job offer and will not be able to continue his donations. Should he be required to turn down the offer to keep this other person alive? Well, certainly it would be a nice thing to do. And indeed, I beleive that people are justified in shunning him if he decides to take the offer. Taking the offer and leaving the hemophiliac in a difficult situation does seem irresponsible and cold. Nevertheless, I can't think of a persuasive justification for making him stay. The hemophiliac has already benefited greatly from his help, after all, may not have lived to this point without it. In this isolated incident, it seems OK to override our belief in the man's right to control his own destiny and require him to stay, but such a decision would have undesireable consequences across the rest of society.

If we are committed to a society of individual rights and property ownership, then it seems to me that property begins with bodily integrity. If people are not absolute owners of their own bodies, then the basis for other rights will be critically weakened. The body is the most obvious and concrete definition of an individual. It must be inviolable. Just as we are justified in using force to remove an invited guest who refuses to leave from our property, as cruel as it may sound, I believe that the same applies to a human foetus.

Moral opposition to the practice of abortion is not inconsistent with a pro-choice legal position. As with many things in life, I think that grassroots activism is the proper way to oppose abortion. One thing that annoys me is when pro-choicers complain at being confronted with images of aborted foetuses. This strikes me as cowardly. Certainly they (we) have a right to their (our) opinions, but I do not believe that anyone has the right to avoid confronting the consequences of the positions he holds. Part of being a responsible adult, in fact, is accepting these consequences. The link will have long ago gone out of scope, but the IDS ran a staff editorial about two years ago arguing that pro-lifers should be banned from bringing grotesque pictures to their rallies on campus. I have exactly the opposite opinion. Free speech issues aside (and this most definitely is a free-speech issue as there is no right not to be confronted with uncomfortable images), I don't think anyone should hold pro-choice opinions if he cannot stomach the sight of aborted foetuses. The pictures of aborted foetuses cut right to the heart of the issue, in fact. If you are put off by such a picture to the point where you want to suspend Constitutional liberties to get it out of your face, then perhaps you need to rethink what you suppose your position on abortion to be. And, let's be honest, such images are offputting. And that fact is something that definittely should figure into your calculations before you decide to go through with an abortion. Likewise, I salute pro-lifers like current 9th District Libertarian candidate Eric Schansberg who take responsibility for their position by adopting children. If you really believe in the sanctity of unborn life, then it seems only natural that you will consider it a moral duty to promote the adoption agencies that provide an alternative to abortion for the difficult cases. In general, I think Libertarians should contribute to charity (because people do screw up, after all - it does no good to simply point the finger from the moral high ground in cases of real social problems) - and those that are pro-life should obviously contribute to this one.

Religion should be left out of public debates. I think one thing that confuses the issue for a lot of people is religion. Religion is - no two ways about it - a piss-poor basis for public policy. People who oppose abortion for religious reasons need to shut the hell up. It's fine for them to use their religion as a basis for deciding whether or not to have an abortion themselves (indeed, if they truly believe in their religion then this is something they should do), but we cannot make laws based on subjective revelations. The United States is not the Kingdom of Heaven. God will make whatever laws he sees fite there (assuming there is such a place). And this will work out, because God will be manifestly present to all citizens. Here on Earth, however, it is not readily apparent that God even exists, much less what He wants people to do. If you think you have the answers to these questions, then by all means act on them - but do not require the rest of us to conform to views of the world that we cannot even begin to substantiate. One reason that I will not be voting for Eric Schansberg in this election (actually, the main reason is that I forgot to register!) is that he thinks it's OK to cite his religious beliefs as a basis for opposition to abortion. It is not.

Pro-lifers really are pro-lifers. Another pet peeve of mine on this issue is the insistence by a lot of the pro-choice crowd that the term "pro-life" is propaganda. It is not. It is, in fact, an accurate description of the position of the people who so label themselves. They believe that the foetus' right to life trumps the right of the mother to control her body. In other words, preserving life is the entire crux of the matter for them. If such a position cannot be described as "pro-life," then I'm really not sure what can. Another pet peeve of mine are these bumper stickers that say "Against abortion? Don't have one!" Obviously, the debate is not so simple, and I do not think anything is gained by resorting to such platitudes. If abortion is murder to you becuase you think that the right to life trumps the right to bodily integrity, then obviously you will not be able to simply stand aside and allow murder to take place. It's as if we were to say "Against slavery? Don't own one!" Slavery is obviously not a "live-and-let-live" issue, and neither is abortion. Like it or not, those of us on the pro-choice side are going to have to confront and talk to those on the pro-life side. Hand-waving dismissals of their position are inadequate - and disingenuous besides.

Feminists may not simultaneously claim that men are not allowed to have opinions on abortion but that they are required to pay child support. It's not that I am unsympathetic to claims that abortion should be entirely a woman's issue. They are, after all, the ones who have the babies. It's just that I think that once you insist that men take responsibility for the children they father, you have admitted that there is a male component to the issue. If women are allowed to terminate pregancies for convenience without any input from men, then why are not men allowed to terminate fatherhood for convenience withoutany input from women? So feminists need to make up their minds. Either men are allowed to vote on this issue, and we can have a child support system, or men are not allowed to vote on this issue, and there will be no enforcement of child support payments.

This will have only scratched the surface of the issue. I have not, for example, even touched on the practical implications of abortion policy - such as any social side-effects that it may have (it is often claimed that the sudden availability of abortions in 1973 is responsible for the general drop in crime roughly 20 years later). This debate has been going on for over 50 years now (33 since Roe), and it will go on, I suspect, for the rest of my lifetime. I support a woman's absolute right to choose - for whatever reason (including "convenience"), in whatever stage of the pregnancy. But I recognize that the issue is complicated. We have a long fight ahead of us - not one I look forward to or enjoy, particularly, but one I am ready for.