September 01, 2003
This is old news, but it bothers me anyway. Slate's Dear Prudence, on whether one is permitted to run a shake-down wedding:
My fiance and I—neither of whom have been married before—are planning and paying for our wedding. Because we do not want a big, lavish ceremony (nor can we afford one) and because we have been to too many other ceremonies where the bridal shower, wedding gift, bachelor and bachelorette parties, etc. have amounted to a small fortune, we've decided to make things simple for ourselves and our guests. There will be no attendants or groomsmen, no showers or parties, no multiple-store gift registries. As we're in our late 20s and have lived on our own for several years, we already have enough household items and do not need more. Instead, we are planning to ask our guests to give monetary gifts rather than buying toasters or dishes. We have received some flak from our family about the lack of tradition. I know this is our day, and it is completely up to us how we want to celebrate it, but we would like an objective third party (you!) to give your opinion. Thank you very much.
Tradition is taking it in the neck these days, so don't get too worked up about the flak you're receiving. We are living at a time when a dog has served as "best man," couples tie the knot on Ferris wheels, and more than a few brides have waltzed down the aisle in maternity clothes. For better or for worse, we are making new traditions. To tell you the truth, your thinking is sound about needless presents and multiple parties. But because wedding gifts of cash are associated with the Sopranos, humor might soften the situation, especially since your wedding sounds like it's going to be a warm and informal affair. Perhaps enclose a note with your invitation saying, basically, what you wrote to Prudie. For example:
We're having no showers or parties and such.
We've got all our "stuff," so our needs are not much.
What we could use most (and it's one-size-fits-all)
Is the check of your choice … and no trip to the mall.
Now, the first time I read that I thought that Prudie must be joking, but re-reading it, I don't think she is. Her claim seems to be that if pregnant brides are allowed then surely brides are allowed to demand cash from their guests. This strikes me as terribly impolite, terribly wrong, and wrong for the wrong reasons.
Firstly, the worst thing that ever happened to weddings was the birth of the notion that "this is our day, and it is completely up to us how we want to celebrate it." Just because one has chosen to give an expensive party in one's own honor does not relieve one of the usual obligation to be a host and treat one's guests as guests. Anything does not go at a wedding. A Ferris wheel?-- maybe. Maternity clothes?-- Absolutely (because inquiring into the sex-life of the bride is far more impolite than the bride having one). A dog as a best man?-- I'll have to be convinced. But a Godfather-style shakedown? No.
But why are the hosts of a party forbidden to explain that the gifts which they simply know everybody else will be moved to give them are useless? Two reasons. Firstly, because it's just darn presumptious. The fiction of the wedding is that the bride and groom are so moved with generosity inspired by their newfound love that they wish to entertain and rejoice with their 200 closest friends (or 20 or 2000). These guests are then moved themselves, and some of them choose to commemorate the occasion to the bride and groom, with a gift that they find affordable and appropriate, whether it is cash, a hand-knit sweater, a set of fine china, or a down-payment on a house. Saying "cash only" implies that the gifts were pretty much assured, and you don't trust your friends to give you anything that you actually want. [A Slate frayster suggests writing "no gifts", but even "no gifts" is a terrible thing to write because it implies you were expecting everybody to be moved to gift-giving in the first place. Plus it creates that terrible situation where half of the people there ignore your warning and give you gifts anyway, and the other half, which mistakenly took you at your word, now feel like cheap chumps.]
In any case, another disadvantage of asking for a check in the "size of your choice" is that it allows you to directly compare how much all of your friends and relatives are willing to spend on you. Buying friendship is a disgusting enough practice. It's not made any better when it's reduced to an all-pay auction.
The Prudence theory seems to be that if the wedding is warm and informal and you make a little rhyme about it, you can get away with this sort of thing. And maybe the people coming to this wedding will be such good-hearted, good-humored folks that they'll put up with this. But one would hope that your closest friends and family know that you have a toaster-oven and don't want another, or at the very least know who to ask. What's particularly terrible about this pre-announced policy is that the only people it is likely to affect-- the people who were planning to give you stuff you have no use or desire for-- are the very people so distantly connected to you that you have no right to presume their going to give you a gift at all, or to boss them around about how to do it.
Incidentally, life holds hope for the toaster-laden and cash-starved. It seems to me they have two polite choices. 1: To refuse to register anyplace or to express any preference about gifts at all and hope that everybody will be so frustrated trying to find them something nice that they will give up and write checks. 2: To pick a store that has a very permissive return or store-credit policy, and register there, and then return all of their wedding gifts by the armload. If either of these seem painfully mercenary, it is only because there's a limit to how well you can dress up the practice of holding a party in your honor and then charging admission.
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I'm still trying to get settled here in New York, but blogging should commence shortly. I just spent a few days at the American Political Science Association's annual meeting and attended a number of good panels, so I'll try to add a bit to the blogspheric response.
Waldron, Arneson, Estlund, and Luban on just war theory:
Larry Solum has already blogged about this, giving a much better summary than I ever could (written, astonishly, in real time!) so I'll simply add a few comments. If you care enough to read this, you care enough to read his summary first. Go on, I'll wait.
Estlund's question is whether a (volunteer) soldier ought to fight in a war he deems to be unjust. His tentative conclusion is that the soldier should apply an "honest mistake" standard--so long as the decision to fight the unjust war was arrived at both honestly and competently, the solder should obey. This assertion immediately made me wonder about an inverse formulation--if the decision to fight a just war was arrived at in a way that would fail the "honest mistake" standard (dishonestly or incompetently), should the soldier fight? If, for example, a war could be justified as a humanitarian intervention, but was dishonestly or incompetently declared under a doctrine of preventative war, is the soldier who fights it in the wrong? My intuition is "no," but does this give governments too much slack? At any rate, great presentation, fascinating questions.
Two of Lupan's main points seemed both important and plausible: that Walzer's conception of self-determination is implausibly thin ("It's like saying I have a right to health care if I can win it in a karate tournament"), and that preventative war can be assimilated into the preemptive strike category so long as the probability is extraordinarily high. Here he suggests that the "rogue state" designation might indeed have use, as those states that do meet this high probabilistic threshold. But then he lost me, saying that while wars of self-defense can be fought collectively, preemptive strikes and preventative wars against rogue states can only be made by the threatened parties; Israel or Iran, therefore, might have been able to fight a just preventative war against Iraq, but not the US or Britain. Denying this, Lupan argues, would make preventative wars too common.
I agree that it's important to limit the preventative war justification in order to avoid the "I shot him in self-defense to prevent him from shooting me in self-defense" sort of scenario. But I'm not so sure that Lupan's "threatened party only" clause adequately deals with the reality of asymmetric power. Say Country A is developing weapons of mass destruction, has a large and defensively fortified army, and meets all the requirements of being a dangerous rogue state likely to attack innocent Country B. Country B, being a peace-loving nation and an ally of rich and powerful Superpower C, has only a small military force--much too small and defensively constituted to be able to carry out an effective offensive war against A. Now, if B were attacked by A, on Lupan's view, C could join in. Does it really make sense to forbid B from designating C as its agent for the purposes of waging an otherwise-just preventative war?
I'm not sure the slope is really slippery enough to justify this, and I'm not sure if Lupan is looking at both sides of the cost-benefit equation. It's not as if C will automatically go along with whatever B wants; C must, after all, make its own calculation about whether or not it wants to lose blood and treasure over someone else's problem. But let's assume that the Cs of the world are rather hot-tempered, and that we will get more wars with this sort of norm. There's still the second-order effects to consider: what result would such a norm have on arms races? So long as the Bs of the world know they can count on their tough buddy Cs, they have little incentive to acquire the offensive capability required to handle the As; the As of the world, similarly, will be less eager to make menacing noises at the Bs. And the wars that come will be more likely to be 2nd Gulf War-style smackdowns than bloody Iran-v.-Iraq-style multi-year struggles. So even if we have, say, 50% more wars, if each war is only 2/3s as "bad," it's not so obvious we're worse off.
All of which could simply be taken as an enthusiastic murmur of assent to Lupan's own acknowledged caveat that perhaps when thinking about just war theory one needs to take very seriously the difficulties posed to general laws by inequalities of power. I heartily concur with Larry Solum that both paper and presentation were excellent.
I thought Waldron's presentation, which looked at the problems that moral disagreement poses for just war theory, was one of the most engaging; perhaps because I find these problems so big, I have little to add to Solum's summary. I will say this: Waldron's concern that the legal and moral norm-shaping community be careful, in attempting to forge chains that conform more closely to ius ad bellum, not to upset the delicate consesus about ius in bello struck me as absolutely central. I think the combination of technological progress and radical power asymmetries makes attention to fighting wars justly much more important than a focus on fighting just wars, and, to put it bluntly, I see a consensus on the former eroding (read: equivocation regarding terrorism) much faster than I see progress on the latter.
All of which leads into Richard Arneson's presentation, which takes on directly the question "Is [deliberate flouting of noncombatant immunity, 'terrorism' a la Walzer] always morally wrong?" Arneson, working deontologically, answers resoundingly in the negative, which quite frankly is enough to make me think that setting aside consequentialist critiques and working from parallels to wrongful trespass and road rage is not the way to go with thinking about the morality of war. I'll state right up front that this topic is too big and too important for flippant remarks by grad students who are still 12 hours away from starting classes, but, that said, here's my intuition on this:
A- Killing people is pretty awful, if perhaps unavoidable; the less it approximates self-defense, the worse it is. B- If we can create stable norms that minimize the amount of not-even-close-to-self-defense killing that goes on, we probably should, even at the risk of philosophical incoherence. C- Non-combatant immunity norms seem to have been, historically, reasonably effective tools; we can see evidence throughout history, as Walzer reminds us, that many real armies in real life actually do attempt to reduce non-combatant casualities, even at costs to important missions. Not always, not as much as we'd like, but norms matter. D- Given all this, let's please not undermine them.
That said, Arneson's presentation was made with admirable clarity and cogency, and he had a wonderful line in "I'm obligated to do some independent checking before obeying my wife and killing the neighbors."
That's all for today--I'll write more soon about the wonderful panel on the role of character in judicial selection I attended.
Also soon to come: commentary on upcoming oral arguments in Swedenburg v. Kelly, the winery-shipping case; reactions to Phillipe Pettit's presentation of "Akrasia, Collective and Individual" at the NYU Colloquium in Law, Philosophy and Political Theory. I don't know about you, but I'm psyched.
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Greetings all, I am back from my week-long blogging stint at Overlawyered. Thanks to all the readers and linkers who noticed the trip, and also to those who helped make our last month our most traffic-heavy month here ever. Incidentally, if you haven't gotten enough of Matthew Yglesias below, a little conversation about the interview is starting over in his comments section.
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I bring you all the latest in our series of 20 Questions for interesting bloggers. This time we've taken a trip to the left wing of the blogosphere. I give you Matthew Yglesias.
1: Why did you start blogging?
It all started back in January 2002. I had a serious girlfriend at the time and she was heading off to Oxford for a semester and so I was looking for a hobby that would take up some of my free time. I'd been reading some weblogs -- Marshall, Sullivan, Kaus, InstaPundit, Matt Welch, Jeff Jarvis -- for a while and I thought I'd give it a try. At any rate, I had a job lined up for the summer working on a campaign here in New York, but about a week before finals the candidate got some bad news from her doctor and dropped out of the race for health reasons, leaving me pretty high and dry. That gave me lots of time to blog and the site's popularity started taking off. Then at the end of October 2002, my term as Editor-in-Chief of The Harvard Independent came to an end and I started pouring a lot of my journalistic energy into the site.
2: So, umm, without meaning to ask a dumb question, why Harvard?
It's a kind of funny story. The summer before my senior year in high school I was living with a family in Russia and my host-sister asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I named a few schools I was considering and she said to me "eet seems to me zat you are smart boy, and eef I vas smart boy and I leeved in ze vest, I vould luf to go to ze great Garvard Ooneeversity." That was pretty much the first time I thought about it seriously, but I went up in the fall to pay a visit, stayed with a friend of mine, liked what I saw, and applied. Then I got in and I went, because, basically, I figured that no one had ever really screwed up their life by going to Harvard so why not.
3: Does Harvard have serious grade inflation? Does it matter?
Certainly the average grades Harvard is handing out today are higher than the average grades they were handing out forty years ago. At the same time, the admissions process is much more competitive than it used to be, and the student body is drawn from a much wider segment of the population, so there's reason to think that the quality of the work being done has improved. In addition, computers and the like make doing research and writing papers much better. I can't really say how things compare to other schools, but the consensus seems to be that Harvard is more inflated than, say, Chicago and I have no reason to dispute that. Of course, there's tremendous variation from department-to-department and professor to professor at every institution and Harvard's no exception. It definitely seems to me that I wrote some papers that got As that weren't very good, but at the same time I wrote some papers that I felt were excellent and the graders felt otherwise.
As to whether it's a problem, I wrote an article on this subject a while ago and I thought the best people to ask were the admissions personnel at the sort of professional schools that graduates of the top colleges go to. pretty much everyone I asked agreed that there wasn't really a _problem_ in the sense that they had a hard time distinguishing the excellent students from the merely good ones. They were well aware that standards varied from place-to-place (though they declined to go into detail) and said they had a good grasp on what every students grades indicated. Maybe they're wrong, but they seem about as expert as anyone in this subject.
4: University of Chicago students have a complicated relationship with Harvard, but I've always wondered if that relationship was symmetric at all. What do Harvard students think of the University of Chicago? Do they think of it at all?
I'd say it's pretty assymetrical. Harvard people are pretty self-absorbed and if they think about other schools at all it's probably focused on Yale and the other places in the Boston area, MIT and Wellesley in particular. During the winter a lot of people, especially from the west coast, express some regret that they're not at Stanford and I've seen a few Canadians wearing shirts that say "Harvard: The McGill of the South" which I think is pretty funny.
Personally, I think more about Chicago than most. A very good friend of mine since Kindergarten just graduated from there. Moreover, despite Dave Winer's efforts, Chicago definitely seems to be the blogging powerhouse of the academic world. I visited Chicago when I was applying to college, liked it a lot, and very possibly would have gone if I hadn't gotten into Harvard. We hear every once in a while that you guys are actually getting the better education since you work harder, and I think people are normally inclined to think that you would have to work even harder if you had to compete with the students we have. As to whether there's any truth to any of this, I really couldn't say.
5: Your Comments section definitely seems to be the blogosphere-place-to-be, with numerous regular posters on all sides. What do you think makes your comments section so popular, and how should a blog decide whether to add comments or not? Crooked Timber has them, but the Volokh Conspiracy does not.
It's hard to know exactly how to account for the popularity of the comments section. Obviously, I'd like to claim credit for it myself, but in reality I don't think I have much to do with it. I try to maintain a fair-minded tone in my posts, which helps, but it's not sufficient. Ultimately, I just lucked into a good group of commenters and so far the community seems to be self-sustaining. As for whether a blog should have comments, I'd say that it would be worth it for any site to try it out for a little while. A good comments section can be a real asset to a blog. Of course, if it doesn't turn into something that the host is happy with, he should get rid of it, but I don't think there's any way to tell in advance.
6. For some reason, Libertarians are vastly over-represented in the blogosphere. To what degree do you think the left is accurately represented among blogs? Which factions are left out and which dominate?
It seems to me that the fundamental fact is that weblogs represent a pretty upscale demographic slice of the United States. Bloggers are, or so it seems to me, better-educated and wealthier than the population as whole. On the right, this manifests itself in more libertarians and fewer social conservatives than you see in the real world. On the left, there's a similar demographic skew. The Democratic Party base consists largely of African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and union members, but liberal blogs tend (there are, of course, lots of exceptions) to be run by white, male, professionals. It's a little hard to know what the ideological results of this are because the left is out of power so everyone's pretty focused on exposing the evils of the Republicans. I bet that if and when you see a Democratic administration you'll start seeing more fractures among people on the left, both in the country at large and in the blogosphere, then it'll be easier to make a comparison.
7. Have you considered taking over TAPped, now that you're going to be working at The American Prospect. Frankly, your blog is a lot better than theirs.
I reject the premise here. Tapped is one of my favorite blogs and I'd like to see both voices continuing out there.
8. You've recently made a pledge-drive at your blog. Now that you're working as a writer, is there some minimum income or readership your blog will have to generate for you to keep it going?
I'd probably stop writing if people stopped reading me, but otherwise, no, there's no necessary minimum. I would say, though, that the blog will probably be getting somewhat less attention from me in the future than it has for the past several months, since I'll have other responsibilities. Fundamentally, though, I blog because I enjoy it and I don't see that stopping.
9: In your archives there's a mysterious deleted post titled "Finals" whose text reads only "deleted by special request." Obviously, if you deleted it you probably won't tell us what it used to say, but could you, you know, obliquely hint at it a little?
It was actually a link to a final exam question for a communications course. The question dealt with weblogs and mentioned my site, which is why I linked to it. The instructor asked me to take it down since the test was still ongoing (or maybe hadn't started yet -- can't remember exactly) so I deleted it.
10: What's the best case to be made against Logical Positivism-- the claim that a statement is meaningful only if it is empirical or tautological?
Hm. Probably the clearest objection is that the verification principle (a statement is meaningful if and only if it is either verifiable or tautological -- that's how I was taught to define positivism) is, itself, neither verifiable nor tautological. In defense of positivism, I think one could say that the verification principle is tautological. It does, after all, follow analytically from itself. This leads us to what I think is a better objection, namely Quine's argument from meaning holism which tells us that it doesn't make sense to talk about the verifiability (or analyticity) of a given statement in isolation. The meanings of the terms employed in any given statement are determined, in part, by what other statements the speaker accepts. Quine, of course, had a lot of affinities with positivism and my sense is that most philosophers today accept neither positivism nor Quine's neopositivism, but I'm pretty much a Quinean myself so I think the holism objection is good.
11: Are there a priori synthetic propositions?
Well, people certainly assert a lot of synthetic propositions based on what look to me to be a priori considerations, but I assume you mean to be asking about true a priori propositions. Seriously, though, I think this is the wrong way to think about things. Kant believed, if I recall correctly, that mathematics and morality provided us with examples of a priori synthetic knowledge. And perhaps they do. Still, I think the right question to be asking about, say, morality is not "is this synthetic a priori?" but rather "what are the ontological commitments of moral discourse?" Similarly, with math we want to know what the consequences of embracing anti-realism would be for mathematical practice and whether or not that's an acceptable price to pay.
12: Does serious philosophy have any role to play in practical politics?
Well, to the extent that philosophy involves learning valid forms of reasoning and teaches you to avoid equivocation and platitudes when making your arguments, then it obviously does. As to whether specific philosophical arguments have a bearing on philosophical practice, then I would say probably not. One exception may be the abortion debate where people seem to have different ideas about the nature of the human person. Even here, though, I doubt that many people are actually being convinced by sound metaphysical arguments. One might think that political philosophy would have grave implications for politics, but I rather doubt it. It seems to me that people probably adopt philosophies because those philosophies accord with the political inclinations they already had, more often than changing their political beliefs in response to a philosophical argument. The other thing is that when voting you need to choose between two rather crudely-defined alternatives so there's really no room for the kind of nuance you find in a philosophical debate. Was Al Gore advocating some kind of Rawlsian liberalism or did he have a more consequentialist take -- who knows? At any rate, I certainly don't know.
13: What is the biggest liability Wesley Clark would have as a presidential candidate?
For one thing, he has very little name recognition outside of real junkie circles. Then there's the fact that he has no natural base of support in the primaries, no natural constituency. His ability on the stump, in political debates, and as a fundraiser is all totally unproven, though he does seem to me to be good on TV. His lack of domestic experience could be a liability or it could prove to be an asset, since he won't have a track record people can nit-pick. Basically, though, I think his viability as a candidate would rest on his actual abilities as a campaigner -- the raw material is pretty much all there. At the end of the day, though, I don't like to try and prognosticate by reading the tea leaves. One of the great virtues of the primary system is that you get to see whether or not the candidate is a good campaigner before you decide whether or not you want to nominate him.
14: Broadly speaking, where do your personal beliefs diverge from the Democratic party line?
I'm not so sure what the "Democratic party line" is any more, but I do have my differences. One thing is that I've grown very skeptical of the efficacy of the state of gun regulation in America. I'm also less enthusiastic about a lot of environmentalist initiatives than are many liberals, though union types tend to agree with me about this. Clean air and clean water are things I'm all for, but stuff about endangered species, the rainforest, pristine wetlands, etc. don't seem like compelling reasons to restrict economic development to me. So that's where I'm to the right of the Democrats. I'm probably to the left of all the current candidates for president in terms of establishing a real universal health care system, but I suspect that in their heart-of-hearts they agree with me and are just trying to be politically realistic. I'm also pretty disappointed in the way poverty has just dropped off the agenda for many Democrats. Now that AFDC's not a political hot button any more, a lot of them just don't seem to care. There are some other topics on which the Democrats have pretty diverse views, but I think I'm probably out of the mainstream. Certainly, I'm a lot less hostile to Ariel Sharon than the bulk of my readers seem to be. I have some doubts about many of the affirmative action programs the government runs, though I also have doubts about the motives of people who seem to feel that one of the biggest challenges facing the United States is that black people have things too good.
Of course there's also the vexed issue of foreign policy, where the Democrats hardly have a party line at all from which one could dissent. I would say that I do dissent, however, from the current program of incoherence that the party seems to be running with. More fundamentally, far too many Democratic officeholders seem to be approaching foreign policy as purely a question of political positioning and not giving enough thought to the substance of it. I thought that the foreign policy of Clinton's second term was very good and my assumption is that any Democratic administration beginning in 2005 would employ a lot of the Clinton-era personnel and, therefore, would do a good job in office. Nevertheless, swing voters aren't going to have that kind of faith in the Democratic foreign policy establishment and are going to want to hear something that makes sense from the candidates and so far no one's really providing that. Dean's gotten in lots of good hits on Bush, but has a very vague positive program. At the other extreme Lieberman joins Dean in at least sounding sincere in his convictions. The others are in a pretty sorry state. All-in-all it's not a situation I'm happy with.
15: What do you think of our drug laws? What would the drug laws be under your ideal regime?
I can't specify an ideal regime. For one thing, I'm not an expert on this and I just don't know enough. For another thing, I don't think anyone knows enough, because the data simply isn't there. One thing I will say is that I don't take the libertarian line that we all have a god-given right to smoke crack that the government must never interfere with. It's essentially a problem of opportunity costs -- if the government had infinite resources at its disposal, dedicating some of those resources to investigating, locating, arresting, trying, and imprisoning ecstasy dealers and manufacturers might make sense. Back in the real world, though, if you look at the marginal value of investing another dollar in MDMA control and compare it to the marginal value of investing that dollar in prenatal care, I think you'll see that from any reasonable account of the public good it makes a lot more sense to invest in prenatal care.
So from within that framework, the one thing I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that we ought to legalize marijuana, probably combined with some very strict rules on how the product can be marketed. Even from a pure drug control point-of-view it would just make a lot more sense to take the resources currently devoted to enforcing the marijuana laws (keeping in mind that this includes the cost of imprisoning the convicts) and dedicating it to enforcing laws against other drugs. The tax revenues that could be garnered from a legal marijuana industry would, moreover, be significant. Some other considerations militating in favor of marijuana legalization are that the current regime has some truly perverse consequences. When I was a kid it was pretty hard to buy beer and really difficult to get hard liquor. Buying pot, though, was simple -- drug dealers don't check ID since they're already criminals. Not that America's alcohol regulations are a great model of efficacy (or good sense) but the marijuana laws are a joke, at least in New York City where I grew up. Relatedly, having a law on the books that is only rarely enforced (most murders lead to arrests, whereas the proportion of pot purchases that end this way is truly trivial) creates a culture of lawlessness that's no good for anyone. Lastly, conditions in prisons (gangs and such) are such that sending a nonviolent drug consumer or even a small time dealer up the river are likely to make him a worse crook when he comes out than he was went he went in.
As for hard drugs, marijuana legalization would give us some data about price and increased usage that, after several years, might help us evaluate the situation better. Within the framework of criminalization, I think there's a lot that should be done in terms of moving law enforcement resources away from trying to nab small time dealers and seize product and toward trying to control the secondary effects -- violent crimes -- that are associated with the drug industry. My understanding is that police forces that involve a lot of separate squads (narcotics here, vice there, homocide here) are less effective overall than forces where the primary subdivisions are geographical and all the officers in a given precinct work together with their community to understand the nature of the specific problems in the area and focus on addressing them. Conditions are going to vary a lot from place to place, so it's hard to speak in general terms, but certainly my new hometown of Washington, DC could use a lower murder rate a lot more than stricter enforcement of drug prohibition.
16: So what should we do about health care?
Here you need to draw a distinction between what I would do if I were building a health care system from scratch, and what changes I think should be made in the existing system. If I were starting from scratch, and particularly if I were a dictator, I would implement something along the lines of the UK's much-maligned NHS. The main complaint with the NHS is that it doesn't deliver a very good product, and it's true that the quality of care in the UK is worse than in the other comparably-wealthy nations. On the other hand, it's only worse by a very small margin, and it's cheaper on a per capita basis by a pretty enormous margin. Overall, I think the first world over invests in health care compared to education and basic infrastructure (roads, parks, power lines, etc.) and the fact that the British government covers all its citizens fairly well for around half the per capita cost that the American government (to say nothing of private expenditures) spends is, I think, pretty impressive.
Back in the real world, though, that's just never going to happen. Nor do we seem to be at a point where the public is ready for a single-payer system as in Canada (Britain has a single-provider system, which is very different, though the tendency in America is to paper over the distinction). So given those realities, I think the imperative is to improve health care for children. Howard Dean has proposed expanding Medicaid to cover everyone under the age of 25 and some of the other candidates have similar proposals. I think that's a very good idea. Covering children is very cheap since young people usually don't have serious health care needs, and are temperamentally disinclined to seek out health care. At the same time, you can actually save a lot of money by treating young people because healthy young adults are more productive than sick ones, and by treating people early you avoid needing to give them expensive acute care in the emergency rooms.
A related issue is prenatal care, which I mentioned before. There's almost nothing a country can do to boost life expectancy more than providing quality prenatal care and I'd certainly like to see funding on this score boosted. My understanding is that, in fact, most more people can get free care of this sort but there are a lot of hurdles placed in the path of getting since, ultimately, it's in the interest of state governments to encourage people not to claim the services to which they're entitled. There's a lot of variation on this score state-to-state in terms of eligibility, information, etc. since Medicaid is basically operated at the state and local level, and ideally I'd like to see the whole prenatal operation standardized, improved, expanded, and publicized. The cost-benefit ratio of that stuff is simply enormous.
The other big topic du jour is Medicare, which I can't get into in any detail. One thing I would say is that the proposals the GOP is pushing right now just don't make much sense. Bush doesn't have the guts to follow conservatives principles and refuse to bow to the political pressure for a drug benefit, but at the same time doesn't want to invest any money in making one work. Even worse, you just don't have a lot of people who care about health policy on the right, just as most people who care about military policy wind up gravitating away from the Democrats. What you do have on the right is a pretty cozy relationship with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies and the HMOs, so you're getting proposals driven by lobbyists, political opportunism, pork-barrelling from the rural Senators, and pretty much everything under the sun except a desire for good policy. At the end of the day, though, we're going to have to raise taxes to pay for Medicare and I think the payroll tax is a very unfair kind of tax, so in my dreams I'd like to see Medicare taken out of that framework and financed by a progressive income tax like everything else.
17: Right-wingers seem to dominate news radio while liberals seem to have more influnce over television. Can you think of where this polraization may have come from? Is there somethnig about each medium that better suits that side?
I really don't know much about it. For one thing, I find the whole media bias debate a bit tedious. I think Eric Alterman had it right when he said that conservative commentary on this issue is more about working the refs than it is about serious analysis, but I think you could probably say the same thing about the now-blossoming school of leftwing bias watchers. For another thing, I've never really listened to talk radio, either the rightwing kind or NPR. My impression is that people listen to the radio when they're in their cars, but I don't drive. I'm not big on TV news, either, unless something's on live. I watch Meet The Press if I'm up in time, and I think Russert's approach is pretty wrongheaded, but I don't see any clear ideological content to his weird gotcha games.
18: What does Matt Yglesias look for in a woman?
I think the more relevant question may be what sort of woman is looking for a Matt Yglesias. I seem to always wind up dating vegans, which doesn't work all that well with my food-consumption patters. I dunno if that means I'm really looking for a carnivore or if vegans are my type or maybe I should compromise and find a vegetarian and we can go cheese shopping together. Seriously, though, it's pretty hard to say. Like all single people, the one thing my previous relationships have all had in common is failure, so I clearly don't really know what I'm doing.
19: Did/do you ever consider going to philosophy graduate school?
It's certainly something I've thought about. A lot of people in grad school or working in academia seem to assume that because they think my blog is good that my academic work is also good. Personally, I'm not so sure. Back at school philosophy was always very much a second priority behind working on the paper, especially for my year as News Editor and the following year as Editor-in-Chief. For about twelve months there I was working 40+ hours a week down at the office and doing my coursework in my spare time. I found that to be a pretty congenial state of affairs which indicates to me that academic philosophy isn't the place for me. Another thing I would say is that certain philosophical positions are more conducive to productive philosophizing than others. If you take a Kantian view of morality then there's all sorts of interesting things you can say about political theory. If you're a consequentialist like me, though, pretty much all you can do is re-write Reasons and Persons since you think the real answers to the policy questions are known by economists and psychologists and sociologists not philosophers. Similarly, if you take up certain kinds of psycho-physical dualism then you can write cool Chalmers-style books about consciousness, but a functionalist like me just winds up saying "ask a cognitive scientist" or else getting into irresolvable old arguments with the opposition. If the US ever goes totalitarian, though, and I don't have the courage to join the resistance, there are a lot of deeply unethical experiments in consciousness research that I'd like to help design involving causing deliberate brain damage to large numbers of people.
None of this is to say, though, that I wouldn't like to know more philosophy, particularly areas like Philosophy of Science that I haven't had much opportunity to study. Still, I doubt I could wind up making any really interesting contributions. I'm more interested in trying to be persuasive than in crossing every last "t" of a hyper-rigorous analytic argument (or, worse, pointing out the uncrossed "t"s in the arguments of others), so I think journalism is a good place for me. If I do wind up back in grad school, I'd probably try and see if the political scientists or the public policy people would have me, since there work is more along the lines of my current interests.
20: Do you read fiction? If so, what sort of fiction do you read?
I do read some fiction, though not as much as I'd like. My favorites are the Russians -- Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, obviously -- but also some earlier figures like Gogol and Lermontov (A Hero of Our Time is, I think, one of the most unfortunately overlooked books out there) as well as twentieth century guys like Bulgakov and Andrei Bely. I also like Milan Kundera and Philip Roth a great deal. In terms of Americans (well Roth, of course, is an American, but I think of him as being more in the Eastern European tradition, perhaps without any real basis), I have mixed reactions to all the guys I've read. Hemingway's In Our Time is one my favorites, but I hated The Sun Also Rises. The Great Gatsby is, well, great and The Beautiful And Damned is quite good too, but Tender Is The Night really didn't do it for me. Moby Dick is like a great novel and two terrible ones rolled into one.
I used to read a lot of genre fiction -- sci-fi, Tom Clancy, Steven King -- but not so much any more. I checked out a few SF titles during finals this spring, but writers I'd liked in the past -- Orson Scott Card, William Gibson -- seemed to have lost their appeal. I find Anne Rice's vampire books strangely compelling. Unfortunately, she leaves a lot of good thematic material and interesting metafictional stuff buried beneath a lot of repetitive hackery driven, I assume, by the commercial need to be productive.
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