Liberalism doesn’t just displace arbitrary power. It reduces it.

Paul Krugman in a recent post argues that opposition to the welfare state is rooted in attachment to “traditional hierarchy”:

Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.

Samuel Goldman in the American Conservative responds with a charge of hypocrisy. While he admits to favoring traditional hierarchies, he claims that liberals like Krugman support meritocratic, technocratic hierarchies of their own:

The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.

Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.

Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. …

Krugman doesn’t see the énarques [the French technocratic elite] as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.

There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. … What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.

True, if I had to choose between giving great power over my life-choices to Cardinal Dolan and giving it to Cass Sunstein, I would, with the greatest reluctance, choose Sunstein. But I think Goldman is mistaken: that’s not the choice I face. Liberal governance doesn’t just mean replacing one set of rulers with another. It means taking many matters out of the sphere of “ruling” altogether—by leaving some of them up to individuals, and making others a matter of law and non-discretionary policy rather than arbitrary decision.

Continue Reading…

Free-range kids

My late colleague Bob Leone used to teach that good managers don’t try to avoid risk, because it’s impossible: they try to choose the right risks.  Parents are violating this rule left and right, and clueless, nitwit, busybody bureaucrats in Montgomery County (not to mention other parents who call the cops instead of just asking a loose kid if he’s OK)  are acting out really anti-kid behavior, choosing the wrong risk trying to have none.

I grew up in New York City, 30th and 3rd in Manhattan; at the time, not a snotzy address.  I went to grade school a mile and a half away alone, from the age of 7, on the 3rd Avenue El and the 2nd Avenue bus, unless I decided to walk home afterward along one of those busy, commercial streets full of strangers and grownups doing all sorts of interesting things.  That walk could take a hour; there’s a lot for a kid to see in a real city. On the three blocks of 3rd N and S of my street were about 50 retail establishments, most of the proprietors of which knew me by sight if not by name.  I was completely safe in front of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”. When I was a baby, my mother would shop at the A&P on 3rd above 31st. She would park me in a pram on the sidewalk outside the store, usually with two or three others, tell her Irish Setter to lie down under the pram, and shop.  If anyone leaned over the pram to ogle me, a serious growl came up from underneath, but the kids without canine undersight weren’t at any risk either.

As I got older, I was allowed to cross one-way streets alone, which at that time limited me to about a square mile; I was instructed to always have a dime for pay phone call (never needed it).  When I figured out how to climb up to the El station and back down on the other side of 34th Street, my parents gave up and I was loose, at about eight.  From then on I was all over the city, which meant (for example) that I could go to the Museum of Natural History and hang out on my own, for hours and hours. One afternoon my friends and I had the idea to go to Coney Island on the subway; when I called home realizing I was about three hours late getting home and said where I was, I admit my mother’s cool  was a little rumpled.  Once some big kids punched me in Central Park and took my wallet. I walked home three miles from my girlfriend’s house in Greenwich Village at all hours and never wanted to cross the street or hurry.

Of course, that was a different world; the murder rate (for example) in NY was only, um, wait a minute, the same as it is now!   Yes, there were a bad few years in between (though not especially bad regarding risks to kids), but it’s over.  Now middle-class parents are denying kids all they can learn making up games, learning to mediate their own disputes, watching real life, and deciding how to spend their time, which is a big risk to the kids: my students are much less confident trying new stuff than we were at their age. I believe it is because their lives have been locked down in parent-chauffered travel to parent-organized activities in order to avoid the truly trivial set of dangers that actually confront kids out on their own.  This web page has the relevant facts: parents, let your kids have a life, especially if you live in the city where there are places to actually walk to. No, they are not going to be abducted or injured by strangers, and you get your own life back!

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Turning Point

turningIn previous recommendations (The Naked City, He Walked by Night), I highlighted the rising popularity of police procedurals after the war. Recognizing that post-war audiences were gripped by more realistic, torn from the headlines crime stories, Hollywood producers were giddy over the Kefauver Committee’s investigation of organized crime. Many Americans were transfixed by the hearings, both because they provided their first glimpse into the workings of the Mafia and because they were on this new fangled gizmo known as a television. A raft of films followed that were based on the hearings either directly or obliquely (the latter including my first ever weekend film recommendation, Bullitt). Many of the Kefauver films were cheap and unimaginative, but this week’s recommendation is one of the best: 1952′s The Turning Point.

The strong cast features Edmond O’Brien as John Conroy, a special prosecutor appointed to take down a criminal syndicate run by the slimy, brutal Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who poses as a legitimate businessman (O’Brien was last with us in prior recommendation The Web). Conroy’s hard-nosed childhood pal (William Holden), now a crime reporter, comes along for the ride, not because he believes anything will come of the investigation but because he admires his old friend and also, rather guiltily, has eyes for Conroy’s gorgeous, idealistic assistant (Alexis Smith). Meanwhile, John’s father, a beat cop played by reliable veteran character actor Tom Tully, is also in the mix, but what side he’s playing is a subject of mystery.

Warren Duff never became famous as a screenwriter, but he was very good in his niche of tough crime stories. He does a particularly admirable job here creating dramatic face off scenes between each pair of principals. Lionel Lindon’s skilled camerawork makes the film pleasing to the eye (love the long tracking shot with Holden and O’Brien early on) as does William Holden, who looks fabulous in a series of tailored suits that the legendary Edith Head picked for him (I guess ink-stained wretches could afford those kind of threads and fashion advice back then). The broad-shouldered screen icon has real chemistry with his equally toothsome co-star Alexis Smith, who puts spine and depth into her character rather than just being eye candy. She and Duff’s script are particularly good at ripping apart the cynical facade of Holden’s character, which is potent stuff for Holden fans given how often he played this type.

turningpoint3The Turning Point has a few weaknesses. After a gripping first 45 minutes there is a lull in the action at the actual commission hearings, which should have been a highlight of the film, especially with a skilled actor like Ed Begley at center stage. There are also a couple small logical holes and overly worn elements in the plot. As a result, I would not call The Turning Point an all-time classic crime melodrama. But it’s definitely exciting and entertaining, with a cast that is aces right down the line.

As of this writing, The Turning Point is available for free to Amazon Prime subscribers – just don’t mix it up with the 1977 movie about ballet dancers.

p.s. Plug ugly Neville Brand, who made a career out of playing nasty thugs, appears at the end as a hired killer. Both he and O’Brien will be with us again next week so stay tuned.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Sex offenders and scientific dissembling

When making a claim that “no evidence from academic or policy research has shown” that something like sex offender treatment works, it’s advisable to have the facts straight on the evidence that you claim supports your point.

So, when the material you cite turns out to suggest positive effects contrary to your claim, I suppose it’s too much to ask that you then go a step further and see what other available evidence on the effects of sex offender rehabilitation suggests in addition. Which is a shame, really, because more recent research would show even stronger effects overall, and important differences between types of treatment delivery that really do matter (such as, for example, the fact that community-based sex offender treatment works far better than when it’s delivered in custodial settings).

My colleague and I say as much in our response that appears today in the BMJ.

Look, even in a climate that’s become generally receptive to offender rehabilitation, the language of ‘non-non-nons’ still frames sex offenders as somehow untouchable and off the table. But unpalatable as it may seem, sex offenders consistently report 1) low reoffending rates (both for sex crimes and for general offense types), and 2) impressive susceptibility to rehabilitative treatment.

Escaping the mass incarceration trap is going to involve some hard choices about who we release from custody, and soon enough we’ll realize that isolating clemency to the ‘non-non-non’ population alone isn’t going to get us the desired distance (not even close, as it happens).

Keeping sex offenders locked up may serve political ends, but don’t make an appeal to science to justify it — they may very well be the next safest group of people to release.

How Oxford University Became Such an Argumentative Place


The following anecdote from Oxford University has been recycled many times in debates about campus PC speech codes, most recently by Judith Shulevitz:

At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

Andrew Sullivan was one of many other people who also picked this story up and decried how close-minded Oxford “kids these days” have become.

Knowing the history of British Universities (I have been a professor at two of them) I can affirm that this sort of thing never would have happened at Oxford 200 years ago!

Because Oxford didn’t admit women then. Or Jews for that matter. Or Blacks. Or poor people. Or, well, you get the idea.

Of course those of us who spend our days on campus should try to be civil to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other, and it’s a public service to point out when we fail to meet those standards. But the idea that universities today are shutting down debate to an unprecedented extent is risible. For centuries after it was founded, Oxford stifled debate on campus by only admitting a narrow, like-thinking subset of society. When the university quite rightly opened its gates to more a diverse range of students, huge disagreements that were always present in society at last became visible on campus too.

Be Skeptical of Illegal Drugs as Miracle Cures (Legal Drugs Too)

Like everyone else, I constantly see headlines that the cure for some dread disease has been discovered. On those occasions when journalists interview me about such stories, I have a habit of dispensing cold water. For example, a few years ago, a small clinical trial seemed to show that anti-depressants helped meth-addicted people to stop using drugs. This is what I said to an excellent health reporter, Erin Allday, about the findings:

“There have been quite a few bombs pharmacologically…those earlier experiences have taught me to be cautious now.”

Being skeptical about miracle cures is simply playing the odds. As my colleague John Ioannidis pointed out in one of the most-read papers in medical history, most medical research findings are wrong. This is particularly true of small studies, which are usually followed by larger studies that disconfirm the original miracle finding (Fish oil pills are a good example).

Lately, currently illegal drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and marijuana have been aggressively hyped as miracle cures for a range of serious disorders (cancer, diabetes, PSTD, alcoholism etc.). You may have heard for example dramatic anecdotes “proving” that high-CBD marijuana cures seizures in children. Sounds great, but as more data were gathered by neurologist Dr. Kevin Chapman “the miracle” took a beating:

Dr. Chapman’s study, which involved a review of the health records of 75 children who took CBD, found that 33% of them had their seizures drop by more than half. However, 44% of the children experienced adverse effects after taking CBD, including increased seizures. Of the 30 patients whose records included the results of brain-wave tests, a less subjective measure of seizure activity, only three showed improvements in those exams.

“It really wasn’t the high numbers we were hoping for,” Dr. Chapman said.

No one who understands medicine will be surprised by this result. It happens every day with initially touted legal miracle cures too (e.g., PROMETA for methamphetamine addiction). Alas, legal or illegal, most flashes in the medical pan are pyrites rather than gold.

Hey Weekly Standard: Could you correct that Obamacare tax thing?

Kimberly Pinter is a tax attorney in northern Virginia*. So her April 3 article in the Weekly Standard, “Obamacare Pinches the Poor,” on ACA’s tax requirements will understandably concern many low-income citizens.** She writes:

According to the web site, you can get an income-based exemption if “you don’t have to file a tax return because your income is below the level that requires you to file.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Until further investigation reveals that this exemption is claimed directly on the tax return. That’s right – the tax return you’re not required to file.

While the circular nature of this exemption is ludicrous on its face, its effects are far-reaching and incredibly regressive….

It’s a safe bet that many members of this population will not be cognizant of their need to file simply to avoid the Obamacare penalty for being uninsured.

[….]compliance with this behemoth law disproportionately burdens the poorest of the poor.  Like a shark silently stalking its unknowing prey, Obamacare lurks waiting to take a bite out of the unwary. And in this case, it’s the poor.

Yet another stupid Rube Goldberg application of the Nanny State, right?  Well no. actually. ACA has its share of glitches and complications. But this isn’t one of them. As ACA legal expert Timothy Jost notes over email, Pinter is wrong.

Indeed here is the government’s actual directions to low-income people. I found this through a quick Google search at a website called

If you are not required to file a tax return and don’t want to file a return, you do not need to file a return solely to report your coverage or to claim an exemption.

This isn’t Nanny State. It isn’t Rube Goldberg. Nothing behemoth. No shark is stalking or biting. It’s not particularly complicated, either.

The Weekly Standard should run a correction on this important point.

*A friend notes that my description of Ms. Pinter as a tax attorney conveys the impression that Ms. Pinter is someone whose main duties are assisting people with their taxes. Her byline says: “Kimberly Pinter is a tax policy lawyer and writer in Northern Virginia.” Her Twitter byline notes that she is a “Tax policy expert, lawyer, lobbyist, jewelry designer, and Zumba fitness instructor.”  Sounds kindof cool, actually.

**Update: I received a very professional email from the Weekly Standard. To their credit, they are now looking into this. I await a correction or amplification.

The pain of Easter

Neither Google nor Bing show a results count when you search images (why not?), but it’s obvious that the number of Christian images of the Resurrection, especially of serious works of art, is enormously less than the number of images of the Cruxifixion. This is to some extent a reflection of the technical difficulty: if a painter can’t make a Cruxifixion affecting, he’s in the wrong business; a convincing Resurrection is hugely difficult. But religious artists basically respond to commissions, and the ratio reflects the unease of Christians with the idea. It was there in the proto-Church, see 1 Corinthians 15:12:

How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

And if Christians are honest, it’s still a hard sell.

It is not then surprising that good Resurrection art is scarce. The works are often the work of oddball artists: Grünewald, whose day job was as a millwright; Piero della Francesca, day job mathematician; and the anonymous painter of the Chora in Istanbul (image, discussion).

Continuing our little RBC series of Easter artworks, here is one by Bramantino (who he?) in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, dated to around 1490. Hi-res version on their website.

Bramantino Risen Christ

Bramantino takes the unease into outright shock and weirdness. It starts with the corpse-like pallor of the skin and the knife-like folds of the drapery: this isn’t fun. The most striking thing is the face: a head-on gaze, without joy or triumph, but inward-looking rather than judgemental. There is no glory here, and much recollected pain in the twisted mouth and bloodshot eyes. Victory no doubt, but that of a soldier who has survived a bloody battle; a Malplaquet, with no ringing of church bells in celebration.

The take is I suppose orthodox theologically. In the standard Christian theodicy, God became Isaiah’s suffering servant in the Passion, and suffers still through the ongoing sins of men and women. The eccentricity is in Bramantino’s omission of the joy of reunion, the humour, and the empathy we find in the Gospel accounts of the appearances, and the eschatological hope and triumph emphasised by the other artists in our series. Also in the lovely 8th-century Easter hymn by St. John of Damascus (take note of the hapless mediaeval geography, Ted Cruz):

The round earth keep high triumph, and all that is therein.

Enjoy your Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies, everybody.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chef

Forget drama, intrigue, and complexity; this week’s movie recommendation is filled with feel-good vibes that are sure to have you pleasantly chuckling your way into April.

Chef Carl Casper, played by Jon Favreau, is a darn good cook, despite what his uncanny resemblance to Guy Fieri might suggest. Or, rather, he might still be a good cook, but too much time has gone by in the employ of the unimaginative restaurateur Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman, for anyone to know at this point. Chef Casper has spent so long peddling the same dishes that were a hit back during the time when he was the hot new talent, that the game is drying up: people have gotten so used to Casper’s shtick that even he is beginning to wonder whether he’s still ‘got it.’ Thankfully, word gets around that Casper’s restaurant is about to be visited by the widely acclaimed food critic Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt), and Casper sets to work throwing together what looks to be a dazzling array of new delicacies. Riva has other ideas, however, and sends Casper packing when their artistic differences over the intended new menu come to a head. Continue Reading…

How a Jazz Legend Handled Discrimination

dizzy gillespie-1-thumb-473x439The recent Indiana controversy over whether businesses have the right to refuse service to gay customers reminded me of one of my favorite jazz stories. This one was told by one jazz legend (Oscar Peterson) about another (Dizzy Gillespie).

“We were traveling down South, in some of the bigoted areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or something like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the famous sign: No Negroes. And the deal was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian cats would say, ‘What do you want me to get you?’ And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d order and come back on the bus and eat with us. But Dizzy gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s the last we’ll see of him.’ And he sits down at the counter—we could see this whole thing through the window. And the waitress goes over to him. And she says to him, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve Negroes in here.’ And Dizzy says, ‘I don’t blame you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll have a steak.’”